BAD SANTA Bad Santa may be rude, disgusting and offensive, but I laughed plenty of times, which is something I can't say I did during those sucky Santa Clause flicks. A perfectly cast Billy Bob Thornton stars as a lifelong loser who dons the red suit annually to play a department store Santa, simply so he can rob the mall vaults with ease. But this year's scheme threatens to become more complicated than usual, thanks to the unexpected presence of a pudgy little boy (Brett Kelly) who follows him around like a pet. A sentimental moment or two enters the picture late in the game (and they're surprisingly effective), but for the most part, this movie carries the power of its non-PC implications right through to the very end. Rarely letting up on the raunch and ridicule, it's enough to make Will Ferrell's Elf blush.
THE CAT IN THE HAT Scouring the original Dr. Seuss text, I simply could not find the moment when the title feline, standing next to a garden tool, yells, "You dirty ho!" then insists he's only kidding while flicking his tongue in a lascivious manner. Dramatic license? More like rampant necrophilia. In short, this is a catastrophe of the first degree, anchored (and sunk) by Mike Myers' unctuous performance as the Cat. Myers' schtick is all one-note self-adulation, a feeble channeling of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion by way of Jerry Lewis, Paul Lynde and Myers' own Austin Powers. But he isn't the only problem: Needless subplots constantly interfere, while all the cute characters from the original story are simply creepy on film. In fact, there isn't much in this crass movie that doesn't inspire feelings of revulsion.
ELF While it could stand being a little more naughty and a little less nice, Elf isn't a pre-fabricated piece of synthetic Christmas cheer like The Santa Clause or Gov. Schwarzenegger's disastrous Jingle All the Way. While remaining mindful of the season-friendly PG rating, director Jon Favreau and scripter David Berenbaum manage to add a few splashes of Tabasco sauce to the expected puddles of syrup, thereby elevating this fable about a human (Will Ferrell) who, after being raised as an elf at the North Pole, heads to New York. Overcoming a sluggish beginning, both the picture and Ferrell's broad turn become easier to take once this gets rolling, with some inventive touches (love those Etch-A-Sketch renditions!) and a game cast helping matters along. 1/2
GOTHIKA Guilty by reason of stupidity, this limp thriller's absurdity begins with its title, a cutesy variation on "Gothic." Yet although the press material pleads its case that this drivel has its origins in both the same-named French architecture of the 12th century and the English literature of the 1700s, this movie ultimately feels about as Gothic as Finding Nemo. The premise certainly holds promise, with Halle Berry cast as a criminal psychologist who's suspected of murder and finds herself locked up in her own looney bin. Is she really crazy, or is she the victim of supernatural shenanigans? Almost everything in this doltish drama needs to be accepted with a shrug, from the cheap chiller elements to the idiocy of its characters. 1/2
THE HAUNTED MANSION Eddie Murphy, in neutered, family man mode, tries to keep things jumping with his caffeinated turn as a New Orleans realtor who, with family in tow, spends the night in a ghost-infested manor. It's hard to believe this sort of trifle would be overplotted, but the script by Davis Berenbaum (Elf) gets so weighed down in the intricacies of its pedestrian storyline (centering on a doomed love affair from the past) that there's very little time left for pure visceral thrills. Yet even here, the movie's a bust, as director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) and six-time Oscar-winning effects wizard Rick Baker (finally running out of ideas) manage to make even such surefire audience grabbers as a zombie attack exceedingly dull. 1/2
THE HUMAN STAIN This adaptation of Philip Roth's novel is an affecting picture in its own right, almost subdued in the manner in which it tackles its myriad issues of race, loss, identity, and the lengths to which one man will reinvent himself to succeed in America. It traces the downward spiral of a college professor (Anthony Hopkins) after an innocent classroom comment is misinterpreted as a racial slur. Suddenly without a career or a family, he passes the days alternating between dwelling on secrets buried in his past and engaging in a tentative relationship with a complex woman (Nicole Kidman) who paints herself as the ultimate in trailer park trash. Hopkins hasn't been this interesting in years, while Kidman's amazing portrayal is merely the latest in her current winning streak.
THE LAST SAMURAI Director Edward Zwick has already demonstrated his capacity to handle expansive epics with Glory and Legends of the Fall, but the picture this most resembles is Dances With Wolves. Yet that maxim about familiarity breeding contempt doesn't apply here: For all its recognizable trappings, this is an enormously entertaining film. Tom Cruise stars as a former Civil War hero who accepts an assignment to help train the Japanese emperor's armies in modern forms of combat. This places him in direct conflict with the "old-school" Samurai, but after he's captured, he becomes fond of their customs and forms an alliance with their leader (magnetic Ken Watanabe). Aside from the weak epilogue, there's little to dislike in this impressive undertaking. 1/2
LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION The term "specialized cinema" refers to art-house features, but this live-action/animation hybrid, a quantum leap over the wretched Space Jam, qualifies as much as any other movie that comes to mind. With its pleasures aimed at three specific segments of the moviegoing population, this might prove to be a tough nut to crack for anyone not keyed into its frenetic frequency. Yet children will enjoy the cartoon antics, diehard Looney Tunes junkies will embrace Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as they fill the big screen, and film buffs will delight in the endless array of in-jokes. Slapstick shenanigans, inspired non sequiturs and guest appearances by a dozen other LT regulars prevent the merriment from ever slowing down.
MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD Based on Patrick O'Brian's series of novels, this casts Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey, a British naval hero assigned to bring down a formidable French vessel during the Napoleonic Wars. For a swashbuckling epic, the film is rather subdued in its approach, with director Peter Weir taking great pains to present an oft-times understated tale that's about the art of warfare as much as it's about the battles themselves. Paul Bettany, Crowe's A Beautiful Mind co-star, portrays the ship's doctor (and Aubrey's best friend), and it's the relationship between their two characters -- coupled with Weir's attention to minute detail -- that largely drives the story.
THE MISSING Director Ron Howard's latest concerns itself with a plucky frontierswoman (Cate Blanchett) and the circumstances that transpire after her oldest daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is kidnapped by a band of renegades who ferry captured girls across the Mexican border to sell them into slavery. With her other daughter (Jenna Boyd) in tow, she sets out to rescue her offspring, receiving help from her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones) along the way. With a 130-minute running time, the film's not lacking for length, and tighter editing in the more redundant passages might have opened up some breathing room for its more savory ingredients. The Missing is a decent picture and worth a marginal recommendation, but what's really missing is the proper balance to make it truly memorable. 1/2
SHATTERED GLASS Based on the real-life scandal involving writer Stephen Glass, who had fabricated 27 of the 41 stories he penned for The New Republic in the 1990s, it would be logical to assume that this film would rake the fourth estate over the coals, illustrating how it had continued to shift from a venerable source of reliable information into a circus act of celebrity reporters riding unicycles of distortion and deceit. Yet the surprise of the film is that it's ultimately a celebration of journalistic integrity, emulating All the President's Men in the manner in which it presents most of its characters as moral crusaders who will do whatever it takes to uncover the truth. As Glass, Hayden Christensen (a.k.a. Anakin Skywalker) delivers a solid performance. 1/2
THE STATION AGENT It can't be a coincidence that the year's two best films both center around lonely, troubled people tentatively reaching out to other isolated souls. But like Lost In Translation, The Station Agent is another splendid human drama about likable folks cutting through a surrounding haze of complacency long enough to make the sorts of connections that don't require a dial-up tone. The focal character is Fin McBride (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who, after moving into a decrepit train depot, only wishes that people would leave him alone. Instead, a few neighbors, most notably a tortured artist (Patricia Clarkson) and a hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale), manage to locate his dormant vein of compassion and bring it bubbling to the surface. Debuting writer-director Tom McCarthy is off to a blazing start with this exemplary seriocomic gem.