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Where the Wild Things Are (2009) *

I realized halfway through Where the Wild Thing Are that I was still waiting for it to start.  After that, it was a dreary waiting game, until the film finally ended, not with a bang but a whimper.

Based on Maurice Sendack’s popular story, the film turns the short picture book into an hour and a half film, seemingly without adding anything of any substance. Max is a creative boy who spends his time building snow forts and making crafts out of cardboard and paper, rather than playing video games. This imaginative spirit allows him to feel emotions very strongly, or something, which played out as just super obnoxious to me. He laughs, he cries, blah, blah, blah. He feels neglected by his sister who sometimes chooses to hang out with her friends, and his mother, who, for once, won’t leave her date to play in the blanket for that he built. He gets into a fight with his mother over this, and runs away from home, sailing to a land full of “wild things,” all of whom are just willful children, like he is. He pretends to be their king, and after failing to make them all happy, learns some sort of lesson that is vaguely alluded to, sails home, where his mother feeds him cake. She smiles indulgently at her boy as the film ends, somehow sensing that he seems to have learned his lesson, whatever it may have been.

I got the impression that the film was attempting to deal with the raw emotion, the fear and wonder that children feel as they experience the world, but I found it extremely trying. The film didn’t really have an audience. It was too boring for children, (and adults too,) and too childish for adults. I learned in high school English the difference between childish and child-like. Childish is the obnoxious one. This film was childish.  It was also strangely without passion, just anger. They like to build things and they like to break things. And randomly one of them is a stoner who talks to owls.

I thought the wild things looked pretty cool. Not that cool, though. I don’t know, I just kind of hated it. Pretty much everything about it grated me the wrong way. Maybe Max was this annoying in the book, and the film is in keeping with the original spirit, but a book that takes me two minutes to read and a film that takes me one hundred minutes to watch are very different things.

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Sherlock Holmes (2009) **

A big budget action film that rejuvenated an old franchise by replacing portly middle age with youth and vigor, while isolating the die hard fans who felt that the high-paced excitement wasn’t true to the original series. Based on a new story that explained away any inaccuracies in the plot, but really about the characters we all know and love, Sherlock Holmes is reminding me a little of Star Trek, both of which I actually paid money to see in theaters. However, unlike with Star Trek, I was disappointed with Sherlock Holmes.

Pretty much all I wanted from this film was banter. A contrived plot featuring a creepy, yet probably not supernatural cult won’t bother me, as long as there is witty banter. Holmes and Watson are friends, they solve mysteries. They’re like Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, except they live together, like a Die Hard sitcom.

So, there is this creepy, supernatural cult, who want to conquer the United States or something, because those Revolutionary war wounds dealt to the British pride are still festering 115 years later. Basically, madness ensues, Holmes has a lover’s spat with Watson, gets high, reunites with Watson, solves mystery…(spoiler: The cult wasn’t really supernatural. That was a shocking twist.) There are some women who seem to play no real role except to keep the men straight. Ending is left open for sequels.

Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a bad action flick, even with the incoherent mystery plot, but it wasn’t what I wanted from the series. That’s not to say there were no redeeming features, namely, a built and topless Robert Downey Jr, without that glowy-blue Iron Man thing stuck in his chest. But ultimately the film was too into its own anachronistic, steam-punky, Victorian England, and filled the screen with explosions and chases with no real reason why.

The Quick and the Dead (1995) ***

Sam Rami’s darkly humorous throwback to the spaghetti westerns of the mid 60’s has all the essential characters: the evil overlord of the town, the young hotshot gunslinger, the killer-turned-preacher, and the nameless gunfighter who rides into town with a score to settle. It takes the mythic elements of prior films and reduces them to the bare-bones; most of the characters don’t have first names, only titles or nicknames. The characters are fairly one dimensional, and the plot is simple, but the film is having so much fun incorporating elements of the spaghetti westerns that it draws you in too, and you can’t help but enjoy yourself.

Gene Hackman plays Herod, the ruthless gunfighter who “owns this town,” and in return for his “protection, the town is allowed to live.” He is running a quick-draw contest, with a large cash prize. Also competing are his son, the “Kid” (DiCaprio), who yearns for his father’s respect, his ex-partner Cort (Crowe), who gave up a life of violence to become a preacher, and is being violently coerced into participating, the “Lady” (Stone), who has an old score to settle with Herod, and an assortment of other gunfighters, from suave gentlemen gamblers to filthy ex-convicts. Montages ensue, with close ups of eyes, guns, and the clock-tower that marks the start of duels. Throughout, a score reminiscent of “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” serenades us, complete with whip cracks for percussion. Slowly, as gunfighters are eliminated from the contest, the Lady’s past wrong suffered at the hands of Herod begins to emerge.

Sam Rami marks a fairly traditional genre with his characteristic quirky directorial style. He loves point-of-view shots and the film features stylized closeups of exit wounds. Watching Russel Crowe get larger from the viewpoint of a glass thrown at him can only remind me of flying eyeballs, and seeing a bullet approaching a man’s eye leaves you in no doubt of the outcome of that shot. The stylized, slightly anachronistic language and appearance of the film also gives it a slightly mythic flavor, as out-of-period clothes or accessories raises a characters bad-ass-ness as needed.

The film doesn’t raise any questions about morality or violence, it exists in a world where the only way to settle a score is with a gun. But that’s ok. The ending is just what it needed to be, and you leave satisfied. What more could you want?

Alone (2007) **1/2

I hate to spoil anything for you, but she’s not really alone.

In this darkly atmospheric Thai film, Pim, an ex-siamese twin wracked with guilt, which we see through dialogue like, “If I hadn’t wanted the operation, maybe she wouldn’t have died,” or “If I had stayed, maybe she wouldn’t have gotten sick,” returns to her childhood home with her boyfriend Wee to care for her sick mother who is in the hospital. Every scene is dripping with supernatural possibility, and from the second Pim enters the house, we begin to see traces that her dead twin, Ploy, isn’t really gone. Ploy wore glasses, and her old frames keep moving around the house, appearing in unlikely places, like on Pim’s bedside table.

Personally, I couldn’t get around the fact that one conjoined was near-sighted, and the other wasn’t. Maybe she just needed the glasses to magnify the bat-shit crazy expression in her eyes. Through a series of flashbacks, the adolescent relationship between Pim and Wee is revealed, as is Ploy’s jealousy, aggression, and tendency to squeeze things tightly when angry.

As the story unfolds and new information comes to light, we begin to feel, as in Shutter before, that we don’t really like the main characters as much as we originally thought. Secrets are being kept, lies told, etc. Almost every scene feels like a dream sequence, and most of them are. However, this is an effectively creepy little film, and, apart from one major plot hole, one that many horror films suffer from, a strange lack of legal ramifications, holds up well enough to scrutinization.

The Incredible Hulk (2008) **

“The Incredible Hulk” (2008) was made to one up Ang Lee’s “The Hulk” (2003), which was chock full of overtly green imagery, soap opera complex family relations, distracting comic book style split screens and Eric Bana’s torincredible-hulk-poster-bigmented glowers.  It does, which isn’t saying much.

“The Incredible Hulk” tried to cut the melodrama and provide the essence of the comic with a straightforward storyline.  This includes simplifying the transformation.  Pulse go up, Hulk come out.  No longer is the simple phrase “You won’t like me when I’m angry” the only warning in Dr. Bruce Banner’s (Norton) canon.  Now “You won’t like me when I’m exercising” or “You won’t like me when I’m sexually aroused” are just as applicable.  Banner’s new accessory, for the Hulk of the 21st century, is a heart rate monitor, a must have for suspense scenes as audible proof of his rising pulse…but who really thought it was suspenseful to have Banner stop, mid chase scene, and do some zen breathing?

My problem isn’t so much with the film, which is admittedly mediocre, but with the character of the Hulk.  I don’t find the Hulk compelling.  A freak accident gave him powers, pretty standard super hero fodder, but since he has no control over his abilities he loses the humanity of other vigilantes.  His alter ego suffers the agonies of remorse and indecision, but since the conclusion is forgone, who really cares?  The Hulk isn’t an avenger or a defender, he’s just a weapon.  In Banner’s own words, he can aim his strength, but that doesn’t make him a hero.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) *

Heavy on the special effects, low on cohesive storyline.  It seemed to miss its own point.  Summary in a nut shell: Alien Klaatu (Reeves) and his giant robot companion Gort, land on Earth with a message to the world- you are destroying your planet and if you don’t stop we will destroy you to save the Earth.  Attempts to spread this message to the UN but the US government is hostile and attempts to keep him in captivity.  Meets up with Dr. Helen Bensoday earthn (Connelly) who helps him escape, and he realizes that the human race has the potential to change.  This is made clear to him because Helen and her aggressive stepson Jacob (Smith), the child not appreciating the mother, the symbolic human race destroying their symbolic mother earth, realize that they can still get along even though their husband/father is dead.   Klaatu then sacrifices himself to save the human race.

What?  Maybe I missed a step.  The step where Klaatu actually speaks to the UN, or in some other way spreads his message.  Because the way I see it, nobody actually knows what he wants from them!!  The whole idea that humans change on the brink of disaster doesn’t apply if nobody realizes that there is a disaster.  And thus his sacrifice is utterly in vain because no one has any idea that the aliens want people to change.

This film wasn’t making a statement about the violence of humanity, which is fine, it doesn’t have to just because the original did, because this Klaatu and Gort were as violent as any of the human militaries.  Instead it turned it into an environmental thing, about how humanity is a parasite that is destroying a rare and beautiful planet capable of supporting life.  As Klaatu says “If the Earth dies, you die.  If you die, the Earth survives.”  I agree with him, but I can’t help asking myself how a giant, alien robot that disintegrates into microscopic, diamond-hard beetles that swarm the planet destroying everything man-made in their path is the way to save the Earth.

Oh, and the earth never stands still.  Seemed like a cheap marketing ploy to link this almost unrelated film with the 50’s original. Snoozefest.

Eastern Promises (2007) ***1/2

The latest offering in the Cronenberg canon is nominally the story of Anna, a young doctor, trying to find theeastern-promises-poster1 family of a baby girl delivered on her ward using the dead mother’s diary as a guide, while coping with her own, barely alluded to, recent miscarriage.  However, it is much more the story of Nikolai, the driver for the mob family that Anna becomes entangled with.  Anna remains always on the periphery, getting drawn in farther than she would like, but not nearly as far as we, the viewer, are.  Anna is a nice character.  Complex enough to be real, yet easily understood, and relatively unchanging.  She feels maternal toward the baby, indignant at the fate of the mother, and has no understanding of who she is dealing with.  Every other main character undergoes drastic transformations as the story progresses, so by the end you have done a complete 180 with nearly everyone else.  This doesn’t feel forced, because the characters themselves are static, and it is merely the viewers perception of them that alters as more information comes to light.

There are no guns in this movie.  These gangsters don’t need guns. They use words to sort out their problems.  Words and knives.  And razors.  And forced heroin addictions.  This is a nasty movie about nasty people, and it is tense, tight, and slowly unravels a story which seemed so simple to reveal the hidden complexities.  This is the sort of film that needs multiple viewings to fully understand and appreciate the subtleties of the story and characters, and it is well worth the time.


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