Prairie Messenger Header

Catholic News Service Movie Reviews

05/25/2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass
By John P. McCarthy

NEW YORK (CNS) — The heroine of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (Disney) is not Lewis Carroll’s curious seven-year-old girl but rather an intrepid sea captain with an entrepreneurial streak.

A young woman who refuses to bend to the will of a patriarchal society, Alice overcomes obstacles in both the real world and the fantasy realm of Underland thanks to her courage, empathy and appetite for risk.

More compelling in theory than in practice, the central figure in this follow-up to Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), does not contradict Carroll’s vision so much as supplant it. Viewed through a decidedly contemporary prism, presumably to satisfy a modern insistence on gender equality, she conforms to present-day social, political and cultural norms.

It’s no wonder the resulting picture feels forced and mechanical.

Despite exciting visuals, a talented ensemble, and glittery costume and makeup designs, this 3D fantasy-adventure is inert — managing to feel audacious and tediously familiar at the same time. As for its suitability, there are enough frightening action sequences and examples of cruelty to render it inappropriate for young or impressionable children.

In the swashbuckling opening scene, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is at the helm of a ship named “Wonder,” racing to elude pirates during a fierce storm. The vessel, we learn, belonged to her late father.

Upon returning to London, however — the year is 1875 — Alice learns that her former suitor, Lord Ascot (Leo Bill), owner of the rapacious shipping company for which she’s been plying the seas, will evict her mother from their home unless he can take possession of the “Wonder.”

After receiving this ultimatum at the Ascot residence, Alice passes through a mirror into Underland, where she reunites with a gaggle of friends that includes the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, as well as Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Her pals are worried about the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who has grown increasingly despondent over reports that his estranged family was killed by the Jabberwocky. Vowing to help Hatter find out precisely what befell his relations, Alice undertakes a dangerous mission that involves time travel and the pilfering of an essential device, the Chronosphere, from Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen).

In the course of discovering what happened to the Hatters, Alice learns what caused the rift between the White (Anne Hathaway) and Red (Helena Bonham Carter) Queens. Evidently, the latter’s enormous head and volatile temperament resulted from a traumatic brain injury, an event triggered by the surreptitious consumption of tarts.

After completing her task in Underland (and rousing the Hatter from his morbid depression), Alice re-emerges in Victorian London where she is promptly branded a hysteric and put in an insane asylum. Without the aid of magic, she must find a way to protect her father’s legacy and ensure her mother’s welfare. When last seen, Alice is embarking on a career that combines seafaring and commerce.

Tim Burton serves as producer but has handed over directorial duties to James Bobin. And so, while the movie has dark shadings, it’s not overtly macabre. Nor is it satisfyingly warm and fuzzy, owing in large measure to the two lead performances.

Wasikowska is so adept at projecting stoicism, she keeps sympathy at bay. Alice’s limited interaction with the animated creatures — voiced by the late Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry and Toby Jones, among others — doesn’t soften that impression; and she’s a formidable presence alongside the seasoned actors playing her live-action adversaries, namely Bonham Carter and Cohen (who, forgive the pun, gets more screen time than his role warrants).

Wasikowska’s most significant hurdle is appearing opposite Mr. Depp’s distractingly mannered Hatter — a creepily simpering, elaborately painted, infantile figure. Anyone would come across stone-faced and emotively challenged next to this fey and feckless chap.

Adding to viewer fatigue, Depp keeps recycling the same character, with only minor variations, in film after film — not even counting his Hatter from this franchise’s original.

Screenwriter Linda Woolverton shapes Carroll’s diffuse second book into a relatively sophisticated and fairly lucid story, yet doesn’t adequately convey Carroll’s fascination with logic and wordplay. As much as her script, and other aspects of the production, may gesture toward the bizarre and exotic, moreover, she cannot forgo inserting formulaic epigrams meant to convey salubrious life lessons. It’s unclear if they’re being offered with any sincerity or conviction.

One has similar suspicions regarding the filmmakers’ outlook. Do they think Carroll’s foray into surreal fantasy and make-believe is consistent with a Christian worldview?

Could it be that a key image at the climax of “Alice Through The Looking Glass” — namely, an obvious reference to Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on the Sistine Chapel ceiling — has been included to counteract these niggling doubts? If so, it’s unconvincing and only highlights how far this adaptation has drifted from its moorings.

The film contains frequent, moderately intense fantasy action, several instances of cruel behaviour, and a couple of mild oaths. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
- — -
John P. McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
- — -

The Angry Birds Movie
By Kurt Jensen

NEW YORK (CNS) — Take an addictive phone app, contrive a plot to “explain” motivations, chuck in puns, brief potty humour and lengthy slapstick sequences, and you have the inane 3D animated adaptation “The Angry Birds Movie” (Columbia).

That may sound like a harsh assessment of cheerful, largely inoffensive kiddie fare. So let’s put it this way: Which would you rather do, play “Angry Birds” and hurl tiny flightless fowls at evil green pigs — which will at least focus your mind, however fleetingly — or watch a screenful of birds discuss their feelings for 97 minutes?

Among those emotions, in keeping with Hollywood’s endless emphasis on individuality, is a central character’s determination to dissent from the preternatural cheerfulness he finds all around him.

“Why do we have to agree?” Red (voice of Jason Sudeikis) asks the other inhabitants of Bird Island. “Why does it matter that we’re not the same?”

Sometimes, the film concludes, it’s important to have a warrior mindset. Especially so when the island’s eggs are at risk from invading pigs who want to enhance their diet with yolky goodness.

That certainly squares with just war theory, and viewers of faith willing to squint sufficiently can even read a pro-life message into the movie’s premise.

Red takes an anger management class, which proves futile but does supply him with a duo of new pals, both endowed with superpowers: Chuck (voice of Josh Gad) has the gift of great speed, while Bomb (voice of Danny McBride), as his name implies, can explode at will.

The pigs, led by Leonard (voice of Bill Hader), seduce the island’s residents with endless parties as a preliminary to their egg theft. To thwart them, Red and his friends seek out the Mighty Eagle (voice of Peter Dinklage), the only denizen of the island who can fly. But he’s too out of shape to be of any help, at least until the threat to the community’s future becomes more obvious.

From there, things progress along lines that the more than 3 billion people worldwide who’ve downloaded the app will find familiar. Co-directors Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly, working from a script by Jon Vitti, stage rescue sequences involving a giant slingshot that enables the birds to “fly” and hyperkinetic stunts once they land in the pigs’ complex lair.

The straightforward plot is unlikely to confuse — and the scenes of combat unlikely to frighten — any but the very youngest children. Accompanying adults, on the other hand, may well find themselves anxious for a speedy conclusion.

The film contains mildly scary action sequences and fleeting scatological humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
- — -
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

The Nice Guys
By John Mulderig

NEW YORK (CNS) — The morally unstable tone of the clever action comedy “The Nice Guys” (Warner Bros.) is typified by the fictional resume of one of its two main characters. 

Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) is a thug-for-hire in 1977 Los Angeles. Yet he’s also a good-hearted soul who prefers to beat up only bad guys, especially lowlife types who prey on women.

It doesn’t, of course, take a great deal of ethical discernment to realize that no degree of chivalrous feeling can excuse a career based on brutality. Nor do Healy’s good intentions prevent him from making mistakes, as when he causes serious injury to inept, but mostly harmless private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling).

March is on the trail of a missing girl named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), but Healy’s clients prefer that she not be found. So Healy takes the art of arm-twisting to an extreme.

Since director and co-writer (with Anthony Bagarozzi) Shane Black has a fondness for ironic plot developments, however, loyalties prove liquid and it’s not long before Healy has switched sides, joining March in the search for the endangered Amelia. Tagging along on the hunt, to troubling effect, is March’s precocious teen daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice).

Viewers familiar with Tatum O’Neal’s character Addie Loggins in the 1973 film “Paper Moon” — or with any number of feisty young ‘uns played, in her youth, by Jodie Foster — will recognize Holly’s persona as something of a throwback to the era in which “The Nice Guys” is set.

Holly is the mature, frequently disapproving observer of her widowed father’s rampant disorganization, semi-fraudulent dishonesty and fondness for drink. She also provides the moral centre not only for his life but for the movie as a whole.

Yet her involvement in Amelia’s case, which comes about very much at her own insistence, exposes Holly to all manner of inappropriate experiences.

Since clues seem to suggest a link between Amelia’s disappearance and the recent death of a porn star, Holly finds herself attending a decadent party at the home of a pornographic filmmaker where she watches as one of his productions is screened. Later she witnesses the bloody end of one of the villains who’ve been chasing her dad and his newfound partner.

Along with the moments of excess sprinkled through the otherwise generally restrained presentation of the picture’s gritty atmosphere, the attempt to play Holly’s incongruous presence in such situations for laughs sends the proceedings irreversibly off-track.

The film contains a few instances of extreme gore, much stylized violence, pornographic images, including fleeting but explicit sexual activity, upper and rear female nudity, a same-sex kiss, about a dozen uses of profanity and pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
- — -
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Copyright (c) 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops