279 Cents is where we share our thoughts, views and reviews about this and that, and give you the good public our 279 Cents worth about it (currently worth about £1.80 at the current exchange rate if that helps)
At my back I always hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near, as Andrew Marvell once wrote. He was of course writing a poem in which the protagonist incites his lady-love to nookie (or tries). In this instance, the quotation is used to remind the world that 2010 is almost over, and with it a cinematic year. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as Charles Dickens once wrote. He was of course talking about the French Revolution, and was unlikely referring to the past cinematic twelve months. It was the year the Best Director Academy Award went to a woman for the first time in Kathryn Bigelow, it was the year that Avatar made $2 billion worldwide. It was the year Hollywood showed it wasn’t afraid to take a punt on an original idea, it was the year Hollywood showed a staggering inability to take a punt on an original idea. In short, a year of the sublime and the ridiculous.
So, with these contradictions in mind, along with the surfeit of end of year best of/worst of lists, we here at Studio 279 have decided to add our 279 Cents to the matter. The best films of the year will be discussed before the year is out, but first here is the five films that got our goats, pulled our chains, spoilt our evenings and just generally got on our nerves. NB: As with all such lists, this is entirely subjective, and the inclusion or omission of any film you liked/didn’t should not be the cause of any grief, beef, or any other eef. The post is also bloody long, so take regular breaks and avoid operating machinery. So, without further ado, the 5th worst film of the year is:
5. THE WOLFMAN d: Joe Johnston
This film enters the picture in the ‘hurts because of what might have been file’. As a dyed in the wool fan of classic Universal horror movies, with James Whale’s work, particularly the exemplary and hilarious Bride of Frankenstein, but also the frequently overlooked The Invisible Man being particular favourites, this was a project of instant interest. Though a remake, there was plenty to improve upon with a solid but unspectacular original, which despite an effective allegory for mental illness (and the supporting turn of the mighty Claude Rains) is a minor entry in the canon. Plus, the director was Mark Romanek, famed for his music video work but with the deeply unsettling One Hour Photo under his belt, more than a great choice with his great eye for visuals, and the bloody creepy. Like Christopher Nolan in Insomnia he was also able to get a restrained and atypical performance, and one of the best of his career from the frequent mugger Robin Williams, which would help no end in dealing with scenery chewer extraordinaire Sir Anthony Hopkins as the insidious father of Benecio Del Toro’s hero. So, a recipe for success then. Well, it would have been had the penny pinchers at Universal, so the story goes, quibbled Romanek’s request for a larger budget and so he walked, taking hopes for the project with it. No, wait: Frank Darabont of The Shawshank Redemption, famed horror fan and top notch director wants to direct it, you say? Put this back to the top of my…oh. Oh wait. Joe Johnston, the guy who made dinosaurs fighting each other boring, is in the chair. Goody.
This exhaustive exhumation of the film’s production woes are intended to explain why this film a) doesn’t work in the least and b) is quite painful. For the a): Oscar Wilde this analysis may not be, but the thing is rubbish. Johnston doesn’t really seem to know what to do with it. One minute it is a Gothic horror pastiche with Grande Guignol blood and a low rent sense of humour, the next it’s a serious look at the nature of being a monster; one minute a period romance, the next a badly animated CGI craptacular. In fairness to the man, as a journeyman director at best (hack at worst) he should not have been put in the position he was. A filmmaker of greater vision was needed to make something that could blend these elements effectively and give us either a good old-fashioned monster movie or a brand new take on an old legend. Such a filmmaker rather than one the studio seems to have thought was ‘their man’ would presumably have not been forced to chop and change so often, including the dropping, then reinstating of Danny Elfman’s score and multiple editors, giving the thing greater coherence. A director with a better way of actors would have made Anthony Hopkins act for once, a profession he seems to have given up several years ago in favour of mucking about as kooks on the silver screen. For many this is just passable trash, but it hurts more owing to what might have been. Sole positive: Hugo Weaving as Inspector Abberline. Weaving is a fantastic actor, and when you can get a laugh from ordering a pint of bitter you know you have talent. Shame that as it is the audience are the ones in need of a stiff drink
Verdict: A dog’s dinner.
