Friday, January 21, 2005

Movie Review: Agnes of God

United States, 1985
Running Time: 1:38
Rated: PG-13 (Violence)
Cast: Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda, Meg Tilly, Gratien Gelinas, Janine Fluet, Anne Pitoniak

Director: Norman Jewison
Producer: Patrick Palmer & Norman Jewison
Screenplay: John Pielmeier, based on the stage play by John Pielmeier
Music: Georges Delerue
Studio: Columbia Pictures

Posted by Hello
In most cases, philosophical murder mysteries are routinely contrived, tacky, and full of red herrings. Agnes of God is no exception. With a storyline that sounds as if it was pulled from the front page of "The National Inquirer," Agnes of God falls short of anything intellectually stimulating. This hit stage-play turned motion-picture repeatedly disappoints, and is nothing more than an exasperating piece of dastardly drivel.

On a quiet night within the walls of a Montreal convent, a novice nun named Agnes (Meg Tilly) is found in her quarters drenched in blood. Upon a closer inspection of her room, a dead infant, with its umbilical cord tired around its neck, is discovered in Agnes’ wastebasket. Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda) is called in to investigate the killing and provide a psychiatric evaluation of Agnes—the apparent mother and murderer of the child. Agnes claims that she does not recollect the conception or the birth, but Dr. Livingston is adamant to assign a definitive explanation as to both who the father is and who killed the newborn.

Considering the only male candidate who ostensibly has any access to the convent is Father Martineau (Gratein Gelinas), an elderly and slow-moving man, Mother Superior Miriam (Anne Bancroft) believes that the father of Agnes’s baby is God. She deems the conception to be immaculate and Agnes to be innocent. With this set of convictions in mind, Mother Superior attempts to discourage Dr. Livingston from interrogating and corrupting Agnes any further; however, she fails.

After a series of one-on-ones and a hypnotism or two, Dr. Livingston determines Agnes to be a very distressed woman who is haunted by her deceased mother. What else will Dr. Livingston uncover? Did Agnes have relations with a mortal man or is she a blessed woman of God (as the title alleges)?

The answer to both of the preceding questions is: one will never know. Agnes of God does not even follow the proper paradigm of a screenplay; it is lacking in both much-needed plot points and a resolution to the third act. Frustratingly, the film relies on the supernatural, and therefore its mass of inquiries that contrast between faith and agnosticism are all infuriatingly left unanswered. Agnes of God provides no closure, which makes the entire 98 minute picture practically pointless.

With the exception of two fairly-done acting portraits from Bancroft and Tilly, Agnes of God is basically just utter nonsense that leaves the audience feeling duped. It attempts to make far too many superfluous associations between its three main dislikable leads and then strives to thrive on these implicit character links; in doing so, the film flops. The picture also contains a tedious chat about what type of tobacco several saints and apostles would have used. All in all, in its weak attempts to display both the possibility of miracles through extraneous character connections and the capabilities of reason through poor dialogue, Agnes of God comes up bankrupt.

Even though the film lacks any measurable amount of aptitude, it’s still not wholly boring; nonetheless, it is entirely unfulfilling. Maybe if the film didn’t take up so much time trying to come off as an advertisement promoting chain-smoking, it could have filled in some of the vague plot elements. Regardless, by the end of the feature, one will most likely enjoy creating his/her own ending (or an ending for that matter) to replace the film’s pitiable finale. Maybe one of the Sisters was really a man; or maybe Agnes was actually a hermaphrodite. Either would have been more fitting than the meager faith-reliant explanation the film offers. Consequently, Agnes of God is one fruitless enigma that is better off disregarded. (*1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Movie Review: The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

United States 2004
U.S. Release Date: 12/22/04 (wide)
Running Time: 2:23
Rated: PG-13 (Violence)
Cast: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver, Ciaran Hinds, Simon Callow

Director: Joel Schumacher
Producer: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Screenplay: Andrew Lloyd Webber & Joel Schumacher, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Studio: Warner Brothers

Posted by Hello
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage production of The Phantom of the Opera is one of the longest running Broadway shows in history. Since 1988, fans have flocked to the Majestic Theater on West 44th Street to witness the majesty of Webber’s much-admired classic. Now, Phantom aficionados all over the U.S. can flock to the movie theaters to catch the show. However, whether or not they will be satisfied with the Hollywood adaptation is a matter left unknown.

