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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The Suicide Squad

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense and gory violence with many disturbing and bloody, graphic images, characters injured and killed, comic book violence, guns, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 6, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers
Just to clarify: the 2016 film with Will Smith and Margot Robbie about the imprisoned DC Comics villains who are assembled into a “Dirty Dozen”-style team by a tyrannical official from a secret government agency is called “Suicide Squad.” This 2021 reboot is called “The Suicide Squad.” Got it?

“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” writer/director James Gunn takes over the franchise, and this is even more insouciantly nasty than the first one, relishing the carnage and ebulliently transgressive. Even the Warner Brothers logo is written in blood.

Viola Davis returns as Amanda Waller, who demonstrates her ruthlessness up front by delivering on her threat to detonate a chip that explodes the head of one of her supervillains who disobeys an order. “I wouldn’t take such extreme measures if this mission wasn’t more important than you could possibly imagine,” she says. It is “potentially cataclysmic for America and the world.” In other words, the ends justify the ultra-destructive means, including giving her license to murder her charges, not to mention giving them license to murder as well.

There are some new characters this time, including some younger villains to make it possible to include some jokes about millennials, or stereotypes, depending on your perspective. This crowd is defined by their inability to play well with others, but that is intensified here by the animosity between two alpha males, the walking weapon Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and the walking heavy bag and ironically named Peacemaker (John Cena). Also on board for some or all of the mission are a shark with legs, a second-generation rat-master, a guy with some serious mother issues who emits lethal polka dots, and of course, in what she says is her last appearance in the role, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

We can understand why. For all its many failings, the first “Suicide Squad” and “Birds of Prey” gave Harley Quinn what she has too seldom been given, an interesting character. She was damaged. And she was a villain. But a vestigial trace of her past life as a psychologist and a woman wronged gave her some complexity and even sympathy. She’s not as interesting here, more naughty than truly provocative. This movie is more interested in how many ways a human body can be exploded, beheaded, sliced down the middle, and otherwise dismembered than it is in anything else with the possible exception of a lot of macho posturing. It also fails to make the stakes meaningful with a worthy villain. Understandable, I suppose; it’s hard to out-villain the temporarily good bad guys. So, it’s is colorful and entertaining but lightweight and unmemorable.

NOTE: Stay for a mid-credit scene with an un-surprising surprise.

Parents should know that this movie ie extremely vulgar and gory with constant, extremely bloody peril and violence and many characters injured and killed. Characters use constant very strong language and the movie includes nudity and sexual references, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Suicide Squad comic books

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Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins

Posted on July 22, 2021 at 5:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 (Sequences of Strong Violence|Brief Strong Language)
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended , intense, sometimes graphic violence, martial arts, guns, swords, hand-to-hand combat, fire, many characters injured and killed including a child seeing his father murdered
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 18, 2021

Copyright Paramount 2021
Paramount is trying to Avenger-ize the G.I. Joe story, starting with origin films for the characters, and that is how we get the awkwardly titled “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe” origins. Of course the real origin of G.I. Joe is a 1960s Hasbro doll, I mean action figure, and now, following the animated television series, comic books, and two movies, it is described as a media franchise. That franchise has a number of characters. Snake Eyes is the mysterious human weapon, a black belt in 12 martial arts disciplines and a master of all kinds of small arms including guns and swords. Following injuries in a previous mission he could no longer speak and he had facial scars which led him to wear a helmet that covered his face most of the time. Little was known about his background because it was “classified.” Until now.

“20 years ago, Washington State” we are told as the movie begins with a young boy and his dad walking through the woods. “Is there a safe in the house?” the boy asks. He overheard his father saying something about a safe house, referring to a cabin where they were staying. But it was not a safe house. Bad guys arrive and kill the boy’s father after forcing him to roll the dice for his life. They came up with two ones: snake eyes. The boy is left alone.

We then move to present day, when the fighter only known as Snake Eyes is in the middle of a no-holds-barred underground bout. Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) takes over for Ray Park, who played Snake Eyes in the previous “G.I. Joe” movies. After the fight, a man offers Snake Eyes a job with an offer he cannot refuse, the only thing he wants — the man who killed his father.

