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CALENDAR GIRLS Director Nigel Cole garnered instant attention with 2000's Saving Grace, in which respectable, middle-aged Brenda Blethyn was forced to grow and sell pot to save her home. The film was a critical hit stateside though it struck me as a rather tiresome, one-joke film. (Senior citizens smoking dope! Isn't that a riot!) Cole's sophomore effort could conceivably be viewed as an equally calculated effort -- The Full Monty... with women! -- yet this based-on-fact effort gains more mileage thanks to its inspirational premise, leading ladies, and no shortage of humorous moments. Helen Mirren headlines as Chris, one of the more outspoken members of her small town's Women's Institute club. When the husband of Chris' best friend (Julie Walters) passes away, the two women decide that they'll use the proceeds from the organization's annual calendar sales to upgrade the local hospital in his name. Only instead of shooting the usual flowers or hillsides, the pair decide that the calendar pages will be graced with photos of various club members in the buff -- a radical idea that rapidly threatens to turn into a global phenomenon. In a movie year that witnessed many middle-aged actresses (Diane Keaton, Holly Hunter, Meg Ryan, among others) baring all for the camera, it seems only logical that it would all culminate with a film that unabashedly celebrates the luminescent beauty of the older woman by making that the very theme of the piece.

PAYCHECK The first hurdle is the hardest: Accepting Ben Affleck in the role of possibly the most intelligent man on the planet. It's a doozy along the lines of believing Steve Guttenberg as a brilliant scientist in those inane Short Circuit movies, but if you can get past this credibility-shredding scenario, then what follows is basically a cakewalk. Paycheck is adapted from a short story by Philip K. Dick, but the result is less like those modern sci-fi classics Blade Runner and Minority Report (both based on Dick works) than just another run-of-the-mill blockbuster wanna-be, directed in "hired gun" fashion by John Woo. Woo made the preposterousness in Face/Off both exciting and invigorating, but here he barely seems interested in putting a movie on the screen, showing no discernible style with this initially intriguing futuristic thriller about a genius-for-hire in the high-tech sector who, after lending his services to a three-year project, agrees to have his memory erased (so as not to divulge company secrets) in exchange for a hefty payment. But instead of rolling in the dough after completing the job, he finds only an envelope full of everyday items (paper clip, matchbook) in his possession, quickly realizing these are clues to help him figure out what he's been doing for the last three years. Instead of smartly building on its premise, the movie merely gets sillier as it unfolds, and Uma Thurman, killing time between Kill Bill release dates, is wasted as Affleck's spunky love interest.


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.

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN I haven't seen the 1950 original, yet something inside me -- call it my sixth sense for cinematic sacrilege -- tells me that it didn't feel compelled to include a sequence in which a kid slips in the puddle of puke that his brother produced moments earlier. Sure, it's a gut-buster for the under-12 set, and had the movie limited its idiocy to merely including yuck-o moments like this one to appease the crusty-snot-noses in the audience, it might have been mildly tolerable. But this half-baked Dozen is incompetent at every turn and shameless on every level, with its heartwarming moments more likely to cause heartburn and its comedic bits about as funny as a mad hornet in the mouth. As the dad forced to baby-sit a houseful of kids, Steve Martin continues to fritter away a once vibrant career.

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