Tag Archives: disney

Review: ‘Shang Chi and the Ten Rings’

Simu Liu, Awkwafina and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung star in an action-adventure, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. 

The best Marvel movie yet, Shang Chi and the Ten Rings is a grand Chinese adventure, coming from an unexpected source: director Destin Daniel Cretton. 

Initially known for his directorial debut, Short Term 12, which showcased a breakout role by Brie Larson, Cretton’s subsequent films were fine but unremarkable (The Glass Castle, Just Mercy). Cretton bursts out here with a strong family drama, which plays well to his past strengths, tethered to more conventional Marvel tropes, which have been dialed way down for much of the movie. 

Oh, it’s a Marvel movie, no doubt about it. Now that we’re two feature films into the so-called ‘Phase IV’ of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe — which cannot help but remind me of Saul Bass’ Phase IV (1974), in which ants rise up against humans, portending an unexpectedly apocalypse — and, after the somewhat lackluster Black Widow, which felt like a good-faith effort to offer a slightly different perspective on the usual, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings actually feels fresh and new, despite the occasional, patented tip-offs to remind viewers that we are still in the good old Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

The good parts are very good indeed, and more than make up for the occasional missteps, which, truth be told, feel more like responses to corporate prodding than miscalculations on the part of Cretton. After a prologue that establishes the looming threat posed by Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his best buddy Katy (Awkwafina) are introduced as millennial slackers in San Francisco. They are happy to work as parking valets, since it pays for their partying at night. They are likewise happy to eschew any thought of greater responsibilities and, apparently, harbor no greater ambitions for their lives. 

One day, their idyllic lifestyle comes to a jarring end when Shang-Chi’s awesome, heretofore hidden mystical powers emerge on a city bus in response to an attack by people with wildly destructive mystical powers. Awakening his natural instincts, Shang-Chi becomes a hero, but loses a valuable pendant, leading him and Katy on a fantastic journey that involves time, space, family, and control of the universe. 

The film works especially well, I think, for those who are grounded to some extent in Asian action and adventure films. It’s tempting, for example, to compare it to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, especially since an early action scene is set amidst a sea of swaying bamboo trees. (Of course, Ang Lee drew from Taiwanese action pictures himself.) Later action, featuring interpersonal battle between participants on city streets and buildings, is quite reminiscent of classic Hong Kong action films of the late 1980s and 90s. More recent, expansive Mainland Chinese adventures appear to set the pattern for certain stretches of the action involving soldiers aplenty. 

These and other touchstones, however, serve only to enhance a strong family drama, which begins when Shang-Chi searches out his sister, Jiang Li (Fala Chen). What drew them apart? What happened to their mother? What is the deal with their father, Wenwu?

Family is the overarching theme of the movie, which gives the action sequences the kick in the gut that’s needed to make them truly meaningful. And much of the dramatic impact comes from the brooding performance by Tony Chiu-Wai Leung as the father figure who doesn’t quite figure. 

He’s a stern daddy who wants to teach his children to do the right thing, when all they want to do is play. He expects them to come to heel as adults, do as he says, and then keep on doing it. This is a father who thinks he knows best. 

I think we can probably all relate to that, to some extent, or at least relate to the ideas and experiences of those whose fathers pressured them to conform to some imagined ideal. The tightening pressure fuels the film to a satisfying conclusion. 

The film opens exclusively in theaters on September 3, via Disney. For more information about the film, visit the official site. 

Review: ‘Jungle Cruise,’ Road to Nowhere

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt star in an action adventure, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. 

Cheerily haphazard in nature, Jungle Cruise quickly reveals its instinct for precisely-timed, jam-packed action sequences that are entirely plucked from the minds and imaginations of people who are dreaming on a lazy afternoon. 

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has consistently demonstrated his craft at constructing visually appealing scenarios in a series of popcorn thrillers, often starring Liam Neeson (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Commuter). His most satisfying films have displayed a canny sense of how a strong directorial voice can overcome narrative nonsense (Orphan) and a premise that appears quite limiting (The Shallows) .

In Jungle Cruise, his filmmaking skills coalesce to make a roundly entertaining motion picture that walks a fine line between risible and ridiculous. Frequently, it becomes well-nigh impossible to discern any intentions behind a scene before the succeeding scene leaps off in a different, absurd direction, equally risible and/or ridiculous.  

Dwayne Johnson stars as riverboat captain Frank Wolff, an amiable sort of scrappy trouble on the Amazon in 1916 Brazil. Emily Blunt stars opposite him as Lily Houghton, recently arrived  from the UK with her brother Jack Whitehall, who is the discreetly gay MacGregor Houghton. 

Lily is in possession of an arrowhead that is extremely rare and valuable, said to be the key to finding Something Awesome that will cure every disease on Earth. In hot pursuit is Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim, a broadly Germanic warrior who also wants Something Awesome, though for personal profit, not the good of mankind. 

The screenplay, credited to veteran writers Michael Green and the team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is filled to bursting with incidents, eventually overflowing, as though it were meant to keep people occupied while waiting in a long line for a theme park attraction. It begins to feel like a two-hour animated adventure that has overstayed its welcome, repeating similar action beats ad infinitum. 

The entire cast gets the joke, perhaps instructed to play their roles as broadly as possible, with a wink and a nod to Jungle Cruise enthusiasts — this is a movie version of a theme park attraction, after all. Johnson, especially, is in his self-mocking element, from the pun-filled salute to Jungle Cruise captains worldwide, who feel compelled to riff endless on the same tired jokes, to jokes about his size and stature.

Emily Blunt gets into the spirit of things easily; she’s the most talented actor and shows her ease at gliding through dialogue and displaying a sassy, spunky attitude; this is a woman in 1916 who is in control of her own agency. Jack Whitehall wisely recognizes that his role is a supporting player, the butt of many jokes, and the comic relief in an action-comedy. 

Jesse Plemons adroitly essays an evil villain, sometimes clueless and sometimes brilliant, but always showing up in the wrong place at the right time. Paul Giamatti contributes an amusing turn as a (broadly) Italian character; perhaps he is an ancestor of the Mario Brothers? Without tapping into the fuller range of their talents, Edgar Ramirez, Veronica Falcon and Sulem Calderon gamely make the most of their roles. 

As the action-adventure river winds onward, Jungle Cruise floats with it, sometimes  submerged by the elements surrounding it and occasionally conquering all. It’s a good ride but a bit long. 

The film opens in theaters in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on July 30, via Disney. It will also be available that day on Disney+ with Premier Access (an additional charge for subscribers). For more information about the film, visit the official site. 

Review: ‘Black Widow,’ Dysfunctional Family Member Extraordinaire

More than ten years ago, Scarlett Johansson appeared as Natalie Rushman in Iron Man 2. Hired as a personal assistant to Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), she is eventually revealed as Natasha Romanoff, an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. 

Johansson returned to embody the character in seven more Marvel films, always fully capable of fighting her way out  of any perilous situation, but always in a supporting role, with little light shed on her personal history. Now she returns once again to play the character in yet another Marvel action extravaganza, this time under the direction of a woman. 

Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland broke out big with Somersault (2004), her directorial debut, which she also wrote, featuring a stunning performance by Abbie Cornish. Since then, she has been limited in her opportunities to make feature films: Lore (2012), starring Saskia Rosendahl, was an intensely empathetic period drama, while Berlin Syndrome (2017), starring Teresa Palmer, was an intensely unsettling film. Each film was designed around and depended upon a woman in the lead role, and Shortland showed her clear talent at framing scenes, building claustrophobic tension, and working with talented actresses to deliver sobering performances.

Stepping onto the Marvel franchise with Black Widow feels like she has been asked to jump onto a merry-go-round that is already spinning out of control. As with any Marvel film, it’s difficult to distinguish any differences in the trademark, extended, fantastical, illogical, ridiculous action sequences, which have been designed to impress casual bystanders, rather than satisfy narrative needs. 

