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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.

Bourne

Bourne to Run

10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Bourne Movies

Catch The Bourne Ultimatum this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

You know his name, as the Super Bowl teaser for the upcoming summer blockbuster Jason Bourne reminded us. In this era of franchise films, that seems to be more than enough to get another entry in the now 15-year-old series greenlit. And gosh darn it if we aren’t into it. Before you catch The Bourne Ultimatum on IFC, here are some surprising facts about the Bourne movies that you may not know. And unlike Jason Bourne, try not to forget them.


10. Matt Damon was a long shot to play Jason Bourne.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Coming off of Good Will Hunting and The Legend of Bagger Vance, early ’00s Matt Damon didn’t exactly scream “ripped killing machine.” In fact, Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe and even Sylvester Stallone were all offered the part before it fell into the hands of the Boston boy made good. It was his enthusiasm for director Doug Liman’s more frenetic vision that ultimately helped land him the part.


9. Love interest Marie was almost played by Sarah Polley.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Damon wasn’t the only casting surprise. Franka Potente, of Run Lola Run fame, wasn’t the filmmaker’s first choice for the role or Marie in The Bourne Identity. In fact, Liman wanted his Go star Sarah Polley for the part, but she turned it down in favor of making indie movies back in Canada. A quick rewrite changed the character from American Marie Purcell to European Marie Helena Kreutz, and the rest is movie history.


8. Director Doug Liman was obsessed with the Bourne books.

Universal Picutres

Universal Pictures

Liman had long been a fan of the Bourne book series. When Warner Bros.’ rights to the books lapsed in the late ’90s, Liman flew himself to author Robert Ludlum’s Montana home, mere days after earning his pilot’s license. The author was so impressed with his passion for the material, he sold the rights on the spot.


7. Liman’s father actually worked for the NSA.

Universal Picutres

Universal Pictures

Part of Liman’s fasciation with the Bourne series was that his own father played the same spy craft games portrayed in the books while working for the NSA. In fact, many of the Treadstone details were taken from his father’s own exploits, and Chris Cooper’s character, Alex Conklin, was based on Oliver Stone, whom Arthur Liman famously cross examined as chief counsel of the Iran-Contra hearings.


6. Tony Gilroy threw the novel’s story out while writing The Bourne Identity.

Universal Picutres

Universal Picutres

Despite being based on a hit book, screenwriter Tony Gilroy, coming off of The Devil’s Advocate, had no idea how to adapt it into a movie. He said the book was more concerned with people “running to airports” than character, and would need a complete rewrite. Director Doug Liman agreed, and Gilroy claims to have condensed the original novel into the first five minutes. Getting that out of the way, he then wrote his own story, based on a man who wakes up one day not remembering anything but how to kill.


5. Damon walked like a boxer to get into character.

Universal Picutres

Universal Picutres

Damon had never played a character like Bourne before, and was searching for a way to capture his physicality. Doug Liman told him to walk like a boxer to give Jason Bourne an edge. Damon took that to heart, training for six months in boxing, marital arts and firearms.


4. Damon broke an actor’s nose.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Damon’s training for the films is legendary, but mistakes still happen. While filming a scene for The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon hit actor Tim Griffin so hard, he shattered his nose. Apparently, the space the scene was filmed in was smaller than originally intended, throwing Damon off just enough to exert a real beat down.


3. James Bond visited The Bourne Legacy set.

Eon Productions

Eon Productions

Actor Daniel Craig stopped by the set of The Bourne Legacy to visit his wife, actress Rachel Weisz, who was starring in the movie. While having James Bond on a Bourne set must have been exciting, The Bourne Legacy was the only Bourne movie to not actually feature Jason Bourne, meaning our bets on who would kick whose ass would have to wait for another day.


2. The Bourne Identity was nearly a bomb (in the box office sense).

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

As reshoots began to pile up, and an all-out war between the studio and director Doug Liman spilled into the press, expectations were that The Bourne Identity was going to flop. Matt Damon told GQ that, “the word on Bourne was that it was supposed to be a turkey…It’s very rare that a movie comes out a year late, has four rounds of reshoots, and it’s good.”


