Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

I must first confess that I've never read the story. I think the Disney film creeped me out too much as a child or for one reason or another, I've never seen it all the way through (or that I can recall). The only definitive Alice in Wonderland that I'm familiar with is its treatment with the character of Jervis Tetch a.k.a. The Mad Hatter in the Batman universe, and more specifically, his appearance in several episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. Any of the other adaptations that I tried to watch, including some 1999 TV movie that NBC aired starring Tina Marjorina and Gene Wilder was too bizarre, and frankly, the story is bizarre. I can't be alone in thinking that clearly Lewis Carroll must have been on some kind of opiate while writing it, and yet watching a special employees' screening of the new one, and having perhaps been too overly-saturated with the trailer playing on the lobby televisions at work, the bizarreness didn't scare me off. Instead, I could sit back and relax and see the more whimsical qualities of the story.

Some of my colleagues, most film aficionados, were somewhat displeased given Tim Burton's penchant for bizarre and acidic storytelling (the only film of his I've seen all the way through and that I've enjoyed is Big Fish). Despite all the HotTopic merchandise and the atypical-turned-typical demographic targeted by the film, they didn't think most people would like it. But I did. Having never been that familiar despite the larger pop-culture references to it, it was a new experience for me. One of my friends said that it was alright "but it didn't bring anything new" to the story for her, one of her most beloved since childhood. As I journeyed home, though, I thought that maybe that was the point. While we're constantly being given "groundbreaking" films and whatnot to assimilate into our compendium of what makes for a great film, maybe this wasn't intended to be. Or at least, if you've already been oversaturated like myself into the more bizarre and initially alarming aspects (such as Johnny Depp's hair and makeup), it shouldn't be.

It's an enjoyable film, to say the least. Honestly, once you've gotten past the initial barriers of the bizarre, you can enjoy the wordplay and the whimsy that just is Carroll. You can see the moral and not feel like it's beating you over the head. You can enjoy the fabulous witticisms and the vibrant colors (perhaps the latter more if you were intoxicated or sampling some of Absalom's "finer" hookah product). I don't think Burton intended for this to redefine Alice, but as the mantra of the film surmises, it's meant to remind us of being "Almost Alice," of revisiting and holding on to that childlike wonder and imagination that keeps us young and keeps us more sane even when the world thinks we are otherwise. "Do you think I've gone mad?" "Yes, but the best ones always are."

The Wolfman

(CAUTION: embedded trailer at the bottom of this post starts playing automatically so SCROLL DOWN AND PAUSE IT IMMEDIATELY until you're ready to watch it...I didn't know how to pause the flash.)

I had made plans to see the classic horror remake with my uncle after first viewing the original 1941 version starring Lon Chaney, but sadly a bad cold changed my travel plans last week, and I had looked so forward to seeing the new one starring Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins, and Hugo Weaving with Benicio Del Toro in the title role that I couldn't wait any longer and went Sunday night. After an early failed attempt for the 7:40 showing (only three people besides themselves and dumbass smokers lit up in MY theater?? Movie magic completely ruined as I was riled up, I told my manager I was coming back later), I went to the 10:15 late show with a local critic friend.

I knew it was supposed to be gory, and while my eyes certainly widened at parts, it wasn't too bad given the dark cinematography, and frankly, if any movie could organically incorporate gore, it's one about a beast unleashed on a violent rampage or two. I also went in to the film with a renewed vigor of my old fondness for wolves in general (thanks, Blood and Chocolate) so it was far easier to watch and observe the interesting motif of that fine line between Man and Beast.

I was glad Danny Elfman's score stayed given the numerous production problems with the film, because it perfectly accented the delicious thrill of each jump-out-of-your-seat moment. I used to hate that kind of thing, but now I can highly appreciate it with a well-done story. My critic friend felt that some of the logic didn't quite work with the villagers figuring out the identity of the Wolfman, but I disagreed given the often overly-superstitious and very gullible nature of the period. And while I felt Hopkins was brilliant as usual in his subtle way of wearing a new character's skin like only he can; Blunt's sensitive yet bold portrayal as the love interest and redemptive agent; Weaving's role as the detective trying to maintain order and keep as many alive as possible, Del Toro's performance, for me, felt uneven. In an otherwise great scene with a mixture of emotions between himself and Blunt, he doesn't seem to quite meet her in tone. I had heard some critics disliked Del Toro's performance, but as I'd never seen any of his work before, I decided to reserve judgment. Sadly, despite his very doggish features and the number of times I'd seen the trailer playing in the lobby at work, he did seem a bit...bipolar? Of course, some of this might have been intentional given the duality of his role, but I felt he could have done a bit better.

Still, the film wasn't "stupid" as some of my colleagues thought, given that most of them wouldn't catch all the subtler philosophical aspects of the script. I would definitely like to watch it again just for that. I suppose too, that with the delivery so like those films of old as opposed to modern acting (as I discussed in my last post) and the rather quick transitions for the action of the plot, the task of assessing such things was made more difficult in such a limited amount of time.

I found some amusement, though, in viewing this film, as I kept thinking, "Huh, this seems eerily familiar..." I'd never seen the original with Lon Chaney, remember, but the more it played, the more I realized that there was a significant amount of Disney's Beauty and the Beast - including specific camera shots and everything. I laughed at the thought. It was more than a little reminiscent of it, just with more violence, no singing, and lots of gore.


Friday, February 26, 2010

Cat People / The Curse of the Cat People

I know, I know. Cat People (1942). The Curse of the Cat People (1944). The title just sounded far too entertaining to pass up. Indeed, as I happened to pause in front of the horror section, I chose a few titles that tickled my fancy. Having just revisited an old favorite among many in Batman: The Animated Series that involved Selena Carlisle becoming an actual "Cat-woman," I decided to see what this obvious B-movie horror from 1942 was all about. (I should note that, as I suppose many of today's audience may find, it's very difficult for me to enjoy "classics" because the style of acting way back in the day is not at all what I'm used to in the modern-age; what was once considered "realism" is considered by many "over-acting" now and if anything, distracting and rather alienating to the audience. But since I plan on visiting Uncle Movie-Buff next week to see both incarnations of Universal's The Wolfman, I decided to take the plunge.)

I won't give you a rundown of the film, of course, because sadly, one of the original "horror classic"'s flaws, IMHO, is its tendency to spell everything out - at least, it was to me. Then again, when I rewatched it with commentary, I clearly missed many subtleties that would've been a big deal at the time. Again, I'm going with the dumbed-down script... it's not really demanding a lot from the audience besides the whole people-can-turn-into-cats thing. If you can suspend belief of that, you don't really care, right? As I'm watching, the opening scene of the "catwoman", Irena (ee-RAY-na) at a zoo outside the panther enclosure immediately brought to mind several instances in Batman:TAS when Selena is visiting her feline companions. I actually kind of wondered whether any of that stuff was canon to the comics, and if so, what amount of it might have been influenced by Val Lewton's Cat People. Whenever I get around to rewatching the entire series, I shall certainly be paying attention to whatever I can catch or perhaps I'll go researching on the web... Interestingly, the commentary tells you that none other than Alan Napier - Alfred of '60s Batman fame - takes the role of Doc, a minor supporting player in CP. Interesting coincidence, no?

I just realized that was a rather lengthy tangent, as I'm wont to do, so my apologies. Anyway, let's just say that despite its pacing (I would've included some very pregnant pauses to heighten the tension myself), I would recommend to any film/theatre fans to check out Cat People. "If anything, you can take it as a "if only Halle Berry was Simone Simon in this, Catwoman wouldn't have been so ridiculous." The commentary too can get fairly annoying. Unlike modern film commentaries, this one is done by some historian giving you a few useful nuggets of info about the filming, including some recorded interviews in the later lives of the principle actors, but almost an overload of their IMDb credentials to the point the narrator himself sounds about out of breath and you can barely make out WTH he just said. Apparently there was a 1982 remake, which I admit I kind of wanted to see, but given its description on IMDb, I'm pretty sure they upped-the-ante in the gore (nonexistent) and sexuality (only hinted) components compared to the original, so I think I'll pass, even if David Bowie had a Golden Globe nomination for Original Song (seriously, what the...).

Luckily, the DVD people included the sequel on the same disc, so the following night of my first adventure with the original, I was rather curious to see The Curse of the Cat People, which in some respects, I very much agree with the RKO picturehouse. The title guaranteed Lewton could make a film, but the direction he took it only barely has anything to do whatsoever with the first. It's rather like a spin-off series with a couple of the same characters, but no continuity of the real story. I wasn't so crazy about it, to be honest, until I reviewed it with the commentary, once again provided by historian(?) Greg Mack. The look into Lewton's creative, and well, slightly mad mind was actually quite fascinating to me. I think I may have to check out another couple of his flicks, even if the premise of The Body Snatchers always freaked me out (just from the made-for-TV-remake promos and the parody eps on DarkWing Duck). If you're at least interested in B-movie horror or the mind behind the story, I recommend the sequel.

Below you can watch the first eight minutes. By the way, I want the panther screen that sits in Irena's apartment :)

Friday, February 19, 2010


For a while now, I've been wanting to see Baz Luhrmann's follow-up to Moulin Rouge!, 2008's Australia. Obviously, I didn't get around to it for a while. I wish I would've thought to double-check the running time before I started though, not that it necessarily dragged, but I felt the effect of thinking, "When's this gonna be over?" simply because I didn't realized it was like three hours long. However, the Baz's signature of gorgeous visuals and equally beautiful music combined with epic storytelling make this a great film. I think the time does hurt it though. If I had been up for it, I might've tried watching it again before it I had to return it to the library simply to plot out the individual "acts" for surely this film plays as such. Act I is all at Faraway Downs, the property of Nicole Kidman's character (you get to see her on a horse ranging cattle!), Act II is stuff in town, Act III is the war, I guess (again, didn't really have time to contemplate it but it's certainly worth the view).

Really my only problem with the film is its pacing, which can seem pretty fast before it slows down only to pick back up at a rather slower momentum near the end (not slow, but noticeably different from the first act). Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, and David Wenham make the grade as fantastic protagonists/antagonists, respectively, and newcomer Brandon Walters as the aboriginal child taken in by Kidman is a darling. I don't know if that's actually him singing or not, but it's gorgeous; I will definitely have to get the soundtrack. (Additionally, Legend of the Seeker fans will get a kick out of Bruce Spence's cameo...I got a chuckle anyway, as I often do when I find a familiar face in a place most unexpected.) It may not make you cry like King Kong's three hour epic, but this film is still certainly moving, and for those like me with hardly any knowledge of Australian history, it's also educational as far as The Land of Auz's version of WWII and racism between whites and aboriginals. I also particularly loved how the mythology of Auz was worked in (but you'll see what I mean when you watch it...I still have to digest it for my part).

I really like both of these trailers, and it's better quality than what YouTube offers, so take your pick.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Whip It / Derby Girl

I'm hoping to volunteer at my local library with a special book and/or film club targeted at teens and young adults. My first assignment was for Tuesday: Derby Girl by Shauna Cross, the novel that inspired Whip It starring Ellen Page and Kristin Wiig and marked the directorial debut of Drew Barrymore. The meeting didn't really fare well, what with all the kids on snow day and such, but I'm so glad it inspired me to read Derby Girl, because it's hilarious. Because of my inability to turn off the inner-critic if I've read the book before the movie and I've been dying to see the movie before I knew anything about a book, I decided to watch the film first. (It also didn't hurt that I had been more in a lazy mood to watch movies over reading books and each theatrical experience is different the first time...I wanted my virgin experience with this particular material to be worthwhile.)

I definitely recommend watching it first, or you might be very tempted to stop at every bit and fuss about the discrepancies, but since Ms. Cross was herself the screenwriter, at least you can be content with the fact that the film is true to the source material and literally comes from the source herself, a real Los Angeles Derby Doll (or at least says the book jacket). As usual, Ellen Page steals the show as her usual charming self, although she doesn't have quite the same tenacity or script as Juno. It's really a shame too, but as the original novel is just as sarcastic as Juno, albeit a first-person narration, I can see the difficulty in translating that to screen without a voiceover. It's a lot of what's unsaid except in Ellen's face. And of course, although she doesn't shine nearly as she does on SNL (which really isn't hard to do nowadays with a lack of good writing), Kristin Wiig is equally delightful as Page's Derby Godmother, so to speak.

I like the movie for fun as itself, but there's a number of things that aren't explained and are just subtly thrown in that you only catch upon second viewings about the setting and characters. Of course, there's plenty of funny one-liners in the book that are left out, but I can see why it just wouldn't work out within the confines of the film. Then again, there are sequences in the film and even particular details, that while present in the book, are altered just enough that they really make quite a difference in the way they made it to screen. As I reviewed large segments of the film with my librarian colleague, I realized there are definitely some favorite scenes that play far better in the film version than the book. It's rather like the novel version of Derby Girl (later reissued in its second edition with the film's title... I read the first edition, however) is an earlier draft, the film version a much more refined one.

Also, I was rather annoyed because the "Rental Exclusive" version of the DVD I borrowed from the library doesn't have any of the dozen or so deleted or extended scenes, so make sure you do your homework before check out, kids. Alas, I guess I'll just have to buy it then :) And special shoutout to my new acquaintance, Charles, from the library, for hooking me up with my very own copy of Whip It! the novel. Yay, free books!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Boy A

Having piqued my curiosity by his supporting role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I decided to head over to IMDb to see what other film credits young, handsome Andrew Garfield had under his belt. The trailer for Boy A caught my attention as I recall seeing it somewhere before (although it escapes me at the moment). This late 2007 television feature was awarded 10 wins and 8 nominations, including Best Actor by BAFTA Television for Garfield's turn as an ex-con recently released after serving his sentence for a murder committed as a child.

Like The Lovely Bones, the trailer lets us know this isn't a whodunnit, but rather focuses on young Jack Burridge (Garfield) as he attempts to reorient himself in society under a new identity and the relationships that follow. The film's tagline appropriately begs the question, "Who Decides Who Gets A Second Chance?"

Now, I could go on and give you a synopsis of the major plot points as I initially began to write, but honestly, everyone does that and you're quite capable of having a look at the trailer below. Let me just say that this film warrants a viewing from any self-respecting fan of cinema or story, not just because it's a great example of a well-executed script and screenplay, but the performances
- the score - the cinematography - and most importantly the story - all make this one unforgettable film about second chances and the choices we make on a daily basis.