PICKS OF THE WEEK
Where the Wild Things Are (B)
U.S.; Spike Jonze, 2009, Warner
Some children's stories work primarily for...children. Some please both children and adults. But some are mostly for adults -- and that may be the case with Spike Jonze's new movie from Maurice Sendak's famous 1963 picture book Where the Wild Things Are. Jonze's film takes Sendak's book, which consists of 18 big, bountifully colorful picture panels and the slightest of texts, and turns it into a wordy, beautifully visualized, but sometimes strangely enervated show -- a film full of personality and intelligence, but sometimes lacking in punch or drive.
That isn't the case with the book, which is sly and naughty, and serves as barely more than an outline and character gallery for the movie. Where the Wild Things Are, in its few pages, tells the story of a bad little boy named Max -- a juvenile hard-case who is sent to bed without supper for his infractions, and then, like Winsor McCay's sublime Little Nemo perched on his suddenly long-legged galloping bed, watches his own bedroom turn into a tangled wild dreamland of big, wide-eyed, ferocious-looking, but fuzzy-cuddly-grinning beasties, a child-wild bunch who make Max their king and then dance around in a beastie-bash called the "Wild Rumpus." Like many parties, Sendak's is over too soon (though Jonze's movie isn't). Then Max wakes up, ready for breakfast, and the story is over.
Not much there for a movie. But Jonze and company have spent a lot of money on this live-action show, which features lavish, craggy, ocean-sprayed Australian locations and huge, meticulously crafted suits of six Sendak monsters, all of whom have expressive animatronic faces and new names and personalities dreamed up for the film and partly supplied by some famous voice actors -- including James Gandolfini as the feisty but sentimental Carol and Lauren Ambrose as self-sacrificing K.W., plus Chris Cooper as Douglas, Catherine O'Hara as Judith, Forest Whitaker as Ira and Paul Dano as Alexander.
Max Records, the juvenile actor who plays the 9-year-old movie Max, doesn't suggest too much of the rascally, impish quality Sendak put into his drawings. Even though Max's Max goes on a bad-behavior rampage in the film's opening scenes (which tend to be the best things in the show), Records tends to look and sound more like a Macaulay Culkin Home Alone-style cutie-pie grown a little older.
And it seems a waste that the movie's best-performing actor -- Catherine Keener as Max's Mom -- only shows up in the bookend "reality" scenes, and that Mark Ruffalo, as her boyfriend, barely shows up at all. This movie badly needs conflict -- or at least more conflict than we get now, which is mostly limited to Wild Thing squabbles and often exhausted-sounding banter.
Great children's movies, like the early Disney cartoon features, are more reckless and intense. Toward the end, when Gandolfini's Carol, feeling betrayed, begins to break down, ready to run even wilder in grief and disappointment in Max, the movie begins to generate some tension. But it doesn't last long, and when Max starts to sail home, dreamland is far, far away.
Spike Jonze is certainly capable of unleashing wild visions on screen -- Being John Malkovich is one of the dreamiest of recent American movies. But this one needs more wild things and more rumpuses. Here, the rumpus is over too fast and the Wild Things don't make your heart sing. (Extras: Wild Things shorts by Lance Bangs.)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1985, Lionsgate, Blu-ray
Akira Kurosawa's lavish and violent epic Ran, inspired by King Lear, is one of the most famous and admired of all Shakespearean films, even though it dispenses with the main element that makes Shakespeare so great, jettisoning all of the bard's British poetry (substituting a spare Japanese translation), along with a good deal of the play's plot and characters.
No "How sharper than a serpent's tooth..." No "As flies to wanton boys...." This is Shakespeare stripped almost to the bleak, minimalist bones -- reduced to a lean, brutal tale of a reckless monarch who disinherits his most loyal son (rather than daughter), elevates the other sons and is repaid with persecution and banishment to the wind and the rain with his last attendant, his faithful Fool.
Yet Ran (which means "chaos") is ornamented with such lush period settings, and expanded with such vast bloody battles raging under a stormy sky, that the sufferings and wickedness, and occasional flashes of kindness, in the story smite us with redoubled force, before they become dwarfed in the immensity of Kurosawa's medieval landscapes, almost lost under that towering gray sky.
Tatsuya Nakadai -- whose first appearance for Kurosawa was in Seven Samurai, in the wordless part of a swaggering young samurai -- here plays Lear (or Lord Hidetora Ichimonji) as a tragic, demented vision out of both Shakespeare and Japanese Noh drama, a wild, white-bearded monarch now repaid for the violence he has inflicted on his enemies and his subjects, by the faithlessness of his own chosen heirs and by the seeming icy indifference of the world around him. Nakadai turns Lear/Hidetora into a gnarled tragic woodcut, a human version of Edvard Munch's tortured The Scream.
