Eternals (Chloé Zhao, 2021) and Venom: Let There be Carnage (Andy Serkis, 2021)

The Eternals stand in a line.

I went out to the mall last Friday to watch a self-made double feature of superhero movies at the AMC. First up was Eternals, the latest in the on-going saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by the Oscar-certified Chloé Zhao, whose Nomadland and The Rider are notable for their location work, focus on small details of performance and process in everyday lives, and twilight-gray color palettes, she was maybe the worst possible choice to adapt the work of four-color genius/cosmic weirdo Jack Kirby, whose 1970s series of the same name was his third (at least) attempt at creating a new kind history myth of the universe, after the initial creation of the Marvel Universe and then his New Gods series at DC. The comic book Eternals is a massive epic, encompassing the whole history of humanity and the wider universe beyond, marked by Kirby’s densely packed and luridly colored panels and splash pages. Zhao’s Eternals, on the other hand, is very very beige.

A group of super-powered beings are sent to the Earth 7,000 years ago to defend humanity from big CGI lizard dogs who show up sometimes and start eating everyone. They each have special powers and colored suits (all the colors of the rainbow: blue-grey, green-grey, red-grey, white-grey, etc). Most of the powers involve yellow lines of CGI (why is it always yellow?) that allow them to punch stuff really hard or set things on fire with their eyes or have a sword. One of the guys looks exactly like the evil Super-man from a Zack Snyder movie. He’s not the leader, but everyone acts like he is because he can fly and he’s a handsome white guy. The actual leader is Salma Hayek, who can heal people, but she’s dies early on and that’s what sets the plot in motion. 

The new leader is Gemma Chan who plays Sersi. She’s dating Jon Snow, and her ex is the flying guy, Ikaris, played by Robb Stark. This is funny because those two actors were on the same show with a main character also named Cersei and they also look exactly alike: they can’t get away from Circes (like Odysseus I suppose) and also they’re totally interchangeable in every way. Sersi tracks down all the other Eternals, who have spread out across the globe for the last 500 years and don’t have phones or internet or any way to communicate other than showing up in person at each other’s house or place of business. They argue about whether or not they should do something (most MCU properties are about people with superpowers arguing about whether they should do anything at all), and Zhao intercuts flashbacks of what they’ve all been up to for all of recorded history (mostly stuff like brainwashing indigenous people in the Amazon rain forest or taking thousands of years to realize that sometimes humans do bad things with technology). One of them, Kingo, is a Bollywood star. We’re introduced to him filming a musical number that seems to be conceived as an homage to a much more vibrant cinema, but literally pales in comparison and might be in slow motion. More action happens, secrets are revealed, there’s a big showdown on a beach, Kingo wanders off and everyone forgets about him, Ikaris flies way too close to the sun.

It’s baffling how low-energy Eternals is. It looks like a film made by people who work in an office. Zhao’s intimate approach is swallowed up by the demands of the epic story and Disney house style, and the result isn’t satisfying on either a personally expressive or corporate synergy level. It’s a marked contrast to the next movie I saw, Venom: Let There be Carnage, the second film about the alien symbiote that possesses Tom Hardy and tries to eat people and talks in a funny voice. The villain is played by Woody Harrelson in a disastrous red wig, a serial killer who accidentally becomes a host of a different, much meaner symbiote named Carnage. Woody and Carnage break his old girlfriend out of superpower jail (she breaks stuff by screaming) and go on a Natural Born Killers style rampage, and only Venom can stop them.

Like the first Venom, Let There be Carnage is crude and tasteless and very funny, with more physical comedy than all 20+ MCU films put together. Deeply black and red, in both humor and visual scheme, it flies along in seemingly half the running time of Eternals. If in Zhao’s film, everyone looks like clockwatchers, in Carnage, everyone involved appears to be having a tremendous time. Great Actress Michelle Williams returns as Hardy’s estranged love interest for some wide-eyed shenanigans—she plays the straight-man girlfriend role, but with an energy that demonstrates that she wouldn’t mind chomping some heads off either. Naomie Harris dusts off her Pirates of the Caribbean performance and chews up the screen with aplomb, every bit a match for real-life lunatic Harrelson. Motion capture actor Andy Serkis takes over as director, and keeps things rolling delightfully free of backstory or moral lessons, moving from one frenetic action sequence to the next with only quick breathers for oddball asides like a sequence where Venom hangs out in a club, or one where Hardy explains Don Quixote to a pair of chickens named “Sonny” and “Cher”. An Eternals/Carnage double feature is a textbook example of the white elephant/termite distinction in comic book movies. Or at least as close as we are likely to get, considering that even Carnage is a product of huge corporations (Sony and Disney have split rights to the characters), and is now directly connected to the larger MCU thanks to its cliffhanger ending. It’s possible that we’re going to see more of this split in the future, with more diversity of filmmaking and storytelling approaches within the larger corporate umbrella. As the MCU enters its second generation of characters and actors, we can only hope that our content overlords allow us a taste of the wild breadth of the medium their movies and TV shows are based on.

