The story remains the same as it was in Gaston Leroux's original 1911 novel. At Paris's Opera Populaire in 1870, a young, clear-voiced soprano named Christine Daaé (Emmy Rossum) leaps from the ranks of Madame Giry's (a somber, heavily French-accented Miranda Richardson) ballet chorus to the center stage spotlight, thanks to the tutelage of a mysterious teacher--the titular Phantom (Gerard Butler), a musical genius whose facial disfigurement keeps him living behind a mask and deep in the tunnels underneath the opera house. The Phantom's ultimate interests in Christine, however, are less as tutor than suitor; in her he sees the only one who can (to paraphrase a lyric) lead him, save him from his solitude. But when Raoul (Patrick Wilson), Christine's childhood sweetheart, re-enters her life, a triangle is formed, and deadly consequences are to be paid.
One major, controversial deviation Schumacher and Lloyd Webber make from the stage version is the much-publicized decision to go "younger and sexier" with the casting--a move that turns out to pay off handsomely, enhancing and enriching the material. A common (and valid) criticism of the stage version is that Christine comes off as a complete twit for so easily fooled that the Phantom is an angel sent to her by her late father. By casting 16-year-old (at the start of filming) Rossum and hence aging the character down from its typically pushing-30 (and sometimes even pushing-40) stage portrayers, this crucial linchpin of the plot is all the more easy to swallow. Christine's lingering issues with her father's death nine years prior make sense at this "not a girl, not yet a woman" age, as is her easily being duped; amid the confusion of adolescence, it makes sense that she would be so willing--and, more crucially, need--to believe she still has some tangible connection to and guidance from her father.
This adjustment creates a ripple effect through the whole story. Granted, Christine was always at the center of Lloyd Webber's Phantom as he famously wrote the part as a showcase for the talents of his then-wife and -muse, Sarah Brightman; however, the film refocuses the piece from the role of Christine to the character of Christine. Leroux's original plot hook is still there, but in the film the triangle plays as an external enactment of the battle between Christine's awakening internal impulses: idealistic, hearts-and-flowers romance with Raoul versus the more primal, uncontrollable urges unleashed by the Phantom. The conflict and confusion is superbly realized in the film's best number, the climactic scorcher "The Point of No Return." As she and the Phantom take to the stage together for an erotically-charged duet in the Phantom-penned production Don Juan Triumphant, a stunningly coquettish and liberated Christine appears a bit too eager to flirt with physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual corruption for Raoul and the rest of the aghast audience's comfort.
Schumacher's savvy casting choices clearly underscore the contrasts between the two suitors/sides. As the Phantom, Butler lacks a certain ethereal quality in both voice and presence to fully sell the whole "Angel of Music" ruse, particularly in his first appearances, but the character and performance really take shape after the Phantom discovers Christine's love for Raoul. Butler's gruffness and raw vocal style reflect not only the Phantom's anger and fury but the soul-deep passion and pain that fuels it. Butler's unconventional take on the part may be less father figure than older peer, but he projects enough maturity over Christine to be a believable mentor while still young enough to be a viable paramour. By comparison, Wilson's sweet, croony Raoul may come off a little slickly, blandly polished, but that seems to be the point. In the transition to stage to screen the character is now far more proactive, prone to swashbuckling derring-do with a flowing, über-pretty boy mane to match, playing up the character as a safe, predictable White Knight romantic archetype.
Rossum, however, never makes one forget this is essentially Christine's story. If Schumacher and Lloyd Webber's shared inclination for bombast is perfectly suited for an adolescent's hyperbolic emotional struggles and outbursts, then Rossum lends Christine's plight grounding emotional authenticity. She infuses the music and the character with shadings impossible to project and capture from the distance of a legit stage, be it Christine's growth from nervous, shy chorus girl to confident adult performer before our very eyes in her first number, "Think of Me"; playing the well-meaning innocent grappling with her burgeoning sexuality and undeniable attraction to the dark side in the aforementioned "The Point of No Return"; or the act of emotional alchemy she performs with the graveside lament "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again." The latter song, while melancholy both lyrically and melodically, always came off on stage and in recording more as just a late-in-show, pull-out-the-stops powerhouse number for Christine. Seeing and hearing Rossum take on the song, it is a revelation, a desperate cry for help from a frightened, lonely, unsure young woman in need of someone who truly understands her. (For contrast, watch Brightman in Ken Russell's similarly staged 1987 music video for the song; she hits all the right notes vocally, but you never once get a feeling for the true meaning behind the words.)
While the sweeping romance is what has undoubtedly contributed to Phantom's remarkable longevity in the theatre, it is also a lot of fun to watch, and the film does boast some appealing light touches. Particularly entertaining is Minnie Driver's deliciously hammy turn as Carlotta, the Opera Populaire's resident diva whose star takes a tumble thanks to Christine's rising star and the Phantom's machinations; credit also must go to Margaret Preece, who provides Carlotta's amusingly overblown, ear-piercing vocals. Although their roles have been slightly pared down from the stage version, Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow strike some pleasing comic relief notes as the theatre's exasperated new managers, Messrs. Firmin and André, respectively. Schumacher does make a grave miscalculation, however, in translating one of the stage show's most exuberant and extravagant numbers, the New Year's party-set "Masquerade." His pantomime concept for the number may have looked good on paper, but this is one instance where the flamboyance becomes tacky and wrongheaded. Taking the mime motif a bit too literally, the dancers' costumes are largely black and white, going against the literally colorful lyrics ("grinning yellows, spinning reds"; "flash of mauve, dash of puce"); and worst of all, the vogue-heavy choreography immediately takes one out of the film's meticulously created 1870 reality and into less-than-magical memories of early-'90s, pre-Evita era Madonna.
For the most part, though, Schumacher and production designer Anthony Pratt don't so much translate than duplicate the look director Harold Prince and production designer Maria Bjornson created for the stage version. While this fidelity to the original production is admirable, it also keeps the film from truly soaring as a distinct work in its own right. Perhaps Schumacher, knowing how Prince's vision so impressively transitioned between scenes and scenery with almost-cinema-ready fluidity, felt more attention needed to be paid to streamlining the libretto into a screenplay, and he indeed corrects some structural and dramatic issues with Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe's book. An extended flashback sequence adds vital backstory to the Phantom; the 1919-set framing device is more effectively developed; the trademark chandelier crash has been moved from the live theater-friendly midpoint to a more film-appropriate third act position. He even throws in some inspired twists on old nuggets, such as turning Christine and Raoul's centerpiece love theme/wedding song staple "All I Ask of You" on its head by constantly showing the Phantom's stunned and ultimately devastated reaction to this heart-on-sleeve romantic declaration.
But cinema is a largely visual medium, and however sumptuous its production design is, visually Phantom is a bit flattened by Schumacher's overall soundstage-y aesthetic. He has gone on record to say that he wanted everything to appear theatrical and not particularly realistic--maybe an interesting idea in theory, but given Phantom's roots as a stage show, the movie hence too often appears like a filmed stage play, however inventively cinematographer John Mathieson's camera sometimes navigates the ornately-decorated space. There's a difference between a film of the stage show and a filmed document of the stage show, and after the sensory overload of a rousing and highly kinetic opening scene and some creative, only-in-the-movies effects work in the first major number ("Think of Me"), what Schumacher has made ultimately leans more toward the latter.
As such, it's doubtful that this Phantom will convert many experiencing Lloyd Webber's grand opus for the first time into (as they are called) "Phans." Lloyd Webber's music itself is also an issue. Being a fan of the show, it follows that I like the score and lyrics (by Charles Hart), and given how this show has been absorbed into the mainstream more than any other in recent theater history, some of the melodies will hold at least vague familiarity with the moviegoing masses. But Lloyd Webber's style (unashamedly melodramatic, heavily reprised melodies, and--a huge dealbreaker for some--almost entirely sung-through) has been known to provoke just as many strongly negative reactions as positive, and despite reorchestrations for the film played by a no less than hundred-piece orchestra, skeptics probably have a better chance of being convinced by hearing it performed live.
That said, open-minded moviegoers, shameless romantics, and, of course, existing Phans should have little difficulty in letting their darker (or, given the utimately tender spirit of the material, lighter?) side give in to the power of the music of the night. There's a reason why Lloyd Webber's live adaptation has consistently packed in crowds for going on two decades and served as the "entry drug" for future fans of live theater (such as myself), and it's the much like the reason why Christine is so taken by the Phantom himself: it conjures up this unexplainable spell that leaves audiences sad, sentimental, swooning, smiling--in some way transported and moved. Now, in Schumacher's film, that spell lives on.
Spanglish (PG-13) BUY THE:Poster!
Writer-director James L. Brooks's name is usually enough to get awards voters to sit up and take notice, if not pre-mark their ballots (after all, how else to explain Helen Hunt's 1997 Best Actress Oscar for his As Good as It Gets?), and no doubt Sony Pictures was counting on him to work similar award wonders with his latest comedy-drama, Spanglish. But when the film failed to show up anywhere on the National Board of Review's awards list nor the Golden Globe nomination list, something was clearly amiss--and, indeed, the film is as confused as its conflated title term suggests.
There's a germ of a good idea here, namely the story of Flor Moreno (Paz Vega), an only-Spanish-speaking single mom from Mexico who takes a housekeeping job in a rich Bel-Air household to support her daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce), who finds herself caught between her Mexican roots and very American life. Whenever Brooks sticks with Flor and Cristina, there are signs of the funny, warm, and honest human dramedy for which he's made his name. He's also incredibly fortunate to have at his disposal as wonderfully expressive an actress and as beguiling a presence as Vega, who radiates undeniable talent and infectious star quality in a role that is about 90% unsubtitled Spanish language. After raving about her work in Sex and Lucía in this space a couple of years back, it's great to not only see her snag big league Hollywood work, but knock the part clear out of the ballpark. (If she doesn't supplant the utterly baffling hack that is Penelope "flesh-and-blood Chicken Run character" Cruz as Hollywood's female Spaniard of choice, the world is even more fucked-up than I realize.)
But this is a Hollywood production after all, and so Brooks spends an inordinate amount of time on the wealthy white family for whom Flor works: hot shot chef John Clasky (Adam Sandler), his high-maintenance wife Deborah (Téa Leoni) and her lush mother Evelyn (Cloris Leachman). This wouldn't be such a problem if Brooks didn't paint these characters in such broad strokes, and to varying effects. John is such a nice guy as to not only be unbelievable (he's devastated by a rave four-star review because it means his restaurant will be overwhelmed by business--o-kay...) but be completely bland as well. This also begs the question as to how he ever hooked up with Deborah in the first place, for she's the opposite extreme, an insufferable, self-absorbed shrew to everyone around her. It's thoroughly exhausting to watch Leoni flail about and shriek like a harpy; the completely one-note and paper-thin character works the last nerve whenever on screen, yet at the same time the sight of a hopelessly adrift Leoni struggling mightily to make something of such a wretchedly-conceived and -written role is oddly sympathetic on a completely different level. Leachman's part is at the very least the designated comic relief, so broadness comes with the territory, but Evelyn's little more than a walking rimshot. The one exception to the otherwise clanging Clasky clan is impressive youngster Sarah Steele as John and Deborah's overlooked daughter Bernice, an "earthy" girl in appearance and size. (Seriously, though, could the character be anything but a black sheep, what with Brooks slapping her with the obvious, thankless moniker Bernice?)
Sandler and Leoni are name-brand actors, and as such must be given some substantial screen and story time, but the film stops to a dead halt whenever Brooks focuses on their rote marital troubles; equally routine but even more forced is the romantic angle that inevitably develops between the chemistry-free Flor and John. As the film head-spinningly jumps from Flor and Cristina's societal struggles to the Claskys' disintegrating marriage to Deborah's neglect of Bernice to Evelyn's cocktail-fueled one-liners to Flor and John's passionless flirtation to Cristina's voiceover narration--delivered by a six-years-older Cristina, no less, and in the form of a college application essay, thus introducing yet another dead-end narrative thread--one wants to smack Brooks and ask him just who and what the hell the movie is supposed to be about. That Flor and Cristina's (12-year-old Cristina, that is) story resonates the strongest is not so much his doing than that of Vega and Bruce, who deserve something far better than the muddle of Spanglish to showcase their abilities.
Imaginary Heroes (R) BUY THE:Poster!
Sigourney Weaver is one of contemporary film's most popular and enduring stars, and there is almost certain to come a time when she will get her due awards recognition. Alas, that time is not now, surely not when her hopes are pinned on as creaky a vehicle as this. There isn't anything particularly weak about Weaver's reliable work as Sandy Travis, the matriarch of a family dealing with a sudden tragedy. As Sandy falls into a hazy spiral that includes pot smoking and casual extramarital flirtation, all the while guarding dark personal secrets, Weaver gets to show off her oft-ignored comic timing in addition to her well-worn dramatic chops. Unfortunately, also well-worn is the scenario cooked up by screenwriter-turned-director Dan Harris. Despite the strong performances by Weaver and a DiCaprio-channelling Emile Hirsch as her bullied, rebellious, altogether confused son, not to mention nice support from Jeff Daniels (as Weaver's withdrawn husband), this type of seriocomic study of suburban angst has been done before and better (in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, for instance, which also happened to star Weaver). Harris tries to distinguish his film by laying on some thick patches of quirky humor, but he never smoothly reconciles the broadly-played silliness with the dark dramatic beats--that is, if one can call them beats since the pace and rhythm of the entire piece is so awkward and askew.
Closer (R) BUY THE:Poster!
The title of Closer has been called ambiguous by Patrick Marber, writer of Mike Nichols's film and the play on which it's based, but that word and all of its enigmatic connotations perfectly sum up the characters, relationships and motivations in this fascinating, lacerating drama.
Although Nichols does open up the action to take full advantage of the London locations at his disposal, the film's stagebound origins are quite obvious, starting with the cast of only four characters. Obituary writer/would-be novelist Dan (Jude Law) and freshly-arrived American stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) strike up an instant connection after a freak accident. Time passes, and a freakier--in both the literal and more slang sense--accident caused by Dan ropes in the remaining two players in the passion polygon: pleasure-pursuing dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen) and divorcée Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer with whom Dan had earlier shared a flirtation. "Closer" seems to be what each of the film's four characters want to be, but as the next two hours--and, in the movie context, years--progress, these four will fuck and fuck over each other on various occasions and in various configurations, it becomes apparent that they have no idea what that entails. Each suffers from some crippling variation of dishonest and frightened self-preservation where they crave notions of love and intimacy yet are not willing to surrender them themselves. While witnessing generally unsavory characters engage in accordingly unsavory behavior may not make for the most pleasant of viewing, but it is certainly engrossing and, unlike the characters, more than a little truthful.
The bulk of the credit for that goes to the quartet of actors. Given the project's theatrical roots, nearly all of the scenes are of pairs of characters engaged in sometimes-stilted and conversation, and so it's more up to the cast than Nichols to make the material come to life--and do they ever. While it helps that all four have the innate, intangible starpower appeal that lends Marber's pitch-dark perspective on people some immediacy, they all admirably do not sugarcoat the bitter goings-on. With all her superstar baggage, the idea of Roberts taking on so dark a character is a little jarring, but she immediately quashes any reservations in practice by simply playing the fickle and unsympathetic Anna straight, without trying too hard to be "naughty"; when she shoots off a particularly off-color (and much-talked-about) line, it's all the more brutal because of how casually it spills out. Hollywood's It Leading Man du jour Law uses that Golden Boy image to the same self-effacing effect already shown twice this season in I Heart Huckabees and Alfie; but whereas the former was played for derisive laughs and the latter for eventual touchy-feely comeuppance, here there's no flinching from the ugliness that ultimately cannot be contained by the skin-deep and self-deceiving slickness.
Looming largest, though, are the two leads that the studio is pushing as "supporting." Larry is perhaps the most static character, yet Owen's is the most dynamic portrayal. From his first scene, in which he is prowling Internet sex chat rooms, there is never any question as to they type of person Larry is; when he wants something, he goes after it and latches on tight. What changes, however, is how Owen hits this note, each emerging shade etched to perfection: at first it's weirdly goofy and almost endearing; then more seriously committed and almost noble; then obsessively single-minded and almost creepy; then predatorily possessive and scarily smug. Alice is the heart of the piece by default, as she's the most emotionally upfront and open; but like Larry says, a heart is "a fist wrapped in blood," and this literally beating heart's punishing offense is the "disarming" (to use Dan's word) defense of deception about most anything else. Ceaselessly captivating in both presence and performance, to borrow from the Damien Rice track that both opens and closes Closer, you can't take your eyes off of Portman.
For all the discussion of love, Closer never truly gets closer itself; the cruelty cuts deep, but into the mind, not the heart. But such a thoughtful and frank film (released by a major studio, no less) is one to be savored, however cold it may be.