Author

About the Author
Although I consider myself equally Californian, Oregonian, Nevadan, and Mexican, I currently reside in Reno, “The Biggest Little City in the World!" I love watching and playing most sports (I played rugby in college) but since I’m an adult with bills to pay, I also work in surgery at a local hospital. I come from a big family; if you speak Spanish I’ll force you to be my friend to help me practice. Most importantly, I’m super excited to be a part of Backseat Directors!

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

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.

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.

REVIEW: The Lovebirds

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 87 minutes
Director: Michael Showalter

Did you know that lovebirds are actually a species of parrot? I accidentally discovered this while doing research for this review, and I am fascinated. I learned that if you want one as a pet, it’s recommended that you only get one rather than a pair. Why just one lovebird, you ask? Because they will breed you out of house and home if you have two. Like it or not, the loving will never stop; it’s like a lifelong “honeymoon stage” that can spread parrots faster than handshaking can spread coronavirus (*not a real medical fact; please wash your hands). Also, lovebirds usually don’t talk like other parrots do; just as the humans we refer to as lovebirds don’t spend much time talking either, as their mouths are usually occupied with other activities. Also, their scientific name is “Agapornis.” So many facts, so many jokes, so little time… The good news is that The Lovebirds is funnier than I am.

The Lovebirds follows Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae), a couple traversing the highs and lows of love-life when they are carjacked and become witnesses (and sort-of abettors) to a murder. As they try to exonerate themselves by solving the ensuing mystery and simultaneously avoiding the authorities, they end up in some pretty wild and hilarious situations, my favorite of which includes a unicorn hoodie. Much of the humor is due to the couple’s dynamics and their inexperience in crime-fighting/crime-solving, which was reminiscent of Date Night (2010) with Tina Fey and Steve Carrell. The Lovebirds is raunchier and targets a younger audience and features the cult from Eyes Wide Shut (1999), but it’s still difficult not to compare the two. Suffice it to say that if you enjoyed one then you’ll probably enjoy the other, as the same sort of shenanigans take place.

The reason you should see this movie is the hilarious duo that is Rae and Nanjiani; though both are comedic stars in their own right, whoever teamed them up deserves brownie points. Their chemistry is near perfection, as is their comedic give-and-take as their characters embark on their hilarious misadventure. In addition to their comedic chops, both Rae and Nanjiani nail the ups and downs of real relationships, complete with brutal honesty; you can feel the burn from your couch. Also, I have to add that the Amazing Race scene is absolutely hilarious. I love the tie-in so much and would actually love to see the couple team up on my favorite reality TV show.

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani in a scene of The Lovebirds | NETFLIX

There’s not too much to complain about; the movie started out strong, with timely jokes and excellent performances. It did become less entertaining after the halfway point, but I can’t decide if outrageousness fatigue or predictable plot points is the culprit. Despite a slower third act that lost the spark a bit, the movie is only 90 minutes, so it’s not likely you’ll get bored amidst interrogations, glass-smashings, and the bickering banter of talented leads.

Paramount was supposed to release The Lovebirds to theaters back in April, so you may have seen the trailer for it in February (as I did). But thanks to the pandemic it was pulled from the schedule and sold to Netflix, who released it on their streaming service just this weekend. I would have gone to see this in theaters just from watching the trailer, but I was glad to see it on Netflix with family and happy Huskies. It’s funny and fresh, so barring sensitivities to profanity, there is little reason not to give this comedy a gander very soon. It is almost certain to make you laugh.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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).

REVIEW: 18 Presents

NETFLIX
Rated: TV-MA
Run Time: 115 minutes
Director: Francesco Amato

I have never been to Italy nor lost a close family relative to a terminal illness, but I do have a mother and, like her, I am a crier. Watching 18 Presents accompanied by my mother late at night on Mother’s Day was a recipe for disaster, especially when the real-life inspiration for the film is revealed. If you’re looking for something to turn your tear ducts into sprinklers and don’t mind reading subtitles, you’ve come to the right place.

The premise is this: Elisa (played by Italian actress Vittoria Puccini) is pregnant with a baby girl when she finds out that she has terminal cancer. Knowing that the progression of the illness would likely result in her dying during the child’s infancy, the mother-to-be decides to buy her unborn child 18 presents: one for every birthday until she becomes an adult. Sure, it might be hard to shop for someone you’ve never met, but isn’t it the thought that counts? Apparently not. Her now grown daughter, Anna (Italian actress Benedetta Porcaroli), actually hates these gifts from her mother, and her dad has to force her to open them, even as early as her 5th birthday. By 18, Anna has become a Lydia Deetz (Beetlejuice) look-a-like with a far worse attitude and talent for self-destruction. I literally hated her. In the notes I made while watching the film, I wrote, “There is just no redeeming this character.” The biggest compliment I can give 18 Presents is that it proved me wrong: by the end, I forgave Anna, and couldn’t find it in me to hate her even the slightest. I remain impressed by this unexpected redemption. 

