Alice in Wonderland (Burton, 2010)

The well of Tim Burton, once filled to the brim by Ed Wood, Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, and Mars Attacks!, has finally run horribly dry. After nearly a decade of inane, big budget rehashes, the director’s creative drought culminates with his Alice in Wonderland, a charmless, fanciful mess layering vibrant colors, shifting shapes, and ridiculous contortions onto a facade of unforgivable silliness. Burton’s once brilliant association with German Expressionism has completely evaporated, leaving a strangely demented blaze to replace the menacing darkness. Call it a sledgehammer of uncomfortable cutesy.

It’s a mystery why Burton has disavowed the depth behind his always impressive visuals, the wit behind the strangeness, and the humanity underneath the gothic worry populating most of his early films. But Alice in Wonderland proves his horrendous pattern of expensive flubs, starting with Planet of the Apes on through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is no mistake, not a momentary case of auteurism gone bad. Alice represents a major director reaching the peak of indulgence, favoring the gravity of surface and artifice over any concern for character and conflict. And this alternate universe is becoming increasingly tepid, a flimsy place of inconsequence.

The horrendous 3-D technology doesn’t help Alice transcend its numerous creative faults, but Burton’s failure to conjure up any emotion or weight within Carrol’s evolving fantasy world cannot be blamed on the success or failure of his dynamic imagery. Also, Burton’s adherence to his acting troupe (Johnny Depp, Crispin Glover, Helena Bonham Carter) is proving overtly problematic, mostly since these actors are just revising previous incarnations, leaving the audience without any mystery or danger to associate with these once fascinating presences. In the end, Burton’s Alice is the worst kind of film – a benign, safe, and clumsy product from once relevant artists who can’t see the forest for the trees. With Alice Burton’s delusions of grandeur are staggering, and for his fans, damn disappointing.

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Crazy Heart (Cooper, 2009)

Like country singing burn-out Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), Crazy Heart lives in the moment. The film exists primarily on the fringes of society and pop culture, in honky tonk bars, bowling alleys, and diners, and there’s an emphasis on the small and fleeting interactions between Blake and the everyday inhabitants he meets. The deep rooted connection between character and setting makes Crazy Heart a true “hang out” film, as Blake’s wayward travels introduces unique bit characters and places just on the other side of nowhere.

After a telling, booze-infused introduction to Blake’s current economic and artistic crisis, someone finally makes an impact on the disillusioned country icon – a young reporter named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Director Scott Cooper avoids big reversals or even revelations with this relationship, taking scenes slowly and casually, until their romantic momentum finally overwhelms the reservations each shares about the other. The naturalistic performances by both Bridges and Gyllenhaal compliment beautifully, even if the script gets bogged down by obvious plot points toward the end. The film unforgivably foreshadows its path too clearly, so it’s no surprise specific dynamic scenes stand above the film as a whole.

Crazy Heart rests fondly in the shadow of Bruce Beresford’s masterpiece Tender Mercies (Cooper even cast Robert Duvall as Blake’s conscious), and the two films seem to be linked by the same charmingly gruff country universe.  But unlike it’s forefather, Crazy Heart lacks the genuine pain and anguish of a man on the edge of self-destruction. Even when Blake hits rock bottom, Cooper’s musical cues and script trajectory reassure that a redemptive (if not happy) ending is imminent.

In the end, when the title theme song echoes on the horizon and Blake walks off into the sunset, we’re left with the obvious lessons and morals, a great soundtrack to a man’s life, and an indelible performance by a brilliant actor who’s always been great, Oscar just decided to pay attention this time. Bridges transcends a merely competent film with a burning desire to live off reservation from the mainstream, and this performance becomes another testament to his skill as an artist.

Sparrow (To, 2008)

Johnnie To’s Sparrow begins as seamlessly as it ends – with the arrival of a cagey bird in a lifeless apartment. This often unseen symbol whisks from scene to scene without a care in the world, playing a vibrant foil to the many cheeky characters attempting to control their shifting Hong Kong criminal landscape. These efforts are futile of course, and it’s beautiful to watch each character give in to the subliminal ease associated with the non-diagetic score and crisp widescreen framing.

To replaces blood and guns with whimsy and slapstick comedy, constructing a hazy world where criminals aren’t brutal, but pragmatic, charming rather than abrasive. To’s vision comes to a head in the dynamic silent finale amidst gushing rain and a sea of umbrellas, where the renowned master of violent conflict finds the harmony in the prank. Razor blades have never been uses so effortlessly and kindly.

There’s more cinematic virtuosity in this light-as-a-feather ode to romance, honor, and music than most modern Hollywood blockbusters. But To frames his daring kinetics within the genre trappings of a Musical, and Sparrow shows how song and dance springs from many diverse human conflicts. Be it the graceful art of picking pockets or the sublime drift of a female grifter playing friends off each other, To manages to reveal the beauty of cinematic movement and playfulness. If Sparrow comes across a bit silly in the end, it’s only because To takes a step back and re-thinks his own seriousness toward the crime film, finding an amiable alternate universe smiling between the genre cracks.

Capitalism: A Love Story (Moore, 2009)

If Capitalism: A Love Story is indeed Michael Moore’s last documentary (as it’s rumored to be), then America’s most notorious nonfiction provocateur has achieved quite an affecting oeuvre. His latest film, an often brilliant assault on the evils of governmental and business corruption predicating the Great Recession, produces some grand and biting critiques culminating in a gut punch of a third act calling for nothing short of a economic revolution by the American citizenry. Moore vividly reveals why this particular dam has been cracking for decades (one astute bank regulator named Bill Black makes this very convincing analogy), painting a timeline of slow decline perpetrated in some way by all of the last four Presidential Administrations. There’s more than enough blame to sink both sides of the political party divide.

Much like Sicko, Moore doesn’t entirely rely on the patented pop culture montages and archival tangents to make his point. The most potent and jarring moments come in his talking heads interviews with everyday people, be it the Illinois family paid to remove their own furniture and possessions by the very bank that’s evicting them, or the collection of Chicago factory workers blessed by a Bishop during their week long sit in at a Window/Door factory. Moore has a keen ability to morph typically muted affectations into moments of damning injustice.

Capitalism: A Love Story further proves why Moore should be considered one of the great montage artists in film history. His editing borders on breakneck, framing personal histories and tragedies around epic news footage, pop culture artifacts, and disturbing presentational data. Most critics get hung up on Moore’s grandstanding and miss the forest for the trees. Moore pokes and prods the politicians, lobbyists, and businessmen with a hot poker, hoping to see the devil pop out the other side. It seems like a need rather than a fetish. Moore’s success and failure comes down to whether or not you believe he’s doing this for the American people or himself. I tend to be optimistic in this regard, and view him as a filmmaker of the people.

Moonlighting (Skolimowksi, 1982)

Alienation and isolation feed a disturbing duality in Jerzy Skolimowski’s terrific Moonlighting, the story of four Polish immigrants sent cheaply to London to remodel a politician’s new flat.  The singularly contained story transmits via Nowak (Jeremy Irons), the group’s leader and only English speaking member who must manipulate and impress his blue-collar compatriots to keep working despite Western influences and a military coup back home. To get the arduous month long job in on time Nowak limits information, power, and ultimately emotional connection for his workers, creating a telling microcosm of the Eastern bloc in the small, unstable iconography of their London setting.

Critiques and contradictions of capitalistic culture abound, forcing Nowak into dark corners of his subconscious wrecked by guilt, doubt, and weakness. Watching the men’s perception of Nowak slowly change is striking, snaking from casual respect, to indifference, then finally to bursting anger. The final shot in the film paints a realization of what Nowak has feared the entire film – the explosion of pent up angst and frustration. And in his lyrical voice over narration, Nowak seems relieved to give up control of the reigns, as if the burden of power and manipulation has pushed him into an emotional black hole. This culminates in a surreal vision of his Polish girlfriend whispering from the burn-out display of their defunct color television.

These thematic and emotional concerns provide ample subtext to fledgling characters distanced from their physical home, while also defining the ideological complexity of Skolimowski’s main concern – dissecting the double-edged relationship between Western capitalism and Communism. The lack of dialogue puts an emphasis on Nowak’s impression of the events, a subjective struggle with interior demons and external pressures. This artistic flourish is a Skolimowski staple, a filmmaker willing to plunge his particular style into the hands of fractured lead characters battling multiple social fronts. Moonlighting proves Skolimowski’s ability to find beauty in the breakdown and pain into the refurbish, in terms of both setting and character. Not many directors can achieve such a sublime and diverse dichotomy of tones.

The Crazies (Eisner, 2010)

Unleashed during the heavily “romance-driven” scheduling block of February, Breck Eisner’s Horror film The Crazies brings a much needed gut-punch to American cinemas. Eisner’s film tracks a sudden and devastating viral outbreak turning normal people of a Midwestern town into raging, pulsating beasts of instinct. A covert government incident pushes the disease into the town’s water supply, destroying conscious, remorse, and sympathy before rendering the body a hollow, wrinkled mess. Predictably, morality and ethics play a role throughout, but Eisner convincingly stages these personal conflicts against striking landscapes of collective anguish. These bloody messes make an impact.

Despite it’s virtuoso ground level set-pieces, The Crazies often guides our gaze toward the eye in the sky, where a lifeless and omniscient intermediary meticulously tracks every move. Eisner’s viscerally exciting, sometimes weighty twin to George Romero’s 1970’s remake slices off some of the original’s biting commentary by cutting to a satellite point-of-view, constantly reminding how the character’s actions and victories are devastatingly moot in the big picture. In most worthy Horror films, the director initiates a visual trash compactor of creeping shadows and blunt audio references to surround the characters, slowly closing in until sacrifice and death are the only options. But Eisner expands the tense scope beyond extreme close-ups and confined spaces, making a desolate prairie and a dank swamp seem just as menacing as a cavernous diner where the film’s gripping finale takes place.

The expectations are so low with modern Horror remakes The Crazies manages to transcend the genre company it keeps by simply having ambition. Retreads of most 1970’s and 80’s Horror films fail miserably to produce any substance amidst the splattering gore and bloody nostalgia, let alone reveal any actual talent behind the lens. But Eisner has a genuine eye for pacing, building certain scenes slowly and intuitively by momentarily subverting expectation, forgetting the overarching narrative to focus on the genre detail in the frame.

There’s a dynamic potency in the aforementioned diner struggle and earlier within a full-throttle scene in a car wash surrounded by daylight emptiness. Circumstance and consequence become enhanced by the specifics – the way Sheriff Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) painfully pulls a knife from his hand, watching as an infected victim dies before his eyes, or when a small boat rests atop a sunken airplane in the middle of hallowed river. The stark images go beyond the surface and reference some stark ideas, making The Crazies somewhat memorable, even if it’s not consistently original in the end.