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The glamorous life: (l-r) DiCaprio and Gwen Stefani in The Aviator.

Icarus in Hollywood
By Ann Morrow

The Aviator
Directed by Martin Scorsese

During a daring test flight
of his spy-plane prototype, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) navigates a harrowing crash landing in the Beverly Hills. Brutally injured, he wrenches free of the wreckage and is pulled to safety by an Army soldier. Just before losing consciousness, he tells the GI, “I’m Howard Hughes, the aviator.” This bravura sequence comes as a bit of a jolt, because it is the first to establishes the larger-than-life industrialist as a real person. Those who remember Hughes at all probably remember him as the “billionaire recluse,” whose shocking condition at the time of his death (in 1976) was fodder for the tabloids for months.

The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s epic, entertaining, and unsettling biography of Hughes does a tremendous job of humanizing this quintessentially American antihero, whose visionary achievements were overshadowed by his long and sordid descent into drug addiction and madness. Concentrating on Hughes’ glory years during the 1930s and ’40s, when he helped to propel both the aeronautic and motion-picture industries, the film finds joy in Hughes’ hubris. When we first meet the gangly Texas industrialist, he is flush with the power of having inherited a large fortune (from his father, who invented a revolutionary drill bit) and deep within the production of Hell’s Angels. Hughes is exhilarated by adversity, and there’s plenty of it: The film runs over budget to an unprecedented cost of $3.8 million and takes the life of three stunt pilots. The film’s aerial choreography, seen through Hughes’ eyes (he performed some of the stunts himself) is hypnotically, lethally beautiful.

But the brash and decisive young titan is also painfully shy and inarticulate in public. At the movie’s premiere, accompanied by Jean Harlow, his date and the film’s star, Hughes is spooked by the swarm of press and the blinding glare of flashbulbs. During a radio interview, he is mortifyingly tongue-tied. By the time he meets Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), he is already exhibiting symptoms of an obsessive-compulsive form of mental illness. In the film’s only weak link, Hughes’ phobias are foreshadowed by a prologue on a childhood memory during which Hughes’ mother gently terrifies him with the threats of contagious diseases while she lovingly bathes him.

Aside from the oblique prologue (which is revisited for the Citizen Kane-style ending), the film plunges fully into Hughes’ life with one great, reverberating scene after another. Hughes and Hepburn fall in love in the cockpit, when Hughes takes the feisty Yankee flying and puts her behind the controls and lets her soar unfettered. Blanchett’s precise mimicry creates a kind of alternate Hepburn that never fails to astonish. And there’s a rollicking dinner out at the Cocoanut Grove (watch for the wonderful cameos from Rufus, Martha and Loudon Wainwright) that captures the glamour of the era with just a few brushstrokes, one of them being Jude Law as a drunkenly boisterous Errol Flynn. At a party, Hughes is rudely brushed off by studio mogul Louis B. Mayer; later he is appalled to see Hepburn kissing up to Mayer (she’s angling for the lead in Jane Eyre). Perhaps only a veteran movie-biz outsider like Scorsese could get these insidery scenes so perfectly right.

An aeronautics innovator, Hughes runs afoul of the powerful head of Pan Am, played with oily charm by Alec Baldwin. The rivalry between Hughes’ TWA and Pan Am escalates with the involvement of the folksy but devious Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda in one of his best performances ever). At a casual lunch meeting, the two men engage in a bruising round of psychological warfare. Eventually, Hughes will be punished for his maverick business practices with a trumped-up indictment.

This is all juicy stuff, as is Hughes’ womanizing—among his conquests is Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale)—but where Scorsese, screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator) and DiCaprio really prove their mettle is with Hughes’ mental breakdown. Increasingly paranoid and helpless (DiCaprio is supremely adept with his hairpin turns between disintegration and brilliance), Hughes holes up in a projection room for weeks. His illness is treated without sugar-coating yet never sinks to the freakish. Instead, the knowledge of what Hughes was up against confirms the film’s heroic view of him. DiCaprio’s blithe magnetism and aura of innocence go a long way toward making Hughes’ destructive lack of self-awareness (a trait shared by Scorsese’s Jake La Motta) seem intrinsic to his intuitive genius.

