Friday, December 22, 2017

Movie Review: “The Greatest Showman”

The Greatest Showman

***** out of 5
105 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements including a brawl
20th Century Fox

Article first published at

There’s no better feeling than when a film takes you by complete surprise. By the time the credits rolled for The Greatest Showman I was obsessed. Expectations were not very high walking in. Fox’s advertising has relied extensively on the fact that the film’s songs — yes, it is a full-blown musical — are “from the Academy Award winning lyricists of La La Land.”

No movie left me more cold last year than White Privilege: The Musical. It also looked like it was trying way too hard to be Moulin Rouge 2. Not that that would have been a horrible thing, but I was just hoping it could manage to be its own thing, even if owing more than a little debt to it. Well low and behold, The Greatest Showman is officially my favorite film of 2017.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up! Behold the story of P.T. Barnum and his rise to becoming The Greatest Showman! Beginning with his meager days as the son of a poor tailor (Ellis Rubin with Ziv Zaifman providing vocals) and meeting the love of his life in the young and rich Charity (Skylar Dunn), Barnum sets off to prove he’s more than a worthless street rat after Charity leaves for finishing school. Cut to adulthood and Barnum has a steady job and whisks Charity away where the couple now have two children and live very happily.

But Barnum wants more. Soon enough, he has the grand idea to open a curiosity show featuring everything from a bearded lady (Keala Settle) to a dwarf named General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) to a brother/sister trapeze act: Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). With the funding help of playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron), Barnum has just the show he’s always dreamed of. And what would a three-ring circus be without a little drama in the form of Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson, vocals by Loren Allred).

If it weren’t for studio embargoes I would have proclaimed my love for The Greatest Showman for a while . But now I can finally let everyone know that this is the best holiday pick. Even if you don’t love musicals, there’s plenty to enjoy. Jackman gives another excellent performance after bidding farewell and adieu to Wolverine earlier this year in Logan, and he’s surrounded by a top notch cast to back him up.

Efron continues to prove he’s not just that guy from those High School Musical movies and makes a fantastic pairing with Zendaya. The duos’ “Rewrite the Stars” is a literal showstopper. When the scene came to an end, I literally looked at my colleague next to me and exclaimed, “Holy (expletive)!” It’s that good! Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have completely redeemed themselves after the failure that was La La Land’s cloying nature.

Every song is performed at full tilt vying to be the best song on the soundtrack, but the true standouts are “A Million Dreams,” “The Other Side,” “Tightrope,’ and, of course, “Rewrite the Stars.” The song “This Is Me” has already garnered a Golden Globe nomination — along with Best Actor and Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy — but there’s a smorgasbord of goodness here.

As if the performances aren’t enough, director Michael Gracey gives us the best musical since Moulin Rouge and Chicago. While it may not quite be considered Best Picture worthy, it’s absolutely one of the year’s best. Every scene is shot (Seamus McGarvey) and edited (Joe Hutshing) with precision. I won’t be surprised if it winds up being nominated for Oscars in those categories, along with plenty of other technical awards. Everything comes together beautifully to give us the spectacular spectacular we’ve been waiting for.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

*** 1/2
152 minutes!
Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at 

A few months ago The Dark Tower was released to dismal reviews. While I didn’t love what Sony Pictures cobbled together, I was just about the only person I know who didn’t despise it the second the credits rolled. As a Tower “junkie” fellow fans could not believe I didn’t hate the film considering how indepth my reading of the Tower was. Now, I find myself on the flipside of the fence gazing at the Star Wars fanboys as they proclaim The Last Jedi the greatest entry since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s not. While far from a bad film by any means — it’s absolutely entertaining — it has a lot of issues.

Picking up right where The Force Awakens left off, the Resistance is facing an evacuation led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). A fight ensues against the First Order with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leading the way to both save the day and lose most of their fighters in the process. Meanwhile, General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) is enduring the wrath of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) for failing to prevent the evacuation. The race is on as the Resistance heads for cover with the First Order hot on their tail while Rey (Daisy Ridley) commences Jedi training under the tutelage of AWOL Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the adorably Porg-infested island of Ahch-To. Oh yeah, and like a million other subplots to drag out the 152 minute runtime.

Now don’t get me wrong, The Last Jedi is hugely enjoyable. So long as you turn your brain off. Meaning there are lots of things that just may infuriate you if you think about it too long. The biggest offenses include Rey’s heritage, Snoke, and plot contrivance/convenience/coincidence. Not to mention the final scene features a flaw perfected by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Director Rian Johnson has clearly been through the Disney/Marvel School of Screenwriting. Which also means there are jokes. Tons of jokes. I was happy with them. There’s never anything wrong with a little levity.

The actors all fall right back into their roles as expected. New characters are hit and miss. Some may instantly be smitten with the naive-yet-energetic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) after they warm up to her. Others may be instantly put off by codebreaker DJ (Benicio del Toro), the man Rose and Finn (John Boyega) hire for help. The best surprise comes in the form of a character from episodes past. Fans may shed a tear or two.

The plotting sometimes makes hyperdrive leaps into nonsense with some scenes and situation stretched to their breaking points. But the action and thrills is where the film mostly succeeds. And characters suddenly pop up where they need to be right when they need to be there. As I said, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is mindless popcorn entertainment hiding under the guise of something bigger — it is the middle movie in a trilogy after all.

Both The Force Awakens, and even more so Rogue One, are better movies. The Last Jedi is definitely bigger, but that doesn’t always mean better. I fear that with Disney looking to pump out a new Star Wars film every year, for those of us not as fully invested it may start to wear thin. At least if they only set the bar as high as this. The Star Wars franchise is finally coasting on fanboy service. For the rest, may the Force truly be with us.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Movie Review: “The Disaster Artist”

The Disaster Artist

***** out of 5
104 minutes
Rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity

Article first published at

Oh hai! A lot of films have vied for the title of “worst film ever made.” OK, maybe not vied for, but a lot of them are certainly deserving. There are those just trying to be bad — Sharknado — and those so inept it boggles the mind like Birdemic. Or even better, The Room. Some may hail Ed Wood as the worst director of all time, but you have to consider when his films were made and their budgets.

In the case of director/producer/writer/star Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, Wiseau makes Wood look like a true auteur. And according to James Franco’s biographical film The Disaster Artist — based on co-star Greg Sestero’s book of the same name (co-written with Tom Bissell) — at least $5 million was somehow sunk into it. Considering that amount was disclosed while still filming means there was even more to be spent. Probably the most telling aspect of all.

There’s no denying, The Room is a terrible film, but it also deserves the “praise,” cult status, and even celebration it has developed over the years. On the flip side, Franco’s The Disaster Artist is a smartly written, brilliantly directed, and hilariously acted piece of filmmaking that manages to be so surreal and authentic that it damn near feels like a documentary. The Disaster Artist is a spectacular glimpse behind the velvet curtain at just how wrong a production can go before it even starts.

It’s 1998, San Francisco, and Greg (Dave Franco) is an aspiring actor suffering through classes with no prospects. Until the day he bears witness to Tommy (Franco) literally hanging from the rafters during a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire in class. The two strike up a very unexpected friendship as Greg learns that Tommy has money coming from somewhere and an accent from nowhere. Eventually, after they move to L.A. together, Tommy gets the brilliant idea to make his own movie since no one in Hollywood will cast them.

The Disaster Artist is surreal to the extreme. It’s a film based on a book based on the production of one of the worst films ever made. What we also have is one of the year’s best films based on one of the worst films ever made. Franco pulls triple duty as director/writer/star (much like Wiseau himself) — word on the set is that he directed the film never breaking character — and puts in his best performance yet. It truly is a transformation. I know I would never want to spend time in Tommy’s skin, so thank you, Mr. Franco!

The rest of the cast are every bit as good as James. His younger brother Dave gives his all bringing a sweet naivete to Greg who just wants to become more than a bit player in one episode of Malcolm in the Middle. The rest of the Franco gang shows up with Seth Rogen stealing scenes as Sandy Schklair, the poor script supervisor who is continuously blown away with Tommy’s ineptitude. He just can never wrap his head around why they would build an alley set when there’s a literal alley right outside. It’s also pretty amazing to watch scenes from The Room reenacted with the film’s actors doing everything they can to be as bad as the original cast didn’t know they were. Prepare for lots of cameos.

If you haven’t seen The Room, see it before going into The Disaster Artist. But there’s still plenty to love if you go in blind. James as Tommy is a revelation and career milestone — as is the film itself. Considering where it all began just makes the film an even bigger accomplishment. It seems critics can be scared to declare comedies as best films of the year, but for anyone who’s ever been wanting to, here’s one of the best. The Disaster Artist is a comedy so good it’s tearing me apart!