“WandaVision” Episodes 1 & 2 Review! SPOILERS!

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR WANDAVISION!

A year’s worth of quarantines and COVID-19 delays has changed us all, Marvel Studios’ classic formula and release date calendar included. Thus, WandaVision, originally slated to follow two more traditional Marvel installments (Black Widow and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier) onto the scene, is now kickstarting the MCU’s fourth phase of movies and Disney+ streaming series’. It’s a bold and potentially risky move: WandaVision is the kind of experimental property that Disney was probably afraid to lead with, due to its, shall we say, zanier qualities.

WandaVision
Vision and Wanda Maximoff | marvel.com

But as the MCU expands across multiple new mediums and genres, WandaVision probably offers the most authentic taste of what’s to come in the near future. Refreshingly unpredictable, quirky, and a bit more mature in tone than what we’ve come to expect from Marvel, the series’ first two episodes released this morning offer up a complex yet intoxicating concoction – blending the charm of retro black-and-white sitcoms with a dash of chilling psychological horror. Ironically, the only ingredient absent from the recipe is superheroes – and I’m okay with that.

With no Avengers running amuck, and with both Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) trying to hide their supernatural origins from their neighbors, WandaVision‘s quaint suburban utopia is perfectly normal in every way, at least at first: and only hints of the larger cinematic universe are able to bleed through, mostly via brief, jarring, infomercial segments that interrupt each episode about halfway through, advertising some bizarre product with a hidden MCU connection – a Stark Industries toaster, which refers back to Wanda’s own complicated history with Tony Stark, and to Vision’s famous comics nickname; and a classy Swiss wristwatch named for Wanda’s old handler, Baron Von Strucker, and bearing a small, sinister, HYDRA logo.

But for the most part, we’re simply following Wanda and Vision’s day-to-day misadventures in the picturesque town of Westview, as if we were being dropped randomly into the middle of actual sitcoms. The first two episodes span two decades of television history – the first set in the 50’s, with a familiar aesthetic borrowed from The Dick Van Dyke Show and I Love Lucy, and the second in the 60’s, with cute nods to Bewitched: including a near-identical animated opening sequence and some suspiciously witchy behavior. Each episode comes with a new theme song written by Frozen songwriting duo Kristen-Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez, but the cast of characters remains the same, their ages and appearances largely unchanged even as they advance rapidly through time.

Elizabeth Olsen is at the top of her game, bringing out the best version of Wanda Maximoff yet with the help of extremely well-written dialogue and witty jokes that land well more often than not (the live audience laughter is give-or-take, though it works with the setting). Olsen has great comedic timing, and, crucially, all the charisma and earnestness of the real-life sitcom heroines from this era. She finds opportune moments to subtly channel the sophistication of The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s Mary Tyler Moore, the casual confidence of Bewitched‘s Elizabeth Montgomery, and the unbridled campiness of I Dream Of Jeannie‘s Barbara Eden, depending on what any given scene requires – but her performance is entirely her own, and never crosses the line into parody. Paul Bettany, meanwhile, lends a surprising amount of physical comedy and slapstick humor to the series, as well as his character’s signature brand of sardonic wit. Combined, the duo are more compelling and more naturally romantic (I’d even go so far as to say “adorable”) than we’ve ever seen them to date. With the series jumping into the 50’s setting right off the bat and providing no explanation for why or how two characters last seen in the modern world (one of whom even died – twice) are now living in an oldschool sitcom, Olsen and Bettany’s relatable performances act as necessary anchors for the audience – the couple seem just as unsure and unsettled as we all are, but do their best to ease into Westview’s flow without making a stir because (a) they don’t really have an alternative, and (b) who wouldn’t do the same, placed in a similar situation?

WandaVision
WandaVision | vox.com

Of course, their actions lead to some hilarious hijinks (a particularly funny one involving a mix-up with a wedding anniversary that neither Wanda nor Vision can remember, because, well, they haven’t actually gotten married yet), but the couple seem to be doing pretty well playing catch-up on everything they’ve missed, while making new friends in town.

In fact, one could argue the neighbors are a little too friendly, and too quick to forgive and forget any of the couple’s oddities in pursuit of some ulterior agenda. Agnes (Kathryn Hahn), Wanda’s next-door neighbor on the right (“my right!,” Agnes unhelpfully elucidates), pops by periodically to check in on Wanda or help her out of a predicament with a well-timed pineapple. In episode two, Agnes also provides Wanda access to the town’s high society cliques, including the event planning committee headed by a woman named Dottie (Emma Caulfield), who goes from hating Wanda’s guts to endlessly praising her. Eventually it becomes creepily clear what prompts this change of heart: Dottie’s motto, which she and her friends recite in a reverent chant, is “For The Children”; a simple message that glosses right over the fact that Westview has few, if any, junior members at all – until Wanda herself suddenly becomes pregnant near the end of episode two.

If you’re familiar with the comics, you’ll know that Wanda’s twins, whom I expect will arrive at some point in episode three, are of great interest to multiple dark powers lurking in the Marvel universe – including the evil sorceress Agatha Harkness, and the devil himself, who typically goes by the name Mephisto. Many fans have already caught onto the fact that Agnes is probably Agatha Harkness in some form or another, but Mephisto is probably already in Westview too. Agnes seems to confirm this in episode two, after Dottie remarks that “the devil’s in the details”, when she whispers to Wanda in an aside that he’s in other places too. Mephisto hasn’t shown up physically yet, at least not that we’re aware: he could be the salesman in the aforemtentioned informercial segments, whose products are all fragments of Wanda’s traumatic memories, and who is accompanied by a tall woman who might be another version of Agatha too. Or he might be Agnes’ mysterious husband, “Ralph”, whom she mentions in passing so many times he has to be significant. Even Agnes’ pet rabbit, Señor Scratchy, has a Mephisto connection: Scratch is a term often applied to the Christian devil, and Nicholas Scratch is the name of Agatha Harkness’ son, an ally of Mephisto.

There’s a distinctly creepy undercurrent to WandaVision – quite literally, as episode two’s cliffhanger reveals that anonymous characters from the outside world have been moving underneath Westview via the sewers, dressed in bee-keeping uniforms for some unbeknownst reason. There are loud noises in the night, a strange voice cuts through radio static to loudly address Wanda by name, and a colorized toy helicopter shows up in Wanda’s black-and-white rosebush. The show’s visual iconography feels straight out of an arthouse horror picture: a crimson splash of blood on Dottie’s hand, constantly flickering TV screens, Mrs. Hart (Debra Jo Rupp) laughing while her husband chokes to death on the floor. The implication is that WandaVision sometimes glitches – but whether that’s because of someone inside manipulating Wanda, or someone outside trying to exert control, or Wanda herself losing control over what she’s created, is unclear.

Certainly it looks like agents from S.W.O.R.D. are trying to break through to her from outside, and that Wanda is unintentionally absorbing them into her world, rebooting them with new identities and forms – in much the same way that, while dreaming, you might still be able to hear noises in the real world, but your brain contextualizes them within the dream’s internal logic. For instance, we the audience know that Teyonah Parris’ character is not who she says she is to Wanda, a cheerful young debutante named “Geraldine”, but is in fact a S.W.O.R.D. agent named Monica Rambeau (whom you may remember from Captain Marvel). But Wanda doesn’t know that, and Monica doesn’t seem to know either – she’s been so deeply absorbed into the fabric of Wanda’s reality that she’s forgotten her own.

WandaVision
Geraldine and Wanda | elitedaily.com

It’s easy to see why. WandaVision masterfully recreates the world of classic sitcoms, employing practical effects and only the most rudimentary digital effects to convey Wanda’s chaos magic. From the shifting aspect ratio to the cinematography, to the hard work of the hairstyling and costume departments, to the period-accurate slang and mannerisms (for example: Wanda and Vision begrudgingly respect the constraints of unseen network censors until the 60’s, when Wanda converts their two beds into one), everything in this faux reality feels perfectly authentic, and detailed enough that I can’t wait to rewatch it again and again. My only major complaint is that I fear we won’t spend enough time in any decade to feel truly settled in one – though I rather suspect that’s the point, since Wanda and Vision are facing the same struggle: not being able to fit in no matter the era and changing social norms, and despite their best efforts to disguise their differences.

In episode one, Vision promises Wanda that their star-crossed romance will finally have a happy ending in Westview…but, well, considering that he’s actually dead and she’s about to lose everything again, we’ll see how long that lasts.

Episode Rating: 9.5/10

May Calamawy Joins “Moon Knight”!

Although Oscar Isaac has yet to be officially confirmed as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Moon Knight (though it’s pretty clear at this point that he will indeed be donning the antihero’s iconic mantle), the series is moving full steam ahead with a production start date already set for March, and has now begun casting other key supporting roles. May Calamawy has become only the second cast member to join the series, playing an as yet unnamed character who will join the Moon Knight on what Marvel president Kevin Feige described as a globe-trotting, “Indiana Jones-type” adventure.

Moon Knight
May Calamawy | refinery29.com

Calamawy, a Bahraini actress with Egyptian heritage, has risen to stardom through her popular role on Hulu’s Ramy, where she portrays Ramy Youssef’s  younger sister, Dena Hassan, and has helped to break barriers for MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) representation in TV. She will have a chance to do so again in the Moon Knight series, where she is likely filling the role of Marlene Alraune: an important figure in Moon Knight’s backstory. A casting call that MCU Direct was able to reveal back in September of last year suggested that Marvel was searching for actresses of any ethnicity, and in the same age-range as Calamawy, to play a character believed to be Marlene.

At the time, Marvel provided only a few details about the character, including that she would be “a manipulative operative working for a secret organization”, possibly hinting at a connection to the MCU’s S.H.I.E.L.D., or even S.W.O.R.D., which is being set up to have a major role going forward: S.W.O.R.D. agents will be tasked with trying to restrain Wanda Maximoff in WandaVision, and will likely show up again in the Secret Invasion series. In the comics, Marlene’s character has never had ties to either of these organizations, but then again, she’s also been little more than a rip-off of Marion Ravenwood from the Indiana Jones franchise – so I don’t mind if her backstory gets rewritten to better suit the modern setting.

Moon Knight
Moon Knight | superheroes.fandom.com

Marlene in the comics is a stereotypical “archaeologist’s daughter” (not to be confused with the very similar “scientist’s daughter”), and is most often utilized as a love interest to Marc Spector, a.k.a. Moon Knight. While accompanying her aging father on his final research trip to Egypt, she accidentally becomes embroiled in a fight between Spector and his nemesis, The Bushman, who kills her father and attempts to kill her too but is stopped by Spector: who is left mortally wounded in the attack. Spector is then revived by the ancient Egyptian moon deity Khonshu, and given a second chance at life in exchange for his services as an assassin and mercenary, carrying out the god’s dirty work on earth. Marlene accompanies Marc Spector occasionally on his crime-fighting missions, and has some fighting skills of her own that she’s able to put to good use, but most comic readers still only know her as Spector’s on-and-off girlfriend, who at one point leaves him for her ex-husband and then reunites with him later. The MCU has never been great at creating truly messy romantic drama, but WandaVision seems like it might finally reflect a widescale shift towards writing more complex romantic relationships – so I guess we’ll have to see what happens.

But regardless, this is still very exciting casting, and bodes well for Calamawy’s career beyond Ramy. I hope that we’ll soon see other MENA actors join Moon Knight in significant roles, making up for the MCU’s earlier, dated, and deeply offensive portrayals of Middle Eastern characters as terrorists. This stereotype continues to be perpetuated in mainstream media – just last month, Wonder Woman 1984 tried to get away with it too: in what may have been an ill-conceived and tasteless attempt to pass it off as just another hallmark of the 1980’s films upon which the DC sequel was based, like troubling depictions of women, dubious consent issues, and queerbaiting.

Moon Knight
Marlene Alraune | comicbookrealm.com

So what do you think about Calamawy’s casting, and how excited are you for Moon Knight? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!

1st Synopsis For “The Lord Of The Rings” Revealed!

TheOneRing.net has long served a dual function as the largest online community of J.R.R. Tolkien fans and a base of fandom research into any and every adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings: in the late  1990’s and early 2000’s, a vast network of spies frequently wrote in to the site from the Peter Jackson trilogy’s set with spy reports that gave fans a first taste of what Jackson was concocting down in New Zealand, preparing them for many of the trilogy’s biggest and most controversial moments; both perfect page-to-screen translations and drastic (and often controversial) divergences from the text. TheOneRing.net developed a good reputation for their work, and eventually became a semi-official channel for New Line Cinema, tirelessly relaying new information to the fans while providing necessary feedback to the studio. The Lord Of The Rings trilogy undeniably benefited from that unprecedented level of communication between the filmmakers and their audiences.

The Lord Of The Rings
empireonline.com

These days, TheOneRing.net (or TORN, for short) does not yet enjoy the privilege of being able to officially coordinate with Amazon Prime Studios regarding their upcoming adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work – and thus, I’ve had to take many of their recent reports with a grain of salt. But last night, after a lot of hinting and teasing, TORN proved that they are indeed back in the game, having gotten their hands on the very first official synopsis for Amazon Prime’s The Lord Of The Rings series. IGN was later able to confirm its authenticity with their own sources, and I myself am fairly confident this is the real deal. It doesn’t read like a fake, which would likely have thrown in some hyperbolic details about what to expect, just to cause chaos and commotion in the fandom.

Rather, the synopsis merely goes over much of what we already knew about the series, adding a little bit of context for general audiences and some intriguing sentences that caught my eye. Let’s break it down:

“Amazon Studios’ forthcoming series brings to screens for the very first time the heroic legends of the fabled Second Age of Middle-earth’s history. This epic drama is set thousands of years before J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, and will take viewers back to an era in which great powers were forged, kingdoms rose to glory and fell to ruin, unlikely heroes were tested, hope hung by the finest of threads, and the greatest villain that ever flowed from Tolkien’s pen threatened to cover all the world in darkness. Beginning in a time of relative peace, the series follows an ensemble cast of characters, both familiar and new, as they confront the long-feared re-emergence of evil to Middle-earth. From the darkest depths of the Misty Mountains, to the majestic forests of the elf-capital of Lindon, to the breathtaking island kingdom of Númenor, to the furthest reaches of the map, these kingdoms and characters will carve out legacies that live on long after they are gone.”

The Lord Of The Rings
denofgeek.com

Confirmation, if you needed it, that the series is in fact set in the Second Age of Middle-earth (which you can learn more about here on my blog), and that the title “The Lord Of The Rings” is still deliberately misleading. This period of time is bound to be darker and more brutal than the era of The Lord Of The Rings proper, though Amazon is setting the stage for a story with similar themes and characters. Some of the very same characters will, in fact, cross over…but more importantly, Amazon is promising us “unlikely heroes”, a character archetype that is pivotal to the enduring success of The Lord Of The Rings and sorely lacking from the myths of Middle-earth’s earlier history.

During TORN’s livestream, guest star Molly Knox Ostertag (the host of last year’s popular Tolkientober fan-art challenge) tackled this subject quite eloquently, explaining that the “little guy” is what makes Tolkien’s work so approachable even after so many decades: because we can all relate to small, ordinary people like Frodo, Bilbo, and Sam, whose small, ordinary acts of kindness end up saving the world. Readers need to have an emotional investment in a character or a relationship in order to keep reading, and hobbits are so down-to-earth, so humble and so unassuming, that it’s hard not to get invested in them and their journeys through Middle-earth. The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s posthumously-published compendium of First Age myths, was initially unpopular with fans because it lacked hobbits or any hobbit analogues that could keep readers grounded amidst all the epic battles, tragic romances, and stories of somber heroes doomed to die gruesomely. The Second Age has that problem too, which is what Molly Ostertag noted: unless we have a “little guy” to get attached to, where’s the emotional investment? That’s why the mention of “unlikely heroes” makes me hopeful this issue will be remedied without having to bring in hobbits, who don’t really exist yet in the Second Age, at least not as we know them.

With the scope of this series sprawling across the entire map of Middle-earth and even beyond it, the presence of small characters and microcosmic stories is that much more essential. But speaking of what lies beyond the map, let’s touch on that for a moment – the synopsis does confirm that we’ll explore regions of Middle-earth that have never been glimpsed in any previous Tolkien adaptation, like Númenor and Lindon. The “furthest reaches of the map”, however, could very well refer to the mysterious lands east and south of Mordor. And who better to explore these lands and their unique cultures than the two Blue Wizards, who (according to Tolkien’s last writings on the subject) arrived in Middle-earth’s uncharted east during the Second Age, and there proved to be pivotal in the war against Sauron? When this topic came up on the livestream, Molly Ostertag suggested that the Blue Wizards should be depicted as a lesbian couple – yes, yes to all of that. I’ve long felt that one or both of the Blue Wizards should be a woman of color, and the thought of two queer women of color using magic in Middle-earth is indescribably empowering.

The synopsis ends by talking about “legacies” that will live on long after our main characters are dead and gone, implying to me that some of the main cast might revolve periodically throughout the course of the series. This wouldn’t surprise me: the Second Age spans over three-thousand years, and even the longest-lived humans of that era couldn’t survive that long if they tried (and trust me, they did). But while it could be an interesting and shocking gimmick for a few seasons, it could also prevent audiences from ever becoming attached to any season’s human cast – as the immortal Elves would likely be the only constants from one season to another in that case. Compressing the timeline into a few hundred years isn’t ideal either, though, so I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what Amazon has in mind.

The Lord Of The Rings
The War Of The Last Alliance | winteriscoming.net

That’s pretty much all there is to say about The Lord Of The Rings‘ synopsis, but there is one last thing I want to add. Near the end of TORN’s livestream last night, host Justin posed a thought-provoking question to each of the guests: what they wanted to see or hear next from the series? There were a lot of good answers, but I knew right away what my answer would have been, if I were asked.

I want TheOneRing.net to be as intimately involved with the Amazon series’ production as they were with Jackson’s trilogy. Although the level of coordination between TORN and New Line Cinema was unprecedented, it was beautiful because of how it allowed our fandom a firsthand experience of the adaptation of our favorite story and the ability to observe the filmmaking process up close, and gave the studio a trusted outlet through which to speak directly to fans. On that fateful night that Return Of The King pulled off a clean sweep in thirteen Oscars categories, Peter Jackson and his crew even opted out of the New Line Oscar Party and attended TORN’s fan-event instead. These days, it’s traditional for studios to give all their biggest scoops and press releases to the major Hollywood trades, allowing news to spread more quickly to a wider audience, but taking a step back from fans in so doing. The creation of a link between Amazon and TORN would go a long way to making all fans feel a lot more welcome…while allowing Amazon a window into the Tolkien community that can help them gage what fans want to see.

So what do you think? Does The Lord Of The Rings‘ synopsis pique your interest, or leave you underwhelmed? Do you want to see Amazon honor those old bonds of fellowship with TORN? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!

The Umbrella Academy Welcomes 6 New Recruits!

The Umbrella Academy is expanding its scope and the size of its ensemble cast heading into the beloved Netflix series’ third season. In a surprise announcement that fans have been waiting on for several months, Netflix revealed the identities of the six mysterious new characters we glimpsed in the second season’s cliffhanger finale, as well as the actors who will take on these roles. And yes, one of them is in fact a literal glowing cube.

The Umbrella Academy
The Sparrow Academy | umbrellaacademy.fandom.com

These six new characters (plus a returning star) will make up The Sparrow Academy, the alternate-reality nemesis to The Umbrella Academy that we’ve followed through the series’ first two seasons. While The Umbrella Academy fell apart due to infighting and trauma, The Sparrow Academy is still fully operational and nearly perfect in every way: a highly-elite family unit headed by the same tyrannical father figure whose abusive parenting methods caused The Umbrella Academy to break apart. The Umbrella Academy unintentionally brought them into existence in season two, meddling with the timeline enough that Reginald Hargreeves, their eccentric alien adoptive dad, chose not to adopt them when he was supposed to…but instead selected seven other children to become his superhero bodyguards and accomplish his ultimate goal (which is still shrouded in mystery); children he apparently perceived as being more extraordinary than his earlier, failed, experiments.

