#ThrowbackThursday – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

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Original US release date: May 23, 1984
Production budget: $28,000,000
Worldwide gross: $333,107,271

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his massively successful Raiders of the Lost Ark (for which I previously did a #ThrowbackThursday column, which you can find here).  It was a follow-up at a time when follow-ups were, though not quite unheard of, rare.  (Notice I didn’t say it was a sequel.  Because it isn’t.  It’s a prequel.)  It was an easy proposition; the original film made more than 21 times its budget, and this one followed up by making almost twelve times its own (making 2.5 times the budget typically guarantees profit).  Indiana Jones had become a pop culture phenomenon and Harrison Ford successfully made the leap from Star Wars star to genuine movie star.

Despite its financial success, this particular installment in the Indiana Jones franchise wasn’t as critically well-received as its predecessor, and it’s easy to see why, as it’s quite a mixed bag.  Ford, himself, is as commanding as ever as the titular Dr. Jones, but his supporting cast doesn’t fare quite so well.  Accompanying Indy on this adventure are two notable and memorable accomplices.  Since we last saw him, Indy has found a young Chinese boy who goes by the name Short Round.  Short Round works as a driver and a sidekick for Indy, tagging along wherever he goes and doing what he can to carry his own weight.  Opinions vary on Short Round, but put me down as a fan.  Not only is he unique, but Jonathan Ke Quan (then billed as Ke Huy Quan) turns in a solid performance.  Under other circumstances, he would come across as a little over the top.  But he’s a kid!  And kids are over the top!  So, it works, especially since he never overdoes it.

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The final third of our protagonist trio doesn’t fare as well.  Playing vivacious nightclub singer Willie Scott is relative newcomer Kate Capshaw.  Watching Capshaw try to act makes me think about what would happen if I took a mediocre Algebra student and put them in charge of teaching my Statistics class.  Occasionally, they’d get something right just by sheer luck, but they’d spend most of their time trying to fake it until they would hopefully make it.  There are moments when Capshaw is fine (her reaction to the Snake Surprise is pretty much exactly what mine would have been), but she’s never good – much less great – and she’s frequently bad.  I’ll even go so far as to say that her delivery of the infamous, “We’re not sinking – – WE’RE CRASHING, AHHHHH!” line is among the worst I’ve ever seen in all of film, TV, stage, local theater, and even high school plays.  She’s over-the-top, unnatural, and just can’t seem to relax.  Her casting worked out for director Steven Spielberg, because he and Capshaw eventually married in 1991, but he’s the only one that benefitted.  She was way out of her depth in a movie that didn’t even require that much depth to begin with.

Aside from Quan and Capshaw, the villains are also silly and exaggerated.  Part of it is in the writing (the film even ends with a clichéd everybody-laughs-at-something-that-isn’t-especially-funny moment), but much of it is in the performances.  This starts right at the beginning in Club Obi Wan (an early example of an Easter egg) where Indy meets Willie during an encounter with nefarious Chinese diplomats.  The characterizations are by far the weakest aspect of the film, affecting virtually everyone except for Indy and, arguably, Short Round.  Nobody else is even remotely believable, whether it comes to the writing or the performances.

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And the writing makes other questionable choices, as well, often pushing forward with an idea just for the sake of doing it.  One moment, Indy and Willie can’t stand each other and she’s being portrayed as an annoying nag, and the next, they’re flirty and lovey with no transition or explanation.  And they aren’t just hoping for a hookup; supposedly true feelings and attraction simply materializes out of nowhere.  This is just one example, but the film seems determined to check off as many tropes as possible.  On top of that, the film is oddly a prequel, though there’s no story points that necessitate such a choice.  Living through this adventure even contradicts Indy’s declaration in Raiders that he doesn’t believe in magic.  So, yes, the writing here is weak.

On the flip side, the setting and action scenes are a lot of fun.  For me, in particular, I still consider the mine cart chase to be my favorite scene in the entire franchise.  And it was an influential one, too.  Its impact can still be felt in everything from other movies (the Harry Potter series) to video games (“Donkey Kong Country”, “Final Fantasy”).  The entire final third of the film, once they enter the temple, is a pretty raucous ride, with plenty of engaging, innovative excitement that is quite frankly so good that it tips the scales and makes the film enjoyable in spite of its many other flaws.

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not as highly regarded as other films in the series, but it has its moments.  Unfortunately, many of them are bad.  But what’s good is very good and no film geek is worth their street cred without having seen this one at least once.  The extended, pulse-pounding finale makes all of the tedious build worth it, in the end.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

#ThrowbackThursday – Les Misérables (2012)

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Original US release date: December 25, 2012
Production budget: $61,000,000
Worldwide gross: $441,809,770

I was just talking about this movie, a few weeks ago, when I did a #ThrowbackThursday post for 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera by Joel Schumacher.  Like that one, Les Misérables is a beloved musical (though probably more highly-regarded than Phantom in literary circles) that has seen many different interpretations over the years.  This particular incarnation came from Tom Hooper who was riding a wave of momentum following the massive box office and critical reception of his previous film, The King’s Speech.  That one won Best Picture at the Academy Awards (and elsewhere) and while Les Misérables couldn’t quite make it two in a row for Hooper in that regard, it still earned a nomination in that category, wins in other categories, and a massive total at the worldwide box office, solidifying the film as an unqualified success.

Set in nineteenth-century France, Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who was imprisoned for nineteen years after stealing bread to feed his nephew.  Upon his release, he fails to report in, thereby breaking parole and putting himself on the run from policeman Javert (Russell Crowe).  In the meantime, Valjean sets up a new life for himself, and agrees to care for the daughter of the impoverished Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

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There’s a lot going on in this story and there are a couple of time jumps involved, as well, to push the narrative along to its relevant plot points.  I’m of two minds about the film, feeling that the execution could be stronger but also unable to deny the inherent power in the performances and many of the musical numbers.

Jackman is in his wheelhouse (or at least one of his wheelhouses) as the lead star.  His background is in musical theater, so he makes it all look easy as he sings, acts, and emotes all over the place.  Valjean is a good man with a good heart who has been on the bad end of circumstances and spent a lifetime paying for it.  He hopes to lift up others around him so they won’t have the same experiences but Javert makes it difficult with his relentless pursuance.

Russell Crowe’s casting as Javert was the strongest point of contention upon the film’s release at the end of 2012.  Most will agree that Crowe is a fine actor and he does nothing to bring that into question, here.  It’s his singing that raised some eyebrows among both audiences and critics.  He was the reason I brought this film up during my look back at Phantom of the Opera as Gerard Butler’s vocal ability was also questionable in that film.  Crowe isn’t the best singer, but, after hearing them so close together, I can state with confidence that he’s better than Butler.  Truth be told, Crowe isn’t a bad singer, but he is an average one.  And average stands out when surrounded by the likes of Jackman, Hathaway, and others who can really go.  I imagine he felt insecure and nervous about his abilities, so my hat’s off to him for sticking it out and doing his best.  He’s actually okay, but he was hired for his presence and acting ability and he still excels in those areas.

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Speaking of excelling, Anne Hathaway manages to essentially steal the entire picture with one scene and one song.  Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” may be the single greatest musical performance ever committed to film.  Les Misérables got much praise for recording the cast’s singing live on set as they were being filmed, rather than in post-production ADR (automated dialogue replacement – i.e. dubbing).  The entire movie was certainly helped by that decision and none more so than Hathaway.  For the scene, Hooper places the camera in her face and just sits back while she kills it in one, unbroken take.  And, though the take was unbroken, hearts were not, as she grabbed the entire world and forced them to feel her pain and sorrow.  It’s raw and it’s real and it’s everything that every performance in every movie should be.  I thought to myself immediately, when seeing the film in the theater, that she needed to win an Academy Award for the part.  And she did, securing Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role at the Oscars, just a couple of months later (she didn’t have enough screen time for the Leading Role category).  She honestly just didn’t have any competition; Hathaway is just that good, here.

