Eternals review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Chloé Zhao
Cast : Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie
Genre: Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 152 min
Opens : 4 November
Rating : M18

It depends on how you count them, but it’s estimated that Marvel Comics’ collection of characters numbers over 7000. There’s no fear that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) might run out of characters, but there’s no guarantee that audiences will respond equally to every character that’s introduced. Hoping for a repeat of the reaction to the Guardians of the Galaxy, the MCU introduces a new set of cosmic characters with Eternals.

7000 years ago, Arishem (David Kaye) of the Celestials sent a team of seemingly immortal warriors known as the Eternals on a mission to earth. The Eternals comprise Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Druig (Barry Keoghan). Each member of the team possesses different powers, which they use to battle the Deviants, a monstrous, hostile alien species which has attacked earth. The Eternals thought they had defeated the last of the Deviants 500 years ago, but the monsters rear their heads yet again. Having lived apart for centuries, the Eternals must reunite to face the threat, but along the way, they will also learn of a far-reaching, possibly world-ending conspiracy that they are unwittingly a part of.

This writer gravitates towards stories with chronological scope. The idea of beings who live forever grappling with the blessing and curse of immortality is something inherently compelling, and Eternals explores this with a fair amount of nuance. It’s a story about gods learning to become men, and it delves into the messiness of humanity in a way one might not expect from an MCU movie. There is a sweeping scale to the film, which deliberately doesn’t feel like it was entirely shot against greenscreen on a soundstage. Director Chloé Zhao has a knack for capturing vast landscapes, and location filming on the Spanish Canary Islands of Fuerteventura and Lanzarote and various places in England lend the movie a tactility that these big, visual effects-driven spectacle movies sometimes lack. From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the fall of Tenochtitlan, there’s an impressive if sometimes overwhelming breadth to the proceedings.

While the sprawling 156-minute runtime might feel intimidating and while the movie does suffer from some pacing issues, it also means there’s a lot of space for the characters to just interact with each other. It doesn’t feel like a breathless race from set-piece to set-piece, which might be what some filmgoers want, but the movie feels comfortable being what it is. There is a warmth here which offsets the coldness often associated with sci-fi. Like other indie/prestige filmmakers who have entered the MCU fold before her, it feels like Zhao was rendered ample production/technical support by the Marvel Studios machine, but also got to put just enough of her own stamp on the movie.

As with any space opera, Eternals is unwieldy, perhaps past the amount which is unavoidable for the subgenre. There are lots of proper nouns, and reams of exposition to get through. For certain viewers, this might feel like the point where they want to tap out of the MCU. It’s not the most flattering comparison, but it sometimes feels like a more restrained, serious-minded Jupiter Ascending. It seems like comic book readers might be better equipped to go along for the ride, and indeed, comics writers and artists are generally responding better to this film than mainstream critics. There’s a lot going on, and not all of it makes sense, and the degree to which one is willing to surrender to the movie will vary.

While Eternals is sometimes visually impressive thanks to its practical locations, there are times when it looks a bit dour. The Eternals were created by legendary comic book artist and writer Jack Kirby, but the signature dynamic Kirby visual sensibility is largely lacking from the film (the MCU movie that most reflects this aesthetic is Thor: Ragnarok). The character designs feel somewhat uninspired, and the Deviants just do not look good, coming off as disposable CGI alien beasts. Director Zhao’s interest doesn’t seem to lie in the action set-pieces, so they sometimes feel perfunctory, even though they can also be exciting. As if there weren’t already enough plot and characters to deal with, the movie also adds Kit Harington as Dane Whitman, who Marvel readers will know as the Black Knight. There’s a certain amount of teasing coming attractions that we’re used to from these movies by now, but Eternals doesn’t seem to support that in addition to everything else.

The main cast consists of ten characters, which seems too many by half. Even then, this is an eclectic cast. While several may not get enough time to shine, the interplay between them is where the heart of the movie lies, and Zhao seems insistent on giving the characters humanity. Gemma Chan is first billed, but Sersi isn’t the most interesting character of the bunch, as often happens with the leads in ensembles. Still, she brings undeniable elegance to bear. Richard Madden looks the part of a Superman type, while Kumail Nanjiani has charisma to spare as the superhero-turned-Bollywood star (with Harish Patel stealing the show as Kingo’s loyal manager/valet Karun). Lia McHugh’s Sprite feels she is cursed to live forever in the physical form of a child, which is a fascinating and tragic notion.

Whenever Angelina Jolie shows up on screen, one is wont to go “now there’s a movie star”. It’s been said that these days, it’s franchises like the MCU that are the movie stars, so it’s always nice to see a bona fide movie star in an MCU entry. Much has been made of the movie’s representation, with it featuring a gay character in Phastos and the first deaf superhero played by a deaf actor in Makkari. Imbuing godlike characters with human traits to make them relatable is something that has been done since the beginning of storytelling, so while some might be bothered by this and react with hostility to it, this reviewer never found any of it feeling forced.

Summary: Eternals might not have the mass appeal of other MCU movies, but its millennia-spanning scope and cast of characters make it a worthwhile entry in the franchise. Some viewers may be feeling fatigued, while others will be excited at the bold, increasingly wilder directions that the MCU might be taking. Eternals is treading new territory for the franchise, prioritising character drama over action set-pieces in a way that might lose certain audiences. Still, there’s a lot in the movie that this reviewer finds appealing. For as much unwieldy sci-fi exposition as the movie has, it also possesses warmth and humanity. Stick around for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene and find a Marvel geek to explain them to you if you aren’t one yourself.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Men in Black: International review

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Emma Thompson, Rafe Spall, Les Twins
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 55 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : PG13

          They’ve been absent from the big screen for seven years, but the shadowy organisation that polices and conceals alien activity on earth has resurfaced in Men in Black: International, the spin-off of the Men in Black series.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) is a newly instated member of the agency, still on probation. After witnessing Men in Black operatives in action as a child, she has long harboured a fascination with the agency and finally gets her dream job. Agent O (Emma Thompson), head of the New York branch, dispatches Agent M to MIB’s London headquarters, overseen by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a hotshot hailed for defeating an alien species called the Hive in Paris alongside High T.

When a shape-shifting alien duo (Les Twins) corners Agent M and Agent H, they learn that the Hive may have been resurfaced, with the predatory invaders after a powerful alien artefact. Their battle against the Twins sends Agent M and Agent H to Morocco, where they befriend Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a diminutive alien. Agent H must confront Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful, dangerous figure from his past, as he and Agent M discover there just might be a mole within the organisation. The MIB can always be counted on to save the world, but what happens when a threat arises from within?

The Men in Black films are loosely based on the Malibu comics series by Lowell Cunningham. The urban legend of shadowy government agents has existed among UFO-enthusiast circles for decades, but it was the Men in Black movies that cemented the idea in the public consciousness. Being released the year after Independence Day, the first Men in Black movie also further launched Will Smith up the A-list. He and co-star Tommy Lee Jones have become closely linked with the franchise, with the third movie featuring Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character.

After the third Men in Black movie in 2012, the first we heard of a new Men in Black movie was that it would be a crossover with the 21 Jump Street films called MIB 23, which sounds like such a crazy idea that it just might have worked. Instead, we got Men in Black: International, which is pleasant and harmless if often formulaic and bland, because it takes the format of the first movie and slots new stars into it. Director F. Gary Gray of Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious fame knows how to handle a big Hollywood production, but it feels like he is directing to the brief, with no personal touches discernible. The film trundles along efficiently enough, but nothing in the movie will stick in viewers’ minds afterwards. It’s almost as if the movie was constructed to be watched on an airplane.

          Men in Black: International does what the James Bond movies often do, throwing in a bunch of exotic locales to up the production value. There’s a chase through the streets of Marrakech on a hover bike and one character is based out of Aragonese Castle on the Italian island of Ischia. The movie might have the scale expected of a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite have the quirky soul of the first movie, especially because a lot more of the aliens are created with computer-generated effects. Special effects makeup legend Rick Baker, who oversaw the aliens in the first three films, was not involved with this one.

The logic behind the casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles seems to have been to look at whatever actors from the most successful ongoing movie franchise were available. Hemsworth has a knack for comedy and shifts effortlessly between dashing and goofy, playing a sometimes-bumbling, always-charming action hero with ease.

Thompson’s Agent M is capable, headstrong and determined and is in some ways the audience surrogate character, with this movie acting as her origin story. However, some of the beats in her arc echo those of Agent J’s in the first movie a little too strongly. Thompson brings some personality to the part, but Agent M feels like a textbook “strong female character” with not much that is inherently compelling about her on paper.

Liam Neeson is there to lend gravitas to the proceedings and pace purposefully around High T’s office and not do too much else. Emma Thompson is dryly amusing as Agent O, reprising her role from the third film. Respectable British actors appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for a paycheck is a time-honoured tradition and one that Neeson and Thompson continue here.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Pawny, who as the funny alien sidekick, is designed as the successor to Frank the Pug (who makes a cameo). This reviewer was afraid that the character would come off as annoying, but Nanjiani’s delivery keeps Pawny generally more amusing than grating. The computer animation used to create Pawny and integrate him with the live-action footage is excellent.

French dancers Les Twins, who will next be seen in the Cats movie, enliven the proceedings with their new-style hip-hop moves. However, their characters’ schtick seems to be lifted wholesale from the Twins in The Matrix Reloaded.

The previous films have playfully ‘outed’ celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Bill Gates, George Lucas and Lady Gaga as being aliens. In this film, a social media influencer (presumably a different one for the different markets the film will be released in) gets a cameo. This is one of the most worrying elements about Men in Black: International, indicating that future blockbusters will pander to audiences by shoehorning in people who are famous from YouTube or Instagram.

Men in Black: International is not a poorly made film, but in extending the MIB franchise, it fails to add anything substantial to the world-building or the mythos. Big franchise movies can often feel like products and none this year feels more like a product than Men in Black: International, but its dependable cast and high production value keep things from feeling like too much of a drag.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Lego Ninjago Movie

For inSing

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE 

Director : Charlie Bean, Paul Fisher, Bob Logan
Cast : Dave Franco, Justin Theroux, Jackie Chan, Abbi Jacobson, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Michael Peña, Fred Armisen, Olivia Munn
Genre : Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 41m
Opens : 28 September 2017
Rating : PG

After taking a journey to Gotham City in The Lego Batman Movie, this second spin-off of The Lego Movie whisks audiences to Ninjago. This mythical realm, which incorporates elements of Feudal Japan with modern metropolises like Hong Kong, is constantly under threat of invasion by the evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). As a result, Garmadon’s son Lloyd (Dave Franco) is shunned by the citizens of Ninjago. He finds acceptance in his mother Koko (Olivia Munn), as well as his friends Kai (Michael Peña), Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), Nya (Abbi Jacobson), Zane (Zach Woods) and Cole (Fred Armisen). Lloyd and his friends have secret double lives as ninjas who operate giant mecha and protect Ninjago City from Garmadon’s attacks, under the tutelage of Lloyd’s uncle, the wise Master Wu (Jackie Chan). Lloyd is torn between his duty to defeat Garmadon’s troops and his desire for a normal, loving relationship with his estranged father, with the fate of the city and Lloyd’s bond with his friends at stake.

Lego’s Ninjago theme is one of its more successful product lines in recent years, running since 2011 and spawning an animated series. The film departs from the plot of the series, but Dan and Kevin Hageman, who wrote the TV show, receive a ‘story by’ credit here. Meshing a Feudal Japanese aesthetic with anime-inspired mecha-punk, the underlying design principle provides endless interesting possibilities for toys of all kinds.

The Lego Ninjago Movie, like its predecessors The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie, is primarily a long, elaborate toy commercial. However, it’s entertaining enough to justify its existence. The photo-realistic animation by Australian-based visual effects house Animal Logic is vibrant and hyper-detailed – while the process of animating this film must’ve been technically complicated, it looks like the animators had lots of fun doing it.

There are lots of jokes and several delightful visual gags, but parents should bear in mind that the film is heavily geared towards the younger set. The humour isn’t embarrassingly juvenile, but it tends towards extreme silliness. The film has six credited screenwriters, usually a sign that things will be scattershot and cluttered. Like The Lego Batman Movie, it has a bit of a ‘punched-up’ feel to it – the presence of comedians brought in to add jokes after the script has already been written is strongly felt. The Lego Ninjago Movie also borrows heavily from classic martial arts movies, and its moral is as old as the hills – ‘the power was inside you all along’. While The Lego Ninjago Movie winks and nods at its influences, it’s also too straightforward in its plot to come off as particularly inventive.

Our team of heroes is pretty much the Power Rangers – colour-coded teen ninjas who operate giant, awesome mechas themed to each of their personas. As with most movies featuring an ensemble cast, there isn’t nearly enough time to give all the characters enough definition. As such, everyone in the team apart from Lloyd feels defined by their powers and some superficial character traits. This is clearly Lloyd’s story, with everyone else taking a backseat and some talented comedians given short shrift in the voiceover booth.

Franco lends Lloyd enough likeable earnestness such that he doesn’t come as a boring, de-facto hero. Theroux steals the show, relishing the over-the-top villain role and giving Garmadon oodles of personality. Lord Garmadon belongs to the Dr. Evil/Dr. Drakken/Mojo Jojo school of comical supervillain. The strained relationship between pillaging, conquering dad and city-saving son generates laughs and, eventually, warm fuzzy feelings. It is interesting that all three theatrically-released Lego movies thus far have featured father-son relationships so heavily.

Jackie Chan’s wheelhouse might be physical comedy, but he proves adequately adept at funny line delivery. There is very little that distinguishes Master Wu from similar characters like Kung Fu Panda’s Master Shifu, or indeed The Lego Movie’s Vitruvius. Chan does figure in the film’s framing device, which we shan’t spoil.

Kids are sure to leave the theatre pestering their parents to buy one or more (likely more) of the tie-in Lego sets. Adults might roll their eyes at some of the goofier jokes, but the film moves along quickly and is entertaining enough that you won’t hear too many complaints from accompanying adults.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Big Sick

For F*** Magazine

THE BIG SICK 

Director : Michael Showalter
Cast : Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, David Alan Grier
Genre : Comedy/Romanc
Run Time : 2h
Opens : 27 July 2017
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language and Some Sexual References)

Many couples have probably thought to themselves, “say, our courtship would make a great movie”. Comedians Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon thought this, and they were right.

In The Big Sick, Nanjiani plays himself, a Chicago-based stand-up comic from a Pakistani immigrant family. Kumail’s mother Sharmeen (Shroff) has been trying to arrange a marriage for him, setting him up with as many eligible Pakistani-American women as she can find. Emily Gardner (Kazan) is in the audience at a show in which Kumail is one of the performers, and they hit it off. However, Kumail knows that he will be disowned by his family if they find out he is dating a white, non-Muslim woman. Several weeks into their relationship, Emily is struck by a mysterious illness, and is placed in a medically-induced coma. Her parents Beth (Hunter) and Terry (Romano) arrive from North Carolina to care for her, and while things between them and Kumail are awkward at first, they begin to bond over their mutual care for Emily’s well-being. In the meantime, Kumail hopes to impress a talent scout who is selecting comics to perform in the esteemed Montreal Comedy Festival, but Emily’s circumstances throw him off his game, forcing him to re-evaluate his priorities while he confronts the traditions that he feels bound by.

This romantic comedy-drama is co-written by Nanjiani and Gordon, starring Nanjiani as himself, re-enacting his own love story. This might sound like a vanity project on the surface, but The Big Sick doesn’t feel like one at all. Even if it is a vanity project, it’s the kind we need right now. While made with a niche audience in mind, The Big Sick has gained overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth and has become a critical and commercial success. Key to its success is that this a film that bleeds authenticity. Sure, as with any movie based on a true story, artistic licenses were taken, but at no point that this feel glossy and artificial, nor does the film seem like it’s straining to convince us of its realness. As cliché as it sounds, all of it comes from the heart. Profoundly moving and disarmingly raw, director Michael Showalter packages Nanjiani and Gordon’s shared experiences without them seeming packaged in any way.

This is a comedy first and foremost, and on that front The Big Sick is a gut-busting triumph. Little touches like Nanjiani’s abiding love for The X-Files add nice textural elements – the episode “One Breath”, in which Mulder tries to save Scully from a coma, was a major inspiration for this film. Stand-up comics like Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant fill supporting roles as Kumail’s fellow comedy club performers, sometimes sarcastic but never unbearably smug. At no point does The Big Sick feel smug or ‘funnier than thou’, as movies about comedy with the creative involvement of professional comics are wont to be. Best of all, the tricky tonal balances are executed with a master’s touch. The film makes no hard-left turns into dramatic territory, and when it gets serious, it never blindsides the audience. The subjects of medical emergencies, the prejudices faced by South Asians and other immigrants in the United States, and the prospect of being exiled from one’s family because of whom one chooses to love are not inherently funny. The Big Sick’s treatment of these issues provokes thought without feeling inorganic or like it’s forcing the audience into an uncomfortable spot. The comedy does not undercut or overpower the film’s depth or sincerity.

One could say that Kumail Nanjiani was the role Kumail Nanjiani was born to play. Nanjiani is earnestly dorky, yet charming and altogether endearing, without ever feeling like he’s over-amplifying aspects of himself. He shares sparkling chemistry with Kazan, who is eminently likeable and showcases a range of the most adorable facial expressions. There are conflicts and misunderstandings, but they never feel like stock rom-com contrivances. Emily is in a coma for most of the film’s running time, but Kazan makes her presence felt and the relationship between Kumail and Emily is one of the easiest to root for in all of romantic comedy film history.

 

Kumail’s family does feel a little exaggerated for comedic effect, but they are never the butt of the joke. Given all that Nanjiani has been through, the portrayal of Kumail’s father Azmat (Kher), mother Sharmeen, brother Naveed (Akhtar) and sister-in-law Fatima (Shenaz Treasury) is markedly sympathetic. Kumail might feel stifled by the traditions and worldview upheld by his family, but that doesn’t mean he loves them any less.

Romano and Hunter are impeccably cast as Emily’s parents. Romano brings his trademark slightly beleaguered, Dad joke-spouting everyman persona to bear, but also provides some of the film’s most honest emotion. Hunter’s fiery, no-nonsense Beth is a force to be reckoned with, and the way she eventually warms towards Kumail feels natural and earned. Having a daughter in a coma is an emotionally-exhausting experience, and Terry and Beth are shown warts and all – but then again, so is every character in The Big Sick, a key ingredient in its authenticity.

“Absolutely devastating” is not necessarily the description one would use for a comedy – but The Big Sick is absolutely devastating in the best way. In telling a love story through a unique perspective, skilfully folding in social issues and wrapping all this in bracing, disarming humour, The Big Sick is essential viewing.

Summary: Deeply personal, authentic, warm, heart-rending and immensely funny, The Big Sick will cause fits of laughter and uncontrollable sobbing without feeling incongruous, manipulative or self-indulgent.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong