Category Archives: 2020s

Eternals (2021)

*. Despite the poor reviews and box office, and despite my weariness with Marvel movies in general, and even despite the presence of Barry Keoghan, I had some hope for Eternals. I knew the original run of comics by Jack Kirby pretty well and thought there was some potential.
*. A lot of that imagined potential evaporated in the early going, when it’s revealed that the Deviants, who were an interesting and even sympathetic race of villains in the comics, are presented as the usual rabble of snarling CGI monsters. Instead of fighting Deviants, the Eternals here are up against a plan by the Celestials to use Earth as a sort of cosmic egg to give birth to a new Celestial. I’d break this down more for you, but it’s too stupid to bother with.
*. It’s 2021 so our Eternals here are multiethnic and multinational lot (white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Pakistani, Irish, Scottish, Korean, whatever) and gender-balanced (equal male and female members, plus one gay and one possibly gender-fluid character). Hell, they even thrown in a deaf hero, though why an Eternal would be deaf is beyond me, unless they just don’t like listening to anyone. But, as the media alerted us, Phastos was “the first openly gay character in the MCU” and Makarri “the first deaf character in the MCU.” So: progress!
*. All this diversity doesn’t lead to a slate of complex or interesting characters though, or any particular chemistry between them. Gemma Chan as Sersi and Richard Madden as Ikaris in particular seem a romantic couple with little real interest in each other. A point that the script also fumbles with, I might add, since Sersi has a human boyfriend too. What’s up with that?
*. 156 minutes. Please. It feels like every superhero movie cliché is tapped into here and played back in super slow-motion. And by the end I wasn’t even sure who was fighting who, or why. Shouldn’t Kro have been a good guy, helping the others fight Ikaris? Confusion like this made it hard for me to feel very involved in the action.
*. Marvel has a proven track record of hiring on (or co-opting) name actors. Meaning the respectable type who win awards. Salma Hayek appears here as the Mama Bear of the Eternals, though I wasn’t sure what her special power was. Angelina Jolie is less credible as a warrior woman with an extra helping of the Jolie weirdness (her character is schizophrenic, or something, which is another Marvel first and might have been used to signal more diversity, this time in the field of mental health, if Marvel had been more with it). Both actors escape total embarrassment only by the skin of their teeth. Meaning they’re both really bad.
*. The sole bright spot is Kumail Nanjiani who plays Kingo, an Eternal who has refashioned himself as a Bollywood star. Or a whole dynasty of Bollywood stars. He injects the only moments of humour (best of all working opposite Keoghan) in an otherwise very glum production. Madden’s dour Ikaris stood out the worst in this regard. This guy couldn’t fly into the sun fast enough for me.
*. I wonder who thought Chloé Zhao, hot from winning a Best Director Oscar for Nomadland, would be a good fit for this material. Apparently she let herself be influenced by Prometheus, which is a bit odd since Prometheus wasn’t a good movie and following its lead resulted in the introduction of a new, darker, mythology than was in the Kirby comics.
*. For what it’s worth, the action scenes are pretty good even if they’re still just more of the same. It’s the human story that’s the big letdown.
*. I watch movies mainly on DVD, where they are divided up into chapters. This makes it easier to take a rest from them and come back another day because the chapter breaks are like bookmarks. As I watch a movie I sometimes register where those chapter breaks are, especially if I’m really bored. It’s like calculating how many pages left you have to read in a book you’re not enjoying. For most if not all DVDs the end credits are the final chapter, even if they’re sometimes split up with mid-credit and post-credit sequences, as they are here. Well, for this DVD chapters 24-27 — the final four chapters! — are all credits! I just mention that to give you some idea of how bloated the whole thing feels.
*. In sum, it’s not a movie I hated so much as one I felt nothing at all about. It’s much too long, the story makes it impossible to care about anyone (the one interesting character, Kingo, simply disappears at the end), and the tone is unrelievedly dreary. Of course the promise of a sequel is dangled before us, but I won’t be bothering as I’m checking out of the MCU for a while now. Surely there are some good movies still being made. Or at least something better to watch than this.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

*. Oh, Marvel. Would you please stop already?
*. What I mean is, there is clearly nothing left in the tank. After Avengers: Endgame a new “phase” in the MCU was launched, but it looks the same as the old phase only more confusing because it has even more moving parts. Otherwise we have the same tired formula stretched out to two hour-plus length and a couple of hundred million dollars worth of CGI splashed on the screen.
*. So, Shang-Chi. His dad, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung, looking really uncomfortable in the part) took possession of the infinity stones . . . no, I’m sorry, the ten rings of power, a thousand years ago. Since then he has used their awesome might, which makes him eternal and invincible even when facing off against armies, to take over some criminal gang in China. Because if I had that kind of god-like power and eternal life that’s exactly what I’d want to do. Instead of writing a book or learning how to play guitar.
*. Xu Wenwu was married to another eternal (not Eternal, but just someone who lives forever) named Ying Li (Fala Chen). They have two kids: Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and then Ying Li gets killed by rival gangsters (she’s eternal, not unkillable) and the kids go their separate ways: Shang-Chi to park cars in San Francisco, where he has a gal pal named Katy (Awkwafina), and Xu Xialing to run a fight club in Macau.

*. Things start off in a fun way with Shang-Chi (or “Shaun,” in America) revealing his kick-ass alter ego to Katy in a streetcar fight brought on by members of the Ten Rings gang who have been sent to steal his jade necklace. So Shaun and Katy go to Macau and then the same gang shows up to steal Xu Xialing’s jade necklace because only with these can a magic map be activated that will allow Xu Wenwu to visit a fairy-tale land full of Dr. Seuss creatures that guards a portal to an evil dimension that the armies of Gog and Magog are itching to escape from. Once the portal is opened, a soul-eating creature with the Lovecraftian moniker of the Dweller-in-Darkness will escape to destroy all life on Earth.
*. That’s it. I don’t want to write any more. Yes, it’s another damn story where the villain’s goal is to open a portal to another dimension. Haven’t we seen enough of these by now? And then there’s the magic map, and the back-and-forth between the hero and his normie girlfriend/sidekick (they both seem curiously asexual), and a fluffy creature that looks like a fat tribble with wings, and a Distinguished Actor (Ben Kingsley this time out) appearing in a pointless supporting role, and another couple of mid- and post-credit sequences to tease us with what’s coming up next from the comic-book factory.
*. I can’t tell you how predictable, stale, and nonsensical I found all of this. But where Shang-Chi really feels like it’s jumping the shark is that it flunks all the stuff that you can usually count on Marvel to deliver. The CGI just looks cartoonish. The fight scenes are the usual leaping cable work and fast editing, with no blood or real violence and occasionally turning hand-to-hand combat into what can only be described as dance numbers.
*. Of course none of it looks real. The bad guys are from comic-book central casting, including a bodybuilder with a sword for a hand and another guy who’s a Darth Maul knock-off. Awkwafina’s Katy is very poorly written, without a single funny line or quip to make in the entire movie. She’s just luggage until the final fight, where she improbably saves the day.
*. Indeed the whole script is crap. Is Ben Kingsley’s character supposed to be funny? Because he isn’t. And can’t we move beyond this fortune-cookie ancient Chinese wisdom about following your heart? Marvel comics from the 1970s were more original and inspiring than this.

*. I want to expand just a bit on what I said about the fight scenes not being anything special. They really aren’t. I was struck by Mark Kermode’s review, when he appreciated their “physicality” and talked about how the fight on the streetcar reminded him of the bus fight in Nobody. The two scene chimed in my mind as well, but only because of their similar settings. The fight in Nobody is terrific, and it is physical. The fight here is just the usual comic-book nonsense, with the guy with a sword for an arm carving the streetcar in half while Awkwafina goes careening down the streets of San Francisco, flattening cars along the way. The two scenes have nothing in common aside from both taking place on public transport, and the Nobody fight is far better in every way. I’m starting to think that Kermode needs to ask how much longer he wants to keep doing this. Critics do burn out.
*. In short, Marvel threw everything they had into Shang-Chi and came up with nothing but crap. Which is a shame because I kind of like the Shang-Chi character and Simu Liu is a likeable enough actor, if not gifted with the usual Hollywood-star charisma. If Shang-Chi had been better written Liu could have sold him to us, but as it is I had no idea who he really was, as he’s basically born before our eyes out of nowhere. Why is he parking cars anyway? And all of what I just said also goes just as much for Awkwafina, who I genuinely like but who is put to no use here at all.
*. I’ll conclude by saying that I’ve pretty much given up on Marvel entirely now. They seem incapable of coming up with anything really new, and the writing in particular is so bad as to be almost inhuman. Meaning it feels like it was just spat out by a software program. Though a lot of the movie is in Mandarin, aimed at the lucrative Chinese market, so maybe something was being lost in translation.
*. What watching Shang-Chi really brought home to me though is the question of who would ever watch a movie like this twice. It was everything I could do to get through it once, and even then I had to spread it out over three days viewing. I had no interest in anything that was going on whatsoever. But audiences loved it. Oh well. At this point I think I’m close to being out for good.

Malignant (2021)

*. This could have been so good.
*. In the first place, James Wan was back doing an original horror film after what felt like a dull (if profitable) hiatus directing franchise crap like Aquaman and Furious 7. I’m not a huge fan of the Insidious and Conjuring movies, but they were at least the work of someone who understood suspense, and they were effective entertainments for the most part.
*. Second: the main genre inspiration for Malignant is Italian giallo, and particularly its later decadent phase, which I’m a big fan of. It made me think primarily of Dario Argento’s Trauma, which is the only late Argento movie that I really love. It doesn’t have any of Argento’s sense of style, but the plot captures the wild, over-the-top giallo madness of Trauma. The first full reveal of the Gabriel puppet had me grinning ear to ear, as did the size of the giant hospital on the top of the cliff. Suddenly the fact that Madison was living alone in a mansion that size in Seattle fit (even if it never made sense).
*. But then things started going wrong. Yes, Wan was back, but he didn’t seem interested in being scary. Lights flicker and things go bump in the night, and the usual bag of tricks is drawn from, like a fast-moving figure seen darting across the screen behind someone. But there were no decent set-piece suspense sequences, and finally Wan just went with revealing the victims’ bodies. Nor was there much shock value. Instead, the murders were only gouts of CGI splatter that didn’t do anything for me.
*. Then the giallo aspects were overtaken by what can only be described as a case of superheroitis. The bloodbath in the police station was ridiculous and over-the-top to be sure, but in a stupid way. And the adult Gabriel just isn’t very convincing, only seeming like a rather stiff mask. Some more thought needed to go into the design here, and less on choreographing fight scenes with lots of cable work.
*. Perhaps the whole thing was meant less as an homage than as a joke. In either case I felt it to be a waste. The basic premise is great. Annabelle Wallis is well cast as the woman past the edge of a nervous breakdown. The plot point that gives us the first big twist (the crash through the ceiling) was terrific, and took me totally by surprise. But then everything just went to hell. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

SAS: Red Notice (2021)

*. SAS: Red Notice was, I believe, meant to be the launch of a film franchise dealing with the adventures of an SAS operative named Tom Buckingham. Or Thomas William Buckingham III to give him his proper posh title. Because this guy is rich, owning luxury estates all over the world that he goes to relax at after saving the world. Which is very silly, but it was the only interesting thing about him.
*. Tommy Bucks is the creation of author Andy McNab (a pen name). I haven’t read anything by McNab but apparently this is the kind of thing he does. He’s written three Buckingham novels and something like twenty starring an agent called Nick Stone. Yes, Nick Stone! The Nick Stone books have titles like Brute Force, Exit Wound, Dead Centre, and Cold Blood. I’m not making any of this up!
*. I hope that gives you some idea of how deathly unoriginal Red Notice is. Buckingham is played here by Sam Heughan, who is very masculine and can act a bit. He’s rumoured to be in the running to be the next Bond, which would make this film a calling card. But he’s not really the star here. That would be Ruby Rose, who isn’t much of an actor but who does have star power.
*. Rose is playing the villain, a mercenary named Grace that the Brits first hired to do their dirty work abroad and then turned against. Grace isn’t having any of that, so she decides to hijack a train as it’s going through the Chunnel as a way of getting her own back.
*. Well, when Grace and her team of operatives hijack that train, who do you think is on it? Tommy Bucks! Because he’s on the way to Paris to propose to his doctor fiancé, Sophie. As I mentioned in my notes on Olympus Has Fallen, every he-man has to have a girlfriend/wife who is a doctor or nurse because the roles complement each other. As Sophie says here, “He takes lives, I save them.” Yes, that’s the level of the dialogue.
*. Another thing I said about Olympus Has Fallen is that it was Die Hard in the White House. Well, SAS: Red Notice is Die Hard in the Chunnel. I thought that seemed original enough, but the Chunnel had already been showcased in Mission: Impossible as long ago as 1996. And once you get on the train we might as well be watching The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. It’s just another subway full of hostages.
*. So James Bond/Bruce Wayne/Mike Banning/John McClane/Thomas William Buckingham III has to save the day, while his buddies in the SAS try to do their thing on the outside. Except Grace has some tricks up her sleeve (of course) and not everybody in the Special Air Service is a good guy. Some of them are even “snides.” I’d never heard the word “snide” used like this before. I guess it’s a Britishism and just means a traitor.
*. I was actually surprised at how negative a light the SAS is cast in. They are deeply compromised, with more rotten apples than good firm fruit in the basket. In fact, Tom might be the last hero they’ve got, and even he’s not squeaky clean. Apparently McNab also wrote a non-fiction book on psychopathy entitled The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success, wherein he claims that he exhibits many psychopathic traits. So don’t be surprised by Grace telling Tom at the end how much alike the two of them are. Not that you should be surprised by a line like that anyway. I mean, even Tom’s fiancé is on board with his getting his nasty on.

*. As an aside, I couldn’t help but think that Rose and Heughan had a lot more chemistry together than Heughan did with his fiancé. I almost thought for a second that they were going to kiss at the end when facing off instead of fighting to the death. Unfortunately, Tom is the only squeaky clean (that is, psychopathic but non-snide) member of the SAS. This is the kind of guy who was born to marry a doctor.
*. Whenever I’m sitting through one of these formulaic efforts I start wondering about the oddest things. Like beards. The Prime Minister in this movie is a deeply compromised fellow played by Ray Panthaki and he has a very full and dark beard. This threw me off so much I had trouble at first understanding that he was in fact playing the prime minister. Who was the last British prime minister to have a beard? The last U.S. president? Answers to come! But you’ll have to keep reading!
*. You know how this all plays out. Grace soon twigs to the fact that she’s got a problem in the person of Tom. Or, as she puts it, “There’s a player in the battle space. He is skilled and dangerous.” People try to get to Tom but he makes short work of them. And he also saves a little girl.
*. The little girl business bothered me. I couldn’t understand why Tom was spending so much time worrying about her when the whole train was full of hostages in need of saving. But getting the girl to safety allows him to have a long conversation (in French) on the roof of the train, where Tom confesses to her (the little girl) that he finally realizes how much he loves Sophie and wants to marry her in Paris. Which is sweet, and absolutely ridiculous in context. One would have thought Tom had more important things to worry about at the moment.
*. Of course Grace soon twigs to the fact that Tom’s girlfriend is also on the train so she uses her to get to him and that works out about as you’d expect. I think the only surprise was that they blew up the Chunnel at the end. I mean, they really blow the whole damn thing up. Usually in movies like this the bomb gets defused with 007 left on the timer.
*. There’s a final fight, and credit has to be given to Ruby Rose for actually selling us on the idea that she can hold her own against these big beefy guys when seems quite frail and petite (she also went toe-to-toe with John Wick in Chapter Two of that franchise). Then we get a long and very dull coda that allows for some cute end credits being slipped in before leaving us on a cliffhanger. Tom and Sophie get married at his palatial estate in Mallorca (it’s not a luxury resort but one of his personal homes, the Buckingham Villa!). Then just as they’re exchanging vows the phone rings. The world needs Tom to get back in the saddle and take out the one bad guy who gets away at the end of this movie! Will he accept? Stay tuned! They may make a franchise out of Tommy Bucks yet!
*. SAS: Red Notice is not a bad movie, but it’s also one I can’t think of anything nice to say about. We’ve been here many times before and there’s nothing new or interesting going on. Heughan makes a likeable enough hero and even keeps his shirt on throughout. Rose projects some attitude. Andy Serkis’s character left me scratching my head. I couldn’t figure out what was going on at the SAS, to be honest. There weren’t any fights or stunts that impressed me, but at the same time nothing really substandard either. Just more of the same.
*. OK, I know you’ve only read this far so you can get the answer to the trivia question I posed earlier. Who was the last British PM to have a beard (at least in office)? When I asked myself this question the only person I could think of was Salisbury. So I did a bit of looking around and . . . I think I was right! Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was prime minister off and on from 1885 to 1902. It’s been over a hundred years without a bearded PM! In the U.S., the last bearded president was Benjamin Harrison, who was in office at the same time, 1889-1893. If you wanted to be a leader on the world stage at that time, beards were a must!

Candyman (2021)

*. I’ve said that Jordan Peele’s Get Out is not just one of my favourite horror movies of the last ten years but one of my favourite movies period in that time frame. But since then Peele hasn’t impressed as much, and I’m starting to get a sense that he may never live up to such a great start.
*. I’m talking about Peele because Candyman feels very much like his movie. He was originally tabbed to write and direct but had to back out of direction duties. He still served as producer though and shared a writing credit so I think of this as being one of his babies.
*. What happened to Peele? I think there are a couple of answers to that, both coming back to the idea that he was spoiled by the success of Get Out to the point where he wanted to recapture its lightning in a bottle by copying the same formula that worked so well the first time.
*. Here that meant making a specifically “woke” horror movie. To be honest, I don’t think I’d heard, or at least registered, the word “woke” before listening to Peele’s DVD commentary track for Get Out, where he repeats it constantly.
*. I’m not going to try and explain what woke means in this context aside from saying it involves presenting a point of view that’s aware of Black issues. Which is a fine approach to take, and even admirable in a lot of ways. It worked really well in Get Out. But by the time of Us it had started to feel strained and here it’s pushed past the breaking point. Woke talking points on matters like police brutality and the gentrification of the ghetto are raised but they feel shoehorned into a plot that doesn’t have any clear point to make about them. The police murder of the hero makes no sense (they shoot a dead man?) and the people who we see taking advantage of gentrification are all upscale Black people. I wasn’t even sure if gentrification was being presented as a bad thing. Nor does any of this add much to the movie.
*. The second inheritance from Get Out is the crazy plot twist. Again, in Get Out I thought this was brilliant and worked perfectly with the rest of the film. In Us it had become confusing and overwrought. In Candyman it is totally incoherent. I honestly don’t know what was finally supposed to be going on in this movie. I was even wondering if the whole thing was a hallucination McCoy was having after being stung by the bee while photographing the church. Are we supposed to feel something supernatural is actually happening? What? Is Candyman a Black folk hero, meting out racial justice on the oppressors, or an evil slasher killing indiscriminately? I don’t know.
*. This falling in love with plot twists made me think of M. Night Shyamalan, another director who has kept repeating himself to diminishing returns. The spirit of this sort of storytelling may have its roots in Serling’s Twilight Zone, a source that both Shyamalan (see what he had to say about Old) and Peele (who produced a Twilight Zone reboot) have acknowledged. And it’s a good model, as long as it’s kept in check and weirdness isn’t allowed to become its own reason for being.
*. I started out liking the look of the film, even breaking into a huge grin at the reverse of the obligatory overhead car shot, which works with the whole visual motif of mirroring and reversals in the movie. But was Nia DaCosta the right choice for direction? She doesn’t seem to care much about suspense or horror. Instead the few scary stops along the way are presented as stylistic flourishes. They look neat, but they aren’t scary. The art critic being killed in her apartment as the camera looks on from a block away is the best example of this. There’s also a scene set in a girl’s washroom that’s all flash with no payoff. Compare the brilliant use of the mirror in the elevator scene in De Palma’s Dressed to Kill to what’s done with the compact mirror here.
*. In short, the whole thing was a big disappointment. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II seems miscast as McCoy, and curiously without agency. I liked him better as Black Manta in Aquaman, where his musculature also made more sense. Other characters who seem important are left totally undeveloped. It took a while for me just to twig to the fact that the well-preserved Vanessa Williams was McCoy’s mother, and she only shows up to introduce a ridiculous plot point. And is that Brianna’s father who jumps out of the window? What was that all about?
*. I also have to mention that there are some CGI bees, and CGI insects (as I’ve had occasion to mention before) never look good. Though DaCosta won a PETA award for not harming any actual honeybees in the filming.
*. The first Candyman has attained a minor cult status and I think it’s still a pretty good movie. I didn’t even know about the pair of sequels made in the 1990s. One gets the sense that they might have had thoughts of spinning this one off into a franchise with the idea of there being a hive of Candymen out there. I hope this marks the end though, as they had nothing interesting to say. But to be honest, at this point I’m more concerned about Jordan Peele. He isn’t even running in place anymore. He’s going into reverse.

The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

*. The Many Saints of Newark is a prequel to the popular HBO series The Sopranos, telling the story of Tony Soprano growing up as a mob brat in Newark, New Jersey. Except teenage Tony, played by James Gandolfini’s son Michael, is only a minor character in an ensemble cast. The tag line asked “Who Made Tony Soprano” but that rarely feels like a question that’s in play. Indeed, I was about halfway through the movie before I started wondering what I would say if someone asked me what this movie was “about” beyond saying that it’s a prequel to The Sopranos.
*. This is a movie built more around characters and incidents than plot. I guess a lot of things happen, meaning various people get killed in odd and violent ways, but it’s hard to see them as being particularly significant or consequential. Unlike in the series, where the big death scenes were all memorable because they involve characters we’d gotten to know and care about. Here every whack only gives rise to a shrug.
*. In the renaissance or second golden age of television that took place over the last twenty years The Sopranos stands out not just as the godfather and trendsetter but I think still the greatest achievement. It was a show remarkable for its quality, especially in terms of the writing and acting. But this movie is no Sopranos, despite being, I think to its detriment, a work in the same mold.
*. I don’t mean that as a knock, but it does suggest how the origins of The Many Saints of Newark shaped the kind of a movie it is. In the past, when we spoke of a movie being a small-screen experience it was meant to diminish it, television being a ghetto for C-list stars and low production values. In the twenty-first century, however, the cable series became home to the best writing in the business, and drama where the actors weren’t just stars running around in capes and tights. In other words, if you were really interested in film at this time you were just as interested if not more in what was happening on the small screen than at the cineplex.
*. That said, there are problems with taking the same approach to the big-screen format. A cable series has the time to develop character and narrative at a pace and with a depth that a 90 or 120-minute film just can’t. The plot, such as it is, is here compressed to the point of absurdity and incoherence. Sure there’s tension between Dickie and Junior, but enough for Junior to put out a hit on him? That seemed incredible to me, as did the idea that Dickie’s main squeeze would be not just sleeping around on him, but hopping into bed with his main rival, who also happens to be a Black man (this in 1972). The only reason for this is to give Dickie a reason to kill her in a dramatic scene at the beach. In the series, when Adriana or Christopher Moltisanti got killed it came as shock but both deaths were perfectly prepared for. Here the murders of Giuseppina and Dickie are just dropped on us.

*. Put another way, this is a movie that feels like an episode, or a pilot to a spin-off series, rather than a stand-alone film. As such it has all the strengths of TV — and it’s directed by Alan Taylor, a fellow who has a standout list of cable credits but not many quality features to his name — but all of the weaknesses as well. Even the ending, with its mid-credit sequence, teases a sequel. Just as the most successful model for filmmaking at this time became the creation of franchises, what seems to be getting established here is a multi-platform Sopranos “universe.”
*. You’ll have guessed I was disappointed by The Many Saints of Newark, no doubt in part because of how much I loved the show. For movies making the same jump I’d certainly rate it higher than Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, but below El Camino, the Breaking Bad movie. And El Camino wasn’t great.
*. There just isn’t enough room here to develop any of the characters or for any interesting plot lines to develop. I also thought the cast a big letdown. Alessandro Nivola and Michela De Rossi are bland as the leads. Jon Berthal as Tony’s dad is just a brute, and a minor part anyway. Michael Gandolfini has an uncanny resemblance to his dad, but doesn’t carry any of the sense of budding cunning and danger that the character needs. Vera Formiga makes the redoubtable Livia into a more passive figure. Again: in a series, minor characters in an ensemble have a chance to grow and be developed. Here they remain sketches. Ray Liotta’s jazz-loving and Buddhism-curious inmate is just one such character who might have turned into something interesting over the course of a couple of seasons. But here he’s just a spot of colour, while Leslie Odom Jr.’s Harold McBrayer only remains “someone to keep an eye on.”
*. So instead of a tight plot there’s a string of what feel like random episodes that don’t add up to much of anything. Young Tony steals an ice cream truck. A rival gang member is tortured by having an impact wrench stuffed in his mouth. As it dragged on I kept looking forward to hearing “Woke Up This Morning,” which I knew was going to come right at the end. When it finally played I was all smiles, in part because it was so familiar and because it was something they couldn’t mess up, but maybe even more because I knew the movie was over. At least for now. There was poor box office but it did well streaming so it’s likely there will be a second part, and maybe even more, to come.

Snake Eyes (2021)

*. I’ll start off with a paradox. Snake Eyes is one of those movies that makes you wonder why they bothered to make it, even as it’s perfectly clear why they made it.
*. Why is the fact that this movie exists so obvious? Because it takes a well- and affectionately-known brand and sticks it into a popular genre formula. Basically it’s a superhero movie, with lots of action and . . . well, not much else. But that’s what audiences seemed to want.
*. So why is it so hard to figure out why they bothered making it? Because everything they were trying to do here was being done or had been done already, and done better. A night fight on a highway between the hero and a bunch of goons on motorbikes with guns and swords? That was John Wick 3: Parabellum. Snake Eyes came out a couple of years later, and though I don’t think it was ripping John Wick off, Parabellum did it so much better it makes the scene here kind of pointless, especially since they were going for the same audience.
*. Add in the fact that they couldn’t show any blood or real violence because they wanted a PG-13 rating (G. I. Joe is a wholesome all-American hero), and the fact that the almost entirely Asian cast is low wattage, and you get the feeling you’re being seriously shortchanged. This despite the fact that they didn’t skimp on the production, giving the film a $100 million budget.
*. The plot is the usual crap. Henry Golding plays Snake Eyes. Really, that’s all the name he has. Friends call him Snake. When he’s a kid he sees his dad being killed by gangsters and he swears revenge. All grown up, he infiltrates a yakuza family because he sees this as a way of tracking down his dad’s killer. Except he’s being used by a bad yakuza gang to steal a sacred magic power stone called the Jewel of the Sun from a good yakuza gang that Snake can only become a member of after passing three tests set by the family’s resident ninja masters . . .
*. I’m not even going to bother typing any more of this hooey. You’ve probably recognized all the usual plot points. As for action, basically there’s a lot of swordfighting because yakuza gangsters in Joeworld are all samurais. Bloodless swordfighting, by the way. In any event, I didn’t think the action was original, or interesting, or even very well done. In fact, it’s all very expensive looking and dull, like most late-Marvel efforts. Robert Schwentke directs, and it may have made more sense to just give the reins to a stunt coordinator. I get the sense that Schwentke might have thought he had a story to tell here, along the lines of Marvel meets Infernal Affairs, but if he did then he was badly mistaken.
*. There’s also a pit filled with giant anacondas. I kept wondering what they were feeding these guys. A herd of cattle a day? Or were they magic snakes that didn’t need to eat? This was the single question that I spent most of my time thinking about while I was watching this movie.
*. There’s just nothing good to report here. Golding is a capable, charismatic actor but he’s miscast here. He’s charming without being dangerous. Andrew Koji plays “Tommy,” who apparently is going to turn into someone called Storm Shadow if the series continues, which it likely won’t. Samara Weaving plays Joe Team warrior Black Widow. Just kidding! Her character’s name is Scarlett O’Hara. Not kidding! Because she has red hair! Úrsula Corberó has to totter about on six-inch stiletto heels as the villainous Baroness Ana DeCobray. She works for the generic terrorist organization Cobra, naturally. Did I say this was a movie based on action figures and comic books? You were expecting characters with real names?
*. I guess I’m not the target audience. I never had G. I. Joe action figures when I was a kid, never watched the Saturday morning cartoons in the 1980s, never read the comic books, and indeed never saw the two previous films in this franchise: The Rise of Cobra (2009) and Retaliation (2013). From what I understand this was to be a reboot, and as an origin story it didn’t require my doing any background work anyway, so I don’t think I missed much. Seeing as it bombed there is some doubt as to whether they are going to do any follow-ups. Or maybe they’ll just have another reboot. Why? Why not? I don’t know.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)

