Alice Through The Looking Glass (3D) **

Alice

The wonder that is Lewis Carroll returns with the loveable Alice in Wonderland characters, but minus his clever, quirky storytelling in director James Bobin and screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s 3D creation, Alice Through the Looking Glass. Thankfully, the visuals capture the imagination and deflect from the lacklustre adventure.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska returning) comes home from her sea travels on her late father’s ship to find her mother, Helen (Lindsay Duncan) being forced to sell the ship (and family business) or forfeit the family home. This threatens to end her independence and adventures.

Alice returns to Wonderland through a looking glass, only to discover that dear old friend Hatter (Johnny Depp) has gone into a deep depression because nobody believes his family are still alive. In order to prove they are and change the cruel course of history, Alice must ‘borrow’ a vital time machine device from Time (Sacha Baron Cohen) and face an old adversary, Iracebeth, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

Bobin has big creative boots to fill in Tim Burton’s absence, and he does an adequate job here, gaining the most he can out of a sparse tale with the acting talent on offer. However, the fault lies more on the writing side. Although Hatter’s family demise is interesting – as is the family breakdown and back story of another key character, there just doesn’t seem to be enough to carry the film past the eye-boggling visuals.

It needs to be brain-bending too, translatable to youngsters but fascinating for adults. The key being main character Alice and why she feels compelled to put it all on the line to uncover Hatter’s mystery and save her own sanity. It just feels too superficial, lazily aimed at the effects-hungry youngsters who should not be underestimated for craving substance either.

That said the likes of Depp, Cohen and Bonham Carter fill the story void, each expertly portraying a wonderful animated character, though lacking the narrative space to fully blossom as we are whisked away on the next whiz-bang effects sequence to solve the Hatter riddle. Wasikowska is again commendable as headstrong Alice who is crushingly vulnerable and immature at times – hence retreating into Wonderland.

Attempting to tackle Alice’s personal struggles, including her mental health and society’s expectations of privileged women of that time is stuff of another more ‘grown up’ film version. However, Alice does wake up in an institution so these aspects are still very relevant and lacking the explanation they deserve – the kids will still ask why she’s bed bound. Just as well the arresting visuals come to the film’s rescue to stop you spending any more time contemplating this oversight.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a feast for the imagination, so the design team has well and truly done its job. It’s Carroll’s eccentric storytelling that’s woefully missing, even while revisiting the individually unique characters.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: The Silent Storm ***

thesilentstorm

May the wrath of God help the last remaining inhabitants of an obscure, wee Scottish Island as documentary maker Corinna McFarlane (Three Miles North of Molkom (2008)) tries her hand at fiction writing and directing with The Silent Storm. It’s a credit to this fledging feature filmmaker that such an impressive cast came onboard – Damian Lewis formerly of Homeland and Andrea Riseborough of Oblivion – and for the most part, she is indebted to them for making any sense of this wild tale.

After the mill closes and the locals must depart for the mainland to earn a living, Protestant preacher Balor (Lewis) and his younger, loyal wife Aislin (Riseborough) remain on a remote Scottish island. The hardline minister is convinced that life (and industry) will return one day soon – and so will his flock. Prone to violent outbursts and abuse, Balor tries to busy himself for that day while Aislin retreats to being at one with nature and her Pagan beliefs in healing, much to her staunch religious husband’s annoyance.

One day, Balor gets a call from a charity that a Glaswegian youth with a supposed past, Fionn (Ross Anderson of Unbroken) will be entrusted into their care, with the hope of ‘curing’ the violent error of his ways. Island outcast Aislin sees a kindred spirit in this young delinquent, and feelings develop between the pair as they spend more time together. They grow stronger when fanatical Balor decides to dismantle the local kirk (church) and take it by boat to the mainland, leaving them alone on the island.

