Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mulan II (2004)

Plot: Set a month after the events of the first movie, Shang proposes to Mulan which she immediately accepts. Shortly after their engagement was announced however, the Emperor of China summons them to escort his three daughters, Princesses Mei, Ting-Ting, and Su, to be married to three princes in the kingdom of Qui Gong in order to secure an alliance against the Mongols before they attack China. They take their three friends, Chein Po, Yao and Ling with them. But when Mushu learns that he will lose his job as guardian dragon if Mulan and Shang get married, he tries to split them apart. To make matters worse,  Mei, Ting-Ting and Su start to fall in love with Chein Po, Yao and Ling while they are being escorted to Qui Gong.

I saw this movie when I was a kid and thought it was just a cheesy Disney sequel that at least had a nice ending for Mulan, Shang and their friends. But after I watched Doug Walker's Disneycember review for this movie, I decided to go on Netflix and give it another look, and...yeah while I'm not as infuriated with it as Walker is, I have to admit that some of the flaws are rather serious.

The animation is wonderful...when it's not focused on facial expressions. A lot of the backgrounds behind some of the wide shots like the shot where Shang purposes are beautiful to look at. The animation on the faces of the characters on the other hand is surprisingly off. While the the designs to the characters look okay, their expressions look too comedically expressive for a sequel to Mulan. They make what is happening a little too over the top in way that makes it a little too clear that isn't the first movie and a bad way. The facial expressions on Shang in particular are really over the top. There's a scene where Shang is arguing with Mulan and his angry expressions are... really weird. My brother would describe it as ugly, but frankly I feel like even calling it ugly would be a little kind. 

The music is not very interesting in the slightest. The first song Lesson Number One I thought was really cheesy. In fact, even as a kid I thought it was a little hard watch because it was so corny. We have a repeat of A Girl Worth Fighting For which sounds fun but it adds a couple more characteristics to Chein Po, Yao and Ling that were not in the first film which is a little distracting. And while (I Wanna Be) Like Other Girls I admit had a good emotional start, the rest of it is so loud and over-the-top that it kind of ruins it. 

The characters feel like altered versions of themselves. Like I said before the revised version of A Girl Worth Fighting For felt like it was adding characteristics of Chain Po, Yao and Ling that were  forced. Shang is often very cranky and it's annoying to watch, Mulan, while not horrible doesn't do a whole lot of brave things, but by far the worst character watching this film is Mushu. Now, I loved watching Mushu when I was little, he was probably my favorite part about the first film. But tell me after reading the plot paragraph in this review that you haven't figured out what is wrong with him in this movie. It's amazing how much of a selfish, conniving, jerk he is in this movie. I want to like him for old times sake, but his deeds are so despicable that even his redemption in the end is not very satisfying. 

The biggest problem with the film is its story. Just from explaining the plot, you can probably figure out what's going to happen. Like many Disney direct-to-DVD sequels, the story is about as predictable as you can get. There's even a sad twist during the last third with Shang that they try to make a big deal, but you can easily figure out everything is going to be okay in the end. But probably the biggest problem with this movie I didn't realize until I watched Doug Walker's disneycember review. The whole story is set on the idea of Mei, Ting-Ting and Su marrying in order to save China, but that becomes hard for them to do because they want to be free and marry whoever they want. Now I get the feeling that if they found a right writer for the job, this could have become a  more complex and satisfying story about what it means to sacrifice for the good of your country and whether or not it's right and so on and at first it seemed like that's what they where going for until they sing (I Wanna Be) Like Other Girls where they are basically saying "screw this, we want to be free from duty and everything." Normally this would work for Disney, but this time, it's not about following the law like Jasmine in Aladdin or they were betrothed since birth like Aurora in Sleeping Beauty or something like that, it's about saving your country. Their mission is to marry so that thousands of not millions of people won't die. I won't give away the ending, but watching it again after watching Walker's review, it sounds like he was right; it looks like they're willing to let people die for love. There's no explanation as to what happens with the possible war, we don't find out what happens with the alliance, so for all we know things end badly at some point after the film ends. That's really wrong.

And that's my review for Mulan II. The animation is great when it doesn't focus on over-the-top facial expressions and hey, if you want to see a story where Mulan and Shang get together along with a romance subplot with Chein Po, Yao, and Ling, now you do. But the characters are not entirely themselves, the music is cheesy and the story is not only predictable but it has an ending that is potentially morally wrong. I don't know if I would call it the worst of the Disney sequels, but if you don't want to see it just for the sake of seeing all of them, this is one movie you should definitely skip.

