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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CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (2018)

November 1, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Despite her regular role in all 7 seasons of “Gilmore Girls” and her co-lead role in the 6 season run of “Mike and Molly”, it was her raunchy turn in 2011’s BRIDESMAIDS that turned Melissa McCarthy into a star. Since then, she has been the lead in a string of comedies written specifically for her: IDENTITY THIEF, THE HEAT, TAMMY, SPY, THE BOSS, and GHOSTBUSTERS: ANSWER THE CALL. Mixed in was an overlooked little film called ST. VINCENT, a Bill Murray vehicle in which Ms. McCarthy first flashed some dramatic chops. With this latest, she shows that she’s no one-trick pony, but the character is a bit too narrow, and the material a bit too bland to convince us whether she is up to becoming an Oscar-caliber dramatic lead.

That’s not to say her performance isn’t noteworthy, because it is. She plays Lee Israel, a real life writer who had success as a celebrity biographer in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and then turned to a life of crime as a forger of collectible letters. This (mostly) true story of Ms. Israel features Ms. McCarthy in a poorly cut wig, very little make-up and the frumpiest of frumpy clothes. She’s also an aggressively bitter person who, in the film’s opening scene, get fired from her job in 1991 for drinking scotch at her desk and telling a co-worker to “F-off”. Classy, she’s not. Her actions and this firing are our indoctrination into her caustic personality.

Director Marielle Heller is no stranger to examining the life of someone who is not so happy, as she is best known as the writer/director of THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015). Her latest is adapted from Lee Israel’s memoir by screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (ENOUGH SAID, 2013) and Jeff Whitty. After her firing, Ms. Israel hits desperate times. Her publisher (an always terrific Jane Curtain) tells her that a Fanny Brice biography has no market, and that no one wants to work with Israel anymore … she has burned every bridge. Fanny Brice and Tom Clancy both take some shots here as Israel tries to defend herself by dragging down others … a personality trait not uncommon among those who are so miserable in life.

As we watch this alcoholic, slovenly, abrasive person muddle through days – only showing any affection for her pet cat – there is quite a clever scene that could seem like filler were it not for what happens soon afterwards. Ms. Israel is at home watching THE LITTLE FOXES on TV and we see her perfectly mimicking Bette Davis. This ability to imitate others leads her into a career path of forging and selling personal letters “from” the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. It also finds her crossing paths with miscreant Jack Hock (a flamboyant and energetic Richard E Grant). The two misfits form an odd friendship and partnership that begins to cash flow.

A sequence between independent bookstore owner Anna (a talented and under-utilized Dolly Wells) and Lee Israel teases us with the idea of a love interest, but Ms. McCarthy is unable to convince us that Lee’s vulnerability is genuine, and the potential relationship soon fizzles thanks to Lee’s crankiness and criminal path. While watching, I couldn’t help but feel that I was being manipulated into feeling sympathy towards Lee Israel, simply because she is a lonely female criminal. Typically male criminals in movies are social outcasts to be despised and/or feared, so this trickery is a bit unsettling. Personally, I find it difficult to muster sympathy towards any criminal, no matter their gender or how pathetic their life and personality might be.

The best film to date about a forger, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, worked because of the cat and mouse between good and bad, and the criminal at the center was overflowing with personality. Here, we are stuck with a curmudgeon who uses multiple typewriters to create fake letters … all in the confines of a dirty apartment she shares with her cat. Were it not for Ms. McCarthy’s expertise at delivering caustic one-liners or Mr. Grant’s impeccable comic timing, this drama would fall flat. If we ever doubted the manipulation, be prepared for two kitty cat scenes designed to elicit “aww” from the audience.

Director Heller does a nice job of presenting an early 1990’s feel for New York, including the gay bar Julius’, which is evidently still in existence today. There is also an interesting point made about how collectors want to believe, so the authentication process is crucial to the industry – though we can’t help but wonder about potential fraud. On the downside, there is really nothing dryer than watching a writer write … even someone as miserable as Lee Israel, and even on collectible typewriters. Additionally, the score and soundtrack were much too loud for the film, and proved quite distracting in certain scenes. A Paul Simon song near the end seems like a plea for Oscar consideration, but by then, we are just relieved that the bad guy got caught. But that kitty … aww.

watch the trailer:


DOM HEMINGWAY (2014)

April 17, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

dom Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe I should apologize, but I won’t. This was hands-down my favorite from the Dallas International Film Festival. It was probably the least favorite of many others. With the most outlandish and uncomfortable opening scene in recent memory, the movie comes across a rough blend of early Guy Ritchie and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Given that description, no movie lover would expect Jude Law to be the star who dominates most every scene. Yes, pretty boy Jude Law has gone “ugly” the way fellow pretty boy Matthew McConaughey went “indie”. It’s a shock to see Mr. Law looking shaggy and paunchy … in his best moments! He holds nothing back in his portrayal of this vulgar, verbose ex-con so full of swagger.

Joining Dom is his old buddy Dickie, played by Richard E Grant – whose smooth comedic delivery is a terrific complement to the harshness of Dom. After serving 12 years in prison, Dom is on a mission to get the money he is due from a Russian mobster played by Demian Bichir (yes, Mr. Bichir is Mexican). Of course, nothing ever goes as planned in Dom’s life, so a coke-fueled night of celebration at a glamorous French château leads to one of the most startling cinematic car accidents, leaving Dom penniless.

The story now veers off the Dom’s attempt at redemption … reconciliation with his daughter played by “Game of ThronesEmilia Clarke. The bi-polar aspects of Dom’s persona comes through when comparing his “criminal” scenes and his “daughter” scenes. The contrast does provide relief from the relentless raucous dialogue delivered with the most extreme cockney accent possible. Still, the redemption story line takes away from what makes Dom such a force of nature and so much fun to watch on screen. Writer/director Richard Shepard gave a very enthusiastic and passionate Q&A after the screening, and it was quite obvious he “liked” this character, despite the flaws.  Mr. Shepard was responsible for one of my favorite little known gems, The Matador (2005).

This is a violent, vulgar character delivered in blaringly over-the-top mode by an actor that has previously shown no such tendencies. As with all comedy, and especially such raucous, irreverent black comedy, the audience will be divided by those who find this extremely entertaining and those who think it’s a waste of time and talent. Expect no guarantees from me on which camp you might fall into.

**NOTE: the movie contains quite striking primate art, as evidenced by the movie poster shown above

watch the trailer: