Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Frozen

frozen poster

Title: Frozen

Rating: PG

Cast: Kristen Bell (Anna), Idina Menzel (Elsa), Jonathan Groff (Kristoff), Josh Gad (Olaf), Santino Fontana (Hans)

Director: Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck

The Basics: Frozen, Disney’s latest animated feature, is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Sisters Anna and Elsa are separated from a young age after Elsa’s ability to magically create snow and ice put Anna’s safety in jeopardy. While Anna craves companionship and romance, Elsa’s powers and her fear of them being exposed make her crave solitude instead. After a disastrous Coronation Day for Elsa in which her powers are revealed, Anna goes in search of her sister to stop the eternal winter Elsa has wrought upon their kingdom. Along the way, Anna meets Olaf, a snowman who longs for summertime, and Kristoff, a young ice salesman who challenges her naïve beliefs about falling in love. Frozen has all the makings of a classic Disney film: great songs, stunning animation, a surprisingly strong sense of humor, and a heart worn firmly on its sleeve. But what makes this film special is the way it adds something new to the tradition of great Disney princess films. Frozen is a story about true love, but this true love is not the stuff of princes and princesses and love at first sight. Rather, it’s the love between sisters that drives this film. Frozen is an empowering film that celebrates all kinds of love—familial love, romantic love, and love for ourselves.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Frozen is the first Disney film to focus on two princesses, and both Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell carry this film equally with their unique vocal skills. Menzel’s voice is peerless, and she gives Elsa a power and edge unlike any other Disney princess. Her control over her voice perfectly suits Elsa’s journey through the film—from the quiet tension in her part of “For the First Time in Forever” through her complete unleashing of her power in “Let It Go.” No other actress could have given this character the kind of depth Menzel gives her. Elsa is unlike any other Disney princess who came before her, and it seems fitting that she was given life by a woman whose voice is unlike any other.

The same can be said for Anna—she’s certainly not your stereotypical, poised and perfect princess. She’s awkward, naïve, and overly eager for companionship at times, but she’s also fiercely loving, brave, and warm. Bell brings a vivacity to this princess that jumps off the screen, but she’s also able to communicate a very real vulnerability in her voice. Bell’s pure, gorgeous singing voice was a huge surprise to me.

Menzel and Bell have very different but equally beautiful voices, and listening to them sing—alone and especially together—was a feast for the ears to rival the best Broadway performances.

Scene Stealer: Olaf the snowman is a character who could have gone extremely wrong, but instead turned out to be one of the highlights of the film. A lot of credit for that should go to the fact that he was used just enough to be entertaining and consistently funny but not so much that he became obnoxious. Also, a lot of credit should go to Josh Gad for the way he’s able to make Olaf silly enough for kids to love him and sweet enough to feel important to the story beyond just comedic relief. (“Some people are worth melting for” was one of my favorite lines.) His big music number, “In Summer,” is a highlight of the film and a fantastic moment of musical comedy. Gad makes the silly and the smart facets of the number work perfectly, and I found myself surprisingly charmed by this addition to the list of great Disney sidekicks.

Bring the Tissues? Frozen worked my heartstrings with a dexterity usually reserved for Pixar movies. It hits you with a sucker punch of heartbreak at the start (“Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” somehow manages to be both a cute and devastating musical number.), and the rest of the film has moments of real emotion that sneak up on you with their power. The climax of the film put more than a few tears in my eyes, and I have to imagine I wasn’t the only one moved by the film’s message of love and acceptance.

Most Memorable Scene: Every Disney princess movie has a moment where the heroine sings about what she really wants and who she really is, and those are often my favorite moments in the film. “Let It Go” is another one of those moments, where Elsa embraces her power and vows to leave behind a lifetime of repression and fear of letting her true self be seen by the world. Sung with Menzel’s characteristic power, this song is sure to become an instant Disney classic. This is a love song a princess sings about herself, and it’s one of the best songs a Disney movie has featured in a long time.

The animation in this scene is just as incredible as the vocal talent on display. As the song builds, so does Elsa’s ice castle, and the combination of stunning visuals and inspiring music combine to make this scene a moment worthy of its place among others that defined their respective Disney films: Ariel singing as the waves crash behind her; Belle and Beast in the ballroom; and Rapunzel and Flynn Rider watching the lanterns.

Continue reading

Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Les Misérables

Les-Miserables-Still-les-miserables-2012-movie-32902250-1280-853

Title: Les Misérables

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier), Sacha Baron Choen (Thénardier)

Director: Tom Hooper

The Basics: An adaptation of the hit musical (which itself was an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel), Les Misérables tells the story of the people of France in the decades following the French Revolution. The story centers on Jean Valjean, a man who served 19 years as a prisoner for stealing a loaf of bread before starting a new life with a new identity after breaking parole. During the course of the film, Valjean finds himself the caretaker of a dying young woman’s daughter, Cosette, while always trying to stay one step ahead of Javert, a relentless officer of the law. As years pass, Cosette grows up and falls in love with the revolutionary, Marius, one of a group of impassioned young men who stage an uprising that is met with tragic consequences. While not a perfect adaptation, Hooper’s vision manages to actually improve upon the source play by making the big musical moments profoundly personal and all the more heartbreaking. Anchored by brilliant performances from both seasoned veterans and new faces, Les Misérables is an emotional tour de force.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Without a strong actor in the role of Valjean, no version of Les Misérables can survive. Thankfully, Hugh Jackman is more than up to the task. His singing is predictably strong, but what especially struck me throughout the film were his eyes. He manages to convey so much depth of emotion in the slightest change in expression, giving a nuanced portrait of one of the most iconic characters in modern musical theater history. Valjean is a complex character who undergoes huge moments of spiritual and personal transformation as well as physical transformation, and Jackman shows each stage in this character’s development with perfect balance. He was powerful when it was necessary, but he was also equally compelling in quieter moments, which made his Valjean feel extraordinarily raw and real for a character from a musical.

I was going to save Anne Hathaway for the “Scene Stealer” portion of this review, but there can be no denying that she stands alongside Jackman as the most valuable member of this cast. I was a bit skeptical because of just how much praise she was getting, but I can honestly say that she lives up to the hype and then some. There is no way that words—even the most eloquent—can describe her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” It’s a truly transcendent moment; I felt afraid to breathe as she sang—that’s how transfixed I was by her performance. Done in one take with the camera focused on nothing but her emaciated, tear-stained face, this song is the epitome of all that is good about this film. It’s achingly raw—her eyes are wild, her nose is running, her tears are audible in every note sung—but it’s impossible to look away. There’s a moment near the end of the song where it looks as if she’s having a panic attack while singing, and I’ve never felt more gutted by a performance in a musical. And that’s exactly how I wanted to feel, how I needed to feel in order for this film to have the impact on me that it had.

Scene Stealer: I had never heard of Eddie Redmayne before going to see Les Misérables, and now I can’t imagine the film without his performance as Marius. I know this is a word that tends to get overused in reviews, but he’s a revelation in this film. His Marius isn’t just the lovesick schoolboy of some versions of this musical. There’s a passion, strength, and depth in Redmayne’s performance that makes you care about this character and truly feel all of his joy and then all of his pain. There’s a tragedy to Marius’s arc that can sometimes get lost in his seemingly happy ending, but Redmayne never lets you forget that this is a young man who will forever be haunted by what happened on the barricade. The way his entire demeanor changes from confident and strong to broken and guilt-ridden absolutely broke my heart. His “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is all I could have asked for from my favorite song in Les Misérables. It was sung beautifully and with an honesty of emotion that only a great actor—perfectly cast in this role—could have delivered.

Bring the Tissues? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I can’t even count how many moments made me cry—from “I Dreamed a Dream” to “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” and numerous moments in between (“A Little Fall of Rain” is especially heartbreaking in its beautiful, tragic intimacy). However, nothing in this film made me cry as hard as the conclusion. The intensity of sobbing it reduced me to can best be described as “Toy Story 3 levels of emotional hysteria.”

Most Memorable Scene: It’s impossible to pick just one. The most memorable moments in the film—the ones that have stayed with me long after I left the theater—are scenes that took Tom Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing live and use it to elevate the songs to new levels of emotional impact. The first such moment is Valjean’s impassioned “Who Am I?” Jackman sells Valjean’s crisis of conscience in this song with a depth and power that’s all the more affecting because it truly feels like he is examining his soul rather than singing to the back of the house. The way it begins quietly, almost as a whispered conversation with God, makes the crescendo even more stunning.

I’ve already said all I could put into words about Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” Redmayne’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was a moment of nearly equal emotional power for the same reasons—the naked vulnerability, the tears, the way the song builds from quiet loss to desperate pleading. And Redmayne and Samantha Barks’s duet, “A Little Fall of Rain,” is perhaps most successful at using the medium of film to add new power to the music of Les Misérables. The gentle intimacy between the two actors could not be achieved by projecting like in live theater or by using a pre-recorded track. You feel immersed in the tragedy of this moment because it’s happening right in front of you—from the way Barks’s voice believably fades as she nears her death to Redmayne’s strained delivery of each lyric, as if Marius is trying but failing to keep his grief at bay until she’s gone.

Continue reading