Hughes may or may not have been a great man—the film ends before his shady involvement with the Nixon administration—but The Aviator’s unconditional belief in its topic makes for a great movie experience.

One Man Show

Beyond the Sea
Directed by Kevin Spacey

“People hear what they see,”
exasperated starlet Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth) tells hubby Bobby Darin (Kevin Spacey). In the film, it’s the late ’60s and she’s explaining why his reinvention as a protest singer was rejected by audiences: People expected Darin to be a swingin’ hipster in a tuxedo, not a balding, denim-clad hippie. In one of those classic show-biz reversals, Darin puts on a tux and his rug, and sings his protest songs in Vegas with great success.

Spacey knows that he’s facing the same problem with Beyond the Sea, the pet project he directed, cowrote and stars in: “People hear what they see.” What they see, immediately, is 47-year-old Spacey playing Bobby Darin, who died at 37. At the same time, 21-year-old Bosworth is age-
appropriate casting as late ’50s-early ’60s teen movie queen Dee. He had to be aware that some in the audience would not like this. (“Eww. . . . Who’s the old man with the surfer girl from Blue Crush?”) His nightmares don’t end there, either. One, Spacey doesn’t look much like Darin; two, many of the younger folks might be forgiven for wondering, “Who’s Bobby Darin?”

After a confusing opening 10 minutes—during which Spacey tries to explain away all of the above—the film pulls its own classic reversal and becomes smart, compelling and very entertaining.

The introduction isn’t very elegant. The film goes through a series of contortions to set up the premise that Beyond the Sea is Darin’s life as being made by Darin, after he’s dead. Once it gets going, however, this life-in-review structure works smoothly. (Much more smoothly than it did in the recent Cole Porter biopic, De-Lovely.) Spacey as Darin narrates, takes us in and out of the action and generally serves as his own ringmaster.

It’s quite a story. Darin, a sickly kid with a weak heart who wasn’t supposed to live past 15, becomes a teen idol in the rock & roll era (“Splish Splash”), then switches to standards and becomes a prototype Vegas hipster with big-band-backed hits like “Mack the Knife.” He goes into the movies, and almost immediately snags an Oscar nomination; he then returns to music to become a premiere nightclub singer. If that’s not enough, he marries Dee, America’s sweetheart, and overcomes the shattering changes in music in the 1960s. Sadly—for his life, but not for the film’s show-biz schmaltz—he dies young.

Spacey puts it over with showmanship and talent. The former shines through in the terrific production numbers; he proves himself a fine director of musicals, with a keen eye for the details that best evoke this bygone era. As for the latter, he puts himself into the role completely; it’s Spacey’s best film work since American Beauty. As noted, he doesn’t look like the singer, but his facial expressions make you think he looks like Darin. His singing, however, is the real triumph. Spacey sings the hell out of Darin’s songbook, re-creating his trademark fast, hard-swinging style flawlessly.

There are other actors in the film, too; John Goodman, Brenda Blethyn, Caroline Aaron and Bob Hoskins are exactly as fine as one would expect. Bosworth is the big surprise: She holds her own with this capable crew, Spacey included. Dee was a sheltered girl who matured in spite of stardom, and developed a keen understanding of how Hollywood operates; Bosworth captures this evolution.

Still, it’s Spacey’s show. Beyond the Sea is far from perfect, but his passion makes it seem almost more than it should be.

—Shawn Stone

The Cryin’ on the Inside Kind

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Directed by Wes Anderson

Oddly, it’s a sight gag that best highlights the emotional center of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. More ordinarily, Anderson’s defining moments are expressed in deadpan dialog, or via the contrivance of his tight framing of frequently dense sets. Underplayed characters in composed and crowded—even crowding—scenes, have become Anderson’s hallmark, and have earned him a reputation as an arch—if quirky—kind of parodist. The Life Aquatic is full of these trademark moments; Anderson has never used them so deftly, in fact. But to regard this film merely as tongue-in-cheek takeoff on an adventure movie, a seafaring Spinal Tap, would be to miss the point and the heart of the movie.

Over-the-hill celebrity oceanographer-adventurer Capt. Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) has nearly given up his quest to find and kill the quasi-mythical Jaguar Shark, which he believes devoured his longtime diving partner and best friend, Estaban (Seymour Cassel). He’s broke, and despite a display of some pretty heroic (not to mention comic) behavior facing down some South Sea pirates and rescuing his professional and romantic rival, Alistair Hennessey (a fabulously oily Jeff Goldblum), the pathologically insecure Zissou has lost the will to continue. With some encouragement from his long-lost (or, rather, long-denied) son, Ned (Owen Wilson), Zissou and this newest addition to his motley team set out in a helicopter, hoping to sight the beast. The chopper, as shabby as everything else in Zissou’s fading operation, gives up the ghost, and the two hurtle seaward. Zissou mutters, “This is going to hurt,” then lovingly, ridiculously, shoots a protective arm across his boy—as if the plummeting bird were a Volvo stopping short at a crosswalk.

That instinctual and hopelessly ineffectual parental moment had the audience laughing, which was surely the intention. But it also underscored Anderson’s theme: As voiced by Zissou in response to one of his shipmates’ complaints about Ned’s perceived interloping into Team Zissou, “it’s a relationship subplot.” Given the number of relationhips at work in this flick—most amusingly that between Zissou and his attention-starved first mate, Klaus Daimler (a hysterically fuddled and Teutonically mewling Willem Dafoe)—the singular is off the mark; but, point taken.

The relationship subplot has been present in all of Anderson’s movies; in Bottle Rocket, there was the ad hoc formation of family; in Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums, the quest for father was brought to the fore. In The Life Aquatic, Anderson turns that theme on its head by focusing on the reluctant father figure himself, making him the locus of need. Unlike the charmingly destructive—and ultimately repentant—Royal Tennenbaum, Zissou is not granted the power to restore or heal. He suffers (and no one suffers more engagingly than Murray, who—screw Sofia Coppola—does his best work here). And, perhaps, he learns—a little. But there’s no single transformative moment of clarity. No epiphany.

Which is just as well. The ramshackle idiosyncrasy of Anderson’s imagination (Zissou’s ship, The Belafonte, presented in amusing cross-section, is a Dahl-esque wonderland of inexplicable gadgety juxtapositions—beakers and Casios, turbines and cappuccino machines) wedded with his ambiguous moral stance provides for fantastic comedy, or comic fantasy; a preachier or more simplistic filmmaker would have turned this material into happy-ever-after crap, and thereby gutted the laughs. And this is a funny, funny film.

But, as Zissou warned, it’s gonna hurt.

—John Rodat

Everybody’s Doing It

Directed by Bill Condon

In our sex-obsessed, mostly
“free” society, it’s difficult to imagine a time when folks married as virgins—when folks married at all, heh-heh—and went into their wedding night with only the vaguest ideas about what goes where. Never mind the folks who weren’t heterosexual; they were considered aberrant, lunatic or criminal.

Kinsey, the biography of sex researcher Dr. Alfred Kinsey (Liam Neeson), brings this lost America vividly to life, and tells the unlikely story of the man himself. A life unlikely, that is, in that Kinsey was an
Indiana-based scientist who spent years studying wasps—as in the insect, not the sub-unit of Caucasians.

