ALICE IN WONDERLAND
One would think that Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland would be tailor made for a film maker of Tim Burton’s prodigious talents. The director of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd, whose dark flights of fancy have captivated us for nearly three decades, would seem a natural choice to reproduce the quirky humor and shifting time sequences of Alice on film.
But Alice has defeated plenty of other directors who have sought to capture the book’s mystery and magic and Burton is only the latest to crash and burn in the attempt.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that his new film attempts to be both a sequel and a reworking of the storyline in an effort to offer the audience something entirely new, yet ends up producing neither effectively.
In order to produce an original take on Alice, Burton and his screenwriter Linda Woolverton, combine Alice in Wonderland with Carroll’s own sequel to that book, Through the Looking Glass and introduce a denouement that has sweet little Alice transformed into a Lord of the Rings-like warrior, dragooned into a fight to the death with the dreaded Jabberwocky.
In the process it presents us not with the original precocious six-year- old Alice, but an eighteen-year-old version of the heroine, who, to her dismay, is being shunted into a hasty marriage to a boor.
We meet this older Alice at her Victorian engagement party, which has been unsuspectingly organized in her honor. But just as her dour intended asks publicly for her hand, she is distracted by the waist-coated white rabbit, who scurries by the gazebo where the betrothal is about to take place. She abruptly drops everything, including her intended’s hand, to pursue the bounding rodent down the rabbit hole. As is to be expected, she tumbles into an endless tunnel, crashing into the familiar room in which she either grows too tall to enter the door to Wonderland or else becomes too small to reach the key.
After figuring it out, just as her earlier incarnation had done, Alice is free to wander in the garden of the the kingdom that has inexplicably changed its name during her absence from Wonderland to Underland, even if many of her old friends are still roaming its forests and fields.
Surprisingly, Alice has no recollection of her earlier visit or of the manic characters she once encountered there. And while she does meet up with the Blue Caterpillar, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Cheshire Cate, the March Hare and of course the Mad Hatter and they all persistently remind her of her earlier visit, her memory, until much later, remains unjogged.
But Wonderland has transformed in the intervening 12 years since her last journey and has endured an environmental degradation through war, pestilence and, one might think, the Underland version of global warming.
From thereon the plot of Alice In Wonderland takes us on a wayward path to the Red Queen’s castle, but in truth, appears pretty uncertain of where it is really heading. In the process we encounter a number of highlights from both books but miss some of Carroll’s most indelibly drawn characters and scenes. They include the White Knight, the Red King, Humpty Dumpty, the Lion and the Unicorn, the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle. Sadly lost or missing in action are the scenes of the Caucus Race, the Lobster Quadrille and the trial of the Knave of Hearts.
The acting, save for some wonderful work from Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, is often stilted. Johnny Depp, as the Mad Hatter, never seems to really commit to the role and often slips into an Scottish brogue that is all but incomprehensible. He is by turns a wispy-voiced popinjay and at other times a tragedian, mooning over lost opportunity. The over application of makeup seems strangely apposite for a film that is all color and no substance. His breakdance at the end of the movie, with the introduction of a pounding disco beat, is one of the more unsettling modern motifs slapped onto a film that presents itself, for the most part, as Victorian Gothic.
Anne Hathaway is out of place and out of her depth as the White Queen and her mannerisms are unconvincing. Matt Lucas is suitably villainous as the Red Queen’s henchman but offers nothing particularly original nor memorable.
One of the great disappointments is the failure to connect the characters in the opening scenes of Alice’s engagement party, to the characters she later encounters in Wonderland. This, after all, was one of the special delights of the Carroll book, where known political and local personalities would appear in the guise of Wonderland characters (see, for instance, the Lion and the Unicorn as the battling personalities of Disraeli and Gladstone in Through the Looking Glass). Burton misses the opportunity to have the imperious mother-in-law appear later as the Red Queen; the more sympathetic and solicitous father- in-law portrayed as the Red King (or the King of Hearts) and the Tweedledum and Tweedledee brothers ( who are marvelous CGI characters in Underland) make an earlier appearance as stodgy twins at the engagement party.
Another disappointment is the failure to tell much of the original story of the first Alice in Wonderland through Alice’s reminiscences, scenes alluded to by the Underland characters, but rarely given any cinematic expression. As Alice finally connects her many dreams over the intervening years with her current situation, we are only privy to a 30 second flashback of her six-year-old self painting white flowers red, attending an earlier Mad Tea Party and an encounter with the blue caterpillar.
But these are fleeting moments that leave the viewer with the unsettling impression that Burton in fact once made an entirely different film, one more faithful to Carroll’s original vision, only to trash it in favor of this mishmash of themes and plot lines.
I have always thought that it takes an act of presumption to write a sequel to a masterwork of world literature, years after the author died. It also seems something of conceit to rewrite the story line completely, leaving only ghostly smatterings of the original story as if a license had been given to reconstruct a tale that had become too either tired or outdated for modern tastes.
But Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is neither tired nor outdated and lives on as one of the most compelling literary works of imagination ever set to paper. Burton’s attempts to rewrite it ends up as a misconceived mess that not only does discredit to a great work of fiction but compromises his own well honed skills as a film maker and storyteller.
- Director: James Cameron
- Cast: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel Moore, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang
- Length: 160 minutes
Avatar, if anything, is big. Big on the screen (I saw it at an IMAX Theater so it was really big); big on computer graphics, big on technology, big on scenery, big on messages.
The film, through its vast publicity machine, has made a great claim on originality. Yet in spite of its technological wonder, there is not really all that much original to be found in the 2 hours and 40 minutes of action.
Well…… lets think about that. If you are looking for ‘meaning’ then perhaps Avatar might indeed offer you something original to chew on. Hollywood directors these days have a particular fondness for the parable – overweening attempts to convey moral or religious viewpoints through story line.
If so, then Avatar is parable city: Corporate greed; man’s degradation of the environment; the evils of Western colonialism; the despoliation of native populations; American avariciousness in the search for mineral wealth; and, of course, the power of love to conquer all differences (even, apparently, when your beloved is ten feet tall, blue and has a tail) – are all included as statements on our current and past malaise.
But is that original? Perhaps – if you buy all these liberal tropes. Yet not if you have been watching mainstream movies for the past twenty years and witnessed the descent of Hollywood blockbusters like this into an embrace of anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism and denial of human exceptionalism.
Oh well. Then what about the plot?
It lumbers along in its hodgepodge vein, a colorful quilt, stitched together from material that has been lying around Hollywood for decades. The tailoring is fairly apparent : Take a central thread from Pocohantos, weave it through Dances With Wolves, lace in scenes from Platoon, sew on a rather large patch of Fern Gully, dye it all in the colors of The Emerald Forest and there you have it – your Avatar comforter, as tattered, as commonplace, yet as snug, as anything you could purchase in a second hand store.
Character development and continuity is also not the film’s strong suit. Neytiri, the female lead, transforms, over the course of two hours, from snarling, feral feline, into a latter day Bambi, whose loving gazes at her blue betailed beloved are only missing those fluttering red hearts we have come to associate with Bugs Bunny cartoons.
The leader of the American mercenaries, Col. Miles Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang, is the swaggering blowhard commander dredged up from movies as distant as Beau Geste, (remember Sergeant Lejaune?) whose uni-dimensional character has not changed one iota in all those years and still has no redeeming quality. Like all those bad guys in old Westerns, his malice leaves us nothing with which to sympathize, and it is easy enough to cheer his rather gruesome end.
If you are looking for romance to heat up your theater seat then you will also be sadly disappointed. The love affair between the two lead characters has all the passion of a rotting tree stump and since they mate off camera, one can only wonder about the acrobatics necessary to squirm in and out of the body hugging spandex forest suits that pass as their native clothing.
And I’m not done yet.
The ”treasure” the humans are seeking (which remains buried beneath the jungle canopy) is called “Unobtainium,” a substance apparently unobtainable on earth, whose value to humans is never fully explained. You have to wonder if the script department was out to lunch when the decision was made to employ this clumsy title. “ Kryptonite,” at least, sounds alien. But “Unobtanium?” I would think that such an original film would deserve a more originally named centerpiece.
Then there is the language thing. The inhabitants of the Pandoran jungle are the Na’vi and they speak an impenetrable native tongue that some of the humans, led by Sigourney Weaver, have only just begun to learn. Yet several of the natives speak rather good English – or at least are quite capable of understanding the lead characters when they explain themselves. Since the denizens of the deep jungle seem completely oblivious to human ways, how and where then, did they learn English? No one bothers to explain.
OK, I have savaged the film. That is because as a film it is nothing special. Yet as an entertainment vehicle….well that’s something different. The Pandoran jungle (the true star of the show) and the creatures that inhabit it, are astounding. The computer graphics which are capable of summoning up extraordinary floating islands ( inspired, I assume, by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki), raptor-like birds of prey, humanoid fighting machines and cascading waterfalls are a feast for the senses, dazzling in their complexity and scintillating in their eye for detail. The motion caputure used for the creation of the ten feet tall Na’vi and their movements, is of a sophistication that could only be dreamed about ten years ago (apparently the reason Cameron waited so long to make his film) and provides some of the true wonder of the spectacle. Here we finally have a sci-fi epic where the alien nature of the content is matched by the alien nature of the technology used to create it.
But it’s a funny thing. When I think back on the film, several days after viewing it, I can barely envision its florid scenes. All that pops up for me is a cartoon – animation and no soul. Perhaps that is because a movie that relies so heavily on technology to stir its audience’s emotions yet remains fundamentally empty at is core, will leave little impression on our consciousness.
James Cameron doesn’t have to worry about any of that. His film will inevitably become the highest grossing motion picture in history and he might even carry home this year’s Oscar. But back here on earth, we have other things to worry about and while Avatar might be a pleasant enough distraction, it adds nothing, despite its earnest attempts, to an understanding of our own world and how to grapple with our problems. It seems to complain about a lot of things, but offers no solutions. Such an effort might have given Avatar the spark of originality. It was an opportunity sadly wasted.
SHOOTING MICHAEL MOORE
Director: Kevin Leffler
Length : 97 minutes
Review Date: February 22, 2010
I’ll admit it from the beginning. I have never trusted Michael Moore. From his very first aw-shucks days filming Roger and Me, that sly and ultimately savage depiction of corporate America, I have found his irreverent film making approach shallow and self -serving. At the time the documentary was released however, not many Americans agreed with me. Moore, as country bumpkin, cleverly springing traps for General Motors CEO Roger Smith, was regarded in many circles as the late 20th century cinematic answer to Mark Twain, skewering self-important businessmen and politicians and taking delight in exposing their foibles.
But subsequent Moore directed documentaries proved my hunch correct. Farenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine and Sicko, all with their trademark boffo humor, increasingly revealed Moore to be a sensationalist, generally more interested in a punchline than either truth or balance. Yet possessing a keen sense of what hot button issues and raw footage would sell popcorn, he has been able to pack them into the theaters, oblivious to the impact of his hucksterism on impressionable minds.
With all that said, I still didn’t expect Moore to be a shyster too, who, as a film maker, would prove himself blithely disinterested in the welfare of his film subjects, while in his private life conducting himself as much of a money grubbing capitalist as the Wall Street bankers, corporate raiders and conservative kingpins he so gleefully pillories in his films.
But that is the indeed the image that cements itself in one’s mind upon a vewing of college professor Kevin Leffler’s profoundly disturbing Shooting Michael Moore. Adopting Moore’s now famous technique of seeking out his prey through relentless stalking, Leffler sets out to find the “real” Michael Moore – not the baseball hat-graced figure of his numerous films, but the fat cat multi-millionaire who has left dreary Flint, Michigan far behind for a swank apartment on New York’s Upper Westside.
And he finds him alright, but not before uncovering an extraordinary trove of information that would, if publicly known and accepted, transform Moore into the great American anti-hero. For this is a Michael Moore who cheats on his taxes, maintains a non-profit organization that invests in such “malign” corporations as Exxon Mobil, Pfizer and Halliburton; whose $2 million property in Michigan is in violation of innumerable environmental ordinances; who pays the impoverished main subejects of his films (remember the “rabbit lady” from Roger and Me?) a pittance while his films rake in millions; who edits his films in such a way to take his subjects’ quotes out of context and distorts the representation of their beliefs.
No greater evidence of Moore’s fraudulent approach to film making is offered than his decision to use the British and Cuban health systems as the measure to judge the American. In Sicko, Moore takes us to the U.K. to witness the supposedly beneficent free health care system operated by the Brits’ NHS – the National Health Service. Immigrants are shown beaming with the good fortune of having landed in the U.K. A couple, leaving the hospital with their new born child, relate the great service they received, sharing a good laugh about how free it all is.
Leffler also travels to Britain but reveals a very different state of affairs. Over crowded hospitals and long wait lists strain the system, forcing the elderly to wait months, if not years, for scheduled operations. Pregnant women can’t find beds at local hospitals and there are reports of some delivering their children on bean bags. The NHS itself is shown to be on the verge of bankruptcy, forced to shutter innumerable hospitals in impoverished areas for lack of funding.
But Leffler reserves his greatest bile for the way Moore represents the Cuban system. Far from the utopian, patient-oriented welfare system presented in Sicko, Cuba’s universal health care service is revealed to be a cesspool of neglect and avarice, with patients in elderly hospices forced to lie on filthy cots for days in their own excrement and routine check ups impossible to schedule without the right connections. Moore, it is speculated, could not have conducted his interviews and filming in Cuba without the direct assistance of the Cuban government, who in turn, would only have given permission for the tour if it believed that the film maker’s ultimate product would prove useful as anti- American propaganda.
Ultimately, Leffler, who grew up in the same town as Moore ( Davison, MI – not Flint, MI) , went to the same school and even knew him as a child, comes to know the grown up version of his schoolmate in a more substantial way than Moore has ever known any of his subjects. Because public tax records, evidence of local citations and other written materials by Moore himself, don’t lie and cannot be manipulated, without the most grevious consequences. They all go to prove that the Michael Moore of public acclaim, is not the humanitarian and defender of the ” little man” whom his admiring public thinks him to be, but an unrepentant con-artist and raconteur, who, since his earliest days, allowed his quest for for “truth and justice” to be overwhelmed by his infatuation with fame, wealth and himself.
There is an ironic injustice that with each sensationalistic documentary, bathed as they are in anti-Americanism and self -reverence, Moore gets richer and his films win more awards. But the good news is that there do exist “little men” such as Kevin Leffler who are willing to take such true fat cats to task for their hype, hypocrisy and hubris and then lacerate them with the same stinging observations that these doyens of the far left once applied to others. For anyone out there thinking of following in his footsteps, I have just two words: Al Gore.
Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit- McPhee, Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce
Length: 1 hr 20 min.
Somewhere near the middle of The Road, the two protagonists, a father and his son, stumble on a barn at the top of a snow swept hill. As they tentatively open the barn door they are exposed to a frightening sight: three bodies, two adults and an adolescent, hang from the rafters. The camera focuses on the son’s face as he registers the tragedy.
“ You know why they are dead,” the father mutters, almost matter-of-factly.The boy doesn’t answer. But the sorrow is clearly etched on his face.
The three died, it is revealed, for either of two reasons: Either to pre-empt the certainty of a slow death by starvation; or else a defiance of the resort to cannibalism – almost the only means of sustaining life in a land where nothing grows.
Its easy to see why Cormac McCarthy’s novel, transferred to the screen, is viewed as yet another tall tale in a long line of films depicting man pitted against man and man against nature. But that would be to miss the film’s deeper and more pointed meaning. For The Road is no mere survival film but a portrait of humanity on the brink of extinction and the immutable fact that human survival depends not only on physical nourishment but on fundamental moral choices.
As the father and son (never identified with names in either the book or the movie) wander across the desolate American landscape, they must contend with what it means to be human and the overarching question of whether survival is worth the moral cost of abandoning all human values.
The movie could therefore have easily have been titled The Test.
That is because the two are driven to extremes, as their sense of human decency is repeatedly stretched to the limit by the situations they encounter and the individuals they meet. After the father is forced to kill another man to save the boy’s life, both are visited with the deepest dread of the implications of the deed. A starving elderly man, who asks for nothing, is given food nonetheless, after the boy implores his father to do so. A wild child, glimpsed through a window in a deserted town, becomes the subject of a heated exchange between father and son as the latter beseeches his father to find the child and bring him along with them; a thief who steals all their possessions is hunted down and rather than being killed, is forced to disrobe and left to stand naked in the wind and rain. Only after hours of pleading from the boy does the father return to the spot where they first caught up with him, to deposit the items of clothing on the ground in the hope the thief will return to reclaim them.
In the clash between the father’s drive to protect his son and the almost febrile articulation of the boy’s moral consciousness, we are given a parable of the deep tension which has afflicted western civilization for the past 100 years: the struggle between the demand for fulfillment of individual needs and the quest for social responsibility.
McCarthy, himself, has never sounded so assured in his defense of humanity. While the world may well have been annihilated by human hand, he seems to believe in an ultimate goodness for which the task of regenerating mankind is made all the more worthwhile. This is the “fire” the man urges his boy to carry, a symbol of life and goodness that separates “the good guys” from “the bad guys” and is the clearest statement yet in a McCarthy novel of the demarcation between absolute goodness and ultimate evil . In this way The Road is a fundamental departure from other McCarthy works such as No Country for Old Men, Suttree and Blood Meridian – all of which display a deep ambivalence about humanity and its purpose.
For all its inherent bleakness, The Road is a profoundly uplifting movie. While it recognizes that there are two forces of evil that prevail upon us -one from within and the other from without – it also suggests that with sufficient vigilance and preparedness both can be defeated.
The two main characters emerge, then, as symbols of this drive.
The boy comes to represent the virtues of principle and idealism. He nudges his father’s conscience and repeatedly forces him to face the prospect of his own descent into inhumanity. The father, on the other hand, represents deep faith tempered by experience. He presents as a model of human resilience in the face of catastrophe. It is, after all, his unflinching vision of a better life which drives the two onward toward their uncertain, obscure future.
But even more impressive than this is the deep bond of love that binds father to son as they grapple with the exigencies of survival. It is evident in the final moments of both book and film, in one of the most touching scenes I have ever read on a page or viewed on screen. When everything is lost, when there seems little reason for either hope or faith, can love survive and become a source for both? Countless anecdotes from the Holocaust have suggested that it can.
It is a question to which The Road seems to respond resoundingly in the affirmative.
At a time in history when man’s failures to maintain peace are wrathfully condemned by our elites and human interference with nature regarded as a blight on earth, it is good to see a film which pulls no punches in exploring the potential for human goodness and celebrates the cause of human exceptionalism.
THE LAST STATION Sunday, January 17, 2010
Cast: James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer, Paul Giamatti, Helen Mirren, Anne-Marie Duff
The last years of Tolstoy’s life have provided endless fascination for biographers and novelists alike. The great novelist’s new found commitment to asceticism, his estrangement from his wife and family and his growing repugnance of wealth and fame, made him a figure of enormous interest in pre-War Russia. An entire Tolystoyan movement, based on his precepts arose in Russia in the early years of the 20th Century, a testament to the power of author’s commanding personality and literary influence.
The one thing those who profess to know something about the life of Leo Tolstoy all agree upon, is that he died in a remote railway station , far from his own large estate in central Russia, supposedly fleeing both his wife and his life of his privilege. Dressed as a Russian peasant and with only a small coterie of friends and admirers, he ended his life a virtual fugitive from his own legacy.
This movie centers on the events which led to that flight - the battle for Tolstoy’s written legacy waged by his wife Sofya Andreyevna – who wants the copyrights for his great books to remain within the family and his leading disciple Vladimir Cherkov – who believes that the copyrights belong to Mother Russia ( ie: the public domain). Torn between them is Tolstoy’s newly appointed 23- year -old secretary Valentin Bulgakov who appreciates both Cherkov and Sofya’s points of view, but ultimately sides with Tolstoy’s histrionic wife. It is often painful to watch the desperation with which the broken Sofya throws herself upon her husband of 48 years, still passionately in love with him and yet unconvinced that the aging author has any further interest in her.
In this dramatic pas de deux, the acting of Christopher Plummer ( remembered 45 years ago as the suave Captain Von Trapp from The Sound of Music) is an extraordinarily convincing Tolstoy, emiting his mystical , if confused philosophy and portraying the author as a tragic figure who has lost control of his own destiny. Helen Mirren, still quite alluring at 65, plays the tempestuous , devoted Sofya, whose jarring mood swings dominate the movie. The ever versatile Paul Giamatti plays the devious Cherkov with enough verve and determination to make us remember his extraordinary performance in HBO’s triumphant series, John Adams. And finally James McAvoy ( remembered for his star turn in The Last King of Scotland) plays the ingenuous Bulgakov who innocently stumbles into a struggle of wills for which he is totally unprepared.
The movie does tend to drag in places and the scenes in which the virginal Bulgakov is seduced by the free spirited Tolstoyan Masha, seems out of place in the movie and adds a love interest that distracts from the truly passionate struggle between Tolstoy and Sofya.
The success of the movie is that we end feeling for both Tolstoy and his wife , who seem unable to thwart the lot that fate has thrown them. Tolstoy emerges , not as the author of the book that is universally regarded as the greatest work of fiction ever written, but as a latter day aesthete, carried away by his own imagination and philosophies, which had very little to do with a world that only four years later would plummet into a desperate world war. That war would sweep away forever the world Tolstoy, his wife and their coterie had known, making their ideas of passive resistance and universal love, hopelessly out of step with the time.
Tolstoy had longed to be remembered , not for the magnificent literary achievements of War and Peace and Anna Karennina but for his moral philosophy. That is one legacy, however, time has yet to grant him. And perhaps we should be thankful for it.
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