Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

Format: Cinema (3D + IMAX)

Release date: 5 March 2010

Distributor: Walt Disney

Venues: BFI IMAX, Odeon Leicester Square (London) and nationwide

Director: Tim Burton

Writer: Linda Woolverton

Based on the novels by : Lewis Carroll

Cast: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway

USA 2010


In Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, up is down and down is up in a satirical inversion of the real world, of literature, of maths and puzzles. In a suitably Carrollian scenario, I’ve found myself agreeing with the point of view of a right-wing columnist in the Mail on Sunday whose work I normally despise. In Peter Hitchens’s one-paragraph dismissal of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, he wrote: ‘We live in the age of deconstruction and the post-modern. Burton… appears to have turned [Alice] into Willy Wonka meets Lord of the Rings.’ Unfortunately I think he’s right, and Disney’s new live action adaptation may come as a surprise to audiences familiar with the studio’s 1951 animated version of the story. This is not to say that Tim Burton’s made a bad film, more that this is a missed opportunity.

This new adaptation is both a reimagining of, and sequel to, the Alice novels. I suppose audiences shouldn’t be too surprised that this is a film aimed at older audiences than the single-digit ages the original Disney Alice was made for, as even Burton’s most child-friendly films as director/producer - Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, The Nightmare before Christmas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - had a level of darkness and subversion to them. However, the delight in whimsy, ideas and neologisms that typifies both the original novels and the Disney cartoon only appears infrequently here, which is a shame because the parts of the film that are faithful to the original story show that Burton could have made the definitive live action version. The Alice adaptation everyone was expecting in the 00s was an even darker sequel based on the computer game American McGee’s Alice - to have been scored by the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson and directed by Wes Craven. Burton’s Alice is halfway between American McGee’s Alice and Disney’s original. It’s aimed at teens rather than tweens, and it features an early scene showing Alice gored by a razor-mouthed and clawed Bandersnatch, which has an eye plucked out by a mouse wielding a rapier.

In conjunction with the release of Tim Burton’s new film, BFI Southbank are presenting the many previous adaptations of Alice in Wonderland in March. More information on the BFI website.

While fans of Disney’s original Alice may be dismayed by this Fighting Fantasy approach to the material there are still plenty of lines of dialogue from the original intact and the CGI rendering of anthropomorphic animals - talking horses, frogs and dogs - is the most impressive I’ve seen on screen so far - although bizarrely the CGI rendering of humans on horseback looks like the jerky movements of marionettes, which makes you wonder why they didn’t use real stuntmen. The technical necessities of converting the film into 3D mean there is a lush primary-coloured hue to many of the characters and scenes - except when Burton goes into goth mode and juxtaposes the familiar characters with dark, monochromic backgrounds. However, many scenes have an incongruous roaming camera designed to accentuate the 3D thrills of the cinematic presentation and the conversion into 3D has necessitated the blurring of backgrounds, limiting the tools of wide-angle lenses and long-shots available to the cinematographer. In terms of sets, costumes and characters, Alice is a more rewarding film than the recent Avatar, where the incomprehensible budget was tempered by the very average imagination and plot. Alice, of course, even when made needlessly dark for this adaptation, is fuelled by one of the most outlandish imagination in Victorian fiction and it’s terrific to see this rendered by the latest technology on the highest resolution - IMAX - format possible.

The greatest strength of the film is the acting, with Alan Rickman voicing a louche Blue Caterpillar in the centre of a terrific British-centric cast that includes Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall and Burton favourite Christopher Lee as the voice of the Jabberwocky. While Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are reasonably entertaining, though perhaps becoming over-familiar and overused in Burton’s films, Mia Wasikowska is a terrific adult Alice, a rebellious debutante and ingénue who becomes a thoughtful woman and reluctant warrior over the course of the film. With such performances, it’s noticeable that the scenes centred around humans - the awful pomp and ceremony of a 19th-century engagement party at the beginning, the hilarious prosthetic-wearing retinue of the Red Queen - are actually some of the best in the film. In contrast, the sword and sorcery subplot shoehorned into the narrative sits uneasily with the original characters.

