Thursday, 15 April 2010

Tim Burton's Alice; I hope someone at least bought Miranda Richardson a nice hat

I don't know about 3-D; I mean, I really don't know about it. I don't have proper stereoscopic vision, so I don't really know whether 3D movies are showing me anything real. But Alice was the first one I've seen which managed to make me feel sick, so there must have been something happening. Like everything I've seen so far in the 3D revival we're all having to suffer through, Alice left me distinctly underwhelmed at the third dimension. It never seems to add anything vital to the experience, and as I watch more and more of it, I'm beginning to think that the technical restrictions it imposes on framing, staging and camera movement are actually taking more away from the experience than the faux-third dimension could possibly add. Up, for example, is a great movie. It's a great movie because it's well written and well-acted, so it would be fine in black and white old school pen drawn animation. It's still fine in 3D full colour computer animation, but it's fine despite them, not because of them. Same is true of Coraline, although part of what makes Coraline work is the animation style. I think my considered position is converging on the idea that if you absolutely must have a third dimension, you should try getting your writers to write something solid and get your actors to play it as something more than cardboard. Or as Olivier wonderfully said, "Have you tried ACTING, dear boy? I find it so much easier."

Anyhow, what I'm saying is Alice is in 3D, but so what? The question is whether it's any fun.

Well, it's got Johnny Depp in it, which is not generally considered to be a bad thing. And it's got Helena Bonham Carter in it (I rather imagine that in the Burton household it goes something like Tim Burton gets an idea and then potters over to Helena's house and asks her if she's busy next week). Bonham Carter seems to have reinvented herself as an absolutely lunatic comic presence after her early life as indispensable eye candy in Merchant Ivory movies and she's often very good indeed - she's easily the best thing in Sweeney Todd, switching brilliantly between dark hilarity and genuine pathos. She's also easily the best thing in Alice. I wouldn't have gone just to see her, but if anyone asked me why they should go to see the film I'd definitely sell it on her performance. The Red Queen is a hoot. I'd have paid to watch a whole movie that was nothing but her calling for people to get their heads chopped off.

Mind you, this is where the title of this post comes in; I sat there thinking, golly, the Burton-Bonham Carter household must have had Black Adder II on continuous loop all the way through production. It's a bit unfair of me to say this, because there's really only one way to go with the Red Queen, and that's bonkers, but Miranda Richardson's turn as Elizabeth in Black Adder II is the gold standard for arbitrary bonkers Queens and everyone going there is walking into that shadow. Bonham Carter manages to glow in her own right while she's standing there, but still, I hope someone bought Miranda a nice hat.

Apart from the Red Queen, your individual mileage may vary. Apparently they thought about hiring Anne Hathaway for Alice and she said no before belatedly signing up as the White Queen. The first part of the decision may or may not have been a good call; the decision to play the White Queen - well, I wish she hadn't. When I first saw Anne Hathaway in a movie, I thought I was looking at the second coming of Audrey Hepburn; I was watching the Devil Wears Prada and I couldn't remember the last time an actress had just left me speechless at her beauty. Everyone in Alice is somewhat distorted from their real appearance, and the distortions of Anne Hathaway are jarring. While Bonham Carter's Red Queen is a wonderfully realised cartoon, with a petite body overshadowed by a cartoonishly oversized head, the White Queen is much more subtly distorted and unsettling; the decision to overemphasise Hathaway's wide mouth with almost black lipstick on an ethereally white face is a bit like redoing the Mona Lisa in Joker makeup. That's not the bit which made me crazy, though; for some reason she keeps her hands at shoulder level all the time, as if she's adopting a stock pose from some theatrical tradition I don't know about. It just bugged me after a while. I think it was just a bad match between what Burton wanted the character to do and what Hathaway can actually do as an actress - she's just not a cartoonish person, and she didn't belong in a cartoon.

Depp, of course, is a cartoonish person, and he has no trouble adjusting to being the Mad Hatter. I just didn't particularly care this time. On a good day - Jack Sparrow, Julian Sands in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, even Sweeney Todd, Depp's access to his inner loon can make him the best thing in any scene he's in. It's just that Alice isn't particularly a good day. He's fine, but he's not electric.

There's been a certain amount of crankiness about Mia Wasikowska's Alice, but I didn't find her as stiff as the reviews left me expecting. She's fine; to some extent she needs to be the straight woman for all the insanity, so she needs to be grave and stiff when the people around her are acting like loons. And when the plot gets her moving quickly, she's got a grace and agility that I hadn't been expecting at all. I quite liked her, and I liked her most of all when she was in action. Of course, I kind of liked Malin Akerman in Watchmen, so your mileage may vary a lot on that one.

As to whether it's all actually a good film; well, no, it's not one of Burton's best. (and it might not have been smart to have a shout out to Beetlejuice, which is). He had wagon loads of money to spend and was able to mobilise every lovie in the greater London area for his voice-over artists and bookend actors, but it felt like trying to put all those riches to use left him flailing around trying to find something worthwhile. It might have been better with LESS talent and money to choose from. And it's sloppy at times; Alice shrinks and grows, when her clothes don't, which leads to a couple of nice bits of comic business in faking up new clothes to fit, but the movie left me with time to wonder why her shoes seemed to shrink and grow with her body when nothing else did. It was all MAGIC after all; there was no particular reason why the clothes couldn't shrink and grow with her. And all the money seems to have been not quite enough to keep track of continuity; at the beginning of the movie, we're SHOWN that Alice doesn't have stockings on, and it's a BIG deal - at the end, she does a little dance with her skirt pulled up and she HAS stockings on. When you're doing your best work, either you care enough to catch things like that, or you've moving fast and hard enough that no-one notices the goofs.

Still, Burton at less than his best is better than a lot of other people working flat out. I just wish he'd had less money and had to think harder about what he was doing.

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