Hugh Jackman

The Greatest Showman

03/01/17

Okay, so we need to get one thing clear: The Greatest Showman is in no way a biopic. It may purport to tell the tale of PT Barnum, but it’s so far removed from the insalubrious truth that it’s more accurately filed under fiction. It borrows Barnum’s name, that’s all, and a few details from his life. Otherwise, it’s pure fantasy: a complete reimagining of the infamous freak show.

That’s not to say it doesn’t work; it’s a highly entertaining and lively piece of cinema, beautifully produced and performed with precision and wit. It’s bright and exhilarating, with catchy tunes. No doubt about it: this is fun.

In this version of events, PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is a striver: a poor tailor’s son with huge ambitions, who falls in love with Charity (Michelle Williams), a rich, upper-class girl, and is determined to provide her with the lifestyle he believes she deserves. He’s a risk taker and a charlatan, but he’s charming with a big heart, and disarms everyone he meets. When they fall on hard times, he decides to open a circus, showcasing such ‘freaks’ as a bearded lady, conjoined twins, a dwarf and a fat man. In his fictional incarnation, he’s not exploiting them, exactly, although he is making money from their efforts; he’s celebrating them, offering redemption to those society has rejected, helping them to forge a kind of family. And all progresses swimmingly, until he can’t resist the charms of opera singer, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems like a passport into the higher echelons of society. He risks everything to promote her, and it all comes crashing down.

It’s utterly enchanting, even if it isn’t true, and there are some excellent set pieces, such as the freaks’ defiant song of self-determination, This Is Me, led by bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), whose voice is just spectacular. Jackman is very good too, and Michelle Williams proves again that she’s a real chameleon, able to convince – it seems – in almost any role.

I was disappointed, though, to learn that Rebecca Ferguson doesn’t sing her own songs  (she is dubbed by Loren Allred); Ferguson is a fine actress with a face just made for the big screen, but was there really no one available who could deliver the whole deal? It seems a shame to give the part to someone who can’t play it, just because she is a ‘name’. There are enough stars in this film to carry it, surely?

Still, quibbles aside, this is eminently watchable, itself fulfilling (ironically perhaps) what it claims were Barnum’s aims: it’s rare indeed to see such a diverse range of performers given such prominent roles in a movie. It has the feelgood factor in bucketloads, and is eminently suitable for a family audience.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

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Logan

03/03/17

Like many other cinema-goers, I’m getting close to superhero overload. Much as I enjoyed the output of Marvel and DC in my comic-reading childhood, the plethora of recent movie adaptations is starting to feel oppressive. But the trailer for Logan suggests that writer/director James Mangold’s take on the X-Men saga has something fresh to offer, so I resolve to give it a chance. And it’s largely a good call.

Unlike most other superheroes, Logan – or Wolverine to use his stage name – has only ever been portrayed by one actor, Hugh Jackman. Here, the term ‘super’ hardly applies because we see him towards the end of his career, a battle-scarred, embittered survivor, addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs and barely holding down a job as a stretch limo chauffeur. (A scene where he is called upon to drive a rowdy hen party is particularly effective – has it really come to this?)

Oh sure, he can still sprout a set of quality steak knives from his knuckles when circumstances dictate it but even this causes him considerable pain. His old mentor, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is also in a bad way, semi-senile and afflicted by violent fits that cause all manner of problems (and not just for him). The two former X-Men live in a secret desert hideaway, tended by their albino mutant servant, Caliban (Stephen Merchant making a credible stab at a sort-of straight role). Caliban’s super power is that he has a highly developed sense of smell, which let’s face it, as super powers go is somewhat underwhelming, but he’s also a dab hand with an electric iron, which means that Logan always has a clean, pressed shirt to wear for work.

Things get complicated when Logan is introduced to Laura (Dafne Keen) a child who has been transformed by evil scientist, Dr Rice (Richard E. Grant), using genetic surgery so that she’s now a chip off the old adamantium block, with all the same skills as Wolverine and a tendency to kick off at the least provocation. She is, in the weirdest possible way, Logan’s daughter. It turns out that there’s a whole bunch of genetically modified kids on the run and Dr Rice and an army of gun-wieldng henchmen are determined to recapture them. Bred originally as super-soldiers, they have proved to be failures (too ‘human’) and now need to be eliminated. Logan has little option but to lend them his support.

Much running, leaping and fighting ensues. Logan’s habit of shish-kebabbing the heads of his enemies is particularly grisly and the film occasionally hangs on to its 15 certificate by the skin of its teeth, but the various chases and skirmishes are skilfully devised and genuinely exciting, even if it feels as though the film would benefit from being twenty minutes shorter. Like most movies of the genre, it also features a plot hole the size of Sumatra. If Dr Rice is such a genius, why hasn’t he realised that sending in a hundred men armed with conventional weapons isn’t the best way to go when a single adamantium bullet would stop Logan in his tracks once and for all? But that, I suppose, would be a very short and very unsatisfying story.

