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The land the Wild Things inhabit is a land where all your expectations about a children’s movie are turned on their heads. The elements that are usually trite and shallow in most children’s films are fresh and fully-developed but the parts that usually work in children’s movies don’t work here.

Where the Wild Things Are expands upon the classic book (necessary because the book is something like nine sentences long) in some interesting ways. We meet Max in the real world, where he lashes out angrily at his sister and bites his mom. He runs away from home and comes across a boat that takes him to the land of the Wild Things, who now have names and personalities. Max becomes their king and leads them in a variety of pursuits like fort-building and dirt clod fighting.

While the film never explicitly says so, this is all an adventure in Max’s imagination. And it really does play out as if a child made up the story. Staying truthful to a child’s vision is quite interesting intellectually and conceptually, but in a lot of ways it doesn’t really work as a movie. It’s just aimless (kids don’t think in story arcs). Max become king because he says so. The dirt clod war ends with hurt feelings. A fort sounds cool so they build it. The actual plot doesn’t really do anything. It stays remarkably true to the conceit of an adventure a child in a certain mood might imagine but there’s a reason kids don’t write many movies.

The film succeeds in other ways, however. It creates some very well-developed and complex characters in Max and the Wild Things. All the Things are distinct, with their own personalities, flaws, and problems. The way we get to understand these characters is truly remarkable for any movie, let alone a kids’ movie where characterizations are often paper thin.

Director Spike Jonze also succeeds in imbuing the film with intense and earned emotion. This is not a happy kids’ flick that glosses over the negative parts of being a kid. It understands that kids feel the same emotions the rest of us do: anger, sadness, aggression. Like Dorothy in Oz, Max’s real life problems and emotional issues find homes in various Wild Things. (“And you were there,upset-for-being-ignored! And you were there, sister-abandonment-issues!”) And while this is fairly obvious, Jonze does a good job of not beating you over the head with it. Once again, the film’s emotional depth is a wonderful achievement.

But it doesn’t really make for a good movie. It’s technically quite proficient at imparting the emotions it wants but those emotions are all intensely mopey so that the film has an oppressively melancholy quality to it. The breaks for levity are just too few and far between. I’m not necessarily against a melancholy film or an aimless plot for that matter, but together they are a deadly combination, especially since the melancholy itself is aimless. There’s no apparent reason for the Things to be so despondent and there’s no real resolution. With motionless plot and characters the film feels slow.

And so I appreciate the concept of the film intellectually, respect its ambition, and have found some very fascinating and thoughtful discussions about it online, but it makes for a fairly dour and slow viewing experience. Ultimately it didn’t work for me but I appreciate how it’s given me much to think about. I’m curious if a second viewing would be more stimulating now that I’ve had a chance to ponder it a while and maybe I’ll give it another shot on DVD.

Some prognosticators thought it might sneak into the expanded Best Picture list this year but that seems unlikely now. The Things are technological wonders with furry bodies and computer animated heads. I could see a Visual Effects or Costume nod. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a band I really like, provides the music for the film, often accompanied by a chorus of children. I’ve listened to the soundtrack and I think the songs mostly work better as little snippets within the film like in the rousing music that marks the beginning to the wild rumpus. Still maybe a Song nomination is possible.

To recap:
Most children’s movies: Happy, fun, and full (often too full) of plot but with thin characterizations and little emotional complexity
Where the Wild Things Are: Aimless, dull plot full of moping but populated with complex characters and emotional sincerity

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We are only a few short weeks away from nominations and best of lists rolling out, so I figured I’d throw out some predictions.  You should throw them out as well.

BEST PICTURE

Avatar
Crazy Heart
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Invictus
Nine
Precious
A Serious Man
Up
Up in the Air

I’ve seen five of these films, and while few may be on my personal top ten list, they seem like fairly good shots to get nominations. An Education definitely has that Oscar sheen to it, even if the film doesn’t really have much depth at all. The Hurt Locker isn’t really like anything else I’ve ever seen, but it is solid film, a war movie the Academy can get behind, and there haven’t been very many films that have come out since with a better wave of buzz. Precious is obviously a front-runner to win the whole shebang. I’m still trying to wrap my head around A Serious Man, hopefully I’ll have a post up soon, but there definitely seems to be room for the film. Up gets the inaugural “Should Have Been WALL-E” slot.

Up in the Air appears to be the other front-runner in the race, so barring something unforeseen, sure seems like there’s a spot for it. Nine is a big, splashy, film-referencing musical with a star-studded cast, so in this year with seemingly few contenders, it’d have to be pretty bad to not get in, I think. I don’t know why, but Invictus, to me, sounds like it should be some sort of war epic. But a Clint Eastwood movie starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela? Yeah, might be up for a few awards.

