Inclusive 'Greatest Showman' soars

By Tom Von Malder | Apr 15, 2018
Photo by: 20th Century Fox Pictures Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum and his oddities entertain in "The Greatest Showman," an original movie musical.

Owls Head — The Greatest Showman (20th Century Fox, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 104 min.). In this time of the me-too movement and other battles for equality, the timing could not be better for this original musical based on the life of P.T. Barnum and his circus of oddities, set around 1870 New York City. The film is energetically performed, staged excellently by director Michael Gracey and features wonderful, often anthematic songs by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (lyricists for "La La Land," whose song, "City of Stars" won an Oscar). "This Is Me" earned an Oscar nomination as Best Original Song and won the Golden Globe in that category. The screenplay is by Bill Condon (writer on the musicals "Dreamgirls," "Chicago") and Jenny Bicks. The film also earned Golden Globe nominations as Best Picture and for star Hugh Jackman (Wolverine in the "X-Men" franchise, "Les Miserables," "Oklahoma!").

The film's plot is loosely based on Barnum's life and how he can to create the Barnum & Bailey's Circus, which only closed for good in May last year, after147 years in operation. It is a rags-to-riches story, with Barnum's (Jackman) drive for success fueled by the mistreatment his father suffered at the hands of his employer. That employer would be the father of Barnum's future wife, Charity (an often radiant Michelle Williams, known for "Manchester By the Sea," "Brokeback Cowboy," which earned her  two of her four Oscar nominations, and TV's "Dawson's Creek").

The film is no strict biography and certainly the uplifting songs are very much of today -- there is even some hip-hop dance moves -- and not period appropriate for the 1870s. And despite the film's somewhat heavy theme of acceptance for those who are physically different, the film is a lot of fun, and that starts from the stunningly-staged opening. The film opens with the wordless chant of "whoa" that leads into the celebratory "The Greatest Show." Jackman's Barnum is first seen only in silhouette, wearing Barnum's trademark top hat, with silhouetted rows of audience members behind him. As he turns, Barnum enters the arena, everything turns to bright colors and the song's verses begin -- only to fade out, along with the circus cast and audience, a short time later. Flashbacks begin as the older Barnum becomes the reflection of his boyhood self (Ellis Rubin).

Gracey often uses songs to connect time spans, as in the montage of Barnum growing up and finally returning to claim his childhood sweetheart, Charity, who is happy to run off with him, against her father's wishes and disinheritance. As they sing "A Million Dreams," they dance on a rooftop -- recalling such classic film musicals as "An American in Paris" -- and their family grows by two young girls. When the company Barnum works for goes bankrupt, he finagles a $10,000 bank loan and buys what he calls "Barnum's Museum of Curiosities." Business is not good, as the museum is rather static, but then Barnum, who has been noticing the disdain for "freaks" in the city, gets the idea of adding human oddities to his show, even if some, like the world's fattest man, is more fictional -- thanks to a pillow -- than not. Two key early finds are tiny man Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), aka Tom Thumb, and songstress Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), who is the Bearded Lady.

While the circus -- the name is changed after the word is used in a nasty newspaper review of the show -- is a hit with everyday people, Barnum still seeks approval from the upper classes, so he hires playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron of "High School Musical" 1-3, "Hairspray"). A subplot has Philip become smitten with aerialist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), whose mixed race makes their tentative romance frowned upon. They do declare their love for each other during the number, "Rewrite the Stars," which has Anne flying through the empty arena on a rope, to be joined by Philip towards the end.

Also very well staged is when Barnum recruits Philip over drinks, dancing and some nicely done bottle tossing in a bar. "This Is Me" is sung by Lettie and the oddities, after Barnum prevents the oddities from mixing with the city's rich. In another attempt to woo the upper crust, Barnum had brought European singing sensation, Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), to America. An eventual tour with Lind not only threatens Barnum's finances, but also his marriage. Whether there ever was a dalliance between the two is still of historical dispute, but in this film, Lind is the aggressor. By the way, Lind's song, "Never Enough," actually sung by Loren Alred, is my least liked song.

The bonus material is excellent and includes a look at the people behind the film (14:05), including the songwriters and choreographer Ashley Wallen and the film's theme of inclusion; plus, a detailed, 70-minute look at the songs with the songwriters going through their creative process and playing some original demos. The idea for the film started after Jackman hosted the Oscars in 2009. A five-part extra (32:12) looks at the spectacle, including the dancing, 10 weeks of rehearsals, the lighting with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, the concept art and the orchestra and score by John Debney and Joseph Trapanese. There are galleries of concept art and storyboards, as well as direct access to each of the nine songs and their reprises with optional sing-along lyrics. In fact, the whole movie can be watched in sing-along mode. Finally, there is audio commentary by director Gracey. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 4 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Molly's Game (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 140 min.). Jessica Chastian ("Miss Sloane," the upcoming "X-Men: Dark Phoenix") does a lot of voice-over narration as she plays Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier, whose down-slope career is derailed by an accident and then, after she moves to Los Angeles to live a life with fun -- rather than the rigorous training for skiing -- she falls into running a high-stakes poker game, whose players include movie stars, athletes and other famous people. When her boss (Jeremy Strong as Dean Keith) threatens to fire her, she moves the weekly game to another location and takes it over. Eight years running games in Los Angeles are followed by two years in New York. However, two years after she gave up the games, she is arrested by the FBI and accused of laundering money for the Russian mob.

In her opening narration, Molly says that only her own name is real; all the other names have been changed for obvious reasons. The real Bloom's autobiography was adapted by director/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (losing to James Ivory and "Call Me By Your Name"). Sorkin's previous writing includes the TV shows "The West Wing," "The Newsroom" and "Sports Night" and the films "Moneyball" and "The Social Network," with both films' screenplays nominated for Oscars and the script for "The Social Network" winning the Golden Statuette. This was Sorkin's first time directing a film. Next up for him is a film version of "A Few Good Men," the successful play he wrote in 1992.

While on its surface, the film is about running high-stake poker games and the type of men who participate in them, it also touches on father-daughter relationships (Kevin Costner plays her demanding, psychologist dad, most seen  at the beginning and end of the movie).Molly's at-first reluctant ally is criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba). Like many a Sorkin character, Molly has an easy facility with words.

Structurally, the film uses multiple flashbacks. Initially jumping forward 12 years from her skiing accident to the morning she was awoken by a call from the FBI, saying they were outside her apartment to arrest her. The film moves briskly despite its length. Occasionally, graphics are used to indicate poker hands. The only bonus feature is a slight featurette that, at only three minutes, still manages to give away most of the film. Grade: film 3 stars; extra dog

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