"Thor" Loser

Okay, perhaps the title of this post is not entirely accurate, but I can’t resist a gag. Thor actually earned a 78% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and a lot of users have been pretty enthusiastic about the film. As a non-comic book reader myself, I’ve nevertheless enjoyed many of the movies adapted from them, including Spider-Man I and II, most of the X-Men sequels, and offbeat entries like The Losers and Watchmen, and I’d have to put Thor in the middle. Serviceable but not spectacular, and I don’t think it’s going to have very long legs, as I think seeing it once will be enough for most everybody.

The plot is quickly laid out: Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are Norse Gods, the sons of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and they all live in Asgard, one of nine worlds in the Norse universe also inhabited by Jotunheim, land of the Frost Giants, ancient enemies of Asgard. The film kicks off with an almost incomprehensible battle between Odin and the Giants, and I started to wonder if this was a Michael Bay film. But Odin defeats the Frost Giants, losing an eye in the process, and we’re onto some expository scenes. Odin is back home with his two young sons, telling them that soon one of them will inherit his kingdom, but it’s clear that he favors Thor. Hilariously, this scene reminded me of the prologue of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?: Dad dotes on the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy while dark-haired Loki stands on the sidelines, fuming with jealousy.

Suddenly they’re grown up, and Odin is in the process of transferring his kingdom to Thor, but the ceremony is interrupted by a surprise attack from the Frost Giants. Thor takes his valiant team of soldiers to Jotunheim to retaliate, infuriating Odin, who takes away his son’s legendary hammer and banishes him into exile, hurling him into present-day New Mexico without his godly powers. The hammer also comes to earth, but it is lodged “Sword In the Stone”-style into a rock, and no one, not even Thor, can pry it out.

Enter Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, trying to shrug off her string of post-Oscar stinkers), an astrophysicist who has a habit of smashing into Thor with her RV. Her associates are Dr. Erik Sevig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (Kat Dennings). They’ve witnessed Thor’s explosive appearance on earth, and Jane wants to know everything about it. They’re bemused by Thor’s grandiose proclamations, and Sevig, who is of Swedish descent, tries to persuade Jane that Thor is insane, describing worlds and myths he remembers from his childhood as though they were real.

Of course, Thor proves him wrong, and they become his allies, especially when the government agency from Iron Man, S.H.I.E.L.D., led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), pops up and confiscates all of Jane’s research and equipment. Oh, and Loki takes the throne for himself and sets a villainous plot in motion involving the Frost Giants, and he comes to town to tell Thor that Dad is dead (he’s not, just in Odinsleep) and that Mom (Renee Russo) doesn’t ever want him to come back to Asgard (she does).

Then Thor’s gang of warriors arrive (like the villains in Superman II, except they’re the good guys) and they face off against a robotic creature controlled by Loki that looks like Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still and can shoot flames out of its helmet. After some mayhem involving lots of cars blowing up really good, Thor speaks directly to Loki through the robot, offering himself as a sacrifice if his brother will spare everyone else.

His earnest plea cuts through the veil of Odin’s sleep, and his powers, his hammer and his cool costume are restored to him. The battle commences, and that’s pretty much what happens for the rest of the film, both on earth and back on Asgard.

I never thought I’d put Kenneth Branagh, Marvel Comics and 3D together in the same sentence, but there you have it. Branagh handles the action sequences pretty well, although the opening battle is shot so tight that you often can’t tell what’s going on. But it’s the familial confrontations that allow him to bring his Shakespearean background to bear: Dad confronting Thor; Thor confronting Loki; broken-hearted Mother weeping over them all. The New Mexico sequences are less successful.

My audience was quite amused by Thor’s “fish out of water” experiences in the small town, but I thought it was pretty cliched. And I didn’t understand S.H.I.E.L.D.’s purpose, except to get in everyone’s way. And they give up pretty easily, too—after Thor smashes up a bunch of doctors at a hospital and they take him prisoner, Sevig arrives at their compound with a phony story that Thor is an associate of his, showing them a mocked-up driver’s license as proof, and they let him take Thor away!

Hemsworth (Star Trek) is suitably blond and athletic to portray Thor, and he brings some nice charm to the character. Hiddleston brings a dissolute impulsiveness to Loki’s character, and Hopkins gives Odin a nice, bombastic energy, which makes for a refreshing change to the variations of Hannibal Lecter he’s been doing for the past 20 years. Portman’s performance is best described as “eager,” while Skarsgard fulfills his perfunctory role effectively—no more, no less. Denning is the hip, wisecracking sidekick who makes a few jokes and then fades into the background.

The art direction and CG are effective and atmospheric, particularly during the sequences in Asgard and Jotunheim, but the filmmakers didn’t seem as interested in the earthbound scenes. The New Mexico town looks like it’s about a block and a half long, with a few storefronts and a drive-in restaurant that has been converted into Jane’s lab, and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s makeshift compound looks like it was assembled from a bunch of Slip ‘N’ Slides. I saw Thor in 2D and I certainly didn’t miss seeing the dark 3D conversion. The battle scenes in Jotunheim in particular would probably have been really hard to watch.

All in all, it’s a moderately entertaining live-action adaptation of one of Marvel’s lesser superheroes. It could even be considered to be a super-long trailer for the upcoming The Avengers, scheduled for a May 2012 release, which brings back most of the cast, throwing in Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) for good measure. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle all of those superheroes and villains jostling for screen time.

Maybe The Avengers will be the first Marvel adaptation approaching the length of one of Peter Jackson’s Ringepics.

Upcoming Horror and Sci-Fi Movies

The coming months are looking kind of so-so in the fantasy film department, but some of them sound relatively interesting.

I’m sure people are expecting J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, produced by Steven Spielberg, to be the breakout hit of the summer in the genre. For me, it could go one of two ways: it’ll either be an exciting nostalgia piece (complete with super 8mm cameras!) or it’ll be an over-the-top, saccharine Spielbergian type of movie where the kids call each other penis breath and everyone stands around staring at the alien creature in wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder. I really hope it’s the former.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Cloverfield, which Abrams produced, but I didn’t watch any of the shows he earned his reputation with. Sorry—Lost just seemed like a dull proposition to me. And the photo from the film at the top of this page shows…that’s right, a kid staring in wonder with his mouth open. Sigh. Plus I just know I’ll be watching intently to see that those little bastards use the super 8 equipment correctly!

The website Bloody Disgusting is doing an interesting distribution experiment with AMC Theatres this summer, branded Bloody Disgusting Selects. YellowBrickRoad arrives June 1st, and it’s a Blair Witch-sounding thriller about a 2009 expedition to try to find out why the population of the entire town of Friar, New Hampshire, walked into the wilderness to face certain doom. In July, cult director Sion Soro‘s latest film, Cold Fish, about a serial killer, hits the screens. And August brings Fernando Barreda Luna’s Atrocious, a “found footage” film (a genre that dates all the way back to Cannibal Holocaust!) Good on Bloody Disgusting and AMC for trying this out, especially in the lucrative summer months when the (yawn) blockbusters are battling for screens.

Jeez, I wish I could build an audience big enough for Weird Movie Village Selects. Just think—we could do big-screen re-releases of films like The Terror of Dr. Hichcock, Schizo and—perhaps most terrifying of them all—Roller Boogie.

20th Century-Fox is hoping that the memory of Tim Burton’s awful 2001 Planet of the Apes remake has faded away, so in August they’re offering Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a “prequel” that posits how genetic engineering made the monkeys so smart they were able to take over the world. It’s sure to be CG-licious, and James Franco took time from his busy college schedule to play the lead. I don’t think this is going to do a lot of business. The Boomers were burned by the last sequel of the original series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the younger generation are probably not aware of its historical significance at all. Back in the day, the monkey makeup in the first film was truly innovative.

Also arriving in August is Final Destination 5 3D with a brand-new writer and director. Fine with me…I don’t mind putting my brain to sleep for a while and enjoying some splattery destruction. But I guess The Final Destination (2009) wasn’t the final destination because there’s another destination! I enjoyed the fourth installment in 3D in the theatre, but more impressive for me was my enjoyment level when I watched it flat on cable at home. The scene with the douchebag getting his guts sucked out by the swimming pool pump still packs a punch!

One of the more bizarre entries of the summer is Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of a 1973 TV movie (!) starring Kim Darby. The original was about a young couple who inherit an old mansion, only to discover that it’s inhabited by tiny demonic creatures. Now, I remember it was a cult favorite back in the day, but where in the hell can you see it now? There are dozens of retro cable channels (and digital channels), but I’ve never seen it on anyone’s playlist. Plus, the remake stars Tom Cruise’s personal robot, Katie Holmes. My prediction—kids won’t know what the hell it is and adults won’t care. Miramax’s best hope is to pump up Guillermo Del Toro as co-scripter.

Another bizarre remake is Straw Dogs, with James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and everyone’s favorite blond vamp, Alexander Skarsgard. Like the original, it’s about a married couple being tormented by the locals when they move to a small Southern town. Hubby is meek and mousy, but when his wife is raped by the thugs, he girds his loins and sets out for revenge.

Unlike the original, it doesn’t have Sam Peckinpah’s eye for violence or Susan George’s enormous teeth. Rod Lurie, a former film critic for Los Angeles Magazine, is the writer-director, and he’s a flaming liberal, so there’ll probably be a lot of messaging going on during the carnage. Dustin Hoffman played the husband in the original, which is the reason for the iconic image to your right.

I’m really interested in Kevin Smith’s Red State, a beatdown of Christian fundamentalism in middle America. Ironically, reviewers have said it’s too “preachy,” but I enjoyed Smith’s anti-organized religion Dogma, and I’m looking forward to seeing him take on the same subject in a horror setting. At least I don’t have to see him try to get on an airplane! HA!

Okay, being a product of the 80s, I have to admit that the remake I’m looking forward to the most (wait a minute—”the remake I’m looking forward to the most”?)—is Fright Night. Seeing a “sneak preview” of the original is one of my happiest memories, and I think the reboot could be worthwhile (unlike Rob Zombie’s ungodly Halloween “revisualizations”).

Things they can improve: Chris Sarandon was fun as Jerry Dandridge, but he’s just not a sexy actor. Farrell, on the other hand, with his bad boy image, just exudes sex, and from what I can tell from the trailer, the filmmakers exploit it. I’m sure Yelchin will be fine as Charlie, but it looks like they already need to torture the kid’s hairline forward. At least he’s not getting ridiculous plugs like Nic Cage. Drive Angry? Me too, if I had to deal with that hair.

Amanda Bearse was too old for her part in the original, although she acquitted herself admirably when she transformed into a bloodsucker. Who can forget the scene where Amy confronts Charley with her vampire version of vagina dentata?

But Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Evil Ed? Jury’s still out on that one. And the 3D is really not necessary unless they do something super amazing with it.

For the love of "Jackass"

While I was visiting my family in Texas, my nephew and I went to see Jackass 3D on opening day. We liked it a lot, and we laughed—a lot. And we weren’t the only ones. From the Dickhouse website:

Jackass 3D earned $50.4 million dollars on its opening weekend. Pretty amazing, huh? Or at least that was my initial superficial take on the news, but just look at how someone else delved into the record books for the full “by the numbers” breakdown:

1) Jackass 3D is the highest opening film ever in the month of October (passing 2003’s Scary Movie 3’s $48.1M).

2) Jackass 3D is the 9th highest opening R-Rated film of all-time and 2nd highest for a comedy only behind 2008’s Sex and the City ($57M).

3) Jackass 3D is the 9th highest opening 3D film (9th to have a $50M+ opening – best for an R-Rated film and best for a comedy).

4) Jackass 3D is the 10th highest opening comedy of all-time (includes action comedies Rush Hour 2 and both Men in Black’s, otherwise it’s the 7th highest).

5) Jackass 3D is the highest opening ever for a non-scripted/documentary-esque film.

What is it about the violent and frequently nauseating antics of these guys that is still so much fun to watch? Certainly it’s the camaraderie; they’re all buds, and no matter how cruelly they treat each other, they usually laugh it off (except for Bam and his mortal fear of snakes). They break and bruise and get their teeth knocked out, and yet they jump right back up and ask for more. Jackass is like a live-action Tom and Jerry cartoon with humans.

