“2012” is yet another example of technological genius and story-telling mediocrity. Its careless, almost gleeful destruction of the entire world makes the brilliant CGI work jarring in a way the film-makers did not intend.
It has the usual disaster film elements: concerned scientists pick up disturbing information, staring at computer screens and using important-sounding jargon (something about neutrinos). Government bureaucrats are reluctant to believe its implications. People say, “That’s impossible!” Some ancient culture predicted this all along. Some crackpot conspiracy theorist predicted it all along, too. The disaster brings out the best and the worst in people. Someone says, “I thought we’d have more time.” The same dozen people keep running into each other. Iconic landmarks collapse. The entire world may be at risk, but we still have time for a little romance and some touching lessons about the importance of family. There are some sad deaths but a couple of convenient and satisfying ones as well. And when things really get bad, there’s a soaring angelic choir on the soundtrack.
But a disaster film has to be about survival, and this one, from how-can-I-blow-up-the-world-today writer/director Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow”) is too cavalier in tone, soft-pedaling the real implications of its apocalyptic storyline as though the world’s literally breaking apart is justified in order to bring John Cusack back to his family. It is curiously antiseptic, with only a couple of dead bodies, and the deaths we witness almost like the coming of The Rapture. And, at two hours and forty minutes, it feels endless, as though by the time you get out of the theater, it will be 2012.
The CGI is impressive, especially when the ground buckles and heaves as a car speeds along a crumbling road, trying to stay ahead of the collapse. And you don’t need a lot of story in a special effects movie. But you do need the right kind of story, and this one seems as off-kilter as the convulsing tectonic plates. The question is inevitably posed — how do we decide who will survive? But it is never engaged. There is a momentary mention of the possible problems of a sort of economic Darwinism, selling survival to the highest bidders. But the characters never deal with the consequences of that decision either way; it spends more time on the lesser issue of whether people deserve to know what is about to happen. No one is asking for a debate about philosophy or ethics; just enough narrative Spackle to keep the story going forward. Instead, it repeatedly derails. It’s no more compelling than watching a kid knock down a tower of blocks. In a movie like this, with little time to do more than sketch out the characters, a lot of the story’s validity depends on who lives and who dies. It is harder than it seems at first to put together exactly the right mix of satisfying (bad guys get what they deserve, think Richard Chamberlin in “The Towering Inferno” and Victor Garber in “Titanic”) and sad but honorable (Bruce Willis in “Armageddon,” Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic”). The mis-handling of the outcomes here contributes to its inability to engage the audience. And so does the howler-filled dialogue. In the middle of utter catastrophe a scientist stops to make cocktail party chit-chat with a desperate father about the last time they met. In the wake of utter devastation a couple engages in arch but completely leaden banter. (She does miss the opportunity of a lifetime, though, to say something like, “Not if you were the last man on earth.”)
Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant as always as the concerned scientist with a heart, though we can’t help wondering whether the stricken look in his eyes is as much about the disaster he is in as an actor as it is about what his character is witnessing. In a story where 21st century robber barons seem to carry the weight, it is perhaps appropriate that the movie itself resembles a hedge fund manager — too expensive, too arrogant, and, finally, dull.
Hayao Miyazaki has produced another trippy fantasia, this time a fish out of water story along the lines of “The Little Mermaid.” A little girl goldfish with magical powers loves a little boy and turns herself into a human, by ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny-mode stopping at a few evolutionary species along the way and sometimes reverting back to chicken feet in times of stress.
The boy is Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) and he dubs the fish Ponyo (Noah Lindsey Cyrus). In a bit of stunt casting, both main character voice talents are the younger siblings of Disney mega-pop stars. Ponyo’s father (voice of Liam Neeson), angry over the human’s mistreatment of the oceans and concerned that her leaving may upset the balance of the world, wants her back in her original fishy form. A storm rises and creates enormous flooding. While Sosuke’s mother Lisa (Tina Fey) is taking care of the wheelchair-bound elderly women at the nursing home (voices include Betty White and Cloris Leachman), Ponyo uses her magic to enlarge Sosuke’s toy boat and they go out onto the water.
