Mulan (2020): Atrocious

Disney kowtows to China with Mulan (2020) and still manages to spectacularly fail.

Remaking a classic, beloved cartoon into a live-action is no easy task.  And I have a lot of empathy for the multibillion dollar conglomerate empire that attempts the feat.  I really do.  But it is rare and truly striking to me that one could mess up this badly.  Disney’s new Mulan (2020) live-action doesn’t quite reach “Crimes-Against-Humanity” badness.  No one’s going to quite get dragged to the Hague for this one.  But Niki Caro and the (non-Chinese) writing staff of this latest Disney+ dumpster fire certainly gave it the old college try.

Bagel and I watched the movie this past Tuesday and since then I’ve been sitting with my thoughts, trying to organize some kind of coherent review on what happened.  I think, in summary, Mulan (2020) is the single most anti-feminist and female-anti-empowerment story I’ve seen in the past decade.  It’s genuinely very impressively backwards and I couldn’t believe that so many major American outlets had reviewed Mulan (2020) so positively.  (The movie currently sits at a solid 75% by professional critics on RT!)

As many people have noted elsewhere, but I’ll repeat again briefly here:  In the cartoon, Mulan was just an ordinary girl.  She joins the army under the guise of a man, and through hard work and intense training, manages to solve problems to save the day in very human ways.  In this 2020 live-action version, Mulan inexplicably has superhero powers because she’s been endowed with some kinda mystical “Qi” energy/ability/talent from birth.  Additionally, Mulan suddenly now has a younger sister who’s only teleological purpose, as far as I could discern, was to just get married because that’s apparently what all women in China who don’t have superpowers are allowed and expected to do.  Bagel, I should mention, also hated the movie and sent me this video essay that really excellently deconstructs all the ways Mulan (2020) is terrible.

Other headscratchers and disappointments:  That whole Gong Li subplot, the criminal omission of Mushu (Dumbledore’s Fawkes phoenix and Gong Li’s witch-creature-thing makes the cut but not a magical talking mini-dragon? C’mon!), and the super-criminal omission of everyone’s favorite “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” song.

If I had to sum up all of my opinions about Mulan (2020) into a single thought, it’d be this:  Disney turned Mulan into a Marvel superhero story and created a female-anti-empowerment masterpiece in an attempt to crack the Chinese box office, but totally failed.


The Cinemax series, Strike Back, is one of my favorite guilty pleasures.  Breathtakingly beautiful women, profanity, excessive violence, over-the-top action, nonstop-mile-a-minute-pacing, and a throwback to “old-school” tropes and testosterone-filled storytelling.  As Aaron Sorkin would write, “‘Tis was a time when men were men.  No 21st century, “female-empowerment/lean-in” narratives here!  Nor any “celebration of minority cultures or diversity messaging.”  Oh no.  In Strike Back world, the Americans are unequivocally good, the villains are basically all non-Americans, and the women are universally gorgeous and, uh, portray roles customary in Cinemax productions.  It’s all very glorious.

Anyway, the reason I bring up Strike Back here is because Sullivan Stapleton’s character, Damien Scott, is an elite ex-Delta Force operative whose main role, as far as I can discern after watching all five magnificent seasons, is to essentially be the “reluctant moral conscience” and then utter the word, “f**k!” every time he and Stonebridge (The crown jewel of Montana!  Belgrade’s very own Philip Winchester!) need to “do the right thing” in the face of overwhelming danger and certain death, compelled solely by some platonic sense of duty and responsibility.  For example, they’ll be on the verge of escaping the terrorist hideout but then need to shoot their way back in, guns blazing, in order to save the last hostage.  Or they’ll be in the free and clear of the nuclear bomb threat, only needing to return to rescue the ambassador’s daughter.  Or… you get the idea.

Basically, the gist:  The are times in our lives when we can clearly see the path forward, the one that leads to safety and comfort, out of the woods.   But for whatever reason, we always go back.  Because in your heart of hearts, you already know– it’s the right thing.

Careers in Twilight: Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

Earlier this afternoon, I saw Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.  It was nearly three hours long but actually pretty good.  My primary takeaway from the film was that it impressively and laudably portrayed the story of two men who find themselves in the twilight of their careers, knowing that “all my best years are behind me.”  To me, this was easily the most affecting part of the story.

Generally, when we are young, we read many books and watch numerous Disney movies that are always hopeful and optimistic.  We’re taught at any early age to always simply have faith that our best days are ahead of us.  And that’s why we should never give up and always continue striving endlessly to constantly improve, to be better.  That if we just try hard enough, our dreams are within reach and achievable.

But for most of us, especially as we hit our mid-thirties and forties, there is another reckoning that is seldom told in books or movies:  The idea that the vast majority of us will never live up to our childhood dreams.  Most of us will never end up becoming astronauts or movie stars or hall of fame athletes.  It just doesn’t happen.  And so that’s why I really appreciated OUaTiH— it shines because it portrays this tale of failure and disappointment, and grappling with that reality. 

In the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play characters far past their prime who are now simply spiraling towards an unenviable, ignominious end.  There is something incredibly profound about acknowledging, “Tomorrow will never be quite as bright as today.  And today is already a little dimmer than yesterday.”  The way DiCaprio comes to grip with this sobering reality is phenomenal to watch.  He was once a big shot, the leading man of his own TV shows in the 50s and 60s, only to slowly piss it all away and watch everything gradually slip away from him… that’s good filmmaking.  Also, Pitt is a marvel too– someone who long ago tethered his cart to DiCaprio.  And so as DiCaprio’s fortune wanes, Pitt’s career too declines following a similar trajectory, an agonizingly slow death over many years which he is likewise powerless to stop or even retard.  This narrative theme of futility, resignation, and acceptance was by far my favorite part of the film.  To be honest, I knew nearly nothing about the Charles Manson murders so that entire part of the storytelling was pretty lost on me.

Thoughts on Robin Hood (2018)

Last night I watched the 2018 rendition of Robin Hood starring Kingsman’s Taron Egerton; Academy Award Best Actor, Jamie Foxx; and Villain-in-all-Movies, Ben Mendelsohn.  Before going any further, let’s establish first though: This movie is positively phenomenal.  IMHO, the critics are all wrong.

David Ehrlich, you’re wrong!

I totally understand why this movie fared poorly at the box office (an anemic $14m haul over its opening Thanksgiving weekend on a film budget of +$100m).  But I still feel sad that Robin Hood only managed a 15% | 41% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Is there no justice in this world?

*** Warning:  SPOILERS! ***

Robin Hood is an updated and modernized version of the old fairy tale.  The opening features a set piece with the dashing Robin of Loxley with this military commando group somewhere in Arabia on some black ops mission.  The special effects are absolutely spectacular.  There’s tons of automated crossbows, a crossbow bazooka, and close-quarters Kung-Fu action.  This is what I live for!  This is a movie!  From this opening scene forward, I knew I was in for a treat.  Debut-director Otto Bathurst heavily borrows from both Call of Duty and Saving Private Ryan with terrific results.  There’s a Moor (that’s who the English are fighting; this is supposedly during the Crusades?) with a heavy-duty, crossbow Gatling rifle dispensing death from a bell tower.  There are tons of slow-motion shots with stone mortar exploding as Robin valiantly runs, dodging hundreds –no, thousands— of arrows shot from every direction imaginable.

It’s not just the incredible special effects though; the story is excellent too.  I’m a huge fan of the storytelling trope where the hero (here, Taron Egerton) needs to don a secret identity that he keeps hidden from his love interest– in this case, the gorgeous Marian (strongly portrayed by Eve Hewson in a star turn).  Jamie Foxx (Little John) whispers the classic line:  “If you love her, let her go.  Letting her know just puts her in danger.”

Man, I could watch this stuff all day.

And then when Marian does finally discover Robin Hood’s true identity, what a cathartic moment!  All of that feeling.  The sudden realization that the man who she’d longed for and pined over for so long wasn’t deliberately treating her coldly out of spite, but was actually the secret hero she’d admired all this time and that he’d never stopped loving herit just doesn’t get any better than that.

Additionally, no classic is complete without a completely despicable villain.  And here, Mendelsohn delivers in spades.  Hot off his villainy streak in Ready Player One and Rogue One, Mendelsohn plays Robin Hood’s nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham.  The storyline features a truly ludicrous plot where the good Sheriff is in cahoots with the Arch Cardinal of Rome to ally themselves with the Moors to overthrow the King of England.  At least I think that was the plot?  Anyway, no matter– it was all stupendously glorious.

