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.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

 

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

Release Date: November 2, 2018

Thoughts: It doesn’t take much to get me to go on a Disney journey so the first preview of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms already has me packing my bags.  Sure, it has a whiff of the irksome overproduction of Oz: The Great and Powerful, Alice in Wonderland and its sequel but it also has shades of The Chronicles of Narnia.  The visuals in this brief teaser alone are a feast for eyes that have been on a drab buffet lately.  Attempts to bring E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale to the screen before have debuted to various degrees of success, either focusing too much on story or too much on ballet/music.  Maybe new screenwriter Ashleigh Powell can make sense of it all and she’ll surely be helped by directors Lasse Hallström (The Hundred-Foot Journey) and Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III).  Starring Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina), Morgan Freeman (Lucy), Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold), and Mackenzie Foy (Interstellar), The Nutcracker and the Four Realms doesn’t arrive for another year but this overture to the main event has generated some pleasant excitement this holiday season.

The Silver Bullet ~ Collateral Beauty

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Synopsis: When a successful New York ad executive suffers a personal tragedy and retreats from life, his friends devise a drastic plan to reach him before he loses everything.

Release Date: December 16, 2016

Thoughts: The last time Will Smith appeared in a movie with fantasy elements it was Winter’s Tale…so Collateral Beauty can only be an improvement, right?  One would hope.  With its roster of A-list leading players, I can see this holiday release from director David Frankel (Hope Springs) going one of two ways: it’ll end up a mawkish tear grabber or find itself a sentimental favorite eliciting the “happy tears” that may just equal good box office returns.  The trailer straddles that fence already, revealing a twist of whimsy that’s either going to draw you into its web or make you run for the nearest theater playing an Oscar-bait period drama set in the Congo during the Renaissance. Along with Smith (Suicide Squad), we have Helen Mirren (Woman in Gold), Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method), Kate Winslet (Triple 9), Edward Norton (Sausage Party), Naomie Harris (Skyfall), and Michael Peña (End of Watch).

The Silver Bullet ~ Everest (2015)

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Synopsis: A climbing expedition on Mt. Everest is devastated by a severe snow storm.

Release Date:  September 18, 2015

Thoughts: Director Baltasar Kormákur (Contraband) has gone big with his IMAX 3D adventure Everest, from the impressive vistas right down to its imposing cast. Based on various novels/accounts detailing the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, just watching the trailer is enough to send summer audiences reaching for their winter jackets thanks to an immersive visual style. Boasting a roster of the most in-demand stars in Hollywood right now like Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler), Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game), Robin Wright (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Josh Brolin (Inherent Vice), Jason Clarke (Lawless), Sam Worthington (Man on a Ledge), John Hawkes (The Sessions), and Emily Watson (The Theory of Everything) the anticipation surrounding this is a high as the titular mountain itself.

Movie Review ~ The Imitation Game

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The Facts:

Synopsis: English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Allen Leech, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Matthew Beard, Rory Kinnear

Director: Morten Tyldum

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  As I said in my review of the trailer for The Imitation Game, I worry that star Benedict Cumberbatch is getting ever so slightly overexposed.  From his on the spectrum performance in the BBC television series Sherlock to his sinewy performances in August: Osage County, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and 12 Years a Slave all the way to his sinister voice work in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies the actor seems to be everywhere nowadays.

With the arrival of The Imitation Game, we should all brace ourselves for more Cumberbatch in the years to come because it’s his performance here that should really put him on the map, not to mention guarantee his first trip to the Academy Awards.  Though the character could be a distant cousin to his Sherlock, Cumberbatch’s performance as mathematician turned code-breaker Alan Turing is a fully realized flesh and blood wonder, one not afraid to take aloof to the next level yet still managing to keep an audience engaged.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the film because it’s so multi-layered that you’re better served letting the well-scripted film do the telling for you.  Adapted from the Andrew Hodges novel by young screenwriter Graham Moore, The Imitation Game benefits from Moore’s youth in its execution.  While the material is never dumbed down, it’s related to us through dialogue from someone that clearly has an ear for how to convey complex code talk and wartime business to the masses.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (who helmed the bloody good Headhunters) keeps everything moving at a nice clip from the get-go.  We meet a post-war Turing being investigated by the police who look back into his life for clues to a current crime.  Through these passages we learn of Turings involvement with cracking the Enigma code during WWII along with a group of carefully selected scholars (including Stoker’s Matthew Goode and Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech).  From this group a love interest appears (Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina) and instead of feeling shoehorned in, Moore creates a dynamic relationship between Turing and this woman…a relationship that opens up another set of secrets Turing is trying to hide.

Straddling the past and present and multiple covert secrets (both kept and uncovered) is no easy game but all involved score high points for its unqualified success.  While maybe not an edge-of-your-seat thriller, it’s absolutely one that will command you to lean forward and look harder at what’s underneath it all.  An assured film, to be sure.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Imitation Game

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Synopsis: English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.

Release Date: November 21, 2014

Thoughts:  If you’ve had your ear to the awards circuit ground you’d be hearing lots of rumblings about The Imitation Game, a twisty true life thriller that winds through the shadows of code breaking during World War II. I’m a bit worried that star Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness, August: Osage County) is reaching a level of overexposure that could backfire against him in the years to come but for now I’ll give him a pass as he has a way of choosing roles that play to his strengths. Joined by Keira Knightley (having a good year in Begin Again and Laggies) and Matthew Goode (Stoker), it’s apparently a film with the kind of good buzz that needs no code breaker to decipher.

Movie Review ~ Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

Stars: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Peter Andersson, Kenneth Branagh, David Paymer, Colm Feore

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: The only thing Hollywood seems to love more than a remake is a reboot and we’ve certainly had our fair share of those in the last several years….some good (Batman Begins), some iffy (The Bourne Legacy) and some disappointing (Man of Steel).  Then you have reboots like The Amazing Spider-Man, which are more puzzling than anything else.  Why kickstart something new if you don’t have anything remarkable to add?

You can toss Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to the garbage pile though because it’s a disappointing waste of time, talent, and resources.  A character that was brought to life on the pages of Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels and in four previous film outings has been reduced to a standard grade action hero that’s light on the action and questionable on the hero.

First appearing in 1990’s The Hunt For Red October (and played by Alec Baldwin), Ryan played second fiddle to Sean Connery’s defecting Russian sub commander.  When Baldwin wasn’t available for 1992’s Patriot Games, producers nabbed their original first choice Harrison Ford to take over as the CIA analyst in a film that was a slickly made bona fide commercial affair.  Returning in 1994 for Clear and Present Danger, Ford’s second outing was a more somber picture, almost the polar opposite of the tight packaging of its predecessor.  A half-hearted attempt to re-launch the franchise was made in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears with Ben Affleck not totally able to bear the weight of it all.

Instead of  remaking a previous Jack Ryan film or delving into the other five novels Clancy included him in, the studio went the Muppet Babies approach and just chose to turn back time and start over again with Ryan now injured in a post 9-11 Afghanistan rather than during a routine exercise.  Even worse is that they repurposed an existing script for a generic action film and just plugged in Ryan and a few others familiar to fans of the novels and tried to make a go at it.  What we’re left with is a script barely better than a failed NBC pilot and thrilling action sequences that are missing any sort of thrills.

I knew we were in trouble even before the title came up when the first shot of Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan involved a badly coiffed wig.  Pine has found great success in outer space (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) but has struggled with films of the earthy variety (though I liked it, People Like Us, was a bomb).   While Pine may have the requisite All American boy scout looks like would go well with any vision of Jack Ryan one may have, the script affords him no favors with wooden dialogue and a plot involving financial ruin that would makes sense only if you weren’t really paying attention.

As his quasi-mentor, Kevin Costner (Draft Day, who would have made a great Jack Ryan back in the day) doesn’t work up much of a sweat since I’m almost positive there are no shots of him doing anything but standing still or sitting down.  Costner seems as bored as we are and I find myself missing his early days when he could deliver a line with a sly sideways glance and make even the most cornball of situations amusing.

Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina, A Dangerous Method) doesn’t close her mouth the entire film, opting to let it just hang open whenever she doesn’t have much to do…which is the majority of the time.  Though the film tries to put her in the middle of the action late in the game her ship has sailed by then and she just gets in the way – until she suddenly becomes useful when the film needs her most.

Actually, there are several of these moments in the movie where a heretofore useless character magically becomes the expert in a field they know nothing about.  Take Ryan himself for instance; the entirety of the movie has Pine saying things like “I’m not cut out for this” and “I can’t do that”, only to gloriously rise up to astounding heights at the opportune moment.  If it was a result of the character finding some inner strength or deeper knowledge that’s one thing but it’s almost as if lines meant for someone else were accidentally spoken by a different character and no one noticed.

Someone should have noticed though and some of that falls on Kenneth Branagh who seems to gain a new mole for each movie he directs as well as stars in.  As a Russian businessman with plans to throw the economy into ruin through a seriously dated (and tremendously gauche) terror attack, he gets the accent down but follows through on little else.  Like his directorial duties in Thor, Branagh shows a strange lack of a big picture view…almost forgetting that he’s in charge of a huge movie.

I wouldn’t say that I exactly had high hopes for the film but I was at least looking forward to something entertaining.  The shortest Ryan film at less than 105 minutes, the film feels hours longer mostly because Branagh has a plethora of shots with people just staring at each other and not speaking like some Ingmar Bergman flick.  The film had my sympathy when it was bumped from its primo holiday spot by Paramount when The Wolf of Wall Street ironed out its kinks…but Paramount clearly knew that it was better to give Wolf a go and leave Jack to wallow in the shadows.

Please…leave Jack Ryan alone.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

jack_ryan_shadow_recruit

Synopsis: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

Release Date:  January 17, 2014

Thoughts: Poor Jack Ryan…he can’t catch much of a break.  The star of Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels has already shown up in four screen outings and his latest screen adventure was set to open in a prime late December spot…until The Wolf of Wall Street was pushed back, taking good ‘ole Jack’s place.  Perhaps moving this reboot from the crowded Christmas season will be a good thing but I can’t imagine director Kenneth Branagh and stars Chris Pine (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) and Keira Knightly (Anna Karenina) were all that pleased with the last minute shuffle.  I’m not sure I love the idea of moving Jack Ryan back into his youth…he’s been played by three different actors so far (Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford in Patriot Games {my favorite} and Clear and Present Danger, and Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears) and I think I prefer the character to have a few more miles on him.   

Movie Review ~ Anna Karenina (2012)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel.  The story powerfully explores the capacity for love that surges through the human heart. As Anna questions her happiness and marriage, change comes to all around her.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  ‘Tis the season for grand costume dramas adapted from classic literature and the holiday is off to a good start with this adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Russian drama of alienation, deception, and doomed love.  Though Anna Karenina has been seen on screens both big and small since film was invented, this 2012 version is ablaze with passion framed within a highly theatrical landscape that is both inviting and cold.  Think Moulin Rouge! meets Merchant Ivory. 

Now don’t roll your eyes…Moulin Rouge!  has its rabid fans as well as those that wrote off Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical as MTV hyper cut filmmaking but it reintroduced some needed theatricality into film that had been lost for some time.  I consider Anna Karenina a sister film to Moulin Rouge!…meaning that if Moulin is the excitable sibling that can’t sit still, Anna is the lovelorn romantic that dreams of something bigger and better.

Re-teaming for the third time after collaborating on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement, director Wright and star Knightley have brought in playwright Tom Stoppard to lend his distinct voice to the telling of this sad tale.  Stoppard has cleared away some of the muck in Tolstoy’s hefty (but well respected) tome and let previously underplayed storylines come to the forefront with ease.  Though the story is clearly centered on Anna and her affairs of the heart, under Stoppard’s pen we are treated to some beautiful moments from our secondary characters.

Wright has consistently given Knightley her best work (and led her to an Oscar nomination for Pride and Prejudice) and Anna Karenina is no exception.  I’ve found Knightley to be a hit or miss type of actress – her screeching performance in 2011’s A Dangerous Method almost broke the camel’s back and her work in the little-seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World didn’t do her any favors .   Thankfully, she’s ended 2012 with a searing take on the Russian wife swept away into a sea of deceit spurred on by an unfaltering love.  Though she knows it will lead to no good, she can’t pry her heart out of the trouble it’s getting into.

As the two men in her life, Law and Taylor-Johnson are interesting choices to stoke the fires of her heart.  Law, with a balding pate and stuffy demeanor shows us his struggle more than he actually lets us see behind his cold exterior as Anna’s husband that tries to save her from ruin.  Taylor-Johnson is the young buck who catches her eye and falls just as hard for her without remorse of consequences.  It can be frustrating to see some of the choices our characters make…but our actors make these choices appear unavoidable.

Secondary love stories are usually introduced for comic effect in classic literature but Stoppard has given a nice sheen to Gleeson’s courting of Vikander’s pretty princess.  Though she only has eyes for Taylor-Johnson’s character, a shift in her heart happens on screen that is a wonder to behold – and it’s not just because Taylor-Johnson goes after Knightley instead.  Gleeson and Vikander share one of the best scenes of the year…a wordless exchange where they literally spell out their feelings for each other.

On its own, this Anna Karenina had all the elements to make a perfectly respectable motion picture but Wright takes it several steps further by setting the film in a theatrical environment that adds a magical touch.  Largely set in and around the stage of an ornate theater, Wright lets the camera push through the scenery into a Narnia-like world that exists behind the curtain.  Scenes are shifted in front of your eyes to new locations with striking detail.  Production designer Sarah Greenwood should keep Oscar night free because her lavish sets and ornate design will earn her a nomination without question. 

Even highly theatricalized, the film doesn’t seem gimmicky.  It would have been so easy to take this too far and make the film much too strident in its artifice but it always seems to work like it should.  Sometimes it feels like the concept has been forgotten but soon Wright sweeps you back into the backstage drama that plays out.  Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey creates a hypnotic pulse that the film hums along to…a dance sequence is played out with breathless beauty that captivates you fully. 

It’s a film that has been on my mind as the days go by but be aware that, like Shakespeare, there is a period of adjustment you must get through with Anna Karenina. When the film began I wasn’t sure this was going to be something I would enjoy as much as I dd.  The first fifteen minutes or so just spills over the audience and it’s up to you to hunker down and get up to speed.  For those that do, you’ll find a clever and visually stunning film experience that is good fodder for a wintery day at the movies.