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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

After dominating the cinemas for over the last decade, Marvel took 2020 off thanks to that great menace even its own superheroes couldn’t overpower. Now in 2021, we’re eager for those big popcorn thrills of old, of a time before lockdowns and denials and vaccine misinformation. There’s a gauntlet of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies coming down the chute, including The Eternals (November), Spider-Man 3 (December), Doctor Strange 2 (March), Thor 4 (May), Black Panther 2 (July), and Captain Marvel 2 (November). That’s eight movies from July 2021 to November 2022, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings might just be the one that has the least recognition with the general public (I had never heard of him, sorry). And yet, I entered a theater for the first time in two months to see Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster on the big screen, and as the MCU’s first foray into the fantastical world of martial arts epics, Shang-Chi is a mostly agreeable success in the realm of expert face punching.

Shang-Chi (Simu Lei) is the son of a very dangerous and powerful man, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who has lived for thousands of years thanks to the power of ten magic rings that give him tremendous power to annihilate armies. Shang-Chi ran away as a teenager, leaving his sister Xialing (Meng-er Zhang) behind. She sends word requesting her brother’s assistance; dear old dad is on the warpath, and the two siblings might be the only ones who can stop him. Shang-Chi, living as Shawn in San Francisco, is trying to avoid larger responsibility as a valet with his good pal Katy (Awkwafina). However, he cannot ignore the assassins his father has sent, and so he and Katy travel back to China to regroup with Shang-Chi’s sister and face his destiny.

This is the most fantasy-heavy movie of a universe that previously defined the magic from the Thor universe as just another advanced form of science. The entire third act looks like it’s taking place in Narnia itself; legitimately, the color palate and overly lit, CGI-assisted green landscapes reminded me so much of the 2005 adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ novel. Within the extended prologue over the history of the ten rings, the movie is acclimating you toward its larger-than-life universe that it treats with sincerity and graceful appreciation. The courtship of Shang-Chi’s parents is handled in that flirt-fight style reminiscent in classic martial arts films, and the balletic wire work and dreamy slow-motion, set to the soothing flute-heavy musical score, evokes romantic memories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Very early on, the work goes into convincing you that Marvel is taking this assignment seriously, and I appreciated that assurance and the follow-through. From a pure filmmaking standpoint, Shang-Chi works as a martial arts action film because it’s filmed and edited like one should be. The camerawork is vividly fluid and consistently roaming around the space of battle to better showcase the choreography and effort of the performers. The editing is also likewise very smooth and patient, with lots of longer takes blending together so that we can see multiple moves and counter moves, and if there are throws, we’ll travel with the fighters to continue the fight. I enjoyed a fight taking place on multiple levels of scaffolding. It all made my girlfriend nauseated in our theater, so you might be affected as well if you have a susceptibility to cinematic motion sickness. This movie allows you in on the martial arts fun.

I wasn’t expecting this kind of leap from co-writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton. This man was responsible for one of the best films of 2013, and the 2010s-decade, Short Term 12, which starred (drumroll please) future Oscar-winner Brie Larson, future Oscar-winner Rami Malek, future Oscar-nominee LaKeith Stanfield, Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn 99, In the Heights) and the best-known actor at the time of release, John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom). Wow that cast is an all-timer. This is like the Millennial Outsiders with a cast of up-and-coming actors who have gone on to ascendant and award-winning careers. It’s also a hard-hitting, deeply emotional and upending movie worth your time. Cretton has stuck to adult dramas based upon real stories of people struggling through the justice system (Just Mercy) and parental dysfunction (The Glass Castle). A big-budget martial arts epic I wasn’t expecting, and perhaps the Marvel Machine makes it easy for indie auteurs to plug right in, but it feels like Cretton clearly has an affection and at least a tacit understanding of favorable stylistic genre choices. At this point I shouldn’t discount what filmmakers can make those big artistic leaps with a studio project. James Gunn can go from Super to the Guardians of the Galaxy, and so Cretton can go from Short Term 12 to helming a large-scale, CGI-heavy martial arts fantasy.

Another aspect I found pleasantly surprising was the amount of work put into its primary villain and the ensuring father/son dynamic. I’m not going to say that Xu Wenwu, a.k.a. The Real Mandarin, is one of the more complicated or nuanced villains in MCU history, but he’s given more dimension than a simple “destroy and/or conquer the world” motivation. In fact, that was the motivation for the man before he met Jiang Li (Fela Chen), Shang-Chi’s eventual mother. Real Mandarin (or RN as I’ll refer to him because I’m lazy) was going about the whole conquer and raze kingdoms thing for thousands of years, establishing another one of those all-powerful yet still clandestine and very vague shadow societies pulling the levers of power. He found a person who made him want to reform, to put his old ways of violence behind, and it’s her death that spurs him back to his views of power absolving all conflicts, so the most powerful is the one who can have the most say and protect the people close to him or her. If he had the full power of those ten rings, ordinary gangsters wouldn’t have dared to threaten or harm his loved ones. He trained his son to follow by example, and despite the fact that he sent trained killers after his son rather than a more constructive and clearer message, RN declares his love for his children. He is moving forward to return his beloved back to the land of the living. Being motivated by grief and wanting to see a departed loved one no matter the cost is a relatable struggle and one that brings degrees of nuance that Leung can imbue with his great pained, hangdog expressions. Having a father be the villain but still love his children and be primarily motivated by bringing back his dead wife and honestly assessing how she made him a better person is a breath of fresh-ish air.

Liu (Kim’s Convenience) is easily charming and demonstrates a sharp affinity for the martial arts training and choreography. With the longer takes and clean edits, it’s clear that Liu is performing many of the moves, and he moves with great skill and balance to believably crack some skulls. A fight aboard a city bus is our real intro into seeing this man as he’s avoided, as a well-trained fighting machine, the identity of his father that he’s been attempting to run away from. Liu has a self-effacing charm to him that doesn’t cross over into smug. Awkwafina (The Farewell) is her reliable comic relief asset, though too often the movie resorts to just spotlighting her for a riff or one-liner when the context doesn’t provide the opportunity. It’s rather mystifying why her supporting character, a normal human, would accompany her pal into the word of underground martial arts ninja conspiracy fantasy, let alone that she could take up a bow and arrow and becomes a valuable member of a fighting force. Leung (2046, The Grandmaster) is just movie royalty, so getting him to read the phone book would have been an acceptable start. He sits out for long periods and his absence is noted. He brings such a heaviness, a quiet yet dignified despondency to the character, and there are several instances where he undersells his character’s danger and power, which just makes him so much more intimidating. I feel like Leung is finding connections with the somber, brooding heartache of his War Kong Wai roles, and yes film nerds, I just made that connection for a Marvel movie.

Not everything quite works in this MCU outing. There are several jumps in the screenplay that feel like further revision or clarity were necessary. I don’t really know why Shang-Chi is finally able to take on his father at the end except for some abstract concept of, I guess, believing in himself more. The power of the rings feels a little too unexplored for deserving of the movie’s subtitle. The rings come almost as an afterthought for much of the movie. There are a few moments where I was trying to connect how characters understood what they were supposed to do in any given moment, and I just gave up, which is kind of what the film also feels like it’s doing. There are clear characters included with the sole decision to sell merchandise. I don’t know if the nation’s children will be screaming for a faceless winged furry ottoman but that’s the gamble Marvel execs took and by God, you’re going to get many appearances. The sister addition to the movie feels decidedly undernourished, like she’s drafting from the father/son relationship that’s getting all the narrative attention. It feels like occasionally the movie pans to her to nod and go, “Oh yeah, me too.” The visual color palate is so brightly colored for so long, and then once the big splashy Act Three battle commences between CGI good and CGI evil, the visuals become so grey and murky and definitely hard to keep track of in the scrum. I wish the fantasy rules were more streamlined and explored rather than feeling grafted on when needed and forgotten when inconvenient, but this is their first foray into this sub-genre of action and while Marvel doesn’t need a sliding scale at this point, it’s still a moderate achievement.

Look, this isn’t exactly The Raid or Ip Man or anything that will challenge the most heart-pounding, intense, acrobatic heights of the crossover martial arts epic. Consider it a solid effort at watering down a Hero or House of Flying Daggers and switching over to the typical Marvel formula final act complete with onslaught of weightless CGI. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a fun action movie that does just enough right to land it in the cushy middle-of-the-middle for the annuls of the MCU (I would rank it around the level of Black Panther). The fight choreography and presentation, as well as the exploration of the father/son dynamics, are surprisingly refined, which is good considering one provides the entertainment value for the eyes and the other the emotional connection for everything to matter more than flashes of punches and kicks and fireballs. It doesn’t transcend its genre or the tried-and-true Marvel formula, but it’s packed with enough to even keep a casual fan entertained for most of its 130 minutes. It’s more of a one-off that doesn’t require extensive knowledge of the two dozen other MCU titles, so Shang-Chi might be just the right Saturday morning cartoon of a movie to introduce new people to the larger world of Marvel movies.

Nate’s Grade: B

F9: The Fast Saga (2021)

Has a multi-billion-dollar franchise ever had this much confusion and inconsistency with a name? The Fast and Furious saga, which is what we’re now calling it I suppose, began twenty years ago in 2001 and has undergone all sorts of titular irregularity. We’ve had different adjectives favored (Fast Five, Furious 7) and even gone the route of number-related wordplay, like 2018’s very soap opera-sounding The Fate of the Furious (spelled F8 in some incarnations). The ninth entry is titled F9, and by the logic of the previous sequel, I would assume that was intended to stand for “Fff-nine,” or likely “Fine,” and at this point an implicit admission of the franchise just not even trying to be relatable to any kind of recognizable pattern or order or even coherency. Alas, the title is apparently only supposed to be read as F-9, followed by the also soap opera-sounding The Fast Saga subtitle (sorry, “Furious,” maybe you’ll regain credit billing in the tenth movie in 2023). Maybe that will include the soap opera-sounding subtitle, “As the Wheels Spin.” It’s all just a curious way to handle name recognition for a twenty-year blockbuster franchise. F9 was delayed a year from COVID, a phrase that will be repeated a lot with upcoming fall releases, and after watching the 130-minute sequel, I think the franchise has finally exhausted its general appeal for me.

I’ll begin by stating my own apologist stance on the Fast saga. I’ve never been invested in this franchise for the characters (with the exception of The Rock because he is The Rock) or for the stories, and I doubt few others who even consider themselves fans would differ. I watch these movies for their ridiculous stunts and action set pieces that don’t just defy the laws of physics but make the ghost of Isaac Newton vomit. As long as those action set pieces delivered the goods, I was able to forgive much. And I have had to ignore or forgive a lot but until now I have found those set pieces able to clear an increasingly elevating hurdle, the baggage of these characters and trying to make me care even as they become impervious superheroes that have long left the earthbound trappings of a scrappy team of underground street racers lead by Vin Diesel back in 2001. Now Diesel is 54, every member of his beloved crew/family will never die even after they appear to die, and the filmmakers have decided to introduce a long-lost adult brother played by John Cena, never mind the fact that these two muscle men don’t look like they share a single shred of DNA. It doesn’t matter, and the question remains what even matters any longer for a franchise defined by its brain-melting excess? It’s a soap opera with spy missions. It’s dumb fun to eat popcorn to. That’s all.

I acknowledge the inherent absurdity in bemoaning the over-the-top nature of a franchise whose very appeal was its over-the-top nature. It’s hard to define but every movie universe has a line of sustainable believability. Once that line is crossed, you feel it. The Fast saga has played with this tenuous tonal demarcation line for over a decade. In the eighth movie, the cars were outracing a nuclear submarine and cracking ice floes and The Rock redirected a torpedo with his biceps. That’s crazy, but remember The Rock is a superhero among us mere mortals. In the seventh movie, the cars parachuted out of a cargo plane and drove through skyscrapers. In the sixth movie, they faced off against a tank. And yet, I happily accepted those flights of fancy because they kept me entertained ahead of that nagging sense of incredulity that they were able to somehow outrace. With F9, even with the return of director Justin Lin (Fast 3-6), it feels like the franchise finally crossed that line for me. I completely understand any reader that wants to point and shout “hypocrisy.” In the arms race of action imagination where the producers have had to come up with bigger and more wild set pieces, I think they have inevitably gone from self-parody into ironic self-aware self-parody and back into self-parody again. The best way I can describe it is with the two Expendables movies. The first was amusing action bravado self-parody but then the second film tried to be in on the joke, and all the winking “we get it too” meta commentary just sapped all the enjoyment out of it. The same thing happened with the two so-bad-they’re-good Birdemic disaster movies, with the first a sincere bad movie, and the second trying to be an ironic bad movie, and it just wasn’t the same. The appeal was gone. For me, F9 is the signal that this franchise has begun its descent into Birdemic 2 range and yes, they go to space in a space car and isn’t that what all us irony-drenched fans wanted? It’s like the disappointing be-careful-what-you-wish-for warning of Snakes on a Plane all over again.

Another factor that sank the movie for me was the inclusion of the long-lost brother storyline, especially considering the Diesel character is all about the vague platitude of family. In order to justify this significant oversight, the storyline has to resort to numerous flashbacks to fill in the sordid family details between the feuding brothers. I cannot overstate just how much I do not care about the characters in this franchise, so devoting more time to introducing complicated family histories with melodramatic flashbacks is not what I want to experience during the downtime in between the next explosion. By trying to take these characters and their relationships seriously, or seriously enough, we’re forced to slog through personal drama nobody asked for or actively desires. Better to embrace the soap opera absurdity and just have Cena show up and then every other set piece another long-lost brother shows up, and then we keep cutting back to the same singular flashback but now it’s revealed that another brother was there too previously unseen on the peripheral of the camera. The same thing goes for having to bend over backwards to explain the re-emergence of Han (Sun Kang), a character killed in the sixth/third movie by the-then bad guy (Jason Statham) that we like too much now to be the bad guy. I don’t care that he’s alive again, and the convoluted yet still unsatisfying vague plot to explain his fake death is unwanted as well. Apparently, the only character who will remain legitimately dead in this series is Gal Gadot (for now).

For the hard-core fans, there may be enough nitro juice in F9 to still provide a satisfying jolt of high-octane entertainment. Lin still has a nice command on action sequence visuals and there’s some large-scale carnage that tickles even while it’s undermining every concept of magnetism. Unfortunately, the joy I felt with previous action incarnations from the series was not recaptured this time. It just doesn’t feel as memorable, at least in a positive way. Going to space is memorable, but not in a positive way, unless they had to race a universe of aliens on the moon to save the Earth. I genuinely like Cena as an actor, but he’s far too strait-laced and dull here. Watch the recent Suicide Squad reboot to be reminded just how charming and comically talented he can be in the right role. Diesel seems to be putting less and less effort into every performance almost like a dare to the audience on how little they will accept. There were a few shots I watched where I felt like he was on the verge of going to sleep. The villain is lame, the movie has too many competing comic relief characters, and it’s all too long. I’ve been a defender of the blockbuster bombast of the Fast saga. I’ve considered myself a fan of its outlandish set pieces and ludicrous stunts. I’ve been able to ignore what didn’t work. Alas, the time has come where I can no longer do that. I just felt mostly indifferent and bored for much of F9, and its action highlights couldn’t save the extra emphasis on convoluted soap opera melodrama. Your mileage will vary as far as what you can forgive, but F9 feels like the appropriate off-ramp for me.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Suicide Squad (2021)

When Disney foolishly fired writer/director James Gunn for offensive past tweets, tweets the studio had already known about before hiring him to helm the first Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel movie, the brass at DC was more than happy to pounce. They offered Gunn the opportunity to tackle any of their many superhero properties. Gunn had earned a reputation as a blockbuster filmmaker whose bizarre sense of humor and style made him just as much as selling point as the property itself. Gunn gravitated to the Suicide Squad, though he didn’t want to be beholden to the 2016 film from writer/director David Ayer. The studio gave Gunn free reign. He could do whatever he wanted creatively, which just happened to be an extremely violent, R-rated sequel that also serves as a soft reboot. Gunn was the perfect person to tackle a project like The Suicide Squad and even with all his goofy humor, gallons of gore, and slapdash dispatching of numerous big names, there’s a real affection for these scruffy characters. Not that there was a big hurdle to clear, but this is clearly the superior big screen Suicide Squad.

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has assembled another team of criminals and has-beens and tasked them with a mission. If they fail, or deviate from their orders, she will detonate an explosive placed within the skulls of Task Force X a.k.a. the Suicide Squad. Skilled marksman Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is extorted into being the defacto leader of a band of squabbling misfits that includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the patriotic warrior Peacemaker (John Cena), the vermin-controlling Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior), and even a giant living shark, King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), with a voracious appetite. The squad must destroy a scientific station on an island nation that has undergone a military coup and great political instability. Within that station, run by mad scientist The Thinker (Peter Capaldi), is a threat that could doom the world. Enter the Suicide Squad, but can they even be bothered to save the day?

It feels like Gunn wanted to take the most ridiculous, pathetic characters in DC cannon and then find a way to make them appealing and worth rooting for. There is a strategy to take the scraps of the comic book universe and to make gold out of them. Case in point, Polka Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), a figure easily ridiculed by fans and populating just about every list of the worst villains of comic book lore. Gunn takes the maligned character and says, “Yeah, I’m going to keep his dumb power of flinging polka dots, and by the end, you’re going to care,” and you do care, or at least I did over the course of the film’s 132 minutes. Gunn is drawn to strange, dysfunctional found families, the misfits of society who find an unexpected kinship with one another. You can tell that even when Gunn is at his most irreverent, he still has an acute sense of reverence. The team-comes-together aspect of these sort of movies plays as a predictable but satisfying formula, and while I wouldn’t say anything took hold of my emotions like the best of the Guardians entries, I did come to care about the core of the team. I cared about the father/daughter dynamic between Bloodsport and Ratcatcher. I cared about Polka Dot Man coming into his own as a hero. I cared about King Shark feeling like he had a group of friends. The fact that I typed those last two sentences, which would sound insane absent context, is a testament to Gunn’s strengths.

The climactic villain, whom I will not spoil, is the greatest example of making the most with the least. It is immediately goofy to the point of laughter but still threatening and creepy. Gunn has taken one of the weirdest characters in comics and given it its due. Even by the end, as this villain is vanquished (not a spoiler), the movie finds a small moment to re-contextualize this absurd character as another victim. It was happier before being kidnapped and experimented upon by its devious captors. Even that extra passing consideration is impressive.

The movie also lets its weirdos have their fun. Watching bad guys, who are somewhat bad at being bad guys, try their hand at being good guys, but badly, or at least not as well, has plenty of comedic possibility as well as setting up the redemption and community payoff. The opening beach assault sets the sardonic and sloppy tone. I consistently enjoyed the contentious banter between the different members of the Squad and the jockeying for position. The gag about Polk Dot Man envisioning every enemy as his abusive mother is enjoyably goofy when visualized from his perspective (Elba’s line reading for “It’s YOUR MOM!” is a delight). King Shark’s dullard nature is a routine source of comedy that almost wears out its welcome. Nothing seems out of bound for him to say or do, whereas the others have more defined comedy boundaries. I laughed out loud frequently though some of the comedy bits feel a bit too stale and juvenile even for Gunn (a 69 joke?). This all feels very much like this is Gunn’s $180-million-dollar Troma movie he miraculously got to make with a studio blessing. The violence is over-the-top, occasionally gasp-inducing and occasionally beautiful. That’s an odd but an adept combination for Gunn as a filmmaker, a man who digs into the grimy bins of exploitation cinema and elevates it upon a bigger stage while still managing to stay true to his own silly style.

Gunn hasn’t dulled the darker reality of his rogue’s gallery either. Bloodsport and Peacemaker get into a macho contest of killing foot soldiers in increasingly theatrical and flamboyant ways where their flippancy and hostility toward one another is the joke. King Shark is portrayed as a dumb brute who also tries to eat team members. Many, many characters have similar back-stories where their parent or guardian or captor experimented on them and live with the lingering trauma, trying not to have their pain define them. The 2016 movie wanted you to see the Squad as PG-13-approved antiheroes. The 2021 movie wants you to remember that they are indeed crazy, demented, dangerous, and murderers. Even Peacemaker, meant to evoke shades of the patriotic Captain America, says he will ensure peace “no matter how many men, women, and children I have to kill.” Harley isn’t fetishized as a punky pinup in short shorts like in 2016 (digitally shortened), but she’s still a psychopath who makes impulsive decisions. Her recognition about always falling for the wrong kind of man is a mixture of sadness, character growth, and a clear reminder that you should not let down your guard around this woman.

Spending time with these characters is made even better from the superb casting. Elba (Hobbes and Shaw) is the biggest welcomed addition; his character was likely initially intended to be the continuation of Will Smith’s Deadshot. Elba is charismatic and self-effacing and handles the comedy and action with equal measures of confidence. When he loses his patience, or opens up about his hidden phobia, it’s even more amusing because of how it contrasts with how naturally suave he is as a default setting. I wasn’t missing Will Smith at all with Elba and his natural accent. Robbie (Bombshell) was born to play Harley Quinn and should hopefully get many more opportunities. Cena (Fast and Furious 9) is so natural at comedy and slides comfortably into a macho blowhard coming into conflict with the other alpha males on the Squad. I loved the simple visual of him strutting around in vacation shorts for a long period of the second act. Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) is always excellent and might be the scariest character of them all. There are many joke characters played by actors firmly in on the tongue-in-cheek game.

As a second chance at franchise-making, The Suicide Squad is a brash, bloody, and irreverent retake and the best DCU movie yet from a studio that seems to be throwing anything at the wall to see what potentially sticks. That has its benefits, like allowing Gunn the creative freedom to make a movie this crazy and schlocky and entertaining. It’s a shame, then, that this Squad movie looks like it will make a whopping hundred million less in its opening weekend at the box-office compared to its 2016 predecessor. It’s a sign that the traditional theatrical market hasn’t quite rebounded from COVID-19 (even Marvel’s own doesn’t look like it will crack $200 million domestic). It may also be a sign that audiences are not terribly interested about a sequel to a movie they didn’t really care for five years prior. Beforehand, I would have bet even money that the studio would give a blank check to bring Gunn back for more after he fulfills Guardians of the Galaxy volume 3 for Marvel, but maybe that’s not the case. Maybe The Suicide Squad will be more of an entertaining one-off than the start of a new direction for this lagging franchise. Regardless, if anything good came of Disney firing Gunn on dubious terms, it’s the existence of this movie in the interim for the in-demand filmmaker. While not everything works in The Suicide Squad, and the emotional depth is sacrificed for giddy gory bombast, it’s what you would hope for with the combination of James Gunn, wacky superheroes, and a commitment to an R-rating.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Jungle Cruise (2021)

Disney turned a theme park ride that mostly involved sitting into a billion-dollar supernatural adventure franchise, so why not try another swing at reshaping its existing park properties into would-be blockbuster tentpoles? Jungle Cruise owes a lot to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and actually owes a little too much for its own good. For the first half of the movie, it coasts on the charms of stars Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt and some light-footed visual misadventures. Then the second half turn involves a significant personal revelation, and that’s where the movie felt like it was being folded and crushed into form to closely resemble the Pirates franchise. It gets quite convoluted and littered with lackluster villains, too many and too stock to ever establish as intriguing or memorable (one of them is a man made of honey, so that’s a thing). I found myself also pulling away in the second half because of the inevitable romance. Their screwball combative banter between Johnson and Blunt gave me some smiles and entertainment and then, as they warm to one another, it sadly dissipated, as did my interest. The comedy is really labored at points. Johnson keeps referring to Blunt as “Pants” because she’s a woman and she wears pants in the twentieth century. It was not funny the first time and it’s not funny or endearing after the 80th rendition. The supernatural elements and curses feel extraneous and tacked on. With the Pirates films, at least the good ones, there are a lot of plot elements they need to keep in the air and you assume they’re be able to land them as needed. The competing character goals were so well established and developed in those movies and served as an anchor even amid the chaos of plot complications and double and triple crosses. With Jungle Cruise, it feels like a lot of effort but also a lot of dropped or mishandled story and thematic elements. This feels more creatively by committee and the heavily green screen action is harder to fully immerse with. As a wacky adventure serial, there may be enough to keep a viewer casually entertained, but Jungle Cruise feels too beholden to the Pirates formula without bringing anything exciting or fresh on its own imagination merits.

Nate’s Grade: C

Gunpowder Milkshake (2021)

The reason we typically watch crime/action movies is for the slick style, the gonzo action, and the over-the-top characters cutting loose in the most violent of manners. We watch these movies to capture that whiff of cool, something flashy and entertaining with its eye-popping combo of sight and sound. Think Snatch, and Drive, and Atomic Blonde, and what appears to be the upcoming James Gunn Suicide Squad sequel. By these standards of stylized violence and colorful anti-heroes, Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake falls too flat to be duly satisfying.

Sam (Karen Gillan) is a hired killer working for the secretive order, The Firm. Her handler (Paul Giamatti) has accidentally assigned her the son of a commanding mobster who now demands vengeance. Her lone way to keep the protection of her employers is to kill a man who robbed them, which she does, but then regrets her actions. The troubled man had stolen the money to pay the kidnappers ransoming his daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). Sam decides to get involved and save this girl, and in doing so loses protection. The scornful mobster sends teams of goons to track Sam and kill her, forcing her to find refuge with her absentee mother (Lena Headey).

The problem with playing in this stylized sandbox is having little to back up the attitude and style. Admittedly, those two aspects go far in a sub-genre dominated by appearances, but if you just have tough-looking shells of characters posturing and acting tough, it doesn’t matter how much style you dump onto the screen, it will only distract for only so long. The characters in Gunpowder Milkshake are so powerfully bland and all adhere to the same lone character trait. They’re all glib and badass and brusque and smug and fairly boring. It’s like somebody took the John Wick universe of clandestine killers and copied and pasted the same default personality.

If everyone is super cool, and super deadly, and super nonchalant, then you need to put even more work into making the characters stand apart. They’ll need specific quirks, competing goals, faults and obsessions, some key nub of characterization even if its superficial (a guy with one eye he’s insecure about it, etc.). With Gunpowder Milkshake, there’s nothing to work with. The screenwriters made this so much harder on themselves. I guess we’re merely supposed to be won over by the casting and the imagery of these bad ladies holding powerful weaponry. The protagonist is boring. She is the familiar hired killer who grows an inconvenient conscience. That’s an acceptable starting point but the moral growth is hindered when her young charge, the little girl that forces her paradigm shift, wants to be her apprentice to learn to kill people. The fraught mother/daughter relationship resorts to a lot of “I didn’t want this life for you,” “It’s the only life I’ve known” roundabout conversations, and neither furthers our understanding of either side.

With all that being said, there are moments of bloody fun that can be enjoyed. There’s a middle portion of the movie that gave me hope the film had transformed. At one point, Sam is indisposed and unable to use her arms, which dangle without any muscle control. She’s about to be beset by angry if bruised bad guys and must plan what to do. The resulting clash is a burst of creative choreography and an excellent demonstration of Sam’s resourcefulness and drive. Watching her dispatch a dozen armed men so indifferently, always knowing where and when to turn and dodge is not nearly as entertaining or engaging as watching her struggle and solve a problem. This sequence is extended and makes clever use of its location and the elements that would be available. Then we go a step further, as Sam and her youngster must drive a car to flee except the uncontrollable arm problem persists. Sam will pump the pedals and give directions while Emily sits on her lap and turns the steering wheel. This made me excited. We had organic complications and potential solutions that involved both characters having to rely upon one another. That is solid screenwriting and finding a way to spice up an ordinary parking garage chase sequence. By the end of this sequence, my hopes started to dwindle because Sam reverted to her earlier super cool, impervious version. She knew every exact move to make, and the small-scale car chase started losing my interest even with the extra driving dynamic. I wish the filmmakers could analyze how these sequences differed to better harness that creative surge.

The concluding act of Gunpowder Milkshake is a deluge of false climaxes and waves of bad guys that never pose any discernible threat. It all feels too repetitive and like a video game. This group of people need to be killed, and then this next group of people need to be killed, and then this next next group of people need to be killed, and I just started getting bored. There is the occasional fun burst of violence and style, but the enemies are stock and dispensable, so it doesn’t feel like it matters what the numbers are. Whether it’s a dozen or a thousand, nothing really seems to matter because our super team of badass women will never be stopped. If you’re going to establish the protagonists as so far ahead of their competition, then work needs to be done to provide another outlet for audience interest. Use that time to explore the peculiarities of the cracked-universe world, like in the John Wick franchise. Use that time to meaningfully push the characters toward personal confrontations with one another. Alas, it’s all slapdash style with the same dead-eyed cool stare from start to finish (with the noted exception above). The entire final act could have been five minutes or fifty. It’s filler violence until the director tires out.

The cast is blameless and eminently watchable. I’ve been a fan of Gillan’s since her early Doctor Who days, and it’s been fun to watch her come into her own with the major spotlight afforded from franchises like Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji. She’s more than capable of kicking ass and looking cool doing so but this is the thinnest of characters. Once Sam chooses to put her safety at risk to save an innocent girl, it’s the end of her character growth. I suppose you can argue everything she does from there further proves the lengths she will go to solidify this important choice. Gillan deserves a worthy star vehicle. It’s fun to watch Angela Bassett, Michell Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Headey push back with a grin against the misogyny of the overconfident wicked men who wish to do them harm. I wish they were better integrated into the world to have more significance other than as old allies who double as a weapons depot. There’s only so many guns-in-books jokes you can have before it too feels overdone.

For fans of stylized violence, there may be enough cooking with Gunpowder Milkshake to meet out its near two-hour investment. The neon-infused, candy-colored production design and cinematography can enliven moments. The actors are fun to watch. Some of the fighting is brutally choreographed and cleverly executed, like the sequence where Gillan has no control over her arms. It’s got slow-mo violence set to wailing pop music tracks. If you’re looking for a pretty movie with some style, then it might be enough. If, however, you’re looking for a movie with interesting characters with memorable personalities, well-developed action with variance, and a story with a nice array of twists and turns and payoffs, then maybe look elsewhere.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Black Widow (2021)

If you ask anyone who their least favorite Avenger is, every one of those participants will have the same exact answer: Hawkeye. If you ask that same group who is their second least favorite Avenger, chances are that a clear majority are going to next say Black Widow. The character has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2010 in Iron Man 2, a full decade of idling to gain her solo movie to the point it became a long-running question in the fanbase. Then they killed the character in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and then also announced she would be getting her solo movie, and the fanbase said, “Wait, now?” Delayed a full year thanks to COVID-19, Black Widow is Marvel’s first theatrical release in almost two years and will likely benefit from some low expectations and eagerness to get back to the big screen spectacle of summer movies.

It’s not Black Widow’s fault that she’s paired with a super soldier, essentially Batman in a flying suit, a nigh indestructible god, and a giant raging id monster. There’s a significant gap between that upper tier of the super powered Avengers and the two non-powered members, Lady with Guns and Guy with Bow and Arrow. It’s hard to compete with all of that, and the glimpses we’ve been given with previous MCU movies haven’t exactly been the most nuanced or dimensional for Black Widow (remember her dubbing herself a “monster” because the state took away her ability to bear children?). We’ve had hints about past troubles and regrets, but it’s never been explored with any significance… until now.

Taking place shortly after the events of 2016’s Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from American authorities. She reunites abroad with her estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who has recently broken free of the chemical mind control of the sinister Widows program. Yelena and Natasha were living as sisters for three years as a cover family of Russian agents, with Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) as their parents. They were whisked back to Russia, separated, and thrown back into the Widow program where they were trained to be elite assassins by Dreykov (Ray Winstone, barely flirting with a Russian accent). The combative sisters are being chased by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, other killer Widows still under the chemical-induced mind control, and Dreykov’s best hunter, the ruthless Taskmaster, a masked warrior who can learn and mimic the moves from other fighters. Natasha and Yelena decide the only way to stop Dreykov is to reunite their old family once again.

