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Sunday, May 9, 2010

MALICE IN WONDERLAND -- DVD review by porfle

Here's a fun idea--take the classic "Alice in Wonderland" story and update it by adding a bunch of gangsters, whores, junkies, and other assorted freaks, and cleverly alter the title (yet again) to MALICE IN WONDERLAND (2009). Only it really isn't such a fun idea after all, when you find yourself trying to sit through the resulting mess without hurling a copy of Lewis Carroll's original novel through the TV screen.

In this version, Alice Dodgson (a bland Maggie Grace, "Lost", THE FOG) is a poor little billionaire's daughter from New York fleeing from her manipulative parents into the dark world of London's sleazy underbelly, intent on finding someone about whom we don't learn until much later. She loses her memory after being struck by a cab driven by Whitey (Danny Dyer, OUTLAW), who's late for a very important date--the get-out-of-jail party of London's biggest crime boss, Harry Hunt (Nathaniel Parker), who is about to select a few good men for a lucrative bank robbery that Whitey wants in on.

The crooked-but-goodhearted Whitey wants to help Alice while helping himself to the $10,000,000 reward for her safe return, but they get separated. As the night wears on, Alice runs into a succession of weird underworld characters (while somehow inadvertently becoming a hooker) until she ends up in the hands of the greedy and ruthless Harry. Only with Whitey's quick thinking and a little supernatural help can Alice return to her own world and complete the mysterious mission she was on before losing her memory.

Alice is zonked most of the time on some pills Whitey gives her "for her head" (no use having thinly-veiled drug references when you can just dispense with the veil altogether), so we never know what's real or imagined and things don't have to make any sense. One moment the film wants to be one of those pulpy crime comedies where you expect Vinnie Jones to burst in and start popping caps, and the next moment a Cheshire Cat-like DJ named Felix is purring mellifluously from a billboard or stopping time to allow Alice to regain a crucial lost fifteen seconds.

Some filmmakers seem to favor Lewis Carroll's original work because, like L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz", it's a ready-made wacky story with cool characters into which they can easily insert their own alterations and variations without having to give it much original thought. Unfortunately, you need more than a tiresome overabundance of Dutch angles and assorted lowlifes acting like fruitcakes to turn a dark, dreary urban setting into a wonderland. And there isn't much that's magical about a pedestrian gangster tale laced, seemingly at random, with vulgar whimsy and crude modern counterparts of the original characters and events.

Among Alice's obligatory encounters are a car ride with a rapping, dope-smoking Caterpillar (his "hookah" is a hooker--get it?), a visit to the all-seeing Duchess who sits in a room surrounded by monitor screens, and a tea party with a dwarf who brags about his sexual prowess and a loathsome madame named Hattie (Bronagh Gallagher, who was Trudi in PULP FICTION and a Republic cruiser captain in THE PHANTOM MENACE). Hattie shanghais Alice into her tractor-trailer whorehouse on wheels which Alice manages to make her escape with (she steals the "tarts"--get it?). The film's seemingly willful lack of charm can be summed up by one hooker's observation about a passing john: "I've seen more meat on a budgie's cock." It's like a tasteless "Mad Libs" version of the story concocted by snickering fourth-graders.

Aside from the ubiquitous tilty camerawork, the film's style seems to consist mainly of a visual confetti of ADD-friendly quick cuts that never allow us time to settle in and develop any feelings for the main characters, or allow the characters to develop much themselves. In this movie, a contemplative scene is one that contains a shot lasting over five seconds. By the end of the story we're meant to feel warmth toward Alice and Whitey, yet they're so superficial that even a last-minute attempt to pull a sappy ending out of left field and jerk a few mock tears out of the viewer falls flat. Even the most "magical" moments of the film are about as visually and emotionally compelling as a Filmation cartoon.

The DVD from Magnolia's Magnet label is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 sound. Subtitles are in Spanish, with English closed captions. Extras consist of a ten-minute "making of" featurette and a photo gallery.

MALICE IN WONDERLAND is like one of those Andrew Dice Clay versions of a Mother Goose rhyme, except Dice doesn't pretend to be charming and witty when he tells them or top them off with a curdled dollop of bathos. Crass and unappealing, this modern "take" on Lewis Carroll's classic story is enough to make me swear off modern "takes" on things in general, once and for all.

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