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.

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THE LEISURE SEEKER (2018)

March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Getting older is often used as comedy fodder for entertainment purposes; however, there is fine line that can be crossed into disrespect and melancholy. Long time Italian director Paolo Virzi (HUMAN CAPITAL, 2013) delivers his first English-language film, and it’s at times quite uncomfortable to watch. Marketed as a dramatic-comedy road trip by a long married couple, the film provides a few laughs, but an overwhelming pall of sadness mostly sets the tone, while sliding right into my category of Grey Cinema.

Helen Mirren is Ella Spencer, and Donald Sutherland is her husband John. They are a happily married couple who, to the shock of their grown children and neighbor, hit the road in their 1970’s era Winnebago. Isn’t it interesting that an RV of age is considered “classic”, while old people are just referred to as “old”? John is a curmudgeonly former Professor and Helen is a gregarious, adventuresome woman who fondly recalls the many family trips in this same RV. She is clearly the one in charge, and has planned this road trip from their upscale Wellesley, Massachusetts home to Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West.

Although John recites his favorite passages from Hemingway and Melville, he is certainly battling the effects of dementia … a battle that frequently has a negative impact on Ella’s enjoyment of their time together. While he may recall details of a long-ago student, he often forgets the names of his own kids – or even his wife! While John’s mental state is causing emotional pain for Ella, it’s her own untreated cancer that is driving her body to fail her. They are each slipping away in different ways, though their paths lead to the same destination.

Based on the novel from Michael Zadoorian, four different writers worked on the screenplay, and that is likely the cause of the distorted tone and approach. It’s quite difficult to be funny when the moments are so poignant and sad. There is even a political undercurrent which is teased, but carries no heft or substance. Taking place during the most recent Presidential campaign, Trump rallies are used as punchlines, and a Hillary rally is inferred. Neither have any impact, though a sequence involving a roadside robbery ends with (unintended?) support of carrying a gun, even if it was an odd attempt at humor.

Janel Moloney and Christian McKay are little more than caricatures as the grown kids, while we do get to see Dick Gregory’s final on screen appearance (he passed away last year).  Carole King and Janis Joplin songs are put to obvious use, and there aren’t enough “Happy Swirls” in the world to overcome the inherent fear that most aging folks have towards a failing body or mind … and this film shows both sides, while attempting to inject humor on that one last road trip that most of us dread.

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TRUMBO (2015)

November 19, 2015

trumbo Greetings again from the darkness. For an industry that thrives on ego and self-promotion, it could be considered surprising that more movies haven’t focused on its most shameful (and drama-filled) period. The two Hollywood blacklist films that come to mind are both from 1976: Martin Ritt’s The Front (starring Woody Allen) and the documentary Hollywood on Trial. There are others that have touched on the era, but director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara (adapting Bruce Cook’s book) focus on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo in a film that informs a little and entertains a lot.

Director Roach combines his comedic roots from the “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents” franchises with his more recent politically-centered HBO projects Recount and Game Change. His subject here is the immensely talented writer Dalton Trumbo, whom Louis B Mayer signed to the most lucrative screenwriting contract of the 1940’s. It was soon after that Trumbo’s (and other’s) affiliation with the American Communist Party came under fire by the House Un-American Activities Committee headed by J Parnell Thomas. The divide in Hollywood was clear. On one side were the staunch Patriots like John Wayne (David James Elliott) and the Queen Muckracker, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren); on the other were “The Hollywood Ten” … those accused of being traitors simply because they stood up for freedom.

What’s interesting here is that despite the dark subject matter, the film has an enormous amount of humor … including multiple laugh out loud moments. This happens because most of the focus is on Trumbo the family man and Trumbo the justice fighter. Of course, as a writer, Trumbo does his best fighting with words … words whose message is “they have no right” to question the thoughts and beliefs of individual citizens. The committee’s mission was to prove treason by linking to the Russian agenda, but in reality these folks were mostly supportive of labor rights … most assuredly not a crime. The investigations, such as they were, seemed to prove the gentlemen were more Socialist than Russian – which makes an interesting contrast to modern day where we have an admitted Socialist running for President. The Hollywood Ten stood their ground, served jail time, and were either forced out of the industry or forced to go “underground” using pseudonyms. Trumbo, while unceremoniously writing under other names, won two Best Writing Oscars – one for Roman Holiday and one for The Brave One.

Bryan Cranston delivers a “big” performance as Dalton Trumbo. Everything is big – the glasses, the cigarette holders, the mustache, and definitely the personality. He does his best writing in the bathtub, and is never without a quick-witted comeback … whether sparring with The Duke or the committee. Unfortunately, Hedda Hopper does her most effective work in undermining the rights of Trumbo and his cohorts, including Arlen Hird (Louis CK) and Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk). We also see how Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) quietly supports the cause, while also trying to salvage his fading career.

Trumbo is by no means presented as a saintly rebel with a cause. Instead, we see him as a loving yet flawed father, husband and friend. Once released from prison, he is so focused on writing and clawing his way back, that his relationships suffer – especially with his eldest daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) and loyal wife (Diane Lane). It’s the King Brothers Production Company led by Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie (Stephen Root) who give Trumbo an outlet for writing and earning a living. Most were schlock movies, but there were also a few gems mixed in (Gun Crazy). However, it’s Kirk Douglas’ (Dean O’Gorman with an uncanny resemblance) courageous stand for his (and Stanley Kubrick’s) movie Spartacus, and director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) and his film Exodus, that put Trumbo’s name back on the screen, effectively ending Ms. Hopper’s crusade.

The ending credits feature clips of the real Dalton Trumbo being interviewed, and it brings clarity to Cranston’s performance, while more importantly relaying some incredibly poignant and personal words directly from the man … maybe they really should be “carved into a rock”. It’s an era of which Hollywood should not be proud, and it’s finally time it was faced head-on … and it’s quite OK that they bring along a few good laughs.

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WOMAN IN GOLD (2015)

March 31, 2015

woman in gold Greetings again from the darkness. The responsibility of the filmmaker when the project is “based on a true story” is elevated when the story has significant historical relevance and blends such elements as art, identity, justice and international law. Add to those the quest of a remarkable woman whose family was ripped apart by Nazi insurgents, and more than a history lesson, it becomes a poignant personal story.

Helen Mirren portrays Maria Altmann, the woman who emigrated to the United States by fleeing her Austrian homeland during World War II, and leaving behind her beloved family and all possessions. After the death of her sister, Ms. Altmann becomes aware of the family artwork stolen by the Nazi’s during the invasion. This is not just any artwork, but multiple pieces from famed Austrian artist Gustav Klimt … including “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”. See, Adele was Maria’s aunt, and the stunning piece (with gold leaf accents) has become “the Mona Lisa of Austria”, while hanging for decades in the state gallery.

The story revolves around Maria’s partnering with family friend and upstart attorney Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to take on the nation of Austria and reclaim the (extremely valuable) artwork that was seized illegally so many years ago. They are aided in their mission by an Austrian journalist (played by Daniel Bruhl) who is fighting his own demons. The seven-plus year legal saga is condensed for the big screen and we follow Maria and Randol as they meet with the Austrian art reclamation committee, a federal judge (played by the director’s wife Elizabeth McGovern), the U.S. Supreme Court (Jonathan Pryce as Chief Justice), and finally a mediation committee back in Austria. But this is not really a courtroom drama … it’s a personal quest for justice and search for identity. What role does family roots and history play in determining who we are today? It’s the age old question of past vs. present, only this is seen through the eyes of a woman who has survived what most of us can only imagine.

Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) uses startling flashbacks (with Tatiana Maslany as the younger Maria) to provide glimpses of Maria’s childhood through her marriage and subsequent escape. We get to know her family, including some scenes featuring Aunt Adele (Antje Traue), and Maria’s father and uncle (Henry Goodman, Allan Corduner). We understand this family’s place in society and just how dramatically they were impacted by the Nazi takeover.

Helen Mirren delivers yet another exceptional performance and manages to pull off the snappy lines without an ounce of schmaltz, while also capturing the emotional turmoil Ms. Altmann endures. Director Curtis and writer Alexi Kaye Campbell round off some of the rough edges and inject enough humor to prevent this from being the gut-wrenching process it probably was in real life. This approach makes the film, the story and the characters more relatable for most movie goers … and it’s quite an enjoyable look at a fascinating woman and a pretty remarkable underdog story.

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THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014)

August 13, 2014

hundred foot journey Greetings again from the darkness. Comfort food gets its name from the level of familiarity and satisfaction it brings us. It’s the opposite of “Innovation. Innovation. Innovation” that plays a conflicting role in this story as we follow the culinary advancement of the young chef Hassan. Director Lasse Hallstrom long ago mastered the art of tapping into the emotional heart strings of viewers (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, An Unfinished Life, Chocolat), so his films can easily be viewed as the movie version of comfort food … they deliver what’s promised with no unnecessary surprises.

From the novel by Richard C Morais, the screenplay by Steven Knight (Locke) serves up exactly what we expect and satisfies our taste for slick and sweet entertainment, with characters who are both likable and learn their life lessons quickly. Even the backstory of tragedy that brings Kadan family from India is told in a near painless (and improbable) flashback manner as the family goes through airport customs.

While their travels and heartbreak could have been the story, we instead are front row for the cultural battlefield of a snooty French provencial restaurant vs friendly Indian family home-cooking … 100 feet apart. A snooty French restaurant with a Michelin star requires the ever-present condescending high society Madame Mallory as the movie’s “villain”. Of course, when played by Helen Mirren, we know immediately that bad will soon enough turn to good. The driving force behind her transformation is Papa, played superbly by Om Puri. Stereotypes abound, but at least there is some humor blended so as not to be overcooked.

The real basis for the movie is the extraordinarily talented young chef Hassan (played by Manish Dayal). His skill in the kitchen folded in with his overall niceness make it impossible for Madame Mallory or her sous-chef Margueritte (Charlotte Le Bon) to avoid taking notice in their own ways.

The cultural differences certainly could have been played up and further examined (Indian market vs French market), as could the backstory of all involved – the Indian family and Madame Mallory. An added level of depth and mystery could have been added if, say Catherine Deneuve had been cast in the Helen Mirren role (box office draw was obviously key to her casting). More detail could have been provided for Hassan’s time in Paris as well as what occurs with his Papa while he is away.

This is new Disney following the traditional Disney template.  The movie and the story go exactly where we expect it to go, providing the level of enjoyment and satisfaction that we demand from our comfort food. And there’s nothing wrong with a big serving of that from time to time.

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HITCHCOCK (2012)

December 5, 2012

hitch Greetings again from the darkness. Here goes: John J McLaughlin wrote this Hitchcock screenplay based on Stephen Rebello‘s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”, which was based on the filming of the Psycho screenplay from Joseph Stefano, which was loosely based on Robert Bloch’s book, which was based on the grizzly real life crimes of Ed Gein. Whew!

It’s kind of interesting that Alfred Hitchcock is hot again some 36 years after his final movie.  His Vertigo recently displaced Citizen Kane as the all-time greatest film. HBO is still running their recent production of The Girl, which is based on Hitchcock’s making of The Birds and his unhealthy connection to Tippi Hedren. And now, we get this Hollywood production, supposedly based on the master of suspense. I say supposedly, because this film plays like it was written by the heirs of Alma Reville, Hitch’s long time wife and collaborator. We all knew she worked on his films and hitch2contributed ideas, but the film wants us to believe she was the real genius behind the public genius.

The movie is entitled “Hitchcock” and is based on the making of Psycho, but in fact, it’s more the story of Alma and her husband. While there is nothing wrong with that story … in fact, it is quite interesting and entertaining … it’s also a bit of false advertising.

Helen Mirren portrays Alma, and instead of the mousy woman who usually faded into the background, we see a fairly strong and talented woman who goes toe-to-toe with Hitch in her best scene. Sir Anthony Hopkins dons some facial appliances and a fat hitch3suit and does a solid job of capturing the odd, creepy, leering, disturbed, insecure genius we recognize as Alfred Hitchcock. He comes across as louder and more in-motion than what we have previously seen. And while director Sacha Gervasi makes it clear that Hitch is not a “normal” guy, he doesn’t dwell too much on the blond fixations.

The emphasis on the skills and importance of Alma would be fine were it not so exaggerated. Surely every great director and writer and artist has a muse and/or support system; and, there is no question Alma was a very talented lady, but her strength here bordered on distracting to the overall picture. Especially needless was the storyline of Alma being attracted to screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote Strangers on a Train for Hitchcock.

hitch4 The Hitchcock humor is allowed to shine through (“call me Hitch, hold the cock”) and his battles with Paramount Studio head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) and the censorship board (Kurtwood Smith) are excellent. Hopkins finds the humanity under the fat suit and is especially good in his work with Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh) and Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles). I also got a kick out of James D’Arcy as the affected Anthony Perkins and all his quirky mannerisms.

Though this barely qualifies as a story on the making of Psycho, it was chilling to watch the addition of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score added to the shower scene. In fact, Danny Elfman does a nice job of subtly adding a Herrmann-type score to this film. I’m not sure if the film will play well with all Hitchcock aficionados, but if you can forgive the Alma slant, it’s actually quite interesting and entertaining and kind of a sweet film at its core.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see what would happen if Alfred Hitchcock took personal advice from serial killer Ed Gein OR you want to see two great actors (Mirren, Hopkins) having a really good time OR you want to see Scarlett Johansson play Jamie Lee Curtis’ mother.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you expect to learn much about the making of Psycho

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rQuRLERl6A


THE DEBT

September 5, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Espionage thrillers can be so much fun in both book and movie form. Movies actually have a little advantage for the action scenes. Books clearly have the advantage in details, backstory and character development. What is frustrating as a viewer is when a movie starts strong and then crumbles under the weight of expectation … sometimes trying to make a bigger splash than necessary. Such is the case with director John Madden‘s remake of the rarely-seen 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov.

 

 The story is centered around a 1965 mission of a trio of Mossad agents. Mossad is Israel’s CIA. These three agents, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) are to capture the notorious Nazi war criminal, the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen), and bring him back for a proper trial of war time atrocities.

 

 Flash forward to 1997 and Rachel’s daughter has written a book about the daring mission and the three heroes. The older version of the characters are played by Helen Mirren (Rachel), Tom Wilkinson (Stephan) and Ciaran Hinds (David). We are treated to flashbacks of the mission and how things took a wrong turn, but ended just fine. Or did they? There seems to be some inconsistencies with the story told and the actual events that have created much strain between Rachel and Stephan, and life-altering changes for the more sensitive David.

 This is an odd film because the best story parts occur when the younger cast members are carrying out the 1965 mission. It is full of suspense and intrigue. The intensity and believability drops off significantly in the 1997 version, but oddly, the older actors are much more fun to watch on screen … especially the great Helen Mirren. I am not sure what all of that really means, but for me, it meant the third act of the film was a bit hokey and hard to buy.

Director John Madden is known for his fabulous Shakespeare in Love, but not much else. His films since then have all come up just a bit short of that very high bar he set 13 years ago. Jessica Chastain continues her fantastic 2011 season adding this performance to her more spectacular turns in Tree of Life and The Help. Sam Worthington is known for his role in Avatar, but his character here is so thinly written, I doubt any actor could have pulled it off. Jesper Christensen seems to usually play the bad guy and he is in full glory here as a Nazi war criminal with no regrets.

The first half will keep you on the edge of your seat, but by the end you will have a somewhat empty feeling. What a shame as this one teased us with much hope.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: espionage thrillers are your cup of tea and you can overlook a few exaggerated details OR you want to see Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain if full-fighting mode

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need the attention to meticulous detail of Tom Clancy in your espionage thrillers

watch the trailer: