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Posts Tagged ‘2021’

What a terrible testament it is to the passage of time and the ravages of age – that once trim and athletic figure now looking a touch flabby and creaky, that face, its formerly Adonis-like beauty now seamed and masked by a straggly beard and greying hair. Someone who once epitomised cutting-edge cool, now struggling to make sense of the modern world.

But that’s enough about me, though I can’t deny that twenty years of online film criticism have taken their toll. We are here to discuss (amongst other things) Keanu Reeves and his new movie The Matrix Resurrections, directed by Lana Wachowski. I’ll be honest and admit that my heart sank a bit at the prospect of a reappearance by this particular franchise – the original film remains a stunning classic, surely one of the best movies never to win any major awards, but the trajectory of the sequels is a classic example of how even the most exciting and innovative concept can dissolve into overblown nonsense. Like Robocop and The Terminator before it, people tend to forget just how good The Matrix is, simply because the sequels fell so far short of the same standard.

Nevertheless, here we are – and it’s telling that a lot of the initial buzz around this film discussed the possibility that this was either a remake or a semi-reboot, discarding the original sequels and continuing the story along a different path. It seems that everyone wishes the sequels had never happened, or at least been much better.

It initially seems that something odd and tricksy is in progress, as Resurrections opens with a close recreation of the opening sequence from the 1999 film, albeit with different actors. Watching this in some bemusement is a mysterious young woman named Bugs (Jessica Henwick), who seems aware that something is not quite right. It’s a breathless and intriguing sequence, though also quite challenging to keep up with; it also signals the extent to which this film assumes the viewer is familiar with the original.

Soon enough we find ourselves somewhere subtly different, where award-winning games designer Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is leading an outwardly happy life – his work on a title called The Matrix and its sequels having brought him wealth and celebrity. Still, he seems haunted by a vague sense of connection with a woman (Carrie-Anne Moss) he occasionally sees at the coffee shop, and he is having therapy after an episode in his past when he briefly seemed to lose the ability to distinguish between real life and the fantasy of the game.

Then his business partner (Jonathan Groff) breaks the news to him – their corporate overseers at Warner Brothers have decreed the time has come for a fourth episode of The Matrix, and if the original creators refuse to participate, the property will be handed over to hip young replacements, regardless of anyone’s feelings in the matter.

Apparently this is basically what happened with this entire movie, and so I suppose Warners deserve some credit for being game enough to let Wachowski include this rather damning in-joke. Regardless, it elevates the film to a level of witty self-referentiality which I found immensely interesting and promising. Various blackly comic scenes ensue as vapid focus-groupers sit around uselessly brainstorming exactly what it is that a new young audience might want from a Matrix sequel. Meanwhile Thomas starts to get text messages, apparently from fictional characters he created decades before…

This sequence, not to put too fine a point on it, is brilliant – or at least it holds the promise of brilliance, if the rest of the film can follow through on the potential of the conceit. Even while watching it I found myself worrying that they couldn’t possibly sustain this level of invention and cleverness.

Sadly, and not unexpectedly given this series’ track record, they can’t. The really dispiriting thing about The Matrix Resurrections isn’t just that it turns out to be the most pedestrian, uninspired, this-feels-like-a-contractual-obligation kind of sequel imaginable, but that it does so after showing a brief moment of real promise near the start. Not only is the new story predicated on the situation at the end of The Matrix Revolutions, but it laboriously revisits many of the story beats and situations from the original trilogy, never really adding much to them.

And yet, at the same time, it feels like there’s been a conscious effort to distance this film from the others, aesthetically at least – some of the original iconography is still present, but much has been abandoned. The absence of Lawrence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving is keenly felt – the actors cast to replace them do their best (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is one of them, to say more would involve spoilers), but they just don’t have the chops to replace two charismatic performers who were so integral to the original film.

Elsewhere there just seems to be a profound lack of ambition and new ideas, as the plot devolves into a series of overlong fight and chase sequences punctuated by more of those scenes where people gravely discuss quite elementary questions about choice and determinism. There’s nothing here as visually revolutionary as the first film’s use of bullet time; the action sequences aren’t even as impressive or grandiose as the ones in the sequels. The climax, and really the film as a whole, is a bit of a damp squib.

Nevertheless, it’s all still recognisable as part of the Matrix brand, which was probably a key part of the brief. I would like to think that Lana Wachowski had it in her to make a film as bold and intelligent and impressive as the best of her previous work, and the reason The Matrix Resurrections is so cautious and uninspired is simply down to Warner Brothers wanting a new piece of not-too-challenging product for this holiday season. Wachowski herself seems to have been rather ambivalent about the whole enterprise – when the production was shut down temporarily as a result of the pandemic, she apparently seriously contemplated abandoning the project. I am almost tempted to say it might have been better if she had.

The villain of The Matrix Resurrections is contemptuous of sentimentality and nostalgia, which is telling, given that these seem to have been the key drivers behind the film being made at all. I am sure that fans of the series will turn out for this one, because there are fleeting moments here which are interesting and effective – and Keanu Reeves is as enjoyable to watch as ever. But if you take those two drivers away, what remains is simply a massive disappointment.

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Let’s imagine, for the sake of argument, that someone turns up at the front desk of Universal Pictures with the idea for a gripping new thriller: the tale of a small coastal town gripped by fear and institutional inertia, while one of the world’s deadliest killers lurks in the waters just offshore. The name of this new movie? Well, Jaws, obviously. It’s not a remake, before you say anything, it’s an entirely new thing, a brand new adaptation of the original novel by Peter Benchley. How far do you think this project would get?

Not far, you might think, but then again I’ve got quite used to seeing once-unthinkable remakes get to the screen, seldom making much of an impression: The Magnificent Seven, Ben-Hur, The Wicker Man, and so on. Nevertheless, I was genuinely baffled at the news (quite a while ago now) that Steven Spielberg was in the process of doing a new version of West Side Story. For the benefit of new visitors (hello, thanks for dropping by; there’s a link to the A to Z list of reviews at the top, and no, I’m not going to ask you to support me on Patreon or anything), the original Robert Wise version of West Side Story is amongst my absolute favourites – it seems to me to be one of those films it would be impossible to change without diminishing it, somehow, so the prospects of a whole new version… well, this is a big movie made by the world’s most famous director, so it’s bound to make a profit [It turns out maybe not – A], but apart from that, what’s the point of it? What’s it for?

A possible solution eventually emerges. The film is set on the west side of Manhattan in the late 1950s, at a point when many of the slum neighbourhoods were being cleared and redeveloped as more upmarket districts. The area looks like a bomb site, but this doesn’t keep it from being the turf of the local street gang, the Jets, and their leader Riff (Mike Faist). The main target of the Jets’ aggression is the incoming Puerto Rican immigrant community. Tensions between the two sides, and Riff and the other side’s leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) in particular, are growing.

Riff sets out to resolve the matter in the time-honoured manner (by having a big fight), calling on his friend Tony (Ansel Elgort) for help. Recently out of prison and trying to turn over a new leaf, Tony is reluctant – but things change when he meets Bernardo’s little sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) and the pair are instantly smitten, despite the racial and cultural chasm between them. Then again, if love can bloom in such circumstances, perhaps there is hope for peace in the community…

It is quite difficult to write about the new West Side Story objectively: the 1961 version doesn’t so much cast a long shadow as cause a total solar eclipse. Even the new film itself tacitly acknowledges this, as the original story has been amended to provide a role for Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the first film) – Moreno gets very little screen time opposite Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita this time, which must have been a relief. Not surprisingly, Spielberg seems to have realised there is not much of a percentage in attempting to copy the original, and it often feels like the new film is deliberately trying to be as different as possible, regardless of how well this serves either the story or the music.

Certainly Spielberg takes every opportunity to make use of modern film-making technology and capabilities: sequences which were originally mounted on slightly stylised sound-stages now occur in the street, in broad daylight, with a full cast of extras in the background. The film feels more grounded and less theatrical as a result. As you may perhaps have noticed, the details of the story have also been amended – the general through-line remains the same, and the songs are largely identical, but a lot of the dialogue has been changed, some characters expanded and deepened, others less prominent. Even more radically, the order of the songs has been changed (sometimes significantly), along with who performs them – although my understanding is that this actually means the new film is closer to the stage show in some ways.

One of the key differences between the 1961 film and the new one is, obviously, that for Spielberg and his collaborators this is a period piece, a story about a specific time and place in the past. The film works hard to establish the historical and social realities involved – again, making it more grounded and naturalistic. One key but subtle difference is that while they may be credited as the Sharks, the Puerto Rican characters aren’t referred to as such on screen – they don’t really form a street gang like the Jets, being depicted as defending their community rather than acting like delinquents. The Jets, it is suggested, are the real no-hopers, the heirs of prior generations too lazy or short-sighted to move out of the west side before it became a slum.

It’s an interesting new approach and I would have thought the film was unlikely to encounter much trouble for its depiction of the various ethnic and minority groups involved – but apparently the fact that this is a production about but not written by Puerto Ricans means it will always be problematic. Even so, you can’t fault everyone’s intentions – the Puerto Rican characters speak so much Spanish to one another that the lack of subtitles is keenly felt, but apparently this was a deliberate choice, so as not to give English some kind of privileged status.

One way or another this version of West Side Story feels like a very different beast from the Robert Wise film – a period piece, but also very modern in its earnestness and occasional lack of subtlety. The film is so determined to be grounded and naturalistic that it feels conflicted about its identity as a musical: the breath-taking, transcendentally cinematic moment from the 1961 film when the strutting street-gang suddenly start ballet-dancing doesn’t have anything like the same effect here; the same is true for most of the choreography. This version is much more about the songs than the dancing.

But, you know, it’s still the same songs and music, and no matter what the context there is a certain minimum level of quality they are not going to dip below. I’ll be honest and say that hearing them in this new setting was a bit disconcerting, so closely do I associate them with the Robert Wise film, while some of them don’t really seem to fit the style Spielberg is going for – ‘Gee Officer Krupke’ is a cynical vaudeville comedy number, which feels a bit at odds with the film’s determined naturalism. But many of them sound as good as ever, even if the staging sometimes feels a little lacking.

As I say, comparisons with the 1961 film are inevitable, and it would be wrong to criticise Spielberg just for doing something different; he hardly had a choice. But I do think the conflict between the naturalism of the staging and the theatricality of the original show creates a tension which is jarring and awkward rather than energising, while the lavish virtuosity of the film sometimes just isn’t as effective as the brilliant clarity Wise managed to achieve. This isn’t a bad film by any means, but I think in years to come, when people casually refer to West Side Story, this isn’t the movie they’re going to be talking about.

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With the benefit of hindsight, it’s starting to look like one of the key mainstream films of the last few years was 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Perhaps simply because it was a cartoon, and thus to some extent operating under the critical radar, it felt like it had more freedom to embrace some of the more bizarre and imaginative elements of traditional superhero comic books – the result was a critical response verging on the adulatory and a very healthy box office take.

Normally I would suggest that everyone involved was taking notes and that Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home is an attempt to replicate the success of Into the Spider-Verse in a live-action context, but the startling degree to which Marvel Studios plan their operations in advance – up to ten years, if one believes their publicity – does give me pause. Unless Into the Spider-Verse was intended as a kind of test-bed for the new movie all along, of course.

Superhero movies in general seem to have got a bit brighter and bolder since Into the Spider-Verse, anyway, and this does not appear to have affected their dominance even in the post-viral world. That said, I don’t think that any of this year’s first three Marvel Studios releases showcased the enterprise at its best, while Venom: Let There Be Carnage was possibly even more of an enjoyable mess than its predecessor. (Which would mean that The Suicide Squad was the best comic-book movie of the summer: a surprising thought.) Rather gratifyingly, No Way Home sees the Marvel machine finally slip back into high gear and produce a supremely entertaining, wildly imaginative, and surprisingly touching film.

Great Scott! Even the poster should carry a spoiler alert!

The film follows on more or less seamlessly from the end of 2019’s Far From Home (watch the quibbling between maintainers of MCU chronologies begin!), with Spider-Man (Tom Holland) alarmed to find himself in the frame for the death of Mysterio and his identity exposed, courtesy of a tabloid news service run by J Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons, reprising his role from the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man films).

This is obviously bad trouble for our lad, not least because it imperils not just him but also the lives of those nearest and dearest to him. Even after his immediate legal issues are resolved (the initiated should not be terribly surprised by the identity of Peter Parker’s attorney), it is clear that the scandal is impacting on the prospects and happiness of his best friend Ned (Jacob Balaton) and his girlfriend Michelle (Zendaya Coleman). It would, of course, be greatly preferable if the revelation of his identity had never been made, but of course that’s impossible. Or is it?

Cue a maximal Steve Ditko quotient as Peter trots off to beg a favour from Dr Strange (originally created by the same artist as Spider-Man, of course). Can Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, as usual) use his sorcery to fix the situation somehow? Unfortunately, Peter’s tendency to run off at the mouth manifests at exactly the worst moment, as usual, and the plan to ensure everyone forgets Spider-Man’s identity does not go entirely as planned…

And how am I supposed to write about the rest of the movie, I ask myself? I suspect there’s a kind of spectrum when it comes to people’s engagement with No Way Home – at one end there are presumably those who’ve only barely heard of Spider-Man and only go along to see the movie because they’re dragged there by friends or family. Then there are people who’ve seen all the trailers and thus have a pretty good idea of what the big conceit of this film is, even if some of the details may come as a surprise. And then there are people like me: I’ve been following the buzz around this film for months, and have been quietly amused by some of the ways it has impacted on other films (certain performers pre-emptively apologising for not being able to answer questions about No Way Home while they’re supposedly being interviewed about something completely different).

It’s almost impossible to write meaningfully about everything that makes No Way Home such a great piece of entertainment without spoiling things that really should come as a surprise, if at all possible. At least, it seems like a great piece of entertainment to me, as someone who has been watching Spider-Man movies on the big screen since the movies themselves were simply repurposed American TV episodes. The standard this last twenty years has been inestimably higher – it seems a little unfair to me that the reputation of the Sam Raimi films has taken a hit simply because Spider-Man 3 wasn’t quite up to the standard of the first two, while I don’t think that either of the films directed by Marc Webb were quite as disappointing as they are now held to be. One of the loveliest things about No Way Home is the way that it unreservedly celebrates the whole lineage of Spider-Man films leading up to this point: I think it will cause a lot of people to revisit those films and hopefully remember just how good some superhero movies were, even in pre-Marvel Studios days.

After a few films in which the links to the larger Marvel universe (or perhaps we should call it the multiverse now?) felt a bit laboured or tenuous, No Way Home feels like it’s back at the heart of the action without any real sense of contrivance. Chief guest star from the other Marvel Studio films this time is Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange: more than just a cameo, this is a proper chunky supporting role (presumably setting up next year’s Multiverse of Madness). Cumberbatch finds his groove within the more comedic style of the current Spider-Man films very quickly, and manages to make an impression despite a lot of formidable opposition.

I’m aware that the movie-going world tends to fall into two camps: people who are on board with the Marvel project, recognising these films as the excellent entertainment they are, and people who aren’t (whether their response is indifference or outright animosity). The best review in the world isn’t going to persuade members of the latter camp – and it is true that No Way Home is convoluted and stuffed with in-jokes and references mostly aimed at the faithful. But it also has energy, humour, soul, and a real sense of joy and delight. Films like this are the reason why Marvel Studios have become the dominant force in mainstream global cinema.

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Making a strong if slightly oblique challenge for the title of Weirdest Christmas Film of the Year (and a decent tilt at Weirdest Film, full stop) is Valdimar Johansson’s Lamb (Icelandic title: Dýrið). It seems like a lifetime ago that the less-mainstream offerings at this time of year around Oxford used to include vintage offerings like Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves and it is nice to see a film very broadly in the same vein turning up now.

Quite what kind of a movie this actually is takes a while to become apparent (and some might say that the question is never entirely resolved). It opens in the heart of a howling blizzard, only the vague dark shapes of a herd of horses visible in the distance, only hoarse, inhuman breathing audible above the wind. Whatever is abroad in the snow, it is quite literally frightening the horses.

The sheep at the nearest farm respond to all this in their usual largely-inscrutable fashion, but it is clear that something has taken an interest in them. Completely oblivious to all this are the farmers running the place, Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) and his wife Maria (Noomi Rapace): they seem outwardly content, but there is a sense of regret clinging to them which the film takes its time in exploring. (Though this is one of those movies which doesn’t seem to be in a great hurry to do anything.)

Spring arrives and with it lambing season; Ingvar and Maria devote themselves to this crucial time in their usual reserved way. (Rapace does her own veterinary stunts at this point, dragging lambs out of the back ends of sheep with her usual sublime composure.) But then one of the sheep produces a lamb sufficiently out of the ordinary to cause both of them to flinch and gasp.

What exactly makes this lamb so unusual is kept obscure for a while, but they take it into the house and bottle-feed it. I seem to remember from episodes of Blue Peter, or possibly One Man and His Dog, that this is not completely out of the ordinary where sheep farmers are involved. However, the lamb, which they name Ada, is soon sleeping in a cot and being snuggled by the couple as they watch TV. Warmth and delight seem to have entered their lives along with the new arrival. Ada’s birth mother, if that’s a term you can properly use to describe a ewe, is less happy about this, and is often heard plaintively calling for her offspring.

It very slowly and very gradually becomes apparent that Ada, while by no means a human being, is certainly not what you’d call an ordinary sheep, either – she is a mixture of the two which manages to be both unsettling and rather cute at the same time. Much of the film’s effectiveness comes from the tension between the surreal image of, essentially, a lamb-headed toddler, and the completely oblivious responses and behaviour of the two adoptive parents. The narrative driver of the second act of the film is the arrival of Ingvar’s brother Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), a rather shifty former rock star, and even he takes an age before he comes out with the obvious question.

As I say, the issue of exactly what kind of film this is supposed to be is a reasonable one. If we’re going to be reductionist about things, then it’s a subtitled foreign film with a stately pace and limited use of music, which happened to win some kind of award at Cannes – which lands it squarely in art-house territory as far as most people are concerned. Certainly there is an indifference to conventional exposition here that is rarely found in mainstream cinema. On the other hand, judging by the trailers which preceded Lamb to the screen – and long-term readers will recall my thesis that films are almost always accompanied by trailers from the same genre – this is either an arty drama, a full-on horror movie or another superhero-horror fusion (the trailers were for del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, Irish folk-horror film Unwelcome and the latest Marvel spin-off Morbius, which must count as a mixed bag by anyone’s standards).

All this really only matters in terms of giving you an idea of what the experience of watching Lamb is like. I wouldn’t describe it as a horror film per se, although there is certainly some bloody violence before the end and an ominous atmosphere for much of proceedings. Perhaps there is a note of self-conscious pretension to it that some viewers may find rather disagreeable; it is one of those films where you get the sense that everything has been thought through thoroughly in advance. On the other hand, for a film which seems intended to be taken as some kind of fable rather than a naturalistic drama, exactly what it’s supposed to be about is not particularly obvious. It initially seems to be some sort of parable about human exploitation of the natural world, and the inevitable cruelty and disregard for other forms of life which is involved; this may still be the case, but the arrival of Haraldsson’s character in the second act (this is such a formally stylised film it even comes with its own chapter headings) rather clouds the issue. There is also an element of (surely intentional) ambiguity around the climax of the film.

As I have suggested, Lamb is one of those films which can’t help coming across as intentionally weird, perhaps even somewhat affectedly so. It’s also a bit on the slow side, perhaps relying on atmosphere to do the heavy lifting where many films would opt for more incident and plot development, but it doesn’t quite drag – the striking landscape of a remote area of Iceland helps a lot in this respect. And the performances are all quite effective: Rapace is the star name, and she is convincing in a tricky (to say the least) part, but the two men are also quite convincing. It goes without saying that the visual effects used to realise the more outlandish elements of the film are also excellent. In the end, though, this is primarily an arthouse movie rather than anything more conventionally entertaining; it’s the kind of film that requires thought, not to mention the viewer dealing with it on its own terms. If nothing else it is a well-made curiosity.

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The post-production periods of films can vary widely, even in normal times, which means that occasionally busy actors can go through periods where it feels like they have a lot of films out in quick succession: Michael Fassbender had ten films out between 2015 and 2017, while Colin Farrell was in five releases in 2003 alone. Nevertheless, we can thank the current unique situation for the fact that cinemas are currently showing the second Ridley Scott-Adam Driver collaboration in the space of three months.

The new one couldn’t be much more different to the last one, The Last Duel (which I thought deserved more success than it got). At least the new one, House of Gucci, seems to be doing rather better than anyone expected, presumably due to a population of a well-liked star in the main role and simple brand recognition (though I have to admit that for a long time I thought ‘Gucci’ was most notable as the name of the computer technician in Quantum Leap). I speak not of Driver, though he has developed into a versatile and charismatic actor; front and centre on this occasion is Lady Gaga, who as usual is played by Stefani Germanotta.

The movie sees Scott return to the cartoon-awful 1970s Italy milieu he previously visited in All the Money in the World – everyone in Italy is constantly smoking, drinking coffee, riding around on scooters, fiddling their taxes, etc – although (despite the fact this is supposed to be a true story) events and dates have been jumbled around a bit. Germanotta plays Patrizia Reggiani, ambitious young daughter of a man with a large haulage company, who has a moderately cute-meet at a party with a spoddy, angular young trainee lawyer with very good hair (this is, of course, Driver). The film states this happened in 1978, quite a few years after the actual events; the rationale for the change is not obvious.

It turns out that the young lawyer-to-be is Maurizio Gucci, the disinterested scion of the extremely wealthy family behind the famous Gucci luxury goods empire. Not long after Patrizia discovers this, the young couple embark on a whirlwind romance (although it looks suspiciously like she is the one doing most of the whirling). When Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) learns of the affair, he quickly concludes that Patrizia is nothing but a gold-digger and disowns his son.

Still, their romance seems sincere and they build a seemingly happy life for themselves, until Maurizio’s uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), the co-owner with Rodolfo of the Gucci company, reaches out to them. Aldo’s own son Paolo (Jared Leto) has proved something of a disappointment, mainly because (the film suggests) he is a moron with no taste or imagination, and Aldo is beginning to think about the future of the company.

Needless to say Maurizio finds himself propelled back into the bosom of the family almost before he can draw breath, such is Patrizia’s desire to get better acquainted with her insanely rich in-laws and their highly-profitable business. Soon a somewhat ruthless changing of the guard is in progress at Gucci, but is Maurizio aware of just how ruthlessly ambitious his wife is…?

The closing credits of House of Gucci are accompanied by one of those pop-opera cover versions, in this instance Pavarotti giving us his take on Tracy Chapman’s ‘Baby Can I Hold You Tonight’. I’m never really convinced that these things work, as the material and its treatment don’t really go together. On the other hand, in this case it may be deliberate, as there’s a similar weird kind of cognitive dissonance going on with the whole of House of Gucci.

On paper this is a rather bleak and tragic story, a true-life combination of Macbeth and The Godfather, with perhaps a twist of I, Claudius added to the mixture: how it came to be that the Gucci empire went from being a family business to nothing more than a brand name in only a couple of decades. Scott’s approach is to present it as a grotesque, overblown farce – the performances and soundtrack invite us to treat everything as nothing but a delightful lark.

There are some big turns on display on display here, most notably Jared Leto’s extraordinary performance as Paolo Gucci (the mauve corduroy suit Leto wears in several scenes is probably worthy of note in and of itself). That said, I should say that Germanotta gives a terrific and wholly credible performance with no musical content whatsoever: that acting career of hers could have real legs to it. On the other hand, it does seem rather like the ghost of Chico Marx is exerting some extraordinary influence over all the leading cast, vocally at least, and there are some delightfully unexpected bits of dialogue as well (someone shouts ‘You big-a sack of potatoes!’ at a relative during one family row). This is before we even get to the eye-opening sex scene between Patrizia and Maurizio. I would have bet pretty good money that the bout of marital grappling between Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard in Annette, during which they burst into song, was bound to be the weirdest sex scene of the year, but I may well be wrong: the thrashing around and grunting on display here is… well, as you can perhaps imagine, taste and restraint aren’t necessarily House of Gucci’s thing.

All in all, it is not terribly surprising that the surviving members of the Gucci family are far from delighted about the depiction of their relatives in this movie, complaining that they are being portrayed as hideous, overblown caricatures bearing little resemblance to the actual people they are supposed to represent. (Patrizia Reggiani, on the other hand, is apparently most peeved that Lady Gaga never got in touch with her to discuss her performance.) It is true the various Guccis all come across as freaks to some degree, not entirely unlike a sort of Mediterranean version of the Addams family: Jeremy Irons is a walking cadaver, Adam Driver is a geeky and gullible putz (at least to begin with), Jared Leto is a man with no brain, and so on. (Al Pacino is relatively restrained, compared to the rest of them, but it’s still an opera performance.) Does it make any difference that it’s not just Reggiani and the Guccis who are lampooned this way? (Salma Hayek is also off-the-leash as Reggiani’s bonkers astrologer and underworld fixer.)

I don’t see the Gucci family’s reputation being especially damaged by the film, largely because it is almost impossible to take seriously for more than a few seconds at a time (and this is before we even consider just how one can honestly sully the reputation of people who already have such an interesting record of fraud, forgery, tax evasion, and conspiracy to murder).

More importantly, this is a very entertaining film, provided you like a certain flavour of black comedy – I have zero interest in fashion, as anyone who’s ever met me will confirm, but I still enjoyed it a lot. The substantial running time floated by and I did come out actually feeling like I’d learned something. Not something particularly useful, but the statement still stands. Scott’s usual deft direction and a committed set of performances come together with a good script, and the result is a very different film from The Last Duel, but just as accomplished and entertaining. House of Gucci is an overblown melodrama, but very intentionally so. Ridley Scott’s success rate in his eighties is putting many much younger directors to shame.

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Some movies acquire their own folklore as supposedly ‘cursed films’, beset by more than their fair share of accidents and problems. The most famous example is probably The Exorcist, doubtless because of its subject matter – one cast member died and various others suffered on-set accidents. Other films which infamously suffered production difficulties, up to and including injuries and deaths, include The Matrix Reloaded and (most recently) No Time to Die. (Though there’s a facetious case to be made that pretty much every big film over the last almost two years has cause to consider itself cursed.)

Slightly more abstractly, there’s an argument to be made that, for many years at least, the entire notion of doing a sequel to Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film Ghostbusters seemed to labour under some kind of baleful influence. The original film is terrific, let us be in no doubt on this point, but the direct sequel was notably poor, and the 2016 all-female reboot, whatever its merits or otherwise as a film, is likely to be best remembered for the incredibly toxic reception it received from some sections of the fanbase. Hostile early reviews for the latest attempt at a continuation, Jason (son of Ivan) Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, suggested that a good Ghostbusters follow-up might simply not be possible.

Reitman the Younger’s movie opens with a bit of scene-setting spookiness out in America’s heartlands which is not, to be honest, a model of clarity when it comes to establishing exactly what’s going on, although anyone familiar with the 1984 film will be able to figure out some of the key details (how well versed you are in the original will probably have a direct bearing on how good a time you have with Afterlife). The obfuscation is mostly intentional, as a lot of the film is structured as a mystery anyway.

From here we are plunged into the lives of a struggling family whose only hope of getting out of their dire financial straits is the fact that mother Callie (Carrie Coon) has recently inherited a farm from her estranged father. Living there will entail relocating to Oklahoma, which does not fill the hearts of her children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) with joy. (Phoebe is brilliant but socially awkward, while Trevor is in training to start work as a Timothee Chalamet impersonator.)

Nevertheless, off they all go to the sticks, to the small town of Summerville (one of the iron laws of cinema and TV is that whenever somewhere has a name incorporating the words Summer, Sunny, or Pleasant, it’s practically a guarantee that this is ironic and someone is in for a pretty grim time: see The Wicker Man, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Pleasantville, Point Pleasant, etc). It duly turns out that the house and other buildings on the farm are filled with spooky old junk, up to and including backpack cyclotron proton generators and an ancient hearse with a rather odd colour-scheme.

Summerville is also afflicted with regular earth tremors, despite being nowhere near a seismically active zone, a fact which puzzles local seismologist and useless summer school teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) – his idea of occupying his students is to let them watch cheesy 1980s horror films (one of these is Cujo, which seemed to me to be an oblique acknowledgement of how much all the small-town Americana of the film is derived from Stephen King).

It transpires that the events of the 1984 film have become a cross between an urban legend and folklore, and Grooberson is savvy enough to recognise that some of the junk Phoebe and Trevor have discovered is equipment from the original Ghostbusters team. It transpires that their grandfather was indeed a Ghostbuster, and he relocated here, alienating his friends and family, because he believed the world still faced an even greater threat…

Some of the initial reviews of Ghostbusters: Afterlife were not afraid to put the boot in with what some might call excessive force: ‘a stinking corpse of a movie’ is one phrase which stuck in my memory. Well, fair enough: I can see why there are elements in this film which might alienate some viewers – the way its respect for the 1984 film sometimes seems to border on actual fetishization of it being perhaps the most obvious one. Props, costumes and throwaway gags are swooningly dwelt upon, and while it’s not unusual for the plot of a sequel to largely be a retread of the original, it is rare for this to happen quite as openly as happens here: there are most of the same monsters and villains, and some of the original sets and dialogue is revisited. If you’re the kind of person who feels that digitally resurrecting performers who have passed on breaches some kind of boundary of taste and decency, this is also a film which will give you pause.

I suppose you could also argue the film is chasing an audience in the way it apparently attempts to co-opt some of the style and atmosphere of the popular entertainment series Stranger Things (Finn Wolfhard apparently appears in this programme). My ability to comment on this is quite limited, as I am that person you may have heard of who has never seen Stranger Things (though from looking at its pop-cultural footprint I feel I have a pretty good idea of what it’s all about). Certainly the movie is less of a comedy than the original, and the emphasis is very much on the younger characters until the very end.

While it’s true the film gets off to a slow start and takes a while to find its groove (I was almost moved to hug Paul Rudd, figuratively speaking, when he eventually appeared – for he’s just a reliably entertaining screen presence), in the end I found it to be rather charming, occasionally very funny, and in a couple of places actually quite scary. The change of scene and introduction of the new group of younger leads, not to mention the way the film is structured, means it has a wholly different energy, atmosphere and tone to the 1984 film – although perhaps this is what makes the brazen recycling of plot elements more palatable. It certainly feels it’s working hard to establish itself as its own thing before it wheels on the ‘special appearances’ by most of the original cast.

In the end it’s the warmth and occasional poignancy of the film which really makes it work, and much of this is channelled through an extremely winning and impressive performance by Mckenna Grace. I was certainly filled by a rush of fondness for the original movie; Afterlife may fundamentally be fuelled by a mixture of sentimentality and nostalgia, but that can be a potent combination when it’s employed as effectively as it is here. It’s not in the same league as the original film, but a worthwhile addendum to it.

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Normally one of the iron rules of cinema – from that subset of the regulatory corpus devoted to the art of the franchise – is that successful sequels are usually a question of providing more of the same thing from the first film. The trick, such as it is, lies in adding just enough novelty to hide the fact that the film is an exercise in repetition. Long-running franchises inevitably mutate over time, but it’s quite unusual for any two films to be radically different in tone or atmosphere (this is usually the sign of a break in production, a change of key personnel, or both).

So exactly what the hell Netflix think they are doing with Matthias Schweighofer’s Army of Thieves seems to be a reasonable question. One of the arch-streamer’s big releases from early in the summer was Army of the Dead, a big-budget horror extravaganza directed by Zach Snyder in full-on taste-and-nuance-free mode. I had a fairly good time watching Army of the Dead, although I think it’s not a patch on the films that obviously inspired it. Army of Thieves, on the other hand, is a completely different proposition.

Schweighofer was in Army of the Dead and reprises the role here in addition to directing. His character is revealed to have led a former existence as Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert, by day a bank clerk leading a repetitive, dull life, in his spare time an aspiring YouTuber and expert on safecracking and its history. Of particular interest to him are a series of legendary safes made by a man named Wagner, based on his famous namesake’s Ring Cycle of operas.

One day, he is challenged to put his money where his mouth is, when he gets an invite to a secret underground safecracking club in Berlin (my partner has lived there for many years and I don’t recall her mentioning this being a thing, but then I do spend some of the time tuned out while she’s talking). His performance there leads to an invitation to join a faintly ridiculous gang of elite international thieves. So far the overall tone of the film has simply been a bit odd – low-key character comedy with Schweighofer, mixed with bizarre background details about an outbreak of a zombie virus over in Nevada – but its influences and aspirations become a bit clearer, not least because the leader of the gang is Nathalie Emmanuel, best known for playing a supporting member of the Fast & Furious All-Stars in the last few films from that franchise. Also present are Ruby O Fee as an ace hacker and general cool cat, Scott Martin as an especially absurd alpha-male, and Guz Khan as their sandwich-loving getaway driver.

Yes, with the world’s banks on edge because of the zombie virus outbreak and money being shifted around the world, the gang have decided that this is the optimum time to carry out a series of heists on three of the four Wagner vaults (naturally, all the vaults are about to be decommissioned, meaning the robberies must be performed on consecutive days in different European countries). As the world’s leading expert, it will be Sebastian’s job to crack the safes. What could possibly go wrong?

Army of the Dead had a bit of a fridge title, mainly because the zombies were only figuratively an army, and Army of Thieves really does too, because I don’t think five robbers really constitutes an army, either. This is quibbling stuff, however, as Army of Thieves rather unexpectedly turns out to be really good fun. I must admit that when I first heard of the movie and its premise, the old brow did furrow up a bit – it’s a prequel to a zombie movie that doesn’t actually have any zombies in it? – and there is a sense in which it remains a rather odd proposition. This isn’t really a zombie movie, or any kind of horror movie – and yet they feel obliged to put in background sequences about the zombie outbreak in America, and dream sequences with the undead, and references to the zombie crisis. It’s certainly a new approach to a genre mash-up, but whether it genuinely works or not I wouldn’t like to say.

If you disregard all the stuff about zombies – which is, I have to say, a relatively minor element of the film – what you’re left with is an appealing, slick, almost entirely ridiculous caper movie, built around an engaging performance from Schweighofer and directed by him with a lightness of touch which is very appealing. The Netflix caper comedy which has been getting all the attention is Red Notice, which got a massive audience despite being largely dreadful; there are numerous points of similarity between Red Notice and Army of Thieves (there’s even a casual line of dialogue about one character having been the subject of a red notice since they were a teenager), almost to the point where you wonder if all the people working for Netflix ever actually talk to each other about what they’re doing. However, Schweighofer’s movie is much better, being less smug and lazy and taking the time to establish more rounded characters (some of these guys are well on the way to being three-dimensional) and a slightly more coherent plot. The uninitiated viewer will even learn something about the plot of the Ring Cycle, which isn’t something you can say about most action comedy caper movies.

Quite apart from all the odd bits with zombies in them, the film’s existence as a prequel does result in a few slightly regrettable effects – the storyline about the four Wagner vaults isn’t entirely resolved, because, guess what, the final safe is the one Schweighofer is hired to crack in Army of Thieves (all the Wagner music on the soundtrack in that movie finally makes sense as more than a tip of the hat to Excalibur, which is apparently Zach Snyder’s favourite movie), while some of the violence in this film is just a touch more graphic than you might expect given the overall frothy tone of it. (I must also report yet another appearance of that disagreeable trope where, given a nicely diverse group of characters, it’s always only ever a character of one gender, one orientation, and one ethnic group who turns out to be the traitorous villain – see also Eternals, for another example of the same thing.)

On the whole, though, a really entertaining and fun movie, and one which perhaps even manages to give Army of the Dead a bit of much-needed poignancy and depth, given the way it expands Schweighofer’s character. (Then again, unlikely as it seems, apparently he’s going to be in the next sequel, Planet of the Dead, as well.) This is very possibly a better film than its progenitor, but it’s obviously incredibly hard to compare the two. This is a rare example of a franchise where it’s entirely possible someone could thoroughly enjoy one film but take a violent dislike to the other.

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One of the things that frequently surprises even people who know me fairly well is the fact that I do love a good musical: as recently noted, the original West Side Story is one of my favourite films, and any musical aimed at a grown-up audience (as opposed to a Disney movie) will get a fairly sympathetic hearing from me.

I think this is because a really successful musical does that thing of transporting you to a wholly different world and state of being better than virtually any other genre of cinema; I go to the movies in the hope of experiencing that kind of moment. I think the natural home of virtually all movies is on the big screen (I would make an exception for something like Downton Abbey, obviously), but especially for musicals.

Nevertheless, the streamers are muscling in on this genre in the same way as virtually all the others – the big N released the slightly mercenary Sunday-school musical A Week Away earlier in the year, and now they have followed this up with a new project directed by no less an eminence than Lin-Manuel Miranda himself – a screen adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, Tick… Boom!

Larson is probably best-known as the creator of the game-changing late-90s musical Rent, and one rather suspects that the rights can’t have been available or they’d have made a new version of that instead (I didn’t even know they’d made a movie of Rent; I’m pretty sure it never got a wide release in the UK). This is based on an earlier work, or perhaps a couple of earlier works.

The story behind the film is that Larson (played in the film by Andrew Garfield, who I have to say is a bit of a revelation in terms of his singing and dancing ability if nothing else) spent most of the late 1980s trying to drum up interest in a musical he’d written called Superbia – which, given what we see of it in the movie, sounds rather like an episode of Black Mirror with soft rock songs. The film opens in late 1990 with Larson about to turn thirty, still the definition of a struggling artist, seeing his friends doing well in more mainstream careers, and trying to manage a strained relationship with his girlfriend (Alexandra Shipp). Pretty much all that keeps him plugging away in a field swamped with mega-musicals and ‘safe’ productions is the fact that Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford but also by Sondheim himself at one point) once said something nice about his work.

But there is a glimmer of hope when Superbia is chosen for a workshop presentation, something Larson is hopeful will lead to the show actually being produced and his talent being recognised. But staging the workshop puts even more pressure on his shoulders, adding to the fact that he is chronically short of money, one of his friends is in hospital with an HIV-related condition, and things in his love life are likewise at a crisis point.

I’d never heard of Tick, Tick… Boom! until very recently; I’d certainly never heard of Superbia. I suspect most people have never heard of Superbia, outside of the world of musical-theatre wonkery anyway, as (spoiler alert) the show has never actually been produced. But the story of how that didn’t happen was used by Larson as material for a one-man show (or ‘rock monologue’), which is how Tick, Tick… Boom! got started (the title alludes to the sense of time running out and the accompanying pressure to succeed that Larson was feeling).

Does this seem a bit convoluted and self-referential? I should say that the film itself is much more straightforward than I’m probably making it sound: it takes the form of a performance of a slightly expanded version of the show (Garfield is supported by Joshua Henry, Vanessa Hudgens, and a band), with extended flashbacks to the events involved.

As a musical, then, it is partially diegetic – many of the songs are performed either at Larson’s live show or the workshop presentation – and I always feel this is a bit of a shame. The ‘an invisible orchestra strikes up’ moment takes a lot of stick, as do various scenes of people breaking out into song and dance in the street, but this is the heart of what musicals about – doing it all diegetically means you’re only a step away from cutting all the songs out entirely, all in the name of realism. In any case, while the movie never quite goes for a full massed dance routine, there are a few more imaginative sequences – the one grabbing all the critical attention comes when Larson is working at his diner one Sunday morning, and the various patrons all start bursting into song.

The gag, if you will, is that everyone in the joint bears a suspicious resemblance to a bona fide Broadway legend – faces in the sequence include Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, and Phylicia Rashad, while Miranda himself plays the chef – while other scenes are equally stuffed with big-name cameos if you know your stuff.

The danger here is that the film will just come across as a piece of musical theatre exclusively about the history of musical theatre. Parallels have been drawn between the careers of Larson and Miranda, both immense talents who created huge hits while still very young (Miranda’s music has an obvious hip hop influence, whereas Larson came from more of a rock background); the appearance of Sondheim as a character also gives a sense of a lineage going back into the golden age of the musical. There is also a sense of deep concern over the health and prospects of the form – one song, ‘Play Game’, features staging which is bitterly satirical about just how difficult it is to mount an original new musical today. It almost feels strange to have made a movie about something which is so fundamentally about a different form of art.

However, the movie remains accessible and effective, mainly because it proves to be about something more basic and human than any particular art-form: Larson’s struggle to succeed and doubts about his own talent. Lots of films pay lip service to the idea of the struggling artist (usually those about the early life of someone who ends up very successful); few of them put meat on the bones of this idea quite as successfully. At what point do you stop banging your head against the wall and give up? Why suffer in poverty trying to make art when you could put your talent to commercial use and make a comfortable living? You come away from the film with a renewed respect for people who labour under these conditions and eventually get their break.

This is still perhaps a bit more arty than most mainstream musicals, and I didn’t really come away whistling any of the tunes. But the backdrop to the film is convincing, the performances are good – very, very good in the case of Andrew Garfield – and Miranda directs with elegance and style. This isn’t the traditional musical blockbuster, but then I don’t suppose it was meant to be. Nevertheless, a well-made and effective movie.

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One of the things the last couple of years has really brought home to me is the fact that while I do, obviously, enjoy watching films, I also have a helpless passion for the theatrical experience: actually going out to a cinema, trying to sit patiently through the adverts, wondering which trailers we’re going to get, and so on. I’ve got West Side Story on DVD and have lost track of how often I’ve seen it, but every time it comes back on at a cinema I try to watch it again there, simply because the context makes a truly great film into an almost overwhelming one. I saw it on the big screen again the other night, where it was preceded by the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming version: predictable cries of ‘Spoilers!’ from someone at the back, in addition to a vague sense of bafflement at what on earth Spielberg thinks he can possibly achieve. No film is entirely perfect, but West Side Story comes much closer than most, especially up on the big screen.

It was just as well I went, as the following day Niece tested positive for Covid (life is still not back on an entirely even keel and my family are showing superhuman reserves of patience and generosity by putting up with me for much longer than anticipated) and trips to the cinema are off the agenda for at least the next ten days. So much for an early verdict on the Ghostbusters sequel or Benedict Cumberbatch’s new western.

‘There’s always home cinema,’ someone said, but, you know, that always sounds a bit of an oxymoron to me. But I am in a minority, of course: the home cinema audience is huge, and it seems like an appreciable chunk of them spent the other weekend watching Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Red Notice, which apparently had the biggest audience share for its debut of any film in Netflix history. (It also had the tiny cinema release Netflix usually reserves only for films it hopes will win Oscars: I’m going to stick my neck out and say unless they introduce a new category for Best Film With No Substance, Identity, or Original Ideas of Its Own, Red Notice will be going home empty-handed.)

Red Notice is virtually a fridge title anyway: apparently it’s another name for the most serious kind of international arrest warrant, not that this has any relevance to the plot until the last few seconds. The film gets going with some flim-flam about fabulous jewelled eggs that Mark Antony gave to Cleopatra as a wedding present (the eggs and even the marriage are entirely fictitious, by the way); the quest to reunite the eggs is the plot device the rest of the movie pivots creakily around.

One of the eggs is in Italy, so we get a swooping drone camera shot of the iconic and unmistakable skyline of Rome, which the director then decides to obscure behind a huge caption saying ROME, presumably because he knows this film is aimed at an audience whose carpets and knuckles are frequently in contact. Leaping stoically from a hefty vehicle is genial Dwayne Johnson, whose head looks a bit like an egg these days (he was paid 10% of the very substantial budget): Dwayne basically seems to be playing a variation on his Fast & Furious character, in this case a no-nonsense FBI agent chasing a daring art thief. Johnson thinks the thief has already nicked the egg. ‘Of course not!’ sneers the museum director. But our man knows better, and the thief has made the mistake of swapping the priceless treasure for a fake which dissolves when a well-known soft drink is poured over it. Even more perplexingly, given he must have nicked the egg the previous night (the exhibit is surrounded by tourists all the time), the thief (Ryan Reynolds) has stuck around for some reason.

Still, it enables Johnson and Reynolds to chase about and swap repartee for a bit, which is really the meat of this kind of movie; it looks for a bit like Reynolds has got away, but no, Johnson turns up and nabs him properly, and he gets sent off to the Russian gulag to await trial (I think some of the jurisprudence in this movie is a bit iffy, but I expect you had already figured that out for yourself).

But lo! There is another twist, as another art thief (Gal Gadot, on another 10% of the budget) pinches the egg after Johnson recovers it, having taken on the job of finding all three in return for a huge payday. What’s more, Gadot frames Johnson for the theft, and Interpol send him off to be Reynolds’ cell-mate in Russia.

Yes, we are back in buddy-buddy land, and it falls to Reynolds and Johnson to team up, bust out of prison with virtually a single bound, and try to stop Gadot from getting the other two eggs, bickering and squabbling all the way. Can they find the other eggs in time? Will they come to respect and like each other? And just how big a slice of the budget is Ryan Reynolds actually in line for?

Let’s get one thing straight: Red Notice is a pretty bad movie, even by the standards of Netflix originals. All three stars have basically been nailed into their comfort zones and are required to work with a script where various elements of old Fast & Furious, Ocean’s Eleven and Indiana Jones films are cobbled together, all seemingly with the least demanding of audiences in mind. There are holes in the plot Dwayne Johnson would probably fit through, plot twists that are either very predictable or completely absurd, grindingly obvious expo- and info-dumps, and heavy reliance on slick and (also obvious) CGI. There are some tonal problems for what’s supposed to be a knockabout caper (at one point Gadot, desirous of information, applies electrodes to Johnson’s lower anatomy, and not in a recreational way). Such is the nature of the plot that the film doesn’t even have a proper climax or ending, just sort of crunching its way down into a lower gear while getting ready for the inevitable sequel or two. It is mechanical popcorn film-making of the least attractive kind, and shorn of the benefits of the theatrical experience there is little to disguise this.

However, it would be remiss of me not to admit that watching it was not a wholly horrible experience: genial Dwayne has become the world’s biggest star because he is an agreeable screen presence, after all, and in this film he does the sort of thing audiences like to see him do – the film only really pushes him into new territory at one point where he is required to do the tango with Gadot, which resembles what will happen if examples of industrial architecture are ever allowed to compete on Strictly. Ryan Reynolds, also, is very good at the kind of snarky, faintly camp and knowing schtick he is constantly doing throughout, and the film does have some pretty good gags in it. I must also acknowledge the presence of what I have called for some years the Kurylenko Factor: which is that any film in which someone like Gal Gadot habitually turns up in tight dresses, well-fitted jodhpurs, swimsuits, I think you’re getting the idea here, is always going to have a kind of rudimentary appeal on a very basic level, no matter how bad the script. I’m not proud of it, but it is a fact.

The thing is, though, that the idea is surely to take charismatic stars, adept light comedians, and beautiful women and put them in a film with a really good script where they shine, not just treat them as nearly sufficient in and of themselves and just do the barest minimum to cobble a story together around them. But this is what Red Notice feels like: it’s just dumb and pointless, for all the slick and lavish presentation. A shocking waste of time and talent, and a very bad omen for the future.

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With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps it was always the Eternals who had the most potential to throw a spanner in the works of the mighty Marvel machine. One of the more abstruse debates in the realms of comic book history is the exact nature of the working relationship between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and who, if anyone, was the dominant creative talent. Both men claimed it was them, one way or another; Lee was a more flamboyant self-publicist by far, and had another quarter-century to put his side of the story after Kirby died in 1994, hence his status as the perceived Prime Mover of the Marvel Universe.

Not that this is necessarily untrue. Working together, the Lee-Kirby partnership produced the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, the X-Men, Daredevil, Black Panther and the Silver Surfer. Lee working with other artists, most notably Steve Ditko, created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Kirby working alone, on the other hand… well, he co-created Captain America back in the 1940s, but apart from that – Machine Man, anyone? Devil Dinosaur?

The original Eternals comic-book was the product of Kirby’s mid-seventies sojourn with Marvel Comics, something he wrote and pencilled himself. Heavily influenced by (amongst other things) the ‘ancient astronaut’ books of Swiss hotelier and convicted tax-fraud Erich von Daniken, it was never really supposed to be a part of the larger Marvel universe, being a cosmology separate to itself. It didn’t stay that way, of course, but the grafting of the Eternals characters onto the wider continuity has never quite taken: someone has a go at doing something with the Eternals every few years, which is briefly successful, but then they all get quietly forgotten about for a while, until the next revival comes along (one obscure bit of the lore is that, in the comics, Thanos is technically an Eternal; it’s not entirely clear if or how the movies are going to deal with this).

Will Chloe Zhao’s movie do anything to break this age-old (well, decades-old) cycle? Let us not forget that Zhao has the singular distinction of releasing a Marvel movie in the same year that her previous film (Nomadland – no, still haven’t seen it) won Best Picture at the Oscars. (What was that quote about what Fred and Ginger individually brought to their partnership?)

Well, the film gets underway with the first of several big whomps of exposition to the viewer’s head – delivered by roller caption, no less. It all boils down to a bunch of almost infinitely powerful aliens called the Celestials sending a slightly less infinitely powerful bunch of aliens called Eternals to Earth, to protect the developing human race from some considerably less infinitely powerful aliens called Deviants. (Lots of blazing cosmic power in the mix here, along with Kirby’s gift for rather oddball nomenclature – which the film rather cheekily cocks a few snooks at.)

We get to see the Eternals arriving on Earth in 5000 BCE: there is a nicely understated raid on Kubrick as their black slab of a starship slides toward the planet out of the void of space, followed by some well-staged superhero action in the classic style as they save some primitive humans from marauding, sinewy Deviants. All this stuff in the ancient past with the Eternals introducing humanity to various innovations (agriculture, steam-power, the Mexican accent) takes place in a lyrical-pastoral-mythical mode which I found rather pleasing, to be honest.

Cue a jump forward to the present day, where Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan), who has vast cosmic powers and never ages but still apparently can’t grasp the concept of an alias, is working in London. An immense earthquake is followed by the emergence of a new strain of Deviant (whom the Eternals figured they’d killed off centuries ago, after which they went their separate ways). Her old flame Ikaris (Richard Madden) turns up to help out, and they decide it is time to get the band back together. When it turns out that one of their number has already been slain (the awkward bit of comics lore where Eternals are literally immortal and indestructible has been dispensed with for the film), the scene is set for the revelation of the truth about the Eternals’ true nature and that of their mission on Earth…

So, a bit of an outlier as Marvel movies go: so much so that you can almost imagine Eternals working better as a standalone film with no ties to the rest of the franchise (in line with Jack Kirby’s original concept). The links that do make it in feel more than usually contrived; Marvel seem to feel obliged to cram obscure characters into each new film at this point, to say nothing of a voice cameo by… ah, I shouldn’t spoil it. (There are also a couple of references to DC Comics characters, who are apparently part of pop culture in the Marvel world. One wonders if the DC movie adaptations are any better over there.)

On the other hand, the fact the Eternals are such an obscure property – I could only have told you the names of a couple of these guys – means that the Progressive Agenda Committee have been very free to come in and give them a proper seeing to, retaining the names and (to some extent) power sets of the characters but changing ethnicities, genders, and almost everything else, regardless of Kirby’s original conception or indeed whether it even makes sense on the film’s own terms. But then this is the nature of modern culture, as is the appearance of a disagreeable trope, the nature of which would be another spoiler.

There are still a whole bunch of Eternals, though, which means many of them inevitably spend a lot of time in the crowd scenes just standing around in the background – one main character is completely absent throughout the climax and I honestly didn’t notice he wasn’t involved. Who manages to cut through? Well, Madden does okay as Ikaris, as does Salma Hayek as the matriarch Ajak; Angelina Jolie undeniably makes an impression in a rather secondary role as mentally-fragile war-goddess Thena. There’s an interesting role for Kumail Nanjiani as an Eternal who’s become a Bollywood star – however, as ostensible lead Sersi, Gemma Chan is amiable but essentially affectless.

And the result is… well, the film certainly has scope and a sort of visual majesty about it, even if some of its ruminations on the nature of belief and free will and destiny aren’t anything like as profound as the film-makers were probably hoping for. It’s all a bit like a galleon under full sail: deeply impressive and beautiful to look upon, and maybe even rather stirring, but at the same time hardly agile and not exactly what you’d call sparky fun, either. (Some might say this gives it the authentic feel of one of Jack Kirby’s solo projects.) It may well be that this is the best adaptation of Eternals one could realistically hope for, but at the time of writing this is the worst-reviewed film in Marvel Studios’ history (‘the script is a load of hooey’ is the considered opinion of one writer on a major British paper), and while I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that, it’s hard to think of another film in the Marvel meta-franchise which is less obviously a crowd-pleaser.

That said, a healthy crowd turned out for the first showing at my local multiplex (what can I say, I needed to get out of the house to avoid the cleaners), and the two evening showings that day were close to selling out, so it would be foolish to declare Eternals to be the death-knell of the whole Marvel project. But this will be a considerable test of the brand’s ability to retain an audience, I suspect. Future plot developments may prove otherwise, but for now this looks like the least essential Marvel movie in ages.

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