Culture Representation: Taking place in the year 10,191, on the fictional planets of Caladan, Giedi Prime and Arrakis, the sci-fi action film “Dune” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.
Culture Clash: A territorial war is brewing between two factions—House Atreides from the planet of Caladan and House Harkonnen from the planet of Giedi Prime—who will rule over the planet of Arrakis, which is the only place to find melange, also known as spice, a priceless substance that can enhance and extend human life.
Culture Audience: “Dune” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Dune” novel and to people who like epic sci-fi adventures with stunning visuals and good acting.
By now, you might have heard that filmmaker Denis Villeneuve wants his version of “Dune” to be split into three parts, in order to better serve the movie adaptation of Paul Herbert’s densely packed 1965 novel “Dune.” People who see Villeneuve’s version of “Dune” are also probably familiar with the 1984 movie flop “Dune,” directed by David Lynch. The 1984 version of “Dune” (starring Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young and Sting) was such a disaster with fans and critics, Lynch wanted to have his name removed from the film credits. That won’t be the case with Villeneuve’s version of “Dune,” which is a sci-fi epic worthy of the novel.
Villeneuve co-wrote his “Dune” screenplay with Eric Roth and Jon Spaihts. Part One of Villeneuve’s “Dune” is of much higher quality than the 1984 “Dune” movie, but any “Dune” movie’s cinematic interpretations tend to be a bit clinical in how the characters are written. “Dune” is a gloomy story, with characters who are, for the most part, very solemn and rarely smile. There are no wisecracking rogues, quirky robot sidekicks or cute alien creatures. In other words, “Dune” is no “Star Wars” saga.
As is the case with most epic sci-fi movies, the biggest attraction to “Dune” is to see the spectacle of immersive production designs and outstanding visual effects. When people say that “Dune” should be seen on the biggest screen possible, believe it. However, it’s a 156-minute movie whose pace might be a little too slow in some areas. If you’re not the type of person who’s inclined to watch a two-and-a-half-hour sci-fi movie that’s not based on a comic book or a cartoon, then “Dune” might not be the movie for you.
And this is a fair warning to anyone who likes their sci-fi movies to have light-hearted, fun banter between characters: “Dune” is not that type of story, because everything and everyone in this story is deadly serious. People might have laughed when watching Lynch’s “Dune,” but it was for all the wrong reasons.
And yes, “Dune” is yet another sci-fi /fantasy story about a young hero who leads a war against an evil villain who wants to take over the universe. In the case of “Dune,” the hero is Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet), the House Atreides heir who is the son of a duke. House Antreides exists on the oceanic planet of Caladan. And like any war story, the war usually starts with feuding over power.
House Antreides has had a rivalry with House Harkonnen from the planet of Giedi Prime. In the beginning of the movie, Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV has ordered Paul’s father Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac) to serve as fief ruler of Arrakis, a desert planet with harsh terrain. Arrakis is the only place to find a priceless treasure: melange, also known as spice, a dusty substance that can enhance and extend human life.
Prolonged exposure to spice can turn humans’ eyes blue in the iris. Gigantic sandworms ferociously guard the spice. And therefore, harvesting spice can be a deadly activity. However, because spice is the most sought-after substance in the universe and can make people wealthy, people will go to extremes to get it and to be in charge of Arrakis. The native people of Arrakis are called Fremen. The movie presents this colonialism of the Fremen people in a matter-of-fact way, with some (but not a lot of) initial insight into how the Fremen people feel about being ruled over by another group of people from a foreign land.
House Harkonnen had previously overseen Arrakis until that responsibility was given to House Antreides. Leto and his troops are under orders to visit Arrakis, but it’s a set-up so that House Harkonnen enemies can ambush the people from House Antreides. Leto suspects that this trap has been set, but he has no choice but to follow orders and see about the territory that has now come under his stewardship.
The chief villain of House Harkonnen is its leader, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (played by Stellan Skarsgård), an obese and ruthless tyrant who has a penchant for spending time in saunas filled with a tar-like substance. In the 1984 “Dune” movie, Baron Vladimir was a cartoonish character who floated through the air like a demented balloon that escaped from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In the 2021 “Dune” movie, Baron Vladimir is a menacing presence that is undoubtedly pure evil. (This “Dune” movie has shades of “Apocalypse Now” because Baron Vladimir is presented in a way that might remind people of “Apocalypse Now” villain Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.)
Baron Vladimir’s closest henchmen are his sadistic nephew Glossu Rabban (played by Dave Bautista) and coldly analytical Piter De Vries (played by David Dastmalchian), who is a Mentat: a person that can mimic a computer’s artificial intelligence. At House Antreides, the Mentat is Thufir Hawat (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson), while the loyal mentors who are training Paul for battle are no-nonsense Gurney Halleck (played by Josh Brolin) and adventurous Duncan Idaho (played by Jason Momoa), who is the closest that “Dune” has to having a character with a sense of humor.
Paul confides in certain people that he’s been having premonition-like dreams. In several of these visions, he keeps seeing a young Fremen woman who’s close to his age. Paul won’t meet her until much later in the movie. He will find out that her name is Chani (played by Zendaya), and she becomes a huge part of his life in a subsequent Villeneuve “Dune” movie. Don’t expect there to be any romance in Part One of the movie. When Chani meets Paul for the first time, it’s not exactly love at first sight for Chani. She has this dismissive reaction and says to Paul: “You look like a little boy.”
Paul also keeps envisioning Duncan as living with the Fremen people and being their ally in battle. Paul is also disturbed by a vision of seeing Duncan “lying dead among soldiers after battle.” And speaking of allegiances, Paul’s intuition tells him that there is someone in House Antreides who is a traitor. That person will eventually be revealed. Until then, it’s pretty obvious from Paul’s visions that he has psychic powers. The question then becomes: “How is he going to use those powers?”
Among the other Fremen people who are depicted in the movie is Stilgar (played by Javier Bardem), the leader of the Fremen tribe called Sietch Tabr, whose members include a fighter named Jamis (played by Babs Olusanmokun). Arrakis also as an Imperial judge/ecologist named Dr. Liet-Kynes (played by Sharon Duncan-Brewster), who acts as a go-between/negotiator between the Fremen people and those who come from foreign lands.
There are some poignant father-son moments between Paul and Leto. Their best scene together is after a devastating battle loss when Paul, who is reluctant to be the next ruler of House Antreides, gets reassurance from Leto. The duke says to his son that he didn’t want to be the leader of House Antreides either, because Leto wanted to be a pilot instead. Leto tells Paul that it will ultimately up to Paul to decide whether to be the leader of House Antreides “But if the answer is no,” Leto says, “You’re all I’ll ever needed you to be: my son.”
However, Paul ends up spending more time bonding (and sometimes disagreeing) with his mother Lady Jessica (played by Rebecca Ferguson), a brave warrior who is a member of Bene Gesserit, an all-female group with extraordonary physical and mental abilities. Jessica defied Bene Gesserit’s orders to bear a female child and had Paul instead. Villeneuve’s “Dune” spends a great deal of time showing Paul and Jessica’s quest on Arrakis than Lynch’s “Dune” did. Paul seems to know that he was born as a special child, but at times, it brings him more insecurities than confidence. At one point, Paul yells at his mother Jessica: “You did this to me! You made me a freak!”
One of the influential supporting characters who’s depicted in Villeneuve’s version of “Dune” is Gaius Helen Mohiam (played by Charlotte Rampling), a Bene Gesserit reverend mother and the emperor’s truthsayer. She has one of the most memorable scenes in “Dune” when she gives Paul a pain endurance test that further proves that Paul is no ordinary human being. Dr. Wellington Yueh (played by Chang Chen) is a Suk doctor for House Antreides, and he plays a pivotal role in the story.
Chalamet’s portrayal of Paul is someone who can be introspective yet impulsive. He skillfully portrays a young adult who’s at the stage in his life where he wants to prove his independent identity yet still seeks his parents’ approval. Momoa is also a standout in the film for giving more humanity to a role that could’ve been just a stereotypical warrior type. Ferguson also does well in her performance as the strong-willed Jessica.
But make no mistake: “Dune” is not going to win any major awards for the movie’s acting. Before being released in theaters and on HBO Max, “Dune” made the rounds with premieres at several prestigious film festivals, including the Venice International Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. This festival run is in indication that the filmmakers want this version of “Dune” to be a cut above a typical blockbuster sci-fi movie. “Dune” excels more in its technical aspects rather than in the movie’s acting performances or screenplay.
“Dune” has the type of fight scenes and musical score (by Hans Zimmer) that one can expect of an action film of this high caliber. But even with a movie that’s rich with characters who are heroes, villains and everything in between, it’s enough to say that the sandworms really steal scenes and are what people will remember most about this version of “Dune.” The overall visual effects and a reverence for the “Dune” novel as the source material are truly what make this version of “Dune” an iconic sci-fi movie.
Warner Bros. Pictures released “Dune” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on October 21, 2021, a day earlier than the announced U.S. release date of October 22, 2021. The movie was released in various other countries, beginning in September 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in 1979 in Mexico and briefly in Texas, the dramatic film “Cry Macho” has a cast of white and Latino characters representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.
Culture Clash: At the request of his former boss, a has-been horse breeder travels from Texas to Mexico to retrieve the boss’ 13-year-old son to live with the boss in Texas, even though the son doesn’t know his father.
Culture Audience: “Cry Macho” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dull and old-fashioned Western dramas with some hokey dialogue and corny scenarios.
The Western drama “Cry Macho” is set in 1979, but that doesn’t excuse why this monotonous and outdated movie seems like it was written for a moldy TV Western from 1979. It’s got corny scenarios galore and a story filled with banal clichés. Clint Eastwood is the director and star of “Cry Macho,” where he seems to be going through the motions, giving the impression that he’s gotten tired of trying to do something uniquely creative with his talent. This lethargic type of filmmaking might put people to sleep if they try to watch “Cry Macho.”
The “Cry Macho” screenplay is written by N. Richard Nash and Nick Schenk, who both adapted the screenplay from Nash’s novel of the same name. In the production notes for “Cry Macho,” the filmmakers seem to be very proud that “Cry Macho” is Eastwood’s first movie since his 1991 Oscar-winning Western drama “Unforgiven” where he’s seen riding a horse. But just because Eastwood is riding a horse in a movie doesn’t automatically make it a good movie.
In “Cry Macho,” Eastwood depicts Mike Milo, yet another in Eastwood’s long list of grouchy loner characters that he’s been doing in his most recent films. Mike is a widower who used to be a rodeo star until a rodeo injury decades ago left him with a broken back that led to addictions to painkiller pills and alcohol. Mike has been spending the past several years working as a horse breeder/trainer on a ranch in an unnamed city in Texas. However, he’s way past his prime, and his addictions have negatively affected his ability to do his work well. He’s also past the age when most people have retired.
The movie opens with Mike getting fired from his job. His now-former boss Howard Polk (played by Dwight Yoakam) tells Mike that there used to be a time when Howard was afraid of losing Mike to another employer. Howard bluntly tells Mike when firing him: “I’m not afraid of losing you to anybody now. You’re a loss to no one. It’s time for new blood.”
Mike has some choice words for his ex-boss as Mike leaves the ranch: “I’ve always thought of you as a small, weak and gutless man. But you know what? There’s no reason to be rude.” This is the kind of dialogue that litters “Cry Macho.” It’s like something out of the TV soap opera “Dallas,” which was a popular show around the time that this story takes place. Unfortunately, there’s no one in “Cry Macho” who’s as compelling to watch as “Dallas” villain J.R. Ewing. Even the most secondary characters in “Dallas” had more charisma than anyone in “Cry Macho.”
A few days after Mike gets fired, Howard shows up unannounced in Mike’s home. Howard tells Mike that he wants Mike to do a big favor for him. Howard explains that he has a 13-year-old son named Rafael, nicknamed Rafo, whom he doesn’t know and who lives in Mexico. Rafo’s mother Leta, who is Howard’s ex-wife, has custody of Rafo, but Howard describes Rafo’s living situation as “abusive.” Howard and Leta split up when Rafo was too young to remember Howard, who has not been involved in raising Rafo.
Howard says that Leta is a “nutcase” and a “mess” who used to be fun to party with, and he wants Mike to go to Mexico to take Rafo to come live with Howard in Texas. Howard calls it a “rescue,” but it’s really a kidnapping. Howard says that he can’t do it himself because he has “legal issues” that prevent him from going back to Mexico.
As a way to convince Mike to take on this heavy task, Howard tries to appeal to Mike’s ego. Howard tells Mike that when Mike sees Rafo, “He’ll listen to you. You’re a real cowboy … Tell him he’ll have his own horse. It’s every boy’s dream.”
Mike immediately says no to this request to take Rafo to Texas, but Howard puts Mike on a guilt trip, by reminding him that he could’ve fired Mike years ago when people advised Howard to get rid of Mike. Howard says that he kept Mike employed and therefore helped him out financially for a lot longer than most bosses would. Howard essentially tells Mike that Mike owes it to Howard to do this favor, so Mike reluctantly agrees. Howard gives two things to Mike to help in this mission: Leta’s address and a photo of a 6-year-old Rafo, which is the most recent photo that Howard has of his son.
And the next thing you know, Mike has driven his truck to Mexico and shows up at Leta’s mansion, where she’s having a big party. Based on Howard’s description of his legal problems, his party-fueled past relationship with Leta (played by Fernanda Urrejola), and the dysfunctional living situation that Rafo is in, it should come as no surprise when Mike quickly figures out that Leta is involved in drug trafficking. She also has bodyguard goons to do what she tells them to do.
Mike finds Leta at the party and is up front in telling her that he’s there to take Rafo back to Texas to live with Howard. She says she’s not surprised because it’s not the first time that Howard has tried to get Rafo to live with Howard. Leta has this to say to Mike about Rafo: “My son is wild—an animal who lives in the gutter—gambling, fighting, cock fighting. Take him if you can find him. He’s a monster … He’s like his father. He runs away. He hates his father. He hates me.”
After that cheery little family pep talk, it doesn’t take long for Mike to find Rafo. The teenager is at a cock fight, where Rafo is handling his cock-fighting rooster named Macho. Before things get vicious in the cock fight, Mike pulls Rafo aside and tells Rafo why he’s there. Rafo is immediately suspicious, but Mike is able to prove that he knows Howard. Mike also assures Rafo that Howard is ready and willing to be an attentive father to Rafo.
Rafo is also intrigued by Mike’s promise that Rafo will get to live on a big Texas ranch with his own horse. Rafo’s biggest fear, which frequently comes up in the movie, is that his father Howard will change his mind about wanting Rafo to live with him. Rafo obviously doesn’t like living with his mother Leta, so it doesn’t take long for Rafo to go with Mike to see if he can have a better life with his father Howard. And so, Rafo and his rooster Macho go on a road trip with Mike back to Texas. (“Cry Macho” was actually filmed in New Mexico.)
Rafo actually isn’t the “monster” that his mother described him as. He’s a troubled kid with abandonment issues, and he has a hard time trusting people. However, once someone gains Rafo’s trust, he opens up and shows a friendly side to himself. Part of the movie is predictably about Mike being a temporary father figure to Rafo during this road trip. The movie’s obvious theme is what it means to have a masculine identity.
But since this is a movie, things can’t be as simple as a “teaching this boy to be a man” type of story. After Leta and Mike met for the first time at the party and he left, Leta told one of her henchman named Aurelio (played by Horacio Garcia Rojas) to follow Mike. And you know what that means: Leta doesn’t want to let Rafo go as easily as she says she does.
Because it’s already been established that Howard is a shady character, it’s also not surprising that he has an ulterior motive for wanting Rafo to live with him. That secret (which Howard eventually reveals to Mike) becomes another source of conflict. And the biggest cliché in a road trip movie happens in “Cry Macho”: The car breaks down in a small town, so they’re stuck in an unfamiliar place while waiting to get the car repaired. It’s all just a way to stretch and pad out the already thin plot.
One good thing that “Cry Macho” has going for it is that the story is uncomplicated and easy to understand. The problem is that the movie is almost like a children’s elementary reading book in how it doesn’t go beyond the most basic of plots. The characters are predictable and quite two-dimensional.
A road trip like this one should be filled with more insight and self-discovery. But in this movie, there’s a tedious stretch of the movie where Mike teaches Rafo how to ride horses. Among the movie’s many other Western movie clichés, there’s a bumbling police deputy named Diaz (played by Jorge-Luis Pallo), who likes to pretend that he’s the sheriff of the town.
The word gets out that Mike is good with animals. And suddenly, the townspeople go to him with their sick animals, as if Mike is the friendly neighborhood veterinarian. Mike even quips that they must think he’s Dr. Dolittle. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.
And what do you know, here comes another Western movie cliché: What’s a lonely cowboy to do when he’s stuck in a small town? He meets a woman who runs the local eating/drinking establishment, which in “Cry Macho’s” case is not a saloon but a diner. Mike’s love interest is a widowed grandmother named Marta (played by Natalia Traven), who is very hospitable and generous to Mike and Rafo, but she is ultimately a generic character.
“Cry Macho” isn’t an atrocious movie, but it’s very disappointing in how little it does with what could have been an intriguing story and instead churns out a hack movie that has very little imagination. Eastwood does absolutely nothing new or interesting with the Mike Milo character. He can do this type of character in his sleep. And it shows, because at times it looks like you’re watching someone who’s sleepwalking through a performance.
And although it’s great that Eastwood cast a relative newcomer in the role of Rafo (“Cry Macho” is Minett’s second feature film), this casting decision could’ve been better because Minett unfortunately does not have the acting skills that his more experienced co-stars have. There are moments when he’s too stiff, and other moments when he’s too melodramatic. “Cry Macho” is like an old show horse that plods along when it’s put out to pasture because it’s lost its vibrancy and just doesn’t seem to care anymore.
Warner Bros. Pictures released “Cry Macho” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on September 17, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Seattle, the horror flick “Malignant” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: While recovering from an abusive marriage and a pregnancy miscarriage, a woman experiences nightmarish visions and a sinister force that seems to be targeting her for violence.
Culture Audience: “Malignant” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in slightly campy horror movies that are suspenseful and have intriguing twists and turns.
It’s always refreshing when a horror movie fully commits to an absolutely insane twist ending that viewers will either love or hate. “Malignant” doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s serious about bringing its own quirky spin to the horror cliché of a woman being menaced by an unknown entity. The movie also has sobering (and possibly triggering) portrayals of domestic violence and pregnancy miscarriage. By the end of the movie, “Malignant” reveals that the concept of a mind playing tricks on someone isn’t limited to just the movie’s protagonist.
Directed by James Wan and written by Akela Cooper, “Malignant” sometimes crosses the line into campy territory when depicting the inevitable murders that happen and frequent hysteria that results from these killings. Wan is a horror master who is best known in horror filmmaking for creating “The Conjuring” universe. It’s a movie franchise that’s straightforward about what’s behind the evil mayhem (it’s a cursed doll named Annabelle) that’s unleashed on the victims in “The Conjuring” and related movies. Wan also co-created with “Saw” horror movie franchise with Leigh Whannell. By contrast, the answers to the mystery aren’t so transparent in “Malignant,” which is an original movie that is not related to the “The Conjuring” and “Saw” franchises.
Annabelle Wallis was the star of 2014’s “Annabelle,” a dull and disappointing prequel to 2013’s “The Conjuring.” In “Annabelle,” which takes primarily in 1955, Wallis had a bland and somewhat forgettable role as a housewife who unwittingly brings home the Annabelle doll. In “Malignant,” Wallis has a much better showcase for her acting talent, in a role that is physically and emotionally more demanding. Wallis takes on the role with admirable and convincing gusto.
In “Malignant,” Wallis is Madison “Maddie” Mitchell, an abused wife who has suffered through several miscarriages. When viewers first see Maddie, she is about seven or eight months pregnant with a baby girl whom she has nicknamed Dumpling. Maddie is an aide at a hospital, where she has continued to work through this late stage in her pregnancy because she had her unemployed husband Derek Mitchell (played by Jake Abel) need the money.
Derek has a mean streak and a violent temper. When Maddie comes home from an exhausting day at work, it doesn’t take long for him to pick a fight with her. He berates her for having had previous miscarriages. Derek gets so angry that he punches Maddie in the abdomen very hard, and the force of the punch makes her hits her head against the wall.
Maddie starts bleeding in the back of the head. Like many abusers, Derek is apologetic about the harm that he caused and he offers to get Maddie some ice to treat her injury. Like many abuse victims, Maddie doesn’t call anyone for help or to report the abuse. She locks herself in a room and sobs about her miserable life.
Later that night, Derek is viciously murdered while he’s sleeping on the living room sofa. Maddie was the only other person who was known to be home at the time, so she immedately falls under suspicion for the murder. She insists that a male intruder committed the murder, and she claims the intruder attacked her. However, Maddie’s description of the intruder is so vague (a black shadowy figure) that police officers investigating the case think that Maddie is lying.
It doesn’t take long for the investigation cops—George Young (played by Kekoa Shaw) and Regina Moss (played by Michole Brianna White)—to find out that Derek was abusing Maddie, thereby giving Maddie a motive to kill him. George is more compassionate to Maddie in the interrogations than Regina is. George is more willing to give Maddie the benefit of the doubt, while Regina is more inclined to think that Maddie is guilty of Derek’s murder.
At various times in the story, Maddie is put under psychiatric evaluation. She has nightmares with visions of other murders that are exactly like murders that end up happening. Because she seems to know too much information, George and Regina have no choice but to put Maddie on the top of their list of possible suspects. One person who completely believes in Maddie’s innocence is her younger sister Sydney Lake (played by Maddie Hasson), who is Maddie’s only real source of support.
Maddie’s head injury mysteriously doesn’t heal. Throughout the story, Maddie notices that the back of her head is bleeding again. And coincidence or not, every time she notices this bleeding, something bad usually happens not long afterward. She also starts to act increasingly unhinged and starts babbling about having an imaginary friend.
The opening scene of “Malignant” indicates that there are dark secrets that will eventually be revealed. This first scene takes place at Simon Research Hospital in Seattle in 1993. Someone named Gabriel has been unleashing an attack on the hospital’s staff. This attack includes causing the electricity to go haywire.
Gabriel is eventually subdued. And under the orders of Dr. Florence Weaver (played by Jacqueline McKenzie), Gabriel is strapped to a chair. “You’ve been a bad, bad boy, Gabriel,” Dr. Weaver scolds him. When Gabriel threatens, “I will kill you all,” Dr. Weaver responds, “It’s time to cut out the cancer.” What Gabriel looks like is shown in this scene, but it won’t be described in this review. It’s enough to say that this scene goes a long way in explaining what’s revealed later in the movie.
“Malignant” is the type of gruesome horror movie that tries to inject some comedy in a tension-filled story. There’s a minor subplot about a young police constable named Winnie (played by Ingrid Bisu), who has a crush on her older co-worker George. Winnie’s eager-to-impress attitude with George is looked at with amusement or pity by jaded co-worker Regina. George keeps his relationship with Winnie strictly professional, but Winnie’s obvious crush on him leads to some comedically awkward moments.
For all of its mystery and suspense, “Malignant” is not without its flaws. There’s a kidnapping and attempted murder that happens to a Seattle Underground tour guide (played by Jean Louisa Kelly), who ends up in a coma in a hospital. However, the movie unrealistically has her listed as a Jane Doe, even though it wouldn’t be that hard for the cops to find out who she is, based on her job and the circumstances under which she was found. It’s a minor plot hole that doesn’t ruin the movie because her identity is eventually discovered.
The big plot twist/reveal at the end of the movie isn’t completely shocking, because there were some big clues along the way. However, it still feels a little too rushed in at the movie’s big climactic scene, without giving viewers enough time to absorb the magnitude of this reveal. That might have been the intention to give the plot twist/reveal a maximum shocking effect. However, the way that this reveal was filmed could have been slightly better.
All of the actors in the cast do perfectly fine jobs in their roles, with Wallis being the obvious standout, even though “Malignant” is not the type of movie that’s going to win awards. However, Wallis skillfully portrays a character whose words and actions make her harder to figure out over time. Viewers will start to wonder how much of Maddie’s visions are real and how much are pure insanity. It’s that mystery—rather than the typical horror movie violence that ensues—that will keep viewers of “Malignant” on edge, because what’s in someone’s mind can be scarier than some bloody murder scenes.
Warner Bros. Pictures released “Malignant” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on September 10, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Miami and New Orleans, the sci-fi dramatic film “Reminiscence” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos and one Māori person) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.
Culture Clash: A private investigator, who is in the business of helping people recover memories, becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to a former client/lover who suddenly disappeared.
Culture Audience: “Reminiscence” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Hugh Jackman, but even he can’t save this boring sci-fi drivel.
The sci-fi drama “Reminiscence” features several people submerged in a water tank as they recover or relive their memories. Ironically, this ill-conceived movie is utterly forgettable, as it submerges viewers in a story that’s both convoluted and predictable. Hugh Jackman’s charisma as a leading man is stifled as he plays a grim private detective who is obsessed with finding an ex-lover who suddenly vanished from his life.
Adding to this film’s muddled tone, “Reminiscence” (written and directed by Lisa Joy, in her feature-film directorial debut) can’t decide if it wants to be a futuristic adventure or a tribute to classic noir. The movie looks like it wants to be an action thriller, but there’s more mopey drama than action. The fight scenes are extremely formulaic and almost mind-numbing.
Mostly, the pace drags in this jumbled story where bitter people sulk and get angry because they think their lives have gone downhill in some way. Almost every character in this film dosn’t have a memorable personality. Good luck to anyone who tries to stay awake during this 116-minute snoozefest.
“Reminiscence” takes place in Miami, in an unidentified future year when climate change has caused unbearable heat outside during the day, and Miami is close to being swallowed up by the Atlantic Ocean. Miami and the surrounding areas in Florida have become more nocturnal than ever before, because of the extreme daytime heat from the sun.
But apparently, in this futuristic version of Miami, no one wants good lighting, because it’s constantly dark indoors. The darkly lit cinematography is “Reminiscence” is supposed to evoke a society that’s on the brink of an environmental disaster. The only disaster going in is how this awful movie wastes the talents of the cast members.
It’s in this darkly lit and depressing Miami where private investigator Nick Bannister (played by Jackman) lives and works. Nick is a never-married bachelor with no children. He owns a detective agency that’s small (only two employees, including Nick) and struggling to stay in business. Nick’s specialty at the detective agency is helping people recover their memories. The agency’s work space (which looks more like an abandoned warehouse than an office) is predictably dark, cluttered and dingy in this dark, cluttered and dingy movie.
For this memory recovery process, Nick has a massive water tank that’s not widely available, and he doesn’t want too many people to know that he has this tank. Therefore, he doesn’t advertise and gets most of his business through word of mouth. The tank was originally designed to interrogate people who were detained by the U.S. military. Nick is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, where he worked in border patrol. It’s implied that he got access to this tank through his military service.
During his time in the military, Nick injured one of his legs, so he walks with a limp. This limp magically seems to disappear during some of the action scenes. A better director would’ve noticed this discrepancy and corrected it. Nick’s only employee is a cynical alcoholic named Emily “Watts” Sanders (played by Thandie Newton), who is also a military veteran. Even though Watts is an alcoholic, she’s more responsible and more business-minded than Nick is.
In order to a use the dectective agency’s memory tank, a person must first be injected with a sedative, then submerged in the tank, where a special helmet must be worn that can connect to brain electrodes. When someone is reliving a memory, it’s depicted as being a participant in a virtual reality experience. Memories while in the tank can also take the form of looking like holograms.
It’s possible for someone to stay in the tank for long periods of time and have a state of being that’s very similar to someone in a coma. Nick has found that his regular clients have become addicted to accessing happy memories. Watts is more concerned than Nick is about people getting addicted to using the memory tank. Nick thinks Watts has no place being judgmental about addiction, considering her alcohol addiction that she doesn’t seem too concerned about stopping.
All of this sounds like the basis for a good story. However, “Reminiscence” becomes very disjointed and often illogical. Viewers will get the impression that “Reminiscence” writer/director Joy came up with separate ideas for this movie and then tried to make them all fit into the overall narrative. The result is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle where too many of the pieces obviously don’t belong.
In the movie’s first scene with Nick and Watts together, she abruptly scolds him for being late. Nick says in response that being late is a construct of linear [time], which is a concept that he doesn’t think applies to the work of this detective agency. Watts snaps back sarcastically, “And yet, we charge by the hour.”
One day, right before they close the agency for the night, a mysterious woman suddenly arrives and says she needs their help to find her missing keys. Watts tries to tell her to come back during open business hours, but Nick is immediately attracted to the woman and tells her that they can accommodate her request.
She introduces herself as Mae (played by Rebecca Ferguson), and she says that she’s a cabaret nightclub singer. She’s wearing the type of slinky red evening gown that looks like she just left a nightclub or she raided the closet of animation seductress character Jessica Rabbit from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Mae’s sensual nightclub singing scenes and how she’s styled for them look very much like they were inspired by Jessica Rabbit.
At the detective agency during Mae’s sudden appearance, Watts offers Mae a swimsuit, because it’s what people usually wear inside the water tank. But to the surprise of Nick and Watts, this woman they just met has no qualms about stripping completely naked in front of them before she gets in the tank. Mae confidently tells Nick that he’s going to see her naked anyway. And she’s right. At least this movie doesn’t try to play coy about Mae and Nick inevitably becoming romantically involved.
With the help of the memory tank, Mae finds out where she left her keys. But since she essentially told Nick that she wants to get to know him intimately, he’s not going to just let her walk out of his life. He shows up at one of her nightclub gigs to see her perform, he asks her out on a date, and they end up having a hot and heavy romance.
Meanwhile, Nick makes extra money by assisting the Miami district attorney Avery Castillo (played by Natalie Martinez) in getting information from witnesses. Avery is currently involved in a high-profile case where a wealthy land baron named Walter Sylvan (played by Brett Cullen) has been accused of masterminding arson of some of his property, in order for him to collect on hefty fire insurance payouts. Walter has pleaded not guilty. His wife Tamara Sylvan (played by Marina de Tavira) and his young adult son Sebastian Sylvan (played by Mojean Aria) loyally stand by him and are unwavering in their support.
Another member of law enforcement whom Nick is in close contact with is Miami police officer Cyrus Boothe (played by Cliff Curtis), who seems to be on a power trip where he has a lot of disdain for disenfranchised people. In a city that’s on the verge of an apocalypse, Cyrus wants to wield as much power as he can. It should come as no surprise what he’s willing to do to fulfill his ambitions.
And a movie about a private detective and law enforcement in Miami predictably has a storyline about drug dealers too. In “Reminiscence,” the world is plagued by the abuse of an illegal opioid-like drug called baca. One of the top distributors/sellers of baca is a drug lord called Saint Joe (played by Daniel Wu), who is a stereotypical drug lord in a movie. Unfortunately, Wu’s stiff acting doesn’t make him look convincing as a dangerous drug lord. It just makes him look like an actor who needs more acting lessons.
After getting involved with Mae and thinking that their romance could turn into a long-term commitment, Nick is shocked to find out that Mae has suddenly moved away without telling anyone where she went. Upon investigation, Nick discovers that Mae was not kidnapped but left on her own free will. This discovery sends him down a rabbit hole of obsession to find out where Mae is.
Nick’s investigation eventually leads him to New Orleans, where he finds clues about a mysterious and vulnerable woman named Elsa Carine (played by Angela Sarafyan), who has a pivotal connection to someone in the story. There’s also a do-gooder named Frances (played by Barbara Bonilla), who lives in a house on stilts in the Atlantic Ocean. As Nick tries to solve the mystery of Mae’s apparently deliberate disappearance, he becomes addicted to using the memory tank to bask in his happy memories of her. His addiction gets in the way of his detective agency’s business and prevents Nick from being present in the real world.
Because Nick spends so much time in the memory tank, expect to see many flashbacks to the good times that he had with Mae. It’s his way of trying to remember any possible clues or hints of Mae’s disappearance. However, because Mae’s abrupt disappearance has deeply hurt Nick, Watts knows there’s more to Nick’s fixation on remembering Mae than trying to gather clues. He’s using his addiction to being in the memory tank as a way to avoid his emotional pain, just like the clients who are also addicted to using the memory tank.
“Reminiscence” has a very superficial way of dealing with these psychological issues. Instead, the movie seems more fascinated with having dream-like visual effects (which are good, but not outstanding) and showing recurring images of people being immersed in water in some way. “Reminiscence” writer/director Joy is one of the showrunners of the HBO sci-fi series “Westworld” (Newton is an Emmy-winning “Westworld” co-star), and Joy seems to have struggled to find a way to make the story she probably had mind into a two-hour movie. It’s why “Reminiscence” tries to cram in too much in the last third of the movie, while the middle of the movie is a long and monotonous stretch of repetition.
“Reminiscence” also misses the mark in casting decisions and in the characters’ witless dialogue. Jackman and Ferguson had more chemistry together when they co-starred in the 2017 movie musical “The Greatest Showman” (where their characters weren’t lovers but had some sexual tension with each other) than they do as portraying lovers in “Reminiscence.” The lines that Jackman and Ferguson have to utter in “Reminiscence” sound like they were rejected from a bad romance novel.
Jackman is a very talented actor, but he seems miscast as someone who’s supposed to be an emotionally damaged and stoic detective. He delivers his lines flatly, as if his character has a dead personality. Only in Nick’s scenes with Mae does Nick show any hints that he could be passionate about anything. Ferguson is perfectly adequate as the enigmatic Mae, but her “seductive diva” singing scenes in “Reminiscence” seem overly contrived and pale in comparison to Ferguson’s more appealing “seductive diva” singing scenes in “The Greatest Showman.”
“Reminiscence” hints at but never really follows through with the notion that Nick has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his military background. He’s definitely not getting therapy for it. Watts is Nick’s unofficial counselor, and she’s the one who points out to Nick that he’s using the memory tank to “self-medicate.”
The movie tells more about Watts’ own troubled history than it tells about Nick’s turbulent past, even though Nick is the story’s protagonist/central character. Newton’s Watts is the only character in “Reminiscence” that comes close to being depicted as complex, with Newton capably handling the role of an emotionally wounded person who tries to hide her pain in alcohol and a tough-talking persona. All the other characters in “Reminiscence” are quite two-dimensional.
Ultimately, “Reminiscence” could have been a much better movie if the story and dialogue were better-crafted. The writing seems like it was made for a comic book rather than a feature film. In a comic book, it’s easier to get away with chopping up the story in a boxy manner. In a movie, the story needs to flow more seamlessly, but “Reminiscence” fails to do that because it’s a film with an identity crisis of not knowing what it wants to be in the first place.
Warner Bros. Pictures released “Reminiscence” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on August 20, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area and in an alternate technology universe, the live-action/animated film “Space Jam: A New Legacy” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A computer algorithm traps basketball superstar LeBron James in a technology universe, where he joins forces with Warner Bros.-owned Looney Tunes characters for a high-stakes basketball game against computer-generated villains that want to take over the world.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of LeBron James fans and Looney Tunes fans, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching a mindless but harmless family film that overloads on shilling for various Warner Bros. entertainment products and services.
“Space Jam: A New Legacy” is not meant to be a real movie. It’s just a long and witless commercial for Warner Bros. entertainment entities, with LeBron James as a celebrity spokesperson. Even young children and gullible people will notice the over-the-top, shameless plugging of all things Warner Bros. in “Space Jam: A New Legacy.” It’s hard not to miss this obnoxious promotion, because it’s in every scene.
Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is the sequel to 1996’s “Space Jam.” Both are hybrid live-action/animated movies about basketball superstars who team up with Warner Bros.-owned Looney Tunes characters to play against villains in a life-or-death basketball game. Michael Jordan starred in “Space Jam,” which was also a silly movie, but it had a lot more heart and sincerity than “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” which stars LeBron James.
Both “Space Jam” movies have celebrity athletes portraying themselves. All of these athletes have limited acting skills, even if some of these basketball icons have loads of charisma in real life. However, “Space Jam: A New Legacy” is a much more cynically made movie, because its highest priority is selling Warner Bros. characters and products. At least the first “Space Jam” movie made more of an attempt to be humorous and have several significant characters whose purpose was not to be a mascot for Warner Bros.
It’s not a good sign when a movie has more than four credited screenwriters, because it usually means that there were “too many cooks in the kitchen.” “Space Jam: A New Legacy” has six screenwriters: Celeste Ballard, Keenan Coogler, Jesse Gordon, Terence Nance, Tony Rettenmaier and Juel Taylor. And what’s even worse is that all of these “Space Jam: A New Legacy” screenwriters couldn’t come up with a truly original story for this sequel.
“Space Jam: A New Legacy” essentially copies the same template as “Space Jam,” with just a few changes, such as the reason for the big showdown basketball game that happens in the last third of the film. In “Space Jam,” Jordan has to do battle against basketball-playing monsters from outer space that were literally stealing the talent (by suctioning it out in gas form) from NBA stars. In “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” James has to do battle against a computer algorithm (which can take the shape of a man) that has stolen his younger son and created a team of monsters for the basketball showdown.
Each movie opens with a highlight montage of the basketball superstar’s career, up until the movie was made. Each movie has someone saying more than once, “You can’t be great without putting in the work.” Each movie ends exactly how you think it will end.
In “Space Jam: A New Legacy” LeBron’s 12-year-old son Dominic, nicknamed Dom (played by Cedric Joe), is a computer whiz and aspiring video game developer who has been kidnapped by a computer algorithm called Al G. Rhythm (played by Don Cheadle) into the algorithm’s universe called the Warner 3000 server-verse. Inside this server-verse exists everything Warner Bros., including Looney Tunes World.
Dom feels unappreciated and misunderstood by LeBron, who is pushing Dom to become a basketball star. Dom likes playing basketball and is on his school’s basketball team, but he’s an average player, and he doesn’t have the passion for the game like his father does. There’s a predictable scene in the beginning of the film where Dom is playing in a school game, and he misses a shot that causes the team to lose the game.
Dom wants to attend an E3 Game Design camp, but it’s taking place on the same weekend as a basketball camp that LeBron wants Dom to attend. Father and son argue about it. But in the end, LeBron is the adult in charge and tells Dom that he has no choice but to go to the basketball camp. Dom is predictably resentful about this decision and his father’s control over his life.
The rest of LeBron’s family are just filler characters that don’t get much screen time and don’t add much to the story. LeBron’s wife Kamiyah (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) chimes in early in the movie to say to LeBron about his parenting skills for Dom: “I’m worried that you’re pushing him too hard … He doesn’t need a coach. He needs a dad.”
In this movie, LeBron and Kamiyah have two other children: teenager Darius (played by Ceyair J Wright) and kindergarten-age Xosha (played by Harper Leigh Alexander). Darius’ only purpose in the movie is to be a teasing older brother and occasional basketball practice opponent with Dom. Xosha’s only purpose in the movie is to be a cute and charming kid.
Because “Space Jam: Legacy” is a Warner Bros. commercial, LeBron and takes Dom with him to a business meeting at Warner Bros. Studios headquarters in Burbank, California. Also in this meeting is LeBron’s childhood friend Malik (played by Khris Davis), who is now LeBron’s manager. It’s at Warner Bros. headquarters that viewers first see Al G. Rhythm giving a monologue, as he lurks in the recesses of some giant computer mainframe somewhere in a back room.
Al G. Rhythm can take many different shapes and forms, but he comes out looking like Cheadle when he wants to look like a human. Al G. Rhythm has concocted an idea to use Warner 3000 technology to scan LeBron into Warner Bros. movies so that LeBron’s image can replace major characters in these movies. Warner Bros. executives will present this idea to LeBron in this meeting. The unnamed executives are portrayed in cameo roles by Sarah Silverman and Steven Yeun, who look like they know they’re in a dumb movie and just want a quick and easy paycheck.
Al G. Rhythm has a sidekick named Pete, which is a mute blue blob that doesn’t do much but act as a sounding board for Al G. Rhythm. Before the meeting takes place, Al G. Rhythm gives this monologue: “I’ve searched far and wide for the perfect partner for this launch. And I finally found him, Pete. He’s a family man, an entrepreneur, a social media superstar, with millions of fans worldwide. Algorithmically speaking, he’s more than an athlete. He’s a king!”
Is this an algorithm or a LeBron James fanboy? Al G. Rhythm then continues with his ranting manifesto, “I’m stuck in the server-verse. No one knows who I am or what I do. But all that changes today, because Warner Bros. launches the revolutionary technology that I masterminded. Today, it’s my time to shine! Once I partner with King James and combine his fame with my incredible tech, I will finally get the recognition and respect that I so richly deserve!”
There’s just one big problem. In the business meeting, LeBron says he hates the idea of being scanned and put into Warner Bros. movies as a replacement character. (But in real life, apparently, he had no problem being put into a Warner Bros. commercial posing as a movie.) The sycophantic executives agree, and the idea is scrapped.
Al G. Rhythm is angry and insulted that his idea was rejected, so he kidnaps Dom, who becomes trapped in the server-verse. And the only way that Dom can be returned to his family is if LeBron and a basketball team that LeBron has assembled win in a “death match” game against Al G. Rhythm and the villain basketball team that Al G. Rhythm has assembled. All of this requires LeBron to go in the server-verse to find Dom. When LeBron (in animated form) ends up in Looney Tunes World, you know what happens next.
At first, LeBron arrives in Looney Tunes World in simplistic animated form. But then, Al G. Rhythm shows up to “enhance” all the players who will be on Lebron’s basketball team, so they go from looking like hand-drawn 2-D animation to computer-generated 3-D animation. The team is called the Tune Squad. The Looney Tunes characters who are on LeBron’s team act exactly how you would expect them to act.
The “Space Jam: A New Legacy” filmmakers got their money’s worth because a small number of voice actors protray several of the Looney Tunes characters, instead having all of the characters each voiced by a different actor. Jeff Bergman is the voice of Bugs Bunny, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear. Eric Bauza is the voice of Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Foghorn Leghorn, Elmer Fudd and Marvin the Martian. Gabriel Iglesias is the voice of Speedy Gonzales. Zendaya is the voice of Lola Bunny. Candi Milo is the voice of Granny. Bob Bergen is the voice of Tweety Bird. Fred Tatasciore is the voice of Taz.
In opposition to the Tune Squard, Al G. Rhythm has created the Good Squad by enhancing real-life NBA and WNBA star players into computerized mutant super-villains. Anthony Davis is The Brow, a giant blue falcon-like creature with a 30-foot wing span. Diana Taurasi is White Mamba, a super-sized mutant snake. Klay Thompson is Wet/Fire, a creature that can create flames and water, as if that wouldn’t be considered a major foul on a basketball court. Nneka Ogwumike is Arachnneka, a large mutant spider. Damien Lillard is Chronos, a time-manipulating creature that can use Dame Time to slow down opponents while he can quickly use fighting techniques.
The big basketball showdown that serves as the movie’s climax is so formulaic that it will be easy to get distracted by trying to spot all the characters from Warner Bros. movies that are in the audience. The audience is supposed to consists of thousands of LeBron’s social media followers who were beamed in from the Internet. But somehow, those who ended up getting the most prominent placement in the front rows were various characters from Warner Bros.-owned entertaint entities, such as Harry Potter, King Kong, Joker, Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Scooby-Doo, Neo from “The Matrix,” Austin Powers, plus characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” “Game of Thrones,” “Gremlins,” “The Mask,” and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Some of the Warner Bros. promotion overload is ridiculous and embarrassing to those involved. There’s a scene where Bugs Bunny is dressed as Batman and LeBron is dressed as Robin. There’s a scene where Porky Pig starts rapping in a way that’s has as much hip-hop cred as Judy Garland singing in “The Wizard of Oz.” (In other words: none.)
And there’s even a scene where Al G. Rhythm yells, “King Kong’s got nothing on me!” It’s a famous line said by Denzel Washington in his Oscar-winning role as a corrupt cop in 2001’s “Training Day,” which is (you guessed it) a Warner Bros. movie. After Al G. Rhythm shouts, “King Kong’s got nothing on me!,” King Kong is shown in the audience, crossing his arms in a snit, like a kid who’s been insulted on a playground.
The “family-friendly” messages of “Space Jam: Legacy” are secondary to the constant regurgitation of whatever “intellectual property” Warner Bros. is hawking. The word “inellectual” is an oxymoron for this idiotic film. The animation and visual effects aren’t going to be nominated for any major awards. Much of what happens in the movie is duller than it should be. And even the big basketball game toward the end isn’t very exciting. There’s a big “reveal” about someone on the Goon Squad that’s not surprising at all.
Cheadle is the movie’s only live-action cast member who seems to be having some fun because his performance is deliberately campy. His computer algorithm character has more personality than the human characters in this movie. The rest of the cast members in the movie’s live-action roles give mediocre and bland performances.
Ernie Johnson and Lil Rel Howery portray the basketball game’s announcers in what should have been hilarious roles, but everything these characters say is uninteresting. And unlike the original songs in the first “Space Jam” movie (which featured R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”), none of the original songs in “Space Jam: A New Legacy” will become a hit anthem. The lines of dialogue given to the animated characters are also forgettable. The jokes fall flatter than Daffy Duck’s beak.
And as for LeBron James (who is one of the producers of “Space Jam: A New Legacy”), even the filmmakers know he wasn’t cast in this movie for his acting, because he says this line in the movie’s scene with the Warner Bros. executives: “I’m a ball player. And athletes acting—that never goes well.” That’s probably one of the most genuine things said in this overly contrived corporate movie that pushes plenty to sell but ultimately has a shortage of good filmmaking.
Warner Bros. Pictures released “Space Jam: A New Legacy” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on July 16, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on October 5, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Louisiana and a fictional South American country called Corto Maltese, the superhero action flick “The Suicide Squad” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black, Latino and Asian) representing government officials, superheroes, villains, fantasy creatures and everything in between.
Culture Clash: The Suicide Squad—a ragtag group of prisoners and outlaws with special abilities—is ordered by the U.S. government to go on a secret mission to destroy a nefarious scientific operation that is intended to control the world.
Culture Audience: “The Suicide Squad” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent, zany and foul-mouthed superhero movies that skillfully blur the lines between heroes and villains.
“The Suicide Squad” is the bonkers and bloody action spectacle that fans of iconoclastic superhero movies deserve. It’s a worthy and memorable alternative of writer/director David Ayer’s 2016’s much-maligned “Suicide Squad,” which was a confused and muddled film that ultimately played it too safe for these roguish and rude DC Comics characters. “The Suicide Squad” (written and directed by James Gunn) gives a much-needed adult-oriented resuscitation—not just to the original “Suicide Squad” movie but also to the superhero genre in general, which has a tendency to be formulaic and predictable.
“The Suicide Squad” is the superhero movie equivalent of someone who will kiss you and kick you at the same time. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, there are surprises that most superhero movies would never dare to have. Several characters initially look like they’re going to be prominently featured in the story, but they actually get killed off early in the film. And there are more unexpected deaths that defy the usual expectations of who lives and who dies in a typical superhero film.
Because of all these unexpected deaths in “The Suicide Squad,” the only way to describe the movie without giving away spoiler information is to say that the Suicide Squad’s mission in this movie is to go to the fictional South American island nation of Corto Maltese and destroy a top-secret scientific operation called Project Starfish. Just like in 2016’s “Suicide Squad” movie and in the DC Comics series that inspired this movie franchise, the Suicide Squad (whose official name is Task Force X) consists of dangerous inmates who are held at a federal prison called Belle Reve in Louisiana. The members of the team have special skills or powers that make the Suicide Squad an above-average combat group.
Belle Reve is a recruiting center for a no-nonsense, tough-talking U.S. government official named Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis, reprising her role from 2016’s “Suicide Squad”), who is in charge of monitoring the Suicide Squad members when they go on their black operations (in other words, government-classified missions), under orders from the U.S. government. If the Suicide Squad members complete the mission, then they can get a pre-determined number of years shaved off of their prison sentences. In case any of these Suicide Squad members try to escape or defy orders, an explosive device is implanted in each of their heads, and Amanda has the power to detonate this explosive device.
While Amanda keeps tabs on the Suicide Squad in a control room with elaborate high-tech surveillance, her subordinate Colonel Rick Flag (played by Joel Kinnaman, also from 2016’s “Suicide Squad” movie) is the military commander who accompanies the Suicide Squad on their missions. In other words, he does a lot of dirty work that Amanda doesn’t have to do, and his life is more at risk than hers. Colonel Flag is a loyal government employee. He’s gritty but not as cold-blooded and ruthless as Amanda. And in “The Suicide Squad” movie, viewers will see how he handles an important ethical dilemma.
Who are the members of the Suicide Squad in this movie? They are, in alphabetical order:
Blackguard (played by Pete Davidson), whose real name is Richard Hertz, an American guy in his 20s who’s an immature and nervous jokester.
Bloodsport (played by Idris Elba), whose real name is Robert Dubois, a cynical, grouchy, middle-aged Brit who’s an expert marksman and who is in prison for shooting Superman with a Kryptonite bullet, which landed Superman in a hospital’s intensive care unit.
Captain Boomerang (played by Jai Courtney), whose real name is George “Digger” Harkness, a hot-tempered Australian in his 30s who uses a deadly boomerang as his main weapon.
Javelin (played by Flula Borg), whose real name is Gunter Braun, a cocky German in his 30s who has a javelin as his main weapon.
King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), a talking mutant shark that has the intelligence of a 3-year-old human child and an appetite for eating humans.
Mongal (played by Mayling Ng), an orange alien with superhero strength and agility.
Peacemaker (played by John Cena), whose real name is Christopher Smith, an extremely patriotic middle-aged American who is an expert marksman and immediately has a rivalry with Bloodsport.
Polka-Dot Man (played by David Dastmalchian), whose real name is Abner Krill, an insecure American guy in his 40s who has “mother issues” and the ability to eject deadly flying polka dots from his body as weapons.
Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie), a ditsy American maniac whose past heartbreaks (including her former romance with iconic villain The Joker) and personal grudges affect many of her decisions.
Ratcatcher 2 (played by Daniela Melchior), whose real name is Cleo Cazo, a compassionate Portuguese orphan in her 20s who has the ability to command rats to do her bidding.
Savant (played by Michael Rooker), whose real name is Brian Durlin, a jaded, 61-year-old American who is an expert in weapons and hand-to-hand combat.
T.D.K. (played by Nathan Fillion), a stoic American man in his 40s, whose real name is Cory Pitzner and whose T.D.K. nickname initials stand for The Detachable Kid, because he has the power to detach his limbs and use them as weapons.
Weasel (played by Sean Gunn), an easygoing, giant weasel that cannot talk.
Harley and Boomerang were in 2016’s “Suicide Squad” movie. The other characters are new to the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) live-action movies. Of these new characters in “The Suicide Squad,” Bloodsport, Polka-Dot Man and Ratcatcher 2 are the ones with the significant backstories that are described in the movie. Amanda tells a reluctant and anti-social Bloodsport that he will be the leader of this revamped Suicide Squad.
Corto Maltese is a country in a lot of political turmoil. For years, the country was ruled by royals called the Herrera Family, but the entire family was murdered by a public hanging during a miltary coup of the government. The leader of this coup is General Silvio Luna (played by Juan Diego Botto), whose right-hand man is Mayor General Mateo Suarez (played by Joaquín Cosio), who’s old enough to be General Luna’s father. General Luna has appointed himself as the military dictator president of Corto Maltese.
Meanwhile, General Luna and his inner circle know all about Project Starfish. The secrets of Project Starfish will give Corto Maltese the ability to become a world superpower. The geneticist in charge of Project Starfish is a Brit named Gaius Grieves (played by Peter Capaldi), who has the nickname the Thinker. He’s the key to getting access to Jotunheim, the name of the scientific research facility that houses Project Starfish in the Corto Maltese city of Valle del Mar. The Thinker is also easy to spot, because he has electrode-like amps, spark plugs and valves portruding from his head, in order to enhance his intelligence.
The only information that the Suicide Squad has about the Thinker is what he looks like and that he often likes to go to a “gentleman’s club” after work. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that the Suicide Squad will be going to a strip club, and there’s going to be a big fight scene there. The way the scene is filmed is not cliché as it sounds. And it has moments of comedy, such as when the Suicide Squad members get drunk and some of them awkwardly start dancing.
In addition to many surprise twists, what makes “The Suicide Squad” different from most other superhero movies is how it manages to be a nihilistic, graphically violent movie with heart and genuine sentiment. It’s a tricky balance that most movies with these intentions would not be able to achieve. The Suicide Squad members might have reputations for being amoral, but the movie shows (in ways that 2016’s “Suicide Squad did not) a certain depth to their emotional damage.
Bloodsport has a rocky relationship with his 16-year-old daughter Tyla (played by Storm Reid), a rebel who has recently gotten into trouble for stealing a StyleWatch, which is described as a device that’s a lot like an Apple Watch. (Tyla’s mother is dead, by the way.) When Tyla comes to visit Bloodsport in prison, she tells him about how she’s gotten in trouble for this theft. Instead of giving the usual parental lecture, Bloodsport chastises Tyla by saying that she should’ve had a thief partner so she wouldn’t get caught.
They yell “fuck you” to each other, because Tyla has a lot of resentment over having an absentee father who has not been there to give her the guidance that she obviously wants. She shouts at Bloodsport that she’s ashamed that he’s her father. And the hurt expression on Bloodsport’s face shows that he’s not so tough after all, at least when it comes to his daughter. Later, after Bloodsport meets Ratcatcher 2, he shows his vulnerable side again when he tells Ratcatcher 2 that she reminds him of his daughter.
Other characters reveal how their family-related traumas have affected them. Polka-Dot Man had a mother (played by Lynne Ashe), who worked at Scientific and Technological Advanced Research Laboratories, also known as S.T.A.R. Labs. According to what Polka-Dot Man tells the other Suicide Squad members, his mother was obsessed with making her children superheroes, so she conducted illegal scientific experiments on them.
Polka-Dot Man’s polka dots on his skin are an interdimensional virus that he got from these experiments. His face can balloon into a bloated disfigurement with polka dots unless he expels them. (This transformation is shown in the movie.) Polka-Dot Man says at one point, “I don’t like to kill people, but if I pretend they’re my mom, it’s easy.” And yes, there are some scenes were the Polka-Dot Man hallucinates seeing his mother.
Ratcatcher 2 is the daughter of Ratcatcher (played by Taika Waititi, in a flashback cameo), who taught her how to summon and control rats. The rats kept them company when she and her father lived on the streets of Portugal. During a bus ride with other Suicide Squad members, Ratcatcher 2 talks about how she moved to the U.S. from Portugal, and she’s an orphan because her father died from his “burdens.” (Ratcatcher 2 never talks about what happened to her mother.)
The flashback shows that Ratcatcher’s main burden was a needle-using drug addiction, and he died of a drug overdose. Ratcatcher 2 also says after she moved to the U.S., she was arrested for armed bank robbery, and she can’t believe that her rats were considered a weapon. Ratcatcher 2’s closest companion is a very intelligent rat named Sebastian, which Colonel Flag jokingly calls Ratatouille.
Meanwhile, there’s a running gag in the movie that macho Bloodsport is very afraid of rats. On that bus ride, he reveals why: His mercenary father, who gave him weapons training, would punish Bloodsport as a child for not doing something correctly. One of those punishments was to lock Bloodsport in a crate for 24 hours with hungry rats. Bloodsport’s rat phobia is used for comic relief as well as a very touching moment in the movie.
Harley does not have her signature baseball bat in this movie, but she has a rocket launcher and a javelin that she puts to good use. How she got this javelin is revealed in the movie. In 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” Harley was depicted as a scantily clad sexpot who was lovesick over the Joker. In “The Suicide Squad,” she’s more of an independent badass, just as she was in the 2020 movie “Birds of Prey,” but not like the two-dimensional caricature that she was in “Birds of Prey.”
In one part of the movie, Corto Maltese president Luna summons Harley to his palace for an elaborate lunch date, in order to seduce her and convince her to become his wife. Luna is very anti-American but he’s attracted to Harley because her hellraising antics seem to be anti-American, and he thinks she’s very sexy. Harley is dressed for the occasion in a frilly red gown that she wears for the rest of the movie and during her biggest action scenes. Wearing the red gown while in combat is a symbolic contrast of how Harley sees herself as both girly and gonzo when it comes to fighting.
“The Suicide Squad” has fun with Harley’s image as the Suicide Squad member who’s most likely to make a fashion statement. Early on the movie, Harley wears a red and black leather suit with a jacket emblazoned with the words “Live Fast, Die Clown” on the back. And later in the movie, when she’s wearing the red gown, it’s shown that she has a back tattoo that reads, “Property of No One” next to a jester head that’s mean to signify the Joker. She also has a chest tattoo that reads “Daddy’s Lil Monster,” in a nod to the T-shirt that she famously wore in 2016’s “Suicide Squad.”
Harley might come across a flaky and erratic in some ways, but “The Suicide Squad” presents her with a fascinating and complex mindset. She has a monologue in the movie that’s very revealing in how she still has some inner conflict over how much she’s willing to let her head, not her heart, rule over any decisions that she makes. This movie is Robbie’s most compelling portrayal of Harley Quinn, because she’s finally given the dialogue that this character should have.
Visually, “The Suicide Squad” is the best so far of any live-action movie featuring Harley Quinn. There are some whimsical qualities, such as plot developments spelled out in giant words that are part of the scenery. (“The Suicide Squad” was filmed in Atlanta, Panama, Puerto Rico and Portugal.)The most gruesome and bloodiest scenes have an almost cartoonish quality, so that things don’t appear to be completely depressing and grim. And some of the action scenes have a poetic beauty to them, particularly one sequence involving Harley Quinn and a cascade of flowers in bloom, which are very metaphorical to the blossoming of her character.
What will affect viewers the most is not the violence but who dies in the movie. These deaths are examples of why people in this ragtag Suicide Squad are reluctant or afraid to get emotionally attached to others. (However, in the end-credits scene, it’s revealed that the one of the “dead” characters actually survived.) Although the violence in “The Suicide Squad” is brutal, it’s not without consequences. Too often, superhero movies make most of the villains die and all of the heroes live. “The Suicide Squad” is a big middle finger to that idea.
The rivalry between Bloodsport and Peacemaker provides a lot of comedy, as well as tension-filled moments. As an example of the insult jokes between these two alpha males, Bloodsport derides Peacemaker for his shiny chrome helmet, which Bloodsport says looks like a toilet seat on Peacemaker’s head. Later in the movie, Peacemaker snaps back, “It’s not a toilet seat! It’s a beacon of freedom!”
The acting in “The Suicide Squad” is not going to be nominated for any prestigious awards, but all of the cast members get the job done well for their characters. Robbie and Elba stand out for bringing some nuance as emotionally wounded troublemakers Harley Quinn and Bloodsport. Melchior and Dastmalchian also have some standout moments as Ratcatcher 2 and the Polka-Dot Man, who are the kindler, gentler members of the Suicide Squad. King Shark is written as very simple-minded, so there’s not much going on with this character except fighting, eating humans, and a standout scene where King Shark is fascinated by the contents of a giant aquarium.
The Suicide Squad members have two outside allies from Corto Maltese in their mission: Sol Soria (played by Alice Braga) is the leader of a resistance movement against the military coup. She has a very negative first impression of the Suicide Squad because of a colossal mistake that directly affects Sol. Milton (played by Julio Cesar Ruiz) is a hired driver who becomes the butt of a joke about how people don’t pay attention to service employees in movies like this or in real life.
It’s an example of some of the offbeat sensibilities that Gunn (who’s also known for directing “The Guardians of the Galaxy” movies) brings to “The Suicide Squad.” Another example is how Louis Prima’s “Just a Gigolo” song is used in one of Harley Quinn’s big action scenes. And in Amanda’s surveillance control room, her subordinates take bets on which Suicide Squad members will live or die during a mission.
One of the ways that “The Suicide Squad” doesn’t play it safe is by having some political themes about American patriotism and how Americans are often perceived by people in other countries. These themes in the movie might get divisive reactions from audience members. But considering that so many superhero movies deliberately avoid politics, “The Suicide Squad” should be commended for going outside the norm and taking some bold risks, even if they might alienate some viewers.
In others words, “The Suicide Squad” is not for the type of superhero movie fan who only wants pleasant, lightweight, family-friendly entertainment. The movie shows the good, bad and ugly sides of humanity in a way that will elicit a wide range of emotions in viewers. But one way that “The Suicide Squad” won’t make most viewers feel is bored.
Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Suicide Squad” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on August 5, 2021, moved up from the original release date of August 6, 2021. The movie was released in cinemas in select countries, including the United Kingdom, on July 30, 2021.
HBO Max has released the trailer and key art for “The Hype,” a streetwear competition series debuting Thursday, August 12, 2021, where fashion visionaries elevate their designs and entrepreneurial sense to avoid elimination while remaining authentic to their style. Produced by the Emmy®-winning team at Scout Productions, Speedy Morman hosts the eight-episode season, which will feature co-signers, including Grammy nominated recording artist and designer, Offset; creative director and founder of Bephies Beauty Supply, Bephie Birkett; and Emmy® nominated costume designer and renowned stylist, Marni Senofonte. The panel of judges will critique the competing streetwear’s unique DNA, combining fashion, music, art and lifestyle to refine the idea of a “runway” and the balance between art and commerce. The series will also feature special guests including A$AP Ferg, Cardi B, Dapper Dan, and Wiz Khalifa.
“The Hype” is produced by Scout Productions, the team behind the Max Original ballroom competition series “Legendary” and Emmy®-winning series “Queer Eye.” Scout’s David Collins, Rob Eric and Michael Williams developed the series with Emmy® winner Rachelle Mendez (“Undercover Boss,” “Leah Remini: Scientology & the Aftermath”). Collins, Eric and Williams will also executive produce with Mendez, Jay Brown and Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith. Emmy® and Grammy®-winning producer Rikki Hughes (HBO Max’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air Reunion Special”) will showrun and executive produce.
Culture Representation: Taking place in Connecticut and Massachusetts in 1981, the horror sequel “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Hispanics) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A husband and a wife, who are well-known demonologists/paranormal investigators, get involved in a murder case to try to prove that the defendant was possessed by an evil spirit when he committed the murder.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of people who are fans of “The Conjuring” franchise, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” will appeal to people who are interested in horror movies that blend the supernatural with real-life legal drama.
How much people might enjoy “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” will depend on how much they can tolerate “The Conjuring” universe taking a “Law & Order”-like turn in this particular sequel. That’s because demonologist/paranormal investigator spouses Ed Warren (played by Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Wilson (played by Vera Farmiga) go beyond the typical haunted house/exorcism storylines of previous “The Conjuring” movies and get involved in a murder case to the point where the Warrens are investigating crime scenes like detectives and giving legal advice like attorneys.
It has the potential to make “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” a convoluted mess. But somehow, it all works out to be a satisfying horror thriller that makes up for its predictability with good performances, some terrifying visual effects and overall suspenseful pacing. The movie also has some unexpected touches of humor and romance that take some of the edge off this grim and gruesome story.
Directed by Michael Chaves and written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (also known as “The Conjuring 3”) is inspired by a true story from the case files of the real-life Ed and Lorraine Warren. The case was about Arne Cheyenne Johnson, who stabbed his 40-year-old landlord to death in Brookfield, Connecticut, in 1981, when Johnson was 19 years old. Johnson admitted to the stabbing but pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.
His defense? The devil made him do it. Johnson claimed that during the stabbing, he had been possessed by the devil, which entered his body a few months before, during an exorcism of an 11-year-old boy named David Glatzel, who happened to be the younger brother of Arne’s girlfriend Debbie Glatzel. It was the first known U.S. murder case where demonic possession was used as a defense argument.
In real life, the Warrens got involved in the case because they were at this exorcism that was the catalyst for this tragic turn of events. And the Warrens ended up testifying on behalf of Johnson. (The trial doesn’t happen until toward the end of the movie.)
“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” begins with an effectively horrifying re-enactment of the exorcism of David Glatzel (played by Julian Hilliard), which takes place in the movie at the Glatzel home on July 18, 1981. In the movie, David is 8 years old, not 11. Ed and Lorraine Warren are at the exorcism, along with Arne (played by Ruairi O’Connor) and Arne’s live-in girlfriend Debbie (played by Sarah Catherine Hook), who have a very loyal and loving relationship.
Arne and Debbie are both in their late teens and live in another house in Brookfield. Also at the exorcism are David and Debbie’s father Carl Glatzel (played by Paul Wilson); David and Debbie’s mother Judy Glatzel (played by Charlene Amoia); and the Warrens’ videographer/assistant Drew Thomas (played by Shannon Kook), who is filming this exorcism.
When the movie begins, it’s implied that the exorcism has been going on for hours, with David showing ebbs and flows in his demonic possession. At one point, David has reached such a state of exhaustion that Arne takes David up to David’s bedroom to tuck the boy into bed. Arne is depicted as a mild-mannered and polite person.
Arne tells David, “You’re one brave kid. I was a little runt growing up, so I know what it’s like to be picked on, but that was nothing compared to what you’re going through.” David says, “I don’t feel very brave.” Arne replies, “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared. It means you’re scared, but you’re hanging in there. I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”
David then says, “Arne when are you going to ask my sister to marry you?” Arne replies with a slightly embarrassed tone, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Despite this friendly banter, there’s a lingering sense of danger in the air. Arne looks outside David’s bedroom window and sees that a priest has arrived by taxi.
The priest is Father Gordon (played by Steve Coulter), who will be the official exorcist for David. Whatever evil spirits are around seem to know that a clergy person is there, because all hell breaks loose soon after the arrival of Father Gordon. David starts attacking like a demon child, beginning with stabbing his father in the leg. He goes through various contortions. And the inside of the house begins to look like a full-force tornado with swirling gusts of evil.
During this chaos, possessed David attacks Ed, who is knocked down on the ground. Arne sees that the demon won’t leave David’s body, so Arne grabs the possessed child and shouts at the demon: “Leave him alone and take me!” And not long after that, David calms down, but Arne won’t be the same. And neither will Ed, because he’s had a heart attack during this exorcism.
It’s a powerful way to begin the movie, which grabs viewers’ attention from this opening sequence and keeps this heightened level of tension throughout the film. David seems to be “cured,” but Arne starts having nightmarish visions. There’s a sinister-looking woman (played by Eugenie Bondurant) who keeps appearing in the visions, with a clear intent to harm Arne. For example, the first time that she attacks Arne, she starts to strangle him, but he’s able to stop it when he comes out of his trance.
At first, Arne doesn’t tell anyone about his visions because he doesn’t want people to think that he’s crazy. But then, things happen to the point where he can no longer keep it a secret that strange things have been happening to him. It’s eventually revealed in the movie who this evil-looking woman is and her ultimate malicious intent.
Ed’s heart attack lands him in a hospital emergency room. He’s eventually released, but he has to use a wheelchair for a good deal of the story. Over time (this movie takes place over a six-month period, from May to November 1981), Ed doesn’t need the wheelchair anymore, but he has to use a cane. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” includes a flashback to May 1981, when the Glatzels moved into the home that appears to be where the family first encountered the demon, which attacked David in a memorable scene involving a water bed.
Meanwhile, Arne and Debbie are trying to get their lives back to normal. Arne works for a tree service company, and Debbie works for Brookfield Boarding Kennels, a pet service company that’s located inside a two-story house. Debbie and Arne live in the house rent-free as part of her job. It’s a house that’s filled with barking dogs kept in cages when they’re inside.
In a conversation that takes place after the exorcism, Arne suggests to Debbie that they move away from Brookfield. He also drops hints that they should eventually get married. Debbie seems reluctant to move away from Brookfield because she and Arne can’t really afford to move yet and she doesn’t want to live too far away from her family. However, she tells Arne that she’ll think about it.
The owner of Brookfield Boarding Kennels is a creepy drunk named Bruno Salz (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has an underpaid Debbie doing most of the work. She’s very responsible and caring in her job, where she’s essentially the manager and bookkeeper for the business. And that’s another reason why Debbie doesn’t really want to move: She’s afraid that the dogs won’t be taken care of very well if flaky Bruno is left in charge of the kennel.
Bruno has been pestering Arne to repair Bruno’s broken stereo in the house’s living room. And one day, when the stereo is repaired, Bruno decides to crank up the music and have an impromptu party with Debbie, Arne and plenty of alcohol. Bruno plays Blondie’s “Call Me” full blast on the stereo and starts dancing with an uncomfortable-looking Debbie. (“Call Me” will be featured in another part of the movie too.)
Suddenly, Arne seems to be losing touch with reality. And this is where he’s supposed to be possessed by the demon. There’s an almost psychedelic nightmare that’s depicted on screen. And by the end, it’s revealed that Bruno was stabbed to death by Arne. (The stabbing is never shown on screen.) The murder in the movie takes place in September 1981, but in real life, the murder happened on February 16, 1981. It was the first murder in Brookfield’s history.
In a daze, Arne walks down a deserted road, with blood on his hands and clothes. A police officer (played by Chris Greene) in a patrol car stops to ask Arne what’s going on. And that’s when Arne says, “I think I hurt someone.” Arne is arrested for Bruno’s murder. And guess who’s coming back to Brookfield to investigate?
Fans of mystery solving will appreciate the added storyline of Ed and Lorraine Warren doing a lot of detective-like investigating, as the Warrens dig deep to find out the origins of this evil spirit that seems to have taken possession of Arne. In the movie, the demon isn’t inside of Arne all of the time. Arne is placed in the psychiatric ward in the local jail, and he’s a fairly passive prisoner most of the time. But there are moments when the demon comes back to haunt and possibly harm Arne.
In the movie, the Warrens are depicted as being the ones to convince Arne’s defense attorney Meryl (played by Ashley LeConte Campbell) to use demonic possession as a defense argument for Arne. It’s an unprecedented legal strategy that Meryl is convinced won’t work, until Ed and Lorraine show the attorney what they found in their demonologist research over the years. Debbie and the rest of the Glatzel family fully believe that Arne was possessed when he killed Bruno, so the Glatzels are supportive of Arne before and during the trial.
The Warrens take it upon themselves to help gather evidence for this case, but they also want to see if they can get rid of this demonic spirit that they believe exists. The Warrens’ investigation leads them to Danvers, Massachusetts, where they find out how the mysterious case of two teenage girls who were best friends is somehow connected to Arne’s case.
The teenagers are named Katie Lincoln (played by Andrea Andrade) and Jessica Louise Strong (played by Ingrid Bisu), who went missing in May 1981. Katie was found murdered, while Jessica is still missing. The Warrens also track down a former priest whose last name is Kastner (played by John Noble), who might have some answers about this particular demon.
Along the way, Ed and Lorraine also get help from a jail priest named Father Newman (played by Vince Pisani) and a police detective in Danvers named Sergeant Clay (played by Keith Arthur Bolden), who is skeptical at first about helping the Warrens. But then, things happen that change Sergeant Clay’s mind. The movie has a few far-fetched things in the story, such as Sergeant Clay being willing to share his case files with Ed and Lorraine, when in reality that’s a serious breach of police protocol.
And some of the horror scenes are over-the-top with visual effects happening in a very “only in a movie” way, instead of depicting what the real exorcisms probably looked like. The amount of body contortions alone would break bones and put someone in a hospital. But elaborate scare spectacles are what people who watch horror movies like this expect to see.
“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” delivers in a way that’s effectively chilling but not as disturbing as 1973’s “The Exorcist,” the gold standard for exorcism movies. However, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is a vast improvement over director Chaves’ feature-film directorial debut: the bland 2019 horror flick “The Curse of La Llorona.” Because of Arne’s murder trial, there’s a lot more at stake than the usual attempts to rid a person or a house of an evil spirit.
“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is also helped by a suitably convincing production design (by Jennifer Spence), which involves a lot of dusty, dark and unsettling places. And it’s easy to see why the movie changed the seasonal time period to the late summer/early autumn, instead of winter, because cinematographer Michael Burgess effectively uses a lot of autumn-like brown and gold for the exterior shots to contrast with the black and gray of the biggest horror scenes in the film. “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” would have looked like a very different movie if it took place in the winter.
Viewers will also see little bit more backstory to Ed and Lorraine’s relationship. In brief romantic flashback scenes, it’s shown how the couple met: Thirty years prior, when Ed and Lorraine were both 17 years old, Lorraine (played by Megan Ashley Brown) went with some friends to a movie theater, where Ed (played by Mitchell Hoog) was working as an usher. It was attraction at first sight, and they began dating shortly afterward.
The movie doesn’t have these scenes as filler. Lorraine is reminiscing about this courtship because of Ed’s near-death scare with his heart attack. It’s caused her to reflect on their longtime relationship. And it’s made the couple appreciate their marriage and partnership even more.
But the movie also has a few touches of comic relief, by showing some of the personal dynamics between this longtime married couple. There are some subtle references to the gender roles that were and still are expected of couples who work together. In “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” Lorraine has to take charge of much of the literal physical legwork in the investigation because of Ed’s recovery from his heart attack.
In a scene where Ed and Lorraine want to investigate a cellar in the Glatzel house, Ed (who is using a cane) realistically won’t be able to crawl around in the cellar. However, Ed tells Lorraine, who tends to dress like a prim and proper schoolteacher: “Honey, let me handle it. You’re going to ruin your dress if you go in there … Be careful.” With an “I can handle it” expression on her face, Lorraine calmly says, “Just hold my purse,” as she hands her purse to Ed. It’s a very realistic and hilarious moment that says it all about how women are often underestimated by men.
The film also shows Ed’s frustration at not being able to physically move around in the way that he’s been used to for all of his life. His anxiety isn’t portrayed in a heavy-handed way, but it’s a nod to the lifestyle adjustments that people who’ve been able-bodied have to go through when they find themselves disabled, even if it’s a temporary disabled condition. Ed does some griping about it, but not in a way that’s too self-pitying.
In a scene where Ed and Lorraine leave a courthouse after a preliminary hearing for Arne, observant viewers will notice that Ed needs to be carried in his wheelchair down the courtroom steps. It’s because the story takes place nine years before the Americans With Disabilities Act made it federal law in 1990 for buildings to provide reasonable access for disabled people. Nowadays, a courtroom building with outdoor steps, such as the building depicted in the movie, is also supposed to have ramps for people who use wheelchairs or walkers.
Since the first “The Conjuring” movie was released in 2013, Farmiga and Wilson have settled into these roles with a charming familiarity. Lorraine is the more level-headed and articulate one in this couple, while Ed (and his East Coast dialect slang) is the more approachable and down-to-earth spouse. Farmiga and Wilson are believable as a couple with a very deep love and respect for each other.
The rest of the cast members are perfectly fine in their roles, but the characters that are new to “The Conjuring” franchise for this movie were clearly written as only for this movie. The character of Arne is a little on the generic side, but O’Connor does an admirable job of conveying Arne’s inner turmoil. Bondurant’s role as the mystery woman who’s been plaguing Arne definitely brings a menacing aura to the movie, but she hardly says anything, so her presence is literally more muted than it needs to be.
Make no mistake: Ed and Lorraine Warren are the main characters for viewers to be the most invested in emotionally. In “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,” Lorraine’s psychic abilities are a major part of the story. People might have mixed feelings about how these psychic visions are depicted in the movie and how much of this real-life case was embellished into a Hollywood version.
But just like the rest of the story, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” isn’t about trying to explain a lot of things that can’t be explained by scientific facts. Whether or not viewers believe that demonic spirits exist, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” succeeds in providing plenty of memorable horror that makes it a worthy part of “The Conjuring” universe.
Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on June 4, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom on May 26, 2021.
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, this movie version of the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” features a predominantly Hispanic group of characters (with some African Americans and white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A young Dominican American man living in New York City’s Washington Heights is torn between staying in the neghborhood or moving to his family’s native Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s tiki bar.
Culture Audience: “In the Heights” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in Broadway musicals with contemporary music and movies about Hispanic American culture.
The movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” brings a cinematic vibrancy that makes it a joy to watch on screen and an instant crowd-pleaser. The movie keeps the main storyline and themes intact from the Broadway show but adds some memorable set designs, eye-popping choreography and impressive visual effects that couldn’t be done in a theater stage production. And this well-cast movie also has standout performances that will be sure to charm fans of the Broadway show as well as win over new fans. The “In the Heights” movie is set to have its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
Directed by Jon M. Chu, “In the Heights” has an adapted screenplay written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for Broadway’s “In the Heights,” which takes place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The movie version of “In the Heights” keeps the same songs from the stage musical, whose music and lyrics were written by Miranda. The movie is updated to include more social-awareness themes related to Dreamers, the nickname for undocumented children of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
The “In the Heights” movie, just like the stage musical, combines several character storylines in a tale that ultimately adds up to love in many different forms. There’s the love that 29-year-old protagonist/bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (played by Anthony Ramos) has for his family, his Washington Heights neighborhood and his family’s native Dominican Republic. During the course of the story, he also falls in love with aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (played by Melissa Barrera), who also lives in Washington Heights. Usnavi is somewhat shy around assertive Vanessa, who plays hard to get, but eventually Vanessa falls for Usnavi too.
Romance is also in the air for car dispatch operator Benny (played by Corey Hawkins) and college student Nina Rosario (played by Leslie Grace), who has come home to Washington Heights while on a break from her studies at California’s Stanford University. Benny is easygoing and respectful, while Nina is intelligent and compassionate. Nina’s strong-willed and doting father also happens to be Benny’s boss: Rosario’s Car Service owner Kevin Rosario (played by Jimmy Smits), who is immensely proud that his daughter is a Stanford student, and he will do what it takes to pay her university tuition.
The beloved “grandmother” of the neighborhood is Abuela Claudia (played by Olga Merediz), who doesn’t have kids of her own, but she has a nuturing, maternal attitude toward many people in Washington Heights. Claudia is particularly close to Usnavi, whose parents are deceased. Usnavi, who is an only child, moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 8 years old. And since his parents’ death, Usnavi has become even closer to Claudia. Meanwhile, Usnavi has also known Nina for several years, and he treats Nina like she’s his younger sister.
Usnavi is a mentor to his smart and wisecracking teenage cousin Sonny (played by Gregory Diaz IV), who works part-time in Usnavi’s bodega. Sonny needs a mentor because he has an alcoholic father named Gapo (played by Marc Anthony), who is the brother of Usnavi’s father. A local attorney named Alejandro (played by Mateo Gomez) plays a key role in facilitating what becomes Usnavi’s dream: to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open a beachfront tiki bar called El Suenito that used to be owned by Usnavi’s late father.
Rounding out the story’s main characters are “The Salon Ladies,” a trio of sassy and opinionated beauty salon workers: Daniela (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega), who is the salon’s owner; Carla (played by Stephanie Beatriz), who is Daniela’s much-younger live-in lover; and Cuca (played by Dascha Polanco), who is their loyal sidekick friend. Vanessa works in the salon too, but she’d rather be a fashion designer. A graffiti artist named Graffiti Pete (played by Noah Catala) is one of Usnavi’s friends. There’s also a character named Pike Phillips (played by Patrick Page), who owns a dry cleaning business next door to Rosario’s Car Service, and he plays a role that affects the fate of a few of the characters’ fortunes.
“In the Heights” creator Miranda has a small role in the movie as a sarcastic street vendor named Piragüero, who sells piragua/shaved ice. Keep watching through the movie’s ending credits to see a comical scene of Miranda’s Piragüero getting into a spat with a Mr. Softee ice cream truck driver, played by Christopher Jackson, who is Miranda’s best friend and longtime Broadway co-star. It’s an example of the touches of humor in an otherwise dramatic story.
The movie begins with Usnavi in a tropical beach setting, telling four kids (about 4 to 6 years old) the story about his life in Washington Heights. The four children are Iris (played by Olivia Perez), Rosa (played by Analia Gomez), Sedo (played by Dean Vazquez) and Migo (played by Mason Vazquez). The kids are very attentive and adorable. But it’s clear that Iris is the most intelligent and inquisitive out of all of them.
Usnavi’s story is about the sweltering summer when he decided he was going to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open El Suenito. What follows is an immersive, rollercoaster ride of a story, with plenty of joy, heartbreak, fear and love. It begins with various cast members performing “In the Heights,” in an epic sequence where viewers are introduced to Usnavi’s life in Washington Heights and all the people he’s close to in the neighborhood.
Other tunes performed by cast members in the movie are “Benny’s Dispatch,” “Breathe,” “You’ll Be Back” “No Me Diga,” “It Won’t Be Long Now,” “Cuando Llega el Tren,” “96,000,” “Piragua,” “Always,” “When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout,” “Paciencia Y Fe,” “Carnaval Del Barrio,” “Alabanza,” “Champagne,” “When the Sun Goes Down,” “Home All Summer” and “Finale.” Some of set designs for “In the Heights” are a visual treat and enhance these musical numbers. Two examples that are highlights are the massive synchronized swimming scene in a public swimming pool for “96,000,” and when Benny and Nina (with the help of visual effects) duet on “When You’re Home” with some gymnast-like moves on the side of an apartment building.
An electrical blackout happens in the middle of this summer heatwave. The movie has a timetable of events before and after the blackout. It’s a blackout that changes the lives of the characters, some more dramatically than others.
“In the Heights” is rich with Hispanic culture and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans and people from Central and South America are celebrated in some way in the movie. And Usnavi’s desire to move back to the Dominican Republic is indicative of not only honoring his family but also reconnecting with his Dominican roots.
Nina represents the experience of people from Hispanic families who are the first to get a chance to graduate from a prestigious university in the United States. On the one hand, Nina is considered an exalted role model for the community and has all the pressures that come with it. On the other hand, Nina describes the pain of racism and not feeling like she fits in a privileged, predominantly white setting such as Stanford.
During a few of the movie’s more poignant scenes, Nina describes how her Stanford experience isn’t as glamorous as people in Washington Heights might think it is. Nina talks about how she was wrongfully accused of theft by her white Stanford roommate. And on another occasion, Nina attended a diversity dinner at Stanford, and someone wrongfully assumed that she was one of the servers.
All of the cast members are admirable in their roles, but the standouts are Ramos, Grace and Merediz, whose characters go through the biggest emotional arcs in the movie. Merediz’s performance of “Paciencia Y Fe” will simply give people chills. It’s the type of scene that will have audiences moved to applaud and cheer loudly. Grace is also a very talented singer/actress who can convincingly portray feelings without over-emoting like someone performing on a theater stage.
And as the story’s protagonist/narrator Usnavi, Ramos carries the movie with charm and vulnerability. He’s not super-confident when courting Vanessa, and he’s often teased about his insecurities by his observant cousin Sonny. For the two big romances in the movie (Usnavi and Vanessa; Benny and Nina), it isn’t about whether or not these two couples will get together. It’s more about if they can stay together, considering that they have long-distance issues that could wreck their relationships.
Whether or not people got a chance to see “In the Heights” on stage, the movie is a lively celebration in its own right. It’s a story with universal and relevant themes that can be understood by people of any generation. And the movie brings new dimensions and nuances to the story that will inspire people to see it multiple times, preferably on the biggest screen possible.
Warner Bros. Pictures will release “In the Heights” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on June 10, 2021. The release date was moved up from June 11, 2021.
Culture Representation: The documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Asian) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.”
Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and “Sesame Street” has endured controversy over racial diversity, AIDS and representation of the LGBTQ community.
Culture Audience: “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a comprehensive overview of “Sesame Street,” with an emphasis on how “Sesame Street” is responding to current global issues.
ABC’s documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” offers some nostalgia for “Sesame Street” fans, but the movie is more concered about how this groundbreaking children’s culture has made an impact around the world and with contemporary social issues. Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz, it’s an occasionally repetitive film that admirably embraces diversity in a variety of viewpoints. The major downside to the film is that it won’t be considered a timeless “Sesame Street” documentary, because the movie very much looks like it was made in 2020/2021. Therefore, huge parts of the movie will look outdated in a few years.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” premiered on ABC just three days after director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” was released in select U.S. cinemas. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which focused mainly on “Sesame Street’s” history from 1969 to the early 1990s, interviewed people who were “Sesame Street” employees from this time period, as well as some of the family members of principal “Sesame Street” employees who are now deceased. “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a broader approach and includes the perspectives of not just past and present employees of “Sesame Street” but also several “Sesame Street” fans who are famous and not famous.
In addition, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (which was produced by Time Studios) makes a noteworthy effort to convey the global impact of “Sesame Street,” by including footage and interviews with people involved with the adapted versions of “Sesame Street” in the Middle East and in South Africa. “Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, launched in 1969 on PBS. In the U.S., first-run episodes of “Sesame Street” began airing on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020. “Sesame Street” is now available in more than 150 countries.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” quickly breezes through how “Sesame Street” was conceived and launched. There are brief mentions of “Sesame Street” co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, but this documentary does not interview them. “Street Gang” has interviews with Ganz Cooney and Morrisett, who go into details about how they were inspired to create “Sesame Street” to reach pre-school kids, particularly African American children in urban cities, who had television as an electronic babysitter.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” just like “Street Gang” did, discusses that the concept behind “Sesame Street” was to have a children’s TV show with a racially integrated cast and puppets, which were called muppets. A lot of research went into creating the show before it was even launched. The intent of “Sesame Street” was for the show to be educational and entertaining.
But the creators also wanted “Sesame Street” to include real-life topics that weren’t normally discussed on children’s television at the time. For example, when actor Will Lee, who played “Sesame Street” character Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, “Sesame Street” had an episode that discussed Mr. Hooper dying. “Sesame Street” did not lie to the audience by making up a story that Mr. Hooper had moved away or was still alive somewhere.
Time For Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco says, “Many people avoid the topics that they know are going to be lightning rods. ‘Sesame Street’ goes straight for it. And they handle each and every one of them with the amount of thoughtfulness and research and care that they require.”
David Kamp, author of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” mentions that one of the reasons for the longevity of “Sesame Street” is the show’s ability to adapt to changing times: “They’ll pivot. They’ll adjust. They’ll say, ‘We got it wrong. Now, we’re going to get it right.’ That’s one of [the show’s] great virtues.”
One of the noticeable differences seen in comparing these two “Sesame Street” documentaries is how racial diversity has improved for “Sesame Street” behind the scenes. “Street Gang,” which focused on the first few decades of “Sesame Street” shows that although the on-camera cast was racially diverse, behind the scenes it was another story: Only white people were the leaders and decision makers for “Sesame Street” in the show’s early years. Several current “Sesame Street” decision makers are interviewed in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” and it’s definitely a more racially diverse group of people, compared to who was running the show in the first two decades of “Sesame Street.”
Sonia Monzano, an original “Sesame Street” cast member (her character is Maria), says that although the show has always had a racially diverse cast, the muppets are the “Sesame Street” characters that people remember the most. “I remember my first scene with [muppet character] Grover,” Monzano comments with a chuckle. “It took me a while to be comfortable, not try to upstage them. And that’s the same with kids. You give them the platform. Get out of their way.”
As memorable as the “Sesame Street” muppets are, the human characters on the show had a particular impact on children, who saw “Sesame Street” people who reminded them of their family members or neighbors. Several celebrities who are interviewed in the documentary grew up watching “Sesame Street”—including Lucy Liu, Rosie Perez, Olivia Munn and Questlove—and they talk about the importance of seeing their lives and experiences represented on the show.
Perez comments on the show’s racial diversity: “We needed to see that, because when you’re a little girl in Brooklyn watching ‘Sesame Street,’ it’s nice to know that when you opened your door and walked down your stoop, you had the same type of people on your television.” Perez says about “Sesame Street’s” Maria character: “She was my Mary Tyler Moore,” and that until Maria came along, “Desi Arnaz Jr. was our only [Hispanic TV] role model for years.”
Racism, social justice and AIDS are some of the topics that “Sesame Street” has openly discussed over the years, sometimes to considerable controversy. But one topic was apparently too much to handle in “Sesame Street’s” first year: divorce. In “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” it’s mentioned that the original pilot episode of “Sesame Street” had a segment about muppet character Mr. Snuffleupagus dealing with his parents’ divorce. The “Sesame Street” executives did a test screening of this episode with children.
“The kids freaked out” because the idea of divorce was too upsetting for them, says Time staff writer Cady Lang. And the episode was “tossed out.” The documentary has some of this unaired Mr. Snuffleupagus “divorce” footage. In the documentary, Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer and original voice for Mr. Snuffleupagus, expresses disappointment that this decision was made to eliminate talk of divorce on the first “Sesame Street” episode, because he says it was a missed opportunity for “Sesame Street” to start off with an episode that would have been very cutting-edge at the time.
However, there would be plenty of other episodes that would rile up some people. It’s not mentioned in the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, but it’s mentioned in the “Street Gang” documentary that TV stations in Mississippi briefly wouldn’t televise “Sesame Street” in 1970, because they said people in their communities thought the show’s content was inappropriate. They denied it had to do with the show having a racially integrated cast. But considering that Mississippi was one of the last U.S. states to keep laws enforcing racial segregation, it would be naïve to think that racism wasn’t behind the “Sesame Street” ban.
The topics of racism and race relations take up a lot of screen time in this “Sesame Street” documentary, but mostly as pertaining to a contemporary audience, not the “Sesame Street” audience of past decades. Black Lives Matter protests and the racist murders of George Floyd and other African Americans have been discussed on “Sesame Street.” And there has been a concerted effort to have all races represented on “Sesame Street,” for the human cast members as well as the muppets.
Roosevelt Franklin (the first African American muppet on “Sesame Street”) was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975, and was voiced and created by Matt Robinson. The “Sesame Street” documentary briefly mentions Roosevelt Franklin, but doesn’t go into the details that “Street Gang” did over why the character was removed from the show: A lot of African American parents and educators complained that Roosevelt Franklin played too much into negative “ghetto” stereotypes. In the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, musician Questlove and TV host W. Kamau Bell mention that they have fond memories of watching Roosevelt Franklin on “Sesame Street” when they were kids.
Although most muppets aren’t really any race, some of have been created to be of a specific race or ethnicity. Some muppets look like humans, while others look like animals. For the human-looking muppets, there have been Asian, Hispanic and Native American muppets in addition to the muppets that are presented as white or black people. And the documentary also gives significant screen time to Mexican muppet Rosita, a character introduced in 1991, which is considered a role model to many, particularly to Spanish-speaking people. Carmen Osbahr, the puppeteer and voice of Rosita, is interviewed in the documentary.
The documentary features a Mexican immigrant family called the Garcias, including interviews with mother Claudia and her autistic daughter Makayla, who are the only U.S. citizens of the family members who live in the United States. The Garcias say they love watching “Sesame Street” for Rosita, because she represents so many American residents who are bilingual in Spanish and English. Claudia Garcia, who moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 12, comments in the documentary: “When I was 12, it was not cool to speak Spanish. Now, it [the ability to speak Spanish] is a super-cool thing that you have.”
Four other diverse muppet characters are the Walker Family, an African American clan that is intended to be a major presence in contemporary “Sesame Street” episodes. Elijah Walker (a meteorologist) and his underage son Wesley, also known as Wes, have already been introduced. The characters of Elijah’s wife Naomi (a social worker originally from the Caribbean) and Elijah’s mother Savannah were being developed at the time this documentary was filmed. The documentary includes concept art for Naomi and Savannah.
According to Social Impact U.S. vice president Rocío García, “The Walker Family is a new family we’re creating for the racial justice initiative [Coming Together].” Wes and Elijah are characters that are supposed to contradict the media’s constant, negative narrative that black males are problematic. “Sesame Street” producer Ashmou Young describes the Wes Walker character as “a happy, energetic, innocent child who loves reading and architecture.” Elijah is a positive, intelligent role model. And no, he does not have an arrest record.
Bradley Freeman Jr., the puppeteer for Wes Walker, says in the documentary how proud he is to be part of this character, which he knows can be a role model for all children. “I was bullied at school for being black. That’s something that can hurt you, and you don’t know how to talk about it.” In “Sesame Street,” Elijah and Wes candidly discuss race issues and what it means to be an African American.
Omar Norman and Alisa Norman, an African American married couple, are in the documentary with their two daughters and discuss how the Walker Family on “Sesame Street” means a lot to them. Elder daughter Macayla says it’s impactful when Elijah talks to Wes about racism and how being a black male means being more at risk of experiencing police brutality. Omar gets emotional and tries not to cry when he thinks about how it’s sadly necessary for these topics to be discussed on a children’s show.
All the muppet characters were designed to not only teach kids (and adults) about life but also show what the world is all about and how to cope with problems in a positive way. Chris Jackson (who’s known for his role in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton”) talks about writing the song “I Love My Hair,” which debuted on “Sesame Street” in 2010. The song was written for any girl muppet to sing, but it has special significance to black girls because of how black females are judged the harshest by what their hair looks like. Jackson says that after he wrote the song, he thought, “I think I just wrote a black girl’s superhero anthem,” which he knows means a lot to his daughter.
And if some people have a problem with “Sesame Street” supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, well, no one is forcing them to watch the show. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, comments: “Following the murder of George Floyd, the company decided to make it a company-wide goal of addressing racial injustice [on ‘Sesame Street’].” U.S. first lady Dr. Jill Biden adds, “‘Sesame Street’ is rising up to he movement and addressing what’s going on and what kids are seeing and feeling around them.”
Wilson Stallings says, “We showed diversity, we showed inclusion, we modeled it through our characters. But you can’t just show characters of different ethnicities and races getting along. That was fine before. Now what we need to do is be bold and explicit.”
Sesame Workshop CEO Steve Youngwood comments on increasing “Sesame Street’s” socially conscious content: “We realized that nothing was hitting the moment the way it needed to be. And we pivoted to address it. The curriculum we developed is going to be groundbreaking, moving forward.”
LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street” is still a touchy subject for people who have different opinions on what’s the appropriate age for kids to have discussions about various sexual identities. In 2018, former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman, who is openly gay, gave an interview saying that he always wrote muppet characters Ernie and Bert (bickering best friends who live together) as a gay couple. The revelation got mixed reactions. Frank Oz—the creator, original voice and puppeteer for Bert—made a statement on Twitter that Ernie and Bert were never gay.
Sesame Workshop responded with a statement that read: “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach pre-schoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most ‘Sesame Street’ muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation.”
In retrospect, Sesame Workshop president Sherrie Westin says: “That denial, if you will, I think was a mistake.” She also adds that people can think of Ernie and Bert having whatever sexuality (or no sexuality) that they think Ernie and Bert have. As for LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street,” Jelani Memory (author of “A Kid’s Book About Racism”) is blunt when he says: “It’s not enough.”
And it’s not just social issues that are addressed on “Sesame Street.” The show has also discussed health issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although “Sesame Street” got pushback from some politically conservative people for talking about AIDS on the show, this criticism didn’t deter “Sesame Street,” which was supported by the majority of its audience for this decision. Dr. Anthony Fauci is in the documentary praising “Sesame Street” for helping educate people on health crises.
The documentary includes a segment on the first HIV-positive muppet Kami, a character in “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version of “Sesame Street.” Kami, who is supposed to be a 5-year-old girl, was created in 2002, in reaction to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Her positive outlook on life and how she is accepted by her peers can be viewed as having an impact on people that’s hard to measure.
Marie-Louise Samuels, former director early childhood development at South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, has this to say about Kami: “It wasn’t about her getting some sympathy. It was really about how productive she is in society with the virus.” Even though Kami was well-received in South Africa, “the U.S. was not as receptive,” says Louis Henry Mitchell, creative director of character design at Sesame Workshop.
Also included is a segment on Julia, the first autistic muppet on “Sesame Street.” It’s a character that is near and dear to the heart of Julia puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who tears up and gets emotional when she describes her own real-life experiences as the mother of an autistic child. Julia is one of several muppet characters that represent people with special needs. As an autistic child of a Mexican immigrant family, Makayla Garcia says in her interview that Rosita and Julia are her favorite muppets because they represent who she is.
The documentary shows how “Sesame Street” is in Arabic culture with the TV series “Ahlan Simsim,” which translates to “Welcome Sesame” in English. The Rajubs, a real-life Syrian refugee family of eight living in Jordan, are featured in the documentary as examples of a family who find comfort in “Ahlan Simsim” even though they’re experiencing the turmoil of being refugees. David Milliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee, talks about how “Sesame Street” being a consistent presence in children’s lives can help them through the trauma.
Other people interviewed in the documentary include Shari Rosenfeld, senior VP of international at Social Impact; Elijah Walker puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes; Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop; Dr. Sanjay Gupta; Peter Linz, voice of muppet character Elmo; “Sesame Street” actor Alan Muraoka; Nyanga Tshabalala, puppeteer for the mupppet character Zikwe on “Takalani Sesame”; and former “Ahlan Simsim” head writer Zaid Baqueen. Celebrity fans of “Sesame Street” who comment in the documentary include Usher, Gloria Estefan, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen and John Oliver, who says about the show: “It was my first introduction to comedy, because it was so relentlessly funny.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCR) special envoy Angelina Jolie comments that The Count (the muppet vampire who teaches counting skills) is her favorite “Sesame Street” character: “He had a wonderfully bold personality: The friendly vampire helping you learn how to count. It worked for me.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “All the things that ‘Twilight’ did for vampires, The Count did more. [The Count] made vampires cool because they could count.”
Jolie also comments on “Sesame Street’s” social awareness: “What they’re bringing is more relevant to today than ever.” The documentary includes 2021 footage of “Sesame Street” executives cheering when finding out that Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee won the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100 and Change Award, a grant that gives the recipients $100 million over a maximum of six years.
There’s also a notable segment on the music of “Sesame Street.” Stevie Wonder (who has performed “123 Sesame Street” and “Superstition” on “Sesame Street”) performs in the documentary with a new version of the “Sesame Street” classic theme “Sunny Days.” The documentary has the expected montage of many of the celebrity guests who’ve been on “Sesame Street” too.
“United Shades of America” host Bell says that being asked to be on “Sesame Street” is a “rite of passage” for “famous people at a certain point. Got to get that ‘Sesame Street’ gig! That’s when you know you really made it: When ‘Sesame Street’ calls you.”
Although there’s a lot of talk about certain “Sesame Street” muppets, the documentary doesn’t give enough recognition to the early “Sesame Street” muppet pioneers who created iconic characters. The documentary briefly mentions Jim Henson (the creator and original voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie), but Frank Oz (the creator and original voice of Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert) isn’t even mentioned at all.
Big Bird is seen but not much is said about Caroll Spinney, who was the man in the Big Bird costume from 1969 to 2018, and who was the creator and original voice of the Oscar the Grouch muppet. Spinney died in 2019, at the age of 85. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the documentary.
The movie doesn’t mention the 2012 scandal of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash resigning from “Sesame Street” after three men accused him of sexually abusing them when the men were underage teenagers. The three lawsuits against Clash with these accusations were dismissed in 2014. Clash had been the puppeteer and voice of Elmo since 1984.
“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to bite off a little more than it should chew when it starts veering into discussions about United Nations initiatives and how they relate to “Sesame Street.” There’s no denying the global impact of “Sesame Street,” but “Sesame Street” is a children’s show, not a political science show about international relations. And some viewers might be turned off by all the talk about social justice content on “Sesame Street.”
The documentary could have used more insight into the actual process of creating these memorable muppets. Except for some brief footage in a puppet-creating workspace, that artistic aspect of “Sesame Street” is left out of the documentary. Despite some flaws and omissions, the documentary is worth watching for people who want a snapshot of what’s important to “Sesame Street” in the early 2020s. Whereas “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is very much about the show’s past, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to give viewers a glimpse into the show’s future.
ABC premiered “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” on April 26, 2021. Hulu premiered the documentary on April 27, 2021.