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Santa Week Day 5: James McAvoy in Arthur Christmas (2011)

Arthur ChristmasNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Directors: Sarah Smith & Barry Cook

Writers: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith

Cast: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez, Michael Palin, Robbie Coltrane, Joan Cusack, Rhys Darby, Jane Horrocks, Andy Serkis

Plot: St. Nicholas of Myra, as we all know, is Santa Claus… or at least, the first Santa Claus. Over the centuries, his descendants have taken on the job, one after another. And now, after 70 years, Santa the 20th (Jim Broadbent) is ready to pass the torch down to his son, Steve (Hugh Laurie). While Steve runs a whip-smart, high-tech operation with military precision, Santa’s other son Arthur (James McAvoy) delights in the more joyful elements of the season. Santa is getting old, though, and in fact, Steve is largely running the show already, while his little brother – although enthusiastic as anyone could be – is mostly getting in the way.

Returning home, Santa is expected to announce his retirement and Steve’s first year on the job, but instead says he’s looking forward to his 71st mission next year. The tension gets worse when the elves discover Santa failed to deliver a single present – a bicycle for little girl named Gwen (Ramona Marquez). Steve convinces his father it’s too risky to try to deliver the last present before sunrise. Arthur, however, refuses to accept this. He and his grandfather, Santa 19 or “GrandSanta” (Bill Nighy) hop into an old-fashioned sleigh with old-fashioned flying reindeer to bring Gwen her present before she wakes up. They soon find a stowaway – a wrapping elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen) – who joins them.

GrandSanta soon runs into trouble navigating a world that has grown and changed since his last flight 70 years ago. Their route from the North Pole to England has them cause havoc in Toronto and cause an alien sighting in Idaho before setting down in Africa, where Arthur just barely saves them from being eaten by lions. He’s discouraged when he realizes GrandSanta is more concerned with reclaiming his own past glory than giving Gwen her present. Landing in England, he and Bryony set out to find Gwen’s house. When they arrive, they find they’ve screwed up again – they aren’t in England, they’re in Mexico.

At the pole, Steve sees news reports about the chaos being caused by his brother and grandfather and the elves confront Santa and Steve about skipping a child. Santa and Mrs. Claus (Imedla Staunton) set out to find Arthur and deliver the present, but Steve again has to take the controls. After a detour to Cuba, Arthur manages to recover the sleigh, and the Clauses all race to England. The governments of the world scramble to face the “flying saucers” they’ve been spotting all night, and GrandSanta provides a distraction so Arthur and Bryony can get away with Gwen’s gift.

With three minutes to sunrise, Arthur races to deliver the present. Arthur, Steve, Santa and GrandSanta all arrive at Gwen’s house, where the latter three begin to argue over who gets to leave the present. When Arthur breaks up the fight insisting it doesn’t matter who does it, they realize that it’s Arthur who should do it. They hide and watch Gwen open her present, Arthur wide-eyed with joy, and Santa and Steve realize the mistake they’ve been making all along. One year later, Steve has been made executive coordinator of North Pole operations, Santa – Malcolm – joins his father in retirement, and Arthur has taken up his natural place as the new Santa Claus.

Thoughts: Like The Santa Clause, this movie takes the Santa Legacy trope and runs with it. Produced by Aardman Animation (the company known for the marvelous Wallace and Grommit films and the sublime Chicken Run), Arthur Christmas reimagines the Santa legend with a weird blend of fantasy and high-tech science. The modern Santa and his elves, for instance, travel not so much in a classic sleigh, but in a cloaked vessel that resembles an enormous flying saucer, and although Santa the 20th is on the ground, the Elves themselves are responsible for much of the gift delivery, milk and cookie removal, and so forth. An early sequence shows us this gift run over a city, as the elves take on pretty much the whole job for the aging Santa. The sequence is actually very similar to the Disney TV special Prep and Landing, which predates this film by two years, and I’ve got to wonder if that’s strictly speaking a coincidence.

As I’ve said before, the Santa Legacy thing isn’t exactly my favorite trope. I can’t wrap my mind around eliminating that part of the magic of the mythology while keeping so much of the rest of it. That said, Arthur Christmas is probably the film I‘ve seen that uses that idea to its fullest potential. By making Santa’s task a largely sci-fi operation, they minimize the fantasy element, making the loss of immortality slightly easier to accept. (This goes out the window, of course, when GrandSanta unveils his old sleigh and the magic reindeer that pull it, but what are you gonna do?) I also appreciate the fact that, for once, we don’t have a stale old story about the chosen one rejecting the call. Steve, the intended Santa, is fully prepared and capable of taking on the job. Arthur, our hero, doesn’t expect the job, and never for an instant shows any sort of anger or resentment over the fact that Steve is next in line to become Santa Claus instead of him, but from the very beginning shows the love and enthusiasm you want from your Santa. There’s no problem believing he would have leapt at the chance, had it really been presented to him earlier in his life.

The casting in this film is pretty effective. As an animated feature, of course, the focus is on the voice acting abilities of the cast rather than their look, and the four Santas we deal with fit pretty well. Broadbent as the current Santa has a sort of soft-spoken attitude, but comes across as just a little daft and ineffectual. Bill Nighy brings in the sort of wild, manic energy he usually produces to perfect effect as GrandSanta. Hugh Laurie isn’t soft and fluffy at all, but he still manages to create a stoic, cynical character without simply echoing his character from House. And then there’s James McAvoy as our hero – the youthful charm and exuberance in his voice is perfect, to the point where you’ve got to wonder if they modulated his voice up a half-octave or so.

Aardman Animation made its mark with stop-motion animation, and I admit to being a bit disappointed when they started doing CGI work, but I have to admit the animation in this film is gorgeous. The EVE – GrandSanta’s old sleigh – is a thing of beauty, something that the viewer falls in love with as purely as Arthur does. The character design is pretty good too – the human characters each have a distinct look, even as the members of the Santa family bear enough similar elements to accept them as being relatives. There are action scenes here – like Arthur’s oceanic recovery of the runaway sled – that I just can’t imagine being as thrilling in stop motion, even the best stop motion. And the design work is simply charming. One of my favorite touches is Steve’s beard, shaved into the shape of a little Christmas tree. Nice touch, Aardman. Could this have been done in traditional stop motion? Absolutely. But I’ve got to admit, it may not have worked as well.

This movie was pretty well received, but I feel like it’s been largely forgotten since it came out in 2011. If you haven’t seen it before, seek it out with your kids. Except for the original Miracle on 34th Street, I honestly think it’s the best Santa movie we’ve covered here this week.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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I’ve Never Seen: Goon (2011)

GoonDirector: Michael Dowse

Writers: Jay Baruchel, Evan Goldberg, based on the book by Adam Frattasio & Doug Smith

Cast: Seann William Scott, Jay Baruchel, Alison Pill, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Marc-Andre Grondin, Kim Coates, Nicholas Campbell

Plot: When Doug Glatt (Sean William Scott) trashes a minor league hockey player at a game, he’s called up to use his fighting skills as a player.

Thoughts: To kick off my “Movies I Haven’t Seen” reviews, I asked folks on Facebook to make random recommendations, and Goon walked off with the most support. From this, I can only assume the people on the internet hate me and want me to get brain cancer.

The story begins with Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), a bouncer who gets offered a spot on a minor league hockey team when he beats the crap out of one of their players during a game, despite the fact that he has no discernable talent for hockey and, in fact, does not even appear to know how to ice skate. Overcoming these obstacles, he quickly gets moved up to a farm team for the majors.

Aside from having a script where the writer assumes dropping an F-bomb every 14 seconds is an acceptable substitute for characterization, this is where the first major problem with the movie appears. Doug goes to the farm team about 12 minutes into the movie – I know, I looked at the counter and couldn’t believe I’d only been subjected to 12 minutes of this so far. I imagine it’s not unlike Sisyphus reaching the top of his hill and then slipping and watching his stone roll to the bottom. But I digress (because it’s a way to avoid talking about this movie any further). In these twelve minutes, the director and screenwriter do absolutely nothing to make us believe that Doug has any business being in the major leagues. Sure, we see him hit a few people. So what? I’m by no means a hockey expert, but I’ve seen plenty enough of it to know that pretty much any other skill is going to have to be secondary to the ability to properly stand up in a pair of ice skates. The fact that he lasted more than 12 seconds, let alone minutes, it pretty ridiculous.

This turns out to be a repeat offense. After spending another 12 minutes on a team where everybody evidently hates each other, Doug meets a girl named Eva (Alison Pill), who he falls for in even less time. She, at least, turns out to be somewhat believable as a character, as she winds up having a secret that makes her seem as unlikable as everybody else in the movie. Then again, the fact that Doug goes along with this makes him less likable in the process.

That’s the real problem here, I just don’t buy any of this movie. The characters are all walking stereotypes, with no hint of depth or nuance at all. We’ve got the alcoholic with marital problems, the homophobe, the closeted gay man, and a bunch of people who exist only to be brutally violent and despise one another. Perhaps this is a casting choice. After all, Seann William Scott is usually the perpetually smarmy jerkass in movies. Since here he’s supposed to be the naïve, sweet guy who only gets brutal when he’s angry, perhaps the idea was to surround him by absolutely miserable examples of the human condition to get us to accept him in that role.

The amazing thing is that this is, evidently, based on a true story, which means at some point the core nugget of truth probably happened in some form. So how did something that happened in real life transmogrify into something that’s utterly unbelievable?

A little more than halfway through, the movie takes a turn for the more downbeat (up until this point it was supposed to be funny). Doug’s temper gets the better of him on the ice, his parents don’t approve of what he’s doing with his life, Eva continues to be an absolutely miserable person, and washed-up veteran Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber) warns Doug that he’s going to wind up just like him if he keeps going in that direction. Rather than bring him down to a low point from which he can build to redemption, though, the movie just gets more and more miserable, as Doug takes a truly brutal beating, which he then celebrates. The celebration scene, where the entire team is drunk and/or hopped up on prescription painkillers, is one of the most pathetic things ever put on screen.

If there’s anything I can say to this movie’s credit, it’s that it manages to avoid the major sports movie cliché of having everything come down to Who Wins the Big Game in the End. Oh, don’t misunderstand, there still is a big game, it’s just that the game itself is largely secondary to what happens between Doug and Rhea, a battle of goons that, like most of this movie, is ultimately pointless.

I know this movie has a fan base. What I can’t figure out is why.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Get ready for the Man of Steel…

Man-of-Steel-Flight-Poster-550x801It is absolutely no surprise or secret that the movie I’m the most excited for this year is finally hitting theaters this Friday. Lifelong comic book fan, and more importantly, Superman fan that I am, Man of Steel couldn’t possibly get here soon enough to suit me. I’m on a mini-vacation with my fiance, Erin, right now, but once I’m home with my DVD shelf I fully intend to immerse myself in the Superman films of the past. Chances are you’re aware of the four Christopher Reeve movies, the one Brandon Routh movie… you no doubt know about the Fleischer Studios shorts of the early 40s, the assorted TV shows starring George Reeves, Dean Cain, and Tom Welling. You may even know about the Helen Slater Supergirl movie, and you no doubt watched the 90s Superman: The Animated Series starring Tim Daly.

Today, I’m going to give you a quick rundown of a few Superman movies you may not know about. In 2007, Warner Brothers and DC Comics began a series of animated movies based on their superhero comics, beginning with a Superman film. Many of these are available via Netflix steaming, and all of them are being flooded back into stores this week, with the big Man of Steel push. Here are those DCU Animated Superman movies you may not have seen…

Superman-DoomsdaySuperman/Doomsday (2007). The first film in the series was based on the early 90s Death of Superman storyline from the comic books, although it is a very trimmed-down version. In this version, Metropolis is attacked by a rampaging beast that comes to be known as Doomsday, a mindless killing machine that threatens to destroy his city. Superman faces down the beast, seemingly at the cost of his own life, but both friend and foe alike are unwilling to accept that his death is that simple. The film wasn’t bad — Adam Baldwin made for a good Superman and James Marsters was a great Lex Luthor. Anne Heche’s Lois Lane was weak, though, and I think they trimmed a bit too much to allow the story to fit in the extremely abbreviated running time of the animated series. Still, this was the DC Animated Universe’s first shot, and the series got better very quickly.