There is something quite engaging about The Silent Storm when the plot is very thin. It’s a combination of the landscape, the rugged weather and some intense performances that prop it up. After trying to work out the time period it’s set in – apparently between World Wars, though it could be anything from the 40s through to the late 50s, the next hurdle before you settle down to the enveloping storm is getting over the bizarre accents.

Both Lewis and Riseborough are naturally captivating, pouring their heart and soul into their bleak portrayals, but speaking in Scottish tongue is not their forte, especially Lewis. In fact, even though we are given clues as to Aislin’s bizarre arrival on the island, she could be anything from Scottish to French to Scandinavian as her accent continually morphs and is distracting. The only reason for her marriage to controlling Balor is one of being press-ganged into the union, perhaps, or out of safety and harms way from the other religious islanders.

The cinematography fuels the mood swings this film has, with warmer colours – and more colourful clothing for Aislin when her husband’s away – contrasted with a stormy, Turner-styled palette for painting the black, alcohol-fuelled scenes with barmy Balor. This is equally effective in setting the atmosphere, but could just be another well-intentioned diversion from the limited plot.

The story takes a trippy turn when Aislin and Fionn spend a day away in the forest, completely changing the film’s tempo and injecting some (unintentional) humour. It seems McFarlane may have spent too much time back in 2008 with the inhabitants of Ängsbacka, and wants to recreate those fun-filled hippy moments in this. It just confuses matters, taking us away from the solitary confinement that the film does well to create.

Still, the director copes well with killing the happy, clappy mood, back at the Balor house. And just when there seems to be almighty fallout building when the preacher finds out, things fizzle out before all hell is unleashed. Again, Lewis and co keep the acute tension in their love triangle tight and suffocating – it’s just anyone’s guess as to where things go next.

The Silent Storm is a fair effort in feature filmmaking, but perhaps, McFarlane should tackle another stronger writer’s material in future with the same kind of tools and talent. That said those who can’t get enough of Lewis and Riseborough will not be disappointed. Whether this indie film makes enough of a rumble at the box office is anyone’s guess too.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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A Hologram For The King ****

Hologram

It appears Tom Hanks can do no wrong. A Hologram for the King offers yet another troubled character for Hanks to fully embody and us to fully support. It’s also a curious sunny postcard for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) – even though it wasn’t really shot there, with Morocco and Egypt being the real stars. It also has quite an original story to tell, albeit veiling the standard one of a down-on-their-luck lead blossoming under the right circumstances.

Hank is failed American businessman Alan, who once had the gift of the salesman gab, but is on his last chance to sell a company’s hologram conferencing technology to the Saudi King. Battling jet lag, the Kingdom’s lax time-keeping and personal demons, Alan finds solace in his new foreign host.

Writer-director Tom Tykwer’s film adaptation of Dave Eggers’s novel starts off in sardonic fashion with a quasi music-video intro, starring Hanks, inspired by Talking Heads ‘Once in a Lifetime’. Hanks is becoming quite the veteran music-video star, having recently appeared in Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘I Really Like You’ video. Hence, this intro is another delight to witness. What follows next is a beleaguered middle-aged man on a business trip and an odd life journey, out of his depth but trying to get a grip.

Rather than filmed in a scatty, slapstick manner about a man losing control, Tykwer’s film’s pace lingers to allow you to get a sense of the passing of time as we wait for the ever absent king. In doing so, this really places the focus on Alan and allows Hanks to shine in all his gurning glory, acting out Alan’s full spectrum of emotions. This is done as a comedy of errors, with supporting character, quirky driver Yousef (a brilliant Alexander Black) providing just the right amount of tomfoolery to keep things this side of comical.

British born actress Sarita Choudhury is like a mirage of mystery in the desert setting, playing Zahra, a doctor that tends to Alan. The frustration (as a Western woman) is how much more we want to know about her intriguing character. She is an independent woman living in a traditionally restricted country for women. There is a liberating ending which gives opportunity to do this but might spoil her mystique. Perhaps, withholding information is what makes the whole affair more compelling.

KSA’s human rights record and its other customs are touched upon only lightly – such as Yousef comments on a ghoulish Saturday ritual on route to a bizarre millionaire’s barren development, where Alan’s audience with the King is due to take place. This does keep the personal story on track, though this might infuriate some as desensitizing important issues. However, the film’s writers do not shy away from giving firm nods, even to terrorism in a couple of situations. Overall, things are played rather safe.

A Hologram for the King deals with an age-old situation of mid-life burnout within a fascinating environment, but without judgment – even at the end when differences are resolved without dialogue being heard. Hanks fans are in for a unique treat in the Middle Eastern sun.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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X-Men: Apocalypse (3D) ***

xmen-apoc

Yet more superhuman powers on show at the hands of futuristic franchise director Bryan Singer and a plethora of characters to indulge in for fans, X-Men: Apocalypse (3D) serves as the next episode in the story saga quite adequately. Even though it has perhaps the most simplistic plotline to date, it does pack a lot in. Some might argue too much.

The world’s first mutant En Sabah Nur or ‘Apocalypse’ (Oscar Isaac) who accommodates powers of subsequent mutants awakes from his tomb, set to put the Earth back to its basic state under his rule. He plans to do this with the help of four henchmen mutants – one of whom is a familiar face. It is up to Professor Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) students, present and past, to stop the Apocalypse.

Singer emerses us in the powerful world of the mutant once more – and that of the Professor’s mind that takes its biggest beating so far this time around. The director is always reliable for creating a grand spectacle, and fans will not be disappointed again in their creative master’s output – even though some of the earlier effect feel a tad under developed. That constant battle to live in harmony with the humans is also there.

The problem lies with the average plot. Although a promising villain, all Apocalyse appears to do is arrive, ‘pose’ and say something menacing, like some angst-y lead in a music band’s pop video. There never seems to be enough dramatic rage to really fear this character’s wrath and full potential. In fact that’s just it about the film; it lacks potential as a strong standalone. Indeed, there are the thrills of seeing the gang back together in one cause – well, a big thrill for fans of one particular character who does hop it as soon as he’s cause a bit of mayhem. This is where the films are strongest when the mutant crew stand side by side.

It could be said that Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has too little to do in this, short of be the new recruits’ pin-up. However, she does leave the stage open for us to get to know the newer characters like powerful Jean Grey (Sophie Turner from Game of Thrones), endearing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and troubled Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), as well as enjoy more zany antics from resident comedy mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters). And this film still has a lot of humour that nicely counterbalances the personal struggles of those new characters given the run-time to show their inner conflicts. As for the oldies, it is much more of the same to the point of character fatigue.

Apocalypse, though perfectly watchable, should feel like the beginning of the end (with more episodes to come) and invigorate the series. It really does feel like the emphasis lies firmly on the youthful new characters’ shoulders to keep things fresh as the mutants (oddballs) struggle to fit in with society again – something that the viewer will always empathise with and that the saga always gets right.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ****

WTF

This is one of those films where the trailer tries to ‘humourise’ a serious subject, blatantly using the comedic reputation of its star, Tina Fey. Naturally and effortlessly funny, Fey has instant kudos to headline a film. However, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot actually has that M*A*S*H irony to it, where the humour is subtle and sardonic, but still with lighter punch lines to lift the mood. In fact, those who have been fortunate enough to see LFF 2015’s black comedy A Perfect Day will immediately get what it’s trying to achieve.

Based on a true story, stuck in a dead-end newsroom role, journalist Kim Baker (Fey) – unmarried and without kids – volunteers to cover the early 2000 Afghanistan war for one of the big American broadcasters. This is the story of the highs and lows of how she builds up her career as a war correspondent on camera and the people she encounters – like fellow photo journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), and finding love along the way (played by Martin Freeman).

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is obviously guilty of glossing over some of the ugliness and humdrum moments of being a foreign war correspondent. However, from news agency experience, what it does capture very well is the insanity of the situation; of how the incredible becomes the norm. It’s that bubble of Western society functioning autonomously when the camera is switched off for the day.

