Spoiler-Free Review: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021) starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, & Michelle Yeoh

Shaun (Simu Liu) is a sweet/laid-back man in his mid-20s working as a valet parker at a fancy San Fran hotel, along w/ his bestie, Katy (Awkwafina). He has a small/humble apt. in Chinatown and is V close to Katy’s family (which incl. her grandma, mom, and teen brother). However, while on their commute one morning, we see that there is much more to this mild-mannered young man! Katy almost can’t believe her eyes as Shaun fights off a gang of (V tough/skilled) ruffians on the bus. This is a long and quite impressive action sequence which reminded me of Speed (1994). It turns out that Shaun has a (complicated) family and a painful past (which he will need to face). Thinking that his younger sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) is in danger, Shaun and Katy fly to the glam/island city of Macau.

In the late 1980s, Stan Lee had considered a film/TV series about Shang-Chi, and had in mind Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee), for the role. Shang-Chi was visually based on Bruce Lee. Liu was knowledgeable in taekwondo, gymnastics, and Wing Chun. For this role as the Master of Kung Fu, Liu trained in tai chi, wushu, Muay Thai, pencak silat, Krav Maga, jiu-jitsu, boxing, and street fighting. The young actor tweeted in December 2018 re: asking Marvel for the role; he later retweeted that original tweet on July 20, 2019, thanking them! Tony Leung (a star of Hong Kong cinema) gets his 1st role in an American film here as the multi-faceted villain (Wenwu); it’s his first English-speaking role (he speaks it fluently). The character upon who Wenwu is based, The Mandarin, wears 10 alien rings on his fingers. In this movie, the rings were revised to be Hung Gar iron rings worn on the forearms (5 on each arm); these are traditionally used in martial arts training to strengthen the arms/fists.

I tried to explore the reasons that could have led him to become who he is. He’s a man with history, who craves to be loved. He is a sociopath, a narcissist and a bigot, but he is also human and has a family. -Tony Leung

The director/co-screenwriter, Destin Daniel Cretton, is Asian-American and raised in Hawaii; he received critical acclaim for his indie movies, most recently- Just Mercy (2019) starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Tai Chi Master (1993), The Matrix (1999), Donnie Yen’s Ip Man films and Jackie Chan films were cited as influences on the martial arts action. Michelle Yeoh (who plays Ying Nan) starred in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as some viewers will recall; she brings gravitas to any role she takes on. Shang-Chi started filming in March 2020, but was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Filming resumed at the end of July and ended in October. This production was recognized as the 1st feature film to reopen Disney operations globally since the COVID-19 lockdown.

I heard a BIT re: this movie from some of the podcasters and YouTubers I follow. A few weeks ago, I got curious to see it after having convos w/ a few (much younger) gals on Twitter who have Asian heritage also. A few were already Marvel fans; others were curious to see a movie focused on Asians and Asian-Americans. Way back in 1995, the V handsome/martial arts expert, Russell Wong (who has Chinese/Dutch heritage), starred in the short-lived TV series Vanishing Son; I think that was the 1st time that I saw an Asian-American man as a lead anywhere! There are elements in Shang-Chi here that are unexpected in Hollywood movies, incl. “code-switching” which is done quite well by Shaun. Liu (in his 1st lead role) comes from Canada and speaks both English and Mandarin fluently. Much of the dialogue is in the Mandarin language. As the main villain, Leung does a fine job; you can see why he’s so respected in his field! Though some viewers were disappointed that Shaun and Katy didn’t end up having a romance, Cretton explained that he wanted to show a close/platonic relationship of a male and female (as this still is rare in movies).

Spoiler-Free Review: “House of Gucci” (2021) starring Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, Al Pacino, Jeremy Irons, & Jared Leto

A name to die for. -A tag line for the film

This is inspired by the family empire behind the Italian fashion house of Gucci. When Patrizia Reggiani, an outsider from humble beginnings, marries into the Gucci family, her unbridled ambition begins to unravel the family legacy and triggers a reckless spiral of betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately… murder. -Synopsis

While it’s based on factual events, the story told in House of Gucci has significant parallels to Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie (1901). Mann’s chronicle of the decline of a wealthy German merchant family over 4 generations also deals w/ themes of decadence, social class, family image, the search for happiness, destructive relationships and disappointing children, the conflict between art and business and capitalist society at large. The acting style of the ensemble was in part inspired by the Commedia dell’arte, an Italian comedic theatre style popular in the 16th, 17th and 18th century. This style goes for comedic effect through exaggeration and sharply-drawn character types, also sometimes using colorful costumes and masks.

Paolo: You picked a real firecracker.

Maurizio: She’s a handful.

Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, Margot Robbie, and Natalie Portman were all considered for the role of Patrizia. Christian Bale was considered for the role of Maurizio. While Scott wanted Driver for Maurizio, there were some scheduling issues at first. Chris Evans was considered as a back-up, in case Driver couldn’t free up his schedule. Robert De Niro was originally announced as being in talks to play Rodolfo Gucci, but Jeremy Irons was cast instead. Huston- who plays lawyer/advisor Domenico De Sole- was born and raised in England, and naturally speaks w/ an English accent. On his Hollywood (paternal) side, he’s the nephew of Angelica and Danny Huston and grandson of John Huston. Monica Bellucci was considered to play Pina, but turned down the part. Salma Hayek took on Pina; she’s married to François-Henri Pinault (founder/CEO of French multi-national company- Kering- which owns Gucci as of 2021).

Paolo: Never confuse sh*t with chocolate. They may look the same, but the taste is very different. Trust me I know.

Yes, the above are real lines written by an (experienced) screenwriter- LOL! To put it bluntly, this movie is a hot mess! I wasn’t shocked to see this, as I’d read much about it (on social media) long before viewing it. No amount of realistic wigs, glam clothes, or fancy sets/beautiful locations can ever make up for lackluster writing and uneven acting. Comedian Wanda Sykes referred to it during the Oscars as “House of Random Accents.” Many viewers commented that they enjoyed the 1st act, which is focused on the budding romance of Maurizio (a law student) and Patrizia (a secretary at her father’s trucking biz). Some critics noted that Driver gets the “boring” role; his acting is naturalistic (unlike several others here). Lady Gaga said she worked long and hard on her role; she shows the (unabashed) ambition of Patrizia. Her famous line: “Father, Son, and House of Gucci” was improvised. Irons (using his British accent) is the intimidating/snobby Gucci patriarch, Rodolfo. Uncle Aldo (Al Pacino) is the one who helps the young couple when Maurizio’s father disowns him (temporarily). Pacino looks V tame when compared to onscreen son, Paolo (Jared Leto). I don’t know where Leto got his accent and those mannerisms, BUT wow- is he annoying! Many felt that Paolo was a stereotype of an Italian man.

Aldo: Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.

Music is a big part of this movie. Early in the film (1978), we see a big party w/ crowd dancing to Donna Summer’s On the Radio (which wasn’t released until 1980). Another song at this party- Bad Girls– wasn’t released until 1979. Patrizia is shown using a Sony Walkman cassette player (which didn’t come out until 1979). During the wedding, which in the timeline of movie happens before 1983, Faith by George Michael plays (but it wasn’t released until 1987). Some viewers wanted to hear the vows and see more of the actual wedding. In reality, Patrizia and Maurizio Gucci were married in 1972; they had 2 daughters- Alessandra (shown in the film) and Allegra (not shown).

[1] Adam Driver and Lady Gaga can leave with their reputations relatively unscathed, even if perhaps Gaga hones an accent that’s a bit more Transylvanian than Milanese. Al Pacino and Jared Leto though are in a different film, with broad comedic performances...

I could, perhaps, forgive their choices if the overall film hung together better, but alas it doesn’t. The story is glacial at some points, but at others either skips over or brushes through sections that are required to make the story make sense.

In lesser hands, this might be more forgivable, but this is Ridley Scott and we’ve come to expect more. This was, in no uncertain terms, a shambles.

[2] Ridley Scott’s filmography is hit and miss, brilliant at his best like with ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ though some of his films, such as GI Jane and Robin Hood (Legend is underrated in my view), are not too great.

As far as Scott’s films go, it’s a middling effort. Neither one of his best or worst.

House of Gucci has a lot that is good in my view. Have very little to complain about when it comes to how it looks, apart from some editing being in need of a tightening in the final act. The Italian scenery and the costumes are truly stunning though and the camerawork is similarly sumptuous. Scott’s direction is uneven dramatically, but is very impressive on a technical level, especially in his use of multiple cameras (which must make it easy for actors to know where to look).

