Movie reviews: 'Mulan' is eye-popping, even streaming on your small screen
Disney's first trailer for the live-action ‘Mulan’ remake showed the character wielding a sword as swiftly as a coursing river. (Walt Disney Studios)
MULAN: 4 STARS
The last time we saw the story of Mulan, a young woman who disguised herself as a man to enlist herself in the Imperial Army in place of her ailing father, it was in the form of an action musical that was Disney's first animated film to feature an Asian heroine.
Twenty-two years later, Disney has dropped the songs and upped the body count in "Mulan," a live action remake, featuring an all-Asian cast and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" producer Bill Kong behind the scenes. The movie premieres this week on the Disney+ streaming service.
Based on a sixth century legend called "Ballad of Mulan," the new film lets go of many of the stereotypes that marred the animated version, hewing more closely to the traditional tale. Set in China during the Han dynasty in a quiet village, the story follows Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), the martial arts-trained eldest daughter of famed warrior Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma).
When the Emperor of China (Jet Li), fearing a threat from the invading Rouran army, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a skilled warrior fuelled by anger over his father's death and shape-shifting witch Xian Lang (Gong Li), he orders the conscription of one man from every household in the land to form a mighty militia.
As the father of all daughters, Fa Zhou volunteers but is in no shape to go to war. Unbeknownst to him, Mulan disguises herself as a man and enrols, risking her life and the dishonour of her family if she is discovered.
"Mulan" doesn't feel like the other recent Disney live action do-overs. It is different enough in style, emotional content and tone from the animated movie to be a stand-alone with only a tenuous connection to the past.
Director Niki Caro drags the story into the 21st century, emphasizing themes of female empowerment, allowing Mulan find her own inner strength and potential and not rely on a Disney prince. The sparks that flew between Li Shang and Mulan in the original are mostly absent — as her commanding officer, the power imbalance was deemed inappropriate for 2020 — and have been replaced by platonic love interest Chen Honghui (Yoson An).
The reported budget of US$200 million is very much evident on the screen. The gorgeously shot Wuxia-style action scenes are epic, and for the family audience, relatively bloodless considering how many people are dispatched by Mulan's deadly blade. Occasionally they fall prey to a heavy hand from editor David Coulson, but the sheer size and scope of them, even on the scaled down Disney+ television presentation, are eye-popping. A more intimate climax with life-or-death consequences for Bori Khan, Mulan or the Emperor, is a nicely rendered showdown that effectively delivers a good, exciting mix of action and character dynamics.
"Mulan" is a welcome addition to the Disney remake roster. It plays like a grown-up version of the animated film, bringing the story into the modern age, while keeping the family appeal intact.
I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS: 3 ½ STARS
Academy Award winner Charlie Kaufman scripted "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," mind-bending movies that essay themes of identity crisis, mortality and the meaning of life through a metaphysical or parapsychological filter. His latest project, "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," an adaptation of Iain Reid's bestselling novel and now streaming on Netflix, fits on the shelf next to his best-known work. It's a fascinating road trip—and head trip—that is equal parts unsettling atmosphere and tension.
Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons play a new couple on a road to trip to visit his parents at their rural farm. Although she has misgivings about the relationship, and is thinking about calling it quits, they seem well suited, playfully singing show tunes and talking as they stay just ahead of threatening snow squalls.
The storm intensifies after they reach the farm and the couple are snowed in with his welcoming but eccentric parents, mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis). As the group gets to know one another over an awkward dinner, the young woman — who is never identified by name — has feelings of unease that intensify as questions arise about her boyfriend's mental health.
On the way home, a detour to an empty high school sends her further down the rabbit hole of doubt.
"I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is a cerebral, slow-burn story of suspense and menace anchored by four terrific performances. Collette and Thewlis are wonderfully weird, bringing these strange, somewhat inappropriate characters to vivid life without giving away spoilers as to what's to come. Plemons is well cast as the all-American boy with a secret, but it is Buckley who dominates. The role is written internal, and much of the interesting stuff happens in her head, but her work is never cold or clinical. She brings warmth to the character as the very fabric of her psyche is being challenged. It's a long strange trip, but Buckley's exploration of the frailty of the human spirit is compelling.
As director and screenwriter Kaufman takes his time, allowing the characters to mix and mingle, physically and perhaps mentally, and the suspense to build. It's a tricky dance. He dispenses just enough information to move the story forward while creating an atmosphere that grows until the film's final 20, trippy minutes. Kaufman artfully brings the movie's themes of regret and longing into focus with a bizarre and beautiful climax.
"I'm Thinking of Ending Things" is a haunting film made human by terrific performances.
ODD MAN RUSH: 3 STARS
Based on Bill Keenan's bestselling hockey memoir of the same name, "Odd Man Rush," available digitally and on demand, stars Jack Mulhern as a hockey player with NHL dreams who ends up in Sweden's minor pro league.
Mulhern is Bobby Sanders, a hockey-obsessed young man whose dreams of big-time sports stardom are dashed by injury. Despite surgeries and being banged up, he plays in Europe on the periphery of pro hockey and is eventually traded to a team in Sweden. He's living his dream, but then he starts a relationship with Elin (Elektra Jannson Kilbey), a woman he meets at the local market. His love of the game never subsides, but Elin and problems with an old injury make him re-evaluate his priorities and just who he would be without a hockey stick in his hands.
"Odd Man Rush" is an ode to everyone who has ever put on pads with dreams of NHL glory dancing about in their heads. Which is pretty much everyone who has ever played hockey. Sanders is the guy we don't hear about very often, the grinder who wasn't destined for greatness. That point of view differentiates "Odd Man Rush" from most other sports stories.
It's a movie that loves the underdog and the game. Hockey kids like Trevor Gretzky and Alexa Lemieux, daughter of Mario Lemieux, make appearances alongside cameos by former NHL player and referee Paul Stewart and Edmonton Oilers associate coach Jim Playfair, which add authenticity to the storytelling.
Filmed in some of the same locations as 70's sweary hockey-film "Slap Shot," "Odd Man Rush" spends a great deal of time on the ice but, like so many sports films, it's not actually about the game. It explores universal questions of dream-fulfilment and how much of oneself you give to that dream, thoughts most of us have had whether we've ever played shinny or not.
FEELS GOOD MAN: 3 ½ STARS
The story of "Feels Good Man," a new documentary now on VOD, begins with "Boy's Club," a comic series about four characters, including Pepe the Frog, in what artist Matt Furie called the "post college zone." He based the quartet on the personalities of he and his friends. They don't have a plan for their lives, but they do know they enjoy drinking and hanging out.
After publishing on MySpace for a time, Pepe's catchphrase, "Feels good man," caught on. Memes started to pop up on other sites and one fan even wrote a song about Pepe's habit of pulling his pants all the way to the ground when he stood to pee.
At first it was good fun. "I didn't even know what a meme was," Furie says. Then something strange happened.
Pepe was discovered by the users at 4chan, a website described as "a Darwinian competition for attention," where the most popular posts float to the top of the page, earning the most replies. Others sink to the bottom and fade away. Like a video game, but unlike other social sites, it is a winning and losing system that fostered a culture of anonymous, but nonetheless attention-hungry users. One 4chan user says it is a place to express things you don't feel comfortable saying in real life. Memes help the posts stand out and Pepe, the slacker frog, was co-opted by people who liked his expressive face — Sad Frog, Smug Frog, Angry Pepe, Feels Frog, and "You will never..." Frog — but didn't know anything about "Boy's Club" or Furie's work.
Nonetheless, Pepe's popularity grew and soon he had a clothing line and pop stars like Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry were paying tribute. "Pepe had escaped and he was roaming around and it was fun for a while… until it wasn't anymore,” Furie says.
The 4chan community, upset that Pepe was no longer theirs and theirs alone, began making the memes as distasteful as possible. "It's so offensive, it can't be co-opted." Images of Pepe with swastikas and highly racialized language began to appear. The character's simplicity and malleability made him a perfectly adaptable figure for memes and videos.
What began as an innocent icon of harmless hedonism was then adopted by white supremacist and incel groups. By the time Donald Trump retweeted a meme of himself as Pepe, Furie had lost control of his own creation. "I think that President Trump is a real-life version of Pepe," says Look Ahead America executive director and photo data expert Matt Braynard, "in his ability to illicit a reaction, get attention and express people's hopes and fears."
"Feels Good Man" details how Pepe the Frog went from benign entertainment to an ultimate representation of internet troll culture. As a writer for The Atlantic says, "Pepe allows [the alt-right] to pretend they are kidding but they are not kidding. They want you to be both scared by the threat and be mocked for being scared in the first place. To cause psychic anguish."
Furie was horrified. As an artist who wanted to write children's books, Pepe was an albatross around his neck, both for his reputation and his finances. A huge order of merchandise, destined for mainstream stores, had to be destroyed, lest it wind up in the hands of white supremacist groups. Furie worked to reclaim Pepe, reframing him as an avatar of love and happiness, not hate. But as an internet security expert tells him, "That's a tough genie to put back in the bottle."
Pepe's reputation rehabilitation eventually takes the form of lawsuits against Alex Jones and his ilk, but the interesting stuff here isn't about the copyright infringement or intellectual property fights, it's about Pepe as an omen — an unexpected sign that things are changing in ways many can't quite understand. "It was a warning that something was shifting in society, that something had gone wrong," says scholar John Michael Greer. "We need to listen, because it's not going to go away."
"Feels Good Man" is part cautionary tale, part culture war study and part story of the reclamation of art. Its brisk pace, aided by interesting talking heads and loads of animation, entertainingly breezes through the details of the various subcultures that aligned to subvert Furie's creation on the world stage.
PARALLEL MINDS: 2 STARS
"Parallel Minds," now on VOD, is a mystical murder mystery with a high-tech twist.
Set in the near future, the action begins during an important presentation for Red Eye, a new device capable of accessing memories. "A contact lens," announces inventor Conrad Stallman (Neil Napier) at the product launch, "that records not what the eye can see but what the mind can remember.
"We are made up of our experiences and the memories of those experiences. Now, your memories are no longer a thing of the past. Be where you remember being. See old friends, family."
Stallman's sales pitch is compelling, but backstage there are problems. "It's not ready," says Red Eye's head programmer Elise Perrott (Michelle Thrush) as she scurries away, returning to her lab. There she gives her best friend, Metis researcher Margo Elson (Tommie-Amber Pirie), the secret password for her work computer. "Consider yourself my back up plan," she says ominously.
The next morning, after a tormented sleep, Margo awakens to the news that Elise has been found dead in her lab of an apparent suicide.
Investigating the case is Thomas Elliot (Greg Bryk), a troubled police officer who, when asked if he is the detective on the case, snarls, "Til someone tells me otherwise." He's a tough guy who drinks expired milk and has a habit doing things like inexplicably kicking open the already open door to Elise's apartment. "You know you could have just asked me for the key to the door," says Margot, arriving a second later. Or perhaps he could have just used the doorknob, but either way, he's a walking cliché. The two agree to work together, he'll do the police work, she'll help him navigate the high-tech aspects of Elise's work.
Secrets abound and there's suspicion and skullduggery around every corner. The brand-new technology has a serious glitch, a shady multi-national security company is hiding something and Thomas has more baggage than the cargo hold of a 747. But there's more. A hacker named Jade Drayton (Madison Walsh) hints at something huge. "You've wandered into a war no one knows is being waged. A war of conscience and knowledge."
A return to Margo's childhood home, the scene of trauma, forces her to confront old memories that may hold the key to solving the mystery of Elise's death.
Benjamin Ross Hayden, the Métis director, writer, producer and actor from Calgary, weaves together a story that embraces new and old. Margo is a scientist but it is her connection to and belief in Indigenous traditions that gives her the inner strength to get to the bottom of the mystery of "Parallel Minds."
Cliched and melodramatic dialogue mars the film, which is a shame because the female characters have great promise. Margo, Jade and Elise are interesting people and the engines that keep "Parallel Minds" moving forward.
"Parallel Minds" shows promise. There are many cool ideas here, but they are hampered by a modest budget unable to realize the set pieces Hayden offers up. There's stylish photography and some good location work, but the film's ambition outstrips its execution.