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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Alice Through the Looking Glass

ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS (Three Stars)
U.S.: James Bobin, 2016

Saying that a movie is better than its reputation—especially when its reputation is lousy—may seem a point not worth arguing. But that’s what I felt about the new Tim Burton-co-produced Alice Through the Looking Glass, which has been trashed by critics and avoided by audiences, at least in comparison with Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, which was a worldwide hit, and (slightly) better liked by critics. I liked the first Alice and I kind of liked this movie too. At least, I enjoyed it more than I was supposed to, according to most of my fellow critics—who tended to treat the whole show as an over-CGIed desecration of a great piece of literature, overblown and fatuous and over-expensive.

Expensive-looking it certainly is. Over CGIed it is as well. A lavish and visually spectacular sequel to Burton’s 2010 revisionist/feminist Alice—which was adapted from Lewis Carroll’s follow-up to his classic children’s book—Looking Glass is, in many ways, a disappointment. But this movie’s flaws seem to me less ruinous, its strengths less negligible, and its effect more enjoyable than naysayers have allowed.

That doesn’t mean that you should rush out and see it, simply that the people involved did a better job than they have been credited. Film is, after all a visual art as well as a narrative one, and that certainly goes both for this huge overstuffed plum pudding of an “Alice” picture– made by a gifted crew that includes number of veterans of Alice, notably screenwriter Linda Woolverton (a collaborator on Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), led this time by director James Bobin (helmer on a recent Muppet movie).

The 2010 Alice was a girl-power reboot that gave a us a feisty grown up Alice, Mia Wasikowska, looking like the blonde, nubile, innocent-looking heroine of a Polanski movie and surrounded by all the dreams that money can buy. Here, as before, she encounters a bevy of Wonderlanders juiced up with more psychosexual tension that Lewis Carroll (or Walt Disney, in his ‘50s feature-length cartoon version) would have dared imagine. The Burton Alice was a sexy movie, and it was actually more suitable for adults than for children — or at least, for most children — and that may have been one reason it was a billion-dollar-grossing worldwide smash hit. It may also be part of the reason a lot of critics disliked the first movie, and even more disliked this one.

Bobin and Woolverton and the rest of the people who made this new movie may have been misguided. But they certainly weren’t hacks. When my lady friend and I walked out of Looking Glass, I may have been less transported than Transformered (to name another CGI-fest to which the Alices have been compared). But we’d had a fairly good time. I didn’t get the charge I got when, at the age of seven or so, I first read a paperback edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, while riding home to Hyde Park in Chicago with my mother on the Chicago El.

That was one of those magical experiences of my childhood, one of those revelations you can never quite repeat: the John Tenniel illustrations, the world underground, the dazzling wordplay and the lovable intricate nonsense. Burton’s Alices were both, by comparison, just okay shows, whose enjoy ability lies in their razzle-dazzle pictorialism. But, since they will probably drive a number of children, and even a few adults to read the books once or again, the movies may actually be better friends to that brilliant eccentric, the Rev. Charles  Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll), and his bewitching legacy, than the modern day commentators savaging the movie as butchery of the source.

Linda Woolverton continues here from where the first script left off. — with a mature Alice played by Mia Wasikowska with a blonde skinny sumptuousness that suggests a Roman Polanski heroine . Woolverton Alices are feminist rethinkings of the tales and the character. And while I prefer Carroll’s creatures, I can see why the first film grossed a billion or so. In that show, Alice escapes marriage to a chauvinist jerk — Leo Bill as the obnoxious creepy Hamish — by fleeing on the White Rabbit’s trail to Wonderland. There, Wasikowska’s Alice (last name: Kingsleigh) took the lessons she learned in the scrumptious visual fantasy of the first movie and the first Wonderland (or “Underland“ as it was redubbed) and gave him the boot — finding more amicable and fantastic company with the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and his gang.

Now she’s back after a stint at being a ship’s captain: surviving a spectacular storm and returning to England, where the perfidious Hamish is up to his nasty tricks again, trying to foreclose on her ship — and driving her to another escape into Wonderland –ah, Underland — where she finds her old pals, the Hatter and the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the Caterpillar turned Butterfly (the late Alan Rickman, to whom the movie is dedicated).

And plenty more, including Humpty Dumpty (Wally Wingert), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (both played by Matt Lucas , dubbed and doubled), Bayard the Bloodhound (Timothy Spall), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), The White Queen (Anne Hathaway), that old nemesis, the off-with-your-head harridan The Red Queen or Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter), and Alice’s main buddy, the Mad Hatter a.k.a. Tarrant Hightopp. (Johnny Depp), who is now plunged into an all-embracing melancholia that not even one of Fred Astaire‘s Top Hats could cure. All these and a role for Rhys Ifans (Zanik Hightopp, no less, paterfamilias of the Hightopp clan) and another snazzy new character, Time himself, played by a mustachioed swashbuckling Sacha Baron Cohen, with the zest of a Borat, the dash of a Keith Richards and the cracked malice of a Ladykiller. (One of Mackendrick‘s rather than Coens’).

There are worse ways to spend your film going time than with a company like that, set to dancing by Danny Elfman, in a production design by Dan Hennah and sets by Anna Lynch Robinson and Ra Vincent, lit and shot by Stuart Dryburgh. Certainly, a better movie would have restored Alice to her childhood, revived the nonsense of Carroll, and perhaps taken more visual cues from Tenniel. But compared to most of the multi-million dollar bloodbaths we’re offered, this movie has something worth watching — even if it’s only classy Brit actors on toney Brit sets, playing with the remnants of a great book.

The whole picture is often too much of a muchness, too curious a curiosity, too full a bottle, and Woolverton’s script has taken most of the abuse. But at least it’s not a comic book, not even a Classics Illustrated one. There are no car-chases and the world is not about to end, though the Underland might. I’ve seen worse. So have you.

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Wilmington

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin