(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) Like most, I was very skeptical of yet another attempt to reboot the Spider-Man series. Only the idea that Marvel Studio was the creative force behind Spider-Man: Homecoming (and the affirmation that the film would fit within the MCU) kept me hopeful. As it happens, this new integrated take on the character is completely successful. Indeed coming back home to the character’s spiritual and physical origins, Homecoming manages a fresh take on an overexposed character, seamlessly blending him with the rest of the superhero universe and also taking on the Marvel house style honed to perfection over the past ten years. While I liked Andree Garfield a lot as Spider-Man, Tom Holland brings the required wide-eyed naiveté to the character, making the relationship with father-surrogate Tony Stark even more interesting. Strong action sequences and a credible villain (leading to an honestly surprising moment midway through the film where Peter Parker and Spider-Man’s identities come crashing together) do much to make the film fun, but so do the de-rigueur touches of humour and self-conscious goofiness. By choosing to depict a looser, funnier, younger Spider-Man, the MCU creative team has found a terrific antidote to the increasingly dour direction the character was taking, and the result is irresistibly fun. The integration even works at the story level, as the film deals with the fallout of having alien invasions and superheroes running around; the MCU is maturing nicely as it grows older. Veteran actors such as Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei and Michael Keaton are used expertly to ground the film, while among the high-school crowd, Zendaya is remarkable despite having nearly nothing to do (at least until the sequel.) Homecoming adds up to a surprisingly entertaining movie, even more so given the low expectations. Once again, Marvel Studio defies the odds.