Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

2018 #42
Spike Jonze | 97 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA, Germany & Australia / English | PG / PG

Where the Wild Things Are

Lonely and over-imaginative child Max (Max Records) runs away from home one night, finds a small boat at the edge of a pond, which becomes an ocean as he sails across it, and winds up on a remote island. There he encounters a group of maladjusted and mostly unlikeable large monster-like creatures, the Wild Things, and ends up having to deal with their tumultuous interpersonal relationships. But it’s a fun kids’ movie, honest!

Except it isn’t. Not really. Despite being adapted from a kids’ picture book, and resolutely rated PG, it didn’t strike me as a kids’ movie at all. It’s glum, depressing, and surely only understandable when filtered through an adult perspective. By which I mean, the film depicts a child’s imaginary adventure, and if you take it as just that it’s no fun whatsoever. Give it an adult reading and I think the adventure actually reveals Max’s subconscious, with the monsters being an externalisation of his personal issues… I guess. I mean, I’m not sure what personifying his issues achieves, or what the film is saying with them.

If I felt it came to some kind of interesting point by the ending, maybe I’d be more on board with it. But Max basically decides he’s had enough of the monsters (he certainly doesn’t seem to solve all their problems) and heads home. I guess he’s realised his home life isn’t so bad after all, but… well, is that it? In the course of one night (which he’s imagined is a longer stretch of time, but still, one night), the kid’s had a complete change of personality and heart? I don’t buy it.

Mournful monsters

Apparently director Spike Jonze has said he intended “to make a movie about childhood” rather than a literal children’s movie, so it would seem my interpretation isn’t too wide of the mark. I’m not sure he told the Warner Bros executives that, though, because they were reportedly so unhappy when they saw Jonze’s initial final cut that they considered reshooting the entire movie — which, with its $75 million price tag, wouldn’t’ve been a small ask. In the end they pushed the release back almost 18 months, giving Jonze more time and money to make a movie that satisfied both himself and the studio; though even after that they still spent 70% of the promotional budget targeting adult viewers, advising parents to “exercise their own discretion”.

Maybe it was that compromise that kicked the meaning out of the film. Maybe it was never there. Maybe I missed something. On the bright side, technical merits are strong: Lance Acord’s cinematography is beautifully golden, and the monster effects (a mix of Jim Henson-made suits and CGI, which replaced animatronic heads that weighed too much) look perfect. But that’s not enough to save a thin and tedious story.

2 out of 5

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Blindspot Sci-fi Roundup

With my 2018 Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” selections now chosen, it’s about time I got on with reviewing those from the class of 2017 that are still in my “to do” pile. Here, then, are four more reviews of my 2017 must-sees, connected (as you may’ve guessed from the title) by all being works of science fiction.

In today’s roundup:

  • District 9 (2009)
  • Moon (2009)
  • Her (2013)
  • Forbidden Planet (1956)


    District 9
    (2009)

    2017 #88
    Neill Blomkamp | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | South Africa, USA, New Zealand & Canada / English | 15 / R

    District 9

    We begin this roundup with two 2009 sci-fi thrillers that made the names of their respective directors. District 9 got the wider attention, being backed by Peter Jackson and receiving a Best Picture Oscar nomination (alongside three other nods), but I’d argue it’s ultimately the lesser of the two films.

    Although District 9 remains highly praised, co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s next two movies — Elysium and Chappie — haven’t gone down so well. Having seen both of those first, I feel like there are a lot of structural and tonal similarities between all three films, so it’s interesting to me how poorly the next two were received. Basically, they all start with some kind of societal sci-fi issue, explore that for a bit as the world of the story is established, then transition into being a shoot-em-up actioner.

    In District 9’s case, it starts out as a documentary about (effectively) alien refugees who live in a segregated community in South Africa. The obvious real-world parallels are, well, obvious. Then events transpire which make the idea of having to identify with those who are Other than us — of becoming affected by their culture — very literal. Then it turns into an achieve-the-MacGuffin shoot-em-up runaround. It’s done well for what it is, with some strikingly gruesome weaponry to give the well-staged shootouts a different edge, but that’s still what it is. Presumably it was all the rather-obvious allegory stuff that helped land the film a Best Picture nomination, and the fact the second half is a not-that-original humans-vs-aliens shooter was overlooked.

    Not so different. Okay, pretty different.

    For me, the clunkiest bit is the storytelling style it adopts. It’s a mockumentary… until it decides it doesn’t want to be so that it can tell its story more effectively… but then it sometimes slips back into mockumentary later on, most notably at the end. I found that distracting and formally inconsistent. I’d rather it had kept up the mockumentary act throughout or not used it at all; or, if you’re going to do both documentary and ‘reality’, have a point to it — show differing versions of the truth, that kind of thing, don’t just mix it together willy-nilly.

    All told, I found District 9 to be a mixed bag. The first half is excitingly original and interestingly ideas-driven, with allegory that is powerful if perhaps a little heavy-handed (I suppose that’s kind of unavoidable when you make a movie about segregation and set it in South Africa). The second half is just a shoot-em-up.

    4 out of 5

    Moon
    (2009)

    2017 #145
    Duncan Jones | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    Moon

    The other 2009 sci-fi debut feature was that of director Duncan Jones. Although it received no Oscar love it did get a BAFTA, but seems to remain less seen: it has almost half as many user ratings on IMDb as District 9. Personally, I thought it was the superior film.

    It stars Sam Rockwell as the sole inhabitant of a mining facility on the Moon. As the end of his tour of duty approaches, his investigation in a malfunction unearths a startling secret. To say any more would spoil things, though Moon gets to its reveal pretty speedily. Also, you may’ve guessed it from the trailers (I more or less did). Also, it’s nine years old now and you’ve probably seen it — though, as those IMDb numbers show, maybe not.

    If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth seeking out. Like so much good sci-fi, it uses its imagined situation as impetus to explore the effect on its characters (or, in this case, character) and what the human reaction would be in such a situation. Maybe this is becoming a cliché already, but it’s quite like an episode of Black Mirror in that regard. (Isn’t all sci-fi that puts a high concept through the ringer of human experience “like Black Mirror”? Such stuff existed before that series. That said, maybe there wasn’t as much of it.)

    It's like looking in a mirror. A black mirror.

    Jones marked himself out as a director to watch with his attentiveness to character in the midst of his SF setting, but also by helming an excellently realised production on a tight budget — the moonbase set looks great and the model effects are perfect. A major reason I reckon it’s clearly better than District 9 is this consistency of style and tone. It’s a film that better knows what it wants to be and how to achieve its intended effect.

    As for Jones, he went on to make Source Code, a solid follow-up, but then seemed to throw a lot of talent away on the risible Warcraft. Hopefully his forthcoming Netflix Original, Mute, will restore the balance.

    5 out of 5

    Her
    (2013)

    2017 #165
    Spike Jonze | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Her

    If Moon is “a bit like an episode of Black Mirror”, Spike Jonze’s Her virtually is one. Set in a highly plausible near future — which has clearly been developed from our current obsession with our phones, iPads, digital assistants, etc — it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely chap who gets a new operating system based around a genuine AI, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As Samantha develops, she and Theodore soon become friends, and then more.

    People often refer to the template of Black Mirror as “what if technology but MORE”, and Her definitely fulfils that brief: “what if Siri was genuinely intelligent and someone fell in love with her?” Also like an episode of Black Mirror, it’s as much about what this reveals about humanity as it is about the crazy sci-fi concept. It’s primarily a romance about a lonely guy who was hurt in the past finding a new connection, with the fact he’s falling in love with a piece of technology almost secondary. Even within the world of the film, he’s not some kind of outcast: we hear about other people who’ve fallen for their AI, and his friends unquestioningly accept his relationship as genuine.

    Such acceptance doesn’t translate into our current world, it seems. Although Her is generally very well liked, some people struggle to engage with it at all, and from what I can tell that mostly stems from them not being able to relate to Theodore and his situation, i.e. the very concept of falling in love with an AI is too impossible for them to even imagine. I can’t help but feel that says more about those viewers (for good or ill) than it does the film, which executes the storyline with a great deal of believability and heart.

    5 out of 5

    Forbidden Planet
    (1956)

    2017 #172
    Fred McLeod Wilcox | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Forbidden Planet

    This classic sci-fi adventure sees a spaceship crewed by blokes (led by Leslie Nielsen) land on the planet Altair IV to investigate what happened to a previous mission there. They find it inhabited only by Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his robot servant Robby, and his beautiful daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who perpetually wears short skirts and has a fondness for skinny-dipping. Turns out the crew are a right bunch of horndogs (they spend most of their time lusting after Altaira, tricking her into kissing them and stuff like that), but there are bigger problems afoot when the planet starts trying to kill them.

    Once it gets past everyone’s lustfulness (it feels uncomfortably like watching the filmmakers play out some personal fantasies), there are proper big sci-fi ideas driving Forbidden Planet. There are also some gloriously pulpy action sequences, like a fight against an invisible monster. It’s backed up by great special effects. Obviously they’ve all dated in one way or another, but much of it still looks fantastic for its time — the set extensions, in particular, are magnificent.

    Nothing's forbidden on this planet, wink wink

    Something I wasn’t expecting (but I’m certainly not the first to note) is how blatantly the film was an influence on Star Trek. You can even map the similarities between characters pretty precisely. Switch out the spaceship models and original-flavour Star Trek is all but Forbidden Planet: The Series.

    Although its gender politics have aged even less well than its special effects, and its story occasionally gets bogged down by stretches of explanatory dialogue (it sometimes feels like you’re watching the writer invent and explain his ideas in real-time), Forbidden Planet remains a mostly enjoyable SF classic.

    4 out of 5

    District 9 and Forbidden Planet were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Moon and Her were viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

  • Three Kings (1999)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #90

    They’re deserters, rebels and thieves.
    But in the nicest possible way.

    Country: USA
    Language: English & Arabic
    Runtime: 115 minutes
    BBFC: 15
    MPAA: R

    Original Release: 1st October 1999 (USA)
    UK Release: 3rd March 2000
    First Seen: DVD, c.2001

    Stars
    George Clooney (Batman & Robin, Ocean’s Eleven)
    Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, The Fighter)
    Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood, Ride Along)
    Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are)

    Director
    David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Silver Linings Playbook)

    Screenwriter
    David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, American Hustle)

    Story by
    John Ridley (U Turn, 12 Years a Slave)

    The Story
    After ceasefire is called in the Gulf War, a group of American soldiers discover a map to a stash of gold stolen by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Setting out to steal it for themselves, the soldiers encounter a group of rebels who need their help and find their priorities changing.

    Our Heroes
    Army reservist Sergeant Troy Barlow and his friend, the comically naïve Private Conrad Vig, are the first to discover the map, which they take to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin to translate. Then self-serving, disillusioned Special Forces Major Archie Gates turns up and convinces them to follow it to the gold. (Yes, despite the title, there are four of them.)

    Our Villains
    The war may officially be over, but the Iraqi Republican Guard are still the enemy.

    Best Supporting Character
    I know I mentioned him in the heroes bit, but Conrad is the de facto “fourth king”, so… He gets the lion’s share of either the best lines or the lines that set up the best lines.

    Memorable Quote
    Chief: “I don’t want to hear ‘dune coon’ or ‘sand nigger’ from him or anybody else.”
    Conrad: “Captain uses those terms.”
    Troy: “That’s not the point, Conrad. The point is that ‘towelhead’ and ‘camel jockey’ are perfectly good substitutes.”

    Memorable Scene
    Archie explains what actually happens when you get shot in the gut, complete with an explanatory cross-section of the human body, and bile.

    Making of
    The stories of behind-the-scenes conflict between director David O. Russell — still a relative newcomer, making his biggest movie so far — and George Clooney — dividing his time between E.R. three days a week and the film on the other four — are legendary. If you want a lengthy-ish full account, check out this trivia entry on IMDb.

    Awards
    1 Blockbuster Entertainment Award (Favourite Action Team — it beat Will Smith and Kevin Kline from Wild Wild West, and those were all the nominees)
    1 Political Film Society Award (Peace)
    2 Political Film Society Award nominations (Democracy, Exposé)

    What the Critics Said
    “[an] emotionally and politically responsible movie set in Iraq during the immediate aftermath of the gulf war — a damning yet idealistic satire about the motives behind U.S. foreign policy. The visuals are wild, the sound track has the audacity to underscore the subtext instead of just echoing the obvious, the comedy is irreverent and occasionally slapstick, and the metaphorical details are consistently strong. The movie even examines the conventions of star-studded actioners without stripping the leads of the charisma and apparent immortality of full-blown action heroes.” — Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader

    Score: 94%

    What the Public Say
    Three Kings, at its core, deals with serious themes and serious subject matter surrounding the end of the first Gulf War, and is therefore a war narrative before anything else. That being said, it’s refreshing how Three Kings doesn’t drown in its cynicism, isn’t exploitative in terms of gore or shocking violence, and isn’t hitting its audience over the head with either jingoistic propaganda or hamfisted pacifist social commentary. Moreover, Three Kings is funny enough often enough to be qualified as a comedy in its own right. It’s the humanist, dare I say, heartfelt combination of the two, that makes it a bonafide winner.” — The Celtic Predator, Express Elevator to Hell

    Verdict

    Writer-director David O. Russell may have become increasingly acclaimed this decade with Oscar-nominated movies like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, but for me this is still his best work. It mixes laugh-out-loud comedy with serious points about war and an ultimately emotional storyline, created with a filmmaking verve that is frequently exciting and inventive — something I’d argue is less present in Russell’s more widely-acknowledged work.

    #91 never… lies dies.