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BEYOND THE SEA P1/2

Kevin Spacey serves as actor, co-writer, director and producer — and probably caterer, key grip and best boy, if we search the closing credits hard enough — on this misguided vanity project that’s so in love with its creator (as opposed to its subject), it makes Yentl look like a model of modesty and restraint. The problems start with the casting of Spacey as Bobby Darin, whose life was a series of peaks and valleys as he fought a crippling illness since childhood, became a beloved singer via such hits as “Splish Splash” and “Mack the Knife,” married popular actress Sandra Dee (and later divorced her, though the movie conveniently omits this fact on the way to a happy ending) and even emerged as a respected, Oscar-nominated actor. Spacey is 45 years old, yet here he’s playing Darin from his late teens(!) up until his death at the age of 37; the effect is at once creepy, comical and utterly impossible to digest. The film-within-a-film framing device, meant to deflect criticism of the distortions (“He was born to play the role!” someone says of Darin, though the line of course is really about Spacey), is almost as clumsy as the flat-footed musical numbers, and a good supporting cast that includes Kate Bosworth (as Sandra Dee), Bob Hoskins and John Goodman is left stranded with little to play. I’d recommend skipping the movie and buying the soundtrack instead, except that Spacey does his own singing as well. Best then to just order The Ultimate Bobby Darin CD, which features the genuine article performing his catchy signature tunes.

THE AVIATOR PPP1/2

This sprawling biopic about the notorious Howard Hughes employs all the cinematic razzle-dazzle we’ve come to expect from director Martin Scorsese, yet there’s an added layer of excitement as the eternal cineast, in true Back to the Future style, finally gets to step back in time via his meticulous recreations of the sights and sounds of Old Hollywood. Rather than trying to cram an overstuffed life into one motion picture, Scorsese and writer John Logan instead have chosen to focus on Hughes’ anecdote-rich period from the late ‘20s through the late ‘40s. This time frame allows Scorsese ample opportunity to bask in the glow of his movie memories, as this was the period when the billionaire industrialist (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose emotional intensity makes up for his less-than-commanding physical presence) decided to try his hand at making movies. Scorsese and Logan lovingly detail Hughes’ lengthy attempt to get his World War I flick Hell’s Angels off the ground, even as it drains his personal assets at a head-spinning rate. There’s also screen time devoted to his battles with the censors over Jane Russell’s ample cleavage in The Outlaw, his appearances on the Hollywood social scene (with cameos by Jude Law as Errol Flynn and Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow), and, most tellingly, his romances with Katharine Hepburn (witty Cate Blanchett in a show-stealing characterization) and Ava Gardner (miscast Kate Beckinsale, far too girly to be playing this legendary woman). Like most biopics, The Aviator plays fast and loose with many of the specifics of Hughes’ life, but when it hones in on the effects of a disease so ghastly that it could bring even this visionary to his knees, the historical inaccuracies suddenly seem irrelevant. At its best, the movie is a stirring tale about a man whose inner drive allowed him to climb ever higher and higher, grazing the heavens before his inner demons seized the controls and forced the inevitable, dreary descent.

THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU PPP

Writer-director Wes Anderson’s last two movies, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, were little more than computer programs downloaded in “Quirk” Express. It isn’t that I disliked the pictures — on the contrary, I admired the off-kilter worldview they both shared — but it took the efforts of two vets (Bill Murray in Rushmore, Gene Hackman in Tenenbaums) to bring any semblance of feeling to what often came across as clinically detached idiosyncrasy. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is basically more of the same. Yet for all its apparent insincerity, Anderson’s movie keeps us watching. And it does so not because we especially care about the fates of the characters but because we sense the story will invariably play out in trippy, unconventional ways that will surprise and maybe even delight us. Bill Murray, who earned several critics’ awards for Rushmore before getting lost in the long shadow of Hackman in Tenenbaums, ably fills the most complete character yet written for him by Anderson. He’s Steve Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau-style oceanographer who’s having, shall we say, a run of bad luck. His nautical documentaries have fallen out of fashion; his ship’s equipment is so antiquated that he stoops to stealing supplies from a well-equipped rival (Jeff Goldblum) and his marriage to a brainy aristocrat (Anjelica Huston) is showing signs of strain. His shipmate’s demise inspires the subject of his next picture — hunting down and killing a shark. But before he can get underway, he picks up two unexpected passengers: Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a pregnant reporter writing a profile piece on him, and Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a Kentucky pilot who claims he might be the son that Zissou never knew he had. The interaction between the characters suffers from Anderson’s aloof style. It may be impossible to love The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, but it’s remarkably easy to drown oneself in its sea of eccentricity.



ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER’S THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA PP1/2

This adaptation of the eternally running Broadway smash draws its strength from the performances of the three principal actresses: the classically trained Emmy Rossum is affecting as Christine, the Phantom’s obsession; Minnie Driver hams it up beautifully as obnoxious opera star La Carlotta; and Miranda Richardson adds quiet authority as Madame Giry, the only person who knows the Phantom’s secrets. By contrast, Gerard Butler’s Phantom isn’t particularly mysterious or menacing; he seems more like a disgruntled opera fan who should be asking for a refund rather than dropping chandeliers on patrons’ heads. Ultimately, this is simply a static filmization of the stage play, with no serious attempt to open up the story and take it out of the realm of the theater.

MEET THE FOCKERS PPP

The drop in quality between a hit movie and its sequel is usually so steep that just thinking about it could lead to a broken neck. Happily, no such falloff exists between Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. Once again we find Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) seeking the approval of prospective father-in-law Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro), the retired CIA operative who’s not exactly thrilled that his daughter (Teri Polo) has chosen Jack. Yet even as Jack continues to try to get used to the idea, he finds his agitation climbing even higher after he and his more accommodating wife (Blythe Danner) are invited to spend a weekend with Greg’s parents (Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand), a hippie couple.
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    • Nov 29, 2016
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