Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Fans of the classic Maurice Sendak picture book might have been a little put off at the notion of a live-action feature fleshing out a very short story into a parable of childhood angst and family decay. But I think the first trailer, which brought tears to many eyes, proved that director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers not only gave reverence to the childhood memory Where the Wild Things Are evokes...they created something unique and immersive.

The actual film is just as mesmerizing, if not quite as emotionally charged. Young Max (Max Records) is a boy who is feeling isolated from his sister and mother and acts out before running away into the night in his wolfish costume. After sailing across rough waters to a far away island, he meets a group of large creatures who crown him their king and include him in their bizarre play and activities.

All is not smooth and perfect in Max's new world (which is never assumed to be real, but is also never pointedly imagined either). Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is gruff and occasionally violent, mostly due to the loss of KW (Lauren Ambrose) from their gang. She's found other friends that appeal to her independent sensibilities and Carol can't always cope. Max brings some sense of unity and sets everyone to building a massive fortress they can live in, but turmoil eventually causes more rifts. Max works very hard to keep his new family together, but in the end this unit is no less dysfunctional than what he's likely encountered in his childhood already.

Wild Things is the most symbolic and metaphoric "children's" film I've seen in some time, but it's also one of the most vivid and well-constructed, too. The wild things themselves are marvelous creations, just different enough to be fascinating but emotive enough to be relatable. It doesn't take long for the viewer to recognize a familiar archetype in each character or, perhaps, themselves.

What may linger the longest in my mind is the world Jonze creates...elaborate set pieces, frame filling landscapes and seamless special effects. It's a world that can shift as quickly as a child's moment frolicking in the woods, the next tirelessly trudging an epic desert.

The film is quickly paced, appropriate to prevent the inherent messaging from becoming heavy-handed and Max's inevitable departure is not as stunningly sad as one might expect...only a touching reminder that home is where we make it and nowhere is perfect.

Rating: A

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Music

Apologies for taking so much time away...late summer/early fall has been busy for yours truly. Today, I'm going to run through some of the latest music releases that have been spinning in my car and will contribute to this year's "Best of" mix CD.

Backspacer - Pearl Jam - B+
Pearl Jam's last, self-titled album was heaped with praise for a band returning to form but I wasn't blown away by it. It was a step up from some of the dark, meandering entries of recent years, but still a far cry from early albums that made Eddie Vedder and company a staple of the 90s alternative scene. Backspacer seems to be a step in the right direction. Someone listening with me didn't actually recognize it as Pearl Jam due to the decidedly upbeat feeling of the new material. I suppose we're used to Vedder moaning and groaning his way through songs which makes tracks like single "The Fixer," opening with a "hey, hey, hey!" seem positively poppy. What actually draws me into the album is some of the softer tunes like "Just Breathe," possibly carryovers from Vedder's Into the Wild soundtrack.

Life Starts Now - Three Days Grace - A
On their third album, these hard rock heavy hitters craft a set of tunes very listenable from beginning to end. Lead singer Adam Guntier (last heard on Apocalyptica hit "I Don't Care") still flexes one of the best voices in rock these days. It's not all doom and gloom, though..."Lost in You" is practically a love song (only a few tracks after one about getting past the "Bitter Taste" of someone else) and "The Good Life" is a rollicking ode to getting the finer things.

Dear Agony - Breaking Benjamin - B-
I truly expected this to be one of my favorite albums of the year, after watching this band get better and better in their first three releases, but Agony has left me wanting. It's not bad, but I've yet to find a stand-out tune on par with "Diary of Jane," "Breath" or "So Cold." This one might end up growing on me, but Three Days Grace has overshadowed it so far.

Shaka Rock - Jet - B-
Jet makes party rock, plain and simple. I mean, the first song I heard from this album was at a strip club (she also danced to a new Muse song, so props to her tastes...among other things). Shaka Rock actually shows a lot more talent and diversity than one might expect,'s almost got a Brit rock feel to it.

Black Gives Way to Blue - Alice in Chains - C-
The new Alice in Chains doesn't necessarily suffer from the absence of Layne Staley...Jerry Cantrell sings many of the new tunes and new "lead" singer William Duvall isn't a stretch from Staley. Hell, Elton John even plays piano on a song. What does kill the album is monotony. Most songs sound utterly similar...grinding guitars, bleak lyrics...this isn't a bold new page for an absent band, just a collection of songs that could have been forgotten tracks on early albums.

The Resistance - Muse - A
Muse find their inner rock gods on their fifth studio release, as close to a modern day rock opera as most bands can get without being utterly ridiculous. The pomposity is occasionally much, especially on the closing three part "Exogenesis: Symphony," but the first half of the album is mostly brilliant, especially Queen-ish "United States of Eurasia" and sultry "Undisclosed Desires." Lead single "Uprising" is a fairly standard Muse cut, which is in no way an insult.

Humbug - Arctic Monkeys - B
I really didn't want to like the Arctic Monkeys when their debut album broke Oasis' sales record (in Britain at least), but by their second album, I found their heavily accented pop-rock infectious. Humbug is probably their most well-rounded set.