The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017). The unexpected — and slow-building — success of this big screen musical at least provides gratifying evidence that modern audiences remain hungry for original material, no matter how desperately studio executives treat their production like slabs upon which to drop another McMarvel’s. The career of P.T. Barnum (played here by Hugh Jackman) has provided musical fodder previously, so there’s little confusion about why the filmmakers gravitated to it again. Michael Gracey, making his feature directorial debut, demonstrates a surprisingly deft touch at times. There are signals he has a sharp eye and an admirable sense of how to cut together a film that’s visually dynamic without lapsing into jittery incoherence. The material is not good, though. The screenplay, co-credited to Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, is a by-the-numbers slog, and the songs, by La La Land Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, are similarly uninspired and moribund. The cast is game, but unexceptional. Among the performances, my only real pleasure was watching Michelle Williams blithely beam through her thankless role as Barnum’s wife, only because it feels like a well-earned respite from the heavy dramatic lifting that’s her usual professional charge.
At Eternity’s Gate (Julian Schnabel, 2018). This experimental probing into Vincent van Gogh’s life and artistic genius has sequences that are almost vividly alive in depicting creation, a task that has humbled far more seasoned filmmakers than Julian Schnabel. Played by Willem Dafoe, van Gogh is depicted as a complicated figure, driving by his passions to points that might be madness or might simply be almost unbearable vulnerability. Schnabel’s abstractions and repetitions are boldly experimental and, unfortunately, wearyingly tedious. The film ultimately comes across as hollowed out, made distance from its subject by Schnabel’s trickery. Oscar Isaac has a nice supporting turn as Paul Guaguin, jolting himself free of the the film’s lulling flow by leaning into the character’s cantankerous certainty.
Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947). A prison drama that lives up to its title, Brute Force follows the inmates of Westgate Prison as they navigate the treacherous social system inside and avoid the wrath of the institution’s sadistic security chief, Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), a towering figure among the incarcerated, plots a jailbreak, the prospects of which don’t seem good, given the film’s bleak cynicism. This was made during the height of Hollywood’s Production Code, when no character who perpetrates ill deeds was allowed to get away scot-free, and there’s not an innocent soul in the cast, so a bloodbath looms. Director Jules Dassin was a master of shadowy mood, which suits the plot’s fraught progression. There’s some woodenness to the storytelling that’s typical of its era, but mostly Brute Force impresses with its bruised-knuckle authority.