Arthur Christmas * * * *
Cert U, 97 mins
Christmas is as much about bickering families as presents under the tree, even if your dad is Santa.
In fact, relationships are even more fraught if you have a Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) complaining about how he did things much better in his day, and a young Steve Claus (Hugh Laurie) desperate to take over the reindeer reins from the current Santa, Malcolm (Jim Broadbent).
That’s the set-up in Aardman Animations’ latest film, where the characters are regular cartoons rather than claymation figures like Wallace and Gromit.
That reduces the charm slightly, but the Aardman wit – and talented British voice cast – is very much in evidence.
Steve waits in the wings like Prince Charles to become Santa, while virtually running the slick operation at the North Pole.
To deliver two billion presents in one night, Santa needs a huge aircraft like a Stealth bomber and battalions of elves using the latest technology.
Meanwhile, his younger brother Arthur (James McAvoy) may be clumsy and fearful, but he hasn’t forgotten the real meaning of Christmas. He works in the mail department, reading and answering letters to Santa, and is aghast when a present of a pink bicycle destined for a little girl in Cornwall gets accidentally left behind.
He’s determined that she won’t be disappointed and teams up with 136-year-old Grandsanta to try to deliver it the old-fashioned way.
Grandsanta boasts he used to manage Christmas Eve with just six reindeer and a drunken elf, but is his old sleigh up to the task?
With a poignant but not overly sentimental script, Arthur Christmas is smart, funny and entertaining for all ages.
True, it does sag a little in the middle, like December 25 often does. But it is guaranteed to get you in a Christmassy mood. RL
Justice * * *
Cert 15, 104 mins
One of the most harrowing starts to a film I can remember seeing is the late John Schlesinger’s Eye For An Eye (1996), when a teenager is brutally murdered at home while her mother can hear everything on the telephone.
Perhaps it was made worse because Forrest Gump’s Sally Field was again the mother of an unfortunate child. There is a similar beginning in this movie when teacher Will Gerard (Nicolas Cage) discovers that his musician wife Laura (played by X-Men: First Class and Mad Men star January Jones) has been raped after walking alone to her car.
The twist here is that a mysterious chap called Simon (Guy Pearce) appears out of nowhere to offer a third party elimination of the attacker, thus preventing the Gerards from having to endure a harrowing court case. Who wouldn’t?
For every reaction, though, there is a reaction.
And Gerard is about to find out that other future crimes might require a brutal favour or two. From him.
While Justice is a relatively predictable thriller with the 1996 Oscar-winning Cage scarcely stretching himself, it also happens to pose above-average moral questions.
The action scenes and twists and turns are well handled by low profile Australian director Roger Donaldson who has made three of my favourite films – No Way Out (1987), Thirteen Days (2000), both of which starred Kevin Costner, as well as arguably Anthony Hopkins’ best film, The World’s Fastest Indian (2005).
Jones’ rapid “recovery” from such brutal trauma is unconvincing, both for watching women and in terms of potential future attackers perhaps mistakenly believing that women really can “get over” such things.
And, while the stage is set for Pearce’s best work in years, his newly-shaved head doesn’t get enough thinking time on screen. GY
Immortals * * *
Cert 15, 110 mins
Distributors Universal regrettably declined to offer any advance previews of this blockbuster in time for any regional reviews last week.
Yet once it had opened at Millennium Point’s new Giant Screen Cinema (the old IMAX) its physical power blew me away and it really did rock the Midlands’ biggest screen.
While Tintin recently tested the high end of the GSC’s all-new sound system, it literally shakes (in a good way) during Immortals thanks to the effects of the ultra-deep bass notes of an effective score by Canadian Trevor Morris.
The film looks tremendous, too, thanks to some stunning cinematography by Brendan Galvin (Behind Enemy Lines/Veronica Guerin).
Some multiplex screens, like Cineworld Broad Street, will convey most of the film’s sensual power but plenty more won’t be able to deliver the full experience.
It will be on these screens that Immortals’ significant weaknesses come to the fore, like the fact that it’s a string of violently repetitive fight sequences which had to be cut to avoid an 18 certificate.
And that John Hurt is there one minute and disappears the next – as he did in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
There might also have been stronger roles for the women to help dilute the testosterone overdose.
Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto plays Phaedra, but she can’t do it all on a film of this scale and intensity.
Now 50, the India-born director Tarsem Singh has hardly been heard of since debut directing Jennifer Lopez in 2000 in The Cell, but this is also worth searching out as a work of visionary “art” if nothing else.
Some of Immortals’ golden-hued vistas and spectacular action sequences are breathtaking as the mortal Theseus (played by soon to be Superman, Henry Cavill) is chosen by Zeus (Luke Evans) to battle a ruthless leader who wants to get his hands on the all-important, machine gun-like Epirus Bow.
Unfortunately, King Hyperion is played by Mickey Rourke whose role is reduced to perfunctory lines like “I’m writing your history”.
Now 59 and often hidden behind his warrior outfit, he falls a long way short of rekindling the Oscar-nominated star we saw two years ago at the very human heart of The Wrestler.
But, in an Arnie kind of way, he’s still a perfect choice for the material. GY
The Rum Diary * *
Cert 15, 119 mins
This is pretty much writer and director Bruce Robinson’s first film since Withnail and I.
I’m not sure why it’s taken him nearly 20 years to get behind a camera again, but I don’t think he should have bothered, because this is no classic.
It is based on an early, semi-autobiographical novel by gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, discovered by his friend Johnny Depp.
The actor found the unpublished manuscript in a box of papers at Thompson’s house and set about turning it into a film, a process which took 14 years.
Thompson didn’t live to see the result as he killed himself in 2005, but Depp takes the lead role of American journalist Paul Kemp, who gets a job on a newspaper in Puerto Rico in 1960.
What work he is set by editor Lotterman (Richard Jenkins in a bad wig) is mainly compiling horoscopes, when he’s not drinking scores of miniature bottles of rum (“are they not complimentary?”).
Then local bigwig Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) tries to get him to report favourably on a scheme he’s got to build a resort on a paradise island. Kemp is more interested in his stunning girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard).
Other quirky characters include photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Nazi enthusiast Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi).
Like the drugs Kemp takes which take a while to kick in, we spend too much time waiting for something to happen. While the plot is more coherent than 1998’s trippy Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – the last time Depp starred in a Thompson film – it’s still very thin.
Most of the lines are laboured and are trying too hard to be clever, like “Why don’t you quit? Life’s full of exits.” Or the bizarre “Your tongue is like an accusatory giblet”.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the funniest moments. And the love story is entirely unconvincing.
The Rum Diary is not a bad film. After all, it features Depp, back in the picturesque Caribbean, with a beautiful girl on his arm. It’s occasionally amusing and fairly watchable, though too long and I began to fidget towards the end.
It is just disappointing – sadly not interesting or funny enough. RL