(On Cable TV, October 2018) Don’t tell anyone else on the internet, but I have a special place in my cinephile’s heart for the kind of big brash musicals that Hollywood almost doesn’t make any more. From the get-go, The Greatest Showman sets high expectations with an eye-popping circus-and-dance number that clearly tells us that we’re not going to watch an attempt at mimetic realism. Hugh Jackman is known for his singing and dancing prowess on-stage, but little of this ever made it on the big screen until now. (let’s forget about Les Misérables…) Fortunately, The Greatest Showman makes the best use of his affable persona in telling a highly romanced version of P. T. Barnum’s life story. Most movies reflect the obsessions and values of their times, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that a 2017 retelling of Barnum’s life would focus on themes of anti-discrimination and empowerment, ennobling those who—in earlier days—would have been presented as freaks. Nobody will be surprised to learn that the real-life Barnum was far more complex than the amiable huckster-who-learns-better from the movie—after all, much like Barnum’s marks, we’re here for the show and what’s a little mutually agreed-upon film-flammery if we’re decently entertained? It helps that the musical numbers are usually as broad and brash as the film requires—I particularly liked “The Other Side” with its synchronized use of diegetic sounds in a context that goes from reality to fantasy in a blink, and, of course, both “The Greatest Show” as meant to be the marquee song and “This is me” as the power empowerment ballad. Jackman is great in the title role, fully able to do the big song-and-dance routines he was pining for. Michelle Williams is adequate in a supporting role, although Zac Efron proves better than expected in a role that, after all, goes back to his teenage-heartthrob musical roots. Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya and Keala Settle all seize their chance to shine in smaller roles. We can certainly quibble about the deviations from the historical record (or should we, given the film’s clear and early refusal to be realistic?) and the way that a proudly diverse cast ends up validating a white businessman’s life, but the film works really well in its chosen musical genre. At barely 105 minutes, The Greatest Showman focuses on the razzle-dazzle more than that rather simplistic plot and it works well enough to sustain the film. Director Michael Gracey does well in his first feature film. During the credit sequence, pay attention to the corners of the title cards for extra jokes.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) By now, Sofia Coppola’s female-centric, soft gauze, slow-pacing, contemplative style almost defies parody. But it happens to be the correct approach for this remake of The Beguiled, in which a wounded soldier comes to rest at an isolated house entirely peopled by women. The presence of a man in an otherwise all-female environment is a recipe for disaster, and the film follows this to the expected conclusion. Hugh Jackman is featured as the soldier, but he’s outclassed by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. It’s not much of a story, but it’s deliberately told with plenty of atmosphere. It may not be to everyone’s liking, but it’s competent and daring enough to create discussions as to who, if anyone, was in the right here. I’d like to have more to say about it, but The Beguiled is the kind of film that can only be taken in, not picked apart.
(On TV, November 2017) I’m usually a good audience for romantic comedies and science-fiction movies, but Kate & Leopold falls flat in ways that have to do with an incompetent blending of genres. Even as a time-travel romance (a surprisingly robust category), it falls short. It really doesn’t help that Hugh Jackman signed up to play an essentially perfect character, plucked from history to serve as a romantic partner for an incredibly bland heroine played by Meg Ryan back when Meg Ryan was the it-girl for any romantic comedy. While I can understand Jackman’s enthusiasm for a role in which he is flawless, it doesn’t make for good cinema. Kate & Leopold’s romantic aspect seems rote and featureless, while the time-travel elements scarcely make sense. Not only does it have to do with falling through temporal anomalies by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge (!), there is something deeply dumb about elevators not running properly because their inventor has travelled to the present. By the time hero and heroine travel back in time for good, we can barely muster up enough energy to formulate a perfunctory “I give them six months … or really I give her a year before she’s dead.” To be fair, little of the film’s flaws have to do with its lead actors: Jackman is charming no matter the situation, while Liev Schreiber gets an oddball role as a nerd matchmaker far removed from the tough-guy persona he has since developed. (Amusingly enough, look closely and you’ll see Kristen Schaal, Viola Davis and Natasha Lyonne in very small roles.) While it’s worth remembering that romantic comedies aren’t really watched for plotting or even logical consistency, Kate & Leopold does very little in more crucial matters of characters, dialogue, comedy or struggles to outweigh its serious narrative issues. As a result, it feels both flat and insubstantial—with very little to make it worthwhile except for Jackman coasting with a flawless character performance.
(Video On-Demand, July 2017) The X-Men series has been inconsistent lately, so it’s both a surprise and not a surprise to see Logan end up in the top tier of superhero movies. This third and far superior third volume in the incoherent Wolverine trilogy dares to provide an end for one of its iconic characters. It may be rebooted in a future film, but who cares: Logan is self-contained, definitive and exceptionally well-handled as a mournful future western with low and personal stakes rather than a save-the-world blockbuster. Hugh Jackman is, as usual, quite good as Wolverine—this installment asks him to do far more from an emotional standpoint as one of the last mutants on an Earth that is glad to see them gone, far less powerful than ever before as his healing capabilities are slow to regenerate after fights. For writer/director James Mangold, this is a bit of a quiet triumph, departing from the usual superhero clichés in order to dig deep into the human condition. The action sequences are perfunctory, the future barely sketched (although with some nice background detail, such as driverless trucks) and the film does rely quite a bit on previous material … but it’s well packaged and strikingly different at a time when even major superhero spectacles feel like rote repetition. Logan takes the superhero genre in a different and welcome direction—hopefully it won’t lead to a copycat trend. In the meantime, enjoy the putative end to Jackman’s Wolverine… I’m sure it won’t last.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) When true inspiring stories go through the screen-writing process, the result is nearly always something like Eddie the Eagle. Someone’s life reduced to a three-act formula, selectively manipulating history, creating characters and manufacturing Significant Moments so that audiences don’t have to contend with the messy reality. Yes, there was an “Eddie the Eagle” who, against most odds, competed in long-jump skiing during the Calgary Olympics. The rest is pretty much fiction … but entertaining fiction. As a not-particularly-gifted but determined young man, Eddie Edwards discovers ski jumping at a time when the British presence in the sport is non-existent. After gruelling training and qualification jumps, Eddie goes to the Olympics where his determination become far more remarkable than his performances. The meat of the film is in the training sequences, as a disgraced American ski jumper (Hugh Jackman, likable and effective in a wholly fiction role) takes Eddie (Taron Egerton, not bad as the less-than-glamorous hero) under his wing and makes a contender out of him. Eddie the Eagle is assembled, block-by-block, according to a common underdog sports-drama formula. It’s generally well done, with moments of comedy that make the film feel quite a bit fresher than it should be. It’s also a close look at an unusual sport, and among Eddie the Eagle’s biggest achievements are half a dozen ways to make the jumps look thrilling. While the result is disposable entertainment, it works well enough.
(On TV, July 2015) I probably could have written the following review without seeing Australia, so consistent is director Baz Luhrmann when he gets to work: Fantastic visual style, great performances by the lead actors, a bit of an underwhelming script and a sense of excess that overflows from every frame. As it turns out, that’s an accurate assessment: This take on World-War-Two northern Australia is every bit as lush and excessive as we could expect it from the creator of Moulin Rouge! Nicole Kidman is radiant as a widow taking on her deceased husband’s ranch, running against cattle barons trying to take it from her, but meeting a charming cattle driver played by the always-photogenic Hugh Jackman. Thematically, Australia is more concerned about aboriginal exploitation, spending a lot of time fretting over a young boy’s problems as he’s taken away from the ranch. Still, this is all an excuse for razzle-dazzle epic, perhaps none more over-the-top than the cliff-side stampede. To its credit, Australia is about show and spectacle, and there’s definitely a place for that kind of stuff. The landscape is impressive, and shot in consequence. Less fortunately, this tendency toward excess can lead to unchecked lengths and meandering storytelling – and yet, for a movie so grandiosely titled, Australia doesn’t always feel as epic as it should be. It’s not as innovative as it could have been either, as Luhrmann giving a lot of energy trying to re-create familiar sequences. Still, it’s decently entertaining –often on the sole basis of its wide-screen ambition. I suppose that it could have been worse –at least we get almost exactly what we expected from the film.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) The good news are that this take on comic-book superhero Wolverine is quite a bit better than the dismal 2009 Origins film. Taking place almost entirely in Japan, this Wolverine digs a bit deeper into the character’s traumas, attempts a more respectable kind of story and manages once or twice to deliver action sequences that make full use of Wolverine’s special powers. The bad news are that for all of the characterization, exotic setting and occasional thrills, The Wolverine is a bit… dull. Hugh Jackman is the character but the script doesn’t give him much range to show: he’s still the same stoic figure, slashing and dicing as soon as he’s repowered. The Japanese setting is unusual enough to be interesting, but it suffers from a bad case of occidental gaze: by the time the film is through, we’ve been served the same exotic-yet-familiar cocktail of samurais, yakuza, ninjas and pachinko. (That last in an arcade parlour where people are curiously unconcerned about the destructive mayhem surrounding them.) At times, the film promises more than it can deliver: while the bullet-train sequence is original enough and the cardiac self-surgery reaches into character-specific thrills (after a too-long interlude in which the character is depowered), much of the rest is generic in the way only superhero movies can be, including a third act that rushes back to tired old superhero movie clichés. The plot twists are seen coming well in advance and while Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper initially promises to be something more striking than usual, the script eventually relegates her character to the usual villain. By the time The Wolverine is over, it has retreated to a comfortable middle-ground, neither silly enough to be dismissed like its predecessor, nor exceptional enough to be considered as anything more than a competent summer spectacle.
(On Cable TV, August 2014) I approached Prisoners reluctantly. Sure, it got great reviews… but it also came along with the reputation of being a dark and unpleasant thriller. I kept putting it off, constantly reasoning that I wanted to see something lighter in my short free time. Well, now that I have finally sat down to watch Prisoners, can I acknowledge that I was wrong in delaying watching it? This has to be one of the finest films of 2013. Sure, it’s dark. Really dark, as stories about child abductions and psychopath criminals usually are. But it’s temporary darkness at worst: The film wraps up to a fine conclusion that strikes a perfect balance between hard-earned light and unforgiving consequences. There are a few unfortunate coincidences within the plot, but much of Prisoners has the satisfying heft of a good crime novel. (Remarkably enough, it’s an original screenplay.) Moral dilemmas abound, and the sense of barely-repressed darkness is constant. As a no-fun crime drama, it allows actors to shine: Hugh Jackman turns in one of his best performances as a grief-stricken family man taking justice in his own hands when the police won’t hold a suspected abductor while his daughter is missing. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal also has a career-best role as a driven investigator trying to make sense of a convoluted web of back-stories and shadowy criminals. Paul Dano is also remarkable as a punching-bag character. Still, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve gets the credit for a film that manages a satisfying conclusion out of a bleaker-than-bleak film. (Significantly enough, the film either takes place at night, or during overcast/snowy days.) The film may not be fun, but it is strangely uplifting and shows what happens when viewers are trusted to handle more than the usual Hollywood pap.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) A quick trawl through these reviews will reveal that when it comes to movie musicals, I’m a very forgiving reviewer. I have embraced the musical in its post-Moulin Rouge era and a few disappointments aside, I’m usually fond of the genre. So imagine my surprise when I found myself annoyed, bored and exasperated by Les Misérables, surely one of the most instantly recognizable examples of the genre to come down the Broadway-to-Hollywood route. I groaned when I realized that Les Misérables would not only be wall-to-wall singing, but that nearly every song would sound the same and drag on forever. More than once, I left the living room for errands and came back minutes later to characters expressing the same emotion. For all of its nice cinematography and convicting re-creation of a troubled period in French history, Les Misérables plods on for more than an excruciating two hours and a half, on a musical register than barely varies from one song to the next. Perhaps my powers of concentration are gone; maybe I’m just picky when I should be forgiving. And it’s not as if the actors are slacking, given how many of them do well with parts that exceed their signing range. Seeing Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and a thoroughly unglamorous Helena Bonham Carter voice their miserable condition is interesting as in we-haven’t-seen-this-too-many-times-before, but they can’t make the pace move more quickly, or change the film’s intention to make nearly every line of dialogue sung. (Still, I note that the most memorable performance comes from musical-cast-member Samantha Barks, who makes the most out of a limited role as Éponine) Les Misérables is lavish filmmaking on the highest level –but it’s annoying for idiosyncratic reasons that I can’t fully articulate. Upon reflection, through, it occurs to me that I’m fonder of original-movie-musicals rather than straight-up adaptations of existing Broadway shows. Let’s keep the musicals on Broadway, and use the cinema screen for something that fully exploits cinema as a medium.
(Cable TV, July 2012) I’m not betraying any big trade secret when I reveal that SF nerds love to slice-and-dice SF movies to find out whether they are true examples of True and Good Science-Fiction rather than cheap sci-fi knockoffs made for the rubes. Films like Real Steel are good fodder for such conversations, because while it unarguably depends on a science-fiction premise (Boxing Robots! How much more SF can you get? Plus, it’s adapted from a short story by real SF writer Richard Matheson), it’s somewhat lazy in working out the second-order implications of such a premise on the rest of the world. Real Steel is a kid’s film, mind you, and it’s far more interested in showing father and son bonding over rock’em-sock’em robot fighting than in offering a convincing portrait of the near future. While SF nerds will be disappointed to point out the flaws in the film’s chronology (which posits vast institutions build around boxing robots by 2020, which seems like a ridiculously short time) and the lack of robots in non-boxing roles, most of the film’s audience will be satisfied by the father-son drama, the fights and the superb rural scenery. (I don’t recall ever seeing that many farms and two-lane roads in a SF film.) This nostalgic attachment to a quasi-mythical Americana extends to the safe thematic concerns of the script, which blends fatherhood, populism, scraping by and punching things into a crowd-pleasing mix. It seems all very calculated, but Real Steel is successful because it’s very good at what it attempts to do: the cinematography is luminous, the soundtrack is peppy, the plot is cleanly delivered, the special effects are impressive, Hugh Jackman is charming as a hustling ex-fighter learning how to care for his son and director Shawn Levey keeps the film moving at a good pace. Only the abrupt ending, missing an epilogue, seems to miss a beat. Still, the film is all about pleasing audiences, and there’s a lesson or two to be learned here in how a movie can humanize a technological gimmick into something that even the broadest crowds can love.
(In theaters, April 2008) The only thing worse than a bad film is a pretentious bad film that assumes that its audience has never seen another thriller in their lives. What starts out as an intriguing erotic drama featuring an exclusive club for professionals looking for unattached sexual relations turns out to be yet another coincidence-laden blackmail drama. The disappointing deception leaves a bad taste, especially when the film starts going through well-worn plot “twists” in a self-important ponderous fashion that can quickly sour anyone’s good intentions. Ewan McGregor, Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams are capable actors that can do much better, but even their contribution can’t match screenwriter Mark Bomback’s trite script and director Marcel Langenegger’s leaden touch. The film is never worse than at the beginning of its overextended third act, when it dawdles for almost ten minutes while waiting for a not-dead character to come back in the story, spinning its wheels even as everyone with half a brain knows what’s going on. By the end of the film, I was muttering the litany of “I hate you. I hate youuu…” that I keep in reserve for specially flawed films that make me loathe the filmmakers, the cinematographic art form and the universe in general. Once past Maggie Q’s smoldering appearance, there’s nothing entertaining left about Deception, and a whole lot of drawn-out torture in the hands of people who shouldn’t be allowed near a film script ever again. This is not even straight-to-video fodder: this is straight-to-video trash that’s convinced of its chances for the Oscar.
(In theaters, May 2003) Faster, meaner and, yep, better than the often-tepid original, this is one sequel that assumes everyone’s seen the original and so dispenses with the usual load of dull exposition. The motif of bigotry is still present -and so is the unsettling political subtext-, giving weight to the film. Despite sometimes-unconvincing special effects, those action sequences are indeed spectacular, with particular props going to the opening sequence and a very cool sequence involving iron-enriched blood. The most spectacular part of X2, however, is how it can juggle a cast of a dozen (including three Oscar winners) without too many lapses. Hugh Jackman once again steals the show, endowing Wolverine with the most steadily engrossing presence. Others deliver mixed performances: Halle Berry is better than in the original, but she, like Famke Janssen, looks bored with what she’s given to work with. (And the least said about James Marsden’s Cyclops, the most appropriate.) As summer entertainment, X-Men 2 is a strong entry, even with the rather overlong third act which degenerates in a “sacrifice” that feels contrived. But by the time the credits roll, everyone’s had enough entertainment for their money. Until the third instalment, then…
(In theaters, July 2000) When all will have been said and done, the biggest measure of X-Men‘s success is how it didn’t disappoint the legions of fans and hordes of non-fans that went to see it. It’s incredibly hard to make a film about iconic figures, but X-Men manages to pull it off. The script wisely focuses on only a few characters, grounds the fanciful comic elements in reality (such as the black leather uniforms rather than yellow spandex) and plays around the ever-popular theme of discrimination, almost bringing some actual thought in the process. Director Bryan Singer does a decent job on most of the film, but his action scenes clearly show his lack of experience with special effects and action editing: They feel disjointed, don’t flow nearly as well as they should and rarely use wide-angle shots that would firmly establish the action flow in viewers’ mind. Nevertheless, the film is enjoyable, features a breakout performance by Hugh Jackman (as fanboy favourite Wolverine) and delivers value for the money. Not a bad performance for a summer blockbuster.