Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera

Posted on December 10, 2004 at 6:44 pm

Despite lavish settings and sweeping camera movement, this sumptuously produced Andrew Lloyd Weber musical feels static, stuffy, and stagey. This is in part because so much of it takes place on a stage but more because it is mostly just people standing still and singing rather than moving or, well, acting. It’s the Branson, Missouri dinner theater edition, as decorated as a wedding cake and as tightly laced as Christine’s corset.

This is the zillionth version of the Gaston Leroux Beauty and the Beast-like story about a brilliant masked madman who lives under the opera house. He falls in love with the exquisite young soprano Christine, (played by the exquisite young soprano Emmy Rossum from Mystic River). She believes he is the angel of music, sent to teach her by her dead father.

But the Phantom is no angel. He will do anything to make Christine a star and he will do everything to possess her.

At first, Christine is mesmerized by the Phantom. He brings her to his home in the caverns far below the stages and dressing rooms and sings to her about the music of the night, charging her singing with passion. And just as the theater owner sells the place to two scrap metal dealers who know nothing about show business, the phantom arranges to have Christine get the starring role in the opera’s newest production.

The new team has a new patron — a handsome young nobleman named Raoul (Patrick Wilson) who was once Christine’s childhood sweetheart. He and Christine fall in love but the Phantom will not allow Christine to be with anyone else, even if it means destroying everything he cares about.

Sumptuous sets and costumes give this film the grandest of aspirations, but its overheated emotions set to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s purplish music are so inherently “theatrical” that the film cannnot be as effective as the stage play, and the performances are more about the music than the story. Christine, Raoul, and the Phantom sing in the theater, they sing in the caverns, they sing in a graveyard, and they sing at a masked ball. But the bland Gerard Butler as the Phantom never conveys the menace or the allure of the brilliant madman who hears the music of the night.

Parents should know that the movie includes peril and violence, with some graphic images. There are mild and non-explicit sexual situations with predatory implications.

Families who see this movie should talk about some of the fairy tales than inspired it. What is the significance of the masked ball? What did the Phantom love about Christine? Can you love people without really seeing who they are? Why was the Phantom’s face so terrifying to himself and others? How do we treat disabled people today? Families should also talk about the way the two key songs in the movie are used to illuminate different relationships and different emotions.

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy Chicago and some of the earlier, non-musical version of this story, from the silent version starring Lon Chaney to the 1989 version starring Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Robert Englund. They can read the original book and find out more about the story here. Rossum is always worth watching, especially as an Appalachian girl in Songcatcher, and Butler is much more at home in the appealing Dear Frankie.

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The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Posted on December 10, 2004 at 3:45 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Violence and peril, including guns, characters killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Another quirkfest from Wes Anderson (Rushmore, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tannenbaums), this film has some of the most imaginatively charming images on screen this year, especially a tiny rainbow-striped seahorse and a cutaway side view of a ship that is as delightfully cluttered as a dollhouse conceived by Joseph Cornell. And it has Anderson’s trademark oddball characters from a mix of cultures, all speaking in his trademark corkscrew speech and reacting as though no two of them speak the same language.

He’s great with situations, visuals, and deadpan delivery of weird, almost absurd, dialogue. He’s a little too fond of weird names: Oseary Drakoulias and Esteban du Plantier are not as witty or engaging as he would like to think. Anderson is terrific with juxtapositions — no one else would fill a soundtrack with David Bowie songs performed bossa nova style in Portuguese. But increasingly, it all seems to be tricks without any meaning or insight behind them, cleverness for the sake of cleverness, without any heart or soul. Or art. College students can deconstruct to their hearts’ delight, but it’s their own meaning they will bring to the movie, not Anderson’s.

It’s the story of a Jacques Cousteau-like explorer named Steve Zissou (Bill Murray), who finances his expeditions by filming them. He has not had a successful movie in nine years. His wife (Anjelica Huston) strides around chain-smoking and making bitter comments. She maintains a flirty relationship with her bisexual ex-husband, istair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum), who happens to be Zissou’s rival.

Zissou’s new mission is not about science; it is about revenge. He wants to kill the “jaguar shark” that killed his friend. His motley crew includes the high strung Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe) and some newcomers: Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a naval officer with the drawl of a riverboat gambler who could be Zissou’s son, Bill Ubell (Bud Cort from Harold and Maude), assigned to watch over them by the bond company, and Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), an intrepid English journalist who happens to be six months pregnant. Steve and Ned go off in their run-down ship and end up engaging with pirates, stealing equipment from Hennesey, and developing a romantic rivalry for Jane.

Anderson benefits tremendously from the always-engaging production design by Mark Friedberg, a delightful score by former Devo-ian Mark Mothersbaugh, and the always-engaging performances by top-notch actors clearly enjoying themselves, especially Goldblum, Dafoe, and Blanchett. But the script, by Anderson and Noah Baumbach takes some bad turns in the last half hour that feel sour and unsatisfying. But Anderson is getting close to Emperor’s New Clothes time here, and eventually someone is going to point out that when it comes to the substance, he has nothing on.

Parents should know that the movie includes very strong language, non-sexual nudity (topless sunbathing), and non-explicit sexual references and situations, including pregancy from an adulterous affair and bi-sexuality. Characters drink, smoke, and smoke marijuana. Characters behave badly in many ways, from being cruel to each other to stealing. Characters are in peril and there are violent encounters with deadly animals and various weapons, including guns. Some characters are killed.

Families who see this movie should talk about why Steve seemed more attached to his friend who was killed than to anyone else in his family or crew. What mattered to him? What mattered to Ned and Jane? What did it add to her character to have her pregnant?

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Anderson’s other films, Rushmore, Bottle Rocket, and The Royal Tannenbaums. They might want to learn something about Jacques Coustou, whose voyages (and the movies about them) inspired this film.

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Million Dollar Baby

Posted on December 9, 2004 at 4:49 pm

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language including the n-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Brutal boxing matches with graphic and very serious injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, strong inter-racial friendship
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

“Million Dollar Baby” is a strong contender, but it suffers a TKO in the last round.

At first, it is a fresh, assured, and evocative take on the classic boxing formula. A tired old trainer (Clint Eastwood as Frankie), abandoned by the prospect he hoped to take to the title bout, meets a scrappy but untrained would-be boxer. He initially refuses to train the kid, but is won over, at first by the persistence, then by the heart of the young fighter. There’s another connection between them, too. Frankie has no family but a long-estranged daughter. The boxer’s father is dead and the remaining family is all greedy, selfish, and lazy. The bond between them helps to ease both of their losses.

One reason the relationship becomes so important to Frankie is that the boxer is a young woman. Maggie (Hillary Swank) gives Frankie the chance to bring all that is best in him to a nurturing relationship with a young woman about the age of his daughter. And Frankie gives Maggie the chance to be a champion.

The details of the boxing world and Frankie’s relationships with Maggie and with his long-time friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman, who also narrates) are warm and richly observed. Frankie and Eddie have the bickering banter of a long-time married couple and pros Eastwood and Freeman riff off each other like jazz players who have been jamming for a lifetime. Eastwood is also marvelous with Swank, a performance that is fuller, fonder, and funnier than we have seen from him since the Any Which Way But Loose days. For the first half of the film, the narration, based on F.X. Toole’s superb book and beautifully read by Freeman, is so vivid we can smell sweat and adrenalin. A kid with more heart than arm “punches the air like he expected it to punch back.” Another fighter has “a punch that could stop a tank but a heart the size of a split pea.”

But then we hear the same stuff again. We get it, we get it — when Eddie says that “Everything in boxing is backward. Sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back,” you don’t need to repeat it for us to figure out the metaphor. Same with “Instead of running away from the pain like a sane person would do, you run right into it.” The sign on the wall tells us that “Winners are simply willing to do what losers won’t.” Come on, Clint, that wouldn’t even qualify for a fortune cookie.

Frankie has made mistakes. He let Eddie fight too long, and Eddie lost an eye. He did not let a contender fight for the championship, and the contender left him. How will he know when it is time for Maggie to go for a title? He tells her that the first rule is to protect herself at all times. What does that mean when she is going into the ring to hit and be hit in return?

All of this is interesting, but then the film takes a bad punch and never gets back up off the canvas. When tragedy hits, Frankie and Maggie have to make some tough choices. So does director Eastwood, and he makes the wrong ones, going for the manipulative and the maudlin, everyone lining up as either saintly or unredeemably awful. And that narration keeps coming back to hammer in every insight.

Parents should know that the movie features brutally realistic fight scenes with graphic injuries. STOP reading now if you want to avoid spoilers. A character becomes paralyzed and asks to be allowed to die. Characters drink and smoke and use some strong language, including the n-word. There are some mild sexual references and some ugly insults. Some viewers may be unhappy with the portrayal of a priest who uses bad language.

Families who see this movie should talk about what makes someone want to be a fighter. What does it mean to say that “everything in boxing is backward” and “sometimes the best way to deliver a punch is to step back?” How does that relate to the way the characters behave? Why does Frankie argue with the priest about theology? Do you agree with the sign in the gym that says “Winners are simply willing to do what losers won’t?” What is it that winners are willing to do? How is the number one rule – “protect yourself” – applied by Frankie? By Maggie? By Eddie? Why did Maggie turn out so differently from her brother and sister? Families may also want to talk about Maggie’s request and Frankie’s decision.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the many classic movies about boxing, including Golden Boy, Body and Soul, and Rocky. Michele Rodriguez made a stunning debut as a female boxer in Girlfight. Families will also enjoy the light-hearted romantic comedy Pat and Mike with Katharine Hepburn as a golfer and Spencer Tracy as her manager. Boxing fans (and fans of great writing) will enjoy the book that inspired the movie, Rope Burns by F. X. Toole. They can find out more about women’s boxing here. And they can try to make lemon meringue pie without any stuff from a can.

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Spanglish

Posted on December 9, 2004 at 4:31 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: Strong, courageous Latina characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Every few years, writer/director James Brooks makes another smart, sensitive movie about smart, sensitive people who love each other and drive each other crazy. In “Spanglish,” as in Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, and As Good as it Gets, his characters are self-centered, immature, neurotic, needy, a little too smart for their own good, scared to change and more scared not to. They are not the usual one-endearing-quirk-apiece usually permitted in Hollywood films and his plots are not the usual “act one introduction, act two complication, act three resolution” usually required in Hollywood films. In other words, he makes movies for grown-ups.

In “Spanglish,” Brooks has taken one of the most overused movie set-ups, one that is even borderline offensive and turned it into something of delicacy and insight. Think you’ve seen the clueless white family humanized by an outspoken but cuddly minority too many times? That’s because you have. But this time is worth a look. This isn’t your children’s Bringing Down the House.

The almost unforgiveably beautiful Paz Vega plays Flor, a woman who brought her six-year-old daughter from Mexico to America in search of a better life, but managed to find Mexico in America by staying within the confines of an all-immigrant neighborhood for the next six years. Now she is looking for a better-paying job so that she does not have to be away from her daughter as much. So she ventures out of her safe little world with her cousin as interpreter, to apply for a job as a housekeeper with a wealthy, loving, but highly dysfunctional family.

The interview is with Deborah Clasky (Tea Leoni). Deborah’s company closed down and she is spinning out of control as a full-time mother. When Flor’s cousin walks into a glass door, Deborah somehow believes that is is appropriate to (1) say “I’m not mad” and (2) thrust a $20 bill into her hand. Flor may not speak English, but she knows that (1) they have agreed to pay her an enormous amount of money, more than she had been making in two jobs, and (2) there is a lot she does not know about how they do things, but she has something to teach them, too, starting with how to pronounce her name.

The Claskys rent a beach house for the summer, and the only way for Flor to keep her job is to bring her daughter to live with them. This presents enormously difficult issues of class and money and boundaries and values. A lot of complications and hurt feelings — and some very intensive video English lessons and some even more intensive life lessons later, everyone has to face some tough decisions.

Parents should know that the movie includes a very explicit sexual situation and other sexual references, including adultery and promiscuity. Characters drink, including drinking to cope with being angry and sad, and one character has an alcohol abuse problem. Characters use very strong language and there are many tense and unhappy family confrontations. A strength of the movie is the positive portrayal of intelligent and courageous Latina women.

Families who see this movie should talk about what Flor, John, and Deb were looking for from each other. Why did Deb buy Bernie clothes that were too small for her? Why did Brooks choose to tell the story through a college application essay?

Families who enjoy this film will also appreciate Brooks’ other films as well as the television shows he helped to write, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi.

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Movies

Blade: Trinity

Posted on December 8, 2004 at 9:33 am

C+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Frequent profanity, strong and explicit language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Intense peril and violence, a child is put at risk
Violence/ Scariness: Explicit and graphic peril and violence, child in peril
Diversity Issues: Strong black hero, strong female and disabled characters
Date Released to Theaters: 2004

Let’s not pretend that “Trinity”, the third chapter in the ongoing tale of a human-vampire hybrid out to kill all vampires, is a good movie and instead say it is a solid “Blade” movie – meaning, if you are not already a fan, don’t bother.

Wesley Snipes still plays the title character, a tattooed human whose mother was bitten by a vampire as she was giving birth, imbuing him with both his abilities, such as his super-strength, pointy teeth and knack for walking away from fights without a scratch, and his invincibility to the typical bloodsucker’s no-no’s like sunbathing, silver and garlic. True to his original 1973 comic book origination story, Blade is a powerful vampire-hunter and one of the first black heroes in the genre.

This time around, writer-director David S. Goyer (who wrote all three in the “Blade” saga and directed the forgettable “ZigZag” before trying his hand at directing here) drags out the UR-vampire, Dracula, for Blade to fight and perks up the movie with a couple of eye-candy, joke-cracking sidekicks. The plot is there solely to accessorize the big fight: Blade is framed by the vampires; Blade’s sidekick, Whistler, is killed; the vampires dig up (literally) Dracula; things look bleak; new allies appear; a long-shot plan is hatched; and –et voila— we get our big fight.

Snipes no longer plays Blade for humor, as he did in the first “Blade”. Indeed, the role has lost character, humor and emotions over the length of the trilogy. Whether busy trying to grimace through his prosthetic orthodonture or exploding doors with his kicks, Blade exhibits the whole range of moods from grumpy to grumpier. With his perpetual mock-turtleneck and leather overcoat, Blade now relies upon his sidekicks to provide the sexy physiques as well as the one-liners.

With the loss of Whistler (Kris Kristofferson), the dry, rough banter of old is replaced by the snarky, self-effacing irony of Hannibal King (Ryan Reynolds, of “Van Wilder” and TV’s “Two Guys and a Girl” fame), providing most of the movie’s laughs. For the vampires, it is indie-movie queen, Parker Posey, who adds humor by unleashing her inner bad-girl with unapologetic, over-the-top glee as Danica Talos, the brains behind Dracula’s return.

Good old Dracula aka Drake (Dominic Purcell) is no longer an effete aristocrat, but is re-imagined as a bare-chested heart-throb out of Ancient Sumeria, who, like Blade, is invincible to the usual vampire weaknesses. Purcell is, however, entirely vulnerable to the difficulties of acting in a script that calls for non-stop action, one which renders “talking” scenes sluggish and necessary only as a bridge to the next fight scene. Like the attractive but forgettable Jessica Biel (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, TV’s “7th Heaven”) as Abigail Whistler, Purcell’s acting has the sensitivity of a lead-pipe and makes one grateful for Snipes’ two-dimensional Blade.

The fight scenes are plentiful, the characters familiar and the end predictable. For “Blade” fans, “Trinity” will be fine popcorn fare and provide fodder for comic-book store discussions about which movie had the best fight scenes and whether WWE’s Triple H will have a future career playing numb-skull heavies (since he does a yeoman’s job in this one). For those not already bitten by the “Blade” bug, there is nothing here that can withstand the light of day.

Parents should know that these are extremely violent action movies, that often veer into carnage usually reserved for the horror genre. Characters are shot, sliced, dismembered, burnt, tortured, and bled. There is a scene where a blind woman is hunted down and killed within ear-shot of her daughter. There are scenes of kidnapped humans in drug-induced comas being bled to feed the vampires. Frequent profanity is played for humor in this movie and sexual references are extremely explicit, including incest and sex toys.

Families who see this movie could talk about the concept of honor that Drake discusses with Blade, about which character –if any—acts in an honorable way, and whether the concept here is used as justification for acting monstrously. Nietzche’s much-used warning to “battle not with monsters, lest you become one” is the leitmotif of Blade’s existence. What separates Blade from the vampires? Why does the audience revel in someone who seeks to solve all his problems with violence?

Families who enjoyed this movie might enjoy the original “Blade” and “Blade 2”, as well as John Carpenter’s “Vampires”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (the movie, not the TV series), and the Japanese anime “Blood: the Last Vampire”.

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