Spike Jonze’s surreal comedies “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Adaptation” (2002) might be described as sophisticated and quirky.
They certainly left little indication that he would so lovingly turn his attention to Maurice Sendak’s classic 1963 children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
The thin volume is heavy on illustrations but only contains 10 sentences, so Jonze and his co-writer, novelist Dave Eggers (“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) had to make more than a few additions to create this beautiful 101-minute film. Even though the filmmakers expanded the story, it’s very much in keeping with the book’s spirit.
Max is played by a young unknown Oregon actor named Max Records.
Catherine Keener plays Max’s mom, a character only referred to but not seen in the book. A single mother stressed out about her job, she’s trying to understand her son’s rambunctious ways. One night he runs around his house wearing a wolf suit and making “mischief of one kind or another” while his mother entertains a potential boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo). His defiant cry at his mother in the book, “I’ll eat you up!” becomes an actual bite in the movie.
Most of the action takes place on his imaginary island, where Max has his adventures with the Wild Things, who, unlike in the book, have been given names and personalities.
The actors – James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Lauren Ambrose and Chris Cooper – first acted out the roles on a soundstage hooked up to motion-capture sensors and later costumed actors re-created the roles.
A combination of the two was put together through CGI, giving the Wild Things human characteristics.
But the beasts still snarl and howl, and the cry “Let the wild rumpus start!” unleashes dirt-clod fights and the type of destructive behavior that children like Max, who are angry and afraid and unsure of life, often engage in. Sendak’s book cleverly captured those existential uncertainties of growing up in a way both kids and adults could understand in a few pages.
Jonze’s film uses a warmer, richer palette while not trying to overexplain things. Early on, Max is at school when a teacher tells the class that eventually the sun will die, ending life on Earth. It may be a science fact, but for a young boy trying to grasp mortality, the look on Max’s face is enough to let you understand his anger. And the 20 or so minutes before he goes to the island are adroitly and efficiently presented, putting the audience inside Max’s world.
Jonze may linger on the island a bit too long. There Max is king, as we all are inside our own heads, and eventually he finds himself having to make his own difficult parental choices before sailing home. And while he grows up a bit, the film reminds us of the wild thing in all of us and never loses its magic.
The filmmaker, along with Lance Bangs, did a documentary of the author, “Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak,” that aired on HBO in October. It was filmed at Sendak’s Connecticut home and studio beginning in 2003, where the writer, now 81, talks about things that inspired his creations, from his difficult relationship with his parents and his relationship with his older siblings, to his fascination with death. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Giamatti a perfect ‘Soul’
Sophie Barthes’ comedy “Cold Souls” is a Woody Allen-style comedy with Paul Giamatti playing a version of himself as an actor in anguish because of his role in a stage production of Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” When he reads a New Yorker article describing a process that enables people to shed their souls and keep them in storage, he takes the gamble. But while he feels liberated after the process – resulting in some funny id moments – he begins to regret his decision. But getting his soul back suddenly finds him chasing it to Russia, where they traffic in such things.
“Cold Souls” then becomes a cross between “Sleeper” and an amusing metaphysical fable. Giamatti is pitch-perfect playing his alter ego. Available on DVD.
‘2012’ a true disaster
Roland Emmerich’s “2012” may be the most shameless movie ever made. The filmmaker, who specializes in doomsday scenarios (“Godzilla,” “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow”), has crammed every cliché from the disaster movie handbook into this jumble of explosions while adding a streak of cynicism.
It’s hard to see beyond the familiar pattern of CGI destruction. In “ID,” he blasted the White House with an alien’s death ray, and since has been decimating the rest of the landmarks on the planet. “2012” uses the Mayan end-of-the-world prophecy as its jumping-off point, coming up with idea of solar flares triggering something that causes the Earth’s crust to shift. Peppered into this mess is John Cusack’s writer – a divorced dad taking his kids on vacation to Yellowstone, where a prophet of doom (Woody Harrelson) broadcasts his forecasts for the end.
More characters are introduced and often dispensed with as chaos envelops the Earth. It literally takes about 110 minutes for the film to offer a glimmer of interest when we see humanity’s plan to save itself, and then it sinks into cliché.
For whatever reason – either boredom or a swipe at those who don’t take science seriously – Emmerich unleashes his wrath on those who pray for salvation. (The crack in the Sistine Chapel ceiling between the touching fingers of God and Adam is a sardonic touch.) Of course, the director doesn’t take science very seriously, either. It’s mostly evoked to blow things up. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
‘Pippa Lee’ has stellar cast
Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” is a sharply observed drama about a 40ish woman (Robin Wright Penn) who is married to a successful book publisher (Alan Arkin) some 30 years her senior.
As he has grown older and infirm, Pippa has begun to reassess her life, looking back at her youth (a younger version of herself is played by Blake Lively) and understanding the compromises she made that led to her comfortable but now till life. Wright is impressive as Pippa, reminding us again how good an actress she is. The supporting cast – including Maria Bello, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight, Keanu Reeves – add substance to Miller’s film, which was based on her own novel. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Also out today
Fans of Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki can enjoy his latest, “Ponyo,” a fairy tale about a daughter of the sea searching for a lost friend (available on DVD and Blu-ray). Three of Miyazaki’s earlier films – “Castle in the Sky,” “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” – are also being released in special edition DVDs.
Rupert Penry-Jones stars in a reasonably entertaining version of the old spy story “The 39 Steps,” Hitchcock’s being the most famous version. Kurt Russell wears the sequins well in the 1979 TV biopic “Elvis,” from John Carpenter. (Interestingly, as a kid actor Russell once had an uncredited role with Presley in “It Happened at the World’s Fai” in 1964.)
“Bollywood Hero,” a three-part miniseries, is for the most part pretty funny. Comedian Chris Kattan plays a version of himself (that seems to be a trend) as an actor who wants a serious role. He goes to India to star in what he thinks is an action film. Things at times fall into expected comic arcs, but there are laughs and Kattan even has a few moments when he shows he can do drama and even be a romantic lead. Plus there are some fun Bollywood dance moments.
There are a lot of “Alice in Wonderland” tie-ins, including Syfy’s “Alice,” a needless sci-fi reinvention of the story that has few interesting moments. Then there are two TV versions with all-star casts – the 1966 Brit take directed by Jonathan Miller with Peter Sellers as the King of Hearts, and the 1999 production with Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat. And there is the 1933 black and white film with Gary Cooper as the White Knight.
There is also a special edition of Ray Harryhausen’s 1981 “Clash of the Titans,” which starred some acting heavyweights of the time – Laurence Olivier as Zeus, Claire Bloom as Hera and Maggie Smith as Thetis. But it’s essentially an old-fashioned special-effects fantasy from the master of stop-motion, Harryhausen, whose other films included “Mighty Joe Young,” “Jason and the Argonauts” and “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.” The release comes just in time for the CGI remake, starring Sam Worthington from “Avatar,” in April. Available on DVD and Blu-ray.