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12.30.04

The Aviator The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Phantom of the Opera

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Phantom of the Opera
Reviewed by Deborah Young

When a beauty falls in love with a beast something magical happens — the charms of a beautiful spirit become more important than the unattractiveness of physical flaws. Stories about this kind of magic captivate us. The idea that beauty of spirit can transcend physical deformity feeds the hope that love will come knocking despite the most glaring shortcomings of appearance.

French writer Gerald Leroux’s story Phantom of the Opera is a horror story, but the beauty-and-the-beast theme lies at its heart. That’s probably what’s kept it fresh and appealing after almost 100 years of retelling in films and stage plays.

The latest screen adaptation of Phantom (a collaboration of director Joel Schumacher and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber) definitely has its weaknesses. But they are not enough to mute the power of this alluring tale about a relationship between a deformed musical genius, known as the phantom (Gerard Butler), and a talented ingénue, Christine (Emmy Rossum).

The phantom, who lives under the Paris opera house, becomes obsessed with the young singer Christine. However, Christine is torn between her musical mentor and Raoul (Patrick Wilson), a handsome suitor.

Rossum does an excellent job of showing her character’s transition from naiveté to sensual awareness. Her facial expressions tell the story that the filmmaker chooses not to dramatize explicitly. And her voice is sweet and pure.

Butler’s phantom comes across as sad and dangerously arrogant rather than terrifying. He broods and skulks, but his demeanor doesn’t give a hint that something more sinister is brewing beneath his masked surface. Butler is at his best in the scenes in which he’s showing passion for the young Christine. He exudes desire with the briefest looks and gestures. He’s at his worst when he tries to express tenderness with his coarse and sometimes slightly off-key singing.

Minnie Driver, on the other hand, provides welcome comic relief as Carlotta, the diva of the opera. She employs over-the-top gestures and a thick accent to bring Carlotta to life, and she steals the show in every scene in which she’s present.

The film’s greatest asset is its scenery. Almost every scene is dressed with a multitude of sculptures; others are drenched in the romantic glow of candlelight. The scenery creates the ambiance. However, a series of stills could have captured the beauty of the art and the natural backdrop. Unfortunately, the director seemed intent upon replicating the stage play on film rather than using the medium of film to make the story more realistic and less spatially confined.

Despite the film’s limitations, there is magic — especially in that famous scene when the chandelier comes crashing down. (PG-13) Rating: 3; Posted 12/30/04


The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

There are two viewpoints when it comes to the work of filmmaker Wes Anderson. One is, he mines entertainment value from eccentricity. The other, he creates eccentricity for eccentricities’ sake.

The one thing that both camps can agree on is that his films are decidedly eccentric.

His previous films, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, were quirky comedies that found humorous profundity in human foibles...bizarre human foibles, that is.

There is one big difference in his latest effort, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. He had a much bigger budget to play with.

Bill Murray, who was memorable in both Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, takes the title role, a narcissistic and irresponsible American version of Jacques Cousteau. Formerly a renowned oceanographer, Zissou has fallen on hard times. His rusty ship, The Belafonte, has seen better days, he hasn’t had a hit documentary in years, and his estranged wife Eleanor (Angelica Huston) is tired of funding his money-losing efforts.

But Zissou insists on one last expedition. He wants to track down and kill the elusive Jaguar Shark, a gigantic fish that swallowed one of his colleagues.

Before embarking on his voyage, Zissou meets Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a fan and airline pilot who may or may not be his long lost son. He talks him into accompanying his on his quest to kill the great shark.

To further complicate matters, a prying journalist named Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) insists on accompanying them in order to cover the expedition in a magazine article.

Numerous conflicts threaten to thwart Zissou’s efforts, including problems with his antiquated equipment, an indifferent crew and a run-in with murderous Philippine pirates.

Murray is terrific in an extremely difficult role. In a skillful balancing act, he manages to retain the audiences’ favor in spite of the fact that his character is a world-class jerk. He has a keen understanding of Anderson’s dry, sometimes cruel sense of humor and deftly humanizes it.

The production values, although fine, are as quirky as the director. The Belafonte is a giant cutaway set (and Anderson makes no bones about it), and the sea creatures that inhabit the film are created by stop-motion animation that is just fake enough to fit into Anderson’s alternate reality.

So, does it all work? If one can tune in to Anderson’s offbeat sense of humor, the voyage will be a pleasant one. If not, it will be one bumpy ride. (R) Rating: 3; Posted 12/30/04


The Aviator
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

Oscar loves big, opulent biopics, especially those that deal with peculiar individuals who’ve had a social impact.

That makes The Aviator Oscar bait. It will be interesting to see if the Academy voters will bite onto a quirky, oddly structured opus that is essentially a big-budget art house flick.

Martin Scorsese has yet to be honored by the Academy in spite of being one of the best filmmakers of the last 30 years. His latest effort, a look at the Hollywood years of Howard Hughes, is, without argument, brilliantly filmed. Strangely, it does little to help us understand the man behind the legend.

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Gangs of New York) stars as Hughes, who, in the late 1920s at age 18, inherited his family’s tool company fortune. The wealthy orphan playboy then went to Hollywood and squandered most the money in a three-year quest to film Hell’s Angels.

That visually arresting action movie combined Hughes’ three passions: movies, aviation and women. Although it nearly bankrupted him, it also defined him.

The Avaitor then focuses on his womanizing, particularly his affair with Katherine Hepburn, amusingly channeled by Cate Blanchett. It then covers his subsequent experiences through the 1940s, as he became a daring aviation pioneer and founder of TWA.

There are some truly spectacular scenes in The Aviator, especially the reenactment of Hell’s Angels aerial fight sequences and a pivotal crash that left Hughes seriously injured.

Oddly, Scorsese makes only a half-hearted attempt to deal with Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder or explain why he eagerly defied death in the air but was neurotically afraid of germs.

The only hint we receive is in the opening sequence that bears a resemblance to the Rosebud gimmick from Citizen Kane. While bathing Hughes as a young boy, his mother quizzes him repeatedly, asking him to spell “quarantine.”

This and other allusions to Citizen Kane only emphasize some of The Aviator’s weaknesses. Whereas Charles Foster Kane is a well-drawn and coherent figure, Scorsese’s Hughes is strangely enigmatic.

DiCaprio ably captures his boyish charm and his open seductiveness. His enthusiasm for the budding science and business of aviation is also palpable.

But when it comes to his peccadilloes, Scorsese and DiCaprio fall short. The moments that hint of his upcoming madness are a bit awkward and unconvincing. Those viewers without some knowledge of Hughes’ subsequent life of seclusion may be left with uneasy sense of matters unresolved.

Still, The Aviator is sweeping and exhilarating as an epic even though it falls short as a character study. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5; Posted 12/30/04


A Very Long Engagement
Reviewed by Russ Simmons

In the eyes of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, war may be hell, but life itself is heaven.

That is the inescapable conclusion that one comes to when considering Jeunet’s visually spectacular and unnervingly whimsical WWI film, A Very Long Engagement.


This stunning yet unblinking adaptation of Sebastien Japrisot’s acclaimed novel may very well be the best film of 2004. (The equally spectacular Chinese martial arts epic Hero was actually a 2003 release, making it ineligible for this honor.)

A Very Long Engagement
may seem like an odd title for a war film, but it is an apt one. Much of the story deals with the lengthy search that a young crippled girl named Mathilde (Audrey Tautou, Jeunet’s adorable waif from Amelie) embarks upon to find her missing fiancée, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel).

Manech, you see, was one of a handful of French soldiers who wounded themselves in an attempt to escape the horrors of war on the front lines. When they received a court martial for their cowardice, they were set loose for a certain death in no man’s land.

Something impels Mathilde to believe that Manech is still alive, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Her efforts to find him provide the narrative backbone to Japrisot’s tale, even though numerous, interesting subplots abound.

One of these subplots involves an infertile soldier (Jean-Pierre Darroussin from Red Lights) and his efforts to have a friend impregnate his wife (played in impeccable French by Jodi Foster!) so that he can get out of duty.

Another deals with a ruthless hooker named Tina (Marion Cotillard) who works just as hard to exact revenge for her lover’s death as Mathilde does to find Manech.

Jeunet’s camera is constantly alive and in motion, without ever succumbing to the dizzying effect that lesser filmmakers are prone to. He also utilizes a lot of special effects to achieve the magic realism that is essential to his vision. He uses them, however, in a way that the cinematic gods intended. They support the story.

In spite of the sunny, almost giddy disposition that Jeunet displays, he doesn’t downplay the ugliness of armed conflict in any way. In fact, some of the scenes are quite grisly. (This is, after all, about the “war to end all wars.”) But the film is also infused with plenty of humor, which tends to temper what could be an overwhelming sense of despair.

Jeunet is a proponent of a commodity that is rare these days: hope. (R) Rating: 5; Posted 12/22/04


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