Sunday, November 29, 2009

Fox Tale: Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is Quirky, Stylish and Fun

I wasn’t thrilled about “Fantastic Mr. Fox" when I first saw the trailer and sort of shrugged it off. Wes Anderson is an auteur, yes, but I’m not so sure I really get him. His film “The Royal Tenenbaums” is excellent, but it took a few viewings for me to really feel that way. I will say that I wouldn’t necessarily think that Mr. Anderson and a stop motion animated kid’s movie would work, but it strangely does. It’s definitely more for grown ups (although it’s certainly child-appropriate). I’m sure if I was ten pretty much everything would be over my head and I’d be bored to death. But as an adult I found “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to be pretty fantastic indeed.

If you’re at all curious about Fantastic Mr. Fox but you’re not quite sure if you’re game answer these two questions: are you a Wes Anderson fan? And are you a fan of all types of animation? If you answered yes to either of those questions then you’re bound to love this movie. I’m not even really sure if I’d answer yes to the second question, but there is something fun and eccentric enough about “Fantastic Mr. Fox” that makes it worth while. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, the film stars George Clooney as the voice of Mr. Fox, who is sly, cunning and charming. He used to make a living stealing farmers’ chickens but his wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) insists that he pick a less dangerous career now that they have a son Ash (Jason Schwartzman).

Of course you can’t keep a good fox down and he insists on infiltrating three farmers’ farms. He enlists his friend Kylie (Wally Wolodarsky) and Badger (Billy Murray) to help him. Meanwhile Mr. Fox’s nephew comes to stay with the family while his father is sick. Ash, a pretty socially awkward and strange young fox, clashes instantly with his more outgoing and athletic cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson). Ash and Kristofferson’s awkward and sometimes hilarious exchanges were probably my favorite aspect of the film. Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay with “The Squid & the Whale” helmer Noah Baumbach, certainly knows family tension well (hello, what do you think The Royal Tenenbaums was about?) and makes them wonderfully entertaining supporting characters.

The animation is bizarre yet beautiful. I can’t help but say that the film’s look isn’t quite as polished as one might assume an animated film released in 2009 would look. There is no obviously computer trickery here. This looks like it could have easily been made right after the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer holiday special. That is the nostalgic look Anderson goes for and I think that’s pretty cool. What the film lacks in slickness it makes up for in utter fascinating detail (love those cotton ball-as-smoke explosions). I’d like to see this make the short list for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Oscars and I believe it has a good shot.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” proves that even auteurs who are known for making quirky films for adults can make equally quirky films for children. This applies to Spike Jonze as well who made the even better “Where the Wild Things Are.” I’m not so sure I would necessarily recommend “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to all the families out there with little children, but those who enjoy film and the unusual movies that come out of some of the strangest minds working in Hollywood today would be doing themselves a favor by checking out “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” GRADE: B

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Twilight Zone: Things Get Hairy (and Lamer) in “New Moon”

I was genuinely surprised by last year’s unexpected vampire hit “Twilight.” It was corny and cheesy but just entertaining enough to pass as an amusing time waster. Obviously since the fans are more rabid than a skunk in the daytime the next chapter was inevitable and it comes in the form of “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” which focuses on Bella’s (Kristen Stewart) frustrations after her vampire lover Edward (Robert Pattinson) leaves town and her budding friendship with a childhood friend/slab of tween beefcake known as Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner). It turns out (spoiler) Jacob is a werewolf and his arch nemesis is obviously the vampire. Luckily they have a peace treaty. So this brings up an interesting love triangle. Or at least, it should be interesting. It isn’t.

I realize I’m not quite Twilight’s target audience, but as someone who found the first movie entertaining, I was pretty disappointed by this installment. There were ups and downs, but not enough good moments to smooth over the many speed bumps along the way. Of course I’m an optimistic person, so let’s start with the positives. Lautner, who has been drawing so much attention because of his literal transformation into a real life iron man, is actually pretty charming in the role of Jacob. He didn’t get much to do in the first film except be introduced and he gets to do much more here. Of course there is such thing as too much of a good thing. By focusing too much on Jacob we loose screen time with other characters. I was fascinated by the Cullen “family,” a clan of vampires who have formed a tight nit group who don’t drink the blood of humans. They’re hardly anywhere to be found because they leave the rainy town of Forks, Washington to start a new life somewhere else. I realize this movie’s focus is supposed to be Bella’s friendship with Jacob, but as nice a kid as Jacob is, his storyline with Bella is boring and dull. Unless you’re a squealing 12 year old girl, you’ll probably be checking your watch several times.

Actually now that I think of it, the film definitely has much more downsides. I never really understood Jacob’s relationship with his “tribe members” who also turn into lame CGI werewolves. If this chapter is supposed to be all about them it fails to really take you into this world of werewolves the way the first film took you into the world of vampires. You don’t learn much about them. I’m sure the book is more descriptive, but there are actually some people out there like me who haven’t read these books. I mostly blame screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg who focuses way too much on Bella’s angst and not on other characters. We get it, Edward is the man of her dreams, she feels like she can die without him, I got that right away, move on already. Also, "Twilight" ended strangely with the red headed vampire Victoria (Rachelle Lefevre) poised to get vengeance and this film doesn’t quite know how to fit her in. Lame attempt.

It turns out that when Bella is in dangerous situations she can see Edward. So she spends most of the film driving motorcycles and jumping off cliffs. Jacob keeps saving her and she hardly even thanks him, because he’s no Edward of course. It turns out a slight miscommunication leads to Edward thinking Bella is dead and so he goes to the Volturi which is a group of vampire leaders in Italy. Here we get Michael Sheen and even Dakota Fanning hamming it up as pale bloodsuckers. Edward wants to reveal himself as a vampire and therefore wants to sacrifice himself to the Volturi. Or something like that. There is some interesting stuff here but by this point I’ve pretty much stopped caring.

I’m not so sure having a new director helped or hurt the film, but Chris Weitz is competent enough and adds some interesting flourishes. He makes time fly by in a pretty cool shot in which Bella stares out the window while the camera tracks around her in what seems to be an unbroken take. I thought maybe a male director would make the film not as “mushy” and “corny” but Mr. Weitz is just as cheesy as Twilight’s Catherine Hardwicke. Something so fascinating to me is the objectification of the male body which seems odd coming from a male director who’s married to a woman and even has a child. Obviously he didn’t have complete creative control.

I think one of the biggest problems with New Moon (and Twilight actually) is how the film seems to be filled with sexuality and yet there’s never any sex; there’s hardly any kissing. The whole movie is an annoying tease really. I realize its Mormon origins and the fact that chastity is such a dominate theme (heck Bella even uses Virgin Airlines to travel to Italy) and I realize that the target audience is young impressionable girls. But how can you flaunt these good looking guys and gals on screen and do absolutely nothing with them? It just seems like a waste (Speaking of a waste, Anna Kendrick, who is so good in the upcoming ‘Up in the Air’ is so much better here as Bella’s girlfriend than anyone else in the film, I think she should get her own spin-off). In conclusion, fans will definitely be satisfied and all others will most likely be bored. GRADE: The movie itself: C-, the movie with screaming little girls C+ Overall Grade: C

PS – Having seen the film on opening night, the experience of ‘New Moon’ was hands down more entertaining than actually watching the film, therefore I have altered my grade accordingly.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

It’s a Hard Knock Life: “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” is the Must See Movie of the Oscar Season

Finally this year we have a hyped movie that is worth all of the hype. “Precious Based on the Novel ‘Push’ Sapphire” (yes that’s the actual title) is a film that was made for little money and was not made to just win awards. This little indie darling which wowed audiences earlier this year at Sundance with what seemed liked a guaranteed Oscar nomination for comedian Mo’Nique has officially been given full on Award Season buzz. If this little movie doesn’t get nominated for Best Picture I would be surprised and I would be offended. This is a little film that deserves to be seen and if its Oscar buzz is one reason for people to see it then so be it. Of course “presenters” Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey help as well.

