Archive for October, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Monday, October 19th, 2009—Film

Where the Wild Things Are (USA 2009, Adventure/Drama/Fantasy), Writers: Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers; Director: Spike Jonze

Spike Jonze’s adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, leaps onto the screen with the energy and spirit of children everywhere playing in parks, forts and snow banks. The writer/director has created a magical world on par with those places where your shadow can suddenly leave you behind and take off on wild adventures; where you can spiral down a tunnel and wind up in an alternate realm full of mysterious creatures; where nameless strangers pass by through dappled light and share whispers that change your day, your view, your life.

This is the world where the Wild Things are, and I don’t want to spoil it by saying too much. You shouldn’t really read about it, anyway; you have to experience it.

The film beautifully captures the whimsy and fancy of childhood, but also the frustration that comes when you’re young and small and feel that no one hears you no matter how loudly you scream. Young Max (Max Records) needs to escape his world because his emotions are too big for anyone to understand, including him. So he goes to a place where he can finally make sense of them—where the Wild Things are.

As someone who spent much of their childhood living in make-believe worlds where other humans didn’t exist or couldn’t see me, I very much related to Where the Wild Things Are, and very much loved it. There are so many fun, inventive characters who enliven the film with their random comments—the kind you feel could only be spoken by someone “real,” they’re so off-the-cuff.

But the film also makes room for more somber, reflective touches; both Max’s worlds, real and imagined, feature beautifully observed moments of stillness. There are two in particular shared between Max and his mother (played by the wonderful Catherine Keener) that are lovely, insightful and poignantly bittersweet—one where he tries to express himself by inventing a story about vampires, the other at the film’s conclusion.

Where the Wild Things Are is dark and colourful; sad and joyful; brilliant, powerful and hopeful. It’s a magical story, beautifully told. You should go and see it for yourself.

* * *

To my very own Wild Things, who always saw me even when I was in hiding—SM, DT, AD, JC, HS.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Monday, October 12th, 2009—Film

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (USA 1971, Drama/Western), Writers: Robert Altman, Brian McKay; Director: Robert Altman

I’ve recommended McCabe and Mrs. Miller too many times for it not to be up on this site. It happened again last Friday night when I was out with CDC and DB, listening to their stories of how Leonard Cohen’s music has impacted them over the years. Quite simply, if you love Cohen’s music, you have to see McCabe and Mrs. Miller. His songs—like Sisters of Mercy and The Stranger Song—define the mood and tone of the piece, and help make it one of Altman’s best.

Based on Edmund Naughton’s 1959 novel McCabe, the movie tells the story of John McCabe (Warren Beatty) who arrives in the small mining town of Presbyterian Church, Washington to open a brothel. Soon after his arrival, Mrs. Miller (the luminous Julie Christie) shows up and helps him transform the business from a low-class joint to a well-run establishment that serves as a main attraction for residents and passersby. But as the town begins to prosper, a big-shot mining company takes an interest in buying McCabe out. When he resists, the company sends hired guns his way and things quickly go downhill.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller is usually described as an anti-Western because it subverts so many of the genre’s conventions. It does, in the way it tinkers with character stereotypes, and especially in the way it treats what would normally be seen as the Western’s climax—the pivotal showdown. In McCabe’s world, times are changing. It’s easy to get swept away and forgotten in a snowstorm.

But what’s most powerful to me about McCabe and Mrs. Miller isn’t the story; it’s the telling. As a writer, I can easily get caught up in the words. (Though if you’re going to do that, Leonard Cohen is definitely your man. His words make drowning everything else out worth your while.) Sometimes you need to just feel the rhythm and the beat behind the story, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller does that for me.

The first time I saw the movie, it didn’t fully register. I watched it in film school, when we saw movies constantly—in class, as homework, and even for fun because everyone there loved movies so much that no matter how many hours we spent studying them, watching another was still one of our favourite things to do. But seeing so many meant that sometimes things got lost in the shuffle. It wasn’t until our next class—when my prof kindly called on me to talk about it in front of everyone—that I realized how I really felt. For a moment, I had nothing to say. And then I recalled the feeling I’d had when watching it. I stepped back into the world Altman had created and discovered how present it still was. Because the lighting and camera work and music and performances all combined to create an incredibly powerful atmosphere that I can’t recall finding in another film.

Our prof, Derek Redmond, chose the film as an example of outstanding cinematography, and it was a fantastic choice. There are other things I love about the film—the way the characters are humanized, Julie Christie’s performance. But what I love most is the look of the film, how it completely captures the time and tone and season, and how Cohen’s music complements and completes that mood. The Stranger Song is pitch-perfect for the story, from those first rambling guitar chords… I don’t want to dissect the film’s backstory and meaning. I just want to watch it play out because I love the way it makes me feel.

I can’t think of a better time to recommend McCabe and Mrs. Miller than mid-October. It opens to autumn rain and closes to a quieting, blanketing snowstorm. This movie offers a great way to spend one of the next few weekends—listening to beautiful music, watching one of the most tangibly atmospheric films ever made, feeling winter’s first chill from somewhere warm inside.