PICKS OF THE WEEK
Alice in Wonderland (A-)
U.S.; Tim Burton, 2010, Walt Disney
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 -- as well as 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 as it is a sequel. It's 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 10, but now a comely young blond 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.
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 Marx.)
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.
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-sneeing vorpal blade?
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'd personally like a bit more poetry and nonsense, a bit less blood and thunder. But I'm happy with what I got.
As for the look of the film, 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.
The Sun (A)
Russia; Aleksandr Sokurov, 2005, Kino
Russia's Aleksandr Sokurov is a great contemporary filmmaker with an interesting slant on tyranny -- a cinematic obsession which may come from Sokurov's experiences in the waning years of Communism. Sokurov sees dictatorship in its weird, mundane side (as in Moloch, about Hitler) and, in The Sun, about Japan's Emperor Hirohito, he sees its sentimental, absurdly stylized aspect.
The movie is about how Emperor Hirohito (played by Issei Ogata) loses his godhood as Japan falls, about his emergence from his mythic status as a royal deity; from his cloistered household and retinue of courtiers, servants and government ministers; and about his strange, ultimately momentous conversations with Japan's sharp and somewhat theatrical conqueror Gen. Douglas MacArthur (played by Robert Dawson).
Hirohito lived far from the bloody tragedy of the war his ministers oversaw, and far from the sufferings of the common people, his subjects, and for him to become human and socially harmless, and do what MacArthur wants, he has to renounce his supposedly godlike estate. That he eventually does: a fussy, gentle-looking, detached little man who -- as was often remarked at the time -- looks a bit like Charlie Chaplin. (So did Hitler, as we are still reminded by The Great Dictator.)
In Sokurov's 2002 masterpiece Russian Ark, he and his great cinematographer/Steadicam operator Tilman Buttner executed the greatest tracking shot in the history of movies: their film-long one-shot phantasmagorical tour through St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, and through Russia's history and culture. Here, in The Sun, which Sokurov shot himself, everything cinematic is simple, almost antique. The movie suggests a dimly colored curio rescued from the past, done discreetly, quietly, with an almost mystical calm, like a Japanese domestic drama of the '30s by Ozu, Naruse or Shimizu. While we watch a tyrant and a god falls -- but it's only a sad shy little mustached man, not even Charlie.
Spartacus (50th Anniversary Edition) (A)
U.S.; Stanley Kubrick & Anthony Mann (uncredited), 1960, Universal
Star-producer Kirk Douglas' mammoth adaptation from Howard Fast's novel of the Roman slave rebellion -- with Douglas at his fieriest and most untamable as gladiator-turned-rebel-leader Spartacus -- was one of two great leftist movie epics scripted in 1960 by longtime blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo; the other was Otto Preminger's excellent film of Leon Uris's birth-of-Israel saga, Exodus.
Spartacus is the one probably most remembered today, though, for its sweep, its spectacle, its passionate Alex North score, its stunning Russell Metty cinematography, for Trumbo's deliciously partisan portrayal of the battle between the heroic slaves and their degenerate aristocratic Roman masters (obviously partly an analogue for Hollywood's blacklisted leftists and the studio establishment) and for the all-star cast backing Douglas -- including Laurence Olivier as Spartacus' foe, the ruthless bisexual General Crassus, Charles Laughton as wily old Gracchus, Tony Curtis as Spartacus' devoted lieutenant Antonius, Jean Simmons as the slave girl/wife Varinia, John Gavin as young Julius Caesar, Woody Strode as Draba, the black gladiator whose death triggers the revolt, and Oscar-winner Peter Ustinov as Lentulus Baiatus, the smarmy, wheedling, ass-kissing head of the gladiator school.
And then, of course, there's the director, the young Stanley Kubrick, who had already worked with Douglas in the 1957 anti-war World War I classic, Paths of Glory and who replaced the original director Anthony Mann when Mann and executive producer Douglas butted heads. (Before he left, Western expert Mann shot much of Spartacus' memorable gladiator school sequence.) Dismissed by some critics as director Kubrick's least personal project, it's in fact become one of Kubrick's best-loved movies: a progressive historical-war saga par excellence, and the grandest of all Hollywood homoerotic sword-and-sandals epics -- made even more homoerotic by the addition in recent years of the initially deleted Olivier-Curtis bath sequence. It's also certainly a movie that fits in solidly with Kubrick's anti-establishment Hollywood filmography, and his frequent portrayals of perverse establishments and of doom-ridden protagonists battling destiny in inexorable traps.
2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon may be more typically Kubrickian epics, but neither one has a moment that emotionally charges you up like the famous scene in Spartacus, when the vanquished slave army general Spartacus is asked by his Roman captors to reveal himself, and he's beaten to the punch by his soldiers, who leap to their feet and defiantly yell: "I am Spartacus." "I am Spartacus!" "I am Spartacus!" It's a moment of anti-informant passion that HUAC target Trumbo had to cherish. (Extras: deleted scenes; interviews with Ustinov and Simmons; newsreels and trailers.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Barbara Stanwyck Collection (B)
U.S.; various directors, 1937-1956, Universal
On screen, Barbara Stanwyck could be an elegant lady, a tough professional or a swell broad. And, occasionally, as a hard-boiled villainess in uncompromising thrillers like the great Double Indemnity, she could be absolute hell on Earth. But you can always see, peeking though the glamorous or knowing exteriors, the true-blue qualities of honesty, earthiness, dependability and camaraderie that made the actress, known to her fellow players and to backstage workers as "Missy," one of the best-loved of all first-echelon Golden Age movie stars. (Frank Capra admitted to having a fierce, longtime crush on her.)
Here are six relatively rare Stanwycks, including an Alfred Santell-directed sleeper Internes Can't Take Money that became the first Dr. Kildare movie (with Joel McCrea as the idealistic doc); a misbegotten but stylish western by William Wellman; an underrated outing with Stanwyck as a gambling addict, and two '50s domestic dramas by Douglas Sirk, including the neglected classic There's Always Tomorrow. They're not all good, and The Bride Wore Boots is pretty bad. But Stanwyck is good or wonderful in every one.
Internes Can't Take Money (B)
U.S.; Alfred Santell, 1937
The first movie adaptation of one of Max Brand's "Dr. Kildare" stories, with Stanwyck as a noble ex-convict mother trying to rescue her child, Lloyd Nolan as a good-hearted crook, and Joel McCrea as the idealistic doc later played by Lew Ayres and (on TV) Richard Chamberlain. Director Santell is little remembered today, except for his expressionistic 1937 film of Maxwell Anderson's Winterset, with Burgess Meredith, but this is a good, stylish job.
The Great Man's Lady (B-)
U.S.; William Wellman, 1942
Another good, stylish piece of direction -- this time by the celebrated "Wild Bill" Wellman. But the story is ridiculous: McCrea is a recently deceased and long lionized mine owner/explorer/U.S. senator who's kept secret his marriage to, and desertion of, his true inspiration, the now 100-year-old Stanwyck, who made do instead with good-hearted gambler Brian Donlevy, a hero of the (offscreen!) San Francisco earthquake. Now she spills all the secrets to a comely young journalist/biographer, who decides to "print the legend." Likable but absurd -- and as a 100-year-old, Missy is no Beulah Bondi.
The Bride Wore Boots (C)
U.S.; Irving Pichel, 1946
Idiotic romantic triangle comedy with Stanwyck as a Virginia horse-lover, Bob Cummings as her Gen. Lee-loving, horse-phobic hubby, Patric Knowles as a cocky horseman suitor and Diana Lynn, Preston Sturges' girl prodigy, as the other woman.
The Lady Gambles (B)
U.S.; Michael Gordon
The ending is par-for-the-course phony, but up till then, this portrayal of a good wife/photographer sinking into the hell of gambling addiction is mostly tight and tense, with Stanwyck giving a neglected major performance. With Robert Preston and Stephen McNally.
All I Desire (B)
U.S.; Douglas Sirk, 1953
Stanwyck is a fading traveling actress who deserted her small-town husband (Richard Carlson) and now returns for her daughter's local stage triumph. Some of the plot contrivances here are as silly as the ones in The Great Man's Lady, but Sirk makes them all work. And B.S. is terrific.
There's Always Tomorrow (A-)
U.S.; Douglas Sirk, 1956
She's terrific here too, in a much better movie -- as the formidably successful career woman who left her unrequited love/boss (Fred MacMurray, in a fine job) years ago, and now returns to find him overworked and unappreciated by wife Joan Bennett (in a rare goody two-shoes role) and his children, and seemingly ripe for an affair. Sirk is at his best, even if Tomorrow is lesser known than his other '50s classics. And no one, not even Bette Davis, could have played the female lead better. (Well, maybe Kate Hepburn.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Wolfman (B-)
U.S.; Joe Johnston, 2010, Universal
The Wolfman proves once again that if you treat kitsch like a classic, you may lose what made it so much fun in the first place.
This punishingly elaborate remake is based on that delightful little 1941 horror movie The Wolf Man, the well-loved picture in which Lon Chaney Jr., as the reluctant werewolf Lawrence Talbot, moped and went on bloody rampages, while Ralph Bellamy and Patric Knowles tried to track him down and Claude Rains (as indulgent daddy Sir John) tried to protect him from the commoners.
This expensive-looking new version, however, treats the enjoyable old chiller as if it were something more like Bleak House or Wuthering Heights. It drenches the wolf tale in luscious Victorian décor, gussies it up with eye-popping 21st-century special effects and director Joe Johnston's (The Rocketeer) rock-'em sock-'em action scenes; photographs it (by Shelly Johnson) as if it were a series of tableaux for a Vogue layout on gothic horror; hires two bona fide (and deserving) Oscar winners, Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, to emote anxiously or menacingly as Larry and Sir John (actually Del Toro, who is one of the producers, hired himself), and drowns the whole result in a sonorous and Mahlerian Danny Elfman score that sounds, at the very least, like the beginning notes for Elfman's Lycanthrope Symphony or Wolfman Suite.
Scriptwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self don't help much, though they've been incredibly busy. No "Boy Meets Girl" playboys they! Their innovations seem to include switching to the Victorian era background (not a bad idea), turning Del Toro's Larry from a mumbling aristocrat into a mumbling Shakespearian actor on tour, whose entire tour, and apparently Sir Lawrence's entire career, are forgotten as soon as he goes to Talbot Mansion at the behest of heroine Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt).
There's some fun in watching how wildly out of scale everything has become in Wolfman. (The 1941 movie clocked in at a brisk 70 minutes and probably could have been financed with the catering bill here.) But there's not much fun in the movie -- which ends with a last embrace above a moonlit waterfall, a death scene out of Bronte, and a burning mansion out of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.