REVIEW – ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’

For a studio experiencing an impressive dream-run lately, Disney takes its first major misstep in months with Alice Through the Looking Glass; a film that improves on the previous chapter, but given that chapter was an insufferable bore, that’s not really saying a whole lot.

Following the well-worn “nobody really asked for this sequel, but the original made too much money not to make one” path, similarly paved earlier this year by Huntsman: Winter’s War, James Bobin’s Alice Through the Looking Glass unfortunately suffers from the same disappointing problem as Tim Burton’s original film – visually impressive but narratively dull.

As we re-join our heroine Alice (a determined and impressive Mia Wasikowska), we find her content in her new role as brave sea captain (yeah, just go with it…), in an opening naval sequence so ridiculously far-fetched, you’d be remiss for thinking she’s already found herself back in Underland…or in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Upon her return to dry land, Alice soon discovers all is not well. Her mother (Lindsay Duncan) has mortgaged the family estate to the oafish Lord Ascot (Leo Bill), the man Alice jilted at the alter in the first film. Hell-bent on petty revenge, Ascot delivers Alice an ultimatum; sign away the deed to her late father’s ship and relinquish her captaincy or risk losing the family home altogether.

Right on cue, Alice spots the familiar blue butterfly, Absolem (voiced by the late great Alan Rickman), and escapes her real-life problems by following him through the looking glass (evidently we’re not allowed to call it a mirror) back to Underland, where, alas, all is also not well. Alice’s old pal Mirana the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, chewing every piece of scenery around her) desperately needs her help, yet again.

It seems Alice’s beloved Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp in all his Johnny Depp-ness) is now in-fact Sad Hatter (sorry, that had to be done), and can’t shake the impossible notion his entire family is actually still alive, despite the first film clearly stating they were all slaughtered by the Jabberwocky. When our heroine decrees the notion simply to be too impossible to be true, Hatter enters a black hole of depression and down a path to certain death.

So, what’s a girl to do? Jump inside a grandfather clock and set about journeying back in time to change the past and save Hatter’s family from the clutches of doom, of course! This convoluted plot, made all the more ridiculous by several characters bluntly stating several times that you cannot change the past, involves Alice stealing the mythical Time Turner Chronosphere from the hands of the human-personification of Time (Sasha Baron-Cohen, in a marvelous return-to-form), and sailing across the literal oceans of the past. See because she’s a sea captain, remember?

Along the way, we discover the film’s far more enjoyable subplot involving the familial drama of warring sisters Mirana and Iracebeth (Helena Botham Carter, once again stealing the whole film). It seems a mysterious event from the sisters’ childhood evidently set Iracebeth’s evil ways into motion, so she too has her own plans for the Chronosphere. Plus she’s also enjoying a rather bizarre sadomasochistic relationship with Time, and their scenes together are one of the film’s few highlights.

Unfortunately this “let’s unnecessarily fill in a character’s backstory” sidestep falls into the same idiocy as Maleficent, with its incessant need to prove Disney’s most evil of villains are not in-fact evil, but rather merely misunderstood victims, suffering from unresolved childhood traumas. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’m satisfied with my Disney villains being evil purely for the sake of evil. Clearly that’s not the intent of these live-action remakes. Lord knows what they’ll make of Cruella de Vil…

Ultimately, it’s hard not to be impressed by the visual world surrounded the frustrating narrative mess. Much like the previous chapter, the stand-out here is the costuming, crafted expertly by Colleen Atwood (who will no doubt be up for her 12th Oscar nom), and Dan Hennah’s production design, which utilises every possible tool of technology to create the vast and dazzling lands of Underworld.

If nothing else, the entire piece is a glorious feast for the eyes, even if it is slightly missing some of Burton’s distinctive quirky charm and colour. Time’s spectacular Gothic-style castle is a particular triumph, as is Iracebeth’s vine-covered manor. If you go into this film expecting to see lots of pretty things and nothing more, you’ll likely be satisfied.

But when compared to the triumphs that were The Jungle Book and Cinderella, Alice Through the Looking Glass is sadly another disappointing example of stunning visual design doing everything it can to mask a film without the narrative and characters to back it up.

★1/2

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REVIEW – ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’

Perhaps the most awkwardly ironic moment during the over-bloated mess that is X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer’s latest chapter in the X-Men reboot trilogy, takes place after several characters leave a cinema showing Return of the Jedi. In an obviously snarky stab at X-Men: The Last Stand, one character is heard to remark something along the lines of “We all know the third movie is always the worst.” Pot, meet kettle…

If you’ve seen the trailer, you already know everything there is to know about the plot of this film. And every single one of its overblown set-pieces. And its best (and worst) lines. And its biggest surprises (that Wolverine cameo could have been delicious, if we weren’t already anticipating it). But for those unaware, let’s break it down.

A long time ago in a pyramid far, far away, the world’s first Blue Man Group member mutant Apocalypse (a criminally-underused Oscar Isaac) is duped by the local Egyptians (surprisingly not played by white people) and, through the most elaborate game of Mouse Trap you will ever see, is buried alive by the collapse of said pyramid. But you can’t keep a good blue mutant down for too long, and as we enter the dawn of the 1980s, he returns to destroy us all.

Enter the X-Men…or more accurately, a couple of X-Men, and their adolescent trainee wannabe X-Men. Charles Xavier aka Professor X (James McAvoy) is once again overseeing his high school for the extraordinary, while pining for his lost love Moira (Rose Byrne, who we learn was absent from Days of Future Past due to the Professor meddling with her memory…for some unknown reason).

Erik Lehnsherr aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender, once again stealing the show) is laying low in Germany and playing happy families with a new wife and daughter, until an unspeakable tragedy (the film’s only triumphant moment) sets him on a path to Apocalypse’s side for world domination.

Raven aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, contractually phoning it in, yet again), who after the events of the last film, is desperately attempting to escape her new status as saviour of the world…but given her mutant ability is shape-shifting, this apparent struggle is hard to stomach.

Oh, and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) aka Beast is also back, but evidently he’s gone all Bruce Banner and found a way to chemically control the animal within. Sadly, this now makes him about as interesting as a wet mop.

Along the way we meet familiar names played by shiny new actors like Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angel, and Nightcrawler, in all their pubescent and awkward glory (Nightcrawler is particularly insufferable), plus new additions like girl with purple sword arm thing (I think they say her name once…) and girl who may or may not be Storm but definitely, absolutely is Storm.

And then our old mate Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, still badly attempting to look like hasn’t aged since the first film) shows up for his obligatory moment in the spotlight, purely because 20th Century Fox needs to remind you his next solo film is coming soon and you should be totally psyched.

Thankfully, much like the previous film, the bright spark here is Peter Maximoff aka Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Like his impeccable character work on American Horror Story, Peters’ charming performance is rather captivating to watch, and it’s a genuine shame he’s not featured more prominently. Sadly, his big super-slo-mo sequence is really just a rehash of what we saw in Days of Future Past. There’s also one important plot-point in his storyline that is mind-numbingly not fully explored, for some inexplicable reason.

The rest of the film’s plot is nauseatingly predictable. Apocalypse sets about bringing the Earth’s destruction. The X-Men suit up to stop him. Battles ensure. Stuff gets destroyed. All seems lost. Yada, yada, yada. But ultimately none of this provides anything even remotely memorable. That’s largely why this film fails so spectacularly. It suffers from an inability to give us anything we haven’t seen before. It’s this kind of lazy franchise filmmaking that ultimately creates a yawn-inducing piece of cinema that is genuinely dull to watch. Sure, there is a lot happening in this film (perhaps even too much), but there’s really nothing to grab your interest, particularly if you’ve seen the other 5 films in the series.

Mutants struggling with their new powers. Humanity struggling with the presence of mutants. Characters seemingly on the brink of death before being miraculously saved at the last second. One all-powerful mutant on a mission to destroy all humans and claim Earth for mutant-kind. Magneto destroying everything around him (including the Sydney Opera House, for some strange reason). Things blowing up. Stuff flying everywhere. The end is nigh…or is it? Been there. Done that. Several times, in fact.

Adding to this, the screenplay is particularly atrocious. Practically every line out of every character’s mouth is comprised of some ominous warning of impending doom, particularly those delivered with bizarrely-slow articulation by Apocalypse. Put it this way – if you loved Oscar Isaac in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, prepare to hate him with the intensity of a thousand white-hot suns after this. Not that it’s entirely his fault. There seems to be this awful attempt by the screenplay and direction to have the audience cower in fear at every word he bluntly delivers, but it seemed to create far more laughs in my cinema than anything.

Sadly it all adds up to an entirely forgettable summer blockbuster, made all the more worse by recent films in the superhero genre showing us how its really done. When all you’re doing is repeating yourself, while terribly overloading a film with far too many characters and far too few narrative developments, you’re giving the audience very little to enjoy.

Perhaps that’s what made Singer’s original X-Men films so enthralling. It was all brand new. It was unlike anything we’d seen before. But after six X-Men films (or eight, if you count the solo adventures of Wolverine), and the exhausting plethora of other superhero movies in recent years, it just feels like a case of been there, done that.

In a year with something as excitingly-fresh and bold as Deadpool, and something as genuinely entertaining and enthralling as Captain America: Civil War, something like X-Men: Apocalypse just doesn’t cut it.

★1/2