Leading Ladies: December 17, 2004

Heading to the movies this weekend? Find out what's worth your time according to the top women film critics at the nation's best publications. Every Friday morning we'll give you the female perspective on what to expect when the curtain rises.


A note about the links: Some sites require registration or are for paid subscribers, and some links are good for a limited time only.


The Aviator
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, Kate Beckinsale, Cate Blanchett, Gwen Stefani
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rating: PG-13

The challenge of making a biopic of a mad genius like Howard Hughes: Just how much of the madness and how much of the genius do you focus on? Is it more important to tell how he collected his own urine in jars and died a drugged-out recluse or how he was directly responsible for launching the jet age of the airline industry? And that leads to the problem many reviewers have with Scorsese's Golden Globe-nominated film. While there's a consensus that the movie is entertaining and contains terrific performances, Salon's Stephanie Zacharek thinks it goes too lightly on Hughes's well-documented eccentricities: "While Scorsese gives us an inkling of Hughes's future madness, he turns his gaze away, politely, well before it takes a firm hold." Ditto L.A. Weekly's Ella Taylor: "All his life Hughes seems to have felt like a loser in winner's clothing. In leaving him a winner, Scorsese may be acting like a true American, but he's not necessarily acting as a true artist." And the New York Times' Manohla Dargis sums up The Aviator as a "visually sumptuous if disappointingly hollow account" of Hughes's early life.

As for the work of Hughes's portrayer, Globe-nominated DiCaprio, who's been largely absent from the big screen lately, the New York Daily News's Jami Bernard says he gives a "dashing, meticulously focused performance." And though DiCaprio, all agree, is much more attractive than the real Hughes, the Times' Dargis admits that Leo "captures Hughes's oddball charm and confidence."

Female consensus: Good movie, though lensed behind rose-colored glasses

Stars: Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni, Paz Vega, Cloris Leachman
Director: James L. Brooks
Rating: PG-13

Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets director James L. Brooks inspires some strong feedback from female critics with Spanglish: They either love it or they hate it. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Carrie Rickey falls in the former group, calling the story of a caring Spanish woman (Vega) who goes to work for uptight L.A. rich chick Deborah (Leoni) "a pepperpot bubbling with pungent insights and sharp wit." The resulting culture clash is almost secondary to the problems detached Deborah faces in connecting with her own family, Rickey notes, adding, "While so many films end on a rueful note that people never can change, the hopeful Spanglish suggests that people do change one another." And the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Eleanor Ringel-Gillespie agrees, saying the movie is "infused with humor and humanity. And how many films offer either one?"

On the flip side, Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum was not left with such a warm and fuzzy feeling, calling the movie so bad that it makes Leoni look good. "Nobody doesn't love Tea Leoni, and here's proof: Although in the curdled, sitcom-y Hollywood fantasy Spanglish she plays one of the most vengefully conceived, relentlessly humiliated wealthy-white-wife villainesses in memory, Leoni walks away with her dignity." And the San Francisco Chronicle's Carla Meyer slaps another dubious accolade on the "fitfully entertaining, patently false" film: "Characters don't have to be likable, but they ought to be relatable... But there's fun to be had if you can accept Spanglish's dubious relationship to the actual universe."

Female consensus: There isn't one, but the love-it-or-leave-it dramedy will spark strong reactions

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
Stars: Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Emily Browning, Kara Hoffman, Liam Aiken
Director: Brad Silberling
Rating: PG

Can a children's movie be too un-scary? It seems so, especially when the movie is supposed to be a faithful adaptation of the wildly popular Lemony Snicket books, author Daniel Handler's story of the resourceful Baudelaire orphans. L.A. Weekly's Ella Taylor says the problem is that the filmmakers "have made the fatal error of trying to jolly up the novels, which are often funny but never, ever cute." And much of the darkness that does make it through grows tiresome, says the Los Angeles Times' Carina Chocano. "The movie collapses [the] first three books into a runaway train of cliffhangers and reversals and gruesome demises. But after a while, the gruesome demises start to get old, which is not the sort of thing one wants in a gruesome demise."

All of this week's reviewers also find much to praise about the movie. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carrie Rickey asserts that the "film looks like a lost masterpiece of German expressionism or a cherished nightmare of Tim Burton." As for the delightfully, and appropriately, over-the-top performance of Jim Carrey, he "raises clowning to a virtuoso level," says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Eleanor Ringel-Gillespie.

Female consensus: It's a somewhat lighthearted, funny, stylish take on darkly funny, stylish books

Beyond the Sea
Stars: Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth, John Goodman
Director: Kevin Spacey
Rating: PG-13

Like Spacey himself, the actor's pet project, a biopic of '50s and '60s American pop idol Bobby Darin, stirs up some uneasy reactions from female reviewers, and not just because of what the Los Angeles Times' Carina Chocano calls Spacey's "creep factor" with costar Bosworth, who plays Mrs. Darin, a.k.a. Sandra Dee: "Inevitably, the whopping 24-year age difference between Spacey and Bosworth adds an unwanted creep factor '- literally to the point that their utter lack of chemistry actually comes as a relief. It also lends probably unintended connotations to the wedding night scene in which Sandy collapses into a heap of pre-bedtime hysteria, and Bobby rushes into the bedroom brandishing a sword."

Salon's Stephanie Zacharek also cites Spacey's "fetishistic" desire to portray Darin on the big screen. "You can't become a character if you want to be that character: Desperation isn't the same thing as acting." Or, as Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum says of the movie's awkward movie-within-a-movie device of having the film unfold as Darin is filming an autobiographical documentary, "Spacey's jaw-dropper draws as much attention to the filmmaker's psychology (what demons chased each toward such an unwittingly self-revealing vanity production?) as to the film."

Female consensus: Nothing to sing about

In limited release:

Director/star Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is "a movie that approaches the level of great boxing films, like Raging Bull, by using sport as a metaphor for human nature, says the New York Daily News's Jami Bernard. The Daily News's Bernard also gives a thumbs-up to Emile Hirsch's "weary deadpan in the face of high school torment, sexual confusion and parental absurdity" in the Ordinary People-ish Imaginary Heroes. The Los Angeles Times' Carina Chocano says The Sea Inside, about a real-life quadriplegic who fought for the right of assisted suicide, "should have been a bummer of a story" but actually became "one of the most profound and uplifting dramas of the year." The Village Voice's Melissa Anderson calls Open My Heart "a grim, risible downward spiral of pseudo-porn."

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