Martin Scorsese’s latest extravaganza is visually astounding, constantly dazzling and frequently thrilling. Every detail is perfect, as you’d imagine from a director who’s as famous for perfectionism as the subject of the film, the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.

Strong performances abound, from star Leonardo DiCaprio to Cate Blanchett as Hughes’ legendary love Katharine Hepburn to Alan Alda as a scheming senator. But similar to Scorsese’s last collaboration with DiCaprio, the 2002 behemoth “Gangs of New York,” it’s ultimately about the spectacle.

The director seems more interested in aesthetics at the expense of substance, and John Logan’s script doesn’t delve deeply enough into Hughes’ psychology. Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence. Running time: 166 min. Rating: 3 out of 4 stars.

– Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

James L. Brooks’ culture-clash comic drama features career performances from Tea Leoni and Adam Sandler, along with a sparkling U.S. debut for Spanish actress Paz Vega and a sharp supporting role for Cloris Leachman.

Vega plays a Mexican housekeeper who finds herself in a contest of wills with her neurotically overbearing but self-loathing employer (Leoni) over the conflicting manner in which they try to raise their respective daughters.

The film rises above a rather forced scenario to present a rich, warm view of family ties, both strengthening and decaying. Writer-director Brooks’ understated dialogue packs simple but pointed observations about self-regard and interpersonal relationships.

Rated: PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language. Running time: 131 minutes. Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.

– David Germain, AP Movie Writer
‘Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events’

The key word in that movie title is “series.” The film is based on the first three children’s books by Lemony Snicket (the author’s name is actually Daniel Handler) about a trio of orphans trying to defend themselves from the dastardly Count Olaf (Jim Carrey doing his rubbery comedic shtick), who disguises himself in various ways and tries to bump them off to steal their inheritance.

That inherently episodic structure weakens the film from director Brad Silberling and writer Robert Gordon, stripping it of a strong narrative drive. The movie moves from one adventure – or rather, one elaborately detailed set piece – to the next. The children, whose parents died in a fire, end up in the custody of different guardians. “Lemony Snicket” looks fantastic, though, in a dark, twisted way. Rated: PG. Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

– Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

Flight of the Phoenix’

This fairly literal remake dumbs down characters and relationships to fit today’s superficial standards in adventure films, blunting the tension and nuance of the 1965 original about a group that survives a desert crash and builds a new plane from the wreckage of the old.

Dennis Quaid stars in the role originated by James Stewart, as a jaded pilot who thinks the makeshift contraption designed by one of his passengers (Giovanni Ribisi) will never get them off the ground.

Director John Moore’s remake piles on action-flick bombast, from overblown visual effects to earsplitting music. Tyrese Gibson and Miranda Otto co-star.

Rated: PG-13 for some language, action and violence. Running time: 112 minutes. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

– David Germain, AP Movie Writer

“Million Dollar Baby” – Hilary Swank makes a comeback worthy of Muhammad Ali, playing a woman hoping to rise above her life of hard knocks by training as a boxer. And barely a year after the release of “Mystic River,” Clint Eastwood delivers a second consecutive drama that fearlessly probes the shadows of human morality without falling back on easy answers. Along with Swank and co-star Morgan Freeman, Eastwood merits serious Oscar consideration as both lead actor and director. For the first two-thirds, this is an enormously satisfying “Rocky”-like chick flick, but the third act throws a deep, dark twist at viewers, presenting a harsh ethical dilemma that coaxes potently raw performances from Eastwood and Swank. PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language. 132 min. Four stars out of four.

– David Germain, AP Movie Writer

“The Sea Inside” – Based on the true story of Ramon Sampedro, a Spanish quadriplegic who fought for 30 years for the right to die. Not exactly feel-good holiday fare for the whole family, but Alejandro Amenabar’s film isn’t as much of a downer as its subject matter would suggest, thanks to some sly humor and a strong performance from Javier Bardem. It’s a complex role that requires Bardem to be funny and flirty, stubborn and short-tempered, often in the span of a single scene – a task that must have been even more challenging because the actor was confined to a bed nearly the entire time. There are also some moments of real wonder, both in Sampedro’s fantasies – when he can soar across meadows and over mountains to return to the seaside he loves – and in reality, as he finds an unexpected emotional intimacy with a lawyer (Belen Rueda) who helps him argue his case. PG-13 for intense depiction of mature thematic material. In Spanish with English subtitles. 125 min. Three stars out of four.

– Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

“Beyond the Sea” – Quick show of hands: Who wants to see Kevin Spacey singing and dancing for two hours as Bobby Darin? Come on, people, he looks and sounds just like him! Well, Kevin Spacey wanted to see Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin. That seems to be the entire point of “Beyond the Sea,” in which he plays the pop crooner from his rise to music and movie stardom in the ‘60s, through his turn as a folk singer during the Vietnam War, and up to his death after open-heart surgery in 1973. Spacey says this isn’t about satisfying his ego, but functioning as director, co-writer and star, he’s created a film that feels unshakably like a vanity project. You have to admire him for his enthusiasm, though, and for sharing the same unflappable sense of determination to get the film made as the character he’s playing in the film itself. PG-13 for some strong language and a scene of sensuality. 114 min. One and a half stars out of four.

– Christy Lemire, AP Movie Critic

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