Friday, October 23, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are, Zombieland

Wow, I just browsed the new cinema listings for the coming weeks, and am slightly overwhelmed! I haven't had much time for the movie theater of late, and wonder how I will ever fit in: Amelia, Cairo Time, The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D, Astro Boy, The Invention of Lying, and A Serious Man - alas, it appears that I have missed The Informant. I feel like I have to construct some kind of matrix to compare the virtues of the films and, in particular, how important it is to see them on the big vs the small screen.

Amelia is definitely a priority in terms of big-screen impact, Astro Boy may well lose any interest on the small screen, and Nightmare 3D, of course, can only be experienced at the multiplex. But there is another class of films to consider also: A Serious Man and Cairo Time sound marvelous, but am I likely to search them down to view at home if I miss them? Decisions, decisions, decisions...

On the other hand, if you are in Halifax and want to go to a movie, drop me a line! In the meantime, here's a taste of what I have been watching.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009) (Park Lane) Over the past few days I have talked with a few people about the children's book Wild Things is based on, only to hear that the average individual seems to have read it "about a 100 million times." Was I deprived as a child? Am I somehow lacking for not having entered this imaginary land as a tyke?

In any case, this lack of childhood exposure did little to blunt the intensity of the pleasure I derived from the film. In the first 10-15 minutes, as Max (Max Records) is buffeted by the trials and tribulations of childhood - including stormy relations with a teen-aged older sister and a single mom trying to date - I was astounded by how powerfully the scenes evoked my parallel emotions of joy, disappointment, love, hate, fear, loneliness, jealousy, and determination. Max is awash in a maelstrom of feelings and ideas that seem to rule him and to resist any attempt at restraint.

After one confrontation too many, Max runs away, hops on a sailboat, and after a dark night of the soul spent pounded by wind and waves, finds himself on an island inhabited by large, furry, humanoid approximations of birds, goats, and a menagerie of other creatures. More interestingly, however, each of these creatures seems to personify one of the emotions that Max is subject to in his everyday life. For example, there is Carol (James Gandolfini - brilliantly "cast"), who represents impulsive, petty rage; Judith (Catherine O'Hara), who personifies petty jealousies and vindictiveness; and Douglas (Chris Cooper), who is loneliness and exclusion.

These ultimately symbolic but physically furry creatures are living in chaos and misery, and quickly install Max as their king, electing him with a mandate to bring them happiness. Period. At first all is well, with everyone laughing and playing and sleeping together in a big warm pile, but jealousy, loneliness, exclusion, and petty rage are, of course, just around the corner. And Max, of course, is no more able to reconcile the personifications of these emotions than he is able to rule his own.

As one may expect, Wild Things does not end with the protagonist vanquishing the antagonist. Max's final lesson - and the lesson so many of my peer's apparently learned decades ago - is that his emotional depths and heights cannot be overcome, but must be accepted. In this sense, the film's message reminded me very much of a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat I attended in India, which taught the value of equanimity: recognize, acknowledge, and experience the conflicting storm of emotions and thoughts, but do not allow them to rule you.

In terms of film craft, Wild Things is beautifully made. Carol, Judith, Douglas and their peers are presented as slightly scruffy, life-sized teddy bears that evince an interesting melange of human and super-human characteristics, and are subject to wild emotional swings that are amplified by super strength that allows them to leap great distances and hoist (and hurl!) very heavy objects. The island itself is similarly a mixture of real and fantasy lands that allows fine-grained middle-eastern dessert to border rugged northern rocks and scrub trees.

I imagine that very early production meetings for Wild Things were alive with debate over whether the film should be animated, live action, or a blend of the two. I am glad that live action ruled the day, as it somehow made the film more immediate for me, grounding it - oddly - as something that could really happen - the wild things are strangely human for all their outlandish shapes and size.

I was moved to applaud by the end of Where the Wild Things Are, which touched me deeply and left me feeling warm and encompassed in a moment of comfort and goodness that somehow entirely eluded me during 10 days of 14-hours-per-day seated meditation...

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) (Park Lane) We never planned to see Zombieland, but upon arriving at the theater, it seems that Internet listings had misled us, and it was our only option. Decision made.

Despite my high regard for Danny Boyle's zombie horror masterpiece 28 Days Later, I can't say that I am a huge fan of the genre - to put it plainly, I was apathetic about Zombieland going in.

I have mentioned my thoughts on Woody Harrelson before - he's in a large number of great films, but they generally are not great because of him. I remain lukewarm on Harrelson and apathetic about Zombieland after having spent 90 minutes watching blood pour from zombie mouths, bullets, axes, and gardening shears dispatch the undead, and romance flourish for a loser and a "hot" survivor.

That being said, I did not dislike Zombieland and even enjoyed it for the most part, succumbing to some genuine belly laugh inducing moments, particularly when Bill Murray made an unexpected appearance. Overall, however, I have to conclude that I am not the target audience for this particular film - all power to you if you are!

No comments: