Holiday movie guide

Away from the shopping and cricketing frenzies, Boxing Day throws up its annual cinematic feast, as blockbusters do battle with art-house offerings. Philippa Hawker and Jake Wilson check out what's on.

LES MISERABLES (M) General (158 minutes) ★☆

BRITISH filmmaker Tom Hooper caught a lucky break with The King's Speech, the kind of crowd-pleaser that could have been directed by Harvey Weinstein's pet goldfish and won every award in sight.

His follow-up, Les Miserables, ought to be another sure thing. The musical has been running in the West End for decades, and the premise of Victor Hugo's original novel - reformed thief pursued by Asperger-y cop during the Paris Uprising - has provided a basis for countless screen adaptations.

But unless you're a diehard fan of Claude-Michel Schoenberg's simple tunes and Herbert Kretzmer's doggerel lyrics, there is not much to enjoy in this long, empty film.

Determined to show off his ''cinematic'' abilities, Hooper goes overboard with distorting lenses and oblique camera angles.

The performances are mostly what you would expect. Russell Crowe endows the obsessive Inspector Javert with a stolid manner and pub-rock voice, while Hugh Jackman plays the tormented Jean Valjean with the air of a trouper helping out his less-gifted friends.

Amanda Seyfried as Valjean's adopted daughter is pretty and camp enough for The Importance of Being Earnest. As comic villains, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter score not a single laugh between them, a remarkable testimony to Hooper's anti-talent as a director. And, oh dear, there's Anne Hathaway going the full Joan of Arc as doomed streetwalker Fantine, starved to the bone and warbling I Dreamed a Dream in mega-close-up as if pained by every last, tremulous syllable. Rarely have the movies seen such an embarrassingly naked plea for applause. There's nothing left to do but give her an Oscar and send her off to work with Lars von Trier. JW

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (M) General (169 minutes) ★★★

ONE ring to rule them all, but three movies to tell the story of The Hobbit. You really can have too much of a good thing. It's the same with the special effects, the use of 3D, the decision to divide a relatively short book into three movies. And if you are one of the spectators who sees The Hobbit at a cinema with the ability to show the film at 48 frames a second, rather than the customary 24 - about 50 such cinemas are in Australia - there is every chance you might feel the same. Sometimes, more is really less.

The Hobbit, of course, was there to be filmed, after all Peter Jackson had achieved with The Lord of the Rings. It's the story of events that took place before the trilogy: the tale of how Bilbo Baggins, homebody hobbit, went on the adventure of his life, joining a band of dwarfs in their quest to regain their lost kingdom of Mount Erebor.

Martin Freeman (The Office, Sherlock) makes a thoroughly engaging Bilbo, a figure of diffidence and quiet resolve. Ian McKellen is the charismatic wizard we would all want to be travelling with, and there are cameos from Lord of the Rings favourites: one of the saving moments of the film is Bilbo's meeting with Gollum (once again brought to unsettling life by Andy Serkis). There is a palpable tension here, a welcome feeling of desperation and danger.

But much else in the movie feels stunning in the wrong way. The film is a remarkable technical achievement, yet the look is an odd combination of breathtaking detail and glistening cheesiness, in the service of a narrative that's one roller-coaster ride after another, a succession of orc, goblin and troll smack-downs. ''Oh dear, more orcs,'' I found myself thinking, not out of fear, but of weariness.

It's just as well Jackson didn't decide to go the long route when he made The Lord of the Rings. We might still be waiting for ''The Return of The King Part XII''. PH

WRECK-IT RALPH (PG) General (108 minutes) ★★★★

HALF of Wreck-It Ralph takes place within an ultra-cutesy, pseudo-Japanese arcade game where players race cars across landscapes made of candy. Brilliantly, this game is called Sugar Rush - a phrase that also describes the sensation brought on by this fizzy, colourful movie.

A Disney release, Wreck-It Ralph feels like a logical extension of Pixar's Toy Story series, which is not surprising, since Pixar chief John Lasseter now runs Disney as well. Just as significantly, director Rich Moore worked on many episodes of The Simpsons. Ralph is a loveable oaf in the Homer Simpson tradition. He is voiced by an ideally cast John C. Reilly, who, as usual, sounds like a friendly ogre who's just woken up. A hulking fellow in a red flannel shirt, Ralph is the villain of a vintage video game that resembles Donkey Kong, in which his role is to break things as fast as the perky Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) can fix them. Though he performs an essential service, Ralph is shunned by the other characters until he embarks on a quest to prove that bad guys can be nice guys, too.

The premise supplies a clever alibi for the use of 3D: the ''real'' Ralph literally has more depth than his pixellated game avatar. Wreck-It Ralph does for video games what Who Framed Roger Rabbit? did for the golden age of animation. But it hardly matters if you miss the in-jokes because there's so much else to enjoy. The great Jane Lynch hilariously voices a Lara Croft figure battling alien bugs in a Starship Troopers future, and Sarah Silverman's hoarse, gurgling tones are perfect for the ''glitching'' problem child Vanellope von Schweetz, an endearing force for mess and chaos in the squeaky-clean Sugar Rush world. JW

PARENTAL GUIDANCE (PG)General (105 minutes) ★★☆

AT FIRST, this looks as if it is going to be a culture-clash family comedy - a face-off between helicopter parenting, 21st-century style, and Model T, back-to-basics discipline. You might assume, to begin with, writers Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse and director Andy Fickman (She's the Man, Race to Witch Mountain) have set things up for old-school values to triumph, for cake and competitiveness to trump tofu dogs and peewee baseball games that always end in a draw. But it's a little more ecumenical than it first appears.

Billy Crystal and Bette Midler play a couple who are called upon to care for their three grandchildren for a few days. He's a grouch who has just been made redundant from his job as a baseball caller; she's his perky yet feisty foil. They have grown apart from their daughter, Alice (Marisa Tomei), whose parenting style is a combination of benign reinforcement and constant surveillance, backed up with a sugar-free diet.

Their home is designed by Alice's husband, Phil (Tom Everett Scott), and it's an intelligent dwelling that anticipates their every need. This high-tech haven is not really a plot point, however; in fact, it takes on an odd kind of normality in the context of the movie.

The grandchildren have various anxieties with which their grandparents are at first reluctant to engage, particularly Artie. This is, ultimately, Crystal's movie and the ups and downs of his dealings with his grandsons are its chief focus. Yet, although it's designed for family entertainment, there's not a lot to entertain a young audience, apart from a few bits of strained physical comedy. PH

SAMSARA (PG) Selected (98 minutes) ★★★

SAMSARA is an epic piece of cross-continental collage, made by the filmmakers who gave us a similar work, Baraka, 20 years ago. Director Ron Fricke (who shot Koyaanisqatsi) and his co-writer and producer, Mark Magidson, spent five years filming in 25 countries, and there is something of the magical mystery tour about the footage they have assembled, without word of explanation, into a slow-moving, meditative whole.

The title is taken from the Sanskrit word for the concept of birth, death and impermanence. There are ancient buildings and contemporary cityscapes, the flow of an active volcano and the sight of abandoned buildings half-filled with sand. There is human activity, sometimes quotidian, sometimes creative, and rituals of all kinds: a French performance artist transforms himself with clay; Filipino prisoners in orange jumpsuits engage in an exhilarating mass dance. There are bursts of frantic shopping, and the painstaking construction of a sand mandala that will be deliberately swept into oblivion as soon as it is complete.

Almost everything takes on, for better and for worse, an aura of grandeur. Opposites are cultivated in the way this material has been filmed and juxtaposed. There is beauty in disaster, and a certain ugliness in modernity.

Some of the most unsettling images are about consumption and its price. A recurring motif is the wheel and the circle - sometimes it has a spiritual connotation, but when it comes to the cows being mechanically milked in the stalls of a huge, slowly turning device, it is more like a wheel in Hades.

The movie moves from one image or topic to another quite quickly and, at times, Samsara's juxtapositions can seem too pointed and obvious. At other moments, it is utterly breathtaking. PH

QUARTET (M) Selected (98 minutes) ★★☆

YOU may feel you've seen Quartet before; in a way, you have. This is yet another film in which a group of senior citizens - played by legends of stage and screen - are thrown together under trying circumstances, enabling them to flirt, bicker, swear and carry on as disgracefully as men and women half their age.

Quartet is based on a play by Ronald Harwood, whose many screenwriting credits include Roman Polanski's The Pianist and Oliver Twist. The director is Dustin Hoffman, who, at the age of 75, has never directed a film before and probably never will again. If you don't know what to do with this information, me neither.

The setting is a retirement home for classical musicians - which might more accurately be called a retirement castle, since the entire film was shot on location at Hedsor House, a one-time royal residence dating to 1166. A planned benefit concert provides the excuse for a series of acting turns, some more amusing than others: Maggie Smith as an acid-tongued sourpuss is a guaranteed pleasure, but I can't say the same for Billy Connolly as a loveably lecherous stroke victim.

One difficulty is that Smith, Connolly and their co-stars are obviously not opera singers - and so there's no possibility of actually hearing them sing. To make up for this, Hoffman casts real musicians in most of the minor roles, weaving their supposed rehearsals into the narrative throughout.

Easily the most powerful part of the film is the closing credits sequence, featuring photographs of all the performers in their younger days. This is moving in a simple, undeniable way - not least because famous faces and unknowns are placed on roughly the same level. Old age spares nobody: it might be a truism, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. JW