ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS * *
Cert U, 91 mins
It's hard to argue with a $45 million opening, but at least allow me to pout. Back in 1958, musician-songwriter Ross Bagdasarian came up with the idea of three singing chipmunks, Theodore, Simon and the mischievous Alvin, recording his voice at high speed to provide their helium pitched vocals. As a kid, I clearly remember listening to The Chipmunk Song on the old steam wireless and, in my musically innocent way, I was quite fond of their two UK hits, Witchdoctor and Ragtime Cowboy Joe. I also found the running gag of Bagdasarian, in his alter-ego as David Seville, exasperatingly shouting out Alvvvvin! rather amusing. However, I didn't expect to be reliving the experience some 50 years later.
I'm not sure which is harder to believe. That a novelty act could sustain a career that would sell 43 million albums and spawn long running TV shows in two separate decades as well as two successful animated and one live action straight to video features. Or that a big screen revival would open with an incredible $45 million. Either the nostalgia market is bigger than I thought or American kids really will watch anything if it's marketed hard enough.
Because, while the CGI singing tree rats are brilliantly integrated into the live action (even if their scale seems to be somewhat fluid) and it's certainly colourful, everything else here is crushingly uninspired, numbingly unfunny and drained of any sense of energy.
The padded out plot, for want of a better word, sees the trio lose their tree in the Christmas culling and accidentally wind up at the home of loser songwriter Seville (Jason Lee, any blander and he'd be invisible) who, after initially kicking them out, discovers they can sing and pens them a song.
Which, after stage fright hiccups, gets them signed by his record label boss old chum Ian (an enjoyably hammy David Cross) who turns them into pop sensations and kicks Dave into touch where, after a sulk, he finally wakes up to surrogate parent responsibility and family values and sets out to get his exploited and exhausted bushy tailed kids back.
Oh, and there's some lukewarm romantic stuff with his anodyne blonde neighbour (Cameron Richardson) too, but not enough to worry six-year-old boys.
This being the world of Timberlake, Witchdoctor gets an R&B makeover and the trio go hip hop with a sassy bump and grinding backing band. But, whether talking or singing, Alvin, Theodore and Simon remain pretty much as unintelligible now as they did way back when. Which makes you wonder why they bothered casting Justin Long and rising pop star Jesse McCartney when the squeaky voices could as easily be someone from the catering crew.
Still, it's harmless enough for youngsters who find Enchanted (and it's own star chipmunk) a bit of an intellectual challenge and you can't really argue with that box office. But, you are at least permitted to pout.
Cert 12A, 101 mins
The week's second 50s revival, this updates the old Ealing comedies about a bunch of unruly schoolgirls and their mischief making adventures, here having to come to the rescue when their alma mater's threatened with bankruptcy.
I'd love to be able to say more, but, presumably wary of damning reviews from us cynics, the distributors refused to provide regional press previews.
What I can tell you is that it's directed by Oliver Parker who, with the likes of The Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband and Fade To Black, has an impressive track record. Rupert Everett takes on the Alastair Sim roles as both the headmistress and his disreputable brother. Jodie Whittaker apparently consolidates her Venus debut with another scene-stealing turn and that head girl newcomer Gemma Arterton is being tipped for big things.
Likely to deliver exactly what it says on the tin, the trailer certainly promises more laughs than Carry On Columbus and, along with that Italian Job line, there looks like being plenty of cine-literate in-jokes involving Everett and Colin Firth with references to their teaming in Another Country as well as sights gags about Pride and Prejudice and Girl With A Pearl Earring. Expect to be pleasantly surprised.
I AM LEGEND * * * *
Cert 15, 100 mins
Having done his time providing 4th of July blockbusters, Will Smith now gets to pull the Boxing Day box office cracker with this third version of Richard Matheson's 1954 sci-fi novel.
And, as a record breaking $75 million opening, shows. It's obviously gone off with a bang. Previously filmed in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth and, rather better known, in 1971 as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, the updated premise remains much the same.
Following a biological disaster, humanity has been turned into blood-hungry mutations that can only come out at night, looking for survivors to feed on. As far as the world as we know it goes, basically New York, only one man, naturally immune, remains unaffected.
An amalgam of the book and The Omega Man screenplay, as directed by Constantine's Francis Lawrence, this telling offers Robert Neville (Smith) as a military colonel and virologist who's been frantically working to find a cure for the virus since the cure for cancer invented three years earlier (by a cameoing Emma Thompson) proved to have some unfortunate side-effects.
Alone in the ghost city with just his dog, some mannequins and several thousand abandoned vehicles (he practises golf from the wing of a fighter plane) for company, he broadcasts a daily message in the hope of finding other survivors, and spends the days foraging for food and specimens on which to run clinical trials for a cure.
Since flashbacks to the outbreak and evacuation are spread throughout, it's difficult to say much regarding Neville's own family (which features Smith's real life daughter) without diluting the impact.
