Well, an interesting thing happened while we were bemoaning The End of Cinema As We Know It: Instead of sitting at home in August and queuing up some mediocre Netflix Just For You pick, real people actually left their air conditioned-enhanced residences and went to the movies. (Yes, I’m the first to admit that my private press screenings in which I get entire rows to myself don’t count.) Look at Free Guy, an original film sans a streaming counterpart. While its global box-office gross of $100 million and counting would be considered a mild disappointment in 2019, even experts call it a bonafide hit during the second summer of a pandemic. And now here comes Shang-Chi, a brand-spanking-new Marvel movie, which will need to be seen on a big screen instead of Disney+. Maybe Scarlett Johansson was onto something after all in her Black Widow lawsuit? (Honestly, I’m too scared of Disney to say either way.) And even the lesser blockbusters are getting the theatrical experience during these dog days of summer. Check out your options and remember that the best — read: Oscar Movies! — is yet to come.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
3 stars (out of 4)
It took a few months, but the best superhero flick of the summer has finally arrived. And though the familiar Marvel Studios logo does flash on the screen at the start and the narrative pushes the universe forward, this one looks and feels totally unique. For one thing, we have a brand-new hero with an origin story that hasn’t already been told a dozen times: Shang-Chi (Simu Liu, Kim’s Convenience) spent the first chunk of his life training to become a martial arts-fighting machine under the strict guidance of his powerful ancient-figure of a dad. He walks away and settles down in San Francisco, only to find himself sucked back into that world. Cut to action sequences that bring a breathless new energy to the MCU, set on everything from a city bus to a skyscraper. (The scenes in a mystical, dragon-filled realm are more unwieldy.) The film is also stocked with humor — Awkwafina, as Shang-Chi’s unfiltered pal, Katy, gets the best lines by far — and a surprisingly deep message about the blinding nature of grief. Bring on the sequel! (In theaters September 3)
Whoa, it’s a cinematic unicorn: An original action-comedy that manages to appeal to both Millennial women and 13-year-old boys. Which is to say that my nephew liked it enough. Our hero is a guy named Guy (a pleasantly sweet Ryan Reynolds), who’s actually a non-entity background player within an open-world video game called Free City. Guy soon becomes self-aware of his surreal situation and tries to change things up, catching the eye of his developers and fans around the world. Thus ignites Guy’s mission to save his world from going off-line — and to do that, he’ll need the help of Free City’s real-life coders (Joe Keery, Jodie Comer). In conclusion, think Black Mirror dipped in Disney. That means candy-colored visuals, G-rated love stories, wink-wink pop-culture references and an earnest message about taking charge of your own narrative. (Though it could be argued that the true takeaway here is that everyone needs to learn how to code, pronto.) Not all the big ideas work, but a lot of right buttons are pushed. Game on. (Now in theaters)
2.5 stars (out of 4)
Before Aretha Franklin died in 2018, the R&B legend hand-picked Jennifer Hudson to play her in the story of her life. Wise choice, though a strong performance can’t elevate a boilerplate biopic. Check-off all the genre’s familiar hallmarks, from the scenes of the prodigious child belting out music to awed adults (here at her dad’s Detroit church in the early 1950s) to a montage of award-winning success to the substance-abuse nadir. Plus, of course, there’s a closing note of triumph — albeit one set way back in 1972! Throughout it all, Hudson portrays the Queen of Soul as a demure diva-in-training who took years to finally speak up for herself. Only when she opens her mouth to sing classics like the title number and “Think” does she comes alive — which explains why she is upstaged by Mary J. Blige, as fellow singing legend Dinah Washington, in her brief cameo. Does it all add up to a film more fizzle than sizzle? Just a little bit. (Now in theaters)
2 stars (out of 4)
No doubt Sean Penn is a solid director and an even better actor. But this dreary melodrama will definitely not be featured in any sort of career highlight reel. The based-on-a-true-story tracks the strained relationship between Penn’s crook John Vogel — born on Flag Day, INYW — and his rebellious daughter Jennifer (Penn’s real-life daughter Dylan Penn) in the 1970s and early 80s. John is an adventurous free spirit who constantly endangers his family because of his forays into bank robbery, arson and counterfeiting, while Jennifer is a too-passive aspiring journalist. Over a course of 18 years, he scams, she reaches out, he disappoints her, the two shout at each other and repeat. These experiences don’t unspool as fleshed-out scenes that resonate; think more like grainy montages set to meandering Audible-like narrations that drift into the open sky. There’s no actual insight into the characters to render them redeemable or relatable: Jennifer’s resentful mother (Katheryn Winnick) constantly snipes to her, “There are things about your father that you don’t know” and yet nobody fills in the blanks! (We never do see him pass off any phony bills.) Great soulful soundtrack from Eddie Vedder and his daughter, though. (Now in theaters)
Also published on Medium.