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George Wolf George Wolf Safe Movie BetsMulan - Photo via IMDb
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Why continue to review VOD and streaming releases when theaters are open? Well, because Hollywood is giving Tenet time to prove this enormous experiment: Is a theatrical release viable? Can theaters handle it? Will people turn out?

While they wait, they’re releasing little else to theaters. If you want something new, you’ll need to look to streaming services. Also, maybe you’re just not ready to return to theaters. We’re cool with that, too! Here are some viewing options.

Mulan

Streaming on Disney+ with $29.99 premium charge.

by Hope Madden

The first tale of Mulan—a story that’s has been told and retold for centuries—dates to an epic poem written more than 1500 years ago in China. Back in 1998, Disney made its first attempt to capitalize on the girl power message of the daughter who hides her identity to take her father’s place in battle.

As part of the company’s live action re-imaginings of those old animated films, Mulan comes back today.

Yifei Liu plays the young warrior in a version that takes its material seriously. Don’t expect a wisecracking little dragon this go-round. With the PG-13 rating and the multiple and violent battle sequences, this one wasn’t made with the youngest fans in mind.

Director Niki Caro is not Asian, which makes her an unusual and potentially inappropriate choice to helm a story so entrenched in Chinese folklore. She hasn’t made as impressive a film as Mulan since her 2002 coming of age tale, Whale Rider, and it is no doubt on that film’s account that the New Zealander got the call from Disney.

She certainly does justice to the message of empowerment, as expected. What you might not expect given her previous films is her virtuosity in filming beautiful, elegant and eye-popping action.

The fight choreography is wonderous, as are the gorgeous vistas. Caro’s Mulan is a spectacle and it’s too bad it won’t be shared across big screens.

There’s a simplicity to the storyline that allows Caro and her cast to create wonder with the visuals, and Liu’s earnest portrayal suits that aim. The screenplay remains true to the folktale’s message in spots where ’98 animated version betrayed its more conventional view of female power.

There are no songs and dances here, but there is magic nonetheless.

Grade: B+

The Shadow of Violence

VOD and streaming.

by George Wolf

Just how Irish is The Shadow of Violence?

Well, it’s got enough of its Irish up that hearing “Whiskey in the Jar” play on a barroom jukebox feels like being part of an inside joke. And that’s about the only funny business in a film that fuses multiple inspirations into one searingly intimate rumination on a life defined by violence.

Douglas “Arm” Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) was once a promising Irish boxing champion, but left the gloves behind for the reliable income and familiar treatment offered by the Devers crime family. As their chief enforcer, Arm is feared, which often hampers his relationship with his ex Ursula (Naimh Algar) and their autistic son Jack.

The delicate co-existence of Arm’s two worlds is a constant struggle, but when family patriarch Paudi Devers (Ned Dennehy) finally orders Arm to kill, it becomes clear there is room for only one set of loyalties.

Director Nick Rowland and screenwriter Joseph Murtagh adapt Colin Barrett’s short story “Calm With Horses” with a tightly-wound sense of tension and brutality that propels a fascinating curiosity about the lasting effects of violence on the ones dishing it out.

While recalling films from the classic (On the Watefront) to the underseen (The Drop), Rowland’s feature debut carves out its own rural identity thanks to an instinct for detail (watching two Irish gangsters debate the wisdom of fleeing to Mexico is perfection) and a marvelous cast.

Jarvis makes Arm an endlessly sympathetic brute, providing a needed depth to Arm’s slow awakening about who is and isn’t worth his trust. Much of that trust is given to Paudi’s heir apparent Dympna, an unrepentant manipulator brought to menacing life by Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Dunkirk), who again shows why you don’t want to miss any film with him in it.

But it’s Arm’s time with Ursula and Jack (Kiljan Moroney) that reminds him of the kind of man he wants to be, one that knows the difference “between loyalty and servitude.”

These moral complexities of a man questioning his sense of the world are what gives The Shadow of Violence its voice, one that speaks most eloquently in the spaces between the bloodshed.

Grade: A-

Measure for Measure

VOD and streaming.

by Cat McAlpine

In this modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by the same name, Measure for Measure follows a large cast of characters all tied to the same horrific event. A man high on meth goes on a racially charged shooting spree in a housing commission tower. Angelo sold him the drugs. Farouk might have sold him the gun. Claudio and Jaiwara were simply lucky enough to survive. What really connects the tenants of the dreary flats is not a single act violence, but the fact that their lives are rife with it.

Director Paul Ireland uses trauma as connective tissue, highlighting the theme with repeated showings of August Friedrich Schenck’s “Anguish.” The painting shows a ewe crying out over the body of her dead lamb, encircled by waiting crows. It is trauma, and vulnerability, like this that pushes characters together and rips them apart, with carrion birds waiting to swoop in.

The script, penned by Ireland and Damian Hill (to whom the film is dedicated), is strongest when it strays from Shakespeare. The addition of an immigrant family to the story adds dimension to the types of trauma we face and how it shapes the next generation. The love story of Ireland and Hill’s Measure for Measure is much more straightforward than Shakespeare’s. If anything, the film would’ve improved from even further deviation.

What truly carries the production are its strong performances. Hugo Weaving is great as Duke, endlessly watchable. His manic foil Angelo (Mark Leonard Winter) is also fantastic, even when the script doesn’t support him. Farouk (Fayssal Bazzi) starts as a stereotypical baddie, but Bazzi finds complicated depth in him later on. Harrison Gilbertson and Megan Smart build great chemistry together as Claudio and Jaiwara, despite a bit of a montaged love story at the start.

Measure for Measure is a worthy effort to take the endlessly classic nature of Shakespeare and frame it in a modern retelling with new resonance. Its focus on loss, vengeance, and love are undeniably relatable, while still telling a fresh story in an old frame.

Grade: B+

Robin’s Wish

VOD and streaming.

by George Wolf

Even as we’re still reeling from the shocking death of Chadwick Boseman this past weekend, Robin’s Wish takes us back to August of 2014, when Robin Williams’ suicide sent similar shockwaves.

In the years since, Robin’s death has often appeared as a testament to the danger of chronic depression. But with this film, director/co-writer Tylor Norwood’s main goal is allowing Robin’s widow to correct the record.

Depression may have touched Robin’s life, but that’s not what ended it.

Susan Schneider Williams explains that an autopsy revealed that Robin suffered from diffuse Lewy body dementia, a buildup of proteins in the brain. Always fatal, the degenerative disease can cause anxiety, self-doubt, delusions, an intense lack of sleep, and drastic paranoia.

As sad as the ending is, Norwood and Schneider Williams make sure we see the genius of Robin’s talent and the “bigness of love” in his soul. The joy he took in bringing smiles to others is touching, as is the Robin and Susan love story that began when one of them (guess) wore camouflage pants to the Apple store.

The film’s overview of Williams’ career is satisfactory but, for the most part, a rehashing of information. The really glaring hole here is the absence of any Williams family member beyond Susan. The reason for this is unclear, but outside voices would certainly have broadened the context.

But Robin’s Wish is indeed worthwhile for a more complete understanding of a legend. The final days of Williams’ life are re-defined with tenderness, clarity and purpose, framing a once-in-a-lifetime talent in an entirely new and tragic light.

Grade: B-

#Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump

VOD and streaming.

by Seth Troyer

Comparing America and much of the world’s shift toward fascist totalitarian ideals to the rise of dictators in the 1930s may at first seem over the top. Indeed, much of Dan Partland’s new documentary #Unfit may seem heavy handed – until you remember where we are as a nation.

We elected a textbook narcissist whose strategy for gaining followers centers around a self-obsessed “me first” ethos. He vows to bring back the “the good old days” and encourages an inherently nationalistic philosophy. Enter Donald Trump.

Really, it’s hardly shocking when this film reveals that a guy like Trump had affection for the rousing public speaking stylings of Adolf Hitler. Trump has not changed since his billionaire playboy days, his goal is still clear: “win” by any means necessary. Sadly enough, if that’s your only real goal, taking pointers from charismatic fascists continues to be a useful strategy.

Naturally, #Unfit is not saying Trump is Hitler, but that his fits of totalitarian megalomania have the potential to be similarly dangerous.

Until it really sinks in, it may also seem like a cheap shot for this film to compare Trump and his followers’ behavior to that of apes in the wild.

Trump’s mission to be the biggest and the best by any means necessary is as old as animal life on this planet. A leader who pounds his chest the loudest, who rallies followers around self-serving goals and shared hatred for outsiders, unfortunately remains a rather attractive choice in the eyes of many American voters.

Scenes of white nationalist pride and news footage of men screaming “go cook my burrito” to Mexican folks at Trump rallies are juxtaposed with scenes depicting animal “us vs them” mentality. The irony here is, of course, that the conservatives, who make up the bulk of Trump’s following, who often seem to have the most reservations around ideas of evolution and the link between humanity with the animal kingdom, seem to be themselves clearly emulating primal group dynamics.

Partland’s film is not always eloquent, and at times it stumbles into obvious biases toward the Democratic party. Flashes of former President Obama are shown as folks talk of “better times.” This documentary really shines when it keeps its eye on the bottom line, that Trump is not simply a threat to left wing politics but to American democracy as a whole.

Grade: B+

A Step Without Feet

VOD and streaming.

by Hope Madden

“People want to know about the road, if it was hard getting here. That’s not the question.”

A Step Without Feet, the first documentary from Jeremy Glaholt and Lydia Schamschula, spends 90 minutes in snowy Berlin with a handful of refugees from the Syrian war. The filmmakers’ first question: What do you think of the word “refugee”?

They don’t see the word the same way you do.

It’s actually a fascinating way to get into a story that looks sideways at a topic so often portrayed in documentaries. The bloody, lengthy, horrific war in Syria has launched more documentaries than I can count, many of them brilliant, most of them brutal.

Glaholt and Schamschula pull us out of all that brutality, mercifully, and drop us into the newly created lives of those who’ve escaped it: a dancer and a dentist, a musician and a cook, a writer and a student. Their resilience, nostalgia, trauma and optimism are on screen in a film that recognizes salvation—however profound—as just another transition in life.

Though life in Germany has been seemingly peaceful for the group and each has many happy moments to discuss, the anxieties of the past and the longing for what is lost give their peaceful existence a bittersweet flavor.

Many bridge the past and the present, their old home and new, with art. One writes, one dances, one sings, each of them tapping into something that gives creative outlet to their fear and yearning.

The film’s biggest drawback is its lack of context. We’re 15 minutes or more into the film before anyone utters the word Syria. The reasons each one left is never clearly articulated. While those familiar with the conflict would certainly have a sense, the reasons that these individuals needed to flee while their parents or siblings were OK to stay is never addressed.

With the clear and mostly fulfilled goal of casting these human beings in the present tense, the filmmakers likely made the conscious decision not to dig too deeply in this painful terrain. Still, the magnitude of the subjects’ sorrow, longing and trauma is tied to that specific conflict. To do their present justice we need more of their past.

The film—almost exclusively talking head footage of interviews with the seven refugees—remains strangely captivating throughout. Because of the music, the dance, the poetry and the candor, a deeply human and powerfully universal story emerges.

Grade: B+

Read more from George and Hope at MADDWOLF and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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