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Entries in Alice in Wonderland (2)

Friday
May112012

Dark Shadows

At this point, the result of a collaboration between Tim Burton and Johnny Depp isn’t so much an acquired taste as it is one that you’ve already come to enjoy, but has a sour aftertaste. Many would argue that after a string of solid movies for the duo, including Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow, they’ve hit a lull and in recent years have been unable to recapture the magic that existed so long ago. I would argue, however, that they’re still as wonderful as ever. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street should have been nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, Corpse Bride was a wonderfully macabre, but ultimately satisfying adventure into the abyss of death and Alice in Wonderland, though certainly flawed, was a quirky and visually interesting take on the classic story. Only once with the ill advised Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have they failed to entertain. Their latest collaboration, an adaptation of the campy soap opera from the 60s titled Dark Shadows, is a minor entry in both of their mostly impressive careers, but it’s funny, fun, different and it boasts some terrific performances.

Dark Shadows is set in the 18th century and follows a young Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) as he and his family sail off to America. Once there, he becomes somewhat of a playboy, living with untold riches and striking up a physical relationship with Angelique (Eva Green), a worker in the home he so affectionately calls Collinwood Manor. However, a physical relationship is all he’s interested in because his love belongs to someone else. This breaks Angelique’s heart, which is something Barnabas may have tried to avoid had he known she was a witch, so she puts a curse on him that kills his entire family, including the woman he loves, and turns him into a vampire. With the help of the townsfolk, she eventually captures him, places him in a chained up coffin and buries him in the ground to live in darkness for all eternity. Two hundred years later, a construction crew stumbles onto his grave and accidentally lets him out, so he makes his way back to Collinwood Manor to meet the newest members of his family, including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her daughter Carolyn (Chloe Grace Moretz), her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), his son David (Gulliver McGrath) and their live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). It’s not too long before Angelique hears of Barnabas’ escape, so she sets out to either win him over or destroy him for good.

Dark Shadows coasts by on a one joke premise: that an 18th century man has stumbled into a 20th century world that he doesn’t understand. Frankly, it’s a story that could have been told in any genre and without the fantasy/horror elements, of which seem to exist solely to create a somewhat believable way to make the set up happen. Such arbitraries hardly matter, however, when you have actors who are up to the task of taking an already witty script and making it even more enjoyable. Depp brings his A-game, which he always does to a Tim Burton production, and it’s endlessly entertaining to watch his 18th century look, mannerisms and rhetoric contrast with a time when hippies ruled and metal was emerging (which leads to a great cameo by one of the all time metal greats, Alice Cooper). Because he has laid in darkness for 200 years, Barnabas has not seen the world progress and still holds onto archaic trains of thought, most humorously when he attributes everything he doesn’t understand to Satan. Even his notion of sexuality is stuck in the past; he covets women based on their child bearing hips rather than modern characteristics men typically look for.

Dark Shadows is not a particularly serious movie, as one should be able to tell by now. Despite its (sometimes downplayed) haunting, gothic visual style that Burton has an affinity for, there are more laughs than anything else, a notion that most viewers would find hard to argue with after the montage set to The Carpenter’s “Top of the World.” It’s not the most polished film Burton has ever done and sports some noticeably amateurish flaws, including one particular shot where the eyelines don’t match up, but it’s nevertheless a surprising delight. Its trailers were worthy of groans, but what doesn’t work in short form works wonderfully in context, similar to 2009’s surprise hit, The Blind Side. It’s not the most subtle film in the world (the connection between one of the characters and Barnabas’ deceased love is plainly obvious), but Dark Shadows is goofy in all the right ways.

Dark Shadows receives 3.5/5

Friday
Mar052010

Alice in Wonderland

When director Tim Burton and Golden Globe award winner Johnny Depp team up for a film, the result is always magical. From 1990's Edward Scissorhands to the 2007 masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the two have been more or less successful in every picture they've made together. Now uniting again for the seventh time, Depp and Burton have created an enchanting tale in Alice in Wonderland. Working more as a sequel to the title story (following the 1951 Disney animated feature closer than any other) rather than another iteration in itself, the film creates a fantastical world that feels alive and is brimming with imagination. It is a must see.

The film begins in the real world with Alice as a young girl (played by Mairi Ella Challen at this age). She tells her father that she thinks she's going mad because of a recurring dream she is having, but he tells her that some of the best people are mad. Flash forward thirteen years later and Alice is a young adult (played by Mia Wasikowska) and on her way to a party where she is asked for her hand in marriage by a gentleman she does not love. As he asks her, in front of seemingly hundreds of people no less, she spots a white rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and she chases after it, only to fall down a hole into Wonderland. She quickly meets a colorful cast of characters including Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), and of course, the Mad Hatter (played by Johnny Depp). She swears she's never been there before despite their insistence that she has. They believe she has come back to stop the evil Red Queen (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and take down her jabberwocky, a giant mythical beast, thus giving power of the land back to her sister, the kind White Queen (played by Anne Hathaway).

Alice in Wonderland is a timeless story and no matter whether you've read its source material, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," or seen one of the dozens of adaptations of it (including a 1976 porn version that, unfortunately, I've yet to get my hands on), you should be familiar with the gist of it, but you've never seen it like this. Alice's trip down the rabbit hole begins much like it usually does, with Alice growing taller and shrinking smaller before finally making it through the tiny door too little for her to crawl through, but Burton takes the rest of the film down a completely different path, one met with an unabashed amount of wonderment and a strong sense of peril, two things its previous Disney counterpart was missing.

That 1951 animated movie looked good, but was bogged down by poor musical numbers and a story that went nowhere. Alice's adventure never took a deeper meaning other than her desire to live in a more illusory world where she wouldn't succumb to boredom. This modern update--or more accurately labeled sequel--thankfully does more and you do feel like Alice has a purpose in this world. (Not to mention it does away with the singing.)

Still, I will admit that much like previous iterations, the story isn't as interesting as simply looking at the lush visuals on display. You may brush the story off as nonsense, but you'll still sit there in bewilderment at the film's artistry. It's bedazzling in a way that makes you feel like a kid again because the world you're looking at could only be realized by someone with a childlike sensibility, of which Burton, however dark it may be, has in spades. Every frame fills each corner of the screen with something remarkable to look at and the 3D makes it pop. The extra dimension gives added depth to an already stunning landscape, rarely resorting to the annoying things-flying-at-your-face gimmick too many 3D films employ.

Each character in the movie is wonderfully well rounded with distinct personalities and Burton juggles them perfectly, giving you enough time to meet and like (or hate) them. Depp, as great as an actor as he is, does not overpower the film because he's working with solid material (unlike Public Enemies where he was forced to work with mediocrity) and the actors around him do more than a capable job of playing against him. Wasikowska, who plays the titular character, does a particularly excellent job in her first starring role. I see big things on her horizon and much how Edward Scissorhands catapulted Depp into the spotlight, I expect Wasikowska to start gaining exposure after her star turn in this.

As better as this is when compared to the 1951 Disney animated version, it could have followed its footsteps in one regard. In that film, Alice quickly lands in Wonderland and when she finds her way out, the movie ends almost immediately. It never bothers with real world back story. This does a bit too much. I could have done without the real world affairs and found the whole engagement story to be a distraction. Although I like how she relates the people she knows in the real world to the zany creatures in Wonderland, it adds nothing in the way of depth.

That quibble aside, Alice in Wonderland is a real treat and will best be enjoyed by those still with the ability to dream and believe in the impossible.

Alice in Wonderland receives 4.5/5