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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

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald ★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: David Yates

Starring: Jude Law, Johnny Depp. Also Eddie Redmayne.

Reviewed By: Van Connor

The magic’s well and truly faded with this second instalment of the erstwhile Harry Potter prequel series, as The Crimes of Grindelwald shifts the action to Paris, but its own sensibilities entirely too far into the franchise world-building spectrum that could threaten to unravel it. It never does quite unfurl from the exhaustion of it, that would, after all, suggest there were anything of note at its core. There isn’t. The Crimes of Grindelwald is precisely the patronising box-office-centric cash-grab any decent cynic’s always accused the Harry Potter series of being under the surface; all that’s changed is that, this time, they really can’t be bothered to attempt to mask it beneath any kind of fun.

One of those sequels you can rather obviously tell was never meant to exist, this very-much-a-part-two kicks off unceremoniously (it has no other setting, as you’ll discover over the course of a mind-numbing two and a quarter hours) by setting about undoing literally every closing plot mechanic of what’s come before. Did a character end up in Point A last time? Well, this time they’re going to be reintroduced via what’s either an interesting and poorly lit set-piece or clunky exposition in order to set themselves up at Point B instead, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to do so. Only then may the plot of The Crimes of Grindelwald begin. And plot it has. Lots of plot. Tons and tons of plot. In fact, it has very little else but plot. So, it’s somewhat mystifying that David Yates’ sixth venture into what’s evidently now branded as the Wizarding World should ultimately amount to so little.

From what little you’re able to glean of the plot, proceedings involve the immediate escape of evil wizard Gerrett Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) from the prison to where he was sent last time. On the loose once more, Grindelwald sets about exacting his master plan to ensure magical dominance over the human race, a plan that involves the formation of a dark wizarding army and the utilisation of one Credence Barebones (Ezra Miller), with the latter’s death evidently no obstacle for the likes of his contract’s sequel options. The only wizard capable of stopping Grindelwald, we’re told, is that rebellious master wizard Albus Dumbledore (now played in a younger form by Jude Law), but Dumbledore can’t, you see, because… reasons, and despatches a reluctant Newt Scamander to do so in his stead. Because, again, reasons.

Now, you can be forgiven for taking that plot in and wondering just how in the hell Eddie Redmayne’s Newt need in any way be present for any of this, and, frankly, you’d be right to do so. Certainly, Eddie Redmayne appears to be wondering the same – his contingent of the cast (essentially the main four from the last movie) each make what can charitably be described as diminishing returns, offering more outright effort in their performances to a film that really can’t be bothered to do much with them. They’re not important, you see, Dumbledore is. Grindelwald is. And creator/screenwriter/living cash hoover J.K. Rowling genuinely cannot be bothered to pretend otherwise. That movie snotty naysayers claim they always somehow see whenever there’s a new superhero movie out? The one that’s nothing but nonsense, world-building and a half-hourly set-piece? That movie actually does exist. And its title is The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Losing the magic of even its own musical arrangement, The Crimes of Grindelwald is an outright disaster not just of a seasonal tentpole release, but of a franchise picture full stop. Its script works exhaustingly to tie itself in knots to go essentially nowhere, its culmination consisting of literally nothing more than two pieces of unceremonious lore being shouted about in canon, each essentially lionised by Rowling so that at least one of them can no longer be called out as the laziest, most cynical, and ethically bankrupt product of the entire franchise. She fails in this endeavour, as, indeed, does Yates in delivering a dreary and uninvolving film to which his cast aspire to inject life, only to reanimate the narratively dead instead.

Legions of Potterites will doubtless flock to the nearest multiplex the moment the doors open, and, to be fair, that is absolutely the power the brand has and ours is not to question. If the priority of this series, though, genuinely is the continued pumping of revenue into the Rowling estate landscaping fund, would it really be too much to ask to even attempt to make it a good time? Can we not at least get some enjoyment out of this? A big ask, I know. But it’d behove Rowling, Yates, and everybody involved in this shill of a series to at least consider we might want some excitement next time around. Maybe when the second act stops dead for ten minutes to give us a canon origin story for the damned sorting hat.

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Featured Review

Hell Fest ★★★

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Released: 16th October 2018

Directed By: Gregory Plotkin

Starring: Amy Forsyth, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards

Reviewed By: Van Connor

In the pantheon of cinema, the slasher movie sits alongside only really Die Hard and the western as being unfathomably easy to retrofit for any occasion with “…but with this unique location instead!” Hell Fest is a textbook case of this. It has no ambition beyond merely being a slasher movie set within a specific gimmick-driven environment, no desire to offer up anything more than stock Hollywood teens being violently murdered one at a time, and is under no illusion about whether or not you’ve ever seen this movie before or even care. What it is concerned with, though, is fun. And it has that in spades.

It’s literally nothing more than “the slasher movie at an adult horror theme park”. A concept, it turns out, that you can make a fair amount of mischief with, as our group of six abhorrently gorgeous twenty-eight year-old teenagers find themselves fixated upon by a sinister figure in a wooden mask and brandishing a kitchen knife. This being the eponymous theme park, naturally there are a multitude of places for our teens to hide, but, as is par for the course in Hell Fest, where you hide could just as easily be the very means by which our masked murderer will gut you. Fun!

Though none of the cast leap out as being particularly noteworthy (Arrow’s Bex Taylor-Klaus and MacGyver’s Reign Edwards are arguably the biggest geek pulls here), each serviceably handles their limited place within the story. Amy Forsyth’s a perfectly fine Final Girl, not memorable, but likeable enough, and the rest of the cast conduct themselves to more or less the same standard. Blumhouse alum Gregory Plotkin shifts to the big chair for this one, proving he’s got pretty lively chops for a good ol’ down n’ dirty slasher flick, and Seth Sherwood and Blair Butler’s script knows just how to play with the mechanics of the formula that everyone involved can unashamedly enjoy themselves without the overwhelming need to reinvent the genre wheel.

By virtue of being set within a merchandised horror world, Hell Fest has great fun in exploiting that set up for some wonderfully cheap scares, making for an enjoyable and OTT bloody night at the pictures that will never challenge, but certainly entertain. There’s no mythology to this, no franchise being built before us, and there’s even a genre icon making an almost obligatory appearance to sanctify it all. Sure, you won’t lose your head with Hell Fest, but you will whoop and cheer. It’s just a shame it had to arrive three weeks after Halloween.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Colette

Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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Director: Wash Westmoreland

Stars: Keira Knightley, Dominic West

Released: London Film Festival 2018

Born in 19th century France, Sidonie Gabrielle Colette wrote more than 80 volumes depicting her childhood, her life, her pains and pleasures. Her writings were sensual, vivid and all published under her husband name, “Willy”.

No stranger to female-centric stories, Wash Westmoreland follows up on “Still Alice” and “Echo Park, L.A.” with this dazzling period biopic starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West.

The film starts, the young country girl, Colette (Knightley), marries writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) who introduces her to Parisian salons. Willy soon finds himself in debts and is desperate enough to seek his wife’s help. She will write. Colette writes what she knows and her first novella, “Claudine à l’école” (Claudine at school) is a success. Willy forces her to write the next ones, locked in a golden cage, to ensure his fame and success.

The settings are sumptuous and we gladly follow the camera through the stunning but confined Parisian apartments where the outside light only comes through when she feels inspired. Costumes evolve, as Colette, from heavy and restricted dresses to wild and daring clothing as if Mademoiselle Chanel had designed them herself.

Colette finally loosens from her husband and experiments with woman, society and dancing, feeding her inspiration. Forced and uncredited, Colette cannot enjoy writing and runs off to perform in the music-hall in her own name. In like most biopics, we go from one key event to another, regrettably quickly and often without knowing how we got there. Willy’s sudden appointment of his wife is left as unexplained as the abrupt ending that could have potentially seen Colette, a happy writer.

In the second part of the film Westmoreland seems more interested in looking at the awakening of a young woman rather than at the birth of an author whereas Keira Knightley shines in the lead role. Often known for playing the innocent and rebellious youth, Knightley still pulls off the young Colette in the first part of the film but is at her best when she evolves into a mature woman, aware of own desires. The best scenes of the film come when Colette is free and herself, usually in the company of other woman, particularly the terribly charming Missy (Denise Gough). Westmoreland multiplies two shots and close ups and creates impactful intimate scenes but regrettably gives up on them too fast.

It is a change to see a character such as “Willy” that is both ridiculous and loving. This duality creates, perhaps, a more truthful relationship between the two. No one is born an artist and behind every writer there is an intuitive editor (and in 20th century France, who else could it be than a man?). For Westmoreland if there is no Claudine without Colette, there would have been no Colette without Willy.

With its lavish setting and jumping plot, Colette can feel a tad velvety at times but is lifted by Keira Knightley’s sensual performance and liberating battle that painfully resonates today.

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