From 'Four Realms' to 'Grinch' to 'Widows'

By Tom Von Malder | Feb 10, 2019
Photo by: Walt Disney Home Entertainment Mackenzie Foy, left, and Keira Knightley star in "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms."

Owls Head — The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (Disney, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 99 min.). This is an attempt to give a new look to a holiday standard, "The Nutcracker," as presented in E.T.A. Hoffmann's classic tale, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," and Pyotr Tchaikovsky's beloved ballet. Where the film succeeds is in spectacle, with beautiful costumes and intriguing sets, with the practical and digital seamlessly combined, but it falters in story -- there just isn't enough plot. At times, it comes off as a Technicolor knockoff of "The Wizard of Oz" -- one shoehorned-in scene even has Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy taking off in a hot air balloon -- and other times it seems like it is a doubling down of Tim Burton's version of "Alice in Wonderland."

The film opens with the Stahlbaum family preparing for Christmas, even though Clara (Mackenzie Foy of "Interstellar," "The Conjuring"), who at 14 is the middle child, is not in the mood, as this will be their first Christmas without their deceased mother. Like her mother, Clara is a mechanical wiz. It is the 1870s, and one of the things the film does well is have a slight steampunk look. The family, which also includes older sister Louise (Ellie Bamber), younger brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) -- both basically nothing roles -- and Father  (Matthew Macfayden), go off to the annual Christmas Eve party, hosted by Clara's Grandfather (Morgan Freeman as Drosselmeyer).

One interesting thing Drosselmeyer does is have each child find their present by following a ribbon that has a tag with their name on it. Shades of C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" series, Clara's ribbon leads her into another world, that of the Four Realms, which, it turns out, her mother helped create. While the world of the Four Realms -- Lands of Flowers, Sweets, Snowflakes and Amusements, only no one uses the name Amusements anymore -- is as close as the other side of a clock in Drosselmeyer's home, time moves much more quickly there, so that by the time Clara's adventures have ended, only minutes have passed at the party.

Upon arriving in the Forest of Christmas Trees -- Clara is now chasing a mouse, which has stolen her Christmas gift, the key she needs to open the decorated silver egg her mother left her -- Clara encounters the last remaining Nutcracker, Capt. Phillip Hoffman (Jayden Fowora-Knight of "Ready Player One," "Mowgli"), who informs Clara that she is a princess, as her mother had been queen of the Four Realms. They head for the beautiful headquarter city, only to be threatened along the way by the Mouse King, made up of hundreds of individual mice, and the giant robot of Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren of "The Queen," the "Red" films). Mother Ginger rules the Fourth Realm, while the other regents are Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley of "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit"), Shiver (Richard E. Grant) and Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez).

The film includes an obvious twist that I saw come early on. It is amusing to see Mirren as an "evil" character and the ballet segment with dancers Misty Copeland and Sergei Polunin is pretty, even as it halts the film's momentum for a bit. A more exciting dance number occurs during the closing credits -- particularly the Captain's bit -- after a heavy dose of moralizing near the film's end.

Extras are few for a Disney movie. They include a making-of featurette with directors Lasse Hallstrom ("A Dog's Purpose") and Joe Johnston (the upcoming "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair," "Captain America: The First Avenger," "Jurassic Park III") that centers on the sets, costumes and painted backgrounds (7:08); Copeland discussing her dancing in the film (4:36); five deleted scenes that add very little (4:05); and two music videos, "Fall on Me" by Andrea Bocelli featuring Matteo Bocelli (4:23) and "The Nutcracker Suite" by Lang Lang (4:06). Grade: film 2.25 stars; extras 2 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Dr. Seuss' The Grinch (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 85 min.). Benedict Cumberbatch (TV's "Sherlock," "Patrick Melrose," the "Dr. Strange" films) voices The Grinch in Illumination's fun, slight reworking of Theodor Seuss Geisel's classic  illustrated Christmas tale. Screenwriters Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow update the tale slightly, giving a new glimpse of The Grinch's orphanage past, which led to his dislike of Christmas, and adding the character of Fred, the rotund reindeer who comes to help The Grinch and dog Max steal all the Christmas presents and decorations in Whoville on Christmas Eve. The film is narrated by musician Pharrell Williams and is directed by Yarrow Chaney ("The Secret Life of Pets") and Scott Mosier (movie and TV producer, including the series "Clerks").

