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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 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.

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