Computer expression 

‘Polar Express’ dazzling at times, Bening shines in ‘Being Julia.’

NO AMTRAK: The Polar Express.
  • NO AMTRAK: The Polar Express.
“The Polar Express” is dazzling, funny, exciting, beautiful and, at times, a touch disconcerting. It’s Tom Hanks’ and director Robert Zemeckis’ computer-animated adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s classic children’s book. Hanks stars as Hero Boy, a youngster on the very edge of losing his belief in Santa Claus. He stays up late on Christmas Eve trying one last time to hear Santa’s sleigh bells, but he’s just about to decide he’s got the whole Santa business figured out. Later that night, the house begins to shake, bright lights shine through the window and Hero Boy runs outside to discover a magnificent railroad train in his front yard. The Conductor (also Hanks) tells Hero Boy that the train is the Polar Express and is on its way to the North Pole. Hero Boy nervously decides to board the train, where he meets, among others, sweet Hero Girl (Nona M. Gaye) and the grating Know-It-All (Eddie Deezen). The train pulls away and makes one final stop, to pick up Lonely Boy (Peter Scolari), who at first refuses the Conductor’s invitation. As the train pulls off however, Lonely Boy changes his mind — seemingly too late, for the train is quickly leaving him behind. But Hero Boy pulls the emergency brake cord and Lonely Boy joins the adventure, though sitting sadly off away from the others. And what an adventure it is. There’s a magical production number in which waiters bring the kids hot chocolate and pancakes; we follow Hero Girl’s lost ticket as it flies off the train only to return after a spectacular journey; an exciting chase along the top of the train with a decidedly unusual Hobo (also Hanks), who seems to show up whenever Hero Boy needs a hand; an exhilarating, hair-raising runaway train sequence that climaxes with a wild ride on a frozen lake; a terrifying trek across a trestle, and, when they eventually reach the North Pole, another wild ride on an uncoupled train car. The moral of “The Polar Express” is pretty straightforward: believing things you can’t necessarily see, trusting in others, the power of friendship and the real spirit of Christmas. But oh, the animation. The ice shimmers and glows, the train charges like a behemoth across the screen, the sky is ablaze with the Northern Lights. In short, except for one small problem, the animation is simply stunning and glorious. The problem is tied to one of the film’s major accomplishments: a new way of computer-generating humans. In “The Polar Express,” sensors were placed on strategic spots on Hanks’ and the other actors’ faces and bodies. Their movements, expressions, etc., were then fed into computers and eventually rendered as animated humans. The Conductor, for instance, looks remarkably like Tom Hanks. And for the most part, the technique works well. When it doesn’t, however, it’s visually jarring. Eye contact wanders, planes of faces float in disconcerting fashion, mouths seem reluctant to stay in sync with noses. It’s not enough to ruin anything, but it is visually disturbing. The only other slight flaw in the film is the Know-It-All character, just too strident and obnoxious. No matter. “Polar Express” is a must-see thrill ride. Don’t miss it. — By Ralph Patterson I like Annette Bening. A lot. While Bening’s place as one of America’s greatest actresses is hard to dispute, she is easily one of our least-utilized — especially in those meaty roles that end up getting the Meryl Steeps of the world nominated for all the big statuettes. (Whether this is by Bening’s own design, or simply a sad commentary about the lack of powerful scripts built around older women, who knows?) Even with 1999’s “American Beauty,” Bening seemed to have stumbled into her Oscar-caliber performance, illuminating what could have been a rather lackluster role so brightly that the Academy couldn’t help but recognize her with a nomination. Such is the case again with her turn in “Being Julia.” Though surrounded by a stellar cast, Benning takes what could have been a dull, costume-heavy plot and turns it into a witty commentary on how the most self-assured among us might actually be the most needy, and how the spotlight tends to wither the subjects it loves the most. Based on Somerset Maugham’s 1937 novel “Theatre,” “Being Julia” revolves around Julia Lambert, a spoiled, conceited, often downright nasty woman who is considered her generation’s greatest stage actress. The problem is, Julia is getting older, and her beauty and fame are quickly slipping through her fingers. Too, her hard shell is mostly protection for a schoolgirl-like insecurity — a fact that director Istvan Szabo shows by periodically having the ghost of her former mentor and acting coach, Jimmie Langton (Michael Gambon), pop in to offer criticism at all the worst times of her life. Involved in a strange sort of open marriage with husband/manager Michael (Jeremy Irons), Julia soon begins an affair with a handsome young admirer, Tom (Shaun Evans). That’s fine for her, but when the long-suffering Michael throws her over (onstage and off) for a cute and talentless young chippie (Juliet Stevenson), Julia reacts by cooking up a scheme to score the worst brand of vengeance: the on-stage kind. Though the older-actress-grasping-at-fame plot is not new (“Sunset Boulevard” comes to mind), what Bening does with Julia just might be. She is witty and perfect, bringing breadth, depth and vulnerability to a character that could easily have been turned into Cruella DeVille in other hands. Though the movie sort of falls apart all about her, it’s worth a trip to Market Street Cinema just to see a great actress crush a would-be lump of coal into a diamond. — By David Koon


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