Mulan (Live Action 2020)

Posted on September 3, 2020 at 1:08 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended battle sequences, fights, swords, explosions, falling
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020

Copyright Disney 2020
Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” is closer to director Niki Caro’s touching, both mythic and intimate “Whale Rider” than it is to the animated musical with Eddie Murphy as a quippy little dragon and Donny Osmond as a Chinese warrior.

Coming to us on DisneyPLus (for an extra $30) due to the pandemic, it gives us just a fraction — literally — of the grand vistas and meticulous framing Caro uses so beautifully in the film. This version of the classic story of a young woman who pretends to be male to join the military and saves the day with a brilliant strategic maneuver is more sober, ambitious, and grand in scope than the first version. Note that some of the characters and names are changed to further remove it from the original. And it is the first of the Disney live-action remakes of animated classics to get a PG-13 rating.

The movie recalls “Frozen” at the beginning, with two sisters, one with some special, almost magical skills. The young Mulan (Crystal Rao) shows determination and remarkable agility and skill as she chases down a runaway chicken with parkour-style acrobatics. Her father (Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou), is proud of the “qi” (life force) in her. But her mother knows that in their world the responsibility of the women is to attract a propitious husband. That does not require strong q. It is about modesty, decorum, and silence, almost the ability to disappear except when needed. Even Mulan’s father tells her that it is time to hide her qi so she can bring honor to the family.

Invaders come to China, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), with the help of a shape-shifting witch (Gong Li). Every family has to supply a warrior for the military. To protect her father, Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a young man and joins up with the soldiers who are in training. She quickly volunteers to cover night watch to avoid the group showers. And she begins to prove herself with skill and determination.

Then comes the battle, the revelation of her true identity, and then another chance to save the day when she realizes that Bori plans to attack the emperor (Jet Li).

Director of Photography Mandy Walker shows us breathtaking vistas (New Zealand standing in for China in much of the film) and stunningly staged battles. The scenes in Mulan’s village are colorful but gritty enough to be authentically rural. And the production design is everything we expect from Disney, meticulously researched and gorgeously imagined.

The shifting of the storyline to focus on the parallels between Mulan and the witch, two women who struggle to express their essential qi in a world that has rigidly limited expectations for women gives the film additional depth. They are on opposite sides, but they recognize all they have in common. As in the original film, we see the literal constrictions and distortions in the clothing and makeup Mulan must put on to meet with the matchmaker. She is far more comfortable in the armor of a warrior.

Niki Caro keeps the film brimming with heart and sincerity so that even in the middle of battle scenes the focus is on what makes Mulan special — her dedication and loyalty even more than her skill and her qi.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril and violence with battle scenes, swords, explosions, and hand-to-hand combat. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: What is chi and how do you access it? Why did the matchmaker and the warriors have such limited ideas about women?

If you like this, try; the original “Mulan” and live-action remakes “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” along with Chinese films for older audiences like “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.”

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The Old Guard

Posted on July 9, 2020 at 5:02 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sequences of graphic violence, and language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alchol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense, and graphic peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 3, 2020

Copyright Netflix 2020
The thing no one ever seems to think of about invulnerability with everlasting life is that is is exhausting. You think it is an existential crisis to face the certainty of death? Try imagining the existential crisis of knowing that you won’t die, that you will outlive everyone you have ever loved and they will resent and even hate you for it. Meanwhile, just like the rest of us mortals, you might as well find a way to make your everlasting life meaningful by helping people in need. And that is where being impossible to injure or kill comes in very handy.

Early in “The Old Guard,” based on the graphic novel series by Greg Rucka, there is an ambush and our heroes are all riddled with bullets. They seem dead. But then they begin to stir. And then they wipe out the attackers. Meanwhile, a young Marine named Niles (“If Beale Street Could Talk’s” Kiki Layne) is on screen long enough to show us her courage, competence, compassion, and dedication before a terrorist slices her throat. She should have died. Her fellow Marines, once close friends, are a little freaked out that she did not die. And then she is kidnapped by Andy (Charlize Theron), leader of what we will learn is the Old Guard. They know when another immortal comes into being, and they come and get them.

This makes the film into an origin story, at least from Niles’ perspective, and it gives us a chance to meet the members of the Old Guard through her. Andy is the oldest. She won’t say how old, but her real name is Andromache of Scythia and her weapon of choice has not just nothing mechanical but no moving parts at all. Book (Matthias Schoenaerts) fought Napoleon in 1812. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Yusuf (Marwan Kenzari) fought in the Crusades. On opposite sides. “We killed each other many times,” one of them explains cheerily. And now there is Niles, who at first does not believe, or does not accept that she believes. She wants to know whether the group are the good guys or the bad guys. “Depends on the century,” she is told. But they do try to do right.

And they try to stay out of sight. That’s harder to do these days, as it is almost impossible not to be glimpsed in someone’s selfie on social media. Andy is ready for it. She offers to take a picture with the selfie-taker’s phone and quickly deletes any images she appears in before telling the group to say “Cheese.” She is ready, but she is tired.

They’ve been picking their sides, but now they have to defend themselves. No one can really hide in the digital era, and a pharma bro is eager to get into their DNA and extract whatever makes them special so he can cure a lot of people and make a lot lot lot lot of money.

Gina Prince-Bythewood may be the most deeply, unabashedly romantic director working today. Her films “Love and Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights” are in a different category from the usual Hollywood idea of love, with a quick montage of the highly photogenic couple walking through a farmer’s market and riding bicycles along the beach. Her films are about profound connection and commitment. There is a moment in this film that will be in clip reels of the most true-hearted movie depictions of love forever. It brought tears to my eyes and a flip-flop to my heart and it was in the middle of a graphic novel shoot-em-up movie about characters with superpowers. But those are the kinds of layers Prince-Bythewood brings to this story, grounded in fine performances by all involved, especially Theron, Layne, and Schoenaerts, and in those existential questions, here answered in part (come on, no one has more that a part of the answer) in a manner that is romantic and satisfying and leaves us curious about the next chapter.

Parents should know that this movie has strong language and extreme and very graphic peril and violence with disturbing images and very strong language.

Family discussion: What is the best part of immortality? What is the worst? Is it right to sacrifice the few to benefit the many?

If you like this, try: the graphic novels and movies like “Fast Color” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”

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My Spy

Posted on June 25, 2020 at 5:42 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for action/violence and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Mayhem and spy-related action violence, many characters injured and killed, off-screen death of parent
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: June 26, 2020

Copyright 2020 Amazon Studios
“My Spy” does not try to conceal the sources it relies on for its storyline — other movies. This is a movie about a CIA agent who refers to “Notting Hill” twice, once in the first five minutes. It is also a movie that thinks it is okay to copy one of the best sequences from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” because it makes a weak joke about doing so. There is even a reference to the wedding scene in “Shrek.” The whole movie is propelled by pieces from other movies, from Melissa McCarthy’s “Spy” to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Kindergarten Cop” to Richard Dreyfuss and Madeleine Stowe in “Stakeout,” director Peter Segal’s own “Get Smart” and star Dave Bautista’s “Stuber.” The best I can say is that it does not lift any of its storyline from lesser films along the same lines like “Mr. Nanny” or “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot.”

So, no surprises here but that does not mean it’s not mildly entertaining along the way. Unfortunately, it is too violent for the elementary school audience most likely to enjoy it.

Bautista plays J.J., a special forces veteran now working as a field agent for the CIA. He is still better at shooting people than at spycraft. When he kills a bunch of bad guys instead of obtaining the information he was supposed to bring back to Langley his new assignment is designed to keep him out of trouble. He and Bobbi (Kristen Schaal), a tech specialist, will be on a stakeout, watching Kate, a single mom (Parisa Fitz-Henley), and Sophie, her 9 year old daughter (Chloe Coleman of “Big Little Lies”), from the apartment down the hall. They are new in town and Sophie is having trouble making new friends at school. The CIA thinks that Sophie’s uncle, who has the information they need about a possible nuclear weapon, may show up there.

But they are almost immediately busted by Sophie, who threatens to expose them unless J.J. helps her out, first by taking her to the skating rink, then by coming to school for “parents and special friends day.” He agrees, but he warns her that “This ain’t gonna end up like some movie with you and me sitting in little chairs having a tea party with dolls.” But what Sophie wants is to learn important spy stuff like lying and walking away from an explosion without looking back. And what J.J. needs is to learn how to develop actual relationships with anyone other than his fish, Blueberry and his affection for “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

Both the action scenes and the “J.J. learns how to be vulnerable and talk to people” scene are generic and there is a lot of carnage for a movie about an endearing child. But Coleman is a gifted performer who knows how to deliver lines that are too grown-up for her age without sounding overly precocious, and her scenes with Bautista have some real warmth. The understated diversity of the cast is a plus. Ultimately, the reason we see this kind of set-up so often is that we are programmed to enjoy it.

Parents should know that this movie has a lot of violence for a PG-13 with shoot-outs, chases, and explosions, and a child in peril. There is a reference to a sad off-screen death of a parent and the issue of learning upsetting news about what he may have done. A crotch hit is portrayed as comic. There are some school mean girls and brief cyber-bullying. Lying is portrayed as an enviable skill. Strong language includes the b-word, the s-word, and more.

Family discussion: What does J.J. learn from Sophie? Why doesn’t Sophie tell her mother about J.J.? What facial cues are you good at reading?

If you like this, try: “The Game Plan,” (PG) and the PG-13 rated “Kindergarten Cop” and “Spy”

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The Rhythm Section

Posted on January 30, 2020 at 5:39 pm

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, sexual content, language throughout, and some drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extended very graphic and intense peril and violence, characters injured and killed, terrorism, suicide bomber, guns, knives, chases, explosions, disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 31, 2020
Date Released to DVD: April 27, 2020
Copyright 2020 Paramount

What is this weird fascination with stories of men taking lost, pathetic, but lissome young women and turning them into spies and assassins? A century ago, we had Henry Higgins teaching a flower girl to speak like a duchess. Now, we have “La Femme Nikita” and its American remake “Point of No Return,” its Hong Kong version, “Black Cat,” its Italian version, “Sexy Killer,” its two television series, the Jennifer Lawrence film “Red Sparrow,” the Jennifer Garner series “Alias,” Luc Besson’s 2019 flop “Anna,” and the father/daughter version — movie and television series — “Hanna.” When that training includes masquerading as a prostitute so we can see her in her skivvies, it becomes clear how outdated this set-up has become.

And now we have The Rhythm Section, with Stephanie Patrick, played by Blake Lively in a series of bad wigs, as the brilliant Oxford student turned narcotic drug abuser and prostitute after the death of her family in a plane crash three years before this movie begins. I should say played by a series of bad wigs with Blake Lively in a supporting role, because this very talented actress is given little to do but look sullen, sullen and a little afraid, and sullen and a little determined. Please add “A Simple Favor” to your Netflix queue if you have not seen it yet to get a look at how good she can be.

The people behind this film are the producers of the Bond films, and they are clearly trying to create a distaff franchise, based on the books by Mark Burnell, who also wrote the screenplay. Unfortunately, it is weak on character and plot and fails to have any of the ingredients that make the Bond movies work. While there are stops in many cities, identified on screen but otherwise mostly interchangeable, it does not have the glamor, the urgency, or the fun of seeing all the gizmos and how they get deployed. Revenge is so reliable and relatable a motive that it is almost impossible to get wrong in a movie, but even that cannot bring this story to life. It’s supposed to be all you go girl! with a badass female lead. But, sigh, it’s more male gaze again, with one of her disguises being high-end call girl in skimpy skivvies and somehow a shocking tragedy inexplicably inspires her to jump into bed with someone she barely knows.

A journalist named Proctor (Raza Jaffrey) finds Stephanie, a drugged-out prostitute constantly replaying images of the last time she saw her parents and brother and sister, and the voicemail message her mother left her before getting on the doomed plane. He says he has information showing that it was not an accident; it was a terrorist bomb, and he knows how to find the man who built the bomb. She initially refuses to have anything to do with him, but then goes to his apartment, where he has one of those movie-friendly rooms with walls covered with clippings and photos. He unwisely leaves her there, giving her money and keys, and she unwisely tips off the bomber, and soon Proctor is dead, on the floor in a pool of blood.

Stephanie follows a clue she got from the photos on the wall to track down the Proctor’s source, a former spy turned rogue played by Jude Law. No cold turkey montage (“I’m a user, not an addict,” she explains), so straight into the training montage, turning Stephanie into a lean, mean, fighting machine in a matter of months, while we flashback to Jude Law doing the same thing for Captain Marvel, only better.

The action and characters would have to be so much better to persuade us to miss the howling plot holes and tinge of misogyny — really, she has to be a prostitute? Luckily for the movie, we never invest enough in it to care.

Parents should know that this movie includes extended and very graphic peril and violence, murders, chases, explosions, terrorism, knives, guns, bombs, poison, characters injured and killed, disturbing images, very strong language, prostitution, and drugs.

Family discussion: What were Stephanie’s most significant assets in accomplishing her goals? Why did the reporter want to contact her? What will she do next?

If you like this, try: “La Femme Nikita” and “Hanna” (movie and television series)

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Dolittle

Posted on January 16, 2020 at 5:30 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: 4th - 6th Grade
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some action, rude humor and brief language
Profanity: Some schoolyard langage
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Attempted murder by poison, action/animal related peril, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 18, 2020
Copyright Universal 2019

Dolittle” is mildly entertaining, silly and more than a little strange. It is loosely based on the original books, which also inspired the musical with Rex Harrison, featuring a two-headed llama-like creature called a pushmi-pullyu and an Oscar-winning song, and the modern-day-set remakes with Eddie Murphy. But mostly it’s a “we can do anything with CGI now, so let’s make a movie about a man who can understand animal language.” And that’s where the entertaining part comes in. It’s also where the odd and silly parts come in. For example, Robert Downey, Jr., who produced and plays the title character, speaks in a husky, oddly accented (Welsh?) voice for no particular reason. A significant extended scene involves giving an enema to a gigantic animal.

This version, set once again in the Victorian era, begins with Dolittle a recluse in the animal sanctuary given to him by the young queen in appreciation for his special gifts. Devastated by the death of his wife, a fearless explorer lost at sea, Dolittle is a mess, almost more of an animal than the creatures living with him, until the arrival of two young people. A boy named Tommy (Harry Collett) who refuses to hunt with his father accidentally wounds a squirrel and brings it to Dr. Dolittle for treatment. And Lady Rose (Carmel Laniado) arrives with an urgent request. The queen is critically ill and wants to see him.

Dolittle operates on the squirrel but refuses Lady Rose’s request until he learns that if the queen dies he will lose his home, an unnecessarily sour and distracting detail. And so the animals shave his beard, trim his hair, make him bathe, and accompany him to the palace. There, after consulting a small squid in the queen’s aquarium, he learns that she has been poisoned by one of her courtiers (Jim Broadbent), with the help of the court physician, Dr. Blair Müdfly (Michael Sheen). The only antidote is on a legendary — and uncharted — island, the very same one Lily Dolittle was seeking.

Dolittle, Tommy, and the animals take off to find it. So does Müdfly, who is determined to stop them and to get the antidote for himself. They have various adventures along the way, including a stop at an island ruled by the semi-barbaric King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas), who immediately throws Dolittle in prison because they have a history.

The movie never finds the right balance between comedy, adventure, and heart, probably reflecting the reported extensive reshoots following disappointing early screenings. But it is still watchable due to the sumptuous and imaginative production design by Dominic Watkins and the stellar voice talent for the CGI animal characters, especially Emma Thompson as Poly the wise and sympathetic parrot. Also fine are the bickering polar bear (John Cena) and ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), who find a way to become friends. Frances de la Tour provides the suitably imperious voice for a dragon and Ralph Feinnes is a surprisingly vulnerable lion. But my favorite was Jason Mantzoukas as the dragonfly.

Too much of the animals’ dialog is just silly (“You answer the door because you’re the only one with arms.” “That’s coming from the guy (dog) who loves the smell of butts”). Hugh Lofting, who created the character knew that it would always be fun to have a story about a person who could talk to the animals. But the various versions of the story sometimes forget that it is important to give them something worth saying.

Parents should know that this film includes action/animal-related peril, attempted murder by poison, chases, crotch hits, a sad offscreen death, schoolyard language, and potty humor.

Family discussion: What did we learn about the characters when they talked about their parents? How did listening to the dragon make a difference? What should people do when they cannot stop feeling sad or being afraid of being hurt?

If you like this, try; “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and the musical “Doctor Dolittle”

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