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      The Phantom of the Opera Review

      The Phantom of the Opera poster

      The Phantom of the Opera

      Sid Smith, Chicago Tribune

      Depending on your predilection, the movie version of "The Phantom of the Opera" is about as good - or as bad - as its phenomenally successful stage original.

      Andrew Lloyd Webber's kitschy theatrical spectacle is now a kitschy theatrical movie, a mix of melodrama, horror, romance, mystery and melody heaped together into a cinematic smorgasbord, one heavy in starch. Surprisingly, to director Joel Schumacher's credit, this version doesn't suffer from its screen translation, and that's no mean feat. "Phantom" the stage show partly owed its popularity to its celebrated effects, its chandelier crashing down over the heads of the audience, its atmospheric boat trips through a stage bathed in smoky mist.

      That designer imagination so compelling in a live theater is child's play to cinematic wizards and ought to rob the film of much of its power. Instead, Schumacher manages, most of the time, to deliver enough cinematic equivalents that echo the stage magic, so that this "Phantom" enjoys a fair outing, a credible chance to study its genuine strengths and weaknesses as a story set to music.

      On that score, fans of the original will be pleased. Those of us who prefer the earlier, edgier Lloyd Webber and his more cynical, intelligent partnership with lyricist Tim Rice ("Evita," "Jesus Christ Superstar") will shake our heads again at the fatuous, greeting-card lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe and at Lloyd Webber's all-out surrender to treacly, hummable melodies, those candy-like pop tunes that sound alike and slightly different all at once.

      The story behind "Phantom" inspired a string of hit movies before this 1980s musicalization, including one of the most famous silents ever made. That helps Schumacher immensely: This is a ready-made cinematic fable, a backstage story that doesn't seem stagy on film at all, thanks to its moody mix of Grand Guignol and "42nd Street." It is, at heart, a love triangle: singer Christine (Emmy Rossum) torn between her Ken-doll suitor (a young but wealthy opera backer) and the strange, masked monster who lives underneath the opera house and secretly tutors her.

      He is father figure, Svengali, Jekyll and Hyde, Quasimodo and devilish Don Juan all in one (he composed an operatic version of "Don Juan"), and much of the tension in "Phantom" comes from her ambivalence, her repulsion and attraction, that hint of unawakened lust. Schumacher zooms in for MTV-like close-ups of the singing while delivering a lavish treatment of the visual elements. Black-and-white footage serves for a frame, set in the early 20th century, when the opera house and the surviving characters' lives are ancient ruins. Aping the stage moment when the chandelier sails upward above the audience, Schumacher instead has the decrepit opera house cinematically returning to life, the debris washing away bit by bit, turning into a color version of the theater in its heyday.

      As the title figure, Gerard Butler looks a little bit like a masked Antonio Banderas, a swarthy phantom both creepy and seductive, just as Christine sees him. Rossum has a doll-like vulnerability and grace, a delicacy missing from many a stage Christine. And the marvelous Patrick Wilson, though in a cardboard role not worthy of his talents, is nevertheless a fine Raoul, Christine's pretty-boy beloved.

      Minnie Driver (very funny as an egotistical diva), Miranda Richardson and Simon Callow are typically memorable in their colorful character roles.

      But ultimately, "Phantom" turns on your take on later Lloyd Webber. His romantic ballads here (most notably "The Music of the Night") are simplistic. But millions swooned and may swoon again. At least this is that rare film musical adaptation in which the moviemakers are virtually blameless.

      "The Phantom of the Opera"

      Directed by Joel Schumacher; screenplay by Schumacher and Andrew Lloyd Webber; photographed by John Mathieson; edited by Terry Rawlings; music by Lloyd Webber; production design by Andrew Pratt; produced by Lloyd Webber. A Warner Brothers release; opened Wednesday, Dec. 22. Running time: 2:21. MPAA rating: PG-13 (brief violent images).

      The Phantom - Gerard Butler

      Christine - Emmy Rossum

      Raoul - Patrick Wilson

      Carlotta - Minnie Driver

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