Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Less than a year after the largest circus folded up its tent for good, we have a film that celebrates the spectacle of what was once the greatest show on earth. And portraying the iconic showman is the multi-talented Hugh Jackman, demonstrating the versatily to go from playing the immortal mutant Wolverine to dazzling us with his skills as a song and dance man. With this role the Austrailian actor adds to his impressive musical resume, which includes: Jean Valjean in Les Misérables (Golden Globe Award); Curly McLain in Oklahoma! (West End, London, Olivier nomination); and, Broadway’s The Man from Oz (Tony Award). In The Greatest Showman, Jackman occupies center ring as P.T. Barnum, who founded the show that became the Barnum & Bailey Circus, bringing to audiences a collection of off-beat entertainment that was as shocking as it was thrilling.
The Greatest Showman is not a biopic, instead spotlighting the high – and low – points of Barnam’s life and career. But the main theme focuses on Barnum’s philiosphy: “Whatever you do, do it with all your might.” A secondary, but just as forceful theme, is one of inclusion. Barnum’s shows brought together “oddities,” people who had been shunned by society because of their deformities, but soon formed a family, found a home, and stood together to fight those who continued to villify them. In today’s political climate, those feelings are sure to resonate with many in the audience.
Zac Efron and Hugh Jackman
The film represents a labor of love by those involved. Director Laurence Mark and co-screenwriter Bill Condon (along with Jenny Bicks) first came up with the idea after working on the 2009 Acdemy Awards broadcast and being impressed with Jackman’s performance as host. “I thought, wow, this guy’s the greatest showman on earth – and that’s when I went to P.T. Barnum in my head,” Mark said, according to the film’s press notes. Shortly after, Mark approached Jackman with the idea of playing Barnum and got him on board. Michael Gracey, who views Barnum as a visionary, the Steve Jobs of his day, soon signed on as director.
The song-writing team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who had not yet gained fame for Dear Evan Hansen (2016 Tony Award for Best Original Score), or for La La Land (2017 Academy Award for Best Original Song, “City of Stars”), were hired after the team commissioned samples from dozens of songwriters. While the film is a period piece represented by the story, scenic design, and costumes, the songs (pop) and choreography (hip hop) are contemporary. The exuberant opening number, “The Greatest Show” features Barnum, dressed as the ringmaster leading the circus cast in the first of many dance numbers. (Viewers will be reminded of the energetic “Another Day of Sun” which opened La La Land.) It gets the film off to a rousing start.
Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams
Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut in 1810. As a young boy (played in the film by Ellis Rubin), Barnum helped his father, Philo (Will Swenson), who worked as a tailor. Although the youth caught the eye of Charity (Skylar Dunn), the daughter of one of his father’s wealthy clients, Barnum was acutely aware of the social hierarchy that placed his family on a lower rung. That rejection would fuel Barnum’s passion to succeed on a grand scale, especially after he marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and pledges to give her the life she deserves. For her part, Charity actually seems happy escaping her gilded lifestyle for a much simpler one where she cares for her two daughters, Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely), cleans their small apartment, and even hangs laundry on the building’s roof. Charity, however, isn’t oblivious to what she’s signed on for with Barnum. Williams, who has a lovely although not powerful voice, conveys those conflicted feelings in “Tightrope.” But Williams’ glowing presence serves as a counterpoint to Barnum during the dark times when he suffers setbacks.
After losing his boring job as a clerk (the company closes down), Barnum redoubles his efforts to follow his dream. Soon he’s operating “Barnum’s American Museum,” a solid brick building located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The attraction evolves from displays of objects to ones that feature the oddities: Lettie Lutz, the bearded lady (a terrific Keala Settle); Tom Thum (Sam Humphrey); Dog Boy (Luciano Acuna Jr.), to name a few. Director Gracey handles these characters with skill and sensitivity, allowing them to evolve from reluctant participants in Barnum’s circus to fully formed performers finding their rightful places in the show. Particularly impressive is Settle, whose solo “This Is Me” would have stopped the show on Broadway.
Barnum’s families – his personal one and his professional one – come apart when he becomes enamoured of the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind, and convinces her to go on tour in the U.S. While Rebecca Ferguson, also Swedish, has appeared in many films, including The Girl on the Train, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, her role as Lind will certainly bring her the attentiion of a wider audience. Still, after such a build up of Lind’s talents, Ferguson’s performance of “Never Enough” falls short. The role required a singer whose stature was equal or larger than Lind’s. A Lady Gaga perhaps.
Zac Efron and Zendaya
Kudos to Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey for casting Zac Efron and Zendaya as the miss-matched couple who finally defy the odds and come together. Philip Carlisle (Efron) leaves behind his comfortable upper class life to join Barnum’s circus and almost immediately is smitten by Zendaya’s Anne Wheeler, a trapeze artist. Efron, who has acted in musicals since he was a child, is more than up to the challenge of singing and dancing opposite Jackman. He’s lost none of the boyish charm he once displayed when he starred in the Disney Channel’s High School Musical. Zendaya, another Disney alum (she current produces and stars in the channel’s K.C. Undercover, can now add high-wire antics to her list of talents. (She apparently did some of the scenes without a net!) This gal is one to watch.
The Greatest Showman is great entertainment, but it’s also a film about the power of imagination and what an individual can achieve with inspiration, dedication, and a lot of hard work. While younger viewers may not be familiar with P.T. Barnum, they will certainly appreciate this story and see similarities with the many creatives genuises whose ideas and inventions continue to change the way we live and work. It’s a story that never grows old.
Photos by Niko Tavernise courtesy of 20th Century Fox
We earthlings are obsessed with finding signs of life on other planets. Why? Are we afraid of being alone in the cosmos? Do we hope that alien beings know things we don’t know and can solve our serious problems, like global warming or acne? In Daniel Espinosa’s Life, six astronauts on the Mars Pilgrim 7 Mission discover a blob, and they can hardly contain their excitement.
Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) with David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal)
Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is the cowboy of this international group, donning a space suit to repair whatever goes wrong outside the station. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a physician who has been in space for so long – nearly 500 days – that he can’t imagine being back on earth. Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada) becomes a father in space, talking his wife through the birthing process, then displaying to everyone a photo on his iPad of his new daughter. Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya) is the mission’s commander, while Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) brings a much-needed calm to the entire operation.
Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), a Brit and the lead scientist, is in charge of the discovery, isolated in the capsule’s lab as a safety precaution. The one-cell life form, placed in a petri dish, looks like those paramecia with cilia that undulate that we used to study in science. While Hugh’s upper body resembles that of an athlete, he’s paralyzed below the waist. Weightlessness in space allows him to move freely about the capsule, but he fantasizes that “Calvin,” the name given to the life form, might be a super stem cell, able to mend his injury.
Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds)
Healing humans, however, is not on Calvin’s agenda. In a short period of time, Calvin is killing off the astronauts in gruesome ways and rapidly growing into a monster with a brain. Calvin has no respect for Hollywood royalty, so A-list stars like Reynolds and Gyllenhaal soon find themselves in danger, along with the rest of the crew.
In D.C., the press screening was held in an appropriate place, the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater in the National Air and Space Museum. The 75-foot screen receives images from a “dual 4k laser projection system with a 12 discrete channel sound system” providing audiences “with the sharpest, brightest, clearest, and most vivid digital images ever combined with a whole new level of immersive audio.” Translated that means this screening was an intense experience, for sure. The audience felt it was in that space capsule along with Reynolds and crew, scrambling to keep one step ahead of Calvin. (If you have the option, see the film at a theater offering IMAX.)
David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal)
Life will undoubtedly be compared to Alien where Sigourney Weaver fought a much scarier opponent. Calvin is not nearly as frightening (although it will probably be some time before you can eat octopus again), but Espinosa certainly heightens the tension. The claustrophobic setting in the space capsule adds to the suspense. There are only so many places the astronauts can hide, and Calvin seems to have the ability to squeeze through small spaces with ease. It’s a no-win situation.
Connecting with the crew, learning more about each member, brings a personal element into the story. We root for the astronauts, not only because the alien life form is so evil, but also because anyone who signs on for such a challenging mission to benefit mankind deserves our support and respect. Space travelers are heroes, risking everything to explore a new frontier, knowing they may not come back alive.
Perhaps it’s time to rethink all those missions to Mars.
Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures Top photo: David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson)
People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.
Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep in a performance that while not necessarily Oscar worthy is certainly charming) was a talented young concert pianist who dreamed of playing at Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately an injury to her hands killed that dream, so Florence decided to go to Carnegie Hall as a singer. There was, however, one problem: Florence couldn’t sing. She was not only bad she was unbelievably, almost hysterically terrible, a fact her nearest and dearest were determined to shield her from.
Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen) directs this quaint, bittersweet, little bio which serves as a fable as well. We live in a culture that constantly tells us to follow our hearts and pursue our dreams no matter what. But what if like kindly, sweet, generous, dedicated, but tone deaf Florence, your striving to do something you just can’t do? Scenes of Florence singing aren’t just hard on the ears, they take Cringe Comedy to all new levels. And isn’t indulging her denial just setting her up for a greater fall, as Florence, convinced of her greatness, books a night in Carnegie Hall?
Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant
These are the questions that come to haunt Florence’s chief enablers; her adoring husband, failed actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and her accompanist, Cosmo McMoon (Simon Helberg of The Big Bang Theory almost unrecognizable here and shockingly good in his first major big screen debut). While Cosmo fears his involvement with Florence dooms his chances of ever being taken seriously as a musician, St. Clair has a host of other complications. Florence and he adore each other, but having contracted syphilis from her first husband, their marriage must remain celibate and indeed St. Clair lives in a separate home with his beautiful young mistress, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson of The Girl on the Train).
As Florence’s health declines, St. Clair feels obligated to make her final days a happy dream. Hugh Grant reportedly came out of retirement just to work with Meryl Streep and it was well worth it. The man may have more grey hair and wrinkles than he did when he first charmed his way into American hearts as a gorgeous British leading man in Four Weddings and a Funeral, but he’s lost none of his charm, his comedic timing and, if anything, his skills at drama have only gotten better with time. It’s his best performance in years. Florence Foster Jenkins is not just the tale of a woman who couldn’t sing, but a love story for grown-ups.
What would you do if you realized that there are aspects of your life that you have completely missed and the truth of what you’ve been living isn’t real? The Girl on the Train doesn’t particularly set out to answer this question, which is a shame. The film, based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, is a mystery thriller that sometimes touches on fascinating aspects of character development, only to then turn into a Lifetime film with a bloody and unsatisfying end.
“She’s everything I lost. She’s everything I want to be,” says Rachel (Emily Blunt) as she creepily watches Megan (Haley Bennett), a complete stranger to her, from the train. The obsession with watching Megan is, in part, due to the fact that Rachel’s own life is a miserable one and she believes the life the other woman leads to be one of perfection. Rachel rides the train into Manhattan everyday, sits in the same car, and watches Megan be happy with her husband, Scott (Luke Evans). We discover fairly soon that Rachel used to live two houses down from Megan, once sharing a home with her husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), who left her to be with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).
Rachel’s stalking and curiosity eventually find her in the middle of an investigation after Megan disappears without a trace. An alcoholic who constantly blacks out, Rachel finds herself plunged into a mystery that places her at the scene of Megan’s last known location. With no alibi, she takes it upon herself to find out what happened, involving herself in a situation that reveals connections and truths she isn’t quite prepared for.
It’s the thrill of the chase and mystery of the disappearance. The characters kind of take a back seat and in a lot of ways, the plot drives the story, not the other way around. Told largely through Rachel’s perspective, we become privy to the fact that something is amiss early on. Her memory isn’t always reliable and makes the unfolding mystery easier to tell because of it.
However, the film is less concerned with expanding on Rachel’s story. We understand later the truth behind certain events and how they were twisted in her memory, but the skipping around between flashbacks and present day disentangle us from the central characters. Sure, there is some sympathy to go around, but because it never really delves into certain character’s motivations, the rapport we may have had with any of them often falls flat.
Tate Taylor’s direction is unable to adapt to the flow of the plot. Emily Blunt’s performance saves the movie from going completely off the rails, clearly portraying Rachel’s emotional instability and constant weariness in every scene, adding weight to an otherwise weightless script. On the flip side, Haley Bennett does well with the little she’s given, adding some depth to Megan’s story, while Rebecca Ferguson gets the short end of the stick. Ultimately, however, The Girl on the Train shortchanges its characters for mystery and shock value, culminating in a bloody finale. But it’s all too underwhelming, stagnant, and the film’s ending, especially, leaves a lot to be desired.
The Girl on the Train opens nationwide October 7, 2016.