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 Personal History of David Copperfield

Posted on August 27, 2020 at 5:51 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material and brief violence
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcoholism, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Brief violence including a fight scene and some abuse, sad offscreen death of a parent
Diversity Issues: Race-blind casting
Date Released to Theaters: August 28, 2020

Copyright 2019 FilmNation Entertainment
There is no higher praise than to say that Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop,” “Veep”) has adapted the book Charles Dickens said was his favorite of all the novels he had written, the book closest to his own history, in a manner as jubilant and shrewdly observed, as touching, as romantic, as exciting, as the novel itself.

For those who made not be familiar with the story: David Copperfield is a Bildungsroman that begins with the birth of the title character to Clara, a sweet but naive weak-natured young widow (played by Morfydd Clark, who also plays David’s first love, Dora). They have a blissful life together until she marries the stern and cruel Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), who, with his equally formidable sister (Gwendolyn Christie), takes over the household.

Murdstone sends David to work in a bottle factory, where he lodges with the impecunious Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi). Years later, he runs away to his only relative, the formidable Miss Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives with a kind-hearted but rather vague man named Mr. Dick, who struggles with intrusive thoughts about King Charles I.

Miss Betsey sends David to school, where he meets the indolent Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard of “Dunkirk”) and is befriended by Agnes (Rosalind Eleazar). After graduation he goes to work for Mr. Spenlow, and is immediately overwhelmed with love for his daughter, Dora. During all of these adventures and more David changes names and positions in society several times, and the concerns he and others have about their status in society is a recurring theme.

David Copperfield is one of my favorite books of all time, and I well understand it would take a trilogy as ambitious as “Lord of the Rings” to fully do justice to all of its characters and events. But even I had to admit that it has been judiciously pruned (the characters of Rosa Dartle and Mrs. Steerforth have been combined, no Barkis or Miss Mowcher, Tommy Traddles only mentioned, etc.). I strongly concur with dropping the “Little” from Emily’s name, and quickly got used to the idea that she was nearly an adult when David was a child. And I even applauded some happier resolutions for some of the characters. After 170 years, they deserve it.

And the cast! Not since the grand 1935 MGM version with Freddie Bartholomew as young David, Lionel Barrymore as Daniel Peggoty, Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey Trotwood, and Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone (no one has ever been as good at naming characters as Charles Dickens), has there been such fitting richness of acting talent. Iannucci’s decision to use race-blind casting, without regard to the genetic realism of biological connections only adds to the universality and ample bounty that is fitting for Dickens, who populated his works with more vivid and varied characters per page than any other author in the English language.

Dev Patel is a superb choice for David, who is thoughtful, open-hearted, and innocent but with a strong core of honor and optimism. We first see David, like the real-life Dickens who went on very popular speaking tours, reading the book’s famous opening line on stage before an appreciative audience. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” That framing, that self-awareness is fitting for an authorial voice that opens a book by challenging us to make up our own minds about what is to come. Iannucci’s theatricality and gift for telling stories cinematically shimmers through the film, with occasional images projected onto a wall, a hand reaching down into a model of the set, Patel talking to his younger self, played by Ranveer Jaiswal.

Class as it is perceived and as it is in reality is a theme of the film, but so is story-telling itself. Mr. Dick struggles to tell his story without reference to Charles I, and David comes up with an ingenious way to help him. Even as a young child, David wrote down memorable turns of phrase he heard on scraps of paper. His realization that those pieces of paper and pieces of memories are the basis for understanding his past, his purpose, and his future is a deeply satisfying answer to the question he poses at the beginning.

Parents should know that this film includes some tense and sad moments including an abusive stepfather and the offscreen death of a parent. There are financial reversals, confrontations (one fistfight), and a character embezzles.

Family discussion: Is David the hero of the story? Why is it so important to him to be considered a gentleman?

If you like this, try: The MGM version and the book, as as well as other film adaptations of Dickens books including the David Lean “Great Expectations” and the many, many versions of “A Christmas Carol” and a film about the writing of “A Christmas Carol” with Dan Stevens as Dickens, “The Man Who Invented Christmas.”

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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

Copyright 2020 Orion Pictures
I am pleased to report that Bill and Ted are still excellent. It’s been 31 years since “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures,” 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 One and Only Ivan

Posted on August 20, 2020 at 10:12 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
MPAA Rating: PG
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Offscreen--critically ill mother, parent of a character killed by poachers, sad death of a beloved character
Diversity Issues: A metaphoric theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 21, 2020

Copyright 2020 Disney
There was a real Ivan, and he was a silverback gorilla who was adopted by a family and then, at age 3 when he was too big to live in a home, he became an attraction at a shopping mall, kept indoors in a cage for 27 years. Community protests in 1997 led to his being transferred to a zoo, where he has acres to roam. His story inspired a children’s book by Katherine Applegate, and now a movie streaming on DisneyPlus, produced by Angelina Jolie.