That scene happens relatively early in the film and while I’m not going to say that it’s “all downhill” from there, her big moment is certainly the high point of the film.  Still, there’s plenty of good to follow, even if none of it is iconic, as Hathaway’s scene is.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter lighten the mood with a delightfully fun performance of “Master of the House” (for which I will forever incorrectly sing the lyrics, thanks to George Costanza on “Seinfeld”).  And in any other film that didn’t feature that Hathaway performance, Samantha Barks would have been the talk of the industry for her version of “On My Own”, which, to her credit, is almost as powerful as Hathaway (it’s actually my favorite song in the film).  Eddie Redmayne really delivers with his performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, as well, and the conclusion to the film actually made me teary-eyed during this re-watch, which I don’t remember happening, before.

Samantha Barks

So, yeah, there is much good to be had in Les Misérables.  But I have one big issue, as well.  I mentioned in my Phantom review that I’m not crazy about dialogue being sung outside of dedicated songs, and that’s almost all we get, here.  There are very few spoken lines.  I understand that’s a personal preference and mileage will vary, but sometimes the singing is harder to make out than speaking would be – especially in large choral arrangements.  As a result, it can be very easy to miss something important – not because the viewer isn’t paying attention, but because the line was sung so quickly or so quietly, in preparation for the next one that’s about to be projected, that it was nigh unintelligible.  For example, suddenly, a character may be dying and you might have no idea why.  And that might happen three or four times.  Don’t write me; I know why the characters die, but it’s not because it was made clear by the filmmakers.  If you have no problems understanding sung dialogue, then you’ll have no issues, here.  If you do, however, come with a backup plan to make sure you’re following all of the events of the film.

Despite not being a perfect viewing experience, there’s little arguing with the power of the film and the high level of performance from the cast.  The movie is a bit of a marathon and there’s some downtime between the truly notable songs, scenes, and moments, but, overall, it’s a rewarding experience that will leave a lasting impression if the viewer gives themselves over to it.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Les Misérables (2012)

#Throwback Thursday – Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

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Original US release date: September 30, 2011
Production budget: $5,000,000
Worldwide gross: $4,749,516

There have been many horror-comedies throughout the years, but none (that I’ve seen) like director and co-writer Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.  Playing as part sendup of, and part homage to, the classic backwoods horror films of the seventies and eighties (ala Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the film tells the story of a group of college students who head to the woods for a debauchery-filled excursion only to run into a pair of menacing hillbillies who seem up to no good.  Well . . . that’s kind of the story.  That’s the story from the perspective of the college students.  But, unlike every other film of this kind, this narrative is told from the perspective of the hillbillies, Tucker and Dale (Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine, respectively), as they have innocently made their way to Tucker’s cabin in the woods for some fishing and old-fashioned outdoor work.

I used the word “sendup” because, though the film is unquestionably a comedy, it stops short of being a parody.  Craig has no intention of making fun of the classic horror films that so many grew up on and hold dear in their hearts.  This is just a comedic take with a twist.  So, no worries about this being another version of a Scary Movie film.  It’s not even close.  While those movies are rife with easy, brainless, lowest-common-denominator “humor” (I liked the first one.  The rest were awful.), Tucker & Dale relies on situational comedy, a fresh angle, clever twists, and a perfect cast.

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A while back, I did a column entitled Interlude – Top Five Favorite Comedies.  Now, I feel bad about it.  Because I had forgotten about this film and there is no doubt it is one of the five funniest films I’ve ever seen.  As much as the movie has in common with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from a thematic and narrative perspective, from the filmmaking point of view, it has much more in common with Clue.  The film isn’t about jokes.  It’s about humor coming from absurd situations and then the characters’ reactions to them.  The events that play out in the film, one after the other, are even almost plausible if you take them one at a time.  I suppose in order for them to be believable in the slightest, one also has to accept the general stupidity of certain people in the world.  But, hey, you and I both live on the same planet and it’s not that tough to believe in general stupidity, is it?  Think about it; how often do you see someone texting and driving?  If you take a moment to look for it, many times a day.  The stupidity that the characters in this film put on display is just a slightly – slightly – exaggerated version of that.

None of it would work without Tudyk and Labine.  They make the film what it is.  Both of them give all-time great comedic performances.  They are immensely restrained as the bewildered country men who can’t comprehend the events that are unfolding around them.  Both inject an earnest sincerity into their performances and that choice is what elevates the film from a good and entertaining to one of the best of its kind.  Tudyk is a living legend in the geek world but I haven’t seen Labine in any sort of significant role outside of this one, and that’s regretful.  He’s clearly an intelligent guy who understands what’s funny and – more importantly – why.  His timing and delivery are impeccable and the world of comedy could use more Tyler Labine.

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As silly as the movie is, there is actually some well-meaning subtext underneath it all.  It’s hard to ignore how the characters judge each other, deciding in their heads who the others are without having any sort of meaningful interactions with them, and then refusing to believe anything else.  With each passing year, the world becomes more and more judgmental.  It’s okay to judge people for things they’ve actually said and done, but too many judge without knowing for sure those they are judging have, in fact, said and/or done those things.  In this story, that leads to vast and immediate calamities, while real world consequences are typically much more subtle and poisonous in the long-term.  But the comparison is still there and worth noting.

In other odds and ends, the film is brutally violent in an over-the-top way that precludes it from being truly gory.  It’s all played for irony and comedy.  Katrina Bowden (“30 Rock”) sizzles as the requisite Hot Girl, Allison, who is caught in the middle of it all as both a friend of the college students and also the object of Dale’s affections.  Like Tucker and Dale, Allison breaks stereotypes by being more than just eye candy.  She’s smart, wise, and caring and Bowden does a great job bridging the gap between the students and the locals.

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There have been many films where the hot young cast believe they’re in a comedy (usually a sex comedy) only to discover that they’re actually in a horror movie.  Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is the only movie to flip the script on that as the college students think they’re in a horror movie when they’re actually in a comedy.  Either way, whenever a character in any film isn’t actually in the film they think they’re in, bad things happen.  And bad things definitely happen in this film.  But you’ll be laughing the whole time.  See this movie.  It’s a modern classic and genius at its finest.

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#Throwback Thursday – Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

#ThrowbackThursday – The Village

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Original US release date: July 30, 2004
Production budget: $60,000,000
Worldwide gross: $256,697,520

If you’re a regular reader, you may know I was once among M. Night Shyamalan’s biggest fans.  He lost me after a handful of subpar films, but has recently been winning me back with The Visit and Split.  This particular film, The Village, is where he began to lose some of the general public, who had enthusiastically embraced his three previous films, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs.  So, what was the problem?  And did he begin to lose me here, too?

For those who may be unfamiliar, The Village tells the story of a nineteenth-century settlement whose peaceful existence is threatened by tales of a monstrous presence lurking in the surrounding woods.  This film continued Shyamalan’s journey towards becoming a modern-day Hitchcock with his propensity for stories that exist on the fringe and often conclude with an unforeseen twist.

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I want to start by mentioning that the cast of The Village is pretty handily the strongest cast that Shyamalan ever assembled for one of his films.  He secured William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Bryce Dallas Howard, Judy Greer, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, Brendan Gleeson, Cherry Jones, and Jesse Eisenberg and still made the film for only $60,000,000.  He certainly got his money’s worth and even if one doesn’t care for the film itself, it’s still a pleasure to see all of these professionals ply their trade and bounce off of one another.  I had forgotten about most of them being a part of the film and every time a new face popped up during this re-watch, my enjoyment of the film increased.  If you believe a movie is only as good as it’s script, you’re wrong.  And this group of people are here to prove it.

Beyond that, the movie, itself, is an interesting experiment.  I remember hearing many, many people hate on the film when it was released and they all had one sole, common complaint: the twist ending.  Naturally, it’s going to be tough to discuss said twist without spoiling it for those of you who haven’t seen the film (I encourage you to watch it and make up your own mind, as long as you’re mature enough to watch it with an open mind and not be influenced by what you may have heard from others), but I fall in the middle with regards to it, leaning towards liking it.  I can admit that it’s implausible.  And, anticipating the questions that viewers would have about it as they rise up to challenge its believability, Shyamalan jumps through hoops to proactively address and answer some of them, himself (literally).  It feels a bit forced and unnaturally delivered.  The movie flows smoothly up to that point and to suddenly have exposition thrust at our faces just to satiate the haters is disorienting.

