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One Yuletide, more years ago than I care to disclose, I found myself in Los Angeles. In homage to Evelyn Waugh, I visited Forest Lawn, the necropolis that inspired his satirical novel The Loved One. Heeding the posted prohibitions against wearing short shorts and carrying transistor radios, I wandered about the ghoulish grounds until I came upon a section exclusively reserved for children. Each grave was marked by a small Christmas tree, and many were laden with brightly wrapped gifts. After making sure that I was unobserved, I hefted several of the packages and discovered that they were empty.

This year’s holiday movies remind me of those sham presents: They are handsomely packaged but disappointingly hollow.

If director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter William Broyles Jr. had been content with updating Robinson Crusoe, Cast Away would be easy to recommend. Its central hour, depicting FedEx systems engineer Chuck Noland’s four-year survival alone on a desert island, is vividly visualized and heroically enacted by Tom Hanks. But the framing story, a modernization of Tennyson’s poem Enoch Arden, teems with heavy-handed symbolism and plot contrivances so implausible that they might even invoke the skepticism of Zemeckis and Hanks’ previous protagonist, the slow-witted Forrest Gump .

We first encounter efficiency expert Chuck on assignment in Moscow, where he browbeats his staff into speeding up deliveries. He returns to Memphis, FedEx’s hub city, to celebrate Christmas with his grad-student girlfriend, Kelly (Helen Hunt, in a role too brief to exhibit her annoying mannerisms). After an emblematic gift exchange—a hi-tech pager for her, an antique pocket watch for him—he’s off to Asia. But his plane crashes in a turbulent storm and Chuck, the sole survivor, washes up on a tropical island along with an assortment of FedEx packages.

Armed only with the contents of these parcels (ice skates, videotapes, a dress), Chuck resourcefully manages to obtain water, food, and shelter. Whereupon Zemeckis leaps four years ahead to reveal a remarkably transformed hero—trim, muscular, bearded, and sunburned. (During a one-year hiatus in filming, Hanks dieted and worked out to achieve this startling metamorphosis.) The screenplay provides him with an inanimate Friday-like companion, a volleyball dubbed Wilson on which Chuck paints a face with his own blood. Strikingly shot in the Fiji Islands, these sequences are sufficiently compelling to make one overlook a number of implausibilities, such as why FedEx fails to search the crash site to determine the fates of its employees and how Chuck manages to lacerate his leg on a coral reef as well as extract a tooth without suffering deadly infections.

After constructing a raft and enduring a perilous ocean passage that leads to his eventual rescue, Chuck returns to Memphis—where the narrative runs out of steam. Assuming that her lover is deceased, Kelly has made some irrevocable life choices, forcing Chuck—liberated from his enslavement to the clock and now aware of What’s Really Important in Life—to jump-start his existence. In one absurdly written scene, he remorsefully apologizes to a widowed co-worker for not being around to support him during his wife’s death from cancer. But far worse is the closing sequence, which, after nearly two-and-a-half hours, clarifies Cast Away’s hitherto inexplicable opening.

The movie begins with a FedEx driver picking up a package from Bettina (Lari White), a sculptor who fabricates angel wings from metal and stained glass, for delivery to a customer in Russia. Coincidentally, another of Bettina’s parcels, decorated with a winged drawing, washes up on Chuck’s island. Apparently, he views the box as some sort of talisman and refuses to open it. (Never mind that it could have contained such useful items as matches, food, or a pager.) After his homecoming, he returns the still-unopened package to Bettina, whom he’s never met, in order to end the movie with the promise of—you guessed it—a new romance. A resolution so insultingly implausible could be credible only to moppets who leave out cookies and milk for Santa Claus.

Similar contrivances spoil the considerable pleasures of Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester. Nearly all of Van Sant’s movies involve intergenerational mentor relationships. In his best work, the mentors’ influences are malevolent: Mala Noche’s convenience-store clerk who sexually preys on Latino adolescents, William S. Burroughs’ junkie guru in Drugstore Cowboy, William Richert’s Falstaff to Keanu Reeves’ Prince Hal in My Own Private Idaho, aspiring media personality Nicole Kidman who manipulates admiring teenagers to murder her husband in To Die For. The filmmaker’s weirdly gratuitous Psycho remake even presents a duo of malign mentors—Norman Bates’ mother, of course, and the specter of Alfred Hitchcock, whose creepy classic served as the template for Van Sant’s shot-for-shot replication.

Van Sant graduated from indie filmmaking to the commercial mainstream with Good Will Hunting, an uplifting drama about an altruistic psychologist who helps a troubled math prodigy realize his potential. Finding Forrester recycles this theme. For four decades, 70-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Forrester (Sean Connery), a fictionalized J.D. Salinger, isolates himself in a South Bronx apartment building. A bird-watcher, he uses binoculars to voyeuristically observe his environment, which has mutated from a racially mixed middle-class neighborhood to an African-American ghetto. (Knowledgeable film buffs will recognize that this situation derives from John Boorman’s little-known masterpiece Leo the Last, in which exiled aristocrat Marcello Mastroianni peers though a spyglass at the fowls and the black residents of London’s Notting Hill.)

Forrester, dubbed “The Window” by the neighborhood’s basketball-playing adolescents, becomes involved with Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), a 16-year-old genius who breaks into his apartment on a dare. The reclusive writer and the fatherless boy bond. Jamal, who has literary ambitions, wins a scholarship to an exclusive midtown Manhattan prep school but maintains his friendship with Forrester. Jamal revivifies the crusty codger, and Forrester oversees the young man’s artistic development. When one of Jamal’s teachers, snobbish, pontificating Professor Crawford (F. Murray Abraham), accuses the boy of plagiarizing his submission to a creative-writing competition, Forrester leaves his cloister to come to his friend’s defense.

Although Van Sant doesn’t exactly stretch himself in Finding Forrester—with some justice, scoffers will dismiss it as Good Will Hunting 2—the movie is exceedingly well-crafted and skillfully acted. Connery and newcomer Brown make a forceful team, effectively supported by April Grace as Jamal’s affectionate mother and Busta Rhymes as his brother, Terrell, a rapping parking-lot attendant. Harris Savides’ cinematography employs deep focus and expressive textures to contrast the monochromatic dankness of Forrester’s ramshackle apartment with the luminescence of the outside world. And a lively soundtrack blends a cappella gospel music, rap, and classic Miles Davis and Billie Holiday recordings.

All of this, however, is largely squandered on a screenplay constructed of wheezily inspirational, unwittingly racist clichés—the white savant who bolsters the black underdog; the gifted outsider who, against all odds, triumphs over an uncongenial system. The plot sets up a potential romance between Jamal and Claire (Anna Paquin), the daughter of one of the prep school’s officials, then cravenly shrinks from depicting an interracial relationship. We’re never offered a clue to explain how or why Jamal, who conceals his erudition from his classmates, was exposed to books by Joyce, Kierkegaard, Sade, and other deep-dish thinkers prior to meeting his mentor. In a jaw-dropping howler, the agoraphobic septuagenarian Forrester bicycles from the Bronx to Manhattan for the climactic scene at Jamal’s school. And a tear-jerking load-of-crap coda features a cameo appearance by Will Hunting himself, Matt Damon, and—aping Nora Ephron’s unspeakable You’ve Got Mail—several choruses of “Over the Rainbow.” The downward spiral of Van Sant’s career, from the transgressive, no-budget Mala Noche to the cheaply manipulative Finding Forrester, offers depressingly convincing evidence of Hollywood’s insidious ability to compromise artistic integrity.

My Life as a Dog, Lasse Hallström’s 1985 coming-of-age comedy-drama, opened American studio doors to the Swedish filmmaker. The nonthreateningly middlebrow director’s subsequent movies—Something to Talk About, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules—defuse potentially unsettling themes with a comforting undercurrent of humor and sentimentality. For its first hour, Chocolat, based on a novel by Joanne Harris, proves to be Hallström’s most appealing application of this formula to date. But its second half wears thin, numbingly reiterating points more effectively made in the opening reels.

A stylized fairy tale replete with “Once upon a time…” off-camera narration, Chocolat is set in 1959 in Lansquenet, a fictional French village unchanged since medieval times. The town’s governing principle is “tranquillité,” its stasis reflected in the piousness, abstinence, and rectitude of its inhabitants. This puritanical righteousness is challenged by the arrival of Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her illegitimate daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol). Clad in scarlet cloaks, this pair rent the abandoned patisserie across from the town’s Catholic church and, during Lent, transform it into a brightly painted shop where they produce the film’s sinfully tempting titular confection.

