Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Reviews Part One

REVIEW:  All is Lost ***

Worthwhile, if a bit too solitary, tale of survival at sea. Robert Redford gives a sturdy (and nearly-wordless) performance in a physically demanding role. Some of the visuals are striking, such as when we see schools of fish under the life raft Redford uses. Nevertheless, there is an element of emotion missing until late in the film, when the situation has finally led to a realization of doomed fate closing in. Still, it is an interesting time spent with one man fighting against the odds in an uncontrollable environment.

REVIEW:  Frozen ****

After a fairly disappointing year for animation, compared to recent times, we have a real winner in "Frozen." Taken from Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale "The Snow Queen," it is centered on a pair of sisters torn apart when the elder sister Elsa (Idina Menzel) accidentally hurts the younger Anna (Kristen Bell) using her ice-manipulating magic ability while the two play.

Their parents are told by a wise wilderness troll that Elsa's powers must be kept under control, which leads to her nearly total isolation from everyone else for fear that her power would be destructive. Increasingly lonely and frustrated by these circumstances, made worse by the death of their parents, Anna sees an opportunity to try to make up for lost time when Elsa's coronation ceremony occurs.

Unfortunately, an argument over a young man's proposal sets off a chain of events, leading to Elsa fleeing to the mountains and leaving the kingdom under an icy eternal winter. Not one to give up Anna follows, determined to make things right. Along the way, she encounters a man named Kristof (Jonathan Groff), his sidekick reindeer Sven and a lovably goofy snowman called Olaf (Josh Gad). This delightful animated musical was directed by Chris Buck (1999's "Tarzan" and 2007's "Surf's Up") and Jennifer Lee (2012's "Wreck-It-Ralph"), with music by Christophe Beck and songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. Don't miss it!

REVIEW:  Still Mine ***½

Craig Morrison and his wife, Irene, have been married for 61 years. They live a comfortable life together, but Irene is increasingly ill from the onset of Alzheimer's Disease. After a series of events, Craig decides to build a new house on their 12-acre property that can accommodate his wife's needs. But there is a problem.

The local building authorities inform Morrison that he needs a permit to build on his own property. His initial reaction is incredulous, but he plays along and pays the $400 anyway. He continues to build. Before long, the regulators come back to tell him he is violating their code standards. He must submit blueprints for his plans. Again, he plays along, but doesn't stop creating his new home. There isn't time, the reasoning goes. His wife isn't getting better.

Eventually, Craig is brought into court for these violations. He has already pleaded with these people, showing them he has experience building, and even having the new place inspected. All to no avail. So now it is up to a court to send him to jail or allow him to keep the new home he has built.

James Cromwell, best known for his Oscar-nominated role as the kindly farmer in "Babe" (1995), gives an affecting performance as the aging husband trying to make sense of an awful situation. Genevieve Bujold also is lovely as his increasingly suffering wife. They both play their roles realistically, and without succumbing to the trap of sentimentalizing their circumstances.

The film, directed and written by Michael McGowan, reminds us that life doesn't necessarily get easier in old age, and that a true bond can remain strong through even the toughest trials. It is worth seeking out at your local cinema.
REVIEW:  Wadjda ****

Lovely film about one girl's gentle defiance of her country's traditional placement of women in society. Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) is a young school girl who longs for the seemingly simple joy of racing a bike with her male friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Algohani).

Her mother (Reem Abdullah), knowing how society will frown on Wadjda for riding a bike, refuses to buy it. So the independent-spirted 11-year-old girl decides to raise the money herself through means that make her school's headmistress suspicious. Then she discovers a Qur'an recital competition and determines to win the prize money to pay for the bike.  Meanwhile, Mother is distracted by the looming possibility that her husband will take on a second wife and does not realize the situation.

"Wadjda" tells its story gently, and brings forth the political issues in a straightforward manner that allows us to focus on the innocent quest for a moment of childhood joy forbidden by a society with many contradictions.

Included in those contradictions is the fact that a society that doesn't allow women to drive and bans movies has produced a female director, Haifaa Al Mansour, whose film is the first from Saudi Arabia ever submitted for consideration for the Academy Award Foreign Language category.  [UPDATE:  'Wadjda' did not make it to the final ballot for the Oscars, whose nominations were announced January 16, 2014]

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