A book & movie review : Where The Wild Things Are

WherethewildthingsareA 2009 Spike Jonze film, and a 1963 picture book classic may not seem the closest of relations, but they are. Jonze’s live-action adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s superb ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ was released in 2009. The book and the film form the second of my combined book and movie reviews (the first was a look at The Black Stallion).

The book itself is one of those big picture books that, with a mastery of economy and a subtle lightness of touch, expresses a pivotal moment in a boys life. This is what happens when Max throws a tantrum. He is sent to his room where suddenly a forest start to grow and he is transported to the island where the wild things live. Max becomes their King, before eventually missing home and sailing back home in time for his still hot supper. That’s a very bald synopsis for a very complex and rich book. Some of the finest parts of it contain no words and show the ‘wild rumpus’ on the island being enjoyed by both the wild things and Max. These are pictures full of an exuberant and glory-filled wildness.

It’s a book that has shifted into iconic status, and rightly so.  What I personally love about it is that Sendak allows Max to rage against the injustices of his life. His fury is legitimate. Max will not go quietly into that dark night. He is allowed to be angry, to be fiery, to be unreasonable, and yet to also gain a sense of self and to grow. It’s a fine, fine balance to achieve in a book and an even finer achievement when one considers the relative brevity of a picture book.

Adapting this book into a film would always rely heavily on Max. He needs to be furious and endearing, complicated and naive, brave and scared. He needs to be everything when he needs to be, and nothing when he doesn’t. And Max Records, the actor cast to play him, delivers superbly. When he’s still, his eyes tell everything, and when he’s caught in fury, his body expresses his rage. Wholly. He’s an all or nothing sort of actor, and delivers without an inch of self-consciousness. I loved him. I fell in love with him in the opening sequence, practically instantly, when he caught that subtle moment of having fun and then suddenly it all goes too far and somebody gets hurt.

What’s also pleasing is that one of the other pivotal roles, Max’s mother, is equally astutely cast. My beloved Catherine Keener takes the role, and brings to it a lovely sense of warmth and sympathy. I also had a bit of a moment at the sight of Percy Jackson’s mother chatting to the Incredible Hulk and briefly entertained the thought of an epic crossover between the two franchises.

On a personal level, I had some severe doubts at hearing the Wild Things actually speak, and the accents they spoke in,  but a lot of that relates to them being book characters in the first place. When you read books, you read them in your own voice and so I imprinted my perceptions onto these monsters. It did grate initially but I barely noticed it after ten minutes or so.

There is a lot of love in this film, from the quite beautiful and subtle soundtrack (Karen O) to the warm and potent script (Jonze & Dave Eggers). Jonze shoots this film with an epic sense of romance, allowing the camera to dwell for long beats on sunshine drenched frames and beautifully staged moments. The final beat of the film is particularly potent. I also enjoyed that there was a lot of respect for the source text; shapes and colours and elements from the book were brought to the film’s visual identity with wit and grace.

The transition to film perhaps pulls the story slightly into a more adult perspective, what with the careful construction of the Wild Things who slowly pull and question Max to facilitate his development. It’s vaguely reminiscent of a Woody Allen film at parts, but as a whole, this film is a languid, subtle experience and one that, when the dark moments come, hits you very hard. There’s such tension here, and such beauty, even in the anger and sadness.

Where The Wild Things Are is an utter gem. It’s a stunning book, and a valuable, elegant and beautiful film.

Film review : War Horse

I’ve written about my love for Michael Morpurgo on numerous occasions and in particular the gorgeous War Horse which I’ve been lucky enough to both read and see the play. Now, at last, I’ve watched the film.

Essentially the strapline to this film could have been “War Horse : IT’S TIME TO CRY AND WEEP AT FUTILITY AND NOBILITY AND PONIES AND STUFF”

Now I do realise that not everybody may approach this film from the same angle of PONIES and with a brain that melts into mush at Noble Deeds Being Done By Noble People. It’s terribly schmaltzy in places and it’s very idealised. The opening part of the film is sort as if Richard Curtis’ vision of London has been simply transposed onto the West Country.

Regardless of this, the film is very lyrically shot. It’s quite beautifully framed in places, and the editing is superb. Spielberg, for all his occasional hamminess, is a master of visual construction. Certain shots, like the moment at the windmill, are superb and also quite poetical. There’s a fluidity to Spielberg’s storytelling here that is very very gorgeous.

