Eternals (2021)

Quick Synopsis: Immortal god-like beings fight beasts, themselves, and their own purpose in life.

This is……it’s far too long. I’ve only seen one film directed by Chloe Zhao before, and that was Nomadland, I feel her skills are wasted here. Nomadland was about the personal, it was about focusing on the small, this is a very big film so it’s a weird mesh of style and story that doesn’t really work. Maybe part of that is the script. It’s trying too hard to feel big. It has to tell the story of this entire group, that’s a lot to do. It also tries to tie it into the history of humanity as a whole. It doesn’t do this in chronological order, it jumps back and forth for the first half of the film, almost as though it’s acknowledging that there’s too much backstory but they feel they need to put it in there somehow anyway. The fractured storytelling also really hurts the story being told. The group have been separated for hundreds of years, the film spends a long time getting them back together and the relationships between them all are strained. But we as an audience don’t feel that. And we don’t feel that because of the non-linear editing. As characters, it’s been a long time since they’ve seen each other, but as an audience, it was only 5 minutes or so since we saw them all together and working as a team, and we haven’t seen the split yet. So we don’t feel that tension between them at all. If they did the “Eternals involved in the history of humanity” stuff as a montage at the beginning, then have them split, then we’ll feel it.

The issues behind the split between the group are weirdly underplayed. There are two main incidents that I feel aren’t explored enough: one is the Spanish Conquistadors laying siege to an Aztec city. This could be a haunting emotional setpiece. The whole group should be emotionally devastated at not being able to help, they should all carry that guilt around with them, as it is only one of them does. It’s quite telling that this film doesn’t even have a “Nightmare Fuel” entry on the films TVTropes page. How is that scene not one that stays with you? It’s genocide on film. Yet we don’t really get any emotion from it. The way they do Hiroshima is better, they have the character completely break down and be overcome with guilt. You FEEL that, briefly, then it passes because the film has more stuff it has to cram in.

So far you may think that since I’m discussing what it missed, that I think it should have been longer. Noooooooooooo. This film is over 2 and a half hours, and it feels it. It’s actually longer than Infinity War, yet it feels like it does less. So much of the time is wasted. This is a short excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on the film:

In the present day, Sersi and Sprite live together in London. After Sersi was left by her partner Ikaris centuries earlier, she is now in a relationship with human Dane Whitman, who works at the Natural History Museum. The trio is attacked by the Deviant Kro, with Ikaris arriving and chasing the creature away. Realizing the Deviants have returned, they travel to South Dakota to reunite with their leader, Ajak, only to find that she had been killed by Kro.

I estimate that just that section, not including the flashbacks interspersed throughout, that on it’s own, takes over half an hour. There is no sense of efficiency to any of it. Now I know action scenes can be like that. “they fight” can be a five-minute battle that entertains the hell out of you. But for that to work, the action scenes need to be amazing, they need to be creative and inventive to truly WOW you. This doesn’t do that, and it should. The characters are basically gods, so why are the action scenes duller than the ones in Shang-Chi? There is nothing even close to the use of space or location for fight scenes that that film had. There’s no inventiveness, no spectacle, basically no fun.

On the upside, the performances are hard to flaw, and it does one thing I was really worried it wouldn’t be able to pull off. It avoids the whole “I will now explain all our superpowers in a completely unnatural way” problem that similar films have. It does something better: it just shows you. That’s a more difficult way to do it but much more impressive. The general look and cinematography is also to be commended, even standard scenes are shot in a way of great beauty. It’s not just individual performances, the cast gel together incredibly well and their chemistry is obvious for everybody to see.

So in summary, to be honest, you probably don’t NEED to see this, it’s relatively unessential and not exciting enough to make up for it. One thing better than Shang-Chi is it could lead to a lot more exciting things. The world being made aware of their existence opens up some possibilities, and there are a few more characters implied who could be fun to watch develop.

Minari (2020)

Quick synopsis: A Korean family move to an Arkansas farm. I’m really underselling it.

Confession time: I nearly deleted this off the list of films I need to watch this year. Actually there’s no “nearly” about it, I did delete it. I just felt might not be for me. Might be too “arty” and slow. Only added it last month when I thought I’d give it a shot. I was a minute in and thought “I immediately regret my decision”, the decision to delete it, I mean. The fact I denied myself something so beautiful as this for so long is not great. I can’t even explain why the opening is good. It’s literally just the family driving to a new home, no dialogue, just soft music playing. But there’s something about it that’s just so damn cosy and warm that you immediately love it.

I can’t really go into the plot, mainly because it’s not important. There was one character point that made me panic about how the film was going to end, that it was going to get really depressing and bleak as it went on. It didn’t do that. There are moments of emotional frustration, where you just want to grab the characters by the shoulders and start shaking them until they realise what they should do/say. But the character moments aren’t “well I need to do this for the story to develop”, they are believable mistakes for humans to make. This is probably because it’s a semi-autobiographical film, based on the upbringing of writer/director Lee Isaac Chung. It’s a deeply personal story and one that’s told beautifully.

It says a lot about people too. There’s a moment where the family go to church. The other adults are really friendly, and the other kids are kind of dicks (the phrases “why is your face so flat?” and “I speak koraen: jing jang ying low” are both spoken). But then it twists it almost immediately and the kids start getting on once they’re corrected, something as simple as “my face isn’t flat”. Whereas the facade the adults are putting on starts to slip and they start to feel really disingenuous and condescending. It’s incredibly smart and so well done.

It’s not perfect though. The sister character could have been fleshed out better. It feels like if you took her out then it wouldn’t effect the film at all. She’s the only character who doesn’t seem to have their own arc and agency within the film and I had to check she was actually in the film and I didn’t get this film mixed up with another one. But nope, she’s in it, just really ineffective.

It’s weirdly difficult to talk about this film because it didn’t feel like a film. You weren’t sitting there focusing on the story or the acting. You don’t so much watch this, as experience it. It reminded me very much of Nomadland. Which is good, as I loved that film. I should probably do them as a double bill at some point. They’re both really good films with similar colour schemes.

All of this was a long way of saying, watch this film.

Nomadland (2020)

Knew nothing of this film going in, that’s becoming a running theme with these reviews lately. Truth be told I don’t actively seek out films, I don’t go onto film sites and search for recommendations. My knowledge of what films to see come from four sources:

  1. Trailers at the cinema
  2. Personal recommendation (is why I watched Love And Monsters)
  3. If it gets nominated for a lot of awards (Sound Of Metal)

My fourth one is the one I’ve used the most this year. And if you ever wondered how the hell I found some random films, it’s likely to be from this. I go onto https://filmdistributorsassociation.com/release-schedule/this-weeks-releases/ every week to look at the films that have been released that week, if I haven’t heard of it at all I’ll quickly google it and see if it intrigues me. That’s why I end up hearing about films such as Come True (very much yay), Blithe Spirit (very much not yay), and I Blame Society (I don’t know yet as I haven’t seen it, but it looks great). When I say “it intrigues me” I mean that I read a quick one line synopsis, if that hooks me I usually just add it to the list. So there’s a lot of films where I haven’t even seen the trailer (if I had then I wouldn’t have seen Mouthpiece as I’ve since watched the trailer for that and it did nothing for me, which is a shame as it would have meant missing out on one of my favourite films of the year).

So yeah, despite it being one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year (well, technically last year. I’ll stop using parenthesis soon I swear), I went into this knowing very little. Highly recommend going into it this way as seeing everything unfurl in front of you is a delightful experience. I say “delightful”, it’s actually horrible. This has the tone and look of an apocalyptic future. It resembles a word in the near future left ravaged by war. So when is this film set? 2011. That’s a stunning indictment of American capitalism.

But that’s not really what this film is, it’s not about dystopia and bleakness. It’s ultimately about humanity and hope. It’s about beauty and life. It’s about everything and nothing all at once. It feels all too real, but sometimes that realness gives you a warm glow inside.

The feeling of reality is helped by the cast, mainly because Chloe Zhao decided to cast non-actors, instead reaching out to people who actually live the nomadic life. Risky strategy, but it definitely works. These characters know the perfect way to play every single piece of dialogue, bringing the characters to life in a way that few other films could. I should also mention the way that Zhao shot a lot of it. She doesn’t go to make it look like a dramatic film, it’s shot almost like a documentary. Again, this makes everything feel real. It doesn’t often feel like you’re watching a film, but more like you’re standing there alongside them, it truly makes you feel like part of a community (then the film finishes and you’re back to a reality where you’re alone with just a cup of tea for company, and you cry). Considering this film stars Frances McDormand, one of the best performers around, making you forget that she’s an actor is something incredibly difficult to do. But both the talent of the film, and the talent of McDormand herself, make that easy to do.

I suppose it is also helped by being based on a non-fiction book (Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century) which I now need to read I think. You’d think being based on a non-fiction book would mean it lacks narrative. It kind of does, but also doesn’t. It’s not a standard “A leads to B, which leads to C” style plot. It’s the cinematic equivalent of just wandering around somewhere (almost nomadically you could say) and observing. Sometimes you meander, taking stock of what’s in front of you at that moment, sometimes you move forward quicker, and sometimes you stand still. It’s the moments where characters just sit around talking which are the highlights. A key example of this is a guy explaining how his son committed suicide. He talks about how living on the road means you never say goodbye, because you know you’re going to see everybody further down the road. That’s why he does it, because he feels it means his son hasn’t said goodbye, they’ll always meet each other later on. Just writing that bit and remembering it almost brought me to tears just now. That’s how powerful it is.

In summary, you really need to see this. It’s one of the most compelling things I’ve seen all year, and it deserves everything you could give it. Plus it’s available for free on disney+ right now so….yeah.