Sunday 13 December 2009

Review: Where The Wild Things Are

Year: 2009
Director: Spike Jonez
Screenplay: Spike Jonez, Dave Eggers
Starring: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener, Mark Ruffalo, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano Catherine O'Hara

Synopsis is here

"I WILL EAT YOU UP!" - Carol - Not only a manifestation of Max's imagination but also his emotions. Watch carefully when Carol says these words.

I've once again been ill (2009 has been a odd year for me in terms of sickness) and my podcast co-host left me a text a few days ago asking for us to go up and see Where The Wild Things Are and Me and Orson Welles because if i don't watch them...we don't have a show. Feeling like I did, I dreaded heading to the cinema because I felt that the state I was in (missed work the day before, in bed etc) I didn't feel I'd be able to give these films my full attention. However going would mean the show could go on (recording tomorrow), I'd obviously be well enough for my next day of work (also tomorrow) and of course I would have added even more films to this years growing list.

In going, I found that, Where the wild things are (or WTWTA for short) was the perfect movie for how I was feeling because from the first jarring, jump cuts to the wonderfully poised end shot WTWTA took me by the scuff of the neck and shook me to life. Jonez, a formidable director has created a film that effectively captures the untamed abandon of children emotions with a maturity that I haven't seen since the fantasy films of the 80's.

A coming of age story that sits between the troublesome space of childhood and adolescence. Max is a conflicted child whose not old enough to play with the bigger kids but is expect to govern his emotions with a certain amount of maturity. Problem is these days we expect kids to grow up fast and deal, as a short but pivotal scene in Max's School shows. Trouble is Max has not yet understood these aspects of responsibility fully yet and because this he retreats into the childish mannerisms that worked so well with him in the past. As the film continues on, we see a child take those first shaky steps into growing up, and while Max may not have all the answers, he will at least be able stand on his own two when he has some.

Jonez, a filmmaker who we know more for controlling the mindbending scripts of Charlie Kuffman, finds himself on what could be considered new ground for him. He hits the ground running with direction so assured you wouldn't have known of the films troubled production. From the start he manages to find that wonderful rough and tumble feel of a certain childhood that resonates with those who had it. It's a hard feeling to capture but one that comes across so effortlessly with Jonez combination of well timed jump cuts, wonderful art direction and vibrant cinematography that not only seamlessly joins the real with the fantastic (because as a child you believe the two are one) but somehow, accurately places the film at a child eyes view. It's a nostalgic feeling given without the need for branded toys or well known television characters, but with the fact that everyone is bigger than you and can change their emotions in a blink of an eye from fun to dangerous without you knowing why. To capture this mixture of fear, joy and amazement is a difficult one but it's one that Jonez handles with aplomb.

But the film is also helped by a central performance that reminded me how complex we can be as children. I loved Max because he's played not as a perfect angelic creature that only seem to exist in displays by creepy "stage" children, nor is he a 'orrible little brat that is too easy to dislike. He is the full embodiment of all those little complexities that make a child what they are. Jonez coxes out such a true performance, it's reminiscent of the Spielberg displays of old. It's played with perfect pitch by Records and comes across as natural and unaffected as any child you'll meet off the street.

Records is of course joined by some more experienced actors who lend their voices to the titular wild things. Lead by the solid Gandolfini, we are given a gaggle of character actors rightfully chosen for what they can bring to the part and persona as opposed to being well known. Great work is done by all, least not by Lauren Ambrose whose aloof K.W became the main draw for me in the films later half.

If there is any flaws, I could say that the second act has a bit of drag to it. The film's plot is thin and Jonez and Eggars script doesn't have enough to fully cover it. But this is a minor issue about a film that reminds us what it's like to be a kid. Yet another "family" movie which doesn't pander to it's audience be it adult or child by sugar coating it's moral or message. A child's fantasy land can be fearsome, it can be jubilant but it's theirs to shape, shift and meld into whatever they need to cope with whatever comes in their way.

I haven't read Maurice Sendak's classic children's tale and due to being over the recommended age, I will probably never read it until I have my own kids. I find it a shame that I've missed out on reading the tale, because if the book can stir my kids emotions as much as the film they've already grown up a lot richer.

Review: Me and Orson Welles

Year: 2008 (2009 U.K Release)
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Holly Gent Palmo, Vincent Palmo Jr
Starring: Zac Efron, Christian McKay, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, James Tupper

Synopsis is here

Like the theater it talks about, what makes Me and Orson Welles tick is it's cast. Linklater for me has always had an eye for story in the films of his that I've seen, but here he's had troupe of actors who fit into there roles so snug (bar one person but more on that later) that you would believe they're been rehearsing these roles on stage for years before hand. It's not just that everyone has a role to play here, it's the fact that they've been so correctly chosen, that Linklater has no need to worry while bringing about this wonderfully heady coming of age drama which just so happens to feature one of the most dominant influences (if not the MOST dominant) on what we consider modern cinema. Hyperbole? A little, but ask anyone when it comes to film, Welles was the Elvis and we all know what the great John Lennon said about him.*

In this film Welles is played with a explosive combination of fire and charm by Christian McKay. An English actor, McKay's portrayal of the titular Welles not only dominates the screen but is one of the strong imitations of the Man to grace the screen. No matter what your eyes gravitate towards him and whether it's bombastically proclaiming how important he is, or seductively whispering how vital his cast is, Welles' persuasion always wins out right. McKay performance within the film is just as domineering as Welles' presence in real life and is eerily accurate. It's a display that almost knocks everyone out of screen...almost.

Efron, just as likely picked for his box office draw as well as his ability to sing and dance at first struggles with the material and comes off a little stiff, especially when he comes up against more seasoned performers such as Claire Danes (in crafty performance that balances cute affection with blind ambition). However, Efron exhibits a huge amount of screen presence and charm in a role that is more dramatic than many are used to from him. In a film which could have easily lost it's straight man to a multitude of great turns (Chaplin's George Coulouris and Tupper's on the money reincarnation of Joe Cotton are stand outs) Efron holds his own exceedingly well.

For a film about strong personalities being governed and controlled by an even greater presence, Linklater keeps his direction low-key and the pace and tone of the movie breezy. I usually don't go for movies which fall into this period, or about theatre but by the end of the movie, Linklater's easy on the eye visuals and subtle telling of the story (just let the acting flourish maybe?) had me hooked.

The film isn't perfect. Unfortunately I've seen far too many coming of age stories in my short life and this own does nothing fresh with it's well worn narrative to distract me from the fact that I know whats coming next. But in all honestly with a a group of performances as tight as the ones on show, it doesn't really matter.

I also loved the films eye for detail and it's witty moments of foreshadowing. It's hard not to let a smile creep up on your face at points, such as when Welles talks about a certain book based on his father, or the telling line "what do I do to top this!?" after the opening performances standing grand opening. It's not only the performance of Welles that is good but the knowledge about him that helps makes the film so enjoyable for me.

At a time where people are turning their heads towards James Cameron's mega picture, those who are looking for something else could do worse than pick up a ticket for this. Linklater's film reminds us that although effects can be fun, there's still nothing that can hit home as well as a good cast.