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Wild Mood Swings

Wild Mood Swings (photo)

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Is the family-film crowd that flocked to “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” ready for the deep melancholy of Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are”? At a recent preview screening in Seattle, the audience dutifully sported the studio’s gold paper crowns and acted giddy with anticipation as the film’s co-writer Dave Eggers invited viewers to howl like wild things whenever the mood struck. Unless this critic’s ears failed him, no one howled during the film — a compliment of sorts to its discomfiting subversion of the kiddie-flick holla-back formula. In Jonze’s admirably realist adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s book, the howl is no joyful whoop, but a plaintive recognition of loss, of pain, of the impermanence of things wild and ordinary — what most of us go to movies, particularly family movies, to avoid, probably at our peril.

As in Sendak’s book, the film’s lonely young Max flees to the seemingly far-off world of his imagination and eventually finds a reason to return. If anything, Jonze, expanding upon a slender source, enhances the book’s intimations of childhood anger and remorse. (Speaking as the father of a boy roughly Max’s age, I haven’t seen a film that’s truer to preteen male tantrum logic in many moons, maybe ever.)

Introduced first terrorizing the family dog and then his mom (Catherine Keener), Max (Max Records), grown slightly too large for his wolf suit, is the picture of boyhood aggression — although the kid’s not yet old enough to stifle his tears. Jonze’s courageous bid to get inside of Max’s fourth-grade head and stay there pays sharp dividends, not least when the boy’s beloved igloo gets crushed by the big kids of his neighborhood, the film’s wintry images appearing to melt away themselves.

As in real life, so it is in the fantasy realm. Briskly transported by private sailboat to the island of his dreams (no blossoming bedroom here), Max meets a half-dozen kindred spirits — gigantic, goofy, puppet-like creatures who favor petty one-upmanship, immature verbal sparring (yes, they talk) and the wanton destruction of nature and property. Max crowns himself “King of all Wild Things” and the beasts go along, in part because this pint-sized master claims to have a “sadness shield” and the power to “explode loneliness.” (Wild things are tempted to escape, too.) In the meantime, the king calls for a wild rumpus — which in Jonze’s (or Max’s?) imagination amounts to an everyday set of tree-scraping, hog-piling shenanigans, nothing the average American kid hasn’t done repeatedly in or out of costume.

This is Jonze’s great gift to kids of all ages — a movie that respects playtime, with all its mercurial swings, as only a slight exaggeration of life in the grown-up world. For Max, who returns home with a smidgen of the strength to face his fears, the excursion isn’t an evasion — and neither, provocatively, is the film an escape for its audience.

10142009_WheretheWildThingsAre2.jpgTo a large extent, reality reigns. Up close, the floppy-limbed wild things look like household pets with big, wet eyes and finely detailed fur. The forest and desert landscapes through which Max and the wild things romp are scarcely more spectacular to the kid than that awesome snow fort back home. That the fiercest of the wild things is voiced by Tony Soprano himself — James Gandolfini — might sound like a joke in bad taste, but it’s perfect for fearful Max’s surrogate dad. The scene where Max silently, sadly watches Gandolfini’s terrible-toothed Carol bickering with Lauren Ambrose’s KW is heartbreaking for the unmistakable sense it gives that Max has seen this kind of familial warfare before, and without a happy ending.

An intimate epic, Jonze’s film is nearly unique among modern kid fare for its total lack of condescension to the core audience. Given the chance to ask a pair of wise owls a question in seven words or less, Max gets to the wild heart of things in six: “How do I make everyone okay?” In a sense, the kid’s adventure — sans sadness shield — is a baby step toward understanding that making others “okay” is never gonna happen, not even in a dream. And that’s… okay. Howl if you want to.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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