Review of “The Batman”

Parents are the multi-headed beasts of all our lives.  When we are young, for most of us, they are our protectors and heroes.  Then for many, they become our antagonist when we enter our teenage and young adult years.  Then, when we are adults out of the house, some of us learn two things about the folks:  They were fallible humans doing the best they could, and they are pretty good people.  I know many grew up in awful, abusive environments with selfish, toxic parents who could not care less about raising their kids.  Fortunately, I was raised by two relatively normal people.  Each had their faults and shortcomings, but overall, they were good people.  My mom was a sweetheart and my security blanket growing up.  Dad could be gruff and didn’t understand having a son that preferred watching TV to helping him work on a car engine.  As they got older, their roles reversed, with my mom being more critical of my weight and career choices and dad being far more laid back about everything.  Neither deserved the way the end of their lives turned out.  Dad developed Alzheimer’s and slowly drifted away over seven years, becoming more and more of something that resembled a zombie than a man who could pull out, repair and install a car engine.  Mom was his primary caretaker all through that battle.  Then, shortly after he passed, her colon cancer returned in her liver.  She died less than a year after dad.  Neither were powerful figures in our community, and nothing has come out in the 20 years since their deaths to show there were anything buy a husband, wife and parents trying to keep a roof over their heads and their kids warm, fed and educated.  Things are a bit more complicated for a certain billionaire orphan in the gritty, crime-filled city of Gotham in “The Batman.”

Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) in his disguise as the Batman has been patrolling the streets of Gotham City for two years.  Criminals and citizens alike know the bat symbol shining on the city’s ever-present clouds means the vigilante could be anywhere, prowling in the shadows looking for criminals to beat up.  Gotham City Police Detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) involves Batman in some of his investigations, much to the chagrin of his superiors.  When Gotham City Mayor Don Mitchell, Jr. (Rupert Penry-Jones) is murdered by an enigmatic killer calling himself Riddler (Paul Dano), Gordon brings Batman to the crime scene, angering Police Commissioner Pete Savage (Alex Ferns), but the killer left Batman a card containing a riddle and an encoded answer.  Batman solves the riddle and knows the coded answer may be the key to a larger cypher of the killer.  More of Gotham City’s elite become victims of the Riddler and they all may be connected to the city’s crime gangs and the drug trade.  Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz), a waitress at the Iceberg Lounge, run by a criminal nicknamed Penguin (Colin Farrell), catches Batman’s eye as she works.  He follows her to her apartment and watches as she comforts a distraught young woman.  Batman recognizes her as a woman seen in photographs with Mayor Mitchell who appears to be beat up and bleeding.  Catching her during a break-in, Batman and Selina form an uneasy partnership, trying to get to the bottom of the connection of Riddler’s victims and how all of Gotham’s secrets could rip the city apart.

“The Batman” was almost a very different movie.  It was originally conceived as a part of the Zack Snyder DC Extended Universe (DCEU) that included “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League.”  Ben Affleck would continue in his role as Batman.  He would also write and direct.  As the “Snyderverse” began to implode after the colossal failure of “Justice League” as redesigned by Joss Whedon, the whole idea of a connected DC movie universe began to fall apart.  The successes of “Wonder Woman,” “Shazam” and “Aquaman” as stand-alone films with sequel potential, and Affleck deciding to give up being Batman, meant Warner Bros. could create profitable franchise movies that didn’t need to follow the model set by Disney and Marvel with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  Affleck left the film as both director and star, and director Matt Reeves was brought in to remold the story in a new image, focusing on a younger Batman trying to figure out how best he can protect the people of Gotham.  It was more focused on the detective side of the character with limited big action set pieces. 

The casting of Robert Pattinson was met with a great deal of internet skepticism, including from myself.  How could the sparkly vampire actor pull off a gritty, violent, broken creature like Batman.  The collective internet owes Mr. Pattinson an apology as his portrayal is everything we didn’t know we wanted from the Dark Knight.  The broken, gaunt appearance of Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is something even the best comic book writer and artist would have difficulty creating on the page.  This Batman is a hollow shell, filled with rage and taking it out on the criminals of Gotham’s dark, rain-soaked streets. 

Pattinson’s first appearance in the suit is the oft-seen fight between Batman and some thugs in clown face paint.  He beats down the lead punk and says, “I’m vengeance.”  They then surround him and, while he eventually wins, he takes some punches that leave the final outcome in doubt.  This Batman isn’t the seasoned martial artist and fight tactician we normally see.  He’s also not in a close and loving relationship with Alfred, played by Andy Serkis.  They are frequently at odds, with Bruce saying, “You’re not my father” as one point.  This Bruce Wayne is angry, somewhat spoiled, and certain he can fight crime his way, without anyone’s guidance.

Much of Pattinson’s performance is in the script by Matt Reeves and Peter Craig, who approach this Batman as a work in progress.  He’s still dealing with the loss of his parents after 20 years and has ignored everything else in life except his need to punish villains.  This is the Batman hinted at in other portrayals by Michael Keaton and Christian Bale, but Pattinson, via Reeves and Craig’s script, puts the pain on his face in every frame.

The performances of the main and supporting cast are remarkable.  Colin Farrell, buried under prosthetics and a fat suit, is unrecognizable as Penguin.  Even his voice appears to have a costume as his Irish accent is nowhere to be found.  Zoe Kravitz also plays pain well as Selina Kyle/Catwoman.  Her sad backstory is its own subplot.  Pattinson and Kravitz have a sizzling chemistry that needs more exploration.  Jeffrey Wright is a fun Jim Gordon.  He knows he’s breaking all the rules letting Batman into crime scenes, but if it gets the job done, he doesn’t care.  His character will feature in a spinoff show about GCPD on HBOMax.  Paul Dano’s Riddler is a wonderous creation.  He’s clearly insane, brilliant and, like Batman, broken, but in a different, evil way.  Dano plays these off-kilter characters so well I wonder about his sanity.

“The Batman” is rated PG-13 for strong violent and disturbing content, drug content, strong language, and some suggestive material.  There are numerous fights, beatings and killings but most are bloodless.  Batman is shot several times with guns and a shotgun, but his suit is bulletproof.  There’s an R-rated film bubbling just under the surface.  A drug called “drops” that are dripped in the eyes is shown being used.  Alcohol is also shown being consumed.  The suggestive material features Batman watching Selina changing into her cat suit.  She is shown in her underwear.  Foul language is scattered and mostly mild, but there is one use of the “F-word.”

The story is a bit convoluted with the crimes all leading to a massive action scene that left me thinking about our current political situation and misinformation on the internet.  I promise, that will make more sense after you see it.  By the end, I was satisfied all the loose ends had been wrapped up with the film leaving a bread crumb or two about a possible villain for the sequel.  If this is the first of a trilogy of Batman films, I feel certain the Dark Knight is in good shape to continue as a flawed beacon of justice that drives a badass car.  He just needs a few more of those wonderful toys.

“The Batman” gets five bat-shaped stars out of five.

Follow, rate, review and download the podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or loath it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Spoiler Free Review of “Spider-Man: No Way Home”

Secrets have a life of their own. That life usually resides in the mind of the secret keeper. It gets a bit more complicated if that secret can affect the lives of others. If you knew a friend was cheating on their partner and you chose to cover for them when asked, now that secret could damage the lives of three people. More if the cheater in question has children. Even secrets that are totally your own can have long tentacles that wrap around other people’s lives. If you’re addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping or whatever, your secret could damage, ruin and destroy the lives of those around you and total strangers. The bigger the secret, the more carnage it can create. Imagine being Peter Parker and your secret is you’re Spider-Man. That secret has been spread all over the world and your Aunt May, your girlfriend MJ, your best friend Ned and others are being hounded by the press and curiosity seekers relentlessly. You’d do anything to make that harassment end…anything!

Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) secret identity as Spider-Man has just been blown by dying declaration video from Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) run on J. Jonah Jameson’s (J.K. Simmons) TheDailyBugle.net. Now, Peter, MJ (Zendaya), Ned (Jacob Batalon), and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) are all being hauled into interrogation rooms and questioned by the Department of Damage Control. Even Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) may be charged with crimes as Stark Industries technology was used in the attack on London. With helicopters and onlookers constantly trying to get a peek at Peter and his friends, the publicity causes MIT to reject all three of their applications. Desperate to undo the damage, Peter goes to Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), asking him to cast a spell that will make the world forget Peter Parker is Spider-Man. As Strange casts the spell, Peter asks if MJ can still know his secret, then Ned, and finally Aunt May. The changes in the spell cause it to run out of control, shattering the boundaries between the multiverses. Strange contains the spell and orders Peter to leave, his secret still out in the world. While going to meet with an MIT official about MJ and Ned’s applications, Peter is interrupted by an attack from Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina). When Octavius traps Peter and rips his mask off, he sees it’s not the Spider-Man he knows. Norman Osborn, aka Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), then appears, but Peter and Octavius are transported to a dungeon under the Sanctum Santorum. Dr. Strange has captured Octavius and Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) in his form as the Lizard. Both are villains of Spider-Man, but from alternate universes. Dr. Strange equips Peter with a gauntlet that will transport the other multiverse villains, Goblin, Max Dillon, aka Electro (Jamie Foxx), and Flint Marko, aka Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) to the dungeon and hold them until Strange can send them back where they belong.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is a reboot of sorts for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s similar to the effect “Captain America: Civil War” had on the series as it shifts the dynamic of so many characters in the aftermath. While we only have two Avengers present in “…No Way Home,” the far-reaching consequences will be felt throughout the MCU. In that way, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is important within the structure of its shared universe. But it is also important for the character, as by the end of the film (no spoilers), Peter has a fresh start and is facing a future that is uncertain and uncharted (no pun about Holland’s upcoming videogame-inspired film intended). It’s also a very exciting and emotional film.

Tom Holland was the perfect choice to play Peter Parker/Spider-Man. I know he hasn’t found much success outside of his MCU character, but that’s more a reflection of the material he’s given, not his talent. Holland embodies all the character’s various personalities. From the wisecracking webhead to the polite and deferential high schooler, Holland makes the audience believe he is both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. I’m excited to see where Holland and the filmmakers take this character in the future as the multiverse opens enormous possibilities.

The rest of the cast is flawless, with special kudos going to Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe. Both reprise their Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” trilogy roles 17 and 19 years later respectively. Dafoe is especially unhinged as the split personality of Green Goblin. His face undergoes changes when the evil persona takes over that are legitimately frightening. Jamie Foxx takes command as the de facto leader of the five alternate universe villains. He’s commanding and charismatic as Max Dillon, while also easily being knocked off his pedestal of self-importance. Rhys Ifans and Thomas Haden Church are mostly voice cast as their characters are entirely CG. Still, they do a fine job of conveying their megalomania and angry fear respectively.

The story of “…No Way Home” is fairly simple as Peter wants everyone to forget he’s Spider-Man. When he messes up the spell, he feels it’s his responsibility to correct the mistake. At every turn, Peter’s efforts to fix things blow up in his face, creating more damage he feels obligated to fix until Peter…gives up. It sounds more dire than it is, but it’s a learning experience for the character. He can’t fix everything simply because he’s Spider-Man. There are things out of his control, and he must learn to fix what he can and let everything else go. It’s a hard lesson that comes with enormous personal cost. While none of us is a superhero with a secret identity, it’s a lesson we must all learn for ourselves.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” is rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments. The suggestive comments happen early and are so mild and nearly drowned out by overlapping dialog they would be easy to miss. There are some very intense fight scenes, especially at the end between Green Goblin and Peter. Minor facial injuries are shown. One character’s death is especially painful to watch. Peter loses control and nearly kills a villain. There is also a stabbing that isn’t shown but can be heard. Foul language is scattered and mild.

The emotional depth of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is surprising for a comic book movie. There were moments I was deeply moved nearly to the point of tears. It also is a film that is frequently funny as well as genuinely thrilling at times. While the finale is jammed with sometimes confusing CGI action, and it doesn’t help that one of the villains can create sandstorms causing the images to look muddy, along with a rush to tie up loose ends, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” may rank close to “Spider-Man 2” as one of the best comic book movies of all time. It certainly didn’t feel like it’s runtime of almost two and a half hours (and you will need to sit through all of it to see a mid-credits scene featuring Eddie Brock/Venom and an end-credits scene that’s a teaser for “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”). Any film that can make me ignore a full bladder is quite the achievement.

“Spider-Man: No Way Home” gets five stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “No Time to Die”

James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) are enjoying their lives together after Bond has left MI6. While visiting the grave of Vesper Lynd, a bomb destroys her tomb and a group of assassins, led by a killer with a bionic eye named Primo (Dali Benssalah), attack the couple in Bond’s bulletproof and well-armored car. A call from Ernst Blofeld (Christoph Waltz), who is in an ultra-high security prison, suggests Swan is the reason for the attack. Bond leaves Swann as he no longer trusts her. Five years later, Bond is in the Bahamas, still retired, when he’s approached by CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and another agent Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen) about Russian biochemist Dr. Valdo Obruchev (David Dencik) who was recently abducted by from a secret lab in London. While Leiter and Ash want his help, newly minted 007 Nomi (Lashana Lynch) wants Bond to stay out of it. Obruchev was working on a strain of virus that could be targeted to a specific person’s DNA, making it a nearly perfect weapon for political assassination. The virus research is an off-the-books project overseen by MI6 head Gareth Mallory, aka M (Ralph Fiennes). Obruchev is now able to modify it to kill not only a specific person, but anyone related to the target. Recent DNA database hacks suggest someone is building a worldwide hit list. Swann is a psychotherapist that works with MI6 in questioning Blofeld. She is approached by someone from her past, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), who is scarred, visibly and emotionally, is looking for her help and not giving her much choice.

Daniel Craig is my “James Bond.” I’ve seen Connery, Moore and the rest, but Craig is the only one I’ve seen all his Bond performances in a theater. I like that Craig looks like he’s been in a fight as well as looking like he’s lost a few. Connery and the rest all looked too soft to be tested, bitter, world-weary secret agents. Craig looks like he’s been through some difficult stuff and has paid the price for his loyalty to her majesty’s secret service. I have also enjoyed the emotional thread that’s run through all of Craig’s Bond films starting with “Casino Royale.” The death of Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) was the kind of devastating loss only seen once in the history of the franchise, “In Her Majesty’s Secret Service” from 1969. While Bond’s reaction to the loss is a minor plot point in the next film, it is quickly forgotten as the story of “Diamonds are Forever” moves on. Craig’s Bond has been dealing with Vesper’s loss for most of his outings. It’s the only time a series of Bond films have been this connected. That connection has been both a strength and a weakness of the last five films.

Daniel Craig gets a rousing story for his final outing as Bond. There is giant action set pieces, beautiful but deadly women, twisted villains and the fate of world hanging in the balance. It’s everything one expects in a Bond movie, but I could have done with a little less.

Every chase scene is split into two sections with high-speed action then lower velocity, more personal battles. The stunts are spectacular, and many appear to have been done practically, but there comes a point when I, as the viewer, would like to get back to the story. “No Time to Die” is in no hurry to do that.

While the story isn’t complicated, the screenwriters parse out information over the length of the film until you don’t see the ultimate plan until near the end. If the plot were more interesting, I might have not minded the water torture approach to storytelling. However, “No Time to Die” is a standard “madman looking to destroy civilization” tale the Bond films have done before. Aside from tailoring the virus to specific DNA, nothing in “No Time to Die” is that new or spectacular.

Still, the spectacular locations, massive stunts and action scenes make “No Time to Die” a mostly enjoyable ride that ends the tenure of Daniel Craig. With a running time of 163 minutes, the film tests the patience of its audience. It feels overstuffed, like the filmmakers are giving Craig as much screen time as possible to say goodbye to Bond. Whatever the reason, “No Time to Die” has a problem of abundance and needed another pass by an editor.

“No Time to Die” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, brief strong language and some suggestive material. Bond is involved in numerous fist and gun fights resulting in the deaths of numerous henchmen. There’s a scene where a ballroom full of people are bleeding from their eyes and dying on the spot. Many, many car crashes leading to inevitable injury and death. A person’s fake eyeball pops out. Foul language is scattered but there is one use of the “F-bomb.”

Daniel Craig is now done with Bond. There were indications in the past he found playing the agent tedious and was sick of the role. However, there is a video online of Craig speaking to the crew on his last day of filming where he appears very emotional about being done with 007. Perhaps his complaints were more about fatigue in the moment. Whatever the reason, Bond will move on to a new actor. He might be a return to the pretty boys of Moore and Brosnan, but I hope another tough-looking chap that looks to have taken a punch or two is brought into the role. Fans will complain, just like they did with Craig (Bond isn’t blonde or blue eyed), but if the right choice is made, they will quickly forget their issues. I will miss Daniel Craig as Bond. I wish he had gotten a better farewell.

“No Time to Die” gets 3.5 stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Encanto”

Family was the focus of my opening last week and it will be this week. There is a family in South Carolina that’s been in the news lately. I’m not going to get into specifics, but they come from a long line of powerful lawyers that have run a particular county for nearly a century. Recently, this family has come under scrutiny for unethical practices and drug abuse. There are also at least four deaths in recent years perhaps tied to the family. These people have been viewed as blessed and a pillar of the community, but under the surface, cracks have been getting bigger and bigger for years. The family in Disney’s “Encanto” is viewed by its community as gifted, strong, and stable, but under the surface, the cracks are beginning to form.

The Madrigal family started with tragedy. Running from bandits raiding their village in Colombia, Alma Madrigal (voiced by Maria Cecilla Botero), her triplet babies and her husband Pedro, are crossing a river with other residents when the bandits catch up. Pedro pleads for everyone’s life but is killed. Alma, clutching her three children, is so overcome with grief, the candle she uses to light her way becomes enchanted, raising mountains between the villagers and bandits. The candle also produces a magical house for Alma and her children called Casita. As Alma’s family grows with her grandchildren, each child is given a gift by the candle when they turn 5 or 6. They approach a glowing door and touch the doorknob. It is then they are imbued with a gift, or ability. Isabela (voiced by Diane Guerrero) can produce flowers out if thin air. Luisa (voiced by Jessica Darrow) possesses superhuman strength. All of Alma’s children and grandchildren have their unique gift…except Mirabel (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz). When she touched the doorknob, the glow faded away and the door disappeared. The night her nephew Antonio (voiced by Ravi-Cabot Conyers) receives the gift of communicating with animals, Mirabel sees cracks forming in the walls of their magical house and the enchanted candle’s flame dimming. The magic is fading and taking everyone’s gift with it. Mirabel makes it her mission to discover a reason for the weakening magic and find a way to stop it to protect her family.

“Encanto” is the kind of family friendly animated film that Disney has done best for decades. From “Snow White” to “Cinderella” to “Bambi,” Disney has known how to turn family drama into family entertainment. “Encanto” may be more sophisticated animation and diverse in its representation, but the formula is unchanged: Introduce a family unit (traditional or otherwise), present an obstacle or danger, and a solution uncovered by a family member, usually the least likely one, while learning a lesson. Along the way, we hear very festive and uplifting songs about the Madrigal family, enjoy some laughs as we watch family members use their gifts and learn how they use their abilities to benefit the villagers that live around the magical house. It isn’t groundbreaking storytelling, but “Encanto’s” heart, humor and enthusiasm make this familiar story a joy to watch.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote all the original songs in the movie. His gift of lyrical playfulness is on full display. Most songs lay out the feelings and fears of the character, even those they are too afraid to express. Some songs are joyous exclamations of living in the magical Madrigal family. They focus on the love each member has for each other (sometimes hiding the petty jealousy or envy of another’s gift), and how they share that love and their gifts with the surrounding village. Even the songs that appear dark in their subject, “Surface Pressure” sung by the strong Luisa and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” sung by most of the cast, feel happy and sometimes goofy in their expressions of fear and doubt. Miranda has a knack for taking serious subjects and making them more palatable and toe tappable.

The film is a bright canvas of vibrant colors. While not overwhelming, “Encanto” fills the eye with dazzling images of lush flowers and murals painted on the walls. There is the house, or casita, itself, made of tiles and what appears to be adobe walls with planters spilling over with greenery. The house is alive, sometimes speaking in squeaks of shutters opening and closing or tiles tapping on the floor. There is color and movement everywhere in casita. It is a house filled with both magic and love.

Despite all the color, joy, and peppy tunes, “Encanto” has an underlying tension exposed slowly. From the first cracks in the walls that magically disappear to the fate of casita, “Encanto” shows us how the family that appears perfect from the outside can have tensions and shortcomings on the inside. To explain more would be to spoil the story. I’ll let you discover that on your own either in theaters or when “Encanto” begins streaming on Disney+ in late December. I would suggest in theaters as the spectacle of “Encanto” is best experienced on the biggest screen. I saw it in 3D but 2D would look just as amazing if you don’t want to spend the extra money.

“Encanto” is rated PG for some thematic elements and mild peril. We see the flashback of Mirabel’s grandfather facing the bandits a couple of times. His death is suggested, not shown. There are also scenes where the family members are put in brief danger by events near the end of the film. Mirabel’s hand is cut by a fallen roof tile. There is no foul language.

“Encanto,” like all great animated films, made me teary eyed near the end. I wasn’t a full-on heap of blubbering mess like the end of “Toy Story 3,” but still emotional. “Encanto” isn’t groundbreaking or especially unique in the way it tells its story, the way it looks or the characters it uses. However, the film treads the well-worn path of human weakness and redemption in a bright, colorful and engaging way. Also, I find myself oddly attracted to Luisa Madrigal. Don’t yuck my yum.

“Encanto” gets five stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife”

Have you ever had a family member that was difficult to be around? I had one that I won’t name despite her being dead for nearly a decade. She never had children but didn’t mind telling everyone how to raise theirs. No place was as nice or as well run or as friendly as the city she and her husband lived in. Once she got a computer, I and other family members would receive emails about conspiracy theories and spam we needed to forward so Microsoft could test their email platform and for our help, Bill Gates would pay each of us $5.00! I explained to her several times these were fake and a quick Google search would verify that. Of course, a quick Google search will also show you millions of other conspiracy theories and, to borrow a phrase, fake news. I kept my contact with this relative to a minimum for this and other reasons, and feel bad about that as she died alone, far from any family. For me, keeping a distance from toxic relatives is the best for my mental health. Separating from family is a big part of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” but it’s for the good of the extended family and the world.

Callie (Carrie Coon) is a struggling single mother in a big city. She has two children, Trevor and Phoebe (Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace), and very little money. Evicted from their apartment, the family moves to the recently vacated home of Callie’s absent father who recently died. The farm in the middle of nowhere in Summerville, Oklahoma, is run down and littered with junk cars and dilapidated out buildings. Trevor finds a job at a local diner in order to get close to one of the waitstaff, Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), while Phoebe is starting a summer school science class. Phoebe makes a friend with a kid nicknamed Podcast (Logan Kim) and is taught, loosely speaking, by Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). Exploring the house, Phoebe finds an underground laboratory belonging to her grandfather. She is also being guided by the spirit of her dead grandfather, Dr. Egon Spengler, a Ghostbuster. Summerville is plagued by earthquakes despite not being near a fault line or volcano. Egon moved to this town for a reason, bringing much of his ghostbusting equipment with him. But his departure fractured the team. Is there a chance a new generation of Ghostbusters can defend Summerville and the rest of the world from a possible phantom apocalypse?

Director and co-writer Jason Reitman was walking a fine line by resurrecting the Ecto-1, proton packs and ghost traps for “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” One need only look at the all-female 2016 “Ghostbusters,” directed and co-written by Paul Feig. The hate for that film began a year before it was released, fueled by misogyny and Internet troll angst over someone messing with the sacred cow of 1984’s original. The 2016 film had its issues (I enjoyed it) but didn’t deserve the hate it received. Jason Reitman has the benefit of being the son of 1984’s “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman. He also understands what the crowd for this film wants is a loving, if slavish, tribute to the original characters and story of the first film. Jason Reitman delivers for the fans.

Much like the story of “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” rehashes the events of “A New Hope,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” reaches back to the original film for the most of its story. That isn’t a problem for me as it’s not revealed right off the bat. Reitman and co-writer Gil Kenan take the time to introduce our new crew of reluctant Ghostbusters as they acclimate to their new surroundings. Expecting to be bored to death, Trevor and Phoebe quickly make friends. The younger Phoebe appears to be on the spectrum as she talks about not expressing her emotions on the outside and is encouraged by her mother to try being more outgoing to make friends. This works with the quirky Podcast who makes a podcast that has only one subscription and, according to the young man, really finds its voice in episode 46. The characters are a collection of misfits and outcasts that eventually makes a team and a family of their own, much like the original crew did almost 40 years earlier.

Some of the critics are slamming the film for being a shameless appeal to our need for comfort and familiarity, mining the goodwill of the original two films. While it’s not the most original movie to be released this year, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is like a warm blanket, wrapping the audience familiar with the originals in all the good feelings of those films while giving us a new set of characters to know and love.

Stealing most of the scenes he’s in, Logan Kim’s Podcast is a delight. He’s written far more smartly than his youth deserves, and I didn’t care. He’s a breath of fresh air in what could have been a dull and morose coming of age story with some ghosts and demons thrown in.

I also enjoyed Mckenna Grace as the smart and awkward Phoebe. Her fearless pursuit of knowledge and willingness to fight for her beliefs is a rare example of a strong, young female role model. Phoebe doesn’t need weapons or martial arts to express her strength. Her mind is her best weapon, and she wields it to protect her family. It’s a sweet and powerful performance.

Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd are both great. Coon plays Callie as bitter towards her absentee father and her lot in life but loving toward her children. She can be biting and sarcastic but quickly warms when her kids are involved. Paul Rudd is very Paul Rudd; sweet, charming, goofy and funny. It’s not going to win him an acting Oscar, but Rudd is very watchable in the film.

The effects are a combination of practical and computer generated, and they all look great. They are designed to look like the original movies, and it adds to the feeling of nostalgia. The music is also reminiscent of the first films, with many of the themes from Elmer Bernstein’s original score and Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” theme song used. Many aspects of the film are designed to remind you of the originals. It might be manipulative, but I found it entertaining.

“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is rated PG-13 for supernatural action and some suggestive references. This isn’t a Blumhouse film, so there’s not much scary about the spirits, demons and monsters shown in the film. They are only frightening by implication. The suggestive references are very mild. There is some scattered mild foul language.

There are a few things I found puzzling about “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” Phoebe understands the workings of a proton pack despite only discovering it seconds earlier. Gary tinkers with opening a sealed ghost trap despite knowing all about the Ghostbuster’s adventures in New York City in 1984 and knowing there’s probably something evil inside it. Everyone seems far to calm about the weirdness going on in Summerville despite the sudden appearance of ghosts and demons. I could go on, but this falls into the category of me thinking too much about stuff. I know this film isn’t perfect, but I found it entertaining. It makes a strong play for fans of the original films while setting up a possible continuation of the franchise. In that regard, the film has a mid-credits and a post-credits scene. One is pure fan service, while the second suggests there’s more to come. Only time, and the box office, will tell if there’s still life in the spirits of the dead, and if bustin’ still makes you feel good.

“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” gets four stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Eternals”

Jobs are hard. Some are physically draining, like digging ditches and building houses. Others are intellectually difficult like high level mathematics and accounting. Still others are emotionally taxing like counseling those going through tragic circumstances such as abuse. Then there are jobs you just hate doing. Back in my grocery store days, I would ask to work Sundays as it was time and a half. However, when you opened the store on Sundays, you cleaned the ashes out of the incinerator we used to dispose of empty stock boxes. It was a dirty, hot, and probably dangerous job as the fine particles of ash filled the air. The still hot ashes were dragged with a long metal tool that looked like an extended garden hoe into a large iron tray. When the tray was full, it was dragged to the loading dock where it would cool and be dumped into the dumpster by someone else. It was an awful job, but it was necessary so the incinerator could be used to dispose of more boxes later. Also, I was being paid time and a half to do it and back in the late 1970’s, that was about $4.00 an hour. I was rolling in the dough…also a great deal of cardboard box ash. I say all that to lead into my review of Marvel’s “Eternals,” a film about a group of super beings that must carry out a job they later find they don’t want to do.

The Celestial Arishem created 10 super beings called Eternals to protect humanity from a race of monsters called Deviants. Each Eternal has specific abilities: Their leader Ajak (Selma Hayek) can heal injuries and is also the conduit between the Eternals and Arishem. Ikaris (Richard Madden) can fly, has super strength, and emits cosmic energy beams from his eyes. Sersi (Gemma Chan) can change inanimate matter from one form to another. Thena (Angelina Jolie) is a mighty warrior, producing cosmic energy weapons and shields. Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) fires cosmic energy blasts from his hands. Sprite (Lia McHugh) can project realistic illusions of anything. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is the group’s engineer, able to invent and construct whatever is needed, and he maintains their starship Domo. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) possesses super speed. She is also deaf, but can feel the vibrations in the air, allowing her to understand speech. Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control and manipulate minds. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) possesses immense strength he augments with cosmic energy projections around his hands. The Eternals have been on Earth 7000 years, fighting the Deviants, however, they are not allowed to interfere in the affairs of humanity. Over 500 years ago, the last Deviant was killed and Ajak sent the Eternals into the world to live their own lives as they wait for Arishem to call them back to their home world of Olympia. In current times, the Deviants have returned and gained abilities like the Eternals. It’s time to travel around the world, find all the members and fight the Deviants once again.

Eternals were first introduced in Marvel comics in 1976. Their backstory is deep and complicated with civil wars and factions living on Uranus and Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s a history that would be impossible to translate into a movie that made any sense and wasn’t 12 hours long. Director and writer Chloe Zhao, along with a writing team, tries to condense and simplify the character’s history into something manageable in “Eternals.” She almost succeeds.

This unwieldy group of characters gets parred down by a few as the story goes on, but the history and backstory just keep coming. Sometimes we go all the way back to the first time Eternals come to Earth 7000 years ago. We make visits to 1500 years ago, 500 years ago and six days ago. There is also an exposition dump that clarifies what the movie is about. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a major revelation for our heroes. One would think knowing exactly what the goal is would focus the story, however we get more flashbacks, more exposition, and more character introductions. It’s like Zhao and the writers wanted to tell us more gossip about these people, even things we didn’t need to know. I’m not sure it was necessary to show two characters having sex (I think a first for a MCU movie) for us to understand they were committed to and love each other.

Perhaps Zhao, winner of the Oscar for Best Director for her devastating “Nomadland,” wasn’t the best choice for a comic book movie. Her sensibilities are more to smaller character stories than to spectacle and wonder. “Nomadland” follows one woman’s journey, navigating the wilderness of America living alone in her camper/van and dealing with the loss of her husband. It is a poignant and beautiful movie that shows the inequity of capitalism in an age of business consolidation, leaving loyal and dedicated workers in the dust. It destroyed me in a way that didn’t come out until my wife and I were discussing it on our podcast, Comedy Tragedy Marriage. It could not be more different from a MCU movie.

Am I arguing that indie and smaller movie directors shouldn’t be given a chance to helm superhero flicks? Of course not. I am saying that Zhao might not have been the right choice for this one. While “Eternals” is competently made, looks amazing and delivers what we expect from a MCU film, it also bogs down at times in ways we don’t expect from MCU films. It sometimes feels like the film (and the audience) is swimming in molasses. There are bits of excitement scattered about, but we must first slog through the muck.

The actors do the best they can with what they’re given. Selma Hayek and Angelina Jolie are woefully underused. Gemma Chan and Richard Madden make an attractive, believable, but dull romantic pair. Kit Harrington plays a human suitor of Chan’s Sersi, but he’s only in the film’s early and late scenes. I enjoyed Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Don Lee, Barry Keoghan, Lauren Ridloff and Brian Tyree Henry in their roles. Each character is given something resembling a personality but not enough time for it to be fully on display. Ridloff plays the first hearing impaired hero and Henry is the first openly gay hero in the MCU. Each deserved more time in a film that wastes a decent amount of it on attempts at grandeur that come up short.

“Eternals” is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality. There’s the usual superhero on villain violence as every other MCU movie. The villains in this case are mostly creatures that look like dinosaurs or mutated lions. We see Sersi and Ikaris having sex. It is from the waist up and there are no naughty bits on display. Language is mild and scattered along with a middle finger.

I don’t hate “Eternals.” It might sound like it, but I don’t. With a cast this big and story this sprawling, I wish a more seasoned superhero director had been given the reigns. Zhao is a fantastic director and might have been a better fit for a solo hero introduction movie with a more manageable story. As it is, “Eternals” is too much of just about everything.

“Eternals” gets three stars out of five.

Note: There is a mid- and post-credits scene that hints at what might be next for “Eternals” and a new character. Stick around to the very end to see both.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Venom: Let There Be Carnage”

In the gooey 1970 tragic romance “Love Story,” Ali MacGraw’s doomed Jenny Cavilleri tells her doe-eyed lover Oliver Berrett IV, played by Ryan O’Neal, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Having been married 35 years, I can tell you this is a load of horse biscuits. Everyone, male, female and non-binary, act like selfish children on occasion. It is a basic instinct to act in one’s own self-interest. This thing my partner wants me to do seems boring or falls outside my comfort zone or will include others I’m not a big fan of, so I choose not to do it. It takes away from “me time.” I’d rather stay home and watch the sportsball, play a video game or treat myself like an amusement park. My partner really wants me to accompany them. I resist, make excuses or say I don’t want to. Feelings are hurt, relationship dynamics are thrown into disarray, and no one walks away happy. This is the time a well-placed “I’m sorry,” could go a long way to repair the damage and allow the relationship to move forward. This is the lesson learned by one of the occupants of Eddie Brock’s body in “Venom: Let There Be Carnage.” I know, it sounds strange to me also.

Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is having a hard time getting journalism jobs after his Life Foundation story became a disaster. He’s also being eyed by the police as several headless corpses show up in his vicinity due to the alien symbiote Venom (voiced by Hardy). San Francisco police detective Patrick Mulligan (Stephen Graham) contacts Brock and tells him convicted serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson) want to give Brock his life story exclusively. Mulligan hopes Kasady will give up the burial location of his suspected other victims. Brock visits Kasady in prison and is given a message to print. If he prints the message in the paper, aimed at Kasady’s childhood love Frances Barrison (Naomie Harris), then Kasady will tell him everything. Before he leaves, Brock investigates Kasady’s former cell with scratched artwork on the wall. Venom, remembering all the details, takes over Brock’s body and recreates the drawings, figuring out where Kasady’s victims are buried. The discovery of all the bodies makes California’s governor overturn a moratorium on the death penalty and Kasady is fast tracked for execution. Kasady is furious and demands to see Brock again. During the confrontation, Brock gets too close to the cell and Kasady grabs a hand and bites him. The transfer of blood contaminated with the symbiote causes a transformation of Kasady into a variation of Venom that calls himself Carnage. Kasady/Carnage escape the prison with a plan to grab the sonic mutant Barrison, aka Shriek, and begin exacting revenge on all they see as their enemies or the loved ones of their enemies.

While many loathe 2018’s “Venom,” I gladly admit I enjoyed the introduction of a race of violent, alien, bodysnatching, brain-eating symbiotes. It wasn’t perfect. I thought Michelle Williams character of Anne Weying was woefully underwritten with not a lot of thought given to her character and her reactions to the unusual events facing her then-fiancé. The movie was also very predictable and kept to the usual superhero tropes, but I still found it entertaining and looked forward to another installment. While it was delayed a year, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” learned some lessons from the weaknesses of the first film while also repeating some mistakes from the past.

The most egregious mistake was with the character of Anne Weying. Michelle Williams is again reduced to an understanding, give-it-a-go, now-former fiancée tasked with saving Eddie and Venom from themselves. She acts as an intermediary and voice of reason when both lifeforms, alien and Eddie, are acting like children. Being the adult in the room, or the movie, is a thankless task and that goes to the only non-criminal female character in the film. Williams gives it her all, playing a role that would have gone to Katherine Hepburn in the 1940’s and 1950’s. She’s the plucky, never-say-die, fixit for the situation Eddie and Venom fall into. Of course, she’s also a damsel in distress in the film’s finale. In the comic books and briefly in both films, Weying gets to play She-Venom. I’d like to see Willliams get to be something other than Eddie’s fixer, perhaps his savior, in the next film.

Woody Harrelson seems to be having fun chewing the scenery as Cletus Kasady. The unhinged serial killer’s urge to reunite with his much-loved Frances is most of his motivation. Of course, the desire to kill and create more carnage plays a big role. Oddly, other than property damage, Kasady and the symbiote don’t kill that many people. Plenty are slung up against walls and impaled on projections from Carnage, but the symbiote and the serial killer don’t bite off that many heads or rack up many more notches on the tally sheet. Perhaps that’s due to the film’s PG-13 rating and the need to move the story along briskly. Still, I would have liked a bit more killing from the duo.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” runs a tight 97 minutes, including the credits, about 15 minutes shorter than the original. Superhero movie fans expect at least two hours in their films. We want spectacle, majesty, soaring sequences of flying and a bunch of stuff blowing up! Oh, and fights! LOTS OF FIGHTS! Except many of these CGI fights get boring after a minute of two. We mostly know the outcome (if it’s early in the film, the hero will lose and if it’s later, the hero wins), we just want to be surprised and amazed by the journey. There isn’t much wasted time in the film. Director Andy Serkis knows the story he wants to tell and doesn’t take too many deviations in telling it.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” manages to sneak in a bit of deviation from the standard superhero journey by borrowing from the rom-com playbook. I don’t want to give away a major plot point, but there is a breakup and a reuniting that is played both for laughs and as a truly personal moment between two characters. It works in a surprisingly emotional way.

Naturally, we get all the required destruction and mayhem. A former orphanage, the secret Ravenscroft facility and a cathedral are all either destroyed or severely damaged. Considering the level of surveillance of modern society, I don’t know how Eddie thinks Venom can remain a secret. Especially after his appearance at a rave where the symbiote makes a speech about acceptance and love in front of a crowd of 20-somethings all armed with smartphones. Still, Eddie and his toothy buddy are unknown to most of San Francisco, a town where you’re encouraged to let your freak flag fly. It doesn’t make any sense, much like the rest of the movie, but it is what it is.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some strong language, disturbing material and suggestive references. Venom and Carnage have a long climactic fight that shows them being impaled, set on fire, buried under debris and more. I don’t recall any suggestive references. There are at least two bodies where it is implied Venom or Carnage has bitten off the head. There are also animated murders of adults by a child shown. Foul language is mild except for one use of the F-bomb near the film’s end.

Make sure to stick around for the mid-credits scene. It implies a webby future for the symbiote, possibly caused by the events of “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” There is no post-credits scene.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” has many of the same issues as “Venom” but it flies by at such a pace you may not notice them. It is a fun, funny, daft superhero movie that’s searching for a place within the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s not easy to do since Spider-Man and all his associated characters’ movie rights are owned by Sony. Yes, they are working cooperatively with Disney and trying to have their cake and eat it too, but I wonder if a single creative team could do a better job of telling a story for this symbiote with a heart of gold. This effort isn’t bad but could have been better.

“Venom: Let There Be Carnage” get four stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “The Alpinist”

I have a fear of heights. I don’t mind being in a skyscraper or looking out the window of a plane (I prefer the window seat). I work in a building at the top of a ridge that’s at least 500 feet above the street. Some visitors that come up express terror at the height, but the building has been on top of the ridge for over 50 years and the ridge itself has been there for millions more. My fear of heights only kicks in when I’m insecure about that on which I’m standing. I worked at a grocery store in high school and college and sometimes had to change the fluorescent tube lights on the ceiling. I have no idea how high the ceiling was, but on the rickety ladder we had, it felt like a mile. My nerves would kick in and my legs would begin to shake. No one was assigned to steady the ladder, so I was up there alone, near the top step, the ladder wiggling far too much for my liking, and having to extend my arms up nearly as far as I could to remove and replace the fluorescent tubes while not dropping any and not falling to my certain death or serious injury. While the mountains climbed by young solo mountaineer Marc-Andre Leclerc, the subject of the documentary “The Alpinist,” have stood tall and strong for millennia, they can turn into monsters that eat you alive and never spit you out and you couldn’t pay me enough money to begin to train to climb one.

Marc-Andre Leclerc is a climbing savant. Tackling the most difficult mountains in the world, with as little equipment as possible, 23-year-old Marc-Andre is likely the best climber in the world no one knows about. He shuns attention, keeps to himself with his girlfriend Brette Harrington, lives with meager possessions amongst a loose knit community of other climbers in Squamish, British Columbia, Canada, in a tent in the forest, and lives to climb. People within the climbing world are only vaguely aware of Marc-Andre and his fearless climbs, often barehanded, up some of the world’s most difficult rock faces. Listening to a podcast, documentarian Peter Mortimer hears Alex Honnold, subject of the Academy Award winner documentary feature “Free Solo,” talk about Marc-Andre, and becomes interested in filming the unique climber. Marc-Andre’s aversion to attention, and his personal code for climbing, makes filming an even more difficult endeavor than just the dangers of the mountain.

Marc-Andre Leclerc is a goofy kid. In the documentary, we learn from his mother that Marc-Andre was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, or ADD, in first grade. As an adult, he seems to be calm and focused but able to cut loose and have fun with his friends. The documentary takes most of the first half of its 92 minutes to introduce Marc-Andre, his life and philosophy of climbing.

The film is both gorgeous looking and terrifying as Marc-Andre is filmed hanging from bare rock faces by only his hands and from frozen waterfalls by ice axes. He contorts himself to go from grip to grip, foothold to foothold, only stopping to look up at the path ahead and to reach behind him to get more chalk powder on his hands. Anyone with a significant fear of heights, who can’t stand even seeing someone in a film on a high perch, should avoid “The Alpinist” at all costs. On the other hand, if you are an armchair adventurer, looking for vicarious thrills, this might be the perfect choice. The documentary footage, along with scenes shot by Marc-Andre himself with small cameras, offers a glimpse of the wonders of nature from thousands of feet above the rest of the world. Dense lush forests, snowcapped peaks, wilderness from around the world is featured in “The Alpinist” and it is often breathtaking.

Peter Mortimer and his crew are also frequently seen as they need to develop a relationship with Marc-Andre. To get inside his world, they needed to become a part of it without getting in his way. Mortimer has filmed other climbers’ expeditions and knew the difficulties of shooting on the side of a mountain, but Marc-Andre added more complications. He takes the concept of “free soloing” to the next level, disappearing for a time so he can do his thing his own way. You can feel Mortimer’s frustration at his finicky subject, but that doesn’t last for long. Marc-Andre has no malice in his heart. He just likes to do things his own way.

“The Alpinist” is rated PG-13 for some strong language and brief drug content. There is discussion of Marc-Andre’s drug use, and we see a lit joint being passed around. Foul language is scattered with two uses of the F-bomb.

There’s a peace and joy radiating from Marc-Andre Leclerc that shines through the screen in “The Alpinist.” He’s a decent, sweet kid that doesn’t care about material possessions, or being a financial success, or having a house, new car and smartphone. Marc-Andre finds his fulfillment not in gadgets or cash, but in his unity with the mountain and the love of Brette. We should all be so lucky as to find a thing we completes us the same way climbing completes Marc-Andre Leclerc.

“The Alpinist” gets five snowcapped peaks out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

Families are hard. Some are harder than others. I listen to several true crime podcasts and there are numerous episodes about horrible parents and/or horrible children wreaking havoc on each other or their communities. For instance, Jennifer and Sarah Hart adopted six children and then killed the children and themselves by driving the family van off a cliff. Crime boss John Gotti brought his son into his criminal empire, which could be considered a form of abuse. Some serial killers have brought their children along to assist in their crimes, leading the child to consider the deviant behavior normal. It doesn’t take long searching podcasts to find horrific descriptions of abuse and neglect. Fortunately, the family in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” while dysfunctional, isn’t quite as depressing as that.

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), known to his friends as Shaun, parks cars for a living with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) in San Francisco. Shang-Chi is the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of a worldwide terrorist group called the Ten Rings. Xu Wenwu has been alive for over a thousand years, thanks to the powers of 10 mystical rings. Despite amassing immense power and wealth, Wenwu wants something more. He thinks he’ll find it in the mystical city of Ta Lo that is supposed to house mythical creatures. Making his way through a living, moving forest, Wenwu meets Ying Li (Fala Chen) who is more than a match for his martial arts and the 10 rings. They meet more times and fall in love. Ying Li convinces Wenwu to give up his life as a criminal to raise a family, having Shang-Chi and his younger sister Xialing (Mang’er Zhang). After Ying Li dies, Wenwu resumes his criminal life and teaches his son to be an assassin, while his daughter watches and trains herself. Both Shang-Chi and Xialing run away at their first opportunity. Several years later, the Ten Rings captures both Shang-Chi and Xialing as Wenwu claims he hears the voice of Ying Li calling to him to release her from behind a gate in Ta Lo. His plan is to take his army into the village and, if they won’t release Ying Li, he will burn it to the ground. Neither sibling wants any part of destroying their late mother’s village and they try to stop their father’s quest.

There’s a great deal going on in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” I’ve only given about 10 percent of the story to avoid spoilers. It’s a plot-heavy introduction to the first Asian hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a cast comprised mostly of Asian actors. Marvel was slow to introduce heroes of any color other than white males. Black Widow didn’t get her own solo movie until this year, more than a decade after she was introduced as a side character in “Iron Man 2.” “Captain Marvel” is the first female lead character. Supporting heroes Falcon and War Machine are the first African American heroes introduced into the MCU (not counting Nick Fury as he isn’t a hero), and Falcon will be the lead in the next “Captain America” film, with the late Chadwick Boseman being the first African American to lead an MCU film as “Black Panther.” Marvel is slowly introducing more heroes representing more diverse groups, reflecting the makeup of the world. But none of these efforts to create a rainbow of heroes would matter if the movies weren’t any good. I’m happy to announce “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is very, very good.

Simu Liu effortlessly inhabits the skin of Shang-Chi. Liu has an easy-going style that makes his scenes with Awkwafina’s Katy believable and relatable. Shang-Chi is just a guy, trying to find his place in the world, when this enormous family bomb gets dropped in his lap. Shang-Chi has kept his family history a secret from everyone and is ashamed and embarrassed by his past. Liu’s scenes where he divulges Shang-Chi’s secrets is painful to watch. Not because Liu isn’t a good actor, but we empathize with his plight and pain. While none of us have likely have such deep and dark family secrets, we can relate in other less extreme ways. Liu provides an emotional depth to a superhero character we rarely see.

Awkwafina’s Katy acts as the conduit for the audience. Katy is like that person turning to you saying, “That’s crazy, right?” While Awkwafina is there to provide some laughs, her character also possesses a depth that she and the audience discover as the story plays out. Katy grows almost as much as Shang-Chi, and we enjoy her victories as much as his.

Given the martial arts aspects of the character, the fight scenes in “Shang-Chi…” are amazing. The first big battle on a bus introduces the audience to Shang-Chi’s amazing abilities developed due to years of brutal training. The confined nature of a fight between five guys on a city bus keeps the action up close and personal. The creative uses of poles and other bus architecture for Shang-Chi’s escapes and avoidance of his enemies is a marvel (pardon the expression) to behold. Liu’s years of both gymnastics and martial arts training in Canada served him well in this role.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language. There are numerous fights, some on massive scales, but very little blood. There are bat-like creatures that suck out your soul. One character has a glowing machete for a lower arm. Foul language is scattered and mild.

While the usual Marvel third act mayhem takes place, everything that comes before it in “Shang-Chi…” feels new and unique. We have an appealing hero, a goofy but nuanced sidekick, a compelling and complicated villain, and an enormous backstory of mystical creatures and magical powers to explore. It works as an intriguing and very entertaining introduction to a new character in the MCU. By the way, stick around as there is both a mid-credits and end-credits scene suggesting what’s coming up in Phase Four of the MCU. The addition of Shang-Chi and Katy makes me very excited for what’s to come.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” gets five stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.

Review of “The Night House”

What would you be willing to sacrifice for someone you loved? Some have given up dreams of travel and exploration to be with their partner. Others have relinquished the option of various sexual partners to be monogamous with their true love. Still more have relocated across the country or in another part of the world so their partner could take advantage of an employment opportunity. Then there are those that have put their own lives in peril, stepping between a jealous former lover, a criminal or some other threat to protect the one they love. What if that threat is invisible and unstoppable? What do you do then? The answers are troubling and confounding in “The Night House.”

Beth (Rebecca Hall) is mourning the death of her husband Owen (Eric Jonigkeit). He rowed a small boat out into the middle of the lake behind their home, took off and neatly folded all his clothes, then put a handgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Beth doesn’t know why Owen took his life and his suicide note doesn’t clear up anything. It reads: There is nothing. Nothing is after you. You’re safe now. Beth is also having dream-filled and troubled sleep. She dreams of a house filled with women that look like her, but aren’t her, and Owen kissing and hugging them. The stereo in her home turns on randomly at night, playing the same song at full volume. She wakes up in other parts of the house with no memory of how she got there. Then there’s the presence. She feels as if she’s not alone. Her neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and friend and co-worker Claire (Sarah Goldberg) offer support and advice, suggesting she get out of the house and away from the memories, but Beth needs to solve the mystery surrounding her husband and his choice to end his life.

The advertising for “The Night House” has been vague to protect the plot as it is not what it seems…but still is. I’m being vague as well, as the film is a slow burn that needs to build to an exciting and revelatory finish. Knowing much more than the basic plot would ruin all the surprises.

Rebecca Hall is clearly angry as Beth. She feels abandoned and betrayed. Owen’s death is so unexpected and seemingly random, she can’t put her emotions anywhere other than towards him. It’s a feeling she’s familiar with as we learn Beth has been prone to depression in the past. Owen is the one that always pulled her back from the abyss. He’s now gone, so her energy is focused on figuring out why. Hall conveys all these emotions vividly in scenes of unexpected anger, sarcasm and self-pity. Hall easily slides from each of these feelings throughout the film, and it lives and dies with her performance. Hall’s Beth is alone in all the scenes where she makes discoveries or experiences out-of-the-ordinary things, conveying her fear, loneliness and anger often only with her face. It’s a masterful performance that rivets the viewer’s attention. We focus on Beth as if there is no one else in the room (and often there isn’t), but we soon realize Owen is always there. In her mind, her memories, her heart.

The story of “The Night House” is like an M. C. Escher painting. Impossible angles, stairways and hallways leading back on themselves but still winding up in the same places. There’s a great deal of surrealism and misdirection in the film. We are never sure if Beth is dreaming, hallucinating or going insane until the final act. The story written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski is a maze within a house of mirrors. Nothing much is what it seems until the very end. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and with a Cinemascore of C- it clearly isn’t, but it is a powerful and effective thriller unlike most of the movies within this genre.

“The Night House” is rated R for some violence/disturbing images, and language including some sexual references. I can’t give you much detail about these various factors. Beth asks a young woman if she slept with her husband but uses more graphic language. There are various brief scenes of violence against women. Beth is attacked.

“The Night House” is an engrossing thriller that may not be that thrilling to many at first. I just ask you give it a chance to progress through the story as the ending is worth it.

“The Night House” gets five stars out of five.

Subscribe, rate, review and download my podcast Comedy Tragedy Marriage. Each week my wife and I take turns picking a movie to watch, watch it together, then discuss why we love it, like it or hate it. Find it wherever you get podcasts.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.