Beowulf (2007)


If I saw Angelina Jolie rising naked out of a cave pool, I'd draw my sword too - but it would likely be a different sword.

If I saw Angelina Jolie rising naked out of a cave pool, I’d draw my sword too – but it would likely be a different sword.

(2007) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Dominic Keating, Alison Lohman, Crispin Glover, Costas Mandylor, Chris Coppola, Charlotte Salt, Julene Renee, Sebastian Roche, Chris Coppola, Sonja Fortag, Jacquie Barnbrook. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

We are in the midst of a cinematic superhero golden age. However, even before comic books there were heroes. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Theseus – all names that were spoken of with honor in ancient days. The legend of Beowulf is one of the oldest examples of heroic literature but today, few know his story – and it is a mighty one.

King Hrothgar (Hopkins) of Denmark and his much younger queen Wealthow (Penn) are celebrating their grand new meadhall in fine drunken fashion. The aging king may lament the lack of a son and heir but he has a full life of heroic deeds to sing of. He is drunk to the disgust of his queen, but to the praise of his warriors. The noise reaches the ears of the monster Grendel (Glover). Being a monster, he reacts predictably. None of the drunken Danes can stand up to the misshapen creature, as the smarmy adviser Unferth (Malkovich) cowers in a cistern. The carnage is considerable.

Fully aware that none of his people have the strength or courage to defeat the monster, Hrothgar sends word to all the nations of the earth that a hero is required. His desperate cry is answered by Beowulf (Winstone) of the Geats, a vain swaggering man who can thankfully back up his boasts. Although his trusted right hand man Wiglaf (Gleason) has reservations about the whole situation, he has his friend’s back.

Beowulf is greeted less than enthusiastically by the suspicious Danes, who find his stories a tad tall. Wealthow, for her part, finds the studly Geat intriguing, while Beowulf does the same. Hrothgar, who was friends with Beowulf’s father, is grateful to have him there to rid him of his curse. He orders a great celebration in the Meadhall, which is sure to attract Grendel’s notice.

True to form, Grendel arrives and again wreaks great havoc. The cocky Beowulf, who is fully naked since Grendel wears no armor nor carries any sword, watches his men get bounced around the room like ping pong balls, but soon sees Grendel’s weakness and exploits it. At length, he manages to chain the creature up so that it is half in, half out of the doorway and uses the chain to rip the arm off of the beast, which limps home to mama (Jolie). His killer’s name is the last word on his lips.

 

The grieving and furious mom (she has no name either in the movie nor the story it is based on) takes out her fury on Beowulf’s men. Only Wiglaf escapes the slaughter being down by the boat preparing it for the trip home. Beowulf is also spared by the demon, but only because she has plans for him. Beowulf has been given a beautiful dragon horn as a gift by Hrothgar, who has also promised Beowulf the throne of Denmark when Hrothgar dies, but with the demon still loose in the land, Beowulf knows he must kill the mother of the monster before he can truly call himself a hero, but he will face his greatest challenge; his own vanity and pride. Will he be hero enough to overcome them?

Yes, this is the same motion capture animation Zemeckis utilized in The Polar Express, but this is far more than the one-man show that movie was. Zemeckis hired a very impressive group of actors, led by Winstone – one of the finest character actors of his generation – and Hopkins, one of the finest actors period. They roar with the best of them here. Although you get a sense of the faces of the actors, they are altered enough so that they don’t quite look the same. Still, how can you go wrong with a cast that includes Gleason, Penn, Malkovich, Jolie and Lohman?

The animation here was stunning in its day – seven years ago While they are going for an almost photo-realistic style, it is still obviously animation and the characters have that lifeless expression that came with 3D photorealism in its earliest stages. Still, there are times when you forget that it isn’t live action, and that’s saying something. I saw this in a 2-D version which spared me the headaches of 3-D animation, but judging from what I saw, the 3-D version would probably be terrifying. The music is suitably heroic and martial. Not many are familiar with Beowulf’s story, one of the oldest heroic epics we are aware of.

As I said earlier, the cast is first-rate. There is quite a bit of entertainment to be had here. Winstone’s take on Beowulf makes him a big-time blowhard, but noble nonetheless – a tough trick to pull off.

There’s quite a bit of shouting and chest-beating here. The testosterone levels are abundant to say the least, even among the women in the cast. However, Neil Gaiman wrote the script which should tell you all you need to know about the quality of the writing.

Da Queen was not interested at all in catching this, so I didn’t see it until it hit On Demand. I would have liked to see this on a big screen – the visuals are worth it. Even on a small screen, it’s impressive. I wouldn’t say it’s up with Polar Express or the Back to the Future series in Zemeckis’ resume, but this is solid nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive visuals. Even in motion capture Winstone, Gleeson and Hopkins are terrific actors.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Curiously lifeless. An over-abundance of testosterone.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some animated nudity and quite a bit of carnage. The monsters can be awfully frightening, This PG-13 could easily have wound up being R-rated without too much of a stretch.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Glover previously worked with Zemeckis on Back to the Future.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are featurettes on the history of the story of Beowulf, and how it made it from story to screen. The making-of featurettes are also unusually interesting given the demands of motion capture and the larger-than-life nature of the actors involved.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $196.4M on a $150M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Arthur

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Wish I Was Here

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Mr. Nice


Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

Mr. Nice strikes a serious pose,

(2009) Biography (MPI) Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, David Thewlis, Luis Tosar, Crispin Glover, Omid Djalili, Christian McKay, Elsa Pataky, Jack Huston, Jamie Harris, Sara Sugarman, William Thomas, Andrew Tiernan, Kinsey Packard, Ania Sowinski, James Jagger, Howell Evans, Ken Russell, Ferdy Roberts, Nathalie Cox, Olivia Grant. Directed by Bernard Rose

The 60s and 70s were the era when drug culture became widespread and suddenly there was a worldwide demand for narcotics. It took all kinds to make sure the supply kept up with the demand – and some drug dealers were the most unlikely souls indeed.

Howard Marx (Ifans) was an honest and well-adjusted boy from Wales who managed to earn himself an education at Oxford. He’s studying alone in his room one night when exchange student Ilze Kadegis (Pataky) bursts into his room looking for a secret passageway. When she finds it, a curious Howard follows her to an old storage room where Graham Plinson (Huston), the university’s biggest dope dealer, hides his stash. Ilze seduces Howard and introduces Howard to the joys of cannabis. From that point on, Howard is hooked and becomes one of Graham’s best customers with his academics suffering predictably as a result.

When Plinson and Howard’s friends start experimenting with harder drugs, tragedy ensues and Howard vows not to touch the serious stuff ever again and rededicates himself to his studies, passing by the skin of his teeth (and with a bit of underhanded chicanery). He marries Ilze and takes a job as a teaching assistant (what they called a teacher training position back then) at the University of London. By now, the swinging ’60s were in full flower and Carnaby Street was the bloom on the rose. Howard was fully into the scene, prompting a reprimand for long hair and flashy suits.

When Plinson gets arrested after plans to transport a shipment of hashish from Germany to England go awry, Howard – his marriage on the ropes, his job rapidly going down the toilet – figures he has nothing to lose and steps in to help. Because he’s not a known drug dealer, he sails through the customs checkpoints without so much as a second glance. Howard finds that the adrenaline rush of smuggling drugs appeals to him and he decides to take it up as a vocation  He eventually becomes one of the world’s largest marijuana traffickers – at one point controlling a fairly large percentage of the world’s supply.

However, the problem with this kind of lifestyle is that eventually people start gunning for what you have, and soon Howard finds himself playing a dangerous game. It’s one that will get him arrested and dropped into one of the nastiest prisons in the United States.

This is based on the autobiography of  Howard Marks (uh huh, this is a true story) and Marks served as a consultant on the film, proclaiming it as accurate even though there were some differences between his book and the movie. One gets the sense that there are a few brain cells not functioning quite up to optimum for ol’ Howard these days.

The same might be said of the filmmakers. The movie often feels like it was written by one stoned, and directed while the same. Plenty of stoner clichés – half-naked chicks rolling around on a bed full of cash, slow-mo shots of the arrest and so on – mar the film. While I liked that the first part of the movie was shot in black and white, switching to color when Howard takes his first psychedelic, at times one gets the sense that the film is stuck in neutral waiting for the GPS to kick in and send it somewhere.

Ifans is an engaging actor and as he did in Notting Hill he does a good job of playing the stoner. Although the Nice of the title refers to the city in France, it is also apt to the demeanor of Marks as portrayed by Ifans. I’m pretty sure the intent here was to portray Marks as a counterculture Robin Hood-sort, fighting the battle of worldwide weed, but I keep getting the sense that we’re seeing very much a self-promotion more than an accurate portrayal.  While honestly I have nothing against Marks, I wonder if I wouldn’t have appreciated the movie more if he had a few more warts here.

