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tick, tick… BOOM!

Posted November 24, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Better sit down, folks, because it’s deceptively hard to explain what’s the deal with tick, tick… BOOM! I know the film was made and marketed as a biopic about Jonathan Larson, but that’s not exactly true. Except it kind of is. Maybe better to start from the beginning.

Between 1983 and 1990, Jonathan Larson put his best years toward writing “Superbia”, a kind of satirical sci-fi rock opera in which people of the future obsessed over reality shows staged by wealthy one-percenters. (Basically, Larson wanted to write a rock opera adaptation of “1984”, but George Orwell’s estate wouldn’t grant him the rights.) Larson obsessively workshopped the play, pitching it to every producer, publisher, recording label, and film studio in existence, but nobody shared his vision of a Broadway play for the MTV Generation. Even after wildly successful readings at Playwrights Horizons, the show was too off-kilter for Broadway and too expensive for off-Broadway, thus “Superbia” was never fully produced.

Larson got through this crushing rejection by developing his personal and professional struggles with “Superbia” into “tick, tick… BOOM!” a semi-autobiographical “rock monologue”. The entire show was simply Jonathan Larson on a stage, acting out his stories and singing his songs with the backing of a rock band. Long story short, the success of that particular show put Larson back to work on a shelved idea that turned out to be “Rent”. Tragically, Jonathan Larson passed away mere hours before “Rent” made its world-conquering debut in January of 1996. Not even two weeks short of his 36th birthday.

(Side note: Contrary to popular belief, Jonathan Larson did not die of AIDS. He passed away from a freak aortic aneurysm, most likely brought on by undiagnosed Marfan syndrome.)

Got all that? Good, because here’s where things get tricky.

In theory, tick, tick… BOOM! is an adaptation of the eponymous stage play. In practice, it’s more like a movie that intercuts between two time periods. One time period serves as our framing device, in which Larson (here immortalized by Andrew Garfield) performs his rock monologue onstage for an adoring audience. In the other time period, Larson is only a week away from his 30th birthday, mere days away from the first public workshop reading of “Superbia”.

In other words, we’re simultaneously watching the show “tick, tick… BOOM!” while also watching the events dramatized in “tick, tick… BOOM!” It’s not an easy thing to describe in words, but it all flows together seamlessly in practice.

(NOTE: A title card at the start of the movie tells us that everything in the movie is true “except for the parts that Jonathan made up.”)

Of course, this particular angle means that certain creative liberties were taken in the adaptation. To start with, this is most certainly not a monologue anymore, as Garfield shares the screen with such capable supporting talents as Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Joshua Henry, and Jonathan Marc Sherman, and MJ Rodriguez. Granted, Vanessa Hudgens still can’t act for shit, but she can sing and she doesn’t have much of any lines outside of her big musical numbers, so we’re good there.

Other highlights include Bradley Whitford, here stealing the show with a comically perfect impression of Stephen Sondheim. Laura Bernanti also gets a brief yet prominent cameo speaking role. But if we’re talking major Broadway talents with cameo appearances, all I have to do is point to that diner scene. After all, this is a movie about Jonathan Larson, it’s the directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and this film was shooting while Broadway was still shut down for COVID-19. Fucking EVERYONE on Broadway must’ve wanted to be a part of this, because it’s like every headliner in the city all got dumped into that one diner for Sunday brunch. Hell, this is the spot where Lin-Manuel Miranda himself decided to poke his head in for a quick onscreen cameo!

But easily the biggest creative liberty came right at the top of the show. In a quick preface, the film tells us right off the bat that Jonathan Larson died at age 35, before he ever got to see the world premiere of the (admittedly dated by today’s standards) musical that would go on to redefine Broadway musicals. Literally everything in this movie is dramatically undercut by this knowledge.

Mortality and the passage of time have always been prominent recurring themes in the works of Lin-Manuel Miranda (Sing it with me, folks: “Why do you write like you’re running out of time…?”), and it’s inescapable here. Larson grieves for his friends who are literally dying of AIDS, and those who’ve already died too soon. He’s deathly afraid of his upcoming birthday, because it means his own death is that much closer. But more than anything else, Larson is utterly crushed by the upcoming deadline imposed by the date of his workshop reading. He’s got all these pieces to get into place, there’s still a crucial song in the second act that hasn’t been written yet, and he’s at once under so much pressure to get everything done immediately while also procrastinating as much as he can. That dilemma all but literally splits him in twain.

On top of all that, there are the money pressures. A man of his prodigious talent could easily make a living in advertising, writing jingles and catchphrases for capitalist junk. Indeed, there’s one frankly ingenious scene that perfectly demonstrates how Larson’s talents are highly sought-after in the corporate world, potentially giving him the adulation and security he so badly craves. The only trouble is… well, we’re talking about the same guy who wrote this. ‘Nuff said.

And again, the dramatic irony in all of this is that we know how it ends. We know that money and material possessions won’t matter to Jonathan Larson in another five years, because he’ll be dead and he can’t take that shit with him. We know that all of this pain and suffering won’t amount to anything in the short term with “Superbia”, but it will all lead to something so much greater in the long term with “Rent”. All of this is gearing up toward a magnum opus that Larson will never get to see, directly building a wildly different theatre world that Larson will never get to work or live in.

Of course, none of this is new material. We’ve seen countless films about the tortured artist struggling to make his voice heard in a vast apathetic world, forced to choose between fighting for his artistic vision versus settling for the safe commercial beaten path, and so on. But all of that takes on a whole new dimension with this portrayal of a well-known artist who’s still greatly mourned 25 years after death.

(Side note: Jonathan Larson would be 61 years old if he was still alive today. It’s tough to even picture what he might’ve been like after 60. Sweet Jesus.)

So much about this particular trope is based on uncertainty. How much time does our protagonist really have? Would he be better off taking the safer and smoother course? Is there any chance he could really find success as an artist and make a difference in the world?

With the advance knowledge of how this ends, all of those questions are made into firm and clear statements. More importantly, they’re lessons implicitly passed on to the audience. Memento mori. Keep creating art. Support your friends and loved ones, most especially those in the arts. Keep throwing shit at the wall until something sticks, because there’s no telling where the next big thing will come from.

At this point in the review, it perhaps bears mentioning that I have my own writing/producing opus, currently bearing down on closing weekend as I type this. As a budding playwright/producer with a handful of staged works under my belt, this whole movie hit me right where I live. I can personally vouch for the all-consuming anxiety of those few hours before the crowd comes in to see a new work. I have lived the experience of trying to deal with unexpected disasters and pieces that are still missing mere hours before the curtain rises.

And yes, I’ve personally had to make my peace with the fact that I’ve spent over six of my best years on a work that has no viable future no matter how well-received it was. I’m perfectly familiar with the struggle of finding the will to keep going and write another script in the face of that massive crash. More importantly, I’m acutely aware that Lin-Manuel Miranda would know all about that from personal experience as well. And he portrays it all beautifully, with no small assistance from Andrew Garfield.

Folks, I know Andrew Garfield is only 38 years old. I know he’s still relatively young, and I know he’s turned in a lot of great performances already. (Seriously, does anyone else out there remember Never Let Me Go?!) Even so, I’m ready to go out on a limb and say that this could easily be the best performance that Andrew Garfield will ever deliver. This performance is one for the ages. I haven’t seen this level of off-the-wall energy coursing through every frame since DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street. It’s a dynamic performance that shows the full range of Garfield’s versatility, he carries the whole film on his shoulders, and it turns out he’s had a killer singing voice this whole time.

Every song in this show is a banger. If this film accomplished nothing else, it reminds us all exactly what we lost when Larson died so soon. Though of course all due credit must be given to Garfield, Hudgens, Joshua Henry, Alexandra Shipp, and all the other exceptionally talented vocalists in this cast. And I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical partner, Alex Lacamoire, was one of three — count ’em, THREE — executive music producers, alongside Kurt Crowley and Bill Sherman (both late of the recent In the Heights adaptation).

Speaking of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the choices he made as a director, I’ve got to say it was a savvy move for such a prominent Broadway talent to make his feature film directing debut with such an intimate story. There’s something to be said for starting small and working with what he knows. That said, we still get a few heightened moments. This could be something as subtle as comical editing (“No More”) or explicit as CGI directly integrated into the set (“Sunday”, “Swimming”, etc.). This takes some getting use to, but it plays into the notion that we’re seeing these events through the perspective of our main character. Hardly a new concept (Rocketman comes immediately to mind), but I can’t shake the feeling that a more experienced director could’ve gone farther and made better, smoother, more consistent use of the conceit.

The supporting cast is another nitpick. Yes, this is Andrew Garfield’s show and the rest of the cast is only there to prop him up. But when the supporting cast is this good, that could either be seen as a bug or a feature. Robin de Jesus is easily the film’s secret weapon, and it’s frankly unfair how good he is in this secondary role. Meanwhile, Alexandra Shipp proves herself to be a bona fide singing talent and I know that she’s got so much more to offer as an actor (Tragedy Girls, anyone?). In all honesty, her turn here left me wanting more.

Folks, I’m struggling to find any problems with tick, tick… BOOM! Andrew Garfield’s performance alone is more than worth an Oscar nomination, never mind your time and money. The music is wonderful, the themes pack a visceral punch, and the whole cast is marvelous from top to bottom. Even if Lin-Manuel Miranda has a long way to go until he’s the next Julie Taymor, this is nonetheless a promising start for his career as a director.

If you’re even the least bit enthusiastic about Broadway and/or musical theatre, you should’ve seen this movie already. If you’re any kind of artist, or if you’re even thinking about getting started as an artist of any stripe, you owe it to yourself to see this. Even in such a crowded Oscar season as this is shaping up to be, this is one movie that absolutely demands to be seen.

Red Notice

Posted November 24, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

I know there’s been a lot of press lately about how Red Notice has been such a massive win for Netflix, reportedly the biggest debut weekend the streamer has ever seen. Let’s set the record straight.

First of all, this one literally has Dwayne Johnson’s name all over it. He’s the star, he’s the producer, and his Seven Bucks Productions company has its logo right up front before the credits. I might add that the film was written/directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, primarily known as a comedy filmmaker before switching to action with Skyscraper and Central Intelligence, both action vehicles for Johnson. Oh, and we can’t forget the involvement of one Gal Godot, another erstwhile Fast and Furious alum.

(Side note: This movie was sure to take a quick potshot at Vin Diesel in the third act. This after the Johnson-produced Fighting with My Family took a similar swipe at Diesel. More recently, Hiram Garcia — the producer who runs Seven Bucks alongside Johnson — formally declined Diesel’s open plea for Johnson to come back for the last two movies in the mainline Fast and Furious series. I don’t know what the hell is going on with the Diesel/Johnson feud, but that grudge seems to be burning strong on Johnson’s side at least.)

Anyway, the film incited a massive bidding war between studios back in 2018. It was ultimately Universal (again with the Fast and Furious connections) that won out and agreed to distribute the picture alongside Legendary. However, Universal eventually ditched the project due to creative differences, prompting Netflix to step in and provide the film’s $160 million budget.

And then COVID-19 happened.

Because this is a globetrotting heist thriller, over half the production was supposed to take place overseas. Alas, production was halted partway through because of the pandemic, and international travel suddenly became impossible. Thus the production team had to manufacture a massive swath of exotic locales — from coldest Russia to the deserts of Egypt, from Rome to the South American jungle, from the Louvre to the Bahamas and all points in between — without ever leaving Georgia. And that’s in addition to the added expense of putting COVID safeguards in place.

In short order, the production budget ballooned to $200 million, easily the most that Netflix has ever spent on any production. I might add that even for a production with three of the hottest A-listers working in showbiz right now, it’s tough to imagine anyone in Hollywood investing $200 million on a picture that didn’t come from an established IP. This is a historic gamble for Netflix, and they desperately need this to be a hit.

While box office reports have long been de rigeur for theatrical releases, no streaming service has ever volunteered data regarding how many people are streaming which movies. That changed roughly a week ago, when Netflix suddenly reversed course and set up a site to publish the total number of hours that their films have been streamed. Thus when Red Notice was proclaimed to be an unprecedented smash hit, Netflix had the numbers to back that claim up. No way is all of that a coincidence.

All of that aside, the plot to Red Notice concerns three golden jeweled eggs that Marc Antony purportedly gave to Cleopatra herself. The eggs were scattered upon Cleopatra’s death — one of them eventually ended up in a museum, the second is now in the custody of a crime boss (nicknamed “Sotto Voce”, played by Chris Diamantopoulos), and the third egg is completely unaccounted for.

I feel compelled to pause right here and point out that this whole angle is bullshit. Cleopatra’s eggs are not real, they’re not even legend, they were solely an invention of the filmmakers. Three golden jewel-encrusted MacGuffins, almost exactly the size and shape of an actual football, to be passed and carried and intercepted by the characters as the plot unfolds. Three eggs, one for each act.

Bad enough that the filmmakers invented their own fake history wholesale, as it would’ve been less lazy and more compelling to find some treasure with firmer roots in actual history. But if the filmmakers were going to make up their own MacGuffin, and they had full license to come up with literally anything, I’m just a little bit pissed off that this was the best they could come up with.

Anyway, Dwayne Johnson plays John Hartley, an FBI agent who’s come to help Interpol capture a notorious art thief (Nolan Booth, played by Ryan Reynolds). It’s worth mentioning that Rome is a whole ocean removed from Hartley’s jurisdiction, and Hartley flat refuses to show a badge upon request. So we already know something’s up with this character off the jump.

Regardless, Hartley helps the Interpol agent Urvashi Das (played by Ritu Arya) capture Nolan and take back the first of Cleopatra’s eggs, which Nolan stole in Rome. Long story short, the egg is intercepted by another notorious art thief known only as “The Bishop” (Gal Godot). Trouble is, Hartley was the last one seen with the egg before it was stolen. Thus Interpol gets suspicious and locks up Hartley along with Nolan.

Nolan wants to steal all three eggs, Hartley wants to clear his name, so the both of them break out of prison to chase after The Bishop and we’re off to the races.

Before I go any further, I feel compelled to talk about the action scenes. More specifically, I want to talk about the opening chase scene, which had the hairy spotted balls to put a Wilhelm Scream within the first fifteen minutes of the film. The goddamn Wilhelm Scream. In the opening chase sequence. This is where we’ve set the bar for creativity and effort with this picture.

We all know for a fact that all three of our lead actors have proven action chops, that’s been well-documented by this point. Yet there were so many times (again, that opening chase sequence was rife with them) when the characters looked like cheap stunt doubles. It’s frankly sad how this globetrotting heist blockbuster with such an absurdly overqualified cast turned out a film with such bland and uninspired action scenes.

To wit: This is a movie in which a rocket-powered grenade is fired at a helicopter, but a character opens the doors at the last minute so the missile goes through the helicopter, in one door and out the other. Does that stunt sound awesome? Fuckin’ A. How could you make that look lifeless and boring? Hell if I know, but this movie found a way.

This brings me to our three leads, who are at once this movie’s greatest strength and most glaring flaw. On the one hand, it’s Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds. You know what you’re getting and their charisma has been finely honed by this point. On the other hand, it’s Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds. You know what you’re getting because they’ve already done this exact same schtick a million times before in so many other, better movies.

As for Gal Godot… look, I get how she seemed like a great choice on paper. She sure as hell looks the part. The trouble is, she can’t play a lovable rogue, and she sure as hell can’t play a villain. That’s simply not a card in her deck. She can do charming, she can do seductive, she can walk into any room and make everybody else feel inferior by comparison, that’s no problem. But when she has to play a sociopath who would literally torture someone to get what she needs… sorry, I don’t buy it coming from her.

(Side note: I’m aware that Godot has recently been tapped to play the Evil Queen in the upcoming Disney live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for 2023. Like I didn’t have enough reasons to dread that particular release.)

Speaking of which, there’s the issue of Chris Diamantopoulos, who gets a prominent supporting role as a crime boss. For those who aren’t aware, Diamantopoulos is primarily known as a voice actor, and it’s great that he has such incredible skill with his voice, because his onscreen presence simply isn’t enough to convey the sufficient menace. But then I looked him up and found that Diamantopoulos has spent the past ten years as the voice of Mickey Mouse. I can’t unlearn that, and I can’t possibly take him seriously in any other onscreen role ever again because of it.

Otherwise, I appreciate all the work that got put into the production design, especially with the knowledge of the bind that this production was put into. I’ll happily admit that there were a couple of clever moments here and there: That nitroglycerin gag was pretty sweet, and the big climactic twist was nicely delivered. But even with all of that, there were still plot holes big enough to drive a WWII-era German tank through. It certainly doesn’t help that the filmmakers can’t seem to keep track of the motivations — between all the secrets and double-crosses, it’s not always easy to keep track of who’s on whose side, which gets to be another huge problem with the action scenes.

Basically put, Red Notice is a film that spent $200 million in the ruthless pursuit of mediocrity, and the filmmakers achieved their goal perfectly. There’s absolutely nothing in here that hasn’t already been done and done better by other franchises, and the three perfectly charming leads aren’t doing anything that they haven’t already done a million times better in other movies.

I wish I could recommend this as a fun and breezy way to pass a couple of hours, but I can’t even recommend it on those grounds. Free Guy was a more enjoyable action movie with more heart, more creativity, and better use of Ryan Reynolds. I could even say the same for Jungle Cruise with regards to Dwayne Johnson! And Gal Godot, uh… no, come to think of it, I’d still recommend Red Notice over Wonder Woman ’84, because at least Red Notice is only dull as dogshit instead of actively painful.

Even so, this is 2021. We’re going through an overstuffed winter capping off a long and dense year flooded with so many great movies. We’ve even seen quite a few other movies with these exact same stars going through the exact same motions. Against all of that, mediocrity simply isn’t enough.