Skip to main content

What a regrettably large head you have.


Alice in Wonderland
(2010)

I suspect I was more charitable to Tim Burton’s kind-of “sequel” to, I guess, Alice Through the Looking Glass on first viewing, as it had already been weighed down by critical brickbats (ineffective at denting its $1bn+ worldwide box office, surfing the nascent 3D wave as it was). A revisit confirms many of the complaints nursed by its maligners.

That said, I take a rather different position to those that claim Burton has lost all his gothic weirdness in the last decade or so; that he is now just a commercialised parody of his early, offbeat sensibilities. Burton was always an incredibly hit-and-miss, ungainly filmmaker and I’m not sure that his clout these days has had any great impact on that. Probably he does play it too safe, both in choices of projects (remakes and known properties) and actors (the ever-present Helena and Johnny). But I remember finding Beetlejuice a disappointment on first viewing (a heinous admission I know; I should qualify this by advising that I now consider it possibly his best film), and failed to comprehend why everyone was going so crazy for his sluggish, poorly-choreographed Batman (I still find that one entirely mediocre).

And, to go against the grain further, I don’t think his Planet of the Apes remake is all that bad. It looks great, the ape design is terrific, and it was willing to go in a different direction to a straight reboot. The problem there is that it has nothing of Burton’s sensibility about it, and the least-Burton leading man ever in Mark Wahlberg at his most plankish. Since then, it’s only his big hits that have really left me non-plussed. I thought Big Fish was up there with his best work, Dark Shadows underrated and Sweeney Todd admirably grand guignol (it’s just the songs that stink, admittedly a not insignificant problem).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an utterly tepid remake that saw Burton fully embrace his predilection for art direction over story. It also gave us Depp indulging in a misfiring Whacko Jacko impersonation that had none of the slightly deranged charisma of Gene Wilder in the original. Crucially, it abandoned the third act twist that made the film an improvement on Roald Dahl’s book (Dahl never being much of one for morals of tales, and I might agree with him but in this case it added needed form and weight to the story).

And so, with massive success for his first out-and-out family movie, why not return to the well? And if there’s some twist in a take on classic material so you can claim it isn’t a straight remake, so much the better. Picking up on Alice thirteen years later isn’t necessarily a bad idea (it worked for Jim Hawkins in John Silver’s Return to Treasure Island!) but it needs to have something going for it beyond “Alice meets all the old crew”. And beyond her dissatisfaction with the adult world being reflected in the decaying and decidedly un-wondrous land she fetches up in. There is a germ of a good idea there, but what is done with it is so obvious and unimaginative as to make one despair (what a surprise that the message is that all the best people are mad! – ironic in a film that is creatively so unadventurous).

How about, instead of the death of childhood being made literal as the death of Wonderland (now Underland – how inspired!), Linda Woolverton came up with something fresh. Such as the world Alice happens upon this time being even stranger and more twisted (especially since the Alice we see at the outset appears to have retained her imaginative and idiosyncratic qualities in surroundings that do not welcome such traits)? Well, Woolverton may have a chance to make it all right, as she is scribbling a sequel.

Apparently Burton saw this as a “re-imagining” rather than a direct sequel. But then, he was wont to come out will all sorts of guff in interviews at the time, such as decrying the lack of “emotional connection” in the books (as if his film somehow rectifies this, rather being exactly the series of events he criticises Carroll for writing). It’s not necessarily a requirement that you love the work you reinvent (J J Abrams did a good job with Star Trek and had little time for it previously), but this impulse to decry the inspiration for your project should really be avoided by filmmakers.

So the basic set-up isn’t completely without merit; Alice, attending a garden party and having just received an unwanted marriage proposal, pursues a white rabbit and falls down a hole, from whence to Underland. She meets various old acquaintances (whom she does not recognise as she cannot recall her past visit(s)) and is told that she (or the “right Alice”) is foretold to slay the Jabberwocky, servant of the Red Queen. Once the Red Queen learns of Alice’s return, she demands for her to be found.

But the notes struck by Woolverton are strictly pedestrian, driving the tale towards a big climactic fight sequence with a monster, so as to draw closer parallels with Tolkien than Carroll’s Alice (who dons armour - really this is as much about appropriating the Jabberwocky poem as anything).

And Burton doesn’t enliven matters with his first extensive use of green screen. The joins are all too obvious and the planes he works on appear very flat; more often than not we are conscious that the physical actors are not interacting with anything tangible, be that down to eyelines, lighting or unimaginative staging. As mentioned earlier, Burton’s worlds have always been, at very least, built on their (heightened) physicality upwards. Without this crutch he seems all-at-sea. It’s not as if the computer wizardry has come up with anything arresting; the choice of a grimy, decaying landscape might be seen as a bold one for a big family film (it’s certainly a striking contrast to Sam Raimi’s Technicolor yawn of Oz The Great and Powerful) but Burton clearly doesn’t have a driving vision for his film. The designs of familiar characters lack verve, impressively animated but bereft of life.

In that sense they accurately reflect the lack of wit and playfulness inherent in the screenplay. There is no charm here. Depp doesn’t come quite as unstuck as with Willy Wonka, but that’s only because he is less central. His Hatter is even served an undercooked backstory, while his madness allows him to indulge a variety of tics and voices (“Naughty” being his catchphrase of choice). Elsewhere Burton seems to have fixed on a look as uninventive as basing characters on a hall of mirrors; so Crispin Glover’s Knave (why employ Glover and use none of his manic energy?) is all elongated limbs, while Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen has a big fat head.

Bonham Carter’s performance is a shameless riff on Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth in Black-Adder II, but not nearly as much fun. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen is utterly forgettable, meanwhile. Many of the individuals cast are fine (Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry) but the dialogue and designs let them down – with the exception of Paul Whitehouse’s loopy-looking March Hare. The Jabberwocky is a dull, generic monster; not a patch on Gilliam’s faithful-on-a-budget take in Jabberwocky. Mia Wasikowska makes for a lovely but unpresuming Alice; she doesn’t really get a grip on the forthrightness and obstinacy of the character, but then she has not been given much of a part on paper.

For the most part, while this is an uninspired take on Alice it isn’t actually outright bad. Until, that is, a victorious Hatter does a cringeworthy dance (soon after repeated by Alice) that would have made the 30 year-old Burton (who concluded Beetlejuice with a sublime dance number) wretch violently.

And then there’s the strange coda where Alice proposes going to work for her late father’s friend Lord Ascot, opening up trade routes with China. It feels like a “missing the wood for the trees” choice, partly because Alice is imbued with a modern take on female independence by making her an agent of British colonialism. But also because it suggests that Alice has put away her childish imagination (even given the sight of Absolom, clearly real, on her shoulder, or the scratches on her arm from the Bandersnatch) and stepped forward bravely into the sterile world of soulless capitalism. Where’s the wonder in that?

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Where is the voice that said altered carbon would free us from the cells of our flesh?

Altered Carbon Season One
(SPOILERS) Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

You’re never the same man twice.

The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)
(SPOILERS) Roger Moore playing dual roles? It sounds like an unintentionally amusing prospect for audiences accustomed to the actor’s “Raise an eyebrow” method of acting. Consequently, this post-Saint pre-Bond role (in which he does offer some notable eyebrow acting) is more of a curiosity for the quality of Sir Rog’s performance than the out-there premise that can’t quite sustain the picture’s running time. It is telling that the same story was adapted for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents 15 years earlier, since the uncanny idea at its core feels like a much better fit for a trim 50 minute anthology series.

Basil Dearden directs, and co-adapted the screenplay from Anthony Armstrong’s novel The Strange Case of Mr Pelham. Dearden started out with Ealing, helming several Will Hay pictures and a segment of Dead of Night (one might imagine a shortened version of this tale ending up there, or in any of the portmanteau horrors that arrived in the year…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You think I contaminated myself, you think I did that?

Silkwood (1983)
Mike Nichol’s film about union activist Karen Silkwood, who died under suspicious circumstances in a car accident in 1974, remains a powerful piece of work; even more so in the wake of Fukushima. If we transpose the microcosm of employees of a nuclear plant, who would rather look the other way in favour of a pay cheque, to the macrocosm of a world dependent on an energy source that could spell our destruction (just don’t think about it and, if you do, be reassured by the pronouncements of “experts” on how safe it all is; and if that doesn’t persuade you be under no illusion that we need this power now, future generations be damned!) it is just as relevant.

We’re going to find that creature they call the Yeti.

The Abominable Snowman (1957)
The Abominable Snowman follows the first two Quatermass serials as the third Hammer adaptation of a Nigel Kneale BBC work. As with those films, Val Guest takes the directorial reins, to mixed results. Hammer staple Peter Cushing repeats his role from The Creature (the title of the original teleplay). The result is worthy in sentiment but unexceptional in dramatic heft. Guest fails to balance Kneale’s idea of essentially sympathetic creatures with the disintegration of the group bent on finding them.

Nevertheless, Kneale’s premise still stands out. The idea that the Yeti is an essentially shy, peaceful, cryptozoological beastie is now commonplace, but Kneale adds a further twist by suggesting that they are a distinct and in some respects more advance parallel branch in the evolution of hominids (the more extravagant notion that they are in some way extra-dimensional is absent, but with the powers thy sport here wouldn’t be such a leap). Cushing’s Rollason is…