Joel Siegel on 'Haunted Mansion'

Now in theaters: The Haunted Mansion, Bad Santa, The Missing, The Cooler, and In America.

The Haunted Mansion

This is the third film based on a Disney theme park ride, and if this one is a hit, next year we can expect Tram to Tomorrowland: The Motion Picture.

I don't think we have to worry, though. Haunted Mansion is a much more literal translation of its ride than last summer's terrific Pirates of the Caribbean. This film also lacks a charismatic star like Johnny Depp. The star here plays like the ghost of Eddie Murphy phoned his part in from the great beyond.

Even the special effects are cheesy. The best of them are borrowed from the ride, so they're not original. Neither are the jokes, which play like they died 100 years ago.

Now we know what the "E" in Disney's E-ticket stands for: Ehhh! Grade: C.

Bad Santa

At last, a Christmas movie for the inner Scrooge in all of us: Bad Santa is hysterically, hurt-yourself funny.

Billy Bob Thornton is mean, miserable, a drunk and a misogynist who works as a department store Santa as a setup so he and his black dwarf cohort (actually, the ringleader of the outfit, the very funny Tony Cox) can steal the department store blind after closing on Christmas Eve.

The film is foul, filthy, blasphemous, definitely not for children and Billy Bob is perfectly cast, though I'm not sure that's a compliment. (Check out Billy Bob in Love Actually and Bad Santa — he's a good, good actor.)

Director Terry Zwigoff's documentary Crumb is brilliant, must-see video and he followed that with Ghost World, a gem of a film. He'll embarrass you by making you laugh hard at things you know you shouldn't be laughing at. Bad Santa is one of the rare films I can recommend without qualification to people of a certain age with a certain twisted sensibility who are also known as … my oldest friends. Grade: A-

The Missing

I was expecting something good, but I wasn't expecting this something good. Ron Howard, proving himself one of Hollywood's great directors, has made the best western since Unforgiven.

The Missing is tough, raw, and beautifully crafted. It's photographed with lenses that offer camera angles John Ford's camera couldn't. On that subject, The Missing is not a remake of Ford's great The Searchers, nor is it Gothika Goes Western, as commercials seem to hint.

Tommy Lee Jones left his family to live with the Apache. Cate Blanchett is his daughter. She has become a healer, a single mother of two daughters. Jones is there when her oldest daughter is kidnapped by what were then called "white slavers." The movie is the chase. The story is timeless.

Academy rules forbid Blanchett from earning two Best Actress nominations. She will be nominated for The Missing over her equally fine (and completely different) performance in Veronica Guerin. Grade: A-.

Personal note: I was quite taken with the scenes shot in the Anasazi ruins. The Anasazi were the original settlers of what his now New Mexico. The 1,000-year-old ruins seen in this film were the largest dwellings in North America until the late 19th century, when massive apartment buildings like The Dakota began going up in New York City.

The Cooler

One more film filled with Oscar-caliber performances. William H. Macy plays the title role, a guy so unlucky Vegas hotel-czar Alec Baldwin hires him as a "cooler." All he has to do is show up at the tables and the tables turn from "hot" to "cool."

Then, Macy meets Maria Bello and his luck seems to change. The morning after, when Macy turns and sees that Bello's not there, he's not surprised. But then, surprise, the bathroom door opens and she asks, "Want to go out for breakfast?"

Macy gives the camera a smile that is worth the price of admission all by itself. People are winning. Baldwin is not happy. They win, he loses.

The last time Baldwin was this unforgettable was in Glengarry Glen Ross. Think hard, and you can remember almost all of his dialogue.

A subplot gives us a taste of how a casino is run, with bean-counters taking over from arm-twisters. But The Cooler really is a love story. It's grown-up, funny, impossible, and you want more than anything for Macy and Bello to come up winners. Grade: A-.

In America

In America is based on a true story. In the early 1980s, Jim Sheridan, who would go on to win an Oscar for directing My Left Foot, moved his family from Dublin to a New York City tenement, where their neighbors were transvestites and drug addicts and where they lived as illegal aliens.

Sheridan's two daughters, who shared the trip, co-wrote this script. There is another family connection, also true, which I won't give away.

One of the family's neighbors, played by Djimon Hansou (remember him from Amistad?), gives an Oscar-caliber performance as an angry artist dying from AIDS. Hansou finds the two girls irresistible. As did I. As will you. They're played by real sisters. The youngest, Emma Bolger, is sheer magic on a movie screen.

What is remarkable about Sheridan's storytelling is its straightforward unsentimentality. Still, when the film ends there won't be a dry eye in the house. In America, a great film, makes you feel pretty good about the country, too. Grade: A.