Tuesday, December 10, 2019

For the Beauty of the Earth: A HIDDEN LIFE

"Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." James 4:17
 
From Terrence Malick, among the most earnest and spiritual of all filmmakers, comes A Hidden Life, a story of how difficult it can be to live a moral life in extreme times. How timely, and how timeless. In its persuasive, all-enveloping, overwhelming style, it’s a story of how small one person’s struggles can be against the enormity of nature’s landscapes, and the apocalyptic stakes of global conflict. And yet, one person’s struggles are enormous, a massive interior space with a thousand interconnected emotional tendrils tying him to his family, his community, his country, and his world. What is done to the least, is done to all. Malick’s interest in the interconnectedness of one another and to larger spiritual sensitivities, so beautifully explored in the expansive Tree of Life and the interior To the Wonder, is here aligned with a historical narrative that adds a dread trajectory, a sense of dark doom chugging like a distant locomotive underneath the pastoral beauty. It takes place in Austria during World War II. A farmer (August Diehl) and his wife (Valerie Pachner) live a simple life planting, harvesting, doing household chores, looking after his elderly widowed mother, and raising three adorable daughters. And yet, what has happened to their country? Their fellow citizens are enthralled to a bigoted strongman who goads violence against minorities and uses bellicose invasive rhetoric against their foreign neighbors, who cages those he deems unwanted, and threatens to crush any dissenters, as a lack of deference paid to this ruler makes one a traitor. It is probably inevitable that this peaceful farmer will be called to the front, and forced to pledge allegiance to Hitler to do so. Failure will mean imprisonment, torture, death. He prays. He talks to his wife. He consults his priest. And yet, when the time comes, only he can decide how deeply held his beliefs really are. The movie builds an accumulation of detail, piling up Malick’s attention to casual poetry of everyday life: a small dazzle of light on the ground, the soft soothing wind through the grass, the gentle play of a child, or the comfort of a ritual. We feel all too acutely what the evil of the world evokes to protect, even as it erodes and destroys.

Malick, pushing his discursive, intuitive editing and sensitive, wandering camera into emotive abstraction of late — Song to Song and Knight of Cups, his circuitous stories of romance and mental anguish against semi-autobiographical showbiz backdrops, are perhaps the loosest and most hypnotic films on the bounds of mainstream cinema in recent memory, at once empathetic and abstruse — here weds his style to a narrative with a stations-of-the-cross rehearsal of one man’s stubborn refusal to swear loyalty to a cause he rightly views as evil. In the early going, Joerg Widmer’s crystal-sharp scope cinematography finds enormous natural beauty dwarfing the farm, threatening to swallow up their village with overwhelming beauty. How can there be danger in a place so close to nature, so close to God, the mountains stretching high until fog and clouds are one, vast verdant fields and flowing hilly pastures canting at steep angles offset by the tilting camera. Everything is at peace, but as virulently patriotic villagers stormily invade the spaces of the farmer and his wife — skulking at the edges of frames or sauntering up drunk on prejudice and wagging index fingers — it’s clear the toxic influence of the Nazi propaganda is awakening ugliness that’ll be hard to contain or reverse. The masks are off, the farmer murmurs in one line of Malickian voice overs that run, per his custom, in spare, direct, moving monologues used as lyrical counterpoints and underpinnings to the gorgeous montages cut cleanly and evocatively in his typically poetic rhythms. As the film’s arc pushes the farmer into smaller boxes, backing him into political corners that become prisons figurative and literal, he holds fast to his deep moral belief that to assist the Nazis, no matter how trivially or even to simply save his own life, is to become one. No amount of hectoring from neighbors or pleading from elders or punishments from government officials can change his mind. It’s a tragedy about the toll goodness can take; it dares to look at the damage doing the right thing can inflict upon a person, upon a family, when everyone around is succumbing to the wrong things simply because it’s easier to go along to get along. It’s one thing to know there’s a deep evil stirring in your countrymen; it’s another entirely to risk everything to resist being a passive witness to it. One small personal act of resistance will not change the grand scheme of things. But what if the greater cost is to do nothing?

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Into the Storm: DARK WATERS

You know the legal thriller is really working when the faxing sequence is tremendously suspenseful and exquisitely cathartic. By the time it gets to that point in Dark Waters, the film had its hooks in me something fierce. It’s based on the true story of a lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who, after years as a corporate attorney for chemical companies, takes on the case of a family friend of a friend, a small-town West Virginia farmer (Bill Camp) whose cows are dying off. He thinks it has something to do with the DuPont landfill next door. Intrigued, the big city legal expert pokes around in the case, and the deeper he looks, the darker the picture grows, until he’s convinced he has mountains of evidence proving the corporation has been covering up the danger of one of its most popular chemicals, and has turned a blind eye to the systematic poisoning of the community around its main factory. Ah, but proving it in a court of law, let alone getting fair settlements for the victims, is another thing entirely. A tense film of determined investigation and slow-boiling righteous indignation, director Todd Haynes fully inhabits the mode required of this sharp film of creeping dread and knife-twisting legal complications. Haynes is a filmmaker always sensitive to his character’s moods and attuned to the ways in which society’s structures affect them. Look no further than his swooning, ice-pick-pointed melodramas like Far from Heaven and Carol, in which prejudice and romance are inextricably tied up, or his underrated Wonderstruck, in which secret family trauma echoes across time, or his cult classic unauthorized Karen Carpenter movie Superstar, in which Barbies play all the roles as both experimental provocation and a soulful evocation of a pop star’s objectification made literal. In Dark Waters, the threats to the environment are slowly revealed through documentation and study, and the pollution oozes as sinisterly and secretly as the ways in which the companies maneuver to avoid responsibility. Shorn of overt message movie sentimentality, the film is grimly clear-eyed about how the struggle takes a toll on the human beings at its center, and is as determined as its lead to see it through.

The deeper it goes, the harder it is to shake. Ruffalo has a perfect exhausted energy, ground down by the system, even as he’s enlivened by his newfound purpose. He goes from being a comfortable corporate lawyer, to needing to pull apart the system from the inside out. He risks losing his good-paying job for daring to question the human costs of the business he once was paid to defend. His wife (Anne Hathaway) and children are sympathetic, but as the years stretch on with little progress, it’s hard to watch the toll it takes on him. How does one fight something so overwhelming, when those paid to ignore the problem can outspend and out-wait your efforts? Haynes understands this human fragility is both the reason for protections against corporate malfeasance, and for why it’s so difficult to make them count. He expresses this in the methodical turns of the story — a piercing stab of dread and regret as each new horror sinks in, and the futility of the attempts to fight it threatens to linger indefinitely — and in the blocking that emphasizes the quotidian lopsidedness of the struggle. One striking moment finds Ruffalo small in the frame next to his boss (Tim Robbins), a tall, imposing presence who is often sympathetic, but also conscious of the effect this hitherto profit-less crusade has on their other chemical-company clients. The shot accentuates their physical differences to highlight their unspoken power differential. Its this soft power of paychecks and workplace dynamics (the shadowy, fluorescent cinematography emphasizing sterile-yet-sickly boardrooms and business dinners as eerily as cattle’s illness) that’s discouragement as much as the overt corporate skullduggery and legal maneuvering. So, too, are the disappointed townspeople who see the dogged pursuit of accountability drag on and on without satisfying resolution, and, besides, doesn’t DuPont bring great jobs to town? (A host of great character performers fill out both sides of the case, with constant well-drawn human interest in the legal tension.) It’s no wonder, caught in the middle, our lead grows tired. Unappreciated, underestimated, under pressure, he’s weary. We see how it’s poisoned him; the only cure is to keep fighting for the truth.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

