The Greatest Showman

February 7, 2018 by  
Filed under Movies

If you were looking to learn more on the life of P.T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman” is probably not your best resource. If you were looking for a bombastic, CGI-infused and light hearted carnival, the film will not disappoint. The question is, which did you want to see? For me personally, the former would have been preferable to the latter. While there are some strong moments in the just-shy-of-two-hours film, “The Greatest Showman” lacks depth, character development, and even passion.

The first two discrepancies can somewhat be simply explained away: this is a musical. Musicals aren’t meant to have really either of those things; for the most part, a musical’s main purpose is to string along a plot just thick enough to get you to the next number. But the third is the film’s fault. Nothing seems to leap off the screen; the whole movie seems to be one long music video, fueled by Disney-pop style pop antics. Very few songs are memorable, and the dance numbers are crowded by digital effects. The film’s main protagonist (that could have easily also been the antagonist), P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), should be a major fixture in the story. Instead, he truly is just a ringmaster in a really loud, over-the-top parade of studio mixed songs.

The film begins with possibly the best number, “The Greatest Show”, which presents the circus in all its glory. Then, it fades to a lonesome, somber Barnum, who reflects on his life. We’re then taken back to his childhood, where he’s a very poor son of a tailor. One of his father’s clients has a young daughter, Charity, who later becomes Barnum’s romantic interest. Her father disapproves, but it doesn’t matter. Barnum works his way through meager means to whisk Charity away and make a life with her. After some run-ins with…curiosities…he gets an idea. He decides to put on a show featuring people who are basically sideshow attractions. He invents the freak show, but puts it on as a larger than life stage performance. As the show grows, he gets trapeze artists and other acts…and somehow, elephants.

At first, the show is a huge dud. New York’s finest critic (played by Paul Sparks), who founds the New York Herald, denounces the show and actually calls it a “circus”. Barnum takes the criticism and turns it on its head, reveling in the bad press, because as we all know–any press is good press. The show begins attracting more of an audience, and becomes huge. While starting his show up, he entices a high society patron named Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), who becomes a partner. The two run the show until Barnum meets a famous opera singer named Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems to want to begin a romance with him when they take her on the road, giving more credibility to Barnum’s brand. There are some times when he abandons his show, and his wife Charity (Michelle Williams, in adulthood), and his children. There’s a subplot of a budding relationship between Carlyle and one of the trapeze artists, Anne (Zendaya), and we of course learn a bit of background on General Tom Thumb, his first attraction (played by Sam Humphrey).

Most of this story would be well suited for a nice, long biopic. Jackman is a talented singer and performer, but he’s also a very good actor. It would have been a stronger film had it taken the subject a little deeper. It didn’t have to be a serious expose of the Barnum product; he was a bit of a phony, a great salesman, and a huckster. But, deep down, I think it’s safe to say that Barnum really believed in it. And he did give his talent a big stage…or a tent. The film itself, though, seems to fall under the weight of its treacle presentation. It has glitz and glamour, and all the styles of flashy filmmaking. Director Michael Gracey tries to put on a show, but it just didn’t carry me. A live production of this would be far more entertaining. You could forgive the thinness of the plot and the careless way the film provides lip service to Barnum’s life and achievements. But here, on a screen, we are detached.

It could have been a great spectacle, but instead…it’s just a show.

My rating: :(

Shutter Island

March 6, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured Content, Movies

Mystery films with a twist. This concept has been done so many times in the last 10 years, badly, that I think as an audience we spend more time just trying to figure out the twist at the end than pay attention to the narrative of the story. M. Night Shyamalan has almost single-handedly ruined the sub-genre in itself by making hokey, cheap “twists” to his already weak and thin narratives in movies such as “The Village” and “Signs” that when you see a film advertising† “The ending will BLOW YOU AWAY!” the eyerolling is almost a reflex.

Now comes “Shutter Island”, based upon a novel by Dennis Lehane. The film revolves around an escaped prisoner (or “patient”) at a maximum security mental institution called Ashecliff Hospital on Shutter Island, off the Boston Harbor. US Marshall Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) and his new partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), are assigned to the case and after a shaky boat trip–Daniels tries to “get a grip” of himself while having sea sickness–the two embark on the case, involving dealings with mad people, and an enigmatic doctor named Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley).

Like any mystery film, there are red herrings and booby traps, and while you’re trying to figure out just what is going on at this asylum, you’re also unravelling the backstory of Daniels’ life. He was a WWII hero, who took down a death camp in Dachau; he also experienced trauma when his wife burned in a fire that was caused by an arsonist that Daniels’ reveals to his partner–may be on this island as a prisoner. As the two investigate the place further, there are more inconsistencies in Dr. Cawley’s approach and philosophy versus how the asylum is actually run, that the two of them believe they’re in danger of being kept there.

The paranoia, along with Daniels’ past sufferings coming back to haunt him, make the film more and more brooding as it goes along. And while you are trying to figure out the “twist”, it becomes more clear as the film progresses–and you can take the journey with Daniels as he starts to battle his own madness, that it makes for a perfect payoff in the end.

The film’s theme of being your own prisoner and how we torture ourselves works well, and the answer in the end to all the questions is not only well done–it’s the only way the film could work. The directing is masterful, once again, by Scorsese. The atmosphere is dark, and at times claustrophobic. It has a touch of film noir that makes the film sexy and lethal. It wants to terrify you, entice you, and tease you. And all three are pulled off perfectly.

This also features some brilliant performances by its lead actors: Ben Kingsley is wonderful as the off-putting and seemingly villainous doctor; Max von Sydow plays another mysterious character, another psychiatrist that Daniels doesn’t trust; Di Caprio is aggressive and powerful as the tormented Daniels in probably his best role since “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”; and even Michelle Williams is impressive as Daniels’ wife who appears to him in his dreams and visions throughout the film, haunting him and plaguing him with self-doubt.

This film is extremely well executed and worth more than one viewing. While it’s a bit long (clocks in at about 138 minutes), it never feels though it’s too long and I never felt uncomfortable watching it. It’s a great movie experience. One that should have been recognized by the Academy. But how often does the Academy get it right?

My rating: :D