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Mulan

4 Sep

‘Mulan’: The story’s familiar, but now live action in big screen spectacle relegated to small screen

By Tom Meek

I feel like part of the onus of this review is to answer: Is the film worth the $30 it costs to stream on Disney+? I promise I’ll get to that. First let me just say that this live-action version of the 1998 hand-animated feature (both based on an ancient Chinese ballad and historical events) is stunning to take in, most notably the set design and stunts, though the leap to a more epic and spectacular format has nipped some of the wonderment and depth of character – similar to what befell the near real-life animation redux of “The Lion King” last year. Clearly there’s something inherent in the simple classic animation construct, be it the childlike innocence or abstraction of reality, that makes theses fable-esque tales come to life more viscerally.

The narrative here is the pretty much the same as before. Mulan (Liu Yifei) doesn’t want her aging and war-scarred father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) to be enlisted into the emperor’s army (martial artist Jet Li, hard to recognize) after a mandate issued for one man from every household to battle the marauding hordes from the north (led by Jason Scott Lee, who played Bruce Lee in “Dragon”), so she dresses up as a boy and assumes the family post. As a soldier, Mulan proves fierce and effective, as well as being a natural leader and the butt of fellow warriors’ jokes about her Pigpen-esque odor because she refuses to partake in group bathing. The nice addition here is Li Gong (“Raise the Red Lantern,” “Miami Vice”) as a witch – something of a Morgan le Fay – in the service of Lee’s raider. Always captivating in posture, poise and projection, she’s the one who takes over every scene she’s in. Gone is Eddie Murphy’s wiseass dragon, though it’s replaced with a nonsensical phoenix that crops up to let you know a major transition has just taken place. (Geez, thanks, I didn’t know.) The other reason to see the film is the stunt work, with warriors leaping up inverted walls as if they were in an “Inception” maze and some nifty horseback gymnastics by Mulan and enemy archers; still, it doesn’t near apex wire work such as in Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and Zhang Yimou’s “Shadow” from just last year.

Intriguingly, the film’s directed by Niki Caro, who’s made a series of impressively intimate and internal feminist-themed films including “Whale Rider” (2002), “North Country” (2005) and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (2017) but gets a bigger palette here – and likely more studio supervision. As a result, the New Zealand-born director’s normal inward-looking lens feels obscured in the vastness.

Now back to that question: Is “Mulan” worth $30 to stream? Keep in mind you need to be a Disney+ subscriber, and if you’re not you have to lay out another $7 per month. The film, once you unlock it, is yours to watch as long as you keep paying those $7 bills, vs. let’s say “Bill & Ted Face the Music” which costs $25 to own on Amazon Prime and $20 to rent, giving you 30 days to watch it and 48 hours to finish after starting it. If you have kids who love the movie and will watch it over and over, it makes solid financial sense. If you’re a curious cinephile holed up on your own, probably not so much. The film for my money would have been more enjoyable on the big screen where the wire stunts, rich colors and meticulous sets would have stood out even more; given the safety factor, Disney’s done the responsible thing. That still doesn’t atone for what’s lost in translation, but for these times it’s a viable event for a family to enjoy safely together.

Bill & Ted Face the Music

2 Sep

‘Bill & Ted Face the Music’: Passage of real time adds wives and daughters to dudes’ partying on

By Tom Meek

As AMC and other theaters begin to slowly reopen (none in Camberville except for Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinemas, which opened stealthily Friday) studios are hedging their bets by releasing in theaters and on streaming platforms. “Mulan” is coming to you next week from Disney for nearly $30 plus the cost of a Disney+ subscription, and if that feels eye-popping, consider that you can show it to the whole family. In this racket we normally have press screenings in a theater or the studio sends us a screening link, but for “Bill & Ted Face the Music” I missed the boat and so went the path we all must go, shelling out $20 to rent the third installment of this dude-ly trilogy.

Written by the original’s screenwriters, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, and directed by Dean Parisot (“Galaxy Quest’’), time has not been all that kind to Bill Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore’’ Logan (Keanu Reeves). They married and have daughters, but their dreams of being big-time rock stars have fallen by the wayside. Something of an abandoned strip mall overgrown with weeds, is how one might describe it after drinking in their performance at a wedding party. So how do the lads – er, dads – get back into the time-hopping phone booth? Someone called The Great Leader (Holland Taylor) in the future sends back her daughter (Kristen Schaal) to give them a wakeup call, and for good measure, there’s a freaky ’bot (Anthony Carrigan) who’s something of a cross between the Terminator and Tin Man. The quest this time around is to come up with the one song that can unite the planet – a quest that would seem like a platitude if it were not for the time – and ultimately save the universe. Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, Jimi Hendrix (DazMann Still) and Louis Armstrong (Jeremiah Craft) work their way into the plot, but the best is when Bill and Ted run into past and future versions of themselves, with the best being the version of themselves inside a prison yard. The wives (Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays) are off in their own phone booth on their own adventure (the couples therapy scene is droll and hilarious) as are the daughters, Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) and Thea (Samara Weaving). George Carlin makes a digital appearance and the ageless William Sadler is back as the Grim Reaper. Yes, a trip to Hell is mandatory.

Is seeing the first two chapters – “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991) – a requirement? No, “Face the Music” works on its own well enough, with just a few references and gags that may be lost without the homework. Reeves and Winters do an effective job of remaining excitably dude-ish while being dad-ly. The nice revelation here are Lundy-Paine and Weaving as the dudes’ daughters; in mannerism and inflection, even style and attire, they’re chips off the old block. You can tell they’ve watched the two prior episodes forward and back ad infinitum. If this is the end of the dudes’ run, you can see them picking up the reins and having their own dudette adventures. As for paying $20 (you can own it for $25) it’s a coin toss for me as a solo watcher. Now, if I was doing a series watchathon with family or friends, and enjoying a beer or two? Most Excellent!

Desert One

23 Aug

‘Desert One’: Rescue attempt in Iran was daring, but risk and repercussion dig in with Eagle Claw

By Tom Meek

Barbara Kopple’s meticulous dissection of the failed Operation Eagle Claw mission, launched in 1980 to rescue Iranian hostages, serves as a gripping connect-the-dots weave of history, harrowing personal testimony and world-shaping events. Without much judgment the film dials back to the 1950s when Iran was the hot, oil-rich country Western powers jockeyed to get in on. Later the CIA helped topple a brief nationalist government in a coup d’état and reinstall a shah, and Kopple’s doc delivering a montage of him in chummy photo ops with every president from Truman onward. The doc also subtly metes out snippets of the shah’s abysmal, brutal human rights record. Then comes the defining moment of the overthrow, the extreme hatred for America and the takeover of the U.S. embassy – that final event told by several staffers and military personnel who would become hostages, recalling the chaotic mayhem of angry Iranians scaling the gates and storming the building.

The now infamous Iranian hostage crisis would become a 444-day ordeal. That extraction mission – the first Delta Force operation – was green-lit by then President Jimmy Carter, and its failure, as the film has it, was the key to him being swept out of office by Ronald Reagan. Carter and his VP, Walter Mondale, appear in the film, as do several of the commandos who recall the surreal scene in the desert outside of Tehran where several Sikorsky Sea Stallions that couldn’t handle the sandstorms failed, leading to the ultimate decision to abort. The evacuation, for those who don’t recall, would go horribly awry, and eight military personnel would wind up burnt alive. Before that, when the Delta Forces arrived at the remote location, a busload of civilians happened bizarrely upon them in the middle of the night and had to be taken hostage by the commandos. Then several other vehicles arrived; there was confusion, a skirmish and a massive explosion. I don’t want to give aways all the details, but Kopple does a great job of stitching together a thrilling narrative with archival footage, personal accounts from those who were there in the desert (one marine, tough and on point, breaks down on camera; one of those Iranian citizens from the bus recalls his own experience of being held without knowing why) and to re-create the drama in the desert, Kopple smartly opts to use animation much as Ari Folman did with “Waltz with Bashir” (2008) and Randall Christopher did with “The Driver is Red” (2017) – the former about an Israeli incursion into Lebanon and the latter about the hunt for Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. In all three cases, animation creates a provocative abstraction to put you on the scene more viscerally than a dramatic recreation might. It’s a brilliant mix of media forms that seamlessly deepens the global and human context of what transpired. Kopple won Oscars for her first two documentaries, “Harlan County U. S. A.” (1976) and “American Dream” (1990), both depicting labor disputes in middle America. Since then Kopple’s lens has been trained on such diverse and unique topics as Woody Allen and his union with Soon-Yi Previn in “Wild Man Blues” (1997) and the Dixie Chicks’ media battle over statements opposing then President George W. Bush in “Shut Up & Sing” (2006). Kopple’s latest is something new and powerful, not just because of the implied what-ifs, but because of the heroism, sacrifice and personal tales of survival.

Represent

14 Aug

‘Represent’: Embedded with three campaigns, women from all over the hard-to-navigate map

By Tom Meek


Another politically themed doc this week (along with “Boys State”), “Represent” looks at women running for political office in the Midwest. Under the observance of Hillary Bachelder’s lens, Myya Jones, a 22-year-old, tries to spark a youth movement by running for mayor of Detroit; Bryn Bird, a farmer and working mother in small town Ohio, seeks a township trustee post; while Julie Cho, a Korean immigrant, runs as a Republican candidate for state representative in a liberal Chicago suburb. The timelines aren’t all that linear, but most interesting is Cho, who, ostensibly because she is not a typical GOP candidate (“rich, white male”) is abandoned by the party during her campaign but also takes veiled racial pokes (she’s in an interracial marriage) from the liberal opposition – “Why don’t you go run in the Korean neighborhood?” To which she notes to the camera that only the left gets away with that kind of racism these days. Her idealism to embed and change the party feels like the right quest, but lack of support and the attacks she faces on the trail take their toll. Her frustration and weariness are palpable, and yet she remarkably soldiers on. We catch up with Bird already in office and making policy, some of which is not popular, and in one telling scene she remarks on how one of her jobs affects the other when formerly loyal customers, rankled by her policies and communal decisions, walk by her stand at a farmers market without a hello. What’s remarkable about Bachelder’s doc is the degree of access and trust she gains from her subjects. You could call it “Girls State: The Real World Edition.”

“Represent” shows as part of the the Brattle Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.

Boys State

14 Aug

‘Boys State’: Re-creating America in miniature, dominated by right whites (then comes a twist)

By Tom Meek

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ immersion into the Girls and Boys State mock political programs, which have for decades turned out leaders of tomorrow such as Bill Clinton, Ann Richards and Dick Cheney, is both an eye-opener and a reason for pause. For “Boys State” the documentarians embedded in 2017 with the Texas chapter, where 1,100 17-year-olds assemble for a fortnight in the capital, divide into two parties (Nationalist and Federalists), develop platforms and elect a governor – the highest official rank to be reached, and the final act of the educational event sponsored by the American Legion.

Sounds pretty wholesome and promising, right? And it is, on one hand (the passion for politics and democracy, a clear win), but at times the hooting, testosterone-amped crowd of mostly white lads (“I’ve never seen so many white people ever,” one African American attendee reflects) eerily calls to mind the tiki torch marchers in Charlottesville. The agendas too feel skewed to the right – pro-gun, pro-life (“if there’s a rape, we don’t punish the child, we find the rapist and castrate him!”) and “back the blue.” Given the lack of color, it’s refreshing to see a son of undocumented parents rise to run for governor, bolstered by a somber, reflective approach rather than shouted platitudes such as “freedom!” and “a vote for me is a vote for all!” The use of Instagram and other social media is impressive, though it’s often mean, personal and racist. Drinking in “Boys State” instills a sense of hope, and dread. It’s a slice of America if lived on a landlocked “Lord of the Flies” isle, where you know boys will be boys.

Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine’

14 Aug

‘Creem: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine’: In on the joke, and at least once on with the band

By Tom Meek

The original title to this nostalgic dial back was “Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine,” the “Boy Howdy” being the rock magazine’s identifying icon, conjured up by legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb (allegedly in exchange for the mag covering the costs of a medical treatment). The posted title of Scott Crawford’s documentary reflects the storied magazine’s sub-banner, an intentional eff-you to “Rolling Stone,” which launched a few months earlier. As the talking heads in the film have it – including former editors and writers there – “Rolling Stone” was a highbrow culture magazine, while “Creem,” named after the rock group Cream, was just about rock ’n’ roll and adoringly true to its Detroit roots throughout its 20-year existence. It was posture and pose versus edgy, raw ardor.

Interestingly, one of those talking heads recalling Creem with such zeal is film director Cameron Crowe (“Singles,” “Jerry McGuire”) whose experience as a Rolling Stone writer gave him the seeds for the bittersweet rock romance “Almost Famous” (2000). Another ardent fan, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, grew up close enough to bike down to Creem’s offices (described as “aesthetic squalor”) and rues that he never made the pages of the mag. Other rewinds about drop-ins from Detroit rock royalty such as Iggy Pop, Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper dot the film; one time, a Creem journalist embedded with the band Kiss onstage for a show.

The Creem reflected in film feels much like the early days at the Boston Phoenix that I heard about when I joined back in the early 1990s – underground culture, alternative music and cult films, all done for peanuts by hustling journos who’d rather be at a late-night gig and write about it the next day than pull down big dollars as a stolid nine-to-fiver. It was about passion and the vibe, and Crawford gets his finger on that. The film would make a nice double bill with “Other Music,” which also played the Brattle’s Virtual Screening Room this year. The personalities at Creem – including publisher Barry Kramer and critic and editor Lester Bangs, who both died before the magazine flamed out – were clearly a strong and agitated olio. As one surviving commentator said of its legacy and embraced irreverence, “either you’re in on the joke or you were the joke.” Rock on.

The Secret: Dare to Dream

14 Aug

‘The Secret: Dare to Dream’: On second thought, maybe you and lovelorn Katie Holmes shouldn’t

By Tom Meek

“The Secret: Dare to Dream” is a pretty hokey title that implies a meaningful life lesson served up with a hefty side of sentimental platitude. You get one of the two, and while it might sound like a Nicholas Sparks adaptation (“The Notebook,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” “Message in a Bottle”) it’s not – it’s based on a book by Rhonda Byrne, who also serves as a producer on the film.

So what’s the big secret? Well, Miranda (Katie Holmes) something of a fishmonger/restaurant manager, is an overtaxed widow with a brood at home to feed and care for. It hasn’t been too long since her husband passed (car accident), but now, newly out of the throes of grief there’s something starting to kindle with Tucker (Jerry O’Donnell from “Stand By Me”) the owner of the restaurant. Pretty clean hometown stuff, until one day when arguing with her texting daughter in the passenger seat, Miranda rear-ends a pickup truck so big and fierce it looks like an official Nascar vehicle. Bray (Josh Lucas), the owner of said monster truck, turns out to be a pretty decent guy. He offers to fix minivan’s bumper for Miranda and, after a huge coastal storm hits and rips a giant hole in her aged roof, he swings by and tells her not to worry – he’s got it. From there, anytime something goes wrong, Mr. Nice Guy shows up as if on speed dial. It’s cool happenstance at first, but then Bray’s new-agey, power-of-positive-thinking thing starts to get a bit creepy and there’s that one nagging thing he keeps wanting to tell Miranda, but never quite gets around to doing so. And of course Tucker’s not having any of this coincidentally there-all-the-time BS.

You can probably guess where it all goes – or close enough. The twists aren’t all that surprising or life affirming, but “Dare to Dream” is reasonably well acted and directed (by Andy Tennant, who did “Hitch” and “Anna and the King’). It’s a weepy where, if the production values and star power were just a notch lower, it would have landed on the Hallmark Channel; as it is with the pandemic upon us and theaters closed, it’s a sizzling summer release.

The Rental

28 Jul

‘The Rental’: You know party’s going to go bad, but this horror thriller does it in the best way

By Tom Meek

The house in the woods or remote enclave has long been a ripe setting for horror and home invasion fare. Wes Craven’s brilliant and brutal “The Last House on the Left” (1972) and Polanski’s unheralded “Cul-de-sac” (1966) defined and seeded the genre; those that came after have checked in with mixed results, with most failing to live up – but that’s understandable, right? Dave Franco (brother of James) makes his directorial debut with “The Rental,” a polished yet pat psychodrama that turns full horror thriller by the end and even dips its toe into more culty genre.

The setup’s familiar: Four toothsome young adults on the threshold of a more settled life (marriage and kids) brew up something of a last fling getaway in a modernistic spread abutting the sea-splashed cliffs of Northern California. Charlie (Dan Stevens, “Downton Abbey” and “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”), a tech entrepreneur who is rocking and raking it in, is newly married to Michelle (Alison Brie, “Mad Men”). Along for the fun is Charlie’s fun-loving but bad luck brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand), who’s a close collaborator (perhaps too close?) of Charlie’s at the tech firm. The unique and relevant twist (the script is by Franco and mumblecore/mumblegore stalwart Joe Swanberg) is that Mina, who’s Middle Eastern, is denied the rental that “white guy” Charlie scores 20 minutes later. Charges of racism fill the drive up and the caretaker of the estate Taylor (Toby Huss) appears to something of a rube you’d peg for a Trumpster. It doesn’t help that he admits to partaking of the bottle liberally. To veiled charges thrown by Mina, he seems genuinely clueless, and we do get early peeks at the house from the point of view of someone outside spying in. Is it Taylor, Jason, Freddy or some other malcontent with malicious intent?

That brooding unhappiness gets swept aside with a few hits of ecstasy and a lot of “babe” this and that. The lot’s a fairly generic bunch, and you can’t wait for whatever it is lurking in the woods to emerge and chop of few of them up. It doesn’t happen right away; the initial ill deeds spew from within the four. The dog (a cute French bulldog), who according to the rules of the house should not be there, goes missing, and then they discover video cams in the bathrooms – an Airbnb nightmare, but they can’t go to the cops because of their own transgression. And yes, a body turns up and the four must decide how to play it out. They don’t choose wisely.

How it all wraps up is orchestrated smartly by Franco and Swanberg with a lot of help from the misty, lush cinematography by Christian Sprenger and a mood-setting score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. The running length of just under 90 minutes is a win, too, and Franco and Swanberg hit the final bend deciding not to revel in gore so much as provocation, leaving enough teasingly unanswered that you want the film to go on. I can’t imagine there’s a world without “The Rental 2” and maybe more. There’s nothing too deep here, just parts of other works stitched together for lean, mean effect.

The Old Guard

17 Jul

The Old Guard’: Superheroes, after a fashion, who don’t quite pull off a mission to franchise

By Tom Meek

A fairly one-note pseudo-superhero flick, “The Old Guard” gets much of its occasional heartbeat from its irrepressible star, Charlize Theron, and some of the cast surrounding her. There’s no Lycra, X-ray eyes or bulging muscles here, just a quartet of immortals who form something of a special ops force that’s been doing missions together across the centuries. Two of the four (Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli) fought against each other during the Crusades, though they’re an item in contemporary times.

When asked, “Are you good guys or bad guys?” Theron’s Andy (Andromache of Scythia, in days of yore) responds, “It depends on the century.” In this century, what’s to know? The team’s looking for new blood, while the mad big pharma head (Harry Melling, who played Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” films) wants to bottle the immortals and sell their essence on the market. Andy tracks down the newbie Nile (KiKi Layne, “If Beale Street Could Talk”) who’s just out of the military, giving her the heads up about her gifts and attempting to recruit her – which essentially comes down to a battle aboard a bouncy cargo plane. The real call to arms comes when Melling’s Merrick kidnaps those Crusade rivals turned lovers, Joe (Kenzari) and Nicky (Marinelli) and Andy turns to Nile and old ally Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts, his face etched with melancholy) to help free the lads.

Caught up in the emotionally inert mix is Chiwetel Ejiofor as CIA handler and X-factor. He was nominated for an Academy Award (“12 Years a Slave”) and Theron won one, but with the exception of them and Schoenaerts everyone in the film feels stiff, like they’re just waiting for the next smackdown to take place. Theron’s so good in all she’s done (“Long Shot,” and “Monster,” for which she won that gold statue) and looks lithe and purposeful sporting a short dark bob that accentuates her angular jaw and twinkling eyes; the fight scenes too are choreographed brilliantly – but if you want a real drink of Theron kicking ass, go with “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) or “Atomic Blonde” (2017). The film’s also a letdown because director Gina Prince-Bythewood showed such promise with a soulful debut “Love and Basketball” (2000) that plumbed the romantic relationship between two ballers over the years. Here it’s a by-the-numbers execution with few surprises. Sure it’s great to watch Theron thrown down or see one of the immortals fall out a 10-story window and, like Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, slowly pull their broken pieces together and painfully regenerate. What hurts here is that this aims to be a cornerstone of a franchise. I think I can wait another century for the next installment.

The Truth

8 Jul

 

truth

Who knew that for his follow-up to “Shoplifters” (2018), a darkly riveting curio about a family of petty criminals, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda would make an emotionally tumultuous French melodrama that feels like a revisit of Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours” (2008) while being wholly original. Besides the setting, both films are driven by the doe-eyed intensity of Juliette Binoche and wrestle with family reckonings. In “The Truth,” the one prominently in the catbird seat is Fabienne Dangeville, a legendary, César-winning French actress in her 70s played by Catherine Deneuve, a legendary French actress in her 70s – it’s priceless to witness Fabienne bristle at the mere mention of Brigitte Bardot. Binoche plays her daughter, Lumir, a screenwriter who has come home for a visit with her American husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), a struggling TV actor, and their precocious 8-year-old daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier).

It takes a little while for mother-daughter barbs to abrade the reunion serenity, and for Hank and Lumir’s marriage to show its frayed edges (“You said you had stopped drinking!”) from behind boho photo-op posturing. Filling the fore until then is a giant tortoise named Pierre who patrols the garden and the sci-fi film Fabienne is working on, playing the daughter of a mother (Manon Clavel) who never ages and looks like a young French film starlet from the ’60s next to Fabienne’s septuagenarian.“The Truth” is sly in its meta, tongue-in-cheek deconstructive approach. The main rubs come through Fabienne’s newly released memoir, with details that lead Lumir to declare on a few occasions “that never happened,” and Fabienne’s aloof, blasé diva complex, which conceals loneliness and lack of real human connection. In one scene where she has an emotional epiphany with Lumir, as the tears have barely dried she proclaims she wished she had saved it for the screen. Is she about her art, her family or her legacy?

The amazing thing here in is Koreeda’s comfort sliding into a très French film. Don’t get me wrong, the plumb of inner desire and personal agonies is not far off from “Shoplifters” or Koreeda’s brilliant 2004 kids-living-alone drama “Nobody Knows,” but this feels like hitting the ice for the first time and never having even the semblance of a wobble. The film, which Koreeda co-wrote, is primarily in French; Hank can barely speak a lick of it but is trying constantly to be at the center of conversations he has little inkling about, which could be seen as some kind of comment about the arrogance Americans drag to the party no matter where they go. The end of “The Truth,” however, is not about big statements, but reaching understanding. It’s quiet, wistful and from the heart.