"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
"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.
"Finding Neverland" Biopic takes us into the life of J.M. Barrie, London author of the 1904 play "Peter Pan." Today "Peter Pan" is notable for giving retired gymnasts an opportunity to launch stage careers, but that questionable distinction ought to charge an exploration of the play's origins with the excitement of daring archaeological recovery. With his lampooning of England's stifling pompousness at its imperial height, and renunciation of family ties and adult sexuality, Barrie is still a figure of some mystery. Based on the play by Allan Knee, "Finding Neverland" doesn't even try to clear up the mystery. Instead, it turns Barrie's life into an exercise in tepid sentimentality that will bore children and move only the more lachrymose of their minders. ** Thomas Peysar
"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
"National Treasure" Nicolas Cage's misjudged action-movie career drops yet another rung in this silly Jerry Bruckheimer production about a search for King Solomon's Knights Templar treasure. Director Jon Turteltaub ("Phenomenon") makes stealing the Declaration of Independence a dull procedure, as Cage and his cohorts search for treasure clues left on the back of the cherished document by politically motivated Freemasons. Even the unflappable Jon Voight gets lost in the boredom of lackluster chase sequences and a forgettable climax that takes far to long to come around. "National Treasure" is such a monotonous action movie that in a week you'll forget you ever saw it. *1/2 C.S.
"Ocean's Twelve" What do you get when you put six of Hollywood's most fabulous stars in a sequel to a remake of a movie that wasn't very good to begin with? Steven Soderbergh's phoned-in fulfillment of George Nolfi's scattershot script is twice as bad as you suppose. Bland inside jokes, perpetual self-referencing dialogue and foreign heists that will put babies to sleep fill this truncated movie that could only have been made better if it were two hours shorter. Our vacuous thief team is reunited after they're ratted out by French superpro burglar Fran‡ois Toulour (Vincent Cassel) to casino owner Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) for the Vegas heist we witnessed in "Ocean's Eleven." To save their hides by paying off their $160 million debt plus interest to Benedict, Danny Ocean's (George Clooney) crew heads to Amsterdam to perform an impossible robbery. * C.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. * 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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