Mulan (2020)

mulan poster

The latest in the Disney live action (or not so much, with some of them) remakes continues with no little controversy. I can’t really comment much on the cultural issues, or the lead actress’s political comments. But yeah, asking £20 over and above the subscription fee for the platform it’s showing on – meh.

But, all that aside, and let’s look at the actual movie. When the Emperor of China calls for each family to provide one man to join the army, headstrong Mulan – always in trouble for being less than the delicate, marriageable flower society wants – steals her aged father’s armour and sword and disguises herself as a boy. 

As she struggles to maintain her secret, Mulan also reveals herself to be a gifted fighter. Is that enough to overcome both prejudice, and the threat of the Rouran invaders?

Okay, where to start? I actually rewatched the animated version of this not so long ago, so it’s pretty fresh in my mind. This takes the basic story, but tells it in quite a different style. It seemed to me more Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than a Disney feature. Which generally would be no bad thing, and yet somehow it felt like a slightly uneasy mashup of Mulan (1998) and several other movies I know I’ve seen already – the new character of the sorceress, for example, feels lifted wholesale from… something I can’t put my finger on, argh!

We’re missing the comic relief from the miniature dragon, Mushu (as voiced by Eddie Murphy), which is a loss as well as yes, the very understandable choice. They have instead, for some unfathomable reason, inserted a (speechless) CGI phoenix that swoops about distractingly and irritated me greatly.

Acting-wise, and Yifei Liu is well cast, handling the physicality of the role impressively. I was pretty gobsmacked to see the likes of Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Jason Scott Lee in the cast – all for reasons, it is rumoured, other than being overly impressed with the script.

There’s a lot of praise to be handed out to the visuals – the colours, the scenery – but major marks off from me for the overuse of ‘fancy’ camera work and effects. I hated the blurred-edge screen during several fight scenes. The opening in particular is showing off to the point of too busy.

So overall… well, it’s not awful. As a retelling of a ‘classic’ story, turned into a martial arts romance kind of thing, it’s fairly serviceable. However, it’s not great. The plot worked for an animation, not so much here, where the gaping holes are less forgivable. The lack of originality shouldn’t be an issue in a remake, but the ‘new’ expanded bits feel stolen from other movies. And there’s a distinct lack of fun to be had, quite frankly. And that’s from a pasty white Scot, as apparently there is a LOT to loath from a cultural standpoint, too.

My recommendation would wholeheartedly be to not part with the extra cash – it is certainly not worth that, for anyone, and I suspect the younger audience will actually find it all quite dull. When it hits regular streaming, by all means give it a look if it takes your fancy.

Released: 4th September 2020
Viewed: 4th September 2020
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10

Dolittle (2020)

dolittle poster

Following the death of his beloved wife, Dr John Dolittle has no heart left in him to continue treating the animals to which he can speak. Locked away in his home-come-nature reserve, surrounded by animal friends, what will it take to bring Dolittle back into the world?

I had very little interest in seeing this movie, to be honest, but it was a bit of a group compromise. And hey, Robert Downey Jr. And some excellent special effects with talking animals, all voiced very well by a starry cast that includes Emma Thompson, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, and Tom Holland. And, urm… yeah, no, it did nothing for me.

Where to begin? Most of all, I just didn’t really care – not for the lead, nor the youthful hangers on, or even much for the animals (!) somehow (the squirrel lost me as soon as it opened its mouth). I most identified with the ostrich (Kumail Nanjiani), stroppy and not wanting to be part of things.

Visually it all looks pretty great, sure. And yet I never had a real ‘wow’ moment. Tonally, throwing in something utterly fantastical kind of felt for the sake of it, than part of the plot. And don’t get me started on the ‘exotic’ island ruled by pirates.

The voice actors and RDJ – although not his ‘hmm’ Welsh accent, that to my ears wasn’t just off (and frequently slipping) but sapped a lot of performance oomph – can probably walk away okay, but I’d suggest the rest of the human cast, including Jessie Buckley, Antonio Banderas, and Michael Sheen hamming it up to heaven, possibly just omit this one from their CVs.

I dunno. Maybe the kids will love it. Personally, while it wasn’t (as half-expected, utterly) awful – in fact, after a tough day, I did sort of appreciate the sweetness and a few of the attempts at humour – I can only suggest that you don’t bother. Overall: meh.

Released: 7th February 2020
Viewed: 14th February 2020
Running time: 101 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 5/10

Aladdin (2019)

aladdin poster

I’m far from convinced about this plan to turn all the Disney cartoons into live-action movies. Beauty and the Beast (2017) sort of summed things up for me: not as good as the original, why did you bother? I ran screaming at the thought of sitting through Dumbo (2019), and the trailer for Lion King (2019) looks like a car crash, quite frankly. And yet, Aladdin (1992) is one of my favs from the House of Mouse, and so triumph or disaster, I was curious to see what they had done to it.

So, you know the story. Street rat and petty thief falls for the princess and winds up being used as a pawn by the evil vizier. But, instead of handing over the magic lamp he’s been tasked to steal, Aladdin ends up with a genie granting him three wishes. Can he improve his life, win the princess, yadda yadda yadda?

There are a few minor deviations in this new version. Princess Jasmine gets a new song and a 21st Century update, now trying to convince her father that a girl can be a ruler, not just a wife. I approve! It also felt very well done, imo, quite organically woven into the script and not just a tacked-on moment of ‘girl power’ (I’m looking at you, Endgame!).

The other big change that hits you the most is the loss of the wonderful Robin Williams as the genie. I can’t imagine anyone being brave enough to step into those shoes – but then, if it was going to be anyone, Will Smith makes a lot of sense. He’s been derided quite harshly for the role, but – perhaps going in with such low expectations – I actually think he manages pretty well. Still, it’s a little jarring mixing the genie we know with the Fresh Prince persona slipping through, and then a sweet if odd choice of adding in a crush on the princess’s handmaiden. Hmm.

Otherwise, it feels like the aim was to match the cartoon as closely as possible, and this might have been a flaw. The rooftop chase parkour looks like CGI not gone entirely right, and a few other scenes too end up looking cartoonish – and not in a good way, often running at a slightly odd speed or just looking juddery.

So… I dunno. It wasn’t awful, even while it wasn’t great. I was entertained enough but would rather watch the original. On the other hand, it was far more successful than e.g. B&tB, and more than I expected. I’m glad I quenched my curiosity, I’m mildly impressed that they translated as much of the animation as they did, and if nothing else, Friend Like Me and Prince Ali are fab songs – and Will Smith does them well.

Released: 22nd May 2019
Viewed: 8th June 2019
Running time: 128 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 6.5/10

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

murder on the orient express poster

Famous detective Hercule Poirot has just solved yet another baffling case – the resolution of which we see at the start of this movie – but he feels weary and out of sorts. He’s a little love lorn, as it turns out, but generally just tired of being a famous detective. However, his planned vacation goes a little awry when one of the thirteen other passengers is murdered. Of course Poirot is called upon to use his skills: because they are now trapped on an avalanche-blocked train, high in the mountains, with a murderer.

I have absolutely no recollection of any previous adaptation of this, one of Agatha Christie’s most famous and lauded novels, which I have also failed to read. So, for me this was still quite the mystery, which really added to the experience – something that I’m not sure many viewers would have. However, I have a sneaky suspicion that I did at one time know the ‘whodunnit’, or the story was even less well handled as the who reveal was a little less than the stonking surprise it perhaps should have been.

That’s rather my general view of this movie: given the cast, the obviously generous budget, the pedigree of the material and the opportunity to put on the big screen something that hasn’t really been done for decades – why isn’t this just somehow better?

On the plus side, it looks absolutely gorgeous. The period detail, the scenery, the train itself – all wonderful. And yes, the cast is an amazing list of names to gather in one place: Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz… phew!! And, of course, director, theatre luvvy, and bearer of the most amazing moustache seen on screen this year, Kenneth Branagh.

And… that’s perhaps the problem. Or rather, Branagh himself might be. The movie gives so little time to any of these amazing actors, relegated to bit-parts and almost-cameos, that it’s hard to care as much as I think we should about their characters. Instead, we get a few too many self-indulgent moments with the great detective laughing oddly at Dickens, or sighing over a woman’s photo – trying, perhaps, to add complexity to his character when I’d suggest the detective should be the least well-rounded person in the story, to be honest.

So. Y’know, I’d still say go and see it. It’s lush and lavish, and the sort of thing I do rather wish they’d make more of. Okay, I’m a bit so-so on the idea of the end-of-movie hint at a sequel (it does bookend the story, which also starts with a different case), but I’d probably still go and see it, just for the spectacle. That said, I’m reliably informed that if you have fond memories of David Suchet in the role from back in the 1980s-90s, then this is going compare poorly. You have been warned!

Released: 3rd November 2017
Viewed: 6th November 2017
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6.5/10

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Following a terrible crash, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is rebuilt with the best cyber-enhancement tech available. Built and trained to be the perfect soldier, she is uniquely placed to help in the fight against a new level of cyber-terrorism: hacking into people’s minds. But, who is the mysterious figure behind it all, and what do they want from Major? She’s about to find out that perhaps nothing is as it seems.

Anime is one of the things that I think I should be more into, at least on paper. The original Ghost in the Shell (1995) was one of my first forays, partly to see the original ahead of this remake, and mostly because it gets raved about a lot. I’m afraid to say I wasn’t all that impressed – it’s definitely a genre in and of itself, and something you have to get your head around to really appreciate.

So perhaps slightly backwards to most viewers, my hopes for the live-action movie were that I’d be able to understand it a bit better – so yeah, it probably has been dumbed down, but that worked in my favour! And yes, I could follow the story a bit better, although having seen the original also made a lot of things make more sense. It’s an odd one. I completely get why fans of the original found this so disappointing.

I ended up really liking the look of the piece, transferred scene-for-scene at times from the animation, although again I might be alone with this.

Aside from all that, going in ‘blind’ you get a sci-fi-y action movie, with a futuristic Japanese setting, and a mildly convoluted story line that doesn’t quite click together.

Released: 30th March 2017
Viewed: 14th April 2017
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

A bookish young woman is captured by an enchanted prince. Only love can break the spell that transformed him into a beast – and his servants into various household objects. A tale as old as time, the song says – and sure enough, here we’ve got a pretty straight retelling of the 1991 Disney animation, although this time with real actors.

To be honest, while I do think this was a good updating – a few story elements are brushed up a little, and Belle is a bit more feisty – and I’m aware of quite a few people really loving it, if anything I was just a tad disappointed. Then again, I wasn’t quite the right age to totally adore the original either, so maybe that’s a factor.

The first issue I had is the cast. Emma Watson isn’t a favourite of mine anyway, and I’m not the only one who found her surprisingly wooden in this. So many times the expression on her face was disgust instead of fear, or fear instead something more complex. And while she has a sweet enough singing voice, it really lacks any oomph necessary for this role, and the technical shenanigans to get ’round that become a little too obvious.

It doesn’t help that her co-star is a CGI monstrosity, and I don’t mean that in a particularly good way. With modern tech, I think I’ve just come to expect something… better. Likewise with the supporting cast, all voiced well enough by the likes of Sir Ian McKellan, Emma Thompson, and Ewan McGregor, but I just felt the CGI lacked a bit of charm at times, or just couldn’t sit entirely comfortably in a ‘live’ setting.

The only cast member I did wholly like was Luke Evans as Gaston – he looked made for the role, and has quite the set of lungs on him! Of course, when you’re left only really liking the baddie of the piece… urm…! o_O

Which is a lot of complaining for a movie I’m about to rate 7/10, and to be honest it wasn’t all that bad – just, as I said, a little disappointing for me. On the plus side, it looks lovely, and the filmmakers took the wise choice to add to the familiar songs, rather than start over, so there was a lot of toe tapping smiles. If the story felt a little bloated in the expansion for me, I’ll bow out gracefully as not exactly being the target audience – new, or nostalgia-led.

If you do enjoy this, you might be pleased to know that live-action remakes are being talked about for all sorts of other Disney classics, including Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King! (you can read more on Cineworld‘s blog).

Released: 17th March
Viewed: 25th March 2017
Running time: 129 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

Ben-Hur (2016)

Judah Ben-Hur is a pacifist prince in a Jerusalem being overtaken by Rome, until his adopted Roman brother, Messala, returns from the wars and falsely accuses Judah of treason. After 5 years as a galley slave, a shipwreck and chance meeting with a chariot racing team in town for the opening of the new ‘circus’ (arena) gives Judah a chance for revenge.

I’d suggest that the trailers for Ben-Hur have been quite clever in ramping up the action – that shipwreck, the iconic chariot race – and yet utterly fails to mention to the unwary that this is, in fact, something of a religious movie. Because there happens to be a local carpenter in the area, telling anyone who’ll listen that “love is the way”…! I wonder if this is the reason so many reviews are so dire?!

But then, the movie offers plenty of reasons to rate poorly anyway. The CGI is rather obvious, as is the tale of redemption being played out. That said, the action and tension are reasonably well handled – right up until the preachy last act, sort of glued on after that chariot race.

Ah yes, the chariot race. It starts well, but to be honest the tension just didn’t last for me as it kept going. The necessary speed of the thing goes from ‘wow’ to ‘wait, did it finish?’. It doesn’t help that the CGI is quite in your face, nor the knowledge that the 1959 version is one of the classic scenes of cinema, ever – and was pretty much just done for real. This? Meh, in comparison.

Overall, though, it wasn’t actually as dire as I’d feared. I do like Roman history – even if it is horrendously brutal (more in suggestion than gore on screen, right enough, but still a bit of a shock for a 12A). Still, the story isn’t really presented as well as it could have been given the scope, alas, making the raison d’etre of the piece really just those two big action scenes. Hmm.

Released: 7th September 2016
Viewed: 9th September 2016
Running time: 125 minutes
Rated: 12A but quite gory and violent

My rating: 5/10

Ghostbusters (2016)

Ah, you already know how this goes: when ghosts start appearing in New York, a group of scientists – fresh from losing their academic posts – set out to capture evidence of the paranormal. Unbeknownst to them, the increase in spooky sightings isn’t random – someone is doing their best to break the barrier between worlds. Joined by a subway worker with an impressive knowledge of the city’s history, and a cute receptionist with an impressive lack of any kind of knowledge, can these ‘Ghostbusters’ prevent ghost-a-geddon?

Oh yeah, forgot to mention: the GB team are all women. But y’know what? It matters not a jot, so 😛 to all the people complaining about it.

All the naysaying about recasting the roles from the classic Ghostbusters (1984) with women has rather unfortunately overshadowed a rather fun movie. Reviews I’ve read tend to either rip into the gender-swap, or go overboard in ignoring it or bigging it up, and hailing the movie as brilliant – maybe as a backlash to the sexism, who knows? Honestly, though, I think neither of these positions is true: the team works just as well with female geeks as it ever did with males, but the movie is only okay, not brilliant. Not because it’s a remake, or because anything has changed, but – for me – just because only about half the humour worked for me. “Can I bring my cat to the office?” “I’m allergic to cats.” “No, no – Mike Hat is my dog’s name.” Urm, really? o_O

The movie also slips just a little over the line for me in terms of referencing the original or other movies. The cameos – pretty much all the original cast – are all fun, with lots of little references like “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.” However, by the end I was half-wondering if there were just a few too many such moments propping up the not-terribly-strong story. Which is otherwise fine – a little bit different from the original, so thankfully not a slavish remake, but still entirely predictable.

The only thing I did really love about the film was the character of Holtzmann, as played by Kate McKinnon. While the spotlight was more firmly on the Bridesmaids re-pairing of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig, McKinnon was not-so-quietly scene stealing every wacky moment she was on screen, portraying the doesn’t-give-a-damn mad scientist brilliantly. The fourth member of the team, Lesley Jones, got rather short shrift from the script, I think, and Chris Hemsworth’s utterly dim secretary was slightly in danger of just being irritating – albeit great fun before that!

So. Recommended? Sure, why not. Worthy of either the hype or anti-feminist backlash? Nope. It’s an okay, fun movie, absolutely nothing more or less.

Released: 11th July 2016
Viewed: 26th July 2016
Running time: 116 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6.5/10

Point Break (2015)

Back in the early nineties, I was a young teenager slightly obsessed with a movie called Point Break. Surfers robbing banks to fuel their ‘endless summer’, the ‘young, dumb, and full of…’ urm… FBI agent who infiltrates the gang – something in that grabbed my attention, and I watched it a LOT.

Fast forward more years than I care to count (really?! THAT long ago?!) and it still seems weird that we’re remaking this now. But, here we are: the 2015 (released in 2016 in the UK) version, now with Bigger Stunts!, Added Danger!, a Global Cast!, and a lead actor who makes Keanu Reeves look like the best actor ever! Seriously, stop giving Luke Bracey acting roles: he can’t. The expressions that roost on his face as he tries to emote are just… urgh.

I’d also like to raise objections to the only female role in the movie being downgraded from a pretty kick-ass Lori Petty to some spaced out hippy earth mother with little purpose other than to not wear adequate support garments. Seriously: we’re supposed to be less sexist now!

The other changes are theoretically supposed to widen/update the appeal. For instance, making the ‘surfers’ into a more diverse(ly accented), globe-trotting bunch. Hmm. In fairness, making them all extreme sports adrenaline junkies really ups the scope for thrills and danger, and what this movie does have going for it is some huge action scenes involving some amazing locations and scenery.

Alas, the attempt to add another layer to the story could have worked: the baddies aren’t just funding their fun, they’re eco-warriors on a spiritual quest (bra. Sorry, flashbacks). Until the script writers got a little confused about whether they were giving back to the poor or to ‘mother earth’, who I’m not sure would find explosives all that ‘giving’, thank you very much. Hmm.

I cannot recommend this movie, really. And yet I was in such a foul mood going in that the grand spectacle and daftness actually ended up being a lot of fun. Hey: sometimes watching people fall from a great height sort of puts your own sh*tty day into perspective, right?! 😉

Released: 5th February 2016
Viewed: 5th February 2016
Running time: 114 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 5/10 and I’m possibly being generous!

Fantastic Four (2015)

Well, it’s finally happened: the Marvel logo at the start of the film is no longer a guarantee of fun. This movie was pretty darn dreadful – I think they should have let Fox keep all the ‘credit’ and distanced themselves as much as possible from this po-faced, misjudged, badly edited, sorry excuse for a super hero dirge.

Rumours are that the studio are to blame for interfering with the director’s cut of the movie. It makes sense. The opening half isn’t so dreadful, with introductions to the characters before the ‘accident’. That the momentous events are caused by so much utterly unlikely shambolic behaviour from a bunch of supposedly bright scientists is perhaps excusable – IF the movie were any fun. Sadly, it isn’t.

The one saving grace, for me, is the explanation of why the four characters get different abilities from the one accident. That is it. Oh, okay – some of the special effects and sets look good (sadly, Kate Mara’s wig looks dreadful – how hard would that have been to get right, instead of distractingly dire?). And, alright: the characterisations are an improvement from the previous adaptation (especially the Invisible Girl) – but I still didn’t like a single one of them, and quite frankly they were given about as much to do as the scenery.

My advice is: when you see the ‘one year later’ card flashed across the screen, leave. My cinema-buddies seemed to enjoy it enough, but I couldn’t stand the blandness, the terrible (lack of) storytelling, the inconsistencies, and most of all the utterly humourless way it’s all done. Everything is finished off with the obvious setting up for a sequel I can only hope never sees the light of day!

Released: 6th August 2015
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 3/10