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The Greatest Showman

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Michael Gracey

Stars: Diahann Carroll, Hugh Jackman, Keala Settle, Michelle Williams, Paul Sparks, Rebecca Ferguson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Zac Efron, Zendaya

Released: December 26th, 2017

The Greatest Showman, a wholly original musical from the mind of Jenny Bick (and ushered through the big studio system via Rob “Dreamgirls” Marshall) that tells the story of P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), is a weirdly fascinating experience. There were instances throughout this brisk, but admittedly epic in ambition musical that at one point might feel alarmingly slight and free of any such substance while at other points-specifically during the musical numbers-it could feel akin to a religious experience. Crazy, right? Like most things, The Greatest Showman is a balancing act, but surprisingly-so is gauging one’s reaction to the film. While the film, narratively, falls into refurbished clichés of countless other rags to riches stories it also doubles down on sweeping love stories, including large themes of inclusion and tolerance for those different than what society and humanity have deemed as normal and then, somehow matches all of this up with the terms of a musical that require dance numbers, songwriting, and lyrics that both explore these aforementioned themes and narratives as well as pushing as much forward. The viewer’s balancing act comes from the then aforementioned disparate elements of those cliché story beats and the rather impressive soundtrack of songs as composed by La La Land composers Justin Paul and Benj Pasek. It’s so strange, even now, twenty-four hours after having seen the film and I can admittedly understand every complaint I’ve since read about it; sharing many of them in regards to the boxing in of Barnum’s story to that of a standard Hollywood storyline. And yet, there is this undeniable aspect of the film and all the joy and hope it provides in these moments that says something about the movie, the craft behind it, and the reaction they garner. First time feature director Michael Gracey (who has mostly worked in the visual effects departments on other projects) certainly seems overwhelmed by the scope of what he has taken on here as glimpsed in both how he captures and conveys the themes as well as a majority of the musical numbers, but seriously-by the end of nearly every number and, as a result, the film-what has just occurred on screen leaves you feeling so gleeful and allows the characters to be so endearing that it’s impossible to deny the appeal of The Greatest Showman despite its many, many flaws.

Beginning by outlining the rags part of the riches story with a flashback to that of Barnum when he was a young child (as played by Ellis Ruben) and the sparks that were undeniable between he and a young Charity (Skylar Dunn before becoming Michelle Williams) despite Charity coming from the socialite side of the tracks with a father that doesn’t believe in the promise of the young Barnum we are treated to the rather touching and gorgeously rendered number that is “A Million Dreams”. Against these odds and through this song, Barnum and Charity grow up, get married, and have two beautiful daughters in Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), but with Barnum’s jumping from job to job he realizes he has yet to provide his family with the life he promised them as well as refusing to give up his own ambitions for himself. While much has been made of the liberties the film has taken with the real life of Barnum, primarily that of his interests in exploiting rather than empowering those he took in under his circus tent, The Greatest Showman seemingly plays it safe in most areas forcing Barnum’s existence into a well-defined three-act structure rather than shaping the movie to Barnum’s life in any authentic fashion. As someone only familiar with the history of Barnum through his name being on the sign of every “The Greatest Show on Earth” banner prior to its final curtain call in May of this year I won’t pretend to know how well or how discouragingly The Greatest Showman adapts Barnum’s intentions, but if the movie is only true to who Barnum actually was in the broadest of strokes it ultimately only serves a story that anyone who has seen even just a handful of movies over the course of their life can tell is formulaic. We watch as the movie presents Barnum as a risk-taker, someone willing to take out a loan from the bank he can’t even honestly leverage to becoming a literal overnight success after buying a museum and storing stuffed animals and odd mannequins in before becoming inspired to make his theater come alive with those considered to be “freaks”. As soon as Barnum’s “circus”, which he borrows from a scolding review by theater critic James Gordon Bennett (House of Cards‘ Paul Sparks), begins to take off though, Barnum’s ambitions become more than that of just having “made it”, but now he has to fight the battle of still being looked down upon by the social elite which then informs more conflicts, and more greed before Barnum ultimately comes to realize what’s actually important in life and steps back to finally appreciate all he has built. This of course comes after nearly losing everything; his museum to a fire from angry protesters and his family to that of a will they/won’t they dynamic with world-renowned singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) that Barnum takes on tour to make himself feel more credible.

In the first number after the opening, as Barnum rounds up his outsider performer’s things start out rough. Rough enough to the point that the sound mixing feels off and the singers timid as if they are just coming to the realization they are actually in a musical. As the music picks up and, in turn, so do the cuts in terms of editing for the sake of montage Jackman finds his stride and takes control of the ship as Keala Settle’s Bearded Woman then joins in to solidify the confidence in the direction we’re now taking. Settle, a performer who has largely been Broadway-based prior to this role, lends the whole of the production a kind of spirit that is undeniable and true. Later in the film she is given the chance to lead what is more or less the flagship song of the picture titled “This Is Me” (AKA the one featured in all of the trailers) and it is in this moment that The Greatest Showman gives up both its greatest strength and biggest weakness as a wholly original musical. While the song is undeniably catchy and the performers more than convicted in the words they are singing (the spirit of these performers, especially in this number, transcends the screen) it is the awkward staging and lack of any real building to a culminating visual that shows the lack direction from Gracey. With no reference point to the stage it’s as if the filmmaker was unsure of how to make his $84 million picture visually reach the heights of the music he’d been given to work with. This is a point one can make peace with in that, could it have been better? Sure. Is it passable or done well enough? I guess. What’s not as easy to forgive is that of the fact this show-stopping number, this one with real soul, wasn’t enough to make Gracey, Bicks, or Marshall realize where their real story was. The story here is that of the outcasts that are brought in and find a home and community among one another where they’ve never felt they belonged that teaches this lesson of inclusion, but rather than stay with this narrative the film diverts itself to be more about Barnum, which is ironic considering he took the acts of others and made himself the main attraction, while crafting that other lesson around his arc. To add to this unawareness of what really makes the heart of their movie beat Bicks and Marshall add in a secondary character to Jackman in Zac Efron’s completely fictional Phillip Carlyle who is meant to show a reformed socialite that has a knack for show business and is sympathetic to Barnum’s cause. Carlyle develops a relationship with one of the trapeze artists, Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), which we are led to believe might highlight some of the ideas behind this wonderful lesson the movie is teaching, but unfortunately only turns out to be a half-baked romantic subplot that reiterates the struggle of the character most like Barnum in the film rather than that of the one who has a history with adversity. Not exploring Wheeler’s feelings, but how Efron’s character must cope shows a real deafness in the approach to the writing and the appeal of the story. That isn’t to say the performances aren’t all they can be as, Enron and Jackman especially, are putting everything they have into this production, but the fruit of their labor simply isn’t filled with as much consistent passion as they were passionate about it.

So yeah, the story around the songs and the depiction of as much could be greatly improved by a more authentic tone and of having been placed in more capable hands, but it is the numbers themselves that are consistently impressive. Granted, there are still complaints to be logged with some of the choices made in regards to the direction of the music, but not in terms of the music itself. Pasek and Paul are keen to pen distinct tracks for each section of the film sans the aforementioned “This is Me” and the introductory ensemble piece that is “Come Alive” as the melodies somewhat run together in the aftermath, but are striking enough in the moment that your attention is held. Jackman and Efron have a solid duet that is maybe the most “musical” performance in the movie as it possesses lyrics that actually move the story forward as well as containing actual plot details, but the real highlight is seeing Efron return to the genre that gave him his big break and though his character is rather one-note his turns in the musical numbers are solid and feature a performer who seems to be re-invigorated by this choice rather than just coasting along in another raunchy R-rated comedy. Efron’s second duet of the film with Zendaya, while emotionally barren due to the fact the script uses this relationship more as an instrument to make a point than hone actual affection, is probably the most beautifully choreographed of the film as it utilizes the trapeze to symbolize the push and pull of the dynamic that presently exists between the characters and the context of their would-be relationship. It is rather odd to think these two different generations of Disney-produced stars are coming together in a broad Hollywood musical as love interests, weird even, but for as lacking as the romance is in connection both bring enough heat to the moment in “Rewrite the Stars” that, again, you almost want to forgive it. Ferguson’s Jenny and her unnecessary subplot get the most lifeless sequences in the film as we watch the actress essentially mime a song titled “Never Enough” that is actually sung by The Voice contestant Loren Allred. Williams’ only solo moment and the most she gets to do in the film period comes courtesy of “Tightrope,” a song that is highlighted by its simple elegance and placement in the film as something of a prelude to the finale that is “From Now On”. “From Now On” is the number that will take the audience to church and send them home in a rousing mood. It’s a fantastic moment in the movie, but the key issue with all of these is that the film is a period piece and the music feels more than contemporary which isn’t overly difficult to adjust to, but is certainly jarring in the beginning. Like the music itself though, the modernisms and small detractors throughout are never explicit enough to feel intentional in the kind-of schlocky ways they come across thus leaving us with a movie that could have taken advantage of its inherent campiness, but is instead a largely cheesy affair with glimpses of genuine inspiration that push it over the edge into one of the more strangely moving experiences of the year.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Featured Review

Climax ★★★★★

Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Released: 21st September 2018 (UK)

Directed By: Gaspar Noé

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souheila Yacoub, Kiddy Smile, Claude Gajan Maull and Giselle Palmer

Reviewed By: Dion Wyn

Birth and death are extraordinary experiences. Life is a fleeting pleasure.

Master provocateur Gaspar Noé has been warping our fragile little minds for over 20 years. After the vast disappointment of Love 3D in 2015, he finally returned to Cannes this year. Where he won best picture at Director’s Fortnight; with his latest feature Climax. The win truly has reinvigorated interest and buzz of Noe’s work. The big question is does it actually live to the hype? Climax is set in the mid 1990’s, 20 French urban dancers join together for a three-day rehearsal in a closed-down boarding school located at the heart of a forest to share one last dance. They then make one last party around a large sangria bowl. Quickly, the atmosphere becomes charged and a strange madness will seize them the whole night. If it seems obvious to them that they have been drugged, they neither know by who nor why. And it’s soon impossible for them to resist to their neuroses and psychoses, numbed by the hypnotic and the increasing electric rhythm of the music. While some feel in paradise, most of them plunge into hell.

Climax grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Gaspar Noé’s fine form has returned with his sangria-soaked neon nightmare. Climax opens very subtly with interviews from the dance troop. We get a candid view into their lives and what drives their passion for dance. Noé shows the naivety of his cast before we enter the pressure cooker of the dance hall. Once the usual closing credits happen at the beginning, the true story starts to unfold. The opening dance sequence is electrifying and full of raw kinetic energy. You have succumbed to the euphoria of Noé, the camera becomes another dancer in the troop. We are witnessing the synchronicity and passion for the art of dance. You suffer from a slight come-down after the initial performance, but the depravity and relaxed inhibitions of the dancers start to flow out. There is no real script to Climax it is largely improvised, we delve into the sexual depravity of the dancers. These conversations are not for the faint of heart. You start to see where Noé is going with Climax or do we?

Climax Still Movie Marker

Once the LSD soaked sangria kicks in Noé begins his wizardry behind the lens. Distortion and blurriness are subtly put into frame. You can feel the sweat pouring through the walls. The music intensifies and the dance becomes a lot more aggressive. We have now entered the hellish nightmare we were expecting from the get go. It isn’t the drug trip we witnessed in Enter The Void either. Once the LSD has kicked in, you only see the reactions to their hallucinations. Gaspar Noé challenges you to think what is actually going on? The usual camera trickery now ensues, a classic Noé move. The journey warps your senses and you don’t always know what is going on. The crucial element in sustaining the tension is the killer soundtrack. It really is the beating heart of Climax (Vinyl has been pre-ordered all ready). After the explosion of this pressure cooker of a situation, the story goes no holds barred with scenarios of extreme violence, incest and self harm. Noé doesn’t create an in your face scenario in this instants, it is rather out of character for him.

Sofia Boutella has shed away the action star. Her raw and un-tameable energy is addictive. She flows so powerfully through Climax and you can feel her passion for dance. The casting of the dancers is a master stroke. They all bring a different element to the piece and the diversity of characters gives it great balance. Our inner darkest ideas and nightmares flow through Climax like a virus. You are tested from the get go and Climax is a true cinematic challenge. It is a true testament of youth and the ever flowing challenge of perfecting your artistry. Gaspar Noé’s Climax is electrifyingly abstract and a true champion of 2018.

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Movie Reviews

The Little Stranger ★★★★

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to.

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Released: 21st September 2018

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill

Reviewed By: Sinead Beverland

Adapted from the Booker prize nominated novel by Sarah Waters, the cinematic incarnation of The Little Stranger has much to live up to. At the helm is Room Director Lenny Abrahamson, with an impressive cast including Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson and Charlotte Rampling.

Set shortly after the second world war, Doctor Faraday (Gleeson) introduces us to the faded grandeur of Hundreds Hall, a place he envied feverishly as a child. Having belonged to the Ayres family for several generations, the house is now inhabited by just Mrs Ayres (Rampling) and her two adult children, Roderick (Will Poulter) and Caroline (Wilson). When Faraday is called to the house to visit the unwell young housemaid Betty, he recollects his childhood adulation of the place. Remembering the presence of a young girl, he is told that this was Mrs Ayres first daughter, Susan, who had died as a child. It seems the spectre of Susan (affectionately known as Suki) still lays heavily over the house, as housemaid Betty tells Faraday she fears something ‘isn’t right’. As he becomes more entwined with the family and their home, strange events begin to raise concerns and individually threaten members of the family.

From the very outset, the film breeds an unsettling feeling, the house is imposing with long shots conveying the sense that the characters are being observed. The audience follows Faraday in to this fading world of status and money, sensing his childhood desire and starched formality. The family are equally intriguing and unnerving. Roderick, badly injured during the war, is now an invalid struggling to cope and disturbed by the sense that something in the house does not want him there. Matriarch Mrs Ayres seems to be doing her best to keep the past alive and daughter Caroline (the best of the bunch as attested to by a fellow doctor) seems strong yet vulnerable. When Faraday begins an intriguing friendship with Caroline, their relationship evolves to hinge the entire ethereal story together. With fantastic performances all round, the characters all emerge fully formed, conveying depth without the need for swathes of expository back story.

The terror of the film gradually reveals itself, impacting in set scenes that are truly disturbing and realistic. Director Abrahamson has a subtle touch (as seen in the Oscar Nominated Room) and these climactic scenes engulf you, whilst revealing the fate of certain characters. Abrahamson knows how to accentuate the fear for the audience and uses restraint to devastating effect. As the house leaks secrets and the memory of the deceased Susan comes to the forefront, the story is told with an intensity that uses strikingly rich music and extreme close ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. However, to reveal too much of the story here, would spoil the experience of discovering for yourself what is happening at Hundreds Hall.

The Little Stranger is a mature and nuanced film, layered in such a way that it address status and class alongside desire and emotion. The period setting is detailed and worn, bridging the gap between transitioning eras in Britain.  This is no straightforward horror or ghost story and the film certainly feels to have done justice to its excellent source material. Rich in theme, characters and style, I would gladly take The Little Stranger home.

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Movie Reviews

Dogman ★★★

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Released: 19th October 2018

Directed By: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Marcello Fonte

Reviewed By: Rhys Handley

Dogman is the anti-Paddington. Antithetical to the marmalade-loving bear’s enduring mantra – “if we are kind and polite, the world will be right” – dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) carves out a life in the dilapidated outskirts of Rome modestly tending to his estate’s canine residents and enjoying the respect of his neighbours.

But Marcello’s submissive, accommodating kindness is pushed closer and closer to its limit by the hulking Simone (a terrifying Edoardo Pesce, surely masked in near-mutant prosthetic), a brutish ex-boxer who stalks the estate terrorising the residents. Unable to say no to a friend, Marcello facilitates Simone’s egregious coke habit to little recompense.

When Simone’s scheme to rob a nearby jeweller’s implicates Marcello and he is apprehended by the police, the Dogman takes the fall himself and goes inside for a year for the sake of the bully who pretends to be his friend. When he comes out, something has changed.

Marcello, diminutive and always sporting a toothy grin, strikes an unimpressive, but likeable figure. He is perfectly happy with his lot as the film opens – a divorced father who takes pride in his work and loves trips to the beach with his daughter. While director Matteo Garrone makes a meal of the grim, filthy aesthetic of the film’s setting, he peppers in moments of levity and blissful tranquility to reinforce the humble satisfaction of Marcello’s daily life.

To see him repeatedly indulge the cruel, selfish whims of Simone quickly becomes a source of frustration, as the brute encourages vices in Marcello that seems entirely at odds with his persona. Marcello is swept away on break-ins and hedonistic strip club nights in jarring scenes more in keeping with Garrone’s work in the gangster canon such as 2008’s Gomorrah.

In these scenes, the toxicity fuelling Marcello reveals itself. Fonte delicately skews the kindly facade when Marcello enters Simone’s world. Behind his courteous smile is a sickening glimmer of delight – Marcello loves the thrill and decadence of life of crime. His latent desires mix with his better nature, to create something more insidious than Simone’s overt depravity.

Dogman stumbles in its closing chapter as Marcello is released from prison, returning to a community who despises him for violating their trust and chasing Simone’s false offers of brotherhood and fortune. Marcello reemerges not exactly changed, but more honest to himself about what he is. Garrone and his co-writers steer this portion of the story with a steady hand, but it is hard to shake comparisons to other established squares-gone-rogue like Walter White.

Marcello’s resolve and vengefulness is convincing thanks to Fonte, but its emergence is sudden and teeters dangerously close to cliche. His push and pull with Simone is rote, which makes its languid pace a little irritating – this has suddenly become a very different film, and it can’t carry the slower moments of contemplation as well as it could before Marcello was locked up.

An inevitable confrontation takes place, bursting with brutality and gore. But rather than a release of tension, it feels like a betrayal of the thoughtful, measured character piece Garrone set up. The violence overreaches for shock value where Garrone had before been satisfied with something more pensive and empathetic.

Luckily, he pulls back in the final moments of the film and dovetails elegantly by concluding what is essentially his thesis on ‘little guy’ psychology. He frames Marcello not as a good man pushed too far, but as someone whose better and worse natures are intrinsically tangled to create a monster very different to the bully who ultimately leads him to snap.

No matter how kind and polite the Dogman might try to be, he cannot deny the malice that festers in his heart – and Garrone artfully distills Marcello’s melancholic final moment of self-realisation in a resonant closing shot that gracefully irons out the kinks in this curious, inconsistent little film.

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