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Talk about a house of flying daggers: The multiplex is filled with them once Marvel’s blade-wielding superheroine springs into action in this spin-off of 1993’s Daredevil (in which she appeared in a supporting role as the sightless superhero’s romantic interest). But while this lady in red often kicks it into high gear, the movie surrounding her rarely moves beyond a stroll. It’s a blown opportunity, because Jennifer Garner has proven (through 13 Going On 30 and TV’s Alias) that she’s an ace at layering her physical prowess with emotional resonance. Yet here she’s basically required to walk around sporting a scowl, and attempts to explain what led to this dour disposition result in poorly conceived flashback sequences that further deaden an already lifeless film. Apparently taking place after the events of Daredevil, this film finds the assassin-for-hire balking when her latest assignment requires her to kill a single dad (Goran Visnjic) and his precocious teenage daughter (Kirsten Prout, whose annoying performance does the film no favors). Elektra elects to protect them instead, which in turn pits her against the members of an evil organization known as The Hand. Inexplicably, no one ever deadpans, “Talk to The Hand,” but then again, a sense of humor is noticeably missing throughout. There are several intriguing villains (Typhoid, Kinkou, Tattoo) tossed into the mix, but they aren’t defeated by Elektra as much as by the efforts of director Rob Bowman (the underrated Reign of Fire) and his three scripters.


A favorite of critics and cultists alike, 1976’s Assault On Precinct 13 was a nifty little “B” flick that John Carpenter helmed before hitting the big time with Halloween. Propelled by an excellent music score (composed by Carpenter) and economical in its use of settings, dialogue and character development, the film concerns itself with the members of an LA street gang who descend upon a nearly abandoned police station with the sole purpose of wiping out everyone inside. That the protagonists never learn the reason for the siege (though we do) adds to their sense of discombobulation, and the brutal death of a little girl in the early going remains one of the most disturbing (and unexpected) acts of homicide ever committed on screen. In this flashy update, there’s no little girl, no bloodthirsty street gang, and certainly no kick-ass Carpenter score. Instead, we get a competent but entirely generic action opus in which it’s a group of rogue cops who attack the precinct in order to kill a captured crime lord whose testimony would put them behind bars. Laurence Fishburne plays the cool-under-fire kingpin, who reluctantly teams up with an honest officer (Ethan Hawke) to ensure his own survival. Bucking the trend of cinematic puritanism that Carpenter himself helped jumpstart with Halloween (in which the heroine was a virgin while her victimized friends were all sexually active), this movie switches cultural gears by allowing the nympho (Drea De Matteo) to be more heroic than the bookworm (Maria Bello); beyond that, expect no surprises from yet another needless remake.


First, The Incredibles comes along and pushes the message that it’s OK — even advantageous — to be exceptional in America instead of conforming by dumbing down. And now here’s Coach Carter to nudge a similar theme about the importance of a solid education over all else, even (gasp!) sports. Coach Carter works the usual underdog cliches fairly well as it tells the true story of Ken Carter (Samuel L. Jackson), a high school basketball coach in California who manages to turn a team that won only four games during its previous season into a statewide powerhouse. But at the height of their success, with an unbroken string of victories, Coach Carter elects to bench the entire team once he discovers that most of his players are performing poorly in their classes. All pertinent points are made after a full two hours, yet the picture drags on for another 20 minutes simply so viewers can be treated to a climactic Big Game. Ultimately, Coach Carter’s sincerity gets trumped by its savvy at milking the sports formula for all it’s worth.


Released in Los Angeles and New York at the tail end of 2004 to qualify its stars for Oscar bids, both movies have proven too low-key to cause even minor ripples. Yet anybody in the mood for a downbeat drama anchored by a sturdy lead performance won’t go wrong with either film. Nixon, inspired by actual events that occurred during the mid-70s, centers on an ordinary joe (Sean Penn) who’s a failure both professionally — he’s barely holding onto his job as a salesman — and personally — his separation from his wife (Naomi Watts) is clearly going to turn into a divorce. Tired of constantly getting beaten down by life, he decides to murder Nixon, the man he feels best exemplifies everything that’s wrong with America. The Woodsman, meanwhile, casts Kevin Bacon as a former convict trying to adjust to life on the outside after spending years in prison for molesting young girls. He does his best to stay clean, but discovers it just might be a losing battle when those around him aren’t even willing to give him a chance to start anew. Nixon focuses on a man succumbing to sickness while Woodsman centers on someone who’s trying to escape it — both films dole out the will-he-or-won’t-he? tension in comparable doses.


Forget all that talk about dead people: I see dead careers, beginning with those of actor Michael Keaton and director Geoffrey Sax (a TV vet making his feature film bow). White Noise asks viewers to accept Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP) — the method by which the dead communicate with the living through such household devices as televisions and radios — as fact, and then proceeds to spin a fantasy yarn that can’t even get its own story straight.


For all its apparent insincerity, Writer-director Wes Anderson’s movie keeps us watching. Bill Murray is 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) and his marriage to a brainy aristocrat (Anjelica Huston) is showing signs of strain.


Rather than trying to cram an overstuffed life into one motion picture, Director Martin Scorsese and writer John Logan instead have chosen to focus on Howard Hughes’ anecdote-rich period from the late ‘20s through the late ‘40s. This time frame allows Scorsese ample opportunity to bask in the glow of his movie memories, as this was the period when the billionaire industrialist (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose emotional intensity makes up for his less-than-commanding physical presence) decided to try his hand at making movies.


This adaptation of the 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; and Miranda Richardson adds authority as Madame Giry, the only person who knows the Phantom’s secrets.


Kevin Spacey serves as actor, co-writer, director and producer — and probably caterer, key grip and best boy, if we search the closing credits hard enough — on this misguided vanity project. The problems start with the casting of Spacey as Bobby Darin, whose life was a series of peaks and valleys as he fought a crippling illness since childhood, became a beloved singer, married popular actress Sandra Dee (and later divorced her, though the movie conveniently omits this fact on the way to a happy ending) and even emerged as a respected, Oscar-nominated actor. Spacey is 45 years old, yet here he’s playing Darin from his late teens(!) up until his death at the age of 37; the effect is at once creepy, comical and utterly impossible to digest.


As Count Olof, a villainous actor who seeks to inherit a fortune by knocking off three intelligent orphans, Jim Carrey delivers a disappointing performance, the sort of calculated turn we had come to expect from Robin Williams until his recent dramatic awakening. Luckily, other elements come to the rescue. Jude Law provides the voice-over narration as writer Lemony Snicket, and his moody musings make up the bulk of the best lines in Robert Gordon’s screenplay.


The movie’s true star is a newcomer to American cinema, celebrated Spanish actress Paz Vega. Vega delivers a luminescent performance in the movie’s largest part: Flor, a Mexican immigrant with brainy 12-year-old daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) in tow. Flor lands a job as housekeeper for Debbie Clasky (Tea Leoni) and her husband John (Adam Sandler), a sensitive chef constantly working at being a good dad to an insecure daughter (terrific Sarah Steele) and a patient husband to his lunatic wife.


Viewers not interested in shifting through the rubble of the four main characters’ immorality in an effort to locate common truths will have no use for this picture, surely the most divisive film about modern relations since Eyes Wide Shut. Others willing to dig deeper will be rewarded with some choice dialogue and a quartet of finely etched portrayals. Set in London, the movie centers on two British males and two American females — all strangers when the story opens. Dan (Jude Law) is a caddish obituary writer who falls for sweet-natured stripper Alice (Natalie Portman); Anna (Julia Roberts) is a moody photographer who ends up attached to dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen, nailing the film’s most complex role).


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. >