Review: Castle Rock’s signature slow burn pays off in tight, twisty finale

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Lizzy Caplan portrays Annie Wilkes, one of Stephen King’s most memorable characters—from the novel Misery—in the second season of Hulu’s anthology series, Castle Rock.

A nurse on the run with her teenaged daughter ends up stranded in a small Maine town where something evil lurks in the second season of Castle Rock, Hulu’s psychological horror anthology series that draws inspiration from the works of Stephen King. The series was a surprising breakout hit last summer, and this new season doesn’t disappoint, bringing the same slow burn and unexpected twists leading to a riveting finale.

(Mild spoilers for season one and season two below.)

The fictional town of Castle Rock features in so many of King’s novels that co-creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason thought they could use it as an organizing principle for their storytelling. The series is less a direct adaptation of King’s works and more new stories set in the fictional town that occasionally bump up against various books. The biggest King influences for season one were The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile—in other words, a prison-centric setting with themes of crime and punishment. Shawshank tells the story of a prisoner’s disappearance, while Castle Rock‘s focus is the mysterious appearance of a prisoner nobody knew about.

Season one opened with the suicide of the local prison warden, Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn) and the discovery that he secretly kept a mysterious young man—known only as the Kid (Bill Skarsgård)—captive for decades. Not only did the Kid not age, violent outbreaks seemed to follow in his wake. The show remained cagey about who the Kid was, whether he was a monster or a victim, even in the finale, with its distinctively King-like denouement.

The season highlight was the heartbreaking seventh episode, “The Queen,” told entirely from the point of view of Ruth (Sissy Spacek), whose age-related dementia is rapidly worsening and affecting her ability to distinguish between the present and the past. (At several points, she walks out of a conversation in the present and into a different conversation in 1991.)  The episode has deep personal resonance for Shaw, whose own mother suffered from dementia and died unexpectedly a few days after he started writing the series. I called it “the most beautifully constructed, superbly acted hour of television you’re likely to see this year.”

Castle Rock‘s second season doesn’t have a single standalone episode of quite the same caliber, but it still packs a punch. The source material this time around is King’s award-winning 1987 novel Misery, featuring one of his most memorable characters, Annie Wilkes, a psychotic (and murderous) former nurse.

In the novel, a middle-aged Annie rescues her favorite novelist, Paul Sheldon, after a car accident in which he breaks both legs. Paul’s last novel killed off the central heroine of his Victorian romance series, Misery Chastain, as he had grown tired of the character and wanted to write crime novels. But his “Number One fan,” as Annie calls herself, refuses to accept Misery’s demise and holds Paul captive, forcing him to resurrect Misery in a new novel—or else. The 1990 film starred Kathy Bates as Annie, who won an Oscar for her performance, which included an infamous scene in which Annie hobbles Paul’s feet with a sledgehammer to ensure he can’t escape.

In King’s novel, it’s clear that Annie suffers from schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder. Paul Sheldon discovers a scrapbook of newspaper clippings hinting that Annie was accused and acquitted of killing infants at a hospital maternity ward in Colorado and may have murdered as many as 30 people. Castle Rock‘s storyline focuses on a youthful Annie (Lizzy Caplan) on the run from an unspecified past with her teenaged daughter Joy (Elsie Fisher). Annie takes stints as a nurse in various hospitals and stays just long enough to steal the medication she needs to keep her mental illness in check before hitting the road in search of a utopian vision she calls the “laughing place.”

Naturally, the pair ends up in Castle Rock, and Annie takes a job with the hospital in nearby Jerusalem’s Lot—the second of King’s trinity of fictional Maine towns, the third being Derry (the setting for IT). When Annie’s killer instincts get the better of her, she tries to dispose of a body at a local construction site and uncovers a hidden burial site linked via a tunnel to the abandoned Marsten House. (King fans may recall the Marsten House was home to the vampires in the 1975 novel ‘Salem’s Lot.) And she inadvertently awakens something evil that has been lying in wait for four centuries.

Caplan gives a fantastic performance as Annie, capturing the character’s trademark awkward earnestness, lack of direct eye contact, stiff gait, and odd speech patterns and phrasing (“dirty bird,” “cockadoodie,” and the like). It’s a very human (and humane) depiction of someone struggling to control her mental illness. Annie may be a little crazy, particularly when her meds run out, but she’s driven primarily by her love for Joy and proves to be a formidable opponent to anything that would threaten her daughter.

Season two also stars Tim Robbins as a veteran named Reginald “Pop” Merrill. Despite his late-stage cancer, he wields a tight hold on local commerce with the help of his two nephews, Ace (Paul Sparks) and Chris (Matthew Alan). Pop also adopted two Somali refugees as teenagers, now grown: Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), who is building a mall in Jerusalem’s Lot, and his sister, Nadia (Yusra Warsama), the medical director at the hospital where Annie works. The family gets sucked into the supernatural threat facing the town(s), too. Over the course of ten episodes, tensions flare, secrets are revealed, and we learn the true nature of what Annie awakened.

As always with a Shaw-created show, the writing is strong and emotionally evocative. It’s intricately plotted, with strong character development. Granted, for the first several episodes of the season, the two narrative threads—Annie and Joy’s relationship and Annie’s secret past, and whatever the hell is going on at the Marsten House—almost don’t feel like they are part of the same series. The Annie storyline feels far more compelling—especially the flashback episode, “The Laughing Place,” which acquaints us with Annie’s childhood.

But gradually the two threads converge as we learn more about the town’s history—including an unexpected twist that provides a link between season two with season one. Here’s hoping Castle Rock gets a third season so we can learn more about this common element loosely tying the anthology’s storylines together.

Listing image by Hulu

A new generation ain’t afraid of no ghosts in Ghostbusters: Afterlife trailer

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Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, and Paul Rudd star in Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

It has been more than 30 years since Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd first strapped on their proton packs to battle a ghostly infestation in Manhattan in the 1984 blockbuster comedy Ghostbusters. Now the legacy continues. Sony Pictures just dropped the first trailer for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a sequel directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking), featuring a whole new team.

Reitman is a fitting choice to direct, as he’s the son of Ivan Reitman, director of the 1980s films. You may have glimpsed Jason, his mother, and his sister in the original Ghostbusters as residents who are fleeing their haunted skyscraper. Reitman resisted following in his father’s footsteps for years before finally succumbing to the call. “I’ve always thought of myself as the first Ghostbusters fan, when I was a 6-year-old visiting the set,” Reitman told EW back in January. “This is the next chapter in the original franchise. It is not a reboot. What happened in the ’80s happened in the ’80s, and this is set in the present day.”

Vanity Fair offered a first look at the latest film last week, featuring several stills—including one showing the original Ghostbusters tricked-out ambulance. Per the official synopsis, “A single mother and her two children move to Summerville, Oklahoma, after inheriting property from a previously unknown relative. They discover their family’s legacy to the original Ghostbusters, who have become something of a myth, as many have long since forgotten the events of the ‘Manhattan Crossrip of 1984′”—i.e., the events of the original film. Carrie Coon (The Leftovers) plays mom Callie, while Mckenna Grace (The Haunting of Hill House) plays her science-loving daughter Phoebe. Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) plays son Trevor.

“As the family arrives at an old farm, they begin to discover their connection to the original Ghostbusters,” Reitman told Vanity Fair. “Trevor and Phoebe are about to find out who their grandfather was and whether they’re ready to pick up the proton pack themselves.” Among other revealed details, Phoebe will find a device that reads psychokinetic energy. Paul Rudd plays summer school teacher Mr. Grooberson; the Manhattan Crossrip was his most formative childhood memory, and we see his delight at holding a bona fide vintage ghost trap in his hands.

The trailer does not look anything like a Ghostbusters movie when it opens. We see Trevor hanging with some new pals, one of whom asks what the family is doing in Summerville. “Honestly, my mom won’t say it, but we’re completely broke,” he replies, as we see a flashback of Callie wearily pulling an eviction notice off the door of their old home. “And the only thing that’s left in our name is this creepy old farmhouse our grandfather left us in the middle of nowhere.” Then there’s a loud noise from the bottom of the mine shaft they’re sitting above, and a fluorescent green ghostie shoots out into the air.

The family’s arrival seems to have awakened something in the town. As Rudd’s Mr. Grooberson tells Trevor, “Somehow, a town that is nowhere near a tectonic plate, that has no fault lines, no fracking, no loud music even, is shaking on a daily basis.” Then Phoebe finds an old ghost trap, which Grooberson initially mistakes for a replica. “There hasn’t been a ghost sighting in 30 years,” he says to Phoebe, and gives her a crash course on the Manhattan Crossrip. “New York in the ’80s? It was like The Walking Dead.”

