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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 26, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Phoenix Flies, Phantom Flops

I wasn't looking for a remake of the 1965 James Stewart adventure movie The Flight of the Phoenix.

The story of a crashed airplane that is reconstructed by its passengers and crew into a new plane that can carry them out of the desert, it was full of surprises, tension among the characters, and dangers of many kinds. The power struggle between Stewart's character (pilot Frank Towns) and Hardy Kruger's character, who proposes the reconstruction, is one of the finest dramatic juxtapositions in film history.

It's a bold thing for an actor to essay a role that was originated by a mature James Stewart, but Dennis Quaid turns out to be up to the challenge, and so is Giovanni Ribisi in the Hardy Kruger role.

Writer Scott Frank has updated and fleshed out Lukas Heller's original screenplay, and if John Moore is sometimes just a hair too obvious in his direction of the actors, he has improved on the sense of menace from the surrounding desert.

The new version doesn't trust quite as much in the psychological struggle, making sure we see images that the first movie either couldn't bring off or left out because they were too horrible. This is not a film for children who might have nightmares because of images too disturbingly real to be forgotten.

For mature viewers, though, I recommend the new Flight of the Phoenix highly as a film that does more than copy a brilliant original. It's one of the best movies in this Christmas season and I hope you don't overlook it as the family fare vies with the Oscar bait for our attention.

*

However, I do have one complaint about Flight of the Phoenix. In the middle of the movie, for no discernible reason, the filmmakers have a character make an absolutely outrageous attack on religion.

It is baffling in its utter irrelevance to anything that's going on in the story -- there is no religious conflict, and the one religious person hasn't been obnoxious in any way about his faith.

It's as if the writer of the film were so full of hatred for Christianity that he had to find an excuse, any excuse at all, to express his bigotry. And it's an odd kind of religious bigotry that is endemic in Southern California right now: It is expressed in bumper stickers that say, "I like spiritual people, but religious people scare me."

They seem not to understand that this very statement is a perfect example of the worst sort of religious bigotry, condemning multitudes of people for no better reason than their adherence to a faith that the speaker doesn't respect.

They are guilty of precisely what they condemn -- the arrogant assumption that their beliefs are vastly superior to all others. And the presence of this Califorism in the movie brands it forever as an artifact of a particularly nasty and stupid period in American elitist culture.

Fortunately, the moment is brief enough, and the rest of the movie good enough, that the irritation soon fades and is almost forgotten as you leave the theater.

*

Phantom of the Opera, the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit Broadway musical, is now limping along in theaters throughout the world. One can only hope that, dubbed in Italian, French, or Spanish, they did a better job of casting the right voices.

The actors in the English-language version did their best, and who can fault them for accepting the roles, even if they weren't equipped to play them?

In some musicals, having a great voice doesn't matter all that much, especially in film, where voices can be intimate.

The problem is that the storyline of Phantom absolutely depends on the singing being lush and gorgeous. The character Christine is supposed to knock a Parisian opera audience dead; the Phantom is supposed to be a twisted musical genius; Carlotta is supposed to be an established diva.

Ordinary Broadway voices won't do.

Yet these actors were not strong enough, vocally, even for Broadway.

Only Carlotta (acted by Minnie Driver, sung by Margaret Preece) gave us any hint of operatic quality. Everybody else would have been jeered off of any opera stage in Europe (where they have a history of jeering inadequate opera singers as mercilessly as, say, American presidents).

Sarah Brightman originated the role of Christine on Broadway, and even though her voice can be irritating sometimes, she has the range to soar on the high notes, and the strength to be believable as an opera singer. Emmy Rossum has a sweet young voice, but it has no credibility in any of the songs.

Michael Crawford originated the role of the Phantom on Broadway, and even he lacked the strength in the low notes to be convincing; and the adenoidal tone that made his voice gratingly awful in Hello, Dolly! had not improved enough with maturity. Wisely, they did not use him for the film.

But the replacement, Gerard Butler, while a very good actor, simply had neither the range nor the tone to bring off the vocals.

Patrick Wilson, playing boyfriend Raoul, came closest. He had a couple of truly powerful notes -- but of course his character was the only one who was not supposed to be musically brilliant.

But let's pretend that the singing was adequate, or that you don't care.

The actors are attractive and do a very good job of making it seem almost natural to go from speech to song and back again.

The set decoration is gorgeous.

The popcorn was delicious.

Now for the bits that failed.

The screenplay and direction absolutely did not make the changes that were needed to turn the stage play into a movie. On the contrary, the movie comes across as a stage play plus closeups.

The key mistake was the decision not to tell the story in time order. If we had begun the movie when Christine is still a child, with her idyllic relationship with her father and her naive first love with viscount-to-be Raoul, and then watched as her father's death tore everything away from her, we would understand her emotional neediness and cared about her deeply.

Then when Christine comes, as a child, to the opera, if we had watched her relationship with her "angelic" voice teacher grow, we might have felt the power he had over her.

Instead, we never feel either his allure or his menace. All the key relationships come to us as tedious explanations.

But failing to open up the story as a movie is only one mistake.

Overall, the story of The Phantom of the Opera is one that has intrigued audiences for generations, and that story is still here ... barely.

However, in this movie, moment by moment, the decisions, the words, the actions of the characters make no sense whatsoever.

A few examples: Christine visits her father's grave and begs him for forgiveness. For what?

Christine knows that Raoul is in danger of being killed by the Phantom, so she drags him away -- but where? Out of the building, to a place where the Phantom can't go? Oh, no. To the roof of the opera house. Where, of course, the Phantom lurks.

And then, after they sing a duet, she apparently decides the Phantom isn't dangerous after all, and they go back down to the theater for her to sing on stage.

The Phantom leaps onto a gargoyle's back and vows that he will destroy both Raoul and Christine ... and then does absolutely nothing until a masquerade ball some undefinable time later. And even there, all he does it give them a script and insult everybody.

When Raoul has bested the Phantom in a sword fight (and, by the way, how did the Phantom learn to fence at a level to compete with a chivalrically educated lordling?), Christine forbids him to kill him. "Not like this." Then, moments later, she's terrified of the Phantom.

Oh, stop me, please! A catalogue of the stupidities would take longer than the movie.

None of it makes sense. Not one character, not one conflict, not one word of dialogue.

But forget the bad adaptation and the ludicrous storytelling. Let's pretend that it was a great adaptation and the storytelling worked brilliantly.

Would this be a good movie then?

No, no, and no. Because no matter what you do, this musical still has music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Charles Hart.

Ironically, Hart is given no credit (or blame) for the movie. It's all director Joel Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Hart's only mention is as miscellaneous crew associated with the original stage production. He wasn't even asked to write the lyrics to the one additional song Webber reputedly wrote -- that was handled by David Zippel, who got equally low billing.

This is ironic because, in fact, the lyrics are dreadful. They sound like what an enthusiastic high school student might write after seeing two or three musicals. He has some idea that there should be rhymes, but any time he finds a rhyme he's simply thrilled and doesn't care whether the rhyme word has any actual meaning in the song or the story.

Webber clearly despises lyricists or he'd give them more credit -- but his contempt for lyrics is reflected in his ineptness at writing music to suit the words he's given.

Over and over again, we have bold music (sadly trite, but bold) overblowing absolutely quotidian language.

Over and over again, Webber (and everyone else) is oblivious to whether the lyrics are appropriate to character, to the dramatic moment, or even to the English language. The ineptness of the writing is turned into a joke, as if the characters were trying to make up the rhymes and they were the ones who had blown it.

But even if the lyrics had been wonderful, would this be a great movie musical?

Of course not. Because Andrew Lloyd Webber is the most inept composer ever to make millions on Broadway. He writes as if he were composing everything on a guitar and only knew a few chords; he capos up in order to change keys.

He knows how to pop up to high notes -- it's his only means of faking a climax -- but he doesn't know what to do with the singers the rest of the time.

There are only two actual songs in the show -- everything else sounds like recitative that Verdi or Rossini would have discarded as embarrassingly empty.

Bombast, that's what Webber's good at -- certainly not music, certainly not songs.

So what do we have? A musical that is loved by fainting women; and why do they faint? Because of (a) bombast and (b) the few surviving shreds of a great romantic tale that survive Webber's and Hart's and everybody else's gross mishandling of everything.

And to top it all off, even the makeup job on the Phantom's face is pathetic.

Several times he wears masks that reveal most of his forehead, which looks completely normal -- yet when his regular mask is torn from him, we see "deformity" that extends well into that "normal" area. On stage, you can get away with that sort of sloppiness. On film, it's obvious and embarrassing.

But let's pretend they didn't have those continuity errors. What about the actual deformity?

It looks like bad acne. Or psoriasis gone mad. Ordinary people go through ordinary lives with worse skin conditions. There was nothing on that face that would remotely justify his having been exhibited in a sideshow as a child. Spectators would have said, "My kid looks worse than that, some days."

All that anguish, for a bad case of hives.

The actors will survive. Gerard Butler (the Phantom) is going to play the lead in a bio-pic about Robert Burns. Patrick Wilson already played William Travis in The Alamo and has other leads scheduled. Emmy Rossum is ethereally beautiful and expressive and will have a very nice career.

Joel Schumacher will survive because film directors are rarely punished for their mistakes. Andrew Lloyd Webber will survive because nobody in New York even knows what a good musical should sound like any more. (Wicked is surely a hit by accident.)

What may well have died in the theater with Phantom of the Opera was musical film. What Chicago wrought, Phantom may well unwreak. Because it reeks so badly ... and thus the panicky executives who make decisions in Hollywood will conclude, "Chicago was a fluke; movie musicals don't work" and so really good musicals -- you know, the kind with songs and plots -- won't get funded and our culture will be the poorer for it.

Phantom of the Opera is a massive oil spill on the coast of film musicals.


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