The Greatest Showman: an original musical loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum and his “abnormals assemble” crew. You have two choices with this film: enjoy it as a (very) lightweight piece of entertainment, or thumb through the catalogue of issues with its presentation as an actual ‘movie’. My biggest gripe is the songs – they’re all too similar and formulaic; designed by committee – starting with a quiet talky bit, rapidly build into a punch-the-air, feelgood and uplifting sing-a-long major-key chorus, then ending with a more emotional talky bit. Granted, they’re perfect for a musical, but each one is about twice as long as necessary and the core numbers are continually repeated throughout the entire picture. While it makes the most of the cinematic medium through scale and visual effects, it’s unbelievably stagey and theatrical; essentially begging for a live action theatre run. The story is wafer thin; it is the most positive spin on Barnum’s life told through very broad brushstrokes, and whenever someone is about to do a bit of real acting (starting to get vaguely emotional) they spontaneously burst in to song! The critic character is a laughably knowing pre-emptive jibe at how the film itself would obviously land; engineered to be popular with the masses but sneered at by critics – and I can understand both sides. Every family member, friend, and colleague that’s seen this has gone to the cinema for multiple viewings and subsequent sing-a-long viewings, yet the critical response is lukewarm at best. The Greatest Showman is hammier than a hog roast and cheesier than a fondue: it’s unashamedly naff, but is clearly plugging a massive gap in the popular and musical markets.
LOGAN [Spoilers]: as Professor X’s health deteriorates Logan has to keep him – and the first new mutant in years – safe from all the bad guys. This is unlike any other big superhero film you’ve seen: grisly, balls-out, 15-rated (borderline 18!). There’s lots of “Fucks”, gratuitous boobs, and exploitation-level gore; with claws hacking up limbs & digging in to skulls etc. It’s also a film where the titular hero spends the majority of the runtime hobbling, coughing, and lumbering around like a broken man. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart give an absolute masterclass in character and acting, supplemented by a star-making performance from Dafne Keen. I wouldn’t want to be the actor that has to follow Jackman when the inevitable X-men reboot goes ahead – after 17 years in the role, he is Logan. The action scenes are sparse, but next-level-superb throughout – the highlight being the first time were introduced to Laura (a 10 minute fight-chase). As for flaws, there are only a few minor ones: Stephen Merchant’s horrific accent brings you right out of the film; and it spends a bit too much time introducing and building some minor characters. One of the main criticisms leveled against this is that it’s too “depressing” or “downbeat”, which I assume came from the same people who would prefer to see robots leveling cities. Logan is a character-driven road-trip western film (that happens to contain superheros) rammed with pathos and peril – what’s not to love?! It’s brutal, dark, raw, emotional, and – for me – this is the new standard for ALL future Marvel / Superhero / Comic Book movies.
Prisoners: When two six-year-old children go missing the local detective and one of the parents try to solve this with two completely different methods. This has a great cast, and leads with Jackman and Gyllenhal, who are both in great form; one as an unconventional detective, he other as a pragmatic father with everything to lose. I feel rather sorry for Paul Dano however; he only ever appears to get cast as creepy and/or insane and/or perverted characters. The film’s mood is beautifully crafted: it’s slow, brooding, and intense with lots of sustained anxiety – child abduction is a heavy enough subject, but when you add torture and a potential creepy cult into the mix it’s serious stuff; it reminded me of watching Kill List and feeling suffocated in parts. The city and the suspects are perfectly shot to look grimy, grotty, dilapidated and repulsive. Although it centers on a ‘micro drama’, there are plenty of larger questions and ideas lurking in the background, challenging your viewpoint and making you choose who’s wrong, who’s right, who would you be in this film? Prisoners is a completely gripping and compelling thriller about ordinary people in extreme situation; and while it’s not an ‘enjoyable’ film per sé, it’s completely immersive.
The Wolverine: In a way, Wolverine epitomises everything about Japan that you see through Hollywood films: there’s ninjas everywhere, and everyone knows Katrate; crazy districts full of neon lights and big billboards (Shinjuku and Akihabara); old-fashioned houses with sliding shoji walls and tatami floors; technology and Robots everywhere (in this case a 10ft tall mecha-Samurai!!); temples, on every corner; Yakuza interference – obviously; love hotels, The Bullet Train (Shinkansen); and the Tokyo Tower is in the back of every city shot. Yet, whilst it’s using and abusing all of the lazy ‘This is Japan’ stuff we know, it doesn’t feel like it’s exploiting the culture – there’s a lot of nice touches, from the undestractable pachinko players, salarymen in Osaka looking for hostesses, and things like upright chopsticks in food.
As for the film itself, it feels like three completely separate movies. The first third is a rock solid, well-executed set-up starting in WWII, and laying the ground for the rest of the film. The middle feels like a dip into a tired and clichéd mystery/conspiracy storyline, and the finale – well that just feels like something from a spazzy sci-fi movie, with bald snake-women, giant robots with flaming swords and a whole lot of gratuitous OTT action. I’m surprised at the 12A rating in the UK, as it feels slanted towards a more mature audience than most comic adaptations – including a nice thread of Logan’s dry humour. The Jean Gray plot device is a little hammy, although never going to turn down Famke Yansen in a silky nightgown! Jackman’s on fire, he is the embodiment of Wolverine – down to his permanently-exposed torso – wouldn’t want to be the guy that will inevitably have to re-boot the franchise in 5-10 years as the new Logan. The Japanese cast are also all on form. Overall, The Wolverine is a pretty satisfying comic book movie, but the ever-changing story and tone prevent you from becoming fully immersed in the movie.
Real Steel: in the near future professional boxers have been replaced by robots; this film follows the highs and lows of a struggling ex-boxer in this new era, and relationship with his estranged son. I’ll put it out there straight away – I loved Real Steel. Something else to note up front is that Virgin, HP, Ray Ban, Dr Pepper, Bing, X-Box 720, Wired, Sprint, Budweiser, Beats By Dre & ESPN logos (to name but a few) are shamelessly crowbarred into centre frame at every opportunity. Back to the film, there’s an equally shameless cheese-rammed story of sporting underdogs, and runaway dads, that’s quite predictable but surprisingly well-played. The action is absolutely fantastic – jaw-droppingly impressive CGI helps – especially for the fights, which are amazing to watch. More generally, the film is brilliantly shot and photographed. Jackman’s on good form, and the kid’s not too annoying – all other characters are tertiary stereotypes, like the Russian billionaire and advanced Japanese tech nerds, but they make for great baddies and push a subtle all-American vibe that’s rarely seen at the moment. It’d be easy to dismiss this as ‘Rocky with Robots’, but Real Steel landed every single punch on me; it’s such a boys film, with a classic comeback story, training montages, cool gadgets, big action, robots hitting each other, manliness, and plenty (albeit mostly unintentional) laughs. This is what big-budget movies are all about for me – story, spectacle and entertainment. It’s the most fun I’ve had in the cinema all year, can’t wait for the sequel.
Score: 8.5 /10