DID YOU READ

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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TREMORS [US 1990]  FRED WARD, FINN CARTER     Date: 1990

Better Off Fred

5 Roles That Prove Fred Ward Should Be In Every Movie

Catch a Tremors movie marathon Saturday, April 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Fred Ward has always exuded a tough but likeable on-screen “bad-assitude” that has enabled him to enjoy a career spanning five decades. Before he had a recognizable “that guy” face to movie fans, he was cast alongside Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. Not many actors can play both Henry Miller and David Spade’s dad in Joe Dirt with equal aplomb. Before you catch IFC’s Tremors marathon, check out some roles that prove Fred Ward can hold his own with the Van Dammes and Stallones of the world.

5. Wilkes, Uncommon Valor

Due to his rugged, determined look, Ward was often cast as cops, crooks and military men. It’s no surprise that he appeared in Uncommon Valor, the 1983 film where Gene Hackman puts together a ragtag squad of ex-Vietnam vets to rescue his son who was left behind in Laos. Sure, the movie pretty much set out to make a Vietnam version of The Dirty Dozen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining in its own right. Ward fits right in with a cast of ’80s era tough guys, including Patrick Swayze, Randall “Tex” Cobb, and Tim Tomerson. Ward’s character Wilkes was a tough-as-nails Vietnam Vet who was a “tunnel rat” during the war. There’s a funny training session scene that provides a comic relief moment where Wilkes captures every one of the guys in the unit, including Gene Hackman’s Colonel Rhodes, by hiding under water. Eat your heart out, Rambo.


4. Earl Bass, Tremors

Not many actors can pull off lasso-tossing an explosive in order to lure a huge worm creature with snake tongues out of the desert sand, but Ward pulls off moment with zero camp. His Earl Bass, the tough but average Joe ranch hand turned hero, didn’t need Kevin Bacon’s long hair and exaggerated Southern drawl either. Ward and Kevin Bacon made a great team trying to save their town from the Graboids, elevating the humor in this out-of-this-world (or under-this-world) horror comedy.


3. Sgt. Hoke Moseley, Miami Blues

In a movie where Alec Baldwin completely shines as a psychotic (and highly entertaining) criminal using Miami as his own personal joy ride, Fred Ward gives an equally great performance as the grizzled Miami cop who’s seen one too many cases. After being attacked by Baldwin’s character in his own home, Ward’s Sgt. Hank Moseley loses his badge, his gun and his dentures, which really pisses him off. (And nobody plays pissed off better than Ward.) Baldwin’s Junior goes on a crime spree while using Moseley’s identification. Moseley’s wily veteran slowly begins to figure out what Junior is up to through sly conversations with Baldwin and his overly trusting hooker girlfriend, memorably played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. An underrated action comedy that is all the better for giving us a pure shot of uncut Ward awesomeness.


4. Gus Grissom, The Right Stuff

“An astronaut named Gus?” That was the question asked of Virgil Grissom in The Right Stuff by the executive from Life magazine. Who better to play a fearless, rough-around-the-edges astronaut who refused to be called Virgil than Fred Ward? The Mercury Astronauts were the best of the best, and in the film they were played by a group of great actors who were all perfectly cast to portray the brash group of American heroes. In the film, Gus was blunt and to the point and far from loquacious (his character would never use that word) but when he did speak up, it had meaning. In another pivotal scene, in which Deke Slayton was relaying to the other astronauts what Gus was trying to say about beating a monkey into space, it’s Gus’ response that summed up his character perfectly: “F***in’ A, bubba.” Nobody could have delivered that bad-ass line better than Fred Ward. In fact, “F***in’ A bubba” should have been added into the dialogue of every character he played.


5. Remo Williams, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins might have gotten ahead of itself with that title as we never got to see the adventure continue, but it had everything you want in an action movie, starting with Fred Ward. Of course, it also had Joel Grey in heavy makeup portraying Korean martial arts master Chiun, but the less said about that unfortunate bit of dated cultural stereotyping the better. Based on a series of pulp novels, Remo Williams was supposed to be an American alternative to James Bond. In an alternate, much cooler universe, it would have propelled Ward to action movie superstardom. In the film, Ward starts out as a NYC street cop recruited to be a government assassin. His face was altered through plastic surgery (to look less like a generic actor and more like Fred Ward with a clean shave) and then he is given the name Remo Williams. There is a lot of humor in this film, which mostly comes through the interaction between Ward and Grey. Chiun teaches Remo the ways of Sinanju, the ancient Korean marital art which enables you to not only dodge punches but point blank range bullets as well. (Let’s see Mr. Miyagi do that.) Anyone who caught this movie during one of its many TV airings during the ’80s remembers the thrilling fight scenes that takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Only Ward could pull off a turtle neck sweater/leather jacket combo and still look badass.

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Scarface Al Pacino

Nose Dive

10 Crazy Facts You Might Not Know About Scarface

Say hello to Scarface this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection/Universal Studios

We learned a lot from Scarface. Don’t get high on your own supply. Never trust anyone. And definitely don’t bring a gun to a chainsaw fight. So what happened behind the scenes during the making of this cultural sensation? We nosed around and found some things about Scarface you might not know, which you can catch this month on IFC. Say hello to our little facts below.

1. Brian De Palma almost directed Flashdance instead.

Scarface Brian de Palma
Everett Collection/Universal

Producer Martin Bregman offered De Palma a chance to direct Scarface while the director was filming the 1981 cult classic Blow Out.  Initially De Palma said “yes,” but then politely declined as he was too busy. He signed on to direct Flashdance instead in the hopes of getting the producer to greenlight his script on the Yablonski murders. De Palma made it about two weeks into pre-production on the dance flick before quitting.  Bregman offered Scarface to De Palma again, and the rest is history. What a feeling!


2. Michelle Pfeiffer was hangry throughout the shoot.

Scarface Michelle Pfeiffer
Universal

The actress would give a star-making performance as Elvira Hancock, the chic wife of gangster Tony Montana, but her experience behind the scenes wasn’t quite as glamorous. Pfeiffer ate very little on set to maintain Elvira’s slinky, cocaine addict look. When production stretched from the predicted four months to six, Pfeiffer was frequently starving and irritable. Might we suggest a Cubano sandwich?


3. Al Pacino’s performance was inspired by Meryl Streep.

Scarface Little Friend
Universal

It may seem hard to believe vulgar, violent cocaine kingpin Tony Montana has much in common with the reigning Queen of the Silver Screen, but Pacino saw something useful in one of Streep’s most iconic roles. Streep’s Oscar-winning turn as the titular holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice made a serious impression on the actor, citing her deep commitment to the tiniest details of playing someone from another country and world as his largest influence on how he played Tony. Who knew Al Pacino is a Meryl Streep fanatic? Stars really are just like the rest of us!


4. Oliver Stone was fighting his own cocaine addiction while penning the script.

Scarface Cocaine
Universal

Hooked for a year or two prior to beginning work on Scarface, Stone realized his work was getting “shallower” and bank account smaller. He and his then-wife moved to Paris as a means of cutting off his access to the drug. Stone wrote the screenplay “cold sober” in a dark room while living in the City of Light.


5. F. Murray Abraham had firsthand experience as a gangster.

Scarface F Murray Abraham
Everett Collection/Universal

As a teen in El Paso, TX, Abraham was a self-described “hoodlum.” Long before he was causing trouble as henchman Omar Suarez, the young Abraham ran around with a local gang stealing cars, getting into fights, and occasionally going to school. All that changed when the speech and drama teacher at his high school gave him March Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to read in front of the class. He was hooked, and his gang days were over.


6. Al Pacino’s hand got stuck to a gun barrel.

Scarface Machine gun
Everett Collection/Universal

In addition to accidentally being cut by a rogue shard from a plate thrown by Michelle Pfeiffer, Pacino suffered another injury on set. During a rehearsal for a gunfight, he mistakenly grabbed the barrel of the prop gun after firing several rounds, and his hand got stuck to the hot barrel. The burns were so bad, Pacino couldn’t work for two weeks.


7. Glenn Close wasn’t “slutty” enough to play Elvira.

Glenn Close
Sony

Al Pacino wanted Close, whom he knew through the New York theatre scene, as Elvira. However, producer Martin Bregman wasn’t convinced she was “slutty enough” to play the coked-out sex symbol. Close wasn’t the only high profile actress turned down for the coveted role; other contenders included Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Sharon Stone, Kelly McGillis, Melanie Griffith, and Kim Basinger, all of whom presumably didn’t possess sufficient levels of sluttiness according to Mr. Bregman.


8. Tammy Lynn Leppert disappeared shortly after filming.

Tammy Lynn Leppert
Universal

The 18 year-old actress, model, and former child beauty-queen appeared as Manny’s (Steven Bauer) distraction while he was in the lookout car during the infamous chainsaw scene. Leppert was last seen in Cocoa Beach, Florida on July 6, 1983 just five months before Scarface hit theaters. Authorities speculated Leppert may have been three months pregnant at the time of her mysterious disappearance and that her missing persons status could be tied to several serial killers and drug trafficking networks around the area. Her current whereabouts are still unknown.


9. F. Murray Abraham’s mother didn’t approve of Pacino’s foul mouth.

F Murray Abraham
Universal

Scarface is full of expletives with the F-word being used well over 200 times in the nearly three-hour film (the scorecard feature on the Platinum DVD edition reportedly averages its use at 1.32 f–ks per minute of the film). It’s no surprise many were turned off by the kingpin’s profanity laden mouth including wife Elvira onscreen and F. Murray Abraham’s mother. After a screening of the film in 2011, Abraham’s Italian mother asked the actor to “tell Al not to use that language. It’s not good for the Italian people.” Cuban drug dealers may be tough, but you really don’t want to mess with an Italian mama!


10. The infamous chainsaw scene was based on a real incident.

Scarface Chainsaw
Universal

Screenwriter Oliver Stone spent several months in Miami with local law enforcement and the DEA doing research and was drawn to a particularly gruesome real case. A major drug smuggling ring headed by Mario Tabraue (who became one of the major inspirations for Tony in the film) dismembered Larry Nash with a chainsaw and burned his body in July 1980 after discovering he was an informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Tabraue was eventually arrested in 1987 as part of the FBI’s “Operation Cobra” at his home in Dade County while his wife threw $50,000 cash out the back window, which was caught by a federal agent. By the time Tabraue’s drug ring was busted up, it was worth over $75 million. Say goodnight to the bad guy.

See what Scarface would look like as a sitcom below.

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Breaking-the-girl-web

Iceland Bound

Watch Fred Armisen’s Dreamy Music Video For El Perro Del Mar’s Red Hot Chili Peppers Cover

Fred returns to Iceland in his new music video

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Photo Credit: El Perro Del Mar

Created by two seasoned musicians, Portlandia often uses music as its satirical base. But while the show allows Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to shine as masterful comedians and occasional singers, Portlandia has yet to offer a dreamy full-length music videos shot in Iceland. Fortunately, Fred was able to make that happen by directing the music video for El Perro del Mar’s down-tempo cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Breaking the Girl.” In the video, a valet in Los Angeles attempts to track down the owner of a lost car key all the way to Iceland. In addition to directing the video, Armisen also stars as the globetrotting valet.

Fred — who is no stranger to music videos, having directed clips for artists like Neil Michael Hagerty & the Howling Hex and The Helio Sequence — recently spoke to Rolling Stone about working with El Perro Del Mar (the musical alias of Sarah Assbring) and his love for the Chili Peppers’ music. Documentary Now! fans also know that this isn’t Fred’s first trip to Iceland. No word on whether he attended an Al Capone Festival on his return visit.

Check out Fred’s sweetly relaxing music video for El Perro del Mar’s “Breaking the Girl” below.

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