The Phantom of the Opera, the film, will most likely please those partial toward singing and romance on the big-screen. It is a fabulous production for those who have an affinity for lush-looking musicals. As for fans of the black-and-white silent horror, most will find that Webber and Schumacher’s work has nix on the 1925 original.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation takes a classic horror feature and morphs it into a lavish love story that bares a resemblance to Beauty and the Beast. Webber refigures the original full-face mask of the Phantom into a fashion faux pas and an insignificant band-aid of a covering. Here, the Phantom is not as grotesque and horrifying as Lon Chaney’s grim and ghastly portrayal, but rather more of an Antonio Banderas look-alike. And as such, this handsome hunk character with only a smidgen of scarred flesh, simply doesn’t work.

With a mystifying and magical opening sequence where the chandelier is restored to life and the color is brought back into every aspect of the opera house, The Phantom begins. Legend has it that a phantom haunts the 19th century Paris opera house. Only the legend isn’t a myth; it’s factual. Deep within the cellars of the opera house lives a musical mastermind, who chooses to hide his unsightly face behind a small white mask.

This disfigured man, known as the Phantom of the Opera (Gerard Butler), soon falls in love with Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum), a chorus girl whom the Phantom has been giving voice lessons while she sleeps. The Phantom’s love for Christine grows, and he demands that Christine replaces Carlotta (Minnie Driver) as the opera’s leading lady. However, embers begin to burn between Raoul (Patrick Wilson) and Christine, who were once childhood sweethearts, and with this, the Phantom becomes infuriated. In an attempt to cure his broken heart, he spreads fear and holds the opera’s cast, crew, and audience at his mercy.

As far as the voices are concerned, every cast member, for the most part, holds their own. Gerard Butler’s Phantom is probably the weakest voice of all, and yet his “Music of the Night” still rings true. Minnie Driver’s Carlotta works, but her work on “Learn to Be Lonely” is more worthy of mention. Patrick Wilson provides a good look and voice to Raoul, and Emmy Rossum is both delicate and electrifying as Christine. Her sweet 18-year-old voice is smooth and sumptuous.

Overall though, it’s not the voices that pose a problem, it’s the lack of emotion behind the lyrics that cause a quandary. Predominantly, when each character sings, it seems as though they know the words but not the meaning behind them. In this type of film, it is crucial that the main players do not forget that singing is acting through song. Blank stares with no facial expressions cannot convey emotion.

An age-old adage says that sometimes the whole is better than the sum of its parts. Here, that just isn’t the case. The Phantom of the Opera does not contain enough elements that can be chalked up as positive marks; instead it contains too many pieces that do not gel together. For instance, the swordfight in the cemetery is completely inane.

All in all, The Phantom of the Opera is not my cup of tea. Die-hard fans of musicals in general will in all probability enjoy, but from my perspective as a bigger fan of the 1925 original than the 2004 version, the musical as a film is merely recommended with restrictions. (** ½ out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Movie Review: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

United States, 1925
Running Time: 1:47
Rated: No Rating (adult situations, violence)
Cast: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis, Snitz Edwards, Mary Fabian, Virginia Pearson

Director: Rupert Julian
Screenplay: Walter Anthony, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux
Silent with Musical Accompaniment

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Amid Metropolis and Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera is a quintessential example of a black-and-white, silent horror film. It wisely uses darkness in its favor, and its scares and suspense are just as startling as the standard blood-bathing butchery of today. Hands down, this version of The Phantom of the Opera is the form of this much-interpreted film to watch—partly because Lon Chaney himself makes it full of prominent scenes and forbidding shivers.

In the dank catacombs of the Paris Opera House, he lurks. With a face so hideous, a mask he wears. And, with a quaint mysteriousness, a cape he trails. He is: the Phantom of the Opera. Feared by all who hear his name, the Phantom (Lon Chaney), remains an ugly mystery who dwells five cellars beneath the ground floor. However, in all of his unsightly malice, the loathsome beast acquires honest emotions for one of the Opera’s chorus girls named Christine Daae (Mary Philbin).

In an effort to place Christine in the spotlight, he threatens the life of Carlotta (Mary Fabian), the current lead. When Carlotta refuses to succumb to the Phantom’s warnings, tragedy strikes; the lights flicker and the house chandelier plummets onto the front row of the audience—instilling more fear in everyone and confirming that the malevolent Phantom will stop at nothing to get his way.

In his lust, the Phantom, kidnaps Christine and brings her to his living-quarters—deep underneath the voices of the Opera House. Christine begins to favor the Phantom and his unfamiliarity over Vicomte Raoul de Chagney (Norman Kerry) – Christine’s past and present love – that is, until she unmasks the Phantom to find a face dreadful and deformed.

After having his face revealed to his love, the Phantom allows Mademoiselle Christine to return to the Opera House’s upper portions—under one condition: that she promises to never reunite with Raoul. Inevitably, Christine’s love for Raoul endures and the Phantom becomes even more enraged.

Much like the Beast from The Beauty and the Beast, the Phantom is human at heart and desires happiness—only the Phantom, unlike the Beast, is willing to kill to acquire love. His commitment runs deep. He is aroused by Christine’s simplicity and purity and pleads for her love—for he knows that it is only Christine’s love that shall redeem him.

The film’s only downfall is that it short-changes the audience with an abrupt ending. Most fans would welcome the opportunity to view the original ending that depicts the Phantom dying happily with a kiss from Christine, but that footage is lost forever. Instead, the classic ends in a climactic chase sequence to please the action-hounds in us all.

Even though The Phantom of the Opera is now more commonly known as one of the longest running shows on Broadway, in its roots, it is a horror story for the ages. As a result, whether it’s the 1929 restored version of the same film with vibrant splashes of color you come across, or the original 1925 black-and-white you locate, be sure to skip over all of the other jaded adaptations of the same title (including Andrew Lloyd Webber’s); stick with this model of a monster movie, and reap the benefits. (***1/2 out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Movie Review: Surviving Christmas

United States, 2004
U.S. Release Date: 10/22/04 (wide)
Running Time: 1:32
Rated: PG-13 (Profanity, sexual situations)
Cast: Ben Affleck, James Gandolfini, Christina Applegate, Catherine O'Hara, Josh Zuckerman, Bill Macy, Jennifer Morrison

Director: Mike Mitchell
Producers: Betty Thomas, Jenno Topping
Screenplay: Deborah Kaplan & Harry Elfont and Jeffrey Ventimilia & Joshua Sternin
Music: Randy Edelman
Studio: DreamWorks

Posted by Hello
Never before has a Christmas film been released in theatres pre-Halloween, dismissed from the box-office pre-Thanksgiving, and then shelved in stores pre-Christmas—that is, until now. Surviving Christmas presents the shortest theatre to home-theatre life of any major motion-picture released to date. And that my friends, pretty much sums its quality. Surviving Christmas has the feel of a bad TV sitcom, and frankly, it is an overall Yuletide undertaking that is more loathsome than wholesome.

Drew Lather (Ben Affleck) is a millionaire marketing executive who can “sell whale stakes to Green Peace”—as he claims. However, as far as spending time with family come the holidays, Drew typically finds himself spending the season all alone and ending up with a heart of coal. Once this Scrooge-like outlook leads Drew to the demise of his relationship with his girlfriend Melissa (Jennifer Morrison), he decides to travel to the house that he grew up in as a kid in order to relive his childhood memories and resolve his grievances.

