Holiday films project mixed reviews

Ted Pigeon

Bad Santa: ***

It will be hard to find a movie this year with as much unabashed irreverence as this uproarious film. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a depressed alcoholic who works as a Santa Claus in shopping malls during the holidays, making sure that every child that sits on his lap is given a piece of his mind. But there is more to this movie than meets the eye. And based on most descriptions and commercials, this film will warrant a lot of negative feedback, mostly from people who haven’t even seen it. However, those willing to actually see it will discover not only that this film has heart, but it’s got more heart than most holiday films out there.

Big Fish: ****

This is a rare film that combines amazing visceral beauty with a well-spun and moving story, which has proven to be the perfect combination for director Tim Burton’s talents. It is about a man named Edward Bloom, a vibrant and passionate individual who loves to tell stories. Edward is dying of cancer, and his estranged son is trying to make sense of his father, seeking the facts of his life rather than the fabricated lies he’s been given. Most of the film is spent in Edward’s illustrious stories, which are more like tall tales than anything. In these stories, Burton works visual wonders of imagination. There have been some complaints that Burton spends too much time in flashback and doesn’t get to the point fast enough. But the focus of the movie is on the stories, that is how we come to know Edward and care about him. We don’t see much of him in the present, but that is not who he is. The spirit of this man is in his stories, and the poetic nature of the ending conveys that beautifully. What it is saying is remarkably profound, and yet it never really gets preachy or manipulative. “Big Fish” is one of the very best films of the year.

Cold Mountain: **

Nicole Kidman and Jude Law star in this long, overwrought love story set during the time of the late Civil War. The film is directed by Anthony Minghella, the renowned director of for “The English Patient,” the masterpiece he’s been trying to duplicate for almost a decade now. This film is yet another failed attempt. Law plays a Confederate soldier who’s trying to get back to his love, Kidman, and the film chronicles his trek across the country. Along the way, there are some colorful supporting characters and beautiful scenery, but not much more. It seems to have been carefully crafted with some memorable images and performances, but one major thing was somehow forgotten: the feeling. The two leads have no chemistry, and yet the film expects us to take it so seriously, which is hard considering that its just one cliché after another.

House of Sand and Fog: ***½

This is a film with a seemingly simple plot which depends on the actions of its characters for the thrust of its drama. The story is about two characters from different worlds that are brought together over the conflict of a house. Jennifer Connelly plays a cleaned up alcoholic that lives an irresponsible life without the company of anyone else. One day she wakes up to discover that she is being evicted from her house. While she’s fighting to get it back, a hard working Middle Eastern man trying to make it in America, played by Ben Kingsley, buys the house. He plans to sell it for more than he paid for it in order to turn a profit so that he can amply support his family. The plot follows the struggles of these characters in their own lives and eventually with each other as it finally reaches tragic heights. This movie is so powerful because of the depiction of these two characters, both of whom are flawed and mean well, but make choices that further trivialize their situations. There are no heroes or villains here, just people trying to do what they think is best. Kingsley and Connelly both give outstanding performances that will likely be recognized during awards season, and deservedly so.

The Last Samurai: ***½

Director Edward Zwick may never again reach the peak he hit with “Glory,” but he’s come awfully close with “The Last Samurai,” a brilliantly shot epic story that isn’t so much bent on war as it is on quiet reflection. Tom Cruise stars as Lieutenant Nathan Algren, a washed up Civil War hero who is sent to Japan in the mid-1870s to stopa rebellion of samurai influence from rising. After being captured by their leader Katsumoto, Algren learns to adapt and understand their culture and way of life. The concept isn’t exactly new, but this film is deeper than it may initially seem. This film avoids most of the cliches of the genre, especially in its mid-section in which Algren builds a relationship with Katsumoto. The beautiful scenery and music perfectly accompany the nature of the culture he’s in and adds texture to the film. “The Last Samurai” isn’t without flaws, as its ending feels rather forced, but it is still a thoughtful and powerful motion picture, one of the year’s 10 best.

Peter Pan: ***½

It may be hard to believe, but there has never been a faithful live-action film adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s universally famous story of Peter Pan. The definitive film version of Peter Pan has been long awaited, and now it has finally arrived. With a lavish production full of color and energy, director P.J. Hogan has taken the right approach in evoking the essence of Barrie’s tale, imagination, wonder and innocence. The amazing visuals combined with James Newton Howard’s brilliant score give Neverland a magical aura and unique life for the story to take place. Jason Isaacs’ interpretation of Captain Hook is wildly over-the-top and fun to watch. And what is especially interesting about this film is that it recognizes the sexuality between Peter and Wendy and it also acknowledges the melancholy aspect of the story. This film is the work of pure imagination, a flat-out joy to watch.