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Blindspotting: A Lighter But Honest Take On Today’s Social Issues

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal in a scene of Blindspotting | Lionsgate.

I was lucky enough to hear about Blindspotting (2018) when it was initially released in limited theaters. I could have easily missed out on this movie. Its release fell during a quiet time for the Black Lives Matter movement; 5 years after the group’s inception, and 2 years before the latest resurgence. That being said, I feel like this film could have been used by the movement to sincerely and humbly show the world what life might be like for a Black man living in an urban area. Unfortunately, Blindspotting went under the radar for most of the country; chalk it up to bad timing, perhaps. However, even two years after its release, this movie’s impact hits just as hard now as if it came out 2 to 3 weeks ago.

I want to add a little bit of context to me as a viewer: I grew up in a place that was often rated #1 on lists for safest cities in the world. I’m a white male, and my parents provided everything I would ever need. From my limited perspective, I was truly touched by this film and felt an overflow of empathy for a population of people that deal with the issues displayed in this movie every day. The movie also managed to make me laugh–a lot!

Daveed Diggs (original Hamilton Broadway production, and Wonder) and Rafael Casal grew up together in Oakland and both experienced much of what they eventually created with this film. They both co-wrote and co-starred in Blindspotting and their chemistry makes for an enthralling and hilarious watch all by itself. I was hooked all the way from their playful banter to their emotionally and racially charged arguments.

Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal in a scene of Blindspotting | Lionsgate.

The film itself really works with two distinct elements (though they are interrelated): the often comical predicament of Diggs and Casal’s characters dealing with their hometown slowly and annoyingly gentrifying due to the influx of hipsters and software company executives, and the anxiety Digg’s character feels from racial tensions on so many sides–whether it’s judgement from his appearance, witnessing police brutality, or dealing with the label of being an ex-convict. The way these two elements collide is done in such a meaningful and heart wrenching way, but I won’t go further into detail because you need to watch it!

All in all, the most important lessons I’ve learned from this film are the following:

  • I’m more aware that we live in a society that often bases grave decisions on far too limited of information or preconceived bias, and it’s in large part the reason why Black Lives Matter exists. 
  • A White man can have the exact same upbringing and live in the exact same area as a Black man, and they’ll more than likely have a huge divide in experiences, treatment and anxieties. 
  • Whether or not racism has gotten worse, life in an urban area makes it so heartbreakingly normal that people often take it with a grain of salt. 
  • Just as the movie utilizes comedy and friendship to get through the heavier parts, grace only through unity is going to be essential to get through our current predicament.
  • If there’s anything more I could say, it would just be that if you want a movie free of any condescension that expands your perspective of why the Black Lives Matter movement is happening, I think this is a fantastic choice. 

If you have yet to see Blindspotting, take advantage of the time left to watch this movie for free on VOD services like iTunes, Amazon Prime or VUDU. Or if you have an HBO Max subscription, it’s currently streaming there as well. This film is well worth your time, and you just might gain more insight and empathy to demographics of people different than you.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Spike Lee

Film director, Spike Lee.

My first memory of Spike Lee was following the 91st Academy Awards. Upon the announcement that Green Book (2017) had won Best Picture, the acclaimed director reportedly rose from his chair and angrily attempted to leave the Dolby Theater. It wasn’t uncommon for nominees to thinly veil their disappointment, but the idea that he would storm out because his movie didn’t win set me against the acclaimed director. As such, my first ever Spike Lee Joint was only two months ago when I finally got around to seeing the film he had so badly wanted to take home that Best Picture honor; BlacKkKlansman (2017). Making my way through his filmography has convinced me that there is more to Lee than being a seemingly sore loser. So here is what I’ve learned about the man named Shelton Jackson Lee, or as his mother took to calling him, Spike.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods

Spike Lee’s mother was a teacher of arts and black literature. “She was the one who introduced me to film,” he says of Jacquelyn Shelton Lee, “My mother had the vision to introduce all her children to the arts…. but she never got to see my success” (1). She died during his sophomore year at Morehouse College. He would later continue his education with a Master’s in film and television from NYU, where he is currently a tenured professor. He has used his powerful storytelling to change the perspective on historical figures, as in Malcolm X (1992), or to tell criminally untold stories, as in BlacKkKlansman and most recently Da Five Bloods (2020). He cares for these stories as if they were his own, like many of his joints are. His filmography feels at times like a biography, as the experiences and places that formed him permeate his narratives; the innocence of childhood and maternal loss in Crooklyn (1994), the portrayal of social issues within the black community in School Daze (1988), and the racial tensions and gentrification of Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing (1989). Lee makes his movies even more personal by starring in many of them himself. In fact, every member of his immediate family has participated in at least one of his projects; his father, a jazz musician, recorded the music for Lee’s first four films, including Mo’ Better Blues (1990). Spike Lee co-wrote Crooklyn with his siblings Cinqué and Joie, and his brother David has done the still photography for almost all of Lee’s films.

Director Spike Lee on location for the filming of Do the Right Thing (1989).

For me, Spike Lee Joints stand out as unsatisfying; not in quality or content, but in terms of the feeling that sits in my gut when the credits roll. He doesn’t shy away from displaying brutality, violence, and overt racism (as a result all but two of Spike Lee’s films have an R-rating). But what sets him apart is his determination to deny any resolution to the discomfort. Lee creates this feeling of unease not only with subject matter and dialogue but also with camera angles and movements. His signatures are a double-dolly shot where characters appear to be floating, and the simple direction of having characters break the fourth wall. But they aren’t looking at the camera; they are looking at you. The implied sense of obligation or responsibility for what is going on, especially when the subject matter is so jarring, isn’t pleasant. It’s impossible to watch Lee’s films and feel that everything is hunky-dory in the world and that there is no need for outcry. It’s why his films have become the standard for education on the social issues at hand.

Common criticisms of Lee include that his work can be heavy-handed and transparently political, and I don’t think he would disagree. In an interview with Piers Morgan, he said, “I know I have a reputation, but I’m always being put in this position [where] I have to speak on race… on behalf of 45 million African Americans” (2). He takes that responsibility seriously. For one, the name of his production company is “40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks”, referring to what was promised by the federal government (but never given) to newly freed slaves following the end of the Civil War; a reminder of what Black Americans have suffered at the hand of systemic injustice. In almost every one of his films a character says, “Wake up!”, sometimes repeatedly and directly to the audience. He’s been openly critical of directors that he believes are misrepresenting Black people, including Clint Eastwood, Tyler Perry, and Quentin Tarantino. He felt that Do the Right Thing was passed over in favor of a more polite and comfortable narrative in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), which was showered with praise, even the Academy’s top prize. When asked about his apparent agitation over Green Book’s similar victory, Lee responded, “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose” (3).

Director Spike Lee, actors Topher Grace and Adam Driver on the set of BlacKkKlansman, a Focus Features release. Credit: David Lee / Focus Features

Despite losing Best Picture and Best Director, Spike Lee did not go home empty-handed. He won his first non-honorary Oscar for BlacKkKlansman’s adapted screenplay. The announcement was made by Samuel L. Jackson, who got his start in Lee’s films and has starred in 6 of them to date. At the news, Lee bounded onto the stage in a bright purple suit and leapt into Jackson’s arms, wrapping all four limbs around his old friend’s frame for a good few seconds before finally making his way to the microphone. The speech was characteristic of Lee; reminding those present that their country was built on the enslavement of an entire race and the genocide of the Native American people. As a fully committed people-pleaser, it’s hard for me to relate to someone so trenchant and passionate in their viewpoint. Like his films, Lee’s voice abandons subtlety and favors outright-ness and unflinching sophistication. It may not be easy to hear, but without such a bold and unrelenting voice, would we see things the way we do now?

Citations:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18ZPB_SvsKk
  2. The Atlantic: Spike Lee Interview
  3. Washington Post: Spike Lee’s Reaction to ‘Green Book’ Win

Movie Theater Getaway

After three long months, I’m finally back at the movies.

With some movie theaters cautiously reopening, and after an incredibly frustrating work day, I decided to escape to the cinema this evening. It definitely wasn’t the bustling, thriving celebratory grand reopening I was hoping for, but… Well, here’s my review of the experience:

The theater lobby was a combination of sparse but upbeat employees surrounded by expired standees, scaled-down concession stands, and abundant cleaning smells. It felt as if someone had broken into an abandoned building and discovered how to turn on a few working breakers. I began to feel a little disheartened. COVID-19 has already changed everything about day-to-day life, but now it was threatening to permanently infringe on one of the few places I can go to escape.

I bought some popcorn, was rationed some napkins, a straw and a lid, and headed down the barren hallway into the auditorium.

It was mostly empty—just a few teenagers and me. Not quite the communal experience you typically want at a theater.

Then the lights dimmed and the trailers (without dates) played. I love trailers but these were for movies that had already missed their original releases, again a reminder of the reality I wanted to forget about for awhile. After the trailers, there was a lengthy clip of the President of Megaplex Theatres awkwardly welcoming audiences back and, again, reminding us of the detailed protocols his company is following to protect us. How could I forget?

Blake Andersen, President of Megaplex Theatres, welcomes back movie theater patrons.

Finally, after nearly three months of drought, the movie started. And that was it—the shiny floating distributor logos, the larger-than-life images, the seat-shaking surround sounds—I was transported.

The movie wasn’t new, I’ve seen it at least a dozen times. But it worked. No matter how hard the theater kept trying to remind me of the new reality, the cinematic experience worked.

For a few hours I didn’t have to think about the new normal. Covid, protests, politics, social media, work stress, all took a back seat while my mind was creatively recharged and emotionally reinvigorated.

Thank goodness for movies.

After the credits rolled, the lights came up, and I put on my face mask and headed back into wherever we are now, feeling a little more prepared to face this new normal.


Garrett Batty is a film director, producer and writer. Batty’s filmography includes films such as The Saratov Approach (2013), Freetown (2015), and Out of Liberty (2019).

Does ‘The Help’ Help Fight Racism?

The Help (2011) directed by Tate Taylor | Walt Disney Studios.

To commemorate our trip to the Final Four tournament, my college rugby team made a fairly impromptu music video featuring Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” It comprised of us dancing and lip-syncing like goofballs, all the while actually believing that the color of our skin didn’t matter. We were sisters, teammates, and eventually national champions. Today, the video reflects fond memories I have with teammates of all colors and backgrounds. When I think of “race relations,” those sweet expressions of unity and friendship are the summary of my limited personal experience; but I know that for my Black brothers and sisters, this is not the case. The fictional character Aibileen recalls the wrongful death of her son, saying, “The anniversary of his death comes every year and I can’t breathe, but to y’all it’s just another day of Bridge.” It’s this disparity in perspective that is stirring me to educate myself and increase my own awareness of racial injustice in the country I love.

The movie The Help (2011) has received both warm praise and heavy criticism. While some heralded it as inspirational, others claimed it was whitewashed, watered-down, and even harmful in combating real racism. Even actress Viola Davis, who was nominated for multiple awards for her portrayal of the previously mentioned Aibileen, expressed her disappointment with the film’s inability to focus on the characters that comprise its title, going as far as to say she regretted starring in it. I agree with her; the movie would have been better had it played out as the stories of a dozen black maids, interweaving with each other to actually answer the question “What is it like to be a Black maid in the 60s?” Instead, it spends considerable time on Skeeter (played by Emma Stone), a young, White post-grad who has an awakening to the atrocity and hypocrisy of her culture. Some would attribute this oversight to the author of the novel on which the film is based, claiming that she was not the right person to tell the stories of black maids because she is White. I disagree with the logic but consent that the story was not sufficiently focused on those it claims to represent. In spite of that and its other flaws, I still think The Help is worth watching.

(From left to right) Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Emma Stone in a scene of The Help | Walt Disney Studios.

The reason I make that statement is this: the story is not about fighting racism or injustice. There are other and better depictions of what it takes to combat an uneven and dangerous playing field. What I love about The Help is how it iterates the nature of relationships that exist in defiance of social injustice and inequality before the law. The character Aibileen works in the homes of 17 children and helps to raise them, often speaking of how much she grows to love them. These bonds run deep, but they are eradicated and defiled by a system that dehumanizes a member of that family unit based on pigmentation. I feel like The Help is actually a story about developing trust sufficient to cross imaginary lines with too-horrible-to-imagine risks. The process of collecting the interviews of the help shows the importance of listening, even if you don’t like what you hear. It’s not a White woman playing savior to a Black woman; it’s Black women and White women learning to trust each other with the truth. The precious, familial bond portrayed in The Help reminds me of what is at stake if we allow injustice to continue. It proves that there is power in telling our stories, or at least sharing the stories that inspired or changed us. And it’s the only reason I’m sharing my limited perspective at all.

RELATED:

The Significance of ’12 Years a Slave’ in Today’s Cultural Climate

I’m grateful for those critical of The Help because they offer insights that I could not see on my own, and that has shaped the way I watch the film today. But I think to discount the film completely is a mistake. There is value in stories about friendships and personal trust developed between individuals with diverse backgrounds; yes, it’s remedial and at times cheesy (it’s distributed by Disney, after all). Like Remember the Titans (2000), it sacrifices the gritty reality of the past for palatable victories in manageable conflicts. As far as education, it’s about as informative as my rugby team’s music video. But as long as it serves as an appetizer and not your one and only course, The Help can leave you with warm fuzzies and hope that things can get better; that despite differences we can actually come to understand each other and, together, work for real change. This is just one of the films that the team at Backseat Directors will be discussing; don’t let it be the only one you watch.

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Martin and Malcolm

When filling out my Apocalypse Bingo sheet, I could have never guessed that a second Civil Rights Movement would be on the horizon. I found myself woefully undereducated about the nuances that are required for this subject. Luckily, one of the benefits of self-quarantine is that I have more time and the resources to learn more. And so, I set out to watch two movies that focus on two of the most recognized figures of the First Civil Rights Movement in America: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Selma (2014)

David Oyelowo (MLK Jr.) and others Civil Rights activists march in a scene of Selma | Paramount Pictures.

During my elementary school years, I grew up in a small town near Memphis, Tennessee. Those days were filled with stories about Martin Luther King Jr.— taking field trips to the hotel where he was assassinated, and learning how much progress and change he brought to our nation. The impression I got was that he was a national hero that helped end racism in our country.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that, at the time when MLK was living, our government had the exact opposite opinion of him. I was shocked. I thought only white supremacists and racists had a poor opinion of him. So, when Ava DuVernay announced that her film ​Selma​ would be available to stream for free, I leapt at the chance to watch it. It ended up being one of the most relatable films to our current times that I’ve seen. David Oyelowo was the actor casted to play MLK, and I’m not sure there is anyone else that bears such a striking resemblance to him.

The movie tells of the struggle between the people who demanded change and equality for the Black community, and both the local and federal government who were more complicit with the status quo.

What I really appreciate about this film is that it highlights King’s dedication to non-violence, and his cunning in using his enemies’ prejudice against them to the movement’s advantage. He puts their bigotry and violence on full display for the country to see, and when the Alabama state troops conceded because of the backlash against their violence, the marchers turned back. This allows the President to reflect on the violence and outrage, which convinced him to pass a bill that will allow Black citizens to vote without restrictions.

While knowing a little bit about Martin Luther King Jr.’s involvement in the First Civil Rights Movement, this film helped me see him as a more layered, complex, and cunning person that helped the cry of the oppressed be heard more loud and clear.

Malcolm X (1992)

Denzel Washington standing behind microphones on the city street in a scene from the film Malcom X (1992) | Photo by Largo International NV | Warner Bros. Pictures.

I grew up not knowing who Malcolm X was, but once I heard of his existence, I was immediately bombarded with the accusations that he was a terrorist. I took that accusation as fact, so I spent years thinking that Malcolm was the radical violent version of MLK. While researching about the First Civil Rights Movement, I discovered that I was wrong. So, I was determined to watch the Spike Lee Joint and see the history I missed out on. The movie was three-and-a-half hours long, but it flew by with how interesting and enjoyable it was to watch.

While MLK was a Christian pastor who believed in unity and non-violence, Malcolm was an Islamic minister who, for most of his life, believed in segregation and equality “by any means necessary.” He taught that the white man had stripped the Black people of all their culture, their right to commerce, and even their identities. So there was nothing to be done than to live apart from another. He condemned leaders like MLK for pandering to the white community.

After becoming disillusioned with the Nation of Islam, Malcom took a pilgramage to Mecca where he realized that members of different races could live together in peace. He believed this could be obtained through Islam. After returning to the United States, he began to change his views on Black nationalism, and was later assassinated while speaking at the Organization of Afro-American Unity.

This film’s ending was especially powerful, with actual footage of Malcolm’s speeches interspersed with the film and a surprise cameo from Nelson Mandela. I am so glad I watched this film. It gave me a newfound respect for all of the different factions of the First Civil Rights Movement, and allowed me to view the depth of pain and alienation that bigotry and racism caused. Malcolm X was a powerful figure in the First Civil Rights Movement that should be highlighted just as much as MLK.

What Have I Learned?

We are all (hopefully) taught that overt racism is wrong. We’re taught not to judge people based on the color of their skin, not to call others names, that violence against others because of their race is wrong. This is overt/individual racism. Nearly everyone recognizes that this is wrong.

We are rarely taught about the real history of racism in America. It took the recent events of police brutality for me to really reflect on how much race, education, and socioeconomic circumstances are a factor in each of our lives. Whether we like it or not, slavery and racism is part of the history of our country and have cultivated many of the social situations that communities and families find themselves in today. Watching ​Malcom X a​nd ​Selma​ have helped me realize that while overt racism is generally frowned upon today, we still have a long way to go when it comes to addressing outdated policies and ideologies that seem to perpetuate racial tensions in our country. It’s easy to say in hindsight that we would have walked hand in hand with MLK Jr. or Malcolm X in the last Civil Rights Movement, but that might be disingenuous if we’re standing on the sidelines now. We must confront these issues head on and leave a better country and world for the next generation.

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Josh Gad

US actor Josh Gad poses on the red carpet as he arrives to attend the European premiere of the film Frozen 2 in London on November 17, 2019. (Photo by Niklas HALLE’N / AFP).

Before he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, Josh Gad spent four years being roommates with a musical theater hopeful named Rory O’Malley, who became his close friend. A few years after graduation, both Gad and O’Malley were cast in a Broadway show called The Book of Mormon. It would go on to become one of the most successful musicals of all time and earned both roommates Tony nominations. O’Malley says of Gad, “I’ve certainly had faith in Josh…I always knew that he is a comedic genius and it was just a matter of time.” He added that Gad was a drama major and never in the musical theater program; he just sang on the side.

Though he got his start on Broadway, Josh Gad was born to be in Hollywood. He was actually born in Hollywood, Florida, the youngest of three brothers and raised by traditionally Jewish parents. Both of his older brothers became lawyers, but from a young age Gad knew he wanted to be an actor. As a kid in the 90’s, he was obsessed with Disney movies, his favorite of which was Aladdin (1992) because of Robin Williams’ performance as Genie. Little did he know that one day he would be a Broadway star living in the same building as Williams and get to meet him in person. Josh Gad himself is most famous for his own portrayal of a comedic Disney side-character: the loveable, magical snowman Olaf in Disney’s Frozen (2013) franchise. Apart from the success of the film and its effect on his career, Gad became the first actor ever to win two Annie Awards for Voice Acting, both for his portrayal as Olaf in Frozen and Frozen II (2019) respectively. The character even got its own float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and has appeared annually since 2017. He doesn’t let that go to his head though; he scored not one but two nominations for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor for performances in The Wedding Ringer (2015) and Pixels (2015). Ironically, he shares that accolade with none other than Robin Williams, who was also nominated twice in 1999. 

But even for someone that’s talented, trained, and motivated, finding success or even just work as an actor can feel impossible. A few years after graduating from Carnegie Mellon, Gad grew weary of rejection and decided he was going to quit and go to law school like his brothers. When he told his mother, he was shocked to hear her crying. “I’m disappointed with you,” he recalls her saying, “I’m disappointed because you’ve spent 15 years dreaming about doing something and only 3 years trying to live out that dream.” Gad credits that conversation with giving him the courage to fly out to New York and audition to replace a Tony-winner in a Broadway production called, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. At the time, an episode of ER was his only professional acting credit, but he won the part.

Josh Gad sings in a scene of Beauty and the Beast | Walt Disney Studios.

It wasn’t too long after that that he exploded onto the scene as Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, and then made seemingly seamless transitions into television and film. One of his breakout movies was Love and Other Drugs (2010), where he played an awkward but entertaining brother of Jake Gyllenhal’s character. From there, he’s been in comedies, murder mysteries, dramatic biopics, as well as a long list of voice-acting credits. He’s gotten to use his Broadway-level singing voice not only in Frozen but also in the live adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (2017) as LeFou and as Birdie in Central Park (an animated musical sitcom that just debuted on Apple TV+ and is getting great reviews). As for movies, you can catch him as Mulch Diggums in Artemis Fowl (2020), which just debuted streaming on June 12 via Disney+.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the work hasn’t stopped for Gad. For kids, the “At Home with Olaf” animated shorts are fun and entirely produced from home by Gad and the animators, but by far my favorite is his “Reunited Apart” Youtube series where he brings together casts from classic films via Zoom in order to raise money for charity. Recently he brought together the cast of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and I loved every second of it. Despite it all, he still finds time to go on daily walks with his kids and read them the Harry Potter books (complete with his multitude of character impersonations, of course). I’m glad he’s had time to be home with his family, because his stardom train has been going strong for some time, and I don’t anticipate him giving up the spotlight any time soon.

The Significance of ’12 Years a Slave’ in Today’s Cultural Climate

12 Years a Slave (2013) | Fox Searchlight Pictures.

As I peruse the awesome film lists that people have been compiling to educate allies on racial inequity, there are a couple films that seem to be missing (The Help and Green Book are decent and all, Hidden Figures as well) but where is Higher Learning or American History X? Where is Queen & Slim? Where is 12 Years a Slave?

… I have an opinion on that.

As a Black man, I’ve looked at many of the recent films on Civil Rights and thought to myself, “That’s not for me. That’s for the white audience.” These are films that focus more on portraying Black people as people of virtue and worthy to be treated fairly. News flash, folks: we deserve equal rights based on our humanity. Nothing more. Nothing less. These films offer no accountability, which is what is sorely needed now. The latter films are rarely mentioned because they hold a mirror to people’s faces and show them things they don’t want to see or acknowledge. I believe 12 Years a Slave is the perfect film to watch if you’re serious about understanding.

To clarify, I’m not saying you aren’t serious about being an ally if you don’t  watch it; I’m saying it’s the perfect film to watch. It’s an essential film based on the craft used to create it alone—impeccably shot. Solidly written. Powerfully acted. Emotionally scored. It has all the makings of a film that garnered multiple prestigious awards. It’s also without a doubt the most unflinching portrayal of slavery ever committed to film. This is what we need right now. Our streets are filled with gas. Our buildings are burning. Alliances are shifting. Friends are becoming enemies. Enemies are becoming allies. It’s a tumultuous time.

Almost all of this turmoil can be traced back to the slave trade, and what better way to educate yourself on a root cause than to watch the best film made on the very subject?

To those who haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave, or are descended from slavery, I’d like to reiterate that this isn’t your typical slavery film. This isn’t about glorifying a historical figure. It’s about narrowing the lens on the crime against humanity that is slavery. This is about one man’s fight for his freedom on a physical and existential level. You can take that harrowing journey and then realize that millions fought that same battle in their own way. Slaves were not a monolith then, just as marginalized people are not a monolith now. The oppressors would have you believe this because it’s how they reconciled their atrocities—by convincing themselves we are not individuals and we are lesser beings. There’s even hope among the chaos, because Solomon Northrup persevered through his ordeal. We, as descendants, can take his example as a microcosm for our own struggles. He survived with his character and dignity intact. He remained sure and proud. He never quit hoping or fighting. We have that same spirit within us. We’ve had no choice, because the alternative is more knees on our necks and guns in our faces.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and other cast members appear in a scene of 12 Years a Slave | Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I’d like to leave you with this in closing: changes in perspective and hard conversations need to happen in order for us to progress. Both of these won’t come by avoiding the elephant in the room—pretend it’s not there and you get trampled. Our streets are evidence of this in recent weeks. I truly, truly believe that 12 Years a Slave will stir something within you. It could be anger. It could manifest as sadness or disappointment. It might even (hopefully, prayers up) awaken you to the pain of a people. Whatever those emotions may be, I say let yourself feel them. You won’t be in a theater. You’ll be in the comfort of your own home or another familiar place. If it gets too tough (and it will) take a break. Don’t fast forward or skip. Gather yourself. Discuss it with your viewing partner. Analyze it. Work through it. Use the film as a tool toward better understanding and empathy.

My hope is that you leave your viewing experience a little beat up and worse for wear, but also energized and ready to take action—even if that’s simply getting another person to watch. The scars of slavery are evident in the Black community down to our inner psyche and the marrow of our bones. There are reminders everywhere—the monuments to leaders who believed they had the right to own us; the confederate banner they fought under; police brutality; malicious legislation; predatory loans and debt; defunded education; mass incarceration; the people afraid to sit next to you at the movies; even the disparity between elite athletes and ownership—all of it is born from the desire to maintain a 401-year-old status quo.

Let’s not make it 402 years.

Utah-Based Movie Theater Chain, Megaplex Theatres, Reopening Soon

Megaplex Theatres at Jordan Commons | Courtesy of Megaplex Theatres, Larry H. Miller Company.

It’s a great day for all movie fans in Utah. Megaplex Theatres, part of the Larry H. Miller Company, just announced today that they will be reopening most locations on Thursday, June 18.

Theaters nationwide shuttered their doors in early March in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Regal Cinemas was the first major theater chain to announce closures of their theaters back on March 16, 2020.

It has been a long three months for moviegoers as they have had to wait patiently for things to settle down enough for movie theater companies to even consider reopening. Megaplex Theatres officially closed their doors on March 18, 2020—exactly three months to the day from their scheduled reopening.

Megaplex Theatres has made assurances that they will go to great lengths to ensure the safety of their employees and patrons. Megaplex has officially adopted Utah’s Cinema Promise:

Utah’s theatre exhibitors, in collaboration with statewide elected officials and health experts, recommend that individual owners and operators design and implement voluntary commitments and practices regarding the health and safety of their employees and customers, resulting in “Utah’s Cinema Promise.” This promise correlates with the state’s “Utah Leads Together” plan and its specific industry guidelines for all phases of COVID-19 stabilization and recovery. “Utah’s Cinema Promise” was developed to help instill comfort and confidence that cinema operators will take appropriate actions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among employees and customers.

Utah’s Cinema Promise – Final Draft 3_050720
Rocky Mountain National Association of Theatre Owners

To see Megaplex Theatres’ full guidelines and procedures for reopening, click the following link: Reopening Guidelines.

However, not every Megaplex Theatre location will reopen on June 18. Here is the list of locations that will reopen:

  • Jordan Commons in Sandy
  • The Gateway in Salt Lake City
  • Thanksgiving Point in Lehi
  • The District in South Jordan
  • The Junction in Ogden
  • Legacy Crossing in Centerville
  • Valley Fair in West Valley City
  • Providence in Logan
  • Cedar Stadium in Cedar City
  • Pineview in St. George
  • Geneva Mill in Vineyard
  • Cottonwood Luxury in Holladay

As businesses and other institutions begin to reopen, the feeling of normalcy seems to be creeping back into the lives of Americans everywhere. The Coronavirus pandemic has been an unprecedented event in our lifetime; with over 30+ million having lost their jobs, it has turned lives upside down and inside out. The reopening of movie theaters might seem fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but even the small things (like movie theaters) help our society come back together.

For more information regarding the reopening of Megaplex Theatres, click the following FAQ link.

The Importance of Superheroes

Artwork from the DC Extended Universe | DC Comics & Warner Bros. Pictures

During this ongoing pandemic, yours truly was participating in the social media trend of a “30 Day Film Challenge” where participants refer to one film each day under a specific category, such as “the first film that you remember watching.” When I arrived on Day 10, the category was “Your Favorite Superhero Film“—and I hit a wall. Each day was pretty easy, or I did not take it as seriously. The Superhero film genre has hit an all-time high, with one (Avengers: Endgame) even setting the box office record for any movie ever made. We, as a film community, have started to think Superhero films matter more now than ever. I oddly thought this question was more serious than it probably needed to be.

This decision was difficult—there have been numerous films that could fall under this category, and I also started to think about what makes viewers enjoy themselves so much during these films. No matter your gender, sex, race, or ethnicity, there is a superhero film that you attach yourself to. Before early Thursday night screenings became a thing, many viewers would attend the midnight screenings dressed up for the newest movie in a connected superhero universe or as billionaire vigilantes. After leaving the theater, we spent months on end debating who or which is the best! “Who is the best Batman?” or the “MCU vs DCEU” debate. These conversations transcend the fandoms and even reach those who are not connected to social media and pop culture. Everyone has their favorite representation of a character or their favorite superhero—but why?

Superheroes are meant to inspire. They represent someone we are not, or someone that can do things that we can’t. They can provide an escape into a world where someone is there for us even when our protectors or our medical and social institutions have let us down. Anger and sadness are commonplace emotions felt throughout our society because of the regular injustices we see or even experience ourselves: unjust murders because of racial tensions and prejudices; governments’ inability or flat out refusal to act; betrayal by those we loved or considered friends; our world is full of struggles that seem to find you no matter your background or social status.

Christopher Reeve and Helen Slater pose as Superman and Supergirl respectively. | Warner Bros. Pictures

People want to believe in the existence of fictional figures like Superman or Supergirl—someone they could depend on to save them when the humans who are supposed to either can’t or won’t. We want a person like Steve Rogers (Captain America) to do what the rest of us aren’t courageous enough to do and take a stand when it’s not convenient to do so. We want someone that brave enough to say, “I can do this all day.” Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are told that real life superheroes exist in our healthcare facilities, in our schools, and at other times, in the military and police. We are constantly shown and told how “not all superheroes wear capes.” But what happens when that’s not enough? Numerous times in history people who are in a position to help choose not to act. People who are recognized as “ordinary” heroes might let down those looking up to them and expecting them to be there or to be there for them. Superheroes serve a purpose in filling this void.

Clinical psychologist, Robin Rosenberg wrote, “[superhero stories help us in] finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for a good purpose.” She stated that “superheroes undergo three types of life-altering experiences that we can relate to:”

  1. Trauma
  2. Destiny
  3. Choice
From Batman: Year One | Art by David Mazzucchelli

Trauma; such as the one that young Bruce Wayne goes through. He makes a promise to his murdered parents to fight against the crime in Gotham City. Rosenburg states that this is directly applicable to a lot of real life scenarios. Her past research has shown that many people experience growth “after a trauma and resolve to help others, even becoming social activists.”

Destiny; similar to that of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’s a normal teenager who discovers she’s the “Chosen One” to fight demons. She has to be the one who does not have a normal life and will take on this burden. Sometimes we are thrown into scenarios that we may not have predicted but we have to adapt and push through anyway.

A snippet from Amazing Fantasy #15, Vol. 1 | Marvel Comics 1962

Rosenberg’s last type of experience is similar to what Spider-Man goes through. When he initially gets his powers, he uses it for selfish reasons until his beloved Uncle Ben is killed. This type of experience is similar to the first, but instead of the trauma defining the hero, it’s the choice that matters. No matter whether ‘your’ Spider-Man is Peter Parker, Miles Morales, or Peter Porker, this choice exists. They could stay wrestling for money to pay rent; they could stay home and be a normal kid instead of saving the multiverse. The choice to do what is right versus what is easy is a choice that we, as humans, make every day. Rosenberg states that, “[superheroes] inspire us and provide models of coping with adversity, finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for good purpose” (link). We want to attach ourselves to these characters; we want to see them in ourselves; we want to see those with fantastical abilities are still imperfect and relatable, and we are comforted by seeing them struggle with ordinary problems and still do the right thing in the end.

Recent research from Kyoto University in Japan shows that this “choice” can happen even before we learn how to speak. Their study had preverbal infants shown short animations in which one character purposely bumps into another. They then showed the infants a third character who could either prevent it from happening or not do anything at all. The infants consistently wanted the third character to help and prevent the pain. This study showed that even though they could not speak they recognized what heroism was and wanted it to happen.

“Six-month-old infants are still in an early developmental stage, and most will not yet be able to talk. Nevertheless they can already understand the power dynamics between these different characters, suggesting that recognizing heroism is perhaps an innate ability.”

David Bulter – “Preverbal infants affirm third-party interventions that protect victims from aggressors” (link to article)

This idea is then touched on again in the television show What Would You Do? People are shown how ordinary people behave when they are confronted with dilemmas that require them either to take action or to stand by and mind their own business. Each scenario has the viewer hoping for the regular people to step in and stop whatever the situation is. We all want to be that person who does what’s right even when it’s not easy. Data suggests that feelings are one of the stronger reasons why audience members connect to certain heroes (link). Personally, I attach myself to stories of people and characters who have gone through trauma and stand up to those who are wrong. As Batman, Daredevil and the X-Men deal with their respective issues, I cope with what I have gone through and deal with my own conflicts.

In the past, and still now today, society often sees comics and comic book movies as only enjoyed by children or “nerds.” With Black Panther becoming the highest-grossing solo superhero film of all time, Avengers: Endgame becoming the highest-grossing film of all time, and a multitude of films winning Academy Awards for both their performances and their technical aspects, this is clearly not true. More people enjoy these characters outside of children and “nerds” than ever before. There are films that are clearly made more for children than older crowds, but there are just as many that are for adults and have many more important themes. Superheroes have become the modern-day mythology that tackles issues, from the struggles of high school to mental illnesses. No matter which superhero you attach yourself to, or when you attach yourself to them, there is no denying the effect that they have on our lives.

Which superhero do you identify with the most? Or which superhero has inspired you the most? Let me know down in the comments section below!

First Trip Back Inside a Movie Theater Since the Coronavirus Outbreak

SCERA Center for the Arts | Orem, UT.

This week in Utah, where I live, the Coronavirus task force lowered the risk from ‘orange’ to ‘yellow’ phase. As part of this phase movie theaters could start to reopen if they followed the hygiene, cleanliness, and other social distancing rules and kept crowds to under 50 people. Larger chains are still staying closed, but independent theaters have slowly begun to reopen with carry-over films from the spring or library releases of classic favorites. One such theater is the SCERA Theatre in Orem, Utah, and I was fortunate enough to go and visit it, catch a movie, and talk to the theater owners about their experience. Not everyone will be ready to embrace theater-going just yet but I can confidently say I felt very safe and was impressed with what I saw.

The decision to reopen was not an easy one for the team at SCERA. Adam J. Roberson, President & CEO; and April Berlin, Operations Manager/Marketing & Development said, “We made the decision cautiously and optimistically, and after many hours on the phone with state and county officials, and discussion with staff on their comfort levels.” Upon opening they decided to start with a showcase of the Harry Potter film series since most new films have been postponed or delayed. I was able to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which is one of my favorites in the series.

When I arrived at the theater I immediately noticed they had a separate entrance for high-risk individuals marked, ‘High risk persons enter here,’ along with signs reminding audiences to practice social distancing and wear masks. When I stepped inside I was immediately greeted by a hand sanitizer station and reminders on the ground for social distancing at the ticket booth.

Once inside the concession stand was staffed by young people wearing masks who I later found out were SCERA volunteers, which warmed my heart. They all said they were happy to be there and to be out of the house working. If you want a refill on the popcorn they will issue you a new container rather than refill an exposed bowl.

April and Adam described to me the procedures they have put in place to make things safe for the moviegoers: 

The Clarke Grand Theatre inside SCERA Center for the Arts | Courtesy SCERA Center for the Arts. Source: link

“Reduced capacity, sanitizing between shows, hand sanitizer stations in lobby, staff wearing masks and gloves, and social distancing markers and signage. We’ve blocked off every other row in the Clarke Grand Theatre. The unique thing about our theatre is we have 733 seats, so the huge auditorium makes it very easy to spread out and enjoy.”

Indeed the beautiful Clarke Grand Theatre is a wonderful place to watch a movie in. The historic touches throughout and the large screen and sound system make you feel like you are truly witnessing something special, not simply seeing a movie. I loved seeing such an epic movie like the final Harry Potter film in such a wonderful old theater. I had my mask on and aside from brief moments to get popcorn in my mouth I kept it on. I felt very safe and it was a terrific experience.

When I asked April and Adam why go to the theater instead of watching at home they said, “Our screen is 40’ tall, and that epic experience in digital projection and sound is something that can’t be replicated (even with big-screen televisions and in-home theaters), and buttery theatre popcorn, that’s just a bonus!”

While at the theater, the manager, Dahl Jenkins, spoke to us about how to exit while maintaining social distance; but then he added that he hoped for the day we could all see each other’s smiling faces, and that it is important to be together as humans. It was very sweet and touching. It is these human interactions, all witnessing the same art together that make going to the movies so special. I wouldn’t trade it for the best home movie system in the world.

Going out to your local theater is a very personal decision in this tender time and I would never push anyone to do something they are not comfortable with. So much depends on where you live, what precautions are in place, and your individual risk factor assessment; however, I am certainly glad that I went. The ironic part is I think it was probably one of the safest trips to the movies I’ve ever taken with all the space, safety, and precautions!

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If you feel comfortable going, then I hope you do go and support your local theaters, especially in this new and difficult phase. It’s hard being the first to open up again, and these theaters (as well as drive-in theaters, which have had a resurgence) need all the support we can give them.

I would love to hear about your experiences if you go to the theater. Please share in the comments section about your experience and how the theater helped you feel safe. Thank you!

Zack Snyder Announces His Long Desired Cut of ‘Justice League’ and the World Reacts

Justice League (2017) | Warner Bros. Pictures

Wednesday, May 20 will be a day long remembered by fans of Zack Snyder and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). For over two years now, fans of Zack Snyder and his vision of the DCEU have been advocating for the release of Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League, and they finally got their answer this morning. In a live stream watch party of Man of Steel (2013) on VERO, director Zack Snyder gave the announcement himself. We will walk you through the days leading up to this event, the announcement, and then the reactions from fans everywhere.

Let’s back it up a bit and start at the beginning. For some of you readers who might be unfamiliar with the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement online, it all began with this single tweet from user @MovieBuff100 only 4 days after the worldwide release of the theatrical cut of Justice League in 2017:

Ever since this tweet, #ReleaseTheSnyderCut has become a rallying cry for supporters of Zack Snyder and his original vision of the Justice League movie. When leaks began to surface online regarding the troublesome production and reshoots of Justice League (director Zack Snyder being replaced by Joss Whedon), and that much of the actual film seen in theaters was not what Snyder and Co. had filmed, fans of Snyder began to organize, using this hashtag as their rallying cry. Unelected leaders took the reigns and created the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut Twitter account, all dedicated to the promotion of Snyder’s Cut of Justice League, and the education of those unfamiliar with the movement:

As the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement grew, the online support began to transcend the social media arena, and fans really put their money where their mouths were. Billboards, bus stop posters, and banners flown from planes during the 2019 San Diego Comic Con were all organized by Snyder fans to show their support of the filmmaker, dubbed #ProjectComicCon, and to make a public statement to Warner Bros. that there were indeed many fans who wanted to see the ‘Snyder Cut’ of Justice League:

https://twitter.com/willrowactor/status/1152725215937519618?s=20

Money from fans all over the world was donated to make these banners and billboards come to life, but the fans didn’t stop there. Half of that same money raised for these signs was donated to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in honor of Zack Snyder’s daughter, Autumn, who died by suicide during the post-production of Justice League back in 2017:

https://twitter.com/willrowactor/status/1154508985384370176?s=20

After the success of #ProjectComicCon, fans moved their attention to creating awareness of their cause at the 2019 New York Comic Con. Once again, thousands of dollars were donated from fans all around the world, and organizers were able to purchase screen time on a billboard in Time Square:

At this point a lot of steam was building behind the movement, and people were beginning to take notice. Bloggers, big media outlets, and even Zack Snyder himself gave their attention to what these fans were doing. The stage was now set for the second anniversary of the theatrical release of Justice League; the time was ripe to make a huge statement to Warner Bros. that the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement was to be taken seriously, and that they were here to stay. On Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019—a day that will be long remembered as a key turning point in the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement—hundreds of thousands of fans and supporters across the globe rallied to make the hashtag “trend” on Twitter—and trend it did. The real turning point was when Wonder Woman, Batman and Snyder all joined in to tweet their support of the ‘Snyder Cut’:

On March 28, 2020 Snyder announced on VERO that he was going to host a live streaming watch party of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on Sunday, March 29 and would include director’s commentary on the movie.

At the end of the live stream, Snyder teased his audience with a cliffhanger message shrouded in mystery. Check it out below:

Now we’ve arrived at Monday, May 18, 2020. Snyder announces another live streaming watch party of his 2013 film, Man of Steel, on VERO. It is now the morning of Wednesday, May 20, and rumors all over the internet are swirling about what could come out of this watch party hosted by Snyder:

If you are interested in reading a recap of the entire director’s commentary, and want to save some time without watching the three-hour VERO stream, check out the Twitter thread posted by the Backseat Directors‘ Twitter account:

Both Zack and Debbie Snyder were in attendance on the VERO stream, providing commentary on the making and production of Man of Steel. As the movie began wrapping up, fans online began to get anxious, wondering if Snyder would actually reveal any news regarding his ‘Snyder Cut’…

Until Superman himself showed up:

Henry Cavill (who has been noticeably quiet about the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement) dropped in on the VERO stream to everyone’s surprise:

As Cavill and the Snyders continued their conversation, more people began to pop up on the VERO stream. Fans and supporters of #ReleaseTheSnyderCut were invited to participate in a chat and ask the Snyders questions. The very last question was asked by Twitter user @CaresDaniella regarding the ‘Snyder Cut’ and when we would all be able to see it:

The moment the entire internet had been waiting for had finally come. No more beating around the bush; no more sugar coating; Zack was asked clearly and directly, and here was his response:

Yes! It finally happened. Zack Snyder officially confirmed the release of his cut of Justice League, set to debut on HBO Max in 2021, with the official title being, Zack Snyder’s Justice League (very appropriate, in my opinion):

Years of hard work, dedication, and a love of the Snyders came pouring out all at once in a flood of tweets for so many that had a hand in this movement. Here are just a few:

The journey of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement has been full of ups and downs, hard fought battles, hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to both the cause and to AFSP, and years of hoping and waiting. These fans will see their dreams become a reality in 2021 when Zack Snyder’s Justice League debuts on the shiny, new Warner Bros. streaming platform, HBO Max. And for the Snyders, a sense of joy and vindication has to be swelling within them. Debbie and Zack suffered an unthinkable tragedy during the making of Justice League, and in many ways this is sure to feel like the ending to a chapter left unfinished.

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How I Changed My Mind About ‘Batman v Superman’

If this entire experience (which is sure to be made into a documentary at some point) can be summed up in a single word, I think the most appropriate would be ‘hope.’

“What’s the ‘S’ stand for?”

“It’s not an ‘S’. In my world it means HOPE.”

If you’d like to watch the entire VERO live stream of Man of Steel, with director Zack Snyder, the link has been posted below.

Strength and Honor: What I’ve Learned From ‘Gladiator’ 20 Years Later

Russell Crowe in a scene of Gladiator | DreamWorks Pictures

What’s your favorite movie?

Don’t say you don’t have one. Everyone has one, you just don’t know what it is yet; it’s something you can turn on whenever; something that makes you smile every time you talk about it; something that impacted you and continues to amaze and delight you with every re-watch. I also believe our favorite movies are ones that define us, that connect in perhaps indefinable ways to our own stories and help mold and shape our choices onward. Is that a little extreme? Maybe. But quarantine has made me extremely grateful for movies and for the Backseat Directors community. So as we celebrate its 20th anniversary, allow me to share with you my all-time favorite movie: Gladiator (2000).

A Dream that was Rome

Let’s set the scene—it’s 180 A.D., and Emperor Marcus Aurelius is waging war with Germanic tribes, accompanied by his loyal Roman general. His son, Commodus, is brutal and unfit to be emperor, so Marcus Aurelius asks this general (who is the former lover of his daughter Lucilla) to take his place as heir to the Roman Empire. Naturally, Commodus is hurt by his father’s decision, and Marcus Aurelius is killed. Without the Emperor’s choice of heir made public, Commodus takes his father’s place as Caesar while the loyal general is exiled.

Those who have seen Gladiator might recognize the plot points and characters found in this description, but this synopsis actually belongs to a movie called Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Considering the latter was released to an audience well-acquainted with Roman epics, the studio expected it to be a smash at the box office like Quo Vadis (1951) and Cleopatra (1963) before it. After all, it starred such titans of the screen as Sophia Loren (Two Women), Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music), Alex Guinness (Star Wars) and Stephen Boyd (Ben-Hur). The studio had spared no expense; the film’s Battle of the Four Armies (not to be confused with the Hobbit movie) involved 8,000 extras, and the Roman forum they built is still the largest outdoor film set in Hollywood history (yes, even bigger than Hobbiton). But the film was an utter failure. It tanked at the box office, almost single-handedly bankrupting its production company. Critics of the time panned it as being too ostentatious and devoid of humanity and drama (ironically today it holds a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). So much for the glory of Rome. Fall of the Roman Empire was the last of the old Hollywood Roman epics, famed for making its title ironically intuitive and credited with killing the genre.

For 35 years, Hollywood steered clear of Ancient Rome, the Caesars, and the Coliseum. That is, until a screenwriter named David Franzoni had a pitch meeting with DreamWorks and suggested that they make a gladiator movie. Even though Fall of the Roman Empire was a disaster, the idea of making a Roman epic was thrilling enough to attract an acclaimed cast and crew. This included Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) as director and a rough-and-tumble, goofball Aussie/Kiwi named Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential) as the lead character, Maximus. The supporting cast included seasoned veterans like Richard Harris (Harry Potter) and Oliver Reed (Oliver!) and relative newcomers like Joaquin Phoenix (Joker) and Connie Nielsen (Wonder Woman). Hans Zimmer was invited to compose the score, and he had the good sense to bring on Lisa Gerrard. In addition to these well-knowns, 566 other names are listed in the credits (I counted).  It was the dream team, and the movie’s success is owed to each and every one of them.

Death Smiles at Us All

General Maximus (Russell Crowe) prepares his troops for battle in a scene of Gladiator | DreamWorks Pictures

When Gladiator won Best Picture at the 73rd Academy Awards, three producers took the stage to accept their Oscars. One of them was Branko Lustig, a native of Yugoslavia who as a boy spent years imprisoned during the Holocaust. He survived Auschwitz but lost the majority of his family. The life he went on to live is the best representation of why the movie he helped to make endures. Maximus is a hero who loses everything, but not because of a mistake or a momentary lapse of judgement: it is his very goodness that brings on his head punishment, heartache, and loss. But it’s his adherence to his principles that allows him to rise and eventually challenge the corrupt Emperor in the Coliseum, becoming leader to a Rome that lost its way. Overcoming adversity through strength and honor against even insurmountable odds is not uncommon in Hollywood pictures, but few films resonate with a worldwide audience the way Gladiator did. It’s what made Roman epics so popular in the first place.

Despite the talented and dedicated people involved, the making of Gladiator was fraught with difficulty and chaos. Much of Franzoni’s original screenplay was thrown out, so they began shooting with only about 31 pages of script. Dozens of other writers weighed in, brainstorming ideas that were often rejected and ridiculed by Scott and his actors (especially Crowe). While filming, the script was often freshly written the night before. When they flew a 300-person team to film the second act in Morocco, there wasn’t a line of script to work with, just a repurposed soccer stadium where they could shoot some gladiator bouts. The toll of filming such an epic affected everyone involved; Crowe was battered and injured throughout shooting, and Phoenix was incredibly anxious about his performing abilities and physique. Just as the end of the arduous shoot came into sight, tragedy struck: Oliver Reed (Oliver!), who plays the retired gladiator Proximo, died while shooting in Malta. Instead of replacing him with another actor, the ending was rewritten and filmed with the help of CGI and extra footage. 

Gladiator was released on May 5, 2000. Even with its first act similarities to Fall of the Roman Empire, the final result was a journey more reminiscent of Ben-Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1960), with similar success. It’s a simple story: the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, and the gladiator who defied an Emperor. But it did the impossible; it ushered in another age of sword and sandal epics with a loose remake of the very movie that killed the age before. It won five Oscars, conquered the box office, and won over fans everywhere. Despite the legendary and extensive careers of both Crowe and Phoenix, today it remains the film they are most asked about in interviews. Franzoni, whose script was repeatedly thrashed, rewritten, and criticized, earned an Oscar nomination for his writing and took home an Oscar beside Branko Lustig when the film won Best Picture. It renewed a love and interest in Roman history in the United States (termed “the Gladiator effect” by the New York Times) and led to a series of movies and television shows set in Ancient Rome, though none of them were able to reach the same level of success. A Roman epic was not, and still isn’t, a guaranteed win for a movie studio, but Gladiator was a home run. 

Are You Not Entertained?

Russell Crowe as Maximus in a scene of Gladiator | DreamWorks Pictures

So why now? Why take the time to extoll the stories and virtues of this film beyond my own obsessive fandom? Because I think Gladiator is the kind of film that inspires people to be artists. It’s the kind of film that pulls people like Richard Harris out of semi-retirement because they just can’t say no to starring in it. Nobody would go into entertainment if not for those kinds of films, and I’m sure everyone at Backseat Directors could tell you the films that made them love movies. With a founder who left a corporate career to pursue a passion and a group of writers made up of professional critics and film fanatics alike, we might be a dream team of dreamers not unlike the one Ridley Scott put together.

Hollywood became an empire because it told stories that captivated our imagination and elevated our perspective. Seated with our popcorn and good company, we enjoy visual storytelling that transports us across continents and to time periods both real and imagined. The beauty of art is its subjectivity, so this will not be true for everyone, but for me, Gladiator is Hollywood at its best. It is the ultimate hero’s journey: overcoming adversity by maintaining principles that the outside world calls you to abandon. The story on the screen and the one taking place behind the scenes can inspire and encourage us as we write our own stories. Daring to believe in your own creativity and build something that’s yours is not always easy, and the rewards are not always apparent. While your leap of faith may not be quitting the corporate life or standing up to corrupt dictators or taking a 300-man crew to Morocco with only an inkling of what you’re going to film, seeing people do so can give you courage. There’s always a chance that your idea will turn out like Fall of the Roman Empire; but if there’s something you feel drawn to do, something you can’t stop thinking about that lights you up inside, could it be worth the chance of failing? I’m certainly no expert on the subject. If there’s anything we can learn from Gladiator, it’s that life is short; but as a fictional man once said, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” 

“When you grow up in the suburbs of Sydney or Auckland……or the suburbs of anywhere, you know, a dream like this seems kind of vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable. But this moment is directly connected to those childhood imaginings, and for anybody who is on the downside of advantage, and relying purely on courage: it’s possible.”

Russell Crowe, Oscar for Best Actor acceptance speech (2001).

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: David Fincher

David Fincher (Merrick Morton, 2011)

If you look up any list of “The Top 10 Modern-Day Thrillers”, you’ll likely run into one of David Fincher’s films. Being that he only has 10 entries to his directorial filmography, I’d say that makes him noteworthy, and one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood today. That being said, some of his work has been underrated, so if this entry convinces you to visit or revisit any of his films, the Fincher fan in me will have done his job!

About a decade ago, a forgettable, high school weekend spent binge watching cable (pre-Netflix) led me to my first Fincher film, Zodiac (2007)–one of the finest biopic thrillers of all time, and massively underrated (starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo). Jump forward… When I first decided to pursue movie-watching beyond just your regular pastime, I started by seeking out the directors of my favorite films, and then exploring their work. I knew that Fincher would be one of my reliable directors to look into further based off of Zodiac alone—and I was right! He did not disappoint as I was introduced to inevitable favorites like Se7en (1995), The Social Network (2010) and Gone Girl (2014). In every case I started to realize that you can expect a few things from almost any Fincher film: visceral realism, high octane, stacked casts, and rewatchability.

David Fincher got his start working on classic films like Return of the Jedi (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Though having a solid foundation with his father also being a screenwriter, he had to go through some years of directing commercials and an almost “Josh Trank-esque” experience with his directorial debut. Though the Alien franchise had garnered considerable success up to this point and his start with Alien 3 (1992) was met with mixed reviews (along with an Oscar nod for visual effects), there was a ton of studio interference along with nine different writers. Fincher would go on to disown the film saying, “No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.” Though I think it is far from the weakest in the franchise, it’s definitely not one of the strongest sequels.

Luckily, his films have only gotten better as he has since been given more management over them. Se7en and Fight Club (1999) found their way to many of those aforementioned best-thriller lists with their engaging stories, novel twists, and great performances from Brad Pitt (in both), Edward Norton (Fight Club), and Morgan Freeman (Se7en). Honestly, these flicks are quality, and if you want to see how Fincher’s talents developed over the years, watch his movies in chronological order.

More recently, his installments have gained significant commercial and critical success, grabbed the attention of award circuits, and have been heavily considered some of the best movies of the year in which they came out. In fact, it’s been preferred by many that The Social Network had beat out The King’s Speech (2010) for Best Picture at the Oscars. Other Fincher films that have received more recent notoriety includes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and Gone Girl. I would strongly suggest that you watch the latter if you haven’t already. Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck and even Tyler Perry give intriguing performances, and the story (written and based on the bestseller by Gillian Flynn) makes for one of the most jaw-dropping, entertaining, mind “messer-uppers” that could only be flawlessly brought to life through Fincher’s expert directing. 

David Fincher on the set of Mank (2020) | Netflix

Fincher’s next movie should be released this year (fingers crossed with COVID). It’s titled Mank (2020), which will chronicle a screenwriter’s battle with Orson Welles over writing credit for the movie Citizen Kane (1941), which many consider to be the greatest movie of all time. Being a big fan of The Social Network, and already seeing some striking similarities, I’m very much anticipating this release. Mank was actually written by David Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, and is set to star Gary Oldman in the lead role. Keep an eye out!

Fincher has said that he was heavily influenced by Hitchcock, which shouldn’t be a surprise as most of his movies have a considerable touch of Hitchcock-like suspense, albeit modernized. Common throughout his films, the cinematography has a signature dark-and-musky shade. You’ll notice it (if you haven’t already) while watching his films—it’s like a desaturated, monochromatic coloring that really ends up reinforcing the usually dreary world that his characters live inwhat mostly comes to mind while explaining his style in Blade Runner (1982). Really, it’s a lot of that neo-noir, but without the sci-fi—and trust me, it works!

The funny thing is that there are many commonalities like this throughout his filmography, but he doesn’t seem to collaborate very much with the same people. The similarities in tone and style probably have something to do with the fact that he’s known for being a bit of a meticulous micromanager. Some of his lead actors (e.g. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rooney Mara) have spoken about their exhaustion from having to do retake after retake to get “the perfect scene”. But in turn, his perfectionism hasn’t been wasted as one of his editors said, “[It’s like] putting together a swiss watch… all the pieces are so beautifully machined. He’s incredibly specific. He never settles. And there’s a purity that shows in his work.” Honestly, in consideration of how much I love his films, I couldn’t be more grateful for the time and detail he puts into his work, even at the slight expense of his cast and crew. 

David Fincher

Below is my ranking of Fincher’s movies. Check them out, and leave me a comment on whether you agree or disagree with the ranks, or if you love, hate or don’t care about David Fincher!

  1. Gone Girl (2014)
  2. Se7en (1995)
  3. Zodiac (2007)
  4. The Social Network (2010)
  5. Fight Club (1999)
  6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
  7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
  8. Panic Room (2002)
  9. The Game (1997)
  10. Alien 3 (1992)

A Long Time Ago in an Imagined Scenario Not So Far Away…

Happy Star Wars Day!

The year is 2053. The Disney Wars continue to engulf the nation as the Mouseketeer Army advances from their home base on the Anaheim System. Both the Warner Bros. and the Universal Systems have fallen, causing the Netflix and Apple Systems to form a Resistance Alliance. In a last ditch effort to boost morale, the Alliance sent two undercover agents to Galaxy’s Edge in order to procure a rare asset to the Disney Empire to hold hostage: the theatrical releases of the original Star Wars trilogy. 

The spies were successful in stealing the asset and hiding the films, but were ultimately captured before they could escape and get them to the Alliance. Held beneath Smuggler’s Run, the spies are interrogated about the location of the rare films and forced to watch reimaginings of their childhood classics in an attempt to have them psychologically broken. Having grown up watching both the prequel and the sequel trilogies, the spies are confident that nothing can break their resolve. That is until The Empire puts on a TV special from 1978…

The two spies looked at each other nervously as the guard wheeled in a very old brown TV with a VHS player on a wheeled tray. The elder spy leaned over and whispered, “What are they gonna show us now? That looks like something my great-grandfather used when he was in elementary school!” 

The other shook his head, “They wouldn’t be showing us the original Special Edition, would they? We lived through those AND The Last Jedi. There’s nothing more that they could show us that we haven’t already suffered through.”

“So you may think,” said a sharp voice smugly behind them. 

The two men whipped their necks around to see the tall figure striding into the room. The spies allowed a small smirk to play across their faces for an instant. If their shenanigans aroused the ire of the Captain of the Lucasfilm Division himself, they must’ve done something right.

The Captain smirked back as he walked around them to the TV, shaking a VHS tape in front of their faces. “You see gentlemen, what you have stolen is quite valuable. We were planning on releasing those films in a higher definition format as an…heh hemmm…reward for those who lay down their arms and surrender. However, because of your antics, the Alliance has deprived the citizens of something they’ve been wanting for over fifty years. As we cannot allow this and nothing we have shown you seems to have no effect on you, I’m afraid we must subject you to our last resort.”

“Last resort?” The older man scoffed. “On a VHS? What could you possibly…”

The Captain laughed as the spy’s eyes went wide in shock as the realization hit him. “Ah, it’s nice to see the older generation still remembers it. Who told you about it? Your grandfather?”

The spy didn’t answer the Captain, but turned to his companion in a panic. “Don’t look at it, Roderik! Just close your eyes and don’t look!” 

The Captain barked out an amused laugh and rolled his eyes. “Oh, don’t be so dramatic. I am prepared to make a deal, since you two seem determined to defy us. You watch this tape, and I will give you the choice to reveal the location of the original trilogy. If you do, you are free to go with no consequences, provided that the films are still where you say they are. If you refuse, you will be allowed to keep the original trilogy, but we will release this film in high definition to counter it.”

Roderik frowned. “How is that a threat? What could you possibly show us that will persuade us to give up our most valuable hostage?” He grew more angry. “Do you take me for a weakling? I lived through the High Republic trilogy—through Rey Palpatine! What could possibly be so horrifying that it would sway us from our goal?” 

“Dark Rey” from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker | Walt Disney Studios

The Captain smiled cruelly as he inserted the tape into the VHS player. “Why don’t you watch and see?”

The old grainy footage opened to reveal a familiar scene, Han Solo and Chewbacca speeding away from the Empire in the Millenium Falcon. Han promises Chewy that he will be home in time for Life Day...

Roderik frowned. “I don’t know what this is.”

The older spy groaned and hung his head. “I don’t think I can bear watching this again.” The Captain slapped the back of the man’s head. “If you want to go free, you will watch all of it.”

The older man reluctantly lifted his eyes back to the screen as the title credits rolled: The Star Wars Holiday Special

As images of the cast flashed across the screen, Roderik leaned over to the other man and whispered, “John, why does Mark Hamill look so… weird?”

“Just keep watching,” John muttered.

The scene now shows the Wookie homeworld of Kashyyyk as Chewbacca’s family appears to get ready for Life Day. They groan and moan in the Wookie language to each other over…and over…and over again.

Twelve minutes later…

How long does this go on,” Roderik cried, struggling against his restraints. “No subtitles for this? I can’t take it anymore!”

“Calm yourself, man,” Roderick hissed. “It’s only going to get far, far worse.” 

Lumpy, Chewbacca’s son, turns on a holographic display of what seems to be acrobats. After this, the family tries to contact Luke Skywalker who is fixing his X-Wing. 

“What in the name of all that is holy is wrong with Luke’s face?!” Roderik shouted. “It looks like he has twelve pounds of stage makeup on! And don’t get me started about that haircut!”

“You will be silent,” the Captain growled, cutting the younger man off.

For the next hour, the Alliance spies were subjected to a variety of different clips that aggravated Roderik further, and caused John to slip into a deep despair—from an alien cooking show, tech support , a rock music video, an actually semi-decent Boba Fett cartoon, and another musical number. What nearly drove Roderik over the edge, though, was the erotic music video that Chewbacca’s father found great pleasure in watching near the middle of the special. 

“I can’t take it anymore,” he yelled at the Captain. “What the hell is this? Who signed off on this? This isn’t Star Wars!’

“Rod, shut up,” John snapped. “There’s only an hour left. One hour and we are free to go. Remember why we are here!”

Holding back his sobs, Roderik nodded and continued to watch.

Nearing the end of the special, the Chewbacca family reunite with Han, Luke, and Leia as they gather around the Tree of Life; Leia sings a song about Life Day as they all hold glowing orbs. The dead look in Harrison Ford’s face as the film ended is the same look that reflected in Roderik’s own face. 

“So, now you have a choice,” the Captain declared. “Do you tell us the location of the stolen films, or do we release the Holiday Special? The choice is up to you, Roderik.”

John’s eyes flickered back to full alertness at this new development. “Why only him?” 

The Captain grinned. “Because you are the last of the older generation that understands just how many changes were made to the franchise. His generation does not. If he wants the pure, unadulterated films as they were originally, he should have the knowledge of everything that came out in those days, not just the ones you older folks seem to worship. So, what will it be? The responsibility is yours.” 

“Rod, think about it! For the first time in history, we can have the original films legally! No unnecessary CGI! No dubbing over Boba Fett and Darth Vader! You can see Darth Vader’s original Force Ghost…”

He was cut off by the Captain raising his hand to silence him. “Your choice, Roderik. Make it quickly.”

After a long pause, Roderik sighed. “We hid the tapes in a room under the Pirates of the Carribean ride when we were trying to escape.”

“Rod, NO!”

He looked over at his companion. “I’m sorry, John. No one should ever have to suffer through this. The changes are bad, yes. But it’s all we know. This will totally destroy their perspective.” 

“A wise choice,” the Captain sneered. “Guards, let them go and retrieve those tapes.”

Two guards stepped forward and began dragging them away, not noticing the look of triumph in John’s eyes. The third guard looked at the Captain curiously. “Sir, how did you know that showing them the tape would break them?”

He chuckled, “We’re part of the Disney Empire. Ruining childhood memories is what we do.”

The guard started laughing but then suddenly stopped, his eyes growing wide as something Roderik said stood out to him.

The Captain glared at him. “What is it man?”

“They said they hid the tapes in Pirates of the Caribbean. Fantasy Land is quite a distance from here sir. Why run there?”

“They were running?” he scoffed. “Who knows their logic?” 

“Sir, they said they hid them in a room underneath the ride. No one is supposed to know about that room.”

The Captain stopped, his normally calm demeanor shattering as terror filled his eyes. “No… You think the tapes were a decoy? But that means…” As if his fears could hear his thoughts, a message blared over the speakers of the ride:

“ATTENTION, IMPERIALS. THIS IS THE ALLIANCE. WE HAVE WALT DISNEY’S CRYOGENIC CHAMBER. YOU HAVE LOST.”

The End

2oth Century Fox Televison
Release Date: Nov. 17, 1978
Run Time: 98 minutes
Directors: Steve Binder & David Acomba

Actual Review

The Star Wars Holiday Special is every franchise at its lowest. It attempts to cash in on its popularity without providing the effort to connect it to what makes the franchise so beloved among fans. With only half-hearted cameos from the original cast that look like they’d rather be anywhere else and guest stars performing dated sketches that range from weird to seriously uncomfortable, this TV special is a stain on the Star Wars legacy that even George Lucas is ashamed of. What they should have done is have Lumpy watch an hour-long cartoon about Han Solo and Boba Fett. The cartoon segment was the only unironically enjoyable segment, and could have provided some interesting segway into The Empire Strikes Back. Instead, we are left with an uncomfortably bad TV special that is so reviled that it can only be found on YouTube in a very low resolution quality. The one spot of hope in this monstrosity is that no matter what Lucasfilm comes up with next, it will never sink lower than this. Although the above story is a humorous work of fiction, it would not surprise me if this Special was used as a torture device somewhere. It’s that bad. If you’re brave enough to venture into these depths, the entire video is posted below. May the force be with you!

Recommendation: SKIP IT

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Gal Gadot

Israeli actress Gal Gadot (2019)

Recently, I found myself watching Date Night (2010), a couple comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey. At one point, they show up to a shirtless Mark Wahlberg’s house to ask for his help and expertise in evading the powerful mob boss they’ve accidentally provoked. In the course of their conversation, his girlfriend came down the stairs and I found myself exclaiming, “It’s Wonder Woman!” Sure enough, the girlfriend was played by Gal Gadot, six years before she became a superhero and before anybody knew she could have single-handedly taken down the mob the couple was fleeing. Looking back, it seems ridiculous to me that she could ever have been destined for anything but stardom. 

Gal Gadot grew up in a small city in Israel, where she loved to dance and play basketball. To earn money, she babysat and even worked at Burger King for a short time. What’s interesting is that she had turned down various offers for modeling gigs because she didn’t think she could live that life. (Just in case that didn’t register, she rejected modeling gigs and chose instead to work at Burger King. I worked at Burger King, too, but that’s about the only thing we have in common.) Eventually, Gadot’s mother entered her in the Miss Israel competition, which Gadot was surprised to have gotten into. Imagine how she felt when she won, and at 18 was invited to compete at the Miss Universe pageant. At age 20, she enlisted in the Israeli Defense Force as a combat instructor. Following her two-year service requirement, she enrolled at a university and married Yaron Varsano, with whom she now has two daughters.

Gal Gadot at the Red Carpet event just before the 92nd Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, CA.

Her first movie audition was to play the Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, all the while she was studying law and trying to build a “serious” future for herself. Despite losing the role to Olga Kurylanko, she fell in love with the profession. She left school and found work in Israeli television and film before getting her first Hollywood film credit in Fast and Furious (2009), where she plays Gisele Yashar. The role suited her well, as her previous military experience and love of motorcycles aided her in the stunt work. She went on to appear in the next three installments of the franchise, as well as taking smaller roles in comedies like Knight and Day (2010) and the previously mentioned Date Night.

But the success was costly. The repeated commute from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles just to audition and often be rejected was taking a toll, and Gadot was considering giving up on her acting aspirations. That is, until she got a call from Zack Snyder to audition for a “mystery role.” She packed up once again and made her way to Los Angeles, said some vague lines into the camera and made her way home. The trip proved successful because she landed the role of Wonder Woman in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), winning the part over Olga Kurylenko. Zack Snyder cited her “combination of being fierce but kind at the same time” as the reason she was chosen, and although her casting was met with some criticism of her physique, she was widely considered one of the best parts of the critically-panned film.

And then there was Wonder Woman (2017). Any doubts about Gadot’s abilities or appearance drowned in the waves of success that ensued. The film brought in $821 million worldwide and $412 million domestically, making it the highest-earning film with a solo female director. It holds a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the critical consensus reads, “Thrilling, earnest, and buoyed by Gal Gadot’s charismatic performance, Wonder Woman succeeds in spectacular fashion.” For me, she has become Wonder Woman, so much so that whenever I see her on screen I call her Wonder Woman, even if it’s in Date Night. Barring further delays, we’ll see her reprise her role in the much-anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 in August of this year. Future projects include Death on the Nile and Netflix’s Red Notice, which also features Ryan Reynolds and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but was forced to halt production due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (2017) | Warner Bros. Pictures

In a world where the beautiful and famous seem to represent the unattainable, the word I would use to describe Gadot is “inviting.” Whatever she achieves, she gracefully shares the credit without putting herself down or deflecting. Even when hailed as an advocate of women’s rights and empowerment, her statements seem to elevate and encourage everyone, rather than asking some to step aside. When exclusivity seems a prerequisite to popularity, she seems comfortable in treating any and all with respect and even warmth. Though her pageant days are in the past, Gadot remains Miss Congeniality.

Smash Critic’s Ultimate Feel-Good Movie List to Get You Through the Quarantine

At the beginning of the month I had a completely different topic in mind for an article. Boy, how the last few weeks have brought perspective. Thankfully, most of us aren’t critically affected by this event, but we might be left with a cloud of gloominess as we continue to get through the unknown. As our day-to-day activities have been reduced to what we can do in doors, here’s just one pro-tip to get you through your quarantine. The following are movies that I feel will most likely get you out of any biohazard blues due to their common thread of cheerfulness, low stakes, and unapologetically happy endings. I’ve broken them up into a few different categories based on your taste or mood, but why not work through them all!?

Inspiring Feel-Good Movies

Eddie the Eagle (2016), directed by Dexter Fletcher | 20th Century Fox

Eddie the Eagle (2016), PG-13
This one kind of flew under the radar when it came out in theaters a few years back. As it turns out it’s one of the most underrated movies of 2016 and has joy-filled performances from Hugh Jackman and the fast up-and-comer Taron Egerton (Rocketman, Kingsmen: The Secret Service). Based on a true story, Eddie (Egerton) is an awkward outcast that’s always had a burning desire to be in the Olympics. Once he meets a cynical has-been Olympic skier (Jackman), a fateful journey begins leading to one of the biggest and most heartwarming flukes in Olympic history (along with the Jamaican bobsled team). Honestly, this movie brags a music score and climatic scene that brings happy tears to my eyes everytime! Such a sweet story of friendship and determination. Watch it!
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), PG
So, I’m a little ambivalent about the following pick. This movie may inspire you to get out and explore the world… which is kind of a complicated endeavor at this point. But if you’re able to just store that motivation in your backpocket till hopefully the near future, you’re still going to get a movie that offers a quirky, picturesque story. A daydreaming (this element is hilarious by itself), timid corporate worker played by Ben Stiller is forced to get out of his comfort zone and travel to multiple countries in the hopes of saving his Magazine company’s final printed cover. What comes next is an awesome, unique viewing experience that you’ll want to revisit again and again. Also directed by Ben Stiller!
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) PG-13
Alright guys, this was hands down one of the best movies of this past year, and probably one of my top 3 favorite feel-good movies of all time. Reminiscent of a Mark Twain story, this modern day journey through the po-dunk south will make you so pumped for a post-pandemic summer full of rope swinging into lakes and beachy bon-fires. A fugitive fisherman played by Shia Labeouf befriends a runaway nursing home resident with Down Syndrome (Zack Gottsagen). Together they go on a search for the latter’s wrestling idol which turns into a journey of self discovery and brotherly love. I’ve watched this like 4 times since it came out a few months ago because I just keep wanting to show it to my friends.
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2013), PG-13
Taika Waititi is getting pretty well known at this point with directing Thor Ragnorak and winning an Oscar for Jojo Rabbit (both may deserve to be on this list themselves!). In case you missed this earlier gem, now’s the perfect time. This movie is full of beautiful landscapes, quippy one-liners and characters with hearts of gold and the best accents ever. A foster boy named Ricky causes himself and his reluctant, old guardian, Hec to have to go on the run from child welfare. They end up having the time of their lives in the New Zealand Bush.
How to watch: Streaming on Hulu. Buy or rent on iTunes or Vudu.

Classic Feel-Good Movies

The Goonies (1985), directed by Richard Donner | Warner Bros. Pictures

Angels in the Outfield (1994), PG
Say what you will about 90’s Disney movies but this is, and forever will be, a classic in my home. Sure it’s got clichés all over the place and a plot that’ll make you scoff when first hearing about it, but it’s truly just the best. Roger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a foster kid who wants his dad to finally commit and make them a real family. In passing, the dad says they’ll finally work things out around the same time the Angels (who suck) will win the Pennant. Roger then prays to God for a miracle, and literal angels start helping the titular major-league team. Yeah, it’s bananas but it stars a young Gordon-Levitt, Danny Glover, a pre-famous Matthew McConaughey, and a heaven-sent Christopher Lloyd. And it’s just a chill, goofy, old, kids’ movie. Give it a chance!
How to watch: Streaming w/ tv subscription to DIRECTV.

The Goonies (1985), PG
Pretty much the original Stranger Things but it was actually made in the 80’s… so it’s not even trying profusely to be 80’s-like! A bunch of dorky teens living in a soon-to-be-demolished neighborhood find an old pirate map in one of their attics (the Dad is a curator). They then go on a legendary Oregon treasure hunt. But will a homicidal family that the map leads to end up killing the vibe… Or even killing the teens?! You gotta find out, it’s so great. Starring a young Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Corey Feldman (Stand By Me, The Lost Boys), and Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men, Avengers: Infinity War).
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

The Three Musketeers (1993), PG
Another slightly campy 90’s Disney movie, this one’s just a good time. I don’t know if it’s anywhere near accurate to the book, but it’s fun! Chris O’Donnell (Batman and Robin), Kiefer Sutherland, and Charlie Sheen.
How to watch: Streaming on Disney+. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

School of Rock (2005), PG-13
I think we’ll all be pretty familiar with the rest of the nostalgic picks. Jack Black plays a dead-end musician that tries to make some extra money posing as a substitute teacher. He ends up realizing his purpose to turn his elementary school class into the greatest rock band of all time—and the result is stuff of joy. If you haven’t watched the final performance in a while, you need to revisit this!
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Galaxy Quest (1999), PG
Honestly, this has gotta be the best space movie spoof ever made: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell—it’s stacked. Galaxy Quest is a hilarious meta movie about has-been TV stars that get abducted by aliens who are under the belief that their old Star Trek-esque episodes are historical documents, and that the actors really are intergalactic heroes. They then have to try to improvise through the most realistic, deadly mission they’ve ever encountered.
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

A Knight’s Tale (2001), PG-13
I’m sure we’ve all at least heard of this one. Heath Ledger is a peasant in Medieval times who sneaks his way into becoming a jouster and changing his destiny. Probably the most historically inaccurate, but most fun soundtracks of all time.
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Maverick (1994), PG
Underrated Western film! Set in 19th Century American Frontier, Mel Gibson plays an aspiring poker player looking for his biggest win yet—and everyone west of the Mississippi is out to get in his way. This flick has that total campfire feel that takes you for a fun stagecoach ride. Really gives just a truly happy, old-timey feel to it that’ll bring you to a simpler age. Also starring Jodie Foster, and Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2).
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Laugh Out Loud Feel-Good Movies

Pineapple Express (2008), directed by David Gordon Green | Sony Pictures

Pineapple Express (2008), R
This movie is for stoners but also for the friend that declined the joint, and then proceeded to be entertained for the rest of the night. Starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Danny McBride. A pothead and his dealer try to evade a drug kingpin after witnessing a murder, and it creates the biggest, funniest mess in the world.
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

21 Jump Street (2012), R & 22 Jump Street (2014), R
The most non-stop hilarious buddy-cop movie series that’s out there (though I love me some Shanghai Noon and Rush Hour). I believe that both the first installment and the sequel are equally quotable, hysterical, and self-aware. If you’re trying to get through four or so hours of being indoors and just need a good laugh, watch both of these. Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Ice T.
How to watch: Streaming on STARZ. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Bridesmaids (2011), R
A lot of people call this “The Hangover for Women”. Forget that. This movie makes for twice as many laughs with 10 times as much heart. It’s one of the best comedies—period. Starring Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy.
How to watch: Streaming on HBO Now and HBO GO. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Romantic Feel-Good Movies

About Time (2013), directed by Richard Curtis | Universal Pictures

About Time (2013), R
This totally flew under my radar for years. Then my brother convinced me to open my heart up to another romantic comedy. And God bless him for it! This is a simple, but lovely story about a man who realizes he can travel through the past, and uses this to help him find love and cherish the present. It’s honestly a beautiful, purely happy movie. Stars Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars, Ex Machina), Rachel McAdams, and Margot Robbie. Same director as Love Actually, but this is far superior. Warning: One scene makes me weep like a child every time (happy tears!).
How to watch: Streaming on Netflix. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Pride and Prejudice (2005), PG
The one with Keira Knightley! When I say “low stakes” being an essential element to feel good movies, this is the movie I think of. The worst that can happen is marrying someone that makes less than a billion dollars a year, and people will speak gossip about your family. I’ve read the book, seen the A&E series, and this captures the spirit of the Jane Austin story to a T. As a bonus, the cinematography and music is truly breathtaking. This is one of my go-to Sunday afternoon movies. Make sure you watch the version with the final scene, or find the scene on YouTube (for some reason, one version ends super abruptly before you get the last bit of closure).
How to watch: Streaming on STARZ. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Dan in Real Life (2007), PG-13
You guys… I love this movie. I’m pretty sure this is one of the first films Steve Carell was in that wasn’t a straight-up comedy. He’s a widower with three daughters, and writes a periodic news column on parenting—but he has no idea what he’s doing as a parent and it’s hilarious. The love interest is introduced in a clever way, the relationships feel real and familiar, and the backdrop of a family reunion makes for such a homey, comfy viewing experience. I’ve probably watched it like six times this year because it makes me feel so good. I want to watch it right now just writing about it.
How to watch: Streaming on Showtime. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

While You Were Sleeping (1995), PG
The Smash Critic awarded “Best Sandra Bullock Rom-Com” (and there’s a lot to choose from). This may belong with the others like Angels in the Outfield and School of Rock just because of how ridiculous the plot sounds, but it’s gold, true gold. Crazy story short: Sandra’s character likes this man that’s in a coma and his family is misled into thinking that she’s engaged to him. She’s not, but doesn’t know how to tell them the truth, so she goes with it. The movie tells it a bit better, but it is pretty dumb sounding. But trust me—it’s a good time.
How to watch: Streaming on Showtime. Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Road Trip Feel-Good Movies

Little Miss Sunshine (2006), directed by Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris | Fox Searchlight Pictures

*Note: this section isn’t about movies that are good for watching on road trips. There are just literally enough fantastic feel-good movies with the majority of their run-time spent on road trips to demand its own section.

A Goofy Movie (1995), G
This is old enough that maybe some of us aren’t aware that Goofy has a teenage son named Max and they go on a zany field trip together (against Max’s will) full of the best cartoon dance scenes and the most obnoxious but hilarious Bigfoot representation.
How to watch: Streaming on Disney+. Buy or rent on Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Fundamentals of Caring (2016), TV-MA
Oh my gosh, you guys. This is the most relentless feel-good movie I’ve ever seen. By that I mean every second you think something awful is going to happen (like the car crash in Remember the Titans or the freaking rope swing in Bridge to Terabithia), you’re reminded, “No stupid! Relax—this is a happy movie”. Paul Rudd plays an unmotivated, soon-to-be divorcée that starts care-taking for a quadriplegic, viciously sarcastic teenage boy. Together they go on a trip to the most mediocre American landmarks. It’s so great. When I was dealing with being indoors all day and getting very little sleep on paternity leave, this brought me out of my funk!
How to watch: Streaming on Netflix.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006), R
My friend won’t watch this movie no matter how much I plead and beg. This is all because he didn’t like the trailer when he first saw it like 15 years ago. It brings me sorrow because I know he’s missing out on a little piece of happiness that this film will give to whoever watches. Comical, messy, sincere family relationships all put to the test in a cramped VW van headed toward a children’s beauty pageant three states away. Greg Kinnear, Toni Collete (Hereditary), Steve Carell, Paul Dano (Swiss Army Man, There Will Be Blood), and a little, sweet, Oscar-nominated Abigail Breslin (Signs, Zombieland). And Alan Arkin won the supporting Oscar for playing the coked up Grandpa. It’s a gem.
How to watch: Streaming on STARZ. Buy or rent on Vudu.

Tommy Boy (1995), PG-13
Like many of you, I grew up with these last two picks. They probably belong in the classic section but it was just too convenient to not create a road trip section! Tommy, played by Chris Farley, goes on a sales trip with his pessimistic coworker, Richard (David Spade), to try to save his dad’s company. It’s quotable beyond compare, it’s heartfelt, and it’s gut-bustingly funny—even the 100th time around. If you haven’t seen it, get on this train! Or even if you have, get on it again!
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

Dumb and Dumber (1994), PG-13
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels. The epitome of stupid buddy films. I hope you’ve seen this. But in case it’s been awhile, cheer yourself up with this classic!
How to watch: Buy or rent on iTunes, Amazon Prime or Vudu.

And there you have it! Even if you just take one movie recommendation from each category, that should keep you busy through the weekend. Let me know in the comments which movies you decided to watch, or reach out to me on social media.

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