The Greatest Showman

Hugh Jackman sings, dances and grins – a big stretch for him – as P.T. Barnum in The Greatest Showman, a musical that more than makes up for its lack of story with hugely impressive choreography, a charming cast, an OTT visual feast of colour and computer-generated backgrounds, and not to mention a good bunch of very well-written songs, by the same writers as La La Land. Comparisons to that film are therefore inevitable. The Greatest Showman is not as wonderful a film as La La Land was, but it is arguably a better musical – its songs are perhaps stronger, bigger, and they contain vital story and character information that the film could not be coherent without. Songs such as “Rewrite the Stars” and “A Million Dreams” lead to a foot-tapping cinema experience, and a spirited collection of talented actor/singers like Jackman and Zac Efron make the most of them. The colours are vibrant and the dance routines are involving with still feeling a little restrained and not too in your face – the film plays a little bit like a calmer Moulin Rouge, as if Baz Luhrmann had made it while on Ritalin.

While of course the film does turn a controversial real-life figure into the wide-eyed dreamer most frequently deployed as a Disney protagonist, and glosses over the more ugly implications of the circus he started, taken as a film on its own, it is very entertaining, and at times moving. The central theme of acceptance, most powerfully illustrated in Golden Globe-winning song This Is Me, as well as through the romance of Zac Efron and Zendaya, who Efron’s rich and intolerant parents reject, is timely and important in today’s world, and is as necessary as ever. The Greatest Showman may not be as magnificent as the best musicals out there, but it combines a wonderful contemporary message with great fun, touching romance and showmanship. Not quite the Greatest Show, but close.

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle

In January 2015, I enjoyed a nice night at Glasgow’s regional premiere of Kingsman: The Secret Service, based on a comic book by Scottish writer Mark Millar. There was a red carpet and free champagne, it was lovely. The film, directed by Matthew Vaughn, was quite good too, although I had mixed feelings. I was a fan of Kick Ass, Vaughn’s previous film adaptation of a Mark Millar comic. Despite its overwhelming cynicism and nastiness, something that would usually turn me right off, it did somehow just have the right sense of humour and fun that made my teenage self and my teenage friends (it was released in 2010) laugh out loud, making it a regular – in fact, frequent – choice of DVD for nights in and parties.

I have a feeling that as I’ve gotten older I may have grown out of its humour – or maybe I just watched it too many times. Its sequel (not helmed by Vaughn) was a letdown, with the cynicism really taking centre stage in the proceedings. Kingsman, although a lot less enjoyable than I’d always found Kick Ass, had some nice action sequences, enjoyable acting from a couple of celebrities and a few good jokes here and there. On the downside, I felt the freshness of style did cover up a shortage of substance, and the perceived conservative values and smirking laddish humour lasting two hours began to tire. Some bad jokes (including the infamous ending, which Vaughn has stuck by) threatening to ruin the picture – offensive is fine and can be clever if used to make a point, which the first film did not. It really didn’t have anything much new to say, and wasn’t anywhere near as clever as it thought it was, but was superficially enjoyable.

The sequel takes all the problems from the first, learns nothing from them and abandons all the elements that actually made it fun on the surface. With a bloated running time of 140 minutes, absolutely nothing to say, no good jokes to speak of, and way too many bad ideas stuffed into a film with no story, this was a pretty uncomfortable time at the cinema.

Its much-promoted star guests are barely in it, and none make an impression, not even until-recently-bulletproof Julianne Moore. Taron Egerton tries his best as Eggsy, returning to his first ever acting role, but is given nothing to do here and a pathetic subplot about his relationship with the Swedish princess who offered her ass to him at the end of the first film. Colin Firth is given a dreadful excuse to come back, one that robs the world of any kind of peril and the first film of any of its bite. Elton John has an extended cameo that the filmmakers obviously thought was hilarious but goes on forever for no reason and doesn’t even raise a smile.

The action sequences, particularly in the opening, can be enjoyable but the CGI assistance is very noticeable and it stops being thrilling when we realise the characters are never in any danger (they can be brought back from the dead, hooray!). The film thinks it is making a grand political point with its subplot about Julianne Moore infecting her drug supply in a plot to legalise all substances, but the makers have absolutely nothing intelligent or nuanced to say on this subject. What is the moral of its story? Should drugs be legalised? Should people come back from the dead? Is this how the war on drugs will be won? It never comes close to answering these questions and just throws stylised action and useless celebrity cameos in front of us in the hope we’ll forget. The cynicism that creeps through Vaughn and Millar’s work completely takes over the film and renders it a distasteful, obnoxious and tedious slog.

For all its terrible ideas (the pointless Statesmen, killing off characters from the first movie for no reason, bringing Colin Firth back from the dead), its wandering, and meaningless subplots (one of the new characters is a traitor – how creative), the film ends up incredibly boring and just unpleasant to sit through. I’m sure this will be a box office success and no doubt bring us a third (it’s unlikely we’re getting a third Kick Ass as the second underperformed), but after this stinker and the perceived complacency of the makers, I am not keen to see another as no doubt the criticisms of this one will not be heeded and they’ll just do what they want.

T2 Trainspotting

At this moment in time, the future and trajectory of any Scottish film industry that exists looks to be more uncertain than the next political election result, but it is worth considering briefly how, in days gone by, specifically in the 1990s, the Scottish film industry looked like it could have flourished beautifully into a fully formed Celtic Hollywood.

To look back on the highs of this time for Scottish cinema is quite extraordinary – Mel Gibson’s Academy Award-winning, and much-loved, historical (to a point) epic Braveheart, and smaller but nevertheless satisfying efforts like Gillies MacKinnon’s brutal Small Faces, Peter Mullan’s slightly surreal directorial debut Orphans, Anthony Neilson’s The Debt Collector which features one of Billy Connolly’s finest acting performances, The Big Man (also known as Crossing the Line), the fun Rob Roy which boasted a superb cast, and the magnificent My Name is Joe all showed promise of what could come. The 1980s also saw the rise and success of Bill Forsyth, with his lovely films Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero and That Sinking Feeling making a wide impression. Where and why it all crashed and burned, resulting in mediocre to downright awful productions such as Sunshine on Leith, Under the Skin, Legend of Barney Thomson, and the Whisky Galore remake, is debatable, and will be debated for some time, especially as there have been genuine, but flawed, attempts to push the industry forward again – an Edinburgh production studio being a current talking point. There have, to be fair, been good efforts in the noughties, specifically the wonderful, big-hearted Dear Frankie, which remains one of the very best examples of Scottish cinema. One More Kiss, Red Road, One Last Chance, and Sweet Sixteen were enjoyable efforts also, to varying degrees. Brave, despite being an American production by Pixar, generated a huge buzz around Scotland, and the possibilities of Scottish film, as well as being a fantastic film in its own right. Those other animated movies about Scotland – the two actually made (one partially, the other entirely) in Scotland – The Illusionist and Sir Billi – were little-seen and, in my opinion, not very good anyway. I appreciate The Illusionist has its fans, but even being such an animation fanatic, I must confess it bored me to tears.

However, one Scottish cinematic effort to come from this period, Shallow Grave, a genuinely funny black comedy, led by first-time director Danny Boyle, paved the way a couple of years later for what it is probably the second most-successful film (after Braveheart) to come out of Scotland – Trainspotting, adapted from the book by Irvine Welsh. Even though another Irvine Welsh adaptation came about shortly afterwards, the little-discussed but enjoyable The Acid House, and the decent Filth, starring James McAvoy, came about later in 2013, it is Trainspotting that is remembered and revered the world over. The success and appeal of the film is enough to write an article about, so I won’t bother going into it. But needless to say, any sequel was going to be a tough effort, and had very little chance of living up to the original.

Personally, Trainspotting remains one of my favourite films. Despite a lack of plot, the highs – pardon the pun – and lows the movie takes you on are unforgettable, and it is anchored by strong, natural performances (my only gripe there is I’ve always personally felt Ewan McGregor was a little miscast in his role). It is also, when it wants to be, very funny. A sequel, set 20 years later, sounds like a great idea, and it had every potential to be a tremendous followup that had strong story and nuance, as well as humour. In theory, if all the essential elements had come together, this could have been phenomenal. On paper, perhaps it was. Alas, the final film we were given is heavy on emotional reflection, and funny in places, but lacking everywhere else.

T2 Trainspotting follows Renton who, after a health scare, decides to return from Amsterdam, where he has been hiding, to Edinburgh to see his old friends, who he fled from at the end of the first movie when he stole the money they had made in a drug deal. He reconnects with Spud, who is still a heroin addict, Sick Boy who is running a blackmail operation with Bulgarian escort Veronika, and his father who still lives in the family home (Renton’s mother has passed away between the films). Renton and Sick Boy, aka Simon, decide to start a brothel, meanwhile Begbie breaks out of prison, where he has been for years, and wants to get revenge on Renton for stealing the money.

My main problem is the story, or lack thereof. Although many have tried to argue that the original had no story either, here is the problem – this sequel spends a large amount of its time trying to convince you that it’s a totally different film from the original, therefore the only way of successfully being a completely distinctive, contrasting film in its own right was to give it a plot, and a strong one. There are a few attempts – Renton and Sick Boy’s plan to open a brothel, Spud’s attempts to get clean, Renton’s health issues, Renton and Sick Boy returning to heroin use, Begbie escaping prison and living life on the run from the authorities, but most of these story strands lead nowhere, or to an unsatisfying conclusion. For example, a large portion of the beginning is spent showing Begbie busting out of jail, and finding his family and old friends. After so much time is spent on him attempting to get his revenge, he is simply sent back to prison at the end – the movie has just gone full circle, rather than show a definitive true arc. Is Trainspotting 3 going to begin with Begbie breaking out of prison – again – so he can get revenge – again? The introduction of Begbie’s son, an underwritten and noticeably bland character, is underwhelming and ultimately adds to nothing. This creates the problem that the film, rather than being brave and taking bold choices, instead ends up feeling largely redundant.

It is curious that the film abandons much of the plot from the sequel book, Porno, that the film is loosely based on. The book follows the characters meeting up again a decade later, similar to T2, but also shows them working together, trying to get ahead in the porn industry. What potential for story! Having the four meet up again near the beginning (as opposed to literally at the climax of the film) and try to be friends again and work together despite the betrayal that plagues their relationship, only for them to descend into arguments again and eventually get to the violent climax, which would then have meant so much more. How much better a film would that have been.

Many people talk of the emotional aspect of the film – the old men reflecting on their youth – as being a great approach, and it is one of the satisfying elements of the finished movie, but it isn’t enough to justify the film’s existence. If they had taken an intelligent approach, they would have created a plot around these issues, allowing a story to move forward intriguingly and coherently, while the questions are pondered and the rumination is discussed in the backdrop of the plot, in the quieter moments. A tighter plot would have allowed them to cut the unnecessary scenes that plague the finished film – Begbie introducing his son to Mikey Forrester, the meeting with now-lawyer Diane (Kelly Macdonald, in the only cameo ever to get highest billing after the main cast). Instead, we end up with a film that spends the majority of its running time basically saying “Do you remember that really great movie you watched and loved? We’re going to spend two hours reminding you of it!”

The performances from the cast are honourable, there are some nice little lines (former underage seductress Diane’s warning to Renton that Veronika is too young for him was a nice touch) and there are a few laughs to be found (the most memorable for the majority is probably “No More Catholics Left”, even though it is a little over-the-top and prodding desperately for a laugh in a way normally reserved for rubbish sitcoms).

If Scotland wants to create a film industry that can survive on its own terms, without public subsidy, it has to start creating films with commercial appeal (and some filmmakers just don’t know how to do that). The priority has to be creating stories that people all around the world can relate to, with characters they can love – with the Scottish tropes and identity in the background, not at the front and centre. It isn’t enough to simply throw up the arms and shout “This is Scotland!” (as a character in Filth, at one point, literally does) – defining Scottish identity or spending most of the running time promoting Scotland is not the job of a movie. If Scottish movies are to start having global interest, we need to make films that are accessible and universal. T2 could have been a good step in the right direction. Sadly, there’s not nearly enough here to rationalise the effort put in to make this film, two whole decades after its predecessor. It will certainly never live up to the first film, let alone have its re-watch value, or ever be included in a list of Greatest Ever Sequels. We waited 20 years for this – and after the understandable hype, the final result is less a hit, more a bit of a comedown.

Trolls

The latest from down-on-its-luck Dreamworks Animation is sure to be a hit with kids and adults. Surprising, for it looked abominably bad from its initial trailer. Trolls joins a short list of films in my life that I had originally written off as rubbish before completely reversing my position upon seeing the film. Feel-good, funny, well-cast and superbly animated, Trolls provides what will most likely be some of the most fun you’ll have at the movies in 2016.

Set in a world where the Trolls (based on the dolls sensation), who love nothing more than singing, dancing and hugging, escape from the Bergens, large ogre-like creatures who want to eat the Trolls as they believe digesting them is the only thing that will make them happy. 20 years after the Trolls fled the town of Bergens, perky Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick), daughter of King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor) who led them to freedom, holds a large party, ignoring the warnings of Branch (Justin Timberlake), a grey, grumpy survivalist who believes the party will give away the whereabouts of their secret hideout to the Bergens. Sure enough, the music and lights of Poppy’s rave are enough to attract the attention of Chef (Christine Baranski), a chef Bergen who was banished after the Trolls escaped. Chef subsequently captures many of Poppy’s friends, Biggie (James Corden), DJ Suki (Gwen Stefani), Satin and Chenille (Icona Pop), Cooper (Ron Funches), Guy Diamond (Kunal Nayyar) and Creek (Russell Brand), on whom Poppy has a crush. Feeling responsible, Poppy heads off to rescue them, and Branch accompanies her, only because he believes she will be killed almost immediately if he doesn’t. In the Bergen town, Prince Gristle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) rejoices at the capturing of the Trolls, as his father King Gristle Sr (John Cleese) led him to believe that it is the only way he’ll ever feel happiness – all the while oblivious to the romantic infatuation of his scullery maid Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), who the Trolls may be able to help catch his eye.

A real appreciation I have for Trolls is the depth behind its fairytale story. The Bergens’ objective is to eat the Trolls as they believe filling their bellies with them will give them happiness. Their motivation and belief is immediately established in the opening scene where the Trolls escape through an underground tunnel. The Bergens search furiously, all while King Gristle Sr screams the order “Make my son happy”. The Bergens are instantly set up as not evil characters – they simply want what everyone wants: to be happy, and for their children and friends to be happy. This was a smart move on the part of the filmmakers, setting up a one principal villain in morally corrupt Chef, while making the other Bergens actually sympathetic. This idea is only further explored throughout, and concluded satisfyingly. The Bergens learn that filling yourself up with substances or food does not make you happy: love and companionship do. What an amazing message for children in a family film! It is a wonderful parable for when it comes to dealing with trying to fill yourself up, not only with drugs and alcohol, but even something as simple as sweets.

What makes Trolls really work is its script, which manages to be self-aware as well as thought-provoking, while giving screen time to all its characters. The first sign I got that this could be something good was the cast they managed to pull together, and what a cast it is. All the actors manage to get a chance to shine, including the wonderful Anna Kendrick, who provides a plucky and likeable heroine, and Justin Timberlake who helps paranoid Branch still be likeable with the acting chops he has proved time and time again, in films like Alpha Dog and Inside Llewyn Davis. Timberlake has two duties here as he is also the film’s Executive Music Producer. And the music is the other thing that helps Trolls soar – it is wonderful.

Covering a brilliantly selected number of tracks ranging from Cyndi Lauper to Simon and Garfunkel and Earth Wind and Fire, sung by awesome performers like Kendrick and Timberlake, as well as new original songs, such as “Get Back Up Again” by Kendrick, and “Can’t Stop the Feeling” which took the world by storm earlier this year. At the screening I attended, children and parents were dancing to the music, which is lovely. Trolls feels inclusive and inviting to the audience in terms of enjoying its music and its charming world, so I found myself tapping my foot too. The music helps give the film an irresistible feel-good factor, and its impossible not to get swept along with the characters and their charm.

After providing with a stream of duds like HomeTurbo, The Croods and even the disappointing Kung Fu Panda 3 earlier this year, while also giving us great films that sadly tanked at the box office like Mr Peabody and Sherman and The Penguins of Madagascar, Dreamworks was sorely in need of another film or franchise that would appeal to all ages. I’m sure audiences will find Trolls, its music and its characters impossible to ignore. For a year so full of cinematic disappointments, Trolls is one of the surprise bullseyes. And no one is more surprised than me. I hope to enjoy it many more times, even one or two more times in the cinema. For now, let’s hope its the Shrek-sized mega-hit Dreamworks wants, and sorely needs. Trolls is deserving of such adulation.

Ghostbusters

I am a fan of the original Ghostbusters, and must confess to finding its much-maligned sequel enjoyable enough, but didn’t have high hopes for this at all. I have liked Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy very much in other films, and Paul Feig has proved his comedy chops with the likes of Bridesmaids. But the abysmal trailer did give us all the fear this film was going to in ape our childhoods. I went in with hopes and wanting it to prove us all wrong. And I can now say having seen it, I really did think this was terrible.

Not once did I laugh out loud, and almost entirely throughout I was frustrated and angry at the wasted opportunities. Such are the brains behind this that the only funny idea, involving a possessed Chris Hemsworth and soldiers, is cut and instead played behind the rolling end credits.

The story is pretty much exactly the same as the original (although they trip themselves up slightly in an optimistic-for-a-sequel post-credits scene) but has none of the fun or effortless charm. It really is hard to criticise this film without being accused of being a misogynist but the four leading ladies really struggle to get laughs. A lot of the time, I found many of the characters to be obnoxious, with a lack of chemistry. And when the dialogue jokes fails, just throw in some lazy, boring and unimaginative pratfalls. Kate McKinnon turns in what is a beyond awkward performance, and not in a good way. The big problem for me however is I don’t believe any of these characters as Ghostbusters. And no, it’s not because they’re women. But there’s just no way of making comical and quirky Kristen Wiig and pratfall-prone Melissa McCarthy believable as scientists, particularly when their jargon-filled science dialogue is painfully forced. They are horrendously miscast, and the tone is confused. Bridesmaids meets Ghostbusters just does not work, no matter how well-intentioned.

It doesn’t help matters that all attempts at jokes are incredibly awkward and lame. Long improv riffs go nowhere (Patrick Swayze?), some of the acting is ridiculously poor, and their interaction with a bland, lazily written villain is beyond boring, especially when he himself is beyond boring with non-existent motivation. Chris Hemsworth well and truly fails his Judd Apatow audition here, proving improv is definitely not his strong suit. Stick to throwing the hammer around, Chris.

There are one or two funny lines – Leslie Jones’ “If I see those twin girls from The Shining, I’m gonna pass out” quip is a good one – but ultimately the talent and the story is completely wasted. Some of the special effects are interestingly done, some of the ghosts look cool and the action climax could have been the best of any Ghostbusters film, but it more than trips itself up with pathetic jokes and rotten editing. With the advancement in special effects and the large roster of action films, a modern-day Ghostbusters could be unbelievably fun, but this is a total mess. Add awkward cameos from the original Ghostbusters and you have truly an utter waste of time.

Well and truly squandering an opportunity for a fantastic film series reboot, this is one to skip. Stick to the originals. There is a reason they have stood the test of time. I doubt this one will still be mentioned much in 30 years.

Ice Age 5

A franchise that has long run out of steam since the modern-day classic original, this fifth instalment utilises a ludicrous plot involving diverting a meteor and irritating pop culture references that have no place in the time period. The film series has fallen from grace spectacularly, and almost nothing about this film works – from its tired cliches, to characters that have nothing new to say, and new characters that aren’t interesting in the slightest. The only upside is Simon Pegg’s one-eyed weasel, the best thing about Ice Age 3, returns. Animated superbly and voiced perfectly, both animator and actor are better off elsewhere. I miss the glory of Ice Age 1, and it seems like the studio are desperate to destroy any memory of it. A huge disappointment after their wonderful Charlie Brown and Snoopy Peanuts Movie only last Christmas half a year ago, Blue Sky Studios have seemingly lost their touch and their minds.

The Secret Life of Pets

Managed to catch a preview of this today, the latest offering from Illumination Entertainment, the minds behind Despicable Me and Minions. While their track record hasn’t been entirely bulletproof, with the mediocre Hop in 2011 and duds like The Lorax to their credit, Despicable Me is a hugely popular franchise for a reason, although Minions was a bit of a disappointment. One can only hope some of that magic rubs off on their version of Toy Story – a film that follows what pets get up to when their parents aren’t looking, with a tale of jealousy between two that vie for their owner’s attention (it really is Toy Story, isn’t it?).

For the most part, the film works. The story is padded out and plods along fairly slowly but doesn’t stop being entertaining for the most part with the help of the talented and well-selected voice cast. The story does in fairness take some interesting turns, and at one point at a critical turning point towards the end (no spoilers) I found new respect for the material having bet myself that they wouldn’t be gutsy enough to make the very twist I was predicting, yet they had the bravery to do it. I was impressed.

The voice cast, including the likes of Louis CK, Kevin Hart, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Albert Brooks and the brilliant Steve Coogan (in dual roles) help keep things lively and breathe life into entertaining, if relatively unmemorable, characters. The animation, of course, is fabulous and colourful, as is typical of Illumination – thankfully here, they don’t rely on it as they may have done previously.

It seems on the cards that Illumination will essentially replace DreamWorks, as the company Comcast that owns Illumination has bought DreamWorks and its likely they won’t keep two animation companies. In all honesty, for all the problems The Secret Life of Pets may have, it’s far superior to loads of films DreamWorks have put out like The Croods and Turbo. If it means no more of them, give me more Pets and Minions any day.