‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language. Opens in theaters on Sept. 3.

After the sheer exhaustion of “Avengers: Endgame,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe spun its wheels a bit with “Spider-Man: Far From Home” and “Black Widow.” (Well, at least on the big screen. I’ll keep things simple by not talking about all the connected Disney Plus shows.) Now, following a number of pandemic-related delays, the studio is ready to continue expanding the superhero world with its latest.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is an origin story designed to propel its characters into the ongoing franchise action. Simu Liu stars as the titular protagonist, a fierce warrior with a tragic, complicated past, who has spent the last several years hiding out in America and working dead-end jobs with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). However, when his villainous father (Tony Leung) tracks him down, Shang-Chi must embrace his strengths to protect his mother’s homeland from the mysterious Ten Rings syndicate.

As with most Marvel origin stories, there are peaks and valleys. The cast is terrific, especially the supporting actors surrounding Liu. While the lead actor is a bit uneven at first, he eventually finds his groove, suggesting he’ll grow into the role throughout the duration of the multi-picture contract I’m sure he signed. But the true stars are Awkwafina, who gets most of the film’s laughs; Leung, whose charisma helps him overcome Marvel’s usual problem with lackluster villains; and Michelle Yeoh, who pops up in the second half of the film as a crucial link to Shang-Chi’s history.

I also enjoyed the film’s excellent fight choreography and the humor flowing beneath the surface of most scenes. The screenplay (credited to director Destin Daniel Cretton, Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham) takes the characters seriously, but it also understands how goofy some of Marvel’s dense mythology can be when you think about it too long.

Unfortunately, the film also features some of the MCU’s common flaws. There’s a deadly amount of exposition and the protagonist is unlikable for long stretches until he gradually accepts his calling (think how unbearable Tony Stark would’ve been without Robert Downey Jr.’s charm). Also, once again, the finale sidelines real people and practical locations, choosing to rely on CGI overload as human-like pixels fight over an important doodad during an arial battle.

Regardless, even the most flawed Marvel films — and there are definitely worse entries in the franchise than this one — tend to be worth seeing on the big screen, and “Shang-Chi” is no exception. It’s not perfect, but it’s still a lot of fun. Besides, I’m on board for anything Cretton does considering he made the criminally underseen “Short Term 12.” That 2013 drama remains one of my favorite films and you should seek it out immediately if you haven’t had the pleasure of watching it.

Grade: B

‘Cinderella’

Rated PG for suggestive material and language. Available on Amazon Prime starting Sept. 3.

Never underestimate Kay Cannon. The writer-director excels at turning seemingly tired premises into quality entertainment. “Blockers,” a hilarious and heartwarming story about parents forced to accept that their little girls have become young adults, came out of nowhere to become one of 2018’s most enjoyable movies.

Cannon accomplishes the same feat with this umpteenth adaptation of “Cinderella.” I’ll admit I started the screener with begrudging obligation, but after a few minutes I succumbed to the story’s charm and sharp sense of humor.

I don’t think we need a plot summary of this classic fairy tale, right? The main thing viewers should know beforehand is that Cannon’s version of “Cinderella” is a jukebox musical. She incorporates some great classic songs, rearranged to fit the narrative in creative ways — much like her breakthrough film “Pitch Perfect.”

The titular heroine (played by pop superstar Camila Cabello in a solid debut) is an ambitious young woman who dreams of being a dress designer, but her ambition is hindered by her evil stepmother (a scenery chewing Idina Menzel). However, after a chance encounter with the kingdom’s handsome prince (Nicholas Galitzine, roguishly charming), Cinderella gets some help from her Fabulous Godmother (Billy Porter, who takes full comedic advantage of his brief screen time) and embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

In other inspired casting choices, Pierce Brosnan and Minnie Driver are fantastic as the gruff, self-serious King and easygoing Queen, while Mendel clearly relishes the chance to be wicked (pun slightly intended) and belt out a killer cover of Madonna’s “Material Girl.” But I also appreciated that Cannon provides a realistic motive for her behavior.

The same goes for Charlotte Spencer and Maddie Baillio, who play Cinderella’s stepsisters. The characters are usually cartoonish harpies, but here they seem like actual, multifaceted people, rather than awful obstacles to the heroine’s happiness.

Like most modern musicals, there’s a heavy “Hamilton” influence, but it doesn’t feel like a straight rip-off. Overall, the film’s tone reminded me of “Mirror Mirror,” Tarsem Singh’s underrated 2012 retelling of the Snow White fable.

Not every choice in “Cinderella” is a winner, though. I still don’t understand why James Corden is the go-to guy for musicals these days. (Aside from the fact that he’s an executive producer on this one, of course.) When he pops up for his extended cameo, the comedy grinds to a halt. There’s also some obvious, distracting green screen in his scenes that suggest scheduling issues or pandemic complications.

Nevertheless, the film deviates from the traditional “Cinderella” narrative in some pleasantly surprising ways that makes it worth checking out. (Especially since it’s on Amazon Prime and you can watch it from the comfort of your living room.) Cannon’s interpretation of the fairy tale is an explicitly modern one, which is a wise choice that mostly works. I ended up really enjoying myself.

Grade: B

Home Video Spotlight

‘Apocalypse ’45’

Not rated. Available on Blu-ray and DVD Sept. 7.

This documentary from Kino Lorber chronicles the end of World War II utilizing never-before-seen restored footage and the perspectives of 24 members of the Greatest Generation who lived through the events depicted. Bonus features include three documentary shorts about the war from the 1940s; a footage restoration comparison; and a theatrical trailer.

‘Habit’Rated R for strong drug content, pervasive language, sexual content, some bloody violence, and brief nudity.

In the style of Quentin Tarantino’s early films, this thriller centers on a party girl named Mads (Bella Thorne) who gets a job running drugs for a Hollywood has-been. When their cash gets stolen and things turn violent, Mads and her two friends hide out by dressing up as nuns. The movie also stars Paris Jackson, Hana Mae Lee and Gavin Rossdale.

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