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

Twenty Feet from Stardom


Sweet harmony personified.

Sweet harmony personified.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Radius) Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fisher, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Lynn Mabry, Claudia Lennear, Sheryl Crow, Patti Austin, Gloria Jones, Janice Pendarvis, Stevvi Alexander. Directed by Morgan Neville

Florida Film Festival 2013

We all know the stars. Their faces, their voices, their music. We can hum their songs in our sleep. We don’t always get the full components of what goes into that classic music however. We rarely know who the backup singers are.

This documentary aims to rectify that. Focusing mainly on four African-American women, the movie looks at the importance of back-up singers to popular music of the last say, 50 years or so. There’s Darlene Love, for example, who not only sang leads on a lot of classic songs (“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” comes to mind) but her voice can be heard on some of Phil Spector’s classic hits – as part of The Blossoms, an early girl group she fronted, her powerful voice decorated some of the classic songs of the ’60s. Still, she’s primarily known as playing Danny Glover’s wife on the Lethal Weapon films.

Merry Clayton, like many of the great backup singers the daughter of a preacher, is perhaps best remembered as the female voice on the Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter” for which she was awakened in the middle of the night to do and sang in pajamas and curlers.  She’s sang for some of the biggest names in music and while her face may not be familiar, I guarantee you’ve heard her voice many times.

Lisa Fisher may have the most amazing voice of them all. While much in demand (she has been the Stones’ touring backup vocalist for more than 20 years) she has for the most part shunned a solo career (although she won a Grammy for her lone solo album). She prefers to sing for the simple joy of singing, preferring to remain in the background rather than pursuing the solo career she more than has the talent to achieve.

Judith Hill famously sang at Michael Jackson’s memorial service and is heavily featured in the documentary of the rehearsals for his final tour that never happened due to his untimely death. She writes and performs not only for herself but for other big stars and recently became a contestant on the singing competition The Voice which I would count her a heavy favorite to win it all.

These women and many others like them (and a few men too) may not be well known but they are absolute titans in the industry. The respect that is paid them by the stars who are interviewed is palpable and as is mentioned by Claudia Lennear during the film, most people when they’re singing along to a song are singing what the backup singers are singing.

I will confess to having been a music critic for nearly a dozen years in the San Francisco Bay Area and like most people – critics included – I kind of took the contributions of these amazing singers for granted. One of the best thing this movie does is break down the importance of the background singers in the song. One stark illustration of this is found when ”Gimme Shelter” is played with the tracks removed one at a time until only Clayton’s vocal track remains. It’s a very simple yet effective reminder of the power of the human voice.

The human connection through music is universal. There are those who feel a particular passion for it and have the talent and the desire to express themselves through their music. Some of them make it and some of them don’t regardless of how good they are – it’s largely a matter of luck and timing. For my money, regardless of the fame and fortune these ladies and others like them have gathered (or lack thereof) they are every one of them stars in my book. If you love rock and roll or hell, any sort of pop music, you owe it to yourself to see this. It will change your outlook on music – in a good way – forever.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and spiritually uplifting. Everything a documentary should be.

REASONS TO STAY: If musical documentaries don’t interest you…

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few swear words and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Gil Friesen, the former head of A&M records, came up with the idea and title after attending a Leonard Cohen show with his friend Jimmy Buffett. Unfortunately, Friesen passed away shortly before the film debuted at Sundance earlier this year.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film has appeared at Sundance but won’t see theatrical release until June 14th but frankly, I don’t see critics not falling in love with this early Oscar contender.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young @ Heart

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Nancy, Please and more from the 2013 Florida Film Festival

Young @ Heart


A Chorus Line

A Chorus Line

(2007) Documentary (Fox Searchlight) Joe Benoit, Helen Boston, Fred Knittle, Jeanne Hatch, Louise Canady, Jean Florio, Steve Martin, Eileen Hall, Donald Jones, Stan Goldman, Elaine Fligman, Brock Lynch, Ed Rehor, Bob Salvini, Norma Landry, Bob Cilman, Stephen Walker. Directed by Stephen Walker and Ruth George

Every day we grow older. Days pile upon days and become weeks, months, years. We grow older. We lose that youthful glow, the spring in our step becomes creaky and our hair turns silver, white or disappears entirely. Our skin becomes blotchy. Our aches and pains become the central reality of our lives. We watch those we grew up with one by one pass away. Our children have children; our grandchildren have children.

It is reality that we move toward old age throughout life, some more gracefully than others. Those that arrive there have a dilemma; to stay active, to keep their minds and bodies occupied, or to sit down, eat their pudding and wait for the night they go to sleep and don’t wake up the next morning.

There is a chorus based in Northampton, Massachusetts at the Walter Salvo Rest House, a housing project for the elderly. Members must be at least 70 years of age and the average age is above 80. You would think a chorus of this age would choose musical selections that fit their age group.

But that would not be the case here. Under the direction of Bob Cilman, this amazing group of people are performing contemporary songs by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Allen Toussaint, James Brown, Coldplay and the Talking Heads. The attitude of the chorus is a collective Why not? and they bring such joy and spirit to this music it reminds me of the adage that you’re only as old as you choose to be.

It isn’t always easy; some of the song choices prove to be a little tricky, like “Yes You Can-Can” which at one time has the word “can” sung 71 in a short span. It’s not easy for anyone to get the staccato rhythmic repetitions and at times it’s clear that Cilman gets exasperated as do the singing seniors. Still they soldier on and some of these songs take on an especially poignant meaning.

We get glimpses of their daily lives; some alone and ignored whose lives seem to begin and end with the chorus, which shares it’s name with the movie – Young @ Heart. Others seem more sociable, like Joe Benoit who hangs out with other members of the chorus and never met a pun he didn’t like. Eileen Hall, the eldest of the bunch singing into her 90s, has a brassy demeanor.

But this isn’t all about plucky seniors singing songs that were written when they were well into their 70s; two members of the chorus pass away during the course of the movie, including one just a week before the big concert at a theater in Northampton that the group has been preparing for throughout the movie. For the first, they sing “Forever Young” at a prison concert which is a bit of a rehearsal shortly before the big show.

The second member was to have performed a duet with retired member and close friend Fred Knittle who was on oxygen and was no longer able to tour with the chorus. Knittle comes out on stage and sits down. Once the applause dies down, he starts singing the song he was to have performed with his friend – Coldplay’s “Fix You.” Knittle’s baritone is a little rough but it is a beautiful, soaring voice nonetheless. The emotion behind the song and the release it provokes not only in the audience at the concert but in the viewer of the movie takes one’s breath away. This one moment, not quite four minutes long, made this the best film of 2008 for me (although it premiere on the film festival circuit in 2007, the movie didn’t get a release in the United States until the following year).

The movie was originally a documentary on the BBC and in the manner of Beeb documentaries the narration from filmmaker Stephen Walker could be overbearing, smug and intrusive. He also interrupts the movie to play some mock videos of songs that the chorus was singing including “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads.

What the movie really does well is change your outlook on aging. It’s not a pleasant reality that we’re all going to get old assuming we survive long enough to get there. However, it doesn’t have to be an awful thing. We don’t stop living when we start dying. Sometimes that’s just when we start living. This is definitely a film that I can recommend without hesitation to anyone and everyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazingly powerful and thoroughly charming. A film that might just change your outlook on aging.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Were the videos really necessary? Walker’s voiceovers could have been less intrusive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some of the thematic elements might be a bit too heavy for younger viewers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The mock-video for David Bowie’s “Golden Years” was filmed at Six Flags New England and at the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a five minute clip of the chorus performing in Los Angeles.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.1M on an unknown production budget;  I would guess the movie was a resounding box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocoon

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Tekken

The Great Buck Howard


The Great Buck Howard

Colin Hanks and Emily Blunt are blissfully ignorant that Steve Zahn just grabbed John Malkovich's privates.

(2008) Comedy (Magnolia) John Malkovich, Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, Ricky Jay, Tom Hanks, Steve Zahn, Griffin Dunne, Debra Munk, Wallace Langham, Adam Scott, George Takei. Directed by Sean McGinley

Show biz is heroin. It gets into the system and stays there, mercilessly demanding the entire attention of the poor sap who gets addicted to it, until there is nothing left but a chewed-out husk. Once in awhile, it brings the seductive allure of success and acclaim, but more often than not, disappointment and obscurity.

Buck Howard (Malkovich) is a mentalist (don’t call him a magician unless you want to be chewed out and humiliated) who has 61 appearances on the Tonight Show – the real one, the one with Johnny Carson hosting, not the one with that Leno fellow. However, since his heyday Buck has fallen on hard times, taking his act to smaller and less glamorous venues, but with the never-say-die attitude of a true show biz trooper, cries out in every Podunk Berg he plies his trade in, “I love this town!!” followed by “I love you people!” Both are about as heartfelt as a 10-year-old saying he didn’t eat the cookies.

Howard is in need of a new road manager, and he gets one in the form of Troy Gable (Colin Hanks), who has left law school in search of something more meaningful, much to the dismay of his dad (Tom Hanks, Colin’s real-life pa). Troy quickly discovers that Buck’s unctuous charm is a mask that hides a bitter man who refuses to admit that his best days are behind him, yet is deeply afraid that it is so. He resolutely soldiers on, a relic in a time of extreme street magic and wacky comic magicians, wearing a tux and warbling “What the World Needs Now” in a say-singing manner at the piano. Once upon a time he would have felt right at home with Steve and Edie. Hell, maybe he did.

Buck realizes he needs to jump-start his career and decides to take on a stunt guaranteed to get attention; but at the moment of his triumph, it all comes crumbling down when the reporters in attendance leave to get on a bigger story – a minor traffic accident involving Jerry Springer.

But such is the netherworld that the has-been exists in, a purgatory of missed opportunities and that oh-so-close taste of the brass ring that is never completely swallowed. Yet Buck becomes hip in spite of himself and when a Vegas show opens up for him, the show biz Gods have an even crueler fate in store for him.

McGinley based the movie on his own experiences as road manager for the Amazing Kreskin years ago. Hopefully, Kreskin was nicer than Buck is; Malkovich plays him as a diva with anger management issues, fixing his minions with withering glares and outbursts of vitriol that would do Gordon Ramsay proud.

The younger Hanks goes for a kind of hangdog performance, making Troy both victim and enabler. His romance with publicist Valerie (Brennan) is sad and ultimately distracting, but it is his relationship with Buck that centers the movie. While you get the sense that Troy is meant for bigger and better things, Buck also senses it and in a sense, envies him – and in the end finds his own vicarious success through Troy.

The movie’s pacing is somewhat deliberate; those who like their jokes rapid-fire may find this annoying. For my part, I found it refreshing that the filmmakers chose to take their time and establish atmosphere and characters, allowing audiences access to the movie’s heart. To my way of thinking, that’s much more gratifying than being assaulted by one gag after another.

This is not glamorous in the least; it’s about the vast majority of those who go into show biz with some dream of success and wind up sorely disappointed. In Buck’s case, that success was there for awhile but like a fickle lover, moved on to the next flavor of the week, leaving Buck to wallow in memory trying to recapture something that never can be truly kept.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie has a real sense of fun and looks at a less glamorous side of the business. Hanks and Malkovich make a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie takes it’s time which may not sit well with audiences used to much faster-paced comedies.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some language issues, as well as a sexual and drug reference or two, but by and large acceptable for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck is depicted as appearing on MTV’s TRL show, which had been canceled between the time the movie was filmed and when it was released.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a small featurette on the Amazing Kreskin whose real-life exploits were the loose inspiration for Buck.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $900K on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Skyline

My Life in Ruins


My Life in Ruins

Is it just me or is Nia Vardalos looking like a young Kirstie Alley?

(Fox Searchlight) Nia Vardalos, Richard Dreyfus, Harland Williams, Rachel Dratch, Maria Adanez, Maria Botto, Alexis Georgoulis, Sheila Bernette, Alistair MacGowan, Bernice Stegers. Directed by Donald Petrie

Life is meant to be lived to the fullest. Too many of us find ourselves spectators in our own story. Sometimes it takes a trip to where civilization began to find out what it means to be human.

Georgia (Vardalos) is an unemployed history professor who has been reduced to being a tour guide for the low-rent Pangloss Tours in Athens – the Greek one, for my readers in the Deep South. She has no life to speak of, her romantic life is a series of miscalculations and full-on bad ideas that have left her lonely and cynical.

Her passion is history and she yearns to pass on that passion for Greek culture, history and traditions to her tourists, but in all honesty she tends to be a bit of a priggish bore and her attempts at humor are right up there with the comic stylings of Al Gore. To make matters worse, she is almost always given the worst tour groups, while her rival Nico (MacGowan) always gets the energetic Canadian group that tips like they just won the lottery.

This trip she is saddled with a couple of beer-soaked Aussies, a kleptomaniac Brit (Bernette), a pair of man-hungry Spanish divorcees (Adanez and Botto), a boorish American couple (Williams, Dratch), a snooty English family, a boring American businessman and an earnest but geeky backpacker. Oh, and there’s also Irv (Dreyfus), an American retiree who punctuates everything with a joke like a Borscht Belt comic run amok. Their tour bus is driven by a shaggy, taciturn Greek named Poupi Kakas (Georgoulis). When his name is first introduced, I just knew I was in for a yuckfest.

Things go predictably badly. The group is not enamored of Georgia’s academic approach and is more interested in shopping for trinkets, frolicking on the beach and drinking in whatever taverna they can find on the road than in poking about yet another set of ancient ruins. Georgia is beside herself. It looks like yet another low rating for her and she is absolutely miserable. She decides this tour will be her last, but a funny thing happens on the way to the unemployment line; she discovers her inner Greek. She learns to take pleasure in life. She finds the soul within Irv who becomes something of a Delphic Oracle to the group (and no, that’s not a lesbian laptop…ba dum BUMP). She will also find the romance she’s been seeking in the form of Poupi, who after a shave and a haircut is transformed from the Unabomber to the cover of a Harlequin Romance paperback.

Nia Vardalos, who was so engaging, charming and funny in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is all that here, and 40 pounds slimmer too. She looks spectacular, but all the charm in the world can’t save this script. It’s full of ethnic stereotypes (shifty Greek merchants, boozy Australians, obnoxious Americans etc.) and rote romantic comedy plot points, making it too full for a whole lot of humor. Vardalos probably should have checked director Petrie’s resume – which includes Grumpy Old Men, My Favorite Martian and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – before signing up for this; Petrie seems to be a competent enough director, but his movies rarely rise far above mediocrity.

The scenery is gorgeous, although you will see much the same kind of thing in the average travel video. Greece has a particular charm that casts a spell on all who have ever been there; the movie at least captures the concept of it but not the charm itself. Dreyfus gamely gives Irv the best moments in the movie, and while he really doesn’t have a whole lot to work with (like the predictable Viagra jokes – hoo haw!) he at least is a seasoned pro, enough to make a nylon purse out of a sow’s ear.

I really do like Nia Vardalos as a performer, as does Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson who bankrolled this (as they did My Big Fat Greek Wedding). She can make you fall right in love with her and her Hellenic tendencies when given the right material. Unfortunately, this ain’t it. I can truthfully say it’s far better than the truly awful I Hate Valentine’s Day which was so bad I chose not to review it, but that’s not saying much at all. I can give it a mild recommendation but that’s all; there are far better tours of Greece than the one Vardalos gives here, even after her character gets her mojo back.

WHY RENT THIS: Vardalos is charming and the Greek countryside does weave a certain magic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script is very paint-by-numbers and the humor is hit or miss.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a smattering of sexuality and language but for the most part is okay for general audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ian Gomez, who plays the creepy hotel clerk, is Nia Vardalos’ real-life husband.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The featurette “Everybody Loves Poupi” re-edits some of Georgoulis’ scenes to give him romantic interest in, well, everybody.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer