1776: A Poignant, Patriotic, and Comical Musical

The Fourth of July is a hotly anticipated day for us Americans. It means the peak of summer! Grills, baseball, vacation, beach time, fireworks, and time to celebrate with friends and family. It is a wonderful day. Though I have to remind myself that the holiday is called Independence Day and we’re celebrating more than just summer being awesome. It is also the birthday of the United States. 

It’s been 241 years to the day since the founders of the United States got together in Philadelphia and signed the Declaration of Independence, committing treason against the greatest empire in the world at the time, and boldly claiming freedom to make their own brand new nation. The American Revolution is a remarkable story and almost certainly the most astounding revolution in human history. It makes for excellent books, plays, movies, TV shows, and myths. Plenty of all have been made throughout the years. I recently watched one of the best: a musical film released in 1972 that focuses on the month long stretch from June to July of 1776 when the Continental Congress aggressively debated whether they would separate from the British Empire. The film is, appropriately, called 1776. It is an adaptation of a 1969 musical that won the Tony Award for Best Musical. If you are a fan of musicals, and appreciate the gravity and humor of the American Revolution, you owe it to yourself to watch this film. 

It centers on John Adams (played by William Daniels) trying to propose and pass American Independence through a useless, do nothing Congress that is spinning its wheels and voting on silly matters that aren’t worth the attention. He seeks and receives help from Benjamin Franklin (Howard Da Silva) who quips and sleeps his way through the whole film while being a lovable womanizer, Thomas Jefferson (Ken Howard), who mostly sits quietly but delivers powerful prose and wisdom when called upon, and Abigail Adams (Virginia Vestoff), who appears to John through letters as a calming prescence, a respit from the idiocy of Congress, and a chance to sort out thoughts on the given situation. Throughout the film,  those seeking independence have to wrestle with those seeking to maintain the status quo of British citizenship and slavery, like John Dickinson (Donald Madden) and Edward Rutledge (John Cullum). 

The film stays in Philadelphia and is only concerned with the proposal, discussion, debate, and signing of the Declaration of Independance. George Washington and Alexander Hamilton do not appear at all in person. Washington is only referred to through his depressing dispatches, and there are no battle scenes shown. The action is the political discussions surrounding the Congress. 

The most praised aspect of the film is the consistent mockery and humor at the expense of government, different states, and the characters themselves. Rightly so. This is a funny movie. Everyone is a charicature. John Adams is an Oompa Loompa from puritan Boston that yells and is obnoxious. Ben Franklin is an old womanizer who sleeps all film but is actually the wisest man there. The North Carolina delegation constantly yields to South Carolina and the South Carolinians are elegant jerks. 

On top of the characterization, the lyrics and lines are also filled with excellent humor. 

When saying why he should not write the Declaration, Roger Sherman explains “I don’t know a participle from a predicate. I am just a simple cobbler from Connecticut.” 

When Jefferson’s wife (yes there are historical innacuracies; we’ll talk about those later) shows up and relieves his stress, as it were, Adams comments on their choice of timing and asks Franklin: “Are they going to…? In the middle of the afternoon!?”

Franklin responds: “Not everyone’s from Boston, John.”

And when asked about the New York delegation’s lack of direction in voting, one representative responds: “Have you ever been to a meeting of the New York legislature? Everyone talks very loud and fast, no one listens to each other, and thus, nothing ever gets done.” 

The writing is top notch and it makes for an entertaining time. 

The music is only ok though. The lyrics are the best part of it. The choreography is rather simple and the notes themselves are not too complex. They weren’t trying to make a hard musical in those ways, but I can’t help but point out these issues. And as much as I like Daniels as Adams, I can’t help but find his singing voice disappointing. It’s not a deal breaker, but for the lead of the film, they could’ve gotten someone who’s a better singer. Other than that, the technicals of the film are exactly what can be expected from an early 70’s musical. The sets are on point, the costumes are excellent and the sound design works wonderfully. Everything technically is upto standards and works well. 

The biggest issue to be taken with it is the historical innacuracies. Jefferson’s wife did not actually go to Philadelphia during the time of the real thing, and the voting on the idea actually took place on July 2nd, before signing the declaration on the 4th. There are more, but I won’t harp on them. This isn’t trying to be a true to life adaptation of the real events, it is trying to show the atmosphere of the times and the gravity of declaring independence. And it does that well. 

While I praised the humorous tone of the film early, 1776 also has moments that are played stone cold seriously. This is honestly where the film is at its best for me. The debate scene between the proposal of Independence and the formation of the committee for writing a Declaration of Independence is played straight and the tension of the moment is perfect. “Molassas to Rum” is a scathing commentary on the nature of the slave trade and slavery in the south and is the best number in the movie. Cullum plays it up as Rutledge and shines. The thing he’s promoting are horrible, but it is supposed to grab your attention and it does. 

On the subject of slavery, this film shows excellent awareness of how murky an issue it was in those days. Adams and Jefferson wanted to remove slavery from the new nation, but the economy of the southern states depended upon it. If removed, the Deep South would’ve folded completely and the economic problems after the war would have likely been even worse. Adams acknowledged that “Future generations will never forgive us.” Franklin answered “That may be so, but without a country that won’t matter much.” It was an absolutely impossible moral dilemma and the way it is shown in this film is enlightening and sobering. 

The ending of the film is also sobering and jarring. The signing of the Declaration is played completely straight and with an air of “oh crap what are we doing” hanging over the scene. You’d think it’d end on a high note, but it doesn’t. It ends in a somber mood, as if to say “the fight has yet to be won”. That’s absolutely the correct way to end the film. The founders were committing treason against the greatest empire in the world and the greatest power since Rome. They knew they would likely fail. And by all rights, they should have failed. But they didn’t. 

When I think about why I celebrate Independence Day, I always think about how unlikely it is that the country should exist. The debate, the wars, the odds, the fight against human nature, nothing on paper says that America should exist today, let alone should have escaped the first months of its existence. This country has been through an unbelievable journey and it began in Philadelphia back 241 years ago. 

Hamilton is a more entertaining look at America’s founding and nature. But 1776 is a more accurate portrayal of the atmosphere of the country’s founding. It benefits from a tight focus on one location and particular month, excellent writing and a healthy dose of comedy balanced by sobering reality. If you have not seen this film, take some of your Independence Day to watch it. 

Best Movies I Watched in 2016

I’ve not done a countdown in a long while and it’s that time of year when countdowns make sense as a means for recollection, so here’s a new countdown. I watched a number of movies this year. They covered a huge range of genres, styles, ages, and tones. Most of them entertained me, and all of them engaged me. These are the ten best movies I watched for the first time this year. Please note that this is not a list of films released this year. I didn’t go to the movie theatre that often, so I didn’t see many of the best films of this year according to critics, like La La Land, Moonlight, or Manchester by the Sea. I saw a few, but most of the films are from earlier years, some from the black and white film era. Here we go. 

Honorable Mention: V For Vendetta (2005)

There’s a used book store in Cambridge called Rodney’s that is one of my favorite hangout spots. They sell DVDs for very cheap, and I’ve gotten a few films from there. I’ve wanted to watch V for Vendetta for a while, so when I saw it for so cheap, I bought it. I had a free afternoon after class, so I made lunch and watched the movie. That was a good choice. 

The political themes and messages of the film are compelling and thought provoking. The world feels controlled and chained. They nailed the feel of the movie, with Natalie Portman acting as a vessel for us to walk in futuristic, fascist London. Portman is excellent in the film, but the highlight is absolutely Hugo Weaving as V. He is spellbinding. His home feels like a haven, his actions and speeches are grandiose, at times infuriating, but as you learn his backstory through the course of the film, you appreciate how complete this character is. It takes some commitment to watch it and some of the messaging is a bit much, but the political intrigue, suspense, and charm make V for Vendetta well worth watching. I can’t put it into the top list, but it deserves a mention. 

10. Rogue One (2016)

The annual Star Wars release that we will get for the rest of all time just barely scrapes into my top 10. I did a full writeup of the film, so I won’t spend much time on it here. Short version, its good. Plenty of good action, amazing Darth Vader moments, and enough world building to expand the Star Wars universe and add some grit to the world make it a worthwhile addition to cinema’s most sacred franchise. It’s flaws are just big enough to keep it down to the 10th spot here.

9. The Revenant (2015)
For the first and only time on this list, I will say I didn’t like this movie much. This is a rare experience for me. I appreciate the technical mastery and how well made and directed the film is, but I still can’t bring myself to like it. 

Positives first. The scene composition, camerawork, lighting, and cinematography are nothing short of amazing. The film feels real and brutal. The score isn’t distracting or ear catching, but it compliments the film perfectly. The theme of survival is well explored and Tom Hardy is an excellent villain. There is plenty to enjoy and it deserved every technical Oscar it won. However, as stated previously, I didn’t like it. I saw this film at the very end of its theatrical run while on Spring break with family. We went to a lovely little theatre called the Chatham Orpheum, in Chatham, Cape Cod, which might be my favorite theatre I’ve ever been to. We sat there and suffered through it. 

It felt like a gore fest that took so much effort to stomach and watch Leonardo DiCaprio fight through. It is a brutal movie that pushes its lead to his physical limits, but doesn’t flush his character out anymore than that. In fact, none of the characters other than Hardy or the Native guide halfway through the film caught my attention or were that memorable for me. When the film is so focused on beating the lead to his limits, that’s tough to watch. The CGI by Industrial Light and Magic to bring the bear to life is the best CGI work I’ve ever seen, and I could barely watch it. You feel every cut, arrow, rock, and punch that hits Leo. It’s so hard to watch at times that I can’t say I like it. If you can’t stomach violence, stay far away from this movie. If you can handle it, then you’ve got a technical masterpiece to enjoy here. 

