With some hours to go before the evening comes along and, with any luck, cools things down enough for me to cut the grass, and with a growing stack of DVDs at my side, I guess you know what I’m going to be yammering at you about today.
First up is Paramount’s 1933 Alice in Wonderland, and O my brothers and sisters, what a disappointment this was. With Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, Alison Skipworth as The Duchess, Gary Cooper as the White Knight, W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter, Edna Mae Oliver as the Red Queen, Charlie Ruggles as the March Hare, Jack Oakie and Richard Arlen as Tweedledum and Tweedledee (although half of these folks merely provided voicework for their parts), it certainly sounds like it could be like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?
Alas, while it does have a terrific look (a sort of John Tenniel “lite”, a sort of cleaned-up Tenniel that looks like what it is: all temporary structures designed to be used for a day and then quickly struck, with even less attempt at naturalism made than, say, what was made by the far less “flush” Hal Roach Studios in Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland just a year later), and the doughy fright make-up used to realize the Wonderland characters has some novelty value, this Wonderland is about as much fun as a day at the snail races.
To be fair, Alice is notoriously hard to get right. Come to think of it, has anyone ever gotten it right? Disney failed – twice! Most screen Alices (and it has been filmed to the point where you want to shout “knock it off, awreddy!”) have the effect of making me want to stand up and slide quietly out of the room. Some of them make me want to scream (Whoopie Goldberg as The Cheshire Cat, anyone?). There is a 1949 French version directed by Leo Bunin that I remember quite fondly, but not having seen it in yonks, and my memory being what it is, I can’t wholeheartedly urge anyone to track down a copy.
The best movie version of Alice in Wonderland isn’t even an adaptation of the books. Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild (1985) gives us the real Alice, now in her eighties, coming to America on the centenary of the book’s publication. She has never quite come to terms with her memories of the Rev. Charles Dodgson (whose feelings for her may not have been strictly platonic or paternal), or for that matter of the Wonderland characters, who, as projections of Dodgson/Carroll, have a dark undercurrent that is fully explored here. With Wonderland characters designed by Jim Henson’s creature shop, marvelous performances from Coral Brown as the elderly Alice and Ian Holm as Dodgson, and a full-blooded script by Potter that ranges from present to past, from the outer world to the inner one, this little-known and extremely under-rated picture is the only screen Alice that anyone needs.
Back to 1933.
The problem here is that Paramount’s screenwriters have taken random setpieces from both books, thrown them into a snifter, shaken them up and dumped them out at random onto a chessboard. All of the internal logic of the books, their spinal cord, so to speak, has been ripped out. There is no through-line. It’s just a series of supposedly whacky-charming scenes, except that most of them are neither whacky nor charming. Fields as Humpty Dumpty comes the closest, and the producers must have known it, as it ends up being the second longest sequence, next to Gary Cooper’s turn as the White Knight.
Disney opined that his animated Alice “lacked heart.” This Alice, in the person of Charlotte Henry, goes so far beyond that to be annoying – perhaps not so annoying that you want to slap her silly, but certainly annoying and dull enough to put me to sleep. It’s a very short movie, yet I had to shut the damned thing off and finish it the next day. Beware! Beware! Paramount will try to lure you into this “Wonderland” with the glitter of its stars, but as so often happens, take away the glitter and you’re left with something very common indeed. . .
HBO’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee caught my eye one day from the El Cheapo section at Wallyworld. After a rocky start (which included a couple of really lousy performances from Colin Feore and Fred Thompson as Sherman and Grant respectively, along with some very brief but completely unnecessary foul language and graphic violence that was quite obviously tossed in just to show us that this was an HBO TV movie, not your average namby-pamby broadcast TV movie) this finally settles down to be an absorbing, even-handed portrayal of yet another of our nation’s Most Embarrassing Moments.
I think this may be the best performance of Aiden Quinn’s career. As Senator Harry Dawes, he’s given more meat to chew on than usual, that much is certain. But it is an ensemble piece, and once you get past the painful Messrs. Feore and Thompson most everyone shines – in the case of the Amazing, Shape-Shifting J. K. Simmons (is there anything this man cannot do?) this comes as no surprise.
