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Butler a pleasant surprise
By Lady Liberty
The Phantom of the Opera
*** 1/2 out of ****
I'll tell you up front that I'm not a real musical fan. Oh, I've made a few exceptions (Moulin Rouge being one of them), but in the main, I'd rather stay home and watch reruns than sit through the typical musical production. Despite that, I do like music in general, though I loathe opera. These two facts mean that I bought tickets for The Phantom of the Opera for only two reasons: Critical acclaim, and Gerard Butler (a Scottish actor who has been, in my opinion, vastly underrated in his past efforts which include Dracula 2000, Reign of Fire and Timeline).
Most of you are doubtless familiar with the story told by The Phantom of the Opera. The story takes place in late 18th century in France at a time when Parisian citizens love a good show. They often flock to the city's opera house to see one, usually headlined by the opera company's tempermental soprano La Carlotta (Minnie Driver). In the movie, just as La Carlotta pitches another tantrum, the cast of the latest opera house offering is introduced to the new owners of the establishment as well as their wealthy patron, the Vicompte Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson). In the background, unnoticed by both La Carlotta and the Vicompte, is a pretty young dancer and chorus girl, Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum). Christine tells a friend she recalls that she and the Vicompte knew each other as young children, but she's certain he's long forgotten her.
When La Carlotta haughtily refuses to perform on opening night, the new owners are told by the company's ballet mistress Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) that Christine is a talented singer who has been taking lessons from a gifted teacher. In an impromptu audition then and there, Christine proves she's more than capable of taking on the lead. That night, she performs to raves from the audience. Seeing her onstage, Raoul does remember her, and he rushes backstage to congratulate her and talk with her. But someone else is also impressed with Christine that night: her teacher, a mysterious voice she hears from behind the walls of the opera house and whom she calls her "Angel of Music." Christine is, in fact, half convinced the voice is that of a real angel sent to her by her dead father.
The angel, of course, is really the storied Phantom of the Opera (Gerard Butler) who, it is claimed, has haunted the opera house for years. And after Christine's stellar performance that night, he finally allows her to see him when he beckons her to visit his underground chambers. But Raoul is waiting for Christine to come out of her dressing room, and when she doesn't he's worried. Madame Giry, who knows more about the Phantom than she lets on, manages to keep the situation relatively calm until Christine's return. But the stage is now set to wager the passion of the Phantom against the love of the Vicompte, and with the beautiful Christine as the ultimate prize.
The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most successful musicals ever brought to the stage. Many acclaimed stage shows, however, fail as films. But as Chicago so amply proved, stage productions can be brought successfully to the big screen if those doing the bringing have real talent and a true love for the original live presentation. Though I wouldn't have picked director Joel Schumacher as being one of those in possession of the latter, it turns out that he must have loved the show very much because the movie version keeps the best of the stage feel to it even as it consumes the big screen. The costumes are lavish and the sets sumptuous; the cinematography is spectacular. There are some edits and camera angles that are breathtaking, and the use of color in connection with special effects is jaw-dropping.
Gerard Butler makes a magnificent Phantom despite being an extraordinarily handsome man even wearing a mask. After all, the Phantom (as we all know) has his ugly side! But it's his very beauty combined with his brilliance (which are only enhanced by spectacular costuming, choreography, and Butler's ability to convey deep emotion even with half of his face covered) that serve to accentuate his deep pain. The surprise where Butler is concerned is not that he's a very capable actor, but that he's also more than creditable as a singer—and the Phantom is not an easy part to sing! His voice is by turns filled with hope and despair, joy and sorrow; without a spoken word, you never doubt what he's feeling at any given time, nor will you fail to feel it with him.
Patrick Wilson is young, good looking, and as light as Butler is dark making him perfectly suited to act as the Phantom's foil. He also sings well, though I believe with significantly less passion than Butler. Minnie Driver actually is a professional singer, but her operatic arias were dubbed (as she pointed out in an interview, opera is a discipline requiring lifelong study). Still, I can see why she was cast as her facial and body expressions brought La Carlotta to prickly and comedic life.
The real standout singer in this production of The Phantom of the Opera is Emmy Rossum. Just 17 when filming began, she's an ethereally beautiful actress making her the perfect physical embodiment of Christine. Though her acting is a bit wide-eyed and seems at times to be compartmentalized (okay, now look sad; oops! smile now!), her voice is so spectacular that I thought she, too, had almost certainly been dubbed. As it turns out, the voice was all hers and an amazing voice it is.
The truth is that The Phantom of the Opera is everything you've heard many critics say: lush, moving, beautifully crafted. But there's something else about it that can't really be defined in the words of any critic, including me. The closest that I can come is to tell you that, even many hours after having left the theatre, I can still see the Phantom in my mind and hear his voice rising to join Christine's. And when I do, I'm deeply touched yet again by the wrenching emotions of love, frustration, passion, and pain that are The Phantom of the Opera.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Phantom of the Opera is rated PG 13 for "brief violent images." On the whole, there's nothing too unsuitable for children of most ages. But the fact the dialog consists virtually entirely of song means that most younger kids won't care for it, nor will they comprehend some of the deeper emotions played out in the plot. But those old enough to like a good tragedy or romance, who appreciate a lavish theatrical production, or who love music will find much to enjoy in The Phantom of the Opera.
Assault on Precinct 13
** 1/2 out of ****
Although a movie by the same name was made back in the mid-1970's, those who created the new Assault on Precinct 13 are quick to say that theirs is not a remake but rather a movie "inspired by" the earlier film. I've not seen the earlier film, so I can't vouch for what's changed and what's stayed the same. I can tell you, though, that this new movie does just fine standing on its own.
Precinct 13 is an old police precinct located in Detroit. All of its officers and functions are in the process of being transferred to a new locale, and on New Year's Eve, the few people remaining in the building are there merely to finish up some packing. Sergeant Jake Roenick (Ethan Hawke) is one of the three spending his holiday at work. Eight months after an operation that killed two of his people, he's still working on his emotional recovery though he's disinclined to think he needs any help in that regard. Police psychiatrist Dr. Alex Sabian (Maria Bello) shows up to keep an appointment with him just before heading out to a party; she tries to point Roenick in the right direction, but his flippancy doesn't let her get too far before she has to leave.
Meanwhile, secretary Iris Ferry (Drea DeMateo) and officer Jasper O'Shea (Brian Dennehy) put up a few decorations and bring in a few bottles to hold a small celebration as the three acknowledge the New Year as well as the final shift at the station. Their small party is just getting underway when a prison transfer bus shows up at their door. Blizzard conditions have made it too dangerous to continue driving, so a pair of police officers and their four prisoners have decided to hole up in Precinct 13 for the night. Among the prisoners is Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), a notorious drug lord and murderer. Shortly after the prisoners are locked up in holding cells, Dr. Sabian walks in the front door. It seems her car has broken down, and she's returned to the precinct to wait for a tow truck.
Even with the company, the evening is a relatively quiet one until some men with guns show up on the premises apparently determined to get their hands on Bishop. O'Shea thinks the attackers are members of Bishop's gang come to break him out, but Roenick discovers the men outside are fellow police officers. After a talk with Bishop, Roenick learns that police vice squad leader Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) is on the take, and that Bishop could testify to enough damaging material to take him and a number of his men down with him. Duvall isn't about to let that happen, and so he and some of his team members take matters into their own hands. Recognizing he's got a shortage of manpower, Roenick decides to let the prisoners out of their cells and give them weapons to help with defense. But with the bad guys on the inside and the outside, and Roenick's own guilt over making what he perceives as bad decisions once before, there's some doubt as to whether or not any of the people trapped inside Precinct 13 will survive the night.
Ethan Hawke is a good actor who excels in this kind of role. Riddled with self doubt, you can see on his face when he decides to pull himself up by his own mental bootstraps and get the job—whatever it is—done. Laurence Fishburne is terrific. Without raising his voice or a weapon, he never-the-less takes command and intimidates anybody who questions him. He's smart, capable, and utterly ruthless, and you can get all that merely from the look in his eyes and his body language. Brian Dennehy, of course, is always capable, as is John Leguizamo as one of the prisoners. Gabriel Byrne seems quite flat here, but that could very well be because he doesn't get enough screen time to really flesh out his character much. I don't really buy Maria Bello as a psychiatrist, but she's good, particularly when the stress levels inside the building rocket sky high. As for Drea DeMateo, she's fine, but does this woman only have one character in her repertoire?
The script is exciting, and the direction very good. The editing is terrific, the shooting scenes very well choreographed and executed, and the set completely believable. The movie isn't a long one, and that's probably a good thing. Once a little background is established, the suspense and energy begin, and it doesn't let up until the closing scenes of the film. I don't know that any awards are going to be won by actors or screenwriters for Assault on Precinct 13, but it's no small thing to say that I was on the edge of my seat for much of the movie or that it took a short while for my heart rate to slow down after the thrill ride was over.
POLITICAL NOTES: The assumption that the authorities are always good and the bad guys are always, well, bad, is one that too many people make. Wearing a badge—or holding a political office or an appointed position—doesn't necessarily mean you're doing a good job or the right things. Unfortunately, the immunity that those things give some people in the minds of others are as much a hurdle to overcome in the freedom movement as are finding and keeping good and decent people in authority to begin with.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: Assault on Precinct 13 is rated R for "strong violence and language throughout." No kidding. While the language is probably not something the average 13 year-old hasn't heard more than once if not used himself, the violence is pervasive and extremely graphic. I can't recommend that anyone under 16 see this movie. For those who aren't too fainthearted at the sight of blood and some very cold-blooded killings, though, Assault on Precinct 13 offers a diverting—to say the least!—time in the theatre.
Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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