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Posts Tagged ‘Salma Hayek’

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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What exactly is the appropriate response when you’re sitting down in anticipation of a thoroughly profane and blood-spattered movie, only to find yourself joined in the cinema by a couple who have brought their clearly much-too-young children with them? Should you speak to them? Tell the cinema staff what’s going on? Isn’t it the staff’s responsibility anyway? Is this a mistake? Have they gone to the wrong movie, or snuck in after buying tickets to something more innocuous?

This was the situation I found myself in during the opening moments of Patrick Hughes’ The Hitman’s Bodyguard. Thankfully, I was spared the trouble of, you know, getting off my backside and actually doing something, because a minion appeared and explained the situation to the family and they promptly decamped. Which was a good thing, because I’m not sure I could really have relaxed and enjoyed this film knowing there were minors present. Then again, it has made me wonder about the degree to which one should really relax and enjoy this movie at all.

Hmmm. The movie opens with disgraced Belarussian ex-tyrant Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman, in it for the money) on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. However there is no hard evidence and witnesses keep turning up dead, so he looks like walking free. Only one man can give the testimony that will put him away – notorious hired killer Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson).

The job of getting Kincaid from Manchester (where he is in the clink) to the Netherlands is given to crack Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung, currently cornering the market in ass-kicking babe roles), but there is a traitor in her organisation and Kincaid is nearly killed in an intense gun-battle on the streets of Coventry (just another day in Warwickshire, I guess). In order to get him to the court on time and in one piece, Roussel is obliged to call in Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), a disgraced freelance protection agent – this is slightly complicated by their own history together, and the fact he blames her for the fact he’s disgraced in the first place.

Nevertheless, Bryce and Kincaid set off for the ICC together, quite clearly destined not to get along, as they are polar opposites in virtually every way: the bodyguard is uptight and methodical, his charge relaxed and spontaneous. Dukhovich’s goons are hot on their heels, the authorities can’t be trusted, and Kincaid insists on stopping off in Amsterdam where his wife (Salma Hayek) is incarcerated. No wonder there is very strong language and bloody violence throughout…

Well, it’s extremely clear what kind of movie we’re in for, practically from the word go – an action comedy buddy movie, with the two leads trading heavily on their established screen personae. Ryan Reynolds delivers the usual slightly-narcissistic snarkiness, while Samuel L Jackson basically just does his Samuel L Jackson act – being effortlessly cool and funny, while shouting a lot about, um, melon farmers. Reliable comedic material there, I think you’ll agree, and you can probably imagine the substance of most of the movie. Scathing put-downs! Crackling by-play between the two stars! Hilarious comic chemistry! Truck bombs going off in major European cities! Women and children being cold-bloodedly executed!

…er, what? Well, yes – I think this is where a lot of people are going to find themselves having issues with The Hitman’s Bodyguard, because doing a knockabout action comedy where faceless goons are scythed down like wheat is one thing, but including major terrorist acts and the murder of young children is crossing a line, if you ask me. You simply can’t put that stuff in a comedy film without it seemingly incredibly tasteless. It doesn’t give your movie any more dramatic heft, it just makes all the jokes and so on feel immensely inappropriate. This is non-negotiable. (It doesn’t surprise me to learn that this started life as a straight drama which was rewritten as a comedy in very short order. At least one more rewrite was definitely required.)

And while we’re on the subject, it strikes me as rather off that the film implies that, as recently as 2012, Belarus was a dictatorship where ethnic cleansing was going on. Now, I know that by western standards, Belarus is not a shining example of a free democratic state, but I don’t see how presenting it in this way helps matters much. It treats Belarus like a made-up cartoon nation (Oldman is certainly playing a cartoon bad guy), rather than a real place where people live today. I had the pleasure of getting to know someone from Belarus quite recently, and I would be frankly embarrassed to watch this movie with them.

Ooh, listen to me, I’m on my moral high horse a lot today, aren’t I? I should say that if you can discount the disturbingly tasteless violence and highly dubious geopolitics, The Hitman’s Bodyguard does what you would hope for, in that the action sequences are slick and competent, and the comedy stuff also gets a very satisfactory number of laughs – the flashback to Jackson and Hayek’s first meeting is probably the high point, and it’s a shame that Hayek basically disappears for the final third of the movie. As I say, this was only really a couple more drafts away from being a highly entertaining, essentially inoffensive buddy comedy.

But as things stand, I don’t know. I mean, I enjoyed most of it, and don’t really regret watching it, but it did leave kind of a bad taste in my mouth, not least because at various points it makes a big deal out of issues of morality and guilt, stressing that the moral choices people make are important. Fine in theory, guys, but you made the moral choice of including bombs going off in crowded cities and children being shot dead in your freewheeling comedy film, so what are we supposed to conclude? I’m not sure The Hitman’s Bodyguard even counts as a guilty pleasure, but I’m very glad I wasn’t watching it in the company of some very young children.

 

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If you were the producer of a lavish, Anglophone fantasy movie, featuring stars from noted American franchises, and released in that period of early-to-mid-summer when some of the biggest hits of the year are traditionally forged, you would usually be a little bit irked if your project ended up relegated to the wilderlands of art-house showings. But if the film in question is Tale of Tales and you are its director, Matteo Garrone, it may be a different matter, for something about this film tells me it is the product of a sensibility for which mass populism is not the over-riding concern.

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I suppose there is a sense in which this is not really a fantasy but a fairy tale (the differences between the two: discuss), although there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that – recent evidence indicates that over 51% of British voters are suckers for fairy tales, provided they are pitched just right and repeated frequently enough. On the other hand, fairy tales are traditionally associated with quite young people, while Tale of Tales is packed with enough gore, nudity, and associated naughtiness to make it very questionable entertainment for all but the broadest-minded of families. (Slightly ironic, given that the collection of folk tales which inspired the movie was also a primary source when the Brothers Grimm were assembling their own fairy tales.)

This is one of them there anthology films, recounting a trilogy of off-beat narratives, very loosely linked at the beginning and end. The first concerns the dangerously broody Queen of Darkwood (Salma Hayek), who is prepared to take advice from very suspect sources in order to actually have a child. As a result her devoted husband the King (John C Reilly, briefly appearing) is prepared to put on a deep-sea diving suit and engage in mortal combat with a sea-monster, as the Queen has been told that only by eating the heart of such a beast can she actually bear a child.

Well, the beast is slain and the Queen has her baby – but in an unforeseen wrinkle, the woman who cooks the heart also has a child, and as the two boys grow up they prove to be identical to one another, with an unnatural affinity for water and a very close bond. As one of them is a peasant and the other the heir presumptive, this is very much not to the Queen’s liking… but with her beloved son and his hated friend being quite so identical, is there anything she can safely do about it?

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring kingdom of Stronghold, the highly-sexed king (Vincent Cassell) falls in love with a mysterious woman based solely on the beauty of her singing voice, little realising that the shy Dora (Hayley Carmichael) is actually a wrinkly old crone in her seventies or eighties who lives with her equally wrinkly old sister (Shirley Henderson). The king remains insistent, Dora is – on reflection – wildly over-optimistic, and something very farcical seems to be on the cards.

The final story concerns the foolish king of Highmountain (Toby Jones), who becomes fascinated by his pet flea, which he indulges until it reaches a quite extraordinary size, in the process neglecting his sweet and high-spirited daughter (Bebe Cave). What follows is more like a parody of a fairy tale than anything else, involving an ogre, brave gypsies, impossible quests, and much more along the same lines.

Something else that links the three stories is the fact that none of them exactly come to a happy ending. The story of the twin boys is pretty dark all the way through, the tale of the crone sisters initially seems like a bawdy romp, and that of the king and his flea is just absurd, but they all conclude with gory unpleasantness and, more often than not, violent death. There’s a sense in which this is probably quite true-to-source – the ending of the original version of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, is quite horrible – but it does make for rather a downer ending for what started off as a drolly whimsical film.

If I had to make a comparison, I would say the closest thing to Tale of Tales that I’ve seen would be a Terry Gilliam film – maybe either Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, though this isn’t quite as anarchic as the former or as scatological as the latter. It has the same almost-palpable sense of earthy history to it, some of the same visual flair, the same understated comedy and fine performances – though, to be fair, most of it is played deadpan-straight. (Some good monsters, too.)

I suppose I should also mention that the tale of the old crones, which prominently features attractive naked young women and concludes on a moment of proper grand guignol, also put me rather in mind of a late period Hammer Horror, albeit one made on a very big budget. This story probably benefits from obviously being about something (our obsession with youth and beauty), while the other two storylines just meander about amiably.

All Tale of Tales‘ quality and visual lavishness – this is a beautiful, beautiful film, as exquisitely designed and photographed as any I’ve seen this year – is really a bit undermined by the fact that, as an anthology movie, its pacing is inevitably a bit disjointed – a great movie has a beginning, a middle, and an end, after all, not a beginning, a beginning, and a beginning, then a middle, a middle, and a middle, and so on.

I suppose this is the really odd and frustrating thing about Tale of Tales, in the end: this is a film about stories – the title kind of gives it away – and formidable talent has clearly been brought to bear in every department of the film… except that of the script itself. This is by no means bad, and the film remains engagingly odd throughout, but you never really lose yourself in any of the stories – it’s all just a bit too calculatedly arty or arch for the stories to work their own magic, and the fact that none of them have what you could really call a satisfying climax is a bit of an issue too.

As I said, this is a fabulous-looking movie and it does have a more authentic sense of the genuinely weird about it than any of the Hollywood fantasy films I’ve seen this year – more of a sense of humour, too. But in the end I can’t shake the impression that this is intended to be more enjoyed as a work of art than as an actual exercise in storytelling. Still, worth seeing if you like this sort of thing.

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