30 December 2013

Hammer, Lee, and Cushing Again!

Hammer, Lee, Cushing…Again! 
By Kristin Battestella

Another year, another entry into the glorious study of all things, Hammer, Lee, and Cushing!

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb – Hammer producer Michael Carreras (Maniac) wrote and directed this 1964 sequel to The Mummy, and it’s a well shot piece with plenty of Egyptian color, tombs, flashbacks, artifacts, humor, and film within a film carnival spectacles. The 1900 designs are also period fine, but some scenes are obviously on-set small scale and lacking the expected all out Hammer values, making this follow up feel like some one else’s beat for beat B knock off rather than an authorized continuation. Opening blood and violence, characters at each other’s throats in fear of the eponymous threat, brief debates on traveling sideshow exhibitions, and scandalous belly dancing can’t overcome the slow, meandering pace while we await the well wrapped and perfectly lumbering Mummy violence. Jeanne Roland (You Only Live Twice) is very poorly dubbed, and beyond the over the top, annoying, love to hate Fred Clark (How to Marry A Millionaire) as a sell out American financier, the rest of the cast is interchangeably bland with no chemistry. The somewhat undynamic writing is uneven, with twists and mysteries either out of the blue, too tough to follow, or all too apparent. Though the sinister deaths aren’t scary, it’s all somehow enjoyably predictable because we’ve seen so many rinse and repeat Mummy films. This isn’t a bad movie, but it takes most of its time getting to the Mummy scenes we want to see – and we can see a lot of fact or fiction Egyptology programming today. It’s not quite solid on its own and feels sub par compared to its predecessor, yet this one will suffice Mummy fans and fits in perfectly with a pastiche viewing or marathon.

Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde – This 1971 Robert Louis Stevenson meets Jack the Ripper mash up from Hammer has psychedelic DVD menus, nice Victorian interiors, and pleasant period scoring, yet it feels like it should be more stylish than it is thanks to cheap costumes and shabby London streets. Though the fog is moody and this side of town was supposed to be seedy, we don’t really see the Ripper Murders, and tossed in Burke and Hare grave robbing and Whitechapel investigations further muddle the narration and confuse the timeline. Ralph Bates (Lust for a Vampire) is slow to start – it takes half the film for the decidedly out of place and sixties looking Martine Beswick (One Million Years B.C.) to do anything, too – and this lack of Hammer stars dampens the fun. The studio’s later day decline perhaps stems from the absence of second generation star power; Oliver Reed or Michael Gough and Bates were groomed, but no other team stood out to replace Lee and Cushing. Such B styled, stale stock design hampers the unfulfilled potential from writer Brian Clemens (The Avengers). Director Roy Ward Baker (Quartermass and the Pit) mixes pieces of The Lodger with Frankenstein bodies but this detracts from any personal, interior examinations. The audience has no reason to care about nosy neighbors – not only would I move if they kept walking in on my secret experiments, but they never notice the Clark Kent/Superman happenings. Dialogue hints on the doing bad to do good quest for science are interesting but too brief, and if one seeks immortality by killing hookers for their female hormones, there should be more sex, nudity, and violence. Fun transformations and filming trickeries develop this crazy premise, but things fizzle under too many external happenings. Where are the moral explanations or psychology of the sex change? Is Jekyll gay or harboring cross dressing or transsexual feelings? Subtle uses of the word “queer” in both definitions may or may not suggest more. The blurred line between the good and evil of the identities is well done, but the pacing meanders. Sexuality and bodily consequences on both sides are not fully explored, and this 97 minutes just doesn’t feel as depraved as we might expect. Yes, there are certainly plot holes, misdirection, flawed execution, and an absence of Hammer flair. However, this is nonetheless entertaining just for the battle of the sexes novelty and the all encompassing, ambitious Victorian macabre.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll – A decade before Sister Hyde, Terrence Fisher helmed this 1960 Hammer adaptation of Stevenson’s classic featuring Christopher Lee alongside Paul Massie (Orders to Kill), Dawn Addams (The Robe), and a brief appearance by Oliver Reed (Paranoiac). Sir Christopher looks good with plenty of scandalous chemistry, and again one wonders why he wasn’t a traditional leading man more. His bedroom scenes are all clothed, unlike Hyde, and his drunken best friend and gentleman’s clubs pale in comparison to Hyde’s increasing depravity. Massie presents a suave, sophisticated, wolf in sheep’s clothing Hyde who’s able to charm Jekyll’s wife when the unlikable, frumpy, not so good doctor cannot. Dialogue about the hidden man and mirror conversations with Hyde keep the Stevenson spirit while the gentlemanly switch lends a new commentary on how excess can be so stylized. This love triangle keeps the plot more high society than dark streets, but seedy back room action, prostitutes, and opium indicate the desperate downward spiral – along with some language, side boob, can can, and snake dancing for good measure. The debauchery is probably tame today and the decadent character changes obvious, but this internal conflict isn’t meant to be a scary, horror film and there are no torturous transformation scenes. The women’s costumes, however, feel later than the 1874 setting, and the music invokes a turn of the century carnival or silent film design with music speaking for dialogue, mute children, and readable, inter title-esque close up shots of Jekyll’s journals. His penmanship is naturally a scratchy, block print while Hyde’s is a flowing cursive script, but the mangled voice, masked makeup design, and disappearing Jekyll beard is hokey. Yes, the beard is symbolic of the cowardly Jekyll, his dark laboratory, and secret mad scientist intentions. It may be cliché that he is robbed and face down in the muddy street while Hyde has lush, upscale apartments and a foreign mistress who subtextually puts a snake in her mouth along with other exotic implications. Yet the role reversal remains intriguing, and contemporary viewers may even prefer Hyde’s honesty about his openly immoral lifestyle. Evil is not stupid but a slick mastermind wearing a smile. Who’s the dominant personality? Which of our natures is actually the façade, the face we wear and the person we really are? Perhaps these angles are old hat now, but the smart script from Wolf Mankowitz (Dickens of London), intense intercuts, and swift pacing are better than Sister Hyde. Hammer’s full efforts are apparent here, so I’m surprised this picture lost money and isn’t more loved. It should be!

