Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (2010): 2/10

Tim Burton’s adaptation of the musical Sweeney Todd signaled a possible return to form for the director whose work has become intermittently successful. The 2000’s were a very uneven decade for him. Starting out with his worst film to date Planet of the Apes, then moving on to the refreshing personal work that was Big Fish and then on to the mediocre Corpse Bride and the horrid Charlie and the Chocolate Factory finally moving to the fantastic Sweeney Todd. Will this decade be better for Burton? He certainly is not getting off to a good start with Alice in Wonderland, a film in the same league of misfire as his first film of the 2000’s, Planet of the Apes.

While Burton adapting Lewis Carroll seems like a match made in heaven in concept, it isn’t when Disney is thrown into the mix along with Burton’s visually exploratory ambition missing in action. Disney, who requested that Burton direct their planned live action adaptation, takes out any elements of Carroll and instead puts in elements of other works that don’t belong in the author’s created world. The nonsense, pointlessness, narcissism, exploratory structure, satire and humor are gone. Also gone, with the decision to have Alice be 19, is the journey of a child’s acceptance into the world she is part of. This change would have been interesting if the film had replaced the themes of the original with something worthwhile. Instead Wonderland, or as it has been transformed in the film, Underland, is a place filled with purpose and seriousness with underwritten characters galore who are far too humanized and underdeveloped to justify the decision to change the basic characteristics of nearly everyone.

The main plot involves Alice played by Mia Wasikowska, now 19 with no memory of having gone to Wonderland as a young girl. On the day that she unknowingly attends her engagement party and flees a marriage proposal in front of everyone, she finds herself going own the rabbit hole once again and seeing Underland, a deadened version of Wonderland due to the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) taking over the land from her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). With help from The Mad Hatter and others, Alice sets out on her task to fulfill her destiny. She is now a chosen one, with a mission to carry out which involves slaying the Jabberwocky because it is foretold in an oracle in the form of a scroll…or something.

One of the main problems with the plot, bad on nearly all counts in its execution, is that 20 minutes into the film it is revealed exactly where the climax is headed and what will take place within it. While we can safely assume that the film will end happily that does not give screenwriter Woolverton the right to insert the exact circumstances of where Alice’s journey will end. That greatly decreases story involvement right off the bat and diffuses any sustained interest. In the film, Wonderland is a place where things actually happen; where events take place followed by consequences and long term effects are felt by Wonderland’s inhabitants. This grounds the world with a purpose and tangibility which takes away Carroll’s intentions on every level. Again, doing something this critical to the author’s intention needs to be justified by the quality of the storytelling but Disney, Burton and Woolverton do nothing to justify their bastardization. Luckily though, the first 10 minutes of the film, the last 2 minutes and probably 9 minutes in the midst of the wasteland that is the rest of the film are well done. At least it starts and ends on a good note.

Surely the contrivances can be made up for by the visuals? No. Burton feels like he is sleepwalking through this endeavor. Not only is there very little creativity gone into making a unique world filled with surprises but the effects themselves are consistently self conscious and mediocre. The idea of Underland should have brought a lot of interesting concepts to the table. How do you make Wonderland look and feel broken down? Dead? Ravished and decayed? Apparently you don’t do much. The world neither popped or amazed; in fact it was boring. There should have been a level of fascinating discovery and unpredictability to the visuals but instead Underland becomes mere background. Something needs to fill the screen, right?

Add to all of this the weak characterization and the making of a truly bad film begin to emerge. The White Rabbit has gone from fidgety and impatient to….nothing. He has no character at all. The Caterpillar retains his sense of frustration and wisdom but his wisdom is placed in a context making him merely a storytelling prop. The White Queen has not one line of characterization and Anne Hathaway, severely miscast is left to theatrical mannerisms and delivery in order to infuse some sense of character into someone who on the page could be anybody. Tweedledee and Tweedledum quibble a bit and represent more indifference. The Cheshire Cat is kind of sly and clever but floats around with lines that don’t assert his character to the extent they should.

Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter is the biggest misfire of all. His Hatter is all about changing accents and mumbling his words so nobody can understand them. This performance is another bag of eccentricities and accents combined with an extreme appearance but it does not work this time. He is uninteresting to watch and annoying at times. While the concept behind humanizing him is interesting, the execution of it is wishy-washy. If the performance itself had been different, maybe this aspect of the film would have been more successful. Depp’s incomprehensible rabble is so forced and uninteresting that he buries most of the character’s intentions with his eccentricity overload. And wait till you get to his dance move because it could be the most quintessential jump the shark moment in a film in recent memory.
There were a few characters that did work. The March Hare was pure insanity with humor to boot but is used far too little. Bayard was mildly interesting and Stayne (Crispin Glover) was underwhelming but was acceptable in comparison to other characterizations the film had to offer.

The only truly successful aspect of the entire film is Helena Bonham-Carter’s performance as The Red Queen. While her dialogue is questionable, Bonham-Carter not only makes it work to her advantage but she actually manages to be consistently funny and entertaining, creating a very memorable character and performance. She actually creates something and works with what she is given in a way that helped her instead of drowning her in poor writing ala Hathaway. Her scenes are entertaining and her presence livens up the film every time she appears. Not only is she great but she looks fantastic managing to be the only visually satisfying character.
Mia Wasikowska carries the film as Alice. Without her, this would have been unwatchable. She does a really nice job, managing to keep the film somewhat interesting with her stunning presence. Her fabulous work on the first season of “In Treatment” revealed her as a young actress to watch and judging by her upcoming projects, she is about to make a stamp in the ingĂ©nue world.

