Bad Santa
Dir. Terry Zwigoff; writ. John Requa & Glenn Ficarra; feat. Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Bernie Mac, Brett Kelly, Lauren Graham, John Ritter (R)
Bad Santa is vile. Snot-dripping and alley-pukey, pants-pissing and rotgut-swilling vile. It does not have redeeming social merit; it will not enrich your soul or teach you the meaning of Christmas. It starts bleak and goes down from there. The premise takes the old caricature - the drunken department store Santa Claus - and makes it cartoonishly extreme, then adds a twist: This Santa (Thornton) is a safe cracker, and every year, he and his partner (a dwarf who wears an elf costume) go to work for a new store, taking pictures with kids and casing the joint for a Christmas Eve heist. But Santa has lost all interest in keeping up appearances, and instead curses at children and sodomizes shoppers in the Big and Tall department dressing rooms. In almost any other film, Santa would be shown the road to salvation, but Bad Santa would rather sit around boozing and making fun of America's two-month celebration of December 25. JD

Barbarian Invasions
Dir. & writ. Danys Arcand; feat. Rémy Girard, Stéphane Rousseau, Dorothée Berryman, Louise Portal, Dominique Michel, Yves Jacques, Pierre Curzi, Marie-José Crose (R)
Sequels need not be the offspring of expensive, violent blockbusters. The Decline of the American Empire, a 1986 French-Canadian feature about erudite epicureans who chatter over dinner, attacked the United States, but only intellectually. Producers who want to make a killing usually have to stage many, but writer-director Denys Arcand, who also made Jesus of Montreal, arms his characters with ideas instead of Uzis. Reassembling the original cast 17 years later in Barbarian Invasions, he arranges to kill off one of them - with a brain tumor. Rémy (Girard), an outspoken and outrageously randy professor of history, is dying of cancer, and his wife, Louise (Berryman), summons their estranged son (Rousseau), to tend to his father. For most of its length, Barbarian Invasions thrusts comic barbs into capitalist greed, health care, labor unions, the Catholic Church, and Yankee imperialism. It becomes a merry death watch when Rémy, a sensual socialist, trades ribald memories with several former mistresses and his wife. Urbane friends review their ideological evolution through Marxism, structuralism, feminism, nihilism - just short of the aneurysm they deserve. Arcand seems to be mocking the superficial banter, except that the film itself is keen on preening. The film is redeemed by the simple eloquence of its final 20 minutes: Calmly and serenely, Rémy faces and embraces death, the final, invisible barbarity. SGK

Big Fish
Dir. Tim Burton; writ. John August, based on a novel by Daniel Wallace; feat. Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Alison Lohman, Helena Bonham Carter, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito (PG-13)
A journalist in Paris, William (Crudup), exasperated with his father's constitutional aversion to honesty, has not spoken to Edward Bloom (Finney) for three years. According to his son, Edward is "just like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined - just as funny and just as fake." The same could be said of Big Fish, except that it is not quite as funny. A Dixie specimen of Magical Realism, the film expects a viewer to swallow it all, hook, line, and sinker. "He's never told me a single true thing," William complains. But when he learns that Edward is dying of cancer, William returns to Ashton, hoping to learn the truths about his father's life before it comes to an end. Big Fish cuts between the fantastic stories Edward tells about himself and the prosaic present in which, at least at first, Edward seems like a sick old salesman with a vivid imagination. The cast manages to pull it all off - though the "it" is the viewer's leg. Big Fish is a piscine piffle, a feel-good film that nevertheless makes a skeptic feel like sludge. "There are some fish that cannot be caught," warns Edward. Director Tim Burton comes back with a charming old shoe. SGK

Cheaper by the Dozen
Dir. Shawn Levy; writ. Sam Harper; feat. Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Piper Perabo, Tom Welling, Hilary Duff (PG)
This roughage-free confection is about a couple with the temerity to produce 12 biological offspring in the age of birth control and global warming, who then decide it is a dereliction of duty to also try to have real careers. The narrative conceit, which also presumably saves the family from food stamps and one of the seedier variety of trailer parks, is that the mother writes a book (yes, titled Cheaper by the Dozen) that becomes a national best-seller. If the movie is meant as satire, it falls on its own candy cane; if Steve Martin is sincere in offering us this drivel as a parable, audiences ought to be launching used Pampers and baby formula cans at screens across the nation. Parenthood was a smart, wry, and sympathetic send-up of the American family as it has been forever modified by economic pressures, sexual liberation, and cultural upheaval. Cheaper by the Dozen, despite the occasional adroit moment, is a recidivist piece of fluff whose villain is a parody of the uptight mother of a single (unhappy, of course) child. If the film was meant as a loving tribute to the joys of a large family, Martin misses the mark by flogging the extremes at either end of the spectrum. Saddest of all, though, is watching Martin grimace at the camera through some very unfunny slapstick skits. Ah, Steve, we hardly knew ye. EW

Cold Mountain
Dir. Anthony Minghella; writ. Minghella, based on the novel by Charles Frazier; feat. Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Kathy Baker, Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ray Winstone, Giovanni Ribisi, Brendan Gleeson (R)
Filmed largely in Romania, whose lovely, lush hills double for North Carolina, Cold Mountain is the latest effort at American introspection. Adapted by director Anthony Minghella from Charles Frazier's ubiquitous novel, the film portrays the arduous odyssey of a Confederate deserter back to the town and woman he loves and the hardships that that woman undergoes as she, a Dixie Penelope, awaits his return. Among the adversities, dangers, and temptations that Inman overcomes during his journey back to Ada, his sojourn with Sara, a lonely widow with a baby, is most memorable. On a dark, stormy night, Inman relies on the kindness of this stranger for a hot meal and a corn crib in which to lay his weary head. In the middle of the night, needy Sara asks Inman to share her bed. When three Union soldiers raid the cabin in the morning, Sara calmly kills one of them, a man no less frightened and starving than Inman was the night before. Amid the cinematic simplicities spread out in Cold Mountain, the complexities of this eloquent sequence might keep a viewer from deserting. SGK

Dir. Jon Favreau; writ. David Berenbaum; feat. Will Ferrell, James Caan, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, Edward Asner, Daniel Tay, Mary Steenburgen (PG)
Elf exploits Will Ferrell's most innocent childish side, one that he has elsewhere used to play just play dumb. Here, Buddy is not stupid but guileless, a human raised by Santa's helpers who travels to New York City in search of a lost father who is (Buddy is shocked to learn) on Santa's Naughty list. Buddy sets out, in pointy hat and yellow leotards, to walk from the North Pole to the Big Apple, through (as he later tells anyone who will listen, and many who won't) the Candy Cane Forest and alongside the swirling, twirling Gumdrop Sea. Ferrell proceeds with a few perfect gags to become one of Manhattan's most amusing wide-eyed newcomers: He feasts on discarded chewing gum, races through revolving doors, and is delighted to accept the advertising flyers that more savvy tourist reject as trash. As Elf goes through the motions of a standard Christmas-spirit-boosting fable, with unlikely changes of heart and spontaneous sing-alongs, it remains true to the pure heart at its center. JD

House of Sand and Fog
Dir. Vadim Perelman; writ. Perelman, based on the novel by Andre Dubus III; feat. Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard, Frances Fisher, Kim Dickens, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jonthan Ahdout (R)
House of Sand and Fog tells the story of desires that collide over ownership of a house. Kathy (Connelly), a recovering alcoholic whose husband left her eight months ago, is evicted from the property her late father purchased more than 30 years before. The action is erroneous, based on Kathy's failure to pay taxes she in fact never owed, but before her rights can be restored, the house is sold at auction to an Iranian immigrant family, the Behranis. Kathy is soon reduced to transience, sleeping in her Bonneville and spying on the strangers who have appropriated her bedroom. "They're already more at home there than I ever was," she says of the Iranian invaders. Rich in textures of mist and murk, House of Sand and Fog, which itself deserves packed houses, is a graphic reminder of how brittle are the bricks with which we try to build our lives. Our deeds can always be contested. SGK

In America
Dir. Jim Sheridan; writ. Jim, Naomi, & Kirsten Sheridan; feat. Paddy Considine, Samantha Morton, Sarah Bolger, Emma Bolger, Djimon Hounsou (PG-13)
In America, whose title is a bit grandiose for a film confined almost entirely to a few bleak blocks in Manhattan, is not a Bergmanesque anatomy of anomie. It is the spirited story of how New York City resuscitates four Irish immigrants, and their vital signs are always robust. We learn nothing about the Sullivan family's lives in Ireland or what motivated them to leave, except perhaps a desire to put behind them the trauma of losing a child. Yet for a clan of affectless zombies, they greet the bright lights of Broadway with remarkably ecstatic awe. The film is rich with anecdotes about starting over in America, but it is more successful at invoking than evoking magic to connect them all. SGK

The Last Samurai
Dir. Edward Zwick; writ. John Logan, Marshall Herskovitz, Zwick; feat. Ken Watanabe, Tom Cruise, Masato Harada, Timothy Spall, Shin Koyamada, Koyuki, Tony Goldwyn (R)
A veteran of the Civil War and the Indian campaigns, Captain Nathan Algren (Cruise) is hired to turn raw Japanese conscripts into an efficient fighting force adept in using the latest battlefield equipment. But in the first skirmish, against a band of rebel samurai, Algren's pupils are routed, and he is taken prisoner. Forced to winter with the insurgents in a picturesque mountain village, Algren goes native. Within a few months, he is fluent in Japanese and fluid in his use of traditional swords, knives, and sticks. By springtime, he is fighting beside Katsumoto (Watanabe), the charismatic leader of the samurai, in violent confrontation with regiments that by now have leaned to use their bayonets and howitzers. Katsumoto and his allies, including Algren, apply their admirable ideals of discipline and concentration to the business of butchery. They behead their captured enemies and, when defeated, disembowel themselves. These last samurai, who follow orders without question, are the ancestors of kamikaze pilots and Aum Shinrikyo terrorists. The Last Samurai is an elegantly realized epic, but it is also a training film for Hamas and Al Qaeda. SGK

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Dir. Peter Jackson; writ. Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens; feat. Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Johy Rhys-Davies, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving (PG-13)
The movie is often thrilling beyond words, both on the battlefield and in the highly charged discussions that turn out to be Middle Earth history-in-the-making. For all the spectacle and grandeur, though, it's tempting to argue that the one thing to be cherished most in the series is Sean Astin's simple, unassuming Samwise Gamgee. Sam is so indispensable to the quest that even Frodo's sweetest praise seems offensively meager; he is the humblest, bravest, most loyal, and most selfless person on screen (which is high praise considering the noble crew Tolkien created), and Astin as an actor brings all those virtues to his performance. If Sam doesn't make you cry a little, you may be an orc. JD

Mona Lisa Smile
Dir. Mike Newell; writ. Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal; feat. Julie Roberts, Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ginnifer Goodwin, Dominic West, Juliet Stevenson (PG-13)
Although she has always longed to teach there, Katherine Watson (Roberts), a 31-year-old novice art historian, terms Wellesley "a finishing school disguised as a college." She arrives on the campus in the fall of 1953 determined to "make a difference." Departing from the standard syllabus, which her bright students have already mastered anyway, Katherine introduces them to unsettling modern paintings. But the biggest difference the academic interloper makes is in persuading her privileged young charges to think about their roles in a society that has bred them to be matrons. It is not merely makeup that sets Julia Roberts apart from the pretty women of Wellesley, or Erin Brockovich. Her own Mona Lisa smile is not a simper of submission. It is a sovereign grin, worn by Wellesley students who endure art history with Katherine Watson. SGK

Once Upon a Time in Mexico
Dir. & writ. Robert Rodriguez; feat. Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke, Eva Mendes, Danny Trejo, Enrique Iglesias, Marco Leonardi, Cheech Marin, Rubén Blades, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Armendáriz Jr. (R)
Robert Rodriguez falls short of delivering on the promise of an epic film. Even his trademark cinematic flourishes seem reined in. Depp's Agent Sands dominates - pushing even the iconic Mariachi to the sides. As appealing as parts of the film are to a sense of cultural pride, it ultimately leaves viewers wondering whether it is entertainment as empowerment - or exploitation. AP

Dir. John Woo; writ. Philip K. Dick, Dean Georgaris; feat. Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti (PG-13)
Director John Woo is at home in plots with more holes than a taxi-dancer's fishnets, but Paycheck just won't hold up no matter how much leeway you give it. Inspired by a Philip K. Dick yarn, it toys with the themes that fueled Steven Spielberg's Minority Report: A tool is invented to look into the future, and characters find their lives threatened by both the philosophical and logistical implications of that device. The story is complicated by the oracle machine's inventor, whose memory has been erased by the company that hired him to build it. Without balletic ballistics and Wagnerian explosions to distract us, we have to watch the cast - and that's not good, even with actors who have been anywhere from decent to quite strong in many recent performances. The cornball melodrama that the director typically weaves between gunshots requires larger-than-life screen personalities - Chow Yun Fat, John Travolta, the mighty Van Damme - to take it to that special Land of Woo, and Ben Affleck just isn't there. Strangely, Woo seems to have wandered away from that bewitching land himself. JD

Peter Pan
Dir. P.J. Hogan; writ. Hogan, Michael Goldenberg; feat. Jason Isaacs, Olivia Williams, Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Lynn Redgrave, Richard Briers, Freddie Popplewell, Harry Newell, Ludivine Sagnier (PG)
Those of us weaned on the now-dated, infantile Disney version or Stephen Spielberg's recent travesty are in for a surprise. Instead of a mature Mary Martin or a middle-aged Robin Williams in tights, a real boy has been cast to convey the wonder and puckish nature of the ageless Peter Pan. It is also rife with sexual tension. No, Peter isn't a satyr, but he is named after the god Pan. Pre-Raphaelite artists' rendering of forlorn maidens in mythological liaisons inform this ethereal mid-winter night's tale. When the goatish Pan first appears to Wendy Darling in a wide-awake dream, he hovers above her in a missionary position. While the new FX technology used for the flying feats is breathtaking, the cotton candy clouds and almost bluish tint are not. At times, the film's darkness makes it difficult to follow the action. Still, this arch Peter Pan often soars to new heights. GB

Something's Gotta Give
Dir. & writ. Nancy Myers; feat. Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Amanda Peet, Keanu Reeves, Frances McDormand (PG-13)
By the end of the film, 50-something writer Erica Barry (Keaton) will have penned a new hit play, swept a dreamy doctor 20 years her junior off his feet, conquered the prejudices of an eternal bachelor, and found love, love, love. From all the writerly wish fulfillment going on here, you would think Woody Allen underwent a sex change. That impression is bolstered when you realize, as in Allen's recent work, that you're not laughing much. It seems that the screenplay's wit is dulled by the same hazy Wrinkle-B-Gone filter that director Nancy Myers cinematographer has pasted to his camera to smooth out the cast's skin. JD

Stuck On You Dir. & writ. Peter & Bobby Farrelly; feat. Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear Eva Mendes, Wen Yann Shih, Seymour Cassel, Griffin Dunne, Cher, Meryl Streep, Frankie Muniz (PG-13) Bob and Walt Tenor live a normal life in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The brothers are conjoined twins, but that hasn't stopped them from being well-adjusted and successful. Their Quickee Burger business advertises a burger on your plate faster than you can say hold the onions - or it's free. Pity we can't keep the filmmaking Farrelly Brothers to the same promise. This Punch-and-Judy show doesn't auger well for future Farrelly projects: a Special Olympics epic now filming in Austin and a Three Stooges biopic in preproduction. GB

Films reviewed by:
GB: Gregg Barrios
JD: John DeFore
LMF: Laura Fries
SGK: Steven G. Kellman
WK: Wendi Kimura
AL: Albert Lopez
JM: Jonathan Marcus
AP: Alejandro Pérez
RP: Rich Perin
JW: Joe Weiss
EW: Elaine Wolff



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