Editorial

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. Pictures.

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 (known to many as 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. Pictures.

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 on a few other occasions, namely after seeing a movie for the first time that I was overly excited for (The Last Jedi was the last time this happened, but that movie left me in despair, and 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 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, Nintendo, Super Mario, 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’ Superman 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 on tv. 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. Pictures.

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 cape and 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. Pictures.

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.

That 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 opinions 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 of mine 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!

“CONTINUE?” A Look at the History of Video Game Movies

John Leguizamo (left) and Bob Hoskins (right) in Super Mario Bros. (1993) | Buena Vista Pictures

The concept of turning video games into film adaptations is a great idea on paper. After all, a video game in essence is a playable movie—there are characters, a story, writing, direction, and in some cases even editing that all coalesce into a playable adventure. However, over the years video game film adaptations have historically ranged from mediocre to downright terrible. As a gamer myself who has put hundreds upon hundreds of hours into different games, this is something I would love to see succeed. With the release of Sonic the Hedgehog this month, I thought it would be worthwhile looking into how far we’ve come with video game films and where I hope they can go.

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

Buena Vista Pictures (Disney)
Rated: PG
Run Time: 104 minutes
Director: Rocky Morton & Annabel Jankel

Ahh yes. The one that started it all. When the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was released alongside “Super Mario Bros.” it turned a goofy little plumber named Mario into a multimillion dollar franchise. With such a strong market behind it, Hollywood Pictures (a division of Walt Disney Studios at the time) obtained the rights to make a feature-length film based mostly on the Super Nintendo’s Super Mario World. The film is a strange one to say the least. While Mario games are often remembered for their bright settings, goofy creatures, and upbeat music, the Super Mario Bros. movie is a dark, dour, and abrasive take on a very bright franchise. The biggest problem with this movie is its ultra realistic and grounded take on the Mario franchise. It is an absolute train wreck of a film but there were some things I actually really enjoyed. The special effects are very unique and I even like Dennis Hopper hamming it up as King Koopa, who I guess is supposed to be Bowser? Given the ultra thin source material that the game provides, it’s hard to actually be mad at this movie. They did the best they could with what they had and the result is a total bob-omb.

Street Fighter (1994)

Universal Pictures
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 102 minutes
Director: Steven E. da Souza

Growing up I absolutely loved “Street Fighter 2.” I remember going to the arcade, putting a quarter in the machine, and getting absolutely pummeled by some kid twice my age. It was awesome. The concept of “Street Fighter” is simple: you pick one character from the multinational cast and you duke it out against another in a Best of 3 match where first character to lose all of their life is knocked out. Each character has their own individual moves such as Ryu’s iconic “Hadoken” fireball and Ken’s flaming “Shoryuken” uppercut. In fact this game was so popular it’s estimated that the revenue for it is roughly $10.61 billion—which brings us to the film. Made in 1994 and starring action movie super star John Claude Van Damme as Guile, the film was actually a commercial success grossing $99 million against a $35 million budget. Critically, however, the movie was not well-received. After re-watching the movie, it’s not hard to see why. It is another mess of a film: given its flimsy source material, the dialogue is hilariously bad, the plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, and our lead actors are really never given much to work with. Van Damme is mostly fine but he isn’t ever given the chance to show off much of his martial arts skills. Also how can you be Guile without that crazy broom hair? Just go ahead and skip this movie, I would rather get pummeled in the arcade all over again than have to watch this crap.

