REVIEW: MULAN (2020)

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MULAN (2020)

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Story takes place in ancient China. The kingdom is under attack and each household must send one male to fight. As Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) has only two daughters, it is he who must go and join the imperial forces. To save her aging father from going into battle, headstrong daughter Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a boy and goes off to war in his place. Once hidden among the royal forces, Mulan comes face to face with a revenge hungry warlord (Jason Scott Lee) and an evil witch (Gong Li), both intent on killing the Emperor (Jet Li).

Remake of the animated classic has lavish costumes, sumptuous visuals and a cast of Chinese cinema legends, such as Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Gong Li. Unfortunately, it is brought down by some very by-the-numbers direction by Niki Caro and a bland leading lady in Liu Yifei as Hua Mulan. This feminist tale of a young girl who becomes a hero in a male dominated society is written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin and not one of the four scribes could keep this from being very pedestrian and cliché. It’s simply uninvolving and dull, despite it’s important messages about equality and female empowerment, and having a lot of colorful action. It’s a shame and a major disappointment. The Chinese cinema has been doing these kind of period epics for decades and even the most routine of those is still energetic and fun. Mulan could have used some of both, without diluting or losing what it had to say, but director Caro just doesn’t bring it like her Hong Kong cinema counterparts, and directs this heroic tale with a leaden hand. It takes itself a bit too seriously with very little humor and simply no heart. Where was the sense of adventure? Where were Cri-Kee and Mushu to give it some much needed comic relief between the dramatic moments. The 1998 classic delivered the same messages, but had a good time with it’s story and had much livelier characters. Everyone is so stone-faced here.

There are some great names and faces from the Chinese cinema in the large cast. Legendary Donnie Yen, who was also in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, is present as Commander Tung, a noble and proud Imperial Officer. Yen projects those qualities in abundance, even if he isn’t often included in the action. Equally legendary Jet Li isn’t given all that much to do either as The Emperor, but his presence alone gives the role weight. Gong Li, yet another legendary actress, brings a sexuality and lethality to her witch Xian Lang. She oozes menace and looks good doing it. Jason Scott Lee is a strong villain as warlord Bori Khan, a man on a mission of vengeance. There is also Tzi Ma as Mulan’s proud father Hua Zhou, another actor brining nobility to their role, and veteran actress Rosalind Chao as Mulan’s mother. Of  course, be on the lookout for original Mulan voice actress Ming-Na Wen in a cameo. This leaves us with our leading lady and this is were the film sadly falters. Liu Yifei gives it her all, but is a disappointingly bland and dour Mulan. Where was the girl with a heart full of life and adventure? Where was a touch of humor to give her some spirit and humility? She pretty much wears the same poker-faced expression for the entire movie. She does do well in the action scenes and does project strength, but little warmth. The actress was much closer to the mark as the spirited Golden Sparrow in the fun Forbidden Kingdom, where she also starred opposite the legendary Jet Li.

Mulan is a disappointment when all is said and done. It has some important things to say and a lot of action, but has none of the heart and warmth of the original classic. It takes itself way too seriously and presents a leading lady who needed a bit more of a sense of humor and spirit to make her more endearing. Now it’s easy to see why Disney wasn’t too hesitant to release one of it’s major titles direct to streaming and sadly, one not worth the $30 price tag for rental… IMO, anyway.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 2 and 1/2 (out of 4) swords.

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: LEGEND OF THE FIST-THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN (2010)

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LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN (2010)

Over the last decade, legendary martial arts star Donnie Yen took over the Hong Kong action cinema, with Jackie Chan and Jet Li slowing down their film appearances, and he has certainly become one of their hardest working stars. Yen followed the acclaimed Ip Man series with this 2010 story featuring Chinese martial arts movie hero Chen Zhen, previously embodied by Li in Fist of Legend and before him, by the legendary Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury.

This film adventure of the classic character is directed by Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) from a script by Cheung Chi-shing and Gordon Chan. Chen Zhen is portrayed here as a World War I hero who returns home to find Japan planning to invade mainland China. Zhen becomes a masked freedom fighter, during Japan’s occupation of Shanghai, to thwart their efforts. Of course, there is treachery, femme fatales and legions of enemies in his way. As usual with these films, there is plenty of action, heart stopping stunts and beautiful women, all highlighted by some sumptuous cinematography from director Andrew Lau and Ng Man-ching.

While Legend of the Fist does indeed resemble a mix of Li’s Fist of Legend and his superhero action epic Black Mask, it is also colorful and entertaining enough to let it slide, as we are treated to a martial arts period flick filled with intrigue, action, betrayal and heroism. It’s a film that evokes the Hong Kong glory days of the 90s, one that is hard not to like, despite it’s derivative storyline. Flick also stars Hong Kong cinema beauty Shu Qi as a Japanese spy and legendary Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong as a club owner. A top notch cast. Yen himself choreographed the fight scenes. Familiar but fun.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 (out of 4) swords
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REVIEW: ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

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ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

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Simply put, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. The film does have a few flaws, but the last act is some of the best Star Wars you’ll see and some of the most exciting action in the saga’s illustrious 40 year history. It feels far more like a Star Wars film than J.J. Abrams’ weak and disappointing Force Awakens. Film is a prequel that tells the story of The Rebellion’s discovery that The Empire is building a super weapon that we fans will come to know and love as The Death Star. The film traces the efforts to get to a key scientist, Gaylen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who is reluctantly working on the project and has warned them of it’s creation. They do this by tracking down and freeing his rebellious daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones) from an imperial prison and sending her on a mission with a rag tag group of rebels to find him and discover a weakness in this weapon of mass destruction. Circumstances then lead Jyn and company to go against rebel command orders and infiltrate an imperial outpost and steal the plans for this planet killer, all the while with the Death Star’s project director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in hot pursuit.

Flick is well directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) who brings far more of a Star Wars feel to this than the mediocre Force Awakens, even with it’s darker and edgier tone and new characters. The script by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy creates a story about incidents mentioned briefly in a few of the previous flicks, yet integral to A New Hope’s classic climax ever occurring. The story also gives us the opportunity to revisit some familiar faces, such as Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), an incredible CGI Grand Moff Tarkin (voiced by Stephen Stanton) and Darth Vader himself (James Earl Jones returns to voice while Spencer Wilding wears the suit), aside from creating a group of new and very endearing characters such as Jyn, rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), smart aleck robot K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) and Hong Kong cinema legend Donnie Yen as blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who is like a Shaolin Monk who follows The Force. And it’s these endearing new faces that give Rogue One some nice emotional depth that the series hasn’t had in quite some time. The film also takes us to new places that actually look like alien worlds unlike Force Awakens’ dull settings and the action is fast and furious, especially in the amazing last act. If the film has any flaws, it’s that the first half sometimes appears a bit choppy and rushed as it races to the spectacular second half, but the climax is so exciting that you can forgive a slightly uneven start. And that’s what makes this work so well and where director Edwards really shines, is that he makes the last act so incredibly suspenseful, even though we know it’s outcome, as this is a set-up for the climax of Episode IV after all. But we like this motley band of rebels so much and the action presented so well, that we are on the edge of our seats rooting for them as they go up against incredible odds by entering a hornets nest to retrieve those now legendary Death Star plans. The film has one of the most effecting endings of any Star Wars film and leaves us at a point that will have fans in Force induced elation, while leaving not a dry eye in the theater. The SPFX representing this story are impeccable, in recreating ships and places both familiar and new and Michael Giacchino gives us an original score which still evokes a Star Wars film, even without the magnificent work of maestro John Williams.

Character-wise, the film is filled with endearing new additions to the series canon, with Felicity Jones carrying the film well on her petite shoulders as Jyn. She is a true heroine in the Star Wars mold, strong, rebellious and intelligent and Jones really makes her memorable and proves herself quite an action hero and a certified star. Diego Luna is likable as Captain Cassian Andor, rebel intelligence officer and the man sent to command this desperate mission. He isn’t quite as strong as his leading lady and does get overshadowed by she and some of the supporting cast, such as Donnie Yen, who is a delight as the scene stealing Chirrut Îmwe and his compatriot Baze Malbus, a mercenary played with charisma by Jiang Wang. Mendelsohn also makes a great bad guy and his leering menace makes him a good fit along with Vader and Tarkin, who he holds his own with. A strong villain always makes a flick like this work better and Krennic is a good villain. If any character is underdeveloped and weak it’s Forest Whitaker’s Saw Gerrera, a warrior and friend of Gaylen Erso, who has an air of nobility and mystery, but we never really get to know him very well before the character is left behind in the action. It’s a shame, as he was intriguing and Whitaker was good in a different role for the versatile actor. As for Mikkelsen, his Gaylen Erso has brief screen time, but the actor makes an impression as he always does…and let’s not forget the voice work of the talented Alan Tudyk as smart-ass droid K-2SO.

A few flaws early on in the pacing and flow of the film aside, this is simply one of the best of the Star Wars films. True it’s not technically part of the main series, but it’s a spin-off that carries the best of what this series is so beloved for. It has noble heroes, spectacular action, vile villains and a wonderful sense of nostalgia that The Force Awaken’s just didn’t have. It has a strong Star Wars feel, despite a darken and edgier tone and a last act that is simply some of the best action and suspense this series has yet to offer. It gives us some great new characters, while presenting the return of some classic characters, both expected and not. We are treated to a story that sets a major part of Episode IV in motion and leaves us at a truly euphoric moment in Star Wars history, even after giving us a sequence that will leave nary a dry eye in the house. One of the best films of 2016 and one of the best films of the entire Star Wars series.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 Death Stars.

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ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY GETS AN AWESOME NEW TRAILER!

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Gareth (Godzilla, Monsters) Edwards’ Star Wars adventure gets a new trailer and this flick looks far better than the mediocre Force Awakens. Rogue One arrives on 12/16/16 and stars Felicity Jones, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker and legendary Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen!

Source: Youtube

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IT CAME FROM ASIAN CINEMA: THE GRANDMASTER (2013) and IP MAN (2008)

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THE GRANDMASTER (2013)

I debated as whether to file The Grandmaster under the generic reviews section as I unfortunately saw the edited American 108 minute cut of the film and not the official Chinese version that runs 130 minutes. But it is still an Asian film and no Western footage added, just some removed…and while I am very much against editing foreign films for US release, upon watching this flick I can understand why they did it. Let me explain…

The Grandmaster is Wong Kar-wai’s telling of the story of Ip Man (Tony Leung), Grandmaster of Wing Chun style martial arts and the man who taught the legendary Bruce Lee. I don’t know enough about his story to tell how historically accurate the film is, but it traces his life in Foshan, which was renown for it’s martial arts, through the Japanese occupation in the late 30s to mid 40s and finally to his settling in Hong Kong, where he opened a school of martial arts. And while the movie is sumptuously photographed and has some beautifully choreographed fight scenes, it is also a tedious and self indulgent film even at 108 minutes. First problem is that the narrative, at least in the version I saw, is more like a series of vignettes than a complete film. The film only barely follows a traditional storyline and then an hour in, it jarringly shifts focus from Ip to Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) a female martial artist who once bested Ip in a friendly duel and has feelings for the married martial arts master. It flashes back to her feud and eventual duel with Northern rival Grandmaster Ma San (Zhang Jin) and stays with that till the last minutes where the focus returns to Ip Man in Hong Kong. The jumbled narrative makes it hard to become involved in the story and it doesn’t help that Wong Kar-wai has to present every other shot in slow motion, even during the non-fight scenes. It really slows the pace and just gets tiresome after a while. The same goes for the fights. The cinematography is beautiful and there are some gorgeous shots, but every other shot is either in slow motion…a close up of a shoe or drop of moisture falling…or a slow motion close up. The director’s overindulgence and over-stylizing brings even the martial arts sequences to a snail’s pace and removes any excitement from them. Also, there are a number of what you would consider key moments in Ip’s life that are presented as almost an afterthought, such as the death of Ip’s daughters due to the Japanese occupation and…the Japanese occupation. Again, I can’t tell if this is due to the editing by The Weinsteins or is Wong Kar-wai just not an effective a storyteller as he is at setting up his exquisite shots or filming things in slow motion.

He has a good cast, but for me, their performances were intense but flatlined. They convey the same emotions in each scene and while Leung and Ziyi are good actors, they never display the range they are normally capable of. It’s like the director wanted the characters to wallow in melodrama and thus the film overdoses on it and never does it draw us into their tales. Even when the characters are in a happier moment, they appear intense and sad. It overall makes for a tedious and meandering film despite the scenes of martial arts and Ip’s importance as a historical figure…and even when cut down to 108 minutes. And that’s why I hesitantly say, I don’t approve of The Weinsteins removing a good 20 minutes from the film, but I understand why they did it. The average American audience member reared on MTV and Michael Bay movies would have little patience for over 2 hours of slow pace and slow motion close ups. I understand, but still don’t agree with their cuts.

A beautifully filmed but tedious and over-stylized telling of the tale of a fascinating man’s life. I much prefer the Donnie Yen starrer Ip Man (review below) which is more of an action film that takes a lot of liberties with the story, but is entertaining and somehow conveys Ip Man’s historical importance a lot better and without being depressing and over indulgent.

2 and 1/2 throwing stars… a little slack cut for the beautiful cinematography and since I did not see the complete film.

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IP MAN (2008)

Martial arts movie legend and real life martial arts master Donnie Yen really gets to show why he’s earned that status in this history-based flick and that, after so many years in film, he hasn’t lost a beat. Not only is this a feast for those who enjoy a good old-fashioned martial arts epic, but it is also an involving fact-based drama about real life Wing Chun martial arts Grandmaster Ip Man (Yen) among whose disciples is the legendary Bruce Lee himself. Wilson Yip’s action/drama focuses on the years during the Japanese occupation and mixes the action and drama perfectly as it portrays the efforts of the martial arts master to stand up to the Japanese invaders who are ravaging his land and abusing his people. We are given a strong villain in the Japanese, including their martial arts expert General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), who we know Ip will eventually face one on one, and Ip himself is a strong and valiant hero to root for. The production is lavish and takes us back to another time and place and Wilson Yip does a great job balancing all the elements nicely and evoking good performances from all the cast.

Yen is a likable and noble hero as Ip Man and is still awe inspiring to watch in his action scenes. Ikeuchi makes a strong and powerful villain who can be cruel, but does have an honorable streak. And we even get another Hong Kong cinema favorite Simon Yam as Ip’s best friend.

Sure this flick is more martial arts action-ere than historically accurate drama, but the movie is filled with exciting fight scenes…choreographed by yet another Hong Kong legend Sammo Hung…and is dramatically sound enough for you to become emotionally invested in the characters and the story, whether it is really just a fictional telling of the story of a historical figure or not. A fast-paced action flick based on real-life people and events that does what it sets out to do…entertain…and it does that very well. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer this fun martial arts version to The Grandmaster’s over-indulgent, arthouse telling any day. A really good martial arts flick with Yen at his best!

3 and 1/2 swords

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: BLADE II and BLADE: TRINITY

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 I am a big fan of the Blade film series and even enjoy the much maligned third entry and while each film is directed by a different director and has it’s own style, I do feel the second…my personal favorite…and the third, fit together far better as a double feature. Maybe it’s because the first is the most grounded of the three…if such can be said about a vampire movie which includes a ‘blood god’…and has the most down to earth directorial style. Either way, this is a fun double feature starring Wesley Snipes in one of his most famous roles and a role he fits quite well!

 

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BLADE II (2002)

In my opinion Blade II is the best of the Blade series and is certainly my personal favorite in the comic book-based trilogy. Second adventure of the half human, half vampire hero Blade (Wesley Snipes) finds him hunting down Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) who has been taken and turned by the vampires. Upon finding him and using his serum to effect a cure, Blade is contacted by the vampire hierarchy…and asked for help. It seems a vampire mutation strain has evolved creating vicious creatures called Reapers, who hunt vampires much like they hunt humans. The vampires’ reasoning is that once the vampires are wiped out by the rapidly multiplying Reapers, they will turn on the humans that Blade protects. Why not work together to destroy a common foe? Now the vampire slayer must join forces with his mortal enemies in order to defeat a threat that makes even vampires afraid of the dark…but can he trust his new allies?

As directed by Guillermo del Toro, Blade II has a great visual style, some fierce, gory action, a cool cast of supporting characters, along with a nasty and very effective foe in the Reapers. Where the first Blade was an action film with horror elements, Blade II is a horror film with lots of action…win, win!  Under Del Toro’s guidance, the cast all bring vivid life to their comic book-style characters. Wesley Snipes really takes control of the Blade character at this point, no more evident than in the scene where he first meets ‘The Bloodpack’, a team of vampire commandos who’s sole purpose is to kill him, but now must work with him against the Reapers. “Can you blush?” Luke Goss is fierce and yet noble as the Reaper leader Jared Nomak, a monster with some interesting secrets. Kris Kristofferson is cantankerous, as always, as Blade’s partner, mentor and weapon’s maker, Whistler. Leonor Valera is the beautiful Nyssa, a vampire aristocrat and warrior who steals Blade’s heart, despite being of a species he’s sworn to destroy. And Ron Perlman is effective and entertaining, as usual, as Bloodpack member Reinhard who is not happy with Blade as an ally and would love to take him down first chance he gets.