Crazy Heart is a bit of a wild guess for me. I think there’s gotta be one unexpected film to make the list. I didn’t love the trailer, but could see it having a bit of The Wrestler vibe, it will have contenders in a number of categories, plus, this race has been stale for so long, I’m counting on the surprise factor. And then I think there’s going to be a slot for a sci-fi movie, in particular, one of: Avatar, District 9, or Star Trek. I’m sticking with Avatar for now, because I have no reason to doubt James Cameron, but it going to have to be pretty stellar to match all the buzz.

Just off the list:
I keep looking for a way to get A Single Man onto the list, and not just because I think people will get confused with the titles and throw it some votes. The Lovely Bones has a decent enough shot, maybe this is my anti-Peter Jackson bias, or maybe I think the subject matter may prove too icky.

Sometimes I leave a theater and think, “What was the point of that?” It tends mostly to happen with films that dwell in negativity without any obvious message, like There Will Be Blood. That’s a film I still can’t wrap my mind around as far as what it was trying to say.

But I’m not sure wondering about a film’s point is entirely fair. There are plenty of recent movies I’ve loved whose points – or lack thereof – never gave me pause. I can’t say I bothered with wondering about the points of The Bank Job or Zombieland. For these films a good, well-told story is a point unto itself. Heck, straight entertainment is a pretty good point. Maybe expectations are higher for prestige pics and I demand more, but even for these pictures I try to extend the principle that sometimes a story well-told is good enough. Some movies just eschew messages and themes for story, character, style, and atmosphere.

And that takes me to Inglourious Basterds, a film that really seems to eschew message. And if I can pat myself on the back I think I did a good job enjoying it despite it having no point. It’s a good, very enjoyable film with lots of fun, stylistic flourishes. I think what keeps it from being a great film is that it also doesn’t really have a story. There’s an overarching idea of Jewish American soldiers killing Nazis and a French Jew’s revenge plot to take out important Nazis. But instead of telling the whole tale, the film is divided into several vignettes, like Tarantino decided to just skip to the good parts. It seems to me his only real point is to be awesome, which certainly makes for an entertaining film but I think I need a bit more ambition to really love a movie.

The Weinsteins are gearing up for a Best Picture nomination campaign for it. I can’t say I really could get behind the nomination on its merits, but it would be an interesting, outside-the-box type nomination and those are always welcome. With ten nominations it’s hard to imagine a Basterds nod will squeeze out a personal favorite. I’ve also never been a huge Tarantino fan – I like him fine but his films are never a must-watch for me – but he’s undeniably an important and influential modern director with a dearth of Oscar recognition beyond Pulp Fiction (for which he won the Original Screenplay award). I can imagine forty years from now later generations of Oscar watchers wondering how the Academy managed to ignore him so often.

Beyond Best Picture and Tarantino as writer and director, Christoph Waltz seems to be a lock for a Supporting Actor nod for his role as an evil SS commander. That will certainly be well-deserved as Waltz is the primary image that remains in my mind from this film. He’s so deliciously evil, scheming, ad creepy. I’m not sure what else the Weinsteins are aiming for. Melanie Laurent for sure, though who knows whether in Supporting or Lead. Maybe Diane Kruger too? Or Brad Pitt? None would be a bad choice. And along with the film’s intense kick-assery could come some technical recognition (Editing? Score? Art Direction? Costume?).

Anyway, Inglourious Basterds is certainly one of the most distinctive films of the year and an enjoyable and entertaining one at that. I think it’s a testament to Tarantino’s cultural importance (and the Weinsteins’ PR prowess) that it’s even in the discussion for top prizes. But, even if I don’t think it’s in that top echelon of films, it’s hard to argue when something a bit different sneaks into the Academy’s exclusive club.

I realize it is a couple weeks late, but here’s my top five through October.  Well, I guess through the second week of November.

1. Zombieland

2. Up

3. District 9

4. (500) Days of Summer

5. Star Trek

Not much movement, I know, but I expect that to change in the near future (it isn’t from lack of trying, I’ve seen at least a dozen films since the last list).  I don’t believe I’ve said anything about Zombieland before.  It is darn near a perfect movie.  Taut, consistently funny, surprising, and well-cast.  One of those films where I understand if someone doesn’t like it much, I just probably can’t be very good friends with that person.  Jesse Eisenberg is who people want Michael Cera to be.  Woody Harrelson was just about born to play his role (and I’m hoping he gets a nomination for The Messenger because I’ll consider it half a vote for this).  Abigail Breslin, well, maybe I better let Brian chime in.  And I’m madly in love with Emma Stone.  If I’m not writing a ridiculous post advocating that this script should get a nomination, it will have been an insanely good year.