1. Matt Damon wasn’t the first actor to play Bourne.

Warner Brothers Television

Warner Brothers Television

Aired on ABC in 1988, the TV movie adaptation of The Bourne Identity, while not exactly critically acclaimed, was a more faithful version of Ludlum’s book. Richard Chamberlain, of The Thorn Birds fame, played a much less ass-kicking spy, while “Charlie’s Angel” Jaclyn Smith played love interest Marie. If you like your Bourne movies heavy with poorly lit ’80s melodrama, this might just be the adaptation for you. Otherwise, you should catch The Bourne Ultimatum when it airs this month on IFC.

Five easy ways to turn January into a great month for movies

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January doesn’t have the best reputation among cinephiles, possibly because January is, hands down, 99 and 44/100% pure crap when it comes to movies. Studios are still focused on their award contenders from November and December, audiences are getting back to their lives after a long vacation, and most of the movies released between January 1 and 31 get dumped there for a reason; namely, they’re terrible. In January 1996, Hollywood released Pauly Shore’s “Bio-Dome,” the orangutan “comedy” “Dunston Checks In,” and the immortal “Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace” all on the same, terrible day. It was January 12th, if you’re curious. We should probably light a candle every year to remember all the movielovers who died that day of acute bad movie poisoning.

But just because Hollywood’s mostly turned their back on January doesn’t mean you have to as well. There are plenty of ways to turn January’s Cinema Dead Zone into a Videodrome of delights. Follow these five simple steps, and you’ll be a much happier moviegoer this month.

1. Don’t Assume That It’s Bad Just Because It Was Released in January.
Granted, in the majority of cases, that assumption would be correct. But almost every year good movies open in January. You just have to dig a little deeper to find them — they’re not so much diamonds in the rough as truffles buried in pig shit. In January 2011, we got critical favorites like “Nostalgia for the Light” and “Kaboom;” in January 2010, I fell in love with “Sweetgrass,” a tiny documentary about sheep herders that wound up on my top ten list that year. Other good-to-great January releases over the past twenty-five years: “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” “Cloverfield,” “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” “City of God,” “Half Baked,” “Fallen Angels,” “Zero Effect,” “Waiting For Guffman,” “Before Sunrise,” and “Broadway Danny Rose.” The odds are long, but not impossible. This year, you can try your luck with “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” “Miss Bala,” and “Haywire.”

2. Check out Video on Demand.
The multiplexes may be filled with platforming awards contenders and garbage from the studios’ discard piles this month, but you can find a ton of interesting new stuff right in your own home. Straight-to-video or VOD used to come with a stigma of cheapness and failure — movies premiered there only as a last resort. Not anymore; now filmmakers use VOD and digital downloads as a more cost effective way to reach a wide audience. In the waning days of 2011, that’s where “House of the Devil” director Ti West premiered his new film “The Innkeepers” and Edward Burns released his latest microindie, “Newlyweds,” which he shot for just $9,000. Tomorrow, one of the most acclaimed festival thrillers in recent years, “Kill List” from British director Ben Wheatley, bows on VOD. You want to talk about a joyful noise — that’s the sound I make when I get to watch “Kill List,” which I’ve been dying to see since last year’s South by Southwest, without having to put pants on. (Too much information? Sorry.)

3. Visit Your Local Repertory Theater.
Because January tends to be a slow month for new releases, repertory distributors often exploit the weakness in the market with some of the most interesting offerings of the year. In recent Januaries, you could have caught revival screenings of “Last Year at Marienbad,” “The Battle of Algiers,” “Le Cercle Rouge,” or a pair of forgotten documentaries by Martin Scorsese. This year, you can watch a Robert Bresson retrospective in New York City, a collection of “Super 80s” kids movies in Los Angeles, or a haunted house series in Boston. Ignore what your therapist tells you and do what I like to do at this time of year: live in the past.

