Review: ‘The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It,’ starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson

June 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (Photo by Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”

Directed by Michael Chaves

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.

Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor, Vince Pisani, Sarah Catherine Hook and Patrick Wilson in “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

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.

Review: ‘In the Heights,’ starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jimmy Smits

May 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera (center) in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“In the Heights” 

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

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.

Corey Hawkins and Melissa Grace in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

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.

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

May 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

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

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days”

Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,’ starring Joan Ganz Cooney, Sonia Manzano, Caroll Spinney, Emilio Delgado, Bob McGrath, Roscoe Orman and Lloyd Morrisett

May 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jon Stone in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Robert Fuhring/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”

Directed by Marilyn Agrelo

Culture Representation: The documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African American and Latinos) 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 some TV stations initially refused to carry the show because of this racial diversity.

Culture Audience: “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in the history of “Sesame Street” from 1969 to the early 1990s.

Caroll Spinney in “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” (Photo by Luke Geissbühler/Screen Media Films)

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street”(directed by Marilyn Agrelo) is a documentary that is very much an “origin story” of “Sesame Street,” because it focuses so much on what the show was like in the 20th century. The movie gives a very good and comprehensive overview of the behind-the-scenes work and conflicts that went into making this groundbreaking children’s show, which has been televised in the U.S. on PBS since 1969. (“Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, began airing first-run episodes on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020.) What’s missing from the documentary is more current information about “Sesame Street,” including muppet characters that were introduced in the 21st century, and a contemporary context of why the show is still impactful today.

The ABC documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a more modern look at the “Sesame Street” phenomenon and how the show has adapted to a global audience and a more diverse culture. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is pure nostalgia for a bygone era when the Internet didn’t exist, and kids’ on-screen entertainment options at home were mainly to be found on television, until computers and video games became household items in the 1980s. “Street Gang” (which was produced in association with HBO Documentary Films) is inspired by Michael Davis’ 2008 non-fiction book “Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is so rooted in the past that it’s impossible not to notice a huge racial disparity between who appeared on camera for “Sesame Street” and who was running the show behind the scenes. In “Street Gang,” several of the original “Sesame Street” staffers say that the show was conceived to have a target audience of “inner city” African American children, with cast members who were African American, white and Hispanic. Later, a few Asian cast members were added.

But for the longest time, the only people making decisions about the show were white. The head writers and executive producers were white, almost all the puppeteers were white, and even the crew (camera operators, editors, etc.) were all white. It’s all there to see in the archival footage.

And it’s a sign of the times. When “Sesame Street” was launched in 1969, it was only five years after the Civil Right Acts went into law, and much of the United States was still unofficially racially segegrated. Therefore, the racially integrated cast for “Sesame Street” was very groundbreaking for a children’s show at the time.

The show’s setting also broke traditions in children’s television: It took place in an imaginary urban location called Sesame Street, where humans and a variety of puppets (also known as muppets) co-existed and learned from each other. Almost everyone agrees that the muppets were the real stars of the show.

“Sesame Street” puppeteers/writers Jim Henson and Frank Oz, who both created and voiced several muppet characters (including best friends Ernie and Bert), get a lot of praise in the documentary for being the show’s driving creative force. Joan Ganz Cooney and Children’s Television Workshop co-founder Lloyd Morrisett are credited with coming up with the “Sesame Street” concept, with Ganz Cooney being largely responsible for putting together the show’s original team. And longtime “Sesame Street” director/writer Jon Stone (who died in 1997, at age 64) is singled out as having the most to do with keeping the show’s proverbial engine running for decades. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the “Street Gang” documentary.

Ganz Cooney explains in “Street Gang” why it was so important to her for “Sesame Street” to be racially integrated, at least on screen. She says that she was “heavily involved in the civil rights movement. I was not focused on children though.” That changed when Morrisett attended a dinner party hosted by Ganz Cooney in the late 1960s.

Morrisett remembers, “I was a psychologist at the Carnegie Foundation, and we were heavily influenced by the national dialogue in the [racial and economic] gap that was being created in schools. I wondered if there was a possibility for television to help children with school, but television was not very popular with the Carnegie staff. Academics weren’t interested in television.'”

At this fateful dinner party, Morrisett asked Ganz Gooney if television could be used as a way to educate children. The Carnegie Foundation then hired Ganz Cooney to do a feasibility study, where the bulk of the study’s original $8 million budget came from the U.S. federal government’s Office of Education. The study revealed that because children were spending more time watching TV than children did in the 1950s, and because more children than ever before had mothers working outside the home, television had become an electronic babysitter for a lot of kids.

And so, the idea of “Sesame Street” was born to be a show that would both entertain and educate pre-school-age children, in a racially integrated setting that had puppets with distinctive personalities. And, for the first time in American TV history, television writers and children’s educators would collaborate on episodes. At first, the idea was to have the humans in episode segments that were separate from the muppets. But test screenings shown to kids found that the kids responded best to the show when the humans interacted with the muppets.

Ganz Cooney says in “Street Gang” that even though she came up with the concept of “Sesame Street,” she experienced sexism from certain people who didn’t think a woman should oversee the show. However, Ganz Cooney says that because the entire show “was all in my head,” TV executives needed her to bring her vision to reality. They had no choice but to give her the top leadership role for “Sesame Street.”

One of the first people she recruited was Sharon Lerner, who had a master’s degree in education from Columbia University. Lerner was hired to be a research and curriculum coordinator for “Sesame Street.” Lerner says it was “unprecedented” to see educators and TV writers teaming up to help create a TV show for children. Other staffers from the early years of “Sesame Street” who are interviewed in the documentary include camera operator Frank Biondo and composer/lyricist/writer Christopher Cerf.

Based on the research studies, economically disadvantaged non-white children in urban areas, especially African American children, were getting inferior educations in public schools, compared to their white counterparts. And so, the idea was to target these “inner city” kids with a TV show that could help bridge the gap in their education. In an archival TV interview, Stone describes why an urban street was chosen as the “Sesame Street” setting: “To the 3-year-old cooped up in the room upstairs, the action is on the street.”

Ganz Cooney admits that at first she wasn’t convinced that the show should take place on an urban street because “I didn’t know how it would play to suburban parents.” Translation: “I didn’t know if it would alienate white people who live in very white neighborhoods.” Jon Stone is given credit for the urban street idea, which turned out to be the right concept, because “Sesame Street” soon developed a reputation for not shying away from real-life topics that are often tough to discuss with kids, such as death, bullying and loneliness.

In “Street Gang,” Ganz Cooney says she enlisted the help of an African American consultant named Evelyn Davis to do outreach work in African American communities before “Sesame Street” was launched. Although having this inclusivity was certainly necessary and thoughtful, it’s clear that in those early “Sesame Street” years, the decision makers at “Sesame Street” didn’t want African American input to include hiring any African Americans in leadership positions for the show.

The closest that “Sesame Street” had to an African American creative executive in the show’s early years was Matt Robinson, who was the first actor to portray the character of Gordon, and he was a writer on the show. Robinson (who died in 2002, at the age of 65) came from a TV background of hosting, writing and producing. Before joining “Sesame Street,” he was the host of the Philadelphia talk shows “Opportunity in Philadelphia” and “Blackbook.” In addition to portraying Gordon on “Sesame Street,” he created and voiced the show’s first African American muppet character: Roosevelt Franklin, which was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975.

Dolores Robinson, Matt Robinson’s widow, remembers her late husband’s contributions to “Sesame Street” as being part of the era when the Black Power movement was blossoming. “These were revolutionary times,” she says. Matt and Delores’ children Holly Robinson Peete and Matt Robinson Jr. have different perspectives, since they were in “Sesame Street’s” target age group when their father was on the show.

