It’s the week of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Whether you’re primed to love it or hate it—or just approach it with caution—do you really need to know anything else about the moviegoing choices this Friday? Probably not. I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t have some opinion on the wisdom of this undertaking, and isn’t at least curious about the results.
The story got even more interesting last week when theater managers who’d been to a trade show in Great Britain started trashing the film as unwatchably bad. It then quickly transpired that there was bad blood between Britain’s Odeon cinema chain and the folks at Disney. Seems Disney only wants to guarantee a 12-week theatrical run for the film and the Odeon crowd wants 17 weeks. When Disney didn’t budge, Odeon—the country’s biggest chain—refused to carry the film at all. It was only after that that the trashing began. Draw your own conclusions. Certain things are clear. The early reviews don’t support the “unwatchable” claims and no U.S. theater chain has refused to carry the film. More and more, this looks like a power play by Odeon—and one that they’re losing.
Tim Burton is right about one thing at least—no one has ever made a wholly successful film of the book—or shall we say books, since every version I’ve ever seen uses elements from both. For my money, the most interesting to date is the 1933 Paramount film directed by Norman McLeod, and featuring damn near the whole roster of Paramount contract players—plus some visiting stars. (How Mae West, the Marx Brothers and Bing Crosby stayed out is a mystery.) In that take, Alice (Charlotte Henry, who modern audiences probably know best as Bo Peep in the 1934 Laurel and Hardy version of Babes in Toyland) first goes through the looking glass and then falls down the rabbit hole.
The 1933 film has a slightly cheesy air that suggests corner-cutting, but it also has W.C.Fields as a perfect Humpty Dumpty, Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter, Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare, Ned Sparks as the Caterpillar—to name but a few. Aside from that, there’s a splendid score by Dmitri Tiomkin. For reasons no one has ever explained, Paramount brought Leon Schlesinger over from Warner Bros. to animate a cartoon for “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” rather than give the assignment to their own Max Fleischer. (I’m not complaining—Schlesinger’s cartoon is a highlight—but the approach doesn’t make sense.)
The whole film is pretty surreal, with the Mock Turtle today bearing an unnerving resemblance to the baby in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), and such little touches as a cut-out duck sailing backwards (complete with boat whistle) across a cardboard cut-out sea. In the end, the film is vaguely sinister and a little disturbing. I’d bet Jean Cocteau liked it if he saw it. I suspect its off-center qualities and the general air of decay that hovers over everything—not to mention its nightmarish climax—appealed to Burton, too. And while I’m expecting nothing like it in the new film, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to find a nod or two.
If you don’t already know, the whole approach of Burton’s film is different in that it’s a sequel with a 19-year-old Alice (OK, so Charlotte Henry was 18 playing 12 in the 1933 one) going back to Wonderland (re-christened Underland) to wrest control from the power-mad Red Queen. The trailer makes it clear that she’s also getting away from a fairly unappealing suitor who has just popped the question in the most embarrassing setting possible. The change seems to be in the service of giving the story an actual, well, story, since the books merely record the things and creatures Alice finds in this other world. Will it work? We’ll see.
Now, for those not interested in Alice in Wonderland, there’s Antoine Fuqua’s cop drama Brooklyn’s Finest. It stars Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke and Wesley Snipes, and apparently attempts to restore Fuqua’s career to its Training Day (2001) status—you know, before he made Tears of the Sun (2003) and King Arthur (2004). That it’s been little promoted, kept from major critics, and is going head-to-head with Alice suggests that not even distributor Overture Films has a lot of faith in it.
If neither of those options tempt you, Asheville Pizza and Brewing is bringing back Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox for matinees and Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (presumably for Oscar watchers) for the 7 p.m. show. The Carolina is trotting out The Big Lebowski for the late-night cult crowd this Friday and Saturday at midnight.
Last week’s big titles—Shutter Island, The Crazies, Cop Out—are holding at their respective theaters. In less broad-based venues, still hanging on are The Last Station (Fine Arts), Crazy Heart (Fine Arts, Carolina), The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (Carolina), Sherlock Holmes (Carmike), Up in the Air (Carolina), An Education (Carolina), A Single Man (Carolina) and The Oscar-Nominated Short Films (Carolina). With the advent of Alice in Wonderland, the Carmike will become the only theater in town showing Avatar in 3-D on Friday.
With Alice in Wonderland hitting theaters, the 1933 Alice in Wonderland comes to DVD this week. That might not excite mainstream folks, but for some of us, it’s pretty major news. It means we can throw out our gray market dubs or those VHS-to-DVD burns we made from when TCM ran the film way back when. For the rest of the world, it might provide an interesting companion piece to the new film—assuming some slack can be cut for the 1933 special effects, which are a little on the rudimentary side. And if that’s not enough Alice for you, the very odd 1966 BBC version with such luminaries as Peter Sellers, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and John Gielgud also comes out.
For the mainstream minded, Where the Wild Things Are appears. Also up is the über-silly 2012, which probably loses a lot of whatever value it has on the small screen. On the other hand, audiences that stayed away from the very odd Cold Souls when it played theatrically might find it more agreeable on DVD. It’s definitely a film that deserves a larger audience than the one it garnered theatrically.
Notable TV screenings
It’s another one of those weeks where Turner Classic Movies shows some terrific movies, but none of them are much outside the scope of their normal range of titles. Of course, their normal range of titles is none too shabby, so it’s worth taking a look over their schedule. Personally, my fingers are crossed that a certain ultra rare title listed for the 14th isn’t one of those occasional promises TCM makes that mysteriously vanishes from the line-up before the date arrives. But more about that prospect next week.