Friday, March 19, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Directed by Tim Burton. Adapted from Lewis Carroll by Linda Woolverton. Released 2010. Rated PG.

I am amazed that Alice in Wonderland can still pull in a crowd. It is a drug-induced story by a man who may or may not have had a pedophiliac relationship with the title character. Yet, Lewis Carroll’s (or Charles Dodgson’s, if you will) unfathomable imagination and lyrical nonsense have intrigued readers and audiences for over a hundred years. However, now we are in an age of story-telling that has minimized lyricism and emphasized visuals. We are left with the nightmarish characters of an imagination that transfers poorly to realism. Who better than Tim Burton, right? Well, hold on to your popcorn, he actually did a decent job. Despite his reputation for surrealism, Burton delivers the safest image of Wonderland yet. It may not be the most canonical, but he’s done Disney proud. At least he’s done Disney a new money trophy.

Oh, Tim Burton. At first, I forgot that he was the director. London seemed so sterile. It all came crashing back to me when Alice started her tumble down the rabbit hole. The next blazing paced sequence dropped her into a dark world of prophecy and violence, complete with grotesque, classical faerie-tale maiming. But then it was over. Tim Burton put a reign on his imagination and never beat you in the head with his stylistic choices again, even in other dangerous moments.

But watch this movie in 2-D. Of course the trend is fun to be a part of, but 3-D actually detracts from this movie. Sure, the Caterpillar’s hooka smoke looks cool, and sure the Cheshire Cat has some novel perspective, but Burton’s framing is wasted if you spend the entire movie hoping for the depth of Avatar. Most every shot is brilliantly composed from left to right. I would take off my glasses and revel in the color schemes and placements. Then I would put the glasses back on and gaze at the emphasized depth of Helena Bonham Carter’s forehead. Not worth it.

In fact, color choice was a trend that I couldn't get over. In the beginning, Alice is in London and grudgingly attends a well-to-do. Everyone at the party is wearing white with dull, earthy tones like brown, tan, or occasional subdued gold. Alice, on the other hand, is wearing sky blue. Obviously, Alice has differing values from the other guests, except for her sister, who also wears blue even though she seems to be at home with everyone else. Nothing extraordinary except that Burton’s choices are always so blatant that he makes it part of some caricature that only he seems to fully comprehend.

Most are color themes are easy to grasp. The Red, violent, and passionate queen is the villain and the White, serene, and liberal queen is the side of justice. What I couldn't figure out was the connection between the White party in London and the White kingdom in Wonderland.

For being such a blockbuster, Alice has a surprisingly unmotivated plot. This fits the world of Wonderland, but sits unevenly with the epic atmosphere that Tim Burton attempts to create. Alice is thrown from situation to situation, all very exciting, but she barely lifts a finger in her own self interest. Things just happen to Alice, who allows it because she knows it’s "her dream" and nothing more.

She struggles each step of the way with her own integrity. Her mother wants her to be this, the rabbit wants her to be that. In response, the Hatter, Johnny Depp, says that Alice has lost her "muchness." "Why is it that you are always too small or too big?" These concepts culminate well with the climax, but it leaves the journey rather tasteless.

How serious should this be taken? Does Alice care? Do we? Add to this the necessary element of every character being more than half-crazy, and it seems like random elements simply lead to a fated outcome rather than one that Alice actually reasoned out. Which is both contradictory with, and discussed in, the plot.

Johnny Depp may have been a good choice for a Mad Hatter, but he was more distracting than entertaining since Linda Woolverton, the screen writer, had to spend so much time on him make him into a sympathetic character. I never wanted to buy it for a minute. The make-up artists blacked a gap in his teeth that never convinced, and the whistle he tried to affect for it only sounded like an inconsistent lisp. The tirades of Scottish brogue and stifled whisper never got a chuckle out of me, or the audience I was sitting with.

Now, Mia Wasikowska, Alice, had some interesting parts. We all saw that she ends up with a sword from the trailers, right? Well, she knew how to use it. Better than Depp knew how to use his. Most of her exultant moments surround the ending when she exemplified boldness and endeavor. When she was simply a bemused face, tripping through Wonderland she was typically boring, but I was more than satisfied to see her get her ire up. Backing up Wasikowska's performance of Alice was Mairi Ella Challen as the 6 year old Alice. She was so charming that I spend a lot of time wishing the movie was about her than the 19 year old Alice.

The rest of the cast did their jobs well. Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway absolutely sealed their parts, though the characters were not equal. Even the bizarrely enhanced toadies of the Red Queen felt entirely at home, though Crispin Glover's CG enhancements as Stayne were jerky at times. My personal favorites were the slimy servants of the Red Queen: the deep, bass voiced frogs and slithery fish.

I’m not a big Wonderland fan, and I left not quite satisfied in the entire experience, but very content with the conclusion. I'd say rent not buy, and if you really want the theater experience, watch the 2-D version.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Green Zone

Directed by Paul Greengrass. Released 2010. Inspired by Imperial Life in the Emerald City, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Rated R.

Takes place in Iraq 2003. America has invaded, Sadaam has fled, and the Weapons of Mass Destruction have yet to be found. Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is tired of risking the lives himself and his soldiers on possible WMD locations without any payoff. The source for the reported WMD locations is a mysterious third party known as Magellan, but who can account for him?

The dramatic questions are "Who is Magellan," "Where are the WMD's," and "Why is this movie being released so late?" Honestly, hardly anyone is seriously asking whether or not WMDs were there anymore, for whatever reason. These questions were vocally asked a number of times throughout the movie, and it really was unnecessary. This movie didn't only feel untimely, but it felt like an antique. "Don't be naive" was another well worn cliche this movie threw around thanks to the stereotypical reporter character who would do anything just to get a story.

Granted, when Chandrasekaran wrote his book this topic was much more intriguing, being 2006. However, his book was not about international intrigue and government secrets, but was a nonfictional account of life in the Green Zone of Iraq and tried to deal with the facts as unbiasedly as can be reported. The movie is entirely fictitious and has only one character who is even interested in just trying to live life in Baghdad, though several characters were based on real people.

Green Zone is a tired story and plot that was slapped on a recent conspiracy theory and toted as a thriller. Not only was the plot tired and boring, but the action didn't deliver either. While there were tense fight scenes they were overshadowed by the hand-held cameras and very low lighting choices. In fact, I spent a good portion of the movie squinting and hoping I didn't miss what happened. Politely, the movie makers usually had clarifying shots to help ensure that the audience saw what they needed to. Similarly, the complicated character twists were clarified by plainly restating every discovery that was made, thus ensuring that the film left no room for speculation or audience participation. Or audience interest.

Green Zone's best qualities were the talents found in Matt Damon and Khalid Abdalla. Khalid Abdalla played an everyday, local Iraqi man mostly referred to a Freddy. Though not nearly as established an actor as Damon, Abdalla easily surpassed the rest of the cast as the only sympathetic character in the show. While Damon's conscientious role as Miller carried the moving parts of the movie, Abdalla's helpless but justified role was the moral message the movie tried to portray. Sadly, it is mostly run over by the bigger political players in the plot.

In the end, the movie delivered very little that would inspire anyone who wasn't already aware that everyday Iraqis are not terrorists and that America isn't telling everything it knows. The cinematography was interesting, but also very obvious, and the story gave us so little to be excited by and so much to be insulted by. I'm looking at that journalist character again.

Rated R, as I see it, for some language and unexplicit, but severe violence.