12 Strong movie review

For inSing

12 STRONG

Director : Nicolai Fuglsig
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Elsa Pataky
Genre : War/Action
Run Time : 2 h 10 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Armed Forces leapt into action, sending troops into Afghanistan to combat the Taliban. 12 Strong tells the story of Task Force Dagger, who were the first personnel to take on the Taliban in the weeks following 9/11.

Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) has no combat experience, but volunteers to lead Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595. He is backed up by Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), with whom Nelson has trained. Nelson’s team also includes Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and Sergeant First Class Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes).

The men of ODA 595 must win the trust of General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), the leader of the Northern Alliance who has plenty of experience fighting the Taliban. Nelson and company traverse the mountainous terrain on horseback, towards the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif. If the Northern Alliance and the U.S. Forces can wrest control of Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban, it will strike a crushing blow to the enemy. Outnumbered forty to one, Nelson, Dostum and those under their command wage a bloody, explosive battle.

12 Strong is based on the nonfiction book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, by journalist Doug Stanton. The book was adapted for the screen by Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally and Hunger Games scribe Peter Craig. This film marks the directorial debut of Danish filmmaker Nicolai Fuglsig – his experience as a war photojournalist must have informed the making of this film.

There are many films set during World War II which are couched as inspirational and uplifting, some of them in danger of romanticising the war. The protracted war in Afghanistan and Iraq has weighed heavily on the consciousness of the American public. 12 Strong is an account of a recently-declassified battle that took place early on in this war. While the movie wants to be thrilling and emotional, it’s difficult to overlook the larger context which is not presented in the movie.

12 Strong wants to be an old-fashioned epic, complete with majestic, sweeping establishing shots, and our heroes riding on horseback as explosions go off behind them in slow motion. It also wants to reframe the narrative by emphasising that there were Afghans who allied themselves with the U.S. troops. However, the film’s handling of this comes off as a naive “there were good Afghans! Who would’ve thought?” viewpoint.

The film has some pacing issues, and the countless sequences of our heroes on horseback rounding yet another mountain pass, in between cutting back to the other characters who are back at the base, becomes repetitive. However, the payoff is spectacular: the climactic battle is drawn out and overstuffed, but is visceral and exciting. It must’ve been quite the logistical undertaking: there are tanks, explosions, guns, rocket launchers, helicopters, bombers and yes, horses. However, there’s the niggling feeling that since this is based on a true story, we shouldn’t be ‘enjoying’ the action sequences the way we’d revel in the thrills of a sci-fi action movie or a fantasy picture.

Hemsworth cuts quite the heroic figure astride a horse. While he and the other actors in the cast attempt to imbue their characters with some personality, as is often the case in military movies like this, the characters can become indistinct and blur together. It is fun that Hemsworth’s real-life wife Elsa Pataky makes a cameo as Nelson’s wife in this film.

Shannon, one of the more interesting actors out there, doesn’t get too much to do. Shannon is often cast in villainous roles, but maybe he’s just more interesting playing those characters, as opposed to the straight arrow Spencer. Even then, he’s played heroic characters who were more engaging to watch before.

Negahban is charismatic as Dostum, battle-hardened and commanding. The film’s portrayal of the warlord seems a little simplified for the sake of convenience. Dostum is a polarising, controversial figure, but in 12 Strong, he occupies the role of ‘wise native’. “Stop being a soldier,” Dostum counsels Nelson, motioning to Nelson’s heart. “Start using this”.

“America is famous for making propaganda movies,” Negahban said, adding that he hopes 12 Strong shows “we are acknowledging, we are honouring those people who put their lives on the line to help get rid of terrorism or war, to bring peace.” Maybe it’s a start.

            12 Strong is co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, famous for his high-octane mega-blockbusters. While the film is thrilling and rousing at times, it’s hard to shake the feeling that recent military history has been put through an action movie lens. While there’s spectacle and Chris Hemsworth makes for a great action hero, 12 Strong would like us to believe that Chris Hemsworth can save the day riding in on horseback, when we know it’s far from that simple.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Advertisements

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

For inSing

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Director : Martin McDonagh
Cast : Frances McDormand, Woody Harrleson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Željko Ivanek
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 57 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : NC16

Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh traverses from In Bruges to Outside Ebbing, after a detour caused by Seven Psychopaths, with his third feature film.

The film revolves around Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced mother grieving the death of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). A year after Angela’s rape and murder, no arrests have been made. Mildred rents out three disused billboards (three guesses as to where they’re located), calling out Ebbing Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards draw a strong reaction from the Ebbing populace, including Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – not least because Willoughby has terminal pancreatic cancer. Both Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) take issue with the billboards, blaming Mildred for reopening that wound. Mildred still has a few people in her corner, including her co-worker Denise (Amanda Warren), and James (Peter Dinklage), who harbours feelings for Mildred. Mildred hopes the billboards will put pressure on the police to solve the case, but unexpected, violent consequences ensue.

If Seven Psychopaths was McDonagh channelling Quentin Tarantino, then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is McDonagh channelling the Coen Brothers. It’s a happy coincidence that Carter Burwell, who has scored most of the Coens’ movies, has also scored McDonagh’s previous two films. It seems less coincidental that McDormand, oft-collaborator of the Coens and the wife of Joel Coen, plays the starring role.

However, this is no mere act of mimicry. McDonagh, who is also an accomplished playwright, has brought his own lyricism to each of his films. Three Billboards is the most serious film McDonagh has made, but it isn’t without its outstanding moments of pitch-black humour.

In part because of the pulpier elements of McDonagh’s two earlier films, one might go into Three Billboards expecting all the characters to be broadly-drawn archetypes. It seems almost by design that the audience thinks they have each player in this story figured out the moment we see them. “There’s the righteous mother,” “there’s the lazy cop”, “there’s the scumbag ex-husband”, that sort of thing. The surprises along the way are organic and well thought-out.

While Three Billboards wears its references on its sleeve, it subverts expectations with masterful subtlety. The dialogue, stuffed with words we can’t print, sounds authentic as spoken by these characters – especially impressive considering the writer-director isn’t American. The fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri has a realistic bleakness to it, and does seem like the place where something awful might happen and the world at large just wouldn’t notice it.

McDormand leads an ensemble of talented actors who do the material justice and then some. When it comes to strong performances per capita, Three Billboards is at the top of the heap this awards season. All the performances are the right degree of over-the-top – colourful and exaggerated enough to grab the viewer’s attention, but not to the point of being cartoony.

McDonagh wrote the Mildred role with McDormand in mind, and the character plays to all McDormand’s strengths as an actress. Mildred is tough-as-nails, bitter and takes no guff from anyone. Beneath the unyielding exterior, she is grappling with unspeakable grief and frustration and is a deeply flawed, conflicted person. The dramatic move she makes in renting out the billboards stirs up trouble, just as she planned, but she ultimately gets more than she bargained for.

We’re conditioned to root for Mildred and against Chief Willoughby, so we’re naturally surprised when the Chief ends up being not an awful person. We won’t give away too much, but Harrelson is able to shade the character while making him a little larger than life, and the interplay between Willoughby and Mildred is intense but restrained.

Rockwell’s character goes through the most dramatic arc. Dixon is racist, lazy, belligerent and often abuses his authority – but that’s just how the character begins. Rockwell has often portrayed characters who are slimy charmers, but he digs deep here, delivering a layered, fascinating performance.

The supporting cast members all snap right into place. Hedges, who was nominated for an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, is believably conflicted as Mildred’s son. Hawkes is aggressive but not ludicrously so as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie. Samara Weaving steals the show several times as Penelope, Charlie’s dim-witted girlfriend, showcasing delightful comic timing. Dinklage is likeable and just awkward enough as the designated ‘nice guy’ whose affections for Mildred are unlikely to be reciprocated.

Not everything here works: the film’s handling of race is clumsy and inconsistent, and as the film barrels towards its conclusion, a few noticeable plot contrivances start stacking up. As assuredly as McDonagh handles the tone, some viewers might still find it jarring when the film moves from its truly harrowing moments to its lighter-hearted ones.

Three Billboards succeeds as an indie darling-type film that is rough around the edges and is never too precious about itself. The film recently collected four Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture Drama and awards for McDormand and Rockwell. The film’s peculiar yet finely tuned mix of grimness and off-kilter humour keeps it interesting, and its performances, especially McDormand’s, are thoroughly riveting.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Post movie review

For inSing

THE POST

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Allison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods
Genre : Biography/Drama/Historical
Run Time : 1h 56 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : PG13

         Every awards season, there are bound to be at least a few ‘big important movies’ – films based on true events that have a timely relevance, boasting pedigree in front of and behind the camera. The Post ticks all those boxes.

It is 1971. The New York Times runs a story about how the U.S. government has been lying about the Vietnam War to the public, based on leaked clandestine reports which document the ongoing war, going back over 20 years. These reports were compiled on the instructions of Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Secretary of Defence, for academic study.

Katherine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female owner of The Washington Post, is about to publicly list the paper. While the Initial Public Offering will broaden the Post’s reach, Graham also fears losing the control entrusted to her by her late husband, who succeeded Graham’s father as the owner of the paper.

President Nixon and the Attorney General file an injunction against The New York Times, taking the paper to court over the story. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees the opportunity to dig further into the story. Assistant Editor Ben Bagdikan (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down the source, former analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), and procures more than 4000 pages of the Pentagon Papers. Graham must choose whether to publish, at the risk of her and Bradlee being imprisoned, and with the paper at stake.

The sitting President of the United States has made no secret of his disdain for the press, branding any outlet which runs stories unfavourable to him as “fake news”. This climate prompted Steven Spielberg to rush The Post into production, and he made this film while his next movie Ready Player One was in post-production. The Post makes a statement about the importance of the freedom of the press, but perhaps it makes that statement a little too obviously. “We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable — my god, who will?” Bradlee exclaims, in one of several lines that spell out what the film is about.

Because The Post is made by people who more than know what they’re doing, it gets a lot right. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn (with additional editing by Sarah Broshar) do their usual fine work. The movie looks and sounds like how one would expect a 70s-set political thriller to look, and the setting feels authentic – complete with a multitude of unfortunate hairdos. While the first half of the film can be somewhat dry, things get genuinely thrilling as the movie heads towards an exciting conclusion. The stakes are clearly established, and it’s clear that the decisions the characters must make are consequential ones.

Behind the scenes, there’s the success story of Liz Hannah, for whom every aspiring screenwriter’s dream came true: her first screenplay was made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for co-writing Spotlight, rewrote Hannah’s script. Hannah had long been fascinated with Graham, and the writer’s boyfriend encouraged her to pen a screenplay about the newspaper heiress.

The Post wants to be a personal story in addition to being a historical account, but struggles with the balance. A scene between Graham and her daughter Lally (Allison Brie) comes off as a slightly awkward attempt to generate emotion while also supplying some backstory.

The Post is at its best when its talented actors are turned loose. Putting Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in a scene together, regardless of context, is bound to produce electrifying results. The role of Kay Graham is comfortably in Streep’s wheelhouse: a powerful woman grappling with a monumental dilemma. Graham must make her way in a man’s world, facing doubt at every turn. She remains warm and personable even in the face of adversity, and is at once a magnetic and comforting presence.

Hanks has fun, biting into the role with relish. Bradlee is a dogged, persistent editor, who is described at one point as a “pirate”. Bradlee is a little more abrasive than your standard charming, affable Hanks part, and he spars with Graham and other characters throughout the film. Hanks and Streep visibly enjoy playing off each other, and Spielberg brings out the best in his stars.

The supporting cast is first-rate too: Paulson is especially likeable as Bradlee’s wife Antoinette, and gets an excellent scene in which she lays out why she admires Graham as Bradlee seems to dismiss his boss’ predicament. Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk is funny and down-to-earth as assistant editor Ben Bagdikan, who flies back to Washington with the Papers safely buckled into the airplane seat next to him.

There’s no denying that The Post is timely and well-made, but perhaps it’s a little too aware of its status as a big important movie. It takes audiences from Point A to B with enough clarity, but perhaps not enough nuance, and it will be hard for some viewers to see past how obviously The Post is calibrated for awards season appeal.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Reel life: movies inspired by true stories this awards season

For inSing

REEL LIFE: MOVIES INSPIRED BY TRUE STORIES THIS AWARDS SEASON

By Jedd Jong

 

Awards season is upon us again, and producers often have a knack for sniffing out incredible true stories to turn into awards contender films. Said projects can also provide actors with the opportunity to showcase their talents and challenge themselves, sometimes undergoing drastic physical transformations.

It’s easy to be cynical about biopics, and to write them off as emotionally manipulative. After all, Hollywood hasn’t been shy about bending the truth. However, artistic license is to be expected, and half the fun of watching films based on a true story is doing the research afterwards, to ascertain how far the film deviated from actual events.

Historical films or inspirational biopics might seem like a bit of a slog, and they tend to follow predictable patterns. However, this awards cycle has given a few off-kilter films based on a true story that break that mould, and that might even be – who knows – fun to sit through. Naturally, there are a few which are more straightforward, serious affairs, but which pack pedigree behind the scenes too.

From Winston Churchill’s tumultuous first days as wartime Prime Minister, to the glamorous, dangerous world of underground high-stakes poker, to the kidnapping of the grandson of the richest man in the world, here are five films based on true stories to check out this awards season. Warning: veracity may vary.

#1: DARKEST HOUR (Opens 4 Jan)

This is perhaps the most traditional entry on the list. After all, English-made movies and films set during the Second World War have long been perceived as awards-friendly. Directed by Joe Wright of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement fame, this film covers the first few weeks of Winston Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. As Nazis advance across Western Europe, Churchill must rally the British people as he faces opposition from within his own cabinet.

It might be hard to believe, but celebrated and very hard-working actor Gary Oldman has yet to win an Oscar. This just might be his chance – after all, Oldman won the Best Actor in a Drama Golden Globe for this performance. Casting Oldman as Churchill was a gamble that paid off. Prosthetic makeup effects designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji helped to transform Oldman into the iconic British Bulldog. Oldman’s entertaining performance captures the larger-than-life quality so key to Churchill, but also conveys his private decision-making process. The film also stars Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James.

#2: THE POST (Opens 18 Jan)

This is also a film that seems calibrated for maximum awards season appeal. It’s a historical drama that’s timely, given the current political climate. It also has A-list talent in front of and behind the camera. Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham, the first female publisher of The Washington Post – and of any newspaper in the U.S., for that matter. After The New York Times acquires the top-secret documents known as ‘the Pentagon Papers’, a battle between journalism and the U.S. government ensues. Graham, the Washington Post’s editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and other editors and journalists fight tooth and nail to expose the truth about the horrifying scope of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War to the public.

The Post is directed by Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Hannah, who worked at Charlize Theron’s production company and as a production assistant on Ugly Betty, caught a one-in-a-million break: it’s not every day that Steven Spielberg wants to direct a film from a screenplay by a first-time screenwriter. Hannah had long been fascinated with Graham, and was encouraged by her boyfriend to write a script about the publisher. Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer was brought on to rework the script. The film’s impressive cast also includes Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons and David Cross.

#3: MOLLY’S GAME (Opens 4 Jan)

Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, who went from would-be Olympic skier to cocktail waitress to operating the highest-stakes underground poker games in Los Angeles and New York. The players include Hollywood celebrities, superstar athletes and powerful Wall Street brokers. Eventually, both the Italian and Russian mafia get involved, and Molly is investigated by the FBI.

The film is written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, known for A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Steve Jobs and for creating the television series The West Wing and The Newsroom. Molly’s Game also marks Sorkin’s directorial debut. The film is slick, glitzy and packed with Sorkin’s signature firecracker dialogue, but it has also drawn criticism for being superficial and perhaps not as substantial as other fact-based awards contender films. Best Actress nominations for various awards are rolling in for Chastain, who portrayed a similar shrewd, cunning character in the lobbyist drama Miss Sloane. Molly’s Game also stars Idris Elba, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera.

#4: I, TONYA (Opens 1 Feb)

If Molly’s Game is a showcase for Jessica Chastain, then I, Tonya is an even flashier one for Margot Robbie. Robbie plays U.S. national team figure skater Tonya Harding, who became an infamous tabloid fixture after her ex-husband masterminded an attack on Tonya’s teammate and rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The film is based on interviews with Tonya and the other figures in the story, including her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who hired the men who attacked Nancy. Janney won the Best Supporting Actress award at the Golden Globes for her portrayal of the cruel, off-putting yet oddly endearing LaVona.

I, Tonya is a twisted inversion of the standard inspirational sports drama. Packed with dark comedy, violence and plenty of swearing, the film exploits the absurdity of the events surrounding Tonya’s rise and fall. I, Tonya also pulls the curtain back to examine just what made Tonya who she is, depicting the abuse she endured at the hands of her mother and her ex-husband. Robbie’s performance is mesmerising and unmistakably the work of a dedicated actress. While Robbie trained to perform some of the skating herself, the nigh-impossible triple axel jump that was Tonya’s signature move was accomplished using visual effects. Only seven women other than Tonya have landed the triple axel in figure skating history.

#5: ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (Opens 25 Jan)

Director Ridley Scott brings the story of Paul Getty’s kidnapping to the big screen. Paul (Charlie Plummer), the grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, no relation), is kidnapped by an Italian criminal organisation. The eldest Getty refuses to pay the $17 million ransom set by the kidnappers. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams), who was formerly married to John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), will stop at nothing to ensure her son’s safe return to her side. The film also stars Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris and Timothy Hutton.

The role of J. Paul Getty was originally set to be played by Kevin Spacey. Following sexual assault allegations against Spacey, Scott elected to recast the role and reshoot the movie with Christopher Plummer as Getty instead. The scramble to redo the movie was unprecedented and costly. It then emerged that Wahlberg demanded a $1.5 million payday for the reshoots, while Williams, who plays the lead, received $1000 for the reshoots. After being criticised for this, Wahlberg will now donate the $1.5 million to the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund in Williams’ name. The initiative aims to help combat sexual harassment across industries, after the extent sexual harassment in Hollywood was made known in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

BONUS: THE DISASTER ARTIST (No Singapore release date yet)

For years, the cognoscenti has been chortling and riffing along to what has often been deemed the worst movie ever made: 2003’s The Room. A poorly-acted, hilariously scripted, all-around ineptly made drama, The Room has gone from pop culture oddity to so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon. midnight screenings regularly draw crowds who dress up as their favourite characters, toss footballs around and fling spoons at the screen. Lines like “oh hai Mark,” “you’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” and “so anyway, how is your sex life?” are oft-quoted gems. It’s a bit of a long story to explain here.

The Disaster Artist stars James Franco as Tommy Wiseau, the peculiar and enigmatic writer-director-star of The Room. James Franco just won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for his performance as Wiseau. Franco’s brother Dave stars as Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s friend and the actor who plays Mark, the best friend of Wiseau’s character Johnny, in The Room. Franco is also the director of The Disaster Artist, which is based on the book of the same name written by Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell. The film also stars Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor and Alison Brie, with appearances by Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Sharon Stone and Zac Efron. Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael, whose bad movie podcast How Did This Get Made? had an episode dedicated to The Room, appear in supporting roles. At the time of writing, The Disaster Artist does not have a Singapore release date. However, one hopes that awards season buzz pushes this chronicle of misbegotten cinema to our shores sooner rather than later.

 

 

Downsizing movie review

For inSing

DOWNSIZING

Director : Alexander Payne
Cast : Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård
Genre : Comedy/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2h 15 min
Opens : 11 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In this sci-fi comedy-drama, Matt Damon discovers that it’s a small world after all. And as the song goes, it is indeed a world of laughter, a world of tears, a world of hopes, and a world of fears.

Damon plays occupational therapist Paul Safranek. It is the near-future, and Norwegian scientist Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) has devised a revolutionary procedure known as ‘downsizing’. In a bid to solve the world’s overpopulation crisis, those who sign up for the irreversible procedure are shrunken down to a height of five inches. While downsizing is controversial, it is also touted as helping to save the planet. One’s personal net worth and apparently, quality of life also increases exponentially.

Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) sign up to be downsized, after Paul is convinced by his high school classmate Dave (Jason Sudeikis) who, along with his wife Carol (Maribeth Monroe) has become small. Paul and Audrey are set to move into the luxurious small community Leisureland. However, Audrey gets cold feet, and doesn’t go through with the procedure at the last minute, stranding a now-small Paul in Leisureland.

Paul gradually gets accustomed to his new life, and befriends his party animal upstairs neighbour, Serbian businessman Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz). Paul also meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a housecleaner hired by Dusan. Lan Tran is a Vietnamese dissident who was downsized against her will. As Paul gets to know her better and visits the run-down dormitory tower populated by immigrant workers where Lan Tran stays, his eyes are opened to a world beyond his own. Eventually, considering an earth-shattering development, Paul must make the biggest choice of his life.

Director Alexander Payne, who also cowrote the film with Jim Taylor, is known for comedy-dramas that are slightly quirky but otherwise down-to-earth – films like Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and About Schmidt. Downsizing is his most outlandish effort yet, a sci-fi social satire with a wild premise that promises to tackle big ideas.

The setup works well: the world-building is amusing and well thought-out, and the film makes the concept of downsizing seem plausible within its reality. Textural elements like the Leisureland sales pitch, featuring cameos by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern, work as a riff on American consumerism. There are many delightful visual gags – typically involving everyday objects rendered absurdly large next to the now-tiny characters.

The production design by Stefania Cella is clever and subtly eye-catching. Rolfe Kent’s score is a joy to listen to, and highlights the inherent absurdity of the premise. The societal implications of downsizing and its implementation seem key to the plot at first, but gradually get pushed aside.

The film veers in a direction that seems like the wrong one, squandering its intriguing set-up. Yes, this centres around the Ngoc Lan Tran character, who has become controversial in her own right. While Hong Chau’s performance has been praised, and she was recently nominated for a Golden Globe, it seems that many poor decisions were made in the writing of the character.

Just like elsewhere in the film, the Lan Tran character has great potential – she’s a Vietnamese refugee who was forcibly downsized in prison, then escapes to America as a stowaway. Chau draws on her own past as the child of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ refugees in portraying the character. However, it’s soon clear that Lan Tran is a caricature. She speaks in heavily-accented broken English, and this is treated as inherently funny. Her speech and mannerisms overshadow any complexity the character has.

The dynamic that develops between her and Paul ends up in a disappointing place. As this bond progresses, Lan Tran also takes on the role of ‘ethnic person spirit guide’ to Paul, showing him that there’s a world outside his relatively privileged bubble, and opening his mind. It’s no fault of Chau’s, who has defended the character as multi-faceted and well-written. However, as much as Payne and Taylor get right in the writing of Lan Tran, they make several more missteps.

Paul is hardly compelling, and ends up as little more than another guy in a movie going through a midlife crisis. He’s an ordinary guy placed in an extraordinary circumstance, but the character’s folksy “golly gee, gosh darn” earnestness rings false. While Damon may have been relatable, his recent public reactions to Hollywood scandals have eroded that somewhat. The original casting of Paul Giamatti might have worked better.

Waltz hams it up and is visibly enjoying himself as the aging playboy whose main goal in life is to enjoy himself. The pairing of Waltz and Udo Kier, a fellow European actor often typecast as scary villains, is effective and entertaining. Alas, despite being billed on the poster, Wiig is barely in the film at all.

Downsizing’s reach exceeds its grasp, and while it plants seeds early on that could grow into something fascinating, it seems to bolt in the opposite direction, becoming a story centred around a boring guy and his mundane epiphanies. This reviewer enjoys science fiction in the context of social commentary, but it’s tricky to pull off well. Downsizing makes a few miniscule steps in the right direction, but stumbles before our eyes.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Commuter movie review

For inSing

THE COMMUTER

Director : Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Dean-Charles Chapman
Genre : Thriller/Action
Run Time : 1h 45 min
Opens : 11 January 2018
Rating : PG-13

Commutes to and from work generally aren’t fun. We get on the bus or the train, and just want it to be over with. It’s less fun when the mass rapid transit system breaks down, or shuts down for full days for maintenance. No, we’re not speaking from personal experience, why do you ask?

For Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), his commute home from work becomes something worse than “not fun” – a matter of life and death. Michael is a New York police officer-turned insurance agent. On the Metro North Hudson Line, Michael is approached by Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a woman whom he’s never met. Joanna gives Michael a task to solve, promising a financial reward. This mission seems simple, but gets deceptively complicated.

The puzzle soon turns deadly, and Michael must track down a mysterious passenger on the train and secure a sensitive item they’re carrying, or disastrous consequences will ensue. In addition to the passengers on the train, the lives of Michael’s wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) are at stake. Michael turns to his former police partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) for help, but the shadowy forces controlling the game are watching Michael’s every move.

The Commuter re-teams Neeson with director Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. Neeson did not star in Collet-Serra’s last film The Shallows, truly a missed opportunity to have Neeson voice the shark. It’s easy to see why the star and director were attracted to the screenplay, written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle. This promises to be a Hitchcockian mystery thriller, a little bit Strangers on a Train, a little bit North by Northwest. It’s a safe distance from the generic “guy holding a gun while grimacing” action thriller, which Neeson has done his fair share of.

Collet-Serra is adept at setting moods, and while he has overdosed on the stylistic flourishes in previous films, there’s just the right amount of flashiness here. We get moments like the camera pulling through a hold punched in a train ticket that’s slotted into the back of a seat, and a Vertigo-style dolly zoom effect for good measure. It offsets the dullness of the train car setting. Production designer Andrew Bridgland does a commendable job of creating an entirely believable set.

However, it soon becomes clear that this train is on a somewhat rickety set of rails. The set-up is so engrossing and the tension so masterfully constructed, one can’t help but think “the pay-off can’t be that good, can it?” When all is revealed, it’s far from a cop-out, but is still something of a let-down. The conspiracy at the heart of Michael’s predicament is patently mundane, and while the film runs through as many twists as possible before reaching the denouement, said denouement is hardly surprising. The climactic action set-piece is also a mite overblown, heavy on the visual effects and at odds with the grounded feel the rest of the movie was going for.

Neeson is as dependable a leading man as ever, and some aspects of the character have been tailored to him – Michael is an Irish immigrant, so Neeson gets to use his natural accent. Michael is meant to be a relatable everyman, but was also a cop, which functions as a built-in excuse for why he’s so good at fighting. Even so, several sequences strain suspension of disbelief, but they’re as exciting as they are outlandish so we’ll let that slide.

Neeson is pulling almost all the weight here, and the supporting cast features several interesting actors who are almost entirely wasted. Jonathan Banks, familiar to Breaking Bad fans as Mike the Cleaner, gets a nearly non-existent part. The Conjuring stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who don’t share any scenes here, are both somewhat memorable but still underutilised. Sam Neill does almost nothing. Perhaps it’s part of strengthening the red herring effect, in that we know so little about all the other characters that everyone is a viable suspect, but it’s disappointing that Neeson doesn’t get to play off any of these other performers.

The Commuter is a good deal more interesting that your average disposable released-in-January action thriller, thanks to Collet-Serra’s confident direction and an initially-fascinating mystery. Liam Neeson is also doing a little more than the typical running and gunning we’ve seen from his recent oeuvre. Unfortunately, there’s a good deal of unintentional silliness to contend with, and the resolution to the mystery is efficient but ho-hum.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Molly’s Game movie review

For inSing

MOLLY’S GAME

Director : Aaron Sorkin
Cast : Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, Jeremy Strong, Joe Keery
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 2h 21m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : NC16

The tagline to the recent Justice League film was ‘all in’ – that film has nothing to do with Poker, but ‘assemble’ was taken. This biopic is about someone who could be considered the Wonder Woman of high-stakes Poker.

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) has had a rough go of it. Growing up in Colorado under the tutelage of her father Larry (Kevin Costner), she has long harboured dreams of becoming a professional skier. Molly overcame a spinal injury in her childhood, but a career-ending accident dashed those dreams.

Needing to reinvent herself, Molly moves out to Los Angeles, working as a cocktail waitress and as a personal assistant for investor Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). Dean runs a poker game out of LA’s Cobra Lounge that attracts Hollywood A-listers and business moguls, and places Molly in charge of hosting the game. Molly quickly learns the ropes, and sets up her own game, operating out of a plush penthouse suite. When she moves the game to New York, she attracts a whole new set, including Wall Street power brokers and sports stars. However, the Russian and Italian mafia soon get involved, and Molly finds herself investigated by the FBI. She hires Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her, telling the attorney her story.

Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the scribe behind The Social Network, Moneyball, A Few Good Men and The West Wing. We know what to expect from Sorkin screenplays: every exchange of dialogue is a verbal knife fight, with quotable barbs flying in all directions. It’s easy to be dazzled by the witty verbosity, but it can also be a turn-off because Sorkin’s style can feel glib and self-satisfied.

Sorkin has found the ideal source material with which to make his directorial debut, as the true story includes elements that he’s played around with before. The protagonist is wildly ambitious and dives head-first into a glamorous, seductive, sometimes dangerous world. It’s all there in the subtitle of Bloom’s book: ‘From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker’. It’s a fascinating true story, just add cinematic style, which Sorkin brings plenty of.

The film establishes a smart alecky tone from the outset, with Bloom going over her backstory in voiceover. There are stylistic devices including graphics on the screen that attempt to explain specific moments in the Poker games – even with the visual aids, it all flew over this reviewer’s head. Sorkin might be known for his writing, but he displays a keen awareness of how film works as a visual medium, and the movie never feels static or airless. Sorkin achieves a blend of the lurid and the cerebral that fits the material like a glove.

Chastain is spectacularly adept at playing powerful women, and she makes quite a meal of this role. It’s not dissimilar to her turn in the lobbyist drama Miss Sloane, but there’s the added physical element of Molly being a skier. Molly is sharper than a tack, and any man is putty in her hands. Chastain is mesmerizing – the character wields her sexuality like a dagger, but never makes the fatal strike. She sinks her teeth into this and then some, and is wildly entertaining in the process.

Elba takes a backseat as Charlie, and the interactions between him and Molly begin as sizing each other up, before evolving into something approaching sincerity. Molly and Charlie are on the same side, but it is never an easy alliance, and Elba and Chastain engage with the material and with each other in a lively manner.

Molly’s Game features a veritable carousel of dopey guys whom Molly has wrapped around her little finger. They generally seem intelligent and are all successful, but when they’re in Molly’s thrall, they are rendered dopey. Chris O’Dowd is entertainingly schlubby and it’s fun to see Joe Keery, best known as Steve from Stranger Things, pop up in this – complete with famous coiffeur.

The casting of Michael Cera is a bit weird. He’s playing a Hollywood star referred to only as ‘Player X’, but the identity of Player X can be determined with a quick Google search. Cera doesn’t quite sell the competitive streak and treachery hidden behind a disarming exterior that is crucial to the role.

Costner has settled into gruff mentor roles well, and the relationship between Molly and her father has its moments, even if it ventures into cliché territory. When her father visits Molly late into the film, it’s meant to be an emotional moment and Costner does his best to sell it, but the sarcasm in the dialogue doesn’t let up, somewhat undercutting the sincerity.

Unlike many awards season biopics, Molly’s Game is not a chore to sit through. It speeds along, seducing the audience as it goes. It does feel like the work of someone who is a little too pleased with himself and it could stand to be a mite less smug, but thanks to Chastain’s confident, hypnotic turn, Molly’s Game is engrossing and entertaining.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Darkest Hour movie review

For inSing

DARKEST HOUR

Director : Joe Wright
Cast : Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Richard Lumsden, Jeremy Child, Samuel West
Genre : Drama/Historical/War
Run Time : 2h 6m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : PG

Having directed Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright is no stranger to prestige films. After taking a perhaps ill-advised detour into the realm of fantasy adventure with Pan, Wright is back in awards season territory with this historical drama. His subject: one of the most iconic Britons in recent history – Winston Churchill.

It is May 1940, and Nazi forces are advancing across western Europe. In the United Kingdom, the Opposition Labour Party demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who is deemed ill-suited to lead Britain in war. Chamberlain’s first choice to succeed him is the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), but Halifax declines. Chamberlain then appoints the one man whom the Opposition party would support: Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).

Churchill is dogged by military failures in his earlier career, including the Gallipoli Campaign during WWI. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is not the biggest fan of Churchill, since Churchill supported the abdication of George’s brother Edward VIII. Churchill’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his new secretary Elizabeth (Lily James) bear the brunt of his irritability – Clementine is used to it, Elizabeth less so.

Churchill is immediately faced with a barrage of tough decisions: Halifax and Chamberlain place pressure on Churchill to consider negotiating with Hitler, just as the British Expeditionary Forces are trapped at Dunkirk and Calais in France. The War Cabinet Crisis is brewing, with Chamberlain and Halifax hoping to engineer a Vote of No Confidence in Churchill to force his removal from office. As the British Empire is plunged headlong into war, can Churchill lead them to victory? (Spoiler alert: he does)

Darkest Hour is written by New Zealander novelist and playwright Anthony McCarten, who received an Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything. On the surface, Darkest Hour seems like standard awards season fare, and yet another example of “Englishness = prestige”. While this political drama could have turned out stodgy, director Wright and writer McCarten ensure it is anything but.

There’s an invigorating forcefulness to the film, a momentum and urgency which other similar movies, including 2017’s Churchill starring Brian Cox, lack. There’s a propulsive energy to Darkest Hour, such that things are never standing still, even when two characters are having a quiet conversation. The writing bubbles over with wit, and the grave stakes are firmly established while leaving room for some much-needed humour.

The film’s atmospherics reel the viewer in as much as the performances, which we’ll get to in a bit, do. Darkest Hour is cinematic in that it feels deliberately constructed and staged, but this never pulls one out of it. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel employs lighting boldly and exquisitely – Churchill is revealed by way of his face being illuminated by a lit match. The sound design and editing is given precedence over the score, and it creates a uniquely immersive effect. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is authentic, with the subterranean military citadels beneath Whitehall where the War Cabinet is huddled being an especially realistic set. One can almost smell the cigar smoke wafting off the screen.

Said cigars are typically held between the stubby fingers of Oldman’s Churchill. This is an audacious bit of casting which has more than paid off. Oldman takes on this daunting role with unbridled brio, carefully crafting an entertaining, astounding performance. The special effects makeup required to transform Oldman into Churchill was designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji, and took four hours to put on each day. Oldman captures Churchill’s distinctive physicality in ways obvious and subtle. This is an actor long overdue for an Oscar, and it’s hard to argue that this performance doesn’t deserve that honour.

Because Oldman’s presence in the film is so forceful, and because the film’s focus is trained so squarely on Churchill, the supporting players don’t get too much of the spotlight. However, they ideally complement the film’s star.

Mendelsohn conveys King George VI’s awkwardness and hints at his temper. While Colin Firth’s portrayal of “Bertie” might have won hearts (and an Oscar), Mendelsohn does bear more of a physical resemblance to the historical figure. The evolution of the working relationship between the King and the new Prime Minister, which starts out quite testy indeed, is sensitively portrayed.

Kristin Scott Thomas is the picture of refined grace as Clementine. Nobody quite knows Churchill like his beloved wife does, and Thomas’ twinkle-in-the-eye performance is appealing.

James’ Elizabeth is based on a real-life figure, but the real Elizabeth Layton didn’t become Churchill’s secretary until around a year after the events depicted in the film. James is proper and charming as always, and Elizabeth serves as a fine audience identification character. One of this reviewer’s favourite moments in the film is when Elizabeth manages to momentarily break her boss’s unyielding exterior and they share a hearty laugh over a silly mistake Churchill has made.

Halifax and Chamberlain are depicted as being in opposition to Churchill, but the film makes sure to articulate their point of view. To them, Churchill’s insistence on fighting on at all costs and his stubborn refusal to even entertain the thought of peace talks is foolhardy. That’s not an entirely unjustified point of view, given the circumstances. The late John Hurt was slated to play Chamberlain, but was replaced by Ronald Pickup after Hurt died in early 2017.

There are a few moments in Darkest Hour that ring false, most notably an impromptu meet-the-people session in an unusual locale. As in any historical drama, there are moments that have been embellished for dramatic effect. However, an impressive, bravura performance from a masterful actor and some confident stylistic flourishes keep Darkest Hour thrilling and compelling.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hostiles movie review

For inSing

HOSTILES

Director : Scott Cooper
Cast : Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Q’orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Ben Foster, Jonathan Majors, Jesse Plemons, Timothée Chalamet
Genre : Adventure/Drama/Western
Run Time : 2h 14m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : NC-16

Over years and years of westerns, it’s been ingrained in popular culture that ‘Cowboys = good, Indians = bad’. While there have been several films in the past that have attempted to redress this balance, there have been far from enough, and Native American history is often misinterpreted, glossed over or otherwise done a disservice in Hollywood movies. Hostiles is writer-director Scott Cooper’s take on this.

It is 1892, and Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), who is about to retire from the military, receives his final mission, by order of President Harrison. Blocker is to escort the elderly Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) to his homeland of Bear Valley, Montana. Also in the party are Yellow Hawk’s son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), Black Hawk’s wife Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) and the couple’s son. Many of Blocker’s men had died at Yellow Hawk’s hands, hence Blocker’s resistance in aiding Chief in any way.

Along the way, Blocker and his men encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), a widow whose family was brutally murdered by Comanche warriors. Rosalie joins Blocker and company, but the road to Montana will not be a smooth one. Along the way, they must brave attacks from warring tribes, fend off avaricious fur trappers, and escort treacherous prisoner Philip Wills (Ben Foster) north. Blocker must try to forgive, or at least tolerate, a man whom he has spent much of his life hating, as each learns to see the other’s point of view.

Hostiles is based on an unproduced manuscript by the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart, which Cooper has adapted for the screen. This is a downbeat, uncompromisingly brutal film. Given the subject matter, it should be a degree of grave, but Hostiles just wears the audience down, never providing even the briefest moment of levity. One gets the impression that the film functions more as a political statement than as a story. Its heart is in the right place, but there is still considerable nuance left unmined, the result being occasionally clumsy.

The characters are fleshed out reasonably well and are given dialogue that is never painfully on-the-nose. They are all weighed down by something or another, and while there are moments that approach poignancy, Hostiles often feels more like a slog than an involving, powerful drama.

Christian Bale has repeatedly proven over his career that he’s a dab hand at playing the tortured hero. Blocker is someone whose hatred of Native Americans is deep-seated and intertwined with painful events from his past. We see that despite how Blocker has hardened his heart, he is still capable of great empathy and compassion, which he directs towards Rosalie. This is an expectedly intense performance from a famously intense actor, but the character’s arc is all too predictable.

Pike’s portrayal of a woman who has barely survived an unthinkable trauma and is now at her breaking point is heart-rending and wince-inducing in the right ways. It can be argued that Rosalie has the most compelling personal arc in the film, and it’s a role that Pike bites into. However, we know it won’t be long before the film suggests (at the very least) a romance between Rosalie and Blocker, with this relationship becoming the film’s emotional centre.

While Studi lends a quiet, stern authority to the Yellow Hawk role, the film does not give him equal power to Blocker in deciding the direction of the narrative. The Comanche are depicted as villains, with the Cheyenne as the film’s heroes. The film ostensibly wants to undo the old dichotomy of heroic cowboys and villainous Indians, but still needs ‘savages’ for audiences to root against. Kilcher spends most of the film silent and with her head bowed, and the film would have benefitted from giving the Native American characters more agency in the narrative.

The supporting roles are all inhabited with sufficient authenticity, but as with many films of this type, Hostiles struggles to make Blocker’s men seem distinct. Rory Cochrane conveys a distant hauntedness, Blocker shares a sincere, tearful moment with his right-hand man Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), and Ben Foster gets to play quite the scoundrel, but the motley crew isn’t sufficiently memorable.

Even as it unfolds against sweeping landscapes and features actors giving the material their best, Hostiles feels considerably longer than its 135 minutes. While it’s clear that the film is made with noble intentions, its still encumbered by certain trappings of the Western genre, and doesn’t the deliver the depth which it promises.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Greatest Showman movie review

For inSing

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Director : Michael Gracey
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Paul Sparks
Genre : Musical/Drama
Run Time : 1h 45m
Opens : 28 December 2017
Rating : PG

For years, Hugh Jackman has been saying “let’s put on a show” – specifically, a movie musical based on the life of showbiz pioneer P.T. Barnum. The project was announced in 2009, and with The Greatest Showman, Jackman’s dream has come true – but just how much was this endeavour worth the actor’s blood, sweat and tears?

Phineas Taylor ‘P.T.’ Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is an enterprising showman who, after being fired from his job as a shipping company clerk, takes the biggest risk of his life: he sinks whatever money he has left into a museum of oddities. Barnum came from nothing, but married far above his station to Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), his childhood sweetheart. The couple have two daughters: Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely).

When wax figures and stuffed animals alone fail to draw crowds, Barnum puts out the call for human oddities and persons with unique acts to join his museum, which soon gets rebranded as a ‘circus’. These include bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), dwarf Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey) who takes on the stage name ‘General Tom Thumb’, sibling trapeze artists Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) Wheeler, conjoined twins Chang (Yusaku Komori) and Eng (Danial Son) Bunker, and Prince Constantine (Shannon Holtzappfel), whose whole body is covered in tattoos.

Barnum ropes in playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to be his partner. The aristocratic young man is initially hesitant to throw in with Barnum, but eventually does. Carlyle falls in love with Anne, but because of racial prejudices, both fear they will be ostracised if they enter a relationship. James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), theatre critic for the New York Herald, decries Barnum’s show as vile and debasing, while angry hordes protest the show because they do not want the ‘freaks’ to be seen out in public.

As Barnum’s success grows despite ever-increasing odds, so does his hubris. Barnum becomes besotted with opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), dubbed the ‘Swedish Nightingale’. He forsakes his crew of circus oddities and his own family to advance Jenny’s career in the United States. As Barnum chases fame and fortune, he must re-evaluate his priorities and decide how much is enough.

The Greatest Showman very much wants to be a great time for the whole family: uplifting, joyous, inspirational and bursting with dazzling visual spectacle. This is a movie that works better if you know nothing about P.T. Barnum. This movie dearly hopes you know nothing about P.T. Barnum. This won’t be the first review to state that perhaps the historical figure is not the best match for a tolerance-driven story about embracing one’s differences. There’s a site called History vs. Hollywood that handily compares fact-based movies with actual events, and the page for The Greatest Showman might as well just say “yeah, no”.

This is a man who got his big break exhibiting a slave woman named Joice Heth, billing her as being 161-years-old and having been George Washington’s nursemaid. After Heth died, Barnum held a live autopsy in a Broadway theatre, attended by 1500 paying audience members. And that’s just the beginning of his career in showbusiness.

Looking past that – which is a lot to look past – there is plenty in The Greatest Showman to appreciate. This is an adoring tribute to the glory days of the movie musical. Movie musicals must often hide that they are musicals, since a big section of filmgoers dislike the genre. In The Greatest Showman, there are eleven original songs, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – the duo who won an Oscar for La La Land and a Tony for Dear Evan Hansen. This film was in development before Pasek and Paul made it big.

The film’s songs all have a radio-friendly Top 40 sound – Jackman has said that he wanted the music to be something his youngest daughter would want to listen to. This is a bit of a double-edged sword – the anachronistic-sounding songs make it feel like the movie is so close to a full-on throwback, but took one crucial step back. Some of the pop instrumentation is distracting, and the movie’s low point is when the opera singer performs what is decidedly not opera.

The big signature number “This Is Me”, an ecstatic celebration of being different that is performed with gusto and sincerity by Settle, is anthemic and has a wonderful message. “Rewrite the Stars” is meant to be a sweeping romantic duet, but is instead entirely cheesy. “You know I want you/ It’s not a secret I try to hide/ But I can’t have you” are actual lyrics in the song.

The film’s group numbers are uniformly excellent. There is such dynamism to the staging, and the choreography by Ashley Wallen is a technical achievement, given the synchronisation involved, not to mention groups of dancers navigating various obstacles and special effects going off. “The Other Side”, a duet between Barnum and Carlyle in which the former talks the latter into joining him, features a fiendishly clever bit in which shot glasses are moved across a bar counter to the beat of the music.

Jackman gives this his all, and it is invigorating to see a performer who is so in his element. He’s a song and dance man as much as he is a claw-baring action hero, and he’s right at home in this movie.

Williams puts in a quietly moving performance, and her solo number, the wistful “Tightrope”, is this reviewer’s favourite song of the film. Efron is slick and charming – he’s kind of floundered about choosing many bad projects, but The Greatest Showman fits his skill set to a tee.

Zendaya is captivating, effortlessly poised and glamorous, yet also evincing the sadness beneath Anne’s surface. The forbidden romance between Anne and Phillip is clumsily executed, but has its moments. Both characters are fictional.

Unfortunately, the circus oddities do not get sufficient development. Tom Thumb and Lettie read as individuals, but the group is often relegated to providing background texture. It seems like there’s so much to each character, each of their struggles growing up different from everyone else, that doesn’t get explored.

Then there’s the strawman critic played by Sparks, who feels like a built-in defence against the film’s would-be negative reviews – but The Greatest Showman is hardly the first movie to use this device.

If you long for the heyday of big-budget, glitzy movie musicals, The Greatest Showman is as close as Hollywood has come in a while. The ambition behind the movie, especially since this is director Michael Gracey’s feature film debut, is commendable. However, it is, at the very least, troubling that a figure as monstrous as P.T. Barnum has been fashioned into a vehicle for the film’s very worthwhile positive messaging.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong