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Column Fri Mar 05 2010

Alice in Wonderland, Brooklyn's Finest, A Prophet, and An Overview of The EU Film Festival

Alice in Wonderland

It's right and good that folks get excited each time director Tim Burton and his male muse Johnny Depp work together, but here's the worst kept secret about their creative partnering: the more special effects, make-up, and intentional wackiness they pile on to a particular film, the less successful it is as art. I don't think I'll get too much push-back on saying that Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands are their best (and earliest) collaborations. And since they made those two films, they've been trying to recapture some sort of elusive, creepy magic that usually results in something entertaining but not sustained greatness. I don't have an overwhelming need to revisit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the way I do their initial pairings (perhaps unfairly, I'm excluding Corpse Bride, which I love, from this discussion). Sweeney Todd is probably the closest they've come to brandishing the kind of goth greatness audiences are hoping for, but Alice in Wonderland (barely based on the Lewis Carroll books) is an entirely different creature altogether, one that I both appreciate and struggled with. I'll tell you right off the bat, I'm split about as close down the middle on this film as I possibly can be. If you want to hear why, keep reading.

First and foremost, Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter character isn't even close to the most interesting thing about Alice. If anything, I felt like the normally reliable screenwriter Linda Woolverton (who had a hand in writing such works as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mulan, and Homeward Bound) took a crowbar to her script, pried open her plot, and forced the Hatter into the story in as many places as she possibly could, regardless of whether him being in those scenes improved the film at all. Depp will always be interesting, and he has an uncanny gift at making us feel something about even the most devious and loopy characters he's inhabited. But I just didn't take to the Mad Hatter the way I was supposed to. Maybe I was distracted/blinded by the hair, makeup and costume choices for the character, but I never got more than a surface interest in Depp's creation.

The good news is that there are far more interesting characters to choose from, beginning with Alice (Mia Wasikowska, who broke my soul open with her performance on HBO's "In Treatment"). I like the choice to make this version of Alice a nearly 20-year-old version of the little girl who made the trip down the rabbit hole and into an insane asylum cluttered with drug addicts and sadists (that's how I always saw it). In her world, she is in the midst of being forced into a marriage with a true toad of a man who insists that any fanciful thoughts she might have should be kept internalized. What a dick. I think Alice stands in for female writers of her time, who see the world in different terms but society is squashing the creativity out of at every turn. I was quite taken with the bookends of this Alice in Wonderland, and I can't imagine every little girl with half a brain in her head wouldn't want to turn into this woman, tired of doing what others expect.

I also found myself craving more of the animals characters, voiced by a who's who of some of Britain's greatest acting talents, including Michael Sheen as the prim and proper White Rabbit, Matt Lucas as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar (never without his hookah pipe), Timothy Spall as the loyal bloodhound Bayard, the unmistakeable Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky, and my favorite voice performance, Stephen Fry as the vaporous Cheshire Cat. I could have watched an entire movie just about him and been peachy.

Compared to some of the overdone human performances, the non-human characters in Alice are downright placid and far more interesting. The unholy pairing of the Queen of Hearts and the Knave of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter with an enormous head, and Crispin Glover with a heart-shaped eye patch) seem to mistake yelling and overacting with being evil. Nope, it's just loud. The effect of Bonham Carter's huge noggin is phenomenal and seamless as an effect, but the character is such an underachieving villain that I got bored with her after about five minutes. You can only hear "Off with his/her head!" so many times before you realize it's an empty threat. And I'm starting to feel bad for Glover, who I'm afraid is getting cast these days just to capture the weird vibe. Trouble is, he's not required to do anything particularly weird in this movie. Faring slightly better is the underdeveloped White Queen (Anne Hathaway), whose graceful movements in public are actually just an act for her subjects; she doesn't mind getting down and dirty if she has to. I wanted to see that side of her come out a bit more; alas, this isn't her story. Hathaway is a strong enough actress (when she isn't wasting our time with films like Bride Wars) to breathe the necessary life into her character.

The screening of Alice In Wonderland I went to was in IMAX 3-D, which is kind of critical. I can't imagine liking the things I liked about this movie nearly as much without those elements. Sure, it's a gimmick, but it's a gimmick that kept me interested long past when I might have been seeing this in standard 2-D projection. What stuck me almost as soon as Alice arrives in Wonderland was that the landscapes were less scary versions of the Pandora landscapes (and creatures) from Avatar. Turns out the same designer, Robert Stromberg, did both films. Great news for us, but a little strange to see both films so close together.

Being so split on characters that work and ones that don't, I turned to the story to give me guidance as to whether I should recommend Alice In Wonderland or not, but that isn't much help either. As I mentioned, the bookends about Alice the young woman in polite society is good stuff, and a lot of the material concerning her return to Wonderland is okay, but did we really need the battlefield antics (so like the Narnia films, it frightened me) to close out the show? The answer is No. It feels obvious and lazy. I wanted a more satisfying showdown between the Red and White queens; Bonham Carter and Hathaway in a sisterly cat fight should be a bit more interesting (and maybe a touch on the sexy side?). If I had a gun to my head and had to choose whether to recommend Alice In Wonderland, I'd give in to the kids in my screening, who were clearly enjoying the hell out of this movie and all its three-dimensional splendor. In the end, they will be the ones to make or break this film, and I know they'll want to see this one over and over again. Even I wouldn't mind watching it one more time just to take in some of the rich special effects and vibrant 3-D. As a visual art, the film is an unbridled surreal success; as classic storytelling with richly drawn characters and contemplative plot, eh, not so much.

Brooklyn's Finest

With enough rich material for three separate films, director Antoine Fuqua's spiritual companion piece to his best work to date, Training Day, is Brooklyn's Finest, a triptych of police stories about three officers at critical points in their lives and jobs where they must make decision that will morally compromise everything they are supposed to stand for. As much as Fuqua is still finding his footing as a director (with missteps that led him to King Arthur or Tears of the Sun), I think this is the place where he exists most comfortably, by showing us these desperate men's character and honor get slowly chipped away by the world around them.

It's tough to pick a favorite storyline, but I think the section of the film I would have liked most to see become its own feature is the segment about an undercover cop named Clarence (Don Cheadle), who as drug lieutenant "Tango" has immersed himself in the life so deeply that when his long-incarcerated boss Caz (Wesley Snipes in a true return to form) gets out of prison, the two start making plans to expand the business. The problem is Tango wants out of the life that he's been living far too long. His handler (Will Patton) is trying to make that happen, along with a promotion. But as Caz realigns his underlings, tensions flare and Tango knows that trouble is brewing, and he wants to be gone before that happens. What Cheadle is pulling off here is remarkable. He's playing a cop who needs to be seen as a dangerous and threatening authority figure, who isn't actually allowed to kill anybody. So he uses all the acting tricks in the book to put the fear of God into his employees on the street. It's been a while since he's flexed those muscles, and there are few as good as him at doing it.

Another story is more familiar--that of Sal Procida (Ethan Hawke), a cop with a wife (Lili Taylor) and a big brood of kids living in a cramped, mold-infested home that is making his pregnant wife ill. What he needs is money, and he sees it--lots of it--every time he goes on a raid of a drug dealer's house. It's there for the taking, but he knows that doing so crosses a line he's not sure he can wander over. Hawke is most convincing to me when he's playing these twitchy, wiry guys, and that's Sal in a nutshell. He sweats just thinking about money and about the down-payment he needs to make on a new house that about to slip through his fingers. He sees the opportunity more than once, but something always interrupts the moment. When he finally does make his move, well, let's just say it's explosive. Hawke's only Oscar nomination for acting came in Fuqua's Training Day, and the two just know how to make things happen and give us just enough of a taste of these character to get the whole picture. Sal's '70s-style long leather jacket and dated hairstyle, not to mention the ugly colors in his home, all are signs that Fuqua might not care if we forget exactly what decade Brooklyn's Finest is occurring. Although the stories is different, this is Fuqua's Serpico, his Mean Streets, his Hardcore, his Super Fly.

The third story might be the most interesting, and it features a character that you never see in movies about police officers. Richard Gere plays Eddie Dugan, a beat cop just days from retiring who has made a career for himself being unremarkable. He has no disciplinary problems, but he also is without commendations. He just wanted to put in his time, and retire with a pension. He has no wife, although he has a steady hooker that he's fond of. I'm so used to watching Gere play often larger-than-life characters, it's kind of great to watch him blend into the wallpaper and shrink from view. Since he's the senior most vet, the department has decided (unwisely) to pair him with a rookie and show him how to handle himself on the street. No one seems particularly thrilled with the situation, but he takes a couple of newbies out with him and essentially teaches them how to handle themselves on a call without getting killed or starting a race riot. He's not entirely successful. But his story doesn't end with his retirement. Just after he's turned in his gun and badge and decided how he would like to live out his remaining time on earth, he spots a young woman, clearly drugged, getting dragged into a van by two men. Eddie follows the van, and what occurs from that point forward is almost too unbelievable to say (and I wouldn't anyway because it's a surprise). The moral of the story is that sometimes the least noble person makes the biggest gesture when you don't expect it. Sal's story is the only one that doesn't feel slightly truncated, but I didn't mind the abbreviated plots.

The film flows seamlessly from one story to the next, and Fuqua builds each sequence up until a tension-filled series of conclusions that will leave you slightly speechless for a time. I wasn't kidding when I said there was enough material here for three separate movies, and sometimes these worlds feel a bit cramped. Of course the minds of these three men probably feel the same way, as the judgement is testing and nobility tested. Some fare the test; others succeed in unexpected ways. But the cumulative effect is quietly devastating, and that's the best type of devastation. The film is bleak and brutal at times, but it never felt forced or false, even with a few hyped up performances by some of the supporting cast. I was genuinely moved by Brooklyn's Finest. Check this one out.

To read my exclusive interview with Brooklyn's Finest director Antoine Fuqua and star Wesley Snipes, go to Ain't It Cool News.

A Prophet (Un proph├ęte)

If your plan is to spend the weekend catching up on Oscar nominees before Sunday night's big ceremony, don't forget that France's Best Foreign Language nominee is opening this weekend at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. This sweeping epic is a brutal coming-of-age film about Malik (Tahar Rahim), a mousy, illiterate thug of Arab decent, who gets thrown in jail for six years at age 19, and not only toughens up over the years but rises up through the French prison system to become one the key importers of contraband (everything from iPods and DVD players to drugs) into the prison. He is weak and far too young for this world, and is targeted early on by everyone. But when he comes under the protective wing of some mafia-connected Corsican prisoners (after carrying out a horrific mission for them), he begins to gain confidence and educate himself.

The film is a staggering look at how horribly corrupt the prison system is (at least in France), but more than that, it's a fantastic life's journey. You can't help but be impressed by the way Malik comes into his own, and it breaks your heart to think that if he'd been able to apply himself before he was sent to prison, he might have led a happy and productive life. He begins to run side businesses that bring him a great deal of money and power, and soon he begins to get day passes (7am to 7pm), which he uses to start up even more illegal trades.

The film is directed and co-written by Jacques Audiard, who helmed Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped--two emotionally rich and outstanding works. But A Prophet has an extra level of greatness to it by not only showing up how a boy becomes a man behind bars, but also how a person goes from being victim to become the man in charge. Malik goes from threatened to threatening in a gradual but profound, even disturbing way. I like how he plays up his Corsican connects when it suits him, but falls in line with his Muslim brethren when a favor is needed. He learns the fine art of playing one group off another; he's quite the politician. The film alternates between fascinating, stark, brutal, and heart breaking, sometimes all within the space of a single sequence. In fact, A Prophet is one of the single greatest prison-life stories. It simply and memorably tracks the slow and steady progression one young man takes down his own path to hell, and it's a journey you will not easily forget. See this Oscar-worthy film as soon as humanly possible.

Terribly Happy

This wonderful little number from Denmark opens today at the Music Box Theatre and covers some familiar territory but with some great twists. Terribly Happy takes the basic plot of Hot Fuzz (which isn't a wholly original story idea, but I'm trying to leave bread crumbs that take you somewhere familiar) and filters it through the eyes and sensibilities of early Coen Brothers works like Blood Simple. The film centers on a Danish police officer who is sent to a remote country town after he's had a mental breakdown involving his wife. The thinking is that if he can keep the peace in a place that almost never has crime, he can eventually get his head on straight and come back to Copenhagen.

