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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of May 19 





ALICE IN WONDERLAND Here’s the problem with the vast majority of movies based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass: They’re too tame, too hesitant and too conventional to really tap into the more unsettling aspects of an immortal fantasy that provides as much satisfaction for adults as for children. And now, falling down the rabbit hole of good intentions, is Tim Burton’s new take on the classic, a visually stimulating rendition that nevertheless comes off as lamentably timid. Carroll’s 7-year-old protagonist has been transformed into a 19-year-old heroine (played by Mia Wasikowska), who escapes from a dull Victorian-era garden party only to find herself tumbling into the strange world known as “Underland.” She quickly comes to learn that this mysterious place is ruled by the wicked Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who has usurped the throne from her saintly sister, the now-banished White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Convinced that it’s all only a dream, Alice largely stumbles from one incident to the next; her strongest ally proves to be The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who lost his marbles at the same time the White Queen lost her empire. Providing unnecessary backstory to an established character like the Hatter is the sort of boxed-in thinking that often torpedoes the picture. The changes made to the source material are, almost without exception, devoid of true vision or imagination, meaning that the most demented moments need to be embraced whenever they sporadically appear. The only cast member who truly excels is Bonham Carter, whose performance is outrageous enough to meet the demands of the Red Queen’s excesses yet also allows a smidgen of pity to be applied toward the character’s resigned awareness of her own deformity. The actress clearly holds the winning hand here, trumping all other players in this rickety house of cards.  **1/2


THE BACK-UP PLAN Jennifer Lopez’s first screen outing in four years isn’t a motion picture so much as it’s a new form of Chinese water torture: Seemingly innocuous at first, it continues to pelt the viewer with one abysmal scene after another until insanity seems like the only logical result. Lopez stars as Zoe, a single woman who, tired of waiting for Mr. Right while her biological clock continues to tick away, elects to conceive through artificial insemination. But wouldn’t you know it, as she walks out of the clinic, she bumps into a charismatic cheesemaker named Stan (Alex O’Loughlin), and they begin dating. Zoe waits until Stan falls in love with — and makes love to — her before she alerts  him to the fact that she’s pregnant and that he’ll have to deal with this issue if he wants to permanently commit to her. Zoe’s actions throughout the picture make her a particularly odious heroine, but that’s the least of this film’s problems: More detrimental are the slapstick gags scripted by Kate Angelo and directed by Alan Poul, including (but not limited to) the scene in which Zoe wrestles with her dog for possession of a pregnancy test stick and the sequence in which a woman gives birth in a bathtub while members of her single-mom support group chant around her (speaking of the support group, this movie exhibits nothing but contempt and derision toward single women). There’s also the usual rom-com character of the outspoken best friend (Michaela Watkins) whose wisecracks are supposed to be funny but are instead merely obnoxious, the expected cutaway shots to the mutt whimpering or barking whenever one of the humans says something stupid (needless to say, this happens frequently), and an unhealthy obsession with scatological humor. The only bright spot is seeing ‘70s sitcom vets Linda Lavin (Alice) and Tom Bosley (Happy Days) in minor roles; the rest is unspeakably awful.  *


THE BOOK OF ELI Talk about apocalypse now. If there’s one positive thing to be said about the sudden glut of end-of-the-world tales, it’s that the batting average in terms of quality has been on the winning side. Certainly, 2012 was a stinker, but The Road, Zombieland, Terminator Salvation and now The Book of Eli have all been compelling watches, each for different reasons. In the case of The Book of Eli, the first film directed by The Hughes Brothers since 2001’s criminally underrated Johnny-Depp-meets-Jack-the-Ripper movie From Hell, it’s the potent religious slant that makes it intriguing. Thirty years after a war that wiped out most of the world’s population, only one Bible remains in existence. The righteous Eli (Denzel Washington) owns it, planning to use it for good; the despicable Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants it, planning to use it to forward his own insidious agenda (no mention in Gary Whitta’s script as to whether Carnegie is related to Pat Robertson). Admittedly, the spiritual stuff often takes a back seat to sequences of Eli slicing and dicing his way through hordes of sinners. But Washington provides the proper amount of gravitas to his role, and the surprise ending almost matches the denouement of The Sixth Sense as an audience grabber.  ***

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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