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This Movie Makes No Sense: “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story”

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There are good movies and bad movies.  And then there are those movies that defy easy categorizations.  The inexplicable, the incomprehensible, the indecipherable: these are the movies that make no sense.  And that’s why we love them.

Right down to the core of its conception, “The Nutcracker in 3D” — now known on video in 2D as “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” — makes no sense. Its director, Andrey Konchalovskiy, worked on this adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” ballet for twenty years. Can you imagine spending twenty years of your life on a single work of art? You’d have to be obsessed. So here’s what Konachlovskiy had to say about his obsession with “The Nutcracker” from the film’s making-of documentary:


“When you’re analyzing the ballet, you realize there are two parts, and the first part is the story and by the end of the first part, the Mice King has already failed.  The second part is just potpourri and celebration.  There’s no story anymore.  So in a sense, it was impossible to follow the story that was written for ballet.  So when I started to think about the film in different terms, I realized it’s just a fairy tale.  And you cannot make a fairy tale with big chunks of dance.  So then I returned to the source [E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”], where evil exists.  And Hoffman’s story is much more deep and philosophical and interesting than the quite poor story of the Tchaikovsky ballet.”


Okay, so clearly he wasn’t that obsessed with “The Nutcracker.” In fact, it kind of sounds like he doesn’t like “The Nutcracker” at all. And yet he still spent twenty years trying to adapt it. His eventual solution was to remove all the ballet from the ballet and replace its “quite poor story.” Andrey, I’m sorry. When you turn “The Nutcracker” into the adventure of a little girl and an obnoxious toy fighting giant rats dressed like Nazis who dance and occasionally electrocute sharks, you lose the right to call anything a “quite poor story.” That’s just how it works.

Konachlovskiy’s desire to make “The Nutcracker” by stripping it of its inherent Nutcrackeryness makes no sense. That’s like making a Batman movie where Bruce Wayne never puts on a bat costume. Do you think Warner Brothers would give me $90 million to make that “Batman?” Because that’s how much money Konachlovskiy was able to get to make his deranged version of “The Nutcracker.” $90 million bucks. For dancing, shark electrocuting Nazi rat people.

I understand “The Nutcracker” name has brand recognition. But it has brand recognition as a ballet. Reimagining classic material has its place, but it’s a task that requires sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and a true willingness to break from precedent. Konachlovskiy tried to have it both ways. He didn’t like the ballet’s story, refused to include ballet dancing, but he still kept Tchaikovsky’s music. Even worse, he had Tim Rice (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King”) write lyrics to Tchaikovsky’s music and made the cast sing them as conventional musical numbers.

Well maybe “conventional” isn’t the right word. A “conventional” musical would not feature Albert Einstein — played by Nathan Lane — teaching children about the theory of relativity through a song called “It’s All Relative.” Ballet, that doesn’t work in a fairy tale. But Albert Einstein singing about physics? Perfect match!

Technically, Lane’s character is only referred to as the main child protagonists’ “Uncle Albert,” but he looks like Einstein, talks in a thick German accent, and peppers his dialogue with famous Einstein quotes like “Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” This leaves only two possibilities. One: the character really is Albert Einstein. Or, two: these children’s uncle is a schizophrenic named Albert who thinks he’s Einstein. That certainly would explain a)why Uncle Albert is the only person in the film to speak in a German accent, b)why the children’s parents seem so uncomfortable leaving Uncle Albert alone with their kids, c)why Einstein, who was Jewish, is so enthusiastically celebrating Christmas, and d)why Einstein frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience (i.e. he’s clinically insane and he can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality).

Such mental illness would put him in good company with the rest of his family. His niece, Mary (Elle Fanning), suffers from similar delusions. After Uncle Albert brings her and her brother Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) a nutcracker toy for Christmas (and after he sings to them about how all motion is relative), Mary imagines that the Nutcracker comes to life and enlists her help in his ongoing war with The Rat King. The Rat King — John Turturro in an Andy Warhol wig and prosthetic rodent nose — has taken control of the Nutcracker’s kingdom. He also transformed “NC,” as he likes to be called, from a boy into a wooden toy. And he employed a rat army dressed like Nazi stormtroopers to steal children’s toys and burn them in his “smoke factory” in order to blot out the sun.

And thus we come to another crucial element of the film that makes no sense — the weird Nazi imagery. The Rat King gives Hitler-esque speeches about liquidating the human population to make way for the rats, his soldiers are garbed in black leather, jackboots, and helmets, and his smoke factories evoke clear associations with gas chambers and prison labor camps. This stuff might make a little sense if the film was set in Nazi Germany, and these fantasies were a child’s way of understanding the madness of war (a la Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”). But “The Nutcracker in 3D The Untold Story” appears to be set in peaceful 1920s Vienna — hence the appearance of figures like Einstein and Sigmund Freud, who also makes a cameo. So Mary’s imagination invented or somehow predicted the Holocaust? How does that work any better in the context of a fairy tale than a ballet?

It doesn’t. “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” is one of the most mesmerizingly misguided films of all time. Nothing about it makes sense. If the movie is set in Vienna, and Uncle Albert has a German accent, why do Mary and Max have American ones? And why do their parents have British ones? And why are there so many rat puns in the screenplay (“You dirty rat!”)? Was it written by Arnold Schwarzenegger? Why get rid of ballet dancing and replace it with terrible song and dance numbers? And why the hell does The Rat King have a giant shark in his throne room? And why does he electrocute it at the end of his big production number? Does he bring in a new shark every time he feels like singing? “In case of goose-stepping emergency, break shark?”

“The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” is not a movie that’s “so bad it’s good,” like “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” It’s not characterized by ineptitude, at least not on a technical level. The execution of the CGI, prosthetic makeup, and production design is sharp. It’s just that the ideas underpinning that execution are so goddamn bizarre. It shouldn’t be possible to work on a single film for twenty years and wind up with this. All reality must be an illusion. There’s no way “The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” actually exists.

“The Nutcracker: The Untold Story” is available on DVD and Blu-ray. If you see it, let us know what you think of it in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Mr. Roboto

5 Reasons Rocky IV Is Too Rotten to Miss

Catch Rocky IV Friday at 8P during IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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Photo Credit: MGM/UA/YouTube

When Rocky IV was released in 1985, the critics were not kind. (While it wasn’t around back then, the film’s 39% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes speaks for itself.) Less of a movie than a jingoistic music video starring a robot and a steroid-addled, monosyllabic Russian baddie, Rocky IV is a far cry from the Italian Stallion’s humble origins.

Still, more than any movie ever made, it exemplifies the whole “so bad its good” genre. This movie was made for us, the great-unwashed masses of the 1980s, who loved the band Survivor and hated those Commie bastards. Before you catch Rocky IV on IFC’s Rotten Fridays, let’s take a look at some moments that make this flick a “too rotten to miss” classic.

5. That Opening Shot

Rocky IV
United Artists

It takes all of 30 seconds for the audience to know they’re in for one ridiculous rollercoaster ride through a Cold War conniption fit of good vs. evil. Gone is the subtle tone and grounded reality of the first Rocky. In its place we see two gloves, one emblazoned with the American flag, the other with the Soviets’, hurtling toward each other. When they collide, sparks fly, and we witness an explosion decades in the making.

In case the symbolism is too subtle for you, director/writer/star Sylvester Stallone is trying to hint that this movie will be the clash of civilizations we’d all been waiting for, but instead of nuclear bombs, a humble palooka from the streets would be duking it out in the ring with the ultimate representation of coldhearted Communism. If it were up to us, this opening shot would’ve won Best Picture all by itself.


4. So Many Montages

Rocky IV has a running time of 91 minutes and 20 seconds. Its eight montages (yes, EIGHT) run a total of 29 minutes and 10 seconds. That is one third of the movie solely dedicated to montages. (Considering Stallone’s contempt for all things Soviet, we have to wonder if he knows it was a dirty Ruskie who invented the montage.)

During one of the many, many montages, director Stallone actually flashes back to a scene that had happened a minute and half prior, creating the impression that he might actually flashback to the montage we were just watching in the same montage. Stallone clearly loves a good montage set to an inspirational ’80s song, and so do we. Which brings us to…


3. A Soundtrack Full of Pumped Up ’80s Jams

Speaking of montages, they are set to the score of some of the cheesiest hits from the mid-’80s. For once, we’re spared tracks from Frank Stallone, with Stallone replacing his rocker brother with synth-y singles from Survivor, John Cafferty and Kenny Loggins. And of course, Robert Tepper, possessor of an ’80s mullet that could topple empires, crooning “No Easy Way Out.” The music in this movie is one step away from being a parody of the music in this movie. If you ever want to know what cocaine can do to the human mind, just listen to this soundtrack.


2. Rocky Ends the Cold War

Rocky IV speech
United Artists

In one of the most misguided, self-congratulatory, and immediately dated moments in cinema history, good ol’ galoot Rocky Balboa single-handedly ended the Cold War four years before the Berlin Wall came down.

To quote the Italian Stallion himself: “In here…there were two guys… killing each other. But I guess that’s better than millions. What I’m trying to say is… if I can change… and you can change…everybody can change!” And just like that the Soviet public, generals and even the Premier himself rose to their feet in applause, realizing what fools they’d been. This guy beat Mr. T for Heaven’s sake. He knows what he’s talking about!


1. Paulie’s Robot

Okay, let’s all take a deep breath and really consider this for a moment. Rocky IV has a robot butler in it. A movie franchise that began back in 1976 exploring the gritty reality of a bum fighter trying to prove himself somehow limped along long enough to turn into a weak Short Circuit rip-off in which an alcoholic mooch with a history of domestic abuse now gets his coffee served to him by a robot. A robot that he has programmed with a “sultry” lady voice!

Stallone was inspired to include the real life robot Sico in Rocky IV because of the work it did to help autistic children like his son Seargeoh. That’s all very moving, but doesn’t explain why he decided to write a scene where Paulie dubs poor Sico “the love of my life.” It’s a testament to Rocky IV‘s “too rotten to miss” status that Paulie’s robot girlfriend/personal servant isn’t even the craziest thing that happens to Rock and the gang.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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Gray's Anatomy

Everything You Need to Know About the Movie That Inspired “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”

Brand new Documentary Now! airs Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom Pictures

This week Documentary Now! spotlights a master monologist with “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything.” Before you tune in at 10P this Wednesday on IFC, check out our guide to Swimming to Cambodia, the 1987 film that captured writer/performer Spalding Gray’s acclaimed one-person show.

Spalding Gray 101

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures

Actor and renowned monologist Spalding Gray spent two years on stage perfecting his Obie Award-winning “Swimming to Cambodia” monologue. In it, Gray tells the story of his eight weeks in Southeast Asia while shooting the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie The Killing Fields. He had a small role, but the experience gave him several anecdotes about hanging out with the film crew and experiencing the local culture, all while searching for “the perfect moment.”

Directed by the Silence of the Lambs Guy

Hannibal Lecter
Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme took Gray’s two-night, four hour performance and crafted it down to 85 minutes. His use of dramatic lighting, stylish camerawork and a score by performance artist Laurie Anderson was praised by critics and earned the film a cult following. No stranger to groundbreaking docs, Demme also directed the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which Documentary Now! pays tribute to in this season’s episode “Final Transmission.”

All about the Voices

While it may have been a one-man show, Gray created a repertoire of characters all with distinctive accents. (He portrayed conversations between himself and others just by turning his head.) Our favorite impressions are of his demanding girlfriend Renee and Ivan Strasberg, the South African director of photography on The Killing Fields who, as depicted by Gray, sounds a bit like a Jamaican surfer.

The Original Cranky New Yorker

In one memorable scene, Gray rants about how his noisy upstairs artist neighbors are driving him and Renee crazy. Even in the mid-’80s, there were New Yorkers complaining that the city wasn’t what it used to be.

Show and Tell

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures/YouTube

A big fan of visual aids, Gray used pull-down maps to illustrate his travels. This helped to bring Swimming to Cambodia to life, since he’s basically sitting at a desk the entire time.

Inspired One-Person Shows

Gray’s groundbreaking performances in Swimming and other documentaries like Monster in a Box and the Steven Soderbergh-directed Gray’s Anatomy (about Gray’s struggle with a rare eye condition) paved the way for future one-person shows. (We wouldn’t have everything from Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” to Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” without him.) Even Doc Now! star Fred Armisen got into the one-person show act for his recent SNL monologue.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Spalding Gray when “Parker Gail: Location Is Everything” premieres Wednesday, September 28th at 10P on IFC. 

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Burning Heart

10 Reasons Why Rocky IV Is the Ultimate Rocky Movie

Catch an all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: United Artists/Everett Collection

Sure, most people love the first Rocky for its heart, gripping boxing scenes and the classic training montage. Or, you might love Creed for being both a return-to-form and a new exploration of the Rocky mythology. Maybe the thrill of seeing Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the same movie makes Rocky III your top pick. Well, sorry, you’re wrong: Rocky IV is the greatest of all the “Italian Stallion”‘s movies.

Before you watch the all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC (with Rocky IV airing at 8P as part of Rotten Fridays), check out a few reasons to appreciate the fourth installment as the king of the series.

1. The Greatest Opening Ever

How many openings are able to sum up the entire conflict of the film in less than a minute and without a single line of dialogue? And how many of those movies have exploding boxing gloves? Just try to watch the opening sequence above and not be completely psyched for the pumped-up flick to come.


2. Montages!

We all know that the best part of any sports movie is the montage, and Rocky IV doesn’t give you one measly montage. There’s a recap of the previous films montage, a getting to Russia Montage, two training montages and an ending fight montage. That’s five montages! There’s probably a montage of montages snuck in there, too.


3. There’s a Full James Brown Musical Number

This movie is so packed with memorable moments, it’s easy to forget one of the first things that happens in the film: Apollo comes out to fight Drago dressed as a shirtless Uncle Sam, while James Brown and a full band play “Living in America.” To drive home the number’s patriotism, there are dancers in tuxedos and top hats, weird unitards and bowler caps, and bedazzled showgirls with headpieces for miles. Oh, and don’t forget the giant tentacled dragon statue on the stage. This is how every boxing match should start. Heck, this is how we always want to enter a room.


4. The Soundtrack

The Rocky IV soundtrack doesn’t just feature James Brown — it has rock anthems galore, all of which make you immediately want to hit the gym. From “Heart’s on Fire” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band to “Sweetest Victory” by Touch to multiple Survivor jams, you’ll get pumped and stay pumped. Even the instrumental score rocks! Sure, sometimes it sounds like it was made on a kids Casio, but this soundtrack never quits and — to quote Robert Tepper — never takes the easy way out.


5. Abs!

Rocky IV weights

Every Rocky movie shows off Stallone’s incredible physique, but Rocky IV really ups the game. Not only do we get Dolph Lundgren mostly shirtless looking like a man machine, but we get a wide variety of scenes of Stallone doing impossible tasks. Stallone’s crazy dragon fly crunches, aka a thing no human should be able to do, automatically take this movie to the top.


6. Two words: Ivan Drago

Ivan Drago
United Artists

Not only does Rocky IV explore the global conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, but it encapsulates all of our fears of the Cold War in one perfect villain. Ivan Drago only trains with machines and science and looks like he stepped out of an Aryan Nations recruitment poster. He also only responds in short, cold phrases like “If he dies, he dies,” or “I must break you.” There’s never been a villain who we so clearly want to get the crap beat out of than Ivan Drago.


7. Rocky Makes Chores Look Badass

Rocky saw
United Artists

Rocky doesn’t need to be hooked up to machines to become the perfect fighter. All he needs are huge tires and some outdoor chores to do. No one’s ever looked cooler chopping wood and using tractor parts. Half of his training is lifting an old wagon, probably to fix a broken axle. If anything, this film inspires us to take care of that gardening work we’ve been neglecting.


8. Rocky’s Beard

Rocky IV Beard

Stallone’s beard game is truly on point in Rocky IV. And this isn’t some “I forgot to shave, here’s a little stubble” look. No, we get full out, lumberjack-style beard action. Does any other Rocky movie have our hero looking like an old Russian aristocrat? Another point for Rocky IV.


9. There’s a robot!

Again, there’s so much to Rocky IV, you probably forgot about the robot. Well, Rocky has some money now and he’s not going to spend it on frivolous things for himself. He’s going to buy Paulie a robot! The best part of this scene is how truly disturbed Paulie is by this new technology until he gives it a sexy lady voice.


10. Rocky Ends the Cold War

If you’re still not convinced that Rocky IV is the greatest, answer this question: Does any other Rocky movie bring peace between the US and Russia?

By the end of the film, Rocky rises up to beat the seemingly undefeatable Drago. He fights so well, that even the Russians begin to appreciate his skills. Then, instead of using his victory to prove America’s superiority, he gives a rousing speech of “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!” The whole crowd goes wild, including all of the Russian government, who we assume give up Communism immediately based solely on Rocky’s words. Stallone’s call for international reconciliation through brutal fighting and a variety of montages makes this if not one of the greatest films of all time, certainly the greatest Rocky of them all.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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