2021 Best of Part 2:

Without further ado, let’s finish this!

5) The Setup and Payoff of Dolph Lundgren’s Castle Falls

This film is a treat for action fans and not just because of its immaculately staged action sequences. Dolph Lundgren’s conviction in establishing his characters’ motivations is the film’s greatest asset. By the time the action begins, you’re hooked because you understand what’s at stake for both Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins.

4) The Bizarre Personality of Kevin Lewis’ Willy’s Wonderland

Watching Nicolas Cage curb stomp a demonic animatronic gorilla is the icing on the cake for a film that’s so ridiculous but also entertaining. Willy’s Wonderland is a wild concoction of scary, funny, and action-packed that manages to blend together seamlessly. Nicolas Cage movies are like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get. Fortunately, this is one of the good Cage films because it fully embraces its premise and uses it to deliver some terrific action sequences as well as a silent and menacing performance from Nicolas Cage.

3) The Last Duel in Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel

The king is back to deliver one of the most epic battle sequences since Gladiator! After two hours of buildup, the climax of The Last Duel absolutely delivers with an action sequence that starts out exciting but ends up being repulsive by the time it reaches its conclusion. The lack of score is also a nice touch that helps emphasize the barbaric nature of the battle. The entire film itself is terrific, but for fans of Gladiator, the final duel between Matt Damon and Adam Driver is pure spectacle.

2) The Anxiety and Existential Dread of Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby

Shiva Baby is an hour-and-a-half of awkward moments that are effectively conveyed through claustrophobic closeups, a grating score, and a banger performance from Rachel Sennott! On the surface, Shiva Baby is a series of unfortunate events, but the subtext of existential crisis is where the true horror lies as we follow a young adult who can’t get her life together.

1) The Subervise Nature of Michael Sarnoski’s Pig

I’m so glad I went into this one completely blind. This is what some would affectionately call the “anti-John Wick” and for good reason. The film has the setup of a typical revenge film, but it handles it in a way that feels fresh; where you would expect the film zig, Pig goes in an entirely different direction. This might be one of Nicolas Cage’s most understated performances and you can feel that there’s so much beneath the surface. Pig is a quiet and melancholic film that relies more on mood and character as opposed to full-on action.

2021 Best Of:

The year 2020 left the world in a state of uncertainty and panic but 2021 saw it picking up the pieces, a sentiment that can also be applied to film. Delayed theatrical releases, halted film productions, and the accelerated growth of streaming services could not keep the film experience at bay; cinema is alive and it’s here to stay! This year gave us new films from proven directors as well as debuts for promising new filmmakers. As we reach the end of 2021, it’s time to look back and celebrate what cinema brought us this past year. Here are some of my favorite things about some of my favorite films of 2021.

10) Peter Parker’s Arc in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home

I’m admittedly not particularly fond of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man films; I think the character has had access to too many resources that it’s robbed us of truly connecting with the character on a personal level. With No Way Home, everything Peter ever had to fall back on is slowly taken away from him until he’s left with nothing but his wits and intellect. No Way Home has Peter learn the true meaning of responsibility as he fully embraces what it means to be Spider-Man. Let’s hope they don’t undo everything too soon.

9) The Fight Choreography of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi

It’s official: Shang-Chi has some of the best action sequences in a Marvel film to date. From the graceful and balletic fight sequence of the film’s opening to the vicious bus fight between Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings, Shang-Chi’s action isn’t engaging simply for its immaculate choreography, but because of the emotional stakes attached to it.

8) The Conclusion of Cary Fukunaga’s “No Time To Die”

The Craig era of Bond films borrowed heavily from Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and much like The Dark Knight Rises, Cary Fukunaga and co. give Bond an emotional conclusion that’s both shocking yet earned. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Bond dies! From Casino Royale to No Time to Die, each subsequent film saw Bond slowly tearing down his cold exterior until we finally get a James Bond who’s not afraid to love. It’s a wonderful swan song for Daniel Craig and a cathartic conclusion for fans of his interpretation of the character.

7) The Message of David Lowery’s The Green Knight

Gawain is kind of a terrible protagonist. He’s impulsive, selfish, and in over his head, which is what makes him a compelling character. Gawain’s journey is an odyssey of self-discovery as he learns what it truly means to be a man. He stumbles along the way but once the film reaches its conclusion, Gawain’s transformation is one that feels earned and triumphant.

6) Tammy Faye’s Final Song in Michael Showalter’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye

This sequence is all about perspective. It may play out differently depending on where you stand on the character of Tammy Faye, but no matter where you fall, it doesn’t matter to our lead protagonist. In the eyes of Tammy Faye, she’s a superstar and we’re all just living in her world.

Time to Pull the Plug – The Matrix Resurrections

During the penultimate battle between Neo and Agent Smith in The Matrix Revolutions, Smith, thinking he has the upper hand, proudly asserts his misplaced dominance over Neo. “The purpose of all life is to end.” Neo, in an act of defiance, rises back up with his iconic “bring it on” hand gesture as Don Davis’ score triumphantly plays in the background. They resume their battle and what follows is a gorgeous wide shot of their silhouettes against a backdrop of a large building window as they trade blows. This one-shot alone is more unique than anything in The Matrix: Resurrections.

Set twenty years after the original, it’s revealed that the events of The Matrix were a videogame created by  Thomas Anderson, played once again by Keanu Reeves. Mr. Anderson, unable to decipher truth from reality, regularly visits a therapist played by Neil Patrick Harris who prescribes him blue pills to keep his visions at bay. Anderson’s business partner and boss Smith, played by Jonathan Groff, informs Anderson that Warner Brothers has assigned them to create a Matrix 4, and that they would carry through with its production regardless of Anderson’s involvement. The first third of Resurrections is undoubtedly its strongest and effectively plays with the metatextual narrative of sequels, legacy, and nostalgia. The other two-thirds, however, squander whatever promise the film might have had.

Once again, Neo is awakened from the simulated reality of the Matrix, only this time, he’s retained all of his powers and “still knows Kung Fu.” One of the biggest issues is Resurrections’ lack of stakes. We are once again given a sparring sequence between Neo and a rebooted Morpheus played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II akin to the first Matrix film; the final product, however, lacks the energy of its predecessor. The sparring sequence in The Matrix had an experienced Morpheus teaching a younger, inexperienced Neo to hone his newfound skill while also establishing the rules of the Matrix. When you add in the fluid camerawork, it helps the action move smoothly without confusing the audience. The sparring sequence in Resurrections is a half-baked retread with no character development or stakes because Neo has already gone through this. . It also doesn’t help that the camerawork of Resurrections is too frantic and lacks flow and rhythm

At its core, The Matrix was a sci-fi romance between Neo and Trinity, and while Resurrections tries to get back to that essence, it never fully pays off. Throughout the film, it’s revealed that the machines resurrected Neo and Trinity because their love for each other was a powerful energy source that could fuel the Matrix; one cannot work without the other. It’s a new idea that could have effectively expanded the mythology of The Matrix, but because Resurrections sidelines Carrie Anne Moss’ Trinity for most of its runtime, the end result feels unearned. The chemistry between Reeves and Moss is still as poignant as it was all those years ago, but Trinity feels less like a character and more like an object in Resurrections. She has next to nothing to do save for the third act. As the film reaches its end,  Wachowski gives us a moment that was meant to be the ultimate payoff but instead feels lands with a massive thud. 

For a sequel to a franchise that revolutionized modern filmmaking, Resurrections feels as if it took all of the worst aspects of modern films with its lifeless CGI, underdeveloped characters, and atrocious action sequences. For whatever the sequels lacked, there was still some sort of craft and care put within its visuals and action. Not even a week upon release, Resurrections has already amassed quite the division amongst fans. While one side views Resurrections as a disownment of the original trilogy, the opposite side views the film as a brave new step for the franchise. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum, Resurrections is more concerned with ideas as opposed to actual filmmaking.

No matter how hard Resurrections tries to pave its own way, it can’t seem to shake off the shadow that was the original Matrix trilogy. At times, it tries to break the mold and subvert expectations, but with its underdeveloped characters and general lack of stakes, those subversions are more infuriating than innovative. Being subversive does not give you a pass for being uninspired and this is what Resurrections feels like: an uninspired sequel masking its true nature by pretending to be “subversive.”

