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 ~ 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.

Movie Review ~ Logan

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the near future, a weary Logan cares for an ailing Professor X in a hide out on the Mexican border. But Logan’s attempts to hide from the world and his legacy are up-ended when a young mutant arrives, being pursued by dark forces.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Boyd Holbrook, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Merchant, Dafne Keen, Richard E. Grant

Director: James Mangold

Rated: R

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: We should all be thanking Mission: Impossible 2.  It may be hard to fathom now, but had his filming as the villain in that sorry sequel not stretched beyond its original shooting schedule, Doughray Scott and not Hugh Jackman would have been the one that wound up playing Logan/Wolverine in nine films.  Well, actually, I’m not sure Scott had the charisma necessary to have lasted as long as Jackman has in the role.  Though he’s ably stretched beyond the superhero universe, Jackman will always be favorably associated with this character/franchise and rightfully so.  Showing a willingness to be a team player (popping up in a cameo during X:Men – First Class) or going his own way in two stand-alone Wolverine pictures, Jackman has seen this role through to the end.  We may see Wolverine again in some form but if Logan is truly the finale Jackman has promised, he’s gone out in a burning blaze of glory.

It’s not worth going back and trying to connect the dots between the X-Men movies when thinking about Logan.  Taking place in the near future shortly after a catastrophic event that dramatically decreased the number of mutants roaming the globe, we meet a weary Logan living under the radar and showing his age.  Moonlighting as a limo driver for extra cash and with his earth-saving days seemingly behind him, he acts as a guardian to Professor X (Patrick Stewart, Green Room), now suffering in an advanced state of dementia.

Crossing paths not only with a silent but deadly pre-teen mutant (Dafne Keen) but the bounty hunter (Boyd Holbrook, Gone Girl) intent on tracking her down, the aged man with adamantium claws that spring from his knuckles doesn’t want to be anywhere near the action.  Resistance is futile, though, and Logan begrudgingly becomes a foster parent of sorts to the girl, committing to delivering her to a protected area in the upper Midwest while keeping Professor X close by.  The trip is rocky with many unexpected detours, all leading to a surprisingly emotional climax that feels justly earned.

With all the “last time as Wolverine” talk surrounding Logan, I’ll let you find out for yourself where our hero is when the credits roll but don’t be surprised if Jackman, reteaming with The Wolverine director James Mangold, has a few tricks up his sleeve as he closes this chapter.  The previous two solo Wolverine films have been a mixed bag.  The first was an outright miss, stumbling out of the gates and pretty much nixing several planned X-Men spin-offs at the same time.  2013’s The Wolverine was a much better film than most gave it credit for but in the end the third time really is the charm because Logan represents the best of what all involved have to offer.

It was a good move on the part of 20th Century Fox, emboldened by the smash success of Deadpool, in okaying Mangold and his screenwriters to make Logan a hard R, a rating it earns within the first five minutes thanks to a gory bit of violence and a barrage of colorful language.  I’ll admit to enjoying hearing Stewart swear like a sailor and while I generally favor the less is more approach, free from ratings restraints it seems like everyone and everything is much looser and less cautious.  The violence is exceedingly vicious and no flesh, blood vessel, bones, or skulls are spared.  And it never feels forced, just that the studio finally allowed the audience to see this world as it was always meant to be.

Admittedly, the X-Men aren’t quite in my wheelhouse and it’s taken me a while to come around to their place in the superhero universe.  I feel they’ve improved as they’ve gone along, feeling less comic book-y and more wholly formed with each passing entry (I know you all hated X-Men: Apocalypse but I dug it just fine).  While Logan isn’t directly tied to those previous films (like Apocalypse was to X-Men: Days of Future Past), it’s clear they are all operating in the same timeline and for that Logan feels like a step in the right direction.

Coming so far from just chomping on a cigar and trimming his mutant mutton chops, Jackman knows this character inside and out.  He takes the opportunity (and lengthy running time) to bring out every nuance he can, not letting Logan be changed from a grumpy old man overnight.  He’s matched well by Stewart, doing his best acting than in any previous X-Men film. Crippled by his disintegrating brain, his grizzled appearance is a far cry from the wheelchair bound gleaming cue ball in a designer suit we have come to enjoy.  Holbrook manages to make his villain nicely vile without alienating the audience in the process but the real find here is Keen who is able to handle some pretty heavy material and handily go claw-to-claw with the leading man.

Featuring several super charged action sequences and just gorgeously filmed in general, if there’s one thing I could ding Logan for it would be a nagging sense of familiarity to its tale of redemption.  While it has its fair share of original moves, you’ll likely be one step ahead of its protagonists on multiple occasions.  No matter, the movie hums along so nicely that even at nearly 2 ½ hours the time will fly by.

For my money, Logan is the best of Jackman’s outings as Wolverine and I’m glad it doesn’t wind up feeling like a tired final act.  This is what true character completion looks like and I applaud not only the entertainment value of the movie but the cast and crew that were allowed by their studio the freedom to give a proper send-off.  Highly recommended and likely worth a second viewing as well.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

It’s funny but there are certain trailers that just stick with you over the years…maybe it’s because it was your first glimpse of a film you were looking forward to or maybe it’s all about where/when you saw it. In the case of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was both.

I have a confession to make.  Long before Edward and Bella came around and before Buffy staked her claim in Sunnydale, I was a huge vampire fan…Dracula to be exact (or as the four year old Joe used to say “Drak-lee-la”).  So when 12 year old Joe heard there was another Dracula movie coming out in a big way you know he was excited.

I remember seeing the first teaser for this before a Sunday matinee screening of A League of Their Own at Centennial Lakes 8 and though I liked Penny Marshall’s baseball comedy all I was thinking about throughout was how much longer I’d have to wait until the tale of Count Dracula was arriving.

A well-produced teaser, this actually wound up being removed from theaters because it was deemed “too intense”.  Watching the first images from Francis Ford Coppola’s film that wound up being art-directed to the hilt, you’ll probably be scratching your head as to what’s so intense about it but we live in different times now.

Catch-up!  Check out my look at the teasers for MiseryAlien!