Review: ‘Hocus Pocus 2,’ starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy

September 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker in “Hocus Pocus 2” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Hocus Pocus 2”

Directed by Anne Fletcher

Culture Representation: Taking place in Salem, Massachusetts, the fantasy comedy film “Hocus Pocus 2” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In this sequel to “Hocus Pocus,” the Sanderson witch sisters return to wreak more havoc on Salem. 

Culture Audience: “Hocus Pocus 2” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s main stars and the original 1993 “Hocus Pocus” movie, but fans should keep their expectations low, since “Hocus Pocus 2” delivers a very forgettable and middling story.

Belissa Escobedo, Whitney Peak and Lilia Buckingham in “Hocus Pocus 2” (Photo courtesy of Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The magic of a classic film is missing from “Hocus Pocus 2,” which lacks much of the charm and adventure of 1993’s “Hocus Pocus” movie. The chase scenes are tepid, the performances are inferior to the original movie, and the witches show no real danger to the kids. “Hocus Pocus 2” plays out like a lazily conceived TV special (including annoying sitcom-ish music) instead of a cinematic event, which is why “Hocus Pocus 2” was released directly to Disney+ instead of movie theaters first.

Directed by Anne Fletcher, “Hocus Pocus 2” suffers from sequel-itis: when a sequel doesn’t do anything to improve on the original project. Because it took 29 years to release a sequel to “Hocus Pocus,” this sequel-itis problem is harder to forgive for “Hocus Pocus 2,” because there’s been plenty of time to come up with better ideas for a follow-up to “Hocus Pocus.” The more experienced cast members of “Hocus Pocus 2” perform better than the less-experienced cast members, but that’s not saying much when the movie’s unimaginative screenplay from Jen D’Angelo drags the movie down a lackluster and frequently boring path.

The original “Hocus Pocus” movie is not a great film, but it gained a cult following and has since become a Halloween classic for a lot of people, just like 1983’s “A Christmas Story” (another mediocre movie) gained a cult following and became a beloved Christmas film for a lot of movie viewers. The story in “Hocus Pocus 2” gets distracted by a lot of teen angst about who is and who isn’t in certain cliques in high school. “Hocus Pocus 2” has too many filler scenes that make it look like about 40 minutes of this 103-minute film could have been removed, and this editing wouldn’t have made a difference at all to the movie’s underwhelming conclusion.

In the first “Hocus Pocus” movie (which was set in 1993), 15-year-old Max Dennison (played by Omri Katz) and his 8-year-old sister Dani Dennison (played by Thora Birch) have recently moved with their parents from Los Angeles to Salem, Massachusetts. Max and Dani hear about the Salem legend of three witch sisters—Winifred Sanderson (played by Bette Midler), Mary Sanderson (played by Kathy Najimy) and Sarah Sanderson (played by Sarah Jessica Parker)—who were known for eating children and were hanged to death by Salem residents in 1693. Ever since, Salem has been under threat of the possibility that the spirits of the Sanderson witches could return to get revenge and to kill more children.

Winifred, the eldest Sanderson sister, is bossy and mean-spirited. Mary, the middle sister, is nervous and eager to please “alpha witch” Winifred. Sarah, the youngest sister, is ditzy and very flirtatious. As legend has it, Winifred poisoned to death a man named William “Billy” Butcherson (played by Doug Jones) in 1693, because Billy was caught kissing Sarah, even though Winifred claimed Billy was her boyfriend. In “Hocus Pocus,” the Billy character was resurrected from his grave as a zombie.

The only way that the Sanderson sisters can come back to life is on Halloween, during a night with a full moon, and if someone lights a special black candle and chants a certain spell. The Sanderson sisters have a big book of spells called the Manual of Witchcraft and Alchemy that is actually “alive” (the book has one eye that can open and shut), and the sisters want to get possession of this book when they are resurrected. However, these witch sisters can be stopped when the sun comes up before they can cast the ultimate spells that they want to cast.

In “Hocus Pocus,” a skeptical Max, who doesn’t believe in magic, accidentally brings back to life the Sanderson sister witches, who then kidnap Dani. Max teams up with a classmate (and his secret crush) named Allison Watts (played by Vinessa Shaw) to try to rescue Dani. “Hocus Pocus” is very predictable, but it has plenty of amusing and adventurous moments.

In “Hocus Pocus 2” (which takes place in Salem in 2022), the witches are brought back to life on purpose by two best friends named Becca (played by Whitney Peak) and Izzy (played by Belissa Escobedo), who conjure up the Sanderson Sisters on a moonlit Halloween night that happens to be Becca’s 16th birthday. There’s also an adult character who wants the witches to be brought back to Salem. This conjuring scene doesn’t happen until about 30 minutes into the movie.

Instead, “Hocus Pocus 2” begins with tedious flashback scenes showing the Sanderson sisters as girls who are about 11 or 12 years old, sometime in the late 1600s. Taylor Henderson has the role of Young Winifred, Nina Kitchen performs as Young Mary, and Juju Journey Brener is the character of Young Sarah. None of this backstory amusing, interesting or well-acted.

The only real purpose of this drawn-out flashback is to show that the Sanderson sisters’ main nemesis back then was a judgmental pastor named Reverend Traske (played by Tony Hale), who has told Winifred that she’s getting old and has arranged for her to marry a young man named John Pritchett (played by Thomas Fitzgerald). The movie makes a point of showing that back in the 1600s, when human beings’ life expectancies were much shorter than they are now, pre-teen girls could get married and had marriages arranged for them by elders in the community.

However, Winifred doesn’t want to marry John, because she has her sights set on young Billy (played by Austin J. Ryan) to be her future husband. Winifred also defies and insults Reverend Traske by taking the Lord’s name in vain. With a crowd of Salem residents gathered in the town square, Reverend Traske shames Winifred and banishes her from Salem. (No one mentions where the sisters’ parents are during all this brouhaha.)

During this public shaming, Winifred has secretly put a live spider on the reverend’s arm. When he sees the spider, Reverend Traske panics and causes an uproar. Amid the chaos, the Sanderson sisters run into the woods nearby to hide. While in these woods, the sisters encounter the Witch Mother (played by Hannah Waddingham), who gives them the Manual of Witchcraft and Alchemy. The Sanderson sisters use the Spell of Smoke and Flame to set fire to Reverend Traske’s house as revenge. (No one is killed in this arson.)

“One day, Salem will belong to us!” Winifred vows when stating what will be the Sanderson sisters’ main mission. Winifred is the most vengeful and angriest of the three sisters. “Hocus Pocus 2” later has flashbacks of the Sanderson sisters as older teenagers, with Skyla Sousa as Winifred, Aiden Torres as Mary, and Emma Kaufman as Sarah.

It turns out that Reverend Traske was an ancestor of Salem’s current Mayor Traske (also played by Hale), who is campaigning for re-election in one of the movie’s useless subplots. Hale does his usual schtick of playing a neurotic character who is socially awkward but puts up a front of false confidence. Mayor Traske has a teenage daughter named Cassie (played by Lilia Buckingham), who attends Samuel Skelton High School in Salem. Becca and Izzy are two Cassie’s classmates.

Cassie, Becca and Izzy used to be a trio of best friends, until Cassie started avoiding Becca and Izzy and began spending more time with her athlete boyfriend Mike (played by Froy Gutierrez), a fellow classmate who is shallow and not smart. Mike has a particular dislike of Becca and Izzy, because he thinks these two pals have a weird interest in magic and the supernatural. He publicly teases Becca and Izzy about being witches.

Cassie is a passive girlfriend who goes along with whatever what Mike wants. Becca and Izzy feel confused and betrayed over why Cassie has seemingly turned against them, just so Cassie can fit in with Mike and his popular friends. Is this a “Hocus Pocus” movie or a run-of-the-mill teen soap opera? The movie takes way too much time with this subplot about teenage cliques when it should have focused more on how menacing the witches are to children.

“Hocus Pocus 2” further muddles the plot with a goofy character who calls himself Gilbert the Great (played by Sam Richardson), a magic enthusiast who owns and operates Olde Salem Magic Shoppe. Gilbert has a black cat named Cobweb, who’s cute and lives at the shop, but the cat doesn’t talk like the black cat did in “Hocus Pocus.” (The reason why the black cat talked in “Hocus Pocus” is explained in the beginning of the movie.)

On Halloween, Gilbert tells a group of assembled kids at his shop that the Sanderson sisters were “the most powerful coven who ever lived.” In other words, Gilbert is a superfan of the Sanderson sisters. And to prove how much of a fan he is, Gilbert has the Manual of Witchcraft and Alchemy proudly on display in a locked case in his shop. Guess who’s going to want to bring back the Sanderson sisters too?

Of course, there would be no “Hocus Pocus 2” if the Sanderson sisters didn’t get revived again. They make their entrance by performing “The Witches Are Back,” to the music of Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back,” but with different lyrics. At least “Hocus Pocus 2” had the sense to continue to use the singing talent of Midler in a scene that will delight fans of campy entertainment.

However, “Hocus Pocus 2” continually mishandles the depictions of why these three witches are supposed to be so dangerous. In “Hocus Pocus,” the Sanderson sisters are constantly craving children to eat. These sister witches, who have extraordinary senses that can detect the presence of children, often use these supersenses to try to hunt down children.

In “Hocus Pocus 2,” the Sanderson witches encounter children, but the witches don’t have the same air of intimidation and make very little attempt to capture any children that are in their way, like the same witches did in the first “Hocus Pocus” movie. Instead, “Hocus Pocus 2” has a silly sequence where Becca and Izzy pretend to be fans of the Sanderson sisters and lure the witches into a Walgreens store to get beauty products, in an attempt to appeal to the witches’ vanity. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

The witches are flabbergasted and fascinated by the Walgreens store’s sliding glass doors (apparently, the witches never knew sliding glass doors existed in 1993), which is one of the many not-very-funny gags in the movie. When the witches look for tools for riding in the air, Winifred finds a broom at Walgreens. Apparently, it’s the only broom in the store, because Sarah has to make do with a Swiffer WetJet, while Mary uses glowing hover rings.

The Walgreens sequence and other scenes in “Hocus Pocus 2” are just blatant excuses for product/brand placement. The movie also throws in a shameless and rather pointless mention of ABC’s “Good Morning America.” (ABC is owned by Disney, the company behind the “Hocus Pocus” movies.)

Meanwhile, the Sanderson sisters have time to show up on stage during Salem’s annual Halloween carnival to perform their version of Blondie’s “One Way or Another.” Billy the zombie returns in “Hocus Pocus 2” with his own agenda: He wants to clear his name, because he says he never cheated on Winifred, since he says that he was never Winifred’s boyfriend. Mayor Traske also has some of his own unresolved love-life issues from his past: He’s pining over a woman named Sandy, who founded a candy store in Salem called Sandy’s Candy Cauldron, and she’s coming back to Salem to re-open the store.

If this “Hocus Pocus 2” plot sounds very scatter-brained and unadventurous, that’s because it is. Midler, Najimy and Parker are obviously having fun, hamming it up in their roles, but the Sanderson Sisters act more like wannabe cabaret singers in “Hocus Pocus 2” than real witches who are hungry to hunt for children. When the witches finally capture a child (it’s the most obvious person possible, considering the sisters’ feud from the past), this kidnapping arrives so late in the movie, the stakes aren’t as high as they were in “Hocus Pocus.” The visual effects in “Hocus Pocus 2” are mediocre.

The Sanderson sisters are supposed to be over-the-top and ridiculous. In that respect, cast members Midler, Najimy and Parker deliver what they’re expected to deliver in “Hocus Pocus 2,” despite the substandard screenplay. However, the movie’s younger cast members don’t do anything special with their performances in “Hocus Pocus 2,” like Birch did in her scene-stealing performance in “Hocus Pocus.”

Fletcher’s direction of “Hocus Pocus 2” is just too unfocused and unremarkable to make “Hocus Pocus 2” shine in an outstanding way. The movie overall is unable to overcome the “Hocus Pocus 2” screenplay’s many flaws. Simply put: “Hocus Pocus 2” might be satisfactory enough for people with low expectations. But for people who expect better from a sequel that has been talked about for years and took 29 years to get released, “Hocus Pocus 2” will not be casting any enchanting spells.

Disney+ will premiere “Hocus Pocus 2” on September 30, 2022.

Review: ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stühlbarg and Rachel McAdams

May 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Xochitl Gomez, Benedict Wong and Benedict Cumberbatch in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

Directed by Sam Raimi

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and various parts of a multiverse, the superhero action film “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Superhero sorcerer Doctor Strange, also known as surgeon Stephen Strange, goes on a quest to save teenager America Chavez, who has a special superpower that a villain wants to steal. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of comic book movie fans, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen and the Disney+ superhero series “WandaVision.”

Elizabeth Olsen in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has now become the world’s first cinematic franchise where you need encyclopedia knowledge of certain comic books to know what’s going on and to fully enjoy the movies and TV shows in the franchise. There are many MCU fans who’ve invested years of watching every Marvel movie and every Marvel TV show that comes along. And that investment has its rewards in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

But what about people who aren’t die-hard Marvel fans and just want to see a good superhero movie? Simply put: “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is a convoluted but entertaining experience that should not be a viewer’s first MCU movie. It’s a movie that can be considered the tipping point where at least one Marvel show on Disney+ is essential viewing to understand the entire film.

For “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” that essential Marvel show is “WandaVision.” It also helps, but it’s not crucial, to watch the Disney+ animated series “What If…?,” which explored alternate storylines for Marvel characters. If you don’t want to watch any of these Marvel shows, then “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has this message for you: “Too bad, because you will be left behind, and you will feel ignorant about storylines and nuances in any upcoming MCU movies.”

Viewers also need to see (or at least know what happened in) the following movies to fully appreciate “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and its complex plot: 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” If you don’t know about the supervillain Thanos or the five-year “disappearance” that he caused, some of the dialogue in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will not make sense to you. Viewers who have no prior knowledge of any Marvel movie will just be hopelessly lost and will just have to try to enjoy “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” for the movie’s high-energy action scenes and compelling visual effects.

The movie’s screenplay, written by Michael Waldron, keeps transporting characters from Multiverse scene to Multiverse scene with such dizzying regularity, the best way to know these characters is by seeing them in previous MCU stories. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is just like very eye-catching and detailed icing on a cake. It will appeal to many people but be completely unnecessary to others.

Sam Raimi—a filmmaker known for helming the first three “Spider-Man” movies and horror classics such as the first two “Evil Dead” films—directed “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” as someone who is clearly an ardent fan of the MCU. But he also directed “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” as an ardent fan who expects everyone watching to be all caught up in almost everything related to Marvel on screen prior to the release of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” And that includes some of the Marvel movies released by the studio formerly known as 20th Century Fox, because some characters from those movies make cameos in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

Here are the basic things that people need to know before watching “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”: New York City-based superhero sorcerer Doctor Strange, also known as brilliant surgeon Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), is going on another “good versus evil” quest. Fights and chase scenes ensue. And the “Multiverse” in the MCU is really just another word for “different versions of comic book characters existing in different universes.” After the blockbuster success of 2021’s “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which had three different versions of Spider-Man interacting with each other in the same movie, there’s no point in being coy about what “multiverse” means if it’s part of a Marvel story.

However, there’s a reason why spoiler-free descriptions of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” are so vague: The movie is filled with more spoilers than a typical superhero film. And those spoilers include describing which characters encounter different versions of themselves in the Multiverse. It should come as no surprise that viewers can expect to see more than one version of Doctor Strange, whose rescue mission in the movie is to save superhero newcomer America Chavez (played by Xochitl Gomez), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, from being robbed of her extremely rare superpower.

What is her superpower? She can travel through the Multiverse with ease. But in this movie, she doesn’t know how to control the power. All she knows is that she can exert this power in moments when she feels extreme fear. America doesn’t know yet that she’s a superhero, so “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” can be considered the introduction to her discovering her superhero identity. One of the things that America knows about herself is that she has not found other versions of herself in the Multiverse.

The movie also has a brief flashback to America, when she was about 7 or 8 years old (played by Aliyah Camacho), being separated from her two lesbian mothers—Elena Chavez (played by Ruth Livier) and Amalia Chavez (played by Chess Lopez)—who were involuntarily yanked into a portal that took the mothers into another universe. Ever since then, America has been looking for her mothers, and she fears that her mothers might be dead.

America feels a lot of guilt because she caused that portal to appear after she became frightened by a bee, not knowing that her parents would be taken away from her. In the Marvel comic books, America is openly a lesbian, but her sexuality is not mentioned in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” She’s too busy running around trying not to get killed to think about dating or having a love interest.

And who exactly is targeting America for her Multiverse superpower? It’s Wanda Maximoff, also known as Scarlet Witch (played by Elizabeth Olsen), a character who is a hero or a villain, depending on which version of this character is in the scene. And because this movie is all about the Multiverse, the Wanda/Scarlet Witch character can sometimes be a hero and a villain in the same scene.

In “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” Wanda is a single mother to fraternal twin boys Billy (played by Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (played by Jett Klyne), who are about 8 or 9 years old. Billy and Tommy have superpowers in “WandaVision” that might or might not be on display in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Wanda’s motherhood is crucial to her motivations in almost everything she does in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Her motherhood is used as a way for her to manipulate people and how she is manipulated herself.

Viewers who last saw Wanda in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” without knowing what happened in “WandaVision” might be utterly confused over when she became a mother. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” explains (in a “WandaVision” spoiler alert) that Wanda/Scarlet Witch used her magical powers to create these children. She quips in response: “That’s what every mother does.” Doctor Strange scolds Wanda/Scarlet Witch for using her magic to mess with reality, which is completely ironic and hypocritical considering what he does later in the movie.

What “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t explain adequately is why Wanda created these children. The twins were raised by Wanda and her superhero love partner Vision (played by Paul Bettany) up until a certain point in “WandaVision.” People who know what happened in “WandaVision” also know what happened to Vision, which is not explained in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” What happened in “WandaVision” helps people understand why Wanda, as the Scarlet Witch, has turned to the “dark side,” which in this universe is called the Darkhold, an ancient book of spells.

Don’t expect this movie to have any meaningful “WandaVision” flashbacks to further reveal Wanda’s family situation in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” but her family motivations are supposed to make her look more sympathetic in doing the things that she does in the movie. It also gives her character more emotional depth to viewers who know her family history, compared to viewers who don’t know. It’s all part of a cross-marketing plan for Disney-owned Marvel Studios to get people to subscribe to Disney+ to watch the Marvel shows on Disney+ so that viewers can fully understand Marvel movies. It’s also called creating viewer FOMO (“fear of missing out”) to full effect.

Certain characters from 2016’s “Doctor Strange” make their return in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Stephen’s ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (played by Rachel McAdams), a surgeon who worked with him at the same hospital, gets married to a man named Charlie (played by Ako Mitchell), who is a fan of Doctor Strange. Stephen is invited to the wedding, where he privately tells Christine that he regrets not trying harder for them to stay together. (They broke up because he’s a workaholic and because all those superhero duties got in the way.)

Christine responds, “Stephen, it was never going to work out between us. Because you were always going to be the one holding the knife. I could respect you for it, but I could never love you for it.” And there are more heartbroken and emotionally wounded moments for Stephen/Doctor Strange in the movie, with some of those moments involving Christine.

Doctor Strange’s loyal superhero colleague Wong (played by Benedict Wong) also makes his return. Wong is now the Sorcerer Supreme, who oversees sorcerer training in Kamar-Taj, which is located in another dimension. Doctor Strange and Wong fight side by side in some scenes, but there’s a stretch of the movie where Doctor Strange and Wong are not in the same universe and have to fight separate battles. There’s no story arc for steadfast and dependable Wong in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which is a missed opportunity, because Wong deserves to have more character development in the MCU.

Also returning is Karl Mordo (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), who became an enemy of Doctor Strange in the first “Doctor Strange” movie, but Mordo might or might not have the same type of personality or life story in other parts of the Multiverse. Dr. Nicodemus “Nic” West (played by Michael Stühlbarg), the surgeon who operated on Stephen’s hands after Stephen was in a near-fatal car accident in the first “Doctor Strange” movie, makes a brief appearance (less than five minutes) in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” where Dr. West is a guest at Christine’s wedding. In this scene, Dr. West sits next to Stephen and smugly tells Stephen that although Doctor Strange likes to think that he is the “best surgeon and the best superhero,” in the end, Stephen/Doctor Strange “didn’t get the girl.”

Other than America Chavez, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t do much with new characters in the MCU. These new MCU characters include mystic artists Sara (played by Sheila Atim) and Rintrah (played by Adam Hugill), who are both disciples of Wong in Kamar-Taj. The purpose for Sara and Rintrah in the movie is exactly what you think it might be in forgettable roles. As far as introducing new characters, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse” is all about making America Chavez a newcomer star of the MCU.

Scarlet Witch is the movie’s main villain, but there are some monsters that also cause mayhem. One of them is a giant one-eyed octopus that appears during Christine’s wedding. It’s a somewhat awkwardly staged scene, where the octopus suddenly appears on the streets of New York City, and Doctor Strange quickly puts on his magical cloak (don’t call it a “cape,” according to him) and jumps off of a balcony to fight the monster. Some generic-looking demons also make appearances during the fight scenes.

Visually, the movie has its dazzling moments. In terms of its story, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is a mixed bag. At times, it gets repetitive and jumbled as you think it can be when people jump through portals and enter different universes during chase scenes. And that’s not the only repetition: “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” repeats the MCU formula of superheroes making wisecracking jokes during action scenes. There are also parts of the movie that repeat a scenario where someone has to “prove” their identity and show evidence that what they’re saying is the truth, because the Multiverse is supposed to make people feel disoriented about what’s real and what isn’t real.

The movie also repeats a theme of the main characters looking for their definition of happiness. More than once in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” someone is asked, “Are you happy?” And then it’s followed up with some version of saying, “Are you really happy? Don’t lie to me because I can tell you’re not really happy.” Is this a superhero movie or a therapy session?

Other times, the movie works very well when it comes to laying the groundwork for developing the story of America Chavez and how she became an ally of Doctor Strange and Wong. Some horror movie elements kick into high gear in the last third of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which handles horror better than 2022’s “Morbius” movie, the origin story of Marvel’s vampire anti-hero Morbius. Raimi’s experience as a horror filmmaker greatly benefits “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

There’s nothing really spectacular about any of the acting in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” but the acting isn’t terrible either. Stephen Strange/Doctor Strange is known for his arrogance and impatience, but in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” he shows more humility and emotional vulnerability than in previous Marvel movies, and Cumberbatch plays the part accordingly. McAdams doesn’t have a lot to work with for her Christine character, who has a stereotypical action movie role of an ex-girlfriend thrown back into an ex-boyfriend’s life so she can be in the action scenes too.

Olsen is very good in her role as Wanda Romanoff/Scarlet Witch, but she was better in “WandaVision,” which required her to show a wider range of personalities in vastly different scenarios. Viewers’ reactions will largely depend on how emotionally connected they feel to Wanda Romanoff/Scarlet Witch, considering she has presented many different sides of herself in the MCU. Gomez portrays America with credibility as someone who is an awkward, slightly rebellious teenager who feels like a lost soul. She and Doctor Strange eventually learn to trust and respect each other, but their clashes just retread the “smart-alecky kid paired with a reluctant adult mentor” formula that’s been in many other movies.

The most emotional moments in”Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will have the greatest resonance with people who’ve seen “WandaVision” and the aforementioned MCU movies. Everything that has to do with Wanda/Scarlet Witch can best be understood by people who know what happened in “WandaVision.” And when you need to watch a TV series first to understand a movie’s chief villain, that could be a problem for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” also has the expected mid-credits/end-credits scenes that tease what will happen in other movies or TV shows that are part of the MCU franchise. Charlize Theron is in the mid-credits scene as a character who becomes a very important part of Doctor Strange’s life, based on this character’s Marvel Comics storyline. The movie’s end-credits scene is a throwaway joke that has no bearing on subsequent storylines, but it’s a reference to a spell that was cast on someone in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Some of the “surprise” cameos just further establish that certain franchise characters that were kept separate from the MCU have now become a part of the MCU.

If you yearn for a time when watching a new superhero movie sequel didn’t have to entail seeing at least three other movies in the franchise and possibly a TV series related to the franchise, in order to understand what happens in the sequel you’re watching, then get used to this MCU reality, because that simpler time is over. Also long gone are the days when having a maximum of five superheroes in a movie sequel was considered too much. Nowadays, not only has the MCU raised expectations for each MCU movie sequel to have numerous superheroes (as main characters and as cameos), but “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has also ensured that viewers can expect different versions of these superheroes to pop up at any time. It’s a superhero party for superfans, but regular fans or casual fans will feel like they’re at a party where only certain people understand the inside jokes.

Disney’s Marvel Studios will release “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” in U.S. cinemas on May 6, 2022. Disney+ will premiere the movie on June 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Better Nate Than Ever,’ starring Rueby Wood, Aria Brooks, Lisa Kudrow, Joshua Bassett, Norbert Leo Butz and Michelle Federer

April 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rueby Wood (center) in “Better Nate Than Ever” (Photo by David Lee/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Better Nate Than Ever”

Directed by Tim Federle

Culture Representation: Taking place in Pittsburgh and New York City, the comedy/drama “Better Nate Than Ever” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy, who dreams of becoming a star of musicals, temporarily runs away with his best friend from their hometown of Pittsburgh to New York City, so that they can audition for prominent roles in the Broadway show “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical.”

Culture Audience: “Better Nate Than Ever” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in sentimental, family-friendly stories about finding one’s identity and self-acceptance.

Aria Brooks and Rueby Wood in “Better Nate Than Ever” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

The comedy/drama “Better Nate Than Ever” is an unapologetically sentimental love letter to musical theater geeks and anyone struggling with self-esteem issues. Everything in the movie is entirely predictable, but the movie is so earnest in its heartwarming intentions, most viewers will be charmed by it. People who have a deep hatred of musical theater or schmaltzy stories about kids who love performing will think “Better Nate Than Ever” is very irritating, so it’s best to avoid this movie if sounds like it isn’t worth your time.

Written and directed by Tim Federle, “Better Nate Than Ever” is adapted from his 2013 novel of the same name. Federle is also the showrunner of the Disney+ series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” Federle has said in many interviews that the title character of Nathan “Nate” Foster, who is 13 years old, is inspired by who Federle was when he was around the same age. In the book and in the movie, Nate is an unabashed fanatic of musicals. His biggest dream in life is to star in a Broadway musical.

Nate (played by Rueby Wood) lives in Pittsburgh with his parents Rex Foster (played by Norbert Leo Butz) and Sherrie Foster (played by Michelle Federer) and Nate’s brother Anthony Foster (played Joshua Bassett), who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Anthony is a popular athlete at his high school, and he thinks that musicals are a “wimpy” interest for boys to have. Nate has no interest in sports, and he’s somewhat of a social outcast at his middle school. Anthony sometimes acts like he’s embarrassed that Nate is his brother, and this type of rejection hurts Nate, but Nate tries not to let his hurt emotions show.

Nate’s best friend (and his only friend) at school is outspoken, confident and sassy Libby (played by Aria Brooks), who is the about the same age as Nate. Libby is also Nate’s biggest supporter in pursuing his dream of becoming a Broadway musical star. She has an interest in performing too, but she’s not as passionate about it as Nate is. Libby is very good at giving advice and coming up with ideas, so Nate often relies on her when he’s got a problem that he needs to solve or if he needs pep talks.

At school, Nate (who likes to wear lip gloss) is predictably the target of bullying. When Nate tries to take a seat on a school bus, a male student (played by Alex Barber) blocks Nate and sneers, “No more girls in this row.” When the bully steals Nate’s lucky rabbit’s foot, Nate fights back by hitting him. Nate gets more bullying in a few other parts of the movie.

Nate is the type of musical aficionado who can recite musical trivia by heart. He frequently sings songs from musicals out loud, and he practices his dance moves in front of mirrors at home. Nate’s school is staging a production called “Lincoln: The Unauthorized Rock Musical.” Nate has auditioned for the lead role of Abraham Lincoln. This audition is not shown in the movie, which opens on the day that Nate will find out if he was chosen for the role.

Nate is crushed when the casting results are posted, and he didn’t get the starring role that he desperately wanted. The teacher who made the decision tactfully tells Nate that Nate isn’t experienced enough to handle the lead role in this musical. As a consolation, Nate is offered the role of a background singer/dancer.

Around the time that Nate gets this disappointing news, Libby tells Nate about upcoming open auditions in New York City for the Broadway production “Lilo & Stitch: The Musical,” which will have a cast of mostly underage kids. Nate and Libby think it’s a good idea for them to audition for this Broadway musical. (In the “Better Nate Than Ever” book, Nate runs away to New York City to audition for “E.T.: The Musical.”)

And it just so happens that Nate’s parents Rex and Sherrie will be in West Virginia that weekend for a romantic getaway to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Anthony will be out of town that weekend for a sports meet. Nate and Libby hatch a plan to pretend that Nate will be staying at her house. Instead, Nate and Libby sneak off and take a bus to New York City to go to the auditions.

It’s never really mentioned what Nate’s parents do for a living, but the Fosters are a middle-class family who are going through a financial rough spot because Rex is currently unemployed. Sherrie is estranged from her older sister Heidi (played by Lisa Kudrow), who lives in New York City’s Queens borough. The two sisters no longer speak to each other because Sherrie thinks that Heidi abandoned the family to pursue a career on Broadway.

Meanwhile, Nate has a lot of admiration for Heidi and wishes that he could be just like Heidi. After a series of mishaps, Nate and Libby make it to the auditions, only to find out that an underage kid who auditions needs an adult guardian, for legal reasons. It just so happens that Heidi is available, and she reluctantly agrees to be the adult guardian for Nate and Libby.

Libby decides that being a performer isn’t really for her, so she decides to go back home to Pittsburgh, while Nate continues his pursuit of his Broadway dreams, with some help from Heidi. Nate finds out the reality that Heidi’s life isn’t as glamorous as Nate thought it was. Heidi is a struggling actress who lives alone in a small, one-bedroom apartment. She works for a catering company to pay her bills.

Nate turns out to be a plucky and optimistic kid who forges ahead, despite obstacles that get in his way. Many of these challenges test his confidence, but his love of performing is too strong for any skeptics and roadblocks to deter him. When Libby is away from Nate, she keeps in touch with him by phone to get updates on his audition journey.

Heidi is the type of person who starts off thinking that she’s not very good at taking care of kids. But as Nate and Heidi get to know each other better, they develop a newfound respect for each other. Heidi and Nate also begin to understand that the estrangement between Heidi and her sister Sherrie had repercussions on the family that went beyond the two sisters’ relationship with each other.

“Better Nate Than Ever” has some slapstick comedy that can be very corny, but it’s what you might expect from a Disney film. What isn’t typical for a Disney film is how the movie addresses Nate’s sexual identity without anyone in the movie ever giving Nate any specific identity labels. At 13 years old, Nate is too young to date anyone, by most standards.

However, there are signs that Nate and his loved ones know that he’s not heterosexual. People in his life describe him as “different” and not interested in dating girls. At various points in the movie, Nate goes out of his way to get merchandise in the style of the rainbow flag, which is the universal symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. For example, while he’s in New York City, Nate buys a rainbow-colored rabbit’s foot as a lucky charm.

“Better Nate Than Ever” shows these obvious signs without being preachy or heavy-handed about it. It’s all just presented as part of Nate’s natural identity. And although Nate gets some bullying for being “effeminate,” he embraces who he is and doesn’t try to change for anyone. That’s a positive message for people who go through life thinking that they have to pretend to be something they’re not, in order to be accepted.

As for the musical numbers, they are very contrived but play into fantasies that anyone might have of being the star of a musical. One of the standout musical scenes is when Nate attracts a crowd in Times Square as he does an impromptu performance of George Benson’s 1978 hit “On Broadway.” It’s a very corny scene but also very cute. Benson makes a cameo appearance as himself during this Times Square performance. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“Better Nate Than Never” has some obvious cross-marketing promotion of the real-life New Amsterdam Theatre, which is owned by Disney and is home to all of Disney’s Broadway musicals. In “Better Nate Than Ever,” the “Lilo & Stitch” musical’s final auditions take place at the New Amsterdam Theatre. The “Better Nate Than Ever” movie seems like it’s a marketing test to gauge public interest in Disney making the 2002 Disney animated film “Lilo & Stitch” into a Broadway musical in real life, since Disney has turned many of Disney’s hit animated movies into Broadway musicals.

“Better Nate Than Ever” is the feature-film debut of Wood, who makes a lasting impression as the effervescent and talented Nate. This is a movie where the casting choices make a huge difference in how likable the characters are, because it’s obvious that Wood lives and breathes musicals as much as Nate does. Most people can’t really fake that kind of passion. Wood is also a fantastic singer who really does look like he was born to star in a Broadway musical. In addition to “On Broadway,” he sings the show-stopping: “No One Gets Left Behind” (written by Lyndie Lane), and he performs a monologue from “Designing Women.”

Brooks brings her own unique pizzazz to her role as Nate’s best friend Libby, a character who is thankfully not written as just another two-dimensional sidekick. Libby goes through her own journey of self-identity and figuring out what her passion and talents are in life. Libby is also a good “reality check” to Nate when he gets too hyper or too sarcastic. A recurring comment she makes to Nate to watch his tone of voice is to tell him calmly, “Nate: Tone.”

Kudrow also does nicely in the movie as Nate’s aunt Heidi, who finds a kindred spirit in Nate because of his love of theater performing. Nate sees Heidi as a role model, but she feels like a misfit and a failure. Through Nate’s perspective, Heidi’s self-confidence is boosted when she begins to understand how her life has inspired someone in ways that she didn’t even think were possible. The tensions between Heidi and Sherrie are eventually dealt with exactly how you think they will be dealt with in this type of family-oriented movie, as are the tensions between brothers Nate and Anthony.

“Better Nate Than Ever” sticks to a familiar formula, but there are elements to the movie that are truly unique and heartfelt. Federle obviously wanted to make a movie that could speak to people who have ever felt misunderstood, rejected or doubted because of who they are. Despite a lot of cloying moments in “Better Nate Than Ever,” the movie succeeds in its intended message to celebrate people for being their authentic selves.

Disney+ premiered “Better Nate Than Ever” on April 1, 2022.

Review: ‘Turning Red,’ starring the voices of Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Ava Morse, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Hyein Park, Orion Lee and Tristan Allerick Chen

March 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

Abby (voiced by Hyein Park), Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse), Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) in “Turning Red” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Turning Red”

Directed by Domee Shi 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Toronto in 2002, the animated film “Turning Red” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, white and a few black people and Latinos) portraying the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Due to an inherited family trait, a 13-year-old girl finds out that she can turn into a giant red panda when she gets very emotional, and she has to decide if she will keep or get rid of this family trait.

Culture Audience: “Turning Red” will appeal primarily to people interested in entertaining but somewhat predictable animated films that are stories about coming of age and about mother-daughter relationships.

Ming (voiced by Sandra Oh) and Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) in “Turning Red” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

The comedic animated film “Turning Red” can at times get too one-note and formulaic in its themes of identity and self-discovery, but the movie has enough offbeat charm to make it a memorable coming-of-age story. The movie explores issues that are familiar to movies about children who are descendants of immigrants, such as whether to follow “old country” traditions or “current country” lifestyles. It’s a story that people of many generations and cultures can enjoy.

“Turning Red” is the feature-film debut of director Domee Shi, who won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short, for her 2018 film “Bao.” According to the “Turning Red” production notes, “Turning Red” (which was co-written by Shi and Julie Cho) is based on a lot of Shi’s real-life experiences as a Canadian child in a Chinese immigrant family. The story, which takes place in Toronto in the spring of 2002, is about a 13-year-old girl who finds her own identity, even when she has people telling her who she should be and what she should do.

The 13-year-old protagonist of “Turning Red” is Meiling “Mei” Lee (voiced by Rosalie Chiang), a smart, obedient and admittedly dorky eighth grader at Lester B. Pearson Middle School in Toronto. Mei is the only child of domineering, overprotective mother Ming Lee (voiced by Sandra Oh) and laid-back and mild-mannered father Jin Lee (voiced by Orion Lee), who both moved to Canada before Mei was born. Ming is the boss of the Lee Family Temple, which is a tourist attraction in Toronto’s Chinatown district. Jin appears to be a stay-at-home father. Mei works part-time as an assistant temple keeper at the Lee Family Temple, where she does menial tasks such as cleaning.

Mei is a self-described overachiever who’s not very popular at school, but she has a tight-knit trio of friends who are students at the same school. Miriam (voiced by Ava Morse) is tomboyish and goofy. Priya (voiced by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is bookish and sarcastic. Abby (voiced by Hyein Park) is feisty and hot-tempered. All four girls are somewhat obsessive fans of a boy band named 4*Town, which will be performing an upcoming concert at the Toronto SkyDome, a stadium that can seat 40,000 to 50,000 people. (In real life, the Toronto SkyDome name was changed to Rogers Centre in 2005.)

Because Ming is very strict and suspicious of anything that she thinks could lead Mei to rebel, she won’t let Mei go to the concert. Ming tells Mei that 4*Town’s inoffensive pop music is “filth.” It’s around this time that Mei finds out that the women in her family have inherited a trait where they turn into giant red pandas when they get emotional. When Mei is a panda, she’s about 8 feet tall. Mei discovers this family gene when she wakes up as a giant panda. And later, she predictably turns into a panda when she’s in school, which leads to a humiliating experience.

Mei’s parents tell her that the red panda trait can be suppressed/cured with an ancient ritual during the next red moon, which takes place the following month, on May 25. Meanwhile, Mei finds out that her schoolmates actually like when she transforms into Red Panda Mei, because she’s more spontaneous and fun-loving as a panda. And so, Mei and her three pals come up with a scheme to get enough money to go to the 4*Town concert, which will cost them $200 a ticket. The red panda ritual and the concert are part of a “race against time” aspect to this movie.

“Turning Red” infuses this somewhat simplistic comedic story with more complex commentary about generational traditions and mother-daughter relationships, especially toward the end of the film. Ming expects Mei to put family duties above Mei’s social life, which is why Mei doesn’t hang out with her friends after school as much as she would like to because Mei often has to work at the temple. “Turning Red” has many nods to Eastern culture (which puts emphasis on family/community) and Western culture (which puts emphasis on individuality), as well as the conflicts that can arise when someone, such as Mei, is caught between the contrasts of these cultures.

For example, Ming tells Mei that the red panda trait originated from an ancient female ancestor named Sun Yee, who was a warrior, scholar and poet at a time when women rarely had those roles. During a war, when most of the men were off fighting in the war, Sun Yee prayed to the gods to give her a way to defend her daughter and their village. The gods answered her prayer by giving her the ability to turn into a giant red panda. This ability was passed on to all of Sun Yee’s female descendants. This inherited trait could be considered a blessing for those who see it as good for a community, or it could be seen as a curse for those who see it as bad for an individual.

In the movie’s opening scene, Mei makes a comment that shows how she’s conflicted between the need to get the approval of her family (namely, her mother) and her need to be her own person who can make her own decisions. She says in a voiceover as a montage of her life flashes on screen: “The No. 1 rule in my family: Honor your parents … The least you can do is everything they ask. Honoring your parents is great, but if you take it too far, you might forget to honor yourself.”

Other parts of the movie repeat scenarios where Mei would like to think that she’s independent and free to do what she wants, but then something happens (usually involving Mei’s mother Ming) where Mei is made to feel guilty or pressured to do things that will make her parents proud and honor the family. Ming already has Mei’s life mapped out for her and expects Mei to have a career as secretary-general of the United Nations. Ming is also extremely judgmental and wants to control every aspect of Mei’s life.

For most of the movie, Ming is a caricature of a “helicopter mom,” who hovers and often interferes with Mei’s life to the extent that it causes a series of embarrassments for Mei. For example, when Mei wakes up one morning to find out that she has turned into a giant red panda, Mei is so confused and frightened, she won’t let her parents in her bedroom, but she wails through the door: “I’m a gross red monster!”

Ming misinterprets Mei’s “gross red monster” comment as Mei getting her menstrual period for the first time. That misunderstanding leads to a scene where Ming shows up unannounced at Mei’s school to deliver sanitary pads to her. Much to Mei’s understandable mortification, Ming gets into a fight with a security guard over it in front of Mei and her classmates, while Ming shouts that she just wants to deliver sanitary pads that Mei forgot at home. Of course, Ming eventually finds out the truth, and that’s when Mei’s parents tell Mei about their family’s red panda secret.

It isn’t until the last third of “Turning Red” that Ming stops being a caricature and starts being more of a fully developed character, as some of her human frailties and vulnerabilities emerge. This gradual reveal of Ming’s true character is one of the best aspects of “Turning Red,” which skillfully shows how physical appearances aren’t the only traits that can be passed down through generations. Parenting habits and the ways that parents teach children how to interact with others can also be inherited.

The movie falters a bit in how it introduces a few potential storylines for Mei’s peers, and then just lets those storylines dangle unresolved. There’s a 17-year-old boy named Devon (voiced by Addie Chandler), who’s a heartthrob to Mei, her friends and some of the other girls at Mei’s school. Devon works as a clerk at a convenience store called Daisy Mart. And when Ming finds that Mei has drawn some romantic (non-sexual) fantasy illustrations about Devon in Mei’s sketchbook/journal, Ming goes on a rampage by yelling Devon at his job and wrongfully accusing him of taking sexually advantage of Mei. And then, Devon and his storyline are completely dropped, as if his only purpose in the movie was to be a target of Ming’s misguided parental rants.

Ming also hugely disapproves of Mei’s friend Miriam, for reasons that aren’t made very clear and should have been given better explanation or context. The only explanation put forth in the movie is that Miriam, who likes to skateboard and is comfortable with herself, is perceived by Ming as a threat to Ming’s idea that Mei should be a prim and proper girl. Even though Miriam is a nice person and a supportive friend, Ming has this unsubstantiated idea that Miriam is a troublemaker who’s a bad influence on Mei. At one point in the movie, Miriam briefly mentions that Miriam’s parents aren’t very strict, which could be another reason why Ming doesn’t trust Miriam.

One of the biggest flaws of “Turning Red” is that Miriam, Priya and Abby are underdeveloped characters overall. The movie gives no sense of who these three friends are outside of any context of reacting to Mei’s emotions, offering to help Mei with any problems that she has, or discussing things that they have in common with Mei. Teenage girls talk to their close friends a lot about their personal hopes/goals and their families, but that kind of talk is very absent in this movie for Miriam, Priya and Abby. It makes Mei’s friendship with them look more one-sided than it should be.

Every movie with a school of underage children inevitably has a character who’s a school jerk/bully. In “Turning Red,” this character is Tyler (voiced by Tristan Allerick Chen), a spoiled and privileged kid, who likes to taunt Mei for being nerdy. Not much else is revealed about Tyler. That lack of information about Tyler is a missed opportunity for “Turning Red” to give better context for why school bullies like this exist and why they target certain people. The way that the movie handles the bully storyline is a little problematic, because it’s oversimplified and has a morally questionable message of buying friendships with cash, when the lesson should be that real friendships can’t be bought.

A montage near the beginning of the movie shows what a few people at the school think of Mei. A teacher says, “She’s a very enterprising, mildly annoying young lady.” A female student says that Mei is a “major weirdo.” A male student describes Mei as “an overachieving dork narc.” Mei is then seen commenting cheerfully, “I accept and embrace all labels.” Viewers of “Turning Red” are left to speculate, with nothing shown in the movie, why some students have such hostile feelings toward Mei that they would call her a “narc” (in other words, a snitch) and a “major weirdo.”

The music group 4*Town is meant to be a parody of boy bands that were popular in the early 2000s. The five members of the group—don’t ask why they’re called 4*Town, because there’s no explanation—also mirror the stereotypes of boy bands: One or two members of the group are the most popular heartthrob lead singers, while the other members are more forgettable and tend to fade in the background.

In 4*Town, the two most popular members are Robaire (voiced by Jordan Fisher) and Jesse (voiced by Finneas O’Connell), who overshadow the group’s other members: Tae Young (voiced by Grayson Villanueva), Aaron T. (voiced by Topher Ngo) and Aaron Z. (voiced by Josh Levi). All of the members of 4*Town are not in the movie long enough for them to show distinctive personalities, even though the group’s concert is at the center of the movie’s climactic action.

In real life, O’Connell is the Grammy-winning producer/songwriter who’s best known for his work with his younger sister, Billie Eilish. O’Connell and Eilish wrote three original 4*Town songs for the “Turning Red” soundtrack: “1 True Love,” “Nobody Like U” and “U Know What’s Up.” These songs are meant to sound “boy-band generic,” so don’t expect this music to win any prestigious awards. Ludwig Göransson (who won an Oscar and a Grammy for his 2018 “Black Panther” movie score) composed the musical score for “Turning Red,” which is a serviceable score but not Göransson’s best work.

All of the voice cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, while the visuals are very good but not exceptional. Many parts of the movie are predictable, but “Turning Red” is ultimately satisfying for anyone who can enjoy animated entertainment that hits all the expected notes when the protagonist is a plucky teenager.

Disney+ will premiere “Turning Red” on March 11, 2022, the same date that Disney will release the movie for a limited engagement in select U.S. cinemas.

Review: ‘The Beatles: Get Back,’ starring Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr

November 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“The Beatles: Get Back”

Directed by Peter Jackson

Culture Representation: Taking place in London in January 1969, the three-part documentary series “The Beatles: Get Back” features a predominantly white and mostly British group of people (with one Japanese person and one African American person) representing the middle-class and wealthy in this chronicle of the beginning of the Beatles’ last recording sessions, as well as the Beatles’ last live public performance.

Culture Clash: Before the band broke up in 1970, the Beatles had internal struggles and disagreements over who would lead the band and how each member’s talent and contributions were valued within the group.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Beatles fans, “The Beatles: Get Back” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of 1960s rock music who want detailed observations of what music studio sessions looked like at the time.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Mal Evans, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, John Lennon and Yoko Ono in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd./Disney+)

The three-episode official Beatles docuseries “The Beatles: Get Back” gives Beatles fans more than enough of what they might be looking for in this intimate chronicle of the band’s recording sessions and rehearsals in London in January 1969. “The Beatles: Get Back” (directed by Peter Jackson) expands on the footage that was in director Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 Beatles documentary “Let It Be,” which is no longer officially distributed but has been widely bootlegged. “The Beatles: Get Back” is the docuseries for you, if you’re the type of music fan who relishes seeing several different rehearsal snippets of the same Beatles songs that mostly ended up on the band’s 1969 “Abbey Road” album and 1970 “Let It Be” album. If you have absolutely no interest in watching the Beatles in a recording/rehearsal studio, then you might be bored and might not be able to finish watching this documentary.

That’s because most of the footage in this 468-minute docuseries (that’s 7.8 hours) takes place at recording/rehearsal studios: Twickenham and Apple Corps, to be exact. (Apple Corps is the London-based entertainment company founded by the Beatles in 1967, and is not to be confused with the California-based computer technology company Apple Inc. that was co-founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976.) The docuseries culminates with the Beatles performing a brief surprise concert on the rooftop of Apple Corps headquarters, which would end up being the band’s last live public performance. A great deal of the docuseries shows the repetitive nature of doing takes and re-takes of songs in the studio. In that regard, “The Beatles: Let It Be” could have used tighter editing to keep the interest of people with short attention spans.

The vast majority of the docuseries footage is within the confines of a studio. But what happens in that studio is pure magic for people who want to see how the Beatles crafted many of their songs from this period of time. There’s plenty of footage of the band’s personal interactions, but it’s only in the context of this work environment.

And that’s why the docuseries will appeal most to die-hard Beatles fans, who aren’t going to mind that this documentary’s cameras didn’t follow Beatles members Paul McCartney (bass guitar), John Lennon (rhythm guitar), George Harrison (lead guitar) and Ringo Starr (drums) outside of the studio to show what they were like outside of work. People who want to see more controversy in this documentary will be disappointed. However, the filmmakers made the decision not take the tabloid route, so that the documentary would remain focused mainly on the Beatles’ music.

“The Beatles: Get Back” is an insightful look at the band dynamics that foreshadowed why the Beatles broke up in 1970, but the documentary also shows the special chemistry and camaraderie that the Beatles had together. People who know Beatles history are the ones who will have the most appreciation of this deep-dive look into these recording/rehearsal sessions. After all, how many times does someone need to see the different ways that Beatles songs such as “Get Back,” “The Long and Winding Road” or “Don’t Let Me Down” were recorded or rehearsed? Die-hard fans will tolerate this type of repetition the most. The documentary also shows that the Beatles spent a lot of time in the studio performing cover songs for fun.

At the time this documentary footage was filmed, the idea was to record the next Beatles album live in the studio and make a documentary about it. (“Abbey Road” was actually recorded after the “Let It Be” album, but “Abbey Road” was released first.) The band also planned to do a live concert as a TV special. Lindsay-Hogg was the director hired for the documentary and the TV special, with the entire project tentatively called “Get Back,” named after one of the hit songs that would be on the “Let It Be” album. A big problem was that with less than three weeks before the concert was to take place, the band still couldn’t agree/decide on where the concert should be.

In the docuseries, band members have disagreements with each other, but no one has screaming arguments or destroys instruments in anger. Yoko Ono (an avant-garde artist who was Lennon’s girlfriend at the time and became his wife in March 1969) is not seen pitting Lennon and McCartney against each other, and she doesn’t try to tell the band what to do. In other words, this not the Beatles version of the 1984 rock mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap.” That might come as a surprise to people who have come to expect drama akin to a soap opera in behind-the-scenes music documentaries about rock bands on the verge of splitting up.

And so, people looking for that type of turmoil won’t find it in “The Beatles: Get Back,” whose producers include McCartney, Ono (Lennon’s widow), Olivia Harrison (George Harrison’s widow), Starr and Jackson. The documentary does show how George Harrison briefly quit the Beatles, but his departure is not the disaster it could have been. That’s mainly because the other band members carry on with their work, as if they know deep down that Harrison will change his mind and come back less than a week later. (And that’s exactly what happened.)

Harrison’s temporary split from the Beatles was not made public at the time. This abrupt departure of someone from the most famous band in the world would be harder to keep a secret in today’s celebrity news environment, where this type of news would spread quickly on the Internet. It’s a testament to how the Beatles employees and associates who knew about Harrison quitting back then were discreet enough to not leak this information.

There’s so much to delve into “The Beatles: Get Back” because each episode of the series is longer than the average episode of a docuseries. Episode One is 157 minutes. Episode Two is 173 minutes. Episode Three is 138 minutes. “The Beatles: Get Back” director Jackson (who is a Beatles superfan) and his team lovingly restored the footage that was originally directed by Lindsay-Hogg.

Over the 21 days that Lindsay-Hogg and his team documented the Beatles in January 1969, there were about 60 hours of filmed footage and about 120 hours of audio recordings that ended up being edited for “The Beatles: Get Back” docuseries. The results are footage and audio that look and sound clear and crisp. The songs performed in the studio sessions have quick-cut editing in the docuseries. It’s as if the filmmakers don’t want the entire performance of each song to be seen, in anticipation of the Beatles’ rooftop concert. On-screen captions indicate which takes of these songs ended up on a Beatles album.

It’s explained in the beginning of the series that the Beatles had the daunting task of writing and rehearsing 14 new songs within a two-week period, in order for them to make the deadline for the TV concert. The Beatles didn’t agree on everything, but they all agreed that if this concert was going to happen, it wouldn’t be to play their old hits. They wanted it to be a showcase for their new songs. For recordings and rehearsals, they started off at Twickenham Studios for the first eight days, and then spent the remaining 13 days at Apple Studios.

Here’s a summary of the highlights from each episode:

Episode One

(Days 1 to 7)

John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd./Disney+)

The episode begins with a brief chronological history of the Beatles, leading up to January 1969. At this point in the Beatles’ career, the band members were managing themselves, ever since Beatles manager Brian Epstein died of a sedative overdose in 1967, at the age of 32. McCartney is clearly the band member in charge, but disagreements over who should be the band’s next official manager were among the big reasons why the band broke up. Beatles fans will notice in this docuseries that these tensions were brewing and an indication of trouble to come. More on that later.

Even though Epstein wasn’t much older than the Beatles, certain band members still refer to him as “Mr. Epstein” and describe him as a father figure who was the one who kept them disciplined and taught them a certain work ethic as a band. With Epstein gone, McCartney has tried to step into the role of a leader who expects everyone to be their best and show up on time. But it’s how McCartney handles that leadership role that causes friction with other members of the group, especially Harrison and Lennon.

Lennon and McCartney co-wrote most of the songs that ended up on Beatles albums. If McCartney wrote most of a Lennon/McCartney song, McCartney was the one who sang lead vocals. If Lennon wrote most of a Lennon/McCartney song, Lennon was the one who sang lead vocals. Harrison would write Beatles songs on his own and sing lead vocals on them, but his songs were very much in the minority on Beatles albums. On rare occasions, Starr (whose real name is Richard Starkey) got a songwriting credit and lead vocals on a Beatles song.

This is the type of Beatles history that is not explained in the docuseries. However, people who are unfamiliar with the Beatles can discern these group dynamics when watching this docuseries, because every time a song is performed, the song’s title and the last name(s) of the songwriter(s) are listed on the screen. Even people with scarce knowledge of the Beatles have some idea that the Lennon/McCartney songwriting duo was the dominant songwriting partnership in the Beatles.

Although early in the Beatles’ career, Harrison was nicknamed in the media as “The Quiet Beatle,” Starr was actually the quietest member of the Beatles at this point in 1969. He’s often seen silently observing (and sometimes napping) while the other members of the band hash out some of their differences. He’s also the most easygoing member of the Beatles and the one most likely to want to keep the peace. It’s probably why the Beatles chose Starr’s home as the place for the Beatles to meet with Harrison after he abruptly quit the group.

McCartney is either motivational or bossy, depending on your perspective. He’s the one most likely to have big ambitions for the Beatles. He repeats throughout the documentary that he doesn’t just want to do albums. He wants the Beatles’ music to serve a bigger purpose and have more visual documentation of their art, such as filming the recording of the album.

Lennon is the sarcastic joker of the group. After recently getting involved in an intense love affair with Ono, he is shown as becoming less interested in arriving on time for band meetings and studio sessions. Lennon and Harrison are the Beatles members who are most likely to be tardy in these studio sessions.

Ono is never far from Lennon during most of these sessions, where she often sits next to him as if she’s also a member of the band. She doesn’t talk much, but her influence over Lennon is obvious, since she’s the only woman who’s allowed to join in and contribute vocals with the Beatles when they’re writing and recording. She doesn’t sing. The sound that comes out of her mouth is more like screeching or caterwauling.

During the first days of these sessions, Harrison seems motivated and greets people warmly. Harrison and Starr say “Happy New Year” to each other the first time that the band meets for these sessions. In another scene, Harrison compliments McCartney by saying of McCartney’s newly grown facial hair: “I think the beard suits you, man.” But as time goes on, Harrison looks both emotionally alienated and exasperated. And it’s not just because McCartney is telling Harrison how he wants Harrison’s guitar playing to sound.

It’s also because Harrison can see that, once again, most of his song ideas are being ignored. At this point in Harrison’s life, he was deep into Hare Krishna spirituality. It shows in the documentary, because a few of Harrison’s Hare Krishna friends/hangers-on, including two named Shyamsunder Das and Mukanda Goswami, are seen occasionally sitting cross-legged in the background, looking zoned-out or meditative.

For the concert TV special, McCartney was keen for the Beatles to perform a live concert again for the first time in three years (the Beatles quit touring in 1966), but he doesn’t want the band to perform in a typical and predictable setting. It’s here that McCartney tries to assert his leadership because he comes up with the idea that the Beatles should do a surprise concert at a place where they could get arrested. He half-jokingly suggests that the Beatles perform at the House of Parliament, where the band would undoubtedly be ejected. “You have to take a bit of violence,” McCartney says of his idea to do a guerilla-styled concert.

Lindsay-Hogg hates the idea. “I think it’s too dangerous. You could go back to Manila,” he says. It’s a reference to the Beatles’ harrowing 1966 experience of facing a group of angry citizens who aggressively manhandled the Beatles for skipping a meeting with Imelda Marcos, the wife of then-Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos. Lindsay-Hogg is fixated on an idea to have the Beatles perform at an open-air amphitheatre in the desert of Subrata, Libya. (It’s a terrible idea because of the difficult logistics involved. The ancient amphitheatre was not built for a 1969 rock concert that would require a lot of electrical wiring.)

Lindsay-Hogg also suggests that maybe the Beatles could perform at orphanages. He appeals to Harrison’s charitable side by trying to get him to agree to a charity concert. “They say charity begins at home,” Harrison quips. McCartney responds by joking that they should have the concert at Harrison’s house.

Film producer Denis O’Dell pushes for the Beatles to do the concert on some type of ship or boat. However, practical-minded Harrison says that this idea is “insane,” because the acoustics would be substandard and the production costs would be too high. Harrison mentions the Beatles’ widely panned 1967 TV special “Magical Mystery Tour” as an example of an expensive mistake. Lennon doesn’t seem to care where the Beatles play, while Starr says almost nothing at all when it comes to ideas or suggestions.

It’s in this docuseries’ first episode that viewers are also introduced to many of the key crew members who were part of the Beatles’ inner circle for this documentary. There’s Lindsay-Hogg, an American-Irish hotshot director who talks in an upper-crust accent and is often seen puffing on a cigar. He likes to remind people that he’s a huge Beatles fan, not just a hired gun. Far from being a “yes man,” Lindsay-Hogg is very opinionated and isn’t afraid to disagree with some of the Beatles’ ideas.

Beatles music producer George Martin conducts himself with the air of a calm and dignified businessman, but he is surprisingly not in this documentary as much as people might think he would be. Instead, engineer Glyn Johns (who is most definitely not a businessman type) has the most screen time as the one who takes charge of the technical side of the recording sessions. Other staffers and associates who are seen in the documentary, beginning with this episode, include Apple president Neil Aspinall, music publisher Dick James, roadie/personal assistant Mal Evans, roadie Kevin Harrington, cinematographer Tony Richmond, camera operator Les Parrott, song recordist Peter Sutton and electronic engineer Alexis “Magic Alex” Mardas.

Harrison is the first one the documentary to mention that the Beatles should break up. “Maybe we should have a divorce,” Harrison tells the other Beatles. Lennon quips, “Who would have the children?” McCartney jokes, “Dick James.” McCartney’s comment refers to how, at the time, James (through his Northern Songs Ltd. publishing company) owned the copyrights to Beatles songs written by Lennon and McCartney. Later in 1969, James sold Northern Songs to Associated Television (ATV) without telling Lennon and McCartney in advance. The battle to own the Beatles’ song publishing could be its own documentary.

Starr’s wife Maureen Starkey makes a brief appearance. Just like the other women in this documentary, she doesn’t say much. The episode ends with Harrison getting up and announcing he’s leaving the band. Lennon says that if Harrison doesn’t come back in a few days, the Beatles should get Eric Clapton as a replacement. (Clapton was Harrison’s best friend at the time.) An episode epilogue caption says that the attempted reconciliation with Harrison at Starr’s house did not go very well.

What the documentary doesn’t mention is that Starr’s wife Maureen Starkey and Harrison were having an affair at the time, according to several books about the Beatles. Meanwhile, Clapton was in love with Harrison’s wife Pattie (Clapton wrote the 1971 song “Layla” about her), and she would eventually leave Harrison in 1977 for Clapton, who became her second husband two years later. If this is the type of love triangle drama that people wanted to see in this documentary, you’re not going to find it.

Episode Two

(Days 8 to 16)

Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd./Disney+)

As we all know, Harrison eventually did come back to the Beatles, as seen in this episode. During his absence, the other band members have a bittersweet laugh when a bouquet of flowers arrives for Harrison at the studio. Starr opens the greeting card and sees that the flowers are from a Hare Krishna group that obviously doesn’t know that Harrison had recently quit the band.

But the most intriguing part of the episode is that McCartney starts to get real about the band’s problems. The documentary mentions that a hidden microphone was placed in a flower pot to capture a conversation between Lennon and McCartney over Harrison’s unhappiness in the Beatles. This secret recording was clearly the filmmakers’ attempt to find out McCartney’s true feelings, since he was the band member who tended to be the most image-conscious and careful about what he said on camera.

In this undercover conversation, Lennon says of Harrison’s discontent: “It’s a festering wound that we’ve allowed … and we didn’t give him any bandages. We have egos.” McCartney says of Harrison’s concerns: “I do think he’s right.” McCartney also tries to appeal to Lennon’s ego by saying that the Beatles will always be Lennon’s band.

Through his actions and words in this documentary, McCartney seems to want to give the impression that he’s stepping up in a leadership role because no one else in the Beatles wants to do it. The problem, which has also been documented in several books about the Beatles, is that the other members of the group get frustrated when McCartney acts like his ideas are usually the best ideas. Harrison isn’t the only one who’s starting to drift away and feel alienated.

In another part of the episode, when McCartney knows that he’s being filmed, he says to a group of people (including Eastman and Starr) that Lennon is losing interest in the Beatles. If Lennon had to choose between the Beatles or Ono, McCartney predicts: “Obviously, if it came to a push between Yoko and the Beatles, it’s Yoko.” McCartney also says that he and Lennon are spending less time writing songs together because their lifestyles have changed. He mentions that because the Beatles weren’t touring, he and Lennon weren’t spending time together in hotel rooms, where Lennon and McCartney would get a lot of songwriting done.

New romances were affecting the Lennon/McCartney friendship. Linda Eastman, a photographer from New York, had recently begun dating McCartney and would become his wife in March 1969. Eastman is in the documentary as a laid-back presence, who occasionally takes photos and snuggles with McCartney. During a band meeting where they discuss Harrison quitting the group, Eastman pipes up that she noticed that at the reconciliation attempt at Starr’s house, Ono seemed to be talking for Lennon instead of Lennon talking for himself.

The documentary doesn’t give a lot of evidence to support a lingering perception among some Beatles fans that Ono is mainly to blame for breaking up the Beatles. She doesn’t talk much when she’s with the Beatles in these studio sessions. On the rare occasions that she smiles, it’s when she gazes lovingly at Lennon or shows other public displays of affection with him. She’s shown as not being particularly close to anyone in the Beatles’ inner circle except for Lennon. McCartney says prophetically, “It’s going to be such an incredible, comical thing, like in 50 years’ time [people will say], ‘They broke up because Yoko sat on an amp.'”

Still, there’s no denying that there’s unspoken tension between McCartney and Ono. During a group discussion, McCartney talks about how he still wants the Beatles to be on the top of their game in the documentary. “We want to show the world what we have,” McCartney says. Ono chimes in, “Or what we haven’t.”

The reality seems to be sinking in with McCartney that he and his longtime pal Lennon are going in different directions with their lives. McCartney seems to want to hold on to an idea that the Beatles can continue, but only if they agree with his wish that they don’t do anything in a boring and predictable way. Meanwhile, a frustrated Harrison seems like he wants to be a solo artist, whether the other band members approve or not. As for Starr, he just seems to want to know if he has a job and where to show up. When McCartney half-jokingly suggests that the Beatles should announce their breakup at the end of their upcoming concert, Starr reacts with a mortified look on his face that’s priceless.

In between all of this interpersonal drama, the Beatles are still capable of working together in a respectful and cohesive manner as musicians in a studio. Harrison starts to become more jovial, while Lennon cracks jokes to lighten the mood. After Harrison comes back to the band, McCartney seems more mindful of how he gives suggestions to Harrison, in order to avoid looking like an overly critical taskmaster.

McCartney also mentions to his bandmates that he has personal film footage of the time that the Beatles spent at a 1967 retreat with the spiritual guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who was exposed years later as a con artist. McCartney vividly describes scenes from this footage, some of which are shown in the documentary. Lennon and McCartney have a laugh when McCartney comments on the retreat, “You can see from the film that it’s very much like school.”

Harrison’s wife Pattie appears very briefly in this episode when she visits the studio. Out of all of the Beatles’ significant others at the time, she’s the one who is seen the least in the documentary. Pattie was busy with her modeling career at the time, but she and other people have since revealed that her marriage to Harrison was in deep trouble in 1969, because of the love triangle with Clapton.

A great scene in this episode is when comedian/actor Peter Sellers (who was Starr’s co-star in the 1969 movie “The Magic Christian”) stops by for a visit. It’s the first time that Sellers has met the members of the band, other than Starr. Sellers is quiet and bashful. Some viewers might speculate that he seems a little star-struck by the Beatles. He also seems a little bored, because he doesn’t stay for long. Maybe he thought being in a recording studio with the Beatles would be one big party.

In this encounter with Sellers, Lennon proves to be a lot funnier than world-famous comedian Sellers. As Sellers says a “nice to meet you” goodbye to the group, Lennon makes a drug joke when he says to Sellers: “Just don’t leave the needles lying around.” Everyone in the room laughs, except for Sellers, who seems a little taken aback by this joke and that someone can get bigger laughs than he usually does.

Speaking of drug references, there are some noticeable ones in this episode. Lennon shows up late at the studio one day, and he says it’s because he stayed up all night while he was on drugs. “I was stoned and high and watching films,” Lennon confesses. McCartney, ever aware of the Beatles’ image, looks slightly alarmed, knowing that Lennon was caught on camera with this comment. McCartney responds, “Is there a need to do this in public, Mr. Lennon?”

Earlier in the episode, Starr is seen on camera asking personal assistant Evans, “Do you have any pep pills?” And the band’s goofiest antics and loopiest comments in this episode and the other episodes in the docuseries could be interpreted as actions of people under the influence of unnamed substances. At any rate, no one actually says out loud which illegal drugs might have been consumed. The Beatles are seen smoking a lot of cigarettes and drinking alcohol (usually wine or beer) during these sessions. Even if illegal drug taking had been caught on camera, it wouldn’t have made the final cut in a Disney+ documentary.

This episode shows how image-conscious the Beatles were, since there are multiple scenes of them reading articles about themselves in newspapers and magazines and making comments about what they see in this media coverage. Harrison is irked by a Daily Mail article written by Michael Housegro, in which Housegro claims that Lennon and Harrison got into a fist fight and that the Beatles are on the verge of breaking up.

Housegro was wrong about the fist fight, and Harrison asks someone in the room if the Beatles can sue over the article. The answer is no. Harrison and Lennon have a bit of a laugh over it though, and pretend to get in a fist fight when the article is read out loud. Later, McCartney reads the article out loud in a very sing-song, sarcastic manner while plugged into a microphone and pretending that article’s words are lyrics to a song.

The Beatles move their recording/rehearsal sessions to Apple when their scheduled time at Twickenham comes to an end. When they begin working at Apple, it’s the first time that the documentary shows life outside the studio bubble. The members of the band show up in separate cars and walk inside without any bodyguards or entourages. If there were any paparazzi photographers lurking about, they’re not shown in this documentary.

It’s in this episode that Apple Scruffs (the nickname for the female fans who would wait outside Apple headquarters to get a glimpse of the Beatles) are first seen. Two Apple Scruffs named Eileen Kensles and Sue Ahearne are interviewed. They both say that what they want most for the Beatles to do next is to perform a live concert.

At Apple headquarters, Magic Alex had constructed a custom-built studio for the Beatles. However, the band discovers that this custom studio equipment has too much distortion. Beatles producer Martin comes to the rescue by letting the Beatles use some equipment that he had, thereby diverting a major setback.

Things get livelier when keyboardist Billy Preston joins the sessions. His enthusiasm and talent seem to lift the Beatles’ spirits. McCartney briefly considers eventually making Preston a permanent member of the Beatles, but McCartney ends up nixing the idea. “It’s bad enough with four [members of the band],” McCartney comments.

And if you didn’t already know that “Get Back” was originally going to be a protest song against white nationalism, anti-immigrant racism and xenophobia, then you’ll find out what were some of the lyrics that McCartney originally wanted for the song. “Get Back” eventually evolved into a non-political song, but it’s interesting to see the thought process that went into the crafting of this song. At this point in his career, McCartney avoided making overt political statements in his songs, so his original intention for “Get Back” would have been a major departure for him.

Another song that went through a metamorphosis was Lennon’s “The Road to Marrakesh.” Never heard of it? That’s because the docuseries shows in this episode that “The Road to Marrakesh” was an early version of “Jealous Guy,” a song that would end up on Lennon’s 1971 solo album “Imagine.” The song’s melodies essentially remained the same, but the lyrics became very different when the song morphed into “Jealous Guy.”

Making brief appearances in this episode are photographer Ethan Russell (the cover of the “Let It Be” album features his photos), Apple executive Peter Brown and art dealer Robert Fraser. Brown and author Steven Gaines would later write the unauthorized Beatles tell-all book “The Love You Make: An Insider Story of the Beatles,” which was published in 1983. It’s considered one of the first exposés of the Beatles in-fighting that went on behind the scenes.

Lindsay-Hogg was also the director of the concert TV special “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus,” which featured Lennon and Ono among the guest performers. Lindsay-Hogg is seen asking Lennon if he wants to be a guest on this TV special, and Lennon readily agrees. It’s because of “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” that Lennon came into contact with Allen Klein, who was the Rolling Stones’ manager at the time.

Klein was a controversial figure in the histories of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. By all accounts, he desperately wanted to manage the Beatles. Klein does not make an appearance in “The Beatles: Get Back” docuseries, but it clearly shows through Lennon’s descriptions of Klein how Klein began to woo and charm his way into the Beatles’ lives.

In this episode, the idea to have a live TV concert is scrapped. And it comes as no surprise, because the band was never ready to do a live TV show with just two weeks of preparation. However, McCartney still wants the Beatles to perform their new songs live somewhere and having it filmed. Lindsay-Hogg and Johns suggest doing a surprise show without a permit on the rooftop of Apple Corps, thereby making McCartney’s idea to have a guerilla-styled Beatles concert become a reality.

Episode Three

(Days 17 to 21)

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd./Disney+)

Considering the internal problems that the Beatles were experiencing at the time, you would think that this strife would get worse as this docuseries goes on. In fact, this last episode is the most light-hearted of the three. One of the main reasons why it has so many laugh-out-loud moments is because of how it shows people’s various reactions to the Beatles’ surprise rooftop concert. The Beatles also seem more relaxed with each other, compared to previous days of the sessions.

During the rooftop concert, people are interviewed on the street by members of the film crew. Reactions are mostly positive. One middle-aged man says of the free concert: “It’s nice to have something for free in this country at the moment.”

Meanwhile, the complainers look like out-of-touch grouches in retrospect. One young man snarls angrily that the roof is “a bloody stupid place to have a concert.” An elderly woman is infuriated when she comments on the Beatles doing a free show on a rooftop: “I don’t see how it makes sense! It woke me up from my sleep, and I don’t like it!”

There’s also a very Keystone Kops moment when two young police officers are the first cops to respond to the noise complaints caused by the concert. One of the cops wants to take charge, but it’s obvious that he’s reluctant to arrest anyone in the Beatles. He does a lot of huffing and puffing and says this empty threat: “We’ve got 30 complaints within minutes … Turn it [the volume] down, or I’m going to have to start arresting people!” Meanwhile, the agitated cop’s partner barely says a word. You can tell that these reactions were not scripted, which makes everything even more hilarious.

Earlier in this episode, Eastman’s then-6-year-old daughter Heather (from Eastman’s first marriage) is shown being an adorable and happy kid in the studio. She brings a lot of joy to the people around her. McCartney treats her like a doting father (he bounces her up in the air and hugs her a lot), while the other Beatles (especially Lennon and Starr) are friendly and attentive to Heather. She’s talkative, curious, and is allowed to run around and play in the studio. When Heather sees Ono shrieking in a microphone, Heather starts to do that too. Lennon reponds to Heather’s vocal imitations by saying jokingly: “Yoko!”

Heather isn’t the only one acting goofy in the studio. A scene in this episode shows Starr, McCartney, Martin and Lindsay-Hogg appearing to have a serious conversation. Suddenly, Starr blurts out: “I’ve farted. I thought I’d let you know.”

Some Beatles associates featured in this episode include tape operator (and future artist/producer) Alan Parsons, sound engineer Keith Slaughter, Apple press officer Sally Burgess, producer/engineer Chris Thomas, Paul McCartney’s younger brother Mike McCartney, Apple office doorman Jimmy Clark and Apple office receptionist Debbie Wellum. When the cops show up during the Beatles’ rooftop concert, Wellum does a brilliant job of acting ignorant in stalling the cops as long as possible from going up to the roof.

But problems in the Beatles remain. While planning the rooftop concert, Paul McCartney is enthusiastic about it, while Harrison says irritably: “I don’t want to go on the roof.” Starr and Lennon chime in and both say consecutively: “I would like to go on the roof.” And with those statements, Harrison is outnumbered, and he seems to stop complaining about having to do this rooftop concert. However, Harrison still voices his dislike of the idea that the Beatles should continue to do films. It’s the opposite of how McCartney feels.

At this point in the Beatles’ history, Harrison is openly discussing taking his rejected Beatles songs and making a solo album out of it. He talks about it with Lennon and Ono, who tells Harrison that she thinks the solo album is a good idea. Meanwhile, Harrison is seen helping Starr come up with some ideas to finish Starr’s song “Octopus’s Garden,” which ended up on the “Abbey Road” album. It’s an example of how underrated Harrison was as a songwriter for the Beatles, because Starr (under his real name, Richard Starkey) is the only credited songwriter for “Octopus’s Garden.” This documentary clearly shows that Harrison co-wrote the song.

In this episode, Harrison talks about trying to finish a song that would become one of his most beloved ballads: “Something,” an “Abbey Road” hit single that was inspired by his then-wife Pattie. The first line of the song ended up being: “Something in the way she moves attracts me like no other lover.” But the documentary shows that Harrison had difficulty coming up with that first line.

Harrison considered using the phrase “attracts me like a Cadillac” or “attracts me like a pomegranate.” Lennon advises Harrison to just write what naturally comes to mind. “The Beatles: Get Back” is superb when it has this type of camaradie moment that shows a glimpse into how a classic Beatles song was written.

Lennon is in mostly a good mood during these final days of filming the documentary. He announces jubilantly that Ono’s divorce from her second husband Anthony “Tony” Cox has become final. (Lennon had already offically divorced his first wife Cynthia in November 1968.) Lennon is also seen praising Klein.

“I think he’s fantastic!” Lennon gushes to Harrison about Klein. “He knows everything about everything! He knows what we’re like. He knows me as well as you do!” The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were both signed to EMI Records at the time. Lennon also says he’s impressed that Klein was able to get an EMI royalty rate for the Rolling Stones that’s higher than the Beatles’ royalty rate, so Lennon wants Klein to do the same for the Beatles.

The Beatles have ther first meeting with Klein in this episode, but the meeting was not filmed for the documentary. In a voiceover, Johns is heard expressing cautious skepticism about Klein: “He’s a strange man, but very, very clever.” Johns also describes Klein’s habit of abruptly changing the subject in a conversation if someone says something that Klein doesn’t want to hear. “That bugs me a bit, actually,” adds Johns of Klein’s rudeness.

Harrison and Starr seem noncommittal about Klein at this point. However, people who watch this documentary should observe the expression on McCartney’s face when Klein’s name is mentioned by Lennon. Beatles fans now know that McCartney had already been planning to have Linda Eastman’s attorney father Lee Eastman take over management duties for the Beatles. McCartney is clearly concerned (and probably annoyed) that Lennon could persuade the other members of the band to want to hire Klein as the manager of the Beatles.

It’s a red flag of the management disagreements that would end up being a huge part of the Beatles’ breakup. But the docuseries ends in the best possible way, by showing the rooftop concert that would be the last time that the Beatles would ever perform together in public. (All of the Beatles’ wives/girlfriends are there except for Harrison’s.)

For the rooftop concert, the documentary shows the band performing “Get Back” (twice, but not consecutively), “Don’t Let Me Down” (twice, but not consecutively), “One After 909,” “Dig a Pony” and “I’ve Got a Feeling.” All these years later, the Beatles are still considered by many people to be the greatest rock band of all time. “The Beatles: Get Back” is a densely layered exploration into their artistic side, but it admirably never loses sight of the Beatles’ human side.

Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in “The Beatles: Get Back” (Photo courtesy of Apple Corps Ltd./Disney+)

Here are the songs that are featured in “The Beatles Get Back” docuseries:

Beatles-Written Songs (for the Beatles or for Solo Material) Performed as Excerpts

In alphabetical order:

  • “Across the Universe”
  • “All Things Must Pass”
  • “Another Day”
  • “The Back Seat of My Car”
  • “Because I Know You Love Me So”
  • “Bonding”
  • “Carry That Weight”
  • “Castle of the King of the Birds”
  • “Commonwealth”
  • “Dehra Dun”
  • “Dig a Pony”
  • “Dig It”
  • “Don’t Let Me Down”
  • “Every Little Thing”
  • “Fancy My Chances With You”
  • “For You Blue”
  • “Get Back”
  • “Gimme Some Truth”
  • “Golden Slumbers”
  • “Half a Pound of Greasepaint”
  • “Help”
  • “Her Majesty”
  • “I Bought a Piano the Other Day”
  • “I Lost My Little Girl”
  • “I Me Mine”
  • “I’m So Tired”
  • “Isn’t It a Pity”
  • “I Told You Before”
  • “I’ve Got a Feeling”
  • “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”
  • “Just Fun”
  • “Let It Be”
  • “The Long and Winding Road”
  • “Love Me Do”
  • “Madmen”
  • “Martha My Dear”
  • “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
  • “Mean Mr. Mustard”
  • “My Imagination”
  • “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
  • “Octopus’s Garden”
  • “Oh! Darling”
  • “Old Brown Shoe”
  • “One After 909”
  • “On the Road to Marrakesh” (which later became “Jealous Guy”)
  • “Please Please Me”
  • “Polythene Pam”
  • “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”
  • “Song of Love”
  • “Strawberry Fields Forever”
  • “Suzy Parker”
  • “Teddy Boy”
  • “Too Bad About Sorrow”
  • “Two of Us”
  • “What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?”
  • “Within You, Without You”
  • “You Wear Your Women Out”

Cover Songs Performed as Excerpts

In alphabetical order:

  • “Act Naturally”
  • “Blue Suede Shoes”
  • “Bye Bye Love”
  • “Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer”
  • “Going Up the Country”
  • “Hallelujah I Love Her So”
  • “Hi-Heel Sneakers”
  • “Honey Hush”
  • “House of the Rising Sun”
  • “Johnny B. Goode”
  • “Kansas City”
  • “The Midnight Special”
  • “The Mighty Quinn”
  • “Miss Ann”
  • “New Orleans”
  • “Queen of the Hop”
  • “Rock and Roll Music”
  • “Save the Last Dance for Me”
  • “School Days”
  • “Shake, Rattle and Roll”
  • “Stand By Me”
  • “Take These Chains From My Heart”
  • “Twenty Flight Rock”

Disney+ premieres each of the three episodes of “The Beatles: Get Back” on November 25, November 26 and November 27, 2021.

UPDATE: Walt Disney Pictures will release the feature film “The Beatles: Get Back—The Rooftop Concert” as an exclusive IMAX event screening with a filmmaker Q&A on January 30, 2022. “The Beatles: Get Back—The Rooftop Concert” will then have a global theatrical engagement from February 11 to February 13, 2022. The complete docuseries “The Beatles: Get Back” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 8, 2022.

National Geographic debuts ‘Cesar Millan: Better Human Better Dog’

July 14, 2021

The following is a press release from National Geogrpahic:

Today, National Geographic announced the highly anticipated return of dog behavior expert Cesar Millan with “Cesar Millan: Better Human, Better Dog,” premiering on July 30, 2021, at 9/8c on National Geographic and simulcast on Nat Geo WILD. The all-new 10-part series brings Cesar back when pet owners need him the most, as the world has changed significantly since Cesar made his television debut 16 years ago. Airing globally in 172 countries and 43 languages, new episodes will air back-to-back on Fridays at 9/8c and 10/9c on National Geographic and encore Sundays at 8/7c and 9/8c on Nat Geo WILD. Episodes will also be available to stream on Disney+ each Wednesday, starting Aug. 4, 2021.

As humans face a world never seen before, they have turned to four-legged friends as a way to console, bringing harmony and peace to their homes. In fact, dog adoptions are hitting record highs over the past year, with some cities reporting a 90% rise in adoption rates. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and sometimes more pooches can cause more problems. Many rescue dogs can come from a troubled past resulting in unknown trust issues, which can be difficult for new owners. “Cesar Millan: Better Human, Better Dog” showcases Cesar Millan as he takes on the most challenging cases yet, treating a host of new canine behavioral issues impacted by well-intentioned but impulsive owners.

In the new series, Cesar opens the gates to the famed Dog Psychology Center, his California ranch retreat for dogs. Here he transforms canines – and families – one case at a time, working to make the world a better place. With updated philosophies, new techniques and family support, Cesar tackles some of the most demanding cases of his career.

Transformations include cases like Goliath, a dog that was once so unpredictably aggressive he blocked paramedics from entering his home during a family emergency. He is now a medical companion animal, able to seek assistance when his owner suffers a seizure. Also, follow Insta-famous Ducky the Yorkie as he em’barks’ on a journey with Cesar to gain comfort and composure with his second owner so that the newlyweds can finally pursue their dreams of starting a family. A rottweiler named Kuma is also transformed from an unstable liability to a calm, confident member of a family with five young children. To complement his efforts, Cesar’s own exotic animal ‘paw’sonal assistants pitch in to assist in the rehabilitation process – including llamas, a parrot and a miniature horse – all full-time residents of the Dog Psychology Center.

Episode descriptions and premiere dates are as follows:

“Fit For Service”

Premieres Friday, July 30, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 4

Cesar welcomes a broken pack to the ranch and helps the pet parents overcome past trauma so they can move forward united. Getting a little help from DPC trainers, Cesar turns a dangerous pit bull into a well-balanced dog who can provide help in an emergency. The pet parents of a famous Yorkie seek help from Cesar to get his frantic behavior under control before they start a family.

“One Brick at a Time”

Premieres Friday, July 30, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 4

Cesar comes to the aid of a 68-year-old recently retired woman, Judy, whose over-excited Australian kelpie, Shadow, has ruined her retirement and has developed a strange fixation with bricks. After several attempts to train and correct both the dog and Judy’s behavior, Cesar is able to transform them both, making for one of the most rewarding transformations in Cesar’s career.

“Canine Quarantine”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 6, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 11

Cesar aids a family of first responders with three large and out-of-control dogs, including an aggressive pit bull. With help from his own pack, Cesar teaches the family new techniques to prevent dangerous behavior and get this pack back on track. First-time dog owners of an over-excited bernedoodle with separation anxiety look to Cesar for guidance to bring order to their home.

“Front of the Pack”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 6, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 11

Cesar helps a military veteran and his pack get back in order when his German shepherd mix, who helped him through his PTSD, has developed an unhealthy bond with him. And later, a young woman looks to Cesar for help when her dachshund puppy’s dangerous habit of eating trash off the ground has put her in a life-threatening situation.

“Pack Attack”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 13, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 18

The Thompson pack is recovering from past trauma at the hands of an abusive ex-husband. Now, the women have suffered another tragedy: coonhound Nyla has become explosively aggressive, accidentally killing one family dog and viciously attacking another. Cesar needs to help the entire Thompson pack heal from past wounds and rehabilitate Nyla before the family is faced with a heartbreaking decision.

“Blind Faith”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 13, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 18

Cesar sets out to help a young couple’s cantankerous Chihuahua, whose recent blindness makes him increasingly hostile to be around. And later, a family makes a desperate plea to Cesar to help them rein in their fast-growing and overexcited Belgian Malinois before he becomes too tough to tame.

“Twin Trouble”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 20, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 25

Cesar works with a Mexican breed close to his heart when he rehabilitates twin dogs whose over-excited behavior has put their owner at risk of eviction from her apartment building. Later, an actress turns to Cesar for help with an overprotective pint-sized pooch that’s creating too much drama of her own.

“Dogs v. Cats”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 20, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Aug. 25

Cesar helps a family of seven with their young Rottweiler, who’s grown aggressive and territorial after a burglary at the family home. With help from his own pack, Cesar instructs the pet parents on techniques to exert leadership behavior and reestablish themselves atop the pack. Parents of a young pitsky with an overactive prey drive toward their cats look to Cesar for guidance to bring order and harmony into their home.

“Tail End of Trauma”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 27, at 9/8c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Sept. 1

Cesar helps a fearful family, which is still holding on to the pain of losing their first dog in a tragic accident, deal with their two-year-old black lab’s similarly aggressive personality. And later, a young 10-year-old girl looks to Cesar for help when her emotional support puppy is causing more chaos than comfort.

“Hijacked Pack”

Premieres Friday, Aug. 27, at 10/9c; Streaming on Disney+ Wednesday, Sept. 1

Cesar sets out to help a young couple’s sensitive Australian cattle dog, whose severe separation anxiety has held hostage the lives of his pet parents for nearly a year. And later, Cesar attempts to calm a blinding Lhasa apso, who lacks basic hygiene and has almost become too hostile for his exhausted owners to provide his needed eye care.

CESAR MILLAN: BETTER HUMAN BETTER DOG is the perfect series for pet owners across America – new and old! Even through troubled times, Cesar constantly overcomes obstacles, instilling faith in disgruntled pet owners. Humans are clearly not the only ones feeling restless with the onset of the dog days of summer. Dogs need help adjusting to the dynamic world we are living in too!

CESAR MILLAN: BETTER HUMAN BETTER DOG is produced by Leepson Bounds Entertainment for National Geographic. Cesar Millan serves as host and executive producer, with special consideration to Cesar’s Way Inc. and support from the Cesar Millan Foundation. For Leepson Bounds, executive producers are David Leepson, Jane Mun, Roger Roddy and Aaron Rice. For National Geographic, executive producer is Breanna Hoepner; senior vice president of unscripted development and production is Janet Han Vissering.

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About National Geographic Partners LLC:

National Geographic Partners LLC (NGP), a joint venture between The Walt Disney Company and the National Geographic Society, is committed to bringing the world premium science, adventure and exploration content across an unrivaled portfolio of media assets. NGP combines the global National Geographic television channels (National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, Nat Geo MUNDO, Nat Geo PEOPLE) with National Geographic’s media and consumer-oriented assets, including National Geographic magazines; National Geographic studios; related digital and social media platforms; books; maps; children’s media; and ancillary activities that include travel, global experiences and events, archival sales, licensing and e-commerce businesses. Furthering knowledge and understanding of our world has been the core purpose of National Geographic for 133 years, and now we are committed to going deeper, pushing boundaries, going further for our consumers … and reaching millions of people around the world in 172 countries and 43 languages every month as we do it. NGP returns 27 percent of our proceeds to the nonprofit National Geographic Society to fund work in the areas of science, exploration, conservation and education. For more information visit natgeotv.com or nationalgeographic.com, or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.

Review: ‘Black Widow’ (2021), starring Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz and Ray Winstone

June 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Scarlett Johansson, David Harbour and Florence Pugh in “Black Widow” (Photo by Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios)

“Black Widow” (2021)

Directed by Cate Shortland

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway and Russia and briefly in Ohio, Hungary and Morocco, the superhero action film “Black Widow” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people and Asians) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: Russian American superhero Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow, battles an evil nemesis from her past named Dreykov, who has sent an assassin named Taskmaster to kill anyone who gets in the way of Dreykov’s goal of world domination through mind control.

Culture Audience: “Black Widow” will appeal primarily to people who already know a lot about what’s going on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Scarlett Johansson (pictured at right) in “Black Widow” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

If you’re not familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), then “Black Widow” might be too confusing for long stretches of the movie. For everyone else, “Black Widow” offers a satisfactory but not particularly outstanding chapter to the MCU. The best parts of the movie are the scenes showing the interpersonal dynamics between an estranged foster family that reunites, because the movie’s visual effects and villains aren’t as compelling as other MCU movies with the Black Widow character.

Directed by Cate Shortland and written by Eric Pearson, “Black Widow” takes place primarily in 2016, in the period of time between 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War” and 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War.” Viewers who haven’t seen or don’t know anything about “Captain America: Civil War” before seeing “Black Widow” will feel like they’ve stepped into a world that has passed them by, because there are several key plot developments in “Captain America: Civil War” that are necessary to know in order to fully appreciate “Black Widow.”

“Black Widow” is strictly a movie for MCU fans, because it assumes that people watching this movie know about have or have seen “Captain America: Civil War” and the other MCU movies leading up to it. “Black Widow” is not the movie for you if you don’t know the answers to these questions before watching the movie: “What is S.H.I.E.L.D.?” “What is Hydra?” “Who else is in the Avengers?”

Likewise, if you don’t know that Avengers superhero Black Widow, also known as Natasha Romanoff (played by Scarlett Johansson), died at the end of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” (it’s really not spoiler information at this point), then the end-credits scene in “Black Widow” won’t make much sense. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is in the “Black Widow” end-credits scene, which makes a direct reference to Black Widow’s death and who Black Widow was with when she died, because it’s a likely revenge plot for a Marvel series on Disney+ or a MCU sequel. The “Black Widow” end-credits scene takes place at the gravestone of Natasha Romanoff, so anyone who sees “Black Widow” who didn’t know that she died will have that part of “Avengers: Endgame” spoiled for them.

If you know absolutely nothing about the MCU and Black Widow (whose first MCU appearance was in 2010’s “Iron Man 2”), then here’s what “Black Widow” does fairly well: It shows more of her backstory, in terms of how she was raised at a certain point in her childhood and why she got separated from her biological family and her foster family. The highlights of “Black Widow” are what happens when she reunites with the foster family she had for three years when she was a child.

Each of these family members has gone on to be involved in shady dealings of the Russian government. It’s an often-contentious, sometimes poignant and occasionally humorous reunion. Their up-and-down interactions speak to the love/hate feelings that people have for past or present loved ones. And that’s the humanity that makes “Black Widow” more than just a bunch of action scenes in a big-budget superhero movie.

“Black Widow” opens with a scene taking place in Ohio in 1995. Alexei Shostakov (played by David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (played by Rachel Weisz) are a Russian immigrant couple raising two girls on a rural farm. The older girl, who’s 11 years old, is a young Natasha Romanoff (played by Ever Anderson), while the younger girl is Yelena Belova (played by Violet McGraw), who’s 6 years old. Why do they all have different last names? Because they’re not biologically related to each other, but they have been living together as a family for three years.

Life seems to be “normal” for this makeshift family when a day comes that the Alexei and Melina have been dreading: The family will be separated by the Russian government. Some military-looking operatives invade the home one night, but Alexei and Melina have already planned their escape. Melina pilots a small plane with Natasha and Yelena as the passengers, while Alexei tries to keep the home invaders away from the plane, by shooting at the invaders with a rifle.

The plan to escape ultimately fails. Melina is shot but not gravely wounded. A terrified but quick-thinking Natasha takes over in piloting the plane. However, this family of four eventually couldn’t evade caputure, even though Natasha pulls a gun on the military men tasked with separating the family. Alexei hands over a mysterious computer disc to a man named General Dreykov (played by Ray Winstone), who is the one in charge of this home invasion. Meanwhile, the girls are drugged and taken away from the only parents they’ve known up to this point.

The movie then fast forwards to 2016. Natasha is in Norway, and is now a fugitive running from U.S. general Thaddeus Ross (played by William Hurt), because she’s has been accused of assaulting the king of Wakanda. (That’s a reference to the African nation of “Black Panther,” in case you didn’t know.) Natasha is also in violation of the Sokovia Accords, a set of regulations for people with superpowers, especially people working for government agencies. Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America, is also a fugitive, although he does not make an appearance in this “Black Widow” movie.

Natasha has been hiding out in a trailer somewhere in rural Norway. Several times in the movie, Natasha will make a reference to the falling out that the superhero group the Avengers had in “Captain America: Civil War.” As her trusted friend Mason (played by O-T Fagbenle) tells her as he hands her a stack of fake IDs to use, “I hear the Avengers are getting divorced.” Any viewers expecting any of the other Avengers to make a surprise appearance in “Black Widow” will be disappointed. Mason also gives Natasha a box of unopened mail that he says came from the Budapest safe house where she previously stayed.

“Black Widow” follows the typical superhero movie trope of a villain wanting to gain possession of an object that will help the villain take over the world. In this movie, it’s explained in a somewhat convoluted way that Dreykov and his cronies have been capturing female orphans and other vulnerable girls. The captured girls are held in a Red Room torture facility in Russia, where the girls are forced to be in a spy program.

In the Red Room, the victims undergo chemical treatments that alter their brain and allow Dreykov to have mind control over them. All of the victims’ reproduction organs are removed, and they grow up to become trained assassins called Widows, who do Dreykov’s bidding. Depending on how much their brains have been manipulated, the Widows have varying degress of memories of their lives before the Red Room.

Natasha and Yelena both spent time in the Red Room, but the movie has no flashbacks to this painful period of time in their lives. However, it’s revealed in conversations that Natasha was brainwashed but able to escape from the Red Room and never underwent the chemical treatments to the brain. Natasha’s spy life in America eventually led her to join the Avengers. Yelena wasn’t so lucky: She got the Red Room’s brain altering chemical treatment, which leaves her vulnerable to Dreykov’s mind control.

It’s why Yelena is seen in Morocco fighting an operative named Oksana (played by Michelle Lee), who is stabbed by Yelena in an outdoor street battle. Before Oksana dies, she takes a capsule and sprays Yelena with a mysterious red gas. Yelena seems to come out of a trance, and Yelena is soon reported as a deserter. It’s later revealed that this red gas is an antidote to Dreykov’s mind control. And that’s why he wants to get all of this antidote that exists in the world.

Somehow, Natasha has a stash of this antidote, so Dreykov sends a mysterious assassin named the Taskmaster after her to get this stash. The Taskmaster is completely covered in armor and doesn’t speak. Therefore, viewers will be guessing who’s really inside the armor. Is it a human being? A robot? Something else? The identity of the Taskmaster is eventually revealed in the last third of the movie.

Because Natasha currently feels all alone in the world, her emotions are raw when she has a tension-filled reunion with an adult Yelena (played Florence Pugh) when they see each other at that safehouse in Budapest. They have a big brawl that leads to an uneasy truce when they find out that they both want to get revenge on Dreykov because he separated their family. Natasha and Yelena also want to defeat Dreykov because they want to stop what’s going on in the Red Room.

Up until Natasha and Yelena reunited, Natasha assumed that Natasha had killed Dreykov in a building explosion that Natasha caused shortly before she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. (S.H.I.E.L.D. is an acronym for the spy/counter-intelligence/superhero-affiliated agency Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.) But when Yelena asks Natasha if she actually saw Dreykov’s dead body, Natasha replies, “There was no body left to check.”

Dreykov’s daughter Antonia (played by Ryan Kiera), who was about 9 or 10 years old at the time, was also in the building when it exploded. And that’s why Dreykov has an extra-personal grudge against Natasha. A flashback scene shows that Natasha knew that Antonia was in the building when Natasha gave the go-ahead for the building to be detonated. The way Natasha describes it to Yelena, Antonia was “collateral damage.”

This cold and calculating side to Natasha is frequently displayed in the story to contrast with Yelena being hotheaded and impulsive. If Yelena is like fire, then Natasha is like ice. The personality differences between these two women can result in their frequent conflicts with each other. But other times, the contrasts between Yelena and Natasha can work to their benefit when they have to team up for a shared goal.

And even though these two women haven’t lived as sisters in 16 years, there’s still some leftover sibling rivalry. Yelena calls Natasha a “poser” because of the crouching stance that Black Widow is known for before she goes in on an attack. Yelena also mocks the way that Natasha whips her hair around during a fight, as if she’s doing a photo shoot. This “poser” insult becomes a recurring joke in the movie.

There’s also a tinge of jealousy in Yelena’s teasing of Natasha. At one point in the movie, Yelena says in an envious tone to Natasha: “We are both trained killers, except I’m not the one on the cover of a magazine. I’m not the killer that little girls call their hero.”

In another part of the conversation, Yelena explains the differences between what she experienced in the Red Room and what Natasha experienced: “What you experienced was psychological conditioning. [With what I experienced], I’m talking about chemically altering brain functions—they’re two completely different things.” Yelena says what it feels like to have the chemical alterations to the brain: “You’re fully conscious but you don’t know which part is you.”

Natasha is the one who brings up the idea of going to the Red Room and killing Dreykov once and for all. Yelena replies, “That sounds like a shitload of work.” Natasha says with a smirk, “It could be fun though.”

And where have Alexei and Melina been since they last saw Natasha and Yelena? Alexei has been in a Russian gulag, where he has been fuming over all the glory and notoriety that Captain America has gotten all over the world. That’s because Alexei has a superhero alter ego named Red Guardian, whose superhero career was cut short when Dreykov betrayed Alexei and made sure that Alexei was sent to prison. Needless to say, Alexei is very bitter about it.

Melina has being working as a scientist, so those skills come in handy when Melina, Alexei, Natasha and Yelena eventually reunite. This “family reunion” is not a surprise, since it’s been in “Black Widow” trailers and is a big selling point for the movie. The initial awkwardness of the reunion—and some of the sarcastic wisecracks that ensue—bring much of the movie’s comic relief.

“Black Widow” has the expected high-energy chase and fight scenes, including a far-fetched sequence of Natasha and Yelena helping Alexei escape from prison. The movie’s visual effects are hit and miss. There’s a big action sequence that takes place in the snow that is one of the standouts. But there are a few scenes that involve explosions where the fire looks too fake.

Even though Black Widow is a superhero, she’s not immune to getting fire burns. And yet, there are too many moments where she’s right in the thick of explosions, and she doesn’t get the serious fire burns that someone would get in real life. Some of the movie’s more dramatic scenes have cinematography that’s drenched in psychedelic red, which viewers will either think looks great or annoying.

Alexei and Melina are kind of like the MCU version of “The Honeymooners” couple Ralph Kramden and Alice Kramden. Alexei is a lot of bluster and ego, while Melina is his “been there, done that” calmer counterpart. There’s a comedic scene where Alexei tries to impress his reunited family, by putting on his old Red Guardian costume, but due to his weight gain since he last wore it, he has a hard time fitting into the costume.

On a more serious note, there’s a scene with Alexei, Natasha and Yelena in a heliocopter where Alexei makes a crude comment to Yelena by asking her if she’s being so uptight because she’s menstruating. Yelena reminds Alexei that she doesn’t menstruate because her reproductive organs were removed in the Red Room. Yelena then gives a detailed description of what reproductive organs were removed, until a very uncomfortable Alexei tells them to stop talking about it. Yelena then says impishly that she was just about to talk about fallopian tubes.

Although this scene has a sarcastic tone to it, it’s a not-so-subtle commentary on the gender politics that are part of this movie’s storyline. The Red Room is an obvious metaphor for a toxic patriarchy where a male villain is responsible for literally ripping away reproductive rights. And throughout “Black Widow,” the women are the ones who make the best and bravest decisions. Alexei has his heroic moments too, but he’s often outsmarted and outshined by the women in his life.

And if weren’t obvious enough in the movie’s trailers, there’s no doubt when watching all of “Black Widow” that this movie is a launching pad for Yelena, who’s clearly going to be a big part of the MCU. Pugh tends to be a scene stealer in all of her movies, and “Black Widow” is no exception, since Yelena brings a lot of relatable strengths and flaws to this character. Johansson’s Natasha/Black Widow is the ice queen in charge, but some of her emotional ice is melted in effective scenes where she finds out the truth about her biological family and how she ended up in the Red Room.

Most of the actors depicting the characters who are supposed to have Russian accents aren’t actually Russian in real life. Johansson and Harbour are American, while Pugh, Weisz and Winstone are British. Ukrainian French actress Olga Kurylenko is in the movie, but she’s in a role that is supposed to be among the plot twists. Out of all the non-Russian actors who have Russian accents in the movie, most are good but not excellent at sounding Russian, except for Winstone who definitely needed more Russian dialect training.

Shortland’s direction of “Black Widow” strikes a mostly well-paced balance between action, drama and touches of comedy. The movie’s biggest flaws are in how little regard it has for viewers who might be new to the MCU and who will have no idea what the characters are talking about for a great deal of “Black Widow.” In other words, “Black Widow” is definitely not a stand-alone MCU movie. Just like a web that a black widow spider can weave, the movie’s a little too tangled up in other MCU storylines and is best enjoyed by people who’ve already seen most if not all the other MCU movies that have Black Widow.

Disney’s Marvel Studios will release “Black Widow” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on July 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Soul,’ starring the voices of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey

December 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) in “Soul” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

“Soul”

Directed by Pete Docter; co-directed by Kemp Powers

Culture Representation: The animated film “Soul” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American and white, with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring jazz musician has a purgatory-like experience where he fights to save his life while encountering a cynical soul that doesn’t want to be born in any body.

Culture Audience: “Soul” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in philosophical stories about the meaning of life that are wrapped in a bright and shiny package of a Disney/Pixar animated movie.

Counselor Jerry (voiced by Richard Ayoade), Counselor Jerry (voiced by Alice Braga), 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), Terry (voiced by Rachel House) and Counselor Jerry (voiced by Fortune Feimster) in “Soul” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar Animation Studios)

Pixar Animation Studios has long been the gold standard for groundbreaking and crowd-pleasing movie animation, with several Oscars and blockbuster films to prove it. Pixar launched in 1986, and was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2020 that Pixar released its first movie with an African American as the lead character. That movie is “Soul,” which does what Pixar does best: blend stunning visuals with sentimental, family-friendly messages. However, the movie isn’t quite the innovative cultural breakthrough that it’s hyped up to be.

“Soul” (directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Kemp Powers) follows a lot of the same thematic tropes that are in a lot of Pixar movies: Someone has to cope with death and/or find a way back home. In order to reach that goal, the protagonist encounters someone who usually has an opposite personality. For any variety of reasons, the two opposite personalities are stuck together on a journey. And they spend most of the story bickering and/or trying to learn how to work together.

In “Soul,” the main protagonist is Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a middle-aged, aspiring jazz pianist in New York City who hasn’t been able to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional musician. Instead, to pay his bills, Joe has become a teacher of band music at a public middle school called M.S. 70, where almost all of the students in his class are less-than-talented at playing music. Joe isn’t particularly happy with how his life has turned out, but he hasn’t lost his passion for playing jazz. It’s a passion that almost no one else shares in his life.

Joe tells his students about the life-changing experience he had as a boy when his father took him to a nightclub to see jazz performed live for the first time. It was the first time that Joe understood the joy of turning a passion into something that can be shared with others. Joe describes to his students how he felt when he saw the jazz musicians expressing themselves in their performance: “I wanted to learn how to talk like that. That’s when I knew I was born to play.”

Joe then says to a student, “Connie knows what I mean. Right, Connie?” Connie (voiced by Cora Champommier) deadpans in response: “I’m 12.” This won’t be the last time Connie will be in the movie, since she represents whether or not Joe has made an impact on any of his students.

Joe, who is an only child, is somewhat of a disappointment to his widowed mother Libba (voiced by Phylicia Rashad), who owns a custom tailor shop. Libba has grown tired of seeing Joe in a series of dead-end, part-time jobs that don’t pay very well. Joe’s father was also an aspiring musician, but he gave up his music dreams because of the financial obligations of raising a family. Joe is a bachelor with no children, so it’s been easier for him to not feel as much pressure to get a full-time job that pays well.

One day, M.S. 70’s Principal Arroyo (voiced by Jeannie Tirado) tells Joe that the school would like to offer him a full-time job as the band teacher. However, Joe isn’t all that excited about the offer, because it means that he’ll have less time to pursue what he really wants to be: a professional musician playing in a real band. Privately, he thinks about whether or not he should accept the offer.

When Joe tells Libba about this job offer, she thinks he’s crazy not to take the offer right away. Libba reminds Joe that a full-time job comes with insurance benefits and a retirement plan, which are things that she thinks Joe needs to have now that he’s reached a certain age. Joe reluctantly agrees to take the school’s full-time job offer.

But then, something unexpected happens that changes his life when he gets a chance to become a professional musician. A former student of his named Lamont “Curley” Baker (voiced by Ahmir-Khalib Thompson, also known as Questlove) calls Joe and tells him that he’s now a drummer for the Dorothea Williams Quartet, a famous group that is in the city for a tour performance. Curley thanks Joe for his mentorship and excitedly mentions to Joe that the band’s regular pianist suddenly “skipped town” and can’t be found.

Curley says that Joe would be the perfect replacement for this pianist for the band’s show that will take place that evening at the Half Note, a popular jazz nightclub. Curley invites Joe to go to the nightclub for an audition. Curley says that if Dorothea Williams likes what she hears from Joe, then Joe could become the permanent pianist for the Dorothea Williams Quartet. Needless to say, Joe is ecstatic but also nervous.

Dorothea (voiced by Angela Bassett) is a hard-to-please taskmaster. And she’s not impressed that Joe has been working as a school teacher, because she thinks it means he isn’t talented enough to be a professional musician. But once Dorothea hears Joe play, she changes her mind and says he can perform with the band that night. She keeps cool about it and doesn’t want to lavish too much praise on Joe.

Joe is so excited about this big break that he calls people on his phone to tell them the good news, while he’s walking down various streets. Joe is so distracted that he doesn’t notice several things that could get him injured. He narrowly misses getting hit by a car when he walks into traffic. He avoids getting hurt by construction work happening on a street where he walks.

But a misfortune that Joe literally falls into is a deep and open manhole that he doesn’t notice while he’s talking on the phone. Joe wakes up in a purgatory-like environment where he finds out that he “died” from this fall. His soul and other souls (which look like ghostly blue blobs) are headed to a place called the Great Beyond, which is implied to be heaven.

However, Joe doesn’t want to accept this fate, and he runs away and tries to hide. What he really wants to do is go back to Earth, have his soul reunited with his body, and recover from his injuries in time to make it to the Dorothea Williams Quartet performance. He believes that this performance is his only shot at fulfilling his dream of becoming a professional musician.

Joe tries to hide in the purgatory, but he’s quickly discovered by spirit-like entities called counselors that look like two-dimensional, bisected figures. Several of the counselors (with male and female voices) are named Counselor Jerry. Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade voice the two Counselor Jerry characters that have the most interaction with Joe. Braga’s Counselor Jerry character is empathetic and patient. Ayoade’s Counselor Jerry character is wisecracking and neurotic. Other actors who are the voices of Counselor Jerry characters include Fortune Feimster, Wes Studi and Zenobia Shroff.

Joe finds out that he hasn’t died yet, but his body is in a “holding pattern,” and he’s in a place called the Great Before, also known as the You Seminar. It’s a place where each soul is numbered and assigned a unique personality before being sent to Earth to inhabit a body. In addition to personality traits, each soul must have a “spark,” in order to be ready to be sent to Earth. In the You Seminar, each soul is assigned a mentor to inspire that spark. (The word “spark” in the movie is another way of saying a person’s biggest passion in life.)

Joe already knows what his spark is (playing music), but through a series of events, he ends up becoming the mentor for a soul whose name/number is 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who is an especially difficult soul because she doesn’t want to be live in anybody on Earth and she wants to stay where she is. She’s very stubborn and likes to cause a lot of mischief. (Technically, 22 could be interpreted as having no gender, but since a woman was chosen to voice the character, 22 will be referred to as “she” and “her” in this review.)

Joe finds out that 22 has had several mentors who tried and failed to help 22 find her spark. The mentors include Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Marie Antoinette, Nicolaus Copernicus and Muhammad Ali. There’s a brief montage sequence that shows how 22 aggravated and disappointed all of her famous mentors. And 22 is so insufferable, cynical and bratty that even Mother Teresa ran out of patience with her.

And so, the rest of the movie is about these two souls who have different agendas and have to find a way to work together. One soul desperately wants to go back to Earth to reunite with his body, while the other soul desperately does not want to go to Earth to avoid inhabiting any body. There’s also a running joke in the film about a very nitpicky, uptight spirit named Terry (voiced by Rachel House), who works as an accountant in the purgatory and notices that a soul (Joe) is missing from the expected Great Beyond population. Terry goes on the hunt to find this missing soul.

“Soul” has a lot of metaphors not just about life after death but also about life on Earth. There’s a subplot about “lost souls” on Earth. And during Joe and 22’s time together, they encounter a soul who’s an aging hippie type named Moonwind (played by Graham Norton), who is the captain of a ship of souls.

What works very well in “Soul,” as is the case of almost every Pixar film, is how the film looks overall. When Joe describes the elation he felt the first time he discovered his passion for music, the screen lights up with an engaging vibrancy of sights and sounds. There are also some almost-psychedelic representations of what the You Seminar looks like that give “Soul” an immersive quality. The human characters look very lifelike. And it all adds up to a very memorable animated film.

“Soul” is not without flaws, however. The movie has a few plot holes that aren’t really explained. For example, there’s a scene in the movie where 22 tells Joe that souls without a body do not have the use of human senses, which is why 22 doesn’t know what it’s like to smell, taste or touch. However, it’s never explained why 22 (and other souls without bodies) have the senses of sight and hearing. Why bother saying that souls in this story cannot have human senses, when the souls can obviously see and hear?

Docter won an Oscar for the 2015 Pixar film “Inside Out,” another existential movie with a plot revolving around the concept that people are unique because of personalities and interests. “Soul” has lot of philosophies about what makes someone human and what a human being’s purpose is in life. Both movies can be enjoyed by people of different generations. However, the storyline of “Soul” is riskier and potentially more alienating.

“Soul” is not a religious movie, but it’s literally a spiritual movie. Its plot and characters are based on spiritual beliefs that when people die, their souls go to another place that can’t be seen by living humans, or souls could be stuck on Earth as “ghosts.” Therefore, what happens in “Soul” won’t have as much of an emotional impact on atheists or other people who believe that death is final and who think that there is no such thing as a soul that can leave a body.

There’s a reincarnation subplot to the “Soul” that isn’t as funny as it could have been, mainly because one of the characters is reincarnated as a cat. There have already been plenty of movies that have over-used the gimmick of a non-human animal that can talk and think like a human. The world has more than enough “talking animals” movies.

As for “Soul” being touted as a racial breakthrough in Pixar animation, the movie falls short of many expectations that Joe’s life as an African American musician would be in the movie more than it actually is. This part of Joe’s identity is only shown as “bookends,” in service of a story that’s really about how Joe can help redeem 22, so that she will want to become a fully formed person with a “spark.”

In fact, Joe’s quest to go back to becoming a living, breathing human being often takes a back seat to 22 and her shenanigans. Joe doesn’t become completely sidelined, since he’s still the main character who’s in almost every scene of the movie. But there are many moments in “Soul” where it feels like the filmmakers deliberately made 22 the scene stealer, while Joe passively reacts to whatever 22 does or wants.

These creative decisions are a bit problematic when Disney and Pixar seem to have a self-congratulatory attitude in promoting “Soul” as the first Pixar movie to celebrate African American culture. Well, it’s not exactly a celebration. It’s more of a polite acknowledgement, because for most of the movie, Joe isn’t even in his own body.

It should be noted that “Soul” was written by Docter (who is white), Powers (who is African American) and Mike Jones (who is white). The vast majority of people on the “Soul” creative team are also white, including producer Dana Murray and chief composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Jonathan “Jon” Batiste,” who is African American, did the jazz compositions for “Soul,” but not the overall music score. The music of “Soul” is perfectly fine, but it just seems a bit “off” that the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to hire any of the numerous qualified African Americans to be the chief composers for this movie about an African American musician. Make of that what you will, but that’s why people say that representation matters.

And it seems like such a waste for “Soul” to not feature the singing talents of Foxx, who plays a musician but not a singer in this movie. (Foxx is a piano player in real life too.) He does a very good job in the role, as do the other “Soul” cast members. However, Joe is at times written as a sidekick to 22, when 22 should be the sidekick throughout the entire time that Joe and 22 are together. It isn’t until the last 20 minutes of “Soul” that the Joe character reclaims the spot as the central focus of the story.

“Soul” certainly meets Pixar’s high standards of a visually compelling film that tackles heavy emotional issues in an entertaining way. The movie has a lot of musing about the meaning of life and positive messages about self-acceptance. These themes in “Soul” are, for the most part, handled well for a movie whose target audience includes a lot of kids who are too young to have deep, philosophical debates. Just don’t expect “Soul” to have major representation of African American culture in the way that Pixar’s “Coco” celebrated Mexican culture.

Disney+ premiered “Soul” on December 25, 2020. The movies was released in cinemas in countries where Disney+ is not available.

Review: ‘Mulan’ (2020), starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Ron Yuan, Gong Li and Jet Li

September 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Yifei Liu in “Mulan” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

“Mulan” (2020)

Directed by Niki Caro

Culture Representation: Taking place in ancient China, the fantasy film remake “Mulan” features an all-Asian cast representing the middle-class, the military and royalty.

Culture Clash: A young woman with superhuman athletic powers disguises herself as a man, in order to fight in China’s Imperial Army, and she experiences sexism as a woman and dangerous conflicts while in combat.

Culture Audience: “Mulan” will primarily appeal people looking for family-friendly movies with a message of female empowerment, but fans of the original “Mulan” might be disappointed by the remake’s lack of humor.

Jason Scott Lee and Gong Li in “Mulan” (Photo courtesy of Film Frame/Disney Enterprises Inc.)

Disney’s re-imagining of its numerous classic animated films has continued with the 2020 live-action version of “Mulan,” which is a very different take on the original 1998 animated “Mulan.” The 2020 version of “Mulan” should be commended for not doing an exact story replica of the original movie, which was the biggest criticism of Disney’s 2019 remake of “The Lion King” that basically did a more technologically updated animated copy of the 1994 classic “Lion King.” Does the remake of “Mulan” have anything groundbreaking? No, but that’s okay if you want to see an escapist film with a positive message about self-confidence and not letting bigotry get in the way of being who are and pursuing your dreams.

The 2020 version “Mulan” (directed by Niki Caro) took some creative risks by retooling the story into a serious action film instead of being a musical with comedic elements, which was the format of the original “Mulan.” But by changing the film’s tone, this “Mulan” remake ends up being a lot more generic than the original version, because the original “Mulan” depicted the characters as having much more distinct personalities. Although the “Mulan” remake is not a depressing movie, there’s very little humor to be found in the story. Much of the charm of the original “Mulan” came from the humorous characters (especially the miniature dragon Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy) and how they interacted with Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen in the original film) in her journey to becoming a warrior.

There are no musical numbers, wisecracking sidekicks or talking animals in the 2020 version of “Mulan.” However, the basic story is essentially the same: A young woman named Mulan in ancient China seems fated to follow a traditional life of being a wife and mother. But something happens that changes the course of her destiny: China is attacked by invaders and goes to war, so Mulan disguises herself as a man and enlists in the army so that her father (who has health problems) won’t have to fight in the war. (In the original “Mulan,” the Huns were the war villains; in the remake, the Rourans are the northern invaders.)

In the remake of “Mulan,” this heroine and her family have known about her “superpowers” or “chi” since she was a child, whereas in the original “Mulan,” it took a while for a fumbling and awkward Mulan to become skilled in combat fighting. Because this metamorphosis is removed from the remake, Mulan (played by Yifei Liu) essentially starts off as a superhero, who has to hide her “chi” powers in order to not be vilified as a witch. (In the original “Mulan,” the family surname was Fa, while the family surname is Hua in the remake.)

In the “Mulan” remake, Mulan has a younger sister named Xiu, who’s about four or five years younger than Mulan. Xiu’s only purpose in the movie is to show that Mulan now has a younger female who looks up to her from an early age, whereas in the original movie, Mulan was an only child. (In the “Mulan” remake, Crystal Rao plays the young Mulan, Elena Askin plays the young Xiu, and Xana Tang plays the adult Xiu.) A scene near the beginning of the film shows Mulan, at around the age of 11 or 12, dazzling Xiu with her graceful nimbleness and athletic abilities.

It’s also established early on in the movie that Mulan inherited her chi from her stern but loving father Zhou (played by Tzi Ma), a military veteran who wears a leg brace from an injury he got during a war. (In the original movie, Zhou’s health problems were from natural causes of old age.) Just like in the original movie, the “Mulan” remake has Mulan’s mother Wuwei (played by Rosalind Chao) as essentially a passive supporting character, because Mulan’s father is the parent who has more influence on Mulan.

The patriarchal sexism that Mulan battles against is still the main underlying conflict of the story, while the war is the obvious external conflict. In the movie, Zhou tells Mulan when she’s a child: “Your chi is strong. But chi is for warriors, not daughters … Soon, you’ll be a young woman, and it’s time to hide your gift away, to silence its voice. I say this to protect you. That is my job. Your job is to bring honor to the family. Can you do that?”

In this Chinese society, girls and women are told that they bring honor to the family by finding the right husbands to marry. In the original “Mulan,” there was a feisty and humorous grandmother who was desperate to see Mulan get married. As is the Chinese tradition, Mulan had to see a matchmaker to assess her qualities as a future wife and to discuss possible suitors who would be a good match for her.

There’s no grandmother in the “Mulan” remake. Instead, there’s an uptight, judgmental and humorless matchmaker (played by Pei Pei Chang) who tells Mulan that a good wife must be “quiet, composed, graceful, elegant, poised, polite, silent and invisible.” At first, the matchmaker gives Mulan her approval, by saying that Mulan has all of these qualities. But then, a wayward spider ends up on the table during the meeting, thereby causing a mishap that leads to Mulan’s extraordinary athletic ability becoming exposed.

The matchmaker is horrified that Mulan isn’t a demure and weak young woman, and so she humiliates Mulan by declaring to the family in full view of people in the town square that Mulan has brought dishonor to her family. Soon after this debacle, representatives from China’s Imperial Army come to the area to declare that each family must volunteer an adult male to serve in the war.

Zhou volunteers, since he is the only adult male in the family, but Mulan is worried that because of his leg disability, he won’t be able to survive the war. When she expresses her concerns to her father, Zhoe shows his patriarchal ego when he lectures Mulan: “It is my job to bring honor to this family. You are the daughter. Learn your place!”

The original “Mulan” had a somewhat iconic scene of Mulan cutting off a lot of her hair in order to disguise herself as a man. There’s no such hair-cutting scene in the “Mulan” remake, which is the movie’s subtle but feminist way of saying that this version of Mulan isn’t going to cut her hair for anyone. Instead, the movie abruptly shows Mulan with her hair in a bun, and she’s already disguised in her armor and taking her father’s lucky sword before she leaves home without her family’s knowledge or consent. The family figures out what happens when they find out that Mulan and the sword have disappeared.

Since the remake doesn’t have any scenes of Mulan fumbling her way through learning combat skills as a new soldier, her discomfort mainly comes from trying to hide her superpowers and her real gender, as well adjusting to being in an all-male environment for the first time in her life. In the original “Mulan,” Mulan used the name Ping as her male alias, whereas her male alias in the “Mulan” remake is Jin.

Mulan/Jin is immediately picked on by a soldier named Honghui (played by Yoson An), who wants to be the alpha male of the new recruits. Honghui’s bullying tactics are a way to test people on their physical and emotional strength. And because he’s singled out Mulan in their first encounter, it’s the obvious cue that he’s going to be Mulan’s love interest when he founds out her real gender. (It’s not a spoiler that Mulan’s true identity is eventually revealed, since it’s in the movie’s trailer and it’s a well-known part of the movie’s plot.) However, people looking for a romantic love story won’t find it in this movie.

Mulan/Jin and Honghui eventually become part of a tight-knit clique of other soldiers that includes macho Yao (played by Chen Tang); romantic Ling (played by Jimmy Wong); mild-mannered Po (played by Doua Moua); and goofy Cricket (played Jun Yu), who’s sometimes the butt of the group’s jokes. Other members of the Imperial Army are Commander Tung (played by Donnie Yen) and Sergeant Qiang (played by Ron Yuan). Commander Tung tells the soldiers that stealing, desertion and consorting with women are punishable by death, while dishonesty is punishable by expulsion.

The “Mulan” remake has definitely more of a female focus than the original, not just because it does away with Mulan having a male sidekick but also how it portrays the movie’s villains. The head of the Rouran invaders is Böri Khan (played by Jason Scott Lee), who gets a lot less screen time than his (literal) wing woman Xianniang (played by Gong Li), a powerful “witch” who can shapeshift into a hawk.

The purpose of Xianniang (a character that wasn’t in the original “Mulan” movie) is to show a parallel between her experiences of being an outcast in China because she’s a powerful woman and the similar experiences that Mulan could go through if it’s revealed that she’s a woman with superpowers. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes is when Xianniang and Mulan cross paths as enemies, but Mulan finds out that they have more in common with each other than Mulan would like to admit.

Mulan thinks Xianniang is foolish for aligning herself with a “coward” like Böri Khan. But Mulan is also in service of men who are in charge, so is Mulan’s situation all that different? The decisions made by the men in charge of the Imperial Army, including the Emperor (played by Jet Li), ultimately decide whether or not Mulan will be accepted for who she is or if she’ll be vilified and cast out from society. The outcome is extremely predictable, but this is a fantasy film that’s not trying to pretend to be historically accurate.

The screenplay for the 2020 remake of “Mulan” was written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, and was inspired by the narrative poem “The Ballad of Mulan.” Some people might say that the “Mulan” remake is more “feminist” than the original “Mulan,” because Mulan is aware of her superpowers from an earlier age, she doesn’t have a “Prince Charming” type of romance, and because the movie has the addition of the powerful female character Xianniang. The filmmakers of the “Mulan” remake seem to understand that feminism isn’t about male-bashing but about people of any gender not being discriminated against because of their gender.

The real world doesn’t always work in a fair and unbiased way, but the message of the movie that’s very realistic is that people can’t overcome gender discrimination obstacles by themselves. In order for real change to be made, enough people (include the right people in power) must make those changes. And if a woman can fight in an army of men, there’s no reason for her to not be able to rescue them too.

Visually, the “Mulan” remake is not a masterpiece, but it gets the job done well in all the right places. The main way that the movie lags is how the personalities of the characters are watered-down from the original “Mulan” movie. All of the actors in the movie do the best with what they’ve been given, but there doesn’t seem to be much depth to any of the predictable characters of the film, except for tormented soul Xianniang.

It’s implied that Xianniang pledged allegiance to Böri Khan because he was the only person who offered her a sense of belonging and family after she became an outcast. He uses her insecurities about being alone in the world to continue to manipulate her emotionally and maintain her loyalty. The “Mulan” remake obviously wanted a more serious tone than the original “Mulan,” so the movie could have benefited from a deeper exploration of this complicated alliance between Böri Khan and Xianniang.

The “Mulan” remake delivers exactly what you would expect from this type of Disney film. The inspirational story, engaging visuals and well-choreographed action sequences are good enough to make this a crowd-pleasing movie for the intended audience. However, many scenes in the remake of “Mulan” look derivative of better-made war movies that have been filmed in a much more majestic way. And if you’re looking for a movie worthy of several Oscar nominations, then this “Mulan” remake is not that movie.

Disney+ will premiere “Mulan” on September 4, 2020. From September 4 to December 3, 2020, the movie has an additional, one-time fee that allows Disney+ subscribers in the U.S. to see the movie on demand for an unlimited time during the Disney+ subscription. As of December 4, 2020, Disney+ subscribers in the U.S. do not have to pay this additional fee to see the movie. Information on additional fees for “Mulan” might vary in countries where Disney+ is available.

Review: ‘Black Is King,’ starring Beyoncé

July 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Beyoncé in “Black Is King” (Photo courtesy of Disney+/Parkwood Entertainment)

“Black Is King” 

Directed by Beyoncé, Kwasi Fordjour, Emmanuel Adjei, Blitz Bazawule, Pierre Debusschere, Jenn Nkiru, Ibra Ake, Dikayl Rimmasch and Jake Nava

Culture Representation: This visual album of Beyoncé’s original songs for the 2019 “The Lion King: The Gift” soundtrack features a predominantly black cast (with a few white people, Asians and Latinos) primarily representing life in Africa in a musical format.

Culture Clash:  Many of the songs’ lyrics and the movie’s narration are about pushing back against fear, bigotry and self-doubt.

Culture Audience: Beyoncé fans are the obvious target audience for this movie, but “Black Is King” should also appeal to people who like to see visually stunning musical numbers set to contemporary R&B music.

Beyoncé (center) in “Black Is King” (Photo courtesy of Disney+/Parkwood Entertainment)

People already know that Beyoncé is capable of making a collection of memorable an impactful music videos, so it’s not too much a surprise that she has done it again with “Black Is King,” a visually intoxicating and emotionally empowering movie that celebrates self-confidence and Afro-centric culture.

Whereas Beyoncé’s visual collection for her critically acclaimed 2016 album “Lemonade” was her feminist response to issues going on in her personal life at the time, “Black Is King” is more of a rousing anthem directed at generations of people, especially those whose ethnic roots are in Africa. There are no conversations in “Black Is King,” but the messages are loud and clear.

Because “Black Is King” is a visual representation of Beyoncé’s 2019 soundtrack album “The Lion King: The Gift,” the songs themselves (and some of the music videos) were made available a year before the full “Black Is King” movie was released. But seeing all of these songs together as musical numbers in “Black Is King” puts the soundtrack in a whole new light.

“Black Is King” is not a traditional movie, since there is no real plot. Rather, it’s an atmospheric journey of eye-catching sights, sounds and philosophical thoughts. The choreography? Spectacular. The hair and makeup? Gorgeous.  The costumes? Unforgettable.

Folajomi “FJ” Akinmurele portrays Beyoncé’s fictional son Little Simba throughout “Black Is King.” At the end of the film, this dedication appears on screen: “Dedicated to my son Sir Carter. And to all our sons and daughters, the sun and the moon bow for you. You are the keys to the kingdom.”

The movie has narration that includes lines from the 2019 “The Lion King” movie, which had Beyoncé as the voice of warrior lioness Nala. But the most intriguing narration comes from a script whose credited writers are Beyoncé, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Clover Hope and Andrew Morrow, featuring poetry by Warsan Shire.

James Earl Jones provides the opening voice narration as he intones in “Balance (Mufasa Interlude)”: “Everything that you see exists together in a delicate balance. You need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling creatures to the leaping antelope. We are all connected in the circle of life.”

Beyoncé also voices several messages of Afro-centric pride, including “Black is the color of my true love’s skin” and “Let black be synonymous with glory” and “Black is king. We were beauty before they knew what beauty was.”

There are also calls of empowerment, such as “Life is a set of choices. Lead or be led astray. Follow your light or lose it.” And she also speaks about the importance of representation: “To live without reflection for so long might make you wonder if you even truly exist.”

It wouldn’t be a Beyoncé visual album without cameos. They include members of her immediate family: husband Jay-Z (real name: Shawn Carter); their children Blue Ivy, Sir and Rumi; and Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles Lawson. “Brown Skin Girl,” with Saint Jhn and Wizkid featuring Blue Ivy Carter, celebrates inner and outer beauty and includes visual appearances by Naomi Campbell, Lupita Nyong’o and Kelly Rowland, who is one of the original members of Destiny’s Child with Beyoncé. Jay-Z, Knowles Lawson and Rowland can also be seen in “Mood 4 Eva.”

And several artists on the audio soundtrack can be seen in “Black Is King,” including Jessie Reyez (“Scar)”; Nija, Busiswa, Yemi Alade, Tierra Whack and Moonchild Sanelly (“My Power” ); Shatta Wale (“Already”); Tiwa Savage and Mr Eazi (“Keys to the Kingdom”); and Salatiel and Pharrell Williams (“Water”).  Meanwhile, Beyoncé hands over the spotlight to Lord Afrixana, Yemi Alade and Mr Eazi, who perform “Don’t Jealous Me.”

Noticeably absent from “Black Is King” are Kendrick Lamar, Major Lazer and Childish Gambino (also known as Donald Glover, the voice of adult Simba in 2019’s “The Lion King”), who are featured artists on the audio soundtrack’s songs but don’t make visual appearances in the “Black Is King” movie. Lamar can be heard on the duet track “Nile,” while Major Lazer is featured on “Already.” Childish Gambino/Glover is a featured artist on “Mood 4 Eva.”

Speaking of “Mood 4 Eva,” it’s one of the highlights of “Black Is King” and it has explosion of beauty that’s both raw and luxurious. (And there’s also a scene of Beyoncé and Jay-Z holding hands that’s reminiscent of their famous 2018 “Apeshit” video that was filmed in the Louvre Museum.) “Don’t Jealous Me,” another standout segment, conjures up African tribal imageries that includes giant yellow python around the neck of certain people, including Beyoncé. “Water” is pure glam, with Beyoncé in outfits ranging from a stunning magenta gown to flared ’70s-styled denim with Rapunzel-length hair.

Although “The Lion King” takes place in Africa, and “Black Is King” is very Afro-centric, “Black Is King” was actually filmed around the world: Africa, New York, Los Angeles, London and Belgium. However, the movie prominently several African actors in the story segments, including Folajomi Akinmurele, Connie Chiume, Nyaniso Ntsikelelo Dzedze, Nandi Madida, Warren Masemola, Sibusiso Mbeje, Fumi Odede, Stephen Ojo and Mary Twala.

Not everyone likes Beyoncé’s music. Not everyone likes the 2019 movie version of “The Lion King.” However, “Black Is King” is a perfect example of why Beyoncé is a superb entertainer who’s a major influence on pop culture while speaking out on issues that are important to her.

Disney+ premiered “Black Is King” in July 31, 2020.

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