Rating: 20%

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Plot: It's the basic story of Beauty and the Beast, except in this version Belle doesn't promise to be with the Beast, she just willingly becomes his prisoner but plans to eventually escape and Gaston tries to use Maurice to get to Belle.

When Disney announced that they were going to make a live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast I was a little excited. I love the animated film as one of my all time favorite films and Belle (as I have already said in my top 15 favorite anime female characters,) is my all-time favorite animated female character as well as one of my favorite characters of all time. When the film was closer to hitting the big screen, I already started hearing good/mixed things about it which I didn't want to know about. Now after finally seeing it for myself, is it as good as the animated film? No, but it has some nice ideas and good visuals that make it's a nice adaptation of its source material.

Let's start with the story. While this film does stick to the general story of the animated film, it has a few changes as you probably expected. I like how Belle's father got into trouble because he took a rose from the Beast's Garden because Belle asked for one before he left just like in the book, and how the castle is enchanted so that it's always winter, and it's especially smart how they added that the spell includes people forgetting that they ever had a prince or anyone else who lives in the castle. It was also a nice touch that they would add that the servants would no longer be alive as inanimate objects if the spell remains.

The cast as a whole gave very solid performances. I was very surprised to find out at the end credits that it was Ewan McGregor and Ian McKellen as Lumiere and Cogsworth respectively. McGregor, in particular, hid his voice exceptionally well as Lumiere. In fact, all of the stars that played the servants hit their voices pretty well. I would never have guessed that it was Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza or Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts (though I feel like I should have with the latter in retrospect.) Also I surprisingly enjoyed Kevin Kline as Maurice. There's something about his first scene when he is making that windup toy and singing the song How Does a Moment Last Forever that makes him so likable. Like it's all too clear that Maurice has a lot of love to give and it was nice to see Kevin Kline of all actors deliver that. It's also nice that they add that he's more on board with making sure that Gaston never marries Belle. Then you have Gaston and LaFou. The guy who plays Gaston clearly is having a lot of fun with his role as he should. Gaston is one of those Disney villain that's both menacing and funny, and so it's good to see that they come with some ways for him to have a lot of fun with the roll. (P.S. take notes, people who are making the 101 Dalmatians remake with Emma Stone as Cruella De Vil.) Now there is a bit of controversy with Josh Gad as LeFou. For those of you who don't know, the director of the film, Bill Condon, said in an interview that the film will have a quote-unquote "gay moment." To be blunt, the people who have overreacted about this information have done so over nothing. Yes, LeFou's sexuality is hinted throughout the film, but the moment that Condon is talking about lasts less than a second or so and doesn't really add much. Personally, I think the irony behind the whole thing is that it's kind of fitting for Beauty and the Beast to have the first Disney gay character. Howard Ashman, the executive producer of the animated film put a lot of the strongest themes in that film based on his own experience with his own homosexuality - how people like Gaston are praised as long as they have certain qualities that society likes while people like the Beast are outcast for not having those things. So if something like this was done to show genuine support to the gay community out of respect to the man who gave a lot of the heart into the first film, that would've been great. But instead it's all to clear that they only did this to get more tickets from gay people and otherwise just to play things PC. But hey, at least it's done with more thought and care then Sulu's sexuality in Star Trek Beyond.

When it was announced that Emma Watson was going to be Belle, I knew she was perfect for the job. Like virtually everyone else, I can't think of anyone else then the girl that gave us Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films to be more fitting for the role. When I finally saw the film, she was everything I expected...mostly. While her singing is good throughout most of the film, her voice felt rather off during Belle. I later found out online that her voice was set to autotune and it explained a lot, because while she hit the notes, her voice did not sound like itself. Also, I felt like she could've had a more productive part during the battle between Gaston and The Beast. True, she tries to take Gaston's gun away from him at some point, (credit goes to my friend Ariel for reminding me that,) but It would've been cool to have seen more from her. That aside though, there were a couple things that she added to the character that were nice to see such as teaching little girls to read even though it's considered wrong to the villagers, having her own inventive way to do laundry, and how she planned to escape from the castle but decided via song to stay when she learns that The Beast and the servants areally under a spell. On top of that, her relationships with the other characters are much stronger. She's more direct about her disinterest in Gaston, she spends more time with the servants, her relationship with her father is stronger and we get much more time with her and the Beast talking to each other and finding out what they have in common.

If there was any characters I think they could have worked on a little more, it would have to be the Beast. Now don't get me wrong, he was done well in the long run with his relationship with Belle  and they even added more to his backstory which a lot of people love. However, while I also like the additions to his backstory, I think they could have done a lot more with it. I feel like all we really know is he was into all things beautiful because his father got him into it after his mother died. Now the idea is all well and great as it adds more to his character as well as giving him something he and Belle have in common, but I felt like they could have done more with it. Like give us a visual representation of how his father blinded him into his shallow ways. Again, he was still done very well, I just think they could have added a little more.

The design and the effects are great. It's actually really interesting to see them be more faithful to the the way castles looked around that time in France. Granted, there are statues or chandeliers that look a little over the top, but it's a forgivable flaw given that that's just what the style was at that time. In fact, it was really nice to see this movie show a little more the culture of that time period as well, like Gaston using pistols instead of using a dagger and a bow and arrow against the Beast or how the waltz is set how it was done at that time. The designs for the servants in particular are great to look at. They're all very creative and very neat to look at. I think my favorite designs are the ones for Lumiere, Chip, Maestro Cadenza and Madame de Garderobe.

The music wasn't blow me away fantastic, but good. I guess what I mean by that is apart from how Emma Watson was singing during Belle, everyone was serviceable in singing these songs that we already know. The best out of all the musical scenes would be Be Our Guest and Gaston. Some of the new songs for a good. Again, I really liked How Does a Moment Last Forever and the Beast's song Evermore a lot of people like that I think was decent. I don't remember much about the other new songs, but there wasn't a song I hated which is always good, especially when it's Disney.

And that's my review for Beauty and the Beast. The cast is solid, the effects and designs are great, the music is good with some small exceptions,  and the additions to the story and characters are nice to see. So with all that in mind, how does this one compared to the animated film overall? Honestly, my heart still belongs to the animated one. If you love this one better, I can totally understand why - especially with what they do with Belle, but for me, I think the original one is perfect the way it is. From the symbolism in the castle, to the fact that Belle and the Beast are the only ones who wear blue, to the overall music, the original is special just the way it is. And if we're being honest, I think the original is much more timeless than this one. Not to say that this film won't age well, but I get the feeling that aspects to it like playing PC with LeFou will date it a little. But as perfect as I think the original is over all, even I have to admit that it is open for more things to be added to it whether it's from the Broadway musical, or from this film. So if you want more of the story where they add more to Belle as a character or her relationships with the other characters and things like that, then this movie might be just what you're looking for. Out of all the live-action remakes they've made over the last 4 years, it's not as strong as The Jungle Book, but it has so much more heart and has much more to work with then Maleficent or Cinderella.

Rating: 80%

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Shack (2017)

Plot: Mack was living a bountiful life with his loving wife Nan and children Kate, Josh and his youngest daughter Missy. Suddenly his life is shattered when a serial killer called the Ladybug Killer kidnaps and murders Missy thus destroys his already weak faith in God. Then one day, a mysterious telegram enters his mailbox signed by "Papa" (Nan's nickname for God) inviting him to come to the shack where Missy's dress was found. Mack reluctantly agrees and travels to the cabin where he meets the holy Trinity, Papa (The Father), Jesus and the Holy Spirit (who goes by the name Sarayu) and seek to help him understand, heal and forgive.

I've read The Shack a couple of times, and for the most part I think it's a very enlightening and enjoyable Christian book. I may not always agree with everything that is written there but I think like other Christians/ Christian related literature such as Dante's Inferno, or C.S. Lewis's non-Narnia books like The Great Divorce or The Screwtape Letters, it isn't something that should be considered 100% real about God or faith and things like that per say, but be more a fantasy with a piece of mind expressing someone's interpretation about God and his love and his word. Anyone who says it isn't enjoyable book agrees that it at least tries to tackle the argument of why God allows terrible things to happen wild still loving us and wanting to be with us. It has its strength of trying to be unique and interesting while still having an enlightening moral. When I saw the trailer for this movie most of it looked a visually promising while finding it questionable that Sam Worthington is playing the lead character. Having just watch the film yesterday, I can say that a lot of it met/exceeded my expectations. Is it a terrific film? No, but it's a very faithful adaptation that brings the story to life in a why where it's just as much of an experience as the book itself.

Visually speaking, the movie for the most part is perfect. The film has a lot of what I personally envision when reading the book from the appearances of Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu, to the shack itself, too Sarayu's Garden. Some of the effects you can easily tell are fake, but they're done in a way where they still look nice and you can enjoy the showmanship. The actors who play all three parts of God are very good. The guy playing Jesus is very friendly and upbeat, Sarayu is kind but is aware of the pain happening in the world, and then you have Octavia Spencer as Papa ... where do I begin with her? In many ways Spencer is the real star. She brings the most life into scenes, and her dialogue is very mysterious but in endearing to listen to. The book is written so that Papa/The Father is the bigger focus and the other two parts of God are secondary partly because the book points out that people commonly view The Father as very vengeful and wrathful when he isn't. There may be some interactions with the other heads of God where they point that out like when Mackey says he feels more comfortable around Jesus because he was human, but even if the film doesn't directly point out the stereotype of The Father the way the book does, they still keep the focus mostly on Spencer than anyone else. But even with that said, I still enjoyed watching Mack interact with all three of these parts of God to the point that it makes the idea of spending a weekend with God just as heartwarming and touching as it is when reading the book. And while they do take some part of the book out, the story as a whole feels well paced. Nothing feels very rushed, they really take a lot of time to establish the characters and their relationships with each other before and after Missy's death.

Now I have been reading some reviews for this movie, and some people dislike the movie because  they dislike that God is appearing in different races, particularly with a black woman representing The Father. If you're one of those people who has that kind of problem, I want to point out a couple of things, 1) this is how they are portrayed in the book, 2) If you really are having a problem with the choice of people casted to play the three parts of God in terms of race, then then frankly it's little wonder that Donald Trump is holding present. (Yes, I know that is a very low shot, but honestly it's a little hard not to think otherwise given that this is really the biggest problem some people have with the movie), and 3) this isn't supposed to be a common stereotypical view about who God is. By design, the book and the film is meant to point out that God doesn't necessarily have to appear the warmest people believe he will like The Father appearing as an old man with a big white beard like Santa Claus or Gandalf (which they make fun of more in the book.) The Shack is meant to take you out of your expectations of who God is like because there's only so much we actually know about him from our own interpretations about the Bible itself.

If I had one problem with the movie it sadly would have to be Sam Worthington as Mack. Like I already said, I was concerned about him playing Mack when I saw the trailers like I said earlier, but was willing to be  open-minded about it. As it turned out however, I found Worthington's performance to be... a bit of a mixed at best. On the one hand, he does a decent job in making his character likable and establishing his close relationship with Missy and we understand his pain, but on the other hand he goes back and forth between his American and Australian accents and when it comes to the really powerful emotions like whenever he is angry with God or sad because of his loss, or even worried about his daughter when he realized she's missing, his performance was underwhelming. Vocally, he delivers most of these emotions well, but facially he usually has the same face for almost everything. It's gotten to a point where I think the director and the post-production people might have intentionally edited the film so that his most emotional moments are expressed through voice-over where the camera is not focused at its face in attempt to hide that he can't give us what Mack is feeling visually. While not a terrible performance, aspects like this make Worthington easily the weakest aspect of the film.

Now another reason why this movie has been attacked by the critics is the common claim that while most of them agree that the message is well intentioned, the film feels more like a sermon with virtually nothing but talking as if we are watching a seminar hosted by God and otherwise full of theological stuff that a lot of them disagree with. I will admit that this is a movie that is dialogue heavy, but I think it is necessary for the moral that both the film and the book are trying to get across: that God does love us, he's there for us through the pain we go through and we need to trust that we know what he is doing and that he goes before us. If that's just not what you believe about The Lord whether you are a believer or not, I understand, but given the controversy that this movie has, I strongly suggest that if you ever watch this movie or read the book that you should keep an open mind. This is a fictional story used as a tool to get a moral across and much like believing in The Lord and his word, it's up to you on what to agree or disagree with what is being said. It's not a doctrine, it's a fantasy to express the human condition and faith in God. 

And that's my review for The Shack.  In my point of view as a follower of Jesus, I think the story itself whether it's in the book or the film is an enlightening and heartwarming piece of Christian fiction that has some interesting ideas about putting faith in God through the painful moments in life and remembering that he loves us no matter what. There are some things I don't entirely agree with, but in the long run it's an enjoyable look at how we should put our faith in God and his word. The movie succeeds in bringing the story to life in terms of its visuals and all around being an enjoyable experience with a solid cast (apart from some moments with Sam Worthington.) There's a lot of controversy that makes it necessary for me to tell you that you need to keep an open mind with how God is portrayed and what the film is trying to say. It's important to know that the film is fiction and should not be taken seriously apart from the moral it is trying to say and whether or not you will enjoy it or what it says is entirely up to you. 

Rating: 80%