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

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Jane Eyre (2011)


Jane Eyre

One thing you won't find much of in adaptations of Jane Eyre is smiles.

(2011) Mystery (Focus) Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench, Holliday Grainger, Sally Hawkins, Tamzin Merchant, Imogen Poots, Simon McBurney, Sophie Ward, Romy Settbon Moore, Harry Lloyd. Directed by Cary Fukunaga

Some stories withstand the test of time, striking a chord with readers over different eras with startling similarity. Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” is like that; as a mash-up of Gothic castles, bleak windswept moors, barely restrained eroticism and a Victorian-era morality tale that is surprisingly subversive it has spoken to feminine sensibilities in ways we men cannot comprehend fully. Let’s put it this way – it’s no accident that the brooding angst-y vampire of the Twilight series is named Edward.

There have been 28 different screen versions of the tale, dating back to silent movies and including broad stroked television mini-series to a classic version with Orson Welles as Edward Rochester and Joan Fontaine as the titular heroine. The question then becomes why make a new version at all.

Director Fukunaga, whose Sin Nombre was an acclaimed hit a couple of years ago, wanted to emphasize the Gothic elements of the novel and thus he does, making this less of a Harlequin Romance as some versions have been and much more of a character study. He even chooses to tell the story non-sequentially (the novel was chronologically told), beginning with Jane (Wasikowska) fleeing across the moors only to collapse, exhausted and suffering from exposure, and the door of St. John Rivers (Bell), a kindly pastor with two bubbly sisters (Grainger, Merchant).

From there we see Jane’s story; the cruelty suffered as a child at the hands of her aunt (Hawkins) after her parents pass away, leaving her orphaned. The hardships suffered at a school for girls, particularly at the hands of a sadistic and cruel vicar (McBurney) who runs the establishment. The placing of Jane as a governess of a naïve French child (Moore) at Thornhill, a gloomy mansion on the moors of England, whose household is run by the gossip-mongering Mrs. Fairfax (Dench) and presided by its master, Edward Rochester (Fassbender) whose shadow pervades the castle even in his absence. There Jane, described as a plain and simple girl, falls in love with Rochester and he with her, but dark secrets in Rochester’s past threaten to destroy them both.

I haven’t read the novel in probably thirty years, but it stays with me still. Some guys pooh-pooh it as a “girl’s book” but it is much more than that. Many of the elements that inspire and drive girls into womanhood can be found there. While strong female characters such as Jane might dissuade some boys from paying attention to the book, there is a great deal of insight into the female psyche to be found there. Don’t understand women? Read “Jane Eyre.”

The performances here are solid if unspectacular. Wasikowska, who has shown herself to be a capable actress in such movies as Alice in Wonderland (also playing a strong Victorian heroine from literature) and The Kids Are All Right, has the movie resting squarely on her shoulders and she carries it with surprising strength. I thought her a bit too pretty to play plain Jane, but she manages to look the part with the severe hairstyle of the era and plain clothing.

Fassbender, one of the best actors who you’ve never heard of (see his performances in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds if you don’t believe me), has a difficult role to fill in the enigmatic and brooding Edgar. The part has already had its ultimate portrayal by Welles, but to Fassbender’s credit he doesn’t try to mimic a previous performance and rather goes to accent elements of the character that haven’t been done often (to my knowledge anyway).

The art direction and the cinematography are two of the reasons to see this movie. It is well photographed, particularly the lonely vistas of the storm-swept moors. The interiors are well-appointed in the style of the period and you get a genuine idea of how the people of the time lived. The costumes are spot on, and when the action takes place at night, flickering candlelight appears to be the only illumination.

The movie does move slowly and modern audiences might have difficulty adjusting to the pace. Those who are used to the quick cut no-attention-span theater that is what most teens are used to will really have a lot of problems with losing focus during the movie. However, it is for certain worth checking out, if only for no other reason to acquaint yourself with one of the most brilliant novels of all time and to check out a story that resonates throughout history, influencing so much of literature all the way up to the “Twilight” series.

REASONS TO GO: Lushly photographed and well-acted. It is one of the most iconic novels of all-time and as close as many are ever going to get to reading it.

REASONS TO STAY: As befits a novel of that era, the pacing is majestic, sweeping and slightly overbearing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is the examination of a painting which depicts nudity and there’s also a very teensy bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Charlotte Bronte book was initially published in 1847 under the pen name “Currer Bell.”

HOME OR THEATER: While the bleak vistas of the moors look gorgeous on the big screen, the intimacy of the main story is well-received on the home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Saint Ralph

Miss Potter


Miss Potter

Norman Warne and Beatrix Potter inspect a proof of her first book.

(2006) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Bill Paterson, Lloyd Owen, Anton Lesser, David Bamber. Directed by Chris Noonan

Most of us are aware of Peter Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail – they are indelible parts of our childhood. Some of us might even be aware of Beatrix Potter, the 19th century author and creator of those wonderful characters. Most of us, however, know nearly nothing of her, which considering she is the best-selling children’s author of all time – she has sold more books than both Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling – is a bit of a shame.

Zellweger means to change that. A fan of the famed author, the biopic of Beatrix Potter was something of a labor of love for the star. She plays Potter as an un-lovely but imaginative spinster, living in the home of her wealthy parents who despair of ever marrying her off as she rejects suitor after suitor, most of them brought before her because of their titles or bloodline. Beatrix, however, will have none of that. She’ll marry for love or not at all.

She also is a talented artist, a skill encouraged by her father (Paterson) who was something of an artist himself before his family forced him to take up a more respectable vocation – the law, which ironically he rarely practiced. She also has a talent at making up stories, one which kept her and her brother entertained as children. Now, she means to entertain other children with her tales, but she goes from publishing house to publishing house only to meet rejection and scorn. She finally finds one, Warne House, which is willing to publish her but only believes she’ll make a marginal profit. They fob her off on Norman (McGregor), youngest son of the family and thought to be something of a foul-up.

Norman, however, proves to be almost as enthusiastic about the project as Miss Potter herself, and the two engage in a marvelous simpatico that results in some of the classic children’s books of all times. Norman introduces Beatrix to his sister Millie (Watson) and the two become fast friends, a friendship that deepens as Beatrix falls in love with her editor. The two propose to marry, but Beatrix’s parents are aghast. Firstly, Norman is a tradesman – why, the very thing is beneath them. Secondly, by Victorian standards, they’ve barely met. The overbearing mother (Flynn) and the somewhat more sympathetic father finally arrange a truce with their distraught daughter – if she still feels the same way at the end of the summer, then the marriage will receive their blessing. Reluctantly, Beatrix agrees, expecting to hear wedding bells at the conclusion of her time at their house in the English Lake Country. Tragically, it is not wedding bells but a funeral dirge that she will hear as Norman sickens and dies in her absence.

Devastated, she moves to a home in her beloved Lake Country in a charming farm house (which still exists today, by the way). There, she finds solace in a new vocation – as an activist in preserving the Lake Country from over-development, and in the arms of a realtor (Owen) that she first met when he was a young man.

Fantasy segments bring the drawings of Beatrix Potter to life, and while unfortunately Zellweger’s performance is a bit bland (but to be fare, Miss Potter in reality was a bit bland), nonetheless you feel as if you’ve gotten some insight into the woman at the film’s conclusion, a very satisfactory outcome for any biopic. I enjoyed McGregor’s performance and the English supporting cast is first-rate, although not well-known.

I love the recreation of the period, which feels authentic and allows a glimpse at the daily lives of the well-to-do, not to mention the psyche of the nouveau riche of the time. And, of course, there are the wonderful tales of Beatrix Potter; watching her creations come to life in her head was revisiting beloved old friends for me. This is truly a charming movie that isn’t overwhelming, but a solid effort nonetheless.

REASONS TO RENT: Charming fantasy sequences. Solid performances by McGregor and support cast. Nice recreation of the period.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Zellweger a bit bland. Story drags a bit in the middle third.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mildly naughty words but really nothing your kids haven’t already heard.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Hilltop” house that Beatrix Potter retreats to in the Lake District is actually Yew Tree Farm in the town of Coniston in the Lake District, not far from where Potter actually lived.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a feature on the real Beatrix Potter and the marketing of her books which was one of the first books to market the characters to children and made Potter one of the wealthiest authors of her time.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.1M on an unreported production budget; I’d hazard a guess that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Two Lovers

Sherlock Holmes


Sherlock Holmes

Downey and Law are disconcerted by the appearance of the Baker Street Irregulars carrying pitchforks and torches.

(Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, Robert Maillet, Geraldine James, William Houston, Hans Matheson, James Fox, William Hope, Clive Russell. Directed by Guy Ritchie

Certain literary characters are nearly sacred in their place in the human psyche, from Ebeneezer Scrooge to Tom Sawyer. Few have maintained the epic hold on our imagination as the great detective, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

In the first Holmes movie to reach American theaters in two decades, Holmes (Downey) and his faithful companion Dr. Watson (Law) foil the attempts by the very wicked Lord Blackwood (Strong) to murder an innocent girl in a ritual with Satanist trappings. Arriving just in time to make the arrest is the bumbling Inspector Lestrade (Marsan).

All is not well at 221-B Baker Street, however. Watson is engaged – well, very nearly – to marry the pretty Mary Morstan (Reilly) and leave the somewhat chaotic environment for home, respectability, marriage and medical practice. He has one last duty to perform – the medical declaration of death after Blackwood is hanged, which he duly performs. Case closed, right?

Except that it isn’t. It turns out that Blackwood is, in the immortal words of Monty Python, not quite dead yet. Complicating matters is the appearance of Irene Adler (McAdams), a master thief with whom Holmes has had affection for over the years. She hires Holmes for a missing person case, which turns out to be related to the Blackwood affair. It also turns out that Blackwood has a monstrous plan in mind to bring the British government to its knees in one fell swoop, allowing a secret cabal of ministers dabbling in black magic to take control and restore the Empire to greatness, which seems a bit of overkill considering that this was the period in which the sun never set on the British Empire. Still, you can’t blame a megalomaniac for trying.

Director Ritchie is better known for his superb gangster films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels but after years of making good movies in England, he finally gets a shot at making a big-budget, high-profile tentpole release that Warner Brothers is no doubt hoping to be the start of a moneymaking franchise for them. The results are a little mixed – elements of the movie work very well, and others less so.

First of all, Holmes purists are going to be absolutely apoplectic over this interpretation of their beloved character. Gone is the fastidious Holmes, the deerstalker cap and Meerschaum pipe is nowhere in sight and to a certain extent, the slim, aesthete that we have always seen Holmes to be in the movie is jettisoned in favor of a buff, muscled Holmes who gets into bare knuckle prizefights and uses cattle prods to subdue enormous foes like Dredger (Maillet). While there are plenty of obscure and sometimes cheeky references to previous Holmes canon, Ritchie and his writing team prefer to create their own. I have no objections to re-inventing established characters, but it’s a bit like having Alan Quartermain subdue a foe with tae kwon do. It takes a bit of getting used to.

While Ritchie creates a suitable Victorian environment, with comfortable drawing rooms, dodgy back alleys and industrial grime, there are also some maddening inconsistencies. For example, Lord Blackwood makes reference to an American government still reeling from the after-effects of the Civil War, which ended in 1865 and yet Holmes also refers to radio, which wasn’t invented until 1897. Sorry guys, but while the American government had its issues in 1897, the Civil War wasn’t one of them.

I have to admit that the special effects were subpar in places; the climactic fight on the under-construction Tower Bridge, while well-choreographed, looked clunky and unreal. Perhaps I got a bit spoiled by Avatar but certainly the effects team could have done a better job of making the effects look seamless.

Ritchie does get some fine performances however. Downey, who is certainly one of Hollywood’s best leading men and a fine actor to boot, nails Holmes here. You get a sense of his attention to detail and the workings of a mind that is quicker and more focused than ours ever will be. Law is solid as the second banana, creating a Watson who stands out on his own and is less an appendage to Holmes. He never stammers or natters, he kicks down doors and as would befit a former British military man, kicks ass when he has to. Thankfully, Holmes never utters the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” (although there is one “the game is afoot”). McAdams is beautiful and deadly as Adler, although she doesn’t really seem to be the equal of Holmes in anything and it makes one wonder what Holmes sees in her besides the obvious.

Is Arthur Conan Doyle spinning in his grave? Probably so. This isn’t the character he created and it isn’t the kind of story he would have written either. However, if you look past that and consider this on its own merits, it comes out as solidly entertaining, easily worth the price of admission and two hours of your life. Just keep in mind that it is imperfect and as long as you try not to dissect this movie like Riordan’s frog, you should have an enjoyable experience.

REASONS TO GO: Ritchie captures the period of the film nicely, although there are some chronological inconsistencies. Downey is compelling as Holmes and Law holds his own as Watson.

REASONS TO STAY: Some of the CGI on the film is clunky and noticeable. From time to time, there are visual conceits that reek of “Look Ma, I’m Directing.” Holmes purists will cringe at the liberties taken with the character and canon.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and some sexuality, but nothing that will bother the average savvy 10-year-old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie released in the United States and directed by Ritchie not to carry an “R” rating.

HOME OR THEATER: I’m torn on this one. Some of the scenes certainly bring to mind the drawing room dramas of past Holmes movies, but there are plenty of big screen eye candy opportunities to be had. You make the call.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Lives of Others