The Ghostbuster aspects slowly begin to emerge. “My grandfather died. My mom says we’re just here to pick through the rubble of his life,” Phoebe tells her teacher, right before she discovers all her grandfather’s old Ghostbusters paraphernalia, including the uniforms. Meanwhile, Trevor discovers the Ghostbusters-mobile with its ECTO-1 license plate, outfitted with a handy gunner’s seat and a (functioning) proton pack.

“Call it fate. Call it luck. Call it karma,” a voiceover intones, and it sounds a lot like Bill Murray, aka Peter Venkman himself. “I believe everything happens for a reason.” The original cast is expected to appear in Ghostbusters: Afterlife, including Murray, Sigourney Weaver (as Dana Barrett), Dan Aykroyd (as Ray Stantz), Ernie Hudson (as Winston Zeddemore), and Annie Potts (as Janine Melnitz).

Harold Ramis, who played Egon Spengler, died in 2014, and it’s pretty clear that Spengler is the kids’ recently deceased grandfather. Phoebe finds a collection of spores, molds, and fungus (his favorite hobby), and one of the old uniforms has “Spengler” stitched onto it. That might explain the relatively subdued, more contemplative tone of this first trailer: at once mourning the loss of Ramis and celebrating the legacy he helped create, now handed down to a new generation.

Ghostbusters; Afterlife hits theaters July 10, 2020.

Listing image by Sony Pictures

Diana Prince reunites with her long-lost love in first Wonder Woman 1984 trailer

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Gal Gadot reprises her role as everyone’s favorite Amazonian demigod in Wonder Woman 1984.

Diana Prince faces off against two new formidable foes and reunites with an old love in the hotly anticipated first trailer for Wonder Woman 1984, with Gal Gadot reprising her titular role. Director Patty Jenkins unveiled the trailer today at Comic Con Experience (CCXP) in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Inspired by the comic book heroine created by William Moulton Marston in the 1940s for DC Comics, Wonder Woman made her big-screen debut in the DCEU with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, followed by 2017’s Justice League. The first fell short of box office expectations; the second bombed outright. So when Jenkins took on Wonder Woman’s origin story, she deliberately departed from the grim humorlessness and dark sensibility of those earlier films, bringing a brighter energy and wit to her tale, along with the usual action. That vision paid off: Wonder Woman went on to gross $821 million worldwide and earned critical raves, making it the most successful of the DCEU films thus far.

Jenkins first broached the possibility of a sequel shortly after the first film’s release in June 2017, and principal photography began a year later. It has been described as a standalone film rather than a direct sequel, “in the same way that Indiana Jones or [James] Bond are, instead of one continuous story that requires many installments.” (That standalone strategy worked well for Warner Bros’  2019 box office smash Joker, which became the first R-rated film to gross over $1 billion worldwide.)

This second film is set almost seventy years after the original film. “In this movie we find [Diana] in 1984 and [she] is quite lonely — she’s lost her friends and doing what she needs to do,” Gadot said at CCXP. “She’s helping mankind and saving them until something crazy happens to her.”

This being the 1980s, Diana is operating in a Cold War scenario, taking on Pedro Pascal’s villainous Maxwell Lord, a shrewd and powerful businessman. Kristen Wiig also co-stars as Barbara Ann Minerva, a British archaeologist in the comic books who becomes Wonder Woman’s arch-nemesis Cheetah. Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright reprise their roles as Diana’s mother, Hippolyta, and aunt, Antiope, respectively, in flashbacks to Diana’s Amazonian upbringing on Themyscira.

As New Order’s “Blue Monday” plays in the background, we see Diana having some heart-to-heart girl talk with Wiig’s Minerva about long-lost loves and a glimpse of an old photograph of Steve Trevor. “My life hasn’t been what you probably think it has,” Diana tells Barbara. “We all have our struggles.” Then trouble breaks out at a local supermall, and Diana intervenes to restore order. Inside the mall there are walls of TVs that just happen to be showing Maxwell Lord giving a motivational pitch. “Life is good but it can be better,” he says. “All you need is to want it. Think about finally having everything you always wanted.”

