In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

37. Alice in Wonderland

Century 20 Oakridge

According to Wikipedia, the Westfield Oakridge mall was originally built in 1971. A $150M renovation doubled the size of the mall and added a 20-screen Century theater in 2003. The theater is on the mall's second story, reached via escalator's from the food court.

The box office is located behind the escalators.

The ticket taker is at the top of the escalator. If you've made it that far without a ticket, you'll need to hop back on the escalator down to the ground level. I wonder how they deal with long lines of people waiting to get their tickets torn, if people are coming up the escalator faster than the ticket taker can process them.

Just past the ticket taker and to the right is one of the nicer arcades I've seen thus far. It's openness makes it more inviting that than the den-like feel of most.

The Cafe Cinema has the usual fare, but is also fitted with Cinemark's more gourmet offerings, including Tazo tea, an ice-cream bar, oversized cookies, and cheesecake. At the back of the cafe is a large selection of bin candy.

I apologize for the blurry photo below. It shows that in front of the concession area is a seating section. Part of what makes this Cinemark theater a notch above the rest is the attractiveness of their cafe seating. First, it is large, rather than crowding around the concession stand or encircling customer service. Second, it has a divider (one of those removable nylon ribbons that bridges the gap between two poles), setting it apart from the concession stand. This makes a huge difference in ambience. Nobody likes to be seated next to the kitchen, the door, or the line of people waiting to get their food. Here there is relative peace and privacy for someone to enjoy their food while waiting for a movie to start. And third, the chairs are wooden and have arms, and the tables are medium sized, rather than tiny. Contrast to the cafe at Century Cinemas 16, more typical of Cinemark theaters.

I had my first strikeout asking for a total seating capacity. I was passed from the ticket taker to concession clerk to assistant manager to manager, finally to be told that they could not disclose that information, and that I should contact the corporate headquarters. This was partly contingent on my being a freelance reviewer, rather than with an organization. I made an email inquiry on Cinemark's website, but thus far have not heard back (nor have I heard back from an email I sent in January). I now understand when journalists say, "so-and-so did not immediately return phone calls", meaning, hey, we tried to contact you, but we have to go to press!

My auditorium was outfitted with the same great chairs found in the Grand Lake Theater, though here in blue. These chairs are both comfortable and attractive, resulting in the nicest auditorium experience I've had in a Cinemark theater thus far. The theater has a strange rake at row five, which appears to be lower than row four.

I talked a bit about the 3-D format in my review of Avatar, and my already-low opinion has sunk even further with Alice in Wonderland. It is possible that with Avatar's success, we'll see more effort from studios to create films that actually exploit the technology, by designing scenes that specifically have pop-out elements. As is, it appears the studio shot Alice in Wonderland as 2-D, then combed it over trying to find places to make it 3-D. I don't recall a single moment from the film when I was aware it was in 3-D. Whatever depth it is adding to the film, I'd prefer to have watched in 2-D without the glasses. Also, action sequences are much more difficult to focus on than in 2-D; many appeared blurry.

Perhaps we are moving toward the futuristic head-sets we've imagined for decades. Patrons will go to a theater, put on a headset, and be totally immersed in a film, with interactive capabilities. They won't necessarily be experiencing the same film as the person sitting next to them. That would be weird, but different enough to justify a change in the viewing technology. Right now, prices and discomfort have gone up, but without a comparable increase in enjoyment.

I've been lazily keeping track of the MPAA certificate number at the ends of films (the very last thing you see in the credits). In the past, before the rating classification system (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17) was instated, the certificate number meant that the film was approved as adhering to rating standards of the time. If it had a number, the movie was not obscene and was fit for distribution. Now the number merely indicates that the MPAA has viewed the film and assigned it a rating. The lowest number I've seen so far, 11240, is for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). The disparity in numbers for recent releases suggests the haphazard relationship between MPAA rating and release date. Cop Out was released only a week before Alice in Wonderland, yet has a number 132 digits lower. Green Zone (review forthcoming) came out a week after Alice in Wonderland, but is numbered 624 digits lower. From this we can infer something we already know from watching release schedules: only the blockbusters tend to lock in dates; everyone else bounces around a bit (sometimes for years) before finding a release date. Perhaps Green Zone was ready for release months ago (at which time it was awarded its MPAA rating), but was delayed until now (because of The Hurt Locker?). Alice in Wonderland is numbered 45902. We might reach 50000 this year. I'd like to see that movie.


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Trailer 2)

Among Persia's notable historic figures are Jake Gyllenhaal, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, and Gemma Arterton. I don't mind when Australians play Americans (and, in fact, I can never tell), but it bothers me when American and British actors play characters from other countries, roles that could have been played more authentically by actors from those regions of the world. I like all of the actors listed above, but would much prefer to see Iranians in these roles. Spread the love, Hollywood. Anyway, this trailer is an example of someone having too much to work with. It appears that every frame of this film is eye candy, much like in the sci-fi vampire tale Ultraviolet. With such great footage as a foundation, the trailer editors apparently threw discipline out the window. We're left with a meaningless barrage of cool scenes, mashed together with little effort to tell a story. None of the scenes are given any breathing room. An orphan prince, Gyllenhaal, has a magic dagger and must get it to a temple to protect it before bad guys can get it and do bad things with it. Along the way, he must keep the sand out of his eyes. 150 cuts.

The Karate Kid (Trailer 2)

This trailer is better than the first, spending less time on Jaden Smith complaining, and more time on kung-fu. Jackie Chan takes him to some awesome kung-fu retreat, and teach him that kung-fu is in everything. We see a bit of romance between Smith and a classmate, and Smith running on the Great Wall of China (which, to my surprise, is near Beijing). 132 cuts.

Tron: Legacy

It's rare that a trailer is so good it gives me goosebumps, but when Jeff Bridges's son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), is sucked into the digital world of Tron, and the music kicks into gear as one of the giant transportation walkers touches down, I got shivers. I rewatched Tron several years ago; it has held up well, but is also prime for a remake, given advances in digital technology. This film will not disappoint. Even if you don't watch the movie, the second half of the trailer is highly enjoyable. 54 cuts.

Legend of the Guardians

When Hugo Weaving says, "Legend tells of a band of noble warriors, known as the Guardians of Ga'hoole", he has my attention. When it turns out those guardians are horned owls, and our protagonist a barn owl, my attention completely dissolves. My biggest issue with Happy Feet, from the same studio and in the same style, is that the penguins looked very realistic, yet spoke English, in a human way. That's just weird. If non-humans are impossibly gifted with our languages, I would prefer them to be anthropomorphized in some way. As is, it's no different from the trailer for Marmaduke, where a live action dog has human dialog added in ADR, perhaps enhanced with a bit of human lip movement. Here, our main character, voiced by a Brit, goes in search of the guardians because they are the protectors of the innocent. Never mind that owls, beautiful though they be, are actually killers of the innocent. As a vegan, I'm opposed to the natural order of things, including owls gobbling up baby guinea fowl and ground squirrels, and killing peacocks in a way too gruesome to describe. Personal beliefs aside, this movie looks to have great visuals but a terrible plot. 71 cuts.

How to Train Your Dragon

Unlike the teaser trailer, this first trailer does a good job of setting the scene (age-old battle between dragons and viking village), the characters (boy befriends dragon), and the conflict (boy realizes dragons are benevolent, and must stop his village from exterminating them). The visuals are great, and the trailer features several amusing moments. The dragon entices our young lad, Hiccup, to eat half a raw fish. A tough viking girl says to Hiccup, "You're crazy. I like that." So many movies are about the male hero proving himself worthy of the beautiful female. The problem with this plot is that the male only wins over the female because his successes raise him in her esteem. Once he's proved himself, I almost always think him too good for the shallow female who needed the proof in the first place. Typically, the male only rejects the hotty if his homely-but-actually-beautiful girl-next-door best friend is on hand. It is the rare movie where the male hero, in trying to prove himself, also cultivates a better sense of romance, and goes in search of personality, instead of looks. Anyway, all this is to say that the tough, "You're crazy" viking girl (Ruffnut) immediately won me over, but, unfortunately, it looks like our Hiccup will pursue the stuck-up girl (Astrid, who looks like Kirsten Dunst but is voiced by America Ferrera). 82 cuts.

Despicable Me (Trailer 2)

This movie puts out consistently good trailers, focusing on just one or two scenes. The first shows a tourist trip to the pyramids of Giza going amok when it is discovered that the pyramids have been stolen. The third shows a pill-shaped minion playing with a moo-maker. This trailer has two components. In the first, the villain, Gru, happens upon a child crying over spilled ice-cream. Gru cheers up the boy by giving him a balloon in an animal shape, only to then pop the balloon in the boy's face. The second, longer scene has Gru trying to break into the headquarters of his nemesis, the villain Vector, with hilarious consequences. When two villains are pitted against each other, the good guys always win. 43 cuts.

Alice in Wonderland

As a kid I greatly enjoyed a version of Alice in Wonderland that I cannot identify on IMDB amid its 20+ listings for that title. To me, that is the true Alice. I think I watched this live action version more than the Disney cartoon, and although I read the book once, I don't recall anything about it. However, my most important experience with this story comes from a First Grade musical production, in which I played the White Rabbit in Act I. To get all my class's burgeoning thespians on stage at some point, we rotated out cast members, thus having a different White Rabbit and Alice (and others, I'm sure) in each of the three or five acts. Act I is where the White Rabbit shines (I can still remember my opening lyrics), but I was greatly disappointed to not appear on stage with the Act III Alice, who was the object of my fancy at the time. That's a lot of baggage to bring to a movie.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has been experiencing the same dream for as long as she can remember. Each night when she goes to sleep, she interacts with characters in a strange place called Wonderland. As a child, she was frightened by these dreams, but as a young woman she finds them merely disappointing. Why should everyone else get to have different dreams each night, while Alice repeats the same dream over and over? One thing Alice has learned from her dreams, though, is confidence. Having spent so long in that dream world, she knows herself to be its master. In the real world, she is impertinent and independent, demonstrating an intelligence not common among her peers. When a Lord's obnoxious son proposes to her, Alice, rather than bowing to the expectations of everyone present, announces she will consider the offer, and retreats. She runs off into the country-side, eventually falling down a rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole leads, of course, to Wonderland, where evidence begins to surface that this is not Alice's first trip. There is an inquest into whether she is the Alice. Among the many colorful characters Alice meets, many seem to remember her, and refer to shared events in their past. Alice, for her part, believes herself to be in a dream, which allows her to keep a cool head even during scary and preposterous circumstances. (The scary sequences might be too much for young children.)

You'll be familiar with the inhabitants of Wonderland. Some I liked less than in previous incarnations (Mad Hatter, White Rabbit, Blue Caterpillar), but others I liked more (Tweedledee & Tweedledum, March Hare, Knave of Hearts). The two standouts are Wasikowska as Alice, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. The Red Queen, with her oversized head, is a fascinating spectacle. She switches quickly between wrath at her subjects and bashful looks at the Knave of Hearts. Mostly she is a cartoon of emotions, but toward the end the story tucks in a few bits of backstory that would suggest some actual motivation.

Given there are already so many productions of this story, I ultimately found it more refreshing than disorienting that Tim Burton's film doesn't follow the conventional plot. I began to suspect that his story was actually that of Through the Looking-Glass, but in reading a brief synopsis of that story, I find few similarities. Burton has taken the characters and stretched the world in various ways to suit his own vision.

The visuals are engrossing. When Alice first walks into Wonderland, the forest around her is magical (looking a bit like the forest in Avatar), with giant flowers on either side and rocking horse dragonflies flitting about. Subsequent sets are attractive, but the same care has not been shown to make them entertaining in themselves. My favorite visual moment occurs when a miniaturized Alice must cross a moat; I won't say more. Danny Elfman, the only composer I've ever followed in the past, provides the music, but the score is typical of his work for Burton films. (Avril Lavigne provides an excellent wailing song during the closing credits.)

Unfortunately, the movie isn't much more than a visual spectacle. As in a dream, Alice moves from scene to scene, without a sense of purpose, and without any rising tension. The characters are unpredictable, but the plot is not, thus I never wondered what would happen next. Alice has great screen presence, but Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter is a distraction. When Alice is proffered as a champion to combat the Red Queen's Jabberwocky, I was more curious to just spend time in the Red Queen's bizarre little court. I began to wonder what my impressions would have been if I had seen this film as a child. Would it have been interesting?

I am disappointed more often than not these days with big-budget fantasy movies (Eragon, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Inkheart, Percy Jackson, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, Harry Potter). Part of the problem is making the protagonist a child. This was not the case in Willow or The Princess Bride, and hardly the case in Labyrinth or Dark Crystal. The stakes in Wonderland seem low. Though I relished some of its sights, I would have been more interested to watch Alice in her English homeland, rebuffing an unwanted suitor.


  1. When I was growing up, we had two versions of Alice in Wonderland on VHS -- the Disney version, and a live-action one. I wonder if it was the same as yours! I hadn't even thought of it in ages. Let me know if you find it.

  2. It's difficult to describe a particular version; without having seen them all, I don't know what makes this one unique. The colors were garish, suggesting that it was originally in black and white, and then colorized. The doormouse is drunk on tea. The turtle is depressed. And I think the whole thing opens with the girls being rowed up the river, being told a story.

  3. I forgot to mention about Alice in Wonderland that it had a tremendously wide opening in the Bay Area. Prior to its release, The Wolfman held the record with 568 daily showings, but Alice trounced that with 808 daily showings.

  4. ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972), I think? At least, I recall watching that version with you several times.

    See here:

  5. Well, I think you're right. I had forgotten about Bill the Lizard. But I must say, this film is TERRIBLE! How did I ever watch this as a child?

  6. And Peter Sellers as the March Hare!

  7. "Kids th[o]se days." :)

    I haven't rewatched it, but offhand I'd guess it had several things going for it: you liked musicals, you liked farce, and you liked several of the performances (the aforementioned Peter Sellers, of whom you were a fan from the PINK PANTHER films; also, I think, Dudley Moore’s turn as the Dormouse; and the fact that the Duchess was weirdly played by a man (who also played a woman's part in YELLOWBEARD)).

    (Oh, and the all-important and personally-relevant White Rabbit (played by Michael Crawford, who unlike much of the cast could really sing -- he was Webber's original "Phantom of the Opera" on stage -- and was also well-known to you then as CONDORMAN)).

    Not to suggest that any/all of this remains true today, assuming that I'm even remembering things correctly to begin with.

    Of course, there's also the simple fact that a copy was available for multiple viewings (“An ‘Alice’ in the hand is worth two in the something-something").

    Incidentally, you could do a lot worse. I remember seeing a 1980s T.V. version where the Cheshire Cat was played by Telly Savalas, and another where said feline transformed into a human and was thereafter portrayed by Geoffrey Holder, the tall laughing black man from LIVE AND LET DIE and the old 7-Up commercials.

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  9. :) Very interesting to hear all that about your childhood, interests. :)

    Oh, here is a snippet about “The Last Mimzy” I was talking about...

    I seem to remember have finding more about the connection somewhere, but it was a while back and can't find it...

  10. Booorrrring.

    Yes, it was visually stimulating. But there wasn't much plot to speak of and I kind of felt like the whole thing was a bit . . . . bland. Since the visual was the main draw I thought the 3D might have made for a more entertaining feature but you seem to nix that. Was this one of those films not originally shot for 3D?

    I spent the latter half just waiting for it to end, Sophie actually fell asleep.

    I got more entertainment going on a wiki hunt after the film to determine the history of the story. The reason the opening of your movie had girls being rowed up a river is because the author had originally taken three girls on a boat ride and made up "a" story as he went along. One of the girl's name was Alice who was ten. She later asked if he would write it down and two years later he did, sometime in 1864. One year later it was published. I don't know how much of that is factual, and I'm sure the final story is quite a bit modified from the one originally told. It was called Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Then in 1871 he published "Through the looking glass and what Alice saw there". Here is a short quote from wikipedia on the relationship between the two.

    The themes and settings of Through the Looking-Glass make it a kind of mirror image of Wonderland: the first book begins outdoors, in the warm month of May (May 4), uses frequent changes in size as a plot device, and draws on the imagery of playing cards; the second opens indoors on a snowy, wintry night exactly six months later, on November 4, uses frequent changes in time and spatial directions as a plot device, and draws on the imagery of chess. In it, there are many mirror themes, including opposites, time running backwards, and so on.

    I don't know why this story is so hugely freaken popular that they have created 57 versions of it for film. I typed in Alice in Wonderland on youtube and saw at least five different versions. What I found interesting is that most versions conflate the two books into one book so that they all appear together, and some characters are conflated together. The queen of hearts from Adventures in Wonderland and the Red Queen from Through the Looking class are often conflated into one character as they clearly were in this latest film. It was the queen of hearts who was always yelling "off with his head" while it was the red queen who did have a distorted head in part to look more like a chess piece.

  11. I'm sure the final story is quite a bit modified from the one originally told.

    I'm guessing this is a bit like Coleridge's Kubla Khan, where the author wants us to believe in some sort of instant, divine inspiration, even though they toiled over it for so long. I suppose that could add to the mystery of the text.

    I once had a professor who gave us a hand out with a bunch of quotations about the book we were reading that week. The quotations were unattributed, so I asked who had said them. The professor said that they were his words (that he had written up for class). Why were they in quotation marks then? So that we would take them more seriously (not an easy feat, now that we knew he was quoting himself).