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

Malice in Wonderland


The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2009) Fantasy (Magnet) Maggie Grace, Danny Dyer, Matt King, Nathaniel Parker, Bronagh Gallagher, Anthony Higgins, Steve Haze, Christian Patterson, Dave Lynn, Gary Beadle, Amanda Boxer, Paul Kaye, Matthew Stirling, Alan McKenna, Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Steve Furst, Pam Ferris, Garrick Hagon, Sandra Dickinson, Elizabeth Goram-Smith. Directed by Simon Fellows

The rabbit hole isn’t what it used to be. This re-imagining of the Lewis Carroll classic translocates Wonderland into a seedy urban/suburban Manchester, populated with basically every Brit gangster film actor of the last few years. Would Guy Ritchie approve?

Alice (Grace) is an American studying law in London. She’s returning home from a study session when she’s knocked down by a sinister black cab driven by Whitey (Dyer), a pill-procuring cabby who is obsessively concerned about tardiness, which seems to bother him more than you’d think it should. Sound familiar?

When she comes to, she’s forgotten who she is and what she’s doing there. Whitey seems to be her only link to finding out who she is. Whitey is mostly disinterested; as with everyone in a Lewis Carroll tale (or a British gangster movie for that matter) his priority is to take care of his own business. However eventually he begins to feel something for Alice who is pretty much a pawn in a much larger game that she is completely clueless is even being played.

The visuals here are pretty nifty and I like the mash-up of fantasy and gangster concept. Unfortunately it isn’t executed particularly well. It can be hard making sense of the various and sundry characters that come and go – I suppose those who are really up on the Wonderland books will be able to figure out the corresponding characters here, some obvious (Whitey = White Rabbit), some not so much (Harry Hunt = the King and maybe the Queen as well). However, I get the sense that the writers spent a great deal of energy fitting Alice into the new milieu without really asking the question of whether she belongs there in the first place – I think she does although perhaps not in the way they had in mind.

Grace, who had just finished her work in Lost when she filmed this, can be a marvelous actress but I got the sense that she was floundering here. Part of the problem is the writers turned Alice from a plucky heroine into a whiny drug-addled victim who bounces from the clutches of one nefarious villain to another. Part of the appeal of the Carroll story is the strength of character that Alice possesses that allow her to navigate the treacherous landscape whose rules defy not only what Alice is used to but of common sense and logic as well.

The story is occasionally hard to follow even knowing the tale of Alice from childhood. All the rivalries and alliances among the denizens of Wonderland are often tangled and obscure, while the motivations are even more so. I found myself with a great big headache trying to make sense of all this. Granted, Alice in Wonderland has always struck me as kind of a kid’s version of an acid trip without actually ingesting any drugs, but unfortunately this version turns out to be more of a bummer than anything else.

WHY RENT THIS: Creative concept. Some nice visuals.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A confusing mess.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language, a little bit of violence and sexuality and some brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of Fellows’ credits previous to this were direct-to-video action films starring Jean-Claude van Damme.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Forbidden Zone

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Seabiscuit

Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Let it be said that too much time in Hollywood can give you a big head.

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Michael Gough (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Christopher Lee (voice). Directed by Tim Burton

The world as we know it is a crazy place. Sometimes we do things for reasons even we can’t fathom. There are times that the craziest people of all are truly the sanest.

Alice Kingsleigh (Wasikowska) is the daughter of a visionary. Her father Charles (Marton Csokas) founded a successful import company on the premise of pushing beyond the boundaries of what is considered reasonable. “I often do six impossible things before breakfast” he tells his adoring daughter, soothing her whenever she has one of her frequent nightmares.

But it’s always the same nightmare, falling down an endless hole into an impossible place with strange creatures. That nightmare continues to occur even when she is a young lady, her father prematurely dead and now her mother determined to see her wed to the impossibly haughty Lord Hamish (Leo Bill). This doesn’t sit well with the plucky and intelligent Alice who can’t see being married to an absolute twit, but at the same time the marriage may be necessary to the survival of her family.

She follows a rabbit racing through the underbrush at the Ascot Manor until she finds a convenient hole to fall in. There she reaches a strange place, a kind of underbrush below the world, where potions can shrink her and little tea cakes can make her grow to gigantic dimensions.

This isn’t the Wonderland that Lewis Carroll told us about. The Red Queen (Carter) has taken over, ruling the land by intimidation. Her Knave (Glover) leads a pack of mechanical-looking soldiers throughout Wonderland to intimidate and wipe out any resistance. Her iron will is enforced by the Jabberwocky (Lee) which is far too powerful for anyone in Wonderland to overcome and the only weapon that is capable of slaying it, the Vorpal Sword, is in the hands of the Red Queen.

Alice believes this is all a dream and despite her many attempts to awaken, remains dreaming. She is taken to the caterpillar Absalom (Rickman) who proclaims that she’s “not hardly” the right Alice that the denizens of Wonderland are awaiting to slay the Jabberwocky. When the Knave attacks along with the terrifying Bandersnatch, she finds her way to the Mad Hatter (Depp), once the haberdasher to the White Queen (Hathaway) but now completely insane and harmless, although he harbors much ill will towards the Red Queen. His little group of followers includes the Cheshire Cat (Fry) – an expert in evaporation, the plucky Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the nearly-as-mad March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the loyal bloodhound Bayard (Spall).

Forces are gathering with the fate of Wonderland itself in the balance as the Frabjuous Day approaches, the day that Alice is fated to slay the Jabberwocky. Is she the right Alice? Or is she merely a plucky girl lost in a strange dream?

Tim Burton has always been one of the most imaginative directors in Hollywood from a visual standpoint with only Terry Gilliam to rival him. With movies like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood to his credit, he has long been a director whose work is so interesting that he has become a brand name unto himself. Quite frankly, his version of a children’s story that he never particularly connected to as a child will end up ranking as one of the very best works of his illustrious career.

This Wonderland is amazing to look at, with creatures that are both strange and terrifying wandering around the landscape. The characters are mostly grotesques, with the bulbous-headed Red Queen leading the pack looking not unlike a forced perspective illusion.

This is a fabulous cast, and Depp is terrific as the Hatter, lending the character depth that it was never accorded either in the Lewis Carroll book or in the many film and animation versions that follow. His madness isn’t just a joke; it is hard-won by devastating events in his life. As good as Depp is, he doesn’t overwhelm the movie and is content to be a cog in the wheel rather than the straw that stirs the drink. Carter is also clearly having a great time as the Red Queen and screams “Off with their heads!!!” with great gusto.

The story isn’t taken straight from the Alice books that Lewis Carroll wrote but is rather inspired by them. Burton chooses to take a route that ages Alice into young womanhood and while he keeps the Victorian era (which in many ways seems as strange to us as Wonderland itself does) he gives the story a logical flow that makes sense within the confines of the universe created by Carroll, and still works for modern audiences. The writing is absolutely audacious and brilliant.

Some critics have groused about the action sequences in the final act but I find that a bit prissy. Certainly Burton could have come up with something a little more talky or prosaic but I found the action curiously satisfying. It helps wrap things up from a Wonderland standpoint, and gives Alice the necessary courage to finally embrace her own strengths.

Not everyone is going to love this movie as much as I did. Certainly purists are going to grumble at the liberties taken with Carroll’s story and those expecting a live action version of Disney’s animated feature of Alice are going to be extremely disappointed. There are those who won’t like Burton’s vision and may find it too esoteric and too fantastic.

Never mind them. I admire imagination in all its forms and even when I don’t get it, I at least try to give props for the attempt. Here I clearly connected with what Burton was trying to do and I wasn’t the only one. This is a marvelous movie that has only a few minor flaws that keep it from my highest rating possible. I can recommend it without reservation to anyone except those who like their fantasies safe and spoon-fed. Those sorts probably shouldn’t be reading my blog anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Completely imaginative, this is a movie that actually improves on a classic. Great acting, a believable story and impressive visuals make this one of the year’s top movies early on.  

REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska is at times a little bland as Alice. Purists will shudder at the liberties taken with Carroll’s work.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mildly disturbing images and the wee small tykes may be a bit frightened by some of the fiercer creatures, but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you look carefully at images of the Mad Hatter, one of his pupils is dilated and the other is not, which implies a serious brain injury.

HOME OR THEATER: This is best served on a big screen in 3D; even better in IMAX if that’s available near you.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Body of Lies