Seen at the Movies: Director Joel Schumacher has finally met his bombastic match in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera; it becomes clear while watching it that the garish Batman pictures, the overheated John Grisham thrillers, 8MM’s lurid dip into the porn world, a fetishized Colin Farrell trapped in a phone booth—all were warm-ups for bringing Lord Lloyd Webber’s bodice-ripping musical/horror extravaganza to the big screen. The result is certainly something to see, though many critics and probably large segments of the audience would rather flee. This Phantom of the Opera is certainly a designer’s dream. Working on eight Pinewood Studios soundstages, production designer Anthony Pratt created a remarkable mockup of the 19th-century Paris Opéra. His gaslit jewel of a set just keeps on giving, from the rococo auditorium to the immense backstage areas, and from the rafters to the catacombs, where the title character occupies a sumptuous lair that would put any Batman nemesis to shame. DP John Mathieson’s thrillingly mobile camera takes in, and connects all these spaces with convincing fluidity. And Alexandra Byrne’s costumes—including brocaded stage costumes that look to outweigh the wearer and black and white masked ball costumes that throw the film’s vivid palette into high relief—provide a crowning touch to the opulence. And yes, there’s a crystal chandelier, a two-ton, $1.3 million Swarovski loaner that comes crashing down on the heads of Opéra patrons.
To be honest, The Phantom of the Opera in any version cannot escape its tacky penny-dreadful roots, and the story of a young operatic beauty tutored by an unseen voice she thinks of as a kind of sexy angel never will make a lot of sense. Lloyd Webber and Schumacher put the emphasis on the sexy, and certainly title player Gerard Butler cuts a swarthily handsome figure, with just a bit of a scar to rough up his beauty. Butler does what he can, but he’s certainly no Lon Chaney (or to the stage version’s ardent admirers, Michael Crawford). As Christine, Emmy Rossum is lovely to look at and listen to, and she even makes you feel her attraction to the Phantom, but still, this is an impossible role. Her unscarred suitor Raoul is an even more thankless part, one which completely defeats Patrick Wilson. Supporting roles are ably filled by Minnie Driver (playing to the gallery as the Italian-accented diva), Miranda Richardson (the one performer who sees fit to adopt a French accent), Simon Callow, and Ciaran Hinds. This film is strictly a matter of taste—if you want to see it, you know who you are; ditto for those who would rather have sharp sticks driven into their eyes.
Many critics are proclaiming Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby to be the year’s best movie, and the presumptive winner of the Oscar. This tale of an aged, somewhat broken-down trainer (Eastwood) who takes on a determined boxer (Hilary Swank) who’s not only a woman but possibly past her prime is certainly beautifully made. Eastwood has totally pared the flab from his directing style, as he focuses in on the three principals (also including Morgan Freeman, as a former fighter who looks after the trainer’s downtown L.A. gym) with concentrated force. Of a piece with the director’s aesthetic is DP Tom Stern’s stark, low-key lighting style, which rarely renders visible more than half of an actor’s face, and veteran Henry Bumstead’s production design, which puts every shabby piece in place to create a series of classic Hopper-like settings for Eastwood and Stern’s compositions.
Million Dollar Baby starts out looking like a more artful studio version of Girlfight, and then delivers what everyone keeps calling an emotional sucker punch—this is what will win it the Oscar, if it indeed comes to pass. But while I admired the film’s craft, as well as the central performances (Swank, for example, is almost as good here as she was in Boys Don’t Cry), I didn’t completely buy much of what Million Dollar Baby was selling me—not the single-minded dedication of a 32-year-old ex-hillbilly who’s been waiting tables for 20 years and suddenly decides to go for the gold, nor the old trainer’s Catholic torment, nor Morgan Freeman with his gorgeous line delivery being consigned to philosophizing while sweeping floors. I certainly didn’t believe for a second in the authenticity of the mentally challenged boxer who hangs out in the gym or in Swank’s grasping trailer-trash family. Considering such hackneyed elements, Million Dollar Baby feels somewhat like the best movie of 1954, except that that was On the Waterfront, into which boxing also figured. Why don’t movies about wrestling or golf win Oscars?
Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda is much more conventional stylistically, but its power is the real thing. The great actor Don Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who saved the lives of more than 1,000 refugees within the doors of his establishment during the 1994 Rwandan Hutu-on-Tutsi genocide. Like Oskar Schindler, the character (a Hutu) is both saintly and complicated, a man who knew how to bargain with the corrupt powers-that-be, and used that skill to preserve the lives of not only his Tutsi wife and family but also of people he could easily have sacrificed. The film largely averts its eyes from the more grisly aspects of the massacre, but that doesn’t dilute its potency. Filming in South Africa, George and DP Robert Fraisse give the picture a straightforward, no-frills style that gets the job done, and the central Hotel Milles Collines setting is convincingly recreated by production designers Tony Burrough and Johnny Breedt.
From its title to its creaky ethnic humor to its shameless deployment of such plot devices as a signing toddler and truth serum, there are a number of tacky elements in Meet the Fockers. But it made me laugh a lot anyway. The sequel to Meet the Parents finds Ben Stiller’s WASP-y prospective in-laws Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner paying a visit to his emphatically Jewish, aged hippie parents, played with infectious relish by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. After eight years, it’s great to see Streisand on screen again, even in the subsidiary role of a geriatric-specialty sex therapist with a circa-Star Is Born ‘fro and flowing flower child capes and blouses (designed by Carol Ramsey) that still manage to emphasize her cleavage. And when did the famously intense Hoffman become the most relaxed actor in Hollywood? His unbridled joy in performing is a pleasure to witness. The movie, broadly directed by Jay Roach, is a big hunk of cheese, lit in high-key sitcom style by DP John Schwartzman, and largely taking place in the Fockers’ Florida compound, designed as a kind of Golden Girls-meets-Disney’s Animal Kingdom setting by Rusty Smith. But it is what it is, unlike a more ambitious, hopelessly confused comedy such as Spanglish.
In its final days at New York’s Film Forum, but one hopes a more extended life in theaters, is the documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, about the mysterious life and bizarre work of outsider artist Henry Darger. After the reclusive Chicago janitor died in 1973, his landlords discovered some 300 paintings, many on butcher-block paper and some more than 10 feet long, along with a 15,000-page illustrated novel titled The Realms of the Unreal. Both Darger’s artwork and writing told the story of the Vivian Girls, leaders of a child slave revolt in a mythical fascist society. The art is both dazzling and disturbing, with its fixation on Shirley Temple-ish little girls who are sometimes depicted nude with penises. Given the scale and cinematic canvas of Darger’s work, director Jessica Yu took the liberty of animating some of the paintings, which was accomplished in appropriately handmade fashion by Kara Vallow and a team of animators. In a year noted for high-profile documentaries, In the Realms of the Unreal takes on an unusual subject and does it full creative justice.--John Calhoun