I'm already getting sick of 3D, which is depressing because the push to make every movie in 3D -- and even turn 2D films into 3D -- is not going away.
Hollywood loves it because that makes piracy impossible, allows them to jack up the ticket prices a few more bucks, and they have a gimmick you have to go to the theater to experience -- at least until the 3D TVs hit. But I think (or at least hope) that soon the audience will tire of the gimmick. You realize we're getting cashed in on, right?
And it might be films like Alice in Wonderland that push this 3D craze a little closer to burn out.
This quasi-sequel finds Alice (Mia Wasikowska), a now radiant 19-year-old, who learns that a party she is attending is actually meant to celebrate a surprise marriage proposal she's to receive from Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill). Hamish's father, Lord Ascot, bought Alice's deceased father's company, and both families want to marry Alice conveniently off, though she is unsure of accepting.
When she spots a beckoning white rabbit named Nivens McTwisp (Michael Sheen), she runs off after him into the woods, tumbling into a rabbit hole and awakening in Underland.
Underland looks like a post-Apocalyptic version of Wonderland, with Tim Burton again mining his visual love of twisted, bent trees and monochromatic cemetery-scapes, populated by strange denizens.
When Alice meets Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas) and the Chessur Cat (Stephen Fry), they bring her to Absolem (Alan Rickman), a hooka-smoking caterpillar oracle, and she learns that she might have been in Underland years before, though she doesn't remember it.
Since then, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has conquered Underland after having stolen a Vorpal Sword from her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and Alice learns it's her destiny to slay the Red Queen's guardian Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee), a dragon-like, plasma breathing badass whose near invincibility keeps the evil Red Queen firmly in power.
With the help of The Mad Hatter (a surreal looking Johnny Depp), Alice undertakes an adventure she's sure will end as soon as she wakes up.
That's fitting. The best elements of Alice in Wonderland invoke dream-like imagery, but it never gets deeper than that.
Director Tim Burton (working from a script by Linda Woolverton) creates some perspective warping visual sequences and doesn't hold back on his cinematic style -- to the point of self-cliché. The film never seems to take on a life of its own, though, as if drenching it in Burton's detailed, highly stylized, computer-rendered phantasmagoria muted anything that felt organic.
Hurting even more was the tension-free story. It's not like a film such as this has any real curveballs to throw, but Alice's arc and the arc of the plot are telegraphed so early on that any computer generated dangers for the ensuing hour and a half were just an exercise in getting to the next conflict resolution.
The final act drives off a cliff, with a generic climax (I hate those) capped off by a little dance number that had me laughing for all the wrong reasons.
Still, there are many neat visual moments and trippy art and character design that were enjoyable. Often it blurred the line for the acting because the look of some of these characters clearly had an influence on the underlying performances.
As the petty and vain Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter melds vindictive and cheerful together in a way that reminded me of Miranda Richardson's turn as Queen Elizabeth on the brilliant BBC comedy series Black Adder. Her oversized head added a surreal touch to the humorous way she glibly announces executions with a girlish giggle.
Depp turns up the quirk with The Mad Hatter, sporting a shock of blood orange hair and oversized jade-colored eyes. He peppers his performance with all kinds of non-sequitur accent changes that sometimes devolve into a mish-mash of indecipherable gibberish, but, of course, he does it with all the demented glee that makes him a good muse for Burton and a good match for a character like the Hatter.
Working with merely the benefit of natural beauty, Mia Wasikowska plays Alice as liltingly as you would expect. The waifish Aussie, who has garnered critical acclaim for her work on the HBO series In Treatment, turns in a fine performance, holding her own alongside Depp, Bonham Carter, Hathaway (who shares Wasikowska's problem with freakish beauty), and even the magnetically weird Crispin Glover as The Knave of Hearts, the leader of the Red Queen's Army.
The corresponding voice cast is also quite good, though the score had me wondering if Danny Elfman even writes new music anymore.
Alice in Wonderland isn't really terrible (at least not until the end), but it isn't particularly good, either. Or, put another way, I'm pretty sure I'd feel the same about it if I had seen it on Blu-Ray in a month as I did in its entire IMAX 3D spectacle.
The fact that Disney already had a DVD release date before the film came out should give you an idea how much confidence they have in this pointless bit of amusement.
Hitting Its Peak
Mountains are lovely and majestic, awe inspiring in their size and permanence. They're also scary. The uncompromising brutality in the high, cold places of the world, where the frailty of life is evidenced in all the ways you can lose it captures a singular feeling of smallness and solitude. To die there would be a lonely death.
North Face is a fictional, historical yarn set in 1936 Germany, telling the story of a group of mountain climbers who attempt to scale the north face of the Eiger, the most dangerous mountain in the Alps. Toni (Benno Fürmann) and long-time friend Andi (Florian Lukas) are two Army Officers and expert alpinists who become the focus of a Berlin newspaper story being covered by their childhood friend, Luise (Johanna Wokalek), concerning the nationalistic push for a German to scale the unconquered peak in the run up to the next Olympic Games.
Luise is working under the tutelage of her cynical editor, ascending from ignored coffee-bearer to photographer and possible writer due to her connection to the two German climbers. Toni at first recoils at the idea of attempting the North Face and seems stung by Luise's opportunism clearly preferring that her interest were more personal. But Andi talks Toni into trying the climb.
Four teams converge outside a highland chateau, with the requisite press corps and onlookers taking up residence, but only two teams wind up going through with it -- Toni and Andi for the Germans and a prideful Austrian pair who cheat by tagging along on their carefully planned route. Meanwhile, Luise resides in comfort at the chateau becoming morose when the reality of the danger Toni faces makes her contemptuous of those who sit in luxury on the sidelines, including herself.
When a brutal storm caps off a series of mishaps for the battered climbers, Luise's feelings for Toni compel her to risk her own life to make sure he makes it back down alive.
North Face is, for the most part, quite riveting, if a little clumsy in its narrative pacing. Director Philipp Stölzl cuts compulsively back and forth between the tense, vertiginous climbing scenes and the serene opulence of the vacationing press, as Luise comes to grips with her feelings for Toni and the cynical tenets of her chosen profession. It doesn't really hamper the effectiveness of the story, but it's a bit jarring at times. That sensation is exacerbated by the bombastic John Williams-eqsue score, which sounded like it belonged in an Indiana Jones flick.
But director Stölzl is masterful at shooting the climbing sequences, milking every drop of tension possible from dizzying angles as the climbers pull all kinds of insane moves at high altitude. He captures the brutality of a mountain blizzard as the forces of nature pummel these hapless men beyond the limits of normal endurance, yet they still hold on.
It's an almost Herzogian aesthetic, putting a crew and actors in such harsh conditions to capture the realism of being there, and thanks to Stölzl's proficient direction, and the gorgeous cinematography of Kolja Brandt, these sequences look grueling and beautiful.
The performances are very good with the three leads standing out. As Toni, Benno Fürmann has an easy charm that translates to serious gravitas when the mountain tests the limits of his will. He has a great chemistry with Lukas' Andi, making it easy to believe they are old friends with a mutual passion, and the solidarity they share in trying to survive.
As Luise, Johanna Wokalek gives a passionate, vibrant performance, though her character suffers at the hands of some overly dramatic story devices and the film's tendency to make her sub-plot and the plight of the climbers feel like separate movies.
North Face could have used some trimming. Excised of 10 minutes or so, it would have felt like a tighter film. Some of the movie's dramatic beats nearly veer into melodrama, but ultimately these aren't really deal breakers for this taut, beautifully photographed exercise in tension.
Hope you're not afraid of heights.
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