Adventure

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Editor’s note: The moment is finally here… Zack Snyder’s Justice League is set to debut on HBO Max at 12 AM PDT, March 18. Years of fan campaigning and constant social media clarmor has delivered what tens of thousands of people worldwide have been asking for; the mythical “Snyder Cut” is finally here. If you’re unfamiliar with the story of the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, polish up by reading this article here. The Snyder Cut of Justice League is perhaps the most infamous and relevant story of the collective power of fandom ever told. Whatever your thoughts and feelings are toward Zack Snyder and his movies, it’s hard to dismiss the #ReleaseTheSndyerCut movement as anything short of historic. We had the pleasure of receiving screenings for two of our writers here at Backseat Directors, so this will be a mini version of our normal roundtable reviews. We hope you enjoy what they have to say about this legendary movie.

Superheroes in Zack Snyder’s Justice League head straight on into battle against cosmic foes. | HBO Max Original (2021).

CJ Marshall: The Snyder Cut is good. Compare it to the previous version and it’s a masterpiece. It’s audacious, with a mythic quality that feels more on par with a fantasy epic than your average cape flick. I can’t say it’s enough to convert the naysayers. Justice League is Snyder with carte blanche. You have to sit through the slow-mo and the idol worship to get to the brilliance. Satisfied as I am with Zack Snyder’s Justice League, I don’t need more. This puts a big, beautiful, four hour bow on his offering to the DCEU and he can ride off into the sunset with full vindication (if he ever even truly needed–or wanted–it). Still, I find myself wondering what might have been.

It’s baffling that Warner Bros. chose what we received in theaters over the original vision. The trajectory of the DCEU might still be climbing instead of the peaks and valleys we’ve seen thus far. I’ll even go so far as to claim that this older, better JLA film makes Man of Steel and Batman v Superman better by association. It shows the decisions, whether you find them poor or not, were done with a clear plan in mind. I don’t worry about the precedent this sets with the fandom at large. People are fooling themselves if they think this wasn’t anything more than a stunt to nab subscribers for HBO Max. I just don’t think anyone realized just how good it was going to turn out. Love it or hate it, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is historic.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

DC Comics’ greatest heroes join forces like never before in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. | HBO Max Original (2021).

Parker Johnson: The DCEU opened in 2013 with the first teaser trailer for Man of Steel, as temp music from The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring played alongside the voice of Jor-El telling his son that, “[he] will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind [him]. They will stumble, they will fall- but in time they will join [him] in the sun. In time, [he] will help them accomplish wonders.” I sat there in the theater as a young man, simply awestruck. Here was something different than what we had ever gotten before in the superhero genre. Something epic, something beautiful, something inspiring. Seven years later, I now have the privilege of watching Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and as the end credits rolled, I am struck with that same feeling of awe. With the wildly popular, entertaining, and successful episodic formula of the MCU, it was hard for casual fans and studios alike to imagine Snyder’s vision of a 5 film arc for our favorite heroes. With Justice League now restored to Snyder’s intended 4 hour drama, I now see where he was heading.

Those who complained about the weight and somberness of the previous Snyder-verse films will be happy to know that the hope and optimism that they craved is now starting to emerge in the story as our characters reflect on the impact Superman had on their world, fulfilling Jor-El’s declaration. I haven’t seen a trilogy of films (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Zack Snyder’s Justice League), with the same scale of epicness, hope, and faith in humanity since The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Snyder has given us our modern day mythos–drawing from the comics, older mythologies and theology (specifically Christianity) to give us stories that inspire us to live up to our potential. It is a miracle that this movie got to see the light of day, and I believe people are going to love it. I was captivated for the full 4 hours, and I want to see the story continue to complete its five film arc.

#RestoreThe Snyderverse.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Soul

*Editor’s note: Amidst the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, Disney made a bold move and decided to release the newest Pixar animated movie on their streaming service, Disney+. Pixar’s Soul debuted worldwide (where Disney+ is available) on Christmas Day. Unlike Disney’s Mulan (2020), Soul was available to any Disney+ subscriber at no additional charge, thank goodness! Whereas Mulan was part of the Disney+ Premier Access; meaning, if you wanted to watch Mulan at the time of its release, you would have to pay a rental fee of $29.99 on top of your subscription fees. We’ll see if Disney uses that same strategy with other movies that might debut on their new, shiny streaming platform… (hopefully not!).

Walt Disney Studios | Rated: PG | Runtime: 101 minutes | Director: Pete Docter

Shay Satmary: Soul ticks every Pixar box for me: great music, groundbreaking animation, complex characters and a deep meaning. Both, the jazz songs by Jon Batiste, and the other instrumental scores by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do an amazing job of transporting you into the different settings of the film. The animation of the physical world captures the characters’ details and uniqueness. The way the spiritual world was animated–from the way the colors kaleidoscope through the light to the linear figures of the counselor characters–left me in absolute awe. Joe Gardner is a humble main character with relatable problems (maybe not the dying part and trying to make it back to your body) that helped me feel attached to his journey.  I have watched it twice now and with each viewing I was moved to tears. The magical thing Pixar does so well is leave you thinking about their films long after you complete them, and Soul is no exception.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: I think we are all in agreement when we say that Pixar is one of the giants in the animation industry, and that it is due to their ability to tell a deep, rich, emotional compelling story that resonates with both young kids, and their parents alike–taking a deep, core concept like feelings, grief, or passion and making it kid friendly. Soul has all these elements, but is geared toward more older kids and adults, and in doing so solidifies itself as a different kind of Pixar masterpiece. The animation is still stunning (with the abstract worlds of the Great Before and the “in between” being especially beautiful and stylistic), and there is still that classic Pixar playfulness, but the subject matter and themes of the movie are more mature and refined. I really appreciated that. It was like having your first sip of sparkling cider after only drinking grape juice your entire childhood. Soul moved me deeply, and made me want to live a better and more purposeful life. I think it deserves to be ranked among Pixar’s greatest.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Rachel Wagner: Soul is a bold, ambitious film from director Pete Docter that I appreciate more than I love. I am grateful to the team at Disney Pixar for taking such a risk and making a beautifully animated interesting film that makes you think about the questions of life, and what price we are willing to pay to chase the dream. However, the script gets a little lost particularly in the middle section involving a cat. I also think the movie keeps us at a distance, and definitely keeps children at a distance, when with a few changes it could be more accessible. All of these choices impact the pacing and impact of the message. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to have such an experimental film come from a major studio, and if it doesn’t 100% deliver it gives the viewer a lot to think about along the way.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Sam Cooley: Soul doesn’t have the exceptional wit nor the near airtight writing that is found in several other Pixar movies. However, I would recommend that anyone watch this film due to its sweetness, warmth and importance alone.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

The Formal Review: This movie is amazing, story wise and visually. The characters are engaging, the environments realistic and fantastical all at once, and most of all, it hits on an emotional level. There’s a gorgeously animated scene that perfectly captures what it feels like to get lost in the zone. However, the film does not seem to emphasize death outside of the fact that it happens. One of the main characters, 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), could also have been looked at a little deeper, which would have had a more emotional moment. While the message is understood to be along the lines of getting to know someone by walking in their shoes, I couldn’t help but think of 2017’s Get Out. Though not Pixar’s best film, Soul is good for a laugh, and it does have an emotional and enriching experience. The film does have a positive message about not taking your life for granted that ends up feeling satisfying in the end.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Wonder Woman 1984

*Editor’s note: Wonder Woman 1984 was another divisive review for our writers, so take each recommendation with a grain of salt! Even though the movie was released in theaters worldwide and streaming on HBO Max simultaneously, we chose to go with the “theatrical release” recommendation scale. Enjoy!

Warner Bros. | Rated: PG-13 | Runtime: 151 minutes | Director: Patty Jenkins

The Formal Review: The movie evolves from the vibrant and somewhat cheesy 1980s in the first act, to emotional in the second, to a philosophical third act. Gal Gadot once again shines as Diana delivering with intensity. Her chemistry with Chris Pine is once again fantastic. Pedro Pascal and Kristen Wiig as Maxwell Lord and Barbara Minerva, respectively, are good as well. Pascal plays a complex, moving character and Wiig shows her acting range. Her character’s progression was understandable from her behavior to her clothing, and this was done extremely well by Patty Jenkins. The score by Hans Zimmer is also great, honoring both old compositions and introducing new ones. The film could have developed Maxwell Lord a little bit more than the quick flashback in the climactic scene. Does this film have a moment as impactful as the first movie’s “No Man’s Land” scene? No, not really; though, there’s still a very comparable heroic scene. However, if you’re expecting it to be like the first movie, they’re going to be disappointed. It’s definitely a more thoughtful and emotional movie that establishes what it means to be a hero. As Superman learned in Superman II, a hero must face the truth and choose the selfless way for the betterment of the human race. “No true hero is born from lies.” Then you add in George Orwell’s concepts of truth from “1984,” “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” The film says that absolute power corrupts the best of us but the truth will set you free. Add in a few DC easter eggs, you get a pretty enjoyable movie that’ll be worth rewatching again!

Recommendation: Go See It!

CJ Marshall: The more I discuss this film the more I like it. Rather than reconcile Diana with Zack Snyder’s vision of DCEU, Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot own their Wonder Woman and make her a better symbol of goodness and hope than our current Man of Steel could ever be. The only real problem is the slog of campiness and general lack of conflict that fills WW84‘s bloated runtime. Forty minutes less or another action set-piece could have balanced it out. Power through that and you’ll get the point of the story. Go in thinking (or rewatch 1984) with Christopher Reeve’s Superman in mind. It’ll make sense.

Recommendation: Maybe A Matinee

Rachel Wagner: As someone who is a huge fan of the original 2017 film, Wonder Woman 1984 is definitely disappointing, but I still found enough joy in Diana and her story to recommend the film. Patty Jenkins does a good job capturing Diana’s loneliness, and Gal Gadot and Chris Pine have such great chemistry that I was willing to forgive a lot in the story department. For the most part the action was engaging. I enjoyed going back to Themyscira to begin the film, and the use of the lasso was a lot of fun. We also saw Diana become more vulnerable which is hard to do when dealing with such a powerful character. The message that love redeems all of us, whether it is Steve and Diana or Maxwell and his son, is a powerful one and something we could use more of. Unfortunately, it is also way too long, doesn’t capture the 80’s well, and should have stuck to only one villain, but I still give it a mild recommendation.

Recommendation: Maybe A Matinee

Parker Johnson: Wonder Woman (2017) is one of my favorite DCEU movies and I was looking forward to its sequel. Sadly, I felt entirely disappointed. The acting was great, but the tone was completely contrary to the first film and what we’ve seen in the DCEU line up. It felt too happy go lucky and cheesy compared to the first film. And sadly, that tone made the film seem ungrounded, which is saying something when we have actual Greek gods, and Superman and Batman running around in the same universe. I loved all the actors in this movie, and they clearly had a blast making it, but it lacked the depth and maturity of the first film. Hard pass.

Recommendation: NO GO

Andre Hutchens: It’s hard to state my utter disappointment for Wonder Woman 1984 in a single paragraph, so be sure to check out the Backseat Directors Podcast review on Episode 115! WW84 disregarded one of the most sage advice to ever grace human kind: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Wonder Woman (2017) was universally beloved by both critics and audiences worldwide (a most challenging accomplishment for any movie these days). It resonated with audience members of all ages, both male and female. It was inspirational, but WW84 inexplicably chose to take a different path. A bloated 2 hour and 31 minute runtime with an incoherent story left me wondering what on Earth was Patty Jenkins thinking… WW84 is more reminiscent of the DC superhero shows on the CW than a DC movie worthy of the big-screen. Whether intentional or not, the film relies heavily on old comic book movie tropes and campiness that resemble a bygone era not fit for modern audiences. Patty Jenkins proved her worth as a director with the first Wonder Woman film, but has exposed her inability to write a good story for the DECU franchise. It’s a shame she did not use the same writing team, stunt team, choreography team, or production team that helped make the 2017 film a modern classic. If you’re so inclined to see the movie, it might be worth a matinee just to see it once. But in all honesty, I won’t be revisiting this movie any time soon.

Recommendation: Maybe A Matinee

REVIEW: The Witches (2020)

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated: PG
Run Time: 105 minutes
Director: Robert Zemeckis

 We’re in a really weird moment in history where film companies are in a dilemma of whether to release films, once intended for movie theaters, onto streaming platforms, or to wait it out until coronavirus restrictions are lifted and more people are willing to go back to the movies. The Witches (2020) chose to release around Halloween on HBO Max. As I was already planning to watch as many spooky films as possible during this festive month, I became interested in watching this one. Being an HBO Max subscriber helped as well.

Disclaimer:  I have not seen the original 1990 film with Anjelica Huston, and while I have read the Roald Dahl book, It was in elementary school and I don’t remember enough of it to compare it to the 2020 film. So, this will be a review of the 2020 film on its own.

What I Thought

Ok, I lied. I’m gonna bring up the 1990 film just a little bit. Before I took the time to watch the film I was surprised to see that there was a large amount of negative reviews pouring out, which had me going into the film with a preconceived bias. About a third of the way into the movie, I finally stopped trying to look for faults and just enjoyed the fun story. From what some critics were saying, the 1990 version had a darker tone, and more serious take to the story. I personally love dark and creepy children’s films, and find it so fascinating to see how they can make a movie frightening without relying on the gore and violence meant for more mature audiences. It seems like the 2020 version went for a less creepy and more family-friendly approach.

Now, just because it’s family-friendly doesn’t mean it’s not creepy at all. This is a movie about witches after all. Anne Hathaway’s performance as the Grand High Witch is truly entertaining to watch, and when she unleashes her true evil it is quite creepy. I was reminded of Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown–just with a Russian accent. When she reveals her true form, she reveals a wide smile filled with teeth just like Pennywise in IT (2017).

Jahzir Bruno, Octavia Spencer, and Stanley Tucci in a scene of The Witches | Warner Bros. Pictures.

I did have some issues with the CGI mice at the beginning part of this film, which I eventually got over. It was really fun seeing Octavia Spencer in the role of Grandma. She comes off as both hilarious, fierce, and kind. Codie-Lei Eastick was absolutely hysterical to watch as Bruno, and seeing his character’s interactions with “Hero Boy” and Daisy/Mary was just so much fun. And I think that’s the main difference between this film and the 1990 film (I assume). The 1990 film was known for its practical effects and its ability to scar children for life. The 2020 is meant to be a fun and spooky family film. And if you’re looking for that this season, then The Witches (2020) is a perfect movie for you and your kids.

I originally went into this film feeling influenced by the negative reviews, and ended up having a great time. The acting is great, the CGI (while not the best I’ve ever seen) is perfectly capable for what type of movie this is, the plot is fun, and the characters are all very likeable. If you are in the mood for a spooky, family-friendly film this fall, I’d say give The Witches (2020) a chance!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Enola Holmes

NETFLIX
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 123 minutes
Director: Harry Bradbeer

 Since Stranger Things, I have been eyeing Millie Bobby Brown’s career with great interest. I have yet to see Godzilla: King of Monsters, since I have not seen the Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla. (For those of you crying in outrage, it’s on my ever expanding watch-list. I’ll get to it eventually.) However, when I heard she would be playing the sister of Sherlock Holmes, who was to be played by Superman (Henry Cavill), I was intrigued. The trailer dropped and it grabbed my interest even further. I saw the movie the day it dropped, and I was really pleased.

What I Liked

Millie Bobby Brown

I have really enjoyed her performance in Stranger Things, and from what I’ve seen in the King of Monsters trailer, it seemed like she was becoming well known for playing stoic, solem characters (I could be wrong. Like I’ve said, I have yet to see the movie.) So, when I saw that she was playing a fourth wall breaking, wise cracking action character, I was nervous about whether she could pull it off or not. I needn’t fear though. I was actually blown away by how funny she was as Enola Holmes. The fourth wall breaks felt organic, like she was recounting the story to us, and it was nice having a fourth wall breaking character in red that was also family friendly. She also acted incredible well with her emotional scenes, and was really engaging to watch. I’m proud to see how far she’s come since Stranger Things.

Feminism!

When I saw what this movie was going to be about, I have to say I cringed just a little bit. Usually, when any movie tries to adapt a popular story and add modern takes to it, it usually comes off as heavy handed. Thankfully, Netflix handled it really well. Instead of the “strong women good, men bad” mentality that seems to pass for feminism in Hollywood, Enola Holmes actually emphasized that real feminism is meant for the equality of both men and women. Feminism is about both men and women expressing themselves without fear of suppression by those in power. They show Tewkesbury (the main male lead) having more feminine hobbies and forward thinking ideas, while those trying to kill him benefit from those in power and want to keep the status quo. I really appreciated that they did this, and refrained from making Enola into a “bad ass boss girl” and actually made her and Tewkesbury more well rounded. When we were first introduced to him, I groaned and thought, “Here we go. They made the male character into an incompetent buffoon that she has to protect,” but by the end of the film you can see that they are each other’s equal, and they both have to learn from each other. It’s a good message for both boys and girls watching this film.

Sherlock & Mycroft

Buckle your seatbelts my beautiful readers, because I am about to throw down an extremely unpopular opinion: I enjoyed Henry Cavill’s Sherlock Holmes far more than I enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch’s. (You may now proceed to throw your computer/phone across the room in outrage.) Benedict’s Sherlock oozes superiority and condescension with glimpses of the humanity within. And there’s nothing wrong with that; Benedict played the character brilliantly. However, Henry’s Sherlock still was introverted and detached from people while still showing warmth and affection toward people. While Enola Holmes wasn’t as focused on Sherlock’s detective skills as the BBC Sherlock was, I still found myself more compelled by Henry’s version.

And holy cow–Mycroft. From what I remember from Sherlock, Mycroft was more high strung and concerned with society than Sherlock was, but boy oh boy does Sam Claflin bump that up to an 11 (pun totally intended) in this film. I absolutely loved watching and loathing his version of Mycroft. He was so oily and prissy. He was such a delight to watch.

The Action

I almost cried with joy when the first action scene started. For the first time in forever, someone understood that action is meant to be enjoyed and appreciated, not cut and edited into a million different cuts that makes you have a seizure when you watch it. I could actually sit back and appreciate the fight choreography and have fun watching it. The story has a lot of really cool, fun, and different action set pieces that the editing allows us to take in and enjoy.

From left to right: Henry Cavill, Millie Bobby Brown and Sam Claflin in Enola Holmes | NETFLIX.

Final Thoughts

Enola Holmes was a movie I’ve been waiting for–something with amazing actors, a good message, good editing and fight choreography, and an uplifting story to boot. The movie is fun, engaging, and a great stepping stone for Millie to show off more of her acting chops. It’s a great movie, and a movie I’ll gladly watch again and again.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Wolfwalkers

Director, Tomm Moore Reminds Us to Listen to Children. #TIFF20

Apple TV+
Rated: NR
Run Time: 100 minutes
Directos: Tomm Moore & Ross Stewart

My Rating: 9.5/10

Anyone who follows my career as a film critic knows how much I adore the work of Irish animator, Tomm Moore. He is the man behind the Oscar nominated films Secret of the Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014). Both are wonderful works of art, but Song of the Sea is a special favorite of mine as it helped me through a tough time in my life, and one that I saw soon after my cousin passed away in 2015. I actually got to interview Moore last year over on my youtube channel and so needless to say I was pretty pumped for his new film Wolfwalkers.

All that said, expectations can be a dual-edged sword and we can be setting ourselves up for disappointment. Fortunately, with Wolfwalkers that was not the case; Moore has created another stunning animated film full of heart, and quite possibly his most endearing and easy to relate with characters yet.

Wolfwalkers tells the story of Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), a young girl whose widowed father has a mission to get rid of all the wolves in the forest. One day she meets a boisterous girl named Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who is looking for her mother. Robyn learns that Mebh’s Mother is an enchanted creature called a wolfwalker who is both human and wolf. This starts our girls on a series of adventures as they must convince the townspeople to protect the forest and save the wolfwalkers.

If that sounds a little familiar there are definitely shades of Princess Mononoke (1997) within Wolfwalkers, but the characters of Robyn and Mebh are so different and the animation has such a different texture that it works. Plus, it’s a story we need to hear over and over again because we don’t seem to be listening very well! Where I felt especially gravitated to is Robyn and her attempts (mostly failed) to try and explain what is happening to her father. She pleads so hard for him to listen, but he rarely does. How often is that the case with each of us and the young children in our lives?

Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in a scene of Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+.