The rest of the cast is pretty decent, although Sevigny has a truly terrible English accent. She’s a fine actress but I found the accent distracting and thought the film would have been better served if she hadn’t attempted it, or if they’d hired a British actress instead.

The era is captured nicely and we get a sense of the wide-open era that was the ’60s and ’70s. This is more of a throwback to films of that era in many ways – the drug dealer is the hero and unlike the modern version of heroic Hollywood drug dealers these days, he doesn’t have automatic rifles, machine pistols or military training. Howard is no Rambo by any stretch of the imagination.

Those who dislike movies about drugs and drug dealers should give this a wide berth. You’ll only give yourself an aneurysm. Stoners will find this to be excellent entertainment with a hero they can get behind. As for the rest of us, this doesn’t really distinguish itself much – but it doesn’t disgrace itself overly much either. A lot of how you’ll find this movie will depend on your attitudes towards cannabis to begin with. Me, I’m allergic to the stuff so that should give you some insight to where I’m coming from.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty decent performance by Ifans. Nicely immersed in the era it’s set.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of runs together and loses cohesion. Sevigny’s accent is atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: A ton of drug use and foul language as well as some sexuality and violence (and a bit of nudity).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In Marks’ autobiography on which the film is based, he claimed to have been betrayed to the American authorities by Lord Moynihan but that isn’t brought up in the film here for legal reasons.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Savages

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Back to the Future


Michael J. Fox is going back in time.

Michael J. Fox is going back in time.

(1985) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, George diCenzo, Frances Lee McCain, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Jay Cohen, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, Harry Waters Jr., Donald Fulilove, Lisa Freeman, Courtney Gains, Jason Hervey, Maia Brewton. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Most people my age and slightly younger have a real soft spot for Back to the Future. One of the biggest box office successes of 1985, the movie has become a treasured icon of its age, a movie very much associated with the decade despite its time-travelling motif. Younger generations are well-versed with the film mostly from frequent cable and broadcast TV appearances as well as from their parents VHS and DVD collections. Either way, there are few movies of the last 30 years that have resonated the way this one did.

Marty McFly (Fox) is a frustrated high school senior. He lives in a kind of middle class hell, his mom Lorraine (Thompson) a somewhat prudish, somewhat bitter woman who knows the best days of her life are behind her. His father George (Glover) is a picked-on milquetoast who allows his boss, Biff Tannen (Wilson) to abuse him mercilessly, taking credit for work that George does. Marty yearns for something better, whether it be through rock and roll or through his girlfriend Jennifer (Wells). Even the town he lives in, Hill Valley, is in a state of decrepitude; its clock tower that was once the crown jewel of the town square hasn’t worked for decades since a chance lightning strike left it inoperable.

He is also friends with Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Lloyd), considered to be a crackpot by most (and it’s kind of understandable) but he’s been doing some research into time travel and thinks he’s found a way to make it work. Through a series of accidents, Marty gets into the time machine (which is in, appropriately enough, a Delorean) and is sent back to the year 1955. Through a further series of mishaps, Marty manages to prevent his parents from meeting and instead takes his father’s place convalescing in the home of his mom, who instead of falling in love with his dad falls in love with Marty himself.

Without plutonium for the reaction, Marty is stuck in 1955 but he may not be for long – if he can’t get his parents to meet and kiss on the dance floor of the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, he’ll never have been born. And even if he does get them together, how is he going to get back home to 1985?

Zemeckis and Gale were at the top of their game here and for Fox it is the role that he is most associated with, maybe even more so than Alex Keaton from Family Ties. The movie was kind of a perfect storm of elements coming together in just the right way. It was a movie that fit the time, but it was also much more than just a sci-fi adventure flick with lots of thrills and great characters, although it is that as well. The movie was supposedly inspired by writer/producer Bob Gale finding one of his father’s high school yearbooks and wondering if he had known his dad back then would they have hung out together, an intriguing concept.

We rarely think of our parents as people, but they were all young once; they all had the bloom of youth in their cheeks, all had hopes and dreams, all loved and lost, all got into trouble with their own parents and all did exactly the same kinds of things you did yourself. We can’t really put them in that perspective however; we need our parents to be parents. It’s hard to see them as young kids who didn’t have all the answers and weren’t always right. We can’t see them as ourselves.

This movie kind of forces you to look at them that way and realize what a crap shoot it is that you even exist; one missed connection and you’d never have been born. But at the same time, it’s a fun ride (so fun that it became a ride at Universal Studios theme parks although they have since replaced it with Simpsons -themed rides) that never lets up and is huge fun from minute one to closing credits. Movies like that are few and far between. From the Huey Lewis and the News songs to the eccentricities of Doc Brown to the awkward humor of having Marty being hit on by his mom (which offended some critics at the time), the movie remains an icon of the 80s and if it is a bit anachronistic with its Delorean time machine, Walkman cassette player and Libyan terrorists, it is no more so than most movies which are all without exception a product of their times. This is a classic that should be an essential part of any collection.

WHY RENT THIS: An absolute classic, one of the best movies to come out of the 80s. One of the most beloved films of all time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find this a little dated.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sensuality and mild violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox was still starring in Family Ties when he signed to do this film. Because of his television commitment, he filmed most of his scenes from 6pm until 3am, getting about five hours of sleep a night. Scenes set in daylight were filmed on weekends. He managed to film the entire movie without missing a single shot of his television show.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also an extended conversation with Fox. The 2-Disc Collector’s Edition also includes a TV special, Back to the Future Night made to promote the sequel hosted by the late Leslie Nielsen, the footage from both the lobby and the ride of Back to the Future: The Ride which once was a big attraction at Universal Studios but no longer exists. There is also an independent retrospective, Looking Back to the Future which was originally feature-length and has been considerably cut here. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $381.1M on a $19M production budget; this was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 80s.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blast From the Past

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: In My Sleep

Hot Tub Time Machine


Hot Tub Time Machine

John Cusack realizes for the first time this isn't a Merchant-Ivory film.

(MGM/United Artists) John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Clarke Duke, Crispin Glover, Lizzy Caplan, Chevy Chase, Sebastian Stan, Lyndsy Fonseca, Collette Wolfe, Charlie McDermott, Kellee Stewart. Directed by Steve Pink

Every so often a movie comes along that you have very low expectations for that, when you actually sit down to watch, not only exceeds them but by a large margin. It’s one of the joys of seeing a lot of movies.

Adam (Cusack) is 40-something and miserable. His girlfriend has just left him and not in a nice way. He was one of those bright souls that never really measured up to his potential, and he lives in a nowhere life with no future. His video-game playing nephew Jacob (Duke) lives in his basement, mainly because his sister Kelly (Wolfe) wants nothing to do with the boy, who is an unemployed geek and a virgin to boot.

Nick (Robinson) is also 40-something, working in a pet spa cleaning the anal canals of dogs and inspiring them to exercise on a treadmill. He once had a promising music career but gave it up after marrying Courtney (Stewart), who has him completely emasculated.

Lou (Corddry) is an out-of-control wild man who drinks to excess and is the friend that everyone likes in small…okay, microscopic portions. At 40-something, he’s unmarried, has no girlfriend and no real life. He drives into his garage one night, totally hammered out of his mind. When his favorite Bon Jovi song – “Home Sweet Home” for those keeping score at home – plays on his car stereo, he goes into full-on air concert mode, not realizing that the garage door has closed with the engine running and that every time he stomps his feet the engine revs, spewing further emissions into the closed space.

All three men are close friends who have drifted apart since their glory years in the mid-80s. When Lou is taken to the hospital as a suspected suicide, only Adam and Nick come to the hospital (apparently Lou’s family hates him, which is unsurprising). The doctor urges the two friends to keep an eye on Lou and find a way to cheer him up. The two decide to take him to Kodiak Valley, a ski resort that was the site of some of their best times from their misspent youth. Much to Lou’s disgust, they bring Jacob with them (Lou has an unreasoning and unexplained loathing for Jacob).

When they get there though, it is far from the glittering village of hedonism that they remember. It is run down with many of the store fronts boarded up. The hotel is falling apart and the one-armed bellboy Phillip (Glover) is dripping with attitude.

The carnage continues when they get to their room. The hot tub is non-functional with the only thing in it a decomposing carcass of a raccoon. The only thing worth the trip is the carving that Lou put in one of the nightstand drawers that asserted that Adam was apparently gay and proud.

However, after a fruitless evening of playing quarters and reminiscing, the four are amazed to find the hot tub fully functional. The party really gets started then with the four drinking like fish, including a Russian sports drink that’s apparently illegal here.

They wake up much the worse for wear and decide to go skiing. To their surprise they find that the ski slopes are crowded. To their surprise, many of the skiers are wearing leg warmers and headbands to hold feathered hair. The black guys are wearing Jheri curl. Michael Jackson is still black. It’s 1986 and they’re at the scene of their many crimes.

It seems that they’re all inhabiting their young bodies again – which they can see when they look into the mirror. But after meeting a cryptic hot tub maintenance man (Chase), they begin to realize that they are being constrained by the butterfly effect – the consequences that of a butterfly flapping its wings in Beijing causing a hurricane in Miami. In other words, the smallest action in the past can have devastating consequences in the future. Since Jacob was too young to be there, he is in danger of never having been born.

Of course, that’s nothing like finding out that his mom was also at the ski resort and she was something of a skank in her day. But the guys need to do exactly what they did that day in the past; Adam needs to break up with his girlfriend (and take a fork to the face for his problems), the happily married Nick needs to have sex with a groupie and Lou needs to get beaten up by Blaine (Stan), the arrogant preppy ultra-conservative leader of the ski patrol.

The thing is that by choosing different paths here they could make their lives a whole lot better in the future. However, the repercussions could also be devastating. Will they follow the path they chose once and return home to the lives they know, or will they take a chance and risk everything?

Director Steve Pink co-produced two of Cusack’s finer films, Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity. This movie is totally unlike Cusack has ever done before. He plays the straight man here, but the film is infused with a surfeit of toilet and sexual humor. It is as raunchy as they come, raunchier even than last year’s The Hangover. While I don’t believe this is going to pull the kind of numbers that film did, it is at least of a similar quality.

Although Cusack is one of my favorite actors, he isn’t the reason I like this movie – Robinson and Corddry are. Corddry is manic and over-the-top in his performance. While he doesn’t deliver a Zach Galifinakis-like performance, he makes an indelible impression. Veteran actor Robinson is the master of the deadpan look, and he comes up with some of the best lines of the film.

The film reproduces the 80s quite well, from the look to the music although it tends to lead more towards the cliché side. It’s not as bad as, say, The Wedding Singer in dwelling on the excesses of the decade but it does spoof its share.

In some ways this is a parable about middle aged crazy, reclaiming our youth and second chances (in fact, the Jacob character plays the online social game Second Life incessantly which is a nice bit of business). On that level it works surprisingly well. Regret is a powerful thing, but the characters aren’t crippled by it precisely. They are however trapped by their choices to a certain extent which have colored their lives even to the present day. All three of these characters suffer from diminished returns on high expectations. It’s not a condition I’m unfamiliar with.

I found myself laughing throughout the movie, from beginning to end. Too often a lot of modern comedies start off strong and fade in the final reel; not so Hot Tub Time Machine. Yes, the humor is scatological and crude, but if you don’t mind something that’s less highbrow, this is for you. I was quite pleasantly surprised; ignore the less-than-stellar trailer and give it a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Surprisingly funny, much more than I expected it to be. Corddry and Robinson turn in some fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be too raunchy for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Much raunchiness, nudity and bad language. Mature teens and adults only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “what color is Michael Jackson” line spoken by Craig Robinson is ad libbed.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing really screams big screen here.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Made of Honor

Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Let it be said that too much time in Hollywood can give you a big head.

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Michael Gough (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Christopher Lee (voice). Directed by Tim Burton

The world as we know it is a crazy place. Sometimes we do things for reasons even we can’t fathom. There are times that the craziest people of all are truly the sanest.

Alice Kingsleigh (Wasikowska) is the daughter of a visionary. Her father Charles (Marton Csokas) founded a successful import company on the premise of pushing beyond the boundaries of what is considered reasonable. “I often do six impossible things before breakfast” he tells his adoring daughter, soothing her whenever she has one of her frequent nightmares.

But it’s always the same nightmare, falling down an endless hole into an impossible place with strange creatures. That nightmare continues to occur even when she is a young lady, her father prematurely dead and now her mother determined to see her wed to the impossibly haughty Lord Hamish (Leo Bill). This doesn’t sit well with the plucky and intelligent Alice who can’t see being married to an absolute twit, but at the same time the marriage may be necessary to the survival of her family.

