Fractured fairy tales ‘Frozen’ in time

In case you’ve lived under a rock (or were locked in tower like “Tangled’s” frying pan-wielding, Tarzan-swinging Rapunzel) for the past three years, you might have noticed Disney’s re-branding — touting virtuous and brave princesses. Nowadays, their animated damsel in distresses resemble the three-dimensional, bow-and-arrow-wielding Meridas from Pixar’s “Brave.”

“Frozen” tries to be the franchise’s latest progressive, self-aware princess movie, featuring 3D technology and challenging its own tropes.

“Hang on, you mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?” says Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) — the huntsman to Princess Anna’s Snow White — dismissing the Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty stories of another era.

“Foot size doesn’t matter,” responds Princess Anna (a zinger perhaps directed at Disney’s “Cinderella” and her man, Prince Charming).

But as much as Disney’s evolved over the years, the same fairy tale tropes are central to the formulaic “happily ever after” storyline — written by Chris Buck, Shane Morris and “Wreck It Ralph’s” Jennifer Lee.

Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) of Arendelle is another sheltered princess with big blue eyes and red hair, eager to be part of another world and dreaming of a love’s true kiss. “What if I meet the one?” she sings in “The First Time in Forever.”

Bubbling with optimism at the prospect of love, Anna resembles Amy Adams’ Giselle from “Enchanted,” Fiona from “Shrek,” and Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” (and like Ariel in the iconic “Kiss the Girl” scene, Anna also falls into a boat with a handsome prince).

Her counterpoint lies in her older sister, Elsa, a poised blond-haired, blue-eyed witch concealing volatile powers like Jack Frost’s. Voiced by Idina Menzel, known for her role as another misunderstood witch (Elphaba in the musical “Wicked”), Elsa’s like Jo Rowling, entertaining her younger sister with magic. In Rowling’s case, she created stories; Elsa animated goofy snowmen like Olaf (Josh Gad).

Elsa accidentally harms her sister during a bit of roughhousing; her parents order her to hide her powers from everyone, especially her sister. Her parents die (like all fairy tale parents do). But as much as Elsa’s a good girl, she can’t contain her magic forever. During her highly attended coronation years later, Elsa accidentally unleashes her magic, freezing Arendelle and becoming both the evil queen and the persecuted beast.

While “Frozen” bills itself as the “best film since ‘The Lion King,'” the movie’s appeal lies in the retelling of universal stories — a formula Disney has mastered. The beloved “Lion King” is, after all, an animated (pun intended) retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” “Frozen’s” inspired from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

Buck, Morris and Lee drew from the Disney canon, amalgamating half a dozen fairy tale classics; composer Christophe Beck re-writes the musical medleys of yesteryear into ‘wicked’ soundtracks. (Menzel’s voice is chilling, isn’t it?)

The result is as expected: another satisfying crowd-pleaser guaranteed to melt any frozen heart.

“Frozen” was directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and written by Lee, Buck and Shane Morris. It’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”


‘Twas the night before Christmas on a ‘Midnight Clear’

“Midnight Clear” begins quietly.

A homeless man snoring in his car. A woman dropping off her son to school. A gas station owner making a pot of coffee. A grandma cleaning out her fridge. All seemingly mundane tasks, all with added significance because they happen to take place on Christmas eve.

First written as a short story by his father, Jerry B. Jenkins, director Dallas Jenkins’ 103-minute film, “Midnight Clear” (based on his earlier short film of the same name), is about the little things that add up.

Lefty’s (Stephen Baldwin) an unemployed homeless man battling lawyers to see his kids and ex-wife. Mary’s (Mary Thornton Brown) a wife and mother, visiting her husband, Rick (Kevin Downes) — brain damaged and hospitalized from a car accident exactly a year earlier. Kirk (Kirk B. R. Woller) runs a secluded gas station open for the holidays. And Eva’s (K. Callan) an old woman, living alone after her husband died and her kids abandoned her.

Their lives may sound as bleak as George Bailey feels at the beginning of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but they eventually find that they are each other’s angels, intervening just before someone drowns.

Jenkins is like the ghost of Old Marley, reminding us of “that glorious sound of old.” That every Ebenezer Scrooge was once a Tiny Tim. That a mother and child can find shelter from the cold. That one dollar and eighty-seven cents is more than enough to buy an irreplaceable present.

Christmas, after all, is about redemption and rebirth. And sometimes, the gifts from strangers are the most important of all.

“Midnight Clear” was written by Wes Halula based on Jerry B. Jenkins’ short story, and directed and produced by Dallas Jenkins.

‘Brothers’ by George Howe Colt

“Even when I don’t know where my brothers are at a given moment, I feel connected to them as surely as if there were an artery — or at least an extra-long, extra-strong strand of drool — that ran from my heart to each of theirs.” — George Howe Colt, “Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History”

When Boston mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger was sentenced to life in prison last month, The New York Times ran a feature story on his younger brother, Billy —  former University of Massachusetts president and Massachusetts senator.

The brothers — one a criminal, the other a politician — couldn’t have seemed more different. But their brotherly bond ultimately cost Billy his career.

The younger Bulger brother was forced to leave his University gig in 2003 when he refused to divulge his fugitive brother’s whereabouts.

“That he was a ‘brother’ may be a fitting epitaph for Mr. [Billy] Bulger, 79, as he and Whitey, 84, resign themselves to the likelihood that Whitey will someday die in prison,” wrote Times’ reporter Katharine Seelye.

But what does being a “brother” mean?

Massachusetts native George Howe Colt explores that with his 480-page book, “Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History,” a braided essay which alternates between memoir, research and biography.

Starting off like a chapter in “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” Colt’s book offers nostalgic anecdotal memories of growing up in New England as the middle child among three brothers.

George’s older brother, Harry, was his hero, while his younger brother, Ned, was his uncooperative slave. His youngest brother, Mark, was the baby in the family — so much younger that he grew up like an only child.

The Colt brothers from left to right: Harry, Ned, Mark & George

The Colt brothers from left to right: Harry, Ned, Mark & George

Much like the Marx brothers, known by their stage names and personas (Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo and Zeppo), the Colt boys found themselves confined to their respective roles as hero, troublemaker and damsel in distress.

But, as George explains, their vast differences may have developed as each tried to be his own person while vying for their mother’s love (According to a study by sociologist Katherine Conger, the majority of parents do have a favorite child).

George stood out for his sesquipedalian and loquacious tendencies. At times, the book reads like a dictionary and George is still the showy kid, trying to dazzle you with his extensive vocabulary — pachysandra, erysipelas, fontanel, picaresque and octogenarian are just a sampling.

He talks and talks and talks, sometimes without pausing for breath (or including transitions and paragraph breaks). This can be confusing as he rapidly fires one case study after another — his paragraphs taking up the whole page.

Despite the syntax, the stories of brotherhood are as engaging as how often one brother’s success is catapulted by the other. The rivalry and competition between older brother Dr. John Kellogg and younger brother Will Kellogg revolutionized breakfast food. The quiet nurturing and encouragement of art dealer Theo Van Gogh financed Vincent’s “Starry Night,” “Sunflowers,” “The Potato Eaters” and “The Mulberry Tree.” The death of schoolteacher John Thoreau revitalized Henry David, inspiring “A Week” and “Walden.” And the need for greatness surpassing both his father and brother’s Shakespearean fame may have led John Wilkes Booth to shoot President Abraham Lincoln.

George skillfully memorializes the tales of his role models (including these legendary brothers and his own), blending biography with memoir, Bibles stories with pop culture and history with the present. All the while, his lens is like a mirror from which we can see our own favorite brothers reflected back.


Brothers+by+George+Howe+Colt“Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History”
By George Howe Colt
480 pp. Scribner. $30 U.S./ $34.99 Can.

‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ foreshadows ‘The Lord of the Rings’

When we last left our heroes, they were riding the backs of eagles, longingly eying the Lonely Mountain within their grasp. Twelve months later since the release of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” (and since dwarf king heir, Thorin Oakenshield, first met with wizard Gandalf in a pub on the border side of the Shire), the company’s hiking through caverns and forests with Gandalf (Ian McKellan) at the helm — chaperoning children-sized men on a field trip across Tolkein’s Middle Earth.

“You’ll be safe here tonight,” says the wizard, telling tale tales of big black bears that turn into men. But these stories — setting the stage for Jackson’s already profitable “Lord of the Rings” franchise — are as ominous as the spider-filled Mirkwood forests the party has to venture through.

“Lord of the Rings” fans will enjoy the obvious foreshadowing. Dark shadows fester as an unnamed Necromancer upturns graves. Orc parties grow, gearing for war. But these elements make the film much darker than J. R. R. Tolkein’s children’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again” — which the film was loosely based on.

Luckily though, the party has a couple guides — including elven heartthrob Legolas (Orlando Bloom) of Mirkwood and Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) of Lake Town — ferrying 13 dwarves and a hobbit (Martin Freeman) through rocks, trees and rivers.

“The Iliad” to “The Lord of the Rings'” “Odyssey,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’s” an epic fantastical 3D adventure. But whereas you won’t find orcs, elves and dragons beyond the myths and legends, elements of reality are found within “The Hobbit.”

At it’s core, the story’s about a nomadic people looking to reclaim their homeland. It’s a noble cause — certainly one that Zionist Jews could sympathize with. But if the dwarves were the Jews, then the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) would be Palestinian Arabs, retaliating with suicide bombers and dragon fire. The result: “All shall fall in sadness and the lake will shine and burn.”

Of course, we don’t see the prophesy come to light yet. The fast-paced 161-minute film ends with a cliffhanger.

As with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though, the story’s never-ending. Even after Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy concludes next December, the subsequent “Lord of the Rings” sagas seamlessly begin, bringing you on an endless journey there and back again.

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is directed by Peter Jackson and written by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro. The movie is based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s book, “The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.” 

‘The Campaign’ against elections

“Sex Scandal Sinks Reelection Bid.”

It’s an Onion article, but it’s also a headline we’re all too familiar with.

After all, we lived through Anthony Weiner, Chris Lee and Elliot Spitzer. Also, John Edwards, Bill Clinton and John Kennedy.

Years of congressmen sexting dick pics and presidential candidates having affairs gives credence to “The Campaign,” director Jay Roach’s satirical political comedy uniting Will Ferrell as incumbent congressman Cam Brady, and Zach Galifianakis as political newbie Marty Huggins.

Of course, Brady’s a popular Democratic congressman running unopposed in North Carolina’s 14th district when his extramarital affair causes a dive in his poll numbers. Seeing an opportunity to buy another election, “Made In Meri-Kai” (pronounced America) CEOs Glen (John Lithgow) and Wade Motch (Dan Aykroyd) back Huggins, a local tour guide.

The problem is that while Brady’s tall and presidential-looking like former presidents Abraham Lincoln or George W. Bush (Ferrell’s impersonated Bush on numerous “Saturday Night Live” skits), Huggins’ a short, stout and homely Douglas Adams.

And, as you know from watching the Kennedy/Nixon debate, looks matter in the political horse-race almost as much as kissing babies.

Galifianakis’ dwarf-like stature is the source of some of the humor in “The Campaign.” Huggins can’t see over the podium during a debate. He’s cheery and socially awkward like “The Simpson’s” Ned Flanders. Before Brady introduces his opponent with a series of unflattering and hilarious photos at a fundraiser brunch, Huggins talks about his pugs, Poundcake and Muffin. The neighbors describe him as odd, and his facial hair resembles members of Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorist groups.

Brady, on the other hand, is a slick political machine, skilled at evading questions, speaking in recycled sound-bites and taking money from anyone. Beneath that phoney guise is a large appetite for women and a tendency for political gaffes.

Despite the movie’s contrived Hollywood ending, writers Adam McKay (of “Anchorman” fame), Shawn Harwell and Chris Henchy offer a sharp and funny social critique of the sad reality of the political process: big money wins elections.

It’s no wonder no one like politicians these days — especially when the choice is increasingly between dog poop and pond scum.

Food for thought: commercializing ‘The Hunger Games’

I saw the 74th Hunger Games tributes on victory tour more than a year and a half ago.

The context: I was one of the 400 Capitol fans camped outside Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre, awaiting tickets into the black carpet event and premiere screening of gamemaker Gary Ross’ much-anticipated “Hunger Games.”

This was my view of “The Hunger Games” black carpet premiere on March 12, 2012. Photos taken by Qina Liu.

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Like the people watching the 74th annual hunger games — a gladiator-style/survivor tournament where two dozen children fight to the death — on television in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novels, I was incredibly moved by 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from district 12, a poor mining town near the outskirts of Panem.

But most of all, I appreciated Collins’ critique of reality and how that played out with the release of each movie.

For those not familiar with the trilogy, “The Hunger Games” echoes the lessons of George Orwell and “ad man” Edward Bernays. Like history has shown us again and again, the wealthy elite few control the uneducated masses. Whereas Orwell (and Machiavelli) showed us how this was done through fear, Bernays showed us how it’s possible to “engineer consent” through love and want. (i.e. The star-crossed lover storyline between district 12 tributes Katniss and Peeta is the sugar that makes Collins’ didactic messages easier to swallow.)

The tragic televised deaths of children serve as a fearful reminder of the government’s control. But they’re also a distraction from society’s problems: the games serve as entertainment, the tributes as celebrities.

“Your job is to be a distraction,” someone tells Katniss Everdeen, the bow-and-arrow-wielding heroine of the franchise, in the second movie.

And you can’t escape “The Hunger Games” universe or its commercialization.

Every TV network and late night talk show host covering “The Hunger Games” premiere had their own Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) or Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) — decked out in designer outfits, echoing Effie’s favorite motto (“Let the games be ever in your favor”) or Caesar’s conversational interview style.

“Team Peeta or Team Gale?” said every reporter, asking which of Katniss’ lovers the fans adored more.

Meanwhile, People Magazine runs glossy pictures and stories of each tribute (and the actor playing him or her). Hot Topic hangs displays of Hunger Game T-shirts and posters; Covergirl has a new Hunger Games-inspired makeup line.

Perhaps most telling is a scene in Francis Lawrence’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (released in theaters Nov. 22).

Panem President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is sitting with his granddaughter, who has her hair pulled back into a Katniss-style braid (much like most of the female audience members watching the movie premiere in theaters).

“When did you start wearing it like that?” Snow asks.

“Everyone wears it like that, Grandpa,” she answers.

This emulation isn’t necessarily bad. After all, imagine where the world would be if there were more reluctant revolutionary heroes like Katniss Everdeen.

But “The Hunger Games” are a distraction from some of the world’s bigger problems. Whereas almost one in four people in the U.S. didn’t have enough money to buy food, the first book-turned-movie opened with a record-breaking $155 million in U.S. box offices; the second film, “Catching Fire,” made $161 million during opening weekend, promising to be one of the highest grossing films this November.

And how much food can you buy for $161 million?

That’s 273.7 million pounds of bananas, 25.76 million pounds of coffee, 37.03 million Big Macs, 225.4 million pounds of rice, 249.55 million pounds of potatoes, 48.3 million pounds of ground beef, 1.0948 billion eggs or 128.8 million cans of beers in the U.S..

Think of that the next time you see a Mockingjay pin.