The Fool is mimed and played by the transvestite performer Peter, and Lady Kaede, the most evil of all Lear's daughters-in-law, is unforgettably impersonated by Mieko Harada. The other actors include Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu and Daisuke Ryu as the Ichimonji brothers. The nerve-rending music is by the celebrated Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. And an old friend of Kurosawa's was the assistant director on the battle scenes: Ishiro Honda, the science fiction directorial master of the Godzilla and Mothra monster movies.
Ran lacks much of the lusty, boisterous quality of Kurosawa's great '50s and '6os battle epics, Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo -- and even of his other Shakespearean film (based on Macbeth), Throne of Blood. But there are many compensations. It is a beautifully crafted film, a portrait not just of a man plunging toward grief and insanity, but of a whole universe teetering on chaos. And when the darkness descends here, it falls, in a way, on all mankind as well as on Lear. According to Kurosawa, he intended Ran to be a parable of the overwhelming threat of annihilation in the nuclear age. (In Japanese with English subtitles.)
The Beaches of Agnes (A)
France; Agnes Varda, 2008, Cinema Guild
Cinema as personal journal from the queen of the old Left Bank group, Agnes Varda, who tells us about her life, her movies and her great love for husband Jacques Demy. It's a good life and a very good film. (In French, with English subtitles.) (Extras: three shorts by Varda; trailer; booklet with Amy Taubin essay.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Japan-U.S.; Hayao Miyazaki, 2009, Disney, Blu-ray
Hayao Miyazaki's devotion to old-fashioned animation, in an age of computerized cartoon virtuosity of all sorts, gives his movies a charmingly personal, beguilingly hand-crafted feel -- never more so than in his latest picture, Ponyo.
Another international collaboration between Miyazaki and one of the masters of the new computer animation style, John Lasseter of Pixar (who acts here as the English-language co-director), it's a kiddie-hip, wondrous fairytale about the love affair between a 5-year-old boy named Sosuke and a magical goldfish-turned-little girl named Ponyo. Their romance -- beginning when Sosuke fishes the little gold belle from the sea and she smittenly turns human for him -- knocks the world's socks off and pulls the moon almost down to the ocean tides.
The inspiration, quite obviously, is Hans Christian Andersen's masterpiece The Little Mermaid, which, in its original version (not the delightful but more emotionally shallow Disney feature cartoon), was one of the saddest fairytales ever told. But Disney's version wasn't a tearjerker, and neither is Miyazaki's. It's a little crayon-colored bliss-out of a kiddie movie, with an ecological subtext. Of course, the world and its oceans do seem threatened for a while, and one wonders how powerful and friendly Ponyo's ocean king dad Fujimoto really is. But, once Ponyo starts chowing down with Sosuke and his family, you feel that, in this fairytale, happily ever after won't be too much of a stretch.
It's a truly lovable film, with an immaculately childlike perspective. The drawings and animation -- simpler and more primitive and Pokemon-looking than any other recent Miyazaki film (Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle) -- almost seem to spring alive from coloring books, and the story twists and turns, to jump right out of your own private inner child right into your adult soul. Ponyo and Sosuke are voiced by a couple of rocklings, Noah Cyrus (Miley's sister) and Frankie Jonas (of the Jonas clan), and the rest of the cast includes Tina Fey and Matt Damon as Sosuke's parents, Liam Neeson as Fujimoto, a kind of Japanese Jupiter, Cate Blanchett as Ponyo's mother, the ocean queen, and Cloris Leachman, Lily Tomlin and Betty White as three great old biddies at a nearby old folks' home, the Goldenish Girls of this movie.
Lasseter and company have done well by Ponyo, and I think the decision to redub Miyazaki for American audiences makes a lot of sense -- especially considering that the core audience, especially for this movie, is children. Let's hope that a lot of them haven't gotten so technically sophisticated and demanding, they can't take a shine to this sweet little goldfish and her faithful boy pal. (Extras: documentary; interviews with Miyazaki and others; interactive "World of Ghibli"; storyboards.
2012 (Special Edition)(C+)
U.S.; Roland Emmerich, 2009, Sony, 2 discs, Blu-ray
Roland Emmerich, like too many top-budget Hollywood moviemakers, seems to find it far easier to destroy a world than to make us believe a simple conversation between a dad and his children (John Cusack and kids), a president father and his daughter (Danny Glover and Thandie Newton), or a scientist and his amoral boss (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Oliver Platt).
Unfortunately for Emmerich's artistic aspirations (not his commercial ones, obviously), it's those intimate scenes and how well they're written and done, that might make us buy emotionally the idea of those same characters fighting their way through all the torrents, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes and havoc of 2012.
The German-born Emmerich obviously intends 2012 as the ultimate disaster movie, and it's hard to imagine anyone doing these earthquakes any better, cueing these torrents, or stage-managing this havoc with more panache -- which is why audiences flocked to it. Say what you will, 2012 offers us an experience, especially when that L.A. nightmare, the long-feared San Andreas Fault, goes kaflooey.
But the reason poor Cusack, as writer-dad-hero Jackson Curtis, and all Jackson's fellow disaster-sufferers as well, begin to look, like, ridiculous here -- as the earthquakes, volcanoes and floods stalk and pursue them everywhere, like rabid dogs -- is that, in the interims, none of these characters really act or talk like people facing either a family crisis or a planet about to be ripped from its axis.
Emmerich, who co-writes most of his scripts -- as he did here, together with the film's Austrian-born composer/producer Harald Kloser -- should hire himself a good dialogue man next time. Kloser is primarily a music man, and his only other film writing was the prehistoric dialogue for Emmerich's 10,000 BC. But a well-chosen word or a crackling line is often as vital and memorable, and as important for a movie's enduring power, as Hawaii in flames, or the Washington Monument toppling down. (Extras: Commentary by Emmerich and Kloser; "Time for Miracles" music video; deleted scenes; alternate ending, featurette. Blu-Ray edition contains added featurettes.)
Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (B)
U.S.; Patricia Rozema, 2009, New Line Cinema
Where has Canada's Patricia Rozema (maker of the whimsical 1987 I've Heard the Mermaids Singing) been all these years? Well, among other things, she's done a film adaptation of Samuel Beckett's great bleak masterpiece Happy Days, which is why it's surprising to find her here, with a project more seemingly in sync with the Garry Marshall-Fonzie Happy Days: a movie of the American Girl corporate symbol/character (played by Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine) in a production that suggests a '60s Disney studio version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Breslin and her adults, especially Stanley Tucci and Joan Cusack (as a magician and librarian who may be more than they seem), engage us mightily -- even as Rozema and company are able to make Depression America occasionally look like a wonderland. (Extras: Activity book for children.)
The Pleasure of Being Robbed (D)
U.S.; Josh Safdie, 2008, MPI/IFC Films
Director-writer-costar Josh Safdie and his star-actress / cowriter / seeming girlfriend Eleonore Hendricks make a movie together about two footloose misfits named Josh and Eleonore who wander around New York, steal a car, take a joyride and cuddle up to some polar bears at the zoo. (Warning to children: Don't try it.) Steal a car, make a movie, pet a polar bear: What does it matter as long as there's something to kill the monotony?
This would be just an ordinarily bad indie, with points added for good cinematography, except for the incomprehensible soundtrack, composed of irrelevant punk rock, which seems to have either been added indiscriminately to convey a feeling of chaos, or to be some horrible mistake made during a drunken editing session. There is no pleasure in being robbed like this. And no joyride either.
Grumpy Old Men/Grumpier Old Men (B/C+)
U.S.; Donald Petrie/Howard Deutch, 1993-95, Warner
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, those two princes among men, kings among actors and fabulous fortune cookie clowns, got a late career boost from these sit-commy comedies about a couple of irascible ice-fishing Minnesota small-town neighbors who are constantly on each other's case. Also around: the regally beautiful Ann-Margret and Sophia Loren, as highly improbable love interests for the boys. (I come from a Midwestern small town myself, and don't we wish the ice-fishing was that good! But, truth to tell, these movies would have worked better with, say, Frances McDormand and Helen Mirren.)
The slumming maraschino cherry on the chopped nuts on the whipped cream on this particular grumpy old ice-cream cone is that finest of un-Oscared thespians Burgess Meredith, who seems to have wandered in from an old Otto Preminger outtake or a new David Mamet-Farrelly Brothers-Paul Simon video collaboration called "Fifty Ways to Say 'My Love Muscle.'" Memo to the shades of Whiplash Willie Gingrich and Harry Hinkle: You can't fool all the people all the time. But....
Analyze This/Analyze That (B/C+)
U.S.; Harold Ramis, 1999/2002, Warner
Mr. WiseGuy, meet Dr. Freud. Robert De Niro is a gangster. Billy Crystal is his shrink. The Sopranos is in reruns. Fair enough. But the joke wears out after the first movie. Maybe even after the first half of the first movie.
Presumed Innocent/Frantic (B/B)
U.S.; Alan Pakula/Roman Polanski, 1990/1988, Warner
Two good thrillers, both starring Harrison Ford, from the sometimes genius directors of Klute and Chinatown and The Ghost Writer. Pakula's is about a sexy assistant prosecutor (Greta Scacchi) who screws the hero and gets killed and he's presumed guilty. Frantic is about a Parisian trip gone bad, and it's a lot better, though far less violent, than those crystal meth Parisian travelogue-thrillers like Taken. There are very few surprises here, but that includes the unpleasant ones.