Movie Review ~ The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young girl is transported into a magical world of gingerbread soldiers and an army of mice.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Mackenzie Foy, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Misty Copeland

Director: Lasse Hallstrom, Joe Johnston

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In the last few months we’ve really been treated to a lot of good entries at the movies. The dramas have soared (A Star is Born), the scary movies have been freaky fun (Halloween), and the romantic comedies (Crazy Rich Asians) have been at their fizzy best. The one movie we’ve been sorely lacking is an honest to goodness family film that isn’t filled with double entendres to go over the kiddies heads and lame-brained humor that make the parents shift grumpily in their seats. The arrival of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms signals the first purely PG movie I’ve seen in a long time, slightly too scary to get the golden G but worthy of consideration when planning a family outing to the movies this holiday season.

Young Clara (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar) is getting ready to celebrate the first Christmas with her family after losing her mother. Her father (Matthew Macfadyen, Anna Karenina) is too bereaved to be able to emotionally connect with any of his children, least of all his inquisitive daughter and when they arrive for a holiday party at the expansive manse of Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, Now Your See Me) father and daughter exchange harsh words that only divides them further.

Searching for a present from Drosselmeyer, Clara winds up entering a magical world of four realms that her mother had a connection to and which she now plays a part in overseeing. Accompanied by a kindly solder (Jayden Fowora-Knight) she makes her way to the palace and meets the rulers of three of the lands that have been awaiting her arrival. Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) comes from the Land of Flowers while Shiver (Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) calls the Land of Snowflakes his home. The unofficial leader of the trio is the ever sweet but sturdy Sugar Plum (Keira Knightly, A Dangerous Method) who takes Clara through a tour of the realms and warns her of Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, Red 2), the leader of the Land of Amusement, the fourth realm.  As Clara takes in her surroundings, she decides to stay and help Sugar Plum get a special key from Mother Ginger that will help unlock not only a machine meant to protect the kingdom from Mother Ginger’s clutches but will also open a special egg of her mother’s. Journeying to the dark Land of Amusement with her solider is just one of the adventures Clara goes on and which introduces the first of several surprises along the way.

Continuing Disney’s tradition of turning celebrated classics into live-action extravaganzas, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is stuffed to the brim with feasts for the eyes. Though the film bears the name that suggests it will follow Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous music and seminal ballet, it’s only loosely inspired by the original short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. That being said, there are numerous musical cues that will sound familiar, part of the cheery score supplied by James Newton Howard (The Dark Knight). One of the best moments in the movie is a centerpiece involving a ballet performed by famous ballerina Misty Copeland. Copeland’s got incredible charisma and her dancing nearly turns the movie into a 3D experience. If only she had more to do here, still, it’s more than easy to see why she’s risen to the top of her field.

Foy is a lovely lead, head-strong and boasting a more than passable English accent. She’s in almost every scene of the movie so it’s important to have someone in that central role that doesn’t grate on the nerves. While we’re talking about nerves, I’m not sure what Knightley was going for but her lines are delivered with a baby voiced tweet that seriously bugged me right from the start. This is a fantasy to be sure but every time she opened her mouth I was jolted back to reality. Grant and Derbez seem to be literally hiding behind their costumes and I’m wondering if their roles were cut back in editing. As much as I love Mirren and Freeman, not a ton of effort is put forth on their part which is disturbingly becoming the norm for Freeman.

While the production design is mostly fairy tale-perfect, some of the sets and costumes look like they’ve been in storage just waiting for another Santa Clause film. Disney has spent a boatload of money and it’s all up there on the screen for audiences to see. There are some that will find the film hollow yet pretty on the outside and maybe that’s a fair assessment but I found it an enjoyable bit of holiday entertainment on a scale we haven’t had in some time. Directors Lasse Hallstrom (The Hypnotist) and Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) never the let movie spin too far out of control and punctuate it with a lovely finale.

Why Disney is releasing this movie so early in the season is beyond me. It’s likely they were weary of receiving a critical drubbing in a more targeted holiday release so instead they chose to open it just as the leaves were starting to change. I feel it would have been better suited to come out Thanksgiving weekend which would carry it into the Christmas holiday. I’m not yet in my Scrooge mood which is why I probably fell for the charms of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms a little easier than I normally would. I still would whole-heartedly recommend this as an ideal family film.

Movie Review ~ Bohemian Rhapsody

The Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of the years leading up to Queen’s legendary appearance at the Live Aid concert.

Stars: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s only fair to say first off that the best part of Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic that’s not totally about Freddie Mercury but not really about Queen, is the final fifteen minutes.  That’s where the film finally draws some electricity and commands some attention from the audience.  As Mercury, star Rami Malek struts and poses with flair and gives off the kind of energy that’s been sorely missing for the previous two hours.  At my screening, you could almost feel the crowd waking up and making a connection with what was happening on screen. The problem with all this is that it’s nearly a shot for shot recreation of Queen’s Live Aid performance that you could easily watch for free on YouTube.  Why go to the movies to see something easily available at your personal fingertips?

The answer is Malek.

Let’s back up a bit, shall we?

Bohemian Rhapsody has finally arrived in theaters after a development process that could most kindly be called tortuous.  Over the years many directors have come and gone along with potential stars.  Once set to feature Sacha Baron Cohen as the late lead singer of Queen, he departed due to ‘creative differences’ and the film was eventually made with rising star Malek (Papillion) and director Bryan Singer (X-Men: Apocalypse).  When filming was nearly finished, Singer was fired from the picture after not showing up for work and whatever was left to shoot was taken up by producer Dexter Fletcher.  Though Singer’s name remains on the final product, the director is not doing press for the film and Malek’s own press junket has had some rocky moments.

If the film were anything memorable, this may all be a tragic series of unfortunate events but it’s so ho-hum and lazily assembled that you wonder why anyone put the effort in at all.  The film was produced by two surviving members of Queen and if you believe what is in the news they had a strong hand in guiding the movie to not make anyone look that bad, except for Freddie Mercury who isn’t alive to defend himself.  The screenplay by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) and Peter Morgan (Rush) takes great lengths to show how Mercury caused the band to implode (though they never broke up as the film seems to suggest) and how the other members were model family men who contributed to the band’s success.

Playing like an abridged version of an already sanitized biography, the movie is never fully about the rise of Freddie who came from a traditional Pakistani family to become one of the most enigmatic but frustrating rock stars of his generation.  It also isn’t really about Queen whose virtuosic talents are heard courtesy of the greatest hits soundtrack but never felt as performed by the actors taking on the other members of the band. Instead, it awkwardly hops along a middle line that fails to deliver anything we couldn’t have learned from reading the Queen Wikipedia page. There’s head-scratching leaps in time and curious historical omissions, then there are the downright oddball choices like having Mike Myers play a music industry exec who rejects Queen’s epic anthem Bohemian Rhapsody outright saying no one will be rocking out to this in their car.  This from the actor that starred in Wayne’s World which featured a carful of metalheads rocking out to…guess what?  It’s an unnecessary bit of goopy meta humor, one of many kooky moments that happen in the movie.

While the men playing Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, Only the Brave), and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello, Jurassic Park) acquit themselves in shallow roles, two performances keep the movie afloat and both actors are working their butts off to do so.  The first is Lucy Boynton (Murder on the Orient Express) as Freddie’s first love and fiancée before he comes out as gay.  Though he cheats on her she remains loyal to him first as a lover and then as a confidant.  When Freddie gets tangled up with a shady manager (Allen Leech, The Imitation Game) with personal and professional interests of his own, she’s the only one that calls Freddie out on his blindness and reminds him of who has always stuck by him.  Boynton turns up regularly in these types of roles but she aces them all.

Then there’s Malek who is the real reason you should consider seeing the movie at all.  Though saddled with a pair of false teeth to create Freddie’s pronounced overbite that feel two sizes to big, he brings out the loneliness felt by this star and that’s where some true emotion finally is felt.  Though it tends toward “poor Freddie with no friends and no companion” at times (again, what does this script have against him??) Malek manages to rise above all of that and find the heart if not totally the soul of the man. If only Malek was paired with a screenplay that was willing to be a warts and all tour of Queen’s journey to fame.

It all comes into focus, though, in those final fifteen minutes which are enough to send you out of the theater on a rock and roll high.  I felt it for a good day or so after I saw the film but the more I thought about the rest of the movie and it’s tuneless trappings the more I started to come back to earth.  Fans of Mercury and the band have likely been waiting a long time for this biopic and maybe they’ll get what they need out of this surface skimming endeavor – but I think it will take another set of filmmakers more removed from their subject to give us the real story.

Movie Review ~ Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Lee Israel falls out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella

Director: Marielle Heller

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I know we’re always supposed to be able to gaze beyond the actor and see them for more than their past roles but there was a moment in Can You Ever Forgive Me? that I looked at its star Melissa McCarthy and marveled that this was the same actress that frantically pooped in a sink in her Oscar nominated turn in Bridesmaids.  Though McCarthy has spent the years after her nomination in mostly comedic roles (Tammy, The Boss, The Heat, Life of the Party), she takes a striking detour for this true story based on the autobiography of author Lee Israel.  Gone (mostly) are the overzealous line readings desperate for laughs and the physical humor that had her laughing before we could.  In its place is an honesty McCarthy hasn’t yet showed on screen but is wholly appreciated.

In 1991 Lee Israel was a struggling writer of biographies.  Though she was a New York Times bestselling author, she’s suffering from a serious case of writer’s block and her agent (a brilliantly sardonic Jane Curtin) finally levels with her that ‘no one wants a biography on Fanny Brice’.  If Israel can’t find another topic to write about (and fix her brusque personality at the same time) her agent can no longer advocate for her with publishing houses.  Faced with unpaid rent and a sick cat, Lee resorts to selling a personal letter she received from Katherine Hepburn to a local collector, Anna (Dolly Wells, Bridget Jones’ Baby). When she comes across several letters stashed away in her materials on Fanny Brice and then nabs some more cash for those, Israel comes up with a plan.  She can use her own literary talents to falsify personal letters from celebrities and sell them to the collector willing to pay cash.  Soon, she’s writing in the style of Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Marlene Dietrich and seeing her bills disappear.  Looping in sometime friend and drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) to her scheme, her ambitions get loftier even while her grand plan starts to crumble around her.

Director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) really gets the aesthetic of the material and creates a rather sad view of New York in the early ‘90s.  There’s little color to the film and it’s mostly played out in bars, bookshops, and apartments that have the kind of authenticity often difficult to convey on film.  She’s aided by the marvelous script from Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) who hone in on the personal problems the otherwise verbose Israel kept packed away.  There’s hardly one false or extraneous line of dialogue here, the hallmark of a well-crafted screenplay.  Adding to the atmosphere is Nate Heller’s jazz infused score that manages to mirror the inner thoughts of our characters and sets them to orchestral music.

In her mousy brown bowl cut and dull clothes that feel like constraining armor, McCarthy totally disappears into Israel and turns in her most accomplished work to date.  Israel was an out lesbian unlucky in love (largely by her own doing) and the mature unexpected flirtation between Israel and Anna will have you rooting for her not to mess it up.  By all accounts Israel kept most people at an arm’s length and a conversation with her former lover (the fantastic Anna Deavere Smith) gives great insight into what it was like to be her partner.  All of these nuanced moments are handled expertly by McCarthy.

As Jack Hock, Grant also has several brilliant moments to shine. Whether its smooth talking his way into Israel’s inner circle of one or sweet-talking collectors into buying Israel’s fake letters once they refuse to buy from her directly, he’s utterly captivating.  With his purring voice and steely eyes, Grant’s Hock is always playing either for fun or for his own benefit.  When Hock makes an honest mistake and gets upbraided by Israel for it, you can see the hurt and embarrassment he feels at failing a person he considered a friend.

In fact, Can You Ever Forvgive Me? doesn’t have one bad performance in the bunch.  Even the smallest roles are cast to perfection and many familiar character actors pop up in small parts.  I especially liked Curtin’s beleaguered agent who is maybe too nice to fully give Israel the boot but doesn’t hold back when giving her honest advice.  Then there’s Wells as the sensitive Anna who takes a liking to Israel, willing to look beyond the rough exterior and hoping to get a glance at what’s underneath.

I went into the movie not totally sure what ended up to the real Israel and I’d advise you to do the same.  Not knowing creates some genuine tension and I found myself unbelievably rooting for her to get away with it all because McCarthy has moved us to be squarely on her side.  This is a crowded year for acting recognition and while Grant is sure to get an Oscar nomination for his supporting turn it’s not a sure thing that McCarthy will be on the final list for Best Actress.  That would be a shame because, like Bridesmaids, this is a chance to reward an actress for bringing an unexpected performance to the screen.