Schultz movie reviews: “Downsizing,” “Father Figures,” “The Greatest Showman,” “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” & “Pitch Perfect 3”
By Carl Schultz
“Downsizing” Distributed by Paramount Pictures, 135 Minutes, Rated R, Released Dec. 22:
Independent film genius Alexander Payne, director of such films as 2004’s “Sideways” and 2011’s “The Descendants," and also once a writer working on the expensive studio adventure film “Jurassic Park III,” returns to high-budget mainstream studio filmmaking with “Downsizing.”
In “Downsizing,” as a means of turning around their financially-troubled existence, a married couple decides to submit to an irreversible procedure, which reduces them in physical stature to a height of 5 inches, and move into a tiny community of other “downsized” people.
The rationale is that existing wealth is multiplied when physical needs are proportionally diminished. But when at the last-minute the wife bails out of the procedure, the husband, having already undergone the reduction, is compelled to rethink both his priorities and his life choices.
“Downsizing” with its persuasive special effects could’ve worked well as a science fiction comedy/satire with a serious subtext examining the dangers of overpopulation. In fairness, that’s what the trailers suggested the picture to be.
But writer/director Payne decided to overload the picture with additional sniping on the subjects of pollution, the economy, conservation and refugees. Any one of the above is OK, but multiple subtexts split the picture into too many directions. And at 135 minutes, it all goes on for way too long.
Based on 157 reviews, Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 52 percent, and Metacritic reports an overall score of 63 out of 100. Likewise, CinemaScore audiences assign “Downsizing” a grade of C. Still, the National Board of Review has selected “Downsizing” as one of the Top Ten Films of 2017.
With good performances for Matt Damon, Hong Chau and the compulsively-watchable Christoph Waltz, “Downsizing” ends up being fairly interesting picture in a sort of experimental way. But ultimately the movie collapses under the weight of its own altruism, and becomes a downer.
That’s a real shame. With a little tweaking and editing, “Downsizing” could’ve towered at the box office.
“Father Figures” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 113 Minutes, Rated R, Released Dec. 22:
Crude, trashy and generally tasteless, “Father Figures” commits the cardinal sin of motion picture comedy. It’s almost completely devoid of laughs.
Bickering adult fraternal twins played by Ed Helms and Owen Wilson learn to their dismay that their mother prior to their birth was sexually precocious, and that the identity of their actual father is unknown to her. So the twins embark on an odyssey to locate their paternal parent. And along the way the brothers find themselves bonding for the first time in their lives.
The sort of picture which believes proctology is automatically worth a laugh, “Father Figures” is directorial debut of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, who photographed a number of independent features, as well as the “The Hangover” trilogy of comedies. Based on this mess, possibly Sher should start cleaning the dust of his camera lenses.
The script for “Father Figures” has been kicking around in development since 2011. Filmed in late 2015 and originally scheduled for release in Nov. 2016, the picture was removed at the last minute from the release schedule and kept in hiding for more than a year.
Originally entitled “Bastards” and being released in Great Britain with the title “Who’s Your Daddy?” the picture was retitled “Father Figures” as a means of gaining circulation in media venues, which originally had refused advertising under the film’s original title.
"Father Figures" was unceremoniously dumped into 2,902 theaters across the U.S. on Dec. 22 in an effort to recoup studio production costs by separating undiscerning Christmastime moviegoers from their money.
Seems like much ado about nothing. Consider yourselves warned.
“The Greatest Showman” Distributed by 20th Century-Fox, 105 Minutes, Rated PG, Released Dec. 20:
Like Johnny Appleseed, Annie Oakley and possibly Harry Houdini, P.T. Barnum has become less a figure of history than a giant of American popular folklore. And since Barnum himself never pretended to possess more than a passing relationship with the truth, it’s richly appropriate that “The Greatest Showman,” the new movie, which uses as its foundation the life of the father of the circus, does not even bother to use the usual opening gambit, “based on a true story.” Because it rarely is.
Instead, before the opening credits even hit the screen the movie throws the audience by the seat of its pants into the most foot-stomping, pulse-pounding, show-stopping entertainment since the circus came to town. The picture grabs the viewer by his nose and doesn’t let go from the first frame of film until the last. And after the show is over, the viewer leaves with a song in his heart, a smile on his face, a spring in his step and a tear in his eye.
“The Greatest Showman” follows the tried-and-true formula of Horatio Alger and dozens of motion pictures biographies, from “Rhapsody in Blue” to “Night and Day” to “Yankee Doodle Dandy”: Through hard work and dedication, the hero rises from poverty to the pinnacle of success, falters for a moment, and then through faith and love achieves an even more lofty and soul-satisfying conclusion.
But “The Greatest Showman” continues the hallowed entertainment tradition to the beat of a percussive and pounding drum-driven hip-hop tempo of street music, accompanied by the most jaw-dropping breakdance moves you’ll ever see in an ensemble performance.
During the opening scene the world explodes into a panorama of vivid colors embracing in its entirety the world of the circus — flying acrobats, prancing horses, fire-breathers, elephants and clowns. When the song ends, it’s all you can do to stop yourself from jumping to your feet to applaud. And then the movie tops itself, over and over and over again.
Anyone who’s seen Hugh Jackman appearing on an interview show — and he’s doing a lot of them in support of this movie — knows that his signature role as the caustic and violent Wolverine in eight “X-Men” movies are the real stretch for the actor.
The very definition of the term “amiable bloke,” the Australian Jackman at heart is a song-and-dance man. And in “The Greatest Showman” Jackman proves it — the actor whirls, jumps, kicks, cakewalks and struts with such loose-limbed dexterity that he often seems immune to laws of gravity.
Matching Jackman almost step-by-step, scene-by-scene and note-by-note are a talented array of supporting performers, including Zac Efron as a highbrow New York producer persuaded by Barnum to join the circus as a means of broadening the show’s appeal, and the platinum-selling pop star Zendaya as the trapeze artist Efron falls for. One highlight among many in the picture is the ballad “Rewrite the Stars,” performed by Zendaya and Efron in a sort of aerial ballet courting ritual under the big top.
Likewise, the exotic Keala Settle, playing the bearded lady among the uniquely-gifted and physically distinctive show people recruited by Barnum to star in his “Greatest Show,” provides much of the heart and soul of the movie. Settle’s performance of “This is Me” adds real spirit to an anthem for the heartbreaking loneliness of individuality, and the empowerment found in accepting yourself as you are.
The gifted Michelle Williams is as adorable as usual as Barnum’s patient wife, Charity, and the Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson adds European flavor as opera star Jenny Lind, persuaded by impresario Barnum to undertake a series of U.S. concerts under his tutelage in a bid to gain acceptance among the more rarefied echelons of society.
Surprisingly, “The Greatest Showman” is receiving mixed reviews from some of the country’s more influential critics. Some are turning up their collective noses at the movie’s “soupy soulfulness” and shallow, populist aspirations.
But the picture in its depiction of the contentious “friendly enemy” relationship between Barnum and newspaper critic James Gordon Bennett seems to anticipate the unflattering reviews. When Barnum is confronted with the challenge that everything connected with his show is “fake,” Barnum points to the circus’ audience and smilingly replies, “Those smiles seem real enough.” And you know what? He’s right.
Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and guided to the screen by first-time director Michael Gracey, “The Greatest Showman” steps up to the plate and bats a grand slam home run in just about every single department. And with a dozen or so rousing, showstopping songs courtesy of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the Academy Award-winning lyricists from last year’s “La La Land,” the viewer might even want to stop on the way home after the movie to pick up a copy of the soundtrack album.
“The Greatest Showman” is superb motion picture entertainment in the tradition of the great Hollywood musicals, and as close as we’re likely to get to a Broadway experience simulated in a movie auditorium. There’s real movie magic at work here: This is one picture packed with an ingredient rarely found in films these days — it’s spelled J-O-Y, and it has a big exclamation point at the end.
There’s a lot of competition out there for your family entertainment dollar during this holiday season. If you can only see one movie this month, “The Greatest Showman” is the choice you want to make. Any movie which depicts a father riding to his daughter’s musical recital on a dancing elephant is doing something awfully right.
The highest praise — P.T. Barnum would love this picture. And so will you.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” Distributed by Sony Pictures Entertainment, 119 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Dec. 20:
Viewers disappointed with the original “Jumanji” in 1995 and others who haven’t seen it at all will want to check out this richly entertaining action adventure, which uses the same premise of the original picture but takes it in a completely different, and less intense, direction.
Four teenaged students on brief acquaintance during detention at school find an old video game entitled “Jumanji.” When attempting to play the game, they’re magically transported into its jungle setting in the guise of the characters they’ve selected to impersonate during the game.
“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” depends almost entirely on the considerable goodwill generated by its diverse cast of genuinely appealing performers.
Playing the high-schoolers in the jungle setting are former professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson as the nerdish Spencer, who’s chosen the guise of adventurer Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Karen Gillan as the shy and bookish Martha in the persona of the Lara Croft-like Ruby Roundhouse, comic Kevin Hart as the school jock “Fridge,” who inadvertently selected the role of the short, cowardly zoologist “Mouse” Finbar, and Jack Black is the self-absorbed and shallow cheerleader Bethany — yes, that’s right, a girl — in the guise of archaeologist Sheldon Oberon.
The quartet of entertainers — each effectively playing two characters simultaneously, not an easy task — mine the complicated premise of the film for almost all it’s worth, and in the process deliver surprisingly effective performances, as well as a satisfying amount of laughter throughout. Jack Black in particular has two side splitting scenes in which his character struggles to work out the dichotomy between his assigned genders.
Directed by Jake Kasdan, the son of writer Meg Goldman and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” not only delivers the thrill and laughs, but also shares a few astute observations about friendship, loyalty, responsibility and courage in the face of diversity.
Rated PG-13 for some cartoonish violence, perilous situations, and some scary-looking bugs, there’s really nothing here that you won’t find in a typical Tarzan movie. From that perspective, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is cleared for family viewing.
One small complaint: there’s no quicksand scene. Maybe they’re saving it for the sequel.
“Pitch Perfect 3” Distributed by Universal Pictures, 93 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Dec. 22:
In “Pitch Perfect 3,” as a means of keeping the gang together for a little while longer the Bellas embark on a tour of U.S. military bases as members of a USO troupe. The customary results occur . . . again.
Adapted loosely from Mickey Rapkin’s non-fiction book “Pitch Perfect: The Quest for A-Cappella Glory,” “Pitch Perfect” in 2012 depicted the odyssey of the Barden Bellas, an a cappella choir from Barden University, a thinly-disguised version of the University of Georgia. “A-cappella” is an Italian term meaning unaccompanied by musical instruments.
A surprise hit at the box office, “Pitch Perfect” earned some $115 million in revenues on an investment of $17 million. So “Pitch Perfect 2” arrived in 2015.
“Pitch Perfect 3” is more of the same from much of the cast and crew from the earlier pictures. And the movie is pleasant enough, but almost instantly forgettable.
Originally scheduled for release on July 21 and then moved to Aug. 4, the studio decided to postpone the movie until Dec. 22 to encourage the illusion that “Pitch Perfect 3” is a Christmas present for the legions of fans of the first two pictures clamoring for one more sequel.
If you loved “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Perfect 2,” this is the movie for you. For others, this is one sequel that you don’t necessarily have to have seen the previous chapters to enjoy.
The filmmakers and cast cross their hearts and pinky-swear that this is the end of the line for the Bellas. Don’t believe it. They’ll keep making ‘em as long as we keep paying to see ‘em.