Alice Through the Looking Glass


The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

The Mad Hatter through the looking glass.

(2016) Fantasy (Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Rhys Ifans, Matt Lucas, Lindsay Duncan, Leo Bill, Geraldine James, Andrew Scott, Richard Armitage, Ed Speleers, Alan Rickman (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Paul Whitehouse (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Barbara Windsor (voice). Directed by James Bobin

 

Like most normal movie fans, I don’t mind some eye candy now and again – and I’m not talking about the good looking member of the opposite sex. I mean special effects that transport you to strange exotic places, create unusual and astonishing creatures and in essence bring awe, magic and wonder to the movies. However, like most movie critics, I’m not thrilled with special effects for their own sake.

Tim Burton’s 2010 Disney fantasy Alice in Wonderland was a surprise hit – not a surprise that it was a hit so much but how big a hit it became. Grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, it was natural that the studio was eager for a remake but considering the A-list nature of some of the stars and Burton’s own reluctance to make a sequel (James Bobin of The Muppets Most Wanted eventually got the job) has delayed this to the point where some have forgotten how good the first one was.

And it was rather good. I thought it was one of Burton’s best ever, which has gotten me a lot of razzing in the film buff community I hang out in, but I stick to my assessment – it’s imaginative and fun with less of Burton’s neuroses to make it too dark. I’m guessing that the experience Burton had with Disney didn’t stick too well with him, because he has chosen not to direct the sequel and it suffers from his absence.

Alice (Wasikowska) is now a young woman and not just any young woman, but the captain of a sea ship, the Wonder which was once her late father’s ship. Attacked by pirates, she takes an incredible chance against them and (of course) escapes with a daring maneuver. Point for Alice.

However her former fiancé Lord Hamish (Bill) in a fit of pique has taken over her father’s old company and has ordered the Wonder taken away from Alice and that she be reduced to a clerk in the organization. He sneeringly threatens to take away her mother’s home which he coincidentally owns the mortgage on if she doesn’t accept his terms. Turns out he’s not just a twit but a spiteful one as well.

Searching his office for a clue as to how to get out of the situation, Alice is overheard and with nowhere to escape, discovers that the mirror may provide a useful means of egress. She goes through and ends back up in Underland, the world she fell into years ago and saved when she slew the Jabberwocky (which appears in a flashback here but sans dialogue since the voice of the original was the late Christopher Lee). It seems that a calamity has occurred.

The Mad Hatter (Depp) is in a deep depression. He believes he’s found evidence that his family whom he once thought slain by the Red Queen (Carter) is still alive but nobody will believe him – including Alice. However, she determines that the only way to save the Hatter is to save his family from death and the only way to do that is to go back in time.

However, it turns out that Time is a person (Cohen) who doesn’t much appreciate people meddling with the events of the past. However, Alice steals an orb that will allow her to go back in time and warn the Hatters’ family about their impending demise, but what she doesn’t realize is that the Orb powers the Great Clock which is what regulates Time itself and without it, everything will cease to be.

The plot goes on from there and if you want to find out more, see the bloody movie but let me just say that the problem with this movie is the problem that all time travel movies have – they are generally confusing, contradictory and make the viewer’s head ache if they think about it too much. Given that this is a family film, the wee ones will probably be able to just accept the situation and keep going from there – kids are remarkable that way – but their parents will end up scratching their heads and wondering why they didn’t stay home and paint that spare room.

That’s not to say that this movie is less interesting than watching paint dry, far from it. Once again, some of the images are fantastic, such as Time contemplating an eternity of watches, each representing a human being who is still alive. When their watch stops, so do they and Time collects the stopped watches. Time is a bit of a melancholy fellow.

And Cohen plays Time with great depth and many layers. While I’m not sure why he had to give him a Yiddish/German accent other than that Cohen always plays with accents, nonetheless this is one of Cohen’s less strict comedic parts. There are moments when Cohen gets to cut loose as a comic but he tempers those with moments that really touch the heart.

Wasikowska is plucky not only in character but as an actress; the role, as written, is pretty colorless and she does what she can with it but I would have liked to have seen more depth to her. When her mother’s situation becomes apparent to her, we see her determination to save the day, but nothing of the emotions behind them. Alice is as two-dimensional here as the paper the original story was written on.

And again, this has little to do with the book Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll wrote, so purists beware. Not that the plot matters overly much; Bobin clearly exists more time and energy in the special effects than he does on character development and plot (perhaps writer Linda Woolverton, who wrote the first Alice might bear some responsibility for this) which frankly is a mistake. As undiscerning as American audiences are, give them characters they care about in an environment that makes them slack-jawed with wonder and they’ll return again and again to see your movie. It really isn’t a very difficult concept to follow.

I was sorely disappointed in this sequel as I loved the first movie so much. This is more or less mediocre, not the crash and burn some critics made it out to be but certainly not a home run either. Audiences have reacted accordingly, with a resounding “not interested.” It will likely recoup its budget and maybe make a little bit more after its home video run, but this Alice isn’t as inviting for a return trip to Wonderland as the last.

REASONS TO GO: Some truly amazing images. Cohen gives his best performance ever.
REASONS TO STAY: Over-emphasis on effects over plot. Time travel is confusing and contradictory.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild rude language and plenty of fantasy action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Sacha Baron Cohen’s first appearance in a film distributed by Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snow White and the Huntsman
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Captain America: Civil War

Welcome to Leith


Nothing supreme about these whites.

Nothing supreme about these whites.

(2015) Documentary (No Weather) Ryan Schock, Craig Cobb, Thomas Kelsch, Laura Collins, Lee Cook, Kynan Dutton, Deborah Henderson, Todd Schwartz, Steve Bay, Greg Bruce, Kenneth Zimmerman. Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker

Florida Film Festival 2015

Leith, North Dakota, on the surface seems to be an unremarkable small town in the Great Plains. A rural hamlet of 24 hard working people, it’s indistinguishable from dozens, hundreds of towns just like it. That wasn’t always the case though.

In 2012 a man named Craig Cobb bought a home in Leith. Not a remarkable thing in and of itself, although people moving into Leith is a big event in Leith. Some of the residents went to greet the new neighbor, but for the most part he resisted any attempts to socialize. People figured he just wanted to keep to himself and gave him space. In North Dakota, people mind their own business.

That’s not true elsewhere. The Southern Poverty Law Center had been keeping tabs on the main players in the White Supremacy movement, and it turns out that Cobb was one of the major players among the neo-Nazis. They also discovered that he was out to take over this town by quietly buying up plots of land for a song, then turning around and selling them to other white supremacists. Once they had a voting majority, they would take over the city government and create a paradise on the plains for racists.

That didn’t sit well with the townsfolk of Leith, who wanted nothing more than to live out their lives in their small slice o’ heaven without bother or fuss, but to have armed racists terrorizing the town carrying loaded rifles around town, getting into confrontations with citizens of Leith and of course sending all sorts of worry into the town’s lone African-American and his family, something had to be done to stop Cobb. But what could they do?

Filmmakers Nichols and Walker offer a surprisingly balanced and dispassionate chronicle of the events in Leith with interviews with Cobb and his follower Dutton as well as Schock – the town’s mayor – as well as other townspeople and other interested parties. Both sides are allowed to present their point of view.

And in fact, in some ways, the racists have some salient points. They’re doing nothing illegal. They’re simply taking advantage of the town’s by-laws and of laws that are common throughout North Dakota and the U.S. in general. Until they start stalking the streets with shotguns, they seem to be well on their way to accomplishing their goal. Of course, once they start talking their world view shows itself to be completely repugnant, but the filmmakers wisely let them dig that hole themselves rather than pointing self-righteous fingers. The former method is far more effective than the latter.

They also paint a beautiful picture of a small town in what would at first glance seem to be a stark and barren land. They are relatively close to the booming oilfields that have been attracting workers to the area (and are the subject of another acclaimed  documentary, The Overnighters but that is another review for another day), but the way the filmmakers shoot the landscape it is almost mystical. You can easily see why the people love this place and want to defend it so vigorously. There is a beauty that is quiet and unassuming but unforgettable nonetheless.

One of the few quibbles I have with the movie is Credo 64. You see “Credo 64” emblazoned throughout the film on signs around town left by the supremacists, but it is never explained in the movie. For the record, it refers to the “White Man’s Bible” which is the holy book of the Creator sect, a Christian-like religion that has rewritten the Bible to reflect White Supremacist doctrine. Credo 64 essentially permits Creators to act as terrorists and vigilantes when their government oppresses them and is in this instance a veiled threat to the town, one which probably should have been explained better in the movie.

There is also a fairly large usage of racial epithets including the N word throughout; if that makes you as a viewer uncomfortable, you may want to give that some consideration. I found myself numbed to it pretty quickly, but I did feel uncomfortable initially. Depending on your sensitivity to that sort of thing your reaction may differ.

This is an essential documentary. It is easy to forget that people like the Craig Cobbs of the world took over an entire country and swayed them to their morally bankrupt principles and turned that country into a military threat that destabilized the entire world until an alliance of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and other nations put down that threat for good. But it could still happen here; it almost happened in Leith but for the will of the people who lived there. It could happen elsewhere, maybe where you live and when it does, it will be insidious, someone who spreads fear, mistrust and hatred until the entire community rallies around a demagogue who will lead them to victory over the object of that fear, mistrust and hatred. Don’t think it can happen here? Look at how many people are supporting laws that oppress the LBGT community. Look at how easily the voting rights, so dearly won in 1964, have been swept aside. It can happen here. And it will happen here if we aren’t careful. Welcome to Leith reminds us that we need to stand up together and say “No” when an entire community is threatened and that’s how you ensure that it doesn’t happen here.

REASONS TO GO: Chilling to the bone. Beautiful cinematography. Captures the conflict fairly.
REASONS TO STAY: Leaves a few terms unexplained.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where Rolling Stone named it one of the ten best films of the festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Gabriel

The Dark Knight Rises


 

The Dark Knight Rises

Bane and Batman work on their ballroom dancing skills.

(2012) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Cillian Murphy, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Burn Gorman, Ben Mendelsohn, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Ellis, Reggie Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

The world needs heroes. We latch onto them whether or not they deserve our admiration or not – and some of them do. However, heroes are often shaped by the perception given us by the media and by the powers that be. One man’s hero, in other words, is another man’s villain – and vice versa.

Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Bale) a.k.a. Batman sits in isolation in Wayne Manor. Injured in his final fight with the Joker and with Harvey Dent, the Batman has been branded an outlaw for his role in the events of that film. Wayne is in a deep depression and despite the efforts of his faithful butler Alfred (Caine) remains so. There is no need for Batman, as legislation enacted in the aftermath of those events has helped the new police commissioner Jim Gordon (Oldman) clean  the city up. Gordon is assisted by Detective John Blake (Gordon-Levitt), a cop who believes in Batman and thinks that something stinks about his current outlaw status. Gotham is at peace and looking to the future at last.

However for figures like the Batman, the world has a way of preventing them from remaining on the sidelines for too long. A sexy catburglar named Selena Kyle (Hathaway) – who goes by the name of Catwoman – has robbed Wayne Manor of the string of pearls Bruce’s mother was wearing the night she was murdered, along with something more subtle – and dangerous to Bruce and those around him. Arriving in Gotham as well is Bane (Hardy), a masked terrorist of terrifying strength and an agenda that makes it sound like the French Revolution is coming to Gotham.

Bruce is struggling to keep his company out of the hands of the rapacious venture capitalist Daggett (Mendelsohn) who is after some technology developed by Lucius Fox (Freeman) that might prove devastating in the wrong hands. On his side is Miranda Tate (Cotillard), a European CEO who is on the same page as Bruce and Lucius. However, the attacks on Gotham and Wayne Enterprises are linked with each other and both have their roots sunk deeply into Bruce Wayne’s past. Bane is much more malevolent than even this and what he has in store for Gotham is nothing less than a full measure of reckoning.  Could this be the end of Batman?

Well, it certainly is the end of this phase of Batman. Nolan has made it clear that this will be the last Batman movie under his stewardship and there’s no doubt that Warner Brothers and DC aren’t thrilled about his departure. Nolan revived the character as a viable franchise

Of course, that isn’t all Nolan’s doing. Bale will go down in history as the definitive Batman much as Sean Connery is the definitive Bond. Bale captures the brooding nature of the character (which none of the other screen versions had fully been able to portray) while reminding us of his brilliance at figuring things out. Batman is the ultimate superhero strategist and we see that side of him here.

Some have criticized Bane as being too one-dimensional but I disagree. Bane is a very complicated character not unlike a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces you don’t have until the very end. It takes a bit of patience but once you kind of get him you realize Hardy is doing a tremendous job with him, considering he is mostly acting with his eyes as his face is masked and his voice distorted. Those who can’t see anything deeper aren’t looking hard enough.

There are those who will look at this as a social commentary of some sort and to be honest, Nolan’s movies often are. Bane might be thought of as the sort of epitome of the Occupy movement, blaring one solipsism  after another proclaiming the rights of the people over the evil powers that be. However, that would be a simplistic interpretation. Quite frankly, the movie is our worst nightmares about the economy come to pass; a morality play about how easily economic chaos can lead to physical chaos. It’s certainly a cautionary tale.

For me, the heart and soul of this particular movie isn’t so much Batman as it is Alfred. I was a little surprised Caine took the part initially and this movie might well be one of the crowning achievements of his distinguished career; it’s not a large part but it’s the soul of the film and Caine delivers one of the most emotional performances I can ever remember. I just hope the Academy remembers him when the nominations start to come out next year.

If the question is whether or not this measures up to The Dark Knight, then the answer is a resounding yes. If the question is whether the movie is as good or an improvement on The Dark Knight, then I’d say that it is close but not quite as good. Hardy is terrific as Bane and Hathaway makes a sexy but savvy Catwoman but neither of them delivers the good quite as well as the late Heath Ledger did as The Joker. Batman needs an opponent at least as clever as he is and Bane isn’t quite to that level.

This is as good a summer movie as you’re likely to find out there, one which takes the gauntlet thrown down by The Avengers and answers the call. We are quite fortunate to have a summer in which the superhero movies have been as uniformly excellent as this year has been; hopefully that will set the bar for summers to come.

REASONS TO GO: A fitting end to a great movie trilogy that sets the bar high for future superhero movies. Well-orchestrated plot. Hardy and Hathaway make terrific villains; Bale is the definitive Batman and Caine gives an Oscar-worthy performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Very dark in nature, maybe the darkest superhero film ever which might be too much for younger audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of comic book violence, some of it a little bit more realistic. There is a bit of simulated and implied sex, and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christian Bale becomes the first actor to play Batman in three live action films (Kevin Conroy has played the role seven times but all in animated features).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 2

FOOTBALL LOVERS: The football sequence was filmed at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The kick returner was played by real life NFL star Hines Ward, who in the movie plays for the Gotham Rogues.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: An Unreasonable Man