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Out in Theaters: ‘MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS’

You can heave a sigh of relief everyone, Johnny Depp doesn’t make it far in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express.  An adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, Murder quickly dispenses with the weaselly superstar, here playing a slimy criminal who ends up a pin cushion the very night the titular Orient Express departs. The attention then turns to the patrons of a first-class coach traversing the snowy countryside, each of whom may have reason to want Johnny Depp dead. Read More

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Out in Theaters: PIXELS

Adam Sandler has been candid about his lack of effort in projects of late. Last year on Jimmy Kimmel Live, he admitted that he chooses projects based primarily on location. Meaning, he takes his paycheck and his vacation and all he’s gotta do is tug on the lever that makes the Happy Madison assembly line run. A nerd joke here, a woman joke there. A dash of silly voices. Fat man slamming into something. Voilà! You’ve got yourself a Sandler movie. Read More

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Sundance Review: WISH I WAS HERE

“Wish I Was Here”
Directed by Zach Braff
Starring Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Ashley Greene, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon
114 Mins

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Great music can’t bandaid uber depressing bummertown that sees Mandy Patkinson slowly dying, a breadwinning wife privy to gross sexual harassment at work, and an out-of-work/failed actor in director/writer/star Zach Braff. With virtually ever b-plot revolving around a different cause for concern, Wish I Was Here is occasionally profound but always deathly dour.

Even Braff’s movie children are saturated with their own “quirky” issues. Daughter Grace (Joey King) is borderline addicted to her Jewish faith, a strange and slightly off-putting trait to see in a young girl circa 2014, while son Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) rocks a bit of an apathy problem – a generational malaise that reveals Braff’s sweeping pessimism for future generations. Tucker naps in class, monkeying around under the hot breath of Jewish academia, and generally seems disinterested in all. But he’s 10 or something so I guess we’re supposed to cut him, and by extension Braff, a break when his arc never goes anywhere.

For how much of a milk farm Wish I Was Here turns into, the film starts on promising ground with a great opening bit that’s unorthodox, meta, and entirely intriguing. We’re immediately invested and he smartly slips into some snarky comedy that gets the laughs rolling fast and loose. Without provocation, the film sputters and nosedives when it drops the c-bomb on us. Cancer. Another fucking movie about cancer.

And though many will say that calling this a movie about cancer is reductive – that it’s a movie about confronting your fears, particularly the fear of losing the ones you love or the fear of giving up on your dreams – everything in this movie is a cancer. Aidan’s faltering career is a cancer. Sarah’s cubicle co-inhibitor is a cancer. The cancer eating away at Saul (and yes, Patkinson is named Saul) is a cancer. So even if you don’t consider this a “cancer movie,” cancer is the only catalytic backbone driving the film forward.

The chief issue is, when you already have cancer rolling around bringing everything down, there’s just no need for all this other glumness. If the center of the film is dark and dreary, you need to lighten things up around the edges. Even the moments of levity are stained with Braff’s strangely caustic musings – Scrubs alum Donal Faison is slipped in for a quick scene where Aidan passes his daughter off as dying of cancer so he can test drive a cool car. My jaw dropped. More cancer? How original. There’s nothing funny here. It’s just down for the sake of being down.

Braff wrote the script over the course of a year, collaborating with brother Adam Braff. Once they wrapped up the script, there was little to no interest from the studios. So to finance this passion project of theirs, Braff and Braff notoroiously went to Kickstarter where they would raise 3.1 million dollars, a million over their goal. And while this Kickstarter phenomenon will surely go down in history as further changing the antiquated ways of studio control and proving the efficacy of crowd sourcing, that’s likely all that Wish I Was Here will be remembered for.

Ultimately mawkish and bittersweet, Wish You Were Here is second-rate meditation on phoenix cycle that’s virtually guaranteed to drag you by the heels into a depressive state.

C-

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Out in Theaters: FROZEN

“Frozen”
Directed by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Starring Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Ciarán Hinds, Chris Williams, Stephen J. Anderson

Animation, Adventure, Comedy
108 Mins
PG

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Although still lacking the gilded touch that made the likes of Aladdin, Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast such timeless classics, Frozen is a rock solid addition to the post-hand-drawn Disney musical stable and is the best animated feature of the year by a good margin.

Made up of a relatively unknown vocal talent, Frozen values story and song more than an all-star cast and kitschy pop culture jokes, making it an experience that’ll warm the most curmudgeonly of hearts and a film rich with beautifully-realized animation that keeps the wow factor buzzing for children and adults alike.

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The new roster of tunes sound inspired by an alluring amalgamation of Inuit folk songs and bubbly fad-pop songs the likes of Katy Perry. And while some songs are a little too bright for the taste of a self-respecting mid-twenties male, each has a narrative purpose accompanying its infectious melodic tendencies that all blend perfectly into the fabric of the story.

Eight new songs from Kristen Anderson-Lopez (In Transit, Winnie the Pooh) and Tony Award winner Robert Lopez (“The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q”) are sure to inspire a whole new generation set to commit these catchy songs to memory. The best of which is the opening, near teary-eyed, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and the witty anthem courtesy of reanimated snowman Olaf (Josh Gad)- who is destined to be a favorite for all – in the openly hysterical “In Summer.”

Listening to these tunes, it’s clear why A-list celebrities have been sidelined for more undecided stars – they can all sing…and they can sing well. Unlike earlier Disney musical endeavors, no voice performer is swapped out for a sound-a-like. Keeping this narrative bridge consistent allows character to enliven their songs with the necessary emotional weight or comic vibrancy needed for the scene. But will they stand the test of time to join the ranks of “Tale as Old as Time,” “Circle of Life,” or “A Whole New World”? Probably not.
 
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Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” a non-Grimm fairy tale from 1845 that sees evil trolls, amnesiac kisses, and the Devil himself, Frozen pursues the sugarcoated stylings we’ve come to expect of Disney that champions heart over heinousness and works all the better for it.

In the royal town of Arendelle, we meet a newly crafted version of Andersen’s Snow Queen in Elsa (Idina Menzel), a withdrawn but hopeful young girl with magical powers of icy consequence. Quartered out of site after a childhood accident that nearly saw the death of her fearless younger sister, and this story’s other central heroine, Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa’s loving but misguided parents instill in her a mantra the close cousin of Gandalf’s “Keep it secret, keep it safe.” But throbbing beneath Elsa’s poised veneer is an unflinching desire to break free of the taut regulations that years of secrecy have instilled in her.

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Since we all know the most perilous job in the Disney kingdom is parenthood, it’s no surprise that the young princesses’ parents are lost in a storm at sea, leaving Elsa to take up the mantle of Queen when she reaches the ripe age of womanhood. Years later, on her coronation day, Elsa’s buried abilities are shaken loose by an overeager Anna whose heart is newly set on marrying prince Hans (Santino Fontana), whom she met just hours earlier. Unhinged by a sense of crumbling familial guardianship, Elsa unwittingly lets loose years of repressed icy powers to cover her island community in a blanket of eternal winter. Finally, the town’s people see her for what she really is – a sorceress lacking the most basic semblance of control.  

Deemed a monster by the unscrupulous tradesmen passing through Arendelle on a business trip, fatally cute, and morbidly naive, Anna employs the help of ice salesman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer BFF Sven to locate her escaped sister and return the city to prosperity before it’s too late. The normative fairy tale lessons of “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “Be true to yourself” are pounded home but the dichotomy of two princesses each struggling with their own separate but equal identity crises is a new chapter in the Disney princess manual.

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After absolutely dominating the 90s with some of the best animated features, Disney suffered a nosedive in quality that saw the likes of Treasure Planet, Bolt, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and Meet the Robinsons flail and fall into obscurity, a side effect of their unwillingness to change with the ebb of culture. Halting their dominant reign (that unarguably stopped after 1998’s Mulan), newcomers Pixar started their own golden age which took the wind out of Disney’s sails. Bookending the period of Disney’s supremacy and the coming of Pixar’s rising star, Disney faded from the spotlight.

But with their recent string of successes, made up of 2010’s Tangled, last year’s Wreck it Ralph and now Frozen, it seems that Disney is finally back on top as the animation studio to beat. Although the hand-drawn days of animation have come to a close, the same immaculately rendered, noticeably loving detail is put into each and every breathtaking sequence in Frozen. This not only has resulted in an animated feature worthy of Disney’s legacy but it’s essentially is assured Frozen a win at this year’s Oscar ceremonies.

Adapting to a new generation of tech-savvy, open-minded youngsters, the House of Mouse also gives some much-needed wiggle room for Frozen to step away from Disney’s legacy of antiquated sexual identities, chartering a new and exciting course for post-feminist Disney princesses. Our main heroine may still be a landlocked princess but a smooch from a prince may not be the ultimate life bandaid we’ve seen in a thousand children’s tales before. Rather, true love is found in self-discovery, or simply etched in the fiber of the nuclear family. This is a new brand of lesson in a new social climate, one where the tenants of yesteryear cease to dictate the values of tomorrow.

B+

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