Wonderland Award Predictions (Weekly Links)

Wonderland’s Finest

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Alice in Wonderland.

by Robert Horton

It must say something about a Tim Burton “Alice in Wonderland” that the normal part (i.e., the story set in the real world) is more intriguing than the phantasmagorical Wonderland.

Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have fashioned this version of Lewis Carroll’s oft-explored literary classic as a kind of sequel: a sequel to a movie we never actually saw. Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska, is not a little girl but an 18-year-old, scheduled for an arranged marriage to a foppish aristocrat.

At the betrothal party, she spots a white rabbit, which disappears down a hole. You know what happens next: Alice falls into the hole and enters Wonderland. All through the film (which is in 3-D at many theaters), we are reminded that she visited Wonderland once before in her youth. Perhaps that visit was chronicled in one of Lewis Carroll’s tales or perhaps the 1951 Disney film.

Burton’s movie invents a new story for Alice to endure as she makes her way through Wonderland: Seems she will be required to slay the Jabberwocky (a creature called the Jabberwock in Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”), the only way to free Wonderland from the decapitating impulses of the nasty Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp in full psychedelic mode) is elevated to near co-star status, which makes a certain dramatic sense but also might just be because Johnny Depp plays the role.

I suppose this new plot was conceived because the episodic nature of the original just won’t fly in a movie these days. Purists will likely resist the forceful storyline intruding on Alice’s goofy adventures — I know I did.

However, there is quite a bit to enjoy about this zany exercise. The section about Alice’s threatened marriage to a hopeless dope is splendid, a wonderful little tale of a rebellious girl.

Wonderland looks as you suspect Tim Burton sees it: all curlicue tree limbs and dark skies and sad-eyed creatures. Some of Lewis Carroll’s menagerie are here, and some are not (Humpty Dumpty is a no-show, for instance). Coming off best are the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) and the Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman); funniest are Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both voiced by Matt Lucas), who come across as bulbous little scamps.

Among the recognizably human, Helen Bonham Carter gives a deliciously wicked performance, which almost makes you forget at times that her head has been digitally enhanced so that it balloons out over the rest of her body. Crispin Glover does his weirdie bit as the Knave of Hearts and Anne Hathaway flitters about at the White Queen.

About halfway through all this, Burton’s characteristic storytelling handicaps kick in, and the best you can do is just look at the screen and appreciate the design.

It can be reasonably expected that kids will be thrilled/unsettled by the movie, as they always have been, by various versions of “Alice in Wonderland.” It’s worth noting, however, that in creating a linear, logical plot, Burton &Co. have gone against the glorious illogic that runs through so many scenes in the original. There’s something a little bit wrong about an “Alice” that makes sense.

Brooklyn’s Finest. “A surface slickness and plenty of movie-grunge.”

The Girl on the Train. (dead link; review below)

by Robert Horton

Andre Techine’s film “The Girl on the Train” revolves around a strange, out-of-the-blue event, but in the veteran director’s hands, this shocking incident has little more prominence than the rest of what we watch.

The event is a public accusation made by a directionless young woman, Jeanne, played by Emilie Dequenne. We know the claim is false, because we watch Jeanne trump up the phony evidence.

And this doesn’t happen until an hour or so into the picture. In the meantime, we’ve watched Jeanne live her life: trying to get a job, trying to get noticed by her somewhat lofty mother (the very lofty Catherine Deneuve) and trying to connect with her slippery boyfriend (Nicolas Duvauchelle).

The boyfriend is an experienced manipulator, exactly the kind of bad choice a vague young woman like Jeanne might make. We can see he’s going to lead her down a lousy road before she does.

And yet Jeanne’s public accusation (I’m avoiding being specific about it, to minimize the spoiler effect) has little to do with the boyfriend or anybody else. It’s entirely her messed-up decision.

Techine doesn’t seek to plumb the depths of Jeanne’s motivations, but instead to create her world, the whirling rootlessness suggested by the repeated shots of her rollerblading or communicating via the Internet. Her story is balanced by the world of a well-known lawyer (Michel Blanc) associated with Jewish causes. Techine has a way of taking apparently random scenes and fitting them together so they make sense.

In this case, the result is not as compelling as some of his previous pictures (which include “Wild Reeds” and “Strayed”), yet the film’s calm provocations stick with you. At the center is Dequenne, who won a top prize at the Cannes film festival for her quietly intense performance in 1999’s “Rosetta.” Dark and unformed in that movie, she looks completely different now, and the role of a lost, 21st century girl suits her perfectly.

Prodigal Sons. “An uncomfortably voyeuristic edge.”

An Indiewire ballot: predictions on Who Will Win and Who Should Win, for both the Oscars and the Independent Spirit Awards: here.

And earlier this week on KUOW’s “Weekday” with Steve Scher, we talk about women directors and Kathryn Bigelow’s chances at Sunday’s Oscars. Archived here; the movie bit comes on 15 minutes into it.

Movie Diary 2/27/2010

A Walk in the Sun (Lewis Milestone, 1945). A platoon movie, lots of chattery dialogue by Robert Rossen, interesting cast, echoes of All Quiet on the Western Front at times, funny rapport between Richard Conte and George Tyne. It has such a small budget, substituting puffs of smoke for entire action sequences, that it begins to resemble a Twilight Zone episode where everything turns out to be a dream.

Prodigal Sons (Kimberly Reed, 2008). A fair share of remarkable incidents and revelations are contained in this documentary about a most unusual Montana family; like Reed’s avowed inspiration, 51 Birch Street, the movie’s “intimacy” has more than a whiff of exploitation around it. (full review 3/5)