Examining the extremes: love ’em or hate ’em
None of this month’s films has been hailed universally as a “masterpiece,” at least not so far, and none of them have won academy awards, although they’ve collected some other awards. Critics tend to be sharply divided, either praising them or attacking them. Nonetheless, each of them has virtues, and, for this viewer, their entertainment values outweigh their shortcomings.
Alice in Wonderland
One would expect Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to be perfect matches for Lewis Carroll and the characters of Alice in Wonderland, and in many ways they are. Unfortunately, film viewers expect a lot more from a Tim Burton blockbuster film than contemporary readers expected from the slender volumes created by Reverend Charles Dodgson to amuse Alice Liddell, who may have been the apple of his eye and was one of the subjects of his camera lens.
Burton’s film expands Alice's adventures, drawing from both the original volume and from Through the Looking Glass to create a story of female empowerment, both good and bad, and of a reluctant heroine who must seize the vorpal sword to protect her friends. From Carroll’s poem about the Jabberwock in Through the Looking Glass, he incorporates its monster (who looks like the Tenniel illustration), the frumious Bandersnatch (a huge galloping cat with great claws and massive jaws), and the hero-boy, whom he turns into Alice. The “frabjous day” becomes the day when Alice is fated to slay the Jabberwock and settle accounts between the dominant usurping Red Queen and her sister, the rather vapid White Queen.
No such good-bad conflict exists, at least as I remember, in the original works, because in Carroll’s writings Alice, while underground, interacts with aspects of her own personality. To further complicate matters, Burton creates a framing story in which Alice Kingsleigh, at nineteen, runs away from her impending marriage and follows the White Rabbit to Wonderland (called, appropriately, “Underland” in the film). The inhabitants all assure her she has been there before, and she is fated to carry out a quest (shades of Joseph Campbell). Then, at the end, she expresses her newfound individuality by going to work for her father’s ex-business partner. Fortunately, it is possible to ignore those parts of the plot that are unduly rational or complicated and just enjoy the dream-like whimsy and satire left over from the original works as reimagined by Burton and company.
Australian actress Mia Wasikowska is satisfactory as Alice, although I am not as enthusiastic about her performance as many other reviewers are. The difficulty is that, as one of the creators of the original Disney version indicated, Alice really is no more than a straight man to a bunch of comedians who all have come from her own imagination.
Or, as another reviewer indicated, she serves more as a guide to Wonderland than as a character with whom we’re involved emotionally. What charm Alice has in the original works comes from her innocence and age, both missing from the postpuberty girl in the Burton version. She merely provides a persona for the other characters to criticize and comment on, at least until the ending, when she grasps the vorpal sword.
Helena Bonham Carter, with her head enlarged through computer graphics, steals the show as the villainous Red Queen. With her red-heart lips and humane touches (she rests her tired feet on the warm belly of a live pig), she perfectly portrays a woman who has absolute power but is uncertain she can maintain it. Crispin Glover, with a CGI body, is her cohort, the Knave of Hearts. The star of the show, of course, is Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and he is excellent, switching accents as he switches personalities, veering from sanity to zaniness in the wink of an eye outlined in colored mascara. His jubilant Futterwacken dance at the end is remarkable.
Enjoy the film for the stunning visuals, the eccentric characters and the exceptional acting. Just don’t expect it to be Avatar. Top
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Terry Gilliam has encountered enough bad luck to sink most directors. Despite successes with Monty Python and films Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and Twelve Monkeys (1995), Gilliam had some less successful films, e.g., The Brothers Grimm (2005) and Tideland (2005). He was forced to close his Don Quixote film when the lead actor became ill, a forerunner of the problem of Parnassus.
In the middle of filming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Heath Ledger returned to New York for some rest and died from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. Gilliam could have taken the insurance money and cancelled the film, but he chose to continue and try to save it with inventive editing. For the scenes inside the mind of Dr. Parnassus, he substituted Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell—an acceptable solution since everyone’s appearance changes once he goes through the mirror. Thus, Gilliam was able to complete the film and salvage Ledger’s last performance, although the actor’s death always is in the background.
The plot is loose (not unusual with Gilliam, whose strengths are the set pieces and visuals). Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) and his helpers—his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his assistant Anton (Andrew Garfield), and the dwarf Percy (Verne Troyer)—travel through contemporary London in a horse-drawn wagon that unfolds into a stage. Parnassus lets people go into a mirror, and inside they see a world created by their own imaginations. However, business is bad, partly because of the locations in which they set up.
Centuries ago, Parnassus, who is thousands of years old, made a pact with the devil, Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), in which he would live forever or until his daughter turned sixteen.
At that time, he had no plans to reproduce, but things change, and now his daughter, who knows nothing of the deal, is three days short of her birthday. Swinging into this situation (literally hanging by a noose below a bridge) is Tony (Heath Ledger), a confidence man who offers to help them in return for their having cut him down. The rest of the film follows the bargaining between Parnassus and Mr. Nick as Tony’s help seems to tip the balance to Parnassus.
This predictable plot is merely the framework on which Gilliam hangs his visual set pieces—the ancient monastery where the original pact occurred and four scenes inside the Imaginarium. Christopher Plummer is fine as Parnassus, as is Waits as the devil, and the entire production succeeds despite the complications. The pacing is sometimes uneven, but it’s debatable whether that’s a result of the loss of Ledger or simply Gillaim’s lack of concern for such matters. This may not be Gilliam’s greatest film, but it’s quite watchable, and the visual effects are impressive indeed. Top
Those viewers expecting Rob Marshall’s Nine to be as good as Chicago will be disappointed. The music isn’t as good, the singing and dancing aren’t as good, and the show just doesn’t hold together. Nonetheless, for those who enjoy filmed Broadway musicals, it’s the only game in town and certainly worth a look.
The script, based on Federico Fellini's 1963 masterpiece, 8 1/2, first appeared on Broadway in 1982 and was revived in 2003, winning some awards along the way. Fellini's film was episodic and succeeded because of great direction, acting, photography and some incredible set pieces. The musical, which was altered in each of its stage versions, keeps the episodic quality, but is missing many of the other qualities that Fellini brought to it. Despite the presence of eight Oscar winners, the film simply doesn’t generate much heat or light.
Fortunately, there are enough musical numbers that everyone can find something to like. Judi Dench is effective doing an imitation of Marlene Dietrich striding across the stage in black pants suit, bowler hat and long red boa. I liked Kate Hudson in “Cinema Italiano,” a new number written for the film, although most reviewers were not impressed; she at least looks as if she is having a good time. Marion Cotillard is good as Luisa, the betrayed wife, singing “Take It All,” and Penelope Cruz tries hard to portray Carla, the mistress, bumping and grinding her best.
Many reviewers liked Fergie (of the “Black Eyed Peas”) as Saraghina, the prostitute, singing “Be Italian,” but she lacks the earthy, even bestial quality that the original actress projected. Sophia Loren is fine in the bit part of “Mama,” but the less said about Nicole Kidman as Claudia, the better. Part of the problem is that most of Fellini's characters were deliberately overdone. His mistress Carla (the voluptuous Sandra Milo in the original) knows she looks cheap and a bit like a whore; Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) is the embodiment of purity in her white dresses; Saraghina, a hulk of a woman in a ripped black dress and bare feet, looms over the boy Guido. In the musical they all are tidied up and thus rendered less effective.
At the center of it all is Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido, who brings his own style to the Marcello Mastroianni part. Mastroianni always looks dissipated, as if he has just awakened with a bad hangover, and Day-Lewis, when he opens his shirt, reveals the body of a trained athlete. It’s hard to see him as worn out and ineffectual. But he does bring a bemused quality to the part that helps define it.
The sets and staging are good, although Marshall's camera cross-cutting between “reality” and the musical numbers, as he did in Chicago, is predictable and sometimes becomes more annoying than artistic. Nine is interesting and done probably as well as it can be; it just isn’t the musical Chicago was. It’s a good thing the actors and director already have their Oscars; they won’t get one for this performance. Top
With What Women Want (2000), Something’s Gotta Give (2003), The Holiday (2006) and now It’s Complicated, Nancy Myers consistently provides funny films with older characters, usually from a female point of view. It’s Complicated is her most successful film yet. As Tyler Perry showed with black humor, there’s money in niché marketing. It also helps to have actors who can handle comic roles, and Myers knows what she’s doing.
Despite the title, the plot is not very complicated. Jane Adler (Meryl Streep) is a successful baker and pastry café owner in Santa Barbara. She has been divorced for ten years and the last of her three children has just left for college. She lives a life of luxury, and despite having two ovens in the current kitchen, she is expanding her house to include a new “dream” kitchen (of course, she also has access to all the ovens and cooking equipment at her shop). As you’ve probably guessed, this is not really Santa Barbara, this is Tinseltown Santa Barbara, but just enjoy it vicariously for a while.
Jane's son is about to graduate from college, and she must attend a graduation party where she will encounter Jake, her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin), and Agness (Lake Bell), his young wife with abs of steel.
As it turns out, the wife and her child by another father can’t come, so Jane and Jake end up having (1) dinner together, (2) too many drinks and (3) a roll in the hay—no, make that the bed of the luxury suite in the hotel. Jake is pleased with himself, patting Jane in the appropriate place and saying, “Home, sweet home.” Jane runs to the bathroom and throws up.
For reasons neither of them can articulate, they continue seeing each other after the graduation, each both amused and surprised at what they’re doing. In the meantime, Jane meets Adam (Steve Martin), the architect who is designing the new kitchen, and they are attracted to each other. The big question, of course, is who will Jane choose at the end?
Many of the funny scenes—and the film is full of them—are predictable but funny nonetheless. The jokes actually work. Even when the humorous situations are nearly as old as the actors (e.g., Jake spying on Jane and Adam and then losing his footing), they still are handled well. All three leads are solid with comic timing, and director Myers knows how to wring laughs out of a situation, especially one involving nude older bodies. What she does with an iMac, Alec Baldwin’s fat physique and Steve Martin’s reaction, is hilarious.
The supporting actors also are good, especially John Krasinski as Harley, Jane’s son-in-law-to-be, who knows how to handle comic reactions like a pro. Hunter Parrish is charming as Jane’s son, Luke. Overall, It’s Complicated is amusing, entertaining and despite some reviewers’ objections, rapidly paced enough to keep most viewers interested. It was nominated before its release for three Golden Globe awards (Picture, Leading Actress and Screenplay). Check this out on a night when you need a laugh. Top
Editor’s Note: Films are available on DVD or VHS from local stores. Reviews of earlier films can be found at www.mmnow.com
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