September 2021 Roundup
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures // Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton // Starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng'er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung
It’s 25 and up for the MCU in the form of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the origin story of Shang-Chi and his debut in the long-running cinematic universe. Phase Four has promised stories that feel distinct and will allow for new directions to be pursued, and if Black Widow felt fairly standard in MCU terms, Shang-Chi feels like something (almost) entirely fresh. Packed with lush visuals, striking action sequences and an effective score from Joel P. West, Shang-Chi provides some of the better moments in recent MCU history (an opening dance-fight and a battle on a bus being just two) whilst simultaneously delivering Asian representation and cultural exploration on a genuine level. The cast across the board are great, Liu is affable and impressive leading the movie whilst his chemistry with the always-ace Awkwafina provides the movie's emotional pulse. With an unsurprisingly quality performance, Tony Leung’s Wenwu gives the MCU an interesting villain a la Killmonger and Thanos, his ‘villainous’ machinations, mercifully, are on a far smaller scale than simply wanting to take over the world. The humour within was well-placed and not always at the expense of drama, however, a second act lull did stall the early momentum leading into a slightly overblown finale. I was expecting a more personal, small-scale finale, however, the climax was at least well realised in its CGI and provided an arc resolution for Awkwafina’s Katy. MCU references were generally fairly subtle too, Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery aside, though it will be interesting to watch Shang-Chi join the ranks of the Avengers and to what extent the antagonistic Ten Rings will play going forward. Though I preferred the first half slightly more than the second, Shang-Chi surpasses the standard expected from a Marvel release and delivers a striking and engaging story cemented by impressive performances across the board. The mix of Asian culture and Marvel bombast is a winner as are the communities that can now finally relate to a positive superhero role model in a similar way that Black Panther allowed in 2018.
UGC Distribution // Directed by Leos Carax // Starring Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, Simon Helberg
Anyone expecting Leos Carax’s English-language debut Annette to be straightforward would have been left scratching their heads at their bewildering idea having finished their viewing of it. Wooden babies, no traditional dialogue between characters, tabloid news style bumpers and more all set to songs and music by the Sparks brothers - Annette is certainly one of the more unique movies of 2021. It carries a fairly standard story of opposites attracting before their eventual fallout alongside themes of love, envy, exploitation, and toxic masculinity. Adam Driver’s Henry McHenry is an avant-garde comedian whereas Marion Cotillard's Ann Desfranoux is the rising star of the opera world and their surprise romance is the talk of the town. That is until their daughter Annette (a wooden puppet with a penchant for singing) is born and their careers subsequently go in opposing directions. Nothing else about Annette is elementary, however. The only true dialogue is McHenry’s on-stage scowling during his set; otherwise, the rest of the story is told in song. The opening number (and, indeed, tracking shot) is certainly appealing and sets the movie up on a high but it never really captures the excitement of the introduction. It has its moments, the now-infamous cunnilingus crooning is certainly eye-catching and visually, Annette is a marvel. It just fails with real development of character (I concede that may not have been Carax’s intention) outside of McHenry - thankfully, though, Adam Driver is monstrously good here. His presence is out in full force but frustratingly the quality of Cotillard is left untapped here. There’s also a bizarre lack of connection with, well, everything. As great as the movie looked and as strong as the performances were, everything feels hollow and emotionless. The songs were decent enough but didn’t carry any particular lyrical weight and by the time McHenry was adamant on selling out his daughter's talent for a few bob, I was struggling to remain engaged as the movie dragged on. As an experience, Annette certainly delivers on many levels and it’s not one you’ll forget in a hurry. It’s bonkers, bizarre and somehow also boring, the ambition of Annette can’t be faulted but that couldn’t prevent the feeling of disappointment that lingered as the end credits rolled.
Warner Bros. Pictures // Directed by James Wan // Starring Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White
What do you do after your last movie grossed over $1 billion? Make a decidedly lower budget horror movie, of course. Then again, this is James Wan, the man who made his name with decidedly lower budget horror movies and he’s back with Malignant. Clearly inspired by Argento and giallo films of old, Malignant is a strange beast. On the face of it, it’s not great. The acting is average at best, the dialogue is mostly wince-inducing, and, for a horror movie, it lacks any real atmosphere or scares. However, it does carry an intriguing air of mystery to it, a steady body count with a decent splash of gore, a great twist, and a genuinely crazy third act that sets Malignant apart from most horror movies released this year. It’s not that it’s brilliant, it’s that it felt different - as if Wan dropped the shackles of franchises and just let loose. It’s that third act that provides all the memorable moments and, truthfully, without it Malignant would’ve suffered greatly. Wallis and Hasson aren’t the strongest performers you’ll see in a horror movie this year and, really, no one shines here. The finale did feel limp in comparison to the carnage that occurred moments before and elements of it are laughable which did ensure the movie ended on a slightly disappointing note but there was plenty to enjoy beforehand to soften that blow (especially the retooled version of the Pixies’ Where Is My Mind?). The twist of the movie also greatly adds to the positive elements here, you may think you have it clocked but it surprised me when the big reveal was made. If you can get past the large leaps in logic (mainly surrounding the investigation of the mystery), George Young’s weird cop leering at every female, and a flat ending, then you’ll probably enjoy Malignant. It’s not a great movie but I had a great time with it.
The Green Knight
A24 // Directed by David Lowery // Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Kate Dickie
David Lowery has been consistently excellent since his debut back in 2009 with St. Nick, and, after a three-year gap, has returned hand-in-hand with A24 with The Green Knight. Though his films haven’t been entirely accessible for all tastes, they are undoubtedly made by a director with a real grasp on the craft of filmmaking. The Green Knight is the tale of King Arthur’s nephew Gawain (Patel) who must find his strength and bravery to face the Green Knight in battle following a challenge/altercation at a Christmas feast. Firstly, this is certainly better than 2017’s King Arthur and series one of Blackadder. Lowery has created something truly ethereal and artistic with The Green Knight - a visually beautiful fantasy that is at times perplexing and at others stunning. The story itself is steeped in themes of tenacity, nature, self-reflection, and honesty whilst the clever use of colour throughout provides more than just pretty visuals as it sits alongside changing emotions and differing states of Gawain’s physical and mental journey as he travels the expansive lands (the movie is shot in the majesty of Ireland) to reach his destination and, yes, destiny. Dev Patel is superb once again in a challenging and layered role whilst Vikander provides a strong presence alongside solid support from Edgerton and Kellyman (we also get appearances from medieval stalwarts Ineson and Dickie). The costume and production design is wonderfully realised with David Hart’s pitch-perfect score complimenting scenes exquisitely. Whilst some will undoubtedly have issues with the pacing and lack of action, Lowery has taken the source material and made something exalted from it. The Green Knight is weird, wonderful, and genuinely superb.
Universal Pictures // Directed by Liesl Tommy // Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Mary J. Blige
It has taken a while, but we finally have a biopic of the greatest female vocalist of all time, Aretha Franklin. Respect, directed by Liesl Tommy, charts the first few decades of the singer's life, and sees Jennifer Hudson stepping into the life and outfits of the Queen of Soul, a casting handpicked by Aretha herself. The enduring influence and body of work Aretha left behind, as well as her personal struggles, called for a robust performance and Hudson is more than up to the task. She commands...respect in a towering performance and her vocals are impressive across contrasting styles. The movie focuses on the life of Aretha alongside charting her musical rise therefore the issues of sexual, mental, and physical abuse are present as well as substance abuse. However, each demon is only approached on a surface level and never fully scrutinized in a movie that runs for two-and-a-half hours – a runtime that is honestly too stretched out. That does not make the issues any less eye-opening but the feeling that the movie was attempting too much became prevalent as it went on. Aretha’s relationship with her pastor father C.J. (Whittaker), on the other hand, received greater exploration whilst providing the narrative through line and Whittaker is strong here. Fans of the music may feel slightly short-changed in terms of receiving details behind the classic songs though there are plenty of performances to satisfy their needs, and, of course, the titular song gets greater focus and an exceptional performance to boot. It is hard not to have wanted more from either angle of Respect – whether that was more of the musical rise or Aretha’s personal life – and it’s apparent Tommy strived to achieve a balance that never fully materialized, and, in the end, Respect is solid as opposed to a showstopper. It may not take the crown of musical biopics, but the Queen of Soul’s legacy will last forever.
Prisoners of the Ghostland
RLJE Films // Directed by Sion Sono // Starring Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Moseley
Nicolas Cage is back in his nineteenth movie of the week, this time teaming with Japanese auteur director Sion Sono in the entirely odd Prisoners of the Ghostland. The pairing of actor and director seems like a rather good fit considering their respective outputs and nobody should go into this movie expecting anything conventional. A committed Nic Cage plays another nameless ‘protagonist’ (he is a criminal simply credited as Hero) who is offered freedom by the equally committed Bill Moseley’s shady Governor of Samurai Town in exchange for rescuing his ‘granddaughter’ (see: slave played by the criminally underused Sofia Boutella) who has been taken to a dangerous wasteland known as Ghostland. A nuclear accident has devastated Japan at this point and the fallout permeates throughout the movie in varying ways which adds interesting background flavour to the otherwise bizarre occurrences. The Ghostland itself carries the look of a dystopian Mad Max setting inhabited by deranged characters that would not feel out of place in those movies, whereas Samurai Town is a visually appealing blend of samurai and dystopian influences – there is plenty to admire about the look of Prisoners of the Ghostland. The most surprising aspect of the movie is the lack of intensity. It feels very drawn out and, honestly, it is not particularly exciting. It is violent, that is for sure, and the final sequences allow for the bloody violence to reign supreme, but the execution is not as thrilling as it threatened to be. To ensure compliance, the Hero is forced to wear a leather suit rigged with explosives in strategic places (including one on each testicle...) and what should have been allowed for tension and stakes felt strangely limp – though one of the better scenes in the movie does relate to a testicle bomb. The story plods along at a pedestrian pace but does not offer anything engrossing to complement the deliberate pacing which frustratingly leads to a mostly unfulfilling watch. At best, Prisoners of the Ghostland is intriguing without ever being compelling.
STXfilms // Directed by Joe Carnahan // Starring Gerard Butler, Frank Grillo, Alexis Louder, Toby Huss, Ryan O'Nan
Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo in a low-budget action thriller? Excuse me whilst I suppress my volcanic excitement. Copshop seemingly had all the elements of a straight-to-DVD gun-toting manfest and, given my ambivalence towards generic modern action efforts, my hopes were muted. Helmed by Smokin' Aces and The Grey director Joe Carnahan, Copshop finds Grillo’s Teddy Muretto allowing himself to be incarcerated to escape the clutches of Butler’s hitman Viddick. The snag for Muretto is Viddick is wise to this and also rewards himself with a night at the same police station – the snag for them both, though, is someone far more menacing is in town who also wants Muretto and will stop at nothing to get him. Copshop is a no-frills action thriller that sticks true to its identity and plays to its strengths, and it’s because of these reasons that the movie ends up being surprisingly very decent. Carnahan allows a sense of mystery to build and develop from the get-go whilst affording the characters time to breathe and grow. The characters overall aren’t exactly fleshed out, but we are given enough time with them in between the action to allow later twists to flourish. Butler and Grillo are perfectly fine here and Toby Huss is effective as the psychotic Anthony Lamb but it’s Alexis Louder as rookie cop Val who shines the most here in what is ostensibly the lead role. The action when it comes is brutal without ever feeling OTT, there’s a real bluntness to some of the deaths that keeps Copshop on track and prevents it from veering into territories populated by similar entries. By keeping things simple, Copshop succeeds where I thought it couldn’t - it has no right to be as decent as it is. It’s less John Wick and more back-to-basics which in turn leads to a refreshingly taut slice of claustrophobic action.
Sky Cinema // Directed by Navot Papushado // Starring Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Chloe Coleman, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, Paul Giamatti
Netflix action movies tend to lean more on the side of being a bit rubbish bar a few impressive sequences, so my hopes weren’t initially high for Navot Papushodo’s Gunpowder Milkshake. Possessing a title that seemed more interested in sounding cool than anything else, a more than John Wick-esque premise (and execution, in fact), as well as a neon-drenched marketing campaign didn’t help matters and, as it turned out, my worries proved to be correctly aligned. Karen Gillan stars as Sam, a petulant but deadly assassin who must reunite with her estranged mother Scarlet (Headey) and murder associates Anna May (Bassett), Florence (Yeoh), and Madeleine (Gugino) in order to protect a young girl from a crime syndicate. To cover a fairly standard narrative, Gunpowder Milkshake aims for style over substance, and, whilst it succeeds in that respect, the stylistic choices don’t always pay off. Scenes and locations look visually appealing simply...because? In a social media-dominated world, it’s hard not to look past the idea that the visuals were crafted and styled for sharing online as brightly coloured still images. The action itself is also hyper-stylized (of course) but it looked jarring at points (a bowling alley brawl in particular) - that’s not to say the choreography wasn’t impressive because there are some good fight sequences here (and some interesting uses for a bowling ball) but eventually the onslaught of OTT action led by an invincible lead becomes numbing. It doesn’t help that the characters aren’t particularly interesting, which is made more apparent by the need to add the protection of a young child into the mix to allow Sam something to bounce off other than edginess. Watching Karen Gillan kick the patriarchy’s arse was fun, but the highlight came from seeing Bassett, Gugino, and Yeoh wreck shop – three fine actresses having the chance to let loose was exhilarating at times. There may be more chances to witness this as Papushodo absolutely sets up the idea for future installments, the movie building to an eye-rollingly obvious reveal at the end which should come as no surprise to anyone (Netflix does love the idea of a franchise). How the sequel turns out is anyone’s guess, but I have a few ideas based on this movie - Gunpowder Milkshake aims for edgy but ends up as disappointingly derivative. Also, come for the neon, stay for Ralph Ineson’s accent.