Monday, December 21, 2009


I've been meaning to review a lot of movies by director Danny Boyle on this blog. He's been making movies since 1994, and pretty much all of them have been good. The exception is his film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which tried to hard to be flashy. He's most well known for his films Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire. If you've seen those movies, you'd know they're pretty adult fare, which is why many of his fans were surprised in 2004 when he made the family friendly Christmas movie, Millions.

I suppose technically speaking, this isn't so much a Christmas movie as it is a movie set at Christmastime. The distributors clearly thought so, since in America this movie was released in the middle of the summer, but the story just feels a bit more relevant in the holiday season.

Millions is set in the UK in the month leading up to it's changeover from the pound to the euro as its currency. Two kids, Damian and Anthony come across a duffle bag full hundreds of thousands of pounds in their backyard, which they realize they have to do something about soon as it will be worthless when the UK switches to the euro. Anthony, the older brother, wants to spend it and invest it and Damian, the younger brother, wants to give it to the poor.

I should also mention that Damian is frequently visited by visions of saints who explain their personal histories to him.

Millions doesn't resort to the obvious cliche where everybody realizes it's better to give to others than to spend on yourself. It actually becomes a rather complex morality tale, but you should have guessed that it was going to be complex when I told you that it was a family movie that involved changing foreign monetary systems as it's central premise.

Both brothers agree to keep the money secret, though Anthony doesn't waste any time buying fun gadgets and bribing his friends. On the other hand Damian has a bit of difficulty giving away his share, since a grade school kid can't really go about handing out money without raising suspicion. It's not long before things get out of hand for him and everybody feels entitled to some portion of the wealth.

If you've seen any of Danny Boyle's other movies, you'll definitely recognize his directorial style in this one. There's plenty of slick editing and music choices all along the way. One of the most energetic scenes is when the boys learn where the money actually came from, which is set to Muse's song "Hysteria."

The movie is family friendly, but it's complexity may mean that parents watching it with their kids will find they have a lot of questions to answer afterward, probably the largest one being whether or not you'd keep the money for yourself or give it away.

Another heads up: this movie will probably put you in a philanthropic mood afterward. The movie never outright preaches that giving is good. Instead it makes an argument about what one really can do by using money wisely. Keep it to yourself and it's useless. Give it away thoughtlessly and people start expecting it. Somewhere in between, it argues, you can afford to help somebody out while enjoying yourself.

In keeping with that theme, the DVD contained an insert suggested making a donation to Heifer International if you felt inspired by the movie to do some giving. Even if the movie doesn't seem like your cup of tea, at least look into the charity.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Nutcracker: The Motion Picture

From the Creator of Where the Wild Things Are

The holidays are a strange time for movies. For one thing, Christmas movies are only really watchable around the month of December. (Something just feels weird about watching them any other time of the year, but I just can't put my finger on it.) This means that movies themed around Christmas really only have one good month to find their audience, and have to make such an impression in the public's mind as to be remembered again a year later when it's time for them to be released on home video.

Of course, many succeed in this task. It almost seems like a sacrilege not to watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation annually, and Love Actually is fast becoming a modern classic in its own right. Yet we're still treated to numerous movies that bastardize classics (Ron Howard's version of The Grinch) or at least make them feel eerie and alien (The Polar Express) or otherwise try to knockoff Christmas Vacation. (Deck the Halls, Christmas With the Cranks, etc.)

So this month, I'm going to try and shed light on as many under appreciated Christmas movies as I can, starting with the 1986 film, Nutcracker: The Motion Picture.

What makes this particular version stand out is that the production, originally created for the Pacific Northwest Ballet, was designed by Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. Like many projects helmed by artists with distinctive touches, every scene bears his signature style, with backgrounds and costumes that look like they were lifted right out of his picture books. Not surprisingly, he later illustrated a version of the E. T. A. Hoffman story based on the artwork he created for this production.

This version also stands out because the filmmakers truly shot this as a movie, instead of just filming a live performance of the production. In adapting the ballet for screen they didn't limit themselves showing things that could be done on stage. Instead they took advantage of the camera's ability to show close subtle interactions between characters, as well as a few creative scene transitions.

That being said, it still retains the feel of a production meant for the stage. The effects are low budget, but executed in a manner reminiscent of Bram Stoker's Dracula or a Wes Anderson movie. In other words, it's very theatrical. For example, the second act opens with a shot of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince sailing along the ocean. The set is perfectly framed on all sides by a featuring Sendak's designs, while the boat and waves are all done with two dimensional cut outs. Instead of looking like a cheap effect, the result is an a moving illustration.

For anybody who is seriously familiar with the Nutcracker ballet, I should mention this version does some unique liberties with the art direction and story. Maybe not to the extent of the sexualized, Dickensian vision in Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! but something unique nonetheless. Instead of the second half being set in a candy land like most versions, it's set in some exotic Turkish land, and instead of it being ruled by the Sugarplum Fairy, it's ruled by a strange version of Herr Drosselmeyer.

If you're not at all familiar with the Nutcracker ballet, this version is easily one of the better filmed versions you will come across, so it's the best place to start.

Now for a bit of bad news. This version isn't currently available on DVD. However, it is available for purchase or rental on iTunes, and can also be seen on Hulu.