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On the other hand, as implausible as it is, I’m not going to be so arrogant as to state that it’s unequivocally impossible.  But, even if it is impossible in our world, there are other perspectives to consider.  For one,  much less plausible than the twist ending is Bryce Dallas Howard’s character of Ivy.  Ivy is a fine, upstanding young woman who has just started to form her own life, independent of her parents.  She’s also blind.  Howard plays blind extremely well, never overdoing it in a desperate effort to communicate to the audience that Ivy can’t see.  However, the script requires Ivy to perform tasks that I have a hard time believing a blind person could pull off.  Early in the film, Ivy runs freely through an open field, even taking a turn to reach her desired destination.  Okay, I can buy that she grew up in her village and would know that the field is a clearing with no trees or other obvious obstacles.  I can maybe even buy that she’s so familiar with the lay of the land that she would know when to turn in order to head home.  Maybe.  But what about the little things?  Groundhog holes?  Hidden rocks?  This isn’t all, as she is also seen walking briskly while somehow avoiding tree roots and the like.  Howard does what she can to make it feel natural, but it’s a tough sell.

But another look at the story shows that it’s all one big metaphor.  And, even if the surface elements of the narrative don’t all click, the subtext works quite well.  Ivy’s affliction functions as the primary metaphor of the film as the people around her are blind to the fact that they are being controlled by others through fear, misplaced trust, and gullibility.  Fear has often been the most effective method of control and manipulation, from the early days of mankind all the way through today.  People controlled by fear will commit atrocities for their puppet masters.  They’ll betray their loved ones for them.  They’ll vote for them for president.  It’s a potent message and I can’t elaborate any further without exposing story elements that shouldn’t be exposed, but I’m willing to tolerate some of the less palatable cosmetic flaws of the film in order to fully absorb the deeper meaning.

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The Village isn’t flawless.  And it isn’t as strong as Shyamalan’s first three films, though I argue it’s better than any of his films that followed it, up until The Visit (Lady in the Water was rough going, but The Happening truly remains one of the worst films I’ve ever seen and it nearly killed his career for good).  No film lives or dies on its ending.  The ending can help or hurt a film, yes, but it’s never everything.  Whether one likes the ending, or not, there is more going on in The Village than the final five minutes.  It closes the circle of the comparison between the situation created and experienced by these characters and the harm we inflict upon ourselves as a society.  And the story is acted out by a cornucopia of master thespians (and Eisenberg, who is talented, but not versatile enough to be a “master thespian”.  His role is tiny, though.) who deserve respect and acknowledgement for the subtleties they inject into the film.  An insightful viewer will find enough meat to The Village to consider it worthwhile.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Village

#ThrowbackThursday – The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

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Original US release date: December 22, 2004
Production budget: $70,000,000
Worldwide gross: $154,648,887

I’ve been a fan of Charles Hart and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music from The Phantom of the Opera since middle school chorus, when one of the selections for our spring concert was a medley of songs from the play.  I never forgot those songs, but I also never managed to see the actual play.  My first exposure to the story of the Phantom was actually this film, upon its release in 2004.  I have since read the original Gaston Leroux novel, but before Joel Schumacher released this theatrical adaptation of Webber’s play, I had only a vague familiarity with the story.

There was quite a bit of excitement surrounding this release in my town.  I remember going to the theater to catch it on opening night (it formally opened in December of 2004 but that was a limited release.  It made it to the ever-ambiguous Theater Near Me the following January), but a snowstorm had shut the theater down, so I walked away disappointed.  (Snow never stops me from going out the movies.  I braved the Snowpocalypse of 2009 to catch Avatar on opening night.  Despite being a much bigger storm than the one in early 2005, the same theater remained open on that night.  Go figure.)  So, I returned to the theater, the next afternoon, to try again only to be told that the print hadn’t been delivered, yet, due to the storm from the day before!  Arrrrgh!  So, again, on that Sunday, I drive to the theater and am finally able to secure my ticket to see The Phantom of the Opera.  Finally, I’ll know the whole story!

Gerard Butler

The delays in receiving the film, that weekend, caused some pent up demand; it was a sold out show and people were happy to finally be able to watch the movie.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, that day.  The songs were as excellent, powerful, and memorable as ever and Emmy Rossum dazzled in the lead role of Christine Daae.

This re-watch went about as well, though there are a few issues that can’t go without a mention if I want to maintain any credibility (even if said credibility is only in my own head).  I’ll get to those.  First, without question, Emmy Rossum – as I mentioned – is the standout of the film.  She earned a Golden Globe nomination (alas, no Oscar nom) for the role and it was well-deserved.  She commands the attention of the viewer anytime she’s on the screen.  And what a voice!  She sings effortlessly, clearly, and with humanity; there’s no sense of trying to be overly technical or mechanical with her enunciation or her pitch.  She sings with her heart, first, and that’s the best kind of singing.  Don’t get me wrong, though – her mechanics are perfect, as well.  Rossum just delivers on every level and I simply don’t understand why this didn’t lead to huge things for her in the film world (she was a star of television’s “Shameless”, though).

Emmy Rossum

The set design, costuming, and cinematography are all pristine and lavish, as is appropriate.  The film feels exactly as it should and as one would expect it to.  Schumacher and his team knew their audience and gave them what they wanted (which, after Batman & Robin was the best thing Schumacher could have done, here.  Come on, you knew I had to mention it, right?).  The whole film has a very gothic feel to it, and jarringly (by design) jumps from the high-society sector of 19th century France to the seedy underbelly of the Phantom’s lair.  It’s all beautiful in its own way and it simply works.

Most of the remainder of the cast delivers, as well, whether their part is big or small.  Patrick Wilson is well-cast as Raoul, Christine’s love interest.  He has a nice, smooth tone to his voice and an impressive range and power.  He has gone on to do rather well for himself in the years since and he may even be nearly unrecognizable in this film to some who might not be looking for him.  Minnie Driver has a notable role, as well, that’s short on screen time but memorable, nonetheless.

And then there’s Gerard Butler as the Phantom.  Look, I like Gerard Butler just fine.  But he is simply a mediocre singer, at best.  Technically, he hits all the notes.  But it’s not easy.  His voice strains.  His vibrato is forced and unnatural.  His tone is rough.  His falsetto is cringe-worthy and nearly induces laughter.  The Phantom is supposed to be menacing.  And that, Butler can do and he can do it well.  And he does in this film.  But he’s also supposed to be Christine’s secretive vocal coach.  And it’s just impossible to buy.  When hearing the two of them, my immediate thought was that if he’s her trainer, then the pupil far surpassed the teacher right from day one.  A similar situation happened in the recent film adaptation of Les Misérables.  A big deal was made of Russell Crowe’s talk-singing in that film.  I noticed it, as everyone did, and he wasn’t great, but at least his character wasn’t purported to be some sort of master vocalist.  Butler was painfully miscast as the Phantom.  This is not Sparta.

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Outside of that, the other problems are small and innocuous.  Why – and even how? – does the Phantom have a horse in his underground lair?  And was the chandelier falling really such a huge deal that it should be remembered so long after it happened, especially since nobody died?  And, as is almost always the case, the lyrics in the choral singing performances are often difficult to distinguish.  In addition, personally, I get a little annoyed with dialogue being sung outside of the context of an actual song, though that’s probably just me.

These issues are present and notable but – for me – they aren’t overwhelming enough to affect my enjoyment of everything else.  Not even Butler drags the film down all that much, as his acting is fine, even if his singing is woefully underwhelming.  Schumacher earned such a bad reputation for himself after Batman & Robin (one more mention, sorry!  That’s the last one!  And, yes, he definitely earned it.) but he has proven that he’s not an inherently bad filmmaker; he has just made some poor creative choices.  This, overall, wasn’t one of them.  I wish someone else had played the eponymous Phantom, but Rossum and Wilson more than compensate, as do the songs themselves and the overall design of the film.  I honestly have no idea how the diehard fans of the play reacted to the movie, but I would imagine they found some fault with it, yet also plenty to love (I do remember hearing someone whine that there was little operatic singing.  The film isn’t an actual opera, it’s about an opera!  Come on, people, turn your light switches on, okay?).  And that’s where I sit.  But frankly, the good is so very good that it’s hard to walk away from the film feeling badly about the time spent watching it.  As an experience, The Phantom of the Opera is a fun, exuberant time at the movies (or on your couch, as the case may be, over twelve years later).

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

#ThrowbackThursday – American Beauty

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Original US release date: September 15, 1999
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $356,296,601

American Beauty is the 2000 Academy Award winner for Best Picture from director Sam Mendes, in what was his first directorial outing.  I saw the film shortly after its release and I recall thinking it was fine, but I didn’t have the experience – neither in life or in film studies – to fully appreciate the level of artistry that the film puts on display.  The re-watch for this column was an eye-opener and I felt as if I was watching it for the first time, even though I remembered many of the pertinent events of the narrative.

Mendes and writer Alan Ball are adept enough to insert the film’s hook into the opening voiceover dialogue, letting the viewer know right away how the story ends (which I won’t do, in case you haven’t seen it).  Without that seemingly minor creative choice, the film would have lacked any semblance of momentum.  But, with it, every single scene, every single line of dialogue, and every single facial expression carries weight and meaning.  This film is about the journey, not the destination.  And, oh, what a journey it is.

American Beauty Spacey

An extremely generalized synopsis of American Beauty would likely state that it tells the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) as he enters into a midlife crisis.  But there’s much more going on than that.  There’s not a single likable character in the entire movie (with the possible exception of Allison Janney’s Barbara, but “sympathetic” is a better word than “likable” for her), but that’s largely the point.  The film presents a group of people to the audience that have lived their entire lives for other people, and not for themselves.  That, in and of itself, is representative of America.  Most of us Americans live for money or for the approval of our dad or for the cute girl or guy that works at Starbucks or for the likes that we want to get on our social media pages in order to make ourselves feel important or successful.  We define ourselves by the opinions of others.  It’s the modern American way, and it has been for a while.

This message conveyed by the film went completely over my head in all of my previous viewings (maybe two or three, all a very long time ago) and I feel bad about that.  But, hey, you live and you learn.  And that’s what these characters all struggle to do.  They yearn to break out of their self-imposed chains but have no idea how to accomplish it.  So, they’re all miserable.  They hate each other and they hate themselves.  Heck, they hate each other because they hate themselves.  Only when and if they can learn to start living as and for themselves – and no one or nothing else – can they achieve the inner peace and happiness that they’ve always desired.  Until then, no one else will ever love – or even like – them.  Yet, they all keep throwing the proverbial “stuff” at the wall to see what sticks.  They reach out to everyone else around them in desperate efforts to gain their approval, all the while perfectly content to compromise themselves in order to make it happen.  They lack individuality.  They lack conviction.  They lack confidence.  And they search in all the wrong places to find those things because they look outward instead of inward.

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Despite all the misery going around in American Beauty, the film is not entirely devoid of humor.  It’s a dark humor, but a humor, nonetheless.  The dialogue is crisp, sharp, and interesting.  And each scene is more compelling than the last as the film marches steadily towards its inevitable conclusion.  The cast is impeccable, with Spacey and Annette Bening leading the way.  Both of them earned Academy Award nominations for Lead Actor/Actress (with Spacey winning) but the rest of the cast hold their own, as well.  The film is expertly crafted on all fronts and a story this poignant demands straightforward but elegant storytelling, and that’s what American Beauty provides.

Annette Bening

I failed to properly appreciate American Beauty up until this viewing.  As relevant now as it was 18 years ago (holy crap!), the film more than stands the test of time with a resonant message, timeless performances, and a perplexingly entertaining presentation in the face of some truly mortifying family dynamics that are downright uncomfortable more often than they aren’t.  But that’s this film.  This film takes the viewer out of their comfort zone in order to relay its portent and asks that a supposedly mature audience (it’s an R-rated film, after all) will be strong enough to allow themselves to be taken there.  If you’re among the willing, you ultimately will find beauty in this film and you’ll find it in the most unexpected of places – just like life.

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#ThrowbackThursday – American Beauty

#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

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Original US release date: December 18, 2002
Production budget: $94,000,000
Worldwide gross: $926,047,111

My #ThrowbackThursday journey to Mount Doom continues with The Two Towers.  I did a #ThrowbackThursday column on The Fellowship of the Ring, a while back (right here, if you missed it) and now it’s time to take a look at the next chapter.  This is the Extended Edition that I’m discussing, here, for your information.

This middle chapter has the benefit of being able to hit the ground running.  We start the film with an absolutely exhilarating action sequence that follows up on a pivotal event from Fellowship.  As long as the film is, the pace rarely slows.  Of course, there is time taken for exposition and to introduce new characters, but the narrative still moves along rather briskly.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that the most notable inclusion among the main cast is Andy Serkis’s Gollum.  Gollum appeared briefly in Fellowship, but he takes front-and-center in The Two Towers and, as a result, was catapulted into the public consciousness, becoming a household name almost immediately.  References are still (and likely will forever be) made in everyday conversation to his “my precious” catchphrase but his presence is worthy of more remembrance than that of just a simple one-liner.

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Gollum’s most famous and noteworthy scene involves a conversation between his two disparate personalities, but beyond that, he is a very complex character, beautifully realized by Serkis and the WETA visual effects house.  Serkis’s performance – both in his voice work and motion-capture – brings Gollum to life and makes him feel as if he’s really there with the remainder of the cast.  The writing fleshes him out; he can be funny and endearing one moment, then untrustworthy and frightening, the next.  He is the Yoda of Lord of the Rings in the sense that he’s a creation of the special effects team and is yet the one who comes out of the series with the strongest fan sentiment.

In the midst of all of the spectacular effects (Gollum isn’t the only memorable CGI creation, as we are also introduced to Treebeard) and action set pieces, there is some tremendous character work that goes on all across the board.  Frodo and Sam experience growing pains, we learn more about Aragorn, an unexpected friendship blooms within the remnants of the Fellowship, and there’s plenty more on top of all of that.  This extended edition even gives additional background to Boromir.  The runtime of the film is not wasted.

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And of course, it all looks gorgeous.  Peter Jackson knows how to frame a shot and he and his location scouts made a genius decision when choosing to film in New Zealand.  Not only did it cost significantly less to shoot there (check out that production budget, up above) but it’s so beautiful that it almost looks like a different planet.

For me, personally, the scale of this film is perfect.  It’s still small enough that we aren’t flooded with too many characters to get to know them, but large enough that the battles feel grand and bigger than what we see in most other films.  The Battle of Helm’s Deep is spectacular and my favorite large-scale battle of the series (I still love the smaller battle in the Mines of Moria from Fellowship, a bit more).  Jackson always knew how to strike the balance between action and story/character and he was never better at it than he was in this middle installment.  In fact, many middle chapters suffer from feeling incomplete as they are neither the beginning nor the end of the overarching narrative.  But Jackson made several adept choices when he decided to shift certain story elements around amongst the three chapters and we got much better films because he did so.  The Two Towers is structured is such a way that keeps it from suffering that “Middle Child Syndrome”, thanks to the exquisite development of several subplots that achieve both genesis and resolution within this single film.

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I’m not entirely sure which of the three chapters of the Lord of the Rings series is my favorite, but I’ve always leaned a bit towards this one.  I enjoyed Return of the King but always felt it got a little too bogged down in less-consequential characters.  So, it’s close between Fellowship and The Two Towers.  I really appreciate the more intimate feel of Fellowship and thoroughly enjoy its well-executed character development.  But the well-balanced nature of The Two Towers puts it about a half-step above it, I believe.  It doesn’t really matter, though.  This is the second entry in a legendary trilogy and no film fan’s collection is complete without a copy.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers