Eternals

The Eternals group shot

Like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, Eternals is a Marvel superhero movie that’s sketchy, thin, never fully fleshed out. Not bad, exactly, just hard to get a bead on. Is stuff missing or was it never meant to be there?

Perhaps its problems lie in the origins of the source material, an iteration of an iteration etc etc. The first of the superhero gangs was 1960’s Justice League (itself a revival of the 1940s Justice Society of America), a greatest-hits compilation of DC Comics’ big hitters – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash and more. In 1963 Marvel responded to the success of the Justice League with its own version, the Avengers – Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Ant-Man and more. When comic-book artist and innovator Jack Kirby left Marvel in 1970 – sick of Stan Lee getting the credit (and paycheque) for his creations – he went to DC and created a whole new pantheon of superheroes, the New Gods, a mythological spin on the superhero genre, where, against a backdrop of the two worlds of New Genesis (hooray) and Apokolips (boo), a good versus evil war was waged, with Orion, Highfather and Metron among the heroes and Darkseid a key villain. Back at Marvel again in 1975, Kirby did it again, coming up with the Eternals, a mythological spin on the superhero genre, where, against a backdrop of two… you follow my drift.

They’re not entirely comparable, any of these comic universe creations – the New Gods are from different planets, whereas the Eternals have been deliberately created by the Celestials to counter the menace that is the Deviants – but there is a reason why you’ve probably not heard of the New Gods, nor the Eternals, until the Marvel machine cranked them back into life. They’re largely unnecessary. Those positions are taken.

A large slab in the sky
This is what the apocalypse looks like



Enter Chloé Zao, who hadn’t yet won her Oscar for Nomadland when she signed on to direct, the latest in a series of bold directorial choices by Marvel (among plenty of other examples see also Cate Shortland for Black Widow and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck for Captain Marvel). Zhao co-writes too, and attempts to put fresh faces and a new spin on superhero material that’s being asked to do three things simultaneously – lay out the origina and lore of the Eternals universe, prepare them for integration into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and tell a dramatically satisfying standalone story.

Unsurprisingly, that story is apocalyptic – the immortal Eternals’ brief has always been to save humans from the depradations of the Deviants (ugly, nasty) but under no circumstances should they interfere otherwise in the progress of the species. Now, with an apocalypse impending, should the gang get back together to save Planet Earth?

Requirements one (lore/origin) and two (MCU insertion) Eternals manages pretty well. By the end of the movie we know who these immortals are, where they’re from, how they fit into our world and theirs and where they might be heading. We’ve met Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan), all up to the job of, by turns, appearing vulnerable before striking the next in a series of power poses.

It’s diversity casting, which won’t make the Proud Boys too happy, and they’re a good cast, though often without much to do except pout. There’s a lot of chat, quite a lot of ethical trolley-problem philosophising about “the Emergence” (as the apocalypse is called) and a slight desperation on everyone’s part – writers, director, actors – not to sit in a groove already worn smooth by the Avengers. Even so, Kumail Nanjiani is clearly in Robert Downey Jr territory as Kingo, an incredibly vain superhero whose cover story is that he’s an incredibly vain Bollywood star. Thumbs up to him, and to Brian Tyree Henry as “Marvel’s first gay superhero” (this isn’t the place to point out that superheroes and sex are uneasy, er, bedfellows – in spite of Superman and Spider-Man’s dalliances). Henry was great in The Outside Story and is entirely great again here, somehow injecting character and pizzazz into a handful of lines, which is more than can be said for Gemma Chan and Richard Madden, who seem to be drowning. As for Angelina Jolie, whose presence in this film seems all wrong – as if a real superhero had touched down at your local supermarket – she gamely mucks in with the rest of them and gets about as much lift-off – not very much. Oddly, deaf actor Lauren Ridloff (“Marvel’s first deaf superhero”) does get cut-through. Maybe not speaking is a bonus.

To try and sum the whole thing up, it’s a valiant fail. A superhero movie that doesn’t need to exist, made by a company who didn’t really spend enough money on it. Zhao directs well, there are some neat new special effects based around light’s changing qualities – it shimmers, it stabs. And there are some good fights and some fun interchanges between the (too) big cast. But a lack of a real bad guy as a focus is a problem, particularly as things wheel towards the inevitable big fight finish and the Eternals end up, more or less, fighting against themselves. The film’s big problem in a nutshell – it’s fighting the entire MCU.






Eternals – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









The Roads Not Taken

Leo leans on Molly's shoulder

For middle aged people wondering what the hell happened to the great life they were going to have, where the hell it all went wrong, The Roads Not Taken is your film, but don’t come to it expecting uplift.