His new boss is a weapons smuggler. Things go very wrong, and he ends up saving the life of Tommy (Andrew Koji), the wealthy heir to the Arashikage family, a Japanese klan of ninjas. They escape together and in gratitude Tommy brings Snake Eyes to the Arashikage compound and says they will train him as a ninja — if he can pass three tests, administered by the Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and the Blind Master (Peter Mensah). If Snake Eyes does not pass, he will die.

The tests are among the films highlights, along with some wow-worthy chases and action sequences. The martial arts scenes are dynamic and a lot of fun, with split-second timing and astonishing skill. I also enjoyed the shifting loyalties, depending on the demands of the moment, and the other iconic G.I. Joe characters, Scarlett (a performance of verve and wit from Samara Weaving) and the Baroness (Úrsula Corberó having a lot of fun).

Notice I did not mention the acting or the dialogue, neither of which are worth mentioning. There are some fortune cookie-isms like “If your heart is pure, our secrets will reveal themselves to you.” And I am not persuaded that the G.I. Joe-iverse can match the range of the MCU. But when it comes to summer action blockbusters, this one does the trick.

Parents should know that this is a very violent film with many characters injured and killed, featuring martial arts, guns, swords, fire, chases and explosions. It is what is called “action violence,” meaning not much gore or graphic images. A child witnesses the murder of his parent. There is brief strong language (one f-word).

Family discussion: How did the characters decide what their loyalties were? What did Snake Eyes learn from the first two tests? Do you agree with Sen’s decision about Tommy?

If you like this, try: the G.I. Joe movies and comics

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Black Widow

Posted on July 5, 2021 at 4:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 Some Language|Intense Violence/Action|Thematic Material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, references to torture and abuse of children, characters are assassins, chases, explosions, guns
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2021

Copyright 2021 Marvel Studios
We’ve waited a long time to find out how Natasha became the Black Widow. While we got to know the male Avengers through individual origin stories about Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man, Natasha was different. We first saw the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tied to a chair looking very much the victim as she was confronted by some vetough and powerful-looking men. But we learn, as they do, that she is very much in control of the situation. We also learn that unlike the other Avengers, she has no special powers from a radioactive spider-bite or government potion, some fancy equipment, or being born a god. She has her wits and courage and some of what Liam Neeson might call a very special set of skills. Through the Avengers films we saw that she was the heart of the group, kind, empathetic, willing to sacrifice herself out of a sense of integrity and, perhaps, redemption.

We wanted to know more. But it took time to persuade Marvel Studios, and then, just as we were all ready to get Natasha a film of her own, its release was delayed in the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic, so it was not until now, a year later, that it is finally here. Even with all that has gone on, “Black Widow” quickly puts us back in the world of the Avengers. And, it continues Marvel’s cleverest strategy, allowing each character to inhabit a world that is distinctive in tone and atmosphere as it maintains a clear, strong central sense of its world.

Who could have guessed that we would find Natasha in 1995 Ohio? But that is where we start, a young girl with blue hair (Ever Anderson, a believable young Johansson) riding her bicycle home at dinner time. She greets her younger sister affectionately, and then, when the littler girl hurts her knee, their mother, like mothers since mothers began, kisses it to make it better. But this mother does something a little different. She tells her daughters that pain makes you stronger. And then what seems like a typical suburban family dinner turns out more than a little different. The father comes home and tells the family something they have clearly prepared for has happened and they have to leave right away. And they do leave, the house and the country, in an exciting, if improbably escape. We will soon learn that this may not meet any traditional definition of “family” at all. Indeed, questions about what is family and what we need from families is as central to this film as the chases, fights, exotic locations, and fight scenes.

We skip ahead 21 years from that wild escape. Natasha is living off the grid following the “divorce” of the Avengers. She is considered an enemy following the assassination of King T’Chaka of Wakanda in “Captain America: Civil War.” But a package from Yelena (Florence Pugh) brings her back into the fight. Starting with a fight with Yelena herself, one of the film’s highlights. The scenes with the two of them crackle and bolster hope that the rumors of a Yelena affiliation with the Avengers.

Director Cate Shortland balances the action scenes — a prison break is a highlight — with family moments that are sometimes very funny (wait for Yelena on The Pose, and David Harbour as Natasha’s closest equivalent to a “good father”) and sometimes touching (Rachel Weisz as the mother equivalent, a pig-experimenting scientist who takes time to add a dramatic smokey eye when she dons a jumpsuit for action).

And of course there is a powerful adversary with a high-tech lair and a private army that holds the key to Natasha’s persona. It tells you all you need to know that those scenes are fine, but will likely leave you waiting a little impatiently for the next moments with the family, reminding us again that family may be frustrating, may even be dysfunctional, but those we are born into and those we choose are still where home is.

Parents should know that as with all superhero movies, this included extended peril and action, which characters injured and killed. There is some strong language and references to forced sterilization.

Family discussion: Why did Natasha take a different path than other people around her? Is there a key to unlocking fear?

If you like this, try: the Avengers movies and some of Johansson’s other films like “Jojo Rabbit,” “Her,” and “Hail, Ceasar”

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Days of the Bagnold Summer

Posted on February 22, 2021 at 11:37 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Reference to marijuana, teen drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Family stress and confrontations
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 20, 2021
Copyright 2019 Greenwich Entertainment

“I’m afraid you’re stuck with boring old me for six weeks, but we’ll have fun,” Sue Bagnold says with gentle cheeriness. Her 15-year-old son Daniel (do not call him Danny) is as irritated by her cheeriness as he is by his situation. His parents are divorced and he was supposed to visit his father in Florida for summer vacation. But his father’s new wife is expecting a baby and they have canceled the visit. Daniel is stuck in his house in an English suburb, expressing his extreme dissatisfaction with the world by wearing Metallica t-shirts and ignoring, blaming, or insulting his mother. How dare she be cheerful? How dare she expect him to do stuff? How dare she keep offering him food? And how dare she go on a date with his history teacher?

Those of us of a certain age will identify with both characters. Anyone who has survived adolescence has experienced the crushing combination of superiority (these feelings are new to me so no one else has ever felt them, and I am uniquely aware of the hypocrisy and meaninglessness of the world) and constant humiliation (why is it so hard to connect to people?). Daniel (Earl Cave) is at that stage, almost as excruciating for him as for those around him, when expressing disdain for just about everything seems like it will make him feel better, or at least stronger. And Sue (Monica Dolan) is at that stage when she Googles “sad boy parents divorced” and keeps hoping to find a glimpse of the sweet boy she once knew.

All of this is presented with great charm in “Days of the Bagnold Summer,” and I found myself smiling through it all. This is not a movie about confrontations or revelations. It is about small moments, tenderly observed, and it gives full attention and understanding to all of the characters, even the one whose behavior is most inexcusable.

Those moments include Sue’s first date since her divorce. The man who asks Sue out, is played with just the right oily charm by Rob Brydon (“The Trip” movies). And there is a well-intentioned day trip to the seaside, with the kind of activities young Danny would have loved, but Daniel finds boring and pointless.    Daniel has just one friend, Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott), and their falling out is the essence of 15-year-old awkward communication failure. Ky’s mother Astrid (the divine Tamsin Grieg having a very fine time) is something of a flower child, all about energies and auras and Reiki. 

I liked the subtlety of the characters’ growth, and the way that even experiences that seem painful or frustrating at the time bring Sue and Daniel together. Each finds an unexpected way to express feelings too long kept concealed, and find that connections with other help them reconnect in a way that may not be as uncomplicated as before but for that reason is more satisfying and even sweeter. Even when Sue and Daniel do not like spending time with each other, we like spending time with them, and it is satisfying for us to see them find their way forward.

Parents should know that this film includes teen drinking and references to marijuana. Themes include family struggles and divorce.

Family discussion: How should Sue have treated Daniel? What do we learn from her visit to Astrid? Why do Sue and Astrid have different ideas about their sons?

If you like this, try: The graphic novel by Joff Winterhart and “Sing Street”

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