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Forget all that talk about dead people: I see dead careers, beginning with those of actor Michael Keaton and director Geoffrey Sax (a TV vet making his feature film bow). White Noise asks viewers to accept Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) — the method by which the dead communicate with the living through such household devices as televisions and radios — as cold, hard fact, and then proceeds to spin a fantasy yarn that can’t even get its own story straight. Keaton headlines as Jonathan Rivers, a successful architect whose pregnant wife (Chandra West) dies in a car accident. It’s not long before a fuzzy figure starts appearing through the snowy static on Jonathan’s TV set, but rather than assume (as most of us would) that he’s illegally receiving HBO without a converter box, he’s led to believe by a portly stranger (Ian MacNeice) that it’s actually his deceased wife trying to communicate with him. As Jonathan becomes increasingly obsessed with trying to decipher messages through all the static, he finds that he’s being stalked by three shadowy figures that are meant to be malevolent spirits but which, truth be told, look exactly like the Sean Penn-Tim Robbins-Kevin Bacon silhouettes that graced the poster for Mystic River. It’s a coin toss as to whether this shameless movie cribs mostly from Poltergeist or The Ring or The Sixth Sense,; in any case, its inconsistencies prove to be the primary culprit, as this silly movie never plays fair even within the parameters of its own supernatural milieu.


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.


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).


For all its apparent insincerity, Writer-director Wes 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 is 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, 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.


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.


As Count Olof, a villainous actor who seeks to inherit a fortune by knocking off three intelligent orphans (Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, and Kara and Shelby Hoffman alternating as baby Sunny), Jim Carrey delivers a disappointing performance, the sort of calculated turn we had come to routinely expect from Robin Williams until his recent dramatic awakening. Luckily, other elements of the project come to the rescue. Jude Law provides the voice-over narration as writer Lemony Snicket, and his moody musings make up the bulk of the best lines in Robert Gordon’s screenplay.


The movie’s true star is a newcomer to American cinema, celebrated Spanish actress Paz Vega. Vega delivers a luminescent performance in the movie’s largest part: Flor, a Mexican immigrant with brainy 12-year-old daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) in tow. Flor lands a job as housekeeper for Debbie Clasky (Tea Leoni) and her husband John (Adam Sandler), a sensitive chef constantly working at being a good dad to an insecure daughter (terrific Sarah Steele) and a patient husband to his lunatic wife. But as Debbie’s behavior continues to alienate everyone around her, John finds himself seeking solace in the company of Flor, a development that could easily lead to complications down the line.


Viewers not interested in shifting through the rubble of the four main characters’ immorality in an effort to locate common truths will have no use for this picture, surely the most divisive film about modern relations since Eyes Wide Shut. Others willing to dig deeper will be rewarded with some choice dialogue and a quartet of finely etched portrayals. Set in London, the movie centers on two British males and two American females — all strangers when the story opens. Dan (Jude Law) is a caddish obituary writer who falls for sweet-natured stripper Alice (Natalie Portman); Anna (Julia Roberts) is a moody photographer who ends up attached to dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen, nailing the film’s most complex role). With time jumps that will catch the viewer off guard, the film tracks relationships, as Dan chases Anna, Larry sniffs around Alice, and all four characters take the notion of “brutal honesty” to such an extreme that their words qualify as deadly weapons.


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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