Sunday, March 14, 2010

Alice in Wonderland, reviewed.

The latest version of Lewis Carroll’s collection of nonsense poetry and illogic grotesquery departs from its episodic source material in favor of an ill-fitting hero’s journey. Alice’s classic adventure may be through a strange alternate world, but it is one intended for outlandish riffs on tea etiquette rather than Armageddon. The fantasy epic has already been done better—much better—so that the film only keeps from seeming Peter Jackson-esque white noise by virtue of director Tim Burton’s trademark weirdness. That goth-aeshetic has become so slick of late that it has neither novelty, nor grittiness, nor organic continuity with the stories he films. Even Sweeney Todd, which certainly suited Burton’s charcoal and sanguine palette, seemed a mere distillation of the motifs present in Batman, Sleepy Hollow, The Nightmare Before Christmas and so on.

His incarnation begins with an older Alice evading a stodgy proposal and following the white rabbit down the proverbial hole once again. The fantasy sequence thus comes at a crucial moment of decision so that the existential heft of the film remains rooted in the real world. Like Spielberg’s Hook, it relies on a certain amount of familiarity with its animated Disney original and the hero only discovers they’ve been there before after their arrival. This Wonderland (“Underland,” as per the script) is not the one she remembers: it is drab, grotesque and ravaged by violence. Its dead trees, burnt out villages and smoky vales give far less cause for wonder than Pandora, Middle Earth or Miyazaki’s forests.

I memorized the poem "Jabberwocky" in eighth grade—it was that or Poe’s "The Raven," by assignment—so I instantly recognized how Linda Woolverton’s script pillaged that poem to transmute nonsense poetry into mytho-poetry. Words like frumious, bandersnatch, vorpal and frabjous may root the film’s mythos in Carroll’s idiosyncratic language, but they stray from his (non-)meaning. Clearly Wonderland was never meant to be the place for straightforward self-improvement or heroism, a theme implicit to Where the Wild Things Are’s mild chaos. The Tolkien and Carroll sensibilities clash, and where one might have had either a mind-trip or a rousing adventure there is instead epic nonsense.

The film has its moments. Some were throwaway, winsome snapshots like the waist-coated white rabbit tapping his ticking pocket-watch or the red-vested frog twitching nervously under interrogation. But Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen steals the show. She plays the character as an anarchically absurd tyrant with a gargantuan, pallid strawberry of a head. Her performance has what I had hoped for from the rest of the movie: an entertaining synergy of humor, weirdness, and malleability. Depp’s Mad Hatter, though, does not gel. Despite a few inspired laughs and boldly bizarre costume and make-up (a happy, psychedelic joker version of Heath Ledger’s sad clown sadist), his work here is decidedly sub-Sparrow, an uneven amalgamation of other roles including the pirate, the barber, the chocolatier and even Shrek. 

Underland’s rote last battle lacks the urgency of a conflict with discernible stakes: we have been told by clairvoyant scroll that Alice will slay the Jabberwock in advance. Otherwise its chess board battlefield underscores the artificiality of the conflict, both in terms of scripted contrivance and digital creation. These creatures have none of the breath and flesh of those of Cameron or Jackson or del Toro. Alice ultimately learns a lesson in self-determination, returning home to eschew marriage for a business venture. This ending unintentionally begs the question of whether her archetypal trek wasn’t merely the training ground for an excursion in Victorian British imperialism. So much sound and fury adds up to a product less than the sum of its parts, not so much poorly made as poorly conceived. When the credits rolled I shrugged my shoulders indifferently and welcomed escape from its dreary sterility.

Dr. Doolittle or Here Comes the Sun

I suppose I'm not quite Dr. D--but I do have overlapping pet watching responsibilities this week, with as many as five animals in three different homes depending on me next weekend depending on whether one petitioner isn't able to find someone else to watch her odd couple poodles. It's reading week, which means most of the school is away from town, including my innermost circle of friends. But I'm taking steps to keep some fellowship so I don't go crazy and am planning on tackling the mountain of schoolwork I need to complete.

Followers may have noticed that my blogs have tapered off to nothing this year except to comment on movies, a trend I mean to rectify today. This was my first winter north of the Carolinas and the worst Pittsburgh has seen in five or so decades. I think my town's accumulation for the whole season was 73", and there may yet be one more snowfall before spring truly reigns here. It was a hard winter, and I spent most of it not feeling so great emotionally or spiritually (physically I've been fine). Dour souls and dreary days give little incentive to share your thoughts and feelings via blog, a practice you hope to be interesting or stimulating but never depressing.

Movies constitute a release for me, many times as escapism and most blessedly as intellectual stimulation (and, rarely, both). This post will be followed immediately with my thoughts on the new Alice in Wonderland, a probably-too-erudite essay which I enjoyed writing as an exercise in attempting to order to the nebulous chaos of my thought world. While I wouldn't review dreck like All About Steve unless I was being paid to, ambitious films can provide much food for thought whether they succeed or not. I find it a soothing process to respond to and either laud or critique craftsmanship that combines visual, verbal and auditory art.

The sun came out some last week and the week before and I rejoiced; my demeanor shifted for the better quite rapidly. Spiritually, these months have given much cause for considering the grace and love of God and how to live with the tension of free salvation and costly discipleship. I often now repeat to myself from I John 4: "Not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins." I have spent much time these last two years rejoicing with the victory of God in Jesus's resurrection, but these months I have deeply needed the consolation of God's unmerited kindness.

I am in confirmation class now at my church, and something our associate rector Josh pointed out to us two weeks ago has stuck with me: the request for the Holy Spirit is a prayer we know God will always say yes to (see Luke 11:9-13). I have adopted this prayer in addition to the scripture from I John. Today at church was especially a blessing, as even though I only showed up in time for eucharist I had a strong sense of personal reverence and holy presence before, during and after receiving the bread and wine. Beginning to root myself in God's kindness has coincided with a season of accepting my weaknesses and beginning to relinquish my anxiousness about the strengths others possess yet I lack. A priest-professor of mind prayed over me regarding these things last week and I cried some, and I don't cry regularly even if I always feel things deeply. I find my tears come most often not at times of deep sadness, but when joy and goodness bring relief to long and discontented winters.  The forecast is for sunshine this week, so I should probably keep a tissue ready.

My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
But you, O Yahweh, are enthroned forever;
your name endures to all generations.
You will rise up and have compassion on Zion,
for it is time to favor it;
the appointed time has come.
For your servants hold its stones dear,
and have pity on its dust.
The nations will fear the name of Yahweh,
and all the kings of the earth your glory.
For Yahweh will build up Zion;
he will appear in his glory.
He will regard the prayer of the destitute,
and will not despise their prayer.

~Psalm 102:11-17