[3] For me, this is all about the accent. Everybody is speaking English but in an overt Italian accent. It’s distracting. […] Maybe this needs to be a limited series on a streaming service. The acting seems to be getting accolades. I don’t mind that. They’re doing good work. The accent is just not my preference. All in all, this is a functional biopic with interesting actors doing a specific choice.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Re-watching Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” (2019) starring Adam Driver & Scarlett Johansson

Marriage Story (the 10th feature film by Noah Baumbach) was given a theatrical release of 30 days. It was the 1st film to be distributed primarily by a streaming service (Netflix) to win an Academy Award in an acting category. Also, it’s the first streaming film to win a BAFTA and a Golden Globe in acting categories. The budget was less than $19M and it was shot over only 47 days. Marriage Story premiered at the Venice Film Festival. This film is part of the Criterion Collection; there is a behind-the-scenes (BTS) documentary included. As many critics/viewers have noted, this is a mix of genres: drama (domestic, legal); comedy (incl. the kitchen scene at grandma’s house); and musical. For inspiration, Baumbach looked to screwball comedies from the 1930s- 40s, such as Twentieth Century (1934) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). The close-ups were inspired by Scenes from a Marriage by Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. One of the framed items seen at grandma’s house is The New Yorker mag article titled Scenes From A Marriage featuring Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson).

Nicole: I never really came alive for myself; I was only feeding his aliveness.

Writer/director Baumbach brought in 3 of his actors (“collaborators”) before he wrote the script for this film: Driver (a close friend), Johansson, and Laura Dern. He interviewed many individuals, from friends to those involved in the business of divorce. It was Driver’s idea for Charlie Barber to be a theatre director. Charlie lived in Indiana before moving to NYC; Driver grew up in that state. The toys Nicole and Henry (Azhy Robertson) play w/ during the opening montage are from the Star Wars franchise, a reference to Driver’s role as Kylo Ren/Ben Solo in the sequels. Sheets w/ Guardians of the Galaxy characters can be seen in Henry’s bed in the NYC apt. That movie is from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), as is Johansson’s character Black Widow. Early in her career, Nicole starred in a hit teen sex comedy called All Over the Girl; Baumbach’s ex-wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) was one of the young stars of Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Ted: Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.

Some viewers asked: “Who is the bad guy in this story?” Well, Charlie had a brief affair w/ his co-worker, Mary Anne (Brook Bloom), so he’s NOT blameless. Nicole describes Charlie as being selfish and wanting things his way, at home and in the theater. The true bad guys could be the divorce lawyers (aside from Bert, played by veteran actor Alan Alda). I esp. liked Driver and Alda’s scenes together; Bert also serves as an empathetic father-figure to Charlie (I noticed on this re-watch). Nora Fanshaw (Dern) is based loosely on celeb attorney Laura Wasser; she represented Dern, Johansson and Baumbach during their respective divorces. The mediation scenes were filmed in Wasser’s office building. Ted (Ray Liotta- who passed away recently) is a shark who fights w/ Nora in court.

Due to location availability, the LA scenes were filmed before the main cast moved to NYC. Charlie’s LA apt is an actual apt; the production rented it, along w/ the unit directly upstairs. No dialogue or moments of hesitation are improvised in this scene; everything was scripted. Driver ended up punching the wall 15 times (ouch); Baumbach famously likes to shoot many takes. At one point, Driver punched so hard that he almost punched through the wall behind the breakaway wall. Over 2 days, Driver and Johansson did 50 takes of the fight- wow! The juice box that Nicole sips on, then sets down before the fight remains on the floor until the final shot of the scene. Baumbach explained: “The juice box is [their son’s] presence in their lives… he’s not here… he’s really powerless in this situation.”

The world of the theater plays a big part in this story; Charlie was directing Nicole’s acting for several years. Nicole’s name recognition brought in much of the audience in the early years; during the separation, Charlie is awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant. The diverse group of actors in Charlie’s troupe serve as his chosen family. You may recognize a few of their faces: veteran theater actor Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Hamilton; guest star on S6 of Girls), and Mary Wiseman (Star Trek: Discovery). In an interview, Driver said that he and Baumbach discussed making a film version of Company (long before this film). Driver’s performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive from Company was recorded live and done in one take. Both Baumbach and Driver were fans of the 1970 Broadway musical. Nicole, her mom, and older sister sing You Could Drive a Person Crazy (another song from Company).

Charlie: [Reading Nicole’s letter to Henry] I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.

I’ve seen Marriage Story 5x over the past 3 yrs; I don’t re-watch shows/movies much (unless it’s an Austen or Shakespeare adaptation or maybe holiday film). For me, the dialogue (writing) in a film is the most important element. Another element I admire is realism, or real-world themes. On a recent re-watch, I noticed that Baumbach also knows how to make the silence powerful. My fave moments are silent: Charlie sleeping side-by-side w/ Henry when the boy is worried; Charlie and Nicole pull the gate of her LA house shut; and Nicole tying Charlie’s shoe (the last scene; perhaps also a homage to The Way We Were).


[1] Overall, you see Johansson and Driver put on some amazing performances….so amazing that I’d be shocked if they aren’t at least Oscar-nominated for this film. Well done in every way…and one of the better movies of 2019.

[2] There is some humour in this movie, at times it is sad and raw.

[3] Marriage Story is a beautiful and heartbreaking film about the end of a marriage. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson have magnificent performances and chemistry and the direction of Noah Baumbach is top-notch. This film is not to be described by words but watched.

[4] The movie is brutally honest and feels brutally real. I don’t condone everything being said or done. By neither of the two main characters. But motivations are clear and the story is really well told. The drama unfolds and it does not seem to be made up, rather really slow burning and quite reasonable (well as reasonable as some of the things can be).

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“Lost in La Mancha” (2002)

They’ve got a story… but have lost the plot. -Tagline for the film

You may’ve heard that some movies languish in “production hell” for years. This is a documentary film from directors Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe; they’d intended to shoot the development and pre-production of Terry Gilliam’s (long-awaited) movie- The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. After the movie had to shutdown, Fulton and Pepe were wary of finishing their film, but Gilliam commented: “someone has to get a film out of this. I guess it’s going to be you.” The narrator of the doc is Jeff Bridges, one of Gilliam’s favorite actors.

I think he’s a little bit the Quixote. He’s the dreamer, the idealist. The one who sees things that the rest of us humans can’t see. -Benjamin Fernandez, Production Designer

Before filming begins, Gilliam had to move from Hollywood studio to European financing. The budget was cut from $40M to $32M (V high by European standards). Gilliam is a dreamer (like Quixote), so his vision is uncompromising. His department heads will have to do a LOT w/ what little they’ve been given. During pre-production and filming in Spain, what the director can’t foresee ALL the problems that will arise!

Terry, as we all well know, has the tendency of overloading everything. I mean, there is nothing ever simple and plain. -Nicola Pecorini, Director of Photography (D.P.)

I learned that Orson Welles tried to make his own version of this tale, BUT he failed several times! We’re taken through the pre-production, as we learn about what Gilliam and his co-writer (Tony Grisoni) changed around with the classic Cervantes story. A commercial director named Toby (Johnny Depp) gets sent back in time to where Don Quixote (French actor Jean Rochefort) mistakes him for Sancho Panza, his peasant sidekick; they go on adventures through the book’s stories. There is a brief animated sequence where we learn that Gilliam’s films (aside from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) have been risks taken by Hollywood studios, but they made money and received critical acclaim.

[As a storm comes in, disrupting filming] Which is it, King Lear or Wizard of Oz? -Gilliam

There are humorous scenes w/ the (V large/jolly) men auditioning to play giants. We see a young/optimistic Johnny Depp giving input to Gilliam and rehearsing a few scenes; he looks gorgeous! Depp’s former wife, French singer/actress Vanessa Paradis, is mentioned a few times, though NOT seen much in the doc. She was cast as the female lead and did some costume tests. The extras didn’t have time to rehearse. It turns out that the main location (a nature preserve) is where planes make a LOT of noise up above. There is a powerful thunderstorm that pauses filming; the equipment has to be protected and the people race for cover! We hear that 70 y.o. old Rochefort (who’d been learning English for 6+ mos.) has a prostate infection (so it’s TOO painful for him to ride a horse).

Making a film with Terry is like riding a bareback pony. Just grab onto the mane, dig in the heels and the knees, and hang on, ’cause you’re in for the ride of your life. -Phil Patterson, First Assistant Director

The production company (French) is V worried, an insurance company (American) becomes involved, and Gilliam is losing control (and he knows it). Someone has to be let go, so Phil Patterson (who as First A.D. is to handle the other matters while the director works w/ actors) decides to quit instead of being fired. The crew had a good sense of humor and were V committed, BUT the movie had to shutdown. D.P. Nicola Pecorini (Italian) ended up working on the final film- which came out in 2017. He did an impressive job (b/c the cinematography is V beautiful)!

“Lost in La Mancha” is an enjoyable celebration of those who tilt at windmills. -Excerpt from IMDB review

Spoiler-Free Review: “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” (2018) starring Adam Driver & Jonathan Pryce

Toby (Adam Driver- looking tan and toned), a cynical commercial director, is in Spain shooting an insurance commercial that has a take on Don Quixote. At dinner, a Gypsy peddler has a copy of his student film for sale, a B&W adaptation of Don Quixote. Toby is fascinated by the journey back in time and decides that, since he’s staying so close to where he’d filmed this student project, he’s going to go go back for a visit. The town feels depressing; the girl (who played Dulcinea) has left, and her father is angry at Toby for it. The old cobbler (played by veteran actor Jonathan Pryce) he’d hired to play the lead has gone mad- thinking himself to be Quixote! Through a series of accidents and bits of craziness, Toby finds himself as Sancho Panza, a role he takes up reluctantly. The supporting cast include: veteran character actor Stellan Skarsgard, former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, Spanish actor Jordi Molla, and a beautiful ingenue from Portugal- Joana Ribeiro.

Fantasy and reality begin to mix (which I learned is a common theme for director Terry Gilliam). He has also directed Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985- starring Pryce), The Fisher King (1991), 12 Monkeys (1995), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). I haven’t yet see any of these movies. Gilliam (raised in US, but later became a British citizen) may be best known as member of “Monty Python” along w/ John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman. I watched this movie (once- so far) b/c t was on the list of Driver’s work. Fans know that Driver chooses his projects based on the director and the script. I thought the acting was (mostly) well-done, though I was confused by the presence of some minor characters and the purposed of a few scenes. Critics/viewers either loved or hated it, from what I’ve read (so far). I’ll try to watch it again and see if I can figure out more- LOL! This isn’t a movie for a wide audience. I think some of you’d enjoy the music from the musical- Man of La Mancha.

The film is dedicated to the memory of John Hurt and Jean Rochefort. Gilliam had chosen both to play Don Quixote in past versions, and both died before the film was completed. After eight attempts since 1989, production finally wrapped in June 2017; it has been called the most cursed film in cinema history! Gilliam started working on the film in 1989, but was unable to secure funding until 1998, when it entered full pre-production with a budget of $32.1M (w/o American financing), w/ Rochefort as Quixote, Johnny Depp as Toby, and French actress Vanessa Paradis (Depp’s ex-wife) as the female lead. Shooting began in 2000 in Navarre (the Basque region of Spain), but a significant number of difficulties, such as floods destroying sets and equipment, Rochefort leaving due to illness, and problems obtaining insurance for the production led to a sudden suspension of the production, and then cancellation. The original production was the subject of the documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002).

If you’re going to play with Quixote you really got to play with Quixote. And those were windmills that came along. Those were giants, they killed us once but we’re going to come back. Everybody says ‘Oh, forget about it, put it in the past. Move on.’ No, I won’t because that all sounds so reasonable and I don’t think films should be reasonable. The business we’re in is about exciting people, stimulating people, doing things, changing them, outraging them — it’s not a reasonable business. Especially when you’re spending the gross national product of a country to make a silly movie — this is not reasonable.

-Gilliam, on finishing this movie

[1] This movie is weird and wonderful. Adam Driver is absolutely hilarious. The scenery is fantastic. It’s like a story within a story within a commercial within a movie. It’s creative and wacky and fun.

[2] A metaphor. An analogy. An intricate story that blends fantasy and real, history and present, fact and fiction. […] It is similar to films such as Holy Motors (2012), The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), so if these ring a bell, please give this film a chance.

[3] As visual art, the film is superb. But as a story, it is confusing. With all its bizarre references self-reflexivity, the central story becomes a side plot. It was visually beautiful, well-acted, great costumes and music, but thoroughly disjointed and confusing for much of the time. It had me thinking “this movie wasn’t made for an audience.”

[4] I can’t shake the feeling that the movie wants to be much more that how it ultimately gets on the road. It’s treading water and not making any progress. Does the movie simply want to be funny or does it also want to depict a kind of self-discovering process? Maybe both. But here you can already see the main problem. The movie can’t decide what it wants and as a result can’t transport it to the viewer.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews