We live in an age where six-year-olds have iPhones most of our possessions live in a "cloud" and even the refrigerator connects to the Internet. Like it or not technology has infused itself into every aspect of our lives—so it seems appropriate (and terrifying) that even Santa Claus' gift delivery operation would upgrade to the 2.0 world. Arthur Christmas the latest film from Aardman Animation (the Wallace & Gromit films Chicken Run) introduces us to the newfangled operation. These days Santa (Jim Broadbent) is just a figurehead for a full-scale war game run by the militant Steve (Hugh Laurie) and his band of black ops elves who cruise the December skies in their souped up spaceship sleigh. Business is conducted in the most controlled manner with each elf equipped with dog food launchers and back-up tape dispensers in case of any on-ground mishaps. On the sidelines is Arthur (James McAvoy) a bumbling black sheep who outweighs the entire force in Christmas spirit but can barely stand on two feet.
The opening deliver sequence is expertly directed by Sarah Smith whose action is reminiscent of the highly energized Ratatouille injected with the quirky British humor one would expect from Aardman. But the dazzling setup doesn't turn Arthur Christmas into a bombastic holiday riff instead using its lead to dig underneath the 2.0 landscape to find true magic. When one present goes undelivered Arthur stands up against his complacent family members to right the holiday wrongs. The anxiety-ridden younger son teams up with his Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and an eager wrapper elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen) hitching up the classic sleigh and venturing into the great unknown all in the name of a young girl who might wake up gift-less.
The trio's adventure takes them around the globe from the busy streets of Toronto to a colorful Mexican town to the planes of an African wildlife preserve. With each wrong turn and each obstacle to overcome (outrunning a pack of lions while wearing reindeer slippers is no easy feat) Arthur's belief in the greatness of Santa and the wonders of the Christmas are tested. For kids it might be a familiar existential crisis but the warmth that accompanies Arthur's triumphant spirit should resonate with those young and old. That's an achievement in a Christmas movie but Smith's delicate balance of sentimentality and over-the-top humor blend and keep the movie moving at lightning speed.
The movie's 3D animation and stereoscopic display are top-notch but the real extra dimension comes from the cast. Aardman has a knack for realizing characters supporting or leads who feel fully developed—and Arthur Christmas is no exception. Smith and writer Peter Baynham (Borat Arthur) know when you trap the Claus family in the result will be brilliance: Steve commanding the floor Grandsanta telling "when I was young" stories Santa falling asleep Mrs. Claus (Imelda Staunton) keeping the peace and Arthur reminding everyone that it's Christmas. That's as real as actual Christmas dinner gets. The elves of the North Pole are equally eclectic and odd—even with hundreds of workers scurrying around the ship each one gets their time to land a joke. Overlaid on the rousing tale his a whimsical score by Harry Gregson-Williams that much like his work on Narnia feels simultaneously fantastical and exhilarating (as any good sleigh ride should).
There are so many Christmas movies in the pantheon of the season that it's almost unimaginable that another could slip in without relying on a gimmick or cynical spin but Arthur Christmas is as warm fuzzy and hilarious as they come. Crafted with authentic joy performed by lively voice actors and subtly imbued with jokes for all ages (no frame goes by without at least one sight or pun gag) those who catch it this year may find themselves returning every season. It's just that nice.
Welcome to My Best Friend’s Four Scottish Weddings and No Funeral. Indeed Made of Honor borrows heavily from both films which naturally leaves no surprises. Patrick Dempsey plays Tom a sexy successful guy who has all the luck with the ladies. His male friends (Kadeem Hardison Richmond Arquette Chris Messina) all envy him but Tom’s one constant in his life is his best friend Hannah (Monaghan). He doesn’t ever have to worry about wooing her; he can just be himself. But when Hannah goes overseas to Scotland on a six-week business trip Tom is stunned to realize how empty his life is without her. So he decides to come clean and tell her how she feels once she gets back--except she returns engaged to a Scottish duke (Kevin McKidd) who is just about the most perfect guy there is. D’oh! What’s a boy to do but break up the girl’s wedding and win her for himself? There’s no doubt Dempsey has become the poster boy for romantic comedies what with his turn in Enchanted and his McDreamy role on Grey's Anatomy. Problem is he generally never offers anything more than his handsome face leaving all the heavy lifting to his leading ladies i.e. Enchanted’s Amy Adams and now Honor’s Monaghan. This lovely actress who has proven herself to be more than just an ingénue in films such as Gone Baby Gone and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a natural effervescence which exudes in just about anything she does. She does everything in her power to drum up chemistry with the bland Dempsey--and we’re thankful for her effort. McKidd best known for playing the kick-ass Roman solider Lucius Vorenus on HBO's Rome has very little to do as the Scottish stud but effectively comes across as near-perfect. And Sydney Pollack also does a nice turn as Tom’s oft-married dad who gives his foolish son some sage words of advice. Made of Honor may be a derivative yawner but director Paul Weiland (City Slickers II) tries his best to inject some personality into the proceedings. The prelude to the wedding in Scotland is sort of fun. Us lowly Americans are introduced to many interesting Scottish customs like throwing tree trunks in a competition of strength--in kilts no less. Other than that there really isn’t anything going on of any major note. Honor’s only chance to make something of itself is if the ladies head into a different theater while their male companions go see Iron Man.
Attempting to delve into one of Tinseltown’s most curious scandals--the mysterious suicide (or was it?) of the original TV Superman actor George Reeves--the story begins after Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound during a late night party in his Benedict Canyon home. The case then unfolds through the eyes of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) a street-smart publicity hungry private dick hired by Reeves’ grieving mother. As Simo slowly peels back the layers of Reeves’ seemingly glamorous life he discovers an actor of charm talent and sophistication whose every opportunity for a big break fizzled forcing him to lead a frustrated existence slumming in the superhero show he deemed beneath him. Gradually identifying with Reeves’ failed expectations for himself Simo discovers a host of candidates who may have actually pulled the trigger on the actor including his young party girl paramour (Robin Tunney) his longtime lover and patron (Diane Lane) and his lover’s husband a powerfully connected studio “fixer” (Bob Hoskins). It is Brody not Affleck who carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and the Oscar winner delivers a finely etched turn as Simo who’s fractured potential mirrors Reeves’ but quite simply Simo’s story isn’t nearly as dark or engaging as Reeves’ life or the mystery surrounding his death. Affleck an actor who has had his share of ups downs duds and disappointments in Hollywood delivers one of his most charming and fully realized performances to date even if his spot-on recreation of Reeves’ speech pattern is a bit distracting. The luminous Lane’s acting talents remain in full blossom in a character she’s well-suited to play—the aging beauty fearing the road ahead—and she commands every scene she’s in. Unfortunately there should have been many many more of them. She’s almost criminally underused. Hoskins more menacing then ever and the reliable stable of supporting players like Joe Spano are all top-notch as well; only Tunney apparently trying to channel both Betty Boop and Bette Davis simultaneously seems a bit off her game as the wannabe femme fatale. Best known for his strong turns helming many of the best episodes of television series such as The Sopranos Sex and the City and Six Feet Under first time feature director Allen Coulter’s cool assured hand and meticulous recreation of Cold War Los Angeles are major bonuses here. Even when Simo’s story sags in comparison to Reeves’ Coulter keeps us interested particularly when staging the Rashomon-like sequences depicting the various theories behind Reeves’ demise. But by skimping on Reeves’ story in favor of a less compelling fictional framework built around a private detective investigating the case we never see one key suspect’s possible murder scenario enacted visually and it comes off as a glaring omission.
The story arc of Bridget Jones Part Deux is identical to the first except for one little detail: Instead of trying to find a man Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) worries about losing the one she's got. She has already climbed her highest mountain and dreamed her impossible dream she has her soulmate Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) all wrapped up in a little bow and yet the movie keeps going. And going. In the short span of four weeks together Bridget and Darcy have already become the couple that don't speak. She stares at him while he sleeps. He chastises her for it grumpily she apologizes and then she freaks out thinking that he will break up with her. Rinse and repeat. His slinky secretary (Jacinda Barrett) flirts ominously. Bridget feeds her insecurities by stuffing her face drinking like a sailor and then slurring insults at whatever passing character will provide the maximum of shame and embarrassment. It's charming really. Hugh Grant rears his scaly head as former paramour Daniel Cleaver and a song and dance routine breaks out in a Thai prison. I wish I was kidding.
The massive appeal of the character from the books and the first film isn't that difficult to understand. Bridget isn't the smartest girl or the prettiest girl or the thinnest girl but she still wins Prince Charming. She's sweet though and she's funny and she offsets Darcy's stuffiness in a neatly symmetrical opposites attract way. But if the point of Bridget the First is finding the character's attractiveness within the point of the sequel is that Bridget is fat and stupid and the object of our ridicule.
Zellweger famously put 25 pounds back on to reprise the role but this time it seems closer to 50. Bridget's fat is zoomed in on enlarged jiggled fetishized and dragged through pig dung. And her unabashed quest to humiliate herself in public knows no bounds. None of this is exactly Zellweger's fault--the screenplay is terrible for starters--and yet all of it is. She decided to take on a sequel with a character that had absolutely nowhere to go and she doesn't muster the energy needed to save her this time. Even the acclaimed Oscar-nominated English accent sounds a little shaky.
Grant and Firth are caddishness and constipation personified but the stereotypes are way too easy. Firth's Darcy is depicted as a saint of course but one begins to wonder what sickness lurks within a man who watches idly as his girlfriend humiliates herself so brazenly. Grant's Cleaver with his thirst for random conquest is at least explainable. But Darcy seems to crave a woman who will need a quick hook at every social event and a bib at every restaurant. Maybe it's not the slinky secretary Bridget should be worried about it's the bag lady feeding the pigeons. On a positive note Jacinda Barrett is hands down the greatest actress who has ever emerged from MTV's The Real World.
Beeban Kidron who directed the hideous drag melodrama To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar clearly doesn't get the Jones phenomenon. She ratchets up the camp factor well past tolerable pushes it into misguided slapstick and culminates in nails-to-the-chalkboard shrillness in the Thai prison. And making matters worse not a shred of effort appears to have been expended to make the whole undertaking any more original. Entire scenes are repeated from the first movie. The "Ugly Sweater" scene. The "Big Underwear" scene. The "Fight" scene. And so on. This isn't the first time a sequel has been a glorified remake; Desperado and Terminator 2 spring to mind. But at least those movies had some shred of ambition. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason aspires to nothing and succeeds handsomely.