By Lynn Venhaus
A sweeping, sprawling epic adventure brimming with elegance and emotion, “Mulan” triumphs as one of Disney’s best makeovers.

The vibrant live action remake features gorgeous panoramic views, stunning symmetry, a bold palette and strong, colorful characters to advance the action.

The epic tale of China’s legendary warrior is brought to life in this live action re-imagining of the 1998 animated film. A fearless young woman, Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) risks everything out of love for her family and country when the Emperor of China (Jet Li) issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from northern invaders. As the eldest daughter of an honored warrior, Mulan steps in to take the place of her ailing father, and masquerades as a man. When she harnesses her inner strength and reveals her true potential, she becomes an honored warrior and saves the dynasty.

Yifei Liu

A star is born in Yifei Liu, who commands the screen in much the same way as Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman in recent DC movies, You can’t take your eyes off of Liu, who depicts how brave and strong Mulan is. She also did 90 percent of the stunts, and showcases remarkable martial arts skills.

Much of the original has been scrapped to start over with a culturally appropriate story that involves more realism in characters – and a cast of Asian actors. Gone is Mushu, the dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, and others that aren’t necessary here.

This 2020 version is not a musical like the 1998 animated film was. However, the musical’s original song “Reflection” is used over the credits here, first sung by Christina Aguilera in English and then sung by lead Yifei Liu in Mandarin.

Suggested by the poem, “The Legend of Mulan,” this bracing spectacle is laser-focused on the talented warrior who happens to be a girl, born at a time when only men were in combat. Tomboy Mulan is expected to get married to bring honor to her family, but instead Hua Mulan takes the place of her ailing father in the Imperial Army who must fend off the Rourans’ attempts to take over. She must disguise herself but her martial arts abilities are too strong to hide, and eventually, she shows what a powerful and swift fighting machine she is. In other words, she has great ‘chi’ energy.

Nevertheless, she is conflicted about her lie, as honesty is part of the warrior’s code. She wrestles with the consequences of her actions, but truth wins out.

The screenplay is by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who are married and responsible for the three rebooted “Planet of the Apes” films as well as “Jurassic World,” along with Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin. They cut to the chase, conveying culture and conflict specific to the story.

The ensemble is strong, with good work by Tzi Ma as Mulan’s father Hua Zhou, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, Yosan An as Mulan’s soldier friend Honghui, Jet Li as the emperor, Jason Scott Lee as Bori Khan and Gong Li as the witch Xianglang.

Director Niki Caro, who helmed “Whale Rider” in her native New Zealand, and in recent years “The Zookeeper’s Wife” and “McFarland, USA,” captures the grandeur and excels at the battle scenes, but maintains an intimacy that makes us care about Mulan’s plight.

The cinematography by Mandy Walker is stunning – and hopefully we can see this on the big screen someday.

While the intense action has merited the first PG-13 for a Disney live-action remake, older children can appreciate the devotion to family theme as well as not accepting limits to what you can do in life. Its focus on empowerment and inclusion is also timely and important.

“Mulan” is an action-adventure directed by Niki Caro and starring Yifei Liu, Jason Scott Lee, Tzi Ma, Donnie Yen, Yosan An, Jet Li, Gong Li. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, the run time is: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: A-. Disney Plus is releasing it Sept. 4 for a fee of $29.99. In December, subscribers to the streaming channel will not be charged an additional fee.

By Lynn Venhaus

The movie “Hamilton” meets the moment! Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s game-changer remains a vibrant experience five years after opening on Broadway. Its brilliance shines brightest with the original cast, and its synergy is a thing of beauty.

The cultural phenomenon “Hamilton,” the most nominated musical ever on Broadway and winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, had two performances recorded on June 25-26, 2016, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City. This is after the musical won 11 Tony Awards, one shy of the record, and while the original cast was still intact. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, is the central figure in this retelling of history and political scheming. It also includes Hamilton’s family and romantic drama, based on Ron Chernow’s biography.

Miranda’s masterpiece is a hopeful reflection on the ‘unfinished symphony’ that is America – he presents a history lesson, inside view on the messy political process and an amalgam of modern and Broadway styles of music in a grand and glorious way.

Miranda, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, also stars in the title role. He cast black, Latino and Asian-Americans as the characters – “it is about America then as told by America now.” This ensemble is the gold standard – particularly Tony Award winners Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr, who resents the ambitious Hamilton’s easy climb; Daveed Diggs as loyal Lafayette in the first act and cocky Thomas Jefferson in the second; and Renee Elise Goldsberry as fiery Angelica Schuyler, whose sweet sister Eliza marries Hamilton; plus nominees Christopher Jackson as an imposing George Washington, Phillipa Soo as the kind-hearted wife Eliza and Jonathan Groff, who makes the most of his nine minutes as the snooty and catty King George.

Hamilton’s a fascinating human, and his journey keeps us riveted through his personal evolution and the birth of our nation. His rivalry with Burr adds a complexity – their flaws, fears, desires and regrets fuel the story. Odom has some of the show’s best songs – “Wait for It,” and “Non-Stop,” and his introduction “Talk Less” is memorable.

Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, R&B, pop and traditional Broadway show tunes, “Hamilton” is a revolutionary moment in theatre, and you won’t be able to get those songs out of your head: “My Shot,” The Story of Tonight,” “The Room Where It Happened,” “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Our Story,” “History Has Its Eyes on You” and “The World Turned Upside Down.” The Cabinet Battles are comical and thought-provoking at the same time.

The Schuyler Sisters have a sensational introduction – and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones), and the songs “Helpless,” “Satisfied,” “Burn” have real depth from a female point of view. “It’s Quiet Uptown” will tug on your heartstrings.

Already, the staged musical has had profound impact on culture, politics and education, and you will see why, as Hamilton the movie transports the audience inside the Broadway show in an intimate way. (I spontaneously broke into applause a few times).

As for the ‘film’ part, we might not be in the room where it happened (Richard Rodgers Theatre) but what it lacks in the palpable energy only live theater produces, it trades for the emotions you connect with in the close-ups.

Declan Quinn’s cinematography and Jonah Moran’s editing gives us a crisp perspective. And the skill of that team — Thomas Kail’s seamless direction, Alex Lacamoire’s exquisite orchestrations and conducting, Andy Blankenbuehler’s fluid and innovative choreography and Manuel’s smart and clever words and music — are a swirling mix of craft, art and talent.

With use of steady-cam, crane and dolly, the multiple cameras create a view you would not have seen – even if you been fortunate enough in the first couple of rows. We also benefit from it being performed before a live audience – their reactions give ours some vitality. Lafayette’s line: “Immigrants – we get the job done!” produces the loudest applause.

I saw the musical once two years ago, on its first national tour at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, and even with its cavernous 4500 seats, was gobsmacked. It was among the best theatrical experience ever – and lived up to the hype.

This view has new opportunities for discovery, to marvel at Manuel’s attention to detail and his nimble storytelling. The recurring themes and repetitive nature of the score add texture to the rhythms and harmonies, and the cast’s enunciation and verbal dexterity is remarkable.

In 2009, Miranda was invited to the White House to share what he was working on during a night of poetry-inspired entertainment. President Barack and Michelle Obama were a little taken aback by his concept – a hip-hop concert album about the founding father who is on the $10 bill. OK. Well, the rest, as they say, is history.

And Manuel has made history. An Emmy, Tony and Grammy Award winner, among his theatrical accomplishments — he wrote and starred in the Tony-winning 2008 musical “In the Heights,” was co-composer and lyricist with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green for “Bring It On!” in 2011 (produced by Mike Isaacson-led Fox Theatricals) and at Stephen Sondheim’s request, wrote Spanish dialogue and lyrics for the 2009 Broadway revival of “West Side Story.”

“Hamilton; An American Musical” opened at the Public Theatre on Jan. 20, 2015 and moved to Broadway that August. Because of the demand for tickets, he created the “Ham4Ham” lottery ($10 tickets for first couple of rows), but those who couldn’t get to Broadway or afford the sky-high ticket prices, can see the next best thing. The unforgettable theatrical experience has been made accessible for an even wider audience to appreciate.

The lighting design, by Howell Binkley (Tonys for both “Hamilton” and “Jersey Boys”), is effective on screen. Paul Tazewell’s costumes and David Korins’ deceptively simple brick-lined set designs of scaffolds, catwalks and staircases add to the show’s signature style and cohesiveness.

The film was slated for an October 2021 theatrical release, but the decision was made to stream through Disney Plus ($6.99 a month subscription or $69 for the year).

What a wonderful way to celebrate the birth of our nation and see its impact today, after a grave period of uncertainty, unprecedented pandemic and level civil unrest not seen in 50 years. It feels more urgent as a call to action, to keep this great American experiment a righteous one.

The care and skill that went into this production is obvious. “Hamilton” deserves a standing ovation in every living room across this great country of ours. The musical makes America more beautiful this Independence Day weekend.

“Hamilton” is a filmed musical directed by Thomas Kail, starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Daveed Diggs, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Phillipa Soo, Christopher Jackson and Jonathan Groff. Rated: PG-13 for language and some suggestive material, it runs 2 hours 40 minutes with 1-minute intermission. Lynn’s Grade: A Streaming on Disney Plus beginning July 3.

By Lynn Venhaus
In the first of eight books in Eoin Colfer’s successful fantasy series, 12-year-old genius Artemis Fowl wants to restore his family’s fortune, so he holds Holly Short (Lara McDonnell), a fairy and captain of the Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance force (LEPRecon), for ransom to exploit the magical Fairy People. In the second book, he allies with the Fairy People to rescue his father. from the Russian Mafia.

Are you with me? At first, he’s a villain and enemy, but as the series continued, he developed and changed into an anti-hero.

The movie, in adapting the first two novels, has substantially changed the story, but if you haven’t read them, you wouldn’t know. However, you can tell that it is a disjointed, disappointing adaptation that will neither satisfy franchise readers nor introduce a compelling story to new fans.

In short, this Harry Potter wannabe is a mess. Resembling bits of Marvel, Star Wars and Fantastic Beasts movies, there is no clear vision in this chaotic mishmash – just a hodgepodge of strange folk that fails to sustain interest, even with all the CGI bells and whistles at their disposal. I am not sure even director Kenneth Branagh knew how to give this story some pizzazz.

Miscasting is a real problem here. Ferdia Shaw is a bland as the lead character who apparently, is a criminal mastermind – but you don’t sense that at all. Josh Gad, as Mulch Diggums, a giant among the tiny folks, and Judi Dench, in a gender-bending role as Commander Root, effect gravelly, growling voices – why? And Gad’s character, in an attempt to make wisecracks and be flippant, got on my last nerve.

Both Colin Farrell and newcomer Lara McDonnel are the film’s saving grace, but they can’t do much about the story’s lack of appeal. Screenwriters Conor McPherson and Hamish McColl do the source material a disservice. It has been in development since 2016. That is the first red flag. The rest of the problems indicate this is a big waste of time.

This film was set to open in theaters but is now available on Disney Plus.

“Artemis Fowl” is a fantasy, sci-fi film directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Ferdia Shaw, Lara McDonnell, Colin Farrell, Josh Gad and Judi Dench. It is Rated PG for fantasy action/peril and some rude humor and run time is 1 hr. 41 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: D.
Available on Disney Plus streaming service as of June 12.

This review appeared in Webster-Kirkwood Times.