Somehow we find ourselves dissecting children’s movies and disaster, be they natural or those induced by Roland Emmerich. Such is life when Videoport Jones and I gather around a few bar stools to talk new DVD releases. This week we’ve got a couple excellent new features for the kids – that people of all ages can enjoy – and a couple of potential disasters, one involving John Cusack, the other, Sam Rockwell.
Where the Wild Things Are
Videoport Jones: Having never read the book (I know – it just never came up), I am unqualified to judge how well director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers captured Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s classic. Nor am I particularly interested. I maintain, however, that I am (marginally) qualified to say that Jonze has crafted one of the most perfect, magical evocations of childhood ever put on film. That I can say. The story of a troubled little guy named Max (the astonishingly real, and well-directed Max Record) who, after a tough day with his loving but troubled family (as his single mother, Katherine Keener radiates pure love), runs away, still wearing his favorite wolf costume. He runs through the woods, finds a small boat and sets off into…well, of course it’s a magical land full of fantastic creatures, all of which represent different elements of his own psyche and those of the people he knows, but I’ll leave all that to the more scholarly inclined. The creatures (each one more lovingly designed and imaginatively-brought to life than the last) are a huge, hairy, and scary lot; they squabble, often use their mighty strength to lash out at objects, sometimes act irrationally, and seem more than willing to eat the tiny new interloper, at least until Max convinces them that he is what they all want most in their world – a king, come to make everything all right. Max’s interactions with his new friends/subjects is ruled by enthusiasm, hope, and imagination, but also irrationality, mysteriously and easily hurt feelings, and terrible longing and fear. I loved how the screenplay seemed completely attuned to the strange-yet-intuitively-right-seeming logic of dreams, or of the logic of little boys, which is often like that of dreams. And the creatures are all, in addition to being, all, my new favorite ‘huge, guy in a suit’ monster in film history (taking over from Ludo in “Labyrinth”), aided immeasurable by voice actors like James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Catherine O’Hara, Forest Whitaker, Paul Dano, and Lauren Ambrose who all, unlike the use to which most celebrity voices are put in movies, are alive in their characters. Gandolfini, especially is a revelation; a seemingly odd choice for the central character, the sad, impulsive, and sometimes very scary Carol (the greatest monster ever), the erstwhile Tony Soprano just broke my heart. “Where the Wild Things Are” is, quite simply, stunning. (As to the question, “Is it appropriate for my kids?” Well, I’m tempted to say “I don’t care.” I will say, that if you let your kids watch it, they’ll see something challenging, scary, moving, funny, mysterious, and uniquely beautiful. They see a work of art. And, if not, then there’s more for me.)
Justin: Let the Wild Rumpus begin, my friend. I’d like to think having read “Where The Wild Things Are” was a universal thing for countless children, but you, have proven me wrong. Thanks. The story is simple, fun and immediately identifiable to a kid: Your parents sends you into a “time out” alone in your room, and next thing you know your imagination takes over. It’s fantastic, and of course ends on the note that family is a good thing, and little boys, no matter how hard they try, aren’t exactly monsters. Well, some aren’t. ANYHOO, the task of making this into a feature film (and a live action one, thank you Mr. Jonze) seemed insurmountable. For starters the story would need fleshing out, and then there’s the matter of the Wild Things, which, in the wrong hands, would look like rogue Muppets from the far side of the moon. Fortunately they got the people behind the real Muppets, the Jim Henson Creature Shop, on board, and that helps seal the deal. But more importantly they created a story that is still identifiable to kids, but also kind of startling in its realism. When home doesn’t feel like the best place to be, who wouldn’t want to hop a boat to a mysterious island and become king of the beasts? Of course what Max learns is that family can be a tough thing no matter where you go or how big you are. So sure, if you are opposed to your kid seeing something a little scary – scary in a fake monster way, not a “Saw IV” or “Requiem for a Dream” kind of way – then don’t see this. But just know it’s likely your kids will see things far worse and far less beautiful on any given day. Why not just swap out Pokemon or Power Ranger or whatever it is the kids watch these days, and see what happens?
VPJ: Hayao Miyazaki. Don’t know who he is? Well, ask the smartest little kid you know, and you’ll understand that the man is the greatest animator in the world, the father of modern animated films like “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” and several others, all of which can legitimately be termed “modern classics.” We at Videoport stock about six copies each of Totoro and Kiki in the kids section and on Fridays (when you can just come in off the street and get a free kids movie, no other rental necessary – PLUG!) they are the first things to go. Parents have actually shaken my hand upon returning a Miyazaki film I’d recommended to them, not just because their kids had a new favorite bunch of movies, but also because their kids’ new favorite films were ones the parents could respect, and love, also. (Aw, shucks.) With Miyazaki and the gang at Pixar, we really are in the golden age of animation, and, as much as I love Pixar’s movies, I give the edge to Miyazaki. His films are visually imaginative and unique, his stories partake of a sense of mystery and wonder common to the best fairy tales, and he has an unparalleled ability to create authentic and distinctly compelling child characters. In this one, a little boy who lives by the sea finds a little, well, something in the water and finds himself the new best friend of the titular Ponyo, a shapeshifting little girl-creature who causes all manner of shenanigans. Filled with beautifully-realized character touches, astounding, gentle humor, some thrilling (and scary) sequences, watercolor-influenced visuals, and an exhilaratingly-generous and humane spirit, “Ponyo” is exactly the remedy for the parent on the verge of Spongebob/Dora/Diego-induced psychosis. I prefer the original Japanese language track (’cause I’m a snob and all), but, as ever, the American dubbed version was done with care, the English translation by none less than “E.T.” screenwriter Melissa Matheson, and low-key, appropriately-matched voices by the likes of Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchette, newly-hot Betty White, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman and (your girlfriend Justin) Tina Fey. Even the fact that spawn from the undeserved-celebrity families Cyrus and Jonas voice the two main characters works; they’re actually not bad, with some of the charming innocence of the old Charlie Brown cartoons. Absolutely delightful in every way.
JE: I think you just blew my mind. Again. No, not with all the kind words about Miyazaki, or the respect for members of the Cyrus and Jonas families (we can only hope they never join forces. Fear, America. Fear.). No. You might as well just have hit me in the head with a sock filled with nickels when you said “as much I love Pixar’s movies, I give the edge to Miyazaki.” WHAT?!?! WHO?! Oh lord, this is the BIG ONE! I’m comin’ ELIZBETH! After all this time, so many Pixar releases praised and countless Dreamworks films savaged. So many blog posts decrying Disney’s traditional animation unit as an after thought…and now this? You sir, you were the champion of Pixar. I thought you were close personal friends with John Lasseter, invited to company picnics and pool parties. And now, now you tell me this? I don’t know what to believe any more? I’m shaking. Of course this does not mean Miyazaki is undeserving, far from it. In the same way both of us love Pixar for not just re-imagining the look of children’s films but also the storytelling, the same goes for Miyazaki. It’s funny how Disney’s stock has faded in terms of it’s traditional animation while Miyazaki works best in it, creating these lushly visualized worlds that are fantastic and have a weird realism at the same time. All of this can be said the same for “Ponyo,” which, I think if I had to tell it straight to audiences, I’d say is akin to “The Little Mermaid,” except this is cuter and probably holds up better on repeated viewings. (Look, we all like singing crabs, but after another chorus of “Under The Sea” who doesn’t want to steam the little jerk?) Rent this and be happy.
VPJ: My dilemma: to watch this mega-budgeted, ultra-hyped, world-go-smash would-be blockbuster (it sort of underperformed) or to, well, not. As is the norm for people on the horns of such a dilemma, I made a pros-vs.-cons list (at least for the purposes of this review). Pro: Me like when things go smash! And director Roland Emmerich made the incredibly-stupid-yet-undeniably-smashy “Independence Day” where, you gotta admit, stuff blows up real good. Con: Emmerich may, in fact, be the devil himself, having also directed “Godzilla,” “The Patriot,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “10,000 B.C.” and others too depressing to list here. Pro: It stars John Cusack, as the beleaguered dad trying to keep his family together in the face of all the smashing. I wanted to be Lloyd Dobler in high school (and sort of still do), and, even without my hetero man crush on big John, think he’s always a talented, compelling actor and since “Say Anything,” he’s also done stellar work in “High Fidelity,” “Grosse Pointe Blank,” “The Ice Harvest,” and “Being John Malkovich.” Con: I love John, but his career is in the crapper. His resume in the last decade includes such floaters as “1408,” “Must Love Dogs,” “Runaway Jury,” “Identity,” “Serendipity,” and “America’s Sweethearts” for cryin’ out loud. The upcoming “Hot Tub Time Machine” just makes me feel bad for him. Pro: “2012’s” cast includes such solid performers as Woody Harrelson, my co-hetero-man-crush Chiwitel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, and Danny Glover. Con: “Meteor” had a great cast, too. Pro: It’s trailered images of two falling skyscrapers did cause tongue-clucking, conservative, nanny state movie critics to shriek, “How dare they, in the days since 9/11…won’t somebody think of the children!?!?!” Con: It forced me to champion an obviously-terrible movie on general principles. Pro: I’m out… Con: Publicizing New Agey, conspiracy-theory nonsense, directed by a monied no-talent, demeaning some of my favorite actors…. The verdict: Pass.
JE: Oh so close! I really thought you were gonna make the leap! For people of a certain age, of a certain generation (let’s call them “Generation Vaguely Close to Us in Age”), Cusack can do no wrong. He’s like the best friend or boyfriend who was there for you at a key point in your life. You would not be who you are today without them. Except that same boyfriend/best friend went through some hard times, had numerous screw ups, and despite his best intentions is on the outs with you. He may try to get back in touch but you don’t always pick up. Big John, we want to like you. We want to root for you. Heck, we want to love you and take you out for a nice chicken dinner. But not when you make films like “2012.” This was one of those movies that whenever I saw the trailer I just continued to ask, “how is this possible?” The film is just laughable. Every time I saw the scene of him trying to escape L.A. as it crumbles around him, laughter came quickly. Is that really the response a studio wants? I get that disaster flicks are supposed to be a smash-bangery of epic proportions, but this was just bad. I don’t even think you can call Emmerich a hack because the guy makes so much money and keeps getting work. He’s taken his disaster porn to levels that studios can probably only say “uh…HECK YEAH! Green light it” even though they have no idea what is happening. Still, as far as Big John goes, I hold out hope, even for “Hot Tub Time Machine*” (*Make note of this statement for future reference)
VPJ: I know I’m not the only one who absolutely hated “Napoleon Dynamite,” right? I mean, I thought it corny, self-consciously “quirky,” and sorta mean-spiritedly lame. Plus, as time has proven, media-anointed star John Heder is uniquely un-funny. Despite having the comic wonder that is Jables at their disposal, Jared and Jerusha Hess’ followup “Nacho Libre” was a limp nonstarter, and now the preachy married Mormon filmmaking duo have unleashed another would-be hip quirkfest which, fortunately, people resisted in indifferent droves. The story of a young (quirky) would-be writer who finds his (quirky) sci fi novel stolen by his (quirky) writing teacher and turned into a (quirky) best seller, “Gentlemen Broncos” is, well, quirky all right. It’s also ill-paced, poorly-written, burdened with a charisma-less star, and, most importantly, not at all funny. It’s just sort of desperate and lame. Undeniably-funny and talented co-stars Sam Rockwell (as the two novels’ hero in wacky-but-unfunny fantasy sequences) and “Flight of the Conchords” Jemaine Clement (as the arch blowhard plagiarist) can’t help but have their moments, but it’s not nearly enough.
JE: Ouch. Just ouch. Let me make something clear: I am going to give “Gentlemen Broncos” a shot, largely based on my love of Mr. Rockwell and Mr. Clement. It is no secret that I am an officer in the Sam Rockwell Appreciation Society (secretary 3 years running!), and if you can’t appreciate the comedy of the Conchords, and therefore Jermaine, then I have no patience for you. Does it look silly? Yes. Quirky? Oh dear lord, too much so. But I like quirky (to an extent), and have been known to delight in silliness (let the record show I loved the movie “Hot Rod.”). So I’ll give it a shot. That said, let me also make this statement: I never watched “Napoleon Dynamite” and have no plans to. That movie shot the curve hard for me, going from “maybe I should see it because people are talking about it,” to “I definitely should NOT see it because people are talking about it.” There’s a fine line there. Also, you are correct. John Heder burned about as bright as an M-80 in a high school toilet, and blew up like one too.”
ALSO THIS WEEK: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Robin Wright Penn stars in this indie drama about a youngish wife moved to a retirement community by her much older husband (Alan Arkin), and Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, an entertaining documentary about the hilarious British standup.
– Why the fervor over whether “Where the Wild Things Are” is appropriate for kids?
– What happened to John Cusack?
– What’s your favorite (intentional or unintentional) disaster movie?