The Card Counter (Paul Schrader, 2021)

Paul Schrader is one the cinema’s all-time great dumb guys. The Card Counter features Oscar Isaac as another of his God’s Lonely Men, an ex-con gambler who meets up with a kid and tries to set him on the right path in life. It’s a noir hero conceit: Isaac is a man who did something wrong, once, with a topical flair: the wrong thing he did is torture people at Abu Ghraib. He seems to see in the kid, a young man with an extremely dumb plan played by Tye Sheridan, a chance to atone for his crimes, to put some good back into the world. Though, given the narration he records in his Bressonian journal (Paul Schrader is nothing if not a man who has watched both Diary of a Country Priest AND Pickpocket), he has his doubts whether or not his sins can ever really be expiated. Also he hangs around in casino bars with Tiffany Haddish, who likes him because he’s Oscar Isaac and she’s a woman in a Paul Schrader movie.

Much of the film plays like a variation on Rain Man or The Color of Money, Isaac and Sheridan road tripping from casino to casino, the elder teaching the younger valuable lessons about life while trying to dissuade him from attempting to murder Isaac’s old torture instructor, Willem Dafoe. These scenes, and the gambling bits, are fun and Isaac plays them beautifully, all determinedly sad introversion. The film starts and gets its title from the way he cheats at blackjack, but he spends most of the movie playing poker. Which might be a comment about how his interacting with other people is a fundamental disruption of the balanced and static way he’s rebuilt his life after prison. Or it might just be that someone liked the title, but realized that poker is more cinematic. It doesn’t really matter.

None of it really matters, because like so many Schrader heroes before him, Isaac (and Sheridan) just can’t stop themselves from being dumb. No one in film history has been so obsessed with guys who just cannot chill out and let things go. Schrader’s heroes can’t quit because they see themselves as the center of the universe: their masochistic tortures are rooted in a fundamental narcissism. And Schrader can’t resist depicting them as the doomed romantic heroes they believe themselves to be. So a movie like The Card Counter is filled with wonderful images and sequences (Haddish and Isaac in a park of light; the gray-sheeted emptiness of Isaac’s modified hotel rooms; the horrifyingly woozy distortions of the Abu Ghraib flashbacks) that add up to mere aggrandizement of men who choose to do bad things simply because they refuse not to do them. But Schrader learned from Bresson that if you add just enough inexplicable beauty to your blank, foolish world, some nut will come along and find transcendence in it.

Malignant (James Wan, 2021)

I met James Wan once. He came to the Metro for a pre-release screening of Saw some 15-20 years ago, whenever it was that movie came out. He seemed like a nice enough guy, not all the filmmakers who came through the Metro in my time there did. So, having seen him in person, I can be sure he is, in fact, real. I’m not so sure about anything else related to the movie Malignant. It claims to have been written by people, performed by actors, and filmed in places. But I do have my doubts.

I thought a lot about fakeness when watching Malignant, and about how it’s not exactly the same as phoniness. None of the environments in the movie look real, and certainly not much of it was filmed in Seattle, where its story is set. There’s a series of establishing shots midway through the movie, aerial footage of the city skyline during a rainstorm. Except it’s very obviously not raining in the footage: it’s been added digitally. Way too much of it in fact. Hollywood usually gets Seattle rain wrong, of course. Torrential downpours are rare here–it’s more that we have a constant light drizzle and overcast skies. But this isn’t just that amount of rain, it’s the fact that it doesn’t seem to interact at all with the environment that makes it look so fake. Similarly, there’s very little effort put toward making the city seem like an actual city. Sure, there are establishing shots and location name drops and even a little bit of the Seattle Underground Tour (another thing which I know is real, because I’ve been on it), but like the rain with the land, the locations don’t appear to interact with the actors or the story in any real way.

Of course, the Underground at least does interact with it metaphorically, with the (historically correct) idea that the current city was built on top of the damaged remnants of the original Seattle, which still exists, dark and forgotten, below the city’s downtown areas. What makes Malignant more than just a bad movie is that its fakery is real, whereas the fakery of something like an MCU action sequence is phony. Phony is fake that is also a lie. Malignant‘s heroine’s life (at least parts of it for sure, but I’d suggest that maybe a lot else besides, include the gorgeous house that looks like no one has ever lived in it and the mysterious haunted castle that was supposedly a hospital are fake too) is revealed to be a simulation, induced by her subconscious (or evil twin or whatever) to pacify her while it runs around doing all kinds of awful things (many of which are literally physically impossible, but not metaphorically, and look fake, but still plausible, and are therefore not phony). Her id, if you will, is released by a physical trauma (her abusive husband–reminder that head injuries are always serious and should be treated as such, especially if they’re bleeding: check for concussion, insist that your doctor order a CT scan!), but it was there all along. A fake world terrorized by a backwards monster running around creating chaos and distorting reality with reckless abandon. It’s the true story of America in the 21st century.

Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood, 2021)

Cry Macho is not a great movie, but Clint Eastwood is a great director and a great star, one of the few filmmakers left in mainstream Hollywood allowed to make his own films whatever way he wants to make them and that is more than enough to make it a good movie. Eastwood plays a wizened ranch hand who gets sent to Mexico to bring back his boss Dwight Yoakum’s 13 year old son. Not much about this early part of the film makes sense: the world around the kid is more fake than the baby in American Sniper, and the mother is one of Eastwood’s more hysterically misogynistic portraits of a woman, incoherent and slutty and drunk and cruel and also somehow rich and powerful. She’s of course contrasted with the maternal Marta who Clint and the kid get sidetracked with on the way home, a loving grandmother and excellent cook who always looks at this broken down old man with bright adoring eyes.