Javier Bardem plays Leo, a guy living a life of extreme misery in New York. Floored by what might be a stroke, he needs help to do the most basic everyday things and gets it mostly from his devoted daughter (Elle Fanning), who matter of factly sorts out Leo when he pisses his pants at the dentist and then loses her job because caring for dad has been taking up too much of her time. Misery loves company.

Things are not going well. Leo, for his part, barely notices any of this. He’s barely in the real world and is instead living two parallel fantasy lives, imagining, we imagine, what the “roads not taken” might have yielded if he had taken them.

In one contrary imagineering to his actual grim existence he’s living out in the desert in Mexico, towards the end of a tempestuous affair with the firecracker Dolores (Salma Hayek). In another he’s a globetrotting writer whose restless spirit has brought him to a Greek island, where a beautiful young woman (Milena Tscharntke) has caught his eye, prompting the much older Leo to embark on a pursuit that looks foolish.

A relationship ending and another beginning, there’s a certain symmetry. And a lot of beauty. These parallel, other lives – they might be alternate realities, or could possibly just be the result of a fevered imagination, or Leo’s medication – have been chosen for their picturesqueness and DP Robbie Ryan (who has Slow West, American Honey and Marriage Story on his CV alongside a stack of work for Ken Loach) pulls out the stops to make everything look gorgeous. How many picture postcards and holiday snaps have there been of Greek islands sparkling in an azure sea? Or from Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico? Both get plenty of exposure here.

Salma Hayek and Javier Bardem in a car
Meanwhile, in Mexico… 



Apart from 1992’s Orlando, Sally Potter’s films don’t usually break through into the mainstream. And yet she has a way of both getting great talent to work for her and of getting great work from the talent she gets. This is one of those films where the screenplay (also by Potter) doesn’t say it all. The actors are expected to fill in the missing gaps, and do. Laura Linney is “the woman” in the actual, miserable reality of Leo’s life, the ex wife scarred by bitterness. Hayek, so often required to be little more than a cartoon (it’s the figure), is also nuanced and complex, suggesting a woman of great passion nursing a great loss. Tscharntke, as the hot young thing Leo’s getting into a terrible state over in Greece, is in star-is-born territory. Elle Fanning, so good at playing the anxious insecure young woman, gets plenty of opportunity to do so here. And Bardem, playing essentially three different people who happen to look alike and share the same name, resists the urge to make a meal of it.

Is Leo imagining all this – those locations do seem a bit tourist-obvious – and does it matter? Are these fantasies enriching his miserable current life? How is this all going to resolve itself? Where is it all going?

Gently, ever so gently, there is movement. In the real, here-and-now world of Costco trousers and New York taxis, a chink of optimism. Which is handy because without it this film would be very hard work indeed, the gulf between Leo’s elaborate fantasies and his grim daily existence being simply too wide.




The Roads Not Taken – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

Ryan Reynolds, Salma Hayek and Samuel L Jackson

There’s an extended version and a moviehouse version of The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard. I watched the longer one, which seemed padded by about 15 minutes, which is exactly the amount of time that the extended version has been extended by. So if you’re after a more concentrated hit of action comedy – or don’t have long left to live…

If you really don’t have long left to live, and feel the need for knockabout fun, you don’t need to waste time by watching the first film in order to enjoy this second one. That was a poacher-versus-gamekeeper tale – a hitman (Samuel L Jackson in “motherfucker” mode), an over-cautious bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds in quippy Deadpool mode) and the hitman’s wife (Salma Hayek), all spun through various comic-book life-threatening situations, Darius Kincaid (Jackson) and Michael Bryce (Reynolds) amusingly not seeing eye to eye, while Hayek’s Sonia Kincaid alternately made jokes about her breasts or tried to straddle her screen husband.

Like Red 2, the film about superannuated spies, this is a better film than the original. It’s funnier, faster paced (ignoring the extra 15 mins of the extended cut), gives more screen time to the “batshit crazy” Sonia and generally lets its stars get on and do more of their thing, as Red 2 did. There are many jokes about the characters’ age, and with a subplot about Sonia and Darius trying to have a baby, there needs to be, since at the first mention of the idea you’re likely to think, “Hang on a second, how old is Salma Hayek exactly?” Answer: 55 when this was made. And I’ll have what she’s having.

This is the sort of film that doesn’t have one evil gang boss driving the action but several – including a thrown away (again) Gary Oldman – but over all of them is the superbad megalomaniac mastermind Aristotle Papdopoulos (Antonio Banderas), a Greek shipping magnate driven to despicable dastardliness by the latest actions of the European Union against his country, “the cradle of civilisation”. He’s your crypto-gay loquacious Bond-villain style of bad guy who loves a flounce and a flick of the hair – “like Liberace banged a set of curtains,” as Bryce puts it when he first claps eyes on him.

