One of my favorite films of 2009, Where the Wild Things Are (Warner) is Spike Jonze’s adaptation of/feature-length tribute to the Maurice Sendak picture book, expanded and reimagined in the spirit of the feelings that drives that story. Jonze and his screenwriting partner, Dave Eggers, preserve the imagination and the primal emotions of Sendak while grounding his preadolescent hero in a palpably real suburban world and then transports him to a landscape of craggy coasts and primal forests and sand dunes that is fantastical and primitive: the island of the wild things populated by a tribe of hulking yet childlike monsters equal parts mythological creature and demented stuffed animal. Call it an art film for kids or a fantasy for the child within, but it is unique and beautiful and as honest a tale of being a child as you’ll find on screen, with all of the joy of imagination and anxiety of childhood grounded in the imagery and the landscapes of a tyke’s mind. My feature review of the film is here.
The DVD features four behind-the-scenes featurettes by Lance Bangs. Originally shown as webisodes, these pieces each have their own integrity as snapshots of an element of the production or profiles of collaborators and are full of personality and person expression in addition to providing a peak behind the scenes. Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition are the original live-action adaptation of Sendak’s Higgelty Piggelty Pop! or There Must Be More to Life (a fantastic live action/animated storybook creation brought to life with marvelous costumes, wonderful puppets, stop-motion figures and the voice of Meryl Streep), the “HBO First Look: Where the Wild Things Are” making-of featurette and four more webisode shorts.
Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait Of Maurice Sendak (Oscilloscope) plays like the bonus material of a lavish special edition but is in fact a unique release, a documentary portrait of Maurice Sendak directed by Wild Things director Spike Jonze and his special projects collaborator Lance Bangs (who produced and directed the featurettes for Wild Things) shot over the course of years as Jonze embarked on his adaptation with the blessing and encouragement of Sendak. They became dear friends and that trust and affection comes through in this intimate portrait of the author, illustrator and designer. Now 80 years old and playfully cantankerous, he talks about the inspirations for his most famous books (some of them quite painful and personal), his philosophy of writing for children (“I think what I offered was different… because I was more honest than anybody”) and the controversies surrounding his books, with passing comments on how he came to terms with being gay a long time ago. The title of the film comes from a comment made by Sendak in the film: “I said anything I wanted because I don’t believe in children. I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe that there’s this demarcation. “Oh, you mustn’t tell them that. You mustn’t tell them that.” You tell ‘em anything you want. Just tell ‘em if it’s true. If it’s true, you tell ‘em.” The 39-minute documentary was originally shown on HBO. The DVD also features “Q&A with Spike Jonze and Maurice Sendak at The Museum of Modern Art,” tributes and readings by Meryl Streep, James Gandolfini and Catherine Keener from a Sendak birthday tribute organized by Tony Kushner and a playful short film with Spike Jonze and Catherine Keener acting out a story from Sendak’s childhood that the author shared with Jonze on one of their interviews.
2012 (Sony) – It’s the end of the world as we know it… again! But hand it to Roland Emmerich, an old hand at cinematic Armageddon, for making the apocalypse such an entertaining ride. The premise is just exotic enough not to groan throughout: something about solar flares heating up the Earth’s core (temporarily, of course) enough to shift tectonic plates like shuffling a deck of cards, set off volcanoes and earthquakes and generally do a number on the planet. Which is all just an excuse to create a cascade of spectacular disasters for our hapless everyman hero (John Cusack) and his family (like ex-wife Amanda Peet) to overcome on their desperate journey to survival. The gazillions of people left behind (conspiracy theory survivalist Woody Harrelson, for one) are just collateral damage. Features commentary by director Roland Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser, deleted scenes and an alternate ending (which reveals the survival of a few folks left casualties in the theatrical version). Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is the “Roland’s Vision” picture-in-picture track (a fancy title for the usual repurposing of interview clips), multiple featurettes, an interactive Mayan calendar, movieIQ and the usual BD-Live supplements, plus a digital copy of the film for portable media players.
Produced by Paramount Pictures with a rich cast and imagery designed look like the original storybook illustrations come to life, the 1933 Alice in Wonderland (Universal) wasn’t the first film based on Lewis Carroll’s books but it was the most lavish and extravagant version ever attempted at that point. The stars are the selling point here—W.C. Fields griping and quipping as Humpty Dumpty (a giant costume that the actor may or may not actually be inside), Cary Grant voicing the Mock Turtle (ditto) and Gary Cooper under a bald camp and huge tufts of white hair sprouting over his ears and under his nose as the bumbling White Knight—but it’s the likes of Edward Everett Horton, Edna May Oliver, Ned Sparks, Louise Fazenda and a roll call of character actors whose faces and voices are more familiar than their names that enliven the film. Under strange and sometimes grotesque masks and costumes, they give Carroll’s nonsense verse and surreal dialogue the snap of a screwball comedy. Charlotte Henry (the only unknown in the cast) holds her own as the imaginative and unflappable Alice, unfazed by the crazy dialogue and surreal creatures. You might not peg Norman Z. McLeod as a comic absurdist but the former animator dives into the witty nonsense of Carroll’s world with the same rapid-paced, straight-faced energy as his two Marx Bros. comedies, never stopping to belabor a gag or explain a wordplay. He just rides the weirdness to the next scene. Joseph L. Mankiewicz and William Cameron Menzies (who also designed the film, uncredited) deliver a wonderfully clever and perfectly Carrollian script, which is as episodic as most adaptations but quite lively and a lot of fun. The effects are predictably primitive, especially the giant articulated puppets and creepy paper-mache masks, but it all moves so rapidly and so strangely that it doesn’t matter. No supplements.
The maddest apocalyptic epic every told continues in 20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope (Viz), the second of three chapters, set 15 years after the giant robot attack on Tokyo of the first film. The messianic leader turned despotic president know only as Friend has practically brainwashed the world by now (no one thinks it’s weird that, like a Mexican wrestler, never sheds his mask in public) but the kickass schoolgirl niece (Airi Taira) of Kenji continues to investigate Friend’s shadowy network of cult followers, brainwashed operatives and his own brand of re-education camp (called “Friend Land” and run like a theme park with overly-chipper employees intent on making you drink the Kool-Aid). This sprawling tale, based on a long running manga serial by Naoki Urasawa, jumps back and forth in time (literally, figuratively and, at one point, via a virtual reality brainwashing program) and pings around a diverse set of characters who have gone underground to continue the resistance against Friend’s truly mad plan. None of this will make sense to if you haven’t seen the first film—it doesn’t necessarily make any more sense to those who have seen it—but it’s so strange and entertaining and densely woven that I find myself hooked on the very elements so beyond logic they defy rational explanation. This is all about the irrational run amuck. Yukihiko Tsutsumi directs with lots of humor and energy and personality and is surprisingly adept at keeping the various characters and plotlines (comparatively) easy to follow, but he takes the narrative seriously enough to invest us in the consequences of the conspiracy. These big screen adventures are tremendously creative and entertaining fantasy thrillers and I can’t wait for the finale (which is previewed after the close of the end credits). In Japanese with English subtitles. Features the trailers for each film in the trilogy but no other supplements.
Also released this week is Cold Souls (Fox) with Paul Giamatti, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Screen Media) with Robin Wright Penn and the documentary We Live in Public (IndiePix).