‘Tis the season for holiday cliches


“Surviving Christmas” is a nominal comedy, one of those utterly forgettable yuletide movies fated to forever run out-of-season on various cable channels.

Working well within his comfort zone, Ben Affleck plays Drew Latham, a superficial Chicago marketing whiz whose behavior runs the gamut from callow to shallow. Rather than sit out the holidays in his sparsely appointed designer loft admiring his reflection in the hardwood floors and watching a video yule log on his flat-screen television, Drew chooses to pay the marginally functioning working-class family that now lives in his childhood home a quarter of a million dollars to adopt him for a few days and share their seasonal cheer.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 23, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
“This Girl’s Life” -- A review of the movie “This Girl’s Life” appeared in Friday’s Calendar section; however, the date of the film’s opening has been changed to Dec. 3.

The film is well cast, with James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Josh Zuckerman and Christina Applegate as Drew’s rented family, but they’re wasted on subpar material. Mike Mitchell’s direction, which relies too heavily on genre cliches, and the predictable script, credited to the teams of Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont and Jeffrey Ventimilia & Joshua Sternin, make for a dismally formulaic hodgepodge of crude humor and wan attempts to tug at the heart.


-- Kevin Crust

“Surviving Christmas,” rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and a brief drug reference. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. In general release.

A temptress examines the life

Writer-director Ash, who directed the edgy “Bang,” in which a desperate young woman impersonates a cop, and “Pups,” in which two disaffected teens hold up a bank, returns with “This Girl’s Life,” a forthright, engaging portrait of a young Internet porn star (Juliette Marquis, in a strong feature debut).

At 18, Marquis’ curious and sensual Moon enters the porn industry without much thought but enjoys the work and the pay, which she needs to care for her Parkinson’s-afflicted father (James Woods). Moon sees her work as sexually empowering and is not above playing the temptress in her private life.

On the whole, however, she is uncomplicated and unpretentious, until an AIDS scare hits. With an HIV test looming, Moon reflects upon her life and her choices as never before.

As punchy and crisp as Ash’s previous pictures but not as convincing, layered or substantial, “This Girl’s Life” is also problematical in that Moon seems too smart and well-balanced not to have thought about the dangers of unprotected sex. On the plus side, “This Girl’s Life” is neither exploitative nor judgmental.

-- Kevin Thomas

“This Girl’s Life,” rated R for strong sexuality, including graphic dialogue, nudity, violence, language and brief drug use. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes. Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.


A celebrity spoof does overtime

“Stella Street” takes its name from a BBC 10-minute episodic comedy series, which has become the basis of a misfired 82-minute movie. Director Peter Richardson and co-writers Phil Cornwell and John Sessions imagine that such international celebrities as Michael Caine, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, tired of the limelight and a life of luxury, have all moved into virtually identical homes in an unpretentious Southwest London cul-de-sac called Stella Street.

Cornwell and Sessions impersonate all these celebrities and many more characters. But what might be a hoot in a 10-minute sketch swiftly becomes stretched thin and under-inspired at feature-film length. Cornwell and Sessions, ordinary-looking blokes in early middle age, are impressionists in the broadly comic mode, which means that they scarcely resemble those they try to carbon but are not bad at voices. Cornwell’s Caine and Nicholson are actually pretty good. Once the filmmakers have got the celebrities settled into Stella Street, they have a hard time figuring out what to do with them. “Stella Street” is the road best not taken.

-- Kevin Thomas

“Stella Street,” rated R for language and some drug material. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. At selected theaters.

Coping candidly with schizophrenia

As a senior fine arts major at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, 21-year-old John Cadigan withdrew into the shadows of his basement apartment, too afraid to attend classes. After being diagnosed with refractory schizophrenia, he dropped out of college and moved to California, where his sister Katie, a filmmaker, began helping him record what his life had become.

The result is “People Say I’m Crazy,” a candid self-portrait chronicling John’s struggle to cope with his illness. The Cadigans, who co-directed, have created what is essentially a video journal, narrated by John in matter-of-fact tones. Today, Cadigan’s artwork flourishes -- his distinctive woodcut prints are shown around the country -- even though the simple goal of independent living sometimes still appears unreachable.

The film lacks the scope and distance that could have been provided by an outsider. But it speaks in such a frank way that avoids self-indulgence that its limits are forgiven.


-- Kevin Crust

“People Say I’m Crazy,” unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869. Filmmakers John and Katie Cadigan will be present for a discussion following today’s 7:20 p.m. screening. A full review of “People Say I’m Crazy” ran on Aug. 18 when the film aired on Cinemax.

The race gets spun the other way

“Celsius 41.11: The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die,” is a three-pronged response to Michael Moore, Sen. John F. Kerry and the Anybody but Bush crowd. But it breaks little new ground other than bringing the conservative perspective to movie theaters. Written and produced by Lionel Chetwynd and Ted Steinberg and directed by Kevin Knoblock, the documentary’s main focus is to refute the “lies of ‘Fahrenheit 9/11.’ ” The film’s final half-hour takes on the Democratic presidential candidate, rehashing accusations made by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and criticizing supposed hypocrisy.

Though far less over-the-top than “Fahrenheit,” “Celsius” fall into some of the same traps, obscuring some of the more salient points made on screen by pundits such as Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer, journalist Fred Barnes, former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and New York financier Mansoor Ijaz, a frequent contributor to The Times’ opinion section. Like Moore’s film, “Celsius” hits too many topics with too broad a brush, resulting in yet another contribution to this campaign season’s spin cycle of rhetoric.

-- Kevin Crust

“Celsius 41.11,” rated R for brief language and violent images. Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes. Exclusively at Loews Cineplex at the Beverly Center, L.A., (310) 652-7760; and the Bridge: Cinema de Lux, 6081 Center Drive, West L.A., (310) 568-3375.

The president’s think tank

“Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire,” a new documentary by Sut Jhally and Jeremy Earp, makes the argument that much of the Bush administration’s foreign policy is based on a “pre-existing agenda” developed over the last 20 years.

Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and especially Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who all worked for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, are alleged to be part of an “intellectual force behind a radical neo-conservative fringe inside the Republican Party.” The film contends that doctrines, including promoting unilateralism, increasing military spending and protecting “access to vital raw materials, primarily Persian Gulf oil,” can be traced from right-wing think tanks into U.S. foreign policy.


Familiar figures such as Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer and Mark Crispin Miller are interviewed along with former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who worked at the Pentagon from 2000 to 2003, and 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams. The filmmakers also rely upon the administration’s own words and reports from think tanks such as the Project for a New American Century, with which Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and several other high-ranking Bush officials were involved.

-- Kevin Crust

“Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire,” unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Laemmle’s One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (Union at Fair Oaks), Pasadena, (626) 744-1224.