Johnny Depp in Alice in WonderlandALICE IN WONDERLAND

Beginning with 2001's Planet of the Apes remake, Tim Burton has cast domestic partner Helena Bonham Carter in all six of his most recent feature films, and he's never made better use of her beguiling, somewhat perverse charisma than in his new take on Alice in Wonderland.

To be sure, the design for the actress' Queen of Hearts character is already beguiling and more-than-somewhat perverse, with the tiny, deathly pale figure's oversize bobble-head boasting a shock of red hair, and a dainty ruby heart fixing her lips in an eternal pucker. But cosmetics and visual effects are only part of Bonham Carter's considerable appeal here, and not even the main parts; alternately petulant, frisky, and tyrannical, she screeches orders in crisp, speedy bursts ("Off with his head!"), yet gratefully, even hungrily, accepts the rare showing of kindness, be it from the visiting Alice (Gwyneth Paltrow lookalike Mia Wasikowska) or the secretly scheming Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, it should go without saying). In this imagining of Lewis Carroll's storybook universe, this creepy, riotous queen isn't just Burton-ian weird -- she's unique, with a playfully whacked-out personality that suggests even greater eccentricities hidden beneath the surface. Bonham Carter gives an utterly fantastic high-comic portrayal, and its only downside is that the performance keeps (inadvertently) reminding you that this Alice in Wonderland isn't providing more diversions just like it.

Thankfully, the movie -- being shown in 3D on certain screens -- restricts its most egregious clunkiness to its first reel. A stiffly performed, obviously staged preamble that establishes Burton's Alice as an unhappy Victorian 19-year-old suffering overbearing relatives and a loathsome potential fiancé, you watch these tortuously affected scenes thinking you can't possibly get to Wonderland soon enough. (A warning to adults who may want to see Burton's latest freak-out in, shall we say, an enhanced state of mind: The first 15 minutes might irrevocably trash your buzz.) But even after Alice takes her tumble down the rabbit hole, the feeling persists that it's all just a little ... expected. Alice grows and shrinks, the caterpillar (smoothly voiced by Alan Rickman) smokes his pipe, Tweedledum and Tweedledee natter away, and the only real surprise lies in how unsurprising Burton's vision of Wonderland (called "Underworld" here) turns out to be -- Lewis Carroll laced with the goth of Sweeney Todd and Corpse Bride. The movie is gorgeously photographed, but for the most part it's heavy-spirited and oppressive, and matters aren't aided by Wasikowska -- so good in the first season of HBO's In Treatment -- staring at her surroundings with an expression of unchanging blankness. Alice's signature line comes when marveling that events are getting "curiouser and curiouser," but this Alice doesn't seem to find anything curious in the first place.

You'd hope that Depp would add a jolt of fun to the proceedings, and with his Scottish brogue and lisp (neither of which is really consistent), he's mildly enjoyable, and even wildly enjoyable when the Mad Hatter busts into an anachronistic, physics-defying hip-hop dance. Yet as with his Willy Wonka for Burton, the on-screen invention pretty much begins and ends with Depp's casting -- he's not quite the demented kick you want him to be -- and the actor really could've used a few more human foils; there's little thrill in watching Johnny Depp bounce his lunacy off of CGI. (Neither Crispin Glover, as the Knave of Hearts, nor Anne Hathaway, amusing herself as the White Queen, is given much chance to partner him.)

There are plenty of incidental pleasures on hand: the Cheshire Cat, wafting through the air (and oftentimes vanishing) with a literal ear-to-ear grin; the giggly dementia of the March Hare; the White Queen's castle, which looks uncannily, and certainly intentionally, like a seriously unkempt version of the castle in the Disney-production logo. But even the most inventive touches are all but forgotten by the time the film reaches its depressing finale, in which Alice -- sigh -- is forced to become a warrior, doing battle with a hideous creature called the Jabberwocky, and ensuring that a trippy, literary ode to fantasy becomes an action-blockbuster thrill ride baldly reminiscent of two recent C.S. Lewis adaptations. Alice in Wonderland isn't a bad time, but it would've been a far better one if it didn't end up feeling like Alice in Narnia.


Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke in Brooklyn's FinestBROOKLYN'S FINEST

If you've seen more than a handful of cop thrillers over the years, nothing that happens in Brooklyn's Finest will come as a shock, and you might feel your interest in the movie preemptively waning when certain, all-too-expected genre staples are trotted out in the opening reel. (As soon as Richard Gere's officer is revealed to be seven days away from retirement, you wonder why the man doesn't just help the bad guys out and wear a target around his neck.) But a story doesn't have to be original to be well told, and Antoine Fuqua's grim morality tale -- which plays a bit like a novelistic spin on the director's Training Day -- is actually wonderfully well told, impassioned and gripping and devoid of even one dull sequence.

This is all the more surprising considering that Brooklyn's Finest isn't familiar so much as it's familiar in triplicate, with screenwriter Michael C. Martin interweaving three unrelated and instantly recognizable plotlines. Gere is a grizzled, suicidal veteran breaking in a succession of rookies, Don Cheadle is a tightly wound undercover agent goaded to turn on his best friend (the suave, effortless Wesley Snipes), Ethan Hawke is an ethically-challenged detective seeking a quick end to his financial problems, and none of their predicaments here is exactly fresh; even given the narrative toggling, it's tough to dispel a feeling of "been there, watched them shoot that."

Yet beginning with its fluid, haunting score by Marcelo Zarvos -- which links disparate encounters with a propulsive momentum that recalls Jon Brion's music for Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia -- Brooklyn's Finest is an extraordinarily, and deservedly, confident piece of work. It helps, of course, that the movie's stars appear to be working at peak capacity, with Gere's expressive self-loathing, Cheadle's anguished resentment, and Hawke's crazed desperation lending emotional specificity to roles that could've easily lapsed into cliché. (The supporting cast, meanwhile, features an embarrassment of riches, with finely etched turns by Brian F. O'Byrne, Will Patton, Lili Taylor, Ellen Barkin, Michael K. Williams, Shannon Kane, and, in one nerve-jangling passage, Vincent D'Onofrio.) Fuqua and Martin, though, are expert at shaping scenes so that they progress in odd, unpredictable ways, and deliver payoffs that you don't see coming; a late-night poker sequence manages to morph from gruffly friendly to violently contentious to disarmingly sweet in the course of three minutes, and a mid-film passage with the leads each embroiled in his own gunpoint showdown is a marvel of sustained tension. Even though the movie doesn't quite know how to end, after two solid hours of riveting, tough-minded entertainment this counts as only a minor failing. Its title may be Brooklyn's Finest, but in genre terms, it's an excellent example of Hollywood's, too.


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