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.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Ol Parker
Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard
Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths
The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.
Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.
Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).
Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).
Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.
Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.
Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.
It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.
Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…
Hotel Artemis ★★★
Released: 20th July 2018
Directed By: Drew Pearce
Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.
On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.
On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.
On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.
Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.
Released: 12th July 2018
Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell
Reviewed By: Van Connor
Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.
Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.
Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.
Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.
In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.
It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.
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