Reel Reviews

‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’

A-II -- adults and adolescents


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Alice we hardly knew you

The heroine of “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (Disney) is not Lewis Carroll’s curious 7-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 3-D 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, and 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 reemerges 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.

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.

The film contains frequent, moderately intense fantasy action, several instances of cruel behavior, 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, Catholic News Service.

‘Last Days in the Desert’

A-III – adults


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Another confused Messiah movie

“Who do you say that I am?” As has often been pointed out, this question -- originally posed by Jesus to the 12 Apostles -- is in fact a decisive inquiry directed by the Savior at each and every human being.

In crafting his thoughtful, but ultimately unsatisfying, religious drama “Last Days in the Desert” (Broad Green), writer-director Rodrigo Garcia attempts to sidestep this crucial issue of identity. His respectful ambivalence toward his possibly divine -- but possibly merely human -- protagonist not only undercuts the film’s appeal for believers, it creates some aesthetic confusion as well.

The script embroiders on the biblical story of Jesus’ 40 days spent fasting and praying in the desert. Toward the end of that period, Garcia imagines an encounter between the Lord – here called by his Hebrew name, Yeshua, and played by Ewan McGregor -- and a family of wilderness dwellers.

Oppressed by prolonged solitude and by God’s apparent absence – the first line of dialogue is his plaintive cry, “Father, where are you?” – Yeshua, though initially wary of human contact, finds temporary relief in his interaction with the clan. Yet, as he becomes emotionally invested in their problems, the situation grows more complicated and the tone darker.

The unnamed trio of relatives faces difficulties both spiritual and physical. The Father (Ciaran Hinds) and his teen son (Tye Sheridan) are in conflict over the lad’s future, while the Mother (Ayelet Zurer) is beset by an unidentified illness that seems certain to prove fatal.

Yeshua tries to reconcile the uncommunicative dad with his ambitious child. The latter’s longing to immerse himself in the wonders of urban life by leaving the wasteland behind and moving to Jerusalem clouds his genuine love for his affectionate but controlling father.

The parallels between this oedipal face-off and Yeshua’s unstable relations with his heavenly Father are one of the movie’s more obvious themes. Issues of mortality and loss, meanwhile, are highlighted as Mom’s strong personality struggles to shine through her failing frame – and as her husband contemplates his future without her.

Watching all of this with mocking spite, and doing his best to sow doubt in Yeshua’s mind concerning his fitness for his impending mission, is the Devil (also McGregor) who manifests himself as his adversary’s double.

Moviegoers well versed in the Scriptures will find Garcia’s bobbing and weaving, as he struggles to avoid taking a definitive stand on his lead’s true nature, both confusing and frustrating. Yeshua stoutly upholds his unique status as Son of God in the face of Satan’s challenge on that score. Yet, in glaring contrast with the Jesus of the Gospels, he fails to contradict the Father’s weary denial of an afterlife.

Similarly, a moment of compelling, if unspoken, epiphany during which a character seems to perceive Yeshua’s divinity is followed by a crucifixion and burial sequence that remains mute on the pivotal subject of the Resurrection.

While few of the usual red-flag elements are present, this unsettled outlook on one of the most vital tenets of the Christian faith makes “Last Days in the Desert” inappropriate fare for all but well-catechized grownups.

They’ll find the picture’s striking cinematography and its cast’s high level of artistic commitment offset by a sluggishly paced plot that fails to evoke as much interest in viewers as it does in the central figure about whom its primary creator remains so resolutely irresolute.

The film contains religious themes requiring mature discernment, brief partial nudity and momentary scatological humor. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

Monthly List of Recent Film Ratings (June 2015)

CNS classifications: A-I: general patronage; A-II: adults and adolescents; A-III: adults; L: limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling; O: morally offensive.
MPAA ratings: G: general audiences. All ages admitted; PG: parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13: parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R: restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian; NC-17: no one 17 and under admitted.

The Age of Adaline, A-III (PG-13)
Aloha, A-II (PG-13)
Avengers: Age of Ultron, A-III (PG-13)
The Awakening, A-III (R)
Begin Again, A-III (R)
Chappie, L (R)
Child 44, A-III (R)
Cinderella, A-I (PG)
The D Train, O (R)
Danny Collins, A-III (R)
The Divergent Series: Insurgent, A-III (PG-13)
Do You Believe?, A-II (PG-13)
Dream House, L (PG-13)
The DUFF, A-III (PG-13)
Ex Machina, O (R)
Far from the Madding Crowd, A-II (PG-13)
Focus, L (R)
Furious 7, A-III (PG-13)
Get Hard, O (R)
The Gunman, L (R)
Home, A-I (PG)
Hot Pursuit, A-III (PG-13)
It Follows, O (R)
Jupiter Ascending, A-III (PG-13)
Kingsman: The Secret Service, A-III (R)
The Last Exorcism Part II, L (PG-13)
The Lazarus Effect, A-III (PG-13)
Little Boy, A-II (PG-13)
The Longest Ride, A-III (PG-13)
Mad Max: Fury Road, L (R)
Marie's Story, A-II (not rated)
McFarland, USA, A-II (PG)
Monkey Kingdom, A-I (G)
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, A-I (PG)
Pitch Perfect 2, A-III (PG-13)
Poltergeist, A-III (PG-13)
Project Almanac, A-III (PG-13)
The Pyramid, A-III (R)
Run All Night, L (R)
San Andreas, A-III (PG-13)
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, A-III (PG)
Seventh Son, A-II (PG-13)
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, A-I (PG)
Tomorrowland, A-II (PG)
The Trip to Italy, A-III (not rated)
True Story, A-III (R)
Unfinished Business, O (R)
Unfriended, O (R)
The Water Diviner, A-III (R)
Woman in Gold, A-II (PG-13)

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops