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Ho Ho Ho

This week in the movies: a naughty Santa and time-traveling archaeologists.


Bad Santa is less a miracle on 34th Street than a bender at O'Hara's Pub, which is where we first meet department-store Santa Willie T. Stokes (Billy Bob Thornton) drowning his sorrows and contemplating suicide before heading to the back alley to puke his guts out. Little Natalie Wood may have held out hope that her jolly friend in that earlier holiday film was the real Santa, but Willie Stokes doesn't allow his young followers much room for romantic embellishment, telling one tot on his lap that he's "living fucking proof that there is no Santa."

Stokes is the kind of mall Santa who sneaks swigs of whiskey between kiddies and kicks the crap out of the reindeer mannequins in Santaland. And this comic incongruity is the constant sight-gag that Bad Santa is built around. It's a one-note film, but Thornton plays that note with bravura commitment. (Why can't we get Thornton's Santa and Will Ferrell's wide-eyed elf in a movie together? Is this too much to ask?)

Needless to say, Stokes doesn't perform this hated seasonal job out of Christmas cheer. He's a safe-cracker who uses the Santa job for after-hours access to the mall, where he and his diminutive, all-business sidekick Marcus (played by Tony Cox as, yes, Buddy, an angry elf) perform a heist in a new city every season.

For Stokes and Marcus' latest scheme, they've set up shop in Phoenix, where they're surrounded by an entertaining supporting cast that includes the late John Ritter (in his final film role) as the store manager and Bernie Mac (underused but still flaunting his trademark comic menace) as an opportunistic security chief. And then there's Lauren Graham as a bar maid with a rather convenient sexual fetish. (Let's just say she demands that Stokes keep his hat on when they're in the sack.)

Unsurprisingly, Bad Santa ends up being a somewhat traditional tale of Christmas redemption masquerading as an act of seasonal sabotage: Stokes eventually befriends a sad, creepy little boy named Thurman Mermen (Brett Kelly) who lives with his comatose grandmother (Cloris Leachman in an incredibly thankless role) while his father is away on an extended vacation that the audience understands much better than the boy does.

After first taking advantage of Thurman, Willie eventually takes up for him, bonding through his own peculiar parental gestures, including cooking (a fried bologna and white bread "tostada") and battering neighborhood bullies (which inspires a particularly memorable soliloquy: "I beat the shit out of some kids today. It was for a purpose. I felt like I did something constructive").

Bad Santa is directed by Terry Zwigoff and inspires the following question: Is Zwigoff the worst director to ever have two great films to his credit and no bad ones? Zwigoff previously helmed the documentary Crumb, one of the most memorable films of the '90s, and then his first narrative feature was the Crumb-related Ghost World, one of the current decade's very best. But Bad Santa establishes what Crumb and Ghost World hinted at: that Zwigoff is a filmmaker who is completely uninterested in visual style.

Despite its rather dull look, Zwigoff still would seem to be a perfect choice for Bad Santa, since both Crumb and Ghost World were also devoted to misanthropic protagonists. But Crumb and Ghost World were also embedded with piercing but still movingly conflicted social critiques. One of the things that made Bad Santa look so promising was the assumption that this same worldview would be applied to the crass consumerism of the Christmas season. No such luck. Beyond a few incidental displays of conventional holiday product-lust --Marcus and his wife's looting of the malls and the stream of kids asking for toys --Bad Santa doesn't have much on the brain beyond its central shock-effect conceit: a department-store Santa spouting profanities and engaging in any number of "depraved" behaviors.

The film is so in love with its premise that it shows us the same scenes over and over again --Santa verbally attacking children, going on alcoholic benders, and boinking that enthusiastic Santa fetishist --and each of these activities loses a bit of its comic appeal with each iteration.

If you aren't predisposed to automatically flinch at such profanity and bad behavior or to automatically applaud its transgressiveness, then Bad Santa is neither the condemnable travesty or daring button-pusher the film's many extreme reviews have claimed. Rather, it's a refreshingly sour if sometimes needlessly tasteless comedy that provides plenty of yuks but doesn't add up to what it could have been. -- Chris Herrington


Bad movies can be fun but only if their badness is glorious. While Timeline is gloriously bad, I can't pinpoint any good reason anyone should see it unless they think Paul Walker is a honey or they're big fans of Billy Connolly from TV's Head of the Class. I can't imagine any of this cast sitting through the world premiere without dreading the polite smiles and changes of subject at the after-party.

So, Connolly is a grizzled, adventurous archaeologist in the tradition of Michael Crichton grizzled archaeologists. Spirited and Scottish, he leads a team of students in the excavation of ruins called Castlegard in France -- the site of an important victory for the French in the long war against England centuries before. His disappearance while on a hushed mission prompts his son (Walker) and a crack team of dedicated protégés to demand answers from a devious, nerdy, corporate mastermind (David Thewlis, à la Bill Gates) who has -- oops -- lost the grizzled adventurous archaeologist via a teleportation machine that -- oops -- sends things back in time instead of to other places like a fax.

The fax comparison becomes important (kinda) later, as we come to realize that being teleported repeatedly is like sending a fax of a fax and then sending that -- the document becomes blurry and incorrect. Dum dum dum! The Bill Gates character amusingly notes of the machine that does the faxing, "I'll explain the mirrors later." Of course, he does not, and we must take it on faith that time travel is possible without so much as a Flux Capacitor to take the credit. So, Walker and his gang are sent back to 14th-century France to find Dad and try not to screw anything up. Oh, did I mention that the Walker kid has an aversion to history? It's illustrated at length prior to their trip back but never wrapped up nicely to show that he's learned anything. There's also a hint of romance at the beginning, with Walker pining unrequitedly for his father's best pupil (Frances O'Connor), but the pining doesn't last long. Within 20 minutes she grants him a kiss just before making the first of several trips through roofs made of hay. There is, then, nowhere for the romance to go for the lengthy 80 more minutes of the film, leaving them undistracted in their mission to get back to the future.

Yawn. So, there's no romantic tension. The film's coupling is established early on, and if it were a better film we might be held in suspense over whether one key romantic interest survives the climactic battle (did I mention that they went back to the day of that significant battle?), but we aren't the least bit worried about it. There's also no historical tension either, since -- apparently -- you can do whatever you want in the past and it won't change the present. (In most time-travel movies, characters are advised not to touch anything lest they change destiny forever.) There might be some dramatic tension, but all the secrets of the film (like the identity of the rogue 20th-century guy who has been living in the past as a self-serving nobleman or the fact that the Bill Gates-y guy is -- gasp -- a villain!) are out in the open by the first half and we are never in doubt of the success of our protagonists. And the most lovable character we meet, a shy French lad, is killed at the beginning of the mission. Au revoir, Francois. Another neat character is felled near the end by being pushed through a rack of coats.

Richard Donner, the director behind the Lethal Weapon franchise, the first Superman movies, and Scrooged, is responsible for this mess. Hell, this man directed episodes of Gilligan's Island. He's been at this long enough to hold a movie together with, if not a great story, good cinematography and set pieces. The film quality resembles '60s adventure-TV like Land of the Giants or episodes of Star Trek, and 14th-century France looks a whole lot like a Renaissance fair, and not once did I get to peruse a medieval gift shop or enjoy a giant turkey leg.

Mr. Donner, I submit that you look to your own work in The Goonies for an example of swashbuckling, nonsensical fun and then get in the 21st century with the rest of us. -- Bo List

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