“Precious” is the story of Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones (Gabourey Sidibe, more on her later) an overweight Black teenager living in Harlem in 1987. She’s sixteen and she can barely read, heck she can hardly speak. She’s pregnant with her second child after being raped by her own dad both times. She lives with her abusive mother Mary (Mo’Nique) in the type of sad little apartment one usually sees in Harlem. Basically her life sucks. Of course this is a movie presented by Oprah so we know things can only get better for Precious, who is a character we identify with and sympathize with not only because we feel bad for her but because of Sidibe’s terrific and natural performance and Lee Daniel’s brilliant direction.

Going in to “Precious” I was prepared for a tiny, gritty little drama with shaky camerawork and raw performances. That’s sort of correct, but the way the film is made really just blew my mind. Daniel’s directorial flourishes are just absolutely amazing. We’re given an inside glimpse into Precious’ fantasy world which makes sense since her real life is a living hell and because she’s such an introverted person she can only escape by going inside herself. Daniels works this out with interesting cinematic trickery like in one scene in which Precious looks in the mirror and imagines herself as a pretty white girl. Or what about her fantasy of marrying her math teacher and living together in Westchester. And then there is Precious imagining life with her nasty mother as a black and white Italian drama complete with subtitles. When Precious escapes to her fantasy world we’re given lots of bold colors and bright lights; it certainly is a welcome contrast to her painful and dark home life.

Precious is given the opportunity to go to a special needs school where she can get the education that she deserves. Here she meets other teenage girls who have troubled lives as well. She can finally be among friends and not people who push her around or make her life feel worthless. We’re introduced to Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), Precious’ new caring teacher who is a large source of warmth for her. These scenes offer a glimpse of hope that Precious isn’t going to slip through the cracks but rather make her life even just a little bit better.

Remember I mentioned that Precious lives with her abusive mother? Well I don’t think abusive is even strong enough a word. While Mary can easily be seen as just the bad guy, writer Geoffrey Fletcher and Daniels do an interesting thing. They let the audience go the entire film convincing us that she’s just an evil villain. And then at the end of the film we’re given a glimpse into why Mary is the way she is. Does it make her more sympathetic? Not quite, but it makes her human and that’s ok. Because to think of her as just a villain is wrong, she’s a fully developed character that is unlikable yes, but provides such interesting stark drama throughout the film that you become simply glued to the screen. Mo’Nique is terrific in this difficult and controversial role because there’s a fine line between acting and overacting maybe some will see it as promoting racial stereotypes. But I have to say stereotype or not, there are a lot of bad mothers out there. Some are black and some are white, but the color isn’t important. (This film doesnt stereotype any more than The Godfather stereotypes Italian people or Slumdog Millionaire stereotypes Indian people). When you see her carrying her Down Syndrome grandchild as if she were just a bag of potatoes it’s heartbreaking, disturbing, infuriating. There’s a lot of emotions right there. I think Mo’Nique just hits all the right notes. As does Sidibe, who as a newcomer shows such amazing promise. She makes Precious come alive with her introverted and indelible performance. Heck even pop stars Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz are good here in small but effect roles.

“Precious” is just a wonderful film all around. There are some disturbing elements which may turn off some people, but the outcome is worth it. You can call it this year’s “Slumdog Millionaire” if you want. It’s a small, culturally aware movie with entertaining mass appeal. It’s not just a movie you watch, it’s a movie you experience. GRADE: A

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Armageddon Adventure: “2012” is the Disaster Movie to End All Disaster Movies

You have to remember that “2012” is a supercharged total destruction disaster movie. The dialogue is not going to be very good. The acting will be adequate. The plot will have holes. The characters won’t be too memorable. And you probably will have to slap your head a few times. There’s nothing in “2012” that says, wow this is one of the best movies ever made, so having said that I was surprised at how actually fun, intense and spectacular everything in “2012” really was. Of course it borrows heavily from almost every other disaster and action movie you’ve seen before. Think “Armageddon” meets “The Poseidon Adventure” times “Earthquake” and “Independence Day” plus “The Day After Tomorrow” add a dash of “Titanic” and “Twister” etc and you can pretty much guess what’s in store for you. However, I want to say that in terms of the spectacle you witness on screen, “2012” certainly blows them all out of the water. Of course there’s not a tornado or alien in sight, but I’ll let it slide just this once.

By now you’ve probably seen the trailer that shows John Cusack driving a limo with his family in the back while a wave of annihilation occurs just behind them. That two minute clip (it is much longer in the movie, but you get the idea) pretty much sums up what you’re in for in “2012.” It’s the money shot scene in a film full of money shot scenes. They should have just called the flick “Money Shot: The Movie!” I’m sure you’ve also heard by now that supposedly in 2012 the world is going to end. The Mayans predicted a long time ago before any of us were around and there are still some people who believe it. Roland Emmerich perhaps? So the film asks the question, what if it were true? What if the world were coming to an end? We’ve been asked this question a lot, mostly in the movies I named above. Of course this movie doesn’t cheat the way movie like Armageddon did. Come on, how many of us just wanted to see that asteroid the size of Texas hit earth and end all humanity, which would have included all Michael Bay movies? “2012” does wimp out and goes for total obliteration.

I guess I feel obligated to talk about more than just the destruction (plot? What plot?) you’ll see if you plan on going to see this 2.5 hour film, that surprisingly didn’t feel that long. Who is it that we get to watch as the earth crumbles behind them? We get John Cusack who plays Jackson Curtis a writer who works as a limo driver to a rotund Russian billionaire and is bratty twin sons. Jackon is divorced from Kate (Amanda Peet) who is remarried to Gordon (Tom McCarthy). Jackson and Kate share two children: Noah and Lilly. Meanwhile, Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a scientist who is predicting the world will be coming to an end. He works for President Wilson (Danny Glover) and he just might fall in love with First Daughter Laura (Thandie Newton). Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) fulfills the plot’s necessary “villain” role aka evil government guy and Woody Harrelson is the wacky conspiracy theorist who lives in the woods who correctly predicts when the world’s gonna end.

I don’t really feel like I have to get into much more than what I’ve already said. If you enjoy these types of movies you’ll most likely enjoy this one too. I wasn’t necessarily too surprised at what happened (surprise! the dog lives!), but it was a pretty intense ride. This is a movie that demands to be seen on the big screen. So empty your wallets already and remember even if you don’t end up liking it, it won’t be the end of the world. Bonus points for ‘America Idol’ runner up Adam Lambert’s rousing end credits anthem. GRADE: B

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Disarm and a Leg: Jeremy Renner Learns to Love the Bomb in “The Hurt Locker”

“The Hurt Locker’s” official defines its title as this: In Iraq, it is soldier vernacular to speak of explosions as sending you to “the hurt locker.” Whatever that means. I guess I didn’t get a lot of what was going on in “The Hurt Locker” the season’s critically acclaimed and potential Oscar contender. The film is gritty and does make you feel like you are a part of the bomb squad in Bagdad, but other than that I’m not so sure I enjoyed myself. Maybe you’re not supposed to enjoy yourself. I’m not sure anyone should enjoy being at war. Of course that is until we’re introduced to Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) who seems to be obsessed with Iraq War active duty. He’s a bomb disarming expert and gets off on dismantling bombs.

While I overall, didn’t quite love “The Hurt Locker” I’m going to emphasis its positive qualities. The movie is undoubtedly well directed. First of all, you’d never imagine a woman was behind the camera, but low and behold Kathryn Bigelow can make “guy movies” just as well as guys. With all those explosions you’d think Michael Bay was around somewhere, but luckily he is not. I don’t want to seem too impressed just because a female could direct such a gritty, shaky war action film but rather that woman would direct such a film. While there are female directors out there, they seem too preoccupied with chick flicks or romances and other sappy stuff, here there’s none of that. In fact besides Kate from “Lost” there’s nary a female character in sight. Hopefully Bigelow will join her male comrades in the Best Director category next year.

The acting in “The Hurt Locker” also ranks high up there. It’s possible Jeremy Renner could see his name on Oscar ballots come March. His character is pretty interesting in that he really only knows how to operate in stressful situations. Once his tour of duty is over he ends up going back to Iraq because diffusing bombs is all he really knows how to do. His relationship with a young Iraqi boy is pretty touching and it adds some emotional weight to a film that is mostly shootings and explosions. Although I'm not quite sure I get a later plot development that involves whether the boy has been killed or not.

And that’s where the film just leaves me feeling a little hollow. The film does a great job of making you feel like you’re there (mostly thanks to DP Barry Ackroyd who also made you feel like you were aboard a highjacked airplane in “United 93”). But plot wise, I’m not so sure I cared very much about what was going on. Don get me wrong, some of the bomb disarming sequences were pretty tense, but other than those scenes I can’t really say I was all that involved. And scripter Mark Boal literally introduces us to characters and then kills them off before you get a chance to remember their name. If you blink you might miss Ralph Fiennes or Guy Pearce. Oops spoiler alert!

I’m not saying “The Hurt Locker” is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, it just wasn’t my thing. In fact, watching it I sort of had the same reaction to last year’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” Afterwards, I was simply unmoved. Of course I’ve grown to like that film a lot more and I’m sure in time I will appreciate “The Hurt Locker.” Just not today. GRADE: C+

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Forest Hump: Beautiful and Disturbing, “Antichrist” is Not For All Tastes

The opening sequence of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” is shot in beautiful, stark black and white. It’s shot in slow motion. There is no dialogue and we only hear a piece from Handel’s ‘Rinaldo.’ A man and woman are having graphic intercourse. If you’re not sure they’re actually doing it maybe the close up of penetration will ease your mind. Meanwhile the couple’s young son crawls out of his crib and falls from an opened window to his death, just as mommy is having the orgasm to end all orgasms. Distraught over their guilt, the couple retreat to a lonely cabin in the woods where they proceed to mount each other to help heal their grief. The woman is outright loony and man, a psychologist of sorts, is trying to help her. In the meantime they have strange occurrences with falling acorns, talking animals, and graphic genital mutilation. I’ll pretty much see any type of movie which includes weird art house flicks that feature graphic sexual violence. Hopefully that doesn’t say anything too negative about me. I’ll just call it open-minded.

I haven’t seen any of Dutch director Las von Trier’s other movies, but I do know that he was one of the pioneers in the Dogme 95 film movement in the early 1990s. so you know right away that when you see one of his films you’re not exactly going to get a broad Hollywood treatment. “Antichrist” is being described mostly as an art house “torture porn” horror movie that is sort of true since it contains overtly graphic shots that seem to be there just to cause shock. I want to call this a horror film mostly because I believe von Trier is trying to frighten the viewer with stark and potent images, which he does pretty well. Supposedly a few people fainted during screenings at the Cannes Film Festival. I didn’t faint during the movie, but I will say that if you’re not expecting graphic images, you’re in for either a treat or complete and utter repugnance.

