Mulan – Disney+
This live-action remake of the animated classic from 1998 follows the same formula of “reinvention” as the other live-action remakes (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Cinderella, etc.). This includes making a poorer version of (or cutting out entirely) the musical numbers, a half-hearted attempt at retconning the things that were critiqued in the original while getting a whole host of new problems, making the female protagonists more “empowered” with a new Girl Boss paint job, and just overall becoming a duller film.
This new Mulan isn’t a complete waste of time, though. The movie infuses some classic wuxia/ fantasy martial arts styling here that not only pays tribute to Chinese cinema, but makes this Mulan retelling feel more like a myth, which gets back at the story’s roots as folklore. The sets and costumes are beautiful. Mulan is given a sister who, while extremely underdeveloped, chooses a more traditionally feminine route and isn’t shamed for it, driving home the message that just because Mulan bucked traditional roles doesn’t mean she or her path is better, it just means feminism is about widening women’s choices.
This live-action remake simply just does not use its new format to be the cool war movie we wanted (although Mulan herself does have a surprisingly high body count), and it’s hard to overcome that disappointment and not compare it to the original. But I do have to say this: I watched this with one of my best friends, who is Chinese-American (was born and raised in China until she immigrated to the US). While she had some problems with the depiction of China, she spoke to me at length about how good it made her feel to see a girl like her on-screen, in her home country, with such a powerful story. That’s not something I take lightly. Representation matters, even if there are some missteps or missed opportunities while striving for it.
Boys State – Apple TV+
This documentary follows the 2019 Texas Boys State, an annual convention where boys (there’s a separate Girls State) from across the state are chosen to participate in an educational week where they form political parties and hold elections to learn about democracy.
Personally, this is one of the most stressful environments I could ever imagine being in, and the documentary is at its best when it is able to catch a glimpse of the true wariness and vulnerability of the subjects. Sometimes the self-awareness of the documentary is a little too noticeable, like you can tell when the filmmakers are thinking, “This is going to draw a parallel to the 2016 election! We’re telling an important story here that reveals the declining state of American politics!” But, despite the self-awareness sometimes getting in the way, it’s true- there are parallels to both the 2016 election but also to all sorts of political discourses we continue to have about tribalism, slander, fake news, the values of a trained politician vs. a non-politician “draining the swamp,” and the intersections of race, class, and gender.
So like the discourse around those topics, the film can feel just as tiring, emotional, cyclical, and repetitive, and, at least to me, discouraging. Yet it’s insightful, and there are kids to root for, and entertaining, so I certainly recommend watching it. But, Boys State also reminds you that nothing is new under the sun, and politics and policies are not the ultimate avenue for change we should put our hopes in.
The Devil All The Time – Netflix
The Devil All the Time, based on the book of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock (who narrates the film), has the midwest gothic aesthetic down to a T. Haunting landscape? Check. Evil religion and charismatic, wicked preachers? Check. Flat, midwest landscapes that grow more sinister as the sun goes down? Tortured women cast in a soft glow? Check and check.
Atmosphere and aesthetics can only go so far, though, and unfortunately The Devil All The Time doesn’t have anything deeper to offer. Everyone in the all-star cast is game, but there is only so much that nice cinematography, shocking plot twists, and star power can give a movie. It can’t sustain it. The whole film ends up feeling bloated, repetitive, and less serious and important than it thinks it is. I agree with Justin Chang for NPR when he writes, “I also found the movie ultimately repetitive in its grisliness, and simplistic in some of the ways that it accuses religion of being.” Now I am fascinated by movies about religion and the way it can be corrupted, and complicated ministers. But, The Devil All The Time’s depiction of small-town faith is so repetitive and cartoonish that it never tries to dig below the surface as to why religion can breed such vileness and destructive patterns. The movie is similarly uninterested in digging deeper into the depictions of generational trauma and violence. We get it- evil is mundane. But why? The Devil shrugs.
Enola Holmes – Netflix
Enola Holmes is mostly a star vehicle for Millie Bobby Brown (who also produces here), and it works- she’s truly a movie star. Charismatic, expressive, and immensely talented, she carries the movie effortlessly. She has some nice help from Louis Partridge, and some star power backup from the most uncharitable and unlikeable portrayals of Sherlock (a dull Henry Cavill) and Mycroft Holmes (Sam Claflin) I’ve ever seen- and I’ve watched Sherlock! So like Enola Holmes herself, Brown is mostly on her own as she goes from one unexpectedly brutal action scene to the next, offering a promising career in action for Brown if she wants to go down the Milla Jovovich or Charlize Theron route.
Enola Holmes reminded me, more than anything else, of an American Girl Doll movie. Remember those movies, with the likes of Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (a formative influence on me)? Unlike those movies, with sweet early-2000s optimism, this 2020 Enola Holmes has a little more bite, with rough action, some political commentary (don’t interrogate that too much), and a historical narrative jazzed up with modern features. But, while the film feels episodic (like a future Netflix streaming series???) it’s still charming and doesn’t feel like a television movie, but like big-screen fare, which we’re all a little desperate for.