Seen at the Movies: The bizarre, elusive, and somehow essentially American figure that was Howard Hughes is probably most effectively embodied on screen in cameo-sized portraits—by Dean Stockwell’s brief appearance in Tucker, or by Jason Robards’ brilliant sketch of the character in Melvin and Howard. That said, Leonard DiCaprio gives an impressive accounting of Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, nailing the young millionaire’s infectious enthusiasm for airplanes, movies, and women and later, the obsessive-compulsive demons that came to rule him. Working with a more challenging subject and lopsided life than most, Scorsese can’t avoid the customary biopic pitfalls, primarily the manner in which most real people’s stories defy narrative shape. But he has made a movie that at its best entertains in old-Hollywood style, while finding a way to keep himself interested by commenting on that style.

The Aviator covers 20 years of Hughes’ life, from the late 20s, when he spent three years and poured much of his fortune into the World War I aerial epic Hell’s Angels, to the late 40s, when he emerged from his rapidly calcifying shell of neurosis long enough to battle a senate investigation of his plane building practices during World War II, and to finally get his massive Hercules aircraft (aka the Spruce Goose) off the ground. In between, we’re treated to the spectacle of Hughes’ relationships with movie stars Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett, in a stunning impersonation) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). The movie hits its high-water mark during the Hepburn scenes, and never fully recovers from her disappearance, but there’s always something to capture one’s attention. Scorsese, working with virtuoso cinematographer Robert Richardson and the latest digital intermediate technology, approximates the two-color look of early Technicolor films in the first part of the movie, switching to full, luscious color when the story enters the late 30s. It’s a self-conscious technique, and perhaps a bit too pixilated (in the literal sense) for my taste, but it’s also irresistibly beautiful.

Production designer Dante Ferretti does a magnificent job recreating the studio settings, mansions, and most delectably, the Cocoanut Grove nightclub of Hollywood’s Golden Age, as well as recreating the art deco celestial bodies on the walls of Pan Am president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and giving us fantastic glimpses of the Hercules (whose wingspan retains its unchallenged record) in mid-construction. Costume designer Sandy Powell brings the film her trademark blend of fashion and character, contrasting Hepburn’s comfortable off-duty golfing outfits and the shimmery movie-star gowns that draped rather starkly on her clothes-hanger body, and charting Hughes’ progression from tailored if eccentric Saville Row suits to off-the-rack wear from Sears and JC Penney’s . In the aerial sequences, visual effects supervisor Rob Legato entertainingly combines old-fashioned miniature work with digital technology, and he helps stage a couple of thrilling plane-crash sequences, including one that sheared the roofs off of several Beverly Hills homes and almost killed Hughes.

Director Brad Silberling attempts to channel the spirit of Tim Burton in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and to do so he enlists the aid of such Burton vets as DP Emmanuel Lubezki, production designer Rick Heinrichs, and costume designer Colleen Atwood. The world of the film, which is based on Daniel Handler’s popular Lemony Snicket children’s books, is a whimsical blend of contemporary and Victorian elements, all rendered in a monochromatic palette and shot through with both a strong dose of the macabre and a Dickensian sense of childhood privation. Visually, the three Baudelaire orphans (Emily Browning, Liam Aiken, and a subtitled, annoyingly cutesy toddler) in their tattered mourning clothes might have stepped from the pages of Oliver Twist, though every time Jim Carrey, cast as the children’s evil guardian Count Olaf, opens his out-of-control mouth and delivers an improvised anachronism, the illusion shatters. Makeup artist Bill Corso does prodigious work with the character, who periodically disguises himself, but in each persona Carrey can’t resist revealing himself immediately. Though I’m second to none in my admiration for the Burton aesthetic, in Silberling’s hands, the design devours the film, taking over where Carrey leaves off. I’m admittedly not a member of the target audience, but I found the emotionally unengaging Lemony Snicket to be a hellish viewing experience.

Surprisingly, James L. Brooks’ Spanglish—which at heart, is also a tale of primal anguish, Bel Air and Malibu-style—is almost as sour. The story is told in sunny voiceover by a grown-up Cristina, who as the pre-adolescent daughter of Mexican immigrant and housekeeper Flor (the lovely Spanish actress Paz Vega), briefly entered the privileged world of four-star chef John Clasky (Adam Sandler), his monstrously insecure and emotional havoc-wreaking wife Deborah (Tea Leoni), and Deborah’s chief victim, overweight adolescent daughter Bernice. As usual, Brooks does good work with the young actors, plus he gets an appealingly understated performance from Sandler and a sitcom-ishly entertaining one from Cloris Leachman, cast as Deborah’s alcoholic yet wise mother. But he lets the likable and enormously talented Leoni down, giving her nothing to play but a rather cruel caricature, especially as stacked against the idealized Flor character. The movie doesn’t seem fully thought out, and like all Brooks films, is visually negligible, with flat, TV-style lighting by DP John Seale, and standard-issue moneyed-L.A. design by Ida Random. Louise Mingenbach was the costume designer.

One of the year’s biggest disappointment has to be Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, in which the filmmaker seems to have taken up permanent residence in the recesses of his famously quirky head. Everything about the movie, which tells the big-fish tale of oceanographer Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his sort-of quest to hunt down the shark that ate his partner, feels undercooked, from the premise to the execution to Murray’s performance. Most puzzlingly, Anderson’s customarily tight control of the design reins seems to have slackened here, perhaps because of the challenges of filming on water. Production designer Mark Friedberg provides a couple of entrancing dollhouse-section views of Zissou’s vessel, and animator Henry Selick’s cute sea creatures pop up now and then, but otherwise the movie isn’t much to look at (and thanks to a mysteriously muffled, muddled soundtrack, it’s a chore to listen to). Certainly cinematographer Robert Yeoman did much more distinctive work on Anderson’s Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Costume designer Milena Canonero gives the Team Zissou crew (also including Anjelica Huston, Owen Wilson, and Willem Dafoe, with reporter Cate Blanchett along for the ride) some matching turquoise ocean-going attire that amusingly suggests childhood dress-up.--John Calhoun

Seen on Broadway: Donald Holder’s inventive lighting is the one element that this week’s two very different shows have in common. Following a storm-tossed voyage through financial woes and a change in personnel, August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean finally made it to port, at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The ninth in his decade-by-decade survey of 20th century African-American life, Gem, set in troubled 1904 Pittsburgh, is the first chronologically. Though the production, with its uncomfortable stabs at magic realism, falls short of prize-winning classics like Fences and The Piano Lesson, it has the appeal of a century-old scrapbook, opened after many years to reveal some mystifying surprises.

In Wilson’s style, the mysteries unfold gradually, speech-by-speech. The most pointed are delivered by Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashad). Ester claims to be 285 years old, and just about looks it, with Rashad clad in Constanza Romero’s overflowing purple knit dress, adorned with amulets and talismans. She and her crumbling Hill District mansion, a stop along the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves in the Civil War era, are repositories for history and folklore reaching back to the nightmarish Middle Passage of Africans to plantations in the American South. Emancipation has brought new discontents. Guilt-ridden Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks), who fled his native Alabama for better prospects in the North and turned to thievery in despair, seeks Aunt Ester’s help for a “soul washing.” Initial cleansing is provided by his interaction with her allies, the crusty, battle-scarred anarchist Solly Two Kings (gravel-lunged Anthony Chisholm) and the more temperate Eli (Eugene Lee), both survivors of slavery. Black Mary (LisaGay Hamilton), Ester’s housekeeper, lends a warily sympathetic ear to Barlow’s plight; her social-climbing lawman brother, Caesar (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), breathes down his neck.

In Act II, Ester immerses the young man in the fabled City of Bones, where slavery’s victims reside, from which a new and more purposeful Citizen arises. There are metaphors aplenty, and Holder and sound designer Dan Moses Schreier do their utmost to make Barlow’s rendezvous with destiny, aboard Ester’s parchment boat (the “Gem of the Ocean” of the title) our nightmare of bondage as well as his. Holder’s jagged streaks of light, all that a slave can see from his below-decks quarters, and the low, unsettling creaks and groans of Schreier’s imagined shipboard environment, are unnervingly convincing. GSD Productions supplied the lights and Masque Sound the audio equipment.

This show, however, is almost all tell. Not that the language isn’t sometimes wonderful, and richly humorous. But Wilson loses sight of the familiar in search of his fanciful symbols, and while director Kenny Leon (who directed Rashad’s Tony-winning performance in last season’s Raisin in the Sun revival) keeps the production on course it rarely dips into a deeper reservoir of human feeling. Romero’s costumes, and the makeup and wig design (the latter credited to Brenda O’Brien) are firmly rooted in the past, so don’t be fooled by the show’s poster, which depicts the actors in a contemporary pose. The problems with the production are summed up by David Gallo’s set design (scenery by Hudson Scenic); the Gothic ruin, with its columns, staircase, wall patterning, and dark blue, ocean-tinged paint, is impressively rendered as a symbol, but doesn’t exactly convince as an inconspicuous place to hide slaves during the Civil War. Still, second-tier Wilson is better than none at all, and a Broadway that only begrudgingly accepts new plays—even from old masters—would be the poorer without the luster his Gem gives off in its strongest sequences.

Holder’s illumination adds vivacity to the revival of La Cage aux Folles. It needs it. No, it’s not the fault of the show, which I hadn’t seen before. Despite my familiarity with the French cult hit from 1978, a film adaptation of a play, and its smash-hit US remake, The Birdcage (1996), Jerry Herman’s classic songs really make the well-traveled material (adapted by Harvey Fierstein) sing. Even if a drag chorus line is not the eye-opening surprise it was back in 1983 this production still has some kick to it. I don’t really get the middling-to-mixed reviews it’s received. If you can’t find something to like about La Cage, from its hummable score (including the standards “The Best of Times” and “I Am What I Am”) to its firm, but gently, wittily delivered, messages about tolerance and respect, you must have some grudge against musical theater.

The trouble is, the Marquis Theatre, where the show is housed, has all the charm and intimacy of a Target superstore. This potential impediment, however, has been removed by the director, Jerry Zaks, and the design team, who know exactly how to oil the machinery that constitutes a big Broadway show in the most utilitarian environment possible. Costume designer William Ivey Long never met a sequin or a spangle he didn’t like, and there are thousands of them up there on Zaza, the drag sensation (Gary Beach), and the sexually ambiguous Cagelles, the toasts of the town in St. Tropez. For Zaza’s long-time lover, club owner Georges (Daniel Davis), Long has created some dapper suits and ties, which Albin (Zaza’s “alter ego”) looks hilariously out of place in when he tries to fit into the straight world of Jean-Michel (Gavin Creel), Georges’ son. Paul Huntley tops off the biggest numbers with his customarily sumptuous wigs, though Creel’s disfiguring mullet was a mistake. Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design is note-perfect.

Set designer Scott Paskhas received some of the harshest reviews, for his “cheap” sets, but I don’t understand it. The club, and the adjoining peach-toned apartment that Georges and Albin call home (with embarrassingly “ironic” statuary and décor), are naughtily gaudy, and his expansive San Tropez beachscape (for “Song on the Sand”) has the artificial enchantment of a set from a CinemaScope musical from the 1950s. Hudson Scenic keeps the pieces in constant, fluid motion (Hudson Sound & Light supplied the lights and Sound Associates the audio). La Cage aux Folleshas become a timeless property, and only a Scrooge would carp at its handsome mounting here. --Robert Cashill