Visually striking “Alice” lacks emotional weight

Helena Bonham Carter steals scenes (and heads) in Tim Burton's eye-popping "Alice in Wonderland."

Back in Underland after a 13-year absence, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself lost and certain she’s the wrong Alice. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is just as certain she’s the right one, but there’s a catch. “You used to be much more … ‘muchier.’ You’ve lost your muchness,” Hatter laments. Alice has lost her groove, poor lass, and he’ll stop at nothing — including the use of frequent accent switches — to help her find it.

This is what Tim Burton’s long-anticipated and fluorescent-hued film amounts to: a 109-minute quest to find Alice’s muchness, the very same muchness a corset-filled life in London has chased away. As a visual experience, “Alice in Wonderland” proves a feast for the eyes, a smörgåsbord of vibrant colors and landscapes, delightful costumes (the Red Queen’s make-up and the mushrooms alone are amazing). Give in to the 3D pull if you must, but this film is meant to be seen the way it was filmed: in 2D. As a movie, though, there’s a lack of emotional depth and character development that make it difficult to connect the “wow” we see with our eyes to any real sense of heartfelt wonderment. And seeing the magic and feeling it — the way we do in, say, “Avatar” — are two very different things.

The saving graces, however, come in the form of the characters, many of which are so vibrant and unforgettable they detract from the film’s shortcomings. (Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat could induce a smattering of night terrors, for example, as could Helena Bonham Carter’s strangely touching Red Queen.) Screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes liberties with Lewis Carroll’s tale; some are successful and some are not. “Alice in Wonderland” begins in London, where Alice is set to marry an uppity, blockheaded lord (Tim Pigott-Smith). Underland is no longer in her thoughts, and life has become gray since her father’s (Martin Csokas) death. Now Alice must weather a marriage proposal in front of people she hates wearing no stockings and no corset (she believes in neither). In gallops the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) to lead her down the rabbit hole, where everyone, from Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) to that wise old toker* the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), insists she can’t be the Alice of 13 years past. They waste pages of dialogue arguing about this. They don’t reach a conclusion, not until the Mad Hatter sets them right. She is Alice, she will save them from the Red Queen (Bonham Carter) and the lovely, magnanimous White Queen (Anne Hathaway) will take back her throne.

The lead-up to the Big Battle — a crushing disappointment of a CGI-coated finale where the seams show through — proves to be somewhat tedious and rushed. Writing is a weak point in “Alice in Wonderland,” with Woolverton providing little development on the best characters and Burton spotlighting the weakest ones. The Mad Hatter acts like a narrator/historian, but he’s a mystery to us. Maybe he’s written as an all-over-the-map chap or maybe that’s just how Depp plays him; either way, it doesn’t work. He’s an annoying kook, not a lovable one. The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) is a rather uninteresting villain who gets loads of screentime, whereas Fry’s ominous Cheshire Cat and Rickman’s droll caterpillar are reduced to a few scenes.

Not everyone fairs so badly. Hathaway’s bright smile and chirpy manner hints that the White Queen isn’t so different from her evil sister, only more restrained. Wasikowska gives Alice some gumption, a kind of uncertain, coltish beauty and spirit that illustrate the painful tug between youth and adulthood. And yet the true, unadulterated star of “Alice in Wonderland” is Burton favorite Helena Bonham Carter, who’s simply smashing as the freakish, self-conscious Red Queen. She is a woman who insulates herself with a throng of mindless nodders, people who don fake noses and bellies and ears to offset the queen’s oversized head. She’s quick to anger and still there’s a softness in her for the outsiders, although her sad, lonely life has taught her that “it is far better to be feared than loved.” She gets at our hearts in ways the film she’s in simply cannot.

Grade: B-

*Don’t kid yourself. He’s a pothead.

Who moved my tart?

Happy “Alice in Wonderland”-in-3D-Opens-in-Theaters-Nationwide Day, Interwebbers!

(My sincerest apologies. When I get this excited about a movie, I’m taken over by ROY-G-BIV demons.)

I don’t know if y’all know this, but the only appropriate ways to celebrate this happy day are:

  1. Sing “Happy Happy, Joy Joy” long enough to lift your spirit but not so long that your coworkers call the Men in White Coats to take you away.
  2. Work the phrases “Cheshire Cat grin,” “down the rabbit hole” and “off with her head!” into conversations where they have absolutely no business. Alternately, go to the office fridge at lunchtime (when the masses converge), look inside and demand, in shocked tones, to know: “Who stole the tart?”
  3. Go see the movie. Duh.

Happy viewing!

 

Perfect for every part

In his review of “Burn After Reading,” Roger Ebert remarked that Frances McDormand has a “rare ability to seem correctly cast in every role.” Truer words were never spoken, I’d say, but they made me little mind take a wander and a ponder. (It’s dangerous to do both at once, but my mind sort of walks on the wild side.) And so I considered: Are there other modern-day actors/actresses out there who seem perfect for every role no matter how good or bad the movie?

(Prepare for some serious anticlimactic-ness. I would have stopped writing if the answer to this question was “no.”)

Eventually I devised a list of modern actors/actresses who impress me every time I see them. Today I’ll keep the focus on the men.

The actors

  • Christian Bale — OK, fine, so this one was a gimme, you’re screaming at me. Maybe it was. But any list of chameleonic actors that does not contain Bale’s name is a fraud because nobody does it quite like Bale. He’s gotten stuck in a rut of late, but his talent tells me he’s got a lighter (though no less brilliantly acted) role in him somewhere.
  • Adrien Brody — From big-name critic pleasers (i.e., “The Pianist”) to low-budge, so-so indies (“Dummy,” “Love the Hard Way”) to a movie with Tupac (“Bullet”), Brody’s done it all, and every character’s believable. Now that’s real talent, and not the kind you can learn in acting school.
  • Don Cheadle — It goes without saying that no one’s quite as willing to try anything as Cheadle, who moves from Oscar-worthy stuff (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash”) to slick fun (the “Ocean’s” trilogy) to pure fluff (“Hotel for Dogs”) with an air of cool that can’t be penetrated. Bring on the new Col. Rhodes.
  • Johnny Depp — Everyone remembers Johnny Depp as someone different. (To me, he’ll always be Jack Sparrow/Gilbert Grape/Sam.) He’s never the same character twice (though he does bring that left-of-center attitude to many roles), and that’s why he continues to captivate us so. Anyone who has the stones to attempt to remake Willy Wonka gets in on sheer guts.
  • Richard Jenkins — All hail to the (until recently) unsung hero of Hollywood. Relegated to way-too-small parts, this superb character actor routinely steals scenes (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”) or improves a terrible movie (“Step Brothers,” anyone?). “The Visitor” was his chance to take the lead, and I hope he gets many, many more. He certainly deserves them.
  • William H. Macy — Macy’s the low-key guy who makes a point to sneak up and win us over when we’re not looking. TV, drama, black comedy (check him out in “Thank You for Smoking”) — there’s nothing this actor can’t handle. I think we all know he was the only heavy-hitter in “Wild Hogs” … which is a compliment even if it doesn’t quite sound like one.
  • Sean Penn — He’s a tricky, tricky fellow, this one, and a chameleon who just plain disappears into whatever character he’s playing. All talk of his petulance, snippy interviews, volatile relationship with the media melts away when he’s Harvey Milk, or Jimmy Markum, or Matthew Poncelot.
  • Joaquin Phoenix — There was a time (you remember it, and fondly) before Joaquin grew the mountain man beard and turned weirder than Kristen Stewart’s hair that he was quite the transformer. He could make funny (“8MM,” “Buffalo Soldiers”), do action (“Ladder 49″) and go for wrenching drama (everything else he ever did). Will someone order the exorcism so we can get the real J.P. back?
  • Geoffrey Rush — Rush has been so many colorful characters that it’s hard to pick a favorite (Casanova Frankenstein — wait, it’s not so hard). From the Marquis de Sade to Javert (how literary!) to Peter Sellers to the intellectual Captain Barbosa playing, well, Javert to Johnny Depp’s Valjean, Rush makes it look so darn easy, and cool to boot.
  • Benicio del Toro — Benicio always gets us with the drama. Nobody does “tortured and mysterious” quite like him (see “The Pledge” or “21 Grams”), and so the comedy — when he unleashes it — shocks us silly. But he’s got jokes, too, and a sly sense of humor that will come to good use in “The Three Stooges.” If anybody could revamp Moe Howard, it’s Fred Fenster, alright.

What say you, readers? Let’s hear your suggestions.

Off with ‘er head: “Alice” teaser arrives

Just when you think Tim Burton can’t top himself, he does … and gives you years’ worth of unsettling nightmares in the process.

Yes, yes, filmophiles, you know what I’m talking about: Burton’s bright, menacing, gleeful non-animated take on “Alice in Wonderland.” If ever there was a movie meant to be made, and made by the King of Creep, it’s “Alice in Wonderland.” (Come to think of it, I’m not entirely convinced Burton isn’t a reincarnation of ole’ Jabberwocky Joe.)

The cast is too exciting for flowery words, so I’ll just go with names: J. Depp as The Mad Hatter; Alan Rickman as The Caterpillar; Anne Hathaway as The White Queen; Helena Bonham Carter as The Red Queen; and Crispin Glover (you may remember him as Thin Man in “Charlies Angels: Full Throttle”) as The Knave of Hearts.

Bad news, though — this little beaut’s not coming out until 2010. In the meantime, watch the trailer or, if you’re in the mood to put your Ambien to the ultimate test, mosey on over to Imdb.com and check out these dead Michael Jackson-meets-“Nightmare Before Christmas”-meets-the craziest acid trip Timothy Leary never took promo shots.

 

Despite great talent, “Public Enemies” falls a little flat

Depp may be the best thing about Mann's unfocused letdown "Public Enemies."

Depp may be the best thing about Mann's unfocused letdown "Public Enemies."

If The Academy feels froggy this year and decides to create a “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” category, it’s fair to say that Michael Mann’s overlong, disappointing gangster shoot-‘em-up/biopic “Public Enemies” has the Oscar all sewn up.