8. Airplane! (1980)

I’ve never laughed so hard watching a movie. This film is vulgar, insulting, full of swearing, death, and nudity. And it is a work of comedic genius. This came out at a time when disaster movies were popular. Think The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Zero Hour!. It takes the seriousness of disaster movies and plays every bit of it for laughs. The characters and jokes are perfectly written and it is so quotable. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talks about dragging Walton and Lanier up the floor every night for 48 minutes with a kid who just told him he doesn’t try , except during the playoffs, while he is trying to pass himself off as an airplane pilot and is wearing his Laker uniform underneath his pilot garb. That kind of absurdity is just par for the course when talking about this movie. This isn’t a film to watch for cinematography, character arcs, or any of that stuff. You watch this because it was funny in 1980, and it is just as funny today. 

7. Finding Dory (2016)

Pixar is the best animation studio going today. I have loved almost every film I’ve seen from them, and liked Cars and Cars 2. When the sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo was announced years ago, I was excited. When the movie came out, it was a must watch for me. I saw this with my mom on the Cape over the summer. And wow did Pixar do a phenomenal job. I actually like this a little more than the original. 

The animation is sensational. The sound design is perfect. The voice acting is just as good as the first movie. There are bits which are nonsensical, like the truck falling off the cliff as “What a Wonderful World” plays, but the film holds together well enough despite the silliness. The returning characters are as good as expected, but the new critters are awesome additions. Namely Hank, my favorite character in the film. His arc is heartwarming and his natural characteristics, as an octopus, allow Pixar to flex their creative muscle with him on screen. I think this is a worthy sequel to Finding Nemo and a worthy addition to Pixar’s lineup. 

6. City of God (2002)

After my final exam wrapped up at BU, I had a week to relax on campus. During Senior Week, I went to Red Sox games, explored the MFA, celebrated my graduation with my friends, and enjoyed the city I’ve come to love so much. One night, I got together with some guys from the BU Catholic Center and we wanted to watch a movie. My friend David, an avid film buff, suggested City of God. None of us knew anything about it, just that it was supposed to be good. Our blind faith was rewarded with a surprisingly gritty and touching film about growing up in and trying to survive in the slums of Rio de Janero. 

It is in Portuguese, and has accompanying subtitles to make it watchable for those who don’t speak Portuguese. It provides enough lighthearted moments to make living in the ironically titled City of God seem better than it actually is. Only two disappointments show up for me. There’s a romance between the lead and a girl he likes that is dropped part of the way through the film and is never resolved. There’s also one important character who goes from being likable to dispicable in a heartbeat. It just seems a bit extreme. All things considered though, this is a phenomenal movie. It does require some willingness to endure blood and guts, but nowhere near as much as The Revenant

5. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

I love sports movies. With all the sports posts I’ve got, it’d be a shock if I didn’t. Gran Torino is one of my favorite films, and I heard that Million Dollar Baby was similar in tone and even better. After an insane week of driving all around New England, I needed a night to breathe. I made myself dinner and put in Million Dollar Baby. This movie is emotional. Hillary Swank plays the southern hick perfectly. The chemistry between Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood is perfect. It is a little slow, but it’s a Clint Eastwood film. He takes his time. This is a sports movie that gets you thinking “that’s not fair!” just after showing you something heartwarming and exciting. It is a well balanced movie, and well worth your time and effort to try and watch it.

4. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

My family has a penchant for watching classic movies. We’ve watched such classics as Casablanca and Citizen Kane and plan on watching On The Waterfront, and other classics as time goes by. Over spring break, Dad suggested we watch Sunset Boulevard, a classic film noir about how age and fame can drive a person into insanity. And wow is this movie engrossing, unsettling, and fantastically creepy. Gloria Swanson plays Norma Desmond masterfully and delivers one of the most famous lines in cinema history: “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.” I thought this film was a lighthearted look at the entertainment business. I was wrong, and the finale of the film leaves you with a sense of “I can’t believe that really just happened…” It is from a completely different era of film making. The writing, pacing, and tone of the movie are relics of its time, and I wish we could go back to that age. If you like old school movies, go watch this. You’ll love it. 

3. Inside Out (2015)

In late October, I went with my dad to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to take in a Green Bay Packer game at Lambeau Field. It was a highlight of the year. The next day, we hopped on a plane to Chicago. We then went our separate ways, with me going back to Boston and Dad going to San Fransisco. When I sat down for my flight, I noticed the seatback monitor had a Disney tab. I poked around the movie selection and found Inside Out listed there. I remember many people raving about how good this movie was, and I had one friend tell me about how emotionally charged it is. I took their word for it and watched it on my flight home. Simply, wow. 

Again, Pixar is the best animation studio working now and Inside Out is the most imaginative film they’ve made. The idea of emotions being managed like a company with a board of emotions managing it all is brilliant. The tale of a young girl struggling to figure out her new situation is compelling and relatable to every human being on the planet. The animation and score are perfect. The writing for every character is phenomenal, and my friend who called it emotional was not exaggerating at all. I couldn’t watch some sections of the film because I had lived it and I didn’t want to look at it in movie form. That makes the final act and the ensuing catharsis more meaningful. This is a masterful movie and one of my favorite Pixar films. Go watch this if you haven’t yet. 

2. Rocky (1976)

Yes, I somehow never watched Rocky before this year. When I got my job writing for Inside Hockey and covered games up at the University of Vermont, I stayed overnight at my family’s place in Quechee, VT. After finishing my writeups I checked out the Xfinity OnDemand listings. I went to the Free Movies tab and saw Rocky. Instantly, I thought “Yes. This is happening.” I was missing out, this film is awesome. 

Sylvester Stallone as the title character is absolutely the best part of the film. He’s simultaneously so stupid and wise with an underlying good nature that you can’t possibly root against him. Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, is a respectable adversary for Rocky, but never feels much like a villain. There’s a healthy respect between the two leads. The romance between Rocky and Adrian, played by Talia Shire, is sweet and touching. It looks and feels very real, with Rocky being such a gentleman in a way only a bumbling guy can be. It makes the final scene so memorable. The best sequence of the film is undoubtably the fight. The “Going the Distance” song is one of the finest pieces of film score ever written, and you pull so hard for Rocky. It is a masterclass of pulling for the underdog and creating a character that everyone wants to be, and at points through life, has been. This film is required viewing.

1. The Godfather (1972)

Of all the great movies I wanted to watch and hadn’t gotten to yet, this is the one that people were the most baffled by my not seeing. This is considered one of the greatest movies ever made. I had heard about the horse head, the baptism, the Sicilian wedding, and how perfect the casting was. So after the craziness of the Whitecaps baseball season and the musical wrapped up, I had a free night. I cooked a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and sausage, poured a glass of red wine, killed all the lights in my house, and watched The Godfather. Simply put, all the praise of the movie was justified. 

In a way, this is the weirdest film on the list because it doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like a novel being told by actors. It was based on a novel, but it feels like a book and not a movie, which is normally a problem. Not here. Also the film starts with immediate exposition about a daughter being brutally attacked. No music, no credits, no build up or set up. Just a cold start. It’s so different, and it works so well. Marlon Brando is magnificent as Don Corleone. Al Pacino’s ascent as a member of the family is so compelling to watch. Every supporting character is cast absolutely perfectly. There are so many quotable lines. I feel more cultured after having seen this movie. This is up there as one of the greatest accomplishments in cinematic history. This, like Rocky, is required watching, but watch this first. The Godfather is a cinematic marvel that will never get old or be forgotten. 

Reynolds and Fisher: Tragic Ends for Icons

Man, 2016 has been tough. Gordie Howe, Muhammad Ali, Prince, George Michael, Alan Rickman, and Craig Sager are all celebrities that have passed on this year. In the last two days though, two more celebrities have passed on, and their deaths hit a bit closer to home for me. 

I grew up a massive Star Wars fan. I’ve watched Episodes IV, V, and VI so many times and have memorized every line of those films. I still grin when Han yells “Yahoo!” after shooting down the TIE fighters to save Luke, I still smile whenever Yoda says anything in Empire Strikes Back, and I still tear up when Vader is redeemed at the end of Return of the Jedi. So you can imagine my sadness when my Dad read a news report that Carrie Fisher passed away. 

I looked online to see for myself, and indeed, Carrie Fisher had passed away at 60 years old due to complications of a heart attack she suffered while returning to Los Angeles from London. Only one day later, Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds, was rushed to the hospital and died of a suspected stroke. Just like that, two of film’s most famous stars, and the leading ladies of my favorite musical and film franchise, are gone and millions of fans are left to mourn their passing, appreciate their work, and marvel at how tragic portions of their lives were and how positive they remained through it all. 

Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1932, Mary Frances Reynolds was raised in a strict Nazarene household and was a leader in her Girl Scout troop. She would remain a face for them for years and there is still a scholarship bearing her name given to high school aged scouts. At five years old, her family relocated to Burbank, CA. At 16, she entered into and won the Miss Burbank Beauty Contest. That contest got her a contract with Metro Goldwyn Meyer. Jack Warner, the owner of the Warner Brothers studio gave her the name Debbie because it was a cuter name than Mary Frances. 

Her first notable role was in 1950’s Three Little Words, starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton. Reynolds was nominated for a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer for that role. She didn’t win, but she found favor with the executives at the studio, and in 1952, was given the role that would define her career at only 19 years old. 

