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Holiday Dispirit

New movies for Halloween and... Christmas?

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If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself. That advice apparently wasn't lost on Japanese director Takashi Shimizu, who agreed to helm the American remake of his wildly popular scarefest Ju-On: The Grudge.

With The Grudge, Shimizu avoids the mistake of George Sluizer, who made the terrific Dutch thriller The Vanishing and then tarnished his original vision by tacking an absurd happy ending onto his daft US remake. Shimizu makes no such compromise with his stateside rendition: While he allows scripter Stephen Susco to tinker with some minor aspects of the story, he resolutely keeps the proceedings sinister throughout. Unfortunately, it isn't enough to elevate this terror tale in any discernible manner.

This version retains the original's Tokyo setting but adds several American actors to the mix. Thus, we get Grace Zabriskie as an elderly woman who sees dead people, Bill Pullman as a professor who might hold the key to the spooky shenanigans, and top-billed Sarah Michelle Gellar as an exchange student whose volunteer work takes her to a house that's subject to a terrible curse. As the opening crawl helpfully explains, when someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, that fury manifests itself into an evil entity that will snuff out the life of anyone it encounters. This tidbit spells bad news for everyone who enters the aforementioned abode, the site of a gruesome slaying that occurred three years earlier.

Ju-On's success rested in its powerful atmosphere, the sense of dread that Shimizu instilled in virtually every frame. Yet that aura only presents itself sporadically in the Yankee Grudge, usually when the director meticulously recreates the original film's shock moments. The rest of the time, we're stuck with sterile expository scenes, a repetitious framework, and the spectacle of Gellar trying to emote (she's a better actress than fellow starlet Jennifer Love Hewitt, though not by any measurable degree).

Ju-On: The Grudge was actually the third film in a continuing series, but because it was the most popular, it was declared the best bet to spark an American franchise. But given the shrug-inducing result, I'm willing to bet this new curse will be blessedly short-lived.

Last year, we got Bad Santa; this year, we get Bad Movie.Unlike the Billy Bob Thornton hit, which for the most part kept its dark heart pumping bile right through to the end, the misguided Yuletide farce Surviving Christmas tries to have it both ways by dribbling watery drops of black comedy into the more familiar foundation of eggnog-sweet sentimentality. The result is nothing more than yet another opening for the press and public to mercilessly lambaste Ben Affleck -- a lamentable development since there's nothing from his personal life to indicate that he deserves to be treated with the same level of contempt generally aimed at, oh, say, Osama bin Laden or Kim Jong Il.

Affleck seems to be trying -- really trying - to gain audience sympathy in this new picture. But while the actor has shown signs of a deft comic talent through interviews and in his films for Kevin Smith, his eager-to-please performance here is simply embarrassing, occasionally so ripe that even Jerry Lewis might be mistaken for Buster Keaton by comparison.

Surviving Christmas gets into trouble the moment its dubious plotline is introduced: Millionaire Drew Latham (Affleck) doesn't want to spend Christmas alone, so he offers a suburban family $250,000 if they'll just pretend to be his family for the holidays. This is a pretty feeble foundation for an entire movie, but the four attached writers do the project no favors by making Drew not only thoroughly obnoxious but possibly deranged as well (view Drew's actions outside the story's comic prism and it's clear this is one seriously disturbed individual). Of course, Drew is supposed to make a miraculous transformation from a self-absorbed weenie into an empathic human being by the final reel, but given the character's unwavering smugness (not to mention sadistic bent), it's hard to tell exactly how, when or why he's been redeemed.

As the dad who pimps out his family, James Gandolfini remains on a slow simmer throughout -- his one-note character isn't much more likable than Affleck's. Catherine O'Hara (as "Mom") and Christina Applegate (as "Sis") flash their natural comedic instincts whenever possible, and they prevent the film from completely self-destructing. But poor Applegate's character suffers the most from the scripters' ineptitude: Initially antagonistic toward Drew, she instantly falls in love with him after they catch cold together. Ah, nothing like a waterfall of snot cascading down a lout's face to fan the flames of passion.

October's a curious month to be opening a Christmas movie; typically, Thanksgiving week is the apt spot to circle on the calendar, since it gives moviegoers enough lead time before December 25 to make it to the multiplex yet isn't so early as to seem like a pushy intrusion on all those Halloween plans. But this year, that prime Thanksgiving slot has already been secured by the Tim Allen comedy Christmas With the Kranks, forcing this picture's hand sooner than desired. Yet here's the sobering footnote: Based solely on the trailers, Surviving Christmas actually looked like the less painful of the pair, a realization that should prove infinitely more frightening than any of the ghouls and goblins sure to be shuffling around on All Hallow's Eve.

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