'Where the Wild Things Are' takes an imaginative gamble

In an article in the New York Times Magazine, director Spike Jonze, when discussing his latest film, "Where the Wild Things Are," said, "Everything we did, all the decisions that we made, were to try to capture the feeling of what it is to be 9."

While it is true that a movie targeting young filmgoers must engage their imaginations and emotions, it shouldn't necessarily mirror what it feels like to be 9 years old. At least not completely. There must also be magic and surprise. In other words, a film of this ilk will find more success if it's a fable that asks young audiences to suspend their disbelief and climb on board — which, of course, they are fully prepared to do. Say, at the drop of a hat.

But first, consider the book. Written by Maurice Sendak, published in 1963, it has sold 19 million copies worldwide, 10 million in the U.S. Its success begs the question, Why? What is there about this story that young readers so completely embrace? The story, after all, comprises only 338 words; 41 lines of text; and is only 37 pages long.

Perhaps it's the fact that the story is a seamless melding of reality and fantasy. Max, dressed in his wolf costume, consumed with a riptide of emotion, rebels, causing mischief, and is sent to his room. And that's when the magic begins. His room grows into a forest and he finds a boat and sails to a distant shore where he discovers a band of feral monsters — large, furry, exotic, all strange hybrid animals. He becomes the king of the monsters, wears a crown, carries a scepter and is empowered. It's an overwhelming feeling for Max. He stands and yells to the monsters that it's time to howl and experience their inner wildness. Eventually, however, he decides to return to his family, to those who love him most.

"Where the Wild Things Are" is an elegant and simple story, wonderfully illustrated by Sendak, and one that would appeal to any youngster who feels conflicted and perhaps frustrated at being buffeted by the whims of family, school and siblings, who wishes only for a magic place where he or she can be king.

In the first act of the film, Jonze captures, with pitch-perfect insight, the existential pain of any kid who feels overwhelmed by life. Max (Max Records) is coping with the divorce of his parents, and with a sense of isolation so complete that he talks to fences as if they could talk back. When Max discovers his mother has invited a strange man over for dinner, and sees then nuzzling on the couch, he acts out, argues with his mother and runs from the house, angry and conflicted. It's at this point that Sendak's fable begins.

And therein is the real challenge for Jonze as a screenwriter. The difficulty of adapting Sendak's story to the screen is that it lacks even a semblance of a strong narrative arc. There is only a paper-thin plot; there is no real conflict; there is no resolution. Hence, if Sendak's book is going to be adapted to the screen as a 98-minute feature, Jonze will have to embellish considerably. But if he deviates too far from the fable template (and from Sendak's book), he does so at his peril.

Kids wish to be swept up in a story that involves, in some fashion, a journey akin to that found in "Shrek" or "Harry Potter" or "Spy Kids," one in which the protagonist struggles to overcome adversity, achieves a specific goal, is victorious, and the tale ends with a nice moral.

Jonze's film draws very little from that recipe. Though the film is imaginative, and the photography superb, the tones are sepia and dark in contrast to the crisp, bright colors of most kids' movies.

In fact, it could be argued that "Where the Wild Things Are" is not a film intended for children but for adults who enjoy watching movies that remind them of their childhood. The monsters, which Jonze develops, have names and speak; they don't in the book. They are somber and dysfunctional, and Carol (James Gandolfini), the wild thing Max comes to know best, is given to bouts of scary temper, threatening to hurt Max. It's even suggested that they should eat Max and they're surprised that they haven't.

In the end, there is no emotional center to the film. Even the relationships between the wild things seem too subtle and strange, something that will be missed by the younger audience.

It's clear that Jonze made an astonishing effort to adapt a book that simply did not have enough substance to be made into feature film. It was a high-risk gamble by the studio and Jonze. We'll see if it's high gain.

Law Abiding Citizen

"Law Abiding Citizen" is a classic revenge-vigilante film, one that proves the aphorism that there are no new stories, just new twists, some better than others.

"Citizen" relies on a now-familiar construction, taken to new heights (or lows) in movies such as "Death Wish" (an endless franchise), or "The Punisher," adapted from the comic book series. The premise is that revenge is a meal best served ice cold.

The template is familiar: a man's family is killed in a brutal and harrowing home invasion. He, Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler), alone survives and asks the local assistant district attorney, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), for nothing more than justice when the two perpetrators are captured. Rice cuts a deal with one of the killers for his testimony against the other, rather than risk a trial that he might lose (Rice has a 96-percent conviction rate).

Shelton is outraged. And it's an outrage that he nurtures for 10 years. Finally, his plan in place, he sets out to take his righteous revenge. He even says "It will be biblical" followed by the line, "Some lessons must be learned in blood." He really said that.

What he sets about is sadistic and graphic, involving blunt instruments and electric saws and plastic explosives. With films like this, assume the screenwriters are holding a hammer and everything they come across is a nail. They hit the audience over the head repeatedly with a blunt instrument. In fact, think of some parts of this heavy-handed film as porn-violence.

Clearly the movie appeals to our basest nature; however, stories of righteous retribution can be tightly written and gripping. "Law Abiding Citizen" isn't.

The Stepfather

While "The Stepfather" is neither subtle nor shy, it does ratchet up serious tension as the film moves inexorably toward its predictable and harrowing conclusion.

The story is familiar (it's actually a remake of the 1987 movie of the same name) and aims at that primordial fear that we don't really know the people we're close to until it may be too late.

David Harris (Dylan Walsh), charming and smooth, inserts himself into the lives of a mother, Susan Harding (Sela Ward), and her three children. Susan is just coming off of a divorce and is vulnerable. The kids are teens and adjusting to a split family and weekends with dad. Suddenly, they have a supportive guy around, someone who often insists that all he values in life is family. Sadly, he tells them, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident more than a year ago.

The screenwriters do an interesting thing at the outset. They make it clear to the audience that Harris is a psychopath and pure evil in the guise of a wonderful guy.

In other words, the first shoe is immediately dropped. What gives the film an unrelenting tension is that the audience is waiting for the second shoe to drop. The test of the film is how effective the filmmakers are in revealing to the unsuspecting family that Harris is a stone-cold killer who is moving placidly among his victims with a wide smile and a loving, helpful persona. All the while small chinks — ever so subtle, ever so easily explained — in his behavior begin to appear. It's chilling to watch. Walsh, as an actor, does a superb job in transforming his face from barely controlled rage to wide smiles in mere seconds.

Of course, Susan is oblivious. She's in love. Her oldest son, Michael (Penn Bradley), however, begins to suspect that something is deeply wrong; however, his girlfriend (Amber Heard) insists that it is all in his imagination.

The audience, of course, knows he's right and it's just a matter of time. The second shoe is about to fall. It's only a matter of time. And it's those minutes that make all the difference.

As psych-horror films go, "The Stepfather" is well done. It's a B-movie to be sure, one targeted at teens who unabashedly enjoy the genre and will surely turn out for this one.

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