On that score, Black Widow certainly holds up its end, launching one amazing, elaborate, completely unbelievable action sequence after another. My usual personal reaction is to wait patiently until the sequence is concluded, and then see who, if anyone, is left alive, other than the characters who are needed for a followup installment. In that sense, the Marvel Cinematic Universe resembles the Marvel Comic Book Universe, in that any character may be resurrected at any time, if the creator deems it necessary, and so the fleeting possibility never holds much dramatic weight. 

Where the film completely succeeds, though, is in the casting and chemistry displayed by and between the lead characters, starting with Scarlett Johansson herself as Black Widow. She exudes an exhausted weariness with the world and her role in it so far, yet this is different from resignation; she has not yet stopped fighting, or come close to giving up. 

She is well matched with Rachel Weisz and David Harbour as older figures in her life, and with Florence Pugh as a younger version of herself, so to speak. As dramatic actors, they are all highly capable of hitting the high notes, and making their low points quite empathetic and relatable. Their personal battle scenes, carried on through their witty line deliveries and winning body language, wrings the full comic potential out of every piece of dialogue, credited to screenwriter Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok), based on a story by Jac Schaeffer (WandaVision) and Ned Benson. 

The action sequences will undoubtedly impress those who choose to experience the film in a movie theater, where it will undoubtedly play best. The more intimate dramatic scenes, which in my opinion are much more effective, will undoubtedly play just as well at home.  

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on July 9, via Disney. It will also be available to Disney+ streaming service subscribers for an additional, one-time cost. For more information about the film, visit the official site. 

Review: ‘Raya and the Last Dragon,’ Warm Hearts, Cool Adventures

Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina lead the voice cast in Disney’s magnificent, heart-warming animated adventure. 

Refreshing in its approach to story, drawn from Southeast Asian folklore, and, perhaps even more importantly, in its depiction of the traditional “Disney princess” (compare with the company’s own descriptions and marketing of such), Raya and the Last Dragon is an encouraging step into a world first broached in Moana (2016), depicting a culture that is not drawn from broad European archetypes. 

Instead, it’s an original work, based on a story credited to a slew of writers; the screenplay is credited to Malaysian-born writer Adele Lim (Crazy Rich Asians) and Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen, who both have past experience in writing for television and films, while American Don Hall and Mexican-American Carlos Lopez Estrada served as directors. That so many people were involved in writing and directing the project is no surprise, since sprawling animated adventures take far more time than live-action narratives, yet the involvement of people from a number of diverse backgrounds is notable, and suggests why the film is markedly different from past Disney animated films. 

On one hand, Raya and the Last Dragon loosely follows a typical modern Disney pattern: young female lead sets off on an adventure in which she meets a motley collection of supporting characters who teach her about life and empower her to achieve goals that empower others. On the other hand, the film’s narrative undercurrents stress the need for humility and self-sacrifice for the greater good, rather than self-fulfillment, or striving after personal or family goals. 

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) has spent years in search of a legendary figure, Sisu, who disappeared at the same time as Raya’s father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim). Poor Benja transformed into stone, along with throngs of other people, when the malignant forces known as the Druun came to power. If Raya can find Sisu and convince her world “last dragon” to help her, perhaps she can reunite her long-divided land and bring her father (and every other transformed soul) back to life. 

Naturally, Raya is bold, courageous, and headstrong, just like past Disney princesses, though the title she holds is self-effacing. She also displays a delightful capacity for fun and games, but she ain’t got time for that now; she is living during wartime, as it were, since the divided nations that sprang up in the wake of the devastating ‘stone war’ remain continually hostile, suspicious of each other’s motives. 

In time, Raya teams up with Sisu (voiced by Awkwafina), who proves to a most unexpected dragon, and collects a mixed team of collaborators (including a gruff giant warrior voiced by Benedict Wong), who all assist in her ultimate battle against her longtime rival, Namaari (Gemma Chan). 

It’s a good story with good characters and good selection of twists and turns, some of which fit broadly into Western narrative tradition, but even more that do not, which flow together to help make the entire film a memorable, sweeping tale that resolves in a very satisfying manner. And, again, the path to the resolution is not entirely expected, which is always a welcome sign as Disney Animation charts a path for the future. 

The film opens theatrically in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on February 5, and will also be available to watch on the same date, as a premium Video On Demand title, at DisneyPlus.com.

Review: ‘Frozen II’

In the long and storied history of animated feature films, Disney has rarely made sequels intended for the big screen.

The sole exception to that rule, The Rescuers Down Under, barely made a ripple when it was released in 1990. As the home video age took hold, however, the company began producing sequels and spinoffs of established titles. More recently, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) pointed the way forward for Disney to produce lavish, theatrical live-action adaptations of animated hits, to mixed success.

In financial terms, though, Frozen fairly well demanded another film. (A billion dollars in gross box-office receipts tends to do that.) What we have in Frozen II, then, is a movie based on commercial requirements, rather than fairy tales or — gasp! — an original idea or two.

Of course, that doesn’t rule out the possibility of a great movie. Frozen introduced a story that seemed revolutionary because it revolved around — gasp! — two women. That’s reason enough to celebrate a sequel that features the two women working together to save their magic kingdom.

Older sister Anna (Idina Menzel) and Elsa (Kristen Bell) worked out their sibling issues in the first film, which concluded with Anna sitting on a royal throne and Elsa secure in her position as Chief of Comic Relief. Anna is happily single, while Elsa was single and ready to mingle, so she naturally gravitated toward the good-hearted Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), who had proven himself over the course of their adventure.

The new film aims to be an animated twist on The Godfather, Part II, moving forward as Anna and Elsa search for the source of Anna’s magical power, and looking backward to trace their shared family history.

While it’s reassuring that family audiences don’t have to fret about Corleone-style bloodshed, parents should note that the new film is rated PG due to “action/peril and some thematic elements.” (The original, by the way, was also rated PG, but for “some action and mild rude humor.”)

Frozen II is definitely a dark and gloomy affair. Certain sequences feature exceedingly striking imagery that is beautiful to behold on a big screen. Even so, that PG rating is not kidding; I was surprised at the extent of the peril that is portrayed, as well as the many suggestions of unpleasant consequences.

As with the original, Frozen II is primarily a musical, which may be a delight for any fans of mainstream pop songs in traditional Broadway musicals. For everyone else, it’s an element to be endured, not necessarily enjoyed.

Still and all, this is an animated film from Disney, and I will almost always recommend Disney animated films, if only for soaking in the glories of high-budget, highly-detailed, thoughtfully-selected animated imagery. Frozen II will not convince any doubters or convert any skeptics about the pleasures of animated films, but for true believers, it’s an easy sell.

The film opens in theaters throughout the area on Friday, November 22, 2019.

Review: In ‘Dumbo,’ Tim Burton Makes Flight Possible

Colin Farrell, Danny DeVito, Eva Green and Michael Keaton lead the cast in Disney’s new live-action adventure, directed by Tim Burton.

Nostalgia can play tricks on the mind.

dfn_dumbo_300First released in 1941, Walt Disney’s production of Dumbo was a fine family film for its era, centering on certain animals that performed at a circus and, especially, on a young elephant born with outsized ears whose only friend is a plucky mouse. The hand-drawn animation remains beautiful, though other elements in its 64-minute running time, such as a segment featuring black crows acting and singing in a stereotyped manner, have dated badly with the passage of decades.

Directed by Tim Burton, Disney’s new live-action version is wonderfully captivating. Ehren Kruger’s script greatly expands on the original slender premise, retaining memorable motifs and even entire scenes, yet refashioning them so that they fit comfortably within the new story.

The focus is on circus people this time, rather than the animals, though it must be acknowledged that all the animals are treated with appropriate respect. Appropriate punishment is meted out to any human who does not uphold such standards.

Everyone is surprised to see Holt Farrier (Colin Farrier) when he returns after The Great War, probably in 1919. Oh, his two young children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) are happy to have him back, but they are still mourning the loss of their mother, who died while Holt was serving in the military.

His fellow former workers at the Medici Brothers Circus also welcome him home, though all their eyes are initially drawn to Holt’s missing arm, which he lost in the war. Holt hopes to resume his career as a star of the show, performing tricks on horseback. Unfortunately, explains owner Max Medici (Danny DeVito), the circus has experienced rough times economically; the majority of workers and performers have been laid off, and the horses were sold off. But there is one position that Max can offer to Holt …

… and so Holt becomes an elephant tender. It’s a humbling change of circumstances, but Holt needs to provide for his family. More importantly, he needs to learn how to be a father again; his wife primarily cared for the emotional needs of the young ones, and Holt has no idea how she did it. The youngest, Joe, quickly re-adjusts to his father’s standoffish personality, but Milly is a different story.

A bright and determined young woman, Milly is determined to become a scientist, not a circus worker. She has declined to learn any possible circus skills, to the consternation of her father, as well as Max.

Things change with the arrival of a newborn elephant. Max bought Jumbo recently, without knowing that she was pregnant. When her child is born with enormous, ungainly ears, Max’s immediate plans for a new attraction are foiled and Holt is ordered to ‘take care of it.’

Sensitive to the young elephant’s ‘disabled’ appearance, the one-armed Holt is overly protective, warning his children away. Being curious youngsters, they ignore him and soon enough learn that the elephant has a secret ability to fly, which is apparently triggered by the appearance of any feather.

Soon enough, the newly-dubbed Dumbo becomes the star attraction of the show and attracts the attention of the wealthy business entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), accompanied by his lovely star attraction, the French trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). Clearly, Dumbo is on his way to becoming a superstar of the early 20th century!

Things don’t work out that way, of course. Dumbo is very much a creature of the 21st century, celebrating differences and banishing all hatred and villainy. It is, after all, a tale for children, though it is also actively engaging for adults.

Born in Burbank, California, which was also the home of Walt Disney Studios, Tim Burton has long been associated with Disney fantasies, dating back to his time as an animator’s apprentice in the early 1980s. (Reportedly, he was fired by Disney after making Frankenweenie, a short film deemed too “dark and scary” for children.)

In more recent times, Burton remade Alice in Wonderland (2010) in 3D for the studio, effectively kicking off Disney’s current series of ‘animation to live-action’ remakes, which has spread through Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Beauty and the Beast (2017), among others, with more on the way. In the meantime, Burton has made TV show adaptation Dark Shadows (2012), feature-length animation Frankenweenie (2012), live-action drama Big Eyes (2014), and fantasy book adaptation Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016).

After the major disappointment of Batman Returns (1992), I confess that my devotion to Burton as a film fan faltered. This was reinforced nearly a decade later by Planet of the Apes (2001), and I have not rushed out to see his live-action films since then. His animated films Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) played much better for me. So, perhaps out of my own ignorance, Dumbo strikes me as a triumph for Burton.

His fevered imagination is on full display, brought to life by a large crew that includes director of photography Ben Davis, production designer Rick Heinrichs, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and film editor Chris Lebenzon. Danny Elfman composed the musical score, which is only noticeable when it needs to be, otherwise contributing a steady and percolating background to the action.

The film is not a classic by any means. The acting, especially, is all over the map and tonally inconsistent; it sounds like the actors were given total freedom to come up with their own approach to their characters and then never reigned in, though it is fun to see the reunion of Keaton and DeVito in a neat sort of role reversal from Batman Returns.

Of all the cast members, young Nico Parker shines the brightest. She displays a calm demeanor and a capacity for childish glee that can explode at any moment, as well as a firm command of every dramatic scene in which she appears.

Tim Burton’s Dumbo approaches magic, and not just in making a young elephant with outsized ears fly.

The film will open wide in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, March 29, 2019.