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Review: ‘Eternals’

Directed by Chloe Zhao, the epic adventure stars Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani and Angelina Jolie.  

What price immortal life? 


The film opens on Friday, November 5 in area theaters via Disney. Visit the official site for more information. 

Serving up a bounteous feast for the eyes and ears, Eternals offers an outline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that is markedly different from the films that have preceded it into theaters worldwide. 

The third entry in the so-called ‘Phase Four’ begins on a bold note of revision, grandly announcing its own spiritual order to creation and Earth’s place in it, declaring that creatures known as ‘Eternals’ were sent to Earth as its protectors from evil creatures known as ‘Deviants.’ Beyond their sole mission to battle Deviants, the Eternals were granted immortal life and told to stand by for further orders, as communicated to them through their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek). 

Over the thousands of years that follow, two Eternals, all-powerful Ikaris (Richard Madden) and all-empathetic Sersi (Gemma Chan), fall in love, while the other Eternals, including child-like Sprite (Lia McHugh), inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), fireball flinger Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), speedy deaf mute Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), muscle man Gilgamesh (Don Lee), stand-offish hypnotizer Druig (Barry Keoghan), and war-loving warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie), stay together to observe and protect humans. After a decisive event a few hundred years into their mission, they are (mostly) separated as well, per Ajak’s command, and disperse to the four corners of the world. 

Long thought extinct, the Deviants begin to rise in the modern day, first making themselves known in London, where Sersi, her new human beau Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington) and Sprite narrowly survive a close encounter with the legendary creatures. The rise of the Deviants presages the Apocalypse, or an Apocalypse, apparently, and so the Eternals are compelled to reform, which takes some time, as they must be gathered together from the separate lives they have made for themselves. 

Whew! That’s a lot of backstory for any film to carry. This marks the third team of heroes that has been introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it’s perhaps helpful to remember that the individual superheroes were introduced in their own separate films before coming together in Avengers (2012) to form the first team. 

Composed of lesser-known characters, the second team, as depicted in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), was introduced to a moviegoing world that had become accustomed to the idea of superheroes. Introducing a new team, especially from the comic outer space perspective proffered by writer/director James Gunn, felt refreshing and invigorating. 

Black Widow, the first entry in the so-called ‘Phase Four,’ was set before the events in the Avengers: Endgame films, while Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings begins in the months after those era-defining event films, calling back to familiar ideas and characters. 

In contrast, Eternals is something altogether new as far as its characters are concerned, a previously-unknown group of people who are now trying to save the world, absent any involvement of any of the superheroes who have been established over the past 12 or 13 years as the protectors of mankind. Where are the superheroes? 

We don’t know. They are never discussed, though a couple of DC comic book characters are, strangely, namechecked. Thus, Eternals must work hard to create its own mythology and spin up a story that will appeal to fans of past entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — including, now, television shows — while also reaching for something new and different in its storytelling. 

Director Chloe Zhao (after The Rider, but before Nomadland) tries mighty hard to bring all these disparate elements together and whip up something fresh. The broadly diverse and inclusive cast is a great starting point for any modern tale of superheroes, and the actors certainly do their best to bring life and vitality to characters who are, by definition, impervious to pain, suffering, or death. 

They roll their eyes at mankind, a lot, but have generally decided to be tolerant, even as they themselves do not take advantage of their superior attributes. As a group, they are reminiscent of angelic creatures, waiting upon the Divine One for their orders. 

Designed for the big screen, director Chloe Zhao and her thousands of artists and craftspeople behind the scenes have assembled an impressive picture that looks very good on a big, big screen. (I saw it at an IMAX multiplex theater at the AMC Northpark 15 complex, and it was suitably impressive visually and sounded good aurally, though not as thunderous as the recent Dune.) Beyond that, however, the material asks for admiration rather than engagement. 

Of course, the Eternals are not human — again, by definition — so it’s challenging to empathize with their fate, since they’ve lived for thousands of years without many cares. Even for fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals may test their faithfulness and loyalty to the franchise. 

But what’s a little faith without a lot of testing? 

Review: ‘First They Killed My Father’

dfn-first_they_killed_my_father-300The latest film from Angelina Jolie feels more personal than ever. Her oldest child was born in Cambodia; she adopted him a year later. She recently stated: “I wanted my son to know who his countrymen are.”

Based on Loung Ung’s memoir, first published in 2000, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers presents an unflinching view of genocide through the eyes of a child. Ung told her own story as the youngest child in a warm, loving and supportive family. One day in 1975, after the U.S. had finally pulled out of a losing war in neighboring Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge came to town. Loung and her family were forced out of their home and onto the road, along with thousands of their fellow Cambodians.

Soon they would endure steadily worsening conditions under the constant menace of automatic weapons, which served, in effect, as prison bars in the open-air camps. Everyone suffered in common, as the effects of a famine took hold and physical will was beaten down over time by the drumbeat of enforced physical labor for all, including the youngest of children.

When they weren’t working, they were indoctrinated into Communist teachings by strict military teachers, who tried to convince everyone that this was all to their benefit, as individual family members were separated from one another and, in many cases, marched to their murder.

And it only gets worse from there.

Jolie shoots a portion of the film from the eye level of Loung (portrayed by Sareum Srey Moch), a portion of the film from Loung’s own perspective, and smaller portions from the medium shot and “God’s Eye” (overhead looking down) perspectives, mixed in with dolly shots, all captured by expert cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, known for his work with Danny Boyle. (He won an Academy Award for Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.)

The photography reflects Loung’s circumstances; the colors are sublime when things are peaceful and fine, but drain away as the full horror kicks in. Jolie has certainly developed as a feature filmmaker, from In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) to Unbroken (2014) to By the Sea (2015), steadily progressing from intense drama to operatic excess to languorous romance.

Distinctive as it is visually from Jolie’s earlier work, First They Killed My Father mostly strikes a fine balance between humanism and outrage. It’s difficult not to become infuriated by the conditions suffered by the Cambodian people, even if it was more than 40 years ago, because we are aware of the direct parallels to horrible events happening in the world today on a daily basis.

Yet Jolie steps back continually to look at the larger picture, allowing Loung to wrestle with her own emotions as a child thrust into a life that adults can barely comprehend. Above all, the film is sobering and, yes, didactic. That’s a good thing, in my view.

First They Killed My Father is now available to watch on Netflix.

Review: ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’

Zana Marjanovic in Angelina Jolie's 'In the Land of Blood and Honey'
Zana Marjanovic in Angelina Jolie's 'In the Land of Blood and Honey'

Angelina Jolie’s debut as a narrative director — she also wrote and shared in producing — follows Ajla (Zana Marjanovic) as she struggles to survive the atrocities committed from 1992-1995 during the Bosnian war. She’s Bosnian, but also a Muslim, and thus has been imprisoned along with thousands of other Muslim women in prison camps run by the Serbians, who are carrying out a program of “ethnic cleansing” (i.e. genocide).

Conditions are horrendous; the woman are raped and brutally beaten on a continuing basis by their Serbian captors, who take delight in gunning down Muslim civilians, including woman and children. Ajla is spared much of the physical torture suffered by her fellow prisoners because of her relationship with Danijel (Goran Kostic), a Serbian soldier who has been placed in charge of the camp.

Ajla and Danijel knew each other before the war, and were in the early stages of romance, but time has passed and circumstances, obviously, have changed dramatically. How will they each adapt? Is there any future for a relationship forged during such incredibly divisive times?

— From my review at Twitch.

‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’ opens today at Angelika Dallas. 

Review: Salt

Angelina Jolie as 'Salt'
Angelina Jolie as 'Salt'

Racing against time, defying gravity, and punching through plot holes, Salt is an immensely satisfying action thriller — as long as you’re not a purist for logic or common sense.

Salt hurtles along at a breathless pace, but not so fast that glaring inconsistencies are not apparent. But I found myself responding like Tommy Lee Jones to Harrison Ford’s protest of innocence in The Fugitive: “I don’t care!”

For Salt lives in the same territory inhabited by James Bond and Jason Bourne, the neo-geographic region known as Land of the Secret Agents, where a license to kill is issued automatically, along with a reckless disregard for truth and a hearty embrace of impossible coincidence. Angelina Jolie invests her role as CIA Agent Evelyn Salt with all necessary gravitas, which is to say she looks terrific beating up bad guys, improvising improbable escapes, and manufacturing bombs like MacGyver’s younger sister.

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