Tag Archives: 15/20

Elf

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: When Buddy the Elf finds out that he’s really a human put up for adoption as an infant, he leaves the safety of the North Pole for the rough and tumble of New York to find his unknowing father, Walter. Buddy finds friends and enemies aplenty in the Big Apple but the one thing he desperately wants – his Dad’s approval – is harder to come by.

Buddy (Will Ferrell) isn’t like the other elves. For one thing, he doesn’t possess the nimble fingers that the others in Santa’s workshop use to churn out toys for Christmas; for another, he’s about two feet taller than them, even his own father Papa Elf (Bob Newhart). Still, Buddy is blissfully unaware that he’s a human who crawled into Santa’s sack as a baby, until events force Papa Elf to spill the beans and reveal that Buddy’s real father, children’s publisher Walter Hobbs (James Caan), is alive in New York.

Remaining as good-natured as ever, Buddy sets off with encouragement and advice from Father Christmas (Ed Asner) and other well-wishers, undaunted by issues that would put off less positive souls: firstly, Buddy’s real dad now has a family of his own and doesn’t know that Buddy was ever born; secondly, Walter is cynical, work-centred and firmly on Santa’s Naughty list.

Arriving through the Lincoln tunnel, Buddy is charmed by New York but his first meeting with Walter at his office in the Empire State Building is less than successful, though luckily his elf outfit leads him (briefly) to a job in the department store across the road where he meets lovely but shy songbird Jovie (Zooey Deschanel) and causes a ruckus with a fake Father Christmas. Meanwhile, continued meetings with Walter lead to Buddy being taken in by his wife Emily (Mary Steenburgen); but while Buddy becomes friends with his streetwise half-brother Michael (Daniel Tay), and miraculously gets a date with Jovie, relations with Walter remain frosty, not helped when Buddy causes chaos at work. Just when Buddy feels most rejected, a familiar face appears in desperate need of some know-how when it comes to raising Christmas cheer.

Should you wish to, it’s quite easy to take Elf apart and discover its workings; for Christmas films mine such a rich vein of sentimentality that original ideas are as scarce as genuine sightings of Santa, and Favreau’s film, with a screenplay by David Berenbaum, brings little truly new to the party. The plot is a solid amalgamation of ideas from such films as Santa Claus: The Movie and Miracle on 34th Street with Buddy adding the Pollyanna-ish qualities of Steve Martin’s character from The Jerk and Zooey Deschanel providing an off-the-shelf love interest (we hardly discover anything about her, other than that she likes to sing).

The fact that none of this seems to matter can be put down almost completely to Will Ferrell’s superb rendering of Buddy: he’s a big, lovable lump with a heart of gold, providing enormous helpings of physical comedy but never coming across as moronic. And while there’s no danger of Ferrell underplaying the part (as if he could), there is also a complete absence of cynicism or awareness of the artifice of the situation, either of which would have ruined the movie. With Ferrell in top form, dependable stars like Asner and Newhart also shine; Caan too is impressive, never relinquishing his hard personality, just bending to the extraordinary events he finds himself caught up in.

Elf’s absolute lack of cynicism leaves plenty of room for silly fun, such as Buddy’s encounter with Peter Dinklage’s writer of restricted size, Miles Finch, and lots of interaction between Buddy and Michael; it also has some truly surreal moments, mostly involving stop-motion characters at the North Pole such as Leon [Redbone] the Snowman and my own favourite, Mr Narwhal. And when it comes to the rousing climax – Santa’s stranded in Central Park and needs Buddy and his new family to create belief in him to raise the ‘Clausometer’ – the film manages to be both sweet and uplifting without ever becoming gooey, a trick that helps to overcome the undercooked nature of Buddy and Jovie’s love story and the forced drama of making Central Park Rangers the bad guys.

The trick is done, by the way, with clever writing and direction that provides distractions for all ages – for example, the grainy footage of Buddy walking through the woods will be eerily-familiar to most adults, though many will take a while to realise why.

Elf, then, is by no means a great departure from the Christmas film norm, confirming as it does the importance of putting family first and approaching life with a good, clean heart. But by acknowledging the syrupy nature of the subject matter in literal terms, Ferrell, Favreau and co. have side-stepped the trap of becoming cloying and – with a few caveats – have made a film that will surely be on the Christmas Nice list for years to come.

