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

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

Sex, Lies and Videotape


Viewed – 16 August 2020

Stephen Soderbergh’s 1989 indie hit that went on to win the much coveted Palm D’or was always a movie that intrigued me. A sort of sexy movie that approached the subject of sex, infidelity and jealousy with intelligence as it focuses on four characters. James Spader plays a guy who comes to visit his old college buddy (Peter Gallagher -While You Were Sleeping) and stumbles upon an affair as well as sisterly rivalry. He also happens to enjoy interviewing women on camera about their sex lives. His presence threatens to unravel the lives of his friend, Peter’s wife Andie Macdowell and her sister, played by Pretty Woman’s Laura San Giacomo.

Secrets & lies

This very frank, unusual approach to a familiar subject has solid turns from the cast, with a stand out Laura San Giacomo as Andie Macdowell’s vivacious sister, and explores each character well, giving each an ark where they come away changed by the end. There’s a bit of that obvious late eighties / early nineties ‘indie cool’ to it, similarly portrayed in movies like Reality Bites … and it can rely on clichés to propel its story (the pearl earring scene). Yet for a debut, this was an early glimpse of where director Stephen Soderbergh would go, and overall I found it quite effective.

The Blu-Ray from the U.K. division of The Criterion Collection has that 80’s softness but still retains detail and depth, aided by a clear, remastered 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack – although this is more a talkie movie so not a surround showcase. Extras are plentiful as is often the case with Criterion, including a new making of with interviews with Peter Gallagher, Andie Macdowell and Laura San Giacomo (but no Soderbergh or Spader). However Soderbergh provides an introduction and there’s featurettes on his career. We also get an archive interview with James Spader. In addition we get a feature on the sound restoration, a detailed booklet and a commentary from Soderbergh and fellow director Neil Labute. Impressive, for a fascinating drama that whilst not essential is still worth a watch.

Verdict:

(the movie) Good

(the Blu-Ray) Recommended

The Squid and the Whale


Viewed – 05 August 2020 Blu-ray

I hadn’t heard of this movie up until now and only stumbled across it when browsing ‘The Criterion Collection’ releases. So a complete blind purchase that although I don’t regret, I don’t feel was entirely worth it. This follows the story of two brothers (one played by a young Jesse Eisenberg) who’s parents separate, leading them to have to spend their time living at each parent’s house … whilst also going through the trials of high school, first love and puberty.

trouble with Mom and Dad…

Jeff Daniels plays the Dad, a respected writer and teacher, who has a close bond with his eldest son (Eisenberg), whilst Laura Linney (Ozark) plays the Mom who gets sort of a bad rap due to having had an affair. William Baldwin also turns up as a tennis instructor. This very ‘indie’ drama, in the style of Gus Van Sant is very authentic and occasionally amusing with decent performances and astute observations of its various themes. It occasionally goes down avenues exploring the effect a breakup has on children that takes some weird turns … what with the youngest kid resorting to masturbation of all things, as a way of acting out (er…ok). Eisenberg also comes off as a bit of a brat, who whilst his usual brand of awkward is less likeable than usual.

For this kind of subject, I felt the movie offered very little we hadn’t seen before and didn’t go anywhere particularly interesting or all that optimistic. It also doesn’t really explore why the parent’s relationship hits the skids. A shame as it’s well acted (especially Linney who I’ve always liked) and has some good moments, but is otherwise forgettable.

The Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection has a an adequate image, thats very grainy and a bit lacking in detail, almost like 16mm – but it does create a distinct ‘look’ that suits the movie’s tone. Sound is clear in 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio and showcases various unusual and obscure music choices. Extras consist of a making of documentary, interviews, audition footage and trailers. We also get a booklet that has an interview and a write up on the movie and it’s production. Not too bad for a movie a little undeserving of such treatment.

Verdict:

(the movie) Poor

(the Blu-ray) Good