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Beyond the Sea (2004)
Watching Kevin Spacey's new film musical biography about the life of Bobby Darin, "Beyond the Sea", I couldn't help but think of the great film critic, Pauline Kael's assessment of Diana Ross in the film version of the 70's Black retelling of "The Wizard of Oz", "The Wiz". "Ms. Ross's insistence at the age of thirty nine of playing Dorothy age twelve in 'The Wiz'," wrote Ms. Kael, "amounts to a whim of iron." That's not to say that "Beyond the Sea" does not have merit. It does, and a lot of it. Or, that Kevin Spacey is inappropriately cast. Finally, he's not. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone else who could bring to this part what Spacey does. But having directed as well as co-produced, co-written, starred and done all of his own singing, one cannot escape that "Beyond the Sea" is ultimately much about Spacey as it is Bobby Darin;in the same manner that "Citizen Kane" is about Orson Welles as William Randolph Heart or, a.k.a. Charles Foster Kane. Spacey's strong ties to his own mother have been reported and Bobby Darin's relationship with his mother is at the focal point of the story, as well as Sandra Dee's, Darin's wife. Both appear as intellectuals with an artist's arrogance and both relish in an often droll delivery. And both, clearly, know how to sing.
Owing some stylish influence to Fosse's "All That Jazz" and even Coppola's "One From the Heart", "Beyond the Sea" shows off Spacey's strong grasp of cinematic story telling moving between surrealism and reality, and his even stronger vocalizing ability in sounding about as close to Darin as you could expect. He moves, he struts and there are moments when he quietly strikes an uncanny pose that looks just like some of those famous record covers. What Spacey can't escape is that at forty five, he is eight years older than when Darin died. Because we are so familiar with Darin's face the difference is noticeable. For some, this may amount to an impossible suspension of disbelief, much in the same manner of last year's "The Human Stain", where many found it impossible to buy Anthony Hopkins as a fair skinned Negro.
This is a shame because Spacey's work is formidable and an impact is made. A life is realized and rendered effectively, often brilliantly and I was moved at the end. If nothing else, one looks forward to what Spacey does next, both in front of and behind the camera. No doubt, his production of Oedipus Rex would be spectacular.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
When Gargoyles Cry
Would that Sir Andrew had taken a cue from one of the more successful scenes toward the beginning of his musical version of "Sunset Boulevard." Joe Gittes, having stumbled upon Norma Desmond's decaying domain, finds himself suddenly recruited to edit or rather endorse her epic retelling of Solome to be presented to C.B. DeMille for her impending return to the screen. Try as he may, Joe cannot convince Norma to change or edit one word, let alone an entire scene; so her tome remains at record length. It's this same sense of hubris that prevents this new film version of Webber's spectacularly successful stage musical from achieving lasting excellence.
It's not to say that what A.L.W. has wrought isn't worth preserving. The Puccini of the modern musical theater has created a popular work of entertainment that has earned its place in the record books. Shamelessly melodramatic and romantic moments are wielded with Jeti like precision and to often triumphant effect. How can you not be moved by Christine's final acknowledgment of the Phantom's obsession or the tremendous opening when the story hurls you into the past with such vivid theatricality. Those and other moments actually survive well under director Joel Schumacher's steady hand. It's the in between stuff, the recitative as they say, that drags the proceedings down, as if each secondary character's word is scripture when a film edit would've been more effective. Finally, two of the show's biggest numbers, "Music of the Night", and "Masquerade" pale in memory to Hal Prince's extraordinary original staging, falling and looking rather flat. That's the point. One wonders if Schumacher had free rein; or what a Baz Luhrmann or Robert Marshall might have realized.
Still the casting is sound with Gerard Butler a properly smoldering and shadowy figure; and if he finally doesn't bring the requisite towering tragedy that Michael Crawford created on stage, still he makes you care. Emmy Rossum is quite the find, both delicate and fierce when needed. She is the epitome of the modern operatic ingenue and is matched every step of the way by Patrick Wilson's Raul. Miranda Richardson is a lovely addition, bringing more depth to a rather functional character that helps to move the story along. Minnie Driver forges vigorously ahead with unabashed comic commitment in the part of Carlotta.
Webber has provided a new song to accompany the end credits and it is truly superfluous. You have to wonder that its only purpose is to possibly provide a musical Oscar moment for a rich score that otherwise could not be considered.
The Lion in Winter (1968)
They Might Be Giants
The great film critic, Pauline Kael, chastised Hepburn in this film version of James Goldman's historical cat fight for exploiting the audience's emotional connection to her; for playing on her frailty. Further proof, that artistry is in the eye of the beholder. Ironically, years later, Hepburn, according to biographer Scott Berg, would criticize Meryl Streep for being too mannered. Of course, neither are the worse for the wear. Hepburn actually emerges triumphant in her portrayal of Eleonor of Acquitane and not least of which because we know the woman behind the artist; and know her to be a royal survivor in her own right.
Other criticism that has dogged this work is that James Goldman's dark satire is muddied by the layer of emotion and even sentiment that the movie develops. But as with the film version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the enhanced emotional core of the story is a strong plus. To this end John Barry's forceful score lends great credibility as does Anthony Harvey's non stop strategic direction. Casting this powerful, writing this intelligent in the hands of a smart director makes this Lion unsurpassable to a stage production and certainly the unfortunate recent remake.
Angels in America (2003)
The Passion of the Christ
Tony Kushner's epic morality play set against the devastation and the demonization of the 1980's still reverberates after almost four years since having seen it in its entirety in the theatre. Writing this fresh and theatricality this bold is, frankly, unprecedented in recent times and Mike Nichols and company have done a brave job in attempting to bring it all to the screen (whatever the size). If the seams must finally show to some extent with the angel's appearance, in particular, somewhat diminished by the new medium, the struggle of good vs. evil is no less pertinent. Not surprisingly, Meryl Streep actually succeeds above all in translating the stage prominence of the work to television language becoming the ultimate theatrical interpreter. How fitting that Mike Nichols praised her at the AFI tribute by stating, "Directing Streep is like taking a master class in flying from a hawk."
Sophie's Choice (1982)
The performance of a lifetime
Although achingly literary at times, moments of true emotional power are rendered by fluid storytelling, Nestor Almendros's haunting cinematography, Marvin Hamlisch's quietly effecting score, a touching performance by Peter MacNichol, and a seminal performance by Meryl Streep; one that Kim Stanley (the celebrated actress/teacher and Oscar nominated mother to Jessica Lange in 'Frances' of the same year) proclaimed, "the titanic portrayal of her generation."
No matter what your initial feelings about this film, I encourage you to go back and take in Streep's dark dance of loss, madness and, finally, sorrowful redemption.
The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)
The Wind Beneath My West Wings
The perfect precursor to what Aaron Sorkin and company so wonderfully wrought, Alan Alda and Jerry Schatzberg's intelligent and telling political drama/romance is more like the made for TV movie genre than first run feature. That having been said there's little to take to task here and much to be grateful for including some great character actor turns by Rip Torn and Melvyn Douglas (watch for the gumbo eating/policy thrashing scene) and some shrewd Washington insiders' observations. Somehow, it's hard to imagine Bush, Cheney and the neo cons having nearly half the fun.
Streep anchors the proceedings, investing a level of sophisticated theatricality that gives this film its necessary edge. Her robust good nature at proclaiming, "He's my Daddy!", while piloting a small plane, suggests both her southern belle roots as well as her tenacious appetite to be THE woman behind THE man.