NOBODY Review

Bob Odenkirk Plays Against Type as the Toughest Guy in the Room in this Fresh Spin on John Wick that Delivers Action with a Side of Sarcasm.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON Review

Disney Animation's Latest Offers a Grand Action/Adventure with Fresh Cultural Influences and Delivers in Spades if not Necessarily Breaking the Mold.

COMING 2 AMERICA Review

This Thirty-Year-Later Sequel is By No Means an Instant Comedy Classic, but it's Genuinely Delightful in how it Balances Both Nostalgia and Progress.

CHAOS WALKING Review

Director Doug Liman's Much-Maligned Sci-Fi Adaptation is a String of Interesting Ideas with No Meaning to Attach Themselves to.

CHERRY Review

The Russo Brothers Follow-up the Biggest Movie of All Time with a Multi-Faceted Adaptation that is Ultimately Unable to Adapt One Art Form to Another.

Official Teaser Trailer for Marvel's SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS


Created by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin,  Shang-Chi made his comics debut in 1973 as a result of Marvel attempting to capitalize on the popularity of martial arts in America. There are reports that Marvel and Stan Lee were trying to develop a film adaptation as early as the 1980s, (one such planned incarnation was to have starred Brandon Lee) but it wasn't meant to be. After a long road to the big screen though, the martial arts master is finally joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe at a time when new blood couldn't be more welcome. Directed by Dustin Daniel Cretton — who was born in Hawaii and is of Japanese descent — the filmmaker initially made a name for himself with 2013's Short Term 12 (which now features a murderer's row of talent including fellow MCU hero Brie Larson) as well as helming the little-seen The Glass Castle, and 2019's Oscar-contender, Just Mercy. Cretton, who has said he never had any intention of making the crossover to big-budget tentpole cinema, has gone on to say that making a superhero movie with a predominantly Asian cast has, "helped contribute to what I think is a really beautiful update to what started in the comics a few decades ago." As for the titular star of the film, the casting of thirty-one-year-old Simu Liu, best known for his role as Jung Kim on the Canadian sitcom Kim's Convenience, is a Cinderella story in and of itself. The actor had been tweeting at Marvel as early as 2014, so when Shang-Chi was officially announced, he naturally followed up with the domineering movie studio and to Liu's surprise, actually received an invite to audition eventually landing the role in July of 2019. As the beginning of a new franchise for the MCU, this will be an origin story many (including myself) are very much unaware of which makes for the third film post-Endgame (and the first starring a new character) all the more exciting and mysterious. Cretton's film, which he co-wrote with Dave Callaham, will follow our protagonist from his raising as the son of Wenwu (frequent Wong Kar-wai collaborator Tony Leung) who serves as the head of a villainous organization known as the Ten Rings. Wenwu has gone by many names in the world of the film including that of The Mandarin who first appeared in 2013's Iron Man 3 to controversial and mixed reactions when he showed up as a fraud via Ben Kingsley's Trevor Slattery. When we meet Shang-Chi in this film, he’s been free from his father's influence for a decade after choosing to walk away from a life of death and crime, but of course he is unable to run from his past forever. With some terrific-looking fight sequences as shot by legendary cinematographer Bill Pope (The Matrix, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) and a supporting cast that includes Awkwafina, Fala Chen, Meng’er Zhang, Florian Munteanu, Ronny Chieng, and Michelle Yeoh, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will hopefully deliver us back into the world of movie-going and the bright future of the MCU when it opens in theaters on September 3, 2021.

VOYAGERS Review

A quick ten minutes into the latest from writer/director Neil Burger and we're hit with the question of how fair or unfair is it that people don't get to choose the environment or the situation they're born into. It's unfair, of course, that some are born into wealth and privilege while racism, misogyny, poverty, and countless other disadvantages are intrinsic to the existence of others from the day they're ushered into this world. This is a typical conclusion when assessing systems and how each individual entering that system, by choice or not, has a different starting line. These cut and dry conclusions, as unfair as they may be, are still very much a fascinating topic though, especially when considered in the context of children being created in a lab and curated from the time of their birth for a single purpose, a purpose they solely exist to serve, and a purpose they have absolutely no say in. That they were born from donors and not loving parents willing to take on the responsibility of their nurturing is the first disadvantage they face, but that they are then expected to simply conform to the needs of the previous generation and sacrifice their own sense of purpose for the mistakes of those elders is the next daunting reality they have to accept. Thus is the premise of Burger's Voyagers, a science fiction action/drama that like any good piece of science fiction works best when it's exploring its main idea or concept and the questions that spurn from as much rather than trying to answer them. That said, what Burger is attempting to cover here is engaging ground nonetheless as he dives into the deep, dark void of space in order to isolate ideas around nature versus nurture and if the wiring and influence of these subjects' genetic inheritance is enough to guarantee they not only have the intelligence and ingenuity to complete their mission, but the willpower to avoid the predictable foibles of human nature. What these children are born into, what they are tasked with, and what is expected of them is not fair and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone that didn't agree with that assessment, but the fact remains no one is granted the opportunity to choose what they're born into though there is still the choice of what type of person they want to become no matter the circumstances. Voyagers seeks to examine the necessary balance of innocence and experience required to fully grasp the possibilities of this line of thought via the guise of a genre film that sports sleek sets and pretty people that thankfully succumbs more often than not to the whims of its notions than to the trappings of its brand. 