Car chases and Court Cases – Shakedown Review

Two of the manliest voices in Hollywood enter the grimy underbelly of New York City to crack down a case involving drug dealers and crooked cops in James Glickenhaus’ Shakedown. Peter Weller’s Roland Dalton is a public defender on his last case before retirement. The case in question is that of Richard Brooks’ Michael Jones, a crack dealer on trial for shooting dead a police officer. Brooks claims it was an act of self-defense after the police officer attempted to rob him of his drugs and money. Dalton enlists the aid of Sam Elliott’s Richie Marks, a narcotics agent, to help him solve the case. As the plot unfolds, both our heroes sink deeper into a larger conspiracy of corruption deep within the seedy underground of New York City. Can they exonerate Michael Jones, or will both heroes be buried beneath the gritty New York streets?

From the dirt and grime of New York City to the gruff and rugged masculinity of its characters, Shakedown is a time capsule to an era that no longer exists. One of the strongest aspects of Glickenhaus’ film is how authentically he displays the gritty aesthetic of 80’s New York. You can practically smell the city from the screen. Nothing is welcoming about Shakedown’s New York City where only the worst of the worst live. In Shakedown, danger lurks within every corner of the city.

Amidst the smoky haze is Elliott’s Richie Marks, the rugged loner sporting one of the greatest mustaches in film history. In contrast, is Weller’s Roland Dalton, the clean-cut straight man to Marks’ macho tough guy. Dalton’s brains mixed with Marks’ brawn makes for an interesting dynamic. Most buddy films would have both characters meeting for the first time, but from the moment both characters appear together onscreen, their interaction hints at past adventures. It’s a shame that Shakedown never had any sequels because the charisma from Weller and Elliott could have spawned countless sequels.

Part legal drama and part action film, Shakedown runs the risk of feeling tonally inconsistent, but in some strange way, both blend seamlessly. Whether hanging out in the courtroom with Dalton or chasing down some thugs with Marks, Shakedown moves at a sprightly pace. In part, it works not only because the characters are compelling, but also because James Glickenhaus is adept at balancing two different genres. As we watch Dalton in the courtroom, it’s clear to see that he’s good and passionate about his job despite his self-proclaimed desire to retire. Weller’s presence helps move the courtroom sequences along at a good pace.

Glickenhaus’ strengths also extend to the action sequences. Not quite as action-heavy as one would expect, but the sequences we do get in Shakedown are high-octane spectacle! The first car chase in the film is viscerally astounding and further proves that practical effects will always triumph over CGI. The action does little to further the plot in any meaningful way, but the skill and craft do more than enough to provide surface-level thrills. It’s an expertly composed symphony of car flips and explosions. 

The weakest aspects of Shakedown come from its faulty plot and script. While Peter Weller does the most with the material he’s given, the love triangle between him, Patricia Charbonneau, and Blanche Baker is extraneous. A subplot with a final resolution that is both anticlimactic and mean-spirited should have been fleshed out or cut out entirely. Had they cut out that one subplot, there might have been more time to build to a stronger conclusion because the third act falls where the previous acts soared. Shakedown ends ten minutes after it should have ended and it’s due to the fact that the film needed to close out all the loose threads.

Shakedown is a rusty time capsule to the sleazy action film of the 80s. While the plot only serves as a table setting for the action set pieces, it’s justified when the action is expertly executed. Peter Weller and Sam Elliott’s dynamite chemistry is the glue that holds this film together; they’re truly a match made in heaven. It’s easy to see why a film like Shakedown was dismissed at its time of release, but now, in a time where action films feel artificial, Shakedown is a film where the action actually feels exciting and authentic. For fans of old-school action films, Shakedown is a spectacle from beginning to end.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

Unpopular opinion, but 2018’s Venom was so much better than this. Venom: Let There Be Carnage once again follows Eddie Brock and his symbiote pal Venom as they face off against Carnage, an offspring of Venom that latches onto serial killer Cletus Kasady after biting Eddie’s hand. Now, with a bloodthirsty Carnage on the loose, Eddie and Venom must work out their differences in order to take down the red symbiote. After the surprising success of the first film, Tom Hardy and co return to deliver a leaner and wackier sequel! Whatever you liked or didn’t like about the first film, Let There Be Carnage delivers even more of what made the first Venom successful. Sometimes, too much of a good thing is a bad thing and unfortunately for Let There Be Carnage, it’s more obnoxious than it is pleasant.

