Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a much, much, much, much, much, much, much better movie than the reviews would have you think; or as the Mad Hatter might put it, it is a muchness better movie than the reviewers would have you think. This is one of Burton’s most imaginative exercises in visual stylization, an at times stunning reimagining of what Wonderland looks like, that dreamlike (or maybe not, maybe it’s really real, hey, it could happen) escape from the doldrums location that Alice visits when things get too boring in her own world. In Burton’s version of the tale, as written by Linda Woolverton (a long way from the TV show Dennis the Menace, thank God), Alice is now 19 and is being bandied about as collateral in a business deal—or as they called it in Victorian times, marriage. She is being manipulated into wedding, or merging with, the nebbish son of her late father’s business partner, who now owns the business. The proposal itself is a Dickensian equivalent of those prospective bridegrooms who buy billboards, electronic and otherwise, and ask for their girlfriend’s hand in marriage while the whole world watches. Alice, admirably, runs away from all this folderol and falls through her rabbit hole, ending up once again in Wonderland, though Alice has no memory of her first visit. It’s here that the story and Burton’s vision really takes off. Before this, the plot, made up of scenes at a party thrown by her potential in-laws, was somewhat flat and uninteresting. The only part that really worked was the appearance of a pair of twins, a scene that had the double edge of showing what these opening scenes could of and should have been, but weren’t. Other characters are also supposed to be alter egos to the inhabitants of Wonderland, but it’s not always clear who is who. For example, even after the movie was over, I still wasn’t certain who Alice’s roué of a brother in law was supposed to represent. And would it have hurt the author to do things like have Alice arrive at the party while her potential mother-in-law was playing cards just to make things a little easier, if not more fun? But once down the rabbit hole, Burton’s Wonderland is a frabjous creation (neat trick sneaking that word in, isn’t it?). The highlight, of course, is Helena Bonham-Carter’s bulbous headed Red Queen, played with all the petulant childishness of Miranda Richardson playing Elizabeth I in the Blackadder series. Even for those who are against capital punishment, every time Bonham-Carter says “off with their head”, you just want to go, “say it again, say it again”. Other standouts are Matt Lucas as the somewhat creepy, slow witted Tweedledum/Tweedledee and the brilliant Stephen Fry as the now you see him, now you don’t Cheshire Cat; there’s also more than able support from Timothy Spall as Bayard, a bloodhound (the part he usually plays in all his films) and Crispin Glover as Stayne, the Red Queen’s knight. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen is par for the course a bit bland, while Alan Rickman, excellent as the caterpillar, is somewhat let down by the screenplay here. As fascinating as the movie is, it never quite works. Perhaps it’s because the story becomes a bit too formulaic the nearer it comes to its climax, lacking the anarchic goofiness of the source material. And there’s something also a bit disappointing in the ending; Alice escapes marriage to a fool, but ends up becoming part of the colonizing British Empire. She’s off to extend her father’s business to China and one can’t help but think, “what, is she going to get China addicted to opium so they will be forced to sell Great Britain their tea?”. One can’t help but think she could have made a better choice still, like returning to Wonderland.
Mother is the latest from South Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong who gave us the monster movie The Host and the movie about a different sort of monster, Memories of Murder, which revolves around the search for a serial killer. Mother is not far off from being a monster movie itself. It’s about a slow witted young man being railroaded in the murder of a young girl and the monstrous lengths his mother, played by Hye-ja Kim, will go to save him, even though it’s possible that even though her son is being railroaded, he could still be guilty. In Psycho, Anthony Perkins says “[a] boy’s best friend is his mother” and that is so true here as Hye-ja Kim will stop at nothing, even killing someone herself, to help her son get out of prison. The movie, and Bong’s others, may not be to everyone’s taste. The acting style is not what we in the West would call naturalistic. It’s somewhat stylized and at times over the top in the way people wear their emotions on their shoulders. But the performances are first rate, especially Hye-ja Kim (in one of those no matter how much she repulses me, I still can’t help but be on her side characters), as well as Ku Jin as her son’s supposed best friend and the one most likely to have killed the girl if the son didn’t. The plot is pretty much of a page turner and it has a wonderfully Hitchcockian moment in which Kim gets stuck in a closet and has to watch a young couple have sex, then sneak out while the two are asleep; as in true Sir Alfred fashion, one wants to look away, but then of course, the voyeur in all of us claims victory. There are a few constants in Bong’s movies so far, other than there are monsters living among us. Even more constant perhaps is the portrayal of the Korean police as hopelessly inept and corrupt (even if they get the right person, it’s by accident, not by solid procedural investigation). They’re a modern day equivalents of the Keystone Cops and I don’t think I’d want to be Bong if he’d ever has to make a call to 911. The darkly comic and riveting screenplay is by Eun-kyo Park, Wun-kyo Park and the director. One of the best films of the year so far.