At the home where Drew lived during his adolescence, he meets the Valco family—a group of complete strangers who now reside in his old house. After entering the Valco’s living quarters in the least likely of ways, Drew presents Tom (James Gandolfini), the father, an offer of $250,000 to help him experience the joy and glee of a good old-fashioned family Christmas. Tom accepts the offer, and mother Christine (Catherine O’Hara), son Brian (Josh Zuckerman), and daughter Alicia (Christina Applegate) eventually go along with the scheme to obtain the cash. Drew persuades the Valcos to pick out a Christmas tree, to go shopping and tobogganing, and to sing Christmas carols around the hearth. In the beginning, it’s all fun and games for Drew, but in due course, he begins to care about the Valco family. Ultimately, Drew seeks to mend Tom and Christine’s failing marriage and hopes to impress the Valco’s lovely and down-to-earth daughter.

Honestly, after viewing Surviving Christmas it is easy to ask: what has happened to Affleck’s career? He started out well with Chasing Amy and Dogma, and then he wisely ventured towards more mainstream affairs with Armageddon and The Sum of All Fears. Conversely, after Daredevil, Gigli, Paycheck, Jersey Girl, and Surviving Christmas, it now looks as if Affleck has fallen into an acting rut with little hope of getting out. In Surviving Christmas, his role as Drew is flat, dry, and forced—further denoting his downward-spiraling and irksome acting. On the other hand, while Ben’s career is currently collapsing into shambles - as he continually dishes out some of Hollywood’s worst - his love life is on the upswing--as he persistently picks up some of Hollywood’s hottest (most recently Jennifer Garner). At least he has that going for him.

Even with the big names of Affleck and Gandolfini, Surviving Christmas is a flat-out nosedive of a holiday production that truthfully has nothing good going for it. The film’s script is atrocious, the acting is obnoxious, and the direction is careless. In other words, while Surviving Christmas’s early release date should have been a predictor of its own downfall, the absurdly dull quality of the picture will surely send viewers away dismayed rather than endowed with the special spirit of the season.

Surviving Christmas represents a sterling example of a Christmas-season eyesore. Yes, in the end, it may contain a hair more oomph than its utterly unpleasant 2004 Christmas comedy competition of Christmas with the Kranks; however, it’s still one distasteful production that should be stuffed back up the chimney rather than stuffed into some unlucky recipient’s stocking. (* out of ****)

© Copyright Brandon Valentine 2005

Saturday, January 01, 2005

The Interrogation Room: How to Interpret the Stars

What exactly do those asterisks at the end of each of my reviews mean? How are they to be interpreted?

At the closing of each review, I supply an overall ranking of how much I liked or disliked the film. This ranking, which ranges from zero to four stars (including half-star intervals), is given to note both what I personally thought of the film and how strongly I would recommend it to others. If you agree with the majority of my critiques, then you and I most likely have similar interests and disinterests when it comes to entertainment—take my recommendations for what they are worth. If you disagree with the majority of my opinions of films…well then, I am sorry for our differences, but then again, all reviews are subjective; movies feed different critics on different levels.

How do I arrive at a ranking that I feel is deserving and justifiable?

Here is a list of every rating possible and how each category is basically defined. – This is a slightly adapted version of my personal favorite online film critic’s grading system.

4.0 stars: A must see. Do not go through life without experiencing this pinnacle of a picture.

3.5 stars: Highly recommended. Make time to see this movie.

3.0 stars: Recommended. Worth your time and money.

2.5 stars: Recommended with certain restrictions. Only worth seeing if you have a particular liking to a specific cast member or the subject matter. This near recommendation is a more likely choice as a rental rather than a theatrical viewing.

2.0 stars: Recommended for home viewing only (when you are bored and basically have nothing else to do). Not worth your average multiplex ticket price.

1.5 stars: Not recommended (unless intoxicated).

1.0 stars: Not recommended (even if intoxicated).

0.5 stars: Not recommended. A painful experience that should be avoided.

0.0 stars: Ugh. An absolutely afflicting experience not to be wished upon anyone. So torturous that watching oil and water separate can be more enlightening and enjoyable. Avoid at all costs.

I hope this first interrogation room has been helpful, and I hope you now have an enhanced grasp on both why and how I arrive at a decision on how many times to press shift-8 at the conclusion of every commentary.