Mulan


Viewed – 08 September 2020 Disney+

I never got around to watching the animated original, yet it had always intrigued me … but unlike some other live action Disney remakes of late, I thought this would suit such a take better. Telling the tale of a young woman in ancient China who chooses to join the Emperors army disguised as a man, after an invading army declare war.

This is a gorgeous movie, awash with vibrant colours, beautiful costumes and stunning scenery and locations. Yes, there’s an overdose of CGI and occasionally the use of green screen for backgrounds is a bit obvious, but overall this was a treat for the eyes. Martial arts star Donnie Yen appears as a general who trains up the Emperors army, and an unrecognisable Jet Li appears as the Emperor himself. Jason Scott Lee’s vengeful leader of the invading army is good but he’s overshadowed by Gong Li’s brilliantly ruthless witch, who is definitely one of the movie’s stand out characters. Yet Liu Yifei as Mulan herself is very good, tough yet vulnerable and can handle the various elaborate fight sequences and carries the movie well. Yet the star here is the direction and visuals, Action scenes are plentiful and the camera work is often unique and stylish.

The story is nothing that special though and gets rather predictable. Some of the gravity-defying fantasy aspects can get a bit silly too. Also I found myself having to suspend belief when Mulan was disguised as a man, but still looked feminine to me. However, despite these things, I was still highly entertained from start to finish. One to check out.

Verdict: Recommended

Tootsie


Viewed – 05 September 2020 Blu-ray

I have vague memory of enjoying this, catching it on TV many years ago. However following rediscovering Dustin Hoffman recently with his memorable turn in Midnight Cowboy … when I saw this 1982 movie had been given the Criterion treatment, I thought I’d give it a go. Hoffman plays a struggling actor, who despite obvious talent can’t seem to land a job. However when he decides to disguise himself as a woman in order to land a role on a daytime soap opera, he realises his troubles are only just starting.

Directed by the late Sidney Pollack (Out of Africa) this is an enjoyable, charming and at times quite touching comedy-drama. Hoffman pulls off a surprisingly convincing woman in the form of ‘Dorothy’ and makes for an entertaining character. The movies shares similarities with Mrs Doubtfire but isn’t as zany, preferring a more earnest story over comedy set pieces. Although it’s still funny in places. Teri Garr is on hand as a ditsy friend and sort of love interest and resembles very much Jennifer Anniston in her personality. Bill Murray is also here but doesn’t add much. Jessica Lang, an actress I’ve always found creepy, however is very likeable here, and her scenes with Hoffman are some of the best in the movie.

At times it’s look and feel is a bit ‘TV movie’ and I can’t say I like the title or that cheesy theme … but it still throws an ahead-of-its-time spotlight on female empowerment, exploring misogyny and sexism that’s shockingly, still relevant. It’s also just a fun story with solid performances.

The Blu-Ray from the U.K. branch of The Criterion Collection boasts a nicely detailed and colourful image from a new 4K restoration. The sound, whilst only in its original uncompressed mono is very clear and does a good enough job. Extras are of course plentiful with a commentary from director Sidney Pollack as well as an archive making of and a newer making of from 2007 with interviews from both cast and crew. There’s also deleted scenes, test footage and an interview with Hoffman in-character as Dorothy. The included fold-out poster also has a new essay from critic Michael Sragow. Solid treatment for an 80’s comedy well worth re-visiting.

Verdict:

(the movie) Recommended

(the Blu-Ray) Recommended

Frozen II


Viewed – 25 August 2020 Disney+

I can’t say I had any intention of watching this. I enjoyed but wasn’t blown away from the (at the time) heavily lauded first movie, and guess a sequel was inevitable – although was surprised to see it receive very little hype at release. However I spotted it on Disney+ and as starved as we are of new, worthwhile movies of late … I thought what the hell.

Call of the Wild…

Magical Ice Queen ‘Elsa’ is haunted by a voice that calls to her. It seems strangely linked to a story her late father told her and her sister Anna when they were children, of an enchanted forest covered in mist. Eager to find out what it all means, Elsa sets out on an adventure, along with her sister as well as snowman Olaf and other friends.

This musical fantasy of course looks great. Frozen’s animation style may not be as visually dazzling as say, something from Pixar but it suits the throwback, classic style and is still beautifully done. The story is fun even if it felt a little forced initially with the whole ‘calling’ having little reason to ‘suddenly’ occur. The songs are entertaining, even if there’s nothing to rival the first movie’s ‘let it go’. Snowman Olaf also proved a bit irritating early on but I’ll admit I warmed to him as the movie progressed. Despite such issues however, I still found this really enjoyable. It’s quite funny and the characters (especially Anna) really had some great moments. Also that ending was feel-good perfection that I found quite touching. Not exactly another Disney Classic, but still well worth checking out.

Verdict: Good

Midnight Cowboy


Viewed 22 August 2020. Blu-ray

This 1969 Oscar winner had a bit of a backlash at the time of release and was one of the few ‘x’ certificate movies to get nominated let alone win. I’d always been aware of it and heard it was a classic but only now gotten around to seeing it. Jon Voight, screen legend and father to Angelina Jolie … plays a naive, sort of man-child from Texas who travels to New York to find his fortune as a hustler / gigalo. However reality soon comes crashing down after various encounters leaves him desperate for money. At the same time, he befriends Ratso, a streetwise conman and petty thief, played by Dustin Hoffman.

Living the dream?

Gritty and at times moving, this tale explores loneliness and the harsh realities of life with a semi-whimsical vibe, with strong turns from both Voight and Hoffman. Direction from British filmmaker John Schlesinger (Marathon Man) is occasionally surreal and other times psychedelic, whilst not shying away from sex, gay culture, the drugs scene etc. despite not being the movie’s focus. Instead, this is an exploration of unconventional friendship, following one’s (hopeless) dreams which proved very effective – especially in the closing moments. The various side characters also stood out, and the setting of New York, the period and the music, with a score by John Barry and that timeless ‘Everybody’s Talking’ by Nilsson all added to the charm.

I’d have liked to know more about Hoffman’s character and his mystery illness, and other details like Voight’s troubled background I’d have liked explored further – although the flashbacks do a decent job. Overall a surprisingly powerful and rather enjoyable experience.

The Blu-Ray from the U.K. division of The Criterion Collection has a very interesting commentary from the director as well as producer Jerome Hellman. We also get several featurettes that offer interviews (new and archive), behind the scenes footage, as well as a photo gallery and a fold-out booklet with a new write up on the movie by critic Mark Harris. The movie, a new 4K restoration retains that grainy, at times overly-soft late 60s / early 70s look but offers vibrant colours and depth to the image. Sound is in the original mono or a new 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack. Decent treatment for one of the few ‘classics’ worthy of the title.

Verdict:

(the movie) Recommended

(the Blu-ray) Recommended

Salvador


Viewed – 22 July 2020. Blu-ray

Oliver Stone has always been one of my favourite directors. This at times politically-charged film-maker has often impressed with powerful war movies like Platoon or hard-hitting satire with his controversial Natural Born Killers. I recall being quite affected by this 1986 drama portraying the violence and civil unrest in El Salvador that broke out in the early eighties. James Woods plays a desperate, seasoned journalist on hard times out to get that big story, who travels into El Salvador along with his friend, played by James Belushi. However once there he realises he may have under-estimated the dangers of the situation as war breaks out.

Revisiting this movie many years after first seeing it, I didn’t remember much but it still packed a punch. There’s some recognisable faces amongst its support cast (is that the bad guy from Crocodile Dundee 2 and the girl from Predator?) that screams 80s. However the imagery can at times be surprisingly unflinching, mixed in with I’m guessing real-life victim footage and most likely real-life residents of the area for added authenticity. Woods, an actor I’ve often enjoyed watching is good but a little too caricature for the otherwise realistic tone. His motor-mouth performance also makes him stand out and look a bit out of place. Belushi is rather annoying too. John Savage on the other hand as a war photographer proves the most believable.

Above and beyond all of that, it’s Oliver Stone’s direction, his camera-work and the gradual, building tension and constant threat of.violence that stands out, even if the more shocking scenes can seem a tad forced (the scene with the women on the bus). Yet this still retained its power even 30+ years later. Worth a watch.

The Blu-Ray from Eureka’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ label has a good to very good image quality with only the occasional appearance of flickering. Close-ups and larger scale scenes all look detailed and vibrant. Audio is presented in either the original mono or a new 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track which is mostly decent but occasionally sound seems to drop in quality like its reverting to its mono track. Doesn’t happen often enough to be a major issue though. Extras consist of a very worthwhile commentary by director Oliver Stone as well as a 62 minute making of called ‘Into the Valley of Death’, interviews, deleted scenes and a trailer. Also included in this release is a detailed booklet with an essay by film critic Barry Forshaw.

Verdict:

(the movie) Good

(the Blu-Ray) Recommended