Why? That’s a tough nut to crack, since all the elements for success are firmly in place: a strong — if unconcerned with this “historical accuracy” business — director; beautiful cinematography; one hell of a leading man (call him a kook, but Johnny Depp rarely disappoints); and a top-of-the-line supporting cast (including Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and the always-surly Christian Bale).

And yet. Somehow all these elements can’t gel into the great movie “Public Enemies” surely ought to be. It’s a case of all all pomp and no circumstance. By the time the credits roll, all we’re left with is the particular brand of letdown that comes when you invest 150 minutes in a movie that is merely pretty good, not great.

The fault lies somewhere, alright, but not with Depp, who possesses an unerring instinct for doing the opposite of what moviegoers expect. He plays it cool and collected as John Dillinger, an Indiana-born bank robber who spent the sorriest, hardest parts of the 1930s emptying bank vaults and becoming something of a national hero in the process. Dillinger isn’t the sort of criminal who waxes philosophical about his crime; he’s a doer, not a thinker, who sees what he wants and figures out how to get in the quickest, smartest way possible. This philosophy colors all parts of his life, including his attraction to Billie Lechette (Cotillard), whom Dillinger plucks from a dull life checking coats. “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow,” he tells Billie, and she thinks that sounds like a nice alternative to her barely-scraping-by reality of $3 dresses.

The couple’s fun starts skidding on the tracks, though, when J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), who sees a chance to turn his Bureau of Investigation into a bigger, more powerful national organization, charges dogged lawman Melvin Purvis (Bale, whose “I’m intensely devoted to my craft” act is growing very old) with catching Dillinger, who’s become Public Enemy No. 1. And Purvis, single-minded to the point of pointless violence and recklessness, is a man who doesn’t like to come back empty-handed.

But let’s dispense with all talk of plot. That’s not really what “Public Enemies” is about. Frankly, it’s not clear what Mann wants his movie to be. He tries for pared-down historical biopic a la “Walk the Line.” Not quite. Mann distorts so many facts that the story becomes unforgivably sloppy. Is it a love story, then? Hardly. Cotillard and Depp have chemistry, but it certainly doesn’t make Dillinger and Frechette’s strange, codependent relationship endearing. “Public Enemies” has some success as a straightforward gangster movie, with impressive gunfights filmed in high definition. The HD work, indeed, is a plus, giving the movie vibrant colors that pop off the screen and fabric textures that look very impressive.

And yet. It all winds back to the “and yet.” The look doesn’t matter so much when the little else lines up. Depp turns in a fine, fiercely understated performance that gives nothing away. He refuses to make Dillinger into some kind of glib, vagabond philosopher, or explain his motives. It’s the kind of shrewd, unshowy work that merits a second look and maybe — given the recent changes to Oscar’s Best Picture policy — a little critical praise. Not so with Cotillard, whose character is woefully underdeveloped. She’s too good an actress to get saddled with a part that requires this little effort. The same goes for Bale’s Purvis. As little as we get about Dillinger, we get even less about Purvis. And Bale plays him as he plays everyone these days: a tight-lipped, grim, “mysterious” lone wolf. Maybe “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” inflated his Bale’s ego exponentially. Who knows? The point is that where he once dove headlong into a character, he now squints and mumbles and plays himself playing someone else. He’s as good an actor as his generation has, but he knows it and he’s trying to coast by on his reputation. It’s not working anymore.

But maybe we’re on to something here. Maybe what’s happened with “Public Enemies” is nothing more than the Christian Bale Syndrome. Mann got too cocky with the mount and dismount to worry about the follow-through. He counted on fancy camerawork and his resume to see him through, and it didn’t.

Grade: C

It gets better than Heath Ledger (maybe)

Words on the streets (and by streets I mean the Internet Movie Database) is that the illustrious Johnny Depp and the ever-spectacular Philip Seymour Hoffman (a.k.a. Truman Capote) may star as The Riddler and The Penguin, respectively, in the next Batman installment. I think I speak for shrewd moviegoers everywhere when I say: “Exsqueeze me? Baking powder?”

That’s right — PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN and JOHNNY DEPP. As villains. In an already spectacularly improved Batman franchise. This, I believe, is the best thing to happen since the elimination of Cher Horowitz — I mean, like, Alicia Silverstone — as Batgirl.

Let us all hope, though, that Ledger has not ushered in a Batman pox, the kind that will have paparazzi and/or janitorial staff finding Hoffman or Depp OD’d on a potent (but certainly pleasurable) cocktail of Vicodin, Xanax, Lunesta, Ambien, Oxycontin, Oxycodone and Benadryl.

(Am I the only person who finds it ironic — or is that paradoxical? — that one of Ledger’s last few movies was “Candy,” where he played a heroin addict, and then he offs himself, in part with Hillbilly Heroin?)

OK, back to the point: If you are not excited about this news, stop reading this column because there is simply no talking to you, as I suspect that, deep down, you thought George Clooney made a really, really bitchin’ Batman.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers