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‘Phoenix’ no turkey 

But it’s predictable; Snicket gets a coat of varnish; ‘Stage Beauty’ looks good

SANDMEN: No surprises in the Gobi.
  • SANDMEN: No surprises in the Gobi.
. Being that I believe that the whole purpose of going to the movies is to be surprised, there are what I like to call the “anti-movies.” You know: Those movies that really can’t turn out any other way than happy, with the main characters basking in the glow of triumphant success. The purest example of this crop in recent memory is the new — and entirely unnecessary — remake of “Flight of the Phoenix.” Plane full of oil rig workers crash-lands in the Gobi desert, hundreds of miles off course, the radio destroyed. Lot of sweating. Little water. Engineer: “Let’s build a new plane out of parts of the old one.” Crew: “That’s a great idea!” How do you think it’s going to end? Giant fireball? Tragic failure? Death of entire crew from heat exhaustion? I’m probably not ruining for you when I say, wrong, wrong and wrong. The good news is, as with the original (and still superior) 1965 version starring Jimmy Stewart and Ernest Borgnine, “Phoenix” is not really a movie about how it all ends, it’s a movie about human endurance and getting from point A to point B under the worst possible circumstances. Here, Dennis Quaid does workmanlike duty in the role of Capt. Frank Towns, a cargo pilot sent deep into the Mongolian desert to fly out the crew and equipment of a failed oil-drilling operation. This includes Elliot, an engineer who was stranded there while on a soul-searching trip around the world (as played by Giovanni Ribisi, soldiering on toward his goal of being the fingernails-on-chalkboard of the acting world). Overloaded with men and material on the way back to civilization, Towns tries to fly around a freak sandstorm. When the storm shifts, they’re caught in the middle of it, and one of the plane’s engines is blasted apart. Down she goes into the trackless desert. You know the rest. Though “Flight of the Phoenix” makes quite a bit of tension out of what is essentially two hours of looking at sand, keeping the audience glued in their seats is a much harder task than it was for the 1965 original, especially given Hollywood’s insistence on the happy ending. Though the plot introduces killer nomads, lethal sandstorms, gunplay, exploding fuel tanks, electric storms and even a smart and unexpected twist in the end, the only real question posed by “Flight of the Phoenix” is which of the forgettable cast of characters is going to wander off into the desert and croak, get struck by lightning and croak, be crushed by machinery and croak, or get shot by nomads and croak before the last, perfect scene, when the reborn Phoenix soars into the sunset (whoops … hope I didn’t ruin it for anybody). Though it’s not exactly a waste of film stock, there’s better stuff at the movies right now. Our suggestion: Go rent the 1965 original on DVD. The popcorn from the microwave will be cheaper, and you’ll have a better time, guaranteed. — By David Koon It is my solemn but unfortunate duty to report to you my reactions upon viewing the film adaptation of the first three volumes of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket. I say unfortunate not because I found the film adaptation itself to be unfortunate, but instead because I would much rather write reviews of happy films about magical ponies traveling to faraway lands where they feast on truffles and have tea parties, all before ridding the world of hangnails, bad haircuts and reality television. As you may know, the series is a chronicle — a word that here means “a story in which innocent children suffer unspeakable horrors and cook pasta puttanesca” — of the lives and trials of the Baudelaire children. The film depicts the first three ordeals of Violet, Klaus and little Sunny Baudelaire, beginning with the loss of their home and parents in a similarly mysterious fire. Soon after being orphaned, they are placed with a distant relative, one Count Olaf, a thoroughly dastardly man, a word that here means “wicked, greedy, bent on stealing orphans’ fortunes, and lacking in good personal hygiene.” Olaf and his villainous cabal will stop at nothing to steal the Baudelaire fortune, resorting to such nefarious devices as freight trains, wooden legs, incorrect grammar, poison, kidnapping and even bad theater to get his hands on the money. Those familiar with the Baudelaires’ story will notice some glaring omissions and mischaracterizations in this telling — Mr. Poe, for instance, the executor of the estate, does not have the persistent hacking cough that we have all come to know and wince at. Dear little Sunny’s stinging wit and keen observations have been excised in favor of such unfunny jibes as “bite me” and “someone’s been to Crazy Town,” an unconscionable change of character made for cheap laughs. Indeed, the cleverness of the children in general is much underplayed. It is also clear that director Brad Silberling and writer Robert Gordon don’t trust their audience with the truth as much as the esteemed Mr. Snicket does, as they occasionally feel the need to sugarcoat the hard facts of the Baudelaire story. Count Olaf is on the whole more cartoonish than sinister, for instance, and the sufferings of the children are handled with a much lighter touch. Some of this comes naturally from fitting three books into one film, but clearly the filmmakers felt uncomfortable presenting the story without adding a noticeable (and unwanted) coat of varnish. That said, the film does a good job of capturing the mood of the books and portraying much of the sheer pathos of the Baudelaire story — a word that here means “something capable of making you crawl under a blanket and weep for days.” The colors are beautifully muted and gray, the costumes and sets are an inspired mix of old and new, and with the exception of Jim Carrey’s clownish Count Olaf, the actors all perform admirably. I predict that young Emily Browning, who plays Violet, will have quite a film career ahead of her, provided she does not ever slip and fall into a large vat of carnivorous eels. On the whole, the film is lacking in much of the excellence of Snicket’s reportage, but it is a much better and more faithful adaptation than I expected. It will stand as a good introduction to the series for those who have not read the books, but longtime fans of the series will find some disappointment along the way. However, those who can manage to view the film independently of the books will find it to be reasonably well-crafted. — By Matt Reed A confession: I like Claire Danes. I’ve liked her since the “My So Called Life” days. Though she has tried to pull off leads in big-budget Hollywood movies (“The Mod Squad,” “Terminator 3”), Danes does her best stuff by far with the “little” films. Though she’s not the best actress in the world, she brings a touching, everywoman power to whatever she does. That’s why it was so nice to see her name associated with “Stage Beauty.” Set in the world of 1660s London theater, it’s a cozy picture with an interesting idea at the core — not to mention a plot perfectly suited to Danes’ girlish good looks and wide-eyed innocence. Though “Stage Beauty” eventually forgoes the dark avenues it explores in the second act in favor of the mushy stuff, it is still a film of rare power, and well worth two hours of your life. Danes plays Maria, who works as what we would call the personal assistant to Ned Kynaston (Billy Crudup), one of the era’s most famous and talented actors. Or maybe that should be “actresses” — in those days, women were forbidden from appearing onstage, replaced instead by delicately featured men who trained for years to learn the intricacies of the feminine form. In the film, Kynaston is particularly known for his Desdemona, the doomed wife of Othello. Little does he know it, but Maria is, too. After the theater is dark, she slips out to break the law by performing bootleg versions of the Bard’s plays in boarding houses and taverns. Trouble begins when the jealous Kynaston finds out about his young protege’s extracurricular activities and — during a dinner for players with King Charles II (Rupert Everett, in a standout performance) — outs Maria as an actress, knowing she’ll be in for it when the king’s prudish ministers find she has broken the law. Ned is shocked however when Charles, at the prodding of his mistress (an aspiring-actress herself), throws open the stage to flesh-and-blood females, rendering Kynaston’s years of training moot and all “actresses” like himself obsolete. Well written and often scandalously funny (as when Maria is forced to bare a breast for a publicity portrait to prove she is a woman, all the while making the very modern argument that she doesn’t want to show her breasts because she wants to be taken as a “serious actress”), “Stage Beauty” is a sturdy and beautifully staged film that gives us a window into early English theater. Better, it’s smart enough to plumb the depths of some bigger questions as well: the nature of what is male and what is female, and what it feels like to find yourself suddenly obsolete. Though it eventually turns away from these dark and interesting corridors — and into the standard “rivals find common ground” plot that powers nearly every Hollywood love story — the care shown in developing the characters of Maria and Ned, great performances by Danes and Crudup, and a powerful (though not necessarily period-correct) ending makes “Stage Beauty” a thought-provoking and — dare we say it? — fun time at the movies, especially for fans of the stage and Mr. Shakespeare. — By David Koon
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