Childhood can be a magical time -- and in the Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbor Totoro, this is literally true.  Enchanted creatures are all around, leading to adventures, discovery, and help for two little girls.  (This review refers to the 2005 Disney DVD version.)

Young sisters Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Elle Fanning) are excited to be living in a new house in the country.  Their father Professor Kusakabe (Tim Daly) moved them out there, presumably to be near their ailing mother (Lea Salonga) who's recovering in a nearby hospital.  The house is old but exciting, and there are lots of nice neighbors, including the elderly Granny (Pat Carroll). The kids have a great time, working on the house and going to school.

There are other things happening in and near the house.  At first the kids see "soot sprites," small balls of soot with eyes, in the house.  As the kids explore the giant tree near the house, Mei discovers some small creatures, then comes across Totoro, a giant cat-like spirit with a mighty roar, a big grin, and a pretty unusual way of fighting.  Satsuki soon comes across these creatures, and the grown-ups are surprisingly supportive of the kids' discovery, saying only little children can see these spirits.  And when trouble happens, the spirits turn up to help.

My Neighbor Totoro is a leisurely delight.  While the movie isn't packed with plot twists or developments, it captures the joy of being a young child.  There's a tremendous sense of fun, not only with the cute creatures but with the kids running through a field, exploring their new house, or doing some cleaning or chores.  The animation is very creative, and the voice talent does a good job for the loving family.  My Neighbor Totoro is quite delightful.
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



The monsters have arrived -- and the best protection against them is silence.  A Quiet Place is an effective, creepy horror movie.

When the movie opens, we see the Abbott family -- father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and little kids Regan (Millicent Simmons), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Beau (Cade Woodward) silently going through a drugstore in an abandoned town for supplies.  They speak only in sign language and avoid any possible noises.  We soon find out why there's such a focus on silence: When Beau sneaks out a toy rocket, given to him by Regan, that makes sounds, we learn why they're so quiet: An insect-like creature appears out of nowhere and kills him.
 A year later, the remaining Abbotts are living on a farm.  Lee is taking care of his family, using a radio to try and find other survivors, and working on an earpiece to help his daughter Regan hear.  Evelyn is pregnant and getting ready for the birth of their newest child.  Regan is dealing with her guilt over the death of Beau, and Marcus is nervous about the ever-present possibility that the creatures will return.  While the family do certain normal things (like playing Monopoly with cloth pieces), they've also soundproofed their house and still live in fear.  And the creatures are still around -- and show up at almost any noise...
A Quiet Place works pretty well.  The movie (directed by star John Krasinski) wisely holds off showing most of the creatures until the end, giving us the knowledge that they're fast, deadly, and alien-appearing.  (We never find out where they came from.)  The cast does very well, showing a family trying to stay together in a world where sounds can lead to death.  And the presence of so much silence creates great tension, as actions we wouldn't normally think twice about can be a signal for the monsters to show up.  A Quiet Place is a solid horror movie.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Lots of games have someone giving clues to their teammates, but none do it quite like Muse.  This game, from Quick Simple Fun Games and supporting almost any number of players, creates a unique challenge for someone to act as Muse for their fellow players.

Players divide themselves into teams; a team can have as few as two players, but I'd recommend at least three players on a team, to facilitate discussion.  A team wins by collecting five Masterpiece cards.  Each turn, a team selects one player to be the Muse.  The team to the Muse's left looks at six Masterpiece cards (with slightly surreal art, reminiscent of Dixit) and two Inspiration cards (which each have an instruction, like "Name a nonfictional body part" or "make a facial expression").  The team then picks one combination of Masterpiece and Inspiration card to give to the Muse, and the Muse gives a clue based on the Inspiration card that will lead the team to that Masterpiece card.
But it's not over yet.  After the Muse gives the clue, the other team shuffles the selected Masterpiece card with the other five Masterpiece cards, and all six are laid out for the Muse's team.  Using only the Muse's clue, the Muse's team has to try and pick the Muse's Masterpiece card.  If they pick the Muse's card, their team keeps it and it counts towards their score.  If they pick the wrong one, the team to the Muse's left gets to keep the Masterpiece card instead.  Then the next team in clockwise order selects a Muse, and the game continues.
Muse works extremely well.  The rules are extremely simple, which is key for a party game.  Players want to find the most incongruous mix of Masterpiece and Inspiration card, to make things hard for the opposing Muse.  Not being able to see the other Masterpiece cards also makes things challenging, as the Muse doesn't know how many cards their clue can apply to.  And there's quite a variety of possible clues with the Inspiration cards, which makes it very impressive when one team guesses a seemingly impossible Masterpiece card -- or seeing afterwards how the clue applied to a missed Masterpiece card.  Muse is simple to learn, challenging to play, and fun with its combinations.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Sometimes a skilled director can elevate material that would otherwise be routine.  This is not the case with Unsane, a movie directed by Steven Soderbergh that aims for psychological drama but is pretty superficial.

Sawyer (Claire Foy) is a young, independent woman with a good job in the city.  When she freaks out during a date, she looks up victims of stalking online and takes a trip to a mental institution.  She fills out some "standard" forms, talks to a therapist -- and finds herself involuntarily committed there for seven days.
Sawyer wants to get out as soon as possible, but her tendency to get in fights (sometimes physically) with the other patients and the staff makes this unlikely.  She befriends patient Nate (Jay Pharoah), who advises her to keep her head down and let the seven days pass quickly; he also has an illegal cell phone, which Sawyer uses to keep in tough with the outside world.
Sawyer really freaks out when she sees employee David Strine (Joshua Leonard), who Sawyer is convinced is her stalker, a man who traveled several states to follow her and kept harassing her at her work and home.  No one believes her, though, and she has no evidence that David is anything other than another worker at the mental institution.  Is Sawyer insane?  Is David playing a long and deadly game?  Does it matter that Unsane was shot entirely with an iPhone?  (The answer to the last question is no.)

Unsane is a disappointment.  While protagonists don't have to be perfect, Claire Foy doesn't give us much to make us root for Sawyer, even when everything seems to be stacked against her.  (Nate says she's in her situation because healthcare tricks patients into being committed for as long as their insurance will pay for it.)  The is-she-or-isn't-she-insane isn't that interesting, and it eventually degenerates into grindhouse-level luridness.  And Soderbergh can't do anything to improve any of this.  Unsane is a big disappointment.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch



High school has seen plenty of improvements and still has its share of angst and navigation.  Love, Simon is a movie that explores this world through the eyes of someone's big secret.

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a high school senior with a very typical life.  He has a good family with with his therapist mom (Jennifer Gardner), always-joking dad (John Duhamel), and little sister (Talitha Bateman) who's always experimenting with cooking.  Simon has a nice social life at school, hanging out with his friends Leah (Katherine Langford), Abby (Alexandra Shipp), and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.).  Simon is part of the school play, gets invited to parties, and seems well liked.
And Simon is gay -- something he doesn't tell anyone, friends or family.  When Simon reads an online confession by a closeted gay teen calling himself "Blue," Simon starts corresponding with him, using the pseudonym "Jacques."  Soon Simon is obsessed with getting messages from Blue, as they chat about what it's like being gay but not letting anyone know.
Pretty soon Simon is looking around his high school, imagining that something Blue mentioned might indicate means a classmate is Blue.  Unfortunately, annoying theater nerd Martin (Logan Miller) comes across Simon's correspondence with Blue and threatens to post them to the school unless Simon helps Martin get with Abby.  This puts Simon in a rough spot, since Nick is interested in Abby.

Love, Simon is a mix of drama and comedy, and it's a nice movie.  The movie takes a pretty even-handed approach to Simon's several dilemmas (though the ending may go a little over the top with the high school's acceptance) and it's a fairly realistic look at the teenage dramas that are part of high school.  Nick Robinson is quite good as the regular guy with his one big secret, and the rest of the cast is solid.  (Kudos to Tony Hale as the vice-principal trying way to hard to be cool and fit in with his students.)  Love, Simon is a sweet, good movie.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



What happens when a popular push-your-luck dice game adds in player-to-player combat -- and a dragon?  You get Dragon Farkle, a game from Z-Man Games for 2-5 players where players work the dice and combat each other to raise an army and attack a dragon.

Players use their six six-sided dice, plus an Event Die, to raise an army or combat each other.  Players also get a Companion card (which affects the turns) and a Magic Item (which helps the player, but is discarded after use; players can also only have one Magic Item at a time).

To recruit soldiers, a player rolls their dice and Event Die.  If a player's dice combination earns them soldiers, those soldiers are placed over the player's mat and the dice used are set aside.  If a player didn't get any soldiers, they Farkle, losing any soldiers and Magic Items earned that turn and ending their turn.  If the Event Die came up blank, nothing happens.  If the Event Die shows a Dragon, it eats any soldiers earned that turn; if a player didn't get any soldiers, the Dragon lets them ignore the Farkle and either continue or end their turn.  And if a Rally side (represented by axes) shows up, a player can either double the number of soldiers they'd get on that roll, or get a Magic Item.
 If a player earned soldiers, they choose to either end their turn or continue.  Ending the turn means all the Soldiers and Magic Items earned move onto the player's mat.  If a player continues, they roll any remaining dice, possibly earning more soldiers -- or losing all the soldiers they earned that turn if they Farkle.

Attacking another player is very similar to recruiting soldiers.  The attacking player rolls the six dice and Event Die, earning soldiers (unless they Farkle).  The defending player rolls five dice and the Event Die, earning soldiers.  After both sides roll, the side with more soldiers steals soldiers from the losing side equal to the difference in the soldiers earned that turn; the winning side also gets 500 soldiers from the stockpile.
When a player has 5000 or more soldiers, they can try to win the game by attacking the dragon.  The dragon takes three damage to kill.  A player rolls the six dice and the Event Die.  A Dragon on the Event Die does one damage to the dragon, a Rally does two damage to the dragon, and the blank side does no damage.  However, the results of the scoring dice are subtracted from the player's soldiers.  If the player Farkles, or runs out of soldiers, their turn ends, the player loses their Companion card and gets a new one, and the dragon heals all damage.  A player who hasn't lost all their soldiers can choose to stay and attack the dragon again on their next turn, or they can recruit soldiers or fight other players.  The first player to defeat the dragon wins!

Dragon Farkle is enjoyable, if not radically different from its source game.  The sword and sorcery aspect of the game works well, and the push-your-luck element remains intact, whether recruiting soldiers, fighting other players, or trying to slay the dragon.  This is a nice game, moreso for people who like both Farkle and Dungeons & Dragons.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



Gems and jewelry await!  In Splendor from Days of Wonder, 2-4 players collect gems, create jewelry, use discounts, attract merchants, and score points to get 15 or more points and win the game.

The play area is set up with cards.  There are four rows of development cards placed horizontally: a row from level 1 (cheapest to buy, fewest rewards), a row from level 2 (more expensive, more valuable) and a row from level 3 (the most expensive and valuable).  Several nobles, equal to the number of players plus one, go at the top of the cards.

On a player's turn, they take one of four actions.  They can take three gems -- emerald (green), sapphire (blue), ruby (red), diamond (white), onyx (black) -- of different colors.  They can take two gems of the same color, as long as there are least four gems available before the player takes two.  A player can reserve a development card, taking it from the play area and putting it in their hand; they also get a gold (yellow) token; players can only have a maximum of three cards in their hand, and they can only be gotten rid of by purchasing them.  And if a player has more than ten gems and gold at the end of their hand, they have to return gems until they have ten.

Players can purchase a development card, from the middle of the table or from their hand.  Development cards have a cost, in gems, on the bottom left of the card.  Players can pay the listed cost of the card.  Gold can be used in place of any single gem, and bonus from previously purchased cards can be subtracted from the cost of the development card.  When a development card is purchased, a replacement is drawn, if possible, from the deck in its row.

The top right of each development card shows its reward: points, bonuses, or both.  Points are added up to victory.  Bonuses show a gem color, and it's subtracted from future development card purchases.  Bonuses are cumulative with multiple development cards, so as more and more development cards are purchased future purchases become much cheaper -- and it's often possible to buy development cards for free.

Finally there are the nobles.  If a player's bonuses equal or exceed the quality and type of bonuses shown on the noble tile at the end of their turn, one noble goes to that player and adds their point value to the player's points.

When a player reaches 15 points, the game almost ends.  Every other player then gets one final turn, and after everyone takes their final turn the player with the most points wins!

Splendor is a fun and competitive game of strategy.  While the game starts off slow, as players rely solely on their gems and gold to buy development cards, once players start accumulating bonuses there's a snowballing effect of discounts, making cards easier and easier to obtain.  Initially players have to decide between development cards that give points or bonuses, but later on players will aim for those cards that give both.  The strategy isn't deep (though inevitably someone will buy development cards right before someone else would have) but Splendor is light and enjoyable.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Plenty of comedies revolve around characters thinking a real situation is fake -- and seeing how long the movie can draw that out.  This takes up the early portion of Game Night, a movie where friends' gathering to play assorted games spirals out of control.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a happily married couple who seem obsessed with playing games, either with or against each other, and with their friends: married couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury); Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who always seems to bring brainless bimbos to game night; and Sarah (Sharon Horgan), an Irish coworker of Ryan who he brought as a ringer.  Max also has issues with his older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), who seems more successful and better liked that Max.  Max and Annie also want to avoid letting their creepy next-door-neighbor police officer Gary (Jesse Plemons) worm his way into their game night.
Brooks takes control of game night, and he has everyone over to his house for a murder-mystery type game: Someone will be kidnapped, and whoever finds the kidnapped person first gets a cool car.  Soon enough, masked men seem to beat up and kidnap Brooks -- and the game is on!  Max and Annie trace Brooks' cell phone to find him.  Ryan and Sarah go to the company Brooks employed to find out the last clue.  And Kevin and Michelle are locked in a room by Max and Annie and have to escape -- while bickering over what celebrity Michelle slept with.
Max and Annie find Brooks, and they think the game is over and they won the car.  But it turns out that Brooks is a smuggler, and his kidnapping was real.  Brooks promised to deliver a Faberge egg to a criminal known as the Bulgarian, and soon the friends are all working together to get and deliver the egg, save Brooks, and keep the police from getting involved.

Game Night is a decent comedy that's slightly uneven.  Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are very good as the couple who go quite a while thinking all the craziness is just part of a game, and Jesse Plemons is nicely weird as the just-off neighbor, and the rest of the cast is decent.  Some of the humor works fine (amateurs removing a bullet, getting blood off of a white dog) and some falls flat (the shift to borderline action movie).  Game Night is okay, though better than most movies based on actual games (and probably the ones coming soon).

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch



Like it or not, soccer (henceforth referred to as "football") has never really caught on here in the United States.  So when a kid's comedy largely revolves around football humor (even the title refers to early Manchester football fans), it can fall flat.  This is a problem for the Aardman Studios' stop-motion animated comedy Early Man.

Dug (Eddie Redmayne) has a simple but happy life with his caveman tribe and pet hog Hognob.  They live in a lush valley, hunt rabbits (with limited success), and all have their own quirks.  Dug would rather hunt larger animals, like mammoths, but Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) wants to continue hunting rabbits because that's what they've always done. 
Cultures clash when bronze-armored mammoths invade the valley, driving the caveman out of the valley and into the desolate badlands.  Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) is obsessed with bronze and decided to mine the valley for it, not caring what happens to the cavemen.  When Dug ends up in Lord Nooth's city, Dug learns that Nooth's people are obsessed with "the sacred game" of football -- and Dug realizes that his tribe's cave paintings showed his ancestors playing this game. So Dug challenges Lord Nooth's championship team to a game of football: If Dug's tribe wins they get to live in the valley in peace, but if Lord Nooth's team wins the tribe works in the mines.

This would seem to be an impossible task, considering Dug's tribe has never played football before.  But Dug remains optimistic because their ancestors played.  He also gets help from Goona (Maisie Williams), a football fan from the city who's told she can't play because she's female -- so she plays with the tribe.  And there are a few twists, lots of football jokes, flagrant cheating, and a dinosaur-sized duck.

Early Man is more cute than funny.  The cast is game with their voices, but most of the football jokes just fall flat and there aren't many surprises in the story.  As a result, this movie is another kids' movie that just does the minimum to try and entertain.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch



While Marvel has done amazing work with their shared universe of superheroes, Black Panther brings them into a new area: nation building.  The movie has a mostly African-American cast for its fictional country of Wakanda -- and it works very well.

Things seem to be going well for T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman).  He's become the new ruler of Wakanda, even temporarily giving up his powers to battle a challenger in combat.  His "panther powers" include super strength, speed, reflexes, and healing; and he also has an incredibly tough super-suit.  His young sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a tech genuis, working in all areas of the country's vibranium-powered technologies.  His ex-lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) is a spy for the country but returns for his coronation.  And his bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) is one of the nation's most powerful warriors.
Yet T'Challa is uncertain about keeping his country's amazing scientific advances to themselves and maintaining the illusion that they're a poor nation of farmers.  When Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) --a  terrorist with a mechanical arm who stole vibranium from Wakanda, killing many of its people in the process -- surfaces, T'Challa and his allies go to capture him.  But Klaue is working with Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a killer with a mysterious past whose plans would affect both Wakanda and the rest of the world.

Black Panther has plenty of what we've come to expect from Marvel movies -- super-powered folks slugging it out -- but there are also deeper issues, from loyalty to leaders who one disagrees with to isolationism being in opposition to altruism.  Chadwick Boseman brings a regal attitude to the role of T'Challa, making him both more heroic and more conflicted than the standard super hero.  Michael B. Jordan makes his killer sympathetic at times, and the rest of the cast manages both action and humor equally well.  Black Panther is a fine addition to the Marvel cinematic universe.
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



Growing up on Long Island, New York I was fortunate to be able to travel to the Tower Records store in Manhattan, and later to a much closer store near my home.  I spent plenty of money there -- and saw the store close and the shelves emptied in its last days.  All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records is a talking-heads documentary about the creation, success, and ultimate failure of what could be the most famous music store of all time.

All Things Must Pass spends most of its time on several people who had been with Tower Records from its early days in California in the 1960s -- especially its founder, Russ Solomon.  He had an easygoing way of running the store: People could wear what they wanted, treat the customers how they wanted, and even show up drunk or stoned, as long as they opened the store on time.  The people who stayed got promoted, and as the the stores expanded -- to the east coast, and internationally -- these people often moved on to run other stores.
We also hear from musicians -- Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, Sir Elton John -- and David Geffen, all sharing their memories of how great the store was at a time when there was no Internet for music lovers to discover new sounds and connect with fellow fans.  And there's plenty of archival footage of the shoppers in the stores, flipping through actual records.
As for the history of the store, this documentary focuses on the early years and the final ones.  We know that the store was a hit with the hippie generation, and near the end the store suffered not only from Napster but other stores selling CDs, taking on lots of debt, and the failure of some of their expansion stores.  There's a definite bias against the mean, strict financial people closing the stores down that's a sharp contrast to the fun and freedom the employees enjoyed in the store's early days.

Despite the overwhelming positive attitude towards the store -- employees loved working there, musicians loved shopping and visiting there -- All Things Must Pass is a good look at how Tower Records became famous and successful -- and how it all came crashing down.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



The Ramones were masters of the punk rock movement in the 1970s, and Rocket to Russia -- their third album -- showcases not just their punk chops but their other talents as well.

Rocket to Russia has plenty of the Ramones' fast delivery (no song reaches three minutes) and and the anger and repetition familiar to punk.  There's the destruction of the family unit in "We're a Happy Family," the lack of interest in anything in "I Don't Care" ("I don't care about this world/I don't care about that girl"), the world of not having material goods in "I Can't Give You Anything," and support for the societal underdogs in "Cretin Hop" and "Sheena is a Punk Rocker."

But there's more going on with the album.  There's a loving feel to romantic ballads ("Locket Love"), teens hanging out ("Rockaway Beach") and the joy of dancing.  ("Do You Wanna Dance?")  There's also a wicked sense of humor in many of the songs, whether it's opening a song by shouting "LOBOTOMY!" ("Now I guess I'll have to tell 'em/that I got no cerebellum") , the fun little rhymes ("LSD, golly gee") or the pitch-perfect cover of "Surfin' Bird."

Detractors of the Ramones could say a lot of the songs sound awfully alike musically -- but there's plenty of variety to be found on Rocket to Russia.  All these years later, the album still remains tremendous fun.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch




Sometimes a drama can be almost solely about a relationship, without external crises or events.  Phantom Thread, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is such a film.

In 1950s London, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in what he says is his final film role) is a dressmaker to the wealthy, famous, and royal.  He has a close personal and business relationship with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), a demanding nature that upsets many women, a rigid lifestyle, and some issues relating to his late mother.
During a trip in the country, Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a French waitress in a restaurant.  Reynolds is smitten with her -- but more about designing dresses for her than anything romantic of sexual.  Alma becomes a part of his life and household, initially as a muse and then as a source of change and frustration.
Phantom Thread is a subtle film.  There are few blow-ups or big happenings but rather the evolution of the relationship between Reynolds and Alma.  The two leads are terrific in their roles, with Day-Lewis making Reynolds both passionate and very difficult, while Vicky makes Alma both a regular person and someone not cowed by the strong personality of her man.  The end result is quite moving and very impressive.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch



It's back to the magic/cursed game Jumanji in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  This movie has teens transported to a video game jungle -- in new bodies.

The movie starts in 1996, when some kids find the Jumanji board game and one says no one plays board games anymore, returning to his video game.  The game magically transforms into a game cartridge, and the boy disappears.

Jump to the present, and four teens have gotten detention.  Spencer (Alex Wolff) is a thoughtful student and nervous hypochondriac who got busted for writing papers for Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain), a football player who used to be good friends with Spencer.  Bethany (Madison Iseman) is a high school popular beauty who couldn't stay off her iPhone.  And Martha (Morgan Turner) is a quiet thinker who speaks out against gym class.  While the four are stuck cleaning a room, they find the Jumanji game (now a video game console) and find themselves zapped into the world of the game.
The teens are now the video game characters, with their skills and weaknesses.  Spencer (Dwayne Johnson) is the muscular leader with no weaknesses.  Fridge (Kevin Hart) is a zoologist who's slower and weaker, plus he carries everyone's stuff in his backpack.  Bethany (Jack Black) is now a pudgy male -- but she still can't deal with not having a phone.  And Martha (Karen Gillan) is a beautiful martial artist in a skimpy outfit.  Their mission: Find the magic gem stolen by evil explorer Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale, who has little to do but look menacing) and return it to its place in a giant statue.  Each teen has three lives, and when they die they fall from the sky to continue the game.  NPCs show up, with limited reactions and often repeating the same lines over and over.  And the four run into Alex (Nick Jonas), the teenager who got sucked into the game back in 1996 and has been trying to get out ever since.
Despite enough cursing to get this movie a PG-13 rating, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle feels a lot like a kids' movie.  The teens start as strangers or former friends who grow to be good friends, and their characters' skills let them work together to complete the game.  A lot of the humor comes from the stars acting atypically (Dwayne Johnson constantly scared, Jack Black effeminately) or video game cliches brought to life, and the movie doesn't give any surprised or take any real chances.  This is a cute movie, but not terribly funny or exciting.

Overall grade: C
Reviewed by James Lynch



Given the flamboyant and grandiose nature of P.T. Barnum's circus, it makes perfect sense that The Greatest Showman, about his life and creation, is a musical.  And with impressive musical numbers, fine acting, and a compelling story, it works very well.

Phineas Barnum had a rough childhood as a dreamer and the poor son of a tailor -- and that didn't make his romantic interest in the upper-class Charity any easier.  As an adult, Phineas (Hugh Jackman) and Charity (Michelle Williams) got married and had two little girls.  While they are poor and Phineas has trouble holding down a job, Phineas wants to give her and his family something more,
With a bit of fraud, Phineas opens up a shop of oddities, hoping to attract customers to seeing the unusual.  On his daughter's advice he changes the museum to a live show, advertising for the unusual and outcasts of society.  He gets quite a lot, from Tom Thumb and the singing bearded lady to acrobatic brother and sister Anne and W.D. Wheeler (Zendaya, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).  The show proves to be a popular hit, and now P.T. Barnum buys his family a huge mansion while acting as the host for the performances.  But the show generates controversy, from both the upper class (and a newspaper critic who thinks it's all trickery) and the lower class (who resent the so-called "freaks").
Barnum brings in playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to expand the circus' appeal to the upper classes.  He's interested in Anne, though she's concerned about how they could be together when society frowns on mixed-race couples.  Meanwhile Barnum gets distracted from his circus by Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), an European opera singer who appeals to Barnum as a genuine talent (and possible threat to his marriage).  And the other issues haven't vanished either...

There is so much to enjoy about The Greatest Showman.  The musical numbers are catchy, visually stunning, and engaging, and they fit in perfectly with the story.  Hugh Jackman plays Barnum perfectly, as a grandiose promoter and dreamer who's fine bucking society but who gets tripped up by actual success.  Zac Efron and Zendaya provide both a romantic subplot and a look at the racism of the time, and the rest of the cast is terrific.  The Greatest Showman embodies the best of the musical spectacle.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch