The Phantom of the Opera
dir. Joel Schumacher
Opens Wed Dec 22.

I could conceive of only one way to wring the few remaining droplets of blood from the insipid, bloated Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and that'd be to unleash Joel Schumacher's über-Hollywood aesthetics on the movie adaptation. Voilà: The Phantom of the Opera, a pallid film that looks like an immensely expensive mock-up for a Disneyland ride. There's the fake grotto--perfect for a sexless gondola thriller called The Phantom's Lair--plus some dramatic fog billowing around Christine's father's tomb, and the scrubbed golden hue of the faux Paris Opera staircase... (Plans are in the works for a permanent theatrical installation of Phantom in a Las Vegas casino. Quelle surprise!)

Even putting aside the unspeakably horrendous set design, this movie does everything wrong. Instead of exploiting the cheesy, populist songcraft of the 1986 musical, Schumacher casts actors who wouldn't know melodrama if it smacked them in the face. Emmy Rossum, in the role of Christine, pads around looking pretty and defenseless. Somebody must have thought they were being mighty clever by alternately lighting her character like she's in a Vermeer or a Pre-Raphaelite painting, but the effect is to transform the poor girl into Art History Barbie. Rossum's voice is fine but sort of frail, and hardly animated by the "angel of music." As for the angel himself, Gerard Butler as the Phantom couldn't alarm a deer. His wussy makeup job compounds the problem--how are we supposed to be revolted by a few ridges of pinkish "scar tissue"? Worst of all is Patrick Wilson as Raoul, who (when he's not mangling French proper nouns) prances about like a eunuch. And all of the actors are done a disservice by the faulty sync sound.

The only one who emerges from this passionless enterprise unscathed is (however improbably) Minnie Driver, trilling and yelping as Carlotta the opera diva. Driver has a hilariously lighthearted take on the role, which can sound a little pursed and constipated in theater productions. Oh, and there's that chandelier. Getting product placement for Swarovski crystals into a 19th century period piece is really quite an accomplishment. ANNIE WAGNER

Meet the Fockers
dir. Jay Roach
Opens Wed Dec 22.

When I attended the screening for this terrible treacle, the funniest thing about the wasted two hours was the senior-citizen couple seated next to me. Oblivious to the fact that they were not, in fact, watching the follow-up to Meet the Parents from their Barcaloungers at home, they discussed elements of the movie at top volume--marveling, for example, at the size of the Byrnes family's enormous RV, or how warm Florida is year-round. They were like alien visitors to the planet You're in Public Now, marveling at how Robert DeNiro's complicated spy setup looks like something you only see in the movies (um, hello?).

Otherwise, the experience of watching Meet the Fockers started out grating and ended up grinding my flesh off the bone. Ben Stiller returns as Gaylord Focker (if you think they're done milking that last name for cheap jokes, you've missed the title of this trash), and he and so-earnest-it-kills fiancée Pam Byrnes (Teri Polo) are pulling their families together for a weekend meet-up before the big wedding. The Fockers (the only noncloying actor in this whole film, Dustin Hoffman, and the overbearing Barbra Streisand as an overbearing senior citizen sex therapist) are "honk for Hillary" Jewish liberals, a stark contrast to ultra-conservative CIA agent Jack and wife Dina (Blythe Danner). Put them together and calamity ensues! Throw in a mangy mutt that humps everything, a toddler that mistakenly learns to say "asshole," and the same walking on slowly cracking eggshells as the last movie, and you have a comedy that makes Jack in the Box commercials look fucking hilarious. What happened to dark humor? Biting humor? Any humor? JENNIFER MAERZ

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