Saturday, December 17, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

"Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

- Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) 

Mea culpa.

Although universally and no doubt rightly considered a literary classic, Lewis Carroll's surreal Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has always given me a headache. 

No doubt this is a tremendous failing of imagination on my part, but I'll readily own it.  I simply don't have much affinity for Carroll's admittedly colorful universe of literary nonsense: a cosmos of neologisms, riddles, word-play, mathematical concepts, and nonce words.  Alice's universe (also featured in Through the Looking Glass [1871]) is deliberately not of the fantasy genre because there is little or no internal logic to it, and if you know anything about me from reading this blog, I hope it's that I'm a big proponent of internal logic in works of art.   

In fact, my opinion of Carroll's mythos conforms well to Alice's description of the poem Jabberwocky:

It's pretty, but rather hard to understand.

Again, I realize it's my own personal failing that I'm writing about here, but when I last read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (admittedly well over a decade ago...) I also found it vaguely sinister, and more than that, somewhat unsavory in its sadistic qualities  The story essentially involves a girl who is denied -- again and again -- understanding of Wonderland, and also put through some savage physical trials and tribulations. 

Additionally, from my perspective, the various adventures in Wonderland (from the Mad Tea Party to the Queen's croquet game) appears to lack legitimate thematic connection beyond Carroll's focus on animals from natural history, mathematical concepts, and nonsense.  The tale is interesting as a surreal, dream experience, but not as a coherent narrative.  The threads don't all tie together, in other words.

In exposing my personal opinion of Alice in Wonderland, I reveal -- as I've already stated -- the nature of my own limitations as a thinker or philosopher, I suppose.  There you have it.  But it's crucial you understand my perspective as I write about Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland film of 2010. 

Because, in many significant ways, I suspect Tim Burton may hold the same opinion of Carroll's "classic" that I do.  In fact, he has taken into consideration all my reservations about the material and created a work of art that rebuts them.  In doing so, however, Burton certainly "re-imagines" the Alice universe rather dramatically.  If you're a big admirer of Carroll's written words and world, I imagine you might easily and no doubt accurately find Burton's approach grating, and a poor creative decision. 

So right off the bat, let me state that Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is not for the purists, or for those who appreciate Carroll's work and consider it sacrosanct. 

If, on the other hand, you're open to seeing a film that psychologically interprets Alice's adventure in Wonderland, you may find there's a much to appreciate here.

Outside of considerations about the source material, I admired the film as a visually enthralling (and dazzling) fantasy piece, and also as an exception to the Hollywood rule about young women acting as heroes.  Here, the lead female character is not just the girlfriend to the male hero (Twilight, j'accuse), the sidekick to the hero (Harry Potter), nor the object to be rescued (James Bond), but the central figure and hero in her own adventure.  Alice slays the dragon -- or the Jabberwocky -- herself; she doesn't need St. George to contextualize her role. 

Alice's heroism may sound like a small element, but consider for a moment how few modern fantasy or adventure films actually position a female as savior/messiah/"The One"/defeater of evil.  In contemplating that idea,  you'll gain a small sense of how special and unique this film truly is.  Accordingly, I would unequivocally recommend the film to all children, but especially to girls.  Tim Burton has transformed Alice from a girl who is acted upon -- shrunken and grown at random by quasi-malevolent forces out of her control -- to a girl who takes responsibility for her choices and makes her own destiny in the world.

Although occasionally a little meandering, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland emerges as a breathtaking re-invention of a literary classic, and one I highly recommend if any of my thoughts above resonate with you.

"Why is it you're always too small or too tall?"

Nineteen year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) attends a garden party at the home of a rich businessman only to learn that it is actually her engagement party, and that she is to be married off to the odious Hamish (Leo Bill), a man with digestive problems. 

As Hamish escorts her to a gazebo to ask Alice's hand in marriage, hundreds of party-goers gather to celebrate.

Needing a moment to compose herself, Alice runs off alone.  She spies a white rabbit descend down a rabbit hole, and follows it, falling it into "Underland." 

There, Alice experiences the powerful sense that she has been there before, as a child.  She meets many "friends" she seems to remember, including a blue caterpillar, Absalom (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) and the twins, Tweedledee and Tweedle Dum (Matt Lucas). 

Soon, Alice also runs into her old friend, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who tells her that Underland is experiencing difficult times.  The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has seized control of the land from her kind sister, the White Queen (Anne a role crying out for Lisa Marie).  Worse, the Red Queen ruthlessly defends her authority with her beastly champion, the monstrous Jabberwocky.

The Mad Hatter informs Alice that it is her destiny to acquire the "vorpal sword" and destroy the Jabberwocky, thus restoring the White Queen to the throne and balance to Underland.  Alice rejects this destiny again and again, but when the Mad Hatter is captured by the forces of the Red Queen, led by Stayne (Crispin Glover), she realizes she must act meaningfully to save her dear friend...

"Have you lost your senses? This picture is impossible."
Alice in Wonderland is another Tim Burton film focused on a misfit or an outsider. In this case, that fiure is Alice, who dreams of breaking convention and doesn't fit into "proper" English society.  

Let's talk about that proper 19th century society for a moment.  There, women were treated as little more than slaves.  If single, women were met with disdain and denigration.  Furthermore, women could not hold down jobs, either, and were forbidden from attending university or bettering themselves through a significant education.  A woman's only "meaningful" destiny at this time was to marry and have children, and see her "wealth" and assets transferred to the ownership of a man to spend as he saw fit.