High Hopes: WILD ROSE and THE AERONAUTS

The year 2019 turned out to be a big one for British director Tom Harper. Previously best known on these shores, if at all, for 2015’s perfectly agreeable modern Hammer horror effort The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, his output this year encompasses two major prestige efforts. At least, that’s how their American distributors have positioned them. The films themselves wear their prestige qualities lightly, and, though they hail from dependably Oscar-y sub-genres and have the glossy handsome look of respectability about them, there’s a generosity of tone and humanity of spirit that enlivens what could be predictable, and makes imminently watchable works. The more successful of the two was this past summer’s small sleeper hit Wild Rose, a film about a scrappy Scottish woman (Jessie Buckley) and her quixotic dream to be a big American country star. It may seem an improbable dream, especially once you see she’s a single mom just out of prison with two kids waiting for her with her mother (Julie Walters). Immediately, a cynical viewer might start slotting the potential storyline into a conventional mode. If she can’t make steps toward her goal, we’re looking at kitchen-sink social realism. If she can, we’re looking at a sentimental rags-to-riches. But Nicole Taylor’s sharp and entertaining screenplay is wiser than that, imbued with a sense of specificity and heart that never steps wrong. It has both heartbreak and hardship, every success hard-won, every setback painfully felt. The result is a movie as warm and wise and true as the best country story songs. Buckley plays the lead as determined, optimistic yet realistic, sparkling and spunky and, yes, a helluva country singer. (The music is wall-to-wall and excellent.) We can see her dream should become true, even if others can’t. She’s charming and talented, but only a half-step ahead of sadness or despair. She’s falling behind fast — bills to pay, kids to raise, an ankle monitor that limits her ability to take advantage of a fluke of good fortune, let alone take a gig. That her mother sternly advises her to give up feels as kind as it is cruel; but so, too, is her wealthy employer (Sophie Okonedo) as she advises her to go for it. There’s no easy answer. Here’s a movie that is an unusually warm and clear-eyed look at what so often becomes behind-the-music cliche or pat blindly-follow-your-dreams foolishness. It understands with poignant, matter-of-fact clarity how difficult in can be to accept a lucky break and turn it into something bigger when you’re starting from a place of such disadvantage. The quotidian struggle, the painful mistakes, and the missed opportunities make the glimpses of success all the more powerfully bittersweet in a movie this vibrant and full of life. It earns every ounce of its uplift.

Harper’s other film of the year, opening just in time for the holidays, is the shallower and yet more visually striking The Aeronauts. It’s a based-on-a-true-story period picture whose commitment to the true story ends with the fact that there was an important hot air balloon experiment in 1862 England. The film really is as simple as it sounds: a pilot (Felicity Jones) and a weather scientist (Eddie Redmayne) want to see how high they can take a hot air balloon. It goes up really high, which, as you might expect for the first time such a thing has happened, gives them all kinds of wonderful views and terrifying complications. It gets cold. There are storm clouds. And how does one land this thing? This is the full extent of the film’s present-tense action, with the characters’ backstories filled in with studious flashbacks that pad out the runtime and give some emotional scaffolding to the awe-struck imperiled figures adrift in the skies. With such a thin story structure, Harper is free to demonstrate a true This is Cinerama or even L'arrivĂ©e d'un train level of simple visual power. It’s a case of a wow, look at that thing go! conception executed well, expertly realized and utterly convincing in its blend of practical and computer effects. When on the ground, George Steel’s cinematography has fine, overfamiliar, burnished period piece style, shot in scope with all the finest frippery of mid-1800’s detail in the costuming and production design. But get it up in the air, and the frame opens to full IMAX height, conjuring the most vertiginous filmmaking this side of Zemeckis’ skyscraper tightrope The Walk as they lean over the edge or, worse still, climb up the rigging. It thus builds great tension out of the mere height of the thing, gaping in wonder as the balloon passes through clouds or drifts above a town, or gripping tight as the characters must scramble around the balloon. Because Jones and Redmayne are capable at playing charm and vulnerability, it’s always evident that they’re one wrong decision away from plummeting and they do enough to make one hope not to see such a thing. They hold their own against the immense backdrop of this spectacular view. From such a simple idea comes a movie that’s captivating enough, capable of reminding one that a relatively simple story’s ability to be told on a scale of this enormity is one of the reasons we go out to the movies.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Body Politic: THE REPORT and QUEEN & SLIM

Two movies out this weekend take politics as an explicit subject and make it personal. Their ideas and ideals are embodied in flesh and blood characters who are sensitively drawn and inhabited. They also come out of dependable lineages: one a based-on-a-true-story procedural docudrama, the other an agitprop thriller-of-sorts. The former is The Report, a rare directorial effort for its screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who has written a number of Soderbergh films from this past decade. As with those works — like Contagion and The Laundromat — this one has a cool layer of clinical just-the-facts terseness that’s continually enlivened by an impassioned ensemble. It follows a determined Senate staffer (Adam Driver) assigned by his boss, California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), to lead an investigation into the CIA’s use of torture — infamously euphemised as “enhanced interrogation” — in the War on Terror. Over the course of years, he doggedly reads through thousands of documents and takes testimony of whistleblowers, all the while given the run-around by two administrations who’d rather not dig up too much of a mess. In fact, the CIA itself refuses to make its employees available for official interviews, stonewalls every attempt to corroborate basic facts, disputes every finding of which they catch wind, and disappears critical documents from the servers to which they have granted access. The film is as single-minded in its drive toward justice as its main character, seeing it maddeningly delayed and denied even as the mounting evidence is ever more sickening and overwhelmingly convincing.

Burns cuts all character down to the bone, devoting no time to the personal lives of these figures. Instead, it’s all back rooms and black sites, plush offices and austere conference rooms in which the critical work of keeping citizens safe with high ideals of transparency and ethics is regularly plowed under or studiously ignored by people too cowardly to do anything about it lest they jeopardize their job, or the power of their office. A swirl of recognizable actors in suits — Jon Hamm, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Sarah Goldberg, Tim Blake Nelson, Ted Levine, Scott Shepherd, Matthew Rhys, and more — speak the roles’ serious points with clipped professionalism and excellent shorthand personalities. Burns juggles an enormous amount of facts and faces, in ways reminiscent of All the President’s Men and Spotlight, with clarity and intelligence, navigating the competing goals and half-spoken power plays that consume this search for truth. A thriller about research, it makes its claims and proves them thoroughly and in dramatic fashion. It’s compelling every step of the way, and, by picking its moments sparingly and well, earns its righteous indignation in tense monologues and grim final title cards. I was reminded of an aphorism Soderbergh tweeted years ago: “When the person in charge won't get to the bottom of something, it's usually because they are at the bottom of that something.”

Queen & Slim is a woozier affair, dreamy and romantic even as it never loses a fatal undercurrent sparked by its provocative what-if? inciting incident. It starts with a first date, hesitant and awkward. He (Daniel Kaluuya) is a sad-eyed Costco clerk looking for a fun night; she (Jodie Turner-Smith) is a lawyer looking for a temporary reprieve to her loneliness. His car ever-so-slightly swerves, barely crossing a lane of traffic, but enough of a reason for a cop to pull them over. Driving while black appears to be the charge, and when the officer gets flustered and frustrated that they haven’t been drinking and have no contraband in the vehicle, he takes offense at an honest inquiry and pulls a gun. By the end of the confusion that follows, the cop is dead on the side of the road. The accidental cop-killing couple is left with no choice but to run, certain that no police force in the country would believe it was self-defense. What follows could be a white-knuckle chase picture, but is instead a languid road trip as they make their way south in hopes of avoiding capture, perhaps somewhere below the border eventually. There’s a sense of futility and doom to their endeavor even before a garrulous pimp (Bokeem Woodbine) calls them “the black Bonnie and Clyde.” Director Melina Matsoukas — the filmmaker behind striking music videos, including a portion of Beyonce’s brilliant Lemonade — gives it all a glowing style, contemplative and deliberative, with perfectly-composed stretches of moody lighting, expressive blocking and poised motion. She has a great eye. The film photographs skin so it glows, places so they shine, poses so they become easily iconographic. There’s a moment where Queen and Slim get their picture taken lounging on the hood of a car and, even before it shows up again, knows it was a memorable image — it’d make a great poster or t-shirt if and when the movie becomes a cult object.

There’s a carefully composed cool to the film, which could perhaps run counter to the underlying anger at the unfairness in this world, but is poignant as the characters themselves wrestle with knowing that what they’ve done and who they are will be reduced, their complicated emotions and lives whittled down until their legacy is mere legend. Lena Waithe’s script plays off the justified outrage from a decade marked by tragic viral cell phone videos of police executing unarmed black people, and the resulting swirl of attention ending in the officers, more often than not, getting away with it. That the film opens with a forceful reversal of the sadly typical conclusion is a tremendous jolt. Its energy powers the film through its dull patches and misjudged moments. The uneven episodes on their trip — encounters with a variety of black folks, a few white wild cards, and a handful of cops — are sometimes tense, sometimes funny, sometimes sad, always poised in the same hazy mood of melancholy. It’s as uneven and prolonged as it is lit up with ideas. Even when the film goes totally off the mark — there’s a violent plot turn in a protest that’s both more than the film needs and cross-cut with a steamy sex scene; that throws the film off balance for next few sequences — it’s not for lack of trying.

Throughout the lead characters are specific and symbolic, their romance as real as the positions into which they are placed can be forced. It’s never entirely a character drama it often is. The people can be too composed under the style. And it's never fully the blaxploitation riff it skirts around -- resisting the potential for genre play most of the time, even as it leans on some of its signifiers. It's both and neither. The film is too serious-minded to be reduced to tropes, but too energized by its premise to avoid it entirely. Call it prestige exploitation. What’s ultimately moving about the picture, though, is how these characters are allowed to be with each other, in the ultimate bad first date that lingers and expands, trapped together with plenty of time to connect and contrast until the inevitable end. At one point, Slim asks why they can’t just be — a question that hangs over the film as the promise of extrajudicial violence hangs over the characters. Who would they be if they weren't now defined by the constant potential threat to their bodies?

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Cutting Class: KNIVES OUT

One of writer-director Rian Johnson’s greatest qualities is his ability to surprise without sacrificing his trustworthiness as a storyteller. His films are idiosyncratic without being unduly erratic, thoughtfully engaged with their chosen genres without stepping outside of their tropes, capable of grand loop-de-loops surprising audience expectations while making the outcome beautifully air-tight inevitable. He’s a mainstream filmmaker — recently with appealing sci-fi spectacles like moody time-travel assassin thriller Looper and the soulful, satisfying Last Jedi — aware of both the necessary elephantine expressions of recognizable story mechanics and burrowing termite interest of carefully selected specific details. He can take us effortlessly into places we’d never expect, because at every step of the way, we know we’re in good hands. He’s as clever as he is knowledgeable. His new film, Knives Out, is a wickedly well-done murder mystery, indebted indisputably to hundreds of detectives stories of yore, and yet plays out its story so fluidly and delightfully that it feels fresh nonetheless. As the movie begins, an elderly millionaire mystery author (Christopher Plummer) has been found in his study with his throat slit and a knife in his hand. The local cops (Lakeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) are prepared to call it a suicide when a well-known detective (Daniel Craig, with a melodious Southern accent) steps in to consult on the case. He’s prepared to look at every detail again, and scrutinize every member of the dead writer’s squabbling, privileged family. Sure, the case appears open-and-shut, but he just wants to see it with his fresh eyes, eliminating no possibilities and no suspects. Holmes and Poirot and Dupin would be proud. In Johnson’s hugely entertaining screenplay, bristling with witty asides, barbed feints, and prickly offhand political resonance, the family members are interviewed, with plenty of brisk, bantering back-and-forth editing into and out of interlocking flashbacks sketching in the moments leading up to the mysterious death. So many have motives, and so many witnesses weave in and out of other’s stories, that it’ll take a while to untangle the knotty web, to winnow the suspects' bratty rich-kid motives from those capable of murderous intent.

It’s a terrific ensemble, perfectly cast, every person on screen, down to the smallest one-scene roles, quickly, expertly characterized with energetic shorthand and snappy individualism. There’s the regal real estate mogul daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis), her duplicitous husband (Don Johnson), and their entitled grown boy (Chris Evans); a business-manger son (Michael Shannon) and his glowering alt-right offspring (Jaden Martel); a shallow daughter-in-law (Toni Collette) and her differently-shallow daughter (Kathryn Langford); and, in the center of the madness, a home health aide (Ana de Armas) whose sweetness and good heart made her a kind companion to the late old man, but leaves her on the outside looking in as the vultures circle. Whodunnit is of course the primary question, but as Johnson unravels his tale, the why’d-they-dunnit becomes as interesting. As in all good detective stories, the personalities and the accumulation of clues are as deeply pleasurable as the eventual reveals where the puzzle snaps into place, and Johnson places each new piece on the table with stylish verve. The whip-smart cutting and pace stays just ahead of the characters and just behind the mystery’s solution, while never going out of its way to hide its cards or throw up false tangents to shake off the scent. It all falls into place with a logical snap, each payoff set up, even when you didn’t realize it at the time. The production design — a big house full of creaky staircases and teetering bookshelves and morbid knickknacks — is a handsomely cozy setting, fitting such a tale. As one investigator quips, the old man lived in a Clue board. The camera work is energetic and inspired — and, oh, so beautifully textured — without distracting from the cool logic of the proceedings, while the characters are broad yet warm, at once caricatures yet imbued with all-too-understandable humanity. It’s richly developed, never just a film of pawns in a master-mystery-mind’s game. That’s how well this game is played. This is the best film of its kind in quite some time.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Hurt Too Deep: MARRIAGE STORY

Marriage Story starts at an ending. The couple has decided to divorce. Aside from warm flashback montages that open the film as a stream-of-consciousness exercise held in a marriage counselor’s office, we don’t see the good times. Or rather, we only glimpse what must’ve been good times reflected in bad times as we hear the parties puzzling over the fault lines in the relationship. As the divorce grows more fraught and contentious, formal negotiations and lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as a trio of well-observed caricatures) drain the couple’s resources and their capacity for forgiveness. In order to convince themselves that the strife of splitting up is worth it in the end, they need to start telling themselves a marriage story that minimizes the good times. It’s a film of people drifting apart who, upon deciding to split, snowball down opposite sides of a hill, the distance between them rapidly widening as their differences start relatively small and grow irreconcilable. This is literalized when she moves to Los Angeles, leaving him in New York. The space between them becomes as insurmountable as their actual distance. When their lawyers talk to one another more than they do, any hopes of an easy, amicable split are gone for good.

There’s a pang of painful truth running through every scene of Noah Baumbach’s screenplay. (That some of the details align with his own divorce some years earlier lends it an added patina of extra-textual realism.) He brings the dilemma to life on screen with the relaxed ease of a graying master, an expert at dramatizing his clever, literary dialogue with a perfectly judged long-take or a sudden crushing tightness in a well-chosen cut into a close-up. The filmmaking here is warm and sharp, halfway between his elegant Meyerowitz Stories’ deeply-felt intergenerational dynamics and his bruising The Squid and the Whale’s emotionally penetrating divorce dysfunction. As the two halves of this film’s fractured marriage, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are compellingly complicated. They are painfully human, both capable of careless selfishness and achingly vulnerable empathy. The result is prickly scenes riding a razor’s edge, with clear care between the two of them even when twisting small slights into defining statements of purpose, or escalating a legitimate concern into an avoidable verbal collision. The film’s structure pulls the picture’s sympathies between the two of them — much like their young son is suddenly navigating two parental relationships instead of seeing them as a United whole. “He’s just telling you what he thinks you want to hear,” one says to the other, about their son’s desire to make his parents happy, even in this most stressful situation. But aren’t they all just telling themselves about the past in a way that’ll make their present choices go down easier? The real marriage story is the justification they need along the way.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Ice to See It: FROZEN II

Frozen was a clever musical fairy tale in the best Disney Animation tradition, with instantly classic showstopper numbers and a fine focus on sisterly connection over romantic love. Now here’s Frozen II, a rare full-fledged theatrical follow-up to one of the studio’s animated hits. It’s not the movie its predecessor was: darker, weirder, more of a wispy epic fantasy quest retrofitted on the original’s economical emotional purity. Returning writer-director Jennifer Lee, co-director Chris Buck, and the whole Disney team’s best idea is to take the first film’s happy ending as a mere pause—asserting from the opening number here that nothing is permanent. (Not even the first film’s fan base, as a character early on looks straight down the faux-camera and quips “you all look a little bit older,” a lyric that lands with fleetingly poignant impact.) The new picture takes as a given that the emotional complexity of its lead sister duo’s relationship to each other and to their royal positions is a complicated, evolving thing. This welcome note of complexity is furthered by the movie’s rather lovely approach to conflict, which manufactures no new villain. Instead the filmmakers are content to make new stakes out of mistakes of generations prior whose effects are still felt in their modern day, and the chance that the current generation may lack the capacity or the will to fix a slowly evolving, yet inevitably apocalyptic problem before it’s too late.

You see, long ago their kingdom isolated a nearby indigenous population, and in the present are confronted with a violent weather pattern — fire! wind! earthquakes! — that escalates. Only Ice Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), now blooming with frosty super-heroine potential, and her plucky sister Anna (Kristen Bell), now wiser than her earlier naive lovestruck state, can trek their way into the north, following a literal call to adventure to save their people. So, yes, it’s a Disney princess musical about the twin problems of a country’s unexamined tribalism and stubbornness in the face of a crisis, and about how what you need to move forward may not fit with the easy happy ever after you thought you’d gained. All this and Josh Gad’s singing comic relief snowman, too. It makes the movie a slightly woolier affair, and gives it a potent minor key counter melody that never quite resolves. The songs themselves are also heavier, a Broadway base undergirding a mix of heavy metal and emo inspiration with harsher toned guitars and mopier introspection, including an 80's-style power ballad for Jonathan Groff. I bet the whole thing's bound to be one of those prickly, bittersweet family movies that becomes a fondly remembered curio for today’s kids who’ll return to it a decade or two hence and think, wow, can you believe that’s what that was? It doesn’t quite hit it out of the park like its inspiration, but what a satisfying swing of a sequel to admit that growing into the person you’ll become is a never-ending process, a goal always just past the horizon, and still have you leave the theater humming.