As I said, the animation is absolutely stunning in Wolfwalkers. I loved the hand drawn look to everything and the incredible attention to detail in the backgrounds and character designs. Just as in Song of the Sea captures the swirling nature of the sea in nearly every frame, so Wolfwalkers has a feeling of wind, torment, and fire in every inch of every frame. No part of the screen is left vacant or bare, and yet it’s not overwhelming visually, because the story and characters are so engaging. It just adds to the feeling that you are witnessing a special film, crafted with care (and let’s be real, a lot of animation is mass produced for laughs these days with the artistry forgotten).

But if you are concerned Wolfwalkers may be too intense for kids, don’t be. It has a positive energy, particularly with Mebh, kids will love, and the intense sections aren’t any worse than films like Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas or Secret of the Kells. I’d say Song of the Sea is probably more morose and sad than Wolfwalkers, so if your children have seen that (and they should) they will be fine with this.

Mebh (Eva Whittaker) and Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) in a scene of Wolfwalkers | Apple TV+.

Moore has brought back the music team from his previous films with a beautiful score from Bruno Coulais and the band Kila. It helps draw you into the story, and combined with the animation, makes for an electrifying experience.

As a lover of animation, Wolfwalkers easily took the top spot for my favorite movie of 2020. It’s a glorious film the entire family will love. Currently it can be rented as part of the Toronto International Film Festival (#TIFF) for a rental fee. If you miss it there it will be coming to Apple TV+ this fall and to some theaters. Keep an eye out for it; Wolfwalkers is a wonderful animated film.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Mulan

*Editor’s note: this is the second roundtable review we have done on Backseat Directors. This format has been a lot of fun for our writers, and you can expect to see this more in the future with bigger blockbuster type films. For a more comprehensive (spoiler-free) review of Mulan, check out The Formal Review’s Podcast episode 25 (season 3) and his thoughts of the movie.

Mulan is available VOD (video on demand) on Disney+ for $29.99. The movie will be available to all Disney+ subscribers to stream for free come Dec. 4, 2020.

Walt Disney Studios | Rated: PG-13 | Run Time: 115 minutes | Director: Niki Caro

Rachel Wagner: I’m not sure what I expected out of this new Mulan. I haven’t been a big fan of most of these Disney live-action remakes, but occasionally they will produce a winner. The trailers looked pretty good and I felt that it is a story that could warrant different interpretations. Unfortunately, what they came up with thoroughly underwhelmed me. The power of the original Mulan (1998) is an ordinary girl who makes sacrifices to save her father and learns to be a warrior. In this new version, Mulan has the power of “chi” and is destined to save China, which is far less interesting. I also thought the actress Liu Yifei was very wooden and flat in the role. I think this might have something to do with a language barrier, but whatever the reason it kept me from being engaged in the film. In the end, they went for a superhero, “chosen one” narrative, and that was a huge mistake; making for a film that nobody will remember in 2 years, let alone 22 like the original animated classic.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

CJ Marshall: An old basketball coach used to tell me that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Disney’s live-action Mulan feels like a perfect example of this. Mulan (2020) is merely decent, and the external forces (politics, Disney classic remake, expectation) are hard to ignore, because they don’t allow this phoenix to fly. They’re trying to serve too many masters here, and in doing so, it lacks a focus and gravity that would have made it a better picture. A Wuxia remake of Disney’s Mulan should have been better than this…especially with Donnie Yen and Jet Li involved. If you are a Disney+ subscriber, just wait until the movie is available to stream for free in December.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

The Formal Review: As an Asian American, Mulan (2020) was a great experience, and frankly, it was the best thing that could come from a Disney remake of an animated movie. Unfortunately, the look of it won’t be appreciated because they won’t have a big enough screen to do so. The action and the colors and the costumes all looked great; though, historically inaccurate. Even though it’s trying to be diverse with its obvious attempt to be a wuxia film, it’s not exactly the genre it was trying to be. To tell an “authentic” story of a legendary Chinese warrior, Disney hired a white director, a white costume designer, four white screenwriters, a white composer, a white cinematographer, white film editor, and a white casting director. It was a good attempt, but a better one would be to have given a person of Asian descent the reins on at least one of those professions to help out. Having a female director is great, but there are plenty of Asian directors of all genders out there that could have directed this. The representation that it had on screen is important but so is the representation behind the camera as well. Even so, the score by Henry Gregson Williams is pretty amazing. Though controversial, the film had some really good acting by the many stars. It dared to be different while also feeling the same. It had a lot of good things that make it worth the watch. I recommend splitting the $30 rental price with some family or friends, and enjoy the movie together.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

Parker Johnson: In an ironic twist of fate, the parts where Mulan (2020) honors the original animated movie with its own twists were the parts that I most enjoyed throughout the movie. The relationship between Mulan and her father was expanded beautifully. I think the writers really understood that their relationship drove the whole story, and executed that part of the story perfectly. I thought the group of soldiers were portrayed wonderfully here, and I wish we got more time with them individually as opposed to just the love interest. The callbacks to the original musical numbers in both the score and dialogue was executed brilliantly. Sadly, every distinctly original element of this live action adaptation felt out of place or completely irrelevant to the story. The way chi is used in this story just felt like a lazy way to justify wire-fu to Americans not familiar with Asian/martial arts cinema, rather than having Mulan have natural talent in addition to her hard work and training. The witch detracts from Jason Scott Lee’s imposing performance as Bori Khan and his army, both in screen time and importance to the plot, and the idea of chi as traditional magic further muddles the idea of chi. Finally, the phoenix is literally only there for the most in-your-face symbolism since Game of Thrones. Mulan is one of the best live-action Disney Remakes alongside Cinderella (2015) and Aladdin (2019), but it still falls short of being great. I would advise those who want to see it to wait until December when it will be free to watch. Although somewhat enjoyable, $30 is just too much to pay.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Bill and Ted Face the Music

United Artists Releasing
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 92 minutes
Director: Dean Parisot

Your calculated consideration in viewing this editorial is most appreciated, dude!

What to say about the third and (I’m sure it’s safe to say) final installment of the Bill & Ted series? Well, I can’t speak about one movie without the other two in this case, especially since there’s so much reference to them in Bill & Ted Face the Music. So let’s start from the beginning…

Like many who are reading this, I grew up watching Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989, the first in the trilogy). Though I was born and introduced to it long after 80‘s culture had diminished, this became one of the solidified go-to’s watched on pre-teen Saturday night sleepovers and on trans-state road trips. Dated as it is, it’s one-liners have always lived on in my family circle, and I’ve shamelessly shown it to family and friends who missed it amongst the sea of 80’s classics.

I went ahead and watched the original again at about the time I heard that ‘Face the Music‘ had received a release date. It had been about a decade since I last watched it, and as ridiculous as it is, it has truly kept its good humored, sincere savor over the past years. I especially loved the plot point that’s probably the most in your face but that I had never really given a lot of weight to: they learned history and defied expectations by being who they truly were, a couple of chill, really nice guys that could get along with anyone including the most diverse group of historical figures. As a history buff, and also someone that didn’t do well in school, this aspect alone makes me want to stand by this movie’s goodness forever. Oh, and the soundtrack is THE BEST.

What followed for me was a viewing that was a long time coming. I didn’t grow up watching Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (the 1991 sequel), and I’ve always been hesitant to visit it. I don’t know what it was; maybe it’s the fact that most comedy sequels are usually awful and I really didn’t want it to taint my love for the first movie, or maybe it was just that the Death character on the movie posters and VHS covers creeped me out as a kid, and I still have some PTSD. But unfortunately, and I think based off pure coincidence, my two stated worries had some legitimate grounds. Where ‘Bogus Journey‘ isn’t busy taking a few quirks from the first movie and exhausting them till all logic and good humor has dulled, it adds a cartoonish underworld, a long awaited creepy Death character (not to mention the creepiest martians), dirtier jokes, uneven tone, and finally a less endearing, less clever representation of Bill and Ted. Another big disappointment for me is where the first movie takes the unique approach of making the antagonist intangible (namely their intelligence, the looming lack of time, and the fear of being separated by military school), the sequel just makes the villain an evil European future guy and some uncomfortably insulting evil robot versions of our heroes. I feel like I just said everything, so I’ll leave it there. Sorry to offend any die hard fans, but the sequel is pretty bogus.

(From left to right): Samara Weaving, Kristen Schaal, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter appear in a scene of Bill and Ted Face the Music | United Artists Releasing.

Now you may understand why I was a bit ambivalent about watching the third. Surprisingly, the same writers have helmed the script for all three movies, so for my friends that are nostalgic toward the first AND the second, I’m confident that you’ll enjoy this.

Bill and Ted find themselves still stuck 40 years later after the events of the first two films without their hit song which supposedly was going to bring the world into harmony. They go on an adventure through the future to get the song from their future selves while their daughters go back in time to find the most talented songwriters in the world (reminiscent of the first movie). Everyone ends up running into mortal danger which reintroduces Death and the underworld (referring to the sequel). Sounds like a big mess but it actually works more decently than you think.

It was weird approaching a movie with both positive and negative bias but I can honestly say the following: Bill & Ted Face the Music takes familiar characters and aspects across both of its predecessors to make a fun enough conclusion for our two excellent friends. The fact that they basically never changed over the half century annoyed me a bit at first, but they eventually wear you down (I mean how can you not love Keanu no matter what?). The ending was heartwarming with a climatic performance along with a sweet familial reveal, even if it did feel a bit hurried.

Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter in a scene of Bill and Ted Face the Music | United Artists Releasing.

Now being that this film is in theaters, I do need to give a responsible review before designating this flick. It does play on many past tropes that may feel entirely exhausted. I mean, we’re so culturally far from the 80’s stereotype bros that we started out with, so this vibe may not appeal to everyone (fan of the originals or not). I’ll say that the fact that the two millennial daughters are pretty much a pale imitation of their metalhead fathers often made for a more annoying and illogical detail than a fun redirection. As mentioned, the ending and even much of the movie itself felt just a little rushed (perhaps too much was going on between the two plots). Lastly, it’s just nowhere near as comical as the first–at least not enough to quote for years to come. 

I will say that all the faithfulness to the first movie was enough to help me overlook many of those offbeat quirks. So in the end, ‘Face the Music‘ was a necessary, even crucial addition to the Bill & Ted saga as a whole because it makes up for the second movie and gives us a decently solid conclusion. However, I still think that the world would be better off with solely the original in their movie collection. But if they need to see the full story, it’ll make for a fun enough watch. But maybe spare the miles and movie ticket and rent it on-demand.

Recommendation: Maybe A Matinee

REVIEW: Da 5 Bloods

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 154 minutes
Director: Spike Lee

Da 5 Bloods is a war drama film directed and produced by Spike Lee. The film stars Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, and Chadwick Boseman. The film follows a group of aging Vietnam War veterans who return to Vietnam in search of treasure they buried while stationed there. Otis (Peters), Paul (Lindo), Melvin (Whitlock) and Eddie (Lewis) journey through Vietnam to retrieve their squad commander’s (Boseman) remains for a proper military burial.

Spike Lee is known as one of Hollywood’s best storytellers and his films are typically referred to as “Spike Lee Joints.” Lee received a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University in 1983, and his first feature-film, She’s Gotta Have It was released three years later. Over the course of his career Lee has directed 23 films and only 6 of them were not written by him. He has also starred in ten of them. His most famous works are She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), He Got Game (1998), 25th Hour (2002), Inside Man (2006), Chi-Raq (2015), and BlacKkKlansman (2018). In addition to his filmography, Lee has directed a number of music videos by artists such as Prince, Michael Jackson, and Eminem. His work has won him numerous awards including an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Student Academy Award, a BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, two Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and the Cannes Grand Prix. Also interestingly, prior to Da 5 Bloods, Inside Man is his biggest box office hit, and BlacKkKlansman is the only film for which he has won an Academy Award. His films have explored race relations, colorism in the black community, the role of media in contemporary life, urban crime and poverty, and other social and political issues.

(From left to right) Director Spike Lee, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters and Norm Lewis of Da 5 Bloods | NETFLIX. Photo credit: David Lee.

The Story & Direction

As with many “Spike Lee Joints,” Lee is able to explore his themes and messages in a very compelling way. In Da 5 Bloods he is able to mix a fictional story with real-life imagery flawlessly. One of the most obvious allegories is how this film shows the duality of how war in general deals with the Black community. These men go fight for the United States against an enemy that did nothing directly to them. Then when they return to their home country, they are treated as secondary citizens. This idea can be applied to almost all veterans in general, but it is especially evident toward the Black community. The Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964 and American intervention in the war started only a year later. The country had just started to recognize that discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was wrong. Even now, there are still problems in our country involving civil rights—not just people of color, but also women, members of the LGBTQ+ community, different religious groups, and people from different countries.

RELATED:

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Spike Lee

The current social climate adds to Lee’s (mostly) engaging and thought-provoking film. The film highlights the disproportionate nature of the African American sacrifice in Vietnam; African Americans suffered disproportionately high casualty rates in Vietnam. In 1965 alone, they comprised 14.1% of total combat deaths when they were 11% of the total U.S. population at the time (1). Furthermore in 1966, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara initiated ‘Project 100,000’ which further lowered military standards which he said would provide valuable training, skills, and opportunity to America’s poor. This allowed many Black men who had previously been ineligible to be drafted along with many poor and racially intolerant white men from the US South. This led to increased racial tension in the military (2). Out of all of the newly eligible draftees, 41% were black. Blacks often made up a disproportionate 25% or more of combat units, while constituting only 12% of the military. 20% of black males were combat soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. At the end of the war, black casualties averaged 12.5% of US combat deaths (1).

The film also feeds into issues of Black patriotism, inequality, and justice. In one flashback, in the Vietnamese jungle, the five comrades learn of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They also learn of the rioting back home in response to MLK’s death and the brutal government response to the riots. The broadcaster then asks, “Why you fight against us so far away from where you are needed?” to which Lee overplays footage of the 1968 riots that look unfortunately similar to the past few weeks. The film is partially an attempt to reclaim the Vietnam War historical narrative, but it’s also a terrific heist drama. As the story reaches the completion of getting the gold, the film is only halfway. This makes the second half almost uncertain. Along the journey, there is some great cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and the audience gets to know “Da 5 Bloods.”

Cast members in a scene of Da 5 Bloods | NETFLIX.

The Characters

This film has some amazing performances by the cast: the typical jester in Otis; grounded medic, Eddie; and the character, Paul, who is still haunted by his experience. They are also joined by Paul’s son, David. Lee is able to show this squad having a camaraderie that only occurs between brothers. The film starts off very similar to films like The Best Man (1999), Bridesmaids (2011), Last Vegas (2013), Going in Style (2017), and Girls Trip (2017)—this genre of films that have a bunch of friends getting back together to do one last big event. Whether you like that genre of film or not, one thing that they always have is chemistry between the stars. This adds an authentic feeling to them, and this film is no different in that aspect. All of the actors have chemistry with each other which makes each scene enjoyable. The standout is Lindo’s character who deals with guilt, greed, and PTSD. Lindo provides one of the best performances of the year so far, and his anti-hero never becomes cliche.

Lindo’s character, Paul, represents how so many veterans suffer from mental health issues after returning home from war. The film says people need counseling which some veterans can get and some cannot. It is said early on in the film that Paul doesn’t have a lot of money, so it is possible he cannot afford it. He is shown to be very proud, so even if he had money, he probably wouldn’t admit that he needed it. Plus, the older generation as a whole do not embrace therapy, especially minority populations (3). Lindo gives this character a very special performance. It’s very touching to see his friends rally around him when he is struggling. When his PTSD panic attack hits he thinks he’s all alone and that none of his friends will understand. This isn’t the case; they all have the same struggles and are in this together, adding to the realism of their brotherhood. The other actors are good, but Lindo definitely outshines them. The notion of Black servicemen fighting overseas for a country that disenfranchised them isn’t new but the way this film approaches it feels fresh. Boseman is not in the film too much but his charisma still finds a way to show itself.  His last scene in the film is very emotional and powerful. There’s also a small subplot dealing with one of the men and a local Vietnamese woman that touches on the many Amerasian children left behind in Vietnam after the war.

The Flaws

Unfortunately, some of the characters do feel awkward as not much is given to their backstory aside from a few one-liners here and there. Boseman isn’t in the film that much even though he has been shown to be a really good actor, e.g. 42 (2013), Get On Up (2014), and Marshall (2017). This is not to say his acting is poor in any way; in fact, it is really good, but his ability sadly feels wasted. He has proven to be a starring actor. Additionally, Lee’s writing has a lot going on in this film that does not use it’s 2.5 hour run time efficiently. He could have cut a few scenes here and there to make the story feel more fluid. The film’s pacing has some problems at the beginning that can feel rushed; the film switches that up and then slows down. The editing is also choppy at times and is very noticeable. There also appears to be no age disparity between the flashbacks and “present” day. Some of the actors look the exact same and also the “camera” footage that one of the characters was filming seemed very dated in comparison to the time period the film takes place in. (Maybe that’s the only working tech they have?) It’s never explained, though it is a cool aesthetic. One potential flaw for people could be how obvious Lee’s political views are in this film, which makes sense as he has always been outspoken on that matter.

Overall

Even with the odd pacing and not always efficient storytelling, this film has a good message that it is trying to get across. Spike Lee is one of the few directors that is able to tackle messages in both good and bad ways. In films like Da 5 Bloods, he is able do it with a great amount of brilliance. This film is extremely thrilling at times, and uses genre cliches in unique ways to reclaim a historical narrative. It works on pretty much every level. It will work as a conversation piece, an action movie, and a comedy. It gives the audience superb performances, especially by Lindo, and is able to bring back Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as one of the best anti-war songs of all time. Spike Lee has made a movie that not only speaks about the past but also feel very relevant for today. Even if the obvious political opinions are taken out, Da 5 Bloods is one of the best movies of the year and is definitely recommendable to anyone.

Citations:

  1. Westheider, James E. Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War; New York University Press; 1997; pp. 11–16
  2. Appy, Christian. Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers & Vietnam. University of North Carolina Press; 2003; pp. 31–33.
  3. Murry, V.M., Heflinger, C.A., Suiter, S.V. et al. Examining Perceptions About Mental Health Care and Help-Seeking Among Rural African American Families of Adolescents. J Youth Adolescence 40, 1118–1131 (2011).

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Artemis Fowl

Walt Disney Studios
Rated: PG
Run Time: 95 minutes
Director: Kenneth Branagh

With their huge hauls at the pre-COVID19 box office, a lot of people might not realize that Disney has a bit of a live-action movie problem. It has been years since the “House of Mouse” produced a winning, successful new franchise or original film, and that’s not from lack of trying. From The Lone Ranger (2013) to A Wrinkle in Time (2018) to Tomorrowland (2015), their attempts to start new franchises have not been successful. Even something with the pedigree of Mary Poppins Returns (2018) as a sequel underperformed.

The only successful new franchise I can think of are the Descendants films on Disney Channel, which is saying something.  Now we have Artemis Fowl based on the popular books by Eoin Colfer, and I was hopeful it could break this worrying trend. Unfortunately, it may be the worst of them all. Artemis Fowl makes baffling choices and fails to give us intriguing characters or an engaging plot.

The story of Artemis Fowl is fractured amongst a number of characters (part of the problem), but supposedly centers around the brilliant but devious Artemis (played by Ferdia Shaw) trying to find a device called the ‘aculos’ which will help him find his missing father (Colin Farrell). As he searches we meet a fairy named Holly Short (who is the lead character in the first novel) played by Lara McDonnell but is given little to do. Then there’s Josh Gad, Judi Dench, Nonso Anozie, and more. Most of these characters aren’t given anything to do but are stuck explaining their story to either Artemis or Holly. It reminds me of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (which I hated) in that regard. Magical creatures are stuck explaining magic instead of actually being magical.

(From left to right): Nonso Anozie, Lara McDonnell, Josh Gad and Ferdia Shaw in a scene of Artemis Fowl | Walt Disney Studios.

Miss Peregrine’s (2016) at least had some cool visuals—Artemis Fowl doesn’t even have that. It feels more like a pilot for a show introducing its characters than a movie. For example, in the book Holly is a vivacious character and leader of her people. She goes up against Artemis who is the villain and outsmarts him in many ways. Here, she is stuck in a cage the entire time talking with nothing to do or say.

If I was running Disney+ I would be concerned; with releases like Artemis Fowl they are in danger of appearing as Disney’s garbage bin. I have enjoyed films like Togo and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made but they haven’t made much of a cultural impact. Artemis Fowl (being a YA franchise that readers love) has that potential and it could leave subscribers with a bad taste in their mouth. Regardless, it certainly doesn’t work as a film and most of the blame falls on the weak script and choppy editing. It’s simply a big, bland miss.

My recommendation is to watch one of the Disney Classics on Disney+ such as Pinocchio (1940) instead. That would be a far better use of your time.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

Scroll to top