(Netflix Streaming, July 2018) Considering that I really disliked the 2010 Tim Burton live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland (for being dull and ugly, mainly, but also useless), I really didn’t have very high expectations for the sequel, and in fact delayed its viewing for more than a year before its impending disappearance from Netflix hurried matters along. To my surprise, I actually liked Alice through the Looking Glass a bit better. But here’s the crucial distinction: I liked the aspects of the sequel that wandered further from the original, and still disliked whatever linked the film to its predecessor. I’ll allow that Mia Wasikowska is fine as the lead actress. Otherwise, though, the farther away the film runs with its time-traveling concept, the better it becomes. Alice through the Looking Glass never breaks out of the increasingly mechanistic nature of 2010s fantasy films, but it does have some fun along the way, playing with grand visuals and peeking at younger (and less ugly) versions of the characters. Heck, even the story is slightly more original than the usual time-travel stuff. Even the chronological theme does harken back to the Lewis Carroll mathematical games in the original novel. It’s when the sequel clings to the original that it becomes much weaker. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is just as annoying as in the first film, Helena Bonham Carter’s character is still grotesque, and what the heck is Anne Hathaway doing with her hands in that role? Pink’s catchy “Just Like Fire” anthem song makes for a nice single illustrating an expensive-looking end credit sequence but has nothing to do with anything in the film, the series or Lewis’ legacy. As for the science-fictional devices, forget it – time-travel here is a story device that explicitly positions itself as taking place in an unchanging timeline. Even the framing device fails to find a satisfying denouement, showing quite a bit of laziness in the story department that fails to properly support the visual aspect of the film. And I won’t talk about the inevitable tendency of modern sequels to over-explain everything in their entire pocket universe. I still don’t think Alice through the Looking Glass is a good movie, but at least it’s better than its predecessor, and it offers a few good moments even as the rest of the film drowns it in market-mandatory mediocrity.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) Oh, what a fiendishly troubled family relationship is set up in Stoker‘s unapologetic gothic madness. Big foreboding house, dead father, crazy mother, troubled daughter and deranged uncle: it’s all there, along with generous helpings of tentative incest and confirmed murder. It takes a special kind of audience to play along, but director Park Chan-wook’s stylish direction means that everything look good even as the script makes no effort to be anything but a deep genre homage. The film surely takes its own time setting up all of its elements: Stoker is moody and contemplative at the best of time. It doesn’t help that the entire film exists in its own reality out of time, the characters living in personal orbits that have more to do with Hitchcockian homage than anything else. Mia Wasikowska is remarkable as the introspective teenage heroine, easily stealing the spotlight away from Nicole Kidman’s by-the-number deranged mother, but it’s Matthew Goode who gets the acclaim with his Anthony-Perkinsesque role as the visiting Uncle Charles, as his handsome features barely disguise a completely demented mind. The best moments of the film are in the heroine’s reactions to his psychopathy, as they take us farther from classical gothic thrillers and into something quite a bit more twisted. And then there’s the sumptuous direction, which imbues a great deal of class to a script that could have been handled as schlock in less-experienced hands. Where Stoker isn’t as successful is in doing anything with the elements at its disposition. Much of the third-act revelations are obvious, whereas what actually happens during the conclusion feels a bit flat despite the increasing amount of blood being spilled. Stoker makes more sense on a shot-per-shot basis than a sustained film, but the direction is so striking at times that it’s hard to be all that disappointed in the result.