28 Mar 2018

At the Movies

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 28 March 2018

On At The Movies, Simon Morris looks Cannes Film Festival winner, The Square and the sequel to Guillermo del Toro's other rubber monster film, Pacific Rim. And he also belatedly investigates why people keep flocking to the Hugh Jackman musical The Greatest Showman, over three months later.

The greatest showman has been around for months, and it’s high time to find out why. 

When Hugh Jackman’s folly came out – a musical from a first-time director about notorious flim-flam man P T Barnum – the critics were unanimously lukewarm. 

The tunes are forgettable, they said, the story is flimsy and historically inaccurate - and who wants another musical anyway?

Well, let’s answer the last question first. There’s always a market for a good musical even if fans usually have to rely on Disney and Pixar to fill that need with films like Beauty and the Beast or Coco.  

Last year La La Land was a hit despite lackluster tunes and musically challenged stars. At least Jackman can sing and dance.

When The Greatest Showman came out during the holidays, I had no reason to see it – particularly since all my colleagues were so underwhelmed. 

But three months on it’s still there, and curiosity got the best of me. It’s clearly doing something right.

The songs, by La La Land’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, were similarly nothing special on first hearing. But they all got reprised during the film – in one case several times – and that strategy worked.

After half a dozen doses of ‘This is Me’ I couldn’t get it out of my head.

And the cast didn’t hurt either. Jackman’s as well-known as a song and dance man as he is an X Men action hero. 

And they gave him the best possible support with Michelle Williams, no less, as Barnum’s wife Charity.

Did Williams do all her own singing and dancing in this film? If she did, she left La La Land’s Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone for dead.

Meanwhile for the younger set, Zach Efron returns to his High school musical roots, along with a modern Disney moppet Zendaya.

Their big number involves singing and dancing while negotiating a flying trapeze.  

And you wouldn’t think the life of flamboyant con-man P T Barnum would lend itself to a feel-good musical. Even if he didn’t actually say “there’s a sucker born every minute” his career was mostly predicated on parting the gullible from their cash.  

But first-time director Michael Gracey and veteran screenwriter Bill Condon know that a musical is no place for brutal truth.

Audiences want to come out floating on air, as love conquers all, people are encouraged to follow their dreams, and outsiders succeed by just being themselves.

So P T Barnum put together a circus featuring the unusual and bizarre – stars included an Irish giant, General Tom Thumb and Lettie Lutz the Bearded Lady. And the story of how he turned them into one big happy family is as appealing as it’s probably fraudulent.

It’s one thing to get audiences to come in. To keep them, and keep them coming back, a show has to deliver – and this clearly has.

I’m told The Greatest Showman is the biggest musical in New Zealand cinemas since Mama Mia. And we all know how well that did.

The Square won the Palme D’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival with its sardonic look at the European art world. Stars Claes Bang and Elisabeth Moss.

But The Square, written and directed by Ruben Ostlund, isn’t taking easy pot-shots at modern art – even if the film does include a pet chimpanzee painting a picture, and an invitation to contrast a situationalist piece involving piles of dust with a rather more accessible event - Christian’s daughter in a cheerleading competition.

The Square opens with the piece itself – a painted square space described as a “sanctuary of trust and caring” – and how the museum plans to publicize it. 

But Christian takes his eye off the ball when he runs into trouble in another part of the city.

While attempting to display his own “trust and caring” Christian is robbed, and furious, he wants to punish the perpetrator.  

But while he’s planning his revenge, he hasn’t noticed his smart-aleck PR firm has produced a shocking, deliberately tasteless video for the Square and put it up on YouTube, where it goes viral.

So now Christian’s being attacked by the media for putting up offensive material, and when he takes it down, endangering freedom of speech.

Meanwhile his revenge stunt has backfired too.   A furious immigrant boy thinks Christian has slandered him, and promises to “make chaos for him”.

So where is The Square taking us in well over two hours, alternating comedy and discomfort.  Is the point that art intellectuals often fail to live up to their stated lofty ideals?

Is it the nature of art – both confronting our prejudices while at the same time becoming so elitist that it simply reinforces them?

The most famous scene of The Square – all eleven minutes of it – is when a performance artist impersonates a wild chimpanzee at a gala banquet, and goes round the guests essentially terrorizing them.  

My own reaction to most Cannes Film Festival winners over the years has been admiration, rather than whole-hearted enthusiasm, and this is no exception.

The Square has been greeted by rave reviews world-wide, and an Oscar nomination to boot.   But I couldn’t escape the feeling that - for all The Square’s dazzling individual elements -  the end result, like the art-work itself, resembled a dedicated space with not much in it.

And the follow-up to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim promises to be even bigger, with John Boyega (The Force awakens) piloting the gargantuan Jaeger robots this time.

No problem working out what the sequel to Guillermo del Toro's rubber monster-movie Pacific Rim is all about. It's about an hour and a half of robot-on-monster mayhem, on or around Mount Fuji in Japan.

The only question is "Why is it called Uprising?"

When I say "Guillermo del Toro's rubber monster movie", I don't mean the serious, award-winning rubber monster in The shape of water.

Pacific Rim 2 is more Fifties Godzilla B-movie, with gigantic Monsters from Another Dimension terrorizing Tokyo, and only the man-made Jaegers to defend us.

Lest you forget - or weren't remotely interested in the first place - Jaegers are the world's biggest robots, machines that make Transformers look like - well like kids' toys.

But for the past 10 years Earth has had no need for Jaegers or their pilots.

The original star of Pacific Rim was Idris Alba as Jaeger-wrangler Stacker Pentecost. He's gone now - along with most of the cast of the first film - and his son Jake is going off the rails a bit, stealing bits of old Jaegers.

But one day he runs into another outsider - a teenage girl called Amara.

Amara and Jake are head-hunted to join the Jaeger programme by straight-arrow Nate Lambert. Scott Eastwood looks so much like his dad Clint that for a while you wonder whether he's been digitally fixed up like the late Peter Cushing in The Force Awakens.

Reinforcing that impression is the fact that the star of this movie - John Boyega as Jake Pentecost - is also the star of the current Star Wars films.

The gigantic Jaegers are so big that, to operate them requires two human pilots, locked in something called a "neural handshake". Otherwise their minds will melt, or something. So Nate and Jake lock minds, bickering all the way.

That's right, they don't get on at the start of the film - or had you already guessed that?

Meanwhile young punk Amara joins up with the other cadets, and immediately they all start bickering at each other too.

Bicker bicker bicker - clearly everyone needs something to take their minds off their personal problems.

And on cue, up rise some threats, loosely justifying the title Pacific Rim Uprising.

First a sort of rogue Jaeger pops up out of nowhere, and insists on fighting Jake and Nate in - why not? - north Siberia. But this is only the entrée for the main course.

Somehow there's another rip in the space-time continuum, and through the hellish portal come three kaiju - or big old rubber monsters.

Despite their computer-made origins, they all have the unmistakable look of men in rubber suits.

In this sort of movie, no matter how big, menacing and alien the monsters and the monster-fighters are, the final battle invariably comes down to a punch-up, mostly made up of socks to the jaw.

My favourite moment was when a robot was knocked halfway across Tokyo, coming to rest right next to a small Toyota.

Will Pacific Rim Uprising be hailed by future generations as a masterpiece - or even last in the cinema longer than a month or so? I'd say unlikely on both counts.

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