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Pleasantville’s Themes of Repression Remain Potent 20 Years Later

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Pleasantville’s Themes of Repression Remain Potent 20 Years Later

Not every film is made to stand the test of time, especially those commenting on specific socio-political events or struggles. A film can become dated for a myriad of reasons, some of which are out of the filmmaker’s control. So with the 20th anniversary of writer/director Gary Ross’ film Pleasantville already here—a movie I love, but haven’t seen in quite some time—I was curious to revisit the comedy/drama to see how well it holds up.

While the basic premise finds a pair of 90s teenagers being transported into the black-and-white world of a Leave It to Beaver-like 1950s TV show where the weather is always 72 degrees and the basketball team has never missed a shot, Pleasantville is highly metaphorical in nature. The theme is one of repression—both external and internal—and thanks in large part to the film’s timeless quality and avoidance of specific references, Pleasantville remains an incredibly potent allegory two decades later. Especially for its intended audience of teenagers.

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The admittedly very 90s setup of Pleasantville establishes siblings David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) as teenagers who in their own ways are trapped. David is so cripplingly introverted that the only comfort he seems to find is in disappearing into a marathon of the classic TV series Pleasantville. Jennifer, meanwhile, is living a life completely dominated by social status.

When David and Jennifer are transported to Pleasantville, David quickly embraces the “perfect” nature of the town. As suggested by the title, everything is in the service of pleasantness. There’s no knowledge of art, sex, profanity, or even geography outside Pleasantville because, as the town insists, there’s simply no need. But Jennifer starts rocking the boat when she has sex with her show-within-a-movie character’s boyfriend, Skip (Paul Walker). Unsurprisingly, Skip becomes obsessed with this new act and the town’s Lovers Lane (which previously consisted of hand-holding at its most intense), has now become a haven for teenagers to fool around.

RELATED: 9 Essential Reese Witherspoon Performances, From ‘Legally Blonde’ to ‘Big Little Lies’

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While sex is the first major disruption for the town, the film never pretends like this act in and of itself is enough to break the spell of repression. While Jennifer is busy knocking boots with the school hottie (and remains in black and white), David is making waves of his own—unbeknownst to him. David explains to the owner of the local soda fountain, Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels) that the routine at the shop doesn’t always have to be exactly the same day-in and day-out. This lights a fire in Mr. Johnson, who’s really an artist at heart. This newfound improvisation sets off a spark of creativity that blossoms and eventually manifests in Mr. Johnson painting a nude portrait of Betty (Joan Allen) on the store window, causing an intense uproar in the town.

Slowly but surely, both people and objects in Pleasantville begin turning color. Now, when I first saw this film as a pre-teen, it took me a spell to figure out the thematic importance behind the film’s use of color. But when I did manage to suss out its true meaning, it was as if the whole film had been unlocked.

Indeed, adults and keen-eyed viewers may find this allegory a bit simple, but it’s clear from the onset that the intended audience for Pleasantville is youth. And what an important lesson to be learned as such an impressionable age. Not only is Ross’ use of an idyllic 1950s suburb as the embodiment of repression spot-on, but the complexity with which the color is rolled out is a delight.

Those who break free from repression are able to turn into color, while those still imprisoned—either by the establishment or themselves—remain black and white. You’ll recall that Betty, a lonely housewife who dutifully cares for her husband and children, turns color when she finally does something for herself. Mr. Johnson turns color when he allows his artistic mind to roam free. And even Big Bob (J.T. Walsh), the mayor and authoritarian figure of the town, turns color when he allows his true anger to show instead of repressing it behind a façade of pleasantness.

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The film certainly dabbles in socio-political repression, with strong parallels to the civil rights movement all the way down to “No Coloreds” signs when this “disease” of color starts spreading. But it doesn’t really get too specific in this regard, and admittedly there are literally no people of color in the entire film. This lack of actual diversity stands out when viewing the film through the prism of 2018, but it’s also clear through the filmmaking techniques that Ross is after a more general idea of repression, with an authoritarian bent. Indeed, most of the shots of Big Bob are framed low and canted, calling to mind archival footage of ruthless dictators. It’s no wonder Ross would go on to direct the film adaptation of The Hunger Games.

But trying to read Pleasantville as a film about one specific kind of repression misses the point. David and Jennifer both turn into color for very different reasons—David when he finally stands up for Betty, thus risking his close-held anonymity and introversion, and Jennifer when she stops caring what other people think and follows her own desires.

The film’s message is delivered almost verbatim in its closing scenes, when David returns to his present day life and consoles his single mother, telling her there’s no “right” way to live your life. There’s no ideal. There is no Pleasantville. It’s up to us to find comfort in ourselves, even if that means going against the grain of what’s “normal.” Repression takes many forms and can come both from outside forces and ourselves. And while 2018’s politically charged climate makes breaking free seem like an even tougher prospect, if we simply give up and accept the box that we’re put in, we’re closing ourselves off to a colorful world of possibility.

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

Hitting the three-quarter-century mark usually means a retirement home, a nursing facility, or if you’re lucky to be blessed with relatively good health and savings to match, living in a gated community in Arizona or Florida.

For Sylvester Stallone, however, it means something else entirely: starring in the first superhero-centered film of his decades-long career in the much-delayed Samaritan. Unfortunately for Stallone and the audience on the other side of the screen, the derivative, turgid, forgettable results won’t get mentioned in a career retrospective, let alone among the ever-expanding list of must-see entries in a genre already well past its peak.

For Stallone, however, it’s better late than never when it involves the superhero genre. Maybe in getting a taste of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with his walk-on role in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel several years ago, Stallone thought anything Marvel can do, I can do even better (or just as good in the nebulous definition of the word).

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The property Stallone and his team found for him, Samaritan, a little-known graphic novel released by a small, almost negligible, publisher, certainly takes advantage of Stallone’s brute-force physicality and his often underrated talent for near-monosyllabic brooding (e.g., the Rambo series), but too often gives him to little do or say as the lone super-powered survivor, the so-called “Samaritan” of the title, of a lifelong rivalry with his brother, “Nemesis.” Two brothers entered a fire-ravaged building and while both were presumed dead, one brother did survive (Stallone’s Joe Smith, a garbageman by day, an appliance repairman by night).

In the Granite City of screenwriter Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room, Season of the Witch), the United States, and presumably the rest of the world, teeters on economic and political collapse, with a recession spiraling into a depression, steady gigs difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, and the city’s neighborhoods rocked by crime and violence. No one’s safe, not even 13-year-old Sam (Javon Walker), Joe’s neighbor.

When he’s not dodging bullies connected to a gang, he’s falling under the undue influence of Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), a low-rent gang leader with an outsized ego and the conviction that he and only he can take on Nemesis’s mantle and along with that mantle, a hammer “forged in hate,” to orchestrate a Bane-like plan to plunge the city into chaos and become a wealthy power-broker in the process.

Schut’s woefully underwritten script takes a clumsy, haphazard approach to world-building, relying on a two-minute animated sequence to open Samaritan while a naive, worshipful Sam narrates Samaritan and Nemesis’s supposedly tragic, Cain and Abel-inspired backstory. Schut and director Julius Avery (Overlord) clumsily attempt to contrast Sam’s childish belief in messiah-like, superheroic saviors stepping in to save humanity from itself and its own worst excesses, but following that path leads to authoritarianism and fascism (ideas better, more thoroughly explored in Watchmen and The Boys).

While Sam continues to think otherwise, Stallone’s superhero, 25 years past his last, fatal encounter with his presumably deceased brother, obviously believes superheroes are the problem and not the solution (a somewhat reasonable position), but as Samaritan tracks Joe and Sam’s friendship, Sam giving Joe the son he never had, Joe giving Sam the father he lost to street violence well before the film’s opening scene, it gets closer and closer to embracing, if not outright endorsing Sam’s power fantasies, right through a literally and figuratively explosive ending. Might, as always, wins regardless of how righteous or justified the underlying action.

It’s what superhero audiences want, apparently, and what Samaritan uncritically delivers via a woefully under-rendered finale involving not just unconvincing CGI fire effects, but a videogame cut-scene quality Stallone in a late-film flashback sequence that’s meant to be subversively revelatory, but will instead lead to unintentional laughter for anyone who’s managed to sit the entirety of Samaritan’s one-hour and 40-minute running time.

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Samaritan is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

Samaritan

Cast
  • Sylvester Stallone
  • Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton
  • Pilou Asbæk

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Matt Shakman Is In Talks To Direct ‘Fantastic Four’

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According to a new report, Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct the upcoming MCU project, Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios has been very hush-hush regarding Fantastic Four to the point where no official announcements have been made other than the film’s release date. No casting news or literally anything other than rumors has been released regarding the project. We know that Fantastic Four is slated for release on November 8th, 2024, and will be a part of Marvel’s Phase 6. There are also rumors that the cast of the new Fantastic Four will be announced at the D23 Expo on September 9th.

Fantastic Four is still over two years from release, and we assume we will hear more news about the project in the coming months. However, the idea of the Fantastic Four has already been introduced into the MCU. John Krasinski played Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The cameo was a huge deal for fans who have been waiting a long time for the Fantastic Four to enter the MCU. When Disney acquired Twenty Century Fox in 2019 we assumed that the Fox Marvel characters would eventually make their way into the MCU. It’s been 3 years and we already have had an X-Men and Fantastic Four cameo – even if they were from another universe.

Deadline is reporting that Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct Fantastic Four. Shakman served as the director for Wandavision and has had an extensive career. He directed two episodes of Game of Thrones and an episode of The Boys, and he had a long stint on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There is nothing official yet, but Deadline’s sources say that Shakman is currently in talks for the job and things are headed in the right direction.

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To be honest, I was a bit more excited when Jon Watts was set to direct. I’m sure Shakman is a good director, but Watts proved he could handle a tentpole superhero film with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Wandavision was good, but Watts’ style would have been perfect for Fantastic Four. The film is probably one of the most anticipated films in Marvel’s upcoming slate films and they need to find the best person they can to direct. Is that Matt Shakman? It could be, but whoever takes the job must realize that Marvel has a lot riding on this movie. The other Fantastic Four films were awful and fans deserve better. Hopefully, Marvel knocks it out of the park as they usually do. You can see for yourself when Fantastic Four hits theaters on November 8th, 2024.

Film Synopsis: One of Marvel’s most iconic families makes it to the big screen: the Fantastic Four.

Source: Deadline

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Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase Star in ‘Zombie Town’ Mystery Teen Romancer (Exclusive)

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Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase have entered Zombie Town, a mystery teen romancer based on author R.L. Stine’s book of the same name.

The indie, now shooting in Ontario, also stars Henry Czerny and co-teen leads Marlon Kazadi and Madi Monroe. The ensemble cast includes Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch of the Canadian comedy show Kids in the Hall.

Canadian animator Peter Lepeniotis will direct Zombie Town. Stine’s kid’s book sees a quiet town upended when 12-year-old Mike and his friend, Karen, see a horror movie called Zombie Town and unexpectedly see the title characters leap off the screen and chase them through the theater.

Zombie Town will premiere in U.S. theaters before streaming on Hulu and then ABC Australia in 2023.

“We are delighted to bring the pages of R.L. Stine’s Zombie Town to the screen and equally thrilled to be working with such an exceptional cast and crew on this production. A three-time Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award winner with book sales of over $500 million, R.L. Stine has a phenomenal track record of crafting stories that engage and entertain audiences,” John Gillespie, Trimuse Entertainment founder and executive producer, said in a statement.

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Executive producers are Trimuse Entertainment, Toonz Media Group, Lookout Entertainment, Viva Pictures and Sons of Anarchy actor Kim Coates.  

Paco Alvarez and Mark Holdom of Trimuse negotiated the deal to acquire the rights to Stine’s Zombie Town book.

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