"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 Assassination of Richard Nixon" Who ever thought Jeff Spicoli would turn out to be this sensitive? It's been more than two decades since Sean Penn played the most memorable surfer dude of all time, and his dramatic range since has been astounding, even if he's been pigeonholed as the perennial borderline psychopath. As Sam Bicke, the damaged young man in Niels Mueller's feature debut, he's a borderline case of an entirely different stripe. The role is based on the true story of a man who in 1974 unsuccessfully attempted to crash a passenger jet into the White House (he never got off the ground). "Assassination" admirably spends the majority of its time getting to know Sam rather than recounting the lurid details of his botched crime. Without a doubt it is the most revealing portrayal of a person in crisis from the past year and is highly deserving of Oscar attention it did not get. **** Wayne Melton
"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 W.M.
"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 Peyser
"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 despite the movie's openly didactic intentions. *** C.S.
"Hide and Seek" Robert De Niro slides further down a slippery slope of mediocrity in this flimsy psychological thriller, recently the No. 1 movie at the box office. He plays a Manhattan psychologist who retreats to a large house in rural upstate New York with his daughter Emily (Dakota Fanning), troubled after her mom's bathtub suicide. Emily's unbalanced condition worsens as she takes refuge in an imaginary friend named Charlie, who may not be so imaginary after all. The film's title comes from Emily's favorite game, which serves as an inane metaphor for the concealed nature of the cheap suspense hook. The movie's inevitable conclusion and its child star are equally insufferable. Best not to seek this one. * C.S.
"Hotel Rwanda" Don Cheadle gives a beautifully restrained performance as a singular voice of reason at the epicenter of writer/director Terry George's depiction of Rwanda's 1994 genocide, when Hutu militias slaughtered one million Tutsis with machetes as the world looked away. Cheadle plays real-life hero Paul Rusesabagina, the Hutu manager of Rwanda's only four-star hotel, as he gives precious shelter to over 1,200 Tutsis while attempting to gain assistance from apathetic politicians and diplomats around the world, including the United Nations and the United States. Director George ("Some Mother's Son") handles the potentially suffocating subject matter with a grace and subtlety that breathe precious life into a terrible story. **** C.S.
"In Good Company" With his "American Pie" franchise, writer and director Paul Weitz made his bones by celebrating adolescent boorishness and mocking befuddled, inept adults. His latest work may be a form of penance. Set in the high-stakes world of corporate mergers and acquisitions, the movie's hero is an aging, supremely competent advertising executive (Dennis Quaid) pitted against a jumpy young hotshot (Topher Grace) who, against all reason, has been put in charge of the operation. Quaid's authority is challenged at home, too, when his daughter Alex (Scarlett Johansson) falls for daddy's adorable new boss. The result is a slick, funny, smoothly functioning entertainment, served up with a small side of potted commentary on corporate ethics and intergenerational conflict. ***1/2 T.P.
"Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" 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. * C.S.
"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 Cou-steau. When his career is at low ebb, his wife (Anjelica Huston) leaves him for a hotshot 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 W.M.
"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.
"Sideways" "Why are you so into pinot?" The line demands a new Oscar this year for best quote in a feature film. Alexander Payne ("About Schmidt") wrote this wry buddy movie about two guys on a weeklong bachelor party/tour through California's wine country with his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor. It's another fine satire in the vein of "Election" and "Citizen Ruth," pairing a lonely, miserable failed writer (Paul Giamatti) with a handsome, cheerful failed actor (Thomas Hayden Church). The nature of success and happiness preoccupies the insightful, sometimes hilarious, action, with no easy answers or resolutions diluting its vintage character study. ****1/2 - W.M
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