In the film, Bryan Cranston plays Mack, the ringmaster, owner, and only human performer in a tiny circus located in a run-down shopping mall. Ivan, voiced with warmth and feeling by Sam Rockwell, is the star of the show, though his only “trick” is pretending to be fierce. The other animals include a high-strung seal, an elegant French poodle (Helen Mirren), a baseball-playing chicken (Chaka Khan), and the kind and wise elephant named Stella, voiced by Jolie. A stray dog (Danny DeVito) hangs out with them when he can escape the not-very-watchful eye of the watchman. He is dubbed Bob by Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of the animal keeper/custodian/lighting guy and all-around handyman (Ramon Rodriguez as George). Julia’s mother is critically ill, so she spends much of her time sitting near Ivan’s cage and drawing pictures.

Ticket sales are poor and the circus is losing money. So Mack buys a baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by “The Florida Project’s” Brooklynn Prince) to generate some excitement. The other animals welcome her, especially Stella, though Ivan is a little jealous when she becomes the headliner.

Julia encourages Ivan to use her crayons and he begins to create some art. Mack makes that a part of the show. But it becomes clear that this is not a story about saving the circus. It is a story about saving the animals.

That transition is an awkward tonal shift with some very sad developments and memories and an abrupt conclusion. Cranston does as well as possible acting opposite CGI characters but there is not much he can do to make Mack into a three-dimensional person. We sympathize with him until…we don’t? Even the most photoreal CGI with supreme skill, create with an extraordinarily meticulous understanding of movement and weight leaves us more impressed than engaged. Just because you can do something does not mean you should. Rockwell’s voice was so compelling that I occasionally closed my eyes; his voice conjured Ivan more vividly than the technology did.

Parents should know that this film includes the critical illness of a child’s mother, the shooting of Ivan’s father (both off-camera) and the very sad death of one of the animals. There is some peril and brief potty humor.

Family discussion: What are things you can’t remember and things you don’t want to remember? Why does Ruby like stories and what does she learn from them?

If you like this, try: “Madagascar” and “Free Willy”

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Made in Italy

Posted on August 13, 2020 at 5:14 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: References to sad offscreen death, divorce, family conflict
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: August 8, 2020

Copyright 2020 IFC
“Made in Italy” is a labor of love starring a real-life father and son playing a father and son. And it is about a labor of love in the most literal terms as the estranged father and son have to work together on the house in Tuscany they jointly own so that it can be sold.

Like the characters they play, Liam Neeson (Robert) and his son Micheál Richardson (Jack) experienced the devastating loss of a wife and mother, actress Natasha Richardson (Micheál uses her last name as a tribute). This adds an overlay of intimacy to the film would not be supported by the script alone, a first-time feature written and directed by actor James D’Arcy. It is perhaps for that reason that a climactic scene of grief is truncated and underplayed. Maybe it is because it was just too painful. Or the shifting and uncertain tone of the film, which wants to be warm-hearted, romantic, comic, and dramatically emotional at the same time.

Jack manages an art gallery owned by the family of the wife who is divorcing him. When she tells him they are going to sell the gallery, he insists he will buy it. “The gallery is my home,” he says. He cannot let it go. But to get the money he needs he will have to sell his late mother’s home in Tuscany, deserted for twenty years because it was too painful to return. And he will have to get his father to agree. They are barely on speaking terms. Jack has contempt for his father’s failure to produce any new artwork in years and for his irresponsible attitude. Jack arrives to take him on the trip and Robert has not packed (“I thought it was tomorrow”) and, in one of the movie’s most regrettable cliches, cannot remember the name of the woman who spent the night. Robert does not respect Jack. Again, regrettably, he puts it this way: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t run their wive’s galleries.”

The house is a beautiful mess. The landscape around it is breathtaking. Robert calls it “one of the most fabulous convergences of nature ever,” and dismisses Jack’s referring to it as “the view.” And they disagree about a mural Robert painted on one of the walls, which he calls his tribute to abstract expressionist Franz Kline, but looks more like a tribute to the blood-tsunami elevator in “The Shining.”

There is a brisk British real estate agent with a severe haircut (Lindsay Duncan), who brings a delightful mix of disdain and saleswomanship to every scene she’s in, at least until her character has to soften up when she is charmed by Robert. There’s a warmhearted local woman (Valeria Bilello) who is there to soften up Jack. These women and the experience of living in and working with the home of the woman they are still grieving makes it possible for them to do what they have never done before: talk about their loss in a scene that is not as emotionally resonant as the film sets us up to expect. Maybe it is just be British reticence.

But then we return to the real heart of the film, the spectacularly gorgeous Tuscan scenery and oh, that food. That setting, and the genuine affection between Neeson and Richardson, makes up for the predictability of the script. What do you think, with the potential buyers be kind, considerate people who deeply appreciate the house as it is or a poor copy of the self-centered boors Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis used to play on “Saturday Night Live?” It’s the fabulous convergence of nature and the almost-fabulous convergence of the actors that makes it worth a watch.

Parents should know that this movie concerns a tragic death, survivor guilt, and family estrangement. Characters use strong language and there is a mild sexual situation.

Family discussion: Why wouldn’t Jack sign the divorce papers? Why was the gallery so important to him? Why couldn’t Jack and Robert be honest with one another?

If you like this, try: “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Life as a House,” and “Enchanted April”

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