Where the Wild Things Are
Directed by Spike Jonze
& Couples Retreat
Directed by Peter Billingsley
It was pop-psychology week for me at the movies, with the two very different directors taking turns on the analyst’s couch: Spike Jonze, best known for his music videos and feature direction of Charlie Kaufman screenplays (“Adaptation,” “Being John Malkovich”) and Peter Billingsley, debut director, longtime producer, and still probably best known as Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.”
“Couples Retreat” is blatantly obvious movie-making, in a story about relationships and feelings, told from the perspective of four male friends. It’s a consideration of marriage replete with crotch humor. For a plot that claims to be about achieving balance in couple-dom, you have to get through the billing of all four of the male leads before you get to see a single female name onscreen in the opening credits.
“Where the Wild Things Are” is what might seem like an unlikely film adaptation of an equally unlikely favorite children’s story. I bought a copy to peruse on my way from the screening to dinner, and it seems fair to say that if this brief tale can become a feature film, then the appetizer section of the Cheesecake Factory’s menu could become an 18-hour mini-series.
In “Retreat,” the psychology is front and center. It’s also of the instant and light Dr. Phil/Drew variety, where deep insights can be made within the first minute or two of an encounter, with time left over for a punch-line before the segment/scene break. In “…Wild Things…” the psychology is in the adaptation that takes a book that is mostly pictures and seems to expand upon it with a heavy dose of dysfunctional family therapy. There’s an enormous amount of material here that isn’t in the book, yet it feels as though it remains true to the themes of the original—albeit with the addition of the most mental health-challenged family dynamic since “Winnie the Pooh” (face it, the characters in “Pooh” are like a psych desk reference: Obsessive-compulsive Rabbit, single mother Kanga of hyperactive Roo, manic depressive Eeyore, liberal intellectual elitist Owl, identity-disordered Tigger, developmentally-arrested Piglet, and eating-disordered Pooh).
While the work of Jonze and team in “Wild Things” is supremely creative (he also co-wrote the screenplay), Billingsley’s is straightforward and somewhat mundane in “Retreat.” One project has to successfully expand upon the visuals of a much-loved book, the other simply has to capture the moments of a story formulaically written for the screen (by co-stars Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau).
In the end, you have a childishly-told story of adult themes in “Retreat” and a surprisingly adult message in a children’s story in “Wild Things,” with young Max battling his inner demons more-than-just imaginary monsters. The art direction and set design alone in “Wild Things” makes the ticket worthwhile. I was reminded of the art depicted in the remarkable documentary “Rivers and Tides” – so if you like where the wild things are in “Where the Wild Things Are” then you might want to check that one out as well.
Dolphins & Whales IMAX 3D
Director by Jean-Michel Cousteau
There is something disorienting about coming out of an underwater 3D IMAX movie. Almost never in “Dolphins & Whales” do you come up for air, so to speak, until we left the theater into broad daylight, the ghostly, ambient soundtrack still echoing in our ears.
This film by the son of the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau takes the approach of a kid’s animal guide. We visit several cetacean species in order, spending several minutes with some, just a few moments with others. Along the way we learn why Risso’s dolphins are covered in white scars (their social lives involve lots of rough play, sort of like legislators), belugas are the only whales than can really turn their heads and are also among the most endangered due to the tendency of toxins to collect in large quantities in their Arctic habitat, and that killer whales are in peril due to the high levels of mercury in the fish they eat.
I was particularly partial to the longish section about manatees. These peaceful denizens of shallow waters in Florida are the only sea mammals to live entirely off of plants—a point brought home but some cute scenes of them farting—and are more far more closely related to elephants than whales.
The single most spectacular sequence shows a fin whale—at 70 feet, the 2nd largest of all whale species—inflating like a balloon to swallow an entire school of fish. The IMAX screen ensures that you’re looking at these animals at something approximating their actual size. In short, another brief (42 minute) IMAX documentary that combines lots of information with a serious “wow” factor.