Stunning bursts of imagination and sensational, almost psychedelic images make the film a garden of unearthly delights. The undersea settings, including the flooded village, are filled with intricate detail and grand concepts, like waves that turn into enormous leaping fish. Ponyo uses her new feet to race across the tops of the waves in a moment of pure exhilaration. The images are visually rich and engrossing and the tenderness between the two children is affecting. But they are also at times disconcertingly grotesque and as in past films Miyazaki cannot make visual splendor compensate for moments in the storyline that are random and inconsistent.
I am very excited about this week’s DVD and Blu-Ray release of “Where the Wild Things Are,” one of my top 10 films of 2009.
And I am also excited about the chance to give away some “Wild Things” goodies! I have three Wild Things toys, a calendar, and a DVD-Blu-Ray combo pack.
And don’t forget to check out the Wild Things iphone app.
The Blu-Ray has some great extras, including:
Â· Higgelty Piggelty Pop! An all-new short featuring the voices of Meryl Streep and Forest Whitaker
Â· HBO First Look featurette
Â· 8 Webisodes:
o The Absurd Difficulty of Filming a Dog Running and Barking at the Same Time
o The Big Prank
o Vampire Attack
o The Kids Take Over the Picture
o Maurice and Spike
o Max and Spike
o The Records Family
o Carter Burwell
Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me why kids love Wild Things. Put Wild Things and “toy,” “calendar,” or “DVD-Blu-Ray” in the subject line. The first in each category will win the prize. Only one entry per family and US addresses only, please. Note: prizes provided by Warner Brothers. All views expressed are my own.
Maurice Sendak’s spare, poetic, and deeply wise book has been lovingly unfolded into a movie about the child who lives in all of us, brave and fearful, generous and needy, angry and peaceful, confident and insecure, adventuresome and very glad to come home. The movie may challenge children who are used to bright, shiny colors and having everything explained to them but if they allow it, Max and his story will bloom inside them as it will for anyone open to its profound pleasures.
The book’s opening line is as well-remembered as “Call me Ishmael” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him ‘WILD THING.'” Those who wondered what prompted Max’s mischief will accompany him as he experiences the jubilation of creating his own cozy space, a snowball-stocked igloo, and as he joyously takes on his sister’s friends in a snowball fight, only to be inconsolably crushed when they carelessly smash his icy lair and then leave without him.
There has never been a more evocative portrayal on film of the purity, the intensity, the transcendence of childhood emotions. The hallmark of maturity is the way we temper our feelings; it is not a compliment when we call someone “childish” for not being able to do so. Our experiences — and our parents — teach us that life is complex, that sorrow and joy are always mixed, and that we can find the patience to respond to frustration without breaking anything. But one reason that we mis-remember childhood as idyllic is the longing for the ferocity of childhood pleasures. Jonze and his Max (Max Records) bring us straight into the immediacy and open-heartedness of a child’s emotions.
We know we are in a child’s world even before the movie begins, with scrawled-on opening credits and then a breathtaking, child’s eye opening bursting with sensation, all the feelings rushing together. The film brilliantly evokes the feeling of childhood with the same freshness and intimacy director Spike Jonze showed in the influential videos he made when he was barely out of his teens. Max’s mother is beautifully played by Catherine Keener who makes clear to us, if not to Max, her devotion and sensitivity in the midst of concerns about work and a budding romance. His incoherent fury at her being distracted, including a kiss from a date who seems to think he has the right to tell Max how to behave almost hurtles him from the house, into the night, where he runs and runs, and then to a boat, where he sails and sails, until he comes to the land of the Wild Things.
They begin to attack him, but Max tames them with his bravado and imagination and he becomes the king, promising to do away with loneliness and make everyone happy. The book’s brief story blooms here as Max interacts with the Wild Things (voices of James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Dano, Forest Whitaker, and Chris Cooper). Each of them represents or reflects Max’s emotions or experiences. They love sleeping in a big pile and are thrilled with Max’s plans for a fort. But Max learns how difficult it is to be responsible for the happiness of others, and before long, like other children in stories who have traveled to lands filled with magic and wonder, he longs for home.
The movie’s look is steeped in the natural world, with forests and beaches, and intricate Waldorf-school-style constructions that evoke a sense of wonder. The screenplay by Dave Eggers and Jonze locates the heart of Sendak’s story. They have not turned it into a movie; they have made their own movie as a tribute to Sendak, to childhood, to parenthood, to the Wild Things we all are at times, and to the home that waits for us when those times are over.