Forbidden Planet (1956)

Monsters…of the id!

I’ve always thought it would be fun to open up my own movie theatre. In addition to a bunch of new releases, I’d have one or two theatres reserved for old favorites, black-and-white gems and old-fashioned double features. We’d do everything from crime films (Bogey, Marty, etc.) to westerns (Leone, Eastwood, the Duke, etc.) to campy sci-fi films (Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Revenge of the Creature, etc.).  I don’t know what I’d call the place; I haven’t given it that much thought.  After about two minutes my thoughts usually land on the fact that it costs about $3000 to rent a film, but as far as a name, I suppose I wouldn’t want something too kitschy.  I wouldn’t name it after a movie or a genre or anything; that’s limiting.  No star destroyer on the roof.  Nothing with my name in it either.

Naturally, the old-school end of the theatre would be graced by Anne Francis’ face as often as possible.  Who could forget her role in Fred Wilcox’s 1956 camp classic, Forbidden Planet?  This film not only capped Leslie Nielsen’s career and became one of the greatest and well-known science fiction films of all time, but its hand of influence has extended a long way.  Look at ABC’s LOST and the entire concept behind the smoke monster.  It started out as a nod to Wilcox’s film, in which the id monster starts out as an invisible entity that kills people, everyone who sees it seems to see something different, and the inhabitants of the planet set up a series of electronic pylons to protect themselves from it.

If you don’t know the story, a group of military space-travelers from Earth investigate a planet called Altair IV to discover the fate of a colony expedition from twenty years earlier.  There, they find Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who has set up an entire community to live in with his daughter, Alta (Anne Francis).  The commander of the Earth people (Nielsen) takes charge, though Morbius and Alta seem quite content to stay and be left alone.

The film deploys a few devices that are now filed under a “classic” column of their own category, including Robby the Robot, who would go on to be used in other films, and the infamous flying saucer that the Earth crew fly around in.  The performances, while occasionally a bit stony, are par for the course: Pidgeon makes a convincing “mad doctor” who is actually the only one who knows what he’s doing, and Jack Kelly makes a great pervert/womanizer, and we just know he’ll be the first to get the ragdoll treatment from the monster.  Some of my favorite scenes involve Earl Holliman as the ship’s cook, who asks Robby the Robot to make him “60 gallons” of his favorite whiskey.  They’re not just silly in an “old movie” sort of way, but they still hold up comedically today.  The cook, the spunkiest of our crew of heroes, is audacious (and perhaps drunk) enough to give it a go with the metallic Robby, wondering “Is it male or female?” right out of the box.

This interesting “partner” dynamic glows from every corner of the film.  The voyeuristic misogyny surrounding Alta is exemplified in Jack Kelly’s character immediately trying to bed her, and even though she doesn’t like him, she doesn’t mind kissing him a bit since she has no concept of love, sexuality or physical intimacy.  Oddly (and inevitably) enough, she discovers these essentials in the confident commander, who is initially quite rude and snakelike towards her.  What does her instant falling for him and acceptance of sexuality indicate?  Is this a signifier for complete sexual liberation?  The thought that humans are inherently sexual or otherwise primal enough that even when deprived of our essential functions and learnings for decades of life, we’ll instinctively find our way to them?  Or it is as simple as the innocent woman always falling for the brawny asshole who doesn’t even try?  Take away from it what you will, but you can’t deny the deliberate sex appeal Wilcox was going for with a scantily-dressed barefoot virgin who communes with wild tigers on her own planet.  Francis’ scenes are stunning and it’s almost unfair how bland the others (even Nielsen) appear next to her.

The abstract tonality of Leo and Bebe Barron’s, shall we say, “unmusic” is truly something to behold.  At first, its subtlety may cause it to slip by unnoticed in the background, but the true genius of the soundtrack lies in the fact that it doesn’t cause us to expect anything.  It doesn’t build up to crescendo in tense moments, it doesn’t get loud when the monster shows up and starts flinging crew members around like flapjacks.

The film also has an interesting resolution – one that I did not find as predictable as I thought I would.  It ends abruptly after the main mystery is figured out, but in those days, there wasn’t much to hang onto, as many of these films function purely on a plot twist or central mystery that remains the sole focus of the narrative, even surpassing the characters themselves in importance.

Until my imaginary movie theater opens, I’ll have to keep revisiting these influential jewels on my own (or going to Disney’s Sci-Fi Theater – is that still open?).  I hope no one forgets about them.

 

Forbidden Planet (1956); written by Cyril Hume (based on a story by Allen Adler); directed by Fred M. Wilcox; starring Leslie Nielsen, Anne Francis and Walter Pidgeon


Flashforward: A Lament For the Best New Series

I guess we’ll just have to watch the Tim-Tim and Squirelly-O Show

Even as I’m approaching the acquisition of my MFA in Writing, all the crafty language in the world cannot make logic out of what I’m witnessing in network television right now, so I’m going to attempt to convey the situation with a bit of roleplay.

Our big-time mystery/drama show is going off the air.  All that’s left is mindless dribble about celebrity dancing and absurd sitcoms about cougars.

What’s a cougar?

Stay with me here.  We need a new show that will appeal to the viewers of our old show.  It must challenge them to think.  But we also need an equally good ensemble cast; a bunch of people that can actually inhabit characters.  Maybe a few people from the old show would be on it.  

Who would be the star?  We can’t have the same protagonist.

No, of course not.  How about that guy from Shakespeare In Love?

But he has a huge nose.

Just trust me on this one.

Scene.  What came out of this conversation was Flashforward, a show meant as the replacement or companion piece to Lost in its final season.  The show follows the aftermath of a global blackout (GBO), during which everyone on Earth falls asleep for one-hundred-thirty-seven seconds and gets a glimpse of where they’ll be on April 29th, 2010.  No one is where they expect.  A judge sees herself as president; a lesbian sees herself pregnant; a janitor sees himself as a religious motivational speaker; a devoted wife and mother sees herself in bed with a man she’s never met.  Most see nothing of importance, as many are on the toilet or reading the newspaper or grocery shopping.  Naturally, millions of people die during the blackout due to being on mid-flight airplanes and driving cars or in otherwise compromised positions.  At the center of this are a few key players (i.e. our protagonists): Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), an FBI agent who saw himself in front of a bulletin board full of clues, trying to figure out how to stop another blackout; Demitri Noh (John Cho), Mark’s partner, who sees absolutely nothing and deduces he will be dead on April 29th (a month before his wedding); Simon Campos (Dominic Monaghan), a quantum physics genius and all-around renegade whose research is being blamed for the blackout; Janis Hawk (Christine Woods), a secretly gay triple-agent who sees herself pregnant; Bryce Varley (Zachary Knighton), a cancer patient about to commit suicide when the blackout occurs, after which he changes his mind due to his vision of meeting the girl of his dreams in a sushi restaurant; and Aaron Stark (Bryan O’Byrne), an electrician who sees his presumed-dead daughter alive in Afghanistan.  Mark begins the investigation he saw in his vision (“Mosaic”) and the story unfolds with some trying to make their futures come true and others desperately trying to avoid theirs.

The show would go from being an extra for LOST fans to a very formidable contender in itself.  Initial ratings were off the charts.  The crowd went wild.  The producers set up the first season so that the finale, which would end with what really happened on April 29th, would air on the real-life April 29th.  But due to network TV idiocy, an unscheduled break occurred mid-season, which lasted so long that ABC actually released “Flashforward: Season 1: Part 1” on DVD to remind viewers that the show still existed.  Even with this blow, however, the show came back strong with a two-hour return episode entitled “Revelation Zero.”  The episode, which focused heavily on Monaghan’s character, was the closest thing to a movie I’ve ever seen a serial television episode be.  The acting and directing were incredible and the plot went deeper, as Campos was revealed to have been awake during the blackout, being used by a shady organization who wants to initiate another GBO.  Flashforward was back as though it had never gone anywhere.

The music used in the show was also well-placed and inspired, from the haunting original score during Mark and Demitri’s hunt for the elusive D. Gibbons (Michael Massee) to Harrison and the Majestic Kind’s Can You Find Me Love played over a split scene of a gunfight and Christine Woods lying on pavement in her own blood as an alarm clock shrieks “It’s time to wake up.”  They even had their own viral videos and fictional brands, in the spirit of LOST and most J.J. Abrams-run products (including an appearance by LOST‘s own “Oceanic Airlines” and the original Tim-Tim and Squirrelly-O children’s show).

The show screamed through the rest of the season, delivering character-centric episodes that dealt with family problems and the fact of inevitability we tiresome humans are always faced with, and whether or not we choose to meet it head on or try to change it.  The performances became more intense, the stronger stories took the forefront of the narrative, and surprises exploded from every corner (for example, the demise of Dyson Frost, who was assumed to be the main villain and puppeteer but revealed as something else entirely).

The writing wasn’t without its issues.  The lesbian relationship, while a good-hearted attempt at progressiveness, was a bit mishandled: they chose the most attractive and exotic woman they could find to be the one dating Christine Woods’ character, then made the date and morning after a carbon-copy of any onscreen heterosexual relationship before dropping the fact that she was gay altogether.  They killed off the most likable black character within the first eight episodes, gave too much focus to a whiny rich girl who has never even met most of the main cast, made one of the best characters on the show a mole for the bad guys, and turned the friendly neighbor/electrician into an action hero in a sideplot akin to Taken.  Despite these speedbumps, however, the show always had an excellent sense of pacing and I never completely doubted they had a tight plan for the show’s future.

Then, just like that, it was cancelled.  What happened to the viewers?  Nobody I knew stopped watching the show (this is not to say that my core group of TV-watching friends make up the entire fanbase, but there is something to be said abut the abruptness of the cancellation).  The show’s return was triumphant.  It was nominated at the People’s Choice Awards for “Favorite New TV Program” and two actors on the show were nominated for supporting actor gold.  Did ABC forget about this stuff?  I refuse to believe the ratings dwindled so badly behind our backs, and likewise that they thought another Desperate Housewives clone would be a better use for the timeslot.

We’re canceling it.  It was a good run, though.

Why?  Was the woman-woman kiss not good enough?  Did we not treat the African-American characters well enough?  Did they want more Dominic?  I mean, we had a good thing here, didn’t we?

Think of it like the bottle machine at a supermarket.  It gets too full, you gotta empty it out to make room for the new bottles, even if a customer is in the middle of putting their time into loading it up.  Here’s your three-dollar ticket, sir.

I forgot to tell you, I can’t write.

That’s okay; there’s no ink in the pen anyhow.

The season finale, “Future Shock,” which turned out to be the series finale, was an incredibly satisfying amusement-park ride which resolved everyone’s flashforwards from the pilot episode.  It was passionately acted by the cast and expertly handled by the crew, even inserting subtlety in the big reveals and the action scenes.  My biggest hope after knowing this would be the final episode was that it would have a solid enough ending that I’d want to pick up the DVD box and show it to someone in the future without having to apologize after they’re done watching it.  It definitely delivers.  It begs for a sequel season, of course, ending with the second GBO and some truly shocking new visions (including the seven year-old Charlie as a teenager), but if this is truly the end, I feel somehow at peace with it.  It’s not the heart-shattering “We’re gonna have to take the boy” cliffhanger that LOST‘s first season ended with, but rather, a very nice ending to a carefully-woven story that was meant to lead into another.

I wish the producers would shop the show around to other networks and get cracking on the said next chapter, but if we never see it, I’ll maintain ’til the end that Mark survived the explosion.  An explosion that not even the best new series could crawl away from.

Save Flashforward

LOST: The End

You have to lift it up.

I suppose I should do this before the mist clears and I have to spend a lot of time away from the only television serial drama I’ve ever followed.  For those who live in a cave or don’t own a TV, ABC’s LOST ended for good this past sunday in a quiet-yet-climactic episode simply titled “The End.”  No matter what you thought of the plot events, especially the end (and I’ve heard some truly savage and thoughtless remarks about it), the episode was well-written, passionately acted, and full of the heart we’ve come to expect from this show and its cast and crew.  

This has generally been a great season, with the vintage LOST sectioned-off storyline patterns (we started at the Temple and moved to the battle against the Man in Black), and the best episodes, “Dr. Linus,” “The Last Recruit” and “The Candidate” were real gems.  

I’ve always loved the show but had my own judgements and observations.  Being a fiction and screenplay writer, my perspective has always been from that of the craft, which Damon, Carlton and the others have not always been too good with.  They’ve introduced multitudes of mysteries and red herrings, leaving a heavy suitcase full of them behind never to be spoken of again.  They’ve killed off great characters for the sake of A) writing themselves out of a hole, B) “cleaning up” the cast because they left themselves with too much material (in the proper style of inexperienced or tired, uninspired writers such as J.K. Rowling or Stephen King), and C) simple shock value.  They’re also guilty of throwing things in without a solution in mind: since the first season they’ve admitted to not having an original idea of what the “Monster” was, the origin of the Others, the mysterious secrets of the Island (including who the skeletons in episode 1.06 were), and who Jacob was.  There are also the cases of irresponsible writing: the character cleanups (rewatch the series and count the mass deaths), continuity errors and contradictions (what was the cabin for?  Who was inside and what was “help me” all about?  If MiB was Christian, how did he appear off-island twice and speak to Vincent?), preposterous things left unexplained (why were the Egyptians, a non-seafaring people, on the island?  Where did they quarry the stone to build the statue and the Temple?  How is the Dharma Initiative still receiving food-drops?), and having a sixteen year-old girl shot in the back of the head after begging for her life.  Yes, D&C could use a few crash-courses in writing (as good as they think they are), but luckily the performances and the direction of Jack Bender/Mario Van Peebles bring the sometimes-clunky scripts to vibrant life.

I respect the writers for burning their bridges at the end of each season, however.  The first time around, the characters were trying to get into the hatch and also build a raft to escape the island.  Both were accomplished in the season 1 finale.  In season 2, we were pushing the button.  At the end, the Swan exploded, so no way they could continue with that.  Season 3 focused mainly on the Others, most of whom die in the season’s climactic ending.  Season 4 featured the flashforwards, the mystery of who was in the coffin, and the battle against the freighter folks.  In the finale, we see Locke in the coffin and the freighter blows up.  Season 5 was Dharma season and involved time travel due to Ben not turning the Man in Black’s wheel hard enough, and in the end the wheel is put back in place and Jack detonates a hydrogen bomb in Dharmaville.  Season six was the end, and it ended.  Taking risks in a narrative is always good, though every package D&C delivered to us was chock-full of extras that didn’t always get resolved.  On one hand, I blame the viewers for latching onto every tiny detail and making a “mystery” of it (somewhat perpetuated by Lostpedia, which kept a record of what everyone was thinking just in case they forgot).

In any case, the series became a phenomenon that has never been seen in television before, and is unlikely to ever be seen again.  The fandom was something out of the Star Wars universe: the vast amounts of fan-designed t-shirts and swag; the internet games between seasons that fans would play just to get the slightest clue of what was to come; the viral videos featuring cast members; the Missing Pieces mobile episodes; the weekly podcasts and contests by both the creators and the fans; the tie-in novels (including the fictional Gary Troup’s ghost-written Bad Twin); the video game (Via Domus)  the musical tributes (see Sonic Weapon Fence).

LOST was at its best during the first three seasons, which focused on the interior development of the characters, relevant  flashbacks, and creative approaches to directing.  After the third season we moved in the science fiction and mythology direction, which was engaging in and of itself but simply did not fit a character-driven narrative.  The best material was in season 1, when we didn’t know what was coming and the most incredible revelations had to do with the characters’ personal lives (see 1.04, “Walkabout,” when Locke’s paralysis is revealed).  The premiere of season 4, entitled “The Beginning of the End,” was just that.  The story departed from character flashbacks and took a sharp turn toward violence, convoluted mythology, and fast-paced narrative.  Season 6 attempted to bring back the season 1 way of doing things, recalling the character reunion moments and revisiting the original beach camp where our survivors first met.  It was a truly inspired choice, and I retain my claim that “Dr. Linus” is the best episode of the final season.  Throughout the series the performances of Terry O’Quinn (Locke), Evangeline Lilly (Kate), Michael Emerson (Ben), Emilie de Ravin (Claire), Dominic Monaghan (Charlie), Matthew Fox (Jack), Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond) and several others have brought the show to all-new highs as far as expressing fear and passion, and I can’t imagine spending time in the dazzling world of this show without them.  

Michael Giacchino’s score is an integral part of the series’ lifeblood, and as the show goes on it becomes an organic piece of the story as though it’s invisible, not soundtrack music but a subtle (yet essential) piece of every scene.  One of the most amazing instances occurs in season 3’s finale, “Through the Looking Glass,” during Charlie’s sacrifice.  I can’t say how many times I’ve seen that episode and it still makes me rather misty.

I kept hearing the words “satisfied” and “explanations” thrown around in the weeks leading up to the series finale.  If you were upset or dissatisfied with the ending, it’s more or less because you planned on being upset or dissatisfied.  Even at the beginning of this season, I heard comments such as “They’re going to let a lot of people down this season.”  Nothing could have satisfied some viewers, even if they had written it themselves.  During the LOST-themed shindig I attended, shivers and tears crept upon me during certain scenes.  The climactic battle between Jack and Locke, the reappearance of Christian Shephard and the near-assurance that he wasn’t MiB, and most of all, the final moments of Jack lying in the bamboo forest, nurtured lovingly by Vincent in his final moments.  On one hand, the whole “moving on” ending with the characters in the church seems like the coward’s way out (i.e. leaving it open to interpretation and thus alienating less viewers), but there’s something almost beautiful about it.  Many dismiss it as the characters all being dead and waiting up for each other before moving onto their respective afterlives (as indicated by the different religious icons, and notably the island-moving wheel, on the stained-glass window).  That didn’t occur to me, but I won’t share my theory here unless someone really wants to read it.  In any case, it was great to see the entire cast together again, and the moment the final title came up after realizing the entire six years had happened in the blink of an eye… heavy. Just heavy.  I actually felt sad.  Probably too sad considering it’s a television show, but I invested a good amount of time and energy into it.  Matthew Fox’s portrayal of Jack Shephard, while all the while knowing his character’s fate, should serve as an inspiration to television actors and anyone involved in a serial project.

For posterity, I’ll share my top episodes.  “The Moth”: the story of Charlie’s life with Driveshaft, addiction to heroin and his redemption on the Island with the aid of John Locke, who creates a wonderful (if convenient) metaphor about a moth breaking through its pupal casing; “Tricia Tanaka is Dead”: The reveal of Hurley’s ultimate bad luck due to the numbers and his acceptance that he must “make his own luck” in life – this episode also contains some of the most lighthearted and feel-good moments of the series; “Par Avion”: Claire’s most important story, in which her mother is rendered comatose due to Claire totaling the car the two of them are riding in.  On-island, Claire deals with Charlie’s depression and Desmond’s secrets while attempting to capture tagged seagulls; “Man of Science, Man of Faith”: the premiere of season 2 in which Jack performs an impossible spinal surgery on a woman he later marries, and he meets Desmond while running a tour de stat in an abandoned stadium; “Outlaws;” Sawyer believes a troublesome island-dwelling boar is the reincarnation of a man he murdered in Australia.  He and Kate bond as outcasts while on an all-night hunt.   

From the very human relationships to the literature/film references to the late nights of theory-spinning with good friends, this show has taken us for a whirl.  Now, like the beached castaways waving to the crew of the raft in the first season, I must bid LOST a fond farewell.  I look forward to seeing how its legacy will live on and how it will inspire future entertainment, as well as the places this phenomenal ensemble cast will go.  

Good luck, brother.  See you in another life, yeah?

Robin Hood (2010)

A pox on the phony King of England

Yes, it’s been a long time since the Disney version of Robin Hood, which I still maintain to be one of the best adaptations.  It had all that clever and witty fun that has come to be associated with folk tales of the type, and most of all, it was okay for the little ones.  No deaths, no innuendo (just mild talk about “kissing”), etc.  Then we had Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a brilliantly farcical satire on the story (“Locksley and Bagel: can’t miss!”).  Not quite as innocent, but all sorts of fun just the same.

Ridley Scott’s new film, originally titled Nottingham, has got to be the best “serious” adaptation of Robin Hood since Errol Flynn first drew the bow.  It’s mature and gritty, but retains that wit and charm we’ve all come to associate with the story.  It’s also the most violent of the lot – the MPAA’s rating is PG-13, but I suspect that someone got fooled at the last second.  People get shot through the neck, stabbed in the back, drowned, crushed between the bows of French sailing ships, and dragged through the woods by horses.  There isn’t excessive bloodspray, but I’d probably have the old “movies aren’t real” chat with the kids if all they’ve seen is the Disney version and they’re begging you to see this one.

The story is a re-imagining, much like the earlier discussed Alice in Wonderland.  This is intended to be a prequel of sorts to what becomes the Robin Hood legend.  We see how he meets Marian (according to Ridley Scott, anyway) and how he comes to be such good pals with his merry men, as well as the solidification of his outlaw status – I’m sure everyone has seen the epic wailing of Oscar Isaac in the trailer by now.  If not, I commend you for how little television you watch.

The film itself is something to behold.  The set-pieces are incredible, and the wide shots really illustrate the work that went into recreating 12th century England.  From the nighttime scuffles in Sherwood forest to the legions of loyal Englishmen percolating out from the high bluffs as King Philip looks on in terror, it’s all real when you’re in the theater.  Never did I once scoff at the CG; if there is heavy use of computer imagery in this film, I was too immersed to notice.

The cast is an excellent ensemble.  Oscar Isaac dominates his scenes as the bratty (yet knowledgeable and calculating) King John.  Mark Strong plays the main villain for the third time in a row as the treasonous Sir Godfrey, a character completely made up for the film, and he does it with complete professionalism.  Though most of his dialogue is standard “villain” and we never get to know Godfrey as a person, Strong avoids playing it “arch,” which is refreshing.  He got to do more in films like Guy Ritchie’s fantastic RocknRolla, last year’s Body of Lies and the recent Sherlock Holmes, but perhaps this film will bring him to a wider audience.  Also in this film is the amazing Cate Blanchett, who plays Marian as a down-to-earth widow rather than a lovestruck girl, and she surely doesn’t need any compliments from me that haven’t already been said.  Kevin Durand plays Little John, the first good-guy role I can recall him ever playing, and he does it with style.  This is his second film with Russell Crowe, the first being the remake of 3:10 To Yuma in which he had a bit part, and in this one he actually gets to spend a good amount of time acting with Crowe.  I hope this role helps break him out of being typecast as a bad guy, which after his definitive evil role as Martin Keamy on ABC’s Lost (which will almost inevitably be the “Mr. Blonde” of Durand’s career) makes this seem like an impossibility. Friar Tuck: Why do they call you Little John? Little John: What exactly are ye gettin’ at? The film also features Alan Doyle, frontman of Celtic band Great Big Sea, in the role of minstrel Allan O’Dayle.  Another truly inspired piece of casting on Scott/Crowe’s part, and it’s magic to see such talented people working together.  A bearded and scruffy-haired William Hurt also makes an appearance in a very nice role as William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Penbroke, who battles with words, and his scenes with Isaac and Strong are terrific.  Matt Macfayden appears as the Sheriff of Nottingham, who turns out to be the comic relief of the film, which is an interesting twist (and a more accurate one – sorry Kevin Costner).  The immortal Max von Sydow also appears, this time as the blind Walter Locksley, who becomes something like a father to Robin as the story goes on and makes you want to give him a big hug every time he’s on screen.

Crowe himself plays Robin as what I like to call the “boring hero.”  That is to say, a protagonist whose only aim is to advance the plot.  Despite being surrounded by wonderful characters, the boring hero has to do what the screenplay decrees.  To his credit, Crowe does his best to break his character out of this mold, although there are scenes where his eyes seem to glaze over and he just says “Fine, I’ll do it, even though it defies all logic.”  For examples of the boring hero, see any movie Sam Worthington has ever starred in, or any American film with Jason Statham.

Scott makes great use of his characters.  No one seems to just be added for the hell of it.  Everyone you see has something to do that couldn’t have happened without them.  Even King John’s trophy wife, Isabella (played by the gorgeous Léa Seydoux) has something to do besides sit next to Isaac and look nice.  She is charged with informing John that his best friend is a traitor: one of the most important moves anyone makes in the film, and the resulting scene between them burns with passion and skill.

The film contains a lot of Russell Crowe gliding past the camera on horseback, whether in slow motion or otherwise, with his mouth hanging open.  I lost count around ten.  It’s always good to see, as Crowe is incredible and Scott knows his massive battle pieces, though I wonder if Scott thought, “How many angles can I shoot this from?”  The film also contains several bald villains, including Strong, who seems to collect head injuries as the film goes on.  Why do the bald have to be portrayed as such slimeballs?  I wonder if there is some sort of statistic about this.

Robin Hood (2010); written by Brian Helgeland; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong and Oscar Isaac.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

And the mome raths outgrabe

I know Tim Burton has been accused lately of repeating the same cycle: Danny Elfman’s wild ensemble themes, Johnny Depp playing obscure characters, Burton’s own goth-punk visuals, and so on.  I’ve never claimed to be the biggest follower of Burton’s work, but when he gets his mits on a chunk of material that has been important to me since childhood, I start to pay attention.

It took me awhile to get out to see Burton’s re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland, based of course on Lewis Carroll’s works of children’s literature, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass.  Thankfully, the Crossgates Mall has more theater rooms than they know what to do with, so I was able to snag a single ticket at the last possible second and grab a seat as the previews were starting.

First off, the source material.  This film is a re-imagining, as previously mentioned, so it doesn’t follow the story of the two novels exactly.  We begin during Alice’s younger days when she’s traveling to “Underland” (Wonderland) in her dreams, and we quickly cut to her late teens and the day on which she is to be engaged to a homely, stuck-up English gentleman (Leo Bill).  She’s a rebellious, non-corset-wearing girl who has different ideas about how the whole arranged marriage thing should work, and we can see from the start that it’s not going to work out so well.  As the story we know goes, she sees the White Rabbit and falls down the rabbit-hole, returning to Wonderland and forgetting her childhood visit.  This decision gives the filmmakers more breathing space with the story (which usually turns out for the worst; see Peter Jackson’s butchering of The Lord of the Rings, another piece of literature that means the world to me), but in this case, it’s handled relatively well.  

The film draws heavily on Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky, and uses the “frabjous day” as a prophecy.  In the film, the Jabberwock itself is a minion of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and must be slain in order to end the Red Queen’s reign of terror.  In a very good scene with shrunken-Alice, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) speaks a good-sized chunk of the poem in a Scottish accent, which I found satisfying.  The film retains a great atmosphere despite the fact that most of its landscape calls for CG, and the assorted creatures, which include the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Absalom the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) seem like they’re there with Alice in the same way Roger Rabbit was there with Bob Hoskins.  In too many movies lately, CG seems to be a requirement, and the telltale signs that the actors are looking at nothing is all too evident.   

Mia Wasikowska is superbly cast as Alice, and Burton’s choice to portray her as a unique girl with engaging motives (continuing her father’s legacy in oceanic trading) instead of creating another Lydia Deetz is truly inspired.  The art direction, especially in Wasikowska’s scenes, is invigoratingly fresh and visually stimulating.  The “drink me” scene, which could have been quick and throwaway, ends up being one of the best in the film, as we are trapped in that room with Alice until she figures out the puzzle, and we learn a lot about her in the process, at the same time as we share the voyeur’s seat with the Wonderland inhabitants wondering why she doesn’t remember the solution.  Pay attention to Alice’s socks as the film goes on.

The film is going out of theaters now, but I’m sure the DVD version will be equally colorful and satisfying.  Watch it on a large television.

Alice In Wonderland  (2010)- written by Linda Woolverton (based on the works of Lewis Carroll), directed by Tim Burton, starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway.