Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler March 3-9: Through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole

In theaters

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.

On DVD

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.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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19 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Weekly Reeler March 3-9: Through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole

  1. davidf

    I pretty much consider Lewis Carrol’s two Alice books unfilmable. They’re both a collection of puns, word games, and political satire. The political satire is usually abandoned in film adaptations because it would be mostly missed by modern audiences, and the puns and word games rarely translate well to the screen. As Tim Burton pointed out (and is supposedly trying to correct with his adaptation), the original stories have very little emotional resonance. The thing is, their not really supposed to. I think the closest film analog to the literary style of Lewis Carroll would be the Monty Python films: full of puns and satire and who cares about emotional resonance. That style may be able to result in a “faithful” adaptation someday, but I’m not keeping my fingers crossed.

    I think the reason so many people have tried to make film adaptations of the books is that many of the characters are interesting enough to have taken on a life of their own apart from any puns or satire that may have spawned them. Many adaptations abandon any attempt to recreate the political or literary word play of the source material and instead focus on the surreality of the characters in order to create a fantasy. That seems to be Tim Burton’s strategy. My biggest question is whether this screenplay will retain any of the politics or wordplay or if it will abandon it all to fabricate some moralistic fantasy. I hope there’s a little bit of both, but I won’t be surprised or disappointed if Burton just takes the characters and runs. I’m planning to have fun with it either way.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I think the reason so many people have tried to make film adaptations of the books is that many of the characters are interesting enough to have taken on a life of their own apart from any puns or satire that may have spawned them. Many adaptations abandon any attempt to recreate the political or literary word play of the source material and instead focus on the surreality of the characters in order to create a fantasy

    In that regard, the 1933 film probably retains the most satire and wordplay for what that’s worth — and it, of course, compresses the two books into about 75 minutes of screen time.

    Burton’s assertion that nothing really happens to Alice and that she doesn’t change as a result of her adventures is pretty sound. Looked at in that way, the stories are rather like episodes of The Avengers — or perhaps The Abominable Dr. Phibes — where the protagonists wander through the proceedings and encounter various strange and eccentric characters. The difference is that there’s no payoff to it with Alice — that and the fact that the protagonists in those cases are somewhat better defined than Alice.

  3. I don’t know, the Jan Svankmajer version from the 80s is about as surreal as it gets.

    PONYO is also out today. Two watchable misfires are also available: LO and BITCH SLAP.

  4. Ken Hanke

    I don’t know, the Jan Svankmajer version from the 80s is about as surreal as it gets

    OK, then let’s make the 1933 one as the most surreal that relates to mainstream movies.

    Two watchable misfires are also available: LO and BITCH SLAP

    I note that neither of us seems inclined to mention Gentlemen Broncos.

  5. davidf

    “Burton’s assertion that nothing really happens to Alice and that she doesn’t change as a result of her adventures is pretty sound.”

    Really, Alice is one of the least important aspects of the books, which are essentially a series of political cartoons. Alice’s presence is there for the purpose of threading the cartoons together. Sometimes she’s part of the political cartoons, and sometimes she’s just there as an observer. She’s never really a proper protagonist because the overall story is never really a proper story. I don’t say this to criticize the books, because I love them. I also like political cartoons, and I’ve enjoyed spending time with a whole collection of them before, but I’d be skeptical if someone said they were going to make a feature film that was patched together from political cartoons. Then again, I really enjoy MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE, so it can be done.

  6. I note that neither of us seems inclined to mention Gentlemen Broncos.

    Argh! With all the advance requests I know that this stinker will be a hit.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Really, Alice is one of the least important aspects of the books, which are essentially a series of political cartoons. Alice’s presence is there for the purpose of threading the cartoons together.

    The question in my mind is whether or not those same elements couldn’t be tied to something more resembling a narrative than the books afford. Personally, I don’t much mind that the 1933 film merely descends into the nightmare of “Queen Alice’s” party and goes for the “it was all a dream” approach (even if Alice tells her cat, Dinah, that it wasn’t).

  8. Ken Hanke

    Argh! With all the advance requests I know that this stinker will be a hit.

    I know there are exceptions (though I can’t think of one with this kind of movie), but you might think that people would realize that 99% of the time when a movie is pulled before it gets released there’s a good reason. It only took about two weeks of the trailer playing for that to happen with Gentlemen Broncos.

  9. Me

    I meant to watch Cold Souls when it was at the Fine Arts theatre but missed it. I recently watched it on DVD and its actually not bad, i know a lot of people were torn on that one. All the awful stuff ive heard about Gentleman Broncos i think im still going to give it a chance on DVD too.

    Im really excited that A Prophet and The White Ribbon are coming to Asheville this month.

  10. Ken Hanke

    All the awful stuff ive heard about Gentleman Broncos i think im still going to give it a chance on DVD too

    You let me know how that works out.

    Im really excited that A Prophet and The White Ribbon are coming to Asheville this month.

    They are? You may well be right, but it’s the first I’ve heard of a time frame. I’m more than a little hesitant in the excitement department about The White Ribbon. I so thoroughly disliked his Cache — the only movie of his I’ve seen — that renewing my acquaintance with him is something I’m approaching with trepidation.

  11. They are? You may well be right, but it’s the first I’ve heard of a time frame. I’m more than a little hesitant in the excitement department about The White Ribbon. I so thoroughly disliked his Cache—the only movie of his I’ve seen—that renewing my acquaintance with him is something I’m approaching with trepidation.

    Haneke’s films are not the easiest to watch, but try to check out THE PIANO TEACHER and TIME OF THE WOLF. Amidst the gut-wrentching, there is humanity.

    All the awful stuff ive heard about Gentleman Broncos i think im still going to give it a chance on DVD too

    All of my employees hated it too, which means it will be a hit.

  12. Ken Hanke

    Haneke’s films are not the easiest to watch, but try to check out THE PIANO TEACHER and TIME OF THE WOLF. Amidst the gut-wrentching, there is humanity.

    With Cache my problem was less with gut-wrenchingness than with sheer tedium.

    I have, in the meantime, found out that The White Ribbon is indeed slated to open at the Carolina on the 12th.

  13. Me

    Yeah The White Ribbon is coming March 12, and i see that A Prophet is coming soon to the Fine Arts Theatre so im hoping its this month.

  14. Ken Hanke

    A Prophet is kind of up in the air and it depends on factors that can only be determined week by week, but it is coming to the Fine Arts, yes.

  15. mike

    My first Haneke film – the first Funny Games – impressed me so much that I made a point of seeking out the majority of his work. The result was that I found his films to be frustratingly inconsistent: either very good or dull to the point of insomnia cure. Very little in the way of middle ground.

    I’ll echo Marc’s recommendation of The Piano Teacher and add The Seventh Continent and Benny’s Video, as well as the aforementioned Funny Games, as films people interested in Michael Haneke might want to check out.

  16. Ken Hanke

    The result was that I found his films to be frustratingly inconsistent: either very good or dull to the point of insomnia cure. Very little in the way of middle ground.

    Well, I’ll be seeing The White Ribbon this weekend, so I’ll get a second dose of Haneke regardless.

  17. Me

    I’ve heard the Seventh Continent is good also. Ive also heard that his version of Kafka’s The Castle is pretty good. Which version of Funny Games are you talking about? I’ve seen his US remake he did and it was ok but i’ve heard the original one is supposed to be better.

    Ken i cant believe you didn’t like Cache you weren’t at all interested in who was video taping them?

  18. Ken Hanke

    Ken i cant believe you didn’t like Cache you weren’t at all interested in who was video taping them?

    I was mostly interested in when the film would end. I found it incredibly boring. Oh, I know a lot of people thought it was the bee’s knees, but I wasn’t one of them.

  19. mike

    I was referring to the 1997 version of Funny Games. Haneke’s 2007 remake seemed largely unnecessary to me and, other than seeing Michael Pitt in the role of Paul, Ive never had any desire to watch it.

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