The Nutcracker and the Four Realms


Nearly every little girl dreams of being a princess.

(2018) Fantasy (DisneyMackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren Morgan Freeman, Tom Sweet, Ellie Bamber, Jayden Forowa-Knight, Richard E. Grant, Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Hart, Meera Syal, Omid Djalili, Eugenio Derbez, Jack Whitehall, Nick Mohammed, Charles Streeter, Gustavo Dudamel, Misty Copeland, Sergei Polunin, Anna Madeley. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston

 

A perennial Christmas family favorite is the Tchaikovsky ballet The Nutcracker. Loosely based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the timeless music is like an old friend and this one ballet accounts for nearly half the revenue of all ballet companies in the United States. That can be read as depressing or impressive. In either case, it speaks volumes about how Americans feel about this venerable ballet.

Strangely, there has never been a film adaptation that has captured the magic of the ballet; most of those that have tried have literally been filmed versions of the ballet and have looked terribly stage-y. The wizards over at Disney have thought to create a live-action narrative film that features the ballet but is a story unto its own. Chock full of CGI and boasting an impressive cast, Disney was hoping to create a classic holiday favorite and maybe even a franchise. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Clara (Foy) is still mourning the death of her mother (Madeley) as she and her father (Macfadyen) and brother (Sweet) try to cope with the first Christmas since the tragedy. Before she died, Clara’s mother had gotten presents for her and her brother; Clara’s was a locked Faberge egg with a note “All you need is inside.” There was no key, however.

Clara’s godfather, the kindly toymaker Drosselmeyer (Freeman) is throwing his annual Christmas Eve soiree. Clara, who has a keen intellect and an engineer’s touch with mechanical things, feels a particular bond with the eccentric toymaker. He has attached dozens of strings in the courtyard with the names of his guests on them; each string leads to the Christmas present of the named guest. Clara’s leads to…somewhere else.

It is a different dimension, one with four realms that her mother created. The four realms and their regents; the Sugar Plum Fairy (Knightley) of the Realm of Sweets, Shiver (Grant) of the Realm of Snowflakes, Mother Ginger (Mirren) of the Realm of Amusements and Hawthorne (Derbez) of the Realm of Flowers. One of them has turned evil and seeks to conquer all the realms, or destroy them if they cannot be conquered. It’s not the one you think. Aiding Clara in her quest to set things to rights is Hoffmann (Forowa-Knight), a soldier who looks like a nutcracker.

Visually, this is a rich, sumptuous work. The sets, inspired by the ballet, are gorgeous as is the costuming. The CGI is is absolutely marvelous as well although some of it might be squirm-inducing; the Mouse King, for example, is made up of thousands of regular-sized mice who are combined into a single giant-sized mouse. Me, I would have rather seen a CGI Mickey here. At least it would have been more family-appropriate.

I found myself drawn to the ballet sequences which is impressive, when you consider that I’m not all that interested in dance. They are beautifully staged and nicely realized by a troupe of world-class dancers led by the incomparable Misty Copeland.

Despite the great cast, the performances are oddly unfulfilling. Foy has proven to be a talented actress but she’s given a British accent here and it is, quite frankly, awful. It sounds like an American amateur with no ear for accents trying to do an imitation. I also found it strange that while the film is set in London, most of the names are German. They should have just bitten the bullet and set the story in Germany; it would have made more sense.

While this is beautiful to look at with a feeling of a mug of hot chocolate on a cold winter night, the movie remains sadly unsatisfying. The plot is convoluted and seems to be an attempt to reimagine a classic story as a young adult adventure story. Disney is usually fairly adept at translating classic stories to the big screen but they made a major misstep here.

REASONS TO SEE: The ballet sequences are wonderful. The set design is eye-popping.
REASONS TO AVOID: A tremendous cast is wasted. Foy’s English accent is atrocious.
FAMILY VALUES: There Is some mild peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hallstrom completed principal filming but was unavailable for the extensive reshoots, which Johnston took charge of for 32 days. Hallstrom returned to oversee post-production and insisted that Johnston receive co-director credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews, Metacritic: 39/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alice in Wonderland
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Maserati: 100 Years Against All Odds

Extracurricular Activities


Can you guess which one forgot to do their homework?

(2019) Dark Comedy (Lotus) Colin Ford, Ellie Bamber, Timothy C. Simons, Danielle Macdonald, Paul Iacono, Darlene Vogel, Sarah Hay, Gary Hudson, Isaac Cheung, Bobby Lee, Charmin Lee, Arden Myrin, Tanner Stine, Max Wilcox, Arianna Ortiz, Dileep Rao, Vicki Lewis, Krista Kalmus, Chris Warren, Jill Lover, Dorie Barton, Alex Antov, Christine Ko, Miriam Flynn, Gary Hudson, Savannah Liles. Directed by Jay Lowi

 

Can any of us truly claim to have never felt that our parents didn’t understand us? Can any of us truly claim to have never felt that our parents were taking out their own insecurities on us as we were growing up? Can any of us truly claim to have never daydreamed about our parents meeting up with a gruesome accident to finally liberate us from the one obstacle to our freedom and happiness?

In a Southern California well-to-do bedroom community at a suburban high school, parents have been meeting with untimely ends. Mr. and Mrs. Wallace go plunging into a ravine when they drive their SUV too fast; Mr. Mulnick, an embarrassment to his son (Cheung) because he likes to party with his son’s teenage friends and grope the girls in the hot tub, gets drunk and slips into unconsciousness while in said hot tub and drowns. The parents of Sydney Vaughn (Hay) eat some deadly poisonous mushrooms after gathering them in the local woods.

A run of extraordinarily bad luck is what most people think but Police Detective Dawkins (Simons) is suspicious. He doesn’t believe in coincidences and he soon has a suspect; Reagan Wallace (Ford). Reagan is a brainy kid with unlimited potential in a loving home with supportive parents. Just the kind of kid you’d suspect of serial killing. That kind of thing just isn’t normal.

But (and no spoiler alert here) the thing is, Detective Dawkins is right. Nobody will believe him, especially his no-nonsense chief (C. Lee). Dawkins isn’t terribly well-liked around the precinct for his propensity to bring up the Adderall case which essentially was Dawkins’ big moment, plus he’s become a closet alcoholic.

Reagan is brilliant and covers his tracks well, often making Dawkins look foolish in the process. He isn’t some sort of avenging angel knocking off abusive parents; for the most part these parents aren’t guilty of any capital crimes other than perhaps criminal narcissism and felony neglect. Nonetheless Reagan takes each of these cases on as kind of a puzzle, making each demise look like an accident in return for a cut of the insurance.

Complicating matters is a budding romance between Reagan and teen hottie Mary Alice Walker (Bamber) who isn’t aware of Reagan’s part-time job. With Dawkins closing in and Mary Alice starting to suspect the worst, can Reagan escape the clutches of the law, finish his contracts by knocking off other parents and get a date to the prom?

Teenage revenge movies aren’t new and the concept here isn’t particularly novel. Writer Bob Sáenz constructs the movie pretty well although he reveals Reagan’s guilt early on so there’s no “did he or didn’t he” tension. That’s more of a personal preference on my part although you yourself may feel differently. In any case, I though he missed an opportunity there.

Ford does a good enough job as Reagan but the character himself is I think one of the biggest drawbacks in the film. Reagan is so cool, calm and collected he’s almost icy. In fact, his personality is such that he seems detached and uncaring which make the character totally unrelatable. Reagan is brilliant, particularly at science but comes off as haughty and arrogant as if human interpersonal relationships are beneath him. It’s tough to root for a character like that and you’re torn about whether you want him to get caught or not.

Then again, Dawkins isn’t much better – a verbally abusive father and borderline alcoholic who is simply so unpleasant that nobody believes him even though he’s right. There’s a cynicism there that is a bit unsettling to tell the truth; I’m not really rooting for Dawkins to catch the guy, either.

It’s mystifying as to why Reagan starts providing this service as his parents are the only adults in the movie who are loving and supporting of their progeny. I’m not one of those guys who prefers everything to be explained with a neat little bow on top but there has to be something that justifies a character’s actions; watching someone randomly acting is also undesirable in a movie.

This is ostensibly a comedy with a dark tone. It’s not big on belly laughs – in fact there are none – but the overall atmosphere lends itself to the absurd. In that sense, Lowi is successful here and the movie appears to flaunt the courage of its convictions. Overall, though, it’s disappointing in that by the end credits you feel like you just took a mud bath without a shower in sight.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is true to its tone.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reagan is a little too detached and cold to be relatable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sexual situations
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bobby Lee, who plays the hard-partying Mr. Mulnick, was formerly a part of the MadTV cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heathers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Tomorrow Man

Nocturnal Animals


It isn't always ghosts that haunt us.

It isn’t always ghosts that haunt us.

(2016) Thriller (Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Imogen Waterhouse, Franco Vega, Zawe Ashton, Evie Pree, Beth Ditto, Graham Beckel, Neil Jackson, Jena Malone. Directed by Tom Ford

 

Regret follows us through life like the shadow of a hawk paces a wounded groundhog. The road not taken sometimes is the road we should have taken – but once we make that turn, that off-ramp is gone for good.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is the curator of an art gallery who has just opened a new installation, involving overweight, middle-aged naked women dancing suggestively in pom-pom and drum majorette outfits. It has brought out all of the shallow, self-involved, condescending L.A. art whores. In other words, it’s a great big success.

Not so successful is her current marriage to Hutton Morrow (Hammer), a venture capitalist whose venture has overwhelmed his capital. The failing business has put an intense strain on the marriage, for which hubby compensates for by fooling around. Men!

Out of the blue, Susan gets a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she had surmised was teaching college and had given up on the writing career that had attracted her to him in the first place. Their break-up was about as brutal as the end of a relationship can get. Now he has written a novel and dedicated to her, claiming in a note that she inspired him to write this – even though their marriage ended nearly twenty years earlier and they hadn’t spoken since.

As she reads the manuscript, she is oddly affected by it. It is a brutal story of a somewhat mousy man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) driving down a dark deserted Texas road with his wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) when a quartet of Texas rednecks run them off the road. They finagle the wife and daughter into his car after repairing the flat tire on it and drive off with her; Lou (Glusman) drives Tony off into the desert and leaves him there. Later on Lou returns with the gang’s leader Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who try to entice Tony back but he hides in terror. They drive away.

Tony makes it back to civilization and calls the cops. The laconic Texas Ranger-type detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) takes over the case. Eventually they find the nude corpses of his wife and daughter, dumped near where they had dropped off Tony. Andes promises that they will get the guys who did this.

As the years go on, the dogged Andes eventually figures out who done it but Andes has a bit of a time sensitivity going on – he is dying of cancer. It is unlikely that based on the fairly flimsy evidence that they have that Ray Marcus and his gang will ever be brought to justice. That leaves revenge, but does the weak Tony have the stomach for it?

There are three distinct stories here – the novel, which takes up most of the movie and is a kind of Texas noir; Susan’s current story in which her life is filled with disappointment, regret and sadness, and the back story of Edward and Susan – how they met and how they broke up. All three tales are put together into a cohesive whole and show that Ford, who is better known as a fashion icon, is also a marvelous storyteller.

This is not an easy role for Amy Adams, who is so lacquered up with make-up that she almost looks like art herself. It isn’t one of the most emotionally forthcoming performances of her career, which makes it all the more impressive; she does an awful lot with an awful little here. Gyllenhaal continues to make a case for himself as being one of the most distinguished actors of our time. There is a great deal of nuance in his performance; his character is perceived as weak but he isn’t in the traditional sense. There is a strength that comes through particularly later in the film.

There are also some stellar supporting performances. Shannon as the crusty detective is all tumbleweeds and BBQ brisket as the Southwestern law man, while Laura Linney is virtually unrecognizable as Susan’s patrician snob of a mom. Both of them dominate the screen when they are on, Linney unfortunately for merely a single scene.

The ending is deliberately vague and will leave you with a WTF expression on your face. My wife and I had decidedly different reactions; she loved it and thought it perfectly suited the movie. I felt that it was inconsistent with how the character behaved and felt petty and vindictive. I also had problems with the opening credits that played lovingly on the nude women; it felt exploitative to me.

Ford, who made his Oscar-winning debut with A Single Man may need to dust off his tux again come February but this is less of a slam dunk than his first film. I think that there is a possibility that there will be some Oscar consideration here, but there is some heavy competition coming its way despite this having been a fairly down year for Oscar-quality films. How the Academy reacts remains to be seen, but this is definitely a must-see for those who want to make sure they get an opportunity to see every film that is likely to get a nomination.

REASONS TO GO: Ford deftly weaves three different stories together. The film boasts fine performances from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene and ending are absolute deal-killers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, graphic nudity, a pair of offscreen rape-murders, menace and salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Focus paid $20 million for the distribution rights for the film at Cannes, the highest ever paid for any film at any festival to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Words
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies


Who knew that Jane Austen kicked ass?

Who knew that Jane Austen kicked ass?

(2016) Horror (Screen Gems) Lily James, Sam Reilly, Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, Suki Waterhouse, Douglas Booth, Sally Phillips, Charles Dance, Jack Huston, Lena Headey, Matt Smith, Emma Greenwell, Eva Bell, Aisling Loftus, Charlie Anson, Tom Lorcan, Robert Fyfe, Dan Cohen, Nicholas Murchie, Kate Doherty, Pippa Haywood, Bessie Cursons, Morfydd Clark. Directed by Burr Steers

Most of us have had our own encounters with Jane Austen’s masterpiece, either through high school or college lit classes, or through the multitudinous cinematic adaptations. Nothing you’ve ever seen before however will prepare you for this.

It is 1813 and the Regency period in Britain is in full flower. So is an invasion of the living dead as zombies have essentially overrun London which has a gigantic 100 foot wall and moat ringing it, with the environs between the moat and wall known as “The In-Between.” The redoubtable British army patrols the area but it is essentially deserted. Of the living, at any rate.

Elizabeth Bennet (James) and her sisters Jane (Heathcote), Lydia (Bamber), Mary (Brady) and Kitty (Waterhouse) have been raised by their father (Dance) as warriors, able defenders of the family home with sword and gun and dagger. Their mother (Phillips) still is stuck in a mindset where there are no zombies, hoping to marry off the girls to wealthy suitors. Jane already has one in the wealthy Mr. Bingley (Booth). However it is Mr. Darcy (Riley) who catches Elizabeth’s eye and not in a good way when he callously insults her at a party, then “saves” her from a zombie that accosts her outside the mansion trying to warn her about something. Elizabeth is far from grateful.

As the wealthy Darcy looks down his nose at the less fortunate Bennet family, the zombie problem is getting more acute as the London wall will soon be overrun and the one bridge over the moat will soon be dynamited. The dashing Lt. Wickham (Huston) arrives on the scene, not only to catch Elizabeth’s eye but also to map out a daring plan to make peace with the zombies. Darcy’s aunt, the Lady de Bourgh (Headey) listens to the plan with a saucy eye-patch covering her battle wound, but as Britain’s most acclaimed zombie killer and owner of the most fortified home in the land, she ultimately rejects any attempt at peace as does her nephew.

But the walls are falling and a crisis with Lydia Bennet leads Elizabeth, Darcy and Wickham into the no-man’s land to rescue her (although one has different motives) and bring her back to safety before the bridge is blown up at dawn. Can the plucky Elizabeth rescue her sister and escape the hordes?

This is based on a bestselling novel by Seth Grahame-Smith which is in turn based on the Jane Austen classic. While the title sounds more like a comedy than it really is not played for laughs; rather it is pretty much done straight with the horror elements emphasized. I think that’s the right move, quite frankly; there have been plenty of zombie spoofs and the bar is fairly high for those to begin with. However, it must be said that it also makes for an often discomfiting mash-up of styles.

The cast is solid, although unspectacular. The best-faring is James, who uses her Downton Abbey experience nicely. I’ve seen it said elsewhere but I’ll echo the sentiment; she’d make a fine Elizabeth Bennet in a straight-up production of the Austen novel. She is strong-willed and looks stunning in the dresses of the period. She also handles the physical work of the fighting gracefully.

Riley, one of the more underrated actors today, delivers a performance that is curiously flat. I suppose it might be said that Darcy is a character who doesn’t do emotion well, but even so Riley seems like he’s in a fog most of the time. There is also the odd wardrobe decision of putting the character in a leather greatcoat as if he’s some kind of Regency biker. It’s distracting to hear the leather creaking and crackling every time Riley’s onscreen.

Most of the humor here springs from Matt Smith’s portrayal of the dandified Parson Collins, who is an unwelcome suitor (and cousin to) Elizabeth. The former Doctor Who actor at times seems like he’s in a different movie than the rest of the cast, but his is in many ways more fun. As I mentioned, most of the cast plays this straight. It’s more the situation from where the humor is derived, other than through Collins and let’s face it, he’s also comic relief in the book as well.

The gore here is mainly of the CGI kind, but there is plenty of it – so much so that I was frankly surprised the movie didn’t rate an “R” but the MPAA has never shown a lot of consistency when it comes to rating films. Not all the CGI is of the top of the line variety, so expect to see a few images that will just scream computer generated. That’s never a good thing in any film.

This is solidly entertaining fare, surprisingly so considering the source. I won’t say that this is a new franchise for Screen Gems because it really doesn’t have that feel, unless the producers want to move on to other Austen novels or the Bronte sisters. However, if you don’t mind a little gruesome – okay, a lot of gruesome – in your classic literature, this might make for some interesting viewing for you.

REASONS TO GO: An interesting mash-up. James makes an excellent Elizabeth Bennet.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may be put off by the gore or the period. CGI is a little bit rough around the edges.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and zombie gore. There’s also some brief sexual suggestion.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally Natalie Portman was cast as Elizabeth but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; she remained on board as a producer however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Scout’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Deadpool