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Playing The Numbers 

1408, Evan Almighty, La Vie en Rose

The haunted house flick gets downsized for 1408 (**1/2 out of four), a fairly effective creepshow in which our protagonist only has to worry about a haunted room.

But what a room! Hack writer Mike Enslin (an excellent John Cusack) has built a career penning guide books on supposedly haunted locales across America, and after years of doing so, he realizes, with the same level of smugness as Hilary Swank's mythbuster in The Reaping, that there are no such things as ghosts and goblins and gremlins and golems. So when he receives a postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in New York telling him not to enter the establishment's room 1408, he scoffs at the warning but elects to check it out anyway.

His arrival is met with resistance by Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), the hotel manager who does everything in his power to talk Enslin out of spending the night in the bad-luck room (no one has ever survived for more than an hour, Olin ominously tells the writer). But Enslin insists, and before long he's settling into what initially appears to be an ordinary room adorned with typically uninspired paintings, a rusty thermostat and a mini-bar that stocks $7 bags of beer nuts.

At first, the spooky proceedings are kept on a low simmer: Bedtime mints mysteriously appear on the pillow, a window slams down on Enslin's hand, and the bathroom sink's cold water faucet produces scalding liquid instead. And as long as the movie plays it close to the vest, it works beautifully: The extended meeting between Enslin and Olin is suitably tart (indeed, the movie could have used a lot more of Mr. Jackson), and director Mikael Hafstrom, rising from the muck of the god-awful Jennifer Aniston thriller Derailed, milks a lot of tension out of Enslin's slow-burn realization that this might indeed be, as Olin put it, "an evil fucking room."

But scripters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski don't just adapt Stephen King's short story; they stick a helium tank needle into it and expand it to grotesque proportions. The small-scale shudders eventually give way to special effects blowouts, while the movie ends up with so many plot tentacles that some are either underdeveloped (Enslin's relationship with his dad) or forgotten completely (who exactly sent the postcard?). Still, let's not complain too much: Stephen King adaptations used to be thrilling achievements (Carrie, The Shining), but more recent times have seen them alternate between self-important melodramas (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) and sloppy monster yarns (The Mangler, Dreamcatcher). On balance, 1408 runs the numbers better than most.

My parents may have been the ones to plunk down the dough to purchase the classic comedy album Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow... Right!, but as a child, I think I was the one most responsible for wearing out the vinyl via repeat listens to the famous "Noah" skits included on the record. If there's anything in Evan Almighty (**), the sort-of sequel to the 2003 Jim Carrey hit Bruce Almighty, that's even half as humorous as Cosby's routine, I must have had my eyes closed in prayer and missed it.

Actually, there's a movie-marquee gag that had me laughing, while Jonah Hill (one of Seth Rogen's buddies in Knocked Up) turns in a very funny performance as a creepy Capitol Hill toadie. Otherwise, there's not much to this film aside from shaky CGI effects, timid moralizing and the sight of Steve Carell spinning his wheels in a role that fails to draw upon the immense comic talents displayed in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine and even his brief stint in the Paul Lynde role in the disastrous screen version of Bewitched.

Playing the same part he essayed in Bruce Almighty, that of self-centered TV news anchor Evan Baxter, Carell immediately finds himself neutered by director Tom Shadyac and his passel of writers, as his character has morphed into a typical movie dad who places his own career above the needs of his wife (Lauren Graham) and children. Having been elected to Congress on the platform that he'll "change the world," Evan now finds his hands full delivering on that promise when God (returning Morgan Freeman) appears and instructs him to build an ark. As his hair grows long and his clothing takes a decidedly Old Testament turn, he's deemed a loony by his neighbors and fellow Congressmen, even though all sorts of animals (rendered through hit-and-miss effects) have paired off and wait patiently next to the big boat as it's being built.

Aside from plucking nose hairs and evading birds dropping "bombs," Carell is hampered by a script that instantly changes him from preening narcissist to a one-note saint. If I want to see a movie about a warm and cuddly guy with a white beard, I'll just pop Miracle On 34th Street into the DVD player.

Say what one must about La Vie en Rose (***), but there's no arguing the excellence of the performance at the center of this ambitious and erratic biopic about French singing sensation Edith Piaf.

Piaf's life contained enough drama to fill 10 HBO miniseries, and here director and co-writer Oliver Dahan attempts to cram it all into one 140-minute motion picture. Faithful in some instances, negligent in others, he has nevertheless fashioned a screen biography that employs some tricks of the trade (hopscotching between different decades, moments of stark surrealism) to allow this to break away from the generally staid biopic form. His film isn't always successful, but it always remains watchable, thanks primarily to the fervent turn by Marion Cotillard.

In the same manner as Jamie Foxx with Ray Charles and Reese Witherspoon with June Carter Cash, Cotillard doesn't play the role as much as become possessed by it. From the feisty waif singing for her supper on the mean Parisian streets, to the regal songbird known internationally as La Môme Piaf ("The Little Sparrow"), to the emotionally and physically battered woman who still managed to successfully headline concerts (in this respect, she and Judy Garland had much in common), Cotillard is an indomitable force as she eats, breathes and sleeps every moment up until Piaf's early death at the age of 47.

As a movie, La Vie En Rose est bon. But as a performer, Marion Cotillard est magnifique.

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