The new entry in the hipster-director-does-childrenís-classic sweepstakes, Tim Burtonís Alice in Wonderland is somewhere between the self-fondling Where the Wild Things Are and the vivacious Fantastic Mr. Fox. The middling results are especially puzzling since, like Sondheimís blood-splattered arias in Sweeney Todd, Lewis Carrollís topsy-turvy dreamscapes would appear to be a perfect fit for Burtonís own phantasmagoric gifts. Perhaps thatís the trouble: Rather than engaging with and transforming the story, he merely leans on its most superficially Burtonesque elements (gothic reveries, chimerical critters), slaps on a coat of 3-D gimmickry, and calls it a paycheck. Even when he alters the original text -- when Carrollís Lolita is turned into a grown teenager -- itís less a decision to forge something truly personal out of the material than one to appease his bosses at Disney. Accordingly, Alice here (Mia Wasikowska) is one more Magic Kingdom Princess in humorlessly feisty tomboy drag, while the Wonderland (or, as itís been evocatively yet emptily renamed, Underland) into which the Victorian Pierrette tumbles is as busy and joyless as one of Uncle Waltís theme parks. Cluttered and noisy as it is, the scenery never goes beyond storybook illustrations tinted with starchy CGI, and the special-guest beasties -- Stephen Fryís Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickmanís Caterpillar, Anne Hathawayís White Queen, Matt Lucasís Tweedledee and Tweedledum -- are shockingly forgettable creations. I sort of liked Crispin Gloverís eye-patched Knave of Hearts coming on to the oversized heroine with a purring "I like largeness." (Burton surely must have caught Gloverís unsettling Willy Wonka parody in Epic Movie.) But Helena Bonham Carterís Red Queen is a hydrocephalic despot of shattering monotony, and Johnny Deppís Mad Hatter is laborious, party-trick pantomime that veers from Kabuki fop to Sylvester the Cat and then evaporates from memory. No "curioser and curioser" visionary, Burtonís Alice is a budding big-biz entrepreneur equipped with action-figure armor and Avril Lavigne anthem. Logic and proportion have seldom fallen so shruggingly dead.
Carroll himself would have been envious (or, I hope, ashamed) of the slippery wordplay and tortuous logic thatís gone into the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Baghdad in shock-and-awe 2003 is Green Zoneís Underland, Matt Damonís chief warrants officer its inquisitive Alice, "weapons of mass destruction" the official gobbledygook. "Your job is to do the missions, not worry about how they're put together," the frustrated soldier is told after yet another one of Saddamís alleged WMD nests turns up empty. (Greg Kinnearís Pentagon weasel is no help, brushing aside the ugliness with a smug "Democracy is messy.") Time to go rogue, then, alongside media stooges (Amy Ryan), Iraqi sidekicks (Khalid Abdalla), CIA execs (Brendan Gleeson), and deposed generals (Yigal Naor). Green Zoneís indignation has struck several colleagues as bromidic and passť; still, even if it means wading through Brian Helgelandís vapid screenplay ("I thought we were all on the same side!" "Donít be naÔve"), the notion of an ongoing war erected on lies is worth repeating in these times of rampant cultural amnesia and neocon revisionism. With Paul Greengrass compounding the tumult with his trademark Migraine-Cam, however, itís hard to come away with a clear image, let alone a clear message. Routinely hailed as an "action master," Greengrass is a dumb-cluck Costa-Gravas faking tension by splintering the screen into handheld micro-blitzkriegs -- the resulting thousand whirling globs of mud makes you appreciate Bigelowís sense of space and terrain in The Hurt Locker. (The bite-sized digital bursts get so insistent that an early vista of fireballs mushrooming around the bombarded city, meant to be distressing, becomes instead soothing to the eyes simply because it allows the image to last for more than three seconds.) Greengrass may rage against White House arrogance but, by propagating the worthless stylistic shakes of United 93 and The Bourne Ultimatum, heís become locked into a wrongheaded stay-the-course quagmire of his own.
From Green Zone to Greenberg, from bogus political outrage to bogus emotional insight. In Noah Baumbachís latest chunk of Commedia dellíAsshole, the eponymous protagonist (Ben Stiller, running his standard hostile-runt shtick at half-speed) is a depressive, self-absorbed, failed New York musician who, slogging through a post-breakdown haze, heads out West to take some time off from the world. Camped out at his vacationing brotherís Hollywood manse, he scribbles letters of complaint to companies, peeks nervously through curtains at the neighbors, matches droopy faÁades with a burnt-out pal (Rhys Ifans), and gets rejected again by the One Who Got Away (Jennifer Jason Leigh). In steps his Annie Hall, a young aspiring singer (Greta Gerwig) who plays moony board to Greenbergís passive-aggressive darts. ("You have to look past the kitsch," he lectures her on the merits of late-Seventies soft rock when they first meet.) Surely the mumblecore movement (is "movement" the right word for so inert a collection of films?) took inspiration from the unappetizing navel-gazing of Baumbachís pictures, so itís only fair for Baumbach here to seize their thrift-shop naturalism and neurasthenic non-rhythms, along with mumble-muse Gerwig. (Her broken gestures are endearing, though she just canít sustain the many close-ups sheís handed.) The glib stabs at Jean Eustache-like candor from The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding donít get any less hollow by being transplanted to California; worse, like that trip to India a few years back by modern cinemaís other Little Lord Fauntleroy, the change of scenery doesnít so much get the director away from his safety zone as reveal an indifference to the rest of the world that matches that of his solipsistic characters. Some breaks: Harris Savidesí limpid cinematography and a trenchant, extended party scene. Even smoggy old Los Angeles, however, deserves better than the furry turd in the swimming pool thatís become Baumbachís most representative recurring image.
Odds and ends. A Prophet: Lukewarm air from Jacques Audiard about racial lines, business networks and spiritual transcendence inside Cell Block France; "the idea is to leave here a little smarter," or at least powerful enough to have thugs beat up your old boss. Endure it for superb performances by Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup, then check out Loseyís The Criminal to see this done right. The Crazies: Pretty not-bad remake of Romeroís 1973 rattler, with small-town folks picking up pitchforks and shotguns after a top-secret toxic weapon is employed on "the wrong population"; flamethrower-toting military personnel complete the war-at-home equation. Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell are good as quarantined fugitives, director Breck Eisner wrings plenty of grisly mileage out of car washes, baby bedrooms and gas station diners (and remembers the originalís subversive use of "When Willie Comes Marching Home"). The Runaways: Floria Sigismondiís likably scrappy account of glam aspirations and menstrual blood in the bad-girl rock scene of late-Ď70s San Fernando Valley. "Publicize your music, not your crotch!" Dakota Fanning shows spiky poise as jailbait punkette Cherie Currie, though Kristen Stewart seriously needs to drop the lip-chewing. (That dour-mouth thing may work for a Jeanne Moreau grand dame, but not for a Sundancey rendition of Joan Jett.) Cop Out: Do those synthesizers from shitty Ď80s action movies really deserve a feature-length tribute? Unfortunately for the audience, Kevin Smith thinks so: "Iím gonna show you some muthafuckiní homage!" A bemused Bruce Willis and a sputtering Tracy Morgan belly-flop through territory already covered with far more wit and better fart jokes in Hot Fuzz and Herzogís Bad Lieutenant reboot. By comparison, Zack and Miri Make a Porno looks like The Shop Around the Corner.
Reviewed March 28, 2010.