“When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” The Greatest Showman

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

This may seem a quaint notion, but sometimes it’s nice to have a movie that is simply affirming and joyous and a celebration of what can be best in the human spirit. That is The Greatest Showman‘s raison d’etre. The subject of PT Barnum‘s now-controversial life may seem an unlikely vehicle for such a film, but that is indeed what we have with Hugh Jackman‘s latest. I absolutely loved this movie.

With music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, composers of La La Land and the recent Christmas Story Live!, the film will never be accused of being high-art, but then that is not what Barnum‘s stock-in-trade was either. With our present distaste for circuses and with the revisionist history that sees Barnum as less of an inclusive and big-hearted entrepreneur and more of an unethical and selfish opportunist, viewers are best-served to check those preconceptions at the door and approach the film as if Barnum is a mythological figure from American folklore, a la Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Barnum (Jackman) chides a theatre critic who has no use for the ringmaster’s brand of populist entertainment, “A theatre critic who can’t find joy in the theatre. Now, who’s a fraud?” It seems to be as much a definition of Barnum’s artistic philosophy as a caution to Twitter trolls in the audience ready to hate on The Greatest Showman‘s gee willkers approach to American cultural history.

Helmed by first-time director Michael Gracey (who had a reported assist from Logan‘s James Mangold) and with a screenplay written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon (Dreamgirls, Beauty and the Beast), the film offers a cursory look at the significant and recognizable moments in Barnum’s life, like story beats in an oft-told fable … with a heaping helping of Horatio Alger-ism: we Americans can be whoever and whatever we want to be, regardless how checkered our pasts (hell, just look at the White House and Capitol Hill).

This is not a detailed, cynical, warts-and-all biopic but rather a heartfelt and inspirational allegory (bordering on the twinkling best of Hallmark Hall-of-Fame‘s legendary output) that material success cannot substitute for authentic love. And that is just fine.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Hugh Jackman is totally in his element, throwback as he is to a Hollywood of another era where corny was not only king but was embraced and celebrated by the masses. It is a refreshingly positive (albeit whitewashed) take on a legendary American captain of industry – the kind of story-telling that was prevalent in 1950s Tinseltown technicolor fantasias … or that librarians used to read aloud to us third-graders in our elementary school reading circles.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

However, The Greatest Showman is smart enough to supercharge the proceedings with a percussive, propulsive, almost martial, contemporary pop score to hook a generation of audiences weaned on High School Musical or Glee.

This simplistic approach with its anachronistic score is surprisingly effective, at times both insidiously engaging and pleasantly disarming. Highlights include rousing opener “The Greatest Show,” no-business-like-show-business anthem “Come Alive,” bromantic stomp-duet “The Other Side,” swoony/lurchy ballad “Rewrite the Stars,” and rafter-rattling curtain call “From Now On.”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The bones of the story are not dissimilar to those of Barnum!, the 1980 Cy Coleman Broadway stage musical starring Jim Dale and Glenn Close, but the proceedings couldn’t be more fresh or modern. Disney Channel alumni Zendaya and Zac Efron deliver lovely paper doll turns in this 21st century panto-play. Michelle Williams is luminous, simultaneously distant and winsome – arm candy with an iron will – as Barnum‘s stoic wife Charity.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The supporting cast is rounded out with a strong team of stage alumni who relish every moment of this big-screen cartoon. Kealla Settle as Lettie Lutz, the “bearded lady,” is one to watch. Her mid-movie barnstormer “This is Me” brings down the house with a can-you-hear-the-people-sing intensity that should leave you exhausted and enraged and damned “woke” … if you have any heart at all.

The filmmakers (tom) thumb their noses at depth, knowing that the best celebration of Barnum’s life as a huckster purveyor of humbug would be to deliver free-wheeling holiday escapism that energizes and enthralls. Yet, embedded within the cotton candy fluff is a timely and haunting message of acceptance and understanding and compassion.

Sociopolitically, the film does continue the troubling trope of “beautiful white dude as multiculti savior.” However, it marries that message to a final act comeuppance for Barnum. Per the film, Barnum’s fatal flaw is always looking past the talent in his midst to see who else might be coming through the door, breaking the most important of hearts in his unyielding aspiration for validation from an American elite that continually rejects his kind. After a final act tragedy, Barnum’s family of freaks confronts him with this brutal truth, licking their wounds, rallying the troupe, and reminding us all that the greatest show exists with those who’ve been loyal to us all along.

It’s all quite obvious and Hollywood-shallow self-serving, but I admit I cried and cheered and stomped my feet. Sometimes the corniest message – the most heartfelt one – is the one we all need to hear again and again. As Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (in an ethereal if underdeveloped portrayal by Rebecca Ferguson) warns Barnum, “When you are careless with other people, you bring ruin upon yourself.” Family is what you make it, true success begins at home, and there is a place at the table for us all. Amen. #thisisme

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“I always know who you are. It’s just sometimes I don’t recognize you.” Logan

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Logan, the latest entry in the now ten (!) film X-Men movie canon from 20th Century Fox, really, really, really wants to be seen as serious cinema. Any time Johnny Cash’s now-cliched bluegrass cover of Nine Inch Nails’ tortured soul anthem “Hurt” is used in a flick’s trailer, you know you are in art school-aspirational territory.

(Dammit, Christopher Nolan, but your somber, bruise-black tone poem The Dark Knight must have been a real decade-long buzz kill for other directors in the comic book film genre. Folks, pretension ain’t entertainment. Movies can be smart and fun. Unclench. See: Deadpool.)

For 50% of its overlong running time, Logan comes within a razored-claw’s-breadth of hitting the mark. Yes, the allusions to George Stevens’ far superior Shane (including Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier actually watching the flick on a hotel room TV) and to just about any blood-and-dust-caked entry in Sam Peckinpah’s oeuvre are a bit too on-the-nose. However, those allusions are refreshing (if not downright surprising) in a film universe where we are supposed to accept Halle Berry’s ongoing struggles with stultifyingly bad wigs as the height of character development. (Bar none, Hugh Jackman is the best special effect these films have had in their arsenal in their nearly 20-year run.)

With 2013’s The Wolverine, director James Mangold did yeoman’s work rescuing the X-franchise’s beloved Wolverine from the character’s first solo outing – 2009’s disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine (directed by Gavin Hood). Lord, saving the character from that clunky title would have been enough. As evidence of Mangold’s leaning toward nihilistic simplicity, in fact, the titles have gotten more streamlined and look-I’m-a-grown-up grim with The Wolverine (just stick a “the” in front of anything … it sounds epic … seriously … try it: THE Mousepad, THE Saucepan, THE Q-Tip) and, now, Logan, which sounds less like a superhero movie and more like an artisanal bistro.

The Wolverine gave us a mutant-on-the-lam chase through the Japanese underworld with a zippy French Connection vibe that breathed new life into the character while honoring his comic book roots as an occasional samurai-for-hire. It was grounded by but also popped with a panoply of espionage thriller tropes, and Jackman seemed to be having a ball. Like all the films in the X-Men film universe, it suffered from a junky final act that was the cinematic equivalent of an eight-year-old throwing all of his/her action figures into a washing machine and setting the cycle to “spin,” creating more narrative loose ends than it resolved.

Logan is a logical next step, especially in this new era where “Hard R” (blood! guts! nudity! random eff-bombs!) superhero flicks now make truckloads of cash. (Thanks, again, Deadpool). While, heretofore, Wolverine’s legendary “berserker rage” has been safely shielded behind the no-gore filter of a toy-aisle-Taco-Bell-kids-meal-friendly PG-13 rating, Logan assumes all the tykes who saw the first X-Men film (2000) in wide-eyed wonderment at their parents’ knees are now safely beyond the age of R-rated consent. And, boy, does the carnage reign free in this movie.

The film begins in yellow-hued, grungy Texas in the year 2029, and Logan (hundreds of years old at this point, as we’ve learned from earlier films) is at the end of the line. His body is shot, his soul is worse, he is driving a limousine for moolah, and he and Professor Charles Xavier are living a hardscrabble existence in what appears to be an old grain silo. Their onscreen relationship here could best be described as one-part The Odd Couple, two-parts King Lear, with a pinch of Sam Shepard’s True West. They cohabitate with a fussy majordomo and mutant nursemaid Caliban (a haunting Stephen Merchant) as Xavier spirals into the latter stages of dementia, a diagnosis which is kind of a big deal when you also happen to possess the psychic power to wipe out half of the continental United States if your migraine gets out of hand.

This odd little band plans to ride out their days until Logan saves up enough money to buy a yacht (yes, a yacht), so that they – the only mutants remaining after some nebulously described cataclysm in the recent past – can escape the mutant-hating governmental rabble that runs ‘Murica (sound eerily familiar?). Oh, and Logan is probably going to commit suicide after they leave, but that just adds to the existential “fun.”

This set-up sounds odd. Hell, it is odd. I think that’s why I really dug the early scenes of the film, establishing this off-kilter “new normal” in the typically sleek, escapist X-Men universe. It reads like a stage play you might catch on PBS’ Great Performances on a Sunday night, when you’re feeling too lazy to change the channel – a piece that is not profound enough to have had a long run on Broadway but is peculiar enough to hold your interest on the small screen.

Into this mix, a young mutant appears, bearing strangely similar attributes to Logan, analogous enough that questions of parentage are raised. Newcomer Dafne Keen plays Laura (known in the comics as X-23), a preteen whose feral tendencies, extremely violent outbursts, and mute glowering are initially transfixing but wear a bit thin as the film proceeds. Naturally, the feds are chasing Laura, which brings the military-industrial complex as represented by a ham-bone Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant to Logan’s front door … er … grain silo and sends the entire mutant band on the run across Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota.

Jackman is soulful throughout, and he channels the same world-weary tension of straining to keep a moral high ground while being consumed by the righteous rage of marginalization that he rode to an Oscar nomination in Les Miserables. Alas, he doesn’t sing this time, but he looks ten times as haggard … so that’s something. Jackman and Stewart have some touching moments, and Jackman has great chemistry with Keen in the film’s first half when they are still at odds with one another, like caged animals sizing up the competition.

There is a harrowing yet lovely scene where Professor Xavier reclaims a bit of his youthful nobility, rescuing horses that have gotten loose on a frighteningly busy freeway, which in turn leads to a brief respite where our mutants break bread with the gracious and grateful family to whom the equines belong. ER‘s Eriq LaSalle is quietly impressive as the patriarch – good to see him again. However, the film then takes a decidedly nasty turn, really embracing that R-rating (the horses are all fine, but – spoiler alert – things don’t work out quite so well for anyone else), and the silly and gratuitous horror movie carnage that follows left me disaffected – and saddened for where I had hoped the movie would have gone. Subsequently, I never quite reconnected with the brooding and pastoral quality that the first half of the film engendered, and the film’s final poignant moments – intended to deliver emotional payoff – don’t feel earned, ringing hollow when life seems so disposable to the filmmakers.

The talented cast and the film itself suffer from a running time (nearly two and a half hours) that doesn’t withstand the conventionality of the film’s road movie second half, and the flick’s final act is uncomfortably reminiscent of the denouement of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I didn’t much enjoy seeing a bunch of young mutants run pell mell through the woods fearing for their lives as they were brutalized by government thugs back in 2009, nor again in 2017. I wonder what a little cinematic discipline – a tighter running time and curbing the grand guignol indulgences – might have offered Logan. I suspect that a bit more restraint would have gotten Mangold’s film closer to those classic allegorical Westerns to which he clearly aspires.

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50496657

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Early in the film, Stewart’s Xavier, in deshabille and surrounded by the discarded detritus of a decaying life, looks ruefully at Jackman’s Logan and says, “I always know who you are. It’s just sometimes I don’t recognize you.” Using these iconic characters to explore the ephemeral nature of existence, Magold made a good film. It’s just too bad he didn’t have the self-control to make a great one.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Narrative of isolation and persecution: The Wolverine

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

People may have forgotten, but, for better or worse, this current cinematic superhero love affair began its decade-plus-long courtship with a little movie directed by Bryan Singer in 2000 … X-Men.

That movie introduced the world to a new kind of comic book film that made superheroes seem just like us but with just a few extra gifts (e.g. flight, claws, invisibility, flame-throwing…you know…the usual stuff). These imminently identifiable characters exuded angst and anxiety about trying to fit in, in spite of or perhaps in reaction to humanity’s general aversion to if not outright loathing of difference and of talent.

The movie also introduced many of us to a gifted Aussie named Hugh Jackman, whose truly exceptional musical theatre skills and talk show host charm somehow translated brilliantly to a scruffy, violent, pissed off, immortal Canadian named Logan, nicknamed “The Wolverine.”

Some might argue that it was Jackman’s likeability as the be-clawed mutant anti-hero that propelled the X-Men film series to global dominance. I would agree. And miraculously Jackman’s sparkling career has defied being derailed subsequently by some colossal missteps – both within that franchise as well as some other choices, namely X-Men: Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Australia, and … Kate & Leopold.

Now, coming off his Oscar-nominated triumph in last year’s Les Miserables (he should have won!), Jackman reunites with director James Mangold (Kate & Leopold‘s helmer, plus 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line, among others) to return to his career-launching role in this summer’s The Wolverine.

So how is it? Quite good actually. Blessedly, like earlier films set in the X-Men universe, there is a focus on the narrative of isolation and persecution (as opposed to selling as many action figures as possible at Wal-Mart). Jackman’s inherent kindness always underlies/accentuates the deep-seated sadness and disappointment that Logan/Wolverine carries from his nearly 200 years viewing man’s inhumanity to man. It makes for a compelling characterization.

The film picks up where X-Men: Last Stand left off, with Logan living in isolation in the Yukon after having murdered true love Jean Grey to save the planet from her out-of-control telekinesis. (Just typing that sentence explains pretty much everything that was wrong with that prior film.)

I have to admit I gave a little cheer when Logan, in the film’s opening sequence, attacks a group of beer-sozzled, stupidly-entitled redneck hunters who have slaughtered his sole companion in the wilderness: a beautiful, (though clearly CGI) lumbering bear.

From there, the film then whizzes to Tokyo where Logan reconnects with a former mentor whose life he saved in the bombing of Nagasaki in WWII. As Chris Claremont/Frank Miller realized thirty plus years ago with their seminal Wolverine comic book miniseries, rigid/gracious/mannered Japan makes a marvelous setting to explore the anarchic/raging/righteously indignant traits of this character.

There is nothing terribly groundbreaking about the movie other than this: it is quiet and it is character-driven. Even though it is yet another big, overdone, popcorn-spewing comic book adaptation, there is a lot of deep-feeling dialogue and introspection. Good for Mangold. The movie works hard (sometimes too hard) to dissect how cruel we can be to each other and how a little kindness here or there can make all the difference in one person’s life.

There are some mistakes. The green-haired Viper villain (villainess? is that word even used any more?) should have been sent packing to some other (dumber) movie. And I certainly could have done without the clanging/clunky finale where Logan nonsensically gets his claws chopped off by a gleaming Transformer-esque Silver Samurai (sad misuse of that character) and then fights … and fights … and fights.

Regardless, 75% of the film is atmospheric and engaging and fun … and, hopefully, will give Jackman’s career a five year boost so he can do another musical or two … before he has to step into his mutant boots again.

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P.S. For my Ann Arbor friends, we had dinner at a new place around the corner from The Rave Theater (or whatever it’s called these days). The restaurant is Elevation Burger, and, for us vegetarians, they offer not one but two different kinds of handmade veggie burgers, both of which are excellent. We chatted with franchise owner-manager Mike Tayter for a bit, and the sensibility of the restaurant is very caring and conscientious and earth-friendly. I’m not a “foodie” in any sense (in fact, I hate that cloying expression) but I did want to pass along the recommendation.