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Movie reviews: "Alice in Wonderland," "Fish Tank" and "A Profit"

“Alice in Wonderland”

In 1903 the first “Alice in Wonderland” film, coming 38 years after Lewis Carroll’s classic was published, was shown as Britain’s biggest screen treat so far — 12 minutes long! 800 feet of film! Cost: under a thousand pounds. In 1951 Disney put out its charming animated version, sold as “the all-cartoon Musical Wonderfilm!” Cost: $3 million.

Now we have Tim Burton’s lavish Disney fantasy, costing over $200 million but pitched rather softly: “You’ve got a very important date.” That line is one of the rare subtleties, along with Alice’s prissy suitor demurely gazing at a booger in his handkerchief. That’s a Burton touch, of course, along with the krazy-kat gibberish sometimes spoken by Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. Since this is a huge 3-D movie, the Hatter’s hat gets used as something between a boomerang and a flying saucer. Darn if Burton doesn’t fall to the level of those ‘50s 3-D dodos like “Bwana Devil” — he hurls things right at the camera, so viewers can flinch.

The new “Alice” is a theme park before the park gets built, and a cartoon movie without animation (though there are digital effects galore). The 3-D may be less impressive than in “Avatar” because this one was shot 2-D and then processed into the pop-out mode (the depth seems up-front, with the backgrounds, though often elegantly designed, filling out a shallow horizon). Like most Burton films, though less inventively than some, it’s a menagerie of oddballs having a dress-up party.

Alice is played by pretty Mia Wasikowska, who’s like a fresh Claire Danes (yep, we’ve reached that point already). Alice was never a shrinking violet, but writer Linda Woolverton has retooled her as a peppy Victorian feminist. Alice charges ahead, shouting “This is my dream! I will decide where it goes from here!” She grabs a sword to face a freaky monster (not for truly wee viewers). Her role model is neither the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, with silly bee-stung lips and an almost Tourette’s need to keep shouting “Off with their heads!”), nor the dainty White Queen (Anne Hathaway, with sweet, milady manners and lips that seem to be their own 3-D effect).

Depp, his eyebrows like furry flames reaching up to a red bonfire of hair, does one of his popping, patented goofs. He’s amusing in a Halloween appliqué way, with little of the Lewis Carroll wit. But viewers may like watching him, along with loveable bloodhounds, fairy castles, twins built like bowling balls, a sweet caterpillar voiced by Alan Rickman, and wacky Crispin Glover trying to restrain himself for Real Acting as the Knave of Hearts. Burton is never a “less is more” artist, and this is a serious case of more-is-too-much.

What most weakens it, if you love Carroll, or even feel nostalgic for the ’51 cartoon film, is that it is just one darn, dotty thing after another. There’s no emotional engine hauling it forward, just a bulging, corporate urge to pile up the extravagant goodies. Maybe the monsters in “Where the Wild Things Are” were a touch drab and corny, but you can’t say that that story was not propelled by genuine childhood feelings. Despite 3-D, this is a shallow, 1-D “Alice.” (Opens Friday; rated PG) ★★

“Fish Tank”

The English director and writer Andrea Arnold says an image first motivated her to make “Fish Tank.” Which one, I am not sure, but her seemingly casual film is a truly envisioned stream of fly-by images (also credit photographer Robbie Ryan). Arnold freshens the old coming-of-age theme with hand-held shots of almost scattershot poise, wonderful accents of color and also natural creatures who seem to mutely accuse the humans of bad living: an old horse, a dying fish, birds, a dragonfly, pit bulls, even a tree swaying in wind from the Thames estuary.

It’s Essex, east of London, with intrusions of coastal water among the crudely suburbanized villages, industrial sprawl and housing projects that scream of Le Corbusier bound, gagged and graffiti’d. This is where Mia (played by untrained, “found” actor Katie Jarvis) prowls and snoops and dreams at age 15. Her dad is long gone, and Mia often vents anger at her slovenly mom (Kierston Wareing), who is around 30 and has become a party pig. Mia, who is bright, furtive, wary of school and prone to pilfering drinks, also shares love-hate with a scrappy kid sister (appealing Rebecca Griffiths).

The “simple” story, like a snapshot flow of lives both cramped and rootless, turns on mom’s new catch, Connor (Michael Fassbender, so good in “Hunger”). He vaguely moves in, both gracious and intrusive. This fun stud encourages Mia’s ragged attempts at dancing, with sexy nudges and his favorite song, “California Dreamin.’” All smiles and secrets, he is about halfway to being an L.A. dream himself. And so sex pressure builds, and the way that it does is less teased for shock than in “Kids” and “Thirteen.” Mia is closer to the desperate Russian girl in the 2003 marvel “Lilja 4-Ever.”

We sense that Mia (unlike sad Lilja) is fit for survival. Arnold never lets her down as an involving, developing character. The movie echoes the Brit-prole film dramas of Ken Loach, yet probably required a woman to make it. Both visually and emotionally, this is a movingly coherent plunge into a rudely tested life. The time is probably gone when a British film about a wayward teen girl can have the wide impact of “A Taste of Honey” (1961), but “Fish Tank” deserves comparable attention. (Opens Friday, Landmark Ken Cinema; unrated) ★★★1/2

“A Prophet”

“A Prophet” features a Muslim mosque along with murders, racism, prison whores, a throat slashing and a fizzy version of “Mack the Knife.” Does that mosque justify the title? Made with docu-dramatic fervor by Jacques Audiard (“Read My Lips”), it won a Grand Prix at Cannes and is up for the foreign film Oscar. It is about how an illiterate, rootless expatriate becomes a marginally literate, barely accepted killer. Essentially, despite its verve and a very keen eye, it is hard time in bad company.

Into a fearful French prison a young Moroccan, Malik, is tossed for assaulting a cop. Desperately friendless but fairly canny, Malik (Tahar Rahim) is forced into the service of a Corsican gang chief, played with weary, wary charisma by film veteran Niels Arestrup. Always staring and scheming, this creepy bull dominates despite his age. Inside the cement-slab hell, where solitary confinement can prove a relief, “A Prophet” has the power to nag our nerves. On Malik’s brief, outside excursions for his master, it is highly conventional, though there is a strikingly tense killing on the streets of Paris.

“A Prophet” is a kind of Club Dread (not Med) banquet, a mucky bouillabaisse of scraps from “French Connection II,” “Scarface,” “Brute Force,” “The Godfather” and Jacques Becker’s austere prison classic, “Le Trou.” Audiard has the skill to make it seem more urgent than derivative. But the ugly education of Malik is, for all his tough lessons, not particularly enlightening. (Opens Friday, Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas; rated R) ★★

STARS: FOUR (ace), THREE (worthy), TWO (involving), ONE (dud), ZERO (nil)

RECOMMENDED (and current): “Avatar,” “Crazy Heart,” “An Education,” “Fish Tank,” “The Ghost Writer,” “The Hurt Locker”

NEWS Etc.:

¡Que Viva la Piñata Grande! — Back for its 17th year, the San Diego Latino Film Festival crams its piñata with over 180 movies, from March 11-21. It includes 50 narrative features and 16 documentary features, plus shorts. Again the casa de la fiesta is the UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas, Hazard Center, the cozy plex at 7510 Friars Rd., just east of I-163 and a little north of I-8.

Founding director Ethan van Thillo boasts, in his quietly precise way, that “we have 14 first features by directors” and that “we keep growing a little each year and attracting more people.” About 18,000 attended last year’s event. Prices remain the same for a third straight year, and innovations include a $35 family pass that lets a family of four attend four programs.

The opening night movies on March 11 include A.G. Padilla’s Mexican drama “Regresa,” about a wife who turns to hypnotherapy with very surreal results; Jorge Ramirez-Suarez’s Mexican love comedy “Amar,” and Hernán Golfrid’s film about a creatively blocked Argentine composer, “Música en Espera,” which includes Norma Aleandro. Also slated is Cruz Angeles’ debut film, “Don’t Let Me Drown,” about Latin teens in post-9/11 New York.

Among many favorites, Van Thillo draws attention to past fest contributor Mario Garcia’s new film “The Colonel,” which was his thesis project at SDSU. Among the celebrated fest guests are expected to be Benjamin Bratt, Jaime Camil, Carmen Salinas, Maya Zapata and Paul Rodriguez.

Mexico’s 18-work contingent leads the parade of dramatic, comic and animated features. There are eight such films from Spain, six from the U.S. (plus one from Puerto Rico), four each from Argentina and Venezuela, two from Chile and two from Brazil, plus one film each from Peru, Uruguay, Bolivia, Colombia and Italy (plus Spain). Only the local Asian and Jewish fests rival this cosmopolitanism.

We can spotlight SDSU alumnus Christian Sesma’s “I’m Not Like That No More,” a comedy about a Chicano slacker, with Paul Rodriguez and Felipe Esparza (March 19, 21). Also Spanish master Carlos Saura’s “Io, Don Giovanni” (March 12,14,20) about the great Mozart librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte; Miguel Littin’s “Dawson, Isla 10” (March 12,14,16), a fact-based view of Allende cabinet members surviving post-coup prison hell in Chile; Peter Bratt’s “La Mission” (March 20-21), in which his brother Benjamin Bratt stars as an ex-con confronting his son’s gayness; Robert Castón’s “Ander” (March 11,13,18), the first gay-themed film from Spain’s Basque region; Rigoberto Pérezcano’s “Norteado” (March 14,16,17), about Oaxacans mired in the Tijuana maze of illegal border-crossing; Toshifumi Matsushita’s “El Regalo de la Pachamama” (March 13,14,21), showing a Peruvian native boy’s salt-caravan trek by llama through the Andies; Carlos Carrera’s “El Traspatio” (March 17,19), a fictional look at the serial slaughter of poor women in Ciudad Juarez, starring Jimmy Smits and Ana de la Reguera.

The 16 feature documentaries include six from the U.S. and Puerto Rico and four from Mexico, two from Cuba. Subjects include a sculptor repopulating a ghost town (“2501 Migrants: A Journey”).

The lineup also includes documentaries about the commercialized cult of Che Guevara (“Chevolution”); Tex-Mex artists who are Viet-vets (“As Long as I Remember: American Veteranos”); salsa and reggaeton music (“La Clave”), provocative Brazilian cabaret artists (“Dzi Croquettes”), Argentine comic books (“Imaginadores”), the famous Mexican leader P.E. Calles as seen by his great-granddaughter (“El Generál”), a son’s search for the truth of his martyred Chilean dad (“Mi Vida con Carlo”), young Cuban boxers (“Sons of Cuba”), TJ trash scavengers (“The Tijuana Project”) and Cuban film master Tómas Gutiérrez Alea as seen by his widow (“Titón, a La Habana a Guantanamera”).

As always there is a galaxy of film shorts, bunched into generic and thematic clusters: the border (both SD and TJ), animation, experimentals, youth, gay films, female themes, La Frontera filmers (including San Diegan Neil Kendricks’ “Atmosphere: An Aerial Haiku”), sci-fi and horror, comedies, American and Spanish works. A special award will be given filmmaker León Ichaso, showing his “Paraiso” (March 19) and “Piñero” (March 20). The Cine Mujér Celebration (March 13) will include special guests Gloria Calzada and Maya Zapata. Gala parties include the open-nighter on March 11 at the Sé San Diego Hotel, and the closing party March 20 at the U.S. Grant. Workshops are on music videos (March 13), pitching projects to PBS (March 20) and digital storytelling (March 21); all can be seen for one ticket at $20.

Individual screening tickets are $9.50, or $2 less for students, seniors, the military. A film pass with 11 ticket vouchers and preferred seating costs $90, and a fest pass at $180 includes over 100 programs, VIP seating, workshops and three gala events. The opening night film and then downtown party cost $30. Box office is at the Hazard.

Contact the fest at info@mediaartscenter.org or at www.sdlatinofilm.com. Online ticket sales stop one day before a film or event occurs, though for many of those, tickets can still be purchased at the theater. Also see our Event Calendar for Cine Gay screenings.

A QUOTE (not a blurb!): “This night means a lot to everyone in the movie industry. This is the night war and politics are forgotten, and we find out who we really hate.” — Bob Hope, merrily hosting even the phony Oscars of “The Oscar” (1966).

David Elliott is the SDNN movie critic.