This Sunday night marks the true beginning of the Oscar race. Oh sure, the nominating ballots will have already been turned in to PricewaterhouseCoopers (they're due tomorrow by 5 PM), so the actual winners of the Golden Globes won't really sway the nominations, but you can bet your ass that Sunday's winners will be coming first thing Tuesday morning (no trade papers on Martin Luther King Jr. Day) just hoping that they'll get the nod when big daddy's finalists are announced on the morning of Tuesday 1/25.
One film that should be able to save a ton of money is The Phantom of the Opera. Of the 11 films receiving Golden Globe Best Picture nominations (six dramas and five musicals/comedies), Phantom was the only one I hadn't seen … until last night. I mention this in passing over at The Conversation this morning, but I walked into the theater with very low expectations. Generally when that happens, even if I don't like a film, it won't annoy me to death. I had very low expectations for National Treasure, and although I'm not going to bestow upon it any awards, I actually had a good time. I've made no secret of my dislike for the work of Vincent Gallo, so I wasn't anticipating much from The Brown Bunny, but even though I didn't like the movie, it was better that I thought it would be and an improvement on Buffalo '66, which I despised.
Being directed by Joel Schumacher is an immediate strike against this adaptation of the long-running Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. Unlike many people, I never hated the stage show. I didn't love it either, and in many ways, I consider it the prime example of everything that was wrong with musical theater from about the mid-80s through the late-90s, with continuing residual effects lingering still today. Phantom was "musical spectacle," not musical theater. The most important part of the stage show wasn't the music, songs or singing, but it was a gigantic chandelier crashing to the stage at the end of Act I. But the music, in its own overly manipulative way, was still somewhat stirring, and the performances by that original cast gave the cheesy fantasy-filled love story some degree of oomph. Phantom the stage show wasn't as good as Les Miserables, but it also wasn't as torturous as Miss Saigon. And while Weber isn't any sort of true musical genius, he's actually much better than composers like Frank Wildhorn who has given us The Civil War, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Jekyll & Hyde and, most recently, the now-closed flop Dracula: The Musical.
So when I sat down to watch Schumacher's filmed Phantom -- made with heavy input from Weber – I may have been predisposed to not like the movie, but not due to any hatred of the material. Instead, I just never expect a good film from Schumacher anymore. I wrote about this theory of mine last year in a post regarding the terrible Phone Booth. Basically, if you give Schumacher too big a budge and let him go wild with his production design and effects, he'll ruin your film. Schumacher is one of the few directors who really needs to spend less time looking through the camera lens and more paying attention to what the fuck he's actually shooting. You give a film like Tigerland and send him off with no money, he comes back with a minor gem. I still haven't seen 2003's Veronica Guerin, but I've heard good things, and this is another movie that he had to make for under $20 Million.
You throw $60 Million at Schumacher (with no real high-priced talent, mind you) and tell him to recreate a 19th Century Parisian opera house, and you're fucked. Schumacher shattered all my low expectations for Phantom. He jumped right through them and made a movie far far worse than I ever thought was possible. It would be much hard to pinpoint what isn't wrong with this movie than comprehensively describing what is.
The fact that the Hollywood Foreign Press had the gall to award this film a Best Picture nomination astounds me. And while young Emmy Rossum is a beauty and has a perfectly fine voice, her Best Actress nomination is a bit embarrassing. One of the most noticeable flaws in this film is the virtually across-the-board stiff, robotic, almost zombie-like acting. At one point, the Phantom brings Christine (Rossum) down to his lair where he has this wax figure of her in a bridal gown on display. I swear I couldn't tell the difference between the two, and I'm not trying to pass on complements by way of Madame Tussaud. Everyone walks through this movie as if Schumacher never stopped to give them a note. "A bit more energy, dear." "Could you emote more, please?" "That was good, but let's not stare into space so much, OK?"
The only actor on hand who doesn't utterly suck happens to be Minnie Driver who manages to have a little bit of fun in her role as a not-so-talented but full-of-attitude diva. She's a bit over-the-top at times, but this film seemed to cry out for that because everyone else seems asleep.
Schumacher apparently spent so much time and money trying to quote brilliant older movies (Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast is oft-mentioned because of the disembodied arms holding candles illuminating the corridors, and there's a brief scene involving a room of mirrors pulled straight out of Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai that has very little actual purpose other than trying to look cool and making the audience once again ask, "Who the hell would have built this?"), that there wasn't any money left over to pay a full orchestra. Alright, I'm sure that's not true, but the music sounds tinny, with a more synth and rock bent than I ever remember from the CD or live, and any grating quality inherent in that main theme is only enhanced.
Then let's throw in the singing, which is relatively constant. This is one of those shows with very few moments of straight spoken dialogue. Scenes that should be spoken are sung. Obviously, this is because of the whole opera element of the story. But what happens most of the time in musical films is that all (or much) of the singing is dubbed over the performance that is caught on film. It's easier to get a cleaner sound. Yet in Phantom the lip synching is consistently off. I don't mean once or twice – it's all the time. Additionally, I sincerely doubt that Schumacher encouraged his actors to belt it out for the cameras even if they weren't being recorded. You can see that their vocal muscles aren't straining when they should be; they're not breathing as deeply as necessary to match what's heard on the soundtrack; their mouths aren't open as wide. And then, completely inexplicable for a professionally made film, there is a noticeable change in ambient sound once a character starts singing. Unless you're talking about the echo effects regularly added (especially to the Phantom himself), the tracks are just too clean, especially within this cavernous set of an opera house.
I feel incredibly bad for poor Gerard Butler, who plays the title role. Maybe Schumacher did give him a bit of direction because his scenery-chewing is a bit much. But Butler's problem isn't really his fault: he just doesn't have the voice to carry off this role. Everyone's favorite Phantom Michael Crawford had a rich baritone and a broad range. The tone of his voice instilled life into these songs that is completely missing from Butler's performance. I'm shocked that Weber apparently let Schumacher's penchant for pretty male faces get in the way of casting a stronger singer in this pivotal role.
Butler also suffers from another Schumacher and design team failing. Throughout the movie, the Phantom is just too damn pretty. His famous mask covers maybe a third of his face, and it's almost difficult to imagine that there could be much wrong with what lies underneath. When the revelation of his full appearance arrives at the end of the film, the disfigurement is much larger than what we couldn't see before. He's missing more hair and has scars in places left uncovered by the mask. It would make more sense to suppose that ripping that mask off caused all the damage because he simply wasn't that scarred five minutes before.
The Schumacher touches lead to a virtually endless number of flaws. Not only does this Phantom of the Opera have no right being mentioned in the same sentence as the words "Best Picture," it's one of the worst films of the year. It took 15 minutes for me to reach the heights of boredom, and since even thinking about it now continues to irk me, I'll l