This section of the film, where Clint and the boy hide out from the cops in a dusty town that time forgot, seems to be Clint’s ideal place. He sleeps in a shrine, helps out the locals with their various animal troubles (apparently no one else in this rural community knows how to do anything with animals??), and is fed fine food by charming and attractive women. And honestly, it is a delight to see the man enjoying his eden. Who wouldn’t want it all? The idyll ends, of course as it must, and the two make their way back to the border, though not before being waylaid by some cops who think they’re running drugs. As one of them trashes Eastwood’s car (the third one he drives in the film, a delightful running gag), he keeps up a steady stream of muttered profanities about these “asshole, idiot, loser cops”, a reminder that Eastwood’s conservatism, whatever its faults, and there are many, has always been deeply anti-authoritarian.

They’re saved, of course, by the rooster that gives the film its title (“a cock named Macho”, Eastwood helpfully explains one of the films better jokes). This pullum ex machina is one of the more artful expressions of the film’s examination of masculinity, the primary theme of Eastwood’s career, especially in its later phase (an era that’s been going on for at least 30 years now). What does being a man mean for Clint Eastwood? Does it mean telling the cops to go to hell and poking your enemies in the eye and finding a woman to bring you coffee in the morning and avoiding the cheap ones who try to seduce you? Or is all that nonsense, made-up posturing that sad lonely people build up around themselves as a defense against the terrifying, incoherent world? The great thing about Clint Eastwood is that he honestly doesn’t know the difference.

Early in the film, on Eastwood’s journey into Mexico, he camps out rather than stay in a hotel, as any real cowboy would. The camera catches him bunking down for the night in the final moments of sunset, purple sky above deep black. We only see his silhouette, it’s too dark for anything but shadow, as he sinks down to the ground, below the horizon, a movie star merging with the earth.

The Green Knight (David Lowery, 2021)

I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight yesterday. The 14th century poem of unknown authorship that was the inspiration for David Lowery’s latest A24 fantasy film. The film isn’t really an adaptation, or, God forbid, a “reimagining” but a translation of the older epic into contemporary form. Where the Gawain poet’s world is suffused with color, courtly ritual, subversive wit, and Christian allegory, Lowery’s demands stories about flawed but ultimately righteous heroes played by recognizable but not too-recognizable performers navigating a perplexing world of desaturated colors and shadowy interiors. Modern Hollywood filmmaking demands a degree of ambiguity, in that the movies must be able to support a variety of readings, either to satisfy the needs of word-of-mouth promotion (often by inspiring outrageous takes, pro and con, online) and repeat viewings and purchases (theatrical, home video and streaming), or avoid any kind of potential political minefields from right or left by promoting either a blandly vague centrism or by merely presenting a self-contradictory and incoherent text. This applies as much to blockbuster filmmaking (the Disney complex and the films of, say, Denis Villeneuve) as it does to the pseudo-indie films of fashionable distributor A24. All of which is to say that I quite like Lowery’s The Green Knight. It’s a great example of the kind of thing that it is. Look at it as a Daniel Lanois production, swampy and mysterious, with echoes of the old and weird but not quite the real thing. The poem, though, is the thing itself. Not the patina of weird but simply weirdness that sneaks in sideways through the margins of the seemingly familiar and ancient. The Basement Tapes to the film’s Time Out of Mind.

Fitting the medieval poem into a modern idiom requires a great many changes. Gawain in the poem is an upstanding young man who strictly follows the chivalric code of honor for almost the entire story. A somewhat pompous but well-liked figure who is hailed as a hero wherever he goes. Gawain in the film is a callow youth, inexperienced in war and not especially competent at questing. The people he meets on his journey condescend to him, when they aren’t outright stealing from him and leaving him for dead in the wilderness. While the text of many a classic epic expounds of the virtue and honor and ideality of its hero-figures, they tend to be exactly the kind of dumb boys Lowery and star Dev Patel present in the film (think Achilles and his petulance, Gilgamesh and his temper tantrums, the Pandava princes continually making bad deals with their evil brothers over and over in the Mahabharata). One suspects that the true flavor of these oral tradition poems is lost a bit on the page, though in Burton Raffel’s translation of The Green Knight one can almost hear the troubadour winking at the audience as he expounds on Gawain’s virtue.

If The Green Knight is, in many ways, a very silly poem, the scenario it depicts is rife with potential meanings. It is, as they say, a very rich text. A monstrous green giant shows up at King Arthur’s Christmas celebration and challenges any of his knights to trade a blow with him. Whatever he receives he will give back in exactly one year. Gawain, out of nobility in the poem and from a desire to prove himself in the film, accepts the challenge and promptly chops the guy’s head off, assuming, reasonably enough, that a dead man won’t be able to return the blow. But when the knight simply picks his head up and remounts his horse, telling Gawain he looks forward to their next meeting, the consequences of Gawain’s rash decision become clear. His doom is now ensured: in one year he will either lose his head or his honor.

In both versions of the story, Gawain lives it up for almost a year and then heads on his way. The poet tells us he had many adventures along the way, but skips them in order to get to the end, where the knight finds a remote castle run by a mysterious man and his wife. The film fills out the story with two adventures, one in which the hapless Gawain is robbed blind by commoners and another where he helps St. Winifred regain her severed head. The former reinforces Gawain’s youthful incompetence and strips him of the privileges of class and power. The second adds to the severed head motif, fuel for essays exploring the film’s depiction of mind/body duality, or the conflict between rationality and earthly spirituality, or what have you. Mostly it adds to the dreamy vibe that Lowery hopes to establish with his long pans and eerie music, as does a brief sequence where Gawain espies a group of indifferent giants walking among the clouds. The Gawain of the film is desperate, lost, confused, and alone, sentenced to death for reasons he doesn’t quite understand but is compelled to follow nonetheless. Where the poem Gawain is aspirational, the film Gawain is relatable. He is all of us.

The castle sequence is largely unchanged, though Lowery makes a modestly perplexing decision regarding the casting of his lead actress, Alicia Vikander in a dual role as Gawain’s peasant girlfriend back home and also the lady of the castle. The casting implies that the two are possibly the same woman, or that Gawain sees all women he’s attracted to the same, or that one or both of them are figments of his imagination. The poem gives the occupants of the castle a dual role as well, but as the Green Knight and Morgan Le Fay, witchy half-sister of King Arthur who enchanted her husband in order to spook Queen Guinevere and only by accident provided a quest for our hero. The film has a Morgan as well, but makes her Gawain’s mother (Gawain is Arthur’s nephew in both poem and film, but his mother is unnamed in the poem. In many sources, his mother is Morgause, Morgan’s sister, though it’s important to keep in mind that this was all made-up stuff interweaving centuries of multicultural traditions and not designed by a corporation with a staff designated to track continuity). In the film, Morgan conjures the Green Knight seemingly as a way for her son to accrue some credibility points as a knight in order to bolster his future claim to Arthur’s throne. One can then take the story as a tale of helicopter parenting gone horribly wrong when Gawain’s rash beheading sentences him to premature death, or conversely as a mother’s elaborate scheme to scare the hell out of her boy so that he shapes up at stops being such a hedonistic fail-son.

Either way, both film and poem end with Gawain’s confrontation with the Green Knight and his having to make a choice about how he will face death. Gawain has been given a belt he believes will save him from the demon’s axe (whether it’s actually magical or not is ambiguous in the text, left up to how the bard chooses to deliver it). In both versions of the story Gawain flinches, despite the belt, at the first swing, but ultimately removes the belt and chooses to face his death. In the film this is preceded by a long montage where Gawain imagines how his life would play out if he cheated death and ran away, what his future would be like knowing he has acted dishonorably. It conjures memories of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, and equates Gawain’s dilemma to Jesus’s own: willingly submitting to your own execution in the belief that it will make a world a better place (through sacrificial redemption of humanity’s sins or simply by not having a crummy king on the throne of Camelot). The poem ends with the reveal that it was basically all a prank, that the Knight and Morgan were just goofing around, but Gawain has proven his great virtue and honor nonetheless. The film ends, as it must, more ambiguously.

Jungle Cruise (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2021)

The impersonal, it’s been said, is essentially demoralizing. Of late, when referring to studio productions, this problem has morphed from an identifiable illness into a powerful malaise. Disney, the creature with five studio heads, is often identified as the source of much of this trouble. One way to deal with the trouble is to consider the corporation a gorgon like Medusa and avoid all eye contact. After all, because their franchises operate with TV-style templates (and so then, too, do their imitators’), an individual movie’s artistic failure is ultimately predictable. Plus it saves time. 

Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction of Disney’s Jungle Cruise is then a minor complication (or an interesting case-study). He’s the first auteurist cause célèbre to make a movie for the company since Sam Raimi back in 2013 (one that until recently appeared to be a career-ender). Some might neatly choose the perspective of the forest over the trees and call the careerist move a defection: a good director gets fired by these guys, a great one never gets considered for the job, and you know what that says about the ones who turn in the assignment on time. The only problem I have with this standard would be that it frees the work from examination: in this case, does everything Disney touches turn anonymous, and everything before remain the reliable work of a B-movie master?

Collet-Serra’s imprint is not hard to find in Jungle Cruise. A throwaway line of dialogue references the major reveal in Orphan. A flashback to the creation of a riverside town gets a time-lapse reminiscent of, though less moving than, the one that opens The Commuter. Horror stylization accompanies a meeting with the dead and a romantic scene’s banal dialogue is flashed into silence by the presence of a Super-8 camera. Old collaborators are still around, including editor Joel Negron and cinematographer Flavio Labiano, and an early sequence plays like a parody of the Royal Geographic Society scenes in The Lost City of Z, perhaps because the two films share a production designer in Jean-Vincent Puzos. Collet-Serra is not absent then, but he seems content to supply minor details and relinquishes major choices. His Liam Neeson collaborations are no Ranown cycle, but the way they operate is by tying their perspective to Neeson’s characters’ tortured instincts, and surrounding him with an extremely well-defined and confined world. (The same holds true for the protagonists played by Vera Farmiga and Blake Lively in the genre films made just before and after this collaboration.)

It’s an omen, then, that the director of Non-Stop and Run All Night is here along for a mere cruise. The amusement park ride is evidently the progeny of John Huston’s The African Queen, but whatever inconsistencies Huston allowed into his films, one could say that he would never err in making the boat the star focus. And this is Collet-Serra’s weakness: an inability to personalize the deficiencies of the material around him, a mistaken sense of where the talent lies in this film. The blockbuster scale isn’t an odd fit for him just because it scales up compromises of control, but because it requires him to centre his focus on rigid uplift. Collet-Serra is never more in his element than when he’s charting the concentration afforded by cruel traps, and consequently at his least convincing when he’s too eagerly providing an escape mechanism — as in the Spartacus moment at the end of The Commuter. Here, the premise of the movie is that everyone is, after minimal adjustment to a new setting, happy with their lot (even though the setting is Brazil during WWI).

This mismatch suggests an opening filled by other candidates for authorship of this movie. In one corner, the producers who want it to double as an Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean franchise-starter. In another, the many hands who push for interchangeable coverage options and demand that no fewer than one hundred thousand CG frogs, bees, snakes, and sea creatures must appear onscreen. And finally, and maybe most critically, there is Dwayne Johnson. Johnson, also a producer, is an intensely vapid screen presence, a quality other directors have done well to notice (Kelly in Southland Tales, Bay in Pain & Gain). Collet-Serra, instead, assumes Johnson and Emily Blunt (the hero figure of the film, though she’s denied much of a protagonist’s role), are up to the tasks of any other star. He can wear a costume evocative of Bogart’s and convey the passage of centuries; she can be Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. The film is constructed to hit the beats of its internal logic: it’s all of these reference points, and the deadly important errand-running of Star Wars too. Collet-Serra’s acceptance of this logic means he ends up looking like any other director.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train (Sotozaki Haruo, 2020)

The highest grossing film in the world in 2020 was, for the first time since people have been tracking such trivia, not an American movie. It was a continuation of an anime television show about a teen-aged demon slayer set a hundred years ago, in Taisho-era Japan. The Demon Slayer movie has made well over $400 million thus far, easily surpassing Spirited Away to become both the highest-grossing anime and the highest-grossing Japanese film ever made, and the popularity of the series has rocketed the manga on which it’s based (which began in 2016) to become one of the most popular of all-time as well. It’s not hard to see why: the series is slick and bright, with exciting action sequences and compelling world-building, alongside an unabashedly earnest emotional core. That heartfelt sense of compassion is about the only thing that Demon Slayer has in common with the best anime films of recent years (Yamada Naoko’s Liz and the Blue Bird and A Silent Voice, Shinkai Makoto’s Your Name and Weathering with You, Yuasa Masaaki’s Ride Your Wave), and it distinguishes it from the kind of cynical pandering that characterizes so much of the American superhero work with which it shares certain generic similarities. The result, popular as it obviously has been in Japan, seems ill-suited to the US market: too formulaic for the slice-of-life anime fans, too openly decent for those with an unhealthy fixation on Disney’s intellectual property.

The movie doesn’t do much to contextualize the story, instead assuming that we’re all familiar with the characters and mythology that has been built up thus far across the 26 episodes of the show. In a nutshell: teen hero Kamado Tanjiro comes home one day to find that his entire family has been murdered by demons, all but his younger sister Naoko, who has been turned into a demon herself. The demons function or or less like vampires: they need to feed on human flesh, you become one by drinking their blood (well, one specific demon’s blood), and you can only kill them with sunlight or by chopping off their head with a special demon-slaying sword. The demons become stronger the more humans they consume, eventually developing strange magical powers that make every one of them unique. This accounts for some of the most clever aspects of the series: one demon rearranges the rooms in the house he lives in by beating a drum; another uses spider webs to manipulate humans like marionettes; a third dissolves into a swampy black pool that sucks unsuspecting victims underground. Tanjiro trains to become a demon slayer in order to find a way to turn Naoko back into a human, while she refrains from eating any humans and is eventually accepted as a kind of adjunct to the demon slaying corps.

The first season (the second is set to air sometime this year) follows Tanjiro as he learns various breathing and sword techniques and fights ever more dangerous demons. It’s comprised of several multi-episode arcs, which have subsequently been combined into feature-length movies. These arcs are filled with flashbacks and internal monologues, for both the slayers and demons: ultimately the conflicts are as much internal and psychological as they are about finding a weakness in an enemy’s defense and chopping off its head. In the show, Tanjiro meets a number of fascinating characters, deepening the show’s mythology and helping distinguish it from its generic forebears (it reminded me most of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but without the metaphor and Whedonism). Unlike Liz and the Blue Bird, which was a spin-off of the series Sound! Euphonium and very different in both animation style and character focus, the Mugen Train movie is a seamless extension of its series, essentially one of these story extended story arcs. Tanjiro and Naoko, along with their similarly young compatriots Inosuke (who wears a boar’s head mask) and Zenitsu (who is outwardly girl-crazy, manic and cowardly but subconsciously highly competent), are assigned to assist one of the top demon slayers, Rengoku, master of the Flame Technique, in stopping a demon who has taken over a train. This demon is one of the most powerful we’ve seen, part of an elite group serving the head demon, Kibutsuji Muzan, and their ability involves controlling dreams. The slayers board the train, the demon puts them to sleep and tries to destroy their souls from inside their subconscious. Will they awaken in time?

The action and animation in Demon Slayer is bright, cartoonish, and fun (some sight gags reminded me of no less than Nichijou), although as clever as most of the demon powers are, the structure of the fights can feel repetitive (Tanjiro gets beaten badly, learns to breathe better, then gets more powerful), lacking the propulsive energy of the fighting in 2019’s Promare, to compare with one recent anime . But that’s more than made up for by Tanjiro’s great strength as a hero-figure, which is his compassion. Seemingly alone among the show’s universe, Tanjiro is able to pity and forgive the demons. He has a purity of soul that contrasts sharply with the brutal violence of the world he finds himself in. This, more than the flashy animation and reliable serialized storytelling is what ultimately makes Demon Slayer so effective, this balance between blood and grace.

Wonder Women Monster Hunting

It’s been a bad year for movies of course, and an even worse one for superhero movies. The genre that has come to dominate the Hollywood blockbuster market, devouring its competitors like Orson Welles’s planet-devouring Unicron in Transformers: The Movie, or like his equally grotesque chili-devouring Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, has spent most of the year in frozen hibernation, waiting out the plague-induced shut-down of the nation’s multiplexes. But here at the tail-end of 2020, we have a Christmas miracle of sorts: Warners, in an apparent bid to burn down its theatrical arm in order to boost the subscription rate of its nascent streaming platform, and thus inflate the corporation’s stock value in the eyes of investors blinded by shiny things, is releasing its follow-up to 2017’s warmly-received Wonder Woman straight to HBO Max. At the same time, Sony has rolled out a hybrid theatrical/VOD release for its much-delayed adaptation of the Monster Hunter video game*, directed by the equally lauded and reviled Paul WS Anderson. Taken together, the two provide a convenient contrast of the different strains in the superhero genre: the white elephants of the MCU, Star Wars, and DC versus the termitic team of Anderson and his star/wife Milla Jovovich.

Patty Jenkins’s 2017 Wonder Woman was a solid entry in the MCU/DC wars, a reasonably deft origin-story movie that was helped enormously by the charm and absurd beauty of its two stars, Gal Gadot and Chris Pine. The sequel picks up 65 years later, with Diana Prince now working in the Smithsonian and Steve Trevor long dead. Kristin Wiig and Pedro Pascal show up, along with a magic rock that grants wishes. Everyone makes a wish: Wiig for Diana’s powers, which turn her into the amoral crazy cat lady Cheetah; Diana for Steve to come back, which he does in some guy’s body (Diana alone sees him as Pine); Pascal to become the stone himself, which gives him the power to grant everyone’s wishes, but also maybe drives him crazy and makes him bleed out of his nose, ears and eyes, for some reason. It’s a Monkey’s Paw story, as the characters explain to us, several times, stretched out for an unconscionable two and a half hours. The film has only a few action sequences, including a prologue that feels like an afterthought, like a studio note to include a scene back in the land of the Amazons, and a chase down a desert highway that neatly encapsulates the film’s wrong-headed approach to both action and color.

It’s baffling that a film set in the 1980s, fueled as they were by cocaine and Day-Glo synthetics, should take as its dominant tone the color beige. Color and shadow are drained out of nearly every scene leaving a bland, flat wasteland of boring dialogue and little emotion (though Pascal does his best to chew up all the scenery left untouched by Gadot, who never appears to be occupying the same space as the other actors). Clearly this color-scheme is intentional: a labored and unfunny montage of Pine in different 80s outfits ends in him dressed in light earth tones, while Pascal has his hair dyed dirty blonde and wears a beige suit throughout. It’s like going to the beach and staring at the sand. The highway chase, set in a Middle Eastern desert (maybe simply to remind people of Gadot’s IDF past?) is so monochrome it makes the dishwater gray finale of Endgame look vibrant. But even worse is the action itself, which feels absolutely weightless and frictionless: the stunts don’t thrill because nothing tangible actually touches anything else. Diana runs around, over, and through things with no substance, her lasso expands to whatever length the effect requires, a gold line on a computer screen, at one point contracting around a lightning bolt, the impossible physics of which would be cool if it didn’t so well epitomize the flashy nothingness of the movie’s stunts. It’s just all so boring.

And then there’s the film’s subtext, which at the end of this dreadful year of politics is hard to read as anything other than liberal left-punching. Wonder Woman 1984 is about abandoning hope, about the dangers of wishing for things to be better than the way they are. Charitably, it could be read as a paean to Obamaist pragmatism, that there are no shortcuts in life and that change takes hard work which manifests itself in facing hard truths and choosing to do very little about them. It’s hard to make a superhero fantasy movie about how better things aren’t possible, so I guess this is some kind of an accomplishment (and maybe in more subversive hands this idea would in some way connect to the year chosen for the film’s title: the story of a liberal totalitarianism in which the illusion of freedom is granted in exchange for the elimination of imagination). In a way, I kind of admire the perversity of making an 80s throwback movie without using any 80s music and the audacity of making a superhero movie that only Amy Klobuchar could love.

Monster Hunter, on the other hand, has very little in the way of political subtext outside of a vague ideal of people from different worlds uniting together to, well, hunt monsters. Milla Jovovich leads a team of Army Rangers on a search and rescue mission for some other lost soldiers in a desert specified only by longitude and latitude (PWSA does love his maps) but filmed in South Africa. They get lost in a weird sand and lightning storm and end up transported to some new world filled with giant monsters, which attack them almost immediately and eventually wipe-out everyone but Milla. She’s rescued/captured by Tony Jaa, apparently a native of this world, and the two work together to get past the giant beasts blocking their way to a mysterious tower that might send Milla home and unite Tony with his friends and family.

Like all of Anderson’s work, Monster Hunter is neatly structured and rife with cinematic homages. The opening scenes of army-bonding could come out of any war movie made over the past 70 years, gentle ribbing and gun-loading meant to establish character and camaraderie in anticipation of the loss of life to come. It’s here that the corniness of PWSA’s dialogue really shines, though for once his terrible sense of humor has had real consequences as one of his lame puns was taken as a racist insult by seemingly the entire nation of China, killing the film’s box office in that country and, as a result, probably any hope of a sequel in what could have been a promising franchise (the offending joke has been cut from the movie and was not in the screener I watched). The genericness of this opening is, for PWSA fans, part of its charm: he’s one of the few directors in Hollywood today who really believes in the power of cliche. It’s what makes his films feel so refreshing: not a hint of hypocrisy in PWSA’s pumpkin patch, nor cynicism nor smirking contempt for his subject or audience.

The army scenes are followed by a terrifying underground sequence (another PWSA hallmark: he’s suggested that his fear of/attraction to confined spaces has something to do with his youth in coal-mining country) that recalls Aliens at its best. Then the movie settles down for a long middle section that reminded me of nothing less than a remake of John Boorman’s great 1968 film Hell in the Pacific, but with Jovovich and Jaa in the Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune roles. The two start out as enemies, capturing and recapturing each other between fist fights, before finally deciding to work together toward their common goal, which, true to the source material, involves killing one monster to get parts to make a weapon to kill another, bigger monster.

It’s all a great deal of fun, and despite the artificiality of it all (the monsters are of course computer-generated) the action always looks coherent and real. Jovovich and Jaa are both marvelous physical actors and they have an uncanny ability to make the audience feel every kick, punch, stab, and tail-swipe, whether it comes from stunt performers or pixels. Anderson has long been noted for the coherence of his action scenes, a skill he has not lost as he and his editor Doobie White have adopted a faster-cutting aesthetic, which began with their last film, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. It’s important to note that Anderson’s use of quick cuts is wholly different from what I’ll call the R. Scott/Greengrass/Nolan school of editing, which uses speed and shakiness to cover up deficiencies in performers, choreographers, and computers, using chaos to convey a dizziness that’s somewhat akin to the experience of watching action on film. Anderson though is working from what I’ll call the Ching Siu-tung tradition, which uses quick editing for that vertiginous effect while also staying spatially coherent and thus additionally providing the vicarious thrill of a performed stunt (physical or virtual or some combination thereof). When done well, as in Ching’s Swordsman movies, Tsui Hark’s The Blade, Neveldine/Taylor’s 2000s romps (where Doobie White got his start as an editor), and PWSA’s recent films, quick-cut action can be just as thrilling as the master-shot aesthetic of more athletically gifted directors and performers.

As the superhero film has taken over American blockbuster cinema, there’s been a lot of speculation over where this cycle fits with generic cycles of the past, for example the Westerns, musicals and noirs of the late studio era. The question is: are there superhero films that can be made in contrast to the dominant mode of the genre, thus revealing the personality of the person making them? In other words, where are the auteurist superhero films? Is it even possible, given the extent to which the monopolist conglomerates that produce them product-test and focus-group and micromanage their material, for a filmmaker to make the equivalent of Budd Boetticher’s Ranown cycle, or John Ford’s Wagon Master or Two Rode Together, or Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, or, to bring us full circle, Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil? I think Anderson’s work is the clearest example that such a thing is possible. Monster Hunter should be, I think, like the Resident Evil series before it, considered a part of the same sci-fi/fantasy genre as Wonder Woman, the MCU films and Disney’s Star Wars films. And in addition to its palpable strengths in production and execution, it certainly reveals the personality of its director in a way none of the elephantine superhero pictures do, embracing the structures and conceits of the genre while tuning them to his own idiosyncratic interests (maps, caves, helping Milla Jovovich look really cool, etc). Years ago, I wrote about Anderson and concluded that he was Lightly Likable, the George Sidney or Busby Berkeley of his time. Since then he’s made two of his finest films, Pompeii and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and made this promising beginning to a new cycle, one which I very much hope he’ll get the chance to continue. He’s moved himself into the expressively esoteric. “Less than meets the eye” doesn’t quite seem right for the WW84s of this cycle though, if only because in them what meets the eye is already so meagre.

*I guess the VOD part of the release hasn’t actually happened. There were rumors that it would be out at the time I wrote this, but I don’t know what the deal was.

Sound! Euphonium: The Movie – Our Promise: A Brand New Day (Ishihara Tatsuya, 2019)

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Liz and the Blue Bird was one of the great films of 2018. A spin-off of the slice of life anime series Sound! Euphonium, it focused exclusively on two of the show’s supporting characters, digging into their psychology and relationship as the band prepared the eponymous performance piece for a competition. It’s the strongest work yet by Yamada Naoko, one of the guiding directorial voices of the Kyoto Animation studio that was devastated last year by a deadly arson attack. This new movie, originally released here for one single show last summer but now playing at the Grand Illusion as one of their virtual cinema offerings, is not like Liz and the Blue Bird at all. Instead it is a direct extension of the series, picking up right where it left off, following the same primary characters over the next school year, but squeezed into a hundred minutes rather than patiently unfolding over the course of two dozen episodes.

It’s a curious decision, one that skims over the things that made the show so great, the small moments of human connection realized through the playing of music, in favor of a whole lot of teen melodrama plotting, mostly among new characters that we don’t much care about. The Sound! Euphonium series, like any slice of life story, anime or otherwise, is about detail, the accumulation of small, everyday moments that in the aggregate coalesce into a kind of epiphany or catharsis that can be overwhelmingly emotional. This effect isn’t unique to anime or dependent on the extended length of a TV series, by the way, two of my favorite films from last year’s VIFF, Mikhaël Hers’s Amanda and Dan Sallitt’s Fourteen (which will be getting a virtual release in the next few weeks) achieve the same kind of epiphanies in much the same way, in running times of less than two hours. A Brand New Day picks up where Sound! Euphonium left off, with the show’s main character Kumiko, a euphonium player in her high school’s concert band, moving to her onto second year. The movie follows the whole year, from the initial meeting with the incoming freshman, several of whom will have interpersonal problems which Kumiko will end up helping to solve (in keeping with the structure of the series), and culminating in the band’s performance at the regional finals, where they hope to earn a spot at the national competition.

Everything about the movie is consistent with the original series. The show’s director, Ishihara Tatsuya, is in charge, and he keeps the visual style exactly the same, where in Liz and the Blue Bird, Yamada had slightly altered it, elongating the characters and muting the color palette to give the film a somewhat less cartoonishly anime appearance. The show is structured around a series of little interpersonal mysteries where Kumiko finds herself in the position of needing to figure out why Girl A is upset at Girl B so that they can both play better and the band can improve. This works in the series not because of the stories (which are mostly generic and not all that interesting) but because they merely form the structure around which hang smaller moments of beauty and because each little story ends up illuminating some aspect of Kumiko, a character who is revealed (to herself as much as to us) only through her interactions with other people and, perhaps more so, through the music she plays. A Brand New Day still does that, but because the stories are all so compressed, they have no weight. Moments that would have been incredibly powerful in the series (Kumiko’s tentative relationship with the trombone-playing boy next door Shuichi, and her much more romantic one with star trumpeter Reina are the highlights) move by too quickly, and would be all but incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen the series. By the end of the movie, Kumiko doesn’t seem to be all that different from when it began.

The film’s highlight, in fact, is the final concert, which is also its only extended musical sequence. And its power comes not through any of the characters we’ve focused on for the previous hour and a half, but rather in the oboe solo that was the primary focus of Liz and the Blue BirdLiz takes place somewhere in the middle of the school year depicted in A Brand New Day, and while we see the shy but brilliant oboist Mizore in the background a few times, she doesn’t, as far as I could tell, have a single line (just as Kumiko and the series’ other primary characters were sidelined in Liz). The concert in fact doesn’t feel like the accumulation of Kumiko’s story at all, or any of the other primary characters from the movie. It’s the epilogue to Mizore’s story, the only one from this school year that really seems to matter.

I Was at Home, But… (Angela Schanelec, 2019)

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The German director Angela Schanelec has had, with the exception of Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the most circuitous path to arthouse prominence of any director in the past decade. As part of the loose collective known as the Berlin School, which has produced some of the most interesting and skilled directors working today (Maren Ade, Christian Petzold, Ulrich Köhler), Schanelec has struck her own path, pursuing a more elliptical and rigorous approach to narrative and filmmaking than her peers. Correspondingly, she has had a low profile for a director of her stature, making six features before her breakout in 2016 with The Dreamed Path, perhaps her most narratively complex and productively opaque work yet.

Her follow-up, I Was at Home, But… takes a more “conventional” and discernible approach, but in doing so accesses both the emotional and the inexplicable, taking detours and narrative strands while burrowing deep into its central character. That person is Astrid, a single mother, played by regular Schanelec actor Maren Eggert, living in Berlin; the film begins just after her teenage son has returned from running away for undisclosed reasons. In essence, the film deals more or less solely with her, her son’s, and her young daughter’s daily lives after this brief rupture, and yet all attempts at simplification are nigh pointless. For one, there are significant corollary threads: a teacher (the ascendant Franz Rogowski) at the son’s school embarking on a tentative romance with one of his colleagues; Astrid’s relationship with her lover; the ongoing, particularly uninflected rehearsal of a translation of Hamlet. Overshadowing all of this is the death of Astrid’s partner some years before, a crucial piece of narrative information that, like most else in the film, is only parceled out slowly, communicated strongest in the loveliest detour: a brief montage of dance and nature scored to an acoustic cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.”

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One of the most peculiar and gratifying qualities of Schanelec’s film is her ability to draw these disparate moments into an ever-shifting whole, capturing the unsettled but quietly fortified existence of these characters. It’s difficult, for instance, to exactly settle on the tone of many scenes: the petulance of Astrid as she tries to hash out the status of the bike she bought from a man who speaks via a tinny electro-larynx is both maddening and truthful, just as the acting of the schoolchildren is both stilted and affecting. This applies in the interweaving of scenes as well: there are as many “random” moments introduced and dropped as there are narrative throughlines, and the viewer is left to determine the relative import of each for themselves in the course of the film, extending to the bookends, which feature a donkey, a dog, and a rabbit in the forest.

Of course, none of these are ultimately random or tossed-off; I Was at Home, But… is too intelligent for deliberate sabotage, something evident in the visual scheme, which typically foregoes the Bressonian close-ups of The Dreamed Path for long shots and long takes, the better to capture the full range of motion that the actors possess. This is captured in the film’s signal scene, a ten-minute tracking shot that follows Astrid and a filmmaker friend of hers (played by filmmaker Dane Komljen) as she lambasts his film for featuring an actor and a real sick person alongside each other. Where Schanelec ultimately falls on this spectrum is unresolved, but one of the lines that the filmmaker feels pertinent: “When you’re working on a film with other people, then it does become important how the work affects those people. What it means to them.” Affect and meaning go hand in hand, mysterious processes that nevertheless carry a personal truth that, in the right hands, can be overwhelming.