We at Film Geek Central know your time is precious this time of year. With family coming to town, turkeys to brine and shopping to tackle, who has the time to surf the Internet looking for quality entertainment at the local cineplex? That’s why, on the rare occasion we get so many huge movies released in one week, I like to write up a “journal-style” post that incorporates everything you may be curious enough to inquire about. And this week is surely no exception. There are no less than SIX brand new films opening for the Thanksgiving holiday, and I have a rundown of each and every one of them below. So buckle up, swallow that pie and get the biggest, sugariest soda you can to battle that tryptophan coma because we have lots to talk about, don’t we, fellow film geeks?
FROZEN (PG) — First up is Disney’s all-new computer-animated musical/comedy, “Frozen,” which has the distinction of being the first fully animated musical since “Tangled” as well as being the first movie in history whose quality is nearly derailed by a snowman. Let me explain.
“Frozen” is a fairy tale about two princesses, Anna (voice of Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), sisters who are unable to bond because Elsa is cursed with a King Midas-like ability to turn everything she touches into ice. When Elsa’s powers are revealed to the townspeople after she accidentally turns their kingdom into an ice palace, she retreats to the mountains, which sends Anna and an ice block salesman named Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) on an epic journey to retrieve her in hopes of saving the land.
Naturally, this being a Disney comedy, there are wacky sidekick characters aplenty, including Kristoff’s faithful reindeer and a comic relief snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), who is amusing but sticks out in this movie like a penguin at the North Pole. There is simply no need for Olaf when the movie is already crammed with enough music and fast-moving adventure to keep the wee ones interested for the duration. The animation is top-notch, the characterizations are distinct and the songs are easily the Disney company’s best since “The Lion King.”
The movie is slightly hindered by a third act that invents an obligatory villain the movie made it ⅔ of the way without needing to begin with, but, for the most part, “Frozen” is fairly easy to warm up to. Even better, it’s preceded by an inventive Mickey Mouse short that expertly blends the Mickey of the 1930s with the technology of today. ★★½ out of ★★★★
HOMEFRONT (R) — Do you like Jason Statham? That’s really all you need to ask yourself if you’re planning on checking out his newest beat-’em-up, which is based on a series of novels by Chuck Logan and features a script by Sylvester Stallone.
The word on the street is that Stallone was supposed to play the lead at some point in the production, but seceded the role to his “Expendables” counterpart instead. The technique worked out, primarily because Stallone just wouldn’t be believable as a former DEA agent-turned-stay-at-home-dad, thwarted into action when malevolent meth dealers start making life difficult for him and his daughter.
“Homefront” is not a movie of subtlety or nuance. In fact, the movie more or less delivers on expectations rather than surprising you with its inventiveness. See that guy picking on Statham at the gas pumps? Pretty sure his head is going through that driver’s side window. You think it’s cool to break into Statham’s house and steal his daughter’s favorite stuffed animal? I’m almost positive your face is going to resemble Stove Top stuffing by the time he’s done with you.
In the midst of all of this nonsense is a fairly decent supporting cast, almost all of whom are relishing in the opportunity to play a dingy group of unkempt backwater hicks who don’t take kindly to those who try to put an end to their makeshift meth labs. Kate Bosworth, Winona Ryder and James Franco are all dirtied up quite nicely, and they do a commendable job with their southern-fried performances.
Look, “Homefront” isn’t exactly high art, but it’s enjoyable for what it is. Besides, anyone looking for anything other than entertaining bone-crunching action in a Jason Statham movie probably deserves to be smacked upside the head just the same. ★★½ (out of ★★★★)
BLACK NATIVITY (PG) — Some movie musicals integrate their musical numbers so expertly into the narrative that you totally believe the characters would bust out into song in the middle of a conversation. Other movies, like “Black Nativity,” sandwich their songs in so awkwardly that it’s like finding a shard of glass in your chocolate chip cookie.
“Black Nativity” is based on a play by the great Langston Hughes, and the movie certainly feels it. Not just because the characters break into song right in the middle of busy New York intersections, but because the characters feel so stagey and rehearsed. “Black Nativity” starts with Jennifer Hudson being evicted from her Baltimore apartment, which forces her to send her teenage son Langston (Jacob Latimore) to live with the grandparents he never met, and it culminates in a church where hundreds of people are forced to bear witness to a family reconciliation that has absolutely nothing to do with any one of them.
The movie does contain a couple of decent performances, namely Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, both reliably terrific as the grandparents, and Tyrese Gibson has a touching moment near the end that allows him to sully up his prototypical bad-guy persona with a scene that allows his heart to grow three sizes bigger than usual. However, Hudson and Latimore are embarrassingly mannered, and the movie goes even further off a cliff in a near-interminable dream sequence in which rappers Nas and Mary J. Blige indulge in a couple of tedious interludes that aim to elevate the musical portion of the film but only serve to make it feel longer than it is. ★★ (out of ★★★★)
NEBRASKA (R) — It only took 41 years, but Bruce Dern finally has a role he can sink his teeth into with “Nebraska.” Dern has been getting a lot of praise from supporters of the film, including a Best Actor nod from the 2013 Cannes Film commission. And you thought Dern killing John Wayne in “The Cowboys” would kill his career for good.
In Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” Dern is a near-senile coot named Woody Grant, who foolishly believes that the mock sweepstakes notice he received in the mail has branded him the winner of a $1 million jackpot. Naturally, those around him aren’t as naive as poor Woody, so he decides to walk from Billings, Mont., to Lincoln, Nebr., to claim his winnings. Viewing the occasion as an opportunity to spend some quality time with his old man, Woody’s son David (Will Forte) steps in and the two of them hit the road.
Payne is no stranger to movies about road trips. Prior to “Nebraska,” he directed “Sideways” and “About Schmidt,” two other life-affirming comedies with sad-sacks in the principal role. But this time I think Payne went a little soft on the material. “Nebraska” was irritatingly filmed in black and white, a trick self-indulgent film students usually employ when they want to appear “edgy” (“Clerks” anyone?). Some of the side trips are drawn-out to the point of tedium. The supporting cast overindulges in the opportunity to play up the stereotypes in their cartoonishly Midwestern characters. Plus, the nonstop references to Woody’s alcohol dependence begin to get old about 20 minutes into the movie.
Still, June Squibb nearly steals the show as Woody’s battle-ax wife, Bob Nelson’s script offers a few touching moments of clarity among the characters, and, when the movie does get a little gooey near the end, at least it’s an authentic touch of goo. ★★½ (out of ★★★★)
The new comedy/drama from Stephen Frears (“High Fidelity,” “The Queen”), “Philomena” is a dainty little movie with a serious undercurrent of despair. Philomena Lee (Dench) was a teenager living in an Irish convent when she became pregnant in a one-night stand. As a toddler, the boy was sold out from under her to America, leading Philomena with the impression that she would never see her son again. Cut to 50 years later, where a world-weary journalist (Steve Coogan), who also happens to be atheist, hears of her plight and decides to write a human interest story on her travails. The two of them travel to America to seek out the son, uncovering one revelation after another in their quest for the truth.
“Philomena” is a remarkably charming film for a movie that would not be mislabled as a weepie. Both Dench and Coogan are reliably good as these two polar opposites forced into close captivity. The script (co-written by Coogan and Jeff Pope) is simultaneously surprising and droll. Dench is constantly following up standard old-lady drivel with dialogue that makes you wonder if this lady is as old as we think she is (her twinkly-eyed rundown of “Big Momma’s House” is particularly adorable).
Coming in the midst of a very busy holiday season, it’s plausible the delightful “Philomena” could get swallowed up by the more high-profile flicks. But I sure hope not. Put this one high on your list. You’ll be happy you did. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
OLDBOY (R) — So you want to know if Spike Lee’s remake of Chan-wook Park’s South Korean thriller from 2005 is any good? Join the club. Perhaps due in no small part to the backhanded comments lead star Josh Brolin made about this updated version, the movie wasn’t screened in advance for us critics. Now, usually I take unscreened movies as an indication that the movie in question is a suckbomb of the highest order, but even Lee’s worst films have been prescreened for the press and he remains in business nevertheless.
Anyway, you’ll just have to keep checking back to find out if Lee’s take on “Oldboy” is better than the studio is giving it credit for. The original film, which Film Geek Central’s own Austin Kennedy considers the #1 movie of 2005, didn’t necessarily need this remake, but I’m still curious to see what Lee has accomplished with an English-speaking cast (besides Brolin, the movie also features Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Olsen and Sharlto Copely) and his always-distinctive vision. In the meantime, you’re on your own.