Even after the gifts are given and presents unwrapped, after-Christmas consumption continues; same thing with Hollywood's Christmas season, which is always loaded with new film releases. They generally fall into two categories. The crowd pleasers are big packages wrapped in bright paper and oversize bows, designed to pull in family audiences looking for something to do with the relatives. The smaller jewelry boxes, tastefully wrapped in gold foil, are the prestige releases, in theaters (and often only a few initially) so that they qualify for 2004 awards, and generate enough word of mouth to expand to larger audiences.
Here's a look at a few of Hollywood's more noteworthy Christmas gifts-as well as the lumps of coal:
Meet the Fockers
As is often the case, one can't judge a present (to slightly alter the phrase) by its wrapping. The big moneymaker of the holidays has been and continues to be Meet the Fockers (underrated PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, bad language, and a brief drug reference). This film, one has to believe, is coasting almost exclusively on the reputation of its predecessor. Meet the Parents was a surprise hit in 2000 and, while sometimes unforgivably crude, offered audiences the delightfully mismatched odd couple of male nurse Ben Stiller and father-in-law-to-be/ex-CIA agent Robert De Niro.
Meet the Fockers, as its title none too subtly suggests, is just unforgivably crude. Mr. Stiller's regrettable last name was only a minor gag in the first film, but it plays a central role in the sequel, and the rest of the movie follows suit. One lazy, juvenile, and painfully unfunny sex joke after the next, Meet the Fockers completely wastes new cast members Dustin Hoffman and Barbara Streisand (playing Mr. Stiller's parents).
Those naturally skeptical of this collaboration of notorious Hollywood liberals aren't far off the mark either. What little "plot" there is in Meet the Fockers involves Mr. Stiller's liberal, open-minded Jewish parents loosening up his fiancée's conservative, WASP-y parents. Don't be fooled by box-office receipts-Meet the Fockers is hollow, pandering drivel.
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
If the top moneymaker is completely worthless, are any of the alternatives more suitable? The other mass-market release over the holidays was Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (rated PG for thematic elements, scary situations, and brief bad language). In this children's tale, the Bauedelaire siblings endure "a series of unfortunate events" after they lose their parents and home in a tragic fire. Shuttled between guardians who range from evil to eccentric, the three siblings, Violet, Klaus, and baby Sunny, must use their book smarts and knack for inventing things to solve the mystery of their parents' deaths and overcome their wicked guardian Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), who tries to steal their lives and their family fortune.
Loosely based on the books of Daniel Handler, writing under the pen name Lemony Snicket, the mood of the film is dark and somber, fitting for a story about the life of recent orphans, but not always a good match for Jim Carrey's over-the-top physical humor. While most adults in the film are not to be trusted, good mostly triumphs over evil in the end. The children are bound together by their parents' love, ready to overcome further "unfortunate events" that may come if there's a sequel.
Two of the award hopefuls are similarly mixed. The Aviator (rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, bad language, and a crash sequence), director Martin Scorsese's latest film, is receiving a lot of positive critical attention. It is, in many ways, a very fine movie. Leonardo DiCaprio, despite a face and frame that refuses to age, continues to mature as an actor, fully embodying eccentric aviator, moviemaker, billionaire, and recluse Howard Hughes.
The film covers roughly 20 years of Hughes's life, from the bloated and manic production of the WWI epic Hell's Angels (one of two films Hughes directed) to Hughes's battle with Congress to open international commercial airline routes. Thirty years after his death, Hughes is still a larger-than-life figure, and Mr. Scorsese only partially succeeds in getting under his skin. Mr. Scorsese focuses almost obsessively on Hughes's internal struggles with compulsive behavior and paranoia. With some fantastic footage of Hughes's aviation achievements and fascinating glimpses of his many tumultuous romantic relationships (most compellingly with Cate Blanchett's Katherine Hepburn), one begins to regret the screen time that Mr. Scorsese devotes to Hughes's almost impenetrable inner life. A weak framing device that unconvincingly pins Hughes's compulsions on his mother doesn't help.
Despite these flaws, The Aviator is as forceful as anything on screen this year. One wonders, though, when Hollywood stopped making movies about heroes worth admiring and emulating. Although sometimes instructive, one can only gain so much from continued examinations of men (a favorite Scorsese theme) ruled by their lusts.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
While The Aviator is firmly rooted in historical detail, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (rated R for bad language, some drug use, violence, and partial nudity) comes from somewhere else entirely. Director Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) continues to carve out a unique niche, creating films with a voice and visual style all their own. Aquatic, about a Jacques Cousteau-like oceanographer in the twilight of his career, would seem to take Mr. Anderson into the realm of more traditional storytelling.
It is, however, the least grounded in reality of any of his films.
Aquatic is a film to be enjoyed solely on the basis of its architecture. Every scene is intricately designed, framed, scored, and choreographed. Those who appreciate Mr. Anderson's peculiar sensibility won't be disappointed. But there's no emotional, and, more importantly, no moral, center to the film. Mr. Anderson is so averse to melodrama that the audience isn't equipped to "feel" anything when one of the main characters dies toward the end. No one in the film is in possession of significant redeeming qualities, although there's a sort of off-kilter message on the importance of family that eventually develops. This is definitely no seafaring adventure for kids: The dialogue is regularly spiced with bad language, there's some brief incidental nudity, regular drug use, and most of the main characters engage in affairs of one sort or another.