The Greatest Showman

 

I’m of the opinion that Hugh Jackman should do a musical on an annual basis and that it ought to be released at Christmas time. Those pieces just fit together. Everyone has their own Christmas traditions, one of ours has been a visit to a movie theater on Christmas Day.  If you are interested, here is a link to my Letterboxd List of Christmas Movies.As it turns out, there is a Hugh Jackman musical and a Zac Efron musical on the list as well. Even for a subject as grim as Les Misérables, the fact that it is a musical makes it feel more holiday appropriate.

This film is an original musical, supposedly based on the life of P.T. Barnum. Barnum did have a Museum of Oddities, and was married to a woman named Charity, and did tour the singer Jenny Lind as an attraction after discovering her in Europe. Everything else is made up out of whole cloth. For dramatic purposes, the screen writers and director have gone the old school Hollywood fashion and tacked pieces of Barnum’s history onto a story that they want to tell which has little to do with the biographical subject. That’s OK, but Barnum had a very interesting life and was a significant public figure of the American scene in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, a hip hop musical probably needs some romantic stories to hang onto and a little social justice subtext seems to fit with the personality of the film.

First time director Michael Gracey, shows his roots as a visual effects guy, as he shoots segments of the background in slow motion and has the main figures operating at live speed. There are so many beautiful moments that it sometimes feels like a visit to the eye candy store and maybe we over indulge a little. Still, the modern dance numbers and elaborate aerial ballet look fantastic and when combined with the show stopping mood of each segment, it does feel like a series of crescendos. The dances are staged in clever ways when the ensemble is performing, you can see the contemporary influences easily. When the story focuses on a single performer at a time, the mood is a little more traditional although the songs never are.

 

Jackman and Efron are joined by several performers who stand out. Zendaya is an actress/dancer who was recently seen in “Spider Man Homecoming”. She actually performs the acrobatics in the film and as the love interest and face of victimization from racism in the last century, she makes a solid impression. Keala Settle is a singer with some stage experience, but her voice and demeanor as the bearded lady in Barnum’s show, belie any masculinity and show the toughness that a woman and a so-called freak would need to have. Michelle Williams is always solid and her part here was enhanced with some singing and dancing that seems to extend her range even more. Rebecca Ferguson plays the song bird Jenny Linn, and although her singing voice is dubbed, her performance on stage will make you a believer as it did the audiences in the film.

So the movie looks amazing, the music is inspiring, the story is mostly nonsense but the heart of the film is what matters. Hugh Jackman for years has wanted to do a film featuring P.T. Barnum as a character. He seems to have put his heart into this movie and it shows. Modern Audiences would certainly flock to this if it were a stage show and was performed on Broadway. Movie audiences on the other hand are more fickle and less likely to embrace this until it has an established reputation. Expect this to be a widely loved cult film among cinema fans in about five years. As for me, although it is apocryphal that P.T. Barnum said “there is a sucker born every minute”, I’m with the newspaper man from “The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance”, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I’m a sucker for musicals and show business stories, so I can say I loved this piece of catnip and I hope you will go out and see it.

Logan

The X-Men franchise has been going pretty strong for the better part of two decades now. Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have grown older in their roles as Wolverine and Professor Xavier. I don’t know how they will replace Jackman, but Stewart has been gracefully edged aside for James McAvoy in the last few outings, including a dual casting in “X-Men: Days of Future Past“. The two of them have been cast in this capstone film, which basically cements their exits  from the franchise. This episode is tonally very different from any of the other films, including the last outing for Jackman which was “The Wolverine” back in 2013.

Most of these films have been cartoony super hero stories with a new “big Bad” to fight against in each edition. There is some subtext about ethnicity/sexuality and culture but usually it comes down to some big action sequences that everyone is looking forward to. “Logan” has plenty of action scenes but they are mostly a series of mutants versus mercenaries, and usually involve a car chase or two. No stadiums are lifted into the air, the Statue of Liberty is not at risk, and the wold does not seem to teeter on a single moment. The darker subtext here has to do with genetic manipulation for intentional purposes. Since the film is set ten years in the future, it is safe to make some jokes about GMO crops and GMO humans. The Frankenfood that most alarmists are worried about is mocked, but the human process is the thing that provides some depth to the movie.

 

Let me share a quote with you from my review of the 2013 film: “ I know the film is PG-13 because we get only one f-bomb, and the blood from all the fighting and evisceration that is taking place, stays mainly on the characters. Body parts don’t come flying off the screen, there are no fountains of blood spraying the walls, and the violence remains mostly in the imagination.” Apparently, director/writer James Mangold felt the same way, or else he read my comments and decided to fix this deficiency. “Logan” is R-rated for blood and language. It’s not a surprise that when freed from some contractual restrictions, Wolverine would find colorful uses for the f-adjective. What is a little more of a shock is the degree to which the claws get set free. The number of times the three prongs end up in the head, throat, or chest of a bad guy rivals John Wick’s kill count. It gets a little wearisome at times. Let’s throw in another character with claws, and the dismemberment, decapitations and general viscera is way up. If you have trouble with violence that looks really violent, then this film may not be for you.

I mentioned that the tone of the movie is different. Both Charles and Logan have medical issues in this movie. In a different X-Men Universe, there would be brilliant blue furry mutants and mystic scientists working to discover solutions for their problems. Instead, we have a pair of overworked caregivers who are struggling to get by while hiding from the world. Some vaguely hinted at disaster has made the X-Men disappear. Getting the pill count and schedule is hard enough, but some characters also need assistance in going to the toilet. That’s not something you will see in the comic books I bet. Another thing that will show how different and dark this world is, no one is spared in the story. Sympathetic characters die and often in gruesome ways. I thought we were being set up at one point for a secondary character to use some skills that are human based, but no. As soon as we hear about those accomplishments and start thinking of how they might be used, the character is dead. The warmth of friendship or humanity is held out only long enough to make us feel something when it is snatched away.

Overall I liked the movie quite a bit, but I have my reservations. The violence is continuous without the self awareness of a movie like John Wick. There is background missing that would make the story a little more interesting, and just as we get some monologing to  explain it, a bit of violence jumps in and cuts it off as if to say “That’s not the story we are telling here.” This is really an elegy for the X-Men characters we have known and a passing of the torch to new mutants. It feels like the studio has set up the whole franchise for a second reboot since they got started. The Deadpool 2 teaser at the start of this film has nothing to do with this movie except for a brief reference to Logan as a joke. The mood of the opening teaser is incredibly different from the movie that follows it. The final tip off for where this is all going to end up is contained in the use of a Johnny Cash song in the trailer and a different Cash song in the end credits. The dire and desperate voice of Johnny Cash is a natural for Mangold to use. He was after all the director of “Walk the Line”. It is also a Cliff Note sized clue that this movie is a tragedy and not an adventure.

Eddie the Eagle

I always turn to the sports page first. The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failures.”– Chief Justice of the U.S. Earl Warren

I love some sports because of the drama inherent in the competition. I love all sports ultimately because of the drama inherent in taking a sport seriously and trying to do your best. “Eddie the Eagle” might at first seem an odd subject for an inspirational story. The real world character appeared to be a bit of a joke at the time he made his Olympic appearance, and let’s face it. he was not a winner by any stretch of the imagination. He was however different, and judged by the true spirit of the Olympic games, he may be one of the biggest winners of all time. It’s unfortunate in my mind that the world as become so cynical, that a sweet, inspiring movie like this will be crushed underfoot by other films that will be forgotten in a week, despite their budgets. 

This is a small story about an unusual character,  it fits into the “Inspirational Failure” category of films pioneered by the original “Rocky”. Since the main events of the story really did happen, it has a place in popular culture outside of the movie context and it is hard to understand why it would not be more successful, except that “upbeat” and “inspiring” seem to have become negative descriptions in Hollywood these days. Eddie was not a fool, and in fact he was portrayed as a competent skier ( and in real life, he narrowly missed being on the British Downhill skiing team). What is accurate is that he switched to ski jumping to give himself a better chance at making the Olympics, even though he had little experience. 

 

Taron Edgerton from last years great “Kingsman: The Secret Service”  plays the adult Eddie after a quick opening section showing Eddie as a child and as a teen. One of the things that help make this movie work is that it does not spend a long time following the child Eddie but uses him simply to set up the contemporary version. It keeps the story focused and it avoids some of the wandering that traditional biopics sometimes get lost in. We get to know him as the awkward, sincere and somewhat innocent athlete who strives to be the best he can, but falls short of the Olympic ideal that he holds out for himself. The movie plays up a battle and antagonism between himself and the British Olympic Committee as a way of building tension and I thought that the largely fictional characters played by Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken help get the focus on the issue of his desire rather than on the showboating. The IOC has since instituted qualifying rules that would keep out someone like this, but much like the Jamaican Bobsled team, these are the kinds of stories that make sports so compelling. Competition at elite levels is important, but we need the “Rudy” type characters to be able to be part of the pageant of sport as well. 

This movie gets a lot of comedic value out of the situation, but never at the expense of the character. He always comes across as passionate and a big dreamer. Exactly the kind of person who would ask a world champion for some tips and who would not mean it ironically. I doubt that it is true but there was a nice moment when Eddie is going up the lift for his big moment when he encounters the World’s Greatest shi jumper, and they share a moment that is about sports and not about winning. If we could get that kind of moment more often in real life, people who see sports as unimportant or distracting from more significant pursuits would get a chance to know the impact that sports can have on character. We have far too many examples of negative sports characters that have dominated the world lately, it’s really important to have some from the other end of the spectrum on a regular basis to balance out the less pleasant aspects of competition. 

Jackman plays a cliche role created for the purpose of making the story “more” than just the journey of Eddie, and I liked the fact that he was willing to be in the background for much of the film. The director, actor Dexter Fletcher, manages to make us cringe with every vertigo inducing view of the ski jumps and we flinch when we see the mistakes that inevitably are part of the world of ski jumping. If you are too young to remeber “the Agony of Defeat” take a quick look at this clip:

A ski accident happens at 70 miles an hour and it isn’t pretty. Several times I looked over and saw my daughter cringing behind her hands as the true danger of the sport was exhibited. Ultimately, the thrill of victory, even a small one, seems to be enough to get a dedicated person to take the risk. “Eddie the Eagle” is a touching reminder that while not all of us are gold medalists, it is our hearts that ultimately make a soar like eagles.