This a film of various beginnings - Carroll, Disney, 21st-century computer games - and endings - an armour-clad Alice in a dark wasteland fighting a Jabberwocky only marginally less scary than Terry Gilliam’s and an invigorated Alice back in the real world, making the most of the British Empire. The first ending closes a world I wouldn’t particularly want to return to, the other one opens possibilities I’d be happy to see Burton explore further…

Alex Fitch

No One Knows about Persian Cats

No One Knows about Persian Cats

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 March 2010

Venue: Curzon Soho (London) and key cities

Distributor: Network Releasing

Director: Bahman Ghobadi

Writers: Bahman Ghobadi, Hossein Mortezaeiyan, Roxana Saberi

Original title: Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh

Cast: Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Hamed Behdad

Iran 2009

106 mins

Scroll down to watch the trailer

Bahman Ghobadi’s exploration into the world of underground music in Tehran is a welcome antidote to the blasé, pedestrian, apathetic state of the music industry in the West. While we gorge ourselves on MP3 downloads and bit torrents to a point where music is seen as a free commodity, made virtually valueless by a virtual world, in Iran, any acquisition, enjoyment or creation of music (especially Western music) is forbidden by the authorities. So as the film follows a couple of indie kids (Ashkan and Negar) trying to form a band by meeting different musicians around the city, they’re not just chasing the rock’n’roll dream, they are fighting for their lives.

No One Knows about Persian Cats is an interesting hybrid of drama infused with truth, although it could easily have been a documentary. The director’s passion for music saturates every frame of the film and he even appears in the opening scene singing in an underground studio, which sets the tone for the rest of the film. Amidst the drama and the perpetual sense of danger, there are some fantastic comic scenes as well as a lot of musical set pieces. At points it seems as if the whole purpose of the film is to showcase various Iranian bands, with the story being secondary. Although a lot of the music is actually quite good, with each new band or musician comes another set piece and another ‘promo video’, which sometimes seems a little obvious. Many of them feature flashing images and scenes of the darker side of city life (especially in the hip-hop scene).

Special screenings with the lead actors + a live PA with their band Take It Easy Hospital followed by a set from DJ Shahram on the following dates: March 23, Ritzy Brixton Cinema @7.30pm + March 31, Ciné Lumií¨re @ 8.00pm.

Yet this is conversely one of the most endearing aspects of the film. As Ashkan and Negar explore the depths of the underground scene, they see a surprising array of different genres, and music snobbery doesn’t get a look in. They meet a singer-songwriter with wonderfully poetic lyrics about the struggle for freedom and a heavy metal band who practise in a cowshed as they were forced out of their village; they go to a rave at a house party and meet an indie-funk band who rehearse in a space built on the roof of a building (whose neighbours constantly report them to the authorities so they keep getting arrested).

Encounters with the authorities are par for the course for these musicians. Ashkan and Negar have recently been released from prison and have been invited to play a gig in London but have no band and more crucially, no passports or visas with which to make the trip. It’s hard to believe that their twee, casio-based indie pop would rile up the authorities too much, but the mere fact that they are expressing themselves artistically and touching on subjects outside of the rigorous Iranian dogma means that they have to be very wary. Negar is even more at risk as women are forbidden from singing due to the emotions they can stir.

No One Knows about Persian Cats also screens at the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham on March 24.

Things start to look up when they meet local DVD bootlegger and all-round blagger Nader; he introduces them to a forger who can help them with visas and passports. This scene is flecked with gentle touches of humour as the old forger asks Nader for bootleg DVDs of films with more action and less romance. As every commodity is bought and sold on the black market, Nader has a good little niche for himself copying films and music from the West, and he becomes the musicians’ ally in trying to help them both escape Iran and set up a concert in order to raise funds. One of the other really masterful scenes in the film is when he gets arrested and talks his way out of a flogging, prison and a fine with quick-fire dialogue and perfect comic timing.

The film opens up a world that even most Iranians don’t know exists. These indie bands look like they’ve just stepped off the pages of the NME, yet are in constant fear of that knock on the door, and we follow them through tunnels, up stairs, down basements and back alleys as they insist on creating art and having a voice despite the dangers. The dream of going to the West, or in Ashkar’s case, of going to Iceland to see Sigur Rí³s, seems like an endless struggle when you are constantly looking over your shoulder. Despite all of the obstacles, rock music is still being created in Iran by these rebels with a cause.