Darius and Michael
Downtime: Darius and Michael



Don’t worry about the EU reference. There is no real political content once the setup has been set up and the wagon’s begun to roll. It’s James Bond/Fast & Furious action set pieces plus quips, mostly handled with skill by director Patrick Hughes and with lots of funny gags by writer Tom O’Connor, who’s more sure-footed on spoof thriller territory than handling the real thing (see The Courier, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, a fairly pedestrian spy drama, which he also wrote).

There is absolutely no need to follow the plot. And because the sunny, tourist-brochure locations are fabulous – much of it was shot in Croatia, but it’s Italy (Portofino, Capri, Florence) that’s more obviously up in the mix – you could watch it almost as a travelogue.

As well as an almost dismissively used Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman is in it, for a few minutes. So is Richard E Grant, for a funny few seconds. Frank Grillo gets enough space to be large as one of those angry testosterone-filled cops working for Interpol and really wishing he could be back home, or have a SWAT team and choppers to enhance his own prestige. He catches the mood of the almost insane self-love of the other characters perfectly, slots right in and, really, I was wishing that the extra 15 minutes in the extended version were an extra 15 minutes of Grillo. I don’t think they were.

A Mercedes van ker-chunks down a flight of street stairs. Tina Turner turns up on the soundtrack singing Simply the Best. There’s a replay of that car-radio joke from Deadpool, except this time it’s a jukebox that changes song every time a head is whapped into it. Banderas gets to say, “Find the fugitives. Kill them.” There is a slo-mo explosion sequence with people fleeing ahead of the fireball. I’m telling you these things but you already know they happen because that’s the sort of film this is. Saturday night sorted.



The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Frida

Salma Hayek and Ashley Judd in Frida

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

31 January

 

 

Leon Trotsky exiled, 1929

On this day in 1929, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, aka Leon Trotsky, was exiled from the country he had helped create. A member of the victorious Bolsheviks in the revolution of 1917 (having earlier switched allegiance from the Mensheviks), Trotsky rose quickly through the party, proving himself decisively in the civil war against the Mensheviks in 1918. Ideologically he was loosely aligned with Lenin, believed in mass democracy, permanent revolution and internationalism and was opposed to the “socialism in one country” of Stalin. Trotsky found his ideas and those of the Left Opposition increasingly marginalised in the USSR and was also out-manoeuvred by the far wilier Stalin, who would make piecemeal alliances with whoever was most useful to him on the way to the top. Though one of the first members of the ruling Politburo, the head of the Red Army and Lenin’s heir presumptive, Trotsky was nudged aside when Lenin died in 1924, though he remained a public figure long after he had lost political force inside the leadership. By 1927 he had been formally removed from power. And in 1929 he was deported, heading first for Turkey, then France, then Norway, then finally Mexico, where he wrote The Revolution Betrayed, in which he railed against the “degenerated workers’ state” run by an undemocratic bureaucracy which, he prophesied, would eventually be either overthrown by a political revolution or would turn into a capitalist class. In the light of 1989 and the rise of the oligarchs he seems to have been right on both accounts. On 20 August 1940, having survived an assassination attempt earlier in the year, Trotsky was attacked with an ice axe by a USSR agent. He died the next day.

 

 

 

Frida (2002, dir: Julie Taymor)

The role that Mexican Salma Hayek was probably born to play, that of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), she of the vivid paintings, the affairs with fellow artist Diego Rivera and exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the bisexuality, the drug abuse and the infamous unibrow. Director Julie Taymor finds a way of locking all that together without going too low on one knee, and without bogging down in too much detail, in a film that looks very much like a labour of love for Taymor, though it obviously was one for Hayek too – years of lobbying, wads of her own money. The casting is the thing in this one: Hayek not only looks the part, she’s also a Mexican and unafraid to speak her mind, like Kahlo. But gaze too upon Alfred Molina as Rivera, a big tousled bear of a man brimming over with life and optimism. Geoffrey Rush as Trotsky. Even Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller. Reminding us that she’d been a roaring success with her counter-intuitive (masks, puppets) directing of The Lion King on Broadway, Taymor sprinkles a bit of magical realism here and there – such as when Kahlo has the terrible bus accident that broke her back, pelvis, ribs and collarbone and impaled her on an iron handrail, which pierced her womb. Some things don’t need spelling out too clearly. Cinema’s approach to the life of the artist is always a fraught affair. Why talk about the person at all if the art is the thing? And though the worked and reworked script does bog down in explication, seems hung up on the domestic arrangements of Kahlo and Rivera, and is shy of examining Kahlo’s motivations, Taymor makes up for it in the visuals. Why look for text when you can have image?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The classic Salma Hayek role
  • Director Julie Taymor’s fabulous command of imagery
  • Imagine Madonna in the lead – it nearly happened
  • The under-rated Molina – another great performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Frida – at Amazon