Lord has had various incarnations in the comics, including one where he had supernatural powers of persuasion. It’s unclear from the trailer what, if any, powers he displays in this film, but there are hints he might play some role in the miraculous reappearance of Steve while Diana is attending a gala. We see Diana and Steve’s emotional reunion, and then a shot of Lord declaring he will now take what he wants in return.

The rest of the trailer is a series of action shots as Diana and Steve work together once again to thwart whatever evil plan is threatening the day—including flashbacks to a young Diana competing in an Amazonian tournament, and a glorious shot of Diana’s iconic golden armor. But we don’t get to see Wiig in full Cheetah mode, which is a shame.

Wonder Woman 1984 hits theaters June 5, 2020. If it’s as successful as its predecessor, we can probably expect a third Wonder Woman film. Jenkins told the Hollywood Reporter earlier this year she has already mapped out the plot for a third installment, in a more contemporary setting.

Listing image by YouTube/Warner Bros

A nebbishy bank teller discovers he’s trapped in a video game in Free Guy

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Ryan Reynolds stars in Free Guy.

A lowly bank teller discovers he’s actually a non playable character in an open-world video game in Free Guy, a forthcoming film from 20th Century Fox. Director Shawn Levy debuted the first trailer this weekend at the 2019 Comic Con Experience (CCXP) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, describing it as “a superhero origin story except without the tights, powers, or pre-existing IP,” according to Deadline Hollywood. Stars Ryan Reynolds and Joe Keery (Steve Harrington on Stranger Things) were also on hand for the event.

Per the official synopsis, Free Guy is about “a bank teller who discovers he is actually a background player in an open-world video game, decides to become the hero of his own story…one he rewrites himself. Now in a world where there are no limits, he is determined to be the guy who saves his world his way…before it is too late.”

The trailer opens with cheery bank teller Guy (Reynolds) waking up and heading to work. He remains completely unfazed as he encounters all manner of bizarre occurrences en route: shootouts, explosions, a guy with a flame-thrower, and his pal Joe getting thrown through a storefront window. (“Whoa-ho! Mondays! Amirite, Joe?”)

Guy’s bank gets robbed every day, but this particular day, he decides to fight back, “killing” one of the robbers (“He’s just resting”) and taking possession of the dead man’s glasses. When he walks out of the bank and puts on the glasses, his perspective shifts dramatically: he sees the “world” as it really is—one elaborate video game. The bank heist is just one of the “missions” players undertake in the course of the game.

Guy picks up the ground rules governing the game pretty quickly, starting with a “first aid” token that heals his broken nose. “Is this what recreational drugs feels like?” he asks a random motorist. He also finds an ally in Milly, aka Molotov Girl (Killing Eve‘s Jodie Comer), who is able to move in and out of the game at will. Meanwhile, game developer Antoine (Taika Waititi) has plans to shut the game down, against the objections of a programmer, Keys (Keery). Keys and Milly created the code that resulted in Guy—who is supposed to be a non playable background character—becoming aware of his virtual environment.

At CCXP,  Reynolds described the film as “a modern-day Back to the Future for this generation.” Tonally, I get the comparison, but Free Guy also has recognizable elements from Westworld, The Matrix, Wreck It Ralph, and even the Deadpool movies. “It’s not just spectacle — it’s very much connected to the characters,” Levy said. “It’s the rise of an idealist in a world that is very cynical and dark.” That should make it the perfect vehicle for Reynolds’ sweetly acerbic irreverence.

Free Guy will hit theaters July 3, 2020.

Listing image by YouTube/20th Century Fox

The Aeronauts brings the joy and perils of Victorian ballooning to vivid life

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star in <em>The Aeronauts</em>

Enlarge / Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star in The Aeronauts

Just in time for the holiday season, Amazon Studios has released The Aeronauts, a soaring historical adventure film about the perils faced by a Victorian scientist and a balloonist attempting to fly higher than anyone before them. Granted, the characters might be a bit thinly drawn when it comes to emotional depth, and the earth-bound first act is solid, if unremarkable, period drama. However, once the film (literally) gets off the ground, it blossoms into a gripping, thoroughly entertaining epic tale of survival at punishing altitudes. Above all, the film looks spectacular; every frame is practically a canvas, painted in vibrant, almost Disney-esque hues.

(Some spoilers below.)

The Aeronauts is a fictionalized account of a historic balloon flight by pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher. He and his pilot, Henry Coxwell, made several balloon flights to measure the temperature and humidity of the upper atmosphere between 1862 and 1866. Armed with scientific instruments and bottles of brandy, Glaisher and Coxwell set a world-altitude record, reaching an estimated 38,999 feet (11,887 meters) on September 5, 1862. They were the first men to reach the atmospheric stratosphere, and they did it without the benefit of oxygen tanks, pressure suits, or a pressurized cabin.

During the flight, the men released pigeons at various altitudes to see how well they flew, recalling that those released above the three-mile mark “dropped like a stone.” They would have continued rising and likely died because the valving rope Coxwell needed to manipulate to begin their descent got tangled up with the balloon net. Coxwell had to climb out of the basket and up into the rigging to release the valve with his teeth—his hands were badly frostbitten—in order to begin their descent. By then, Glaisher had passed out. Eventually, the men landed safely (if a bit roughly) about 20 miles from their original launch point.

The film version recreates many of those elements, but while Glaisher is a primary character (played by Eddie Redmayne of The Theory of Everything) in The Aeronauts, writer/director Tom Harper opted to replace Coxwell with a fictional female character, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones, also of The Theory of Everything). It opens with a frustrated Glaisher trying in vain to convince his scientific colleagues of the potential of ballooning to enable better study of Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in more accurate weather prediction. Meanwhile, a widowed Amelia is facing pressure from her mother and sister to remarry and leave her ballooning adventures with her late husband behind her. When Glaisher offers Amelia a job piloting a balloon higher than anyone has attempted before, she is initially reluctant, but then accepts. They end up facing far more peril than they bargained for.

Up, up, and away

Harper wanted his sky-borne scenes to be as authentic as possible. These were by far the most challenging aspect of the production, since he wanted to shoot his actors in an actual balloon at 2,000 feet. According to co-producer Todd Lieberman, that involved finding someone willing and able to build an 80-foot helium-filled (as opposed to a hot air) balloon—and someone willing and able to fly it. A company called Flying Pictures, headed by Colin Prescot, obliged. Prescot also brought renowned Swedish aeronaut Per Lindstrand aboard to pilot the balloon. (Lindstrand famously made a series of transoceanic hot-air balloon flights in partnership with Sir Richard Branson.)

“I think a balloon of this kind hadn’t been built in over four decades, and this might be the first replica of a period balloon of that era ever built,” said Lieberman.

Every crew member went up in a balloon just to experience what it was like, and Felicity Jones went to Germany for gas-balloon flight training (as well as acrobatics) to prepare for her role as Amelia. For the actual filming at altitude, the pilot crouched low in the basket while cameras mounted on helicopters and drones captured the action. That really is Jones climbing up and sitting on the balloon’s hoop, although she wore a protective harness that was subsequently removed in post-production. As for the scene where Amelia must climb up the side of the ice-encrusted balloon—a stuntwoman actually performed that feat at altitude, with close-ups and other footage for the scene filmed on a sound stage outfitted with a 180-foot crane.

“The hardest part of these ballooning expeditions, we learned, is landing them,” said Lieberman. “The wind dictates where the balloon goes.” The crew relied on WhatsApp group chats and chase vehicles to follow the balloon’s path while it was making its descent to figure out where it was likely to land. “It was a less-than-ideal landing, to say the least, but we got them down safely,” said Lieberman.

“The hardest part of these ballooning expeditions, we learned, is landing them.”

While it wasn’t possible to film at 37,000 feet, the filmmakers went to great lengths to replicate those conditions on set. Redmayne spent some time in an oxygen-deprivation tank to get a feel for the effects of hypoxia. And when shooting the scenes when the balloon was freezing over, part of the set was cooled down to below freezing, while Redmayne and Jones would plunge their hands into buckets of ice before scenes.

“Not only were they acting as if they were freezing,” said Leiberman, “they actually were freezing.”

An amalgamation of history

The Aeronauts takes pains with regard to historical accuracy, although as Lieberman noted, “We weren’t making a documentary.” While Glaisher and Coxwell’s historic feat provided the basis for the main story, many other details of the fictionalized flight were taken from a book of historical ballooning accounts called Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes. Intrepid aeronauts of the past really did make a parachute of the balloon and witness butterflies at surprisingly high altitudes. And per Lieberman, an aeronaut named Charles Green—inventor of the trail rope as an aid to steering and landing a balloon, among other accomplishments—really did summit the side of a balloon, albeit at a lower altitude than is portrayed in the film.

