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Shang-Chi and the Bunch of Good Flicks

George Wolf George Wolf Shang-Chi and the Bunch of Good FlicksShang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - Photo via IMDb
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Another hopeful blockbuster hits the big screens this weekend, and it’s so much better than the trailer suggested. But if you’re not in the mood for A Great Big Movie, you will find a plethora of exceptional indies on screens all over town, plus the best movie of the week streaming directly into your living room. Here’s the low down.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

In theaters

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Imagine finding out your best friend and karaoke partner isn’t really a mild-mannered valet attendant, but a highly-trained ass-kicker with chiseled abs who’s the son of an immortal conqueror leading his own army.

That’s a lot for Katy (Awkwafina) to digest, but when thugs come for her bestie Shaun (Simu Liu), the bus ride beatdown he gives them goes viral – in the first of many spectacular fight sequences – and the truth comes out.

Shaun is really Shang-Chi, whose childhood was filled with intense training to one day fight alongside his father Wenwu (Tony Leung), a God-like figure powered by the five rings worn on each arm.

The tragic death of Shang-Chi’s mother Li (Fala Chen) brought grief that stripped the mercy from Wenwu, forcing Shang-Chi to leave his younger sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and run from his destiny. But Daddy’s patience for his wayward children has run out.

So some familiar Disney building blocks are in place, with well-positioned signage (“post blip anxiety?”) and cameos (one very surprising, and welcome) to remind us what universe we’re in. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings soars highest when it follows its groundbreaking hero’s lead and vows to build its own world.

A quick look at the indie drama sensibilities of director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) might prepare you for the savvy complexities his Big Movie brings to Marvel’s favorite topic: family dynamics and daddy issues. But his filmography would not suggest this level of badassedness when it comes to action sequences. (And let’s be honest, neither would that subpar trailer.)

The setpiece on the bus, though, tips you off. It’s followed by plenty of fun and funny, with often breathtaking feats of fisticuffs and flight (with dragons, no less!).

Performers balance humor and pathos in that patented Marvel manner. This, of course, is Awkwafina’s wheelhouse and she is a hoot.

Liu, who’s done mostly TV, shoulders lead responsibilities with poise and charm. Michelle Yeoh, always welcome, adds gravitas as Li’s sister Ying Nan, but Zhang struggles with Xialing’s underwritten angry sister storyline.

Cretton’s film layers in feminism that almost works, but not entirely, as three women support a boy who must stand up to his father to become a man. Points for trying, I guess?

But the wait for the MCU’s first Asian Avenger (sit tight for those two extra scenes) ultimately pays off with a visionary, big-screen-begging spectacle full of emotional pull and future promise. Pure, eye-popping entertainment is a welcome ring to reach for – especially now – and Shang-Chi never misses.

Grade: B+

The Lost Leonardo

At Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

In 2005, a “sleeper hunter” looking for undervalued art made a pretty good call when he bought a work at a New Orleans auction for $1,175. Twelve years later, that painting sold for a record-setting $450 million.

What happened in between is a real world mystery, one that The Last Leonardo unveils like a globe-trotting thriller to deliver a completely spellbinding ride. Full of amazing discoveries, dangerous despots, faith, doubt, economics and greed, it’s a behind-the-brush account of “the most improbable story in the art market.”

Only 15 Da Vinci works were known to exist before that Louisiana find, and none had been discovered for over a century. Could that Big Easy bargain actually be the 16th, an early 1500s work entitled Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World)? Plenty of important voices in the art world say yes. Others say there’s a better chance of finding aliens landing in your front yard. And some can’t make up their minds about the painting.

Oh, and nobody seems to know where it went.

Director and co-writer Andreas Koefoed weaves the layers of this tale together with a damn fine sense of artistry himself. He quickly shapes the backstory with a hook irresistible to even an art history novice, then keeps a steady pace of twists and revelations to rival the most delicious true crime sensations.

Koefoed mixes first-person interviews with jet-setting locales, and stylish art restoration technology with political intrigue. His sense of timing is sharp as well, knowing just when to spotlight the accusation that with a question this large and an answer so potentially valuable, “opinions matter more than facts.”

Because by the time the film enters its third act, Koefoed’s meticulous approach – paired with the refreshing honesty of many of the players involved – has seamlessly shown how the process moves past art, and even commerce, to settle comfortably on power.

And much like the treasures waiting beneath centuries of brushstrokes, the brisk 96 minutes of The Lost Leonardo also manage to transcend the galleries and auction houses to speak more universally on how this global brokerage network flourishes largely out of the spotlight.

But don’t be scared off by the whiff of stuffy art house pretension, this is also a damn fine piece of entertainment. I mean, all due respect to GD National Treasure Tom Hanks, but here’s a Da Vinci mystery that’s suitable for framing.

Grade: A-

We Need to Do Something

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

We’ve all felt a little trapped lately. But the pandemic was completely different depending on your situation. Were you trapped and utterly alone, like Bo Burnham? Because that seemed sad and reflective, funny and inspirational and wildly successful. (See Inside if you haven’t.)

Or were you trapped with your family?

We Need to Do Something is a parable about being stuck for a long time with the people you  know best and were probably sick of in the first place. The world outside your doors offers a high possibility of death, but the world inside might be even worse.

Parable is a strong word. We Need to Do Something is a nightmare.

Mel (Sierra McCormick, The Vast of Night) made it home from her friend’s house just in time to miss the tornado. Her mom (Vinessa Shaw) ushers everyone —Mel, her little brother Bobby (John James Cronin) and their dad (Pat Healy) — into the safest room in the house, the bathroom. Here they will wait out the storm.

The storm damages the house, and they are pinned in. Days go by. Why hasn’t anyone come for them? Why is their dad such a dick? What are those noises outside the door?

Director Sean King O’Grady, working from the screenplay Max Booth III adapted from his own novella, mixes claustrophobic dread and adolescent angst with few enough contrivances that he never loses your interest.

Hints dropped early in the story come to hideous life later on (as ugly secrets sometimes do at things like family holidays and vacations or when you’re stuck for a long time in the bathroom). And though the “theater of the mind” component, piquing interest in what exactly lay outside that door, could be stronger, the performances are enough to keep your attention.

Healy, in particular, delivers a characteristically unpleasant performances, feeling very much like a trapped rat.

The hallucinogenic subplot about guilt and trauma and adolescent experimentation with pink goth suggest that the more time you spend with your parents, the more overwhelmed you’ll be by nameless shame and guilt. That feels right.

There’s no real story here. The whole film is essentially Act 2: no catalyst, no resolution. That doesn’t make for a deeply satisfying story, but it does feel a lot like the pandemic.

Grade: B-

The Big Scary “S” Word

At Gateway Film Center

by Matt Weiner

With a list of thank you credits that acknowledge the last few decades of leftist entertainment from Michael Moore to Chapo Trap House and the Jacobin set, it’s almost a minor miracle that a documentary about socialism manages to unite so many voices on the left into a united clarion call for economic justice as the only way to save America.

More surprising is that The Big Scary “S” Word, a new documentary from filmmaker Yael Bridge, manages to press its case while forgoing the more combative antics of Moore. Which isn’t a knock against Moore’s style, but Bridge’s staggering array of leftist academics, authors and politicians creates the atmosphere of a lively college course with your favorite professor. The academic-heavy roster, including professors Eric Foner, Cornel West, Vivek Chibber and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, often tilts toward more education than inspiration—but it’s a compelling education.

An education for which audience, though, is a trickier question. It’s hard to imagine the nation’s right-wing uncles coming together this Thanksgiving to bond with their dirtbag nieces and nephews over how everyone can get behind sewer socialism.

But Bridge seems to be aiming her sights (wisely) at the MSNBC left—the well-educated, professional set that might not realize they’ve watched half a decade of “left-wing” cable news peppered with more retired generals and contrite Republican operatives than capital-s socialists. And with barely a mention of labor unions, let alone hosts making a passionate case night after night for how the history and future of labor are inseparable from a successful liberal project. Bridge provides a much-needed counterbalance to the corporate vision of liberalism, and she makes the case without the vitriol of Twitter fights.

The film’s thorough focus on the history of socialism doesn’t leave as much time to go out on a practical note. (And it’s unfortunate, although not the film’s fault, that one of the main politicians they follow flamed out spectacularly in 2021.) Other times, the film’s prescriptions seem at odds with the title mission. Should the left be destigmatizing socialism, so it’s no longer the big, scary “s” word? Or should politicians focus on policies that improve people’s lives, and let the pundits argue over whether we are becoming Venezuela just because people shouldn’t face bankruptcy when they get cancer.

In fairness to Bridge, the documentary doesn’t demand an all-or-nothing answer. That’s up to those who respond to the film’s message. (If you like your state-owned bank, you can keep it.) What’s not left in doubt, though, is the looming crisis of climate change. It might be a loaded question, but it’s still a fair one: Is a wholesale restructuring of society really more radical and unrealistic than continuing down our current path? It’s a question everyone will need to answer at some point, hopefully before it’s too late.

Grade: A-

Wild Indian

On VOD

by Hope Madden

As angry a movie as you’re likely to see, Wild Indian pushes you to hope compassion and tenderness come to the most unlikable man onscreen.

When Makwa (an exceptional Michael Greyeyes) was a boy on the reservation, he and his best friend Ted-O (played in adulthood by Chaske Spencer) participated in something terrible. Ted-O never really got over it.

Neither did Makwa, but now living in a high rise in Seattle and going by Michel Peterson, you might mistakenly believe he’s moved on. This man is possibly the most complicated character I’ve seen onscreen this year, and Greyeyes’s blistering performance delivers honesty that’s tough to look away from.

Makwa/Michael is equal parts sociopath and lost soul. He is the result of his own upbringing, but also of suffering that goes back generations and reverberates outward to the sea outside his gorgeous upscale apartment and beyond.

Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. refuses to lean on stereotypes that would make the performance more comfortable viewing. Makwa is neither victim nor noble wiseman. Not entirely a villain, he’s nonetheless ill-suited as antihero or, god forbid, hero. He’s a survivor bound up in his own guilt and shame, taking advantage of whatever he can and hating himself and everyone around him because of it.

Balancing that and breaking your heart as he does, Spencer’s Ted-O is a result of the same history of trauma, oppression, poverty. But the tenderness Spencer conveys in every scene, the humility and pain, give this film its humanity.

Corbine Jr. contrasts Ted-O’s touching relationship with his sister and nephew against Michael Spencer’s robotic, even frightening reactions to the women in his world. The two men’s relationships in the workplace differ similarly.

As the action builds toward an inevitable and bewildering climax, Ted-O is more sympathetic with every step he takes toward violence while Michael’s icy psychotic side emerges the more he tries to keep violence at bay.

It’s a desolate world Corbine Jr. creates, but no less remarkable for its bleakness. A character study unlike anything else on screen this year, Wild Indian gives longtime character actors Greyeyes and Spencer the opportunity to command the screen with leading roles and they more than rise to the occasion.

In his feature debut as a filmmaker, Corbine Jr. has also announced his own presence with authority.

Grade: A

Steel Song

On VOD

by Cat McAlpine

A crowd is gathered in a concrete hall. The space might be at a fairgrounds, where animals are displayed and children show off their crafts. But not today. Today, the crowd leans over the red metal railing to watch full-suited knights absolutely wail on each other. Welcome to Medieval Armored Combat.

Steel Song follows several women involved with the ancient, full-contact sport. They practice hacking away with axes. They paint and stitch personal sigils. They strap into full suits of armor and fight in combat, sword to sword.

Though tournaments separate bouts by sex, director Adrian Cicerone never pits the women in his film against each other. In fact, he shows very little of their competitive results. It would be easy to compare the women to one another. The Armored Combat League (ACL) National Championship features nine female competitors to 48 male. But Cicerone focuses his lens on the camaraderie of the community, instead, and his film is made the better for it.

Steel Song doesn’t delve into the history of sword combat or how the society of steel combatants functions now. Instead, it briefly explores the lives of Bridgette Parkinson, Shoshana Shellans, and Julee Slovacek-Peterson, and discovers how armored combat is just one large part of their lives.

“I keep fighting because of what I can continually prove about myself, to myself,” says Shellans.

That’s the theme of the film. Cicerone doesn’t focus on the competition because every armored fighter is really fighting against themselves, for themselves. It’s an incredibly difficult sport, with bouts only lasting three to five minutes because of the amount of exertion required. Even covered head to toe in armor, combatants still come away bloody. They also always come away smiling, with most matches ending in a hug between competitors.

Steel Song is a beautiful hour and fifteen minutes, complete with appropriate instrumentals, that relishes in the joy of being yourself.

Muses one of the women, “I think everybody would be so much happier if they could just be them.”

Grade: A-

It Takes Three

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

The time seems apt for another modern adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. But throw in a few social media-obsessed teens, and you might wonder if It Takes Three isn’t exactly what Edmond Rostand had in mind when he wrote his play.

That’s giving the film a little too much credit for its cute update to a classic work.

Director Scott Coffey, working from a script penned by Blair Mastbaum and Logan Burdick, uses our current social media reality to craft a film one part Cyrano and one part every other teenage rom-com.

Today’s world, where people painstakingly craft the perfect online persona, lends itself well to the story of a man (in this case, teen) who uses the words of another to woo his lady love.

Chris (David Gridley) – star of the internet sensation HiYA! – is enamored with feminist art lover, Roxy (Aurora Perrineau). Realizing his action star/ bro persona doesn’t mesh with Roxy’s, Chris offers to pay awkward teen, Cy (Jared Gillman) to create a new, “nerd” online persona for him. Cy wants the money for plastic surgery (though the filmmakers chose not to affix any kind of embarrassing nose to Cy’s face), so he agrees.

Predictable hijinks ensue as the real Chris tries to reconcile who he is with who Cy has created online. The scenes where he spends time with Roxy offer some awkward hilarity.

But this isn’t merely Cyrano retold, and we spend plenty of time with Cy, who, when he isn’t pretending to be someone else, spends his time with best friend, Kat (Mikey Madison). But as Cy falls deeper into his role as Chris’s online ego, he loses track of who he really is.

Because of so many elements, the movie spreads itself too thin. Cy’s moms have quite a bit of screen time during the film’s first half (mostly to reassure Cy that his face is perfect), but then they are gone. Coffey relies on numerous teen rom-com tropes, which is good for a chuckle or two, but leaves the audience following characters never given much depth.

Perhaps it’s a commentary on the unreality of modern teenage life, but more likely it’s just an oversight. Still, there’s a sweetness to the characters, and you find yourself hoping they’ll figure out how to embrace who they are in a world obsessed with perfection.

Grade: B-

The Gateway

On VOD

by George Wolf

Opening his film with a quote from Charles Dickens, and closing it with a statistic about foster care, director/co-writer Michele Civetta wants us to know he has serious issues on his mind.

There are children out there hurting. If no one cares enough to help them, there’s little hope of breaking a sad cycle of dysfunction.

True enough, and fair enough. The problem is the 90 minutes of heavy handed cliche that fall between quote and quotient.

Shea Whigham pulls the weight here as Parker, a social worker in St. Louis who’s – you guessed it – battling some personal demons. After fighting his way out of a troubled childhood via a promising boxing career, Parker now grapples with booze and blow, looking for redemption through his caseload of damaged souls.

Parker is particularly drawn to Ashley (Taegen Burns), a bright young teen whose mother Dahlia (Olivia Munn) requires frequent checkups to keep on the straight and narrow. Her path gets rockier when Ashley’s father Mike (Zach Avery) comes home from prison a bit earlier than expected.

If Mike can give his boss “The Duke” (Frank Grillo) one last big score, he’ll be set up with a cushy job running some strip joint instead of risking his life in the streets.

Just one more, then he’s out! That always goes exactly as planned, right?

It’s great to see the veteran support player Whigham get a lead role, but the script doesn’t give him – or anyone else – much chance to develop a character with any authentic layers. True, social worker as avenging ass-kicker is a wrinkle, but nearly every other role is either interchangeable with countless other crime dramas or a familiar face (Keith David, Taryn Manning) in distracting cameo.

Whigham, Munn and even the legendary Bruce Dern (as Parker’s estranged father) can’t do much to elevate the material, or the film’s occasional slapped-together feel (at least two dialog dubs are badly mismatched).

And once even the core message about the social safety net picks up sidebars on the military industrial complex and government-sponsored drug trafficking, The Gateway becomes an overwrought and overwritten mess leading to little that is satisfying.

Grade: C-

Zone 414

On VOD

by Hope Madden

“Do you know what rich people want? Everything.”

True enough. And in lesser hands, that line might feel trite, but Andrew Baird’s SciFi neo-noir Zone 414 boasts a very solid ensemble. Mostly.

The actor delivering that line, the always formidable Olwen Fouéré (The Survivalist), joins reliable character actors including Jonathan Aris, Ned Dennehy, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Fionnula Flanagan (The Others) to populate this low-rent Blade Runner.

Which Blade Runner? Either one — although the beauty in a wig with blue bangs suggests Baird leans more recent. She’s Jane (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Revenge), a sexual synthetic living in the upscale seedy utopia Zone 414, where meat (humans) pay lots of money to spend time doing whatever they want with the likes of Jane.

But that’s not why David Carmichael (Guy Pearce) is in the zone. The super-wealthy mad hatter who designs these high-end toys, Marlon Veidt (Travis Fimmel), hired Carmichael to find his runaway teenager. Veidt’s daughter wishes to be synthetic so she doesn’t have to feel anything.

Yes, all the neo-noir tropes. None missing.

What Bryan Edward Hill’s script lacks in originality, Baird tries to make up for with world-building. It works to a degree and is aided immeasurably by the committed turns from his supporting players. Pearce is as reliable as always, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. He turns down about as many roles as Bruce Willis or Nicolas Cage. Zone 414 is not one of his best.

It’s not one of his worst, either, but he does have a couple of problems. One is that his big, dramatic scenes tend to pair him not with the exceptional supporting talent, but the weaker leads. Lutz carries off the superficial damsel in distress well enough, but when the film asks her to get a little Ex Machina on us, she flails.

Worse still is Fimmel’s mad genius. That make-up and fat suit don’t help. I’m sure he’s not meant to be comic relief, but it’s hard to see him any other way.

Much of this is redeemed by a few intriguing scenes, but the writing fails Baird a few times too often.

Zone 414 tries really hard. It often fails. But not always.

Grade: C-

Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman

On VOD

by Brandon Thomas

Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman is another movie in a long line of higher-profile Bundy films to come out in the last few years. Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile offered an intriguing look at Bundy’s crimes through the eyes of a long-time girlfriend. No Man of God has the pedigree of Elijah Wood both starring and producing. 

What interesting angle does American Boogeyman take on Bundy’s crimes? 

Well, nothing really unless you count turning the notorious serial killer into a standard slasher “interesting.” 

The bulk of American Boogeyman follows Ted Bundy (Chad Michael Murray from House of Wax) as he moves from town to town, stalking and killing beautiful young women. If that sounds instantly one-note and monotonous to you – it is. The lead-up to the murders never feels especially tense or suspenseful. They simply happen.

The other half of the film observes law enforcement agents Kathleen McChesney (Holland Roden) and Robert Ressler (Jake Hays) as they track Bundy’s crimes. This section of the film is the filmmaker’s answer to Zodiac or Mindhunter. Except here, the authenticity and thoroughness of that film and series are completely lacking. None of the cast feels convincing as police. They awkwardly stumble through police jargon – stopping only to see who can “out tough” the other. 

Writer/Director Daniel Farrands (Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers) doesn’t seem to have anything on his mind other than exploitation when it comes to American Boogeyman. Ripped-from-the-headlines exploitation cinema certainly has its place (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer anyone?), but it feels a little harder to defend when the lives and deaths of real people are used for cheap, gratuitous entertainment. There’s very little separating the Ted Bundy of this film from Jason Vorhees in any of the Friday the 13th films.

Murray does well enough with the material provided. Mostly, though, he’s asked to brood and sneak around like a typical neighborhood pervert. Despite Bundy’s actions throughout the film, Murray never feels especially menacing. The porn stache he sports during the back half of the movie certainly doesn’t help. 

Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman has nothing new or profound to say about the prolific killer. The movie tries to shock through its graphic depiction of violence, but instead of pushing the envelope, American Boogeyman feels like reheated slasher leftovers. 

Grade: C-

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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