Disney delivers a Frozen holiday treat

by Mark Burger

Disney delivers a Frozen holiday treat

In a year (over)stuffed with animated features, including two surprising disappointments from Disney — Monsters University and Planes — the studio rebounds nicely with Frozen, a magical musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

Naturally, there have been some alterations to the story — the inclusion of the comic-relief snowman Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad) and the rascally reindeer Sven — but directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee allow the story’s original elements to shine through, accentuated by exquisite animation. (In this case, the 3-D is worth it.)

Frozen boasts some novelty in that the story is driven by female characters. Elsa (voiced by Idina Menzel) is a princess incapable of controlling her magical ability to freeze objects, and when she inadvertently injures her younger sister Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell), she sequesters herself in her room alone, all but severing ties with her adoring sibling.

Years later, Elsa flees her coronation ball, leaving the kingdom chilled in her wake. Anna, seeking both rapprochement with her sister and a way to thaw the kingdom, embarks on an adventurous journey through a winter wonderland to find her.

Everything is bound to work itself out, of course — happy endings are de rigueur in the Disney universe — but not before some unexpected complications and a couple of surprise plot twists. This is fairy-tale Disney at its best: Charming, cheerful, playful and filled with visual splendor. It’s also very much a musical, with both Menzel and Bell given ample opportunity to belt out several numbers, both separately and together.

All told, Frozen is a happy experience for young and old alike. Uncle Walt would have approved.

Sincerity carries the day in Black Nativity

A fine cast and the noblest intentions are the heart of Black Nativity, a contemporary adaptation and (re) interpretation of Langston Hughes’ popular stage musical from actress-turned-filmmaker Kasi Lemmons.

This modern-day parable of forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption is occasionally quite uplifting, but its musical numbers aren’t particularly memorable and are sometimes awkwardly incorporated into the dramatic narrative. In essence, it’s a soap opera with songs.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, although some humor would have been welcome — and, if handled correctly, would not have interfered with the intent but, perhaps, enhanced it. Yet even when Black Nativity doesn’t soar, there are many points of interest along the way.

Young Jacob Latimore plays the film’s protagonist, Langston (a bit obvious but appropriate), a surly teenager shipped off to New York to stay with the grandparents he’s never met by his financially-strapped single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson).

Said grandparents are the proud, pious Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and wife Aretha (Angela Bassett). Clearly, a long-standing enmity exists between Naima and her parents, which will eventually be discovered — and healed — by Langston after some impetuous decisions and soul-searching but before the end credits.

Whitaker, who doesn’t get to sing much, and Bassett, who should have sung more, can essentially do little wrong at this stage in their respective careers. Both firstrate actors, they effortlessly carry and hold scenes, both together and apart. It’s simply a pleasure (and a blessing, perhaps) to watch them work. They make it look easy, which can’t always be said of those around them.

Hudson, the “American Idol” Oscar winner, can certainly carry a tune, but seemed perennially overwhelmed in her dramatic scenes, especially those opposite her illustrious co-stars. Mary J. Blige, no slouch in the singing department herself, is aptly regal as Angel, but also could’ve had more to do. Tyrese Gibson does of his best work to date as a street hustler who takes Langston under his (damaged) wing, and Vondie Curtis-Hall (Lemmons’ off-screen husband and a fine actor/filmmaker in his own right) is a welcome presence as the neighborhood pawnbroker. Luke James, Grace Gibson, Rotimi and Nas round out a cast that brings conviction to the proceedings.

Jason Statham & James Franco wage a family feud in Homefront

In terms of mindless popcorn entertainment, Homefront earns its place at the top of the food chain. Unabashedly predictable and cheerfully shameless, it’s a bright B-movie that delivers the goods.

Adapted from Chuck Logan’s novel by no less than Sylvester Stallone — who knows a thing or two about mindless popcorn entertainment — and directed with sleek efficiency by Gary Fleder, Homefront stars Jason Statham as Phil Broker, an ex-Interpol and ex-DEA agent seeking a quiet life with his young daughter Maddy (Izabella Vidovic) in a sleepy town in Louisiana (the hub of tax-incentive filmmaking).

This being a Jason Statham film, quiet is not an option. The town may not have wi-fi, but it does have a pretty grade-school psychologist (Rachelle Lefevre), and it also has a resident meth kingpin in “Gator” Bodine (James Franco). Both catch Phil’s attention — although for different reasons. Before too long, Phil’s attention is entirely focused on Gator, and Gator’s on Phil. Bad blood is brewing between them, and when the feudin’, fightin’ and shootin’ commence — as inevitably they do — it’s executed with flair and augmented by some grubby locations that add to the Straw Dogs atmosphere.

Statham plays to his strengths as the man of action, but also shares warm scenes with newcomer Vidovic (a real find). There’s good work in stock roles from Omar Benson Miller, Marcus Hester, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Frank Grillo and Clancy Brown, the latter as a local lawman who’s not (quite) as useless as he appears.

Winona Ryder and Kate Bosworth are in full skank mode here, and appear to be enjoying it immensely. Ryder may seem seriously miscast as a slutty bikergang groupie but there’s a tangy thrill watching her tart it up and play trashy, while Bosworth twitches and cusses up a storm as Gator’s tweaked-out sister.

As for Franco, who basically walks away with the entire movie, he has a ball playing the devious dimwit heavy. A distaff cousin to his Spring Breakers character, Gator has consolidated his power by dominating and manipulating those dumber than he is (which would appear to be at least half the town), yet the actor conveys the sense of someone who realizes he’s facing his end, that it was inevitable, that it was all his fault, and that he deserves nothing less. !

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