This is the system, the "proper" world that Alice has trouble accepting in the film.

"Why is it you're always too small or too tall?" The Mad Hatter asks Alice at one point in the film, revealing her status as an outsider who doesn't seem to fit in anywhere.  She seems "too big" for the role of a woman in 19th century England, and yet too (physically) small and fragile to be a dragonslayer in Underland.   

Early in the film, Alice also asks the question "who's to say what's proper?", a question which reveals how she deeply chafes under society's rules.  Importantly, following her adventure in Underland, Alice is ready to leave "proper" society behind and set out on an adventure to faraway China.  In other words, she is determined to make her place in the world on her own, without people telling her what to do, or whom she should marry.  The film's dialogue makes the question of Alice's journey an explicit one: should she follow a well-trodden path, or diverge from that path and make her own road?

Considering this important aspect of the tale, Burton's Alice in Wonderland is a coming-of-age, hero's journey/passage type story, and it's illuminating to see how Burton creates the story of one girl's journey from diffident adolescence to confident maturity.  Interestingly, he adopts the Wizard of Oz conceit that "real" life boasts a mirror in the "other" (fantasy) life.  In The Wizard of Oz (1939), as you'll recall, the shape of Dorothy's life in Kansas was mirrored in her dream of Oz.   Hunk, Zeke and Hickory became the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and The Tin Man, respectively, and Miss Gulch became the Wicked Witch. 

Although the mirror aspect of Alice in Wonderland (a nice allusion to Through the Looking Glass) isn't quite that on-the-nose, aspects of Alice's life do find expression in Underland, a land, to be sure, representing her subconscious mind.  In real life, Alice walks through the garden of Hamish's parents, and refers to painting white roses red while in the company of her would-be-mother-in-law.  This discussion positions the draconian mother-in-law as the "Red Queen" of Alice's reality.   Also, two girls in Hamish's family are shallow, superficial twits, and their presence is echoed in Underland by that of the dim-bulbs Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Similarly, when the White Queen gathers her troops to ask for a volunteer champion to defeat the Jabberwocky, Burton determinedly re-stages, with minimal variation, the moment from early in the film when Hamish gathers onlookers at the gazebo to propose marriage to Alice. 

In both instances, Alice must make a fateful decision.  The first time -- in real life -- she runs away to her subconscious, to Underland.  Then, in Underland, she finally steps up to become a champion.  And then, after defeating the Jabberwocky, she returns to the Gazebo and has the strength of mind and personality to refuse Hamish's proposal.  These three scenes -- of identical staging -- are the crux of the film, for they ask us what Alice is made of.  Has she lost her "muchness" or, in the act of exploring her subconscious (Underland), does she restore her "muchness?"  The film suggests that Alice can only be victorious when, in Absalom's words, she decides "which" Alice she is: the one who makers her own path, or the one who blindly follows the path of others.

In the same vein, the villainous Jabberwocky -- the champion of the Red Queen -- represents the status quo in Alice's subconscious.  If Alice can't destroy the beast, the Red Queen stays on the throne...and nothing changes. 

If Alice is victorious, however, Alice will possess the freedom (because of the transformatiional power of the Jabberwocky's blood) to return to her "real" life as an empowered champion. Of course, this is what occurs.

Alice's character arc in Burton's film is quite an empowering one.  Alice need not fit in, the film states, but merely decide her own path, and that's just about the best message you could possibly showcase in a fantasy during our Twilight/Kardashian age.  Alice need not be defined by who she is with romantically, or by family name, or by wealth (or paucity of wealth).  I love the film's message and it isn't particularly heavy-handed, which is nice.  Alice in Wonderland doesn't browbeat with you the "point," which is a tremendous gift in a world where most contemporary films lack subtext.

Mia Wasikowska is a revelation in the film, a major young talent.  She is one of those luminous, somewhat unconventional-looking actresses who grows more beautiful, more interesting, more graceful and more compelling the longer you watch her.  She holds the screen.  Wasikowska successfully imbues this Alice with a fetching intelligence and sense of vulnerability, and such qualities are important, because Alice is our anchor; the person from whose mind Underland is drawn.  Fortunately, it's very possible to believe that this Alice could create such a fertile realm of the imagination.

You also won't be surprised to learn that the visuals in the film are ravishing.  This film boasts amazing sights not easily forgotten.  These include a post-apocalyptic Underland under the rule of the vicious Red Queen, and an army of soldiers falling in battle -- literally -- like a deck of cards. 

Alice's first, dizzying descent down the rabbit hole is also noteworthy.  I can't imagine how amazing the film looked in its original 3D presentation, but on high-definition blu-ray Alice in Wonderland remains an absolute stunner.

Again, this isn't Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland by any stretch of the imagination.  It's more like a sequel that makes logical, behavioral sense of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.   Tim Burton has added a psychological dimension to the tale, showcasing a world not in which a young girl is acted upon (and tortured...) by strange, inscrutable creatures, but in which that world is a manifestation of the girl's desire to find her own place in the world. 

It's silly to argue that a movie is "better" than a work of literature, I realize.  But Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland re-imagines the world of Lewis Carroll in an empowering, visually-stunning fashion.  In doing so, it far exceeeded my expectations of what what the tenth or so cinematic adaptation of Carroll's classic work could achieve.

As the Mad Hatter might say, this one really-- quite unexpectedly -- turned out to be my cup of tea.

Next Week: Batman (1989)!

All I Want for Christmas Retro-Toy Countdown (7 Days Left)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Logan's Run TV Series Finds Sanctuary on DVD

The dependable and dedicated site TV Shows on DVD is now reporting that the short-lived 1977 TV series Logan's Run will be available on DVD in early Spring of 2012.

Here's the skinny:

Warner Home Video has today announced that Logan's Run - The Complete Series will be available IN STORES beginning April 10th. The 3-DVD set containing all 14 episodes (including the feature-length pilot episode) is priced at $39.98 SRP.

Way back in this blog's prehistoric days (in October of 2005) I blogged the entire series, all fourteen episodes, so you can check out my (old reviews) in the blog archives.

Here's some of the details from my review of the pilot episode, however:

The series was an adaptation of William F. Nolan's highly successful (and literate) novel about a future society in which citizens lived in bliss, but only got twenty-one years to do it.

The TV show came after the movie, which meant that many of the modifications of the 1976 feature film starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter were also translated to the weekly show. For instance, the original book did not feature "Carousel," the public ritual wherein denizens of the City of Domes watched their brethren "renew" (or not...) in a blaze of energy. But the TV series retained that concept.

In fact, the costumes, props and much stock footage from the popular film were all recycled into the TV series. So the Logan's Run series felt twice removed from the Nolan novel, if that makes sense...

The idea for a Logan's Run TV series came while Nolan was on the set of the film, developing a 40-page treatment for a sequel with writer Saul David, Mr. Nolan told me during an interview a few years back.

His preference was actually to produce a trilogy of films, but CBS wanted a TV series and paid nine million dollars for the rights to one.

Nolan was offered the position of story editor, but wasn't thrilled with the series' concept. "Their idea," he told me for the Cinescape piece, "was to run Logan around in a car every week and encounter new societies underground. After solving their problems, he would return to the surface, get in his car and drive away. I felt that wasn't the way to handle the concept." (John K. Muir, Cinescape: "The Running Man," 2000, page 63.)

Logan's Run: The TV Series thus became a "civilization of the week"-style sci-fi TV series, partly inspired by the concept of Star Trek (exploring a different culture on a different planet every week) and partly by the post-apocalyptic film and TV craze of the mid-1970s, which included the Canadian Starlost, the popular Planet of the Apes films and the short-lived 1974 Apes series. Where the Apes film and TV series dealt with the concept of race and racism translated to a future universe, Logan's Run primarily concerned overpopulation, the idea of an unquestioning and easily-controlled populace, and an overreliance on machinery (computers).

The proverb "never trust anybody over 30" -- so popular in the 1960s and early 1970s --- was made literal in Logan's universe. In the City of Domes, you were either young, or you were dead, and the result was a callow population, unconcerned with anything but its own pleasure (enhanced by drugs and lots and lots of sex). One also senses in this theme an understanding about the "youth culture" dominating Hollywood and the film industry, an age-ism that is even more prevalent today in the heyday of the WB. Their motto seems to be "never cast anybody over 30."

"Logan's Run was dropped in our laps because there was a big problem about how to make this into a TV series," said executive producer Ben Roberts in a Starlog interview back in the seventies. (David Houston, "Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts, Executive Producers of Logan's Run," Starlog # 9, October 1977, page 42.) "When you're faced with Star Wars, or even Logan's Run as a movie, you're talking about nine to ten-million dollar projects. Here we're dealing only with hundreds of thousands of dollars..."

The ninety-minute Logan's Run pilot aired on September 16, 1977, with credits indicating a teleplay by William Nolan, Saul David and producer Leonard Katzman. The effort was directed by Robert Day, and like the movie, opens in the City of Domes as a young Sandman (police officer) in the City of Domes named Logan (Gregory Harrison) watches citizens "renew" at Carousel, the mandatory ritual undergone by all citizens at age 30.

Although Sandmen are taught not to question, Logan wonders about Carousel and asks his partner, Francis 7 (Randy Powell) if he has ever actually seen anybody renew. After this conversation, Logan and Francis are called back to duty to terminate a "runner," a citizen who has shunned Carousel and is attempting to escape the closed city for a promised land called "Sanctuary."

Logan meets Jessica (Heather Menzies), a revolutionary who is helping runners escape the city, and after Francis murders the runner in cold blood, Logan clocks him and teams up with Jessica to flee the City of Domes for Sanctuary...somewhere outside, on the surface that Logan had once believed to be barren and poisonous. Meanwhile Francis is summoned to the Domed City's "White Quadrant One," where he meets a Council of Elders...the real power behind the metropolis. All the Council Members are old men - well beyond thirty - and Francis is shocked to learn of their existence. "You're looking at old age," one of the Council Members (Morgan Woodward) informs him, and then offers Francis a position at his side if - and only if - he can capture Logan and Jessica and return them to the city to renounce their heretical beliefs about Sanctuary. So Francis heads off after his former friend...

Meanwhile - outside - Logan and Jessica find a bomb shelter in the grown-over remains of "Greater" Washington D.C. (more stock footage from the MGM movie...). They locate a solar-power hovercraft and use it to begin their quest for Sanctuary. The first society they encounter is one where pacifists hide underground from malevolent, tyrannical "Riders" on horseback who use them as slaves. Logan and Jessica teach the sheep-like underdwellers that some things are worth fighting for, and subsequently defeat the Riders and free the slaves.

