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Wednesday, November 13

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Column Fri Oct 16 2009

Where the Wild Things Are, Law Abiding Citizen, The Damned United, Black Dynamite, More than a Game and We Live In Public

Where the Wild Things Are

Director and co-writer Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers (Away We Go) have given birth to a type of film that defies conventional film criticism. To say you loved, like, were neutral on, or hated their adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are doesn't quite get the job done. No, this work demands a far purer emotional response and deep psychological self-examination to get to the heart of why this telling of this very simple story gets to the root of what we are as human beings. Jonze might be better at this than any director working today. He doesn't thrust cold, therapeutic analysis at us. With films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, he takes us by the hand and guides us into the often-scary world inside our collective mind and shared experiences as both children and adults.

With Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze and Eggers acknowledge the very real and often totally overlooked (at least in movies) fact that children's minds work in an awesomely different way than the minds of adults. So often in films, kids are written simply as tiny adults — smarter and more in control of their thoughts and feelings than any kid I've ever met. I'm not saying there aren't smart children; there are. But no matter how intelligent a child may be, you can't accelerate maturity. Even a kid with a high IQ can have a temper tantrum. In fact, the odds are pretty great that they will. In Wild Things, Max (played by the gifted Max Records) may or may not be smart, but he is highly creative and has an imagination that may be so highly refined it might be a hindrance rather than an asset. Dressed in his wolf costume for dinner, he climbs on a counter and demands that his mother (Catherine Keener) "Feed me, woman!" in his most booming voice, her reaction is a mixture of anger and humiliation (her new boyfriend — Mark Ruffalo — is in the next room).

Max is a kid that resorts to low-level violence and destruction when he's angry. When his sister's friends accidentally hurt him during a snowball fight, his reaction is to trash her room. When mom attempts to calm him down, he bites her. Max is the product of a broken home. Attention is something he needs. When his mother is on the phone working to resolve a work issue, Max is at her feet tugging on her stockings in one of the sweetest moments in the film. But he's also an energetic boy, as the opening sequence shows us. He tears through the house, and Jonze somehow is able to keep up with him with his camera low to the ground like his playmate. The moment instantly helps us identify with Max by literally bringing us down to his level and seeing the world as he sees it. He seems to spend a great deal of time in tight quarters — forts, homemade igloos, under a pile of wild things, even hiding in one of their mouths at one point. The womb metaphor pretty much writes itself.

So by the time we get to the part of the story we're more familiar with, Jonze and Eggers have established a backstory for Max that casts him and the tale in an entirely new and wonderfully original light. Max isn't just imagining a place where these rumpusing creatures live; he's escaping to that faraway place, away from his furious mother. I was utterly unprepared for this portion of Where the Wild Things Are. To simply sum up the wild things as different elements of Max's personality isn't exactly right. One, I think, is meant to represent his mother; another is his sister. Using language and visual cues from Max's life, this world of imagination is built from scraps of Max's real-life world, the scraps that would matter most to a child.

The character of Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) destroys things when he's hurt. When he feels abandoned by KW (Lauren Ambrose), he destroys just about everyone's huts, not unlike Max did with his sister's room. The filmmakers imply that the wild things are manifestations of Max's many stuffed animals; but their personalities are all by Max, who infuses these creatures with childlike thoughts and actions. Listen carefully to their conversations. They aren't about anything of substance, in the classic movie definition of the world. They are about building forts, digging, destroying, and sucking out the brains of anyone who doesn't belong. Max recognizes himself in several of the creatures. Judith (Catherine O'Hara is a skeptic and highly negative about anything people tell her she'll like. Chris Cooper's Douglas (with a bird-like body) is smart and thoughtful. Also on hand are Ira (Forest Whitaker), Alexander (Paul Dano) and the foreboding creature known only as The Bull.

Max's new kingdom is a place where the boy sees his own behavior and attitude reflected back at him, and he becomes ashamed at the way he treated his mother. When Carol behaves like a destructive brat, Max tells him "You're out of control" — the exact words his mother used about him when they were fighting. It's a great slap-in-the-face moment that I'll remember forever. Where the Wild Things Are isn't about these spectacularly realized giants of fur and feathers and horns. The wild thing in Jonze and Eggers' story is Max, and the film is about him retreating to a place where he learns regret for emotionally betraying his mother. And none of this would matter were it not for Max Records' utterly accurate portrayal. There's no acting going on here. This kid comes across as so genuine — as both a loving son and a little shit — that you can't help but be blown away. And what about the creatures? I could look at them for years. The costumes have weight and complexity to them. You can see the center of gravity shift when one of them runs. You can't get that with CGI, but even the faces that are done digitally are flawlessly executed. The expressiveness is undeniable. You will fall in love with these characters and cry when it's time to say good-bye to them. It's just that simple.

Where the Wild Things Are is all sorts of glorious wonder in one sweeping package. That said, it was not a life-changing experience. For me, it was simply a life-affirming one. I'll somehow handle the disappointment. I've already said too much and spilled my guts more than I should have, but fuck it, this one is worth it. Just go see it, and bring with you all the baggage of your childhood, and prepare to have it partially exorcised if you're lucky. This is an incredibly moving and smart trip that I can't wait to watch repeatedly, and hear what others have to say about it. It's a little too soon for me to declare it the best film I've seen all year, but it's right up there.

Law Abiding Citizen

I will give the new film from director F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Negotiator, The Italian Job) and writer Kurt Wimmer (Equilibrium, The Recruit, Street Kings) credit where it's due. Early on, the filmmakers of the exceedingly violent and often extremely entertaining Law Abiding Citizen make the very clear decision that they are going to go for broke in terms of how bat-shit crazy they can make their story of Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), who seeks revenge, justice and a kind of balance after his wife and young child are slaughtered before his eyes during a robbery. The man he fixates on is Assistant District Attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who cuts a deal to sentence one of the criminals to death and the other to a much lesser penalty for testifying against the first. Shelton is appalled that the actual killer of his family will get a maximum of five years in prison, but rather than simply kill those responsible for the murder and setting one of them free, he embarks on a 10-year plot to teach those in the justice system a lesson about doing the right thing versus worrying about keeping your conviction rate up.

Law Abiding Citizen has two things going for it. First, it has a dense and interesting plot that goes way beyond any revenge film I've seen in quite a while. The film keeps a few secrets to itself, but in the end, it all kind of makes sense and seems plausible in the enhanced and insane world that it builds. Second, there are two very interesting characters at the heart of the film. It seems like a bit of a stretch that Butler's character just happens to be a military assassin who specialized in killing targets who were unreachable. What terrible luck for anyone who crosses him. But it did make me consider that maybe Shelton was borderline psychotic even before his family was murdered, and that only his wife and daughter were keeping the sanity pin in place.

Once the plea bargain is set, Shelton has a breakdown in front of Rice, and then the film skips ahead 10 years about as abruptly as this transition. More precisely, the plot jumps to when the death row convict is about to be executed. Rice has now firmly established himself as top dog in the D.A.'s office, and Shelton has been quietly plotting, even dropping off the radar for a couple of years. The lethal injection execution goes horribly wrong, and the convict's death is long and painful. Somehow, one of the injected solutions had been swapped out with something more excruciating. And within a few hours Shelton has taken care of his family's executioners and has made no effort to hide the fact or avoid capture. The rest of the film is a series of negotiations between the two men. From behind bars, Shelton is somehow able to systematically pick off people directly or indirectly associated with the deal cut 10 years earlier. In order to stop the killings, Shelton negotiates deals with Rice for creature comforts in his cell and other favors. It's a strange series of requests but it all makes sense in the end.

One of things I liked so much about Law Abiding Citizen is its patience. There are a quite a few questions that director Gray and company aren't in any hurry to get answered. And the payoffs, for the most part, are solid and worth the wait. But more importantly, when the film decides to play on the violent and explicit side of the street, you better wear a poncho. There is one death in particular that I did not see coming until it was already done. You may bust out laughing at the cleverness of the kill, but that doesn't make it any less brutal and cool. I also was seriously impressed with what Butler achieves here. With one or two exceptions over the years, I've never been that impressed with him as a serious actor, but he has this feral look in his eyes for much of the film and it's a convincing portrayal of a man prepared to go "biblical" on the entire rotting core of the city (in this case, Philadelphia). On the flip side (yes, I said it), Jamie Foxx is a bit more subdued than I'm used to seeing him. His is more of a slow-burn performance that still really worked, but he's often overshadowed by Butler's butt-nuts-crazy ways.

If I had one huge complaint about Law Abiding Citizen, it's that the ending doesn't deliver nearly as powerfully as the rest of the movie. It's too neat and perfect, in a film stacked high on messy, unpleasant and bloody moments. It's actually a minor offense that it didn't wreck my overall positive vibes from the movie, but the neat-bow ending feels awkward and clumsy. With a few nice guest shots from the likes of Colm Meany as a detective, Bruce McGill as another worker bee at the D.A.'s office, Leslie Bibb as Rice's sidekick, and Viola Davis as the city's mayor. Whether or not the film's messages penetrate your brain or not isn't really the point; they might not even make sense if they did. There was more than one instance where I was genuinely baffled by what Butler's character was really trying to prove by killing people who weren't even involved in the original case. Still, Law Abiding Citizen is a warped kind of entertainment that you just don't get every week at the movies. It's a twisted morality play wrapped inside a puzzle box and liberally smothered in blood. Actually, when you put it that way, it sounds pretty tasty. I might not be able to pass a test on this film's exact point, but I had a great time wallowing in my confusion.

The Damned United

This spirited film about a slice of UK sporting history that most Americans are probably completely unaware of is finally hitting our shores this week, and I couldn't be more exited or pleased with the results. Whenever a new screenplay by Peter Morgan gets turned into a movie, I'll be there to see it. And where Morgan is, actor Michael Sheen is sure to follow. The pair have worked on The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon, and the upcoming third film with Sheen as Tony Blair, The Special Relationship. In The Damned United, Sheen plays football/soccer coach Brian Clough, who has the distinct displeasure of coaching the top-ranked Leeds United team for all of 44 days. For those not in the know, you might presume that Clough was simply a terrible coach, and you'd be dead wrong. Instead, he had the great misfortune of taking on the job vacated by the saint-like Don Revie (played with great pomp by Colm Meaney), who rallied his team to one of the most impressive records in football history. But Leeds often won by being the most aggressive bunch of thugs to ever play the game to that point, while Clough wanted to run the team as respectable gents. The clash in styles was instantaneous and severe.

Clough was brought in because he has taken the unremarkable Hartlepool and Derby County team and built it up to be great champions. His right-hand man Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) was the heart and soul of the club and made up for Clough's lack of people skills with a great deal of aw-shucks charm. Taylor was especially useful in dealing with management (represented by the team's owner, played by Jim Broadbent). The two were unstoppable, but when they had a disagreement about where to go after they were fired for insubordination, they split up just before the move to Leeds United.

I have to give director Tom Hooper (the John Adams miniseries, Red Dust, Longford) for taking a subject I had very little knowledge or even interest in before this film and getting me completely wrapped up in the plights of everyone involved. He does a terrific job of jumping back and forth between Clough's early years and his short span with Leeds during the late '60s and early '70s. And Michael Sheen, an actor I can watch in just about anything, is shot out of a cannon and through a ring of fire for this role. For a time, you believe if the rest of the world would just listen to his clearly superior ideas, everyone will get what they want, but soon you realize that not all of his ideas are great and his overwhelming stubbornness is keeping him from seeing it. I loved watching him on his first day at Leeds United, as he prowls around the players as they stand around waiting for him. He refuses to meet them head on, so he barely makes eye contact. It's a wildly awkward and funny sequence. Even better are the scenes between Sheen and Spall, whether they're getting along or, even better, when they aren't. They so capture the way two men who used to be best friends would act around each other when they supposedly hate one another.

The Damned United wisely gives us glimpses of the real Clough, Taylor and Revie in news footage at the film's end. And the ultimate fates of all three men could never have been predicted or written because they seem as unbelievable as so much of this story. As with most of Peter Morgan's screenplays (this one was adapted from a book by David Peace), he peels back the layers of the story and lets us know exactly where the heart of the drama is. You certainly don't have to know much about British football to appreciate what it's like for a man to be hated on the job from day one. The moves full steam ahead, driven by stellar acting by some of the UK's finest thespians (please, if you put either Sheen, Broadbent or Spall in a film by themselves, I'd be there, so to have all three plus Colm Meany in the same film, come on!), and the result is a grand retelling of one of sport's lesser known (outside the British Isles) tales to woe and redemption. You're going to love it. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Black Dynamite

Word of this movie has been spreading since last year when all that existed of it was a fantastically funny trailer and a great idea for a movie. Since premiering at Sundance this year, I've been hearing mostly good things about Black Dynamite, based on an idea from star and co-writer Michael Jai White, best know for playing the title character in Spawn and more recently in my favorite Tyler Perry film, Why Did I Get Married? (the sequel, Why Did I Get Married Too is coming out early next year), as well as smaller roles in The Dark Knight and a great excised scene in Kill Bill. I'd been told in advance that Black Dynamite isn't as funny as some people wanted it to be, and I can see their point. But once you accept the film for what it is, the result is a hugely entertaining action movie with a few jokes peppered throughout. Seriously, you could tweak this movie ever so slightly and the result would be a kick-ass, straight-up action film set during the height of the 1970s Blaxploitation era.