But not long after his arrival, a few things become clear. The bogs that surround (and sometimes creep into, especially after a hard rain) the town are hiding all sorts of treasures, and the only reason that crimes aren't reported more in the town is because folks seem to like to take care of their own business and not let outsiders poke their noses around. Officer Robert Hanson (Jakob Cedergren) doesn't try hard to hide his disdain for this podunk community, but when a local woman (Lene Maria Christensen) claiming to be abused by her husband (Kim Bodnia) arrives at his door, his life becomes a lot more complicated. Much like Blood Simple, director Henrik Ruben Genz's Terribly Happy turns into a new noir offering without you even realizing it. Is this local woman telling the truth about her husband, or is she a femme fatale desperate to leave this small-minded town with the only other person around who seem to share her feelings about the place?

The added dimension to the movie is that while this backwards town would be enough to cause paranoia and nightmares in even the most sane person, Robert is not that person. He's already halfway to Crazytown when the movie opens, as he obsesses over not having seen his wife and young daughter in months. The town seems to be encouraging his dark thoughts, as well as adding a few new ones to the roster. This is a place with no secrets (medical records might as well be put out in the public library), yet everyone seems to be keeping several at any given time. And this is the kind of story that I thought, while being incredibly enjoyable to watch, would be wholly predictable as well. Boy, was I wrong about that. And the final scene, occurring just as you think the film's surprises have run out, offers one last opportunity to yank the rug out from under you and leave you with an eerie feeling in your soul. I'm a sucker for Danish films on a bad day, but Terribly Happy is one of the best I've seen in quite some time, with some of the best oddball performances in recent memory. There are nice touches of humor, suspense, and straight-up drama, with a dash of the grotesque for good measure. Oh, you'll enjoy this one a whole lot.

EU Film Festival

I've said it before, but let me make it totally clear: the European Union Film Festival, held every March at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is the single greatest collection of films offered up at any festival held in the city of Chicago. The month-long event is effectively a large percentage of the foreign films from Europe that will open in the year or so that follows at theaters like the Music Box, Landmark Century Center Cinema, Facets Cinematheque, and even the Siskel Center. If you claim to be a fan of films that rarely, if ever, play in multiplexes, then you have no excuse not to be at the Siskel Center several times a week for the duration of the EU Film Festival.

This year's 13th annual EU Fest features 59 films from 27 EU nations, including the latest works from acclaimed directors Catherine Breillat, Neil Jordan, Peter Greenaway, Amos Gitai, and Jacques Rivette. Nine of this year's selection were chosen by their respective nations to be their designated Academy Award contender. Opening night (Friday, March 5) features The Dancer and the Thief from Spain, the Oscar choice from Spain, from director Fernando Trueba (Belle Epoque). There is one actual Oscar nominee in the mix, the closing night offering The Secret of Kells, screening April 1. This lovely Irish-made bit of animation is nominated for Best Animated Feature and effectively bumped Miyasaki's Ponyo from it's rightful spot on the list of nominees. But the truth is, Kells is nearly as great, and it will open for an extended run at the Siskel Film Center after its the Closing Night slot.

This is your chance to see dozens of great movie all in one location. Just close your eyes and pick a movie; odds are it will be fantastic. See you there.

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cliff / March 5, 2010 11:05 AM

Steve, I feel you hit the nail that is Alice squarely on the head.

When I first heard Burton + Carroll, I was ecstatic. After all, we'd be getting the master of gothic surreality playing in the sandbox of the master of logical insanity.

Unfortunately, all the delicious word play and logic (and the subsequent breaking of said logic) in the books were completely missing from the film.

All we got were over-the-top scenery chewing and the words "frabjous day" thrown about like it was the second coming of Jesus Christ.

And the dances? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? The two at the end felt so gratuitously tacked on that I'm sure I was staring at my brain for a couple of seconds from my eyes rolling so viciously.

Kid's will make this film a huge success, but if I have to like an Alice, you can count me a fan of the Disney original...

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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