Next up, Logan and Jessica run across the Mountain City, a paradise run by robots Siri (Lina Raymond) and Draco (Keene Curtis). Their only wish is to serve Logan and Jessica...permanently, since their Masters are dead. Logan and Jessica realize they have stumbled into a gilded cage, and with the help of the city's advanced android repairman, REM (Donald Moffatt), escape in the hover craft for greener pastures, and hopefully, Sanctuary...

In a nutshell, that's the pilot.

I haven't seen it in a few years, and I must say that I enjoyed it quite a bit...more than I expected. I had always remembered the series as an interesting and pleasant failure, but the pilot hits some interesting and successful notes. The three part structure (Domed City/Riders/Mountain City) keeps the story moving at quite a clip, and there are some moments of depth here that I didn't recall.

One of my favorite scenes occurs after the escape from the Domed City when Logan and Jessica settle down for the night in a bomb shelter from a time before "the Great War." They're cold and they use bundles and bundles of American dollars (as well as top secret "classified" Defense papers") to stoke their fire. The money and the government documents are totally worthless in this culture, a relic of the past, and Logan and Jessica neither recognize these items as important nor pay them any mind. This is almost a throwaway moment, but I found it one of Logan Run's most powerful: the idea that a nuclear war would render our currency, our secrets, our very way of life absolutely meaningless. Unlike some other points, this isn't accomplished in heavy-handed fashion, a big preachy moment. It just happens, and the characters don't even comment on it.

Perhaps it's my post-September 11th mentality, but also I felt that the pilot actually covered the idea of an uninformed, distracted populace rather well. An unquestioning people is a lot easier for a government to control - and lie to - isn't it? "Don't question the order of things" is a theme that keeps re-appearing in the early portion of the episode, and I found it particularly noteworthy. I didn't remember this much social subtext was present in the TV show.

I know that many people and fans don't like the inclusion of a "Council of Elders" here (and the City of Domes was run by Computer in the movie and novels...), but again - given today's context - it works. A group of corrupt men, a "cabal" if you will, making damning, corrupt policy for the rest of an in-the-dark population is something that our world and our nation is all too familiar with today...The Elders may have been a corruption of Logan's original concept, but oddly enough, I think it works in terms of "human nature." Especially now.

Some other aspects of the first show are not so welcome, however. The interlude involving the Riders, for instance, is the weakest element of the pilot. Why? Well, as always, TV has a way of making pacifism equal to cowardice. Here, Logan and Jessica teach the peaceful denizens of a bomb shelter to fight back against their overlords, rather than cling to their beliefs about not spilling blood. "Look what bloodshed has brought to this world!," one pacifist decries...and he's absolutely right. But when he finally fights, he quickly changes his mind and tells Logan that he "feels like a man again." Ugh! American cowboy values dictate, apparently, that TV shows always hold strong to the belief that there are some things worth fighting the bitter, bloody, apocalyptic end. I wonder if that wasn't the cause of the Nuclear War in Logan's Run...a stubborn, insular belief that our ways are always unquestionably the correct ones and we must defend them with violence and destruction.

Anyway, I found it particularly distasteful that this portion of the pilot concludes with Logan victorious for the simple reason that he wields a more powerful weapon (the Sandman 'flare' gun...) than the Riders. Brute force beats brute force. This is a mixed message, given the rest of Logan's anti-war message (and the visual of the burned cash on the fire...unrecognized and unimportant).

Getting to the characters: Logan and Jessica are fine; though Jessica is a little insipid somehow. Logan is a nice guy, a more conscientious citizen of the City of Domes than many, though one wonders how he came to be more introspective since he went through the same training regimen (since birth!) that Francis did. I did miss the sexual component of the movie - where Jessica and Logan were casual lovers - and hated to see "family values" creep into the series here. Logan and Jessica hardly make eyes at one another in the pilot and instead are defined simply as "good friends." Kinda like brother and sister. I would have preferred an adult, romantic relationship.

And then there's REM. Donald Moffatt is a splendid actor, and he's Logan's Run version of Mr. Spock.

Instead of saying that plot developments are "illogical," he notes that they "do not compute." Almost every science fiction TV show in the 1970s had its own version of the inquisitive, peaceful half-Vulcan Spock, the resident outsider -- not always an alien -- who could comment on humanity and its confusing ways from a super-advanced or at least highly-intelligent viewpoint. Space:1999 (Year Two) had Maya. Planet of the Apes had Galen. The Fantastic Journey had Varian (a man from the future), and Land of the Lost had the Altrusian, Enik. I guess it's just par for the course, and as far as Spock-copies go, REM is just fine. I notice that Star Trek returned the favor by featuring an intelligent, pacifist Android in its next incarnation, one not named REM, but rather Data.

In all, I rather liked this hour-and-a-half introduction to the world of Logan's Run. I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories of new societies starting over from the ruins of an old culture, I guess. I'm always fascinated by the idea of an "old" civilization leaving behind its artifacts and religions and technology...only to have them subverted and misunderstood by those who come next.

Growing up, I was fascinated by Mad Max, Planet of the Apes and, yes, Logan's Run. Perhaps because during my adolescence the specter of nuclear war seemed very real. In some senses, these programs (and programs like Genesis II and Planet Earth and Strange New World) offered a strange sense of hope. Yes, mankind destroyed himself, but he got a second chance. And this time...this time, things could be different. We could fix the mistakes that plague our overpopulated, war-weary world.

Logan's Run is a particularly interesting example of post-apocalyptic entertainment because Logan and Jessica come from a flawed society themselves. They are innocents who don't live in a utopia (like the characters of Star Trek), so it will be interesting to see how they confront other cultures that are misguided. They can't lead by being examples of a "shining city" on a hill, and as I watch the series again, I hope the creators remember that fact.

Collectible of the Week: Sentinel Robot Playset (Toy Biz; 1994)

Toy Biz released this gargantuan (fourteen inch tall) "robot playset" from Marvel's X-Men universe in 1994.  You'll recognize "Sentinel" as one of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's distinctive mutant-hunting super-villains (first introduced in the mid-1960s, I believe).

This toy, which was licensed during the era of the animated TV series (1992 - 1997), could "interact" with standard five-inch X-Men figures, and in fact, could capture them.  As the box art reveals, Sentinel's "chest plate blows off to reveal mutant prisoner" and the giant robot could also capture mutants with a "retractable claw hook." 

The mutants, fortunately, had a defense.  They could target Sentinel's "eject boots" to topple the giant robot.  In other words, if you hit Sentinel in the knees, his feet would shoot off. 

If you ask me, that's a pretty bad design flaw...

Other toys in this nifty Toy Biz line included the X-Men "blackbird jet" which could transform into three "action stages" and also house the X-Men and X-Men X-Force action figures.  

My five year old son loves the Sentinel toy, in part because he loves the internal circuitry you can see in the robot's chest, but I'm almost more enamored with the box art.

All I Want for Christmas Retro-Toy Countdown (9 Days Left)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Green Lantern (2011)

Green Lantern (2011) is pretty much your average, boiler-plate superhero movie of the "Superheroes Triumphant" Era (say 2003 to Present).  It features jaw-dropping special effects (which admittedly look great on an HD TV), big stars, and a storyline consisting of so many genre conventions you can recite them by heart at this point.

For me, the most intriguing facet of Green Lantern is its negative reception and failure at the box office.  The film is, for all intents and purposes, much the same movie as Thor, only released a month later. 

Both movies rely on otherworldly CGI vistas and intricate back-stories of cosmic intrigue. Both movies also feature a perfunctory love interest/romance subplot.  And finally, both movies feature superheroes who require accessories (ring or hammer, respectively) to claim their mantel as (super) hero. 

And yet despite numerous similarities, critics and audiences seem to have really liked Thor while they rejected wholeheartedly Green Lantern.  

Since in terms of style, originality, presentation, and even narrative detail the movies are virtually interchangeable, I can only surmise that the vast difference in reception came about because we've already seen Ryan Reynolds do this kind of shtick before (in Blade: Trinity, for instance), whereas relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth seemed like something of a revelation in Thor. 

In other words, Reynolds is a familiar flavor, while Hemsworth is a fresh one.  What enjoyment could be gleaned from Thor came almost entirely from our first encounter with Hemsworth's persona and charisma as a leading man.

Am I actually arguing here that Green Lantern is a better movie than Thor?  No.  Only that Thor and Green Lantern exist on the same unfortunate plateau of mind-numbing mediocrity, and therefore it seems abundantly illogical to laud one effort while despising the other.  Step back a pace and you can see that they are the same Hollywood-produced superhero animal: both largely devoid of inspiration and originality, and both girded up with superficial virtues, namely fine special effects and beautiful cast members.  In broad terms, Thor is a bit more portentous, and Green Lantern a hair more cheeky, but otherwise, we're looking at  films separated at birth.

Green Lantern is the tale of ace pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), who -- like so many superheroes these days -- has daddy issues.  In this case, he still grieves over the tragic loss of his father (Jon Tenney) or father-figure (think Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc.), and wants desperately to live up to his dad's reputation as a paragon of fearlessness.  In the film's first scenes, Hal pulps an expensive jet during a war game to prove his courage, but the incident only seems to sow further self-doubt.  Just as Thor had to deal with his own arrogance and Daddy issues, so must Hal defeat his daddy demons too.

Meanwhile, a Green Lantern-turned-bad by the yellow power of "fear" -- called Parallax -- defeats the great Green Lantern Abin Sur (Temeura Morrison) in space, leaving the injured intergalactic policeman to seek a replacement on Earth.  "Choose well," he implores his green ring (which harnesses the emerald power of will-power), and it promptly selects Hal. 

After Sur dies, another man with Daddy issues, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) also receives an unwanted gift.  While conducting an autopsy of the alien warrior, he receives a prick of Parallax-essence, and begins his descent into yellow-inspired madness and terror. 

So yes, it's the same I-Made-You/You-Made-Me or Two-Sides-of-the-Same-Coin dynamic we've seen in superhero productions (The Flash [1990], The Crow [1994], Daredevil [2003]) since the Burton Batman popularized the cliche in 1989.  

Hal finally adorns the ring and becomes Green Lantern.  He visits the planet of Oa, where he is trained in the ways of the Corp. by Kilowog (Michael Clarke Duncan), Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush) and Sinestro (Mark Strong).  This portion of the film is undeniably its strongest.  The tour of magnificent Oa truly inspires awe, and Kilowog and Sinestro both come across remarkably well.  Strong really holds the screen as Sinestro, giving the character a tremendous dignity that you won't find, for instance, on The Super Friends.  The scenes on Oa have a jaunty, delightful quality that lightens the movie, and the special effect "constructs" created by the Lanterns are awesomely rendered.

The remainder of the movie pretty much follows the current Superhero playbook too. Hal surrenders the "responsibility" of being a Green Lantern, and then must pick it up again when Parallax invades Earth, all while fighting to protect the love of his life (Carol Ferris), this movie's Lois Lane/Pepper Potts/Mary Jane Watson variation.  There are also a few scenes featuring a shadowy U.S. government agency, Checkmate, which is D.C.'s version of SHIELD, I guess you could say.  And naturally, there's a U.S. Senator prowling around behind the scenes, creating further intrigue (The X-Men [2000], Captain America: First Avenger [2011]).   The movie then ends with the newly-ensconced superhero doing a kind of special effects victory lap, much like the one we saw in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002), or much earlier, in Superman II (1981).

In Green Lantern, Hal's final battle with Parallax is pretty impressive, visually-speaking.   And you won't be surprised to read that in the final moments, he conquers his lack-of-fearlessness, if there is such a thing, thereby coming into his own and erasing the looming shadow of his father.  

Watching Jordan ascend to his destiny, teeth gritted, I wished again for a superhero movie in which characters don't treat their super powers like an albatross, a lead weight dragging them down into psychological depression.  Then, the next day, my wish was unexpectedly answered as I watched Captain America: First Avenger.  What a relief: a modern super hero movie that doesn't treat super powers like a super drag. 

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s superheroes in film and on television were pretty serious, but they generally weren't such a glum, down-in-the-mouth and introspective bunch as we get these days.  I feel at this point that the pendulum has swung too far from the camp of the 1960s to the Dark Age, because superhero movies like Green Lantern or Thor all rely on this same tired dynamic of "tortured" individuals with tragic pasts who are really broken inside.  It's been done so many times now there's just no freshness left in the dynamic.   I don't want to go back to an "Old Chum"-styled Batman approach, either, but I wouldn't mind seeing the pendulum tick back toward the middle a bit.  I hate that our culture consistently mistakes "dark," "gloomy" and "angsty" (and "dysfunctional" too) for "mature."  It's a real bummer, but the dynamic, for the moment, prevails in superhero cinema.

So Green Lantern?  The special effects are good, the people beautiful, the vistas breathtaking...and the movie has not a single original thought in its head.  But -- let's be honest -- the movie is in no measurable way a worse viewing experience than Thor.  Both films scrape by on their budgets and the likability of their leads, with everything else (including internal consistency) coming in a distant second.

Faint praise, perhaps, but not entirely unexpected in an era wherein the emerald power of money often seems the chief artistic factor at work behind the making of yet another big-budget superhero "origin" movie.  Fortunately, every now and then we get an Iron Man (2008) or a Captain America (2011) to wash away the generic nature of a very expensive -- and very uninspired -- Thor or Green Lantern.

All I Want for Christmas Retro-Toy Countdown (11 Days Left)

Monday, December 12, 2011

All I Want for Christmas Retro-Toy Countdown (12 Days Left)

The Cult TV Faces of: Statues

Identified by David Colohan: The Twilight zone: "The Little People."

Identified by Hugh: Lost in Space: "All That Glitters."

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: The Starlost: "The Goddess Calabra."
Identified by jdigriz: Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "The Youth Killer."

Identified by Will: Star Trek TAS: "The Lorelei Signal."

Identified by Hugh: Land of the Lost: "Medusa."

Identified by David Colohan: Space:1999: "The Taybor."

Identified by Hugh: Dr. Who: "The Keeper of Traken."

Identified by David Colohan: Twin Peaks.

Identified by Jake Lockley: The X-Files: "Grotesque."

Identified by Chris G: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Becoming" (Part 2).

Identified by Woodchuckgod: Farscape: "Look at the Princess."

Identified by David Colohon: Firefly: "Jaynestown."

Identified by Hugh: Lost.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

"Wasn't that just magnificent? I was worried it was getting a little dodgy in the middle part, but then that!

- Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Since it was published in America in 1964, Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) has become a classic of children's literature.  The book is still assigned reading in many middle school and high school curricula and has spawned two film adaptations, 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Tim Burton's 2005 fantasy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Although Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has become a generational touchstone for kids raised in the 1970s (myself included), the recent Tim Burton adaptation is, surprisingly, far more faithful to the Roald Dahl novel in terms of mood, manner, and visualization.  As is the case in the Dahl book, the 2005 film deftly critiques both capitalist society -- which creates a vast gulf between the economic well-being of Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket -- and the mores of contemporary child-rearing. 

On the second conceptual front, the Tim Burton movie has updated many of Dahl's satirical flourishes for 21st century consumption, turning Mike Teavee into a video game-a-holic and Violet Beauregard into a pre-adolescent over-achiever.  But despite such minor updates, the intent of both works remains to hold up a mirror to society at large and address something seemingly flawed in the prevailing social structure.  Naturally, both book and movie accomplish this task in entertaining fashion, as a seemingly "harmless" fairy tale meant for kids. 

Like Dahl, Burton is an expert in the creation of fantastic and grotesque worlds, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory provides him ample opportunity to showcase his stellar, off-beat imagination.  Dahl's slapstick humor, and exaggerated settings -- namely an impossibly bizarre factory interior -- thus find new life in Burton's audacious visualizations, which critic Peter Bradshaw accurately described as conveying  "a retro Day-Glo 1960s" vibe.

Furthermore, Burton's fascinating addition of a Willy Wonka back-story represents the director's stylistic personalization or interpretation of the source material, and functions in some sense, even, as an improvement over the novel's story.  In particular,  Burton gives Willy "father" issues, and this aspect of the movie plays perfectly into the social criticism of modern-day parenting underlining the entire affair.

It's easy to gaze at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and see only a colorful kiddie flick, a silly, inconsequential fantasy, but in this entertaining film, Burton has retained so much of what made Dahl's work unique, and, in fact, added something to the experience.  He's done so by co-opting the literary imagery of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) and even the choreographic style of Busby Berkeley (1895-1976).   In toto, the film is another remarkable triumph for the director, and I must admit, I wasn't expecting the film to be so damned good.

As critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote in Salon: "“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” couldn’t have emerged from anywhere but the dark, chambered nautilus of Burton’s imagination — in its best sections, it’s magically deranged in a way no other filmmaker could even come close to pulling off." 

Magically deranged.  That about says it all.

"You can't run a chocolate factory with a family hanging over you like an old, dead goose."

In Charlie The Chocolate Factory, eccentric candy-maker Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp) has distributed five golden tickets to visit his factory in the unusual and delicious Wonka candy bars.   This act sets off a world-wide search for the five elusive tickets.

The first ticket is found by an obese glutton, Augustus Gloop (Philip Weigratz).  The second is "procured" by a millionaire-industrialist for his indulged daughter, Veruca Salt (Julia Winter).  The third ticket is found by a gum-chewing over-achiever, Violet Beauregard (Annasophia Robb) and the fourth by a smart-aleck video-game aficionado, Mike Teavee (Adam Godley).

Rather unexpectedly, the final ticket falls into the hands of the modest and kind Charlie Bucket (Freddy Highmore), a boy who lives in poverty in a ramshackle house on the outskirts of town with his parents and grandparents.  At first, Charlie decides to sell the ticket to pay for food because his father has recently lost his job, but Charlie's grandpa, Joe (David Kelly) convinces him he should keep it.

Together, Grandpa Joe and Charlie meet Willy Wonka at the factory, and tour the various rooms of his amazing candy factory.  These include The Chocolate Room, the Inventing Room, the Nut Room, and the TV Room. 

In each room, one of the young visitors falls prey to a strange industrial accident. Augustus Gloop is sucked up into a giant chocolate pipe (or straw?).  Violet is turned into a giant blueberry after sampling Wonka's experimental three-course-meal-chewing gum, Veruca is tossed down a garbage chute in the Nut Room, and Mike Teavee is sucked into a television...then shrunken down to size by the experience.  In all instances, Wonka's bizarre workers, the Oompa-Loompas (Deep Roy) sing songs about the fallen children.

In the end, Charlie is the only child to remain standing on the entire tour, and Wonka reveals he would like him to be his heir.  The only catch: Charlie must do it alone; without the family who helped get him here...

"Candy doesn't have to have a point. That's why it's candy."

Candy doesn't need to have a point, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory certainly makes a few.

In his artistic selections, Burton enhances the novel's social critique of runaway, out-of-control capitalism. 

In particular, Burton opens the film with a truly Dickension flourish by showcasing a wintry, industrial city where a vast gulf exists between the wealthy and the poor.  Charlie lives in little more than a hovel, and watches as his father loses his job in the local toothpaste factory.  The Wonka factory dominates the landscape, both a foreboding and mysterious place.

A proponent of social reform himself, Charles Dickens' satires often showcased the hardships of the working class in London, and pointed out the anti-human and inhumane nature of big industry during his time.  Like Dahl, Dickens is well-known for his black humor and colorfully-named characters, as well. What Burton achieves here so brilliantly is the fanciful merging of the two artists.  He enhances Dahl's words with imagery of poverty, industry and inequality right out of Oliver Twist.  Of course, there's also a modern spin on the idea of runaway industry since automation at the factory is the thing that puts both Mr. Bucket and Grandpa Joe out of work.  This aspect of the film certainly speaks to our national context today, in the era of the one percenters and the 99ers.

Meanwhile, Willy Wonka leads the indulged life of, well, Michael Jackson in Neverland.  The idea that both the late King of Pop and Wonka seem to share in common is that neither one was afforded a happy childhood.  But in adulthood, they possess the will and the wealth to rectify that mistake; to recreate the childhood they wished they had. To indulge themselves, in other words.  Such wealth puts Wonka in a different social class from Charlie, who has no time to focus on his childhood, only the vicissitudes of day-to-day survival: a hole in the roof, and cabbage soup again for dinner.  Wonka is a lonely figure -- a Burton outsider and misfit -- but he is rich enough to build a world around him; one that answers only to his demands and desires.  Charlie can't do that. 

Additionally, Wonka has surrounded himself with the Oompa Loompas, small "men" who all look identical to one another, and toil for cocoa beans, rather than for a living wage.  Wonka brought them back from the "wild," and this facet of the story is certainly an allegory for the First World's colonial exploitation of the Third.  It's also notable that the Oompa Loompas all "look alike" and aren't exactly treated as individual people. 

Significantly, they dance in the geometric, kaleidoscopic, uniform fashion favored by Busby Berkeley in his Depression-Era films, and that's important too.  The Oompa Loompas act (and dance) as "one" and don't concern themselves with personal wealth: they are a collective. 

Again, it's important to recall that Berkeley made his splash in Depression Age films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, and that his choreography was said to eschew failed American "individualism" (capitalism?) in favor of the concerns of "the collective."  In other words, the Chorus Girls dancing in a Berkeley musical number were all part of a larger pattern or ideal, unimportant alone but powerful as a network or "whole."  The Oompa Loompas are presented in that very fashion here, and hence as an antidote or remedy to the overt, out-of-control capitalism we see described in the film, embodied by acts of corporate espionage and sabotage. 

If you couple the Dickensian landscapes (incessant snowfall, extreme poverty, smoke-spewing factories) with the Busby Berkeley musical flouishes (championing the collective nature of collaboration in Wonka's factory), with Dahl's tale of a "good" boy who inherits the Factory -- the means of production -- what you start to see emerge on-screen is a tale depicting the failure of capitalism and the importance of "community."  For what does Charlie, in the end bring to Willy Wonka -- the iconoclastic loner -- but an acceptance and understanding of family; the root "community" of human society and civilization?

Even the film's narration describes Charlie in terms which  heighten the social critique against out-of-control capitalism.  The narrator suggests:

"This is a story of an ordinary little boy named Charlie Bucket. He was not faster, or stronger, or more clever than other children. His family was not rich or powerful or well-connected; in fact, they barely had enough to eat." 

What are Charlie's prized characteristics?  Well, he's loyal to his family, he shares with them his resources (his candy bar and his love...), and he believes that when he succeeds, they all succeed.  Given this description, in conjunction with the trenchant visuals, it's not a stretch to view the film as a rebuke of western culture's long-standing ideals and myths surrounding rugged individualism and boot-strap-ism (or "entrepreneurship.")  

Indeed, this boy succeeds not by being the smartest, fastest or strongest, or by being the son of a rich man, but by simply being decent and responsible to those around him; by having a sense of himself in relation to others. 

Powerfully, Burton's film also notes the extreme unfairness of  out-of-control capitalism, namey that it does not reward those who do good, but rather those who already possess resources.  "The kids who are going to find the golden tickets are the ones who can afford to buy candy bars every day," says Grandpa Joe. "Our Charlie gets only one a year. He doesn't have a chance."   That's the problem: the deck is stacked against those without by power by those who already possess it.

Outside the withering critique of capitalism, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a cautionary tale for parents.  Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee are negative examples to learn from.  They reveal to audiences what happens when parents fail in their sacred duty to raise decent human beings.  Gloop is a glutton, Salt an indulged brat, Violet an empty-headed "winner" who has to be the best at everything she does, and Teavee an emotionally disconnected know-it-all.   And although the film punishes the children for their offenses, it does not view them as the real bad guys, as the Oompa Loompa song for Veruca clearly points out:

"Who went and spoiled her / Who indeed? Who pandered to her every need? / Who turned her into such a brat? / Who are the culprits, who did that? / The guilty ones - now this is sad / Are dear old mum and loving dad."

What we see here is a kind of "sins of the father" dynamic.  The parents are the ones at fault for raising monsters, and yet it is the children who ultimately suffer for actually being monsters.  This is a dynamic that, as the father of an only child, I grapple with just about every day.  How much indulgence is too much indulgence, in terms of child rearing?  Where's the line between a happy child and a spoiled one?  Cross that line, and the child...and the world suffer. 

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- both the source novel and the film -- deal with the very real idea that parents can all too easily transform their children into brats.  They can do it by obsessing on winning (a variation of competing, which goes back to the capitalism angle); by turning them over to the tender lessons of commercial television, or by indulging their every appetite, no holds barred.   I confess, this is the very reason why the Dahl book has always appealed to me on such a gut level: the idea that kids, if we aren't careful, are little Frankenstein Monsters that we make and then set loose into the world.

The film adaptation by Burton goes the extra and perhaps even genius step, of suggesting that Willy Wonka is one of these Frankenstein Monsters all gorwn up.  His father, a cruel dentist played by Christopher Lee, turned him into what he is: a snide, family-hating Michael Jackson/Howard Hughes-like recluse; someone who can't meaningfully connect to other human beings.  Optimistically, the film's conclusion suggests that Wonka will be "adopted" by (and thus re-parented) by Charlie's humble and nurturing family, and that this particular monster can be un-made.

Some critics have suggested there's something a bit sadistic about both the book and the film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  I don't disagree, but sometimes a little so-called "sadism" is good for the soul.  It's good to know that the wicked and the corrupt and the gluttonous and the entitled eventually get punished for their misdeeds, and that occasionally -- just occasionally -- someone of stout heart and gentle tendencies can win out over the wealthy, the connected, the loud, and the powerful.

As I wrote above, Burton's 2005 film -- filling in the gap in Wonka's backstory -- actually improves the nature of Dahl's story.  It reveals to us that Wonka is human and flawed, and even a bit monstrous too.  He's not a perfect creature standing in judgment of "bad" children here, but rather an imperfect, flawed being himself.  I like that interpretation, because it suggests that a child wounded will, as an adult, wound others.  And it also suggests that it's never too late to care about someone, and help them be better.    

Wonka doesn't get away with being a monster in this version of the classic Dahl tale, and I like that. It defuses the "sadistic" label the book has acquired over the years.

People who live in glass elevators, after all, shouldn't throw stones...

Next Weekend: Alice in Wonderland (2010)