Pests and poultry with personality
Stuart Little (General) General release
A surprise big hit in the US, Stuart Little kept many more high-profile movies at bay to top the box-office for three weeks through the busy Christmas and New Year period. Much of the film's success can be attributed to its appeal across the generations, offering a delightful entertainment for children and adults. Based on a story by E.B. White, it features Geena Davis on perma-smile and a bemused-looking Hugh Laurie as the Littles, a wholesome couple who live on Central Park and decide to adopt a brother for their only son, the six-year-old George (Jonathan Lipnicki from Jerry Maguire). At the orphanage run by Mrs Keeper (Julia Sweeney), they meet the small, polite and well-dressed Stuart and, ignoring the exhortation of Mrs Keeper that they "adopt within their own species", they decide to take him home - even though Stuart is a mouse.
Young George is less than impressed. And the big fluffy Persian cat, Snowbell, is mortified at what the local alley cats will think of him as a pet in a home where a mouse is treated as one of the family. Stuart's diminutive size prompts further problems, as when he accidentally ends up in the washing machine - and the family doctor calls by and takes his temperature.
Clearly, this is a fantasy premise which, like Babe, demands and rewards the willing suspension of disbelief. One of the joys of the movie is the ease with which this is achieved. The Stuart Little creation is a minutely detailed marvel of sophisticated digital effects work, and director Rob Minkoff, who co-directed Disney's animated The Lion King, artfully integrates these visual effects within the movie's primary action sequences.
The irresistible appeal of the Stuart character is enhanced by the sprightly voice given him by Michael J. Fox. As in Babe, the cats are cast as the villains, but each develops a distinctive personality, most effectively in the characters of Snowbell, who is voiced with such aplomb by Nathan Lane, and the Don Corleonesque alley cat, Smokey, voiced by Chazz Palminteri. The human cast led by Davis and Laurie are as amusingly deadpan as they ought to be.
The film's striking visual style situates its scenario in an idealised present-day world which is rendered endearingly evocative in lighting cameraman Guillermo Navarro's deft use of a rich colour palette and Bill Brazeski's Edward Hopper-influenced production design. The screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan, the writer-director of The Sixth Sense, and Greg Brooker reins in the movie's potential for cutsiness and schmaltz and succeeds in applying a sustained logic to this disarmingly charming fable.
Chicken Run (General) General release
Expectations were understandably high regarding the first feature film from the inventive, Bristol-based Aardman Animations. The team is led by Nick Park, who directed three Oscar-winning short films featuring Plasticine models - Creature Comforts and the Wallace and Gromit movies, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave - and David Lord, who made the Oscar-nominated shorts, Adam and Wat's Pig, and created the popular television character, Morph.
Their first feature, Chicken Run, is set on the farm run by the greedy, intimidating Mrs Tweedy (voiced with relish by Miranda Richardson) who comes up with a scheme to use her poultry as the key ingredients in a new moneymaking scheme: chicken pies. Ginger (Jane Horrocks), the fiesty, inspirational leader of the chickens, desperately sets out to devise an escape plan for the chickens, and she's assisted by Rocky (Mel Gibson), a rooster who appears to be able to fly.
To amuse adult viewers, Chicken Run is replete with war movie references, chiefly to The Great Escape, in the buoyant musical score and the scene where Ginger, in solitary confinement, echoes Steve McQueen's timepassing habit of bouncing a ball off a wall. The movie evokes Chaplin's Modern Times in the pie-making contraption acquired by Mrs Tweedy - an elaborate and threatening machine which is cleverly used for one of the movie's major set-pieces.
Although it runs for under 90 minutes, Chicken Run begins to flag in its central stages, not so much out of any lack of comic invention but more to do with the confined set which Park and Lord opted to use for most of the movie's duration, and it begins to take on the enervating air of a filmed play which hasn't been opened out extensively.
The film also suffers by the inevitable comparisons it invites to two superior movies, being shorter on charm and vivid imagination than Babe, with which it shares a farmyard setting, and never matching the technical brilliance of the two Toy Story movies. However, there remains much to enjoy in Chicken Run, which works wonders within the logistical boundaries of claymatian, is populated by engagingly eccentric characters, and pulls off a finale which amply compensates for its earlier longueurs.
Kikujiro (members and guests only) IFC, Dublin
The eighth feature from the Japanese actor, writer, director and film editor Takeshi Kitano, Kikujiro deals with a sullen nine-year-old boy, Masao (vacantly played by Yusuka Sekiguchi), who lives with his grandmother in present-day Tokyo. The school holidays have arrived and, with his best friend away with his family and soccer practice suspended, Masao is bored.
Discovering a photograph of his mother, whom he has never known, and an address for her, Masao sets out to trace her, and a friend of his grandmother orders her husband, Kikujiro (Kitano), a minor, gambling-addicted yakuza to accompany him. The film is partly autobiographical, in that Kikujiro is named after Kitano's own gambler father.
As invariably happens in scenarios such as this, an unexpected bond forms between the lonely young boy and the brash hoodlum, and the older man finds himself on a journey of self-discovery as he taps into the sensitive side submerged beneath his gruff demeanour.
Kikujiro behaves in a ridiculously irrational manner much of the time - stealing a taxi even though he can't drive, diving into a pool though he can't swim. And his efforts to amuse the disheartened boy, with the help of two bikers who appear to be frustrated performance artists, are inane and woefully protracted. A scene in which a paedophile attempts to molest the boy is entirely dubious in the way it involves the young actor who plays Masao.
Kitano's keen eye for visual compositions is evident again in this insubstantial and meandering road movie which reeks of self-indulgence and is a deep disappointment after the formidable achievement of his riveting previous picture, Hana-Bi (Fireworks).
Earth (members and guests only) IFC, Dublin
The second film in Deepa Metha's elemental Indian trilogy (after Fire), Earth is set in the Punjab city of Lahore in 1947, in the period immediately preceding India's independence from Britain - and its partition to create the separate Islamic state of Pakistan. This tumultuous period is seen through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl, Lenny (Maia Sethna), the daughter of an affluent Parsee family, whose young Hindu nanny, Shanta (Nandita Das from Fire) is courted by two Muslim men.
Within this household, Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus are calculatedly balanced for maximum dramatic effect when the new boundaries are drawn and violence erupts between the different religions across the country. The film is based on the semi-autobiographical book, Cracking India, by Bapsi Sidhwa, who features in a cameo as the grown-up Lenny in a rueful postscript set 50 years later.
The historical events at the core at the narrative clearly contain the potential for robust, political drama, but writer-director Metha reduces it to a simplistic spin on Romeo and Juliet and peppers it with arch symbolism and stilted dialogue such as Lenny's line when she breaks a plate and asks, "Can anyone break a country, mummy?"
Lenny's parents are portrayed as loving and caring, yet they allow their disabled daughter out at all hours of the night with a nanny so irresponsible as to let her witness acts of horrific violence. This makes no sense at all, and nor does a finale dramatically diluted of its power as the film-maker wilfully confuses sectarianism with sexual jealousy.
My Life So Far (12) Screen at D'Olier Street, Dublin
The feature film career of Hugh Hudson, the director of the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, has been in decline ever since he made the folly that was Revolution. That downward spiral continues with the plodding and anodyne My Life So Far, which is so belatedly arrived that Hudson's subsequent movie, I Dreamed of Africa, has already opened in the US.
My Life So Far is drawn from the memoirs of the distinguished British television executive, Sir Denis Forman, and deals with his boyhood experiences on the family's Scottish Highlands estate in the 1920s. The pivotal character if the freckled-faced Fraser Pettigrew (Robert Norman), a precocious 10-year-old and one of six children in the family of an impetuous inventor, Edward (Colin Firth) and his patient wife, Moira (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). The estate is owned by her widowed mother (Rosemary Harris).
Malcolm McDowell plays the boy's millionaire uncle who has designs on the estate, with Irene Jacob as his young French fiancee who becomes the object of Edward's unwelcome attention. Meanwhile, young Fraser conducts his own sexual education, poring over his late grandfather's secret library of mild erotica. Despite having assembled a more than capable cast - although Firth seems distinctly ill-at-ease - director Hudson never allows them to develop beyond the level of stock characters, and he surrounds them with an array of folksy Scottish working-class stereotypes. This flaccid film is further undermined by a surfeit of voiceover and a twee mood of forced jollity and phoney nostalgia.
Three to Tango (15) General release
A witless, would-be romantic comedy, Three to Tango features the lamentably limited Friends actor Matthew Perry as Oscar Novak, an ambitious young heterosexual architect, and the exceedingly tiresome Oliver Platt as his openly gay business partner. They are chosen to compete for a major Chicago restoration project by a married tycoon (Dylan McDermott) who, assuming that both of them are gay, assigns Novak to spy on his mistress (Neve Campbell wearing a perpetually puzzled expression), forcing Novak to fake an identity as a gay man.
You don't need to be clairvoyant or to have a degree in film studies to figure out where it's going to go from there - which is signalled well before that entirely implausible ending finally, mercifully arrives. The performances are wooden, at best, and generally irritating in this dire, shapeless effort which marks an entirely inauspicious feature film debut for director Damon Santostefano.
Opening today at the Sheridan IMAX theatre in Dublin is the 40-minute documentary, Africa's Elephant Kingdom, in which the animals thunder across the 62X82 foot screen - and in quieter moments, baby elephants take their first tentative steps.