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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Bill and Ted Face the Music

Posted on August 27, 2020 at 5:32 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Sci-fi/fantasy peril and violence, mostly played for comedy
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 28, 2020
Date Released to DVD: November 9, 2020

Copyright 2020 Orion Pictures
I am pleased to report that Bill and Ted are still excellent. Bill and Ted Face the Music is the third in the series, 31 years after the original “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” where the two dim but sweet-natured would-be rockers from San Dimas managed to pass their high school history class by traveling through time in a telephone booth. They also learned that their destiny was to create a song that would unite the world. Two years later, in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey,” their adventures continued, including a visit to hell and a “Seventh Seal”-inspired encounter with Death. Much of the core cast of the original films returned, including Alex Winter (who also produced) as Bill, Keanu Reeves as Ted, William Sadler as Death, Hal London, Jr. as Ted’s stern father, and Amy Stoch as Missy, who was in high school with Bill and Ted but in the first film is married to Bill’s father.

In the present day, Bill and Ted are married to the medieval princesses who traveled through time with them in the earlier films, now played by Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays. Things are not going well. Bill and Ted still perform as the Wyld Stallyns, but not in arenas. Their current gig is at Missy’s latest wedding, to Ted’s younger brother Deacon (“SNL’s” Beck Bennett). Their performance of a song named something like “That Which Binds Us Through Time, The Chemical, Physical and Biological Nature of Love,” combines some of the strangest sounds known to music, even stranger in combination guttural throat singing, bagpipes, and a theramin is, at best mystifying to the wedding guests. Basically, they hate it. Their wives insist on marriage counseling (with the always-great Jillian Bell) and we get a sense of the problem when the guys cannot understand why “couples counseling” might not mean both couples at the same time.

Each couple has a daughter. Ted’s daughter is Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Bill’s is Thea (Samara Weaving, the niece of Hugo Weaving who was Reeves’ nemesis in the “Matrix” films). The girls are 24, still living at home, and spend all day listening to music. In other words, they take after their dads.

Bill and Ted are beginning to question whether they should just give up their music. But then Kelly (Kristen Schall) shows up in a futuristic, egg-shaped time traveling capsule. That song that was going to unite the world — they would have to produce and perform it that night or it would be the end of everything. “The Great Turntable is Tipping. Reality will collapse and time and space will cease to exist.”

Everyone ends up getting involved. The guys go forward in time to see if they can get the song from various future selves. (Boy, the people in charge of hair had some fun with that.) The princesses/wives explore the multiverse to see if there’s a happier ending. And Billie and Thea do what Bill and Ted did in the first film; they go back in history and pick up some help.

Some viewers will need to be brought up to date on the earlier films, as there are references that will delight the fans. Some younger viewers will need a history lesson about phone booths. (Of course Bill and Ted do their time traveling old school.) And some fans of the original many need to check with a younger member of the family to learn who Kid Cudi is. I hope all ages know who Dave Grohl is.

It’s all sweet, silly fun, with a conclusion that is likely to bring some tearing up from the parents in the audience, and make all Bill and Ted fans feel that this has been a very excellent adventure for us all.

Parents should know there is some mild language and some mostly comic peril and violence, including characters who are temporarily “killed” and sent to Hell.

Family discussion: Would you want to meet the future versions of yourself? What would you want to know?

If you like this, try: the two earlier “Bill and Ted” movies and the San Diego Comic-Con panel about the movie.

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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 some awkwardness hints 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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