Monday, December 20, 2004

Finding Neverland (2004)

Directed By: Marc Forster
Written By: David Magee, based off the Allan Knee play
Starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, and Freddie Highmore
Synopsis: A lonely, struggling playwright (Depp), finds life, purpose, and (you guessed it) inspiration from spending time with a young widow (Winslet) and her young family. Much better than it sounds, I promise.

Big names, yes. But it's Highmore's performance as Peter, the boy who inspired Peter Pan, that makes this film. Highmore stares down everyone with soulful eyes throughout, daring anyone to help him deal with the pain of having lost a father and being on the verge of losing his mother. He and Depp drive the heart of this movie, giving me great hopes for the two of them in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, due this summer.

The movie's a tearjerker - designed to be one, and it succeeds with whimsical grace. Depp, the most open we've seen him at least since What's Eating Gilbert Grape, becomes writer J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. Barrie, trapped in a cold relationship with his wife Mary (a tremendous Radha Mitchell), and lost for inspiration after the flop of his play Little Mary, is sparked out of his doldrums by widow Sylvia Davies (Winslet) and her four children. Barrie begins spending all his time with the family, sparking rumours around town and further alienating himself from his frustrated wife.

Barrie, a bit of an odd duck in real life, is well known for creating incredibly sympathetic woman characters, likely as a result of the distance between him and his real wife. In Neverland, Barrie instead finds solace with Sylvia, until she develops consumption (why is it always consumption in these movies? Is it just because caughing up a fit is easier than showing, say, cancer of the jaw?). Depp, Mitchell, and Winslet all play their roles with great reserve, letting writer David Magee's adept script and director Marc Forster's able hand steer the film.

The highlight is when Barrie brings the production of Peter Pan to Sylvia's parlor in order to show her Neverland. It's a great moment, one which Forster directs with alacrity as Jan A. P. Kaczmarek's lush score lifts the film from a solid biopic to one of the great films of 2004. The next best moment, though, would have to be seeing Hoffman, playing Barrie's producer, sitting back on his armchair reading over the script going "Indians! Pirates! Smee!" I'm making a rule that Hoffman (Captain Hook in Hook) must be in all movies relating to Peter Pan in some way.

The rundown: Well acted, well written, and well directed, Neverland is solid in every aspect. Four stars, and I believe in fairies again.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Phantom Of The Opera (2004)

Directed By: Joel Schumacher
Written By: Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber based it off Webber's stage adaptation of Gaston LeRoux's French novel.
Starring: Emmy Rossum, Minnie Driver, and unfortunately, Gerard Butler and Patrick Wilson.
Synopsis: The Phantom (Butler) obsesses over his young student (Rossum), and becomes insanely jealous when she has the audacity to fall in love with someone normal, if completely bland (Wilson). Dancing ensues.

Before I start this review, I'll admit that I'm feeling a bit of trepidation writing this one. Phantom is one of Broadway's most-loved musicals, and the film has earned a surprisingly rabid following since its release last year. As I hover over the keys, I have visions of irate fans pouring masses of flame mail into 10-4GB if I fail to exalt this film to the heavens. Though, honestly, those people can suck it. I'll write what I want.

Besides, I don't think any of those people visit this site.

Anyway, Phantom isn't the sort of a film where I feel the need to lay into it - it's really not that bad a piece of work. It's directed by Joel Schumacher, who normally directs taut thrillers - Phone Booth, Bad Company, 8MM, A Time To Kill, etc. A musical would seem a strange choice if Phantom weren't such a different sort of musical: it's all prolonged tension and musical dissonance - right up Schumacher's alley. Besides, it was originally supposed to be directed by the supremely boring Shekhar Kapur. Bleah.

Schumacher turns out to be a fine choice for directing in a lot of ways. He creates a thrilling intensity to Phantom - fully willing to let the film swing darker at points, but always making sure that the ride is fun along the way. In fact, Schumacher presses too hard at this, and in effort to make the film feel like 19th century bacchanalia, he loses the baroque eerieness that was pushing the film. There are only so many clowns drinking and midgets dancing that one can stuff into a scene before it all seems farcical. That aside, Schumacher does marvelous work creating the right mood for each number - "Past The Point of No Return" bristles with sexual tension, "Masquerade" is pure gaudy fun, and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" is a solemn yet longing movement. Each piece is painted with great care, and the effort shows to marvelous effect.

While a good deal of this is due to Schumacher's instinctive understanding of tension (after all, this is a man who, when the script called for a theatre fire, actually lit the building on fire and filmed his actors running everywhere as the building burned to the ground), some of this credit should go to designer Anthony Pratt, who created each location from scratch on Los Angeles soundstages. Each site in the film is a memorable and evocative window into a really creepy version of the opulent Paris of 1870, and Pratt should be congratulated because each location is completely memorable. But above all, credit should go to cinematographer John Mathieson, whose constantly flickering camera and eye for attractive shots cover up the fact that at the heart of it all, Phantom really isn't all that good.

Mathieson does a good job, too, you'd almost never notice. He and Schumacher make each piece such a splashy thrill ride that it almost escapes you that these pieces are not adding up into a complete story. The problem is that Phantom is never quite able to throw off being a Broadway musical, and move into becoming a film. By making each scene a set piece, we're never given a chance to interact with the characters in any real way. We want to root for Christine, the girl torn between her handsome childhood sweetheart, Raoul, and the smoldering passion of the Phantom. After all, she's sweet, innocent, and beautiful, there's no reason on earth for us not to root for her. And yet it's difficult to become attached, because Schumacher never lets us see what's going on in her head. We cannot understand which one she really loves because we don't know her at all - she wanders through the movie without anything guiding her. And so we end up muddling along with her, confused. Do we like the Phantom? Or should we root for Raoul? They both have passion, but neither seems to know why, or what to do with it. So we watch in bewilderment, disconnected from it all.

Still, nobody went to see Phantom for character development, and often the film is usually at its weakest when it attempts to add depth to an essentially two-dimensional story. Besides, Phantom is in some ways a great triumph - it brings a stage show to film without damaging any of the elements that made it so popular in the first place. The greatest example of this is the character of Christine herself, famously played by Sarah Brightman in the Broadway piece (Brightman was herself slated to play Christine when the film was first pitched in 1990, until her subsequent divorce from Webber halted production). Christine is instead played by Emmy Rossum (The Day After Tomorrow, Mystic River), a truly stunning find. Rossum, only 16 when Phantom was shot, absolutely dazzles, leaving her two leading men, Gerard Butler* (the Phantom) and Patrick Wilson (Raoul), scrambling about to measure up. They don't. Butler (presence but no voice) and Wilson (voice but no presence) are both fully adequate for the role, and their earnestness to make this work is evident. They throw themselves into each scene with the vigor of unknown actors who know this is their big chance (after all, Phantom is the most expensive independent film ever shot). But it isn't to be - the Phantom's jealousy seems forced, Raul's pleas for Christine's attentions seem stilted, and their climactic duel scene is limp. Despite their best efforts, Phantom never quite pulls together in a cohesive way. Still, you've got to give them credit - they more than gave it a shot. And between everyone's best efforts, it really wasn't too bad a ride.

Three Stars out of Five - it would have gotten higher, but for a good half of the movie (warning: technical discussion to follow. Prepare for boredom), the music is not synched up to the movement of the singers' lips, which I find inexcusable. In addition, when the music is synched, the singer's expression rarely matches the actual music, which I also consider a travesty in modern filmmaking. If you've got enough money to burn a theatre to the ground, you've got enough money to play the CD through a boombox while you film so the singer has at least a chance of portraying the emotion of the song. Honestly.

As little as I liked Butler, someone read this review this summer and suggested to me that a far better choice for the Phantom would have been Clay Aiken. I couldn't dissuade her of this. Therefore, I take back everything I ever said about Gerard Butler. I'll never complain about his performance again. You're great, man. You keep doing your thing.