4. THE GHOST d: Roman Polanski
Robert Harris is a fine author, and one who is living proof that, despite its repeated claims to the contrary, the world does not need Dan Brown. Specialising in well researched historical thrillers (unlike Brown’s cribbed from a travel book and pasted from Google tomes), his work is marvellously page turning, witty, evocative of period and location and intelligent. His novels about Roman orator Cicero, Imperium and Lustrum, are personal favourites, but his collaboration with Polanski was an intriguing one. They had tried, and failed, to mount a version of the author’s Pompeii when the writer’s strike and a large budget put paid to it. That was a personal relief, as it is his weakest novel without a single character to care about, and on film could look like Titanic in togas. But that team up on Harris’ only contemporary novel was more appealing. The book, narrated in the first person by a nameless ghost writer tasked with writing a disgraced any-similarity-to-Tony-Blair-purely-accidental-wink ex British Prime Minister Adam Lang’s memoirs after the accidental death of the previous scribe, is a thriller in the best sense of the word. After a slow start it picks up brilliantly, so much so it was after 4am when I finally put it down, fully read. In many ways a slight story, putting an auteur like Polanski on the case, and one with a top quality thriller like Chinatown in his locker no less, seemed sure to hit pay dirt.
Well, dirt at least. This is one of those films from the opening seconds the heart sinks. After a lacklustre title card (with this movie, even it’s opening titles are dull), we are shown the ferry from which the original ghost writer has fallen to his untimely demise. How then, should this be scored? If you answered with fairground music, give yourself a point! For some reason best known to themselves, Alexandre Desplat’s main theme is reminiscent of an old-time carousel. Hardly sinister ‘shadowy forces at work’ type stuff. Still early days. Oh no, it’s Ewan McGregor’s accent. Earlier I said Mr Tony Hopkins had ceased acting many years previous. The same isn’t quite true of old Ewan. He at least tries. The problem is the talent is MIA. It is baffling that he made Shallow Grave and Trainspotting when you see how lifeless he is in The Ghost. He is woefully miscast. Harris reportedly insisted the lead remain British. Quite so sir, and certainly in the face of a once threatened Nicolas Cage-tastic version. McGregor is a sound choice. Except he. Is. Not. From. London. If it was necessary to cast him (it wasn’t) at least keeping his normal accent would help. Like his fellow Highlanders Billy Connolly and Sir Sean Connery, accents elude him. His ‘ave-a-banana lilt wouldn’t be so bad if he communicated in any way the lead character’s wit, intelligence or thought processes, rather than looking like he is memorizing the breakfast menu. While he is sold down river by the decision to lose the book’s narration, where the two-faced, sarcastic and bitchy side of the character (i.e. the good bits) come out, he fails to convince on any level. But miscasting is the order of the day here. Pierce Brosnan is less suited to unknowable possible war criminals than he is to belting out ABBA hits, and he isn’t much cop at that either. Like McGregor he is hampered with a part that on-screen is wraith like such is its lack of substance. Like Blair the character is meant to be an enigma, but sadly the code is missing. As in the book he is more spoken about that depicted, but his presence is less spectral looming over events, or insidiously lurking in corners, but will-o-the-wisp. Why Kim Cattrall is there is anyone’s guess, which goes double for a bald Jim Belushi as a publisher. This last point is also why the film fails: it is slavish to the book in as fatal a way as Ron Howard was to Dan Brown’s blockbuster.
One of the themes of Harris’ book is about the state of the publishing industry, and the nature of ghost writing for celebrities and politicians. Belushi’s character is a US businessman who has bought out a UK publishing chain, leaving its current British chairman (and one with no love for our hero) impotent and useless by undermining his authority. Nice bit of colour in the book, ‘why is this here?’ in the film. The only time the film comes into its own is when Polanski ditches the text and shows some imagination, such as a chase on a ferry, and the final moments which trade the novel’s ambiguity for specificity with great effect. And praise must go to Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang, prime ministerial WAG, who is the only member of the cast who can bring nuance, charm, and life to their character. But otherwise it is very poor, particularly in the depiction of a character the Ghost meets in a bar in the first half of the film. An exchange that is meant to be odd, even sinister, is played ridiculously broadly, and seemingly even for laughs. These tonal problems carry over into the technical side of the production. Badly shot (long takes with far too many people in them) poorly designed (wasn’t shot in the US for obvious reasons and with the sets you can tell) and shoddily edited (it was edited with instructions from prison: it almost looks like it has been shivved in the shower rather than cut so clumsy is the work) it is a very poor piece of work from a director so highly esteemed. The film recently won 5 European Film Awards. It seems to this humble writer those were given in solidarity for his high-profile incarceration than for the quality of his opus.
Verdict: Given up the…
3. Robin Hood d: Ridley Scott
As anyone who has had the misfortune to have spoken to me from May to about June this year, the film that is second in terms of time wasted yakking about it is this big budget turkey. As with the previously discussed Wolfman, part of the pain here comes from a parallel universe. Many years ago, a script started ye olde bidding war in Hollywoode. That script was called Nottingham, written by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. The story was said to have repurposed the tried and trusted Robin Hood yarn and spun it on his head, with a sympathetic Sheriff of Nottingham in the lead and with Hood as some sort of anarcho-terrorist fighting a guerilla insurgency against the crown in Sherwood Forest, robbing violently from the rich, and not, in transpires, bothering to give much out to the poor. The big names swirled: Spiderman and the Evil Dead’s Sam Raimi, X-Men and The Usual Suspect’s Bryan Singer, National Treasure and Cool Runnings’ Jon Turteltaub (well, not all big names…) Who could it be? What? Sir Ridley Scott, director of the gold standard period action movie Gladiator, and his Maximus in the lead? That’s even better! Quick, quick, buy thee your tickets, gentle peasants and they shall tell thee a tale! Or, as it would seem, not. Like it’s Universal Studios stablemate Wolfman the film was beset by a production more tortured than any a Hood villain could devise. First, the Voris and Reiff script was the template. Then rumours drifted out of Scott and Croweland about duel roles: Crowe as the Sheriff and Hood. Were we to expect Batman; the Caped Crusader caped Crusader, unassuming lawman by day and avenging vigilante at night? No, it’s a straight Robin Hood story. But like Gladiator. You’re still coming right? Sure, Rid, sure Russ: bring it on!
There was much made by Messrs Scott and Crowe about how all other versions of the tale were unworthy of Friar Tuck’s toilet brush, never mind Maid Marian’s hand. Erroll Flynn’s Adventures of Robin Hood? Rubbish. Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves? Pants, and with bad haircuts. Mel Brook’s Men in Tights? Actually, that was alright, according to KBE Scott. But all in all they weren’t two things: firstly they weren’t exciting enough. Second, lacked the necessary historical context. So we were promised a no holds barred excitement fest that remained true to history. What we got was probably the most mind numbing blockbuster of recent years, coupled with being considerably less historically accurate than the animated Disney version where foxes fought lions and snakes for supremacy of Sherwood. The main failure of the film is simply this: If after around eighty years of filmic Hood heritage, and centuries of ballads, parlour games and legends before that, you cannot come up with a single new, fresh, interesting, exciting thing to say about Robin Hood, then don’t. Bloody. Make. The. Damn. Film.
The crushing unoriginality of the Scott version is staggering considering the hit job they performed on each version on the press tour. Whole scenes are cribbed not from the legends, but previous versions, making this a Hood’s Greatest Hits package. That wouldn’t matter if it was as entertaining as any of those, and it plainly isn’t. Costner’s film is easily mocked now (historical records fail to show archaeological evidence for mullets or US accents in the distant past) but it was at the time a fun romp and remains so now, albeit often a pleasure of the guiltier variety. The Flynn version has dated indeed, rather too much thigh slapping and talk of ‘saucy fellows’ for modern audiences, but it was a piece of its time, 1939, where sound in cinema was still a fairly recent invention (hence the reliance on intertitle cards) and glorious Technicolor provided a similar new frontier. The animated version is extraordinarily enjoyable, natty songs, good dialogue, and despite the well documented animated pilfering
of Disney vaults, great entertainment. Such a word is clearly anathema to our Hood head honchos, who have sucked all the life out of the thing and forgotten of all the things this story is meant to be it is that: fun. When you think fun, clearly the kind of dry political discourse not seen since The Phantom Menace crept onto screens was what you had in mind. Clearly you pictured
brave US soldiers faceless French stereotypes storm the beaches of Normandy Dover in a shocking shockingly misjudged depiction of the brutality of war Scott having seen Saving Private Ryan. Clearly you, the viewer, pictured a clearly overweight and gone-to-seed former acting titan babble his way through every accent known in Britain and further afield with a permanent scowl. Hang on, you didn’t? That’s odd…
Russell Crowe. Russell Crowe. Russell Crowe, Russell Crowe, Russell Crowe, what are we to do with you? Once he was one of the most exciting actors of his generation. His performance as Bud White in the outstanding LA Confidential is one of the standouts, even in spite of stiff competition from the venerable Guy Pearce’s Ed Exley and the almighty Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes. In The Insider he transformed himself into a middle-aged tobacco industry whistleblower, and one who could more than hold his own opposite Al Pacino. With Scott and Gladiator he cemented his position as a great acting talent by winning the Academy Award for Maximus. But since about 2005, when Cinderella Man got ignored by awards bodies and refunds for the public, he seems to have stopped caring. It would be tempting to view his multi-accented performance as a virtuoso tour de force in linguistics, but as his sarcastic and aggressive rebuttal to BBC Radio 4’s Mark Lawson suggests, it is either an example of lack of dedication to the role, shifting accents in the same line never mind the same scene, or, to quote the man himself, ‘dead ears, mate.’ The fall in his stock is less though than Sir Ridley Scott, whose recent explosion in productivity (nine films in the last ten years compared to just ten films in the previous twenty) has followed an implosion in quality. There may be flickers of the Crowe who played John Nash or Jack Aubrey from time to time, but is this the same Ridley Scott who made Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma and Louise? No, it’s the Scott who made Black Hawk Down (overblown, boring and racist) Kingdom of Heaven (staid, stupid and occasionally nonsensical) and American Gangster (ponderous, presumptuous in rehashing classic 70s cinema and lacking in focus). In some ways Hood is a combination of Kingdom and Gangster: the Gladiator-lite pseudo-historical tat of the former with the liberal referencing of other works of the latter. In the needlessly long 140min runtime the viewer can find, amongst others, references to Sommersby, Lord of the Rings, and, most bizarrely, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in a wrongheaded attempt to curry favour with the kiddies. Those with intimate interest in the Magna Carta, presumably.
The history. If as mooted, history was the aim here, you can forget it. Legend tells of Good King Richard, The Lionheart who loved this fair isle so much he had his heart buried here and was adored by its people, unlike his evil brother John who tried to steal the throne and blah blah blah. In reality Richard Coeur de Lion didn’t speak a word of English, hated the damn place so much he wanted his heart buried here as he viewed it as little more than offal and had previously bankrupt the nation when he was stupid enough to get captured and needed ransom. John meanwhile was hardly the best king, but not the boo hiss of yore. A film dealing with this would have been a change of pace. So would shifting the action to the reign of Stephen and The Anarchy of 1135-1154 for some juicy backdrop. But we get the same tired clichés of the tale, or those that will fit a Batman Begins style origin tale, the most abused type of story since that marvellous comic book classic arrived five years ago. Quite how an overweight, middle-aged man who would have been all but dead if we take ‘historical accuracy’ and life expectancy into account with questionable accents screams ‘origin’ it is hard to fathom. If ‘original’ had been the watchword instead, we may have had a better movie. Scott said Voris and Reiff’s script was awful and a ‘page one rewrite’ (and, having read a draft, it truly is horrendous) but while the dialogue and story should line bird cages their version hinted at a contemporary edge that would have enlivened the whole thing. Osama Bin Hood may well have been too far, but the gamble could have paid off. Instead the only pay off is the whopping cheque Crowe got for his services, that is unless you count the hilarious Erroll Flynn era title card punchline/shameless sequel tease: “And so the legend was born”. As Mr Burns would have it, “Not bloody likely!”
