Tag: john turturro

The Nutcracker in 3D

The Nutcracker in 3D (2010)
★ / ★★★★

All Mary (Elle Fanning) wants for Christmas is for her family to spend time together during Christmas Eve. To the child’s disappointment, her parents (Richard E. Grant, Yuliya Vysotskaya) choose to attend the renowned Palace Ball where important people like Sigmund Freud are invited. Instead, Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane) is asked to look after Mary and Max (Aaron Michael Drozin) which is most opportune because they have not seen each other in a while. Uncle Albert has a present for the kids: a dollhouse which contains a nutcracker (voiced by Shirley Henderson), a chimpanzee (Peter Elliott), a clown (Hugh Sachs), and a drummer (Africa Nile), all of which come alive in Mary’s dreams.

Based on the screenplay by Andrey Konchalovskiy and Chris Solimine, directed by the former, watching “The Nutcracker in 3D” is like putting your hand into a bag of mixed candy, grabbing the one with an interesting shape, and hoping that it is not the kind that tastes bland. At its best, the quality is superficially mediocre while the deeper message is a storm of confusion. I liked the visuals because they are crisp, especially those set in a snowy backdrop, and I found them readily adaptable to specific moods and settings. The imagery that take place in reality and those that occur in dreams are equally delectable. However, the acting is often wooden and this is not limited to the talking CGI nutcracker who prefers to be addressed as NC.

While Fanning has undeniable charm, I found her consistently out of her depth when she is required to act against a green or blue screen. Particularly painful to watch involves a flying scene up and down a giant Christmas tree with snowflakes guiding the little girl’s flight. When she screams in delight and expresses her disbelief that flying is entirely possible, it comes across completely disingenuous—and irritating. I do not take pleasure in saying things like what I am about to say but it must be said: There is something about her expression of glee that I found unbearable—almost similar to the sound of nails scraping on a chalkboard. I wondered if children, the picture’s target audience, would buy the emotions given that they are especially sensitive to intonations.

The plot is mostly driven by the conflict between a prince (Charlie Rowe), whose soul is trapped in a nutcracker’s body, and The Rat King (John Turturro), who wishes to turn the prince’s formerly bright and merry kingdom into a Stygian kitchen of burning toys. The rats, as it turns out, are afraid of the sun and so they force the residents to burn toys in order to make a dark cloud that blocks the star. One can see it as an allegory of Nazi Germany which is reasonable because of the words used and behaviors employed in scenes that take place in Mary’s reality. The Nazis viewed the Jewish people as flawed objects—the toys—and so they were burned in giant ovens. Their ashes—the dark cloud—were seen for miles.

Although I admired the risks the filmmakers had taken, I was not convinced that the final product makes enough strong connections between Mary’s dream world and one of the darkest and shameful times in our history. I was not at all sure as to what the filmmakers’ intentions were. The risks are present but they do not go all the way. Perhaps the picture simply does not want to offend anybody. After all, it is supposed to be a movie for the whole family.

On the other hand, if the filmmakers had wanted to make a typical family fare, the interpretation of the ballet could have gone into a completely different direction without taking the path of toys being burned in a factory as children line up with their parents and looking like they were about to be killed.

And yet despite the miscalculated allegory, the film makes other missteps. For instance, I found the casting of Frances de la Tour as The Rat Queen and Vysotskaya as The Snow Fairy to be very odd. The former doubles as the caring family maid and the latter doubles as Mary’s emotionally distant mother. It might have made more sense if de la Tour had played The Snow Fairy and Vysotskaya had taken on the role of The Rat Queen. I got the impression that age was a factor in the decision because The Snow Fairy is supposed to be young and beautiful while The Rat Queen was supposed to embody the opposite. It would have been refreshing to see an old but still beautiful Snow Fairy.

Miller’s Crossing

Miller’s Crossing (1990)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) wishes to kill Bernie (John Turturro), a bookie whom Johnny suspects to be selling information involving fixed fights, but he needs the permission of Leo (the sublime Albert Finney), a fellow mobster who promised to give Bernie protection, before he can take action. Leo admonishes that if Johnny kills Bernie, they are going to have problems. Unbeknownst to Johnny, Leo has the intention of marrying Bernie’s sister, Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), who occasionally engages in casual sex with Tom (Gabriel Byrne), Leo’s right-hand man.

Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, “Miller’s Crossing” is an elegant-looking gangster film as it is constructed. In its first scene, we are casually dropped into the middle of an intense conversation between dangerous and influential men. Although the specifics regarding why Johnny is so upset are not immediately obvious to us, it almost does not matter. What is important is the image of two men, Dane (J.E. Freeman) and Tom, standing alongside Johnny and Leo’s right, respectively. Dane holds his hat in front of him while Tom has his left hand in his pocket. They do not say a lot, unlike their superiors, but their body language informs us that they are ready if the situation turns ugly.

It is a classic Coen brothers scene: despite the commotion happening on the foreground, what is more interesting is what brews in the background. The writer-directors know how to build suspense in record time. More impressive is we know nothing yet about the characters but we cannot help but anticipate who, if any, will make it out of the room alive.

The person we follow throughout is Tom, a thinking man who easily sees through pleasantries and deduce why certain individuals are driven to do the things they do. But he is not without a flaw. With so much thinking going on in his head, there are times when inaction takes over and he turns into a pathetic punching bag. Curve balls are prevalent not just in terms of who lives or dies, as in most gangster pictures of inferior quality. The tone commands a certain unpredictability.

When Tom and Verna occupy the same room, they have wonderful chemistry. It is interesting to see them interact because they cannot help but argue. They want to be together but some of their loyalties belong to someone else: Tom wants to protect Leo (friendship) while Verna wants to protect Bernie (family). There is tension between them because they know that they eventually have to choose which holds more importance.

“Miller’s Crossing,” based on the novels “Red Harvest” and “Glass Key” by Dashiell Hammett, is strong because the electrifying dialogue and memorable voices behind the performances reach a synergy. For instance, Mink (Steve Buscemi), someone close to Dane, is given only one scene which lasts just under a minute. His name is mentioned several times throughout the film but since that one scene that unfolds early on is so well-crafted, we do not forget who he is.

The film is efficient with its characterization and is very exciting tonally because it sandwiches elements of modern noir in classic gangster storytelling. People say that they are at a loss on why the picture has not gotten the mainstream recognition it deserves. I’m not the least bit surprised. The unfortunate reason is that it holds a reputation of being difficult to understand upon first viewing. I disagree. If you can observe and think at the same time, as most people should be able to, the challenge to put the pieces together should be welcomed, even demanded, but not feared.

Quiz Show

Quiz Show (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) had a great memory for the most minute facts. It served him well while participating in a game show called “Twenty-One,” but the businessmen behind the show wanted to get rid of him because ratings have plateaued. They attributed the trend to Herbie’s unlikable personality and plain looks. The show was in dire need of new blood and the current champion was to be replaced by Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a university professor with classic American good looks and a charming personality. But the two men with record-breaking winning streaks were not as they seemed: behind the scenes, they were given the answers to the questions prior to appearing on live television. Based on Richard N. Goodwin’s novel and adapted to the screen by Paul Attanasio, “Quiz Show” was an unflattering but highly effective look at the relationship between television and advertising in the 1950s. It was also about the integrity of man and the popular saying, “Everyone has a price.” Stempel and Van Doren, merely pawns in the grand scheme of things, got more than they bargained for and the picture positioned us to experience their rise and fall along with the irrevocable shame born from their trials. The moment they decided to prostitute their intelligence was also the moment they put themselves in harm’s way, being paid significant amount of money for a reason. For a price, they became the most visible figures of a lie. Millions of audiences across the country were witnesses of that lie. Visibility meant responsibility. We observed, in careful direction and fascination by Robert Redford, these two men standing on their tiptoes in increasingly deep dark waters. But what I loved about the film was we learned about and identified with the two men’s circumstances. Stempel was a working class and he thought he could use the money for his family. But he also loved fame and being in front of the camera. He desperately sought for attention and those around him perceived him as unstable. On the other hand, Van Doren decided to join the show because he hoped that he could inspire kids to take part in active learning. In a way, he also did it to make his father (Paul Scofield), a man whose name didn’t go unrecognized in posh parties and gatherings, proud. Next to his father (or his reputation), he felt small. Both Stempel and Van Doren were good men but, like us, they had flaws. Instead of providing us easy answers, Redford painted the two men as both victims and accomplices instead of villains. I must also highlight Rob Morrow’s performance as Dick Goodwin, a shrewd lawyer who gathered the facts and exposed the treachery. I was transfixed on his swagger mixed with a New York accent and powers of deduction. “Quiz Show” made me think about popular game shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “Jeopardy.” Martin Scorsese’s character wisely pointed out that the reason people watched game shows was not due to great feats of intelligence. People watched because of the money. Somehow, I couldn’t disagree.

Cars 2

Cars 2 (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Secret agent Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) was tracking a group of vehicular criminals, seemingly led by Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann), conspiring to persuade the public that Allinol, an alternative fuel to gasoline, was bad. When his identity was compromised, he had no choice but to send the inexperienced but charming Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) out in the field. Meanwhile, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) was invited to participate in the first World Grand Prix and he decided to take Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), his best friend, with him. While in Japan, Mater was mistaken as an American spy by Holley. Based on the screenplay by Ben Queen, “Cars 2” was an improvement from John Lasseter and Joe Ranft’s “Cars” in terms of pacing. Still, it left much to be desired. From the first scene, I felt myself detached. Watching a car fling itself from one side of the ship to another like Spider-man had a certain bubbly creative energy, but it didn’t draw me into getting to know that character. The animation, as usual, was well-done. Vibrant colors were abound and it made my eyes want to linger on certain images even if the images were moving so quickly. The vroom-vroom sounds in the foreground and the background chatter and screams of fans complemented each other so they created an exciting mood prior to the race. The colors and sounds matched the country the cars were in. For example, while in Japan, indoor neon lights were prevalent, but while in Italy, outdoor natural light took center stage. I wish the friendship between Mater and Lightning McQueen was taken on a new level. They essentially learned the same lesson in the first film which made the entire oeuvre a bit déjà vu, stale, lacking genuine tension. When the duo got into a disagreement in Japan, it was too early in the picture and it didn’t help that they spent most of the time apart before and after that point. The decision of making Mater the center of the story was not entirely a good one. He was amusing to watch because he was a clown, a stereotypical hillbilly American who hadn’t experienced city life. I loved the scene where he thought that the wasabi was free ice cream. The server put a little dot on his plate. Mater, unimpressed, insisted that the server added more because it was free anyway. Things didn’t go well for the tow truck when he put a plateful of wasabi in his mouth. But the same type of joke was recycled over and over: Mater put himself in an awkward situation and he made a complete fool of himself. I wanted different types and more sources of comedy. What about Lightning McQueen and his rivalry with the vain Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), both on and off the race track? It would have been great if Sally (Bonnie Hunt) was forced to choose between the two celebrities. After all, there was a theme about home life versus life in the fast lane. “Cars 2,” directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis, was an unnecessary sequel to a barely mediocre first outing. In the middle of all the car crashes and gasoline versus alternative fuel debates, I started to wonder about the money it took to create the sequel and how that money could’ve been used to make an entirely new Pixar movie with a genuinely moving story and lovable characters.

The Taking of Pelham 123

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Tony Scott directed this thriller about a criminal (John Travolta) with a mysterious reason for taking a train full hostages. Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) thought it was just another day in regular train traffic, but once he got a call from the mastermind of the hostage situation, he had to think quickly and act swiftly to get to the right authorities and bargain for the lives of the hostages. For a hostage movie, “The Taking of Pelham 123” should have been more exciting. For me, only the first hour of the picture really worked because Travolta and Washington’s characters constantly tried to measure each other up; they were both smart characters and each had their own flaws and far from innocent past. The mindgames they played with each other was more interesting than the last forty-five minutes’ car crashes, quick cuts aided by random blasting of music and gunfires. In fact, the last forty-five minutes was drenched in typicality, it was hard for me to sit through because I knew where it was heading. That excitement and spark that it had in the first half were completely elimated and I somewhat lost interest. I thought the supporting actors (who are usually great in other films) such as James Gandolfini (as the mayor), John Turturro (as a professional hostage negotiator) and Luis Guzmán (as one of the three criminals) were not pushed enough to make their characters come alive and make a significant impact in the story. Their characters could have been played by other actors and the movie would essentially have been the same. I also believe the movie had some serious problems when it comes to logic. For instance, the extended chase sequence near the end could have been completely avoided if the police had put trackers in any of the money bags. Since the police would know the exact positions of the criminals, the movie would not have wasted fifteen minutes of its time showing confusion and chaos. Overall, “The Taking of Pelham 123” isn’t really a bad movie because more than half of it was right on track (pardon the pun). It’s just that it tried too hard to inject that Hollywood way of storytelling where a big chase sequence is a requisite. For a movie having characters who exuded edginess and intelligence, the movie was pretty dull and safe.

Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991)
★★★ / ★★★★

Written and directed by the Coen brothers, “Barton Fink” tells the story of a playwright (John Turturro) who was hired to write for the movies in Hollywood after his celebrated success on stage in New York. Everyone assumed he had a natural gift for telling stories about the common man so they thought that his writing would immediately translate from stage to pictures. However, right when Barton arrived in his dingy hotel room, he got a serious case of writer’s block. This film was rich in symbolism and it was fun deciphering each of them. However, unlike some of the Coen brothers’ less enjoyable dark comedies, the symbolism and ironies did not get in the way of the fantastic storytelling. Turturro did such a great job as a writer struggling to find an inspiration. He’s very human because he is full of self-doubt yet it was very easy to root for him to succeed because he doesn’t let fame get into his head. In fact, when annoying neighbors (John Goodman) prevent him from concentrating on his work, he welcomes (at first warily) instead of condescends. I also enjoyed the supporting work of Steve Buscemi, Tony Shalhoub and Judy Davis. Their performances reminded me of the best noir pictures in the 1940’s and 1950’s–sometimes in the extremes but they have certain qualities that are so specifically Coen and therefore modern. The last forty minutes of the film completely caught me off-guard. Just when I thought I was finally going to get a more “typical” movie from the Coen brothers, they pulled the rug from under my feet and gave me twist after twist to the point where I found myself struggling to keep up (in a good way). Putting the pieces of the puzzle together was half the fun in analyzing this project. The other half was more about its play on the subtleties and how those little things eventually add up to trigger something so big that it completely changes the rules of the game altogether. The film may be more comedic on the outside but sometimes the darkness underneath it all seeps out from within. And when it happens, I was nothing short of enthralled. If one is interested in movies that are genre-defying but still makes sense as a whole, then I absolutely recommend watching “Barton Fink.” It requires a little bit of thinking because it takes a lot of risks but it’s more than worthwhile. I hope to discover more treasures (and hopefully love it that much more) the second time I get the chance to see it.

Do the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing (1989)
★★★ / ★★★★

Written, produced, directed by and starring the talented Spike Lee, “Do the Right Thing” is an astute, mutilayered movie driven by the core of what Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X are about: how we choose to react when faced by people who see us as less than and how we perceive other people who are different than us. The bulk of the story of this picture was set in a very hot summer day where everyone was involved in their regular businesses, whether it came to working hard to maintain one’s job, being a bum in the streets, or just watching the day go by and hoping that the breeze will provide some sort of temporary comfort from the heat. As the day got hotter, tempers ran up until the climactic riot that transpired toward the end of the picture. A certain tragedy happened that sparked the riot but different people have different answers on who should carry the blame for what had happened. I think this film is very accurate and realistic because it actively avoids a typical happy ending via telling the audiences what simply is. I enjoyed the very vibrant characters such as the Italian family who owns a pizza place (Danny Aiello, Richard Edson and John Turturro), Lee’s sensibile sister who knows and is comfortable with who she is (Joie Lee) and the energetic DJ who runs a radio station (Samuel L. Jackson). Each of them had something valuable to offer to the table–a certain insight or an interesting point of view. I’m glad that there was a spectrum of African-Americans portrayed in this film. Most of the movies I watch nowadays, they’re either the violent one, the extremely gifted one (with some sort of a handicap or a traumatic past), or the funny one. Here, we get to see different sides of one character often in a single scene so it was a breath of fresh air. A lot of people consider this classic, especially if they grew up with it, and I can understand why. It has a certain resonance because “the right thing” is constantly changing–like Heraclitus’ idea of the impossibility of stepping on the same river twice–and therefore is arguably nonexistent, yet we still (or should) strive for it. I’m very interested in seeing this again because it has all the elements in a film that I look for.