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Review: Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings

Written by Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton, and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” is Marvel Studio’s first foray into the world of Martial Arts, Wuxia, and all the Kung Fu you can handle. After the conclusion of “Avengers: Endgame” Marvel needed to wow us with their latest new Superhero- and Shang-Chi more than accomplishes that. By leaning into every possible Chinese and Asian-American inspirational genre and medium of culture the filmmakers could conjure up, it really sets this film apart from the rest of the Cinematic Universe. Though while there were several tie-ins to the broader world, it never felt too encroaching or out of place in this film. Throughout the runtime I had moments during which I thought to myself, “Wow, this is like a live-action side-scroller beat ’em up video game” or “Wow, they really went for the gold with the Wuxia stuff” or “Oh My god, what is that? A Pokemon?!” and finally “Am I just straight up watching a Live-action Studio Ghibli movie right now?“. Now, granted, I’m not saying that this film transcends any of those inspirations mentioned, but it does do an excellent job of making itself unique enough, while visually referencing those well known touchstones. The most exciting aspect of this film is that while you can still see the formulaic structure of the MCU at times- it’s the moments, beats, and scenes that break away from the mold that feel fresh and electric. The best thing I can say about a movie where the lead character is a Master of Martial Arts, is that the fights, and star Simu Liu himself, are outstanding!

So, what’s the story about anyways? Mostly, it’s the tale of a strained Father-Son relationship, though that does leave out a lot of the details. We pick up the tale in San Francisco, where Shang-Chi has been living for a decade after an escape from the grasp of his father’s reach. He works as Valet Driver with his friend Katy (Awkwafina), and they actually really seem to enjoy their job. In fact, during the first act these two showcase a friendship and lifestyle that’s easily the most relatable and realistic in perhaps all of the MCU so far. After a few long nights fueled by alcohol and Karaoke, they’re rudely awakened by the plot when Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), better known to comic-book readers as The Mandarin, sends a strike team of Ten Rings assassins to San Francisco. This kickstarts the most memorable fight scene of the movie in which Shang-Chi takes on all fighters on a city bus. The choreography is slick, kinetic, and every punch, counter, and kick feels powerful when they land and equally nerve wracking when death blows are nearly missed. This is the energy that fuels the newness of this film, and future filmmakers that utilize Simu Liu would do well to remember what worked in this film, and why. While that aspect of the film is exciting and entertaining, the character work done with Shang-Chi, and Wenwu specifically, are a step above your average superhero flick. Yes, it’s the age old theme of the cruel Father and wayward Son- but the layers given to both make the spectacle of the third act a backseat to the emotionally resonant dynamic relationship between Hero and Villain. It’s no surprise that an actor of Tony Leung’s caliber could inhabit such a good villain- what is a surprise is just how comic-book accurate the Mandarin is, and how the filmmakers utilized him.

Xu Wenwu is the driving force of the plot. Which rings true based on the opening sequence of the film detailing his thousand year past and how the Ten Rings organization have changed the course of history from behind the shadows for a millennia. Here The Mandarin, isn’t just a villain that makes good on his threats- he’s also someone that fell in love and tried to challenge his own past for the sake of his family borne out of that love. It’s a kernel of the greater world that’s built upon in this film. I won’t ruin all the secrets this film has to offer, but trust me, they crafted an excellent version of the Mandarin with this film, and it’s all the greater for all the nuances and depth they gave him. In fact this is one of the most well-rounded casts of the MCU so far, the legendary Michelle Yeoh even graces the film as Shang-Chi’s Aunt Ying Nan! Everyone is on point, there’s no cringe factor in sight, and we even get a couple of fun cameos. Though, admittedly, speaking of being on point- I have to mention that Bill Pope is the cinematographer for this film. If you don’t know the name, you likely know at least one of the movies he’s worked on. Bill Pope has been the cinematographer for such films as “The World’s End”, “Baby Driver”, All three “Matrix” movies, “Army of Darkness”, “Spider-Man 2”, and “Team America: World Police” to name a few. There were many moments during the film where the camera movements, angles, and sense of movement all felt fresh and unique to the cinematic universe, and I have a feeling Bill Pope was intimately involved in a lot of those sensory scenes. There’s definitely some time in the film where it has “The Marvel look” and I get that they want to keep things somewhat similar across all films, but I’m glad they gave Pope room to breath and explore more so than maybe some of the other cinematographers in the past were allowed? They would do well to hire big name cinematographers like Pope, and let them experiment with the look of these films. If there’s ever going to be the much ballyhooed “Superhero Fatigue” we keep hearing about, the visual drudgery of the MCU will probably be part of that process.

“Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” was the shot of adrenaline that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed, and will continue to need in the future. If the Superhero monolith continues to takes risks and invest in new characters and stories with this level of detail and fun, then it’ll be a future worth going to the movies to see. Obviously, highly recommended.

Final Score: 1 Morris

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Review: Gemini Man

Written by Darren Lemke, Billy Ray, and David Benioff, and directed by Ang Lee, “Gemini Man” is an Action oriented thriller with a dose of Science-Fiction thrown in for good measure. So, this one is a mixed bag. More so than any other movie this year, for me anyways. Will Smith has had a good year with the “Aladdin” remake and next year’s new installment of “Bad Boys” looks like a long awaited return to a ridiculous set of films that should be, if nothing else, a good time at the movie theater. That’s the mindset I was in after walking out of “Gemini Man”, having had a legitimately good time at the movies- even though there were some jarring aspects to the experience. Low expectations are to be sought out friends and fellow movie-goers, they will do more for you than any hype or word-of-mouth. Having heard that this one was a bit of a stinker at the box-office I went in seeing if this one would fall into the category of “So bad it’s good” movies. Not so, the film was well directed and the performances were competent enough for the story that this film was trying to tell. The writing however, was bad. That’s actually the worst part of the film, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Will Smith’s Henry is an aging assassin, and as the opening scene dictates, he’s still the best as what he does- even though he himself spots his skill slipping. After getting too close to a civilian death for comfort, Henry decides that it’s time to retire his trigger finger. As with all movie assassins that decide to hang it up for good- Henry’s pulled back into the action before too long. After getting a hint of some shady business surrounding his last target from a fellow former brother-in-arms, Henry’s off on the scent of conspiracy. From there Henry is pursued by his own agency for “knowing too much” and gets another old friend (Benedict Wong) roped into the search for answers when he quickly spots an agent (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) surveilling him nearby. Once they all agree to find out why their own agency is chasing them down with deadly intent, the three agents find themselves being pursued by a familiar face.

Which is where the action kicks up a considerable degree. The motorcycle chase scene in Colombia between Will Smith and his Fresh Prince-era clone is one of the most exciting sequences of the whole movie, it’s well directed and feels frantic and chaotic. This exemplifies the best asset of the film (aside from two Will Smith performances), constant pursuit with increasingly brutal tactics from the “Bad Guys” of the movie. The film wisely keeps the pace and speed of the film high, which is good because otherwise the writing would have stood out more than it already did. Which leads me to my biggest complaint about this film: it’s way too predictable. From the first moment you see Clive Owen’s Clay Verris in an office barking orders and threats, you know almost everything you need to know about him, he’s a brutal and efficient Villain- with a capital V. Everything about the “old man fights his past self and conflicts with him ideologically” theme of the film is surface level psychology and just a fun excuse to experiment with that shiny new de-aging technology. Which, by the way, was somewhat impressive in execution. I’m not quite sure how they filmed Will Smith grappling with himself on the ground- but some curiosity behind the filmmaking process won’t balance out your film when a more thoughtful script may have been a better solution.

“Gemini Man” doesn’t use all of it’s actors as well as it could have, and its definitely an easy one to plot out if you’ve seen enough movies, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy my time with it. The plot and hook of the film may not be the most innovative or as memorable as they’d like it to be, but there’s some good fun to be had with this one as long as you’re okay with turning your brain off for a bit. Thankfully, the film puts all of its dramatic weight on the shoulders of Will Smith’s acting abilities, but it isn’t quite enough to distract from the flaws in the storytelling. However, if you’re just looking for some good escapist fun at the movie theater, you could do far worse than this one.

Final Score: 1 Person, made from another… person

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Review: Avengers 3 Infinity War

*WARNING* This review will be full of spoilers, you have been warned!

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, “Avengers: Infinity War” is the third superhero event film under the Marvel banner and the culmination of ten years of interconnected storytelling across all eighteen previous films. If you’ve been following these Marvel movies and are up to date then you will gleam the most out of the two and a half hour epic that is Infinity War. However if, by some chance, you’re just now considering a Marvel movie marathon and are curious as to which movies are most necessary for this latest Avengers movie, I believe about half of them are required viewing (Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1, Dr. Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther). The rest help to build upon the structure, and character development, of the cinematic universe, but that list will get you mostly acquainted with what’s going on.

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So, we’re finally here. After hearing about and seeing several of the infinity stones throughout these films, and with a couple cameos from the mad titan himself, does the film live up to the monumental expectations that Marvel Studios has built? Yes. I can answer that wholeheartedly with a resounding yes. Infinity War is a monumental feat of crossover film-making and it makes the once grandiose events of the first Avengers seem minuscule in comparison. The film follows the wake of destruction left by Thanos and his black order as they seek out the six infinity stones and crisscross the cosmos to implement the will of the mad titan. The opening scene perfectly showcases who Thanos is and why we should be afraid for the fate of our superheroes. After laying waste to Thor and the Asgardian refugees’ ship Thanos quickly bests the Hulk in a fistfight, takes the Tesseract from Loki before killing him, and completely destroys their ship leaving Thor to drift unconsciously through space. Heimdall was able to send the Hulk off to Earth before being murdered by the Black Order and as the incredible hero smashes through Dr. Strange’s staircase in New York City, Bruce Banner comes with a dire warning, “Thanos is coming..”

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Dr. Strange quickly grasps the magnitude of the problem at hand as he grabs Tony Stark from a morning run with Pepper Potts, but it isn’t long before Thanos Black Order arrive to make a power grab for the Time stone in the doctor’s possesion. Spider-Man also gets in the mix and we’re off to the races! The movie moves at break neck speeds jumping across space and back to service all of the various storylines in play but the Russo brothers have outdone themselves with this installment as everything flows naturally with the needs of the story. Now I won’t go beat by beat and describe the whole movie, but instead give a general sense of the scale and the threat that comes with Thanos seeking to wield his infinity gauntlet. Not to mention how the movie cleverly utilized it’s massive cast by breaking the characters off into various factions in different locations to best suit the needs of the story. For example, the Guardians of the Galaxy bump into Thor when responding to their distress signal and then separate into two teams, one consisting of Thor, Rocket, and Groot in order to seek out a “Thanos killing weapon” while the rest head to ‘Knowhere’ from their first movie as it’s the last known location of the reality stone. Iron Man and Spider-Man hitch a ride on the ship that the Black Order arrived in to save Dr. Strange from Ebony Maw on his way to Titan, while Captain America, Falcon, and Black Widow stave off an attack on Vision and the Scarlet Witch thanks to a heads up by Banner and eventually head to Wakanda as a last stand to keep Vision’s Mind stone in his head and not on the gauntlet of Thanos.

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The central theme of the movie is that, when pressed by Thanos and his cosmic conquering, will you trade one life for another? Several characters have this grueling predicament pushed on them, some make choices out of love, others for the fate of the universe, but ultimately they fail when crossing that line. The moral center of the MCU, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America), never falters in his moral code. Several times throughout the movie he reiterates to others that, “We don’t trade lives”. He discards the math of the scenario in giving a life to save millions, nay billions. He saves lives, he doesn’t play that game. That right there, might be the absolute best aspect of this film. All of the characters are true to their nature as established in the previous films. There is a palpable consistency to their actions and reasoning. The Guardians all feel like themselves, still making jokes and acting on impulse. Black Panther and Captain America leap into battle first and have unwavering foundations. Thor feels the most evolved since the ramifications of ‘Ragnarok’ changed the game for his films and overall nature, a kingly warrior burdened with grief, yet still able to convey humor as a fish-out-of-water situation with the Guardians. Consistency paired with well thought out plot-points and a very clever villain, possibly the best the MCU has seen yet, add up to one hell of a Marvel movie.

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With an ending as shocking as it is, I- and many other millions, cannot wait to see how these characters rebound and ultimately save the day. This is most definitely a part one, and with only two other films between now and (the still untitled) Avengers 4 that take place before the events of this movie, we’ll have to wait a year and see how this all unfolds. I cannot praise this movie enough, it was far more emotionally mature and full of dread than I expected. There were significant deaths, high stakes and excellent action, and on top of that the film still managed to be really funny at times. They did it. They really did it. The next challenge is to outdo themselves next year, which I have to say, is a tall order. I have faith in the Russo brothers though, their movies in the MCU have been some of the best entries in the superhero genre as a whole. Now all we have to do… is wait.

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Final Score: Infinite Avengers

THE CAST:
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man

Chris Hemsworth as Thor

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow

Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange

Tom Holland (II) as Peter Parker/Spider-Man

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther

Zoe Saldana as Gamora

Karen Gillan as Nebula

Tom Hiddleston as Loki

Paul Bettany as Vision

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon

Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier

Idris Elba as Heimdall

Danai Gurira as Okoye

Benedict Wong as Wong

Pom Klementieff as Mantis

Dave Bautista as Drax

Vin Diesel as Groot

Bradley Cooper as Rocket

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts

Benicio Del Toro as The Collector

Josh Brolin as Thanos

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord

William Hurt as Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross

Letitia Wright as Shuri

Peter Dinklage as Eitri

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill

and Ross Marquand as Red Skull