(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything.)

It’s difficult to place into words the impact Italian Neorealism has personally had on me. The genre speaks to me on a visceral level. The old Italian films, born out of desperation, still hold up against the blockbusters of today. In an age where authoritarianism is making a comeback, we are witnessing a subconscious reemergence of the formerly communist left-supported Italian Neorealism movement. A genre “reboot,” so-to-speak, passionately defiant of the Donald Trumps, the Boris Johnsons, the Kim Jong-Uns, the Rodrigo Dutertes, paralleling the recent wave of democratic socialism and a greater societal readiness to accept left politics.

In order to contextualize the circumstances surrounding its reemergence, one must revisit the circumstances out of which Italian Neorealism was born. By drawing modern parallels to classics of the genre with recent films such as Roma, The Florida Project, Tangerine, Support the Girls, Cold War, American Honey, and Winter’s Bone, the sociopolitical and stylistic similarities between Italian Neorealism’s “reboot” and its cinematic predecessor succinctly emerge.

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the lodge trailer new

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything.)

This article contains major spoilers for The Lodge. It also contains discussion of self-harm.

Horror movies often rely on physical violence and cruelty to horrify their audiences. That’s fair; we all have bodies, and we’re afraid of them getting damaged. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Lodge, however, isn’t particularly violent. It isn’t particularly bloody. There are no monsters, and barely any “scares.” Yet it hits harder, conjuring dread on a deeper level, than any conventional horror film of late. An intimate and emotional nightmare, the film wrings audiences into stunned submission, proving that psychological cruelty can hurt far worse than the physical.

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: here’s the problem with our biggest movies relying too heavily on nostalgia.)

The end of any particular year in film and the beginning of the next – to say nothing of the transition between two entire decades – affords us the opportunity to introspect and pinpoint certain filmmaking trends and tendencies that stand out from the crowd, that recur over and over again and become representative of a larger ethos over time. Unfortunately for the ever-vocal “No politics in my entertainment!” crowd, this tends to manifest on an instinctive level for any artist trying to communicate through the movies they make. Human beings are natural storytellers, after all, which is why storytelling encompasses all our combined hopes, fears, triumphs, and flaws of any given moment.

So if movies can’t be neatly excised from the context of their time (as with all art, really), how did this past year put a bow on a decade of pop culture and what did it tell us about our unique and most pressing concerns? Looking back at the films that resonated most tangibly, it seems safe to say that one of the biggest themes of the past year was, well, looking back.

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reason for Avatar's success

Australia is burning. It’s hard to comprehend the scope of the disaster: a blaze covering an area that would stretch around the borders of the contiguous United States, leaving a billion animals dead, likely rendering numerous species extinct, and creating smoke plumes that cloud even New Zealand’s skies, two thousand kilometres away. It is, along with the climate crisis that helps fuel it, an ecological genocide of a scale that inspires almost religious levels of awe and terror. The inferno is much larger than the ongoing Amazon rainforest fires that made headlines in mid-2019, and there are many differences between them. But both bring attention to unsettling trends – in climate change certainly, but surprisingly also (more relevantly to this website) in entertainment.

Ten years ago, a movie called Avatar made billions of dollars, scored multiple Academy Awards, and heralded a new generation of 3D and performance-capture technology. It also, perhaps inevitably, suffered a backlash. Many criticisms were valid, but one has always rankled me: that of James Cameron’s environmental themes being too obvious, too blatant, too didactic. Another load of overwrought, tree-hugging “save the rainforest” FernGully bullshit, thought many audiences. Hadn’t we all agreed on that stuff years ago? Audiences rolled their eyes as IMAX screens played out images of ancient forests burned by industry seeking to profit off the land, displacing indigenous peoples in the process.

Then, ten years later, the news played out images of ancient forests being burned by industry seeking to profit off the land, displacing indigenous peoples in the process.

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star wars the rise of skywalker rey reveal

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: let’s explore what the arcs of Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey actually mean.)

With over four decades of history, Star Wars has explored many themes. Overarching motifs include questioning the past, fighting for those you love, overcoming fear, and examining how extreme beliefs stifle growth and flexibility. The original trilogy also focused on overcoming adversity, no matter the odds. The prequel trilogy narrowed in on hubris, complacency, and the slippery slope of the ends justifying the means. As for the sequel trilogy? It highlighted in neon lights the need to look beyond bloodlines when determining a person’s inherent morality. It just didn’t do it by making Rey a “nobody.”

This article contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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frozen 2 early buzz

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: why do modern Disney movie villains stink?)

Early in the new Walt Disney Animation Studios film Frozen II, our main quintet of characters plays a friendly game of charades. Queen Elsa of Arendelle, her goofy sister Princess Anna, their living-snowman pal Olaf, the ice-salesman himbo Kristoff and his reindeer Sven are just relaxing in the castle, with Anna trying to get the others to guess a challenging clue. Though they’re able to narrow it down based on her gestures to the long-gone Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, they don’t get the actual clue: “villain”. 

That charade is a fitting word to see the characters struggle to guess, as it exemplifies a fascinating creative direction for Disney Animation over the past decade. Though many of the studio’s films have become bigger and bigger hits, they’ve become less defined by their antagonists, for both good and ill.

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Avengers Endgame

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Disney fandom has become a powerful tribe – how did we get here?)

It’s natural to seek out people who share our interests. Those are the people with whom we’re most likely to get along. But after a point, tribalisation becomes a negative force: when supporting your tribe comes at the expense of other tribes. We see that everywhere, from fandom to global politics. And this year has seen a dramatic and disturbing spike in pop-culture tribalisation – largely centred around the company that needs it least.

Fandom rivalries have existed forever. Star Wars vs Star Trek has more or less come to an equilibrium, with most fans admitting that they like both, to some degree. The Marvel/DC rivalry has been around for decades, though it’s become much more visibly unpleasant since the birth of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes. Now that superheroes are a dominant global cultural force, and not a niche for enthusiasts, the scale and fury of these rivalries has escalated to at-times horrifying levels. 

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(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: the future of Walt Disney World’s Epcot is big and bold, but is it true to the spirit of the park?)

Nostalgia is the currency of the Walt Disney Company, and it was on full display during the D23 Expo last weekend. This year’s Expo was, despite being just three days long, the biggest yet. The first day highlighted the upcoming streaming service Disney+, the second day talked about all of the various studio arms of the company and their upcoming releases, and the final day was all about the theme parks and their upcoming updates. Those updates ranged from the unsurprising — confirming a lot of rumors about what the Marvel-focused Avengers Campus would be — to the unexpected, like the announcement of a Mary Poppins attraction in Epcot inspired…by the sequel, not the iconic original film. 

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margaret qualley once upon a time in hollywood

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: is it still surprising when Quentin Tarantino decides to rewrite history?)

Sitting in the theater, waiting for the lights to dim, I couldn’t help but wonder how Quentin Tarantino would surprise me with his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Tarantino, and the marketing campaign, would argue this is his ninth feature film, but I am firmly in the “Kill Bill is two movies” camp, so I’m calling it his tenth.) I’d heard the mostly positive reactions out of the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and was generally intrigued not only by the cast, but the 1960s setting. I was a bit cautious, though, because I kept wondering if the movie would end with a mirror of the history it captures, or by revising it. In the end (and this is where I warn you about major spoilers), the movie revises history in ways that are unfortunately more predictable than I’d hoped.

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Mulan Trailer

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: Mulan looks like the better approach for future Disney live-action remakes.)

I spend a lot of time going to bat for reboots, remakes, and relaunches. When done well, they bring a whole new wave of excited viewers to a property. They’re also pretty critical for keeping franchises alive. Yeah, we all have that purist friend who looks down their nose at anything that’s even close to a spin on something they loved growing up, but they’re super gatekeepy and we all avoid talking to them for a reason. Folks like that also get to enjoy all of the things that a new wave of fans help provide, like new merch, conversations, and renewed interest from old fans. 

But what happens when the idea of a remake gets a little too literal? In the first trailer, Disney elected to do almost shot-for-shot remake of a key scene The Lion King. Now, it’s easy to see what they were going for. The original film is universally beloved and considered pretty close to perfect by a lot of fans. Don’t mess with perfection, right? Thing is, you probably just shouldn’t bother remaking the movie if that’s going to be the case. Heck, just re-release the original as a cinematic event and save yourself a few boatloads of cash! 

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