Monthly Archives: October 2009

Film Review: Where the Wild Things Are

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The mixed reviews for this film are entirely understandable.; it’s hard to know how to react to something without an easy point of comparison.  For my part, I need to applaud the originality; it may not be enough to call it mind-blowing but, combined with a solid cast and extraordinary special effects, it makes for a highly enjoyable experience.

The only arc with which Hollywood can sell a child-protagonist to adults seems to be the coming of age story.  All the other problems, conflicts, and adventures that might concern children are strictly the province children’s movies.  Where the Wild Things Are does NOT fit that pattern.  Max (Max Records) is nine. He talks like a nine year old, thinks like a nine year old, and acts like a nine year old.  This is a movie about a nine year old boy’s imagination, and if that isn’t engaging enough for you then you’re missing out.

The film could be properly said to be inspired by Maurice Sendak’s book rather than based on it.  Max has a fight with his mother and flees into the darker parts his imagination, the specifics diverge from there.  Naturally, the wild things need a bit more to say and do to fill 101 minutes, but the resulting narrative is more than just filler.  These creatures are fully realized characters, both through stellar voice acting and the best melding of puppetry and CGI ever achieved on film.  Together, they and Max act out his troubles and insecurities while he gets to know them, and himself, better.

As I said, this is a film about a nine year old.  The plot doesn’t centre around slaying monsters of saving the wild things’ home.  The great quest is, appropriately, building a fort.  This is why the film is for adults and not kids, it’s about the characters and what they represent. All of the wild things serve as stand ins for both Max and the people around him, but his most significant connection is with Carol (James Gandolfini proving his sensitivity isn’t limited to mob bosses), who shares his feelings of abandonment, and its accompanying rage and powerlessness. 

The comparisons are a little simplistic in much of the film, and the plot’s scarcity shows through at those times, but there’s a refusal to provide any easy answers that keeps things from becoming trite.  This movie succeeds in being touching and, more importantly, doesn’t rely on Hollywood’s standard bag of tricks to get there.

 Who should see it: Anyone who believes that kids have something to teach us, people who love great special effects, fans of the book

 Who shouldn’t see it: Kids, people who think adherence to the source material is a measure of perfection, anyone of can’t appreciate monsters being more than monsters

No you’re not… I am

Season one of Dexter was a masterpiece of television and, for all its continuing virtues, the series has always struggled to live up to that.  The Ice Truck Killer storyline accentuates every misstep (*cough* Lilah) the series has made, and diminishes every great thing it’s done (Miguel’s death vs. Brian’s).  This week’s episode may have transcended that comparison.  Debra’s meltdown in the parking lot was one of the best acted, scripted, and shot scenes the show has ever done.  Dexter has never had a more palpable connection to another human being.  Michael C. Hall is at his best in communicating such painful sympathy and Jennifer Carpenter (who I’ve always liked) gets her performance up to his level.  THIS is why I love television.

 Dexter’s love for his sister boiled over in the parking lot, but it was present from the first moment.  The line between real and feigned emotion is always blurry with this character… except when it’s not.  This episode treated us to genuine fear, anger, concern, and desperation throughout, with the one exception of his interaction with Rita.  Much like Deb, Rita gives Dexter the perfect opportunity to open up.  He can’t.  What’s more, there’s no real tension when he shows her what’s in the chest.  Attentive viewers know that the knives are in a hidden compartment, and Hall’s performance clearly has the mask firmly in place.  The set up itself makes sharing impossible; there’s no way that Rita finds out at this time, in this manner.  We could feel Dexter’s need to share with his sister, and we could feel its absence with his wife.  The show’s finally addressing the fundamental flaw of their relationship: can Rita go on loving a man she doesn’t really know?

 Combined with all this pitch-perfect character drama is the most intense cat-and-mouse games since season one (ok, so maybe it didn’t completely transcend the comparison).  It was great to see Dexter, in classic fashion, being one step ahead of the cops; quickly recognizing that this wasn’t the vacation murders, grabbing the case documents from Lundy’s hotel, pilfering evidence, and finding Trinity.  The whole thing followed the standard “victim-of-the-week” formula, albeit with far more tension than usual.  And then, rather than ending with a kill, the other shoe drops with Trinity.  I was sadly spoiled on the fact that he has a family, but it’s an exciting development nonetheless.  This season’s mirror seems to be offering Dexter the means of getting everything he wants and its going to be interesting for the audience to see him try to emulate someone who’s been made so loathsome in the first 5 episodes.

 Final Thoughts

 Lithgow is just as adept with the straightforward brutality as he is with the creepy; definitely the most intriguing “big bad” the series has had yet.

 Is Harry the Dark Passenger?  Obviously Ghost Dad is just an aspect of Dexter’s consciousness, but the question is which aspect?  Last season he was a manifestation of Dexter’s issues with his father, but those were largely resolved.  The lack of animosity also doesn’t fit the old pattern.  At first I took the new Harry to be a personification of the code, but now I’m not so sure.  Last week, and to a lesser extent this week, he was advocating some fairly dark thoughts.  Harry’s always been an enabler for Dexter, perhaps that’s going to be explored more as the series goes on.

 I’m very happy to see the Dexter/Debra relationship back at the centre of things.  For me, this has always been the core of the show.  It’s what he goes back to whenever he’s most vulnerable and deserves a lot more exploration than it got last season.

I know something about creating a narrative…

After a couple weeks of frantic-Dexter (good) and one of silly-Dexter (bad), this felt very much like a “back to basics” episode.  That’s a good thing as it reminded me of just how effective the standard Dexter formula can be.  There’s nothing new about Dexter seeing  himself in his victim and in applying this “on-the-job” learning to his personal life, but it was still great to see him reacting against someone who couldn’t handle the stress of building a family.  “Can Dexter have a family?” is a fine question to base the season around, but he needed to make some progress on the issue for it not to grow stale.

There was never any real tension in Dexter/Harry contemplating whether it was better to leave or murder one’s family; we all know Dex isn’t going to do either.  But Harry and Dexter know that too.  Both alternatives are only discussed indirectly, as though neither has enough weight to be explicit.  The real question here is about narrative, how Dexter interprets the facts of his life.  Is he a “lone wolf” being smothered by his wife and kids, doomed to keep his true self hidden at all times?  Or is his family a humanizing influence, pushing the Dark Passenger aside to make room for Dexter himself?  The story is far from over, but Dex has at least realized how he wants to see it.  His family isn’t merely a prop to be set aside when the scene changes.  It’s something he values even more than his secrets.

For the first time this season, Trinity wasn’t the highlight of the episode (which is saying a lot, since he was again a delight to watch).  Getting himself beaten up outside the bar was a nice reminder of just how crazy he is.  We’ve watched a high-functioning sociopath for over three seasons now, so I think some evidence beyond murder was necessary for the audience to appreciate Trinity’s psychosis.  I’m also fairly convinced that he “needs” to meet his victims before killing them, it’s the only explanation I can think of for his encounter with Lundy (yes, Trinity pulled the trigger, there’s no way I buy the Anton theories that are floating around).  I’m hoping all these pieces add up to a satisfying whole by season’s end.

Final Thoughts

Lundy’s death is one of the biggest shocks the series has ever given us.  I thought there was a good chance he wouldn’t survive this season, but I certainly didn’t see it happening this early.  As much as I’ll miss the character (and all the stories that could have been) I think it’s a good thing.  There’s enough meat to the Dexter vs. Trinity storyline that Lundy was likely to detract from it before too much longer.

Deb getting shot seems like exactly what Dexter needs to get him focused on Trinity the way we’ve wanted since the first episode, and her grief is likely to help her accept it when she cathes Dexter killing him (90% sure this is gonna happen).

More motivation to kill couldn’t really come a worse time for Dexter as he’s finally started appreciating his family.  It’s a welcome complication as it will start bringing the season’s many story lines together.  I’m hoping the police blame Lundy’s death on the vacation murderers so that everything can feel a little less scattered.

It’s OK… you can be dumb

            Astor forgiving Dexter (which I’ll get to in a moment) was one of two highlights in a mediocre (at best) episode.  The other was Trinity’s second brutal slaying.  In its own way, this was even more horrifying than the first episode’s bathtub scene.  Compelling a woman to jump off a building is a disturbing enough premise on its own, but Lithgow’s performance as he refuses to push her is brilliant.  Trinity is fascinating in a way we haven’t seen since the Ice Truck Killer and its nice to see both Dexter and Lundy sharing our interest in him.  The protagonist parallels continue to build as it appears that Trinity, like Dexter, is recreating a trauma from his past.

             Dexter recognizes his kinship with Trinity and is, of course, excited by it.  His assertion to Deb that “fear can be a powerful motivator,” is an accurate assessment of Trinity’s methods, and it get what should’ve been a nice parallel in his own life.  The problem with Dexter scaring “the vandal!” (seriously, who the hell says “look, it’s the vandal!”?) into quitting is that he isn’t really scary in this episode.  I’m all for campy fun, the series has done it well in the past, but this episode crossed the line into goofy.  Dexter’s at least self-aware enough to realize that running from the neighbourhood watch is humiliating.  Following that up with him trying to “scare the shit” out “the vandal!” was a very poor choice for the writers.  Objectively, someone in a ski mask threatening to kill you is scary but, as an audience, it’s too hard to buy into after watching Dexter cowering behind the toolshed.

             I’ll give this episode a compliment sandwich and end with Astor telling Dexter that it’s okay to be dumb.  For me, this scene was even better than the Trinity’s kill.  Harry’s right about why Dexter has an easier time relating to kids than to adults, their emotions ARE less complex.  But he’s dead wrong about Dexter needing to blend in perfectly all the time.  Astor’s assessment is far more accurate.  It’s okay if Dexter has trouble relating to her.  We all have trouble relating to one another from time to time.  Hell, I’d even say it happens frequently.  But the people who love us will forgive us and keep loving anyway, even if we don’t really “get” them all the time.  This is what genuine human relations are, and what Dexter needs to realize if he’s going to keep his family together.  He needs to stop trying to be everything his family expects and show them his flaws.  They’re going to come out anyway but, if he’s upfront about them and apologizes, then he can expect to be forgiven.

 Tangent:

            This episode was a prime example of how “soft” Dexter has grown over the years.  The Dexter of season one would’ve been completely credible as he threatened “the vandal!”  In as much as this is a natural evolution of the character, I’m happy with it.  This is a Dexter more in touch with his emotions, more connected to the people around him, and more aware of his own humanity.  It’s natural that he be less scary.  In the sense that this is a softening of Dexter’s darker impulses to make him more palatable to the audience, I have to give a disappointed sigh.  The best example of what this has cost the series can be found in Dexter’s kills.  Season one strongly implied that he tortured his victims before killing them.  It was always cringe inducing and made the kill scenes a highlight of each episode (the psychologist’s death is still a personal favourite).  Now?  One quick knife thrust; far easier for us to forgive.  Sadly, it’s also far easier for us to forget.

… a family to support and people to dismember

… a family to support and people to dismember
We’ve seen Dexter’s icy calm slip many times, usually in the series’ best scenes, but the sustained near-panic of this episode was still a surprise.  He was losing control in the first episode; he was out of it in this one.  “The Code” gets trumpeted as Dexter’s salvation in the end, ensuring that he protected himself in even the most impossible circumstances, but Harry’s proclamation ignores all the mistakes Dexter actually made.  His lies to Rita were too easy to uncover, she wasn’t going to clue in when the “fender-bender” resulted in a new car?  He pushes Lundy off on Deb when he should be keeping a close eye on the man that nearly caught him.  And, in a misstep I HOPE is going to payoff later, he completely mishandles the situation with Quinn.  There a number of ways to handle the situation, but letting Quinn twist is just going to foster the wrong kind of attention.
We’re again asked to compare Dexter with Trinity.  Lithgow does a lot with very little screen time and his easy switch between icy-cold stalker and friendly stranger was far more akin to the Dexter of season one than this episode’s frantic father.  We still haven’t seen any of Trinity’s personal life and I’m very keen to know what, if anything, will be done to humanize the character.  As I said last week, there’s got to be more to tempt Dexter now than simply the freedom to “be himself.”  What he wants is the ability to be a killer and have a life and I know <<SPOILER ALERT>> that Trinity does have a family.  I suspect that the difference between the two is that Trinity doesn’t actually care.  Dexter can’t cope with the stress because his family actually means something to him.
“Remains to be Seen” reminded me strongly, of “Return to Sender,” the season one episode in which The Ice Truck Killer returns one of Dexter’s victims to the crime scene.  He’s a bit frantic there too, trying to find a way out of a seemingly impossible situation.  On the one hand, the comparison isn’t favourable, as this episode, while good, doesn’t measure up to that classic.  On the other, Dexter thought his way out of the first problem, he got lucky this time.  Yes, hiding the body in the heavy bag was a stroke of genius, but it really didn’t feel like Dexter’s genius.  The crash separates the Dexter of this episode from the one who hid the body.  In the end, he doesn’t even really remember doing it.  He sees a drop of blood, and follows the trail.  The writers do a good job of visually isolating the lucky Dexter from the clever one.  We don’t get to see a flashback of him hiding the body, just his relief at finding it.  Dexter’s boast to Harry is correct, hiding the body was “pretty clever,“ too bad he can’t take credit.

We’ve seen Dexter’s icy calm slip many times, usually in the series’ best scenes, but the sustained near-panic of this episode was still a surprise.  He was losing control in the first episode; he was out of control in this one.  “The Code” gets trumpeted as Dexter’s salvation in the end, ensuring that he protected himself in even the most impossible circumstances, but Harry’s proclamation ignores all the mistakes Dexter actually made.  His lies to Rita were too easy to uncover, she wasn’t going to clue in when the “fender-bender” resulted in a new car?  He pushes Lundy off on Deb when he should be keeping a close eye on the man that nearly caught him.  And, in a misstep I HOPE is going to payoff later, he completely mishandles the situation with Quinn.  There a number of ways to deal with the situation, but letting Quinn twist is just going to foster the wrong kind of attention.

We’re again asked to make some obvious comparisons between Dexter and Trinity.  Lithgow does a lot with very little screen time and his easy switch between icy-cold stalker and friendly stranger was far more akin to the Dexter of season one than this episode’s frantic father.  We still haven’t seen any of Trinity’s personal life and I’m very keen to know what, if anything, will be done to humanize the character.  As I said last week, there’s got to be more to tempt Dexter now than simply the freedom to “be himself.”  What he wants is the ability to be a killer and have a life and I know <<SPOILER ALERT>> that Trinity does have a family.  I suspect that the difference between the two is that Trinity doesn’t actually care.  Dexter can’t cope with the stress because his family actually means something to him.

“Remains to be Seen” reminded me strongly, of “Return to Sender,” the season one episode in which The Ice Truck Killer returns one of Dexter’s victims to the crime scene.  He’s a bit frantic there too, trying to find a way out of a seemingly impossible situation.  On the one hand, the comparison isn’t favourable, as this episode, while good, doesn’t measure up to that classic.  On the other, Dexter thought his way out of the first problem, he got lucky this time.  It’s a change worth exploring.  Yes, hiding the body in the heavy bag was a stroke of genius, but it really didn’t feel like Dexter’s genius.  The crash separates the Dexter of this episode from the one who hid the body.  In the end, he doesn’t even really remember doing it.  He sees a drop of blood, and follows the trail.  The writers do a good job of visually isolating the lucky Dexter from the clever one.  We don’t get to see a flashback of him hiding the body, just his relief at finding it.

Dexter’s boast to Harry is correct, hiding the body was “pretty clever,“ too bad he can’t take really credit.

Final Thoughts

I’m expecting some interesting interaction between Dexter and Lundy in the episodes to come.  Lundy trying to catch a killer, Dexter trying to catch him for other reasons AND hoping to learn from his methods.  Lets just hope it doesn’t get too “buddy cop.”

The juggling act was a nice parallel in the subplots this week, but I’m still not that into it.  For example: So Quinn’s really crooked? Would’a been nice to find that out last season when it mattered.

Lundy’s obsessiveness?  Very nice to see he’s got some cracks in his armour too.