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01.07.05

Fat Albert Meet the Fockers Phantom of the Opera The Life Aquatic The Aviator

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Fat Albert
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Imagine what it would be like to be confined to the world of the early 1970s, before the Internet, before everybody and his brother walked the streets with cell phones attached to their ears, before rap music hit the mainstream.

Now imagine being shuttled from that world to the 21st Century, where kids carry cell phones to school, do schoolwork on computers and watch rappers do their thing on MTV.

That’s exactly the situation Fat Albert (Kenan Thompson of Nickelodeon’s Kenan and Kel) and his buddies face in the new Fat Albert film. Cartoon characters Fat Albert, Weird Harold, Bucky, Dumb Donald and Mushmouth break out of the animated world Bill Cosby created for their TV debut in 1972 and into the live-action, 21st Century world.

In the movie, Albert and the gang literally bust through a television screen. Their mission: to help Doris (Kyla Pratt of One on One), whose tears dropped into television land and caught the attention of Albert. Determined to help Doris with her “problem,” Albert and the crew follow her around and, in the process, discover a world they couldn’t have imagined.

The 21st Century kids can’t relate to the television characters at first. But it soon becomes apparent that Fat Albert and his buddies have the ability to adapt. Albert beats a loudmouth in a foot race, despite Albert’s weight. The gang catches on to rap quickly and wows a crowd of teens with a hip-hop version of the Fat Albert theme song. And Albert’s confidence and manners attract a pretty girl.

Unfortunately, writers Bill Cosby and Charles Kipps weren’t as good as Fat Albert and the gang at adapting to changing times. The script seemed to be written for youngsters fed a steady diet of Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best rather than those who feast on the videos of pop stars like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.

Almost every scene in Fat Albert contains some kind of lesson about how to act, how to succeed or how to make friends. There’s even a scene in which Fat Albert explains to a girl why a boy should walk on the outside of the sidewalk when he’s with a girl.

It’s hard to imagine teenagers wanting to sit through a story full of such overt lessons. The cast consists mostly of teenagers, and the soundtrack seems geared toward teens. But the movie seems more suitable for children between eight and 12, because the story drives home the reassuring message that kids outgrow the awkward years and that any bad social situation can be overcome with a positive attitude and the willingness to try.

Overall, the movie delves into a fun and positive fantasy, although the messages are too transparent and simplistic. And it’s highly likely that some of Fat Albert’s old fans and their children might enjoy the brief visit from a crew who traveled from the light side of the 1970s with the determination to have a good time learning from each other while they do their thing. (PG) Rating: 2


Meet the Fockers
Reviewed by Deborah Young

Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) will soon become Pam Martha Focker, as her parents observe with a grimace. Get it?

Martha Focker. That’s just one of the easy gags this sequel to the 2000 movie Meet the Parents pulls out again and again and again.

In the first film, Pam took her boyfriend Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) to meet her father Jack (Robert De Niro) and mother Dina (Blythe Danner). From the start Greg clashes with Jack, who happens to be an uptight ex-CIA interrogator. But Greg is determined to please Jack and tries to do so by hiding his true personality, which ultimately gets him into more than a little trouble.

Greg’s attempts to please Jack leads to disaster after disaster. Long story short: Jack winds up setting a fire outside the Byrnes’ home, bloodying Pam’s sister’s nose, losing the family cat and flooding the family’s back yard. In the end, Jack decides to accept Greg for the time being but tells Dina that the next step is to meet Greg’s parents.

That’s a great setup for the sequel. Unfortunately, the screenwriters fumbled. Instead of relying on the same cause-and-effect humor that spiced Meet the Parents, the writers turned to gimmicks in a quest for easy laughs.

There’s enough comedic potential in the situation of an uptight ex-CIA man spending the weekend with a sex therapist and her unemployed husband to fuel a side-splitter, but the writers apparently decided more is better. So they added a baby that knows sign language, a fake tit (which Jack wears to “breastfeed” his grandson), and even more wordplay with the name “Focker.”

Dustin Hoffman (Bernie Focker) and Barbara Streisand (Roz Focker) do, however, give much-needed comic relief from the tedium of De Niro’s stiff CIA shtick. Their characters provide the perfect counterpoint for Jack Byrnes, particularly Streisand, who is totally believable as a wacky sex therapist for seniors.

There’s one scene in which Jack tries to explain why he had the fake tit made. He didn’t want to confuse his grandson by interrupting the boy’s breastfeeding routine with a bottle, he explained. Roz looks at Jack like he’s crazy and rephrases the idea (with more than a hint of sarcasm): Oh. You didn’t want to confuse the baby, so you decided to strap a breast on a man.

Besides a few amusing moments like that, the movie wanders old territory — like the children of Israel circling the Promised Land. But thankfully, this trip only takes about two hours. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5


Phantom of the Opera
Reviewed by Deborah Young

When a beauty falls in love with a beast something magical happens — the charms of a beautiful spirit become more important than the unattractiveness of physical flaws. Stories about this kind of magic captivate us. The idea that beauty of spirit can transcend physical deformity feeds the hope that love will come knocking despite the most glaring shortcomings of appearance.

French writer Gerald Leroux’s story Phantom of the Opera is a horror story, but the beauty-and-the-beast theme lies at its heart. That’s probably what’s kept it fresh and appealing after almost 100 years of retelling in films and stage plays.

The latest screen adaptation of Phantom (a collaboration of director Joel Schumacher and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber) definitely has its weaknesses. But they are not enough to mute the power of this alluring tale about a relationship between a deformed musical genius, known as the phantom (Gerard Butler), and a talented ingénue, Christine (Emmy Rossum).

The phantom, who lives under the Paris opera house, becomes obsessed with the young singer Christine. However, Christine is torn between her musical mentor and Raoul (Patrick Wilson), a handsome suitor.

Rossum does an excellent job of showing her character’s transition from naiveté to sensual awareness. Her facial expressions tell the story that the filmmaker chooses not to dramatize explicitly. And her voice is sweet and pure.

Butler’s phantom comes across as sad and dangerously arrogant rather than terrifying. He broods and skulks, but his demeanor doesn’t give a hint that something more sinister is brewing beneath his masked surface. Butler is at his best in the scenes in which he’s showing passion for the young Christine. He exudes desire with the briefest looks and gestures. He’s at his worst when he tries to express tenderness with his coarse and sometimes slightly off-key singing.

Minnie Driver, on the other hand, provides welcome comic relief as Carlotta, the diva of the opera. She employs over-the-top gestures and a thick accent to bring Carlotta to life, and she steals the show in every scene in which she’s present.

The film’s greatest asset is its scenery. Almost every scene is dressed with a multitude of sculptures; others are drenched in the romantic glow of candlelight. The scenery creates the ambiance. However, a series of stills could have captured the beauty of the art and the natural backdrop. Unfortunately, the director seemed intent upon replicating the stage play on film rather than using the medium of film to make the story more realistic and less spatially confined.

Despite the film’s limitations, there is magic — especially in that famous scene when the chandelier comes crashing down. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 12/30/04


The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are two viewpoints when it comes to the work of filmmaker Wes Anderson. One is, he mines entertainment value from eccentricity. The other, he creates eccentricity for eccentricities’ sake.

The one thing that both camps can agree on is that his films are decidedly eccentric.

His previous films, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, were quirky comedies that found humorous profundity in human foibles...bizarre human foibles, that is.

There is one big difference in his latest effort, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. He had a much bigger budget to play with.

Bill Murray, who was memorable in both Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, takes the title role, a narcissistic and irresponsible American version of Jacques Cousteau. Formerly a renowned oceanographer, Zissou has fallen on hard times. His rusty ship, The Belafonte, has seen better days, he hasn’t had a hit documentary in years, and his estranged wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) is tired of funding his money-losing efforts.

But Zissou insists on one last expedition. He wants to track down and kill the elusive Jaguar Shark, a gigantic fish that swallowed one of his colleagues.

Before embarking on his voyage, Zissou meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a fan and airline pilot who may or may not be his long lost son. He talks him into accompanying his on his quest to kill the great shark.

To further complicate matters, a prying journalist named Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) insists on accompanying them in order to cover the expedition in a magazine article.

Numerous conflicts threaten to thwart Zissou’s efforts, including problems with his antiquated equipment, an indifferent crew and a run-in with murderous Philippine pirates.

Murray is terrific in an extremely difficult role. In a skillful balancing act, he manages to retain the audiences’ favor in spite of the fact that his character is a world-class jerk. He has a keen understanding of Anderson’s dry, sometimes cruel sense of humor and deftly humanizes it.

The production values, although fine, are as quirky as the director. The Belafonte is a giant cutaway set (and Anderson makes no bones about it), and the sea creatures that inhabit the film are created by stop-motion animation that is just fake enough to fit into Anderson’s alternate reality.

So, does it all work? If one can tune in to Anderson’s offbeat sense of humor, the voyage will be a pleasant one. If not, it will be one bumpy ride. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 12/30/04


The Aviator
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Oscar loves big, opulent biopics, especially those that deal with peculiar individuals who’ve had a social impact.

That makes The Aviator Oscar bait. It will be interesting to see if the Academy voters will bite onto a quirky, oddly structured opus that is essentially a big-budget art house flick.

Martin Scorsese has yet to be honored by the Academy in spite of being one of the best filmmakers of the last 30 years. His latest effort, a look at the Hollywood years of Howard Hughes, is, without argument, brilliantly filmed. Strangely, it does little to help us understand the man behind the legend.

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Gangs of New York) stars as Hughes, who, in the late 1920s at age 18, inherited his family’s tool company fortune. The wealthy orphan playboy then went to Hollywood and squandered most the money in a three-year quest to film Hell’s Angels.

That visually arresting action movie combined Hughes’ three passions: movies, aviation and women. Although it nearly bankrupted him, it also defined him.

The Avaitor then focuses on his womanizing, particularly his affair with Katherine Hepburn, amusingly channeled by Cate Blanchett. It then covers his subsequent experiences through the 1940s, as he became a daring aviation pioneer and founder of TWA.

There are some truly spectacular scenes in The Aviator, especially the reenactment of Hell’s Angels aerial fight sequences and a pivotal crash that left Hughes seriously injured.

Oddly, Scorsese makes only a half-hearted attempt to deal with Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder or explain why he eagerly defied death in the air but was neurotically afraid of germs.

The only hint we receive is in the opening sequence that bears a resemblance to the Rosebud gimmick from Citizen Kane. While bathing Hughes as a young boy, his mother quizzes him repeatedly, asking him to spell “quarantine.”

This and other allusions to Citizen Kane only emphasize some of The Aviator’s weaknesses. Whereas Charles Foster Kane is a well-drawn and coherent figure, Scorsese’s Hughes is strangely enigmatic.

DiCaprio ably captures his boyish charm and his open seductiveness. His enthusiasm for the budding science and business of aviation is also palpable.

But when it comes to his peccadilloes, Scorsese and DiCaprio fall short. The moments that hint of his upcoming madness are a bit awkward and unconvincing. Those viewers without some knowledge of Hughes’ subsequent life of seclusion may be left with uneasy sense of matters unresolved.

Still, The Aviator is sweeping and exhilarating as an epic even though it falls short as a character study. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5; Posted 12/30/04

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