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Beyond the Screen : Spider-Man Leak, Free Guy Boom, Petite Maman, Sonny Chiba Gone and Villeneuve in Hot Water


Every so often when we turn to cover a recent development in movie news, a week like the one behind us takes place. Rather than leave each of the stories unreported, or bother picking one and stringing it out into a suitable length, we'll be covering the five events in the world of movies making waves right now.

First Spider-man: No Way Home Trailer Leaks Online

There has been a great deal of speculation surrounding the next installment in the Spider-Man film series. Theories abound suggesting a multiverse is at play, allowing previous Spider-men (Maguire and Garfield) to enter the film, Doctor Strange co-leading, as well as the confirmed cast members Alfred Molina returning as Doc Ock and Jamie Foxx as Electro.

With all the secrecy, things have been kept thoroughly under wraps; until now. A trailer with unfinished VFX has been making the rounds all over the internet, as Sony scrambles to suppress the leak with copyright take downs. The trailer is legitimate and is even watermarked with the film's VFX artist, Wassila Lmouaci's, name. Now that the cat is out of the bag, with this being Marvel's most anticipated release since Avengers: Endgame, the studio has decided to fold and release the trailer officially, one day after the leak.

Free Guy Overperforms at the Box Office

A family friendly slant, original IP-branded marketing, and great audience reception has ensured that Ryan Reynolds' Free Guy not only opened to an above estimation $28.4 million debut, but has stayed strong in the face of new competition, crossing the $ 100 million worldwide mark over the weekend.

The film is a theatrical only release, helping its earnings drop only 34% in its second week, the best hold for a pandemic era wide release to date. This theatrical release may also be assisting in generating a healthy interest in the film, as word of mouth spreads and more and more viewers are encouraged to take the trip down to the local movie theatre, rather than add Free Guy to their endlessly expanding streaming watch list.

Céline Sciamma's New Film gets a Trailer

European festival circuit films generally receive muted but wholehearted praise, there are very few directors running in those circles who command “hype”. But with the reception of her previous film Portrait of a Lady on Fire being nothing short of rapturous, Sciamma has had eyes on her next solo directorial production since its announcement.

The film, Petite Maman, about an 8-year-old who meets a girl her own age in the woods beyond her mother's childhood home, has received exceptionally favorable reviews from critics who've seen it at the Berlin International Film Festival and via its French release, and English viewers can now expand their anticipation by watching the newly released trailer. Sciamma has said the film uses the work of Hayao Miyazaki as a “compass”.

Martial Arts Legend Sonny Chiba dies aged 82

The star known for his intense and ferocious performances died in his native Japan due to pneumonia, as a complication from Corona-virus, on the 19th of August. He had performed in over 200 films, most martial arts movies, of which he remains a patron saint. Quentin Tarantino re-introduced Chiba to modern western audiences, first through True Romance's Clarence's Sonny Chiba triple feature, and then by casting him as the mythical swordsmith Hattori Hanzō, who crafts the bride's deadly katana.

Chiba had achieved the rank of black belt in Kyokushin Karate, Ninjutsu, Goju-ryu karate, Shorinji Kempo, Judo and Kendo. If you'd like to watch a film of his as tribute, out of those 209, go for The Street Fighter from 1974, the first film ever released in America to be rated X for violent content alone. There is a moment where Chiba punches a man square on the head so hard that the film cuts to an x-ray of his skull caving in.

Denis Villeneuve In Hot Water over HBO Max Comments

Villeneuve has expressed disappointment at the prospect of audiences watching his upcoming sci-fi epic Dune on their TVs, since “It's a movie that has been made as a tribute to the big-screen experience.” He has likened watching Dune at home to putting a speedboat in your bathtub. Naturally, as the filmmaker, Villeneuve is entitled to his opinion on the best way to experience the film, but that hasn't stopped a large portion of the internet from taking the opportunity to drag another artist to defend the decisions of the studio behind them.

Some Twitter users malign that Villeneuve's comments are elitist and callous towards audience members who are weary to return to theatres as cases rise. Others suggest that the director is behind the times, that he and Martin Scorsese and all the rest of the old guard need to pipe down and let the kids watch movies on their phones if they like. One wonders how many of the users voicing their complaints would actually bother to see Dune either way.

 
New Material: When Art Imitates Life Again


Beloved and popular South African comedian, Riaad Moosa, is one of the country's few Muslim stand up comedians. While best known for his stand up comedy, the multi-talented man is also a medical doctor and an actor. Stand up is his first love, a craft he's honed over the years. Having seen him perform at the Comedy Warehouse on a new talent showcase night, you could sense Moosa was going places based on his easy stage presence, charm, rapport and hilarious stories. He's used his doctor slash comedian narrative to fuel his career, which culminated in him writing Material with co-writer and director Craig Freimond (Beyond the River).

New Material Movie Riaad Moosa 2021

Material, a play on the word's application to both comedy and the textile business, turned Moosa's biographical story of wanting to become a stand up comic into a film narrative. While it was far from perfect, Material had the heart, laughs and spirit to make it a hit with audiences. The first film was built around a father-son relationship as a stern Vincent Ebrahim (The Kumars at No. 42) bumped heads with Riaad Moosa in his attempt to keep the family material business in the family. Spurring the dramatic core of Material, the stand up comedy added a lighter touch as Cassim's career takes off in spite of his father's wishes.

A journey of self-determination where stand up served as a metaphorical attempt to carve his own way, Material was not only funny but touching. Released in 2012, the numbers have switched around for the sequel's cinematic release scheduled for 15 October 2021. Instead of a boring title like 'Material 2', the filmmakers have opted for New Material in keeping with the original film's play on words.

Taking another page from the first film's playbook, New Material parallels story elements from reality as Moosa himself grew in stature as a performer. Now at peace with his father, Cassim is struggling to find a balance between living with his aging parents, finding time for his wife and raising a child. Not satisfied with performing to niche audiences in Johannesburg, he decides to take the show on the road with his stand up buddies played by Joey Rasdien and Schalk Bezuidenhout. A new sponsor wants more than Cassim can deliver and difficult decisions rise to the surface as expanding his national audience leads to international opportunities.

New Material also stars Rajesh Gopie, Zakeeya Patel, Kurt Schoonraad, Shashi Naidoo with Denise Newman reprising her role. Produced by Robbie Thorpe (Vaya, Beyond the River) and edited by Gavin Hood's trusted film editor Megan Gill (Official Secrets, Eye in the Sky), the sequel is in safe hands.

It's hard to believe it's been almost a decade since the original film, which won Golden Horns for Freimond as Best Director, Moosa as Best Actor and Ebrahim as Best Supporting Actor. New Material seems like it's more of a road trip, whereas Material had a strong focus on family drama. Similar to the first film, the trailer held back and wasn't a fair reflection of what to expect on screen. It seems as though the same may be true for New Material.

New Material has been ready to release for a while but due to the pandemic, one expects it was held back as lockdown measures forced cinemas to close. Scheduled for October, let's hope that the film fares well given the current constraints and patrons feel more at ease returning to cinemas. Following strict safety protocols, these environments are doing their best to comply with health regulations and with current spacing, you'll be able to spread out without knocking elbows with a stranger. While you're at it, it's probably a good idea to rewatch the first film to get you up-to-speed with the sequel.

 
Peter Sellers and Harmful Stereotypes at the Movies


Peter Sellers is regarded as a comedic genius, his most famous roles being in The Pink Panther, Dr Strangelove and The Party. Playing an Indian man by the name of Hrundi V. Bakshi, this 1968 film will draw direct comparisons with Breakfast at Tiffany's, Short Circuit and even Gandhi where white actors portrayed Asian characters. While Ben Kingsley's performance won him an Oscar, making it more respectable and playing the part with a sense of dignity and honesty rare for a film of its era, this appropriation would not be permissible in today's more enlightened age. Blackface or brownface, it seems that no matter how you swing it these days, it will almost always be deemed inappropriate and offensive. While there are many who would want to cancel these film artefacts, they serve as important time capsules and echoes of another time however misguided.

Condemnation of racial-facsimile was at one time an impressively forward-thinking ideal when you consider that the art of film is all about illusion. From Shakespeare's days, actors have played a variety of men, women and even props, essentially called on to use their unique performance abilities to interpret just about anything and anyone. However, taking historical and political context into account, there is a much greater sensitivity around cross-racial performances. Harking back to derogatory and racist acts that cast a long shadow in the world of film since the very inauguration of Hollywood with Birth of a Nation's overt racism and harmful representations, one can understand the stigma. The matter is further complicated by interpretation, which if used in combination with any stereotyping tends to reinforce and propagate racist views.

In The Party, Peter Sellers is playing a bumbling actor of Indian descent, who keeps finding himself in socially awkward situations. While his nationality puts him at odds with the rest of the party, making him a fish-out-of-water in almost every respect, one wonders how the film would have worked if he'd played a version of himself. We've seen the rubber-faced Leslie Nielsen do brilliant work with Frank Dreben of Police Squad without having to appropriate another race or nationality. So it appears Sellers is adopting another race to poke fun and leverage the character's foreign status. Is he trading on his accent, the conceit that he's not actually Indian and how does this campy undertone contribute to the comedy?

From the outset, Hrundi's buffoonery as an actor in a big picture discredits the character who should be blacklisted as an on-set liability but mistakenly ends up on an A-list. While the situational comedy is undeniably brilliant with a drunken waiter frequently upstaging Sellers, The Party has influenced the likes of Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean and Mike Myers' Austin Powers. Mr Bean also uses words sparingly and has been treated as a sore thumb in his own society. Realising the universality of the comedy, he also proves that Sellers didn't have to appropriate another nationality to be funny. Perhaps his choosing to play a British oddball is the reason Mr Bean isn’t quite as well-received or honoured at home as he is away. Myers has always been afraid that the no-talent police would come a-knocking and after turkeys like The Guru, it seemed that his headline star days were numbered. Based on the larger-than-life swinging '60s atmosphere of The Party and his turn in the other Casino Royale as Bond, it seems as though the uproarious Austin Powers owes a great deal of his success to the late Sellers.

The Party hasn't drawn as much criticism in recent years as Audrey Hepburn classic, Breakfast at Tiffany's. Mickey Rooney's racist performance as an Asian neighbour is harmful, offensive and in bad taste even during the age it was seen as permissible. One is painfully aware of how harmful Asian stereotypes have persisted in commercials and even films until recently in South Africa. You imagine Mr Yunioshi only made the final cut because of Rooney's status at the time, a short-lived and glorified cameo he'd have rather seen hit the cutting room floor in retrospect. The film is still regarded as a great in spite of this glaring racial slur of a supporting act.

Perhaps Sellers and The Party have dodged the scorn of today's cancel culture because he's no longer with us, so there's no tangible recompense or retribution. Or one could argue that his inappropriate performance has been softened by his empathy, purity of heart and “strangelove” for the character. Starting as a socially awkward third wheel of a guest at a pretentious and swanky Hollywood party, he holds a mirror up to these snooty and two-dimensional people. Trying to keep his head down, he inadvertently attracts the spotlight with his funny antics in spite of the unwanted atmosphere. While there's deep-seated othering at play, his human performance ultimately demonstrates that he's the most upstanding of all the party attendees.

He doesn't imbibe alcohol, showing he's a man of discipline and principle with a number of repeated temptations. He protects a woman from her bigwig date, who tries to leverage his studio executive power over her career to force himself on her. He's the first to get rid of the slogans on the unexpected elephant guest, another issue with The Party in terms of animal rights. He wins the heart of the fairest maiden without trying to "buy her a drink". He offers her a ride home without trying to "go upstairs". As time proceeds and his antics get funnier, he becomes the life and soul of the party. As much as he embarrasses Hrundi V. Bakshi with one hand, he offers dignity with the other, yet the casting decision still leaves a feeling of discomfort going beyond the point of an ill-conceived yet purposeful oversight.

In South Africa, the reception of Leon Schuster represents the layered complexity of the debate. A box office sensation, having famously portrayed many different characters across the demographic spectrum over the decades, his performances actually poke fun at people's prejudices. South Africa's diversity and racial history created a space for the comedian to thrive in disguises and send up just about anyone and everyone. Appropriating other cultures, playing into stereotypes and regularly immersing himself in characters for comedic effect, there was a move to discredit his work in a bid to draw the line. While many would say his candid camera deceptions constitute blackface, there are just as many people who would argue that his antics were not lampooning other races as much as they were showing up narrow-minded bigots. Schuster was attempting to fool people into believing his characters are real and while leaning on harmful stereotypes, he aimed to ensnare his mark rather than harm or offend through appropriation.

One also thinks of Sacha Baron Cohen’s exploits when it comes to over-the-top misrepresentations. Picking on Kazakhstan, ironically a move that has put the relatively unknown country on the map, something he reinforces as a positive spin-off in his sequel. Sacha Baron Cohen has remained edgy based on his inflammatory representations and views, which he’d probably frame as fatal character flaws. While ultimately a send up of America, he flirts with satire to breaking point, entertaining long standing prejudices. Luring marks into agreeing with his character’s sentiment, the ambiguity of his stance is simply blamed on backward and outdated customs as if he was a time-traveler and simply doesn’t know any better. Defining intentionality can be a minefield. While Schuster’s intentions were deemed to be pure in his attempts at poking fun rather than being on a subversive and exploitative bent there’s still a level of accountability at play. Generating this viral quality and shock value is the tightrope Sacha Baron Cohen walks and much like Joan Rivers and Ricky Gervais, if you’ve developed a reputation for being a loose canon, it can provide a level of impunity. Just how far one can go for the sake of comedy or satire, even with one's own racial or religious classification, remains to be quantified.

Hollywood is constantly criticized for whitewashing casts, from Scarlett Johansson playing a popularized role in Ghost in the Shell to performances in Exodus: Gods and Kings where white actors played Egyptians in the time of Moses. A basic litmus test for all of these situations is simply asking the question: does this sit well? Any feeling of discomfort is usually a sure sign that something is not right and gut feels should be taken more seriously in these kinds of casting decisions. One can understand that Scarlett Johansson's fame and name would be a much greater global attraction than a less famous Japanese counterpart. The Hollywood machine is ultimately a business, driven by profits, so perhaps the answer is to create awareness of these wild miscalculations and vote with your money. Support films that maximize local casting and buy movie tickets to films that take a respectful and honourable approach to casting. It seems wise to steer clear of artificial representations or if absolutely necessary, to invite other stakeholders into the decision-making process.

While there's a much greater sensitivity to entertainment products and casting today, we've still got a long way to go when you consider it was only a few years ago that Joseph Fiennes played Michael Jackson. Arguing that it's only wrong if harmful stereotyping or division is promoted, Fiennes contends that he comes from a colour blind legacy where he worked as a stagehand in a production where a black woman portrayed and owned the part of Marilyn Monroe. The controversy of casting decisions like this one rages on when it seems best to operate with even more heightened sensitivity than ever before. Whether laziness, greed, inherent racism or a combination of all three is motivating casting decisions, there need to be more measures or agencies in place to protect against or review these decisions. Most of these discussions seem to be reactionary when it's the kind of talk that should be happening more openly to create awareness rather than simply pointing the finger when someone steps over the line.

 
Is Scarlett Johansson's Lawsuit Trouble for Disney?


Black Widow, the latest entrant in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first since 2019, has set records for a pandemic opening weekend, raking in $80,366,312, the largest opening since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It's also made a big splash by being available to simultaneously purchase for a premium price at home, via Disney+, and has garnered pretty favorable responses from critics and audiences. Another homerun for the company, right?

Well, things have been complicated thoroughly by an announcement from the film's star Scarlett Johansson that Disney had breached a clause in their contract, economically disadvantaging her, whilst favoring the higher ups with large stock in the performance of Disney+. In order to unpack the implications of this lawsuit on the world of blockbuster filmmaking, we must first explain how Disney may have crippled Johansson's earnings. Many big names for Marvel, as well as Disney productions in general, bank on the high grosses of their releases to earn a significant percentage of box office. When cash rolls in from theatres, the actors receive a previously agreed upon cut of the profits. As such, contracts are negotiated to ensure a lengthy theatrical window, meaning the film has ample time to draw in audiences physically, before being placed on streaming services, so as to ensure that a maximum amount of viewers, unlikely to wait, pay to see it. By placing Black Widow on Disney+ premiere access, Johansson alleges her contract has been breached and that she has been deprived of a significant portion of what her salary would have been, had Disney not diverted audiences' revenue to the stay-at-home option. Some media reports suggest that Johansson has lost around $50 million dollars.

Following Johansson's lawyer's first statement, Disney launched a woefully misguided response, attempting to not so subtly shame Johansson for launching the suit. The company alleged that the premium access premiere had “significantly enhanced [Johansson's] ability to earn additional compensation on top of the $20m she has received to date". Outside of this point having nothing to do with whether the terms of Johansson's contract had been violated, Disney was making an attempt to highlight how well off their star already was, basically insinuating that she should pipe down and be grateful. They echoed the sentiment later on in their most blatant attack: “[Johansson's lawsuit is] especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the Covid-19 pandemic".

Scarlett's agent Brian Lourd swiftly denounced Disney's actions and response, backed up by various organisations and public support. "Scarlett has been Disney's partner on nine movies, which have earned Disney and its shareholders billions. They have very deliberately moved the revenue stream and profits to the Disney+ side of the company leaving artistic and financial partners out of their new equation. The company included her salary in their press statement in an attempt to weaponize her success as an artist and businesswoman, as if that were something she should be ashamed of. Disney's direct attack on her character and all else they implied is beneath the company that many of us in the creative community have worked with successfully for decades.” Her lawyer, John Berlinski of Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP, concluded; “It's no secret that Disney is releasing films like Black Widow directly onto Disney+ to increase subscribers and thereby boost the company's stock price – and that it's hiding behind Covid-19 as a pretext to do so.”

It's clear that Disney has curried no favor in their dealings with Johansson. Whether or not the case is robust is another question entirely. The breach is supposedly confined to the implications of a single sentence of her contract. “For the avoidance of doubt, if Producer [Marvel] in its sole discretion determines to release the Picture, then such release shall be a wide theatrical release of the Picture (i.e., no less than 1,500 screens)”. The dispute comes down to whether or not this sentence implies that the release may only be a wide theatrical release (as per Johansson's legal team, thereby making the Disney+ release a breach) or that in the event of a theatrical release, that this release must constitute a wide release (as per Disney, who would then have made good on providing such a release, regardless of the simultaneous streaming release). It's worth noting that Johansson's suit does not claim that Disney has committed a straight breach of contract, but rather tortious interference, meaning someone has damaged the contractual relationship between Scarlett and Disney, causing economic harm. As such, Johansson's chances of beating Disney at their own game are likely slim.

What is of more concern, however, is that Disney has made a serious error in letting the situation deteriorate so thoroughly, compared to how other conglomerates have managed the transition to a hybrid release strategy. In the wake of Johansson's announcement, public personalities and organisations have been slamming Disney, and the suit could make stars a little bit more distrustful of the company, and more likely to demand guaranteed salaries, or a greater share of streaming profits. Companies have been settling scores with disgruntled talent since the pandemic first began, most famously the debacle between Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan. In a bid to reignite interest in their freshly launched streaming service HBO Max, which had netted a dismal subscriber base of just over 8 million viewers, Warner demolished their theatrical window, and opted to release films simultaneously in theatres and on the service. None of their talent had been informed before the decision was finalized, and outrage was strong. Nolan left it all on the table in a quote for the film history books: “Some of our industry's biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.” With concerns over piracy, percentage gross, etc., Nolan is unlikely to return, but aside from this, Warner got their act together and managed to quietly assuage the nerves of their talent. That Disney did not learn as witnesses to this speaks either to their callousness or their confidence.

And so, as the lawsuit moves to inevitably conclude behind closed doors, stars will look to see how they can protect their grosses, CEOs will look to see what their shareholders can abide by, and studios will look to see how they can renegotiate their talent's terms to avoid a similar public falling out.

 
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