Posted in Film

The Greatest Showman Review

Everyone loves the circus, or…everyone loves the idea of the circus. The Greatest Showman is all about the idea of the circus. Everyone knows part of the show involves deception, but enough of it is real enough that we don’t mind being hoodwinked every once in a while. Watching The Greatest Showman, I felt the same way.

This fun, colorful, and feel-good musical is only loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. Only a thousand page novel or several seasons long television show could fully tell Barnum’s insane life story. But for a two-hour musical released around Christmas, The Greatest Showman fits the bill, even if it plays it too safe for my taste. The energetic and memorable musical numbers carry the film along, distracting you from the generic and cliché-ridden screenplay. Most of the characters are barely given a personality, but the actors try to overcome the weak script with charm and panache.

Everyone is trying very hard to convince you that this film is better than it is—the actors, the cinematography, the choreographer—however, the script is to blame for most of the film’s faults. Part of the reason this film succeeds as a crowd pleaser is the same reason why the film fails as a biography or as a “serious” film: it is every generic Hollywood “let’s put on a show” musical ever made. All we’re missing are some dancing nuns, three sailors, and talking animals.

Still, for most of the film’s runtime, the history-lover in me couldn’t help but wonder how the film stacked up against the real story. Answer: The film deviates from the truth and condenses a lot of Barnum’s life, but the changes are befitting the film’s genre and target audience.

Obviously many characters and events are condensed and embellished, if not made up entirely:

  • Zac Efron’s character, Philip Carlyle, is clearly based off of James Anthony Bailey.
  • Keala Settle’s scene-stealing bearded lady, Lettie, is a composite of other bearded women such as Josephine Clofullia and Annie Jones.
  • Charles Stratton aka General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey) is one of the most famous dwarves in history, even if his character is sadly pushed aside to make room for more musical numbers. Stratton also had a fascinating life. He was actually Barnum’s distant relative, which explains how Barnum found him. Stratton started preforming at the age of five, as opposed to the film’s version who doesn’t join show business until later in life. Stratton was also one of the most famous and recognizable actors in the world during his life. He married Lavinia Warren (born Mercy Lavinia Bumpus) a fellow dwarf and performer.
  • The film also features some of Barnum’s famous sideshow performers in supporting roles such as: conjoined twins based off of Chang and Eng Bunker (who inspired the term Siamese twins due to their birthplace) and Jo-Jo The Dog Faced Boy Fedor Jeftichew (the film leaves out his feline counterpart, the Lion-faced Man, Stephan Bibrowski). Even George Constentenus, The Tattooed Prince and Colonel Routh Goshen, the “Largest Man In America” make an appearance. Even some of the background dancers are inspired by real sideshow performs.
  • Zendya’s character is clearly a Hollywood addition. While her character is reduced to being a spunky love interest and obligatory reference to period-accurate racism, seeing her swing around on a rope during a romantic duet nearly redeems this character’s nearly pointless existence.

The film’s timeline in relation to history is also all over the place. Barnum had a very long career in many different fields. The film condenses much of Barnum’s early career into four phases: child laborer, unsatisfied office worker, museum owner, and ringleader.

The real Barnum even dabbled in politics, becoming a Republican on the eve of the Civil War, disapproving of slavery. He even delivered this stirring speech on slavery before the Connecticut legislature:

A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit.

– P. T. Barnum

While the film doesn’t include this wonderful quote (or its context during the American Civil War), the film follows its spirit, celebrating people of all races, genders, and apperances. Though, I have to say, for a film that constantly tells us appearances don’t matter it sure does spend most of the runtime focusing on the beautiful “normal” people.

The Greatest Showman is earnest, passionate, big-hearted, a bit shallow and very predictable, but as the title suggest, we all came to see the show, not the truth, which makes this a fitting tribute to Barnum and the circus itself.

