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 ~ The Hundred-Foot Journey

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Synopsis: A story centered on an Indian family who moves to France and opens an eatery across the street from a Michelin-starred French restaurant run by Madame Mallory.

Release Date:  August 8, 2014

Thoughts: Targeting the crowd that gleefully checked into The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel back in 2011, The Hundred-Foot Journey looks like a welcome late summer sleeper hit.  It’s the kind of film that appears to be blessedly uncomplicated, allowing the audience to just sit back, laugh, and not worry about radioactive lizards, transforming robots, talking apes, or Tammy.  At this point, I’d watch Helen Mirren (Red 2, The Door) not only read the phone book but write one out longhand so having her front and center as a snooty chef feeling put out by the Indian family restaurant that opens mere feet from her own established venue gets my spidey senses tingling.  Directed by Lasse Hallström (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Hypnotist) from the novel by Richard C. Morais, I’d walk at least a few miles for this one.

MIFF Movie Review ~ The Hypnotist (Hypnotisören)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A detective pairs himself with a famous psychologist on a case involving a traumatized young witness to a crime.

Stars: Tobias Zilliacus, Mikael Persbrandt, Lena Olin, Helena af Sandeberg, Anna Azcarate, Jonatan Bökman

Director: Lasse Hallström

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  The novel of The Hypnotist has been sitting on my nightstand for the better part of a year, gathering dust as it continues to be moved down the pile in favor of more pressing reads that I’ve been involved with over time.  I had hoped to work my way through the hefty tome before the rumored US adaptation was released, never realizing that like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, home country Sweden would take a crack at it first.  After seeing director Hallström and screenwriter Paolo Vacirca’s version of Lars Keplar’s blockbuster novel, I’m considering selling it instead.

If the novel is anything like this highly contrived and bloated film then I don’t need to read one page of it because making it through the film was frustrating enough.  What a huge disappointment this one was, a major let-down considering Hallström’s pedigree (to be fair, this is the man that has recently directed the treacly Dear John and Safe Haven…but also churned out the delightful Salmon Fishing in the Yemen).  Hallström’s first Swedish language film in 25 years is also one of his more lugubrious sloughs as the audience is drawn into family drama, red herrings, and enough loop holes to sink a small island.

The set-up of the film isn’t half bad – a killer has struck a family in a Stockholm suburb, leaving all dead but a boy and an estranged sister.  With the boy fighting for his life in a coma, a disgraced doctor (Persbrandt) is called in to see what memories he can extract from the boys psyche.  When the killer targets the hypnotist and his family (including Hallström’s wife Olin), the family must work with a dedicated cop (Zilliacus) to identify the danger.

Even writing that description was better than the execution provided by Hallström and company.  I’m dedicated to leaving things spoiler free for my readers but I’d be interested in conversing with anyone that does see this to go over some phenomenally hare-brained plot developments that baffled me during the screening I saw at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  So many things seemed to be presented solely for the benefit of getting our characters where the film needed to be, reality checks be damned.  I didn’t buy some lapses in memory for a moment, seeing right through their mechanical nature.   Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen enough thrillers in my life to populate a small library but I picked out who ‘dun it almost immediately.

What’s worse is that the actors don’t seem to have any clue what’s going on either.  Conveniently cast as an artist, Olin is nearly swallowed by her mass of hair and tightly pulled face.  I’m a big fan of Olin but she looks disheveled for most of the film and I’m pretty sure every line of dialogue she has was a question rather than a statement.  Worse still is Persbrandt as the titular character, played without any emotion and barely moving his mouth when he does speak.  He looks like Frankenstein and I half expected him to start drooling from his slack-jawed, droopy performance.  Zilliacus has the most interesting character and gets some good mileage out of him, but the film fails him in developing his character beyond the surface information we get on him.

Hallström does deliver a decent final act that equates to about five minutes in a film that wheezes in at around two hours.  The days following my viewing of the film have only widened the problems I have with the movie, it’s a gloomy gus affair that doesn’t have any fire or crackle to it.  If a US version is to be made (and it probably will), I’m hoping that these plot holes are fixed so I can hypnotize myself to forget the Swedish original.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Mermaids

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

The Facts:

Synopsis: An unconventional single mother relocates with her two daughters to a small Massachusetts town in 1963, where a number of events and relationships both challenge and strengthen their familial bonds.

Stars: Cher, Bob Hoskins, Winona Ryder, Christina Ricci, Michael Schoeffling

Director: Richard Benjamin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Maybe not so much a hidden gem as an underappreciated one, Mermaids is a quirky comedy about an eccentric single mom nomadically raising her daughters in the early 1960’s.  The film was a perfect fit for the talent involved…though there were several key players that weren’t originally signed on when the movie moved into production.

First off, director Richard Benjamin was the third director of the movie after Lasse Hallström and Frank Oz both were ix-nayed by star Cher.  Speaking of being replaced, blonde brit Emily Lloyd was supposed to play Ryder’s role until it became clear that Lloyd bore little resemblance to the woman supposed to be playing her mother.  So Benjamin and Ryder stepped in and I can’t imagine the film any other way.

For all the jokes and jibes Cher has received over the years, she’s a damn fine actress and hasn’t really turned in a performance that was an embarrassment.  As Mrs. Flax, she’s relaxed and carefree…keeping the kind of home we’d probably like to visit if she was the mom of our best friend.  A bit of a man-eater, she meets her match when she arrives in a small New England town and takes up with Hoskins’ lovable sh0e-salesman.

The story is seen through the eyes of Charlotte (Ryder, Frankenweenie) as she struggles with her love of all things holy and a burgeoning attraction to a local caretaker (Schoeffling).  Not wanting to turn out like her mother and feeling like she has to be a surrogate parent to her sister Kate (Ricci, in her first film), Charlotte takes several missteps that have ramifications both humorous and dramatic.

Based on a novel, Mermaids has a fair share of laughs that go in tandem with some serious exchanges.  Cher and Hoskins have an opposites attract chemistry that glows as does Ryder with the handsome Schoeffling who knows how to play conflicted with the best of ‘em.

With Benjamin’s sensitive direction, a nice attention to the early 60’s time-period, and a greatest hits soundtrack, Mermaids is received swimmingly whether it’s your first or thirty first viewing.

The Silver Bullet ~ Safe Haven

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Synopsis: A young woman with a mysterious past lands in Southport, North Carolina where her bond with a widower forces her to confront the dark secret that haunts her

Release Date: February 14, 2013

Thoughts: You may be asking yourself…didn’t I already see this movie and wasn’t it called The Lucky One?  The answer is kinda yes and kinda no.  Last February saw the release of the Zac Efron movie adapted from a novel by Nicholas Sparks and one year later another Sparks romance is primed for release.  These are some of the most formulaic films ever made but the continued success at the box office makes them candy to studio executives targeting that elusive female movie goer.  After directing another Sparks adaptation (Dear John), director Lasse Hallström takes on another soapy Sparks story with the same cookie cutter people, places, and problems.