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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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

July 24, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If it seems to you as if the past three years have provided an overload of superhero and comic-based movies, you are absolutely correct. There have been too many. There are a few I would be willing to toss out, but Captain America is not one of them. This ranks right with the first Iron Man as the closest to a real movie … one with a story to go with the action and CGI.

It begins with the present day discovery of an exposed plane wing jutting from the frozen Arctic tundra. The search team quickly finds the Captain America shield visible beneath the ice. Flash back to WWII and we are introduced to a scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans with Benjamin Button FX) who wants nothing more than to fight for his country. Unfortunately, this 90-pound weakling might as well have 4-F stamped on his forehead, as the size of his heart far exceeds the size of his biceps.

His tenacity at trying to enlist is noticed by a powerful scientist named Erskine (played with sheer smirking joy by Stanley Tucci). Erskine happens to be working with Col. Phillips (a perfectly grumpy Tommy Lee Jones) on a secret plan to develop super-soldiers with the injectable cocktail Erskine has invented. As you might guess, the plan is thwarted immediately after scrawny Steve Rogers is transformed into a super soldier yanked from the cover of “Men’s Fitness”.

 Working with Col Phillips and Erskine is Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Her main purpose seems to be adorning the brightest red lipstick and flashing her legs in front of the soldiers. She falls for Rogers and spends most of her scenes staring somewhat scarily into his eyes. Actually, their scenes together are pretty good and her character helps us remember that Captain America is still just a regular good guy … not a Norse God.  It was humorous to watch the early song and dance routines to sell war bonds.  Seeing the super soldier cast as a traveling side show could be seen as a commentary on the military.

 Personally, I thought the movie lagged just a bit in the fight scenes between good and evil. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) to be a terrific bad guy. Nazi’s still make for the perfect adversary. Although, I found myself laughing on occasion as Weaving’s German accent reminded me of Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. I was quite impressed with the infamous Captain America shield, though I never quite figured out how he trained it to “return” to him … I am sure this is better explained in the comics.

 What makes this movie work is the fact that Captain America remains Steve Rogers. He is always a good guy wanting to do the right things. He is deeply affected when he thinks his actions may have caused the death of his best friend Bucky. But he also manages to keep his ego in check and his patriotic duty in the forefront. Also, the film is directed by Joe Johnston. If you are unfamiliar with his work, let me recommend two of his earlier films: The Rocketeer and Hidalgo. You are probably familiar with his Jumanji and October Sky. He is a director that creates a specific look and feel to his films, and the texture helps make this one work.

Since this is entitled Captain America: The First Avenger, it is obviously another step towards The Avengers movie slated for 2012. So don’t miss Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark (father of Tony Stark/Iron Man). And don’t miss Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in the odd ending to this film … and the obligatory “bonus” after closing credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always viewed yourself as the 90 lb weakling in those old Charles Atlas comic book ads OR you just never miss a chance to see nazi’s get thier asses kicked … especially by a guy in tights.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a comic book flashback to WWII seems about as appealing as having your air conditioner go out during this crazy heat wave

watch the trailer:

 


THE WOLFMAN (2010)

February 14, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness (and fog). OK, I admit it. I love this stuff. As a kid, I watched Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman movies again and again. The 1941 version with Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolfman is classic horror. Of course, the film itself wasn’t really so scary … instead, it’s the possibility of the transition from man to monster and then back again! Director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo, The Rocketeer) stays true to the original story and shows us how far stunts, special effects and make-up have come in the last 69 years. Add in another terrific score from Danny Elfman and you get a few good jumps in your movie seat.

Benecio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins are absolutely perfect casting for the cursed father and son. Their transformations work well given their “natural” features … especially Del Toro, who looks as though he was born for the role.

Emily Blunt is the token eye candy, and Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) is the Scotland Yard detective on the hunt. Neither are really given much to do, but it doesn’t matter. The fun starts when the full moon arrives.

The down side is that the CGI are a bit weak when the creature is on all fours running, jumping and leaping tall buildings. But that’s a minor quibble when you consider the set design is breath-taking. Horse and carriage, cozy English pub in a quaint town, and a run down-once majestic castle that houses Mr. Hopkins and family.

I applaud the director for remaining true to the roots of the story and not “updating” it ala Twilight to show high school students in 21st century NYC as werewolves. Go in with the right attitude and this one will make for a fun Valentine date.