Rewatch: The Greatest Showman (2017)

I saw The Greatest Showman on opening day, Boxing Day 2017. There was only roughly 15 of us who were able to leave the comfort of our homes and drag ourselves to the cinema in central London. This was all before the film became the smash hit we know it to be today, mind you. I saw it because I was going to be reviewing it for a magazine. I gave it 3 stars, because that felt right. I recognised its flaws and how badly the story dragged at points, how bad the CGI was and how strange it all was.It wasn’t a great film but I had fun with it.

A month or so later, I bought tickets to a Singalong screening at The Prince Charles Cinema, thinking that’ll be a giggle; the songs were great and I had been listening to the soundtrack non-stop since that Boxing day so why not. The screening was on a rainy afternoon so I didn’t bother getting there too early, thinking there was going to be only about 30-40 of us kind of humming along, tapping our feet along the musical numbers.

I have never been so wrong in my life. The queue went around the block, people were dressed up as characters from the film and the energy was palpable. The screening was sold out, the director made an appearance and there were flashing lights, dancing and a lot of off-tune singing. We all had a blast. It was like a rock concert, everyone was on their feet and stomping, clapping, singing, dancing. This was the first time I started to realise what a phenomenon The Greatest Showman was becoming.

I haven’t seen the film since that rainy afternoon, scared that it would be ruined for me outside the comfort and darkness of the cinema, with its flaws fully visible to me. And then a day so awful came along, only a bit of Hugh Jackman could save it from becoming the worst day ever. So I popped the disc in and sat down, a little scared but mostly excited. Was it still the magical experience I had had twice almost a year ago?

For the most part, yes.

The Greatest Showman follows the idealistic P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman, born for this role) who is hungry for success, but can’t seem to catch his big break. Opening his museum of oddities, Barnum finally hits gold, but starts to lose his way when no amount of success is enough and he leaves for a tour with a Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). It’s a sanitised, romatizised, utteer BS tale of Barnum, who was a much more complicated and problematic character than Jackman’s version of him.

The Greatest Showman is an odd film. It arrived after the smash hit La La Land, which made musicals trendy and popular again, so it doesn’t feel quite as fresh as it probably should, considering its lengthy production history. The Greatest Showman has one of the best opening scenes in a musical, possibly only matched by La La Land‘s highway dance extravaganza, but the film drags in the scenes between the musical numbers. There’s no heat, no electricity in the scenes where the characters are talking, they’re simply not very interesting. The story is glossy and not very true to life, all characters come across as a bit bland and strangely the film feels rushed although not much happens.

But the musical numbers, oh boy. They are fantastic. In these scenes, the film truly comes alive and sparks fly. The cast is so talented, it’s actually a little depressing since the film never becomes truly great as a whole. Jackman is perfect as Barnum, Zendaya brings some sass into her character Anne and it’s truly a delight to see Zac Efron flex his musical muscles again. Both Efron and Jackman are so charismatic and natural performers that it’s hard to believe it took this long to get the two of them in the same film. Their duet The Other Side is bursting with energy and joy, it’s a fun number where two of the best get to show off against one another. Only Michelle Williams as Barnum’s wife seems to have drawn the short straw and doesn’t have much to do unfortunately.

And then there is Keala Settle, playing Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady. She sings the absolute tune that is This Is Me, an Oscar nominated song about self-acceptance. There’s a video online about one of the workshops where she sings it and you can pinpoint the moment she becomes a star, the moment she lets go of her fear and starts to believe in what she sings. Her character doesn’t get nearly enough screen time, but she is the real star of the show. The song is powerful, the choreography is perfect and while cheesy, it does send out an important message that has resonated with audience far and wide. I would lie if I said I didn’t cry during the song.

In my original review I said The Greatest Showman fails as a film, but succeeds as a musical. I stand by this. The musical numbers are perfect; songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are exactly what you’d want them to be, choreographies by Ashley Wallen are energetic and dynamic and the cast sells it. It fails to be an engaging film, the story itself just isn’t that inspiring. But musicals are about utopia, being transported to somewhere better and existing in a world where you can burst into song and dance. And The Greatest Showman does exactly that during its musical scenes. It pulls you out of your seat and into the action, into the dance. And for 3 minutes, you dance with the freaks and oddities and belt your heart out and simply belong. I will go to my grave defending the musical numbers of this film and how they save The Greatest Showman from itself.