Verdict:Pants (sorry, couldn’t think of anything witty)
2. Centurion d: Neil Marshall
In many ways Centurion is actually the worst film of the year. The riches it squanders are borderline criminal. A great set up, an old-fashioned adventure story where the legendary Roman Ninth Legion are massacred by the Picts and a small band of survivors must liberate their captured commander, is one. A spectacular cast, containing such fine actors as Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, David Morrissey, Liam Cunningham, Olga Kurylenko, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, Imogen Poots and more, is another. Wasting lottery money on a film so abjectly, brain bendingly, car crashingly poor is the third. The only thing separating it from the top spot (which we shall get to soon enough) is that the number one entry was made for purely financial motives, and it is that crass commercialism that earns Centurion a reprieve. In theory rather than in practice it is a film made for narrative reasons rather than solely business ones. In this case it is just as well, as barely anyone excluding me paid a red cent to see it. And with damn good reason
Like many more illustrious names on this list, such as Ridley Scott and our soon to be unveiled number one, Centurion director Neil Marshall is currently languishing in the Studio 279 Director’s Jail. After a brilliant debut with Dog Soldiers, a smart spin on the werewolf story focussing on a group of well characterised squaddies, his career has quickly gone down a hole and died. That was almost literally true of his second film, The Descent. What starts out as a really interesting horror movie dealing with maternal grief and creeping claustrophobia inside a hellish cave network, in the second half it descends into a hysterical monster movie filled will mutant Gollumesque creatures. The levels of gore and splatter destroy all of the nuance and understated tension of the first half, and also throws all the subtle character work of the exclusively female lead cast out of the window. He circled the u-bend with his risible John Carpenter rip off Doomsday which is just abysmal from start to finish, from its ludicrous prologue to its Mad Maxian dystopia to Malcolm bleeding McDowell swanning around a castle dressed as a medieval king, and Centurion shows a desperate need to break out the plunger. Marshall’s problem as a director is twofold. One: he has no concept of restraint. He never seems to know how far is too far, whether it is in the repeated eye gougings in the blood drenched final acts of The Descent or the juvenile battle scenes that open Centurion. The constant hacking off of limbs is extremely boring, not least because the characters being dismembered are not our heroes, but faceless Roman sentries who have no relationship to the story proper, except to explain why a later equally bombastic battle takes
place in a deserted fort.
His other problem combined with this is fatal: he is a terrible writer. He has the knack for coming up with a great premise, a group of female friends venture into subterranean caves, for instance, but demonstrates a total inability to follow through on it, like, for instance, adding unnecessary mutants to terrorise them. Centurion was described by the man himself as a type of western in a Magnificent Seven vein, where our band of heroes join forces to break their leader out of Pictish captivity. Great, go with that! Except it is about forty-five minutes before the Roman Legion is attacked by their foes. No problem then, at least we will get some character build up. After all, Dog Soldiers showed Marshall can do a lot with a little, and by getting to know these characters we will be bound to their fate. So what do we learn? Their boss looks like McNulty from The Wire with a posh accent. The lead, Quintus Dias (one of the worst character names of the year, and hardly rivalling Maximus Decimus Meridius as the Latin name of choice) is a Roman soldier. He becomes friends with David Morrissey, and that bloke from Kidulthood shows up, and the guy from Four Lions… In short, the characters don’t have any. This makes proceedings achingly dull, and very annoying.
Like The Ghost the opening is somewhat indicative of the ride ahead, but it is only after a few minutes you see the writing on the wall. Swooping Lord of the Rings style mountains with chunky titles fly into your face. At the time you think, hmm, pretty, and certainly ambitious. Later it transpires this serves only as a bit of distraction, but also indicates the reach exceeding grasp nature of the production. A Hollywood scope has been envisaged on a relatively small budget. Had the filmmakers used a down and dirty, rough and ready, guerilla style version of the same material, it might have worked, but they didn’t, so it doesn’t. Then, after our swooping credits, a shirtless Fassbender with hands tied up runs through the snowy mountains. “My name is Quintus Dias” the narration intones, “I am a soldier of Rome, and this neither the beginning nor the end of my story.” Exciting, no? No, not really, rather an odd note to start on, but as becomes apparent not only is this “neither the beginning nor the end” of his story, but a “not remotely significant part whatsoever” of his story. It is a cheat designed to make the audience think “who is this, why is he running? Mysterious!” when honestly the entire section, and the rest of the first forty-five minutes, could be edited out no problem.
So structurally Marshall’s writing stinks. He has started in a place of no relevance and done so in medias res (into the middle of things Latin fans!) to make it seem more interesting. Fine. His dialogue is good though, right? Emphatically no. Along with the clunky narration throughout (one character we are told “was a farmer, until his wife and sons were murdered: it was then he picked up a sword” which is rather useful, being as it has no relationship to the character depicted in film) there is faux soldierish bonhomie (“He’s a ruthless, reckless bastard. And I’d die for him without hesitation”) that especially from the Dog Soldiers top dog is hard to stomach. But the prize goes to the laugh out loud line when the band are trudging through icy Scotland to free their ruthless-reckless-bastard in-chief. Fassbender looks back at the huddled hobbitish masses and pulls a sad face. “Can I lead these men?” the narration laments. WE DON’T CARE if you can lead these men, because none of this remotely matters. We don’t care about Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas, or your cooped up commandant, or the rag-tag band of legionnaires. In no way shape or form do we have any reason to even spend time with these people, never mind sympathise or care for them.
Marshall’s dodgy scripting is also at work in the subtext department. There are hints that throughout that the Roman occupation of Britain has an Iraq war/Afghanistan tone to it. Embracing this would have made the movie at least interesting, but if it was intended it is very jumbled. A mute Kurylenko as the Pict tracker who mercilessly hunts down our ‘heroes’ is speechless owing to a rather unsavoury incident that the Romans perpetrated on her as a child. This creates confusion: on one hand we sympathise with her and think this is a suggestion the Romans are not the heroes of the piece after all, but throughout the rest of the film she is shown to be a Terminatrix hunter killer. The revelation robs her of the mystique she has been given, along the western lines Marshall apparently meant to follow, and also cheapened the ordeal the character is meant to have suffered by making her a heartless merchant of death. If the point was how occupying forces brutalize the populace and lead to their own destruction, that would have added depth to the piece. As it is is makes no sense, much like the rest of the yarn.
There is one positive, in that Imogen Poots’ character and the romance plot therein livens things up a great deal. Pity she doesn’t appear until about an hour into the thing, and then leaves soon afterwards, taking all hopes for the film with her. It makes the viewer glad that Marshall never got the chance to film the big budget reboot of Sherlock Holmes. Attached before Guy Ritchie, he seemed like a good choice to adventure up Conan Doyle’s ‘tec. Even though Ritchie’s work in general and Holmes specifically I hate with a burning passion that never dies, on his current trajectory Marshall would have made it even worse.
Verdict: What have the Romans ever done for us?
And now, the number one worst movie of 2010 is:
1. ALICE IN WONDERLAND d: Tim Burton
Attempting to compose myself long enough to write about Alice in Wonderland is a next to impossible task. To put it simply: I hate this movie. There are stars that burn in the furthest reaches of the cosmos that do not burn as bright as my enmity for this piece of commercialist filth. The level of creative bankruptcy associated with this production should trigger an IMF bailout. Absolutely every last chunk of the toxic bilge river that is Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland chokes me with its noxious fumes. That’s a bit better. Now, to explain…
I would identify myself as a Tim Burton fan. I would say to those who are not, why not? What is wrong with Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish and Sweeney Todd? Burton has a singular vision, with a great sense of design in his productions and a keen focus on stories of outsiders, weirdos, oddballs and people who just don’t fit. It is easy to sympathise with his characters, marvel at the worlds he creates and dig the music, often laid down by serial collaborator Danny Elfman. Before AiW I would have had barely a bad word to say ’bout the Burt. Yes, to me Mars Attacks! is a step to far and is pretty tasteless in a way I don’t really take to. Yes, his Planet of the Apes is one of the most inexplicable studio releases of the last ten years, from the source material to the director to Marky Mark Whalberg being in it and the foolish decision to put all the good actors in the ape suits. Yes, while enjoyable, his take on Charlie and the Chocolate factory is a bit below average, the songs don’t really fly and though faithful to the Dahl source it is the depiction of Wonka that leaves it a bit wonky. And yes, his original Batman is now very badly dated, from the 80s/20s hybrid design to Kim Basinger and, crucially, Jack Nicholson being let too far off the leash. But I am a Burton apologist. Some say Sweeney Todd is more of the same, but the most remarkable thing about it is the new ground it breaks for both him and Johnny Depp. It is a darker tale than either have told before, not so much macabre
as Timbo’s movies usually are but jet black, and with a Depp character with no redeemable features and no chance of redemption. Some think Big Fish is mawkish and oversentimental. I think it is probably his most grown up film (not necessarily best, that is probably Scissorhands or Ed Wood) and showed a level of maturity that few would credit him with, and suggested an interesting next phase of his career. That never happened, and now, certainly never will.
That is because this lazy, hackneyed, clichéd, overinflated, undercooked, poorly conceived, atrociously executed excuse for a film made $1 billion. If Hollywood was meant to see Avatar’s cruising to $2 billion as a sign audiences are desperate for big budget thrillfests from big name directors not based on pre-existing material and that are original (although both Avatar’s originality and thrilling nature are up for debate) it can look at Alice as proof any old rubbish thrown together based on a copyright free source with a big director’s name as a fig leaf to cover its cynicism and by crappo-conversion to 3D get half as much money as Avatar with about 10% of the effort put into it. That means that the powers that be in southern California will continue to snap up any garbage without copyright (see this month’s Gulliver’s Travels, or, for humanity’s sake, don’t) or based on an existing ‘brand’ in the hope of making a fortune. It also means that Moneybags Burton has no need to make anything approaching a proper film again. As one of only a select few filmmakers, i.e. James Cameron, to make a $1billion picture, he can make whatever he wants. And that is, apparently, some kitschy soap opera about vampires Johnny Depp saw once. May God have mercy on us all!
But, dear reader, what is it that inspired such enmity from me and apocalyptic pronouncements? Let’s see. It could be the idea in the first place. Tim Burton does Alice in Wonderland. Slam dunk, right! On paper yes. But it’s odd how a film on paper is not necessarily movie magic on the silver screen. Part of the problem is Lewis Carroll and Burton are too perfect a fit. Often when a dream team up occurs it fails to function. The Coen Brother’s dark humour applied to the similarly dark Ealing Comedy The Ladykillers yielded hideous results. Famed alien chronicler Steven Spielberg tackling HG Wells’ War of the Worlds was a disaster greater than any a spaceship ever committed. It seems in putting the talent together no further effort was put in. To paraphrase John Slattery in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers: Lewis Carroll, Tim Burton, Johnny Depp. People will shit money. It’ll be so moving.
And let us have a look at what they did with that story. The whole purpose was to take the beloved Carroll classic and retool it for us modern peeps. But, ladies and gentlemen, a ‘smart twist’: Alice isn’t a little girl anymore. She’s nearly twenty. She visited Wonderland before, years ago, but now is going back. She escapes a horrendous garden party where an unctuous man has proposed to her. She has no real choice but to wed the little git, as her doting father has snuffed it and the family is on its uppers. If she refuses she is also likely to be unwanted by any other suitor and die an old maid like her crazy aunt seems destined too. Then she spies the white rabbit and is back to the magical realm. Now, this would indeed be an extremely smart idea if what I had said was strictly true. If it was a case of a self-confident young woman leaving childhood and approaching adulthood being faced with these awful things and retreating (or regressing) to a childhood fantasy world to escape then that would be terribly clever. It would add a psychological element to it not present in other versions, and go for the added emotion Burton said he wanted to tease out of the tale. It would be smart plus genius if then, on her arrival in Wonderland, it turned out the place was slowly dying around her, tied in with her childish innocence that is being lost and so slipping away, that too would pack some emotional punch and serve almost as a commentary on the original. That way sounds like the Wizard of Oz crossed with Pan’s Labyrinth. That would be a film to see. But here is the crucial detail of the Burtoning: she doesn’t remember.
That’s right: in a 110min movie, it takes the lead character around 100 of those minutes to get up to speed with where the audience are. We know she’s already been to Wonderland. How? Because we were told it when the movie came out. That was the plot. That was the hook. The whole flipping point and the differential between this and the billion other Alices in Wonderlands out there. Rather than start on that footing the film parrots events of the Carroll stories, with the only difference being that characters say “Are you the Alice?” and strongly hint what takes the poor ditz almost two hours to work out. Oh, and also that they have stupid names. Very stupid names. If JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis’ Inklings society had all got drunk and gone on a bit of a bender, losing all their creative faculties in the process, they could not have come up with such ear bleedingly moronic and irritating names. Ever heard of the Cheshire Cat? No mate, you mean Chessur. Chessur? The Dormouse? No, that’s Mallymkun, apparently. Red Queen? Irasabeth. Mad Hatter?
Chris Tarrant Hightopp. Oh, and the real kicker. It’s not Wonderland, stupid! It’s Underland. You got it wrong, coz you’re a cretin. That last one at least is apt. Rather than being wonderous or wonderful Burton’s Underland smells like something that’s been buried far too long. It’s an attempt at propriety that is quite galling. This is what Carroll’s stuff really was. That’s what makes it different. That’s what let’s us flog a hatful of copyrighted merchandise for a copyright free book. It makes it unique. Plus, Johnny Depp gets to where a different hat.
Today’s Depp is also, with Crowe, in 279 Actor Pokey. It looks like Crowe has life without parole; Depp is perilously close to the death penalty. Like Crowe he seems to have stopped acting and started ‘performing’: an accent here, a wig there, rather than bothering to create a proper character. This must have been an irresistable proposition. Mess about with a good mate, wear a ginger wig, put on a Scottish accent in odd interludes. He even gets an overwrought ‘tragedy of the Mad Hatter’ where his tears of the clown are shown in ‘heartrending’ detail. In exactly the same way as his mucker Burton this will likely not change. Before Pirates most studios cared not a fig for the Johnny of Depp. Ever since effectively anything he wants to make gets made, regardless of quality. With that $1billion ringing tills and Pirates 4 on the horizon, that won’t change. Still, next he’ll play a vampire. That will mean a whole different kind of wig. And maybe a cape. Sounds good already.
All of this laziness may explain why the film is so eye shreddingly ugly. Burton movies are always eye-catching. You can’t look at a frame from Scissorhands or Ed Wood or any other of his films and confuse it with something else. In that sense Wonderland is part of the pantheon; you’re unlikely to confuse it for another movie. That’s mainly due to the sickly pastel shaded colour scheme that has been desaturated to a grey blur and feels like you’re watching the thing with cataracts, with CGI backdrops that would disgrace a PS1 game. So too would the bizarre resizing of character’s appendages in post production, from Helena Bonham Carter’s baby head to Crispin Glover’s oversized limbs. This and the distractingly bad performance capture was apparently as Burton felt, with similar hubris to Scott, that this was a story that would work neither as straight live action or an animation. Except it would, because it has been both, and no, like no previous Robin Hood needing portly fellows not playing Friar Tuck, Alice in Wonderland had been fine for almost 150 years without Timothy Spall as a CGI spaniel.
And all of this was only the 2D version. The retro-fitted 3rd Dimension is what Blackadder
‘s friend Dr Johnson called “adding wheels to a tomato. Time consuming and utterly pointless”. Despite the many hats thrown, material unfurled, bits pointing out at the screen, it is staggeringly unimpressive, and the shots remain badly chosen and eye coveringly poor. For a comparison, due to a renegade projection in the left eye projector, a head-splitting migraine forced me to close an eye through three quarters of Coraline, the animated movie directed by Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick. In that instance, despite lacking the paid for dimension, shots were still meticulously composed, well thought out and beautiful to look at. In contrast I almost wanted the 3D in Alice, not because I was missing out with regular D but because your mind screamed ‘is this the best he could come up with?’ You almost fancied an added dimension would stop everything, from the acting to the design, being as flat as the picture. It is doubtful such measures would have succeeded.
Every year produces a film that boils my blood like no other. Once it was X-Men: The Last Stand, another Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Last year it was probably The Damned United in its desecration of a superior book. But this year, this year, it was Alice in Wonderland