Neeson gives an uncanny performance as Kinsey, and it’s not just the nasal accent, either. His physical clumsiness is an astute detail; Kinsey lurches into every sexual encounter with a flatfooted earnestness that charms his partners, and is emblematic of a severely repressed childhood. Neeson also captures the coldness of a researcher who studies human beings as if they were another variety of bug, wearing the character’s aura of scientific impartiality like an imperial robe.

It’s one of Kinsey’s greatest strengths, as impartiality proves essential to getting people to open up about their sex lives. The interview sessions, in which his assistants (Peter Sarsgaard, Timothy Hutton and Chris O’Donnell) smile cheerfully while people talk about having sex with, say, goats, are priceless. It also proves to be a tremendous weakness, however, when he includes his assistants (and their wives) in the research. Kinsey betrays his blindness to the emotional issues involved, and hides behind the holy impartiality of the scientific method—though his wife Clara (Laura Linney) is always around to call him on it.

Kinsey’s second book, on the sexuality of American women, was not so well-received. The climate of the country had changed, becoming more conservative: Post-war optimism had faded into Cold War fears of subversion. And, as Clara tells Kinsey, nothing’s more subversive than telling men that their daughters and grandmothers are having sex.

The film doesn’t linger on Kinsey’s failures, however. The point, filmmaker Condon stresses, is that the good doctor was right. Whatever his personal and professional shortcomings, Kinsey opened a long-overdue national conversation on sex that improved the lives of millions. (And got a lot of folks laid.)

—Shawn Stone

Love us, love our sex life: (l-r) Hoffman and Streisand in Meet the Fockers.

Put a Little Love in Your Heart

Meet the Fockers
Directed by Jay Roach

Why can’t we all just get along? Echoing Rodney King’s plea, this sequel to Meet the Parents suggests that reconciliation between red- and blue-state America is not only desirable, it’s just a hug and kiss away.

Gaylord, aka Greg, Focker (Ben Stiller) and Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) are still not married. Having survived meeting her parents, ex-CIA spook Jack (Robert De Niro) and the lovely Dina (Blythe Danner), it’s time for her folks to visit his folks.

Meet the Fockers: Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) is a retired lawyer, while Roz (Barbra Streisand) is a sex therapist for the geriatric set. If the Byrneses are classic, button-down conservatives, then the Fockers are equally stereotypical, a pair of wild-eyed, sex-obsessed liberals. For uptight Jack, it’s hate at first sight; Greg, a nurse by profession, is comically obsessed with being “manly” enough for Jack, and equally embarrassed by his free-spirited folks.

Thus Greg and Jack, by default, are the bad guys—the film is firmly on the side of the touchy-feely Fockers. So, by the way, is the audience, and most of the credit is due to Streisand and Hoffman, who are very entertaining. If America would only love liberals like this outside of the movie theater . . .

Naturally, the film has its requisite Cheap Laughs: the tiny dog that humps anything moving, the baby uttering its first curse word, and the endless variation of goofy contexts in which one can say “Focker.” (The last is kind of funny, but jeez, not that funny, that often.) I did laugh when the cat flushed the dog down the toilet, though, even if it wasn’t as funny as the justly famous video of a monkey washing a cat.

And I still haven’t decided if Streisand demonstrating the reverse cowgirl position to a patio full of 80-somethings is more painful or hilarious—though it’s definitely a bit of each. More to the point, it’s the kind of over-the-top scene that makes Meet the Fockers interesting. Given the right opportunity, the filmmakers are not afraid to get genuinely freaky. The baby, for example, is an annoying little prick—a mini-Jack—and when Greg tells him off (and flips him the bird), it’s gratifying.

Most satisfying, however, is enjoying a couple of hours of De Niro getting tortured by Streisand and Hoffman. With a couple of exceptions, De Niro has spent the last dozen years phoning in his performances; Streisand and Hoffman, both thoroughly enjoying sending up their own personas, make De Niro their straight man. It’s sweet.

—Shawn Stone

Love Conquers All

A Very Long Engagement
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Think of the gore and combat grit of Saving Private Ryan, juxtaposed with the social drama and sweeping romance of Dr. Zhivago, and you have a good working description of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement. It’s 1917, and five desperate French servicemen have tempted fate—or an impervious military authority—hoping to go home via self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Unfortunately for them, they are caught and court-martialed; they are sentenced to the no-man’s land between the French and German trenches, where, it can only be assumed, they will meet a fitting death. The condemned are carpenter Bastoche (Jérôme Kirchner), socialist welder Six-Sous (Denis Lavant), conscripted Corsican Ange (Dominique Bettenfeld), farmer Benoît Notre Dame (Clovis Cornillac), and naive, dreamy youth Manech (Gaspard Ulliel).

Fast forward three years, when Manech’s loyal fiancée Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) receives word that perhaps, just perhaps, Manech miraculously made it out alive. Nothing, not even the handicap of a lame leg, can stanch Mathilde’s fierce desire to find out the truth, not just about Manech, but (by necessity of following all leads) also the other four men who were condemned with him. As Mathilde traverses Europe and haunts barrooms and coffeehouses, trying to piece together answers, another, more deadly seeker—Ange’s lover Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard)—systemically hunts down members of the military whose actions led to the presumed deaths of the five. While the Lombardi story is additional narrative catnip to an already delirious audience, it serves to mirror both the quest and the personality of Mathilde—the one acting as avenger, the other acting as healer, and so on.

And thankfully, because in my opinion, Tautou does not so much act as deliver a limited array of facial expressions. She has little more to do than look alternatively determined (lower lip out a little, brow furrowed), momentarily daunted (lower lip trembling, brow furrowed), and ecstatic (lower lip trembling, eyes glistening and/or bulging). Somehow this works, because Mathilde is merely the vehicle by which the audience is thrown into an engrossing study of humanity and human nature. Similarly, while we never know much about Manech, other than the fact that he is romantic and deeply in love with Mathilde, it doesn’t matter. The idealization of his pure love, again something that is at odds with the savagery of war, is enough to keep his fiancée committed to the task at hand. With said vehicle and ideal covered, Jeunet focuses intensely on the lives of the other four (from a variety of viewpoints) whose destiny should, of course, contribute toward a resolution of the question of Manech’s fate.

Here Jeunet is blessed with actors who convey so much more than the seemingly stock descriptions they are given at film’s beginning. The roles of Ange and the furious Six-Sous are decidedly smaller, but even here, the performances and writing give us glimpses into their humanity vastly richer than what might be conjured by the phrase “military prisoner.” One of the meatiest stories involves Bastoche and his fractured friendship with Gordes (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a tale that is so poignant and surprising that I won’t say any more other than the fact that Gordes’ torn wife, Elodie, is played by none other than a highly convincing Jodie Foster. The movie also features a jewel-like performance by Albert Dupontel, as the compassionate, resourceful “marauder of the mess hall,” Célestin Poux, who helps solve a piece of the puzzle while enumerating on the pleasures of good food and wine.

A Very Long Engagement is a very long movie, but it’s the kind that leaves you spellbound, thanks to its range, noticeable heart and distinctive visual style. Out of the horror of trench warfare and its aftermath, Jeunet is able to make us believe in the power of memory as well as hope. There is a fascinating moment in which two of the characters view the site of the former trench from which Manech and the condemned were exiled. It’s a setting the audience encounters over and over in the film, usually a vision of hell slogged down in mud, rainfall, blood and gore, but now, a scant three years later, a silent field overgrown with wildflowers. The comparison is jarring, but it’s one that powerfully reminds the audience that time moves on.

—Laura Leon

The essence of ham: Carrey in Lemony Snicket.

The Children Deserve Better

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Directed by Brad Silberling

The author Daniel Handler, who writes under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket, warns in the preface to The Bad Beginning, the first in a long line of unfortunate events that befall the Beaudelaire orphans Violet, Klaus and Sunny, that if the reader is looking for a lovely story with a happy ending, he or she should put this tome down and seek elsewhere. Taking this as its cue, Paramount’s film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events begins with what viewers think is a prequel short, something that Pixar has been doing for some time now. Instead, however, the manic trilling of an impossibly happy elf shrieks to an abrupt halt, and Snicket the narrator (Jude Law) solemnly intones a similar warning to those who would wish for a lighthearted family amusement.

Actually, the movie, which is directed by Brad Silberling, is lighthearted in the way that it gleefully presents Snicket’s Dahl-esque visions of the macabre, the sinister, and the subversive. Much of this comes from Jim Carrey’s trio of larger-than-life roles, including the despicable Count Olaf, who, through sheer chicanery, arranges to care for the Beaudelaires after their parents are killed in a devastating fire. Did I mention that the orphans stand to inherit a great fortune? Eldest Violet (Emily Browning) is “one of the world’s foremost 14-year-old inventors,” and together with bookworm brother Klaus (Liam Aiken), she cares for baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) while trying to escape the clutches of Olaf.

Unfortunately for them, their only salvations come from the nitwitted Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), a banker who can’t see the obvious, and whichever distant relative, barring Olaf, he can find to care for them. While Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) seems a breath of common sense and familial love, his inability to sense the danger he’s in brings the children that much closer to true disaster. Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) comes somewhat closer to at least providing the kids with security, not to mention a better grasp of grammar, until her chronic fear of everything mixed with an attention to flattery seals her fate. Indeed, the one constant in the movie, as in the books, is that adults fail the children they are supposed to protect and care for.

As mentioned, Carrey has a field day, but perhaps too much so. Silberling gives him far too much freedom, so that whenever Carrey is on screen, either as Count Olaf, or as the phony Captain Sham, or the ersatz assistant Gustave, he sucks up all the attention. Suddenly, we’re watching a one-man show, and while one can’t help but impressed by the actor’s ability to fashion such disparate, shocking characters, it boldly underlines the essential fact, forgotten by Silberling and Carrey, that the stories are about Violet, Klaus and Sunny. As for the children, they are played by remarkable talents: There is a gravity and poise about Violet and Klaus that is at once sad and welcome. (It’s an added treat that they actually look alike.) Silberling goes a little off-text with a lot of mushiness about home being where those you love are, as if fearful that the book’s dark side will scare the bejeezus out of newbie viewers. Strangely, despite this apparent concern, Silberling neglects to transfer much of the series’ whimsy to the screen.

It’s the ultimate irony that the spirit of the Snicket books comes out must fully during the final credits, which offer up a
collage-like, intricate sort of stream of action depicting the Beaudelaires on the run from the ever-wily Olaf. It’s nothing short of dazzling, and while I enjoyed the movie pretty much, and would recommend it, this coda served to hammer home the impression that, in the case of this adaptation, good isn’t good enough.

—Laura Leon

Ghastly, Not Ghostly

Phantom of the Opera
Directed by Joel Schumacher

Joel Schumacher’s screen ver-sion of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera pays homage to the megahit musical, forgetting in the process that what is awe-inspiring on the live stage—such as an opulently faux Paris Opera House with an underground lake and a chandelier that practically has a will of its own—can look fake and garish under the scrutiny of the camera. And that’s what’s happened here: Forsaking any sense of realism to capitalize on the show’s La Belle Époque theatricality, Schumacher’s gaudy settings appear to be made of spray-painted papier-mâché. Like the show, this overwrought gothic romance is chintzy on scripting; unlike the show, the singing does not transport the story into the firmament. In place of the fabulously talented Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, we have an ingénue (Emmy Rossum) and a nonsinger (Gerard Butler). In these less capable throats, Webber’s lyrics are cruelly exposed for the unwieldy pop confections they are, while the story consists even more noticeably of hoary trappings from mass-market romance novels pinned to the bare bones of Gaston Leroux’s sinister novel.

To wit: Talented chorine Christine (Rossum) receives instruction from an unseen presence in the opera house that she believes to be an “angel of music”—a rather silly notion considering his inability to seduce with his voice. Inflamed by Christine’s suitor, the handsome vicomte Raoul (Patrick Wilson), the Phantom lures her to his fantastical underground lair, where, with more impertinence than passion, she takes off his mask, revealing his partly disfigured face, and thus realizing that her angel is actually the treacherous “opera ghost.” For the rest of the film, our wishy-washy victim-heroine vacillates between longing for a father figure, attraction to her demanding fantasy lover, and mild annoyance with his intrusions on her romance with Raoul.

Far from the chill of Leroux’s phantom, a “death’s head” in formal attire, here we have a smoldering hunk whose dashing profile easily distracts from his bad side. Yet even Butler’s bared chest can’t compensate for his assaulting singsong, which is more dreadful than the Phantom’s enraged jealousy. Rossum, a trained opera singer, has an appealing voice and an even prettier visage, but compared to a supernova like Brightman, she comes off as wan as a moonbeam. And without vocal fireworks for balance, Webber’s bombastic melodies become an aural onslaught. Adding to the film’s earache is the tinny French accent of Miranda Richardson, who is miscast as Christine’s motherly vocal teacher—the only French character with an accent.

The big emotional sequences are shoddily dramatized while Schumacher concentrates on atmospheric hoopla such as Raoul’s bareback gallop atop a white steed, the Phantom’s tacked-on and unoriginal backstory, a gondola ride through the catacombs, and wall sconces that move like living arms. Then there’s the confusing business of the engagement ring, which is passed from Raoul to Christine to the Phantom back to Christine and to the Phantom again. Meanwhile, this awful extravaganza takes Leroux’s novel to the point of no return.

—Ann Morrow

Ashes to Ashes

Flight of the Phoenix
Directed by John Moore

Flight of the Phoenix, about a transport plane that goes down in the desert, is a remake of the 1965 film starring James Stewart. The update is typical of recent remakes: Lacking fresh inspiration, it offers greater technological capability and a quickie script, this one by Edward Burns (Sidewalks of New York), who should really stay away from rough-and-tumble guy flicks. Dennis Quaid is adequate in the Stewart role of reckless pilot Frank Towns, who picks up a group of oil-rig workers in Mongolia and then crashes his twin-engine plane by ignoring a hellacious wind-
electrical-sand storm. The crash, an exciting descent into uncharted sand dunes, is terrific; the ordeal of the survivors is less so.

The problem is the group’s annoying and drummed-up conflicts. The oil riggers are referred to as “trash,” although they seem an average bunch of rough-labor buckaroos, with a no-nonsense boss (Miranda Otto, who is included merely to add a woman to original’s all-male cast). The low self-esteem of the riggers is emphasized to allow the film a smidgeon of self-empowerment, as if simply surviving the merciless desert weren’t enough. But it is. The dangers of the terrain are more interesting than the cranky, interpersonal bickering: At one point, a rigger walks out into a howling wind to relieve himself and is instantly skinned alive by the high-velocity sand. Director John Moore’s previous film was the silly but well-executed actioner Behind Enemy Lines; though he may not care much about the finer points of filmmaking, such as acting or believable dialogue, Moore gets the most out of the limited desert setting.

The primary argument is between Towns, who is backed by his unflappable co-pilot (Tyrese Gibson), and the riggers, who rally behind a mysterious and possibly unbalanced engineer (an entertaining Giovanni Ribisi) who claims he can dismantle the plane and rebuild it into a single-engine craft. Towns, rather unconvincingly, thinks everyone should take it easy and conserve the dwindling water supply. Meanwhile, a tribe of Mongolian smugglers lurks menacingly on the horizon. There’s no compelling reason to go see Flight of the Phoenix instead of renting the original; then again, multiplex audiences looking for a straightforward action flick could do worse.

—Ann Morrow

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