Between the thin and contrived plot, the absence of wonder and unpredictability and visual creativity and the underwritten and uninteresting characters (outside of the Red Queen), Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is no less than a snoozefest; a visual bore surrounded by a bad script makes for a weak retelling of Carroll’s story that lacks his spirit and misses the point of the purpose of his lack of purpose. Maybe if this had not been a Disney film but a project that was allowed to go to dark places maybe something could have come of it. Maybe. However, the success of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, a PG film reeking of danger, paranoia and oncoming dread managed to be impressively moody and dark, rendering Alice in Wonderland’s family friendly PG rating a weak excuse for the film’s failure. Basically; go watch Jan Svankmajer’s version.

Thoughts on the 2010 Academy Awards

Thoughts on the 2010 Academy Awards:

Overall it was a fun but rather dull and distinctly awkward evening to be honest. Last year the structure of the awards were changed in a way that focused on the art of making films through its presentation of the individual categories. For film lovers, this was fun to watch. This year they kept the motivation to show viewers how films are made, however there was an imbalance.
First of all, cutting out the Achievement Awards of Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman is blasphemous to say the least. Instead of getting the proper treatment that dignifies their life’s work, we get a short montage of the evening that did pay tribute to them, which we did not get to see. Then Bacall and Corman awkwardly stand up as a standing ovation occurs which felt obligatory and forced as opposed to genuinely given. The break dancing went on for too long. While getting a chance to really listen to the scores that were nominated was fantastic, each segment lasted too long and a few of the segments were misfires. Not having any segments to go along with Best Cinematography or Best Editing was disappointing, considering they are my two favorite technical categories.

How was the hosting? Again; it was awkward. While much of it was funny, this was due to Steve Martin’s impeccable delivery skills and not necessarily the material itself. There were weird pauses between each joke and there was no flow to anything. While Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin are good together, some of the awkwardness could have been taken away with it just being Steve Martin up there. The shots of audience members also add to the awkwardness because nobody ever looks amused but looks bored and annoyed to even be there. The George Clooney incident set the vibe for the night, which many people think was fake but I am convinced it was not.

What else failed? The tribute to the Best Actor and Actress nominees is nice but again, goes on for far too long. Also the deal that the ceremony made about Kathryn Bigelow’s win was frustrating. While she deserved it, putting that much self aware attention onto the moment and its creation just shows how far we have to go. Let her just go up there as a winner like everyone else. We know it is an important moment and we do not need to be told in abundance. It does not treat her as an equal but as a child. Playing “I Am Woman”? Really? They had to do that? It is embarrassing. Just let her have her moment!

Things that did work included the John Hughes tribute. People have complained it was too long. Really people? While his films were not necessarily masterpieces and some of his stuff was quite mediocre, he did something that very very few filmmakers can claim to have done. His films managed to literally represent an entire generation. They now serve as time capsules and are more meaningful now than they were when they first came out. Personally I can say that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains one of my all time favorite films. I truly believe it is perfection in entertainment filmmaking and it means quite a lot to me considering that Cameron Frye could be my favorite film character of all time. It sounds stupid and I’ve seen plenty of other films from other time periods and other countries and Cameron Frye remains for me a true gem.
I also liked the Ben Stiller segment. While many of the things he was given to say were corny, his delivery was spot on and his presence made the entire segment funny even if it went on for far too long. Tina Fey and Robert Downey Jr. should star on a film together because their segment was probably the only fully successful presentation moment of the night. Tim Robbins’ tribute to Morgan Freeman, Colin Farrell’s tribute to Jeremy Renner and Stanley Tucci’s tribute to Meryl Streep stuck out last night. Basically, Stanley Tucci and Meryl Streep should be together in real life; no offense to their spouses.

The night shows few upsets. Best Adapted Screenplay took away Up in the Air’s chance of having anything which was a shocker. That might be about it? Avatar’s win for Best Cinematography was disappointing to say the least. The White Ribbon fully deserved it. However, Avatar’s two other wins of the night, Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects were fully deserved.

Needless to say, The White Ribbon should have won Best Foreign Film no matter how good El Secreto de Sus Ojos is. I do want to watch it soon. Sandra Bullock’s win was a joke; however, she gave the best speech of the night, almost making me forget her win was undeserved. Michael Giacchino’s win for Best Score for Up was particularly special. Listening to over a hundred hours of composition of his from scoring “Lost” and knowing how beautiful his score for Up was made his win particularly special for me. His speech was also the other best of the night.

Finally The Hurt Locker taking Best Picture was a lovely way to top off the night. Out of the major contenders (excluding Up and A Serious Man) it was deserving of the award, certainly over Avatar and to see it beat out the highest grossing film of all time was rewarding to say the least. Overall my predictions were not all that great scoring at 16/24. Best Dressed of the night was Gabourey Sidibe who looked beautiful and worst dressed going to the otherwise awesome Vera Farmiga. Overall the ceremony gets a B-.