Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Posted on August 31, 2021 at 12:47 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, martial arts, weapons, explosions, monsters, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 3, 2021

(L-R): Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Marvel’s first Asian superhero gets an exciting, heartfelt origin story in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” The character first appeared in 1973, created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, inspired by the television series “Kung Fu,” and the career of Bruce Lee, which had created a great interest in Chinese martial arts. In the comics, he was originally the son of the already-established ultra-villain Fu Manchu.

In this version, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is the son of Wenwu (Chinese acting legend Tony Leung), who uses the power of 10 magic rings to cause massive death, destruction, and pillage over centuries. After they fight as she defends her community from his invasion, Wenwu falls in love with Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and for a time they have a peaceful life together, until she is murdered by Wenwu’s enemies.

Shang-Chi and his sister (Meng’er Zhang as Xialing) are raised to be warriors, knowing nothing of their father’s past. After his mother’s death and his discovery of his father’s evil actions, Shang-Chi runs away, as far as he can get from his home and family. He is working in San Francisco as a parking valet under the name Sean with his best friend Katy (the indispensable Awkwafina). They are both low key slackers who ar enjoying their lives when trouble tracks Shang-Chi down on an articulated bus, the kind with two parts connected by an accordion-like pivoting joint. In other words, it is just the place for a wow of a fight scene, and a wow is what we get. Keep an eye on the combatant with a steel blade prosthetic on his arm. That is the aptly named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) and we’ll be seeing a lot more of him.

The script, by director Destin Daniel Cretton along with Andrew Lanham and Dave Callaham gives emotional weight to the action with its focus on the family conflicts, especially the struggle — sometimes emotional, sometimes physical — between father and son. But first, Shang-Chi reunites with his estranged sister, involving a cage fight with a monster. Ultimately, it brings him home in a literal and emotional sense as he returns to the land his mother once guarded so bravely, Ta Lo. It is a place of peace and gentility, with the entire community devoted to keeping a powerful, evil creature imprisoned there. Wenwu’s original attack on Ta Lo was to release the monster. And now he returns, in part because one of the creature’s powers is to call out to powerful people who could release it in the voice of someone they loved and lost.

Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy find themselves back in Ta Lo, where their late mother’s sister Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) helps them create a defense to protect their home and prevent the release of the monster, leading up to a final confrontation that will involve emotional growth, strengthened connections, and a lot of marital arts fighting. Plus a monster.

The action scenes are exciting and revealing of character and the performances are excellent, especially Leung, who makes a complicated and sometimes inconsistent character layered and — for a supervillain — real. I am, as ever, impressed with Marvel’s Kevin Feige for his willingness to allow each of the Marvel characters to appear in distinctive stories across a range of tones and genres and yet somehow make them all feel like part of the same world. Shang-Chi is a welcome addition to the MCU and I look forward to seeing him interact with the other characters as they take on whatever and whoever is threatening the planet next.

Parents should know that this film has extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence with a lot of martial arts action, chases, explosions, monsters, weapons, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: Why did Shang-Chi and Xialing respond differently to their childhood experiences? Why was she so angry with him?

If you like this, try: the other Avengers origin movies including “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man,” and “Captain America”

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Together

Posted on August 26, 2021 at 5:01 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual references and language
Profanity: Extended very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Themes include pandemic, sad death of a parent, grief, fear
Diversity Issues: Class issues are a theme in the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 27, 2021

Copyright 2021 BBC Film
This is a safe place, so let’s all admit it. This has been a crazy time and as someone once said, crazy times call for crazy solutions. And sometimes that means we have to go a little crazy to get through it. Some of us strengthened our ties with our families, some strained them, and most of us did a bit of both. We found new things to do (I was one of the millions baking bread) and some found new ways to do the things they have always done. Director Stephen Daldry (“The Hours,” “Billy Elliot,” “The Crown”) and writer Dennis Kelly (“Utopia”) wanted to find a way to keep telling stories in the pandemic, so came up with the idea of telling a story about what they and so many of us were experiencing: the claustrophobia, uncertainty, and stress of a global plague. Big, complicated, expensive productions shut down? Make one about a London couple stuck at home. Two people, one setting, two-thirds of the three unities of classical-era drama.

A strong script and outstanding acting talent make it work.

We can tell from the first thirty seconds that this long-time (but unmarried) couple have an acrimonious relationship. They cannot even agree on their son’s name. The boy’s mother (Sharon Horgan billed only as She) calls him Arthur. The father (James McAvoy as He) calls him “Artie.” But we don’t need to infer anything. They are delighted to tell each other and us in vivid detail how much they despise each other. Throughout the film, the couple addresses us as, who knows, in-house therapists or documentarians? Some imagined referee?

It does not matter. It’s just a way for us to stay engaged and learn everything we need to know. At times, the couple seem to be performing for an outside audience; at others they are alone, confiding in us what they do not want to teach each other. For me, the device ceased to be a curiosity or a distraction quickly, another tribute to the superbly talented stars.

She and He were on the brink of separating, when they found themselves scrambling for groceries and toilet paper as everything in the UK shut down around them. Perhaps it is the terror of that moment that leads them to try to top each other to tell us who hates the other one more. We see, if they don’t, that somewhere in there is a vestigial connection, that they still want one another’s approval. The opposite of love, is not hate, after all, but indifference.

Their differences are set up nicely to be intensified and tested by what is to come. He thinks of himself as a self-made man, a lower-class boy who became the founder of a successful business. He did it all on his own, he thinks, and has little compassion for anyone who hasn’t done the same. His right-wing politics annoy her.

She came from a comfortably upper-middle class family and works for a non-profit that provides aid to refugees. He admits that he admires her for that. Each’s notion of what makes a “good person” and how each fits that description will arise again as we check in with them every few months, each segment beginning with a reminder of how many COVID-19 cases and how many deaths the UK has documented.

She experiences a loss that makes her question her faith in the way the government is handling the pandemic. Perhaps through a combination of her vulnerability, their shared grief, or sheer boredom with bickering, they start being intimate again, which reminds them that it was something that they were good at with each other. They share some hard truths, much harder than the trivial insults they exchanged in a whistling-in-the-graveyard opening scene that was more about impressing or outdoing each other than hurting each other.

Horgan and McAvoy make every moment of the film feel earned and worthy. It does not matter who they are talking to. What matters is that they are listening to each other, and we are listening to them both.

Parents should know that this movie has non-stop strong language and couple bickering, drinking and some sexual references. There is a sad off-screen death of a parent.

Family discussion: What have been the best and worst consequences of the pandemic for your family? Is there anything you want to change as a result?

If you like this, try: “Malcolm and Marie”

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The Protege

Posted on August 19, 2021 at 1:20 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual references, language, brief nudity, strong and bloody violence
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Constant very intense peril and violence with many disturbing and gory images, guns, knives, fights, bombs, waterboarding and torture, characters injured and killed, attempted rape of a child
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 20, 2021

Copyright Lionsgate 2021
I do not expect narrative coherence from movies that fall into the category of don’t-pay-attention-to-the-plot-just-enjoy-the-action, just that they don’t distract the audience with too many “huh?” moments. “The Protege” teeters on the “huh” brink, with enough for three episodes of Pitch Meeting, the YouTube series hilariously dissecting movie plot holes. Plus, the intensity of the gore becomes another distraction from the reason we are all there, which is to marvel at the very impressive stunts and fight scenes.

The always-great Maggie Q plays the title character, taken in as a child by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), the world’s greatest paid assassin, after her family is killed. He cares for her like any loving parent who happens to be a paid assassin, supporting her passion for her bookstore specializing in rare and precious volumes, and teaching her how to take over the family business. She supports his passion for the finer things, too, including a birthday gift of an ultra-rare guitar he has always wanted, a Gibson ’58 Flying V. It’s just your typical loving father and daughter who happen to be, you know, paid assassins.

After we get a chance to see how good Anna is at her job, including “how to find things that don’t want to be found,” with the help of a friendly hacker who has an office behind a dry cleaner (just like “The Man From UNCLE!”). But even assassins may be vulnerable, and Moody has a bad cough and some very powerful enemies. He is killed, and Anna wants revenge. Say it with me, everyone: This time, it’s personal. There will be an old friend (the always-welcome Robert Patrick as a biker dude) who tries to persuade her that “You owe it to Maody to stay alive.” But Anna has to find out why Moody was killed and kill whoever was responsible.

There may be a connection to a customer who came to her bookstore. His name, improbably even in the context of a film that left probability behind about 3 minutes after the opening credits, is Rembrandt and he is played by Michael Keaton. In classic movie fashion, they flirt by knowing the same poem. Rembrandt is a fixer for a very bad guy with many minions. And unlike many fixers, he is not above getting messy. Are Rembrandt and Anna going to fight each other or have a more intimate tussle? What do you think?

It wants to be as stylish as “John Wick,” but it is not. Director Martin Campbell wants to replicate the sexy sword fight as romantic foreplay of “The Mask of Zorro,” but with these characters and this level of hand-to-hand combat, it does not work as intended. The mystery isn’t much of a mystery and you will not need a quirky hacker to figure it out. This is a good thing as he isn’t around for long. Let’s face it; this movie is just an excuse for a lot of action, from extended stunts to out-of-the-blue murders. For me, the gore and the weird vibe between Anna and Rembrandt were so extreme they took me out of the film; for some others that will be the point.

Parents should know that this is an extremely violent and gory movie with many characters injured and killed and many graphic and disturbing images. There are fights, explosions, guns, and knives, torture tactics, and a lot of gushing blood. Characters use strong language and there are sexual references, some nudity, and a non-explicit situation.

Family discussion: Do you agree that it is a gift to have a friend who won’t offer help unless asked? How are Moody and Anna different from the people who hire them?

If you like this, try: “The Professional,” “Gunpowder Milkshake,” and “The Transporter”

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CODA

Posted on August 12, 2021 at 5:38 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for drug use, strong sexual content, and language
Profanity: Strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Bar fight, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021

Copyright 2021 AppleTV+
One of the smartest choices a filmmaker can make is to take a challenging universal human experience and heighten with with specific details and characters we care about. That is the case with “CODA,” the first film ever to win both the Audience Award and the Grand Prize at Sundance. It got the Directing Award as well. The challenging universal human experience at its center is leaving home, and all of the terror and identity-searching and family conflict it entails.

The heightening details are in the film’s title. CODA stands for (hearing) Children of Deaf Parents. If Deaf parents have a hearing child, there are immediate difficulties. First is making sure the child is around enough spoken language to learn to communicate in the hearing world. Second, as we see throughout this movie, is that in many ways even young children of Deaf parents have to act in an adult, even a parental role as they interpret for them. In an early amusing scene, Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) has to communicate the symptoms and treatment of her father’s jock itch in a doctor visit. The doctor tells her to explain to her parents that they cannot have sex for two weeks and she cannot resist telling them instead that they can never have sex again — before confessing that it’s just two weeks, which her father insists is impossible.

Ruby is a senior in high school and she also works in the family business, catching fish starting at 3:00 am. By the time she gets to school, she is exhausted.

Ruby wants to sing. She shyly signs up for the school chorus, but runs out when it is her turn to sing “Happy Birthday” so the teacher, Bernardo Villalobos (a terrific Eugenio Derbez) can hear her range. Later, she tries again and he can see she is untrained but gifted. He assigns her a duet (with the boy she likes, “Sing Street’s” Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Miles). And he offers to help prepare her for an audition to see if she can get into the Berklee College of Music. This comes just as the pressure on Ruby increases because her father is told he cannot take his boat out without a hearing person on board for safety reasons.

Writer/director Sian Heder (“Orange is the New Black”) has created a universal story in a very specific world with endearing characters and a vivid, lived-in world. Hearing people usually assume that the world of the Deaf is quiet, but it is the opposite; because they cannot hear, they do not try to muffle or avoid loud noises. This leads to more than one scene of complications, from frustrating to funny to both. The world of the fishing community also adds a lot of depth and color. Deaf actors Troy Kotsur as Ruby’s father, Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin as her mother, and Daniel Durant as her brother Leo are all excellent, with the one-on-one scenes with Ruby and her parents two of the film’s highlights. Jones is marvelous in a star-making role, lighting up the screen, making her ASL an integral part of her performance, and with a voice we know Berklee would be lucky to have on campus. The conclusion may not come as a surprise (especially as it is featured in the trailer for some unimaginable reason), but by that point we are rooting for newcomers Heder and Jones as much as we are for the endearing character they created.

Parents should know that this movie has strong and crude language, explicit and crude references to sex and body parts and explicit sexual situations, a bar fight, alcohol with scenes in a bar, and marijuana. There are tense family confrontations.

Family discussion: Did Ruby make the right decision? Why did her parents change their minds?

If you like this, try: “Children of a Lesser God” with Matlin’s Oscar-winning performance and “The Sound of Metal,” about a musician who loses his hearing, as well as “Blinded by the Light,” about a young would-be writer who loves Bruce Springsteen

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Respect

Posted on August 12, 2021 at 5:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, strong language including racial epithets, violence, suggestive material, and smoking
Profanity: Some strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and alcohol abuse, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Domestic abuse, scuffles, sad death of a parent, murder of Martin Luther King
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: August 13, 2021

Copyright MGM 2021
Let’s stipulate two incontrovertible truths: First, as dazzling as Jennifer Hudson is, she is not the once-to-a-planet gift that was Aretha Franklin, whose songs are so deeply embedded in our collective unconscious that we cannot help but hear it in our head and accept no substitutes. Long past her prime but every inch a diva of raise-the-rafters soul singing, the clip over the credits of Franklin singing “Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to songwriter Carole King (Franklin won her own Honor 21 years before), is breathtakingly thrilling. We see her bringing King and President Obama to tears, and I expect most will see that through their own.

Second, there are a lot of movies, many fact-based, with the theme: good woman, great songs, bad, bad men. For example: “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Piaf,” “Judy,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “The US vs. Billie Holiday”/”Lady Sings the Blues,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “A Song is Born,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It is a challenge to make that story new, especially after the take-down of the inevitable cliches of singer biopics that is the excellent “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.”

Despite these obstacles and a 2 1/2 hour running time, the Aretha Franklin story simply titled “Respect” is absorbing and entertaining. Hudson may not sing Aretha’s songs as well as she did, but the Oscar she got for her very first movie role in “Dreamgirls” was an accurate assessment of her acting skills and screen charisma. Director Liesel Tommy and writers Tracey Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri have skillfully shaped a complex, even epic story to skip over many relationships and crises to focus on two key themes, the songs and their depiction of Franklin’s evolving voice, first in music, then in activism, then on her own behalf, and finally and most fulfillingly, to connect to God.

We first see her as a young girl, living with her father (Forest Whitaker), a prominent preacher, her grandmother (Kimberly Scott), and her sisters and brother. She is used to being awakened to sing at her father’s parties, which include prominent activists and performers. Her parents are divorced and she wishes she could spend more time with her adored mother (Audra McDonald), but overall she is happy and secure. In a wonderful scene, her mother gets her to express her feelings by singing them.

And then two cataclysmic events literally strike her silent. She is molested and gives birth to a son at age 12 and another one two years later. And her mother died.

Music is what literally gives her voice back to her. She sings, and that leads her first to tour churches with her father and then to make her first record deal, with a label that wants her to be a jazz singer. She marries Ted White (Marlon Wayans), who is threatened by anyone she wants to work with and hits her. She works with Martin Luther King. And then she starts to get the hits she has wanted.

Hudson is never less than dazzling and the film manages to give a sense of the scope of the story without getting caught up in details like the husband it just skips over. The film is ultimately, yes, respectful, just as Miss Franklin hoped.

Parents should know that this film includes domestic abuse and child molestation, sexual references and non-explicit situations, substance abuse, very strong and racist language, and some violence.

Family discussion: Who treated Aretha Franklin well? Why were hits so important to her? What made her able to start standing up for herself?

If you like this, try: “Amazing Grace,” the documentary we see being filmed at the end of this movie, the documentary “Muscle Shoals,” and of course listen to Ms. Franklin’s music

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