Opens Wed., Nov. 26, at Varsity and others
Working from a story by the Coen brothers, director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World) has made a film calculated to affront anyone who holds the holidays sacred. It is vile, hateful, andfor most of its 90-odd minutesutterly soulless. That said, I can't imagine chortling so heartily, and guiltily, at a blacker black comedy this year. It centers on a bilious breed that I will dub the Movie Mall Santa.
Movie Mall Santas are a prickly bunch, roughly ushering toddlers off of their laps, waxing snide to their equally surly, minimum-ragin' elves, and generally not giving two reindeer shits about yuletide cheer. They're a healthy breed of asshole, in no danger of extinction, culling easy ho, ho, hos everywhere from A Christmas Story to freshly (and dubiously) anointed insta-classic Elf.
Outside of the plumper section at your local adult megastore, chances are you haven't seen an MMS sodomize a 300-pound woman in a fitting room, then boast, "You ain't gonna shit right for a month!" Odds are, you've been deprived of watching an MMS call a roly-poly 11-year-old boy a "fucking pussy," "retard," and "faggot." And damn straight you've never seen an MMS spit out his salad and screech, "I'm on my fuckin' lunch break!" to a bright-eyed tot in the food court.
Santa fills this void with the singular, perfectly cast figure of Billy Bob Thornton, who plays a self-loathing, foul-mouthed, alcoholic safecracker who annually dons white beard and red suit for his criminal M.O.: He and his elfin cohort (Tony Cox) loot a department store every Christmas Eve and live large for the rest of the year. Whoomp, there's your plot. Santa simply follows Thornton's misanthropic human wrecking ball through affluent Phoenix suburbia and asks us simply to identify with his morbid Christmas dispirit. No problem. This brutal, mean-spirited deconstruction of holiday mythology is the perfect black-coffee chaser to your Cat in the Hat Happy Meal. (R) ANDREW BONAZELLI
THE HAUNTED MANSION
Opens Wed., Nov. 26, at Metro and others
Eddie Murphy used to be raw. Shit, manhe even made a concert film called Raw, just to make sure we knew how raw he could be. But the Murphy who stars in Mansion as milquetoast dweeb Jim Evers, father to two wiseass kids and husband to a woman who should know better, is the opposite of raw: overcooked. Sure, Terence Stamp's performance as ghostly butler Ramsley adds something archly fun to the cinematic canon of butlery (joining the late John Gielgud in Arthur and that guy who played Bruce Wayne's butler in the various Batman flicks), and Jennifer Tilly does the best she can playing a disembodied psychic head in a crystal ball. But, on balance, this belated post-Halloween horror-comedy wanna-be cash cow spells R.I.P. on the tombstone of Murphy's career. If only he could move back from this Mansion to Mr. Robinson's old neighborhood. (PG) NEAL SCHINDLER
Opens Wed., Nov. 26, at Metro and others
According to movie lore, an early audience watching a film of a train heading straight for themor so it seemedfled the theater in terror. Had that same turn-of-the-century audience been subjected to Timeline, they'd still be out the doorbut not from fear. Five minutes is longer than Timeline held my attention, and time is truly of the essence in a film about time travel. Having undoubtedly cast Keanu wanna-be Paul Walker (2 Fast 2 Furious) for his virility alone, director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon) teams him with Frances O'Connor, a heartbreaking choice for those who loved her luminous turn in Mansfield Park. The only thing luminous about Timelinewhich sends a pack of archeology students back to 1357is the scene in which warring armies (the French and the English, as though it mattered) trade volleys of flaming arrows. The night sky fills with tiny lights as the arrows cross paths . . . and for a second, Timeline is lovely. The other 6,959 seconds are dull as dirt. (PG-13) N.S.
TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI
Runs Fri., Nov. 28-Thurs., Dec. 4, at Varsity
Is there anyone in this movie whom Jean Gabin does not slap? In one of my favorite scenes during this influential but frankly rather dull 1954 French gangster flick, he open-hands his girlfriend, her double- dealing fellow chorine (who happens to be Jeanne Moreau, so we really feel the sting), and a hotel concierge cowering behind some folded linen. I've done no research into the matter, but I'm pretty sure that when the take was over, Gabin walked behind the camera to slap the director and several grips as well. It's that kind of movie. You're so intent on finding the pleasure and worth to its creaky Gallic gangster archetypes that you imagine better things occurring offscreen and in scenes unseen. Later, when Gabin gets called to a lunchtime tryst with a rich American debutante (Marilyn Buferd, Miss America of 1946), he puts her off for a few minutes so he can change his suittrading one immaculate outfit for a chalk-stripe, double-breasted number. We don't see the switch, but I'm confident there was more drama with the cuff links than anything else in Grisbi.
The plot is just as simple as a slap. Max (Gabin) and his partner, Riton, are sitting on 200 pounds of stolen gold; his partner's coke-sniffing moll (Moreau) tips that info to a gang of thugs, who then kidnap Riton to force one of those hostage-for-suitcase swaps that today take place in empty California parking garages. Fortunately, Grisbi is set in Paris, and we do glimpse the real Moulin Rouge and other black-and-white sights among arrondissments laced with narrow cobblestone streets. Showgirls perform limp choreography with pasties on their limp breasts. Gabin repeatedly punches up "my song" on the jukebox, a tepid harmonica ditty that inexplicably became a hit in France (or no, maybe that explains a lot about France). Then there's a final car chase with machine guns and grenades that only makes one realize, sigh, that Stallone and Gov. Schwarzenegger really do that sort of thing much better.
Despite Moreau's presence, despite the equally hot Buferd and Delia Scala (a fence's secretary who amusingly waits till his back is turned before eagerly kissing Gabin), the film is a heterosexual love story between Max and Riton (René Dary), whose sole defining characteristic is an apostrophe of a moustache stranded in the no man's land between nose and lip. (How does he shave? Sadly, such bathroom drama is left unfilmed.) Max warns Riton that they're both too old for crime: "The bags under your eyesand mine!" This male menopausal theme anticipates the far superior Bob le Flambeur, although Gabin certainly makes his constant protestations of "I'm beat" and "I'm spent" seem credible; he'd rather sleep in a soft bed than court more hard-boiled showgirls. There's a nice little moment when, in the privacy of a phone booth, Max finally puts on his reading glasses, and the gesture seems truer than a thousand hoods reaching for their guns. (NR) BRIAN MILLER