Well, you wouldn’t expect Tim Burton to do a remake of Pollyanna, would you? Or Little Women or Anne of Green Gables or anything that might push back against the enveloping voguish “darkness,” anything that might create some creative tension. His new version of Alice in Wonderland, a 3-D moving-picture book, gives him license, free rein, greased rails, to stage a congenial freak show in a hermetic netherworld.
The customary merger of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, has the innovation of a marriageable age-of-consent heroine, diving down the rabbit hole to escape a surprise engagement party and an odious snooty suitor. This innovation serves the dual purpose of heading off all the tired old sophisticated drolleries about the Reverend Dodgson’s fondness for little girls and, secondly, of feeding the bottomless contemporary appetite for feminist fantasies of empowerment. (The Australian newcomer Mia Wasikowska evolves from a pasty spaced-out flower child to an armored and sword-wielding Saint Joan, Jabberwock-slayer.) There is also, in Burton’s version, an expanded role for the Mad Hatter, to give the obligatory Johnny Depp something more to do than to slip into his clown makeup — whitewashed face, dark-circled eyes, tufty red-orange hair, front-tooth gap — and his come-and-go Scottish accent. And, too, there’s a menagerie of Lost World and Mysterious Island monsters more Conan Doyle or Jules Verne than Lewis Carroll.
In due time, in fact in short order, the movie achieves a different sort of dullness from that of the forced and haphazard novel, a dullness of satiation. Just as Alice has been taught to pinch herself to return from a dream, you can try pinching yourself to reverse your slippage into a CGI stupor, and at any such pinch, snapping to attention, you can appreciate the amount of labor that went into it, the thorough planning, the attention to detail. You can appreciate, for instance, the seesawing scale of the heroine, drinking a magic potion to shrink and eating a counteracting piece of cake to grow; and you can appreciate the twinkling-of-an-eye transformations of the Cheshire Cat, one second vivid enough for you to see every individual hair on its body and the next second a wisp of smoke; and you can appreciate Helena Bonham Carter’s funhouse-mirror Queen of Hearts, with her heart-shaped oversized head and heart-shaped dab of lipstick, or Anne Hathaway’s super-refined White Queen, fragile as fine china, a hair-trigger gag reflex, her hands held at shoulder height as if to avoid all contact while drying her nails. And then very soon satiated again, under the glut of computer-manufactured topography, flora, and fauna, you can drift back into stuporville.
Red Riding, not just one movie, is three separate but connected movies set in 1974, 1980, and 1983, with three separate and unconnected directors (Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, Anand Tucker, in order), and three separate protagonists (a mop-haired cub reporter, a cold-case special investigator, and a portly attorney, played in turn by Andrew Garfield, Paddy Considine, and Mark Addy), all three movies exhibited for the next week at the Ken Cinema on a rotating schedule with separate admissions. Each concerns itself with serial sex crimes in Yorkshire, the first and third concerned with the same series of crimes against schoolgirls and the second concerned more with crimes against prostitutes. As the minutes and the miseries mount up, you might come to feel that the middle part of the triptych could beneficially have been skipped and that the boldness of the conception is perhaps only two-thirds as bold as it looked at the outset. (It would not have looked at all bold if the movies were exhibited here as they were exhibited at home in Britain: on television.) The three share in common, however, unintelligible local accents, colorless color, staggering body counts, a thoroughly sordid vision of police corruption and brutality (ranging from thuggish roughing-up to Medieval torture), and a pervasive sense of unchecked malignance, or “evil” as the poster has it, which is as unrealistic in its opposite way as the righteous justice dispensed by comic-book superheroes. In light of all that, or rather in shadow of all that, it’s a bit bizarre to recall that the director of the third part went straight on to direct this year’s Leap Year with Amy Adams. The mood apparently passed.
Unlike A Prophet last Friday at the Hillcrest, Ajami arrives this Friday at the La Jolla Village as no longer a contender for the foreign-film Oscar, already a loser. (A gambler, that is to say, and a loser, joining the more opportunistic Prophet in the crying room.) That, though, oughtn’t to dim its attractions as much as its overcast lackluster color ought. Set in the roiling melting pot of Jaffa, the writing and directing collaboration of Jewish and Palestinian Israelis, Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti, is a push-and-pull of contradictions: a balanced and even-handed treatment of tremulous sensationalized subject matter (a mafia-like blood feud, drug traffic, forbidden love, illegal immigration, hate crime, etc.), and rounded humanized humans, played by natural nonprofessionals, in an artificial, fragmented, nonlinear, self-consciously “clever” narrative. Following it isn’t difficult. Sticking with it might be.
So — speaking of the Oscars — another barrier gets knocked down by the Academy, the first female director to be the Best Director, a cause for intensification of the annual ritual of the Hollywood self-backpat. I’d be more moved to get my own hand in on the drumming if it hadn’t been the director hitherto of Blue Steel, Point Break, et al., if, say, it had instead been the director of Sweetie, The Portrait of a Lady, et al. When I contemplated Bright Star in the past year, one of my thoughts was, only Jane Campion could have made that movie. (One Oscar nomination: Costume Design.) When I contemplated The Hurt Locker on the other hand, my comparable thought might have been, it could just as well be Antoine Fuqua, Paul Greengrass, Edward Zwick, Joel Schumacher, Tony Scott, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, any old man whatever.