By Lynn Venhaus
Now in Phase 4, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given their “Master of Kung Fu” comic book hero his own action movie, and this visual effects-martial arts extravaganza has its plusses and minuses.

Shang-Chi is the son of the immortal Wenwu (Tony Leung), who possess the Ten Rings with magical powers that offers immortality to its owner. After vanquishing his enemies, Wenwu searches for the hard-to-find kingdom of Ta Lo and gets more than he bargained for – meeting the love of his life, Li (Fala Chen), who is the fierce guardian.

Fast forward to modern times, and their son, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), must confront the past he thought he left behind when a mysterious organization draws him into its web.

Let’s hear it for taking a leap into highlighting Asian performers, and the cast overall is a sturdy one. Likable Simu Liu makes for an appealing, yet typical, reluctant hero, while Awkwafina stands out in a slacker-sidekick role, as his best friend Katy.

However, the backstory is dense, for the ancient Chinese mythology goes back more than a thousand years. Besides, Ten Rings is also the name of a nefarious global crime organization that has been referenced in the movie that kicked off the MCU in 2008 –“Iron Man” and its third movie and “The Incredible Hulk.” In addition, other MCU movies “Doctor Strange” and “Avengers: Endgame” have included mentions of characters, too.

If you are familiar with all 24 MCU films and the four television shows now on Disney Plus, you will be at an advantage here, but it’s not a deal-buster. To learn more about how Shang-Chi fits into the bigger MCU picture, be sure to stay for the credits – like we’ve all been trained to do — and a few Avengers will pop into view.

Back to where we pick up the next generation of Asian actors. In present day, dear old dad Wenwu tracks down his two children– son Shang-Chi, now a parking valet in San Francisco who goes by the name Sean, and his sister, Xialing (musical theater actor Meng’er Zhang), who runs an underground fight club populated by hulking beasts and nefarious sorts.

In the first thrilling action set piece, Sean and Katy face off against Dad’s henchmen on a careening out-of-control city bus. Katy, also underemployed parking cars, tags along to Macao, which is on the southern coast of China.

For those of us not familiar with the comic book and unaware that the dad was originally Fu Manchu, we have a lot to wrap our heads around, and mixing the past with the present can get laborious.

As we find our way in an alternate reality and immerse ourselves in an elegant Eastern world, we enter some sort of parallel universe with strange creatures. And lo and behold, there is Ben Kingsley, who played “The Mandarin” but was really a dim British actor named Trevor Slattery in “Iron Man 3.”  

He seems to be poorly used and in the way. But the Oscar winner and esteemed British thespian is amusing. Perhaps he will jog your memory.

Another blast from the past is the appearance of Benedict Wong, the sorcerer in “Doctor Strange,” who makes a few cryptic remarks. Look for him to be back if there is a sequel. And “The Abomination” too.

Director Destin Daniel Cretton is an odd choice to helm a Marvel blockbuster, for he started out in indies, and after his breakthrough “Short Term 12,” with breakout star Brie Larson (now Captain Marvel), directed “The Glass Castle” and “Just Mercy.” However, he is of Asian descent, and was tapped to pull the MCU into the 21st Century of diversity and inclusion, so bravo for that.

The jury is still out on his acumen filming action scenes. He has chosen to bombard us with computer-generated images and very busy visual effects while we sort out who’s who and what’s at stake.

That said, there are some stunning scenes with water and an elegance projected that’s rare for superheroes trying to save the world.

Cretton co-wrote the script with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, and MCU’s penchant for inserting comical interludes happens with wise-cracking Awkwafina – that really is her sole purpose. And she lightens the dark mood considerably.

This is a big film with big themes and a sprawling cast. At times, it feels too much like video game action – beasts fight in flight and these scenes go on way too long. The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 13 minutes.

The family dynamic is intriguing and could have been better served with more character interaction. After all, dad is still an evil terrorist. Sure, he might have veered off-course after his wife died, but what is the deal with him trying to steal the amulets she gave the kids? I sense that dad can’t be trusted.

Casual viewers may prefer to figure out the connections rather than be pummeled with incessant dragon action – and it would be a shame to derail a project that tries hard to move the genre forward leaving behind troublesome Asian stereotypes.

Hopefully, joining Team Shang-Chi will be a fruitful journey.

Tony Leung as Wenwu

“Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” is an action-adventure fantasy that is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed b y Destin Daniel Cretton, it stars Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Wong, Meng’er Zhang and
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language, it has a run time of 2 hours and 13 minutes. It was released in theaters only on Sept. 3. Lynn’s Grade: C+

By Alex McPherson

A thoughtful, meditative, unabashedly far-out sci-fi gem, Edson Oda’s directorial debut, “Nine Days,” asks intriguing questions about the rollercoaster of life.

This quietly bonkers film centers around Will (Winston Duke), an individual deciding which souls get the privilege of being born in a human body. He watches present-day Point Of View footage from everyone he’s allowed into the “real world” from the comfort of his modest house in the middle of nowhere, a salt lake limbo, taking copious notes on their day-to-days in an attempt to understand humanity.

Sometimes accompanied by his good-hearted helper and friend, Kyo (Benedict Wong), Will takes pride in seeing them lead healthy, happy lives. One of them unexpectedly perishes, however, tearing Will apart inside as he struggles to make sense of what happened — vowing to never let it happen again. 

Thus, a vacancy opens that needs to be filled. Will meets a variety of applicants wishing to experience life. This archetypal group of souls includes the self-doubting Mike (David Rysdahl), the laid-back Alexander (Tony Hale), the hard-justice-driven Kane (Bill Skarsgård), the earnest, wide-eyed Maria (Arianna Ortiz), and the inquisitive, plot-altering Emma (Zazie Beetz), among others.

They are asked to watch the POV screens and to give answers to various questions examining their moral toughness over the course of nine days, with a victor announced at the end. Upon failing, some applicants get a chance to have a moment they’ve observed recreated for them before disappearing into nothingness. As the group winnows in the passing days, Will is forced to reckon with his own inner demons and consider the unknowable nature of life itself.

A captivating effort from everyone involved, “Nine Days” uses this bold premise to explore what it means to be alive. Oda’s unconventional allegory plays out in frequently powerful fashion — carried by excellent performances and an ethereal, at times mournful atmosphere pulsing with feeling. Along with methodical editing, arresting cinematography, and Antonio Pinto’s haunting score, the film brings viewers into this twisted median space in a manner mixing warmth with menace. 

Although the finer details of the film’s universe aren’t clarified (don’t think too much about how or why Will acquired his “job”), “Nine Days” sinks emotional hooks into viewers from the first frames onward. It’s somewhat of a downbeat watch, prizing patient reflection over bombast, but “Nine Days” knows when to strike lighter notes as well and occasionally poke fun at itself despite the bleakness.

Duke does sterling work portraying a mysterious man playing God who’s trapped by his own cynical worldview, his decisions rooted in a desire to protect the applicants from a reality he views as cruel and demoralizing. Thanks to Duke’s pathos and the script’s empathy towards Will, his troubled mindset remains easy to connect with regardless of his flaws. Duke, with wire-rimmed glasses and a reserved demeanor, conveys Will’s inner tensions with a subtle performance that brilliantly showcases his severe facade gradually being chipped away.

Similarly effective is Beetz, a compassionate critical-thinker who doesn’t view human beings in a simplistic manner. Rather, she realizes the importance of relishing the good in the world, not letting negativity or nihilism corrupt her worldview. Her conversations with Will, inquiring into his own troubled past and encouraging him to reflect on what it all means, feature some of the most moving moments in “Nine Days,” tying into overarching takeaways. 

Wong is a lovable, comforting presence as Kyo, helping Will recognize his faults and his potential to grow as a human being, providing the bulk of the film’s unexpected humor. The other characters, brought to (sort-of) life by a wonderful cast, get less screen time and aren’t as well developed as the main three, but there’s more to most of them than meets the eye. Like every human soul, they cannot be simplified to a few characteristics — rendering their passage or failure all the more heartbreaking. Their “Last Moments” are masterfully directed and difficult to forget. 

Heavy without being dour, intricate yet accessible, “Nine Days” builds towards a conclusion that contains one of 2021’s best scenes. All the emotions felt throughout the film coalesce into a marvelous, life-affirming, slightly convenient resolution that’s aware of its own bizarreness while remaining highly impactful. 

An assured effort from everyone involved, “Nine Days” satisfies both the mind and the soul. The world is full of darkness, but there’s still rays of hope bursting through the shadows. Oda’s film is a provocative reminder to appreciate the light where we can and strive to see another day in our beautifully inexplicable existence. 

“Nine Days” is a 2020 sci-fi fantasy drama written and directed by Edson Oda and starring Winston Duke, Benedict Wong, Zazie Beetz, Tony Hale, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz and Bill Skarsgard, Rated R for language, its runtime is 2 hours, 4 minutes. The film is available in theaters beginning on Aug. 6. Alex’s Grade: A-

By Lynn Venhaus
With all its sophisticated and dazzling, detailed animation, “Raya and the Last Dragon” demonstrates what computer-generated graphic images can accomplish. The next-level panoramas and sweeping vistas are stunning visuals by Disney Animation Studios.

An ancient civilization inhabits Kumandra, but warring factions have fractured the land into five desolate areas. Legend has it that one dragon lives and warrior Raya is determined to find it, hoping that unity can happen in the realm. But saving the world will take more than teamwork.

Yet, for all that technical advancement, the tone is not consistent, and the storytelling suffers because it is such a familiar Disney template: Be Yourself, Be Kind to Others, Fight for the Common Good, Strive to Live in Harmony with People Who Aren’t Like You and Appreciate Family.

Not that those aren’t lofty ideals, but with multiple directors and eight story contributors, there isn’t a singular vision pushing us into new territory.

As a champion of female empowerment stories, I liked the fierce Raya, a more evolved warrior princess in the mold of Mulan and Moana. 

As Raya, Kelly Marie Tran is the right blend of confidence and concern, grieving for what once was when her benevolent father Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) was alive.

Screenwriters Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim created a few characters strictly along for good humor: Tuk Tuk, a roly poly creature that Raya uses as a vehicle, which of course is voiced by Disney iron man Alan Tudyk; lovable lug Tong (Benedict Wong); plucky restaurateur Boun (Izaac Wang); and Little Noi (Thalia Tran), a precocious baby accompanied by a trio of curious monkeys.

But the conflict with friend-turned-enemy Namaari (Gemma Chan) seems forced, although the sword fights are well-staged.

While the voice cast is strong, the hands-down star is Awkwafina as the dragon Sisu, who can shift-shape into a female. She is glib and self-deprecating, like all good sidekicks are.

My issue with Sisu is she looks like a unicorn drawn by Lisa Frank on a ‘90s lunchbox. The silvery-blue dragon with the big Keane eyes seems out of place among the realistic animated adventures.

 That said, there is an emotional payoff that sums up the story neatly. However, this film is not intended for very young audience.

Us Again

If seeing it in a theater, don’t miss the accompanying vivacious animated short, “Us Again,” which is another home run from the Mouse House.

Director-writer Zach Parrish has created a vibrant cityscape for this delightful dance down memory lane. In this 7-minute short, an elderly couple rekindle their zest for life and each other, reverting to their youthful selves, as they dance through a big city on one magical rainy night.

World of Dance champions Keone and Mari Madrid are the choreographers/dancers in this animated musical fantasy and Pinar Toprak has composed a lively pulsating rhythm. The joy is palpable.

“Us Again” is set for debut on Disney Plus in June.

“Raya and the Last Dragon” is an animated adventure fantasy from Disney Animation Studios. It stars Awkwafina, Kelly Marie Tran, Daniel Dae Kim, Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk. The run-time is 1 hour, 47 minutes, and the rating is PG for some violence, action and thematic elements. Lynn’s Grade: B. In theaters and as premier access on Disney Plus beginning March 5.