Christmas movies to watch (or not)

Posted: Dec 20, 2002 12:00 AM
It's the holiday season again, which for most Americans means church services, presents, turkey dinners, and for many, a few strolls to the movies. Hollywood studios tend to release about three types of movies at this time of year: family films for the kids, expensive action epics and the annual pile of poses for the Academy Awards. Somewhere in the mix is something for everyone. Some films will cross genres in a vile fashion, which is, sadly, predictable. Take Adam Sandler's "Eight Crazy Nights." The entertainment media have warmed to Sandler's attempts over the years to bring some attention and Hollywood fun to Hanukkah with his ditties about the Jewish backgrounds of major celebrities. But this cartoon is not the kind of holiday fun you'd recommend for the kids. It hardly celebrates or explains the Festival of Lights. It won't make Jews proud and does nothing to illuminate the world about Jewish traditions. It's sour, it's profane, and it has a 12-year-old's fascination with burping and toilet humor. Buy a ticket if you want to watch scenes like the one featuring the midget-sized hero freezing after he's been overturned down a hill in a portable toilet, after which reindeer lick him out of the ice and then display their feces-stained teeth. Sandler would like us to think this is a contemporary Jewish take on Dickens' "Christmas Carol." His Scrooge, the Sandler-lookalike Davey Stone, is a nasty, drunken hooligan throughout most of the picture, until we're made to understand that he lost his parents on the first night of Hanukkah when he was 12. But there's already been so much nastiness, it's impossible suddenly to rush out the violins and move the viewer to anything resembling warmth. This is not a holiday classic. Like the infantile "South Park" on television, it takes a child-pleasing cartoon format and lures youngsters into the pathetic world of thirty-something adolescents. It's not even funny. Sandler is pathetic. That's not to say there aren't quality films for children this season. Disney's "Treasure Planet" took a strange story gambit -- move Stevenson's "Treasure Island" into outer space -- and made it work, complete with a cyborg Long John Silver. Kids get a healthy dose of adventure, bravery and heroism, along with the usually stirring artwork. Studio trend-watchers have been warning about the comparatively poor box-office takes of the Disney animation division, but it's not about the quality of the movies. They don't seem to have half the blockbuster-style promotion and merchandising that suggest that positively everyone's going to see the film, so you can't miss it and remain cool. The new genre for family movie viewing is the fantasy film, and the second installments of the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" trilogies are the rage. Both of these movie series are turning Hollywood traditions on their head, too. Both try very hard to faithfully replicate the books -- even if some quibble about what plot and character elements get left on the cutting-room floor. Both engross audiences with valiant heroes facing down evil at great peril, although Harry's most powerful weapon of choice is a pen. It's no doubt discouraging to academics and screenwriters who loved the 1960s and 1970s ethos deconstructing notions of good and evil until no one could claim moral assurance of any sort. But the sleeper film of this holiday season opened up its weekend in a surprising third place at the box office. It's called "Drumline," a movie about a black-college marching-band competition. Its biggest star is Nickelodeon's Nick Cannon as a snare-drum wunderkind who makes it out of a poor, single-parent household to shine with a full scholarship at Alabama A&T. This movie is another industry apple-cart toppler. It undermines the usual cultural assumptions about football heroes and marching-band geeks. It builds to a dramatic pitch by valuing all the right things: talent, excellence, hard work, professionalism, loyalty and honesty. For as "progressive" as Hollywood titans think they are, it's refreshing to take a rare cinematic glimpse at young black men and women striving for something other than buggy-eyed booty calls or the pimping and drug-pushing adventures of the usual hip-hop hoodlums. These bands' musical flash and cymbal-juggling panache are just as impressive as any fourth-quarter long bomb. None of these movies will be defined as Oscar bait -- although "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" will get the longest look. But many of the most satisfying films are shoved aside at award time for the fussy, I'm-acting! spectacles about tragic diseases, doomed romances or history-mangling big-budget films. There are plenty of presents to be had before they arrive. And don't forget the drummer boys.