As it stands, Logan is an effective metaphor for the process of ageing and, in a strange way, an elegy for the superhero concept itself. Mangold has taken some bravura risks with the X-Men format here and they largely pay off, making this one of the most watchable of Marvel’s recent endeavours. I’ve only one real complaint. The trailer uses Johnny Cash’s fabulous version of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails to great effect. As the credits roll on Logan, we’re fobbed off with a different and far less appropriate Cash song and this feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

But musical misgivings aside, this is well worth your time and money.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Eddie the Eagle

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Eddie The Eagle

07/04/16

The British public loves an underdog and nowhere was this trait better exemplified than in the case of ‘Eddie the Eagle’ (real name Michael Edwards), who, at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, caught the attention of press and public alike by competing in the ski jump. He always knew he would finish last (though it should be said that at the time, he did set a new British record) but his hapless, charming manner somehow managed to make him an overnight star.

Dexter Fletcher’s watchable biopic fashions an entertaining (albeit, as has been suggested, somewhat inaccurate) account of the events leading up to his ‘triumph.’ It begins with Eddie’s childhood and his obsession with one day representing his country at the Olympics – in one sport or another – much to the chagrin of his plasterer father, Terry (Keith Allen), who urges him to get a sensible job. Soon enough, young Eddie has grown up to be Taron Egerton, gamely trying to disguise his good looks behind a series of gurning facial expressions. Eddie fails to make the Olympic skiing team, largely because of the sneering disapproval of team leader, Dustin Target (Tim McInnery), who clearly thinks that the sport should not be open to the working classes. But then Eddie discovers that the British don’t actually have a ski jumping team, and this seems to offer him a golden opportunity to compete without any, um, competition – so he hotfoots it to Gstaad. Here he comes to the attention of former champion ski jumper, Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), now a washed up alcoholic. Eddie begs Bronson to coach him and eventually he succumbs…

This is a charming if unchallenging film, that galumphs along at breakneck pace, rarely pausing to draw breath. Fletcher’s challenge here was to create suspense in a story that we all know the ending to and he largely succeeds, taking us to vertiginous heights and sending us straight down the slope. The story is essentially a bromance, the chemistry between Egerton and Jackman is a winner and there’s a last minute cameo by Christopher Walken, which is always a bonus.

The film doesn’t go beyond Calgary, which is probably just as well, as the reality is that Edwards is now working as a plasterer, the very trade that his father always urged him to pursue. Fame is fleeting of course, but this may be Eddie the Eagle’s second moment in the spotlight and it’s well worth the price of admission.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

X Men: Days of Future Past

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07/02/15

Of the many superhero franchises out there, (and there does seem to be an awful lot of them) the X Men films are the ones that interest me the least, so perhaps it’s not really surprising that I’ve waited this long to catch up with the latest instalment. It seems to me as po-faced and inert as the rest of them and somehow the bewildering array of mutants with the power to do ‘incredible’ things – bend metal, set objects on fire, affect the weather, make balloon animals… (OK, I made the last one up, but you catch my drift?) somehow never manages to ignite my interest, let alone suspend my belief.

DFP opens in a gloomy dystopian future (aren’t all futures like that in the cinema?) where colossal killing machines are on the verge of wiping out Mutantkind and where Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart sit around looking constipated, while other, younger mutants run frantically around being killed (or are they?It’s that kind of movie.) In a last-ditch effort to save the world, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back in time to the year 1973, to try and prevent the introduction of the very events that have ignited this grim future. Once there, he has to reconnect with Charles Xavier (James MacAvoy) and persuade him to lend a hand. There then follows a convoluted storyline that’s based around the assassination of JFK and there’s even a cameo by President Richard Nixon (Peter Camancho), who it seems might be just the man to initiate a future disaster. Meanwhile, Doctor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) has created mutant-seeking robots and is itching to turn them loose…

Amidst all the ponderous twists and turns, DFP offers one truly brilliant sequence, the scene where Quicksilver (Evan Peters) runs around in super-fast mode, altering the potentially fatal consequences of a police shootout. It’s extraordinary and all too brief and there remains the conviction that this was the set piece that director Bryan Singer was planning all along and that the rest of the film was just an excuse to set it up. Sadly, Quicksilver doesn’t have much else to do in the movie, which is a shame, because if there’d be more of his antics, this review might have been a tad more enthusiastic. But for me, this was overly complicated nonsense, expertly mounted, glossily filmed and featuring a host of talented actors, all of whom needed every ounce of their skills in order not to look bored.

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney