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Moping around: Records and goat pal in Where the Wild Things Are.

A Muppet Caper

By Ann Morrow

Where the Wild Things Are

Directed by Spike Jonze

Max (Max Records), an energetic grade-schooler, is conflicted. He needs and loves his mother and older sister, yet he bristles under their lack of understanding of his rambunctious boyness. A character from Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, Max has been re-created as a live-actor character in a film version, and that adds more conflict, because he has to say and do things—sometimes callous, destructive things—he didn’t do in the book. The film version is conflicted, too. Directed by the inventive Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) and unevenly expanded with co-writer Dave Eggers, the movie loves Sendak’s original vision but wants to appeal to adults and kids alike, which they attempt by adding angst ridden dialog that no self-respecting monster would ever utter. And many moviegoers and critics are also conflicted: The film is alternately poignant, boring, exhilarating, and annoying.

The film opens with a powerful slice of Max’s life. He has an unhappy encounter with his sister and her glib friends. He is filled with dread by a teacher who reveals that the sun is dying. At home, his mother (Catherine Keener) is stressed and busy but she makes time for him by encouraging his storytelling (the film’s most affecting sequence). After this comforting interlude, Max feels betrayed by his mother’s attentions to her boyfriend, and he takes out his rage at—and on—the dinner table. His careening temper tantrum goes so far out of control that he bites his mother when she tries to restrain him.

From this astute emotional rollercoaster (Records and Keener are excellent), the film magically shifts into another dimension. Max dons his wolf suit and runs away from home, launching a hidden boat and braving the high seas of his imagination until he lands . . . where the wild things are. The wild things, however, are not nearly as wild as Sendak’s monsters, though they are superlatively brought to the big screen by CGI- enhanced puppetry. The giant, animal-like monsters are as startled by Max as he is by them, and they are tempted to eat him. Max cleverly gains control by impressing the beasts by reinventing himself as a ferocious warrior. “I have powers,” he warns, “don’t make me show you!” He is befriended by the lionlike, violent Carol (voice by James Gandolfini), who crowns him king.

When the monsters are running amok, they’re wonderful, but when the action slows, they mope. And whine. And bicker. Perhaps the various beasts (distinctively voiced by Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker and Catherine O’Hara) are meant to represent Max’s fears and resentments. Or maybe the incongruous dialogue is a reflection of the screenwriters’ overly analytical interpretation. Either way, the added material is noticeably at odds with the book’s brio: Max’s much-loved proclamation “Let the wild rumpus start!” is dragged down by the beasts’ inexplicable sadness and long history of interpersonal strife. When a dirt-clod war goes nastily wrong, the monsters realize that Max does not have secret powers, and the film’s enchanting costuming, landscaping, lighting and scoring cannot prevent the realm from sinking into the morass of their failed hopes. These beasts are terrible all right, and not in the joyfully savage way that they were drawn.

Where the Wild Things Are

Paranormal Activity

Directed by Oren Peli

An English major, Katie (Katie Featherston), and her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), a day trader with an “obsession with electronics,” move into a house in San Diego. Strange things soon begin happening in the night, occurrences that are similar to experiences Katie had as a young girl. Sometimes it’s strange bumps and groans in the dark; one morning, Katie wakes to find her car keys in the middle of the kitchen floor. So Micah purchases a fancy video camera to capture these phenomena at work. The resulting footage, shot over a two-week period, is compiled into a film.

Made in 2007 for about $15,000, Paranormal Activity is a cinematic phenomenon that justifies its own hype. It’s shot faux-documentary-style, primarily by the actors themselves, using a single camera. There’s one set (it was entirely filmed within director Oren Peli’s own home), and just four actors (two of whom share less than five minutes of screen time), with no titles and a single copyright-establishing credit. And somehow this tiny film is on pace to break $50 million at the box office. Fans have built it up online and by word of mouth, selling out screenings and pushing it into wide release on the strength of actual demand rather than some marketing firm’s perception thereof.

So what’s so special about Paranormal Activity? How does a film from a first-time director, with a budget that matches what some studios would spend on a single ad in a trade magazine, manage to connect with so many people? Simple: It’s scary. Not the squeamish kind of gross-out fright that the Saw franchise peddles, but genuine pull-the-covers-up freak-out creepy. Outside of a few bona fide jump-out-of-your-seat moments, it outspooks its big-budget competitors with what it doesn’t do. There’s no flash; just a creak here, a thud there, the occasional unexpected breeze.

Comparisons to The Blair Witch Project are appropriate, but this is a better film because it’s about things that go bump in the night, as opposed to things that go bump in the woods. And there’s no pretense here—it’s given the same found-footage framing as Blair Witch or Cloverfield but it never tries to get clever. The most chilling moments come when the camera is stationary.

Granted, it works because of a few stock horror conventions, particularly a cocksure protagonist who’s apparently never seen a scary movie before. (When a psychic tells you not to communicate with the demons, why would you run and get a ouija board?) But that’s easy to overlook when the couple finally gets to sleep and the spirits go to work.

If Paranormal Activity doesn’t at least keep you awake for a few extra hours, you’re not paying attention.

—John Brodeur

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