SURVIVING CHRISTMAS (PG-13, 92 minutes)
When comedies don't work, they can be painful and "Surviving Christmas," though it lands a few lucky laughs here and there, is a real joy-killer. It is an impossible, charmless blend of crass humor and phony sentiment. Stars Ben Affleck, Christina Applegate, James Gandolfini and Catherine O'Hara, all actors with comic gifts, can't give the movie what it needs -- better writing and direction. High schoolers who like Affleck and Applegate may want to check it out anyway. They will laugh, perhaps uncomfortably, at the movie's portrayal of an adolescent boy who cruises sexy Web sites with photos of buxom women while his folks think he's doing homework. The movie further earns its PG-13 with other sexual innuendo, a crude joke about a baby boy's penis, incest humor, rare profanity, a visual suicide joke and a marijuana joke. It touches on themes of broken families and loneliness.
Affleck plays Drew, a wealthy Chicago advertising executive who panics when his girlfriend (Jennifer Morrison) dumps him at holiday time. Desperate not to spend Christmas alone, he cabs it out to the suburban house he remembers growing up in. He offers $250,000 to the family living there and moves in with them for Yule's sake. Unfortunately, the Valcos are not a happy bunch. Gruff Tom (Gandolfini) and sarcastic Christine (O'Hara) hate each other. Their randy son (Josh Zuckerman) is in a world all his own, and their grown daughter (Applegate) hates Drew on sight. Perhaps out of desperation, Affleck yells, and mugs, but gives Drew no spark of inner life. "Surviving Christmas," though it ends on a misty-eyed note in praise of familial love, is really just a tacky flick about what dopey stuff people will do for money.
THE GRUDGE (PG-13, 88 minutes)
High school horror fans may enjoy this cross-cultural remake of the hit Japanese horror film "Ju-On: The Grudge" (R, 2003) in which chalk-faced specters of a murdered family exact lethal revenge against anyone who comes near the house where they died. Again directed by Takashi Shimizu, the story also takes place in Tokyo and loops around on itself, remaining quite a head-scratcher, despite changes and explanations added for American ears. After the first few gasps and shudders it elicits from an audience, the movie's slow pace and repetitive circumstances grow tedious, as with the original.
"The Grudge" is rarely graphic but remains a problematic choice for middle schoolers, with its family-violence subtext and scenes in which the ghosts lurk, pounce and snatch the breath out of people. They materialize in bath water, closets and on ceilings and rasp death rattles while stalking their victims. At times they are blood-soaked. The most visible apparition is a little boy with a bandaged knee. In flashbacks that reveal the story a bit at a time, a dead body swings from a rope, and a bloodied corpse falls from an attic. The movie opens with a suicide jump. Non-horror content includes the understated beginnings of a sexual situation and smoking.
Sarah Michelle Gellar plays a rookie social worker training at a care center in Tokyo, while her boyfriend (Jason Behr) studies architecture -- just a couple of kids studying abroad. Sent to a private home to care for a near-catatonic American woman (Grace Zabriskie), she encounters the child specter (Yuya Ozeki), not realizing at first that he is a ghost. The killings continue beyond the reach of social or police work.