And I can only hint at how it manages to spin the ending and Neville's legend in a completely different, upbeat and heavily Judeo-Christian (by way of a heavy Bob Marley parable) direction to the book.
What I can say is at the opening scenes of Neville alone in the desolate urban jungle are stunning, Lawrence steadily building the suspense to nail-biting level before he finally reveals the hairless, pale skinned infected.
Nothing quite matches this prelude, but you'll still be glued to the screen, not least in admiration of Smith's solo tour de force as he conveys Neville's determination, fears, loneliness, despair, humour and incipient madness.
One emotionally powerful scene between him and his dog (which deserves some kind of canine Oscar), will have animal lovers in shreds.
Clever too is the way Lawrence underlines the nihilism of the apocalypse and the enormity of what has been lost by insertions of such everyday family mundanity as watching a DVD of Shrek.
Inevitably, after the credits roll you're left with any number of pernickety questions. Who let the lions out of the zoo, why do the utilities still function, why are animals resistant to the airborne virus but can be turned by contact, where are the bodies and, if there's no healthy humans around what are the infected eating?
Although echoing both the book and Huston movie, the film disappointingly also never expands its suggestion that the infected are, contrary to Neville's declaration that no societal traits remain, capable of communal organisation, sophisticated thinking and, depending on how you read the overwrought climactic scene, emotional bonds.
But these are minor quibbles in a film that serves up all the traditional excitement, action and thrills that used to be the festive tradition province of the Christmas TV Bond movie. It'll probably shift a fair few copies of Marley's Legend album too.
THE KITE RUNNER * * *
Cert 12A, 128 mins, subtitles
Given the storyline pivots on a child rape that destroys the friendship between two boys from different social classes, this is not, perhaps, the most obvious choice for Boxing Day cinema festivities.
However, audiences looking to purge the system with some emotionally sobering highbrow thoughts on friendship, meditation and honour, delivered pretty much all in either Urdu, Russian or Afghani dialect, won't go far wrong with Marc Forster's adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's award-winning best-seller.
As with the novel, to which it remains generally faithful albeit with less political passion, it unfolds over three different periods. The modern day bookends are set in San Francisco where, successful novelist Amir (Khalid Abdalla) receives a letter that stirs painful memories, and in Taliban controlled Afghanistan to where he returns for the chance of redemption.
Flashbacks to the 80s show Amir and his father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) struggling to adapt to their new, less privileged, life after fleeing the Soviet invasion.
While dad takes a job at a petrol station, his son sets about becoming a writer and falls for fellow Afghan ex-pat Soraya (Atossa Leoni).
The bulk of the narrative, though, unfolds, in 1978 Kabul where 12-year-olds Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), the son of the family servant, are best friends, watching American action movies and being the city's best kite flyers.
Blissful innocence comes to a brutal end when Hassan is violated (discreetly off camera) by the local bully and his gang, while a fearful Amir hides and does nothing.
Neither boy says anything of the incident, but from that moment, a combination of Hassan's unblaming stoicism and the manifestation of Amir's self-loathing guilt through hostility inexorably drives them apart.
It's not until 22 years later, learning of his friend's fate and the plight of his son, that Amir is offered the opportunity to make amends for his actions, once again coming face to face with that teenage thug, now bullying for the Taliban.
Though let down by an overly melodramatic third act and some occasionally awkward moments from Abdalla, Forster's otherwise restrained direction, Ershadi's charismatic embodiment of dignified wise nobility.
The both joyous and heartbreaking natural performances from non-actors Ebrahimi and Mahmidzada won't leave a dry eye or an unmoved heart in the house.
BALLS OF FURY * * *
Cert 12A, 90 mins
From the creative team behind Reno 911, this doesn't really need a review. The pitch says it all.
A combined parody of Enter The Dragon and The Karate Kid. With ping pong instead of martial arts. And Christopher Walken in pompadour and full Fu Manchu regalia as the loony bad guy. If that doesn't sell it to you, then nothing will.
Still, for the record, the plot goes something like this. A one time child ping pong prodigy who lost his bottle after a humiliating defeat, Def Leppard fan Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler) now works as a third rate novelty cabaret act.
Approached by earnest FBI agent Rodriguez (George Lopez), he eventually agrees to enter the deathmatch Tournament of Champions, organised by Feng (Walken), a former pro player turned crime lord who was instrumental in his dad's death. However, having gone to seed, Randy first has to go through a crash course to get back in shape, courtesy of blind Ping-Pong master Wong (James Hong) and his paddle ace niece Maggie (Maggie Q), before inevitably finding himself in both a grudge match replay with his old rival and a flying balls showdown with Feng.
Much sillier than even this sounds, it is, ultimately, an over-extended comedy sketch with laughs that fall short of sporting spoofs like Dodgeball, but amusing time-wasting nonsense all the same.