Blade II is a really fun flick and gives us some great and gory action set pieces, as when Blade and The Bloodpack take on the Reapers in a vampire night club, again in the catacombs underneath the city and finally, the climactic three-way showdown between Blade, Nomak and some double crossing vampires in the vampire stronghold. A really fast paced, delightfully gory and very entertaining action/horror with Blade at his best. Also stars Norman “Daryl Dixon” Reedus as Blade’s new sidekick, Scud and Hong Kong legend, Donnie Yen…who also choreographed the fight action…as Bloodpack member, Snowman. A really good movie and the best of this fun and far too short-lived series.

3 and 1/2 fangs!

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BLADE:TRINITY (2004)

I always felt the third in the Blade series gets a bit of a bum rap. It is the lesser of the three and has it’s shares of problems, but I think, despite it’s flaws, it still has enough of what makes this comic book-based series fun and entertaining. Trinity finds the vampires, led by Danica Talos (Parker Posey), initiating their ‘end game’ which includes outing Blade (Wesley Snipes) and framing him in the public eye as a serial killer and locating and reviving Dracula (Dominic Purcell) himself, the very first and most powerful vampire, to kill Blade. Now not only must Blade battle the usual vampires, but Dracula…who goes by the name of Drake now…and the pursuing FBI agents who want to end his ‘killing spree’.  Blade has killed enough human familiars (vampire slaves) to qualify for their most wanted list. Hope is not lost as a vampire hunting team know as the Nightstalkers come to Blade’s aid and with them, their own ‘end game’, a virus known as Daystar that has the potential to wipe out the vampires for good. Are Blade and The Nightstalkers enough to take down the legendary Dracula and his vampire legions?

One of the problems with Blade:Trinity is that series writer David Goyer took the director’s reigns this time and his inexperience as a director gives the film, an uneven tone, an uneven pace and the editing is a bit choppy…though the longer running director’s cut is ironically a bit smother and a much better movie, in my opinion. The film is also a bit too obvious a set-up for a Nightstalkers spin-off and Blade shares the spotlight or takes a back seat a bit too often for the liking of series fans. There are a lot of good things about this flick too. There is still plenty of action, cool SPFX and gore and their are some very colorful villains like Posey, who is having an over the top good time as Danica Talos, WWE wrestler Triple H’s obnoxious vampire henchman Jarko Grimwood and Dominic Purcell’s soft-spoken warrior take on Dracula. As for the good guys, Snipes is cooler than cool as always and is once again solid as the Daywalker. His final confrontation with Drake/Dracula is a lot of fun and comes off as a superhero version of a final duel from an old Samurai flick. Jessica Biel is red hot as Abigail, Whistler’s daughter and one of the Nightstalkers. She is simply a badass and sexy vampire killer and she and Snipes work very well together and she gives her character some nice depth. Ryan Reynolds is fun as vampire hunter Hannibal King. He gets the best lines, though I will admit his joke cracking gets to be a bit much at times and you can actually believe Blade’s impatience with him. We also get Natasha Lyonne as a blind scientist aiding the Nightstalkers and the creator of the ‘Daystar’ virus. James Remar as an FBI agent determined to get Blade and John Michael Higgins as a vampire familiar…and let’s not forget the feisty and ornery Kris Kristofferson as Whistler.

Overall, I do enjoy this flick despite it’s flaws and I think there is a lot of fun to be had and it is still cool to watch Snipes in action as Blade. Biel and Reynolds do make a good pair and do work well with Snipes even if Reynolds’ King is a bit too much of an obnoxious smart-ass for his own good. There is plenty of action and some interesting ideas here, as well as, an original take on Dracula which is refreshing. Lesser of the series, yes…but not quite deserving of it’s overly negative reputation. If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance, cut it some slack and enjoy what may be Blade’s last cinematic adventure with Snipes as the character.

3 fangs!

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