Seven Holiday Treats

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THE RACE IS ON! The regal Mortensen helps make the saga’s final chapter a front runner

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Old Burton hands will spot the grasping trees from Sleepy Hollow and the identical homes from Edward Scissorhands. The film fairly groans from all the narrative gamesmanship and lavish romantic gestures (a lawn draped in thousands of daffodils). The unbewitched viewer may groan as well.

Big Fish makes a big push for transcendence, but the strain shows. It's like trying to push a daydream uphill. --R.C.

Directed by Peter Webber
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Colin Firth, Tom Wilkinson

Girl With A Pearl Earring is pretty as a picture — a picture, let us say, by Johannes Vermeer. Its reconstruction of 17th century Holland, where the old master painted his breathtaking portraits, is stunning. Unfortunately, the characters inhabiting this landscape in Webber's film are merely stunned. You've never seen so many people talking and walking so slowly or registering their emotions so unblinkingly.

It's possible that the lento rhythms of the film are dictated by the need to stretch what is really little more than an art-historical anecdote into a full-scale movie. Basically, all that happens in the movie is that Vermeer (Firth) entices his pretty, largely silent new housemaid (Johansson) into posing for the eponymous painting, while his patron (Wilkinson) lusts after her impotently. The film's dramatic high occurs when she finally takes off her cap and reveals her pretty hair.

All right, some obsessional undercurrents run beneath Girl's surface. The painter is obviously attracted to his model. He teaches her to mix his paint and guides her study of the play of light. Nothing comes of it, however, but glum expressions. There are a lot of cranky folks in the Vermeer household. An unhappy wife and a domineering mother-in-law do not make his life any easier, and the fact that he is a slow worker (he made only about 35 paintings in his career) doesn't help. But this material is either underdeveloped or crudely put by a director whose style is so conventional that he makes James Ivory look, by comparison, like Jean-Luc Godard. Who knew that 350 years ago the Dutch were pioneering the first Prozac nation? --R.S.

Directed by Errol Morris
Starring Robert McNamara

The enduring American delusion about the Vietnam War is that it was our trial, our tragedy. The memorial in Washington holds the names of 58,214 Americans but none of the 3 million Vietnamese who died in the war. The impact of U.S. decisions on the rest of the world was an issue barely considered by those in the White House or Pentagon.

McNamara began addressing that question long after his tenure as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The architect of U.S. Vietnam policy in the '60s, McNamara made news 30 years later by acknowledging his mistakes. This splendid appraisal by documentarian Morris (The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time) nudges McNamara deeper into the Big Muddy of his Vietnam logic.

Before Vietnam, McNamara helped plan the World War II fire bombing of Japanese cities, which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. He stood on the brink of Armageddon in the Cuban missile crisis. Now he uses Morris' film stage as a platform and a confessional. McNamara is in charge here. It may be the first time in Morris' career that a subject has directed him.

The White House may not screen this film in the next year, but it should. This is spellbinding reality cinema about duplicity and, worse, ignorance at the highest level. --R.C.

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