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SOAR SPOT: Howard Hughes (Leonardo Di Caprio) loves to fly -- and it shows -- in The Aviator - MIRAMAX
  • Miramax
  • SOAR SPOT: Howard Hughes (Leonardo Di Caprio) loves to fly -- and it shows -- in The Aviator

Despite his standing as the architect of some of the greatest motion pictures of the past 30 years, it often feels as if Martin Scorsese's most significant contribution isn't as a filmmaker but as a film fan. His tireless efforts in the field of film preservation have provided maximum exposure to a cause that's crucial to saving our movie heritage, and the documentaries A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage to Italy reveal a man who's so enamored of the artform, he can scarcely contain his glee as complimentary words come tumbling out of his mouth.

Thanks to The Aviator (***1/2), the film director and the movie buff finally meet. This sprawling biopic about the notorious Howard Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose emotional intensity makes up for his less-than-commanding physical presence) employs all the cinematic razzle-dazzle we've come to expect from Scorsese (few others make movies as alive as he does), yet there's an added layer of excitement as the eternal cineaste 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 1920s through the late 1940s. That particular timeframe allows Scorsese ample opportunity to bask in the glow of his movie memories, since this was when the billionaire industrialist 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 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).

Still, the behind-the-scenes movie material takes a back seat to other aspects of Hughes' life -- namely, his adventures in the field of aviation and his lifelong battle with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Hughes' successes (setting speed records, buying TWA) were often tempered by disastrous developments (a near-fatal airplane crash, the controversy surrounding the flying fortress derisively tagged "the Spruce Goose"), but nearly all incidents good or bad were experienced through the prism of a crippling disorder, one that led to his mental deterioration. How bad was his OCD? Just the act of touching a public restroom doorknob was an agonizing ordeal for this raging neat-freak.

Like most biopics, The Aviator plays fast and loose with many of the specifics of Hughes' life (the chronology is especially sloppy), 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 SEA INSIDE: Bill Murray gets watery in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou - PHILIPPE ANTONELLO/TOUCHSTONE
  • Philippe Antonello/Touchstone
  • THE SEA INSIDE: Bill Murray gets watery in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Writer-director Wes Anderson's last two movies, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, were little more than computer programs downloaded in "Quirk" Express, heady rushes of whimsy that never felt entirely sincere in their efforts to humanize the strained shenanigans. Not that I disliked the pictures -- in fact, 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. The detachment begins with the title: What movie -- even a comedy -- would burden itself with such a cumbersome moniker, unless it was meant as part of the joke? Yet for all its apparent insincerity, Anderson's movie keeps us watching (well, most of us; there were walkouts aplenty at an advance Charlotte screening). And it does so not because we especially care about the fates of the characters -- the unexpected death of a principal cast member left me shrugging rather than sobbing -- but because we sense the story will invariably play out in trippy, unconventional ways that will surprise and maybe even delight us. Anderson's films are like the output of Charlie Kaufman with less emphasis on the existential angst, cinematic snow globes that operate within their own plastic shells without disturbing the world outside.

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); his marriage to a brainy aristocrat (Anjelica Huston) is showing signs of strain; and his best friend was killed and consumed by a Jaguar Shark during the making of his most recent film. But his shipmate's demise inspires the subject of his next picture -- hunting down and killing that shark -- and he prepares his crew for the perilous voyage. 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 that he might be the son Zissou never knew he had.

The interaction between the characters -- usually the strength of a movie that's packed to the gills with colorful personalities played by well-known actors -- suffers from Anderson's aloof style. I didn't care whether Ned was really Steve Zissou's son, and I found the burgeoning romance between Ned and Jane equally unimportant. What I did enjoy were the peripherals: the sour expressions on the face of Steve's overly protective German engineer (a funny Willem Dafoe); the cut-away shot that allows us access to Steve's entire ship, an inspired visual that brings to mind a Richard Scarry children's book or a Barbie doll mansion; the psychedelic sea creatures encountered by Team Zissou (stop-motion animation courtesy of The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick); a radio in the background that's playing the Joan Baez-Ennio Morricone composition "Here's To You" (has any radio station, anywhere, played this song at any point over the course of the last two decades?); and Zissou's disdain for the outfit's pet dolphins. 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.

The final score at the end of the 140-minute match known as The Phantom of the Opera (**1/2) is Women 3, Men 0.

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 (how else to play a diva but frantically over the top?); and Miranda Richardson adds quiet authority as Madame Giry, the only person who knows the Phantom's secrets. Their strong efforts run counter to the performances by Gerard Butler and Patrick Wilson, who are both unremittingly dull as, respectively, the disfigured Phantom and Christine's wealthy suitor Raoul. Butler is a particular disappointment -- who cares if Broadway's Michael Crawford is getting along in years? That's who everyone wanted to see immortalized on screen. By contrast, 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.

Writer-director Joel Schumacher's previous career as an art director serves him well on this project: If nothing else, this is a visually resplendent motion picture, and the colors used in the sets and costumes practically bleed off the screen. But 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. Apparently, Schumacher's only instruction to cinematographer John Mathieson was, "Just point the camera and shoot."

Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera is a pleasant diversion, but it still runs behind Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera and Claude Rains' The Phantom of the Opera.

MEET THE ICONS: Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in Meet the Fockers (Photo: Universal) - UNIVERSAL
  • Universal
  • MEET THE ICONS: Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro in Meet the Fockers (Photo: Universal)

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 (***).

The freshness of the premise may have dissipated, but the attention to the differences between the central characters -- the primary reason the first film raked in the dough -- still exists. So 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 this nervous Nellie to be her life partner. 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), an old-hippie couple whose sensitive natures and open displays of affection rub Jack the wrong way.

The more ribald of the many gags aren't as funny this time around (exception: the flushed dog), and in true sequel fashion, several story threads from the original movie are repeated here in only slightly altered forms. Yet the primary pleasure is watching veteran comedian Stiller once again squaring off against De Niro, whose recent attempts at shtick have worked only in this series. Unlike Billy Crystal (Analyze This) and Eddie Murphy (Showtime), Stiller brings out De Niro's best instincts, and it's their rapport that makes Meet the Fockers a good bet for Christmas consumption.

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