Go See it! Black Panther

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Should wealthy and advanced countries share their resources with the world? Are there any advantages to isolationism? What responsibility does Africa have to the black diaspora? What responsibilities does the black diaspora have to Africa? Do world superpowers have to be the world’s police too? Should one’s loyalties be to leaders or to their positions?

These are the ideas wrestled with in Black Panther, which besides being a political drama is also the story of a king who wears a bulletproof catsuit and was in the movie where the Avengers fought each other in an airport parking lot.

Yes, Black Panther has been poised to stand apart from the other Marvel movies, and not just because this is the studio’s first superhero movie (its 18th movie overall) made with a black lead. The film is directed by auteur Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and has an almost all-black cast, with stars like Oscar-winners Lupita Nyong’o and Forest Whitaker, as well as Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, and this year’s Oscar-nominated Daniel Kaluuya. Black Panther comes from a rich comic book history beginning in the Civil Rights Era, and many people are counting on it to be a new trailblazing film, in the vein of last year’s Wonder Woman. It aims high in its entertainment, and its ideas.

So is it as good as all the hype?

Short answer: Yes.

This is a visually stunning movie. The acting is excellent. The attention to detail, particularly in the costumes, is amazing. The film is big and mythic in proportions, but has intimate moments dedicated to character building. The worldbuilding for T’Challa’s country of Wakanda is comparable to Middle Earth.

Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), aka King T’Challa, is the first Marvel hero I would actually trust to lead. The majority of Marvel heroes, from Tony Stark to Star Lord, are varying levels of man-children, but T’Challa is a real leader and role model, full of stoic strength and dignity. He surrounds himself with equally good people, and what makes him such a great leader is that he listens to those around him. I said in my Thor Ragnarok review that all the Marvel heroes were starting to meld together, but T’Challa and his supporting characters all stand as unique and three-dimensional.

I only have two mild critiques. First, is that T’Challa himself doesn’t have a character arc. He begins as a great man and continues to be a great king. He doubts himself briefly, but that disappears. Most of the conflict in the film isn’t because anyone is doubting he would be a good leader. His real arc, going from being blinded by vengeance to showing mercy, was in Civil War, which wasn’t even his movie.

Instead, Black Panther is much more about Wakanda then it is about T’Challa, so Wakanda goes through a character arc, and he just represents it. That makes it sometimes feel like Black Panther is the sequel to half of an origin story we’ve never seen.

But that isn’t really a critique considering how important Wakanda is, and how compelling of a character this setting makes itself out to be. I can’t really do justice to the fictional country here, but I’ve learned a lot by reading what it means to others (I highly recommend this article to learn more about what Black Panther and Wakanda represent for many people: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/black-panther-s-glorious-depiction-wakanda-envisions-africa-black-dreams-ncna849016).

The second critique is that the film does not feel like a Marvel movie. That works well in this case, but there are moments within the film where it seemingly remembers it is a Marvel movie, and then does a Marvel-y thing that feels out of place. I would almost prefer if it hadn’t been associated with Marvel at all, and did not feel like it had to have any action sequences or jokes or any outside references.

However, those moments are few and few between, and don’t distract from the integrity of the film. And in case you’re wondering if this film is just a political history lesson, don’t worry. It’s an extremely entertaining film. It will also just happen to make you think! And isn’t that the best of both worlds?

But ultimately, this film wouldn’t have been made if it weren’t a Marvel movie. Not just because Black Panther is a Marvel comics property, but because Marvel and Disney are the only studios that are either able or willing to take this risk. Maybe they didn’t need to make ten movies starring a white guy named Chris before doing this film, but we’re here now. That’s why I get frustrated when prestigious directors bad mouth superhero films. With all due respect, they are by and large not making the films main audiences- and particularly audiences of color- want and need to see.

Black Panther isn’t just an example of the potential of blockbuster and big-studio successes, but also an example of why superhero movies are important. This is a genre, a space, like ancient mythology, that has the ability to be paired with any other genre to create new and original stories. Logan, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and The Dark Knight are all based in comic books, but all tell different stories, create different worlds, and say different things. As long as filmmakers keep pushing for new ways to tell these stories, the superhero boom isn’t going away, and until everybody gets to see themselves as a hero on screen, I don’t think it should.

I don’t know the full effect Black Panther will have on audiences, or comic book readers who have been waiting to see Wakanda in big screen glory. But I do know that it is a great film, and everyone should see it.

-Madeleine D

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Unrest, Unfair, Unconvincing: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a story about angry, grief-stricken Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand). Her daughter Angela was murdered, and the police have seemingly dropped the case. The officers on the case are Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Willoughby is a well-meaning cop, dying of cancer, and Dixon is a dumb, racist, temperamental, corrupt cop. Mildred rents out three billboards that send a loud and clear message:

-Raped while dying

-And still no arrests?

-How come, Chief Willoughby?

This film has been getting critical acclaim and is leading the awards season, so I would like to raise three billboards of my own:

-7 Oscar Nominations.

-Best Screenplay and Picture?

-How come, Academy?

The biggest criticism of Three Billboards has been its treatment of race. Several people throughout the film explain that Dixon is racist and has a history of torturing the people of color in Ebbing. He uses the n-word, makes threats, and this is all used to establish him as a terrible man. Our (good?) police chief, Willoughby, explains not-so-helpfully why he keeps him on the force- “”You get rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you’d have three cops left and all of them would hate the f-gs.”

Once Dixon needs to be redeemed through, his racism, which he never shows remorse for or makes efforts to change, is completely forgotten about. It’s treated, as Insider’s Jacob Shamsian notes, as “a character quirk.”

I don’t doubt that there are cops who feel this way, and it’s not that a movie that is supposedly about redemption and empathy and human complexity can’t redeem a despicable person. That’s what I believe we have to do in real life. But the redemptive arc for Dixon is shallow, unfulfilled, and he never seems remorseful. Discussing institutional racism in your movie is an admirable thing to do if you’re going to treat it with weight and actually have thoughts about it. But British director McDonagh is much more interested in throwing sensitive topics around as coloring to his black-and-white sketch of what he believes is middle-America, and it’s utterly unconvincing and disgustingly manipulative.

Another example- Mildred’s black friend, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested by Dixon to spite Mildred, and she isn’t released until the end of the film, and this is… cool with everyone? Not talked about? That’s not a commentary on racism, that’s terrible writing and using black characters for the advancement of white ones.

In my screenwriting class, my teacher tells us to make sure every scene has conflict, but that doesn’t mean “every scene has to have a screaming match.” Three Billboards is very much ready to have a screaming match, or an explosion, torture, domestic abuse, burning someone alive, or horrific beating in every scene. Almost every single scene escalates to 100, leaving no room to breathe or think. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson do a fine job with their roles, but all of the things they are asked to do are so actor-y, so unnatural, and so over-the-top that I honestly don’t think they should have been nominated at all. I never had to read Frances McDormand’s face to figure out what she was feeling, she was either saying it or destroying something.

I recently watched Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. It’s a masterpiece, and it also deals with the escalation of anger. It and Three Billboards are very different films, but what Do the Right Thing does that Three Billboards doesn’t do is spend the majority of the film building characters and setting up the tension, before making the violence climax and thus actually hurt. Watching the riot in that film feels like a gut punch. Three Billboards is constantly pummeling me, so nothing feels like anything after a while.

I never felt like any of the characters were real. I could not imagine any of the characters in situations beyond the ones they were in. I suppose that this could be interpreted as a hyper-reality, like the film is becoming what grief and anger feels like. But it’s not presented that way. This is portrayed as a story where someone really does all of these things.

It’s a film being billed as a movie for our divided times. But as I see it, it’s a harmful one. It tells you your anger is justified. And true, a lot of anger is, and Mildred’s certainly is. But there are no repercussions for the actions she or Dixon takes because of their anger. They suffer indirectly- Mildred is still miserable and Dixon gets burned because of Mildred’s attack on the police station, but they are never punished for their actions. They never see repercussions. They are the only ones that affect each other, even though their villainous acts affect everyone else.

Anger isn’t the problem, it’s what you do with it, and all the characters in the film act in an evil way with it, and those actions are excused. Telling people they can be angry and do whatever they want with that anger is a dangerous message. Three Billboards isn’t just a movie about mean people. It’s a mean movie, one that wants to say a lot of important things but doesn’t have the heart to actually finish the job.

-Madeleine D

I Would Probably Invest in a Ponzi Scheme If Jack Black Sang To Me: The Polka King

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Netflix’s new movie The Polka King is a biopic of the real life Polka King of Pennsylvania, Jan Lewan. In 2004 he was arrested for running a Ponzi scheme to finance his various polka enterprises. The film is based off the documentary The Man Who Would be Polka King and notes the real Jan Lewan wrote about his life while in jail.

I knew this movie was about this scheme before I went in. The trailers and film summary tell you the movie is going to be about the scheme. Yet it wasn’t until halfway through the film I realized, with a start, Hold on, Lewan is scheming people out of their money!

Why did it take me so long to realize the film was portraying Lewan’s Ponzi scheme, when I knew that was what the film was about? How was I so surprised by what I knew before I pushed play?

What I saw while watching was a kind, hard-working family man who was just so… so genuine. Sure, part of it was that he was played by Jack Black, but his dreams and unabashed hope for America and love for his family and unyielding work ethic made me forget that what he was doing was technically illegal. People were giving him the money willingly! He was giving people generous interest on their money (at least for a while). What’s so wrong with that?

So in a way, Jan Lewan, and The Polka King, schemed me. I was duped in a film about people being duped. So what you should take away from this is that if Lewan asked me to invest with him, I probably would. I would be a tremendous sucker. Please don’t call me up for (my little bit of babysitting) money. But that also means, at least to this particular viewer, that the film not only pulled me in and made me sympathetic for the criminal protagonist, but also made me into one of the characters. It put me in the place of the investor who fell for his charm and earnestness.  

Now the film doesn’t get high marks exactly for how they make Lewan likeable. Patriotism, love for family, hard working, lovable goofiness, and an accent is the easiest and most black and white way to make a protagonist likeable. But the film does get high marks for using this as a way to make the morality of the situation grey. How can such a good man get punished so harshly? Should he even be imprisoned- did he really understand what he was doing? But he did, and now I’m angry that I’m defending him.

Ultimately, the film is able to stay pretty unbiased towards the material. It presents Lewan as a well-intentioned man who did wrong, which is how he was described in real life. The audience is the one that is left frustrated on how to respond.

Jack Black grounds the film with his Lewan being a wily, whimsical man with dreams and a dark ambition. He does most of the heavy lifting as his supporting cast get to ramble free with their own kooky stories. Jenny Slate and Jason Schwartzman are fun to watch, but are really there just to give stakes to the greater story. Their individual side plots do not have any thematic resonance on their own. Most of their contributions are true though, and the entire film is fairly accurate, which just goes to show how finding the right story is all you need for a compelling real-life movie. This movie is the true The Greatest Showman.

However, it’s the job of a film, a piece of art, to take a real-life story and find the thematic, universal message within it, and the failure of The Polka King to tie everything together and make each thread of the movie count, not just let it be filler distraction, makes it a weaker film.

This is director Maya Forbes’ second feature film, her directorial debut being 2015’s incredible Infinitely Polar Bear, a tender semi-autobiographical story about her own childhood. The Polka King is a less precise film, maybe because it is more of a comedy and doesn’t have Forbe’s own life and personal stakes in it. With a little more care, every scene and storyline in Polka King could have hit home perfectly. With a little more thought, the film could have relied less on Jack Black to pull the storylines of the other characters into his own.

That being said, The Polka King is a satisfying, whimsical real-life fable and cautionary tale that tells a story too crazy to be true. Just be warned- you might find yourself sympathizing with someone who would try to take all your money. Bleeding hearts (and get-rich-quick suckers) be warned.

-Madeleine D

Drama In Front Of and Behind the Camera: All the Money in the World

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“That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.” George Carlin

J. Paul Getty was not just the richest man who walked the earth in 1973, he was one of the richest man who had ever walked it. He found oil in Saudi Arabia and was an infamous penny pincher. He achieved the success we all dream of in one way or another.

But Getty, no matter how smart or savvy or wary he was, lacked the humanity we all hope we have. On July 10th of 1973, Getty’s grandson, Paul Getty Jr., was kidnapped in Rome by Italian gangsters. They asked for $17 million as ransom. Getty refused, and in the end, only paid $2 million, because that was what he could get as a tax credit.

It makes you wonder, was it the money that turned Getty Sr. into stone? Or was it in him all along? Or do you have to stay asleep to some things to keep the American dream? To believe it’s worth it?

With Getty Sr.  as an immovable force, it’s up to Getty Jr.’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to fight for her son’s life, and Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to help negotiate Getty Jr.’s release. As they suffer loss after loss, with Getty Jr. slipping from their grip, they’ll wake up to some realities of their own.

To me, All the Money in the World  is as intense as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. While Dunkirk relies on the cold hand of time, All the Money in the World relies on the anticipation that something is going to happen, I was just not sure what. This might be because I didn’t know anything about the Getty story going in. I’m sure it will be different for everyone, but for me, watching a boy my age being kidnapped, tortured, with my own mother sitting beside me, watching the mother on screen do everything in her power, well, it got to me. I even nearly threw up during one scene (you’ll know it when you see it), and I had my eyes closed. The film leaves every scene with a cliffhanger, keeping the audience as frustrated as the characters, pulling us along and then making us lose hope over and over again, until the final scene where we can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s the kind of engrossing experience that only film can provide.

Christopher Plummer has been getting all the publicity for replacing Kevin Spacey mere weeks before the film’s release date, but this truly is an ensemble film. Plummer, though, does deserve all the credit he is getting. He makes nuance out of a role that would have just been stitched together with thematic lines. His and director Ridley Scott’s professionalism and talent are the real takeaway from the reshoots.

Michelle Williams gives a nomination-worthy performance as Abigail Getty Harris. She infuses grit and determination into the character, and she rejects every normal “hysterical mother” trope given to her, holding the screen in a fierce grip that puts her among the best female performances of the year.

Mark Wahlberg makes no impression here. I suppose his character is necessary, but… you know. Meh Wahlberg. Not a performance that, I dare say, is worth eight times more than Michelle Williams’. (http://www.vulture.com/2018/01/michelle-williams-paid-8-times-less-than-mark-wahlberg-for-all-the-money-in-the-world.html).

On the other side of the story, Romain Duris as Cinquanta, aka, “the nice kidnapper,” is incredibly charismatic and gives a tender performance. He and Charlie Plummer have the chemistry it takes to make the scenes of Paul’s imprisonment more compelling than they are written to be, and it’s a shame he is being overlooked in coverage of the film.

I like to say that a movie needs to justify its existence. Why is it a film I should spend money and time on? Particularly for live-action dramas.For example, I didn’t think last year’s Loving or this year’s Darkest Hour elevated their respective material to a cinematic level. Both of those films were high quality, but I didn’t gain something from watching them I couldn’t have gained from reading a Wikipedia article about their subjects.

All the Money in the World gives the audience multiple reasons for why it is a movie. The film is thrilling, and the adrenaline from watching it is not something you’ll get from a detached experience of reading it. And the film, no matter how bluntly, tries to say something about wealth, and create themes out of the historical events. Most of the time, it succeeds. And it’s an exciting ride nevertheless. It kept me engaged and left me with things to think about.

Ironically enough, a film that explores the selfishness and corruption of Paul Getty Sr., and his refusal to awaken to his family’s needs, has been a film that through behind-the-scenes drama has been a part of Hollywood’s own awakening to its corruption. Kevin Spacey’s sexual assault allegations were punished, and the revelations about the pay disparity between Williams and Wahlberg have pushed home the persistent gender pay gap. Let’s just hope Hollywood, unlike Getty, doesn’t try to fix things cheaply.

-Madeleine D

Take a Cue From Your Own Movie: Downsizing

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*Spoiler Alert

Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Nebraska) is a director who is known for “small” (small being basically synonymous with independent) movies with big stars (Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bruce Dern). His latest film, Downsizing, continues in that same vein, but with more studio marketing than for any of his previous films. Unfortunately, the best thing about an Alexander Payne film, a consistently quirky tone, gets abandoned this time around.

Downsizing explores a differen genres in each of its major acts. While in better movies, this might be rightly labeled “quirky” or “original” and might work for the premise, in Downsizing it does not.

The first act is a pretty by-the-numbers dramedy about the premise. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) learn about downsizing, a new process that shrinks you down to five inches tall. Once downsized, they get to live in a tiny community built for luxury and wealth. It’s supposed to be more sustainable and help the rapidly dying earth, not to mention increase your buying power exponentially, but it’s not without its problems. Here, the film is presented as a smart social commentary.

Then it takes a nosedive into a meandering second act where a newly downsized Paul wanders around, feels sorry for himself in his lonely new land, goes to his neighbor Dusan’s (Christoph Waltz playing Christoph Waltz, so I’m just going to call him that from here on out) European party, and meets Ngoc Lan, a former political activist whose government downsized her against her will and shipped her to America in a TV box. Ngoc Lan and Paul, through a series of adorable circumstances, find themselves working together to care for the people of the slum Ngoc Lan lives in. A commentary on immigration and poverty in the United States? Maybe?

In the third act, Ngoc Lan, Christoph Waltz, and Paul are invited to come to Norway to meet the original inventor of downsizing. Once there, they learn that the world is actually dying and that a group of small people are going into a vault to repopulate and continue the human race as the outside world dies. Life must find a way, and Paul can’t think of a better use of his life than to join them. But he loves Ngoc Lan and at the last minute joins her instead of going with the others. The end.

If that defied all of your expectations for the film, then you’re not alone. But is this the genius kind of crazy, or crazy kind of crazy?

Downsizing could be seen as a cautionary fable, and some critics, like Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter who named the film the best of the year, interpreted it as such. But unlike movies that are clear fables, like say, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona, Downsizing does not present itself as one. It plays as an SNL skit that goes on too long, feels like it needs a political message, and invents an ending that is just an excuse to go hang out in the fjords of Norway. It begins to give a social critique, or make an interesting statement, but can’t complete a single thought. It’s a rollercoaster of different stories crammed into one.

Ultimately, I think Downsizing would work much better as a short film. The main parts of the film- man learns about downsizing, downsizes, is unhappy, meets woman, finds purpose in helping others- would be more coherent without hours of filler in between. It’s the filler in Downsizing that bogs down the film and makes it unclear. The second and third act don’t even need to be in a downsized world!

Another problem is with the character development. Paul is a nice guy the whole movie. He doesn’t have a character arc, so there is no real change in his character that reflects the change to “downsize” his life decision.

If I were to find a message in Downsizing, I think the end says something whole. Paul has the opportunity to go with the group of small people to keep the human race alive. Paul finds it all important and sacrificial, but Ngoc Lan wants him to stay with her, primarily for love. He is about to go into the vault when he decides to go back to Ngoc Lan and spend the rest of his days helping her in the slums of LeisureLand.

It seems that director Payne is saying Paul needs to think smaller. He doesn’t need to join some humanity-saving experiment. That big picture thinking is what made him small and unhappy in the first place. He needs to think small like Ngoc Lan, and care for the people around him. He needs to “downsize” his vision and purpose. This is actually a compelling message, except the film doesn’t quite set it up to be that. The film treats the small people going into the vault as doing a necessary and important thing, so why isn’t Paul supposed to be a part of it? And he goes back to Ngoc Lan for love- that’s why she wants him to stay, too.

This problem is representative of the whole film: it has a handful of messages it wants to say, but either doesn’t complete a thought or say something seemingly unintentionally. And because I crave meaning, I have had to dissect it from a film that might not have meant to say that at all. To see such a great premise, with a prolific team behind the scenes, is disappointing.

So if you do see Downsizing, which I can’t recommend, please-

keep your expectations small.

-Madeleine D

You Can’t Please Everyone: The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi

I’d just like to take this moment to say I liked The Force Awakens.

Look, I understand why some people don’t. Does it follow all the beats of A New Hope? Yes. Is A New Hope based on the archetypal Hero’s Journey? Yes. Were people going to be mad if the new Star Wars trilogy was wildly different from the original trilogy, like, say, the hated prequels? Yes. And do I have a bunch of nostalgia and fierce opinions about a movie made twenty two years before I was born? Actually, no.

This is a spoiler review, because you’ve probably already seen The Last Jedi and/or been on the internet.

One of the best things about this new trilogy are the characters, who have certain characteristics of the classic characters, but also have their differences. This movie defines these differences even more.

Rey is closest to Luke, but doesn’t have a royal legacy to live up to. She’s a nobody, and she has to grapple with that and what it means for The Force to have chosen her as the response to Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren wants to be like Darth Vader, but for wildly different reasons. And he’s not going to get the redemption arc many thought he was. He has to pay for his actions.

Poe is a blend of Han Solo and Leia, and Finn is not Lando Calrissian. I think The Force Awakens needed to be like A New Hope in order to establish these characters so they could work in this film.

The problem is that new characters are added, and as interesting as they are, they are spread too thin, making it so no one gets a fair shake, and people disappear for large chunks of the film. With three somewhat equal plots and a handful of mini-ones, The Last Jedi takes pains to expand the world of Star Wars. It is clear director Rian Johnson was bursting with ideas. However, I think there are also some weak parts. He tries to take on three plots, along with small mini-ones, and I think all he needed was an editor with a strong pen saying, “This is great, Rian, but let’s leave some of this for the next movie or the deleted scenes. This film is two and a half hours, and we really don’t need to see Luke milk a beached loch-ness monster just for a blue-milk callback.”

As for the plots, though, I like the messages of Rose and Finn’s Canto Bright casino adventure. Star Wars is clearly making a small effort to say something nuanced about politics- people profiteering off both sides of the war and animal cruelty is wrong- but I don’t know if taking away so much time from the rest of the characters was worth it. Rose and Finn are legitimate characters (not tokenism) but their plot could be eliminated. Same for Holdo and Poe. I love that Holdo is such an antithesis to what we would expect, middle-aged woman in a ballgown as a military leader, who gets an amazing payoff, but again, not sure if it was worth taking away attention from the film at large. Some consolidating could be made to keep the film from spreading itself so thin and having multiple endings.

The most interesting plot to me was the Kylo and Rey plot. Not only is The Force-head-texting thing new, but it seemed like Johnson read all the fan theories online about the characters and said, Nope! Yet it doesn’t feel like he’s checking boxes. It seems like he’s trying to set the characters on course for a continuation of their arcs, and with the characters literally struggling against each other, gives a visual metaphor to the thematic struggle presented here.

Things people have disliked about the film that I didn’t mind- I was fine with changes to Luke’s character, and I think the parallels to the original trilogy are needed to remind you it’s the same series, and the Star Wars movies have always been based in archetypes. These aren’t new.

For all that is packed into The Last Jedi, the film doesn’t actually end very far from where it started. The resistance fighters are still scrappy and in bad shape, Rey is still figuring out her powers, and another mentor figure is gone. This shows how the Star Wars movies are never going to die, though- if they can do so much while moving forward so little, they will live on for eternity.

You’re always going to have people who are unhappy with change, want complete change, or are unhappy with the particular way you brought change. That isn’t to say criticism isn’t good (that’s kind of my whole thing). But personally, I’m not a Star Wars baby. I have no nostalgia for the original or prequels. I’m just here for the ride and the cultural conversation. I like the new Stars Wars. I like how it has made an effort towards diversity and representation, giving women a bigger role in sci-fi then they’ve ever been allowed, changed franchise filmmaking, and the themes and ideas that are being presented. I also respect the original foundations, but I don’t think that means they are the golden standard.

I think the best path for Star Wars is to do the same. You can’t please everyone, so do what you want. The Last Jedi does what it wants, and I think with a little fine tuning, this is what makes it a strong film and a steady path for the future.

-Madeleine D

“Dancing Through (A) Life”: The Greatest Showman

Dancing through life/ skimming the surface/ gliding where turf is smooth/ Life’s more painless/ for the brainless – “Dancing Through Life” from the musical “Wicked.”

The Greatest Show

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus are closed down. Fact.

A lot of people enjoy the circus. Fact.

The circus has a long and troubled history of animal abuse allegations and other ethical violations. Fact.

P.T. Barnum was not the inventor of the circus but widely developed it and was a “self-made man.” Fact.

Barnum was a charming man who advocated for the rights of the downtrodden and outcast and was a progressive social thinker. Fa-hmmmmmmm. Time for a musical number! And a one, two, three, four-

The Greatest Showman is from first-time director Michael Gracey and the passion project of Hugh Jackman. It’s a full swing original pop-musical, so get with it or get out. It’s full of clever choreography, likeable actors with earnest performances, beautiful sets and costumes, and a story that hits all the beats of a tidy rags-to-riches. It’s here to entrance you with magic and wonder. If you want the real P.T. Barnum, you’ll get a glimpse of him, but some of his rougher edges are mysteriously scrubbed away. Here, Barnum is carried by the earnest Jackman, whose Barnum is a business-minded, occasionally dishonest but gold-hearted, family man who identifies with all the outcasts he’s using in his show.

But, even if you don’t know anything about Barnum, there is still a sense in the movie that a lot is being left out, which it is. For example, you aren’t going to see the story of P.T. Barnum’s first real act, which was to buy Joice Heth, an elderly slave, advertise her as the 161 year old nurse of George Washington, and perform a public autopsy on her. I guess Hugh Jackman wasn’t down for that?

The Greatest Showman says it’s telling the story of P.T. Barnum, but it really wants to tell the story of how the circus is a haven for outcasts and misfits, a place for them to find a family. It’s not historically accurate, but you probably knew that you aren’t here for a history lesson, you’re here for musical numbers with Zac Efron and Zendaya! And that is legitimate and a fine indicator of a good time.

The music, penned by Justin Paul and Benj Pasek from La La Land, is fun and light. The choreography is enchanting and creative, with the cast using the settings around them as musical instruments and props during the performances, and it is an unapologetic musical. People just pop into songs. Director Gracey has a background in music videos, and it shows.

If you want a musical, you’re going to get a fun musical. But if you’d like a musical with a bit of thematic depth, I don’t think you’ll get it.

The selling point of the movie, the big theme and the subject of its many anthems, is being an outcast and being yourself. Ignoring, probably, the real P.T. Barnum’s motives, here, everyone is an outcast in some way, trying to fit in. Barnum gives them the chance to be seen and loved. The film really wants to say interesting things and hit on tough subjects- racism, marital infidelity, the dangers of show business on families- but it only does that in a very shallow way. That includes its own theme.

The problem with saying that everyone faces adversity is that yes, the central problem is the sin that all humans have of categorizing people and hurting each other. But some oppression is systemic and institutional. So, Barnum’s desire to be respected by his wife’s wealthy parents can’t really be equated with the struggle of the black characters in the film. Barnum can escape the adversary facing him. They cannot.

Furthermore, you don’t get to know the “freaks” very well. Some of them are given little introductions, but the majority are not. Because we don’t get to know these “freaks,” they don’t get any humanity outside of, “they are rejected by society.” This reduces them to what the movie wants to say the circus freed them from being- nameless freaks.

I went in wanting an entertaining musical, and I got one. I had a blast watching it. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack. I’d probably see it again. If you want to see an original musical, this is the only one being offered up this year, so go have a great time!

But I really don’t think it is too much to ask for some themes in a movie, or at least a message or interesting thought to chew on. Especially with a story like this, that has multiple routes to take. But The Greatest Showman is not willing to give me something beyond what I can find from Katy Perry’s Roar.

And that’s the real shame, because this movie tries to encourage people to be honest and fearless, but can’t find any strength to do that itself.

-Madeleine D