A CHRISTMAS CAROL
Officially, the title is Disney's A Christmas Carol, which is acceptable since it sure as hell isn't Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. While it might be true that this animated version retains more of the literary classic than might reasonably be expected, it's also accurate to state that a key ingredient of the novel -- namely, its humanist spirit -- is largely missing from this chilly interpretation. Director Robert Zemeckis, who used to make fun movies in which the spectacular special effects served the story and not the other way around (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), has become obsessed with the motion capture process (this is his third consecutive picture utilizing this technique, following The Polar Express and Beowulf), and one gets the sense that he chose the Dickens chestnut not because of a desire to revive its moral tale for a new generation but because it seemed like a suitable vehicle for his new techno-toys. But Zemeckis can't keep still, and rather than remain within the parameters of the meaty story, he follows in the footsteps of the recent Where the Wild Things Are adaptation by fleshing out a story that didn't exactly cry out for extraneous material. But while Wild Things' additions at least made thematic sense, Zemeckis pads the material with such nonsense as Scrooge (Jim Carrey) being blasted into the stratosphere or dashing through the cobbled streets of London (a chase scene? Really?) while simultaneously turning into the incredible shrinking man. Carrey gives the role of the miserly Scrooge his all (he also voices a half-dozen other characters), and the 3-D effects (offered in select theaters) are expertly realized. But you don't need glasses -- 3-D or otherwise -- to see that this holiday release is too diluted for adults, too frightening for children, and too tiresome for just about everybody.
THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS
Loopy enough to stand out from the homogenized pack but not bold enough to truly go the distance, this eccentric satire (inspired by Jon Ronson's nonfiction book of the same name) proves to be a modestly pleasing piffle in which journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor, sincere but straightjacketed by an undemanding role) searches for a great story on the outskirts of the Iraq War and finds one in Lyn Cassady (George Clooney). Cassady claims to be a former super-soldier, a military man who had been trained in the ways of the paranormal in order to use psychic abilities to combat the enemy. Cassady and his fellow recruits flourished under the tutelage of Vietnam War vet Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), but once a devious soldier named Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) entered the picture, everything went to hell. Now many years later, Cassady insists to Wilton that he's on a covert mission, and he drags the inquisitive yet uncomprehending reporter along with him. Clooney and Bridges are both adept at giving off-kilter performances (let's not forget that they've both headlined quirky Coen comedies), and they achieve the proper buzz in a picture that, until a protracted finale, gets high off the fumes of its own freewheeling inclinations.