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New films: Philomena, Frozen, Oldboy

Movie Review.511 - New films: Philomena, Frozen, Oldboy

Thanksgiving releases: Part 2

This is the second of three Thanksgiving release columns. The first covered “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Kill Your Darlings,” and “Delivery Man.” The third will focus on “Nebraska,” including interview highlights with lead actor Will Forte.

 

Philomena
Directed by Stephen Frears

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Philomena is philomenominal. Which is hardly surprising when you team the twice Oscar nominated director of “The Queen” (in which Helen Mirren won an Oscar for playing Queen Elizabeth II) and Judi Dench (who won an Oscar for playing the first Queen Elizabeth in “Shakespeare in Love”).

Steve Coogan co-wrote the screenplay and plays Martin Sixsmith, the journalist who wrote the source book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee.” (Which gives us a “Lee” in all three movies in today’s column.) After losing his previous job, Sixsmith is pitched a story about a woman looking for the son she gave up for adoption 50 years earlier. It’s not the type of story he’s looking for and initially passes, but circumstances draw him back in.

The story details a sad chapter in Irish history, during which unmarried, pregnant girls and young women were forced into convents and required to give up parental rights to their children, some of which were then adopted by wealthy families without the mothers’ permission or advance knowledge. As Sixsmith digs further, the story becomes more complicated and compelling and his own conflict of interest deepens – does the story and his future career take precedence over Philomena’s feelings and best interest?

Aside from the profoundly tragic source material, “Philomena” excels based on the performances of its two leads. Coogan is at his best in an understated but conflicted role as journalist Sixsmith, stepping into unfamiliar “human interest” territory and being uncertain about what he might find or feel there. And Dame Judi is remarkable as she inhabits the character of Philomena, an aging woman of simple means and deeply held beliefs who has carried the burden of this secret for five decades.

The film is also timely as it tackles the role of the Catholic Church in a less well known scandal. The book, which was published in 2009, caused an outpouring of stories of other separated mothers and children. The film is well worthy of your time and the best of the holiday releases.

 

Frozen
Directed by Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee

“Frozen” is a light and fairly simple animated story about two young princesses growing up in a small kingdom in what would now be Norway. For unknown and unexplained reasons Elsa, the older of the two, has the power to freeze things around her, including people and entire areas of the countryside. This causes her parents to segregate her after an accident in which she almost killed younger sister Anna. Meanwhile, Anna isn’t aware of why they’ve been separated and grows up bored and alone in the vast and largely vacant castle.

The story takes a turn on the day of Elsa’s coronation and, not surprisingly we get a handsome prince and an equally handsome non-royal dude thrown into the mix – along with the requisite highly expressive animal character (a reindeer) and an animated normally inanimate character (a snowman).

Early in the film, it launches into full-on musical mode – and does so quite well. This is helped by strong voices, most notably Idina Menzel (who was the original Broadway Elphaba in “Wicked”) as Anna. But as the film progresses, the musical aspect seems to diminish as the action picks up. In that sense it feels as though it morphs into a somewhat different film in mid-stream.

As with many such films aimed at kids, there’s at least one mean and cranky character and another that’s actually homicidal – breaking tradition somewhat in terms of the latter’s identity. But it seems that we’re onboard with death as a theme for young children as long as it’s animated attempted murder. The end result is decent enough fun and it will, presumably, rake in a ton of cash, timed as it is for the holidays.

 

Oldboy
Directed by Spike Lee

“Oldboy” is an interesting pick for a remake project by Spike Lee. Some foreign language films are remade for American audiences simply due to a lamentable widespread domestic reluctance to read subtitles. And for that reason we get sub-par remakes, such as last week’s “Delivery Man,” despite being based on the same director’s earlier French language “Starbuck.”

But in the case of “Oldboy,” the original is both highly regarded critically and has almost cult status among American fans of extremely violent Asian movies. In other words, it’s a tough act to follow and not one which was screaming out for a retread.

The basic plot is similar to the original – a man is mysteriously kidnapped and held captive for many years, without explanation, and learns along the way that his wife has been murdered and his young daughter adopted. Years of confinement result in a strong desire for both understanding and revenge, as well as plenty of opportunity for a long and steady workout regime.

The new film varies some of the story elements, in an odd assortment of ways including the exact timeline and exactly who does what and when, but the basic themes are the same. Some of these changes are welcome but overall the basic tone doesn’t translate especially well.

Josh Brolin, as the lead character, trains and becomes strong while incarcerated but suddenly becomes an amazing fighter despite no fight training – and his style is fast martial artistry rather than simple brute strength. It’s a fight style that is associated with Asian films of this type but one which ends up looking somewhat odd out of that specific genre – such as the signature fight scene from the first film that makes you want to yell at the fighters who seem to be hanging back and just swinging weapons menacingly rather than actually engaging their target. It also seems odd that henchmen in an American context aren’t carrying guns.

Something else changes when one watches a film spoken in one’s own language – the pronunciation and characterization becomes clearer and in this instance it isn’t helped that the villain comes across as a quasi-stereotype rather than as a uniquely tortured soul. This is a film that could do wonders for downloads of the original.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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