WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE
Perhaps it's best to think of Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze's live-action adaptation of Maurice Sendak's beloved children's book, as the PG answer to this past spring's R-rated Watchmen. In both cases, the filmmakers involved have captured the look and texture of the illustrated page in a manner that is simply breathtaking. The key difference, though, is one of length. The creators of Watchmen had so much material with which to work, and they were able to excise what they chose and still retain a basically faithful adaptation. But here, Jonze and his co-scripter Dave Eggers have the opposite -- and more difficult -- problem. Because Sendak's original book is so slender -- certainly not enough to fill a 100-minute movie -- the pair had to build on characterizations, alter some connecting tissues, and concoct entirely new scenes. The end result isn't a bastardization of the literary classic, but neither is it a further canonization of the acclaimed source. It's the sort of film certain to be poked, prodded, discussed, dismissed and/or deified. But ignored? Never. Max Records plays young Max, a troubled child not very adept at dealing with anger or frustration. After a spat with his single mom (Catherine Keener) leads to his biting her on the shoulder, Max bolts from the house, soon stumbling on a body of water where a small boat awaits him. Max sails away and eventually arrives at an island inhabited by large, furry beasts who alternate between sounding like confused children and neurotic adults. Max avoids being eaten by these creatures by telling them that he's a powerful king; impressed, they make him their leader. Max especially bonds with Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), the most temperamental of the monsters, but he enjoys spending time with all these behemoths as they play various games and generally have a good time. But petty squabbles erupt among the beasts, and they turn to Max for guidance. But what does he know? After all, he's only a kid, and one who clearly doesn't always have the answers or advice that the others hope to hear. Technically, Where the Wild Things Are is a stunning achievement, and the beasts -- a combination of costumes and CGI -- particularly look astonishing. But there's a reason why Sendak's book runs only a few dozen pages, and by blowing up the story, Jonze has in effect stripped it of much of its wide-eyed wonder. Both the book and the movie are children's tales sporting a dark underbelly, but the film version, unlike its predecessor, is often too literal, resulting in a suffocating atmosphere that further undermines the simplicity of the tale. Like the wild things inhabiting Max's world, it's fascinating but also lumbering -- and (to paraphrase The Troggs) it's unlikely to make everyone's heart sing.
LAW ABIDING CITIZEN
Vigilante justice in real life is, to put it mildly, highly problematic, but when it comes to cinema, who doesn't occasionally feel some measure of catharsis in watching a sympathetic protagonist skirt around a deeply flawed legal system and exact his revenge on his own terms? Take, for instance, the original Death Wish. Bad guys kill Charles Bronson's wife, Charles Bronson kills bad guys. The end. (At least until the sorry string of sequels.) Ah, for those simpler times of Chuck-style vengeance. Law Abiding Citizen initially appears as if it will be a modern rendition of the same type of tale, as loving family man Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) must watch helplessly as his wife and little girl are murdered right in front of him. The killer, Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte), and his unwilling accomplice, Rupert Ames (Josh Stewart), are apprehended, but while Clyde wants both of them to pay for their crime, Clyde's lawyer Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who's only interested in maintaining his high conviction-rate percentage, negotiates a deal with Darby that results in him serving a short jail stint while Ames goes to the electric chair. Cut to 10 years later, and Clyde sets out to get his revenge -- not only on the criminals but also on the whole judicial system that failed them. Initially, Law Abiding Citizen makes all the right moves, and it's fun to watch Clyde punch holes in the whole manner in which this country handles its criminal cases. It soon becomes clear that the film is going past the black-and-white morality of Death Wish, which is fine had it continued to offer viewers thought-provoking scenarios. Instead, Law Abiding Citizen turns into an ugly, sordid affair, a gruesome melodrama that, too afraid to tackle the issues it brings up, instead elects to transform into a ridiculous thriller about a psychopath terrorizing a city. Foxx's character is ostensibly supposed to be the hero -- or at least turn into one before the end -- but Nick Rice remains a shallow, unrepentant lout (despite some lip-service speeches that never sound convincing) whose final act is designed to earn audience approval but instead goes down about as easy as spoiled milk. By the end, the murdered wife and daughter are all but forgotten, and Clyde Shelton's pain has been trivialized to an offensive degree. Justice may be blind, but it's got 20/20 vision when compared to this movie that stumbles around in the dark with no hope of providing illumination.
Regardless of how her career progresses, Kristen Bell at least has had the fortune of heading off to Hawaii to film Forgetting Sarah Marshall and now Bora Bora to shoot Couples Retreat. Those are enviable assignments for any young performer, and it begs the question: Does her Hollywood agent work a second job as a travel agent? Magnificent scenery is indeed one of the pleasures of Couples Retreat, with a character even quipping that the view looks like a screen saver. Yet for all its visual splendor, to say nothing of its likable cast, the movie never feels as liberating as its locale. Working from a script by Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau and Dana Fox, director Peter Billingsley (A Christmas Story's Ralphie, all grown up) oversees the project more like a foreman making sure the product gets turned out rather than a filmmaker injecting any personal style into the proceedings, leaving it to certain capable actors to provide any juice via well-timed witticisms and double takes. The premise finds married couple Jason (Jason Bateman) and Cynthia (Bell) imploring their friends to join them on a vacation to an oceanic paradise where the purpose is to reconnect spouses experiencing turbulence in their unions. The other six -- overworked but content couple Dave (Vaughn) and Ronnie (Malin Ackerman), bickering spouses Joey (Favreau) and Lucy (Kristin Davis), and divorce' Shane (Faizon Love) and his 20-year-old girlfriend Trudy (Kali Hawk) -- are led to believe that the workshops and counseling sessions are optional; they're only there for the buffets and the water skiing, but they quickly learn that everyone is required to take part in the team-building activities. Before long, nerves are frayed, feelings are hurt, and all the relationships teeter on the edge of disaster. Amidst all the low-simmer shenanigans, Couples Retreat does make some salient (if obvious) points about the inherent difficulties in keeping any marriage fresh and vital. The movie would have benefitted from a more realistic ending than the feel-good slop force-fed to audiences by the heaping spoonful, but along the way, it at least feints in the direction of testiness before backing off. The characters played by Bateman and Hawk are too annoying to be funny, while Bell herself is too bland to be anything. But Ackerman and Love are pleasing to watch, while the lion's share of the barbs are adroitly handled by Davis, Favreau and Vaughn. Ultimately, though, Couples Retreat is too mellow for its own good. Hardly paradise, it's more like the cinematic equivalent of a leisurely walk around the park.