There once was a castle perverse. Its owner was evil and worse, He’d break into song While his friends sang along Without any time to rehearse.
All visitors finding his lair Were likely to join the nightmare, And goody-two-shoes Who had morals to lose Would leave, having had an affair.
Beware then the castle debased, If you’d choose being chaste over chased, Unless you’re the type Who exults in the hype Of intentional absence of taste. __________________________
MPA rating: R
I know this review is a little late for Halloween (and for only my fourth Blindspot), but I’ve been struggling to figure out how to review The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When a film is this iconic in its cult status, is it basically above criticism? To be clear, I did not enjoy this sex-crazed salute to campy horror, but I can see why others might. It’s the kind of over-the-top cheesefest that knows exactly what it wants to be and is so committed to it that it doesn’t matter whether I like it or not. It is what it is, and I guess it proves that a film can be both classic and atrocious at the same time.
The paper-thin story, narrated periodically by a genteel criminologist (Charles Gray), sees newly engaged couple Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) being stranded when their car breaks down on a dark and stormy night, leading them to the castle of the eccentric transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter (a scenery-chewing Tim Curry). The straight-laced couple are soon drawn into a free-for-all of seduction, murder, and musical numbers, complete with a creepy butler named Riff Raff (Richard O’Brian, who also wrote the film and the original stage show), a newly created muscle man named Rocky (Peter Hinwood), and a machine that turns people into statues.
Objectively, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a mess, as reflected by its poor reception by critics upon initial release. Characters come and go randomly, notably Meatloaf as a half-brained motorcyclist who shows up for one chaotic song and is abruptly killed for no reason. And a big stage number near the end is a fever dream of trashy costume glitz that makes zero sense, followed by a swimming pool championing wish fulfillment. In short, once Brad and Janet entered the castle, I just alternated between appreciating the music, feeling uncomfortable, and wondering what the heck I was watching, which I suspect was the intent of the filmmakers all along.
Speaking of the music, the movie does have some catchy songs to its credit (all written by O’Brien), energetic bops like “The Time Warp” and “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul” to match its tongue-in-cheek silliness. I generally love musicals, and, while I would consider this one of the exceptions, I will grant that the music is pretty much the only thing that makes it watchable, some chuckle-worthy jokes notwithstanding. Perhaps I’d buy into the film’s bizarre brand of fun more if I attended one of the midnight showings known for audience participation, and I’m tempted to. If only I had a better baseline opinion of it….
I’m well aware that The Rocky Horror Picture Show isn’t my kind of movie. I’m not a fan of watching two clean-cut kids be corrupted by an alien missionary of the sexual revolution and his motley array of perversions, even if it’s someone as charismatic as Tim Curry. I suppose that makes me a prude, but so be it; I prefer my musicals less hypersexualized. I do find it funny that my first exposure to both Curry and O’Brien was in kid-friendly cartoons where they played likable dads: Curry in The Wild Thornberrys and O’Brien in Phineas and Ferb, which were a far cry from their raucous younger days. I’m glad I’ve seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show at least once, if only to understand its iconic cult reputation, but it’s a cult I’d prefer to avoid.
Best line: (Dr. Frank-N-Furter) “It’s not easy having a good time.”
What is it about being part of a group That makes one more likely to hate those outside it, To play in one’s mind their offenses on loop, And bask in contempt with no effort to hide it? The more they feel threatened by some other troop, The more they seek violence, and thus justified it.
It’s easy to fall into “us versus them,” To see every slight as a reason for hate, But history’s splattered with vengeful mayhem From tomfools preferring force over debate. Perhaps we can’t grow too far from such a stem, But “love wins,” they say. I suppose I will wait. _____________________________
MPA rating for 1961 film: Approved/PG MPA rating for 2021 film: PG-13
I didn’t expect the strain of NaPoWriMo to result in nearly a month off from blogging, but I’ve had my inspiration focused elsewhere. I’m back on the horse, though, and resurrecting a long-dormant feature: my Version Variations, where I review and compare two different cinematic versions of the same story. Whether it’s the original 1961 film adaptation from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins or Steven Spielberg’s recent remake, West Side Story is a beloved and socially relevant musical that certainly supports multiple tellings.
As much as I pride myself on loving musicals, it may seem odd that I never reviewed the original West Side Story, which is nowhere to be found on my Top 365 list. The simple truth is that I’ve never considered it one of my favorites. Before a recent rewatch for this comparison, I saw it many years ago and mainly remembered that “America” was the best number and the ending was depressing. Of course, it’s based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, so of course it would have a sad ending, but that really is the main drawback for me. Intentionally tragic or not, I just don’t enjoy watching a tale that leaves me unsatisfied the way West Side Story does, though that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what comes before said ending.
The original West Side Story won the 1961 Academy Award for Best Picture, back when musicals were prime award material. It was a rather innovative move reimagining the family feud of Romeo and Juliet as a gang war between whites and Puerto Ricans in NYC’s Upper West Side, not to mention Jerome Robbins’ balletic choreography performed by these street punks. Despite not actually being Hispanic, Natalie Wood is a radiant Maria, who falls quickly in love with former Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer), much to the consternation of her brother and Sharks leader Bernardo (George Chakiris, who is also not Hispanic and actually played Riff on the London stage).
I was surprised that I enjoyed the 1961 film a lot more than I remembered. Right from the opening number where the Jets and Sharks trade intimidations, the dance numbers are iconic with their jazzy, avant-garde sensibility. As I recalled, Rita Moreno’s Oscar-winning turn as Anita and her iconic song “America” is the highlight of the whole show. As someone who aspires to be a lyricist myself, I have immense respect for Stephen Sondheim and his words, whether it be “America”’s spirited debate on the nation’s virtues and vices or the fun but insightful social commentary of “Gee, Officer Krupke.” There’s so much to appreciate about the film’s romance, story, and musical production, yet it sadly feels fruitless by the tragic end, settling as a commentary for hatred matching hatred, which is worthwhile but far from a satisfying watch. Clearly, a sad ending hasn’t dampened West Side Story’s popularity or legacy, but it does keep it from ranking among my personal favorites.
Unfortunately, that goes for Spielberg’s 2021 remake, which is a shame since I consider it even better than the original in most respects. As good as the 1961 film is, it can’t help but feel dated, while last year’s version boasts a shiny makeover replete with graceful cinematography, colorful costumes, and greater cultural authenticity. Rachel Zegler makes an exceptional debut as Maria, while Ansel Elgort, despite some hate and reviews calling him wooden, is quite likable as Tony, and both flex their acting chops at the right moments. Ariana DeBose followed in Moreno’s footsteps, winning a deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Anita, though I don’t know why her castmates were passed over for similar awards nominations, such as Mike Faist as Riff. Among the many small plot changes made by screenwriter Tony Kushner, I especially liked the addition of Rita Moreno as the widow of Doc (the soda shop owner in the original); she not only brings gravitas and a trace of the original film, but her marriage also serves as a sort of example for Tony of what he and Maria could have if they can overcome the conflict around them.
My VC was skeptical of the few plot changes and rearrangements and still prefers the original, but I think Kushner’s additions make the story even better. The discussion of Tony’s jailtime and his guilt over letting his temper go too far adds to his character and makes his eventual dip into violence less out of character, although his subsequent reunion with Maria is marred by the absence of an actual explanation before she forgives him. Likewise, I appreciated that Tony and Maria are actually able to go on a date to a nearby museum, giving their romance a little more room to grow instead of fifteen minutes in a dress shop in the 1961 film. Likewise, the number “Cool” is after the Rumble in the original and feels rather extraneous, but the 2021 version uses it as a confrontation between Tony and Riff as Tony attempts to prevent the Rumble, which seems like he tried harder than just showing up in the middle of it.
My main beef with the creative choices made was Spielberg’s explicit decision to not subtitle the Spanish dialogue, despite including far more Spanish than its predecessor. He stated this was to avoid “giving English the power over the Spanish.” He may have wanted “to respect the language enough not to subtitle it,” but he should have recognized that much of his audience may not know Spanish, which was frustrating for my VC. Some scenes coast on context and didn’t need subtitles, but others have entire conversations in Spanish that withhold full understanding from English-only viewers. Luckily, I know enough Spanish to keep up, and I don’t mind more of it for authenticity, so long as it doesn’t become a language barrier; I just think it was a poor and politically correct choice on Spielberg’s part.
Still, my criticisms of the newer film are minor objections when I look at how well it renewed a sixty-year-old classic. Last year was honestly a dream for lovers of movie musicals (like me), and it breaks my heart that In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen, and West Side Story were all regarded as flops, since their performance might discourage future musical adaptations. Hopefully, Hollywood will just blame COVID and keep up this musical resurgence. There are still upcoming musical adaptations of The Color Purple, Mean Girls, and a two-part Wicked, so there’s hope.
While West Side Story feels like it deserves a place on my List, the ending is strangely a deal breaker for me. I don’t know why this tragic end is worse than sad endings like Grave of the Fireflies or Doctor Zhivago, but I’m just left unsatisfied with the lesson of “hatred breeds more hatred.” I can still appreciate both versions of this classic story and admire them for their obvious strengths. In deciding which is better, most will likely opt for the original, but I’d personally give the remake the edge. From Shakespeare’s time to 1961 to 2021, this story is clearly timeless and a well-deserved musical touchstone.
Best line from 1961 film: (Doc, to the Jets) “When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy!” (Action) “We didn’t make it, Doc.” Best line from 2021 film: (Riff, in a perfect summation of radicalization) “You know, I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don’t like, and they don’t like me, and you know what’s left out of all of that? The Jets.”
Rank for 1961 film: List Runner-Up Rank for 2021 film: List Runner-Up (darn close to List-Worthy, though)
(Good Friday and work obligations sadly made me miss yesterday, but I’m back on the wagon. Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a curtal sonnet, an 11-line sonnet variant from Gerard Manley Hopkins.)
In the realm of cyberspace I hide, Comforted by anonymity. My flesh-self is content behind its smokescreen. Robed in pixels, I can roam with pride, Finding other introverts to agree, Minorities like ghosts in the machine.
Life from womb to here has left me wincing; Life since logging on is fancy-free, Far easier to spurn the cruel and mean. I’m someone else, and boy, am I convincing, As you’ve seen. ________________________
MPA rating: PG
In anime circles, a new film from Mamoru Hosoda is an event. From Summer Wars to Wolf Children to the Oscar-nominated Mirai, he’s proven to be one of the most skilled anime directors around, and Belle promised to be yet another win. A modern riff on Beauty and the Beast fusing music and social media, the film garnered a fourteen-minute standing ovation at Cannes, making me wonder if it was just a case of no one wanting to be the first to stop clapping. Belle is another strong film in Hosoda’s oeuvre, but, like Encanto, it’s also proof that a film can be good while also being deeply flawed.
In the near-future of Belle, a digital world called U has become the most popular metaverse for people across the globe to interact with avatars somehow extrapolated from their own biometrics, resulting in an array of bizarre appearances ranging from babies to superheroes to literal hands with a face on it, which no one seems to object to. Suzu is a self-conscious high school student still haunted by her mother’s death, but when she logs into U as the beautiful Bell (which is what Suzu means), she finds that the anonymity allows her to sing again and, much to her surprise, become a celebrity. As she deals with the flurry of differing opinions that come with fame, she grows curious about the aggressive avatar known as the Beast, whose unknown identity is hunted by U’s authorities.
Hosoda is no stranger to virtual worlds, having previously worked with the concept in Digimon and Summer Wars, so it’s no surprise that the world of U is dazzling, an eye-popping blend of 3D and 2D animation, thanks in part to backgrounds from Cartoon Saloon. It’s easily Hosoda’s most visually resplendent and imaginative film that still carries his calling cards (he must have a thing for flying whales). The bad thing about U is that so much of it is left unexplained. While OZ in Summer Wars had several clear real-world applications, the avatars in U are never shown doing much more than floating around and commenting, though there are concerts and fighting tournaments, I suppose. Plus, it’s never clear how the real-world users are interacting with the virtual world; at some points, it’s as if their avatars are mirroring their real body’s movements, but is it like Ready Player One-style mechanics? There’s mention of sharing the senses of their avatars, so how can they see both U and the real world when logged in? Questions like that just require a suspension of disbelief that divorces the virtual and real worlds for the sake of the story.
The virtual world is ostensibly the main fantastical draw of the film, but I honestly enjoyed the parts in the real world more. The high school romance drama is nothing unusual for the genre, but the relatable supporting characters are an endearing bunch, particularly during a laughably awkward love confession. It was also a nice subversion to reveal the usually unsympathetic popular girl as a genuinely caring friend. However, the real world is also where the story falters toward the end. The revelation of the Beast’s identity is a powerful moment that speaks to the trauma of hidden abuse, yet it’s a reality for which the film doesn’t really have an answer. One culminating sacrifice hits an emotional high, but Suzu’s efforts afterward are unrealistic and absent of any long-term solution.
Belle has a lot of impressive elements in service to a somewhat half-baked plot, and the Beauty and the Beast parallels are rather incidental to the main story. Its vision of social media feeding frenzies and the online experience are timely and well-executed, while Suzu’s journey to understand the meaning of selflessness is suitably moving as well. And though the songs sometimes feel shoehorned in, I must give props to their quality, including the English recordings for the dub, and I think that the climactic “A Million Miles Away” would have been a worthy nominee for a Best Song Oscar if the Academy would look around more. Belle may not match the likes of Wolf Children, but it lives up to Summer Wars and exceeds Mirai, in my opinion. The visual splendor on display largely overshadows the plot issues, just as long as you don’t think about it too much.
I glance at you like Moses gazing toward the promised land, His sight the only starving sense to perish satisfied. No such content will compensate my ears, my lips, my hand, For God has deemed to make the gulf between us two too wide.
My covert dreams alone can see you near me, arm in arm, The scorn of cruel reality that jostles me awake. I cultivate my nobler traits, my eloquence and charm, Yet never do they seem enough for your transcendent sake.
I spy so many all around, in stories and in song, Who find their love without the threat of mockery or laughter. I’d whisper every secret of this lonely love lifelong If only I lived not in fear of what might follow after. ___________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
It’s so easy to associate musicals with Broadway since Hollywood usually only seems interested in adapting musicals into film if they have a reliable following that promises a decent box office. I can understand that instinct; no one wants to take a risk for a flop, especially when musicals are considered more effort with extra talents of singing or dancing required of their cast. Yet there are a host of excellent musicals out there that have never made it to Broadway, like Tick, Tick… Boom!or Frank Wildhorn’s The Count of Monte Cristo. I may never have heard of Erica Schmidt’s Cyrano stage production if not for this film adaptation, which only deepens my love of musical cinema and my desire for more like it.
Many things fell into place for the creation of this film based on a musical play based on Edmond Rostand’s classic play Cyrano de Bergerac, the original catfishing story. Schmidt’s husband Peter Dinklage played the title role on stage, along with Haley Bennett as Roxanne, and Bennett’s involvement no doubt helped convince her partner Joe Wright of Atonement and Darkest Hour to take up directing the film version. Both Dinklage and Bennett reprise their stage roles and prove how well-cast they were from the beginning, joined by Kelvin Harrison, Jr., as Christian, the soldier who loves Roxanne and is aided by the eloquent Cyrano to woo her via love letters. Instead of the traditional abnormality of Cyrano’s large nose explaining his self-loathing and hesitance to pursue his love for Roxanne, Dinklage’s short stature is used instead, yet there are only a few direct references to his height. Indeed, the songs seem to be written so that any uncommon or “ugly” physical quality could take the place of Cyrano’s nose, even down to the series of taunts he lists for himself while dueling.
Musicals come in many different forms, and Cyrano is certainly not the typical Broadway product with big showstoppers. The choreography is decent but never vies for any kind of wow factor, and some of the lyrics are less than inspired in terms of rhyme and complexity, particularly a rather drab villain song for Ben Mendelsohn. Yet the songs, provided by rock band The National, still work on a more subtle level, with layers of sensitive piano and violin seamlessly folding the musical numbers into the score. Dinklage may not have a wide range, but his baritone complements his ever-expressive face, while Bennett gets more musical highs in songs like “Every Letter” and “I Need More.” I think “Every Letter” is my favorite, achieving its goal of making the sadly outdated act of letter-writing sensual with its beautiful staging of fluttering pages falling around the three overlapping singers. I’ve listened to the soundtrack quite a bit lately, and my love and appreciation for the songs have only grown with time.
It must be said that Dinklage absolutely deserved a Best Actor nomination, and the Academy’s ignoring of him is probably the worst snub since Amy Adams was passed over for Arrival. His eyes alone convey Cyrano’s latent heartache as he pines for Roxanne, especially when he is so close to her as a friend. Heck, the film could have deserved multiple nominations – Best Actress for Bennett, Cinematography, Score, Original Song for “Every Letter” – instead of just the one nod for Costume Design. Yet despite an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, I’ve seen many articles labeling Cyrano a “failed musical” or a flop, which may be true in a purely box office sense but certainly not for the film’s quality. I don’t know what the moviegoing public wants in a musical, but their apathy toward recent movie musicals breaks my heart.
Though I may just be easier to please, I found Cyrano to be a perfect mixture of sincere and superb for any fan of tragic romance, elevated further by Wright’s elegant direction and a palpable fondness for the written word that rivals Violet Evergarden. To be honest, Steve Martin’s Roxanne was my previous touchpoint for Cyrano before this and sort of spoiled me with a happier ending than the source material had, but this Cyrano is the new gold standard for me, an exquisite film and a personal one for any sufferer of unrequited love.
Best line: (Roxanne, singing) “What is it you’re so afraid of losing?” (Cyrano, singing) “That I might lose everything if I lose the pain.”
To have more relations… That’s just more frustrations!
If I had had brothers, They’d deny me my druthers.
If I had a sister, I’d cease and desist her.
I’d hate him, refund her… And yet, I still wonder. _______________________
MPA rating: PG
It’s always nice or at least assuring when you can watch a movie and know exactly how you feel about it by the end. Whether you loved everything about it or found it a waste of time or just have that all-too-common meh reaction, at least you know your own opinion. But what about the gray space where you’re torn between a film’s merits and its problems, never sure which outweighs the other to turn the thumb up or down. Encanto is just such a film for me, a Disney animation that is equal parts marvel and mess but ultimately left me glad to know that a flawed film can still be a good one.
Set in Colombia seemingly in the early 1900s, Encanto focuses on the amazing Madrigal family, whose matriarch/Abuela (María Cecilia Botero) founded the town decades before with the aid of a magical candle that granted her a sentient house to live in and later supernatural abilities to her children and grandchildren. For every child growing up, a ceremony imparts a magical “gift” for their and the town’s benefit, but young Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) was spurned and left feeling anything but special. A few years later, when the candle’s magic seems to be dying, she decides to prove her worth by saving her family’s miracle.
There’s a lot going on with Encanto and its large cast, and, like Eternals, I’ve seen some suggest that it would have been better suited for a miniseries instead of a film to help flesh out the characters. Yet the film is a wonder at fast-paced characterization, in large part due to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s outstanding soundtrack of original songs. More than any other Disney film since Tangled, the songs are deeply integrated into the storyline, with musical numbers introducing and resolving entire subplots while making the exposition catchy and fun. Miranda’s Latin-inspired beats and trademark rapid-fire rhymes are first-rate Disney tunes, as evidenced by how often I’ve replayed them, especially “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” and the surprisingly deep and relatable “Surface Pressure.”
Among the film’s other strengths are its vibrant animation that turns the often poorly depicted nation of Colombia into a land of bright colors and magic, as well as a diverse Hispanic cast that includes the first Disney musical protagonist to wear glasses. So with all these pros, what’s so wrong with the film that it left me initially torn? Well, what’s left? The plot. Encanto has a good story and themes about suppressed familial trauma, the pressure of expectations, and the ripples caused by violence and displacement, which I’ve seen struck a chord with people of Latin American descent but are universal enough to be appreciated by folks like me as well, who may not have a large, close-knit family unit.
Oddly enough for Disney, the magic is where it stumbles. Little to no clear explanation is given for basically anything magical that happens, like how the candle became magical, why Mirabel was excluded, why the magic began to fade, or why the prophetic visions of Mirabel’s uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo) become vague and hard to interpret when he foresees the events of the film. This has resulted in an abundance of headcanons and theories about the film’s open-ended elements (“maybe Mirabel’s gift is her connection to the house”, “maybe she’s meant to be the successor to Abuela, who also lacks superpowers”, etc.), which are honestly fascinating, but I would have preferred that the film itself actually answer some of these questions. (One theory I liked was that, at her door ceremony, Mirabel touched the candle and then wiped her hands on her dress before touching the doorknob, perhaps transferring the magic to herself. It’s a good theory, but the film doesn’t bring any attention to it to indicate that was the filmmakers’ intent.) I realize this lack of explanation supposedly ties into the Colombian literary genre of “magical realism” where fantastical elements are often left unexplained, but these are aspects inherent to the plot.
Ultimately, the film simply wants the audience to “go with it” and accept what it presents without overthinking, and doing so certainly helped my enjoyment on a second viewing. Many of the family members’ gifts reflect their personality and character, such as Mirabel’s sister Luisa using her super-strength to bear every family burden or their mother being able to heal injuries with her meals (mom-cooked meals have definitely helped me feel better before). So on some level, the magic could be viewed as a giant metaphor for the roles and talents of any large family, but without more explanation, it’s something of a mixed metaphor. Yet it still clearly speaks effectively to the pressures on older siblings and feelings of inadequacy in younger ones.
While I wrestled with it for a while, I eventually decided that Encanto’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Some naysayers have pointed out its flaws and extended them to the good parts to make the film seem like a total catastrophe, which it’s not. It’s almost surprising that Disney would be behind a comparatively small-scale, introspective feature like this, boasting largely unknown voice actors and the rarity of a large and intact family, albeit one with issues. (Some friends of mine said they ought to do a follow-up short featuring the whole cast going through a therapy session.) For both entertainment and plot progression, it relies on Miranda’s music to do much of the heavy lifting, but the songs are up to the task, and there are so many cultural details and fast-moving gags amid the gorgeous animation that it’s well worth repeat viewing. Encanto is far from perfect, but, as Mirabel’s sister Isabela finds, perfection does not define one’s worth.
Best line: (Mirabel, to Abuela) “We are a family because of you, and nothing could ever be broken that we can’t fix together.”
We hear all these tales of unlikely success, Of thousands of no’s that resulted in yes, Of people achieving their triumph with less Than anyone else could have guessed was required.
They seem the exception to that wretched truth That work is not always rewarded, nor youth, And even those weary and long-in-the-tooth Have little to show for their being so tired.
But who could have guessed what those blessed ones would do? What low expectations observed their debut? And who says that I can’t be one of those few? And who says that you aren’t exceptional too? __________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
I suppose the first order of business for 2022 should be reviewing the films that made it onto my end-of-year list for 2021. Considering my fondness for animation, musicals, and superhero films, it’s not surprising that these dominated much of the list, and the only musical of last year that didn’t disappoint at the box office (since it was released on Netflix) was my favorite of the bunch.
Tick, Tick… Boom! is the other Jonathan Larson work, a one-man musical monologue that never made it to Broadway like his hit Rent did five years later. Considering I doubt anyone was clamoring for a film version of this lesser-known “rock monologue” from thirty years ago, it’s clear that this was a passion project. First-time director Lin-Manuel Miranda has written that Tick, Tick… Boom! inspired him when he saw a reworked version performed after Larson’s untimely death, and he even played Larson himself in a 2014 production. It makes sense that Larson’s semi-autobiographical take on the stresses of chasing success in musical theater resonated with Miranda, whose Hamilton shared the role of someone writing “day and night like [they’re] running out of time.” In the case of Jonathan Larson (Andrew Garfield), he struggled to produce his futuristic rock opera Superbia and wrote Tick, Tick… Boom! as an outlet for his creative frustration, even as the 1990s and his thirtieth birthday loomed before him.
I knew nothing about the story going in and was amazed at how fitting it was that I watched it on my own birthday. The very first (and very catchy) song “30/90” laments how quickly the years are outpacing Jonathan’s dreams of making his mark on the world, a sentiment that I can certainly relate to, along with most other twenty- or thirtysomethings out there. Andrew Garfield delivers one of his best performances yet in the lead role, demonstrating he’s a double threat of acting and singing (for the first time apparently). Whether he’s ecstatic over small achievements, harried working for every cent and every note he can muster for the sake of his workshop, or heartbroken by tragic news, he runs the full spectrum of emotions and well deserved his recent Golden Globe win.
Also outstanding are Alexandra Shipp as his girlfriend Susan and Robin de Jesús as his friend Michael, both of whom suffer being left behind by Jonathan’s mania of chasing success even as they sincerely want him to find it. Plus, like Zac Efron in The Greatest Showman, it was nice to see Vanessa Hudgens returning to her movie musical roots as one of the key singers for the show/workshop. The film also incorporates elements that would clearly go on to influence Larson’s next musical Rent, such as several of Jonathan’s gay friends falling to the AIDS epidemic.
Tick, Tick… Boom! has an unusual structure; while most of it is the expected movie musical format (drama with interspersed musical numbers), it’s mixed with scenes of Larson/Garfield narrating on stage with piano and band as if performing the show live to an audience. As a sort of blend of stage play and film memoir, it excels at folding the songs into the narrative as embellishments of the first-person storytelling. There’s really only one moment where the song seriously fails to match the tone, when a sardonically poppy song about relationship problems clashes with an otherwise very serious scene. Regardless of such minor hiccups, the quality of Larson’s music and lyrics speaks for itself, from the gentle guitar of “Johnny Can’t Decide” to the stark piano of “Why” to the full rock ensemble of “30/90” and “Louder Than Words.” In particular, “Why” struck me as an emotionally exhausting performance akin to Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables, so Garfield had better get an Oscar nomination.
Every now and then, a movie about creativity and chasing art comes along and speaks to me on an especially personal level, films like Whisper of the Heart or La La Land that often are appreciated by some more than others. Tick, Tick… Boom! is just such a film. I have my own latent plans for a musical that I’ve been toying with for years, and while I have yet to put full effort toward it, watching Larson’s grueling journey and eventual vindication gives me hope that my own efforts won’t be in vain, even if it seems so.
The film is a tribute to both Jonathan Larson and the creative process of musical theater, elevated by Miranda’s personal direction and lots of cameos from Broadway legends that not everyone will recognize. Some cool trivia: Bradley Whitford plays Larson’s idol, the late great Stephen Sondheim, but when Sondheim leaves an encouraging voice mail toward the end of the film, Sondheim himself recorded the lines. All these layers make Tick, Tick… Boom! a clear labor of love and, for me at least, a film to love as well.
Best line: (Jonathan, after a rejection) “So what am I supposed to do now?” (Rosa, his agent) “You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on, and that’s what it is to be a writer, honey. You just keep throwing them against the wall and hoping against hope that eventually something sticks. Listen. Little advice from someone who’s been in this business a long, long time. On the next one, maybe try writing about what you know.”
(Best sung to the tune of “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by the Proclaimers)
If you watch this, You should know they’re gonna sing, They’re gonna sing their lines as lyrics and a tune. If you hate this, You should know it’s gonna sting, It’s gonna sting ‘cause even cynics aren’t immune.
But I like this, I like musicals galore, And by galore, I mean there’s plenty to embrace. If you don’t like this, Then it’s better to ignore, But you ignore what puts a smile on my face.
And I would watch this musical And I would watch 500 more If it means they’ll make more musicals, No matter how the haters roar. _______________________________
MPA rating: PG (mainly some innuendo)
When I choose my Blindspots at the beginning of each year, I usually don’t give any thought to how exactly I’ll watch them. With so many streaming options nowadays, there must be some way, right? When I decided to watch Sunshine on Leith, I realized that might be difficult, considering the Scottish musical was not on any streaming subscription and apparently had never been released on DVD in the U.S., meaning anything I bought would not be playable on my U.S. player. I was on the verge of having to change my Blindspot choice entirely, but thankfully I checked YouTube, where it happened to have been uploaded by some overseas saint. So note to self, maybe I ought to verify that I can actually find the movies on my Blindspot list before I announce them.
Anyway, I had a strong feeling that Sunshine on Leith would be my kind of movie. A feel-good romantic musical set in Scotland? Yes please! The closest analogue to this film would have to be Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical that incorporated ABBA’s diverse discography into a mostly coherent storyline. This time, the featured music is that of the Proclaimers, a Scottish duo known for songs that tend to tow the line between rock and barroom folk anthems. Admittedly, I was only familiar with two of their songs, “I’m on My Way” and most famously “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” both of which debuted on the 1988 album Sunshine on Leith, from which the film gets its name.
So, unlike Scottish audiences, I had little internalized fondness for these songs since they were mostly new to me. Yet I still enjoyed the songs quite a bit, even if the performances often lack the wow factor of other musicals. It’s very much in the vein of Mamma Mia!, with characters sometimes breaking into goofy theatrics for an impromptu musical number, and the final rendition of “I’m Gonna Be” is undoubtedly the best, combining the romantic climax with the most fun choreography.
However, in combining songs that were not necessarily written to fit into a narrative, the plot is unfortunately thin. It chugs along in feel-good mode with hardly any conflict before suddenly dropping three different conflicts all at once and resolving one in the space of a single song that didn’t seem to actually address the problem. I’m genuinely impressed by the way musicals like this and Mamma Mia can combine unrelated songs into a cohesive plot; I’ve wished I or someone could do the same for some of my favorite artists, like TWRP, Autoheart, or Coldplay. It can’t be easy, but this is one case where the songs often don’t quite fit naturally, instead making the plot feel overly rushed at times, despite the good performances of actors like Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks, and George McKay (years before 1917). And yet the songs are also the best parts, causing the non-musical sections to suffer by comparison.
I love musicals, and I liked this one, but I hate to admit that I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. It has the feel-good romance aspect, paired with elements that try to make it less like a predictable Hallmark movie, and it introduced me to some great Scottish tunes. And while I was concerned that the accents may be hard to understand, I was able to follow along without missing too much. I’d gladly watch it again, so perhaps it will grow on me like Mamma Mia! has. If they’ll actually release the darn thing in the U.S.!
The longer a neighborhood has stood The more of a store of tales to tell It has, and in all likelihood, The narrators who are the best Are not the visitor or guest, I suppose, But those who chose Or else were born to dwell In that community, Who share in native unity And from the thorn Of foreign scorn Have natural immunity.
The brotherhood of neighborhoods Appeals to me more than it should, For I was introduced And used To lack of that camaraderie; It doesn’t really bother me, And yet I get and can’t forget A sense of admiration for The folks who know their neighbors’ names Beyond the first or second door, Where every high is aired and shared And every low is bared but shared And more than family have cared For all the highs and lows before.
So storytellers, tell your tales Of neighborhoods I’ll never know But for the struggles, wins, and fails You share, and never let them go. __________________________
MPA rating: PG-13
As you might have guessed with my long stretches between posts this year, I have somewhat of a backlog that’s been building up, movies I’ve seen and just didn’t have the time to give a full review. Now that school is all done (and has paid off, by the way), I can start playing catch-up. One of the Hollywood trends that I welcome with the utmost glee is the resurgence of movie musicals, which have been becoming more and more frequent since La La Land and The Greatest Showman reminded the powers that be that musicals can be awesome.
I am a huge fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the only musical I’ve had the pleasure of seeing live, but I admittedly have not paid much attention to In the Heights, his first hip hop-flavored musical to win Tony awards. In general, I have a very low opinion of rap music, but Hamilton changed my perceptions to appreciate its unique blending of complex lyrics and catchy rhythms. Thus, I can’t help but feel that Hamilton paved the way for my enjoyment of In the Heights, even if the latter predates the former. And Miranda’s musical powers are self-evident here, even if the setting is the modern-day neighborhood of Washington Heights rather than colonial America. (Plus, I couldn’t help but chuckle at a couple Hamilton cameos/Easter eggs.)
Bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos of Hamilton stepping into Miranda’s role) serves as narrator for the various stories playing out in his block before, during, and after a blackout, including his own goal of returning to the Dominican Republic, the fashion dreams of his crush Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), and the romance of his friend Benny (Corey Hawkins) and college student Nina (Leslie Grace). Also prominent are Nina’s father (Jimmy Smits), who tries to get her to return to college, and “Abuela” Claudia (Olga Merediz, reprising her Tony-nominated role), who has cared for Usnavi and his cousin Sonny and is beloved throughout the neighborhood.
It really breaks my heart that In the Heights ended up a commercial flop because I loved it, not only as an exuberant musical but as a story with clear fondness for its characters that effectively transmits that fondness to the audience. While every character is in pursuit of their personal American dream, they also revel in Hispanic cultural pride, particularly in the “Carnaval del Barrio” number. Considering how strong the Hispanic representation is throughout the movie, it’s ironic that it earned criticism for underrepresenting Afro-Latinos in the major roles, which seems like a nitpick of an otherwise landmark film for Hispanic Americans in media. I read a YouTube comment that summed up the film’s appeal better than I can, stating that they couldn’t “remember seeing this many black and brown people on screen for a solid two and a half hours where not a single storyline had to do with crime, prison, slavery, drug use, gangs, or segregation. No mention of any sort of criminal activity. No equating darker skin with malice or mischief. Just hardworking people of color trying to do their best to live their dreams.” Anyone can find something to complain about, but that seems pretty praiseworthy.
Speaking of complaints, I must reiterate that I had no prior experience with the In the Heights musical, but I understand that quite a few changes were made, from the shifting of motivations and story priorities to the addition of a Dreamer subplot to the deletion of a number of songs. Because of that, I can understand fans of the original musical being disappointed, but as a movie-only fan, I was blown away in the theater many times over. The bright direction of Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) is especially laudable, weaving seamlessly throughout expertly choreographed crowds and injecting spurts of fantasy and animation into the real world. While its profits and impact may have been diminished by controversy and a pandemic, In the Heights is an outstanding addition to the musical film genre, one that left me smiling and whose worth will hopefully become more recognized with time.
Best line: (Kevin Rosario, Nina’s father) “Ignore anyone who doubts you.”
(For Day 28 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was to write a poem of questions, so mine asks you to compare your struggles with those of the past.)
Did the people I admire Throw their hands up and retire When the world was just as rotten As the world has been to me?
Did the heroes and the dreamers Yield to censurers and screamers And abandon their ambitions To accept reality?
Was their journey less demanding Or the road more understanding Than the one that lays before me, Which no protest will improve?
Did the Greats not show that hoping Is a fruitful way of coping And each forward step you take is one The world cannot remove? ___________________________
MPA rating: PG-13 (for language)
Yellow Rose didn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar back in 2019, but it falls into the hidden gem category for me. Set in Texas, the film details the struggles of Filipina teenager Rose Garcia (Eva Noblezada of Broadway’s Hadestown) as she realizes she is an illegal immigrant when her mother (Princess Punzalan) is arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Suddenly without a home or a guardian, she turns to the kindness of strangers and her love of country music to give her a chance at a better life.
With immigration being very much in the news lately, Yellow Rose is both timely and heartfelt, calling out the process of immigration crackdowns while retaining empathy for all affected by it. While one might expect the story to include more anti-immigrant sentiment, the people Rose encounters are nearly all compassionate and helpful, from the kind boy she grows to like (Liam Booth) to the aging country star who recognizes her songwriting talent (Dale Watson, playing himself). On a side note, it’s interesting that both Noblezada and Lea Salonga, who plays her aunt, have played the lead in Miss Saigon on Broadway.
The drama is uniformly genuine, and both Punzalan and Noblezada give award-worthy performances as the mother and daughter who are separated by both walls and plans for the future. Plus, Noblezada (looking and playing much younger than she is) can really sing, and her music being an outlet for her woes goes back to the blues that classic country has voiced in years past. While the film goes a bit too long in the last act and oddly never fully addresses Rose’s most pressing concern of citizenship, it’s a warm-hearted tale that bemoans the system while never losing sight of the people in it.
Best line: (Rose, to Dale, turning her strong emotions into inspiration) “I’ve got some s*** to write.”
(For Day 22 of NaPoWriMo, the prompt was to employ metonymy and represent a time period with a symbol of it. Thus, I use the once-famous Harvey Girls as the symbol of civilizing the West.)
When the West was won, It was not by the train, Not by the cowboy traversing the plain, Not by the outlaws and not by the slain, Not by the farmers with acres of grain, Not by the rushes for land, gold, and gain.
No, ‘twere the girls That made civil the West, The Harvey House ladies so formally dressed, Who treated the pioneer more like a guest: By breakfast and coffee and steak on request, America’s destiny made manifest. _____________________________
MPA rating: Not Rated (easily a G)
If you’re anything like me, you may have never heard of the Harvey Houses that sprouted up along the railroads in the late 1800s as the first American restaurant chain. Lately, I’ve been in a mood of gleeful discovery as I stumble upon bits of history I had never learned before, and this is one of them. My only knowledge of this film about the Harvey girls, who were hired and shipped west to work in these restaurants, was the famous Oscar-winning song “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” which was highlighted in the compilation film That’s Entertainment. All this to say that I was glad to finally see how this movie about forgotten history compared with other classics of the time.
The presence of Judy Garland in the lead role alone makes it a classic. She plays Susan Bradley, a would-be mail-order bride who becomes a Harvey waitress in the newly established location at Sandrock, Arizona, where the established saloon owner (John Hodiak) and his goons are less than pleased to have civilization threatening business. From the first moment where Garland and Hodiak verbally tussle, it’s obvious they will eventually fall for each other. The rest of the film is likewise predictable, albeit with a nuanced turn from Angela Lansbury as the jealous “other woman,” and the songs and choreography are rather uninspired, except for the one famous song that snagged an Oscar.
There is fun to be had, such as an all-woman bar brawl or the reunion of Garland and Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz), but The Harvey Girls is a lesser classic, to be sure. Still, I love that it spotlighted a slice of history when it was still part of the public’s common knowledge, and I wouldn’t mind perhaps a modern take on the Harvey Girls story one day. (If you like random history too, you might look up Bass Reeves, Dr. Wu Lien-teh, and the Goiania incident, all of which deserve their own movie as well.)
Best line: (Alma, one of the girls) “I sent my picture into one of those Lonely Hearts Clubs, and they sent it back, saying ‘We’re not that lonely!’”