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NEW RELEASES

THE HAUNTED MANSION Lest the whopping success of Pirates of the Caribbean sends every Hollywood producer combing the nation's theme parks for their next film adaptation, they might want to take a look at this flat-footed endeavor based on the 34-year-old Disneyland attraction -- coupled with the earlier flop The Country Bears, it brings the total of theme park knockoffs to one win, two losses. Eddie Murphy, in neutered, family man mode, tries to keep things jumping with his caffeinated turn as a New Orleans realtor who drags his wife (Marsha Thomason) and kids with him to inspect a majestic yet crumbling mansion on the outskirts of town. After making the acquaintance of the transparently unsettled owner (Nathaniel Parker) and his aloof manservant (Terence Stamp), the family finds itself trapped there for the night, whereupon they begin encountering all sorts of restless spirits -- some friendly, others fearsome. 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

MANNA FROM HEAVEN Presented as this month's Reel Tuesdays attraction (check out See & Do for show details), Manna From Heaven bears a back story that's actually more interesting than what appears on screen. This film is the latest production from the five Burton sisters, who are taking their movie around the country on a whistle stop tour (it's been playing almost continuously across the US for over a year) and, in most cities, donating a portion of the proceeds to Habitat for Humanity. On a humanistic level, that's reason enough to go, though the quality of the film doesn't quite match the loving care placed into it. Working from a script penned by the siblings' mom, Gabrielle B. Burton, the movie casts a startling number of Where-Are-They-Now? performers in an amiable yarn about a family that unexpectedly stumbles across a large amount of cash. Years later, one of the family members, now a nun (Ursula Burton), decides that this "loan from God" needs to be repaid, a declaration that causes others in the clan to balk. The movie employs the services of many seasoned professionals clearly thankful to be working again -- among them Shirley Jones, Frank Gorshin, Shelley Duvall, Louise Fletcher, Cloris Leachman and Faye Grant (the one cast member who, based on her work here, should be landing more prominent roles) -- and their puppy-dog willingness to please (a condition they share with the Burtons) results in a slobbery kiss of a film whose lack of polish but generosity of spirit means it will eventually find its final resting place on basic cable. 1/2

TIMELINE OK, let's get this straight: The Haunted Mansion is billed as a comedy, yet it offers no laughs, while Timeline is plugged as a drama, yet it offers chuckles by the truckload. That's how it goes with this Medieval romp, which couldn't be sillier if Monty Python's knights who say "Ni!" turned up for an extended cameo. Based on the Michael Crichton novel, this sends a group of present-day archaeologists back to 14th century France in an attempt to rescue their professor (Billy Connolly), who himself had been sent back by a Bill Gates facsimile (David Thewlis) after a wormhole linking the past and present worlds had been discovered. Bless this cornball picture for holding our interest for its entire length -- how could it not, when practically every scene will leave audiences tittering for one reason or another? If it's not the overripe dialogue, it's the incompetent performance by top-billed Paul Walker, whose desire to score with Frances O'Connor's character even while having arrows shot at his head by angry Brits is only slightly less dopey than his attempts at conveying street cred in the recent 2 Fast 2 Furious. And if it's not Walker, then it's the baffling plot inconsistencies, the clashing dialects or the puzzling character motivations. As one of the time travelers, Gerard Butler, so dull in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, here displays a scruffy appeal that might help him land future roles in less dim-witted fare.


CURRENT RELEASES

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.

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