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
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 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 Way Back

Posted on March 5, 2020 at 5:47 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence
Profanity: Constant very strong language used by adults and teens
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol abuse, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril and violence, references to illness and tragic death of a chlld
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 6, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 18, 2020

Copyright 2020 Warner Brothers
Director Gavin O’Connor makes movies with hard outer shells, about sports (“The Warrior”) and assassins (“The Accountant”). But they have sweet, gooey centers, because he has the softest heart in Hollywood. Which is a good thing. A lot of people stayed away from “Warriors” because the main characters are MMA fighters, but it is a tenderhearted story of family and redemption. “The Way Back” (original title, “The Has-Been,” probably considered too down-beat) is not as powerful a story, and is too close to better films like “Hoosiers,” but it is a solid drama with the additional interest factor of the parallels between the actor and the role.

Ben Affleck has been doing interviews about his struggles with substance abuse as he is promoting his new movie about a man who struggles with substance abuse. Even he is not clear whether this particular role was therapeutic or not. But he certainly inhabits the character with feeling.

Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, a one-time high school basketball superstar who is now a construction worker who is alone, miserable, and alcoholic. He takes a swig in the car before going inside his sister’s house for Thanksgiving with her family. He pours booze into his coffee cup at work. In his dingy apartment, the refrigerator is filled with beer. He has a system. He takes a can out of the freezer to drink and brings one up from the lower compartment to freeze it so that it will be perfectly chilled as soon as he finished the first one. He spends every night at the local bar.

And then he gets a call from a priest at his old school. The basketball coach is ill and they want him to come back and take over. Everything Jack does has one goal — numbing him from any kind of feeling or connection or memory of what he lost. He practices over and over how to say no. But he says yes. And soon he is in the gym, looking at a bunch of teenagers who need training, discipline, pride, and, most of all, a role model.

It might be possible for Jack to provide some of those things, but beginning to care brings up all of the feelings he has put so much effort into suppressing.

The focus is on Jack here. This is not one of those movies where the new coach steps in to give each of them important life lessons. We don’t learn much about his fellow barflies or his family. We do learn about his relationship with his ex-wife, the tragic circumstance that drove them apart, and Jack’s history of bad choices, especially the choice to hurt others by hurting himself. It’s okay that Jack is still a work in progress. But movie hint at possible recuts, with some abruptness and imbalance in the storytelling, which makes the movie feel that way, too.

Parents should know that this film includes constant very strong language used by adults and teenagers, crude references, very sad (offscreen) death of one child and terminal illness of another, alcohol abuse, smoking, and drunk driving.

Family discussion: Why did Jack hurt himself to hurt his father? Why did Angie and Jack respond differently to a tragic loss? Why did he want to coach the team?

If you like this, try: “Warriors,” from the same director, and “Hoosiers”

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I Still Believe

Posted on March 5, 2020 at 10:33 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Terminal illness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 13, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 4, 2020
Copyright Lionsgate 2020

If a movie is called “I Still Believe,” you can be pretty sure it is aimed at those who already believe. Based on the real-life love story of Christian musician Jeremy Camp, it is set in a world of believers and very much in the tradition of Christian testimony, where tragedy is overcome or at least understood through faith. It is also a sincere and tender love story with attractive stars, tuneful songs, and a score by John Debney.

Jeremy Camp is played by K.J. Apa, who plays Archie on “Riverdale” with dark, handsome features that look like a cross between 90s-era Josh Hartnett and Wes Bentley. He is the oldest son of a loving family. As he leaves home for college, we see that he is kind and patient with his developmentally disabled youngest brother, and honorable and generous. His father offers to let Camp take his own guitar to college, saying that “for me, music is a hobby. For you it is a gift.” But there is a surprise. His parents bought him a brand new guitar, a sacrifice that will mean no Christmas presents. They knew he would be too thoughtful to leave his father without music.

Jeremy arrives at a small Christian college where Kry, a Christian musical group he admires, is performing, and he sneaks backstage to meet the lead singer, Jean-Luc La Joie. He asks for advice about “making it.” La Joie says, “It’s not about making it. It’s about what the songs give to people. What do you want to give to people.” He tells Camp to write what he cares about. La Voie writes “love songs to God.” But lately, he’s been writing one to a girl. Jeremy will learn what that means when he sees the girl for himself and is immediately drawn to her.

Melissa (Britt Robertson), and like Jeremy her life is committed to faith and to music as a way to express and strengthen her faith. This is a movie where the usual falling-in-love montage includes not just walking on the beach but service to others as a way for the couple to connect. It is difficult for her to admit her feelings for Jeremy and that creates stress in their relationship. They are on something of a break and he is back home with his family when he gets a call — she’s in the hospital with cancer.

They face it together and get married, against the advice of his family. They are very young and this is a daunting challenge at any age. But as the title tells us, their faith endures.

Those who are not believers in this particular kind of Christianity may question the unquestioning faith of these characters. There are many faith traditions that would see these incidents differently, and the movie has a closed and circular perspective some audience members will find reductive and exclusionary. But Robertson and Apa make a sweet couple and their commitment to God and each other gives their story a tenderness that even those with different beliefs will find touching.

Parents should know that this movie includes a very sad terminal illness, with scenes of medical treatment and suffering and a tragic loss.

Family discussion: What do we learn about Jeremy when he turns down his father’s guitar and gives his brother his phone? Should Melissa have told John-Luck sooner? When you can’t decide what to do, what helps you?

If you like this, try: “A Walk to Remember” and “I Can Only Imagine” and the music of Jeremy Camp

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Emma.

Posted on February 24, 2020 at 4:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief partial nudity
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 21, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 18, 2020

Jane Austen described the eponymous central figure of her 1815 novel as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” The opening sentence of the book almost challenges us to like her: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” How can we root for someone who already has everything?

The answer, as Austen knew, is to immediately have her lose much of it. She will still be handsome, clever, and rich. But the rest of the story will bring plenty to distress and vex her. Emma’s past freedom from distress and vexation has left her blissfully unaware of the risk of failure. She is about to find out that those risks include not just personal humiliation but pain caused for others.

As this brightly sumptuous story begins, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy), who lives in a Downton Abbey-like great house with her widowed father (Bill Nighy) is delighted to have arranged a match between her neighbor (Rupert Graves) and the governess who has been her dearest friend and substitute mother (Gemma Whelan). It was such a triumph that she is eager to do more to rearrange and improve the lives around her, starting with an unassuming young woman named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). Just as the last match had the double benefit of romance and an elevation of status (from paid companion to wife of landed gentry), she expects the same for Harriet, who is in the society no-man’s-land of having been born out of wedlock to unknown parentage. A step up for her would be a match for the local clergyman, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Emma is determined to make this happen.

Meanwhile, two newcomers arrive in Emma’s very small community, where the number of people near her social level, meaning worthy enough to be entertained in her home, seems to be around a dozen at most. A kind-hearted spinster named Miss Bates (the wonderful Miranda Hart of “Call the Midwife” and “Spy”), who lives with her hearing-impaired mother, is delighted that her niece, the lovely and talented but poor Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) has come for an extended stay. Emma is no longer the center of interest, just as she has new reason to wish to be noticed. The other arrival is the handsome and charming Frank Churchill (Callum Turner). Also in the neighborhood is George Knightly, whose brother is married to Emma’s sister, which gives him some basis for familiarity. He does not hesitate to correct Emma when he thinks it is called for.

As Emma tries to orchestrate the match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, she ends up making one mistake after another, hurting her trusting friend, and revealing her own snobbishness. She tries to impress Frank Churchill, publicly humiliating someone else and revealing her own insensitivity.

There have been many versions of the Emma story, most notably the elegant Douglas McGrath version with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam and Amy Heckerling’s wittily updated “Clueless” with Alicia Silverstone. This one, a first time feature from music video director Autumn de Wilde is an “Emma” for our times. It is visually luscious, with endless, exquisite period detail. But to keep it from feeling stuffy, it is briskly edited, almost a door-slamming farce at times, with literally cheeky touches (a brief look at a couple of very attractive bare bottoms). The costumes are meticulously researched with details to swoon over, but they are also perfectly suited to provide more insight into each of the characters.

I was particularly taken with the hat worn by Mrs. Elton that made her look like an exclamation point and the red capes of the schoolgirls who march in rows through the town. The food in the novel plays a significant role, and it does in the film as well. Sparkling performances by a cast mostly not (yet) big names make this a welcome ensemble piece. If Knightly or Churchill or Fairfax were played by people already featured in People’s “most beautiful” issue, we would be able to anticipate some of the storyline’s best surprises. The most recognizable, of course, is Bill Nighy, perfectly cast as the anxious Mr. Woodhouse, always worrying that someone might be in a draft. This interesting essay speculates that he is not just querulous but actually suffering from early stage dementia, which puts Emma’s attentiveness/co-dependence and need to control others in a more nuanced light.

Most of all, this movie is fun, as much fun as Austen herself would have wanted it to be. “Emma” movies just keep getting better, like Emma herself.

Parents should know that this film is unrated. There is brief, nonsexual rear male nudity and there are some tense and uncomfortable situations.

Family discussion: Why was Emma so thoughtless with Miss Bates? Why was it hard for her to see the truth about Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax?

If you like this, try: the Gwyneth Paltrow version of “Emma” and the book and the updated version, “Clueless”

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Downhill

Posted on February 13, 2020 at 5:37 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language and some sexual material
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug references
Violence/ Scariness: Some peril, tense family confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 18, 2020

Copyright 2019 Searchlight
It’s a movie about marital dysfunction on a family ski trip. So, “Downhill,” get it? Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, are the screenwriters of “The Descendants” and writer/directors of “The Way Way Back.” The key element that made those films remarkable was a blending of wry humor with heart-breaking family tensions and conflicts. But here, co-scripting with Jesse Armstrong (“In the Loop”), that is where it fails. Both elements are present, but the film and its performers never seem to know which part they are in.

Perhaps one problem is in the casting and marketing of the film, with two of the most beloved comic actors of all time creating an expectation that we are there to laugh at them. Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are equally good in serious roles, but having them in a film that tries to make us laugh at their struggles and feel sympathetic to them or at least recognize something of ourselves in them is more than even the most adept performers can manage. It does not help that the trailer makes it seem like an outright comedy, so the audience arrives with expectations that make it difficult to locate the movie’s tone.

It is based on the Cannes-jury prize winning Swedish film “Force Majeure.” The name is a legal term meaning a supervening event that makes it impossible to fulfill a contract, like a catastrophic storm. In this version, it is an American family with two sons who arrive at an Austrian ski resort for a family vacation. Peter (Will Ferrell), is still mourning his father who died eight months earlier and is questioning his own life, whether he is missing something he might never find time to have or do. Billie (Julie Louis-Dreyfus) is a lawyer looking forward to quality family time and her husband’s undivided attention. The opening scene (also in the original) is reminiscent of “Ordinary People,” making clear the family’s inability to get together for a photograph, demonstrating the deepening divide between the way they want to appear and the way they are.

On their second day at the resort, a controlled avalanche on one of the mountains briefly looks as though it will cover the balcony cafe where the family is eating. In that split second, instead of protecting his family, Peter grabs his cell phone and runs for cover. Billie and the boys are badly shaken but say nothing at first. As the vacation continues, Billie’s feelings: abandonment, anger, contempt, bubble up, revealed in ways that range from passive aggressive to micro-aggressive to outright, pull out all the stops aggressive.

Louis-Dreyfus, who also produced, navigates this range of moods with extraordinary sensitivity as Billie struggles to do what is best for her sons’ sense of security and respect for their father and her fury, fear, and frustration with Peter first for his cowardly, selfish act and then for denying it and trying to blame her for talking about it. It all erupts into a painful and humiliating series of accusations and denials in front of Zach, one of Peter’s colleagues from work (Zach Woods) and his free-spirited new girlfriend (Zoe Chao). There is an intriguing idea there about what Peter hope to appear or be for Zach and why, but instead of exploring it we get Miranda Otto in the thankless role of a resort liaison whose job seems to be welcoming guests with the very definition of sexual TMI. The same goes for brief flirtations with flirtation by both Billie and Peter. Yes, middle-aged people sometimes wonder where their youth has gone and long to be seen as new and desirable. That point has been made much better many, many times.

Even with a brief running time and deft performances, the movie never settles on a tone or perspective.

Parents should know that this movie includes some peril and extended family dysfunction, tension, and arguments. There are very explicit sexual references and a situation and a reference to drugs.

Family discussion: Why did Billie want her sons to see Peter do something good? What would you do if you were faced with Peter’s decision? How do you know? Why was it hard for him to tell the truth?

If you like this, try: the original film, “Force Majeure” and “Carnage”

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