The Greatest Showman


Hugh Jackman knows this movie is a snow job.

(2017) Musical (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eric Anderson, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn, Daniel Everidge, Radu Spinghel, Yusaku Komori, Daniel Son, Paul Sparks, Will Swenson, Linda Marie Larsen, Byron Jennings, Betsy Aidem. Directed by Michael Gracey

 

Phineas Taylor Barnum once famously said “There’s a sucker born every minute” and that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American consumer.” The fact that this movie has done the kind of box office it has is proof of that.

Barnum (Jackman) is a penniless dreamer who has married a beautiful rich girl named Charity (Williams) whose family his father once worked for. Her father most assuredly does NOT approve of the match. Barnum has big plans to buy a specific mansion near where they grew up but no means to get there but after losing yet another low-paying job disappears on him, he decides to go into business for himself, using a little financial chicanery to secure a bank loan to open up his Museum of Oddities.

At first business is slow but his wife believes in him. It’s just when he begins to add human acts – bearded ladies, Siamese twins, General Tom Thumb a performing little person, trapeze artists and acrobats does his business begin to thrive. Upper class playwright Philip Carlyle (Efron) is taken by the show and by a trapeze artist name Anne (Zendaya) in particular but it still takes Barnum some fancy talking to get him to invest in the Museum as a partner.

While on an overseas trip he hears the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (Ferguson),, then the most famous singer on Earth, perform at Buckingham Palace and is completely taken by her voice and her beauty. He offers to bankroll her tour of the United States as her manager for which she would get an unheard-of (at the time) guaranteed sum. The tour threatens to bankrupt P.T. but it also threatens his marriage as Lind tries to seduce him and leave his wife for her.

.A suspicious fire burns down the Museum and all of a sudden Barnum is left with nothing again; furthermore his family of unusual acts is no longer feeling the love, having seen him turn their backs on them and treat them like unwelcome guests. Can this dysfunctional family reunite and rebuild?

I had high hopes for this, particular given that Jackman is in the title role. It’s perfect casting and Jackman who cut his show biz teeth on musical theater in Australia is more than up to the task, being the big reason to see the movie. His natural charm and likability shine through and even when he’s acting like a jerk you still like the guy and like me were pretty sure he would come around to his senses.

Unfortunately after that it’s a very short list of reasons to see this. While I like the theme of inclusiveness (although they tend to bang the audience over the head with it), after that there are some key components to the film that simply aren’t up to snuff. First and most glaringly is the songs. They are absolutely dreadful; all of them sound pretty much the same and none of them really are the kind you’ll be humming after you leave the theater; as I write this I can’t remember the tune to a single one of them. That’s very bad news for a musical.

The writers for whatever reason seem to stick a song in even where one isn’t needed and in fact the musical number ends up disrupting the flow of the film. Personally I loved the idea of a musical about Barnum but it needed a capable songwriter to write the music and lyrics. This sounds like it was written by Broadway hacks which it certainly wasn’t; the folks involved wrote the music and lyrics to La La Land and did a much better job with that property. There is not one song here that is anywhere near as memorable as “City of Stars.”

The writers also play fast and loose with history (for example, there is no evidence whatsoever that the relationship between Barnum and Lind was anything but a business one) which isn’t an original Hollywood sin but there are so many characters here that were invented out of whole cloth – certainly Barnum had plenty of interesting people in his life that could have made appearances here. Poor Michelle Williams has so little to do that her smile begins to look awfully strained by the end of the movie. Even CGI couldn’t save it – except that the CGI that the movie does utilize is uniformly terrible.

I could go on and on. Barnum’s children here are essentially perfect movie kids whose presence is superfluous and disruptive. There are too many anachronisms in the dialogue to shake a stick at – but why kick a horse when it’s already down, except not only is this horse down it’s also been lit on fire, stabbed through the heart, shot, beaten with a crowbar and drowned in a vat of acid before being miraculously resurrected and buried alive. Actually, the horse has it better than those who must watch this movie. See it for Jackman if you must but see it at home so you can turn it off when you start to feel yourself beginning to need to do whatever it takes to stop the torture.

REASONS TO GO: Hugh Jackman is charismatic and charming. The “different is okay” theme still resonates.
REASONS TO STAY: The songs are generic and awful. There are too many historical liberties taken and the children are an unnecessary distraction. It feels like the writers were flailing around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the costumes used in the film are the property of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and have been actually worn by performers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/518: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chicago
FINAL RATING: 4/10 (all Jackman)
NEXT:
Off the Menu

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Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away 3D


Now there's an umbrella that would be useful in a flood.

Now there’s an umbrella that would be useful in a flood.

(2012) Adventure (Paramount) Erica Linz, Igor Zaripov, Lutz Halibhubner, John Clarke, Benedikt Negro, Dallas Barnett, Matt Gillanders, Tanya Drewery, Sarah Houbolt, Ascia Maybury, Damien Gordon, Zach Brickland, Iren Goed, Jason Berrent, Jeana Blackman. Directed by Andrew Adamson

In the past couple of decades the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil has elevated the traditional circus into something more graceful, more elegant and somewhat surreal. There is a definite European vibe to the Cirque with a bit of a Canadian twist – no animal acts, no sideshows, just graceful and athletic humans performing acts of physical contortion, aerial grace and demanding athleticism while wearing surreal costumes and make-up. Rather than a random collection of acts, each Cirque show has a theme and sometimes even a story that unifies all the acts and makes it an interesting whole.

Over the years the Cirque has spread to Las Vegas with as many as seven different shows playing at various casinos on the Strip. All of the shows were created by the Cirque in theaters largely designed by the Cirque in order to present breathtaking new feats of athleticism. Snippets from all seven shows are presented here, although none from any of the other permanent or touring Cirque shows, including La Nouba at Downtown Disney in Orlando which incidentally I haven’t seen – it’s kind of funny that things you’re willing to do as a tourist you won’t find the time or money for as a resident.

The story line is simple; Mia (Linz), a young waif, goes to a traditional circus where she catches the eye of an Aerialist (Zaripov). When the Aerialist falls from the trapeze during the show, the earth literally swallows him up. When Mia jumps from her seat to go aid the apple of her eye, she is also swallowed up and finds herself in this amazing, surreal universe. She is looking for her aerialist but nobody’s seen him. She passes from tent to tent, each containing an act or two from a different Cirque show. Eventually, she finds him and the two do a kind of aerial balletic courtship.

And that’s an hour and a half of your time, folks, all presented in eye-popping 3D courtesy of producer James Cameron who reportedly was testing some new systems for his upcoming Avatar sequels. For the record, you do get a much closer view of the Cirque performers doing their thing than the audience does. That’s not always a good thing – the costumes and make-up look a lot different from a distance than they do close-up.

Still, while the thematic elements that are part of what make the Cirque shows so compelling are kind of violated by this greatest hits compilation (as it were), it is the Cirque acts themselves that make the show worth seeing. Even close up with their harnesses and wires clearly in view, it doesn’t make what the performers do any less spectacular. Those who haven’t seen a Cirque show will be awed and have their breath taken away and admittedly a movie ticket, even with the 3D upcharge, is much less expensive than purchasing even the cheapest of Cirque tickets.

So as an introduction to the Vegas Cirque shows this gives you a fine overview (although the Elvis Presley themed “Viva Elvis” show at the Aria has since concluded it’s run) although with the caveat that it doesn’t compare to seeing these shows live, even with the advanced 3D. For those who have seen at least one of the Cirque shows this is going to come off like a 90 minute ad and that might not necessarily be what you’re looking for. I would have wished for a more compelling linking sequence and perhaps more elements that were not related to the Vegas shows. Perhaps someday the Cirque will see fit to create a movie that stands on its own with stunts and acts created specifically for the movie. Now that would definitely be worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful music, some occasionally breathtaking acrobatics and a few imaginative sets.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretty much a 90 minute ad for the Vegas Cirque shows.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little sensuality – nothing overt, as well as a few images that might the very young might find scary.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Each of the acts from the Vegas shows were filmed on the stages where they are performed.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Where the Wild Things Are

CIRCUS LOVERS: The early scenes take place in a traditional big top tent and midway of a circus, although in keeping with Cirque du Soleil tradition no animal acts are shown.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Gravedancers

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted


Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Children, if you learn one less from this movie, remember this – Monte Carlo is relatively easy to invade by sea.

(2012) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Frances McDormand, Jessica Chastain, Martin Short, Bryan Cranston, Vinnie Jones, Paz Vega. Directed by Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon

 

I think it’s relatively easy to entertain kids, from the standpoint of animation. I mean, just look at most of the programming on the Cartoon Network; the animation is godawful, the humor gross, and little to recommend it other than it gets kids out of their parents hair for a little while. If my parents had gotten a gander at “The Regular Show” and some of the other more popular shows on the network, they would have chucked the TV out the window but since we lived in a ranch house, my Dad probably just would have taken an axe to the damn thing instead.

While there are some really good animated movies out there (thanks, Pixar) that both parents and children can watch together, there is also a lot of crap as well. For a long time, I put the first to movies of the Madagascar franchise in that category so to say the least, I wasn’t looking forward to the third installment in the series. Boy was I pleasantly surprised.

The renegade zoo animals from the Central Park Zoo – Alex the Lion (Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Rock), Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Smith) – are where we left them at the conclusion of Madagascar: Escape2Africa; stuck in the savannah with the natives while the Penguins have flown the monkey-powered super-plane to Monte Carlo to raise enough cash to get them back to New York. Alex in particular is suffering from homesickness. Even a birthday gift of a mud brick model of the Big Apple doesn’t seem to help.

The four friends decide that the penguins have had long enough to complete their mission and decide that they’ll go to Monte Carlo themselves to find the penguins and take the super-plane back to New York. How did they get to Europe from the African savannah? They walked (presumably) to the coast and then they swam. Snorkeled, actually. No, don’t question it. You’ll only get a headache. Just go with it. Tagging along are King Julian (Cohen), Maurice (Cedric) and Mort (Richter) who are now joined at the hip with the New Yorkers.

Anyway, things go horribly wrong and the appearance of a lion, a zebra, a hippo and a giraffe inside a posh casino causes a bit of a stir. This sets the French animal control expert Captain DuBois (McDormand) – the principality apparently having no animal control of their own that they have to import it from another country – on the case. DuBois has always wanted to mount the head of a lion on her wall to join the other creatures that have crossed her path to complete her collection and she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants, including singing Edith Piaf standards. Yes I know- it’s horrible.

The animals, having hooked up with the penguins and the monkeys, manage to escape the clutches of DuBois but crash the super-plane in the process. Fleeing for their very lives, they manage to sneak aboard a circus train to blend in; Vitaly the Tiger (Cranston), the leader of the circus animals, is reluctant to let them aboard but after Gia the Leopard (Chastain) convinces him that the refugees are indeed circus animals themselves, bolstered by the less-than-smart seal Stefano (Short). The circus has a shot at an American tour if they can impress a promoter in London to finance it. However, the circus has fallen upon hard times the only way to get the animals to New York is to buy the circus from the owner, which the penguins do using their ill-gotten gains at the casino. However, it’s going to take a lot of work to get this circus back in shape. It might be more than even Alex’ can-do attitude can accomplish.

Some of the elements that had left me cold about the first two movies remain – most glaringly, the animation. While I don’t think every CGI animated feature needs to attempt to be photorealistic, this is just plain badly animated. If you think mid-90s videogame style works in the second decade of the 21st century, we really need to have a talk. The animals have few expressions and this looks decidedly dumbed down for the Cartoon Network crowd.

Considering the star power here, the voice acting is fairly by the numbers. Short is a bit over-the-top as Stefano but actually injects a little emotion where it is sorely needed; likewise for Chastain who is a little more subtle than the Canadian comic. It all comes together in the circus sequences which are dream-like, brightly colored, and entertaining (not to mention fun). They are frankly the most enjoyment I’ve gotten in this series, which has been not high on my list of animated features to be honest.

However, the story is a vast improvement over the first two. It gives us a recognizable villain and some conflict. There is also a bit of emotional resonance that was lacking in the first movie. Yes I know kids will be thrilled by the bright colors and blank faces of the talking animals, but for once adults who have to go see it with their progeny won’t be squirming in their seats and checking their watches.

REASONS TO GO: So far, the best of the series. Circus sequences genuinely fun and colorful.

REASONS TO STAY: Animation is still clunky compared to other major franchises.

FAMILY VALUES: While there’s a bit of rude humor and some fairly tame action sequences, otherwise this is plenty fine for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The style of the animal-led circus echoes that of Cirque du Soleil, which features no animals whatsoever.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100. The reviews are mixed but mostly on the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Greatest Show on Earth

EDITH PIAF LOVERS: One of her most beloved songs, “Non, je ne regrette rien” is sung by Captain DuBois to her injured men during the hospital scene, the power of the music healing them of their wounds. It is listed on the official soundtrack as being sung by Frances McDormand but it sounds suspiciously like Piaf singing it.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: JCVD

Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants

Pattinson and Witherspoon may come with their own baggage but the elephant brings her own trunk.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Scott McDonald, James Frain, John Aylward, Sam Anderson. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Be careful what you wish for, or so the old saying goes. Sometimes the things we wish for are the things we can’t have…or perhaps shouldn’t have.

A confused old man (Holbrook) is late coming to the Circus on a rainy night. He is escorted to the office by a sympathetic manager (Schneider) who is amazed to discover that the man worked at the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, when one of the worst disasters in circus history occurred. The old man agrees to set a spell and spin the story.

Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell, about to take his final exams. He is called out of his exam to receive some terrible news; both his parents are dead. To make matters worse, his father had gone deeply in debt to pay for his education; in a split second Jacob has lost everything.

He decides to walk to Albany to seek work but soon tires of walking. When he sees a train coming, he decides to hitch a ride. It turns out to be a circus train and a kindly roustabout named Camel (Norton) takes Jacob under his wing and finds him work. When the head animal trainer and ringmaster, August (Waltz) discovers Jacob’s veterinary experience, he brings him aboard as the circus veterinarian.

His particular charge is Rosie, a 54 year old elephant who is meant to be the star attraction. Jacob also casts his eye towards the beautiful trainer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be married to August. Moreover, August turns out to be a somewhat sadistic and ruthless man who can be charming one moment, psychotic the next, often taking out his rages on the elephant and upon occasion upon Jacob.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Marlena has fallen for the callow young veterinarian and August’s rage defies all bounds. Jacob must find a way to get Marlena away from the clutches of her cruel husband if they are to find happiness – but what he doesn’t know is that the Circus and the people in it are headed for a date with tragedy.

The movie is based on the award-winning novel by Sara Gruen. Director Lawrence (who’s done I Am Legend and Constantine as well as a buttload of music videos) does a real nice job of creating the era and making it look lived-in. This is a terrific looking film, from the gorgeous outdoor shots of the train traveling in moonlit skies, to the seedy looking hotel rooms and flophouses of the towns.

Christoph Waltz made his bones as the villain in Inglourious Basterds and hasn’t looked back since. He is able to project charm and evil in equal amounts, making you at turns sympathetic and repulsed. He won an Oscar as the deranged Nazi in Tarantino’s film and he is nearly as good here, although sadly I somehow doubt he’ll get much Academy consideration.

Witherspoon has also won an Oscar (for Walk the Line) and she does good work here, playing a woman who is a star in her own limited firmament but knows that if she goes elsewhere her star won’t shine quite as brightly. She is in an abusive relationship, walking on eggshells all the time but lacks the self-confidence to believe she deserves better. It’s a marvelous role for Witherspoon and she hasn’t gotten nearly enough kudos for it.

Of the leads Pattinson fares the worst but in a very real way he isn’t in the league of Waltz and Witherspoon just yet. He plays his character as a little bit distant and unreadable. It’s hard to really get behind someone you don’t really relate to, and in many ways Pattinson is so distant that he becomes unrelatable. Doubtlessly legions of his fans from the Twilight series will disagree, but keep in mind he’s very new to the business and as he gets more experience he will be more expressive but here the chemistry with Witherspoon suffers because of it.

There are a few minor blips here and there. The climactic tragedy is a little bit disappointing; it hangs over the movie like the Sword of Damocles and when it finally arrives you hardly realize it’s there. Still, this is a quite good movie, one that at least met my expectations which were reasonably high. It won’t make me want to run right out and join the circus, but it did give me a greater appreciation for elephants.

REASONS TO GO: Waltz is terrific as is Witherspoon. Fascinating story and a nice look at circus life in the Depression.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of cruelty to animals and humans alike.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of extreme violence as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn was originally cast in the part of August but dropped out to be replaced by Waltz.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the scenes look very nice on the big screen but for the most part this is well-suited for the home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Super

MirrorMask


MirrorMask

You should never play charades with wooden penguins.

(Goldwyn) Stephanie Leonidas, Gina McKee, Jason Barry, Rob Brydon, Dora Bryan, Stephen Fry, Simon Harvey, Robert Llewellyn, Eryl Maynard. Directed by Dave McKean

Some of the most amazing graphic novels ever have sprung from the fertile imaginations of writer Neil Gaiman and illustrator Dave McKean. Now, the two are teaming up for a movie of unparalleled visual sense.

Helena (Leonidas) has always dreamed of running away from the circus. Her mother (McKee) and father (Brydon) run a Cirque du Soleil-esque traveling show that manages to make ends meet – just – but it isn’t the life Helena really wants. She is an imaginative girl, who spends every moment she has drawing fantastic images of strange creatures inhabiting a vast city. Her teenage impulses for doing her own thing often bump up against her parents need for her help in the overwhelming job of The Show Must Go On. After a particularly nasty argument with her mother (are there any fights worse than those between mother and daughter?) she ends with the nasty wish that she would be the death of her mother.

A little later on, her mother collapses and Helena’s world is turned upside down. Without her mother’s vital contributions, from taking tickets to her role in the show, the upcoming tour is in jeopardy. The family has never been flush to begin with, and their dwindling savings are setting off alarm bells. While her father is sticking fingers in all sorts of dykes, trying to keep the business from going under, Helena visits her mother, who pops in and out of consciousness. At length, she is told that her mother is going to have a critical operation. Helena goes to sleep, feeling betrayed.

When she wakes, she is in a place that is familiar yet unfamiliar. She meets up with a juggler/con man named Valentine (Barry), but they are interrupted by the onset of shadows, which turns the other performers into crumbling dust. As they escape, Helena realizes that the place she is in is the city she has drawn. Before she can catch her breath, she is whisked away to the palace by a palace guard that travels on stilted legs. While on her way to the palace she realizes that she can see her bedroom through certain windows and, to her shock, herself in it.

A pompous prime minister (Brydon again) who, like all the citizens wears an elaborate mask, informs her that she resembles a young girl who passed herself off as a princess of the dark side of the city, but this young girl had abused the hospitality of the white queen (McKee) and had stolen a charm. Now the white queen sleeps without waking, the balance between the light and the dark has been thrown out of whack and the city on both sides is beginning to fall apart. What is worse is that the spoiled princess has assumed Helena’s place in the real world. Helena must recover the MirrorMask and restore balance to the city and return the princess to the Dark Queen (McKee) and not incidentally, return herself to the real world.

The filmmakers have been forthcoming about being inspired by the world of Jim Henson’s film Labyrinth and the inspiration comes through markedly – in fact, Henson’s creature shop built many of the creatures that inhabit the City. Those who are familiar with McKean’s art will not find the imagery unfamiliar, particularly in the gothic nature of the city and its inhabitants, who sometimes look like a collage of images rather than a single solid idea.

 This is one of the most visually impressive movies I’ve seen, with stunning creations around every corner. The settings recall Victorian England as well as Wiemar Republic Germany with a hint of the worlds of Maurice Sendak and, of course, Jim Henson. This is the sort of movie you’ll want to see several times as there’s no way you can catch all the detail in a single sitting.

The English cast does a solid job but they mostly play second fiddle to the images and sets. The problem here is mainly a pedestrian story, which relies overly much on familiar concepts explored in Labyrinth and Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman whose story it rips off virtually note for note.

Still, one can forgive the “must save mom” maudlin-ness since the real reason for this movie’s existence is to excite your sense of wonder, and it does that in spades. There are times the surreal aspects of the visuals hop on the Dali highway and take off willy-nilly, but since I like Dali it doesn’t phase me much, but those who find surreality acceptable only in small doses, be warned that the dosage here is overwhelming.

WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling, imaginative visuals that are a feast for the eyes and food for the brain. You’ll want to see this more than once but even then you won’t be able to capture everything you see.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit pedestrian and the plot creeps into the maudlin periodically.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images might be too unsettling for younger, more impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: When Helena reaches for the book “The Complete History of Everything” in the library, the book directly beside it is entitled “Muppets in Space” with the title written in the Farscape font. Both are allusions to the Jim Henson Studios, which produced the film Muppets in Space and also the TV show Farscape.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is footage from a Q&A session McKean and Gaiman did about the film at the 2005 San Diego Comicon, as well as an intriguing feature called Day 16 which shows an entire day of filming in time lapse photography.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian