“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

“Anastasia” Review!

So…this isn’t really a Christmas movie, or a holiday-themed movie in general. In fact, most of Fox Animation’s Anastasia takes place in the spring or summer. But just as the film has often been mistaken for a Disney Princess movie ever since its release in 1997 and is now even being categorized under the Princesses section on Disney+ (where it arrived on the 4th of this month), so to has Anastasia acquired a lasting reputation as a winter movie thanks to its iconic theme, Once Upon A December, one of only three memorable songs in the entire movie; and its early scenes in frigid Saint Petersburg during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Anastasia
Anastasia and Rasputin | eonline.com

Obviously, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, this movie has glaring historical inaccuracies. As many, if not more than, Disney’s Pocahontas: which is saying something. And look, I get it. The mystery of Princess Anastasia Nikolaevna’s “disappearance” is timeless and alluring, and in 1997 still technically unsolved…but even then, most people had already come to the logical conclusion (confirmed in 2009, after DNA testing) that Anastasia, like the rest of her family, was murdered by a Soviet firing squad. The long line of impostors who famously claimed to be the lost Romanov Princess were just that, impostors: most of them vying for the family’s fortunes rather than the throne of Russia. There’s even reason to believe the rumors of Anastasia’s survival were circulated by the Soviets themselves as a harmless distraction from the violent truth. Over the years, she’s become an almost mythical figure: whether she’s mythic enough to warrant a romantic fairytale about her life is a question for the ages.

But the film doesn’t just paint an inaccurate depiction of one historical figure’s life. More offensively in my opinion, it also makes the laughable decision to portray all of Anastasia’s family as heroes, whose opulent existence is justified because of how elegant and righteous they are. The truth is that the Romanovs (specifically Tsar Nicholas, Anastasia’s father) were tyrannical aristocrats who unknowingly orchestrated their own destruction. And in reality, the Bolshevik Revolution was spurred by Russia’s poor and battle-worn citizens, who rose up in protest of the Tsar’s crimes against his people – they were not inspired by demons under the control of the mystic Rasputin, a controversial and fascinating figure whom history has remembered as a devilish villain for reasons unfathomable to me. Even today, films like The King’s Man still rely on that trope. Obviously, movies are going to mess around with the truth: animated family movies especially. But who makes an animated family movie about a brutally murdered Tsarist princess to begin with?

Don Bluth, that’s who: and his talent shines through in the finished work, because Anastasia‘s stunning animation is among its strongest elements, blending the traditional hand-drawn style with bits and pieces of vivid CGI – still quite new at the time, and alarmingly beautiful even today, after 23 years. The character design is marginally more interesting than Disney’s formula, with Anastasia (voiced by Meg Ryan) in particular having a more mature face than many of her teenaged equivalents over at the House of Mouse.

Anastasia
Anastasia and Tsar Nicholas | themarysue.com

Meg Ryan and John Cusack are both well-cast, and perfectly likable as Anastasia and the con-artist Dimitri, who initially tries to pass off the unassuming amnesiac girl as the lost Romanov princess before realizing that she’s the real deal. Anastasia, despite bearing little more than a passable physical resemblance to her real-life counterpart, is actually a really compelling character in animation: confident, capable, and pro-active, taking the lead when she’s in trouble and fixing problems on her own. She’s not a damsel in distress, and it’s she, not Dimitri, who takes on the villain in the third act and defeats him. When this movie was released, no Disney Princess could boast the same claim (Mulan would become the studio’s first, a year later). Additionally, the movie puts a fun little twist on the classic “happily ever after” trope, which for most Disney Princesses means marriage, by having Anastasia and Dimitri elope and run off together instead (a minor scandal in comparison to the political crisis that Anastasia’s reappearance probably should have sparked in 1920’s Europe: something the film never addresses).

But as Disney demonstrated time and time again during the height of its Renaissance, a good animated movie needs a good animated villain – and by animated, I mean both literally and figuratively: the best of Disney’s villains are the big, bold, campy caricatures who leap off the screen thanks to their eccentric mannerisms, comedic vocal performances, and eye-catching designs. Think Ursula, Scar, Captain Hook, Jafar, or Cruella De Vil. Anastasia‘s villain, the mystic Rasputin (voiced by Christopher Lloyd), is a half-baked imitation of these and others. He’s cool in theory, a turbulent evil spirit trapped in Limbo, with limbs and appendages constantly popping off and scurrying away: but he’s also just…trapped in Limbo for most of the movie, relying on his minions to do his dirty work. He’s a big, bold, campy caricature that’s got nowhere to go and nothing to do until the third act. And whereas most Disney villains interact with the protagonist at least once or twice before their final confrontation, Rasputin doesn’t. So he nears success, but falls short of true greatness.

The other key ingredient in a Disney movie is a collection of hit songs that drive the plot forward and allow characters to reveal their motivations and goals to the audience in a dynamic and engaging way, rather than just unloading it all in a series of exposition dumps. Anastasia emulates the best of the best, but its songs – apart from “Once Upon A December” – don’t really match the film’s grandiose subject matter. “Journey To The Past” is probably the most effective song in the movie, being the next step up from an “I Want” song, in that Anastasia isn’t just singing about something inaccessible she yearns to have; she’s already singing about how she’s going to get what she wants, and simultaneously setting off on her physical and emotional journey (and interestingly, in recent years, Disney Princesses have begun to follow suit: “Almost There” from Princess And The Frog, “Let It Go” from Frozen, and “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana are all songs about and accompanied by action). One has to wonder how much of the film’s progressive attitude is the result of Carrie Fisher, an uncredited screenwriter who apparently lent her talents to helping craft the entire “Journey To The Past” sequence.

Anastasia
Anastasia | ew.com

It’s deeply ironic that Anastasia, which shamelessly followed the tried-and-true Disney formula and battled Disney’s Hercules for box-office supremacy in 1997, is now a Disney movie thanks to the Disney/Fox merger, and is already being ranked among the studio’s legendary princesses – although she’s still unofficial, and is unlikely to ever retroactively become an actual member of the line-up. When Anastasia released, Disney concentrated all its efforts on trying to sabotage the film’s marketing strategy, even re-releasing The Little Mermaid on the same day, and banning the film’s corporate sponsors from advertising on ABC’s Wonderful World Of Disney program. Now, the official Disney+ Twitter account has been busy promoting the movie as if nothing ever happened. That’s what I call character development (or typical capitalism: you decide).

Movie Rating: 8/10

“Loki” Is Lost In Space And Time In 1st Trailer!

I’ve had a great many ideas about how I would love for each of the upcoming Marvel Disney+ shows to look and feel since long before we saw anything official from any of them: and Loki has become my second most hotly-anticipated of the entire batch (just behind WandaVision, which seems like a technical masterpiece as well as a wildly entertaining story) thanks to the elaborate image I had concocted in my head of how it should look, ideally: like a mix of gritty science-fiction, Terry Pratchett absurdity, and fantasy horror. So you can imagine my shock and awe when the first full trailer for Loki revealed that this show is everything I was hoping it would be, and much, much more.

Loki
Loki | denofgeek.com

The last time Loki graced our screens was…well, that’s a complex question. Technically that would be in 2018 when, both in our reality and in the main MCU timeline, he died pitifully attacking Thanos with a knife. But when the Avengers later staged their time heist and returned to the year 2012 to recover several Infinity Stones, they encountered the older, more feral and dangerous Loki that they had just battled and defeated in that year: and that Loki was able to escape with the Tesseract, opening a new rift in the Multiverse and ensuring that Captain America’s best efforts to preserve the sanctity of each timeline wouldn’t be entirely successful. The new series follows that Loki as he wanders throughout the Nine Realms, wreaking havoc and upsetting the natural order of things, while fighting characters and beings from the surreal side of Marvel comics.

That surrealism – already evident in the series – is precisely why I draw a comparison to Terry Pratchett: one of my favorite fantasy authors. By a complete coincidence, a trailer for the new BBC adaptation of Pratchett’s The Watch dropped yesterday before the Loki trailer reveal, and in my opinion did a horrible job of conveying the author’s characteristic brand of quirky, grammatical humor, or of capturing the colorful tone and style of his characters. This trailer (which has absolutely nothing to do with Pratchett) effortlessly achieves what any Pratchett adaptation should be aiming for – and if you don’t believe me, just check out the trailer thumbnail above: Loki, dressed in a ratty old coat and splendid emerald green waistcoat, a self-congratulatory campaign button pinned to his breast, grinning from ear to ear, donning his horned helmet, and gleefully teasing us with the line “Come on? What did you expect?”, all while standing in an abandoned arcade, surrounded by a group of absurdly-dressed misfits pointing spears and knives at him. It’s not just a brilliant adaptation of the Loki comics and a striking visual that will entice audiences: it’s a masterclass in absurd humor.

A large part of that has to do with Tom Hiddleston’s deliciously entertaining performance, which is just the right amount of camp; just the right amount of Shakespearean villain; and more quintessentially British than ever before. Hiddleston is, in fact, channeling a number of iconic characters from around the globe, including James Bond and Good Omens‘ Crowley (a creation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, by the way). He’s also stepping into the shoes of real-life historical figures – most notably the legendary “D.B. Cooper”.

Loki
Loki as “D.B. Cooper” | vulture.com

Those who love the thrill of trying to solve decades-old mysteries will enjoy this reference. D.B. Cooper, the unidentified man who somehow pulled off a mid-air robbery in 1971 before parachuting into a storm and disappearing from history makes an appearance in the Loki trailer: and the series finds a delightfully clever way of answering the questions surrounding Cooper’s true identity, by suggesting that Cooper was none other than the God of Mischief. As for how he escaped an FBI manhunt, well, that’s quite simple: he was snatched out of the sky by the Bifrost bridge of Asgard, of course! A few dollars drift out of Loki’s attaché case as he disappears, and are scorched by the heat of the Bifrost – the same dollars, it would seem, that an eight-year old boy would find by a riverbank years after the event, mysteriously burned. The attention to detail here is simply staggering…and honestly, it’s as good an explanation as any. Cooper’s identity is still unknown, and the FBI officially gave up the search in 2016.

It’s not the only unsolved mystery teased in the trailer. Near the end, a Polybius arcade game is also briefly visible in the background: a reference to the arcade game of the same name that sparked an urban legend in the early 2000’s when it supposedly appeared out of the blue, hypnotizing or even brainwashing players, and attracting the attention of men in black. A crucial part of the legend was that the game would sometimes teleport players to other dimensions, and I expect that it will be used in the same way in Loki.

But why all this talk of historical mysteries? Well, the trailer confirms what we’ve long known: which is that the Time Variance Authority (or TVA) will employ Loki as one of their agents during the course of the show, and assign him various missions fixing the timeline and making sure human history proceeds as it’s supposed to do. The TVA serves much the same function as the Commission in The Umbrella Academy, but with a much larger team of characters: including Mobius. M. Mobius, played by comedic actor Owen Wilson, and a severe-looking councilwoman with martial arts skills, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In the case of Loki, it’s unclear whether the TVA actually wanted him on their team, or were forced to recruit him because of the danger he poses as a rogue operative, wielding the Tesseract. The TVA may also need his help against a shadowy enemy we see in the trailer slaughtering their agents: a hooded figure who could be the time-traveler Kang, or an alternate, even more horrible, version of Loki.

Loki
Mobius M. Mobius and Loki | slashfilm.com

On the sidelines for now but sure to feature more prominently in time, there are hints of the Roxxon Energy Corporation – which, in the comics, tries to colonize space and harvest minerals on Mars. Interestingly, many theorists speculated that Roxxon would be the primary antagonist of Thor: Love And Thunder, with Christian Bale rumored to be playing the corporation’s tyrannical minotaur leader, Dario Agger. Bale has now been confirmed to be playing a different villain, Gorr the God-Butcher, but it seems Roxxon will still play a part in the Loki series at least. We see both its inconspicuous façade on earth, as a grocery store, and its more secretive side in the form of a deep quarry on an alien planet. A red-haired woman is clearly visible in one shot, and Twitter immediately started asking if it might be Natasha Romanoff: but although I initially thought the same thing, the different hairstyle and sword at her hip makes me think this is someone else entirely.

If any major MCU characters are going to show up, I would bet on Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and/or Idris Elba as Heimdall, since Loki’s disguise as D.B. Cooper appears to be part of an ingenious plan to get in contact with both of his fellow Asgardians, and the Bifrost bridge that sucked him up has to have been summoned by somebody. Hopefully something happens by the end of the series that will allow this version of Loki to interact with the current version of Thor.

Trailer Rating: 10/10

“Blood Of Zeus” Is Fun – But Deeply Flawed.

As someone who has been an avid fan of Greek mythology ever since I read Edith Hamilton’s Mythology as a kid, I was admittedly a little wary of starting Netflix’s newest anime series, Blood Of Zeus: the series tells a wholly new story unlike anything from the myths themselves, but embellishes it with all the trappings we know from the Greek legendarium. I’m not much of a stickler for accuracy when it comes to adapting the ancient myths, but I find it…vaguely frustrating whenever adaptations mess up and try to Hollywood-ize a mythology that is already so incredibly exciting and engaging that it has survived in the public consciousness for millennia. Blood Of Zeus is at least trying to create something more in line with the tone of the ancient myths, although it too falters more often than it succeeds. In the end, I regard the series as fun, deeply flawed entertainment that just takes a little too long to get to the really good stuff…but once it gets there, dangerously close to the season finale, it gets so good, so briefly, that you’ll be hooked and probably left hoping for a second season.

Blood of Zeus
digitalspy.com

The first few episodes of the series, unfortunately, are so slow-paced that you might be tempted to opt out long before you reach that point – and I wouldn’t blame you. There are extensive interludes between the action and drama that are filled to the brim with exposition and meandering flashback sequences. We have to flesh out our hero’s backstory, you see, and then we have to do the same for our main villain. It’s only after Zeus (Jason O’Mara) personally enters the fray and our protagonist Heron (Derek Phillips) finally assembles his rag-tag team of heroes – somewhat spontaneously, to be honest – that things start to heat up, with a visit to the heavenly haunts of Mount Olympus, a mystical encounter with the three Fates, and a journey through a section of the Labyrinth all packed into about a single genuinely thrilling hour.

What these three events have in common is their roots in ancient Greek myth – and Blood Of Zeus is at its best when it’s putting a cool, dark twist on the Greek legends and not trying to stray too far from the extremely solid source material. Whenever it begins to move in any other direction or tries to build up its own deep lore, it feels jarringly dissimilar to the rest of the series and a bit generic. Heron, the illegitimate son of Zeus, is only one of several major characters who don’t really have much in the way of a personality or motivation (partly due to all of the interesting and exciting bits of his backstory only pertaining to his infancy, leaving adult Heron with…not a whole lot). Alexia (Jessica Henwick), the series’ female lead and an Amazon warrior, has a lot of screentime but seems the most disconnected from the other characters and even the story itself: she’ll run past every now and again on the trail of some demon, but the show never really tries to do anything with her. As is all too common these days, the comic relief characters are the only ones that feel developed and likable – smuggler Evios (Chris Diamantopoulos) and wrestler Kofi (Adetokumboh M’Cormack) have fun, easygoing banter and maybe a spark of chemistry? Perhaps I was just reading too much into their relationship. You’ll have to forgive me, though; Greek mythology is among the gayest in the world, and I was a little confused about why that wasn’t being accurately represented onscreen (we’ll talk about the actual bisexual representation in the show soon, don’t worry).

Blood of Zeus
Hera | readysteadycut.com

The Gods are more fleshed out than their human co-stars, luckily. Zeus’s dynamic with his wife Hera (Claudia Christian) is lifted almost straight from the myths of old, though the portrayal of Hera and the demonstration of her famous anger is one of the series’ greatest (yet least surprising) missteps. Unfortunately, men have almost always written Hera the same exact way, from ancient Greek times to today: she’s the unreasonable, unhinged mad woman who relentlessly terrifies and tortures her husband’s many lovers. Blood Of Zeus makes no attempt to shake up the narrative – in fact, it doubles down on this centuries-old stereotype and takes Hera to the next level, elevating her to a mentally unstable tyrant whose ultimate goal is to tear down Olympus stone by stone. Meanwhile Zeus is portrayed as loving, sympathetic and caring; but only towards a single mortal woman. Leaving aside the fact that mythological Zeus never had fewer than a hundred mistresses simultaneously and the thought of him settling on just one is laughable from that standpoint, it’s honestly just cringeworthy to see how the script puts Zeus on a pedestal while having him gaslight his wife. At a time when feminist retellings of Greeks myths (like Madeline Miller’s Circe) have never been more popular, the decision to write Hera this way betrays a lack of imagination from the writers, but also a staggering amount of ignorance to the fact that the “mad woman” trope is harmful and degrading, whether its being used to give Jon Snow a reason to turn on Daenerys Targaryen, or for the X-Men to turn on Jean Grey,  or for Zeus to turn on Hera. If you’re going to rewrite the myth to make Zeus some high and mighty good guy with a heart of gold, you can also write a version where Hera is a sympathetic character for once, or at least not being vilified for reacting to her husband’s misdeeds.

The one good thing that Blood Of Zeus does with Hera’s character is make her physically powerful. In the myths, such as in The Iliad, her influence is mostly felt behind the scenes: unlike Athena or Artemis, she hardly ever goes down to the battlefield personally. In this series, however, she can levitate both herself and whatever else happens to be in the vicinity – usually large, sharp objects or boulders. She also has an entire army of crow minions: a strange choice, considering that crows aren’t sacred to Hera, but probably a bit more practical than the alternative – an army of peacocks. All these things help to make her extremely impressive and formidable during action scenes. It’s just a shame that the script forces her to use her powers for evil the whole time.

Speaking of powers, let’s talk about Hermes (Matthew Mercer), who somehow stands out from the crowded ensemble cast as my favorite of the Greek Gods. Despite being maybe a little bit overexposed in the myths themselves – he shows up in more myths than any of the other Olympians – these days he’s mostly remembered for his iconic caduceus, if he’s remembered at all. Blood Of Zeus presents him as a pretty awesome, rainbow-cloaked speedster who also gets to regularly fulfil his duties as the psychopompos: essentially the usher of the dead, who leads souls to the Underworld, including most of the casualties inflicted by the brutal warfare throughout the series. It’s a great way to highlight an overlooked aspect of his character, and makes me wish the same courtesy had been extended to literally any other Olympian.

Out of the remaining Gods, Apollo (Adam Croasdell) is the only other one with a good deal of screentime and his own subplot. He’s also the only identifiably LGBTQ+ character in the entire series, or at least that’s the implication we’re supposed to take away from a single scene of him sleeping in the embrace of both a man and a woman. Considering that we’re dealing with the Greek gods here, I found this kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it representation to be slightly disappointing. Zeus, Poseidon, and Dionysus all had at least one male lover each. Hercules had male lovers (something Disney definitely left out of their movie). As much as I unabashedly adore Apollo, why is he the only LGBTQ+ representation we got from Blood Of Zeus? I don’t mind changing the myths, but changing them to be less gay? WHY?

Blood of Zeus
Greek Gods | nj.com

You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned any of the other goddesses besides Hera yet, and that’s because…they’re not there. The series almost entirely erases the great women of Greek mythology: the Amazons are only represented by a single character, whose ultimate purpose in the story turns out to be shockingly minor; Athena, the goddess of warfare herself, is reduced to a background character with no dialogue, while Ares fills her role as war god for only the umpteenth time in Hollywood history; Aphrodite, Artemis, and Demeter are extras only used to fill out crowd scenes. And if that wasn’t enough, the show has a serious issue when it comes to fridging the few female characters it does have; murdering them to motivate the male characters.

Blood Of Zeus is still fun and largely enjoyable for its final three episodes, or otherwise this would just be a rant review. The animation style is beautiful, although there’s nowhere near enough character differentiation for a cast this large, and the action scenes are visually stunning: every major character has some kind of specific ability that enables them to keep up with all the gods and monsters, whether that’s agility or wits or super strength. The fights are often brutally violent, and the series makes sure never to give anyone too much plot armor – even the Gods can be wounded, mutilated or killed, which helps to make every battle suspenseful: even if you know a character won’t necessarily die, there’s nothing to say they won’t lose a limb. Especially because the villains aren’t all bark and no bite: both Hera and the main antagonist Seraphim (Elias Toufexis) kill people, frequently. Seraphim, a merciless demon war lord with a cool set of facial scars, is in fact only interesting whenever he’s killing people – because whenever he’s not, he’s usually brooding instead, and that’s always a recipe for Boring Villain Syndrome™. He’s an original character, in case you hadn’t guessed. He also walks or flies around accompanied by a whole bunch of original characters: a scurrying, uniform demon horde that might as well just be the wights of Game Of Thrones (a series with which Blood Of Zeus has too many similarities for its own good).

The funny thing is that, for the most part, my problems with Blood Of Zeus don’t really arise from any sense of indignation or outrage about all the changes made to the myths: in a mythology that evolved as rapidly as that of the Greeks, there’s not really any set “canon” to adhere to anyway. I love retellings, especially when they re-examine a well-known story from a completely new perspective or from a different angle – for instance, Mary Renault did this incredibly well in her books about the hero Theseus. So mostly I’m just amused and confused that any scriptwriter could look at a mythology as rich and utterly bizarre as this one, and decide that what it really needs is a whole bunch of new, made-up stuff like zombie demons. When that new, made-up stuff is entertaining in its own right, fine. But the writing for Blood Of Zeus simply isn’t strong enough to make any of the new stuff work, and so it’s the ancient Greeks who have the last laugh.

Blood of Zeus
Heron | denofgeek.com

All that being said, the series is still a lot of fun! Seeing even small bits and pieces of the myths brought to life is an experience that leaves a mark, and makes me want more: yes, even more of this particular show. And let me tell you in as non-spoilery terms as possible that the finale of Blood Of Zeus lay good, strong groundwork for another season – one that honestly sounds a lot more interesting than the first. But even if it isn’t, even if this show simply is not my cup of tea, I hope that it will at least pave the way for other dark adaptations of Greek mythology that I (and anybody else wounded to the core by this show’s lack of Athena) might enjoy. There’s a lot more to the Greek mythos than just Hercules, and I hope Blood Of Zeus – not to mention the upcoming Percy Jackson series – gets that message through to Hollywood once and for all.

Series Rating: 5/10

Netflix Developing An “Assassin’s Creed” Franchise!

