THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS (2018)

November 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Missing: Tchaikovsky and Ballet. OK, not missing entirely, and it seems all we do is beg for creativity and new approaches in movies, so let’s give this one fair treatment. It’s not the traditional “Nutcracker” holiday fare you’ve come to expect on stage, on TV, in the mall, at schools, and just about everywhere. Instead, it’s a version wrung from both the 1816 original short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman and the 1892 ballet by Marius Petipa with music from Tchaikovsky, yet also something quite different. Still, different doesn’t always mean better … sometimes it just means different.

We are treated to a beautiful extended opening shot as an owl swoops through old London. This acts as preparation for the abundance of stunning visuals headed our way throughout. Budding star Mackenzie Foy (INTERSTELLAR, 2014) plays Clara Stahlbaum, a young girl distraught that it’s her first Christmas without her beloved mother Marie, who recently passed away. Clara’s quietly grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen) delivers the presents Marie left for each of the three kids. Mechanically inclined Clara’s gift is an ornate egg that requires a specialty key to unlock the hidden message Clara believes her mother has left.

A lavish Christmas party at her Godfather’s (Oscar winner Morgan Freeman) mansion leads Clara to a parallel universe where her mother Marie was Queen of the four realms. This is a fantastical land that reminds (maybe a bit too much) of Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND and the classic THE WIZARD OF OZ. Clara buddies up with a live Nutcracker soldier Phillip (newcomer Jayden Fowora-Knight), who quickly becomes her trusted bodyguard. Land of Snowflakes, Land of Flowers, Land of Sweets, and the blighted Fourth Realm run by a cast-out Mother Ginger (Oscar winner Helen Mirren) make up this world. Keira Knightley stars as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and her devilishly fun performance is responsible for most of the energy, humor and entertainment outside of the visual effects. The two time Oscar nominee seems to relish the voice, the costumes and the chance to play a quirky character.

Disney touches like the animal sidekicks are noted: Phillip’s loyal steed, and the pesky little mouse that flashes more personality than anyone in the film outside of Sugar Plum. Most of the comedic secondary characters (including Richard E Grant and Eugenio Derbez) fall flat with very little do in a screenplay from Ashleigh Powell that gives the impression of multiple hands in the pie. Adding to the disjointed feel and lack of cohesion in the story flow is the fact that two very different directors worked on the project. Lasse Hallstrom (CHOCOLAT) handled principal photography and then Joe Johnston (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER) spent a month on re-shoots with attention to visual effects. The contrasts between these two directors is quite clear in the finished project despite the cinematographer of Oscar winner Linus Sandgren (LA LA LAND).

The mishmash of styles and tone prevents us from ever really connecting with characters or being drawn in by the story, but beyond that, there are some really terrific visuals and special effects. I especially liked the look of the enhanced tin soldiers and the work of two time Oscar winning costume designer Jenny Beavan. Of course, this is a familiar story and many viewers bring certain expectations into the theatre with them. The iconic Tchaikovsky music is played early and throughout the film, though mostly in teases and in blends with new music from James Newton Howard. We do get a glimpse of Maestro Gustavo Dudamel conducting the orchestra, and for those expecting ballet, the fabulous Misty Copeland performs a couple of times, though it’s likely not enough for those hoping for more of a ballet production. The end result is an impressive visual experience that will likely still disappoint those looking for another holiday watching tradition.

watch the trailer:

 

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OVERBOARD (2018)

May 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s interesting that movies and TV sitcoms are fair game when it comes to remakes. We don’t find authors re-writing Hemingway or Fitzgerald. A painter who copies Picasso is labeled a forger. Even when a pianist interprets a Chopin piece, it’s still clearly Chopin. Ahh, but movie remakes are to be accepted as new art – a shiny new creation. Of course, any movie lover worth their salt (is that still an acceptable phrase?) will compare new to old – remake to original. And since first impressions aren’t allowed a do-over, we typically find the remake somewhat lacking.

Director Rob Greenberg and co-writer Bob Fisher simply flip the 1987 original concept from writer Leslie Dixon, where she had Goldie Hawn as the rich heiress and Kurt Russell as the blue collar opportunist. This gender-switch differs from what typically makes headlines these days, and is meant to add a contemporary feel to the story. Anna Faris takes on the role of Kate, a single mom working multiple jobs as she raises 3 daughters while also prepping for the Nursing exam. Mexican movie star Eugenio Derbez (INSTRUCTIONS NOT INCLUDED) may be best known in the U.S. for introducing COCO at this year’s Oscars ceremony, and here he plays Leonardo, a do-nothing playboy heir to a corporate empire. Leo’s typical day is spent on his $60 million birthday yacht enjoying the company of supermodels while mostly ignoring the crew, except when he needs mango or papaya.

Act 1 is the set up where we acknowledge that Leo is a spoiled brat representing the evil one-percenters, and Kate is the good-hearted working class hero we are supposed to root for. Their initial confrontations are poorly handled and soon both have taken the film’s title to heart – she after being pushed by him, and he after conking his head and winding up washed ashore with amnesia. The gist of the story is that Kate conspires to have the concussed Leo act as her husband until he pays her back for her work and she can complete her nursing studies.

The only real interesting things to discuss here are the choices of the filmmakers. Mr. Greenberg is known mostly for TV sitcoms, and it’s quite obvious with how the comedic scenes play out. Admiration and respect go out for allowing much of the film to be bi-lingual (yes, with subtitles), and for taking a risk on the crossover appeal of Mr. Derbez as a leading man. However, what doesn’t work is pretty much everything else. We never buy Faris as a working class mom cold-hearted enough to pull off this scheme. Plus, she is simply not a very good actress and has poor comedic timing throughout the movie. Likeable? Yes. Effective in the role? No.  There is also a weak attempt to comment on the working conditions of manual laborers, and it just falls flat.

Thank goodness for the supporting cast. John Hannah as Colin, the chief of the crew, is far too talented for this production, and shines in his too-few scenes. Eva Longoria plays Kate’s friend Theresa, and her relationship with husband Bobby (a terrific Mel Rodriguez) would have made a far superior movie to what is presented here. There is also a brilliant use of Mexican TV soap operas contrasted with the Norwegian yacht crew watching Leo on the closed-circuit system. Despite these sparks of hope, the film mostly lacks the charm of Kurt and Goldie, although judging from the audience response, many will disagree.

watch the trailer: