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: :(

The Disaster Artist

December 13, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

Nearly 20 years ago, a simple immigrant-turned-citizen Tommy Wiseau had a dream. Nearly 15 years ago, that dream was realized in the form of a film that has been chastised (and lauded) as the “worst movie of all time”, and on par with “Plan 9 From Outer Space”. That film, “The Room”, becomes the basis of this semi-biopic of Wiseau, which is based on the book of the same name by “The Room”‘s co-star, Greg Sestero. Though the POV is Greg’s throughout the book of “The Disaster Artist”, he becomes more of an armchair sidekick in the film version, directed by James Franco. James Franco also plays Wiseau, while his brother Dave plays Greg.

The film begins with both Wiseau and Sestero as struggling actors in San Francisco, during the late 1990’s. They are polar opposites as far as their approach to acting. Wiseau is clueless, but he has no fear. He seems to have passion, but it’s hidden behind a flowing ocean of jet black hair, and opaque sunglasses. Greg meanwhile is timid, almost afraid of acting altogether. Though he wants to be professional, he has a hard time breaking through his shyness.

He is impressed with Wiseau’s fearless attitude, and his mysterious nature. Eventually, he becomes almost like a pupil to Wiseau’s strange master plan, which is to become a Hollywood star. To do that, though, he needs to make a breakthrough. After a showing of “Rebel Without a Cause”, Wiseau thinks he knows the path: just do it. He decides to make his own film. He goes and writes a script, while Greg gets more into acting, and lands an A-list agent, Iris Burton (Sharon Stone, inexplicably underused here). When Wiseau is finished, he’s ready to make the film.

Every single step is a misfire, every instinct goes against Filmmaking 101. He buys equipment rather than rents it; he uses 2 separate kinds of cameras to film: digital and standard 35mm. He fires actors and crew and replaces them like it’s a bodily function. And, above all, he can’t act nor direct competently. He’s only driven by his vision, which is really what this film is about. Deep down, apart from its obvious comedic sequences of showing us the behind-the-scenes of making such a terrible film, there is a heart beating (and bleeding) for the survival of the vision artist.

The film was briefly going to be titled “The Masterpiece”, and I’m glad it was changed back to “The Disaster Artist” because the stress should be on the “artist” and not what he thinks is “the masterpiece”. We all know what “The Room” is–even if you haven’t seen it before seeing this film, or have even heard of it, the film goes through various lengths to show you how bad it is. The end product isn’t the point–it’s the process. It’s the willingness to throw out inhibition, and go for it.

The film is also about friendship. Wiseau is extremely guarded, but he seems to allow Greg into his life without hesitation. Sure, Greg is naive and probably an easy person to become best friends with. But Wiseau sees something genuine inside him, and possibly sees a little bit of himself, before he became so reticent about people. He lies about his age, he lies about where he’s from (“I’m from New Orleans”, he continuously tries to convince others of), and he also seems to lie about where he comes up with the $6 million he spends on making “The Room”. Yes, this film was a multi-million dollar “indie” film. Sometimes, it shows. It was very professionally done, the music is lush and cinematic. It’s very appealing to the eye because it’s competently filmed. The only thing missing is good acting, good writing, and a sense of direction.

But, Wiseau and Greg’s friendship seems to bring the whole project together. Greg convinces Wiseau, even when he starts to doubt himself and the project, and the people he works with, that the film must be made because it’s Wiseau’s, and because this is what they set out to do.

Wiseau gets a little too intense for Greg at times, and the two separate for a time. But the film is finished, and “The Room” becomes legend.

Franco and Co. have a lot of fun with this material. James Franco is absolutely smashing as Tommy Wiseau, nailing every single personality tick and broken English accent. Dave is also very good as the charming and innocent Greg (although the real Greg probably still could’ve pulled off playing himself, he’s only about 7 years older than Dave, and is supposed to be playing someone in their early 20’s). Seth Rogen plays Sandy Schklair, the script supervisor and eventual actual director sometimes; Schklair can’t stand to work with Wiseau, and it’s clear to see why: Schklair is a professional, and a veteran. But, somehow the checks clear and he puts up with him if only for the money. Bob Odenkirk also has an amusing cameo as an acting teacher.

It’s the actors who play the stars of “The Room”, however, that steal the show. Ari Graynor, while not exactly looking like her Lisa counterpart, really captures Juliette Danielle’s performance–and you can’t help but pity the poor woman having to work (and bed) alongside the aggressive and weird Wiseau. Josh Hutcherson, of “The Hunger Games” fame, also doesn’t necessarily physically resemble Denny, but his performance is pitch perfect. Zac Efron even gets Chris-R absolutely perfect, though you may not recognize it’s Zefron. June Diane Raphael plays Robyn Paris very well, and anyone who has read the book knows that Paris is the most sharp of all the actors, and understands Wiseau better than he may understand himself. But the standout performance, the absolute spot-on effort, is by Nathan Fielder who plays Kyle Vogt, also known as Peter in “The Room”. His mannerisms, somewhat elitist, arrogant voice, is captured to precision. In fact, when you see the reenactments, it’s almost hard to tell them apart. And that goes for nearly everyone involved in the scenes. Kudos to the casting director, and the efforts put forth by the actors.

It’s a labor of love, in both “The Disaster Artist” and “The Room”, and it comes through very strongly. Tommy Wiseau may be a strange bird, but he’s oddly likable. He somehow makes a lot of money–not by selling drugs!–and he does something pretty incredible: makes one of the worst movies of all time; and even better, makes you love it so much you’re willing to sit through another 2 hour movie to see it made. If that’s not an immaculate achievement in filmmaking, I don’t know what is. But I do know that I didn’t know it was him, and he’s my favorite customer.

My rating: :-)