I’m a little confused by the general indifference Black Widow seems to have generated from critics and fans because I thought, while with some flaws, that this is still a good movie that I would say is on the cusp of being above average for the MCU’s already high bar. Perhaps, again, this movie is benefiting from lowered expectations. I wasn’t going in with too many demands considering my personal investment with the Black Widow character was minimal prior to her sacrificial death. I wanted a fun movie that provided further insight into her character, considering this would likely be the last time we see Natasha in the MCU. I was surprised how emotionally engaged I became with her movie. While the action is fine, it was the dramatic parts that really grabbed me. This is the first MCU movie where I was looking forward to the breaks in action more than the actual action. The pre-credits flashback (to mid-90s Ohio no less) sets up this fractured family dynamic that serves as the core of the movie, the question over whether these relationships ever really mattered on a deeper level or whether each person was simply playing their assignment. It makes for intriguing drama about vulnerable characters sifting through the small measures of happiness they’ve had and the difficulty of reaching out to people that are important to you. Natasha is in a delicate yet reflective place considering her isolation. The movie is structured like a Jason Bourne-style spy caper, jumping from one locale to the next, but it’s more of a family drama about hurt people reconciling and reconnecting. On its own terms, it’s a real family movie.

There are some major themes and some serious subjects with Black Widow and they are well handled and tied to the character journeys. The opening titles, set to a melancholy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” covers human trafficking. This is a story about the systems of abuse, primarily abusive men demanding control from throngs of women, and it’s about overcoming abuse and establishing support systems. For Natasha, she made some hard choices to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D., and many others have suffered because of her decision to escape. Many women could not escape their tormentors, and the level of control only became more methodical. Yelena talks about being conscious of everything but unsure what parts of you are really your own doing, and this seems eminently relatable about victimhood. The movie is about breaking free of unhealthy relationships, coming into your own control, and finding healthy families even if they are troubled and a work in progress. That’s why the family moments resonated as much for me. Real attention was given to the supporting characters in Natasha’s orbit.

To that end, the villains exemplify the themes by design, especially Taskmaster serving as a literalization of Natasha facing off against the sins of her past, much like in 2017’s Logan where Old Logan fought young Logan. Fans of Taskmaster from the comics may well be disappointed by the adaptation because the character was very sardonic and, in here, never utters a word (there is a certain Deadpool-in-X-Men Origins: Wolverine reminiscence). More could have been done but the villain represents the consequences of abandonment. I appreciated that even until the final moment, the villain could be redeemed and meant something more than simply another masked heavy to be blown apart. Dreykov, on the other hand, is just a typically awful abuser and his lack of definition fits. He’s a general stand-in for the toxic control of men accustomed to power and the dismissal of female agency. He’s dull but more a designated symbol.

The traveling Black Widow family van is the real draw of this movie. I have been a Florence Pugh fan since her star making turn in 2017’s emotionally disquieting Lady Macbeth, and I welcome her and Yelena into the MCU with open arms. Pugh (Midsommar) is terrific and full of sarcastic wit, at one point criticizing Natasha’s familiar three-point “superhero landing.” She’s also convincing in all the action and gunplay. Even better, there are several dramatic scenes that allow the talented actress to tap into her prowess. She could make me cackle, then the next minute impress me with the finesse of her leg-swinging attack movements, and then the next make me feel something as she tearfully reflects that her cover family was the best years of her life (as the youngest, Yelena had no idea until they ran off that they were all Russian agents). Her combustible yet affectionate relationship with Johansson imbued so much more emotional investment into the Black Widow character for me. Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) is inhaling any available scenery as a past-his-prime Russian super soldier still holding onto his glory days as a communist answer to Captain America (he eagerly asks Natasha if Cap ever mentions him, so hopeful it’s adorable). He’s a regular source of comedy but also has a credible paternal warmth to him as he tries to don the mantle of fatherhood like a costume that no longer fits quite as well. Unfortunately, Weisz (The Favourite) isn’t on screen as much as the other members of the family unit but I still greatly enjoyed watching her finely attuned deadpan delivery.

From an action standpoint, Black Widow will mostly suffice but there is little to really get the blood pumping. The chases and fights are entertaining without delivering anything new. The third act involves an extended set piece with characters plummeting from the sky amid fiery debris. It’s at least visually interesting and the action high-point of the movie. Under director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome), the action is easy to follow even as it escalates into big video game carnage and explosions. The lack of development in the action would be more of an issue for me if the non-action elements, the story and acting, weren’t as involving. I feel like Shortland was hired for the dramatics and performances and character moments, less so the explosions.

It took eleven years, one more thanks to COVID, but Black Widow finally has her starring vehicle and the MCU is finally back on the big screen (or your home screen via Disney Plus and thirty additional dollars). I watched the movie with my girlfriend and cheerfully noted it would be the first theatrical Marvel movie we watched during our year-plus courtship, thus a real milestone in modern geek dating (we’ll have many opportunities ahead as there are six more Marvel movies scheduled between now and summer 2022). I was surprised how much I enjoyed Black Widow once it had reassembled its family dynamic and I hope to see the extended Romanoff family members in future MCU editions. It’s a late but welcomed swan song for Natasha Romanoff and her checkered past. For the first time, I felt for her character, and part of that was the result of enjoying her family nucleus and the pathos they brought. Black Widow is a serviceable action movie with fun characters and potent dramatic interactions with heavy, well-realized themes. I’m baffled by the general critical indifference (I have a lot fewer qualms than I did with 2019’s Captain Marvel). It’s the rare big movie where the quiet moments are the high-points, and twenty-plus movies in, that’s at least something new from the juggernaut that is the MCU.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Tomorrow War (2021)

Amazon’s new movie, The Tomorrow War, is the costliest original blockbuster of the summer, and it’s skipping theaters entirely. The $200 million-dollar sci-fi movie was originally slated for theatrical release in December 2020, then pushed to summer 2021, then sold to Amazon streaming for the cost of its production budget. It’s easy to grasp the excitement of its premise and how it could translate into engrossing escapism. At the 2022 World Cup, a flash of light transports a team of future soldiers who need enlistments. In a matter of months, the world will be facing a war between alien monsters, and by 2050 we will be on the verge of losing for good. Dan Forrester (Chris Pratt) is a science teacher/ex-veteran who is conscripted into the future war, along with some other unlikely soldiers, and thrown into the future. His tour will last one week and then he’ll be sent back to 2022, if he survives, and only twenty percent come back.

Perhaps it was the allusions or homages to Starship Troopers, but I found the first act and the action before the action to be the most interesting part of The Tomorrow War. I was hoping with its time travel premise of a future war fought by the past that there would be some attention paid to the world building and implications of its premise, at least before it became hunting down monsters and shooting in corridors, and thankfully the movie actually takes some sweet time to lay its foundations before being conscripted itself into action movie spectacle. Much like Starship Troopers, we have people unprepared for a war against an alien species and essentially being tossed into basic training as cannon fodder for the military industrial complex. I enjoyed that the screenplay by Zach Dean (Deadfall) actually plays out some of the larger effects that its future confirmation would stir. Effectively, humanity knows that in thirty years it’s all over. There is a definitive end date. Knowing that thirty years is all civilization has remaining would cause all sorts of global, social, and psychological upheavals. Why bother going to school if it’s all over in thirty years? Why try and start that business if it’s all over in thirty years? Why start a family if your children will be doomed in thirty years or less? Society would be irrevocably changed, and sectors and populations would refuse to go back to the way things were, and instability would flare up with generations sore over their lack of Earthly inheritance.

That’s just one factor that gets attention during this first 45-minute section. The nature of the future conscripting people of the past to fight their war has plenty of political commentary about generational conflict, proxy wars, and how the poor are disproportionately affected with less choice. The soldiers being taken from the past are older and an unorthodox pool of candidates that wouldn’t meet contemporary military recruitment standards. This is because the people being sent to fight are already dead by the time 2050 rolls around to avoid any time paradox concerns. There are interesting implications here. It’s like their own governments are saying, “Well, you’ll be dead anyway, so you might as well die now rather than much later and maybe you’ll provide a more immediate need other than taxes. Thank you for your service, now die.” Again, the psychology and ripples of that can be fascinating. I’m skeptical why more 2022 Americans are not disputing why they should fight 2050’s war with their own flesh and blood. I suppose I wanted this intriguing premise to be played out more in the span of an ongoing TV series, something along the lines of the elegant existential bummer of HBO’s The Leftovers. As a feature, The Tomorrow War gets beaten into blockbuster shape to become another noisy sci-fi spectacle, but the potential of its premise and the bombshells of its world-building deserved even more deliberate consideration.

When the action picks up, The Tomorrow War follows a predictable path of alien invasion military thrillers. Dan’s unit must go into enemy territory and retrieve an important thing before the aliens overrun the facility as well as before the Army firebombs the block. There are many ticking clocks built into the plot mechanisms, from Dan’s week-long sojourn into the future ticking clock, the overall “humanity’s last stand” ticking clock, the ticking clock of getting needed lab components before destruction, the ticking clock of synthesizing a magic alien cure, and there’s likely others I haven’t even noticed. That cluttering of urgency extends also to its personal exploration of two sets of frayed familial relationships, father/daughter and father/son across three generations. It’s simply too much and detracts from more time and attention being given to the elements that demand the most development. The father/daughter relationship has the most meaningful drama considering it covers multiple periods of time and pushes Dan into thinking more critically about sacrifice and legacy. The broken father/son relationship between Dan and his absentee dad (a buff J.K. Simmons) is unnecessary and put on hold for too long and then hastily tied together. The Tomorrow War is an unlikely candidate of having too many conflict elements and points of urgency that they can dilute one another.

This also gets into an extended third act that feels entirely tacked on. After a critical climax, I grabbed my remote to pause the movie with the belief that things were wrapping up shortly. I was shocked to see I still had another 30 minutes left to go. The mountain-set final action set piece feels like a late studio addition rather than an outgrowth of what was established in the screenplay. Strangely, the characters don’t seem to be acknowledging the reality of cancelling out the alien-invasion nightmare future with their actions. If Dan has the magic elixir to thwart aliens, and goes back to 2022, then he can prevent the billions of eventual deaths. I suppose that does nothing for those in 2022 that got zapped into 2050 and died in the line of duty, but it spares everyone else from 2023 onward. I started yelling at the screen that preventing the terrible future meant good things.

As far as the quality of action, it’s a cut above thanks to director Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie), making his live-action film debut. I’ve noticed with other directors who primarily got their start in the realm of animation that they have such a great command of filling up the screen. Brad Bird, Travis Knight, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and Tim Burton, all of them have an extra artistic sense of how to use the space of the frame to immerse the viewer. I greatly appreciated that many of the sequences where the soldiers fight the alien monsters use long takes and clear editing. There’s one scene where soldiers are trying to wrangle a monster as a hostage and all the fighting and buckling is impressively presented with sufficient distance so we can see the soldiers react and go flying. The introduction of the alien monsters is drawn out of the shadows, but from that moment onward the movie presents the monsters clearly, and I enjoyed the squid-meets-feline creature design enough that I welcomed more closeups. There’s also a horrifying and darkly comic tech mishap where the future accidentally zaps its new recruits into 2050, but instead of re-materializing five feet above the ground it’s 100-plus feet high, so we watch people hurtle to their awful deaths. McKay can replicate standard studio action movie grist seen in plenty of other big-budget blowouts (there are multiple examples of characters slow-motion jumping out of the way of explosions), but more often McKay has a natural eye for visual compositions and how to bring out more with his sci-fi spectacle.

One of the bigger miscues of the movie was the hiring and prominence of Pratt (Jurassic World) as the lead. He’s got the presence and build to be convincingly ex-military, but he’s not a good fit for an everyman, let alone a family man everyman scientist. He’s a high school science teacher going through personal malaise because he feels like he’s meant for something bigger (what’s bigger than saving humanity, guy?) and this ordinary life just ain’t cutting it. Except Pratt can do charming and affable, he can even do heroic, but this part does not play to the actor’s strengths, so Dan often comes across as plain and bland. He’s stuck as the square-jawed straight man for the movie and is boring once he goes into action or thinking mode.

I wished the movie had been retold from the point of view of Charlie, played by reliable comic Sam Richardson (Veep, Werewolves Within). He’s a welcomed voice of panic and reason among the avalanche of sci-fi, science, and military jargon. He’s a widower, losing his wife on her own tour of duty, and he feels greatly out of place. The actor is so amusing and the character so unexpectedly entertaining that I wish Pratt’s hero had bit the dust early as a meta head-fake (think of Seagal getting killed off early in 1996’s Executive Decision) and we were left to follow Charlie as humanity’s unexpected savior. Along the conversation of waste, Betty Gilpin (The Hunt) is shortchanged as Dan’s wife in 2022 world. They introduce a plot point that family members can be conscripted in place, and then there’s the transport glitch that kills all but a few, so I assumed that an actress of Gilpin’s kick-ass capability would find herself in the future fighting too. Alas, dear reader, Gilpin is just here to be the concerned wife at home waiting for her man to return.

The Tomorrow War is an original story though it’s built from older, recognizable parts, a little Independence Day here, a little Alien there, and a dash of Edge of Tomorrow. It’s derivative but it still has its own points of interest, chief for me is the world building and premise. The action is solid and filmed well. The scope of the special effects fits comfortably in the blockbuster studio range. It’s a good-looking movie with plenty of action and enough time travel quirks, though your attention may also flag as the movie lurches to a protracted close with its extended third act. It does more right than wrong as blockbuster spectacle. I think it had offshoots of better potential that could have been tapped, but as a big screen entertainment ported to your smaller home screen, The Tomorrow War is destined to win fans with lowered expectations and 140 minutes of free time.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released July 11, 2001:

Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.

The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.

Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.

Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.

The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.

Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.

The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.

The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.

I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.

Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.

It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.

It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.

The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.

Re-View Grade: C

Black Mamba (2019)

William X. Lee is an Ohio filmmaker who has found credible success on his own terms and over decades, a fact that deserves celebration. The writer/director knows the business of filmmaking as a genre specialist and has even become an adjunct professor of film at two different universities. With his many years on the fringes of the indie business, I expect Lee has a lot of wisdom about the particulars of the industry and finding a market that is welcoming to content that can be messier in execution. His latest movie in pre-production is called Bulletproof Jesus and, sight unseen, I legitimately love that title with my every fiber. His 2020 film, Black Wolf, literally involves a 58-year-old man having to track down and kill his high school bullies, all of whom miraculously grew up to become terrorists. That sounds hilarious. I believe Lee’s personal story is compelling and acknowledge that genre filmmaking could use more voices and visions from under served perspectives. However, the results on film show indifference or even disdain for accessible storytelling and entertainment value. Black Mamba is a 2019 supernatural action revenge available on Tubi, as many of Lee’s films currently are for free, and it’s indicative of the man’s sense of style and storytelling, both of which I have plenty to talk about in excrutiating detail.

Kyiera Stone (Angela D. Williams) was killed by local criminals. She’s brought back to life by angels who give her a second chance to exact revenge. Kyiera is pitted against an endless assembly line of villains that all want to return Kyiera to her state of decay.

I may sound like a scold, but it is near inexcusable that this movie is two hours long. Far be it from me to instruct a creative how much time they need to tell their story, but you have to think about an audience when you intend a platform for your efforts. What is going to keep someone glued to that screen and justify their investment in every one of your minutes? This is the kind of movie that can barely creak over the 80-minute feature-length finish line, and to push forward to two hours is excessive without an engaging story that needs that extra room to grow.

There is no real plot to speak of beyond our main character coming back to life to wreck vengeance. The movie is patterned after Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, itself patterned over hundreds of genre movies, but it’s like Lee said, “Well, why stop with five bad guys to overcome when you can have 100!” Black Mamba (also the code name for the lead in Kill Bill) is stuffed to the breaking point with villainous characters and some of them are even being introduced with ten minutes left. The critical hit involves like a half dozen bad guys, and then there are more bad guys, and then hell is introducing its own bad guys, and then there’s like a fighting champion from hell, and witches, and I stopped caring because every scene played out exactly the same. The settings may vary, the person might be different, though with a cast list of rogues as long as this one good luck keeping them straight, but the scene plays out exactly the same. Some evil character gets the jump on Kyiera and within a minute she will kill them. That’s it. That’s all there ever is in these confrontations, many of which are hilariously short-lived. At no point will you fear or doubt Kyiera because she never seems to be in danger of losing. It makes the entire two hours extremely boring and repetitive. It also makes the majority of its two hours expendable. Rare is a two-hour movie where I could legitimately say that you could cut it down by 90 minutes, and yet that is the case with Black Mamba. It’s a movie of treading water.

Some of this could be mitigated by providing characters with big personalities, memorable flaws or quirks, or even interesting killing utensils, but Black Mamba feels more like a ramshackle improv fest where actors are entering scenes as “characters” with props or costumes they just assembled off-screen. I love genre movies and I love the way characters can be written for genre. Watch the TV series Justified because it is a masterclass in writing for character. Every character, even the bit-part villain of the week, is written with a distinct voice, an identifiable trait, an angle, something to make them stand out and feel more like a flesh-and-blood person in the stylized, hard-boiled universe of the show. The movie’s extended running time could have devoted scenes to showing why we should fear certain characters, their killing techniques that we would then anticipate seeing how they are applied to our heroine. Think of every movie you can with crazy killers and you see them apply their killer skills early because that’s how you get to fear them. Just being told, “so and so is deadly,” without seeing them in action is dull. In Black Mamba, often characters are over explaining things for the sake of the audience or seeming to narrate what is happening on screen. The dialogue is filled with profanity because it feels like nobody knew what else to say from scene to scene. There aren’t any tense exchanges and showdowns or clashes of viewpoints. It’s all just yelling, boasts, and non-clever insults.

The story doesn’t make much sense. There are angels that bring back Kyiera because it’s “not her time,” but then they want to use her in a celestial war? Was she lied to by the higher authorities in order to manipulate into an ongoing and endless war between heaven and hell? Is this a high-concept version of Munich and Kyiera is being used to perpetuate endless conflict regardless over culpability? No, well at least I doubt it. The larger workings beyond our heroine are left vague and seemingly shifting. The first thirty minutes could have been consolidated to ten to introduce the premise of Kyiera dying and being resurrected, but then there’s nary a section that couldn’t be consolidated, like the litany of interchangeable supporting characters.

Can you tell there are three people in this scene?

Halfway through the movie, we suddenly jump to hell and it doesn’t really alter the direction of the story but only provides more witnesses to commentate on the action. This is where Esmerelda comes in. She’s the queen of hell and played by Dawna Lee Heising, a 65-year-old actress who got her (un-credited) start as a stripper in Blade Runner and has a long list of campy T&A roles in low-budget genre fare. She feels like the production’s big “get” and so she gets a lot of unnecessary screen time. The character is annoying and the entire addition of hell as an environment feels tacked-on. I thought I knew who the big bad final boss was, and then hell is introduced with its own cadre of damned killers, and I didn’t know who the final boss should be. There’s no feeling of a direct line for Kyiera’s goals. Think again to Kill Bill as a prominent example. She had a small list, each name crossed off brought her closer to her biggest target, but each became harder to accomplish and more personally reverent as she climbed the ladder of revenge. There was a feeling of progression and payoff as The Bride worked through her bloody vengeance. With Black Mamba, she’s inundated with one face after another, but you never feel progression because the movie only feels like it’s stuck in a Sisyphean loop of disposable foes. The structure of this movie doesn’t have the groundwork to provide forward momentum.

The first thing you’ll notice about Black Mamba right away is the choice to up the contrast so high that it may hurt your eyes at time. There are times where the color contrast is so extreme that it obfuscates what is happening on screen. You’ll see faces disappear into shadow in a room, and not in a way that feels intentionally ominous, and every time a character is driving outside it looks like an atomic bomb is going off in the background. It’s chiefly a distraction and an ugly one and one that feels like it was done to make the footage look more like a grungy grindhouse movie of old. Going for a specific visual aesthetic is a fine marker, but when it harms the clarity of what is happening then maybe it’s worth revisiting. There are simple things that could have been done to better orient the viewer. The color contrasts and color palette could have better been paired with specific locations so that the audience knows exactly where they were or whose story they were following, much like in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. We even literally have the denizens of hell as one frequent setting, so why not crank the contrast high and more fiery in colors, favoring oranges and reds, and then go for a cooler color palette for action on Earth? Or even have a section that isn’t contrasted to death? It’s a stylistic choice that grates severely.

I would be forgiving of some of the obvious technical limitations for a low-budget indie aiming for the feel of other classic low-budget indies, except that, reportedly, Black Mamba had a budget of $250,000. When I read that I burst out in incredulous laughter. Maybe it was a decimal error, or maybe Lee was very generous and paid his sizeable cast and minimal crew handsomely, or maybe there are other reasons why a quarter of a million dollars does not, in the slightest, look to have been translated onto the finished product. Where did all that money actually go?

I’ve been watching enough micro-budget indies in my pursuit of reviewing homegrown cinema that I feel more adept at better gauging a potential budget. There are locations to consider, though Black Mamba seems to reuse a lot of empty warehouses, alleyways, and church parking lots, and there is action to consider, though Black Mamba uses a lot of plug-in special effects and limited fight choreography, and there are actors to consider, which Black Mamba has in excess, and there is the general professionalism of the look and sound of the movie, which Black Mamba is definitely lacking. There are persistent sound issues (the louder yelling is so screechy and high-pitched that I had to cover my ears) and there is a dearth of editing coverage. Apart from the fight scenes, it feels like every scene was designed with one shot in mind to connect directly to the next. This can make things awkward in conversations that would flow better with alternate angles rather than one person with their back to the camera or in extreme close-up. I geuss it just didn’t matter or they didn’t have the time, and yet with the budget being reportedly a quarter of a million dollars? This movie feels far more like a $10,000 budget indie than $250,000. To be blunt, I have watched movies with budgets under $15,000 look and sound much better than this quarter-million-dollar movie.

I thought about watching other Lee original movies available on Tubi but I only watched about 15 minutes each of 2017’s Six Feet Below Hell, 2016’s King Killer, and 2008’s Kill Every Last One. I don’t think I could take watching all of these movies even for objective review purposes, each of which appears to have the same faults and high contrast value as Black Mamba (one of those films is an astounding 133 minutes long!). While designed to be sold, these movies do not feel designed to actually be watched and enjoyed. There are no real characters to fall in love with, conflicts to draw intrigue, or well-developed plots to thrill and surprise. These movies feel like empty product to line an endless array of schlock DVD shelves.

This brings me to my final complaint registered at Black Mamba. More than halfway through the movie, yet another character is introduced, this time a formidable fighting champ from hell. Upon hearing the man’s name, the queen of hell falls onto the floor and begins gyrating in pleasure, moaning the man’s name and declaring him to be an amazing god among men. This character is played by none other than… the writer/director himself. I almost walked away from the movie at that point. It’s difficult to critique something like Black Mamba. The people involved don’t seem to have any aspirations that what they were making was serious, and yet maybe they should have taken it more seriously. Because of the punishing two-hour length, because of the repetitive and stretched thin plot, because of the over population of unmemorable and disposable characters, because of the technical flaws that still persist after a decade of filmmaking, because of the lack of accessibility for providing an engaging story and characters for an outside audience, and because of its reportedly sizeable budget, I regret to deliver my first failing grade for an Ohio-made indie. I wish Mr. Lee and his team well but this is assuredly a case where if you’ve seen one of the man’s movies, you’ve seen every one of the man’s movies, and unless you were in these movies, you shouldn’t watch them even for irony.

Nate’s Grade: F

Infinite (2021)

The cast and crew of Infinite were taken by surprise when their corporate overlords decided to shuttle the big-budget action movie to its fledgling streaming service, Paramount Plus. Fortunately for me, I had just purchased a yearlong subscription plan because I wanted to watch Bar Rescue whenever I pleased, so I was one of the lucky ones to gain access to this first “Paramount Plus Original Movie” as it quietly premiered. It might be for the best after all. Infinite is a high-concept action movie by committee that feels so lacking in just about every critical department.

Evan McCauley (Wahlberg) is a man suffering from schizophrenia, or so he believes. He has strange visions in his head from past historical time periods and he instinctively knows how to forge a samurai sword. He’s interrogated by Bathurst (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who recognizes Evan as an ancient foe that he has fought through multiple past lives. Bathurst wants to kill Evan before he can remember who he is and stop Bathurst’s evil scheme. Evan is rescued by Mora (Sophie Cookson, Kingsman) who informs him that he is one of the Believers, a group of immortals who get reincarnated after each death. They’re waging a secret war against the Nihilists, lead by Bathurst, who want to obliterate the world rather than be reborn into it again. Evan must relearn his many pasts and help the Believers recover a hidden doomsday weapon his past self hid.

You’d be forgiven if you thought you had watched Infinite before, perhaps in a past life, because it’s so highly derivative. The story runs on two very well-worn tracks of science fiction storytelling, the Chosen One plot and the Secret War plot. You’ve seen variations on both in plenty of familiar sci-fi action movies, comic books, and the central pillars for countless Young Adult titles. Think about being told this statement: “Your ordinary life has been merely an elaborate cover, and you’re no ordinary person but secretly a powerful and important [fill in the blank] and there’s been a war going on in the shadows between [fill in the blanks] and you’re the key to solving this ages-old conflict.” I bet many of you can already think of similar titles that apply. There’s Harry Potter and Highlander and The Matrix and the Assassin’s Creed series and even more specific examples like Wanted, where it too features a sexy woman rescuing our lead in a sexy car and fending off bad guys while she informs him of his secret true calling. Even Ejiofor was in a strikingly similar movie just last year, 2020’s The Old Guard. It’s all so vaguely familiar at every moment that you’ll question whether it’s all built from spare parts.

Then there’s the added reincarnation angle, where people have amazing skills that they never knew they possessed (The Matrix, Wanted) and souls going from host body to host body (Cloud Atlas). In fact, David Mitchell, the author of Cloud Atlas, essentially wrote this very story in his 2014 novel, The Bone Clocks. In that novel, we learn that there are two factions of immortals who are reborn after every death, one group that preys upon the souls of mankind and another trying to defend the innocents. That book explores a lot more in the realm of identity (characters are reborn in different genders and races), time, and purpose than with Infinite, which settles for a recycled B-movie doomsday plot that even video games are getting tired of now. If past lives and reincarnation is just another disposable gimmick for super powered beings duking it out over a cataclysmic MacGuffin, then why bother with the existential possibility of the premise?

For a movie that takes so much time to spit out clunky exposition, Infinite is fairly incoherent and, occasionally, self-defeating. When you’re entering any new territory, there’s going to be a learning curve. Imagine how Neo learned about his misconception of reality, the war and history with the machines, and his capabilities he was opening himself up to. Exposition is best done in portions equally spaced out and tied to action, so our characters can learn through doing and failing and then succeeding. With the gimmick of past lives, it could open up such intrigue and possibility about human potential as well as the difficulty of these immortals finding one another across the globe for centuries, restarting with every rebirth (a fact explored in The Bone Clocks). It also would lend itself to characters being reckless with action movie stunts because, at worst, they die and take a twenty-year or so timeout before getting back into the action. Nothing of real interest happens with the past lives gimmick. The movie treats it as a shortcut to give its characters superpowers, and by tapping into those memories, now they have all these crazy super abilities that no mortal could accomplish in merely a single lifetime (sorry Bruce Lee). Imagine if in The Matrix, instead of Neo learning and training that they just uploaded everything into a Chosen One 3.0 security patch they downloaded (yes, he downloads skills, but we see the process demonstrated as visual progression). It’s boring to watch. The movie even could have explored more about these past lives, experiences, and lessons learned rather than in kaleidoscopic flashbacks. For the entire premise, Infinite seems so strangely limited in scope.

Then there’s the plot device that destroys the scheme of the villains. The Nihilists are tired of the eternity of being reborn and stuck with the accumulation of their memories. Bathurst says when he begins anew in the womb, he is a fully cogent adult brain and it’s nine months of torture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the only interesting component in the entire movie that relates to the reincarnation premise. The Nihilists want to destroy all life so then they can never be reborn again, though this still seems theoretical. They have also developed a special device that will store a person’s consciousness onto a computer hard drive or microchip, supposedly stopping that consciousness from being reintegrated into a new host body. If this is the case, why isn’t Bathurst and his Nihilist fellows taking advantage of this? They’ve already developed a solution that works and doesn’t involve the destruction of all life on the planet. I don’t even know why Infinite introduces this absurd plot mechanic considering the damage it does. I guess it was an attempt to raise the stakes with immortals where death isn’t permanent, but for the purposes of the movie, a death means they are taken out of this present fight for the fate of the world. The stakes are still there. The implications are also nebulous, as they talk about souls as currency but can human souls be downloaded onto a portable technological deice? This entire plot device is silly in conception and even worse in execution, with big swirly bullets that also glow as they zip along.

Wahlberg (Spenser Confidential) is on autopilot for the entire movie. He’s laconic and nonplussed and without any hint of humor or fun to be had. His under-performance is compensated by the overacting of Ejiofor (Doctor Strange) in a disastrous dynamic that reminded me of the 2011 Oscar hosting performance by the tandem of James Franco (under performing) and Anne Hathaway (over performing). At least Ejiofor is holding my attention with his high energy level and a maniacal glee that reminded me of James Bond villains. The problem is that nobody else is delivering this same arch level of camp. Everyone else in the cast is trying to play things so icy cool and nonchalant, and it just makes all the characters feel like boring robots.

And yet all of this could be forgiven if Infinite had some memorable and exceptionally exciting or well-developed set pieces to entertain. Much can be excused or mitigated if an action movie delivers upon its action. Alas, Infinite cannot escape the orbital decay of its lack of imagination. The derivative nature extends to the action, which consists of a series of rote chases and gunfights. There is one sequence that had promise for the scale of its destruction, a car chase through the different floors and levels of a police building. It’s viscerally entertaining to watch all of the many things gets smashed while raising the question just how fragile concrete walls are constructed to be in downtown metropolitan architecture. This is also the moment that Evan is brought into the new world, which means it’s all downhill from here. Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) is an action genre veteran and can be counted on for some degree of style to jazz up the proceedings, but he can only do so much with sequences lacking points of interest and tension. Infinite would play better as campy nonsense, but it won’t acknowledge this identity.

Given how derivative everything appears, it’s surprising Infinite is based on an original work, the self-published 2009 novel The Reincartionist Papers by D. Eric Maikranz. The author offered his readers ten percent of his advance for whoever helped get him to sell the film rights to Hollywood (true to his word, Maikranz paid out in 2019). Already, this is more entertaining to me than anything provided in the 106 plodding and incoherent minutes of Infinite as a movie. The high-concept premise is reduced to a lazy shortcut for superpowers for a group of know-it-alls trying to act cool and strut while delivering exposition by the truckload. The action is stifled, the characters are dull, and the world feels so sprawling but without needed definition. This could have been any combination of Chosen One and Secret War story elements. What about Harry Potter battling the bullet-curving killers from Wanted? Or what about Neo facing off against the ancient society of werewolves and vampires in sleek lather catsuits? Or an immortal special ops crew that must track down other immortals before they can do lasting harm? This mix-and-match formula belies how truly interchangeable the story elements are with Infinite. It closes on voice over by Wahlberg that genuinely made me guffaw. Looking to the future, he says, literally, “Well the possibilities are… infinite.” For this hopeful film franchise, I strongly doubt that.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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