Category Archives: 2020s

House of Gucci (2021)

*. There’s a longstanding debate when making movies in English with a cast that’s supposed to be speaking in a foreign language. Not whether they should speak in the appropriate language and be given subtitles, that’s a preliminary decision, but whether, if they’re speaking English, it should be regular, “proper” English or English spoken in a thick (and usually laughably fake) accent of whatever language the characters are presumed to be speaking.
*. This can often be seen in World War 2 movies. Do the German officers speak in a posh British accent, or do they say things like “Ve haff vays of making you talk!” Do Russian and Japanese soldiers sound like they’re struggling to get English word order right? That sort of thing.
*. I couldn’t help but think of all this while listening to the cast of House of Gucci. Obviously, they’re Italian, and mostly speaking Italian to each other. But as an English-language production they have to be speaking English. Speaking English in an Italian accent is meant to indicate with a nod and a wink that this is-a what’s-a going on.

*. Performing in such a way can’t be easy. I imagine it as acting with a handicap. Jeremy Irons is an old man now, and to be honest I felt like about halfway through this film he was sort of giving up on the pretense of the Italian accent and just falling back into his regular voice. Meaning that as Maurizio Gucci gets older and sicker he starts to sound more British. Which felt odd.
*. It’s also hard not to let such voices slip into parody. Which actually works for characters like Aldo (Al Pacino) and especially Paolo (Jared Leto) who are more caricatures anyway. I read the book by Sara Gay Forden that the movie was based on and was struck by how Paolo is really set up here as a total idiot as well as an only son, and he wasn’t either. He had no head for business, but then neither did Maurizio (played by Adam Driver).
*. In any event, this movie is a star vehicle for Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani anyway, and Gaga (born Stefani Germanotta) is at least of Italian descent (though her accent was criticized as sounding Russian by a dialect coach who actually worked on the film). I think she’s very good here at expressing a sort of wide-eyed earnestness ripening into something feral, and she makes the movie what it is. It’s not an easy part, having to allow for us to question just how much Patrizia was always a woman on the make and how much she really was in love with Maurizio.
*. On the other hand, I’m still not convinced Adam Driver is much of an actor, but he does bear a resemblance to Maurizio Gucci, who seems to have been a shadow of Patrizia in real life anyway.

*. Aside from just watching Gaga do her a-star-undone thing, I didn’t think there was much to see here. The Gucci family are an Italian snake pit in a tradition that runs from the Borgias to the Sopranos. That’s entertaining enough, but after a while I thought it all started to seem a bit like a fashion show. Director Ridley Scott can really do this kind of thing (production design, art direction) well, but the story probably would have worked better in the long format of a cable series as the business ins-and-outs have to be compressed to the point here where they’re more a distraction than high-stakes drama. And do I think the InvestCorp brain trust would be having meetings in team sweats? No.
*. Speaking of wardrobe, I’m sure they did a terrific job, but Lady Gaga’s lingerie did strike me as being anachronistic. At least I’m pretty sure thongs like that weren’t worn in the 1970s. They look very 2020.
*. In brief, I would have enjoyed it more if they’d played it up as full camp, which is obviously the tug that’s being felt throughout. Unfortunately, the talent involved meant they had to try for something more, and to be sure the camp road might well have ended in disaster. So in the end what they got is a muddle: a slickly produced but empty picture that’s part romance, part biopic, part crime picture, part business story, part music video. Some of it is trashy fun, but I’m hard pressed to think of what the point was.

Men (2022)