And we’ve gotten to know and love these guys over the years. We know that Bam is going to terrorize his parents, Preston and Wee Man will do a stunt that plays up their vast size differential (they were super-glued stomach-to-stomach in the latest installment) and Chris will get naked. Steve-O has become a specialist in the gross-out stunts and has developed the ability to vomit on cue.

I don’t want to spoil any of the fun with a great deal of description, but the film was actually shot in 3D, rather than upconverted, so some of the mayhem is nicely enhanced by the added dimension. The opening credit sequence in particular has lots of slow-motion destruction with shards of glass and water flying out of the screen.

It was hard to top Part 2’s horse scene for grossness (and you know what I’m talking about), but they give it their best shot by strapping Steve-O into a Port-a-Potty and bungeeing it up in the air. Here, you see…stuff…in 3D that gets pretty hard to watch. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? How long can you look before you are forced to turn away?

Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman called Knoxville “the purest, most devoted slapstick anarchist in comedy today,” while the Washington Post‘s Dan Kois said that Jackass is “a touching ode to male friendship at its most primal.” Wow. And last week the newest film screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art!

The Boston Globe‘s Wesley Morris gets downright prosaic in his description: “…the Jackass crew …understands that what’s compelling about 3-D is not what it sprays or rubs in your face, but how expanding the depth of field enhances that splendor of the spraying. At a late stage, urine cascades through the air. As it arcs up then down onto an unsuspecting bystander — always a member of the gang, never you, never me — what’s apparent in its trajectory is the crisp beauty of the stream. Light reflects off the droplets. The hang time is Jordanesque. Meanwhile, the rumpled hose that does the spouting occupies a sizable portion of the left side of the screen. At such a swollen size, it’s more like a giant leaky slug than a human penis, and, though it belongs to the small, floridly tattooed Bam Margera, it and its contents are treated as lovingly as Michelangelo treated David’s.”

Now that’s a review!

Slate‘s Dana Stevens is the first to admit that the Jackass series is for the boys, although there were quite a few girls, woman and entire families (!) at the screening I attended. I think the secret to its success is that it’s everything-friendly. As crude as the humor gets, no one is really demeaned or humiliated. When you think about it, Jackass is really not that far removed from the “we dare you to watch” mondo movies and cannibal vomitoriums of the 70s and 80s. It’s just that you feel like you’ve spent some time with good buddies while you were puking.

Johnny Knoxville says that so much footage was shot that there’s enough to put together an immediate sequel. Now, if they present it in 3D and Smell-o-Vision. While we wait for that, Knoxville will appear in Untitled Comedy, a series of comedic vignettes inspired by old-school films like Kentucky Fried Movie and Pontius will be in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere starring Stephen Dorff and arriving December 22.

First-Person Horror

As I’ve mentioned before, I always cast a cold eye on films that are being massively hyped, so I refrained from seeing Paranormal Activity when it played in theaters, and I am so glad I did. I finally watched it on DVD a couple of days ago, and it boggles my mind that this $11,000 quickie made over a hundred million dollars in the U.S.

Folks, it’s a home movie. I know—it’s supposed to resemble one—but there’s not particularly any distinguished talent on display or an innovative story. Instead, as the “plot” develops, it falls back on creaky haunted house tropes and absurd character shifts that the filmmakers and actors don’t have the depth to support.

Like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity became an internet sensation and drove audiences into the theaters. Unlike Blair, this one stinks. The set-up is preposterous. Katie (Katie Featherstone) and her live-in fiance Micah (Micah Sloat) have moved into a new home in suburban San Diego, and the otherworldly being that has been haunting Katie since childhood has followed them there. Mikah buys a video camera and sets it up in the bedroom to try to capture the disturbances that have been plaguing them.

The film actually begins rather promisingly. The actors are naturalistic, and the paranormal activities are at first teasingly subtle, gradually increasing in intensity. But Katie drags in a psychic (Mark Fredrichs, obviously from the local community theater) to check out the joint, but he is unable to help; he’s merely an expert on hauntings, so he gives her the name of a demonologist.

As the plot sickens—er, thickens—the film just falls apart. The performers just aren’t competent enough to handle the character shifts. Katie alternates between comatose and hostile, and Micah becomes increasingly macho. As the dialogue becomes more intense, the actors’ shortcomings really come out.

For example, when Katie is unable to reach the demonologist, she calls the psychic back. The minute he enters the house, he can sense how strong the demonic force has become, and he wants to leave immediately. The actor’s “performance” in this scene is hilarious.

The plot developments are simultaneously cliched and absurd. A Ouija board bursts into flames; Katie is suddenly yanked out of bed and dragged out of the room; Micah puts baby powder on the floor to reveal the demon’s footprints and—shock horror!—an old snapshot of Katie is found in the attic. YAAAGGHH!!! How did it get there?” As I slipped in and out of consciousness, I kept thinking, “Well, everyone talks about the brain-melting conclusion, so I guess I should hold out until then.” When it finally arrived, I said, “Oh, brother.” And it looks like the “surprise” came courtesy of distributor Paramount’s digital effects department. There are actually three endings to the film available, and all of them sound pretty lame.

First-time director Oren Peli shot the film in his own house and has said that he’s been afraid of ghosts his entire life, even fearing Ghostbusters. That would explain the squealing teen girl-level “scares” offered in this turkey. I love the descriptions on Wikipedia explaining away the director’s cost-cutting choices: “a stationary camera on a tripod adds plausibility” (cheap); and the actors were not given dialogue scripts but rather plot outlines so they could feel free to improvise (cheap, cheap).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the first-person horror films of recent years. Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield gave me sweaty palms and Quarantine was tense. Granted, they were operating with far, far bigger budgets, but I think limited resources should motivate filmmakers to stretch their imaginations even more.

The success of such an incompetent piece of rubbish as this is unfair to those current and future filmmakers who may take the same low-budget approach and truly have something original to say. Just as lousy 3D movies will eventually cause audiences to turn away from all 3D, getting theatrical release for this kind of sub-par junk will eventually poison the well.

So Paranormal Activity 2 is coming up later this month. The brief synopsis sounds ridiculous, but I enjoy this column speculating on what the plot could be. Hey! Maybe it’ll be as awful as Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows and ruin the franchise!

I wonder if Paranormal Entity, the ripoff released by The Asylum, the low-budget distributor specializing in films “inspired” by other films, is any better? Hey, anybody who distributes the Mega Sharkfranchise is okay in my book!

Darn Good Clashing

I saw the remake of Clash of the Titans this weekend, in 2D as Roger Ebert recommended, and I must say I really don’t understand where the critics were coming from. It got a measly 30% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and some of the reviewers even seemed to take personal umbrage. Ebert was one of the few to give it a (qualified) positive review.

Usually I think films in this genre need a couple of robots and a human making wisecracks in the lower right-hand corner of the screen to make them bearable, but Clash had a comprehensible plot that was easy to follow and delivered the action and special effects goods.
The screenplay is based on the 1981 original and involves battles between gods and men, demigods, sacrifices, big monsters, nasty gorgons, pegasuses (pegasi?) and all the other mythical elements you’re familiar with. And, like the original, it’s got lots of stars.

As Perseus, the demigod who finds himself caught in the middle of the war between the gods and humankind, Sam Worthington is all stoicism and gnashing teeth. Some people complain that he doesn’t give very much as an actor, but it didn’t bother me. Liam Neeson projects just the right amount of godliness as Zeus, but it’s Ralph Fiennes who really steals the show as Hades, god of the underworld.

His Hades could have been hammy or campy, but Fiennes brings a kind of Richard III aspect to the performance. He speaks in a malevolently hoarse growl and moves with a sort of sideways slink. And thanks to the quite good digital effects, he makes his dramatic entrances wreathed in black smoke and flame, which looks really cool.Gemma Arterton as Io, who helps Perseus on his quest, and Alexa Davalos, as the doomed Andromeda, are both attractive and have a nice screen presence. Pete Postlethwaite, Danny Huston, Jason Flemyng and Jane March also appear, but some literally have blink-and-you’ll-miss-them screentime.

I’m certainly not going to demean the legendary Ray Harryhausen or his work on the original, but the modern digital effects amp up the action significantly. Medusa has not just snakes for hair but also a snake’s body, and she slithers around real good as she transforms selected soldiers into statues. The three witches who tell Perseus how he can defeat the Kraken (one pictured here) are eyeless, shriveled creatures who share a single detached eye that they hold in the palms of their hands to see, which reminded me of The Pale One in Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. And there are giant sand scorpions reminiscent of the alien bugs in Paul Verhoeven’s rollicking Starship Troopers, which as far as I’m concerned is another plus.

There are also surprising touches of offbeat humor. In an almost throwaway scene, Perseus holds up that goofy mechanical owl from the first film and asks, “What’s this?” The leader of the guard looks at it and gruffly says, “Leave it.” Also, as one of the soldiers is being killed by a scorpion, I swear he screams, “Wait! Wait! Aaagghhh!” And when Medusa can’t turn a Djinn into stone (because he’s not made of flesh and blood), she gets a hurt expression on her face that’s hilarious.The score, by Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man) is lush and appropriately bombastic, keeping the action rolling along and even providing some amusing cues of its own. During the scorpion attack, as one of them stabs a soldier two times with his deadly tail, Djawadi punctuates the puncturing with two sharp synchronized notes.I can see how a bad 3D conversionmight’ve made it an ordeal to watch. There’s always a lot of activity onscreen, which probably results in some serious blurring, and the glasses darken images about 20 percent. A film that wasn’t originally made for the format wouldn’t compensate for such details. But in 2D it looked just fine.To summarize, is it a timeless masterpiece? Well, no, but it’s a fun, fast-paced, 100 minutes that fans of the Harryhausen classics of the ’60s will especially enjoy. And it certainly didn’t deserve all of the critical drubbing it got.

Burton in Wonderland

I know I said I was going to report on The Crazies, but the siren song of 3D and a new Tim Burton movie proved too much to resist, so I saw Alice in Wonderland instead. Though it’s gotten a surprisingly weak 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I’m happy to report that it’s quite an enjoyable film with humor, pacing and a coherent (if fantastic) storyline. Of course, it still allows Burton to indulge his passion for bizarre visuals, unusual creatures and gothic landscapes.

Purists may object to the liberties taken with the story, which has been reconstructed as a journey of discovery and female empowerment (not as yawn-inducing as it sounds). Mia Wasikowska is a 19-year-old Alice in Victorian England whose free-spiritedness is frowned upon by her family. When she receives a marriage proposal from a doughy, priggish aristocrat, she avoids answering him by running into the woods and falling into the legendary rabbit hole (a spectacular sequence for 3D). As she encounters all the characters that are so familiar to us, they are familiar to her, too—she’d been dreaming about them since she was a child.

Depp, in his seventh collaboration with Burton, makes for a bizarre Mad Hatter, with goggly green eyes and Bozo hair, but the actor doesn’t go too far over the top as he did in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (a film I’ve already admitted that I despise). Helena Bonham Carter, inflated head perched upon a tiny body, is absolutely hilarious as the Red Queen, whose moods change in the blink of an eye and is constantly screaming “Off with (his/her) head!” Anne Hathaway is also amusing as her delicate and super-feminine sister, the White Queen, who stifles the urge to vomit whenever she must face unpleasantness. Crispin Glover is the kowtowing Knave of Hearts in a mostly thankless role. Wasikowska is fine as Alice, but I couldn’t understand why she looked so unwell: pale and drawn with dark circles under her eyes.

The rest of the lead characters are CGI creations voiced by some wonderful talent: Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Timothy Spall—even Michael Gough and Christopher Lee. They’re a far cry from the dead-eyed, false teeth-wearing Polar Express-type. I found Fry’s Cheshire Cat to be particularly amusing, and Rickman’s dulcet tones bring to life the hookah-smoking caterpillar. As Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Little Britain‘s Matt Lucas at first brought to mind the unhappy memory of the Oompah-Loompahs in Charlie, but fortunately they didn’t come off that way. And Spall’s bloodhound, Bayard, is so convincing I wondered if they used a real dog and gave him some subtle digital anthropomorphism. The production cost a bundle and looks it. Burton’s trademark imagery—twisted trees, dramatically clouded skies, ominous castles—look great in 3D, even though the polarized glasses tend to darken everything.

Many reviewers are complaining about the flatness of the story; others accuse Burton of selling out commercially. I found Alice to be an agreeable melding of Burton weirdness and comprehensible storyline. And what’s wrong with that?

Universal has released the 1933 Paramount version on DVD to capitalize on the Burton remake, and though I’ve never seen it, it sounds intriguing. Paramount’s contract players, including Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and W.C. Fields (in heavy makeup based on the classic illustrations) play against hallucinatory, off-kilter sets, said to be created by famed production designer William Cameron Menzies (Gone with the Wind, Invaders from Mars). And according to the New York Times, it draws heavily on German expressionism “to view a cold, grotesque and foreboding adult world through the eyes of a child.” I have to check it out.

Other Alice adaptations have been less fortuitous. Disney’s own 1951 animated version is one of the least-beloved “classics” in the company’s canon. And 1988’s Alice, by surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, made me want to scream, although it’s surprisingly well-regarded and currently boasts a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes! I like surrealism as much as the next guy, but I guess he’s an acquired taste. One that has indications of being so-bad-it’s-good is a 1985 television adaptation produced by Irwin Allen (The Poseidon Adventure) and featuring a jaw-dropping cast that includes Sid Caesar, Ann Jillian, Red Buttons, Sammy Davis, Jr., Robert Morley and Carol Channing.

All in all, I think Alice in Wonderland is one of those stories that everyone carries around in their head from childhood and has their own “adaptation,” making them prejudiced against any attempt at making their visions concrete in film. But as far as adaptations go—and in 3D!—you could do a lot worse than Burton’s reboot.

Frankenstein, Monique Von Vooren and Mom

A couple of weeks ago I visited my family in San Antonio. One night my mother and I were surfing the pay channels and came upon “Flesh for Frankenstein” on Flix. It’s one of my favorites, and the credits were still rolling, so we settled down to watch. I explained to Mom that it was originally released in “Spacevision” 3D, so there would be a lot of things being thrust toward the camera.

Mom got into the picture’s mood immediately. The Play-Doh special effects, the deadly serious, heavily accented pronouncements of Udo Kier and Monique Von Vooren, contrasted with Joe Dallesandro’s sullen Brooklyn-ese, all were amusing. Claudio Gizzi’s lush, mournful score provides surprising gravitas to the campy goings-on. I was worried how she might react to the sex, but it too is so far over the top you can’t help but laugh. Particularly amusing is Dallesandro’s long monologue while Von Vooren is noisily sucking his armpit!

Here’s Mom and me on my seventh birthday. We don’t look like horror hounds, do we? But Dad traveled on business a lot, so Mom would take me and my sisters to the local drive-in theatre where we’d enjoy such epics as “The Fearless Vampire Killers,” “The Green Slime,” “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” and the magnum opus, “Night of the Living Dead.” Well, I don’t know how much everyone else enjoyed them, but it started me on a lifelong devotion to the horror genre.

And of course there were the horror comics and magazines, board games like Green Ghost (which you played in the dark), and “Creature Features” on Saturday nights on WSJV-TV. It was a good time to be a horror kid. The release of Universal’s classic films to television resulted in a horror renaissance, affecting every aspect of popular culture from music to television to breakfast cereal to greeting cards!

Mom’s a big fan of the vampire genre (as am I) and we enjoy watching “True Blood” on HBO. We can’t stand action vampire films, for the most part. The first “Blade” is okay, but vampires are meant to be sinister and seductive, not kickboxers. I’m crazy about the Hammer classics, especially “Vampire Circus,” one of the lesser-known installments in the series. It’s got great vampire action, incest, pedophilia, plague…and circus acts! Who could ask for more? See the Lynne Frederick post above for more.

But back to “Frankenstein.” There’s another family connection. My sister and her husband went to a campus screening of it at Purdue University…on their first date! When I moved to LA in 1980, it was still being screened at midnight at revival theaters in the 3D format, and I could kick myself for not having gone.

And what of Monique Von Vooren? She had a strange career, performing in lots of mainstream American television in the 1950s and 60s (game shows and variety shows!) before appearing in “Frankenstein,” Pasolini’s “Decameron” and Gershuny’s “Sugar Cookies.” Her last appearance to date was in “Wall Street” and she’s still active in East Coast social circles.

We’ll let Udo Kier have the last word: “Make him unconscious!”