This bold and inspiring film was obviously a great risk to make but it is ultimately rewarding for its audience. Recommended for all music lovers but especially to struggling musicians who should know that however tough they think things are, they can’t be nearly as bad as they are for these Persian Cats.

Lucy Hurst

Watch the trailer:

Lion’s Den

Lion's Den

Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 March 2010

Venue: Curzon Soho, Odeon Panton St (London) and key cities

Distributor: Axiom Films

Director: Pablo Trapero

Writers: Alejandro Fadel, Martí­n Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, Pablo Trapero

Original title: Leonera

Cast: Martina Gusman, Elli Medeiros, Laura Garcí­a, Rodrigo Santoro

France 2008

113 mins

A woman wakes up in a trashed apartment, covered in bruises, with deep, painful scratches carved into her shoulder. In the shower, blood streams off her aching body. Still in shock, Julia (Martina Gusman) only realises hours later that two men are in the flat with her - one, her boyfriend, has been stabbed to death, the other - Ramiro, her boyfriend’s lover - is badly injured but still alive. Unable to remember what happened, she’s thrown into jail by the police, where she soon discovers that she’s pregnant.

Lion’s Den, the fifth film from Argentine director Pablo Trapero, could not be further from the exploitation films that characterised the women in prison genre in the 70s. The movie is named for the penitentiary units where women with children are housed during their incarceration. In Argentina, the children are allowed to remain inside with their mothers until the age of four, when they’re removed by the Court and either placed with a relative or in state care.

Julia finds herself in a shockingly decrepit cell. The other mothers are mostly uneducated, peasant women, in sharp contrast to Julia’s rebellious but upper-class character. Trapero captures all the gritty realism of life in prison, but the film also has the feel of a slow-burning thriller - as Julia adjusts to life on the inside, her case pits her against Ramiro (played by Rodrigo Santoro), who accuses her of being solely responsible for his lover’s death.

With her life shattered, Julia struggles with motherhood. Unable to breastfeed after her son, Tomí¡s, is born, she’s helped by her cellmate Marta, who intervenes when the baby’s cries begin to drive the other mothers and children over the edge. Older and more experienced, Marta takes Julia under her wing, eventually leading to a relationship between the two women, who manage to find some small comfort in the confines of the prison.

But the wheels of justice are grindingly and appallingly slow: Julia gives birth and raises her baby behind bars without ever going to trial. As Tomí¡s gets older and approaches the all-important age of four, Julia’s distant, beautiful and unwelcome mother (played by the singer and actress Elli Medeiros) intervenes, returning to Buenos Aires from her life in Paris to take over the role of looking after her grandson, with disturbing and dramatic consequences.

Filmed almost entirely within an existing women’s penitentiary, using real inmates and guards as extras, Lion’s Den is a deeply harrowing film. Martina Gusman, who won the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Prize for best actress, delivers a powerful performance as a determined mother who will do anything to keep her child. While the film, released so soon after Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, may not be as polished, or as entertaining as the French thriller, it is a more brutal, realistic and morally ambiguous portrayal of life in prison.

Although the film’s ending may seem a little unconvincing, Trapero never offers the audience any easy answers. We never really discover the truth behind the murder, and are left to decide whether a mother’s love for her child is more important than an innocent child’s right to freedom and a life outside prison.

Sarah Cronin

Insane Melancholy and Absurd Melodrama: The Saddest Music in the World

The Saddest Music in the World

Format: DVD

Release date: 27 June 2005

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Guy Maddin

Writers: Kazuo Ishiguro, George Toles, Guy Maddin

Based on the novel by : Kazuo Ishiguro

Cast: Isabella Rossellini, Maria de Medeiros, Mark McKinney

Canada 2003

96 mins

Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World looks like it was rescued from a vault where old films were carelessly stored. It’s grainy and patchy, and atmospherically shadowy, flickering into colour occasionally and then back to icy tinged monochrome. It looks like it was filmed inside an intricate snow globe, and creates a visually perfect world for the delightfully skewed tale that unfolds - an unexpected, but seductive marriage between a Grimm fairy tale and a musical melodrama, full of sparkling one-liners.