*. In the 2010s horror films, or at least some horror films, started taking a higher road by making a raid into the territory of art-house and social commentary. In terms of the former it branched off into the realm of the weird, and in the latter case the woke (a label I’m using a bit freely here to cover a range of social-justice attitudes, primarily relating to race and gender).
*. I don’t mean those labels to be pejorative, though they certainly can be taken in that direction. The thing is, genre filmmaking needs a shot in the arm every now and then to jolt it out of stale formulas and conventions, and by 2010 (or thereabouts), coming down from “peak zombie” and with shaky-cam horror having lost its novelty, horror fans were looking for something new.
*. Weirdness and wokeness did give us something new, and there were some great results. It Follows and Get Out being a couple of the best examples. But weirdness could also turn into an invitation to narrative laziness and the construction of stories that made no sense with “twist” endings that had no explanation, while wokeness could become preachy and simplistic. Put the two together, and ridden to excess, horror was getting both pretentious and obscure.
*. Alex Garland, writer-director of Men, is someone who has never shied away from obscurity or pretention, so I wasn’t too surprised at how it turned out. Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley) is a young woman recovering from the apparent suicide (even that’s not clear) of her abusive husband. So she rents a ginormous country estate as a getaway. Right away my humbug alert was triggered. Why on earth would a single person want to rent such a huge place for a bit of quiet time? It’s ridiculous.
*. But then I guess we’re meant to suppose we’ve removed to fantasyland: a place of mythic greenness with apparently very limited phone service. The fact that phones can’t get a signal is a well-worn horror cliché by now, as is the idea that in an emergency Harper doesn’t even know the address of the place she’s just rented. Like I say: fantasyland.
*. To make not much of a story even shorter, Harper finds the village she’s staying in to be populated by a bunch of guys who are really only one guy, played by Rory Kinnear. Being men, they range from threatening to unhelpful. Whether any of them actually exist or are just products of Harper’s sense of guilt, or whether they’re emanations of some supernatural, ancient force, the embodiment of the Green Man of local lore, is up for grabs. And then maybe they’re just meant to illustrate the point that all men are the same (that is, shit), and the question of whether the way they manifest makes any sense or not can be left hanging.
*. OK, there’s the weird and the woke for you. Grounded in a home-invasion plot and what’s come to be called folk horror. But compare this to an ur-text of folk horror like The Wicker Man and you can see the difference. The Wicker Man made sense, and its twist at the end was truly disturbing. Men isn’t into making sense so much as making a point.
*. Garland isn’t without talent. But Men starts out as atmospheric and creepy and quickly turns into something dull and stupid. The serial births at the end go on too long, and Harper looks like she’s gotten bored of the spectacle before it’s halfway through. I kept imagining her turning away and saying “you’re all just being silly now.” And none if it is anything new. For scenes of body-horror birthing, the end of The Brood was more horrifying and shocking, the end of Gozu weirder, and the end of The Amulet a more powerful feminist statement. Rory Kinnear’s bloody self-recycling is only repetitive and ridiculous, with a climax (or punchline) you’ll have seen coming long in advance.
*. The direction taken by the horror that I’ve been describing can work if it’s part of a genuine effort in making it new. But just being weird and woke is already starting to feel stale, and this is a movie that’s basically going over tropes that have been well mined already, without the courtesy of being coherent. It looks good and the performances are nice to watch though, which is enough to give it a passing grade in the present climate anyway.

Moonfall (2022)

*. Years ago, at a time when calling out Hollywood for making stupid movies was in vogue, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998) received special attention. Though I didn’t hate that movie, I did have to agree with the complaints made about how dumb it was. As Roger Ebert put it: “One must carefully repress intelligent thought while watching such a film. The movie makes no sense at all . . . You have to absorb such a film, not consider it. But my brain rebelled, and insisted on applying logic where it was not welcome.”
*. If there is a lifetime achievement award for stupidity in stupid movies, Emmerich must be on the shortlist for it. Is Moonfall his stupidest yet? It may well be. I don’t think it’s a lousy movie, or any worse than Godzilla, but it left me trying to think of what age the audience would have to be to not need to check their brain at the door.
*. The “high concept” here is that our moon is actually a “megastructure” built billions of years ago by refugees fleeing a powerful AI they’d constructed that went sentient and decided it didn’t need humans anymore. So much for the theory of evolution and our understanding of the creation of the solar system.
*. Anyway, as things kick off here that same AI has discovered the refugee base inside the mostly hollow moon (which is, apparently, powered by a white dwarf star), and it (the AI) sends the moon crashing into the Earth. A shuttle crewed by three intrepid souls — Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson, both former astronauts, and John Bradley just because he happened to be hanging around NASA at the time — fly to the moon where they go inside and kill the AI and save the world, though Earth gets a pretty sound thrashing before the moon backs up and returns to its regular orbit. Which means everything returns to normal!
*. Well, you can try and come up with a sillier plot than that but I think you’ll be at it for a long, long time. This is as dumb as it gets. Dumber even than Geostorm, though this is a better movie. And if you want to see the end of the world, Emmerich is still your guy. He’s been doing this for a while now.
*. To be honest, I initially thought this was going to be a comedy. Wilson, though buff enough here to try out for the MCU, has a nice comic touch playing a straight man, as seen in all those Conjuring movies. Bradley is just comic relief as the chubby conspiracy-theory nut. And even Michael Peña shows up as the all-too-disposable second husband. Throw this cast on top of an already ridiculous script and there was potential for lots of laughs. Alas, they play most of it with a straight face.
*. Despite it being so stupid, I still found Moonfall entertaining enough, even at 130 minutes. The ending suggests a sequel, which is something Emmerich apparently did have in mind, but I’m not sure the box office was good enough to justify any further expense. On the other hand, Emmerich is just going to do the same thing again anyway, no matter what the title is, so why not?

Blacklight (2022)

*. Woof! Do you remember the original run of Sneak Previews in the late 1970s when Spot the Wonder Dog would come bouncing onto the laps of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel to announce their picks for the Dog of the Week? I wonder where Spot is now? Doggy heaven, I guess. But if I could, I’d call him back to duty for Blacklight.
*. Once again — yes, one more time! — Liam Neeson is back as an aging (or, more properly, elderly) agent, a man with a particular set of skills who finds himself having to protect his family. In this case he’s Travis Block, an FBI agent who works “off-the-books” doing dirty jobs for his boss, Aidan Quinn. Alas, Quinn has an even more off-the-books operation going called Operation Unity. I don’t know what Operation Unity involves aside from killing people. As Quinn says at one point (and this is the level of the script): “Spilling a little blood is absolutely necessary to maintaining law and order.” Yeah, you know the type.
*. Neeson runs afoul of this Deep Dark State operation when a younger agent (Taylor John Smith) threatens to go to the press (represented by intrepid reporter Emmy Raver-Lampman, the film’s sole bright spot) and blow the whistle on these rogue Feds. Neeson finds out what’s going on and Quinn kidnaps his family and then tries to kill him when he won’t play ball.
*. That’s enough of the plot. If you’re hoping for a return to the glory days of ’70s paranoia classics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, forget it. There is nothing new or suspenseful going on here. What’s worse though is that the action is so poorly done. There are a couple of car chases that are very boring. There’s a gun fight that is very boring. Neeson gets in a fistfight and it’s very boring. Because let’s face it, the guy is 70 years old and he’s just not going to be able to sell this stuff anymore. But I don’t think director Mark Williams has much of a hand shooting action anyway.
*. Many reviewers were quick to point out how closely Neeson’s career now seems to be tracking that of Bruce Willis. It’s not quite that bad yet, since while this feels like one of Willis’s bottom-of-the-barrel efforts from the same period it actually had a budget of over $40 million. Little of which shows up on screen. Or maybe it does if it all went to paying Neeson.
*. Set in Washington D.C. but filmed in Australia (Melbourne and Canberra). This may explain why the streets and the museum are so deserted. Seriously, I’d like to know when a museum has that few people in it because that’s when I’d like to visit.
*. Film authority and general bon vivant Eddie Harrison: “Blacklight isn’t his [Neeson’s} best or his worst, but will do to be doing on with.” That’s faint praise, but I think it still goes too far. As far as I can tell, Backlight really is Neeson’s worst movie, at least recently. Casting an eye over the ones I’ve made notes on, I would rate it as worse, and markedly worse, than Taken, Taken 2, Taken 3, Non-Stop, The Commuter, Cold Pursuit, The Marksman, and The Ice Road. In brief, this movie is junk, and unless Neeson really does need the money he’d better pull out of this career arc before things get any worse. Because they always can.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

*. I don’t want to get too deep into the epic back story of this movie. Justice League had been released in 2017, after lots of reshoots, cuts, cost overruns, and other problems. Many of these problems arose after Zack Snyder had to leave the project in post-production due to the death of his daughter, with Joss Whedon taking over.
*. After a mostly negative response to Justice League, fans started asking for a director’s cut (or what came to be called the “Snyder Cut”) of the film. I was not one of that crowd, for various reasons.
*. First: director’s cuts aren’t that good, as can be seen by looking at the deleted scenes included with many DVDs. What gets cut is usually something that should have been cut. But every auteur imagines they’re Orson Welles and the studios have butchered their version of The Magnificent Ambersons or Touch of Evil.
*. Second: the studio had found the Snyder Cut “unwatchable,” and gone to great expense to fix what they thought was a huge problem. That’s not a good sign.
*. Third: Zack Snyder hadn’t shown me anything in his previous (or subsequent) work to suggest that more was going to be more. I mean, his previous effort, the lead-in to this film, was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Enough said.
*. Fourth: there was a lot more coming in a Snyder Cut, with the run time ballooning to a full 4 hours. Put another way: the Snyder Cut was a block of film that seemed not to have been cut at all.
*. In any event, (some of) the fans got (some of) what they wanted, as this film came to be released, four years after Justice League, on HBO Max. So what is there to say . . .
*. I should say, first, that I didn’t see Justice League, so I can’t compare the two films. What I can say is that this is a dull, dark, poorly written and bloated turkey of a movie that does nothing to justify its four-hour length. Is this what fan culture hath wrought? Then to hell with it. Now I’ll quickly go through some of the pejorative adjectives I just employed.
*. Dark: There’s a moment in Deadpool 2 when Cable tells Deadpool that dubstep is for pussies and our hero replies “You’re so dark. Are you sure you’re not from the DC universe?” That was a joke everyone in the audience could be expected to get. Damn these movies are dark. I don’t mean morally dark, but just dark dark. Does the sun ever rise on the DC empire? If a scene here isn’t at night then the skies are overcast, giving everything the same grey tinge as the new uniforms. Where’s Batman’s Batman symbol on his chest? I can barely make it out. And as for Superman’s iconic red and blue tights with a big gold “S” you can forget it. Everything here is just . . . dark.
*. Dull: You know what’s duller than an endless parade of superhero fights and posing? Endless superhero fights and posing done in slow motion, all to the strains of what the subtitles tell me is “ancient lamentation music.” The Flash even runs fast in slow motion! Now imagine this stretched out for four hours.
*. And it’s not just the slow motion but the very structure of the story. The damn “epilogue” here (yes, it’s titled, like all the different chapters) runs half an hour. That’s not an epilogue, it’s a whole other movie!

*. Poorly written: Did they even try to come up with some original villains and a new idea to go with their massive budget? No, they did not even try. We’re right back with Sauron attempting to get his hands on all the Rings of Power, or Thanos trying to get his hands on the Infinity Stones, or Xu Wenwu trying to collect the Ten Rings. Thistime it’s Darkseid (or mainly his flunky Steppenwolf, not to be confused with the band) trying to grab hold of the three Mother Boxes. These boxes have been protected since the ancient days by the elves, the dwarves, and the men. Or the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the men. It’s easy to get these mythologies confused.
*. What do these Mother Boxes do, you ask? Well, when they’re combined they form something called the Unity. Which, in turn, gives Darkseid the power of the Anti-Life Equation, which is apparently the key to controlling all life throughout the multiverse. What will Darkseid do with this immense power, when “all of existence shall be mine”? No idea. But in any event, the more immediate effect of the Unity is to — you guessed it! — open a portal to Darkseid’s dimension, so that he can invade Earth. No way you saw that coming!
*. Like I say, they weren’t even trying. And it gets worse. The team needs to resurrect Superman in order to fight Steppenwolf and the way to do that is for the Flash to run really, really fast, which will allow Victor Stone/Cyborg to use one of the boxes to bring Supes back to life. How? No idea. Then, at the end, the Flash has to run really, really fast (faster than the speed of light!) to reverse time so that the good guys win and the portal is shut. I got the sense this was an homage to the end of Superman (1978), which was perhaps the stupidest ending for a superhero movie ever. But the basic point is that running fast is really useful.
*. So we have the same idea they keep trotting out for all these movies, with bad guys who are all the same as well. Steppenwolf has moments where it seems like he’s going to be given a bit more depth because of some problems he’s been having with Darkseid, but nothing is made of it and in fact it’s never even explained. This makes the final battle with him a drag because I was starting to feel some sympathy for him before the League teams up to kill him four times over.
*. As for the heroes, there’s nothing much to them either that we haven’t already seen. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Henry Cavill’s Superman seem to be having a “biggest tits” contest (Momoa wins, but Cavill is looking pretty busty). Gal Gadot is on model-pilot. I actually did like Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman here. He comes across as having a kind of weary charm. Ezra Miller provides the only comic relief as the Flash. Ray Fisher as Cyborg has the most depth, but that doesn’t make him interesting. Superman for some reason turns full heel when he’s resurrected, which is just an excuse for another fight and to give Amy Adams as Lois Lane some reason for being here. She’s “the key,” you see. Bruce Wayne had a dream about it.
*. A waste not just of 90 minutes then, but 4 hours of my life. As I’ve said, the epilogue goes on for half an hour of that, introducing new characters like Deathstroke and the Martian Manhunter, plus marking a very unwanted return of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor and Jared Leto as the Joker, in what appears to be an entirely new multiverse timeline. One which basically makes everything that happened in the movie we just saw moot.
*. As it stands, I’m not sure that timeline is going to get a chance. I couldn’t help but think of the possibilities of getting Will Smith’s Deadshot (from Suicide Squad, and I didn’t even get his name right when I first posted this review) together with Amber Heard’s Mera and Ezra Miller’s Flash (both members of the new team) so we could have a triumvirate of stars we lost in 2022, all in one picture. Will Warner Bros. want to spend $300 million on that? Wait and see!

Antlers (2021)

*. Antlers is a movie loosely based on a briskly efficient short story called “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca (who also had a hand in writing the screenplay). You can probably find it online and I recommend reading it, as briskness and efficiency are two words I wouldn’t apply to Antlers.
*. No, this is a film by Scott Cooper, the same Mr. Brooding-and-Intense that brought us Out of the Furnace and Hostiles. It’s hard not to watch Jesse Plemons as the sheriff in this film and not wonder if Christian Bale wasn’t available. He certainly belongs here.
*. “Here,” in this case, is the logging/mining town of Cispus Falls, Oregon, a magical place where it can go from afternoon to middle of the night in a single scene cut. This is the same sort of working-class wasteland as in Out of the Furnace, doubly hit because the two main industries seem to be forestry and mining. I thought this an odd combination, and in any event the mine has been shut down, providing a handy place to summon demons.
*. The story is set in West Virginia. I guess Oregon (or British Columbia, standing in for Oregon) was more photogenic. Or cheaper. Or both. Anyway, it seems Cispus Falls has raised the spirit of a Wendigo, which I didn’t think were native to the Pacific Northwest but luckily Graham Greene is on hand to be the Wise Old Indian Man who tells us it’s all legit.
*. I don’t know what got the Wendigo riled up. There’s a hint dropped about it being upset at the desecration of the natural environment, but nothing much is made of it. Instead, he’s more of a metaphor. People on drugs become monsters who take it out on their kids. The Wendigo is a junky hooked on blood, as well as a domestic abuser. This is nothing new for a horror film, and I thought the story was edgier (if less progressive) for suggesting the politically incorrect notion that people stuck in poverty are scary and disgusting. Which, from the vantage point of Hollywood, is probably how they do appear.
*. As an aside, the problem with horror movies that present their monsters as metaphors is that they tend to fall apart at the join between what’s “real” in the movie and what is only supposed to be representing something else. Here there clearly is a giant antlered monster, except that’s not what we’re supposed to believe he really is. This is unsatisfactory.

*. Keri Russell plays a teacher who gets creeped out when one of the kids in her class starts drawing scary pictures. She investigates and discovers that the boy is keeping his Wendigo-daddy and kid brother locked up in his house. The Wendigo escapes and goes on a rampage, but Russell, a survivor of parental abuse herself, will stand up to the boy’s bogeyman.
*. The Wendigo itself isn’t in Antosca’s story. The critter there isn’t related to drug use or child abuse but is apparently a demon that has been summoned through an occult ritual. But it does have antlers. It has antlers here too, which it uses to gore its victims before eating them. I didn’t care very much for its appearance, but I did appreciate the practical effects. A CGI Wendigo would have looked out of place in such a setting.
*. As you might expect by now from Cooper, the pacing is leaden. And it’s not helped this time out by the clichéd presentation. There’s a scene in the classroom where Russell talks about folklore and fairy tales, which introduces that motif. Then throw in the radio news used to give us more information, the disturbing drawings the boy makes, the scene at the morgue where everyone wonders what could have possibly done this, the aforementioned Wise Old Indian Man along with the dismissal of Christian mythology (God is dead and Jesus has left town), the monster behind a locked door and the threatened child, and even a few overhead car shots (never out of place in a horror film). These all make it feel as though Cooper is just going through the motions, and I can’t say he has a great feel for suspense in the first place.
*. Nothing special, in short, and actually a bit less than that. But I’ll leave you with a recommendation in case you are interested in watching another horror movie that has an antlered creature in it, and one that was also shot in British Columbia. Go check out Black Mountain Side. It’s creepier, and deserves to be better known.

Death on the Nile (2022)

*. We begin in the trenches of the First World War, with a young Hercule Poirot explaining to his commanding officer why the planned attack on the Germans should take place at once because he’s noticed the local birds behaving oddly and that means the wind is blowing in the right direction for the use of poison gas.
*. Wait. What? What an absolutely absurd deduction. Might the wind not change? And the idea that Poirot was fighting in WWI is totally uncanonical. As is the wound to his face that his (soon to be deceased) girlfriend suggests he conceal with his trademark moustache. Where did all of this come from?
*. And more to the point, Why? This intro must have cost a bundle to film and it properly introduces nothing but just gives us a ridiculous and totally unnecessary back story. Poirot had a girlfriend that he lost in the war? Why invent that? Just to show that he understands something about love? And also: hair doesn’t grow on scar tissue, so the moustache-as-disguise idea wouldn’t have worked at all.
*. So Death on the Nile gets off to a bad start. I thought it looked likely to turn into the same sumptuously-appointed train wreck as Kenneth Branagh’s previous turn as Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. Big production values, an all-star cast, and the full use of large-format film that stretches the screen — all of which overwhelms the characters and story and leaves poor Dame Agatha in the dust.
*. But I did enjoy the middle stretches of the journey a bit more. It really is a wonderful movie to look at, and I actually missed seeing it on a big screen (as it was, its release was postponed several times, mainly due to the pandemic stopping it from getting into theatres). But all the glossy (CGI) locations and glossier stars are stuck in a honeyed atmosphere and ramshackle script.

*. Despite all the room in that widescreen image, and just over two hours of running time, none of the performances are allowed enough play to hold our attention. Gal Gadot gets the most attention, but since she’s the (first) murder victim, all the time spent building her character up is a sunk cost. We’re left with a bunch of supporting players, none of whom sticks out as particularly noteworthy. Even Russell Brand fades into the wallpaper. Even if you hadn’t read the book, your options as to whodunit would be pretty thin.
*. Thinning those options out even more are a few other changes made to Christie’s text. First off, a romance writer is changed into a Black blues singer (Sophie Okenedo), whose daughter (Letitia Wright) is the too-good-to-true love interest of Poirot’s friend Bouc. Also, a pair of older women (the comedy team of French and Saunders) are revealed to be lesbians. Now I have nothing against diversity, but the problem with it here is that you know the two Black women and two lesbians can be taken off the list as suspects. As can the Indian lawyer. So that leaves us with . . . you know. Armie Hammer. Before he became better known for talking about eating people.
*. Quickly (and I mean quickly) Poirot interviews all the different subjects, revealing their individual motives for murder, which he’s pulled from clues we haven’t been privy to. Were we supposed to notice the absence of hospital corners made on the one suspect’s bed? What information was in the accounts book he stole? Did you know what colour blood on a handkerchief turns when thrown in the Nile?
*. Then the great detective draws everyone together to reveal the killer. That he has to fire a pistol in the air to get everyone’s attention gives some indication of the level we’re playing on here. It’s not that the “real” Hercule Poirot wouldn’t have resorted to such theatrics, but that the movie has to because Branagh must have felt that by this point the audience’s attention would be wandering.
*. Things get even worse in the big reveal scene. Poirot has only the flimsiest circumstantial evidence to build his conclusion on (evidence that, again, we in the audience haven’t been introduced to), and the killer would have been wise to take his chances in court. Then there’s a Mexican stand-off and two people are (impossibly) slain at close range by a single .22 bullet from a lady’s pistol.
*. So a nice movie to look at, but a worthless script that seems to want to say something about the wages of love but only does so in the most banal terms. Meanwhile, for a Christie mystery it doesn’t even attempt the fundamental job of introducing the suspects and presenting us with the evidence (including red herrings) so we can have fun playing along. There’s no sense of whodunit at all, leaving us with a cruise down the Nile for some celebrity sightseeing.

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.