And a What the Heck?

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires – Although Hammer’s Dracula series wasn’t exactly known for its consistency, this 1974 samurai meets vampires crossover muddles the timeline further, easily resurrects its angry and infamously not Christopher Lee Dracula, and unevenly mixes its two-movies-in-one inspired parts. The bad makeup, dubbing by David de Keyser (Leo the Lasyt), and almost comically green, alien lighting for John Forbes-Robertson (The Vampire Lovers) as Dracula isn’t scary and feels unnecessary – other Hammer vivid designs, period Asian style, undead rituals, and zombies rising from the grave are great but it’s tough to tell what’s happening most of the time. Fight scenes, nudity, and blood sucking are well done along with hints of Buddhist relics affecting these vamps, but Peter Cushing partly tells the titular legend in flashback instead of it being the main story. It might have been neat to see his traveling Van Helsing film series as he battles all manner of evil across the globe, but one has to wonder why Cushing took this role. Despite interesting character opportunities and uniqueness, Big Pete instead goes head to head in a reversed Magnificent Seven protect the village from the bad guys cliché. The audience never gets a satisfactory feeling from either the Fu or the Brits involved – the Chinese vampires didn’t need Dracula or Van Helsing, but Van Helsing on a vampire tour doesn’t need Kung Fu action, either. While this full length, unedited version is the one to see, unfortunate compression, film speed issues, and a fast hour and 25-minute runtime on the recent Millennium Films Hammer Horror Collection DVD set further sabotages the premise here. Today’s viewer may look at this and wonder if the speed is supposed to be part of some sort of Kung Fu lips not matching the voices comedy! I hoped this would be good – and I do believe it is possible to combine vampires, martial arts, and horror – but this should have been a straight Hammer Asian arts film. I get tingling imaging the possibilities, but viewer expectations aren’t fulfilled here. 

 (Peter Cushing, Hear him Roar!)

24 December 2013

A Very Special Christmas

A Very Special Christmas is Uneven, but with Some Solid Holiday Gems.
By Kristin Battestella

What better way to get one’s charity on then with the festive 1987 compilation A Very Special Christmas? Though dated and uneven thanks to some instant eighties efforts, this multi platinum release has served the Special Olympics well with its offering of a little bit of holiday for everyone. 

The Pointer Sisters ring in A Very Special Christmas with the catchy Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. Some of the grooving style and new harmony rhythms are decidedly eighties dated, sure. However, the old-fashioned verses are all here, and it’s nice to have some length instead of today’s quick and kiddie renditions. We still hear this version on the radio, too - unlike this lesser heard Winter Wonderland rendition by The Eurhythmics. Although the opening eighties beats and Annie Lennox’s effortless vocal delivery carry a fitting ethereal quality, the unusual synthesizers and high tech arrangement are too fast. The music feels jarring as it contrasts Annie’s slower notes, breezy lyrics, and perfect tone. This isn’t un-listenable, but Annie Lennox and no music would have been plenty festive enough. It would have been nice to have a bigger carol that only she can deliver, but Whitney Houston keeps the big notes coming with Do You Hear What I Hear?, the first spiritually themed track on A Very Special Christmas. The tune begins slowly with more hip and pop styled echoes, but Whitney answers each refrain as the backing choir sets the mood with high notes and big gospel feeling.

Bruce Springsteen, of course, has a much cooler seasonal touch with the live recording of Merry Christmas Baby. The E Street Band jams and Bruce opens with some fun before getting to this effortless, infectious, pop ode. Perhaps it’s a touch dated, yet this rendition remains hip in all the right ways. This doesn’t seem like the longest track on A Very Special Christmas, and one can listen to this tune year round without thinking twice. Yes, there’s something about Santa in there somewhere, but couples can dance under the mistletoe with this one for sure. We probably also think of the Pretenders as bigger, edgy rockers, but Chrissy Hinds surprisingly delivers the melancholy merriment of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Her voice may be slightly flat or off key at times, but this is an excellent quirk matching the sad lyrics here. Ironically, the pace is more upbeat than most renditions, but there’s still time to hold all the bittersweet notes. Also one of the longer tracks on A Very Special Christmas, but this one is without any of those of the time bells and whistles and thus remains downhearted and yet so refreshing. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, however, is an erroneous country rock cowbell ditty from John Cougar Mellencamp. It’s fast, happy, and just too weird to rock out to this misunderstood kid’s tune. Wouldn’t a jamming adult such as the Cougar realize what was really going down under the mistletoe?

Unfortunately, lovely as it is, Sting’s rendition of Gabriel’s Message also seems out of place on A Very Special Christmas. It’s a wonderfully moody and medieval chant of solstice miracles and Christ’s birth, but it’s the shortest track here and certifiably squashed in the set listing before Christmas in Hollis. Run-D.M.C.’s head nodding rap single recounts a great story of Santa, family cooking, and good times indeed. Perhaps this is also out of place vintage hip hop among the other decidedly poptastic selections, but it’s all in such cool, festive fun that we don’t mind. U2 also delivers dang fine with Christmas Baby Please Come Home thanks to Bono’s strong, happening vocal. He’s a little bit angry yet edgy enough and perfectly unhappy in his titular plea. My only complaint is this is too short at just over two minutes.  

Also just as big as the original with lots of current airplay, Madonna’s Santa Baby recalls Eartha Kitt’s reissue with perfect bubble gum and kitschy. It’s not quite her usual delivery style, but it fits her then Material Girl persona and the ring a bling bling needed for this Tiffany’s ode. By contrast, The Little Drummer Boy’s low key child perspective isn’t easy to pull off, yet Bob Seger has the soulful rock range required. The rhythmic beats set the mood with increasing intensity while entering instruments finish the rousing carol. Run Rudolph Run doesn’t need to do much to be cool, and Bryan Adams harkens to the Chuck Berry original for this hip, grooving, easy to sing along with titular rift. We feel like we’ve hear this song a lot even if we haven’t necessarily heard Adams’ rendition that often. This version is live, too, with clapping and toe tapping fun to be had.

Surprisingly, Bon Jovi’s Back Door Santa misses with its holiday in full on stadium fashion. It’s tough to understand the naughty lyrics, and clearly more about the guitar set rather than any kind of seasonal sentiment. Since A Very Special Christmas is a decidedly more secular and popular album, it’s also unusual to end the session with two carols. Alison Moyet might not be as famous as the others here, but her The Coventry Carol is likewise all about some dated synthesized echoing. It’s mellow, poetic, and medieval, but also difficult to enjoy the spirituality of it thanks to the strange arrangement. Fortunately, we can count on Stevie Nicks putting the album to bed in style with Silent Night. Her superbly low vocals, backing melodies, and spiritual spins add to this already most inspiring carol. Nicks varies the traditional design just enough for more lift up while she takes her solemn time. The ad libbed confessional refrains are distinctly gospel but also hip at the same time, sending A Very Special Christmas out with a positive spiritual message.

Though readily available on CD or download along with the rest of the A Very Special Christmas charity releases, there are different reissues that swap Back Door Santa for Bon Jovi’s later I Wish Every Day Could Be Like Christmas, a much more pleasant, easy listening, but stirring tune. I’m surprised this series doesn’t go for these types of global and peace loving songs for it’s listings such as Peace on Earth or Happy Xmas (War is Over). Some of the succeeding albums often repeat the same tunes and tracks, and it really seems like there is little rhyme or reason to this debut compilation’s theme or the uneven, nay, all over the place track order. However, this mix of instant of the time singers, pop, rap, and rockers understandably capitalizes on every fan demographic and their need to buy their favorite’s potentially elusive or rare and obscure holiday single. This album ideology is in the best interest of benefitting the Special Olympics certainly, but I’m not sure such a charity model works with today’s individual download opportunities or invisible resale values. A Very Special Christmas is a little eighties preppy with a Members Only style at times, but it delivers some holiday standards and timeless gems – which is perfect for the contemporary listener’s picking and choosing playlist. Older, sophisticated audiences can collect their favorites for a nostalgic party or keep the office merry, mature, and generous with A Very Special Christmas.

21 December 2013

Phantom of the Opera (2004)

The 2004 Phantom of the Opera is Moody, Musical Fun 
By Kristin Battestella

Nearly ten years ago, the long running stage production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera was brought to cinemas in full on spectacle fashion with this 2004 film adaptation. Although I was initially somewhat indifferent to this rendition thanks to my love for the 1925 and 1943 versions, it remains a fun, flashy, and rousing take for today’s audiences.

New Parisian opera owners Firmin (Ciaran Hinds) and Andre (Simon Callow) argue with their prima donna Carlotta Guidicelli (Minnie Driver) and lose the star on the night their new patron Raoul, the Viscount de Chagny (Patrick Wilson) is to attend. Fortunately, the elusive, unseen Ghost of the Opera known as The Phantom (Gerard Butler) has been training Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum), the orphaned dancer of a famous Swedish musician, how to sing the show’s operettas. Though she thinks of him as an angel of music, The Phantom is passionately obsessed with Christine and writes threatening letters to the new owners to ensure her placement over the appeased Carlotta in the upcoming productions. When Christine pleads with The Phantom to reveal himself, he takes her to his lair beneath the Opera Populaire, unbeknownst to all except ballet mistress Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson). Soon Christine is conflicted between The Phantom’s longing guidance and her engagement to her childhood friend Raoul. Scorned, deformed, and unloved, The Phantom demands his Don Juan opera be performed while he plots the destruction of all who stand between him and a new, beautiful life with Christine. 


From Stage to Screen

Director Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Batman Forever) co-wrote this 2004 adaptation along with producer Lloyd Webber (Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar) and naturally, The Phantom of the Opera closely adheres to the stage musical and not necessarily Gaston Leroux’s original 1911 novel. That alone may put off viewers here, as will the almost everything in song spectacle and decidedly Broadway structure. Things that could be simply said are instead unnecessarily embellished in song – sometimes at the expense of pace and plot. Numbers such as “Notes,” “Prima Donna,” and the start of “Masquerade” feel overlong and overdone in their lavishness and unfortunately stay away from the core love triangle for too long. By default, these have us itching for the titular happenings, yes, and this beat for beat, all music on stage and off is the point of this musical adaptation, of course – everything we see onscreen is meant to be one stage production after another with humor interspersed for brevity. However, this people breaking out in song for no good reason is why mainstream audiences have such extreme love or hate for musicals. Adding dance, spectacle, and goofy grins on top of this already misplaced measure is meant to make us enjoy the so grandiose as to bemuse, but it compromises the attempt at edgy, mass appeal filmmaking here. The Phantom of the Opera both doesn’t go far enough in its brooding and asks too much by remaining caught up in its own musical indulgence for nearly two and a half hours. The writing should have been tighter, with a streamlined tempo and much darker humor or played straight antagonism. Part of me wishes we just had this cast without the purely musical elements. I even suspect it would be an interesting silent movie-esque adventure to watch this on mute, for the performances are strong and emotional enough without the song.

Fortunately, some vocals also serve as narration in more popular, contemporary, music video styling. Surreal camera shots, reflections, dreamlike fog, candlelight, and sweeping tracking shots to start “Think of Me” and “Angel of Music” establish the fantasy while rhythmic intercutting between the stage performances, behind the scenes action, above drama, and below angst build intensity. Though atmospheric with an OId World feeling, the black and white opening and closing scenes, however, should have been just that, bookends. Briefly revisiting this time merely for neat transitions is a pointless interruption amid the rafter chases, deaths, taut suspense, and more action styled scenes. Having the tale locked in a flashback also makes another character’s flashback within confusing, and the age changes also fudge part of the timeline. Sure, it’s all elegant and pretty to behold, but these adornments clutter the narrative and become a hindrance to The Phantom of the Opera. Where the Silent Version is still demented, horror macabre and the 1943 Claude Rains delight provides a more traditional musical ingredient – the tunes come from the opera performances alone – to the disappointment of horror fans, this Phantom of the Opera isn’t scary at all. Certainly, this is a gothic piece with an under current of darkness, duality, layers, masks, and what goes on behind the curtain flair, and while it may be geared toward a teen audience, the black capes, white snow, and blood red lips provide sophistication and symbolism. We don’t necessarily label films the same as books, but this Phantom feels like the definition of paranormal romance. It’s meant for audiences who don’t normally like love stories, horror, or even musicals. Its saturated lavishness and visual delights detract from its flaws, but also attract the viewer into forgiving them – a lot like its eponymous ghost, actually. A fun, snowy sword fight over a girl and the switch in when the chandelier drops are smart cinematic changes ushering in a big, rousing film finale. Lloyd Webber may know a heck of a lot about putting on a darn good show, but he’s a bit too can’t see the forest for the trees when it came to adapting The Phantom of the Opera. Thankfully, Schumacher was indeed the right director for this piece, and overall, The Phantom of the Opera pulls off its movie adaptation thanks to what it does purely for film requirements away from its stage source. 

The Phantom

Well then, let’s talk about Gerard Butler, shall we? Normally I require a minimum of stubble on him, but I like this clean-shaven and half face coverage, strange as that may sound. Yes, he needed more singing practice and his tone is uneven. However, I accept that his voice is not that of a trained virtuoso, for The Phantom has had no formal voice coaching in his underground lair, and who knows what those supposed nasal deformities could do to one’s sound. The Phantom’s voice is edgy; he’s an angry, mental dude, and this unpolished sound reflects the part of him we don’t see under the mask. Butler enters a half hour in ahead of “The Phantom of the Opera,” and its organ on acid mix of gothic fury and rock matches his style. This Phantom has a lot of cool, sexy swag and raw elements, and were he a debonair singer, it would seem out of character. He isn’t really the Angel of Music, so why should his voice be angelic? Of course, our deep and guttural singer also actually lives in the gutter and sings all but a dozen of his lines, and his groomed stalking of an orphaned teenager is skivvy, almost like pedophilia in plain sight creepy. He’s older and perhaps paternal, granted, but The Phantom is also very juvenile, plays with toys, equates music to love, and carries an entitlement chip on his shoulder along with some very underdeveloped social skills – seen most tragically in his brief “Masquerade” reprise. He’s also not that deformed, and it’s easy to look past his flawed face thanks to Butler’s desperation and passion in “The Music of the Night.” We understand how this lonely man’s attentions could blossom from something musical to all things saucy. His notes aren’t as big as the stage renditions of “The Music of the Night,” but we believe his music genius and the earnestness of this seductive plea. The Phantom’s holding up the radio ala Say Anything – how can Christine refuse? His entire lair reveal feels like a veiled sex scene placeholder: the way they go down the stairs, thru the tunnel, the black horse, his boat and the motion of the ocean, the opening of the gate, the high notes, the lyrics themselves, their caresses, and her fainting at seeing the bridal doll. What’s the boy been doing with a red satin, bird shaped, love nest bed and why are Christine’s newly sexed up stockings off when she wakes?

The Phantom of the Opera is of course set up in The Phantom’s favor, and we spend over ten minutes with his reveal and “The Music of the Night” compared to Raoul’s brief “Little Lotte” reminisce and dinner plans. Without a doubt, he has a violent streak and killer instinct, but does that automatically make The Phantom a monster? The audience feels more for his un-nurtured nature than fears his violence. Some of that is the aforementioned song over scares adaptation unevenness, sure, but we also see how everything The Phantom does is for Christine. It’s a twisted, unhealthy obsession and it’s ultimately about the compassion he wants from her, yet we don’t blame the weeping Phantom for his actions. While horror fans may despise this lack of menace or the danger as charisma that fan girls justify purely because of Butler, there is a whiff of social commentary from Leroux at play, particularly in the Red Death’s “Why So Silent?” interruption of “Masquerade.” The use of Poe’s pestilence itself is telling, a plague upon an exclusive, decadent host. Do these party patrons deserve The Phantom’s comeuppance? Did the outcast circumstances alone make him the way he is? We leave the misunderstood on the fringes of society and then wonder why they snap. All The Phantom wants is some love! Isn’t that proof that he is not without redemption for his crimes? Die hard fans of the stage production may dislike Butler’s good girls like bad boys Hollywood take, but for those new to The Phantom of the Opera, he’s easy to love. Maybe The Phantom is Christine’s Angel of Music after all – an innocent incarnation maturing from, as George Michael says, “father figure, preacher, teacher,” to her dark Phantom lover and “anything you had in mind.” I’m surprised Butler only became a cult favorite and international phenomenon rather than a stateside top of the box office superstar with this film, and I do pick on Gerry a lot thanks to some of his stinky romantic comedies. Honestly, most of his films do fall into the guilty pleasure category. However, anyone who thinks he can’t act or at the very least bring it to a role should see these pre-300 films such as The Phantom of the Opera and Dear Frankie. By time we get to “The Point of No Return” one can’t help but think damn he’s good!

Christine and Raoul

Certainly, I can forgive the soft focus and candle glow on Emmy Rossum (Shameless) as The Phantom’s protégé Christine Daae because it works wonderfully with her swept up, innocent, and angelic dreamscapes in The Phantom of the Opera. Christine begins the tale as an orphaned, small dancer in the opera repertory, but her “Think of Me” big voice potential and childlike belief in an “Angel of Music” sent by her late, famed father – seen in portraits as Ramin Karimloo, the West End Phantom – soon develop into a larger presence and much more scandalous relationship. Despite our apprehensions about The Phantom, Christine is seduced by the very idea of him. She is the one who insists upon his reveal – for all we know, The Phantom wasn’t going to make his romantic case until her insistence after Raoul came swooping in as the competition. Christine’s love and tenderness could be good for The Phantom, right? She pities him, he inspires her, and the pair feels more Beauty and the Beast than they do threatening. Of course, Christine dresses more sexy and grown up as The Phantom of the Opera progresses, from big and grand white gowns to close but bound corsets, saucy stockings, pushed up bodices, symbolic black, and ultimately, barefoot and lacy senorita reds. Emmy’s hair is exceptional I must say, and this costuming adds to the enchantment. Again, fans of the stage performances may dislike Rossum’s youthful, not always emotive approach and most of her role is in song. However, her mournful, conflicting feelings in “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and “Wandering Child” come across with some great bedroom eyes, and a few ecstatic, even near orgasmic looks over The Phantom’s singing are both amusing and rousing. She does care for The Phantom, and Emmy perfectly conveys the heavenly, willing to love opportunity. Unfortunately, his violence and prepubescent mine mine mine drives Christine to the ultimate just friends condemnation and mongoloid hatred just like everyone else. Christine is caught up in his passion and volatile, and though this back and forth fear feels hollow to the viewer because The Phantom is never presented as scary to us, her pain is apparent thanks to his increasingly dangerous demands.

Of course, the younger ages are again a little kinky, and the teenage angst might be too wishy washy for the older, more cultured theatre audience. Christine runs to the cool, snowy rooftop to escape The Phantom, but he is already there. Whoops! For one so supposedly enamored with Raoul, she doesn’t notice when he leaves during “Why So Silent?” nor does she wake him before going to the cemetery. Her relationship with him seems the stagnant, chaste, platonic affair of their childhood while its The Phantom’s passionate voice that turns her on. Several frames before “The Phantom of the Opera” imply a halo on her head and a pseudo bridal procession, as if she was innocent and intact before “The Music of the Night” but deflowered by the experience. She pulls her lace sleeves up when singing to Raoul in “The Point of No Return” but lets them fall off her shoulders when up close and personal with The Phantom for the next verse. We understand her predicament, but Christine is indeed culpable for her own for love or money choice. She’ll get her kicks with The Phantom, sure, but why would she marry him when Raoul’s countess opportunities await? Her cruel public removal of The Phantom’s mask feels almost like a face shaming, as if he has the audacity to think she would choose an ugly underground life with him. The Phantom asks Raoul if he thought he would hurt Christine, but both men seem played by her. Was The Phantom truly first but dismissed at the altar? Did Raoul spend his life in the shadow of The Phantom’s passion? Christine ditches The Phantom but wears his wedding dress anyway, and all the while she’s supposed to be scared of him? For someone supposedly so uninterested, she certainly gives him a few darn good kisses!

If The Phantom of the Opera is set up in its eponymous antagonist’s favor, that makes things troublesome for Patrick Wilson (Angels in America) as Raoul, the Opera Populaire’s debonair, young, rich patron. He’s Christine’s childhood friend turned sweetheart, but their relationship is simply not as well developed as The Phantom’s seduction. Raoul even dismisses the idea of Christine’s “Angel of Music” in “Why Have You Brought Me Here?” and takes too long to believe The Phantom is real, almost not until their swordfight. Christine shouldn’t have to sing her “All I Ask of You” plea to Raoul –especially after The Phantom is heard in the opera house and kills during “Poor Fool He Makes Me Laugh.” Their puppy love seems forced and reintroduced in each scene they have together – which feels like a lot less than her time with The Phantom. Scandalous suggestions that they are lovers is heard from others in “Notes” and “Prima Donna” but not seen, and this final angle of The Phantom of the Opera’s love triangle feels more like a fifth wheel love that may or may not last. The Phantom may be too intense, but what does Raoul really do to sway Christine? Again, his “I’m real, he is not” argument feels devoid to the audience because we know it’s invalid, nay, Raoul even seems like a jerk when he says Christine is free and safe from The Phantom because we can see he is right there with them. Wilson certainly has an easy, effortless voice, but we hardly hear it. Raoul is the nice, safe choice for Christine and we need his man versus man conflict in The Phantom of the Opera along with his potential. He and Christine can advance and grow together – unlike The Phantom, whose love and genius is childlike and stunted by his early abandonment. He wants “All I Ask of You” sung to him, but instead The Phantom must witness Christine and Raoul’s love in another semi-sex scene. Where “The Music of The Night” is more like a drunken, heady make out that you aren’t sure if you remember or regret, “All I Ask of You” has Christine in a red cape upon the snowy high, asking Raoul if she loves her. He answers, “You know I do,” in a “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” quickie. The exit goes behind closed doors and several months pass before “Masquerade,” but Christine and Raoul are immediately secretly engaged onscreen while The Phantom was left subtextually crushing rosebuds. He’s upfront about his passion while Raoul represents social opportunity, and the viewer is caught up in where the competition goes next. Even the shocked, tearful Raoul appears to think Christine has chosen The Phantom in “The Point of No Return.” Christine shows such passion with The Phantom before the entire company while his engagement to her went undisclosed. How can Raoul – the titled, fresh faced boy hero on the white horse – save Christine from The Phantom and his tricked out opera house? He fences while The Phantom swishes his cape thru fire and Raoul almost appears to want Christine more just because he wants to win. He sits in the opera box with the police and orchestrates a trap for The Phantom, using Christine to do so regardless of her safety or what she and The Phantom may mean to each other. Raoul will be a count and has the means to marry Christine and leave the Opera Populaire, but they don’t do so when they have the chance. Instead, it is The Phantom’s ‘if you love something, set it free’ revelation that makes Raoul the hero. The Phantom of the Opera makes for a very interesting study of the entire triumvirate, and Wilson fills the role that needs to be filled – but he isn’t given all the support Raoul needs. Like the criticism on his co-stars’ singing, I don’t think Raoul deserves a lot of the hate he receives, but with less screen time and overt romance, he simply seems too wimpy to best The Phantom.

The Company

Fortunately, The Phantom of the Opera has a fun supporting cast, even if they are both over and under used. Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) is a diva in the truest sense of the word with an over the top Italian wink at the expected opera stylings as “Prima Donna” Carlotta. It’s easy for audiences to be amused at her parody thanks to some wild feathers, furs, and gaudy colors – her design is in keeping with the stage show panache whilst standing out along with her clashing antagonism. New opera owners Ciaran Hinds (Rome) and Simon Callow (Shakespeare in Love) also add humor with their toeing the line of incompetence as the Opera Ghost who isn’t a ghost at all demands a theatre salary from them with his letter writing campaign. “Prima Donna” is fun for the ensemble, and the comedy routines away from The Phantom do help ease what might be difficult romance and musical stylings for non-Broadway audiences. But again, it’s all a bit much and too audacious compared to any Phantom suspense. Thankfully, Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow) is intriguingly subdued and knows more than she’s saying as Madame Giry. Those bookends and flashbacks don’t quite clarify her history, confuse character ages, and don’t do justice on how much she’s really involved. She says Christine is like a daughter to her, but does that make The Phantom her problem child? A non-singing conversation of explanation would have been welcomed, and likewise, Jennifer Ellison (Brookside) as Madame Giry’s daughter Meg remains the meek best friend and an unheeded Cassandra. She’s always dressed like a fragile little girl or ballerina in a jewelry box and calls out each time The Phantom makes his appearance, yet her scenes are otherwise silent with only simmering scoring – as if she is curious about The Phantom but not quite ready to awaken to love like Christine. Meg disappears or reappears from The Phantom of the Opera as needed, and it’s a pity we don’t get enough mother/daughter dynamics with her or more interesting dialogue with Christine. In film mode, the audience needs this sort of bounce off player to which we can relate instead of on the nose routines for the sake of it like “Masquerade.” These numbers and their grandeur work on the stage, but the dimmed palette in contrast to the Red Death here needn’t be so obvious onscreen – especially when thinly drawn support and its talented players are ripe for development. The company celebrates the hidden and the disguise in “Masquerade” and thus insults The Phantom in his house before pursuing him in “Track This Murderer Down.” If he’s been doing these ghostly goings-on for three years, why didn’t anyone seek him sooner? Leave some supplies on the steps, invite him upstairs, put him to an instrument and you know, be kind. Wise cinemagoers get the bungling, humorous antagonist cliché, so we’re glad when The Phantom makes that threatening “Why So Silent?” entrance and steals the steamy show in “The Point of No Return.” If you’re going to have this fine ensemble, give them their due before the spectacle and give their actions for or against The Phantom some real meaning beyond stereotypical filler.

Some seemingly lecherous aspects of the behind the curtain repertoire are also suggested just enough rather than fully explored. Stagehand Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean) skeeves after the ballet company and proves creepier than anything we thought of The Phantom. What kinds of sexual trades, favors, and abuses most likely went on at the opera in those days? Is The Phantom saving Christine from such services? Is this why the company suspects she and Raoul – the opera house patron – are already lovers? Firmin and Andre go arm in arm with two young dancers who are overheard talking about how rich the former scrap mental entrepreneurs must be. Are the lowers rungs of the Opera Populaire ambitious or pimped out and abused by others? Madame Giry is even dressed up as a geisha while Meg costumes as a swan. Is “Madame” Giry the hostess or something more – did she or the owners protect or pimp their repertory? Surely the viewer is expected to understand the adulterous plot of “Il Muto” goes down on stage and off, right? While The Phantom of the Opera debates whether The Phantom is angel or demon, subtle religious positions are also implied about the ensemble. Meg and Raoul can be seen wearing crosses when they wear white, and the cross on the Daae crypt glows red during The Phantom’s deception in “Wandering Child.” Though often wearing black, Madame Giry is also seen with a cross, suggesting she is nunned or at the very least reformed for her part. Is she giving Christine to The Phantom so she can save or prospect her own daughter? Again, these secondary layers and complexities would have better served the film version of The Phantom of the Opera rather than the company’s over long, filler music.


The Production

The Phantom of the Opera may unevenly place its spectacle above all else, but it does indeed look smashing! Liberties taken away from the stage create embellishment and improvements that couldn’t be done in the theatre. Antique sepia tones and black and white patinas give The Phantom of the Opera proper period mood, and great feathers, gold, sparkle, and colorful jewel tones accent the 1870 Paris authentic but no less fairy tale costuming delights. Gas lamps, tinted, near whimsical and magical lighting, and lots and lots of candles add dimension and establish the high and low differences between the lavish of the theatrics at front, the hurried of the stage behind, and the dungeon-esque danger below. Despite being mostly interiors or obvious sound stages made to look outside snowy, the set dressings look good thanks to great depth, mirrors, smoke, and waterworks. The Phantom of the Opera may be to beholden to being its stage predecessor on film, but this traditional presentation is a lot better than the desperate, sweeping CGI seen in Sweeney Todd. So what if we can occasionally see some of the indie filmmaking small-scale short cuts and The Phantom’s deformity and make up design changes from grotesque to not so bad and even handsome or sexy as needed. When the audience sees something so nice everywhere we look, then we can forgive these minor, or in some cases, deliberate flaws. The Dracula-esque carriage ride and cemetery dressings add melancholy elements while the red, darkening Don Juan presentation amid “The Point of No Return” provides airs of Dante and I must say, the “Satan’s Alley” number in Staying Alive. One wants to take the trip to The Phantom’s lair even as the subterranean waters turn sour and sickly green. Great single shots, pretty still images, and fine attention to detail anchor painting like frames – ironically, The Phantom of the Opera almost suffers from too much of a good thing in its over produced intentions. Where these theatrics work for a show where the seated audience must remain captivated, a film shouldn’t have to go as far as The Phantom of the Opera does with its spectacle. All the film within a film and opera behind the scenes themes are already at work without the extra flashbacks and showmanship on top.

Art Direction, Cinematography, and Original Song Oscar nominations came calling for The Phantom of the Opera, along with more critics associations awards, international acclaim, and Breakout hardware for Emmy Rossum. Though stage Carlotta Margaret Preece appears briefly in The Phantom of the Opera and her dubbing over Minnie Driver’s vocals is often apparent and other audio and visuals sometimes seem out of sync, Driver does sing beautifully on the “Learn to Be Lonely” original. I did speak ill of the mismatched boards to film musical aspects, but the tunes themselves and the corresponding underscore are dang catchy and stick in your head even if you don’t prefer big songs, Broadway styled orchestration, or show tunes arraignments. We can’t quite sing along with the high notes, but there is a modern, less operatic rhythm to “The Phantom of the Opera.” It’s edgy, with a trace of eighties power balladry. Of course, the Halloweenish organ is reminiscent of Bach, and one must also not think of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” rift in order to enjoy the titular track, for they do indeed sound that much alike. Without subtitles, it would also be tough to understand when everyone is singing on top of each other, particularly with the booming music in the “Final Lair” sequence. How is one to appreciate the argument when we can’t hear all that’s being said? Fortunately, there’s no mistaking the climactic “Don Juan” and “The Point of No Return.” The duet here plays like another scandalous sex scene thanks to ascending stairs, rising octaves, and illicit lyrics. At this point, the audience in the Opera Populaire and us viewers aren’t sure where the plot of “Don Juan” ends and The Phantom and Christine begins, but we know the rising crescendos are coming to a head – or a chandelier drop.

I Do Like It, I Do!

While the affordable single DVD edition of The Phantom of the Opera contains no major features, the reasonable 2 Disc Special Edition and Blu-ray releases do contain several hours of intriguing documentaries on the stage genesis and film production along with the inexplicably deleted “No One Would Listen” scene. Today we’re spoiled in expecting B rolls and hours upon hours of extra content, but remember, this was also the era of both ‘Full Screen’ (Why? Why?!) and ‘Widescreen’ video releases. Since The Phantom of the Opera’s anniversary is coming up next year, it might be nice to see a new release with digital copy, sound remixing, and some commentary tracks or retrospectives. Sadly, I’ve seen no information for such a re-issue. Perhaps I’ve been back and forth, wishy washy, and windblown in discussing The Phantom of the Opera. I do like it, I really do, and I tend to watch it two or three times in a row whenever I see it before listening to the soundtrack a few times more when the songs are stuck in my head. However, my critical mind also notices and notices and notices the ‘I see what you did there’ ad nauseum here. The Phantom of the Opera itself never quite makes up its mind whether it is going to be a video of the stage production with a weaker singing Hollywood cast or if it is going to be a lavish film structured with song and stage show elements. Had the full on musical configuration been toned down, this could have had an even broader appeal. With a clipped abundance on production and a tighter polish on it all, who knows what kind of long lasting critical glory and greater awards acclaim The Phantom of the Opera might have had.  Of course, Lloyd Webber knew he didn’t have to compromise much to make a successful picture, and this is still quite a popular film with crossover cult love and enduring international appeal. The Phantom of the Opera doesn’t feel garish or turn of the millennium dated like other hit or miss attempts in the nu-musicals resurgence. Some audiences find the over production a fault, others hate the music over horror altogether, while more can’t abide Butler as The Phantom much less his inferior singing. Either way, there are chicks out there asking him to sign their Phantom of the Opera thigh tattoos! I’m not a major romance fan by any means, but I don’t think it is a slight to call this edition and its loveable, misunderstood Phantom and near fairy tale charm a precursor to the paranormal romance audience and PG-13 Twilight crowd.  Where I can’t abide how the sparkle vamps have defanged old school scary vampires, I can see room for Lon Chaney’s frights and this romanticized Phantom of the Opera. Not everyone will like this film – most mainstream, non-musical audiences probably will not. There is however, a moody, musical niche for this Phantom of the Opera, and fans of the cast, lovers of gothic romance, musical viewers, and Phantom completists must see the brooding spectacle here.

18 December 2013

Carpenters Christmas Portrait

Carpenters Christmas Portrait Breezy Holiday Fair
By Kristin Battestella

From its fun album cover and festive music to reverent moments and mellow notes, the squeaky clean musical imagery of the brother and sister duo known as the Carpenters rings true in this 1978 family friendly Christmas Portrait LP.

Arranger Richard Carpenter leads off Christmas Portrait with a quiet O Come O Come Emmanuel vocal before the five minute instrumental Overture of Deck the Halls, I Saw Three Ships, Have Your Self a Merry Little Christmas, God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman, Away in A Manger, What Child is This, Carol of the Bells, and O Come All Ye Faithful. While Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and Carol of the Bells have bigger treatments later on the album, it would have been stunning to hear all these carols complete by Karen Carpenter, one of the greatest 20th century female voices. That would have been glory aside, this is a great little medley of family friendly carols to get the seasonal spirit rolling. A smooth mix of brass, jazz, tender, merry, and medieval tickle the ears of one and all before a big orchestra finish. Christmas Waltz slows the session down a notch and feels slower than the seemingly jolly Sinatra staple, yet it’s a fittingly seventies update with wintry fluff and Karen’s big bittersweet notes. It is however too short at just over two minutes.

Likewise, Sleigh Ride begins soft with just Karen’s inviting opening lines but quickly turns into a whimsical rendition with more of Richard’s harmonizing and vocals than some casual Superstar Carpenters listeners may expect, as so often audiences think of her awesomeness and not necessarily his behind the scenes. Richard’s singer/songwriter folk-esque arraignment and the happening swift are easy for everyone to sing along to as they sway about the tree. Some of the musical bells and whistles are a bit dated, too seventies innocent or youthful for such mature sounding voices, but this bell bottom time capsule creates a December young at heart nostalgia before segueing into It’s Christmas Time/Sleep Well, Little Children. It’s Christmas Time has an effortless, music box tone and classical harpsichord design. Instead of The Hustle, one expects to break out some Minuet steps and tire themselves out for the pleasant choir whispers of Sleep Well, Little Children. The kids are indeed put to bed with this lullaby pillow cloud softness while the full en force Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas sentimentally speaks of the adult melancholy. This is of course already a mellow tune, yet it’s made even more bittersweet with Karen Carpenter’s vocals. If you aren’t thinking of Judy Garland’s dynamite with this tune, then you’re thinking of Karen’s rendition here. Her voice is simply meant for a song like this, and this is the longest single track on Christmas Portrait.

Of course, Karen’s deep, emotional style doesn’t feel meant for fast songs and she sounds slightly different from their Close to You, eponymous album, or A Song for You days on Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Although anything I perceive as flat could simply be from the ills of a warped record, the Carpenters did previous record a slower version of this children’s admonition. Sure, it’s a bit too quick in tempo and only a minute long, but this ditty is also unfortunately squashed between two seasonal and perfect ballads. The Christmas Song is another slow seemingly brooding mid century piece just perfect for Karen’s stylings. Just hearing her linger on the somewhat lesser heard opening lines makes this sentiment worth the wait indeed. Thus far Christmas Portrait feels like a tender seasonal delight, but Silent Night is actually the first full length carol with Karen’s lead. That voice and this tune, that’s all the spiritual needed to put Side 1 down for the night in perfectly reverent lullaby fashion. The building angelic arraignment from Richard and the backing choir wonderfully lifts without becoming a bombastic, big finish rendition. Karen does all the verses too, and although this isn’t a long track at just over three minutes, the listener gets the feeling that every spirited note and heavenly string is going to take however long it is going to take.


Let’s flip our vinyl over and begin Side 2 of Christmas Portrait with the unnecessarily hyper Jingle Bells. This rendition comes off as a weird, speedy little miss – a one-minute scat wannabe that’s way too fast yet can’t get over with quickly enough. First Snowfall/Let It Snow is a much nicer and softer sentiment, another pleasant, breezy nostalgic ride combing seventies swift with a trace of fifties youth and memories in its first leg. Likewise, Let It Snow is a little faster but continues the old-fashioned ring a ding ding hip. Carol of the Bells, however, is a sweeping instrumental piano treatment from Richard. Its pulsing, fast-paced rhythms imply an Old World secret or hidden magic of Christmas at work just beneath the Solstice’s veil – making for a perfectly atmospheric winter tune.

And of course, we come to the nouveau holiday essential Merry Christmas Darling and it’s of it’s time yet instantly relatable dreams and thoughts of loved ones. Although this track on Christmas Portrait is a new recording – not the oft-heard original single – the slow, brooding, long notes from Karen are all here along with room for us to sing along to Richard’s backing sounds and easy style. Those three titular words and their soft refrain will get stuck in your head. How much so? I had Merry Christmas Darling stuck in my head for days before I finally listened to my Christmas Portrait LP!  Just knowing it was here was enough to rouse the holiday humming, as does the mere mention of I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Perhaps these two mellow merriments are too similar to be back to back, but again, this low, tender type of tune is so Karen Carpenter the placement doesn’t matter. Toss in a few rendition changes, lengthy ad lib notes, and some backing chorales and we’re down in the dumps with this familiar, weeping seasonal. Thanks to this largely secular session, Christ is Born is a somewhat surprising track for Christmas Portrait. Such a reverent tale makes the listener again wish we had a totally gospel set with Karen. Can you imagine? This Perry Como recording may not be a well-known tune today, but its lyrics and big alleluias are certainly spiritual enough to strike a chord.

Christmas Portrait looses some of its holiday luster with this uneven five-minute plus medley of Winter Wonderland/Silver Bells/White Christmas. Winter Wonderland is erroneously sped up when it could have been another graceful Karen solo, and an alternating, hectic choir competes with her slower moments before the sudden, unusual Silver Bells. Though brief, too many extra high notes and musical littering ruins what is usually such a subdued ballad. Thankfully, White Christmas salvages some merit with its traditionally bittersweet refrain. The  wartime origins survive in the end, but I’m not sure how these normally can do no wrong classics got squished together in this jumble – the arraignments don’t match and each is more than due its own time. Fortunately, Karen takes her time in sending out Christmas Portrait with Ave Maria. This might be an odd choice to conclude the album with such lovely church expectation – it’s even a bit deceiving to open and close with carols when the set is generally seasonably neutral. Though meant for more operatic vocalists, the anticipated Carpenters magic comes in for the big Latin repeats and Christmas Portrait bows in respected religious fashion.

CD options for Christmas Portrait vary, with an initial release compiling its track listening between Christmas Portrait and the 1984 album An Old-Fashioned Christmas. The Carpenters: Christmas Collection, however, is a faithful two set CD or download with the original LP order intact. Christmas Portrait itself could have been a double vinyl release – there’s certainly enough holiday material only singers like Karen Carpenter can deliver to fill such an album. Indeed An Old-Fashioned Christmas was composed of more material from these sessions and released by Richard after Karen’s untimely death. Christmas Portrait has a few stylistic ups and downs, granted – even on a holiday release, not everyone today will like the Carpenters’ wholesome style. However, this is a perfect time capsule of the period thanks to its breezy yet classic and timeless tunes. It’s jolly and festive as needed but tender and even mournful at times, and Christmas Portrait provides a traditional, family friendly, casual seasonal mood fit for a sophisticated party or baking with the kids.