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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!


“Frost/Nixon” a nail-biting battle of wits

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face off in the tense "Frost/Nixon."

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face off in the tense "Frost/Nixon."

There’s power in punctuation that words sometimes can’t match. Don’t buy that? Take a gander at the title of screenwriter/playwright Peter Morgan’s retelling of 1977 interviews between TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) and former U.S. president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella): “Frost/Nixon.” That’s a slash — not a hyphen, not a dash — and the subtext is pointed. It suggests a commonality; it means Frost and Nixon. Look closer and that slash becomes a little more hostile:  It means Frost or Nixon. Frost versus Nixon.

So which is it? Is “Frost/Nixon” a movie about a meeting of the minds, 0r is it an intellectual jousting match? Answer: It’s both, thanks to the nimble yet complex script adapted from a play by Morgan (“The Queen”). Both Frost and Nixon are men in search of something. For Frost, a superstar in Australia, it’s the chance to achieve American fame; for Nixon, it’s a shot at cleaning up his image while collecting a cool $600,000. But shared interests matter little in a duel, since only one man can walk away the victor.

Oh, what a fight this is. Sheen is Frost, a charismatic playboy who’s equal parts Wayne Gayle (minus the Aussie twang) and Oscar Wilde. His show’s a cheeky hit in Australia, but he lusts for U.S. fame. “There’s nothing like it,” he tells his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen). And coaxing Nixon into an on-camera apology for Watergate, Frost figures, will win him plenty of Yank fans. He hires two investigators — Bob Zelnick (a delightfully droll Oliver Platt) and professor/author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) — to dig up dirt on Watergate and figures his work is practically done.

But Frost understimates Nixon, who comes armed with a formidable PR team led by his doggedly loyal post-presidential chief of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). Nixon’s quicker than Frost, more practiced in twisting words, and there’s an impish gleam in the former president’s eye that suggests he delights in the challenge.

You see, it’s expactly this serve/return, advance/retreat strategy that makes “Frost/Nixon” so captivating. Morgan taps into something visceral and elemental, a kind of survival-of-the-fittest instinct that, at times, makes “Frost/Nixon” feel like a National Geographic documentary about a lioness stalking a wounded gazelle. Part of the excitement comes from watching Sheen and Langella trade roles; you’re never quite sure who’s the lion and who’s the gazelle, and every time the answer seems clear it’s not. Even those who’ve seen the interviews will be left wondering. Morgan’s that good. Perhaps he’s scored a breakthrough with this one.

Credit, too, must go to Sheen and Langella, who redefine the “less is more” approach to acting. Here are two actors who have a formidable command of facial expressions. This is a movie where the beauty is in the expressions and body language. Nobody but nobody does fear and awkwardness like Sheen (he bests his performance in “The Queen” by leaps and bounds). Watch him sweep uncomfortable grimaces into big, toothy, fake smiles that don’t quite reach his eyes. That’s where the magic happens — his eyes. They give everything away. There’s a sadness, and later, a steely resolve there that suggest Frost is far more than some shallow dandy.

And yes, there’s a reason Langella earned an Oscar nod for his work as Nixon. His Nixon is a tricky one, alright, a man with an uncanny ability to worm his way out of nearly any trap. Still, Langella conveys more emotions with one frown, one sideways glance, one arched eyebrow than most actors can in pages of dialogue. But he can be explosive. There’s a phone call (fictionalized apparently) between interviewer and interviewee where Langella lets loose a near-volcanic explosion of anger. It’s frightening to behold, but try to turn away. This is the kind of multi-layered performance Oscars were made for.

Layers. Yes, “Frost/Nixon” is all about layers — of emotions, of meaning, of subtleties, of complexities. And those layers are what make this simply done but immensely powerful docudrama one of the year’s best films.

Grade: A