Tag Archives: Awkwafina

Father, Figures

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Imagine finding out your best friend and karaoke partner isn’t really a mild-mannered valet attendant, but a highly-trained ass-kicker with chiseled abs who’s the son of an immortal conqueror leading his own army.

That’s a lot for Katy (Awkwafina) to digest, but when thugs come for her bestie Shaun (Simu Liu), the bus ride beatdown he gives them goes viral – in the first of many spectacular fight sequences – and the truth comes out.

Shaun is really Shang-Chi, whose childhood was filled with intense training to one day fight alongside his father Wenwu (Tony Leung), a God-like figure powered by the five rings worn on each arm.

The tragic death of Shang-Chi’s mother Li (Fala Chen) brought grief that stripped the mercy from Wenwu, forcing Shang-Chi to leave his younger sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and run from his destiny. But Daddy’s patience for his wayward children has run out.

So some familiar Disney building blocks are in place, with well-positioned signage (“post blip anxiety?”) and cameos (one very surprising, and welcome) to remind us what universe we’re in. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings soars highest when it follows its groundbreaking hero’s lead and vows to build its own world.

A quick look at the indie drama sensibilities of director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) might prepare you for the savvy complexities his Big Movie brings to Marvel’s favorite topic: family dynamics and daddy issues. But his filmography would not suggest this level of badassedness when it comes to action sequences. (And let’s be honest, neither would that subpar trailer.)

The setpiece on the bus, though, tips you off. It’s followed by plenty of fun and funny, with often breathtaking feats of fisticuffs and flight (with dragons, no less!)

Performers balance humor and pathos in that patented Marvel manner. This, of course, is Awkwafina’s wheelhouse and she is a hoot.

Liu, who’s done mostly TV, shoulders lead responsibilities with poise and charm. Michelle Yeoh, always welcome, adds gravitas as Li’s sister Ying Nan, but Zhang struggles with Xialing’s underwritten angry sister storyline.

Cretton’s film layers in feminism that almost works, but not entirely, as three women support a boy who must stand up to his father to become a man. Points for trying, I guess?

But the wait for the MCU’s first Asian Avenger (sit tight for those 2 extra scenes) ultimately pays off with a visionary, big-screen-begging spectacle full of emotional pull and future promise. Pure, eye-popping entertainment is a welcome ring to reach for – especially now – and Shang-Chi never misses.

Just Add Warrior

Raya and the Last Dragon

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Disney was looking to do something different.

Well, it’s still a princess, unfortunately, so not that different. But Raya and the Last Dragon marks an impressive step forward in a number of ways.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) opens the film Mad Max style, riding some alien vehicle through a post-apocalyptic landscape, her face covered, her eyes darting to and fro in search of something–predator? Prey?

The apocalypse itself happened just six years earlier, and Raya had a hand in the world’s undoing. Now here she is, at the beginning of the journey that could put the pieces back together.

Tran delivers a heroine you can genuinely understand. She is logical, and when she tends to lean toward head and away from heart to make decisions, it’s hard to fault her.

Her sidekick, in grand Disney fashion, is the shapeshifting but fantastically colorful dragon Sisu, voiced by Awkwafina. The comic’s brand of endearingly self-effacing humor punctures the film’s preciousness at all the right moments.

There is a central emotion, a powerfully executed conflict in Raya and the Last Dragon that never feels as if it’s been watered down or softened for younger viewers. The conflict speaks of the courage to believe in people even when they have proven themselves untrustworthy.

It’s a notion that flies in the face of logic, really, but the point of the film—and possibly of life—is that you cannot build a whole community if all you have are fractured segments unwilling to take that leap.

There’s just so much stuff here.

The film runs a full two hours, and you feel it. The first twenty minutes is burdened with piles of exposition, and the mostly magical second act journey is overstuffed as well. Too many characters to keep track of, let along get attached to, muddy the overall picture. Losing maybe half a dozen characters and trimming 20 minutes from the film would have done wonders for it.

There are problems with the execution, but not with the animation. Raya and the Last Dragon is breathtaking, its world building as gorgeous as it is meticulous. Animators deliver each South Asian-inspired community with its own unique look and feel—from a glinting desert wasteland to a torchlit floating city to a lushly forested community and more. The film is simply stunning and should be viewed on the biggest screen available.

But for all the Raya puts in the win column, it can’t shake the feeling that all four directors and the team of ten (10!) that built its script and story were culling from plenty of pre-owned parts. The Disney formula still has princesses, they’re just warrior princesses now.

That evolution may have been overdue, but it’s already starting to show some age.

Extra Life

Jumanji: The Next Level

by George Wolf

Recent box office totals have sent a pretty clear message: if you want a butts-in-seats reboot, you gotta come with a strong new hook.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle got it right two years ago, and now most of that gang is back for The Next Level, which is smart enough to add a few new wrinkles (plus some trusty old ones) for freshness.

We catch up with our four young heroes a year removed from high school and trying hard to keep in touch. Over Christmas break from college, Spencer (Alex Wolff), Martha (Morgan Turner), Bethany (Madison Iseman) and Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain) make plans for a meetup, but Spencer doesn’t show.

Hearing those familiar drums, the other three quickly figure out he’s been sucked back into Jumanji, and decide to go after him. I mean, they beat it once, right?

New game, new rules, brand new hook.

Bethany is left behind, but two new players aren’t: Spencer’s grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito) and Eddie’s ex-best friend Milo (Danny Glover). Know what else? Everyone gets a new avatar.

Well, not Martha, she’s still badass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). But this time, it’s Eddie who gets the smoldering heroic intensity of Dr. Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), while Fridge is portly Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), Milo is diminutive zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart) and Spencer is newly-added cat burglar Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina).

The next level mission: free Jumanji from the evil clutches of Jurgen the Brutal (GOT‘s Rory McCann), or die trying. Game on!

Watching the four adult stars channel teenagers in the first film was a blast, but the avatar switches here are the smart plays, and the body swaps don’t stop once the game begins. Some of the gags do settle for low hanging fruit (i.e. old people are easily confused) but plenty others are clever and inspired.

The film itself even gets in on the switcheroo spirit, with fewer solid laughs but a markedly better adventure. Welcome to the Jungle’s riffs on The Breakfast Club make way for director Jake Kasdan’s set piece homages to Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones, Kingsman and even Peter Jackson’s King Kong in a thrilling escape from angry mandrills.

Writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers do not return, which I’m guessing is a major reason the life lesson feels don’t land as smoothly this time. But Kasdan and his team hit the big shots. They give us a reason to be interested in a return to Jumanji, and plenty of fun once we get there.

Every Rose Has Its Thorns

Paradise Hills

by Cat McAlpine

We open on an extravagant wedding scene that could be mistaken for the 1920s were it not for the quick cut to a hover car. Welcome to the future!

A whimsical sequence features Uma (Emma Roberts, “American Horror Story,” “Scream Queens”) singing a promise of fealty to her new husband. This is the first of Paradise Hill’s three small singing performances, all of which you’ll wish had been either cut or dubbed.

The newly wed groom coos to his wife, “It’s as if that girl never existed.”

Wow, that sure sounds like a hint. We soon meet the girl he means in a time jump to “Two Months Earlier.” At this point I have decided not to hold the hover car against Paradise Hills, but there is only so much you can forgive in 95 minutes.

Uma (Roberts) awakens in a behavioral facility for young women, where girls are sent by their families to be convinced to be thinner, more socially acceptable, or well mannered. The mysterious circumstances of her arrival and the elaborate setting point to something much more nefarious under the surface.

Director Alice Waddington, in her feature debut, is best known as a fashion creative and photographer and it shows. The film itself has a dreamy aesthetic that interweaves holograms and LEDs with manicured gardens and all-white corseted ensembles.

The complexity of this film ends with its costumes and set. The line delivery is awkward and stilted despite a promising cast. The setting and dialog allude to a kind of Oscar Wilde repartee, where members of proper society throw witty jabs while holding tiny tea cups. But the script is tragically lacking and the stage is set only for the weak writing to fall flat.

More than an hour is spent navigating a dreamy, floral landscape before anything interesting really surfaces. Writing team Brian DeLeeuw, Nacho Vigalondo, and Waddington can’t decide which threads to pull. There’s another love interest, the tragic death of a family member, the crushing pressures of fame, and the strength and importance of female friendships all to be explored.

Paradise Hills could have been an interesting delve into the ways that the solidarity of sisterhood allow us to rise above our circumstances and pasts. Instead it’s a weak nod to an old idea: “You don’t need to change to be accepted.”  

Your teen daughter might enjoy this movie, but you should challenge her with something better.

Can You Keep a Secret?

The Farewell

by George Wolf

Caught in a lie and feeling desperate?

There’s always the Homer Simpson defense (“It takes two to lie – one to lie and one to listen”), or even the George Costanza (“It’s not a lie if you believe it”).

But with The Farewell, writer/director Lulu Wang finds poignant truths in an elaborate lie, speaking the universal language of “family crazy” while crafting an engaging cultural prism.

Inspired by an episode of the This American Life podcast, The Farewell unfolds through the view of Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese American who follows her parents back to China after the news of her grandmother Nai Nai’s terminal cancer diagnosis.

But Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao-priceless) is the only one who doesn’t know how sick she is, and the extended family has concocted a ruse about a grandson’s wedding to give everyone an excuse to come visit Nai Nai one last time.

Billi’s parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) are worried she’ll end up giving the game away – and with good reason. Billi is not entirely on board for the “good lie,” and this conflict of conscience is the vessel Wang steers to expose important cultural differences while she’s getting solid laughs with all the family antics.

The lies -both big and small- pile up, all in service of the belief that one’s life is part of a whole, and thus it is Nai Nai’s family who must carry the emotional burden of her illness.

It is Awkwafina who carries the film. If you only know her as a comic presence (Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians), prepare to be wowed. As our window into this push and pull of tradition in the modern world, she makes Billi a nuanced, relatable soul.

While Wang’s script is sharp and insightful, her assured tone is even more beneficial. Even as the film feels effortlessly lived in, it never quite goes in directions you think it might. Wang doesn’t stoop to going maudlin among all the whiffs of death, infusing The Farewell with an endless charm that’s both revealing and familiar.

Funny, too. No lie.

Money Changes Everything

Crazy Rich Asians

by Rachel Willis

When Nick Young (Henry Golding) asks Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) to be his date to a wedding in Singapore, she expects a nice, but simple trip to her boyfriend’s home. She’ll meet his family, and they’ll take an important step forward in their relationship. It’s what Rachel doesn’t know – that Nick is a member of a family known as “Singapore royalty” – that sets up the comedy and drama of Crazy Rich Asians.

Director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel is an entertaining look at the culture clash that happens when Rachel attempts to fit in with Nick’s family.

“Crazy rich” is an accurate descriptor for Nick’s family and their class of friends. Born and raised in New York by a single, working mother, Rachel isn’t prepared for the ostentatious wealth that surrounds Nick’s family. Though proud of her life and career – economics professor at NYU – she realizes that she’s seen as an unremarkable outsider in this world of wealth and power, especially by Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh – outstanding as always). Efforts to sabotage their relationship begin before Rachel even leaves New York.

There are a lot of characters in the movie. Too many, really, and the important side characters suffer a lack of necessary development. A second narrative thread involving Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan), and her husband, Michael (Pierre Png), never hits the stride it deserves.

But there’s a lot to like about the movie. Nick and Rachel rank among the best – and most realistic – rom-com couples. As Rachel’s friend Peik Lin, Awkwafina provides the film’s funniest moments. She’s also the dose of reality Rachel needs when dealing with the crazy rich. And despite being 120 minutes, long for a romantic comedy, the film never drags.

Crazy Rich Asians is the kind of fluffy, fun, romantic summer fare that will leave almost everyone satisfied.