Knight at the Movies ARCHIVES
The Half Mask Arrives, Barbra's Back:
The Phantom of the Opera, Meet the Fockers
12-22-04 Knight at the Movies column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
After nearly 20 years, the long awaited film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mega-musical Phantom of the
Opera is finally here. Here, too, is the orgy of spectacle from the stage version fully realized courtesy of gay
director Joel Schumacher, who after guiding Batman Forever and especially Batman & Robin (a guilty pleasure of
mine), knows how to shoot a crowd scene, keep the audience focused on the principals amidst hundreds of extras
and keep things moving. It’s a plush music box of a film and every frame of the movie is stuffed with rococo sets
dripping with tuberoses and gilt mirrors, overdressed extras, thousands of candles and enough gothic smoke and
lace to make Barbara Cartland weep.
Here, too, are the characters so familiar they have become clichés: the scarred, opera-loving phantom (Gerard
Butler), his porcelain skinned, dewy-eyed protégé Christine (Emily Rossum), his nemesis (and her heart throb),
the opera house’s new owner, the fetching Raoul (Patrick Wilson), the Phantom’s protector, the sinister Madame
Giry (Miranda Richardson), the opera’s reigning soprano diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver) and the new theatre
managers (Simon Callow and Ciarián Hands) who have inherited the cursed Phantom and his endless notes
stamped with a red, waxy skull.
Last but not least, of course, is the Chandelier. How can something so integral to the success of the stage
production not become a major character in the film version? After all, thousands bought tickets to the show based
on the promise of that chandelier whisking by over their heads. I imagine that the helicopter from “Miss Saigon,”
the levitating tire from “Cats” and Norma Desmond’s entire mansion from “Sunset Boulevard” will have an equal
opportunity to star in their upcoming film versions (should those be on the horizon). And the Chandelier does have
a spectacular cameo. When it falls here its effect is almost as big as the Titanic going down (one imagines it
crashing through the opera house and rolling down the streets of Paris, taking out every Can Can dancer and
Gendarme in its path).
All of this Schumacher handily sets up (though, of course, the Chandelier falls much later in the film) and the first
half hour or so of the picture (after the hackneyed opening framing device) leading up to the title song is a
sumptuous feast. This comes after the Phantom has gotten the wobbly voiced Carlotta, sounding like late Callas,
temporarily out of the way and orchestrated the triumphant debut of her understudy Christine. Chris is alone in her
dressing room and the familiar “Angel of Music” duet between she and the Phantom begins as the smoke
conveniently rises from the Paris sewers below. Glimpsed through the mirror, Half Mask Man somehow pulls Chris
through the glass and the familiar organ theme is heard as the title song begins.
At that moment, as the duo descended to the Phantom’s posh underground lair (complete with peacock shaped bed
and enough candelabras to make Liberace jealous), I was transported, too – right back to Halsted’s Christopher
Street gay bar in 1987. Night after night after night they played that bloody video starring Michael Crawford and
Sarah Brightman as all the cruising momentarily stopped and everyone stared up at the monitors. The film version
basically keeps the new wave 80s beat of the song intact – and pretty much everything else from the stage
version, too. Beautifully paced up to that point, the movie then bogs down into one ballad after another. Though
the set pieces keep changing, the rhythm of the songs do not (even the “Masquerade” set piece, though visually
dazzling, seems to move at a torpor with the cast voguing – another 80s fad – but not doing much of anything else).
Though Schumacher keeps the camera swirling and gliding like mad it still comes back to those songs – and your
enjoyment of the rest of the movie is going to hinge on your appreciation of them. For me, most of Webber’s songs
(after he left behind his collaboration with lyricist Tim Rice) are a mass of treacle and redundancy that seem to
have 17 repeat choruses (all the better to make you remember their insipid melody lines). At one point, I left the
theatre, made a visit to the men’s room, refilled my Cherry Coke at the snack bar and the graveyard song was still
going on when I came back.
I began this return visit to Phantom with the mixed anticipation that I always feel before entering Andrew Lloyd
Webberland. He has written many hit show tunes and this movie contains at least three of them. I’m a pianist and
have played “Music of the Night,” and “All I Ask of You” from this musical, among other Webber tunes, hundreds of
times over the last decade and a half – always by request. They are melodies that have apparently made millions
swoon. But I do not understand why and left this movie with a slight headache. Many others coming up the aisle,
however, were humming. To each his own.
Barbra Streisand has returned to the movies in Meet the Fockers, the funny (but not as funny) sequel to the
hit comedy, Meet the Parents. It’s Barbra’s first role since her movie career went down in flames during the last
half of the obsession with her looks picture, The Mirror Has Two Faces, in 1996. She is introduced in a backward
(literally) homage to The Main Event and wears the 70s curly hairdo and outfits familiar to movie audiences from
that period of her career – also her decade of greatest commercial film success. She is paired – beautifully – with
Dustin Hoffman. The two play the parents of male nurse Gaylord Focker (Ben Stiller) who is still under the duress
of his fiancé’s conservative, retired CIA agent father (Robert DeNiro). Basically, it’s the old Hollywood formula of
conservative versus liberal with every character eventually doing their hardest to shake up the deadwood, finicky
father. Though this wears a bit thin the naughty laughs abound and stop short of the gross out, Farrelly Brothers
variety. This is a sweet, warm movie and its most amazing achievement might be not just Streisand’s comedic
performance but her ability to finally “play well with others.” Bodes well for her screen future.
The most boring and beautiful movie since Barry Lyndon and Babs loosens up