It’s true, Batman Forever is a silly, overblown, cartoonish riot of buffoonry. But so what? It’s also awesome in it’s own way, and inhabits a certain corner of the Batman culture, the side of things that is rooted in camp and unhinged wonderment. Now, there’s an important and discernable difference between taking things far and taking things too far. That difference is delineated on one side by a willingness to be goofy, colorful and not take this superhero stuff too seriously. The other side of that of course is a disregard for limits, throwing every ridiculous line, costume and awkward scene into it you can imagine. I’m referring to Joel Schumacher’s followup to this, Batman & Robin. Everything that is weird, wonderful and extravagant about Forever just revved up to much in Robin, resulting in a piss poor typhoon of mania and over acting. Not to say that Forever doesn’t have over acting. Ohhhh boy is there over acting. Between Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey, the thing is liable to give you epilipsy. But it somehow works despite its madness, a lucky stroke that Robin couldn’t have cared less about adhering to. Val Kilmer is the sedating antidote to Jones and Carrey, a remakably laid back Bats and a pretty solid casting choice, both as Brooding Bruce and Buttkicking Bats. Eternally broken up about the death of his patents, Bruce fights off Harvey Two Face Dent (Jones) in a garish, disarming Gotham City that resembles Mardi Gras in Dr. Seuss land. Jones’s Two Face is so far over the top, so rabid that it’s a wonder he didn’t give himself a bloody heart attack in the first take. Anyone who’s interested can read up on his performance, and how he pushed himself right to the heights of bombast in order to try and out-Carrey the Jim. Carrey, playing the Riddler, is a ball of twisted nerves himself, set loose on the wacky sets and basically given free reign to.. well.. go fucking nuts. It’s one of his most physical performances too, prancing around like a loon in green spandex that leaves nothing to the imagination. Aaron Eckhart’s Two Face may have had the edge for grit, but Jones has the rollicking clown version, and runs away to kookoo land with mannerisms that even call to mind The Joker in some scenes. The only thing I’ve seen him more hopped up in is Natural Born Killers, but shit man its hard to top his work in that. The story is all over the place, involving a nonsensical subplot with a mind control device, multiple elaborate set pieces, endless scenery chewing and the eventual arrival of Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell who is like the cinematic Buzz Killington. Michael Gough and Pat Hingle dutifully tag along as Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, both looking tired at this point. Debi Mazar and Drew Barrymore have amusing dual cameos as Two Face’s twin vixens, and Nicole Kidman does the slinky love interest shtick for Bruce as a sexy psychologist. Watch for an uncredited Ed Begley Jr. Too. There’s no denying the silliness, but one has to admit that the achievment in costume, production design and artistry are clear off the charts with this one, and visually it should be a legend in the franchise. Say what you will about it, I love the thing.
I’ve never seen The Phantom Of The Opera on stage, so so I have nothing to really compare Joel Shumacher’s 2004 cinematic vision to, but I know that it was one of the most glorious and formative theatre going experiences for me, so much so that I think I probably went and saw the thing like eight times when it came out. I had never heard a single of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music before then and had not a clue as to what the story was. My extant of Phantom knowledge at that point was only of a chalky faced, emaciated Lon Chaney Jr. skulking around a silent black and white frame.
I was cosmically blown away by the magic of it, the story, the songs, the rich production design and especially the two elemental lead performances from Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum. Again, no idea how the stage actors compare to these two, but Gerard and Emmy’s take on the Phantom and Christine are now scorched into my psyche as the definitive versions. Butler nails the formula perfectly: scary when he needs to be, tender when he wants to be and always a formidable force of dark romanticism and tragic damnation. Rossum is like an angelic comet as Christine Daae, with the best singing voice of the cast and a presence that will bring the viewer to tears and make you instantly fall in love with her.
Christine works in the prestigious Opera Populaire as a chorus girl, until she is shunted into the limelight when their prima donna of a star singer (a flat out brilliant Minnie Driver) walks off in a huff. Rossum then proceeds to move heaven and earth with her rendition of ‘Think Of Me’, accompanied by some of the most incredible camera work I’ve seen, sweeping through the elegant halls along with her crystal clear voice.
The mysterious Phantom watches her from dark alcoves and hidden buttresses, entranced by her talent and brimming with love sickness. He has love in him no doubt, but we all know there is hate there too, catalyzed by an unfortunate deformation and a cruel past that has left him in exile. He basically runs the show from the shadows though, with utmost class and heaps of theatrical menace.
Christine also has eyes for her childhood friend Raoul (Patrick Wilson). Wilson is the only player who seems a bit out of his depth, perhaps because he hadn’t yet found the assurance in stride and charisma he has in his roles these days. Miranda Richardson is excellent as ever in an understated turn as Christine’s aunt and teacher. Jennifer Ellison is her friend and fellow singer Meg. Ciaran Hinds and Simon Callow are inspired as the comic relief duo who purchases the opera house, and watch for Kevin R. McNally as well.
Every song is a winner, every frame composed of grandiose ambition and every ounce of vocal strength thrown forth by the cast, particularly Rossum and Butler who go a mile and then some, holding their own individual presence as well as pulling off the sorrowful chemistry between the Phantom and Christine. There’s a few key sequences that should go down in the history books on how to stage a scene, including a dazzling masquerade ball, a wintry swordfight in a cemetery, the aforementioned Think Of Me, and my personal favourite: a mournful black and white prologue set decades after the story, kicking the film off with a rousing flourish of motion and music. I’m sure there are scores of people who swear by the stage production and want nothing to do with this, or simply weren’t wowed to the levels I was. That’s fine. For me though, I don’t see any version ever topping this jewel of a film, and the classic two disc dvd sits proudly on my shelf, daring any other rendition, cinematic or otherwise to give it a run for it’s money.