Movie reviews: 'Frozen 2' a worthy followup to the original
FROZEN 2: 4 STARS
If, somehow, you missed the 2013 megahit “Frozen,” and are unsure if you’ll be able to understand its sequel, worry no longer. In one of the new film’s best scenes Olaf the motor-mouthed snowman (Josh Gad) recaps the events of the original movie in a madcap and extremely high-energy sequence that fills in all the gaps for the uninitiated.
The new film opens with Anna and Elsa (voiced as kids by Hadley Gannaway and Mattea Conforti), princesses of Arendelle and heiresses to the throne, hearing the story of how their father Agnarr (Alfred Molina) became king. It’s a grim fairy tale about an unprovoked attack by the Northuldra people, a battle that resulted in the death of their grandfather. Agnarr escaped but the enchanted forest, home to the Northuldra, became enshrouded by a magical mist, sealing it off from the rest of the world.
Cut to years later. Elsa, (Idina Menzel) is now Queen, a cryokinetic with the awesome power to manifest ice and snow. From her perch in Arendelle’s castle she hears a mysterious signal coming from the enchanted forest. Convinced she has woken the spirits that live within, she hightails it to the magical land to find the source of the voice. Along for the ride are Anna (Kristen Bell), her beau Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his reindeer Sven and the chatty snowman Olaf.
“Did you know and enchanted forest is a place of transformation?” says Olaf. “I don’t know what that means but I can’t wait to see what it does to each one of us.”
On the journey into the woods Elsa and Anna not only meet the forest’s denizens—Earth Giants, fire toads and a tribe of people who have been trapped in the timberland since the terrible battle—but also learn the truth about their shared family history. When they aren’t warbling a raft of new power pop ballads by the Oscar-winning Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the sisters must make a decision that could affect the lives of everyone in Arendelle.
“Frozen 2” doesn’t have the same kind of icy wonder the original gave audiences, but even as a warmed-over sequel it impresses. Advances in CGI animation allow for an even more cinematic approach than the original. Elsa riding an ice horse is into a raging sea is a stand-out image in a movie filled with fantasy sequences and fun character realization. It is pure eye candy that should entrance young viewers. Adults may get a laugh out of “Lost in the Woods,” a duet between Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and Sven that mimics 1980s power pop music videos.
The plot, an overly complicated story involving primeval forces, stymied marriage proposals and family secrets, feels over-stuffed and occasionally meandering but it does contain good messages for kids. In their travels to the north country Elsa and Anna learn the importance of the primal forcers of air, fire, water and earth in a subplot laden with ideas of respecting indigenous people, environmentalism and doing what is right for everyone.
Ultimately the success of “Frozen 2” boils down to the characters and the songs. Olaf has the most fun with his outing “When I Am Older,” but it’s Menzel’s powerhouse vocals on "Into the Unknown" that provide the film’s emotional high point. It’s also the closest thing to a “Let it Go” style number on the soundtrack.
Olaf, Sven and Kristoff are solid supporting characters but it’s Elsa and Anna who make the biggest impression. Directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee maintain and double down on the first film’s sense of empowerment. These are women who can look after themselves, who are self-sufficient and that re-modelling of the Disney princess tradition is a big part of the franchise’s appeal.
“Frozen 2” is a worthy followup to the original even if it feels simultaneously bursting at the seams with plot and visuals and less ambitious.
A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD: 4 STARS
What begins as an interview for a magazine piece becomes a series of impromptu therapy sessions that change a man’s life. Based on the Esquire article “Can You Say...Hero?” by Tom Junod, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is the story of a person’s ability to find and give forgiveness.
Matthew Rhys is Lloyd Vogel (based on Tom Junod), a journalist with a newborn baby, a hair trigger temper, daddy issues and a habit of writing scathing profiles of his subjects. After a nasty incident at his sister’s wedding involving his estranged father Jerry (Chris Cooper) leaves him with the blackeye and a gash on his nose, his editor at Esquire assigns him a puff piece, a four-hundred-word sidebar on children’s broadcaster Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) for an issue on Heroes. He doesn’t want the gig, thinking it is beneath his hard-hitting style.
“Am I’m supposed to go easy on this guy because he plays with puppets for a living?”
Nonetheless, he travels to Philadelphia's WQED, home of the Mister Roger’s show for a planned hour-long interview. He arrives to find the television icon spending time with a Make-A-Wish kid. He watches as Mister Rogers finds a way to connect with the distracted child. Later Rogers turns the table on Lloyd, answering his questions with questions, looking for answers as to why Lloyd is battered and bruised.
Back in New York, despite his editor’s instructions to keep it simple, Lloyd wants to go deeper.
“I’m just not sure if he’s for real.” “Lloyd, please don’t ruin my childhood,” begs his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson).
When Lloyd’s father Jerry has a life-threatening heart attack the lessons Mister Rogers imparts I their interviews about giving children a way to deal with their feelings begin to take on deeper meanings for Lloyd.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” isn’t a biopic of Mister Rogers, or a maudlin story of a bitter reporter with a father complex. It’s about decency, positivity as a powerful force and the importance of mentors, all filtered through the lens of a man who spoke to everyone, not just children.
Hanks goes beyond impersonation to unearth someone with hidden pockets of anger—hinted at but never fully displayed until the film’s final, elegiac moments—that help him understand Lloyd’s troubled relationship with his father and his seemingly unquenchable thirst to lash out.
Hanks takes the simple, home-style psychology—"There’s always something you can do with the mad you feel,” he says.—and imbues them with humour, earnestness and heart without dipping into saccharine sentimentality. It is a remarkable performance that could have simply relied on the tried and true portrait of Mister Rogers we’re familiar with from television but Hanks breathes life into it.
In one nervy scene Rogers and Lloyd “take a minute to think about all the people who loved us into being.” For sixty, silent seconds they stare at one another, allowing their minds to drift. Director Marielle Heller lets the moment sink in and in the silence—even the background noise is blocked out—we are reminded how little time we all spend, day in and day out, in quiet contemplation. It may be the movie’s most telling scene, the one that details how far away society has moved away from the core values of kindness and understanding Rogers preached.
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is, in many ways, a boilerplate story. The tale of a father and son separated by hate and time is something that we’ve seen many times and despite nice work from Rhys and Cooper, is the least compelling part of the movie. It’s the McGuffin that allows the chance to re-examine Mister Rogers’ potent, humanistic messages.
WAVES: 4 ½ STARS
“Waves” feels like two movies in one. The first a story of teen angst writ large with a tragic outcome. The second is a tale of reconciliation and compassion. They dovetail to form one of the year’s best films.
Set in South Florida, “Waves” begins as a slice-of-life drama. We meet high-school wrestler Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) as he and girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) flirt during school hours. We then witness the young athlete’s home life with empathetic mother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and domineering father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” says Ronald. “We have to be 10 times better.”
Tyler is driven, a good student and star wrestler who seems bound for scholarships and the Ivy League. A closer look, however, reveals a troubling undercurrent that suggests he is slowly being crushed by the burden of expectations. He self-medicates for a shoulder injury that could end his wrestling career and when his relationship with Alexis takes a bad turn, so does his personality.
The second half focusses on Emily’s coming of age as she begins a relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a sweet-tempered boy dealing with his own family drama.
No spoilers here. The beauty of writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s film is the discovery of it, being drawn into the story and the characters. Shults doles out emotional moment after emotional moment and yet there isn’t a melodramatic second to be seen. That’s partially due to the uniformly wonderful, naturalistic performances but also from a story that feels grounded in real life.
Shults camera is intimate, up-close-and-personal, allowing the viewer to be drawn in. His inventive visual sense and beautiful direction is the very definition of show-me-don’t-tell-me and provides for much introspection. This is a movie that speaks just as loudly when it is in silence as when its characters are talking. The real action in “Waves” happens behind the eyes of its characters.
Stylistically he uses ingenious methods to feed his scenes. In one sequence an annoying seatbelt chime adds tension to an already tense situation and a text conversation that devolves into an all-caps shouting match has a sense of urgency that is very compelling. It is exhilarating filmmaking that takes chances and, coming hot on the heels of his other films “Krisha” and “It Comes at Night,” cements Shults’s place as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
Fuelled by a soundtrack by from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, “Waves” details the hardships that come with difficult decisions but also the redemption that can come with forgiveness. Highly recommended.
MARRIAGE STORY: 4 STARS
“Marriage Story” is not a first date movie. It is a three hankie, emotionally fraught movie about appealing but damaged people whose divorce is filled with a sense of loss and a growing shroud of incivility.
Adam Driver is Charlie, a hotshot avant-garde theatre director living and working in Brooklyn, New York with his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). She is a former movie star with a list of teen comedies to her credit. They met at a party, instantly fell in love, had son Henry (Azhy Robertson) all was well until it wasn’t. Charlie may have slept with a stage manager but it’s Nicole’s growing dissatisfaction that widen the chasm between them. “I never really came alive for myself,” she says. “I was only feeding his aliveness.”
What begins as a simple conscious uncoupling becomes complicated when Nicole accepts a starring role on a television series based in Los Angeles, taking Henry to live with her. The family, stretched between two coasts and two careers, wears thin and soon the pressures of the split take their toll. “It’s not as simple as not being in love anymore,” says Nicole.
On my way into the press screening for “Marriage Story” a publicist handed me a small package of Kleenex branded with the movie’s logo.
“I won’t need these,” I thought. “I’m a professional, here to dispassionately judge this film on its merits. I made it through ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ like a dry-eyed superman and if I can do that, I can do anything.”
I’m not too proud to tell you that I was glad I had the Kleenexes.
“Marriage Story” is so agonizingly vivid, so without melodrama, that I felt at times as though I was a voyeur, that I shouldn’t be watching some of these emotionally charged scenes. As Charlie and Nicole drift apart and lawyers, like the ruthless Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern in full beast mode), become involved the idea that they might have a chance of staying friends once this is all said and done becomes heartbreakingly remote.
Driver and Johansson convincingly play the bond that made them a couple and as it unravels both reveal the fatal flaws that drove a wedge between them. The two actors, unshackled from the constraints of the blockbusters that pay for their Italian castle retreats, dig deep, wallowing in their character’s self-absorption and anger.
Johansson, in full monologue mode, thrills in a lengthy speech detailing her state of mind. And do not even get me started by Driver’s final scene with his son as he reads a long-forgotten note. (NO SPOILERS HERE) Director Noah Baumbach keeps those scenes—and the entire movie for that matter—uncluttered. Simple and direct, he allows the actors to do the heavy lifting with naturalistic performances and both pack a wallop.
“Marriage Story” may not be a great choice for a first date but the emotional, sincere truth Baumbach and cast wring out of the material is best seen with a companion, or at the very least a package of Kleenex.
THE REPORT: 2 STARS
“The Report,” starring Adam Driver as lead investigator and author of the "Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Report of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program" Daniel Jones, sets up what is to come very early on in the film when a CIA agent says,
“Paper has a way of getting people into trouble at our place,” to Jones.
When we first meet Jones he is an idealistic staffer for California’s Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening). A hard worker, he throws himself into his latest project as chief investigator on what would become the largest study the Senate ever conducted, a look into the use and abuse of E.I.T.s – enhanced interrogation techniques, sanctioned by the Bush/Cheney administration in the months and years following 9/11.
Working with a small team in a small underground bunker with no wi-fi and, at first, no printers to create documents that could leave a paper trail, Jones uncovers unimaginable cruelty and through the course of six years and in generating a document that spans almost 7,000 pages cannot find any instances of the torture—i.e. waterboarding, sense deprivation techniques and physical abuse—leading to the uncovering of any useful information. When Feinstein is told one subject was waterboarded—a method of torture that simulates drowning—183 times she says, “If it works why do you have to do it 183 times?”
Jones finds himself stuck in the political process, a cog in a very big wheel determined to crush him and keep the results of his work, including accusation of CIA certified murder, under wraps.
“The Report” contains high voltage ideas and accusations, but is dry as a bone. It’s a Sorkin-esque social drama without the engaging drama the “Social Network” writer brings to his projects. Writer-director Scott Z. Burns captures the labyrinthine machinations that keep Washington in a constant state of intrigue but gets lost in the complexity of the situation. Cover-ups are never straightforward, especially one with the juice to generate 7,000 pages of damning evidence.
The result is a plodding procedural that, although incendiary, never catches fire.