Movies reviewed this week: Beyond the Sea, Flight of the Phoenix,
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
, Meet the Fockers, The Phantom of the Opera, and Spanglish.
The remainder: Spanglish. Heart-on-sleeve comedy from James L. Brooks (Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, to name his better ones), told in the form of an admissions essay to Princeton University, a document that must, by the end, have stretched to 60,000 words. It has, in the pattern of a Well-Made Sitcom if not a 19th-century Realist Novel, a set of characters and relationships in a socially "relevant" milieu: a master chef fearful of the effect of a four-star review on his cozy little neighborhood restaurant; his high-strung, motormouthed, hardbodied wife, who requires domestic help now that she has been downsized into a full-time mom and part-time adulteress; her bibulous live-in mother, a former jazz singer; an adolescent daughter with a weight problem less burdensome than her mother's jabbing reminders of it; a younger brother who you often forget is in the movie; and a beautiful Mexican housekeeper who knows no English and has a beautiful preadolescent daughter of her own. Naturally, Brooks being Brooks, there are occasional scraps of observation and sensitivity: e.g., the maid's inability to express her indignation in language when the lady of the house appropriates the other's daughter. Yet the entire project looks to have been sabotaged in the casting. Adam Sandler remains a highly mannered actor even when he attempts to tone down his shtick; and his standard recipe of juvenile awkwardness and bashfulness, with a dash of infantile temper, seems rather unattractive in "the best chef in the United States." Téa Leoni, as the wife, is portraying so unattractive a personality to begin with, it's both unfair and unwise to allow her also to be less attractive physically than her unimpeachable maid and romantic rival, Paz Vega, who appears ready to steal a few roles from Penelope Cruz. In the result, what's supposed to be a bittersweet ending tastes strictly bitter. Sarah Steele, as the Anglo daughter, operates in only two modes, glaringly sunny and drenchingly stormy. And Cloris Leachman's tipsy-old-lady bit is straight sitcom. Thomas Haden Church, the goofball groom-to-be in Sideways, pops up in a role so small that some of it presumably got left on the cutting-room floor. His sole purpose, as a representative of that other adult comedy, is to remind us of the importance of casting.
Flight of the Phoenix. Stripped-down remake of Robert Aldrich's near-perfect survival adventure of 1966 (despite what I keep seeing in print, including in the press notes: 1965), about a new plane constructed from the wreckage of an old one in the middle of the desert. Among the things stripped away are all vestiges of character and thematic interest: no more humanism versus pragmatism; no more lingering hostilities of the Second World War; no more division between military and civilian; no more tension between the old school and the new; no James Stewart (a pilot for real in the Second World War as well as in The Spirit of St. Louis and Strategic Air Command on the screen), no Richard Attenborough, no Hardy Kruger, no Peter Finch, no Ronald Fraser, no Ian Bannen, no Ernest Borgnine, no George Kennedy, no Dan Duryea. And nothing put in their place. Nothing, that is, except a computer-cartoon sandstorm and plane crash, a handful of pop songs, and a lusterless cast (headed by Dennis Quaid) assembled for demographic rather than dramatic purposes: a headstrong woman ("This is bullshit!") where the original cast was all-male (save for Barrie Chase in a momentary hallucination), plus a couple of blacks, a Mexican, a Middle or Far Easterner, a virtual Rainbow Coalition. Director John Moore covers the same distance in half an hour less, hitting none of the right notes but hitting them faster and louder.
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. An amalgam of three of Daniel Handler's children's books under the pen name of Lemony Snicket (Jiminy Cricket! what a monicker!), here impersonated in voice and in silhouette by Jude Law (this year's Colin Farrell: six screen appearances and no solid foothold). The setting is an amalgam as well: Charles Addams Gothic and Edward Gorey Edwardiana infiltrated with modern conveniences such as cars with telephones, and verbal anachronisms such as "This place could use a little TLC." The grand total, the small sum, is a sort of mock-Dickens to do with three orphaned siblings and their nefarious guardian, Count Olaf (Jim Carrey, piling two additional disguises, a slimy herpetologist and a salty sea captain, on top of his initial disguise as a hook-nosed ham actor with Bride-of- Frankenstein hair). The movie starts out with a just-kidding animated feature called The Little Elf, and our author/ narrator, after its abrupt interruption, cautions us solemnly that the movie we are about to see instead is "extremely unpleasant," and he gives us leave to go elsewhere for our entertainment: "It's not too late to see a film about a happy little elf." But oh yes, it is. In 2004, it is most definitely too late. The "dark" children's film we are now obliged to put up with -- ironic, cynical, facetious, factitious, forced, and jaded -- takes excessive pride in its trendy conventionality and its stout opposition to forces long since decimated.
The Phantom of the Opera. Thanks (if that's the word) to the "revival" of the movie musical by way of Moulin Rouge and Chicago, the bombastic score of Andrew Lloyd Webber at long last reaches the screen, in a jewel-box production of flowers, candles, literal smoke-and-mirrors, under the direction of Joel Schumacher: an overstuffed and suffocating bore. (Mere boredom, moreover, becomes outright exasperation in the cemetery scene where the romantic hero, after a sloppily staged swordfight, lifts his blade from the Phantom's throat and lets him go, only to begin frantically plotting his capture in the very next scene.) None of the fulsome visual effects can match the little slip of a thing who goes by the name of Emmy Rossum, with her tightly woven mat of hair, her pillowy lips, her perpetually surprised eyebrows. If she made a few fans with Passionada, Mystic River, and -- was it only this past summer? -- The Day after Tomorrow, she should herewith make a few slaves. Broadway musical star Patrick Wilson, meanwhile, following his impressive screen debut -- also this very year? -- as Travis in The Alamo, proves to be strangely bland in his own element. And Gerard Butler is an uncharismatic Angel of Music (a nicer alias of the Phantom), but at least his habitually noisy nose-breathing gets drowned out in the din.