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

I’d Like To Do It Again

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I grew up on stuff that meant nothing to my generation — from vintage comedies to Victrola records, my house was in 1950 while 1997 happened in the outside world. As a direct result, I was alienated from most of my class, but I did acquire a, dare I say, more refined sense of humor compared to my contemporaries. That being said, not enough comedies in theaters today make me laugh — I tend to groan throughout (Superbad) or take the story dead seriously (Tropic Thunder), so I rarely see them in theaters. In point of fact, the last one I saw as such was 2012’s Hit & Run, and I guffawed all the way through. Almost five years later, I found myself seeing Going In Style, and loving it from head to toe!

A remake of the 1979 film of the same name, Going In Style showcases the lives of three friends in their sunset years — Joe (Michael Caine, The Italian Job), Willie (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption) and Albert (Alan Arkin, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!) — robbed of their pensions and near broke. With no other way to live and expenses needing to be paid, Joe gets the idea to rob a bank — the same bank that managed the liquidation of their pensions. It does sound extremely dumb in synopsis form, and while the trailers paint a better picture than my words, they don’t do it enough justice — this is a very cute, touching film that happens to have some of the best laugh-out-loud moments I’ve ever seen (and the best ones are actually kept from the trailer! Bravo!)! Caine, Freeman and Arkin have never been funnier, and they’re joined by a grand cast of co-stars — among them, Ann-Margret (Bye Bye Birdie), Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future), Matt Dillon (Over The Edge), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Holes) and Joey King (Oz: The Great and Powerful), each one getting a moment or two in the spotlight that make them indispensable to this film. No one present in this film is an unnecessary addition, which is something I can’t say about most movies in history.

Still, when the movie gets sentimental, it never stoops to sappy, Mitch Albom-y levels. It’s a movie made for the generation who grew up on the Billy Wilder compendium of comedies; movies that weren’t afraid to fiddle with your heartstrings as they tickled your funnybone, and that is made all the more impressive by its 42-year old director, Zach Braff. Known as the man behind romantic dramedies such as Garden State and The Last Kiss. Braff’s direction is a loving one, kind and courteous to the audiences watching this film with no real alternatives in a day and age of uninspired drivel like Trainwreck and Neighbors. There is no other movie this year like Going In Style — it’s a trip down Memory Lane that never takes its foot off the gas. True, it does slow down a bit in its third act, and that’s a bit of a pity, but on average, it’s a rollicking, fun ride through the pitfalls of old age.

Let’s be clear, Going In Style is not Oscar bait, despite advertisements billing its leads as “Academy Award Winners,” but it’s not made for the Hollywood elite, nor the moviegoer expecting to see The Hangover on Ensure; it’s a comedy that isn’t afraid to be poignant and adorable. You just don’t get movies like that anymore, and kudos to Zach Braff and all affiliated — this is a love letter from our generation to the past.

4.5/5