dir. John Favreau
Opens Fri Nov 7.

No matter how tanked you get before you hit the theater, nothing will change the fact that Elf is a kids' movie. Despite Will Ferrell in the lead role, this is not Old School with Santa; it's not Saturday Night Live with reindeer; and it's not that funny for people over the mental age of 12, younger than senior-citizen status, or not carting around kids cranky for Christmas crap. It's a harmless holiday fable, complete with cameos from those trippy talking animals that starred in Frosty and Rudolf specials when I was a kid. Tailor-made for TV reruns down the line, Elf is the kind of movie you can go see with the relatives as a polite way of making the family stick a fork in it for two hours while you take a nap.

Elf stars Ferrell's nuts in tight yellow stockings--or, that is, Ferrell as Buddy, a human who mistakenly gets swooped up by Santa (Ed Asner) from an orphanage one Christmas and is raised by elves at the North Pole. When Buddy realizes that he's not like his pint-sized peers, the truth of his human roots arises and he decides to go find his real dad (James Caan), a greedy children's-book exec in New York City. From there the movie is part Big and part every other kiddie Christmas story (with a couple of good gags from Ferrell). Buddy teaches his uptight father the art of putting his family first, while Santa reminds everyone to keep believing in Christmas. Written and directed by a softened John Favreau (Swingers), Elf is the vehicle that finally puts Ferrell on the Jim Carrey path from adult comedian to sensitive family-movie guy. Not that there's anything really wrong with that, but for my comedic dollar, I'd stick with Ferrell's Old School way of doing things. JENNIFER MAERZ

Cock & Bull Story
dir. Billy Hayes
Opens Fri Nov 7.

The first thing you notice in Cock & Bull Story is the cinematography. Under the opening credits are beautiful shots of industrial wastelands and fenced-off urban squalor. The next thing you'll notice is executive producer Brian Austin Green putting his Beverly Hills 90210 character to rest with a workable mustache and a well-played bad-boy attitude that gets him beat up in his very first scene. Too bad the plot has to kick in and spoil everything.

Green plays Jack O'Malley, best friend to a straight-and-narrow, up-and-coming boxer named Travis Coleman (Bret Roberts). There's something a little bit different about this boxer, which you see during his first fight. Mid-match, he moves into a clinch with the other boxer and the camera tilts down to show groin rubbing on leg. After the clinch, he breaks away from his opponent and knocks him out. His coach and his fans see "the clinch" as his secret weapon in the fight, without ever questioning why. It's the unraveling of this secret that drives the movie.

Cock & Bull Story is a very gay title, and it turns out to be a very gay film. However, it's not gay in the happy '90s indie film sense of the genre. No, this is a throwback to the unhappy closeted homosexual films of the '50s through the '70s. Travis doesn't know he's gay but he suspects it, and he hates that about himself. The self-hatred is why he's able to knock out his opponents after the clinch. Get it?

Director Billy Hayes was the real-life protagonist of Midnight Express, and he went on to work in theater and TV as both a writer and director. Cock & Bull Story was originally an award-winning play of his. In translating it to the cinema he found a talented cinematographer in Ben Kufrin, and the acting is good across the board. It's just that the story moves too slowly and feels outdated, even if it is outdated in an interesting way. ANDY SPLETZER

Love Actually
dir. Richard Curtis
Opens Fri Nov 7.

You know a director's gonna lay it on thicker than expired eggnog when he opens with people tearfully embracing at the airport while a narration goes on about how loving the victims of the 9/11 hijackings were just before they crashed to their violent deaths. (Their calls home weren't messages of hate or revenge, they were expressions of love. Time to make your skin crawl--just in time for the holidays.) From there, "trite" doesn't begin to describe Love Actually, a movie that America will probably gobble up like grease in a bucket of gravy because it's about love and Christmas, and who doesn't like love at Christmas? And really, who doesn't love Hugh Grant?

Grant's biggest acting stretch was back when he was sorting out that little real-life incident with the prostitute years ago, and since then he's repeated the fumbling-Englishman thing so many times you don't even need to watch it play out anymore; you know he's going to charm the pants off something with tits, and it's going to be about as shocking a conclusion as the fact that his accent is British. But Love Actually isn't just about Grant (who plays a prime minister with a crush on a staff member)--there's a whole mess of superficial, predictable outcomes slowing this plot down to a standstill. There's the newly married couple whose best man is really in love with the bride, the older married couple dealing with the husband's nearing infidelity, a novelist who falls in love with his maid, the aging pop singer who loves his manager, and a bunch of other dead ends strung together with obvious signposts. Everyone grins like a Macy's Santa for the camera in the end, and apart from a tiny cameo from Billy Bob Thornton (as a weasel of an American president), there's more authentic sentiment in a Hallmark card than in the entire movie. JENNIFER MAERZ