Tag Archives: Disney

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.

Of Fox and Disney in 02138

12 Nov

Favorite cinemas in Harvard, Davis squares are unaffected – so far – as Mouse cages Fox

By Tom Meek

Repertory theaters see cause for concern at Disney’s new control over decades’ worth of Fox films, says Ned Hinkle, creative director at Harvard Square’s Brattle Theatre. (Photo: The Brattle Theatre)

The launch of the Disney+ streaming service next week may be good for stay-at-home watchers of the Mouse’s classics and Pixar films, “The Simpsons” and tourists in the “Star Wars” and Marvel universes, but it also could shake up repertory cinemas that screen titles such as “All About Eve,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Revenant,” “Alien,” the original “Planet of the Apes” and Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” – including Harvard Square’s Brattle Theatre and the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

Disney, which acquired 20th Century Fox for $71 billion this year, seems to be quietly locking away the studio’s trove of 100 years of classics into its “vault,” Vulture reported last month. Disney did not announce a policy, but the sudden cancellation of booked screenings of Fox films (“The Omen” and “The Fly”) at theaters around the country sparked panic through the cinematic community that the movies might become no longer be available for exhibition.

One common theory is that Disney doesn’t want a current product (a new film such as the upcoming “Frozen II”) to compete against one of its classic/repertory films (say, “Fantasia” or “Bambi”).

“I understand the rationale might be to send people to Disney’s streaming service,” said Ian Judge, manager of Frame One’s Somerville Theatre. “We had dealt with this issue with Disney before they purchased Fox, and in order to get Disney repertory we had to have them reclassify Somerville as a repertory house in their system, which means we no longer play new Disney product there.”

That means that you’ll see only Disney-owned classics in Davis Square; new films from the company play at Frame One’s Capitol Theatre in Arlington. “We have been lucky to have that option, but for single locations, it’s putting them in a tough spot,” Judge said. 

The Brattle happens to be one of those single locations. “At the moment,” said Ned Hinkle, creative director at the Brattle, “this is not an issue for the Brattle – or any other purely repertory cinema – but having such a large corporate entity in charge of such a huge swath of cinema culture has everyone on edge.” Hinkle echoed Vulture’s concern of “not knowing” Disney’s long-term plans for popular repertory titles such as “The Princess Bride,” “Fight Club” and “Aliens” and other entries on Fox’s vast slate. The academically affiliated Harvard Film Archive is another “single location” repertory house that is not affected.

The one Fox film that Disney is keeping its paws off: Late-night cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” which has had runs at the shuttered cinemas in Harvard Square and at the Apple Cinema at Fresh Pond (a nonrepertory theater) and is slated to play AMC’s non-rep Boston Common theater Saturday. But “Rocky Horror” has no Disney product to compete with.

More will likely become known as Disney+ launches, but for now, here, let the projectors roll.

Avengers: Endgame

25 Apr

‘Avengers: Endgame’ was a long time coming, and it’s another exceptionally long time going

 

And so it begins, or ends, and no matter how you see it, it’s a long one. “Avengers: Endgame,” the de facto part two of “Avengers: Infinity War,” clocks in at more than three hours – 30 minutes longer than “Infinity” and chock full of maudlin eddies that should have been pared back. That said, “Endgame” gets the job done, passing the baton as it closes out a long-running chapter with some sentimental eye rubs. Where Disney’s Marvel Universe goes from here is likely a focus on new blood such as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson). They’re both in “Endgame,” tossed in as inert garnish.

In case you need a rewind: At the end of “Infinity War,” Thanos (Josh Brolin), blessed with the unholy alignment of all six infinity stones (the power of a god to create and destroy), has eradicated half the life in the universe and, with that, half of the Avengers crew. We catch up with Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) floating near-dead in space, Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) searching desperately for his wife and children and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) spit out unceremoniously of a five-year time warp – in a beat-up Ford Econoline or the like, to boot. The film moves along sluggishly for the first half-hour, and I’d be wrong to tell you fully how it flies, but the simple answer is: The remaining Avengers crew need to somehow turn back the clock. Given that this is Marvel, and a superhero fantasy (the opening with Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy” is nearly as ingenious as the use of “Mr. Blue Sky” in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” – is there some mandate for classic rock songs with “Mr.” in the title in the Marvel Uni?) that time travel quest – with semi-hilarious film references to “Back to the Future” – happens sure enough, and the “Infinity War” with Thanos gets something of a do-over.

Before that the film notches some of its greatest self-deprecating wins, namely in that the buff god of thunder, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), some five years after Thanos’ win in Wakanda, is now a potbellied booze bag looking like the portly Val Kilmer, “large mammal” portrayal of the latter-years Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors.” Or take the Hulk/Bruce Banner, (Mark Ruffalo) who has gotten his raging greenness and mild manner intellect to come to terms. And then there’s Hawkeye, who’s been bestowed the worst hairstyle imaginable – an unholy marriage of a mullet and a mohawk. How and why this choice was ever made is never explained and demands a film of its own, but yes, it’s a weird alternate reality out there, and not necessarily a bad one. As one observant Avenger points out, with half as many humans on the planet the water in the Hudson is now so clean, pods of a resurgent whale populations are hanging out where there were once toxically polluted slurries.

Ultimately “Endgame,” like “Infinity War,” both directed by the brothers Russo (Anthony and Joe, who made the far cheekier and superior “Civil War”) turns into a major CGI boggle of superheroes battling a herd of creepy-crawly things from another planet. Amid all the chaos there’s one gratuitous yet neat scene where an all-female phalanx of supers try to get the final wold-saving run done, and yes, Captain America (Chris Evans, with the requisite square-jawed woodenness)  is there to anchor the whole shebang; in very (too) small metes, we also get Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford and Tilda Swinton. It’s a very crowded affair.  Some big names and friends move on and out with a tear or two to be shed, but I was more struck by other matters looming at the edges of the frame, including nature’s resurgence in a less populated world, curiosity for how far Brie Larson and the “Captain Marvel” franchise can realistically go and, most of all, that haircut Renner is saddled with. It’s indelible and unshakable. If his Hawkeye could travel back in time to the 1990s there would be NHL hockey teams north of the border that would surely inject him in the first line based on hair alone.

Mary Poppins Returns

20 Dec

 

Image result for mary poppins returns

 

It’s been almost 55 years since Julie Andrews and her magic umbrella descended on Cherry Tree Lane in “Mary Poppins” back in 1964. Given that jubilee-plus swath of time, it’s amazing no one attempted a sequel, but perhaps the real snag was trying to find an actress with the right blend of creamy, wholesome strictness Andrews so imbued into that beloved nanny role. The wait, however, proves worthwhile, and the casting of Emily Blunt in “Mary Poppins Returns” is something of an inspired choice. She mixes in a dash of sass and sauce to make the role her own while paying respectful homage to Andrews.

The story, penned by David Magee from P. L. Travers’s 1935 novel, “Mary Poppins Comes Back,” revolves around the now grown-up wee ones from the original, Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), with Michael widowed and living in his parents’ old home with his own charges to care for. It’s a busy house, fraught with near chaos but full of love and integrity – and the bank Michael works for (a barbed twist) wants to repossess it. The time is the economic downturn in London known as the Great Slump, and while the cruel circumstance feels like something from the pages of Dickens, it also suggests something executed with cold military precision by the current administration.

You could imagine Magee and director Rob Marshall wrestling with the idea of trying to update the tale for contemporary times, but smartly the pair hold fast. Remember, this is the Marshall who made the Jazz Age sing in the raucous Oscar-winning “Chicago” (2002); and it’s also still Disney, which built an empire off wholesome family fare before the blockbuster wham-bam of Star Wars and the Marvel Universe. For folks who know primarily about the derrière lifts of Kardashians and the assorted dealings of former presidential attorneys, “Mary Poppins Returns” is destined to be a pure wintergreen breeze of prim revelation. In short, it’s transportive, with apt dashes of magical digression. Buttoned-up fantasia, if you will, lush and infectious.

Marshall knows musicals and gets the sets, staging and numbers down to a science, but it’s Blunt – who’s partaken in such diverse works (and with mixed results) as “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), “A Quiet Place” (2018) and “Sicario” (2015) – who powers it all with her indelible Poppins’ resolve, finding a whole new gear here the way Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta Jones did in “Chicago.” Her nanny’s aloof affect and strong nature endears from the get-go, and she slips into into the musical numbers seamlessly. If there was any question she could sing or dance, they’re put to rest.

There’s also the funny, silly magical excursions – remember Dick Van Dyke and those penguins back in ’64? – such as a bath time under-the-sea adventure that add to the film’s frothy, innocent lather. The cast has many little charms as well. “Prada” co-star Meryl Streep shows up in gypsy garb as Poppins’ Cousin Topsy, who can fix anything and lives in an upside-down emporium. There are also cameo turns from a spry Van Dyke and Angela Lansbury, who sells balloons with an uplifting sense of justice; Colin Firth rounds out the cast with suavity as a stately banker who may have a foot in some devious subprime doings.

The wonderful thing about this “Poppins” is its innate infectiousness. It’ll win over the cynical and charm the faithful. Dour and bleak times call for a nanny with a stiff upper lip and take-charge can-do fixes for everything from untidy bedrooms to dicey doings in the boardroom. She’s a marvel we could use now. 

Post-review note: I attended the “Mary Poppins Returns” press screening with my 9-year-old daughter, Jane, who reported that Emily Blunt was fine, but no Julie Andrews. She also observed that this Poppins seemed less “responsible” than the 1964 nanny.

Oscar move not so popular

13 Aug

Oscars make room for ‘popular film’ category, ignoring that great popular films already win

Marvel film stars Chadwick Boseman and Chris Evans present the award for Sound Mixing at the 88th Oscars in 2016. (Photo: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences via Instagram)

Brows were raised Wednesday when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organizations that puts on the Oscars) announced that a new “best” category – “outstanding achievement in popular film” – would be added to its awards slate. The move, clearly to keep the award and its ceremony relevant as TV ratings and viewership continue to slide to historical lows, would give such popcorn pleasers as “Black Panther,” “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” “Deadpool 2” and “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” a chance to come to the fore and collect a bald, golden Adonis.

Questions abound: Just how do you classify “popular”? Is there a box office bar that needs to be notched or, like the MTV awards, do filmgoers get to cast a ballot? In the eyes of cinephiles and serious filmmakers the move dimmed the shine of the golden pate. A fellow film critic said it makes the Oscars “less relevant than the Golden Globes,” a ceremony largely considered to be more about pop and celebrity than art. 

According to the Academy letter, “Eligibility requirements and other key details will be forthcoming.” The category will be introduced this year and be part of the ceremony airing Feb. 24 on ABC. That’s also where things get interesting. Disney – the company behind “Black Panther,” a clear front-runner in the new category, the bigger Marvel Universe and the “Star Wars” franchise – also owns ABC. Seems like a nice little fix: Pick up an Oscar while propping up sagging television ratings. Continue reading

Ant-Man and the Wasp

7 Jul

 

There’s plenty big and small in “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and I’m not talking about the diminutive or gigantic sizes its superheroes can achieve – and do, often and to great effect – but the elements of film. On the small, there’s a hive of plot activity, but little of it resonates or at least feels fresh or smart. On the big (or gigantic) is a kick-ass ensemble that plays off its sharp leads smartly, with fervor and punch in every frame.

For those of you who missed the cornerstone “Ant-Man” a scant few years back in 2015, you don’t need to back up and catch that less interesting flick before diving in. What you do need to know is that “Ant-Man” is part of the whole Marvel Universe run by Disney and that the hero known as Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) sans the suit, is serving the end of a two-year house detention mandated by the FBI for his participation in a fracas over in Germany, seen back in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016). It’s also why Ant-Man didn’t put in a show in Wakanda this year for “Avengers: Infinity Wars.”

All of the crowd-pleasing heat of the film flows through Rudd and his quirky, blue-eyed likability, be it Lang’s wisecracking antagonism of an FBI caseworker (Randall Park, bringing the same sourpuss charm he’s made a career of on “Fresh Off the Boat”) who pops in for random house searches, or his parries with testy ant-suit inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). The on-again-off-again romantic dynamic with Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), which gave the first film a reason to be seen, bears fruit again and elevates Hope to superhero status as the other half of a bill that can shrink or enlarge. Hank’s also got a magic remote that can shrink cars and even entire buildings if properly configured; and there are those German shepherd-sized ants with massive mandibles that help run Hank’s shrinkable lab.

Fun stuff, but Hope and Hank newly believe they have a chance to rescue mother/wife Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer, who’s not in the film enough) from the quantum plane purgatory she’s been lost in for the past decades (there’s plenty of highfaluting mumbo-jumbo like this, and it’s best to just roll with it). The key to getting the right coordinates to her locale is implanted in Lang’s head through a dream or something of an out-of-body experience. To get there’s something akin to “Fantastic Voyage” (1966), but also one of the least interesting plot threads. Meanwhile, Lang, saddled with an FBI ankle monitor, has gone AWOL and there’s a Tom Wolfe-style restaurateur (Walton Goggins) who moonlights in black-market technology and wants Hank’s shrunken lab, while an entity known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), ever angry and able to walk through walls, wants to disrupt the quantum plane quest for her own ends. Perhaps the most daunting obstacles are Lang’s ex-wife (Judy Greer) and daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) who pop in via FaceTime at the most ill-timed moments looking for soccer cleats; even better is Lang’s security firm business partners, Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and Dave (Tip “T.I.’’ Harris), who are both burdens and saviors, and quite effective as comic relief.

Peyton Reed, who test drove the cast for the 2015 outing, feels more comfortable and in control this go-round. The action sequences are seamless, funny and, with their use of big-small toggles, ever surprising and fresh. As much as Lilly gets near equal time – and she’s more than worthy – this is the Rudd show, and that’s not a bad thing; he’s just more the loose cannon, while the former “Lost” star anchors the film with emotional stability and grit. The combination of the personal and uproarious scenes such as Ant-Man summoning winged ants for transport that get picked off by a seagull put “Ant-Man and the Wasp” in the comedy-cum-action camp with the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool.”

Avengers: Infinity War

27 Apr

‘Avengers: Infinity War’: Marvel’s universe has built to a climax, which isn’t this movie

 

Some might find this a bit of a spoiler, but it’s really more of a public service announcement: If you go into “Avengers: Infinity War” thinking it’s a neat, trim chapter like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” or “Captain America: Civil War” let me set you and the record straight – this is a “Part One.” Somewhere around the two-hour mark of the two-and-a-half-hour running time, I thought to myself, “How that heck are they going to tie this all up in less than 30 minutes?” They do, kind of, with a massive smackdown on the grassy plains of Wakanda pitting warriors and superheroes against a limitless pack of mutant space dogs, but how it ends isn’t an ending. It’s not even like Han Solo getting frozen in “Empire Strikes Back”; the last scene simply ends. You expect another scene, but the credits roll.

“Wah!” you might think, but a quick walk through IMDB shows myriad actors employed by the Marvel universe have signed up for a mysterious “Untitled Avengers Movie.” I can help all the people at Disney and Marvel: Your untitled film’s title is “Infinity Wars, Part Deux.” Continue reading

Critical Ban

9 Nov

Boston Film Critic Head Explains Solidarity With LA Peers After Disney’s Strike Against Press

Visitors walk through Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in January 2015.
(Jae C. Hong/AP)closemore

Tom Meek, a film critic for The ARTery, is the president of the Boston Society of Film Critics.


Update:

On Tuesday afternoon, Disney told the New York Timesthat the company “agreed to restore access to advance screenings” for Los Angeles Times critics.


Our original post: 

A recent retaliatory measure enacted by the Walt Disney Company triggered a rapid solidarity response by film critics groups, including ours in Boston, over the weekend.

On Tuesday morning, four critics groups announced they would drop Disney-produced films from award consideration until the company rescinds its blackout of the Los Angeles Times.

The Boston Society of Film Critics joined the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics in speaking out against Disney’s systematic blackballing of the Times from its press screenings, interview opportunities and other media access.

The situation erupted last week when the LA Times film critics were barred from attending the press screening of the Disney-produced Marvel adventure “Thor: Ragnarok.” The studio was upset by the paper’s Sept. 24 report about the company and its financial arrangements with — and political influence in — the city of Anaheim (where Disneyland is nestled). Disney cited the paper’s “disregard for basic journalistic standards” as the basis for the move. (The company did not respond to my requests for information.)

Given the course of events, there’s a grave irony that arises in that a company, so effusive in its pursuit to maintain a wholesome, “family-friendly” image, is the hand behind such Machiavellian manipulation tactics. Continue reading

The Florida Project

13 Oct

 

Two years ago, wunderkind Sean Baker blew away audiences with “Tangerine,” a film that cut into deep new territory – not so much in that it featured transgendered heroines on a quest to bust one of their men for fooling around with another, as the narrative succeeded loftily on many levels, but because it was shot on an iPhone, making it both a throwback and cutting edge. Filmed on the passively seedy streets of Los Angeles and drenched in orange and yellow, it was a scrumptious feast to drink in, not to mention being deftly humorous, moving and a bellwether for aspiring filmmakers.

It was also a promise of what might come next, and that’s here: “The Florida Project.” Something of a minor miracle and, so far, one of the best films of 2017 (joining “Get Out” on that short list), this is a beacon of hope for the future of independent film as Harvey Weinstein sinks into an abyss of shame and disgrace. Baker trades one sunshine locale (California) for another (Orlando, Fla.) while still hanging out with affable strugglers on the low who can’t get out of their own way. The film begins with two 6-year-olds spitting on a woman’s car from the balcony of a purple motel. When confronted, the pair offer four-letter retorts and buzz off, laughing gleefully. “Where is their moral compass?” You might ask. Have they escaped the cellular confines of “The 400 Blows” or “Salaam Bombay”? Continue reading

Almost up a creek while paddling the waters of Disney

15 Sep

Published in the Boston Globe

 

Signs warn of alligators and snakes near Seven Seas Lagoon.

Signs warn of alligators and snakes near Seven Seas Lagoon.

By Tom Meek GLOBE CORRESPONDENT SEPTEMBER 09, 2016
Vacation resorts — those destinations you leverage your life savings for so the family can relax and have fun without sweating the pressures of daily life — include safety and security as part of the package, right? Such was the likely expectation of the family from Nebraska whose 2-year-old son was killed by an alligator at Walt Disney World’s Grand Floridian Resort earlier this summer. The attack, which took place on an idyllic swath of beach on the manmade Seven Seas Lagoon, occurred as the family took in one of the resort’s family movie night offerings. For me the news was extra chilling, as just weeks earlier, my wife and 6-year-old daughter sat on that very beach watching “The Force Awakens.” Eerier still was the realization that a misadventure of mine two years earlier had given me a glimmer into the dangers that lurked in Walt’s waters.

I’ll be the first to testify to the structural beauty of the stately Grand Floridian and its limitless amenities, but those foreboding “no swimming” signs along the beaches gave me pause the very first time I passed them by. There was no footnote or qualification, just a red slash through a silhouetted swimmer. I assumed the water was polluted. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Continue reading