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: :(

Spider-Man: Homecoming

July 12, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is the sixth “Spider-Man” film, and it’s easily the best since “Spider-Man 2” (from the original trilogy). The Spider-Man franchise has had a bit of inconsistency, starting strong but ending a bit weakly with the dreaded (but somewhat over-hated) “Spider-Man 3”; then, rebooted with 2 completely forgettable films and a forgettable Peter (played as dutifully by Andrew Garfield as possible). As reliable as Spider-Man is as an entertaining comic book hero, his movie franchise hasn’t been as dependable.

Marvel still wants to save their golden boy, however; they threw him in “The Avengers: Civil War”, and a young, boisterous Tom Holland was cast. His cameo was brief but fun, and gave enough of an excuse I guess, to give him a full feature length film.

But this time, the studio was smart to not reboot the whole story all over again, so that in the 3rd time in 15 years, we’d have a “Peter Parker origin story”. In “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, directed by Jon Watts (“Clown”), we already know Peter is Spider-Man, and he’s already fought with the Avengers. This allows the character to be exactly where he needs to be, and not re-introduced again.

Parker has returned from fighting the Battle of New York, and is ecstatic that he’s been able to cut his teeth with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., if you didn’t know that already) and the Avengers. He’s given the guise of being an intern to the Stark company, so no one suspects what he’s really up to. His Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) encourages him in his internship, and he seems to be the envy of some students at school. But Parker has his teenage problems: he longs for a shot at a girl named Liz (Laura Harrier), a brainy and beautiful girl that is keen to Parker’s attraction. He also has a little rivalry with the school rich kid Eugene “Flash” Thompson (Tony Revolori), who competes with Parker in the ‘mathletes’. And, unfortunately for Parker, school comes before superhero. He still has to do his homework.

The city has its share of thieves and criminals, but none more powerful than a mysterious villain referred to (in credits only) as the Vulture. He’s only known in the film as Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a contractor whose business is co-opted by Stark’s own Damage Control following the Battle, to clean up the after effects. Toomes, dismayed but not detracted, steals some of the artifacts himself and sells the exotic weapons at a high price to support his family. Toomes is a lunch bucket villain. He’s blue collar, not looking to take over the world, just looking for a piece of American Pie.

But this doesn’t sit well for 15 year-old Peter, who trails him and tries to stop him by himself. This bothers Stark, and Parker’s chaperone Happy (Stark’s colleague, played by Jon Favreau), and it gets Spider-Man in quite a lot of hot water.

For us, as an audience, we’re licking our chops to watch Spider-Man fight. And, like Stark, his suit is powered by AI, a bit of a SmartSuit. His AI, Karen (voiced by Jennifer Connelly), helps him out of jams both with the bad guys, and gives some sage life advice.

Also along for the ride is Peter’s school friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who wants to be “the guy in the chair”, the one behind the scenes who aids his super hero friend. At first Peter is hesitant; but after some run-ins, and Ned’s assistance, he agrees. Ned’s contributions are essential to Peter’s escaping certain doom, and proves his worth as his “sidekick”.

There are some breathtaking action sequences that string the film along, including one that takes place on the Staten Island Ferry; and the other atop the Washington monument. The Ferry sequence may remind viewers of the subway scene in “Spider-Man 2”; but it doesn’t feel like a rip off. This is actually the bread and butter of a Spider-Man story: he has to save a piece of New York City. In the 1st movie, it’s the Queensboro Bridge (in the reboot it’s the Williamsburg Bridge).

Most of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is watching Tom Holland eat up the Peter Parker role. He’s the youngest actor to portray the character, which works to its benefit. There’s a literal breath of new life into the character; and for some reason, it makes him more believable than previous incarnations played by Garfield and Tobey Maguire.

The strongest parts, like much of the MCU films, involve humor. There are a lot of quality laughs here, and it certainly strengthens the film’s entertainment value. Stark’s scenes are amusing; but it’s a lot more than that. RDJ doesn’t have to save this film. He’s just a piece. Keaton is exceptional as the ice cold Toomes, just trying to make a good living, but is also cutthroat. Batalon as Spidey’s BFF is also cute and charismatic. And, can’t forget Zandaya’s Michelle, or “MJ” (duh!). On balance, the whole cast provides good performances. Holland and Keaton’s stand out, but they all do well to round out the film.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” brings confidence back to the franchise, and sets up nicely for its own series. I want to see more of Holland as Peter, and watch him grow up a little. He already started to toward the end of the film. Now, as a future Avenger, we can see the character finally reach his full potential.

Just don’t go forcing Venom on us again right now, mkay?

My rating: :-)