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Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

Posted in Reviews with tags , , on March 28, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

Two friends and I took an evening this week to go see Alice in Wonderland at the cinema.  We saw it in 2D — the 3D glasses hurt my nose and the movement usually makes me feel nauseous, so I generally prefer 2D versions of things — and as a result we had the place almost entirely to ourselves, which was quite pleasant.  There were definitely places where the 2D animation seemed choppy and not-quite-right, so if you’re a person who enjoys the “3D experience” you may prefer seeing it that way, but it was still visually stunning without anything popping out of the screen (let’s face it: it’s Burton, ergo it’s visually stunning).

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, story-wise, as I’d heard some very mixed reviews.  Many people were very disappointed that the story didn’t tackle Carroll’s original subject matter, and instead chose to go with a pseudo-sequel that reads a little bit like fan-fiction.  Having seen it myself, though, I’m actually quite glad that they decided to re-interpret the material:  capturing all of the many elements involved in the books would have been impossible, and I suspect that any attempt to do so would have left me feeling as betrayed as I did after seeing The Fellowship of the Ring (don’t even get me started on my Tolkien-spinning-in-his-grave rant).  This movie instead makes no bones about the fact that it’s a new interpretation, and I’m glad to see that kind of admission of the difference between the written word and the silver screen.

That’s not to say that I’m totally pleased with what they decided to do with the story.  Despite the all-star cast, I was disappointed with the interpretations of many of the characters — especially Anne Hathaway’s White Queen, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, and Alan Rickman’s Caterpillar.  I also felt that the movie was missing Carroll’s wonderful and fanciful wordplay:  with the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar and the Dormouse playing such important roles, there really should have been more of it.  The plot was overly simplistic, and the ending extremely contrived.

Let’s begin with Alice herself.  Her costumes were wonderful (I especially loved the dress she wore while visiting the Red Queen’s court), and I can see what Mia Wasikowska was trying to accomplish by playing Alice as a very subdued, quiet individual.  I don’t think that she achieved what she could have, though — whether it be bad directing or merely her own inexperience as a lead actress in film, I’m not sure (although I suspect a combination of the two).  She was clearly trying to go for a portrayal of Alice as an inexperienced, naive, day-dreamy girl brought up in a repressive Victorian society; a girl who knows that there is something wrong with the world she lives in, but she’s just not quite sure how to express that.  It works all right through the beginning of the film, when she’s still within the “real world”, but once she’s down in Wonderland/Underland it takes her far too long to even begin breaking out of that shell.  The shock of finding herself in a place that she thought was only a dream should come sooner and harder, enabling her to go through the more extreme emotions required for proper character growth.

Next issue: the Mad Hatter.  Johnny Depp misses the boat completely with this one, taking a character that is supposed to be witty, wacky and generally off-the-wall, and instead making him into an object of general pathos (even the other characters seem to feel extremely sorry for him).  The Hatter is far too aware of his own insanity — isn’t it said that the truly insane don’t know they’re insane? — and it turns him into a sad, serious victim.  This is a character that needs to be played with joy, and somewhere along the way Depp missed that note.  I won’t even get into the fact that his Hatter was really just a combination of Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow, with the occasional touch of Sweeney Todd thrown in there for good measure; it’s an obvious point that has been made by many other reviewers before me.  It just added to the general feeling that Depp didn’t really quite “get” the Hatter.

The White Queen is probably my least favourite character of them all.  The deposed monarch, beloved by her subjects and yet powerless to stop her maniacal sister, needed to be gracious, benevolent and kind:  the sort of ruler who would be adored and idolized.  Instead she’s a ditzy blonde Wicked Witch of the West, plotting against her elder sibling and mixing up disgusting potions, obsessed so much with death that she can’t reach out to help the living.  She’s obviously the beautiful, spoiled, favourite baby sister, and I honestly felt a lot of sympathy for the Red Queen (someone who shouldn’t be sympathetic at all), largely because the White Queen is such a total bitch.  It was very jarring, and I was kind of secretly hoping that Christopher Lee’s Jabberwocky would come back to life just long enough to bite the White Queen’s head off at the very end of the battle.