The decision to replace Coxwell with the fictionalized Amelia proved controversial. Tthe Royal Society’s head of library, Keith Moore, told The Daily Telegraph last year, “It’s a great shame that Henry isn’t portrayed because he performed very well and saved the life of a leading scientist,” adding that he wished the film had chosen to include one of the “many deserving female scientists of the period.”

Amelia was actually inspired by several historical female aeronauts, most notably Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to find work as a professional balloonist when her balloonist husband, Jean-Pierre, died. (The account of Amelia’s husband’s death in the film was inspired by the real demise of aviator Thomas Harris in 1824.) The flamboyant couple used dogs at their launches, as portrayed in the film, and often set off fireworks. In fact, that’s how Blanchard died in 1819: during an ascent, one of the fireworks set the balloon on fire. British aeronaut Margaret Graham and American aviator Amelia Earhart were also influential as Harper was developing the character.

“The idea of two scientists sitting in a basket going up and down who shared the same basic outlook on life didn’t hold much tension,” said Lieberman. “So we decided to do an amalgamation: take the best of these different flights from the time period and find a counterpoint to James Glaisher.”

Glaisher really did struggle to raise funding for his expeditions from the Royal Society. His eventual success resulted in his becoming president of the newly formed Royal Meteorological Society just five years after his historic flight with Coxwell. In the end, The Aeronauts is an uplifting story, both literally and figuratively—just as the filmmakers intended.

The Aeronauts is now playing in theaters.

The full trailer for Disney’s live-action Mulan is here, and it’s breathtaking

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Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei stars in Disney’s live-action Mulan.

Disney has released the full trailer for Mulan, the studio’s live-action remake of its own 1998 animated film. When the first teaser dropped in July, I noted that, while I’m not a huge fan of Disney’s live-action remakes, “this is an effective, sumptuously eye-catching teaser for Mulan.” This latest trailer cements that assessment. It looks gorgeous, very much in the style of a period war drama, and its rumored $300 million production budget shows in every breathtaking shot.

Both films are based on the Chinese legend “The Ballad of Hua Mulan,” which tells the story of a young woman in the Northern Wei era (spanning 386-536 CE) who takes her father’s place when each family is required to provide one male to serve in the emperor’s army. In this version, Hua Mulan is already a well-trained fighter, and she serves for 12 years, with none of her fellow soldiers ever suspecting her true gender.

Disney’s animated film broadly followed the traditional storyline, except Mulan is not well-trained when she first runs away. The film also added a love interest, a goofy dragon representative of the family ancestors named Mushu (hilariously voiced by Eddie Murphy), and a catchy original soundtrack. Mulan was released to critical acclaim, grossing $304 million worldwide and earning Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. In other words, while it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, it was popular enough to merit a spot on the roster of Disney’s ongoing live-action remakes.

This new live-action version, directed by Niki Caro, also preserves the traditional storyline and several elements of the original film. The matchmaker has just found the free-spirited Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) a suitable match, and Mulan dutifully tries to learn the arts associated with being the perfect Chinese wife—while secretly practicing martial arts. She’s far better at the latter.

When her famed war veteran father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), who has no sons, is conscripted into the Emperor’s army to help ward off Northern invaders led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), she disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place. Mulan also has a younger sister, Hua Xiu (Xana Tang) in the live-action version, which also includes a new Khan ally: a witch named Xianniang (Gong Li) who can shapeshift into a hawk form.

This new trailer opens with Hua Zhou lecturing his daughter on the importance of being a good Chinese wife. “Do you know why the phoenix sits at the right hand of the emperor?” he says. “She is his guardian. His protector. She is both beautiful and strong. Your job is to bring honor to the family. Do you think you can do that?” We see Khan’s horde in action, leaping up walls and leaving no survivors, and several dramatic shots of the witch Xianniang, who is quite a formidable fighter herself. And we see Mulan running off in the middle of the night to take her father’s place: “It is my duty to protect my family.”

Listing image by YouTube/Disney

Amazon’s new fantasy series, Wheel of Time, adds four more cast members

Cover art for the first <em>Wheel of Time</em> novel. Production on the fantasy series began on September 16 of this year.

Cover art for the first Wheel of Time novel. Production on the fantasy series began on September 16 of this year. (credit: Tor Books)

Amazon Studios has announced four new cast members for The Wheel of Time, the long-awaited TV adaptation of the late Robert Jordan‘s bestselling 14-book series of epic fantasy novels, Deadline Hollywood reports. Clearly, Amazon has joined the hunt for the next Game of Thrones, since within the fantasy genre, Jordan’s series is as popular as George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The first season of the TV adaptation started shooting on September 16—coincidentally, the 12th anniversary of Jordan’s death in 2007.

The TV series will center on Moiraine (played by Oscar-nominee Rosamund Pike), a member of a powerful, all-woman organization called the Aes Sedai. (In this world, magic exists, but only certain women can use it—i.e., the members of the Aes Sedai.) She identifies four young people, one of whom could be the reincarnation of a person who, prophecies say, will save or destroy humanity. Together, the youngsters embark on a journey across the world.

As Ars reported earlier this year, the first round of casting included Josha Stradowski as Rand al’Thor, aka The Dragon Reborn, He Who Comes With the Dawn, the Coramoor, Shadowkiller, and who knows how many other monikers. Marcus Rutherford was cast as apprentice blacksmith and dream-walker Perrin Aybara. Zoe Robins plays healer Nynaeve al’Meara, and Madeleine Madden plays the powerful channeler Egwene al’Vere. Finally, Barney Harris was cast as series comic relief Matrim Cauthon.

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Natasha Romanoff gets the origin story she deserves in Black Widow trailer

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Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has a score to settle with her past in Marvel’s Black Widow.

Fans of the MCU have been clamoring for a standalone Black Widow movie for years, but the project kept getting pushed to the back burner, since Marvel was so heavily focused on bringing the long-running Avengers story arc to a fitting conclusion with this year’s Avengers: End Game. We now have the first trailer for Black Widow, and it promises to finally give the character the origin story she so richly deserves.

(Some spoilers for Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: End Game below.)

We know that the Russian-born Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) was trained as a spy/assassin in a secretive academy known as the Red Room, which disguised itself as a ballet school. All the “Black Widows” were sterilized, so Natasha is unable to bear children. Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, is sent to take her out and recruits her to S.H.I.E.L.D. instead. The two become fast friends, and both wind up joining the Avengers, giving Natasha a family of sorts. When the group splits in Captain America: Civil War, Natasha initially sides with Tony Stark/Iron Man, even though it pits her against Barton and Steve Rogers. But her loyalties remain divided, and in the battle at Leipzig Airport, she lets Rogers and Bucky Barnes escape.

After “the Snappening,” a devastated Natasha travels to the past and ultimately sacrifices herself on the planet Vormir so Barton can retrieve the Soul Stone. It proved to be a controversial decision with the fans: the barren Natasha dies so Barton can return to his (soon to be un-disintegrated) family, as if all her training and accomplishments meant nothing if she was unable to bear children.

Personally, I understood the character arc. Natasha has always been haunted by her many past misdeeds, saying repeatedly that she has “red” in her “ledger,” her work with the Avengers is a way to right the balance. What better way to clear away all that red ink by making the ultimate sacrifice? I would, however, argue that her death was handled a bit too perfunctorily in Avengers: End Game, overshadowed even more when Tony Stark also sacrifices himself to save the day.

Listing image by YouTube/Marvel Studios

Never Surrender is a heartfelt tribute to sci-fi action comedy Galaxy Quest

Trailer for Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary.

Galaxy Quest, the glorious 1999 science fiction action comedy starring Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver (among others), will turn 20 on December 25 of this year. And what better way to celebrate this important milestone than with a documentary feature? Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary is an entertaining, heartfelt tribute that comes to us (believe it or not) from the same folks behind the wildly popular online Honest Trailers series.

(Spoilers for Galaxy Quest below.)

The premise of the movie is deceptively simple: what if aliens watched transmissions of a popular science fiction TV show from Earth and thought it was real? An alien race called the Thermians model their entire society on the principles of a fictional Galaxy Quest TV show, building real, functional versions of the spaceship and much of the technology from the series. When their very existence is threatened by a reptilian humanoid general from another species named Roth’h’ar Sarris, they travel to Earth to ask their heroes for help—arriving in the middle of a Galaxy Quest fan convention.

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