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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: John Mulaney’s Return Boosts The Show Once More 

John Mulaney hosted “Saturday Night Live” for the first time less than a year ago and immediately surpassing every other host’s contributions that season with weird but memorable sketches like “Sitcom Reboot” and “Diner Lobster.” This week, in his second time around as host, he does the same thing.

Host: John Mulaney

John Mulaney is an interesting “Saturday Night Live” host, because he comes in with all the goodwill of a long-time cast member, even though he was “only” a writer who had a few appearances on Weekend Update. (The reminder that Mulaney was never actually a cast member always just kind of sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?) So even though this is only his second time hosting, his performance in this role, of course, comes with the expectation that he’ll have more creative freedom than any other celebrity host. And he delivers on that expectation, far past the obvious stand-up monologue to open the show.

Mulaney’s role as host also allows for a surprise return from beloved “Saturday Night Live” alumnus Bill Hader, who makes a “WOO!”-worthy appearance in the Michael Cohen testimony cold open — a cold open which is honestly the funniest political cold open in a long time on this show, even though it’s still not hilarious and it’s still very long — and an absolutely brilliant appearance in the first sketch of the night.

Best Sketches of The Night: “What’s That Name” & “Bodega Bathroom”

Now, speaking of the first sketch of the night… The thing about John Mulaney sketches is how they’re simultaneously so bizarre and hyper-focused. That truly defines all but one sketch tonight, but “What’s That Name” is pretty much the definitive sketch in this case. What looks like a standard game show sketch on a show that could honestly stand to ease up on the game show sketches ends up being something so much more layered. It’s even clear to tell from the live audience reactions that there’s no real expectation as to where the sketch will go at the very beginning when it seems the biggest joke is just the fact that they’re answering the questions in this game for five whole dollars. Things seem like they all fall into place with the initial introduction of Mulaney’s friend and his friend’s girlfriend of four years, but the sketch still finds ways to go all over the place after that.

Hader’s character’s open contempt for Mulaney’s character — and the basic concept that Mulaney’s character is really terrible when it comes to even thinking about women as people, without being an outward villain about it — is truly what guides this sketch though, and the final reveal that this game show exists just because he wants “chaos” is so perfectly specific.

There’s no doubt about it: This sketch is 100 percent the sequel to “Diner Lobster,” because when you’re able to make something like “Diner Lobster” a hit, you’re going to want to try to capture lightning in a bottle the second time around. And despite how niche and specific these sketches are, it is easy (well, ”easy”) to repeat that sort of specialness, because the actual set-up for the sketches is actually a lot simpler than one would expect — it simply takes the premise of something any rational person wouldn’t do (order lobster at a diner, ask to use a bathroom at a bodega, or really a convenience store in general unless it was an emergency) and turns it into a musical theater epic.

This time around, instead of just going with the “Les Miserable” thread, “Bodega Bathroom” expands its reach with song parody choices and references from a range of productions like “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (the main source), “Cats,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” and even “Rent.”

Worst Sketch of The Night: “Legal Shark Tank”

This is the only sketch of the night resembling anything close to a “dud.” This sketch clearly only exists to get to the Jussie Smollett punchline, with the majority of the sketch being dedicated solely to the introduction of the legal Sharks than the actual bit.

Worst Impression: Chris Redd as Jussie Smollett (“Legal Shark Tank”)

This isn’t exactly an impression heavy episode, with the “Legal Shark Tank” sketch really being the only one outside of the cold open to choose from here. Neither of those has great impressions, unfortunately.

In fact, Cecily Strong honestly seems to be the only one during this particular sketch to get the memo on doing much of anything. While “Saturday Night Live” was able to fill the “Cha Cha Slide” sketch with black extras, this sketch serves as a reminder that it can’t do that all the time. Chris Redd is Jussie Smollett not because of anything resembling a good Jussie Smollett impression or take on the real person but because he’s the only cast member it could be; it wouldn’t be Kenan Thompson or Michael Che, and Che also doesn’t even feature in sketches enough to be considered an option.

Best Male Performer: Bill Hader

Not to throw the current contracted “Saturday Night Live” players under the bus, but Bill Hader’s work in just one sketch — the “What’s That Name” sketch — is so much on a higher level than literally anything else in this episode or even season that it makes one want to reevaluate every glowing review of anyone’s performance and ask, “Yes, but was it Hader-level good?” Sorry, everyone.

Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon

Cecily Strong definitely puts in a lot of work in this episode, but Kate McKinnon just squeezes ahead of her in the “Best Female Performer” of the night role with her role as the very awkward Lauren Bacall in the Cinema Classic sketch at the end of the night. (Speaking of that sketch, it’s been a while since an iteration of that sketch has been on “Saturday Night Live,” and it’s always great to see Kenan’s Reece De’What.)

She also gets to introduce a new character alongside Aidy Bryant during Weekend Update — which is always a treat, to break the monotony — and break over the smell of a lot of raw meat. It honestly plays much better than it sounds.

Final Thoughts

Talk about an episode that makes narrowing something down the best sketch (or even sketches) a true job of work. This is an episode of “Saturday Night Live” with a very high sketch hit rate, with only one truly less than “good” sketch to even think of when it comes to the “Worst Sketch of the Night.” And the key to all of those successful sketches is that they don’t just go with the easy joke: Mulaney’s character in “Cha Cha Slide” isn’t worried about not fitting in because of race reasons, the “Toilet Death Projector” turns the obvious ridiculousness of the idea into unexpected body horror, and the “Chad Horror Movie” (aka “The Unknown Caller,” a “Scream” riff in 2019 which still works because “Scream” is always relevant) takes the pretty simple Chad bit and gives it new life by stretching the dimwitted character’s existence past just being a sex idiot for female hosts to strangely seduce. One could only imagine what would happen if John Mulaney got his hands on Cecily’s Gemma character.

At this point, Mulaney’s strength as a host is not so much an indictment of the hosting caliber of other celebrities as it is proof of a major criticism of these most recent seasons: When the series actually allows its hosts to show and highlight their comedic voices, instead of just playing it safe so everyone gets through the episode alive, it’s hard to touch “Saturday Night Live.”

Then again, Mulaney is the rare celebrity host that wrote for the series in the first place and has more than enough proof of his comedic sensibilities to allow him that room to just do whatever the heck he wants. And this episode thrives because of that.

Grade: A

Med Hondo, the Firebrand Pioneer of African Cinema, Dies 

French-Mauritanian filmmaker Abid Mohamed Medoun Hondo (professionally known as Med Hondo), a founding father of African cinema, died Saturday morning in Paris. He was 82 years old.

An award-winning filmmaker who also gained attention in his later years dubbing African-American actors like Eddie Murphy and Morgan Freeman for their movies’ French releases, Hondo remains largely unknown beyond academic and cineaste circles. However, Hondo was a visionary whose work underlined the importance of the preservation of African history via the cinema.

Hondo’s films explored the nature of conflicts within the continent, and between the competing European powers, especially during colonialism. He provided the world with an alternative and necessary understanding of contemporary Africa. He was devoted to creating an African cinema that adopted an anti-imperialist approach to filmmaking, one that could counter Hollywood’s very limited African representation.

Born in Mauritania in 1936, Hondo moved to France in the late 1950s. He began as a stage actor, studying under French actress Françoise Rosay. Struggling to build a professional acting career in mainstream French theatre, Hondo founded a black repertory troupe in 1966 known as Shango, named after the Yoruba god of Thunder. Comprised of black Africans from Africa and the West, they toured France with plays by famed writers of Africa and its diaspora, including Martinican Aimé Césaire, and African-Americans like Imamu Baraka (Leroi Jones).

Hondo would eventually take his acting talents to the screen, appearing in several French TV series in the 1960s and early 1970s, making his theatrical debut as an extra in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Masculin Féminin” (1966). He followed that with roles in Costa-Gavras’ “Un Homme de trop” (1967), Robert Enrico’s “Tante Zinta” (1968), and John Huston’s “A Walk with Love and Death” (1969).

Hondo made his directorial debut with two black-and-white short films, “Balade aux sources” (“Ballad to the Springs,” 1969), and “Partout ou Peut-etre nulle part” (“Everywhere, or Maybe Nowhere,” 1969).

He gained international recognition as a director with his feature debut, “Soleil O” (1967), a low-budget black-and-white picture that took him four years to make. It follows an African migrant worker in France who suffers a mental breakdown after facing rampant racism. The film served as a critique of French colonialism on the African continent, and explored the roles that Mondo believed that radical leaders like Che Guevara and Malcolm X should have played in preventing the continuation of Western imperialism around the world.

“Soleil O” screened at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival as a selection of the International Critics’ Week, where it received critical acclaim. Additionally, it was honored with a Golden Leopard award at the 1970 Locarno International Film Festival. New Yorker Films released the film in the U.S. in 1973.

Just last week, it was announced that “Soleil O” would be one of four African films to be restored and re-released by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, as part of the African Film Heritage Project, in partnership with the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers.

Hondo went on to direct eight more features, including his first color feature, “Les Bicots-negres vos voisins” (“Arabs and Niggers, Your Neighbors,” 1973), which dealt with the everyday struggles with racism by black and Arab workers in France.

“West Indies” (1979)

Between 1977 and 1979, he released two feature documentaries about the independence movement in Western Sahara — a former Spanish colony subject to a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Saharawi people.

Hondo’s crowning achievement may have been 1979’s “West Indies: Les Negres Marrons De La Liberte” (“West Indies: The Black Freedom Fighters”). A landmark in African cinema, it was considered Africa’s first musical on film; it was based on “Les Negriers” (“The Slavers”), a play by Martinican writer Daniel Boukman that Hondo produced on stage several times.

By African standards, “West Indies” was a huge production; at $1.3 million, it was then the most expensive in African film history. That budget included building a slave ship on a stage set, on which the entire film was shot. It took seven years to realize, it’s a stunning piece of work that chronicles the African experience from the slave trade to the neo-colonialism of the period, while satirizing French imperialism in both Africa and the West Indies. It’s told with the stylistic flourishes of a big-budget American film, with a distinct take on the Hollywood musical.

First released in France in 1979, it wasn’t well-received — unsurprising, given its scathing critique of the country’s historical African interference. Over the next several years, it screened at a handful of international film festivals, including Venice, and was eventually released in the US in 1985, with the New York Times’ review calling it “revolutionary,” and “witty,” praising its “imaginative staging” and “very fluid visual style.”

For reasons not entirely clear, “West Indies” isn’t readily accessible to audiences, like most of his films.

His other major works include “Sarraounia,” a $2.5 million feature based on Nigerian writer Abdoulaye Mamani’s novel of the same name. It tells the true story of Queen Sarraounia of the Azna people in what is present-day Niger; during the “Scramble for Africa,” they fought French colonial troops in 1899 in a protracted guerrilla battle.

Hondo’s last film, the 2004 drama “Fatima, l’Algérienne de Dakar,” is set just after Algeria’s war for independence and follows a young woman’s quest to find the Senegalese army officer who raped and impregnated her.

Committed to work that would make plain the historical circumstances that contributed to the present-day global black experience, Hondo also spent years trying bring the story of Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution to the big screen.

“I decided to make films to bring some black faces to the lily-white French screens, which have been ignoring us and the black contribution to the world for years,” Hondo said in a 1986 interview with film historian Françoise Pfaff, for Jump Cut Journal. “People need films and television programs to explain Africa and the Africans and the discrimination faced by migrants in France. For three centuries due to historical circumstances, a whole people has been led to believe that it was superior to the people it had colonized. Such an ideology has not been eradicated in the past twenty years in spite of African independence.”

‘Scooby-Doo’: Will Forte Is the New Voice of Shaggy, and No One Told Matthew Lillard 

As an obligatory part of the constant studio cycle of reviving things that people loved in the past, there’s going to be a new “Scooby-Doo” animated movie. While there are still plenty of iconic roles from the usual Mystery Machine gang left to sort out, it appears that this latest incarnation will feature two big names at the top: Will Forte is set to be the voice of Shaggy, Scooby’s trusted human companion, while Gina Rodriguez will add Velma to her ever-growing animation résumé.

While it’s far from a requirement that live-action versions of beloved characters make their way to animated adaptations, there’s at least one person from the pair of early-aughts live-action “Scooby-Doo” flicks that was a little bummed about not getting a chance to come back. When news broke yesterday about the new group of casting, Matthew Lillard tweeted out his disappointment at not being asked to reprise his role.

Before going on to being one of the surprise stars of the most recent season of “Twin Peaks,” Lillard played Shaggy in 2002’s “Scooby-Doo” and the 2004 sequel “Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.” (Both, incidentally, were written by eventual “Guardians of the Galaxy” director James Gunn.) Lillard has also voiced Shaggy in a number of “Scooby” projects, including one as recent as “Scooby-Doo! and the Curse of the 13th Ghost,” which was released on video early last month. Lillard also directed the 2012 SXSW premiere “Fat Kid Rules the World.”

As of now, live-action Velma Linda Cardellini, still basking in the recent Best Picture win for “Green Book,” has not yet commented on the new direction for the character. Other details about this new “Scooby-Doo” film are still scarce at this point — it’s feasible that this could either a traditional theatrical project or a big streaming piece for the as-yet-unnamed WarnerMedia platform — but with this cast, there should be plenty more to come in the months ahead.

Let’s Watch Magician Shin Lim Make Cards Appear With His Mind for Four Minutes 

Look, there’s probably some scientific explanation for how Shin Lim is able to pull off this escalating series of card tricks from Friday’s episode of “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” That doesn’t matter. He pulled cards out of his hair. Out of his hair.

Lim, the master illusionist, has made his way through a number of TV shows in recent years. He wowed the notoriously diligent and savvy hosts of “Penn and Teller Fool Us” (turning physical items into a column of smoke emanating from your mouth tends to do that to people) and was recently crowned champion of the All-Star season of the NBC reality competition show “America’s Got Talent.”

This time around, rather than vaporizing cards, he’s making them appear out of thin air. (It cannot be stressed enough how ridiculous it is that he just makes these “cards” “appear” in his own voluminous “hair.”) Fallon, no stranger to being impressed by the slightest show of talent on the part of any “Tonight Show” guest, is understandably struck incredulous by this whole thing (even before it starts, really).

Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that The Roots, especially keyboard player James Poyser and drummer Questlove, have the only reaction any reasonable person could expect under those circumstances.

For those willing to go down a YouTube rabbit hole of late night show magic, there’s a treasure trove out there, waiting to be discovered. (Harry Connick, Jr.’s reaction to the culmination of mentalist Lior Suchard’s 2016 appearance is still a career highlight for everyone involved.) There’s also a number of examples from a pair of recent Netflix offerings: “Magic for Humans” and “Death by Magic.”

For more of Lim’s exploits, watch the full “Tonight Show” clip below:

‘True Detective’ Creator: Season 3 Was Definitely Not a Dream the Whole Time 

There’s very little that’s off-limits on “True Detective.” In Season 2, Vince Vaughn’s character stares up at a stain on his bedroom ceiling. The first season’s climax took place in a winding maze of overgrowth and may have included a portal to another realm.

But series writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto draws the line at season-long hallucinations. Speaking after the end of last week’s Season 3 ender, Pizzolatto addressed the enigmatic final sequence, which returns Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) back to Vietnam, when and where he served in the military. Some writers and commenters took this as a possible indication that much of what the audience saw in the season — the case of a missing girl, his marriage to Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), and multiple grisly deaths — was just a vision of Wayne’s as he made his way through the jungle.

“Yeah, that’s not true,” Pizzolatto said in an interview with Esquire. “I’m not sure how much I should say about the very final sequence because I can literally explain it, but it might be the kind of thing that’s better left to interpretation for a while. But Wayne definitely did not die in Vietnam, and everything that you witnessed actually happened.”

In addition to stepping behind the camera for a pair of episodes this season, Pizzolatto also had an increased social media presence while these installments were airing. He explained in the interview why he felt the need to clarify certain other details and theories that had been floating around, as with Amelia’s death.

“Even if you’re paying attention, I think, in the early episodes, Wayne mentioned it was just a couple years ago and they had plans to travel, but I did feel like fans deserved that answer and since we didn’t get to put the scene in the final cut of the finale, I just wanted to clear that up for them.”

As for any new seasons of the series, Pizzolatto reverted back to his early-season caginess, saying, “I do have a pretty serious crazy idea for another season.” Get those dream-casting engines revving up again. (The only correct answer remains Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.)

‘The Sandlot’ Director Teases TV Show Revival With Original Cast Returning 

For baseball fans of a certain age, “The Sandlot” is one of the pivotal screen stories about America’s pastime. Set in the 1950s, it follows one kid’s quest to ingratiate himself with the local group of ragtag ballplayers and their attempts to rescue a precious autographed Babe Ruth ball.

Now, a quarter century later, writer and director David Mickey Evans said that a TV show following those same characters is in the works.

“I already got all the original cast members back. It takes place in 1984, when they’re all like 33 years old and they all have children of their own,” Evans said on The Rain Delay podcast.

Presumably this doesn’t include all the original cast, since as we all know, Bertram got really into the ’60s and no one ever saw him again. But this bodes well for fans curious about the Timmons brothers’ burgeoning mini-mall empire or Yeah-Yeah’s bungee jumping career or the exploits of The Great Hambino. (Maybe this also means the return of Smalls’ massive-brimmed fish hat and him calling games for the Tulsa Drillers before getting a promotion to join a big-league booth.)

Evans already wrote and directed “The Sandlot 2,” a sequel that follows a similar plot with a different group of youngsters. Original cast member James Earl Jones returned to reprise his role as the mysterious owner of Hercules the dog.

Until this series arrives at its eventual streaming service home — Evans said “it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out” which one he sold the idea to — for anyone hoping for a “where are they now?” fix when it comes to “The Sandlot” cast, last summer’s documentary “Legends Never Die: The Sandlot Story,” looks at the making and legacy of the film, including interviews with the cast.

‘A Madea Family Funeral’ Review: How Do You Solve a Problem Like Madea? 

Lord, hear our prayer: may the death of the world’s dearly beloved Madea not be in vain. And we thank you, Lord, that Tyler Perry shall never again don the grey wig and granny panties that inspire him to make incomprehensible jokes about disabled people, gay people, and old men objectifying younger women with wild abandon. Nevertheless: Say what you want about Tyler Perry, the prolific writer/director/performer is a master of character work — even totally unhinged and wildly problematic as those characters may be.

In “A Madea Family Funeral,” the twelfth and final installment to the blockbuster franchise on which he made his name, Perry pulls out all the old favorites: Pervy old man Joe, straight man Brian, a wiser, more beneficent Madea, and perhaps the most confounding, the paraplegic, Jheri curl-rocking Uncle Heathrow who can only speak through a vocoder. Rather than going out with a bang, however, the final installment in the franchise hinges its loose plot around the marital infidelities of younger, humorless characters so thinly sketched that it is impossible to care about them.

Perry’s voice work for the character who built his empire is certainly impressive; Madea’s soothing high register is strangely convincing as a woman of a certain age, and Perry wisely uses a few well-timed flips into his rumbling baritone sparingly. His dizzying performances, along with the madcap ravings of the portly Aunt Bam (Cassi Davis) and the high-pitched clucking Hattie (Patrice Lovely), are the best thing about most Madea movies, and “A Madea Family Funeral” is no exception. Unfortunately, that’s about the only positive thing to be said about this boring, cheeseball mess of a finale, which offers very little evidence of Perry’s writing or directing skills.

A Madea family Funeral

The movie begins with preparations for a 40th anniversary party, which sets Madea, Joe, Bam, Hattie, and Brian off on a road trip to visit the extended family. Things get hairy (for them and the audience) when Brian gets pulled over by the cops for swerving. Upstanding citizen Brian (played by Perry sans make-up and wig) is certain everything will be fine if he politely complies with the officers, ignoring his cantankerous elders’ warnings to the contrary. What ensues is a parody of an altercation between a black man and a racist white cop, which ends inexplicably in peaceful terms when the cop runs his license. Like most things in Perry’s movies, the incident is never mentioned again and has seemingly no impact on the greater story. If this is Perry trying to get political, it’s one of his most tasteless jokes yet.

When the motley crew arrives at their hotel, they discover one half of the anniversary couple in the arms of a younger woman, and he’s not breathing. Brian tries to revive him and Hattie tries to hump him, but neither is successful. The anniversary party turns into a funeral, and all the kids who came home have to work out their affairs in the middle of their very unconvincing grief. At least the comically long funeral (complete with full gospel choir) features a cameo by YouTube comedienne Joanne the Scammer, and the surprising gag of Uncle Heathrow rocking a Nasty Woman pin.

Plot is secondary in a Madea movie; it’s simply the vague skeleton around which Perry hangs large group scenes where ridiculous characters, mostly ones played by Perry, can deliver rambling riffs of very little consequence. If one were teaching a screenwriting class about what not to do, “A Madea Family Funeral” would be the foundational text. The movie passes time with its many unnecessary characters, who exist solely to look pretty and sleep around. Then there’s the longwinded rantings of smack talking old people.

But the most offensive part of Perry’s whole bloated saga is that he doesn’t seem to have one iota of respect for the art of drag — the very thing that has made him the one-man movie magnate he is today. From jokes about someone being gay for wearing tight jeans to Joe’s constant jabs at Madea for looking like a man, Perry peddles toxic masculinity by the spoonful while making millions off of the oldest queer art form there is. If Perry can’t recognize the hypocrisy in that, then Madea deserves the lackluster send-off she got.

Grade: D+

“A Madea Family Funeral” opened in theaters on February 28. 

‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’: How Animators Channeled Roger Deakins 

Animation

Although Roger Deakins served as visual consultant throughout the “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy, it wasn’t until “The Hidden World” finale that DreamWorks Animation fully mastered his lessons in naturalism. This was due to a combination of artistic maturity and new rendering and surfacing tech breakthroughs at the studio.

“We’ve always shot these like live-action movies with a naturalistic sensibility, but DreamWorks struggled through the first two movies,” said VFX supervisor Dave Walvoord. “But with the help of a new ray tracing renderer, Moonray, and some new surfacing tools, we could think more like cinematographers.

© 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC

Read More: ‘‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’: Confronting the Politics of Hate

“Now, in our world, we could [calculate light as it behaves in the real world] and flag specific points, so it gave us a very direct translation, and all of the ideas that Roger was trying to do we could replicate with large area light sources and bounce light.”

Even so, DreamWorks didn’t achieve the best results until it embraced a physically-based rendering pipeline for everything to take full advantage of Moonray. This allowed the team to achieve greater richness, subtlety, and detail from skin pores to dragon scales to waterfalls to grains of sand.

“This switch to physically-based rendering was like going from painting to photography,” said Walvoord. “We used physics as the base and stylized on top of it. It’s more naturalistic without being photo-real. For instance, the reason a giant caldera is so compelling is because the look of the water and how the light behaves is driven by physics with artistic manipulation.”

Astrid (America Ferrera) and Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) in DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, directed by Dean DeBlois.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”

© 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC

Or take the mysterious entrance of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) emerging through a blaze of fire and fog like a Jedi. This was informed by Deakins’ simple rule of pairing character and light source. “It was the most challenging lighting sequence that I’ve ever done,” the VFX supervisor said.

“It’s a two-light sequence: moon light and fire light,” Walvoord added. “Moonlight is always from behind the characters, which creates pretty silhouettes. And then we use the fire light to act as the key light. It was challenging because the characters are always moving around and we had to find the transitions from dragon fire or fire source light when it disappears.”

The answer to filling in the gaps was the use of a lantern. The sequence opens with a guard walking with a spear in his right hand and hitting a cage. Initially, the animators wanted to put the lantern in his left hand, but Walvoord thought it would be more visually striking to put the lantern in his right hand because of the silhouette it created walking through the fog. The only question then was figuring out how to maneuver with the spear.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”

Another big challenge was lighting the newest dragon, the exquisite Light Fury, the love interest of Toothless, the Night Fury. But first they had to devise a suitable design, led by Simon Otto, head of character animation. He emphasized a wonderful ebony and ivory contrast between the two dragons per director Dean DeBlois’s script description.

“If Toothless is a lion, then she is his lioness, so what would that look like?,” Otto said. “She’s so feral that she will not get near humans because she distrusts them. So we made her a snow leopard but shorter and more streamlined. But, like all the dragons, she needed something surprising. Dean gave her a cloaking ability by emitting plasma blasts and then the scales heat up and mirror the environment.

The female Light Fury dragon and Night Fury dragon Toothless in DreamWorks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, directed by Dean DeBlois.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”

© 2019 DreamWorks Animation LLC

“On the surface side, that triggered her iridescence with a shimmer to it,” added Otto. “But we didn’t want her to turn into a disco ball.” According to Walvoord, the shimmering aha moment came when lightly applying glitter around her body to reinforce her stripe pattern.

The most ambitious lighting and rendering challenge, of course, was reserved for The Hidden World, the ancestral home of the dragons. Created by production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent in collaboration with Walvoord, the oasis contains a series of interconnected tunnels and chambers that spans the globe. There’s even a chamber where crystal carries light from magma to create a cool-like glow.

The CG set, the largest from DreamWorks to date, encompassed more than three miles, with 63 million mushrooms, 79 million pieces of coral, and 3,000 water falls that were painted with a new tool rather than simulated.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”

However, with a heavy dose of bioluminescence, lighting became even more troublesome. “Most of the movie has a limited number of light sources and suddenly, with bioluminescence, everything becomes a light source,” Walvoord said.

Computationally, it was a stickler for Moonray, too. In fact, the total cost of rendering The Hidden World nearly equaled the entire rendering of “Trolls.” But DreamWorks conquered it through a series of bounce lights and other strategic lighting schemes and camera moves.

It was the ultimate test of combining Deakins’ naturalistic aesthetic with a fantastical sense of wonder that only comes from animation.

‘The Widow’ Review: Kate Beckinsale Stars in Amazon’s Convoluted White-Savior Adventure 

Writers Harry and Jack Williams, best known for the gripping thriller “The Missing,” showcase Kate Beckinsale’s considerable talents in “The Widow,” an intriguing mystery-adventure that ultimately suffers from trying to shoehorn in too many storylines. Set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the eight-episode series also contributes to the self-perpetuating canon of white-savior narratives, despite efforts to present the Congolese with far more range and depth than has been seen traditionally on screen.

We meet Georgia Wells (Beckinsale) as a miserable hermit in a remote part of Wales. She’s still mourning the loss of her husband Will Mason (Matthew Le Nevez), who died three years ago in an airplane explosion over the Congo. A glimpse of his telltale orange baseball cap on the news leads her to believe he might still be alive, and thus begins her African adventure in which she plays amateur sleuth and dusts off her rusty Army skills.

Hallmarks of the Williams’ strengths can be seen: the many twists of “The Missing,” the multiple POVs from “Liar,” and unveiling motivations in the reverse-timeline series “Rellik.” There’s a certain satisfaction in watching Georgia track down clues and skirt the law in her quest for the truth about her husband. There’s plenty of surprises and cliffhangers to keep the viewer engaged, even as the multiple narratives become overwhelming. (In particular, a storyline about two blind people in the Netherlands seeking treatment to restore their eyesight is completely unnecessary.)

Kate Beckinsale,

Kate Beckinsale, “The Widow”

Coco Van Oppens/Amazon

“The Widow” also makes frequent use of flashbacks, shuttling back and forth months or years at will. However, it can feel like a shortcut to character development. Rather than allow actions to reflect complexity or conflict, the writers favor flashbacks to a traumatic moments that spoon-feed insight.

Affecting performances keep the series from going off the rails. Beckinsale again proves a compelling leading lady, capable of measured emotion without becoming overly maudlin even while wielding a machine gun and evading bad guys. Charles Dance and Alex Kingston imbue their characters with irascible humanity, and newcomer Shalom Nyandiko gives a beautiful and natural performance as young Adidja, a young Congolese girl forced to join a militia.

Both Adidja and Emmanuel (Jacky Ido) — a man who lost his wife on the same ill-fated flight — are the series’ most sympathetic Congolese characters. They love, they laugh, and are treated to brief, flashback backstories. They’re slightly more sophisticated versions of the magical negro — a black character who awakens and cultivates the better qualities in a white hero — but in the end, they still serve the same purpose.

Shalom Nyandiko,

Shalom Nyandiko, “The Widow”

Amazon

In an early scene, Emmanuel reflects on colonialism and the country’s instability and corruption. “Sixty years ago, we had trains, roads, steamboats up and down the Congo river, full of white people come to discover a world beyond their own — only to return home with their minds now broader and themselves no different but for their suntan,” he tells Georgia. “We were — what’s that word we’re not allowed to use? Civilized. On the surface, anyway. The truth is that things were probably always rotten, but now, now we don’t lie about it.”

Here, he plants the seed that will bloom into Georgia’s white consciousness. Saving the people of the Congo is not her raison d’être — she still has a husband to find, after all — but through her struggles in Africa, she becomes alive. She’s no longer the pitiful wraith hiding from the world, but a determined, take-charge woman who challenges the most ruthless villains and looks good doing it.

In the end, “The Widow” is cathartic tourism. The story is not about the Congo, but Georgia and the wrongs she encounters and is moved to fix while there. In this way, both she and the viewers can leave the harsh realities of the Congo behind in the end, but still feel satisfaction for a job well done.

Grade: B

”The Widow” is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Spielberg’s Crusade to Save Theaters and More Lessons From Oscar Night — IndieWire’s Movie Podcast 

Another Oscar season has come and gone, but this one has launched some conversations unlikely to die down anytime soon. With “Green Book” beating “Roma” in the Best Picture race, debates about whether Netflix was admonished for its relationship to theaters is ubiquitous — and Steven Spielberg is heading up an effort to change Academy rules involving the minimum theatrical release necessary to qualify for the Oscars. But how might these changes impact smaller movies? Does Spielberg really know what he’s doing?

In this week’s episode of Screen Talk, Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson talk through the fallout of this year’s ceremony. They also share highlights from their weekend around town as well as their experiences at the ceremony, which yielded two very different perspectives on the big night.

Listen to the full episode below.

Screen Talk is available on iTunes.

You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with Thompson and Kohn on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Browse previous installments here, review the show on  and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the hosts address specific issues in upcoming editions of Screen Talk. Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.