Monday, September 17, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

In 1963, Maurice Sendak released the Caldecott awarding winning children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. While it is touted as being one of the best children’s books of all time, I feel that it is good, not great. Whatever your view of it is, it is a book abundant in pictures and minimal on words. The film adaptation of this book takes that modest book and transforms it into a visceral, poetic, fleshed out, and polarizing project.

The story begins with Max, a very imaginative young boy, who lives with his older sister and single mom. From the beginning, it is established that Max is forlorn, depressed, and mildly disturbed. Imagination is the gateway to his happiness. After Max acts out violently towards his mother (don’t worry, no one dies), Max runs away. He ends up at a pond where he finds a little boat. He gets on it and sails away to an island occupied by the Wild Things. The Wild Things don’t like the looks of Max until he convinces them that he was a king, to which they crown him their king and, as Max states, the wild rumpus starts.

An interesting thing about the Wild Things is that, let’s be honest, they are creepy. In fact, one flaw I have with the film can be found when Max first gets on the island and the Wild Things are suspicious about him. At one point, they all gang up on him and want to eat him, and the way they look and how it is handled is unrelentingly grim. Anyway, even though they look creepy, it’s what they say and do that makes them likable, minus the scene I mentioned. These weird-looking characters from the book have been turned into three-dimensional beings with personalities and genuine feelings.

Another thing I love about this film is how it hits all of the right nuances. The island is manic and yet it still sustains a sense of whimsicality. Like other exceptional films of the genre, it manages to precisely tackle two key elements: tragedy and comedy. What I adore about this film is that there is unpredictability in the sense that it is unknown whether a scene will go dramatic or funny. Even in a dramatic scene, they still throw in gently funny moments to keep us from going into a clinical depression. Also, if a character lies about who he is in a children’s film, you know you’re gonna see the “liar revealed” moment. However, when it happens, it hits all the right beats. Also, the ending. Just make sure you have a box of Kleenex with you. I didn’t cry, but I feel many of you will, so I jut wanted to prepare you. You’re welcome.

Max Records, who plays Max, is fantastic. I stated earlier how sad Max is and how he acts out violent towards his mother. Even though this makes him sound like a deplorable, creepy child, Max Records portrays him with such conviction and vulnerability that his actions seem almost forgivable. The filmmakers, also, hit the nail of the head with the voice casting. The voice talents include Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Forest Whitaker, and Paul Dano, who all infuse their roles with charm and heart.

Of course, the standout voice talent is James Gandolfini as Carol, the leader of the Wild Things. Everyone knows him as a tough Italian mobster in The Sopranos, but I believe he could have a career as a voice artist. He can, impeccably, go from charismatic to profound creepiness.

This has the feel of an independent film, but not the look. This movie is visually spectacular. For the Wild Things, a wide scope of visual techniques was used (CGI, costumes, and puppets) to bring them to life. They look so convincing that you don’t even know what visual technique they are using at the moment. I’d like to think that the mouth movements were CGI, the Wild Things, themselves, were costumes, and these two owls in the movie were puppets, but I’m still not sure. Not only are they convincing, but also they are detailed. When Max jumps on one of them, the fur and body moves exactly how it would in real life, to the point where I could feel them.

I refuse to believe that this film was shot on a soundstage. These sets are some of the most realistic in movie history. Although, to be honest, there were times in some of the dune scenes where I almost knew that it was a soundstage, but majority of it is authentic. But the forest! This was shot on a soundstage? Seriously?

There is one key element that makes this film work: restraint. Restraint encompasses this film. From the many subtle interactions, the visuals and creatures that aren’t shoved in your face, the leisurely pace that allows you to soak in the characters and atmosphere, the inconspicuous score (akin to Juno) by Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that perfectly compliments every single, solitary scene and helps establish the mood, to the laid-back, crystal clear cinematography.

Spike Jonze may be the ideal person to handle this kind of project. This idiosyncratic director’s credits include Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Hell, he even produced all of the Jackass films and its television show. Did I mention that this film is polarizing? 

While there will be people who adore this film, there will be that group who is unhappily overwhelmed by the depressing nature of the film. What Spike Jonze brings to this film is calculated intelligence. He knows that it would’ve been expected to make the film kiddish. He knows that it would’ve been expected to directly use CGI and heavily rely on pop cultural references. He knows that these issues are adult. He knows that there may be some kids who don’t get it and some adults that may be puzzled by it.

However, he doesn’t care. He didn’t want to patronize kids or insult their intelligence. He knows that when kids go to the movies, it should be a liberating experience and possibly a chance for kids to bond with adults. He didn’t conform to the typical standards of children’s films. He made the film he wanted to make. Once again, I understand that there will be some people who will be turned off by this film. As for me, I enjoyed every wild, funny, and dramatic moment of it.

RATING: Three and three-quarters stars out of four

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

If one were to ask me who my favorite director was, my brain would probably come up with an array of choices, to the point where the answer to that question would remain unanswered. In fact, to this day, that question is still unanswered for me. Until I start seeing more acclaimed films from acclaimed directors, I feel as if an answer to that question would be unwarranted. However, one of my favorite directors would definitely be Steven Spielberg.

Say what you will about some of the choices he makes, but there is no denying that he has established himself as a versatile genius. He has an apt for making stirring, visionary achievements (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Minority Report), intense, gripping dramas (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple), and light, human comedies (The Terminal). One example of a Spielberg film that isn’t great, but not even close to being middling is the light, offbeat, and profoundly compelling 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can.

The movie is a biopic about the life of Frank Abagnale, Jr (not Abagnahlee or Abagnyalee), played by Leonardo Dicaprio. In 1963, his rather happy life with his father (Christopher Walken) and his French mother (Nathalie Baye) is interrupted when his father gets into trouble with the IRS and his father and mother soon divorce. Frank runs away and, eventually, becomes one of the world’s most competent con artists, with his crime of choice being check fraud. Before he turned 19, he had already posed as a Pan Am pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana lawyer. However, his breezy and seemingly effortless crime spree gets interrupted when FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) tries to track Frank down and he ends up on the run.

Right from the very opening of the film, you are shown that this film is going to be something special. Online reviewer Doug Walker (The Nostalgia Critic) always says that filmmakers should use the opening credits to allure people in. He would be very proud of this film. Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson have successful incorporated three genres that I previously mentioned Spielberg as being particularly capable at: visionary, comedy, and drama.

Spielberg includes his distinctive visual style, but in a sly way, as opposed to the flashy effects we know him for. As opposed to CGI, he uses animation, clips from movies, and all sorts of cinematography tricks. He, also, fits in his brand of lighthearted, risible comedy and powerfully moving drama. Not only that, but it, also, provides a deeply engaging character study with a subtle cat-and-mouse game.

Like a lot of the great biopics, this film has a great sense of time and setting. After viewing this film, I felt like I had actually been transported to the 1960s. This film is two hours and twenty minutes long, but not once does it ever feel overwrought or protracted. It moves along briskly and easily. Another incredible thing that Jeff Nathanson has pulled off is the voluminous relationships present in the movie, such as Frank with his dad, Frank with his mom, the mother with the father, Carl with Frank, Carl with the other FBI agents, Frank with women, etc. While there is a surplus of relationships, they feel natural and don’t suffocate the viewer with the overwhelming amount. They all provide great interplay, whether it is humorous or melancholic.

Spielberg has assembled a remarkable cast. Leonardo Dicaprio gives a suave and complex performance. He and Nathanson takes a cunning, law-breaking man and infuses him with intelligence, innocence, and desperate guilt, as he slowly mentally digresses into insanity and obsession. These many nuances make his performance the best of his career so far. While he doesn’t look like the real Frank Abagnale, he, most likely, embodies the spirit and character of him, as opposed to his appearance. While DiCaprio displays eclectic emotions, the rest of the cast is serviceable, as well. Tom Hanks gives a strong, complex, and mildly obsessive performance as Carl. As an actor who has, also, appeared in some of Spielberg’s films, he has proved himself to have the versatility levels of Spielberg. I mean, he voiced a toy cowboy a year after he won an Oscar for playing a mentally challenged man. Come on.

Christopher Walken is, also, effective as the father. Walken has pulled off an incredible feat in Hollywood for years. He is one of the most eccentric actors in Hollywood, complete with bizarre mannerisms, physically and vocally. Yet, he still manages to, simultaneously, consistently find work in Hollywood and be a genuinely good actor, despite his awkward whispering and pauses. He can actually pull off dramatic moments. To be fair, while I call him out on being strange, at least he’s not starring in a Bob Clark film about a karate dog (read my previous review).

I mentioned before that Spielberg has worked with Tom Hanks previously. At the time, the only other film they’ve done together is Saving Private Ryan. However, Spielberg has, also, reunited with composer, John Williams, who may be the best film composer ever. He’s usually known for composing the grand, epic scores for Indiana Jones and Superman, but here he helms a smooth, casual score that’s both exciting and is an evocation of lounge music.

As I previously mentioned, the movie does get really dramatic, including during the last twenty minutes. I can’t spoil anything, but believe me when I say that they include some of the most heartbreaking and elegiac moments I’ve seen in film. The conclusion of the film, while not dramatic, is such a perfect way to conclude a film of this type, even if it had to be put in, seeing how it really happened. Once again, I can’t reveal it, but all I’ll say is the way they project the idea that a down-and-out man, who was popular for all the wrong reasons, can rise for all the right reasons will warrant a grin on your face.

Now, as much as I praise the film, it isn’t great and there are a few times where Frank’s motives are a bit opaque. Nevertheless, in conclusion, what do you get when you combine an amazingly versatile director with two wonderfully versatile leading actors? You get one of the most thoroughly entertaining Spielberg films ever. While it isn’t an A-caliber film, I definitely feel you should “catch it if you can.” Ba dum bum!

RATING: Three and a half stars out of four