 

Rewatch: Raw (2016)

Raw was my favourite film of 2017. Without a doubt. I saw it several times in the cinema and I’ve watched it so many times at home. It’s everything I want from a film, I can’t find anything wrong with it. It’s clever, it’s darkly funny and it’s also very accurate in it’s depiction of university life. I wrote a short piece on it for a magazine I write for and I called it the cannibal film we wanted but got Eli Roth’s Green Inferno instead.

For those of you who are not familiar with the premise of the film, this is what it’s about. Garance Marillier plays Justine, who follows her parents and sister’s footsteps into a veterinary school. A brutal rite of passage includes getting blood dumped on the new students and force them to eat a small animal liver. This does not sit well with the vegetarian Justine who breaks out in a horrible rash and then some. It seems that her coming of age is a tiny bit more bloody as she develops a taste for meat and not just beef and chicken, but human.

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No summary can do justice for Julia Ducornau’s film. It’s inventive and hypnotising in its approach to growing up, finding your sexuality and becoming this whole new person you didn’t know existed. Justine is naive and childish, which makes her transformation into a man-eating beast even more satisfying, because she is almost annoyingly sweet in the beginning. Although she might now crave a bit of human flesh, she never becomes a true monster, she fights to keep her humanity. She is trying to find a way to remain herself while horrific transformations take place in her body. Don’t we all. Her changes mimic our own, even if we never developed a taste for human burgers. There are new sensations, new found confidence and sexuality and a sense of being comfortable in your own body, because finally you have some say over how to use it and what for.

Ducornau deals with Justine’s sexuality admirably. Maybe it’s because the film is French, but Justine’s budding sexuality and its emergence is dealt frankly and honestly. Her first sexual encounter with her roommate is wild, animalistic and erotic, which is a change to all those awkward first encounters, with sheets magically covering everyone’s private parts. The sex is about her, about her satisfaction and her needs. As she climaxes, she bites down on her own arms, drawing blood.

The film ultimately boils down to the relationship between the two sisters and that’s what I fell in love with on my first viewing. Alexia is wild, out of control and a cool party girl, where as Justine is quiet and shy. The two couldn’t be more different and it’s the cannibalism, which turns out to be a family trait, brings them closer in ways you can’t imagine. The last act of the film is as horrifying as it is emotional. The sisters love and hate each other in equal measure, they’re too different, but crafted from the same tree. They share a genetic bond, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will get on. At the end of the day, they’re still family though. Alexia commits a heinous crime, one that isn’t only gruesome, but also hurts her sister more than anything. When Justine discovers this, she’s angry and she places a ski-pole on her sisters forehead, ready to plunge it in there and deliver a final blow to end the madness. But how could she? They’re the same and they have to stay together. The sisterly bond is one that cannot be broken, it seems.

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Jim Williams’ score is one of the best film scores. It draws you in and it really drives the film forward. I still listen to it and every time I hear the Main theme, I get goosebumps.  Electronic film scores have become a trend lately, especially in horror films, but rarely are they this effective and able to draw such an emotional response. Williams’ score never overtakes the visual imagery, but provides an essential companion, like all the best scores. Hearing a song will remind you of specific visual images in this case and that’s powerful.

Raw was called a feminist film and there were also many reports about audience members fainting at the over the top gore in the film. Both are true and false. The film isn’t necessarily feminist, but a very female-centric film, focuse largely on the female experience of growing up, in Raw‘s case in a very horrific way. Justine goes through what most opf us go through in uni. We become independent, but the process is scary and littered with bad sexual experiences and uncertain emotions and of course, too much alcohol. Ducornau never hides how emotionally abusive the experience can be on the female psyche. In Raw the experience manifests in what is almost a physical as well as an emotional transformation for Justine.

Raw is gory. Of course it’s gory, it’s a film about cannibalism. It’s never needlessly gory nor does it glorify violence. Raw is an intelligent film about growing up. The film is never about a cannibal, it’s about the changes we all go through in our adolescence and how we adapt to them. In Justine’s case, she has to adapt to the desire to consume human flesh as well as her new relationship with her sister. Thigns really aren’t the same after your sister munches on your first love. Grim.

Stay Excellent, and watch Raw!

Maria

Rewatch: The Hateful Eight (2015)

I have so much love for Quentin Tarantino, I really do. He has a great ear for dialogue and a sharp visual style and I personally really enjoy the ultra-violence he portrays on screen.

I’ve always been drawn to violent films and to this day there is only one scene I refuse to watch (girl regurgitating her internal organs in Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead. 100% nope). I’ve always considered extreme violence as spectacle; it has never bothered or disturbed me, it has been nothing but theatricals to me. As I’ve become older, my fascination with on-screen violence hasn’t stopped or even decreased, but I now yearn meaning behind it.

Which brings us to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and my reasons for absolutely hating this film.

I decided to give the film a second chance because Tarantino is an acclaimed filmmaker so surely I got something wrong after watching this when it came out?

Nope, The Hateful Eight still remains one of the worst films I have seen.

I got a call about 25 minutes into the film and had to pause it. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Daisy Domergue had already been beaten 3 times. Needlessly. I have no issue with violence against women if it’s… I don’t want to say deserved because that sounds awful but surely you get what I mean? We shouldn’t shy away from violence against women because they’re women, but we surely shouldn’t inflict violence on women on-screen because they’re women. And this is where lies my problem with The Hateful Eight.

Daisy Domergue might be an awful person in the film and surely deserves to be on trial and found guilty for her crimes. She does not however deserve to be needlessly beaten by men because they feel it’s their right to put their hands on her for no other reason than to their amusement. She is already sporting a black eye at the beginning of the film and by the end of it, she’s been sprayed with blood from several people, one of them being her brother. Imagine having to scrape off your sibling’s brain matter from your face.

While all actors do a fine job and Jennifer Jason Leigh truly shines in her thankless role, they can’t rescue a film that is so keen on abusing its only female character and to throw the n-word around like its synonymous with the peppermint sticks Joe Gage purchases. Race politics have always been muddled in Tarantino films, but The Hateful Eight takes them to a whole new level of problematic. Somehow Tarantino seems to believe he is the exception and for him it’s more than fine to write the n-word as long as he can justify it with the time and place he sets his films in.

Tarantino is possibly the most post-modern filmmaker we have today. Most things in his films are borrowed; names, whole characters, visual clues… I have never minded this, I have actually found it quite fun, like a little game for us film lovers. Can you find the 10 references in one scene? -kind of thing. Here Tarantino seems to be borrowing from his own material, almost honouring his own work. The Hateful Eight is remarkably similar to Tarantino’s first feature Reservoir Dogs with it’s setting, cast and even how scenes play out. I find this incredibly arrogant, borrowing from your own line of work. Style is one thing, but to build your career on borrowing from other filmmakers and ultimately from your own work seems simply cocky.

If The Hateful Eight was a better film, I probably wouldn’t mind this. I’d probably even find it quite interesting, maybe even brilliant. But Tarantino’s insistence on fetishising violence against his leading lady makes The Hateful Eight unbearable. Her death is prolonged and the camera lingers on her struggling to breathe. Almost all the men die die from gunshot wounds or from poisoning. You could argue that their deaths are painful and violent, but Tarantino is more eager to cut his scenes when the men are dying. He cuts between different characters, ensuing chaos within the scene and creating action where there isn’t much. But poor old Daisy dies while two men and the audience watch her. We are almost invited to celebrate her death while all other deaths seem to only lead to this one. Chris Mannix wants to shoot her, but Major Warren chooses to hang her. Tarantino once again chooses extreme cruelty where there was a more humane way for her to die. He grants his male characters the bliss of death, but makes sure the female suffers the most.

The taste left in your mouth after watching The Hateful Eight is a sour one. On one hand it’s still hard to deny Tarantino’s talents as a filmmaker; the film is beautifully shot and sharply edited. But the overall cruelty he portrays in the film is hard to swallow. The violence never seems theatrical, it doesn’t seem to be about the spectacle, only about violence and pain being inflicted to others. The deaths are unnecessarily cruel and played out with a straight face. Samuel L. Jackson describing murdering another passenger’s son is drawn out and both told and showed to the audience. Surely one or the other would have been enough? His race politics are too complicated to include in this post, but let’s just say I wasn’t happy with them either. Major Warren’s portrayal is problematic at best and racist at worst.

I’m now both excited and worried about Tarantino’s next film. He is already speaking of retiring from filmmaking, while Takashi Miike completed his 100th film last year. If Tarantino continues to portray such cruelty towards women and throwing the n-word around, how will he stand against the #MeToo -movement? Will his films still gain accolades and good reviews or will people be outraged by his treatment of characters? This is in no way a criticism of Tarantino as a person, I have never met him, but I sure would like to talk to him about this and I’d make him a banging cup of tea too.

Stay Excellent

Maria