It was made in 2003, but is set during the Great Depression in a snow-banked, freezing Winnipeg, which has been voted the world capital of sorrow for the fourth year in a row by the London Times. Lady Port-Huntley, played by Isabella Rossellini, magnificent in a cheap blonde wig and a glittering glass tiara, is a crippled beer baroness who proposes a competition. She offers 25,000 dollars to the country who can perform the saddest music, hoping that beer sales will soar as the melancholy music floods the airwaves. From across the world, musicians come to compete against one other, in pairs, their efforts commented on with radio announcer élan by the hosts Duncan Elksworth and Mary: ‘No one can beat the Siamese when it comes to dignity, cats and twins.’

The Electric Sheep Film Club will screen The Saddest Music in the World at the Prince Charles Cinema on Wednesday 10 March. More details on our events page.

While the music is eerily, beautifully playing in the background, a wonderful, warped family drama takes centre stage. Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), with the moustachioed countenance of a bounder, has closed his heart to the tragedies of his Canadian past - the collapse of his mother as she sang, her death throes on the keyboard of a piano - and assumed the razzamatazz showmanship of an American producer. His current amorata Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), a charming changeling wrapped in fur, has escaped from her own personal trauma by forgetting it ever happened, living in a world of sensations, eyelashes aflutter, tender little voice breathing out a song, or a declaration of intent: ‘No, I’m not American, I’m a nymphomaniac.’ Amnesiac Narcissa is the wife of Chester’s estranged brother Roderick, played with lugubrious Deputy Dawg sadness by Ross McMillan, who is grieving for the loss of their child. Covered by a veil as black as night, and carrying a jar with his son’s heart preserved in tears, he is the entry for Serbia.

Their father Fyodor is involved too, a doctor who is hopelessly, remorsefully in love with Lady Port-Huntley. Crushed by guilt over the tragic events that left her legless, Fyodor has created transparent glass limbs filled with her own sparkling beer for his beloved. But even though Lady Port-Huntley loves her legs, and their dancing capabilities, her bitter, sharp heart, in a neat, complicated twist, belongs to Chester.

As the family circle around each other, nursing old grudges, mourning recent losses, suffering emotional pangs, Maddin creates a dark spell of a world for them to wander through, with mysterious dream sequences, funerals on ice skates, beer ads, tram rides, sleepwalkers, a carousing ice hockey team, a masked orchestra, and Chester’s perky musical numbers, which get more hectic as the competition progresses. The film crescendoes with glass shattering, pianos burning, sobriety abandoned and lovers embracing. The Saddest Music in the World is weird and wild, bold and beautiful and utterly enchanting.

Eithne Farry

Buy The Saddest Music In The World [DVD] from Amazon

Online Movies: Activist Cinema

In Prison My Whole Life

At the London Film Festival last year, actor Colin Firth launched a new site, Brightwide, which bills itself as a ‘YouTube for Social and Political Cinema’ and whose stated mission is to ‘watch, think, link, act’. On the Brightwide website, writer and poet Fatima Bhutto quotes Milan Kundera: ‘The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ The internet, perhaps the greatest public archive ever created, must surely count as one of the most powerful weapons in the fight for social justice and seems a natural home for activist cinema.

Although it started as a US military-backed scientific research project, the internet became a hotbed of counter-cultural activity almost as soon as it went public. As a child in the 80s, I remember my older brother’s Magic Modem which could connect us to a whole hyperlinked world of anarchic bulletin boards and cracked software. Years later, Indymedia, launched in 1999 to report on the Seattle WTO protests, became not just one of the first major wiki-style projects on the internet, but was among the first major online news sources, framing the internet as a space of possibility for marginal and oppositional voices against the dominance of corporate interests in older forms of media.

If networks for distributing news and photographs of political actions had existed since, at the very least, the underground press boom of the 60s and 70s, the internet provided the possibility for something more - film and video of and about all manner of political events and issues available to stream online or download in an instant. The sense of immediate live presence afforded by globally networked digital technologies became a major catalyst in the spread of the anti-corporate globalisation protests of the late 90s and early 21st century, and continues to play a part today in, for instance, the backlash following the death of Ian Tomlinson at the hands of riot police during last year’s G20 protests in the City of London.

In America, Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films assumed signal importance in the run-up to the presidential election of 2008 with speedily produced documentaries about the inconsistencies in John McCain’s policies and biases in Fox News reporting, which became top-rated videos on YouTube and made a lasting impression on voters. Elsewhere, Michael Moore’s website provides a steady stream of supplements and footnotes to his theatrically released documentaries along with shorter films showcasing alternative viewpoints on major news stories and events.

While critics have condemned the spread of web-based activism as ‘cyberbalkanisation’, and the tortured history of Google in China has proved that the net is far from immune to censorship and government control, technology journalist Evgeny Morozov has argued that it is at least as useful to repressive states as it is to their dissidents. Issues arise when, as in the denouement to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s MICMACs, tactics of resistance remain parasitical on corporately owned portals such as YouTube, and behind the cosily presumed consensualism of iPod liberals there is always the danger of serious issues being reduced to the level of the latest Facebook fad.

In this light, Brightwide may provide a welcome alternative. Less a politicised YouTube than a new outlet for the exhibition of high-quality political documentaries, it features work by high-profile directors like Michael Winterbottom. With each film linked (both figuratively and literally) to ‘real world’ campaigns, Brightwide clearly has ambitions to make an impact beyond the list of Twitter trending topics, even if it lacks some of the anarchic freewheeling spirit that first made the net attractive to marginal voices.

Robert Barry

To find out more, go to the Brightwide website, where among other films you can watch In Prison My Whole Life, an investigation into the case of Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of a policeman in Philadelphia.

Film writing competition: Kiss Me Deadly

Kiss Me Deadly

Electric Sheep Film Club

Venue: Prince Charles Cinema, London

Every second Wednesday of the month

In connection with the Electric Sheep Film Club at the Prince Charles Cinema every second Wednesday of the month, we run a film writing competition in which film students and aspiring film writers are invited to write a 200-word review of the film on show that month. The best review is picked by a film professional, and respected film writer Jason Wood was the judge of our November competition for Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955). The prize for the best review is publication on the Electric Sheep website. We are pleased to announce that the winner is Rob Freeman. Jason Wood said: ‘Overall, I thought the standard was very high, with a good combination of fluid writing and film knowledge. The one thing that shocked me, however, is that not one of the pieces thought to mention the film’s director. I think Robert Aldrich is essential to the world view of the film. My choice for the winner is Rob Freeman. I thought that the writing was extremely taut (like the film itself) and considered. The piece captures the essence of the film whilst also, within a very limited word count, placing it in the context of both its immediate environment (the B-Movie, the pulp novel and the film noir) and its wider German Expressionist heritage.’

Here is Rob Freeman’s review:

Borne out of the B-movie era, Kiss Me Deadly ditches as many noir tropes as it holds onto. From reverse opening credits to an apocalyptic finale, at times the only thing that feels as if it has been gleaned from its pulp source is the sneer on the face of its protagonist as he hurls a gangster down a set of stairs, or slams a drawer on the fingers of a cagey mortician. P.I. Mike Hammer awakes strapped to a metal bed, listening to the screams of Christina Bailey as she is tortured to death with a pair of pliers. From that moment, Hammer becomes a man resurrecting the dead, reconstructing Christina’s past from clues and fragments. It is a fever that all detectives suffer from and never overcome, and the film is bleak, thick with the haunting presence of Christina Bailey repeating her refrain: ‘remember me’. All angles and uplights, Kiss Me Deadly uses its German Expressionist heritage to great effect, as the camera jumps and cuts from the depths to the heights of the set, and chiaroscuro shadows shroud its characters in darkness, as they move from the nether-regions of LA, to a flame-drenched, atomic finale in Hell.

Jason Wood is the author of a number of books on cinema, including 100 Road Movies and 100 American Independent Films.

Next screening: Wednesday 10 March – Guy Maddin double bill: Careful + The Saddest Music in the World. More details on our events page.