If it all comes down to the story, or in this case the history, my emotions are mixed. Of course you feel for the individuals caught up in this tragedy, a tragedy so far out of any individual’s control that it might as well be Greek, it might as well be the Gods lobbing thunderbolts down out of the heavens, I mean, good lord, the best that anyone can hope for in such a situation is to dodge the blows as long as you can.
(Aside: in the long political-correctness struggle over what words do we use, how do we call people, how should we label, classify, or otherwise delineate and draw borders around people, I happen to believe that people should be called people; in this case, my preferred terminology is neither “Indian” or “Native American,” but Sioux.)
So – yes, when you look at the frozen body of a dead mother cradling a dead child in the snow, your heart bleeds – how can it not? But when you pull your camera eye back and back and back until you see the nation as a whole; then you realize: there was no way that this was ever, under any circumstances, going to turn out any other way. Your heart bleeds no less for the mother and child, and your soul approves no more of the way the events played out: but that was the way the events always were going to play out, if anything on this earth ever was ordained, by the gods or whatever you want to call them – that was ordained and set out in stone, because the tribes were a force of nature, whereas the whites were an unstoppable machine intent on spreading out across this nation no matter what. If the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon could not stop them, what were the Sioux and the other tribes but a minor annoyance?
Were the people who left their tribes and assimilated themselves any wiser than the ones who stayed? I think not. Just different. When the machine overtakes you, and you cannot stop it, and your choices are limited, you react in your own way, the only way that you can.
My friend S_____, of the Maine branch of Confuse-A-Cat, Ltd., pointed out to me that he read the James Bond books when he was quite young, although his mother did everything in her power to prevent it. Nonetheless, the only book that Ian Fleming ever wrote with children as its intended audience was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a charming story of a working-class English family and the adventures that they have in their fabulous flying motor-car.
With Mary Poppins the box-office miracle that it was, and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli owning, as he did, the film rights to all of Mr. Fleming’s books, it was inevitable that a musical film – very much in the spirit of Poppins, even down to purloining its male star – should be made, and in 1968 it was.
I had read the book about three years earlier, and so the movie, which departs from the book the way a rocket departs from a launching pad, was a disappointment. Not a crashing disappointment (we’ll get into that), but as usual with these things, the book was so very much better, and it wasn’t just that nothing can compare to the movie screen of your own imagination. Fleming told a simpler, more melodramatic, less overtly comedic story, and did it expertly. My advice to anyone is still, to this day – get yourself a copy of the book and read it first. It’s not a great classic. But it was one of my earliest introductions to what I latter came to know as a charming trip through the English countryside, and for that it will always be a favorite. Comes with a fudge recipe, too,
Now, Cubby Broccoli came along, took the basic idea, hooked it up to a spigot and filled it to bursting with hot air. He did that with all his pictures, even the Bond movies. This is a James Bond movie for kids, with a couple of good songs to recommend it (especially “Hushabye Mountain”). Here’s what I wrote about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at my Criticker account, and I see no reason to expand upon it here: Succeeds simply by looking great and taking us to wonderfully beautiful locations.
A few weeks back, before all hell broke loose in my life, I posted here that I was going through a “phase” of so-called martial arts and Chinese “wuxia” films in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which I still admire so much. That “phase” did not stop with the handful of movies I “talked” about in that post, friends, no it did not.
The Banquet stars Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, and it very much wants to be China’s answer to Kurasawa’s Throne of Blood. If it weren’t already taken, that would be a better title for it than either The Banquet or Legend of the Black Scorpion, which is the new title it was given on its DVD release. That ought to tell you something. The marketers don’t know what to do with thing, because the moviemakers didn’t know what to do with it, which is sad. There’s a good movie in here – somewhere.
No matter what you call it, this is Hamlet in Chinese. The adaptation is a good one, the performances are excellent, the movie is drop-dead gorgeous to look at, the drama, being tried and tested, is compelling – but every now and then everything comes to a screeching halt so that we can have a rather pointless (and unusually bloody) wuxia style sword battle, one that, while beautifully choreographed by the master Yuen Wo-Ping, really has nothing to do with anything happening around it. Presumably, the only reason these scenes are even in the film is so that the producers can market it overseas to the same audiences who lapped up Crouching Tiger. It’s just so misguided. They had a beautiful film here without the fighting. Conversely, if you’re a martial arts fan coming to see lots and lots of flying fists and sizzling swordplay, you’re going to be disappointed, because there’s so little of it.
I guess if I was more of an optimist, I’d say, “Oh, there’s something for everyone!” Instead, I feel like they had the makings of two good movies here – and spoiled them both.
Hero and House of Flying Daggers are both of a piece. Both are directed by the same man, both are eye-poppingly, jaw-droppingly beautiful pieces of filmmaking, with strong stories that take time to unravel their full strands of deceit and cunning. Both are tragedies – which I like; you never get that from Hollywood anymore. Both combine art and story and stylish action into eye candy of the highest order. Both were essentially made for the Western audience, again to cash in on the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Both succeed on their own merits as well as on the cashing in part. But neither one really connected with my heart.
As the Hero of Hero meets his swarm of literally thousands of arrows, he does so with honor, not repressing anything, because there is nothing to repress. As the lovers in House of Flying Daggers stumble offstage to their separate fates, we are left with nothing but a sense of futility.
As I wrote in my earlier post, one of the things I liked about Crouching Tiger was that its heroes were even more repressed than I am. Though a tragedy, and a profound one at that, with everyone’s dreams dashed, still the movie ends with one character making a sacrifice that might, just maybe, just possibly, carry the far-distant hope of reversing the terrible woes that she helped to create.
There’s nothing like that in Hero or House, and so I could not completely warm up to either of them.
Although it stars (and was co-produced by) Michelle Yeoh, a martial arts goddess who’s still got it at age fifty, the less said about Silver Hawk, the better. Instead I’ll jump back in time to her co-starring role with Jet Li in the kung fu komedy Tai Chi Master.
I have to call it a comedy because so much of it is played for laughs, even if the expected laughs never arrive. About two thirds of the way through the picture, the hero experiences a crisis of spirit that causes a severe mental breakdown, from which he ultimately emerges as the Master of the movie’s title. This crisis and his eventual recovery from it would be so much more effective if it weren’t portrayed as something out of a Keystone Kops movie, with Li bumbling around doing self-conscious slapstick riffs on his co-stars.
The action – which is constant – is spectacular, though, even if you can see the wires some of the time.
This post is getting on in years, so I will try to cut it short. Next up is Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster; I enjoyed this one even more than the first, perhaps because, in the person of Sammo Hung, it features an older fat guy who can still float like a ghost and sting like a nest of angry hornets. I note with interest other critics who knock this for its nationalistic fervor (the villain is a deeply arrogant British boxer who’s quick with the put down) -- but hey, how many American pictures can you think of that have done the same thing, only ten times worse? Why is it only bad when the Chinese do it?
Finally, Legend of the Fist, again starring Donnie Yen of the Ip Man movies, whose screen presence I am really beginning to enjoy. As another Criticker user pointed out, he always looks so disappointed as he’s pummeling the living daylights out of you.
I wanted to like this one more than I did. It has a marvelous look and flavor, part wartime thriller, part film noir, both perfectly realized, and I mean perfectly. You cannot fault the appearance of this movie or even its overall structure and dynamic. It is dramatically involving. The cast is very strong. But here I think we come full circle, because just like The Banquet above, where we started this little roundelay, I don't think Legend of the Fist is certain of what it wants to be. A Chinese Casablanca? A Wartime Batman? The latter especially is underdeveloped. It doesn’t help that, on the scene-by-scene level, the storytelling is vague and the editing choppy.
We like our movies confident. We like to feel that we are in secure hands for the ninety minutes or so that we spend in these little alternate universes. Isn’t that why we go there in the first place?
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