(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, August 2018) Some movies become famous because of the actors that are in it, but All the Money in the World is a rare reverse example, famous for who’s not in it. Namely Kevin Spacey, whose sexual misconduct became widely publicized in the short span of time after his important supporting role in the film as J. Paul Getty was shot but before the film was released. Rather than shrug their shoulders and release the film as-is, the producers, along with veteran director Ridley Scott, decided to take another riskier path: Recast the Getty role with Christopher Plummer and reshoot all the scenes involving the character. This isn’t quite as insane as it sounds, considering that the character is mostly confined to mansion rooms in one of the film’s subplots. And it worked: Not only was Scott able to replace one significant actor in a ridiculously short amount of time while the film was nearing its release date, but you really can’t tell in the finished product: It’s as if Plummer had been there the entire time, and his performance is rock-solid enough that he ended up nominated for an Oscar. In comparison to the production drama, the story in All the Money in the World seems almost pedestrian, portraying the kidnapping of the grandson of one of the richest men in the world back in the 1970s. There’s an intriguing re-creation of mid-seventies Italy, dark machinations by an incredibly rich man not inclined to negotiate with kidnappers, and some funny business between the kidnapped man’s mom (Michelle Williams, better than usual) and the specialist hired to get him back (Mark Wahlberg, rather ordinary). The drama is solid even though the film itself feels sombre, ponderous and overlong in the middle. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the finished result is a demonstration of the way excessive wealth alters the world around it, twisting human relationships, corrupting individuals (the Getty patriarch is really not a nice person) and inviting predators to make their moves. Alas, not quite enough time is spent on this idea, as the film flirts with romance and spends a lot of time kidnapped by its own subplots. (It doesn’t help that the film has numerous deviations from the historical record.) It’s not a bad movie, but it could have benefited from a lighter and shorter touch. But then again there’s Plummer delivering yet another great performance.
(On TV, March 2015) I’m actually paying a compliment to Blue Valentine when I say that I don’t ever want to see that movie again. As a romantic drama describing the beginning and the end of a relationship in excruciating detail, it more than fulfills its objectives. That it’s successful and heart-wrenching, however, doesn’t mean that it’s in any way pleasant or entertaining to watch. As a big montage jumping back in forth between the best and the worst moments of a relationship, Blue Valentine doesn’t miss an occasion to push and pull at the viewer, juxtaposing songs and dialogue lines to ironic effect and wallowing in massive emotional whiplash. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance clearly know what he’s doing, and the result is a raw and troubling film without heroes or winners. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are both exceptional in roles far removed from many of their other glossy performances (Gosling, especially, gets far from his idealised character in The Notebook, or his glossy-cool portrayal in Drive.) Alas, Blue Valentine revels in the kind of art-house aesthetics that reliably exasperate me: shaky-cam images (even when there are no reasons to shake the camera), too-close shots, gritty unpolished images, improvised dialogue… it’s a painful film to watch in more ways that the obvious subject matter. While Blue Valentine’s achievement is undeniable, so is a powerful drive to never have to go through it again.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Here we go again: beloved kid’s fantasy series transformed into an overblown 3D Hollywood special-effects spectacle with a bit of snark. If the criticism sounds familiar, it’s because it’s been the playbook for just about everything since The Lord of the Rings made so much money. Here, The Wizard of Oz gets a prequel and while the results are familiar, they’re not as bad as they could have been. James Franco may or may not have been the best choice as a con-magician forced to be a hero (with Franco, it’s hard to tell sincerity from laid-back detachment), but director Sam Raimi is certainly in his element in showcasing a bright and colorful Oz in all of its 3D glory. Oz the Great and Powerful is not as derivative as it may first appear: Despite its kinship to L. Frank Baum’s work and the classic 1939 film, it feels relatively new and doesn’t try to ape the first film in its finer details. Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis all do fine work as the three main witches, although it’s Kunis who gets the most interesting material and best make-up work. The visual spectacle is worth a look, and if the film’s so-contemporary hip detachment is its own disservice (because much of Oz should be viewed with pure unadulterated glee), there’s enough here to make the film interesting to adults. The result may not be particularly challenging, but it works well enough, and the de-emphasis placed on straight-up combat in favour of tricks and deception is a welcome change of pace from the usual epic fantasy template.
(On-demand, August 2012) Unaccountably, I had never seen Species until now, nearly seventeen years later. For some reason, I had filed away this title as a throwaway B-grade monster movie, not worth the trouble to seek out. But the future is now, and the film is only a few buttons away from on-demand viewing! While Species is, in fact, a B-grade monster movie, it’s a slickly-made one, with a few good ideas and some noteworthy elements. Take your pick of the various names featured in the credits: H.R. Giger’s nightmarish creature design (leading to a few “have I really seen this?” moments), a scene-setting performance by young Michelle Williams as a young alien on the run, Michael Madsen’s cocky turn as a special operative, Forrest Whittaker’s good take on a bad “empath” role, Ben Kingsley as a government operative, or Natasha Henstridge’s asset-baring first big-screen performance. In Science-Fiction terms, Species is borderline incoherent nonsense, but it springs from a fairly clever conceit of remote alien invasion via radio-signal DNA sequencing. (Other written-SF stories have tackled the idea, but it’s still relatively original for Movie-SF.) There are also a few nice things to say about the themes of the film, which combine a few rough ideas about predation and reproduction with more standard horror-film tropes. Plot-wise, the film remains a monster chase, but the team of monster-hunters is shown effectively, and the rhythm doesn’t really falter until the last act’s fairly standard subterranean heroics. Species’ dynamic night-time chase sequences show that the film had a decent budget, making the B-movie exploitation elements seem all the more noteworthy. While some of the film is still stuck in the mid-nineties, it hasn’t aged all that badly and rewards casual viewing even today.
(On-demand video, March 2012) There’s a place for everything in the universe of movie-making, including a movie-about-a-movie featuring a thespian, a star and a young man who learns better. Based on the true story of a young British man who once became Marilyn Monroe’s assistant during the shooting of a movie, My Week with Marilyn is a look at a flawed icon, a comedy about 1960s British film-making and a coming-of-age drama in which people get their heart broken “a little”. While much of the film’s noteworthiness is based on Michelle Williams’ convincing portrayal of Marilyn Monroe at the height of her stardom, the film is just as interesting as it presents the adventures of an aspiring filmmaker hired as a production assistant. Movie-making isn’t necessarily romantic, and My Week with Marilyn is perhaps at its funniest when it shows figures such as Laurence Olivier dealing with the stresses of directing a fluffy comedy production. The second half of the film evolves into a quasi-romance between Monroe and our boy protagonist, showing Monroe’s flaws and not neglecting the inexperience of the viewpoint character. The film doesn’t have to fight hard to keep viewers’ attention, and the period detail is convincing even though it’s Monroe’s personality that brings the entire story together. Not particularly deep, but intriguing enough: It’s easy to see why My Week with Marilyn earned some critical attention, and that it did so without sacrificing any of its ability to please audiences.
(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.