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.
As the fifth year at Hogwarts begins most of the wizardry world is having a hard time believing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has returned further propagated by the Ministry of Magic who refuses to recognize anything evil is brewing and blames all the hullabaloo on Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). The Ministry even interferes with Hogwarts business by making Ministry employee Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor whose outwardly sweet demeanor hides a sadistic streak a mile wide. She thinks the children should only learn about the Dark Arts “theoretically” and tortures all those who disagree. But the Voldemort threat is a reality and Dumbledore has re-formed the Order of the Phoenix a group of witches and wizards that prepares to battle the Dark Lord. Harry is unfortunately being kept in the dark for his protection of course even as his connection to Voldemort grows stronger and he’s royally peeved at being ignored. Urged on by Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) he forms his own order of Hogwarts students called Dumbledore’s Army to teach them what defenses against the Dark Arts he has already learned. Oh yeah Harry also shares his first kiss but make no bones about it—love is the furthest thing on Harry’s mind when the crap hits the fan. War is imminent. Everyone steps up their game in Order of the Phoenix. Radcliffe Watson and Grint have shed their adolescent whininess and aw-shucks goofiness to give their characters the greatest depth so far. They are forced to grow up pretty quickly in Order with little time for any playfulness and the three actors handle the seriousness with aplomb. Of course both Radcliffe and Grint have already ventured out of the Potter world—Radcliffe shed more than just adolescence on stage in a production of Equus while Grint lost his virginity in the indie Driving Lessons--and their extra experience shows in Order. Also good are Matthew Lewis as the usually clumsy Neville Longbottom who shows his mettle in more ways than one and newcomer Evanna Lynch as the slightly off-kilter Luna Lovegood who proves to be a loyal member of Dumbledore’s Army. But the kids have to keep up with the talented adult cast especially Oscar-nominated Staunton (Vera Drake) as Umbridge. The veteran actress’ interpretation of one of J.K. Rowling’s nastiest characters so far in the Potter lore is spot-on down to the pink wool suits and irritating twitter “ahem” she uses when she wants your undivided attention. Helena Bonham Carter also makes an impression however over the top it is as the evil Voldemort follower Bellatrix Lestrange. Does she ever want to look pretty onscreen? Then there’s the laundry list of Brits whose time onscreen may be short but is nonetheless memorable including Alan Rickman as the sneering Prof. Snape; Gambon as the wise but flawed Dumbledore; Gary Oldman as the kindly Sirius Black Harry’s only real family; and of course Fiennes as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. His late-in-the-game appearance once again throws you for a loop. It stands to reason that at five movies in moviegoers would have a favorite Harry Potter flick by now. Those who love those Triwizard Tournament special effects might feel The Goblet of Fire was the best; or Prisoner of Azkaban for its time-bending action. Yet The Order of the Phoenix may be the one movie that speaks directly to the fans of the books. Without as much wide-eyed wonderment or wizardry flash the story is still chockfull of compelling details that are absolutely pivotal to the continuing Harry Potter saga. Screenwriter Michael Goldenberg (Peter Pan) and director David Yates (HBO’s The Girl in the Café) manage to wade through this volume of information and cut successfully to the chase with great effect. Yates who has signed on to do the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince even shows an affinity for action in the final dramatic confrontation between good witches and wizards and bad ones. But overall Order of the Phoenix may leave audiences not as well-versed in the novels a little itchy for some good old-fashioned wand-waving and Disney special effects. Thing is it’s just going to keep getting darker and darker for Harry and his crew. The days of happy fun playtime are over.
Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell) narrates the life story of the man the myth the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer) who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) who urges her son to take charge as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin and his Macedonian troops longing for home Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33 Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.
Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter yet loving mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father Philip in all of his grotesque wine-soaked glory. Powerful driven and battle-scarred Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles Hopkins is great as always this time in the thankless role of the narrator while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion Alexander's long-time companion boyhood friend and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)
Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong three-hour form--continuously holds your attention especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean honestly once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace Pella's tension Babylon's opulence and India's richness. Yet as wonderful as the landscapes are it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies rather than dying of an "unknown" illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge and he did so much that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important namely Alexander's renowned conquests while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother father and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian and the other histories this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.