Warcraft (2016)

Universal Pictures
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 123 minutes
Director: Duncan Jones

Let’s fast forward now to 2016 as I couldn’t bring myself to watch another 90’s video game movie, or early 2000’s video game movie for that matter. When I was in high school, I started playing “World of Warcraft” (“WoW”): an massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing game (RPG) that takes place within the setting of Blizzard’s Warcraft series. In its heyday, “WoW” boasted a player base of 10 million active players all over the world. It became a huge phenomenon that has greatly affected pop culture—from episodes of South Park to hit Internet memes such as LEEROOOOOY JENKINSSSSS (I had to). So with such a rabid fanbase, a movie had to be made for it. Well, after years and years of development issues, we finally got Warcraft in 2016. The movie is actually based on the first “Warcraft” game created in 1996 and tells the story of the first encounters between the humans and orcs as they go to war. Directed by the awesome Duncan Jones, this movie was panned critically and was actually considered a critical disappointment in the box office grossing only $47.4 million here in the United States and $439 million worldwide; regardless of that, I absolutely love this movie. It is absolutely flawed with some very questionable writing, bad character development, and some truly terrible editing but there is something about it that I just enjoy. Maybe it’s the little winks and nods to the fans, or seeing the size and scale of the Orcs in live action with some incredible computer graphic images (CGI). My fanboy bias is totally winning me over but whatever—I think it’s totally worth a watch and I really hope we get a sequel.

Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)

Paramount Pictures
Rated: PG
Run Time: 99 minutes
Director: Jeff Fowler

Growing up, I was always more of a Sonic fan. Back in the good ol’ days of the 90s, you were either a Nintendo kid or a Sega kid (I was spoiled and had both), so you were also either a Mario kid or a Sonic kid. Sonic was one of the coolest characters I had ever seen. He had so much personality packed into his little character that really spoke to me—he would tap his feet if he didn’t move; when he reached max speed, his character pose would change; and when he got smacked around, he had a hilarious dizzy expression. I kept playing Sonic games as I grew up, and he is one of my favorite video game characters of all time—a true pop culture icon! Last year when they revealed how he would look in the live action adaptation I was truly horrified, and many shared the same sentiment. His weird humanoid body and super creepy teeth made me want to burn this movie in the hottest fires imaginable and never see it again. However, in a rare turn of events, Paramount Studios actually listened to the fans and decided to delay the film so that they could redo all of the CGI for Sonic. Was it worth it? Absolutely. I saw this film a few weeks ago and I’m happy to say that it wasn’t the total dumpster fire that we were all expecting from the first trailer. Ben Schwartz is great as Sonic and Jim Carrey is absolutely hilarious as Dr. Robotnik. The story is pretty run-of-the mill and predictable, but I still laughed and smiled and didn’t leave the theater with the haunting image of Sonic’s ultra realistic teeth.

Super Mario Bros. (1993) | Buena Vista Pictures

Frankly, I see the future of video game movies as something that can continue to get better over time. The biggest key is for these film studios to respect the source material. Just like how Marvel has succeeded with their franchises, I believe that studios can propel video game movies to greater heights—as long as they trust in what the fans want and pay respect to the properties we love and adore.

The Oscars: According to Smash Critic

Alright guys. So there have already been some other Backseat Directors articles on the Oscars that you should totally check out. I want to use this spot to simply list out the results for the winners, whether I think they were deserving, and who were some snubs. I’ll look mostly at the more popular categories as well as a couple that I thought were especially noteworthy.

Directed by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story was nominated for Best Picture at The 92nd Academy Awards | NETFLIX

BEST PICTURE

Winner: Parasite
My Pick: Marriage Story
Nomination Snubs: Peanut Butter Falcon, and Farewell

To be fair, I think Parasite was a wholly unique and engaging movie with stunning visuals and insightful themes of class divisions and animosity; if anything, it’s awesome that it made history as the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. However, of all the movies that were nominated, this was probably the least likely to inspire or resonate emotionally. It’s a realistically cynical (albeit important) movie, but I don’t think it deserved Best Picture.

Even though this next movie was in no way a true competitor with Parasite in certain areas, I believe that it had it all when it comes to a worthy ‘Best Picture’ win: Marriage Story. No other nominee was so timelessly applicable nor poignantly touching. The acting was heartbreaking and heartwarming, the screenplay masterful; and the topic something that most can either connect with from personal experience, or at least better understand, all because of how genuine this film was. I suppose the next big trend-breaker is when a Netflix original will win Best Picture—maybe that’s why the foreign language film, Roma, didn’t win the title last year (and lost to Green Book, no less).

Greta Gerwig at The 92nd Academy Awards | Steve Granitz/Getty Images

BEST DIRECTOR

Winner: Bong Joon Ho (Parasite)
My Pick: Bong Joon Ho
Nomination Snub: Greta Gerwig (Little Women)

Honestly, I’m okay with this one. I still wish Best Picture went elsewhere, but Bong Joon Ho at least deserved some individual recognition.

I do think it would’ve been awesome to see Quentin Tarantino finally win Best Director (which is long overdue); Todd Phillips and Sam Mendes both in their own way brought game-changing movies to light, and I would’ve been happy with any of them winning.

At the very least, Greta Gerwig probably should’ve been nominated. I wouldn’t necessarily replace another nominee with her, but I don’t understand why she was passed up. It would’ve at least helped to put the Oscars in a more inclusive light (only one woman has ever won ‘Best Director’), and the fact that she deserved the nod made it all the more confusing. 

Joaquin Phoenix appears in a scene of Joker | Warner Bros. Pictures

BEST LEAD ACTOR

Winner: Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
My Pick: Joaquin Phoenix (second choice is Adam Driver for Marriage Story)
Nomination Snubs: Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems) and Michael B. Jordan (Just Mercy)
Come on… This was a shoe-in, and honestly, some of the best acting of all time. One thing I’ll mention about the brilliance of this specific portrayal of the Joker is that it takes a villain—and shows that he wasn’t always the eloquent, cool, untouchable Ledger-like antagonist that we’ve all come to know, obsess over, and see in others like Hannibal Lecter and Anton Chigurh. Like most disturbed individuals, there’s more to the person (like social ineptness, vulnerability, and utter tragedy) that leads that person to break and then rebuild for the worse. That’s Joaquin’s Joker, and it’s the most captivating performance of at least this year. Great win.

Renée Zellweger appears in a scene of Judy | Roadside Attractions

BEST LEAD ACTRESS

Winner: Renée Zellweger (Judy)
My Pick: Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
Nomination Snub: Awkwafina (Farewell)

I can’t really say much here. I didn’t happen to see most of the movies with nominated ‘Best Actresses’, including this one. I thought that Judy was going to be your run-of-the-mill, Oscar-bait movie that would be quickly slated and ignored (I honestly don’t know a single person who saw it). I was surprised when Zellweger got nominated and dumbfounded when she had won. I guess I’ll definitely need to give Judy a watch. 

I will say, I was really hoping for Scarlett Johansson to win. If you haven’t seen the movie Marriage Story, go and watch the fight scene between Adam Driver’s and her character, along with her monologue when she’s with her lawyer. Absolutely amazing. 

Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood | Sony Pictures | Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Winner: Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood)
My Pick: Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)
Nomination Snubs: Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy) and Shia Labeouf (Honey Boy)

I really enjoyed Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. He’s honestly one of the biggest highlights of the film… but it’s solely because he’s just cool. Super cool. He won for a role where he basically plays himself (or at least, how we all see him).

I can’t believe Pitt’s performance won over Tom Hanks’. If you haven’t seen the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? that was snubbed at last year’s Oscars, you should absolutely see it. Count how many times you cry, acknowledge how you feel about this near-perfect human being, and then watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and see how it compares. Hanks did such a good job so that all those feelings came right back as if I was watching the real man. In a day and age where kindness, sensitivity, and gentleness are tossed aside for power, imperviousness, and cynicism, this portrayed figure couldn’t be more appropriate. I know Hanks has two Oscars already and Pitt may have been long overdue for his, but if we’re basing this on performance and its impact alone (and forgetting “alumni” context) it’s obvious who should have won. 

Scarlett Johansson in a scene of Jojo Rabbit | Fox Searchlight Pictures

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Winner: Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
My Pick: Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)
Nomination Snubs: none

Why Laura Dern wasn’t nominated for her role in Little Women over this is beyond me, but the fact that she won is downright bizarre. Her role isn’t bad—it’s actually interesting: she’s an aggressive, feministic lawyer that’s just as sisterly with her client as she is cutthroat with her client’s husband. But in the end, it’s really not a memorable character as she’s completely overshadowed by Driver and Johansson’s performances… And I swear she only had like 10 minutes of screen time. 

Very rarely does an actor/actress get two different nominations for two different roles, but Johansson truly deserved both. In Jojo Rabbit she’s a quirky, playful mom to the main character that makes for some hilarious, and touching scenes between mother and son. She’s also a single parent, and works as a steadfast moral compass to her Nazi youth son and others—a strong, impactful female character. I would’ve loved to see her at least win this.

OTHER NOTEWORTHY BITS

  • Jojo Rabbit wins Best Original Writing.

    I was pumped with this result! Taika Waititi has managed to make a name for himself rapidly in Hollywood. All of his movies are just fantastic (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpoeple, Thor: Ragnarok), and this may be his best work so far. He was able to bring a story that used an extremely difficult era and subject matter to create genuine laughter, tears, and celebration of triumph over (apparently) clumsy and whimsical evil. If anything, it’s encouraging to see a film this lighthearted and optimistic receive accolades, and I wish it happened more often. Also, Waititi is the first person of Maori (New Zealand aborigine) descent to win an Oscar!

  • 1917 wins Best Cinematography.

    All I really need to say about this movie is that it’s a spectacle during the entire runtime. What makes 1917 stand out, and what should put it near the top (if not at the top of every ‘Best War Movie’ list) is the master class cinematography by Roger Deakins. Honestly, guys, the whole flick is like two different shots both lasting about an hour, and the way the camera follows the intensity and action is something that will catch the eye of even the most unsuspecting movie goer. Please try so hard to see this in theaters, or see it on a jumbo screen somehow, because this will prove to be one of the best movie going experiences you’ve had in a while. 

  • Joker wins Best Music (Original Score).

    I would have been okay with a number of the nominees winning. Randy Newman’s work in Marriage Story was as tear inducing as ever. Probably my favorite composer ever, Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption, Finding Nemo, American Beauty), built up the tension to another degree in 1917. But honestly, Joker’s score was probably the most fittingly haunting music I’ve heard in a film. It’s truly a unique style, and now I can’t imagine any other sound wordlessly telling the story of a misfortuned psychopath. On top of that, (and I did not know the composer’s gender until she came on stage) Hildur Gudnadottir is the first woman to win Best Original Score ever! Being that the Oscars have often been polarizing for some with a feeling of exclusion toward certain race and gender, this was an awesome win.

  • Eminem’s Performance.

    A lot of people felt like Eminem’s performance of “Lose Yourself” during the Oscars felt misplaced and random. I for one loved it, especially when I considered the context. At the 2003 Oscars, Eminem was nominated and won Best Original Song for “Lose Yourself”, which he had written for 8 Mile. Thinking that there was no way he would win, he not only didn’t attend the Oscars, but he was apparently asleep at home when it was announced that he had won. It was great to see him finally give his acceptance speech of sorts 17 years later.

  • Shia Labeouf and Zack Gottsagen announce Best Live-Action Short Winner.

    As previously mentioned, I think Peanut Butter Falcon was snubbed for not getting a nod for Best Picture (or for at least something else). Suffice it to say, if you haven’t seen it, you need to. It’s become one of my all-time favorite feel-good movies. It utilizes a Mark Twain-type atmosphere, and takes two unlikely actors (a pretty much blacklisted child star, and a man with Down syndrome) puts them in powerfully suitable roles and makes a beautiful relationship/adventure out of it. During and before production, Shia made sure that he and Zack spent plenty of quality time together. He even credits Zack for being part of the reason why he’s seemingly got his life back in order. And seeing them up there together—double teaming the announcement—was a really sweet moment.

Alright guys, let me know if you agree/disagree, who you would’ve picked to win, snubs I missed, or thoughts in general about the Oscars!

My Adventures at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

Rachel Wagner enjoying her time at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Rachel Wagner enjoying her time at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

As a critic and cinephile, one of the benefits of living in Utah is getting to attend the Sundance Film Festival each year at an affordable rate. 2020 was my fourth year attending the festival but it was also my least favorite experience; however, it was still wonderful to see so many unique films.

Part of the reason my experience wasn’t as good this year is because this was the first year I didn’t purchase a locals’ pass which allows access to all of the Salt Lake City screenings. With just The Grand Pass and a 10-pack I was more limited to what I could see and forced to wait in long lines you wouldn’t need to with a pass (with tickets you also have to try and predict what will be a big hit whereas with a pass you can attend whatever has buzz). It was a little discouraging to not find the gems I found last year but still a good experience.

Sunita Mani and John Reynolds appear in Save Yourselves! by Alex Fischer and Eleanor Wilson. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Matt Clegg

The best film I saw at this year’s festival is a comedy called Save Yourselves! This is a film directed by Alex Hurston Fischer about a couple (Sunita Mani and John Paul Reynolds) who decide to take a break from their cell phones for a weekend and go up to a mountain retreat. The only problem is that same there just happens to be an alien invasion that same weekend! Not only is it a comedic movie about hipsters and technology but it is also a sweet and endearing romance. The actors have great chemistry and I was laughing throughout. 

Dick Johnson is Dead (documentary) premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

My second favorite of the festival is a documentary called Dick Johnson is Dead. This film is directed by Kirsten Johnson and is a very unique look into the process of aging and grief from the perspective of her dad who is still living. I had a very close relationship with most of my grandparents, and watching Kirsten’s dad brought back a lot of memories. There are even fantasy sequences where he dies on screen and he attends his own funeral! I was bawling my eyes out and yet still laughing each time her dad was his charming self. Look out for this on Netflix. 

Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz in Nine Days. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

I saw a lot of artistic pieces at Sundance this year (and most of it, to be honest, were a bit of a slog) but 2 experimental projects worked for me: Nine Days and Tesla. Nine Days is a very interesting film about a premortal world where a man named Will (great performance given by Winston Duke) is tasked with selecting who is worthy to come down to Earth and get a body. For nine days he interviews a variety of people while also dealing with the knowledge that one of his choices just committed suicide, which he does not understand. It was emotional, beautifully filmed and very well acted. I found myself thinking about it several days after I saw it. 

Ethan Hawke in Tesla, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival

Tesla is definitely not for everyone, but it intrigued me. Purportedly, it is about the famed inventor Nikola Tesla played by Ethan Hawke, but it is not a bland biopic. There’s lots of fourth wall breaking and nods to modern technology. It all culminates in the character singing Tears for Fears at a modern karaoke bar. I am very curious to see—outside of the Sundance bubble—what people think of this quirky weird movie. 

So that was my Sundance 2020 experience. It is a lot of fun but it is also a bit of a grueling experience. There are a lot of lines and just seeing 26 movies in 10 days takes a lot out of me. I know there are a lot of festival favorites I didn’t get to see like Minari and Time, so I look forward to catching up with them. And hopefully next year I can get a locals’ pass again so I have an even better experience!

Did you get to attend the festival? If so, what were some of your favorite films? Let us know in the comments section!

At Least They’re Trying…

Do I take what I watched at the Oscars at face value or do I read deeper into what I’m watching?

Best Predictions for Best Picture

This is at the request of a friend of mine, who describes watching the Oscars as “taking a picture of a strange log because that’s what all the other tourists are doing.”

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