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.

Movie Review ~ Interstellar

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, David Gyasi

Director: Christopher Nolan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Most of the reviews for Interstellar are going to focus on the fact that it’s a let-down to what we’ve come to expect from director Christopher Nolan.  Destined to be held to the impossibly high bar he set for himself with his trilogy of Batman films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises), you could say that he really only has himself to blame for critics and audiences alike coming to expect a certain need to be filled with each Nolan epic.

While I agree that Interstellar may not be the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the new millennium as many thought it would be, I still marveled at the sheer magnitude of innovation surrounding the film.  I applaud its commitment to science, cinema, and humanity – it’s why I left the screening with a spark of ebullient respect that literally kept me up tossing and turning in bed as my dreams were filled with wormholes, theories of relative time, and all those failed physics tests of my youth.  Yet, as I continued to think on Nolan’s film as a whole, I found enough fault in the melodramatic moments Nolan and his brother Jonathan have unfortunately wedged in that overall my jovial enthusiasm for the movie faded…and faded fast.

In a distant future, our crops are dying and our prospects look grim.  Single father and retired pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club) lives on his farm trying to do best for his children.  Guided to a secret government facility by a series of events I won’t divulge here, it isn’t long before Cooper is blasting off into space with a two pronged mission to find a new world to inhabit and save the human race.

That’s a heavily oversimplified rundown of the first hour of Nolan’s three hour trek into universes beyond our reach and it’s this earthbound time at the front of the picture and the final hours that kept restraining the journey from really rocketing into the oribit I wanted it to.  There’s a manipulative feeling to what the brothers Nolan have constructed, with attempt after attempt to tug at the heartstrings of viewers.  What they failed to include, however, is a set-up that allows us to be attached emotionally to anyone enough to be moved by their fight for survival.

The film is best when it’s floating in space because that’s when the artistry begins to take form and all cylinders start to fire.  Projected on an IMAX screen and making full use of an immersive sound design (my teeth are still rattling), Interstellar could come across feeling like an entertaining school lecture with its long monologues describing time travel and explanations of the effects of relativity.  Thankfully, Nolan finds a balance in keeping audiences up to speed without boring them (or dumbing it all down) with textbook-ish dialogue that only a multi-PhD professor would grasp.

An impressive, Oscar recognized cast (2 nominees and 4 winners…5 if you count a surprising cameo) make the most of Nolan’s multi-layered script.  McConaughey’s a bit of an odd duck as our hero lead.  Adept at wearing his emotions on his sleeve, I found myself craving for a shot of the actor that didn’t show him with his eyes welled up with tears.  Cool headed when trouble arises, he still cuts the appropriate swath of an All-American dad just trying to get home to his kids.  Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) has never been a favorite of mine but the break she took after her Oscar win has given the actress time to reacquaint herself with a grounded acting style and she largely succeeds in her role as a brainy, all-business counterpart to McConaughey’s cowboy cavalier.

Rounding out the cast is Michael Caine (Now You See Me) as Hathaway’s father and McConaughey’s mentor and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) playing a scientist with a link to McConaughey, alongside Wes Bentley (Lovelace) and David Gyasi (Cloud Atlas) as fellow explorers onboard the shuttle.  Caine has a long history with Nolan but here the role he’s been given is so clearly designed as a plot device that it’s hard to form an honest opinion of the performance.  Chastain fares better, considering she’s saddled with a hefty amount of the problematic moments in the final third of the film.

Less complex than Nolan’s trippy Inception and lacking the emotional attachment of 2013’s better (and shorter) Gravity, Interstellar is a film I can imagine getting less interesting with repeat viewings.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll see the movie again in 70MM on the largest screen I can find because the movie looks absolutely incredible…but I’m not sure all the additional viewings in the world can excuse some major cracks in Nolan’s ambitious rocket-ship.

The Silver Bullet ~ Interstellar (Trailer #3)

interstellar

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: I’m so ready to see Interstellar. Not that I needed any more convincing after the teaser and first trailer for Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi drama, but this recently released preview shown at Comic-Con definitely ramps up my anticipation.  I cringed a bit when I saw how long the trailer was but thankfully Nolan (Batman Begins) remains a cagey filmmaker and doesn’t let go of many plotlines and important pieces of info that could spoil the overall experience.  Bolstered by a truly A-list cast featuring Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastain (Mama), Ellen Burstyn (Draft Day), and Michael Caine (The Dark Knight Rises), the rocket boosters are starting to truly heat up to send this one into orbit come November.  Can’t wait.

The Silver Bullet ~ Interstellar (Trailer #2)

interstellar

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: Now at the point where the mere mention of his name guarantees you’ll buy a ticket to his films, director Christopher Nolan steps out of the shadow of The Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) and looks upward into space. The first teaser for Interstellar had tongues a-waggin’ though it had next to no original footage and while this second look reveals a tad bit more about what the film is all about, it’s still more intriguing than verifiably interesting in my book. Then again, Nolan’s trailers have historically been as spoiler-free as possible so that’s par for the course. Make no doubt about it, this is one of the most highly anticipated films of the year and it doesn’t hurt Nolan has the star power of Oscar darlings Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Michael Caine (Jaws: The Revenge) and Ellen Burstyn (Draft Day) to escalate this to warp speed. I expect big things from this one…and I’ll bet we get ‘em.

The Silver Bullet ~ Interstellar

interstellar-logo

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Release Date:  November 7, 2014

Thoughts: With a director that has yet to make a bad film and a, well, stellar cast of A-Listers it’s not hard to see why Interstellar is already one of the most highly anticipated films of 2014.  Director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) has tapped Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastian (Zero Dark Thirty), Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine (Jaws: The Revenge), and Casey Affleck for his new film, details of which are still being kept tightly under wraps.  Sources say it has to do with time travel and the race to save the food supply of our planet but if I know Nolan it’s about so much more.  The first look doesn’t have a lot of footage to it (and you know I love my teasers) but it nicely places its stake in the ground as the movie we’ll be talking about in about a year.

Movie Review ~ The Conjuring

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: It’s fun to be scared, isn’t it?  I know many people that would disagree with that statement but I’ve always found a base thrill in any amount of fright that I can find be it at the hands of a ghoul in a haunted house, a towering rollercoaster that looks more than a tad bit rickety, and in a dark movie theater watching the latest horror flick designed to scare the pants off of you. 

Even after hearing early positive buzz on The Conjuring and liking what I’d seen/read up until it was released, I was still wary that my expectations were raised too high to get out of the film the kind of entertainment I was looking for.  That all changed frame one as the Warner Brothers logo appeared along with Joseph Bishara’s ominous music and I just knew…this is going to be one scary flick.  And it was.  And I loved it.

The Conjuring represents a full feast of fright after sparse offerings in theaters over the last year.  For my money, it’s the scariest movie released in theaters in some time and the scares it provides are well earned and long-lasting.  Moments of good old fashioned dread exist in the movie that are genuine and cleverly constructed for maximum impact.  Not merely content to scare you once, director James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence, Insidious) applies the pressure and maintains it for long stretches of time, creating several truly harrowing sequences.

Based on the true story of Perron family from the files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, The Conjuring opens with a dandy of an intro to the kind of work that Ed (Patrick Wilson, Prometheus) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) do.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling this opening but will say that it plays a nice twist on the kind of opening that Scream introduced so well and that has been oft-copied ever since. 

It’s 1971 and Carolyn (Lili Taylor, Being Flynn) and Roger (Ron Livingston, The Odd Life of Timothy Green) Perron have moved their five daughters (including Joey King from White House Down and Oz, The Great and Powerful) to a large farmhouse nestled in the boondocks of New England.   Though the actual events took place over 10 years, for cinematic purposes the timeline is several weeks…compressing years worth of occurrences is something the movie pretty much had to do.   It’s not long before the family gets to know their house a bit better; finding a boarded up cellar filled with cobwebs and antique toys that provide a few cursory scares. 

Mysterious bruising, the unexplained nightly stopping of all clocks at 3:07am, and other spooky bumps in the night don’t signal much of a warning until all hell breaks loose one night in the first of many masterfully filmed passages of piled on horror. 

Though we’ve already met the Warrens and seen their suburban home life (including a locked room full of creepy items from their various cases), they finally step center stage when Carolyn begs them for help.  When the Warrens arrive and start looking into the house and its dark past, they discover a history of horrifying events that shed some light on the present happenings.  The deeper they dig, the more danger they unearth not only for the family but themselves as well.

Even the best made horror film is largely at the mercy of the actors that are involved and Wan has assembled a crack mix of interesting actors to take on these roles.  Wilson may be a tad milquetoast in the role but he never overplays it, wisely playing second banana to Farmiga.  Ah yes, Farmiga.  Aside from the treasure trove of terror, the chief pleasure of The Conjuring is Farmiga’s multi-dimensional and fully committed take on the role of a clairvoyant who sees/feels more than we could ever imagine.  This is a smart actress who keeps us interested in the movie even if, like most horror films centered on a mystery, the more we know about the “why” behind the terror the less we are scared of it. 

Just a slight step below Farmiga is Taylor, one of the best actresses of her generation that continues to take on a range of roles in mainstream and indie films.  Largely absent from the horror genre since the turkey remake of The Haunting back in 1999, Taylor is perfectly cast as a normal wife and mother that’s pitched into a nightmare she can’t wake from.  Farmiga and Taylor are a dynamic duo, bravely enduring the wringer that Wan and screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes put them through.

The Conjuring has no nudity, no explicit language, and a modest modicum of blood so it landed an R from the MPAA due to its “sequences of disturbing violence and terror”.  There’s something revelatory about a movie earning that restriction based solely because it’s too scary – and earn it it does.  This hopefully will be a perennial classic that finds its way on the shelf next to films like Halloween, The Changeling, and Poltergeist.  If your spine needs a good tingling, The Conjuring is just the medicine the doctor ordered.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Conjuring (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren work to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in their farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts:  I don’t normally post a second trailer for a movie so close to the time that I posted the first trailer, but this new preview for July’s The Conjuring rustles up more than a few scary moments that I wanted to share.  Though we’ve had many horror films that were “based on a true story”, the premise of The Conjuring intrigues me as its inspired by the case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren who were famous for their involvement in more than a few high profile haunting inquiries (they were consulted on the famous Amityville Horror case).  I always get nervous when a film shows so many key moments and hope that some scares are put on reserve for paying audience members.  I like the cast assembled here and it’s old-school style should play a part in creating an atmosphere rich with potential.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Conjuring

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Synopsis: A family encounters spirits living among them in their New England farmhouse.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts: It’s so easy to put a shine on a dull coin so I always take movie posters and previews with a grain of salt.  Even a trailer for the worst movie can be edited to look like an Oscar contender while true award-worthy material can be hidden by a so-so preview.  Even knowing this, I have to say that the recently released poster and trailer for the summer scare-a-thon The Conjuring gives me high hopes.  It’s directed by James Wan who was behind the camera for Saw, the strangely underrated Dead Silence, and Insidious…even if those films weren’t quite your cup of tea I’d argue that they had more style/cinematic flair than many of the films in its genre.  Another bonus is the cast – Lili Taylor and Vera Farmiga are two of the more interesting actresses in Hollywood so when you add Ron Livingston and Patrick Wilson to the mix you have a quirky quartet that might just work.

Though the trailer may seem to give away a nifty scare for free I’ll be waiting patiently until July to see what thrills this team can conjure up for us.