"Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera" Gaston Leroux's 1908 novel was filmed four times before Andrew Lloyd Webber got hold of it. No production, including Joel Schumacher's by-the-book Webber version, matches the 1925 silent masterpiece with Lon Chaney. Though fans of musical theater will probably not care, there is nothing imaginative in the film's musical arrangements or visual style to separate it from its corny Broadway origins. Emmy Rossum stars as the chorus girl elevated to leading lady status by the mysterious hand of her private music coach, the theater's live-in Phantom (Gerard Butler). Minnie Driver does an over-the-top Italian accent as opera diva Carlotta, and Miranda Richardson ("The Prince & Me") adds a singular shred of realism to the otherwise tedious affectation of Webber's music. * Cole Smithey
"The Aviator" Biographers of the late moviemaker and aviation mogul Howard Hughes summarized the typical Hughes film as high in entertainment, low on philosophy and message, and packed with sex and action. The same could be said of Martin Scorsese's Hughes biopic, "The Aviator," though it could have used a bit more sex. The film follows Hughes' intense public career as Hollywood icon and airline baron and his gradual decline into paranoia and an obsessive disorder. It tries to keep up with his many loves, but leaves out his control and near ruin of RKO pictures, the half of his life spent holed up in Las Vegas and Acapulco, and his equally bizarre long-distance marriage to actress Jean Peters. Otherwise it is an exciting and competent portrayal of a fascinating life, and one that goes past the tabloid material of later years to find the man when he was flying high. ***1/2 Wayne Melton
"Beyond the Sea" Bobby Darin was inexplicably catapulted to fame in 1958 with the lamentable novelty song "Splish Splash," and then attempted to establish himself as Sinatra's successor with his hugely popular desecration of Kurt Weill's "Mack the Knife." But his career died long before he did in 1973 at age 37. Kevin Spacey's odd love letter to Darin never really shows why the crooner should be rescued from obscurity. Too old to play the young heartthrob to begin with, he also jams together old-fashioned musical production numbers with narrative gimmicks that already seem like relics from another age. "Beyond the Sea" is a mishmash that's interesting only as a document of Spacey's obsessions. ** Thomas Peysar
"Birth" "Sexy Beast" provided hints that director and screenwriter Jonathan Glazer is at least as interested in building an overall mood as he is in telling a story, and maybe more so. His second film attests to this, telling its story with studiously composed shots and sounds that are original and at times stunning. Glazer co-wrote this story, about a young boy claiming to be the dead husband of prim Manhattanite Anna (Nicole Kidman), with noted screenwriters Jean-Claude CarriŠre ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being") and Milo Addica ("Monster's Ball"). Some will see only the ineffectuality of a thwarted suspense flick that ends with a poignant love note rather than a rush of blood. But Glazer has managed to foster the very things that seem to die out of cinema a little more every year. **** W.M.
"Coach Carter" Samuel L. Jackson returns to form behind a long string of disappointing performances as an ethically minded basketball coach at a tough inner-city high school in Richmond, Calif. Inspired by events lived by real-life basketball coach Ken Carter in 1999, the overly long movie succeeds via sound performances from its group of hearty young actors that includes pop star Ashanti and Robert Ri'chard as Coach Carter's devoted son. Coach Carter's concise attempts to teach his basketball team on and off the basketball court resonate well *** C.S.
"Fat Albert" Gen-X fans looking for a live-action version of what they remember from Bill Cosby's 1970s "Fat Albert" cartoon series will be sorely disappointed by this torpid outing. It's aimed at a much younger audience, but kids won't notice the preachy platitudes delivered by the title character. Fat Albert (Kenan Thompson) and his motley pals plop from the TV to the real world to help a disaffected South Philadelphia high school girl (Kyla Pratt). Co-written by Cosby, "Fat Albert" intends to instruct inner-city children that they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and learn to read and speak well. But the audience might wonder why Cosby doesn't practice what he preaches, as evidenced by his script's abysmal quality. * C.S.
"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events"/b> Nickelodeon Pictures made this live-action production of Daniel Handler's children's books. Tim Curry stars as fictional author Lemony Snicket, who sets up this somewhat repetitious story about three recently orphaned children oppressed by their inheritance-hungry uncle Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). As the film's title suggests, suffering is on the menu, but unfortunately it is the audience who must endure disposable scenery and a lackluster plot. Carrey, in various disguises, is far more appealing, entertaining and intriguing than the dull film he haunts. * Cole Smithey<>/i>
"The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" Wes Anderson immerses us in another fanciful world, this one starring Bill Murray as a washed-up wannabe Jacques Cousteau. When his career is at low ebb, his wife (Anjelica Huston) leaves him for a hot shot rival (Jeff Goldblum) just as an unknown son (Owen Wilson) and potential love interest (Cate Blanchett) appear on the scene. Murray deserves another Oscar nomination for anchoring the title role with a deadpan goofy earnestness. His eclectic crew includes Willem Dafoe's nervous German researcher and a glam-rock strumming Brazilian guitarist. Though knocked off-course late by a dumbfounding plot development, "The Life Aquatic" is mostly a highly enjoyable voyage. ***1/2 Wayne Melton
"Meet the Fockers" The Fockers, get it? This sequel to the 2000 blockbuster comedy "Meet the Parents" is bawdier and more ambitious, but ultimately an inferior movie that relies more on star power than good jokes to float its toilet humor. The plot centers on Focker Isle, the sex-friendly Florida habitat of Ben Stiller's Jewish hippie parents (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand). Stiller's Greg Focker is still trying to cope with the stern expectations of his fiancée's dad, an ex-CIA agent played by Robert De Niro, and most of the jokes turn on the ensuing culture clash when his family comes for a visit. De Niro fares the best in his role as the uptight guy at odds with bohemians, but "Meet the Fockers" is overlong and its comedy too often insulting and gratuitous. ** C.S.
"The Polar Express" The hook for this animated movie is the fact that Tom Hanks plays the lead (a little boy), the boy's father, a train conductor, a hobo ghost, and Santa Claus. Just seeing Hanks' name attached to an animated Christmas movie directed by Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump") should be enough for audiences to know all they need to about the kind of cheesy entertainment they're in for. Creepy-looking computer-generated animation transposes this veritable roller-coaster influenced story about a steam train that takes a group of kids to the North Pole on Christmas Eve to meet Santa Claus. The train goes up a steep mountain and down an even steeper mountain as it puts a cynical 8-year-old boy in the way of cliffhanger plot filler until the land of toys and elves is shown in all of its opulent splendor. *1/2 C.S.
"Spanglish" A veteran of TV and film, James L. Brooks ("As Good as It Gets") ignores years of experience at the peril of his latest project, which is thoroughly infuriating for its lack of a clear protagonist and inconsistent tone. Flor (Paz Vega), a Mexican single mother, and her adolescent daughter illegally enter America to follow dreams of freedom in Los Angeles where Flor Moreno gets a job as a housekeeper to a wealthy Bel-Air family (Adam Sandler and Téa Leoni). Brooks' misguided attempts at comedy (witness Leoni's horribly faked orgasm) are eclipsed by his splintered efforts at high drama. Though the jury is still out on whether Sandler can carry a serious role, "Spanglish" is too wrongheaded to allow anyone involved to succeed. * C.S.
"A Very Long Engagement" From director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, responsible for the box-office-busting foreign language film "Amélie," comes a fiercely anti-war movie wrapped in an epic love story. Audrey Tautou (pronounced toe-too) is Mathilde, a French woman bent on tracking down her fiancé after his disappearance during World War I when he and four other soldiers were court-martialed for self-inflicted wounds in an effort to get out of duty. The movie is based on the late Sébastien Japrisot's novel, and it accumulates a bracing sense of the lasting effects of war that influence generations after the fact. Jodie Foster puts to use her impeccable command of French in a small supporting role as a widow of one of the soldiers. ****1/2 C.S.
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