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 ROYG-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!

 

Review: “Snow Cake” (2006)

Snow_CakeLonely people tend to recognize their own kind — in life and especially in independent films. Perhaps there’s a certain scent they give off, the musk of desperation cooled by a trace of sad resignation, or the look in their eyes, a mix of unyielding wariness and palpable longing. Maybe there’s an inner pull, a kind of magnetic attraction. Whatever the reason, the lonely, they know each other.

This is how the lives of three solitary people — Alex (Alan Rickman), Linda (Sigourney Weaver) and Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss) — end up intersecting in icy, small-town Canada. Dynamic Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), an expert on lost-cause types, takes a liking to the tight-lipped Alex, newly released from prison. She interrupts his coffee at a diner, disarms him with her wit (her take on self-help books is hysterical) and begs a ride home to visit her mother Linda (Sigourney Weaver). But their friendship is not long for the world; there’s a car accident, and Vivienne’s death sends Alex in search of Linda. Alex, who’s cold but not heartless, feels guilty and wants to do the right thing … until he realizes Linda is a high-functioning autistic. Suddenly, being decent doesn’t seem quite so shiny.

Herein lies the emotional weight of “Snow Cake” lies, in the uncomfortable interactions between Alex and Linda, who aren’t all that different from one another. Linda is intelligent and functional but unable to process emotions like grief or anger; Alex, for reasons we discover later, tends to repress his feelings for fear if he lets one out they’ll all overwhelm him. Both Linda and Alex exist in their own isolated worlds, and it’s become comfortable not to need anyone else. So to call their acquaintanceship “odd” is a whopping understatement. There is no emotional bond; Linda informs this interloper she prefers “useful” people. Alex sees this as an opportunity: He can plan Vivienne’s funeral, take care of a few chores and move along. No messy emotions to sift through. No forced attempts to “connect” and “bond.” and share “quality time.” This becomes a workable and refreshingly unsappy relationship.  

It’s fair to say the same of “Snow Cake” itself, for this is a film that lacks sap. Angela Pell’s script deftly avoids melodrama at points where we expect it most; instead, Pell favors humor and fumbling awkwardness and flashes of real poignancy (Linda’s funeral dance is one of the best scenes). Linda and Alex are two of a kind, living in a kind of emotional quarantine, and Linda’s sexually confident neighbor Maggie seems like an outsider to them. For Maggie, though, sex is a way to avoid real intimacy, to experience physical closeness without emotions. She is the most mysterious character, and the one who seems the most unaffected by Alex’s arrival.

Notice how that word “seems” keeps popping up? There’s good reason for that — “Snow Cake” is the kind of minimalist indie character drama where not much at all happens and what does happen is very, very subtle. The film is a bit like “Come Early Morning” in that way, with the characters undergoing changes so gradual they threaten to slip past unnoticed. Rickman, in particular, is genius at playing men who are thoroughly damaged but not unredeemable. With his guarded eyes, he doesn’t give us much to explain why Alex is the way he is. But there are small moments — feeding Vivienne’s dog for Linda, opening up to Maggie — where Rickman shows us the man behind the wall. Moss and Weaver’s performances offer up no such explanation. We know nothing about Maggie and Moss is unwilling to let down her guard. But watch the change in her expressions; hard as she is, she’s learned to trust someone other than herself. As Linda, Weaver has the toughest part; she must be a woman living in her own head, but one we develop affection for. It’s a thankless part, but Weaver gives it a certain kind of grace. 

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what “Snow Cake” is all about: grace. These three lonely people find it in each other, and it gives them strength to keep going. That’s not much, maybe, but it feels like everything.

Grade: B

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.