Posts Tagged B-rated films

The Greatest Showman

Year of Release: 2017      Directed by Michael Gracey.   Starring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, and Rebecca Ferguson.

The Greatest Showman is a refreshing breath of fresh air: a musical that unapologetically follows the expected beats and traditional formula of a musical, and shows why that formula and those tropes were so successful at creating the genre in the first place.

The thoroughly modern score composed by songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, best known for the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, is equally unapologetic in its use of contemporary music styles for a story that takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century, and the film is the stronger for it. The central premise of The Greatest Showman is that showbusiness is meant to bring joy to the audience, and the distinctively modern score makes that joy apparent regardless of the century in which the story occurs.

“The Greatest Show” is a spectacular opening number, inviting us to enjoy the musical that is to follow while showcasing some top-notch choreography. We then flashback to learn about Barnum’s impoverished childhood, desire to prove himself better than the wealthy, and his love for Charity Hallett – all through “A Million Dreams,” a memorable, time-eclipsing “I want” song that sets the conflict in motion for the musical. The melody reoccurs as underscoring at crucial moments when something happens to affect the outcome of those dreams.

“The Other Side” moves the plot forward with a delightful song and dance between Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, as the former works his salesmanship on his new acquaintance. “Rewrite the Stars” is a touching love duet with some poignant choreography. And as the anthem of the circus “freaks,” “This Is Me,” is a powerful redirection and critique of society’s prejudices, many of which are harbored by Barnum himself.

Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum is certainly whitewashed from the historical person, but the film acknowledges his unhealthy desire and obsession with proving the wealthy socialites wrong about his worth. And more importantly, it does not hide his prejudices toward the star attractions of his circus – happy to exploit them for profit, but still hesitant to welcome them fully into his life.

However, the act of bringing the marginalized into the spotlight gives them the ability to sing “This Is Me,” and having that song as the thematic climax rewrites the story away from Barnum’s “A Million Dreams.” The film suggests that Barnum’s motives were a mix of altruism and personal profit, and it’s possible to say the film comes down too heavily on the altruistic side, but the power of that song is undeniable.

Director Michael Gracey has a natural flair for staging musical numbers, knowing how to cut and edit them to make the performers look their best and how to highlight the movement we should focus on. (This is a stark contrast and welcome relief to the obnoxiously distracting single-take musical numbers of La La Land and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables).

Among the cast, Jackman stands out as the ringleader of the ensemble, but Michelle Williams gives wonderful support as his wife Charity – trusting and supporting her husband until his obsession gets in the way of his commitment to their marriage and family. Zac Efron proves himself an equal screen partner for Jackman, and Zendaya, Keala Settle, and Sam Humphrey stand out among the stars of the circus. A subplot involving Rebecca Ferguson as the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind is probably the clumsiest thread of the film, where the gears notably shift, and not particularly smoothly, but it sets up the final act very nicely.

Despite the horrific trailers, The Greatest Showman delivered much of the joy that musicals were initially created to give to an audience. The take on Barnum is simplistic, but it still acknowledges his success and how that changed the lives of others, bringing joy to his audiences and his performers. And the film’s greatest success is capturing a sense of that joy for audiences today.

 

Personal Recommendation: B

Content Advisory: Some brief, but menacing depictions or racism, an act of arson, contemplated infidelity.                MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up

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War for the Planet of the Apes

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Matt Reeves.                   Starring Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Karin Konoval, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, and Toby Kebbel.

Andy Serkis has described War for the Planet of the Apes as a film about the battle for Caesar’s soul, and that is the war which consumes most of the action in this film. The fighting between apes and humans which began in the prior film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, takes a backseat where both species, either as individuals or as a whole, live or die according to their own choices.

In a film where the outcome is predetermined – because the trilogy which War concludes serves as a prequel to a world where humans have died out and apes have inherited the planet – diverting the heart of the action from an apes versus humans standoff is a wise choice. That way we can feel the tragedy of humanity’s extinction without rooting for either side to eliminate the other. This is a stark contrast and improvement from the first film of this trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where all the humans were either forgettable, clichéd good guys who could die off without any sense of loss or insufferable monsters whom any normal person would want the apes to destroy.

However, the second film, Dawn, changed that by showing the best and worst of both humans and apes, and by pitting Caesar (the leader of the chimps played by Andy Serkis) against Koba, (Toby Kebbel) an ape consumed with hatred toward humans for the abusive experiments they had carried out on him. Koba’s ghost continues to haunt Caesar after an early tragedy in War reveals to Caesar that he has a capacity for the same level of hatred. If the primary conflict in the last film was ape versus ape, here it is ape versus self.

Caesar’s internal wrestling with rage, along with the consequences of the choices he makes as a result, weakens the Moses figure he otherwise is to the apes, who are trying to pass through a desert to their own promised land in order to escape slavery or death at the hands of desperate humans willing to attempt anything in order to survive.

Here, there is very little good to be found in humanity who given themselves over to fear and anger in their desperation to survive. The worst of man is personified by Woody Harrelson’s Colonel who views himself as fighting a holy war for the survival of humanity not only against apes, but also against a new strand of the virus which killed millions of humans while increasing apes’ strength and intelligence, and against other humans who disagree with his extreme methods. The Colonel is the leader of the villains, much as Koba was in the last film, but as there was with Koba, there is a scene where we learn the source of his anger and extreme methods, making him, if not sympathetic, at least pitiable.

Like many fanatics, the Colonel is religiously driven: crucifying apes, blessing his soldiers with the sign of the cross, appropriating the U.S. national anthem in a borderline idolatrous way, painting alpha and omega symbols on the American flag, and carving them onto apes he’s convinced to serve him. It’s certainly possible that the alpha and omega were chosen to reflect the simultaneous end of humanity and rise of the apes, but the religious connotations of those Greek letters can hardly be overlooked in light of the other symbols.

When the Colonel finally has his main confrontation with Caesar, his rationalization is a perversion of love, which has taken a good thing (protection of humanity) and twisted it to justify any atrocity needed for that end. It reminded me of what C. S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves regarding unhealthy patriotism that “can very easily borrow the transcendent claims of [Heavenly Society] and use them to justify the most abominable actions.” (The Four Loves, p. 38)

“I may without self-righteousness or hypocrisy think it just to defend my house by force against a burglar; but if I start pretending that I blacked his eye purely on moral grounds – wholly indifferent to the fact that the house in question was mine – I become insufferable.” (The Four Loves, p. 37)

The Colonel has passed from insufferable to monstrous, and when Caesar witnesses that, he sees his rage taking him down that path as well. Thus, it is fitting that the ape versus man conflict between Caesar and the Colonel forms a smaller part in Caesar’s own struggle that drives the film.

Ministering to Caesar’s better nature is his oldest surviving friend the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) who finds a peculiar child (Amiah Miller) who personifies one of the Colonel’s fears and reminds Caesar about the costs of violence. All the themes tie together pretty obviously, and at times, the film is a little heavy-handed and the pacing a little too drawn out, but as an examination that twists the traditional revenge tale it succeeds very well.

As a chronicle of how the apes inherited this planet, War for the Planet of the Apes serves as the strongest installment of the trilogy which began with humans cutting corners for the sake of profits and science and culminated with them cutting ethical corners to engage in acts which made them more brutal than the beasts they feared. It’s unquestionably tragic, but Matt Reeves’ film treats it with the solemnity it deserves, while never forgetting to remind us of the more peaceful outcome that was sadly rejected in favor of violence.

 

 

Personal Recommendation: B

Content advisory: Gun violence, ape fights, some mild gore, an implied off-screen euthanasia, torture of apes.                 MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up.

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The Wall

Year of release: 2017              Directed by Doug Liman.                   Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena, and Laith Nakli.

Two soldiers, a sniper, and a crumbling stone wall. As Scott Renshaw pointed out, this scenario basically writes and films itself, which makes the occasional stumbles all the more frustrating. Even with those stumbles, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow) does a good job of milking this premise, crafting a tense thriller in which a cat and mouse game is set against the backdrop of the “won” Iraq War.

Criticism of the Iraq War and the notion that there could be any victory from that mess abounds throughout the film. The first title card tells us in 2007 the USA declared victory and the war was over, but the irony and dishonesty of that claim is highlighted by the opening shot of two soldiers camouflaged as they observe an oil pipeline where soldiers had been ambushed by an attack. Later, when the sniper hacks their radio signal, he asks them what they’re still doing in his country if the war is over. Finally, the closing shot will remain one of the most surprising conclusions of any film this year, and it strongly reinforces the notion that the Iraq War is unwinnable.

The film’s politics are unmistakable, but they are never heavy handed, and they provide added tension to the confrontation between Sgt. Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the unseen sniper (Laith Nakli). Less successful is the backstory for Sgt. Isaac which is hinted at throughout the film, but when it’s made explicit in the last act, it comes across as a half-baked attempt at guilt and trauma which adds nothing to the psychological and physical standoff between the soldier and the sniper.

The other major misstep of the film is the scriptwriter Dwain Worrell’s decision to make the sniper a genius psychopath more knowledgeable than Hannibal Lecter who knows everything going on inside Isaac’s head, has orchestrated his plan to the last unexpected detail, and is fazed by literally nothing. Eventually, the characterization begins to approach caricature.

However, the cat and mouse game is largely successful due to the commitment of the actors and Liman’s skilled directing. At ninety minutes, the film moves along briskly even as it never changes location. I questioned the wisdom of a couple cuts to the sniper’s point of view – they really dissipated the tension – but otherwise, the editing brilliantly redirects our attention from the one soldier to the other, to the wall, to the corpses scattered around the pipeline, and to any possible location of the sniper. Liman knows precisely where to place the camera to achieve a balance between knowing what is happening and feeling just disoriented enough to share in the soldiers’ confusion and discomfort.

The Wall doesn’t make the most of its premise, but it gets enough out of it to be an engaging and thoughtful thriller with a worthwhile cross examination of the costs of invading Iraq, and Doug Liman proves his chops for directing action sequences once again.

 

Personal Recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Frequent obscene language, intense violence, including brief but graphic images of bullet wounds.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

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Beauty and the Beast

Year of release: 2017                Directed by Bill Condon.                Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Audra McDonald.

 

That Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s latest live action adaptation of one of their animated classics, works as well as it does, is an impressive testament to the power and beauty of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score, which is the main star of this movie.

After the success of the live action updates of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon, it was only a matter of time before Beauty and the Beast received the same treatment, especially considering there already was a successful Broadway musical based on the 1991 animated film. However, considering those three aforementioned films all notably broke with their far less than perfect predecessors, the 1991 animated Best Picture nominee is in many people’s opinion (including my own) the finest work of art that Disney has ever produced. As might be expected, director Bill Condon’s excessive reverence for the original results in a copying of the source material, which inevitably pales in comparison.

I do not mean to suggest that this Beauty and the Beast is bad; for the most part, I more or less enjoyed it, as needless as it was. The production design is exquisite; the cast is solid; and of course, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score sounds great with any decent performers.

In my mind, the biggest problem is that in addition to the unoriginal copying of the animated film, down to camera movements and costume design, is that the few times this film does break away and introduce something new, those changes are rarely for the better.

For instance, the film opens by acting out the entire prologue in which the Prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed and transformed into the Beast. While we get to see some lovely set design and hear Audra McDonald sing (more on that momentarily), seeing the Beast as a Prince undermines his ability to frighten us by turning him into something of a deserving victim. The notion that he’s a real monster, not just a monstrous person, heightens the Stockholm Syndrome element of the fairytale, and it also makes both his ultimate transformation and Belle’s heroism more dramatically satisfying.

Even the one good change from the original is undermined by later changes that should have been rejected in early drafts of the script, never mind being shot. Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Belle (Emma Watson) have a wonderfully supportive and intelligent relationship which starkly contrasts the bumbling old crackpot whom Belle supports in the original. However, in this film there is no possibility for the townspeople to say, “Crazy old Maurice,” which inspires Gaston’s devious plot to force Belle’s hand in marriage. Nonetheless, the film is beholden to that plot point, and the way in which it is now set up necessitates other changes to the original which are so evil and sinister that they seem jarringly out of place in a fairytale geared toward family audiences. To make things worse, those changes occur two scenes before the title number, which really impacts our ability to enjoy the gorgeously lush song.

Regarding the performance of the title song, Emma Thompson has an excellent voice, and while she unfortunately has to stand in the shadow of Angela Lansbury’s iconic performance, she proved herself capable of that when she played Mrs. Lovett in the NY Philharmonic production of Sweeney Todd three years ago. The more striking change, at least for me, was the decision to change the key of the song from the warm and rich D-flat major of the original to a cooler and higher pitched E-flat major. That’s the biggest difference, and probably the main reason many people will say the song is has less emotion here than it does in the original.

As to the rest of the cast, everyone gives their roles their all, even if all of them are outperformed by their counterparts in the original. Emma Watson is a fine singer, but she notably has the weakest voice of the entire cast, which is a little bit of a problem, considering she’s the lead. Her feminist portrayal of Belle comes across effortlessly. As Gaston, Luke Evans has a surprisingly good tenor, which is a notable change from Richard White’s baritone, and Evans makes the bullying malevolence of the villain even more apparent. Josh Gad’s fairly sympathetic portrayal of Le Fou is another break with the original, as is his overhyped “gay moment,” which consists of three fleeting sight gags about trite stereotypes.

The staff of the castle gives enjoyable vocal performances, even if their character design lacks imagination compared to the castle itself. Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) is a fitting curmudgeon, Ewan McGregor (Lumiere) has so much zeal in his performance that he overcomes his goofy French accent. Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) is enough of a comforting presence without copying Lansbury. Audra McDonald (the wardrobe) has by far and away the best voice of everyone (as to be expected), and it is a massively missed opportunity that she only has two brief verses to sing.

Finally, as the Prince and the Beast, Dan Stevens’ performance definitely lands more on the prince side of the character, which I think is problematic, because it weakens his transformation. Stevens has a very good baritone, and his performance of the Beast’s new solo, “Evermore” by Menken and Tim Rice, is haunting and beautiful. That performance, coupled with Josh Groban’s rendition over the end credits makes me fairly confident in saying that song will win the Oscar for best original song. It’s also a pretty great song which naturally fits into the original score.

As much as I would want to resent this film for being an uninspired attempt to replicate the original when there were so many possibilities to take this fairytale in a new direction, there’s enough good material that I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that the film was a mostly enjoyable rendition of the tale as old as time, even if it can’t hold a candle to Disney’s animated masterpiece.

 

Personal recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: A couple risqué sight gags, intense scenes of peril and menace.           MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up

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Maggie’s Plan

Year of release: 2016    Directed by Rebecca Miller.   Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Bill Hader, Travis Fimmel, and Maya Rudolph.

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Portraying different perspectives can be difficult in film. In writing the technique is natural – the author just switches to a different narrative voice. However, a film’s story is primarily told through the camera, which usually acts as a sort of third person observer, independent from the limited perspective of a specific character. One of the most remarkable aspects of Maggie’s Plan is the way director/writer Rebecca Miller shifts the narrative perspective from that of the titular protagonist to an independent third person observer over the course of the film.

The first act of the film is told from the perspective of Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig with her typical awkward charm and effervescence. Since Maggie is headstrong and somewhat blinded by her determination, she sees the world in clear terms of black and white. As a result, her friends and acquaintances appear almost as caricatures, or slightly too much for the story – a criticism she levels at her lover John’s (Ethan Hawke) novel.

However, after an unexpected shift coupled with a chronological jump of a few years, the narrative perspective of the film pulls back to that of an independent observer and allows us to see all the characters as they are. Maggie is determined, organized, and very optimistic, but she is also a control freak, or “bossypants,” as called by her friends’ young son. Ethan Hawke’s John is an accomplished scholar and lecturer, but something of a man-child and a workaholic as well. John’s wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) first appears as an oppressive witch, but as we learn more about her, her strong will is mitigated by her compassion and concern for her family.

MV5BNjUzMDgyODE0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTMzMjc2ODE@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_In order to fully reflect the shifting narrative perspectives, the actors subtly alter their performances. When we first meet Georgette, Moore speaks with an over-the-top accent for the shrewish foreign wife. That accent naturally mellows as the audience sees her from a perspective other than Maggie’s. With her seamless fluctuation between stony and sensitive, Moore nearly steals the movie. When Maggie is infatuated with John, his immature ticks come across as cute, but Hawke makes those ticks more exaggerated when we are meant to see him as less mature than we initially thought.

Maggie herself is highly organized, independent, and seemingly in charge of her life. The film opens with her planning to become a single mom via artificial insemination and avoid the pitfalls of a romance. Her best friends (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph) express some hesitance at her headstrong confidence that everything will go exactly as she wants, but she shrugs them off because she knows she is in control. As Maggie’s manipulative scheming makes a mess not only of her life, but John’s and his family’s as well, the irony of the control freak masterminding a scenario in which she has no control is highly apparent. I particularly appreciated the honesty of the film in depicting the pain and difficulty caused by divorce, affairs, and artificial insemination.

My biggest complaint is that the ending ties all the plot points together too neatly. While I appreciate the ending’s inclusion of a character who had been out of the film until then, the simple solution it offered undermined the messy consequences that the characters had all learned to live with. As a result, it returned to the too-muchness of the beginning when we only saw characters via Maggie’s perspective.

Maggie is another successful creation of Gerwig’s. She may not be as strong and as loveable and funny as Gerwig’s recent collaborations with Noah Baumbach, but Gerwig’s naturally joyful persona successfully anchors this story about learning to let go of control, and she’s bolstered by strong performances from the rest of the cast as well.

 

 

Content Advisory: Brief sexual activity with partial nudity, frank discussion of artificial insemination including a non-graphic depiction of the procedure, and casual rough language throughout.               MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: B

 

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