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

Captain America: The First Avenger


Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans isn’t sure the new uniform for FTD delivery guys is appropriate for a soldier’s uniform.

(2011) Superhero (Paramount/Marvel) Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci, Richard Armitage, Kenneth Choi, JJ Feild,  Michael Brandon, Amanda Righetti, Samuel L. Jackson. Directed by Joe Johnston

Part of the American character is to root for the underdog. There is something about someone beating the odds that capture the imagination of American audiences, particularly when it is someone less physically gifted that surpasses those with more natural talent.

It is World War II and Steve Rogers (Evans) wants nothing more than to enlist but his scrawny asthmatic physique gets rejected every time. His best buddy, James “Bucky” Barnes (Stan) is about to be shipped over and as he and Steve and a couple of dames visit the New York Fair of Tomorrow (think of the Stark fair from Iron Man 2) to celebrate Bucky’s last night before shipping out, Steve spies a recruiting station. He and Bucky have an impassioned discussion which catches the ear of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Tucci). Finally Steve leaves his friend to make one more fruitless attempt to enlist.

At least, Bucky thinks it’s going to be fruitless – heck, even Rogers thinks it’s going to be fruitless – but Erskine walks in and makes Steve an offer. At last, Steve Rogers is going to do his part. He is sent to boot camp, run by the crusty Colonel Phillips (T.L. Jones) and overseen by the lovely British agent Peggy Carter (Atwell). While there are better physical specimens there (which the Colonel appreciates), Erskine and Carter are drawn to less obvious characteristics that Steve possesses, much to Phillips’ chagrin.

Steve is eventually chosen to be the guinea pig in a “super soldier” program to be injected with a serum that will make him stronger, faster and a better fighter. Erskine will be assisted by Howard Stark (Cooper), a wealthy aviator who is one of America’s most brilliant weapon designers. The operation is a success but agents of the Nazi science group Hydra wreck any further thought of creating an army of super soldiers.

Hydra is led by Johann Schmidt (Weaving), better known to comic book fans as the Red Skull who was injected with a earlier version of the formula causing the visage that gave him his nickname, although it is never uttered at any time during the movie. He has stolen a power source once protected by Odin of the Norse Gods (see Thor) and is using it to power weapons designed by the brilliant Dr. Armin Zola (T. Jones) that will turn the tide of the war.

Of course, nobody on the Allied side knows that yet. Steve, whose exploits in corralling the Nazi agent that threw the monkey wrench into the super soldier works were done very publically, has become a war bonds spokesman as Captain America, a persona the shy and unassuming Steve is uncomfortable with but like a good soldier, he does what he’s told, even if the orders are odious to him. When he learns that his pal Bucky has been captured by Hydra (along with most of his battalion), Steve does something most un-Steve Rogers like – he defies orders and goes in to rescue his friend.

Captain America is in many ways the Superman of the Marvel Universe – the iconic hero tied to the American way. He is almost too good to be true, but in this movie he is good enough to be true. Evans plays him in the digitally enhanced 98-pound-weakling the same way he plays him cut and muscular – with a hint of humility and plenty of fight in the dog, although there are touches of doubt and disappointment.

Johnston, who has previously directed The Rocketeer, another period comic book-based movie (which gave us Jennifer Connolly, among other things) does a wonderful job of recreating the World War II era, from the art deco lines to the make-up of Peggy Carter. The war bonds shows that Cap undertakes complete with singers, dancers and a sneaky little Hitler are spot-on.

This is a superhero movie with character, literally. Johnston takes the time to bring Steve Rogers to life just as equally as Captain America. Like Sam Raimi before him, Johnston clearly understands that the alter ego is equally as important as the superhero. Humanizing the paragon of virtue makes him more accessible; giving him challenges that we can relate to brings us closer to him.

Still, he also gives several nods to the fanboy base, throwing in enough references to the comics and the Marvel universe circa WWII in particular to keep that segment of the audience picking through the DVD/Blu-Ray long into the night. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

Of the main superhero movies that have been released this summer (and this was supposed to be the big triumphant superhero movie summer), this is the best and unexpectedly so. I wouldn’t have called that back in April when writing the Summer Preview. At that point, I would have given the nod to Green Lantern and Thor first but nonetheless I liked Captain America: The First Avenger more.

As for criticism that this is essentially a two hour trailer for the forthcoming Avengers movie, well I for one like that Marvel Studios is taking the model that works for their comic book universe and applying it to their motion picture division. I like the idea of event movies that will bring together the heroes from other franchises into a single film. To that end, certainly this movie is pointing to the next one but it stands on its own as well. That kind of criticism is, to my mind, ignorant of the medium and of the audience that follows it.

Be that as it may, this ranks right up there with the summer’s best films. It’s got great action sequences, terrific characters, wonderful special effects and a great heart at its center. This reminds me not only of the way movies used to be, but of the best movies being made now. There is certainly a place for that in summer blockbuster films.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the era perfectly, giving it a bit of a revisionist spin to fit the Marvel comics universe. Evans carries the movie nicely and gets support in every quarter.

REASONS TO STAY: Cap might be too goodie two-shoes for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of wartime violence and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh film based on a comic book that Evans has done.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the action sequences deserve a big canvas and huge sound system.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: The Dark Knight

The Wolfman (2010)


The Wolfman

Someone's in need of a manicure...REEEEEEAL bad!

(Universal) Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Nicholas Day, Michael Cronin, David Sterne, David Schofield, Roger Frost, Rob Dixon, Clive Russell. Directed by Joe Johnston

We may carry a civilized veneer, but inside we all carry the soul of the beast. Inside, we are primitive, vicious and impulsive. The beast is never far from the surface, nearer for some than for others.

Laurence Talbot (Del Toro) is summoned to Blackmoor, the country village near Talbot Manor where he grew up. His brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Blunt) has written him to inform him that his brother has turned up missing. Laurence is a distinguished actor on the London stage, but he hurries out to his old stomping grounds, from whence he’s been estranged for nearly his entire adult life.

When he arrives there he finds his ancestral home is falling apart at the seams. Fallen leaves and dirt have blown into the main hall, bringing the autumn indoors. Cobwebs adorn the rafters and ghosts roam the hallways. His father, Sir John Talbot (Hopkins) inhabits the house but he doesn’t really live there – it couldn’t possibly be called a life. His faithful servant Singh (Malik) tends to his needs, but Sir John is a shadow of his former self and has been that way since his wife killed herself in full view of young Laurence.

His father greets him with the bleak news that his brother’s body had been found only the day before. The body has been severely mutilated, so much so that nobody’s really sure whether it was the work of an animal or a human lunatic loose on the moors. The suspicious and superstitious townspeople (really, is there a Universal horror picture that doesn’t have suspicious superstitious townspeople?) know what they think – that it’s the work of a group of gypsies that have been in the vicinity at about the time that other bodies similarly mutilated started turning up.

Laurence meets Gwen, whose staying at the house until the funeral and it becomes quickly apparent that there is a very strong bond between them. Laurence’s main concern, however, is to find out what happened to his brother and make sure the guilty party is brought to justice. Although he is warned to stay indoors that night because of a full moon, Laurence decides to go to the gypsy camp. He meets there with an old woman named Maleva (Chaplin) who knows more about the murder than she is letting on. Before she can tell anything, however, a group of angry townspeople burst into the camp, looking for retribution. Just then, the camp comes under attack.

The attacker is incredibly fast, savage. Both gypsy and townsperson are at risk; nobody is safe and people on both sides are maimed and killed with abandon. Laurence himself is viciously wounded in the attack.

He is taken back to the Manor where he is found to be healing unnaturally fast from his wounds. While he is convalescing he is questioned by Inspector Abberline (Weaving) of Scotland Yard, who has been called in to investigate the gruesome murders. It becomes apparent that Abberline regards Laurence as a suspect more than a victim.

Secrets from the Talbot family’s past slowly begin to surface from the bowels of the decrepit mansion and an unspeakable horror is soon unleashed on London. Can Laurence discover a way out of the events that are spiraling to an inevitable conclusion before he is swept under by them?

This is not a faithful remake of the 1941 horror classic of the same name. Director Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, The Rocketeer) does an excellent job of creating a gothic atmosphere that is filled with foreboding and grimness. The moors become a palpable presence, shrouded by mist and filled with primeval beauty that comes upon them unexpectedly. Of all his directing efforts (which have been marked with considerable box office success), this is his best work to date.

One of the hardest things to do is remake a classic because if you go with the same elements that worked the first time, you’re accused of ripping off the original and if you try to put your own stamp on it, you are criticized for desecration of the original. It’s a lose-lose situation, and only rarely have these types of remakes succeeded (as The Mummy did). The writers here tend to go more extreme with gore and special effects in order to differentiate itself from the original. I’m not sure that this will completely eliminate unfavorable comparisons with the original.

I will admit this movie resonated with Da Queen much more than it did with me. She found Del Toro’s Laurence Talbot to be understated and subtle, expressing his inner torment on his face without resorting to shouting at the camera. He managed to elicit compassion from Da Queen and, I suspect, much more of the female portion of the audience than the male. She found it a convincing performance.

For me, Del Toro was a bit too understated. I would have liked to see a little more passion from him. I think in many ways he was trying to distance himself from the original Lon Chaney Jr. performance by distancing himself from the audience; in that he is successful. His character was meant to be a tragic romantic hero and in an era when gothic romance means Edward Cullen, the Laurence Talbots of the world get swept aside in a wave of female teenaged hormones. In some ways, Del Toro never had a chance.

He has some support though. Rick Baker was the only name on the short list of make-up effects wizards to pull off the look of the Werewolf, and he does an amazing job. The hirsute look of Del Toro allows him to look bestial and feral while retaining the human emotions that Del Toro is obliged to display. There’s enough difference between the make-up design here and on his seminal An American Werewolf in London that it doesn’t feel like he’s repeating himself.

Effects-wise, the one area that disappoints is the actual transformation from human to werewolf. We’ve seen it done in a variety of ways from the original optical dissolves to the practical effects of The Howling and the aforementioned An American Werewolf in London. What we see here doesn’t really make me forget any of those movies and quite frankly, given today’s digital technology, it should have. I was certainly expecting better.

There is a lot of gore here but not enough of the eye candy that modern audiences have come to expect. There is a terrible misuse of CGI; the scenes of the werewolf bounding through the forest looks patently fake and serves to jar the viewer out of the atmosphere of the film, which is a pity because Johnston and his team worked so hard in creating a good one. I love the classic gothic horror movies, and this one retains enough of the original that I can recommend it, but walk into the multiplex with the expectation that this remains the dark shadow of the original, reflected by flickering candlelight. Which, in its own way, is appropriate.

REASONS TO GO: Johnston really captures the gothic and grim atmosphere of the moors. Rick Baker’s make-up is astonishing.

REASONS TO STAY: Del Toro isn’t particularly scintilating in a role that calls for a romantic lead who’s actually romantic. Transformation sequences aren’t any better than, say, An American Werewolf in London.

FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome, horrific violence and gothic images make this strictly for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Inspector Abberline is a fictionalized version of an actual historical figure. He was, as Laurence alludes to in the film, the man who was a crucial member of the Jack the Ripper investigation for Scotland Yard. Francis was the nickname of the detective, whose real name was Frederick. He would wind up working for the Pinkertons after retiring from Scotland Yard.

HOME OR THEATER: The chilling atmosphere is definitely suitable for the small screen and the intimacy of house and home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: September Dawn