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.

Manchester by the Sea

Not exactly a feel good film for the Christmas Holiday, but an impressive family film about the ties that bind us and the fact that they do so in multiple ways. There are many, many things to admire about this film, from the sterling performances to the complex way in which the story unfolds and most especially for the ambiguous ending that resolves only an immediate issue but not the deeper needs of the main character. Manchester bu the Sea is a well made film that is worth the pain that you sometimes have to get through to be able to understand the characters.

Casey Affleck has been a solid actor for years. His side kick roles in the Ocean’s 11 films show that he can be comedic when called upon, but he also has serious dramatic chops. Earlier this year he was quietly heroic in “The Finest Hours“.  In this film he is also quiet, but in a much different style of performance. His character “Lee”, has a tragic background that follows him wherever he goes but most especially in his hometown. He is forced to return to “Manchester By the Sea” for another tragic passage in his life, and the confluence of the two events are enough to give anyone a depression that would feel overwhelming. That his character is able to cope to some degree is the one outward sign of inner strength. Affleck doesn’t really raise his voice often, he is not bitingly sarcastic but the audience can see that he is masking turmoil which makes it nearly impossible for him to manage the family obligation he finds himself in.

 

I have not seen director Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature but his first was the affecting and slow moving “You Can Count on Me”, which came out sixteen years ago. This movie does seem to fit into his sweet-spot, a family drama with imperfect people, taking their time to try and work out their problems.  There are several wordless moments in the film where the actors perform in an almost classic silent film manner. Watching Afflect’s face conveys ninety percent of what we need to know in most scenes. There are instances where you can see his self loathing percolating to the surface just before the bubble pops and a moment of catharsis, which is even more damaging to him, takes over. The will it takes to hold things together is substantial. There is plenty of angst to go around but there are also moments of human connection that are heartfelt and sometimes amusing. The contentious relationship Lee has with his nephew Patrick is punctuated by love and off beat humor. Lucas Hedges plays Patrick as a self confident but needy adolescent. Sometimes he needs to be smothered with attention and other times he needs to be left alone. Of course Lee usually chooses wrong, but when he does get it right, there is a sense of hopefulness that lingers long enough to make the story bearable.

The structure of the film is similar to a second film I will be commenting on today. There are contemporary events and then there are several flashbacks that occur in no particular order which trace back the history of our characters. Lee’s guilt cannot allow him to move forward but moving forward is what is needed for Patrick. I never found the narrative confusing and the jumps back and forth in the story often set the tone for an upcoming incident in a way that would have required a huge amount of exposition if the story were told differently. This is a film without a clear ending, but it does let us know that the path to the future is not entirely bleak.

There are some secondary characters that intrude on the story and did little to advance the plot such as it is. Patrick’s estranged Mother briefly returns to his life but it is a dead end that only shows how essential Lee is to getting things right for Patrick. The uncomfortable lunch that Patrick and his Mother and her new boyfriend share, is an emotional dry well. On the other had, the scenes with Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, played by Michelle Williams, are in fact heart breaking. She wants him to find the forgiveness that he cannot give himself and her own spirit is limited because he can’t. Every family has bumps in the road, some derail the family entirely, this is a film about two of those kinds of events and how they intertwine. This is a great movie that is hard to experience but has at it’s core an honest portrayal of the sort of depression that is based on real life and not just on manufactured emotions as you will sometimes find in other films.