NOBODY Review

There’s a moment just under an hour into Ilya "Hardcore Henry" Naishuller's Nobody when Bob Odenkirk’s Hutch Mansell returns to his home where, moments earlier, he took out an entire squad of Russian goons; their bodies still lay strewn about the house as Mansell’s family awaits a verdict in their secured basement: will the father and husband return, will he set them free, and also what the hell is going on up there? Mansell's wife, Becca (Connie Nielson) along their two children (Gage Munroe and Paisley Cadorath), have zero idea what kind of predicament their father's gotten them into and the children seemingly have no idea there dad was once one of the baddest mofo's on the planet. It was at this moment in the movie though, some fifty or so minutes in, that I hoped Mansell might - instead of cleaning up after himself or burning the place to the ground - reach for his phone to order the services of "The Cleaners" from the John Wick franchise proving indefinitely that screenwriter Derek Kolstad (a writer on all three John Wick films) had connected Mansell's universe with that of the Keanu Reeves character inevitably leading to a cameo from Odenkirk in John Wick Chapter 5: Whatever Unnecessary Subtitle They Come Up With. Unfortunately, said "Cleaners" do not show up and Mansell, as he does with most things in life, takes care of it himself. It's easy to say this "missed opportunity" is unfortunate, but is likely - ultimately - for the best given Kolstad is clearly attempting something a little more knowing here than he's done with any of his previous efforts including the Keanu Reeves actioners or the other random, B-level action movies he's written that no one ever knew existed until they saw them at a Redbox and only seem to exist to answer the question of, "what has Dolph Lundgren been up to since The Expendables 3?" With Nobody though, Kolstad is looking to enlist the ambiance of a traditional genre movie only to upend tropes such as the pounding score or the grizzly narration with the mundanities that make Hutch appear to be the "nobody" he aspires to be, but can't help but resent. While its protagonist could easily be described as a wolf in sheep's clothing the opposite is true of the film in that Kolstad and Naishuller set the movie up as if it were a serious, R-rated action flick whereas in reality the movie couldn't take itself less seriously. It's a clever little conceit that becomes more clever the further it's executed amounting to something akin to a top-tier, late-stage Liam Neeson actioner with the self-awareness to stop and wink at the audience from time to time.  

COMING 2 AMERICA Review

Eddie Murphy, at fifty-nine, is two years older than James Earl Jones was in 1988 when Coming to America was originally released. This may appear to be little more than a heartbreaking factoid to most and have little bearing on where we land regarding Coming 2 America, but in many respects it absolutely sets the stage for where the narrative takes us in director Craig Brewer's (Dolemite Is My Name, Hustle & Flow) thirty-year-later sequel. The script, which went through several iterations, takes audiences through what is a nice balance of both the nostalgia likely related to countless experiences those who were raised on the film associate with it while changing things up enough, both story-wise as well as in terms of modernization, that it's difficult to imagine this movie making anyone angry it was made at all. It was a risky bet to in fact make the film of course, and it will never fulfill certain ideas of what it could or should have been for some and it probably won't come to mean as much to younger generations as the original does to their parents, but it's here. It exists. When someone undoubtedly goes to watch the original film for the five hundred and sixty-seventh time and then needs a chaser to remedy the desire to re-capture that same feeling without going through the exact same experience they now have Coming 2 America to show them what happened to these characters decades down the road, to show them how they grew-up, changed, adapted, and discovered who they truly were. The sequel is, if nothing else, a nice, comforting reminder of the simple values the original held near its heart underneath all the broad humor and heavy make-up. As much as it is a passing of the torch sequel (though I feel assured in saying to not expect any more sequels) it is also a sequel that sees how the progress made in the first film - when James Earl Jones' King Joffe Joffer allowed Prince Akeem (Murphy) to venture outside his arranged marriage and marry for love - now raises the bar for Akeem to progress Zamunda that much further under his own rule. It's a film that doesn't feel the need to get into any heavy themes or social or political commentaries, though there are topical jokes here and there, but rather it is a comedy that embraces the progress of not only the culture at large, but of these characters - even addressing in some respects - the stifled progress of those who were once invigorated by as much, but who have since become settled in their role and routine. It would have been easy for Coming 2 America to very much stay comfortable in its routine and simply repeated the beats of the original via a younger generation, but the world has changed too much for this to only be about a prince seeking his princess. Coming 2 America, if it's about anything, is about that very need for growth and how critical it is to never stop doing so in order to maintain the balance of discovering who one is and who they want to be...even if that journey is as small as deciding whether they should sing Whitney Houston again or move on to some Sister Sledge.    

CHAOS WALKING Review

A fascinating miscalculation if nothing else, Chaos Walking is a string of ideas in search of meaning. Having never heard of The Knife of Letting Go by Patrick Ness, the first in a trilogy of books that is known overall as Chaos Walking the most notable first reaction to this adaptation was that despite having a reliable captain in Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Edge of Tomorrow) the film itself largely lacks a sense of direction. Of course, this might have something to do with the troubled production given the film was originally shot in 2017, but after what were reported to be poor test screenings of the initial cut, Lionsgate brought in a different director, Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe), for extensive and costly reshoots in 2019 before the pandemic delayed the release further. Though the film doesn't inspire enough curiosity for me to rally film twitter to initiate the #ReleaseTheLimanCut movement it does stand as a curious case of what might have been given Ness' material (he authored the series as well as co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Ford) offers a number of possible interpretations, opportunities, and ideas that no one can blame neither Lionsgate (who acquired the rights to the book in 2011) nor Liman for wanting to pursue. That said, for a visual medium such as film to realize a concept that includes what is referred to as "the Noise" where every character on screen can hear every male character's thoughts there needs to be a certain level of credibility and innovation to its execution, but unfortunately this balance is never struck...or maybe it was never found in the first place. It's difficult to imagine what it must have been like to work in the sound department on a project such as this where there seems no good option in matching what is essentially Tom Holland doing Dustin Hoffman a la Rain Man in an attempt to verbalize streams of consciousness to different colored clouds of smoke that pulse like heartbeats around the men's heads. Manifesting this concept was undoubtedly a challenge, but it doesn't help that this concept is largely the key to making the film work as a whole and when it doesn't land - when we're not convinced of said manifestation in the first five minutes - then it's a problem. It also doesn't help that this key element was to be largely finalized in post-production allowing for little wiggle room in the experimentation of bringing the concept to life. Stream of consciousness thinking is confusing, often contradictory, and always messy, so how was anyone expected to organize this into something coherent much less consistently compelling in such a fashion that it could support an entire narrative based around a dystopian world where the women are gone and the men are literally left with only their thoughts? I have no idea either, but if anyone does, they should contact Chaos Walking.

RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON Review

The latest Disney princess to enter the chat is a Southeast Asian princess named Raya and she absolutely rules. It's always impressive when storytellers can manipulate your standard archetypes to somehow create what are still compelling characters experiencing fanciful if not familiar situations that they somehow manage to derive a particular meaning or elicit a specific theme from. That all to say, Raya and the Last Dragon isn't necessarily anything audiences haven't seen before, but it's so well thought out and so well executed that it makes the tropes it takes advantage of feel exceedingly fresh; as if one were experiencing them for the first time. It also doesn't hurt the film was inspired by cultures from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos among others which inherently adds a certain vigor and resonance to the piece. It's abundantly clear how much the representation in the film mattered to its makers given Raya is Disney's first feature film inspired by Southeast Asia as the creative team that was put in place - namely screenwriters Adam Lin (Crazy Rich Asians) and Qui Nguyen - brought as much experience as they did research to the table. Having writer's representative of the culture at the heart of the story lends the film certain subtleties, nuances, and truths it would undoubtedly have gone without otherwise. Raya's strongest trait isn't how focused it is on diversifying the Mouse House's princess portfolio, but rather how seamlessly it integrates these cultures into Disney's age old formula while remaining true to the ancestry and traditions that have inspired this variation on the hero's journey. There is a difference in representation and concentration though, and while the representation in Raya certainly matters what makes it even more exceptional is how the film doesn't concentrate solely on the culture by placing it at the center of the narrative, but more by building the context of the story in a land many will consider fictional, but who just as many will recognize as home. Raya treats all princesses equal by giving the titular Asian princess as rousing an adventure as Mulan and as moving a quest as Elsa with nary a prince or romantic subplot in sight. In short, the representation occurs by using the tropes of the action/adventure genre to enlighten non-Asian audiences to a culture that isn't their own. By showcasing the importance of trust as its primary theme, delivering beautiful visuals that are meaningful even if all may not fully realize or comprehend why, as well as simply being a positive portrayal of what said trust, optimism, and understanding can do for the world Raya and the Last Dragon is a near-perfect film that takes the best of what movies have to offer and delivers them in spades if not necessarily breaking the mold. 

THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY Review

The first hour of Lee Daniels’ oddly structured The United States vs. Billie Holiday is so plagued by the fits and starts of its three different narrative strands and the resulting meandering nature of as much that, despite the eponymous character being of indisputable interest, it's almost immediately evident this particular piece about her life lacks the focus to make any real sense to the casual viewer and won't be able to generate any lasting impact on even the most ardent of Holiday admirers. It’s not until nearly an hour and fifteen minutes in (or with some forty-five minutes remaining) that the film based on Suzan Lori-Parks’ screenplay from the novel by Johann Hari somewhat finds its footing by taking the character of Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) who, up until this point has been something of an extraneous detail in Holiday's life, and inserts him into the main arc of Andra Day's version of Holiday; placing their two very different trajectories in life on the same track and forcing those paths to merge into one. The funny thing is, this breakthrough doesn't occur because Fletcher and Holiday have this undeniable chemistry or even because their mostly deranged romance is so captivating, but more it has to do with the fact this feels like the first time the film is actually onto something regarding who Holiday might have actually been as a human being. Sure, this is due in part to the fact that in the sprouting of this romantic relationship the viewer is also given further context surrounding Holiday's childhood and formative experiences (again, not until over an hour into the film), but if anything has been established in Daniels' film thus far it's that Holiday was a woman who liked to live in extremes no matter what she was doing. There's that famous quote of her responding to the question of why so many jazz greats seem to die so early to which she replied, "...we try to live one hundred days in one day." This is all to say that in her relationship with Fletcher - at least in the film - Holiday finds something she doesn't understand and therefore doesn't feel in control of her emotions due to the fact there's only a certain type of love she's become accustomed to. Both ironically and tragically is the fact the kind of love that made Holiday feel safe was also the kind that kept her perpetually unhappy and paranoid. What might have been a study in a life that only felt purposeful when what caused her pleasure caused her just as much pain, The United States vs. Billie Holiday is ultimately a mess of a missed opportunity whose execution can't match its subject's ambition.  

CHERRY Review

In April of 2019, Joe and Anthony Russo had just come off of making the biggest movie of all time, but instead of taking the summer off to relax and enjoy the receipts (as well as the relief of somehow managing to meet and/or exceed all expectations with that MCU season finale) they decided to roll right into making another film. A completely different kind of film. Whether this had to do with needing a change of pace, tone, or a release from that much surveyed environment where every facet was picked apart by fans the one thing that seems abundantly evident is the fact the Russo's felt an urgency to bring the story of Nico Walker to the screen and address the opioid epidemic. While said tone and subject matter are vastly different when it comes to Avengers movies and something like Cherry it seems safe to assume no matter the material that the Russo's have now reached a level at which they operate that will be hard to come back from. That is to say that despite its humbler ambitions and price tag, Cherry still feels like an epic. This is one hundred percent an event film of sorts where, despite there being no Gods or heroes challenging mad titans for the survival of humanity, the characters are still addressed and treated with the same reverence of a Tony Stark; the shots just as elaborate, the scope larger than anticipated, and the score just as sweeping. It's almost as if the directing duo are keen to point out how these people and their problems are part of that humanity that is worth saving as well - or at least remind those that can empathize with Tom Holland's character that they are. In that, the Russo's have concocted a searing, but scattered takedown of the Iraq war through one man’s experience that essentially delivers him from one hell to another as set to Van the Man’s soulful yet oftentimes heartbreaking voice that moves beyond the words of Walker’s book of the same name on which this is based and into the raw emotions of his journey. 

At two hours and twenty minutes the Russo's, working from a screenplay by Jessica Goldberg and Angela Russo-Otstot, throw a lot at the wall much of which tends to work given the drastic tonal shifts of each act, but as a whole leaves the viewer in a state of both surprise and confusion. Surprise largely at how entertaining this mess remains despite those major changes in tone but confused simply by everything Walker’s story encompasses and what the focus of this story is by way of meaning. Not every movie necessarily needs a main idea or central theme and Cherry certainly has a thesis statement in that the memories of war are battles those in the armed forces have to fight long after they’ve left the actual battlefield, but what it says or means to say about these experiences feels as if it gets lost in the shuffle. That said, how it says what it wants to say is a different conversation entirely as the Russo's execution is never not grandiose or energetic. There is an indisputable amount of bold choices if not necessarily innovative ones that lend the project both an impressive sense of style and Holland’s protagonist a sense of self on top of all the work Holland is doing (and trust me, he's putting in some work). Every choice the directors make is seemingly in support of building the character that embodies Walker’s perspective here and not only his point of view but getting inside his head and taking us through his experiences in the most visceral ways possible. As is true of the novel, the sections covering Iraq feel the most honest and brash and are where the Russo's big swings work best. Choices that involve text flashing across the screen in unison with drill sergeants yelling them, brutally honest policy descriptions serving as bank names, or shot selections that literally put us inside Holland’s character show the fire in the Russo's bellies and an admirable determination to make this as raw and powerful a portrait as they can even if the movie itself ends up feeling like it's trying a bit too hard. 

THE FATHER Review

What do you do with the people you love when they no longer know who they are? Writer/director Florian Zeller's film adaptation of his 2012 stage production, The Father, attempts to find solace in the answers to this question. What's so striking about this feature directorial debut though is not how assured it seems (which it absolutely does), but more how well-balanced and complete it is despite the narrative and its origins suggesting a rather small, narrow window through which the material might view the world. The confined setting certainly gives way to the roots of the piece, but there is also something distinctly cinematic to the film as if Zeller was intent to not simply exercise his skills as a first time filmmaker, but justify why this piece of writing was worth being adapted to the screen (one possible reason for this being this is actually the second time Zeller's work has been adapted after the 2015 French film, Florida). This is almost laughable though, as the structure and quality of writing alone make Zeller's work more than worthy of being told time and time again. That said, it's not simply the insight garnered through the elegant prose, but more it's how Zeller is able to both take the viewer inside the mind of an individual experiencing the aggressive progressions of dementia as well as simultaneously lend awareness and understanding to the roles closely associated with this disease and how those who must go through this experience with a loved one are equally impacted by it. 

Needless to say, Zeller is a master storyteller and in his directorial debut (I keep repeating it because I can't believe it) he carefully - and probably meticulously, as re-watches will undoubtedly assure - creates this ever-shifting and insular world in which Anthony Hopkins' Anthony is trapped. The awareness of every facet of his film is what creates this environment for which we, the audience, immediately buy into completely. Zeller has purposefully paired his protagonist with this somewhat stuffy yet still pristine London flat where the green of trees can be seen through the window, children can be heard running along the sidewalks outside, and classical compositions largely dominate the sound waves within the apartment. It's a context that feels familiar and thus the reality of it is without question, but as the severity of Anthony's diagnosis becomes more apparent it's clear Zeller is not simply conducting this film as a shared experience for the characters and the audience, but as a piece of art in which the audience willingly plays an active part; we're participating. As eye-rolling as that may sound, it becomes true the further one follows The Father down its path as the fundamental choices of the film not only invest the viewer in these people, but put us inside their heads and help us understand the fear and the confusion - among other things - constantly enveloping them. 

SEFCA ANNOUNCES 2020 WINNERS


February 22, 2021 – The Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) has named Nomadland as its Best Film of 2020. Chloé Zhao’s intimate, elegiac drama about life in America after the Great Recession also earned the organization’s awards for Best Actress for Frances McDormand, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Zhao, and Best Cinematography for Joshua James Richards.

Nomadland was an overwhelming favorite among our members in this year’s award season,” said SEFCA President Matt Goldberg. “It’s clear that Zhao’s thoughtful, deeply humanistic and heartfelt portrait of life at the fringes of our country connected with our members across the Southeast, and it is our pleasure to name it the Best Film of 2020.”

SEFCA also bestowed its Gene Wyatt Award, which goes to a film that best embodies the spirit of the South, to Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, the story of a Korean immigrant family that moves to Arkansas so the patriarch can realize his dream of becoming a farmer. Like Nomadland, Minari was a clear favorite among our members, and there’s no question that Chung’s film is a moving and authentic portrait of our part of the country.