4. Catch Up on Cinematic Blindspots Online.
If you’re not fortunate enough to live near a good revival house, there are plenty of classic films available right at your fingertips on Netflix Watch Instantly, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and assorted other streaming services. Rainer Werner Fassbender’s sci-fi epic “World on a Wire” doesn’t hit Criterion Blu-ray until Februray, but you can already watch it on Hulu Plus. If you’re more of a Howard Hawks fan, Netflix has “Scarface,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Redline 7000,” and more. Internet streaming turns any month of the year into the Golden Age of Cinema.

5. Embrace the badness.
Every year there are at least a couple of terrible January releases so bad that they’re actually worth seeing as sociological experiments in the field of human endurance or just as an opportunity to get your buddies together — and by buddies, I mean like Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker kind of buddies — and enjoy the hell out of some schlock cinema. Pick a time when you’ll be the only ones in the theater — either really early or really late at night — and get good and rowdy on Mark Wahlberg strapping money to his chest. Remember: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Or at least make fun of them.

What January releases are you looking forward to? No, it’s not a trick question. Tell us in the comments below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

My favorite posts of 2011

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We’re burning away the last few hours left in 2011. It’s been a great year for movies and — if we don’t say so ourselves — a great year on IFC.com. Putting together one last post to highlight some of the best pieces of 2011 was not an easy task because there was so much good stuff on the site this year. To make things a little more manageable, I’ve made this a list of my favorite posts that I wrote on the site, in part because I wrote a ton of stuff this year (approximately 750 posts, give or take) and in part because I am an egomaniacal, self-centered bastard.

For your linking ease and pleasure, I’ve separated things according to article type: thinkpieces, lists, interviews, and reviews. If you missed any of these, check them out. And if you’ve read any of them over the course of the last twelve months, from the bottom of evil, narcissistic heart: thank you and have a happy New Year.

THINKPIECES
A movie theater etiquette manifesto
Sick of the multiplex? Go to the drive-in
A married couple jointly reviews the marriage comedy “Hall Pass”
Guts before six packs: why flab is funny
Drake’s Reception: “Uncharted 3″ and video game criticism
Jaws and the changing face of movie theme parks
A “Planet of the Apes” Primer
“The Bachelor” is the worst and best show on television
Am I nuts or are “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Project Nim” the same movie?
Is “The Hangover Part II” a “good” sequel?
Remembering Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”
The “Black Swan” dancing controversy makes no sense
How “Network” predicted Charlie Sheen’s meltdown
The dead-rat-covered truth about movie theater nostalgia
The sudden death (and promising afterlife) of film
The worldbuilding is not enough
Outrage in the age of superhero outsourcing
The surprising parallels between Thor and George W. Bush
Spoiling a spoiler manifesto and Why I don’t like the new rules for TV spoilers

LISTS
The fifty greatest opening title sequences of all time
The ten coolest cars in movie history
Ten changes we wouldn’t mind seeing in the “Star Wars” Blu-rays
Five more directors who should act more
Our five favorite movie wheelmen
Five ridiculous studio mandated endings
Five actors who made uglier onscreen women than Adam Sandler
Ranking this year’s Razzie Nominees
A “Star Trek” theme park guide wish list
The porn parody titles of 2011

INTERVIEWS
Jodie Foster on “The Beaver”
John C. Reilly on “Terri”
Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz on “The Interrupters”
Jeff Nichols on “Take Shelter”
Nacho Vigalondo on “Extraterrestrial”
Neil Burger on “Limitless”‘ opening titles
Yuen Woo Ping on his five favorite martial arts sequences
Master makeup artist Rick Baker at Fantastic Fest

REVIEWS
“The Adventures of Tintin,” directed by Steven Spielberg
“Another Earth,” directed by Mike Cahill
“The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” directed by Andrei Ujica
“Cedar Rapids,” directed by Miguel Arteta
“Hugo,” directed by Martin Scorsese
“Ironclad,” directed by Jonathan English
“Killer Elite,” directed by Gary McKendry
“Limelight,” directed by Billy Corben
“Rubber,” directed by Quentin Dupieux
“Tyrannosaur,” directed by Paddy Considine

What was your favorite piece on IFC.com this year? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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