MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Alice in Wonderland, Brooklyn’s Finest and Terribly Happy

Alice in Wonderland (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Tim Burton, 2010

Curiouser and curiouser.

Tim Burton has made another of his goofy-giddy visual marvels out of Lewis Carroll‘s oft-filmed classic Alice in Wonderland. And while I think his movie does lose some of the delicately loony spirit of the original, and much of its scrumptious nonsense and poetry, that doesn’t matter as much as you might think. There are compensations.

Burton’s movie is not so much another film adaptation of Alice — there have been many, including Walt Disney’s own famous (and comparatively faithful) 1951 feature cartoon version — as it is a sequel to and a post-millennial take on the original Carroll stories Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, advanced in time to become the story of Alice, no longer ten, but now a comely young blonde of 19, played by sturdy, beautiful, heroic-looking Australian actress Mia Wasikowska.

This Alice, a Victorian pre-feminist “Alice Doesn’t” type, is about to have her hand in marriage requested, or demanded, in public by a pre-Monty Python insufferable British twit type named Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), at a posh, prim garden party that suggests Brideshead Revisited revisited or a Merchant-Ivory outdoor banquet and croquet festival. Alice though, takes one look at dorky, ill-tempered Hamish on one knee, and scrams — after spotting her old pal, the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen, doing a variation on his Tony Blair), chasing him and tumbling down the rabbit hole again, to find herself, after all these years and post puberty, once again in Wonderland — or “Underland,” as it’s now sometimes called. (An unfortunate choice perhaps, since it may tempt shameless critics into digressions on “Blunderland,” “Dunderland,“ “Plunderland” and, for this movie’s rip-roaring action climax, “Blood and Thunderland.”)

Alice seems to have forgotten some of her dreamy past. (Acid blackout?) But many of the old Wonderlanders and Looking Glass People are there, and looking great, including the Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, in excelsis), the White Queen (Anne Hathaway in white Glinda gown and black lipstick ), the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover, reborn), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas, twinned) the Jabberwocky (menacingly voiced by Christopher Lee) — and finally, now elevated to leading man status, the top-happed, sad-eyed, orange-haired Mad Hatter (played by Johnny Depp, following marvelously in the footsteps of previous movie mad-hatters like Edward Everett Horton, Peter Cook, and Robert Helpmann, though not, sadly, Groucho.) No truth, by the way, to the rumor that Alec Baldwin‘s scenes as Humpty Dumpty were cut, at Baldwin’s request.

This Wonderland — excuse me, this Underland — is a place of one time marvels rotting into wilderness, forest riot and bleak devastation, with a palace or two peeking out of the gloom. It’s a madhouse monarchy, under the prancing heel of the tyrannical Red Queen, who screams “Off with their heads” as often and as petulantly as a spoiled heiress might demand that servants and waiters be canned — with the Knave as her right hand minion, the Jabberwocky as her enforcer, the frumious Bandersnatch lurking around somewhere, and a deck of sword-wielding cards as her Axis-of-Icky army.

So, after this fiendish Queen (deliciously played by Bonham Carter, with pumped up head, puffy cheeks and bee-stung lips) imprisons the Hatter, and prepares him for the fate of John the Baptist at Salome’s hands, meanwhile offing heads right and left, and otherwise behaving very badly, our Alice, far from garden party twit-land, must don the armor of Joan of Arc (the Milla Jovovich version, not Falconetti’s or Ingrid Bergman‘s), pick up her Excalibur-ian vorpal sword, and prepare to slash and Jabber-whack her way to glory.

Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland is one of the strangest, most poetic and compelling of all children‘s classics — a dreamy, beautifully absurd tale, with unique veins of crocked whimsy and creepy nightmare, a madhouse pageant that delights children, and then delights them as adults even more. I read it first in Chicago at seven, partly on the El as I rode with my mother, and it certainly delighted me. Scared me too. And aroused me, and filled me with all the wonder of the very best child’s play, at half-past brillig.

Here, there’s something sometimes a bit too obvious about what writer Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast) has done with her updated story. A feminist Alice? A runaway bride down a rabbit hole? Taking a Lord of the Rings quest though a wasted Underland? Final bloody battles with a snicker-snacking vorpal sword? Sailing off like Queen Christina? This is what we’d almost expect out of a politically correct Hollywood “Alice” in the new Millennium. And, given the way big expensive mass-audience movies are planned and designed, we shouldn’t be surprised that the last act erupts into such a slashing, bashing action movie showdown in Blunderland. (The original Alice ended with a battle too, though scattering a deck of cards is less bloody than Jabberwocky bashing.)

But, since Alice has been filmed so many times before, and doubtless will be filmed many times again, we shouldn’t worry that the material has undergone such bizarre embroidery. I happen to like Walter Murch‘s Return to Oz, and Burton and company adopt the same kind of strategy here: continuing the story in new directions and laying riffs on all the great old stuff — while still, in their way, loving and honoring it. I’d personally like a bit more poetry and nonsense, a bit less blood and thunder. But I‘m happy with what I got.

Mia Wasikowska, like Jovovich, looks like a model you don’t mess with, and, though she certainly works well in this interpretation, I must confess I missed the logically minded, curious, brave little explorer that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) made of his river child companion Alice Liddell, when he originally told the story. But Wasikowska is good. And Depp is as Mad a Hatter as you could possibly want. His eyes gleam with the frenzied glee of a mad mathematician hot on the scent of a missing logarithm, or the sad resigned sweetness of a melancholy survivor wondering where his world went. (And, by the way, where was Paul Whitehouse’s March Hare for most of the movie? Sulking? Living it up with the White Rabbit?)

