Shalom Life | December 19, 2014

Cole Smithey reviews this week's new releases

Cole Smithey reviews this week's new releases.

Cole Smithey reviews this week's new releases

Relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska is ideal as the ever-curious Alice Kingsleigh in Tim Burton's thematically juiced up adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Presented in 3D, Burton's prodigious aptitude for filigree filled fantasy takes center stage after 19-year-old Alice steps away from a 19th century garden party marriage proposal by an unfit suitor named Hamish. The lass who likes to boast that she can imagine "six impossible things before breakfast" follows a waist-coated white rabbit down a giant hole to an extraordinary location called Underland. Size being an issue in Underland, it takes a few tries before Alice is able to shrink and expand to a scale that will accommodate the surreal universe of her imaginings.

An especially unhelpful dormouse, a blue-striped Cheshire cat, and a doubting caterpillar named Absolim question Alice's identity as the real Alice. But our headstrong freethinker takes solace in the nature of her dream state as a path that she designs. A messy tea party with Johnny Depp's schizophrenic Mad Hatter leads Alice on a journey inside the gates of the Red Queen's castle where Helena Bonham Carter's cranially challenged Queen reigns with the frequently repeated command "Off with his head." Crispin Glover chews up scenery as Stayne-Knave of Hearts, the Queen's evil-doing knight, and Anne Hathaway adds kooky charm to the Red Queen's kinder sibling counterpart, the White Queen. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton keeps the thematic emphasis on Alice's potential for ignoring the demands of social convention and independently facing up to the imminent challenge that awaits her, namely a giant winged monster called the Jabberwocky. It's difficult to imagine another modern filmmaker doing this degree of justice to this well-worn but deserving children's tale. Tim Burton has created a classic for generations to come.

Rated PG. 109 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of 5/no halves)

The Ghost Writer

It's a big deal when Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski release mystery thrillers in the same week. Coincidentally, Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer are both set on islands and both begin with the arrival of a boat coming directly into the frame. "The Ghost Writer" draws the short straw against Scorsese's stronger effort, but that's not to say Polanski has lost his touch. Co-written by Polanski with political journalist Robert Harris, upon whose novel the film is based, The Ghost Writer is full of plot holes yet still entices.

Ewan McGregor plays an unnamed English writer who takes up a surprisingly dangerous job, as a ghostwriter/autobiographer for Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a former British prime minister accused of war crimes. Following the mysterious drowning death of his literary predecessor, McGregor's ghostwriter sets up temporary shop in his publisher's American bunker-styled beachfront home, which Lang shares with his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and his mistress-assistant Amelia (Kim Cattrall). Leaked information about Lang's involvement in the "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects forces Lang to take off on a United States PR tour to staunch his public bleeding in the media. Meanwhile, the ghostwriter digs deeper into Lang's past, where disturbing secrets lie waiting. Despite Robert Harris's personal experience as a journalist once close to Tony Blair, upon whom Adam Lang is clearly modeled, the screenwriter fails to sufficiently ignite explosive plot points for Polanski to examine under his camera's steady gaze.

(Summit Entertainment) Rated PG-13. 128 mins.


(B-) (Three Stars - out of 5/no halves)

Brooklyn’s Finest

Director Antoine Fuqua returns to the gritty cop drama genre that made him a household name in 2001 with Training Day. This time around, East Brooklyn's 65th precinct is home to three police officers whose ethical compasses are way off—in ways we’ve all seen before. By tackling cop drama conventions head-on, screenwriter Michael C. Martin puts a fine point on the chronic temptations and struggles that urban cops face. Fuqua massages the script's obvious clichés with a sense of personal attachment to his characters that makes you believe in them. The extraordinary demands on underpaid cops, this film seems to say, is the same no matter what big city they work in. There's nothing simple or pretty about any of it. It's still a lot closer to the truth, and more entertaining, than any episode of Law & Order.

Richard Gere plays Eddie Dugan, a burned-out, lonely cop lost on the other side of the spectrum that Travis occupied in Taxi Driver. He frequents the same prostitute that his police peers visit, and doesn't mind waiting in the hallway for his turn at a woman who represents the only kind of love he can imagine. Dugan even tries to woo her away with a knuckleheaded retirement fantasy that is probably the only dream that keeps him hanging on. To work so hard, for so long, at a thanklessly underpaid job that has robbed his soul, Dugan has held up remarkably well. But there won’t be a bright side even after he's unceremoniously released from active duty.

Like any good family man, officer Sal Procida (Ethan Hawke) wants the best for his ailing pregnant wife (Lili Taylor) and their five kids. But they are cash-strapped and their home is under attack from toxic mold. Naturally, stealing money from drug busts seems like the way out of his predicament.

Undercover drug agent Tango (Don Cheadle) has been "under" for so long that he barely knows which side he's on anymore. A helpless pawn in the department's game, Tango carries around a compressed energy that threatens to explode without warning. His bosses bait him along with the promise of a desk job, but deep down he knows they'll never give him the promotion he's already earned four times over. Like Dugan, Tango is burned out. Because of the suppressive nature of his work, he's had to compartmentalize his emotions and personality in an unnatural way.

Wesley Snipes makes a strong appearance as Caz, a drug lord and best friend to Tango. Caz’s decision to get out of the business before it gets him can't come soon enough.

Brooklyn's Finest doesn't pretend to sugarcoat anything. Just as easily as the film can be viewed as a retread of every other cop drama, it can be seen as part of an ongoing effort from filmmakers demanding changes in a public system that doesn't work. American citizens are beyond fed up with the way police departments handle crime in their cities. The cops who do the job for any period of time build up an incredible amount of resentment against their superiors and the citizens they're entrusted to serve. From this perspective, Antoine Fuqua is doing his due diligence as a concerned citizen.

(Overture Films) Rated R. 125 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of 5/no halves)

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