Robinson Peete says, “Back then, if your dad was Gordon on ‘Sesame Street,’ that was a big deal.” Matt Robinson Jr. adds, “We looked at the TV, and it still wasn’t registering, like, how did he get in the [TV] box?” Dolores Robinson says of the Roosevelt Franklin character, “For Matt, Roosevelt Franklin represented truth.”

The documentary mentions that the Roosevelt Franklin character wasn’t well-received by many African American parents and educators, who felt that Roosevelt Franklin represented too much of the negative “ghetto” stereotype used by racist people who think black people are inferior. “Sesame Street” got enough complaints about Roosevelt Franklin that the character was removed from the show in 1975, without any explanation to the audience. Matt Robinson stopped doing the Gordon character in 1972, but had stayed on with the show behind the scenes as a writer and to voice the Roosevelt Franklin character. The removal of the Roosevelt Franklin character was apparently one of the last straws for Matt Robinson, and he exited “Sesame Street” in 1975.

After Matt Robinson stopped portraying the character of Gordon, Hal Miller stepped into the role from 1972 to 1974. Miller was replaced by Roscoe Orman in 1974, who has been doing the role of Gordon ever since. Orman says of “Sesame Street” writer/director Jon Stone’s contributions to the show: “Jon was the guy who really created the reality of it—the style, the vision of the show.”

Sonia Manzano, who portrayed the role of Maria on “Sesame Street,” comments on Stone: There were a lot of shows that really talked down to kids. And he didn’t really want that. Jon Stone thought that you could have a kids’ show where adults wouldn’t run for the door as soon as it’s on.” Manzano also recalls that Stone didn’t want her to wear too much makeup on the show, because he wanted Maria to look like a real person, “raw and unpolished.”

Manzano and Emilio Delgado (who portrayed Maria’s boyfriend-tuned-husband Luis) talk about the importance of Hispanic representation on “Sesame Street.” Delgado says that as an actor, “Sesame Street” was the first show in a long time where he wasn’t cast as a criminal or a menial servant, and he was grateful for doing a character that wasn’t about those stereotypes. He says of the Luis character: “He was a regular person! He was part of the neighborhood and he had a business.”

During the first season of “Sesame Street,” the cast members did a 1969 U.S. tour with the muppets and life-sized characters from the show. It was a big success. Bob McGrath, who portrayed the character of Bob on the show, remembers the tour this way: “It was a madhouse.” He gushes about his “Sesame Street” experience: “It was a dream come true to fall into this job.” Ganz Cooney comments on “Sesame Street’s” instant popularity: “I was stunned by the overwhelming support for what we were doing. It was if the world had been waiting for us.”

Well, not everyone was so welcoming. The documentary mentions that certain TV network executives in Mississippi were so outraged about “Sesame Street” having a racially integrated cast that these executives refused to televise the show on their local PBS affiliates for a brief period in 1970. In archival news footage, one of these TV executives (who is unidentified in the footage) denied that the decision was racist and blamed it on community standards. Apparently, these “community standards” were offended by a children’s show with people of different races getting along with each other.

Bob McRaney, the general manager of the NBC affiliate WJDX-WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, broke away from this racist mindset and decided to televise “Sesame Street” anyway. “Sesame Street” got such great ratings for WJDX-WLBT that eventually all the racist TV executives who thought their communities would be ruined if they saw “Sesame Street” suddenly changed their minds and wanted “Sesame Street” on their TV stations. Sometimes greed trumps racism.

Behind the scenes of “Sesame Street,” things weren’t as harmonious as they were presented on screen. Ganz Cooney says that she and Stone clashed with each other. In the documentary, she implies that he might have been envious that she got most of the attention for “Sesame Street’s” success. Ganz Cooney describes Stone as “a very sensitive, difficult man.”

Stone’s daughter Kate Stone Lucas says that her father “battled depression all of his life … ‘Sesame Street’ was the love of his life.” Stone Lucas and her sister Polly Stone say that their father, whom they describe as a civil rights activist, initially wasn’t sold on the idea of doing a children’s TV show because he had become disillusioned with television at that point in his career. Stone Lucas says what convinced him to be involved in “Sesame Street” was Ganz Cooney’s “political vision” to improve the quality of children’s TV, especially for inner city kids whose parents were working while the kids were at home.

Stone Lucas says her father’s personality was that he “saw the world in black and white … You were either a good guy or a bad guy.” He was an iconoclast at heart who resisted being too corporate. One of the anecdotes mentioned in the documentary is that there was an office “push pin” bulletin board that had the words “Children’s Television Workshop,” and Jon Stone would rearrange the letters so that they would spell “Children’s Porkshow.”

The documentary doesn’t have much screen time that gives insight into the creation of the most iconic muppets, such as Kermit the Frog (originally voiced by Henson), Grover (originally voiced by Oz), Cookie Monster (originally voiced by Oz), Ernie (originally voiced by Henson), Bert (originally voiced by Oz), Oscar The Grouch (originally voiced by Caroll Spinney) and The Count (originally voiced by “Sesame Street” head writer Norman Stiles, who is one of the people interviewed in “Street Gang”). “Sesame Street” puppeteer Fran Brill says of Henson and Oz: “Jim and Frank were a comedy team … The dynamic between these two guys was magic.”

Off screen, Henson and Oz were described as opposites who weren’t really friends, but they worked well enough together that they had a special chemistry that translated well on screen. Ironically, Henson’s workaholic ways in children’s entertainment (he was also a key creator of “The Muppet Show”) meant that he didn’t spend as much time with his kids as other fathers did. Jim Henson’s children Lisa Henson and Brian Henson are interviewed in “Street Gang.”

Brian Henson says that it was normal for him as a child to not see his father for three or four days in a row because his father was so busy working. He also says, “My father was a pretty quiet, shy person, but he wanted to be hip. He wanted to be cool. And he wanted his company Muppets Inc. to have a very cool reputation. Children’s entertainment wasn’t what he had in mind.”

Ganz Cooney remembers the first time she saw Henson in a staff meeting, she thought he looked like a hippie and she wasn’t sure how he would fit in with the more conservative-looking employees. But she says that Henson became one of her favorite “Sesame Street” people. “He was terrific,” she says adoringly. The documentary has some archival clips of Henson and Oz, separately and together, behind the scenes and doing interviews.

Spinney (who died in 2019, at age 85) was famously the man inside the Big Bird costume, and he was interviewed for this documentary, which has footage of him with his Oscar the Grouch puppet during the interview. Big Bird was originally conceived as a klutzy character with the intelligence of a teenager or young adult. But it wasn’t long before the character of Big Bird was changed to have the innocence of a child in “Sesame Street’s” target age group of 3 to 5 years old.

In 1982, the real-life death of actor Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper on “Sesame Street,” was written into the show as Mr. Hooper dying off-camera. Big Bird’s denial about the death was one of the more memorable aspects of this tearjerking episode. In the documentary, “Sesame Street” people who were involved in this episode say that they wanted to keep the show honest by not lying to the audience about why Mr. Hooper wasn’t coming back to “Sesame Street.”

Music has always been a big part of “Sesame Street,” which features the human characters and muppets performing original songs and cover tunes. Joe Raposo, who composed the “Sesame Street” theme song and many other tunes for the show, is fondly remembered as a larger-than-life character. His son Nick Raposo says that his father didn’t want to talk down to children in his songs.

Kermit the Frog’s melancholy “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” is mentioned as a song that could be interpreted as a metaphor about racism. The documentary also includes clips from several music stars who made guest appearances on “Sesame Street,” including Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Paul Simon and Odetta Holmes. There’s also footage of Jesse Jackson’s well-known “Sesame Street” appearance where he leads a group of kids in a pep talk chant that starts off with repeating “I am somebody!”

“Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” certainly has plenty of heartwarming moments. The movie also has many good anecdotes and archival footage. But the documentary is very American-centric because it doesn’t really acknowledge the impact that “Sesame Street” has had worldwide. If you believed everything that’s presented this documentary, Americans are the only people worth interviewing about a global show such as “Sesame Street.” (“Sesame Street” is currently available in about 150 countries.)

And the “Street Gang” filmmakers didn’t seem to bother asking Ganz Cooney or any of the other white people from the original “Sesame Street” executive team why a show that they wanted to be aimed at urban African American kids had no African Americans making major decisions about the show in its early years. The documentary doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that the groundbreaking racial integration on “Sesame Street” was just in front of the camera only. Behind the camera, it seems that the hiring practices for the “Sesame Street” original production team weren’t reflective of progessive civil rights after all, even though these are the same people who claim to be passionate about civil rights and racial equality.

“Sesame Street” has a long history, and this documentary’s real focus is what “Sesame Street” did up until the 1990s, when Jim Henson and Jon Stone died. Therefore, the “Street Gang” movie will probably be best enjoyed by people who are old enough to remember “Sesame Street” before the 1990s. It’s a meaningful nostalgia trip for “Sesame Street” fans, but not a completely thorough one for people who want more of “Sesame Street’s” history after the 1990s.

Screen Media Films released “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” in select U.S. cinemas on April 23, 2021, and on digital and VOD on May 7, 2021. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is July 6, 2021. HBO and HBO Max will premiere the movie on December 13, 2021.

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

May 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

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

“Those Who Wish Me Dead”

Directed by Taylor Sheridan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HBO Max launches ‘Take Out,’ a culinary series hosted by Lisa Ling about Asian restaurants in the U.S.

April 22, 2021

Lisa Ling (Photo courtesy of HBO Max)

The following is a press release from HBO Max:

  • HBO Max has given a six-part series order to the Max Original, “Take Out,” a timely docuseries from Part2 Pictures that follows award-winning journalist Lisa Ling as she takes viewers behind the counter and into the lives of the people and families who run some of America’s over 45,000 Asian restaurants.
     
  • Logline: Asian restaurants representing the diverse people and cuisines of the continent are as ubiquitous as McDonald’s, and each one of them has a unique and compelling story. Lisa explores the storied and complicated journey of the Asian community, past and present, at a critical time, while zig-zagging the country celebrating the joy that the little white take-out box can bring. 
     
  • Lisa Ling quote: “It is time that we learn about a community that has been integral to America’s development but has largely been ignored by American history. My own family’s path to their American dream started in a Chinese restaurant, and I cannot wait to learn the stories of those whose journey paralleled mine throughout different parts of this country.” 
     
  • Sarah Aubrey, Head of Original Content, HBO Max quote: “With ‘Take Out,’ we will pay tribute to the hard work and countless contributions of Asian Americans whose restaurants helped shape the cultural tapestry and cuisines of America. Lisa is one of a few storytellers who could paint the trials and triumphs of a community as told through the lens of a restaurant.”
     
  • David Shadrack Smith quote: “This has been a long-standing passion project that feels as relevant as ever. It’s a chance to join Lisa on an especially personal exploration – and build on our long relationship together delving deep into the dynamics of America through the people that make it diverse and complex.”
     
  • Credits: “Take Out” is produced by Part2 Pictures with executive producers Ling and David Shadrack Smith. Part2 Pictures is currently producing the eighth season of “This Is Life With Lisa Ling.”

Review: ‘Godzilla vs. Kong,’ starring Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry, Shun Oguri, Julian Dennison and Demián Bichir

March 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Godzilla and King Kong in “Godzilla vs. Kong” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

“Godzilla vs. Kong”

Directed by Adam Wingard

Culture Representation: Taking place in various other parts of the world, the action flick “Godzilla vs. Kong” features a racially diverse cast (white people, African Americans, Asians and Latinos) who are part of the scientific community, corporate business or are underage students.

Culture Clash: Gigantic monster enemies Godzilla and King Kong cross paths, while some greedy corporate people want to exploit the monsters’ power sources in order to make deadly weapons.

Culture Audience: “Godzilla vs. Kong” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “Godzilla” and “King Kong” movies and don’t care if the story is badly written, sloppily directed and populated with hollow human characters.

Alexander Skarsgård, Rebecca Hall and Kaylee Hottle in “Godzilla vs. Kong” (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick/Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures)

The tedious and atrociously made train wreck that is “Godzilla vs. Kong” probably will please people who have extremely low standards for action flicks. But considering that several superhero movies have proven that action movies can be entertaining spectacles with distinct and memorable characters, there’s really no excuse for why “Godzilla vs. Kong” stinks more than any toxic excrement that can be expelled from these fictional monsters’ bodies. “Godzilla vs. Kong” is the epitome of a “cash grab” film that lazily exploits the nostalgic brand names of beloved creature feature films. In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the filmmakers do almost nothing to create intriguing characters that can exist in a cinematic art form.

Directed by Adam Wingard and written by Eric Pearson and Max Borenstein, “Godzilla vs. Kong” takes an annoying amount of time building up to the inevitable fight scenes described in the movie’s title. The filmmakers inexplicably overstuffed the movie with a lot of characters that barely do anything except act egotistical (if they’re the villains) or look anxious (if they’re the heroes). The human characters who are involved in the most action and decision making in the movie are reduced to spouting idiotic dialogue that makes the monsters in the movie look more intelligent.

Yes, it’s another movie about a creature that threatens to destroy the world, while humans think they can stop the destruction in time, and the greedy ones think they can get rich off of this crisis. That’s pretty much the plot of every movie about Godzilla, King Kong or other giant monster. Pitting two supersized titan monsters against each other should raise the stakes even higher, but “Godzilla vs. Kong” fails in delivering an enjoyable story and has an ending that falls very flat. The movie’s visual effects from Luma Pictures are adequate but not outstanding.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” begins with King Kong living in a biodome on Skull Island, where he is being observed by scientists for research. Leading the team of scientists is Dr. Ilene Andrews (played by Rebecca Hall), who is a single mother to an adopted deaf/mute daughter named Jia (played by Kaylee Hottle), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. Apparently, Ilene cares more about her research than the safety of her underage daughter. Jia is allowed to be in many completely dangerous situations that would be more than enough for child protective services to get involved.

But dumb movies like “Godzilla vs. Kong” pander to the lowest common denominator by showcasing people with horrific parenting skills and acting as if nothing is wrong with it. And if that means making it look like kids should be allowed to be in the line of fire and actively fighting these monstrous and deadly creatures, then so be it. Kaylee and some of the other underage characters in “Godzilla vs. Kong” are portrayed as having uncanny knowledge and skills that the adults don’t possess. It’s just more pandering to a kiddie audience or people with a child’s mentality.

The movie (which was filmed in Hawaii and Australia) jumps all over the place in a haphazard manner, but here are the main locations in the film:

  • Skull Island, where King Kong lives until he’s brought out of hiding for reasons explained in the movie. It’s also where Ilene and her daughter Jia live until they decide to travel to wherever Kong will be relocated.
  • Apex Cybernetics, a high-tech corporation in Pensacola, Florida, is involved in cybertechnology related to military defense weapons. The CEO of Apex is a typical money-hungry villain named Walter Simmons (played by Demián Bichir), who has a conniving daughter named Maya Simmons (played by Eiza González), who wants to take over the business someday. Walter’s loyal right-hand henchman is Apex chief technology officer Ren Serizawa (played by Shun Oguri). Apex also has an engineer named Bernie Hayes (played by Brian Tyree Henry), who ends up becoming a whistleblower.
  • Monarch Relief Camp, also in Pensacola, is the temporary home of refugees who were displaced by the destruction caused in the 2019 movie “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” It’s where divorced dad Mark Russell (played by Kyle Chandler), a former Monarch animal behavior and communication specialist, works to help refugees. Mark has a headstrong and independent teenage daughter named Madison (played by Millie Bobby Brown), who wants to follow in his footsteps as scientist who studies animals.
  • Denham University of Theoretical Science is a think tank in Philadelphia where the workaholic and underappreciated Dr. Nathan Lind (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is working on a top-secret theory/experiment. Aren’t they all in movies like this one?
  • Hong Kong, where some of the characters in the story take a rocket, because apparently it’s not enough just to have transportation by planes, ships, trains or automobiles.
  • Tokyo, because you shouldn’t have a Godzilla movie without Godzilla fighting in Tokyo.
  • Hollow Earth, a place somewhere below the earth’s surface that was discovered in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” This location also plays a major role in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

In “Godzilla vs. Kong,” King Kong somehow got access to a javelin (it’s never explained how), and like an Olympic champ, he throws it at the sky while he’s on Skull Island. The javelin pierces the biodome ceiling, so that’s how King Kong finds out that the world he’s been living in has been hermetically sealed.

You know what that means. King Kong becomes restless because he knows he belongs somewhere else. It isn’t long before Ilene and the rest of the scientists find out that King Kong has literally cracked their carefully constructed façade.

Ilene comments about King Kong to a co-worker named Ben (played by Chris Chalk): “The habitat is not going to hold him much longer.” Ben replies, “We need to think about off-site solutions.” Ilene then says, “The island is the one thing that’s kept him isolated. If he leaves, Godzilla will come for him. There can’t be two alpha titans.” Oh yes, there can, or else this movie wouldn’t exist.

The decision is made to move Kong out of Skull Island. King Kong is tranquilized and strapped to a cargo ship. And you just know that tranquilizer is going to eventually wear off. Somehow, Kong’s energy is sensed by Godzilla, who comes out of hibernation from deep in the ocean. Godzilla goes on a rampage in trying to find Kong. It’s all just filler until these two creatures face off against one another.

What does this have to do with Apex? The company has discovered a subterranean ecosystem that’s as “fast as any ocean light.” It has an energy life force that Apex wants to find in order to make a weapon that will defeat Godzilla.

Nathan, a former Monarch employee, says that he tried and failed to find the mysterious Hollow Earth entry. He believes in genetic memory, a theory that says all titans share a common impulse to return to their evolutionary source. Nathan wants to tag along with Ilene and her crew to find the power source that’s in Hollow Earth.

But since “Godzilla vs. Kong” isn’t interested in keeping things simple with only essential characters, there are more people who want to get to Hollow Earth too. There are the Apex villains, of course. And then there’s a motley trio that’s meant to be the movie’s comic relief but they end up saying a lot of corny lines and getting into stereotypical slapstick predicaments.

This trio consists of Apex engineer Bernie, who’s decided he’s going to expose Apex’s dastardly plans; teenage Madison, who apparently skips school so she can save the world in “Godzilla” movies; and her schoolmate Josh Valentine (played by Julian Dennison), who’s the type of character that Dennison is known to play in movies: a sarcastic brat. Josh is also the clownish “klutz” of the group who’s prone to be more terrified than the others. Meanwhile, Bernie sometimes acts like he’s uttering lines that were rejected from a bad stand-up comedy act.

How did Bernie get mixed up with these kids? Bernie is the host of a podcast called the Titan Trade Podcast, where he spouts “insider” conspiracy theories about Apex but doesn’t reveal his true identity. Even though Bernie’s voice and his irritating motormouth personality would be recognizable to his Apex co-workers on this podcast (Bernie makes no effort to disguise his voice), the movie wants people to believe that Bernie’s been able to keep his podcast identity a secret while he’s spilling confidential company information to the world.

“Something bad is going in here,” Bernie warns in one of his podcast episodes. He says that he’s going to download evidence of a “vast” corporate conspiracy. “It’s more than a leak. It’s a flood,” he adds. “And this flood is going to wash away all of Apex’s lies.” And with that announcement, Bernie essentially tells the world that he’s a company whistleblower, without thinking that the company could possibly catch on to his exposé plan before he actually does it. So dumb.

Madison listens to the podcast and essentially drags a reluctant Josh along when they meet Bernie. Madison uses Josh because he has a car and she doesn’t. As if to put an emphasis on how Bernie is the “out of touch” adult in this trio, he has a very outdated flip phone that he uses a lot in the movie. It might be some type of weird irony that a guy who works as an engineer at a highly advanced tech company doesn’t even have a smartphone, but it just makes Bernie look even more dimwitted, considering all the benefits of a smartphone that he would need on this mission.

Because “Godzilla vs. Kong” is meant to be a family-friendly film, there are the obligatory sappy moments to make it look like this isn’t just a movie with fights and explosions. Jia has an emotional bond with King Kong that’s intended to tug at people’s heartstrings, because somehow she’s taught him sign language without her mother knowing. Ilene eventually finds out, but you have to wonder how much of neglectful parent Ilene must be if she let her daughter spend enough time alone with King Kong that Ilene didn’t know that Jia has now become King Kong’s personal American Sign Language tutor. Kids these days.

And while this awful movie whips around from place to place like a flea in search of a mangy dog, somehow the filmmakers forgot to have any meaningful story arc for Madison’s father Mark (who was a protagonist in “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”), who is completely sidelined in “Godzilla vs. Kong.” The parents in this movie are insultingly portrayed as incapable of making truly effective decisions unless the kids show them the right way.

There’s nothing wrong with precocious kid characters, but not at the expense of making the adults with years of scientific knowledge look clueless next to kids who haven’t even graduated from high school yet. The movie completely undervalues and dismisses the life experiences of adults whenever the kid characters are in the same scene. It’s why “Godzilla vs. Kong” has the mentality of video game or a cartoon instead of a live-action movie.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” doesn’t even bother giving the villains anything memorable about their personalities, which is what all worthwhile “good vs. evil” stories are supposed to do. Heroes often have bland, interchangeable personalities, but villains are the ones who are supposed to get the biggest audience reactions in these stories. And audiences like to see some of the clever ways that villains make mischief. None of that happens in “Godzilla vs. Kong.”

There could have been so much improvement to the movie’s lackluster human interactions if the villains were compelling. Walter is very generic, Ren doesn’t talk much, and Maya is a completely unnecessary character. All of the actors in “Godzilla vs. Kong” give performances like they know they’re in a movie where they don’t have to show much acting talent and it’s all about the paychecks they’re getting.

As for the Godzilla vs. King Kong fight scenes that come too late in the movie, they are extremely predictable but at least better than the witless dialogue that the audience has to endure whenever the movie’s scenes focus only on the humans. In order for a monster movie to have the most impact, viewers should care not just about the fight scenes but also about the people whose lives are in danger. And in that regard, “Godzilla vs. Kong” stomps out a lot of humanity to distract viewers with CGI action that isn’t even that great in the first place.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Godzilla vs. Kong” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on March 31, 2021. The movie was released in several countries outside of the U.S. on March 25 and March 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Tom and Jerry,’ starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney and Ken Jeong

March 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jerry and Tom in “Tom and Jerry” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Tom and Jerry”

Directed by Tim Story

Culture Representation: Set in New York City, the live-action/animated film “Tom and Jerry” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Longtime “frenemies” Tom (a stray cat) and Jerry (a pesky mouse) find themselves causing mischief at an upscale hotel, which will be the site of a major celebrity wedding.

Culture Audience: “Tom and Jerry” will appeal primarily to fans of the original “Tom and Jerry” cartoon series or people who want something for their young children to watch, but this clumsily made and boring film can’t come close to the exuberant spirit of the original “Tom and Jerry” cartoons.

Goldie, Jerry, Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña and Rob Delaney in “Tom and Jerry” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Animation technology has come a long way since the “Tom and Jerry” franchise was created in 1940 with a series of short films by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. But having better technology still can’t replace good storytelling. And in that respect, the live-action/animated film “Tom and Jerry” (directed by Tim Story) is vastly inferior to all the “Tom and Jerry” films that came before it. Even if the movie might have been “dumbed down” with the intent of making it easier for very young children to understand, it’s still an insult to children’s intelligence to make this such a dull and awkward film.

Written by Kevin Costello, “Tom and Jerry” is a movie that looks like a haphazard collection of short sketches that were forced into a flimsy overall plot. In the movie, main characters Tom (an animated cat) and Jerry (an animated mouse) wreak havoc at an upscale New York City hotel that’s the venue for a high-profile celebrity wedding. Tom and Jerry are famously mute, while other animated animal characters in their world can talk. It’s too bad that no one muted this lazy and unimaginative movie by not making the movie at all.

What’s supposed to pass as comedy in this film is very stale. The action sequences are forgettable. And there’s no suspense in this story because everyone, except for people who’ve never seen cartoons before, will know exactly how this movie is going to end. The live-action actors all look like they did this movie for their paychecks, not because their hearts are in it.

“Tom and Jerry” takes place in New York City, where Tom and Jerry have known each other for an undetermined period of time and have crossed paths on the streets of New York City, where they live. Jerry is the “brattier” one of the two. In an early scene in the movie, a marquee sign at Madison Square Garden shows that Tom is a keyboardist who’s supposed to be appearing as an opening act for John Legend.

But, as an example of how poorly written this movie is, Tom is then shown playing his keyboard in a park, busking for change to a small group of people and pretending to be a blind musician. It doesn’t make sense that an artist who’s reached the level of playing Madison Square Garden, even as an opening act, would have to stoop to the level of doing these small-time con games. The marquee could have been Tom’s fantasy but it’s presented in the movie as real.

Jerry knows that Tom isn’t really blind, so it isn’t long before he causes some mischief and exposes Tom for being a fraud. It’s one of many “back and forth” acts of revenge that the cat and mouse play on each other throughout the story. None of these acts is particularly inventive or exciting in this movie. Tom has two imaginary alter egos that can talk and represent his inner thoughts: an “angel” that represents Tom’s “good side” and a “devil” that represents Tom’s bad side. Both characters are voiced by Lil Rel Howery.

As Tom chases Jerry for ruining Tom’s “blind keyboardist” act, they both crash into Mackayla “Kayla” Forester, a temp worker in her 20s who was on her way from picking up dry cleaning in her work as a personal assistant. Of course, the clothes go flying in different directions and get dirty.

The next thing you know, Kayla is on the phone with her boss (played by Craig Stein) at the employment agency, and he tells her that she’s suspended. She begs for another chance and offers to be his personal assistant. He refuses and says she might not be suited for this type of work. She agrees and quits on the spot.

Kayla is apparently having financial problems because she’s been going to the Royal Gale Hotel by pretending to be a guest and getting free meals at the buffet-styled dining area. The hotel’s main doorman Gavin (played by Daniel Adegboyega) knows that she’s been doing this freeloading. The next time he sees Kayla arrive at the hotel one morning, he asks if she’s back for the free food.

After getting some free breakfast, Kayla is in the lobby when she sees a prim and proper woman who looks like she might be able to afford a personal assistant. The woman is seated by herself in the lobby. Kayla sits down next to the woman, who is a Brit named Linda Perrybottom (played by Camilla Arfwedson), and strikes up a conversation.

Kayla is wearing a black leather jacket and tight black jeans, so she’s not as well-dressed as most of the hotel’s usual clientele. Linda notices it immediately, and she’s a little standoffish when Kayla tries to figure out if she can finagle her way into this stranger’s life for some money. Kayla asks Linda if she needs a personal assistant, and the answer is no.

It turns out that Linda is not a guest at the hotel, but she’s applying for a temp job in the hotel’s events department. Linda tells Kayla that she wants the job so that she can work on the upcoming wedding ceremony of a celebrity couple named Preeta Mehta (played by Pallavi Sharda) and Ben Jacobson (played by Colin Jost), who are famous enough to be on the cover of a gossip magazine that Linda shows to Kayla. It’s implied that Preeta and Ben are in the entertainment business, probably as actors.

Although Linda seems wary of Kayla, Linda ends up talking too much and giving away too much information about herself. Kayla sees an opportunity to steal Linda’s identity by first lying to Linda and saying that she’s an undercover supervisor who works for the hotel and was testing Linda to see how she treats strangers at the hotel. Kayla tells Linda that she failed the test because Linda was rude and indiscreet about Preeta and Ben’s wedding.

Kayla then asks Linda to see her résumé and tells Linda that she didn’t get the job. And just like that, Kayla takes Linda’s résumé, goes to a copy center to replace Linda’s name with her own. The résumé is so impressive that Kayla is hired on the spot for the job that Linda wanted. Needless to say, Kayla has no experience in hotel hospitality work or in event planning.

Kayla’s immediate boss is Terence Mendoza (played by Michael Peña), the hotel’s events manager. Terence reports to Henry Dubros (played by Rob Delaney), the hotel’s general manager. They both meet Kayla for the interview and put her immediately to work.

Terence is a smarmy character who becomes suspicious of Kayla’s qualifications early on, so she has to always keep one step ahead of him to prevent him from finding out that she’s a fraud. Terence is more likely to dismiss Kayla’s ideas, while Henry is more open-minded and willing to give Kayla a chance. Terence is desperate for Henry’s approval, so he’s often two-faced in how he deals with employees, depending on how well he thinks it will help further his career and impress Henry.

During Kayla’s first day on the job, she’s introduced to some of the other hotel employees who are featured in the movie. Chef Jackie (played by Ken Jeong) is a cranky taskmaster who likes to yell at his subordinates. Joy (played Patsy Ferran) is a nervous and socially awkward bellhop. Cameron (played by Jordan Bolger) is a laid-back and friendly bartender, who ends up giving Kayla some pep talks when certain things start to go wrong for her.

The first problem that Kayla encounters is finding out there’s a mouse loose in the hotel. The mouse is first spotted in one of the worst places to find a mouse: in the kitchen. And we all know who the mouse is. Tom the cat is lurking around too, so Kayla decides to “hire” Tom to capture Jerry. There’s a scene where Tom is literally wearing a bellhop cap, as if that is automatically supposed to be funny.

The rest of the movie is just more run-arounds, mishaps and sight gags, leading up to the big wedding. There’s a very dull subplot about how Ben ignores that Preeta wants a simple ceremony, and he becomes caught up in the idea of making the wedding more and more elaborate. It’s supposed to be a traditional Indian wedding, but Ben has taken over the wedding planning, as if he wants it to be a big movie production.

Ben is also very nervous about getting the approval of Preeta’s stern father (played by Ajay Chhabra), who acts like he can barely tolerate Ben. There are some humorless scenes where Ben and Mr. Mehta interact with each uncomfortably. Preeta’s mother (played by Somi De Souza) and Ben’s parents (played by Patrick Poletti and Janis Ahern) are also there, but their characters are written as very non-descript and unremarkable.

Ben’s obsession with wanting a lavish wedding reaches a point where he gets two elephants and a tiger for the ceremony. The idea is to have Ben and Preeta ride in on the two elephants, whose names are Cecil and Malcolm. All of the wild animals in the movie are animated characters. So too are the movie’s many domesticated animals, including Ben and Preeta’s pets: a bulldog named Spike (voiced by Bobby Cannavale) and a pampered cat named Toots.

The other animal characters in “Tom and Jerry” are three alley cats that are members of a gang that sometimes menace Tom: gang leader Butch (voiced by Nicky Jam), red-haired Lightning (voiced by Joey Wells) and diminutive Topsy (voiced by Harry Ratchford). There’s also Goldie, a goldfish that lives in Henry’s office and becomes a hunting target for Tom. And there’s a rapping bird named Pigeon (voiced by “Tom and Jerry” director Story) that acts as a narrator.

Because “Tom and Jerry” is a live-action/animation hybrid, the movie relies heavily on how convincing the actors look next to these animated characters. Moretz fares the best in putting the most effort in expressing different emotions with these imaginary animals. Peña at times looks uncomfortable, while Jeong dials up his angry and sarcastic persona to the highest and campiest notches.

There are some very predictable hijinks that ensue that often happen in movies with a wedding as the center of the action. A ring goes missing, a cake is in danger of being destroyed, and certain characters will inevitably have a big fight. It’s nothing that hasn’t already been done in other movies.

In addition to the formulaic plot developments, the dialogue and gags are often cringeworthy. When Kayla first meets Preeta and Ben, she gushes over them and tells them what a cute couple they are. Kayla also compliments Preeta on Preeta’s enormous engagement ring: “That rock! You can see it from outer space!” Ben smugly replies, “You can see our love from outer space.”

And it should come as no surprise that Spike the bulldog character is used for the inevitable fart and defecation jokes that every kids-oriented animal film seems to have these days. Spike eats a burrito that doesn’t agree with his intestinal system. And there’s a scene where Terence has to walk the dog after the dog ate the burrito. Enough said.

The direction and tone of “Tom and Jerry” are best described as a movie that doesn’t have any clever ideas and jumps around too much from antic to antic, in order to distract people from the very weak plot. The alley cat gang, which could have been used for more comedy, is very under-used in the film. Tom and Jerry do their expected slapstick shenanigans, but they’re surrounded by human characters that are just too bland.

And the movie’s visual effects aren’t very impressive, since some of the animation looks really out-of-place with the live actors. An example of a live-action/animation hybrid that did everything right is 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which didn’t have a lot of the animation technology that exists today. “Tom and Jerry” isn’t the worst animated film ever. But considering that people have so many better options, this movie is not essential viewing. It’s just not worth watching if you’re interested in engaging entertainment that’s truly fun to experience.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Tom and Jerry” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on February 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield

February 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

LaKeith Stanfield (in front) and Daniel Kaluuya (in back) in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Photo by Glenn Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Directed by Shaka King

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Chicago in 1968 and 1969, the drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” features a predominately African American cast (with some white people and Latinos) representing people involved in the civil rights movement and law enforcement.

Culture Clash: The Black Panther Party, including Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton, was the target of FBI investigations that included hiring an African American paid informant named Bill O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party to help the FBI bring down Hampton and his colleagues.

Culture Audience: “Judas and the Black Messiah” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about the civil rights movement for African Americans.

LaKeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Photo by Glenn Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” which is based on true events, mostly succeeds as presenting a rousing and riveting depiction of a troubling side of the U.S. civil rights movement that is rarely seen as the central plot of a movie: How African Americans were used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to betray African American civil rights leaders who were labeled as “troublemakers” by the FBI. It’s a necessary and sometimes uncomfortable examination of specific people in the late 1960s history of the civil rights movement, even though “Judas and the Black Messiah” has some awards-bait dramatics that were obviously manufactured for the movie.

Directed by Shaka King (who co-wrote the screenplay with Will Berson), “Judas and the Black Messiah” shows two very different sides of the African American experience with the civil rights movement. On the one side is the urgent activism embodied by Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. On the other side, is the passive political apathy of William “Bill” O’Neal, a car thief who was lured into betraying the Black Panthers by being a paid confidential informant for the FBI, in exchange for the FBI keeping O’Neal out of prison for his past crimes, such as car theft and impersonating a FBI agent.

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” which takes place primarily in Chicago, is told from perspective of O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), but Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) is most definitely portrayed as the heroic soul of the movie. In real life, Hampton and O’Neal were in their early 20s when this movie takes place from late 1968 to late 1969. Thankfully, the filmmakers chose “Judas and the Black Messiah” as the movie’s title, instead of the movie’s original and very misleading title “Jesus Was My Homeboy.” Jesus is not a major theme in this movie at all.

The term “black messiah” refers to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s fear that the civil rights movement would gain momentum under a powerful and charismatic leader. For a while, that leader was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), until he was brutally assassinated on April 4, 1968. “Judas and the Black Messiah” starts off in late 1968, when the civil rights movement became increasingly fractured by ideological divides between those who wanted to follow MLK’s non-violence philosophy and those such as the Black Panthers, who wanted to follow a more left-wing-leaning “any means necessary” philosophy, even if those means included violence.

Hoover has been depicted in various ways in movies and television, but in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” there’s no doubt that Hoover (played by Martin Sheen, in prosthetic makeup) is the movie’s chief villain. In an early scene in the movie, Hoover is presumably at FBI headquarters as he addresses an auditorium full of FBI agents (all white men, as Hoover reportedly preferred), with an oversized projection screen that looks a little too ahead of its time, as if he’s giving a TED Talk. This is supposed to be 1968, not 2018. It’s one of a few details that don’t ring true in the movie.

During this FBI assembly, Hoover sneers, “The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a black messiah among their midst, one with the potential to unite Communists, the anti-war and the new left movements.” A photo of Hampton then appears on the giant projection screen, to make it clear that Hampton is now one of the FBI’s main targets.

Meanwhile, O’Neal is shown being a small-time car thief with an unusual method of operation: He impersonates a FBI agent (including having a fake badge) and pretends to arrest someone for having a stolen car. He looks for potential victims, by at least finding out their names and what kind of car they have, so the fake arrest can look real. And he chooses people who are probably into illegal activities and aren’t likely to go to the police when the theft victims find out they’ve been tricked. It’s implied that all of O’Neal’s theft victims are black, since he knows he’d have very little chance of getting away with this FBi impersonation stunt if he tried it on white people.

What usually happens during this fake FBI arrest is that O’Neal gets the handcuffed person’s car keys and steals that person’s car. Except when viewers first see O’Neal in this movie, that plan backfires in a bad way. O’Neal walks into a bar while some men are playing pool and tries to arrest one of them, but this stranger resists being handcuffed. The “arrestee” has a few friends who also try to stop the detainment. They’re all immediately suspicious of this “arrest” and chase after O’Neal in the car.

One of the friends jumps on the car roof with a knife and starts stabbing through the roof and ends up stabbing O’Neal. The injuries aren’t serious, but they’re enough for this car theft to be completely botched. O’Neal barely manages to get away from the angry group when he’s pulled over by police.

The movie then fast-forwards to O’Neal in a meeting with the FBI special agent who will be the one to lure O’Neal into the FBI sting: Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons), an ambitious smooth talker who asks O’Neal why he impersonated a FBI agent for a car theft. O’Neal replies, “A badge is scarier than a gun.”

Mitchell then asks O’Neal how he felt about the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X. O’Neal replies that he was a “little bit” upset over MLK’s murder and he didn’t give much thought to Malcolm X’s murder. It’s at this point that Mitchell knows that O’Neal doesn’t care much about politics or the civil rights movement, and therefore O’Neal can be easily manipulated into being an informant.

First, Mitchell says that the only way that O’Neal can avoid prison is to work as an informant for the FBI. Whenever O’Neal starts to express doubts about being an informant (and this happens several times throughout the story), Mitchell tells O’Neal that the Black Panthers aren’t much different from the Ku Klux Klan, because Mitchell says both are radical, unpatriotic groups that want to divide people by their races and overthrow the U.S. government.

It doesn’t take long for O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in Chicago and gain the trust of Hampton, who makes O’Neal the head of security. Hampton is a smart and magnetic leader who is respected by other party members because he often shows through words and deeds that the cause he’s fighting for isn’t about his ego but is about the people and future generations. Unlike other Black Power leaders, who wanted to keep black people separate from people of other races, Hampton embraced alliances with like-minded people of other races.

Hampton is credited with creating the Rainbow Coalition in 1969, which aimed to unite other anti-establishment groups for shared causes. It was a concept that was met with some resistance from the separatist Black Panthers, but because this is a movie, the Rainbow Coalition’s origins are a little too oversimplified and streamlined. One minute, Hampton and some other Black Panthers are showing up uninvited to meetings by the Young Patriots (a group of working-class white people) and the Young Lords (a group of Puerto Ricans) and making themselves known as unexpected allies. The next minute, Hampton is leading a Rainbow Coalition rally with members of the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots and the Young Lords in attendance.

The movie also shows how Hampton spearheaded the alignment of the Black Panthers with a Chicago-based African American gang called the Crowns, in order for the Black Panthers to have access to weapons and armed security backup. And what do you know, one of the Crowns just happens to be someone who was in that group that chased after O’Neal in that botched car theft. There’s a very “movie moment” when O’Neal is sure this guy is going to remember him, thereby making O’Neal more paranoid that his cover will be blown.

Some of the other Black Panther Party members who are featured in the movie include Jimmy Palmer (played by Ashton Sanders), Jake Winters (played by Algee Smith), Judy Harmon (played by Dominique Thorn) and Deborah Johnson (played by Dominique Fishback), a wide-eyed student who is in awe of Hampton and ends up becoming his girlfriend. In real life, Johnson is now known as Akua Njeri, and she gave birth to Fred Hampton Jr. in December 1969. Njeri and Hampton Jr. both were consultants on “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Of course, in any movie that involves spying, there are double crosses and constant questions about loyalty, honesty and who can be trusted. The movie ramps up the tension not only outside the Black Panther Party but also within it. “Judas and the Black Messiah” also raises thought-provoking questions that will make people wonder about the prices that people pay for freedom, however freedom might be defined by individuals. And when there are informants or spies who are paid to betray, to what extent should they be branded as the “enemy”?

“Judas and the Black Messiah” has undoubtedly powerful performances by Kaluuya as Hampton and Stanfield as O’Neal. Kaluuya has the flashier role that will get more attention, mainly because there’s no ambiguity about his purpose in the film: depicting Hampton as a civil rights hero. In the few times Hampton was depicted in scripted projects before “Judas and the Black Messiah” was made, Hampton was usually a marginal character who didn’t have much depth, such as in the Netflix 2020 movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Hampton is a larger-than-life personality who gets the big speeches, the leadership position at rallies, and the martyrdom when he lands in prison at the height of his power. Hampton’s biggest showcase speech scene comes after he’s released from prison and gets a hero’s welcome during a Black Panther rally in Chicago. After leading the crowd to chant, “I am a revolutionary!” several times in the speech, he declares poetically: “You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder liberation! You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution! You can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom!”

Stanfield has the more difficult and nuanced role as the conflicted and duplicitous O’Neal. On the one hand, O’Neal knows he’s a traitor. On the other hand, O’Neal is portrayed as someone who genuinely became friends with many people in the Black Panther Party, but he felt powerless to stop the informant deal that he made with the FBI. There are times when O’Neal shows so much loyalty to the Black Panthers that FBI agent Mitchell doubts whose side O’Neal is really on.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” doesn’t let O’Neal completely off the hook for his betrayal, but the movie gives the impression that his decisions were not about the money but about his fear of going to prison if he didn’t comply with what the FBI wanted. In real life, O’Neal gave only one TV interview about his Black Panther/FBI informant experience. It was in 1989, in an interview for the PBS show “Eyes on the Prize 2,” which aired the interview on January 15, 1990. Clips of this interview are recreated in the movie.

The performances in “Judas and the Black Messiah” are impactful and deserving of high praise. Where the movie falters is in some of the scenarios depicting the interactions between O’Neal and his FBI contact Mitchell. In the movie, Mitchell deliberately kept O’Neal’s identity a secret from most his FBI colleagues. (Hoover knew though.) Therefore, it doesn’t make sense that the movie shows O’Neal and Mitchell openly meeting several times in upscale restaurants, where O’Neal is obviously the only black person there as a dining patron. It wouldn’t have been hard for the movie’s screenwriters to keep all of the meetings between O’Neal and Mitchell in less public places.

O’Neal’s wardrobe gets a little more stylish as he starts to make more money from the FBI. But in the beginning, O’Neal definitely stands out in these restaurants because he’s dressed inappropriately (too casual) for these kinds of dining establishments. If you were to believe this movie, in 1969 Chicago, a black man in “street clothes” can walk into an upscale restaurant where all the other patrons are white, sit down, have dinner with a white man in a suit, and no one notices, stares or questions why this inappropriately dressed black man is there. Things like that would’ve definitely gotten noticed in the real world. And this scenario is not exactly O’Neal and Mitchell keeping their relationship undercover or incognito.

Another “only in a movie” contrivance is in a scene where a despondent O’Neal ends up in a bar, where a woman shows a romantic interest in him after she rejects a fur-coat-wearing motormouth at a nearby barstool. The rejected man (played by Lil Rel Howery), who is identified only as Wayne in the movie’s end credits, is a stranger to O’Neal, but Wayne drops hints that he knows that O’Neal is working for the FBI.

O’Neal, who is already feeling very uneasy, follows Wayne out to Wayne’s car and demands to know who he is. The movie, with anxiety-filled music building to a crescendo, then has Wayne reveal something that’s meant to shock O’Neal and the audience. It’s highly doubtful this confrontation ever happened in real life, but fans of the Oscar-winning 2017 horror movie “Get Out” will be happy to see “Get Out” co-stars Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery reunited as cast members for “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

As the only women with significant speaking roles in the movie, Fishback (as Hampton’s girlfriend Johnson) and Thorne (as Black Panther member Harmon) show considerable talent, although this is definitely a male-dominated film. Johnson’s character evolves from being a star-stuck fangirl of Hampton to being a loyal romantic partner to being a strong-willed expectant mother, who can’t help but feel impending heartbreak and doom when she hears Hampton give a speech saying that he will probably die for his people. Thorne’s Harmon is a badass who can get down and dirty in fight scenes just like the men do, such as in a tension-filled shootout between the Chicago Police Department and the Black Panthers.

The flaws in the movie’s screenplay are outweighed by the significant talent of the cast members and the ability of director King to maintain a suspenseful edge. Even though many people watching this movie might already know what happened to Hampton and O’Neal in real life, “Judas and the Black Messiah” triumphs in capturing the essence of this era of the civil rights movement in America. There might be fabricated “only in a movie” moments, but the film authentically conveys the passion and necessity for civil rights.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Judas and the Black Messiah” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘The Little Things’ (2021), starring Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto

January 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rami Malek, Jared Leto and Denzel Washington in “The Little Things” (Photo by Nicola Goode/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Little Things”

Directed by John Lee Hancock

Culture Representation: Taking place in California in 1990, the crime drama “The Little Things” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash: Two police detectives with contrasting backgrounds team up to find a serial killer.

Culture Audience: “The Little Things” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching slow-paced and dull crime movies that waste the considerable talent of the starring cast members.

Denzel Washington and Rami Malek in “The Little Things” (Photo by Nicola Goode/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Take three Oscar-winning actors and put them in a crime thriller written and directed by filmmaker who has a solid track record of making crowd-pleasers. What could possibly go wrong? When it comes to the disappointing crime drama “The Little Things,” it’s not so much what went wrong but what should have gone right. Written and directed by John Lee Hancock (whose best-known movie is 2009’s “The Blind Side”), “The Little Things” ultimately fails to be exciting or innovative, considering that it stars the very talented Academy Award winners Denzel Washington, Rami Malek and Jared Leto.

Almost everything about “The Little Things” has been done before in other movies and done much better. There are key parts of the movie that will definitely get comparisons to director David Fincher’s 1995 classic “Seven,” written by Andrew Kevin Walker and starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey. The irony is that “The Little Things” was written by Hancock back in the early 1990s, before “Seven” (a far superior film) was released.

There are some noticeable similarities in both movies. “Seven” and “The Little Things” are about two cops (one middle-aged, one younger) who team up to hunt down a serial killer. The prime suspect is a mysterious creep who leads them in a cat-and-mouse styled investigation where he keeps them guessing about crucial aspects of the killing spree. (Freeman and Pitt were the cops in “Seven,” while Spacey was the suspected serial killer.)

In “The Little Things,” which takes place over a few days in October 1990, Washington plays the more experienced and older cop named Joe “Deke” Deacon, while Malek is the younger cop named Jim “Jimmy” Baxter. Leto has the role of a sleazy loner named Albert Sparma, who becomes the prime suspect in a string of murders of young women in Southern California. Unfortunately, there’s so much about the story that’s unimaginative and sluggishly paced that there’s very little suspense throughout the story.

The opening scene of “The Little Things” looks like something out of a formulaic horror movie: A young woman is driving by herself at night on a deserted road somewhere in the Los Angeles area. She gets tailgated and then chased by a mysterious driver. She panics and drives off of the road to a diner, whose outside lights are on, but she finds out too late that the diner is closed and no one is there. She runs off into a desert area, and the mystery stalker gives chase on foot. Luckily, she’s able to run back out onto the road and flags down a passing truck in order to get rescued.

Viewers later find out that her name is Tina Salvatore (played by Sofia Vassilieva), and police think that she narrowly escaped from a serial killer who has been targeting young women and stabbing them to death. However, most of the murder victims have been prostitutes, and Tina doesn’t fit that profile. She didn’t even get a good look at the guy who tried to kill her and never heard him talk, so the chances are slim to none that Tina can identify this criminal. Tina, just like most of the female characters in this film, is essentially sidelined. Except for a brief scene later in the movie, this key witness is never seen again.

The women with speaking roles in this movie only serve one of three purposes: to be a crime victim; a current or former love interest; or someone who is subservient to men. These one-dimensional characters include Jimmy’s dutiful and adoring wife Ana (played by Isabel Arraiza); Deke’s ex-wife Marsha (played by Judith Scott), who works as a medical examiner and does whatever Deke asks her to do; and Los Angeles police detective Jamie Estrada (played by Natalie Morales), who follows the lead of her male colleagues and has a very thankless role in the investigation.

Deke is a deputy who works in the Kern County Sheriff Department, which is about 133 miles north of Los Angeles. It’s a much more rural area than Los Angeles, where Deke used to work as a sergeant in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide department until he left under a cloud of bad circumstances. While investigating this serial killer, Deke was suspended and had what’s described by a former colleague as a dangerous, stress-related emotional “meltdown.” He also had a heart attack.

Deke’s abrupt departure from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department caused some hard feelings from his former co-workers there. One of them is Deke’s former boss Carl Farris (played by Terry Kinney), the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s homicide captain who ended up replacing Deke with Jimmy. Carl describes Deke’s exit from the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department as Deke being “run out” of the department, while Deke describes it as choosing to leave on his own.

It just so happens that Deke has to go back to the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department to pick up evidence for a robbery case that he’s working on in Kern County. And what do you know, one of the first people Deke meets when he goes back to the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department is Jimmy, who’s annoyed that Deke’s truck is blocking Jimmy’s parking space. It’s not exactly a “meet cute” moment, but people who won’t know anything about this movie before watching it can immediately tell from this scene that Deke and Jimmy will end up spending a lot of time together.

Deke finds out there’s going to be delay in getting the evidence he needs, so his former boss Carl sarcastically tells Deke he can kill some time by catching up with his former colleagues. One of the few people in the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department who’s still willing to be cordial to Deke is a detective named Sal Rizoli (played by Chris Bauer), who tells Deke over a meal at a diner that things just aren’t the same since Deke left the department. Sal says that the current department employees are “a bunch of nancies” who’ve “got no soul” and the department head honchos have “weeded all the heart out of the place.” Sal describes Jimmy as a “good cop, a college boy, a bit of a holy roller.”

Jimmy and Deke couldn’t have more different lifestyles. Deke is a divorced father of two adult daughters, and he lives by himself in a small, ramshackle house out in the desert. Jimmy is happily married with two young daughters, and he lives in a comfortably middle-class and well-kept home. Deke is not religious and is very jaded about life. Jimmy is supposedly religious and “by the book,” but this shoddily written movie doesn’t really show proof of that, because Jimmy ends up breaking all kinds of laws in his obsessive quest to solve the murders and arrest Albert.

Through a series of implausible circumstances, Jimmy invites Deke to help him investigate the murders, even though Deke is only supposed to be in town for a few days and the cases are out of Deke’s jurisdiction. The evidence that Deke is supposed to bring back to Kern County for an upcoming court case ends up being completely ignored in the rest of the story. That’s how bad this movie is.

Albert becomes a prime suspect because he works for a small-business appliance store that was called to repair a refrigerator in a young woman’s apartment. She ended up getting slaughtered on the day that Albert was supposed to be there for the repair appointment. And so, Deke and Jimmy immediately zero in on oddball Albert after some snooping around at his seedy apartment building. He’s also on their radar because eight years ago, Albert confessed to one of the murders and knew certain details that the killer would know, but he wasn’t held responsible for the murder because he had an alibi when the crime happened.

“The Little Things” wants to keep viewers guessing over whether Albert is the serial killer or if he’s just a nutjob who wants the police to think that he’s the culprit. There are too many plot holes to mention, including how the movie never explains how in a large urban area such as Los Angeles, the police are so sure that all of these murders are being done by the same person. In “Seven,” the serial killer left very specific clues so that law enforcement knew the same person was committing the murders. In “Little Things,” there is no such proof.

Instead, the movie is more concerned about showing the over-used crime movie trope of the “world-weary cop” partnered with the “eager-beaver cop” and how their personalities clash before they learn to work together for the same cause. What Jimmy and Deke have in common is that they’re both obsessed with finding the killer. Getting back on this serial killer case also seems to trigger something disturbing in Deke, because he starts to hallucinate seeing the dead women come to life in his dumpy motel room and in other places. And Deke talks to the corpses. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Washington does a passable job of playing Deke as a cynical and emotionally wounded cop who’s haunted by his past, but “The Little Things” is a very forgettable entry to his impressive body of work. Malek is stuck playing a generic character who makes an implausible switch from being stringent and uptight to being a rogue cop who breaks the law with Deke. Among other law violations, Jimmy acts as a lookout/getaway driver when Deke intrudes in Albert’s apartment, while Albert is away, to look for and possibly steal evidence. Any cop or good screenwriter would know that this illegal break-in would make the evidence inadmissible in court, but it’s in this ludicrous movie anyway.

Leto makes the most effort to bring some unpredictability and nuance to his Albert character, but his performance is hindered by the substandard screenplay that doesn’t give Albert much to do except act like a weird scumbag and annoy Deke and Jimmy. And if these “detectives” are so great, why haven’t they investigated Albert’s activities over time to possibly tie him to the murders? Doing a couple of stakeouts just wouldn’t pass muster in the real world of homicide detective work.

“The Little Things” wants viewers to believe that these murders can be solved at lightning-fast speed during the few days that Deke is in Los Angeles. But ironically, the film moves at a sluggish and mind-numbing pace. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is often cringeworthy too. At one point, Jimmy tells Deke when they have one of their personality clashes: “If you piss on my leg and call it rain, we’re through.”

The movie gets its title because Deke has a mantra that “the little things” count in an investigation, and criminals often get caught because of “the little things” they do when they make mistakes. In other words, Deke is one of those cops who believes in the old saying, “The devil is in the details.” Unfortunately, “The Little Things” is very careless with details, and a more appropriate title for the movie is “The Big Plot Holes.”

Warner Bros. Pictures released “The Little Things” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on January 29, 2021.