No Concessions: Wonderlands–Tim Burton’s, Matt Damon’s, and “A Prophet’s”

Written by Film, No Concessions

The Wizard of Oz has influenced every movie made since it opened in 1939, or so I’ve read. Off the top of my head I’m not so sure: On the Waterfront? There’s Something About Mary? Alice in Wonderland, though, has surely left its imprint on everything in sight, from The Matrix to every cop and spy movie where a character says “we’re going through the looking glass on this one,” not to mention every film with the name Alice in the title (like Woody Allen’s) or even a character named Alice, like Resident Evil.

With this lineage to take advantage of you’d think Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland might amount to something special, but all it comes down to is…Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. That’s not as appalling as Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (the filmmaker has no flair for science fiction) yet it’s nothing special, certainly not as unexpected as, say, the excellent blur of fact and fantasy that is the Dennis Potter-written Dreamchild (1985). It’s a by-the-numbers Disney blockbuster, lacking the eccentric personality of the studio’s own 1951 cartoon (which Uncle Walt hated), in irritating, waste-of-money fake 3D, added as a surcharge-grubbing afterthought.

(That’s how Avatar “changed the game,” giving Hollywood the incentive to add 3D in post-production and dun us for an extra $2-$3 for glasses rentals. My advice is to spend the money only on movies conceived for 3D, like Cameron’s blockbuster or the forthcoming Tron Legacy. Or just save the glasses, buy tickets for a regular-priced movie, and see the latest third-dimensional extravaganza minus the surcharge. A good idea for the Clash of the Titans remake, which became a comin’-at-you lollapalooza the minute Warner Bros. saw Avatar’s first-day grosses.)

What it has, in abundance, is Burton’s Goth shtick. Lewis Carroll resists adaptation, which is why so many filmmakers have taken a crack at it, usually with all-star casts under whimsical makeup (Telly Savalas as the Cheshire Cat! Gene Wilder as the Mock Turtle! Peter Sellers as the March Hare! Gary Cooper as the White Knight!). Burton’s take largely conforms to type, though actors like Alan Rickman and Michael Sheen have been banished to the recording studio to overlay the voices of CGI creatures, some of which, like the frog courtiers and human-faced lily pads, are quite good. As always, the casting sort of works: Anne Hathaway’s exaggerated White Queen is good for a chuckle, and while we’re stuck with Helena Bonham Carter until Burton drops her down the same rabbit hole Lisa Marie went she’s a good sport given the way he’s used her as the tyrannical Red Queen. I interviewed her and Cary Elwes about an early credit for both, 1986’s Lady Jane; they were two of the most petite people I had ever met, though Bonham Carter’s head dwarfed the rest of her tiny body (her voracious chain-smoking may have stunted her growth in strange ways). Intimately aware of this, Burton has given the Red Queen a plus-sized noggin atop a toothpick torso, which is good for another laugh. I’m hoping she thought it was funny.

I couldn’t raise so much as a smile from Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. Carroll’s creation has been run through the Burton blender and emerged one-part Beetlejuice, one-part Nicholson-era Joker, and one-part Edward Scissorhands. Burton has taken us to some wonderfully macabre places in the 25 years since Pee-wee’s Big Adventure; the trouble is we’ve been down this road before. A retrospective of the filmmaker’s wok is drawing record crowds at the Museum of Modern Art, and Alice has the feel of an installation about it, as if it were part of the show and not a leap forward. Burton’s take on Sweeney Todd was the first film of his to excite me since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow—my misgivings about Depp and Bonham Carter aside he sliced Sondheim’s dark beauty off the stage with a razor-sharp vision of how it could work as cinema.

Alice, by contrast, has been reconfigured as an empowerment story, and the chick-flickness of it shows. Catwoman aside, Burton has never shown much interest in blondes, which may account for Mia Wasikowska’s colorless performance in the lead. I found the Merchant Ivory trappings of the early part of the film, before the teenaged, about-to-be-engaged Alice went through the looking glass in this one, slightly more interesting than the “underland” portion, as it forced Burton out of his comfort zone. In his earlier films (including my very favorite, Batman Returns) he defined a style, which has gone stale with repetition. Wonderland is like an annex to the chocolate factory, with Charlie and Alice going on similar journeys in the fey company of Johnny Depp.

Put it this way: This is a film featuring the voices of Christopher Lee, Michael Gough, and Barbara Windsor, stalwart British performers I adore, and it did nothing for me. Not even Danny Elfman’s latest score for Burton budged me. Less than nothing at the end, which features a fit of break-dancing and an unsuitable end for our Alice, which I’ll semi-spoil. Linda Woolverton, who wrote Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, had options, but has chosen to make her an imperialist industrialist, a Red Queen headed for the Silk Road. Maybe that’s the sociopolitical secret of its curiouser success—it aspires to better, recession-clobbering things for its audience while wearing comfortable old hand-me-downs from the filmmaker’s closet.

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“We’re going through the looking glass on this one,” says Matt Damon to an aide in Green Zone. No, he doesn’t, not that you could hear much of anything through the din and clatter once it gets cranked up to 11. The latest Iraq war flop is in part a victim of bad timing, filmed two years ago but released after The Hurt Locker and In the Loop showed how best to make one, even if those, too, had no luck finding an audience. But director Paul Greengrass and writer Brian Helgeland are also to blame. Damon being water-boarded in The Bourne Ultimatum had the shock of recognition. This one, which sends his chief warrant officer through the (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) looking glass on the trail of WMD, means to critique torture chambers, the “deck of cards,” “Mission Accomplished” and all the other failures and sideshows of the shock and awe era, and winds up weirdly nostalgic for them. Wasn’t that a time!

Not as much of a time as the movie seems to think. Loosely based on a factual account the movie, which positions a Judith Miller-type journalist (an uncomfortable role for the excellent Amy Ryan) as redeemable and the revelation that there was no WMD as cause for a happy ending, is guilty of its own falsifications and overreaching. It builds toward a lengthy foot chase, with Damon and his Gunga Din of an interpreter looking for the guy who can pin the tail on the cover-up, that is as pointless as it is furiously exciting. Or, if Greengrass’s close-in, “shaky cam” style isn’t your bag, merely headache-inducing. DP Barry Ackroyd, who shot Greengrass’ United 93, refined that style and received an Oscar nomination for The Hurt Locker. This is the full shaky.

Damon, who gave a loose and spontaneous performance in The Informant!, graduates from the Kiefer Sutherland School of Clenched Body Language here. The regimen works for its namesake on the wild-and-crazy 24 but a movie purportedly based on real life needs flesh and blood to hang onto. His adversary, a mealy-mouthed factotum played obviously by Greg Kinnear, was Damon’s conjoined twin in Stuck on You, which is the kind of thing you think about when a movie’s not clicking. Green Zone traffics in thrills and wants to rise above the level of a war-on-terror potboiler like The Kingdom; its pretension sinks it.

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Jacques Audiard’s extraordinary A Prophet (un Prophète) takes place in a true underland, or maybe, the French equivalent of Oz—not Dorothy’s, but HBO’s prison-set melodrama. We are processed into a world with its own codes and shorthand along with its half-Arab, half-Corsican protagonist, 19-year-old Malik El Djebena (Tahir Rahim), a repeat offender who can neither read nor write. Malik is a blank slate, quickly written on by the leader of the Corsican gang that runs the place, Cesar (Niels Arestrup). There is a beautiful scene where Malik is counseled by Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi), a fellow inmate and a more philosophical sort—which is immediately followed by Reyeb’s brutal, messy murder at Malik’s hands, a killing ordered by Cesar. Rarely have I been so affected by a screen homicide. The entire sequence is an instant classic. But it’s only the beginning of Malik’s education, which sees him learning to read and write French, continuing to carry out Cesar’s directives while developing his own intra-prison network, and becoming a self-made leader who threatens the established hierarchy.

Audiard’s prior films, including The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2004), a remake of James Toback’s searing Fingers (1978), and the romance-tinged crime melodrama Read My Lips (2001), are watchable but somewhat wary, too. This one, which runs a relentless two-and-a-half hours, is completely, nerve-janglingly immersive, and a deserved winner of the Cannes Grand Prix and recipient of an Oscar nomination. It was never going to win the latter—too harsh, though there is a measure of transcendence, too, which you can detect in another first-rate score by Alexandre Desplat. The performances, too, have unexpected grace notes; Arestrup in particular proves a most complicated monster/mentor (he and Rahim are pictured in the center of the photo above). In any language A Prophet (un Prophète) is a stunning film, the first great release of the year.

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