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Review: Frozen


Disney's FrozenThe movie Frozen may be Disney's best animated film in 20 years. The adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is a return to Disney classic form with a few new twists on old tropes.

The pairing of composer Christophe Beck (Pitch Perfect, Burlesque) with lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez recaptures some of the magic of Menken/Ashman from 1989-1992 in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The screenplay by Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), who also shared directing duties with Chris Buck (Tarzan), carefully balances dark subject matter with good-natured humor as it transports the audience into a magical frozen world.

Idina Menzel won a Tony for her Broadway performance in Wicked as Elphaba, the misunderstood "wicked witch" forced into isolation by her appearance and powers. The role of snow queen Elsa she plays in Frozen is not a very far stretch from that character, though she is not the heroine of this tale.

Princess Anna is voiced by Kristen Bell, who also performs her own songs. Who knew Kristen Bell could sing like this? Performing in four tracks that include duets with Santino Fontana, Josh Gad, and Menzel, her voice is flawless.

The most memorable numbers in Frozen, however, are "In Summer," performed by Josh Gad (Jobs, Ice Age) about a snowman's light-hearted musing on dreams of warm weather, and "Let It Go," which inspired youngsters in the audience to sing along with the credits.

After she accidentally injures younger sister Anna while playing with her budding magical powers, Elsa's parents hide her away, isolated from people in order to avoid hurting them. She grows up striving to repress, rather than control, her feelings and thus her powers. After their parents' deaths, Elsa comes of age and must assume her role as queen at a coronation ceremony, resulting in a disaster from which she flees.

Review: The Book Thief


The Book Thief

War is hell, but not in The Book Thief.

This is not to say war is a picnic in the film; the specter of war's ultimate toll is ever present and personified by the narrator, Death. But The Book Thief's absurdly sanitized depiction of World War II barely hints at the horrific realities, and a story that should be gritty and deep is mostly mild and superficial.

The titular book thief in the film (based on a bestselling young adult novel of the same title) is young Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse). Her mother, a communist in pre-war Nazi Germany who fears for her family's safety, takes Liesel and her younger brother to live with foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) Hubermann. Liesel's brother dies aboard the train en route to meet the Hubermanns; after his trackside burial, the illiterate Liesel steals the gravedigger's manual to remind her of her brother. This is the first of many books she'll take throughout the film as she becomes more literate.

Review: Black Nativity


Black Nativity posterKasi Lemmons, director of Eve's Bayou and Talk to Me, chose a play by poet Langston Hughes as the basis for her new movie. Black Nativity is first and foremost a musical, featuring original pieces of music as well as new arrangements of familiar hymns and carols. Lemmons even co-wrote some of the songs, with Raphael Saadiq producing the music (he shares the "Music by" credit with composer Laura Karpman).

The music is the best thing about Black Nativity. Without the songs it would likely be a far more disappointing movie, as you can see plot lines coming from a mile away. There are a couple times when a character says something that punches you in the gut with its earnestness, but otherwise the story is as ridiculous as it is predictable.

Langston, a fatherless kid from Baltimore played by young Jacob Latimore, is sent to live with grandparents he's never met. His rhyming narration kicks off the movie, and his singing voice has a light tone. Singer/Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson plays his financially-strapped mom who sings more often than she talks. Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker are the grandparents living in Harlem (and both of them sing in the movie!). Bassett's tentative alto harmonizes nicely with Hudson's more assured voice for a duet in "He Loves Me Still."

Tyrese Gibson (Baby Boy, Transformers) shows up as a gritty man Langston meets in NYC, and his performance of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" late in the film is simply beautiful. A homeless couple -- obvious Joseph and Mary stand-ins as soon as they appear onscreen -- are played by R&B singer Luke James and newcomer Grace GibsonMary J. Blige is an angelic figure with startlingly white hair, and Nas is... himself, I guess?

Review: Philomena



Some aspects of Philomena can be the stuff of films that critics loathe: It's a crowd pleaser, the central characters are borderline cinematic clichés, they form an unlikely friendship (I wish there were more films about unlikely animosities), and the story's morality isn't complicated.

But thanks to a smart, funny script, a likeable vibe, direction by the esteemed Stephen Frears and superb performances by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena avoids all these potential pitfalls. It's a great movie that may be a hit with audiences for all the right reasons.

Based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film is based on the true story of the titular Philomena (Dench), an Irish woman who spends nearly 50 years wondering what became of her long-lost son. As a teenager in 1952, she becomes pregnant and, like many "fallen" girls and women in Catholic-dominated Ireland, is sent away to a convent. After she gives birth, the proudly cruel nuns force her to sign away her parental rights to the baby, Anthony, who lives with her at the convent until he's adopted at age three. Knowing nothing about Anthony's adoptive parents, Philomena loses touch with him.

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


The Hunger Games: Catching FireIt's been almost a year now since Jennifer Lawrence has captured the collective hearts of America with her adorable quality and humility paired with her humor. To look at anything Lawrence did in early 2013 you'd think she could do absolutely no wrong. As is typical of American culture, her illustrious shine is still amazingly bright, but now we're ready to see what she can do onscreen again. Can she impress us, still? Her first major release of 2013 is the sequel to the hugely successful franchise, The Hunger Games.

In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Lawrence's character Katniss Everdeen remains a polarizing figure in the dystopian society of the future. Her success in the previous year's Hunger Games, a competition held annually in which a tribute from every district is randomly selected to participate in a fight to the death where only a single winner is to remain, elevated her status as a living example of the type of courage that is present in the poverty stricken districts of the country.

Her victory didn't come easily, and without controversy though. Her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) also came away from the previous year's Hunger Games as a victor due to some clever posturing by Katniss. Now that she has fully grabbed the attention of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), forces are conspiring to eliminate Katniss from causing any more trouble, but there are also forces looking to join Katniss and her fight for survival and survival of her people.

The strengths that were present in the first film are more pronounced in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  Lawrence's character seems to carry the world on her shoulders now, and it's appropriate since, on a weird parallel scale, Lawrence seemed to always be on everyone's mind in the last year in a way similar to Katniss in the film's universe. Her combination of ease and uneasiness with the burdens that are now ever present is handled beautifully. When Katniss has to act confident and complacent, she does so with a smile on her face that seems genuine, but is able to maintain that uneasiness in her eyes.

Review: Dallas Buyers Club


dallas buyers club posterDallas Buyers Club has all the hooks you'd expect to find in a film released during prime awards-angling season. A couple of big stars, a David and Goliath story based on true events, a topic that will inspire moral outrage, and as you've probably heard, major physical transformations from not one but two actors involved. 

The cynical part of me went in fearing heavy-handedness and emotional exploitation, but I was relieved to find that director Jean-Marc Vallee largely steers clear of over-sentimentality. Instead he simply tells the story of a flawed rebel searching for dignity in a terrifying situation, and though a little too glossy at times, the movie satisfies in many ways and is bound to capture a golden statue or two.

Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodroof, a swaggering Dallas electrician/rodeo cowboy who is diagnosed with HIV so advanced that he's told he has a mere 30 days to live. The stigma that this is a gay man's disease, especially common in 1985 (when the story is set), riles homophobic Ron as much as the health implications. He soon discovers what he really needs to be angry about, though; there are no promising medications available for Ron and others like him, and the American system operates as if it truly doesn't care about people with HIV and AIDS.

With his life at stake and an entire federal framework that he feels needs to be corrected, Ron diverts his rage into travel and research and searches for alternative options. Never the law-abiding type, he soon creates a buyers club, a setup that skirts the bounds of illegality by selling memberships rather than pills. Once dues are paid, members receive an array of drugs, vitamins and supplements (mostly acquired from a progressive doctor in Mexico) that are not yet approved by the FDA. As the leader of this club, Ron satisfies his desire for both control and adventure -- he will not sit idly by as his body and health deteriorate. 

McConaughey is enthralling as the womanizing cowboy turned AIDS-rights activist. The role allows him to strut, connive, charm and storytell using the precisely channeled charisma he's known for, and his fiery presence (made only more searing by yes, his remarkably gaunt figure) is the beating heart of the film. Though you never forget you're looking at a dying man, McConaughey infuses his performance with sparks of crackling energy. 

Review: Thor: The Dark World


Thor: The Dark WorldBigger, better and more full of thunder, Thor: The Dark World smashes onto screens this weekend. The sequel to 2011's Thor -- part of the Marvel Avengers movie continuity -- catches up with characters Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) several years after the first installment.

The story by writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Don Payne and Robert Rodat was directed by Alan Taylor, who has a few feature credits but has directed episodes of numerous TV favorites including among his credits Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, The West Wing, The Sopranos and most recently, Game of Thrones.

Taylor's experience directing Game of Thrones is immediately on display as the film opens with a battle scene in which Asgardians and Dark Elves do battle using a combination of medieval weaponry and laser fire. In a greatly expanded role, Anthony Hopkins' Odin narrates the battle fought by his father (Tony Curran in an uncredited role) against Dark Elves who seek to kill all other life and return the universe to darkness. Now, the nine worlds are coming into a once-every-five-thousand-years alignment, and the time is ripe for the Dark Elves led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) to try again.