As I mentioned above, the Red Queen is not a character who should be drawing sympathy … and yet like Depp’s Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen manages to be more pathetic than anything else.  The Red Queen is still one of my favourite characters in the movie, but there were many times when I stopped enjoying her nuttiness and instead felt sorry for her (perhaps as a less-pretty-and-popular older sister I was well-primed for such feelings, but all the same they shouldn’t have been there).  The Red Queen of the book is capricious, cruel, and pretty much terrifying.  Bonham Carter’s Red Queen manages it through most of the movie, but it falls apart towards the end when the audience starts to realize that Stayne, the Knave of Hearts, does not love her, and that the White Queen, her sister, is mocking and mean towards her (and it is suggested that the White Queen was their parents’ favourite, which really does in many ways justify the Red Queen’s hatred for her younger sibling).

The Caterpillar, too, was in many ways a disappointment.  Alan Rickman was a wonderful choice as the vocal actor, but the character was made far too serious.  Instead of being a wise-but-unintelligible mystic, he’s a prophet and leader of the people (they all run to him for advice upon Alice’s arrival, which seems very strange indeed).  He hardly frustrates Alice at all, and by the end is actually answering direct questions with direct answers!  He doesn’t speak in riddles and poetry, and it’s very disappointing.

Moving away from characters, now, and on to the plot.  I enjoyed the addition of elements from Jabberwocky (a poem that I absolutely adore).  However, I felt that it was very heavy-handed.  The audience is force-fed this idea of a “prophecy” from almost the moment Alice arrives in Wonderland/Underland, and it’s incredibly obvious that despite the objections of several characters (including Alice herself), this “prophecy” of the Jabberwocky is indeed going to come to pass.  I would have liked to see a lot more subtlety, here, as that would have made the climactic scene all the more exciting (as it was, it was a beautiful scene, and Christopher Lee made a lovely Jabberwocky, but you knew all along how it was going to end).  The story is lacking the many strange cul-de-sacs and turnarounds that defined Carroll’s work; it’s a very straightforward, point-A-to-point-B sort of tale, childish in its simplicity.  It really could have used a few more tea parties and strange encounters, and a lot less moody moping by many of the characters.

To end this review on a good note, however:  Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky was absolutely brilliant, and Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat was another wonderful choice (I wish he’d had more scenes).  The Bandersnatch is adorable, and I very much want one as a pet.  Tweedles Dee and Dum were also very enjoyable, and the March Hare is one of the only characters who achieved the proper level of absurdity and insanity.  Overall I actually had a very good time at this movie, and considered it well worth the price of admission.  And as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, visually stunning.  Somebody needs to introduce Burton to the world of being a designer, instead of a director, because his focus on the visual elements is just so wonderful … but unfortunately, things like acting and plot tend to suffer when your brain is so consumed with making it look amazing.

Oh, and to answer the riddle?  A raven is like a writing desk because they both have inky quills.  There are a few other answers out there, but I find that this one is the best.

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Movie Review: “The Descent”

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , on February 26, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

So it was horror-movie night with some friends of mine tonight, and the movie of choice was The Descent (2005).  I wasn’t expecting much of it — I remembered the commercials from a few years ago, which seemed pretty cheesy — and actually was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a half-decent movie.  Not Oscar-material or anything, but a fun movie to watch, and not as horribly cheesy as most horror/suspense being produced these days.  If you enjoy horror movies, you’ll probably get some good enjoyment out of this one.  I do caution you against watching it, though, if you’re a terribly claustrophobic person.  Most of the action takes place underground, and the filmmakers do a good job of reminding the audience of that by creating very closed-in shots that sometimes left me feeling as though there wasn’t quite enough air in the room.

I’m going to warn you right now that the next couple of paragraphs are going to contain some spoilers, so if you’d like to see the movie without knowing beforehand what’s going on, I suggest you stop reading now.

First reason why I found this movie enjoyable: it’s actually got a really good setup.  The women are established right from the start as being an adventurous and thrill-seeking bunch, rather than just being a random group of people doing something foolish.  While the situation they get themselves into is a reckless one, they have a well thought-out reason for it: the death of Sarah’s husband and daughter has changed the dynamic of the whole group, and they’re trying to get back into the swing of something that they loved to do before.  Juno, especially, has something to prove: her affair with Sarah’s now-dead husband has left her wracked with guilt and feeling like a bad friend, so she’s more willing to take stupid risks to get the old feelings back.

Second reason why I found the movie enjoyable: while the women did make a lot of foolish moves (running around in the dark, calling out loudly to each other even after they’d figured out that the crawler-monsters hunted by sound, letting themselves get separated, etc), they weren’t your usual horror-movie heroines.  In a male-free environment, they weren’t just dumb blondes screaming for help; all of them managed to have brave and heroic moments through the film.  Sarah even managed to hit a sort of “Sigourney Weaver in Alien” kind of note on a few occasions.  But on the flip-side, none of them were unrealistically brave, strong or intelligent.  They all made mistakes, and most of them died for it.

Third reason the movie was enjoyable: the gory factor.  While some of the effects were pretty fake-looking (whoever did the blood effects clearly hasn’t bled enough in their life, because the “blood” looked really fake on many occasions — clearly a lot of corn syrup and guar gum being employed, and not necessarily in the right concentrations), most of them were actually pretty good.  The sounds, especially, were nice and squelchy.  In the limited lighting conditions, the choice to go with makeup effects rather than CGI was a good one, in my opinion.  In bright light many of the effects would have looked silly, but when things were being illuminated only by the light of a torch, it came out pretty darn cool.

Speaking of lighting effects, I mostly enjoyed the way that the lack of light was used to great effect throughout the film.  The various light-sources used (flare, helmet lamp, video camera, glow sticks, flaming torch) provided lots of variety to what would otherwise have just been a monotonous maze of cramped passages and stalactite-filled caverns.  I often noticed shadows going in the wrong directions (especially in the scenes with the glow-stick illumination), but that’s just the lighting designer in me coming out.  In most cases it was easily overlooked.

There were, of course, some things that I didn’t enjoy so much about the movie.  The crawler-monsters were the source of many of these eye-rolling moments:  while they were certainly creepy-looking enough, I found their actions to be really inconsistent.  In one scene they’d be cautiously stalking the girls, waiting for the right moment to strike, but in the next they’d be running forwards mindlessly.  In one scene their sense of hearing might be so acute that they can zone in on a girl by the sound of her breathing, but in the next scene the girls can actually be whispering to each other, only a few feet away from a crawler, and it doesn’t seem to notice them.  Nor did their behaviour seem like the sort of thing that any known predator might do; the way that they would keep attacking even after being injured was especially annoying.  In the wild, predatory creatures are cautious and avoid situations where they might get hurt, because an injury in the wild means almost certain death.  Finally, it made absolutely no sense to me how the crawlers seemed to have very sharp hearing (most of the time, at least), and yet none of their other senses were particularly sharp.  Creatures that live underground often lose the use of their eyes, yes, but such sensory loss is generally accompanied by all other senses growing stronger.  At the very least, the crawlers should have had more acute senses of smell and touch — but instead it seemed as though they couldn’t smell the girls even when standing right in front of them, and in one particular scene a crawler has its hand only inches away from Sarah’s burning torch, and it doesn’t react at all to the heat.

I had mixed feelings about the ending.  While I usually dislike anything that says “whoops, that was all just a dream sequence/hallucination/coma fantasy/drug-induced weirdness” …. I actually kind of liked the uncertainty at the end here.  Among other things, it was a welcome change from the usual “lone heroine survives the terrible ordeal” sort of ending that we’ve all seen far too much of in movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and the Halloween saga.  And I’m very happy that they didn’t try to tack on some cheesy “all our friends are dead, but we’re alive and we’re going to celebrate that and be okay!” kind of happy/uplifting ending:  I get very tired of happy endings, especially in movies where they just don’t belong.

So in conclusion, The Descent was definitely worth the time spent in watching it.  Not something I think I’d want to own, but worth a watch.

“Avatar”, the Noble Savage, and Why White Boys Piss Me Off

Posted in Rants, Reviews with tags , , , , , on January 25, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

So people keep asking me what I thought about the movie Avatar.  And I  try to be tactful about it, and not start spouting off a bunch of jargon about semiotics and systems of signs and how much I wish that Sam Worthington’s character had just died very early on in the film.  So my usual answer has become simply, “it’s pretty.”  Because despite everything that’s horribly wrong with the story, the film does have a lot of pretty pictures.

But this is a blog, and I don’t have to be tactful.

Let’s start with one of the more obvious problems with the film: the idea that an uncouth, uneducated, colonialist American military-grunt white boy could learn enough about a culture in just a few short weeks to not only become sympathetic to their cause, but to actually become a full-fledged tribe member, and even a leader of the people.  Sorry, but no.  Especially when it becomes clear that the Na’vi have refused to accept Grace as one of their own, when she’s a trained anthropologist and astrobiologist who’s been among them for years.  This quick induction into the native culture goes completely against the portrait of the Na’vi as a cautious, secretive people which is otherwise maintained throughout the film.

Realistically, Jake should have died a dozen times over before ever becoming a full-fledged warrior of the Na’vi.  He should have been killed for blundering stupidly into their forests; he should have fallen from a tree and broken his neck; he should have been trampled to death by any number of forest creatures.  And he definitely should have been tossed off the floating mountain by the Banshees.  Taking and copulating with a betrothed woman (especially when that woman is the chief’s daughter) should have gotten him slaughtered by Tsu’tey, and let’s not even get into the whole Toruk thing (can I just say, predictable as all hell?).  Jake Sully should be thanking his lucky stars for all the hero-friendly Deus Ex that seems to have fallen in his way (Cameron uses that trick a lot, it seems).

I guess the movie just wouldn’t have been as interesting if Jake had gotten himself killed by his own stupidity within the first half hour, but it sure would have been more realistic.

But it’s not just Jake’s inexplicable survival that makes his character so problematic.  Like FernGully: The Last Rainforest and Disney’s Pocahontas, this movie is yet another example of “idiot white boy charges in and saves the poor little native peoples”.  Because of course, they couldn’t possibly save themselves.  It takes a strong, white male presence to pull them all together and lead them into victory.  Ah, racism.

Now, defenders of the film will undoubtedly argue at this point that we needed a human character to be the hero, because we couldn’t have empathized in the same way with a Na’vi character like Tus’tey, or even the beautiful Neytiri.  But this seems to me to be a pretty weak excuse.  Despite the cat ears and the tails and the blue skin, the Na’vi are very human-like.  They’re meant to be that way, so it doesn’t seem disgusting when Jake and Neytiri have sex.  The Na’vi have basically human features, and are built like slim and athletic human beings — right down to the belly buttons and breasts (despite the fact that they’re not placental mammals, nor do they nurse their young).  They even speak English through most of the film, for goodness sakes!  I’m pretty sure we could have made the small cognitive leap (more like a “step” than a “leap”, really) and felt some pathos for them.  Would audiences have felt less joy when the bulldozer was shut down if it had been Neytiri who’d done it?  Would it have been less impressive had Tsu’tey tamed the vicious Toruk (a feat only accomplished five times in the past) and led the battle in the sky?  Would a Na’vi have been capable of giving rousing speeches and bringing the people together to fight the oppressors?  Would Eywa have responded to help her people without the intervention of an outsider?

Yeah, the film could definitely have been done without Jake.  And it probably would have been better for it.  But just eliminating his character wouldn’t have fixed all of the problems, as I will illustrate below.

Problem number two: the Na’vi.  I hope I don’t need to explain to anyone that the Na’vi have some very obvious similarities to certain “primitive” human cultures, such as Native Americans and the Aboriginal Australians.  While the Native connection to Mother Earth is somewhat more of an abstract concept, the Na’vi have a very literal connection to their Mother Goddess, Eywa, and to the world around them, as expressed by their ability to “plug in” to each other with their ponytails.  They live in perfect harmony with nature and all of Pandora’s creatures, and feel deep sorrow at any sort of death or destruction.  Of course, this doesn’t stop them from killing and dominating the creatures around them, but we’re talking about concepts and ideals here.

All this brings up a rather nasty concept tied closely to European colonialism: the ideal of the “noble savage”.  This is a term that is mostly associated with the 18th and early 19th centuries, when white Europeans were storming all across the globe, wiping out cultures and people left and right.  While some people worked to disempower, destroy, and convert the “savages” that they encountered, others saw native peoples as somehow more “pure” than civilized Europeans, and sought to find that purity in their own lives.  “Romantic primitivism” during this period often involved white people traveling to colonized countries and “living among the savages” — a misleading phrase, as they didn’t live “among” them so much as “on top of” them, building large vacation houses with all the European comforts, where they could sit and observe the activities of their native slaves.  And it wasn’t just limited to observation — many of those native women wound up in the beds of their white oppressors, who found them exotic and exciting (not too much unlike Jake and Neytiri, really).  The white men would then write long journals or accounts of their travels, which would be published back home to much acclaim, and when the romantic traveler returned home he would inevitably have many examples of native art and artifacts to display in his living room, or to sell for a profit.  Less adventurous Europeans would try to capture this experience by spending time at country houses, copying native art (and creating their own versions of it), without ever understanding the history or meaning behind the original creations.

Obviously, the “noble savage” was a lovely ideal, but his way of life was still completely incompatible with civilized society.  He still needed to be taught English (and have his old language beaten out of him), to learn European history, and of course they had to be converted to Christianity and stop this silly earth-worshipping of theirs.  They were wonderful, but still infinitely inferior to white Europeans.

The Na’vi are pretty much the personification of the “noble savage”.  They’re just different enough from us to be exotic, yet enough the same that we can see they are beautiful and desirable.  They live in harmony with nature (an ideal that many of us find sympathy with in our modern quest for “green living”), and they do not have wars or strife.  Yet they lack any force in their personalities — they mindlessly obey orders (only Jake will disobey), can’t be innovative to solve problems (Jake has to come up with all the grand plans), and when trouble threatens they just throw up their hands in defeat (instead of planning their defense, they just decide to stay in their tree and die … until Jake convinces them otherwise, of course).  Their connection to Eywa is admirable, and yet their Goddess won’t step in to save them in a direct way (well, at least not until a white man asks her to).  And even though in the end they do win the fight, their home has been destroyed and they have lost much of what they had before (not unlike many post-colonial societies, which now have sovereignty, but have already lost everything they had before the white man came).

And now for the third problem I had with Avatar: Eywa.  Eywa is basically the Pandoran version of Mother Earth, a Goddess who is really just a personification of nature.  But unlike our Mother Earth, Eywa is active and able to fight back against what is done to her.  A nice idea for modern people (especially modern Americans) who don’t want to make the effort to save our planet: look, Eywa can just save herself; maybe Earth can do it, too.  It’s comforting, it’s idealistic, it’s infantile.  Let’s face it: if Earth ever does make a move to protect itself, humans probably aren’t going to survive the shift — nor will much else that’s alive on the planet today.  Mass extinctions have happened before, and will happen again, and they’re not pretty and controlled like what we saw in Avatar.  Eywa is really just an excuse for the modern urban human to feel better about what we’ve done (and are doing) to the planet — because if we were fighting against an armed opponent, it would make the whole thing much more morally acceptable.

I find it funny that people have accused Cameron of being “anti-American” after seeing this film.  If anything, Avatar is just a huge justification for the American way of life.  Idiot military grunt white boys can save the world and get some hot, blue poon while they’re at it, and the earth will save itself so why stop drilling for oil?  Sure sounds like an endorsement of American stupidity to me.