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Ho Ho Ho or Ho Hum ? 

Santa bags the competition

Does cynicism have a place in Yuletide flicks? Judging by the abysmal likes of Deck the Halls, Surviving Christmas and Christmas With the Kranks, the answer is a definitive no. But sometimes a little spice can enhance a seasonal dish, and Fred Claus (**1/2 out of four) joins Bad Santa and the underrated Bill Murray vehicle Scrooged as a way to avoid the pure sugar rush of treacle like The Santa Clause and its sequels.

A prologue quickly establishes that Fred Claus grows up resenting the love and attention showered upon his younger brother Nicholas, who in time is christened a saint and becomes known the world over as the jolly and generous Santa Claus. Cut to the present day, and the adult Fred (Vince Vaughn), who has long broken off all family relations, is coerced into coming to the North Pole to help Santa (Paul Giamatti) with his annual gift-giving. But Fred's presence prevents the operation from running as smoothly as normal, a problem since a dour efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey) is hanging around, hoping for any excuse to fire Santa and move Xmas HQ to the South Pole.

There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments in this overlong seasonal tale (many of them crammed into the unappetizing trailer), including the slapstick sequences involving Santa's ninja bodyguards as well as the ill-conceived decision to cast normal-sized performers (John Michael Higgins and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges) in the largest of the elf roles via digital wizardry (a slap to Peter Dinklage, Tony Cox and other accomplished dwarf actors). And scripter Dan Fogelman is so eager to get to the meat of the story that he's frequently sloppy when it comes to details: The notion that members of the Claus family never age over the centuries is quickly explained and then treated as an inconvenient fact (and, honestly, could Vaughn's patented motormouth hipster come from any other era than ours?).

But Vaughn and Giamatti make a fine "odd couple" pairing, a stellar supporting cast (Spacey, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates, Miranda Richardson) lifts the proceedings, and Fogelman and director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) do manage to find the right mix of sweet and sour (if anything, this PG flick might be more appreciated by adults than kids). And to top it off, there's a priceless sequence set at a Siblings Anonymous meeting which Fred attends; I won't reveal the surprise cameos, but the personalities involved deserve some sort of Good Sport award at next year's Oscars.

SAY THIS for Hollywood: At least it's trying to inject some semblance of sane debate into the Iraq War debacle.

While the right wing continues to think nothing about American soldiers being sent to Iraq to "get their heads blown off for the president's amusement" (as Democratic Rep. Pete Stark accurately stated a few weeks ago, a bold comment weakened by his cowardly and oh-so-Democratic apology soon thereafter), members of the more sentient left -- including liberal filmmakers -- are trying to wake the populace up to the evils of this insidious administration and add value to every life lost in this rich man's war. But do their recruitment tools have to be so ineffectual?

On the heels of Rendition comes Lions For Lambs (**), another drama whose noble aspirations are bungled by ham-fisted storytelling. Working from a script by Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also penned the more rabble-rousing Middle East flick The Kingdom), director Robert Redford uses three concurrent storylines to stir debate about what's happening in our country and our world. In the first, newspaper reporter Janine Roth (Meryl Streep) interviews Senator Jasper Irving (Tom Cruise), tagged the future of the Republican Party, and learns that he has a strategy for winning the war on terror. In the second plot thread, two soldiers (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) involved in the senator's master plan find themselves stranded on a snowy mountaintop in Afghanistan with enemy combatants closing in fast. And in the third story arc, college professor Stephen Malley (Redford) urges a promising if self-absorbed student (Andrew Garfield) to get off his complacent behind and take a stand on issues that really matter.

For all its recycling of familiar questions (why did we attack the wrong country, for starters), the Cruise-Streep storyline is the best, partly because it implicates the media as well as the government for its role in this current mess but also because it treats the GOP politician fairly, allowing him to come across as a patriotic American who truly believes in taking out terrorism rather than a venal opportunist who's merely using the war as an excuse to line his own pockets (admittedly, such a Republican might exist in the real world). The plotline involving the soldiers functions as little more than connective tissue between the other two tales, only establishing its own identity in an obvious denouement. Bringing up the rear is the tête-à-tête between the teacher and the student, which has its heart in the right place yet proves to be embarrassing in its clumsy earnestness. It's too bald-faced and heavy-handed to be effective; Redford would have had more luck personally distributing get-out-the-vote pamphlets at movie theaters nationwide.

THE BEST THING about Bee Movie (**) isn't even in the film. It's the jar of Ray Liotta Honey sent to members of the media, and there's something so surreal, so absurd, about seeing the GoodFella's mug on a food product that it tickled the fancy with promises of an animated feature that would follow suit.

Unfortunately, Bee Movie is the same nondescript toon tale we've pretty much come to expect from any animated outlet not named Pixar. In this one, it's Jerry Seinfeld contributing the vocals to the central character, a bee (named Barry) who, not content to work inside the hive until the day he dies, opts instead to see what's going on in the world outside. He finds a New York City full of sound and fury, but also one that contains a sweet florist named Vanessa (Renee Zellweger). Breaking the long-standing rule that bees must never talk to humans, Barry makes contact with Vanessa, and the two strike up an unorthodox friendship (although Barry's constant ogling of Vanessa makes it clear that she stirs strange sensations in his stinger). But Barry freaks out once he spots the rows of honey lining supermarket shelves: The bees work hard to make that honey, and he feels his, uh, "people" are being exploited by humans. Therefore, he ends up suing humankind, leading to a courtroom showdown that pits him against a blustery Southern lawyer (John Goodman, clearly having a ball).

The appearance by Ray Liotta (or, rather, his toon rendition) is a high point, certainly more clever than the cameos by Sting and the tiresome Larry King. In fact, Liotta outshines just about everyone, including the leads: Seinfeld and Zellweger are a monotonous pair, while Matthew Broderick, as Barry's best friend, simply sounds depressed, a now-common condition that also marred his work in the film version of The Producers.

Bee Movie contains some clever wordplays and sight gags for the adults, though not as many as one might expect. A spoof on the swimming pool scene from The Graduate falls flat, though the Winnie the Pooh dig is as funny as it is unexpected.

But while most animated features, even the bad ones, champion individuality, Bee Movie flies in the opposite direction by rallying around the notions of conformity and subservience. Surely that's not what the filmmakers intended, but regardless, it kills the good buzz that the movie manages to generate in spurts.

THE CREDITS state that Martian Child (**) stars John Cusack, Amanda Peet and Joan Cusack, but really, it stars Lucky Charms, M&M's and Amazon.com. Yup, these three are the top winners of this movie's product placement contest (do studios hold bidding wars to see which conglomerates can pony up the most cash?) -- at least E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial employed Reese's Pieces in an innovative manner that benefited its storyline.

But Martian Child is no E.T., despite a plot that similarly involves a being from another planet who just wants to go home. Or is Dennis (Bobby Coleman) merely an ordinary little boy who only thinks he's from another planet? Only God (or L. Ron Hubbard) knows for sure. At any rate, Martian Child is most like K-Pax, the atrocious 2001 release with Kevin Spacey as a mental patient who claims he's from outer space. This new release isn't nearly as noxious as that Chinese-water-torture of a movie, but that's largely because few things are as frightening as watching Spacey attempt to be cuddly.

Coleman's Dennis doesn't attempt to be cuddly, at least not at first. Content to spend his days inside a cardboard box while perched on the curb outside the orphanage, he eventually finds himself adopted by David Gordon (John Cusack), a widower whose own former standing as an oddball kid convinces him that he and the boy might make a good match. But Dennis' unwavering insistence that he's not of this earth proves to be too much for even the well-meaning David to handle.

Director Menno Meyjes ladles on the glop in this wannabe tearjerker that never misses a chance to make a lunge at those heartstrings with one expected setup after another. But the movie fails to connect precisely because Dennis never appears to be a boy, human or otherwise: He's merely a writer's high-concept execution, a series of quirky traits that have coagulated to take on human form.

The movie primarily escapes being relegated to the cinematic cellar because of John Cusack, who's charming and funny even when saddled with subpar material like this. He's especially engaging in his scenes opposite the always-likable Amanda Peet (cast as his late wife's best friend), and viewers may find themselves wishing the pair had more scenes together. Of course, when the best parts of a movie called Martian Child are those that don't involve the Martian child, then something's definitely askew.

DIRECTED BY the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) in his cinematic fare-thee-well, 1972's Sleuth was a delicious adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's stage hit (scripted by the playwright himself), with Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine trading verbal blows as, respectively, mystery writer Andrew Wyke and hairdresser Milo Tindle, the former peeved that the latter is having an affair with his wife. A critique on British class differences as well as a cinematic jigsaw puzzle, the credit for the movie's success was shared equally by writer, director, stars and, crucially, production designer Ken Adam, who turned the Wyke mansion into a funhouse maze of theatrical props and other eye-catching bric-a-brac.

Working with writer Harold Pinter, director Kenneth Branagh has opted to remake Sleuth (*1/2), this time with Caine in Olivier's old role and Jude Law in Caine's former part (the pair also share celluloid DNA by having both played Alfie on screen, and Sleuth even works in that film's signature line, "What's it all about?"). But this new version isn't lean and mean as much as it's choppy (50 minutes shorter than the original) and mean-spirited. It starts out intriguingly enough, with Pinter placing some notable zingers in both actors' mouths, but once he begins veering away from Shaffer's template, the movie turns disastrous.

Whereas the '72 Sleuth was informed by Adam's elaborate set, so too does this new edition takes its cue from Tim Harvey's vision for the Wyke home, which is all spare, sleek surfaces usually bathed in metallic colors. It's gorgeous to behold but also cold to the core, and a similar chill punctuates every moment of this poorly realized remake. None of the plot twists enhance the story, and whereas Milo and (to a lesser degree) Andrew were sympathetic in the original, here we find Andrew barely tolerable and Milo outright odious. Pinter and Branagh taint the material even more by adding a homosexual spin to the piece; it adds nothing to the storyline but instead seems like a dare on the part of the filmmakers to see what they could pile onto this once sturdy story. But Sleuth is no longer a fun whodunnit; it's been transformed into a baffling whatthehellweretheythinking?

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