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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A BALLERINA’S TALE (2015, doc)

October 15, 2015

a ballerina tale Greetings again from the darkness. You may have seen her “60 Minutes” segment earlier this year, or you may have heard the announcement over the summer when she became the first African-American Principal dancer (prima ballerina) at American Ballet Theatre. Or perhaps you recognize her being featured in advertisements for Under Armour or T-Mobile. If none of this sounds familiar, then you may be totally unaware of Misty Copeland, and director Nelson George has just the documentary for you.

One need not be an expert on ballet to recognize the ability, tenacity and stage presence of the lovely and incredibly athletic Misty Copeland. The grainy footage of her dancing at age 15 can’t prevent this star from shining. Soon enough she is the only black dancer in the American Ballet Theatre troupe of 80, and from there she just continues to advance.

The film touches on her unusual and challenging childhood, and also provides a brief primer on the history of ballet (15th century Italy, 17th century France), before naming the few names of the African-American ballet dancers over the years. See, skin with color and a muscular body were considered taboo in the lofty world of ballet … and it became even worse during the era of famed choreographer George Balanchine. His vision of the perfect dancer led to a culture of eating disorders, depression and impossible standards for body image. The point is that Misty Copeland not just broke down color barriers, but also body image expectations … even though she went through her own struggles (Krispy Kreme, anyone?).

We are also provided a peek at the physical grind and incredible strain that these dancers go through to appear so graceful and effortless on stage. A stress fracture in her shin threatened Misty’s career, and the film follows her recovery and remarkable ability to become an even better dancer after the injury and surgery.

Most interesting is the relationship that Susan Fales-Hill cultivated with Misty. This mentorship helped Misty fight through the personal and social challenges, while also connecting with the movers and shakers throughout the African-American community. The film’s best sequence has Misty connecting with Raven Wilkinson, who was a ground-breaking dancer from the 1950’s. Watching these two ladies (separated by multiple generations) bond through dancing is heart-warming and extraordinary.

Of course, we also are treated to a few extended dance performances from Misty – both live performances and the under-appreciated practice sessions. This culminates with her being cast as Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” … yes, a black ‘white swan’. Her talent leaves us in awe, and is surely inspiring an entire generation of young dancers. The film certainly would have been better served by allowing us to connect with or understand Misty the person … but we must be satisfied watching Misty the dancer.

To see Misty’s Under Armour commercial entitled “I Will What I Want”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZY0cdXr_1MA