FROZEN

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By R. David

Viewed December 3, 2013

Released last week, Disney’s “Frozen” is already a huge crowd pleaser. People of all ages love it.  And to be perfectly honest, the film will always have a special place in my heart because it is the first movie I took my eldest daughter, who turned four last month, to see in a movie theater.  It was an amazing and joyous adventure to experience through her all the wonders of going to the movies that we as adults – having been to so many and being so conditioned to simply await the next major advancement in both theater comfort and filmmaking effects – so foolishly take for granted:  The communal aspect of movie-going (sitting next to complete strangers, all enjoying the same thing), the enormity of the room, the screen, the sound (even the chairs when you’re no more than 3 feet tall), and how awesome is this huge bucket of popcorn?!

It was a dizzying (how much popcorn is this kid gonna eat?!), nerve-wracking (Is she going to talk the whole?  Is she going want to constantly run around?  Will it be too loud or too scary for her?  Will she understand we can’t simply pause the movie like at home or fast-forward through the parts that don’t hold her attention?) and supremely proud moment as a father; especially a father who has such a love of film and now knows he can share that love with his own flesh and blood (all of my fears were unfounded, by the way – except the popcorn thing; she crushed two tubs all by herself.).

And for the record, she too is in the Love-“Frozen” camp.

And so, because of all that, it doesn’t really matter that I am not.

I will certainly always love and appreciate this film, but it won’t be because of much in the movie itself.  On the one hand I can see why people enjoy it so much:  Its colorful, action-packed, has a story meant to inspire and hopes to break the traditional, damsel-in-distress animated-film mold, there are some nice songs and plenty of age-appropriate humor.  On the other hand, there is nothing about “Frozen” that feels particularly new or exciting.  I chuckled a few times at a clever line or two, but most of my laughter came as a reaction to my daughter’s enjoyment; and I appreciate the writers trying to avoid the clichéd knight-in-shining-armor who saves the day trope and give young girls a strong female heroine who can take care of herself, but that alone doesn’t mean the rest of this tale doesn’t follow all the usual Disney-princess film beats.  Which is why there is a silly, talking snowman thrown in for good measure.

“Frozen” is ostensibly the tale of two estranged sisters, Elsa and Anna, princesses of the kingdom of Arendelle, who were close as children but become estranged when Elsa becomes a recluse.  See, Elsa has the strange and dangerous ability to freeze everything around her.  She nearly killed Anna with her powers when they were young and she fears she can not control her abilities well enough to guarantee it won’t happen again.  So Elsa severs contact with Anna.  When their parents are killed at sea (because this is a Disney movie), Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel), being the elder sister is crowned queen of Arendelle.  Anna (Kristen Bell), yearning for companionship, agrees to marry a handsome young prince named Hans (Santino Fontana), whom she has just met.  Elsa steps in with her objections, Anna calls Elsa out on years of ignoring her and refuses to yield to her authority.  In a fit of emotion, Elsa makes her secret known to the shock of everyone in the kingdom.  Angry, ashamed, and afraid for everyone’s safety, Elsa retreats to the mountains where she creates a huge ice palace and becomes known to the villagers as the Snow Queen who has plunged their kingdom into a perpetual winter.  Anna leaves Hans in charge and heads into the mountains to reason with her sister.  Along the way she meets a cranky mountain man named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his equally sullen reindeer sidekick Sven, mythical trolls, and the aforementioned goofball snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad), who Elsa and Anna actually created as kids.

“Frozen” is most charming it its early going.  The sisters’ innocence as they frolic and play is infectious, as are their sarcastically humorous songs.  Their sibling bond conveys some real emotion and humor; and when they become estranged, it is genuinely sad to see Anna pushed aside by Elsa, especially since she has no explanation or understanding of why (though you don’t have to be too cynical to think that a simple conversation would likely have sufficed and saved everyone a lot of torment, especially considering the eternal winter the kingdom is thrust into as an ultimate result of Elsa’s whole silence-for-safety’s-sake approach).  But as soon as the typically fantastical action kicks into gear and the more nefarious motivations of certain characters surface, “Frozen” quickly becomes derivative of nearly every Disney fairytale involving princesses and talking creatures.  Making Anna a strong-willed heroine who is capable of taking care of herself and doesn’t need rescuing from her prince charming (quite the opposite, actually) is refreshing, though Anna is hardly the first strong female Disney character, so the ultimate distinction that she is never actually saved by a prince doesn’t exactly transcend the genre all by itself.  “Frozen” also continues Disney’s steady-slide in the memorable song department.  I liked the first song Elsa and Anna sing in the film, but I’d have to Google its title to tell you what its called.  And there is certainly nothing as effortlessly catchy and joyous as, say, “Under the Sea” or “Be Our Guest”.

All those – valid, people! – criticisms aside, “Frozen” is effectively cute and entertaining in all the ways it aspires to be and, frankly, needs to be for its intended audience to enjoy it.  The animation and shimmering color palates are suitable eye-candy, the voice work is solid, and reindeer Sven, silly snowman Olaf, and those trolls are all admittedly amusing.  The film is also refreshingly un-cynical, unlike so many animated films these days that seem to exist simply to see how many pop culture references and satirical gags they can cram into each frame.  “Frozen” has more in common with “classic” Disney fairytales and that’s a good thing.  However, had I not already been hearing differently, I would warn that despite its charms, there simply isn’t much in “Frozen” to keep adults engaged – nothing they haven’t seen before and no surprises where the plot and story are concerned.  I’m not sure what it is I’m apparently missing, but I stand by that critique.

But I know many, including my four-year-old, will beg to differ.

2 ½ Stars (Out of 4)

OLDBOY (2013)

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By R. David

Published November 26th, 2013

Full Disclosure:  I had not seen Park Chan-wook’s 2003 cult classic, “Oldboy”, before experiencing Spike Lee’s new take on the film.  I’d always heard good things and intended to check it out, but for one reason or another, the original had always alluded me.  In the interest of being an informed viewer and reviewer, I planned to catch up with Chan-wook’s original prior to viewing Lee’s remake, but then I thought better of my intentions.  Why not, for once, go in to a remake with no prior knowledge of the film it is based on – its plot, characters, its twists; no matter how reworked (or in many cases, not) the remake may be?  Imagine that – viewing a remake with nothing for it to live up to, no standard to meet – just evaluating it on its own terms  (I have since seen Chan-wok’s film, but that is another review).

I’m not sure how the more die-hard “Oldboy” fans will respond to Lee’s take (I’m assuming not all that favorably, as is generally the case when it comes to remakes – especially to cult films), and I have no idea how many liberties Lee took (or didn’t take) in recasting Chan-wook’s story and characters for a new setting and decade.  I did come across quite a bit of negative press regarding the film prior to its opening, however.  This mostly came from underwhelmed critics and film bloggers who questioned the film’s quality based on its rather quiet and unceremonious release; as well as rumblings that both director Lee and star Josh Brolin were less than thrilled with their film’s finished product (both have blamed studio interference for this, claiming Lee was forced to cut down a supposed three-hour and far more contemplative film into something shorter and more accessible for mass appeal). 

I tried not to let all this relative bad press spoil my opinion of a film I hadn’t yet seen to judge for myself.  The truth is though, even without any knowledge of post-production tinkering, Lee’s “Oldboy” has pretty obviously been cut to ribbons and the pieces have been reassembled like a puzzle with awkward edges.  Many scenes don’t quite fit together.  Many sequences that warrant a generous amount of screen time to build and develop are often rushed through using obvious patchwork editing tricks. There are jarring transitions and obvious moments where exposition was added to tell us more bluntly what might have otherwise been shown far more artistically. 

Nowhere are these sins more obvious than in “Oldboy’s” first half.  The year is 1993.  Brolin is Joe Doucett, a sleazy, alcoholic and divorced advertising executive.  He has just lost a major client, and so too probably his job.  He goes on a bender, passes out in the street and awakens the next morning in a motel room where he is held hostage for the next 20 years; until one day he is just as mysteriously set free.  Joe spends the rest of the film on a mission to discover who kidnapped and held him captive for two decades, and why.  

Of course, “Oldboy’s” second half – devoted to peeling away the layers of its mind-bending plot and watching Joe exact his revenge – will by design contain the more viscerally satisfying elements of the film (Chan-wook’s original is famous for – among other things – a lengthy, single-take sequence in which the protagonist fends off a hallway full of bad guys with just his fancy footwork and a hammer; a scene Lee recreates and actually extends here).  But the first half – with Joe confined to his tight quarters, having no explanation of how he got there, why he is there, or who put him there – should form the emotional foundation of the film.  Instead “Oldboy” feels strangely amateurish in its early scenes (both in Brolin’s hammy performance and in Lee’s uninspired direction), everything about how pathetic Joe is feels like one big character cliché and, perhaps most disappointing of all, Joe’s imprisonment in his eerily dank and opaque motel hell is rushed through to the extent that the audience never gets the sense that the character has been there for 20 days, much less 20 years. 

This is most likely where Lee was forced to reign in his running time in order to push the audience more quickly to “Oldboy’s” crowd-pleasing action sequences and revenge drama.  But the heavy editing in this pivotal first half feels obvious, awkward and robs the film of necessary forward momentum where emotional investment on the part of the audience is concerned.  As this version is cut, Lee simply rushes through Joe’s imprisonment, rendering it almost perfunctory to the story.  Lee supplies plenty of images to convey the passage of time (Joe is allowed a single-channel TV on which he witnesses major world events of the past two decades like presidential elections and 9/11, as well as a true-crime mystery series that conveniently revisits Joe’s disappearance, informing him his wife was murdered, he is the main suspect and letting him glimpse what has become of his orphaned daughter) but Lee never spends (or wasn’t allowed to spend) enough time analyzing Joe’s experience and the toll it is tacking on him.  And the brief moments where Lee does shoot for sympathetic understanding of the character (like a suggested bond with a mouse) are too brief and lack the necessary weight to register as anything more than gimmicky tropes.

Once Joe is freed however, “Oldboy” feels much more surefooted.  Lee handles the mystery-solving aspects of the story well, dolling out elaborate and cleverly staged action sequences and plot reveals with deft precision.  Brolin finally finds the proper gear for his character too, churning out an intense performance much more in line with what we know he is capable of than in some of his clumsy early scenes here.  “Oldboy” also introduces several other principal players:  Elizabeth Olsen as a troubled EMT who is drawn to Joe and sympathetic to his circumstances, Michael Imperioli as Joe’s childhood pal, Samuel L. Jackson in full deliciously, sadistically evil mode (wearing a blonde Mohawk no less), and “District 9’s” Sharlto Copley as an eccentric and flamboyant heavy who has a score to settle with Joe.  “Oldboy’s” entire cast gives unique and interesting performances (Olsen’s nude scene doesn’t hurt either; though the film will ultimately make you feel disgusted for thinking that…).

“Oldboy” does have a major twist up its sleeve; memorable for its deeply disturbing nature and alarming ramifications for the characters (even if it doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny).  It’s a doozy and sends the audience home feeling just as sucker-punched as Joe.  But the film also leaves us feeling that seeing Lee’s intended cut and complete vision might be necessary for the movie to fully work and truly resonate.  Even after watching “Oldboy” I felt like I’d still only seen the trailer and had yet to experience the entire film Lee intended.  That is certainly a major criticism for any film.  However, anytime you leave a movie wishing you could see more of it, something must have been done right.

3 Stars (out of 4)