around: Records and goat pal in Where the Wild Things
the Wild Things Are
by Spike Jonze
(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
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.
the Wild Things Are
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.