The Greatest Showman (2017)

2018 #237
Michael Gracey | 105 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The Greatest Showman

There’s nothing inherently festive about The Greatest Showman (if it has even one scene set around Christmas, I can’t immediately recall it), yet it was initially released on Boxing Day last year and now kicks off December’s premieres on Sky Cinema, and somehow the association feels entirely fitting. I guess it’s something to do with the tone and style of the film itself: a big, cheesy, schmaltzy, cheery musical — just the kind of thing many people like to wallow in during the big, cheesy, schmaltzy, cheery end-of-year festival. It’s almost a John Lewis advert in feature film form, only with upbeat original songs instead of whispery female covers of old hits.

Inspired very, very, very loosely by a true story, the eponymous gentleman is P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a man of low station in mid-19th century America who, via a cunning fraud, manages to buy a building that he turns into a museum of curiosities. With attendance poor, he adds a floor show featuring acrobatics and freaks. It’s slated by the critics, but curious audiences flock en masse. Barnum is suddenly a massive success — but at what cost to his personal life?

Well, virtually none, because there’s barely any jeopardy to be found here (apart from a little forced something to push it into a third act). But jeopardy is not the point of The Greatest Showman, which is all about being a crowd-pleasing a good time — like the show-within-the-show, it was poorly received by critics but a huge word-of-mouth success: it never made it to #1 at the US box office, but nonetheless stayed in the top ten for 11 weeks and earned $434 million worldwide; it’s soundtrack album was such a hit that they’ve already released another album of cover versions. It’s a phenomenon, basically, and I do think the lack of worry or tension in the story is a contributing factor, especially in these troubling times. That kind of lightweightness doesn’t please the critically-minded, but it doesn’t bother those simply after a good time. And why should it?

The greatest show

It’s a Musical through and through, the movie equivalent of a broad stage grin and jazz hands. The numbers are of a different ilk to traditional Broadway style, but not misplaced — it’s modern chart-pop style songs and music video choreography, wrapped up in a big showy old-school musical vibe. I know everyone’s latched onto This Is Me as the film’s anthem, and Rewrite the Stars earned a single release because it’s a pop love song sung by kid-friendly Zac Efron and Zendaya, but the one number that really works for me is opener/closer The Greatest Show (it’s even better on the soundtrack, because it isn’t awkwardly sliced in two with the rest of the movie shoved in between, as it is on screen). If that song doesn’t end up being co-opted for opening ceremonies and things like that, it’ll be kind of a shame. And if I was to point to a runner-up favourite, I’d go for The Other Side purely for how its staged: a barroom duet between Jackman and Efron with impressive drinkography. And talking of the songs, the Honest Trailer contains some excellent spoofs of them.

Still probably best known as surly superhero Wolverine, Jackman was an established musical theatre star before his big-screen breakthrough, so this stuff is very much within his skill set — indeed, as his recently-announced world tour could attest, this show of song and dance may be more in his comfort zone than the superhero shenanigans. Either way, that he’s so effortlessly consummate at both proves he’s a performer of underestimated range. Less remarkable as allrounders are former Disney brats Efron (as a bored rich kid roped into Barnum’s enterprise) and Zendaya (whose qualifier for a freakshow seems to be that she’s somewhat dark skinned), but they’re perfectly adequate for their poppy against-all-odds romantic subplot. Less at home is Michelle Williams — not that she’s bad, but seeing her smiling and happy is weird

Drinkography

Altogether, I can see why The Greatest Showman was unpopular with critics but a huge hit with audiences — it’s a proper crowd-pleaser; a big, cheesy, easy extravaganza, similar to its pop-style music. That’s not the sort of thing critics are enamoured of, but it is the kind of thing that tickles the fancy of the masses. On the whole, it didn’t appeal to me — there were things it could’ve done better without betraying what it was aiming for, I think, like that total lack of risk in the plot, but also things I was never going to like, such as the music style — but it did have its moments.

3 out of 5

The Greatest Showman will be available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight.

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All the Money in the World (2017)

2018 #121
Ridley Scott | 133 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Italy & UK / English, Italian & Arabic | 15 / R

All the Money in the World

All the Money in the World does not star Kevin Spacey. But I expect you knew that. Indeed, if you only know one thing about the film, I expect that is what you know. Spacey’s firing, and his speedy replacement by Christopher Plummer, was such a big news story that it instantly became what the movie was most famous for — and, I suspect, is what it will always be most famous for, because the film itself isn’t good enough to transcend its own reputation.

Before I get into that, let’s do the film the courtesy of describing what it’s actually about. Based on true events, it tells the story of the kidnapping of teenager John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) in 1973 thanks to his family ties: his grandfather, J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), was the richest man in the world. He was also a miserly old codger who refused to pay his grandson’s ransom, and the film follows his daughter-in-law Gail (Michelle Williams) as she desperately tries to arrange to get her son back, aided by the employee Getty assigns to investigate the case, former CIA operative Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg).

Even before the point of contention that drives the plot, various examples are given of what a piece of work Getty was. Whether these are based on true stories or not, I don’t know, but the film seems almost heavy-handed in creating this impression. For instance, although he’s the world’s first billionaire, he’ll do his own laundry in his hotel bath rather than pay the hotel $10 to do it for him; or he’ll spend an hour haggling a poor beggar down from $19 to $11 for an item that’s actually worth $1.2 million — although it later turns out there’s another side to that story… not that the it paints Getty in any better a light. Anyway, it’s to Plummer’s credit that he can take this kind of material and make it work, especially considering it was captured in just nine days of shooting with very little prep time.

Can you put a value on a child's life? J. Paul Getty can.

When those reshoots were first reported, it was said to be possible because Getty wasn’t actually in the film much, so it wouldn’t take long to remount just his scenes. Then the film started screening, and critics said he was in a lot of the movie and the amount they must’ve reshot was phenomenal in such a short space of time. Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in between: Getty pops up throughout the film, and his presence is huge, but I’d wager his actual screen time is smaller than you’d think — similar to Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, who notoriously won Best Actor from less than 25 minutes on screen, it feels like Plummer’s in it more than he actually is. That’s partly the film’s structure, but also the quality of his performance.

In discussing the reshoots, director Ridley Scott has commented on the differences between the two actors’ takes on the character (Plummer wasn’t shown any of Spacey’s performance before he filmed). According to IMDb, Scott felt Spacey portrayed Getty as “a more explicitly cold and unfeeling character”, while Plummer found “a warmer side to the billionaire, but the same unflinching refusal to simply pay off his son’s kidnappers.” I can’t help reading between the lines to infer that Scott felt Plummer’s performance was more nuanced, and therefore better. It beggars belief that Spacey was cast at all, really: Scott wanted Plummer, who was 88, to play the 80-year-old Getty, but the studio insisted on 58-year-old Spacey, who then had to be caked in prosthetics. Supposedly it’s because Spacey was a bigger name, but that much bigger? Really?

Anyway, it turned out for the best, because Plummer is probably the strongest element of the finished product. Although Michelle Williams is top-notch as ever, too. Mark Wahlberg has been worse than this, but he still seems slightly miscast. Ridley Scott, also, is not on top form, his direction merely unremarkable. Oh, it looks nice enough — it’s well done — but there’s little beyond glossy competence.

Negotiations

Arguably its biggest sin is that, for a movie about a high-stakes kidnapping, it’s remarkably free of tension. The closest is the climactic manhunt around a village at nighttime (an event which is an entirely fictional invention, incidentally), but even that doesn’t seem to ring all that’s possible out of proceedings. The blurb sells the film as a “race against time”, but it’s almost the opposite of that: the kidnappers hold the kid for literally months while the Gettys bicker. But maybe Scott wasn’t going for thrills? There’s definitely a thematic thing in there about wealth and power and what it does to people, and what that represents versus the importance of family or morals. But I’m not sure those issues are really brought out or explored either.

It leaves the film feeling not tense and on-edge enough to be a thriller, nor thoughtful and considered enough to be a message-driven drama. The real-life story behind the film is a compelling hook and definitely sounds like it’d make a great movie, but the conversion process has perhaps not done it justice. Maybe someone else should have a crack at it…

3 out of 5

Trust, a miniseries from Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy retelling the same events, begins its UK airing on BBC Two tonight at 10pm.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

2017 #134
Kenneth Lonergan | 137 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Manchester by the Sea

One of the frontrunners of the 2016-17 awards season, Manchester by the Sea centres around Lee (Casey Affleck), a taciturn sort who’s called back to the eponymous hometown (which he’d left behind for reasons that are initially kept a mystery to us viewers) when his brother dies, naming Lee as the guardian of his teenage son (Lucas Hedges). As Lee attempts to figure out his new role, he’s plagued by the memories and emotions from why he left Manchester in the first place.

Manchester by the Sea is not a plot-driven movie. Even the mystery I alluded to above doesn’t play by ‘the rules’, with the answers being revealed about halfway through rather than near the end. There’s still a story, obviously (see above), but it’s more of a character study about people coping with grief — not in the wailing, all-consuming way you might typically associate with grief being depicted on screen, but in a more subdued, naturalistic manner. In harmony with that, there’s an element to it which is, not irreverent, but certainly mundane — like making calls to funeral directors over breakfast, for instance — and scattered with darkly comic realities, like paramedics struggling to get a bed into an ambulance. Indeed, for a film about such grim subjects, it’s surprisingly funny. But, as I’ve said in many reviews before, that’s life: the world is still funny, and we often still laugh, even when tragedy is all around.

Funereal

Given all that, it’s not surprising it was Casey Affleck’s performance that attracted most attention and won most of the awards. That’s not undeserved — he’s the core of the film, and it’s a powerful but understated performance — but Lucas Hedges is also brilliant in a part that could’ve been given short shrift. In fairness, if we’re talking about awards, he got plenty of nominations too. So too Michelle Williams, playing Lee’s ex-wife. She’s not bad, but her awards recognition is all really for that one scene — you know, the one they always played as the film’s clip, and that’s alluded to on the poster. Indeed, it’s interesting how prominent she is in the marketing — her role is central to the state Lee’s in, but the actress herself isn’t on screen very much. Her absence is more felt than her presence, even.

It’s understandable that one scene became such a focus — it’s a powerful moment of great importance to the characters (and, more cynically, is virtually the only major sequence with the two name lead actors). In some respects, however, I think the film’s most powerful moment comes at the other end of the film’s timeline: when we learn about what happened in the past, it ends with ‘the morning after’, when Lee faces what he has done and looks for the punishment he feels he deserves; instead he finds only understanding, so he attempts to punish himself. (This scene also got a fair bit of awards play, but lacked context. Or perhaps that was just me? I didn’t really get what was going on until i saw it in the film proper.) That’s a key part of what’s going on with his character, I think: he hasn’t just been trying to escape what happened, he’s also punishing himself. Other people aren’t always so understanding — some do judge him; one person quietly refuses to employ him, presumably because of what happened — but no one judges him as harshly as he judges himself.

The Scene

An aspect I don’t recall being remarked upon much was the cinematography, but I thought it was a surprisingly good-looking film. DP Jody Lee Lipes’ work here isn’t flashy, maintaining the understated and naturalistic tone of the entire movie, but it’s very crisp, befitting both the freezing cold weather and raw emotions. On the other hand, if I had one criticism to level it might be that the film’s too long. Its events and emotions unfold at a measured pace, which is fine, but some of what we see is less necessary than the film seems to think it is (for one example, the opening sequence, where we watch Lee as he does various day-to-day janitorial jobs, feels like it goes on for ages and contributes little).

But I’m nitpicking at this point, really. Manchester by the Sea derives itself from such everyday moments, accumulating them into a subtle, realistic, quietly powerful character portrait.

5 out of 5

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

2011 #4
Charlie Kaufman | 119 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Synecdoche, New YorkDespite its unpronounceable title, Synecdoche, New York starts out like a relatively normal comedy/drama… but then weird touches begin to creep in. A house that’s on fire when a character buys it and continues to be on fire for the next several decades, for instance. No one in the film bats an eyelid. Then the really weird bit arrives; the bit you all probably know; what the film’s about (except, of course, not what it’s About), as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theatre director begins to construct a life-size New York within a warehouse.

This film is written and, for the first time, directed by Charlie Kaufman. “Ah,” I hear you say, “that explains everything.”

And if it was anyone but Kaufman at the helm you’d say the film loses its way at the point Hoffman begins his impossible undertaking. And maybe it does anyway. It becomes a complex mishmash of reality and the play being staged; although you’re never in doubt about which is which (such a twist would be far too obvious), you are in doubt about why it’s all happening. The relatively congenial first hour (ish) is followable; the rest… bizarre, weird, inexplicable. I’m sure it all Means Something, but I can well imagine as many viewers getting thoroughly fed up as finding it revelatory. I don’t think one opinion would be inherently superior to the other.

At times it almost reclaims itself from this descent into impenetrability, almost edging toward finding a revelation that will explain what we’ve seen. And I’m sure there is an explanation of some kind. But, by the time it reached its end, I’m not sure I really cared any more; Fiction meets realityand I haven’t begun to care in the months since I watched it. It’s the kind of film where, as it gets on, you feel it’s a rich experience that you’ll have to ponder for a bit once it’s done, even if there’s something you quite fancy watching on the same channel immediately afterwards. But by the end it became the kind of film I was fed up with pondering, and I bloody well watched what was on the same channel immediately afterwards. Kaufman’s weirdness can wear you down to the point where characters who were interesting and ideas (both plausible and of Kaufman-logic) that had potential cease to be worth caring about; where you go from the point of “I’ll look up an explanation on the internet once it’s finished” to “…meh”.

That could be just me of course. Roger Ebert asserted it was the best film of the 2000s. Maybe you’ll agree. Maybe you’ll find it inspiring or life-affirming or goodness knows what else. Maybe you’ll be so bored you’ll give up even before the end. But, having made it to the end, I’m torn between not being sure what to think, thinking I should make the effort to understand it, and still just not caring.

Right at the end of that Ebert article, way past the bit on Synecdoche, he says this:

The set of a set

Almost the first day I started writing reviews, I found a sentence in a book by Robert Warshow that I pinned on the wall above my desk… it helps me stay grounded. It says:

A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.

That doesn’t make one person right and another wrong. All it means is that you know how they really felt, not how they thought they should feel.

This quote isn’t inherently more relevant to this particular review than it is to any other particular review, but I feel the need to consider it and include it for your consideration also. That said, it is relevant in this respect: it’s already provoked more reflection on my part than Synecdoche did. I think I’ll discuss it further another time.

3 out of 5

Synecdoche, New York is on BBC Two tonight, Friday 17th April 2015, at 12:40am (so, technically Saturday 18th).