IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD: Reviews of Alice in Wonderland and Mother.

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.


Continuing with the films I saw at AFI:

SITA SINGS THE BLUES: One of the most delightful, cleverest and original animated features I’ve ever seen. It’s the Hindu legend of Sita, who was the bride of Rama until he did her wrong. The story is paralleled with the more modern story of the writer/director Nina Paley’s relationship with her own boyfriend who also did her wrong after he moved to India and didn’t break up with her until she moved to be with him. The animators use all sorts of styles, including, perhaps most delightfully, three shadow puppets of three people who tell the story of Sita, often arguing over the details and the meaning. It’s the universal tale of women who are treated badly (though what Rama did to Sita was far worse than what Nina’s boyfriend did to her). The theme is supported by Annette Hanshaw who sings, through Sita, a number of torch and blues songs (though perhaps one or two too many). A must see, though one wonders what Nina’s ex now thinks since no matter what he did to her, Nina got the final word.

FISH TANK: One of those coming of age stories of kids rebelling against their parental figures and losing their virginity. But don’t let they stop you from seeing this sharp and moving tale of teenage angst by the writer/director Andrea Arnold who also made one of my favorite films of 2006, Red Road. The lead character is 15 year old Mia played with ferocious non-stop fury by newcomer Katie Jarvis. Katie is angry, but it’s unclear why; she’s just angry, almost existentially so. She doesn’t get along with her mother or her sister or her friends (actually, she has no friends). She finds herself physically attracted to her mother’s most recent lover Connor, played by a sexually charged Michael Fassbender whose first entrance is in jeans with such a low rise one keeps expecting them to fall to the floor (or does one hope they will fall to the floor). Her only dream is dancing and an appointment she has made to audition for a dance troupe. Her hopes are constantly dashed. She has hot sex with Fassbender, who then tells her they can’t do it again. He turns out to be married and has a child and breaks Mia’s mother’s heart when he ups and leaves with no reason given. And the dance audition turns out to be for a strip club. But that doesn’t stop her from taking control of her life and going off with a boy a bit closer to her own age; it may seem like a downer ending, but it’s really not. The story itself gets a little off center when Mia discovers Connor is married; the author doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do next and fills the plotline with one red herring after another. But other than that, a coming of age film that rises above the others.

AJAMI: The Israeli entry in the best foreign language film category at the Oscars and a first rate film noir. The subject matter may make one a little queasy: it’s an Israeli film about Palestinians living in Israel in which the characters do nothing but engage in illegal activities and treat each other like dirt for much of the proceedings. At the same time, the story is not inherent to its ethnic background and could easily take place in New York, Paris, Los Angeles—and often has. It’s a thriller with one of those non-linear plots (script and directing by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani) that became really popular after Tarrentino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s divided into chapters and though it might be a little difficult to fully understand how the first chapter affects the others (perhaps something got lost in the transition), it’s a suspenseful puzzle film that is very satisfying.

I KILLED MY MOTHER: I don’t want to talk about it. I Killed My Mother is the Canadian entry in the Oscar foreign film category (it takes place in Quebec and everybody speaks French), but it’s written, directed and stars a 19 year old in his film debut. That would be all right if the movie wasn’t any good. But it is and it’s just not fair and I don’t want to talk about it. It’s all about a high school kid’s troubling relationship with his mother, which often makes no sense, but is none the less fascinating and convincing. She’s often a monster, but he’s often an annoying little prick; but since she has all the power, she wins. It’s obviously a first film. Xavier Dolan, the writer/director (who couldn’t attend the screening at the AFI fest because he’s already working on his next feature, the asshole), sometimes loses track of what he’s saying or why there’s trouble in this non-paradise. At times it seems like it’s fury for fury’s sake, which at the age of 19, fury often is. But it’s an astonishing debut. I wish him well. I really do. No, really, I do. The bastard.