One of these children is Ben (played by Justin H. Min), the one member of The Umbrella Academy whom Reginald Hargreeves didn’t meet in the 1960’s and thus didn’t have any reason to strike off his list. But The Sparrow Academy’s Ben is nothing like his past self: Deadline describes him as “a Machiavellian tactician…Vicious, pragmatic, and hyper-vigilant”. Ben is second-in-command to The Sparrow Academy’s leader, Marcus, and is “determined to gain his status as the leader at all costs”. That parallels the power dynamic between The Umbrella Academy’s leader, Luther, and second-in-command, Diego; but I have a feeling Ben will go to much greater lengths to establish himself as this Academy’s commander than Diego ever did, and will likely be season three’s primary antagonist. My wild guess: he’ll probably be Reginald’s favorite child right up until the point someone tells ol’ Reggy that Ben is actually another straggler from The Umbrella Academy, at which point Reginald will reject him and send him down a path to villainy.

Marcus, The Sparrow Academy’s leader, will be played by Justin Cornwell – who just recently appeared in Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, where he flaunted his vocal talents performing “This Day”. There’s no word on whether he’ll do any singing in this role, but Deadline describes him as “Honest, virtuous, and demanding”, noting that his innate leadership qualities help him keep the family together. In other words, he’s the exact opposite of The Umbrella Academy’s leader, Luther, under whose administration the Academy fell apart completely. Marcus is presumably also superpowered, but the only hint about his powers is that he’s a “colossus” (again, like Luther), and that he’s “Graceful but lethal” (unlike Luther).

Number three, our Allison parallel, is a character named Fei, played by Britne Oldford of Hunters. The description of her is pretty vague: she “sees the world in a special way”, which could be a reference to whatever her powers are. A portrait in duality, she “comes across as a misanthrope” yet secretly yearns for companionship. She’s “the smartest person in the room”, but hinted to be vengeful. She’s also the least like her Umbrella Academy counterpart, perhaps intentionally.

Alphonso, The Sparrow Academy’s fourth team-member, played by Jake Epstein from Designated Survivor and Suits, seems a lot like Diego on the surface: a battle-hardened crime-fighter covered in scars, who verbally berates his enemies. But like The Umbrella Academy’s number four, Klaus, he compensates for his years of trauma with humor. Klaus also compensates with drugs and excessive partying, whereas Alphonso’s addiction appears to be food: there’s a single, strangely specific reference to him loving “a good pizza and a six-pack of beer” more than anything else in the world. Maybe Alphonso’s superpower somehow relates to eating, or maybe he just really loves pizza and beer in the same way Hazel loved donuts back in season one. Maybe this is totally insignificant. Either way, the fandom has already decided that, like Klaus, Alphonso should also be LGBTQ+ and preferably coupled with headcanon bisexual Diego (assuming the two aren’t related, which is always a possibility with this show).

The Umbrella Academy
The Sparrow Academy | deadline.com

Number five, the counterpart to…Number Five, is a mysterious young woman named Sloane. Genesis Rodriguez, star of Big Hero 6, She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power, and The Fugitive, is attached to play Sloane, making her arguably the series’ biggest new cast-member and suggesting that Sloane has an important role to play. The character is described as “a romantic and a dreamer who feels a higher cosmic calling” that leaves her divided between her “obligations to her family” and her desire “to see the world and experience a life beyond her upbringing”. This air of youthful innocence and naivete would serve as an effective counterbalance to Five, who is already world-weary and grizzled by the age of sixteen. But what is a cosmic calling, and how do divine powers fit into The Umbrella Academy’s universe?

Cazzie David, whose better known for her work as a writer and magazine contributor than as an actress, will play a character named Jayme – the team’s number six, filling the role that Ben would usually fill if he weren’t this Academy’s number two. Jayme is a hoodie-wearing loner with a “fear-inducing snarl”. Like The Umbrella Academy’s Ben, her strongest connection is with her team’s number four, Alphonso, described as “her only friend”.

And finally, we have an unexpected newcomer to the Hollywood scene! Existential Dread Inducing Psykronium Cube will play Christopher the Cube, a floating, sentient, “telekinetic cube of unknown origins”, who uses he/him pronouns and has multiple powers, including the power to lower the temperature in a room to subzero, ignite “paralyzing fear” in the hearts of his enemies, and see into the future. Despite being an incredibly dangerous cube, the Sparrows treat him “like any other sibling”…making him the clear parallel to Vanya Hargreeves, whose biggest characteristic is that she’s constantly pushed away, shunned, and betrayed by her family because of her destructive powers. Expect these two to share scenes, and for them to share a connection somehow.

The Umbrella Academy
Christopher The Cube | Twitter | @IGN

In fact, expect all these characters to share connections with their counterparts that will slowly be revealed. Although I assume we’ll see the two Academies go to war with each other in season three, I strongly feel we’ll also be treated to some much-needed downtime first – with the two families intermingling and having their loyalties tested as they make new friends and new enemies.

So what do you think? Which Sparrow Academy member are you most excited to see in action? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!

From Winter Soldier To WandaVision: Wanda’s MCU Journey.

I don’t usually write recaps. I mean, in some ways, all movie and TV reviews are just overly-detailed recaps embellished with a lot of flowery prose, but this is still pretty new ground for me. But it’s 2021, WandaVision is on its way to Disney+ in less than two weeks (!), and it’s time to try my hand at writing a comprehensive recap of Wanda Maximoff’s journey in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. The timing of this post is in no way meant to deliberately precede the official Marvel recap that is set to be released shortly before the series premiere…okay, well, maybe it is: but only a little (ask yourself honestly, who would you trust to give you the most detailed information on Wanda Maximoff? The studio responsible with actually overseeing her character arc, or me?).

WandaVision
WandaVision | deadline.com

The purpose of any good recap is to muster up more hype (as if we could be any more hyped for WandaVision at this point), and to help give audiences – particularly newcomers to any given franchise – an idea of what’s come before, and what to expect. But I’ve realized that a good recap can also be helpful to me as a reviewer, because its existence means I don’t have to put as much exposition and background information into my actual reviews: I can jump straight into the action, while simply linking back to this recap. And now that we’re all up to speed, let’s get into it, shall we?

Wanda Maximoff’s MCU journey began in 2013, in the post-credits scene to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where she and her twin brother Pietro Maximoff first appeared as haggard, world-weary lab experiments trapped in a frigid Eastern European fortress under the supervision of Baron Von Strucker, a nefarious scientist working with the covert Neo-Nazi organization, HYDRA. Von Strucker and HYDRA are largely unimportant to the story of the Maximoff twins except insofar as they allowed the twins access to the Mind Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones that preserve the integrity of the universe itself, as part of a larger attempt to use the Stone’s power to artificially enhance human beings into superhuman killing machines. What exactly happened during this series of experiments is still unknown: but by the time they left Von Strucker’s fortress, Pietro had super-speed, and Wanda was a dangerously unpredictable sorceress equipped with telekinesis, telepathy, and reality-altering magic. The fact that these aren’t powers one would typically associate with the Mind Stone’s sphere of influence, and the fact that Pietro and Wanda are two of the most notable mutants in the pages of Marvel Comics, has always suggested to fans that there’s something more going on here than Marvel has yet revealed.

This wouldn’t surprise me: even if the MCU wanted to retroactively confirm that Wanda and Pietro are both mutants (and I think they very much want to), they couldn’t have done so until just recently, when Disney bought out 20th Century Fox and thus obtained the rights to the Marvel mutants and Fantastic Four. Mutants are characters born with latent superhuman abilities that typically manifest themselves at the onset of puberty, with catastrophic results. In the comics, Wanda and Pietro are not only prominent mutants, but the children of telekinetic mutant terrorist Erik Lensherr, a.k.a. Magneto, one of the most famous comic-book villains of all time. But what about MCU Wanda and Pietro? The MCU has conveniently left the twins’ backstory vague: their parents supposedly died during a period of civil unrest in their hometown of Sokovia, but we don’t know that for sure, and we still don’t know their parents’ names. Additionally, it appears that Wanda and Pietro were the only test subjects who survived being exposed to the Mind Stone’s raw power: something that immediately suggests they at least had superhuman levels of endurance prior to the experiment. A recent Marvel tie-in book hinted that Wanda’s powers were “unlocked” by the Mind Stone. And footage from the recent WandaVision trailer shows a possible flashback to Wanda’s first encounter with the Stone, so I believe we’ll finally get a conclusive answer to this question that has long divided the fandom.

By 2014, Wanda and Pietro were strong enough to take on the Avengers during the siege of Sokovia. While Pietro wasted his time running rings around Hawkeye of all people, Wanda confronted Tony Stark himself and sent him into a prophetic trance: a neat trick, and one with major consequences – as Tony saw visions of his friends slaughtered by aliens, and became so obsessed with the idea of building “a suit of armor around the world” that he took the Mind Stone and implanted it into a weaponized supercomputer he named Ultron. The Mind Stone caused Ultron to come to life and quickly grow hostile towards his maker, irrationally arriving at the conclusion that to protect the human race, he had to…wipe them out with a meteor. Ultron brought the newly liberated Maximoff twins under his wing, while designing a humanoid synthetic body for himself – which the Avengers stole from him and into which they implanted Tony Stark’s A.I. personal assistant J.A.R.V.I.S., before using the Mind Stone to bring their creation to life. Thus, Vision was born: and his ability to live inextricably tied up with the Mind Stone, and its fate.

WandaVision
Wanda and Vision – WandaVision | uproxx.com

Wanda and Pietro betrayed Ultron during the second battle of Sokovia, in which Ultron tried to uproot the city from the planet’s surface and use it as his meteor. Pietro, sadly, was killed while protecting Sokovian citizens, and Wanda – sensing his death from afar – unleashed a tidal wave of chaos magic that tore through Ultron’s robot army: saving the day at a terrible personal cost. She herself killed Ultron, tearing out his heart and crumpling it into a tiny ball of shrapnel, just to give him some idea of how she’d felt. It was Vision, however, who put an end to the robot once and for all, laser-beaming him out of existence. Both Wanda and Vision officially joined the Avengers team soon afterwards, and started developing feelings for each other.

When Captain America: Civil War rolled around in 2016, Wanda had dropped her vaguely Eastern European accent and acclimated to life as an Avenger. But not enough, apparently, to know that telekinetically flinging a suicide-bomber into the side of an office building maybe isn’t a great idea. Her actions proved to be the catalyst of civil war, quickly dividing the Avengers into two camps: those led by Tony Stark, who believed that superheroes needed to be regulated to minimize civilian casualties, and those led by Steve Rogers, who believed such regulation would only introduce more risks. Wanda, still traumatized by what she had done and viewed as emotionally unstable, was forced to stay back at headquarters under Vision’s surveillance. The two bonded over their foodie interests, but it wasn’t long before Wanda realized she was being confined and escaped with the help of Hawkeye, battling Vision on her way out.

The film’s third act pitted Wanda and Vision against each other again, but this time Wanda was ultimately arrested and taken to The Raft, a maximum-security submarine prison. From the time Steve Rogers arrived to break her out at the end of the film, to the time we reunited with her and Vision in Avengers: Infinity War, her life is a blur. On the run from most of the world’s governments and still regarded as one of the most dangerous Avengers, she went undercover, made up with Vision, and eloped with him to Glasgow, Scotland, where the two were still enjoying their honeymoon phase when Thanos’ minions arrived to kill them both. She (or possibly Vision himself: it’s hard to say) also discovered a way to disguise the android as a human being, a technique that will be reused for WandaVision, where the duo must pass for an average suburban couple.

But even as they were enjoying their romantic getaway, Thanos was assembling his Infinity Gauntlet, which required all six Infinity Stones to achieve full power. The Mad Titan dispatched his Black Order to retrieve the two Stones that remained on earth: one of which, the Mind Stone, was still embedded in Vision’s skull. Although the Black Order’s efforts were initially repelled, Wanda and the Avengers were forced to head to Wakanda to find scientists capable of separating the Mind Stone from Vision and destroying it without killing Vision in the process. It was hinted that this would have been possible, and Princess Shuri was already well underway with the process when the Black Order attacked again, but we may never know for sure unless this subject is brought up in WandaVision. Vision fled from Shuri’s lab with the Black Order in pursuit before the operation was complete, by this point realizing that the only way to render the Mind Stone unusable by Thanos was to have Wanda herself destroy it – and in so doing, Vision. The most heartbreaking scene in the film saw Wanda holding back Thanos with one hand while using the other to unmake the Mind Stone, all while staring into Vision’s eyes, never once losing sight of the man she loved. She was successful; Vision’s head exploded in a burst of light; and for a moment, audiences could breath a sigh of relief, assured that Thanos’ defeat was imminent.

But Thanos had already recovered the Time Stone from Doctor Strange, millions of light years away. He used that Stone’s powers to resurrect Vision, giving the android a few more moments to live before brutally ripping the Mind Stone out of his forehead, killing him again. Wanda’s pain at losing her lover twice in a span of seconds, at her sacrifice being all in vain, must have been devastating: it’s easy to understand why, when Thanos completed his Gauntlet and snapped his fingers, killing half of all living creatures including Wanda herself, she embraced death willingly.

But five years later, when Bruce Banner used a reconstructed version of the Gauntlet to snap half of all life back into existence, Wanda was one of those most eager to exact her vengeance on Thanos. Out of Avengers: Endgame‘s many highlights, the vicious duel between Wanda and Thanos stands out to me because of how deeply personal it is for Wanda – and because of how satisfying it is to see her go absolutely wild in that moment, caring nothing for mercy, controlled only by bloodlust. In a universe where many heroes are driven by some moral code, Wanda is refreshing in that she doesn’t have any code. She’s witnessed too much pain and human failure to believe in the unconquerable power of good. So when she singles out Thanos, she doesn’t waste a moment trying to rip him limb from limb: and she nearly succeeds, though Thanos is eventually able to catch her off-guard with a barrage of missiles.

WandaVision
Wanda Maximoff | io9.gizmodo.com

With her part in the battle complete, Wanda quietly disappeared under the radar. Last time we saw her, she was one of many heroes in attendance at Tony Stark’s funeral, and had a brief but touching conversation with Hawkeye on the subject of grief and memory. She seemed to be at peace: but we know from the WandaVision trailers that in the aftermath of Endgame she will be lured into an alternate reality where she and Vision are able to live happily ever after, with a house, friendly neighbors, and twins of their own. Modeled off the classic American sitcoms from which Wanda learned English, this utopian dreamscape is being manipulated by dark supernatural forces, and infiltrated from the real world by S.W.O.R.D. agents trying to rescue Wanda.

Has my recap been helpful? And what are you most excited for in WandaVision? Share your own thoughts, theories, and opinions, in the comments below!

What Brought The Tolkien Community Joy In 2020

2020 was nothing if not a hellish year that tested us in ways we hadn’t even thought possible back in 2019. But now, with the year finally ending and a new one about to begin, I thought it would be nice to look back and find some things that brought us in the Tolkien community just a little bit of joy and normality amidst all the chaos and confusion. Whether it was casting announcements for the upcoming Amazon series, or familiar faces reuniting for a good cause, Tolkien fans found a respite from the year’s awfulness in small, simple, pleasures that gave us each a smile and a laugh, and/or kept us at least partially sane throughout 2020.

Tolkien
insider.com

I’ve tried to be comprehensive, but it’s been a long year, and I have forgotten much that I thought I knew. So if I’ve missed something important, be sure to tell me and I’ll happily correct my error! As I am just one Tolkien fan in a very big and very diverse fandom, these are merely my personal experiences. With that out of the way, let’s revisit some of the year’s few joyous Tolkienesque highlights.

As soon as lockdown orders went into place around the world, many of us immediately took the opportunity to crack open our old copies of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books, with the intention of returning to Middle-earth for some much-needed comfort. But actor and director Andy Serkis went further than the rest of us would or even could, reading the entirety of The Hobbit aloud in a hyped-up livestream event with the full permission of HarperCollins (for whom he then recorded a new audiobook of The Hobbit). The 12-hour long livestream was hugely successful – raising more than £283,000 for charity – and hugely satisfying for Tolkien fans, as Serkis was able to trot out his iconic Gollum voice during the character’s single, memorable sequence in the book. I myself have read The Hobbit, The Lord Of The Rings, The Silmarillion, and assorted bits of Unfinished Tales aloud to family members even prior to this quarantine, and can confirm that, while taxing on the vocal cords, it’s a truly delightful experience to partake in (I personally like to do different voices and accents for all the characters, not just the ones I’m especially good at, but, well, I’m not claiming to be a better reader-alouder than Andy Serkis…or am I?)

Tolkien
Andy Serkis as Gollum | lotr.fandom.com

The rest of us social distancing stay-at-homes, unable to monetize our reading experience in quite the same way, took to social media to share the joys of Middle-earth for free with people we don’t know and who probably don’t want to have their timelines continually clogged by abnormally long Twitter threads documenting our reactions to literally every single thing in each of the books and movies. Some of us did monetize our experiences, and were forced to distort Howard Shore’s beautiful score to avoid copyright infringement. There were too many of these to count, but a few I particularly enjoyed included a first-time viewer’s twelve-part reaction to The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, artist and animator Noelle Stevenson live-tweeting the movies while enjoying a lembas bread snack, and a live-tweet of Ralph Bakshi’s cult classic The Lord Of The Rings adaptation that is perfect viewing once you hit that stage of quarantine where days are blurring together and nothing makes sense anymore, least of all reality, so you might as well just roll with the fact that, yes, Aragorn is rocking that mini-skirt.

Not wanting to let Andy Serkis have all the fun, almost the entire main cast of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings reunited for a livestreamed event hosted by actor and comedian Josh Gad, and attended by Jackson himself as well as the trilogy’s lead screenwriter, Philippa Boyens. It was, as they say in The Shire, a party of special magnificence: gathering on their individual computer screens, the Fellowship and more teamed up for trivia, re-enactments of famous scenes, and fond reminiscences. It was all too brief, but by that point we were growing used to brief and fleeting joys, and it felt refreshingly fun. Hearing Sean Astin recite his empowering speech from the end of The Two Towers also provided us with an excuse for a good old-fashioned ugly cry, which was sweet of him.

Tolkien
Lord Of The Rings On Prime cast | newshub.co.nz

But even as the old cast was re-assembling, a new cast was coming together in New Zealand – the one corner of the world that was, for the most part, unaffected by COVID-19. Two huge casting announcements for the upcoming Amazon Prime adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work bookended this strange year; the first in January, prior to the pandemic, and the second earlier this very month. We welcomed a number of diverse and exciting actors to Middle-earth, such as Nazanin Boniadi, Sophia Nomvete, Morfydd Clark, Peter Mullan, and Lenny Henry, and we debated endlessly about who they could be playing, here on this very blog and on fan-forums everywhere (speaking of which, the homepage of TheOneRing.com is active again as of this month, after several years). Almost a year into production on the first season, and we still don’t actually know! We’re not even sure if this is the full cast yet, or if more are still to come.

But with production on the season’s two-part pilot apparently complete and director J.A. Bayona having just departed New Zealand, it does appear that production is now underway on the rest of the season after a number of delays due to COVID that forced the entire series to halt filming throughout the spring and summer. Amazon Prime has been keeping this whole project unusually secretive, so much so that we still don’t even have an official title (which, let me tell you, is getting on my nerves). We know it takes place in the Second Age, we know a little bit about the behind-the-scenes crew, and…that’s it, mostly. In the absence of concrete information, rumors have spread like wildfire and driven some pretty controversial fandom discourse (though it gave me a chance to share my knowledge of The Mariner’s Wife with the world, so I’m not entirely unhappy about that). Thankfully, a new YouTube channel named Fellowship Of Fans has been keeping us up to date with consistently reliable news from the set, and I highly recommend you subscribe now so you don’t miss a thing.

One can hope, however, that we’ll learn more official details sooner rather than later – especially with the Tolkien Estate having announced earlier this year that a new collection of previously unpublished writings by J.R.R. Tolkien is coming in 2021, which will provide new insight into a wide variety of subjects, including the Second Age of Middle-earth, something they wryly note will be “Of particular note, given the impending Amazon series”. How much of what’s in this book, titled The Nature Of Middle-earth, will actually be new is up for debate, but I’m extremely excited for it nonetheless.

Tolkien
Tolkientober artwork by me

But the greatest Tolkien-related joy of 2020 (and the one in which I participated the most eagerly) has to have been the Tolkientober event: a month-long art challenge organized by Noelle Stevenson’s wife, artist and animator Molly Knox Ostertag – who, incidentally, was also recently awarded a Forbes 30 Under 30 honor. Tolkientober brought us together through the inclusive power of art, and allowed us a sneak peek of some of the next generation’s great Tolkien artists. I don’t claim to be one of those, but I did have a lot of fun sharing my works with the Tolkien community on Twitter, and it helped me rediscover my passion for drawing and sketching: something I had put aside pre-pandemic to focus on writing. Tolkientober, a casual, judgement-free, noncompetitive event aimed at spreading good vibes around the internet, taught me how to balance my talents better and renewed my confidence in my art, and for that I will always be thankful.

But enough about me. What I want to know is what your favorite moments were: so if my list is any way incomplete, share your own thoughts in the comments below and tell me about your experience as a Tolkien fan in 2020 – see you all in the new year!

A Last Goodbye To Tolkien Creatives We Lost In 2020

It’s done. Whether you’re a Tolkien fan or not, I think we can all breath a sigh of relief now that 2020 is finally over, bringing an end to 366 straight days of what felt like never-ending chaos. Sadly, the first dawn of 2021 won’t magically heal the pain and hardship we’ve all endured, nor will it bring back the many close friends, family members, and loved ones we’ve lost. But it can start us on a path towards a better future for all of us, and I hope and pray that, if 2020 was akin to the perilous wreck of Mount Doom, than 2021 will be at least a little closer to the Fields of Cormallen, when our war-hardened heroes “laughed and wept”, and a minstrel carried them through song and “sweet words” to “regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness”.

Tolkien
denofgeek.com

Although I mostly just cover movies on this blog, I wanted to use this special day to give back to the incredible fan community centered around the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, by commemorating some of the Tolkien community’s greatest figures who passed on in the last year, and the incredible, unforgettable legacies they’ve left behind. This brief list is by no means complete or comprehensive, but know that if I have forgotten any greatly significant name, it is an error of my own ignorance that I will happily correct.

Orson Bean: July 22, 1928 – February 7, 2020

Tolkien actor Orson Bean
Orson Bean | nytimes.com

The Tolkien fandom was blessed to have Orson Bean lend his vocal talents not once, but twice, to the world of Middle-earth – first voicing Bilbo Baggins in the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated adaptation of The Hobbit, before later taking on the role of Bilbo’s nephew, Frodo Baggins, in the studio’s adaptation of The Return Of The King (a valiant, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to conclude the animated epic saga started in Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord Of The Rings, which only covered the first half of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel). Bean began his long career in Hollywood as a television comedian, hosting the Basin Street musical radio program in the early 50’s. His ambitions only momentarily halted by an attempt to blacklist him for dating a Communist Party member, Bean continued to appear in films, TV, and theatre well into his 80’s, with guest spots on some of the past decade’s biggest sitcoms and reality TV programs.

Ian Holm: 12 September, 1931 – 19 June, 2020

Tolkien actor Ian Holm
Sir Ian Holm | theguardian.com

Similarly to Bean, the great Sir Ian Holm will be recognized fondly by Tolkien fans for both his vocal performance as Frodo Baggins in the beloved 1981 BBC Radio adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, and for his iconic portrayal of Bilbo Baggins – a role he solidified in live-action throughout Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and in two brief but memorable appearances bookending Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. His Bilbo is widely regarded as the definitive Bilbo: manic, wild-haired, and charmingly quirky (much of that quirkiness deriving from Holm’s talent for improvisation) – but with a warmth and quiet dignity that Holm made sure to put front and center at all times. Bilbo was Holm’s final role as well as one of his most legendary, but the Tony and BAFTA-Award winning actor received just as much praise for his performances in Alien, Brazil, The Fifth Element, and Chariots Of Fire (for which he received an Academy Award nomination), as well as for his three separate takes on Napoleon Bonaparte – the best by far being in the 1981 cult classic Time Bandits.

Andrew Jack: 28 January, 1942 – 31 March, 2020

Tolkien dialect coach Andrew Jack
Sir Christopher Lee with Andrew Jack | reddit.com

Behind every great movie, there is an entire army of great crewmembers putting painstaking effort into every little detail that has to be seen or conveyed somehow onscreen. Andrew Jack, the dialect coach for Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, was one of those tireless soldiers, crafting the enchantingly unique accents of Middle-earth before passing on that talent (as well as an extensive knowledge of Elvish languages) to the actors themselves. That level of detail is part of what makes Jackson’s trilogy stand out, as one of the first fantasy adaptations to take the source material seriously and attempt to build something that was grounded in reality, rather than poking fun at itself and the entire genre. Jack continued working as a dialect coach, while also making a brief but notable onscreen appearance as the character of Caluan Ematt in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. He passed away due to COVID-19 while working on Matt Reeves’ The Batman.

Barbara Remington: 23 June, 1929 – 23 January, 2020

Tolkien artist Barbara Remington
Barbara Remington | accessnepa.com

Tolkien fandom has always had a strong artistic component – ever since J.R.R. himself, who sketched and painted extensively. And American artist Barbara Remington deserves to be remembered alongside the greats such as Alan Lee, John Howe, and Ted Nasmith: her beautiful cover artwork for Ballantine Books’ first paperback editions of both The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings quickly became notorious, largely because of how distanced it was from the source material. Remington’s swirling, brightly-colored designs included fantastical flora and fauna such as emus, lions, and a massive pink fruit tree. Tolkien himself was very confused by the art, but, as Remington herself later explained, the embarrassing blunder was due to her not being able to actually read the book before painting the artwork – once she did, she fell in love with the story and said that, not only would she have painted something entirely different if she could, but she might have felt too intimidated to even try due to the scope and significance of the books. Personally, I must admit I’ve warmed up to Remington’s characteristic psychedelic style, and am deeply sorry we may never see the collection of other unofficial artworks based on the books that she designed in her later life.

Christopher Tolkien: 21 November, 1924 – 16 January, 2020

Christopher Tolkien
Christopher Tolkien | cnn.com

If anyone on this earth lived and breathed Middle-earth, it was Christopher John Reul Tolkien, who dedicated almost his entire life to exploring the extent of his father’s fantasy world. Christopher grew up with the bedtime stories that would later blossom into The Hobbit, and spent much of his childhood and youth reading and critiquing his father’s manuscripts, assisting in the writing process of The Lord Of The Rings even while stationed in South Africa with the Royal Air Force during World War II. Many of the book’s most notable elements can be attributed to Christopher’s input: including the iconic surname of “Gamgee”, which J.R.R. himself wanted to change to the far less unique-sounding “Goodchild”. In 1973, upon being handed the reigns to his father’s literary legacy, Christopher determined to finally publish his father’s true masterwork, The Silmarillion: a collection of epic stories from the prehistory of Middle-earth that J.R.R. had left only partially-completed and hopelessly disorganized at the time of his death. The work took several years and exhaustive edits, but was completed for publication in 1977, and Christopher soon followed with an even longer and more ambitious series of books dedicated to recounting his father’s entire writing process: every scattered note, every rewrite, every idea scrapped and revisited. Unfinished Tales followed in 1980 and became an instant hit, allowing readers a chance to learn more about the Second Age of Middle-earth (which will be the setting for Amazon Prime’s upcoming adaptation). Christopher continued to publish books of this sort up until 2018, with the last of the three “Great Tales”. His harsh views on Jackson’s film trilogy caused quite a stir, but I feel he should be remembered most for his efforts to preserve and protect the legacy with which he was entrusted. For Christopher was a steward of Middle-earth who succeeded in his mission, and now that he has passed on, he has given us all the responsibility to follow in his footsteps and continue that stewardship as we move forward into a new era. And that may be an encouraging thought.

Take comfort in the things that we as a community have gained this year (about which I may write a separate post, so stay tuned), and in the knowledge that those whom we have lost will not be forgotten, but that their legacies will live on. Again, I apologize if anyone has been left off of this list that should have been included, but I ask you to please share that information in the comments. Stay safe and read Tolkien. Until next year, my friends.

“Soul” Review!

After two decades in the business of making feature-length animated films that continually break new ground for the medium, Pixar has finally…tried to break new ground for representation, with Soul being the studio’s first Black-led film. And, in a pattern established by Disney Animation with their first Black-led Princess movie, The Princess And The Frog, Soul is at its very best whenever it’s illuminating the beauty and complexity of Black culture in America – and at its worst when it’s forcing an uncomfortable bodyswap (or, well, soulswap in this case) that in this case involves an awesome Black character being transplanted into a green blob/therapy cat for around 90% of the movie. That’s not to say that 90% of the movie is bad (it’s actually quite good, for several reasons), but it is deeply frustrating that we keep having to have this extremely specific conversation about the importance of allowing animated Black protagonists to remain in their own bodies.

Soul
Soul | variety.com

Soul dives headfirst into a conversation about the meaning of life, by following a middle-school band teacher named Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) as he…well, dives headfirst into an open manhole and is left in a coma, while his untethered soul desperately tries to find its way back to him. An accident leads Joe’s soul to The Great Before, a dreamy, pastel-colored landscape where young souls first have their personalities and various character quirks picked out for them before being sent off to Earth. Here, another accident leads to him being selected to mentor a rambunctious soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey, a casting error if ever there was one), who doesn’t want to leave The Great Before or live on Earth. Naturally, Pixar cranks up the tear-jerking dial to an 11 as Joe leads 22 on a fast-paced tour of New York City, giving them both a chance to savor the true joys of living.

What I truly love about Soul more than anything else is its unwavering focus on simple things: things we too often take for granted, but which keep us rooted in reality; things as small and seemingly insignificant as a pizza crust, a spool of thread, or even a helicopter seed. As a Tolkien fan, that message resonated deeply with me, and brought to mind Gandalf’s iconic quote from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (I know, I know, a movie quote: but a good one) – “I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.” That’s what Soul is really all about: small things and kind deeds that get us through one day, and then another, reminding us of how much wonder and beauty this world still has to offer us at every turn. A sequence in the third act illustrates this beautifully, allowing Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ haunting New Age score to narrate a vibrant montage of small-scale city life that pulls back to become a sprawling picture of the cosmos itself – and our tiny place in it.

Music is (pun most certainly intended) instrumental to Soul‘s success, and there will be h-e-double-hockeysticks to pay if Reznor and Ross aren’t rewarded at the Oscars for their work here. Their delicate New Age compositions harmonize beautifully with Jon Batiste’s jazz tunes, making the entire film as irresistible to the ears as it is to the eyes. Music, specifically soul music, is at the heart of everything Joe Gardner does throughout the story: and the film makes that clear, lavishing plenty of time on the moodily atmospheric nightclub where Gardner performs alongside in-universe jazz legend Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), becoming so lost in the power of his music that he’s briefly transported to the astral plane, a mystical soundscape of shifting lights.

The animation is stunning, with all the levels of hyper-realistic detail you’d expect from a live-action film set – except in The Great Before, which has a quirky, abstract visual aesthetic, and The Great Beyond, a dark area comprised entirely of deconstructed geometric platforms, like the blank space outside the boundaries of a video game. But although I’ve heard complaints that animation’s goal shouldn’t be to mimic real life but to exaggerate it, I still preferred the sections of Soul that take place in New York City to those that center the spiritual realm. Firstly, because the entire film is clearly such a passionate and genuine love letter to every aspect of city life. And secondly, because of the character designs, which are among the most diverse I’ve seen in any animated film, ever. No copy-and-paste facial features here: Soul‘s New York is accurately populated by people of every race, gender, body type, height, and weight, each with their own individual character quirks. If the extras in your movie all look detailed enough to probably carry their own story, you know you’ve done something right (in case it wasn’t clear, I am in fact demanding that Pixar commission a series of shorts focusing on various extras from this film).

Soul
Joe Gardner | nytimes.com

Of our two leads, Joe is by far the more interesting: tall, lanky, middle-aged and bespectacled, he isn’t anything like the usual Pixar protagonist, or even the usual Pixar “hot dad” character (yes, that’s a real thing). He’s also sometimes Black, which makes him pretty unique for Pixar simply by default. I say “sometimes” because, well, he’s not Black for most of the film. And the worst part isn’t even that he gets turned into a wispy, featureless, pale green orb ten minutes in. The worst part is that the film gets a chance to remedy its mistake soon afterwards – and instead doubles down on its original bad choice, placing Joe into the body of a therapy cat while inserting 22 into Joe’s body. You can claim this is much ado about nothing, because 22 is just a disembodied voice in a green orb: but Pixar made the choice to have them voiced by a white actress, and even commented on it in the script, with Joe asking 22 why they prefer the voice of a “middle-aged white lady” when they can adopt any voice they want. This is all played for laughs, but it’s not funny. Just like it wasn’t funny when Tina Fey, 22’s voice actress, wrote blackface performances into four episodes of her series 30 Rock – something for which she only finally apologized earlier this year. Pixar giving this opportunity to her is a clear sign that the studio needs to do better when casting: because there is nothing in the script that requires 22 to have a white woman’s voice…unless it is the belief that the soulswap will somehow be made funnier because of it.

And unfortunately, all this comes about at the expense of Joe, who, as previously mentioned, gets stuck in the body of a cat. If you’re not familiar with the strange phenomenon of Black animated characters being transformed into animals, this probably seems like just another joke I’m not getting. But it’s an unfunny joke that’s been driven into the ground at this point: one that relies on the notion that audiences won’t relate to a Black protagonist, but will happily laugh along if that Black protagonist is usurped from their body and placed in an animal – or really anything else but themselves. Soul, by keeping Joe’s body hanging around, seems to think it’s doing the right thing: but it’s not Joe we’re seeing onscreen – it’s Tina Fey’s white-lady voice, using Joe’s body as a mouthpiece for their own agendas, at one point even hijacking and running off with it (apparently, Joe’s body didn’t suffer a single bruise, cut, or broken limb during his coma-inducing fall) like a shoplifted costume. There are other instances worth noting, but I will leave it up to individual Black critics and audience members to decide whether and where Soul crosses the line exactly. I am nonetheless certain that many – if not all – of these issues could have been easily avoided by casting a Black voice-actress in the part.

The other major issue with the film, less severe than the ones I’ve already mentioned, is a problem with pacing: as the first two acts meander all over the place. There’s no clear point at which the action really starts, either – eventually, you just have to accept that the story is moving along ever more swiftly, and there’s not much time to slow down or take a breather before you’re swept up in it. I feel that all of this may have been intentional, to mirror the hurried pace of real life and the need to savor the few respites we get from daily hustle-and-bustle, but while that sounds like an intriguing concept, it makes for a strange viewing experience. Still could win over some Academy voters, however, if it was a conscious choice.

Soul
Joe’s soul | denofgeek.com

In the entire history of the Academy Awards, only two animated feature-length films have ever been nominated for Best Picture – one being from Disney (Beauty & The Beast), and the other from Pixar (Toy Story 3, somehow). Soul, if it hopes to be the third, may therefore benefit from the COVID-19 delay that forced it to debut free of charge on Disney+ this Christmas: a date that puts it firmly in the middle of awards season. I personally doubt the film will score a Best Picture nomination, but it’s certainly the early frontrunner for Best Animated Picture, to nobody’s surprise. Onward never stood a chance.

And speaking of Onward, the lighthearted fantasy adventure remains my favorite Pixar film of the year (and my second-favorite Pixar film of all time), believe it or not. But fear not: Soul‘s decidedly Tolkienesque messages and simple delights will ensure it a safe place in my affections, though perhaps never a spot at the top of my Pixar tier-list.

Movie Rating: 8/10

“Wonder Woman 1984” Review!

There’s a small but memorable scene in Wonder Woman 1984 in which the film’s major antagonist, Maxwell Lord (the irresistibly charming Pedro Pascal), having just worked his dark magic on the President of the United States and sparked an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union, tries to escape from an altercation at the White House only to find himself awkwardly handcuffed to Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), Wonder Woman’s quick-thinking sidekick and lover. I bring this up because it’s representative of the film overall, which handcuffs itself to Pine’s Trevor and stubbornly sticks to him even as his very presence in the story demands that the entire plot revolve around him and not the lead character. The only way this metaphor could have been made even stronger would be if Wonder Woman herself were handcuffed to Trevor in this scene to reflect the film’s inability to give independence or agency to its female characters.

Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman | cnbc.com

Make no mistake, I loved Pine in the first film – and I adored the mature, elegant romance between him and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot): which was written in such a way that both characters could be strong and vulnerable with each other, and both had equal footing – with Diana clearly and effortlessly remaining the lead. Trevor’s death in Wonder Woman was a heartbreaking and powerful moment that allowed us all to see the good in humanity. And yet he’s back in Wonder Woman 1984, nearly a century after his death in World War I, doing pretty well for a guy whom we last saw get blown to bits in mid-air. Prior to the film’s release, I was as excited as anyone to see him return: in hindsight, I’m beginning to realize how foolish it was to ever attempt something that could so easily go so wrong…and did.

It’s blasphemous to even suggest, I know. The first film relied so heavily on that spark of chemistry between the two actors and their characters. But Wonder Woman 1984 had the means to substitute that timeless pairing for another one that could have been just as well-written and well-received, if director Patty Jenkins and her team of screenwriters hadn’t decided to resurrect Steve Trevor for one last lackluster hurrah: because let me tell you, everything that’s bad about this film’s flawed script, from the convoluted globe-trotting adventure to the random interlude with a Mayan shaman, feels to me like the inevitable side-effect of having to devise an excuse for how Steve was even able to come back at all.

And with the return of Steve Trevor, Diana herself gets sidelined in a story that seems almost uninterested in her as an individual. She’s got nowhere left to go and nothing new to learn, essentially. A vague theme about the importance of being true to yourself is woven throughout the film, but it’s not exactly an urgent message that Diana personally has to embrace, unlike the first film’s timely reminder to believe in the goodness of people. She was being true to herself anyway, before Steve randomly came back into her life and took over her entire storyline (oh, the parallels to Avengers: Endgame). I mean, it’s really a shame there was no way to weave this message more cleverly into the plot and romantic subplot by…oh I don’t know, making this a queer love story?

Just as DC preceded Marvel in the department of successful female-led superhero movies, many of us had hoped they’d be the first to give us a proudly and openly LGBTQ+ superheroine onscreen in the form of Diana Prince (Harley Quinn was vaguely bisexual in Birds Of Prey, and a supervillain anyway). We’ve known for some time that wouldn’t be the case, with Patty Jenkins confirming that wasn’t the story she wanted to tell. But what we get instead is a film that tiptoes around even the possibility of a same-sex romance as clumsily as Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig) strides around the Smithsonian in high heels. Now, to be fair, most of the romantic tension between Diana and Barbara is more a result of the palpable chemistry between the two actresses (the quiet, ethereal Gadot and sparky, exuberant Wiig complimenting each other very nicely), rather than necessarily indicative of anything intentionally written into the script, but at the same time…come on. Both Diana and Barbara are canonically bisexual in DC Comics, and you’re telling me Patty Jenkins didn’t know what she was doing by casting a romantic filter over their awkwardly flirtatious lunch overlooking the Washington Monument, or having Barbara tumble into Diana’s arms in a subversion of a dated Hollywood romantic trope? It’s queerbaiting that only serves to underscore the fact that the rest of the movie is, in the words of one of my favorite reviewers, Valerie Complex; “aggressively heteronormative”.

Wonder Woman 1984
Cheetah | flickeringmyth.com

To the surprise of absolutely no one, the scenes that center women are the highlights of the film: from those early interactions between Diana and Barbara, to the epic prologue action sequence on the Amazonian isle of Themyscira, to a cheeky and delightful mid-credits scene. But none of these isolated scenes make up for the fact that the character arcs of both female leads in Wonder Woman 1984 (one of those female leads being a literal icon of feminism) revolve almost entirely around men. For Diana, that’s Chris Pine’s Steve, who returns with the help of an incredibly convenient plot device and plays fish-out-of-water for a while…a really long while, during an excruciating montage that exists solely to trot out every semi-nostalgic 80’s cultural trope you can imagine. Pine is still perfectly likable and has some laugh-out-loud line deliveries, but never truly recaptures what made his character so special – and thus feels like a burden the film must carry.

For Barbara Ann Minerva, it’s Pedro Pascal’s Maxwell Lord – who is quite an interesting character, despite being surprisingly little like the young Donald Trump we all assumed he would be based on the promotional material. An oil tycoon with his eye on a legendary ancient wishing stone forged by the Gods, Lord seduces the world with his voice and power to make the impossible possible. He’s got Trumpian elements to his character, of course (among the more obvious examples: he yells “You’re hired!” at one point), but his motivations are relatable, and his charm genuine. Pascal also just oozes the kind of unshakably consistent charisma that can turn a silent, faceless gunslinger into a beloved icon, or make a dumpster fire of a movie like We Can Be Heroes shockingly entertaining.

Minerva herself does get to transform into the anthropomorphic Cheetah we know from the comics, and the CGI isn’t entirely awful as she flails about in her dimly-lit third-act duel with Diana (or perhaps Diana’s Golden Eagle armor is so distractingly awful I didn’t notice), but she deserved to be the major antagonist of this film, and not merely Maxwell’s loyal henchwoman. I’m also afraid that Wiig’s excellent dramatic performance and thrilling action sequences will be overshadowed in the larger fandom discourse.

Apart from Wiig’s notable fights (particularly her brutal takedown of a drunk man who continually harasses her on her jogging route), the action in Wonder Woman 1984 is fairly slight, with the only other standout being the prologue on Themyscira, where the Amazons compete for honor and glory in a series of challenges that test their physical abilities. If Jenkins is going to commit to having Diana only use her Lasso of Truth as a weapon (an idea I actually really like, as it reflects the character’s refusal to kill), she just has to find better ways to incorporate it into action scenes, because it can too easily come off as overly ridiculous.

Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman | cbr.com

Jenkins did make other “campy” elements from the character’s mythology work for Wonder Woman 1984, though, including Cheetah (doesn’t matter if she’s dressing up as a cat, or literally morphing into one: it’s still a hilariously campy concept), and the Invisible Jet – which comes about through a bizarre but acceptable deus ex machina. Unlike Shazam, this film isn’t trying to be goofy or funny: it still takes itself very seriously, and thus comes across as uniquely earnest for a superhero movie. In some ways, I’d say that’s one of several ways in which the movie evokes real 80’s adventure movies: both the good and the bad. The heightened sense of adventure, the not-so-great CGI you’re willing to excuse because everything happening onscreen is just so much fun, and the outdated perceptions of women and foreign nations that make us cringe deeply in our souls (we just need to collectively stop letting white American directors write North African and Middle Eastern nations into their scripts, because they’ve proven they’re not up to the task of handling those nations and their individual cultures at all well).

There’s still plenty of hope for the Wonder Woman franchise in the near future. We’re not dealing with another Crimes Of Grindelwald here (although the box-office reception would seem to disagree). But the divisive audience reactions and legitimate criticisms of Wonder Woman 1984 should hopefully alert Warner Brothers to the need to put this series back on track with better screenwriters and a stronger, more cohesive focus on women as individuals with their own storylines….even (and especially) if that means no more Steve Trevor.

Movie Rating: 6.5/10

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” Review!

It’s hard to believe it’s been almost four months since the world suddenly, shockingly lost Chadwick Boseman to cancer. Despite most of us having never known or met the man personally (and I will forever regret I never had the chance), I and millions of others around the globe were left devastated by Boseman’s death, which cut short an extraordinary career and a life lived honestly by a humble, kind-hearted, man. It’s natural to think of “what would have been”: the films he would have gone on to make, the awards he would most surely have won, and so on. But Boseman’s posthumous filmography, which includes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and numerous episdoes of the animated What If…? series for Marvel, reflects not only Boseman’s versatility as an actor, but his determination to create a lasting legacy for himself that would span vastly different mediums and genres; a legacy that stands on its own.

Ma Rainey
Levee and Ma Rainey | theguardian.com

And that’s what makes Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom so incredibly painful to watch, as the film now feels almost too cruel for illuminating the setbacks that Black creatives have always suffered due to the efforts by mediocre white people to hijack their art and culture, not because it’s wrong to depict this by any means (quite the opposite)…but because it’s Chadwick Boseman’s character, underdog horn player Levee, who is actively being cheated out of his legacy in the film by a system that rewards theft and punishes integrity. But while some may find the pain still too raw to revisit (and as always, I encourage you to decide for yourself if that’s the case), I believe that the film makes one thing clear unintentionally: that even Chadwick Boseman’s sheer ability to carve out the beautiful, incredible legacy he has is something that cannot be taken for granted, although by rights it should – because for centuries, and right up until this present day, Black art, talent, and culture has been appropriated by white folks. And it’s up to white folks and allies of the Black community to call out that appropriation, and help to protect and preserve the legacies of Black creatives.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is entirely focused on this concept of trying to build a legacy, and the harsh toll it exacts on the Black creatives who have to fight every single day to protect their work. Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis, who herself famously called upon Hollywood to stop calling her the “Black Meryl Streep” unless they were going to start paying her accordingly) is seen as a difficult and unreasonable diva by her white manager and producer, but that’s because – as she explains in a brilliant monologue to her trombonist, Cutler (Colman Domingo) – she can’t afford to be fair and reasonable, because she knows that as soon as she lends her voice to the record album her production studio is creating, they’ll have no further use for her. She has to demand better, or she won’t be treated any better; whether that means requiring that she be served a Coca-Cola (in a prolonged sequence that, let me tell you, really made me want a Coca-Cola), or insisting that her nephew, who stutters, be featured on her biggest song, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, even though it takes six tries and six vinyl records to get it right.

Davis commands attention from the moment she appears onscreen, decked out in feathery finery, and literally glistening under lighting that is somehow both deeply uncomplimentary and strangely flattering to her mesmerizing stage persona. Maxayn Lewis provides Rainey’s rich, soulful, singing voice on almost all the songs in the film, but the rest is an intoxicating blend of Davis’ physical presence, her costuming department, and the particularly noteworthy efforts of her hairstyling and makeup team, whom I predict will be the Oscar frontrunners in their category. The final result of all their contributions is a bundle of joyous, irreverent charisma – a proud Black woman owning herself, her body, and her sexuality.

Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey | detroitnews.com

Her sexuality is a particularly interesting topic because the real-life Ma Rainey is strongly believed to have been a queer woman. And although the character of her girlfriend in the film, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), is entirely fictional, there’s evidence to suggest that Rainey did have a romantic relationship with one of her contemporaries, blues singer Bessie Smith. Depicting Ma Rainey authentically is important for several reasons, not least of all because we’ve seen very few stories of real-life Black LGBTQ+ historical figures depicted onscreen: and even fewer in a context where their sexuality is not the defining feature of their character. Ma Rainey is queer and a great singer and a savvy businesswoman…she’s allowed to be multi-faceted, and I love that.

Boseman’s Levee, meanwhile, spends a considerable amount of time trying to seduce Ma Rainey’s girlfriend away from her, much to her annoyance. A cocky, easy-going young playboy making his own music and gradually distancing himself from his older, wiser, bandmates, Levee is an antagonist to Rainey’s ambitions, but one gifted with warmth, charisma, and humanity: all talents innate to Chadwick Boseman, and which the actor easily imbues into his character…particularly in one beautifully written monologue sequence that I imagine must be taken word-for-word from the August Wilson play upon which Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is based (like the recurring motif of Levee’s yellow shoes and the closed door in the recording studio that Levee repeatedly tries to break down, both of which came off as obviously theatrical devices to me). My biggest gripe with stage-to-screen adaptations tends to be dialogue, which can feel gratingly unnatural in movies: but while I wouldn’t say Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t sometimes have that problem, I do think the actors – particularly Davis, Boseman, and Domingo – make it work in all the scenes that count.

The one aspect of the film that has drawn criticism, however, is the one crucial scene it adds to the screenplay: drastically changing the overall tone of the story – rather like the inverse of The Boys In The Band, which added a single, hopeful scene to the film adaptation’s ending to address criticism of the original play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom adds one scene that, without context, is completely mundane and uninteresting…but with context, is haunting, deeply disturbing, and a bleak reminder of how far we haven’t come since the 1920’s, and how much further we still have to go. Without getting into spoilers, I will say this much: it directly addresses the topic of cultural appropriation, and forces you to re-evaluate the entire film from that perspective. The original play did touch on this subject too, from what I understand, but not in this manner. I get why this scene was added – it’s not merely shocking, but also extremely important to the film’s central theme.

Ma Rainey
Levee | seattletimes.com

Cultural appropriation, an extension of white supremacy and imperialism, is the ultimate act of theft: the grand robbery of an entire art-form, or fashion, or tradition, or way of life, in most cases carried out by white folks who either think they’re being funny by contributing to harmful stereotypes, or are actively stealing an idea because they’ve decided they like it so much that they want to market it as something socially-acceptable for white people to buy/wear/whatever, and don’t understand or care how their actions keep the violent spirit of colonialism alive in the modern day. The latter is the more insidious of the two, and has been deeply engrained in the music and entertainment industries for over a century. How many great legacies were set in stone by Black creatives, only to be overwritten and overshadowed by white people stealing their ideas? We’ll probably never know. But I hope that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, for many, will be the wakeup-call they need to the terrible effects of cultural appropriation, and the need to address it now, as we head into the roaring 2020’s.

Movie Rating: 9/10

“Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” Review!

It’s appropriate that the most purely, unironically wonderful movie of this gloomy year goes hand-in-hand with “the most wonderful time of the year”, the holiday season. Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey is adorned with all the  embellishments of the most nostalgic classics, but this lighthearted yet surprisingly impactful steampunk Christmas epic has a potent, forward-looking magic that is entirely its own. To say it’s epic is no joke either: the story is action-packed, punctuated by dazzling musical interludes, and spanning five generations of one incredibly inventive family.

Jingle Jangle
Jingle Jangle | variety.com

That this magical, multi-generational family happens to be Black and specifically comprised mostly of Black women is not merely a more accurate and inclusive reflection of the world we live in, but is also deeply important to the film’s hopeful message. Although I will leave the matter of whether or not Jingle Jangle is good representation to Black film critics and viewers, I will say that the film’s joyful, diverse, steampunk world left me feeling so inspired and empowered that I truly hope it will do the same for Black audiences of all ages, who haven’t seen themselves represented anywhere near enough in mainstream media: neither in holiday movies, nor in steampunk – which, to be honest, has never been translated particularly well to a live-action medium until now. And whereas a majority of steampunk gets justly criticized for what often feels like an inability by the genre to break free of the same-old Euro-centric, imperialist tropes, Jingle Jangle brings with it an entirely fresh and unique “Afro-Victorian” aesthetic: something that is layered into the styling for the hair, make-up, and costume design, as well as some of the film’s most inspired musical selections – most notably a remix of Ghanaian artist Bisa Kdei’s Afrobeat hit “Asew”, which plays over a lively snowball fight.

With Grammy and Academy Award-winning singer/songwriter John Legend producing, it’s no wonder that Jingle Jangle has the lineup of standout vocal talents and songwriters that it does – including Legend himself, who contributed his talents personally to what is, unsurprisingly, the film’s best song: “Make It Work”, an epic duet between stars Forest Whitaker and Anika Noni Rose. Thanks to compelling dance choreography by The Greatest Showman‘s Ashley Wallen and David E. Talbert’s eye-catching direction, none of these musical numbers fall flat, though a few are simply too short: with Ricky Martin in particular being given very little time or material to work with, and the aforementioned Rose (the iconic voice behind Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess) only getting one opportunity to flaunt her vocal strengths – so deep into the film’s runtime I was scared she wouldn’t get to sing at all.

Jingle Jangle
Jessica Jangle | ew.com

Rose’s Jessica Jangle, however, has a fairly small role; and it’s understandable – though regrettable – that she doesn’t have more to do. The majority of the film focuses on the dynamic between her father, Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), and her own daughter, Journey (promising newcomer Madalen Mills, whose equipped with an incredible voice). Jeronicus, once the most imaginative toy-maker and inventor in all the land, is now a cranky old man living above a pawnbroker’s shop, while Journey is, of course, the bright and sparky young soul who must help him save himself and the last of his long-lost inventions, a robot named Buddy that flies and talks and runs on belief (“believepunk” doesn’t sound quite as catchy as steampunk, though), something that Jeronicus has been sorely lacking as him and his business have fallen into disrepair over the years.

The supporting cast are all excellent, but the one standout whom I simply have to mention is Lisa Davina Phillip, who plays the mail-carrier Ms. Johnston. Fun, flirtatious, and constantly accompanied by a trio of random backup dancers who pop up out of nowhere like sidekicks in an animated movie, Johnston is one of the most delightful comedic relief characters I’ve seen in a while, and I hope that Phillip, whose filmography is still relatively small, gets much more work off this outstandingly good role. Her expressive facial acting and comedic timing even overshadow the film’s campy bad guy.

Keegan-Michael Key plays this character, a hopelessly unimaginative inventor by the name of Gustafson who is somehow under the sway of a narcissistic toy matador named Don Juan (voiced by Ricky Martin), who plots his escape from Jeronicus Jangle’s emporium early on in the film after overhearing his maker’s plan to mass-produce him for the enjoyment of children worldwide. With bland writing, unclear motivations, and a string of jokes that simply aren’t funny, Gustafson and Don Juan are the weak links in this movie. The plot misses a golden opportunity with their characters, too: if Gustafson’s plan is to become fabulously wealthy by stealing all of Jeronicus’ inventions, and Don Juan’s only fear is of being mass-produced and sold, wouldn’t that create a potential conflict of interest between the two? Especially since Gustafson doesn’t actually have any reason to obey the tin toy’s orders (since he is, you know, a toy and all)? Apparently not, since this glaringly obvious solution to all of Gustafson’s problems is taken off the table by Don Juan having apparently “forced” Gustafson to destroy the blueprint for his design offscreen…and again I ask, how can a toy force a human to do anything?

Jingle Jangle
Gustafson | denofgeek.com

Jingle Jangle‘s costume designer Michael Wilkinson can only do so much for Gustafson’s half-baked character, but his talent is on display everywhere else in the film, in the elegant array of costumes created from a clever mixture of European and African-inspired patterns and styles. Hairstylist Sharon Martin, meanwhile, was assigned the task of recreating Black Victorian hairstyles based on rare photographs from the era: her designs in particular come across as both authentic and beautiful, a tribute to the enduring power and artistry of Black hairstyling.

In a year as exhausting as this one has been, fun and lighthearted films like Jingle Jangle are especially necessary for the respite they offer from day-to-day fears and worries. This is doubly significant given how often Hollywood continues to depict Black characters onscreen only as they exist in relation to traumatic subjects such as slavery and racism, subjects that Hollywood usually exploits for easy Oscar-bait: to see Black heroes and heroines starring in a cheerful holiday musical adventure movie that exists simply to be fun is groundbreaking because of how simple it seems. But that simple magic is what I find to be Jingle Jangle’s strongest asset, and the secret ingredient in this delightful story that will keep audiences coming back for many Christmases to come.

Movie Rating: 9/10

“Dolly Parton’s Christmas On The Square” Review!

2020 needed a savior of one kind or another, and we could do a lot worse than Dolly Parton singing Biblical messages of love and charity while dressed up in rhinestone-encrusted white cowboy boots and giant, glittery, golden angel wings, that’s all I’m saying. The legendary country singer’s new Netflix holiday movie Christmas On The Square might be just a bit too blindingly bright and sparkly for some, and perhaps it’s a little too fervently energetic for others, and for a lot of people it might be much too bizarre…but maybe all you’ve got to do is open your heart to Dolly (she’s very persuasive), and let the metaphorical Christmas lamplighter light up your holiday spirit and guide you out of the dark pit of despair. I don’t know. It sounds a lot more convincing when Dolly Parton is whispering it in that sing-song voice of hers.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton as “Angel” | glamour.com

Christmas On The Square is an unabashedly weird movie, and the Christmas lamplighter is probably the least absurd of several dozen comically fantastical plot twists, characters, and story beats. Thankfully it won’t take you long to decide if it’s a new holiday classic for you and your family, or something better enjoyed over an alcoholic eggnog: within the first ten to fifteen minutes, you’ll have already been introduced to Angel (Dolly Parton herself, disguised as a homeless woman begging for “change”: I see what you did there, Dolly), you’ll have already witnessed the first of the film’s many frantic musical numbers, and you’ll have met the film’s villain/protagonist Regina (Christine Baranski, having the most fun out of anybody), a ruthless money-making machine whose current mission is to evict the inhabitants of her Midwestern hometown on Christmas Eve so a massive shopping mall can take its place. If that sounds suspiciously similar to the plot of A Christmas Carol, well…yes, it is essentially the same story. But perhaps not so much an adaptation of the original Charles Dickens novel as the more recent (and let’s be honest, far more enjoyable) Muppets Christmas Carol, which is also a quirky musical – although I must confess that the Muppets film has better songs than this one, and is far and away the better movie in general.

Dolly Parton
Christine Baranski and Jeanine Mason | variety.com

It’s not even that Parton’s songs for Christmas On The Square are bad, or badly-written, though they’re certainly nothing close to what she’s capable of at her best. It’s just that…she’s so rarely the one actually getting to sing them. And this isn’t some kind of “I Will Always Love You” situation, where she hands an already great song to a powerful vocalist who makes the song ten times better. Christmas On The Square has a surprisingly weak lineup of vocal talent beside Parton, Baranski, and Jenifer Lewis (who has just one song all to her own: “Queen Of Mean”, the most lyrically playful of the film’s musical numbers), and it gives most of its potentially awesome songs to Josh Segarra’s character, Pastor Christian. Segarra is a halfway-decent singer with the slightly grating rustic charm you’d expect from his goody-goody character, but his voice isn’t strong enough to carry songs like “Try”, which in particular demands to be either more powerful and show-stopping, or more quiet and intimate, than the middle-of-the-road performance we’re blessed with instead. And the film clearly had the means to go in either direction: one of the film’s most interesting singers, a choir member and supporting character played by Matthew Johnson, threatens to overshadow Segarra’s rendition of the song with his own soulful background vocals – while Dolly Parton herself gets to softly recite a single verse over the rushed end-credits. Segarra is better suited to songs like “You”, an overly earnest romantic duet between him and Mary Lane Haskell.

Earnestness is not something that typically poses a problem in holiday movies, where one expects – and indeed hopes – for the messaging to be sweet and simple. And it’s not even necessarily a problem here. But the strange thing about Christmas On The Square is how rapidly it pivots from “sweet and simple holiday musical” to “family-friendly soap-opera complete with emergency hospital visits, teen pregnancy, and complicated family-drama”, and then back again. And that’s not even factoring in the random, campy, semi-absurdist interludes focused on the Angels and their hijinks. The tonal inconsistencies feel unintentional and jarring rather than comedic, and it goes on like this until the end of the movie, which includes a truly bizarre third-act plot twist. Remember Last Christmas (which, incidentally, came out last Christmas), that George Michael-inspired musical about a woman falling in love with the ghost of the heart donor who saved her life the previous year? Yeah…think that kind of twist, but without the necessary comedic angle.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton | netflix.com

The movie’s secret weapon, however, is Dolly Parton – and it employs her at every opportune moment, just as a scene begins to lag or a musical number starts meandering. Some would say the movie relies on her a little too heavily at points, and sure, it probably does. But Parton’s aura is so strong and so all-encompassing (and most of the rest of the cast so boring and wooden), that it’s impossible to dismiss that as a fault. Personally, I think she could have done this whole thing as a one-woman show, and it would have been even better – and probably no weirder than it already is.

Besides, Dolly Parton poured a significant chunk of change into funding the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine while many wealthy celebrities were still under the impression we wanted to hear them incoherently singing from their palatial estates: I think she deserves to steal the spotlight in this weird, clunky, passion project that, without her, would probably be a forgettable mess. At least Christmas On The Square‘s tonal inconsistencies produced something strangely enjoyable, unlike those of a certain early-pandemic celebrity sing-along I could mention.

Movie Rating: 5.5/10