Maybe Sundays – Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Alice in Wonderland (2010, dir. Tim Burton)

Starrin Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman
So visionary director Tim Burton takes on the classic surreal children’s tale of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Johnny Depp at his side as The Mad Hatter. Sounds like a formula for success, right. Well, if this had been 10 years ago, maybe. However, with Burton’s work output in the 21st Century being less than stellar and lot of the visual tricks used here being old hat from previous films, the picture comes off an a utter bore. And I really didn’t want it to be.
Alice Kingsley is a teenaged girl being married off to a disgusting noble. During the engagement party she runs off and comes across a White Rabbit, whom she follows down a mysterious hole. Alice finds herself in Wonderland and the creatures there recognizing her as a prophesied savior. The two monarchs, Red Queen and White Queen and Alice is needed to defeat the evil Jabberwocky and save the day. The film is a mishmash of elements from Lewis Carroll’s two Alice tales and the 1951 Disney animated feature. And it all adds up to an uninteresting mess.
None of the Wonderland characters feel interesting in the least. Yes, they are strange and meticulously designed, but beyond their quirks they lack anything remotely resembling personality. This shouldn’t be a problem in a film based on a novel that really has no character development in the first place, and is merely a series of absurdity philosophical encounters. But, Burton has chosen to make the film a semi-sequel…or is it a reimagining? I couldn’t figure that out how they fit in with the original story. There are hints that this Alice could be the little girl from the story, but then there is a mention of Alice merely being some sort of title.
This is such a huge disappointment, especially with the exceptional cast gathered by Burton. Instead of giving us some new and interesting look at Wonderland, we get it blandly Burton-ized, with the typical spiral patterns and zany color schemes. Its nice decoration, but a great film it does not make. What the film misses are the more interesting goings on of the real world. I found myself paying more attention during the moments where Alice navigates her engagement party and, when she returns from Wonderland, and sets things straight with the people around her. I want to see a movie about THAT Alice!
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Seventies Saturdays – Johnny Got His Gun


Johnny Got His Gun (1971, dir. Dalton Trumbo)

Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jason Robards, Donald Sutherland
Here we have a film directed by the author of the novel on which is based. This author, Dalton Trumbo was investigated by the FBI as a result of the novel’s publication, and later blacklisted during the McCarthy Communist witch hunt. While blacklisted, he was given his widest recognition as the screenwriter of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. And it was during the twilight of the Vietnam War he decided to adapt his controversial novel. While on the surface, the film is condemnation of war by how it treats the men on the frontlines, Trumbo is expanding his theme to comment on the fragility of life and man’s right to die with dignity.
Joe Bonham (Bottoms) is introduced as a body under a sheet. He’s not dead, but was shredded by shrapnel from a mortar shell fired on the last day of World War I. The doctors maintain an unrealistically upbeat outlook and have Joe put in a utility room so as not to upset the other wounded men. We learn who Joe is through the meanderings of his consciousness now in this eternally paralyzed state. The horror of Joe’s condition is unfolded to us gradually: first they take his arms, then his legs, ultimately he learns his face has been scooped out. All that exists is a screaming mind in a paralyzed frame.
As Joe tries to make sense of this in his mind, he returns to moments with his late father (Robards) and consults with a Jesus of his own invention (Sutherland). His memories begin as real events in his past and morph into surreal fantasies about his loss. One of the most touching moments of the film comes early on. On Joe’s last night before shipping out, he and his teenaged girlfriend decide to have sex for the first time. This scene is played with such beauty and tenderness. Every nervous movement is captured perfectly, and the scene aches with a bittersweet sense of how these characters are experiencing such great joy, a joy that inevitably will die.
The genius of the film is that it never takes political sides. In essence, it truly supports the troops, because it is all about them. Joe is a child who was sent off by old men who use their children to fight wars. He did his duty and suffered great wounds. And now, with no future besides being a lump of meat locked in a closet, he is denied a basic right to have his life ended. Joe eventually figures out a means of communicating with those around him, only to find his new voice stifled and the realization that the people around Joe, because of their own fears of death, want to simply forget that he ever existed.

Jolly Good Thursdays – Alice in Wonderland (1966)


Alice in Wonderland (1966, dir. Jonathan Miller)

Starring Anne-Marie Mallik, Peter Sellers, Leo McKern, Michael Redgrave, Peter Cook, Michael Hough, John Gielgud, Eric Idle
Lewis Caroll’s 1865 novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been adapted in many ways and forms since the advent of film. The majority are informed by the 1951 Disney animated feature and, because of that constant influence, seem bland. Not so with this BBC television adaptation. Jonathan Miller, a popular director and comedian who worked with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore extensively, brings us one of the most surreal and abstract versions of Wonderland. Here no one is dressed up like a white rabbit or caterpillar, instead they resemble the British aristocracy Carroll was mocking in his text.
The image above, which is the opening title of the film, evokes a very strong tone. Alice is something primal here, this is not the light-hearted English schoolgirl but a figure with a sinister air about her. Alice doesn’t speak for the first 20 minutes of the film, what we get is a whispering stream of consciousness. The most intriguing evolution of this conceit is how the whispering voice becomes the Cheshire Cat later in the film. It ends up highlighting pieces of dialogue from Carroll’s work that portray Alice as deep in contemplative thought about identity. This extends to her experiences eating and drinking items that distort her physical self, and as emphasized int this film, her psychological perception of herself and her environment.
It’s quite jolting to hear the silly dialogue, attributed originally to anthropomorphic figures, coming from the mouths of English nobility. That aesthetic choice emphasizes the absurdity of British aristocracy in Carroll’s time. The Caucus Race, which is Alice’s first major episode in Wonderland, occurs in an Anglican cathedral and involves stodgy nobles running around the pews and performing the sign of the cross. Every thing has an atmosphere of malaise, intensified by the wandering sitar music of Ravi Shankar. Alice sits at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, slumping down in her chair, washed over by the utter boredom and inanity of the dolts surrounding her.
This is by no means a children’s adaptation or one meant for mainstream audiences. This is a very masterful and crafted adult interpretation of classic story that operates on multiple levels of satire and philosophy.

Film 2010 #35 – Shutter Island


Shutter Island (2010, dir. Martin Scorsese)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, Elias Koteas

My immediate reaction after seeing the first trailer for Shutter Island was that it would be interesting to see Scorsese tackle a film with horror elements. After thinking about this for a little while longer, I realized he already had in Taxi Driver, a film I think of as an urban horror picture more than anything else. Upon further contemplation, I realized we found similarly paranoid protagonists in many Scorsese pictures: The King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and of course, The Aviator. This is why Shutter Island, while stylistically a departure for the directing legend, is thematically at home in his body of work.
The premise brings U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane located on Shutter Island. Rachel Solando, a patient at the asylum has vanished so Daniels, and his new partner Chuck Aule (Ruffalo) have come to investigate. Daniels is introduced to the facilities by Dr. John Cawley (Kingsley) and eventually meets the head of the hospital, Dr. Naehring (Sydow), a German who brings back Daniels animosity for the Nazi atrocities he witnessed during World War II. This combined with strange nightmares about Daniels’ late wife intensify his paranoia while on the Island and he begins to formulate what he believes is the real horror going on behind the scenes on Shutter Island.
What hits you first about this film is the score. The music was designed and chosen by long-time friend of Scorsese and former member of The Band, Robbie Robertson and he proves he has an ear for some powerful modernist compositions. There are elements of Bernard Hermann yet never played to the point of absurdity. Because of the strong musical elements they create a balance with the unscored moments. An encounter in a cave among the cliffs of the island goes unscored, despite there being revelations made there that would have received a crescendo of strings in an older picture. It’s those choices of presence and absence that strike the right balance in the film.
At its core, this is simply a variation on the haunted house trope. What sets it apart from a B-movie are the very powerful artistic masterstrokes Scorsese uses. The dream/nightmare sequences Daniels experiences, whether they be in sleep or in the middle of the day, inform the audience with the clues the investigator fails to find in the conscious world. I was particularly intrigued by the cultural paranoias of the day that seeped into the fiber of the film. We have Daniels haunted by the sights of Jews frozen to death at Dachau and his unit subsequent expunging of the camp’s guards in an era where PTSD was not something remotely thought about. In addition, characters mention the fears of atomic annihilation as a result of the Cold War, the idea of Nazi scientist-torturers being granted pardons for service to the US military, and brainwashing techniques of HUAC. This constant atmosphere of not-knowing and being watched makes Shutter a perfect companion piece to The Aviator.
Shutter Island may not end on the most satisfying of notes, but there really is no other way for it to end. Such a story can’t deliver any true sense of justice and still remain true to its film noir and horror roots. From the first time we see Daniels, hunched over a toilet as the ferry rocks around him, it is apparent this character is in bad shape. An odyssey to an island of madness can never make such a condition better.

Film 2010 #34 – The Red Shoes

Since 2005 I have kept a list of every new film I have seen. With this film I have hit the 1000 mark. Before long, I’ll probably be hitting 2000.


The Red Shoes (1948, dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Starring Anton Walbrook

This was a film long on my list of ones to see and said to have been an inspiration to directors like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. That’s not to say its plot or screenplay is similar to their work, rather the way the directors utilize the camera and art direction to create a lush and amazing world. The story comes from the Hans Christian Andersen fable of a young girl who acquires a pair of magical red slippers that cause her to dance and, unable to stop, she begs an executioner to chop of her feet. He does and gives her a pair of wooden feet, yet she is haunted by the disembodied dancing feet.
Powell and Pressburger were a directorial pair in the United Kingdom, as well respected as Hitchcock or David Lean, yet their work has faded from the larger collective memory in the following years. For The Red Shoes, they took the Andersen fable and set it in contemporary (1940s) Europe. Boris Lermontov runs a prestigious ballet company and encounters two young up and coming artists: Victoria Page, a company ballerina and Julian Craster, a budding composer. Lermontov goes on to commission an adaptation of the The Red Shoes. Around the same time, the company’s prima ballerina announces her engagement which infuriates Lermontov who immediately lets her know she is no longer a part of his works. To replace her, he promotes Victoria Page, and this is where the trouble begins.
Lermontov is dangerously obsessed with his ingenues. His original prima announcing her engagement turns him into a petty, spiteful man who takes glee in letting her go. As similar things begin to develop with Victoria, we see Lermontov’s role as a metaphorical evil wizard take hold. He is jealous of any one who might break a dancer’s devotion to his will alone.
The most spectacular piece of the film is the 17 minute long ballet sequence that comes smack dab in the middle. The first half of the film is about the three individual strands of Lermontov, Craster, and Victoria coming together and the second half is about how the lives of these three are eventually torn apart. And what ties it all up is a visually stunning abbreviation of The Red Shoes ballet that will cause the viewer to ask some questions. From the start of the sequence, it is apparent that this is simply a dress rehearsal, yet then it starts incorporating what might be seen as subconscious thoughts of Victoria (the villain of the ballet flashing into Craster and then Lermontov suddenly), as the sequence continues Victoria moves into impossible landscapes that could in no way actually be on stage. And finally, everything pulls back to reveal the actual performance on opening night. This one sequence both serves to expose subconscious ideas and transition our characters through time.

Film 2010 #32 – Ragtime


Ragtime (1981, dir. Milos Forman)

Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif, James Cagney, Mandy Patinkin, Norman Mailer, Moses Gunn, Debbie Allen, Donald O’Conner, Howard Rollins Jr.
I first became familiar with the story of Ragtime from the 1996 Broadway musical, script written by the talented Terrence McNally and based on the novel by E.L. Doctrow. The story (in all mediums) is an attempt to create a slice of life in America right before World War I broke out. Milos Forman was an interesting choice to helm this project; he doesn’t really take on historical epics, instead when he does period pieces he chooses to focus on specific individuals and analyze them down to the grain. In Ragtime, we get broad painted strokes that only give us glimpses.
The interwoven plots contain a mix of fictional characters given vague names like Father, Mother, Younger Brother and historical figures like Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and Evelyn Nesbit (the focal point of what was called the Scandal of the Century at the time). The novel and musical version contain even more historical figures including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Admiral Peary, and Emma Goldman, but I assume they were cut for the sake of time.
In the core plot of the film an upper middle class family in New Rochelle, New York discovers an African-American infant crying in their garden. The police bring a young woman to their house who admits the child is hers and that the father abandoned them. Mother decides to take Sarah, the girl into their home against the wishes of Father. Eventually, piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. arrives on their doorstep revealed to be the father of the child and stating that now that he has a job he is willing to ready to provide for his family. However, tragedy occurs that sets the characters down a path where they witness a change in the entire world. Alongside this plot, Mother’s Younger Brother falls in love with former dance hall girl Evelyn Nesbit and is played for a fool. There’s also Tateh, a Jewish immigrant talented in making silhouettes who eventually makes it big as an early silent filmmaker.
The film presents the world of New York in 1917 with amazing accuracy. Clothing and vehicles and set dressing are spot on and anachronisms are non-existent. However, the broad nature of the film left me feeling indifferent about every character on screen. Every thing feels like it is played towards cliche rather than reality. Part of me feels that uber-producer Dino de Laurentiis played a part in the films broad, flat nature. It’s an interesting film, most notable for the costume design and art direction, but definitely a weaker entry into Milos Forman’s work.

Film 2010 #27 – Wise Blood


Wise Blood (1979, dir. John Huston)
Starring Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Dan Shor, Ned Beatty, William Hickey

I first became aware of the author Flannery O’Conner during my Freshman Comp II class with Dr. Greg Carpenter. We read the classic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and was shocked and happily surprised at how bizarre and quirky the piece was. I would continue expand on my knowledge of the late Southern writer in American Lit II, Southern Lit, and a short stories class all with Dr. Greg’s wife, Dr. Dana. In her Lit of the South class I read Wise Blood, the novel that serves as the basis of this film and found some deep insights and themes that are woven into the fiber of everyday life here in the South.
So, how did Academy Award winning director John Huston do when it came to adapting the novel? Good and bad. If you are one of those people who hates for a film to deviate too far from its source material then I guess you’ll be happy. In my own opinion, Huston stuck so close to O’Conner’s novel that you see how poor of a film it truly makes. The book benefited from the omniscient narration of O’Conner to talk about the psychology of our characters and provide backstory. Here we just have characters speaking the author’s words but with no idea of who they are beyond that.
The biggest problem with the film are the stylistic choices Huston chooses to make. The Southern Grotesque that O’Conner brought to all her work is all but absent here. The film is so bright and the score is horrendous. The music definitely pulled me out of the film on multiple occasions. It’s a bizarre mix of synthesized folk tunes and doofy Hee Haw-esque musical cues. While watching, I couldn’t help but think how the film would have benefited to have been filmed in black and white and to have had no musical score at all. I anticipate a lot of people who love O’Conner disapproving of the film’s contemporary (late 70s) setting. While there are elements of her work that could be argued to be set in a specific time in the South, her stories are equally without grounding in a specific era. Huston’s decision to make it contemporary though, seems to reflect budget constraints rather than artistic choices.
The one character who was used terribly was poor Enoch Emery. The young man who steals a shrunken head doll and dresses as a gorilla is played in a strange way. We aren’t quite sure if he is simply a religious simpleton or has serious mental issues. My own opinion was the latter, but his portrayal in the film feels very uneven. Amy Wright does a great job as the Sabbath Hawkes and Harry Dean Stanton does an adequate job for the small role he is given. The weight of the film rests on Brad Dourif’s shoulders as Hazel Motes and I can’t criticize him too much. The problems with the film come down to a strict adherence to the novel and a lack of strong cinematography.