The big holiday Hollywood releases are finally here and if they’re not quite the diamonds you were hoping for, at least they’re far better than a lump of cinematic coal.
“The Greatest Showman” is loosely based on the career of impresario Phineas Taylor Barnum. Director Michael Gracey and his talented cast and crew put on a show that would make Barnum proud. The vivid cinematography by Seamus McGarvey and the exquisite costumes by Ellen Mirojnick capture the magic of Barnum’s circus and give the picture an attractive period feel.
The script by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon is effective and moves things along effortlessly. The acting is appropriately vigorous and energetic. Hugh Jackman is at his most charming as Barnum and Michelle Williams turns in a lively portrait of his supportive wife Charity.
With great flair, Zac Efron returns to his showbiz roots as Barnum’s junior partner Phillip Carlyle whose romance with trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (the terrific Zendaya) gives the story much of its emotional heft. The incredible Zendaya proves she’s a true triple threat.
As Barnum’s bearded lady Lettie Lutz, Keala Settle nearly steals the show from her formidable castmates. Her powerful voice, slick dance moves and rousing performance make her the fierce heart of the movie.
The real star of the movie, however, is the stunning choreography by Ashley Willen. She seamlessly blends the style of the classic Broadway and Hollywood musicals with contemporary dance moves in a way that is continually fresh and surprising. To pick just one number, the amazing airborne ballet “Rewrite the Stars” for Zendaya and Efron, turns the trapeze into a powerful visual metaphor for their relationship.
Unfortunately, her dazzling choreography unwittingly highlights the weakest part of the movie, the terrible songs with music by John Debney and Joseph Trapanese and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Somehow, Willen creates emotional spectacles that move the story forward in fascinating ways despite the inane, repetitive lyrics and the indistinguishable melodies she has to work with. Where Willen gives each of the leads a distinctive movement style and creates exciting ensemble numbers, the songs themselves blur into a muddy overproduced mess.
“Star Wars: the Last Jedi,” the second movie of the third “Star Wars” trilogy, suffers from a bad case of middle movie syndrome. There are some great moments, but it’s really just filling the space between Episode VII and Episode IX.
Writer/director Rian Johnson is at his best in intimate character-driven scenes where he brings a surprising and delightful amount of charm and wit to the larger-than-life space opera. With glorious support from John Williams’ amazing score and its well-known leitmotifs, Johnson creates deep emotional bonds between the characters that ground the epic saga in mythic family dynamics. Johnson and editor Bob Duscay frequently use crisp cuts between scenes to effectively show the Force in action and to draw interesting connections between characters and themes.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s complicated storyline bogs down the action. There’s a lot of plot; the screenplay should have been streamlined and the two-and-a-half-hour movie would benefit from a much shorter run time. The lead characters go running off in different directions and it’s often hard to keep track of where the characters are and why they’re there.
The acting is strong. In what was sadly her last performance, Carrie Fisher is both commanding and deeply vulnerable as General Leia Organa. Daisy Ridley (Rey) and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) turn in richly layered performances, as do returning actors Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Oscar Isaac (Poe) and John Boyega (Finn).
The droids and Chewbacca are, of course, back. They are joined by new creatures, the shimmering crystal foxes and the cute but pointless porgs (now available in stores everywhere). The human actors are joined two fierce female warriors: Laura Dern (Vice Admiral Holdo) and Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), as well as Benecio Del Toro as a cynical codebreaker.
Despite these significant strengths, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” still ends up feeling like Episode V (“The Empire Strikes Back”). It builds effectively on the excellent “The Force Awakens,” but it’s not really a satisfying stand-alone movie.
Both “The Greatest Showman” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” are thoroughly enjoyable holiday treats, but neither is particularly filling.