But oh God, this film made me cry. It made me sob and sob and sob. The horse(s?) they got to play Joey is/are superb. And the whole No Man’s Land scene? Amazing. Awful, amazing, awful, amazing.

I think if you’re caught by this story in the first place, you’re caught. You’re caught whether Joey grows up in page, stage or film and each version of War Horse has both merits and faults. For me, although I loved the film, it’s the play. The play wins . It’s magic. Pure theatrical magic.

(And, if you missed it, here’s the best part of the Jubilee featuring Joey on top of the roof of the National Theatre).

The Eagle

The Eagle is a 2011 adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s definitive historical classic ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’. Directed by Kevin Macdonald  (The Last King of Scotland and Touching The Void amongst others), The Eagle tells the story of Marcus Aquila and how he discovers what happened to his father’s legion – the Ninth – which was lost (Eagle and all) in mysterious circumstances North of the border.

Channing Tatum (whom I last saw in Step Up – yes, the dance movie is my friend) acquits himself  solidly as young centurion Marcus. His phenomenally huge neck (seriously, it’s MASSIVE) is only mildly distracting as he starts his new command at a garrison. He’s a big, muscle-packed dude who seems haunted by what happened to his father. It’s an interesting mix and one that comes across well in the opening act of the movie.

Due to circumstances, Marcus finds himself invalided out of the army and is forced to spend some time at wicked-eyed Uncle Donald Sutherland’s house. I love Sutherland. Please can we have a spin-off with him as a Roman? It would be brilliant.

Marcus manages to end up with a new slave Esca; the enigmatic and distinctly aesthetically pleasing Jamie Bell (probably best known for Billy Elliott – again, yes, the dance movie is a genre I know well). There’s a little bit more of Tatum-Trauma (“My Daddy, my daddy”) before him and Bell head North to restore the reputation of Channing’s pop and the legion, yo.

The Eagle is great but the accent issue is ridiculously distracting. It’s perhaps best described as John Wayne does Gladiator. It becomes so glaring that it’s impossible to ignore. Donald Sutherland seems so gorgeously amused by the whole thing (“I’m doing period? Get out!”) I’m willing to forgive him, but the moments in the deepest darkest North are a little bit harder to stomach.

The Eagle reaches a lot deeper in the book than perhaps it was allowed or able to reach in this adaptation. Issues such as honour, and the fractured nature of Britain at that time, are fascinating and worthy of greater attention. We also lose a lot of the rationale behind Esca’s actions which makes his support for Marcus’ actions come across as a bit, well, random.

The Eagle is a perfect Sunday afternoon movie after you’ve had a huge roast. Do note however that if watching with children, there’s violence and a fairly obvious beheading scene. There’s also a graphic scene involving implied violence to a child. It’s rated 12 and if you have sensitive youngsters, I would suggest discretion would be the better part of valour regarding this.

The boy in the striped pyjamas : film review

I’ve blogged before on how I love John Boyne’s “The boy in the striped pyjamas”. It’s a hell of a book. Last night I also finally managed to see the film adaptation.

It’s interesting watching a film when you know approximately what’s going to happen. You prepare yourself for the ending. The awful awful stomach-punch of an ending. That’s a given. But what also struck me was the use of light and of music during the film.

There’s a moment, during the earliest of frames, where Bruno and his friends are playing at being airplanes in town. They run down streets, arms held out wide, engine sputters coming out of their mouths. The music is suitably euphoric. It is sunshine and children and so evocative of that perfect childhood moment.

And then Bruno planes past a group of soldiers in the background. A group of soldiers clearing out a housing block and people being thrown into lorries. This was the moment that summed the film up for me. The music just swelled a little bit louder, that tiny infinitesimal increase in volume, and we were pulled away from the scene, pulled to follow Bruno some more down the road. We were still in his childhood. We were still within his frame of reference. He had not noticed what was going on and so we weren’t allowed to notice.  It symbolised the way entire swathes of people just shut their eyes and pretended to not know what was going on. It was a brilliant fragment of a film that said so much more.

The film itself is very quiet and subtle. It never wholly names the “farm” which is interesting. This is a very key thing in the book where Bruno finds out it’s called “Out-With”. There was also an interesting subplot introduced in the film whereby the awesome Sheila Hancock plays Bruno’s grandmother and it’s unfortunate that this is all too brief to gain any coherent impact.

As a whole though this film complemented the book excellently and although it’s not an easy view, it’s a gutwrenching, heartbreaking and beautifully shot film that’s most definitely worth a view.

You need to see this film. You really need to.