Editor's note: Don't miss this week's Film Forum Bonus, a look ahead to next week's release of In Good Company, starring Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Scarlett Johansson.

No. 1 at the box office for two straight weeks, director Jay Roach's Meet the Fockers is 2005's first smash hit. Considering the popularity of Roach's Meet the Parents, and taking into account Fockers' all-star cast (Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand, Blythe Danner, Ben Stiller, Teri Polo, and Owen Wilson), that's not a big surprise. Nonetheless, the film is faring poorly with critics.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says it is "quite funny, and the crassness is quite tolerable, at first, because the humor is rooted in fairly believable and likable characters." But he argues that the film does not compare favorably to its predecessor. "Meet the Parents was an almost painfully funny comedy. In Meet the Fockers … there are times when the comedy is not that funny, just painful. The humor starts to go beyond mere embarrassment humor and into territory that some might think would be deeply psychologically scarring to the people involved."

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) laments this misguided sequel. "So much talent. So much potential. So little that makes Meet the Fockers worth two hours of your time. Roach seems obsessed with juvenile gibes and pratfalls, and only offer[s] us a few moments in which we can laugh and not feel guilty. But at least it's a good-natured film about two sets of parents who love their kids and who're learning to love one another—despite their significant differences."

"Despite some brilliant casting and a decent concept this sequel … is a disappointment," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "Whereas the first film was a hilarious comedy of errors … Fockers is full of obvious wordplay, sexual innuendo and crudities inserted into the script as a poor substitute for wit."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "This sequel is entertaining in some new ways, but it ultimately holds to the same formula as the first. Lots of potential here, but in the end sold a bit short."

"The redeeming quality of the film is the obvious love both sets of parents have for their children," say Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus). But they conclude that the movie "has many painful moments where the humor is based on humiliation and prejudice … [and] the message of the film is shallow in its diagnosis of the problem and its simplistic solution."

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Cosby's Fat Albert finally fills out a big screen

Joel Zwick, the director of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, brings another film with "fat" in the title. Fat Albert is a live-action comedy bringing to life characters who originated in Bill Cosby's classic standup routines and went on to become popular cartoon characters. Cosby, who co-wrote the script and acted as executive producer, lends his stamp of approval by appearing briefly in the film.

Critics are undecided as to whether to offer their own stamps of approval.

Steven Isaac (Plugged In) says, "Leave it to Bill Cosby to preserve Fat Albert's innocence and '70s-era Saturday-morning cartoon goofiness and charm. He and … Zwick deserve XXL kudos for refusing to give in to the 'spice-it-up' temptation that has ruined many a cultural update. The lessons here are much simpler and more broadly themed than we've become accustomed to lately. Be kind. Play nice—even in high school. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Believe in yourself. Have good clean fun. By presenting them as gracefully as he does, Cosby … not only gives kids solid values to emulate, he makes us all do some wishful thinking about the days when children's entertainment was (more often than not) children's entertainment."

But David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) alters the famed cartoon character's slogan and says, ""Hey, hey, hey! Don't throw your money away!" He's disappointed in Kenan Thompson, who plays the lead: "His impersonation of the character's signature gravelly voice is inconsistent." And he concludes, "While imparting the same sort of positive life lessons, the family-friendly film lacks the intelligence, originality and fun of the groundbreaking Saturday morning show."

Lori Souder (Christian Spotlight) disagrees. "This movie is sweet and funny and clever and fun. I enjoyed every minute of it, but some children with short attention spans may find it hard to sit through. I think that the people who will most enjoy this movie are the fans of the original TV series because they will understand the innocence of the Fat Albert characters."

The Phantom of the Flop-era?

Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbuster Broadway sensation The Phantom of the Opera has finally been translated to the big screen. But in spite of the enthusiasm that has been building for the release of a Phantom movie for years, this one arrives to a rather unspectacular critical reception.

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says, "The Phantom of the Opera is not without its strengths and charms, but it lacks subtlety and grace, failing to enchant or enhance. It's a clumsy adaptation overly fixated on the beauty of its set design and charisma of its stars—one of the greatest musical scores of the 20th century set to lots of pretty things to look at. Most fans are bound to be disappointed to some degree, and non-aficionados of musical theater will find it tedious and silly. Do yourself a favor and see this on stage."

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Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "Halfway through [it] … I still had no idea whether it was meant to be a comedy or a tragedy. The film jumps from exaggerated, live-action cartoon mode to dark, brooding drama mode so abruptly that it's liable to give some viewers whiplash. Unfortunately, this major identity crisis isn't the film's only misstep. Everything from the acting to the music to the writing falls flat."

"On the whole the movie isn't bad, but it could have been stronger," says Bob Smithouser (Plugged In). "For starters, the Phantom himself is a disappointment. [Gerard Butler's] singing voice isn't up to the task, bailing out on notes with a slight rock-star bark that sounds out of place among a cast of very gifted, classically trained vocalists. [Emmy] Rossum [as Christine] seems stifled and passionless." Still, he personally finds the story to be "a meaningful parable."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "The screen version reminds us of the intense passion to be found in the stage play but it fails to match it. All of the elements are there—the classic story … the huge chandelier; the disfigured titular character; and, of course, the haunting score by Andrew Lloyd Webber. It is just that some secret ingredient that made the live production so emotionally overwhelming is missing."

Daniel Revill (Relevant) is also let down. "Much to my disappointment it was everything that I feared it would be: flat and not very entertaining."

But Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) calls it "a faithful and eye-filling re-creation of the worldwide stage hit … mostly absorbing, in spite of unremarkable leads and unconvincing lip-syncing that undermine some of the drama. In spite of some longueurs, the film is quite entertaining, and joins the Chaney version as the most faithful onscreen telling of Gaston Leroux's original novel."

And Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) write, "Though dark in content, this is a classic tale that is powerfully and beautifully presented both visually and musically."

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Can The Woodsman be redeemed?

Nicole Kassell's directorial debut, The Woodsman, will probably not draw big crowds because of its volatile subject matter. But it is drawing critical acclaim. The film may be about monstrous behavior, but instead of portraying its central character—a convicted child molester—as a monster, it portrays him as a human being who, like any sinner, must strive to overcome his weakness.

Kevin Bacon stars as a pedophile who tries to start a new life after finishing a 12-year prison sentence. Bacon's wife, actress Kyra Sedgwick, plays the part of the woman who finds compassion for him and tries to help him overcome his weaknesses. But when he moves in to a house across from an elementary school, he must struggle to resist the temptations to fall back into a life of crime.

Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says, "The subject of pedophilia is so repellent that the mere theme may be a turnoff to many moviegoers, but if you can get past that The Woodsman is a mesmerizing, if somber, story." He calls Bacon's performance "extraordinary." He writes, "Kassell's compelling drama … provides genuine insight into the mind-set of a pedophile, without glamorizing the crime or making Bacon's character unduly sympathetic, though the occasionally stagy dialogue betrays the script's theatrical origins. The film concludes on an appropriately redemptive note."

Is Beyond the Sea beyond Kevin Spacey's reach?

Kevin Spacey all but becomes Bobby Darin for Beyond the Sea, and he directs the film as well. This, the latest in a long line of 2004 biopics, narrates Darin's story from a childhood plagued with illness to his rise to fame (on the strength of such songs as "Mack the Knife") and his obsession with becoming more famous than Frank Sinatra.

The film co-stars Brenda Blethyn, Bob Hoskins, John Goodman, and Kate Bosworth as his famous movie star wife Sandra Dee. And it's earning reviews that suggest Spacey's performance is the highlight of a film that's out of tune.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says Spacey "is very impressive. His phrasing and tonal qualities match [Darin's] almost perfectly. Unfortunately the rest of the film doesn't measure up to the same standard of excellence. Perhaps Spacey decided to wear one or two hats too many."

But Brett Willis (Christian Spotlight) disagrees: "I wouldn't have believed [Spacey] could play Bobby Darin, project a high-quality singing voice, inject the same intrasong banter as in the original recordings, and nail the on-stage moves. But, lo and behold, he does. Amazing work. Some are viewing this as an ego trip, a vanity exercise. Well, if it works, it's not vanity. And viewed as pure entertainment, it's technically brilliant."

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Critics would rather sit in the dark than watch Darkness

A horror film that has been sitting on a shelf somewhere for two years has just been released in theatres. In spite of the participation of such fine actresses as Lena Olin (Chocolat, TV's Alias) and Anna Paquin (X-Men), critics are saying Darkness should never have been brought out into the light.

Tom Neven (Plugged In) says, "[It's] so poorly lit and dimly directed, and … the plot is so incoherent that at times you must literally guess what is happening. Mistaking leaden pacing for suspense, director Jaume Balagueró has perhaps done us all a favor: made a really, really bad—bad—movie. As another reviewer has noted, your 95 minutes could be more profitably spent simply sitting in a darkened theater."

Douglas Downs (Christian Spotlight) says, "This is a very dark, depressing movie about submitting to death and destruction. The acting is so-so. The filming is dark and mediocre. It won't take viewers long to see why this movie was held back. It might take you a little bit longer to figure out why it was released at all."

More reviews of recent releases

The following films were covered in previous editions of Film Forum, but reviews continue to come in.

Hotel Rwanda:Mark Perry (Christianity Today Movies) says, "Hotel Rwanda would be easy to categorize as an African version of Schindler's List, but trying to force this film into a specific category would actually diminish its importance. The fact that something this tragic could have occurred within the past 10 years indicates that our world still has a lot to learn, even from its recent history. Director Terry George (who wrote the screenplay for In the Name of the Father) wisely shows restraint in his dramatization of the violence. Although thousands were being slaughtered, many with machetes, only one instance of this brutality, shown from a distance, is enough to present a clear picture."

J. Robert Parks (Looking Closer) says, "It's difficult to imagine any mainstream film showing us the horrors of what happened in Rwanda. That Hotel Rwanda accomplishes this and more is testimony to George's devotion to the project and a deep desire to shake us out of our complacency. While the film doesn't explicitly point to contemporary events in Sudan, the Congo, and Liberia, it hopefully will challenge Western audiences to consider what's happening in Africa and take action."

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "We see so many 'heroes' depicted in the movies that when a real one comes along, the accolades usually used to describe them seem insufficient. Don Cheadle does an extraordinary job portraying this ordinary man caught in maelstrom of hate and violence. There are no larger-than-life heroics going on here … just a good man willing to put himself on the line to prevent evil from having free rein. We should be grateful to writer/director Terry George for telling his story so well."

The Aviator: Josh Hurst (Reveal) says, "2004 has been the Year of the Biopic, and The Aviator is easily the year's best entry in the genre. Scorsese … is a master, and The Aviator stands as one of his most entertaining films. Beautifully shot and masterfully written, it's funny, suspenseful, touching, unpredictable, and completely enthralling. And get this … it's also surprisingly true to the real life of Howard Hughes. (Take that, Kinsey!)"

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) describe it as "a powerful film of a troubled life that contributed much to the science and development of aviation in our world. But it also reveals the life of a man who crashed as dramatically in destruction as his flights of success soared above the ordinary."

Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) calls it "an in-depth, three-hour character study. [Scorsese] concentrates on Hughes' internal struggles, and his film quickly reveals itself as a—well-made and eloquent—tragedy. [DiCaprio] excels as a man well aware of yet helplessly trapped by his personal demons. The movie's content is another matter. If one takes the liberty of equating 'personal demons' with such things as foul language and sexual shenanigans, it can be argued that the film falls victim to the exact same thing Hughes does: it's well aware, yet helplessly trapped."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) says, "This film is lavishly produced with several big stars and lots of CGI, but in the end isn't terribly engaging. Earlier films of Scorsese made on a much smaller scale tended to be more captivating, but these big stories—even though they're made more personal—don't provide as much interest. Some of it is pretty impressive, but isn't necessarily recommended."

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou:Josh Hurst (Reveal) pens an open letter to director Wes Anderson. "I'm sure the critical backlash is painful. But be encouraged, Mr. Anderson; your critics are fools who will be proven wrong in due time. For my money, you're the most imaginative and consistently fascinating director working today, and this new movie is your most daring and ambitious to date. You'd think critics would cut you some slack."

Spanglish: Kevin Miller (Relevant) says, "In the wrong hands, such a story could easily become the stuff of TV melodrama: quickly digested and then just as quickly forgotten. But in Brooks' hands, this plot becomes merely a platform from which to explore all sorts of important issues, such as race, parenting, infidelity and success."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) rave, "The beauty of Spanglish is that it molds together a light-hearted comedy with a theme of great depth. Instead of appealing to 'getting our personal needs fulfilled,' it shows a wisdom that transcends the immediate need for comfort with a long term foundation based upon values that will stand the test of time."

Next week:White Noise and The Sea Inside.