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Copshop

Posted September 19, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo in a Joe Carnahan flick, and all three are credited producers as well. Even if Copshop turns out to be a disaster, you know it sure as hell won’t be boring. So let’s see what we’ve got.

Our stage is set at the police headquarters of Gun Creek, a fictional Nevada backwater. Which means this particular building is in the middle of a desert, and the entire county is basically full of nothing. This means in turn that there isn’t much for law enforcement to do, so the cops are crooked and/or incompetent. The one exception is Valerie Young (Alexis Louder), an officer so fresh to this particular precinct that she still has her skill and integrity about her.

(Side note: The film loses points for consistently pronouncing it “Nev-AW-da”. My dad was born and raised in Vegas, and he vocally insists at every opportunity that it’s pronounced like “Nebraska”. Quit trying to make “Nevada” sound fancier than it is, dammit!)

Our story kicks off with the arrival of Teddy Murretto, played by Frank Grillo. To make a long story as short and spoiler-free as I can, Teddy is a self-serving snitch who pissed off some wealthy and powerful individuals in the organized crime of Las Vegas. Thus the mobsters hired an assassin (Bob Viddick, played by Gerard Butler) to take him out.

Running for his life, Teddy crosses paths with our Officer Young and gets the bright idea of sucker-punching her. The plan was to get himself locked up safely in a police station, you see. Unfortunately, Bob then poses as a drunk driver to get himself locked up in the selfsame police station, and he’s got a plan to get himself out so he can kill Teddy.

While that’s going on, we’ve got a crooked cop (Huber, played by Ryan O’Nan), who’s secretly getting blackmailed by the same Las Vegas mobsters who sent Viddick. Even worse, we’ve got another mob hitman (Anthony Lamb, played to the rafters by Toby Huss) come to collect the bounty on Teddy’s life, only this one’s a bona fide psychopath who doesn’t care about collateral damage.

In summary, what we’ve got here is a bunch of cops and hitmen trying to kill each other on their way to killing Teddy, with an unwitting Officer Young caught in the crossfire between all of them.

I have a difficult time writing about this one, partially because the premise is so straightforward. Convoluted politics aside, this is an action movie set inside a police station, so we’ve got hitmen and police officers killing each other with more than enough weapons and ammo lying around for everyone. The action set pieces practically write themselves.

But then we’ve got the holding cells, deliberately kept isolated from the rest of the station. This is more or less the “safe zone” of the movie, with little in the way of gunfire or fisticuffs. Instead, the scenes within the holding cells are primarily focused on suspense, as Teddy and Bob try to outthink and outmaneuver each other. Perhaps more importantly, as Young is backed into a corner and her hapless colleagues either die or turn evil, she has to make a choice as to which of these two — if either — she’s willing and able to trust to help her out.

Which brings me to another reason why this is a tough movie to write about: I can’t figure out much in terms of a message or a theme. To be clear, that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have heart. The characters have genuine pathos here, most especially with regards to Teddy’s son and ex-wife (in perpetual danger, natch) and Officer Young’s stubborn yet apparently futile pursuit of justice. Even the transparently corrupt Officer Huber is treated with some degree of compassion as a good man forced to do bad things because he was stupid enough to get caught up in a mafia scheme.

It’s certainly not a brainless film, either. Granted, most of the characters are so incredibly stupid that the plot couldn’t function if they were halfway competent. And I was irked by how many characters survived injuries that clearly should’ve been fatal — at one point, a character all but came back from the fucking dead. Even so, the plot is clever enough that there was clearly a brain at work here.

Perhaps most importantly, I know that the film must have some kind of theme because it clearly has a moral compass. Trouble is, that moral compass is impressively fucked up.

I’ve already spoken at length about the cops who are incompetent, self-serving, crooked, cruel, apathetic, stupid, or otherwise unworthy to wear the badge. Compare that to Officer Young, a policewoman of unwavering integrity who will always do the right thing and live up to the standards of her job, regardless of consequences. And she absolutely suffers for that — it’s mentioned on numerous occasions that all this bloodshed could’ve been averted if she had simply looked the other way and let Bob kill Freddy in the first place. Even so, the movie firmly places Young as the hero, the protagonist, the moral arbiter, and the beating heart of the movie. And without getting into too many spoilers, she keeps on going long after so many of her colleagues have suffered bloody, painful, screaming deaths.

On the criminal’s side, we’ve got Bob Viddick and Anthony Lamb. I think the difference between them was best stated by Bob himself: Bob’s a professional, and Anthony is a psychopath. Anthony takes unbridled glee in murdering people, while Bob treats it as strictly business. Though he’s entirely capable of straight-up killing pretty much anyone, Bob never does it without reason or without warning. Bob can be counted on to keep his word, and he can be reasoned with under specific circumstances. None of which can be said for Anthony Lamb, that unhinged homicidal maniac. And again, there’s a reason why Bob is positioned as a prominent lead character while Anthony was designed and portrayed to be a hate sink.

In summary, what we’ve got here is a movie about the duality of cops and criminals, how both sides are equally capable of corruption and mayhem, yet they’re both capable of acting with integrity and honor. This is certainly nothing groundbreaking and the delivery is nothing innovative (Heat is still probably the greatest crime thriller in recent memory with this particular theme, though The Departed is another exemplary masterpiece), but it gets the job done.

But where does Teddy land on this particular binary? Well, that’s the big question. The way this character is built, he could easily go either way. The only thing that’s certain is that Teddy will do what’s best for Teddy. Even so, it’s genuinely compelling to watch the character, wait and see who he sides with, and how he’ll generally fuck up the best laid plans of everyone else in the building.

Most of the cast is there to be disposable, but there are a few highlights worth mentioning. I appreciate the sweaty anxiety that Ryan O’Nan brought in to imbue Huber with some measure of compassion and dimension. Toby Huss is an absolute riot as Anthony Lamb, perfectly riding the line between hilarious and terrifying.

But then we have Alexis Louder, in the pivotal role of Officer Valerie Young.

On the one hand, I want to give all due credit to the filmmakers for bringing in a relatively unknown black woman to play our protagonist, and directly acknowledging the character’s race without making a major issue of it. I also appreciate that Louder brought in more than enough grit and attitude to liven up what could’ve been a stock and boring character. Young is a character who’s genuinely satisfying to root for, and Louder deserves great credit for that.

Even so, the fact remains that she spends most of the film in a triad with Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo. These are two actors playing well within their comfort zones, pulling from decades of experience playing similar roles in similar films, and they’re acting off each other even as Louder is in the scene. Don’t get me wrong, Louder more than proves herself a talented actor, but she simply wasn’t cut out to hold the screen against these two co-leads in this particular movie.

(To name just a few examples, I might’ve been interested to see Morena Baccarin or Emily Blunt in that particular role. If we have to keep it a black woman, get KiKi Layne or Tessa Thompson in there — they’ve both proven that they have the action chops and dramatic skills to hold their own.)

When all is said and done, Copshop is a Joe Carnahan flick, and to overthink it in search of any deeper meaning is probably to miss the point entirely. For better or worse, this is a movie as direct, primal, bloody, and simple as a sledgehammer to the forehead. If you’re looking for a Carnahan flick that pushes some boundaries and makes some big life statements to go with the dazzling set pieces, check out Boss Level. But if you’re looking for something straightforward and disposable, an enjoyable yet forgettable way to pass a bit of time that doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence (too much), then go ahead and give this one a try.

Kate

Posted September 16, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

In my last blog entry, I went into a long discussion weighing the benefits of streaming at home versus going to a theater. In summary, I explained that I tend to go easier on streaming releases because they take less time and money to watch. But tonight, I finally discovered an important counterpoint: Why watch a particular streaming release if I’m already online? Even at the most deluxe multiplex, I only have ten or twelve movies to choose from, and a narrow window to see them on the big screen. But if I’m streaming a film — especially on a service like Netflix or HBO Max — then I’ve got literally dozens of new releases and so many thousands of films in the back catalogue, all at my fingertips.

As such, a review of any streaming release must factor in the question, “Why would I watch this when I could watch literally anything else on this exact same platform, with no additional cost in money or time?”

So here’s Kate, an action vehicle for Mary Elizabeth Winstead. And it’s produced by David Leitch and Kelly McCormick, the husband/wife duo at the core of Team John Wick.

We set our stage in Japan, as some shadowy unnamed syndicate of assassins is after the largest of the Yakuza clans. Winstead plays the eponymous Kate (with numerous other young actors playing the character in flashback scenes), who was raised to be a stone-cold killer by her handler, Varrick (Woody Harrelson). Long story short, Kate is assigned to take out a high-ranking officer in the Yakuza clan — and she does — but things nearly go sideways when the target’s young daughter (Ani, played by newcomer Miku Patricia Martineau) is there to witness her father’s brutal murder.

Ten months later, Kate is still troubled by this accidental lapse in her personal code of honor. So she’s agreed to one last hit — shooting down Kijima himself (Jun Kunimura), master of the whole Yakuza clan — before taking an early retirement. The kicker: Kate botches the job because she’s been poisoned.

Yeah, it turns out that someone — very likely in the Yakuza — was somehow able to slip a rare polonium isotope into Kate’s drink, so now she’s got roughly 24 hours until she’s dead of radiation poisoning. What better to do with that remaining time than bust some heads?

To start with, the cast is solid. The Yakuza side is anchored by Tadanobu Asano and Jun Kunimura, each of whom is nothing short of a legendary talent. And of course we’ve got Woody Harrelson, whose IMDb list (believe it or not) is almost as extensive at this point. All three of them are tragically underutilized, and Harrelson in particular seems to be leaning back on his old established schtick on his way to another paycheck, but they’re all reliable supporting players and the film benefits from their presence.

Elsewhere, Miku Patricia Martineau turns out to be the film’s secret weapon. Though she’s not exactly a prodigy, Martineau does an elegant job of selling the character’s development arc. I might add that the character could’ve easily been an annoying sack of pain to lug around — and it’s not like Ani is all that proactive in moving the plot along — but Martineau doesn’t wear out her welcome and she acts well enough off of Winstead, so Mission Accomplished.

But of course this is Winstead’s show from start to finish. I must applaud the choices she’s made at aging artistically — transitioning out of her thirties is not the easiest thing for an actor to do, and this pivot toward a career as an action star makes all kinds of sense. In fact, it’s almost too perfect.

Yes, the film perfectly makes the argument that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is more than capable as an action lead. But here’s the thing: We already knew that. We saw Birds of Prey a year ago. And that was after 10 Cloverfield Lane. And The Thing (2011). And Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Maybe it’s just because I’m a fan and I adore her and the movies she’s made, but this movie didn’t tell me anything about Mary Elizabeth Winstead that I didn’t already know and love.

Part of the problem is with Kate herself. This is her last day alive, she’s in constant pain, she’s got literally nothing to live for except killing whomever poisoned her, so of course Kate’s not going to be all that talkative about who she is and where she came from. I get that. The problem is that it doesn’t leave much for Winstead to work with. She’s got the pain of dying from radiation poisoning, she’s got the trauma of spending her entire childhood killing people, and that’s it. With one minor exception.

I’ve long believed that comic relief is indispensable in any story, for the simple reason that it shows our characters can take joy in something. That’s a crucial dimension of any character: What brings them joy. In Kate’s case, that’s limited to “Boom Boom Lemon”, which is apparently the most rare soft drink in all Japan. No joke, it’s a long-running subplot about how Kate desperately wants one last bottle of Boom Boom Lemon. Sorry, but that’s just not funny enough to work as effective comic relief, and it’s not endearing enough to show anything deeper about the character.

The other big problem is the movie around Winstead. It’s a movie about an international assassin trying to find and terminate her would-be killer, but we’ve already got The Protege. It’s a movie about a killer in constant trouble because of her pesky conscience, but it came out so soon after Ava. Oh, but this one’s about an assassin struggling with her unwitting role as a mother figure, grappling with the terrible secret that she’s the one who made her new surrogate daughter an orphan. Yeah, there’s this movie called Gunpowder Milkshake

To be clear, I don’t necessarily have a problem that the film is derivative. And I’m sure it wasn’t the filmmakers’ fault that Kate just happened to come out so soon after so many other female-driven action vehicles came out. But when a movie looks like it shamelessly cribbed from so many other recent films that were themselves transparently derivative in many ways, that’s not a good look.

The big problem here is that the movie doesn’t really have a strong enough hook to call its own. There’s a bit of talk about mortality and family and the perpetually destructive greed of Western colonialism, but nothing anywhere close to cohesive or compelling. The best this movie has is the central notion of a doomed action hero. Yes, we’ve seen plenty of action films in which the hitman knowingly takes up a dangerous career or has a contract on their head, so we and the hero all know they’re probably not getting out of this alive. But with this movie, the audience and Kate herself both know for a fact that she’s a dead girl walking. We know for an absolute certainty that she’s going for broke because she has literally nothing to lose.

It’s a neat premise. But it’s not enough.

So what about the action scenes? Well, first of all, CGI car chase scenes simply don’t work. We should’ve learned this twenty years ago with the first The Fast and the Furious movie, and all the VFX innovations in the time since have not made this any less true. Yes, CGI cars allow for certain shots and swoops that wouldn’t be physically possible, but it defeats the whole purpose of a car chase. If we’re not made to feel that wind in our hair, if the flying shards of metal don’t have any physical weight to them, then really, what’s the point?

I want to like the fight scenes. I really do. There’s no doubt in my mind that a ton of effort went into choreographing every move, every shot, every edit, and again, Winstead is such a supremely underrated action star that she totally sells every hit. But then I see some stuntman pulling his punches, not using lethal force when he has every opportunity, and I’m disappointed to see David Leitch’s name attached to this.

Speaking of which, I’d love the gun fights a lot more if the guns didn’t jam or run empty three or four times in every scene. And the filmmakers should give themselves a slap on the back of the head for ripping a scene directly out of John Wick: Chapter 3. Seriously, David, did you think we wouldn’t notice that?!

For miscellaneous notes, I appreciated the film’s dazzling use of neon lights, but bi lighting is practically a cliche at this point and again, the neon-drenched aesthetic is nothing that Gunpowder Milkshake and so many other action films haven’t already done better. It’s refreshing to hear a J-Pop infused soundtrack and the Japanese setting has a lot of character, but it bears remembering that international crime thrillers are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the film totally fails at utilizing the international setting into anything unique.

The bottom line — like I always say — is that if you’re not going to do anything new, you had damn well better do it right. And this movie doesn’t do it right.

I can’t possibly stress enough how much I wanted to like Kate. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has long since proven that she needs and deserves her own action movie franchise, so of course she’s great in this, but she’s done better work elsewhere. The action in the film is passable, but the fight scenes in any movie produced by David goddamn Leitch should be so much better. Such a damn shame that all the talent here was stuck with a cliched and cellophane screenplay, directed as the sophomore effort by the guy who previously brought us The Huntsman: Winter’s War.

I don’t like this movie, and I honestly don’t hate it — I was just bored by it. I didn’t even like all those other female-driven action films I alluded to earlier, but all of them followed the old established playbook with more flair and commitment than this one. Hell, Gunpowder Milkshake is still streaming on Netflix, and that movie did so much of what Kate tried to do, and did it a hundred times better.

So, there’s my recommendation: Skip this one, load up Gunpowder Milkshake instead.

Malignant

Posted September 12, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

In the past, I’ve stated numerous times that I tend to go easier on streaming releases. If I watch a movie on a streaming service that I’m already paying a monthly subscription for (and without any $30 upcharge for a premium release because fuck that noise), then I’m not paying upwards of $12 for a ticket. If I’m watching the movie at home, then I’m not trying to fit the schedule of my local multiplex — plus the commute to that local multiplex — into the flow of my day. If I’m free to pause and rewind, fine-tune the brightness of my screen, adjust the volume, turn on subtitles, or even stop watching altogether with no consequence, then I’m not locked into a static viewing experience dictated solely by the filmmakers or the projectionist.

Going out and seeing a movie on a big screen costs more, it’s less convenient, and of course it still carries certain COVID risks. (Though it’s much safer with proper precautions, so get your damn shots already.) So of course I’m going to hold movies to a higher standard when they’re released in a proper theater, and I’m going to go easier on a movie when it’s released for home viewing at practically zero additional cost.

Though Malignant did get a theatrical release, it also got a day-and-date release on HBO Max, and I made the choice to watch it on the streaming service. And even taking the more lenient standards into consideration, this movie’s a piece of shit.

We open during the ’90s, in which the Simion Research Hospital — a grimy and underlit facility that could only be described as a mad science laboratory — is attacked from within by someone or something named “Gabriel”. The performances are melodramatic, the scares and kills are overdone, and we already know we’re in trouble with this one.

Also, the opening credits helpfully inform us that Gabriel was somehow capable of controlling electricity and speaking through electronic means (such as phones, speakers, etc.). I give the film points for including a plot-specific reason for why all the kills take place in total darkness and nobody can turn on a light. Then I take those points right back because most of the characters are too stupid to even try turning on a light. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Cut to the present day, and our stage is set somewhere in the Seattle area. Specifically, the plot unfolds at a rustic and isolated house that practically screams “haunted”. This is where we meet Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman stuck in an abusive marriage with violent asshole Derek (Jake Abel). I might add that Madison has had something like three miscarriages in as many years, which doesn’t do much to help Derek’s anger management issues.

Shortly after Derek slams Madison against a wall (Yes, the film does show domestic violence in graphic detail, so CONTENT WARNING.), subsequently causing another miscarriage, Derek ends up brutally slain. Madison is the only possible suspect, but nobody can find any possible explanation as to how a pregnant woman with a concussion could’ve mutilated her husband so terribly, so no charges were filed.

A couple weeks later, more killings keep happening. And Madison starts to see visions of the murders as they’re happening. Meanwhile, a woman gets kidnapped and Madison starts getting flashes of her old childhood imaginary friend, named Gabriel.

If you’re wondering what’s going on, you’ll have to keep wondering until about 80 minutes in. I get that the film is supposed to be a mystery and we’re not supposed to know everything until the big reveal at the start of the third act, but there are numerous reasons why that doesn’t work here.

To start with, the characters are shit. Annabelle Wallis is a wonderful actor, but she’s got nothing to work with except for Madison’s all-consuming trauma. Our male lead (Det. Kekoa Shaw, played by George Young) has all the charisma and intelligence of a kale salad. The detective’s partner (Det. Regina Moss, played by Michole Briana White) is the resident skeptic, which naturally means she’s twice as stupid and stubborn to boot. Madison’s adoptive sister (Sydney, played by Maddie Hanson) is the pretty blonde comic relief/moral support.

I could keep going, but they all amount to the same thing: This is a cast of archetypes. Every character is a cliche. The plot glides on rails and everyone is only there to keep it moving forward. There is not an ounce of personality or intelligence or anything even remotely unique or memorable (except maybe the big twist, which I’ll address later) to be found anywhere here.

It’s so bad that the climax entire plot could only make sense if every last cop in all of goddamn Seattle was incompetent beyond all hope. To list one spoiler-free example, there’s a sequence in which our male lead detective is injured in the dead of night, yet he continues to pursue our killer through the Seattle underground. Without any idea of where he’s going. Into any number of blind corners and potential traps. Without calling for backup or telling anyone where he is. Folks, I can’t even begin to count the number of times this movie failed the “You fucking idiot!” test during that sequence alone.

I had no reason whatsoever to care about these characters or what happened to them, thus the scares fell totally flat. It also didn’t help that — as stated before — the scares are hopelessly overdone. The music stings are overblown, the flickering lights are overused, the performances are comically heightened… there’s simply none of the subtlety or nuance that effective horror needs. I’m supremely disappointed in James Wan — I don’t know if his established schtick is getting old or something, but he should be much better than this.

Then there’s the big reveal. To put this as spoiler-free that I can, the answer that should’ve explained everything doesn’t explain nearly enough. Suffice to say that Gabriel is a character who could only have worked in a paranormal or supernatural context, but the filmmakers chose another direction and didn’t go nearly far enough with it. Thus the killer’s extraordinary methods and superhuman abilities — most especially his ability to control electricity — make not a single lick of any goddamn sense.

That said, the big reveal is appropriately fucked up on the face of it. The basic premise of the killer, the notion of a protagonist who sees the unfolding murders in her dreams, the nature of the connection between the two… It’s all quite brilliant in theory, especially when the film finally settles into a groove. Moreover, the film has a lot to say about childhood trauma and the nature of family, all of which might have worked elegantly and creatively if it hadn’t been crammed in at the last minute.

Purely in theory, Malignant should’ve been the James Wan cinematic tentpole to replace the creatively bankrupt Conjuring superfranchise. The killer was a great idea, the film had a strong visual hook with Madison’s visions, the central themes of guilt and family ties are perennial favorites that might have fit superbly in this new context, and who knows what other monstrosities might have come from the Simion Research Hospital?

In practice, alas, these few good ideas are buried under a heaping mountain of cliches, inconsistencies, unquestioned answers, unanswered questions, and enough horseshit to fill most shopping malls. I can keep repeating myself all day, but the fact remains that the characters are so bland, the plot is so unremarkable, and the scares are so pitifully ineffective that I’m left with basically nothing to say about this movie. If there was anything this movie might’ve potentially done well in theory, it was botched in practice beyond all hope of repair.

There is literally no reason to see this movie while Candyman (2021) is still in theaters and Last Night in Soho is around the corner. Don’t even bother.

Don’t Breathe 2

Posted September 6, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

For those who had the misfortune of missing it, Don’t Breathe was a phenomenal horror flick about a hapless crew of teenage criminals who broke into the home of a blind man to make some easy money. Then the Blind Man turned out to be an unstoppable homicidal maniac who committed acts of unspeakable sexual violence against women, motivated by psychotic grief and a delusionally warped sense of justice. Basically, it was a story of “Bad versus Evil”, in which both sides torture each other and we get to revel in their well-deserved suffering.

When word came in that a sequel was coming, I was confused. Yes, getting more of a great movie is typically good news, but where could we possibly go from the end of the first movie? Well, it turns out the surviving teens are wholly absent, and the violent rapist psychopath is now our protagonist.

“It’s a bold strategy, Cotton, let’s see if it pays off for ’em.”

Don’t Breathe 2 opens some unspecified length of time (presumably a year at most) after the conclusion of the first film. In the opening scene, we see a young girl crawling from the wreckage of a burning house. Cut to eight years later, and young Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) has spent her entire young life as the adoptive daughter of the Blind Man (Stephen Lang). Let’s pause there for a moment.

As a reminder, the Blind Man was a murderer pushed to sexually violent psychosis by the loss of his daughter. Which means that in obtaining and raising a new adoptive daughter of his own, the villain of the last film basically got everything he ever wanted. That’s pretty fucked up on the surface, but there’s more to consider here.

First of all, it bears remembering that the lead of the last film lived to ride off into the sunset after breaking into an old man’s house, robbing him, and trying to kill him. Both characters ultimately got what they wanted at a heavy cost, so it all balances out in a demented sort of way.

Secondly, Blind Man is absolutely obsessed with making sure he doesn’t lose a second daughter. As a direct result, though the relationship between them is a loving one, he’s still a domineering father who raised Phoenix with rigorous and extensive survival training.

More importantly, Phoenix has no contact with any kids her age. She’s completely home schooled, and the Blind Man doesn’t have any social life. Her only lifeline to the outside world is Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila), an army vet who buys the plants grown in Blind Man’s greenhouse and occasionally takes Phoenix into town on tightly controlled day trips. Blind Man is all about control, and Phoenix is quickly getting to the age where she needs some degree of freedom.

The Blind Man got everything he ever wanted. And he’s in very real danger of ruining it or getting ruined by it, just like everything else he touches.

Things inevitably hit the fan when Phoenix crosses paths with Raylan (Brandon Sexton III). Long story short, Raylan is the leader of a violent gang of meth dealers, he and a lot of his cronies are veterans (dishonorably discharged), and they’re somehow involved with an organ trafficker. And for reasons I won’t discuss here, Raylan has taken a particular interest in Phoenix. Thus he and his crew break into the Blind Man’s house to try and kidnap her.

Remember, we’re not talking about a few stupid juvenile delinquents here — these are professional killers armed and trained for war. These are hardened criminals associated with meth dealing and illegal organ harvesting. Which means that the unstoppable rapist homicidal maniac now has a worthy opponent. And both sides are going to make each other suffer in a big way.

The last movie was a battle of Bad vs. Evil. This one is a battle of Evil vs. Hellish, with Good (that’s Phoenix, remember) caught in between them. Fucking brilliant.

It’s perhaps worth noting that while both films were written and produced by the team of Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues, Alvarez directed the first one while Sayagues directs the second one. There is indeed a significant tonal shift in between the two movies. For one thing, Alvarez had Evil Dead (2013) and numerous short films under his belt before directing the first film while this is the first time Sayagues has directed anything, and that disparity in experience is plainly visible. Not that Sayagues does a poor job — far from it — but the first film was tight and painstakingly constructed in a way that the sequel simply isn’t. Then again, the first movie was novel and innovative in a way that a sequel — by definition — wouldn’t be. Additionally, the first film was set primarily in one house with a cast of four, while the sequel has a lot more moving parts because it opens up the world of the story as any good sequel should do.

Moreover, the first movie made for an exceptional work of slasher horror because our protagonists weren’t capable of defending themselves. By comparison, the second film is all about perfectly capable murderers hunting each other. Yes, Phoenix makes for a vulnerable target, and she is technically the protagonist in that her development is the primary arc of the film. And to be clear, Phoenix is quite proactive and does everything she can to survive without making unreasonably stupid mistakes. Even so, Phoenix is tragically limited by virtue of being a ten-year-old girl, and she’s mostly reduced to acting as a MacGuffin or a Damsel to be rescued.

This is not a formula for a horror film, it’s a formula for an action film. This is effectively an action film in a horror franchise, and it’s an odd fit. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, necessarily, it’s just odd in a way that’s tough to explain.

For instance, when the first movie had all those sound design flourishes, omitting all score to emphasize the characters’ breaths and footsteps, it was terrifying because it underlined the need for dead silence in the face of a blind killing machine with super-sensitive hearing. But when the sequel tries the same trick, it’s… cool, I guess? Sure, it’s a beautifully done sound effect and it works in the context of a cat-and-mouse scene, but it’s not the same and it’s not as effective.

With an action movie, we typically expect dizzying choreography and fight scenes designed to be thrilling. With a horror film — most especially a slasher horror film, which is more or less what the first movie was — we expect the main characters to run and struggle to survive because getting caught by the monster means certain death. Though we do get a couple of impressive stunts, the fight scenes aren’t long enough or numerous enough for a decent action film. And though we do get a couple of gory deaths — in addition to some of that “cat-and-mouse” slasher horror action with Phoenix when she isn’t being passed around like a football — the surprises aren’t scary enough or numerous enough for a horror film.

Instead, the film settles nicely into a general “suspense” kind of genre. From scene to scene, the film is focused on such questions as “Where’s the trap?” and “How will the characters get out of this one?” and “What is this character really hiding and what do they want?” That sort of thing. It’s a bit of a jarring tonal shift from the first film to the second, but it works.

A significant part of why it works is because of the subtle connective tissue between the two films. The opening shot clearly and specifically calls back to the opening shot of the first movie, establishing a connection between the two straight away. And I’m furious right now because if I was at liberty to get into spoilers, I could make a meal of all the cleverly implicit ways that Phoenix’s arc calls back to that of Rocky in the previous film. In the story beats and camera movements, the sequel rhymes with the first film beautifully in a way that never once feels like a lazy rehash. Masterfully done.

But of course what really makes this work are the two leads. Madelyn Grace proves herself to be a superb young talent, gracefully providing the film with a solid anchor and a sympathetic moral arbiter. She elevates the role into something far greater than a mere plot device, and she sells the character’s fortitude where it’s necessary. Outstanding work.

As for the Blind Man, of course Stephen Lang does a marvelous job reprising a character he already slammed out of the park. But far more importantly, he sells the character’s suffering. The movie never lets us forget that Blind Man is in fact a monster who’s done unforgivable things. At the start of the film (and all through the previous film, come to think of it), Blind Man is simply trying to get back what was unfairly taken from him, regardless of what he has to do or who gets hurt along the way. But as the film unfolds, Blind Man starts to realize that he can’t run away from his past sins — indeed, his past sins are exactly why he suffers even more than he already has and loses whatever he has left.

The Blind Man is motivated to rescue this girl and make it possible that she’ll somehow have a better life because at this point, that’s his last remaining hope for any kind of salvation. But in the end, the film is good enough to leave it up to the audience. Whether you think he redeems himself at the end or if he was long past redemption even before we met the guy, that doesn’t make it any less satisfying to watch the Blind Man get beaten to shit for the sake of rescuing a sympathetic character.

Also, it’s worth stressing that the film makes novel use of the Blind Man’s central gimmick. Though his other senses are highly advanced and he has the benefit of his training as a top-of-the-line Navy SEAL, the Blind Man’s greatest strength proves to be his ingenuity and resourcefulness. This is most especially obvious in the back half, when the Blind Man is finally pushed out of his house and into unfamiliar territory. Through the entire first movie and half of the second film, Blind Man had the distinct advantage of fighting in a house that he intimately knew from top to bottom. When compelled to fight in unfamiliar territory, he has to get crafty, and the results are a joy to watch.

Though Don’t Breathe is definitely the superior film, I still had a great time with Don’t Breathe 2. The sequel isn’t anywhere near as effective as a horror film, but the brutality is still unflinching, the moral ambiguity is still compelling, and I must give a kind of grudging respect to any filmmakers who’d go to such fucked-up lengths in making sure the characters suffer. It also helps that the two lead performances are genuinely captivating, there are so many genuinely clever action scenes in here, and watching the Blind Man fight for his life felt so good after sitting through the first one.

When all is said and done, this sequel makes sure that Rocky, Phoenix, and the Blind Man all get the endings they deserve. That’s the most I could ask.

The two films are different enough that anyone could technically walk into the sequel cold, but it won’t be the same. You really need to see the first film to appreciate why the Blind Man does what he does, and why he deserves everything he gets. If you haven’t seen the first movie, you totally should. If you’ve seen the first movie and you haven’t seen the sequel yet, you totally should.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Posted September 4, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

This is one of those times when I had to write a whole ‘nother blog entry before I even saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. There’s a lot to sink our teeth into with regards to who Shang-Chi (pronounced “SHONG-chi”) is and how we got to this point. I’m at a loss for how I can sum it all up in a single paragraph, and we’ve got more than enough to get through besides. So let’s just assume you’ve read the previous blog entry (or maybe you already know or don’t care about all that) and hit the ground running.

Let’s start with the ten rings. In the comics, the Mandarin wore ten rings of alien origin, one on each finger, each one with a different power. Here in the film, they’re more like ten bracelets that serve as highly versatile energy weapons. They can fire energy blasts, they can be chained together into whips or force fields, and they can fly around telekinetically for all sorts of purposes. Perhaps most importantly, they provide immortality, to the extent that the Mandarin himself (played by Tony Leung) has barely aged a day in a thousand years.

As to where the rings came from or how they work… well, that’s a mystery for another film, apparently.

Moving on, the title of “The Mandarin” was apparently made up by Aldrich Killian back in Iron Man 3. The film openly mocks that racist title, instead typically referring to him as Xu Wenwu. That said, it’s worth noting that Wenwu has taken on multiple names and titles while building up his Ten Rings empire over the centuries.

Wenwu had more or less taken over the entire world by the mid-90s, so he turned his attention toward the uncharted land of Ta Lo, an village reputed to be a harbor for mystical creatures and magical crafts unknown to the world at large. Upon arrival, he’s quickly turned back by Ying Li (Fala Chen), who guards the gates to Ta Lo. However, the two of them hit it off.

Ying Li leaves her homeland to join the outside world, Wenwu gives up the Ten Rings for an honest civilian life, and the two of them get married. In short order, Ying Li gives birth to siblings Shang-Chi (played at various ages by Simu Lu, Jayden Zhang, and Arnold Sun) and Xu Xialing (played at various ages by Meng’er Zhang, Elodie Fong, and Harmonie He).

To make a totally separate long story short, Ying Li died and Wenwu went back to his criminal ways. He then proceeded to train his son into an unstoppable killing machine. Flash forward to the modern day, in a post-Endgame MCU, and Shang-Chi has been on the outs with his family for the past ten years. No, I will not go into details about how we got from Point A to Point B, but I assure you that the film goes into that at length.

Suffice to say that when Shang-Chi — now “Shaun” — first arrived in San Francisco at the tender age of 14, he quickly found a best friend in Katy (Awkwafina), whose family took him under their wing as a surrogate son. The two of them are still platonic partners in crime, wasting their education and talent as valet attendants in between illicit joyrides and late-night karaoke binges. Basically put, the two of them are trying to hold onto their carefree lifestyles for as long as they can.

To make another long story short, Wenwu manipulates events to bring his wayward children (plus an errant Katy) back into the fold. And he’s done this because he’s supposedly found a way into Ta Lo, where he claims he can bring Ying Li back to life.

For reference, the canonical Shang-Chi was trained by his father to be a world-class martial artist, then became disillusioned with his father and turned against his family. I’m pretty sure this is the only point of comparison between the movie and the source material. Other aspects, like The Mandarin, Ta Lo, and the Dweller-in-Darkness (more on him later) were apparently carried over from other Marvel comics properties with heavy modifications. Also, I can’t find any evidence that Katy, Xialing, Ying Li, or “Xu Wenwu” as the Mandarin’s real name have any basis in the comics.

Then again, it’s not like there are many hardcore fans of Shang-Chi out there, even among the comic fanboy elite. And as I’ve discussed before, Shang-Chi and the Mandarin are both steeped so heavily in outdated racism that this is the level of overhauling it took to make them palatable for a mainstream audience. So kudos to the filmmakers for taking full advantage of all the liberties that come with adapting a lesser-known character.

Anyway, if the above plot rundown sounds like a lot to get through in 130 minutes, that’s because it is. Yet the filmmakers do a stellar job of conveying so much exposition with economical speed through pinpoint editing and masterful use of flashbacks. Surprisingly, the fight scenes help a lot as well.

At the start of the film, Wenwu and Ying Li court each other even as they fight each other. In the climax, Shang-Chi finally discovers the courage and fortitude to confront his father. Literally from start to finish and at all points in between, the fight scenes are expertly and artfully used to advance the plot and develop the characters. Not even Team John Wick has ever done such an immaculate job of telling a story through combat. Couple that with complex choreography, impeccable camerawork and editing, inventive use of weapons and CGI elements… the fight scenes in this movie are worthy of (arguably) the greatest martial arts expert in the Marvel canon, and that’s to be read as exceedingly high praise.

(Side note: The fight scenes’ quality is due in no small part to maestro Brad Allan. A former protege of Jackie Chan himself, Allan previously helped coordinate stunts and action scenes for such badass films as Kick-Ass, Pacific Rim, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and all three films in the Kingsman series to date. Alas, Allan died of undisclosed causes earlier this year, and at the woefully young age of 48. This film is dedicated to his memory. RIP.)

Moving on, another reason why the film does such a great job at staying focused through so much exposition is the pinpoint focus on family-related themes. A pivotal scene comes when we meet Katy’s family early on, complete with typical Asian family stereotypes about overbearing parents pushing children toward unreasonable goals, the pressure to get married and raise a family at an early age, the difficulty in letting go of a loved one (a concept here explicitly labeled “an American thing”), and so on. Luckily, director/co-writer Destin Daniel Crettin is half-Japanese and co-writer David Callaham is half-Chinese on his mother’s side, so we know that this is coming from an authentic place of love. Additionally, because family is such a central concept to so many Asian cultures, this film explores related themes with a perspective unusual among Western-made films.

More importantly, this scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. All of these themes are introduced in a mundane context, which pays off in a big way when they play out in a superpowered context with the fate of the world at stake. Katy’s family and Shang-Chi’s family are dealing with the exact same issues, it’s only a matter of degree.

Wenwu attained everything he had through the power of the Ten Rings, he gave that up to raise a family with Ying Li, and it meant that he didn’t have the power to save her when it really mattered. He’s still grappling with that guilt, and he’s never going to repeat the mistake of giving up an inch of power. Moreover, Ying Li was Wenwu’s last remaining tether to humanity, and he’s desperate to recover that by any means necessary. In short, Wenwu is pathologically incapable of letting go and accepting his wife’s death.

Additionally, Wenwu has been kicking ass for a thousand years, and he’s still alive after so many of his adversaries have bitten the dust. He’s an intelligent man of immense power and wealth, with an international army of terrorists and cutthroats ready to do his bidding at a moment’s notice. In other words, he’s a man who’s used to getting his own way and used to being right all the time, to the point where he’s mentally incapable of taking “no” for an answer or considering the possibility that he might be wrong about something. Yet as powerful and ruthless as Wenwu is, it’s made abundantly clear that everything he does is for his wife and children. His heart’s in the right place, but his methods are outright psychotic.

In summary, he’s a manipulative narcissist and ultimately a victim of his own hubris. He’s a man with godlike power and delusions of infallibility, so his mistakes are potentially apocalyptic in scale. Tony Leung is a bona fide acting legend in his native Hong Kong, and his turn here is more than good enough to slap the bitter aftertaste of Iron Man 3 out of anyone’s mouth. But we’ll come back to that in a minute.

As for Shang-Chi, here we have a young man running from his legacy because he can’t stand all the evil shit that his father was directly responsible for. In fact, as a direct result of his abusive upbringing, Shang-Chi himself was pressured to do terrible things that he’s still trying to bury. Also, Shang-Chi saw his own mother killed right in front of him, so throw that trauma on the pile.

But on the other hand, for better or worse, Wenwu is also directly responsible for making Shang-Chi into the world-class martial artist that he is, more than capable of defending his loved ones and potentially the world. Plus, he’s got many years’ worth of fond childhood memories regarding his mother and all the things she taught him, in addition to his Ta Lo lineage. Does he really want to run away from all of that as well?

Shang-Chi’s development arc is all about learning how to accept the good with the bad, shaping all of the above into his own image. It’s a fine development arc, beautifully portrayed. Of course, it also helps that Simu Liu is equally capable of portraying the character’s pathos, kicking ass against a horde of stuntmen, and getting into comedic hijinks. It’s a dynamic performance and Liu has more than earned his place in the MCU pantheon.

Speaking of which, I was honestly concerned with the issue of selling Shang-Chi as a worthy addition to the Avengers. How could a martial arts expert plausibly stand with so many magical and/or high-tech demigods in the face of a multi-universal evil? I mean, say what you will about Hawkeye, but even he doesn’t go into a battlefield empty-handed! Well, I don’t want to spoil too much, but the movie succeeds on that front in a big way. By the end of the film, you will absolutely believe that Shang-Chi could pull his weight in a team effort against an Avengers-level threat.

But you know what’s even better than the film’s male leads? The female leads.

I was skeptical about the notion of Awkwafina playing a love interest, and I’m happy to report that she really doesn’t. Through most of the film, Awkwafina and Liu have such an easy rapport that it’s effortless to believe that they’re lifelong friends and partners in mischief without any romantic attachment. But then the plot unfolds and the two characters start to develop.

Shang-Chi and Katy are both alike in that they’re aimlessly wandering through life, running from the disappointment of their parents, struggling to figure out who they are. Both characters have to figure out who they really are and who they want to be, and they each have their own independent paths to figuring that out. Thus, while the two follow parallel development tracks, the female costar is NOT dependent on her male lead or vice versa. I might add that while Katy is hardly a capable martial arts expert, she is proactive in her own way, constantly looking for ways to help Shang-Chi or to get herself out of trouble without distracting him in mid-fight.

By the end, Katy and Shang-Chi both develop into people who are worthy of each other, and their romantic involvement becomes much easier to swallow. She starts out as a comic relief second banana and ends the film as a hero in her own right. And Awkafina sells every step of that development like a goddamn champion. I know her career is blowing up in a huge way, but she’s still a supremely underrated talent.

Then we have Meng’er Zhang in the role of Xialing, who makes for a fascinating contrast with her brother. Shang-Chi was forced to directly learn martial arts from a crew of badasses, while Xialing was forbidden from playing with the boys and thus had to teach herself through obsessive observation and repetition. Shang-Chi went underground, doing his best to hide his abilities and live among commoners; while Xialing went underground and used her abilities to develop her own secret criminal enterprise. Shang-Chi was given the keys to his father’s kingdom and he threw it away; Xialing couldn’t inherit her daddy’s empire and so built her own. The contrast makes for a fascinating interplay between them, and of course it was wonderful to see Zhang kicking ass all up and down the screen.

Which brings me to the OG herself, Michelle Yeoh. She plays the estranged sister to Ying Li, so spoilers prevent me from going into too much detail. Suffice to say that Auntie Nan’s arrival is a game-changer in a big way, and Yeoh thoroughly dominates. In particular, her training montage with Shang-Chi is a showstopper, yet another example of the movie’s mind-blowing flair for storytelling through combat.

But for all this talk about character development, pathos, fight scenes, and whatnot, it’s tough to overstate the film’s comic relief. After all, this is a movie with Akwafina as the main female lead — that says a lot about this movie’s sense of humor. But the comic relief kicks up in a big way with the introduction of Ben Kingsley, once again playing the hapless Trevor Slattery. Bringing him in to close the book on Iron Man 3 was a brilliant move, and it would certainly be a huge help to those moviegoers who’ve sat through every Marvel film in theaters, but didn’t buy the Blu-Ray for Thor: The Dark World. (On a related note, why would anyone buy the Blu-Ray for Thor: The Dark World?)

Again, I’m loathe to go into details about Trevor Slattery and his role in the proceedings. Suffice to say that Kingsley plays to the cheap seats with this one and he’s clearly having the time of his goddamn life. He gets so many laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, he really is the film’s secret weapon.

To recap, we’ve got a movie with stellar action scenes, compelling themes, and multifaceted characters played by a phenomenal cast. Are there any drawbacks? There is most certainly one, and it’s a doozy.

Invested as I was in this movie, I clocked out altogether at the 70-minute mark. At this point, the plot comes to a dead halt so Auntie Nan can unload a metric ton of exposition about the Great Protector, the Dweller-in-Darkness, and a whole bunch of other bullshit. The presentation implies that all of this somehow ties into the greater Marvel lore, but fuck if I could tell you how. All that really matters is that there’s a giant CGI monster that wants to protect the world for some reason, and there’s a giant CGI monster with a bunch of smaller CGI monster helpers who all want to destroy the world for some reason.

Yes, I will admit that this new wrinkle adds to the scale of the film and gives the conflict some global stakes. But even without that, we already had an epic battle on par with the climax of Black Panther, in addition to ten rings that grant godlike power and freaking immortality! More importantly, I came here for the human characters with dimension and pathos, working out their problems through immaculate fight choreography. At this point in the film, it’s significantly harder to give a shit about giant CGI monsters with no personality or clear motivation, the both of them dropped into our laps out of nowhere.

To be entirely clear, there’s still more than enough interpersonal drama and character development to power the back half. It isn’t all about the weird battle between two giant CGI monsters. But that battle does become the main focus toward the end of the climax, and the film’s overall quality takes a noticeable dip in those minutes.

(Side note: In case anyone else out there was wondering, the underwater dragon seen in the trailers is most certainly NOT Fin Fang Foom. That said, I’d be greatly interested to see how these particular filmmakers would adapt that particular character. Fingers crossed for the sequel!)

Wrapping up with some miscellaneous notes, I suppose I should address the ties to the greater Marvel continuity. To start with, Abomination appears in an underground fighting ring that features superpowered individuals. Which is a pretty neat concept to introduce, given the consequences of everything that’s happened in the MCU to date. We also get a brief glimpse of what “post-Blip anxiety” is like, but nothing that even skims the surface of what “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” covered on Disney+.

Getting back to Abomination, he doesn’t even get a line, he’s been redesigned to the point where he’s barely recognizable, and he could’ve been swapped out with pretty much any other superpowered character. In fact, I’m disappointed that Marvel didn’t take the opportunity to fit more Z-tier Easter Eggs into that fight club. (see also: Howard the Duck) Still, it’s nice to see Marvel following up on Abomination, confirming what’s happened to him and why we haven’t seen him around. Shame we may never get that same kind of closure with Samuel Sterns, though.

Easily the film’s strongest tie with the greater MCU is Benedict Wong, stepping in once again to play the character Wong. Because the most Asian-centric film of the MCU to date simply wouldn’t be complete without the MCU’s most prominent and powerful Asian character of the prior films (not counting “Agents of SHIELD”, whose canon status is up for debate at this point). Damn shame they couldn’t find a way to get Randall Park’s character in there, though. Not even a cameo to investigate the aftermath of that bus fight scene?

I might add that Doctor Strange doesn’t even get a mention, likely because he’s busy helping Scarlet Witch and Spider-Man. Between those two other films and this one, it’s frankly astounding how the Sanctum Santorum has become the fulcrum of Phase Four. It’s a sign of big things coming, no doubt about that.

In any case, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a blast. It’s superbly acted, expertly paced, and every single character is compelling to watch. (Yes, even a couple of heavies get noteworthy moments.) The themes are heartfelt, the fight scenes are jaw-dropping, and the comic relief is genuinely funny. What’s more, while this is a film that rewards longtime MCU watchers, it’s independent enough from the greater lore to be enjoyed on its own merits, and we’re going to need movies like that as the superfranchise grows perilously large to the point of unwieldy.

The film loses a few points for some CGI bullshit in the climax, but that’s still not enough to distract from what’s otherwise a damn good movie. This one comes strongly recommended.

The Protege

Posted August 29, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

The Protege comes to us from director Martin Campbell and Richard Wenk, both seasoned journeymen. Campbell is of course best known for his outings with James Bond (namely Goldeneye and Casino Royale, both seminal entries in the series), though of course he’s also infamous for a little film called Green Lantern (though let’s be honest, there’s more than enough blame for that one to go around). As for Richard Wenk, he’s previously responsible for such screenplays as The Magnificent Seven (2016), The Mechanic, The Expendables 2, and both of the Denzel Washington Equalizer films.

On paper, these two are exactly the kind of filmmakers you would hire to craft an R-rated, down-and-dirty action thriller about hardened killers without any glaring CGI superhero shenanigans. In practice, that’s exactly what we’ve got here and basically nothing else.

We first meet the eponymous Anna (played in flashbacks by Eva Nguyen Thorsen) in 1991, after she somehow survived a massacre in a Vietnamese police outpost. She’s discovered by Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), an assassin who was in the area on an unrelated mission. He arrives to find all of his targets already shot, and a young traumatized girl hiding with a gun.

Thirty years later, Anna is now played by Maggie Q. She was effectively raised by Moody, trained to find (and occasionally kill) people and objects that don’t want to be found. I might add that she’s found a more uplifting way to utilize that skill set, running a rare book store when she isn’t on missions with Moody.

Then we find out that Moody just turned 70 and he’s got a chronic cough and… yep, he’s dead at the 30-minute mark. Right on schedule.

Just before he died, Moody was rooting around his old files, asking about a missing person connected to somebody he was hired to kill a while back. Then he ends up dead and assassins come after Anna, more people around her turn up dead, so now she has to dig up old skeletons… look, you’ve seen a movie before, right? You know how the rest of this goes.

To be entirely fair, Maggie Q is brilliant. She turns in a dynamic performance, she pulls off every action scene with aplomb, and she constantly looks like a million bucks. As an action movie vehicle for Maggie Q, the film more than accomplishes its goal.

As for Samuel L. Jackson, you already know what you’re getting. The man has developed his persona into a finely-honed blade at this point, and it’s deadly in his hands. The big distinction is that he’s not playing it as self-parody (see: The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard), but playing it straight. The closest comparison I can think of is probably Nick Fury, funny enough.

But then we have Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), a troubleshooter working for our antagonist. To be clear, I love Michael Keaton as much as the next guy. It’s great to see him back in action and kicking all kinds of ass up and down the screen. Moreover, this role needed someone with a rapier wit, someone so morally slippery that we could never be sure which way he would land or whose side he would really be on. On paper, Keaton was the ideal choice to play this role.

The problem is that Rembrandt was also supposed to be a contentious love interest for Anna. The two are on opposing sides, but even they don’t know if they’re going to end up fighting or fucking. It’s a fine idea in theory, but it doesn’t work because the chemistry just isn’t there. The two actors are doing the best they can with the witty repartee they’re given, but they simply did not work as any kind of romantic/sexual item.

Nobody else in the cast is worth mentioning. It was a pleasant surprise to see Robert Patrick show up as a supporting character, but he’s a plot device more than anything else.

The fight scenes are exciting enough. The camerawork, the editing, the choreography, they’re all fine. I’m particularly fond of the “cat-and-mouse” element, with opposing characters running from each other, hiding in ambush, trying to find each other, and so on. It’s a nifty way to break up the fight scenes while maintaining tension.

But then we get to the climax, in which the filmmakers try to shoehorn in some discussion about the nature of good and evil and everything in between. There’s also an attempt at commenting on the surrogate father/daughter relationship between Anna and Moody, drawing parallels with the protagonist. The past is also a prospective theme, as Moody’s reach back into his past mission carries some powerful similarities with Anna going back to Vietnam for the first time since her traumatic youth.

Alas, none of this works. There are many reasons, but the big one is that the antagonist is woefully undercooked. To wit, though all the other characters are clearly terrified of our Big Bad, we never see the Big Bad himself do anything scary. Aside from vague secondhand generalities, we have no reason to be scared of our villain, and we have no primary evidence that he has anything to atone for. All we know for sure is that he hired a bunch of assassins to kill a pair of hitmen and their criminal associates. Sorry, but that’s not enough. Not when so many of the film’s thematic statements are predicated on the notion that our villain is an irredeemable monster.

The Protege feels like a movie that set out to be a disposable mid-tier action flick and met its goal perfectly, but that’s not exactly true. After all, we’ve got the botched Anna/Rembrandt romantic rivalry and the undercooked themes explored in the climax. Both of these might have made the film into something interesting and unique if only they worked out to their full potential.

It’s fascinating and upsetting how the filmmakers show a sincere desire to make something unique, and all their efforts toward that end shriveled up and died. All we’re left with are a bunch of decent action scenes in a mediocre plot. The film serves well enough as an action vehicle for Maggie Q and Michael Keaton, more than proving that each of them deserve a far better film. This one’s worth a rental at best.

Regarding Sony

Posted August 28, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Whether you know it or not — and they’ve put a lot of money and effort into making sure you don’t know it — Sony is in dire straits right now.

As they have for the past twenty years, Sony has put most of it’s cinematic investments into Spider-Man. They’ve got No Way Home coming out at the end of the year, though most consider that a Marvel/Disney picture. There’s the Venom sequel supposedly coming out in October, but we’re getting a lot of contradictory reports about another possible delay. And then of course there’s Morbius, a film about a Spider-Man character nobody knows about, played by an actor nobody likes, and it got dumped in January 2022 without fanfare. Yikes.

More importantly, despite Sony’s best efforts at rewriting history and gaslighting everyone into thinking they invented the character, Spider-Man is still property of Marvel. The only reason Sony still has any stake in the character is because of some convoluted and arcane rights-sharing scheme that everyone has long since lost patience with. Marvel and Disney are only getting more money and popular goodwill, leaving Sony with increasingly less leverage every time they have to renegotiate the contracts.

Then there’s James Bond. With a reported budget somewhere around $300 million, No Time to Die ranks as the fifth most expensive movie ever made. And that’s before the money they spent promoting however many release dates have come and gone.

By some recent estimates, No Time to Die needs $900 million at the box office just to break even. To put that in perspective, the highest-grossing movie of 2021 so far is Hi, Mom, making $848 million in China without an international release. (Bitch all you want about how Hollywood is stuck up China’s ass — and I have — but those numbers don’t lie.) A distant second is F9: The Fast Saga with a worldwide take of just over $700 million. No Time to Die is practically guaranteed to lose money at this point, it’s just a matter of how much.

More importantly, Sony doesn’t completely own James Bond either — they share the rights with MGM. And the two companies will have to renegotiate their contracts in the immediate future, given that Daniel Craig will be hanging it up after this movie and they’ll need to find a replacement. The big difference is that this time, Sony won’t be dealing with a washed-up studio on the perpetual verge of bankruptcy, they’ll be dealing with goddamn Amazon. Again, this means that Sony will have a lot less leverage.