It seems the general consensus is that the film is all about “man” and “woman.” The film only has two actors Willem Dafoe credited as He and Charlotte Gainsbourg credited as She. After the beautifully and purposely shot opening sequence which is known as the “prologue,” the couple retreat to Eden a summer cabin in the middle of the woods. She is rattled with guilt, understandably since she saw her son walking around while she was in ecstasy. He wants to “cure” her guilt and depression instead of working through it like normal people do. Meanwhile strange things start happening and by the end of the movie She will drill a hole through His leg and a lock on a dead weight and she will do something very painful to herself. Oh and did I mention the talking animals.

This is movie is weird with a capital W, but it’s also strangely fascinating. It’s a movie you can’t simply take your eyes off of even when the graphic violence (this flick is unrated if you were curious) is almost painful to watch. Ok it really isn’t mostly because I’m completely desensitized to cinema violence. I still don’t get how someone could faint watching this, but I digress. I don’t really “get” what von Trier is trying to say, but there are many many interpretations floating around the web. Most complain that the film is misogynistic which is a completely valid argument. While Gainsbourg’s character is just a tad irrational, (and the ridiculousness that her husband is trying to “cure” her grief) her performance is extremely heart wrenching, not to mention physically and emotionally demanding.

I have to give credit to von Trier for making a complete bizarre film that is simply too interesting to ignore. I may not really get it, but I enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s really a movie you should enjoy, but I also liked “Funny Games” so there. It’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea (apparently so because there were only the two of us in the entire theater). If “Antichrist” is playing on one of the nineteen screens near you, and you have the courage to check it out, please do. But if you faint, don’t say I didn’t warn you. GRADE: B

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Curious Case of Button, Button: Director Richard Kelly Continues to Think Outside “The Box”

If you go and see "The Box" make sure you’re prepared to see the weirdest movie you’re likely to see. (Of course, if you go see "Antichrist" then it’ll probably be the second weirdest movie you’re likely to see). Director Richard Kelly who continues to make offbeat (read: strange) sci-fi-type movies. I wasn’t so much a fan of his cult classic "Donnie Darko" but a lot of people are. I didn’t’ have the pleasure (fortunately? Unfortunately?) of seeing his "Southland Tales" so I can’t very well comment on that flick. And that brings us to "The Box" a strange mix of mystery thriller and science fiction. Some of it works some of it doesn’t. And believe me, if you don’t really know what you’re getting into, you might as well walk out of the theater before you walk in. Wait, huh?

"The Box" is really loosely based on the short story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson. That story, while very short, presents the reader with a fascinating moral dilemma. A strange man offers a married couple an interesting opportunity. He gives them a button. If they push the button two things will happen. They will receive $50,000 and someone they don’t know will die. The wife and husband are in financial woes. The husband doesn’t want to do it and the wife does. Eventually the woman pushes the button only to find out that her husband was just killed in a car accident. After she gets $50,000 from her husband’s life insurance policy the man who delivered the button insists that the woman never truly knew her husband.

Richard Matheson does deliver a more interesting moral story in just a few pages, but Kelly does manage to create a film that is simply fascinating from start to finish. The film begins normally as we’re introduced to Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden). The film takes place in 1976 and Kelly gets the time period perfectly (love that retro wallpaper). They’re awoken early in the morning by a knock at the door. A box is at their doorstep. Inside is a button. Later in the day a strange man named Mr. Steward with a nasty facial disfigurement comes to the door and explains the button to Norma. Like the original source if Norma pushes the button she’ll receive a million dollars and someone who she doesn’t know will die. Since the film differs greatly from the story, I will tell you that Arthur does not die (of course that assumes that she pushes the button).

Most people will find the first half the film to be enjoyable. Kelly gives the film a terrific look. There’s a glow to most scenes which I found beautiful. The performances are realistic and the button situation is utterly fascinating. I found a particular characterization pretty interesting. Norma is missing several toes on one of her feet from a freak accident when she was younger. Arthur works for NASA and is working on a special prosthesis to prevent her from limping. But in true Richard Kelly fashion he introduces us to utter weirdness before he even attempts to let us know what’s going on. The physical disfigurements reminded me of David Cronenberg. And the strange things that happen to the main characters is right out of a David Lynch movie. If you admire either of those two filmmakers you’re bound to find something to enjoy in the box.

Overall I enjoyed watching "The Box." Of course what starts out as an interesting yet simple story turns sort of convoluted and preposterous (I’m sure Kelly himself doesn’t quite understand what’s going on). However, I never found the movie to be boring. I enjoyed the weirdness. I enjoyed the performances. And I really enjoyed the Bernard Herrmann inspired score by members of the band Arcade Fire and musician Owen Pallett. If you’re not used to seeing "weird" movies that present you with strange characters and an even stranger mystery, then you should step outside of the box and see this bizarre flick. GRADE: B

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Monster Bash: Spike Jonze Captures the Innocence of Childhood in “Where the Wild Things Are”

“Where the Wild Things Are” is director Spike Jonze’s first film since he made the brilliant Adaptation. back in 2002 and only his third overall feature. Few film directors have established such a wonderful cinematic style in such few films. Jonze makes a family appropriate film made for adults about a lonely yet wild boy who wanders off to a place where he imagines he’s the ruler of land of hairy beasts. The beasts don’t eat him but rather the king of land. This isn’t the first time this year we’ve gotten a family-friendly story about a young child with a strong imagination. You can make comparisons to the stop-motion flick “Coraline” which itself was a sort of reworking of an Alice in Wonderland type story. It featured a lot of imagination but little emotional payoff. “Where the Wild Things Are” delivers both in spades.

One thing we can notice about “Where the Wild Things Are” right off the bat is how it’s told pretty much exclusively from a child’s point of view. The shakey camera is more than to invoke possible nausea from those who are prone to that sort of thing, but rather to reflect the rambunctious personality of our main character Max (wonderfully played by Max Records who for some reason seems like he could be Ellen Page’s younger brother). We open with him in his wolf costume roughhousing with his dog. Look at how Jonze never really places his camera much higher than Max. We get lots of low angles. We’re always looking up. And see how all the adult characters are credited as Mom (Catherine Keener) and the Boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo) and the Teacher (Steve Mouzakis).

Max is a lonely little boy who feels left out especially when his sister’s friends crush the snow fort he spent so much time building. In one of his animalistic tantrums he bites his mother and runs off where he gets into a boat and sails off to find adventure. He soon comes across a group of monsters the “wild things” of the title whom he befriends. The group is made up of a few very distinct personalities. We get Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), Ira (Forest Whitaker), Judith (Catherine O’Hara), Douglas (Chris Cooper), Alexander (Paul Dano), The Bull (Michael Berry Jr.) and KW (Lauren Ambrose). It’s actually pretty fascinating how well cast these voice actors are. They nail their characters perfectly. The beasts look to be the traditional “guy in a suit” style with a fascinating combo of animatronics and CGI. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop did an awesome job as always.

It’s interesting how Max stumbles upon these creatures and we, like him, don’t quite know what their deal is. Are they mean? Are they nice? Where do they come from? We quickly learn they’re mostly friendly although a few of them had expressed interest in eating little Max. Having read the children’s book way back in second grade, I was pretty sure that wasn’t happening. There seems to be some tension amongst the group mostly between Carol and KW. We get to learn their story and even Max learns that everyone has problems whether you’re human or a wild animal living in the woods. Yeah we get a “message” that has a lot to do with family but Jonze (who co-wrote with Away We Go scribe Dave Eggers) doesn’t force any sappy message down our throats. And a lot of time the creatures expressive faces tell us all we need to know.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is a beautiful film and made me yearn to be a child again. It achieves an intimacy yet it feels large than life. It’s punctuated with wonderful songs provided by Karen Orzolek and composer Carter Burwell’s great score which accompany the film’s gorgeous photography. It’s got Jonze’s trademark weirdness and those adults who enjoyed “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” are sure to get something out of Spike’s third go round. GRADE: B+