Shang-Chi and Legend of the Review of ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (CREDIT: Marvel Entertainment/Screenshot)

Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Fala Chen, Ben Kingsley, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Release Date: September 3, 2021 (Theaters)

Most Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have me feeling some variation of “That was okay, I guess I enjoyed that.” But with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it was a little different. I saw it with my dad, who asked me multiple times how familiar I was with the character, which made me realize that I don’t think I’ve ever read a single comic book issue that featured Shang-Chi in any capacity. That freshness didn’t necessarily translate into meaning that Legend of the Ten Rings was any better than other recent MCU movies; rather, it just felt like less of a chore. And in fact, despite the presence of MCU vets like Benedict Wong and Ben Kingsley, it reminded me more of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than anything Marvel-certified. Although I should note that I’ve never actually seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But it did have such a huge impact on the culture that it kinda feels like I at least absorbed it. Will Shang-Chi have a similarly huge cultural impact? Probably not, but at least everyone appeared to be having a good time.

Grade: 7 Souls out of 10 Soul-Stealing Dragons

‘Raya and the Last Dragon’? More Like ‘Raya and the Dragon-Who-Can’t-Stop’!

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Raya and the Last Dragon (CREDIT:
Walt Disney Animation Studios/YouTube Screenshot)

Starring: Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Benedict Wong, Sandra Oh, Thalia Tran, Lucille Soong, Alan Tudyk

Directors: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: PG

Release Date: March 5, 2021

Now that I’ve seen Raya and the Last Dragon, do I want a dragon of my own? It doesn’t have to be a “last” dragon, but I guess if that’s all that available… Anyway, if she’s voiced by Awkwafina, I won’t complain. In fact, that’s a positive in my book! She’s good company. That’s probably my most positive takeaway about this movie. Sisu’s a friend to all, as she’s been imbued with the personality of the lady who voices her, i.e., one of our favorite current Queens-bred rapper-actor-comedians. And I’m also happy to report that friendship ultimately shines through brilliantly in this flick, even with creatures who initially seem like they’re going to be enemies. That’s great news in a world in which magic objects can turn people to stone. You suddenly find yourself alone, but next thing you know, a dragon’s your best friend.

Also, the music reminds me of Woodkid’s “Run Boy Run,” a song that’s had a surprisingly strong pop cultural impact.

Grade: 3 out 5 Credit Purchases

‘Jumanji: The Next Level’ is Worth It Mostly for the Actor-Persona Swapping

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Starring: Jack Black, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, Alex Wolff, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover, Nick Jonas, Awkwafina, Colin Hanks, Rhys Darby, Rory McCann, Marin Hinkle

Director: Jake Kadan

Running Time: 123 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Intense CGI Animal Attacks

Release Date: December 13, 2019

Let’s be real: the biggest joy of 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle wasn’t the game itself, but how it was played. I’m talking about the actors who played the video game avatars and how the conceit demanded that they depart so far from their typical personas. Dwayne Johnson had to act like a scrawny kid with allergies, Kevin Hart got to wonder why he wasn’t a foot taller, Karen Gillan was allowed to question the wisdom of midriff-baring in action scenarios, and Jack Black fulfilled his destiny by getting to play a superficial teenage girl. So if The Next Level, the third movie in this series (although let’s be real: this feels like the second movie, since the actual first movie is so far removed from these latter two, though I’ll do my best to call it the third. Also, side note: there’s a cameo of someone from the original film, but I didn’t even remember that she was in the original, so take from that what you will) wants to succeed, it ought to double down on that performance-with-a-performance framework, right? Definitely, although there’s also a hullabaloo about a plot and some frenetic action set pieces.

The Next Level, naturally enough, is about the next level in the video game, so it’s a little harder now for the gamers to successfully complete their mission of saving Jumanji. For us, that means a lot of the film is like watching someone else playing a video game, which can be enjoyable, but it usually doesn’t deliver the transcendence that cinema is designed to achieve. Maybe some viewers will really dig all this flying through the air and slamming into the scenery, but for me, it feels like an exhausting visual onslaught. Although, I must admit that the CGI-rendered ostriches and mandrills do look genuinely scary.

But back to the main attraction, as it behooves me to mention that Dannys DeVito and Glover have joined the Jumanji gang, and they have major parts, even when we don’t get to see their familiar faces. Glover plays Milo, former business partner to DeVito’s Eddie, grandfather to Spencer (Alex Wolff), whose lingering insecurity about life in general has led him to venture back into the game. His friends follow behind to rescue him, but since everything is a little haywire, Milo and Eddie are dragged in as well, and nobody gets to choose their avatars, though they also get some opportunities to switch around who’s playing whom. In Welcome to the Jungle, the young actors were not too well-known, so the actors playing the video game characters were playing types more than they were doing impressions. But now with the presence of some more familiar names, the routine gets to lean more toward impressions, which Hart, Johnson, and newcomer Awkwafina take full advantage of. Honestly, in this day and age of strife and division, the world would be a lot better if we all spent some time pretending to be Danny DeVito. So, in that sense, The Next Level is a net good.

Jumanji: The Next Level is Recommended If You Like: Watching other people play video games, Danny DeVito impressions, Danny Glover impressions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Life Bars

Mini-Movie Review: ‘The Farewell’ Examines the Emotional Truths Behind a Huge Little Lie with Humor, Pathos, and Empathy

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CREDIT: A24/YouTube

Starring: Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara

Director: Lulu Wang

Running Time: 98 Minutes

Rating: PG for General Family Reunion Awkwardness

Release Date: July 12, 2019 (Limited)

If my grandmother had cancer and my parents and aunts and uncles decided to hide the diagnosis from her and instead organize a wedding so that all her loved ones could visit her one last time, I imagine my reaction would be a lot like that of The Farewell‘s supremely frustrated Billi (Awkwafina). But of course, I cannot imagine that anyone in my family would actually do that, so it’s a little hard for me to even wrap my head around this scenario as a real thing. But it is a real thing, as writer/director Lulu Wang based it on her own experience. And I suspect she wanted to have quite an impact on people like me who are not part of a culture that would engage in this type of subterfuge. That impact valuably exploits the empathetic power of cinema: by the end of The Farewell, I still do not come anywhere close to agreeing with Billi’s family’s decision, but I understand why they believe it is the right thing. Wang’s film will have you laughing, crying, and hopefully thinking about what works best for your family in sickness and in health.

The Farewell is Recommended If You Like: Weddings and Family Reunions in All Their Messiness

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Little Round Butts

SNL Review October 6, 2018: Awkwafina/Travis Scott

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CREDIT: Will Heath/NBC

This post was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Love It

Ted Cruz Rally – This little filmed piece is my pick for best of the episode, primarily by dint of some impressively squishy sound design. The plop of confetti, the thud of a bounceless basketball, the distortion of an unruly microphone: all are delightful auditory punchlines. Beck’s take on Ted Cruz is fairly unique (is the senator’s nose really that pointy?), but his string of bad luck as a live performer definitely captures his noted lack of charisma.

Pete Davidson is here to share some thoughts on Kanye, and he can offer the right sort of wisdom for the moment, what with his experience being crazy.

Keep It

Dance Battle – It is quite the delightful surprise when the crew made up of Awkwafina, Kenan, and Leslie starts breaking it down to the tune of The Price is Right theme. Alas, it takes away any surprise from the rest of the sketch, as we know for sure that their remaining routines will also be set to game show music. But I cannot complain too much when the soundtrack is this charmingly familiar. Plus, the Family Feud wrong answer buzzer is ideal punctuation.

The Brett Kavanaugh Post-Game is an interesting enough concept to tackle the big news of the moment, but why does just about every political cold open need to be part of some news broadcast?…Awkwafina’s Monologue is pretty short and uneventful, save for her shoutout to first female Asian SNL host Lucy Liu (what an opportunity it would have been for Lucy to suddenly make a surprise appearance!)…The Presidential Alert commercial is just as crazy as, well, life in America currently is. Ergo, the jokes about a cheap phone company actually hit harder, in light of their unexpectedness…Michael and Colin are adequate enough, with the most notable Update moment coming in the form of a few audience members audibly booing Brett Kavanaugh…Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. have some more invective and nonsense to spew, particularly their new zinger of “Saturday Night Liberals”…So You’re Willing to Date a Magician gets a decent amount of mileage out of lampooning a certain profession’s stereotypes…The Pumpkin Patch benefits greatly from Beck and Kyle’s commitment to guilelessness…The New York Film Festival Women’s Roundtable (or Actress Roundtable, depending on if you go by the title card or the dialogue) is another chance for Kate to shine as Debette Goldry. You know the drill at this point, although her experience doing yellowface is a new, fairly hard-hitting reveal.

Leave It

Baby Shower – Here’s a sketch that is quite messy in execution that I feel could have been quite uproarious if it were more focused. Is the main joke that Awkwafina’s dog walker is an interloper, or that Cecily’s lonely friend of the expectant mom is shallow and superficial? There’s some fine character work, but also too many joke approaches coming from too many different angles.

The Hidden Tales of Egypt is here to remind us that Cleopatra had interesting hair.

Awkwafina

On a scale of Lucy Liu to Awkwafina, it is clear that there haven’t been too many Asian SNL hosts. But regardless of ethnicity, Awkwafina brings an offbeat comedic presence that is unprecedented in the entire annals of guests at 30 Rock. Unfortunately that doesn’t quite translate in her first SNL hosting gig, though she is plenty dedicated. Weirdly, she also appears to be the victim of multiple directing and sound mixing miscues.

Travis Scott

On a scale of music from artists I have heard of but have never really heard, Travis Scott holds my attention well enough. His stage design is decently mesmerizing, and he has acuity with laying out his words over a groove. Other than that, all I have to say is, did I hear him correctly when he said “just a goose”?

Letter Grades:

Brett Kavanaugh Post-Game – B-

Awkwafina’s Monologue – B-

Dance Battle – B

Presidential Alert – B-

The Hidden Tales of Egypt – C-

Ted Cruz (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – B+

Travis Scott performs “Skeletons”/”Astrothunder”

Weekend Update
The Jokes – B-
Eric and Donald Trump, Jr. – B-
Pete Davidson – B+

So You’re Willing to Date a Magician – B-

Baby Shower – C

The Pumpkin Patch – B

Travis Scott performs “Sicko Mode” – B

New York Film Festival Women’s Roundtable – B

This Is a Movie Review: Be Wary of the Spectacle of ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ Stay for the Characters

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and RatPac-Dune Entertainment LLC

This review was originally posted on News Cult in August 2018.

Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Tan Kheng Hua, Chris Pang, Sonoya Mizuno, Pierre Png, Nico Santos, Jimmy O. Yang, Ken Jeong

Director: Jon M. Chu

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Excessive Partying and a Nasty Message Written in Blood

Release Date: August 15, 2018

Ever since I have noticed the buzz building for Crazy Rich Asians, the title has had me worried that I wouldn’t able to relate. I’m not talking about the “Asian” part (and I’m certainly not talking about the “crazy” part). No, what I’m talking about is that four-letter word right in the middle. Sure, it would be nice to have enough money to pay off all my debts, but amassing a fortune into the billions feels plainly excessive. And Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel does nothing to dissuade me from that notion. When we enter the film’s first Singaporean mansion, I am immediately overwhelmed by the real estate per person. And then we learn that this dwelling is actually modest by this country’s standards, and I guess I’ll have to say the Serenity Prayer a few more times. But the good news is that Crazy Rich Asians wants us to be skeptical of insane wealth to an extent.

The biggest takeaway to be had from this big-hearted rom-com is the danger of making assumptions, a problem that can befall anyone, no matter their net worth. Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) assumes that her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) is a man of modest means. That is hardly the most damaging assumption, but it does mean that she is in for plenty of surprises when he flies her into Singapore for his best friend’s wedding and she learns that he is in fact a member of one of the country’s wealthiest families. Far more consequential are the assumptions made about Rachel, especially from Nick’s domineering but also impressive (and frankly, occasionally likeable) mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). She objects to Rachel as a potential daughter-in-law, not because she is an outsider, but because of what type of outsider she is, assuming that as an American, personal fulfillment is more important to her than building a family. Accordingly, the requisite final act misunderstanding is not some phony moment between Rachel and Nick, who are far too honest with each other to not be able to work things out. Instead, it is a background check that drives a wedge of emotional manipulation that can only be cured by selflessness on all sides.

Ultimately, Crazy Rich Asians does not win me over to the lavish lifestyle, but it does successfully convey the traditions that lead to creating a familial empire. Judging by the reactions of the largely Asian crowd at the screening I attended, this is an accurate and resonant portrayal. There was plenty of whooping and laughing that indicated intimate recognition of a pan-Asian exchange of culture, the immigrant experience, and (presumably) key moments from the book. We may not need a billion dollars to be happy, but I now see the potential value in learning how to play mahjong or attending a wedding in which the aisle is flooded with water.

Crazy Rich Asians is Recommended If You Like: Rom-Coms with an unapologetic cultural flavor

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Jade Rings

This Is a Movie Review: Meet the ‘Ocean’s 8’ Heist, Same as the Old Heist

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CREDIT: Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in June 2018.

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, James Corden

Director: Gary Ross

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Indulgent Behavior That Might Be Incriminating

Release Date: June 8, 2018

I am always wary of crime flicks in which the criminals are the protagonists and get away with it. Sure, cinema can be escapist fantasy, and I trust that most audiences understand that the glorification of illegal behavior does not make it okay in real life. But there is a moral component to movies, so this genre needs to be careful about the messages it sends out. That is what most concerns me about Ocean’s 8, much more so than whether or not it is a good idea to have all-female spinoffs or if these ladies would be better off assembling for some original concept (it is at least theoretically possible to have both, after all). We can rest assured that Debbie Ocean’s (Sandra Bullock) heist is mostly a victimless crime, although maybe a few millionaires take a hit. There is no sense, though, that this is a matter of acting on behalf of the little guy to stick it to the 1%. The underlying message is basically that you do what you do because you’re good at it, and that cavalier attitude is not exactly ruinous, but it can be mighty discomforting if you think about it.

But if we can allow ourselves to revel in the fantasy for two hours, does Ocean’s 8 deliver the entertainment that it is designed to? It takes a while to get going, with a rather sluggish pace as Debbie assembles her crew. And it does not help that we have seen these character types before: the tech expert, the street scam artist, the suburbanite trying to hide her criminal past. But once the plan gets going, the pace clicks along nicely. The heist itself – get celebrity Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway) to wear a famous necklace worth millions at the Met Gala, swipe it off her and replace it with a convincing facsimile – is adequately innovative. As everyone carries out their jobs, the cast comes alive, with Hathaway in particular having a blast. And it pulls off the third act moments that make you go, “They did it. Those magnificent bastards pulled it off!” There are the moments when we learn what really went down that we didn’t see at the time, and then here comes a new major character who helps the ladies wrap it all up in a bow. Nothing is getting reinvented, but the gears are still turning smoothly.

Less interesting, and much more perfunctory, are the connections to the Ocean’s franchise at large. A few vets of Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen pop in for cameos, which might spark thrills of recognition. Much is made of Debbie’s connection to her brother, the supposedly deceased Danny, that is meant to go beyond, “Hey, remember this character you already love?” There are some ideas about genetic destiny that are worth exploring more in depth, but Ocean’s 8 mostly plays these moments as just a toast to its forebears. Acknowledgement of one’s predecessors is generally a good idea, but you need to take it a step further if you want to truly slay.

Ocean’s 8 is Recommended If You Like: All the typical heist film beats, Suspending your moral compass for two hours

Grade: 3 out of 5 Blind Spots