Inu-Oh (Yuasa Masaaki, 2021)

Yuasa Masaaki continues his winning streak: he’s probably been the best director in the world over the past five years, or at the very least the most productive great director. Since 2017, he has produced three acclaimed TV series (Devilman Crybaby, Japan Sinks 2020, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!) along with four feature films: the definitive One Crazy Night romance Night is Short, Walk on Girl, the off-beat Little Mermaid variation Lu Over the Wall, the heart-breaking post-romance Ride Your Wave and now Inu-oh, a medieval rock opera about the power of rock and roll to connect us to our past, find our true selves, and help us overcome our terrible fathers.

Inu-oh begins with the story of Tomo (they’ll be, at various times, “Tomona”, “Tomoichi”, and “Tomoari” throughout the story). As a child, Tomona works with his father diving for treasure lost at sea 600 years ago during the definitive battle between the Taira and Minamoto clans, passed down through history in the Tale of the Heike, a collection of stories about the war that plays a somewhat similar role in Japanese literary history as The Iliad or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Tale of the Heike was compiled in 1371 by Kakuichi, part of a band of traveling blind monks that recited the various tales accompanied by music on the biwa, a lute-like stringed instrument, pretty much just as the Greek bards would have done (and, if he was an actual person, the blind poet Homer himself). What Yuasa’s film, written by Nogi Akiko, asserts is that there were other tales of the Heike, tales which were so powerful in their truth that they were able to magically transform their tellers into the greatest versions of their selves.

Tomona is blinded by buried treasure in an accident which also kills his father. Wandering the countryside, he takes up with the blind monks and over the next decade or so learns the biwa and all the various tales. One day he meets a malformed young masked man (legs too short, one arm way too long, scales for skin, and eyes in the wrong places) who loves music and dance. He’d grown up all but disowned by his father, a dancer of Heike tales in an early form of Noh theatre called sarugaku, made to live and eat with the family dogs. One day, overcome with the spirit of music, he dances and his legs are transformed into normal human limbs. Tomoichi (name changed to reflect his status as a member of the blind monk troupe) deduces that the spirits of the lost Heike soldiers are rewarding the as yet unnamed man for dancing and singing their story. The two then do what comes naturally: form a rhythm and blues band to spread the untold tales of the Heike (whispered to them by the spirits of the dead) far and wide.

The second half of the film is dominated by their music, as Tomoari (a third name, adopted to show their new-found indepence, along with a fluid expression of gender) incants lengthy rock introductions to three spectacular performances by the newly self-christened Inu-Oh, songs and dances which heal his limbs and skin and face. But they run afoul of the shogun, who doesn’t have time for new stories, and especially Inu-oh’s father, who turns out to have been a villain all along, like so many rock and roll dads. It all ends tragically, as a rock opera should. Rock star revolutionaries don’t tend to last long, at least not in that form. They shine bright and either burn out or become something less spectacular (think Ziggy Stardust morphing into the Thin White Duke, or the Wild Mercury Dylan turning into a Regular Dad). Music can keep stories alive, or bring them back from the dead, and it can change people’s lives for better and for worse, but is it enough to sustain them? For that, the maker of Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! and Inu-oh would seem to suggest we need animated cinema. And I’m not sure he’s wrong.

The Killer (Choi Jaehoon, 2022)

Last night I picked up and started reading the first Jack Reacher book. I saw the first Tom Cruise movie years ago, and liked it well enough, and really enjoyed the Amazon series that premiered on Amazon earlier this year. My edition of the book includes an introduction by author Lee Child, where he describes how he came to be a writer in mid-life and how he designed his project deliberately to run counter to prevailing trends in suspense literature. Specifically, he wanted to make Reacher not a flawed protagonist, haunted by addiction or trauma or moral grayness, not a guy who loses over and over again until he somehow, barely, wins in the end, but rather the biggest, strongest, smartest, most capable person in every situation. He figured that audiences would grow tired of relatable heroes, that we’d much more enjoy seeing the forces of evil get what’s coming to them by a larger than life (literally), hero. I thought about that a lot while watching The Killer, the latest action thriller from Korean star Jang Hyuk.

Jang plays a retired professional assassin (the eponymous killer) who is tasked by his lovely wife with babysitting her friend’s teenage daughter while the two of them (wife and friend) go hang out at a beachside resort for three weeks. Because he’s a pushover, he accepts the job, only for the unfortunate teen to almost immediately fall into the hands of murderous sex traffickers. So he does what he does best: employ his fists, feet, knives, guns, automobiles, sticks, or whatever in tracking down the girl and killing all the bad guys in the way. Many many action scenes follow, a highly competent example of the dominant contemporary mode of action filmmaking outside the Hollywood blockbuster machine: flowing digital cameras in artificial sequence shots; bright colors (golds, neon pinks and greens) contrasting with deep blacks (the hero wears all-black, John Wick-style); reasonably creative choreography emphasizing physical impacts and speed but lacking the inspiration of the Hong Kong filmmakers at their best (no opera acrobatics or ingenious appropriations of found objects and natural environments) performed by competent stunt-people (with Jang apparently doing much of his own stunt-work). Above all the fights emphasize a forward momentum, paralleling Jang’s dogged pursuit of his quest. And, most interestingly, he never appears to get hurt.

For Jang’s killer is very much in the Reacher mold: he is quite obviously better (physically, intellectually, morally) than any of his opponents. This isn’t a crumbling kind of hero, like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in last year’s Kate, taking an unreal amount of abuse but staying the course until her enemy is defeated. Instead, we never believe Jang is in any real peril—our enjoyment of the action scenes comes not from suspense, but from the thrill of watching evil get punished. The only suspense there is in the film is the mystery of why the girl was kidnapped, but we can rest assured Jang will kill his way to a satisfactory answer. It’s not an enlightened approach to moral dilemmas to be sure, and the pacifist in me knows very well that it is not a good thing for individuals to run around murdering people, even if they are for an undoubted fact terrible human beings. But we’ve been living with gray areas in our action fiction for so long: anti-heroes and heroes who can’t win because the system is corrupt, and heroes who cling to a code of honor no longer relevant in our corrupted modern age, and heroes who sacrifice themselves for an infinitesimally small chance at a better tomorrow. Is it so bad to make believe ourselves into an excessively violent yet morally clear world for a little while? Yeah, probably. But it’s fun while it lasts.

New York Ninja (John Liu & Kurtis M. Spieler, 1984/2021)

In 1984, a B level martial arts actor from Taiwan named John Liu, who had starred in a handful of movies in the late 70s for Ng See-yuen, working with choreographers like Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen, directed and starred in a no-budget action film called New York Ninja. The film was never finished: the production company went bankrupt and the film sat in storage for decades without a finished cut, script, or soundtrack. And then the video label Vinegar Syndrome, specialists in the misbegotten genre films of yesteryear, got their hands on the material and commissioned a reconstruction. Kurtis M. Spieler handled the “re-direction” along with the editing, while a cast of 80s luminaries (including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Ginger Lynn, and Cynthia Rothrock) recorded all new dialogue. The result is a loving recreation of a bit of 1980s ephemera, though not a good movie by any means.

Liu plays the sound tech guy on the three person remote news team (a cameraman and a woman reporter round out the crew) who disguises himself as a ninja to beat up the masked gangs who terrorize New York after one of them murders his pregnant wife. The gangs (or gang, it’s unclear if they’re all connected or a bunch of different groups) kidnap women on behalf of a mysterious guy in dark glasses known as the Plutonium Killer, who for some reason tortures some of the women and sells the others to an English guy who may or may not be an undercover Interpol agent. The basic pattern is: gang wanders through the streets terrorizing people (often with the reporters looking on a filming while saying “why that’s just awful, someone should do something!”); Ninja shows up all dressed in white (the color of death); each gang member attacks him one at a time while he kicks them or stabs them or throws something at them; then the Ninja runs away.

None of this makes the least bit of sense, but in a more or less fun kind of way. I’m always wary of this kind of manufactured cult classic, there’s a tone of condescension to a lot of “so bad it’s good” discourse that I simply find distasteful. But New York Ninja avoids a lot of that simply by the sheer effort involved in its recreation. I can’t imagine anyone would put so much work into a project like this if there wasn’t a lot of sincere love for the genuine “putting on a show” indie spirit of making a DIY martial arts movie. At it’s best, the movie is a time capsule of a lost age: the shots of the pre-gentrified Broadway area (including the heart of the grindhouse movie district where so many movies like this (and many many significantly better ones) got their own theatrical releases in the US), as well as old fashions and hairstyles and cars (including the beautiful destruction of a what appears to be a 1970 Buick LeSabre, the first car I ever owned), all shot on film, which even in this debased form still has more life and character than most every digital production today. It’s not the avant-garde semi-masterpiece that is the just as no-budget 1984 karate film Furious, but it is still a genuinely weird movie.

I only wish the action was better. Liu was supposedly one of the great movie kickers of the late 70s, and you can see hints of that here. But the fight scenes are so deathly slow. None of the movements are connected: Liu kicks someone and they stand there, one beat, two beats, and then they punch him, pause pause, he kicks them again. I haven’t watched many American martial arts movies–I had an uncle who was into Chuck Norris so I watched some of his Vietnam POW movies, but I missed the whole 80s ninja craze–but I can’t imagine they were this slow. And I know for a fact action like this would never have seen the light of day in even in the cheapest Taiwanese or Hong Kong kung fu film of the era. So I wonder if this is a by-product of the (re-)editing process, that Liu had intended more cutting (to close-ups or different angles or just jump cuts within the same shots) to make the fights seem faster and more dynamic than they are, but either the materials weren’t available or they weren’t ever shot or the reconstruction team for some reason just didn’t use them. My fear is that they left them this way because they think it’s funnier, but I hope that’s not the case.

Belle (Hosoda Mamoru, 2021)

Hosoda Mamoru’s Belle is incredibly corny, and I kind of loved it. I think you could probably say that about any number of the slice-of-life animes I’ve adored in recent years, like the Kyoto Animation productions K-On!, Sound! Euphonium, Liz and the Blue Bird, and A Silent Voice, but while Belle shares with most of those works a focus on the emotional life of a musically-gifted teenage girl, it also reaches outward to make a statement about The Way Things Are Now in a way anathema to the KyoAni hyper-specific approach. Hosoda goes big: it’s not enough for his moment of epiphany to simply be one damaged person connecting with another, it has to be witnessed by the entire world.

The entire virtual world, that is. Belle is about a young woman, Suzu, played by singer Nakamura Kaho, painfully shy and still suffering from the loss of her mother years before, who joins U, some kind of futuristic virtual reality world that scans your mind and body and creates as your avatar an idealized version of yourself, amplifying your strengths and weaknesses. She, in her virtual form as “Belle”, quickly becomes a singing sensation, charming millions with plangent pop ballads about loneliness. Her (fake) world is disrupted by a rampaging monster known as “Dragon” to whom she becomes weirdly drawn. This becomes more and more obviously the Beauty and the Beast story, until even I picked up on the connection. Suzu tries to find out who Dragon is in real-life, and what’s pained him so much to cause his destructive acting out, before the VR police (led by a fascist blond named Justin) can dox him into nothingness.

It’s all ridiculous of course, and the rules of the virtual world make absolutely no sense. But I’m not sure that matters, and Hosoda plays it all so emotionally straight that when it builds to the big climactic song, for awhile you actually kind of believe that music can bring the world together, can make us all better people, and that bullies can actually be defeated with nothing but the power of innocent moral righteousness. Hosoda loves big climaxes like this, and while Wolf Children, his masterpiece, does this while still staying believably small (it’s about one mother’s love for her child), he seems more at home in big mind-exploding climactic sequences, real emotions collapsing or blowing up virtual or imaginary worlds (Mirai and Summer Wars take this approach, if I remember correctly).

One of my favorite bits in all of the Hosoda films I’ve seen though is the scene right before the big climax, when a couple of romantic plot threads involving side characters get resolved at a train station. He holds a long shot: Suzu and her friend Ruka on the right side of the screen, and Ruka’s crush Kamishin on the lower left corner. As her two friends realize the other has a crush on them, they turn red and awkward, Suzu silent in the middle. Ruka does not move, Kamishin runs back and forth out of the frame. Hosoda holds the shot for an extraordinarily long time, only cutting to a close-up of Suzu when one of them mentions her crush. It’s a very funny scene, the more so because Hosoda underplays it, never overplaying the cartoonish surreality (I shudder to think how such a scene would play out in Demon Slayer, for example) or even the standard shot-reverse shot formula one would get in a typical live-action film. The restraint takes a scene that could have been merely comic into something as beautiful as it is silly. It’s slice-of-life filmmaking at its best.

Karnan (Mari Selvaraj, 2021)

After a brief, haunting prologue, Karnan begins with some on screen text, apparently designed to explain that the events it is about to relate happened once (the film is somewhat based on real events) are no longer possible in our enlightened present. I say “apparently” because the only words Amazon subtitled for the text are “before 1997”. This should, of course, be understood as a lie, something filmmakers sometimes have to slap on to their films to satisfy the demands of the kinds of governments their films attack (see Derek Tsang’s Better Days, for a recent example). Karnan is a film about injustice, about oppression, about revolution, about how all cops are bastards, and about how violence begets violence and doesn’t itself solve anything but sometimes might maybe help pave the way for solutions. It’s a thorny film about a complicated present, infused with as much revolutionary spirit as a great propaganda film like Mikhail Kalatazov’s I Am Cuba, but with an ambivalence about revolutionary violence that’s wholly anathema to propaganda.

Dhanush stars as Karnan, an angry young man in a Tamil village so small it doesn’t even have a bus stop. To get out into the world, the people have to travel to the neighboring town, where they are bullied, treated as bumpkins, and worse. As injustice after injustice piles up against his townspeople, Karnan begins to lead a kind of resistance: beating up the guys who bullied a girl’s father, sparking a fight at a rigged athletic match, helping trash a bus that had refused to stop for a pregnant woman and her family. The latter incident brings the whole village together, as even the elders, who have long cautioned against standing up to their neighbors and the local police that enable them, get involved in the protest. It all ends, as these things usually do, in horrible violence and self-sacrifice and the near-destruction of the village.

Director and writer Mari Selvaraj resists at every turn the opportunity to turn this scenario into a Bacurau-like story of pulpy blood-letting. Instead he emphasizes the mythic qualities of the struggle, framing Karnan and the symbol of his right to lead, the village sword he wins in an early challenge, against the sky, a hero in whose struggle we can find catharsis for our own frustrations with unjust systems. The film is infused with the spirits of the dead (literally, in the case of Karnan’s younger sister, whose death in the midst of indifferent highway traffic opens the story) and the past (the headless statues and paintings that invoke the community’s long past and predict its near future). The music, all drums and choral voices, fuse tradition with modern cinema, with a few diegetic dance sequences but otherwise used to score montages of village life and the preparations for war. Nor does it resemble a village defense film like Seven Samurai: there’s no planning or stratagems here, it’s instead about the pure, instinctive human desire to fight back against one’s oppressors. It’s a film about how primally good it feels to stand up for yourself and you family and friends, about how good it feels to punch a bad guy in the face. But it’s also about how that never actually solves anything, and in fact only tends to make things so much worse.

There’s an epilogue though, as there always is. Ten years later, we return to the village and find that all the problems have been solved. We’re told that people showed up and helped the villagers file claims for their complaints (a deus ex bureaucrat?) and now they have a bus stop and the kids can go to college and everything is lush and green and happy, despite, you know, all the deaths. It doesn’t seem the least bit true.

*It’s been explained to me that the historical context here is essential. In 1995, police attacked a village called Kodiyankulam, which was populated by people of the Dalit caste. It was the flash point of a series of conflicts between the villagers and more dominant members within that same caste. The conflict in the film is similar to the actual events, though fictionalized. My mistake was in not noting the centrality of caste to the conflict between the two villages in the film, a vitally important issue that I, in my ignorance, failed to pick up on. It’s also the case that in my desire to read the film through my own (limited, American) lens, by seeing it as a film about revolution in general, I delegitimized the specific concerns of the caste struggle itself, of which this film is certainly very much about. My apologies and thanks to those who took the time to explain what I’d missed.

Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021)

Licorice Pizza is, like almost every other Paul Thomas Anderson movie, about America. More specifically it is about America as embodied in the San Fernando Valley of California in the 1970s, just as Inherent Vice and Boogie Nights were before it. There Will Be Blood is the prequel: it’s about California in the early 20th century. The Master is another prequel, about mid-century Californian metaphysics. Magnolia moved the timeline into the 90s, albeit one haunted by the 1970s. Hard Eight is set in Las Vegas, but that’s a first film so we’ll cut him some slack. Licorice Pizza is also an oddball romance, like Punch-Drunk Love and The Phantom Thread, neither of which are particularly about America, though the former is more than the latter. It’s about a girl and a boy and the world they live in and how they somehow, against all common sense, find something like love, at least for now.

Alana Haim plays a rudderless 25 year old named Alana who, when working for a company that shoots high school yearbook photos, is spotted by 15 year old Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman, looking eerily like his father), a precocious go-getter who has just about grown out of being a cute child actor. He falls for her instantly and walks right up and tells her so, beginning the first of several lengthy walk and talk camera movements that form the spine of Anderson’s approach to the film. Alana and Gary are always moving laterally, sometimes walking, often running. All the kids in the movie love to run—they have to, they’re in a hurry. Alana, sensibly, rebuffs Gary’s romantic advances, but the two have an obvious connection and the two strike up a friendship. 

The rest of the film follows their various career schemes while deftly negotiating the fact that these two characters are obviously in love but really should not be. It’s a picaresque set almost entirely in the Valley, and it feels like it could have gone on forever, just vibing with all the weirdness of America in the 70s. But the film is far from a nostalgia trip: like its cousin Dazed and Confused, Licorice Pizza is as much about what was, and is, wrong with America as it is about classic rock and questionable fashion. Alana and Gary meet vast array of white people in their adventures, most of them older, most of them seriously fucked up in a way that no one is allow to discuss openly. 

There’s Bradley Cooper’s gross John Peters, who hits on every woman he sees and is the definition of an entitled Hollywood hanger-on (a hairdresser and a producer, the real John Peters was a child actor as well). There’s Sean Penn’s aging star actor who reads with the starstruck Alana during an audition, takes her out for drinks (at Gary’s favorite restaurant “The Tail of the Cock”), then loses interest as he and an old director buddy (Tom Waits) recreate a scene from one of their Korean War movies (Penn’s character is named Jack Holden, and is apparently based on William Holden). There’s John Michael Higgins, who plays a the owner of Gary’s other favorite restaurant, who hires Gary’s mother’s PR firm to advertise the place, a Japanese place called The Mikado. Higgins and his Japanese wife listen to the proposed ad (which does everything it can to downplay the food and up the Orientalist appeal), and Higgins “translates” to his wife by adopting a grotesque caricature of a Japanese accent (think Mickey Rooney’s ghastly Breakfast at Tiffany’s performance). He does the same thing in a later scene, now with a different wife (they’re apparently interchangeable for him) and admits that he doesn’t speak Japanese. The performance is too absurd to be based in anything but reality. Finally there’s Benny Safdie as Joel Wachs, a city council member whose campaign for mayor Alana joins as a volunteer. Wachs is a closeted gay man (he came out in 1999, after decades of accomplished service). It’s Alana’s realization of Wachs’s sexuality, and the pain having to hide it causes him and his partner, that sends her back to Gary. Because theirs is a world when all the cultural norms are completely wrong: men as debauched misogynists or macho burnouts, where condescendingly racist fetishizers of other people and cultures are greeted with, at most, a raised eyebrow, where a good man has to call in a beard to a restaurant because his political enemies might find out who he’s really dining with and why. Because in such a world, when you find a true friend, you really have to stick with them.

Or, taken another way, you can see it as a story of integration. Alana’s family is played by her real-life family, her sisters and parents. They’re very Jewish (one agent keeps coming back to Alana’s “Jewish nose”, a potential boyfriend is kicked out of the house for refusing to give the blessing at dinner because he’s an atheist) and it’s easy to read Alana’s attraction to Gary as an Old World/New World thing, with Gary as the embodiment of a wide-eyed American innocence and entrepreneurialism. He’s bursting with crazy schemes, always looking to make a quick buck with waterbeds (inspired by Leonardo DiCaprio’s father) or pinball machines or making campaign commercials. Gary is a hustler who believes deeply in everything (contrast with failed boyfriend Lance, the atheist). Most of all he believes in Alana. This differentiates him from Higgins’s racist restauranteur. Gary is an idealized, uncorrupted American man that doesn’t exploit other cultures, or other people, that hurts only people that deserve it (like that rich asshole John Peters). He’s all the potential of America, but he’s only 15 years old. And though we all know how his story is going to end, the movie ends while there’s still hope.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time (Robert Weide, 2021)

In recent years I’ve taken to reading literary biographies and autobiographical books about writing by famous and important authors. I’m in the middle of big books about Chaucer and Dickens and Emerson, I’ve begun but made little headway into ones about James Joyce and William Wordsworth, the other day I started a new one about Stan Lee. I’ve read two books about Neil Young and more books about Bob Dylan than I care to count. I’ve read a book about George Eliot that’s also about what it’s like to read George Eliot, and I’ve read books about writing by Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury and John McPhee and Robert Caro that are more about being Le Guin and Bradbury and McPhee and Caro than they are about anything else. I don’t know why I do this, surely my time could be better spent reading the actual books these writers wrote than reading about their lives which are, in the end, more or less ordinary lives following traditional patterns of joy and tragedy, success and failure, work and betrayal and loss. I suppose what I’m looking for is an explanation as to why anyone bothers to write anything at all when they could be reading, or listening to music, or watching a movie, or god forbid, talking to other human beings.

Near the end of Robert Weide’s documentary on Kurt Vonnegut, we hear archival footage of the author explaining that people are terribly lonely because we’ve evolved to be social creatures with large extended families, networks of people we can interact with on a daily basis, but modern society has isolated us into ever smaller nuclear units. He exhorts his audience to create a larger network for themselves (they don’t even have to be good people, they just have to be there). I suppose that’s what’s so addictive about social media, it creates the illusion of interaction in the same way a narcotic can create the illusion of happiness. We read a book or watch a movie or hear a song or see a funny ten second video clip and share it with the internet and, when someone responds, however meaningless the interaction, for a brief moment we get the rush of feeling like we’re not alone in the universe. I suppose that’s what all writing, all creating really is anyway, and the best artists are the ones that are most fully able to express their own lonely humanity, such that when we read their work we can say, “ah, here’s a person who is just as screwed up as I am.”

I suspect this accounts for much of the enduring appeal of Kurt Vonnegut, and Weide’s film is admirable in its ability to foreground the essential humanity of such an iconic figure. It comes out in the way Vonnegut’s family and friends talk about him, in the home video footage Weide has unearthed, and in the many speeches and interview clips of the writer himself. The old footage is especially poignant—I don’t know that I’ve ever been so moved by home movies in an otherwise pretty standard biographical documentary before. I don’t think there’s anything special about the footage itself, or its editing, but rather the stories around it, the way his children talk about their father, the way he talks about his sister, or his mother, that make it almost unbearably bittersweet. 

I don’t know Vonnegut well. I’ve read some essays and speeches, but none of his novels. I did read his short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House, but I don’t remember much about it. I read on my kindle every night before falling asleep, which helps me get to sleep easier but also means that much of what I read comes in a state of only semi-consciousness, so I often remember very little of the actual content, but nonetheless can sometimes develop a strong emotional connection to the material. I remember the feeling of reading the book more than the book itself. Monkey House is one of my favorite late night reads (others include Train Dreams, Big Sur, The Dubliners, Annals of a Former World, and the first half of Against the Day). But after watching this film, I think I understand his work a little better. At least, I know the structure of his final novel, Timequake, because Weide somewhat brazenly adopts it for the structure of his own film, at once a typical biographical documentary and also a film about the difficult (but not impossible) process of making a biographical documentary. I should probably read more. In the daylight.

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.