As the end of the year – and the release of another installment in Ubisoft’s massively successful Assassin’s Creed video game series – draws nearer, Netflix is cashing in on the game franchise’s enduring popularity/profitability, having just announced a partnership with the Ubisoft game studio that will allow them to develop their own Assassin’s Creed universe on the streaming service, kicking off with a live-action series that is already in pre-production. Although a previous attempt to bring the excitement of the video game to the big screen proved to be pretty lackluster, Netflix doesn’t appear to be trying to develop any films based on the games: their attention is focused on creating series, both live-action and animated.

Assassin's Creed
gamesradar.com

As of right now, we know very little about the series that is planned to kickstart the Assassin’s Creed TV franchise – two Ubisoft executives, Jason Altman and Danielle Kreinik, will serve as executive producers on the series, but Netflix is currently looking for a showrunner to bring this whole thing together, and we don’t know if they’ve got a writing team assembled behind the scenes just yet. It’s also unclear whether the series will adapt one of the game franchise’s eleven total installments, or combine elements from several, or act as something entirely new and different.

The Assassin’s Creed franchise’s overarching story revolves around a war between the order of the Assassins and the Knights Templar, a war spanning millennia: throughout the ages, these two opposing factions take various different forms (for instance, in Ptolemaic Egypt, they were the Hidden Ones and The Order Of The Ancients, respectively), but their goals are almost always the same – the Knights Templar seek to oppress free will and control the human race by force, through the use of magical artifacts, while the Assassins believe in free will and challenge them secretly. The game series has focused on a number of interesting historical periods, from the American Revolution and the Third Crusade to Peloponnesian War-era Greece, and over the years has gained a reputation for being one of the few video game franchises that actually takes time to research each era and achieve some level of historical accuracy.

Assassin's Creed
gameinformer.com

This has recently caused a great deal of conflict in the fandom, with the newest Assassin’s Creed game (set in the Viking world) promising (historically accurate!) women warriors and same-sex romances – something that has prompted a certain subgroup of gamers to loudly object about what they mistakenly and ignorantly perceive as “the SJW agenda”. Never mind that women fought alongside Viking men or that Vikings were marginally more accepting of same-sex relationships than many of their contemporaries; apparently inarguable historical fact is “SJW” now. Anyway, I hope and pray that the Netflix series will follow in the footsteps of the most recent games and include more diverse protagonists, even if they are adapting the earlier games in the series.

The different historical settings will certainly give the series a unique selling point with which to differentiate itself from a steadily growing crowd of video game adaptations: but I worry it could be very expensive to do as many as in the games right up front, so my guess is that the first season of the series won’t jump to too many time periods, but will probably settle on one from the earlier games that most Assassin’s Creed fans are familiar with and enjoy, such as the Holy Land or Renaissance Italy. I’ve seen it suggested that each season of the series might jump to a new time period, like the games, which would definitely be exciting: but that does raise the question of whether they would follow the in-universe chronology of the plot, or the release order of the games themselves? If it’s the latter, then my favorite character, Kassandra Misthios of Odyssey, won’t be popping up for a long while. But who knows? At the moment we really don’t know anything at all about what Netflix and Ubisoft are planning to accomplish with this partnership, or how they’re going to go about this.

Assassin's Creed
digitalspy.com

So what do you think? Which historical setting do you hope Netflix settles upon for this first series, and which Assassin’s Creed characters do you hope to see? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!

“The Trial Of The Chicago 7” Review!

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is certainly going to be a strong contender, and probably even a frontrunner, in the race for Best Picture at next year’s Academy Awards ceremony, but it’s right now, as 2020 finally nears its end and as the U.S. Presidential election creeps closer, that the whole world should be watching this film and learning or relearning the incredible story of the Chicago 7: not just the men themselves, each one a fascinating character in their own right, but the larger cultural and political significance of their trial – a trial where American governmental and legal institutions not only failed to protect the rights of protestors, but actively sought to suppress them. Although the Chicago 7 were arrested for protesting the Vietnam War, their struggle is both relevant and relatable in the modern day – in 2020 especially, as protests across the nation in the wake of an unarmed Black man’s death in June led to a violent response from our government and law enforcement.

Trial Of The Chicago 7
Sacha Baron Cohen & Jeremy Strong | vanityfair.com

So who were the Chicago 7, and why was their trial such a landmark moment in this nation’s history? The historical context is always important to know, and the history behind this particular case is truly fascinating. The film opens mere days before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, 1968, as several different activist groups intent on protesting the selection of the party’s nominee, Hubert Humphrey, converged on the city from all around the country: and then, after a montage introducing each of our seven main players, we jump ahead by five months – the trial is already about to begin, and Richard Nixon’s administration personally wants each and every one of them behind bars for the maximum sentence. Whether you know what happened in Chicago or not during the convention, it’s enthralling either way as Aaron Sorkin’s story slowly begins to uncover, through the help of flashbacks, what really went down as the protesters marched through the city and ran into the heavily armed Chicago Police. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the news this year already knows what went down, even if they don’t know the exact details of this particular incident.

Throughout the chaos and violence, Aaron Sorkin’s story keeps us focused on the humanity of the Chicago 7, and contrasts that with the horrific lack of empathy from the police. Again, the discussion of “empathy vs apathy” is significant to our modern climate, and Sorkin’s film closes with a beautiful – and factually inaccurate – display of human empathy at its most inspiring and powerful. It’s never lost on Sorkin that this was the trial of real men, not just lofty ideals and philosophies. And almost every main actor in the ensemble cast plays their part to its fullest, breathing life into these little-known but incredible historical figures.

Trial Of The Chicago 7
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II | thewrap.com

Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne are very much leading co-stars, in my opinion, but it’s Baron Cohen who makes the strongest impression as the tall, lanky Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman and makes a good case for why he should finally be recognized as an actor equally gifted in both comedy and drama (since apparently his starring role in The Spy wasn’t enough evidence for some of you). A Best Actor nomination had better be incoming for Baron Cohen: even despite the fact that the film cuts out some, arguably most, of Hoffman’s most eccentric real-life antics in court, Baron Cohen makes him the wittiest, most vivid character in the film – and the story’s beating heart and stand-in for most of the counterculture movement of the late 60’s.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, meanwhile, excels as the more stoic, solemn Bobby Seale, a member of the Black Panthers who was arrested alongside the other defendants but whose case was later severed from the others’. Seale’s mistreatment in the courtroom – including a horrifying incident in which Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) orders that he be bound and gagged, to the point where Seale is unable to breathe – is all taken from real life and shines a light on how the law itself is weaponized against the Black community just as much as the militaristic might of law enforcement. By that time in the film, you’ll already be well aware that the trial of the Chicago 7 was not a fair one, but the treatment of Bobby Seale adds violent racism and white supremacy to the mix as well. The Black Panthers, including their leader Fred Hampton (briefly but powerfully portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), don’t have a very large role in the film overall but their appearances do help to underscore the fact that any conversation about cultural and political revolution needs to include Black voices, no matter what era it occurs in – and of course, it’s an especially important message to get across since the cultural and political revolution happening in this country nowadays is largely being fueled by Black activists and their allies.

Trial Of The Chicago 7
Eddie Redmayne | cinemablend.com

In this film, however, Eddie Redmayne’s version of the real-life Tom Hayden comes across as something of an opponent to such progressive messaging throughout most of the film. His character seems largely crafted to provide a foil for Sacha Baron Cohen’s – a stiff, uptight, idealist trying to distance himself and his group, the Students for a Democratic Society, from the counterculture movement of the Yippies. But it appears that Sorkin is also using his character to represent a number of liberal subdivisions in political activism that claim to be “for change” until that actually requires listening to the voices of underrepresented minorities or demanding comprehensive structural change within our government, from the ground up. Hayden is like so many activists who try to make their movements more “appealing” or “attractive” to the mainstream by presenting a mostly white facade to the media, at the cost of the marginalized communities they claim to be fighting for; and then he is like one of those people who seem to believe that winning a single election is all that has to be done to fix problems such as racism, but aren’t prepared to advocate for designing a new system of government that would ensure we actually see some substantial change and progress. It’s all a little bit unfair to the real-life Tom Hayden, who actually fell more in line with counterculture philosophy than the film would have you believe. Anyway, Redmayne’s performance is perfectly decent: it leans toward being a bit wooden, but his attempts to maintain a passable American accent are entertaining at least.

As for the other defendants, they have their moments. Jeremy Strong is maybe trying a bit too hard with his borderline caricature of Yippie leader Jerry Rubin, John Carroll Lynch is doing his best with what little screentime David Dellinger has been given, and Alex Sharp, Noah Robbins and Daniel Flaherty are…well, they’re there. But the other real standout on this side of the courtroom is Mark Rylance as the defense lawyer William Kuntzler, somehow confidently rocking a combover, who rallies the group during their darkest moments, adds some very natural humor to his interactions with his clients, particularly the Yippies, and holds his own against the indomitable, immovable presence of Julius Hoffman.

On the other side, well…I have fewer positive things to say about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of prosecutor Richard Schultz, who has been written as a semi-sympathetic character who’s maybe conflicted, maybe not…who knows? He gets one moment near the end of the film where he’s allowed to look all heroic and redeemed in the audience’s eyes, despite the fact that he is still very clearly fighting on behalf of the Nixon administration to put men in jail for their thoughts. But regardless of whether or not you feel that Schultz is really a good guy or not, I think we can all agree that Judge Julius Hoffman is (and was) just straight-up hateful, ignorant and repulsive.

Trial Of The Chicago 7
netflix.com

That being said, Frank Langella works wonders with the role, which allows him to transform into a character almost as wildly eccentric as Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman – and in fact, it’s with the other Hoffman that he shares his most memorable scenes in the film (and yes, the fact that they coincidentally share a last name is the subject of much argument between the two; just as it was in real-life). Julius Hoffman is a grotesque display of why preserving the status quo, even in this day and age, isn’t good enough: because the status quo is one that was made by white men for white men, and will always work to benefit white men. The fact that Julius Hoffman is actually less outlandishly awful in the movie than he was in real life is mind-boggling and sad.

(While we’re on the subject, I feel like I have to touch on the fact that Sorkin’s film actually leaves out a great deal of the trial proceedings, including some celebrity appearances that would have made for some incredibly funny interludes between the more serious parts of the story: for instance, in reality, poet Allen Ginsburg was called in as a witness (he appears in the film, very briefly, as a protester) and proceeded to chant at the judge; singer Judy Collins appeared to discuss the counterculture movement and began to sing, before being shut down; and singer Arlo Guthrie appeared and apparently entranced Julius Hoffman with a lengthy plot synopsis of Alice’s Restaurant – he too was silenced after he began to sing. I’m not sure whether Sorkin felt these events would be too fantastical for audiences to believe, or whether he just didn’t have time to include them, but I can’t say I’m not a little disappointed. At the very least, Judy Collins would have been a remarkable female presence in a film dominated by an almost all-male cast).

In so many ways, despite its occasional flaws, Aaron Sorkin has made not only an excellent courtroom drama but a film which defines the prevailing spirit of 2020, at least in the United States of America – and it couldn’t have been released at a more critical moment, although it would be an instant classic in any era: all year long, we’ve witnessed in real-time as our American government has crumbled under the weight of an administration that has failed its people; as bigoted individuals sheltered by a law enforcement system corrupt to its core have targeted and murdered American citizens because of the color of their skin; as the vote, seemingly the most powerful and politically correct method by which a person can voice their opinion, is being threatened by institutions that would seek to render us voiceless and thus powerless. But The Trial Of The Chicago 7 is a much-needed demonstration of the power of protest: the raw, inspiring power that we have when we raise our voices in harmony, and demand change. The film takes place in 1969, but it’s a story we can all relate to in 2020 because we’re still fighting that same injustice, because we will always fight it as long as it exists.

Let the record show that we made our voices heard.

Rating: 9.5/10

“Hamilton” Film Review!

What is there to say about Hamilton that hasn’t now been said a million times before in the five years since the musical phenomenon burst onto Broadway? In those five years, Hamilton, the story of one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers, has sparked a mini revolution of passionate conversation about American history; inspired a dedicated fandom; and now, on the anniversary of America’s Declaration of Independence, made the long-awaited jump from stage to screen. There was never any doubt that this moment would be huge: Disney paid a hefty sum of $75M for the rights to the musical, and it’s already right up there with The Mandalorian as one of the most high-profile original productions that Disney+ has to offer. But the outpouring of support for the film is still incredible to see: yesterday, the day of its release, Hamilton and a slew of other hashtags related to the musical were among the top trends of Twitter, and people (like myself) flooded social media with our reactions. Amid all the talk, what is there left to say?

Hamilton
nytimes.com

Well, the fresh new format in which the musical is being presented is cause enough for conversation; though, unsurprisingly, it’s not quite as interesting a subject for many as, say, the story or world-famous soundtrack. The movie was filmed over the course of three days, with cameras placed in the audience during two live performances of the show, before moving onstage to achieve a more cinematic experience – no easy feat, I’m sure, considering how many dancers are often crowding the stage, sometimes so many that we lose sight of our main characters (one of only a few flaws in the actual staging of the musical). Overhead shots are utilized in a number of scenes, particularly for duels. And extreme close-ups bring us nearer to the actors’ facial acting than was ever possible before, even for front-row audiences: from Daveed Diggs’ repertoire of eye rolls and dramatic sneers as a quirky, flamboyantly dressed take on Thomas Jefferson; to the spit flying from King George III‘s (Jonathan Groff) mouth as he sings his breakup song to America, assuring them they’ll come back to him once they’ve had their fun.

Diggs and Groff are among a number of standouts in the supporting cast who surround Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) on his journey from poor immigrant to cornerstone of early American government. Diggs, notably, is one of several actors with two or more roles in the musical: before he transforms wholeheartedly into the fast-rapping character of Jefferson for the rousing second act, he is no less hilariously charismatic as the Marquis de Lafayette, America’s ally from across the Atlantic. Anthony Ramos is both Hamilton’s close friend John Laurens during the Revolutionary War, and then later his son Phillip (though the latter role is probably the more interesting of the two, I personally found Ramos to be more fun in the first, and I can’t wait to see him star in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights next year: if coronavirus hadn’t moved the film from its original June 26th release date, these past few weeks would have been a showcase of Lin-Manuel’s musical talent; but then again, if coronavirus hadn’t struck, we would still have been waiting until October of next year to see the Hamilton film on the big screen).

Hamilton
standard.co.uk

In the next tier (not in terms of talent, but based on how close they are to Hamilton) we have Christopher Jackson as the indestructible, untouchable George Washington, whose role as a mentor and something of a father figure to Alexander Hamilton is pivotal to the entire story. There’s Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry), one of Hamilton’s many lovers and the most dynamic, at least initially, of the three Schuyler sisters. And of course we have Leslie Odom Jr., who brings plenty of fiery passion to the somewhat underwritten character of Aaron Burr, an ambitious political candidate forever walking unwillingly in the shadows of larger-than-life figures; the man whom history will forever paint simply as the villain in Alexander Hamilton’s story. And isn’t that the whole theme of the musical? It’s a story about the power of legacy, and how powerless we are to define what that is; as George Washington notes, you have no control over “who lives, who dies, who tells your story”.

The woman who tells Alexander’s story and who, in my humble opinion as a first-time viewer, seems like the understated heroine of the piece, is Eliza Hamilton (Phillipa Soo), Alexander’s wife and later his biographer. Her personal journey, running parallel to Alexander’s lofty dreams, may seem small and inconsequential to some: but in the end, she is the woman still alive fifty years after her husband’s death, still sifting through his writings and trying to piece together a more complete picture of the man, continuing the work on the garden he never saw bear fruit, on the symphony he left unfinished. Hamilton is really a story about people like Eliza, the people who will tell our stories when we’re gone, if we’re lucky enough; whose own stories often get overlooked amid all the heated discourse about their subjects. And Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t really a modern day Alexander Hamilton, but he is a modern day Eliza, taking back control of a narrative that rarely if ever finds a place for the marginalized, but using this opportunity to uniquely inspect the story of America’s foundation through their eyes: the eyes of immigrants, the Black community and people of color, women, radical thinkers. Through embellishing the story with song and liberally picking and choosing which parts of Hamilton’s life story to adapt, Miranda is exercising his own right as a creative and a chronicler to reinvent Hamilton once again for a more modern audience. It’s hard to tell how Eliza herself would react to all the fame and glory she and her husband now enjoy – but one would hope that, like her musical counterpart, she would gasp in joy and awe at the audience gathered to witness her husband’s legacy in motion.

Hamilton
npr.org

And then there’s Alexander himself: it’s hard to find many faults in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance, though it’s easy (and, in fact, important) to see the flaws in the complex character – apart from the historical fact that the real Hamilton was willing to stay silent on the issue of slavery whenever it suited him, the musical’s more liberal version of Alexander hurries through life, too concerned with his future to savor the present, too obsessed over protecting his legacy to be worried about what cost his actions have on those he loves. Alexander himself recognizes this and even sings about it on several occasions (most notably in “The World Was Wide Enough”), but once again it is Eliza who illustrates this point most brilliantly, in “Burn”, a heart-rending number sung in response to the devastating Reynolds Pamphlet scandal.

While we’re on the subject, my favorite subject, I want to highlight several of the songs which made the biggest impressions on me, at least during this viewing – first of many, I hope. Much to my surprise, neither “The Room Where It Happens” nor “Alexander Hamilton”, despite being the two most instantly recognizable songs from the show, would probably crack my top ten if I had to rank them all. “Burn”, my favorite off the entire soundtrack, draws our attention to the gaps in the narrative with its cleverly-constructed lyrics; George III has three catchy songs, each following the same melody, starting off with the sassy, self-righteous “You’ll Be Back”; Hamilton and Jefferson’s rap battles, particularly the first one, are exceptionally witty; and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”, the final song in the musical, gives the story an appropriately epic send-off, reminding us once again that the legacies we leave behind are never truly ours and ours alone, but belong just as much to the people who survive us, who keep those legacies alive long after we’re gone.

In conclusion, I doubt I’ve managed to say anything truly new about Hamilton, but what I hope is that by lending my voice to the conversation I can help to draw further attention to this rare achievement in American theater. This show may look like a scrappy, low-budget historical reenactment, but what it lacks in spectacle it more than makes up for in passion and unquestionable cultural impact.

Movie Rating: 9/10

“Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.”, Season 7, Episode 3 Review!

SPOILERS FOR AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. AHEAD

The seventh and final season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is suddenly delivering on everything I wanted it to: not only are the tie-ins to the Marvel Cinematic Universe abundant and cleverly constructed in the third episode, but the character work is excellent, the writing is mostly superb, and the setting – Area 51 in the 1950’s, at the pinnacle of the Space Race and America’s obsession with aliens and UFOS – is utilized wonderfully.

From the moment the title card appears, changed to fit the new historical period and accompanied by some classic eerie sci-fi music, I knew I was in for a good time. And yes, this season is still suffering from a few flaws – mainly, that the exposition is often, though not always, delivered through straight-up monologues of boring, nonsensical information that never fail to stop a dramatic scene in its tracks – but the good far outweighs the bad this week. The episode, titled Alien Commies From The Future!, leans heavily into comedy and has no problem poking a little fun at itself, or the tropes commonly associated with the 50’s. Sleek, “All-American” diners in the middle of the desert; the threat of “Stalinites”; CIA coverups. It’s all there, and it all works.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Phil Coulson and Jemma Simmons | tvline.com

Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Jemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge) are, both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, the comedic MVP’s of the week – it’s surprising because they rarely ever get paired up with each other, but it’s also unsurprising because whenever they do, they have brilliant banter. Do you remember the scene on the train all the way back in season one, when they pretended to be a father and daughter on vacation? The scenes they share in this episode have shades of that hilarious interaction.

But the drama and the social commentary, though subtler, is handled surprisingly well. In particular, there’s a scene in which Coulson is rambling excitedly about all the great things happening in the 50’s, only to have his teammate Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet) shut him down with a gesture toward the back of the aforementioned diner, where it’s hard to miss the signs indicating segregated bathrooms. Race relations come up again later in the episode, when the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. capture a Department of Defense official for interrogation, only to discover he’s a nasty bigot and is more threatened by the idea of spilling secrets to a Black man than he is by the thought of betraying his country. So they send in Deke Shaw (Jeff Ward), who, after some grumbling about “stupid white privilege”, does in fact weasel information out of the prisoner. The prisoner in question is released by the end of the episode, and gets his just desserts – running, screaming, through the desert and rambling about communist aliens.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Daniel Sousa | newsbreak.com

On a more personal note, there’s drama and comedy to be found in the interactions between Simmons and one Daniel Sousa (Enver Gjokaj). Simmons, in order to infiltrate Area 51 undetected, riskily disguises herself as none other than Director Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Peggy Carter, only to run into Sousa, Carter’s former work partner and post-Steve Rogers love interest. Though I would have liked to have seen Carter turn up in the flesh (and there were rumors that she would, or perhaps still could), Simmons frantically trying to keep her cool as she figures out that Sousa isn’t buying her disguise is possibly just as good a scenario. Sousa doesn’t have very much to actually do in the episode – his role is limited to following the Agents around and trying to figure out who’s working for what – but it’s nice to see him reprise the role he had on the short-lived Agent Carter series. Next week’s episode will apparently also star Sousa, as the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. have to decide whether or not to save him from HYDRA assassins.

Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen) and “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) are also featured prominently in the episode, as they are tasked with breaking into Area 51 – it’s never actually explained how they do that, but I digress – and stopping a Chronicom suicide bomber from activating some sort of nuclear explosion. But May is suffering from severe trauma and breaks down in a rare moment of vulnerability for her character, while Yo-Yo is apparently still unable to use her Inhuman superpowers. They do defeat the Chronicom eventually, but their fight with her is brutal, claustrophobic and punchy: significantly grittier than May’s usual, elegantly-choreographed action sequences.

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Melinda May | purefandom.com

The Chronicoms are still just there. What are they even trying to do at this point? We get a little hint, as a new Chronicom leader is introduced early in the episode, but everything still feels slightly confusing: why don’t the Chronicoms infiltrate multiple timelines simultaneously, forcing the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to spread out? Why do they even care so much about S.H.I.E.L.D. anyway? There’s still far too many questions about them, and not enough answers.

But let’s not end it on a negative note: I loved this episode. I’m a little nervous to see what happens next week, since I don’t like the idea of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. watching from the sidelines as Daniel Sousa is killed, but I’m also cautiously optimistic: Daisy Johnson almost had Wilfred Malick killed in the 1930’s – could she rescue Sousa in the 50’s? Could she sneak him onboard the Zephyr One, and they could fly off and have more adventures? Sign me up for that spinoff.

Episode Rating: 8.8/10

“Self-Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker” Review!

Netflix’s Self-Made is a mere four episodes long, and each episode is under an hour long, but somehow never once feels too short or too fast-paced: in fact, at multiple points while watching the miniseries, I found myself mistakenly thinking I had watched more episodes than I really had. And that’s because there’s a lot of material in this show – because, shocker, the story of Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first self-made female millionaire and a pioneer in black history, is actually just as fascinating as the oft-repeated tales of rich white men. Who’d have guessed?

Showrunner Kasi Lemmons doesn’t just focus on all the defining moments of Madam C.J. Walker’s life either: while the series does center around this incredible woman’s rise to fame and fortune and the legacy that outlasted her, Lemmons also finds time to turn the spotlight on two equally interesting women who circled the Madam during her life: her daughter A’Lelia, who became a fixture of Harlem culture during the 1920’s; and Addie Monroe, a fictional character heavily based on Madam C.J. Walker’s real-life business partner and later rival, Annie Malone.

Madam C.J. Walker
thewrap.com

These three women each find themselves using different tactics and strategies to navigate through early 20th Century America, but it’s Madam C.J. Walker, a St. Louis laundress who starts out the series having just been abandoned by her abusive, alcoholic husband, who comes out on top, rising to prominence as the leading creator and seller of hair and beauty products for black women. From her humble beginnings as the daughter of former slaves to sharing a scene with another Gilded Age tycoon, John D. Rockefeller himself (who offers her some characteristically unhelpful advice on how to deal with workers’ strikes), the Madam is portrayed as a woman determined to make a name for herself and find independence and purpose in what was almost exclusively a man’s world. Octavia Spencer, of course, delivers a fantastic performance, bringing out Madam C.J. Walker’s humor, big heart, and fiery determination: though the series could easily have depicted the Madam as an invincible character breaking down the patriarchy one business deal at a time (and indeed, the idea is tempting, never more so than when our heroine challenges the noted activist Booker T. Washington over his sexist views), it instead succeeds because of how it shows her as a woman with ordinary flaws and weaknesses, as well as incredible strength. This is most apparent when it comes to her relationships with her family: from her husband, C.J. Walker, who has some…difficulty…being anything less than the Walker family’s sole breadwinner; to her father-in-law, who somehow manages to be the funniest character on a show that also stars Tiffany Haddish; to Haddish’s A’Lelia, Madam C.J. Walker’s daughter and closest confidante.

A’Lelia is a brilliant, larger-than-life figure alongside her more reserved, steely mother. She kind of has to be: A’Lelia became most famous later in life for her contributions to the arts as a patron of black musicians, artists, writers and other creatives. The series spends a considerable amount of time following A’Lelia as she come to terms with the fact that she doesn’t share her mother’s dreams, and simultaneously discovers her true calling. But she and her mother clash a number of times as they diverge on how to establish a legacy for the Walker company and family. This situation is made more volatile when it becomes clear that A’Lelia is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, who has no interest in settling down with a husband or having children.

And then we have Carmen Ejogo’s Addie Monroe, a character who, as I previously noted, is based on Madam C.J. Walker’s actual business rival. Though she initially comforts and cares for Walker (back when the Madam was still only destitute Sarah Breedlove, doing chores for Monroe in exchange for hair-growth treatments), she quickly parts ways from her former friend after Walker expresses an interest in helping Monroe sell her product – which Monroe, a light-skinned African-American woman, thinks will destroy her public image. But when Walker’s own products outsell Monroe’s and threaten the latter’s business, the rivalry between the two entrepreneurs forces them to think up bigger, bolder plans for their companies, until they both become obsessed with trying to outsmart each other.

Madam C.J. Walker
relevantmagazine.com

But in the end, even though Monroe is still mostly a villainous character, she’s also a businesswoman just like The Madam – and a theme prevalent in Self-Made is that when one woman succeeds, all women succeed. It becomes the cornerstone of Walker’s career, and we see its effects near the finale of the series during a montage (which is strongly reminiscent of an infomercial, but I’ll let that slide) of various women who break the fourth wall to talk about the ways that Walker inspired them to pursue their own dreams and forge their own paths in life – interestingly, there’s a fair bit of fourth wall breaking in the series: for instance, the events of the first episode are intercut with a scene of Walker and Monroe battling it out in a metaphorical boxing match. This is one of the series’ few questionable creative decisions, since it seems to have no real impact other than to make the aforementioned infomercial ending organic rather than jarring.

Apart from that, the series has impeccable production design, cinematography and, of course, hair and makeup (“Hair is power,” Walker declares in one scene: and she couldn’t be more right). Kasi Lemmons and her team have done an excellent job bringing this historical heroine’s life story to the screen in a way that makes her feel very much alive, and just as monumental as any of the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies.

So what did you think of Self-Made? Share your own thoughts and opinions in the comments below!

Series Rating: 9/10

“Self Made: Inspired By The Life Of Madam C.J. Walker” Trailer Review!

The so-called “great men of history” are all well and good, but have you ever heard of one Madam C.J. Walker? No? Well then, Netflix has got you covered, because the first trailer for their upcoming biopic-miniseries based on the African-American entrepreneur’s epic life-story just dropped today.

Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer plays the Louisiana-born businesswoman who rose to fame and a considerable amount of fortune in the early 20th Century, becoming America’s first self-made female millionaire and the wealthiest African-American woman in the United States. This retelling of C.J. Walker’s life appears to focus on her relationship with her family, including her daughter A’Lelia and her second husband, Charles. But the trailer also puts plenty of attention on the lavish luxuries of the Gilded Age that C.J. Walker, after a hard-fought struggle to become one of the country’s leading developers of women’s cosmetics and beauty products, was able to enjoy. There’s even a couple of elaborately choreographed dance sequences which look like a lot of fun – and trust me, it was hard to resist dancing when I heard Ruby Amanfu’s “I’m A Ruler” playing over the trailer.

Madam C.J. Walker
afrotech.com

Spencer is surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, including Tiffany Haddish (who has been slowly transitioning from comedy to drama with mixed results), Blair Underwood, and Carmen Ejogo, who plays Spencer’s business rival. Self Made is directed by Kasi Lemmons, who recently directed a more high-profile biopic of another African-American pioneer: abolitionist and Civil War heroine Harriet Tubman, whose story Lemmons adapted in Harriet. Hopefully, Self-Made will help to get people talking (and most importantly, learning) about Walker and other African-American historical figures who may not be instantly recognizable to the general audience.

So how does Self-Made look to you? What other African-American icons deserve to be immortalized in film and on TV? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!

Trailer Rating: 8/10

“The Green Knight” Trailer Review!

The epic tale of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, one of the most legendary stories of chivalry, honor and valor to come out of King Arthur’s court, is absolutely not the sort of thing one would expect to be turned into a surreal horror/dark fantasy thriller, but you know what? It just might work.

Dev Patel stars in the first trailer for this spooky retelling of the Medieval legend, which tells the story of a young knight in Camelot who is challenged to a duel by the terrifying Green Knight, and has to prove his worthiness through a series of tests. The best version of the epic, naturally, is the translation by English author J.R.R. Tolkien. I’m not sure which version director David Lowery is drawing from, or whether he’s taking bits and pieces of all the best translations and then adding mostly new content, but he appears to be leaning into the story’s pagan origins (pagan horror is a genre that has just recently begun to flourish, with the success of Midsommar, and pagan Medieval horror is a genre I don’t know if anybody has touched upon yet), and using this story to highlight just how many Christian traditions and legends are rooted in paganism. At least, I’m guessing that’s why we see kings wearing burning halos in this trailer, and Christian Medieval life threatened by apparitions, spectral visitors and horrors in the dark.

The Green Knight himself, Sir Gawain’s sworn enemy, is a sight to behold: he wields a huge battle-axe, and has a face carved from wood, with a bristly, twiggy beard. Retellings of the tale have always struggled to define what he is: Tolkien called him the “most difficult character” in the entire poem, and other scholars have alternately described him as a version of the Green Man of Celtic mythology, the Devil, an amalgamation of the Greek god Hades and Jesus, or a character rife with homosexual symbolism. So, um…take your pick, I guess?

So will you be going to see this creepy take on a Camelot classic? And what do you think of Dev Patel as Sir Gawain? Share your own thoughts, theories and opinions in the comments below!

Trailer Review: 7.5/10

“The King” Movie Review!

In the eyes of history buffs, The King will probably be a decent, if boringly conventional retelling of a fascinating story from the vaults of Medieval history. For fans of Shakespeare, this interpretation of the bard’s work, watered down in the telling, will probably be a bland disappointment. But in my opinion, the movie, while not particularly fresh or exciting, is worth a watch merely for the performances from Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, accompanied by Nicholas Britell’s beautiful score. And if you find yourself drifting off in the first half of the movie, with its interminable gray color palette, dreary dialogue and half-hearted brutality – simply fast forward to when Pattinson shows up about an hour in, at which point the movie finally sheds some of its solemn trappings, develops a faint splash of color, and actually gets interesting.

The story itself is classic: the brief, tumultuous reign of King Henry V (Timothée Chalamet) of England, who stormed and nearly conquered France in 1415. But with two versions of the story out there – the historical account, and Shakespeare’s heavily fictionalized version – the film goes for the least interesting option: trying to blend the two into one coherent whole, using historical realism to set the scene, but sticking faux-Shakespearean dialogue into the mouths of its actors, who, to their credit, actually make it sound halfway decent – up to a point. Director David Michôd and writer and star Joel Edgerton haven’t made anywhere near enough additions or alterations to the story, and as a result The King often feels like it’s treading on well-worn ground – or rather, sinking in the muddy field of Agincourt, weighed down by plate armor and brooding plot. To put it simply, the movie isn’t particularly fun, and it doesn’t have much room to breathe. But what it lacks in originality of voice, it makes up for with the casting of two stellar performers.

"The King" Movie Review! 1
indiewire.com

Chalamet embodies the young king of England with a stone-cold solemnity that sets the tone for the whole movie – the rest of the movie, however, fails to achieve the same balance of neutrality and watchability as Chalamet does consistently. Rather, the movie itself begins to fall away and fade into fog, while Chalamet’s Henry becomes more clearly defined with each passing minute, until, in its closing scenes, he is the only life it has left. And what life he possesses! Typically seen as a dewy-eyed Hollywood heartthrob, Chalamet is here a gaunt, pale figure with leering eyes that disguise a heart longing for peace in his time – he is at times inspiring (as when he rallies his men for battle on the morn of Agincourt, using dialogue that is nowhere near as impressive as the St. Crispin’s Day speech his character utters in Shakespeare’s play but still sounds good because it’s Timothée Chalamet), or terrifying (as when he confronts his dying father in the latter’s bedchamber, ripping the sheets away from the bed, letting the old man shiver and tremble as the life slips from his body). But he is always a commanding presence onscreen, never rivaled by any of his castmates until Pattinson enters the picture, challenging Chalamet’s calm with a startlingly zany performance that turns The King into one of 2019’s most unexpectedly weird movies.

Pattinson, another actor trying to reshape his image in the public conscious, is a terrifying/hysterically funny revelation in his role as the Dauphin of France. Other reviewers are conflicted about his portrayal of the character, saying he ruins the serious nature of the film, or, alternatively, is its one saving grace. A callous, sadistic idiot, the Dauphin somehow manages to seem like an absolutely credible and formidable force even while being an unabashed peacock, strutting about in fancy black armor, laughing like a maniac and grinning dumbly at his own offensive jokes. But while I personally loved Pattinson’s portrayal, I can easily understand why critics can’t decide whether they love him or hate him – his performance is so deliberately exaggerated that it feels like it must be saying something, or attempting to: but what? If he’s merely trying to insult the French, then at least he’s made Shakespeare happy.

"The King" Movie Review! 2
pajiba.com

(Something that struck me in Pattinson’s first scene in The King, while he was busy talking about how he wanted to drain Henry’s body of its blood and bury it under a tiny French tree, was how happy I am that he will be soon be the DCEU’s new Batman: immediately after thinking that, Pattinson turned his head in such a way that it almost appeared that he had elf-ears for a fleeting moment – and that, coupled with his long blond wig, impressive eyebrows and sinuous physicality, made me gasp, pause the movie and go on Twitter to express my regret that Pattinson had not been cast as Sauron in Amazon Prime’s upcoming Lord Of The Rings prequel series. I’m sorry I have to bring everything back to LOTR, but this is something that I cannot now unsee and cannot ever forgive Pattinson or Amazon Prime for: just think of the beautiful young Sauron that might have been, gifted with Pattinson’s charismatic craziness! It would have been perfect).

The supporting cast is okay, though the only other standout is Ben Mendelsohn as the aging King Henry IV. Joel Edgerton’s Falstaff is made out to be the film’s Everyman archetype, but the character is boring and lifeless (and Edgerton’s performance is so tired that it’s hard to tell whether his yawns are in-character or not). Then there’s the Archbishop of Canterbury (Andrew Havill), who I feel deserves a dishonorable mention simply because of how insufferably annoying he managed to be in the five minutes of screen time he possessed. As for female characters – there are a grand total of three. Lily Rose-Depp is merely okay in the role of Catherine of Valois, who only appears in the film’s last twenty minutes and has one scene of importance; her performance is most notable for the fact that Catherine claims at the outset that she can’t speak English and then proceeds to do so anyway for the rest of the scene.

The film suffers greatly from its muted color palette, and cinematography that is, for the most part, drab and uninspiring. The sole exception is the scene in which Henry V’s forces besiege the castle of Harfleur, using massive trebuchets to launch flaming missiles over the fortress walls: who doesn’t love a good trebuchet? They’re far more interesting than catapults, in my honest opinion. And filming them in action also allows for plenty of interesting camera-work, as The King proves beyond a doubt. Beyond that, the film has nothing going for it in terms of visual splendor – there just isn’t any. The splash of somber green we get from the field of Agincourt is a brief respite from the damp grays and browns of Merry Old England – but even that is quickly transformed into a melee of upturned mud, and the filth of violence.

For history buffs (myself included) the legendary battle of Agincourt is what will keep you watching until the end of the movie: and it’s teased in a big fashion, with a single line of dialogue delivered by Pattinson’s Dauphin in one of the most hilariously exaggerated French accents you’ll hear outside of a Loony Tunes sketch, guaranteed to make your skin crawl in anticipation of the inevitable – “Let us make famous that field out there, this little village of Agincourt that will forever mark the sight of your callow disgrace.” I’m glad I watched The King for that line alone – and thankfully the ensuing battle delivers exactly what the film needs: it’s brutally epic, chaotic, and realistic. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to drown in mud, then The King is the film for you!

An additional incentive to watch the movie (beyond mud-drownings) is the score by Nicholas Britell, which is stirring and appropriately ominous.

All in all, did I have fun watching The King? No, not exactly. I don’t think it tells the story of Henry V better than any history book can – certainly not better than Shakespeare (and I don’t typically praise Shakespeare). But I do think it’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of either Chalamet or Pattinson, or want to check out a “highbrow” sampling of their work. Just don’t expect too much from the movie itself – it may be called The King, but its crown belongs firmly to its stars.

Movie Rating: 6.9/10