Superman-Batman Public Enemies Blu-RaySuperman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009). This movie reunited the TV voices of Superman and Batman, Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy, for the first of two films based on a comic book series by Jeph Loeb. In Public Enemies Lex Luthor (also voiced by his TV actor, Clancy Brown), has been elected president of the United States, and uses that influence to draw together a group of heroes under the government payroll. Luthor uses the threat of an impending strike of a massive meteor of Kryptonite to turn the public against Superman and he and Batman go on the run, fighting their fellow heroes in an attempt to clear their names and reveal Luthor as the villain he is. This is a really great flick, one that plays not just with Superman, but with the larger DC Universe, with lots of heroes and villains that casual fans may be introduced to for the first time.

Superman-Batman-ApocalypseSuperman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010). The sequel to Public Enemies again reunites Daly and Conroy. The shower of Kryptonite meteors in the first movie brought with it a large chunk with some mysterious technology inside. Batman investigates the chunk to discover a girl in suspended animation — Kara Zor-El (Summer Glau), daughter of Superman’s uncle, and the first blood family he has seen since coming to Earth as an infant. The heroes take Kara to Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg) to teach her how to use her powers and help her adapt to life on Earth, but she soon becomes embroiled in a battle between the heroes and the powerful villain Darkseid (Andre Braugher). I rather like this movie even more than Public Enemies, adding Supergirl to the mix and bringing in the most dangerous foe Superman has ever faced.

All Star SupermanAll-Star Superman (2011). Based on a graphic novel by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, in All-Star, Superman (James Denton) receives a fatal overdose of solar radiation while thwarting one of Lex Luthor’s (Anthony LaPaglia) schemes. The radiation is killing him slowly, and giving him additional powers in the process. With his time limited, Superman embarks on a quest to make permanent, lasting changes to the world, leaving it better before his death. This film is based on one of the greatest Superman comics of all time and, sadly, came out just days after the death of its screenwriter, Justice League Unlimited showrunner Dwayne McDuffie. If you can only watch one of the movies on this list, or if you don’t understand what makes Superman a brilliant and compelling character, this is the movie to watch.

Superman Vs the EliteSuperman Vs. the Elite (2012). George Newburn, who voiced Superman on the Justice League cartoons, returns to the character in this film based on a comic book by Joe Kelly. Manchester Black (Robin Atkin Downes) is a new superhero, one whose team the Elite initially appears like a welcome addition in the war on crime. Superman soon realizes, however, that Manchester and the Elite have much more violent and permanent solutions to villainy than he is comfortable with. As the people of Earth start to gravitate towards the Elite and question whether Superman is outdated, the man of steel is forced to confront questions of his own relevance. Like All-Star, this is a brilliant story made into a very good movie. This film is the answer to everyone who ever says that Superman is “too old fashioned,” “too good,” or just plain “boring.” This is a story that explains the importance of Superman, and why he has to be who he is… because the alternative is chilling.

Superman UnboundSuperman Unbound (2013). The most recent film on this list came out just last month. based on a graphic novel by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, Matt Bomer takes on the role of Superman in this film. Brainiac, a highly-intelligent alien that menaced Krypton in the past, has come to Earth, terrifying Supergirl (Molly Quinn), who remembers the villain from Krypton. Brainiac travels through the universe, miniaturizing and stealing cities from different planets before destroying them, and Metropolis is his next target. The graphic novel this movie is based on is great, the movie is just okay. Like some of the earlier films on the list, it suffers a little from having to strip away a bit too much from the original story to fit in the short animated running time. For the Superman fan, though, it’s still worth watching.