While I have the floor, just wanted to point out something.  The latest Gurus O’ Gold list went up a few days ago.  Their predictions are always interesting and one of the bets resources out there.  But I was struck by how few films the experts think have a shot to get a Best Picture nomination.  For ten spots, they seem to agree that only eleven have any real shot.  I realize that no one really knows how the change to ten affects anything, and that it is still relatively early in the game.  But this is stunning to me.  I thought part of the point of the change was accepting that a wider swathe of movies can be good than the Academy generally deems.  But this wouldn’t be progress at all.

Guess it has been some time since the last post, huh?  Well, John was awesome and got a top five up before his super secret trip.  I’m waiting on one movie (or the end of this week, whichever comes first) to do the same.  And I’ve been under the weather lately, plus I’ve been in a rut of average-ish movies that didn’t inspire me to do a whole post.  So I’ll bunch up five I’ve recently seen into two categories:

Great, but underutilized cast

Easy Virtue:  Really, any movie with Colin Firth and Kristen Scott Thomas should almost by definition be amazing, and that’s before I mention it was written and directed by the guy who did Priscilla.  Alas, Easy Virtue falls short of the mark.  Set in the 1920s and based on a Noel Coward play, the film stars Jessica Biel as an American whirlwind who marries a young Englishman (Ben Barnes) in a fit of passion and then goes to his estate to meet the family.  Call it a precursor to Meet The Parents, if you like, though this is a little darker.  The film has a lot of trouble setting a consistent tone and events seem to occur out of order.

Lymelife: Set around 1980 in Long Island, the cast includes the Culkins Rory and Kieran, Alec Baldwin, Jill Hennessy, Cynthia Nixon, Emma Roberts, and Timothy Hutton.  It is part crumbling family drama, part coming-of-age story, and part an exploration of Lyme disease.  I think in a different year, with maybe some relatively small script changes, this film could have been a You Can Count on Me or The Sweet Hereafter.  The film’s biggest problem, in my opinion, is its fear of exploring any relationship too in-depth.  Perhaps because of the story’s personal nature to the writers (Derick and Steven Martini),  the drama seems to be missing its edge.  Also, not to go all Brian on you, but based on the trailers for Nancy Drew and Hotel for Dogs, I didn’t really buy Emma Roberts as an ingenue, but I changed my mind.

Shrink: Stars Kevin Spacey as a psychiatrist to the stars who has been going on a pot-smoking binge since his wife’s recently-committed suicide.  There were times when I felt the film was on the verge of breaking through to something really great, but it caught itself and settled for complacency.  The character is set up for Spacey to be an Oscar dark horse, but he isn’t given quite enough screen time to show off.  I may or may not have put this on my queue for Jesse Plemons as a drug dealer, but he doesn’t disappoint, even if he seems to be trying to channel Matt Damon a little.  Also, I’ve watched one episode of True Jackson, VP (because Julie Bowen was in it!), but Keke Palmer shone here.

Offbeat really specific genre

Good Dick – The genre being a guy, a girl, and severe social problems.  Other things in the genre include Adam (at least, that’s my very educated guess, still waiting for it to come out on DVD), Big Bang Theory, and every relationship I witnessed at the University of Chicago.  Written and directed by (and co-starring) Marianna Palka, the film portrays a woman virtually unable to function in the outside world, save for going to the video rental store for porn and the somewhat-troubled video store clerk (Jason Ritter) who desperately tries to woo her.  It is (intentionally) all kinds of awkward and raw, at times to the point of distraction.  Tom Arnold shows up for a pretty devastating scene, and Martin Starr is in a few scenes.

The Killing Room – The genre being a bunch of people, a room, and people gonna die.  Think Cube or Saw.  I happen to think Cube was brilliant, if not quite polished.  And I’m not really big on Saw, but I do think the idea is inspired.  It is kinda hard to describe without giving away too much, but basically the premise is that the government is performing some sort of creepy experiment (supervised by Peter Stormare) involving a few people and a room.  The story unfolds in an interesting manner: Stomare is interviewing Chloe Sevigny to see if she can cut it on the project, and does so by showing her tape from a recent experiment involving Nick Cannon, Clea DuVall, Timothy Hutton, and Shea Wigham.  I wouldn’t classify this as horror, really, more psychological thriller.  I actually really love this genre (or at least I do in theory) and I think this film is a worthy addition, though I would have liked to have seen more time in the room and the ending refined a little.

November 2009
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