In closing, I think what I enjoyed most about this 2018 version of Robin Hood was simply just how old fashioned it was.  I know nowadays it’s become en vogue to feature more progressive storylines.  Empowered female charactersPlots that subvert expectations.  Etc.  And that’s all fine– I think it’s great that Hollywood is getting more diverse and representative.  But every once in a while, I think there’s an appetite for classic material too.  And that’s where, for me at least, Robin Hood really shines.  Long live the Hood!

Spider-Man: Far From Home – The Importance of Callbacks & Continuity

Yesterday, I visited the theater alone to watch Spiderman: Far From Home.  It was pretty good!  I don’t watch movies much anymore– the last one I saw in theaters was John Wick 3 with my sister who’d happened to be in town visiting for the weekend.  So it was nice to go out on a discount Tuesday to see a movie on the cheap.  With Bagel still abroad, life around here has gotten pretty isolated and lonely.  I don’t really have many friends here and so I pour my time mostly into day-trading, writing, and doctor visits nowadays.  It’s not the life I’d choose but it’s the life I lead.  It is what it is.  In the grand scheme, despite my current challenges, I recognize I’m already luckier and more privileged than something like 80% (at minimum) of the global population which lives on less than $2 USD a day.  So I’m grateful and brook no complaints.  We do the most with what we’ve got and just try our best.

*** Warning:  SPOILERS! ***

My favorite moment in the film is a scene after Happy (Jon Favreau) has picked up Peter Park in his Stark Industries jet.  Peter has just gotten beaten senseless and nearly killed by Mysterio, only escaping by the skin of his teeth after being hit full frontal by a highspeed train bound for the Netherlands.  In the jet, Happy lets Peter access Tony Stark’s super-futuristic in-jet lab where Peter designs a new Spidey suit using Stark’s nifty holographic 3D interface.  There’s a small moment, with no dialogue, of Happy watching Peter expertly manipulating the holographic controls, clearly reminding viewers of how much Peter and Tony Stark are alike.  Both are geniuses with hi-tech gadgets; both have chosen to suit up to fight villains; both have chosen lives of self-sacrifice in order to serve the greater good; etc.  IMHO, these are the strongest moments of any of the MCU films.  At this point, it’s been 11 years and 23 MCU movies.  Sure, there are plenty of impressive set pieces with millions of dollars of CGI and stunt action.  But for me, while the eye candy is nice, it’s the small human drama moments –especially those that leverage continuity and callback– that really make the MCU shine.  Remembering that amidst all of the spectacle, that these are nonetheless human beings with human stories that we’re watching on screen is paramount to making this whole enterprise work.

Additionally, I read these thoughtful Verge and GameSpot pieces today which also got me to thinking:  The worldbuilding consistency of the MCU has really taken a backseat to the individual storytelling within each self-contained movie.  And this is probably a good thing.  Honestly, I never considered this aspect much previously.  But I think both Noah Berlatsky and Meg Downey make excellent points in their respective write-ups.

My Love Letter to Billions

No matter how busy I get, I am going to try to do some semi-long form writing every week. Writing is one of the ways I organize my thoughts and keep myself sane. The writer, Chuck Klosterman, once said this of himself on a podcast and I’ve remembered it ever since because I’m the same way:

“I often don’t know how I feel about something until I write about it.”

While I generally write for myself, occasionally I do enjoy putting my writing “out there” to see what kind of response it solicits from the world wide unknown. It’s fun! It’s also a good barometer to see how in-sync I am with the general masses writ large. I formerly posted to FB but have found engagement on that platform to be quite low. So recently I’ve taken to Reddit where I’ve found, probably due to the anonymous nature of that site, the engagement to be much higher. Surprisingly, the comments are generally more insightful, helpful, and civil.

So here’s my writing for this week where I wrote about my undying affection for the TV show, Billions, which airs on Showtime. As a fun aside: This show launched in Jan 2016 and was the inspiration for first piquing my interest in day trading! That’s when this whole adventure began!

Continue reading “My Love Letter to Billions”