Editorial

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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).

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

How I Changed My Mind About ‘Batman v Superman’

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill face off in a scene of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice | Warner Bros.

Today marks the four-year anniversary of one of the most debated and controversial comic book films ever made—Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS). Even four years later you needn’t go further than the screen of your phone to see how widely discussed this movie is among fans and detractors alike. And “discuss” might be an inaccurate description of the types of conversations happening on social media platforms and other chat forums alike. Fans of Batman v Superman show a passion and loyalty to the film and its director, Zack Snyder, that is only matched by the fervor of Star Wars fans. Detractors and critics of Batman v Superman find it difficult to understand the logic of this fandom, and pick out easy targets to demoralize those that enjoy it. Reminiscent of party politics that dominate our county, chances of having a respectful, non-combative discussion of BvS continue to prove to be slim. I’d like to change that narrative. If this article is able to do anything at all, I hope it fosters people’s willingness to listen and have their minds changed. Two people on opposite sides of an argument cannot both be right, and neither rarely are. Truth is often found in the middle—in the divide. You must be willing to meet in the middle in order to discover that truth.

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill face off in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice | Warner Bros.

Utter Disappointment

I walked out of the packed theater and into the lobby of the Century 16 theater in Salt Lake City just having seen the newly released Batman v Superman on March 25, 2016. I waited for my brother and some other friends as we all congregated outside to recap our experience of seeing this monumental movie for the very first time. Much like today, it was a rainy evening, and the smell of wet roads permeated the inside of the theater. It’s as if the rain from Gotham City carried over into the real-world, and kept that somber mood lasting even when the movie had already ended. It’s hard to remember the exact words shared among our group regarding our initial experience of seeing BvS, but the overwhelming feeling I had was total and utter disappointment. Almost a sickening feeling—a feeling of disbelief or denial that what you saw was actually real. I’ve only ever experienced that feeling one other time after seeing a movie for the first time (The Last Jedi left me in despair, but that’s another conversation for another day). As I walked out of the theater with my brother, we looked at each other and knew with a certainty that our feelings about the movie were mutual. Most of the car ride home was spent trying to make sense of what we just had seen. How could the same studio that produced The Dark Knight (TDK) trilogy be the same studio that produced Batman v Superman? My mind was spinning.

To add some context, let’s back it up a couple of decades. Like many children of the 80s, I grew up a passionate fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, NES (Nintendo), Back to the Future, Superman, and Batman. Some of my earliest memories of Halloween featured me, dressed up in my Superman costume: velcro red cape, and cotton-stuffed sleeves to improve the muscular tone of my four-year-old arms (I still need cotton stuffed shirts to enhance my muscular physique). Christopher Reeve was my Superman. John Williams’ theme was THE one and only Superman theme. I watched those VHS tapes regularly, and made sure that my mom gave me the definitive Superman styled hair with the curl. My dad took me to see Tim Burton’s Batman (1989)—the first movie I actually remember seeing in theaters. I wasn’t just a Superman fan anymore: Michael Keaton’s Batman was now my Batman. I had made a place in my heart for these two Superheroes. These were my superheroes. But perhaps unlike many closet nerds of the 80s and 90s, I never got into comic books. Even though I was fanatically obsessed with the Last Son of Krypton and the Dark Knight of Gotham, my exposure to these iconic characters was based primarily on the movies, and both DC animated series. My nerdiness and love for these characters waned somewhat through me teenage years, as the rise of the nerds and nerd culture had not yet swept through our society— that is, until June of 2005.

Christian Bale appears as Batman in The Dark Knight (2008) | Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan Changed the Game

Arguably the greatest comic book movies (CBM) ever made, the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy is well-regarded and esteemed by fans and critics alike. Nolan gave audiences everywhere a reason to believe that comic book movies aren’t as far-fetched or unrealistic as we had all been made to believe—a precedence set by every other comic book film ever made before. Nolan’s Batman was grounded, dark, authentic, and just felt REAL. Christian Bale as Batman introduced a more nuanced portrayal of the Caped-Crusader. You identified with Bruce Wayne, and almost sympathized with his character in that you didn’t envy him for being Batman. There was a real toll and cost to donning the cowl, and these movies showed audiences everywhere that being a superhero comes at a price: it’s not all sunshine and roses, as many comic book movies before had led us to believe. The Dark Knight trilogy was not the first CBM, but Nolan’s trilogy changed the game forever. The comic book movie genre was to be taken seriously now. Dark and gritty was now very much in fashion. Campy was out. Realism is what moved this genre forward.

Man of Steel debuted in 2013, and under the supervising eye of Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder took the wheel and launched both DC and Warner Bros. (WB) on a new course. Man of Steel continues to age well, and every time I go back and revisit that movie, there are new things I learn and appreciate more and more. Man of Steel gave me confidence heading into the sequel. It gave me confidence in Zack Snyder and his vision for more DC movies to come. However, I felt some apprehension with WB introducing a new Batman in the middle of Superman’s own story. When Batman v Superman was announced, my initial reaction was surprise; it felt as though we had skipped a movie in between Man of Steel and BvS. Even though Batman had already graced the silver screen in eight solo films, this was a new DC universe with new stories and a new vision. Batman and other characters needed time to be reintroduced to the world. Come to find out, Snyder had made the case to introduce more characters in solo movies before BvS, only for his ideas to be shut down by execs at Warner Bros. In a quote from Heroic Hollywood, industry insider, Neil Daly confirmed these conversations:

Daly claims that Snyder hadn’t wanted to rush straight into Justice League after Man of Steel. He thought there should have been solo films for each of the heroes that were introduced in Batman v Superman, but Warner Bros. spurred on by the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, wanted to accelerate things. Snyder, according to Daly had a six-film plan, and wouldn’t have directed all of these solo films. Rather he would have let other directors flesh out the characters in sync with his vision, while he worked on finishing the main arc of the DCEU, which would have consisted of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Justice League, Man of Steel 2, Justice League 2, and Justice League 3.

DC Insider Reveals Zack Snyder Wanted Solo Movies Before ‘Justice League’. By Cole Albinder, Jan. 19, 2019

Without the context of a new Batman movie, the audience was jumping into a story that felt like we opened a book and started reading from page 100. What ensued after the release of Batman v Superman was only an inevitability. We looked for context in the most recent parts of our memory, and all we found there was Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan.

Zack Snyder stands in front of the Batmobile in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice | Warner Bros.

Open to Being Wrong

So here I am, driving home with my brother just having seen Batman v Superman, and the dominant part of our conversation was how different this movie was from Christopher Nolan’s iconic trilogy. We discussed how different Ben Affleck’s Batman was to Christian Bale’s. We ended up talking more about Nolan’s Batman movies and how much we wished this new one was more in line with Nolan’s. And for the better part of a year, this was my stance: Zack Snyder’s Batman is not as good as Christopher Nolan’s.

This was my impression of a film that I saw once in theaters and didn’t revist for almost an entire year. That is, until I met some friends who challenged my opinion on BvS (here’s looking at you, Ry, Formal and Mikey). Friends who hold the Nolan trilogy in such high regard, and yet were able to distinguish between that trilogy and this new iteration of Batman, and still enjoy it. It was confusing to me how these new friends could see and experience the same quality of TDK Trilogy and still find value in Zack Snyder’s new movie. It honestly did not make sense to me. Some number of conversations later I was determined to give Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice another try. But not the theatrical cut. Not the cut that WB interfered with, but the cut that Zack Snyder had intended the world to see. An additional 31 minutes of footage not shown in theaters, known as the “Ultimate Edition.” I bought my Blu-ray and popped in the disc, and began to experience a movie I had written off completely in a whole new light. Going into the “Ultimate Edition” with an open mind, I began to notice things I never did in theaters: the powerful, haunting score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, the emotional and poetic opening scene of the Wayne’s tragic murder, how far Bruce Wayne had fallen, and how true Alfred’s words rung. But more than anything, I discovered my new-found appreciation for Batman v Superman. More so, my new appreciation for Zack Snyder and his vision was found in the bonus features of the Blu-ray. Within these bonus features I discovered how much Zack Snyder genuinely loves DC Comics and these iconic characters, and how much he cherished this opportunity to bring them to life on the big screen. Anyone who thinks that Zack doesn’t understand the true nature of Superman and Batman, go watch the special features of Man of Steel and BvS and then tell me you haven’t changed your mind. And if that’s not enough for you, take some time and read the incredible work put together by this Twitter user in comparing Zack Snyder’s DC movies to the actual DC comics.

Over these last few years as more behind-the-scenes information spills out regarding the tumultuous relationship between Zack Snyder and Warner Bros., and Snyder’s unceremonious departure from the DCEU, the more appreciation I have for Snyder’s vision and the story he was trying to tell. Like a table with only three legs, Snyder was trying to create something wholly unique and distinct from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but without the real support and backing from the studio that seemed to have never been fully behind him in the first place. Snyder is often criticized for his storytelling ability (or lack thereof), or for his use of violence and mayhem, but one thing about Snyder that is undeniable is his keen eye for aesthetic and cinematography. Snyder is one of the most gifted visual artists in the business and his movies speak for themselves. Warner Bros. incessant meddling in Snyder’s DCEU, and their fears of falling behind Marvel Studios in the race for Superhero movie supremacy, cost us fans what could have been some of the most epic Batman and Superman stories ever told. I am grateful though, that we did get the highly ambitious and controversial, Batman v Superman, a movie that has challenged the comic book movie industry, and continues to spark debate even four years later. And I will forever be grateful for friends who were good enough to challenge my opinion, which opened the way for me to change my mind.

#ReleaseTheSnyderCut

John Wick: A Modern Day Greek Tragedy

Keanu Reeves as John Wick has quickly become one of the most iconic action-movie stars | Summit Entertainment

Last “Black Friday” I decided to rectify a huge error I made as a cinephile and watched the John Wick trilogy. Walmart had a pretty good deal for all three movies on Blu-Ray, so I went ahead and bought them. Flash forward to last month when I wanted a break from the cycle of television binging and decided to finally see what all the fuss was about. Turns out that all the films totally lived up to the hype! All three films were nearly perfect action films that actually had great fight choreography, unlike our modern, almost-epileptic, overly cut and edited fight scenes (looking at you, Black Panther). But even more enjoyable to watch was the way John Wick utilizes different aspects of Greek, Roman, and Christian mythology to tell its story. I originally was going to use this editorial to describe the various myths and the way they were portrayed in the John Wick franchise, but I think Movies With Mikey has me covered. Instead, I decided that I would use this time to explore the ways that John experiences grief and loss, and how the story is more in line with a typical Greek tragedy.

Ancient Greek mythological tale of Orpheus rescuing his wife, Eurydice from Hades.

Orpheus: What if?

The Greek Tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice is a tale about a man (Orpheus) who descends into the Underworld to retrieve his wife (Eurydice) from Hades. He is told that he can take her, but only if he does not look back during the long road up to the surface. At the very end of the journey, Orpheus, unable to resist, looks back and thus loses his wife forever.

In the John Wick universe, The Continental rules the crime world, and can be symbolic of the Greek Underworld. In the first film we learn that John has a chance to leave the Underworld (The Continental) to be with his wife Helen (a reference to Helen of Troy), on the condition that he could not return to the life he had known. Unlike Orpheus, John does not look back. He and Helen stay happily married for (presumably) many years. This retelling of the Greek legend doesn’t end in tragedy—or rather, the same kind of tragedy…

Keanu Reeves in a scene of John Wick (2014) | Summit Entertainment

The Boogeyman

 At the start of the first film, Helen dies from an illness and leaves John with an adorable little beagle in order to make the grieving process a little easier to bear. Unfortunately, Ioseph, the son of a notorious Russian mafia boss, has his eye on John’s car and decides that he wants it for himself. After having John refuse to sell it to him, Ioseph and a couple of his cronies break into John’s house, steal his car, and kill his dog. This act sets in motion a chain of events that leads John to taking on the Russian mafia, The Continental, and the all-powerful High Table. He plows down wave after wave of enemies in order to take vengeance on those that wronged him. But the ripples he makes in the Underworld only cause him to be noticed by prying eyes as more and more people seek an audience with him—for good or ill. The legend of ‘Baba Yaga’ (the Boogeyman) grows from a ghost story of the past into a threat of the present. 

John’s legendary status in the Underworld, and his actions in taking back the mantle of ‘Baba Yaga’, ultimately condemns John: he loses not only his dog and car but also his house, and finally his wedding ring. 

Keanu Reeves in a scene of John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) | Lionsgate

Looking Back

 The reason we love John Wick is that it gives us the ultimate injustice—the loss of the ability to grieve. John has almost everything taken from him, and goes on a rampage to seek catharsis; and we, the audience, need the catharsis too. But that feel of relief comes at much too high of a cost. What starts as a simple revenge spirals into complete chaos until John is forced to take on the entire Underworld. Near the end of the third film, Winston, the owner of the Hotel Continental, tells John, (and I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t find the exact quote) “You have a choice: you can either give up now and honor her, or you can become the monster she’d always feared you were.”

In the ultimate twist of irony, John Wick (the modern Orpheus) turned back after all. In seeking revenge against Ioseph, John returned to what he sacrificed in order to be with Helen; and as consequence, lost all physical reminders of her: his car was stolen and destroyed, his dog was killed, his house was blown apart, and even his wedding ring was taken by the Elder of the High Table. Throughout the course of the trilogy, the man known as John Wick slowly died, taken over by ‘Baba Yaga’.

Keanu Reeves and Anjelica Huston in a scene of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum | Lionsgate

The End?

 Ultimately, I predict that the story of John Wick will not end happily. In my opinion, there are only two ways the story will conclude. The more optimistic way to end will have John finally refusing to kill, and lay down his weapons of war. This act of defiance to the High Table would lead to his death, but he would die as John Wick—the man who loved his wife.

 The more tragic end that could possibly occur is where John Wick fully embraces the mantle of Baba Yaga: the Boogeyman of the High Table—he would live, but now fully trapped, in the Underworld.

 But no matter when and how the series ends, there is one thing for certain: the John Wick franchise will go down in cinema history as one of the greatest action franchises of all time. I am super glad I picked up the series on Black Friday, and I can’t wait to see what the future installments have in store!

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