Films to start the snow season

A cornucopia of films on the way



Like football games and out-of-town guests for Thanksgiving, the movies just keep coming. A half-dozen open today, with two more at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' venues on Friday.

"Philomena" returns from the Three Rivers Film Festival for a regular run, with "Frozen," "Black Nativity," "The Book Thief," "Oldboy" and "Homefront" also arriving. What follows is a capsule look at the ones screened in Pittsburgh, with a "Homefront" review on Page D-3.

'Frozen' 3.5stars

With her off-the-shoulder icy blue gown and braided blond hair, Elsa is a far cry from the red-haired rebel in 2012's "Brave." That was Pixar, this is Walt Disney Animation Studios and more along the lines of "Tangled."

But "Frozen" features not one but two princesses and is reminiscent of "The Little Mermaid" thanks to songs performed by Idina Menzel (a Tony winner as Elphaba in "Wicked") and Kristen Bell. The heroines are spunky and motivated, in different ways, by sisterly love although it's snowman Olaf with the voice of Carnegie Mellon University grad Josh Gad who provides comic, scene-stealing relief.

Very loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," the animated movie opens with young Elsa (Ms. Menzel) turning the inside of the girls' palatial home into a winter wonderland. She has the magical ability to create snow and ice, and the pair have a grand, giddy time building a snowman and sledding inside until Anna (Ms. Bell) is hurt and Elsa frozen with guilt.

Anna recovers but Elsa retreats rather than risk hurting her or anyone else. Elsa adheres to their father's advice to "Conceal it, don't feel it" until she is forced into the spotlight for her coronation and unwittingly unleashes a torrent of ice and snow on the Norwegian-style kingdom. One guest brands her a monster.

After Elsa flees, Anna joins forces with a mountain man, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and his reindeer in an effort to track and find her. The future of the kingdom and Anna's whirlwind courtship with a visiting prince (Santino Fontana), as well as the young women's sadly diminished and fractured family and their very lives are at stake.

The standout songs include "For the First Time in Forever" performed by the leading ladies, "Love Is an Open Door" by Ms. Bell and Mr. Fontana, and "Let It Go" by the "Wicked" star and, later, Demi Lovato.

Mr. Fontana is no stranger to warbling royals; he's been the prince in "Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella" musical revival on Broadway since March. He lost the Tony for lead actor in a musical to Pittsburgh's Billy Porter from "Kinky Boots."

"Frozen," directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, doesn't rise to the level of a "Beauty and the Beast" but boasts a fresh backdrop, sense of adventure, bursts of humor, a twist that produced gasps at a preview and sisters who ultimately want the best for each other rather than the ability to squeeze into a glass slipper.

Rated PG for some action and mild rude humor.

'Philomena' 3.5stars

In a movie inspired by true events, Judi Dench plays the title character, a woman who gave birth to a son out of wedlock in 1952 at a Catholic convent in Ireland. While she toiled seven days a week in the laundry there to repay the nuns for taking her in, she spent an hour a day with her precious boy -- until he unexpectedly was bundled into a car with strangers who adopted him in 1955.

After decades wondering what happened to her Anthony, she joins forces with a cynical journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), in an effort to locate him. Philomena has visions that he is homeless and unloved; she just wants to know he's OK.

Their search doesn't go as she -- or he -- imagined and it tests Philomena's faith, fortitude and ability to forgive.

The real-life nature of the story pairing a retired nurse who has a fondness for romance novels with the onetime communications director for the British government is just half of the equation. Allowing those roles to be filled by Ms. Dench, replacing the steely resolve of "M" from James Bond with a mother's enduring love and the ability to natter on with anyone, and Mr. Coogan, as the impatient, angry but ultimately understanding reporter, is the other half.

"Philomena" doesn't end as we expect, either, and that is also part of its power.

PG-13 on appeal for some strong language, thematic elements and sexual references.

'Black Nativity' 2.5stars

Every couple of years, the Post-Gazette runs a stage review with a headline such as, " 'Nativity' a fresh take on a favorite." Writer-director Kasi Lemmons trumps them by reimagining Langston Hughes' "Black Nativity: A Gospel Song Play" in a modern world of single mothers, foreclosures, alienated families and prayers for reconciliation.

The original, which debuted on Broadway in December 1961, celebrates the Nativity in scripture, verse, music and joyous dance. Ms. Lemmons creates a teenage boy named Langston (Jacob Latimore) sent by his single mother (Jennifer Hudson) to estranged relatives in Harlem when the pair face eviction from their Baltimore home at Christmas.

"You don't know a thing about us, do you?" Langston challenges his preacher-grandfather (Forest Whitaker) and gracious grandmother (Angela Bassett). Langston tries to learn what happened to part the family like the Red Sea, even as he devises an ill-advised scheme to assist his mom.

"Black Nativity" is an inspirational hybrid of musical and drama, with characters who periodically burst into song on the bus or street. It feels very theatrical, sometimes artificially so, and allows past and present to blend in an odd church-fueled dreamscape.

The singing, especially on the part of the Oscar-winning Ms. Hudson, is soulful and first rate, 16-year-old Jacob proves he's fiercely talented and the cast also includes Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige and Vondie Curtis Hall. But the story turns on far too many coincidences, confessions and improbable reunions.

It's often impossible for a movie to stir the emotions the way a live performance does. That was the case with the 2012 musical "Les Miserables" and it is true here, no matter the good intentions or skill.

PG for thematic material, language and a menacing situation.

'The Book Thief' 2.5stars

Author Markus Zusak says "The Book Thief" is about finding beauty in the ugliest of circumstances. That could explain why the World War II-era movie seems sanitized and also, with its 580-page source material squeezed into a 131-minute movie, abridged.

It is, after all, a tale narrated by Death and focusing on a girl who learns to read with "The Gravedigger's Handbook," which she snatched from the snowy ground at her younger brother's funeral. They were headed to the home of foster parents in 1938 Germany and only Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) makes it, taken in by a kindhearted new Papa (Geoffrey Rush) and a no-nonsense, critical Mama (Emily Watson).

Liesel eventually is joined by another addition to the household but one who must remain a secret, lest the safety and lives of the family are jeopardized. He is a young Jewish refugee, Max (Ben Schnetzer), and when he is hidden away in the frigid, windowless basement, he relies on Liesel to describe the weather outside and to bring life inside.

Illiterate when she first arrived, Liesel is besotted by words and books -- willing to risk all to pluck one from the edge of the public burning in the town square or to "borrow" leather-bound novels from a private library. She can spin inventive tales in an air raid shelter but she cannot keep World War II and Hitler at bay from her family or best friend Rudy, a blue-eyed blond who idolizes Olympic champion Jesse Owens, or neighbors ordered to war or hauled away for being a suspected Jew.

Death (the voice of British actor Roger Allam) will come calling again before the story is finished, making this the saddest of the Thanksgiving Eve movies, even with its PG-13 rating. Young Nelisse, whose character witnessed the aftermath of her teacher's hanging in "Monsieur Lazhar" and who looks a bit like a young Emma Roberts, makes Liesel a spirited, perceptive girl and she holds her own against Mr. Rush and Ms. Watson.

The story cries out for missing details, though, from more information about Max to what happened before the phrase "Two years later" flashes on screen. The audience is handled with kid gloves, so when the punch to the gut comes -- and it comes -- it doesn't sting as much as it could. And should, no matter how plummy Death sounds.

PG-13 for some violence and intense depiction of thematic material.

'Oldboy' 2stars

The Korean revenge thriller of the same name, which opened in Pittsburgh in April 2005, was brilliantly diabolical and horribly repellent.

So why remake it? The original, a Cannes Film Festival winner based on an eight-volume Japanese manga, grossed almost $15 million worldwide but just $707,000 in North America and -- heaven forfend -- had English subtitles, which is a major turnoff for many moviegoers.

Spike Lee directs the new version starring Josh Brolin as an alcoholic advertising executive, womanizer and bitterly divorced father of a 3-year-old who is kidnapped and imprisoned in a windowless room for 20 years. After numbing himself with vodka, which conveniently comes on his food tray slid through a small trap in the metal door, and unsuccessfully trying to kill himself, he writes letters to his daughter, exercises to the TV and schemes to escape.

When he is finally freed, he embarks on a mission to find out who hatched this torturous scheme -- and why -- and to try to reunite with his child. Factoring into his old and new worlds are characters played by Michael Imperioli, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson and Sharlto Copley.

"Oldboy" is still a hard R with violence, sexuality, nudity and societal taboos but it dramatizes actions that are so unrelentingly unpleasant that it's impossible to recommend or (obviously) enjoy, despite the most intense and accomplished performance of Mr. Brolin's career. The thrills and the thrill are gone.

R for strong brutal violence, disturbing images, some graphic sexuality and nudity, and language.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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