“The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall” (2011)

In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera arrived on the West End stage. After 25 years, the musical achieved global success, millions of viewers, a film adaptation in 2004 (which I don’t recommend) and a sequel. Filmed at the Royal Albert Hall, this performance (which you can rent on YouTube) brings the show to a bigger stage and celebrates its role as one of the biggest shows in theater history, w/ speeches, performances, and appearances by the original cast (and some notable Phantoms). Starring Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess, POTO tells the story of a deformed musical genius who lives underneath the Paris Opera House. Shunned by society, the Phantom seeks revenge (w/ cruel and violent acts). He’s in love w/ a chorus girl, Christine Daaé, who he has been secretly training to replace the leading lady.

Karimloo (who is Canadian) is engaging and very effective w/ his gorgeous voice and imposing physical presence. One side of his face looks genuinely scary; this was done by the original makeup artist. Boggess (who is American) is charming and her stage presence is as strong as Karimloo’s. Her soprano voice is bright and clear. She esp. does a terrific job w/ Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again. Past of the Point No Return was very compelling; two leads show that they have great chemistry together (even though The Phantom has on a hooded cloak). I learned that Boggess was the original Ariel in Broadway’s The Little Mermaid.

The encore featured 4 different Phantoms from around the world and was the debut for one of them: Peter Jöback from Sweden. He was scheduled to play the Phantom after the concert in London. The other 3 Phantoms who sing are: Colm Wilkinson (who is Irish; the original Canadian Phantom and Jean Valjean in Les Mis in London and NYC), John Owen-Jones (London’s longest running Phantom). and Anthony Warlow (Australia’s most famous Phantom). The original Phantom, Michael Crawford, was also there, as was the incomparable Sarah Brightman (the original Christine; former wife of Webber). I remember buying her CDs in HS.

The camera work allows you to admire the production design and does so unobtrusively, often it has a very cinematic look…

Hadley Fraser has a different take on the childhood sweetheart of Christine. Fraser brings an energy and eagerness to the character. I loved Fraser because he brings a new energy and charisma to the character.

[Karimloo] is both very threatening and very vulnerable. He is both aggressor and victim. He captures the fragility of the Phantom’s mind and the strength of the Phantom’s will.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Mangal Pandey: The Rising” (2005) starring Aamir Khan, Toby Stephens, Rani Mukherji, & Ameesha Patel

Aamir Khan plays Mangal Pandey passionately with a complete conviction. All the scenes between Aamir and Toby are a delight to watch. Toby doesn’t fail to impress with his acting or his Hindi-speaking lines.

Stephens’ brief speeches about the ruthlessness of a private corporation pillaging a country seem all too relevant to our own time… The film is wildly entertaining, filled with the color and beauty of Bollywood- superb cinematography, epic sets and crowd scenes, music-and-dance numbers that pop out of nowhere, and a love story…

-Excerpts from reviews on Amazon.com

This is an epic set against the backdrop of what the British called the Sepoy Mutiny; for the Indians, it was the First War of Independence. It took two years to complete this film b/c of the research that went into its production. “Company Raj” (the British East India Company) had been plundering the country, treating the locals unjustly, and causing widespread resentment. During battle in one of the Afghan wars in the mid-1800s, Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan), an Indian sepoy, saves the life of his commanding officer, Capt. William Gordon (Toby Stephens- son of Dame Maggie Smith). He is indebted, even giving Mangal his pistol. The first act is focused on the friendship; historians have pointed out that this was unlikely. A few years later, the Company introduces the Enfield rifle, which comes w/ a new cartridge rumored to be coated w/ grease from cow and pig fat. This cartridge has to be bitten before it is loaded, which ignites resentment and anger among the sepoys; the cow is sacred to Hindus and the pig is forbidden for Muslims.

The film was offered to Bollywood superstar, Shah Rukh Khan, but he declined (thank goodness). Director Ketan Mehta first thought of making this film in 1988 w/ Amitabh Bachchan. Hugh Jackman turned down the role of Gordon; this required Stephens to speak w/ a Scottish accent and also in Hindi. A very young Kiera Knightley was considered for the role of Emily Kent, who is new to India and develops a crush on Gordon. After Aishwarya Rai turned down the part of Jwala (due to contract issues), Rani Mukerji was given the script to consider taking the part. Mukherji, however, liked the character of Heera and asked if she could play her instead. Khan requested to cast Ameesha Patel as the young widow, Jwala, after he saw her on a BBC game show. Patel wears no make-up; this was Khan’s suggestion.

We only sell our bodies; you sell your souls. -Heera explains to Mangal re: the difference between her girls and the sepoys

The BJP wanted to ban the film, as it showed Pandey visiting a prostitute (though their scenes are platonic in the movie). As Lol Bibi (veteran actress Kiron Kher) points out, her house is only for white men (mainly the British officers). Though this is not a “typical” Bollywood film, it contains songs and dances. One number by Heera and other nautch (dancing) girls, Main Vari Vari, created controversy due to Mukherji’s outfit (where her cleavage was covered by transparent fabric). This song serves a dual purposes- to entice the British officers and to show how conflicted Mangal feels re: trusting Gordon (and biting the new bullet). A.R. Rahman was the music director on this movie; the music flows w/ the story. My favorite song is below- Rasiya.

In your Ramayana there was one villain “Ravana” who had ten heads, company has a hundred heads and they’re all joined by the glue of greed. -Gordon replies when Mangal asks re: the Company

I think this movie is a must-see, though it is uneven (particularly when it comes to editing). The narration (in Hindi) done by veteran actor Om Puri is repetitive; I think it was used to appeal to Hindi speakers who may not be fluent in English. There is a mix of English and Hindi spoken in this film, which I’m sure was accurate for the period. The bromance is much more stronger than both the romances. The relationship between Mangal and Heera was underdeveloped, but I could see the chemistry between the actors. I liked the wrestling scene and hand-to-hand combat between Mangal and Gordon. The sepoys and villagers confronting the British one night w/ their torches stood out to me. However, the scene where Gordon stops the sati (bride burning) looks disorganized. Mangal Pandey: The Rising was shown at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. The screenwriter is British of Parsi heritage- Farrukh Dandy- associated w/ black (as in minority in UK) and left-wing intellectuals and activists.

You have tasted a black man’s loyalty – now taste his fury! -Mangal declares to Gordon

On second viewing, I noticed how colonialism was compared to slavery (which we may associate w/ the American South and West Indies). Hewson beats a waiter and insults him w/ “kalla kutta” (“black dog”). One of the villagers near the cantonment, Kamla, works as a wet nurse for one of the British officer’s wives. When she gets home, there is no milk left for her baby. Perhaps the most direct correlation to slavery is made in the market scene; Emily is appalled to see an auction of men and women (incl. Heera). It turns out that the Company buys girls, too!

“Body Heat” (1981) starring William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Mickey Rourke, & Ted Danson

Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir (and first film- wow!) is inspired by classic noir films: Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Kathleen Turner (in her debut role at age 28- wow!) played a woman so alluring/confident that we can believe her lover could be convinced to do anything for her. Kasdan wanted a woman editor, Carol Littleton, to have a female perspective on the erotic scenes; she would go on to work on 9 films w/ him. Unlike many of the films of the ’80s, Body Heat has a balanced take on revealing skin. I saw this film maybe three times; on this most recent viewing, I noticed how well the editing turned out!

Women are rarely allowed to be bold and devious in the movies; most directors are men, and they see women as goals, prizes, enemies, lovers and friends, but rarely as protagonists. Turner’s entrance in “Body Heat” announces that she is the film’s center of power.

One of the brilliant touches of Kasdan’s screenplay is the way he makes Ned Racine think he is the initiator of Matty Walker’s plans.

-Roger Ebert

It is a very hot/humid night in a small town in South Florida. A small-time lawyer, Ned Racine (Hurt- then only 30 y.o.), is strolling on a pier where a band is playing. We can see straight down the center aisle to the bandstand. Suddenly, a woman in white stands up, turns around and walks directly toward him- Matty Walker (Turner). She is slim, tall, w/ hair down to her shoulders. The white dress w/ long sleeves she wears might remind some viewers of how of the actresses in ’50s films (such as Barbara Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall, or Lana Turner) dressed.

The characters here are constantly hot and sweaty. The film was shot in freezing cold temperatures. The actors sucked ice cubes before speaking to eliminate foggy breath and had water sprayed on their skin and shirts to simulate body sweat. Christopher Reeve was offered the lead, but turned it down by saying: “I didn’t think I would be convincing as a seedy lawyer.” Kim Zimmer (who plays Mary Ann) had originally been offered the role of Matty, but the producers of The Doctors (a soap opera) wouldn’t give her time off to shoot the film. This movie- slated to be shot in the NYC/New Jersey area- was moved to Florida because of a Teamsters strike.

[1] …I felt the music really pushed the movie over the top. The hauntingly melancholic string work serves not only as ambiance, but also acts as narrative. The sweet yet cautionary score mirrors the plot theme of ‘moth to the flame’- obvious danger yet unavoidably seductive beauty. 

[2] William Hurt is very assured in one of his early roles as an incompetent small time lawyer who’s also an inveterate womaniser. He’s driven by lust and greed and his gullibility makes him easy fodder for the manipulative Matty.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

The film opens with an inn burning (w/ shades of yellow, orange, and red) in the distance; Ned leans against a window and lazily comments to his hookup: “Somebody’s torched it to clear the lot. Probably one of my clients.” There is use of the color red, incl. on the pier (when a snow-cone stains Matty’s blouse, in the lighting of the Pinehaven bar, and the infamous scene where Matty brings Ned home to listen to her (creepy IMO) wind chimes. She is wearing a white blouse and a bright red skirt (“revealing that though she acts cool, she is red-hot below the waist,” as Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards discussed on their podcast- Out of the Past).

Maybe you shouldn’t dress like that. -Ned advises Matty (when she mentions re: local men hitting on her) / This is a blouse and skirt. I don’t know what you’re talking about. -Matty retorts quickly / You shouldn’t wear that body. -Ned comments

The above dialogue is inspired by noir of the past, but it works in this ’80s movie (as Ebert noted). If you take away the smoking (or fiddling w/ cigarettes) and a few lines related to the role of women, this film has aged pretty well. Matty even gives Ned a fedora- a direct homage to classic Hollywood. Kasdan surrounds the lead characters w/ good supporting roles; he creates world of police stations, diners, law offices and restaurants. An adorable/young Mickey Rourke, playing an arsonist/former client of Ned’s, steals the show in his scenes. Matty’s husband (Richard Crenna), who she calls “small, mean, and weak,” is nothing of the sort; he obviously knows how to make money and is no pushover. Ted Danson (wearing thick glasses) is an A.D.A. and Ned’s friend, who eventually suspects him of murder, as does their police detective friend. The dancing Danson does was choreographed based on the dance moves of Fred Astaire. The following year, Danson got the lead role on the iconic sitcom- Cheers.

Hurt does a fine job in this anti-hero role; he is a sleazy guy (hooking up w/ various women w/o any emotion, having an arrogant/superior attitude, and taking on shady clients). However, he is far from a one-note villain; he is troubled by his conscience. The film delved into content that would’ve been censored earlier, incl. the explicit love scenes and also the femme fatale getting away w/ her crimes in the end. Ned goes to jail, b/c he never was as smart as Matty; she was always a few steps ahead. Pay attention to the scene in Ned’s office when he and Matty resolve to kill her husband. They speak softly (and calmly) re: murder.

That man is gonna die for no reason but . . . we want him to. -Ned flatly tells Matty

What do you think of their relationship? In the last act, Matty says: “Ned, whatever you think- I really do love you.” Does she? Does he love her? Matty got what she always wanted- “to be rich and live in an exotic place.” The ending, showing her relaxing w/ a drink on a sunny beach under blue skies, is ambiguous. She reacts to an (offscreen) man, but sounds indifferent to him. What is she thinking about under those sunglasses? Matty is a mystery at the end!

In 2003, director Mahesh Bhatt made a Bollywood reimaging- Jism (“body”)- starring two former models-turned-actors (John Abraham and Bipasha Basu). Kabir Lal (Abraham) is a young, alcoholic lawyer who sees an attractive woman hanging out on a beach (Pondicherry) and is intrigued by her. He sees her again in a local restaurant (where she is wearing a backless black dress) and offers to buy her a drink. This is Sonia (Basu) and she’s married to an older/wealthy man (Gulshan Grover) who neglects her. The lead actors looked self-conscious together, though they were (at that time) a real-life couple. I recall thinking that Abraham had a few good scenes w/ the character actors who played his friends (Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey). Siddharth (Pathak- an experienced indie/theater actor) plays a policeman who goes from from wanting to beat the hell out of Kabir to wanting to protect him. Unlike in Body Heat, Kabir gets very emotional (and shows it); there is not much nuanced about his character. Basu (as expected) is tan, toned, and wears an excess of eyeliner; she was put in vampy roles in Bollywood in her time. Women w/ darker skintones are (often) put in negative roles in this genre; it’s a well-known/troubling fact. Though the production design (as well as many scenes) are a direct copy of Body Heat, the ending is very different!

“Taal” (1999) starring Akshaye Khanna, Anil Kapoor, & Aishwarya Rai

This Bollywood film (which Roger Ebert mentioned) is a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n roll. Manav (Akshaye Khanna), the son of an uber-wealthy family (raised overseas) falls in love w/ Mansi (Aishwarya Rai), the beautiful/shy daughter of a talented rural musician/teacher. He nervously follows her and her girl cousins around and snaps pictures (don’t do this, kids). Mansi’s father warmly welcomes Manav’s father, brothers, and business associates to his house. Though reluctant at first, Mansi decides to give Manav a chance to get to know her. Their first date (or meeting, as Bollywood often uses) is a sunrise yoga lesson high up in the hills.

Their relationship is mocked by Manav’s extended family; when they go to the city, Mansi and her father are humiliated (having to wait outside for hours, then insulted verbally). Mansi has a strong relationship w/ her father; both are humble, straight-forward, but also very proud. Vikrant Kapoor (Anil Kapoor), a slightly older record producer, discovers Mansi’s knack for singing/dancing and helps her climb the ladder of success. As Vikrant exlains, he takes songs from the villages and turns them into hits (remixes). Manav tries to make amends, but Mansi ignores him. In time, Vikrant, finds himself developing feeling for Mansi, too.

Taal (meaning “rhythm” in Hindi) is a must-watch for its hit soundtrack; the music (composed by a young A.R. Rahman) is considered “timeless!” I thought all the songs were great; I esp. liked Ishq Bina (featuring Sonu Nigam), Taal se Taal (sung by Alka Yagnik and Udit Narayan), and the remixed version of Ishq Bina Ishq Bina (sung by Kavita Krishnamurthy and Sukwinder Singh). Early in the film, it’s fun to see Rai w/ almost no makeup and wavy (natural) hair; she looks fabulous nonetheless! The ’90s hairdos, bright colors, and funky styles the back-up dancers/singers wear are a blast from the (recent) past. There is simplicity, innocence, and a flow to (most of) this story. The woman at the center of the story isn’t given much agency; Mansi goes along w/ what Manav or Vikrant have planned. The movie was shot in some unique locations, incl. Toronto, Ontario and Niagara Falls, NY.

SPOILER-FREE Review: “Marriage Story” starring Adam Driver & Scarlett Johansson

This Netflix movie (released also 30 days in theaters) is based in large part on director Noah Baumbach’s own experiences when he divorced actress Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013. Jason Leigh (the “Jason” was added as tribute to actor Jason Robards- a close friend of her parents), on whom the character of Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) was based, had early success in the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Baumbach and Leigh previously collaborated on movies together; during the 2009 filming of Greenberg, he and actress/director of Little Women– Greta Gerwig- fell in love. Theater director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) lived in Indiana before moving to NYC; Driver grew up in Mishawaka, IN. The toys shown while Nicole plays w/ son Henry (Azhy Robertson) in the opening are from Star Wars, a reference to Driver’s connection to that sci-fi franchise. Celeb divorce lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern- now winner of Best Supporting Actress Oscar), is loosely based on Laura Wasser (who represented Dern, Johansson and Baumbach) during their divorces. The mediation scenes were filmed in Wasser’s office building.

This film has something for everyone– domestic drama, comedy (arising from realistic situations), music, courtroom drama, etc. Charlie sings Being Alive (which Gerwig admitted Baumbach wouldn’t do), and Nicole sings You Could Drive a Person Crazy from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company. Many of us know that Johansson can tackle challenging roles (having seen her since she was an ingenue at 16 y.o.); here Driver gets a chance to shine (and whoa, is he bright)! Both actors are very comfortable with each other; they play the quiet and intense scenes well. You really don’t see the acting- as it should be. You will see some similarities to Kramer vs. Kramer starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep; however, in this story- the wife gets an equal voice (which wasn’t given to Streep).

The supporting actors are all well-suited for their parts, no matter how small or meaty. The child actor comes off as very natural. Merritt Wever plays Cassie’s older sis (also an actor); she provides some comic relief, as does the mom (who is a big fan of her son-in-law). Charlie’s theater troupe includes a few familiar faces, such as Wallace Shawn (best know as the villain in The Princess Bride). Alan Alda’s soft-hearted lawyer breaks down what men really go through in a divorce. On the other hand, we see the intimidating/shark-like lawyer (Ray Liotta) who gets results.