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.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Georgia’s love life and career have hit a wall in America so she takes a trip to her ancestral home of Greece and gets a job as a tour guide on a rickety bus in Athens. Her insistence on spouting off endless historical facts tends to bore the tourists however and she becomes the least-popular guide and the target of a ruthless competitor. But as she navigates her way through the ruins of the country and her own life she manages to find new friends a new outlook and romance where she least expected it.
WHO’S IN IT?
It seemed only natural after the blockbuster success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (still the most profitable romantic comedy of all time) that its star Nia Vardalos would attempt a sequel. But after a failed attempt at a sitcom My Life in Ruins is about as close as she’s going to come. As Georgia a no-nonsense tour guide whose life is slowly transformed by the wonders of Greece Vardalos is right at home. She’s attractive likeable and could probably do this role in her sleep. As her unkempt bus driver who turns from a frog into a prince Alexis Georgoulis is the epitome of Greek geek. Getting the pole tourist position as Irv Richard Dreyfuss is warm and corny as a bad-joke-telling widower. The rest of the bus is intentionally paired off into various two-note stereotypes. Take your pick. There are obnoxious Americans (Harland Williams and Rachel Dratch) obnoxious Australians (Simon Gleeson and Natalie O’Donnell) obnoxious Brits (Ian Ogilvy and Caroline Goodall) with an obnoxious daughter (Sophie Stuckey) oversexed Spanish divorcees (Maria Botto and Maria Adanez) an old lady who steals stuff (Sheila Bernette) and a business guy who can’t stop texting (Brian Palermo). As Georgia’s scheming rival tour guide Alistair McGowan also plays it just the way we expect. No surprises with this group.
Despite the unimaginative sitcom-ish screenplay and Donald Petrie’s uninspired direction My Life in Ruins has two things going for it: Vardalos and Greece. Her fans will probably flock to the theater and once there they will be treated to a gorgeously-photographed tour of some of the country’s most spectacular sights including the rarely filmed (at least in mainstream movies) Acropolis.
Unfortunately the filmmakers rely all too heavily on the glories of Greece to get by. Perhaps with more effort there might have been a MOVIE to match. Sticking a bunch of stereotypes on a bus and hoping for nonstop hilarity just doesn’t cut it. Those looking for pure escapist fluff will probably have a good time watching My Life in Ruins but they’ll find more genuine laughs in a Greek tragedy.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
If the bad economy is cutting summer vacation plans and you need a sightseeing fix a trip to the mall to see this big fat Greek tourism informercial might be just the ticket. For everyone else just hit the beach instead.
Breaking and Entering is sometimes contrived as films of this sort tend to be but is executed smoothly enough by screenwriter/director Anthony Minghella to succeed on some levels. Will (Jude Law) is an architect whose office in the seedier King’s Cross area of London is ransacked by thieves. He tracks one of them down and encounters Amira (Juliette Binoche) a Bosnian immigrant single mother with whom he becomes infatuated. Their illicit relationship ultimately has unforeseen consequences for all concerned including Will’s girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) and Amira’s son Miro (Rafi Gavron). There aren’t many laughs but the film does try to offer an insight into what drives – and impedes – its characters’ emotional impulses Law is good Binoche is better than good and Wright Penn is better than usual. If there’s one element that elevates Breaking and Entering to a higher level it’s the performances. Vera Farmiga who played the only female role of any consequence in The Departed delivers a scene-stealing turn as a resilient Bosnian streetwalker while the always-welcome Ray Winstone turns up (all too briefly) as a canny cop. Given the success of Paul Haggis’ Crash and the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu it’s no surprise that other filmmakers are adopting the same attempting to cure (or at least address) various social issues by having disparate characters whose seemingly random interactions have consequences (both good and bad) for all concerned. Minghella an Oscar winner for The English Patient does have a knack for bringing out the best – or at least the good – in his actors even those in smaller roles. At least Breaking and Entering is more comfortably paced than Minghella’s last film the picturesque but lugubrious adaptation of Cold Mountain.