Fey is a natural lead choice here, complete with that approachable combination of smart and witty that you can almost imagine the actress herself stepping in the real-life reporting role. In fact, Fey cast opposite Robbie as Vanderpoel highlights the absurdity of the latter’s ‘Hollywood looks’ added to glamorize the seriousness of the situation. However, with a nod to her appearance at the very start of Baker and Vanderpoel’s first meet, Robbie soon wins credibility and establishes herself as a worthy co-star in this.

More curious is Freeman’s turn. As Scottish war photographer and confident ladies man Iain MacKelpie, you’re forever waiting for his slapstick moment to happen. There are always elements of The Office’s Canterbury in his delivery. Not only does Freeman hold down a convincing accent throughout, but he also uses humour to diffuse the dangerous environment his character encounters. It’s fascinating to watch him in this straighter role.

Less convincing is Alfred Molina as local power figure Ali Massoud Sadiq. Although amusing to watch as the scheming and untrustworthy bureaucrat, Molina seems a lazy casting option as yet another semi-villainous type. It perhaps needed a lesser known face to give the sense of Baker being initially out of her depth in the country.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot does have a natural energy and kinesis to it from the ever present danger of something erupting – good or bad. The subject matter makes for great movie matter anyway. With Fey at the helm, you do feel reassured of the journey you take into foreign territory – from a comfortable distance too.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Ratchet and Clank ***

ratchetclank

Unless you’re a PlayStation fan, the names Ratchet and Clank will fail to register. They are, however, the established animated stars of a sci-fi gaming franchise and now, of a family movie of the same name. Gamers will find nothing new with the big-screen outing. But kids seem to respond to the characters, which are made for a big-screen adventure. Just as well as this is all it takes to will them – and the film – along on its (rather predictable) trajectory.

Squirrel/cat cross Ratchet (voiced by James Arnold Taylor) works at a garage but longs for the day he can join the much lauded Galactic Rangers who defend the Solana Galaxy. He gets his chance to try out for the crew but fails to impress.

Meanwhile, an evil alien called Chairman Drek (Paul Giamatti) is intent on destroying all the planets, with the help of a robotic army created by sidekick Dr Nefarious (Armin Shimerman). One defective robot called Clank (David Kaye) encounters Ratchet, and the two join forces to stop Drek on his dastardly mission.

This rehash of the popular gaming plots is both a comfort and a curse – great to see something familiar played out on film but lazy in ideas when the writers really needed to deliver fresh ones to rival a Pixar production, say. In its defence, they have merely recreated the environment fans are used to seeing Ratchet and Clank in, so it’s hardly surprising either.

Like all family films, everything is on speed, including the leads. Thankfully, the studio decided not to cash in on family 3D ticket prices or they would have had to dish out painkillers afterwards for the oldies. It also means small kids can enjoy the frenetic pace without tackling over-sized 3D specs throughout.

Though the film delivers absolutely nothing new – in fact, it’s like watching a hyper-animated Star Wars version of WALL.E at times, it does have some funny lines and observations to keep adults sane and chuckling. For example, the culture of texting every detail of one’s existence gets a ribbing here, though the joke becomes as tired as Dad’s puns in the end.

Ratchet and Clank themselves cannot fail to be likeable, with the latter and his grounded principles a great role model for the kiddies and sporting new converts straight after the viewing – much like WALL.E did. Drek and Dr Nefarious are carbon ‘baddie’ copies from other films but have enough collective villainy to satisfy the average plot – and Giamatti and Shimerman obviously had fun bringing them to life.

Ratchet and Clank is an enjoyable but too safe reproduction (in effects and plotline) designed to introduce newbies to the characters – as the ending suggests a follow-up is on the cards. They do get you on side straightway with their infectious enthusiasm to put wrongs to right. Now we’ve met them, can we please give our unlikely heroes a meatier, more substantial adventure to go on next time around?

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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