Thanksgiving is one of if not the biggest moviegoing weekend of the year. Here are some brief thoughts on four of the movies that have just been released in the Twin Cities this week:
The reputation of poet Langston Hughes gets both revered and somewhat tarnished by this well-meaning but discursive holiday drama, which occasionally called to mind the pitch-perfect satirical stage dialogue from Strangers with Candy: “How are you going to keep your feet on the ground … when your head is always up in the clouds?” Teen R&B singer Jacob Latimore plays Langston, a surly Baltimore youth whose single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson, in fine voice and hazy characterization) sends him away to spend Christmas with his estranged grandparents in Harlem when the bank threatens to foreclose on Naima’s house. Langston’s moral turpitude is put to the test at every corner, not just by the temptations of easy money but, conversely, from his uptight grandparents, the Reverend Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett). Oh yeah, and it’s sort of a musical, half of which is presented as a fantasy sequence Langston dreams up while snoozing through his grandpa’s Christmas Eve sermon. The movie doesn’t want for uplift, the religious hard-sell, and a few inadvertently hysterical grace notes (I’m talking both about the cast’s penchant for copious melisma and also whatever cotton candy Mary J. Blige’s angel is supposed to have on top of her head), but it doesn’t really cohere enough to merit placement as a future Christmas classic.
Very much riding the upswing from Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, Disney’s latest may be their most successful resurrection of their early ’90s renaissance yet, for better and, in one or two ways, for worse. Bending over backwards to turn the villain of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen into a misunderstood Disney princess-in-waiting, Frozen utilizes the full cachet of the studio’s patented family entertainment artillery to enliven its duel-edged girl power fairy tale — gorgeously hourglass-figured beauties, toddler-pleasing anthropomorphic sidekicks (in this case, a very Muppety snowman), rescue missions, sneering villains, and two armfuls’ worth of new junior high choir audition material in that mock-Broadway style from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It’s a four-cylinder joy-giving machine with gorgeously varied depictions of wintery grandeur. Like all snowflakes, it melts in your hand, but not before offering its audience a glimpse at something childlike and wondrous.
Just awful. I admit that, as a director, Alexander Payne has been one of my own critical bêtes noir ever since About Schmidt, which, like the films that followed it — Sideways and The Descendants — tried to dance a thin line between empathy and contempt for its grotesque characters. (Previously, I loved the savagery of Citizen Ruth and especially Election, movies that were very much more mean-spirited than Payne’s more recent films, but were at least purer for it.) Nebraska, in which Will Forte’s good son indulges his doddering and senile father’s fantasy that his magazine subscription come-on scam actually represents a winning $1 million lottery ticket and drives him through the American heartland to retrieve the “prize,” is maybe the most infuriating of Payne’s entire filmography because, underneath the cheap hicksploitation punchlines and crowd-pleasing saltiness of June Squibb as Bruce Dern’s exasperated wife, it touches on themes and demographics sadly underrepresented in today’s movies. The movie only pays lip service to providing portraiture of Middle American mediocrity, the land every economic upturn seems to forget, and the resentful silent now-minority who reside therein. But Payne never misses an opportunity to sardonically linger on the drooling of, as per Lisa Simpson, “slack-jawed yokels.”
Like the page-turner romance novels Philomena herself reads and then retells to anyone who will listen, this movie is a simple potboiler spiked with the clockwork rhythms of a slasher movie. Philomena is the tale of an Irish woman who was forced to give up her illegitimate child by a shady convent of nuns profiting on Americans’ taste for o’er-the-pond orphans. Now in her dotage, she decides she wants to reunite with her long-lost son and recruits a recently-sacked journalist (who loathes “human interest” stories) to assist in her hunt. It could just be that the movie’s first revelation put me in mind of Psycho, but the way the audience I saw the film gasped in astonishment at each successive minute detail about Phil’s long lost son had me imagining their seats had been wired by William “The Tingler” Castle. I’m not going to deny that, as Philomena, Judi Dench is technically fun to watch, but she’s far too intelligent a performer for the role and can’t help herself from pronouncing it. Still, it has the compulsive watchability of one of those dreaded human interest pieces.