Alice Through the Looking Glass

Posted on May 26, 2016 at 5:50 pm

Copyright 2016 Walt Disney Pictures
Copyright 2016 Walt Disney Pictures

“Alice Through the Looking Glass” the movie has almost no relationship to Alice Through the Looking Glass, the book by Lewis Carroll in spirit, character, or storyline. That might possibly be all right if the spirit, character, or storyline were in any way worthwhile, but it is not. Gorgeous production design and some cool stunts do not make up for a story that begins as passable and ends as painful.

Tim Burton, who produced this one, previously gave us an “Alice in Wonderland” with an adult Alice (Mia Wasikowska) replacing the little girl of the story and spending way too much time in the above-ground “real” world as she attends a party, turns down a proposal of marriage from the odious Haimish (Leo Bill), and accepts instead the offer from his father to serve as crew on a merchant ship.

In “Looking Glass,” we first see Alice, now captain of the ship, in an exciting escape from pirates that show us her courage and love of adventure. But when the ship returns to port in London, she finds that Hamish’s father has died, leaving him in charge, and he refuses to let her go back to sea. In his home, she finds a mirror over a fireplace that is a portal back to Wonderland, led by the former caterpillar, now-butterfly (voice of of the much-missed Alan Rickman).

Having already imported the talking flowers, chess pieces, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the Jabberwocky from “Through the Looking Glass” into the first film, conflating the first story’s Queen of Hearts (the “Off with the head!” one) with the second story’s Red Queen (the chess one) this movie takes — but makes no use of — the first book’s characters like the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit, and then has a completely invented story about time travel.

This has many disagreeable aspects, but the worst is when it puts Sasha Baron Cohen as the embodiment of Time into a scene with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and allows them to try to out-grotesque each other in a manner clearly intended to be charming. It is not.

Neither is the plot, which relies heavily on just the kind of treacly heartstrings-plucking backstories that Carroll would never have allowed, asking us to feel sympathy for outrageous behavior and affection for caricatures. The first film’s attempt to create a warm, devoted friendship between Alice and the Mad Hatter was rather ooky. In the sequel, we are asked to believe that she has returned to do whatever it takes to help him because they love each other so much.

To paraphrase the folks behind “Seinfeld,” in the Alice world, there should be no hugging and no apologizing — and no heartfelt professions of affection, especially when they are not in any way justified by the characters’ history with each other.

Alice is needed on the other side of the mirror because the Mad Hatter has found something that has convinced him that his family is still alive, and not killed by the Jabberwock as he had thought. Why is this so important? Is it because he misses them so? Not really. It is because he feels bad about his behavior and needs to see them again so he can be forgiven. The disconnect between the expressions of devotion and the narcissistic reality of behavior is disturbingly cynical. Alice decides the only way she can save his family is to go back in time to the Jabberwock battle, which means she has to retrieve the chronosphere from Time himself, and that leads to more time travel as she solves various not-very-mysterious mysteries and Time chases her to get it back. Not that any of it makes any sense, logically or emotionally.

The production design is imaginative and witty, but it is buried under a gormless, hyperactive mess of a film. The book is endlessly witty and imaginative and delightful with all kinds of wordplay, math puzzles, and chess references from Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson), a math professor.  The movie wastes all of that opportunity.  Look at the title — the movie should be about a reverse world, not a heist/time travel saga that only concludes you can’t change history.  If I had the chronosphere, I’d use it to go back to the moment I sat down to watch this movie so I could go home.

Parents should know that this film has extended fantasy peril with many disturbing images, discussion of loss of parents, brief image of someone dying, and bullying.

Family discussion: If you could go back in time, what time would you pick? Why did the Hatter and the White Queen have a hard time telling their families how they felt?

If you like this, try: the many other movie Alice stories including the Disney animated version and the Kate Beckinsale version of “Through the Looking Glass” and the books by Lewis Carroll

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Eye in the Sky

Posted on March 10, 2016 at 5:43 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violent images and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Military violence including terrorism, bombs, explosions, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 11, 2016
Date Released to DVD: June 27, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01CUMHBJS
Copyright Bleeker Street 2016
Copyright Bleeker Street 2016

“Eye in the Sky” is a rare thriller that grips the mind and heart equally. Drones take our military closer than we have ever been before to the people and the activities of the enemy as they remove us further than we have ever been before from the visceral reality of the actions we take based on what we have learned. This film takes us inside the tactical, political, legal, and moral choices faced by the international governments and military in combating terrorism. Director Gavin Hood and screenwriter Guy Hibbert show us the stakes rising and the options shrinking with each passing second, so we in the audience must constantly ask ourselves not just what the characters should do but what we would do.

Colonel Katherine Powell of the British Army (Helen Mirren) is awakened by her phone. Intelligence received via drone indicates that three from the top ten international most wanted list of terrorists may possibly be together at a home in Kenya. The British and the US are especially interested in one couple they have been trying to find for six years. The wife is British and the husband is American. Both countries want them captured and tried at home.

If her team can positively identify the couple and the man they are meeting with, the mission will turn from reconnaissance to capture. But then the drone camera reveals that the danger is far more dire and imminent than they thought. The house is not just a meeting place. They are arming suicide bombers, taping their last statements, and presumably getting ready to send them into densely populated areas for maximum carnage. The people working on this are all over the world, with a military unit in Hawaii that analyzes images from a drone in Kenya, flown by a pilot in Las Vegas, commanded by military personnel in England, under the direction of elected officials who are both away from their countries on business.

The military has the capacity to prevent the suicide bombers from inflicting damage on civilians by blowing them up before they leave. But they are in the middle of a residential area. Is this warfare or an execution? Does it matter that two of the targets are British and US citizens? Does it matter that a little girl is selling bread just outside the house?

The international scope of the mission and the bureaucratic/political decision-making is fascinating. Information inside the house comes from a tiny mini-drone that looks like an insect, flown into the house by an operative nearby who is pretending to be both selling buckets in the open market and playing a video game on a phone. The operative is played by “Captain Phillips” star Barkhad Abdi, a very different and equally impressive performance of great intelligence and thoughtfulness. Information from the outside, including the biometric identification of the suspected terrorists, comes from drones monitored by Americans half a world away. Sitting at screens are Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox as US military who are diligent and dedicated but not really prepared to blow up the people they’ve been spying on, especially that little girl.

There is a literal ticking time bomb in that house. We can see it. What should we do about it? Should we risk that child’s life to keep the suicide bombers from taking more lives? For the military, including Colonel Powell and her boss, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, making us miss him even more sharply), it is a mathematical calculus; not simple, but clear. They know they must consult the lawyers, who remind them of the criteria, almost a formula, they are required to apply. But the bureaucrats get nervous, and bump it up to the politicians. Calls must be made all over the world as the officials are participating in various diplomatic events; at one point it is even suggested that the question be put to the President of the United States.

But the film shows us that these questions have already been asked and answered. There is a calculus that is reassuringly quantitative and comprehensive but disturbingly clinical. As we see the people all over the world watching the people inside the house, trying to figure out how to apply those algorithms expressed in acronyms and percentages, the film forces us along with the characters to try to apply formulas to a world that will always confound them.

Parents should know that this movie features military violence including drones, guns, explosions, terrorism, suicide bombers, with some grisly and disturbing images, and very strong language. An extended part of the film focuses on potential “collateral damage” to civilians, including a child, from military action.

Family discussion: How would you improve the decision that was ultimately made? How would you improve the process for making it? Who should decide?

If you like this, try: the documentary “Drone”

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Tribute: Alan Rickman

Posted on January 14, 2016 at 8:52 am

Copyright Alan Rickman 2000
Copyright Alan Rickman 2000

The great British actor Alan Rickman has died at age 69, a sad loss for fans throughout the world. He first came to wide attention and acclaim as the bad guy in the original Die Hard, a performance so sensational it set the standard for action movie villains ever since. I wrote about one scene in my book, 101 Must-See Movie Moments.

As Gruber, Rickman speaks with a German accent. For most of the movie, while we see Gruber, his only contact with McLane is his voice, via the walkie-talkie and intercom system.

Then the two men see each other for the first time and we expect a confrontation. But Rickman was showing off his impeccable American accent between scenes and director John McTiernan realized that this presented a great
opportunity for a twist.

McLane rushes in and sees a man who starts talking to him with a perfect American accent. He seamlessly eases straight into another accent and another persona. As the final version of the shooting script puts it, “The
transformation in his expression and bearing are mind-boggling.” Instead of the icy German barking orders, he is immediately a completely convincing terrified American, begging McLane not to shoot. We know it is Gruber, but McLane doesn’t.

Whether McLane is convinced or not is for us to discover. But at that moment, Rickman is so persuasive, even some audience members may be confused.

He was sweetly romantic as a ghost in the lovely Truly, Madly, Deeply.

He was perfectly cast in the “Harry Potter” series as Snape.

He could play a regular guy. Here he is in Love Actually.

And he could play an annoyed angel — in Dogma (strong language).

He was the devoted Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility and the highlight of Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves as another deliciously twisted bad guy. But this morning, I’m remembering another of my favorites, his distressed Shakespearean actor slumming in a sci-fi television series, Galaxy Quest.

By Grabthar’s hammer, we will miss him. May his memory be a blessing.

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Die Hard: McClane Meets Hans

Posted on December 19, 2015 at 8:00 am

Yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie. And this scene, featured in my book, 101 Must-See Movie Moments, is one of my favorites.

Writer Rodrick Thorp saw the movie, “The Towering Inferno,” and that night he dreamed of a man being chased through an office building by men with guns. He turned that idea into a sequel to his book, The Detective (made into a movie by that name starring Frank Sinatra). And that book, which he called Nothing Lasts Forever was adapted for one of the most enduringly popular action films of all time, “Die Hard,” starring Bruce Willis.

It is Christmas. New York City cop John McLane (Willis) is on his way to see his estranged wife at her new office in the Nakatomi building, a skyscraper in LA. But the building is taken over by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman in his first feature film) who wants the authorities to think he is a terrorist. That is a diversion — he is just after money in the form of bearer bonds. Gruber has figured everything out based on standard police procedures. But McLane is anything but standard. He hides out in the building and defeats Gruber’s men one by one as they come after him, despite a lot of interference from well-meaning cops, civilians, and a television reporter and with some help from a good-hearted local police officer.

Willis is ideally cast as a wise-ass cop who does not play by the rules. His wife (Bonnie Bedelia) sees how angry one of the bad guys is and instantly knows her husband is still alive: “Only John can drive someone that crazy.” The script, largely based on Thorp’s book, is clever and exciting. But one of the best plot turns was impromptu, inspired by some off-screen fooling around.

Rickman, now best known as “Harry Potter’s” Severus Snape, was born in London and is a classically trained actor. This is a rare instance where a newcomer playing the villain takes full advantage of the audience’s unfamiliarity to keep surprising us. (Another good example is Edward Norton, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “Primal Fear.”)

As Gruber, Rickman speaks with a German accent. For most of the movie, while we see Gruber, his only contact with McLane is his voice, via the walkie-talkie and intercom system.

Then the two men see each other for the first time and we expect a confrontation. But Rickman was showing off his impeccable American accent between scenes and director John McTiernan realized that this presented a great opportunity for a twist.

McLane rushes in and sees a man who starts talking to him with a perfect American accent and the demeanor of a frightened executive who has never been exposed to violence. Gruber seamlessly eases straight into another accent and another persona. As the final version of the shooting script puts it, “The transformation in his expression and bearing are mind-boggling.” Instead of the icy German barking orders, he is immediately a completely convincing terrified American, begging McLane not to shoot. We know it is Gruber, but McLane doesn’t.

Whether McLane is convinced or not is for us to discover. But at that moment, Rickman is so persuasive, even some audience members may be confused.

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