Bonham Carter is the Red Queen of your worst and most succulent nightmares, flouncing around the castle like a wicked royal pussy-cat on the prowl. At her side, Crispin Glover’s Knave grovels with sleazy panache and bullies with back-stabbing authority, much like a Washington congressman with a hooker waiting in the hotel and lots of lobbyist and PAC money in his pocket. I can only say that the Blue Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat and Bayard may be the parts Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry and Timothy Spall were born to play. Are they ready for the sequel? (Oh, of course, this was the sequel.)

As for the look of the film, screened in mostly unobtrusive 3D, added after the original 2D shooting, it’s the usual feast of Burtonesque marvels, aided immeasurably by crafty cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Robert Stromberg, special effects guy Ken Ralston and costume designer Colleen Atwood — with a fine rousing, sometimes bittersweet pop-Brahmsian score by Danny Elfman rolling over all.

So let’s be happy that Burton can still pop down a rabbit hole or two, even if what he finds there seems more like the Underland Express. After all, one of the best things about this new “Alice,“ is that it gives you an excuse to read the Lewis Carroll books again. Oh, frabjous day! Calloo! Callay! (He chortled in his joy.)

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Brooklyn’s Finest (Three Stars)
U.S.; Antoine Fucqua, 201O

Brooklyn’s Finest, the new police melodrama from Antoine Fucqua (Training Day), is a neo-noir with lots of visual punch and swagger. Swooped along through the mean streets and dingy hallways by Fucqua’s gaudy repertoire of crane and tracking shots, it‘s an urban cop thriller that gives us three interweaving stories about three bad-news cops. As if in a three-part Departed, we follow, by turns, impending retiree Eddie (Richard Gere), whose gal pal is a whore and who’s so depressed he wakes up and puts a gun in his mouth for practice. Then there‘s narc/family man Sal (Ethan Hawke), a father of five (with two in the oven), who has medical and home repair issues suffered with wife Angela (Lili Taylor), and who augments their depleted income by rubbing out dealers and crooks (like Vincent D’Onofrio’s Calo) and confiscating loot.

Finally there‘s quiet, rebellious, had-it-up-to-here Tango (Don Cheadle), who’s been undercover with the gangs so long, including a current gig with buddy/mobster Caz (Wesley Snipes), that his dreams of a nice, safe desk job seem to be vanishing forever — especially when he has to lock horns with boss Hobarts (Will Patton) and supervising federal agent Smith (Ellen Barkin, at her meanest.) All these actors give high-grade performances, with the edge maybe going to Cheadle. And I liked Hawke and D’Onofrio in their opening Brando-Steiger-style front-seat rip.

The movie’s three main guys don’t hang around together. But they’re obviously all headed for Crash-style multiple trouble. And though the term “Brooklyn’s Finest” is intended with irony, to me, at least, two of the trio, Eddie and Tango, were actually good cops or potentially good cops getting a bad deal — and Sal’s problems could have been solved by decent pay. So, why is big money going instead to those lousy health care insurance execs, and not divvied among people who really keep us from getting killed?

It’s a mistake, I think, to process or judge this move too much as if it were a realistic crime story by Joseph Wambaugh, or even an episode of Law and Order. Director Antoine Fucqua (Training Day), working with an intricate but often implausible script by writers Michael C. Martin and Brad Caleb Kane, uses the surface realism of the street scenes and the profane chatter and fuck-you-no-fuck-you dialogue to set up another movie that‘s basically a street western. Fucqua specializes in street westerns and operatic cop movies, and he‘s good at them. With all his moving camera shots, he sometimes seems like the Max Ophuls of street sleaze. He also tries at times to be the Sergio Leone of neo-noir and, at his best, he almost makes it. His big weakness: Over-the-top endings that don’t make any damned sense.

Fucqua doesn’t seem to be even trying for straight out realism here. If he were, he should probably have gotten another script rewrite, and adopted the pseudo-documentary style of a Gomorrah, A Prophet or a Ken Loach film, or the more austere visual strategies and naturalistic acting of Sidney Lumet‘s Serpico or Prince of the City. And he should maybe tamped down the stylish photographic coups which are some of the best things in this movie. (Cinematographer Patrick Murguia sets the streets on fire.)

Street westerns and neo-noir have their own laws and pleasures — maybe a funny-sounding word for a movie as violent as this one. And, in Brooklyn’s Finest, what keeps things cracking are the savvy of the actors, the flash of the visual style, and the grim, mordant, take-us-to-the-dark-side attitude. It’s gotten a lot of mixed to bad notices. Still, I enjoyed it as much as the better-reviewed Danish cop thriller Terribly Happy (See below.) But the ending still didn’t make much damned sense.

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Terribly Happy (Three Stars)
Denmark; Henrik Ruben Genz, 2008

A troubled cop with a dark secret named Robert Hansen (Jakob Cedergren) travels from Copenhagen to a small Danish town, where the citizens at the local bar tend to be sarcastic and vaguely menacing and the local drunken doctor, Zerleng (Lars Brygman) keeps hinting at something awful. A local looker, Ingelise Buhl (Lene Maria Christensen), seems to be promoting an affair with Robert, even while her abusive hubby, Jorgen, keeps wandering over from the bicycle shop, knocking loudly, and looking tough, dangerous and ready to explode. Meanwhile, people keep throwing things, including corpses, into the local bog.

So, what have we got here? A Lars von Trier-style Bad Day at Black Rock? A Danish take on Shutter Island? No. It turns out this movie is a full-blown Danish Coen Brothers neo-noir thriller homage, as redolent of the Coens’ work (and especially of Blood Simple), as the Coens’ Barton Fink was of Roman Polanski’s movies. A little over-rated perhaps, and I‘m not sure how well the projected American remake will work when it’s transplanted here. But it works well enough in Denmark. (In Danish, with English subtitles.)

– Michael Wilmington
March 4, 2010

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