Five-time Oscar-winning composer John Barry has died at age 77. His music includes “Born Free,” and scores for several James Bond films, with perhaps “Goldfinger” the best-remembered. He could evoke a sensual, jazzy contemporary setting, romantic classicism, an intimate romance or vast adventure.
During the psychedelic 1960s, the scene with the caterpiller puffing on a hookah was popularly considered to be a reference to opium or hashish, possibly because the movie, like the book, has such a surreal and dream-like quality, but there is nothing in
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Almost 150 years ago Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson published his wildly imaginative story about Alice’s adventures down a rabbit hole. And now the wildly imaginative director Tim Burton has brought Wonderland to the 3D movie screen. It is less faithful to the original story than many of the previous dozen or so movie versions, but I think Dodgson, better known by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, would approve of Burton’s bringing his own take to the classic characters.
He brings his own story as well. Carroll’s Alice is a little girl bored by her sister’s dull book, and her journey is episodic and filled with wordplay and references to Victorian society that fill the annotated edition of the book with witty footnotes.
To make the story more cinematic, Burton tells us that all of that has already happened in what young Alice thought was a dream. This is her return visit. Alice is 18 years old and has just been proposed to by a dull but wealthy lord with no chin and bad digestion. As she meets up with the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the Mad Hatter, she is not the only one who is confused. Characters seem puzzled and unsure about whether she is the real Alice. The Mad Hatter peers at her perplexedly. She may be Alice, and yet not quite completely the Alice they are looking for. “You were once muchier,” he tells her. “You’ve lost your muchiness.” In Burton’s version, Alice’s adventures are about her finding her “muchiness.” Her visit to Wonderland is a chance for her to understand what she is capable of and how much she will lose if she makes her decisions based on what people expect from her. As in the Carroll story, she is constantly changing size, and Burton shows us that she is really finding her place. She believes she is once again in a dream but increasingly learns that it is one she can control. By the time she faces the Jabberwock, she knows that she is in control — and that her courage and determination can create the opportunity she needs to follow her heart.
Johnny Depp brings a depth, even a poignance to the Mad Hatter, and Helena Bonham Carter is utterly delicious as the peppery red queen, hilariously furious over her stolen tarts. There’s a thrilling battle, the visuals are dazzling, with references to classic book illustrations by Maxfield Parrish, and the 3D effects will have you feeling as though you are falling down the rabbit hole yourself. The frame story bookending the Wonderland/Underland adventure is tedious and, oddly, less believable than the disappearing cat and frog footmen. But Burton’s re-interpretation of the classic story is filled with muchiness and the result is pretty darn frabjuous.
Roger Ebert says the case is closed on 3D — it can never work. He has some powerful support for his position, a letter from Walter Murch, “the most respected film editor and sound designer in the modern cinema.” Murch says that “horizontal movement will strobe much sooner in 3D than it does in 2D. This was true then, and it is still true now. It has something to do with the amount of brain power dedicated to studying the edges of things. The more conscious we are of edges, the earlier strobing kicks in.” He says our brains are not capable of processing 3D movie technology, because “the glasses “gather in” the image — even on a huge Imax screen — and make it seem half the scope of the same image when looked at without the glasses.”
I’m not sure I agree; I expect a glasses-free 3D technology is possible, for one thing. But I do agree with Ebert that there is a much less gimmicky and much more powerful enhancement — Ebert’s counter-recommendation — called Maxivision48.
Movies “move” because we see a series of still pictures so quickly that it fools our eye through something called “persistence of vision.” It’s the same technology as a flip-book, and it hasn’t changed much since it shifted from 16 frames per second to 24 when movies added sound (this is why silent films often seem jerky). Unlike current digital equipment, which replicates the 24 frames per second standard, Maxivision combines digital and film to eliminate wasted space and project at 48 frames per second to give the audience a fresher, clearer, more distinct image.
I love their tagline: “See What You’ve Been Missing.”
I am sitting by the fire in my Park City, Utah hotel, where the wall has enormous pictures of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (as portrayed by Paul Newman and Robert Redford) and a sign that says “No Skis In Room.” This is the last day of the 2011 edition of the film festival founded by Redford. It began in 1978, took on the name Sundance in 1991 in honor of the founder’s iconic role, and is now the biggest festival in the US and possibly the world focusing on independent film. Movies like “sex, lies, and videotape,” “Capturing the Friedmans,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” and current Oscar nominee “Winter’s Bone” got their start here. While some people complain that it has become too institutional, the festival and its audience are devoted to independent film and film-makers who are independent in vision as well as in financing. A new category for entries called “Next” is dedicated to films made on micro-budgets. And Sundance has programs for beginning screenwriters and directors that has provided support to film-makers like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David Gordon Green.
I am here for the most unexpected of reasons, not as audience, critic, or press, but in support of a documentary about the financial meltdown called “The Flaw,” in which I appear. Director David Sington and I answered questions about the movie following yesterday’s screening.
I got to see two other films while I was here, both documentaries, “Hot Coffee,” a first-time film from lawyer Susan Saladoff about corporate sponsored efforts to prevent access to the courts and “Project Nim,” the story of an ambitious but poorly conceived 1970’s project to teach language to a chimpanzee and what happened when the experiment ended. Saladoff appeared before her film to tell us that two years ago she was where we were, sitting in the audience at Sundance, and inspired by what she saw to take a year off from work to make her movie. She told me later that she does not plan to go back to practicing law; she wants to keep making movies.
I was thrilled to attend the awards ceremony (you can see host Tim Blake Nelson wearing the festival’s logo snowflake), where I sat next to director Anne Sewitsky as she heard her name called as winner of the top prize for an international feature film for “Happy Happy.” Other award-winners that I am hoping to see in theaters include top festival prize and acting award winner “Like Crazy,” “Another Earth,” about a discovery of a parallel planet that might possibly give us the chance to erase our mistakes and painful losses; “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,” based on archival footage from Swedish journalists of American black power leaders including Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, and Eldridge Cleaver; “The Redemption of General Butt Naked,” a documentary about a once-brutal Liberian warlord turned preacher; and “Buck,” the true story of the man who inspired “The Horse Whisperer.” This year featured an unusual number of films about struggles with faith and spirituality, including “Butt Naked,” and “Higher Ground,” directed and starring Vera Farmiga (“Up in the Air”); “Tyrannosour,” directed by actor Paddy Considine (“In America”), and “Kinyarwanda,” the first feature film produced by Rwandans.
“Whip my Hair’s” Willow Smith, the daughter of mega-stars Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and sister of “Karate Kid’s” Jaden Smith is going to have a big-screen remake of her own. She will play Little Orphan Annie in the third version of the musical based on the plucky Depression-era girl with the red hair and the indomitable spirit.
Aileen Quinn starred in the musical film Annie, along with Carol Burnett as the wicked Miss Hannigan and Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks, the Wall Street financier who learns from Annie the importance of family. A somewhat livelier version of Annie was remade for television with Oscar-winner Kathy Bates as Miss Hannigan and an all-star cast of Broadway veterans including Victor Garber, Audra McDonald, and Kristin Chenoweth.
Before she sang about the hard knock life and the sun coming out tomorrow, Annie was the star of a comic strip created by Harold Grayin 1924, appearing in newspapers through June of last year. After Gray’s death, the strip was drawn and written by other artists, most notably the brilliantly talented Leonard Starr.
Annie was also a long-running radio series (you can hear it in “A Christmas Story”) and, an early example of multi-platform marketing, she appeared in books, comics, and as a doll, a game, and many, many other collectibles. A bittersweet documentary, Life After Tomorrow, is the story of the high-pressure atmosphere behind the scenes for the little girls who played Annie and the orphans in the musical show.
Who should co-star with Willow? And should they try to make it contemporary?