Review: ‘Eternals’ (2021), starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie and Lia McHugh

October 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Don Lee (also known as Ma Dong-Seok), Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry and Barry Keoghan in “Eternals” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Eternals” (2021)

Directed by Chloé Zhao

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the universe, the superhero action film “Eternals” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, Asian, Latino and African American) portraying superheroes from outer space and human beings.

Culture Clash: The superheroes, who are known as Celestials, find out that their arch-enemy demon creatures, which are called Deviants, have not all been killed off and are back with a vengeance. 

Culture Audience: “Eternals” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but viewers should know in advance that “Eternals” is much slower-paced and has a less straightforward narrative than a typical MCU movie.

Kumail Nanjiani and a Deviant in “Eternals” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Eternals” has the expected thrilling action scenes, but the non-action scenes might be too quiet and introspective for some fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie suffers from too much timeline jumping. And there are some other problems with the film’s tone and pacing. However, the showdowns in the last third of the movie make up for the meandering story in the rest of “Eternals.” It’s a movie that tries to take a minimalist approach to a story that’s got maximalist content because it’s packed with characters and agendas.

If “Eternals” does not have the same consistently high-adrenaline pace that people have come to expect from MCU movies, that’s because “Eternals” is the first major studio movie (and fourth feature film) from Oscar-winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who made a name for herself as a writer/director of quiet and introspective independent films (such 2020’s “Nomadland” and 2018’s “The Rider”) about wandering and/or restless “ordinary” people. These “slice of life” low-budget movies are quite different from the blockbuster superhero spectacle that has become the defining characteristic of MCU movies. Zhao co-wrote the “Eternals” screenplay with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo.

Sure, “Eternals” has big-budget visual effects, gorgeous cinematography and impressive production design, but the movie’s heart (under Zhao’s direction) remains in the artsy indie film culture of requiring viewers to think more about the psychology of the characters than about what’s shown on screen. There are many times in “Eternals” when what the characters do not say (and what they keep to themselves) can be as important as what they do say. “Eternals” is not a movie that spells things out easily for the audience.

However, with a large ensemble cast of characters that are based on Marvel Comics characters created by Jack Kirby, “Eternals” is disappointing in how these characters are introduced in such a jumbled way to movie audiences who might not be familiar with these characters. The movie’s title characters are Celestials: universe-wandering beings who look like humans but who actually have superhero powers, including the ability to fly, shoot lasers from their hands or eyes, and quickly heal from wounds.

Celestials, who can also live for centuries, are not immortal, but it’s rare for a Celestial to die. Celestials all share an energy source that can help them strengthen their superpowers. Celestials (just like humans) can feel emotions, have individual personalities, and make their own decisions. As such, Celestials can have varying degrees of personal connections to each other and to human beings.

Before the opening title sequence of “Eternals,” it’s explained that Celestials come from the planet Olympia and were created to combat gigantic demon-like creatures named Deviants on planet Earth. (There are many influences from Greek mythology in the “Eternals” story.) The Deviants can be as small as the size of an elephant or as large as the size of a dinosaur. The Celestials have been instructed by Arishem, their supreme being/prime Celestial, to only find and kill Deviants and not to interfere with any of Earth’s wars and crimes between any humans and other beings.

Over several centuries, the Celestials battled Deviants until it was believed that all of the Deviants were killed. With their goals seemingly accomplished, the Celestials went their separate ways. Most Celestials continued to live on Earth under the guise of being “normal” human beings. However, there would be no “Eternals” movie if things were that simple. To make a long story short: The Celestials find out that there are still more Deviants on Earth, and that Deviants might not be the only threat to the Celestials.

“Eternals” introduces for the first time in a live-action movie these 10 superhero Celestial/Eternal characters:

  • Sersi (played by Gemma Chan), who genuinely loves human beings overall and who works as a scientist at the Natural History Museum in London.
  • Ikaris (played by Richard Madden), who is serious-minded, ambitious and Sersi’s former love interest.
  • Ajak (played by Salma Hayek), who is the wise matriarchal leader of the group.
  • Thena (played by Angelina Jolie), who is a powerful warrior whose main weapons are supernatural swords, shields and tritons.
  • Druig (played by Barry Keoghan), who is an opinionated young rebel with the power to control minds.
  • Kingo (played by Kumail Nanjiani), who is a wisecracking jokester with an attraction to showbiz.
  • Phastos (played by Brian Tyree Henry), who is a master inventor and technopath with a sarcastic sense of humor and cautious nature.
  • Gilgamesh (played by Don Lee, also known as Ma Dong-Seok), who has extraordinary strength and a playful personality.
  • Makkari (played by Lauren Ridloff), who is described as “the fastest woman in the universe,” and she happens to be deaf.
  • Sprite (played by Lia McHugh), who is a shapeshifter but is frustrated that her real physical appearance of being a 12-year-old girl has not changed, even though she is centuries old.

If only these characters were introduced in “Eternals” in a way that would be easier to keep track of them and who they are. Some of the characters’ names aren’t even spoken right away, so viewers will be left wondering, “What is this character’s name? What is this character’s story?” Unless you’re a Marvel aficionado or someone who bothered to look up these characters before watching the movie, there will be some scenes in “Eternals” where you’ll be watching a bunch of people talking with no meaningful context of what their histories are with each other.

Because there are so many Celestial characters crammed into the movie, some of them inevitably get sidelined, or their personalities not given enough time to shine. For example, Thena barely says anything of substance, which seems like a waste of the talent of Oscar-winning Jolie. Thena has some standout fight scenes, but that’s about it. For reasons that are shown in the movie (but won’t be mentioned in this review because it’s spoiler information), Ajak is not in the movie as much as the “Eternals” trailers give the impression that she is. Gilgamesh gets the least amount of screen time out of the 10 Celestial superheroes in “Eternals.”

One of the biggest flaws of “Eternals” is that all the timeline jumping makes the movie look a bit unfocused. The movie goes back and forth from the present day to different past eras and locations. There’s one time jump scene that only lasts for a couple of minutes before it’s on to the next. At the same time, many of the conversations are slow-paced. It’s an odd mix.

The purpose of the zig-zagging between eras is to show what the Celestials looked like when they worked as a team in the past, compared to the present when they’ve become scattered in different places and leading different lives. Scenes take place in present-day London, Chicago or South Dakota, while the flashback scenes are in vastly different eras and places, such as Mesopotamia in 500 B.C.; Tenochtitlan in the year 1521; or Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. (History buffs will immediately know the significance of the years and locations of these flashbacks.) For the present-day scenes, “Eternals” also has a not-so-subtle environmentalist message about climate change that factors into a pivotal part of the story.

And there’s a lot of deconstructing of macho superhero personas in “Eternals.” Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Ikaris has several scenes where he cries. He sheds tears more than any other character in the movie. Madden gives a heartfelt performance in “Eternals,” but it’s easy to predict that all this superhero crying in “Eternals” will get some mixed reactions from audiences.

And speaking of melodrama, “Eternals” has a soap-opera-like subplot of Ikaris and Sersi’s love saga. After centuries of being together (and even having a wedding ceremony in India’s Gupta Empire in 400 B.C., as seen in the movie), Ikaris broke Sersi’s heart when he abruptly left after the Celestials disbanded. In present-day London, Sersi has moved on to a new love: a human named Dane Whitman (played by Kit Harington), who is a teacher/co-worker at the Natural History Museum.

In an early scene in the movie, Dane asks Sersi why she won’t move in with him. She plays coy. Dane also tries to guess what’s so different about Sersi, based on clues and hints that he’s been getting from Sprite, the Celestial who hangs out the most with Sersi. Sersi and Sprite have almost like a older sister/younger sister relationship. Dane incorrectly guesses that Sersi is some kind of wizard. The movie shows whether or not Sersi will tell Dane about her true identity.

Meanwhile, Ikaris comes back into Sersi’s life. Can you say “love triangle”? Except, not really, because Dane is not in most of this movie. Dane’s biggest scenes are at the beginning and at the end of “Eternals.” Instead, the big romance angle in the story is all about making viewers wonder if Sersi and Ikaris will get back together as a couple. Expect to see Ikaris and Sersi give each other predictable longing glances, or their hands deliberately touch in certain scenes. The problem is that Madden and Chan don’t have much believable chemistry as former lovers who are supposed to still be hot for each other.

The only other Celestial who’s shown having a love life in “Eternals” is Phastos, who is openly gay and is married to a loving and supporting human husband named Ben (played by Haaz Sleiman), whose occupation is never mentioned in the film. Phastos (or “Phil” as he calls himself in his domesticated Earthly life) and Ben have a precocious and energetic 10-year-old son named Jack (played by Esai Daniel Cross), who is the reason why protective dad Phastos is very reluctant to go back to any Celestial duties. Ben knows about Phastos’ true identity as a Celestial. As for the much-hyped “first MCU superhero gay kiss,” it’s very tame. It’s in a scene where Ben and Phastos kiss each other goodbye, as Phastos temporarily leaves home to go with the Celestials to save the world again, as you do if you’re a superhero.

Speaking of being a superhero, “Eternals” has some confusing scenes about Celestial superpower strength. For example, in more than one scene, Celestials can be seen healing themselves and each other when they sustain serious bloody injuries in a fight. However, there’s a scene in the movie where one of the Celestials is able to knock out another Celestial unconscious with one blow from a rock to a head. You’d think that the Celestial who was hit could recover and regain consciousness quickly, based on the Celestial superpowers, but that’s not what happens.

“Eternals” has a serious tone overall, but the movie does attempt to have some comic relief, mainly through the characters of Kingo and Phastos. Sprite can be a bit of a moody brat, so her cynical attitude toward life is occasionally mined for laughs. Druig and Makkari are romantically attracted to each other and have some cute flirtatious banter. However, some of the movie’s comedy seems forced and something out of a TV sitcom.

There’s a somewhat annoying subplot about Kingo being a Bollywood star and insisting on making a “documentary” (which is actually just Kingo’s one-camera vanity project) about the Celestials’ exploits when this superhero group gets back together. Tagging along for the ride is Kingo’s valet named Karun (played by Harish Patel), who is nothing more than a buffoon character posing as a Bollywood director. “Eternals” also has lots of references to social media and pop culture that will not age well over the years.

With all that being said, “Eternals” does deliver some exciting action sequences and meaningful character development, especially in the last 50 minutes of this 157-minute movie. There are some visually stunning outdoor scenes, which have become part of Zhao’s signature style in her films. Just expect to sit through a lot of dialogue that can be dull and somewhat trite before getting to the best parts of “Eternals.” The movie’s mid-credits scene (which has the MCU debut of two buddy characters, of which one is portrayed by a former teen idol) and end-credits scene (which has Dane by himself and showing why he told Sersi earlier that his family history is “complicated”) should have viewers anticipating the next movie in the “Eternals” saga.

Marvel Studios will release “Eternals” in U.S. cinemas on November 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,’ starring Sonia Monzano, Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie, Rosie Perez, Steve Youngwood, Kay Wilson Stallings and Sherrie Westin

May 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ryan Dillon (Elmo puppeteer), Bradley Freeman Jr. (Wes Walker puppeteer) and Chris Thomas Hayes (Elijah Walker puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days”

Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Asian) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.”

Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and “Sesame Street” has endured controversy over racial diversity, AIDS and representation of the LGBTQ community.

Culture Audience: “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a comprehensive overview of “Sesame Street,” with an emphasis on how “Sesame Street” is responding to current global issues.

Stacey Gordon (Julia puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

ABC’s documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” offers some nostalgia for “Sesame Street” fans, but the movie is more concered about how this groundbreaking children’s culture has made an impact around the world and with contemporary social issues. Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz, it’s an occasionally repetitive film that admirably embraces diversity in a variety of viewpoints. The major downside to the film is that it won’t be considered a timeless “Sesame Street” documentary, because the movie very much looks like it was made in 2020/2021. Therefore, huge parts of the movie will look outdated in a few years.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” premiered on ABC just three days after director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” was released in select U.S. cinemas. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which focused mainly on “Sesame Street’s” history from 1969 to the early 1990s, interviewed people who were “Sesame Street” employees from this time period, as well as some of the family members of principal “Sesame Street” employees who are now deceased. “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a broader approach and includes the perspectives of not just past and present employees of “Sesame Street” but also several “Sesame Street” fans who are famous and not famous.

In addition, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (which was produced by Time Studios) makes a noteworthy effort to convey the global impact of “Sesame Street,” by including footage and interviews with people involved with the adapted versions of “Sesame Street” in the Middle East and in South Africa. “Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, launched in 1969 on PBS. In the U.S., first-run episodes of “Sesame Street” began airing on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020. “Sesame Street” is now available in more than 150 countries.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” quickly breezes through how “Sesame Street” was conceived and launched. There are brief mentions of “Sesame Street” co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, but this documentary does not interview them. “Street Gang” has interviews with Ganz Cooney and Morrisett, who go into details about how they were inspired to create “Sesame Street” to reach pre-school kids, particularly African American children in urban cities, who had television as an electronic babysitter.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” just like “Street Gang” did, discusses that the concept behind “Sesame Street” was to have a children’s TV show with a racially integrated cast and puppets, which were called muppets. A lot of research went into creating the show before it was even launched. The intent of “Sesame Street” was for the show to be educational and entertaining.

But the creators also wanted “Sesame Street” to include real-life topics that weren’t normally discussed on children’s television at the time. For example, when actor Will Lee, who played “Sesame Street” character Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, “Sesame Street” had an episode that discussed Mr. Hooper dying. “Sesame Street” did not lie to the audience by making up a story that Mr. Hooper had moved away or was still alive somewhere.

Time For Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco says, “Many people avoid the topics that they know are going to be lightning rods. ‘Sesame Street’ goes straight for it. And they handle each and every one of them with the amount of thoughtfulness and research and care that they require.”

David Kamp, author of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” mentions that one of the reasons for the longevity of “Sesame Street” is the show’s ability to adapt to changing times: “They’ll pivot. They’ll adjust. They’ll say, ‘We got it wrong. Now, we’re going to get it right.’ That’s one of [the show’s] great virtues.”

One of the noticeable differences seen in comparing these two “Sesame Street” documentaries is how racial diversity has improved for “Sesame Street” behind the scenes. “Street Gang,” which focused on the first few decades of “Sesame Street” shows that although the on-camera cast was racially diverse, behind the scenes it was another story: Only white people were the leaders and decision makers for “Sesame Street” in the show’s early years. Several current “Sesame Street” decision makers are interviewed in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” and it’s definitely a more racially diverse group of people, compared to who was running the show in the first two decades of “Sesame Street.”

Sonia Monzano, an original “Sesame Street” cast member (her character is Maria), says that although the show has always had a racially diverse cast, the muppets are the “Sesame Street” characters that people remember the most. “I remember my first scene with [muppet character] Grover,” Monzano comments with a chuckle. “It took me a while to be comfortable, not try to upstage them. And that’s the same with kids. You give them the platform. Get out of their way.”

As memorable as the “Sesame Street” muppets are, the human characters on the show had a particular impact on children, who saw “Sesame Street” people who reminded them of their family members or neighbors. Several celebrities who are interviewed in the documentary grew up watching “Sesame Street”—including Lucy Liu, Rosie Perez, Olivia Munn and Questlove—and they talk about the importance of seeing their lives and experiences represented on the show.

Perez comments on the show’s racial diversity: “We needed to see that, because when you’re a little girl in Brooklyn watching ‘Sesame Street,’ it’s nice to know that when you opened your door and walked down your stoop, you had the same type of people on your television.” Perez says about “Sesame Street’s” Maria character: “She was my Mary Tyler Moore,” and that until Maria came along, “Desi Arnaz Jr. was our only [Hispanic TV] role model for years.”

Racism, social justice and AIDS are some of the topics that “Sesame Street” has openly discussed over the years, sometimes to considerable controversy. But one topic was apparently too much to handle in “Sesame Street’s” first year: divorce. In “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” it’s mentioned that the original pilot episode of “Sesame Street” had a segment about muppet character Mr. Snuffleupagus dealing with his parents’ divorce. The “Sesame Street” executives did a test screening of this episode with children.

“The kids freaked out” because the idea of divorce was too upsetting for them, says Time staff writer Cady Lang. And the episode was “tossed out.” The documentary has some of this unaired Mr. Snuffleupagus “divorce” footage. In the documentary, Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer and original voice for Mr. Snuffleupagus, expresses disappointment that this decision was made to eliminate talk of divorce on the first “Sesame Street” episode, because he says it was a missed opportunity for “Sesame Street” to start off with an episode that would have been very cutting-edge at the time.

However, there would be plenty of other episodes that would rile up some people. It’s not mentioned in the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, but it’s mentioned in the “Street Gang” documentary that TV stations in Mississippi briefly wouldn’t televise “Sesame Street” in 1970, because they said people in their communities thought the show’s content was inappropriate. They denied it had to do with the show having a racially integrated cast. But considering that Mississippi was one of the last U.S. states to keep laws enforcing racial segregation, it would be naïve to think that racism wasn’t behind the “Sesame Street” ban.

The topics of racism and race relations take up a lot of screen time in this “Sesame Street” documentary, but mostly as pertaining to a contemporary audience, not the “Sesame Street” audience of past decades. Black Lives Matter protests and the racist murders of George Floyd and other African Americans have been discussed on “Sesame Street.” And there has been a concerted effort to have all races represented on “Sesame Street,” for the human cast members as well as the muppets.

Roosevelt Franklin (the first African American muppet on “Sesame Street”) was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975, and was voiced and created by Matt Robinson. The “Sesame Street” documentary briefly mentions Roosevelt Franklin, but doesn’t go into the details that “Street Gang” did over why the character was removed from the show: A lot of African American parents and educators complained that Roosevelt Franklin played too much into negative “ghetto” stereotypes. In the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, musician Questlove and TV host W. Kamau Bell mention that they have fond memories of watching Roosevelt Franklin on “Sesame Street” when they were kids.

Although most muppets aren’t really any race, some of have been created to be of a specific race or ethnicity. Some muppets look like humans, while others look like animals. For the human-looking muppets, there have been Asian, Hispanic and Native American muppets in addition to the muppets that are presented as white or black people. And the documentary also gives significant screen time to Mexican muppet Rosita, a character introduced in 1991, which is considered a role model to many, particularly to Spanish-speaking people. Carmen Osbahr, the puppeteer and voice of Rosita, is interviewed in the documentary.

The documentary features a Mexican immigrant family called the Garcias, including interviews with mother Claudia and her autistic daughter Makayla, who are the only U.S. citizens of the family members who live in the United States. The Garcias say they love watching “Sesame Street” for Rosita, because she represents so many American residents who are bilingual in Spanish and English. Claudia Garcia, who moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 12, comments in the documentary: “When I was 12, it was not cool to speak Spanish. Now, it [the ability to speak Spanish] is a super-cool thing that you have.”

Four other diverse muppet characters are the Walker Family, an African American clan that is intended to be a major presence in contemporary “Sesame Street” episodes. Elijah Walker (a meteorologist) and his underage son Wesley, also known as Wes, have already been introduced. The characters of Elijah’s wife Naomi (a social worker originally from the Caribbean) and Elijah’s mother Savannah were being developed at the time this documentary was filmed. The documentary includes concept art for Naomi and Savannah.

According to Social Impact U.S. vice president Rocío García, “The Walker Family is a new family we’re creating for the racial justice initiative [Coming Together].” Wes and Elijah are characters that are supposed to contradict the media’s constant, negative narrative that black males are problematic. “Sesame Street” producer Ashmou Young describes the Wes Walker character as “a happy, energetic, innocent child who loves reading and architecture.” Elijah is a positive, intelligent role model. And no, he does not have an arrest record.

Bradley Freeman Jr., the puppeteer for Wes Walker, says in the documentary how proud he is to be part of this character, which he knows can be a role model for all children. “I was bullied at school for being black. That’s something that can hurt you, and you don’t know how to talk about it.” In “Sesame Street,” Elijah and Wes candidly discuss race issues and what it means to be an African American.

Omar Norman and Alisa Norman, an African American married couple, are in the documentary with their two daughters and discuss how the Walker Family on “Sesame Street” means a lot to them. Elder daughter Macayla says it’s impactful when Elijah talks to Wes about racism and how being a black male means being more at risk of experiencing police brutality. Omar gets emotional and tries not to cry when he thinks about how it’s sadly necessary for these topics to be discussed on a children’s show.

All the muppet characters were designed to not only teach kids (and adults) about life but also show what the world is all about and how to cope with problems in a positive way. Chris Jackson (who’s known for his role in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton”) talks about writing the song “I Love My Hair,” which debuted on “Sesame Street” in 2010. The song was written for any girl muppet to sing, but it has special significance to black girls because of how black females are judged the harshest by what their hair looks like. Jackson says that after he wrote the song, he thought, “I think I just wrote a black girl’s superhero anthem,” which he knows means a lot to his daughter.

And if some people have a problem with “Sesame Street” supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, well, no one is forcing them to watch the show. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, comments: “Following the murder of George Floyd, the company decided to make it a company-wide goal of addressing racial injustice [on ‘Sesame Street’].” U.S. first lady Dr. Jill Biden adds, “‘Sesame Street’ is rising up to he movement and addressing what’s going on and what kids are seeing and feeling around them.”

Wilson Stallings says, “We showed diversity, we showed inclusion, we modeled it through our characters. But you can’t just show characters of different ethnicities and races getting along. That was fine before. Now what we need to do is be bold and explicit.”

Sesame Workshop CEO Steve Youngwood comments on increasing “Sesame Street’s” socially conscious content: “We realized that nothing was hitting the moment the way it needed to be. And we pivoted to address it. The curriculum we developed is going to be groundbreaking, moving forward.”

LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street” is still a touchy subject for people who have different opinions on what’s the appropriate age for kids to have discussions about various sexual identities. In 2018, former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman, who is openly gay, gave an interview saying that he always wrote muppet characters Ernie and Bert (bickering best friends who live together) as a gay couple. The revelation got mixed reactions. Frank Oz—the creator, original voice and puppeteer for Bert—made a statement on Twitter that Ernie and Bert were never gay.

Sesame Workshop responded with a statement that read: “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach pre-schoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most ‘Sesame Street’ muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation.”

In retrospect, Sesame Workshop president Sherrie Westin says: “That denial, if you will, I think was a mistake.” She also adds that people can think of Ernie and Bert having whatever sexuality (or no sexuality) that they think Ernie and Bert have. As for LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street,” Jelani Memory (author of “A Kid’s Book About Racism”) is blunt when he says: “It’s not enough.”

And it’s not just social issues that are addressed on “Sesame Street.” The show has also discussed health issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although “Sesame Street” got pushback from some politically conservative people for talking about AIDS on the show, this criticism didn’t deter “Sesame Street,” which was supported by the majority of its audience for this decision. Dr. Anthony Fauci is in the documentary praising “Sesame Street” for helping educate people on health crises.

The documentary includes a segment on the first HIV-positive muppet Kami, a character in “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version of “Sesame Street.” Kami, who is supposed to be a 5-year-old girl, was created in 2002, in reaction to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Her positive outlook on life and how she is accepted by her peers can be viewed as having an impact on people that’s hard to measure.

Marie-Louise Samuels, former director early childhood development at South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, has this to say about Kami: “It wasn’t about her getting some sympathy. It was really about how productive she is in society with the virus.” Even though Kami was well-received in South Africa, “the U.S. was not as receptive,” says Louis Henry Mitchell, creative director of character design at Sesame Workshop.

Also included is a segment on Julia, the first autistic muppet on “Sesame Street.” It’s a character that is near and dear to the heart of Julia puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who tears up and gets emotional when she describes her own real-life experiences as the mother of an autistic child. Julia is one of several muppet characters that represent people with special needs. As an autistic child of a Mexican immigrant family, Makayla Garcia says in her interview that Rosita and Julia are her favorite muppets because they represent who she is.

The documentary shows how “Sesame Street” is in Arabic culture with the TV series “Ahlan Simsim,” which translates to “Welcome Sesame” in English. The Rajubs, a real-life Syrian refugee family of eight living in Jordan, are featured in the documentary as examples of a family who find comfort in “Ahlan Simsim” even though they’re experiencing the turmoil of being refugees. David Milliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee, talks about how “Sesame Street” being a consistent presence in children’s lives can help them through the trauma.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Shari Rosenfeld, senior VP of international at Social Impact; Elijah Walker puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes; Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop; Dr. Sanjay Gupta; Peter Linz, voice of muppet character Elmo; “Sesame Street” actor Alan Muraoka; Nyanga Tshabalala, puppeteer for the mupppet character Zikwe on “Takalani Sesame”; and former “Ahlan Simsim” head writer Zaid Baqueen. Celebrity fans of “Sesame Street” who comment in the documentary include Usher, Gloria Estefan, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen and John Oliver, who says about the show: “It was my first introduction to comedy, because it was so relentlessly funny.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCR) special envoy Angelina Jolie comments that The Count (the muppet vampire who teaches counting skills) is her favorite “Sesame Street” character: “He had a wonderfully bold personality: The friendly vampire helping you learn how to count. It worked for me.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “All the things that ‘Twilight’ did for vampires, The Count did more. [The Count] made vampires cool because they could count.”

Jolie also comments on “Sesame Street’s” social awareness: “What they’re bringing is more relevant to today than ever.” The documentary includes 2021 footage of “Sesame Street” executives cheering when finding out that Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee won the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100 and Change Award, a grant that gives the recipients $100 million over a maximum of six years.

There’s also a notable segment on the music of “Sesame Street.” Stevie Wonder (who has performed “123 Sesame Street” and “Superstition” on “Sesame Street”) performs in the documentary with a new version of the “Sesame Street” classic theme “Sunny Days.” The documentary has the expected montage of many of the celebrity guests who’ve been on “Sesame Street” too.

“United Shades of America” host Bell says that being asked to be on “Sesame Street” is a “rite of passage” for “famous people at a certain point. Got to get that ‘Sesame Street’ gig! That’s when you know you really made it: When ‘Sesame Street’ calls you.”

Although there’s a lot of talk about certain “Sesame Street” muppets, the documentary doesn’t give enough recognition to the early “Sesame Street” muppet pioneers who created iconic characters. The documentary briefly mentions Jim Henson (the creator and original voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie), but Frank Oz (the creator and original voice of Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert) isn’t even mentioned at all.

Big Bird is seen but not much is said about Caroll Spinney, who was the man in the Big Bird costume from 1969 to 2018, and who was the creator and original voice of the Oscar the Grouch muppet. Spinney died in 2019, at the age of 85. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the documentary.

The movie doesn’t mention the 2012 scandal of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash resigning from “Sesame Street” after three men accused him of sexually abusing them when the men were underage teenagers. The three lawsuits against Clash with these accusations were dismissed in 2014. Clash had been the puppeteer and voice of Elmo since 1984.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to bite off a little more than it should chew when it starts veering into discussions about United Nations initiatives and how they relate to “Sesame Street.” There’s no denying the global impact of “Sesame Street,” but “Sesame Street” is a children’s show, not a political science show about international relations. And some viewers might be turned off by all the talk about social justice content on “Sesame Street.”

The documentary could have used more insight into the actual process of creating these memorable muppets. Except for some brief footage in a puppet-creating workspace, that artistic aspect of “Sesame Street” is left out of the documentary. Despite some flaws and omissions, the documentary is worth watching for people who want a snapshot of what’s important to “Sesame Street” in the early 2020s. Whereas “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is very much about the show’s past, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to give viewers a glimpse into the show’s future.

ABC premiered “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” on April 26, 2021. Hulu premiered the documentary on April 27, 2021.

Review: ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead,’ starring Angelina Jolie

May 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Finn Little and Angelina Jolie in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (Photo by Emerson Miller/New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Those Who Wish Me Dead”

Directed by Taylor Sheridan

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains area and briefly in Florida, the dramatic film “Those Who Wish Me Dead” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A daredevil smokejumper unexpectedly finds herself trying to protect a 12-year-old boy who is being targeted by assassins. 

Culture Audience: “Those Who Wish Me Dead” will appeal primarily to people interested in formulaic but suspenseful thrillers.

Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (Photo by Emerson Miller/New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a life-or-death chase thriller that brings plenty of predictability, but there’s more than enough suspense and credible acting to make up for some of the far-fetched and formulaic aspects of the film. It’s entertainment that doesn’t demand a lot of intellectual analysis—but that’s a big part of the movie’s appeal. It’s not pretentious and it’s exactly the type of movie that you think it is.

Directed by Taylor Sheridan, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is based on Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel of the same name. Sheridan, Koryta and Charles Leavitt co-wrote the movie’s screenplay, which doesn’t waste a lot of time before the story’s mayhem starts. The movie isn’t cluttered with too many characters, so viewers will find it easy to understand what’s happening.

In “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” Angelina Jolie depicts a smokejumper named Hannah, who lives and works in Montana’s remote Beartooth Mountains area, in Park County. She’s in a very male-dominated job and doesn’t want to be just like “one of the guys”—she wants to outdo all of the guys. And when they joke around with each other, she’s more than up for their raunchy humor.

The beginning of the movie shows that Hannah is quite the daredevil. She parachutes from the back of a moving truck. And she’s quickly arrested for it by Park County’s sheriff deputy Ethan (played by Jon Bernthal), who happens to be an ex-boyfriend of Hannah’s. Her parachute stunt is a misdemeanor, so Hannah is able to easily bail herself out of jail.

Ethan is happily married to Allison (played by Medina Senghore), who is six months pregnant with their first child. Allison, with Ethan’s help, used to run the Soda Butte Survival School for people who want to learn how to survive in the wilderness. Ethan and Allison are going to need a lot of survival skills later in the movie.

Hannah (who is not married, has no children and lives alone) gives the appearance of being a carefree daredevil. But underneath, she’s in a lot of emotional pain. She’s traumatized by a fire that happened in the previous year. During this fire, she and her co-workers could not save three boys from a fiery death because the fire was too intense.

Hannah still has nightmares of witnessing the children die. And it’s implied that she has post-traumatic stress disorder because of this tragedy. Hannah lives and works in a house-like observation center that’s built on a high tower that allows her to look out for smoke from far-away, elevated places.

Meanwhile, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, two men show up at the front door of the home of a district attorney named Thomas, whose wife Maggie (played by Laura Niemi) answers the door. One man (who’s wearing a business suit) is in his early 50s and identifies himself as working with the fire department. The other man (dressed in a utilties company uniform) is in his 30s and is identified as working with Florida Gas.

The men don’t say their first names, but tell Maggie that they are investigating a computer alert of a gas leak in the house. They ask if her husband is there, and Maggie says yes, but he’s in the shower. And then the two men ask if they can come inside to inspect the house for a possible gas leak. Maggie (who should know better, since she’s married to a district attorney) lets the men in the house.

This is the part of the movie where people who watch a lot of true crime shows might be yelling at the screen, because not only did these men not even say what their names were, they also didn’t show any identification. What people are supposed to do in this situation is not let any strangers in the house and call the gas company to verify that employees were sent to check on a gas leak. It’s also suspicious that someone from the fire department would be there too when there’s no smoke or fire.

Of course, these two men aren’t who they say they are. When they leave the house, they talk about trying to make it on time for their scheduled car trip to Jacksonville, Florida, to do what they need to do next. As they drive away, the district attorney’s house explodes, killing everyone inside.

Who are these two cold-blooded murderers? Their names are Jack (played Aidan Gillen) and his younger subordinate Patrick (played by Nicholas Hoult), who are hired assassins. Jack is the more calculating and more intelligent person in this deadly duo. And their next mission is to kill someone who’s a key witness in a case being prosecuted by the district attorney who was just murdered.

Their target in Jacksonville is a forensic accountant named Owen (played by Jake Weber), a widower who lives with his inquisitive and bright son Connor (played by Finn Little) in a quiet neighborhood. Owen’s wife/Connor’s mother died of cancer three years prior to this story. Owen and Connor are having breakfast in their kitchen when Owen sees a TV news report about the house explosion that killed the district attorney and his family. Owen looks panic-stricken because he seems to know that he could be the next target.

While driving Connor to school, Owen suddenly decides to speed away because he fears that something could happen to Owen if he leaves him at the school. During this tension-filled escape, Owen quickly tells Connor that they are in danger and it’s because Owen found out something in his job that could get “a lot of people, like governors and congressmen” in trouble. “We can only trust the people we know.” Owen adds.

Connor is shocked, but he has no choice but to go with his father when they go on the run. While they stay at a motel, Owen writes down the secrets that are the reasons why Owen is on a hit list. What Owen writes down takes up two pieces of notepad-sized paper, which he then gives to Connor for safekeeping.

Owen tells Connor not to read what’s on the paper. He also cautions Connor by saying that if Owen is no longer able to take care of Connor, then Connor needs to give these secrets to someone who is completely trustworthy. Owen is contemplating going to the media with his secrets and says that Connor should give the secrets to the media if necessary.

In the meantime, Owen plans to hide out in Montana with Ethan, who happens to be the brother of Owen’s late wife. And so, Owen and Connor go on a road trip to Montana. Hiding out with a relative is one of the most obvious things to do, but there’s no telling how well people can think logically when they’re in panic mode.

Not surprisingly, Jack and Patrick show up at Owen’s house, only to find it completely deserted. Jack is able to hack into Owen’s computer and finds out that Owen has recently withdrawn $10,000 from Owen’s bank accounts, indicating that Owen has taken the cash to go into hiding. Jack and Patrick look around the house for clues and see a photo of Owen, Connor, Ethan and Allison, posed right next to a big sign that reads “Soda Butte Survival School.” Guess who’s going to Montana?

Jack and Patrick go to Montana and manage to find Owen and Connor. Owen ends up dead (how he’s killed won’t be revealed in this review), and Connor escapes into the woods, where he eventually meets Hannah and tells her that he’s hiding from assassins. This plot development isn’t spoiler information, because the majority of the movie is about how Connor and Hannah try to elude these killers in the middle of a forest fire.

Yes, it’s not just a chase movie but it’s also a forest fire movie. How the fire started is also shown in the movie. It’s enough to say that the fire didn’t start from the electrical storm that happens during part of the story. Viewers can easily predict, even before it’s shown, who’s responsible for the forest fire.

At first, Connor is very wary of Hannah. He even punches her when she tries to help him after she first sees Connor running by himself in an open field. But eventually, Connor trusts Hannah and tells her what happened to him and his father. And when Connor gives Hannah the paper with Owen’s secrets, Hannah fully understands why Connor is in grave danger.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a taut thriller that keeps things simple, which is both an asset and liability to the film. On the one hand, the plot is very uncomplicated, and that helps the movie, because there are too many thrillers that try to be too complex for their own good. On the other hand, whatever Owen’s secrets are, a vast conspiracy is involved, so it seems a little far-fetched that only two assassins are in this story.

However, the movie has a brief explanation for having only two killers tasked with killing the witnesses and their family members. Jack even gripes about being “understaffed” in certain scenes in the film. He thinks it would have been better if a second group of assassins had been in Jacksonville to kill Owen around the same time that Jack and Patrick set off the bomb that killed the district attorney in Fort Lauderdale. A drive from Fort Lauderdale to Jacksonville takes nearly five hours. Jack believes that would be enough time for Owen to hear about the district attorney’s murder and flee. And that’s exactly what happened.

Tyler Perry has a brief scene in the movie as a man named Arthur, who meets with Jack and Patrick after Owen is murdered. Arthur isn’t pleased at all that Connor escaped. And when Jack complains that maybe more people should’ve been hired for this assassin assignment, Arthur scolds Jack and Patrick for being incompetent. The movie never explains who Arthur is, so it’s left up to interpretation if he’s one of the corrupt politicians trying to cover up this big scandal or if he’s someone who was hired as a “fixer” or some type of middle man.

One thing is clear: Whoever hired these assassins thought that keeping the number of people hired to a bare minimum would make things less complicated. Less people would need to be paid, and having more people involved poses a greater risk of someone in the group snitching or being careless. In other words, Jack and Patrick have no cronies to back them up when they try to track down Connor to kill him.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” keeps an adrenaline-like pace throughout the movie. And the movie admirably shows that Hannah isn’t the only hero of the story, because Allison and Ethan have big moments too. However, character development in this movie takes a back seat to the action, since viewers will still know very little about Allison and Ethan by the end of the film.

Where the movie falters most is with the added storyline of the forest fire. There are some scenes where characters are able to outrun avalanche-sized flames or avoid deadly smoke inhalation in very absurd ways. One of the characters also catches on fire but unrealistically is able to walk around just minutes later with no visible bodily injuries except a big facial burn and clothes that look barely singed. In reality, someone who caught on fire that badly wouldn’t be able to move their arms and legs easily because of the severe burns. The person was not wearing a fire-proof outfit either.

The movie’s visual effects are adequate and definitely won’t be nominated for any major awards. What will keep people interested in “Those That Wish Me Dead” are the many suspenseful moments and how the talented cast members are able bring authenticity to characters that aren’t necessarily written to show a lot of depth because they’re fighting for their lives for most of the movie. Jolie and Bernthal have done many other action-oriented films before, so there’s a familiarity to what they do in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” that’s satisfying but not groundbreaking. Sometimes a movie delivers exactly what viewers expect it to deliver—and that’s enough to be entertaining.

New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures released “Those Who Wish Me Dead” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on May 14, 2021.

Harvey Weinstein scandal: Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Kate Winslet and more celebrities speak out against sexual harassment

October 10, 2017

by Colleen McGregor

Harvey Weinstein at The Weinstein Company party in celebration of “Wind River” at Nikki Beach in Cannes, Frances, on May 20, 2017. (Photo by Dave Benett)

Meryl Streep, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Mira Sorvino and Judi Dench—five actresses who have won Oscars for their roles in movies distributed by Harvey Weinstein-founded The Weinstein Company (TWC)  and Miramax Films—have joined the growing list of celebrities who are speaking out against the sexual harassment and sexual assault that TWC co-founder Weinstein is accused of committing for more than 30 years.

Streep has publicly praised Weinstein over the years, but on October 9, 2017, she issued a statement saying, in part: “The disgraceful news about Harvey Weinstein has appalled those of us whose work he championed, and those whose good and worthy causes he supported. The intrepid women who raised their voices to expose this abuse are our heroes.  One thing can be clarified. Not everybody knew … Each brave voice that is raised, heard and credited by our watchdog media will ultimately change the game.” Other stars—such as Glenn Close, Lena Dunham, Judd Apatow and Mark Ruffalo—have also made public statements condemning Weinstein. (Click here to read many of their statements.)

On October 7, 2017, Weinstein issued an apology that read, in part: “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it.” He also said he was in therapy for his admitted anger issues and “demons.” Through his representatives, Weinstein has denied the most serious allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

Weinstein was fired from TWC on October 8, 2017—three days after a New York Times article gave detailed accounts of these accusations, which included allegations made by actresses Ashley Judd and Rose McGowan that Weinstein sexually harassed them in the 1990s. The New York Times investigation reported that over the past several years, Weinstein had least eight sexual-harassment cases against him that were settled out of court; the most recently known case was in 2015.

Allegations published by the New York Times and the New Yorker on October 10, 2017,  give first-hand accounts by numerous women with various jobs in the entertainment industry (including assistants, producers, executives and actresses) who talk about being the targets of sexual misconduct by Weinstein. Angelina Jolie, Paltrow, Sorvino and Rosanna Arquette are among the other actresses who claim that they have been sexually harassed by Weinstein early in the actresses’ careers. Meanwhile, actress/filmmaker Asia Argento told the New Yorker that Weinstein raped her in 1997, and she felt pressured to have other sexual encounters with him over the next five years.

According to the reports, Weinstein’s main tactic would be to lure a woman to be alone with him in a hotel room or other private area, with Weinstein leading the woman to believe that it was a business meeting to help her career. The allegations often included salacious details such as Weinstein getting naked and asking the woman he was alone with to give him a nude massage, watch him take a shower and/or have sex with him. In some cases, Weinstein would allegedly masturbate in front of the woman or force the woman to touch his penis.

Lucia Evans, a former aspiring actress, told the New Yorker of a disturbing encounter with Weinstein in which she claims he forced her to perform oral sex on him during what she thought would be a business meeting with him in 2004.

Weinstein, who is 65, has been married to fashion mogul Georgina Chapman (co-founder of the Marchesa brand) since 2007, but she announced on October 10, 2017, that they have separated. Weinstein was married to his first wife, Eve Chilton, from 1987 to 2004. His has three daughters with Chilton: Remy (previously Lily), born  in 1995; Emma, born 1998; and Ruth, born in 2002. Weinstein has two children with Chapman: daughter India Pearl (born in 2010) and son Dashiell (born in 2013).

In 2015, Weinstein was investigated by the New York Police Department for groping actress Ambra Battilana Gutierrez during a private business meeting at TWC headquarters in New York City, but the Manhattan District Attorney declined to file charges. On October 10, 2017, New Yorker released a NYPD sting audio tape made at a hotel a few days after the incident that has Weinstein admitting to groping her breast and trying to convince Gutierrez to come into his hotel room.

Weinstein was a major donor to several progressive causes and Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Since the scandal broke, Obama and Clinton have issued statements condemning Weinstein. Some of the politicians, such as Senators Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, have stated that they would take the amount of money that Weinstein donated to them and give it to charitable causes.

Over the years, Weinstein  earned a reputation for being a vengeful bully to many people in the industry, but he earned just as much praise and admiration from those who benefited from his help. He was considered one of the movie industry’s most powerful campaigners for prestigious awards. TWC’s Oscar-winning movies include “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist.” Streep won an Oscar for her role as Margaret Thatcher in TWC’s “The Iron Lady,” while Winslet won an Oscar for TWC’s “The Reader.” Among the other celebrities who have won Oscars for TWC films include Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”),  Penélope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), Quentin Tarantino (“Django Unchained”), Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) and Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained”).

Weinstein co-founded TWC in 2005 with his brother Bob Weinstein. The Weinstein brothers co-founded Miramax Films in 1979, and headed the company until 2005. Miramax, which was bought by Disney in 1993, is the movie studio behind such Oscar-winning films as “Shakespeare in Love” and “Chicago.” Paltrow and Dench won Oscars for “Shakespeare in Love,” while Sorvino won an Oscar for Miramax’s “Mighty Aphrodite.”

In recent years, TWC’s power has been waning. The company, which also has departments for television and books, has not had a big movie hit since 2012’s “Django Unchained.” And although 2016’s “Lion” received six Oscar nominations, the movie did not win any Oscars.

Angelina Jolie signs spokesmodel deal with Guerlain

January 23, 2017

Angelina Jolie
Angelina Jolie (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Guerlain Parfumeur has signed a spokesmodel deal with Oscar-winning actress and humanitarian Angelina Jolie for a new women’s fragrance whose name is to be announced.  According to a Guerlain press release, Jacques Guerlain “drew his inspiration from Angelina Jolie to create a fragrance expressing the idea of the ‘notes of a woman’: the choices, emotions and dreams that embody modern femininity.

“The partnership between Angelina and Guerlain was agreed in Cambodia in December 2015, where she was directing her film ‘First They Killed My Father. ‘ It has its roots, however, in Angelina’s childhood memory of her own mother’s love of a Guerlain powder. Jolie has donated her entire salary from the Guerlain campaign to charity.”

Jolie, who began her career in the entertainment industry as a model, has previously been a spokesmodel for Armani and Shiseido.

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