Co-writers White, Byron Minns and director Scott Sanders are clearly huge worshippers of all things from this genre. They have studied the stories, the music, the conceit, the humor, the clothes, the sexuality, and the militancy on full display in films like Superfly, Shaft, Dolemite, Hammer, Black Snake, The Mack, Cleopatra Jones, The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Truck Turner, and dozens of other films, most of which feature a black man versed to some degree in martial arts on a quest to find the killer of someone he cared about. His journey would take him through various parts of the black community, including housing projects, drug dens, swank clubs filled with pimps and prostitutes, and hideouts for Black Panther-like community activists. And that's pretty much exactly what Black Dynamite does when his brother is killed by the same motherfucker who has been pushing heroin to local orphanages and selling a tainted malt liquor on the streets that have a debilitating side effect on black men.

Black Dynamite has some solid performances, both dramatic and comedic. Sure, there are cameos from the likes of Tommy Davidson and Arsenio Hall (character names Cream Corn and Tasty Freeze, respectively), both on hand for some decent laughs, but we also get appearances from dramatic types such as Mykelti Williamson and Bokeem Woodbine. But the film is really an opportunity for White to cut loose as both an actor and a martial arts master. If there's one thing about Black Dynamite that is different from the films it's paying tribute to, it's that White moves with lightening speed and dexterity that, quite frankly, terrifies me. But it absolutely works for this film. What I also liked about the film is that it doesn't attempt to place this character in the modern world (a la Undercover Brother or the Austin Powers films). Director Sanders does everything in his power to evoke '70s grit — shooting on Super 16 film stock, great funky soul soundtrack, dialogue laced with the kind of awesome jive talk we'd expect from this bad mothas. And for the most part, the characters are playing it straight and not hamming it up for the sake of comedy, and that just makes it funnier.

Black Dynamite almost demands a sequel, and I'm dying to see it. I've also heard that an animated version of the character is under production for the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, and I'll be completely on board to watch that series. Without even realizing it until I saw this movie, I've been starved for high-profile Michael Jai White movies, and this fits the bill beautifully. The guy is a great actor, and the fact that he's also a trained fighter and can do most of his own stunts seems to make people take him less seriously, and that's a huge mistake. You don't need an extensive knowledge of Blaxploitation films to enjoy the hell out of Black Dynamite, but seeing a few could only enhance the experience. I think either way, you'll love this movie to death. Stay strong, brotha.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Black Dynamite star Michael Jai White and director Scott Sanders.

More than a Game

This better-than-average sports documentary focuses on the high school basketball years of LeBron James and his four starting teammates that made up the St. Vincent, St. Mary's High School team in Ohio. I loved that, for most of the film, each player gets equal time as we find out about their individual hardship stories that led them to being a part of this team. We meet Sian Cotton, Willie McGee, Romeo Travis, and Dru Joyce ,who had the great misfortune of being the son of the team's coach, Dru Joyce III, who was the closest thing to a father many of these boys had. I was fascinated by how much of their young lives and games were so well documented, and recent interviews with James reveal a humble man who knows he's lucky to be where he is today with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Each player has a great deal of insight about their role on the team and why they team worked so well together.

Director Kristopher Belman loses a little of his focus when the film becomes more about LeBron's success while still in high school, and the local media targeted him for a good old-fashioned tearing down once it became clear that college and professional teams were looking to recruit him. The team's trip to the high school basketball championships came dangerously close to happening without James because he was accused to receiving a gift from a recruiter. It's hard to believe that such a young man was so scrutinized by the media, but he seems to have come out the other side stronger and more aware of his position as a role model and celebrity. James and his teammates are all extremely open and honest about their misspent youths, and it's refreshing to watch a sports figure of James' stature talk about childhood and his devotion to his mother and his friends. The film gets a little overly slick with quick editing and thumping music as all roads lead to the final game, but there's no denying the power and excitement of that final competition.

More than a Game is a movie that lives up to its name. It doesn't gloss over its subjects' lives; it delves deep into some really painful stories and hardships, which makes their triumph as a team all the more spectacular. Getting updates on what each person is doing today is nearly as encouraging and rewarding as hearing about their time in the spotlight. I think everyone from the casual sports fan like me to the diehard is going to get something from this strong character study of five boys whose lives could have been tragic. Instead they turned their fates around with the help of basketball, and it worked for them. Theirs is a story I won't soon forget. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

We Live In Public

As soon as I learned that a film entitled We Live In Public won the Grand Jury Prize Documentary prize earlier this year, I did everything in power to avoid learning anything about it. I assumed it would get released at some point, and I wanted to learned as little about the subject of this film, internet visionary Josh Harris, as I possibly could before seeing this movie. What little I knew about him going in was that if you'd even heard of the guy, you probably had an opinion on his methods, his philosophies, his experiments, and his forward-thinking brain. I'd been told he was one of the most intelligent freaks you were ever likely to hear about, and having seen this profile of his life from director and acquaintance of the subject, Ondi Timoner (DIG!), I can say with some authority that this description barely begins to cover this complicated antihero who foresaw many aspects of the online world except how it would ruin his life.

Harris was dreaming up ways to use the Internet before it even had a name. He amassed a great fortune as an analyst, rode the first wave of the dot-com business revolution thanks to his creation,, an online television network that somehow thrived before broadband existed. He threw elaborate Warhol-esque parties in New York City, bringing together some of the most creative minds with sparkling personalities, all looking to get into business with him or become hosts on one of the many Pseudo channels. Like any temperamental artist, he grew bored with his self-sustaining entertainment avenues and turned his attentions to a habitation project called Quiet, in which he housed 100 well-screening individuals in an isolated community for 30 days leading up to the end of the millennium, with every detail of their lives filmed and watchable by anyone in the dwelling. To attempt to describe the Quiet living arrangement is almost impossible, but watching some of the collected video of people being brutally interrogated or shooting guns on a gun range or eating whenever and whatever they wanted or public sex acts or showering together or pretty much anything you could think of, you quickly get a sense that this life of no privacy was going to wear on these folks pretty fast. I'm not quite sure what Quiet proved, but I can't believe Harris hasn't sued the makers of "Big Brother" for stealing his idea.

One of the most fascinating projects Harris got involved in was also his most simple. He put dozens of cameras in his own home, which he shared with a girlfriend at the time. He took the Quiet idea and applied it just to his own life for six months, during which no action was left uncaptured, including their eventual ugly breakup. Although this idea may not seem all that innovative, you have to remember that Harris was doing this years before YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and all of the other networking options that people have to keep you abreast of their every movement and thought on a day-to-day basis. He anticipated a world in which people would voluntarily give up their privacy.

We Live In Public digs pretty deep into Harris' psychiatric history as well. His obsession with TV as a youngster, especially the show "Gilligan's Island." His relationship with his mother and father, and how his closeness with his mother fell apart when the rest of his world did. Even her deathbed pleas to see him one last time were met with bizarre, cold video messages from Harris but no visit. Perhaps the scariest aspect to Harris was his alter-ego Luvvy, who wore clown makeup and acted out in socially unacceptable ways even when Harris was needed to present himself at business gatherings with potential investors. However freaky I'm making this sound, trust me, I'm not doing this man justice.

Unfortunately, the dot-com bust and his spending his multimillion-dollar fortune on project that brought in no money left him broke and mentally unbalanced. Director Timoner tracks Harris to some pretty unusual places after he leaves New York, but I won't spoil that for you. But everyone who knows him still feels pretty certain he's gearing up for another comeback. I'm not quite as certain I'm buying that theory, but, boy, is it unbelievable watching his rise and fall up to this point. We Live In Public is, simply put, an incredible documentary about a man whose influence and ideas are still very much at play today even if he isn't. If he does make a return to public life, I might get a little scared for humanity. In the meantime, I'll continue contemplating the implications of what he left us with in his aftermath. This film is as riveting as it is frightening about where we're going as an online people. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

According to the Music Box Theatre's web site, We Live In Public director Ondi Timoner will be on hand for a Q&A for at least one of the opening day screenings. However, I have it on good authority from the director herself that the film's subject, Josh Harris, will also be on hand for the event. I can't figure out which showtime(s) they will be doing Q&As for, but I'm sure a quick call to the Music Box will answer all of your questions.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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