My Top 7 Films of 2021

This end-of-year Top 10 is a little different because–well, quite frankly–there simply weren’t 10 films that I felt made muster for what I look for in a Top 10 of the year list. Now, that doesn’t mean that I only liked 7 films; it means that there are only 7 films that truly left an impression upon me. In short, what I look for in a Top 10 of the year is a film that I still think about weeks or months after having seen it. Furthermore, these are films that command rewatches. Excellence in filmmaking can take on many forms, but I respond most favorably to those that provide opportunities for close readings, those that are driven by plot and character and NOT the writer-director’s agenda, and those in which the hand of the artist is clearly visible in ways that don’t compensate for a weak or intentionally pretentious narrative. In other words, tell me a great story with entertaining or complex characters and a thoughtful plot! There are certainly films from 2021 that I recommend to people that didn’t make the 7, but that’s because they are good! Just not quite good enough to make my Top 10. And because of this, I do have three honorable mentions.

No.7 No Time to Die

Epic! Everything you want in a James Bond movie!! Treat yourself to the premium format in your cinema for the final chapter in Daniel Craig’s Bond saga. With gripping action and ample espionage, No Time to Die is a wildly entertaining throwback in the vein of Golden Eye, but even better! Return to the Cold War era espionage in which the Russians are the baddies and operating out of secret bunkers, vodka martinis are shaken not stirred, the one-liners, and the Aston Martin has machine-gun headlights. From sweeping establishing shots of exotic destinations far and wide to intimate character moments, the camera paints a beautiful portrait of Craig’s sendoff as our Bond for the last fifteen years. Is the plot melodramatic? Of course, but aren’t most of these movies??? Even though the plot is motivating the actions of the characters more than the internal needs and desires of the characters, there is a great relationship between the action plot and emotional drives. The film is larger than life, but never campy or goes to ridiculous proportions that take you out of the story. All the foundational elements that make a Bond movie a Bond movie are here, and will hook you from beginning to end. 

No.6 Nightmare Alley

A phantasmagorical cautionary tale on the cruel predictability of the human condition that’s told through a beautifully orchestrated symphony of exploitation, deception, and just desserts, wrapped in a delicious neo-noir film. In the second big screen adaptation on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, del Toro certainly applies his particular cinema stylo to Nightmare Alley, yet delivers a motion picture that stays true to its roots in film noir. Gresham’s book and Edmund Goulding’s critically acclaimed 1947 adaptation are the perfect source material for del Toro’s penchant for dark fantasies. But what this film allows for del Toro to do, that he hasn’t done before, is direct a neo-noir, complete with all the tropes and stylistic conventions. And he’s recently announced that there is a grayscale version of the film, which I will want to check out soon. Del Toro’s update to the dark dale explores characters that are impacted by vicious business practices built around exploitation and deception. Audiences will simultaneously find the story and performances, by the lead and supporting cast, both alluring and repulsive. The film can be read as a cautionary tale what happens when we lead a humanist or nihilistic life; furthermore, this film is a fantastic metaphor on reaping what you sow. If you sow deception, eventually you will reap deception by (1) being deceived by someone or (2) maybe even deceiving YOURself by beginning to believe your own lies. The systems are a symptom of the broken world in which we live, a broken world whose source is, at the end of the day, a heart problem.

No.5 The Last Duel

Captivating! Game of Thrones meets legal drama in a thought-provoking exploration of truth, perception, and inequality told through a Rashomon-like nonlinear story that is punctuated with dark comedy to provide emotional resets and strategic tonal shifts. Easily one of my fave films of the year! I was cautious going into this film because Ridley Scott has simply not lately been delivering what we came to expect from and love him for in AlienBlade Runner, and Gladiator. So after many swings and misses, I was cautiously optimistic at best (and that’s being generous). Boy, was I wrong! The Last Duel is an outstanding film, full of thoughtful content, laugh out loud moments, and relevancy to contemporary topics. Perhaps the story takes place in the 1300s, but the characters are all archetypes we see today on screen and in real life. While the Rashomon-like approach to the central story is not new, it is an approach that isn’t used often, and can easily be abused, misused, or simply not dramatically justifiable. From the hilarious to intimate performances, the cast will keep your eyes glued to the screen. You’ve never seen a medieval period drama like this one before! While this may not look like a classic Ridley Scott film in the vein of ALIEN or Blade Runner, it does bear similarities in stylistic approaches to Gladiator. The sweeping landscapes, the intimate character moments, the visceral atmosphere sucking you into the setting of the story, it’s all here!

No.4 Cyrano

Outstanding! Joe Wright (Darkest Hour) delivers a thought-provoking musical adaptation of the classic story inspired by the real Cyrano de Bergerac–yes that’s right, before he was immortalized in Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, he was indeed a real-life person. Furthermore, this adaptation of the timeless stage play provides audiences with immense depth by exploring romanticism versus reality. A topic that resonates with anyone that experiences this mesmerizing motion picture. From the 17th century Sicilian setting to the beautiful costumes to the phantasmagorical choreography, Wright captures the soul of the original story yet finds a fresh perspective that will touch audiences everywhere. Peter Dinklage’s Cyrano writes and sings things (mfellow Game of Thrones fans will appreciate that reference). The chemistry between he and his co-stars Haley Bennett (Roxanne) and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Christian) is fantastic! Although there is undeniably a healthy level of intentional camp in this otherwise naturalistic melodrama. The subtext of the entire story isn’t so much one of star-cross lovers caught in the middle of a deadly rivalry, but one of romanticism versus reality. While Wright isn’t the first to bring de Bergerac to the big screen, he is the first to reinvent the classical tale though a spectacular big screen musical in the vein of the MGM Musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood. You don’t want to miss seeing Cyrano on the big screen!

No.3 Being the Ricardos

I Love Being the Ricardos. Whether you are a fan or scholar of I Love Lucy or not, this biographical motion picture is for you! Go behind the walls of 623 E. 68th St. (an address that in real life would be in the East River), and get up close and personal with one of the toughest weeks in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’ careers and the run of the sitcom. Being the Ricardos also represents Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, and be brings with him his penchant for exploring the human condition through dialogue steeped in subtext, thus adding the dramatic dimension to the dialogue. What I appreciate about Sorkin’s approach is how he seamlessly layers two timelines and a meta narrative into one another, in a manner that is consistently driving the plot forward in terms of plot and character. While the central focus of the film is on Lucille Ball being accused of being a communist, there are ancillary stories on Desi’s affairs and Vivan Vance’s complicated relationship with Lucille Ball and her character Ethel Mertz. William Frawley is depicted as the most level-headed out of the whole cast. Other dynamics of the mother of all sitcoms include the the power dynamic between the writers Madelyn Pugh, Bob Carroll Jr., and executive producer Jess Oppenheimer. Any reviews you’ve heard or read that suggest Being the Ricardos is too inside baseball are wildly exaggerated. Yes, there is a greater appreciation for the film by those that know I Love Lucy well, but even those that only know of the sitcom will appreciate it. Throughout the film, one theme is clear: home. What does a home mean or look like to you? Lucy desires a home, and she will fight for it.

No.2 Last Night in Soho

Mesmerizing! Dressed to Kill meets Mulholland Drive meets Suspiria! It’s like Edgar Wright channeled the best of Lynch, de Palma, and Argento to craft his spellbinding thriller! One of the best films of the year, and one that commands a rewatch. Just speculating here, but I could definitely see this film as one that cultivates a cult following and is talked about in classrooms much like Mulholland Drive. Quite different from the other films in Wright’s cinematic library, if you’re going into it for a Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz, or World’s End, then you may be disappointed. Although they are dissimilar in most respects, the film that this one shares commonality with is Baby Driver. I’ve only seen it once, but I need to see it again. Not because I didn’t understand it–quite the opposite–the storytelling is top shelf! But I want to pay closer attention to details to gain a greater appreciation for how this kaleidoscope delivered such an immersive cinematic experience. The vibrant 1960s in London some alive in this dream-like psychological horror punctuated with giallo-esque mystery and slasher elements and nostalgic fashion. Told though a Lynchian cinematic framework, the surrealist experience of this film will capture your imagination and beckon you into the seedy underbelly of the iconic Soho district of London. Much like in Suspiria, the idyllic atmosphere and setting descend into madness in a beautiful symphony of terror! Clearly, Last Night in Soho is Wright’s most personal film; we can not only see this passion but feel it in every frame.

No. 1 The Eyes of Tammy Faye

The Eyes of Tammy Faye will penetrate to your soul. You may think you know Tammy Faye’s story, but go beyond the tabloids in Michael Showalter’s (The Big Sickheartfelt, hilarious, honest film that paints a humanizing portrait of the ridiculed and often parodied Tammy Faye Bakker. You will undoubtedly be blown away by Jessica Chastain’s jaw-dropping performance as the “Queen of Eyelashes” in this powerful rise, fall, and redemption story. Tammy’s eyelashes may be fake, but there is nothing fake about this candid portrait of the late television icon. Playing the mastermind of the PTL Network scandal is Andrew Garfield in a showcase performance that will have you despising Jim, but praising the uncanny portrayal. The film highlights Tammy Faye’s genuine love for God and her love for people–everyone! Even in the 1980s, when the LGBT community had little to no voice, especially amongst fundamental evangelicals, she was a loving voice for them. While it would have been so easy for the film to have been devoid of genuine levity, audiences will find there are some hilarious scenes that work as fantastic humanizing elements, especially early on when Jim and Tammy Faye engage their lustful adolescent interests as hormonally charged young adults and newlyweds. Showalter, Chastain, and Garfield deliver a fresh perspective on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker that depicts human beings, not one-dimensional caricatures of televangelism. Showalter’s film explores the world of Tammy Faye, as seen through her unmistakable eyes; furthermore, he treats the character (the person) of Tammy Faye with respect as a flawed but loving woman rather than the heavy-makeup-wearing satirical and parodied caricature that many remember from the tabloids. Perhaps the thousands of times she said “God loves you” may have came across as insincere; but the truth is, she wanted the world to know that God and Tammy both love them.

Honorable Mentions

Wrath of Man

Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man is a no-holds-barred heist movie! It’s an extravaganza of beginning to end action and thrills. Jason Statham does his best Stathaming, and the nonlinear storytelling never loses the audience – while packing a punch. Everything about this movie just works — and works nearly flawlessly. From the moment it opens until the credits roll, it is non-stop balls-to-the-wall action, and at the center of that action is Jason Statham. Wrath of Man is one of those movies that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. And what is that? A fun, entertaining movie without case for any kind of thoughtful subtext or socio-political agenda. Just an entertaining movie, plain and simple. And yet, you enjoy the characters and know just enough about each to care about them (or hate them). Point is, you feel something for these characters. We have a simple plot, and a complex central character. And this central character has a well-defined external goal that is met with obstacles brought on by a character of opposition. In other words, this is a movie with solid bones and foundation.

Antlers

Intense! Antlers is a terrifying film that will truly absorb you! From stunning, terrifying creature effects to thoughtful, provocative commentary on the trauma of grief and loss, this is one to watch! Directed by Scott Cooper and produced by Guillermo del Toro, this highly atmospheric film is based on the novel The Quiet Boy by Nick Antosca. Every element of the mise-en-scene works flawlessly to capture your imagination and take it to some incredibly dark places where you will confront the stuff of nightmares. Del Toro’s eye for the visual storytelling of a darkly fantastic world is witnessed in every frame of this outstanding motion picture. Cooper has clearly worked closely with del Toro in order to combine their various cinematic storytelling methods to craft a modern story steeped in mythology. Keri Russell and Jeremy T Thomas deliver frightening performances; especially Thomas–he is incredibly creepy! Antlers is the type of horror film that is surely gong to find a place amongst the classics in the future.

The Protege

Nonstop action, perfectly punctuated with humor and thrills! Don’t miss The Protege. It was THE most summer movie of 2021! Everything about this explosive action thriller works brilliantly, and it truly is the don’t miss movie of the summer. From beginning to end, you will be glued to your seat as the story unfolds. The Protégé takes the action plot of a 1980s action movie and combines it with contemporary characters to deliver a movie that is simultaneously both familiar and fresh. This movie is the whole package: high flying action, killer fight sequences with outstanding choreography, and a well-developed lead cast that you will love to see on screen. Where so many action movies suffer is in the screenwriting. Not so with this one. The dialogue snaps, crackles, and pops, and there is plenty of humor to break up the darker elements of the film. Even with its 2hr runtime, you will never feel restless or bored because the pacing and plotting are both on point! It never sacrifices thrilling storytelling for an agenda. Furthermore, it boasts a diverse cast that is also never made into the center piece. The film isn’t saying “look at our diverse cast.” No, it is saying “look at our outstanding characters” that happen to look like the people you and I interact with on a weekly basis. That is how you promote representation in cinema in movies, that twenty years ago would’ve been filled with predominantly white characters.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

ANTLERS horror film review

Intense! Antlers is a terrifying film that will truly absorb you! See is on the BIGGEST screen with the BEST sound possible. From stunning, terrifying creature effects to thoughtful, provocative commentary on the trauma of grief and loss, this is one of the best films of the year, period. Directed by Scott Cooper and produced by Guillermo del Toro, this highly atmospheric film is based on the novel The Quiet Boy by Nick Antosca. Every element of the mise-en-scene works flawlessly to capture your imagination and take it to some incredibly dark places where you will confront the stuff of nightmares. Del Toro’s eye for the visual storytelling of a darkly fantastic world is witnessed in every frame of this outstanding motion picture. Cooper has clearly worked closely with del Toro in order to combine their various cinematic storytelling methods to craft a modern story steeped in mythology. Keri Russell and Jeremy T Thomas deliver frightening performances; especially Thomas–he is incredibly creepy! Antlers is the type of horror film that is surely gong to find a place amongst the classics in the future. While so many horror films in recent years have included overt sermon-like ideological messages that feel more like a weapon, this film integrates the heavy subject matter exploring the trauma experienced following abuse, grief, and loss into the background, which allows the foreground to remain focussed on the action plot and characters. Furthermore, this film illustrates the power of horror to be able to simultaneously entertain the masses while providing thought-provoking content that manifests ideas that are difficult to talk about or show directly. But through nightmarish imagery, audiences allow themselves to be taken into liminal spaces to overcome the effects of trauma.

A small-town Oregon teacher and her brother, the local sheriff, discover that a young student is harbouring a dangerous secret with frightening consequences.

Prepare for an immersive, haunting world that is both whimsical and ominous, as can only be conceived by the mind of del Toro. While del Toro is not credited as director, clearly Cooper worked closely with del Toro to craft the visual and soundscape design of the film. And as a director that is still early in his career, you couldn’t ask for a better coach along the way. I anticipate that we will see great films from Cooper in the future, especially if he leans into horror and fantasy. From the moment the film opens, the breathtaking cinematography is like an oil on canvas that paints an overwhelming sense of dread that serves as the backdrop for the terror that is about to beset the small Oregon town. Lately, there is a trend to use spectacular cinematography and production design to compensate for weak storytelling (i.e. The Night House), but thankfully the atmosphere in Antlers is just that–the atmosphere–not the sole reason to watch the film. Establishing the tone up front is so very important in order to set the bar for what the audience is going to experience. Everything feels incredibly tangible; there is a dimension that cannot be replicated by CGI. Yes, there is some CGI in the film, but it’s used to supplement what cannot be practically created. And when the world on screen has visual depth, it heightens the level of tension because there is a sense of vulnerability that is evoked within the audience.

Need a creepy kid in your next horror film, then Jeremy T Thomas should be on your casting list! I loved everything about the performative dimension he brought to the screen in his character of Lucas. You believe that he is truly disturbed from the moment you meet him following the traumatic event he experiences in the prologue of the film. He perfectly communicates both vulnerability and defensiveness simultaneously. Keri Russell plays Julia Meadows, Lucas’ teacher. And early on we learn that she is clearly dealing with her own demons, both distant past and more recent present. There is such a significant degree of authenticity in her performance! Much like Thomas strikes that perfect balance in vulnerability and defensiveness, Russell delivers those same traits, but adds in a strength of character that refuses to be sidelined by school officials or her brother, the sheriff. Speaking of whom, Jesse Plemons’ Sheriff is another character that is dealing with the trauma of his childhood, and in a world in which filmmakers seem to actively finding ways to disparage law enforcement, this film delivers a character that, albeit imperfect as we all are, does truly care about his community, but does find the supernatural to be unbelievable until he sees it with his own eyes.

The central theme in Antlers is an exploration of childhood trauma, grief, and loss. Both the characters of Julia and Lucas parallel one another in terms of their respective journeys. Without getting into spoiler territory, both character suffer from childhood trauma. Of course, Lucas is in the midst of his childhood trauma while Julia’s stems from her chronological childhood; however, Julia is dealing with a more recent demon that likely is connected to alcoholism, which is what prompted her relocation from California to Oregon to live with her brother in their childhood home. Lucas appears to have had a hard time since his mother died, which is perhaps what drove his father to cooking and moving meth. And if the death of one’s mother at such an early age isn’t traumatic enough, he continues to experience traumatic grief and loss. We learn early on that Julia also lost her mother at about Lucas’ age, and we get flashbacks to the childhood trauma that eventually caused Julie to leave her brother, and move to California. In order to get into the details, that would require going into spoiler territory, which I don’t want to do in order to preserve the experience of the film.

It’s no spoiler that there is a malevolent entity at the center of this film, and I won’t go into details as to what it is. But what I want to talk about is the outstanding combination of CGI and practical effects that brings the entity to life. It’s unlike anything you’ve seen in recent years. It’s both gruesome and beautiful, all at the same time! And the best part is the reveal! Won’t go into details, but you will be completely in shock and awe at the ALIEN level tension, suspense, and surprise. Like what Spielberg did with JAWS and Ridley Scott did with ALIEN, Cooper and del Toro keep the creature cards close to their chest, so as you get glimpses of the creature, the tension will rise to incredible levels. And this anticipation of getting to see the creature will pay off in spades! Less is more, that is the approach in this film. When the violence and gore hit, they HIT! But because this film is not about the creature, we are able to focus on the characters. Symbolically, the creature is a manifestation of all that we cannot see with the naked eye, but is very much present nevertheless.

You don’t want to miss seeing this masterful horror film on the big screen! If you only vaguely remember the trailer, DON’T rewatch it. Go into this film with just a little knowledge, and you’ll be glad you did. If your experience is anything like mine, then you will undoubtedly be carrying on internal monologues in response to the nightmarish journey through the effects trauma has on the mind and body.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

THE FRENCH DISPATCH film review

A quirky, stylistic motion picture in which the production design is the real star. Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch delivers everything you expect from his authorship of cinema, but not much else; it’s a bountiful buffet of Andersonisms, in an anthology commenting on the dying print media industry; but while you’ll chuckle here and there, the stories themselves mostly fall flat. No doubt about it, that this film is overflowing with talent on and off screen; it’s not often that we get a single motion picture with such a prolific all-star cast. But even the whimsical production design and dry humor, that we automatically expect from an Anderson film, isn’t enough to compensate for the lackluster “short films” within the larger anthology cataloging the final printing of The French Dispatch magazine. No mistaking it, every visual element of the mise-en-scene is crafted with immense care! But the weakness in this film is the lack of ability for the vast majority of audiences (from cinephiles to those whom simply want to be entertained–and there’s nothing wrong with that, lest we forget) to connect with an of the individual characters, let alone the stories themselves. Perhaps that’s it: lack of relatability; that is the fly in the ointment.

A love letter to journalists set in an outpost of an American newspaper in a fictional 20th-century French city that brings to life a collection of stories published in “The French Dispatch.”

If you were hoping for another Grand Budapest Hotel or Rushmore, then I’m afraid that you may be disappointed. That said, if you go in with a desire to appreciate a masterful visual storytelling methodology, then you will be impressed and even delighted. While I find the characters themselves lacking in their ability to connect with the audience, this motion picture delivers abundantly in a beautifully eclectic blend of cinematic and stage craft that draws audiences into a stylistic world as can only be dreamt by Wes Anderson.

Before I talk about what didn’t work for me in this film, I want to highlight what was brilliantly executed. And that’s the imaginative visual design as can only be conceived by Wes Anderson. Even the most scholarly Anderson aficionados will be surprised by the diversity in visual expression of the immersive world on screen. Not only do we get the hybrid film/stage craft in production design, but we even have moments that the story is being told though the medium of a graphic novel. What Anderson can do that few filmmakers can is create massive depth in the world on screen. Furthermore, there is this absolute beauty in the deceptively simple approach. There is more love in the production design in a single frame of this film (and his films in general) than in most films in their entirety. From the very first frame of the film, it is clear that you are about to watch a Wes Anderson film! Few directors have achieved the degree of cinematic authorship that he has. In my classroom, I talk about him with the likes of Hitchcock and Burton (80s-90s), two filmmakers who’s stylistic approach to cinematic storytelling was so incredibly well-defined that they transformed into brands themselves.

I am often picky when I observe grayscale imagery in a film. Why? Because, most of the time, the filmmaker simply desaturates the color image to give it that old school grayscale (commonly referred to as black and white) look and feel. Not having seen any behind the scenes featurettes, I cannot confirm this, but the segments of the film that are grayscale appear to have been lit for grayscale. This is HUGE. The way a filmmaker lights for grayscale is NOT the same as it is for color. That is why, when a filmmaker simply removes the color from the image, that there is something that doesn’t look quite right or authentic in the image. In true grayscale filmmaking, the shades of gray go from a dark charcoal to almost white–that is the rage of shades of gray. So I greatly appreciate these moments in the film because I could observe the care that Anderson put into the filming of these scenes.

The French Dispatch is a collection of short stories (films) that are the visual extension of their written counterparts. Not written as in the screenplay, but written as in they are they represent the last stories for the final issue of The French Dispatch. So what we have here is a self-reflexive motion picture about the dying print media industry. If you need a reference, think LIFE magazine. We are watching the final issue of a legacy travel magazine come together as the narrator guides us through every story in the issue. It’s very much a love letter to print media, which is increasingly becoming extinct. If you are a print journalist working for a legacy publication, then this story will likely resonate with you. For everyone else, it won’t likely pack the same comedic punch.

This film is overflowing with characters! But what’s ironic, is that with all those characters, there aren’t really any that will likely connect with the audience. There is this wall there, a sort of separation between these characters and the audience. And this separation is felt all through the stories that fall flat, albeit, you’ll chuckle here and there. There is a great disconnect between the characters & story and the audience. They’re all generally likable–which is a problem. Films are comprised of characters we love and love to hate. When you generally (again, not fervently) like all the characters, the stakes are never high. The journalists writing the stories and the characters therein are incredibly one-dimensional with little to no growth arc. Neither the audience nor the characters are taken on a journey. And the short story that is the most blase´ and perfunctory of all is the one featuring Timotee´ Chalamet as the one-dimensional, self-centered student socio-political activist that has been consistently highlighted in the advertising (newsflash: kids and teens are rarely more enlightened than adults; don’t live your life by what’s on Tik Tok or presently being sensationalized).

If you are in the mood for a quirky out-of-this-world diversion into a whimsical world, then this film may fit the bill. If you’re looking for a substantive story, you won’t find that here. Go into it with an eager attitude to appreciate the art of the cinematic image, and that is the best approach to enjoying Anderson’s newest feature. If your favorite Anderson feature has been Grand Budapest or Rushmore prior to watching The French Dispatch, then you may find yourself wanting to go back and rewatch those for a better story.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Shang-Chi (2021) Review

An action-packed reimagination of the classic kung-fu movie that is equally enjoyable as a stand-alone movie or MCU world-building installment that is best experienced on the BIG SCREEN. It’s no secret that I can take or leave the MCU, same with the DCEU. I’ll be up front and say that I like a select few superhero movies (Batman Returns, 89, Wonder Woman, all the X-Men movies), Batman Returns being my favorite (and I still argue the best comic book movie ever); however, all that said, I thoroughly enjoyed Shang-Chi! From beginning to end, it’s filled with explosive action and properly seasoned with moments of hilarity. Whether you are watching it because you are a Pavlovian MCU fan boy or girl that simply salivates over anything Marvel (or Disney) or you are seeking to be entertained in a cinematic escape for a couple of hours, then this film fits the bill.

Even though there are some cliche extreme wide landscape shots at the beginning that are working hard to convince you that the best place for the movie is on the BIG SCREEN, that’s not why you want to experience it in that ideal environment. You want to experience it on the BIG SCREEN because of the big action moments, mind-blowing fight choreography, intimate character-development scenes, and laughter and cheers from the audience!

Shang-Chi: and the Legend of the Ten Rings boasts a great cast that includes a key supporting role played by the indelible Michelle Yeoh. Our lead Shaun/Shang-Chi is played by the handsome Simu-Liu and his best friend played by the popular Awkwafina. These actors are supported by a well-written screenplay that not only delivers plenty of adrenaline-pumping sequences, one-liners and zingers (mainly from Awkwafina), but never loses focus on the external goal and internal needs. Simple plots with complex characters make some of the best movies!

While there are times that the mystical elements of the movie do seem a bit over-the-top, even for a superhero movie, the superpowers (be they derived from nature or from a weapon), don’t cross the threshold between suspension of disbelief and utter ridiculousness. The movie lays out the rules of its worlds in the first act, so you are willing to accept whatever is thrown at you. Writing tip: you can get away with nearly anything if you properly set it up. We learn everything we need to follow the story at the beginning of the movie.

If you’re seeking to be entertained by a solid high-concept movie, then you don’t want to miss seeing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings on the BIG SCREEN. Seriously, you can go into it the movie, not being that familiar with the preceding MCU movies, and still be able to thoroughly enjoy your time. If you are an MCU geek and love all the nods, Easter eggs, and world-building details, then you will also be happily satisfied. I hope this movie is an indication of the types of movies we are to witness in the next stage(s) of the MCU.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Candyman (2021) Review

Candyman (2021) - IMDb

Sweet on the outside, sour on the inside. A visually impressive attempt to provide a thoughtful exploration on duality and identity, is overshadowed by heavy-handed ideology. Nia DaCosta delivers audiences a spiritual sequel to the cult horror film Candyman (1992) that is grounded in much of the lore of the original, yet forges a new frontier that simultaneously serves as a vehicle for horror legend Tony Todd to pass the hook onto Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. DaCosta is joined by writer-producer Jordan Peele and screenwriter Win Rosenfeld to “tell everyone” who dares to look in a mirror and call out his name five times. Admit it, even in our most rational state, we are still a little apprehensive to stare at our reflection and call out Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candym–. That’s the power of horror films! These fictional stories on screen have their mystical ways of affecting the collective conscious in such a manner that we change or question our behavior. Another great example of this effect is the iconic highway scene in Final Destination 2. And challenging audiences was certainly what the three screenwriters had in mind when writing the story for Candyman (2021). Unfortunately, the agenda-driven message steels the focus away from the stunning visuals, and ultimately fails to effectively paint a portrait of reality that invites all to engage in the important conversations the film is trying to have, instead, alienating audience members that don’t share the filmmakers’ opinions. Suffice it to say, this film is Peele for the course.

In present day, a decade after the last of the Cabrini towers were torn down, rising star artist Anthony (Abdul-Mateen II) and his partner move into a loft in the now gentrified Cabrini. A chance encounter with an old-timer exposes Anthony to the true story behind Candyman (Todd). Anxious to use these macabre details in his studio as fresh grist for paintings, he unknowingly opens a door to a complex past that unravels his own sanity and unleashes a terrifying wave of violence. (IMDb)

If you’ve never seen the original Candyman, don’t worry. While having seen the original will certainly help audiences to appreciate world-building and backstory elements, there is enough context given to help those that may be unfamiliar. Following the screening I attended, I heard individuals negatively critique the retconning of plot elements in the original; truth is, the parts of the original that were reimagined to fit the backstory of 2021’s Candyman were thoughtfully adapted.

While I have my reservations with the film, I would be remiss to not highlight the excellent direction, cinematography, editing, costuming, production design, and even the performances! Visually, the movie is stunning! All the mise-en-scene elements work together to create a BIG SCREEN experience. And talk about outstanding performances. Back in the heyday of the slashers (late 70s through the 90s), we did not expect to be impressed by the performances of the cast. And while there are notable exceptions of horror films WITH brilliant performances, usually it’s not expected. Over the last 7–10 years, horror films have been stepping up their performance game. The lead and most of the supporting cast will all captivate you. Unfortunately, there are useless characters like Brianna’s (Anthony’s girlfriend’s) brother and his boyfriend. Having no real affect on the plot, this interracial gay couple was little more than a token that could be removed from the movie, and the movie still play out the same way. However, if it weren’t for these two characters, the movie would be lacking ANY humor. So I suppose that was their purpose, to add humor.

There are so many beautifully crafted shots and shot sequences in this film. From juxtapositions of the old meeting with the new to geometric shapes and lines, there are many excellent compositions. The production and set design and lighting, of this film, are used in similar ways that the designs in expressionism are used. Expressionism uses the design of buildings, costumes, lighting, and camera angles to externalize emotions, psycho-social states of being, and ideas. And with expressionism being part of the formula of horror (expressionism+surrealism+Poe+Freud), it makes sense how and why there would be this care shown in the mise-en-scene.

All the backstory elements are communicated through the brilliant use of shadow puppets. The shadow puppet sequences are perhaps my favorite recurring diegetic device used in the film. Not only do these shadow puppets provide exposition, they also move the plot forward in action and subtext.

The idea of shadow puppets as a storytelling device is best explored in Plato’s Cave. French film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry likened the movie theatre to Plato’s famous allegory Plato’s Cave found in Plato’s Republic. But since we’re not all film or philosophy theorists, here is a quick explanation of Plato’s Cave:

The allegory states that there exists prisoners chained together in a cave. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners are people carrying puppets or other objects. This casts a shadow on the other side of the wall. The prisoners watch these shadows, believing them to be real. Essentially, what Plato is exploring is the concept of “belief vs knowledge.” The prisoners (or audience) in this analogy believe the images on the wall as reality; when in actuality, it is only the puppeteers version of reality. The analogy goes on further to describe a prisoner breaking free and venturing from the cave out into the real world. Two things happen (1) the newly freed prisoner completely rejects the imagery in the cave and returns to warn the prisoners of their one-dimensional view of reality, and risk being killed for a radical view, or (2) the freed prisoner fears or cannot reconcile actual reality and retreats back into the cave, where there is comfort in the surroundings, to warn the prisoners not to leave. Therefore, this highlights how a lack of knowledge leads to blind belief.

Despite being centuries old, the allegory is appropriate for filmmaking. After all, the audience watches images on a screen. We’re meant to believe it to be real, but we know it’s false. Only when we step out of the theater back into reality can we take what we’ve learned in the cinema and apply it to our lives. In a literal sense, a movie is just a series of images. But digging deeper, they present unique ideas and themes that we can take with us into the real world. Numerous movies utilize this concept in their plots and themes. You have probably seen films where a character believes one reality and then becomes exposed to another, greater reality and is never the same. In the case of 2021’s Candyman, DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld have metaphorically trapped the audience in an ideological cave to present their versions of our reality that exists outside the cinema’s doors.

The movie has some great kills! But it highlights a moral problem plaguing this movie. From the art gallery to the critic to the girls at the prep school, the only victims, to meet their gruesome demise ON screen, are white characters. While there are a couple of off-screen deaths of black characters, the only ones in the visible mise-en-scene to meet with Candyman’s iconic hook are white. Had this movie been directed and/or written by a white writer-director and only killed and disparaged black characters, there would already be a #cancel campaign on Twitter. In my five years as a film professor and seven years as an active critic, I cannot ever recall a horror movie (in particular, a slasher movie) that ONLY killed black characters and disparaged the black community in virtually every scene from the opening to the closing. So if that would not be tolerated by the public–and for good reason, a movie released like that in 2021 (or ever) would be in incredibly poor, despicable, disrespectful taste–then the inverse should not be acceptable here.

I get what DaCosta, Peele, and Rosenfeld are trying to do with this horror movie. From the time of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu, horror has been used to comment on societal observations to either warn of an impending dangerous ideology, to provide allegorical material that can be used as a framework to better understand marginalized groups, or even to challenge systems or institutions. Which is why horror is often far more truthful than a straight drama. Of course, one can make the argument that this is a fictional film in a fictional Chicago, which is not untrue; however, the problem therein is that little (if anything) in this fictional Chicago sets it apart from the real world, except for the supernatural character of Candyman, because these filmmakers have a point to make. But the problem here is that the very people that these writers want to challenge are the very people that are being unfairly represented in the movie. How is any of that constructive to the conversations of race relations and policing??? Short answer: it’s not.

The symbolism I did appreciate in the film are the moments that we explore the duality in ourselves and our environments. This is represented through literal and metaphoric reflection. Mirrors (or reflections) are regularly used to communicate duality. One of the best examples in recent years, in how mirrors are an effective cinematic device, is the mirror scene in I, Tonya. Just before her final competition in the film, as Tonya is applying her high contrast makeup, we witness in the mirror the internal struggle. On the outside, she is this accomplished figure skater (probably the best athlete the sport has ever seen) but on the inside she is tormented by her mother, her abusive marriage, and what she did or didn’t know about the incident. Likewise, in Candyman we explore the history and identity of Anthony and his neighborhood. Anthony has a secret in his past that has been painted over, that is trying to resurface, and his neighborhood of Cabrini Green has a sordid history that it has tried to cover and hide behind a fresh coat of paint. History is always there. It cannot be erased. And if it’s not dealt with, it can become a specter and haunt you and your environment. The mirrors and other reflective surfaces of Candyman are brilliantly used to communicate this idea of duality.

It is clear that DaCosta is a gifted director, but I hope that she works with different writers in the future that can find that balance of commenting on or raising awareness of something important, but also finding the ways to bring everyone to the table for a thoughtful discussion. The power of cinema, and in particular horror films, is that it can bring diverse groups of people together from all walks of life to both be entertained and challenged through screams, jumps, and laughter.

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Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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