Posted in Film

My Favorite Films of 2016

This past year was filled with many great and also disappointing films. Instead of merely focusing on the negative, I have decided to praise some of my personal favorite films of the past year.

If a film you enjoyed is not on here, it’s probably because I haven’t seen it yet.

These are some buzz-worthy films I have yet to see:

  • Moonlight
  • Rouge One
  • Fences
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Jackie

Now for some of my personal favorite films of 2016:

7. Zootopia

When this movie was released I had no idea it was coming out, so this was a pleasant surprise. It actually beat out Moana as my favorite animated film of the year, which I was not expecting. The film contains several powerful messages, which everyone of all ages should consider. Though the film is a bit on the nose at times (or should I say…on the snout?), its lessons are both timely and timeless. I’m also very pleased with how the film was able to build a very believable and well thought-out world (or city) for a film that doesn’t even clock in at ninety minutes. Judy Hopps is a great role model for children, more than recent and popular Disney characters like Anna and Elsa.

6. Anthropoid

A horror movie of a different sort, Anthropoid tells the story of two Czech resistance fighters’ attempt to assassinate a leading member of the Nazi Party in the middle of WW2. This film was largely ignored upon release here in the states and it’s a shame that this film has flown under so many people’s radars. It just might be that people are starting to get tired of only seeing historical movies about WW2 or viewers are tiring of listening to clearly British actors attempt to sound vaguely “European,” but this film definitely deserves a larger audience. While the first act of the film is rather slow, Anthropoid has at least three incredibly effective and suspenseful scenes: the first is the assassination attempt, another involves a surprise visit and a cyanide capsule, and the third makes up the film’s brutal final act. History buffs need to check this movie out, it is well worth the time.

5. The Witch

I’ve seen many horror movies and few of them legitimately scare me. This film is a terrifying exception. From the first few frames until the last few seconds of the ending credits, I was on edge and as the film crawled towards the climax, I was constantly in this state of dismay and dread. Some of the images in this movie will make you sick without being gratuitous. As a film lover, there’s much to love about The Witch. The music, especially the score in the film’s final moments, made my skin crawl. If you’ve seen the ending of this film, you know which song I’m talking about. The characters were fascinating and expertly played. I was also impressed at how good the younger actors were while having to speak in an old fashioned New England dialect which does not come easy to most people, much less child actors. This film also has the best and most unsettling performance by an animal in any horror movie. Also from a historical standpoint, the script is composed of actual text written during the 17th century, adding an uncomfortable level of accuracy and believability to a film that is also disquietingly realistic (minus the whole talking goat and evil witch thing.) After two decades of predictable horror movies, The Witch and last year’s It Follows are hopefully just the start of a new wave of good horror movies.

4. Green Room

There were a lot of great thrillers this year, especially ones that flew under the public radar. In fact, I had a difficult time choosing between The Witch, Don’t Breathe, and my number four pick Green Room as my favorite thriller of the year. In all honesty, the only reasons Green Room isn’t higher on my list is that I feel the first twenty minutes of the film are rather slow and the characters are rather one note. Ignoring that, this is an excellent film that didn’t get nearly enough attention as it deserved when it was first released! The film is notable for being the last film of Anton Yelchin’s career before his untimely death in a freak accident, and though he does give a stellar performance, the film is much more memorable even if one ignores Yelchin’s passing. Once you past the rather meandering first twenty minutes of the movie, the film suddenly kicks in to gear and constantly has you on the hook. Who knew Patrick Stewart could be so creepy while doing so little? In fact, everyone in this film turned in solid performances and this is just more proof that Imogen Poots is one of the most underrated young actresses in recent memory.

3. Don’t Breathe

Another unexpectedly effective thriller that borders on horror movie, Don’t Breathe is easily one of the most suspenseful movies of 2016. It also boasts one of the most memorable and fascinating villains/anti-heroes of the year. In fact, the two main characters are really intriguing, as is the concept of the film itself. The script flips your expectations and makes you wonder who is in the right and who is in the wrong. I don’t want to give too much away because the film is best seen with fresh eyes, unspoiled by trailers, but I will say that this gem flips the home invasion subgenre on its head. It will leave you, quite like the characters, breathless.

2. La La Land

I had a difficult time deciding between my number 1 and number 2 spots since I love both films to pieces. The only reason La La Land isn’t number 1 on this list is because the film is a study of style versus substance. Still, I love this movie. La La Land is a tribute and throwback to old Hollywood musicals, the kind that would feature Gene Kelly or Judy Garland. Though the songs are rather hit and miss—the soundtrack is not for everyone and our two leads aren’t terribly good singers—but what the film lacks in memorable lyrics, it more than makes up for with its score and choreography. Damien Chazelle is certainly a force to be reckoned with after directing this film and my favorite film of 2015, Whiplash. He has a command on cinematic pacing and language that few directors of his age group have in this day and age. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us in his next film.

Before I unveil my favorite film of 2016, here are some honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut:

  • The Girl on the Train
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • The Neon Demon

And my favorite film of 2016 is:

1. Silence

This long awaited drama from Martin Scorsese is well worth the wait. The film is nearly three hours long and has a rather slow pace, while peppered with scenes of truly disturbing violence, this film is not for everyone, in fact it will test the audience’s endurance as much as the characters’. Yet, if you can sit through the film, you will find that it is a deeply rewarding film that engages viewers in a complex moral and ethical argument: Would you sacrifice everything that you love to save someone else? I’ve noticed that many people online have had a difficult time understanding the main characters’ actions. Since the protagonists are Jesuit priests on a mission in Japan, where Christianity is forbidden on the threat of death, many viewers don’t understand why the two priests are so conflicted over the film’s moral dilemma. As someone who was raised in a semi-religious household, the film’s themes of faith struck a cord with me in ways most religious films don’t. If you’re a Christian and want to see a film that challenges you and causes you to truly think about you religion, watch Silence instead of the recent forgettable Pure Flix films. Silence a brutal and trying film, but one that is worth the effort and your patience. The best way to view the film is to ask yourself if you would spit on everything you ever loved in the hopes of helping others. Would you settle for a lifetime of misery if it saved someone else? Finally: is it better to die for what you believe in or to live believing in nothing at all?

Posted in Film, Uncategorized

Women in Alfred Hitchcock’s Filmography

Context: This little essay examines and destroys the recent belief that the women found in Alfred Hitchcock’s films are simple damsels and distress or one-dimensional sex objects. In this essay, I argue that his female characters are not misogynistic portrayals of helpless females, instead some of his films’ best and strongest characters are women. They are strong and fascinating because they triumph over the villain and survive much trauma.

More and more, I’ve seen one charge laid against famous and talented English film director Alfred Hitchcock by modern viewers more than any other: misogyny. This label, as both a woman and a lover of classic films, saddens me.

While his films have misogynistic characters, his films do not have a misogynistic agenda, in my opinion. The ill treatment of some of his heroines comes from the purpose of the plot, the fate of the lifestyle they are living, or the actions of the men in their lives. The male characters are not treated any better in a Hitchcock film, either. As to the suffering of his female characters, I have this to say: a character suffers in the first half of a story so they can triumph in the last act.

Classic examples of that last reason can be found in “Vertigo”, “Notorious,” and “Marnie.” The men in those three films are emotionally cold and sometimes dangerous, and while they sometimes have the attributes of a romantic lead (probably because of the actors playing those characters more than the characters themselves), Hitchcock tries, I believe, to make it clear that the actions of these men are wrong and it is only when the men come to care about the women they are hurting do they have any sort of redemption.

Take for instance Devlin from “Notorious”—his character is very unfeeling at times, but the way Cary Grant plays him makes me think that he knows he’s being a bastard and that he hates himself for it, but it’s part of his job. So that makes his attempt at redemption in the climax of the film much more powerful.

The other two men I’ve listed are past redemption in some viewer’s eyes—and perhaps rightfully so. Sean Connery’s character in “Marnie” spends the film as an emotionless plot device—he forces the main character to marry him (though this is after she stole from him, so maybe 60’s audiences weren’t too offended by this), then he practically rapes her on their honeymoon. We never really get to know how he’s feeling and he treats Marnie like she’s this amusing possession or pet of his—something to be trained and kept—so he is the worst (emotionally) of all of the three men.

Then there’s Scottie from “Vertigo”. How do I justify this man? He falls in love with another man’s wife, loses her, then finds a woman who looks remarkably similar to his lost love and decides to change this new woman into a replica of the woman he lost. The villain in “Vertigo” and the anti-hero are similar to Devlin in that all men are changing the women they love, but end up making them more attractive in the eyes of another man. In “Notorious” the other man is Alex Sebastian, in “Vertigo” the role of ‘the men who have transform the heroine’ is taken up by Gavin Elster, who is behind the scenes for most of the plot, and Scottie, which makes the final revelation all the more tragic. The anti-hero of “Vertigo” is emotionally traumatized and mentally scarred, giving him more justification then the other men I’ve listed I suppose, but what he does is horrible none the less. Yet the interesting thing about that film is that we sympathize with him the whole way through the film. It’s hard to have loved and lost someone. I could make a whole other essay on that character alone.

So, back to the women: the women they abuse share the fact that they take on many different identities and that they are all changed by the men who control them.

Most of the women in his films, though they go through harrowing experiences, have a happy ending—it’s a staple of almost every story ever told—the character suffers but might be rewarded at the end, and typically is in most genres, except for tragedies. Some of his characters, like in “Notorious” and “Marnie” or even “The Birds” have ambiguous endings, so we never get to know if the women survive or if they go on to have the happier life that they deserve. Some characters (SPOILERS) like Judy in “Vertigo” or Marion in “Psycho” have very violent and shocking deaths, but they are, in some ways, punished for their actions through this violent end of theirs. Judy has been an accomplice in a murder and Marion has embezzled from her employer—so their deaths are sort of justified in the mindset of moviegoers at the time these two films were made.

But it’s the heroines who suffer the most that we remember. Young Charlie in “Shadow of a Doubt” has lost her innocence after nearly being killed by her uncle, Alicia in “Notorious” has been used by the man she loves and nearly died because of it, Marnie was abused at every turn, Judy in “Vertigo” had to betray and hurt the man she loved the most to help another murder his wife, Margot in “Dial M for Murder” was nearly killed by a man her husband hired, and Melanie in “The Birds” was attacked by lots and lots of birds. They stick with us because they were strong and very well written characters, played by talented actresses who brought their character to life.

If Hitchcock hated women, he wouldn’t have let the writers of his films write such strong and diverse female characters. He’d have simply banished them to the backgrounds of the plot while the men took center stage. But no, his female characters—good and bad—are likeable and courageous—we care about them no matter what they’ve done. And while in movies the women always suffer the most—in Hitchcock films this is still the case—Hitchcock’s heroines are able to, for the most part, come out of these traumatic circumstances and go on living, content to walk into the sunset, or at least the next chapter of their lives, after making their way through hell. That takes a lot of luck and bravery.

To talk about females in Hitchcock films is to talk about females in the movies period. The women in his films are so extraordinary and well crafted that the writers, the actresses who play them, and Hitchcock all deserve more respect than they usually get these days. Just because a female suffers in a film doesn’t mean that she’s a weak character, in fact, it shows how strong she is that she’s able to push herself through the pain and find hope in a better life. So the next time you see a Hitchcock film—or a film in general—try seeing the female characters’ strengths, not their weaknesses and don’t blame the director or the writers if the heroines are hurt. Suffering is part of life in the movies.