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Posted : 2 weeks, 1 day ago on 1 February 2020 09:43 (A review of Klaus)

If I told you there was an animated film about the origins of the Santa Claus mythology would you picture something treacly and gushy? Granted, nothing involving Christmas can escape heavy sentimentality and requisite story beats, but Klaus counterbalances the sweet with the sour. Of course, the sour here is represented by a delightfully anarchic humor that gives a blood feud a slapstick edge.


I suppose it helps Klaus has a skewed, skeptical look at traditions and history. The feuding families apparently are more than willing to set aside their lust for violence when presented with a welcome alternative. Not Will Sasso and Joan Cusack’s heads of their respective families who want to keep the traditions alive, but they’re presented as villainous and curmudgeonly stunted characters. Tethering yourself to the past and refusing to mature beyond it is an impediment to progress and happiness is the film’s main argument and moral.


The world of Klaus is beautiful and charming to behold. The lovingly detailed hand-drawn animation is a reminder of a style that is depressingly hard to come by in the modern age. There’s real buoyancy and life in the geometric designs between the rounded body types and angularity of their dwellings.


It's a reminder of the best of the Disney Renaissance in the ways that quick jokes like creepy tots turning a snowman into a stabbing victim with carrots are hidden away in warmly textured watercolor-like backgrounds. There are no big musical moments, but there’s plenty of gorgeous visual delights to entrance the eye while a pleasing magical realism slowly emerges within the narrative.


If the major beats sound like a Hatfields and McCoys long-standing feud, where exactly does Santa Claus play a role in all of this? On the outer edges of the town (and the narrative) lives Klaus, a man with the body of a brute but possessing a wounded soul and golden heart. The major constructions of the myth – reindeer, flying sleighs, chimneys and stockings – are built by misunderstandings and a game of telephone with the town’s children. Klaus also can commune with his dead wife by ‘listening’ to gusts of snow and goes from literal man to figurative icon by the film’s end.


This transference from literal (if cartoonish) reality to magical realism is quiet and built slowly. Much of Klaus is like that in the ways it entertains and charms before disarming you with a possibility that anything could happen. It is this spirit of the traditional and the modern in conflict and conversation that powers Klaus through to a touching ending. This was one of the delights of 2019 that I didn’t see coming.

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Posted : 2 weeks, 1 day ago on 1 February 2020 09:43 (A review of 1917)

It would be easy to write off 1917 as a technical display lacking in anything else, but that complaint is rooted in an inability to get past the central gimmick. Sam Mendes’ directorial achievement is from the school of Rope and Birdman: everything is presented as one long shot. Unlike those films, there’s plenty of quiet poetry and emotional undercurrents to counterbalance the spectacle on display.


We begin by meeting our central characters, Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) as they nap in a verdant field between battles. Someone comes to stir them, and we watch as they descend into the trenches like an inevitable stroll into hell. The unnerving quiet of the way the scene unfolds is a sign of things to come and a dread starts to build within you.


This dread only deepens as they’re given a near-suicide mission to infiltrate enemy lines and deliver a message to another company to call off an attack. The bulk of the movie is of the two of them embarking on this mission and the various setbacks, dangers, and human moments along the way.


There hasn’t been a war film released recently that so artfully captures the desolate wasteland and hell of war. There’s no glorification of hyperviolence and masculinity like Hacksaw Ridge or American Sniper but visions of vast destruction and unimaginable loss. One scene that haunted me even as it unfolded was MacKay walking into a burning town from the blackness like he was entering hell’s mouth and discovering the eerie quietness outside of the hungry flames.


The surreal, nightmarish landscape of No Man’s Land is a repulsive corrective to rah-rah jingoistic war cinema. No Man’s Land is nothing but scorched earth, bombed out craters, corpses of man and beast being devoured by rats, and the remains of barbed wire and wood. The only sign of once hospitable land is puddles of dirty water that provide no nourishment. Mendes’ treatment of these scenes recalls the stark, harsh poetry of The Big Parade or The Best Years of Our Lives in trying to visualize near indescribable horrors that mankind can wrought upon each other.


If there’s any major knock against 1917 it isn’t the technical wizardry on display, but the big-name star cameos that occasionally call more attention to themselves than the story. Andrew Scott and Richard Madden blend in well while Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth are big time movie stars loaded with baggage. For a brief moment, 1917’s delicate immersion and terrifying surrealism are popped.


Mendes does manage to quickly regain the momentum lost by restoring us to the terrifying and senselessness of its main characters existence. Praise be to George MacKay for carrying 1917 upon his shoulders with such grace and existential trepidation. It’s a damn shame that Best Actor was so crowded this year that a spot couldn’t be found for him. MacKay’s stark face in several scenes is a blank space for Mendes to remind us of the cruelty and chaos of war. The haunting imagery is reflected from MacKay back to us just as often as the pauses and emotionally stingy finale.

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The Irishman

Posted : 2 weeks, 1 day ago on 1 February 2020 09:42 (A review of The Irishman)

The Irishman finds Martin Scorsese once again in a sprawling crime saga, but this one is in a more muted key than previously explorations of this genre. Not to say that large portions of the film don’t have the energy of GoodFellas or Casino, but The Irishman is an overall more reflective and funereal work than those films. It is something akin to a confessional from a tortured soul seeking absolution.


Or maybe it’s the ramblings of an elderly man who is unreliable both as narrator of his own life and as witness to mob violence. Based upon Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses, we’re introduced to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in a retirement home and loop back to this as he word vomits out his life story starting in the mid-40s to the early-00s. It is a smart framing device as it continually reframes events that happen with the regret and the unintended consequences that have weighed his life down in the interim.


Yet Sheeran still seems incapable of completing the journey of self-reflection towards lessons learned. He gets only so far but is still in some denial about how his lifestyle and decisions have alienated the family he claims to love, especially his older daughter Peggy (Anna Paquin). The ending coda, where Sheeran asks that his door be left slight ajar, provides a full circle as Sheeran has adopted one of Jimmy Hoffa’s idiosyncrasies as a self-protective gesture yet drained of his power, real or imagined.


It is fascinating in how Scorsese knows that in getting the band back together (De Niro, Joe Pesci, Harvey Keitel) audiences expect a return to past successes. As if preemptively expecting this, Scorsese weaves this strand into the larger narrative as Sheeran’s remembrances are tinged with a halo effect and perhaps a touch of revisionism. There’s a stronger sense of time’s inevitability as these glory days are delivered as after-the-fact and counterposed by choices which undercut them, like text displaying inevitable fates and black humor.


There’s a lot of narrative ground covered, but the central conceit is a trio of relationships struggling for power and ideology. There’s Sheeran in the middle with Hoffa and Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) struggling for influence and using Sheeran as a pawn. Pesci’s muted acting style is a great counterbalance to Pacino’s histrionics and aggressive masculinity. It's impossible to imagine the film working as well as it does without their grindlock and head-butting.


On the periphery is Anna Paquin’s largely mute performance but one that is weighed by the Sphinx-like facial expression she wears. Her Peggy is the silent observer and moral compass of the film. Paquin broadcasts a mercurial presence that both casting judgment upon her father and recoiling in horror at his very presence. One of the strongest scenes in the film is when Paquin breaks her silence and delivers words that aren’t remarkable on the surface but are loaded with subtextual rage and meaning.  


Every time we loop back to Sheeran in old age in the retirement home, it becomes a kind of purgatory where cleansing benediction for his is not forthcoming. He is a man left alone with only his memories, yet he seems incapable of actively getting redemption for his sins. Scorsese’s late-career masterpiece may be a last hurrah for all involved, but what a distressingly complicated and downbeat note to go out on. This is what a true auteur looks like.

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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Posted : 2 weeks, 1 day ago on 1 February 2020 09:42 (A review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Full disclosure: Quentin Tarantino’s cinema is something I’ve never responded to with the reverence and prosaic rhapsody of others. I find his comfortability with certain types of language empty provocations and his increasingly lackluster female characters are certain hardening of grossly masculine outlook. Into this fray comes his ninth film, a paean to the sunset of an era of white male rule and nearly three hours of Tarantino having a midlife crisis.


The story largely concerns Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former western television star, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his stunt double and best friend, as they navigate the rise of the New Hollywood and cultural changes of 1969. Orbiting around them are Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the Manson family, and various other players that seem to exist merely to threaten their place in the firmament. Being a Tarantino movie it, of course, ends in bloodshed and historical revisionism, like several of his films post-Inglourious Basterds.


I was with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood elegiac tone and vision for the first two hours but that final forty minutes ruined the entire experience. Sure, up to that point there was a certain hysteria about the presence of non-white people and women, but it was counterbalanced by a humanizing element to Sharon Tate and Pitt’s work as a zen-like figure knowing he’s lost every other relationship in his life. Then Tarantino insists on transforming these guys into heroic figures by killing the Manson family in the most violent ways imaginable.


Frankly, Once Upon a Time would’ve been better had to ended prior to August 1969. It is this ending that solidified the general sense of, as Richard Brody described it, “[celebration of] white-male stardom (and behind-the-scenes command) at the expanse of everyone else.” It’s a bit awe inspiring in how it went from an extended love letter to Hollywood and a mature vision from one of cinema’s enfant terribles before swinging wildly, manically back into his bloodthirsty provocations.


At least DiCaprio and Pitt deliver some truly great work and maintain your interest. DiCaprio creates a portrait of a star struggling to transition from superstar to smaller player that unearths layers of melancholy and vulnerability we haven’t previously seen from the star. There’s a scene where DiCaprio, a great actor, must deliver lines and perform in a manner that’s mannered and artificial, and it’s thrilling to watch him go so far outside of his comfort zone.


But it is Pitt that emerges as the film’s true MVP as he interacts with a larger number of players in the film. He meets his shrinking platform with a benevolent resignation to the charging tides and manages to subtly reflect the internal struggle he’s experiencing throughout. He’s magnetic when merely inhabiting the screen or when sharing it with a crop of up-and-comers, especially in some extended dialogue scenes with Margaret Qualley.


The best scene probably belongs to a nearly silent Margot Robbie as her Sharon Tate goes to watch The Wrecking Crew, a real movie the actual Tate starred in. Robbie-as-Tate watches the real Sharon Tate and for a moment the tragedy that subsumed her movie career is washed away. We’re glimpsing the movie star Sharon Tate, a charismatic beauty that possessed a certain sadness behind her eyes, and her film career is elevated above the tragedy that prematurely ended her life. This is one of the few true moments of elegy and eulogy for a fading Hollywood in a film that ends that maturity with a blowtorch to a swimming pool.     

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 26 January 2020 04:38 (A review of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World)

I have always admired and enjoyed the How to Train Your Dragon franchise for its maturity and distinct lack of Dreamworks clichés. Their lone franchise that’s blissfully free of never-ending lazy pop culture references and jokes, celebrity voices that don’t fold into the material but stand apart from it, and a sense that each film is building upon the other to really explore the lore and material. The Hidden World is a fitting and emotionally satisfying coda to the whole enterprise.


Much like the second film picked up years after the original so does this one. At this point, Berk and its various citizens have been living harmoniously with their dragons in a stasis that has lulled them into a false sense of security. Hiccup and his friends have gotten sloppy in their escapades against dragon hunters by relying too often on muscle power in lieu of competent strategy.


Each film in the trilogy is about Hiccup’s coming of age and The Hidden World represents his maturation into a king. Part of that maturity is learning to separate himself from Toothless, his dragon companion, for the benefit of both species. That last bit is the real emotional crux of the film as Hiccup and Toothless must essentially divide their kingdoms and lose their codependency.


If these final steps of growing up and evolving away from childish things is the main scope of this film, then it makes it smallest of the three. I’m fine with that as it also emerges as the most emotional engaging by really allowing its quietest scenes to speak loudly and disrupting them with brutal guerilla warfare from the trilogy’s finest villain, an ever-patient dragon hunter bent on killing the last of the Night Furies.


Having said all that, there is a certain amount of sameness that permeates the final entry. Long-lasting franchises develop a language and series of short hands that make true innovation harder and harder to develop as it goes on. Notice how every Star Wars film shrinks a massive universe down to a series of families squabbling so too does The Hidden World recycle tropes and beats from the prior films. It may lack the newness of the earliest entry, but it demonstrates a remarkable amount of growth and manages to make goodbye bittersweet. I call that a success.   

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Jojo Rabbit

Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 26 January 2020 04:37 (A review of Jojo Rabbit)

Well, you certainly must give Taika Waititi point for audacity if nothing else. The first thirty minutes or so of Jojo Rabbit had me clenched up wondering where it was going and what it was trying to do. It had a distinct possibility to go completely off the rails, if not into outright offense, and I remain unconvinced that reactions steeped in disgust and offense aren’t entirely valid. Jojo Rabbit is a film I eventually got into a wavelength with, but this is some volatile material at work.


Told from the perspective of a young boy in Nazi Germany who eagerly partakes of the propaganda as a desperate way to fit in until his world slowly begins to crumble. These fractures cause him to not only grow-up but to rethink and reframe his world and its inherent political viewpoints. Oh, and a fanciful version of Hitler is his imaginary friend.


It's not that there haven’t been successful and beloved comedies about Hitler and the Nazis before, look at Chaplin’s The Great Dictator or Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, but those other films didn’t offer the cuddly aura that this one did. If it’s hard to hate up close, then into that theory comes a Jewish refugee living in Jojo’s attic. The majority of the movie is Jojo, so nicknamed by an older member of Hitler Youth after his refusal to kill a rabbit, learning that Jews are people, his ideology is wrong, and his mother is a part of the political insurgency that decries Germany’s actions.


Waititi isn’t merely satirizing Nazis but making them small by mocking them and their obsessive bureaucracy. Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, and Sam Rockwell all broadly play their roles as Nazi counselors at a Hitler Youth boot camp. They aren’t characters but cartoons lacking anything resembling humanity, including a complex scene where Wilson arms children in Germany’s final wartime push.


Much of Jojo is balanced upon Roman Griffin Davis’ tiny shoulders, and he’s a bit of a wunderkind. How Waititi got such a complex performance out of so young an actor is anyone’s guess, but I suppose some kids have just got it. His scenes with Scarlett Johansson as his mother are the richest. Johansson’s performance is emotionally complicated, and she telegraphs the diverting emotions in smart ways. Her eventual fate is a heartbreaking moment played with intensity by Davis.


It all closes with a dance set to a German version of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a simple reminder of the things that were lost along the way. I can understand someone walking away from Jojo Rabbit feeling offended by its combination of laughs and authoritarian imagery. It took me a while to get the vibe of the piece and it ended up winning me over, but I understand how and why it wouldn’t. It may be naïve to think that the youth will leads us out of darkness, but maybe Waitti is also onto something. 

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Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 26 January 2020 04:37 (A review of Judy)

Judy Garland was one of the greatest screen performers of the 20th century, if not of all time. She was not merely a triple-threat capable of singing, dancing, and performing, but possessing that ephemeral thing dubbed “it.” She remains an impossibly charismatic star and an actor that often appeared to be an exposed nerve on the screen.


Garland was not merely the greatest musical performer of her time, if not of all time, but a grand character off the screen as well. Plagued by an abusive childhood that transformed into a series of broken marriages, addiction, and a fall from grace that somehow seems at odds with our collective memories of her as a wholesome girl-next-door. Her legend is as much built upon her artistic achievements as it is her tragedy. Her story is ripe for dramatic interpretation.


Into that legacy comes Judy, a glimpse into the final year of her life as she struggles through a London residency. The film is a mixed bag. By limiting its scope and points of reference for her iconography, it also doesn’t provide enough reasons to care for her as a character or for audiences not as well versed in her legacy a demonstration of what was lost along the way. Garland was a genius performer, but Judy’s main counterpoint is the behind-the-scenes turmoil of The Wizard of Oz, so her present day nervous, broken figure is left only partially formed.


Not only that but Judy engages in some mawkish wish-fulfillment in a fictional gay couple having a kiki with the legend and a climatic group singalong of “Over the Rainbow.” Full disclosure, mawkish it may be, but that final scene also got me in the gay spot due to Garland’s tremulously “Promise you won’t forget me.” We won’t and we haven’t Judy.


Which leads us to Renée Zellweger and her central performance. Not merely some simple awards-bait or comeback attempt, but a performance built out of carefully noticed details about Garland – her slumped gait, the way she held the mic, her various performing tics. If Zellweger doesn’t come entirely close to absorbing Garland’s high wire emoting style, that’s because no one can copy or emulate something so unique and specific. What Zellweger does do is give us the essence of Garland and enough details that we invest in the reality of the film’s world.


Hollywood loves to look back at its own and deify them as a way to atone for sins committed against their own. Judy is an example of that, but if you really want to honor Garland’s legacy then watch her films and concert appearances. If you don’t know where to look beyond The Wizard of Oz, then I have plenty of suggestions.  

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Posted : 3 weeks, 4 days ago on 22 January 2020 09:33 (A review of Joker)

A stitched together dolly of Martin Scorsese’s halcyon auteur days as envisioned by a dudebro with no understanding of Scorsese’s artistry, sophistication, or poetry. Add to this a patina of DC Comics and a suffocating aura of self-seriousness that pervades in the worst possible ways and you’ll be right in the ballpark for Joker. The first film of DC’s proposed Black imprint, a sublabel that they claim will tell one-off near Elseworlds-like tales of their famous characters, and one that received a mere shrug and “meh” from me.


The problem isn’t that Joker aims for seriousness or strives for something deeper, even if many of its themes are as deep as a puddle, it’s that everything about it is arrogant and derivative. Essentially a re-skin of The King of Comedy and prone to borrowing Taxi Driver’s finger gun scene without earning it, Joker is superficially impressive but lacking in anything resembling a soul. Here is a Frankenstein’s monster of film clichés and shorthand used as borrowed prestige to tell a potentially compelling story in as dismal a manner as possible.


On a surface level, everything in Joker is quite lovely and beautiful but look much deeper. Yes, the score is wonderful, and yes, the design of the film is noteworthy for bringing back the desiccated Manhattan of the 1980s, but it’s all in service of a story that doesn’t want to look too deeply at the social woes plaguing its city and its residents. Superficial seductions to wrap you up in a story that is aggressively sullen and humorless.


At least Joaquin Phoenix is on hand to make the journey through Todd Phillips’ plagiarism bearable. Phoenix is performing in a movie that Joker thinks it is and doesn’t deserve the tortured, physically deformed work he brings to it. His eventual transformation into full-on psychopath feels somehow deflated or unearned. There’s been no major escalation towards his behavior and his Arthur Fleck may as well be any random patient at Arkham for all his resemblance to the comics.


There’s only so many scenes of Wall Street types singing “Send in the Clowns” (groan) before a violent altercation, an ironic use of Fred Astaire, and a just bizarre appropriate of Charlie Chaplin before it grinds you down. Frankly, Joker needed more Grand Guignol expressionism to more accurately embody and capture the Clown Prince of Crime. Phillips and Phoenix don’t offer up enough derangement or dark humor in their reading of the character. This is cinematic leftovers with a painted-on rictus grin.   

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Jamaica Inn

Posted : 3 weeks, 4 days ago on 22 January 2020 09:32 (A review of Jamaica Inn)

For all the flourishes that demonstrate Alfred Hitchcock was at least somewhat engaged with material, Jamaica Inn still evinces the sight of the controlling director being overrun by his star with his mind largely elsewhere. Coming right before his transatlantic crossing to work with a minor American studio, David O. Selznick had yet to produce Gone with the Wind, Jamaica Inn has less to do with Hitchcock’s typical suspense and a lot more to do with melodrama. He had already managed to make The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and the Peter Lorre version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, each technically daring and filled with glorious bits of suspense, comedy, and adventure, so Jamaica Inn’s routine flatlining is something of a surprise.


Then again, this is really the Charles Laughton show. We learn early on that Laughton’s Sir Humphrey Pengallan is orchestrating the roving gangs sowing terror so there’s a noticeable lack of suspense or engagement with the proceedings from there. If you already know the twist is the buildup to the other characters finally catching up to the omniscient narrative worth the investment? I didn’t think so and found myself routinely bored waiting for Maureen O’Hara’s ever watchful Mary to figure out what I already knew an hour prior.


If we learned in the end, as was Hitchcock’s original intent, that Pengallan was the string puller behind these events, then his gentlemanly pretentions and nouveau riche trappings would take on grander textures of villainy. We are always aware that he is the deceitful kingpin so everything Laughton does becomes something of a camp artifice and there’s no surprise, suspense, or reason to invest in his scheming. We know that O’Hara will eventually pull back the curtain on his greed and ego from the beginning, so their battle of wills is lopsided throughout.


Yet not nearly as lopsided as Hitchcock and Laughton’s aims. Hitchcock is clearly striving for atmosphere while Laughton undoes that aim with his theatrical pompousness, including a strange gait that seems attuned to a music only he can hear. Author Daphne du Maurier nearly considered withholding the film rights to Rebecca as she was so disappointed with this adaptation of her material. Thank god she conceded as that film is one of Hitchcock’s great masterworks, the first of a string of them during his Hollywood years.  

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The Phantom of the Opera

Posted : 1 month ago on 15 January 2020 10:00 (A review of The Phantom of the Opera (2004))

God knows I love musical theater, but I have cared for the ponderous and thunderous work of Andrew Lloyd Weber. He of the simplistic and pedestrian musical and lyrical refrain, of crafting stage shows with scores that all sounds the same except for the one big song, of being nearly single-handedly responsible for terraforming Broadway into gargantuan ugly spectacles that liter the community. You would correct in assuming that I came to Phantom of the Opera with suspicion and trepidation.


Imagine my surprise (or the complete lack) to discover that Joel Schumacher managed to both transpose the show onto the screen but still somehow manage to make it badly done. How you can take something that was seemingly engineered to appeal to legions of bombed out wine moms and do it so poorly is an amazing feat of daring. I’d venture to label this a disaster of misguided ambition on par with Showgirls, but this lacks that movies sense of accidental camp and art.


This is just boring and self-serious. Wherefore art thou grand kitsch of Batman Forever? A sense of irony, however intentional or not, would liven up the proceedings, but there’s a never-ending parade of ostentatious white elephant art instead.


Everyone knows the story of Phantom by now: young ingenue (Emmy Rossum) becomes object of desire for tragic, disfigured hermit (Gerard Butler) while romancing her childhood sweetheart (Patrick Wilson) and upstaging the opera’s diva (Minnie Driver). There are time jumps, spooks, and a parade of elaborate costumes and big scale numbers, most of which garnered laughter from me that was probably not the desired effect. C’mon, they put in a vogue dancer in the middle of “Masquerade” for no discernible reason. That’s funny, especially as Schumacher seems incapable of understanding how to edit on beat and he’s clearly trying to go for that.


It doesn’t help that the entire film is awash in fussily overdesigned scenes that literalize things like scene transitions on stage. Something like candelabras rising out of the ground to symbolize the descent into the Phantom’s lair are literalized in this film, so fully lighted candelabras are rising from the water. This doesn’t inspire the giddy sense of unreality and magic that Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast does but calls attention to itself for being unable to adapt itself from stage to screen.  


Nor does the cast help matters much. Emmy Rossum and Patrick Wilson sing well and are very pretty to look at but generate no heat and are self-consciously artificial. Gerard Butler and his singing voice (if we’re being generous) are grossly miscast as the Phantom, and his makeup looks more like a bad reaction to shellfish than hideous deformity. The likes of Miranda Richardson, Simon Callow, and Ciaran Hinds are largely wasted in thankless roles that don’t use their prodigious talents in any way befitting of their stature. Only Driver manages to evince anything resembling a personality in this garish spectacle and bless her heart for it.


I suppose Schumacher’s ineptitude with the material means it was successfully translated to the big screen as The Phantom of the Opera is essentially a dime store bodice ripper set to a Meatloaf album. It’s big, loud, and empty in the end, so it follows a logical progression that the movie version would expand on those issues and make them bigger. A gaudy stage spectacle gets blown-up for the cinema, and its tilt-a-whirl aesthetics and blaring soundtrack are enough to leave you dizzy and vaguely queasy in the end.   

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