She was cast as the female lead of Singing in the Rain, starring and codirected by dance and film legend Gene Kelly. This ended up being brutal on Reynolds. She wasn’t a dancer before the film, she had been a gymnast. As a result, she was not prepared to get every step right. Kelly was harsh on her, insulting the 19 year old for her lack of dancing knowledge and ability. MGM star Fred Astaire, whom Reynolds had worked with on Three Little Words, found her in a studio crying under a piano after an especially harsh grilling by Kelly. Astaire agreed to help her get the steps right and teach her some important things to do the film. She got through it, but not without major stress. The number “Good Morning”, for example took from 8am until 11pm to shoot in one day, left Reynolds with sore and badly bleeding feet. She was sore and exhausted, but her place in Hollywood was sealed. Singing in the Rain was a modest success on its initial run, earning Donnie O’Conner a Golden Globe for best actor and a sizable profit for MGM. It has since been regarded as the greatest movie musical ever made, a sentiment I whole heartedly agree with. 

From there, Reynolds continued to land big roles for MGM. She met Eddie Fisher, a singer and TV show host around this time and married him in 1955. A year later, their first child was born. Reynolds had filmed three movies with intricate dance choreography while pregnant with her daughter, notably Bundle of Joy, but there was no harm. Carrie Frances Fisher was born on October 21, 1956, and all seemed to be going well for the family. And then life got complicated. 

In 1959, Eddie Fisher left Debbie, Carrie, and one year old son Todd to pursue a relationship with Reynold’s friend, Elizabeth Taylor. Fisher and Reynolds divorced and Reynolds became a working single mother in Hollywood. Teheran managed as well as she could, eventually getting both children into the entertainment business and getting married to a millionaire businessman named Harry Karl. This marriage also ended in controversy, with the two divorcing in 1973 and Reynolds suing Karl after Karl had gambled away almost all of Reynold’s savings. 

While her mother was struggling, Carrie was hiding away from the complications in books. She read classic literature and poetry to the point of being called “the bookworm” by her family. She attended Beverly Hills high school until the performing world and her mother got in the way. Debbie took on work as a stage actress with film chances coming in slower, and was cast as the lead in a broadway revival of Irene. Carrie was cast as a Debutante in the show and learned the tricks of the trade from mother dearest. 

Fisher decided that she wanted to make this a living and was accepted to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She studied there for 18 months. Shortly after, she followed a path similar to her mother. Her debut film role was a small role in Shampoo, starring Warren Beatty. The film saw real financial success and Fisher was off to a good start in the film world. 

Shortly thereafter, Fisher was cast as the female lead of George Lucas’ new space opera: Star Wars. She thought the script was outstanding but didn’t think many others would, so she kept quiet. Much like Singing in the Rain, Star Wars was also a painstaking process. There wasn’t an obnoxious director insulting her talents, but the process was stalled many times because of technical failures and malfunctions, the rest of the cast didn’t take it as seriously as she and Alec Guinness did, and she was uncomfortable because she was taped up under her costume in place of wearing actual underwear, because according to George Lucas, “There is no underwear in space.” 

She and the crew waited with baited breath to see the reaction to the film and to everyone’s shock, it became the highest grossing film of all time. It has been surpassed, but the original Star Wars film is still regarded as one of cinema’s greatest achievements, again, something I agree with 100 percent. 

Fisher would reprise her role as Princess Leia in the next two Star Wars films and would become synonymous with that special galaxy, far, far away. She had other roles, like the Mystery Woman in Blues Brothers and Marie in When Harry Met Sally. But similarly to her mother, she was known for her best film and her personal troubles. 

Fisher married Paul Simon in 1983, divorced him in 1984, had a number of relationships with different entertainers, including an affair with Harrison Ford, being briefly engaged to Dan Aykroyd, and dating and having a child with Bryan Lourd. On top of that, she suffered from bipolar disorder and drug addiction that siphoned years off her life. Her mother didn’t have the drug problem, but Carrie had become a star and became just as famous for her relationships as her work on the screen. 

Through it all, they kept working, kept entertaining, and found ways to turn their pain into art. Carrie turned her drug problem into a semi-autobiographical novel and then into a movie: Postcards From the Edge, starring Meryl Streep. Debbie served as an inspiration to her daughter through all her issues, and they maintained a healthy relationship for years, after not speaking for close to a decade. Todd Fisher told news sources that Reynolds final words before her stroke were “I want to be with Carrie.” 

I love the work these two ladies put on the screen. Singing in the Rain is the greatest movie musical ever made and Star Wars is easily my favorite entertainment franchise. For fans of both franchises to lose their heroes in two days is tragic. For Todd Fisher and Billie Lourd to lose two pivotal family members is even worse. My prayers are with the family, and I will have a more difficult time watching their work, especially the now complicated Star Wars: Episode VIII

Sing: What Animation Needs

Film animation is not in the best of places. Dreamworks has fallen in prestige and quality. Studio Ghibli has been on hiatus since 2014. Even Pixar is making confusing choices in production, with Cars 3 and Toy Story 4 in the works. It feels as though modern animation is stuck in place, showing cute animals, fart jokes, and silly gag humor instead of developed characters and compelling stories that are simple enough for kids to get and compelling enough to keep the adults in the theatre watching. Perhaps the poster child for the state of animation today is Illumination Entertainment, a subsidiary of Universal Studios that has risen to fame with Despicable Me 1 and 2, Hop, The Lorax, and Minions. The studio is probably most famous for giving us the adorable yellow minions. They’re fine, but they got a standalone film to milk their popularity and their humor is everything that has gotten old in comedy for me, especially animated comedy. 

When my mom expressed an interest in going to see Illumination’s newest film, Sing, I thought it would be a harmless film with some good moments sprinkled in. When I realized who made it, especially with the mixed critical response to both this film and the recent Secret Life of Pets, I got a bit nervous. When the previews rolled and I saw the horror of The Emoji Movie roll, I face palmed so hard, fearful of the film to follow. 

Fortunately, Sing is actually pretty good. It does have its fair share of fart jokes, puns, and gag humor, and the notion of a singing concept is a little overdone with American Idol, The Voice, and many other similar shows existing in real life. However, I wasn’t cringing for the film. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. It’s a fun movie with impressive animation, a compelling set up, characters I enjoy and root for, excellent music, and voice acting that is absolutely perfect. Matthew McConaughey has a phenomenal voice and puts it to good use as Buster Moon, a koala working as a show producer who owns an old theatre that has fallen into financial difficulty. Seth MacFarlane brings cockiness and irresistible charm with his speaking voice and his lineup of crooner songs, namely Sinatra hits, and is a huge highlight. Jennifer Hudson as a shy but talented elephant is excellent and Scarlett Johannsen as Ash, a rocking porcupine with an underappreciative boyfriend are so much fun to watch. 

My favorite character in the movie is Johnny, a gorilla with a cockney accent voiced by Taron Egerton. His arc is possibly the most dramatic and, for me at least, the most satisfying. He is a charming prescience that you can’t root against if you have a heart and relates well with the teenage and young adult crowd looking for their own direction and acceptance from their parents. It’s a brilliant casting choice, as are the rest of the characters. There was depth, development, and a full arc for each of the important characters. It had the depth that many animated films seem to lack in today’s age. 

I’m not sure why so many critics have decided to be harsh toward this movie. David Ehrlich of Indiewire gave it a 16 out of 100 in his review of the film, claiming ‘”Sing” is the Platonic ideal of an Illumination movie. It’s a profoundly soulless piece of work that shines a light on the mediocrity they foist upon the children of the world.’ I’m not sure what film we both apwatched, but I didn’t see a soulless production. I saw an entertaining movie with good music, imaginative sequences, namely with the squids, and excellent moral lessons to take away for kids from 1 to 102. It’s not the best movie I’ve seen all year, but I would be lying if I said it was anything less than a fun, lighthearted musical comedy with phenomenal voice acting. 

If you have kids and want them to start liking musicals, this is a fine way to introduce them to it. I just hope that Illumination makes more of this and less of the Minions moving forward. Animation needs more heart and character and Sing gives us those in spades. 

Rogue One: I Like It! 

Does the title of the post say it all or should I explain more? Ok, here we go. Just be aware that I will be spoiling this film in my writeup. So beware: HERE COME THE SPOILERS! Click off the post if you’ve not seen it yet, as I will be spoiling this film!! 

Star Wars is probably the most sacred of all the movie franchises. The original trilogy set the standard for modern film sagas and redefined fandoms for entertainment franchises. The special editions of the original trilogy released in 1997 and the Prequel trilogy tarnished the franchise, but it still made millions of dollars and introduced a younger generation to the few good things of the new trilogy and the brilliance of the original trilogy. After Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, Star Wars entered a weird phase. There was an animated movie and television series entitled “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” that showed how the timeframe showed in the Prequel films was not a bad era to look at, the live action Prequel films were just bad. The animated Clone Wars movie wasn’t good, but the TV show was a great time and reminded people how awesome Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker can be. The franchise persisted in good entertainment, but the meat of the franchise, the live action films, lay dormant with little hope of Episode VII ever seeing the light of a camera’s iris. 

Then Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, and the world waited with baited breath for a new film. Then a trailer for The Force Awakens released in late 2014, and we passionate Star Wars nerds lost our minds. In late 2015, the newest film hit theatres and it made billions of dollars, entertained audiences the world over, and made Star Wars the biggest name in movies again. I saw it twice in theatres and loved it both times. After letting it settle in and seeing it again in the spring with a friend to analyze it in great detail, information of the direction of the franchise came out. The decision was made to make as much Star Wars as humanly possible. The Star Wars Anthology series was announced, and the first film was to be the story of how the rebellion got the plans to the original Death Star. 

I went to see Rogue One for the first time on Monday. I went by myself, so I could nerd out and try to analyze the film by myself. Also I have a fascination with seeing movies in the theatre on my own, but that’s for another post. My initial response was wildly positive. I’ll admit that much of my reaction was a wild, fanboy style raving after Darth Vader’s appearance to end the movie, but I still had plenty of things to enjoy beyond that. I ended up seeing it again tonight, this time with my parents and brother. I turned a more critical eye to the film and my reaction was still positive, but more aware of the failings of the film. 

I’ll give my criticisms of the film to start. First, there are several characters that are misused. Saw Gerrera is the biggest missed chance. Forest Whitaker was given an interesting character to work with, but they didn’t do anything with a talented actor and Clone Wars veteran. He saves Jyn Erso in the start of the film, disappears, reappears as a part of an offshoot of the rebellion, passes a message onto Jyn after being paranoid about people looking for him, and then decides to “stop running” and accepts his death when the Death Star destroys the city of Jeddah. There was so much more they could’ve done for him, and they wasted all of it. 

Next, the use of CGI to give Peter Cushing life and Carrie Fisher youth is troubling. If I didn’t think about it, I wouldn’t have noticed that Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the now deceased Peter Cushing, was created by motion capture CGI. It is convincing, but concerning. We can effectively bring back characters we like from the dead and never allow actors to die if we can make things like this happen. The character was fine, and the motivation he gave To Krennic was compelling and excellent. But the implications are problematic. CGI Leia was completely unecessary. She should never have been in the movie. She was distracting, annoying, and ham-fisted. It was unnecessary, to be generous. 

In that vein, there was a little too much fan service. Unused tape of Red and Gold Leaders from A New Hope, the guy who Obi-Wan dismembers in the bar at Mos Eisley, the AT-ATs and AT-STs, the excuse for Luke being Red Five in the next chronological film, R2-D2 and C-3PO randomly showing up on Yavin 4, the visuals from the original trilogy, and Darth Vader being awesome. And I left pieces out. It was a little much. 

That ultimately feeds into the biggest criticism of the movie, it is much too safe. It relies on X-wings fighting against TIE Fighters, shooting down Star Destroyers, ligtsabers, and taking on the Death Star. The Force Awakens drew criticism for being a rehash of A New Hope, but I don’t think too highly of that criticism, considering the need to revitalize the series. Rogue One didn’t need to revitalize the series. It needed to take a risk and be a departure from the standard of the franchise. My brother and I wanted a true espionage film in the Star Wars, something like Oceans Eleven with a bit of Mission Impossible thrown in, all of this in the Star Wars universe. What we got was a fil that played it much too safe and stuck to an already established style of film making, tone, premise, and set of characters. 

One last nitpick. The romantic subtext between Cassien and Jyn in the third act was entirely unnecessary and unearned. There was no purpose for it, no reason for it to be there with the cast being killed off, and out of place considering the events of the second act. I think it could be removed and we would miss absolutely none of it.

All that said, I still think it’s a good film, certainly one of the best I watched this year. The cinematography is very nice, the music sounds Star Warsy (if that’s even a word), and the pieces are there for a great movie. The relationship between Jyn and Galen Urso is interesting, the action is engrossing, Bode is a fun character, K2SO is a funny character, Donny Yen adds legitimacy to the film with his reverence for the Force in a world without the Jedi, and Cassidan has a good character arc. 

The villains are very good. Krennic is an evil character with just enough compelling and relatable moments, like being overshadowed by Tarkin stealing his position, but he is still good at being disliked by the audience. Despite my concerns about how he was put in the film, I like Tarkin as a character. I find him to be well written, slimy, and a compelling military man that works for his persona. The highlight and most confusing piece of the film for me is Darth Vader. On one hand, OH MY GOD DARTH VADER JUST WIPPED A BUNCH OF REBEL SCUM OFF THE FACE OF THE GALAXY!!!!! THAT IS SO AWESOME!!!!! It does raise a few questions, but I’m going to look past this and just appreciate how we get to see Vader destroy the opposition. It is confusing to me how he’s only in 3 scenes and not a bigger prescience, but I am good with what we got. 

I like most of the characters, and the pieces are all interesting on their own. While the execution is only ok, there is plenty to like and be happy with. I only hope that Episode VIII will actually take a few risks and give us a Star Wars film we haven’t seen yet. Until then, I will enjoy this fan service crafted into an action filled, complete, and enjoyable film that enhances the Original trilogy in a way that the Prequel trilogy only wishes it could. If you’re not a Star Wars fan and decided to ignore the spoilers block at the start of the post, then you will like the film. It’s worth the general public’s money. Now we wait for another year until Episode VIII is released! 

Why I LOVE The Force Awakens

I’ve written before that I am a giant Star Wars fan. I use Yoda’s wisdom in my life perspective, and I fanboyed so hard when the trailers came out for Episode VII. It came from it in December, while I was in Boston. I decided against watching it on opening night. I decided that I would go home and see it with my family. We quote all the movies regularly and have discussed the merits, faults, and details of the Star Wars saga to no end, and can launch into such discussions at any time. So I wanted to watch the movie with my parents and experience it with them. I went to see it back on December 23 with my family and we loved it. It was fun, well written, brilliantly acted, smartly shot, and a fantastic movie going experience. I had fun at the movies for the first time in a long time.

As the break went on, I reached out to a high school friend and asked if he wanted to catch up and hang out, offering to catch a movie of his choice. He hadn’t seen Force Awakens yet, so he chose that. I obliged and went to see it again. We caught up and saw the film. I loved it even more the second time. The story still gripped me and drew me into the world of Star Wars in a way that no film has before. It made me feel like these characters, spaceships, droids, lightsabers, and strange worlds were all real. After the film, we had to talk about it. And we did that over some ice cream, like real New Englanders would.

 I have to admit though, it’s not a perfect movie. I did have some issues with the film. Such as,

SPOILER ALERT!! If you haven’t seen the movie yet, then stop reading this post and go see the movie then come back and read the post. SPOILERS!!!

a comparatively subpar John Williams soundtrack. Seriously, the best new piece of music is Rey’s theme and the soundtrack as a whole doesn’t beat out the soundtrack of the originals or even the prequels. I’m going to attribute this to John Williams’ poor health for that and be happy with a good soundtrack but not a great one.

Yes, the “Death Star” is overdone. Three out of the seven movies so far have had a planet sized base with the capability to blow up a planet. It’s stretching the idea a bit far and only a little much. But I can forgive that problem just enough because the Starkiller base has enough differences, what with it being built into a planet and with the horror and destructive power of the base being on full display. In the original movie, Alderran got blown up and the empire committed planetary genocide, but the only reactions were from Leia and Obi Wan, with only Obi Wan’s reaction hitting the viewer with any real force. In the new movie, the residents of the planet that’s getting blown up watch their death come at them, and the people on other planets watch in horror. Their reactions are loaded with emotion and make you feel like these are real people getting killed. So on that, I can allow the retread. I just hope that there isn’t another “Death Star” in the next movie.

And there were a few too many references in lines and attitude to the original trilogy. Many lines were a little too cute and self-referential for their own good. Many of them worked, but when Han had the line “Is there a garbage chute? Trash compactor?”, I felt like that was hamming it up a little bit. There is a good way to be self-referential, and most of the film did that. By the end though, it was a little much.

Aside from that, I didn’t have any problems with the movie. I loved everything else. The characters were entertaining, perhaps more entertaining than any Star Wars film not named Empire Strikes Back. Finn was lovably foolish, but had a good heart throughout. Poe is a fun bad ass who brings swagger and attitude. Rey is an impressive leading lady that makes the transition from lonely scrapper to Jedi well. Actually, she is kind of an OP (overpowered) Luke, but she is at least not a whiney kid the way Luke and Anakin were. She is quite entertaining, and her arc is an excellent transition. Han is a wise man, and his veteran guile shines in the movie.

The filmmaking and effects were excellent. The use of light to show the internal fight inside of Kylo Ren (Ben Solo) is subtle but smart film making. The look and sounds of the lightsabers was infinitely better this time. It sounded like a more powerful weapon, it hit with more force, and the viewer felt the power of a hit from the blade much more than in prior movies. The CGI was still not outstanding, but still improved over the prequels, and the use of practical effects made a much needed return for the space battles, which brought the feel of the old Star Wars films back in a big way.

For the first time in my life, I felt like I was watching a Star Wars movie in theatres. That’s a big deal because the first films of the franchise I saw in person were Attack of the Clones  and Revenge of the Sith. I maintain that Sith is a pretty good movie with some outstanding sequences that doesn’t quite hit its mark due to some flawed moments and some painful dialogue. I also maintain that Clones is a horrid movie with awful dialogue, terrible CGI, and the worst character interactions in the entire franchise, mainly caused by a bad script and equally bad acting by much of the cast, especially Hayden Christiensen. So I hadn’t seen a truly great Star Wars film in theatres to this point in my life. Now that I have, I understand in much more detail why this is the most popular science fiction franchise in all of cinema. It’s a complete world with fun characters and an exciting fight between good and evil in its most clear form. It makes the idea of space adventure fun and unendingly romantic, in the sense of the adventure being exciting and making the viewer want to join the adventure.

I loved The Force Awakens, and I am excited that the energy of the Star Wars franchise is back and we will get at least two new main series entries to the franchise and the Star Wars Anthology series too.

May the Force be with the makers of the new films.