Comic book fans may be displeased by changes to established details and storylines, but Thor: The Dark World is a crowd-pleaser. More of the action takes place on Asgard where in addition to Hopkins, Rene Russo enjoys a much more involved role as Frigga, Thor's mother. The rest of the gang is back including Jaimie Alexander as Sif, Zachary Levi as Fandral, Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun and Idris Elba as Heimdall, all of whom serve more important roles than the set dressing they provided in the previous film.  A newcomer to the Marvel universe, Chris O'Dowd appears as a matter-of-fact blind date for Portman's Foster, and Alice Krige makes a brief surprising appearance.

Review: All Is Lost


All Is LostThe first time I saw a trailer for All Is Lost, I wondered why Robert Redford had gotten involved in a too-soon remake of Life Of Pi. Of course, once you see the film you'll understand that it's the kind of story best reserved for an audience knowing as little as possible about it going in, and that a marketing trailer has to do its best to entice you without giving too much away. There's no question that this is a challenging film to promote, but it's truly a remarkable work of art that should really be seen on the big screen. 

Director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) doesn't waste any time establishing the story. Redford's character is never named (his official credit is "Our Man") and we don't get any identifying details about his life. He's asleep on his yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean when he awakens to a crash. His vessel has collided with a shipping container full of shoes and it's taken quite a toll on the stability of his boat. We see him leap into survival mode, and while we don't know anything about his background, it becomes clear that he's a hell of a sailor. He takes command of the yacht and seemingly knows every possible solution to each problem that pops up. 

Even though his navigation and communication systems are down, he's able to use nautical maps and tools to chart his approximate location and a course of action. If he can just direct the boat back towards a major shipping route, he'll be able to get help. That is, unless a series of intense storms would happen to rage over the water and further damage the viability of his ship on his cursed voyage.

Redford commands the screen in All Is Lost with a ruggedly weathered face that, even under duress, hides the fact that he's 77 years old. Single-handedly, the actor holds our rapt attention through almost two hours of unforgettable trauma without almost any dialogue. It's a feat that very few actors could pull off, but here it's done beautifully.

Review: About Time


About Time Still Photo

From Aristotle to Einstein to Hawking, much debate has occurred over the structure of time and the possibility of time travel. If time travel were possible, where would you go? More importantly, how do you prevent the paradox of destroying your own identities -- or the worse fate of your own existence and others -- in the process?

The most widely talked-about moments in time to change often leads to an assassination of Hitler or saving of the Titanic. But a more personal use drives the time-travel paradigm in the romantic comedy About Time by writer/director Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill). On his twenty-first birthday, lovelorn Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) receives extraordinary news of a special gift shared by his father (Bill Nighy). The men in their family have the ability to travel through time within their own lives -- "You can't kill Hitler or shag Helen of Troy" -- Tim decides what he wants most is a girlfriend, so he sets forth to secure the love of his life as he begins his professional career as a lawyer in London.

One fateful night, he meets and becomes enamored with the beautiful yet insecure American girl Mary (Rachel McAdams), but his use of time travel to resolve a failed performance for his landlord and playwright Harry (Tom Hollander) results in unintended consequences. It is as if he and Mary have never met, and he must find a way to place himself in the right moment to win her heart. However, his efforts impact the lives of his loved ones, including his sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), and he is faced with the critical decision of letting those he cares about most learn life's lessons on their own.

Review: Ender's Game


Ender's Game

Opening this weekend, Ender's Game represents something of a puzzle. The movie is based on a novel considered by many to be the greatest work of science fiction ever written, but authored by Orson Scott Card, controversial as a homophobic contributor to the anti-gay marriage movement. Many people have vowed to boycott the film because of Card's views, but Ender's Game is a story that deserves to be told.  

It was a bold move to put such a sizable production for such an important story into the hands of Gavin Hood, director of the much maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The resulting film, however, does manage to hit the important points of an extensive story while failing to completely do it justice.

The premise is a future Earth that has survived an alien invasion through the heroics of one exceptional leader. Seventy years later, the government is seeking a new leader for an attack force who has the ability to understand the enemy and the genius to defeat them.

Children are considered the only viable candidates, and Andrew "Ender" Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) represents the greatest hope for success. Leading his training is Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford), who has some unconventional ideas about instruction. Vilified for being smarter and more successful than his peers, Ender is manipulated by Graff into being emotionally detached from his classmates in order to make him a better leader.

Watching the movie Ender's Game, I had a feeling that never occurred as I read the book -- that it vaguely resembles the Harry Potter books. Ender is no orphan, but is separated from his family. He's everyone's hope for victory, and he's the star player of zero-gravity quidditch. This is likely the result of adapting an involved novel into only 114 minutes. A story that takes place over four years is compressed into little more than a few months. Sweeping plotlines from the source are abandoned, and what remains must be calculated to sell (and therefore pleasantly omits the anti-gay slurs found in Card's book).

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