*. More CGI sludge from Marvel. I wish I could be more upbeat about this one, but that’s all it is.
*. As I said in my notes on Venom (which also left me underwhelmed), the character of the dark alien symbiote has potential. But it’s still left undeveloped. Tom Hardy plays journalist Eddie Brock without the scruffy charm of a Ryan Reynolds or Paul Rudd. He just doesn’t seem a good fit for a project like this because while the material might be a bit darker than usual, it’s still an action comedy, a buddy movie where the buddies inhabit the same body.
*. The core of the film should be the bickering between Eddie and Venom, who are often made out to be an odd couple heading for a divorce even though they need each other. But their back-and-forth just isn’t fresh or funny.
*. Meanwhile, the villains are another poorly matched pair. First there’s Woody Harrelson as Cletus, a redneck serial killer on death row who gets infected by the symbiote when he bites Eddie. Which I guess isn’t quite as silly as Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, but it’s right up there. Somehow the symbiote turns Cletus into a far more powerful creature than Venom named Carnage. Then, playing Harley Quinn to Carnage’s Joker is Naomie Harris as Shriek, a bad girl who can scream really loud. Since the symbiotes can’t stand loud noises this would seem to make them incompatible, but love may find a way. Or not, when it turns out three’s a crowd.
*. Harrelson and Harris should have been great in the parts but they are totally wasted playing villains who aren’t in the slightest bit interesting, thrown into a formulaic plot that has Cletus escaping from prison and springing Shriek from the Magneto-style soundproof prison she’s being kept in. Then they go after their revenge, which involves (yawn) kidnapping Eddie’s girlfriend so that he’ll have to come save her.
*. Without characters worth caring about or a story that qualifies as even remotely original all we’re left with is the usual jarring CGI slugfests, with Venom and Carnage tearing the city apart as they slam around defying the laws of physics and generally raising hell. More yawns. We’ve seen all this before, and to be honest I didn’t think the CGI work was even that good. Carnage’s tentacles looked pretty cheesy coming from a studio that should be state of the art all the way given their budgets and the amount of experience they have doing this sort of thing.
*. The only thing I can think of to say in this movie’s defence is that if it had come out ten years earlier I might have enjoyed it more. As a 2021 release it felt dead on arrival. Marvel deserves some grudging credit for keeping as much air in its various franchise balloons as it has for this long, what with the multiverses and shifty reboots, but at the end of the day they just don’t have anything new to bring to the table aside from what we’ve been gorging on for the last twenty years. Alas, with a global box office of over half a billion a third Venom film was promptly announced. Why are so many people paying money for this?

The Green Knight (2021)

*. It’s a great story, which is part of the reason why it’s stuck around for seven hundred years, with roots that go back even further. Even reading the original poem there are lots of moments that have a contemporary feel to them. For example, the way the Green Knight’s head, when it’s cut off, goes bouncing around the floor of Arthur’s court, so that the assembled knights have to kick it away from them. That’s a funny bit. I don’t know why they cut it out of this movie version.
*. I don’t think it’s because writer-director (and editor and producer) David Lowery wanted to go all po-faced and serious. Not when the title is broken up by an ellipsis that is only closed with the end credits. This isn’t Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, but it’s a movie that had to be aware of being made in the shadow of those earlier medieval quest fantasies and that wasn’t going to work if it had just gone for laughs.
*. Instead I think Lowery just wanted to weird it up. There are, in turn, two further points I’d make about this.
*. First, it seems to be a hallmark of the current generation of auteur filmmakers to go down this road. What do productions like Alex Garland’s Annihilation, Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, and this movie have in common? They’re beautiful to look at but delight in not having any clear direction. This is something I’ve gone on about many times before, the bottom line being that the technical skill in things like cinematography and art design have never been greater in movies today but the writing is fatally handicapped by a reach for profundity that more often ends up just being pretentious.
*. The second point has to do with the changes Lowery made to the story. Now I don’t have anything against writers taking a very free hand with literary adaptations, especially when the source material is this old. But it leads to the question of why Lowery was drawn to this story in the first place when he didn’t want much to do with it.
*. The poem is transformed here, but I kept asking myself to what end. I suppose the main thing is that the whole plot is directed by Gawain’s mother who may be Morgan le Fay though that name is never mentioned. Gawain’s mother isn’t a character at all in the poem. That’s a big change. And for what purpose? Lowery: “It became a drama about a mother and a son in a way that I hadn’t intended. . . . All of a sudden, I was writing about my own relationship with my mom, and the fact that I stayed, I lived under her roof for far longer than I should have. I had failure-to-launch syndrome, and she eventually had to force me out.”

*. This is an interesting subject to address, but why use a medieval poem where it isn’t a theme at all as the vehicle? Isn’t that just making a lot of extra work for yourself?
*. Then there’s Alicia Vikander as Gawain’s girlfriend, another character not in the poem. She doubles as the Lady and also appears as a nude giant. Why? Because it looks cool? Because it’s something that makes you go “Hmm” or “What’s up with that?”
*. Or take the scene where the Queen has to go into a trance to read the Green Knight’s challenge. Why? It seems a really awkward way of presenting things, and reduces the Green Knight to a role as little more than a prop, but it looks neat when the Queen’s eyes roll back in her head.
*. Then there are all the interludes. Gawain meets Saint Winifred and retrieves her head. What did this have to do with anything? Or the talking CGI fox (which looks ridiculous) whose role and identity escaped me completely. Or Barry Keoghan (never a welcome presence on screen) as a Scavenger who steals Gawain’s green girdle. Why did Lowery include this character? Because, he tells us, it was meant as an allusion to Barry Lyndon. Again: OK, but why? What does any of this have to do with Barry Lyndon?
*. Finally there’s the resistance (also in Annhilation and The Lighthouse) to turn all coy and leave the audience guessing as to what is actually happening. Did Gawain dream the whole thing in the forest? Is he alive or dead at the end? Shrug.
*. The cast work out well. I love Dev Patel’s performance, and Sarita Choudhury as his mom. Alicia Vikander’s accent had me scratching my head, but she’s Swedish. Sean Harris is a bit disturbed as Arthur, but I guess he has paternity issues.
*. And it all looks great, except for the fox and the Green Knight himself who they decided to make into Groot. Because Groot is popular with kids? I don’t know.
*. I went through phases watching this movie. I was in a good mood going into it, then hated it, and finally ended up splitting the difference. Lowery uses the poem as a springboard to go off and do his own thing, some of which is kind of interesting but most of which left me throwing up my hands. Stephen Weeks actually directed two previous adaptations of Sir Gawain of the Green Knight, in 1973 under the same title and 1983 as Sword of the Valiant. The latter is now widely held to be a joke, but I actually have fond memories of it decades after I caught it on TV. Will The Green Knight last as long for all its better production values and auteurial idiosyncrasies? I wouldn’t be betting on it.

Spencer (2021)

*. This movie started out being a hard sell for me, as few things interest me less than the doings of Britain’s royal family. I think they have the collective intelligence of a bag of sand, combined with about as much personality and charm as a tile drain. What’s more, I don’t think Diana Spencer did anything to raise this bar when she married into the House of Windsor. In fact, she fit right in.
*. In brief, the royals are about the most useless family of celebrities you could imagine, at least before the advent of the Kardashians. And yet Diana’s funeral drew a British television audience of over 32 million. Did people really have nothing better to do? Or did they just want to hear Elton John?
*. I begin with this bit of grousing only to let you know that I went into Spencer with low expectations. However, this usually works out well for me, as it did again here. Spencer was better than I thought it would be. At least up until the last act. But more about that in just a bit.
*. First off, this is a star vehicle. There are some capable supporting workers — Sean Harris as a somewhat disturbing head chef, Sally Hawkins as a submissive dresser, Jack Farthing as a goblin-like Prince Charles, and Timothy Spall as a sour security man — but the show belongs to Kristen Stewart, who was “thrust” into the Oscar race with the release of the trailer.

*. Stewart is good. Not great, but good. But it is great casting because she works better for not being great. She mainly copies a couple of Diana’s mannerisms — in particular, canting her head to one side and speaking in a low, breathy voice that probably helped disguise a barely passable accent. What she projects is exactly what Stewart has to offer: a star quality that Diana is uncomfortable with. She seems like a model burned out from too many Vogue covers, and maybe that’s what Diana was by this point. I bought into the performance, if not the character, completely.
*. As for that character, I have to leave off any opinion on how accurate it is. I figured Diana was a mess, but didn’t see her as being this much of a drama queen. In any event, here we just have to accept her as the neurotic bird in a gilded cage, with little apparent understanding, even after the fact, of what her job (that is, her marriage) entailed.
*. As she heads for a nervous breakdown the spirit of the film takes on a horror feel. I thought director Pablo Larraín built this up well, evoking a lifestyle of luxury without any sense of comfort or well-being. Diana seems to be going full Repulsion, and we almost expect to see arms starting to reach out of the walls of Sandringham as the camera dollies behind her manic dancing walks down the hallways. Or maybe she’s about to turn a corner and be confronted by the ghost of Ann Boleyn or a couple of creepy little girls. Even Jonny Greenwood’s jazzy score doesn’t seem out of place.
*. As an aside, the camera dollies a lot. I thought Larraín maybe got a little too fond of this.
*. As another aside, one of the subtitles (not the closed captioning but a prepared subtitle) describes how “water swashes.” I didn’t think “swashes” was a word and I had to look it up. I guess the meaning here is that of a gentle splashing sound. I don’t think it has any meaningful etymology though and is just an onomatopoeic coinage.

*. Unfortunately, Larraín doesn’t stick to the royal-horror approach and Sandringham as the house that drips blood, giving in to a crazy pop turn at the end where the whole movie falls to pieces. Just when our loving, warm, and all-too human mom is about to be crushed by the cruelly medieval system of the monarchy she breaks free in a laughable moment where she snaps her necklace/collar of pearls and sends them dramatically bouncing down a flight of stairs. Try to think of something cornier than that. If you do, it might be interrupting a hunting party so that she can liberate little William and Harry and whisk them away with her to freedom. And if you want to add the cherry on top, hit the car stereo system and turn on Mike + the Mechanics so that you and the happy kids can sing along to “All I Need is Miracle.” Because whatever happened in Paris is going to stay in Paris and Hollywood wants a happy ending.
*. It’s particularly sad when a movie that looked like it was going to work crashes and burns this dramatically. What might have been a chilling psychological thriller ends as pop farce, with Stewart looking out at the city in the clever disguise of an Ontario Provincial Police ballcap. I got the impression that we were meant to be considering what Diana was feeling or thinking at this moment. Whether she thought all of it was worth it, or if, like Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather Part II, she realizes she has gained the empty bauble of a world but lost her soul. I say that’s what I think we’re meant to be wondering. But the only impression I was left with is that Diana wasn’t thinking or feeling much of anything at all, and that this was as per usual.