ALICE IN WONDERLAND, directed by Tim Burton, written by Linda Woolverton, 108 minutes, rated PG.
The new Tim Burton movie, “Alice: Struck Down by Banality,” (sorry) “Alice: What a God Awful Bore Your Movie Is” (sorry, let’s try this again), “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” — (okay, fine) — ”Alice in Wonderland,” is presented in 3-D, which is ironic because the movie itself lacks dimension.
Linda Woolverton based the script from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” and she’s updated the story to feature Alice not as a child caught in another world, but as a 19-year-old young woman (Mia Wasikowska) seeking to escape the possible ruins of a bad marriage to a toothy fellow suffering from irritable bowel syndrome.
And that’s only one of the ways the story has been updated. Since Alice is being pressured into a marriage she wants no part of, this curious girl with the pale skin and the concealed pluck takes flight from the situation when a rabbit (voice of Michael Sheen) catches her eye. She chases after it and falls down a rabbit hole into an-other world called Underworld.
But is this Alice that Alice? Many want to know, including Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), Tall Flower Faces (Imelda Staunton), Absolem the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas). All have their doubts that she is that she save for the one person who knows that this is the Alice of their memories. That person is Mad Hatter (“It’s you! It’s absolutely Alice — I’d know him anywhere”), who is played by Johnny Depp in a performance he obviously was game to play, so it’s a shame that the script didn’t play back.
The movie is colorful and colorless, with Burton tossing so much at the screen as he parades through the theme park that is 3-D — which does nothing to enhance the movie — that this usually terrific director misses his mark by forgetting to tell the sort of unforgettable story audiences have come to expect from him. There is mold all over this “Alice,” and while some of it features the brightest of greens, a lot of it is predictably grim, but not in the way that Burton fans have come to savor.
About the story. Since the last time we saw Alice, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter in the movie’s only memorable performance) is taking on her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, miscast), in a battle royale that is offing its share of heads as the Red Queen presses on with her quest for power. With her bobble head wrapped in ropes of red hair, she goes for it, which causes all sorts of problems, all of which Alice finds herself in the middle of, with the crazed Mad Hatter among others as her guide.
Of course, the whole idea of Alice’s presumed hallucination is for her to go to war with her own psyche and come away a stronger person (Dorothy, anyone?), one who, for instance, could walk away from an arranged marriage to a farting old lord. Whether she finds that fortitude, we’ll leave for you, but getting there is a struggle, so much so that it literally involves a battle against the Red Queen’s army (Joan of Arc, anyone?). Unfortunately, what we’re left with is a predictable coming-of-age tale.
While just that might be all the rage in popular culture — one only has to turn to the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” movies to find the exclamation points — it doesn’t quite work here. The emotional arc competes with the film’s lack of structure, something Carroll himself faced in his own writing. How he overcame it was with wit, satire and imagination, and so while on paper you’d think that his mind would be perfect for Burton to tap, it oddly isn’t. Something went missing in the translation.
On DVD and Blu-ray disc
PRECIOUS, directed by Lee Daniels, written by Geoffrey Fletcher, 109 minutes, rated R.
Lee Daniels’ Academy Award-winning “Precious” is about as ugly and as disturbing as any movie in recent memory. It’s unflinching in its violence. Its power comes from its mix of horror, hatred and hope. And while you know this isn’t the case, there is the sense that everyone involved in the production has lived through the sort of hell presented here.
This is a slice of the American nightmare, where dreams are seemingly so impossible to achieve they get pushed into sequences of gleaming, far-reaching fantasy, where real life can’t get close enough to foster them.
Geoffrey Fletcher based his script on the novel “PUSH” by Sapphire, and what he and Daniels created is one of 2009’s most controversial films, with rap star Best Supporting Actress winner Mo’Nique and newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe delivering two of the year’s best performances.
In the film, Sidibe is Claireece “Precious” Jones, a 16-year-old girl who in 1987 Harlem was as much a victim of her own morbid obesity as she was of the cruelty surrounding her. Most of the violence takes place at home, where her father repeatedly raped her — giving her one child, leaving her with another on the way — and where her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), carries such a festering resent of Precious (“You stole my man! It’s because of you he left!”), she’s willing to kill her daughter with meaty swings of a cast-iron pan or by dropping a television set on her.
It’s at an alternative school that Precious meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who teaches Precious how to read and works to transform her life. Assisting to that end is Ms. Weiss, a social worker played with focus and restraint by Mariah Carey. As each comes to know Precious’ story, mother Mary is called into question. And how do you think that goes down when she’s brought in to explain herself?
Much has been written about how “Precious” is being received by the black community. Some have called it racist and claims it showcases a kind of slavery. Others disagree, saying that the film could represent any family, regardless of color. Others recall the films Spike Lee made in the ’80s, they remember the nerve they touched and they’re pleased that this movie also is touching one — if only to continue the conversation about race in America and how it’s viewed by Hollywood.
While “Precious” isn’t perfect — elements are forced — those elements nevertheless are overcome by the sheer force of Mo’Nique and Sidibe’s searing performances, which were indeed worthy of Academy consideration.
WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Mondays, Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.