Howard Hughes flies again John Hiscock reports from Los Angeles on the first screenings of Scorsese's long-awaited Hughes biopic 'The Aviator' and the film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Phantom of the Opera'

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: November 19, 2004 | Publication: THE DAILY TELEGRAPH(LONDON) | Author: John Hiscock
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I have just seen early screenings of two of the most eagerly-awaited American films of the year: Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and the screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. One I found enjoyable; the other was a disappointment.

The Aviator, which cost pounds 70 million, is an old-fashioned film biography, telling the story of Howard Hughes, Hollywood producer, pilot, airline tycoon and finally, recluse. Warren Beatty tried unsuccessfully for years to adapt the Hughes story for the screen and at one time Michael Mann was considering directing it, but they were foiled by the sheer volume of material available.

Scorsese has solved that problem by concentrating on Hughes's Hollywood years when, between 1927 and 1948, he was a film producer and a major force in the aviation industry. It begins with Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) shooting his first film, Hell's Angels, and ends with the test flight of his huge flying boat, Spruce Goose.

In between, among other things, he has a love affair with Katharine Hepburn, a stormy romance with Ava Gardner, flies around the world in a record-breaking four days, buys Trans World Airlines, feuds with Pan Am, and fights film censors for the right to show Jane Russell's cleavage.

DiCaprio is in virtually every scene and he gives the best performance of his career as the complex tycoon who is driven to succeed at everything he tries. But there are also plenty of big names in cameo roles, and part of the fun is identifying them. Cate Blanchett as Hepburn perfectly captures the bossy actress's voice and mannerisms. Jude Law appears to be enjoying himself immensely in a brief appearance as Errol Flynn, and Kate Beckinsale is the tempestuous Ava Gardner.

Like the Spruce Goose, the film is big. Scorsese uses 3,000 extras to recreate Hollywood premieres and to populate the nightclub, airfield and factory sequences. The flying scenes are spectacularly filmed, particularly Hughes's 1946 test flight in the FX-11 spy plane (designed by him) which ended in a fiery crash.

For the most part The Aviator holds the attention despite its running time of almost three hours, while I would have happily lopped 30 minutes out of Phantom of the Opera's two hours and 20 minutes. It has taken Lloyd Webber and director Joel Schumacher 16 years to bring to the screen the mega-hit stage musical about a disfigured musical genius who haunts Paris's opera house. But the transfer is not entirely successful.

One gamble that does pay off is the casting of two relative unknowns in the leads. Scottish Gerard Butler is a charismatic Phantom, and American Emily Rossum looks appropriately innocent and sings beautifully as Christine. And Schumacher opens up the action effectively, taking us outside the opera house with a horseback chase, a rooftop scene and a somewhat unnecessary look into the Phantom's early life as a circus freak. Inside the opera house, flickering candles light up the gloomy passageways and vaults where the Phantom lurks, and the lagoon leading to his lair is suitably dramatic.

But the film lacks the mystery and tension of the stage production - partly because the story is now so well known, but mainly because of the many close-ups inevitable in a movie. Even the denouement, when the mask is snatched away and the face of the "loathsome gargoyle" is revealed, proves to be a let-down.

Both films are set for release in December