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The Reader

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Lawyer Michael Berg recalls his sexual awakening in post-war Germany, an affair he conducted with a significantly older woman named Hanna Schmitz. Michael reads to Hanna as part of their bonding experience and learns that love is a difficult game to master. He is also to discover how little he knows of Hanna when he encounters her in an entirely different context.

To his lovers, Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes) is a closed book, emotionally speaking; but delving into his past reveals the reasons why…Struck down by scarlet fever in Neustadt in the late 1950s, 15-year-old Michael (David Kross) is helped home by tram conductor Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). Some months later when he’s recovered, he goes to visit Hanna and the ‘kid’ willingly becomes her lover, though she puts a strange condition on the affair; before making love, Michael must read to her, whether from Chekhov or Twain, Homer’s Odyssey or Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin.

Michael and Hanna spend a summer together, including a cycling holiday, but it’s no idyll: firstly, Michael neglects his relationships with family and schoolfriends, including would-be girlfriend Sophie (Vijessna Ferkic); secondly, Hanna becomes increasingly troubled as she gets a promotion at work, ultimately disappearing altogether.

Several years later, Michael is a promising law student under the guidance of Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz). As part of a select group of students, he visits a trial of six women who were SS guards at Auschwitz, and is horrified to find Hanna is not only one of them, but she also selected prisoners for death and made those she picked read to her. Worse still, she accompanied women and children on the ‘Death March’ from Krakow and was present when three hundred women and children were burned alive inside a locked church.

Hanna takes the blame for writing the report about the incident and Michael agonises over whether to divulge the secret he has just realised – the fact that Hanna cannot read or write. His decision impacts on both their lives, which remain intertwined nonetheless. And as Michael comes to term with his involvement with Hanna, he also tries to get closer to his estranged daughter Julia (Hannah Herzsprung).

Given that the Nazis’ “final solution” was the single most shocking, evil, horrifying event of the 20th Century, it’s hardly surprising that many, many films have sought to tell the dreadful stories: Schindler’s List, The Pianist and Life is Beautiful to name just a few. Taking a German post-War viewpoint, The Reader proves that it is still possible to see events from new perspectives.

Of course, if you come to it blind the film starts off as a robust yet reflective coming of age tale, and one which is particularly good at exploring Michael’s own selfishness towards the rest of the world after discovering sex. The revelation of Hanna’s past life is a fascinating twist, and Michael’s reaction to her betrayal is played out incredibly thoughtfully; the violent reaction of his fellow students – and the distraction of (we assume) the first in a series of casual partners – proving a background for his decisions.

You can argue that The Reader concentrates too much on affairs of the heart: Michael visits Auschwitz, but the film is surprisingly coy about the full horror of Nazi atrocities, and it might have been instructive, if unpleasant, for the film to replay the events for which Hanna Schmitz and her co-defendants are tried. On the other hand, there is no cinematic law which states that every film that references the Nazis must concentrate exclusively on the victims; and anyway, there is a refreshingly honest perspective provided by Ilana Mather (Lena Olin), a survivor of the church fire, when Michael tries to make some sort of amends.

Bolstering the narrative are a number of very strong performances, most obviously that of Kate Winslet as Hanna. It’s not unfair to say that Winslet has undressed in more films than most actresses (eg. Titanic, Little Children, Holy Smoke, Jude, Iris), but it would be incredibly shallow to single out this single and relatively unimportant aspect of the film. Her performance as Hanna, at all ages, is excellent: hard, detached and not always comprehending the significance of her own self-incriminating honesty. It’s even better on a second watch, since earlier scenes such as Hanna’s emotional reaction to the children singing in church gain added significance. You do have to ask whether the shame of being illiterate would prevent someone from revealing their – how to phrase it – reduced culpability, but Winslet (aided by some brilliant make-up) is never less than totally convincing, portraying Hanna as vulnerable if never quite deserving sympathy.

Opposite Winslet, young David Kross does brilliantly to hold his own as Michael, stumbling into adulthood in bizarre and cruel circumstances. Alright, he doesn’t look much like Fiennes, and in truth what happens to Michael in his later life (his apparent inability to create lasting relationships with others) is less interesting as the ‘action’ of the film inevitably slows down after the trial; yet the film keeps a keen emotional power as Michael draws back from his involvement from a woman who becomes increasingly frail and forlorn.

In addition to its other accomplishments, The Reader is beautifully shot and edited, brilliantly creates the ambiance of every one of its diverse locations, and features a lovely score from Nico Muhly. Screenwriter David Hare also retains some of novelist Bernhard Schlink’s finest prose. In short, it’s a most impressive piece of work, a meditation on morality just brought down a peg or two by, in my opinion, following Michael into a self-involved future when we might have followed Hanna into her vile but formative past. Winslet thoroughly deserved her awards, but the film is worth watching for much more than her terrific performance alone.

Glory

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: During the American Civil War, the hard-pressed Unionists bring into being their first ‘coloured’ regiment, the 54th, under the stewardship of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw’s brand of leadership causes upsets with old friends and recruits of all ages and dispositions; but when the time for fighting comes, his men are ready to prove themselves the equals of soldiers from either side.

Not being particularly gifted in matters of history, and non-British history in particular, the events of the American Civil War tend to slip out of my mind as soon as I stop reading or watching about them; accordingly, though I enjoyed Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil not too long ago, I would only be able to guess which side Tobey Maguire’s ‘runty nubbin’ character fought for, and where, and why. So on the face of it this tale of Colonel Shaw, a real-life 23-year-old fighter for the Army of the Potomac, and the men he commanded, was only of passing interest to me. Fortunately, Edward Zwick has taken his source material (letters from Shaw to his parents, amongst other accounts) and created a fine, watchable film.

The film opens with Shaw (Matthew Broderick) seeing action at Antietam, where he quickly comes face-to-face with the grisly realities of war in a notorious defeat for the Unionists. The battlefield leaves him shell-shocked, so when his parents – committed Boston abolitionists – arrange for him to be the colonel of a negro regiment, he is almost too stunned to respond. He eventually accepts, bringing along his friend Forbes (Cary Elwes) as Major with another family friend, literate and educated black man Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher) being one of the regiment’s first recruits.

Also volunteering are wise old goat (with a goat!) Morgan Freeman, who shares a tent with Searles, stammering sharp-shooter Jupiter (Jihmi Kennedy) and Denzel Washington’s Trip, a dude with an attitude and more pride than sense. Trip succeeds in winding Searles and the others up with his defiant blackness, earning him a flogging when accused of desertion that adds to the stripes earned as a slave; with hard words and an even harder Sergeant Major, and much to the disgust of Forbes’ liberal mind, Shaw brings his men up to be a disciplined fighting force.

Yet all is not well: not only does the regiment not get equal pay with white soldiers, and not only are they denied the shoes and provisions available to other divisions, causing Shaw to rebel on both occasions; there is a rumour circulating that the regiment exists solely for propaganda, and the soldiers will never do anything other than manual work. Shaw has to face up to his superiors to prove that his men are more than capable in combat, a trust that ultimately proves their making and their downfall.

In terms of presentation, Glory is a very handsome piece of work, showing off the uniforms, weaponry and moustaches of the Civil War to good effect. I couldn’t tell you if these are all accurate, but the film certainly doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the war as men are blown to pieces at Antietam and, later, ranks of Unionists and Confederates line up in ranks and shoot lumps out of each other before charging with fixed bayonets. The personnel of the 54th are given room to develop, Broderick’s Shaw initially coming across as ineffectual but showing a grasp of how he needs to lead his soldiers, making the difficult decision to treat Searles just like all the other men, and Forbes in more or less the same manner.

Shaw’s determination that his soldiers be treated like anyone else fighting for the cause is noble, and his reluctant, but inevitable, suggestion that his regiment should lead the assault on Fort Wagner both moving and gut-wrenching (attacking Fort Wagner first was a suicide mission, more or less: the South Park movie must have had this film partially in mind for one of its jokes). Amongst the ranks, the cool, common sense of Morgan Freeman and the scared but unflagging determination of Searles are commendable.

But if the film belongs to anyone, it is Denzel Washington. A nasty, taunting son-of-a-gun with aspirations to be a Presidential candidate, Trip is also a fierce fighter and at heart, fiercely loyal. All Trip wants is the respect of those who mocked him, and Washington’s achievement in making him both objectionable and sympathetic is considerable. In fact, the performances from all the black cast contain a profound dignity, no more so than in the blues-driven prayers on the night before the assault on Fort Wagner. This moment is powerfully emotional and because the music comes from the group, feels absolutely natural.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for much of the other music in the film. James Horner’s score makes extensive use of a boys’ choir, which in more than one place is terribly overbearing. It is as if Zwick didn’t quite trust the pull of the story, so emphasised the music to drive the mood of the film along. In fact the obtrusiveness of the voices detracts from the mood rather than adding to it, when a quieter (and perhaps less obviously militaristic) score would have had greater effect.

Whilst I’m complaining, I should say that Glory does smack a little of trying too hard to redress a balance: why does it have to be the case that all the bad guys are white – even on the Unionist side, only Shaw and the ultra-liberal Forbes are shown in a positive light – while all the black guys are not only really good guys (eventually), but also really good soldiers? I have no doubt that all the events in Glory are based on good history, but a bit more ambivalence in some of the characters (in response, say, to the Confederates’ death sentence on the whole regiment) would have made the film feel more grounded in reality.

Nevertheless, the men who made up the 54th regiment are worth celebrating as pioneers in American history, helping Lincoln’s Unionists to win the war and – in their way – pave the way for real African-American Presidential candidates, though of course the road from 1863 to 2008 was far from smooth. Glory is epically cinematic, perhaps too cinematic to ring completely true as an historical account; but the story that is told, and the evident dignity of the men who fought for a just cause, makes the film one that will not easily fade from the memory.

Napoleon Dynamite

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Loner Napoleon and his brother Kip are left to fend for themselves (and a llama) when their grandmother has a quad bike accident on the dunes. Pigskin-wielding Uncle Rico arrives to look after them and soon starts interfering in their affairs, including Napoleon’s High School Prom and fledgling political career.

A refreshing antidote to a slew of high school movies, Napoleon Dynamite takes high school staples and plays around with them, using the simple trick of making the school’s beautiful people not very beautiful and working down from there. Napoleon is initially presented as a bullied loner, a weirdo with a weird family. But as he goes through the school year with its familiar mileposts of the school dance and election, he gains friends and admirers – okay, a friend and an admirer – in his campaign to help fellow outsider Pedro become school president.

And that, essentially, is it. Napoleon Dynamite is a contained, understated film whose humour comes across so subtly, without a hint of mugging by the actors, that it comes within a whisker of underselling itself as a low-budget oddity. But this is the key to the film’s appeal: the characters are funny because they take themselves entirely seriously. Too often comedies suffer because the actors think they are so funny, characterisation is optional (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn et al, I’m looking at you). Here, Jon Heder is excellent in the title role and Efren Ramirez as Pedro underplays nicely.

Credit too to Tina Majorino as Deb, the mousy love interest with whom Napoleon shares a sweet, chaste romance. In other films, Deb and Napoleon would both undergo a miraculous makeover and dazzle their fellow students at the prom; but true to the rest of the film, the couple get no closer than a brief touch of hands and a game of tetherball. Napoleon’s highpoint in the whole movie is the exhibition of dancing skills in support of Pedro’s presidential campaign, after which he promptly flees the stage.

Mention should also be made of Aaron Ruell, superb as Napoleon’s man-child brother Kip; indeed he almost steals the film. Kip finds love on the internet and although his belle is not the ‘sandy blonde’ he believes he has been chatting with, his courtship is both funny and touching. Amongst these delicate flowers aggressive salesman Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) is rather overpowering, but this is the point of his character and deep down he is a tragic figure, regretting the past desperately enough to buy and attempt to use an excruciatingly painful ‘time machine’ from the Internet.

Napoleon’s world is not explicitly set in a particular time. Although the VCRs, Tupperware, clothes and hairstyles strongly evoke the 1980s, we are allowed to infer that the Dynamites, and the town of Preston as a whole, are merely behind the times. I am in no way qualified to say whether this is a comment on the State of Idaho, but if it is a joke it’s an affectionate one.

Ultimately the film runs out of steam, partly because this is what comedies tend to do; but there is also a sense that Napoleon and company only have these short, small-town stories within them. Nevertheless, the tale is positive, and silly in the best sense of the word. Napoleon is a man who does the right thing at the right time: he is a hero, and a romantic hero at that. Napoleon Dynamite is not a film that demands to be seen time and again: but it deserves to be seen once.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: A subway train is seized by four armed robbers who take eighteen passengers hostage and cause New York Transit Authority police officer Zachary Garber a massive headache. As the callous leader of the gang demands $1 million and threatens to kill a hostage for every minute the money is late, the authorities race to get them the cash without loss of life. However, the gang of four are unpredictable, fractious and as dangerous to each other as to the passengers.

Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walther Matthau) of the New York Transit Authority Police has a pressing excuse to cut short a tour he’s giving to Japanese visitors when the subway train designated Pelham One Two Three makes an unscheduled stop between stations. As Garber quickly discovers, a group of robbers have taken the train, or at least part of it, hostage.

Though they are dressed identically, the colour-coded robbers are a disparate group: clear-thinking, ruthless leader Mr Blue (Robert Shaw); taciturn Mr Brown (Earl Hindman); edgy ex-mafia man Mr Grey (Hector Elizondo), who shows an unsettling relish in his work; and sniffly Mr Green (Martin Balsam), who doesn’t want anyone to get hurt and worries that he’s not going to see out the day.

When Garber calls to find out what’s going on, Blue explains their demands: they want $1 million from the city, and to make sure they get it, they will kill a hostage for every minute the money is delayed. Garber tries to reason with Blue and keep his mixed bag of hostages alive, but it’s not as if those around him have a single objective either: Coordinator Frank Correll (Dick O‘Neill) just wants to keep the train network running; Garber’s boss Rico (Jerry Stiller) just wants to read his paper; and the beleaguered, bed-ridden mayor doesn’t care what happens as long as it improves his poll ratings. With the clock ticking, Garber has to keep Blue in the dark about the slow progress of the money, all the while hoping that a plain-clothes officer on the train will spring into action. In any event, he doesn’t see how the robbers can possibly get out of the subway system alive: for some of them, he’s absolutely right.

The thing that instantly hits you about James Sargeant’s adaptation of John Godey’s novel is how completely unfussy and unshowy it is. The ‘taking’ of the train happens early on and the drama unfolds in an uncomplicated but effective manner, the action presented in a fluid, matter-of-fact fashion and delivered with a sly sense of humour: ‘What do they expect for their lousy 35 cents,’ Correll says as the drama escalates, ’to live forever?’

As it rolls along, the film introduces a host of colourful characters, from the woman in the control room whose sanitary needs have caused no end of trouble, to the mayor’s pushy deputy, Warren (Tony Roberts). Nobody stops to explain themselves or the situation, they just get on with the job (I wish I could say the same about many of today‘s bloated blockbusters). Matthau (grumpy) and Shaw (chilling) are excellent, and they are amply supported by their colleagues and cohorts. Not all of the extended cast are equally effective – the mayor in particular is treated as a figure of fun and quickly forgotten about – but in general there’s an organic and natural feel to the story, with a wonderfully brash and authentic New York quality to the performances (including those of the hostages, none of whom are particularly developed but who represent the diversity of New York’s population).

Because it’s presented so briskly, it’s that much easier to get swept along with the story as the minutes tick down and the money is counted, then driven at high speed through Manhattan. In truth, the climax is not as effective as it might be, as Garber joins Inspector Daniels (Julius Harris) to chase the robbers overground whilst they squabble amongst themselves (and the train speeds along with the help of obviously sped-up film). Also, the ‘what happened to Green’ coda makes for a strangely low-key ending, although the very satisfying pay-off sends you away with a smile.

I’ve tried not to mention Tony Scott’s stony-faced remake as it quite obviously has nothing to do with the making of this film. It may well be the case that I need to revisit my review of that film and put all this there, but the points of difference are obvious and nearly all of them are in the original’s favour. Scott (or scriptwriter Brian Helgeland) reworks the story to suit the casting of two major stars, combining Correll and Garber into a single personality and loading him with a redundant corruption backstory, whilst Travolta is the whole gang of bad guys rolled into one sweary madman. Denzel Washington’s Garber gets himself into the action in a much more direct way, which works according to the demands of the modern action film, but it comes at the cost of personality, atmosphere and audience involvement. In this film, you have a real sense of the city and feel for the hostages, for Garber, even a little for Green: in the remake, there’s only room for the egos of the two stars – and you don’t really care much for either of them.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three contains pretty much everything you could ask of a heist movie, which explains why so many films (not least Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs) have copied it, though rarely with the same success as the original. It’s not perfect, with a slightly uneven tone and elements that date it – even allowing for its underground location, the film looks murky, and it’s really not nice to call people ‘monkeys’ – but it’s skillfully written, acted and put together, without a single editing trick in sight. I’d take this Pelham over Scott’s version any day.

Frozen

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Elsa’s magical abilities with snow and ice come at the heavy price of loneliness for her and younger sister Anna. When Elsa’s coronation results in the revelation of her secret, she flees, causing a perpetual winter that paralyses the kingdom of Arendelle. Anna must use all of her resourcefulness, and seek help from some strange companions, to find her newly-free sibling.

Like most sisters, Elsa and Anna, princesses of Arendelle, love playing with each other; however, Anna has special reason to love Elsa, as the older girl can magic up snow and ice from her hands at will. An accident injures Anna and although she’s healed by mountain trolls (who also remove her memories of Elsa’s gift), the King and Queen are scared enough to close their castle gates and separate Elsa from Anna. Even the loss of the parents doesn’t reunite the girls, with Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) reaching out to Elsa (Idina Menzel) only to be rebuffed.

Coronation day arrives and Anna can’t wait to meet people, while Elsa can only repeat the mantra ‘conceal, don’t feel’ in an attempt to control her growing powers. Anna meets the handsome prince Hans (Santino Fontana) and they seize the moment by agreeing to marry; Elsa, however, refuses to give her blessing and, as Anna argues, Elsa’s magic bursts out, plunging Arendelle into a freezing winter. Elsa flees to the mountains to embrace her freedom, while Anna races after her, forced to lean on ice harvester Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his friendly reindeer Sven for support; they encounter charmingly naïve snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) on the way. Surely Hans will only think of Anna’s well-being as he assumes control of Arendelle on her behalf? And surely learning of Arendelle’s plight will be enough to bring Elsa back to make things right?

There are so many pleasures, great and small, to be found in Frozen that it’s tempting to do nothing but list the good stuff. More than anything, the characters really live in both the excellent vocal work and expressive animation, from fretful Elsa and the wonderfully optimistic Anna – estranged sisters with thoroughly believable emotions – to surly Kristoff and too-good-to-be-true Hans, plus the fascinating quirks of Olaf and minor players such as Wandering Oaken and the Duke of Weselton.

The screenplay for the most part treads exactly the right path, providing laughs, scares and (forgive me, no other phrase will do) heart-warming entertainment that can truly be enjoyed by all ages, bolstered by witty and tuneful songs. The climax in particular provides high-quality drama, with a novel denouement that subverts the traditions of resolution through ‘true love’, supplying a message without being at all heavy-handed.

Frozen is amusing, moving, thrilling and charming by turns, and then – of course – it has its Big Moment. Let it Go is the showstopper to end all showstoppers, a stirring, powerful number that begins with Elsa’s despair and builds – lyrically, musically and visually – to a defiant statement of self-empowerment. It’s really that good, and if it doesn’t quite have the bounce of the similarly-themed Hakuna Matata or the warmth of Beauty and the Beast’s main theme, a billion girls and boys will tell you that it’s as catchy as hell.

All of which said, as someone who’s seen Wicked, it would be remiss not to mention Let it Go’s relationship to that musical’s Big Moment, Defying Gravity. I don’t think you could reasonably accuse the writers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson Lopez of copying Stephen Schwartz’s music or lyrics; but there is a definite sense that both songs are serving exactly the same self-affirmative purpose within the larger piece. How much this sense is driven by Idina Menzel’s soaring voice, and how much by conscious decisions on where the story should go, is anyone’s guess.

Futhermore, while it’s not the case that the song is too good for the rest of the movie, Let it Go certainly casts a long shadow over the remaining musical numbers: Olaf’s In Summer is good fun but comes at a point where the film doesn’t need to stop for yet another song, while Fixer Upper has a host of issues. Musically, it’s a strange, frenetic mixture of gospel, show tune, all kinds of chord changes and everything bar the kitchen sink; and its (perfectly decent) lyrics and upbeat tone are at complete odds with what’s happening to Anna, as demonstrated by the jarring gear shift as soon as it finishes. Frozen could easily be 10-15 minutes shorter without losing anything of real significance.

I’m not too keen on the duets (if that’s the term) where Anna and Elsa are singing their own lines in the same song either, but that’s by comparison with great examples such as The Confrontation in Les Mis.

I do have other nits to pick – specifically, I’m not convinced by Kristoff being ‘adopted’ by the trolls (where were his parents?) – but these have to be seen in the context of an overwhelmingly positive experience, and one which (amazingly) doesn’t pall on repeat viewings. Weary adults may feel the need to pop out of the room from time to time, but in general you’d have to have a cold, cold heart not to get a kick out of Frozen.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Uptight marketing executive Neal Page, desperate to fly from New York to Chicago for Thanksgiving, is thrown into company with slobbish shower curtain-ring salesman Del Griffith. The flight home curtailed, the two men endure each other’s company as they try to get back to their families by any means they can.

John Hughes, best known as writer of teen-centred movies like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, here writes and sits in the director’s chair for a film focusing on two very different adults’ efforts to get back to Chicago in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. Although family is the core theme and motivation behind the story, giving the film something of the feel of updated Frank Capra, it wisely avoids showing too much of the family eagerly awaiting Daddy, concentrating instead on the tribulations of the mismatched travellers.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is essentially a two-hander, pitting Steve Martin’s repressed achiever Neal Page against John Candy’s affable average Joe, Del Griffith. The two are chalk and cheese and most of the comedy comes not from the outlandish situations they find themselves in – though these are plenty funny – but the relationship they develop through the nightmare journey. At times content to rub along together, at others rubbing each other up the wrong way, Martin and Candy are chalk and cheese, and inspired casting. Martin explodes with apoplectic rage when the world doesn’t work exactly as it should; Candy rolls with the punches and, for a very good reason, lets nothing upset him. But more of that later.

From the start, Griffith gets in Page’s way, Del’s trunk causing Neal to lose a taxi to the airport. The flight they both ultimately get is re-routed and circumstances lead to both men staying in the same hotel room overnight. This whole scene sets the film up beautifully, as the pair first display their resentment towards each other, then cosy up unconsciously overnight. The reaction of the men to discovering their intimacy next morning (Martin: ‘Those aren’t PILLOWS!!’) is fondly remembered as a classic scene in film comedy.

The tortuous progress home contains a lot of laughs and not too much contrivance (the swapped credit cards and young burglar spring to mind), but one scene, at the car rental desk, sticks out as out of character with the rest of the film. Martin’s constant swearing when venting his suppressed fury at the desk clerk was something I had not seen before – the film is usually considered suitable for early evening broadcast, with this bit heavily edited – and the joke adds very little, in my opinion. If the rest of the film were like Trainspotting it would be entirely in context, but then it would be an entirely different sort of movie.

Anyway, it’s not all laughs. The tragedy behind Candy’s character is not that he will be late to see his family, but that he does not have a family to see, his beloved wife having passed away eight years previously. Hughes displays his skill as a writer in dropping clues throughout that lead the viewer and Neal to this discovery at about the same time; and it is a testament to John Candy that he conveys and conceals this sadness at the same time as, on the surface, coming across as a good-natured oaf.

It’s a triumph, too, that the story is resolved without dissolving into hopelessly mawkish sentimentality; and whilst schmaltz isn’t entirely avoided (would the Pages really welcome a stranger into their house with open arms?), none of the emotion is forced on the viewer, Martin and Candy showing restraint and honesty which marks them out as not only great comic actors, but good actors full stop. While the film is perfect viewing for ‘The Holidays,’ the two central performances make Planes, Trains and Automobiles a worthwhile experience at any time.