The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017) 4/5

Contemporary musicals are essentially the rarest of filmic breeds. They are either reboots of older classics or adaptations of great stage productions from around the world. What is more common is when these are fused with popular historic figures and this fusion works well when that person was linked with show business. Michael Gracey’s directorial debut is a show stopping adventure through tposter-largehe weird and wonderful eyes of P.T Barnum and his eclectic mix of performers.

Scepticism did almost overtake me prior to watching this Hugh Jackman star vehicle, but I persisted, and I’m very glad that I did. From the cinematography, acting, editing, and performances everything here works so well that it is seamless in the action. Jackman is no stranger to the spotlight of the stage and thrives her as the protagonist as through dance numbers, all of his skills as a performer are brought out in full force. He carries this movie with aplomb (I love that word!) and bringing Zac Efron onboard to entice a younger crowd (clever marketing), plus throwing the added class of Michelle Williams adds another dimension to this already celebrated canon.

In essence, this film is about inclusivity and diversity, which is a little more than topical at the moment in time. I won’t go into that too much (*ahem* Trump, *ahem* Harvey Weinstein) and the songs show a very strong reflection of this zeitgeist. Fox made a very clever hire of Pasek and Paul, who are fresh off their win for the – dare I say it, slightly dull – La La Land at last years Oscars. Their songs are simply infectious and you will be singing all of the way home. Of course, it does help that the screenplay is also written by Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City vet) and Bill Condon (Dreamgirls and Chicago).

Of course, it can be very difficult to balance the gritty reality of the actual figure and the glitz of movie musical. Sure, some bits are glossed over with glitter, but this movie is all about escapism. If you’d like a more pronounced musical biopic, I’d direct you to ‘Walk the Line’ for example.

There are shades of Baz Luhrmann here too and Moulin Rouge is clearly something they wanted to emulate, not just with the rooftop dancing, but also with it’s feverish pace and fast editing.

In sum, whilst The Greatest Showman might lean a little too much on the ‘show’ aspects and not on the murkier sides of Barnum. This movie is an escapists dream with a very powerful message of inclusion in a time where not everybody is getting the representation or safety they deserve.

Prisoners

Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013) 4/5

 Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to Incendies (2010) follows two families, oneprisoners white, one black when their two little girls go missing on Thanksgiving. Similar to his previous film, the power of family, faith and community is once again exposed to the audience in an undeniably powerful way. With the awards season quickly approaching, it is hardly surprising that this film has been released in a cushy post summer period. The cast includes many heavy hitters including Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis, Terence Howard and Melissa Leo, all of which feature highly on AMPAS radar. Throw in the fact that you have Roger Deakins as your D.O.P and Villeneuve must have known her was onto a winner.

On face value Prisoners doesn’t seem to add anything to the crime thriller genre that we haven’t seen before. Indeed Gyllenhaal is no stranger to this type of film as from the beginning there is a very macabre and subdued atmosphere that is very much reminiscent of Zodiac (2009). He plays Detective Loki (No, get that Marvel comic out of your mind now) who is in charge of the investigation. Sparring opposite him we have Jackman, who plays Keller Dover, a deeply religious man who is the father of one of the missing girls Anna. Supporting these – arguably – tied leads are the other missing girls father Franklin Birch (Howard), Keller’s wife Grace (Maria Bello), Franklin’s wife Nancy (Davis), the chief suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) and his aunt Holly (Leo).

By having all of these fine actors carrying the film it felt very much like we were in safe hands of a good show. As the narrative develops and the mystery surrounding the disappearances deepens, the film opens itself up to larger discussions of human nature and politics. For example the scenes of torture and human relationships are not so localised to the small town community but of a post 9/11 society where this time of enforcement becomes seemingly the only avenue for the truth. In some respects the claustrophobic nature of the interior spaces and how these individuals navigate them does reflect the Sirkian melodramas of the 1950’s. Although swap the garish colours of that period to the dull greys and blues of Deakins and you have an updated version of those films!

The notion of being trapped, from being kept prisoner against your wheel, emotional turmoil, within a maze and your own home all of this adds to the tension of the film as the characters cannot escape their own circumstances. I always find that with a premise as exciting as this, there can only be a lacklustre ending. I was half expecting it here as well, however Villeneuve and the film’s writer Aaron Guzikowski

pull it out of the bag. Cleverly, they weave a narrative that creates a smart and well balances thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat for the duration.

As such, it will be criminal if Villeneuve’s great Prisoners doesn’t get some attention come awards time. However, as every year, there is always one film that AMPAS ignores, I truly hope this isn’t it. Although that being said I championed Lawless last year and that didn’t get a look in! We shall all have to wait and see!

Les Miserables

Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012)les miserables 5/5

When going to the cinema you may not normally need a crash helmet, but for this film I would make an exception. Tom Hooper’s screen adaptation of the beloved stage musical Les Miserables is nothing short of epic. Indeed, halfway through you may need to tend to some surface wounds due to the emotional veracity that this film exhumes. The moment the music begins, it does not stop so, if you are not a fan of little spoken dialogue and spontaneous fits of song then this probably isn’t your cup of tea.

However, as an example of filmmaking this film is nothing short of spectacular. Victor Hugo’s harrowing novel leaps from the screen in explicit grandeur right from the offset. The first number ‘Look Down’ blasts onto the screen amidst crashing waves and 50 extras pulling a gigantic war ship back into harbour. Quite clearly Hooper has banished subtlety completely and quite rightly so. In order to pay tribute to the longest running musical in the West End, the end product couldn’t have been a shrinking violet scared of its old shadow. Of course this isn’t the first musical to be put onto the screen, and with the box office receipts increasing all the time, it surely won’t be the last. Although, what makes this an exciting ride is not just the music and score but the fact that all of the actors were singing live during filming. As such, this gives the performances a volatile edge whereby the audience feels closer to the characters they are watching on the big screen.

Musicals have been on a decline from their heyday in the 30’s and 40’s and a part of me thinks the reason for this is that they tend to moddle coddle them. An example of this is Joel Schumacher’s film version of the Phantom of the Opera (2004), as even though it is gorgeous to look at, there is a sense that it fell underneath the weight of itself. There never really seemed to be that electric atmosphere that should have been instant from the first frame. As such, what was left was a tepid adventure, which should have been piping hot. Luckily for us, Les Mis compensated for this by exaggerating all of its production values.

Now, when you place stars in singing roles there are bound to be some ‘iffy’ decisions in casting. Let’s not forget the slightly off key moments of Mamma Mia (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008). Although, it seems that everybody who was cast could sing, this is a blessing because all too regularly, star values come between actual ‘talents’. Indeed, Anne Hathaway’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is a standout and will give her an award on Oscar night. As well as this Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter all create well rounded characters. But the one that I am most surprised about is Russell Crowe, who plays the antagonist Javert with aplomb and better yet, I thought he was one of the strongest singers!

In summary, if films with emotional punch, grand visuals and strong performances are your bag then you will fall in love with this beloved musical all over again.