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Jasin Boland/Disney via AP


Jasin Boland/Disney via AP

Movies

Fresh folklore in Mulan

Disney’s remake shines, but did producers cozy up to tyrants?

It would be impossible to adapt the ancient folk tale of Hua Mulan without a requisite amount of girl power. But Disney’s stunning live-action retelling of a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for king and country avoids making the story a modern feminist allegory. 

Unlike in the 1998 animated version, Mulan joins the army not only to spare her father but because she has certain extraordinary gifts. More balletic than brute, they’re unique to her. And at no point does the film denigrate Mulan’s more traditionally feminine sister. 

As expected in such a culturally specific story, references to Eastern beliefs abound: village shrines and prayers to ancestral spirits. But these are more window dressing than worldview. The film refreshes the tired theme of self-empowerment with something surprisingly welcome: the power of telling the truth. 

Here, Mulan discovers she’ll never unleash her chi—an inner energy that sounds suspiciously similar to Star Wars’ “the Force”—until she’s honest about who she is. By honest, we’re not talking about postmodern, I-define-my-own-identity, “This Is Me” self-worship, but something truly countercultural.

She realizes if she wants to lead, she must confess to her commander and comrades that she is a female. Her journey then contrasts with that of another woman with unusual abilities who rationalizes deceit and disloyalty because men have victimized her. Mulan stands as a striking rebuke to justifying wrongdoing by crying victimization. Though her parents have hurt her, she insists on showing them respect. That’s to say nothing of the eye-popping packaging this traditional tale comes wrapped in.

While all of Disney’s recent remakes have been visual treats, none so far rival Mulan. The stunning natural vistas and jaw-dropping PG-13 action sequences make this a film every member of the family is likely to enjoy. 

But as The Washington Post has pointed out, those gorgeous panoramic shots of the glittering Imperial City cast a dark shadow. To gain access to the Xinjiang province for filming, Mulan’s production team worked with government entities instrumental in China’s campaign to sterilize Uighur Muslims and put them in concentration camps. Per standard procedure, the film expresses gratitude to these groups during the closing credits.

Disney “worked with regions where genocide is occurring, and thanked government departments that are helping to carry it out,” the Post reported. 

In recent months, the studio has edited some decades-old films and declined to add others to its streaming service because of their embarrassing inclusion of ethnic stereotypes. Years from now, will Mulan—which goes far beyond insensitivity by partnering with organizations participating in genocide—suffer a similar fate?

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Orion Pictures


Orion Pictures

Movies

Bill & Ted play their encore

The sequel isn’t quite as bodacious as the original

It’s been more than 30 years since the two-man band Wyld Stallyns, better known as Bill and Ted, graced the big screen. If you’re a child of the 1990s (or if you had children in the ‘90s) there’s a good chance words like “bogus” and “bodacious” bring up fond images of their time traveling mission to ace their history final. 

In Bill & Ted Face the Music, the duo return once again to teach the world to sing. Or, at least, play air guitar. Much older, but not particularly wiser, they still haven’t managed to write the song that will unite humanity in peace and harmony. 

They also haven’t managed to teach their kids not to follow in their slacker footsteps. Though their daughters are in their mid-20s, they still live at home and mostly spend their time listening to their dads’ old CDs and snacking on Cheetos. 

Until, that is, an emissary from the future arrives and warns them all that the apocalypse is nigh if Bill and Ted don’t, at last, get their act together and write that song.

If you’re wondering exactly what kind of quantum physics dictates that time and space will collapse if a couple of aging, wannabe rockers don’t compose a new tune, well … best not to look too closely at the internal logic. 

The real question: Is this new film an excellent adventure?

On that score, I’m afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news. While it’s kind of amusing to see Jimi Hendrix and Mozart jam out together, the new installment doesn’t do nearly as good a job of playing off our familiarity with historical figures. 

Here, Louis Armstrong and a cavewoman are just costumes and accents hovering in the background.  There’s nothing half as inspired as when the boys took Napoleon Bonaparte to an ice cream parlor where, of course, the dictator hogged all the chocolate.

But the movie does have some laughs, like the Terminator-style robot whose insecurities get in the way of his job performance, and when Bill and Ted’s wives take them to couples therapy. 

The biggest problem, though, is that the daughters tasked with carrying on the musical torch are too much like their fathers. It’s nice that the producers didn’t want to resort to cheap stereotypes of, say, Kardashian copycats. But what they’ve done feels like an awkward lurch at gender parity. 

Some stereotypes exist for a reason, and girls don’t make the most believable surfer dudes. Watching the ladies try to mimic Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves’ mannerisms becomes painful after a while. Also painful: a few instances of PG-13 profanity and a couple of flashes of a Last Supper-type image of Jesus. It doesn’t feel malicious, per se, but it’s hard to believe the producers would have treated Mohammed so irreverently as to show him playing a cowbell.  

It’s not all sour notes, though. For all its silliness, Bill and Ted carry a welcome message for these troubled times. First, no matter where we come from or what we look like, we can make beautiful music together if we’re willing to share our sound.

Second, and more importantly: Men, if you want to save the world, save your marriages first.

So I wouldn’t recommend dropping $20 to stream Bill & Ted Face the Music now. Eventually, when you can rent it for a few dollars, a movie marathon that starts in San Dimas circa 1989 may be in order. After all, making your kids sit through the greatest hits of your childhood is what parenting is all about. 

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Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment


Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Movies

Tenet’s unsound track

Messy audio mix, nebulous plot make the sci-fi thriller a laborious big-screen event

Cinephiles familiar with the work of Christopher Nolan know the writer-director has a burden for brain-bogglers. It took a second viewing of his 2010 film Inception—winner of four Oscars, including two for best sound mixing and best sound editing—for me to make some sense of its dream-within-a-dream framework. 

Nolan’s new mind-bending, time-rending film Tenet proved to be an even more frustrating affair for my first trip back into a movie theater since COVID-19 put the kibosh on indoor big-screen outings. The film’s sound design, of all things, was the culprit.

For starters, almost all the characters have British or Russian accents, a tough assignment for American ears. Can’t blame Nolan for that, though. Also, numerous verbal exchanges occur behind speech-muffling oxygen masks. That’s ironic, given that filming was completed months before the pandemic hit, but necessary to the story. Inexplicably, however, the pounding soundtrack drowns out many conversations. The messy audio mix bothered other film critics, too. Adding it all up, I missed half the dialogue. Viewers might consider waiting until Tenet arrives on streaming platforms to watch it with subtitles.

Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.

Nolan also offers few clues for mapping the film’s perplexing plot. The basic idea, per a drop of clarity late in the film (no spoiler here), goes like this: Someone from the future has sent a device back through time and hidden it. This device reverses an object’s trajectory through space and time. Unforgivably, my future self neglected to ship a subtitle-enhanced copy of Tenet back through time to assist present-day me in deciphering the film. But here’s what I could piece together.

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