A bit of context for the unaware, but I adored the first film! I acknowledge its absurdity, but there’s an undeniable charm and magic about Venom. Whether intentional or not, Venom was a throwback to the superhero films of the early 2000’s, which made it feel out of place in the current film landscape. I also have a bit of a man crush on Tom Hardy, so watching his unhinged performance was a treat for me. As I walked into the theater, I was anticipating that same magic that I experienced with the first film. Imagine returning to Disney World after spending so many years away only to find the experience to be lifeless and disappointing. It sounds devastating, doesn’t it? Well, that’s how I felt after watching Let There Be Carnage. It’s tonally consistent with the first film, but Let There Be Carnage tries so hard to outdo its predecessor, that it comes across as grating.

There was a point during the film where my girlfriend turned to me and said, “Yo, Venom talks too much. Like, shut up!” I laughed because it was true! The dynamic between Eddie and Venom is the first film’s greatest strength, but Let There Be Carnage tries too hard to play up that odd couple dynamic that it eventually starts to overstay its welcome. The only time I’ve heard this much nagging in my life was when my mother was nagging me about going to college! There’s never a moment in Let There Be Carnage where sequences are allowed to breathe because Venom always has to say something funny in order to generate cheap laughs. Every line of dialogue out of Venom’s mouth is just throwing stuff at the wall in the hopes that something sticks.

This film does absolutely no favors for Woody Harrelson. For a film titled “Let There Be Carnage,” Carnage lacks any sort of menace, motivation, or presence. Visually, Carnage looks great, but it’s all show and no go. Why does Carnage want to kill Venom? Your guess is as good as mine. There’s one sequence that tries to give Cletus Kasady some sort of depth and it’s an animated sequence that recounts his childhood. Tonally, it’s consistent with Cletus’ demented personality and provides some insight into why the character is the way he is.

Speaking of visuals, this is one pretty movie, and I’m not just talking about the actors either! This is one aspect where Let There Be Carnage outdoes the first film. There’s a clear sense of scope and scale that cinematographer Robert Richardson effectively manages to convey with the symbiotes. There are so many gorgeous shots that emphasize the magnificence of these alien creatures in ways that the first film was unable to do. As previously mentioned, the hand drawn animation for Cletus’ backstory is so unique for a superhero film because it’s something that hasn’t been done before in this particular genre. Richardson’s cinematography is an absolute improvement over the last film.

From a technical aspect, Let There Be Carnage is about as good as it gets. The design for the symbiotes is top notch and accurate to the comics and the cinematography captures scale really well. The biggest issue is that it tries so hard to be in on the joke that it feels staged. Part of the magic of the first film was that it was unintentionally silly. The sequel tries to throw anything and everything at the audience in the hopes that something will stick, but it simply can’t replicate what that first film was able to capture. Sometimes, less is more and even with its shorter runtime, Let There Be Carnage does too much only to accomplish very little.

Homeboy: Mickey Rourke’s First Draft to The Wrestler

What is it about movies with Mickey Rourke playing washed-up athletes that move me so much? Homeboy was a passion project of Rourke’s for many years; in fact, he wrote the screenplay under the pseudonym “Sir” Eddie Cook. With his screenplay written, it was time to hire a director; enter: Michael Seresin, cinematographer for Angel Heart and Matt Reeves’ Planet of the Apes movies. Homeboy would also be Seresin’s first and final directorial feature. Rourke would also cast his then-wife Debra Feuer as the film’s love interest. As you can see, Rourke had a lot of stock put into this film, but like most passion projects, it was ultimately dismissed by the general audience. Even today, you won’t find that many people who have even heard of this movie. For further proof, look this film up on Letterboxd. Rourke would eventually make a comeback by playing a similar character in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, so in what ways did The Wrestler where Homeboy failed?

Before we dive into the review, let’s start with the basics. What’s it about? Mickey Rourke plays Johnny Walker, a washed-up boxer with brain damage. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Walker links up with sleazy fight promoter Wesley Pendergass played by a lively Christopher Walken before he became a walking meme. Much like the sleazy promoter he is, Pendergass hopes to make a profit off of Walker despite the toll that fighting has taken on his body, but Walker might be ready to give it up when he meets Ruby, played by Debra Heuer. With a promising fight on the horizon, Walker needs to make his decision: fight for pride or fight for love?

I love my films rugged with a side of vulnerability and Homeboy is a wonderful concoction that is both masculine and emotionally exposed. Mickey Rourke is good at a lot of things, but he’s one of the few action stars who isn’t afraid of being vulnerable onscreen. Rourke’s strengths as a physical performer go a long way in running home the point that Johnny Walker is a man way past his prime. Just like a wounded dog with some bite left in it, Walker limps his way throughout the film and only comes alive when it’s time to fight. It’s a quiet performance with very little dialogue, but from the body movements to the beaten down look in his eyes, Rourke is able to say so much without having to say a word. There’s probably a good reason they don’t have Rourke talk too much and it’s to hide the terrible accent that jumps between Southern and Rourke’s regular speaking voice. In comparison to The Wrestler, it was probably way too soon for Rourke to play a washed up fighter way past his prime, but you can’t call it a miscast because the performance is believable.

It isn’t only the characters who are out of luck and out of time, but it’s pretty much all of Asbury Park, NJ that looks like it was scrapped up and left for the bikers and drunks who inhabit it. When we’re not hanging out with Rourke and crew in the ring, we’re hanging out with Rourke and crew by the shore, the empty amusement park, and… Only in cinema is it possible to make the most rough and tumble areas seem so pleasant and beautiful. Part of that charm is because of the major and minor characters who live in this world. Homeboy isn’t as concerned with plot as it is with vibes and getting to know all the major and minor characters who inhabit this world. “Vibes” is the keyword here because Homeboy is pure vibes. There are a handful of boxing sequences throughout, but for the most part, we’re just following Walker and Pendergass as they talk about love and dinosaurs. Yes, Christopher Walker’s Pendergass gives a monologue about dinosaurs.

Speaking of Christopher Walken, the man gives a delightfully slimy performance as Wesley Pendergass! We all know the iconic Walken voice, but I feel as if there’s not enough talk about him as a character actor. From King of New York to Pulp Fiction, Walken proves that no matter how big or small the role is, he’s still the one you’ll be talking about once the film’s over. Walken and Rourke do make a terrific pairing because Walken’s flamboyant persona is a neat contrast that works well with Rourke’s demure performance. Their personalities are different, but much like Walker, Pendergass is also down on his luck; the only difference is how both characters deal with it. For all the expensive clothes Pendergass flaunts, he’ll still sneak into hotel rooms with his meth buddy to steal some cash. The performance works because despite how sleazy the character is, it’s Walken’s charisma that draws you in. It’s obvious that Pendergass is bad for Walker, but their dialogue together comes across as so genuine that the friendship doesn’t feel one-sided until the third act, which is a bit messy in terms of pacing.

Homeboy is all over the place with its pacing and editing. There were definitely moments where I felt the sequences dragged on for too long and could have used some trimming. The final act of the film jumps between two narratives: Walker’s final fight and Pendergass’ robbery. At times, the fight sequence goes on for so long, that you forget that there’s a robbery going on at the same time. There’s no tension because there’s no rhythm, and without that rhythm, neither of those two narratives get to really stand out. It also doesn’t help that they set all of this up so suddenly near the end of the second act, which is a small part to a larger issue. I like the overall hangout vibe of the film, but there are times when it suddenly decides to have a plot that it throws off the film’s tempo. It meanders quite a bit which will be a challenge for most viewers, but the strength of Homeboy’s characters and setting are more than enough to make the film an enjoyable experience.

Homeboy is the sweet spot between Rocky and The Wrestler and is the perfect fit for a triple feature. It isn’t as uplifting as Rocky, but it’s not as depressing as The Wrestler, so it works as the middle ground. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of pacing, but that’s ok because it’s pleasant to lose track of time with these characters. Rourke’s physical performance is outstanding, but he still looks too young to take on this particular role and no amount of prosthetics can accurately display age the way that time can. Under a more confident director, this could have been an outstanding sports film, but it’s too aimless to ever appeal to a wider audience. What keeps it from being an outright failure is the sincerity in the performances, setting, and tone.

CANDYMAN (2021): Thematically Relevant but

“Say his name!” No, I don’t think I will. Mia DaCosta’s Candyman stars Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, and Coleman Domingo. Part sequel and part reimagining of the first film, Candyman (2021) is about visual artist Anthony McCoy as he begins his research for his next art piece. After hearing the legend of Candyman and Helen Lyle, Anthony heads on over to Cabrini-Green, the site of the events of the first film, in hopes of finding inspiration for his next project. As he learns about the Candyman legend(s), Anthony might have finally found his next project, but in doing so, he might have also reawakened an evil that has seemingly lay dormant for 30 years. Guts are flying, blood is gushing, and bees are stinging and Anthony might have a part to play.

Candyman (2021) couldn’t have come at a more relevant time. The film’s running theme is that of black oppression and the appropriation of its victims. It’s also a film about gentrification, urban legends, and the relationship between artists and critics. Oh yeah, it’s also a slasher film! Candyman (2021) is an amalgamation of different ideas that never fully come together to form a complete thought. At times, it feels more like a college lecture than a horror film, which would’ve been fine if there had been an equal amount of scares to balance out the social commentary. On a technical level, it’s impeccable, but on a storytelling level, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Praise where praise is due, Nia DaCosta has a great eye for visuals and she does utilize them for some effective scares. DaCosta’s use of shadow puppets is the best example of “show don’t tell” that is both visually engaging and eerie while also being thematically relevant to the themes of urban legends and how we tell those stories. Stay for the credits, by the way. DaCosta also captures some super gnarly kills! I may sound like a psychopath for saying that, but what makes the kills so effective are the way they’re shot. DaCosta shoots a lot of the kills from a distance, so instead of watching the slaughter up close, all of the kills are viewed from mirrors, and windows. Speaking of distance, it’s time to talk about the characters.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II has all the makings of a movie star: he’s charismatic and built like a superhero. That being said, he’s not particularly good here and no matter how hard he tries, it doesn’t fix the fact that the character of Anthony McCoy is severely underwritten. The character has very little in terms of agency and all the events of the film happen because the plot needs them to happen. Much like the leprous sores on Anthony’s arm, you watch what little personality he had slowly decay until he fully becomes a non-entity in the third act.

Candyman (2021) will live or die based on what you make of the third act and quite frankly, the third act is a frustrating misfire. The film might not have a compelling protagonist, but Anthony is the protagonist nonetheless. Well, that is until the film suddenly changes its perspective from Anthony to Teyonah Parris’ Brianna Cartwright. For two-thirds of the film, Candyman (2021) does little to flesh out Brianna’s character which makes the sudden shift feel unearned. The third act also has characters suddenly behave irrationally and out of character. Colman Domingo is probably the best supporting performance in Candyman (2021), but the third act has his character go through a sudden personality change without any supplemental scenes to justify that transformation. The sudden character shifts and the unsubtle messaging are ultimately what burden the third act.

One of the very first shots in Candyman (2021) is a shadow puppet of a black boy being beaten by a group of police officers. The message here is obvious: cops are bad and the film brings up that message in the opening and closing acts of the film. The police officers in the third act are cartoonishly evil and serve as nothing but nameless villains who show up to be hacked down by the Candyman. Mia DaCosta shoots those final kills impeccably, but the meaning behind those kills mean next to nothing because the film lacks narrative and thematic focus. Mia DaCosta’s Candyman (2021) interprets the legend of Candyman as a spirit of vengeance for the wrongfully oppressed, but the execution of that theme doesn’t quite land.

Candyman (2021) has tremendous ambition. Mia DaCosta is an insanely talented director with a distinct visual style and a lot of ideas on her mind. It’s the fact that those ideas don’t always land that keeps Candyman (2021) from truly being great. For fans of Tony Todd, you’ll either love or hate his lack of screen presence. In relation to the themes of Candyman (2021), it’s actually one of the best aspects of the film because it now frames Candyman as an idea who takes on a new form (or face) with each passing generation. That being said, Candyman (2021) clumsily makes its way to the finish line with underdeveloped characters, an uneven chain of events, and half baked themes and ideas.

Shang-Chi: Marvel’s Toughest Action Film

It’s been awhile, brahs. It’s been awhile since we’ve had a new Marvel movie based on a new character. I see Marvel dominating on the streaming platforms with Loki, Wanda/Vision, and Cap and the Winter Soldier but I just can’t help but feel disinterested. Even with The Eternals coming out, I still couldn’t shake this feeling that there was nowhere else to go after Endgame. Was there something wrong with me? Did I catch a case of the dreadful “superhero fatigue” that has been plaguing the conversation since the start of the MCU’s hot streak? What could Marvel possibly give me that could keep me engaged with their projects moving forward? Well, there’s an answer to that and that answer is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings!

Director Daniel Destin Cretton, director of Short Term 12 and Just Mercy, makes his MCU directorial debut with Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first film with an Asian lead. Cretton brings along with him Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu, with Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and first-time actress Meng’er Zhang rounding out the supporting cast. Much like Black Panther, Shang-Chi represents Asian culture in a way we hadn’t seen in a superhero film before. With its influences deriving from wuxia and martial arts films, my expectations were high. I was anticipating a Marvel film with immaculate stunt choreography and gorgeous cinematography. Does it deliver on those promises? Absolutely! Could this be one of Marvel’s best solo films? Almost, but not quite. Shang-Chi comes so close to greatness, but the tropes inherent within the MCU keep it from ever reaching that level. I just got a call from Kevin Feige asking me what kept Shang-Chi from being a masterpiece. Well, Mr. Feige, let’s get on to the review!

I like to end things on a positive note, so let’s start with the negative. There are actually a few things about Shang-Chi that didn’t land with me, but its biggest problem is that gosh-dang third act! The third act is overloaded with lifeless CGI that sucks a bit of soul out of what started off as a lively, energetic martial arts film. It’s not just the artificial nature of the third act that threw me off, but it was also how unfocused it felt. The first two acts do a tremendous job of setting up the relationship and conflict between Shang-Chi and his father Xu Wenwu, that you expect the third act to feel lower scale and intimate. However, because the third act needed something to keep Michelle Yeoh and the other characters busy, the third act suddenly decides to introduce a CGI monster with little to no setup. At this point, Marvel’s too big to ever go small again which really sucks because had they cut the budget of Shang-Chi in half, it would have resulted in a more focused story.

This is just one of a few other problems I had with the film, but I can set aside those grievances if the film delivers on great action. I kid you not, this is some of the best action I’ve seen in a Marvel film since the Captain America films. The mixture of practical stunt work and choreography with William Pope’s gorgeous cinematography make Shang-Chi’s action sequences really pop. At times, the action feels more like a ballet than it does actual fighting and it’s best exemplified in the opening meet cute between Tony Leung and Fala Chen. Their movements are so fluid and graceful, that it manages to say more about their romance than simple dialogue ever could. If you love Wuxia and Jackie Chan movies, then you’ll find a lot to love about Shang-Chi.

In some ways, Shang-Chi is comparable to Doctor Strange in that they’re both visually exceptional Marvel films that are ultimately weighed down by the MCU formula to ever truly break free from it. That being said, I love Shang-Chi in the same way I love Iron Man and it’s because of the film’s overall message of identity and finding your purpose. At the start of the film, Shang-Chi, a descendant of royalty mind you, is wasting his life away as a parking valet with his friend Katy played by Awkwafina. The movie tells us on many occasions that Shang-Chi could be so much more than he is and as the movie progresses, you see the character embrace his true potential. As someone who’s wasted away on lifeless, dead-end jobs, it felt all too real for me. We all have the potential to be something more, but the real challenge is whether we go for it or run from it?

Hulk: Hulk Needs a Hug

HULK SMASH!!!! After nearly 13 years of being passed around like a hot potato, Ang Lee’s Hulk made its official debut onto the silver screen. Coming fresh off the acclaim of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee set his sights on his next big project: a character drama about a big green meathead who has some daddy issues. With X-Men and Spider-Man proving to be absolute bangers with the general audience, it was only natural that the Hulk would be next; I mean, hell, they even got Spider-Man’s composer Danny Elfman to score this thing! Perhaps it was misguided ambition to make such a somber film out of a character who turns green and smashes things; or, considering that Batman Begins would come out two years later, perhaps we just weren’t ready for it. Regardless, Hulk still remains a fascinating entry into a genre that was still finding its place in the cinematic landscape.

First things first: the plot. Eric Bana’s Bruce Banner is a genetics researcher with some buried trauma that he needs to work out. One day, after a science experiment goes wrong, the gamma unleashes something that’s been laying dormant since childhood: Ronnie from Jersey Shore!!! If you’ve read the comics, then you know how this goes. It’s a tale as old as time and a song as old as rhyme, but instead of doubling down on the camp, Hulk feels more serious and meditative. I don’t know if you guys know this, but Hulk’s really a character drama about repressed trauma and Bruce’s traumas are resurfaced with the arrival of his father David Banner, the man responsible for creating the Hulk.

Speaking of David Banner, Nick Nolte’s performance is like a fine Christmas ham, only if you left the ham to bake in a dumpster for an entire week. Nolte legitimately looks so unkempt that you can practically smell him from the screen. While Nolte is doing his thing, Eric Bana kinda just mopes around with nothing much to do. Eric Bana is fine, but if we were to rank him against Norton and Ruffalo, Bana would be ranked last. Bruce Banner is a cipher in this film, which isn’t something you want for a film that’s such a slow-burn. Some will stick with it while others will tune out, but for those who stuck with Ang Lee’s vision, he rewards you with an emotionally impactful third act.

The sequence in question is between Bruce and David Banner as both finally come face to face. Whatever feelings you might have about Hulk up until this point, this final confrontation was always the endgame for Hulk’s story. With Bruce’s repressed memories finally resurfaced, it’s time for him to confront his father one last time. Nolte goes all out and leaves nothing on the table as he delivers one of the greatest monologues of any superhero film. The final battle might not be the strongest fight sequence in a superhero film and in fact looks a quite dated by today’s CGI standards, but it’s what it represents that ultimately makes it such a crucial moment in the film.

Hulk is really weird man, even for a superhero film. For fans of the MCU or superhero films in general, the unconventional nature of Ang Lee’s Hulk might enthrall you or repulse you, but it will stick with you in some way regardless. Hulk comes so close to greatness, but Bruce Banner is such an underwritten character that it’s difficult to buy into what’s going on. There’s also a weird action sequence between the Hulk and a trio of mutant poodles that throws off the serious vibe that the film was going for. It’s a tragedy disguised as a superhero film and despite its imperfections, Hulk still proves to be a thoughtful and emotional journey about a man learning to come to terms with his emotions.

Wild Strawberries

Brah, I’m still young but this film had me questioning my whole existence.

What’s It About?

Isak Borg is a physician who’s about to receive an award from the university he graduated in. Isak goes on a road trip from Stockholm to Lund, Sweden with his daughter-in-law who isn’t particularly fond of him. Along the way, they meet a couple of hitchhikers who hop along for the ride. Now, as Isak treks through to his destination, he learns to come to terms with his past, present, and future. The plot of Wild Strawberries is very simple, but it does make for a deep and introspective character study on life, death, and the regrets of the past. Isak isn’t just traveling through Sweden, but he’s also traveling through the points in his life that helped mold him into the person he is today.

Who’s In It?

Victor David Sjöström plays Isak Borg and he rocks! I did some research on the actor and he was apparently a renowned director as well. In fact, he was one of the A-list directors during the “Golden Age of Silent Film.” It’s fitting that a director/actor of such caliber would be cast to play a a character who’s also highly regarded in their field of profession. The opening monologue Sjöström gives sets up the themes of the whole film. Isak has achieved so much, but even with all his achievements, there’s still a sense of loneliness and regret that he feels. It’s a melancholic performance, but ultimately, it leads to a cathartic resolution. Sjostrom’s performance is understated in that he never resorts to grandiose theatrics to get the character’s thoughts across, but by the same token, it manages to speak volumes even if it isn’t in your face.

Did You Like It?

This might be my favorite Bergman film that I’ve seen so far. Wild Strawberries is a moving tale on introspection and loneliness with gorgeous cinematography and a powerful performance from Sjostrom. Bergman’s use of dream sequences provide all the necessary backstory for Isak as well as context for why he is the way he is. If you’ve seen A Christmas Carol, then Wild Strawberries will feel familiar to you, but Isak’s ghosts are his dreams and they work to help him accept the things of the past in order for him to accept his present and future. If The Seventh Seal left you distressed, then Wild Strawberries will leave you with a sense of hope. It’s a melancholic look at life, but it’s also a celebration of the achievements of a life well lived and it’s this overall message that Bergman gives us that left me moved on an emotional level.