Welcome Christmas

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Every Christmas season brings with it a glut of Christmas movies; most of them awful — from How The Grinch Stole Christmas to Daddy’s Home 2, each year brings double its fair share of cinematic atrocities, and it’s all too rare that a good movie breaks through the mess — for every five of the aforementioned films, there is The Santa Clause, The Polar Express and The Man Who Invented Christmas. With the impending season all set to unleash itself, one can take refuge without hesitation in this weekend’s new release of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.

Freely adapted from the E.T.A. Hoffman tale entitled The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and the Tchaikovsky ballet, the story opens on young Clara Stuhlbaum (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar), enjoying Christmas Eve as much as one can in her situation — her mother has passed earlier in the year, and the loss still weighs heavy on her heart, as well as that of her father (Matthew MacFayden, The Three Musketeers). In an attempt to bring her from her sadness, he gives her a gift from her mother – a Fabergé-style egg, but it is locked. Already on her way to a Christmas party held by her inventive godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman, Going in Style), she seeks his help, but to little avail. While at the party, gifts are given in an elaborate hide-and-seek manner. This leads Clara on the inexplicable discovery of the Four Realms, where brightness and darkness await in equal numbers.

Directed twofold by Lasse Halström (The Cider House Rules) and Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) and written by first-time screenwriter Ashleigh Powell, the film is a wonderful sight to behold! Lushly photographed entirely in 65mm and 35mm film, every frame is a painting fit to be framed, and the direction given to the actors is solid, not once feeling like the hodgepodge of two conflicting visions. It truly does feel like Christmas when you see this film, and for the Disney nerds, there are more than a few welcome homages to Walt Disney’s 1940 classic, Fantasia, which itself featured selections from The Nutcracker suite! Powell’s screenplay is a strong debut, but it falters in one key aspect — the inclusion of a throwaway line naming the setting of the real world segments as London. Now really, that’s not very Hoffman or Tchaikovsky, is it? It’s so jarring, especially when Clara and her family retain their original names; it would have been better to let the setting remain ambiguous, rather than compromise the origins of the story. Still, this a strong debut from a fledgling writer that is to be commended.

As for the actors, Ms. Foy has truly shed the stain of her Twilight Saga beginnings, and is charming and bright as Clara; she doesn’t falter in her English accent and she never hams it up. Kiera Knightley (Anna Karenina) is bright and cheery as the Sugar Plum Fairy, leader of the Land of Sweets, while supporting characters of the realms include charming performances by Eugenio Derbez (How to Be a Latin Lover) as the eccentric Hawthorne, of the Land of Flowers, and the venerable Richard E. Grant (Withnail & I), who was in the last (atrocious) cinematic adaptation of this story, among a better cast and crew this time around as Shiver, the ice-laden leader of the Land of Snowflakes. The titular character of the Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora-Knight, Ready Player One), is kindly and innocently charming — as for antagonist Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren, Red 2), let’s just say I’d rather not spoil the film.

Another welcome bit of brilliance in this film is the seamless melding of selections from the Tchaikovsky ballet with a score composed by the eminent James Newton Howard (Maleficent). Mr. Howard is, in my humble opinion, one of the more underrated composers in film history, and he is in as good a form as he’s every been — maybe not as memorable as his work on Snow White and the Huntsman or Treasure Planet, but certainly pleasant. Speaking of ballet, such a segment is in this film, with none other than Misty Copeland performing! Be sure to keep in your seats for an additional performance in the end credits.

Speaking honestly, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms isn’t quite an instant classic, but it truly is an adorable bit of Christmas fluff, and one could do an awful lot worse in theaters this season. Buy your tickets, get the kiddos in the car, and watch with confidence that you’re getting a charming Christmas movie!

Rating: 3.5/5

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Drink Up, Me Hearties, Yo Ho!

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HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is something of a brilliant fluke that printed lots of money and occasional awards in its heyday, but let’s not mince words — the sequels thus far, made with the potential of being a seafaring Star Wars saga, were land-locked crap. With the much-publicized “final film” that was released last week, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, I was hoping with bated breath for one last hurrah to make amends for the sequels that sucked. Having seen it, patience is clearly a virtue!

In this film, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp, Alice Through The Looking-Glass) is a battered ol’ drunkie, with little to sustain him but the next rum bottle that touches his lips. Fate (read: sheer dumb luck) brings him into contact with Henry Turner (Brenton Twaites, Maleficent), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) and Elizabeth Swann (Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game), and he brings with him a threat from the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) and a desire to free his father from unending servitude. Teaming up with Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario, The Maze Runner), a young astronomer accused of witchcraft, and Jack’s resident frenemy, Captain Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush, The King’s Speech), they seek the Trident of Poseidon, an artifact capable of freeing anyone from a curse of the sea.

In all seriousness, this is not the best Pirates movie in the series — it does, however, have the luxury of being the best one since the immaculate original. Depp, as always, blends into character as if no years have passed, with all the wit and twit we love about Captain Jack, and yet this is not just his movie — just about everyone gets a chance to shine, with Thwaites finally beginning to prove his mettle as an actor beyond a pretty face and a haircut, and Bardem embodying all the creepy he had in Skyfall with a bit of a dark comedic edge to it. At times, Rush seems to be fulfilling a contract, but he brings all the necessary “arrr” to the role he created in 2002. Scodelario isn’t as bright in her role as I hoped she’d be, but she’s clearly having a good time making a costume drama in the company of great people. Speaking of, Sir Paul McCartney (A Hard Day’s Night), a Beatle in the flesh, appears as Jack’s uncle and namesake — try not to miss him!

Fresh eyes arrive to the series in the form of seasoned action directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon Tiki), giving a stronger sense of action choreography and an ability to see the beauty in locations, something they exhibited as producers on Netflix’s Marco Polo, but the real beauty of this movie is in its having a new writer — Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can). In addition to bringing a fresh eye, relatively unbound to the conventions of the previous sequels, and while there are rehashed lines and some plot holes, he seems to know exactly what the fans want, and in the end, he gives it to us — not only are Henry and Carina lovers by the end, Will and Elizabeth, longstanding mainstays of the series, are finally, definitively reunited in an ending that, while it should have been that of the third film, is warranted, welcome and warmed my greasy little heart to 450ºF! Bravo!

In its last-ditch effort for a return to form, this final Pirates largely succeeds. The script is definitely riddled with clichés; the acting ranges from nominal to yuckin’-it-up, but in the end, the franchise has met a graceful end and its fans, myself included, have finally gotten the happy ending that we deserved! So do yourself a favor and board a ship for a joyous voyage in 3D at your earliest convenience!

Rating: 3.5/5