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 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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SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN (2012)

March 25, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is one of those times where I am going to be somewhat critical of a movie that is based on a book I haven’t read. That doesn’t change my belief that this movie is stuck in the gray area between romantic drama and comedy, and because of it, comes across as just a lightweight film with no real message or emotion. For this, the director Lasse Hallstrom gets the accusatory glance. His history with Chocolat and Dear John are examples of how his fondness for all things mushy gets in the way of real story-telling.

The best parts of this movie are the comedic elements. Stuffy British fish expert Ewan McGregor has some really funny deadpan moments and his inner office battles with his boss wreak of truism. Same with Kristin Scott Thomas, who plays the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary as if she were told this was a screwball comedy. She is funny and over the top, and was probably horrified when she saw the final version of the movie.

 The story is quite creative and interesting – a Yemeni Sheikh (Amr Waked, Syriana) has a vision of creating a vast green-land around a man-made freshwater river where Salmon spawn and feed the community. Unfortunately, the story leaks to the locals that this Sheikh with too much money is playing God just to satisfy his fishing hobby. Local rebels get involved in trying to stop the Sheikh and the project. Meanwhile, this Sheikh spouts off wisdom and advice as if he just finished reading the greatest hits of Confucious.

To bring this fishy project to fruition, the Sheikh enlists the British government’s help and that’s how Ms. Thomas, Mr. McGregor and a wonderful Emily Blunt get involved. We see early on that McGregor is stuck in a loveless marriage to a witch (figuratively speaking) played by Rachael Stirling (who may have the deepest voice of any actress since Lauren Bacall). Blunt’s character is a bit desperate for love and falls quickly for a soldier (Tom Mison) who is shipped off to war. So when Blunt and McGregor first meet … it seems destiny that these two opposites will attract.

 The scenery here is pretty impressive – especially the Scottish castle that houses the team for a brief period. I was just continually frustrated that more insight wasn’t provided into what makes this Sheikh tick. Is he truly the visionary he claims? If so, why? What did the locals really think of the project and was any effort made to deliver the long term vision? If not, why? Why did Blunt fall so quickly for this soldier? Just because they had fun in bed? Seems a bit shallow for someone who can peer into the soul of a nerd like McGregor. And why did McGregor ever fall for this ice-queen he married? Makes no apparent sense.

Simon Beaufoy‘s screenplay of Paul Torday‘s novel delivers a few good chuckles, but mostly leaves us wanting a real direction for the story and bit more depth of character. It’s always frustrating when a promising premise leaves us fighting so hard to swim upstream … just like the salmon and characters of the film.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: if your favorite movie genre is non-descript love stories OR you have been anxiously awaiting a film with a lead character who is a fish expert

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for an expert comedy or an expert love story

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