Then we have Sony Pictures Animation. Next to the upcoming Into the Spider-Verse sequel (see: Spider-Man, above), their biggest tentpole is the upcoming Hotel Transylvania: Transformania. Which just got sold to Amazon. And all their other most recent releases were Netflix exclusives. Not that Netflix or Amazon have any technical stake in Sony Pictures Animation, but the studio is good as dead without those streamers at this point, and everyone involved is smart enough to know it.

Jumanji turned out to be a surprisingly lucrative franchise, but its future is currently unknown. The pandemic threw the next sequel’s development into uncertainty, and Dwayne Johnson is busy stretching himself thin acting and producing in umpteen other big projects.

That just leaves Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Trouble is, the promotion for that movie is all over the place, and the studio never found a marketing hook. This gives the impression that Sony has no idea what they’ve got, which isn’t a good look after they so publicly and pathetically mishandled the Paul Feig reboot. This is the last, best hope for Sony to turn a profit on a franchise they own wholesale, and they have no idea what to do with it.

It’s extremely unlikely that Ghostbusters: Afterlife will be a billion-dollar hit. But even if it was, taking all the other aforementioned factors into consideration, it may only delay the inevitable.

At this point, Sony can keep on losing money while haggling with so many other corporations; or they can sell all their film holdings and focus on being an electronics company.

Sony has no reason to keep this going, and they’ll have even less reason after they lose tens of millions on No Time to Die. Spider-Man will go back to Marvel wholesale, Amazon will buy James Bond outright, the Jumanji franchise will finally die, Sony Pictures Animation will probably get bought out by Netflix, and Ghostbusters and all the rest will hopefully go to someone who appreciates them.

And all of us — including and especially Sony — will be better off for it.

Candyman (2021)

Posted August 27, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.”

–Mark Twain

By now, producer/co-writer Jordan Peele has done an extraordinary job crafting his own brand of racially-motivated and unconventional horror that terrifies audiences while getting them to think. Significantly lesser known is director/co-writer Nia DaCosta, unless you’ve seen all the times I’ve raved about Little Woods on this very blog.

(Side note: The film’s third credited writer is Win Rosenfeld, here making his feature writing debut, though he was a producer on BlacKkKlansman and he wrote an episode on the recent “Twilight Zone” remake with Peele.)

We all expected great things for their upcoming take on Candyman, and they did not disappoint. Suit up and get your shovels, everyone — we’ve got a lot to dig through tonight.

Candyman (1992) featured a paranormal slasher played by Tony Todd. In life, he was Daniel Robitaille, a slave who was highly sought after for his prodigious skill with a paintbrush. At some point in the 1890s, legend has it that Robitaille was commissioned to paint a portrait of some wealthy landowner’s daughter, the two of them had an affair, and the young lady got pregnant. Naturally, the landowner responded to this news by hiring a group of thugs to hunt down Robitaille. They beat him, tortured him, stuck a metal hook into the stump of the right hand they cut off, coated him in honey so a swarm of bees would sting him hundreds of times, then they finally set him on fire, all while hundreds of villagers looked on.

Candyman (2021) features a paranormal slasher played by Michael Hargrove. In life, Sherman Fields was a friendly old amputee with a hook for a hand, giving out candy to the neighborhood kids at Cabrini-Green. Legend has it that around 1977, some white girl found a razor blade in a piece of candy. Inevitably, fingers were pointed in Fields’ direction, so the cops descended on Cabrini-Green and straight-up murdered him without even pressing charges, much less convicting him of anything. A couple weeks later, Fields was posthumously proven innocent when more razor blades appeared in candy.

As soon as we heard that revised origin story in the trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a hard reboot. It isn’t. I can’t speak to the second and third films (from what I understand, neither one of them has much of any bearing on the events of the first film or the iconic setting of Cabrini-Green), but this was clearly built from the ground up as a direct continuation of the first movie.

Don’t worry if you’re coming in fresh, though — the film helpfully opens with a brief recap of the first movie’s climax, albeit embellished with 30 years’ worth of urban legends. But man oh man, it certainly helps a lot to have some firsthand knowledge of the original movie, or to come in having recently seen the original movie (as I did).

I’m happy to report that Virginia Madsen herself was brought in to reprise Helen Lyle by way of a brief voice-over cameo. Likewise, OG Tony Todd lends his singular presence and sinister voice to the denouement. But the most prominent returning player here is Vanessa Williams (looking like she hasn’t aged a day), reprising her role from the original movie. And if you know the original movie, you should already know what that means for our protagonist.

Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an artist living in Chicago. Desperate for new inspiration, he comes across the legend of Candyman and makes it the subject of his latest series of paintings. Predictably, he goes down the rabbit hole and it doesn’t end well.

Once again, I have to pause to note the parallels with the first movie. Helen Lyle was a grad student writing her thesis on urban legends and their power within the slums, while Anthony McCoy makes artistic statements about the systemic racism that puts black people in the ghetto and keeps them there. I might add that Helen was a grad student in a tenuous marriage with a professor at her college; while Anthony is in a strained long-term relationship with Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), the art gallery director who promotes and showcases Anthony’s work.

Both protagonists discover the Candyman legend, growing obsessed with it to a degree that irreparably damages their souls and psyches, causing harm and heartbreak to everyone around them. Even if they start in different places and approach from different angles, they both end up in the same place. The one major difference is that Anthony is directly linked with Robitaille from the get-go, as the both of them are black men forced to keep to white people’s standards while making a living as painters. With absolutely no other connection between Anthony and the Candyman. (*coughWatchTheFirstMoviecough*)

But what’s easily more important than the similarities are the slight differences. Back in 1992, the towers of Cabrini-Green were such notorious crime-infested hellholes that the makers of Candyman needed the blessings of five different gangs to shoot a movie there, employing actual local gang members as extras for authenticity and security purposes. But the last of those towers was torn down in 2011, and Cabrini-Green is now gentrified beyond recognition.

In the first movie, Helen was an affluent white woman in hostile territory, trying to build some bridge of understanding and empathy without taking advantage of the impoverished native black people or opening herself up to abuse from them. This time, Anthony is a black man reaching back into the past of Cabrini-Green, reckoning with all the systemic pain and suffering at the foundation of his city and struggling to impart those lessons to others (most especially the willfully ignorant white folk).

If it sounds like I’m placing a lot of importance on comparing and contrasting the two movies, that’s because it plays a huge part of a central theme for the more recent film: The cyclical nature of history. Which brings me to the Candyman himself.

One of the things I loved about the first film was that Tony Todd’s Candyman was a seductive monster in the vein of Dracula. Remember, Helen Lyle had been written off by the academic patriarchy as a hysterical young woman overcome with homicidal mania when her delicate little mind couldn’t handle the gruesome topic of her thesis. By the end of the movie, she had lost absolutely everything, and so many people close to her were dead. Candyman offered an escape from all that: The sweet release of death.

But for the black male protagonist of this movie, Candyman’s allure is something very different. Specifically, Candyman is strangely and unnervingly appealing with the knowledge that our protagonist could actually be Candyman.

Remember the two different origin stories for Candyman, and how they seemed to contradict each other? They don’t. They’re both true. Because as portrayed in this movie, Candyman isn’t any one particular man or monster. He’s not just Daniel Robitaille or Sherman Fields. He’s also Emmett Till. He’s Trayvon Martin. He’s George Floyd and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Ahmaud Arbery and Oscar Grant, et cetera, et cetera, et goddamn cetera. He’s this image, this idea, this writhing stew of emotions that boils over with every mention of a black person who was ever unjustly murdered with impunity by the White Man.

By now, we’ve all seen and heard the marches in the streets. Personally, I expect I’ll have “Say his name! GEORGE FLOYD!” ringing in my ears until the day I die. For those tragically taken too soon, cut down in their prime by racism and injustice, their names and their memory are all they have. Saying those names gives them power, more than they ever had in life.

And here’s a slasher built around the very notion of death and rebirth into something infamous and everlasting. An invincible black man with the power to ruthlessly kill anyone, summoned by saying his name five times.

Upon hearing the premise for the film, the first thing any reasonable person would ask is why anyone would look in the mirror and say “Candyman” five times. Why would anyone do that, if the best-case scenario is that nothing happens, and the worst-case scenario is that anyone who does it dies a painful and bloody death?

Well, in the first movie, it was a matter of proof. Helen Lyle summoned Candyman because it was her only means of assuring herself and others that she wasn’t making any of this up and she wasn’t going crazy, though it often had the opposite effect. And that’s still a factor in this movie, but there’s more to it this time.

As alluded to previously, empowering Candyman by saying his name is a means of empowering the name and memory of any black person who ever got lynched. But on a more basic level, the act of summoning Candyman is an act of faith. It’s a statement that the summoner believes in the legends and believes that Candyman is real. And the ensuing act of violence might be considered a statement of some kind as well, depending on the context and the victims and the end results. Put simply, what we’ve got here is a weaponized belief. Any kind of faith is a double-edged sword, but this particular kind can literally kill or be killed without any physical steel or explosives.

As with Clive Barker’s other most famous creations, Candyman defies any simple categorization as “good” or “evil”. Depending on your perspective and motivation, Candyman could be a savior or a slaughterer. In point of fact, he’s not entirely culpable for his gruesome actions — he always plays by the established rules, he never actively goes looking for people to kill, and it’s your own damn fault for summoning him when you knew what might happen.

(Side note: Keep your eyes peeled for the cute little Easter Egg set in tribute to Candyman’s original creator.)

With all of that being said, I don’t know that I’m entirely comfortable comparing the two different portrayals of Candyman. Daniel Robitaille was very specifically built to be seductive and dangerous, while Sherman Fields was just as specifically built to be a well-intentioned and misunderstood old man who got aggressively beaten into a monster. Tony Todd could never have played Sherman Fields, and Michael Hargrove couldn’t have played Daniel Robitaille. So let’s just say the both of them are the best at playing their respective aspects of the character. Even better, this new reinvention of the character makes it exceedingly simple for Candyman to potentially have a long and prosperous life onscreen with other capable actors long after Tony Todd is retired or dead.

(Side note: Note that in the first film, the sound designers took great pains to make sure that Candyman’s footsteps made no sound. Compare that to Candyman’s introduction in this movie, made with great booming footfalls. I think these filmmakers have more than earned the benefit of the doubt, so let’s call this a subtle hint to the well-informed that this isn’t the aspect of Candyman we’ve dealt with before.)

The horror aspect is all aces. Though we do get some brainless cannon fodder, the lead characters all act rationally without making any overtly stupid choices, and I always appreciate the rare horror film that passes the “You fucking idiot!” test. It certainly helps that DaCosta shows a remarkable knack for showing just enough to make the scares and kills effective. What we don’t see is made far more terrifying by what we do see, and I can’t possibly praise that enough.

What’s more, the filmmakers found no end of visually stunning and clever means of using the mirror motif. Mirrors are an inherently dynamic visual tool, and the filmmakers deserve major kudos for utilizing mirrors in any number of spooky and breathtaking ways. What’s more, the filmmakers use the established bee motif in similarly creepy ways. One highlight is the bee sting that turns into a running show of grotesque body horror. But more implicitly, I love how the yellow/black color scheme was utilized in the set design. In particular, the slums and ghettos are all browning and rotten, lit at night by the amber streetlights, all of which dovetail beautifully with the yellow/black coloring.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II does a masterful job of selling his character’s steady descent into madness. Kudos are also due to Teyonnah Parris — her character’s downward slope might be even more tragic, as her grasp on reality is so much stronger yet so much more brittle. Another highlight is Colman Domingo, here playing an older man who serves as keeper of the Candyman lore. His performance in @Zola was proof enough that Domingo can flip from “warm and charismatic” to “frightfully psychotic” on a dime, and that skill set pays huge dividends here.

Alas, I’m on the fence about Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Kyle Kaminsky, respectively playing Troy Cartwright (brother to Brianna) and his boyfriend Grady. On the one hand, I appreciate the presence of a gay couple that’s treated as a simple matter of fact. Nobody calls attention to it, it’s not a huge part of the plot, there’s no huge theme about acceptance of gay marriage… really, the fact that there is no point is itself the point, and I deeply appreciate that.

Moreover, I appreciate the light touch of a comic relief character in a film that so badly needs it. As a blood relative to Brianna with absolutely no connection to any Candyman shenanigans, Troy provides a crucial release valve for a movie that’s otherwise filled to the brim with heavy themes of social justice and mind-warping displays of violence.

On the other hand, Grady is mostly there as a sounding board for Troy and shows close to zero personality of his own. More importantly, the “flamboyantly gay best friend” trope was done to death so long ago that I’m surprised and disappointed to see it crop up here. Sure, Troy and Grady are so far removed from the carnage that they’re never in any danger, and I’m grateful that they weren’t candidates for the victim pool. On the other hand, we’ve known for years that men who are both black and queer are far more likely to be victims of violence than men who are one or the other.

As a reminder, we have a movie built from the ground up to talk about prejudiced acts of violence against black people, it features a black gay character, and the film doesn’t say a single word about hate crimes against LGBTQ black men. I’m at a loss for how the filmmakers could’ve missed such a glaring blind spot. Hell, the film is only 90 minutes long, I’m sure they could’ve found room for it!

On a miscellaneous note, the score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (yes, that’s all one name) was… okay. Sorry, I know the first movie’s score is a tough act to follow, but it’s a noble effort that comes up way short of the standard set by Phillip Glass.

The highest praise I can give to Candyman (2021) is that it retroactively makes the original film even better. Yes, the first film was already a marvelous work of horror that holds up surprisingly well 30 years later, but the more recent film goes above and beyond with superior horror, deeper characters, and chillingly detailed social commentary. Both films are great individually, but viewed together, they paint a haunting picture of history repeating in a cycle of racial violence.

The first movie is built on the assumption that fables and urban legends can offer a kind of immortality that will continue to last after mere facts have crumbled to dust. The more recent film is built on the assumption that our brighter future is built on the atrocities of the past. Each film proves the other true.

If at all possible, I strongly recommend watching the first movie before seeing this one. If that isn’t an option for whatever reason, then go see Candyman (2021) anyway. It’s still a damn fine movie in its own right, scary and intellectual in equal measure, not a film to be missed.

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

Posted August 25, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

As with any company that’s been around for so long, Marvel has a complicated and highly problematic history with regards to race. Yes, back in the company’s earliest days, Marvel dared to show Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the face, at a time when most comic book companies were afraid of pissing off German Americans and the nascent Nazi regime. However, this is the same Captain America who fought “the Ageless Orientals Who Wouldn’t Die!” back in 1941.

It’s undeniably true that through most of the 20th century, the comic books industry (as with pretty much every other industry) was run almost exclusively by and for white people. It certainly didn’t help that for so many decades, the comic book industry was under the oppressive white, patriarchal, “kid-friendly” morals of the Comics Code Authority. Every comic book had to be acceptable for kids, so there was no reason to make or market them to anyone else. Likewise, every comic book had to be acceptable to white people, so there was no reason to make or market them to anyone else.

Thus comic books were made bright and colorful, outrageously silly, and dirt-simple for kids, and loaded with racial stereotypes for the white people. Put it all together and you get a whole lotta yikes.

That said, there was a noticeable shift during the ’70s, when the Comics Code was increasingly revised to become more lenient. Plus, people of color became far more prominent as creators and consumers of pop culture in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. (see: Blaxploitation films, kung fu cinema imported from Asia, etc.) As a direct result, Marvel undertook all sorts of clumsy half-measures to try and move on from past mistakes, courting a more diverse audience. While not all of them worked out (and we will be getting to the awkward stuff in a minute), some turned out surprisingly well.

For example, the X-Men were famously a superhero group built from the ground up to comment on oppressed and marginalized groups, yet the team debuted in 1961 with an exclusively white roster. Hence “Giant-Size X-Men #1” in 1975, introducing such iconic characters as Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler in a deliberate effort to give the team an “international” feel. This shortly after Luke Cage became the first black superhero to headline his own comic series when he debuted in 1972.

But then we have Iron Man, a character with origins rooted in the Vietnam War and all the prejudices of that era. Case in point: His most iconic nemesis was an offensively transparent Orientalist stereotype called The Mandarin. Needless to say, both characters were introduced in the ’60s and both characters had turned radioactive within a decade.

Rehabilitating the Mandarin for a mainstream audience proved to be exceedingly difficult. Marvel has spent the past several decades flailing in all directions, trying to figure out what to do with him. My personal favorite example comes from the ’90s animated series, in which archaeologist Arnold Brock (definitely not an Asian guy), is transformed into a green-skinned alien upon exposure to the gems that power his ten rings.

As for Iron Man, he was repurposed into a more general “anti-communism”-themed superhero, with villains themed after the relatively safer target of Soviet Russia (Crimson Dynamo, for instance). And if that ever became passe, Tony Stark could fall back on the perennial evils of war profiteering and alcoholism. Heavy stuff for comic books, even for the Bronze Age. With all the thorny subjects so deeply entrenched in Tony Stark’s foundation and development, small wonder he was little more than a B-tier character in the Marvel canon. And then the MCU happened.

With Iron Man (2008), the title character’s origins were updated to the modern Middle East wars. Tony Stark’s historic nemesis was obligingly name-checked, but the film was deliberately short on details regarding who or what The Mandarin was. The filmmakers kept on kicking that can down the road until Iron Man 3, in which the Mandarin was played by Ben Kingsley, portrayed as an international mishmash of cultural icons to the point where he had basically no identity at all. Then came the twist that Kingsley’s character was in fact not The Mandarin, but an actor named Trevor Slattery hired to pose as The Mandarin for propaganda purposes. The actual Mandarin was revealed to be Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce’s character), founder of Advanced Idea Mechanics, who hired Slattery and invented the character of The Mandarin to advance his own agenda.

This whole thing was such a clusterfuck, such a horribly botched payoff for a trilogy’s worth of setup, such an outrageously wretched and incomprehensible take on a classic Iron Man villain, that Marvel Studios took the highly unusual step of nuking this Mandarin out of continuity entirely. With the home video release of Thor: The Dark World came the short film “All Hail the King”, complete with Ben Kingsley reprising his role. In summary, the short film retconned everything so that The Mandarin is very real, very reclusive, and very pissed off that his name and identity were co-opted without permission by some white assholes.

So the real Mandarin is still out there. Who or what is he? What’s he been doing all this time? At the time, nobody had any idea!

Further complicating matters was the continued involvement of Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter, that sleazy, greedy old white POS who kept on thinking that women and people of color were unprofitable niche audiences. No way was any meaningful attempt at diversity ever going to happen under his watch, despite all efforts to the contrary. Luckily, the MCU was eventually carved out into its own Marvel Studios company, totally separate from Perlmutter and out from his control.

(Fuck you, Perlmutter.)

(Side note: No discussion of race in the MCU would be complete without acknowledging the casting of Rhodey. After Terrence Howard declined to keep on playing the character post-Iron Man, he was replaced in subsequent films by Don Cheadle. Perlmutter was reportedly apathetic about the recasting, with the opinion that “black people all look alike.”)

With this schism in the Marvel corporation, their initial plans of a massive cross-media superfranchise spanning across movies and television was no longer feasible. Yet Perlmutter was such a spiteful bastard that he was going to build on whatever was left of those plans to try and beat Marvel Studios at their own game. Thus we saw continuations of “Agents of SHIELD”, with a nicely diverse cast of characters featuring the likes of Chloe Bennett and Ming-Na Wen. Over on Netflix, we saw Luke Cage get his own TV adaptation (quite notably, he was also an interracial love interest on “Jessica Jones”) on the way to the massive Defenders crossover miniseries. Alas, while all of Marvel’s television offerings started out strong, they quickly lost steam after the Marvel Studios carve-out, and the division fell into steep decline until it was finally absorbed into Marvel Studios.

The one exception was the TV adaptation of Iron Fist, which bombed right out of the gate. It bears mentioning that Iron Fist has been a highly problematic character ever since his debut in 1974. Here’s a character directly and heavily inspired by the Asian kung-fu movies of the time, and he’s a wealthy white boy. Yikes. Despite numerous calls to modernize the character with an Asian lead actor, the TV series moved ahead with Finn Jones in the title role and a plot that more or less followed the origin story as told in the comics. The end result was swiftly written off as the first offering of the MCU era that was unambiguously bad.

Things weren’t exactly smooth over at Marvel Studios, either. Around this time, Marvel Studios had a fiasco on their hands with Doctor Strange, adapting another white male character with an origin story deeply rooted in Orientalist mysticism and stereotypes. And sure enough, the filmmakers tapped Benedict Cumberbatch (Christ, even that name is whiter than mayonnaise) to play the title role. Yet the filmmakers did put in some effort at taking the edge off: The recurring villain Baron Mordo was reimagined as a more sympathetic black man (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the character of Wong (as portrayed by Benedict Wong) was a powerhouse Master of the Mystic Arts with attitude and intelligence, far from the obedient manservant of the comics.

Alas, those efforts mattered for very little with news that The Ancient One would be played by Tilda Swinton. It bears mentioning that The Ancient One is a personification of the wise old mystical Orientalist stereotype, and figuring out a way to cope with that was always going to be a huge obstacle for any modern film adaptation.

(Side note: In 1978, a TV adaptation of Dr. Strange attempted to sidestep all of this by swapping out the fake Orientalist mysticism with fake Arthurian lore. It didn’t work and the pilot episode never made it to series.)

And the filmmakers oh-so-cleverly thought they could avoid this entirely by casting a white woman in the role, trying to convince everyone that the title of “The Ancient One” could belong to anyone of any race or gender. To put it lightly (and with all due respect to Tilda Swinton, a talented actor dedicated to her craft), this was a huge misstep. As MCU architect Kevin Feige explained in a recent interview

“We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge. We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”

You’d think Marvel would already have figured that out, given the aforementioned treatment of Wong in the selfsame movie.

In any case, Feige and his associates evidently took the lesson to heart and made a concerted effort at greater diversity in the MCU. Taika Waititi was brought on to direct the two most recent Thor movies, with Chloe Zhao stepping in to direct the highly diverse cast of Eternals. Peter Parker was given a Native Pacific Islander best friend and no less than two interracial love interests. Sam Wilson took up the mantle of Captain America. Monica Rambeau is now the heir apparent to Captain Marvel. We’ve got Iman Vellani on deck to play Kamala Khan, and Dominique Thorn’s portrayal of Riri Williams won’t be far behind.

Oh, and of course there was Black Panther, which turned out to be kind of a big deal.

(Side note: That’s not even getting started on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the “Marvel’s Avengers” video game, the “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” video game, and other efforts to capitalize on the success and popularity of Miles Morales and Kamala Khan outside the MCU canon.)

And AAAAAALLL of this is prologue for the upcoming live-action adaptation of Shang-Chi (pronounced “SHONG-chi”), which has apparently been in development hell since the 1980s. (The late Brandon Lee was first approached to play the character, that’s how long this has been kicking around.) Trouble is, Shang-Chi dates back to 1973, and his origin story is hella racist.

Suffice to say that canonically, Shang-Chi was first introduced as the son of Fu Manchu. Yes, that Fu Manchu. Leaving aside the fact that Marvel didn’t technically own the character — Sax Rohmer’s estate had licensed Fu Manchu and some related characters to Marvel at the time — everything about the character and legacy of Fu Manchu is so unavoidably racist and toxic that precious few companies dare to even whisper the name. So it was that in later years, (after Marvel lost the rights to the character) Shang-Chi’s father was brought back from the dead and rebranded as the sorcerer Zheng Zu. So he’s still goddamn Fu Manchu, but under a different name. Peachy.

Also, Shang-Chi and Zheng Zu both have training from the Ten Rings school. Long story short, this means that they have abilities based in the Mandarin’s trademark set of ten differently powered rings. Just to make things more complicated.

The bottom line is that Shang-Chi was an Asian martial arts expert inextricably linked to at least one heavily toxic Orientalist stereotype that Marvel couldn’t figure out how to work with. By comparison, Iron Fist was a white martial arts expert with an origin story that was relatively easy to deal with. Between the two of them, it’s little wonder why Iron Fist got to enjoy his comfortable B-tier status, mostly unknown to the mainstream while comics fans knew him as the greatest martial artist in the Marvel canon. Shang-Chi, meanwhile, fell so far out of favor that only the most hardcore of Marvel fans would know anything about him.

Yet here we are in 2021. Audiences are more culturally savvy, especially with regards to traditionally geek-friendly properties. We’re more sensitive to racial prejudices of the past, audiences want to see better and greater representation of diversity on the screen, and they’ve shown they’re willing to pay for it. Iron Fist got his chance and he tanked hard.

With Shang-Chi, Marvel had a shot at redeeming this highly obscure character into a world-renowned standard-bearer for Asian representation in superhero media. As to the thorny matter of his father, somebody apparently got the bright idea to simplify the character’s origin, ditching Zheng Zu and Fu Manchu entirely so that now the Mandarin is Shang-Chi’s father. It’s a smart move, and it’s not like there was really much of any significant difference between the characters to begin with.

Moreover, Marvel made a promise at the very outset of the MCU that they were going to turn the Mandarin into a powerhouse villain acceptable to modern audiences. Their first attempt at fulfilling that promise was a disgrace, and this is the best shot at a second chance that they’re ever going to get.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is set for wide release on September 3rd.

Reminiscence

Posted August 22, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Reminiscence comes to us from writer/director/producer Lisa Joy, here making her feature debut after a respectable run as an exec producer on the recent television remake of “Westworld”. This time, our particular sci-fi tale takes place in Miami of the not-too-distant future. Climate change has submerged the entire city about twenty or thirty feet below sea level, though there are some districts behind levees, where the water is only ankle deep. All the premium dry land got scooped up by the wealthy, leaving the poorest citizens to float until the ocean finally reclaims their homes.

Oh, and of course none of this stopped America from engaging in some war or another. From the sound of it, the mess on the southern border blew up into a full-blown war, complete with internment camps and a reinstatement of the draft.

Meanwhile, at some point in the previous decades, somebody invented Reminiscence. The basic gist is that a subject floats in a kind of tank while hooked up to a machine. Through a combination of drug-induced hypnosis and mechanical readings of neural pathways, the subject can relive any memory while the operators observe that same memory on holographic display.

This was originally invented as a method of interrogation. But as the present and future look increasingly bleak, more and more people are willing to pay through the nose to relive better days.

(Side note: If any of this sounds like the makings of a Christopher Nolan movie, you’re not far off. Lisa Joy is in fact related to Christopher Nolan by way of her husband, Christopher’s brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan Nolan. I might add that Jonathan is a creator of “Westworld” and a credited producer on this film.)

Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) is a war veteran who operates a Reminiscence tank for commercial use. We’ve also got Emily “Watts” Sanders (Thandiwe Newton), another war veteran working as Nick’s smart-aleck lab assistant and secretary. Their bread and butter is in helping the desperately nostalgic to relive their best memories, but the tank also comes in handy for helping to find lost people and objects. With this basic setup, and the general art deco atmosphere of the film (seriously, this whole movie could be a visual proof of concept for a “Bioshock” film adaptation), it becomes immediately clear that we’re looking at a noir thriller.

But of course we can’t get a noir thriller started without our femme fatale. Enter Mae (Rebecca Ferguson), a nightclub singer who drops into Nick’s place of business to help find her missing keys. However, the woman proves to be an expert at seduction, quickly and easily luring Nick into a steamy conflict of professional interest. Basically, you know that quick affair Jackman and Ferguson had during The Greatest Showman? Imagine that, but stretched out into an entire movie, and neither character is married this time.

Next up, we can’t have a decent noir thriller without a rich and powerful crime boss pulling all the strings and hiding more than he’s telling. Here we have Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen), alongside his wife and son (Tamera and Sebastian, respectively played by Marina de Tavira and Mojean Aria). Walter is the rich asshole who scooped up all the dry land in Miami while the getting was still cheap. In the time since, he’s used everything from arson to straight-up murder to drive out the lower-paying tenants in favor of wealthier clientele. Walter’s wealth and connections have gotten him out of any convictions, but he’s mortally sick. So it’s only a matter of time until someone that wealthy and that powerful kicks the bucket and all hell breaks loose.

Last but not least, any good noir thriller needs a heavy. Here we have Cliff Curtis in the role of Cyrus Boothe. Spoilers forbid going into too much detail, but suffice to say that he’s a crooked cop.

With all the genre pieces in place, Nick and Mae enter into a whirlwind months-long love affair until she suddenly goes missing. Thus Nick scours every second of his memory, looking for any clue as to what happened to her. He finally catches a break, it turns out she was embroiled in a massive conspiracy, and we’re off to the races.

As a noir thriller with a sci-fi twist, the movie is fine. The central mystery is easy to follow, the actors all do a fine job of playing the established genre archetypes, and the fight scenes are genuinely fun. Yes, it does strain credibility that one character is somehow capable of clearing out an entire bar of armed thugs, but it’s awesome to watch and well below the standard of suspending disbelief established by the basic premise.

Likewise, the entire plot revolves around Nick’s deep-rooted obsession with a woman he only knew for a few months. Was he absolutely sure that she was the one he was going to spend the rest of his life with? Did it really haunt him so much that she picked up and left after so short a time? It’s improbable, sure, but Jackman and Ferguson totally sell it. Their chemistry is positively smoldering, more than powerful enough to keep the plot moving.

Strictly in terms of plot, there’s really nothing wrong with this movie. All the noir tropes and archetypes we know and love are here, but we’ve got enough sci-fi trappings to keep things fresh. Alas, in terms of themes, this movie is all over the place.

Let’s start with the recurring theme of addiction. On one level, there’s a crucial plot device called “baca”, a lucrative, illegal, and highly addictive street drug. But on another level, we learn that memories themselves can be addictive in this universe. Turns out that if someone Reminisces the same memory too many times — or if anything else goes wrong with the procedure — the memory can be “burned” into the subject’s mind, such that they relive the memory on a constant loop for the rest of their miserable life.

So we’ve got two prominent avenues for exploring the theme of addiction, and nothing is done to try and dovetail the two. Such a waste.

Additionally, while the film has a lot to say about how happy and easy and gratifying it would be to simply stay in the tank and relive former glories, it falls well short of completing that sentence. Barely a word is spoken about how we need to keep living in the present to build a better future. There’s a lot about how the future is built upon the foundations of the past, and that’s fair, but the ending seems to imply that some of us might be better off living in the past forever. And that message simply doesn’t connect.

A lot of that has to do with the nature of Jackman’s character. His obsession with the past and refusal to move on might make sense if he had war-related PTSD without any other treatment, but the film barely goes into any detail about Nick’s time in the trenches or how it affects him to this day. I could also see this if Nick was suffering some terminal illness and he wanted to spend his last remaining days in the past, because that’s where he’s going to end up in short order anyway. But no, he’s apparently alive and well and there’s basically nothing to address his own mortality.

Yes, the whole world is apparently doomed and there seems little point in trying to make it better, but the ending seems to undercut that message as well. There’s a variation on Orson Welles’ wisdom that even the happiest stories have sad endings if you let them go on long enough. Fine advice for storytelling, but the film seems to imply that it has some kind of practical application anywhere else, and I’m just not seeing it.

Reminiscence is one of those frustrating movies that had absolutely everything it needed except a point. The cast is great, it looks amazing, the premise is wonderful, and it works beautifully as a modern noir caper. But as a work of intellectual science fiction, it’s muddled and contradictory to the point of incoherent. And for a film that put so much stock in its ideas, dedicating so much screen time to po-faced flowery voice-over monologues about philosophizing (it is a noir, after all), I’m sorry, but that has to be a dealbreaker.

I’m glad I saw this on HBO Max, because that really is the best method of getting your time and money’s worth out of this picture. If you’ve already got a subscription, then by all means, give the film a shot and see if you get more out of this than I did.