Film Review: The Greatest Showman

Okay, right off the bat I need to be clear; I know this is a highly fictionalized version of PT Barnum’s life and that it whitewashes more controversial and problematic parts of the tale. However, this is a review of the film, not a comparison with facts. Therefore I stress my enjoyment of the movie is not an endorsment of the real life Barnum.

So, yeah, I enjoyed this film. I went in slightly apprehensive as for some reason I thought it was a Baz Luhrman movie, but it’s actually directed by Michael Gracey who has Luhrman’s abilities with choreography and big sequences, without his more overblown excesses.

Hugh Jackman excels as Barnum, a poor boy desperate to succeed and win the posh girl he loves. He makes Barnum a likeable character, a showy individual who blags his way through life.

He sets up a museum of curiosities in New York and quickly assembles a cast of unique individuals.

The film paints the freak show in an empowering light, with Barnum giving the performers a family and a home and treating them fairly. It’s a leap from the real story and it feels a little bit of a cop out, but the performers do well. Keala Settle playing the Bearded Lady is the focal point for this, a woman blessed with a great singing voice who gains confidence through her role in Barnum’s show.

The problems arise when Barnum becomes obsessed with respectability and showing up his dismissive inlaws. The chip on his shoulder is understandable, and it adds conflict. Caught up in his first highbrow success, the singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) he places himself in a financial danger and drives a wedge between himself and those close to him.

He ignores the show, treats the performers as though he is ashamed of them and his marriage to Charity, fantastically played by Michelle Williams, is shaken.

Williams is solid throughout, in a quieter, more fragile role who attempts to curb Barnum’s excesses and get him to appreciate his life, to let go of his deep rooted grievances and merely enjoy the happy life he has built. She serves as the balance to him and her singing is on point, it’s not a showy role compared to others but it is a solid performance.

Jackman carries the weight brilliantly, his Barnum a charming individual with relatable, understandable flaws. Even as he becomes selfish and foolish he keeps audiences onside and pulls back from utter scoundrel territory.

It helps that Jackman is phenomenal in the song and dance numbers, especially a strong opening number and several big duets with Williams.

The songs are fantastic throughout and the direction creates many outstanding set pieces. The strongest are Settle’s defiant “This Is Me” and a heartfelt duet between Zac Efron and Zendaya, “Rewrite the Stars” is lush, romantic and beautiful filmmaking.

The Efron and Zendaya subplot which sees his upper class man join as Barnum’s apprentice and fall for the trapeze artist is well played, if slightly rushed. It feels as though one or two scenes more might have fleshed out the romance more, but both performers do their jobs well.

It’s especially good to see Efron back to exuding his early charm and talents, having been in a few dumb comedies. He may be second fiddle to Jackman, but he showcases charisma which proves he could and should be one of the leading men of his generation.

In fact, the cast is universally good and the effect is a fantastic musical which charmed me. Big, daring and striking this mixes old school musicals with modern tech and effects.

The subject matter, despite the efforts to clean it up and give it an empowering spin, can’t eliminate the exploitation entirely and the appearance of circus animals was for me a jolt out of my disbelief. But taken as a musical and a work of fiction it succeeded in impressing and entertaining me.

Fun and well made, but probably won’t bear up to much scrutiny or factual analysis.

Verdict: An enjoyable and beautifully crafted musical, if one checks reality at the door and just goes with it. Jackman and Efron are standouts in a cast who are all on form. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Fat Boy on a Diet: Lent a Hand

February has been a mixed bag thus far. I passed the stone mark early doors, but there’s been a little bit of back sliding and I need to nip that in the bud.

So, I’m falling back on the religion of my childhood. Every year between Shrove Tuesday (AKA Pancake Day AKA Mardi Gras) and Easter it’s customary for Christians to give things up for lent. For forty days and nights, other than Sundays, they abstain from some vice as a period of fasting to mimic JC’s desert ramble.

As a kid it was always sweets. We weren’t a big sweet family so this was easy, unless we saw my Nan who drowned us in chocolate and treats.

Even after my religious beliefs faded I kept going with Lent most years for a while. I gave up chocolates most years, but did stretch it to other vices including alcohol one year as I feared my student excesses were perilously close to actual, proper alcoholism.

This year I’m going a bit more hardcore in the hopes it will help the diet along. What am I cutting out? Well, here’s a list:

  1. Chocolates and sweets
  2. Desserts
  3. Fast food

I’ve been trying to limit these anyway, but I figure a complete stop might be more effective and break the habit.

So, there you go, let’s see how I do.

Giving up anything yourself? Or any other thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Film Review: Coco

Ladies and gentlemen, we have an early challenger for my film of the year.

Disney and Pixar knock this one out of the park creating a beautiful, gorgeous world to tell a charming and affecting story of family, music and remembrance.

Set in Mexico and based around the Day of the Dead festivities this is probably Pixar’s best movie since Inside Out and one which takes a place with the very best the studio has produced.

The Rivera family have effectively banned music after an ancestor left to become a singer, never returning and meaning his wife had to work, creating a successful shoe making business. However, young boy Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is loves music and has adopted local musical legend Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) as his hero.

He wants to take part in a talent show but is forbidden by his grandmother, who insists he spends Day of the Dead with his family. As they set out the pictures of dead ancestors and relatives, the photo of his great-great-grandmother is dropped. The broken frame reveals that the photo has been folded. Miguel’s great-great-grandfather, the runaway musician, who’s face has been torn from the picture is revealed to be holding Ernesto’s famous guitar.

Miguel takes this as a sign, and argues that he his honouring his family’s traditions, but his grandmother smashes his guitar. Angry, Miguel storms out, announcing he doesn’t want to be part of the family. Desperate to find a guitar to compete he breaks into De La Cruz’s crypt and steals the car.

It is at this point the movie really kicks in, with the already charming and likeable film embracing the supernatural and introducing the ghostly ancestors who have come across to the land of the living to visit their family. The art here is great with the ghostly figures styled after sugar skulls and their skeletal figures retaining unique characteristics for each person.

Miguel can see them because having been cursed for stealing from the dead. He must break the curse by sunrise, by obtaining the blessing of a family member, however, his great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach) only offers a blessing with the condition that he never plays music. The rest of the family refuse to go against the matriarch and so Miguel decides to find De La Cruz.

Miguel travels through the city of the dead, a vibrant, strange world with his only guide Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) a scruffy, trickster who tries to trick his way across to the living. But nobody has put up a photo of him so he can not cross. He claims to know Ernesto and agrees to help Miguel on the condition that he takes his photo so he can cross once more and see his daughter one last time before she forgets him.

When the dead are forgotten they vanish forever, and Hector’s daughter is the only one who remembers him.

Can Miguel break the curse? Will his hero Ernesto help him? And will Hector get to see his daughter again?

This film is simply gloruous. The artwork is beautiful and the colourful, sprawling city of the dead and it’s residents are extremely well done.

The characters are fantastic too, with Miguel a charming, likeable hero. He has humour and courage, and it’s through his eyes we experience the wonderful world he enters.

Similarly, the swaggering De La Cruz and scruffy Hector are both engaging and interesting characters and their story unfolds nicely. One of the revelations is easy to see coming, but there are a few twists in the tale.

As Miguel tries to break the curse he comes to understand the importancr of family and how much they mean to him. It also serves as a powerful reminder of respecting our past and appreciating how it shapes us.

The film has raw emotional power, not just in the melancholic nature of the city of the dead but in the handling of Miguel’s great-grandmother, Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), who is losing her memory and in confused moments still waiting for her father to return.

Sod it, I have to give a spoiler here, but to be fair, most grown up viewers will guess it during the movie.

Hector is Coco’s father, and he did know Ernesto, in fact he wrote many of his songs. Ernesto’s bombastic signature tune “Remember Me” is actually based on a quieter, more low key song Hector wrote and sang to his daughter.

The scene where Miguel returns home and sings this to her, reviving the long dormant memory is one of the most moving scenes I’ve seen in a long time, and reduced WoM and me to tears.

The moving scene, which captures all of the film’s themes is wonderful and caps the movie beautifully.

Loaded with charm, gorgeous to look at and profoundly moving, this one will be hard to beat in 2018.

Verdict: An utter delight. Some plot developments are easy to see coming, but it doesn’t rob the film of it’s ability to move you. A fun, emotional and beautiful film. 9.5.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: Like Love by Ed McBain

I returned to the 87th Precinct once more and was rewarded with an involving read loaded with red herrings and twists.

Steve Carella attempts to talk down a woman on a ledge. He fails and she jumps to her death. Across town a salesman rings a faulty doorbell which triggers a gas explosion. Inside the flat are two dead lovers, lying in bed seemingly after a suicide pact.

Carella and Cotton Hawes investigate, and despite no concrete evidence something seems hinky. With a nagging doubt they look into the case. There are a couple of suspects, a cuckolded husband and a mother who would collect a healthy insurance policy, but nothing sticks. It looks like a suicide, but there’s still something in the back of the cops’ heads, something off about the whole thing.

McBain’s skill here is to layer in a few subplots as well as sprinkling minor clues into the narrative. Things you almost miss but at the end hang together well. There’s also a false trail and a few events which muddy the waters, although one red herring does lead to the epiphany that closes the case.

The writing is tough and fast paced, as is usual for McBain and there’s also the same flashes of humour and small, nuanced character work that fleshes out even the supporting players.

All in all this is a smart, captivating read.

Verdict: A solid entry in the series and an interesting case. McBain’s writing flows wonderfully and he structures the investigation cleverly. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: Help by Simon Amstell

This book comes with a selection of glowing quotes on the back. Adam Buxton, Russell Brand, Matt Lucas and Martin Freeman are all quoted heaping praise on Amstell’s writing. I couldn’t understand it, as I didn’t feel this bowled at the end. My response was a lot more “Meh”.

Here’s the thing, I like Simon Amstell. I’ve been a fan since his days on Popworld and this book includes excerpts of his stand up, which are quite funny. The writing too is amusing and, in places, earnestly open, with Amstell talking about his fears, insecurities and anxiety.

But the book feels throwaway. Amstell touches on these issues, but in a way I found shallow, never going deeper. Similarly, while there are a few decent stories there are massive gaps in his life story and it feels rushed.

I enjoyed reading it, but would struggle to muster enthusiasm in recommending it to you, reader. It’s not awful, and I smiled to myself a few times. But my main feeling was of disappointment.

A decent read, but nothing special.

Verdict: Amstell is funny and open, but the book feels lightweight and superficial. Passes the time, but I doubt it will stay with me. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Fat Boy on a Diet: January Update: New Year, New Me?

The dreaded post Christmas weigh in.

I’m not a fool. I knew I wasn’t going to hop on the scale and discover that I was in peak physical health.

But I was surprised. Unpleasantly surprised.

My weight had ballooned to new heights, and I had crossed a line I’d drawn in my head.

“I might be fat but I’m not as heavy as ****”

Only now I was heavier. By quite a bit.

This left me feeling pretty crappy, a greedy, lazy slob and generally a waste of space. Not good.

But there was an upshot, once the tsunami of self loathing had receded I was just angry. Angry at myself for letting it get to this stage and even more determined to do something about it.

WoM is joining me on the weight loss trail and has joined chub club (due to my shifts I can’t go). This has helped a lot, having a partner in this endeavour and they suggest some pretty decent alternatives and ideas.

I’ve hopped on the scales a couple of times and my efforts have paid off. There’s been a steady weight loss, I’m still heavier than I’d like ,or was this time last year, but at least I’m moving in the right direction.

Tune in a few weeks to see how February goes.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: Wrath by Chris Philbrook

After a few nonfiction books I figured it was about time to travel to the land of make believe. And so I returned to Philbrook’s Adrian’s Undead Diary series.

The fifth instalment follows the same structure, with the story told through the journal entries of Adrian, a foul mouthed, ex-soldier who leads a small group of survivors against the undead. These are broken up by sections which follow supporting characters and sketch in more details of the post apocalyptic world.

The series, thanks to Adrian’s funny, profane narration has been a winner from the jump, but Philbrook has slowly added more meat to the story. Supernatural elements have been added and the setting up of a good vs evil game afoot is handled well, and explains certain characters’ actions.

There’s plenty of twists and action, and one revealation about a long standing character is a gut punch, but written well.

A series which grows in terms of depth and scope, this continues to be a very entertaining read.

Verdict: The story continues to develop and Philbrook keeps the reader hooked. Left me keen for part 6. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Resolutions 2018

So I know this is a little late, but I was busy around New Year’s and I wanted to think it through. So here are my resolutions for the coming year.

1. Lose Weight

The old favourite.

This has been on the agenda anyway, but I was ill over the Christmas period and the weight didn’t help. Also when I weighed myself for the first time in quite a while it was a sobering number on the scale.

So, more exercise, better diet and actual commitment this year. No cop out and no excuses. To aid this let’s go on to-

2. Monthly Updates on the Weight

I’ve had this plan before but it was vague. This year however every month I’m going to post an update every month about how I’ve done. The idea being that by sharing I’ll be more likely to stick to it.

So, if I near the end of a month with no news, give me a nudge.

3. Cross Off at Least One Bucket List Item

Last year I got one and a seventh done, but the list is still pretty long. I might make a concentrated effort to do a few things on it, or at least lay the ground work.

4. Try to Publish a Book

I have two finished novels sitting around and a third half done. I’m pretty happy with one of them, so I think it’s time to tidy it up a bit and send it off. It’s a little bit scary, and it might not go anywhere, but at least I can say I’ve tried. Watch this space, I guess.

5. Try New Things

Life is for living after all.

6. Be Sociable

In 2017 I saw my friends and family a lot more than usual and it was great. Doing stuff with my time off work made me happier and it was nice to keep those connections going.

Actually spending time

7. New Ink

Putting this on because it’ll be the easiest one to get done, but I am planning quite a few new tattoos and would like to get at least two done this year.

8. Be Nicer

‘Nuff said.

Made any resolutions yourself, reader? Or have advice for me on how to keep mine? You know what to do. BETEO.

Film Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Warning! There are a few spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the film you might not want to read on. If you do, well, it’s on your own head.

This is one of the trickiest reviews I’ve ever written. Normally when I come out of a movie I have strong feelings one way or another, but the latest in the Star Wars series left me somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it’s a movie that a second viewing will clear up for me, but that will have to wait, this is my initial reaction.

The action picks up pretty soon after the events of The Force Awakens. After decimating the Republic’s forces the First Order is in ascendancy, hunting down the resistance and wiping them out. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) leads an escape attempt during which pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) disobeys her orders, while he succeeds in destroying a major enemy ship, it comes at a heavy cost, with many ships lost.

They escape through hyperspace, but somehow are followed. Poe is demoted and Leia criticises his gung ho, glory hunting ways. Low on fuel the fleet is pursued by the First Order. New commanding officer Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) keeps the ships out of range but the enemy is still on their heels, and Holdo refuses to elaborate on her plan to Poe.

Meanwhile, Resistance fighter Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) so that she can train her in the force and that he will return with her to inspire the resistance. However, she finds that the former hero is incredibly reluctant, jaded and embittered. Can she win him round?

She also discovers that she has somehow formed a connection with her nemesis, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Skywalker’s nephew and a strong, dark Jedi. She senses reluctance and remorse and begins to wonder if she can lead him back to the light.

Back at the fleet, Rey’s friend, and former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) realises that Rey will return to the fleet and be killed. He decides to escape with the beacon Rey will home in on, however, he is stopped by Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), an idealistic rebel who’s sister died during Poe’s raid. She is disgusted by his cowardice, but then both work out how the First Order tracked them and how to escape. This does mean they need to get aboard and hack an enemy ship. In need of a codebreaker they work with Poe to slip away from the fleet and return with the man they need in the few short hours the fleet has before they run out of fuel and are sitting ducks. When they return the system will only be down for mere minutes, meaning the fleet must jump to hyperspace immediately.

Can Rey learn the ways of the Force? Will Luke change his mind and leave his self imposed exile? Are Finn and Rose going to be able to disable the tracker in time? And how will Poe ensure that the fleet is ready to make a tight escape?

Here’s the thing, this movie is very good fun and there are parts that work remarkably well, however, there are other parts that fall flat and it lacks that certain something to rank it with the truly great movies.

One thing that works is that the script is loaded with humour and there are some genuine laugh out loud moments, and some fast, clever dialogue. Similarly director Rian Johnson (Looper) handles the action side of things with aplomb and the space battles are magnificent and gripping. There’s also a multi character lightsabre battle which is pretty ace.

So, if I was amused and thrilled in places why am I not raving about this movie? Well, for starters, the film squanders its ticking clock aspect. Finn and Rose supposedly only have 12 hours but their story feels baggy in places and lacks the urgency and tension which should come easily. It also feels like they have to do quite a lot in that time, and the inclusion of a lazy coincidence is too easy.

That being said, at least it is carried by Boyega and Tran, who have easy chemistry and entertain as the duo. Boyega’s Finn is probably the standout hero of the new films, more fallible than Rey and less self assured than Poe, he’s a regular guy who fights his own fears and tries to do the right thing.

It would be easy to dismiss Rose as a cute, adorable character, and that is a facet, but beneath her cheeriness is a determination and dedication to the cause. I loved her interactions with Finn and how their relationship develops.

I’ve heard some people don’t like the character, but for me she was great.

What didn’t work for me was the Rey-Kylo Ren stuff? While the Luke Skywalker part works, and the jaded Jedi is a solid performance from Hamill, Rey is remarkably dull here.

The bond with Kylo Ren feels rushed and they grow very close very quickly. Also, she seems kinda dumb in her willingness to believe the latest version of a story she’s told- Luke tells her about Kylo, then Kylo contradicts, then Luke clarifies and each time she accepts this latest one as being completely true.

And she rushes off to help Kylo in a move which is clearly a mistake.

But the other aspect that meant it didn’t work for me is that Kylo Ren is a weak character. He mopes about like an emo teenager and when one character dismisses him saying “you’re no Vader. You’re just a child in a mask” it feels a bit too close to the truth. If he is conflicted it’s hard to tell from a lifeless performance by Driver and I don’t really care. He killed Han Solo, redemption isn’t on the table for me.

Later developments in this story feel rushed and as if the writer is taking shortcuts, and it’s only thanks to a final battle and the return of Luke Skywalker that salvage it from being a bit of a dud.

I should write about the third plot strand with Poe and Holdo, but this has flaws too. Clealry this is supposed to be a story of Poe learning that not everything can be solved by fighting and that he doesn’t always know best but it’s undermined by the fact that his irritation with Holdo is entirely understandable. When asked about her plan she is vague and it feels daft that his decision not to blindly follow orders on limited information is supposed to appear rash and foolish. Surely it shows good sense and free thinking?

Anyway, the whole film is a bit of a mess and a frustrating watch. The promise of a cracking movie was there but too much seemed rushed or underdeveloped. Perhaps the burden of fitting the story into 3 movies is what led to this movie. It feels like they tried to cram in too much.

It does provide a good exit for Hamill as Skywalker and he impresses. Similarly Carrie Fisher is great as Leia and it’s cool that we get a glimpse of how strong with the force she is. Her death was sad enough, but there now feels like there’s unfinished business and that Leia will be deprived the ending that was originally intended. Hopefully, however they can do her justice and the dedication screen hit me hard.

It feels that the first of the new films was a farewell to Han, this to Luke and one guesses the third would have been Leia’s film.

Apologies for the review, I know it doesn’t flow well, a side effect of it being written in several parts and me stilk trying to work out how I feel about it.

Verdict: A mixed bag and a frustrating experience, with the sense of missed opportunities and unrealised potential. Some of it works brilliantly, but there are far too many misses. Decent and fun, but underwhelming. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

Book Review: The Panther in my Kitchen by Brian Blessed

Brian Blessed is a true national treasure in my eyes. The bearded, booming actor is full of life, humour and eccentricity, and the world is a better place for having him in it.

This view would no doubt be shared by the many animals the man has befriended, loved and cared for over the years. From a legion of dogs and an army of cats, to a collection of wild animals he hosted in the ’60s, Blessed has lived a life as a keen animal lover and this memoir is all about his furry friends.

The writing is laid back and conversational, complete with jokey asides and exclamations it’s hard not to hear in the loud memorable tones of the writer. The stories don’t flow in order, and he disappears on tangents, but the book doesn’t suffer for it. It’s like a favourite uncle telling you stories over a cup of tea and some sandwiches. 

The stories are amusing and told with verve, and there are moving moments. Blessed’s clear love and enthusiasm is infectious and it made me appreciate my own little menagerie more.

It helped pass the time on a couple of night shifts and is just a lovely, charming read. It gives a snapshot of one man’s love of animals and hints at the odd, crazy life Blessed has led. I will have to seek out some of his other books now.

Verdict: Full of character and humour, this is a charming quick read with Blessed a likeable and vibrant narrator. A real gem of a book. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.