Among the Whos are young Cindy-Lou (voiced by Cameron Seely), who launches a plot to capture Santa Claus, so she can ask him to help improve her single mother's (Rashida Jones as Donna Who) life. Of course, part of The Grinch's plan is to impersonate Santa. Meanwhile, the mayor of Whoville (voiced by Angela Lansbury) has declared that the Christmas celebration and decorations will be three times bigger this year, much to the dismay of The Grinch, who lives on Mt. Crumpit overlooking the town. Early on, The Grinch has to slink into Whoville to get some more food, as he has run out due to emotional over-eating, and he is surrounded by carolers in one of the movie's funnier segments.

Ultimately, The Grinch comes off a bit more sympathetic than in previous movie versions, and that is a good thing. There are a couple of traditional songs and some new ones by Tyler, the Creator, which add a bit of rap.

Extras are plentiful, starting with a solid making-of featurette (6:19)and a look at how the animators tried to stay true to Geisel's original drawings and how they made the various animal fur react lifelike with the environment (4:55). For six characters and Cindy-Lou's Gang, there are character profiles, animation tests, progression reels and photo galleries. Other featurettes look at The Grinch's gadgets (3:21; very good), the cast and filmmakers' earliest Grinch memories (3:10), Danny Elfman's score (3:25), how to draw The Grinch, Max and Fred with head of story Mark O'Hare (7:09), different Christmas traditions around the world (2:20), Cindy-Lou's Yule log (8:02) and even a list of the babies born to members of the production team during the film's gestation. There also are lyric videos for "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" (very good) and "I Am The Grinch."

The best extras, though, are the mini-movies, two of which feature Minions from the "Despicable Me" movies. "Yellow is the New Black" (4:17) has two of the Minions incarcerated and then on the run with a large inmate who escapes while the three are chained together. "Santa's Little Helpers" (3:52) has two of the Minions become Santa Elves, when they are dropped off at the North Pole instead of Miami. Both of these are a lot of fun. The third mini-movie, "The Dog Days of Winter" (4:04), has Max going into town to buy some tea for the ill Grinch. There also is a making-of the mini-movies featurette (5:53). Grade: film and extras 3.5 stars

Widows (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 129 min.). Based on a British TV series (1983-85) that director Steve McQueen ("12 Years a Slave") saw when he was 13, this "Widows" is transplanted to the crime-filled, corruption-laden city of Chicago, where three widows, left with a $2 million debt to some bad people after their last husband's heist went fatally wrong, decide to carry out a heist worth $5 million that was already planned out by one of their husbands. While there are exciting heist elements in the film, it is as much about how politics are done in Chicago, with many interlaced shady deals.

On the widows side are Elizabeth Debicki (see "The Cloverfield Paradox" below) as Alice, Michelle Rodriguez ("Fast and Furious" franchise) as Linda and Viola Davis (TV's "How To Get Away with Murder") as Veronica. It was Veronica's husband (Liam Neeson as Harry Rawlings, seen mostly in flashbacks) who was head of the gang and whose notebook contains the details of the next, more lucrative heist. The film opens with a crackerjack action sequence of the gang being chased by police after their heist -- and director McQueen places the audience inside the getaway van, looking out the rear at the chasing police.

On the politics side, there is Robert Duvall ("The Godfather," "Apocalypse Now") as 14th Ward alderman Tom Mulligan, being forced to retire because of his health, after suffering a heart attack. (Amusingly, the old coot gets to have one very-"f"-filled rant at his son. )The son, Jack, is played by Colin Farrell ("The Lobster," "Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them"), with a bit of a Kennedy touch, as he is running to replace his father. There is a bit of background controversy involving Jack and contracts for extending the Green Line (public rail transportation). The 14th Ward is primarily an African American community and Jack's opponent is Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry of V's "Atlanta"), whose family also runs a drug business, primarily through his brother, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya of "Get Out," "Black Panther").

The $2 million stolen by Rawlings and his gang -- which got burned at the end of the opening chase -- was Manning's, intended for use in his campaign. Jamal goes to Veronica and threatens her, unless she comes up with $2 million. Unfortunately, Veronica knew nothing about her husband's shady business, but when her chauffeur (Garret Dilahunt of "12 Years a Slave," TV's "Fear the Walking Dead") gives her a key, it leads to Rawlings' notebook with the plans for the next, larger heist. Veronica then enlists Linda and Alice on the plan, and they are eventually joined by Linda's friend Belle (Cyn thia Erivo of "Bad Times at the El Royale").

This sometimes is a tough film to watch -- one scene has the torture of a paralyzed guy -- but it is wonderfully layered and features many strong performances. It also shows a lot more of Chicago than we usually see, including a Spanish neighborhood, where Linda had a dress shop. Extras include a three-part making-of feature (52:10), which shows how the initial chase sequence and explosions were filmed, as well as the actors discussing their roles and the film, and a photo gallery. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.25 stars

The Cloverfield Paradox (Paramount Blu-ray, PG-13, 101 min.). The third film set in the "Cloverfield" universe -- described as being a universe of possibilities by director Julius Onah in the extras -- has Cloverfield be the name of a space station to which is attached the Shephard (sometimes Shepard in the subtitles) Particle Accelerator. The accelerator apparently was too dangerous to use on Earth, an Earth suffering through long lines of stalled traffic, frequent blackouts and impending wars over energy. It seems the Soviet Union is about to invade Germany.

When the accelerator finally works on the 47th attempt nearly 700 days into testing, it breaches dimensions and sends the space station into a different one, overlapping that dimension's Cloverfield station, which results in body parts being cut off or merged with machinery. The main character (Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ava Hamilton) is actually back on Earth with her family, that has not been touched by a tragedy, in this alternate universe.

The film has the usual space station trappings, with well developed sets. The characters, unfortunately, are more clichés than people one would care about. They include David Oyelowo (voice in the "Star Wars Rebels" series) as Kiel, Daniel Bruhl ("Rush," "Captain America: Civil War") as Schmidt, Chris O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids") as Mundy, Zhang Ziyi  ("The Crossing" films) as Tam, John Ortiz ("Silver Linings Playbook") as Monk and Aksel Hennie ("Hercules") as Volkov. Back on Earth, Roger Davies plays Ava's husband, Michael.  Elizabeth Debicki ("Widows"; see above) plays Jensen, who mysteriously appears on the station, but no one knew previously, even though she knows all of them.

Not too much really happens here, and there is almost no connection to the first two films, "Cloverfield" and "10 Cloverfield Lane." The very last shot is a cheap set-up for a next movie, if the filmmakers follow through. Extras including a making-of featurette (14:23) and a look at the cast (14:48). Grade: film and extras 2 stars

The Captain (Der Hauptmann) (Germany, Music Box Blu-ray, NR, 119 min.). This is based on the true story of a 19-year-old German World War II veteran who, in the closing weeks of the war while probably deserting, finds a Nazi officer's uniform, puts it on for warmth, is then mistaken as an officer and rides that mistake into some horrific acts as, in effect, the uniform takes him over. That teenager, a veteran of a parachute campaign and battles in Italy, was Willi Herold, also known as the Executioner of Emsland.

In the film, Herold is played by Max Hubacher (of the recently reviewed "Mario"). Writer/director Robert Schwentke made the film in chronological order, allowing Hubacher to portray his character's growing realization of what he is able to get away with. The film starts with Herold, on foot, escaping from a truck-riding death squad. After a few adventures of trying to find food, Herold finds the officer's uniform in a suitcase in an abandoned vehicle. German comedian Milan Peschel plays Freytag, the first soldier who encounters Herold in the uniform and asks to be assigned to him, as he has been separated from his quad. Perhaps Freytag also was deserting, but he latches onto Herold as a means of survival, as lone soldiers would be shot on sight. The two then go to a nearby inn to con some food, but Herold is forced to kill a looter, as he starts to assume the mantle of a German officer, under direct orders from the Fuhrer, to bring swift justice, that is death, to looters, rapists and deserters.

Herold actually builds a small, ragtag squad to dispense this justice. Running into another captain and unable to provide papers to prove who he was pretending to be, Herold bluffs his way into the Aschendorfermoor prison camp, where mostly German army deserters were held. There, Herold sides with Schutte (Bernd Holscher), who is impatient with the delays in having the court martials the Justice Department insists of for the prisoners, over Hasen (Waldemar Kobus), the other official in charge of the camp. Atrocities follow, and there even is a celebratory dinner that devolves into a free-for-all among the soldiers. In a bit of black humor, during the end credits, "Task Force Herold" drives through present day Germany and then interrogates unsuspecting civilians (some of whom actually were actors, Schwentke reveals).

In his excellent audio commentary -- in English, while the film is in German -- Schwentke ("Red," "Allegiant") explains that he deliberately did not provide any motivation or backstory for Herold, whom we first see as a sympathetic character as he is fleeing on foot while being shot at by soldiers in a truck. He allows Hubacher's performance to show the calculation in Herold's mind during each stage of his journey amidst the anarchy of Germany's Eastern front in the last two weeks of the war. The court scene after Herold is arrested by the German military, in which his actions are admired and it is suggested he be sent back to the front, has all its dialogue taken directly from the sole remaining deposition of the hearing. Schwentke also gives a brief history of German cinema after the war and how he wanted to present the rare view of the "bad guys" in the film.

Other extras include a Q&A from the film's Chicago premiere (31:52; also very good); interviews in German with Hubacher (11:42), Peschel (5:08), Frederick Lau (3:31; he played Kipinski) and producer Frieder Schlaich (6:33); one deleted scene (2:44) with a good Hubacher losing-his-cool performance; a recomposed video segment (3:14); and a storyboard-to-screen, making-of look at the film's opening sequence, in five parts totaling 29:42. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3.25 stars

British TV Sci-Fi

Doctor Who: The Complete Eleventh Series (BBC, 3 Blu-ray or DVDs, NR, 510 min.). The big news with the new season of the venerable series "Doctor Who" is that The Doctor's 13th incarnation was going to be female, portrayed by Jodie Whittaker, who was so good in the "Broadchurch" series. The show also has a new showrunner in Chris Chibnall, as Steven Moffat, showrunner/executive producer/lead writer from 2010 departed the show along with star Peter Capaldi in 2017. Chipnall writed five of the 10 episodes and co-writes a sixth. Another change is The Doctor now has three friends to travel with her (the show has dropped the nomenclature companions). Interestingly, the Peter Davison years (see below) started with three companions until one was killed off because it was "too crowded" in the TARDIS.

Whittaker is bright and enthusiastic, but a tad overly manic for my taste. Her energy level is always up, up, up. The new friends are good and cover a spectrum of ages and ethnicities. Bradley Walsh plays 62-year-old Graham O'Brien, recently grieving over the death of his wife, while Mandip Gill plays policewoman Yasmin Khan and Tosin Cole is Ryan Sinclair. Each episode presents a stand-alone story, including defeating an alien headhunter, an encounter with contestants in an intergalactic race, meeting Rosa Parks in 1955, an invasion of large spiders in current day Britain, trouble on a medical spaceship (including a man who is about to give birth), a trip back to Yaz's ancestors in Punjab on the day before the partition of India in 1947, a landing in the automated warehouses of galaxy-wide shopping service Kerblam!, a witch hunt in 1612 Lancashire, helping a blind teenager in Norway and landing on a planet with a psychic field that alters one's perception of reality. Not every episode excited me. Not included is the New Year's special, which replaced the previous traditional Christmas special, and, I thought, was overall much better.

Nearly everyone working on the series was new this year, including the writers and directors. There are more than 100 minutes of bonus features, including a look at Jamie Childs directing the first episode (8:29), Whittaker becoming The Doctor (9:39) and Chibnall talking about regenerating the show (7:51). There are audio commentaries for four episodes, brief closer looks at each episode (about 51 min. total), two brief video diaries, and looks at the friends (1:06), the TARDIS (3:17) and making the theme music (5:30). Grade: season 3.25 stars; extras 2.75 stars

Doctor Who: Peter Davison Complete Series One (1982, BBC, 8 Blu-ray discs, NR, 624 min.). This second collection of transferring an old Doctor Who season onto Blu-ray  marks the arrival of Davison (previously known as Tristan on "All Creatures Great and Small") as the Fifth Doctor. All 26 episodes of stories 117 through 123 have been remastered. The set starts with "Castrovalva," in which Davison replaces Tom Baker through regeneration. Davison would play The Doctor for three years.

The other stories are: "Four To Doomsday," in which the TARDIS lands on the Monarch's vast spaceship, four days from Earth (the Monarch controls some immortal humans); "Hinda," a colonial mission  on a paradise planet is on the verge of collapse; "The Visitation, " England in 1666 is in the grip of the Great Plague and an alien menace wants to wipe out humanity; "Black Orchid," in which servants are being murdered in 1925 England; "Earthshock," in which they battle the Cybermen; and "Time-Flight," in which the TARDIS lands in the middle of Terminal One at Heathrow Airport, as a supersonic Concorde has disappeared in mid-air.

Each disc contains all the previous released extras from the DVD versions, including audio commentaries, featurettes, optional CGI effects, making-of documentaries, rare footage and production information, plus more. There is a bonus disc that includes a new 68-minute sit-down interview of  Davison by Matthew Sweet that is quite engaging. Davison talks about taking over the role at 29, when he was considered too young (hello Matt Smith!) and too handsome. Davison says he wanted to bring back the vulnerability in The Doctor that Patrick Troughton had as the Second Doctor. A very funny extra has David Tennant's Tenth Doctor encountering Davison's Doctor on the TARDIS (8:29), which was broadcast in 2007a s part of the BBC One telethon for the Children in Need charity. There also is a Jovanka Airlines ad for the new box set (2:28) and a panel from the 1983 Panopticon convention in Hammersmith with Janet Fielding, who played companion Tegan, and Matthew Waterhouse, who played companion Adric. (Not present is third companion Nyssa, played by Sarah Sutton and a carryover from the Baker years.) Interestingly, in her feminist perspective, Fielding says the series has no future and it should end, and complains that the women's roles on the show were "appalling." History sure change that.

There are seven behind the sofa episodes, with the actors -- Davison, Fielding, Sutton and Waterhouse on one sofa and Mark Strickson and Sophie Aldred on the other -- discussing each episode, as well as new making-of documentaries for "Castrovalva," "Four To Doomsday," "Earth-Shock" and "Time-Flight," plus rare footage from each of those four episodes. There also is an extended version of "Black Orchid Part One" and immersive 5.1 Surround Sound mixes for "Kinda" and "Earthshock." Grade: season 3.5 stars; extras 5 stars

Human 3.0 (Acorn, 2 Blu-ray discs or 3 standard DVDs, NR, 391 min.). This set presents the eight episodes of the third and final season of the series in which human-looking robots try to be accepted by society. The episodes are presented in their uncut UK edition. The BAFTA Award nominee for Best Drama Series is based on the award-winning Swedish science fiction drama, "Real Humans."

Set in the near future, humanoid servants called Synthetics have been created to help busy families simplify their lives. However, their creator also made a small number of very human-like synths. At the end of season two, a human girl whose family befriended several of the human-like synths released a computer code that brought awareness to hundreds of the Synthetics. Now human mistrust of synths is at an all-time high. Mia (Gemma Chan of "Crazy Rich Asians"), one of the original human-like synths, has moved into a human apartment complex and is trying to be integrated into society. Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is the human lawyer who is working on Mia's case and fighting for rights for synths. Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) is a human-like synth who runs a refuge for sentient synths, although he has a couple of synths undermining his efforts because they want a more war-like stance.

Colin Morgan ("The Adventures of Merlin," "The Fall") plays Leo,  a human-synth hybrid, whose father was the original synth creator. Not helping matters is a bomb that goes off at a synth-friendly bar, leading original human-like synth Niska (Emily Berrington) to search for the perpetrator.

Extras include 24 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes. Grade: season 3.5 stars; extras 1.5 stars

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