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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 proceeds to insist 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

IN AMERICA Proving that father knows best, writer-director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) teamed up with his grown daughters Naomi and Kirsten to pen this largely autobiographical story in which an immigrant Irish family -- dad Johnny (Paddy Considine), mom Sarah (Samantha Morton) and adorable daughters Christy and Ariel (played by real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) -- moves to New York and tries to start a new life in a run-down apartment building mostly populated by drug addicts and muggers. A subplot involving a reclusive neighbor (Djimon Hounsou) who warms up to the girls feels a little too pat and predictable; not so the rest of the film, which contains moments so pure and precise that they take us by surprise.

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

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING Pulling off a successful threepeat, director Peter Jackson wraps up J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy saga with a dazzling chapter guaranteed to please true believers. At 200 minutes, the movie is long but not necessarily overlong: The super-sized length allows many cast members to strut their stuff, and several new creatures, from an army of ghostly marauders to a gigantic spider in the best Harryhausen tradition, are staggering to behold. Ultimately, though, this final act belongs to the ringbearer Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his companions, faithful Sam (Sean Astin) and treacherous Gollum (the brilliant CGI creation voiced by Andy Serkis). This is a movie of expensive visual effects and expansive battle scenes, but when it comes to truly making its mark, we have to thank all the little people. 1/2

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

SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE Those of us who fell in love with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall now have an opportunity to rekindle that romance. She's simply smashing as a playwright not particularly fond of her daughter's new boyfriend, a 63-year-old bachelor (Jack Nicholson) who only dates women under 30. But eventually the pair find themselves overcoming their antagonism, leading to a rocky romance that's complicated by his womanizing ways and her burgeoning relationship with a boyish doctor (Keanu Reeves, never more appealing). For most of its length, this emerges as one of the premiere romantic comedies of recent years, but a disastrous, tacked-on ending hangs from the rest of the picture as awkwardly as a Florida chad.

STUCK ON YOU Filmmaking siblings Peter and Bobby Farrelly are finally growing up. That's not necessarily a good thing -- I'm chuckling even now thinking about many of the decidedly non-PC moments in There's Something About Mary and Kingpin -- but with Shallow Hal and now this comedy about conjoined twins (Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear), they've allowed the latent humanity that has always been evident in their pictures to finally make its way to the surface -- and in the process submerge almost all potentially offensive elements. Yet while this film contains many riotous moments, it's also undermined by a distracting sloppiness that never allows the material to build any real momentum. And is it just me, or is co-star Cher's extensive facial reconstruction starting to make her look like the female Michael Jackson? 1/2

TIMELINE Based on the Michael Crichton novel, this Medieval romp couldn't be sillier if Monty Python's knights who say "Ni!" turned up for an extended cameo. A group of present-day archaeologists are hurled back to 14th century France to rescue their professor (Billy Connolly), who himself had been sent back after a wormhole linking the past and present had been discovered. Bless this cornball picture for holding our interest throughout 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 star Paul Walker, the baffling plot inconsistencies, the clashing dialects or the puzzling character motivations.

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