At The Movies

Alice in Wonderland

Directed by Tim Burton
IMAX 3-D at Esquire IMAX
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

One of the things I like least about modern filmmaking is also one of the things that I like best when it is 1. appropriate and 2. done well. That is, the emphasis on spectacle.

Filmmakers have the ability to get essentially whatever they want on screen these days. But massive battles and booming soundtracks aren’t appropriate for every story.

Take two recent big releases playing in 3-D at the Esquire IMAX. Last year’s “Avatar” was so jaw dropping that it was easy to overlook some plot holes and bad acting. It also neatly captured some of the zeitgeist of the post-Bush era, with a small group of scientists switching sides to help an indigenous rebellion.

Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” on the other hand, takes a story that my fellow Gen Xers know well and put it through “Lord of the Rings/Chronicles of Narnia” filter. The softer whimsical/psychedelic aspect of the book and the original 1951 Disney version seems to have been lost in a look that is both too dark and assaulting—though I also know that neither is probably as good as I remember them being from my childhood.

Not surprisingly, we had a real generation split on this one. My late 30s girlfriend and I thought it was no better than ok, while her preteen kids both loved it. Which is to say, perhaps this “Alice” also captured some of today’s zeitgeist—in the form of headlong adventure from start to finish. Her kids may have been bored by the slow pace of the older versions. The film also had a strong feminist element, which we liked, that I doubt was in the original much either. Which is to say, maybe this is one of those classic stories that each generation remakes in its own image—or rather, is resold according to the market research done on it.

I also admit a longstanding anti-Tim Burton bias. His movies always look good, but all seem to have the same sort of day-glo sensibility to them. They’ve always seemed a bit empty to me as well. The thought of him staying on the path of remaking children’s classics makes me cringe a little, though I will admit I was pleasantly surprised by his 2005 version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

I’ll also admit there were things I liked about his “Alice.” Newcomer Mia Wasikowska was pleasantly understated in the title role. I loved his conception of Tweedledum and Tweedledee as good-hearted oafs who looked and sounded like English skinheads. Burton mainstays Johnny Depp and Helena Bohnam Carter were great as the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen (though Crispin Glover added disappointingly little of his signature weirdness to the evil henchman role). I don’t ever need to see this version again, but I will admit I was entertained.

Our Family Wedding

Directed by Rick Famuyiwa
Review by Tony Sheppard

“Our Family Wedding” walk—or staggers—a fine line between working and simply collapsing into a mess of slapstick chaos. On balance, I think it mostly works and it certainly has some genuinely funny moments, albeit that most of them aren’t during the broader moments of feuding between Forest Whitaker and Carlos Mencia.

Whitaker plays the father of an African-American groom to-be, and Mencia plays the father of his Hispanic would-be bride. The kids haven’t told their parents they’re getting married, and the fathers have the misfortune of meeting prior to that revelation in a manner that pits them against each other. The movie follows the ill-fated preparations which start to resemble a “My Big Fat Mixed-Ethnicity Wedding” as if directed by Tyler Perry.

But in between all of the silliness, it delivers an interesting account of the opinions that exist below the level of true racism. This is a movie in which a Mexican grandmother faints in horror at the first sight of her black grandson-in-law to be, and then proceeds to casually insult his family. It’s a movie in which four African-American men have lunch, during which one starts to act a little obnoxiously, causing his friend to tell him to be quiet because he’s “scaring the white folks.”  

Overall, it’s a mixed bag, including an awkward but funny sequence in which family members imagine the problems of seating certain people together at the wedding.  I was surprised at how often I laughed out loud, and less surprised at the moments that just seemed silly.  (Opens March 12)

She’s Out of My League

Directed by Jim Field Smith
Review by Tony Sheppard

This is a simple and sweet movie that was far funnier than I expected – probably the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies so far this year. With Jay Baruchel (“Tropic Thunder,” “Knocked Up”) in the lead role of a low self-esteem airport security guard who can’t believe a chance encounter with a pretty girl could really lead to true love, it’s a triumph of low budgets and big laughs.  

It’s also a great example of filmmaking in a location with aggressive film production incentives and was rewritten specifically to fit Pittsburgh, PA, showcasing assorted venues in the city in a manner Sacramento would do well to emulate. Audiences look for good films. Films look for good incentives.  (Opens March 12)

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