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How to get on Santa's "naughty" list 

Paul Schrader's Auto Focus (opening Friday, November 1, at the Little), a look at the life of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane, is another by-the-numbers, end-of-the-year biopic that would probably be fairly uninteresting if it weren't for the deviant subject matter. Apparently Crane, unbeknownst to his millions of fans, was a sick little monkey who liked to --- get this --- screw different women and videotape himself doing it!

            Can you believe it? What kind of vile bastard would be into that? Forgive the sarcasm, but I get about 30 e-mail messages every day trying to sell me services that make what Crane did seem as dirty as an episode of Touched by an Angel. This might be the reason why Focus fell disappointingly flat. Then again, I might just be jaded.

            We first meet Crane (Greg Kinnear) in February 1964, where he's a popular radio DJ in Connecticut. Off the air, he's a boring guy with a boring wife (Rita Wilson), three boring kids, and a boring house. He says square things (like "How are they hanging?") and refuses both alcohol and cigarettes, which was practically a mortal sin back in the day. Crane sees himself as a cross between Jacks Lemmon and Benny. In other words, there's absolutely no hint of the Jekyll-and-Hyde persona that we know is just beyond the horizon.

            The catalyst for the evolution of Crane's dark side is fame. Once he landed the lead role in Heroes in 1965 (there are a few funny scenes involving everyone's shock at the idea of a comedy about a POW camp --- this was before The Producers, mind you), celebrity opened many doors to Crane --- doors that most people would immediately slam shut. But Crane just sauntered right through, plopped himself down on an unfamiliar couch, and started beating the bishop.

            The sex stuff starts innocently enough with dirty magazines, but the stakes get upped when Crane meets creepy handyman John Carpenter (played by creepy Willem Dafoe), who happens to be an expert in cutting-edge technology. Because he's a rather unattractive guy, Carpenter rides Crane's coattails to late-night parties with buxom beauties who would ordinarily be unobtainable for him. The dynamic duo start to photograph the cute co-eds, and once Carpenter introduces Crane to the wonderful world of home video, their orgy sessions are recorded for their own private viewing parties (there's nothing quite like seeing two grown men whacking it to videos of themselves).

            The film proceeds as you would expect, chronicling the end of Hogan's run in 1971, the downfall of Crane's two marriages and, eventually, his career (the film glosses over many of his post-Hogan's projects). It also addresses Crane's still-unsolved 1978 murder in a Scottsdale, Arizona, motel. Schrader (Affliction) and screenwriter Michael Gerbosi (Focus is his debut) don't really point the finger of blame at anyone, but that's because they've based their film on Robert Graysmith's book, The Murder of Bob Crane. Instead, they focus Focus on Crane's messed-up life, which succumbs to a world of growing technology and decaying morals. Along with High Falls Film Festival closer Love Liza, it's an interesting take on an unconventional addiction.

            Kinnear is very good and perfectly cast, since both he and Crane became big stars without doing a whole hell of a lot. They also have similar faces and mannerisms, and they share the same doofy, happy-go-lucky attitude. Dafoe's Carpenter is supposed to be an eerie loser, and one would imagine that's exactly why Dafoe was cast in this role. Fans of Hogan's will surely get a kick out of the scenes set around the show, especially Kurt Fuller's Colonel Klink.

They say retailers keep pushing Christmas on us earlier and earlier every year (I went to a drug store recently, more than a week before Halloween, and was shocked to see them already moving the Halloween junk out in favor of the Christmas junk), but when the year's only Christmas-themed film is being released while your ankle-biters are still suffering from All Hallows Eve hangovers, you know things have really gone too far.

            The Santa Clause2, a sequel to the mysteriously beloved 1994 film that grossed over $140 million, is a G-rated family extravaganza that wasn't nearly as horrible as I thought it would be. Granted, my expectations were about as low as the box office take for Madonna's Swept Away.

            Most of SC2's plot, which one could almost call Attack of the Clones 2, seems tailor-made for Tim Allen to pull a Mike Myers-style dual performance, a la Austin Powers and Dr. Evil. Once again, Allen plays Scott Calvin, who, in the original version, accidentally kills Santa Claus and, because of some legal mumbo jumbo, becomes contractually obligated to fill the fat, jolly bastard's shoes.

            When we first see Scott in this film (after a mildly funny opening involving the North Pole going up to Elfcon 1), he's in the midst of whipping his elves into a pre-Christmas, toy-producing frenzy. But he's also losing weight --- a fact directly related to a "de-Santafication" process. It seems the fine print that ultimately led to Scott becoming Santa also says he must find a bride by Christmas Eve (the "Mrs. Clause"), which is just 28 days away.

            Meanwhile, Scott is shocked to see his son Charlie's (Eric Lloyd) name on the "naughty" list. This is actually pretty convenient, as it allows him to head back to civilization and find a bride while getting to the bottom of his kid's recent rebellious streak. Also convenient is the de-Santafication process, which keeps Scott from looking like a damn freak while he's out trolling for trim. Hey, if the icy school principal (played by Elizabeth Mitchell) threatening to suspend Charlie would just let her hair down and put on some jeans and a fuzzy sweater, she might make a perfect Mrs. Claus. Mitchell's Carol Newman is a cynical bitch who used to love Christmas, until the day her parents told her St. Nick didn't really exist. Do you see where this is going?

            Back at the North Pole, an opportunistic, by-the-book elf (Spencer Breslin) takes advantage of the Santa-less situation to create a clone (like cloning anybody in any film has ever worked out well). The Clone Santa, hell-bent on making radical changes to the toy-making process, creates an army of giant toy soldiers who gently convince the elves to discard toys in favor of coal production. Will Scott be able to find a bride and return to the North Pole in time to save Christmas? Will Chicken-Dance Elmo be a big seller this year?

            While adults will get a kick out of the scene where Scott enlivens a dud of a Christmas party by giving away vintage toys, the kids at my preview screening seemed to enjoy the very cheapest laughs, both literally (the creepy, Chuck-E.-Cheese-style animatronics reindeer) and figuratively (when said reindeer farts after eating too much junk food). Other than a mildly amusing scene depicting a meeting between Santa, Mother Nature (Aisha Tyler), Cupid (Kevin Pollak), the Tooth Fairy (Art LaFleur), the Sandman (Michael Dorn), and Father Time (Peter Boyle, who also played Scott's boss in the first film), there isn't much new or exciting here. Part of the problem is the many scripts and many rewrites (as many as nine scribes were rumored to have worked on something that barely requires one).

Interested in unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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