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Posts Tagged ‘Kumail Nanjiani’

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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‘I think the title of this film is very off-putting,’ said a stranger behind me in the cinema queue, speaking to her son.

I turned round and frowned at her. ‘What, you don’t like France?’ I asked. (I can be very socially inappropriate sometimes.)

She did an actual double-take at me. ‘I didn’t mean Dunkirk. I was talking about The Big Sick.’

Ohhhh,’ I said, feigning sudden comprehension. Needless to say, we did not speak again.

Yes, it’s that time of year again, when cinema screens are ram-jammed with coldly calculated kid’s film franchise extensions and noble British tommies shivering on a beach while trying to work out exactly what’s going on with the chronology. You’re really reliant on some high-quality counter-programming cutting through (if you want to have an even vaguely rewarding time at the cinema, anyway), and luckily just this has arrived in the form of Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.

Or should that really be Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick? It’s hard to think of another recent film which is so obviously personal, for all that it is part of that most peculiar of genres, the romantic comedy.

No, seriously – what is the function of romantic comedies? I get the point of full-on comedies, for they are there to lift your spirits and make you laugh. Dramas are there to engage your intellect and emotions, action movies provide a basic adrenaline thrill, horror movies play with the darker end of the emotion spectrum, and proper science fiction stimulates the intellect.  And so on, and so on. But what’s going on with rom-coms? Who sits down to decide what film to watch and says ‘You know what, I wouldn’t mind feeling a bit more romantic tonight’? Either you’re feeling romantic or you’re not, and if you’re not feeling that way, nothing is less likely to kindle the flame of love than watching two beautiful young people play games for ninety minutes before inevitably ending up together. Part of me suspects this is all about reinforcing social and cultural norms, given that our society is largely glued together by the notion of romantic love, and that going to see a rom-com provides a sense of affirmation, that there is some objective truth to this notion. (Which, you know, there may be.)

Some of this kind of gets obliquely addressed in The Big Sick. Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani plays Pakistani-American stand-up comic and actor Kumail Nanjiani (it will be interesting to see if his performance wins any acting awards), who meets therapist-in-training Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his gigs. Neither of them is looking for a serious commitment, and yet there is a spark between them, and a relationship develops almost without either of them willing it.

However, in Kumail’s case, the aversion to commitment is basically because his family are still deeply attached to the tradition of arranged marriages, with a seemingly-endless string of unattached Pakistani women happening to drop by at family meals. Kumail doesn’t want to get kicked out of the family for admitting to a relationship with a white non-Muslim girl, and this inevitably causes tension between Emily and him.

And then something happens. Does this constitute a spoiler or not? I can’t remember if it’s in the trailer or not, but it’s in all the promotional material that I’ve seen, and the film is called The Big Sick, after all. Emily is admitted to hospital after what seems to be a bout of flu causes her to faint, and ends up in a coma. Despite their relationship being in limbo, Kumail finds himself hanging around the hospital and bonding with Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano).

This is a rom-com, so you probably don’t need me to tell you that this crisis forces Kumail to think hard about what is really important to him – is it keeping his parents happy, even if that means living a lie, or spending his life with Emily? The charm and the achievement of the film, which is the same as that of any watchable romantic comedy, is that you are engaged and entertained even as the story proceeds towards a throroughly predictable conclusion (Nanjiani and the real-life Emily have been married for nearly a decade and co-wrote the script together).

As I get older and become more aware of my neuro-atypicality, trips to watch rom-coms increasingly feel like anthropological expeditions to observe the peculiar behaviour of remote tribespeople, and yet I found The Big Sick to be rather delightful and almost completely winning. Much of the credit for this must go to Nanjiani himself, who gives a brilliant deadpan comedy performance. It probably helped my connection to him that Nanjiani is no stranger to the less-mainstream areas of culture himself, being a noted X Files fan (which resulted in him actually appearing in the good episode of season 10). That said, at various points in the film, Kumail breaks off from watching Night of the Living Dead and The Abominable Dr Phibes to engage in intimate relations, which I can’t imagine ever doing myself, so this is obviously a relative thing. (What kind of person takes a girl home and then suggests they watch an old Vincent Price horror movie together, anyway? Ahem.)

Then again, this is a film with a strong ensemble performance, from the various members of Kumail and Emily’s extended families (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff play Kumail’s parents), and also the various other up-and-coming comedians Kumail hangs around with. The film never puts a foot wrong when it comes to its frequent shifts in tone, and never feels self-consciously heavy when dealing with ostensibly serious topics like ‘the Pakistani-American experience’ or ‘coping with a loved one in a coma’ (the movie resists making the obvious Smiths reference).

In fact, although on paper the movie looks like an inventive mash-up of the Cross-Cultural Romance (with Various Attendant Issues) and Medical Crisis Romance story-forms, it doesn’t really feel like either of them – it feels heartfelt and genuine rather than forced and formulaic. None of the major characters is wholly flawless or an irredeemably bad person – they’re just recognisable people, with rather messy lives they are doing their best to cope with.

I laughed a lot all the way through The Big Sick (there was also, admittedly, a sharp intake of breath at the point where someone tells Kumail that ‘The X Files is not a good show’) – but it also snuck in some genuinely moving moments, which took me entirely by surprise. Normally I would be inclined to speculate as to the extent to which real life has been rewritten to suit the demands of a standard three-act dramatic structure, but the film is so funny, so warm, and so sincerely truthful that I’m inclined to give it a pass on this. This is a charming and immensely likeable film, however you feel about rom-coms in general; highly recommended.

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