Recent Movie Roundup 36
An exciting new phase in our ongoing pandemic reality involves the reopening of movie theaters, with the floodgates opening to release last year's delayed blockbusters, awards contenders, and the few hopefuls trying to claim a bit of territory between them. These films represent most of the last two months' moviegoing, and though none of them were exactly to my taste (and one or two are extremely disappointing), it's nice just to be able to go into a theater again.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - The first MCU superhero extravaganza of the fall had a lot riding on it. It's the first MCU film with an Asian lead (and really, an almost entirely Asian cast). The first post-Endgame MCU movie starring a new character, who will presumably be folded into whatever overarching narrative the new generation of the MCU is gearing up towards. And in a lot of ways, it's the first MCU movie that is trying to give us a sense of what phase four is going to be like, as opposed to looking backwards like Black Widow or Spider-Man: Far From Home. So it's a bit funny to observe that, for all the ways that this film is clearly trying to strike out on its own, it also feels like nothing so much as the phase one movies—well-made and entertaining enough while you're watching it, but with very little that lingers in the mind or makes you care about an overarching narrative. Simu Liu plays Shaun, an underachieving San Francisco hotel valet who, along with his best friend Katie (Awkwafina), enjoys a life of low expectations and low pressure. Until, that is, it turns out that Shaun is actually Shang-Chi, son of the immortal crime lord Wenwu (Tony Leung), who has been searching for Shaun and his sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), since they ran away from him in their teens. Wenwu needs his children's help to gain access to the hidden, mystical village of Ta Lo, the home of their late mother Li (Fala Chen), where he believes she is being held prisoner. But as Li's sister Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) informs the siblings when they arrive there, Ta Lo is actually charged with protecting the prison of an ancient soul-sucking monster, which is trying to trick Wenwu into releasing it.
Tonally, Shang-Chi dials back the quippiness and genre-awareness that characterizes most MCU movies (unsurprisingly, Awkwafina gets the bulk of what remains of these, but even she switches to a more serious mode eventually), approaching even its hokiest tropes with earnestness. The result feels more like a kung-fu movie than an MCU movie, sometimes in ways that are entirely salutary—the action scenes in this movie, for example, are the best the franchise has delivered since Winter Soldier, and with a great deal more verve and visual inventiveness. A particular highlight is a runaway bus ride through the hilly streets of San Francisco as Shang-Chi tries to fight off his father's henchmen, and a later scene, in which Shang-Chi and Katie try to escape Xialing's illegal fight club by clambering on scaffolding, makes tremendous use of glass-fronted skyscrapers and neon signs to backdrop the action. (As is unfortunately common in MCU movies, the action gets less interesting as the film progresses and the CGI quotient increases. But even the final fight scene, in which one computer-generated creature battles another, is more coherent than most movie-ending extravaganzas in this franchise.) This is also a film that is willing to let the younger, heroic cast take a back seat and let the heavy hitters in the supporting roles shine. Leung basically walks away with the entire movie, exuding charisma even in Wenwu's most villainous moments, entirely convincing as a man who loves his children but has no idea how to be a real father to them, and instead opts for megalomaniacal schemes. Yeoh gets less to do but is still a commanding presence, and there are delightful cameos from Doctor Strange's Benedict Wong and Iron Man 3's Ben Kingsley, the latter of which manages to square the circle between those who loved that film's handling of The Mandarin and those who hated it.
Unfortunately, all of these interesting choices (I haven't even mentioned the film's willingness to feature multiple, long scenes with only Chinese dialogue) run aground on Shang-Chi's biggest misstep, its hero. Liu is charming and likable, but the script gives him virtually nothing to work with, and absent a talent on the level of Leung, he can't make a compelling hero out of a character who is barely even sketched out. The film keeps gesturing at character arcs for him—Shang-Chi and Katie's failure to launch, their disconnection from their Chinese heritage, Shang-Chi's revelation that he was trained to be a teenage assassin, his guilt over his mother's death and conflicted feelings towards his father—but never develops any of them, leaving the audience to fill in a generic hero's journey template. It's not Shang-Chi's fault that it was released only two months after Black Widow, but the fact that Shang-Chi and Xialing's relationship has the exact same problems as Natasha and Yelena's in that movie—Xialing blames her brother for abandoning her when he walked away from their abusive upbringing—only throws into sharper relief how perfunctory the handling of this story is in this movie (and, as in Ant-Man, it's never made clear why Shang-Chi is the designated hero and not his equally badass sister). Perhaps most bafflingly, Shang-Chi's apotheosis into a hero—which involves wresting the titular ten rings, a mystical artifact that confers superpowers and immortality, from his father—feels entirely unearned, an artifact of CGI rather than a product of character development. The film's post-credits scene makes it clear that Shang-Chi (and the ten rings) are being set up for a major role in phase four and possibly beyond, but Shang-Chi's failure to argue for its hero's heroism makes that an iffy prospect. It leaves the entire film feeling like a pleasant trifle, rather than the franchise relaunch it was meant to be.
Annette - Originally conceived as a concept album for the pop duo Sparks, Leos Carax's Cannes-winning musical extravaganza tells the story of a stand-up comic (Adam Driver) and an opera singer (Marion Cotillard) who marry and have a baby, the titular Annette, only for his career to flatline, leading to recriminations and violence in the marriage, and eventually, to Driver's character exploiting his daughter's preternatural singing voice. It's a thin scaffolding of story on which Carax hangs a myriad of eccentric audio-visual choices, such as the fact that Annette is played, throughout most of the film, by a series of successively larger marionettes, all planted firmly within the uncanny valley. Some of these flourishes work—the opening song, in which the actors and crew address us as themselves rather than their characters, has an energy that much of the rest of the movie lacks; a mid-film shipboard scene gleefully embraces unreality when it surrounds the actors with screens on which it projects crashing waves; and an early scene in which we see Driver's stand-up act brilliantly incorporates music in a way that makes it hard to know where the diegetic music ends and the musical conceit begins (as well as perfectly capturing the type of awkwardly confessional stand-up style that leaves one wondering how much of the artist's real dysfunction is on stage, and whether the correct reaction isn't to laugh but to call the police). But taken as a whole, Annette most often feels like it's putting a lot of set dressing on a story that it hasn't thought very deeply about—including, most obviously, its fascination with Driver's character despite him being yet another abusive drunk—and which would probably have worked better as a standard naturalistic drama.
Driver and Cotillard are wasted in underwritten, stereotype-ridden roles (we know exactly where the movie is going when we're told that Cotillard's signature move is to die beautifully on stage). Simon Helberg rounds out the film's main cast as Cotillard's lovelorn accompanist, and weirdly outshines both of these superstars simply by virtue of having been given at least one scene in which his character expresses a semi-complex emotion. In most musicals, what makes up for the thinness of the spoken performances are the sung ones, but the songs in Annette are barely worthy of the name. With a few exceptions (most notably, a chorus of women who come forward to accuse Driver of bullying and abuse), they are barely-tuneful repetitions of a single phrase. One assumes that Carax is calling back to opera, which might also explains the film's simplistic and overwrought emotional tone. But absent the musical and vocal complexity of that genre, what's left is Driver and Cotillard tunelessly crooning "we love each other so much" at each other for minutes on end. The puppetry work with Annette is occasionally effective, but most of the time she's left static while the human actors carry her, which undercuts any sense that there's a person there, even as her feelings and reactions become the crux of the story. At every turn, the film gestures at conceits that might have worked if it had committed itself to them fully, and then immediately tries something else, with the effect that all these elements end up undermining each other rather than building up to something remarkable.
Ultimately, one is left with the impression that Annette would have worked better in almost any other medium—the concept album it was originally intended as, a puppet show, an animated movie—than as a feature film (not unrelated to this reaction is the fact that these versions of the story would probably have been shorter; it's arguable that Annette's biggest flaw is its 140-minute running time). That choice repeatedly leaves the film stranded in its own version of the uncanny valley, neither naturalistic enough to do anything profound with its premise, nor consistently fantastical in a way that would make its thin characters and shopworn plot more tolerable. Still, it's hard for me to call Annette a mistake. Every frame and scene feels deliberate, and even as the film slogs towards its end there are moments where something genuine and stirring shines through (Driver, finally facing justice, when asked if he swears to tell the truth: "no, you'd kill me if I did"). If nothing else, Annette is clearly the film it was trying to be, and that's worthy of respect even if very little in it connected with me or had the exhilarating, overpowering effect it was going for.
The Last Duel - Ridley Scott's latest is the type of movie we're repeatedly told nobody is making anymore, the big-budget drama for adults. It's a well-crafted historical epic, about a complicated topic, starring several big names and, of course, shepherded by one of the most reliable purveyors of grown-up entertainment in the business. The fact that it has been a resounding financial failure has been taken, by some, as yet another charge to lay against Disney (which distributed the film) and its increasing consolidation of the movie business, and by others, as yet another indication that cinema has changed for good, and that audiences looking for something other than superheroes and visual extravaganzas are going to reach for their TV remote, not a movie ticket. I can't offer an informed opinion on this question (though my instincts tend towards the latter answer). But having watched The Last Duel, I'm surprised that anyone was surprised by its failure. Not that the movie is bad—on the contrary, it's engaging and thoughtful, and refreshing simply for telling a different sort of story than Hollywood usually takes an interest in. But it also feels almost impossible to sell. It's a medieval drama, but not a war movie. It's a courtroom drama, but as the film's one-sentence pitch reveals, the trial in question is settled with a duel to the death—so regardless of the outcome, justice is not on the table. And it's a story for the #MeToo era, set hundreds of years earlier, so anyone with a bit of historical awareness will know that whatever triumph it wrings from its situation can only be partial. Despite having enjoyed The Last Duel, I can't describe it as a particularly satisfying movie. That's partly the point that it is making, but it shouldn't have come as a shock that audiences caught wind of this unsettling quality, and chose to stay away.
The Last Duel is based on a well-known (to historians) event in French history. In the 14th century, a noblewoman named Marguerite de Carrouges accused Jacques Le Gris, a squire, of rape. Marguerite's husband, Jean, took the case to court, where in order to settle Marguerite and Jacques's conflicting testimonies, the two men engaged in trial by combat, the outcome of which supposedly reflected god's own judgment. The film—whose screenplay was written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener—tells the story of this event three times, from the perspectives of Jean (Damon), Jacques (Adam Driver), and Marguerite (Jodie Comer). This Rashomon-like approach has been much publicized in discussions of the film, but it ends up paying rather thin dividends. There are occasionally some intriguing differences between the three versions—Jean sees himself as a kind, heroic man, but when seen through Jacques's eyes he becomes a vainglorious prig, and in Marguerite's telling he is peevish and temperamental, his pursuit of her case driven more by a sense of his own injured pride than concern for her. But The Last Duel's storylines overlap so little that there's not much scope for this kind of reexamination. Most of the time, the different perspectives cover completely different events. In Jacques's storyline, we get to know his patron, Pierre d'Alençon (Affleck), a libertine who promotes Jacques, whose wit, erudition, and flexibility in matters of the heart he finds congenial. But for the same reason, Pierre spurns Jean, whom he dismisses as a bore, and appears hardly at all in his story. As the narratives approach the rape itself, one can sense The Last Duel becoming more and more uncomfortable with its project of ambiguity. We do get to see the rape twice—once through Jacques's eyes, where Marguerite's protestations are pro forma, merely what's expected from a lady; and once through Marguerite's, where her fear and horror are entirely real. But Marguerite's narrative is also presented to us as the truth (literally, in the film's title cards), so again, there seems to be very little value in the repetition.
For this reason, The Last Duel only really comes into its own when Marguerite takes center stage. Her perspective is the broadest and most expansive of the three. As opposed to Jean's seething sense of injury, or Jacques's heedless pursuit of his own pleasures, she is interested in the world around her. Which means she also notices what ultimately becomes the film's central point—that rape and abuse are endemic to her society; that she is far from the only woman of her acquaintance to have experienced rape; and that the only things that make her situation unique are that this specific rape is not socially sanctioned (as opposed to her repeated rapes by Jean, which even she doesn't define as such, but which the film itself leaves us in no doubt about) and that she has chosen to speak out about it. This sudden opening up is clearly a deliberate choice by the film, which lingers on the details of Marguerite's story—her stewardship over her husband's estate while he's away, her relationships with her friends and mother in law, the protracted humiliation of doctor's appointments and, later, courtroom interrogation, in all of which she is treated as both a simpleton and a villain. It's the central irony of the movie that men like Jean and Jacques, for whom this entire system has been designed, are less comfortable in it, and less aware of it as something that exists outside of themselves, than Marguerite, who is barely even a legal entity in its eyes. But that's an irony that I think the film could just as easily have conveyed without resorting to what is ultimately a distracting device. By its end, when it finally arrives at the duel itself, The Last Duel is a gripping historical drama, one that draws sufficient complexity from its situation without needing any artificial literary tricks—the fact, for example, that Marguerite is the only one who questions the duel's ability to render a just verdict, precisely because she's the only one who isn't in question over the truth, while for everyone else around her, its result is a profound moment of catharsis. But it's a shame that Scott and the film's writers weren't confident enough in their story to let it stand on its own.
Eternals - As the first MCU movie to be overwhelmingly panned by critics, Chloé Zhao's potential franchise-starter has been the occasion of much rejoicing from the Film Twitter contingent who view Marvel (or, more defensibly, the Disney juggernaut) as the prime architect of Hollywood's transformation into a supplier of extruded IP products. What this crowing misses, however, is how definitively Eternals's failure validates the MCU's approach so far. This is by far the least MCU-ish movie in the franchise, the one that most resoundingly rejects the innovations and storytelling techniques that Marvel brought into the superhero genre with Iron Man. It's incredibly wordy, from the interminable opening crawl to long scenes of exposition that continue almost until the climactic showdown. It spends an inordinate amount of time worldbuilding, much of it to very little effect in the film itself, merely laying pipe for future movies. It lacks an accessible gateway point for viewers who might not be immediately won over by the titular team, an overstuffed group of immortal, superpowered aliens who view humans as little more than pets. It is, in short, very similar to what superhero movies were like before the late 2000s (with, admittedly, a stronger cast, a bigger budget, and more striking visuals courtesy of Oscar-winner Zhao's fondness for natural light and austere vistas). That it has failed feels like a validation of everything Marvel has been doing for thirteen years, and right now in the company headquarters a team of story engineers are probably taking the film apart and figuring out how to recast its sequel more in the mold of Thor: Ragnarok or Guardians of the Galaxy.
The most obvious culprit for Eternals's failure is that there is simply too much here. The heroes, who were sent to Earth at the dawn of civilization on behalf of cosmic beings called the Celestials to protect humanity from monsters called Deviants, are a team of ten, most of whom are portrayed by some of the hottest stars in Hollywood, with complicated histories and convoluted relationships spanning 7000 years. Much of the film is therefore spent explaining all that backstory to us, either in flashbacks or large chunks of exposition. An inordinate portion of the film's 2.5 hour running time, in fact, is spent just getting the band back together, after the believed-eradicated Deviants reappear in the present day, accompanied by ominous global earthquakes. But despite (or perhaps because of) all the effort the film puts into giving each castmember a showcase, the result feels both plodding and rushed, one scene after another in which N heroes show up at the home of the N+1-th member of the team, catch up with their life a little, and keep going. It's startling to realize just how few standout scenes there are throughout most of this movie (another way in which it deviates from the MCU's formula, where set-pieces often feel like the whole point).
A few characters manage to stand out—Richard Madden's Ikaris is almost immediately intriguing as the team's natural leader, who is holding back from that position for reasons that grow more complicated and disturbing as the story progresses; and Brian Tyree Henry further cements his position as one of his generation's most compelling actors, instantly imbuing his character, the inventor Phastos, with soulfulness and humor. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Gemma Chan is positioned as the film's lead, but repeatedly fades into the scenery. Kumail Nanjiani was clearly brought in to provide at least a little of the comedic load that MCU movies have become known for, but perhaps for that reason, the film seems uninterested in him. He disappears entirely during the final showdown, and even when he is on screen, he's constantly upstaged by Harish Patel as his character's human valet. Some classic tropes of the immortal superhero premise show up—Angelina Jolie's Thena suffers from a dementia that causes her to break out in uncontrollable violence; Lia McHugh's Sprite has spent millennia looking like a child—but their execution is invariably generic. More complex characters, such as Druig (Barry Keoghan), the only member of the team who wants to stop human destructiveness, and has formed a cult in which he mind-controls his followers, are introduced and then immediately folded into the team, the film lacking either the time or the inclination to explore these disturbing ideas. Through it all, one never gets a real sense that these characters are ancient, and despite the repeated harping on the theme of "family", their relationships feel informed, not the kind of bonds you'd forge with the nine other people who have been the only constants in your life for millennia. (I found myself comparing Eternals unfavorably to The Old Guard, which is not a great movie but still manages to hit these emotional beats a great deal more effectively.)
It's tempting, therefore, to say that Eternals might have worked at a greater length, if it were a miniseries that allowed its characters, relationships, and tangled history room to breathe. I think, though, that the film's problems run deeper. At its heart, Eternals is about some dark, thorny ideas. The answer to the question repeatedly bandied about after the release of the film's first trailer—why did these defenders of humanity stand back during the myriad atrocities of history, not to mention the two times that Earth's heroes gathered to fight Thanos—turns out to be, because they're not actually heroes, merely pawns of the Celestials, to whom humanity is but a means to an end. The crux of the movie turns out to be whether its heroes can actually be heroes, or whether they are slaves to programming that demands unthinking obedience (also, whether they even want to be heroes—one of the film's most wrongfooting moments comes when you realize that its protagonists have to think long and hard over whether they're even opposed to sacrificing the entire human race for what they've been taught to see as the greater good). But this is, quite frankly, too dark an idea for the MCU to seriously grapple with, and the film almost immediately shies away from its implications. For example, the suggestion that the hideous Deviants might be more capable of growth and change than the shiny, beautiful Eternals is raised, then immediately backed away from in the film's climax, in which the Deviants go back to being inherently killable monsters.
So Eternals is left in an uncomfortable midpoint, neither a classic MCU movie, nor a deconstruction of it. It is constantly holding back from really exploring its characters' limitations, be they innate or rooted in their alien worldview. Which means that the climax in which they decisively take a stand feels like a foregone conclusion, not the cathartic reclaiming of their personhood it clearly wants to be. This only serves to make the film's ending, which is clearly setting up sequels and positioning its heroes as part of a cosmic network of larger-than-life characters, harder to swallow. After a whole movie that has failed to argue for its heroes' heroism—perhaps because it doesn't really believe in it—to be suddenly reminded that this is still all part of the MCU is jarring, and makes the preceding hours feel even more misguided.
Last Night in Soho - If you had to pick a hip, stylish male Hollywood auteur to make a movie about rape culture, Edgar Wright—whose movies, when they deign to feature female characters at all, usually relegate them to the role of personality-free love interest—would probably not be your first choice. So it's tempting, when the scheme of this era-hopping ghost story makes itself clear, to give the film and its creator points for good intentions. Last Night's heroine is Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), a sheltered young woman with a vaguely alluded-to history of mental illness, who feels out of her time—not just young for her age, but obsessed with 60s culture and fashion to a degree that seems to exclude anything relating to modern life. Eloise arrives in London as an aspiring fashion student, and quickly finds herself feeling alienated—from her fellow students, who can't make sense of her, and from the city itself, which feels at once hostile and predatory. After a hellish experience at her school dorms, she rents an attic room in what was once the heart of London's night life, and begins dreaming about its former occupant, Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy). An aspiring singer and actress in the swinging London of the 60s, Sandie is everything Eloise wishes she could be—glamorous, confident, sexually forward. Eloise begins modeling her appearance and school work on Sandie's life, just in time for her dreams to turn sinister—for Sandie's manager (Matt Smith) to start pimping her out to his business associates, for the relationship between him and Sandie to turn violent, and for figures from her dreams to start haunting Eloise in her waking life.
Wright, who at this point is clearly just waiting for someone to offer him a musical to direct, brings his trademark love of music and dance to the movie, and adapts it remarkably well to the film's dark subject matter and turn towards horror. When Eloise dreams about Sandie, she sometimes watches her, and sometimes inhabits her, so an early scene sees McKenzie and Taylor-Joy seamlessly switching places as they dance with Smith, a sequence that wouldn't have felt out of place in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. But when Eloise begins to see the ghosts of the men who purchased Sandie's services—who appear as grey, faceless figures—the film maintains its stagey sensibility, with Eloise's escape from the specters resembling the frenetic ballets in films like The Red Shoes. As Sandie's story turns darker, and Eloise's grip on reality loosens, the film pulls out every visual and musical stop to convey the growing unreality of its situation. It makes for an effective metaphor for the trauma that lingers after sexual assault, with Eloise reacting to her dreams as if she had experienced Sandie's traumas herself—at first numb, then jumpy, and eventually, unable to go about her life without painful memories intruding upon her and making it impossible for her to function.
For most of its length, Last Night in Soho seems to be about the bind in which young women are placed when they try to explore and own their sexuality. Sandie and Eloise both want to be sexy and glamorous, to enjoy their bodies and the effect they have on others; but they're also surrounded by people who see them as nothing but those bodies, and hold them responsible for what others do to them. For Eloise in particular, London is at once a place where she can reinvent herself into her ideal image of womanhood, and one where versions of that woman are treated like a commodity, in sex work ads, in the leering and unwanted comments of men on the street, and in the possessive behavior of fellow students. This is a complicated, thorny topic, and it eventually becomes clear that Wright (and his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns) aren't equal to it.
For a film that is supposedly about a uniquely female condition, Last Night in Soho is startlingly uninterested in any thoughts women might have had the matter. Eloise is a naif with no relevant life experience (and no actual personality except happening to have the same cultural tastes as her gen X male creator). Sandie is a blank whose feelings about the traumatic turns that her life has taken are hidden from us until near the movie's end. Most tellingly, neither Eloise nor Sandie have any female friends. Eloise is sometimes able to confide in older women—the grandmother who raised her (Rita Tushingham), or her landlady, Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg). But girls her age—the ones who might have experience of the complexities of modern female sexuality—are invariably portrayed as catty and malicious, just waiting for Eloise to implode (in a particularly tone-deaf moment, Eloise goes to a party and is handed an adulterated drink—by the head mean girl in her class). The only person her age Eloise can rely on is her love interest, John (Michael Ajao), who is held up as the "good" man against all the leering, exploitative ones (that John is also the only black character in the film is a nuance the story seems entirely ignorant of).
If this were merely the extent of Last Night in Soho's problems, it might have been summed up as a flawed but well-intended effort—feminism, as envisioned by a man who hasn't considered that women talk to one another. But in its final scenes, the film delivers a last minute twist that is so misguided, so fundamentally incompatible with its stated aims, that it retroactively invalidates all the good that came before. One can imagine what Wright was going for—a final revelation that both serves the demands of a horror movie and takes the film's themes of sexual exploitation to the next level. But the result is that we're suddenly expected to think of Sandie as the villain, and of the men who exploited her as victims. That's not where the story eventually lands—the script tries to find a midpoint between the shock value it so clearly prizes, and the female solidarity it has otherwise showed no interest in—but it leaves itself no room to process this troubling, complicated wrinkle to its story. A more psychologically complex movie—one that cared about Eloise and Sandie as people rather than just figures in Wright's dance numbers or horror set pieces—might have shouldered this new level of complexity. But in Last Night in Soho it just ends up feeling shallow, a lot of cheap sensationalism, cheap female empowerment, and cheap solidarity trying to justify an ending that otherwise runs completely counter to what the film had previously been.