Film review – Away We Go (2009)

11 December 2009

Verona De Tessant (Maya Rudolph) and Burt Farlander (John Krasinski)

The degree to which you will be able to enjoy Away We Go will greatly depend on how much you can identify with, or at least sympathetically recognise, the type of people that the two lead characters are. Burt Farlander and Verona De Tessant are a de facto couple in their early-30s who are three months away from the birth of their first child. They are part of the demographic of thirtysomethings who are very much aware that they’ve arrived at a point in life where they are yet to have achieved anything of material worth and their future is far from certain. Living a lifestyle that is situated somewhere between bohemia and lower middle-class, the onset of parenthood is of some concern. When Burt’s parents decide to move to Belgium, which is ironically viewed by Burt and Verona as selfish, the pair realise that their support base has gone and they need to figure out what part of North America they should live in to best suit their impending arrival.

Away We Go is structurally similar (but tonally very different) to recent Jim Jarmusch films such as Broken Flowers and The Limits of Control since it is an episodic road movie made up of vignettes.  The various friends and family that Burt and Verona meet up with represent a broad range of social groups and attitudes towards family. Some of the encounters edge into grotesque caricature territory while others are more genuine and sincere. However, all modes work as the sincere moments are touching and the caricature moments are appropriately designed to target people who are frankly worthy of ridicule. In particular, Maggie Gyllenhaal is wonderfully despicable as Burt’s wealthy childhood friend LN who lives the sort of privileged self-righteous faux-hippy lifestyle that only the rich can afford to live.

John Krasinski (Leatherheads, the USA version of The Office) and Saturday Night Live regular Maya Rudolph are perfectly cast as Burt and Verona. They have the chemistry of long term lovers whose relationship is past the early days of wild romance and is now built upon respect, mutual admiration and a deep trust in the way they feel for each other. Written by an actual husband and wife team (Dave Eggers, who also co-wrote Where the Wild Things Are, and novelist Vendela Vida), Away We Go successfully explores the dynamics of a normal and stable relationship. Burt and Verona are portrayed as very much in love and their acknowledged and shared uncertainty plays a significant part in what keeps them together. Despite his reputation as a visually stylish director, Sam Mendes has taken a very low-key approach to Away We Go and by doing so has made his best film since American Beauty.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

30 November 2009

Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) and Max (Max Records)

Maurice Sendak’s beloved and acclaimed 1963 children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, about a world created by a child’s anger-fuelled imagination, has been lovingly adapted into this live action feature film. The hero of the story is Max (Max Records), a sensitive 9-year-old boy who lives with his divorced mother and older sister. Max is pretty much left to his own devices so entertains himself with his energetic and very active imagination. After a big fight with his mother, Max runs away and sails to an unknown world populated by a group of big furry monsters who after deciding not to eat him, instead declare him to be their king.

Where the Wild Things Are is initially incredibly impressive and the scenes depicting the bond between Max and his stressed yet loving mother, played by Catherine Keener, are very touching. We are quickly endeared towards Max who may be impulsive and immature, as 9-year-olds tend to be, but also lonely and friendless. When Max first arrives at the island and encounters the creatures it is a glorious moment largely because the creatures look amazing. By using a combination of puppetry, courtesy of the legendary Jim Henson Company, and computer animation the creatures are realistically brought to life. You don’t ever question the boundary between special effects and live action because everything about the creatures looks so natural. The seamless inclusion of the creatures into the film is then made even stronger by the fact that they are all fully realised characters.

The prevailing concept of Where the Wild Things Are is that the creatures possess the rationale and logic of a child. Like Max they are driven by emotions and desires and in particular Max finds a kindred spirit in Carol, a creature who is prone to destructive temper tantrums when made jealous or angry. Distinctively voiced by James Gandolfini, complete with trademark heavy breathing, Carol is not too far removed from Gandolfini’s character Tony Soprano (from the television series The Sopranos), who was by-and-large also driven by the id of a child. At first the community of creatures is one of fun recklessness, enthusiasm, innocence and friendship. However, there is a darker side to the nature of children that is also present and the tone of the film changes when the creatures start to become wilful, sulky and sometimes even cruel.

The unfortunate disappointment with Where the Wild Things Are is that outside of representing the subconscious fantasies and anxieties of a child, it doesn’t have much propelling the narrative forward. Once Max becomes established in the creatures’ world there is little narrative drive and the film stalls. Writer/director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and co-writer Dave Eggers (Away We Go) have probably done the best adaptation that was possible and despite the inherent problem that there is not enough material to fully sustain an entire film, Where the Wild Things Are is nevertheless an impressive film about childhood.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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