Monday, January 03, 2005

The Phantom of the Opera, Beyond the Sea

1. The Phantom of the Opera (Director: Joel Schumacher)

Schumacher is well-known, probably just as much for hits like The Lost Boys and A Time to Kill, as he is for unbelievable tank-jobs from Batman Forever to 8MM. Here's some others you've heard of: Flatliners, Batman & Robin, St. Elmo's Fire, Dying Young, Bad Company (the Bruckheimer production with Chris Rock), The Client, Veronica Guerin, Phone Booth, and Falling Down, his best film. Others you may or may not have heard of: Flawless, Tigerland, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and D.C. Cab, where he directed Mr. T. Schumacher, in many ways, ranks right down there with Michael Bay as directors most film-lovers hate. Phantom is based on the Gaston Leroux novel, which of course was turned into the blockbuster musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Entering a Joel Schumacher movie tells you nothing at all as to what you're going to see. Look at the list. I think he's the very definition of hack. When someone like him gets onboard with a movie adaptation of a popular musical, there's almost nothing you can expect but a straightforward retelling, which is the case here. In other words, what exactly is the point? The musical, which I've seen here in Nashville at the TPAC twice, offers so much in the way of visual effects, that the play seemed like a movie anyway. The only thing that a live show can't reproduce is multiple perspectives in the action, and this is where the film version fails. This is the medium where The Phantom of the Opera should take off, the camera should be moving all over the place, giving you the sense you cannot have sitting in the upper mezzanine.

I guess, in the most accurate way, your enjoyment of the film may completely hinge on the songs. The songs are not much, lyrically, but they contain an emotional edge to them, very dramatic and booming, perfect for a stage show. But with Schumacher's static camera, you may very well find the songs pleasant to listen to, but you can't say that they enhance the film in any way.

My favorite musical is Moulin Rouge. It's about as imaginative a film as you will ever see, and the music serves the story very well. It's over the top in the way that's good. I was only wishing for something over-the-top here--Schumacher, get off your lazy ass and build a track for your camera, and pull out all the stops for once! This film took forever to get settled into adaptation, so we'll likely never see another studio take a crack at making this...correctly. As is, it seems Schumacher realized that most Phantom fans would only be too happy to just listen to the songs, even with a bare minimum of film wizardry, and paying ten bucks to see it instead of fifty or more.

The actors? Well, they're all fine, especially the gorgeous Emmy Rossum as Christine, the chick who's causing all this conflict between the Phantom (Gerard Butler) and more suitable suitor Raoul (Patrick Wilson) by being so hot and talented. There's also arty-fave Miranda Richardson in yet another humorless role, as Madame Giry. Minnie Driver plays the diva Carlotta (who sings the new Webber song, "Learn to be Lonely").

Of particular note: Cinematography by John Mathieson, who has been working with Ridley Scott on his last few films, including the Oscar-nominated Gladiator, and production design by Anthony Pratt. They made things look really good. Only Schumacher could make a movie that minimizes their accomplishments.

2. Beyond the Sea (Director: Kevin Spacey)

Spacey's directorial debut was Albino Alligator, and while it showed some style, it wasn't exactly a masterpiece. Spacey, of course, is best-known as an actor, and he does double-duty here. I was just wondering, has anyone been in more good movies in the past ten or so years than Spacey? He's been in some clunkers and head-scratchers, too, but he was in The Usual Suspects, Seven, L.A. Confidential, American Beauty, Glengarry Glen Ross, and in two movies that have their fans (I'm one) in The Ref and especially Swimming With Sharks. Also of note: The Negotiator and the voice of Hopper in A Bug's Life.

This is obviously Spacey's vanity project, taking on the biopic of iconic singer Bobby Darin, the man known for "Mack the Knife" and the titular song of this movie. Spacey gets to direct and pose a triple-threat of acting, singing, and dancing. If we were to give an Oscar for most work to be done on a film, we'd have to give Spacey the nod, and he is quite good as Darin, and belts out his tunes like his spirit lives inside him. The film is like most biopics, beginning with the early influences, leading to his fame, and the reasons for his downfall, although what may be refreshing in a movie like this is that his downfall isn't drugs, like so many other biopics earn their Oscar-consideration on. The film focuses on his marriage to actress Sandra Dee (the hoooooot Kate Bosworth), who was 16 at the time, his illness, and a family secret kept from Darin, as his cockiness and time away from home put a strain on his personal life.

Here's another biopic, out of a thousand this year, and well, we can't really believe everything is the truth, can we? The characters in the movie sure put an emphasis on it, but even at the end there's a disclaimer about how the movie isn't entirely true. It doesn't really matter to me, because, of course, I grade on whether the movie is good or not. It's decent, although the script has exchanges like this: I'm not Bobby Darin; OK, well then, you're Walden Robert Cassotto; No, I'm not him, either; Well, maybe you're both.

There isn't exactly anything snappy happening here. The only thing memorable is Spacey's singing and dancing. Fortunately for Darin, his life was a fairy tale compared to most troubled famous people. Unfortunately for us, there's no real meat to the movie. It would work better on TV, I guess. Where the film sort of becomes an eye-roller are the scenes where a little kid (William Ullrich), playing "Little Bobby," talks with Spacey. The kid is the source of truth, the boy keeping Spacey in line. I use Spacey's name here, instead of his character Darin, because the questions asked of him in the film are those that someone genuinely concerned with getting the film right would ask the director. Spacey plays dumb as the kid spouts wisdom. These scenes seem completely disconnected from the film itself, and I can only imagine, was meant to be that way. While interesting in some ways, it really is pretentious as hell.

Other actors kind of thrown away here: John Goodman as manager Steve Blauner, and Bob Hoskins as Charlie Maffia, Darin's uncle. After watching Phantom and this, I can say that I had a good time listening to classic music. The visuals were mildly diverting.


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