Of course, this is a Christmas movie, actually an anti-Christmas movie, so there’s has to be some sort of salvation for Willie. In director Terry Zwigoff’s idea of good cheer, Stokes meets a chubby kid who lives with his senile grandmother (Cloris Leachman). Something moves him, and he begins developing feelings. But he also has feelings for the kinky female barkeeper who has a thing for having sex with men in Santa Claus outfits. On occasion, thanks to Thornton’s deadpan delivery, the raunchy movie is laugh-out-loud funny. But, it slides out of gear in the final third as the salvation exercise overwhelms the movie’s flagrant toxicity. Screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra cop-out. Bad Santa gets sentimental. Zwigoff, who made Crumb and Ghost World, should have kept the edge, but as the movie diminishes into sap city, you’ve got fond memories of Thornton’s performance to keep you alert.

A more typical Hollywood Christmas card is Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In The Hat, but everything I’ve read and heard about the book’s author tells me that he would rather have died than see his beloved children’s classics turned into hokey, big budget movies. Well, the poor guy did die, and his widow cranked up the money machine. Shame on her. She sold the rights to Dr. Seuss’ books and essentially sold her soul. We had Jim Carrey in the messy How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and now we’ve got Toronto’s favorite son Mike Myers as The Cat. The book runs about 60 pages and the movie is padded beyond endurance to fill 80 minutes. Truth be told, there is no movie here. It’s just a one-note parade of excess and one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. The running gag is that two annoying kids encounter The Cat in their house and he makes a mess that has to be cleaned up. Nothing else happens. The sets are colorful, but serve no purpose other than to frame the computerized digital effects that run as rampant as the overreaching cat. As for the title character, Myers is appalling. There isn’t a shred of warmth or genuine humor in his performance. He’s a brat of a cat and that is that.

For children ages, oh, I don’t know, 10 through whatever, there is a movie that deserves their attention. Timeline is an old-fashioned action adventure thriller, the kind that once were the bulwark of Saturday matinees. Michael Crichton’s dense novel has had most of the mathematics and science removed, and what we get is a straightforward story about time travel. This isn’t intellectually challenging filmmaking, but it is popcorn fun. An American corporation has devised a machine that can movie objects. Meanwhile, some student archeologists are spending time in the French countryside exploring a major dig. When the teleportation machine intersects with a wormhole, the group’s professor ends up in 14th-century France. Some of the students end up going back in time to rescue him. The movie doesn’t really rely on stars to energize its premise, but rather on the hunt, the chase, and the battles for an ancient castle. When you’ve got flaming arrows by the thousands and loads of action, who needs heavy psychological analysis? As in all movies about a group of friends in danger, there’s a hint of romance, a touch of anger, and an entertaining sense of camaraderie. Paul Walker gets star billing, but he doesn’t have much to do and lacks screen presence. The guy who leads the audience through the film is Gerard Butler as one of the archeologists. He’s got a 1930s style sense of fun and adventure that’s refreshing. Richard Donner directs with a sure hand.

I wrote about The Human Stain in my Toronto Film Festival wrap-up and praised its style and substance. The movie is now playing in town. Based on Philip Roth’s novel about sexual politics and racism, the very smart film deserves to be seen. It stars a very good Anthony Hopkins as a revered university professor who resigns in a rage after being accused of being a racist. Noting that two of his students have never attended his class, he asks “What are they, spooks?” Because they are African-Americans, his wisecrack is interpreted as a racist remark. It’s important to note that he has not seen the students, so he does not know if they are black or white. Rather than defend himself when he’s called before a faculty tribunal, he leaves his job. He has a secret of his own. He is a very light-skinned African-American himself. In fact, he has passed for white. The movie is about his recovery from the death of his wife and understanding his past, as well as trying to avoid a sense of isolation. He meets a blue-collar woman played by Nicole Kidman with too many false notes. Does gum chewing and smoking really define lower-class life? They begin a relationship. The Human Stain glides back and forth between the old professor and his younger self, superbly played by Wentworth Miller. Also on tap are Gary Sinise as the man to whom Hopkins opens up. Ed Harris is Kidman’s abusive husband and Jacinda Barrett is Miller’s girl friend, who does not realize he is black. Anna Deavere Smith and Phyllis Newman round out the cast. Directed by Robert Benton, this is a movie that keeps you alert and makes demands on you in a good way. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

So, are you bored to tears with all the feel-good holiday la-dee-dahs you’re forced to deal with during the Christmas season? Well, if you prefer the Bah in your Humbug over the sappy sweetness of It’s A Wonderful Life, head out to see Bad Santa. I can tell you right now that I could never take my mother to see it. In fact, I don’t think I could take my father to see it, either. Dad enjoys hockey violence, but I think even he wouldn’t be pleased at the goings on. Mom’s a saint and in no mood for mockery when it comes to Christmas. Billy Bob Thornton has finally found the perfect role that fits his trailer park demeanor like a glove. He plays Willie T. Stokes, a cigarette-puffing, booze-guzzling, lover of whores who works as a department store Santa. He and his little pal, his partner-in-crime, the elf to his jolly St. Nick, rob the malls where they find employment. The elf crawls through the air vents. They live off their ill-gotten gains. The target for this year is a store run by a fussy fellow (played by the late John Ritter), with security overseen by a by-the-book store detective (Bernie Mac). Stokes hates everything about being Santa, except the opportunity to steal. How does he greet the little tykes who approach him? He blows smoke in their faces and asks, “so what the fuck do you want?”