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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

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+

Boss Level (2021)

It’s a time loop action movie where Frank Grillo (The Purge: Anarchy) plays a special forces agent going through one long, hellish, bullet-heavy day of violence on repeat. As with other time loop movies, the joy is watching the many different iterations and building from previous excursions and finding the fun detours to discover with the many “what if” scenarios at play. Boss Level is simply fun and disposable entertainment. We watch Grillo strut through the day with amazing clairvoyance and annoyance as he does over and over again, with a team of flashy Smokin’ Aces-esque super assassins chasing him down through the day to score the big hit. The story is rather generic with Grillo learning to take responsibility for being a father, with a generic villain played by Mel Gibson and a generic damsel-in-distress ex-wife played by Naomi Watts. The appeal is Grillo and his gruff charm as well as the darkly comic violence and the creative ingenuity of Grillo dying over and over and then persevering. The action, while definitely scaled down through its lower budget, is filled with fast cars, explosions, gun fights, and pulpy over-the-top deaths to really make the movie feel like perhaps the best video game adaptation even if it was never a video game. The biggest drawback is that this movie is packed, wall-to-wall, with excessive and grating voice over where Grillo’s character will explain EVERYTHING on screen and I just wanted him to shut up. It’s not like his constant verbal commentary is really adding anything; he’s not exactly a character with a strong personality. I am not kidding when I say that 90 percent of this voice over could be eliminated entirely. Imagine being stuck beside an annoying and ceaselessly chatty neighbor in a theater and having that intrusion drown out the experience of the movie, and that’s how prevalent and irritable the constant voice over can be. Seriously, there’s more voice over than dialogue here. Otherwise, Boss Level is a suitably stylish, slick, and action-packed B movie with enough flair and imagination to fill up 90 minutes of entertainment. Three time loop movies in under one year makes me wonder what genre will next be explored. Get ready for the medical drama time loop, the courtroom thriller time loop, and maybe even the disaster movie time loop. Whatever they may be, they guarantee at least a watch from me.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy mix of familiar 90s romantic comedy cliches and tropes but now with an all-Asian cast and Asian culture given a dignified spotlight. Thanks to the strides in representation, it makes the familiar feel fresh again. This is a very Pretty Woman princess fantasy story of an ordinary woman, Rachel Chu (the great Constance Wu) falling in love with a rich man who then whisks her away to his rich family home out of country and introduces her to the world of the cloistered elites, ex-girlfriends, and hangers-on and their disapproval. Much of the conflict hinges on her feeling accepted by her man’s scowling, scary mother played by the formidable Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The two-hour running time mostly consists of a lot of blandly nice people. I think enough of these supporting characters could have been consolidated or eliminated to give more space to characters that matter. The film reminded me, in some regards, of the 50 Shades series where we jump from scene to scene to celebrate the extravagance of an elite lifestyle of luxury. It’s intended to alienate Rachel and contrast with her humble, hard-working, honest sensibilities, but after two or three of these, I don’t think it’s quite having that effect. Wu (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) is a charming, loveable lead, and the film has fun, colorful characters played by Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover trilogy), who amazingly doesn’t overstay his welcome. The production design and costumes are sensational and might even get some Oscar attention. Crazy Rich Asians is a fairly formulaic but pleasant enough movie, and the fact that an all-Asian cast rom-com is slotted as a summer movie is a positive sign. The end results are a fizzy fantasy repackaged but still entertaining and without a sense of pandering.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Warrior (2008)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third film in the once popular Mummy franchise, is facing an uphill battle. It’s been a long seven years in between films and some, like myself, would argue that the franchise is already creatively exhausted. This stuff is the brainchild of writer/director Stephen Sommers (Van Helsing), who decided he would rather make a movie based upon an action hero than rehash mummies (see you this summer, G.I. Joe: The Movie). In comes director Rob Cohen who has given the world such cinematic abominations like XXX, Stealth, and The Fast and the Furious. Surely this was the proper artist to re-energize a semi-dormant franchise. The results are about as unexceptional as you’d expect.

In 1947, Rich O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evie (Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz) are in retirement from adventure seeking. They live at a palatial estate. Their son Alex (Luke Ford) is in college except they do not know that Alex is really surveying ancient tombs in China. The lad has stumbled across the massive tomb of Han (Jet Li), China’s first united emperor. Han was a ruthless warlord that conquered all. He punished Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) for falling in love with one of his generals and not the mighty emperor. Zi Juan managed to cast a spell on the evil emperor that trapped him in metal. And he sat undisturbed in his tomb for 2,000 years until Alex came along. Eventually the spirit of Han is released and some Chinese military officials wish to serve their departed emperor. Han is seeking the location to Shangri-La to bathe in the pool of immortality, and then he will awaken his army and continue his quest for world domination. The Far Eastern exploits bring the O’Connell family unit together to save the world yet again.

The first film was a cheesy, campy tongue-in-cheek adventure that managed to be consistently entertaining. The second film retained the same fun and humorous atmosphere, though it subscribed to the “bigger is better” theory of sequels and ramped up all the action to a cartoonish degree. Seven years later, the third Mummy movie is a complete bore. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feels like two movies sewn together; ancient Chinese warlords and treasure-hunting archeologists do not come across as a good fit. The terracotta warriors are a great source for an imaginative tale, but this is not it. So Emperor Han has mastered the elements of fire, water, earth, metal and wood (when did wood become an element? I don’t see that one on the periodic table) and the guy can also turn into giant monsters like a three-headed dragon. The writers of this Mummy entry have goofed by making the villain too powerful. Yeah he can be slain by a magic sword (there’s always something magic-y) but this is a foe that can control oceans, water vapor, clouds, rain and snowstorms, ice shards, and that’s just with one element. I must confess that I cannot fathom Han getting too much use from the wood element. On top of that, he can transform at will into ferocious creatures, so what is the point of turning back into a tiny human? Why would anyone fight hand-to-hand when you could fight as a 30-foot monster of your own design? The problem with making the villain too powerful is that when they do not take advantage of their clear advantage, then the villains just look stupid. “The Dragon Emperor” looks stupid for fighting as a 5′ 6″-sized man instead of a killer dragon. Which would you fight as? At least the Mummy from the other films had limitations.

Even worse than being incomprehensible and dumb, none of the action sequences are thrilling or exciting. The action sequences are fairly sub par, resorting to shootouts and the occasional car chase. At least a car chase through the streets of Shanghai during Chinese New Year takes advantage of the location, allowing Rick and Evie to use firecrackers like missiles. The martial arts work is poorly choreographed and poorly presented thanks to some butchered editing. This is one of the worst edited big-budget films of recent memory. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor seems to be making it up as it goes. There are moments where characters will state where they need to travel to and then in the next second they’re preposterously there. Someone talks about the path to the hidden land of Shangri-La and then the next moment, hey, there they are. How did these places remain hidden for centuries? Very little makes sense in this movie. I’m not asking for complete believability in a film involving immortal bad guys and ancient spells, but at least let me able to follow along. I felt like I could tag along with the first two Mummy films and I had fun to a certain degree, but this time I felt like I was being dragged. I won’t even go into great depth about the appearance of yetis except to reveal that there is a moment where one yeti dropkicks a Chinese soldier over a gated wall and another yeti raises his arms straight in the air, signaling in football terms that it is indeed “good.”

Rachel Weisv not pictured.

Once again it all comes down to an all-out CGI battle between Han’s CGI army and the CGI zombie opponents buried under the Great Wall of China. The second Mummy movie ended in a similar fashion, and frankly I’ve become bored with the CGI armies clashing en masse unless I’m emotionally invested in the story. The effects work isn’t too fancy either. Most of the CGI creatures look flimsy and there’s nary a sense of wonder for a movie dealing with awesome supernatural forces.

The cleverest moment in the entire film involves the departure of Rachel Weisz. The Oscar-winning actress decided that she had had enough rumbles with the undead and bowed out of reprising her character of Evie. Smart move, lady. The film opens with Evie reading to an audience from her adventure novel based upon her encounters with a certain mummy. A woman asks her if the book’s female heroine is based upon the real-life Evie. She closes the book, smiles, and says in Bello’s first close-up that, “No. I can honestly say that she is a completely different person.” It’s all downhill from there for Bello, whose terrible British accent veers wildly to the point that she sounds like eight different kinds of Brits inhabiting one mouth.

The Mummy franchise is not where I go looking for parental drama. I understand that the 2001 Mummy sequel introduced Rick’s son, but why did this movie need to be set so far ahead in the future? The only reason this movie is set in 1947 is so that Alex can be like a twenty-something adventurer. The Mummy Returns was set in 1933 and Alex was eight years old, so by use of basic math he is now 22. There is no other prominent plot point, character revelation, or action set piece that relies on the date being 1947. Okay, so we’ve arbitrarily aged the kid, so surely the film will present some parental dilemma. Nope. The closest the movie gets to capitalize on Alex’s advanced age is pushing Rick to acknowledge his son’s accomplishments. The film’s idea of exploring family dynamics is a passing statement about making sure to express your love. Nothing is really gained by inserting the familial connection between Rick and Alex, who just as easily could have been a non-blood related character.

The inherent issue with an older Alex is that Fraser and his son look about the same age. Fraser has remarkably aged very little over the course of nine years since the first Mummy movie; sure there’s a few facial lines and a hardness that wasn’t there, but this man clearly looks like he is in his late 30s. Alex looks like he’s in his mid-twenties and the actor, Ford, is actually only 13 years younger than Fraser. It just doesn’t work at all. It looks like Rick and his younger kid brother, not his son. But lo, I think I have figured out the true reason behind position Alex as a younger, dashing version of Rick O’Connell, dispatcher of mummies. Fraser’s three-picture deal was fulfilled by this mediocre movie. If the producers want to have further mummy and non-mummy escapades, they have targeted Alex as their leading man of derring-do.

I like Fraser, I like him in these kinds of movies, but even he feels like he’s running out of gas with Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The location switch from Egypt to China fails to give the franchise a new kick. The Chinese martial arts material bookends the movie and seems out of place, let alone poorly designed. Jet Li must have had a great time cashing his check because the kung-fu master appears for like 15 total minutes as himself. The lackluster action, questionable plotting, cardboard characters, and dearth of enjoyment make this a sequel a potential franchise killer. The tongue-in-cheek energy and cheesy fun of the other movies is completely absent. You can forgive stupid when it’s fun, but stupid and boring is a deadly combination for a huge effects-laden action movie. Hopefully The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor will serve as proof that bad jokes, bad visuals, bad editing, bad plotting, and bad accents do not somehow go vanish because of lingering goodwill from previous films. This is one movie that should have stayed buried.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Sunshine (2007)

Danny Boyle is one of the more interesting film directors out there today. He seems to dabble in every genre. He’s done paranoid thriller (Shallow Grave), substance abuse drama (Trainspotting), zombies (28 Days Later), and a genuine family film (Millions). Boyle has a bountiful imagination. Now he and his 28 Days Later partner, writer Alex Garland, are going where many have gone before in the film world – outer space. Just don’t confuse the film with the 1999’s Sunshine where Ralph Fiennes plays three generations of a Jewish family with rotten luck. Come to think of it, both Sunshine movies fall apart in the final act. Note to filmmakers: just stay away from this title. It will doom your ending.

Fifty years into the future, the sun is dying. Earth is under a solar winter as it undergoes less and less light. The crew of the Icarus II has a very important mission: restart the sun. Attached to their spacecraft is a giant bomb intended to create a new star inside an old one. They have a giant reflective shield to protect them from the direct heat of the sun. The ship has eight crew members, including the physicist responsible for the bomb (Cillian Murphy), a botanist (Michelle Yeoh) with a garden to provide recyclable oxygen reserves, and a hotheaded handyman (Chris Evans) that believes nothing could be more important than their mission. As they drift closer to the sun they pick up a distress call that belongs to the previous Icarus I spacecraft which vanished under mysterious circumstances seven years ago. The crew decides that two bombs are better than one and changes course to intercept the Icarus I. anyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows you don’t go poking into the spooky place when you don’t have to.

Boyle sure knows how to make things look pretty, or interesting, or pretty interesting, and this helps because Sunshine is rather shopworn with familiar sci-fi staples. The premise itself almost seems identical to a 1990 film called Solar Crisis, a movie I only remember marginally because of the female nudity my young eyes caught glimpse of (in those days we didn’t have any of yer fancy Internets). Besides this, the film borrows liberally from 2001, Solaris, Star Trek, Alien, Event Horizon, The Core, and the super crappy Supernova. Most every aspect of Sunshine can be traced back to a different science fiction film, but sci-fi is one of the few genres that don’t necessarily suffer from being derivative. A cookie-cutter sci-fi movie is forgivable as long as the filmmakers treat the audience with respect and attempt to be smart with their story. I don’t care that Sunshine reworks plot elements that have been worked since giant alien carrot people frightened necking teenagers in the 1950s, and that’s because the genre is built for being borrowed.

Sunshine is often beautiful to watch with awe-inspiring images of that great ball of fire, our sun, but even better is the fact that the film is pretty much the opposite of Armageddon – it’s smart. The movie discusses the realities of space travel, communication, oxygen levels, trajectories, sub-zero temperatures, sacrifice, and how to live so close to the sun where the human eye can only safely look at 3.1 percent of its light emissions for 10 seconds. It’s a bit slow but rather fascinating just to witness how day-to-day life functions for the crew and how the time, or lack of discernible time, plays with their psychology. This respectful intelligence helps when the crew debates altering their mission to inspect the mysterious space vessel. The audience knows that only bad things will happen but the crew argues with reasonably sound logic about the potential benefits.

Sunshine is a thinking man’s sci-fi treat for its first two acts and then it completely devolves with a disappointing turn of events; it becomes a slasher film in space. There’s genuine awe and intrigue, along with some brainy scientific discussions and some considerable religious/philosophical pondering… and it all just stops dead for a madman chasing people with pointy things. Sigh. It’s an artistic free-fall that Sunshine never quite fully recovers from. Boyle makes the strange decision to keep his space slasher out of focus so the audience never gets a clear look; even stranger are camera shots where the killer will walk into frame and then transform his area to an unfocused blur like a blurry infection. It’s an artistic choice that doesn’t quite work (“The blurry man’s coming to get you, Barbara!”). The film then morphs into your standard race-against-time and then balloons with trippy computer effects and snazzy light filters. Sunshine was exceedingly more entertaining prior to picking up the unwanted visitor.

The cast does a fine job mulling their life-or-death options, but the two standouts are Murphy and Evans. Murphy and his piercing baby blues make for a strong lead. He provides soulful glimpses into his stock scientist role. Evans is the surprise of the film. Best known as the Human Torch in the dreadful Fantastic Four films, he exhibits a wider range of emotions from macho hardass to duty-bound soldier. This is a film heavy with noble sacrifices, and Evans is the reminder of all that is at stake.

Sunshine is visually pleasing and intellectually stimulating, especially for a sci-fi film built from the discarded pieces of other films. It’s a tense and exciting time, that is, until the movie just throws up its hands and transforms into a laughable slasher film. This movie did not have to go this tiresome route; there could have been an on-board mutiny when they discussed the idea of killing one of their own so they had enough oxygen to complete their mission, there could have been further psychological torments from within the crew, or even easier, the spaceship could just have undergone more malfunctions. Sunshine is a thoughtful, slightly meditative sci-fi thriller, but then it loses all of its better senses.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)

Ang Lee’s mythical tale of ancient… (Taiwan?) is full of visual marvels and plenty of moments of awe that make the audience believe in the power of cinema to transport once again. However, upon further viewings and more butt pain because of the large length, the film is not “one of the best ever made” as has been praised. When you get down to it and think the film really isn’t about anything but retrieving a sword and feminist roles. The visuals are striking poetry and the action is exciting and top-notch and that’s what really counts in the end.

Nate’s Grade: B

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