Employing secret recipes handed down by her pagan mother, Vianne gradually overcomes the resistance of the townspeople who venture in to sample her wares. By spinning a magic plate, she’s able to match up each customer with the ideal sweet. Succumbing to the sensual pleasures of her candies, her patrons become mysteriously unbridled. An unsatisfied wife discovers that chocolate has a Viagra-like effect on her sexually indifferent husband. After munching a few goodies, a shy, elderly customer (John Wood) musters the courage to woo a widow (Leslie Caron) whom he’s been too timid to approach. Vianne’s chocolates mend the rift estranging her cranky landlady (Judi Dench) from her daughter (Carrie-Anne Moss) and her repressed, artistically gifted grandson (Aurelien Parent Koenig). And even the kleptomaniac wife (Lena Olin) of an abusive cafe proprietor is healed by Vianne’s confections, becoming the confectioner’s assistant and confidante. These liberations fuel the enmity of Lansquenet’s priggish moral arbiter, the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who vows to shut down the chocolaterie by Easter.

Chocolat is stuffed with appealing elements: the radiant performances by Binoche, Olin, and Dench; the bold visual contrast between the village’s staid granite buildings and the chocolate shop’s polychrome décor; the advocacy of gustatory and erotic pleasure in an atmosphere of prudish self-denial. (Brandishing a plate of freshly dipped chocolates, Vianne slyly entices her customers by inquiring, “Can I interest you in some Nipples of Venus?”) But after succinctly articulating his themes, screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs resorts to padding his narrative with contrivances intended to stretch the film to feature length. These include Vianne’s underdeveloped relationship with Roux (Johnny Depp), an Irish musician who sails into town with a crew of itinerant river rats; an act of arson that threatens Anouk’s life; the mayor’s inevitable and clumsily staged capitulation to chocolate; a young priest’s sermon that needlessly ingeminates the film’s message of tolerance; and more than enough affirmative endings to supply a full season of Touched by an Angel. At the fadeout, one leaves Chocolat with the same uncomfortably overstuffed feeling that results from compulsively devouring an entire pan of fudge.

Director Giuseppe Tornatore’s films are regularly butchered by American distributors. His successful Cinema Paradiso was shortened by a half-hour, and 50 minutes were trimmed from The Legend of 1900, a movie that stupefied other reviewers but enchanted me. Perhaps Tornatore should be grateful that Miramax has cut Malèna by less than 10 minutes, but I suspect that restoration of the missing footage might soften the film’s abrupt tonal shift from light humor to stark drama.

Set in the early ’40s in Castelcuto, Sicily, Malèna begins as a comedy about adolescent sexuality. Mussolini has declared war on France and Great Britain, but the screenplay’s young narrator-protagonist, Renato Amoroso (Giuseppe Sulfaro), and his peers are preoccupied by timeless teenage pursuits such as penis measuring and sadistically incinerating insects with magnifying lenses. Their primary obsession, however, is Malèna (Monica Bellucci), the pulchritudinous daughter of their deaf Latin teacher and the virtuous wife of a soldier on active duty in Africa. Renato becomes transfixed by her, peering through the windows of her home and imagining himself as her leading man in scenes from Tarzan, Stagecoach, and other Hollywood classics.

Whenever she ventures into town, Malèna arouses the libidos of its male citizens—much to the chagrin of their envious wives. After receiving word that her husband has been killed in battle, Malèna reluctantly accepts the advances of a married dentist in order to obtain food. Condemned as a sluttish home-wrecker possessed by the devil, she succumbs to consorting with Nazis when Germany invades Sicily. After the American liberation, the town’s vindictive harpies physically attack and banish her. But Castelcuto hasn’t seen the last of Malèna: An unexpected reversal of fortune draws her back to the scene of her humiliation and a hopeful new beginning.

Malèna’s screenplay, which Tornatore based on a story by Luciano Vincenzoni, unsuccessfully attempts to conflate teenage sex comedy with historical melodrama. The lighter passages—Renato stealing Malèna’s panties, the boy’s sexual initiation by a whore who resembles her—clash with the harrowingly explicit sequence in which Malèna is publicly beaten and degraded. Despite this central failing, I found Malèna more rewarding than the other movies covered in this column. Tornatore’s voluptuous style, reminiscent of Bertolucci’s and Coppola’s finest work, transforms each shot into a stunning, painterly composition bathed in the golden light of Renato’s memory. Abetted by Bellucci’s ravishing allure, Lajos Koltai’s intensely hued cinematography, and Ennio Morricone’s richly melodic score, the filmmaker creates a series of intoxicating set pieces that largely redeem his discordant plotline. Malèna may be this year’s least coherent Christmas offering, but it’s easily the most beautiful. CP