Arthur Christmas


Arthur Christmas
Who knew that Santa Claus was actually a South American dictator?

(2011) Animated Feature (Columbia) Starring the voices of James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Michael Palin, Robby Coltane, Joan Cusack, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis, Marc Wootton, Dominic West. Directed by Sarah Smith and Barry Cook

 

One of the most common questions children have about the legend of Santa Claus is how does he deliver so many presents in a single night (I don’t remember that being much of an issue when I was growing up – we just took it for granted that he did it and moved on). These days with the world population increasing and the demand for presents soaring it has become quite an operation indeed.

In fact, Santa (Broadbent) is more of a figurehead these days. The North Pole is a subterranean base that doesn’t appear on Google Earth. His gift-delivering operation is run with military precision by his eldest son Steve (Laurie) who fully expects that dear old dad will be passing along the job to him at the successful conclusion of Christmas this year.

In fact, the job has been in the same family for many generations. Grandsanta (Nighy) delivered the presents in the old sleigh with the reindeer but Steve has modernized, utilizing an incredible jet the size of a fleet of battleships using advanced stealth technology to stay off of the radar. As befuddled as Santa is, Grandsanta is as curmudgeonly, having felt left behind.

Arthur (McAvoy) is Santa’s younger son, a gentle soul who is a bit of a screw up. He has been given the relatively harmless position of handling the Letter Response Division. He tends to have more of the Christmas spirit in his heart which Steve looks at as a liability. Actually going out into the field and delivering presents terrifies Arthur.

When it’s discovered that one child’s present remained undelivered the reaction of Steve and Santa is a colossal “Ho-hum” which is a mighty change from “Ho ho ho!” One child left behind is considered acceptable collateral damage. However, Arthur doesn’t see it that way. To him, if one child isn’t considered special, than nobody can be. Despite his trepidations, he decides to see to the delivery himself and Grandsanta decides to come along for the ride, bringing the old sleigh out of mothballs. Grandsanta’s motivation is more to show up his progeny, however.

This is the first feature to be released from Aardman Animation since Flushed Away back in 2006 (they also have the feature Pirates! Band of Misfits slated for release in early 2012) and quite frankly, this isn’t up to the standards of the folks that brought us Wallace and Gromit. There’s plenty of imagination all right and some clever, sly humor that the studio is known for but not enough of the latter to really stand out like their other films did.

The squabbling Santas are a prime example. I get the feeling that the filmmakers were lampooning the commercialization of Christmas, but making the two elder Claus statesmen out to be doddering old fools or scheming old fools kind of violates their own mythology to a certain extent. The whole portrayal makes me wonder if the Santa Claus family isn’t a little bit guilty of inbreeding.

The vocal performances are dead on; Laurie, best known for his stint on ”House” plays Steve as a supercilious British Army officer, very regimented and expecting life to run like clockwork like it does in the Army when he was in Indja don’t you know. Nighy alternates between reminiscing about the good old days and bitching about the modern days like many grandsires do.

McAvoy is a bit bland as Arthur but then again Arthur isn’t really drawn all that well as a character. He is a bit of a bumbler and is good-hearted but has little to no self-confidence. His most identifiable characteristic is his nearly obsessive love for all things Christmas. We get that he has a good heart and he is a bit of a klutz but little more beyond that. Perhaps the writers didn’t think the kids in the audience care much about that.

The North Pole base and Santa’s S-1 jet are both marvelously done, as well as the armies of elves who make things happen. The backgrounds and artwork are amazing, and keeping with Aardman tradition have a bit of the Claymation look to them (Aardman’s earliest shorts and films were done with stop-motion Claymation). One thing about Aardman; you can always instantly tell their films apart from other studios.

I may be sounding a bit harsh on the movie, but this is a studio I hold to higher standards than most. In all honesty this is a pretty decent Christmas movie, but I had hoped for something that would be more of a perennial from a studio with as much imagination as this one has had over the years. It should do well enough to keep the kids entertained and it won’t have the adults squirming in their seats, but the wit is lacking and the sense of wonder fleeting. Not quite a lump of coal but not the present I was looking for.

REASONS TO GO: Has much of the wonderfully quirky Aardman sense of humor. Some of the North Pole and Santa’s spaceship scenes are spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit whiny in spots.

FAMILY VALUES: This got a PG rating for “mild rude humor” but in all actuality this is perfectly suitable for all members of the family.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer Peter Baynham’s last film was Arthur making this the second consecutive film he’s written that contains the word “Arthur” in the title.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely a theatrical experience.

FINAL RATING; 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues!

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale


Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
You’d better watch out…

(2010) Horror Comedy (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Tommi Korpela, Per Christian Ellefsen, Jonathan Hutchings, Peeter Jakobi, Ilmari Jarvenpaa, Rauno Juvonen, Risto Salvi, Jens Sivertsen. Directed by Jalmari Helander

 

Good old Saint Nick! Everyone knows the jolly old elf makes his big appearance every 25th of December, spreading joy around the world and delivering toys to kids who appear on the nice list and coal to those on the naughty list. There are places, however, who don’t have as high an opinion of Santa – they’re downright terrified of him.

In Northern Finland, a team of American scientists are blasting into a large hill in a remote part of the country above the Arctic Circle. The residents of the town nearby have no clue what the Americans are up to – and they could care less. It is the day before Christmas and their concerns are larger; it is time to harvest the reindeer that provides not only their livelihood but their store of food for the winter.

The trouble is that the reindeer are all dead; massacred by something, their carcasses littering the ground outside the fence surrounding the American blast zone. Rauno (Jorma Tommila), a taciturn widower, thinks it might be wolves which are a pest in that part of Finland – he even has dug a wolf trap (which are illegal in Finland). His son Pietari (Onni Tommila) isn’t so sure.

You see, Pietari and his buddy Juuso (Jarvenpaa) made a hole in the fence and snuck in to the blast site and heard a few things they shouldn’t have – as in that the hill that is outside their town is in fact a gigantic burial mound and that the Americans have found something there that was supposed to stay buried…and what they found is very much alive.

The bookish Pietari does some research and discovers that the Santa Clause we all know and love was not always regarded that way in Lapland. In fact, he was used as a kind of boogeyman, kidnapping naughty children and leaving straw dolls in their place. The naughty kids he would boil alive and otherwise torture and kill in inventive ways. Pietari realizes that this demonic child stealer is exactly what the Americans found, but he’s the only one who knows it.

Pietari’s dad doesn’t have time for foolishness. He and some of the town’s men go to confront the Americans but the installation is eerily deserted. And his wolf trap has captured something unexpected. Santa Claus is coming to town boys and girls and you’d better pray you aren’t on his naughty list.

There is a lot going for this film. The northern setting is starkly beautiful and the hardscrabble life of the villagers quite realistic. There is enough comedy here to keep you off-balance – as when Rauno growls at his son to stay back from the wolf trap but as he turns his back, Pietari continues to move forward, almost without thinking in the way that children do when their curiosity outweighs everything else, including sense. It’s not rebellion, it’s just compulsion.

There isn’t a lot of gore here so those who might consider that a horror necessity will be disappointed. Da Queen, who is normally quite squeamish about horror movies found this one palatable and non-nightmare inducing although there are some scenes that might give the sensitive pause.

On the negative side, while the actor who plays Pietari is good, this is another case of a kid who has to save the day from adults who won’t listen to his sage advice. I don’t know about you, but I would consider any advice from a kid wearing cardboard armor and who drags a bedraggled stuffed animal around with him a bit suspect.

Still, the ending was nifty, unexpected and left room for a potential sequel only not in an obvious way. I appreciated the filmmaker’s imagination as well as their willingness to take chances. Not all of them work but most do and make for a very entertaining holiday horror film which is a much better alternative to things like Black Christmas, Santa’s Slay and Silent Night, Deadly Night.

WHY RENT THIS: A wry sense of humor and an inventive take on the Santa legend.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Suffers from the “smart kid saves the day from bumbling adults” syndrome.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of nudity and a bit more foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actors who play Pietari and his father are father and son in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette comparing the original animatics with the finished computer-generated effects as well as a look at the pre-production art which is pretty nifty. There are a couple of short films that Helander directed that takes place in the Rare Exports universe and includes much of the same cast; they should be seen after you’ve watched the main movie. The Blu-Ray also includes the complete feature Santa Claus vs. the Martians which is quite frankly one of the worst movies ever made and whose inclusion here is rather bizarre. Watch it if you dare.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4M on an unreported production budget; there’s a good chance this made money during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues!

The Polar Express


THe Polar Express

All aboard the Polar Express!

(Columbia) Tom Hanks, Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Michael Jeter, Eddie Deezen, Charles Fleischer, Steven Tyler, Phil Fondacaro, Daryl Sabara. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

There comes a time in all our lives, it is said, that we must put aside childish things. That is the first step in becoming an adult. There are those who say that it is the first step in losing something irreplacable and vital, something that makes us better people.

Hero Boy (Hanks, voiced by Sabara) is at that time. He has begun to question his childhood faith in the existence of Santa Claus as fact after overwhelming fact begins to dispute that such a person ever existed. It is bedtime on Christmas Eve and he is listening intently for the bells of Santa’s sleigh, certain that he will never hear them.

Suddenly the room begins to rumble and shake then is filled with a great light. Startled, Hero Boy runs outside in his bathrobe to see a mighty train waiting there for him. A conductor (Hanks) cries “Alllllll aboooooooard” and after some hesitation, Hero Boy takes him up on it. This is, after all, the Polar Express, headed straight to the North Pole where one of the lucky children on board will be the recipient of the first present of Christmas, given to them by Santa himself.

On board is a Know It All (Deezen) and a quiet young Girl (Gaye), as well as a Lonely Boy (Scolari) who comes on board last and sits by himself in the last car. While a group of Dancing Waiters serve up piping hot chocolate to the kids in the passenger car, the Girl sets a cup aside for the Lonely Boy. As she and the Conductor take the steaming beverage back to the Lonely Boy, the Hero Boy notices that the Girl has left her unpunched ticket on her seat. As he steps outside to cross to the back car to give her the ticket, it flies out of his hand, apparently lost. The stern conductor orders the Girl to come with him.

The Hero Boy finds the ticket, which wasn’t lost after all, and runs to the back car to take it to her, fearful that she will be thrown off the train, but neither the conductor nor the Girl are there. The Lonely Boy tells him that they are on the top of the train headed toward the front. The Hero Boy decides to follow them and climbs to the top of the train. There, he meets the Hobo (Hanks) who questions the Hero Boy on his stance vis-à-vis the existence of Santa but nonetheless helps him reach the Engine car where he finds, to his surprise, the Girl driving the train while the engineers, Smoker and Steamer (both played by the late Michael Jeter, for whom this was his last movie before his death) changing a light bulb on the front of the train.

They brake just in time to avoid running into a gigantic herd of caribou, which brings the Conductor forward to scold them. The caribou are at length moved out of the way so the Express can continue on its way to the North Pole, but the train runs into some iced over tracks, barely able to navigate back onto the tracks while the ice cracks beneath them.

Eventually they reach the North Pole and the three friends manage to get lost in the vast city of Santa’s workshop, but they nevertheless make it to the town square just in time for the festivities to begin. But is there a Santa? What will it take for the Hero Boy to believe?

This was the first movie to be filmed entirely in motion capture technology (Zemeckis’ own Beowulf and Disney’s A Christmas Carol were also filmed in this way) and looks dazzling. While it is essentially an animated feature, the use of live actors to perform give the human and elf characters more life than a simple CGI feature can generate. It looks realistic, despite the fantasy setting.

Hanks gives a marvelous performance in multiple roles, including that of Santa and the Hero Boy’s father. Each character sounds, looks and acts differently as Hanks gives each its own unique look and facial expressions. It is compelling work.

The heart of the movie, however, is the story about the role of belief in our lives. Author Chris Van Allsburg has written a classic Christmas tale, perhaps the best since The Night Before Christmas or even since Dickens, and the story makes excellent cinema. I was completely entranced by the movie, even down to the songs (Josh Groban’s Believe is one of the best new Christmas songs of the last decade) which is unusual for me.

This is in every sense of the word a Christmas classic, one which I have no trouble watching every year at Christmas time. If you haven’t seen it yet, you definitely should. If you have, I hope you see it again – I discover something new about it every time I see it. That’s my definition of a classic.

WHY RENT THIS: This is the best Christmas movie to come along in 50 years. Believe is one of the better Christmas songs to come along the pike in ages. Hanks gives some terrific performances in multiple roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some find the story a bit treacly. The technology may soon become outdated as Avatar sets the bar higher but it was still ahead of its time when released.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all ages.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The address called out by the Conductor near the end of the film of “11344 Edbrooke” is the address of director Zemeckis’ childhood home.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some games and a clip of Josh Groban performing at the Greek Theater in the kid-centric DVD edition. The best feature is the one on author Chris Van Allsburg, who penned the children’s story this is based on. There is also a 3D edition (that comes with glasses) and a Blu-Ray edition that has more extra features than the DVD.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill concludes

Fred Claus


Fred Claus

Elizabeth Banks stands out in any crowd but in THIS crowd...

(Warner Brothers) Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Kevin Spacey, Rachel Weisz, Miranda Richardson, Kathy Bates, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Bobb’e J. Thompson. Directed by David Dobkin

Although we love our brothers and sisters, our lives are one long game of “who’s better.” The term “sibling rivalry” takes on an additional dimension when one of the siblings is famous and successful.

Fred Claus (Vaughn) has a secret – he is the older brother of Nicholas Claus (Giamatti), better known as Santa. Nearly from birth his mother (Bates) made it clear which sibling was her favorite, with a barrage of “Why can’t you be more like your brother” remarks tossed Fred’s way. And to be truthful, Nicholas has a pretty long shadow to step out from. He is so filled with goodness that he becomes a living saint and as such, he and his family also become immortal (don’t ask me to explain it – just go with it and you’ll find your head aching less).

At an early age Fred learned to resent the attention his younger brother got and chose to turn away from his family. He lives in Chicago now, just skating by on charm and full of promises that he rarely keeps, driving his girlfriend Wanda (Weisz), who works as a meter maid, crazy.

When a misunderstanding with a group of Salvation Army Santas leads to a fight in a toy store, Fred has no choice but to turn to his little brother to bail him out of jail. He also needs cash to open an Off-Track Betting parlor directly across the street from the Chicago Mercantile and time is of the essence. In order to get the cash, Fred agrees to work for his brother as Christmas approaches.

Despite the misgivings of Annette (Richardson), Nicholas’ wife, Nicholas sends head elf Willie (Higgins) to fetch Fred via flying reindeer and sleigh. He arrives to find the situation in the North Pole not as hunky dory as you might expect. Longer wish lists and a population explosion of children have left the elves unable to keep up with demand very well. Nicholas copes with the stress by overeating and to make matters worse, the powers that be have sent Clyde Northcutt (Spacey) – an efficiency expert – to report on the state of things at Santa’s Workshop. If the report is bad enough, Clyde can shut the whole operation down…permanently.

Nicholas puts Fred to work in the Naughty/Nice department, making the determination which children get presents and which kids get nothing. In the meantime, he has to deal with a one-dimensional DJ (Ludacris) and an unrequited romance between Willie and Santa’s Little Helper, a tall and buxom number-cruncher named Charlene (Banks). To make matters worse, someone is actively trying to sabotage the operation and is using Fred as the fall guy. Can even a saint – or a saint’s brother – save Christmas?

This movie got scathing reviews when it was first released in 2007 and in some ways, I can see why. It advertised itself as a comedy (and with Vaughn in the cast, who could blame them?) and I think that might have been the original intentions of the filmmakers to produce one.

But this isn’t a comedy, and if you expect it to work as one, you’re going to dislike this movie intensely. What Fred Claus REALLY is, is a family holiday movie. Granted, there are some scenes that are actually funny (the Siblings Anonymous scene comes to mind off the bat) and the by-play between brothers Nicholas and Fred are pretty realistic and laugh-inducing, too.

What’s at the heart of this movie is the sibling rivalry between the two brothers, and Fred learning to grow beyond it. His life is empty without people in it and his relationship with his brother has informed all the other relationships in his life since. If Fred comes off as a bit of a huckster, well it’s more or less a defense mechanism. When he cynically informs Slam (Thompson), an orphan he has befriended, not to drink the Kool-Aid, it’s because he’s terrified of finding out the Kool-Aid actually tastes good.

There are a lot of good actors involved in this and production designer Allan Cameron has given them a gorgeous playground to work in. The North Pole sets are definite eye candy, particularly the magnificent Workshop that comes off as a cross between the Crystal Palace of London and a Rube Goldberg-designed factory.

There are some scenes that are genuinely heartwarming, and I really liked the Elf Ninjas who act as a kind of deranged Santa Secret Service. If you like either Giamatti or Vaughn, they are at the top of their games here and since I like both of them, it’s like getting an extra scoop of ice cream in your hot fudge sundae.

There comes a time in all our lives where we must assert our own identities and this movie is all about that. It took Fred centuries to learn that he was his own person and special in his own way; hopefully it won’t take most of us that long to get the same message.

WHY RENT THIS: The interplay between Vaughn and Giamatti is brotherly and fun. Some touching familial reconciliation tugs at the heartstrings. North Pole set design is off the hook.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes Vaughn gets a little bit out of control. If you’re expecting a comedy, this really isn’t one.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most Christmas movies, everything is fine for the kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jeffrey Dean Morgan has an uncredited cameo as a parking ticket recipient who hits on Wanda.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition comes with a Ludacris music video as well as, oddly, a DVD games disc. There is also a featurette on sibling rivalry featuring several of the participants in the Siblings Anonymous scene.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues.

Elf


Elf

Buddy and Santa must work together to save Christmas in Central Park.

(New Line) Will Ferrell, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Tay, Faizon Love, Peter Dinklage, Amy Sedaris, Michael Lerner, Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, Artie Lang. Directed by Jon Favreau

Not everyone can be an elf. These small creatures are industrious, cheerful and limber, making them the perfect workforce for Santa. Nearly all of them, anyway.

Buddy (Ferrell) is an elf who isn’t an elf. He’s a human, an orphaned baby who crawled into Santa’s sack one Christmas and hitched a ride all the way to the North Pole. Santa (Asner), unwilling to send him back to the orphanage, leaves him in the charge of Papa Elf (Newhart) who wanted a family of his own but never had the time to go get one.

As time goes by, it becomes very apparent that Ferrell doesn’t fit into the elfin world – literally. He’s big and clumsy compared to the other elves and while his heart is in the right place, he just doesn’t have the skills. Finally, Santa takes pity on him and tells him where he can find his birth father – in New York City. Unfortunately, Buddy’s birth mother had passed away some time before.

Said birth father, Walter (Caan) is a hard man, a publisher of children’s books who doesn’t have any child in him, unless he happened to eat one at lunch. He greets the possibility of an out-of-wedlock son in a green tunic and yellow tights with all the enthusiasm of an agoraphobic forced to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

Once Buddy name-drops his birth mother’s name, Walter realizes that there might be something to the whacko’s story and hustles him down to the family doctor for the world’s fastest genetic test and in no-time, is welcomed to the family by Walter’s saint of a wife Emily (Steenburgen) and plucky son Michael (Tay).

Of course, Buddy gets into trouble, working in the mail room at Walter’s publishing house and at Gimbel’s, a department store that used to be the chief rival of Macy’s but has been closed for quite awhile, even before this movie was made. There, he meets Jovie (Deschanel), a cute-as-a-button seasonal worker who likes to sing in the shower and might be a match made in Macy’s for the love-struck Buddy – or would have been if it hadn’t been at Gimbel’s.

The movie serves notice that it’s going to be irreverent from the opening, when Elves are shown fleeing an unfortunate fire in the Keebler tree, and it is throughout – Dinklage makes an impressive cameo as the world’s nastiest-tempered children’s book author, whom Walter is courting in a last-ditch effort to save his job at the publishing firm.

Favreau, who would go on to direct Iron Man, has a deft comedic touch and a good understanding of special effects. Many of the effects that have to do with Buddy towering over the elves are done with an old camera trick called forced perspective, where Ferrell stands closer to the camera to appear larger than those in the background.

He has also assembled an impressive cast, led by Ferrell who is at his best here. Ferrell can be an amiable sort when he isn’t dumbing down (as he does in Step-Brothers) and he plays Buddy with a lot of heart and a sweet tooth the size of Mt. Everest. The supporting cast is magnificent as well. Getting to see veterans like Asner, Newhart and Caan together is always a treat, and Steenburgen adds a touch of class.

Deschanel is one of my favorite actresses and she does shine here to a certain extent, although there are times that she is just so darn hip and cool that it overwhelms her cuteness and makes it seem like she’s in another indie film instead of a major studio family event movie. That can be mildly distracting at times, as well as the bashing over our heads of the fish out of water thing with Buddy in New York. I realize he’s supposed to be naïve, but there’s a difference between naïve and outright stupid and it crosses the line of stupid every so often.

Still, these are essentially minor complaints and this is a marvelous Christmas holiday movie. It’s funny enough to rival Saturday Night Live in some places, and charming enough to fill you full of holiday cheer. That’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving, don’t you think?

WHY RENT THIS: A very sweet-natured film. Indie darling Deschanel slums on a major studio release and nearly steals it. Any movie that has Newhart, Asner and Caan in it is worth seeing regardless of the subject. Dinklage’s cameo is hysterical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is dumb in some places. Deschanel is so cool and hip she’s almost in a different movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Definitely a kid favorite.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the names on Santa’s nice list that he shows to Michael are members of the film crew.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD comes in an Infinifilm version, with regular opportunities to stop the movie and watch a feature pertaining to what is onscreen. Da Queen and I love Infinifilm. The Blu-Ray comes with something similar. There are some games and such on the DVD which are oddly missing on the Blu-Ray.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues