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.
I hope that if alien cultures are monitoring our entertainment they take a pass on the film Planet 51. It may reverse the human/alien traditional roles by having the human astronaut be the fish out of water on an alien planet but xenophobia stopped being a funny or useful plot device by the mid-'80s. Any mildly cognizant alien intelligences would take one look at this movie and decide to check back on the human race in another hundred years.
Justin Long plays Lem just another awkward teenager a role Long is too long-in-the-tooth to play in person anymore but shortly he could (and very well may) make a career out of doing it in voice work. Lem wants to be an astronomer and is vying for a job at the local observatory. He wants to score with neighborhood hottie Neera (Jessica Biel) but he can never quite muster up the confidence to make his move. His friends obsessed with comics and science fiction movies of the googly-eyed alien invasion ilk aren’t helping either. The catch is that these are all green-skinned tentacle-haired no-genitaled aliens on a distant planet who without a hint of explanation are living their lives parallel to Earth’s 1950s.
Lem is finally starting to get his game on when his life is turned upside down by the inconvenient entry of Captain Charles “Chuck” Baker (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson). Chuck is a human being and an astronaut who has landed his ship on the titular planet expecting something more barren only to find himself on the run from a culture living in fear of invasion because of a popular series of alien invasion films. His only help to get back to his module and dock with his mother ship in orbit before his countdown runs out (?) is Lem and his group of nerdy friends. Adventure ostensibly ensues and lessons are eventually learned by all: The cowardly Lem learns self-confidence the arrogant Chuck learns humility and we’re all supposed to learn tolerance towards those different from us. Unfortunately the only lesson actually imparted here is to be more careful when choosing an animated sci-fi film on which to spend your money.
While the premise here -- turning a cliché on its head -- shows promise Planet 51 has only switched the players. Every dumb alien joke since E.T. flew in front of the moon (and of course that’s here too) is included in the unimaginative script penned by the presumably sleep-writing Joe Stillman (Shrek Beavis and Butt-Head Do America). There’s not even anything fun and fast-paced here to take advantage of the animated CG format and make up for the crushing boredom. Why even do this sort of thing without an eye-candy chase scene or two?
The cast members as talented as they may be fare no better with the nothing they’re given. Johnson sounds as if he was reading a children’s book out loud to kindergarteners and it’s exhausting listening to him pander. Long is going through the same ol’ motions that have made up the majority of his career thus far and Biel is ridiculously unnecessary since she is given practically nothing to say or do. You’d think appearances by John Cleese as an alien scientist or Gary Oldman as the general leading the search for Chuck would bring some creative juices or some (sadly lacking) clever humor to the affair but they never manage to get past the tedious nature of the material written for them.
If there was ever an animated film that needed a clever punch-up team it’s this one. Planet 51 lacks both style AND substance which is surprising given the wealth of opportunities you’d think would be presented here. Perhaps first-time Spanish director Jorge Blanco and new Madrid-based studio Ilion Animation were overconfident about making a children’s film. All I can think is that they must have assumed this was going straight to DVD anyway and no one would notice. Planet 51 deserves to be packed up in a dusty crate in a corner of the Area 51 warehouse never to be seen again.
Playing second fiddle to a more famous sibling can be rough. Just ask Fred Claus (Vaughn) a regular guy who has had to grow up under the shadow of his little brother Nicholas Claus (Paul Giamatti) aka Santa. That’s a big shadow to say the least both figuratively and literally. As an adult Fred has pretty much steered clear of his family but when he finds himself in dire need of some fast cash he calls his brother. Pleased as punch to hear from him Nicholas nonetheless makes him a deal: If he comes up to the North Pole for a visit and to help out the few days before Christmas then Fred can have the money. Fred reluctantly agrees and soon he’s being whisked off in Santa’s sleigh by head elf Willie (John Michael Higgins). But once Fred gets to the North Pole nothing seems to go right and soon he is the cause of much chaos--which unbeknownst to Fred causes Nicholas even more stress since his North Pole operation is one step away from being shut down by a cold-hearted efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey). Can Fred quit being bitter in time to save his brother’s livelihood? Of course he can. Hmmm Vince Vaughn minus the R-rated Wedding Crashers/Old School irreverence? It’s a stretch. Seeing the comic actor playing it PG is a little weird but you might enjoy how Vaughn infuses his unique energy into Fred Claus. From getting all the elves to boogie down in Santa’s workshop to going on one rant after another (on his brother: “He’s a clown a megalomaniac a fame junkie!”) to pilfering money on the street and then being chased by Salvation Army Santas it’s all good. Giamatti too seems a little out of his comfort zone as the saintly St. Nick. The actor who usually plays such endearing sad sacks has already played against type to great effect this year as the maniacal bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up but he isn't nearly as successful in doing the flipside of that in Fred Claus. And what the hell is Kevin Spacey doing in this? As the villain of the film he fills the shoes nicely but he is almost too good at it (natch) for such a feel-good family film. Even Higgins--a character actor who is usually so hilarious in films such as The Break Up and all of Christopher Guest’s movies—has to shed the cheekiness and sugar himself up for Fred Claus. There’s also Rachel Weisz as Fred’s beleaguered girlfriend (you heard right) and Kathy Bates as the Claus boys’ mother who always sees Fred as inferior to her other son to fill out a cast of big names doing family fare. Director David Dobkin is a Vince Vaughn favorite having directed him in Wedding Crashers and Clay Pigeons but like his muse Dobkin seems a little out of place guiding this material. Granted Dobkin creates a pretty magical North Pole complete with an entire city of little dwellings a Frosty Tavern and a huge domed Santa’s Workshop. The montage of Fred delivering presents on Christmas Eve—falling down chimneys stuffing cookies in his face zooming around in the sleigh—is also well done. But overall Fred Claus is a Vaughn vehicle—even as sugary sweet and family-friendly as it is--and all Dobkin really does is turn the camera on and let the man do his stuff. Dan Fogelman's script is also so very bland full of any number of holes and only picks up once Vaughn starts to improvise. Bottom line: If you’re looking to take the kids to a sweet Christmas movie and are a Vince Vaughn fan then Fred Claus is for you.
Based on the prize-winning novel by Zoe Heller Notes on a Scandal is a case study in obsessive relationships. When Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett) joins a London secondary school as the new art teacher fellow teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) who rules her young charges with an iron fist senses a kindred spirit—and perhaps salvation to her lonely existence. But as Barbara notes in her acerbic diary she is not the only one drawn to the luminous Sheba. She soon begins an illicit affair with one of her high school students (Andrew Simpson) and Barbara suddenly becomes the keeper of Sheba’s secret. Barbara could expose Sheba to both her husband (Bill Nighy) and the world but instead Barbara manipulates it for her own nefarious and selfish reasons. And in playing this dangerously compulsive game Barbara’s own secrets come tumbling to the fore exposing the deceptions at the core of each of the women's lives. Dench and Blanchett give tour-de-force performances yet again. Blanchett’s natural effervescence provides the beacon for all the wanted—and unwanted—attention Sheba receives but it’s her fragile emotional state that draws you in. Played like a wounded butterfly Sheba is too weak to either stave off a dalliance with the young gent—played with convincing lustfulness by newcomer Simpson—or tell the stifling Barbara to bugger off despite the consequences. Then there’s Dench as Barbara representing the opposite end of the spectrum as Notes’ driving force. She’s a bull dog whose withering glares stop her students in their tracks and cutting remarks slice her fellow colleagues to bits all punctuated by her caustic running commentary. Still when Barbara turns madly obsessive with her soft underbelly eventually exposed she crumbles with the best of them. And the best part of Notes is watching these two brilliant actress go toe-to-toe for the first time on film. The underrated Nighy also does a fine job ditching his Pirates of the Caribbean’s tentacles to play Sheba’s down-to-earth yet hapless husband. A top-notch cast all around. Director Richard Eyre is no stranger to crafting intimate pro-actor dramas having helmed such films as Stage Beauty and the Oscar-nominated Iris. He understands where to move the camera to best frame his players as they pour their hearts out on screen. And with Notes on a Scandal Eyre knows that besides his two leading ladies the real star of the film is playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber’s superb adaptation of Heller’s introspective novel. Voice-over narration is always a tricky film device but for Notes on a Scandal it’s absolutely essential and Marber faithfully captures the inner-workings of Barbara’s skewed thoughts which she fervently writes down in her diary in such delectable ways. Then he entwines the twisty events around these two women. Much like his other work including the exquisite Closer Marber hands in another true gem. Combined with all this is another haunting pulse-pounding score from Philip Glass (The Hours) who sets the tone so perfectly. Notes on a Scandal is definitely one for the Academy Awards’ books.