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Holiday returns - Christmas-themed films back in a big way (michelle trachtenberg mention)

Anthony Breznican

Thursday 23 November 2006, by Webmaster

Unruly kids trapped at an airport, neighbors warring over Christmas decorations, two unhappy women who swap lives, a Santa Claus who still hasn’t worked out the finer details of his contract - even a yuletide serial killer.

Those are among this year’s holiday movies, aimed at a variety of sensibilities between naughty and nice. But aren’t the studios forgetting what Christmas is really about?

No, they’ve even got that base covered with "The Nativity Story," the latest retelling of Mary and Joseph and their journey to Bethlehem for the birth of the baby Jesus.

Advertisement After a dearth of holiday- themed releases last year, Hollywood has at least a half-dozen films strung with tinsel this season in a bid to tap the wallets of moviegoers.

"We do an enormous amount of business during the holidays, and it’s because families are out being with each other," says Dan Fellman of Warner Bros., which is targeting the family audience with the kids’ comedy "Unaccompanied Minors," about children snowed in at an airport on Christmas.

"The age range can go from 5 - because it’s a PG movie - and play up to the midteens," Fellman says. "Families can go - Mom and Dad, and, if I’m lucky, Grandma goes, too."

Holiday movies are big moneymakers at the theaters between Thanksgiving and the new year, and the successful Christmas flicks come around every year to keep studio stockings stuffed with fresh cash via home video and television rebroadcasts.

"The downside of a Christmas movie is you have to release it at a certain time of year, regardless of the competition. You have fewer options and less freedom," says Toby Emmerich, production chief of New Line Cinema, which is releasing "The Nativity Story."

"But if you hit it right, you have something that has a longer life than a normal movie," he says. "You turn on your television at Christmastime and there are certain evergreen movies you’ll see again."

It’s not just juggernauts such as "Miracle on 34th Street," the you’ll-shoot-your-eye-out comedy "A Christmas Story" or Jimmy Stewart’s "It’s a Wonderful Life." Even nonheartwarmers such as Chevy Chase’s "Christmas Vacation," the ghoulish comedy "Gremlins" and "Die Hard" have become cult Christmas classics.

Billy Bob Thornton had a counterprogramming hit in 2003 with the caustic comedy "Bad Santa." This year comes "Black Christmas," a remake of a 1974 slasher movie about sorority girls terrorized by a psycho during Christmas break.

"This is the anti-holiday movie, the bloody holiday movie," says producer Marc Butan. "Christmas is so over-commercialized, so oversaturated, that people relate to anything that mocks that."

But Santa is getting his due as well thanks to Tim Allen’s latest foray as a man contractually obligated to bring good cheer to the world in "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause."

Some movies have holiday elements without being "holiday movies" per se - such as Robert De Niro’s sophomore directorial effort, "The Good Shepherd" (due Dec. 22), a thriller about the origins of the CIA which has critical scenes set at a Christmas party.

Here’s a breakdown of this season’s Christmas-themed movies, with their rankings on the naughty-and-nice scale:

•"The Santa Clause 3" (opened Nov. 3)

What’s it all about? Tim Allen’s third go-round as the reluctant draftee to the North Pole, who must battle Jack Frost (Martin Short). Tired of being the guy blamed for coughs and runny noses, Frost plots to take over Santa’s duties by manipulating the contract that binds Allen to North Pole duties.

With three Clause movies and 2004’s "Christmas With the Kranks," Allen admits to becoming "the Christmas guy," adding: "I feel grateful to see this lovely image of Santa. I liked being the cynical adult comedian wrapped up in this mythical hero."

Naughty or nice? 100 percent nice. Rated G, there’s little here to offend - unless you’re not a Tim Allen fan.

•"Deck the Halls" (opened Wednesday)

What’s it all about? Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick play suburban neighbors who go to war over who can decorate their home the brightest.

"I’m hoping that it’s very relatable," says Sanford Panitch, production chief at New Regency Productions. "You’d have a hard time finding someone who lives in any suburban neighborhood who can’t remember a neighbor who has gone kind of nuts with decorations."

Naughty or nice? Mostly nice. Some slapstick and risque humor, but rated PG.

•"The Nativity Story" (opens Dec. 1)

What’s it about? The familiar story of the birth of Jesus is told with attention to the gritty realities of Jewish life under the oppressive Roman rule. Keisha Castle-Hughes ("Whale Rider") stars as Mary, a teenager told in an angelic vision she will give birth to the Messiah. She must confront the doubts of her husband, Joseph, and journey with him to Bethlehem.

Screenwriter Mike Rich ("Finding Forrester") blended the accounts of Jesus’ birth from the Bible, but explains: "I had to read between the lines to find what were the doubts, the fears, and where did the characters’ faith come from."

Naughty or nice? Leaning nice, but some scenes may frighten the littlest viewers.

•"The Holiday" (opens Dec. 8)

What’s it about? Kate Winslet plays an Englishwoman and Cameron Diaz plays a Southern Californian who meet online and, unhappy with their lives and loves, agree to swap homes for the holidays. Jack Black and Jude Law co-star.

Nancy Meyers ("Something’s Gotta Give") set "The Holiday" at Christmas and Hanukkah to contrast with her characters’ loneliness: "A lot of people over the holidays have a more difficult time than others."

Naughty or nice? A little naughty. At PG-13, it has some adult humor and sexual situations.

•"Unaccompanied Minors" (opens Dec. 8)

What’s it about? "Home Alone" at the airport. A group of young kids trying to make their way home for the holidays cause mischief while evading an overzealous security agent played by "Daily Show" ranter Lewis Black. Wilmer Valderrama is another airport worker who tries to help the troublemakers.

Naughty or nice? A touch of naughty. PG rated for mild rude humor and general disobedience.

•"Black Christmas" (opens Dec. 25)

What’s it about? Michelle Trachtenberg ("Ice Princess") stars as one member of a group of sorority girls terrorized by a serial killer who hates Christmas more than the Grinch in this remake of a 1974 cult classic.

The movie has a rich Christmas pedigree: It was co-produced by the director of the original, Bob Clark, who also made the classic comedy "A Christmas Story." (Look for homages such as the famous "leg lamp" hidden in the new movie.)

Naughty or nice? Totally naughty. Producer Butan says this movie is "sex, violence and happy holidays."