REVIEW: “Mulan” (2020)

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If you’re wondering how the new “Mulan” stacks up against its animated predecessor or even the more recent Disney live-action remakes, this might not be the review you’re looking for. Full disclosure: I’ve never seen the original 1998 animated feature. And I haven’t watched any of the latest not-so-warmly received live-action reheats. But I have seen Disney’s new $200 million “Mulan”. You know, the $30 ‘stream at home’ version. And guess what – it’s not bad. Is it worth the high price tag to watch right now? I’ll let you decide.

“Mulan” comes from director Niki Caro and the writing team of Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek. Their retelling of this inspirational tale aims at capturing the spirit of the original animated film while also making meaningful choices that set their version apart. The way it sounds, the more recent live-action remakes went to great lengths to follow their originals. “Mulan” 2020 attempts to carve its own identity with a more realistic vision, no songs and no celebrity-voiced comic sidekick. The results aren’t perfect, but they’re pretty darned impressive.

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Photo Courtesy of Disney

Liu Yifei plays Mulan, the spirited eldest daughter of honored war veteran Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma). The two have a loving bond with the father aware that there is something special about his daughter. But his deep devotion to archaic traditions leaves Mulan bound by the expectations of her family, village, and culture. “A daughter brings honor through marriage“, Hua Zhou lectures. “Your job is to bring honor to the family.” Yet in this world of ‘honor’ through marriage, she can’t even choose her own husband.

Meanwhile on the outskirts of the empire a warlord with a grudge named Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) begins attacking imperial garrisons. Lee is a striking presence, with the look and the snarl of a menacing villain. Unfortunately he’s the victim of an all-too-familiar problem in modern blockbusters – bad guys with hardly any depth and the barest motivations. Basically Böri Khan sets out to quench his thirst for revenge by killing the emperor and becoming the new ruler of the kingdom. Not the most original crusade, but he and his soldiers sure look cool carrying it out.

With the attacks intensifying, the Emperor (played with stoic distinction by Jet Li) calls for one male member of every family to join the fight to quell the enemy invasion. Hua Zhou, the lone male in their family, prepares to join the war effort despite his failing health. Knowing her father’s chances of survival are slim, Mulan takes his sword and armor and sneaks away, posing as his son and joining the Fifth Battalion led by esteemed Commander Tung (played by Chinese screen legend Donnie Yen). It’s her first venture into the male-dominated world and if her ruse is discovered she’ll have more to worry about than shame and dishonor.

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Photo Courtesy of Disney

The bulk of the film’s second act concentrates on the training of the young soldiers. Mulan is easily the most skilled warrior in her regiment, but showing her abilities would draw too much attention and risk exposing her secret. Therefore much of this segment is spent with Mulan concealing her identity from the other recruits especially the curious and charismatic Chen (Yoson An). What’s missing is the emotional toil. There is certainly an interesting thematic conflict between loyalty to duty and embracing one’s true self. But we rarely see Mulan wrestling with it on an emotional level. We get a few of those scenes and they work really well. We just get too few of them.

From there the film moves to an action-filled final third. Surprisingly “Mulan” never quite reaches the scale I was expecting. This could be due to misguided expectations on my part, but the film isn’t a huge sprawling epic. It has all the dressings, but when it comes to the action the film’s snappy pace never keeps it in one place for too long. For that reason some of the action scenes are unexpectedly short and tame, perhaps the result of being a Disney property.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t stunning images throughout “Mulan”. Caro and her DP Mandy Walker shoot some exquisite shots both when filming the diverse landscapes or capturing the gravity-defying fight sequences. One showdown set inside a tight hallway is shot with incredible style and energy. Another fight through some bamboo scaffolding features several ingenious camera tricks and wonderful framing. At the same time Oscar winner Grant Major’s production design and Bina Daigeler’s costumes add something interesting to every composition.

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Photo Courtesy of Disney

Cast-wise Liu Yifei shows nice range moving from a rambunctious rebel by nature to a battle-ready warrior exemplifying courage and leadership. She does good with what emotional material she’s given and her physicality is unquestioned. Donnie Yen and Jet Li are great presences but get little opportunity to show the martial arts prowess what made them such stars. Perhaps the most compelling character is an exiled sorceress named Xianniang (Li Gong). She’s a servant and weapon of Böri Khan who doesn’t take kindly to being called a “witch”. There are hints of a rich and thoughtful backstory, but sadly all we get are crumbs – fleeting references to a pained past that I would love to have known more about.

I can see “Mulan” pulling people in a variety of directions. Lovers of the animated original may take issue with some of its creative choices. Those looking forward to its more realistic spin may find it too restrained and safe. For me, the film’s strengths definitely outweigh its shortcomings. “Mulan” pulls us into a vibrant and fascinating world while telling a story full of inspiration and relevance. At the same time I found myself constantly wanting it to go further. Did being a Disney property hold it back? Were my expectations out of whack? I’m not sure. So I end up still unable to tell you if the movie is worth the $30 price tag. Once again, I’ll let you decide. “Mulan” is now available exclusively on Disney+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Made in Italy” (2020)

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Liam Neeson has hunted down bad guys and utilized his “very particular set of skills” all across the globe. His latest film “Made in Italy” sets him down in the heart of sumptuous Tuscany. But this time he isn’t up against terrorists, human traffickers, or rogue cops. Instead he’s forced to face a dilapidated estate, a ton of pent-up grief, and a brittle relationship with his estranged son. The terrorist were puny by comparison.

“Made in Italy” is the directorial debut for British actor James D’Arcy and I have to admit, I’m a sucker for these kinds of movies. It’s a well-made family drama with a dash of humor and a misty-eyed final act that may be predictable but that justifies its emotional payoff. That’s because D’Arcy gives us characters we can care about. Yes, sometimes they do stick too close to conventional scripting, but they earn our empathy through grounded portrayals and a keen sense of humanity.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

Micheál Richardson (Neeson’s real-life son) plays Jack, the manager of a bustling London art gallery owned by the parents of his soon-to-be ex-wife Ruth (Yolanda Kettle). As a result of their messy divorce, Ruth’s parents decide to sell the gallery leaving Jack high and dry. Desperate to buy it for himself, a cash-strapped Jack will have to convince his jerk of a father Robert (Neeson) to sell their Tuscan country villa left to them by their deceased mother/wife. The problem is they aren’t what you would call ‘close’.

So father and son head to the beautiful Tuscan countryside and find the once stunning estate, neglected and vacant for 20 years, in desperate need of repair. Their delightfully snarky real estate agent Kate (Lindsay Duncan) informs them that if they don’t fix the place up they’ll never turn a profit. So Robert and Jack begin restoring the house, unpacking (predictably) years of emotional baggage along the way. Buried grief resurfaces and cloudy memories are brought into focus as the family’s history with the house is revealed.

D’Arcy smartly keeps things from getting too heavy until they need to be or too whimsical therefore undercutting the drama. And while the Tuscany backdrops are easy on the eyes, D’Arcy doesn’t milk them dry. DP Mike Eley admires the scenery without gawking, even having some fun with the notoriously arresting locations.

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Photo Courtesy of IFC Films

It’s impossible to watch Neeson and Richardson and not think about the real-life reverberations. In 2009 their wife and mother Natasha Richardson died in a tragic skiing accident. This material has to hit home for both of them and you sense it in several scenes. But instead of fully tapping into those true experiences, the movie relies too heavily on a handful of clichés. Many of them come through Jack’s budding romance with a local restaurant owner named Natalia (Valeria Bilello). She adds some needed local flavor and is a welcomed presence. But Natalia never rises above being your standard love interest.

Rough patches aside, James D’Arcy’s behind-the-camera debut works where it needs to the most. I had no problem latching onto the two lead characters, believing their feelings of loss, and rooting for their inevitable reconciliation. Yes, some scenes are woefully overwritten and everyone (and I do mean everyone) has their moment to unload their past sorrows. But D’Arcy still manages to deliver a satisfying heartwarmer while Neeson reminds us he has more to offer than just headshots and hip tosses. “Made in Italy” opens this weekend on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “My Spy” (2020)

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What is it with ex-wrestlers turned movie stars starring alongside super-cute kids in corny action-comedies? Hulk Hogan did it years ago with “Mr. Nanny”. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson made “Tooth Fairy” and “The Game Plan”. Paul “Triple H” Levesque starred in “The Chaperone”. And just last year John Cena made “Playing with Fire”. Not to be outdone, Dave Bautista now takes his turn with “My Spy”, a film originally set for a big screen release but bought by Amazon after the COVID-19 theater closings.

The film comes from director Peter Segal and was written by Jon and Erich Hoeber. In it Bautista plays a hardened CIA agent named JJ. He’s rather new to the whole spy game yet for some logic-defying reason his boss (Ken Jeong) sends him on a solo mission to Russia to infiltrate an illegal weapons exchange. What’s on the line? Only enough plutonium to blow up a major city. JJ botches the job killing everyone except one guy who slips away with half of the plutonium.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon

As a result of blowing his mission JJ gets moved to surveillance where he’s teamed with an air-headed tech specialist named Bobbi (Kristen Schaal) who happens to be his biggest fan (I’m still not sure why. All I can figure is she likes that he kills a lot of people and has big muscles). The two are sent to Chicago where they are to keep tabs on a young widow named Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her 9-year-old daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman). They’re on the run from an evil in-law named Victor (Greg Bryk) who believes Kate is hiding plans for a nuclear bomb given to her by her late husband.

That’s already more information than you really need because plot-wise none of that stuff is remotely convincing. But if the CIA angle still wasn’t absurd enough, within minutes of getting the surveillance equipment up and running, JJ and Bobbi are discovered by Sophie who records them admitting they are CIA operatives. She then uses the recording to blackmail JJ into doing the typical stuff – taking her ice skating, getting her ice cream, going to parent day at her school, and of course teaching her how to be a spy (as if JJ would know). In a goofy bit of irony, Bobbi (framed as the dumbest character in the movie) is the only one who can see how nuts all of this is. Go figure.

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Photo Courtesy of Amazon

From there it follows an insanely predictable path. The brawny tough guy does a lot of silly stuff and begins to soften up. A chemistry-less romance between JJ and Kate springs up. And of course once the bad guy inevitable surfaces we get a violent by-the-books action finale. There isn’t a box that “My Spy” doesn’t check. The lone saving grace is young Coleman who despite being trapped in a derivative story has enough charm to divert our attention (at least a little).

It’s tempting to dismiss my own opinion by simply accepting that I’m not the target audience. Then again I’m not quite sure who the target audience is. The dead bodies and the smattering of crude dialogue are enough to muddle the lines. So I’ll stick with my take – “My Spy” misses its mark, nothing about it seems fresh or original, and Dave Bautista may not quite be ready for leading roles. Still, he’s not the first wrestler-turned-actor to do this kind of movie. Probably won’t be the last. “My Spy” is now playing on Amazon Prime.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

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REVIEW: “Mr. Jones” (2020)

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The story of ambitious truth-seeker Gareth Jones is one of inspired vigor and rich with modern-day relevance. Jones was a journalist working as a foreign affairs advisor to Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He’s best known for exposing the horrors of the Holodomor, Stalin’s state sponsored man-made famine responsible for the deaths of millions in Soviet Ukraine. Jones was discredited by many of the world’s Soviet sympathizing media but never quit fighting for truth. He was shot to death one day before his 30th birthday.

“Mr. Jones”, a period bio-thriller from Polish director Agnieszka Holland, tells Jones’ story through a ‘cold-hard-facts’ lens. The film takes its time framing its story, spending most of its first half exploring Stalin’s propaganda apparatus and underlining the deception of Soviet stability. But then the movie makes a rather profound shift into gritty, unvarnished survivalism with barely any dialogue but full of haunting, visceral images.

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Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

We first meet Gareth Jones (played by a firmly committed James Norton) in 1933 shortly after his attention-grabbing interview with Adolf Hitler. He stands before a group of British cabinet ministers telling them of Hitler’s ambition and warning that the next Great War is already taking form. The stuffy old men blow off Jones’ claims, hardly ready to plunge their country into another world conflict. Discouraged but not defeated, Jones sticks to his belief that a tectonic shift is underway and the truth is being ignored.

Jones takes notice of some unexplainable changes happening in the Soviet Union. While the rest of the world struggles under a global economic crisis, the USSR is experiencing a surge in growth and modernization. Hungry for an interview with Stalin, Jones is able to get a press visa and heads to Russia. Once there he’s set to meet with his friend and embedded journalist Paul Kleb who has information that could validate Jones’ suspicions.

But first he crosses paths with Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard), a hedonistic Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent for the New York Times with deep connections to the Kremlin. Duranty lives a lavish life in Moscow and is paid handsomely by the Soviet government to persuade the world’s perception of Stalin. Sarsgaard is a perfect fit, slithering from scene to scene, putting off the scent of respectability but every bit of a loathsome snake. A steadily intense Vanessa Kirby plays Ada, a writer for Duranty who doesn’t approve of her boss’ propaganda but is fearful of the power he wields.

From there the movie takes on a much different look, feel, and tone. Jones secures a supervised trip to the Ukraine investigating claims that Stalin had been funneling grain and other resources out of the country leaving the Ukrainian people to starve. He shakes his Soviet chaperone and ventures into the country discovering horrific truths – barren villages, dead bodies in the snow, packs of starving children, and Soviet soldiers with a chokehold on the food supply. It’s a story the world needs to hear, but getting the truth out of the USSR proves to be no easy task.

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Photo: Samuel Goldwyn Films

“Mr. Jones” feels like a neglected slice of history that’s finally being exposed. It’s story digs into a horrifying period that has been terribly underserved on our screens. And considering our current age of misinformation and biased “news”, this film packs a stinging modern-day applicability. I only wish it had plowed deeper into the Holodomor, specifically Stalin’s twisted motivations and unthinkable justifications. You could make a good argument that it would change this into a different movie altogether. But considering how big a part it plays in the story, it needed a more informative framing.

Still, this British-Polish-Ukrainian co-production does a good job immersing you in its setting and leaves you wanting to learn more. Holland and her screenwriter Andrea Chalupa deserve a ton of credit for the glance they give into Stalin’s propaganda machine and their vivid portrayal of the Soviet atrocities in the Ukraine. The latter is the movie at its most potent, avoiding big screen trappings and allowing the camera and Norton’s well-tuned performance to do the work.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Military Wives” (2020)

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For many of us the States, a quick glimpse of the title “Military Wives” could be misleading. It’s actually a reference to a broad network of choirs made up of women from the British military communities. The original idea was to bring women together while their husbands were deployed, offering them support and the opportunity to express themselves. The Military Wives Choir has grown exponentially and is present in British military bases across the world.

“Military Wives” comes from director Peter Cattaneo and the writing duo of Rachel Tunnard and Rosanne Flynn. It’s inspired by the formation of the very first military wives choir and focuses on a group of women brought together after their partners are deployed to Afghanistan. The film has all the workings of a classic feel-good crowd-pleaser down to some pretty predictable story beats. But even though you can see certain emotionally-charged scenes coming from a mile away, they’re still handled earnestly and respectfully. You can’t help but be affected.

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

The film features a great pairing of Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan. Both play wives at Flitcroft Garrison who couldn’t be more different. Kate (Scott Thomas) is the wife of the ranking officer (Greg Wise) and carries a lot of clout around the base. She’s also viewed as a bit stuffy by the other women. Lisa (Horgan) is more freethinking straight-shooter who most of the other wives seem to love.

The call to service comes and soldiers leave for a 6-month tour in Afghanistan where escalating tensions add an extra layer of stress for the women left behind. The wives do their best to create an atmosphere of normalcy, but it’s tough when every ring of the phone or buzz of the doorbell brings a jolt of fear. It’s the reason Kate constantly reminds the others “It’s very important to keep busy.” It’s what she does to keep from dwelling on her own son’s recent combat-related death.

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Photo Courtesy of Bleeker Street

As the ones in charge of organizing social activities, Kate and Lisa put together a choir although with very different ideas on what it should be. Kate takes a professional approach while Lisa thinks it should be fun and easygoing. It leads to several funny clashes between two really good actresses. Scott Thomas is a shrewd screen veteran who makes every movie she’s in better. Horgan, best known for her television work, is a terrific foil.

I probably don’t have to tell you where the story goes from there. The movie’s biggest problem is its predictability. Nothing in it will catch you by surprise. It uses the same basic story structure as so many movies before it. The relationships, though fun, come together exactly how you would expect. But what it lacks in originality it makes up in heart. “Military Wives” plays out like a thoughtful, well-meaning tribute to a those married into the military, a group too often forgotten. The characters make us care and the performances are authentic enough to make the familiarity less of an issue.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Men in Black International”

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I can say with absolute certainty that there was no part of me yearning for another “Men in Black” sequel. I was never a big fan of the original 1997 film with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Even less enthused about the next two sequels. So could a spin-off movie eight years later with fresh new faces invigorate the franchise for a new audience? If comparing box office numbers, the answer is a resounding ‘No’.

Here’s the surprising thing – “Men in Black: International” isn’t terrible. In fact it can be surprisingly fun at times. Predictable, unimaginative, and unnecessary? For sure. But the charisma and chemistry between its two stars Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson at least makes the globetrotting goofiness bearable.

The story (penned by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway) begins with two flashbacks. One back to 2016 where Agent H (Hemsworth) and High T (Liam Neeson) fight off an alien invasion on top of the Eiffel Tower. The second is 20 years earlier in Brooklyn where a young girl named Molly helps a friendly alien escape as Men in Black agents wipe the memories of her parents.

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Photo Courtesy Sony Pictures

Twenty-three years later the bookish Molly (Thompson) sneaks her way into the MiB New York City headquarters aspiring to join their ranks. She makes a strong impression which prompts the head of the US division (Emma Thompson) to give her probationary status as Agent M. She is assigned to the London branch of the MiB which is ran by High T. and is partnered with the disaffected Agent H to stop two twins empowered with alien energy and so on.

Along the way we meet Kumail Nanjiani voicing a tiny alien chess piece creature named (of course) Pawny and Rebecca Ferguson as one of H’s old flames. Both are good performers and they have their moments but neither add much to the story. It all comes back to how much of the load Hemsworth and Thompson can carry. The pair definitely do their part but the movie needs more than just two likable leads.

“Men in Black: International” disappointed at the box office and numbers show it didn’t quite break even. You have to think this will mark the end of a franchise that (if we’re honest) probably shouldn’t have been resurrected to begin with. But it was, it came, it went, and (for many) I’m sure it has already been forgotten. I can understand why. It’s pretty middling entertainment with nothing particularly memorable or exciting to offer.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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