From The Bottom Shelf: Revisiting old DVD’s I find on the bottom shelf of my collection, and trying to work out if they deserve your time, or not.
If you asked any random person in the street to name at least 5 stage musicals they knew about, it’s a lock that at least one of those would be an Andrew Lloyd Webber production. And of Webber’s vast array of musical accomplishments, perhaps none resonates more with audiences – and is more pop-culture aware – than Phantom of The Opera. The musical of musicals, a gathering of perfect story mixed with fabulous music, instantly lends itself to the cinematic format, although it wasn’t until 2004′s Joel Schumacher-directed attempt that the story was given a modern, full-blown go. Sure, there’d been cinematic versions of Phantom prior to this, but all had based themselves primarily on the original source material – Gaston Leroux’s novel – in one form or another. Here, we see Webber’s take on the classic story given the lavish Hollywood treatment, delivering a pounding score and some stunning visuals to accompany the now familiar story.
Joel Schumacher, the man reviled by most for ruining the Batman franchise during the 90′s, was given the plum task of bringing Phantom of The Opera to the screen, and collaborated with Webber on the screenplay. The look of Phantom is typically a classic, near-fantasy version of ye olde Paris, with Schumacher using black-and-white photography for the book-ending opening and closing moments of the film – the film works in flashback, athough it must be said, this technique is used quite poorly in this production.
The film relies heavily on the musical direction of Webber’s original stage show, effectively giving Schumacher reduced latitude to try and explore depth of character and fully flesh out the story in a way that satisfies a cineast such as myself; the film is effectively one long music-video, although a handsomely mounted and performed one at that. Gerard Butler swaggers onto the screen as a dynamic and effective Phantom, wooing and obsessing over debutante Emmy Rossum’s Christine. Butler had minimal singing experience prior to taking the role, but to my layman’s ear he seems to accomplish even the most technical of Webber’s compositions. Rossum is a delight as Christine, mixing winsome impishness with ingenue sexiness to create a delightful rendition of a girl torn between two men – the other man being Patrick Wilson’s Raoul, an aristocratic music fan who funds the Paris Opera.Wilson is also solid in his role, playing the “perfect gentleman” against Butler’s more arrogant, violent Phantom.
The secondary cast are all excellent – key player Minnie Driver, in the role of the skittish, diva-ish lead soprano of the company, Carlotta, is hilarious, even if the role is too limited in screen time. Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds play the Opera’s new owners, besieged by the pre-existing politics within the cast and crew, yet dedicated to bringing the Opera back to its full glory (and making a handsome profit along the way). Callow especially knows how to give the comedic moments their full impact, and although Hinds isn’t a slouch in this department either, he’s less effusive in the part. Limited roles for Miranda Richardson (as Madame Giry) and Jennifer Ellison (as Meg) make up the majority of the ensemble.
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Schumacher delivers a stylish version of the story, replete with excellent production and sound design – the interior of the opera house is a maze of corridors, tunnels and scaffolding, a true “peek behind the facade” as it were, and he uses the riot of color, shadow and textures to their full effect in glorious widescreen – Schumacher restrains his usual visual flair just enough to make Phantom seem more rudimentary than it is, although there are scenes that scream out “look at me!” when required – directorially, Schumacher delivers the goods here. If there was any single criticism of the film’s plotting, it’s the use of flashback to tell the story; the opening sequences where former employees of the opera return to inspect the now dilapidated building, before “remembering” what it was like during the heydey, lack punch, and in a sense rob the film of as powerful an opening as it deserved. Aside from these sequences, Phantom romps along at a cracking pace.
The original DVD pressing of Phantom had a number of issues which only become more evident when viewed on a HD capable screen. The resolution of the film is problematic during high contrast scenes – such as the aforementioned black-and-white moments, where artefact and compression details seep into the frame. It’s distracting, often highly so, although once the brilliant color scheme arrives and the music cranks up, these problems become less evident. Shadow definition is generally decent, although sometimes crush is apparent when the basement-dwelling Phantom drags Christine down below the Opera. Edge enhancement is apparent in some facial close-ups, although this is minimal. The 720i encode lacks the ability to prevent major banding across soft-layered lighting against black backgrounds, resulting in an unpleasant looking Universal logo on the opening, but this issue is also limited once the film proper kicks off. The film was shot for a 2.35 aspect, and Schumacher uses every inch of the frame to tell his story – it’s just a shame that the original encode lacked the tenacity the film required.
Where the picture quality of the DVD becomes a little fuzzy, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a sonic powerhouse. Sure, this ain’t a HD track, but in all honesty, I’m not really all that worried. The DVD soundtrack is breathtakingly powerful – the deep, resonant organ use within many of the mucal cues is sternum-cracking stuff, plumbing the depths of hertz potential across the entire soundstage. Channel separation is excellent, particularly during the musical numbers, which offer great precision and nuance to every strum of a violin, every blast of a trumpet, and every breath of the vocal performances. If there’s anything negative to be found in the audio track, it’s the fact that whenever the music isn’t playing, the soundtrack tends to become a little quiet – this, contrasting with the more bombastic “Music Of The Night” crescendo, as well as tracks such as “Phantom of The Opera” and “Masquerade” indicates this level imbalance may have been a directive from Schumacher himself, perhaps trying to capture the similar ambiance experienced in the live theater, so it’s perhaps best to keep it cranked up and just enjoy.
There are regrettably few extra features on the R4 version DVD I scrounged off the bottom shelf – a couple of EPK styled pieces are primarily it – so I’m forced to give this DVD a low score on that regard. It’s a shame, because this film really deserved more attention than it got.
While Gerard Butler may have stepped from relative obscurity into super-stardom (thanks to “This is Sparta!”), it’s nice to go back and have a look at one of his earliest roles (his really early role, that of Dracula in Dracula 2000, is lamentable) and see where he came from. Phantom of The Opera captures the real essence of the stage show, delivers a rocking soundtrack and a visually stylish palette, which – aside from any inherent story flaws – keep the audience’s attention from wandering. While Schumacher was severely hamstrung with story, characters and music, in as much as he had little room to stretch himself, when he could let fly with creative decisions he truly knocks this out of the park.
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