Thursday, October 22, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

It would seem that someone has asked Hollywood a question: Can we make an avant-garde artsy film out of kid’s movie? Let's ignore for a minute that this person, whoever they are, has never see WALL-E, and notice that two of Hollywood’s most applauded artsy young directors answered the call. Wes Anderson (Royal Tenenbaums, Darjeeling Limited) offers us a claymation version of Roald Dahl’s book Fantastic Mr. Fox, set to come out around Thanksgiving. And Spike Jonze gave us Where the Wild Things Are.

I’ve always been a big fan of Spike Jonze. Adaptation is, in my humble opinion, one of the best movies of the decade. Being John Malkovich was an intensely successful mind-bender. And then… oh wait. That’s it. And both of those movies were written by Charlie Kaufman.

Nobody that’s seen his old music videos from the 90s can disagree that Spike has an incredible gift for visual conception. Said gift is very much alive in Wild Things. But, well, let’s see… How can I put this best?

Maybe I’m a purist. Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe the world is changing around me, and I’m not ready to deal with it. But I’ve always been of the opinion that when you’re making a kid’s movie, you should at least attempt to make it appealing to children. I watched a few of the featurettes on TV and the internet about the movie. I heard Mr. Jonze say countless times that “it’s important not to look down on kids.” And in the process, he made a movie that sails so high over kids’ heads, I don’t think it can even see them.

While I agree children are very capable of perceiving and experiencing emotions that adults often don’t give them credit for, they also like things like slapstick, stupid humor, and all around silliness. Three things which this movie is completely lacking.

I get where he was going with it, I do. The monsters represent various personality traits of the psyche. The general conflict present is the feeling of helplessness and loss of control that every child experiences while growing up. And all the pain that can cause. But, goddamnit, I remember that book being a lot of fun to read. This movie, however, is not fun. It’s downright depressing.

The monsters spend more time moaning and groaning than they do enjoying themselves. Their world is slowly falling apart and they’re freaking out about it. Why would any kid want to watch that?

Strange that someone with such deep roots in Jackass could make a movie that lacks any sense of letting loose and going nuts for a while. Even the “wild rumpus” that Max announces is a let down.

There are very few occasions I find myself wishing a production studio would intervene with a clearly talented director. Jim Jarmusch, for example. There’s such a strong foundation there, but the director gets so caught up in the dream of his vision, he forgets that the rest of us aren’t up there with him.

I’m not saying the movie is a complete failure. But don’t take your kids to see it. They won’t forgive you.

Paranormal Activity

I was sixteen when The Blair Witch Project came out. And it scared the shit out of me. I’ll never forget the epic conclusion. Heather and Mike running through that old house, screaming their heads off. Heather comes into the basement, finds Mike in standing in the corner, the screaming stops and her camera hits the ground. The dirt floor flashes in and out of focus. When the screen went black I literally got up and ran out of the theater.

Ten years later…

The screen is graced with Paranormal Activity, a film so unabashedly similar it almost seems like a joke. How could somebody practically remake a movie as unique and stand-alone as Blair Witch? But here we are, and there it is. And as the movie runs its course, the similarities only continue to stack up. Shaky cam, improvised dialogue, awkward angles, long drawn out suspense sequences. The list gets longer and longer.

But here’s the thing: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Paranormal Activity was, in fact, a much better movie than Blair Witch!

I know, I know. It’s hard for me to believe too. I certainly didn’t want this to be the case, but here we are. Granted, it didn’t shake me to the bone quite like its predecessor, but I’m not sixteen anymore. Thank god.

The plot: Katie and Micah (pronounced Mee-kah) live together. Ever since she was a little girl Katie has been haunted by a ghost. Something she failed to tell Micah before moving in. When creepy things start happening around the house Micah gets the idea to buy a video camera and keep a record of their attempts to figure out what exactly is going on. When they contact a psychic he informs them that she’s actually being stalked by a demon, not a ghost. Which is not his field of expertise. Needless to say, shit goes sour from there.

What makes this a better movie than Blair Witch? It’s called Simplicity. Witch had some genuine moments of terror laced through it, but large portions of the film are spent building characters and subplots between the three hikers. Not to mention a slew of other people smattered all over the first twenty minutes, mostly providing humor, rather than building suspense.

Paranormal keeps it slim and trim with no other characters than Katie, Micah, and the psychic (who’s only in the movie for about five minutes). The camera never leaves the house, except for a few brief moments shot in the backyard. We are stuck in this house, with this demon, just like the film’s protagonists.

The overall success of the movie is the constant curveballs thrown for us. Nighttime is not always the right time for scary shit to happen. And, unlike Witch, only the demon is invisible, not his actions. Sheets blowing, possession, shadows cast, and (my personal favorite) Katie being dragged out of bed by a hand you can’t see. I definitely lost some sleep over that one.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so they say. Except when it’s the sincerest form of just being better.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Do you ever watch artsy movies and feel like there are pieces missing? Like a key scene somewhere along the line accidentally ended up on the cutting room floor? Or maybe like everyone in the theater, and on screen, seems to be in on a joke--except for you? I used to think this phenomena was a result of me “just not getting” the movie. Internalizing the confusion, because it must be my fault. I wasn’t Sophisticated enough to follow the style. Therefore, I was missing things.

Then I saw a few David Lynch films.

I started to realize that most art films are like this intentionally. Most viewers get a strange satisfaction out of not getting it. Like they’re being challenged, or something. It is either a conscious decision on the part of the director to leave things open-ended, laziness, or (a lot more likely) just bad filmmaking.

John Krasinski’s (everyone’s much beloved Jim Halpert from NBC’s The Office) directorial debut is a combination of all of these. With a nice little touch of novice on top. However, let’s be clear… this is not a bad movie. It’s just confused.

Heavy with heartfelt, occasionally humorous monologues, the movie feels much more like a play than a movie. With no scene taking place outside of a set larger than my living room (lots of them are in fact living rooms) John, puts the pressure of his actors to take up space on the screen. And they do. There is not a single bad performance in the movie.

The major flaw is that none of these actors are given a chance to interact with each other, and so no chemistry or real excitement is built anywhere.

The other major flaw is how he skews the timing and pacing of the movie. Since, as I said, most of the movie is just monologues, it’s hard to tell what time it is or when these things are taking place. But apparently the timing is important, because our main character, Sara (Julianne Nicholson, yeah, that chick from Law & Order: Criminal Intent) is getting over a breakup… maybe. It’s hard to tell until the end.

The overall plot, I think, is a college girl, Sara, decides to interview a bunch of men about women. Not all of these men realize they’re being interviewed. Sometimes she’s just recording their conversations or conveniently placed monologues. For the most part she tends to focus on guys who are neurotic or self-centered. The actors do a really good job of making these characters feel surprisingly familiar.

Jim, sorry… I mean, John, of course, saves the best monologue for himself. He proceeds to explain all about how a random hookup has completely changed his life and perspective on women. I won’t spoil it for you. But he does, and very successfully so, manage to not be Jim Halpert. Regardless of how hard it is for me to see him as anything else.

Which is pretty damn impressive.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Toy Story & Toy Story 2 in 3D

In a preview for Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, another movie I’m quite excited about, a reviewer announced that it was “proof that Pixar doesn’t have a monopoly on heartfelt animation.” (Josh Horowitz, MTV)

This made me think.

Is it fair to call what Pixar does a monopoly? One certainly can’t argue that Pixar is the best at what the do, heartfelt being only one of the words I would use to describe them. But being the best isn’t a monopoly. I’ve, personally, never heard any stories of Pixar buying out or blocking any other potential animated releases from hitting the theaters. Hell, they only put out one movie a year, if that. Every other studio spits out a constant barrage of half-assed and humdrum animation. Kid stuff, you might say. What Pixar does is art.

Most of the time. I won’t get into Cars.

But as I was saying, “Monopoly” is not a fair word to use when describing Pixar. I would use something more like: “Awesome,” or “Bad-ass,” or, to keep it simple, “The Best.”

Which brings me to the Toy Story duo…

As you probably know already, Pixar has been kind enough to re-release Toy Story and Toy Story 2 as a double feature for a limited, two week engagement. And in 3D no less! With Toy Story 3 on the way next summer, I figure the point of this release was to re-introduce a new generation of kids to its prequels. Part 2 is ten years old after all.

Good god, that makes me feel old.

So the question is, after ten to fifteen years since their original release, how do these movies hold up on the big screen? And in 3D no less?

The answer: Better than ever.

Just about any movie Pixar makes can be described easily as Timeless. Every time I watch one I could be five or ninety-five and it wouldn’t make a difference. They are just an incredible amount of fun to watch.

There isn’t quite as much “adult” humor packed into these movies as some of the later stuff. It’s no secret who the target audience originally was. But the advantage of these films is the story telling. At ever step these toys just seem to get deeper and deeper into problems, and always have a clever, usually hilarious, often adventurous solution. The car chase climax of the first movie brought chills up my spine as Woody and Buzz rocketed off towards the moving van. And Jessie’s remembrance montage of her old owner Emily in the midst of number 2, still brings tears to my eyes. It’s just quality film making, regardless of who the target audience is. Or was.

So yeah, maybe Pixar does have a monopoly after all. But not over the kid’s movie industry. Their’s is a monopoly much harder earned and continually defended after almost fifteen years. It’s a monopoly on my heart.

And that is what makes them the best.