As the plot progresses, and thanks to some extraordinary circumstances, Anna gets to meet her mother and relive the last few months of her life beside her. Thus, there are plenty of scenes of mother and daughter interacting whilst simultaneously longing for a past/future that will never occur. These moments are genuinely sweet and get you right in the feels. The ending had me sending twin waterfalls down my cheeks, not unlike the emoji titled “loudly crying face 😭” (though it should be noted that my tears were silently dignified and not noisy). 

Vittoria Puccini and Benedetta Porcaroli in a scene of 18 Presents | NETFLIX

My quibbles are petty, but still I will quibble. First, I felt like Italy was another planet, or at least a world the Kardashians would find more relatable than I would. For instance, what would you do if you accidentally locked yourself out of your house? When I was growing up, that meant my Mom busted out the crowbar and boosted me through one of the windows so I could get in and unlock the door from the inside. I guess that makes me a trashy American, because this film would have you believe that the only sensible thing to do when locked out is rent a penthouse for the night, complete with a pool, and simply wait until morning to call a locksmith. Second, when Elisa is in her cancer support group, her suggestion of buying eighteen gifts for her unborn daughter is met with awkward silence and sideways glances (while other members are discussing their sexual promiscuity and whether they should have their cremated ashes converted into diamonds). In fact, everybody acts like the idea of a mother trying to substitute her presence with presents for her daughter’s birthdays is insane and awful. At one point it’s suggested that Anna is unfairly burdened by these gifts from her dead mother. I guess that’s just how the other half lives; burdened by too many gifts and slumming it in penthouses. It made me feel sorry for Italians.

18 Presents is the brain-child of daytime soap opera and Hallmark with an affinity for the F-word and cigarettes. Though it has its virtues, I have a hard time universally recommending a tear-jerker unless it is almost above reproach. This movie has its audience, and cry-fests are necessary evils in their time and season, but it lacks any “must-see” qualities. Considering how hard it is these days to acquire tissues, maybe go with something on Sam Cooley’sUltimate Feel-Good Movie list” instead. 

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Extraction

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 117 minutes
Director: Sam Hargrave

After experiencing weeks of relentless Facebook ads, I decided to sign up for six-weeks-free of Chris Hemsworth’s workout app. It’s been fairly successful at putting distance between me and the COVID-15 (like “the freshman 15”… no?), but I don’t look like Thor yet, and there is not nearly enough of him in it. He’s all over the ads, but he is nowhere to be found when the action starts and it’s time to do push-ups.

The same cannot be said for his newest film, a Netflix Original titled, Extraction. Playing a mercenary tasked with rescuing the kidnapped son of a drug-lord, Hemsworth wreaks havoc in this film—killing his enemies with guns, grenades, cars, furniture, architecture, and his own musculature. His character, Tyler Rake, even uses a rake at one point to dispatch an unfortunate enemy. His rescue of Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswa)—and subsequent escape—take them through jungles, rivers, and crowded cityscapes, keeping the landscape fresh and full of new obstacles and things to hit people with. Naturally, the extraction goes awry and Rake must decide if this job is just a job for him or something more.

A lot of effort went into this film and it shows. The action sequences are awesome, feeling visceral and real without shaking the camera like a maraca. It’s easy to appreciate the top-of-the-line physicality and coordination of hand-to-hand combat by Hemsworth and a whole slew of stuntmen. The director, Sam Hargrave, is a stuntman himself, and performed a few risky maneuvers with camera in hand to get the shots he wanted. There’s an 11-minute “continuous” shot action sequence that is brilliantly captured and incredible to watch. The film as a whole is held under a tide of grit and violence and rarely comes up for air, and even those brief respites are home to heavy conversation. Maybe it’s because Rake’s objective was escape and protection rather than vengeance or mass destruction, but this film felt less indulgent or gratuitous than other movies I’ve seen recently.

Chris Hemsworth and Rudhraksh Jaiswal in a scene of Extraction | NETFLIX

What keeps Extraction from becoming “Call of Duty: The Movie” is the exploration of relationships between fathers and sons, men and boys. Granted, it is an action movie with a triple-digit death toll, so don’t expect ocean-level depth here, but the theme gives enough weight to the movie to keep you interested. Whatever patterns the fathers (or father figures) set, the sons tend to follow, including those of violence, trauma, and vengeance. Tyler Rake is haunted by the loss of his son and this shows in his treatment of Ovi and the child soldiers he encounters. Armed with a natural Australian accent and significant athleticism, Hemsworth is compelling as Rake, capitalizing on the opportunity to portray trauma and loss when it’s not played for laughs. He’s backed by an intriguing and talented supporting cast, among whom Nik Khan (played by Golshifteh Farahani), is my personal favorite.

The third act is probably the biggest let-down of the film.  The action ramps up, but in doing so ceases to be impressive and becomes a lot of faceless, unending CPU’s falling victim to our hero’s inability to miss or run out of bullets. The ending was semi-satisfying and didn’t leave me bitter or upset. Brutal, bloody, and bombastic, Extraction can’t be described as a good time, but I do think it’s a good movie. As far as Netflix originals go, it’s nearing top tier. If you happen to be craving Jason Bourne or John Wick, add this to your queue; especially if you like Chris Hemsworth or want to support stuntman directors. After all, it’s more enjoyable than push-ups.

Recommendation: STREAM 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.

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Alan Tudyk

Actor Alan Tudyk attends the premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at the Pantages Theatre on December 10, 2016 | (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

At that pivotal time in high school when teenagers are desperately trying to figure out what to do with their lives, Alan Tudyk decided that he wanted to go into hotel management. After all, he was almost an assistant manager (maybe an assistant to the manager?) at Taco Bueno, so maybe he could make a pretty good life of it. But one encounter with his drama teacher changed his mind; she shot down his hotel management idea and told him he needed to become an actor. This must have felt strange to a kid who often couldn’t participate in school productions and competitions because of his failing grades. When he protested and asked why, she responded, “Because you’re different.” She cited how he would scrape up his knees skateboarding and just let the blood soak into his socks instead of cleaning them off. She also referred to his “lunch-lady appreciation days” where he would imitate their ensemble, right down to the plastic gloves. How those things are a clear sign that someone is meant to act is beyond me, but his drama teacher was right on the money. 

Born in El Paso and raised outside of Dallas, Texas, Alan Tudyk jokingly suggests that he might have peaked in Middle School. He knew he loved to entertain and had a mind for thinking outside the box but feared that pursuing acting would be an unconscious vow of poverty and loneliness. His career has certainly been filled with speed bumps and detours; he had exciting opportunities in stand-up comedy until somebody threatened to kill him at one of his shows and he abandoned the ambition. Though he made it into the immensely competitive drama program at Julliard, he struggled with their curriculum (his teachers weren’t big on comedy, anyways) and eventually left before graduating. But, as it is for most people, his struggles were key to his successes. Many of the accents he imitates in his films were fine-tuned at Julliard, and his improvisation skills landed him defining roles, including one in A Knight’s Tale. He plays the red-headed and easily-heated squire Wat, companion to William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) in his quest to become a Knight through his jousting talent. Though Tudyk’s role is mostly played for laughs, with him constantly threatening to “fong” people and getting teased by a quick-witted Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), he manages to keep pace and enhance the performances of his well-known costars. I recently re-watched it in preparation for this article and cannot recommend it enough.

Alan Tudyk appears in a scene of A Knight’s Tale (2001) | Sony Pictures

For someone who is so gifted with physical comedy, some of Alan Tudyk’s biggest screen credits come from films where his face doesn’t appear at all. He’s played two humanoid robots in his career: Sonny from I, Robot and K-2SO from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He plays both roles with surprising subtlety and humor despite only having his voice and a motion capture suit to work with. In recent years, he’s become a staple at Disney animation studios, managing to land himself a role in all six of their films since he voiced King Candy in Wreck-It-Ralph. Those roles include both the Duke of Weselton in Frozen and Duke Weaselton in Zootopia—which feels like they’re just making up roles for him because they like having him around. But boy does he have a lot to give! He’s becoming for Disney animation studios what John Ratzenburger is for Pixar, but while much of Ratzenburger’s voicework is fairly similar, distinguishing Tudyk from his circus of characters is like playing “Where’s Waldo?” on a difficulty setting somewhere between “Extremely Difficult” and “Chuck Norris”. 

Alan Tudyk stands next to K-2SO, the character he brought to life in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | Lucasfilm Ltd.

His filmography is too extensive to list here, but he has found consistent work in theater, television, and film over the past 20 years, so it’s likely he appears in at least one of your favorite shows or movies. Most recently you can hear his voice in Frozen II, which is now streaming on Disney+, as he voices four different characters—a guard, an Arendellian soldier, the Northuldra leader, and, of course, the Duke of Weselton. Hopefully we get to enjoy his talents in the next Disney animation studios venture, Raya and the Last Dragon, which is on schedule to be released this November. 

I chose Tudyk for a spotlight this month because I truly believe he is A-list talent with a B-list reputation. It takes a great deal of humility to voice a rooster in Moana after going to Julliard, but Tudyk describes it as one of the “funnest” recordings he’s ever done. It’s possible that he never outgrew the teenager that would wear a giant sombrero to school. That playful perspective, and appreciation for the art of entertainment, are pervasive in Tudyk’s demeanor on and off the camera. I’m not sure if the intention behind his drama teacher’s advice was trying to save the hotel management industry or enhance the entertainment business, but either way I’m grateful that she chose to say something and that he chose to listen.

Much of the information in this article was obtained from the following interview:

REVIEW: The Hunt

Universal Pictures
Rated: R
Run Time: 90 minutes
Director: Craig Zobel

Ever since I had an unfortunate incident involving a flight of stairs and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, I’ve insisted that my life is better off without horror movies. But The Hunt lured me in; resembling The Hunger Games more than The Exorcist, it’s a dark political satire about a group of Liberal elites hunting “deplorables” (a.k.a. non-elite Conservatives) for sport, and an awesome protagonist who flips the game on its head (she also literally flips a lot of people—it’s her signature move). The movie was set to release in 2019, but the plot caused a lot of discomfort in the wake of multiple mass shootings and even prompted criticism from the President, and thus was delayed until now. The controversy created a fair amount of buzz—not enough for me to know about it in 2019, but enough to prompt the marketing team to use the slogan, “The most talked about movie of the year is one no one has seen yet!” I thought, “Well, duh, it’s only February,” but I was intrigued! Surely any movie bold enough to make that kind of statement is worth a watch, right?

Well… Not any movie.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I thought, “This is getting good!” and a few seconds later thought, “WTFB (what-the-flying-bananas).” I imagine a middle-aged Vegas fortune-teller writing the script, musing mysteriously and waiting with a hairy mole and misty incense for me to fill in the gaps for myself. Vagueness, it seems, is their attempt at brilliance. I get that you have to suspend disbelief for movies, but my disbelief was so suspended that I was floating aimlessly in the endless space of ideas and theories without ever being grounded by an intelligible story. I couldn’t spoil the ending for you because I’m not exactly sure what happened. It was probably all a dream, but whose dream is anybody’s guess.

Justin Hartley and Emma Roberts in a scene of The Hunt | Universal Pictures

My top two complaints were the gratuitous violence and the unending stream of political mudslinging. Obviously, I expected more than pillow-fights, but I felt that the movie kept trying to push the boundaries of gore for the simple sake of “going there.” What’s worse is the combination of bloodshed with humor that falls sickeningly flat, leaving you feeling really, really uncomfortable: it’s the level of awkward that has you looking for the exits. It’s not like I never laughed, but I certainly cringed more than I chuckled. As far as political commentary goes, you’d get the same level of subtlety from the protagonist’s shotgun. The original title of the film was Red State vs. Blue State, and it should have stayed that way. The 90-minute runtime consisted of extremists saying and doing awful things to each other, like a brutal Shakespearean yarn based on Twitter comment sections. Rather than feeling “woke” about my own political leanings, I just felt more frustrated with the people whose opinions I disagree with. To remain unbiased, the film’s main character has no obvious political leanings. Her core beliefs could be summed up by a perverted version of the Barney theme song: “I hit you, you hit me, let’s go on a killing spree”.

Hilary Swank and Betty Gilpin fighting in a scene of The Hunt | Universal Pictures

Speaking of which, if this movie has any chance of earning the price of admission, that chance’s name is Betty Gilpin. She plays Crystal, one of the victims of the Hunt who is really bad at being a victim. She disappears into the role of disaffected, totally deranged Mississippi-trailer-trash, and yet makes the character relatable, entertaining, and engaging. You definitely wouldn’t want her to be your coworker or your neighbor, but you can’t help but root for her on her quest for survival. Both the actress and her character are placed in really crummy situations (Crystal being in the Hunt and Gilpin being cast in The Hunt) but they shrug it off and start running the show. Gilpin quite literally does it all: the bad-bossery of Sigourney Weaver, the captivating presence of Sandra Bullock, the emotional range and control of Jennifer Lawrence, and the action-hero skills of Gal Gadot. She’s surely headed for bigger and better things, so be sure to catch her in GLOW on Netflix or keep an eye out for her next Hollywood venture. 

In all fairness, everyone I knew was shocked I picked this film, so maybe my expectations were way off. Maybe I’m just crazy; I certainly felt crazy walking out of the theater. But assuming I’m sane, maybe wait until March’s other movies feel safe enough to get released.

Recommendation: NO GO

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