She follows a rabbit racing through the underbrush at the Ascot Manor until she finds a convenient hole to fall in. There she reaches a strange place, a kind of underbrush below the world, where potions can shrink her and little tea cakes can make her grow to gigantic dimensions.

This isn’t the Wonderland that Lewis Carroll told us about. The Red Queen (Carter) has taken over, ruling the land by intimidation. Her Knave (Glover) leads a pack of mechanical-looking soldiers throughout Wonderland to intimidate and wipe out any resistance. Her iron will is enforced by the Jabberwocky (Lee) which is far too powerful for anyone in Wonderland to overcome and the only weapon that is capable of slaying it, the Vorpal Sword, is in the hands of the Red Queen.

Alice believes this is all a dream and despite her many attempts to awaken, remains dreaming. She is taken to the caterpillar Absalom (Rickman) who proclaims that she’s “not hardly” the right Alice that the denizens of Wonderland are awaiting to slay the Jabberwocky. When the Knave attacks along with the terrifying Bandersnatch, she finds her way to the Mad Hatter (Depp), once the haberdasher to the White Queen (Hathaway) but now completely insane and harmless, although he harbors much ill will towards the Red Queen. His little group of followers includes the Cheshire Cat (Fry) – an expert in evaporation, the plucky Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the nearly-as-mad March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the loyal bloodhound Bayard (Spall).

Forces are gathering with the fate of Wonderland itself in the balance as the Frabjuous Day approaches, the day that Alice is fated to slay the Jabberwocky. Is she the right Alice? Or is she merely a plucky girl lost in a strange dream?

Tim Burton has always been one of the most imaginative directors in Hollywood from a visual standpoint with only Terry Gilliam to rival him. With movies like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood to his credit, he has long been a director whose work is so interesting that he has become a brand name unto himself. Quite frankly, his version of a children’s story that he never particularly connected to as a child will end up ranking as one of the very best works of his illustrious career.

This Wonderland is amazing to look at, with creatures that are both strange and terrifying wandering around the landscape. The characters are mostly grotesques, with the bulbous-headed Red Queen leading the pack looking not unlike a forced perspective illusion.

This is a fabulous cast, and Depp is terrific as the Hatter, lending the character depth that it was never accorded either in the Lewis Carroll book or in the many film and animation versions that follow. His madness isn’t just a joke; it is hard-won by devastating events in his life. As good as Depp is, he doesn’t overwhelm the movie and is content to be a cog in the wheel rather than the straw that stirs the drink. Carter is also clearly having a great time as the Red Queen and screams “Off with their heads!!!” with great gusto.

The story isn’t taken straight from the Alice books that Lewis Carroll wrote but is rather inspired by them. Burton chooses to take a route that ages Alice into young womanhood and while he keeps the Victorian era (which in many ways seems as strange to us as Wonderland itself does) he gives the story a logical flow that makes sense within the confines of the universe created by Carroll, and still works for modern audiences. The writing is absolutely audacious and brilliant.

Some critics have groused about the action sequences in the final act but I find that a bit prissy. Certainly Burton could have come up with something a little more talky or prosaic but I found the action curiously satisfying. It helps wrap things up from a Wonderland standpoint, and gives Alice the necessary courage to finally embrace her own strengths.

Not everyone is going to love this movie as much as I did. Certainly purists are going to grumble at the liberties taken with Carroll’s story and those expecting a live action version of Disney’s animated feature of Alice are going to be extremely disappointed. There are those who won’t like Burton’s vision and may find it too esoteric and too fantastic.

Never mind them. I admire imagination in all its forms and even when I don’t get it, I at least try to give props for the attempt. Here I clearly connected with what Burton was trying to do and I wasn’t the only one. This is a marvelous movie that has only a few minor flaws that keep it from my highest rating possible. I can recommend it without reservation to anyone except those who like their fantasies safe and spoon-fed. Those sorts probably shouldn’t be reading my blog anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Completely imaginative, this is a movie that actually improves on a classic. Great acting, a believable story and impressive visuals make this one of the year’s top movies early on.  

REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska is at times a little bland as Alice. Purists will shudder at the liberties taken with Carroll’s work.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mildly disturbing images and the wee small tykes may be a bit frightened by some of the fiercer creatures, but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you look carefully at images of the Mad Hatter, one of his pupils is dilated and the other is not, which implies a serious brain injury.

HOME OR THEATER: This is best served on a big screen in 3D; even better in IMAX if that’s available near you.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Body of Lies