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Film Review: Eternals and Spencer

Arts Review2021-11-5By: Marc Glassman

 

Women as Superheroes and Princesses

Reviewing Eternals and Spencer

By Marc Glassman

 

Eternals

Chloé Zhao, director and co-script w/Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo

Based on characters created by Jack Kirby

Starring: Gemma Chan (Sersi), Richard Madden (Ikaris), Salma Hayek (Ajak), Angelina Jolie (Thena), Kumali Nanjiani (Kingo), Lia McHugh (Sprite), Brian Tyree Henry (Phastos), Lauren Ridloff (Makkari), Barry Keoghan (Druig), Don Lee (Gilgamesh), Harish Patel (Karun), Kit Harington (Dane Whitman)

 

Eternals, the COVID delayed film by Chloé Zhao, is an important part of the reboot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but can her epic movie actually replace The Avengers? Before trying to answer the question, let’s ask another one. How many film fans–not just comic nerds—have heard of the main members of the initial Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Dr. Strange, Thor, Black Panther? Right, nearly everybody, and each is a unique entity, having starred in their own graphic novels for decades. Now let’s take Eternals, a superhero aggregation invented by the great graphic novel artist, Jack Kirby, a decade after he created The Avengers. Are any of them –Sersi, Ikaris, Ajak, Thena, Kingo, Sprite, etc.—famous creations from the Silver Era of Comics? Not really, though Kirby’s work is magnificent, and the concept is different: these superheroes arrived from outer space seven thousand years ago to guard humanity, which was just emerging as the dominant species on Earth. 

When MCU chose to replace The Avengers with Eternals, they decided to go in a more contemporary direction with their characters and director. No one would criticize them for that choice: it’s absolutely the right one. Chloé Zhao is now famously the first Chinese female director to win an Oscar, but when she was chosen, Zhao hadn’t made Nomadland. Though relatively unknown, she was given a huge budget and input into casting her group of superheroes. 

The plot of Eternals is relatively straight-forward. Eternals have been here as long as the human race, protecting us from Deviants, scary looking creatures that look like dinosaurs but with extra powers. When it seemed that all of the Deviants had been eliminated, Eternals were told to stand down and wait for further instructions. That was centuries ago but they’re still stuck on Earth, hoping that the Celestials, their leaders, will send them back home to Olympia. Until now when Deviants show up, stronger and smarter than ever. Our group of Eternals, having spent so much time with humans, suddenly have to rev up and take on their ancient monster enemies.

The present-day leader of Eternals is played by Gemma Chan, an excellent Chinese British actor, as Sersi, who can manipulate inanimate matter (whatever that means). Sersi has been in love with Ikaris, (Richard Madden) who can fly and project devastating beams from his eyes, for thousands of years, although lately he’s abandoned her. Other characters include: Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who also projects cosmic beams; Sprite (Lia McHugh), who is eternally young and can confuse enemies with strange illusions; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who has super-speed; Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who is way strong; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a brilliant inventor, and Druig, (Barry Keoghan), a mind-manipulator. Their mentors are Thena (Angelina Jolie), who is the finest warrior in the group, and Ajak (Salma Hayek), the spiritual leader who used to run Eternals and has amazing healing powers. She still communicates telepathically with the God-like Celestials, who control the universe. 

This is an impressively long list, hard to keep in your head, especially as only Jolie and Hayek are huge film stars and none of the characters they’re playing are iconic. Zhao has attempted to make each character an individual, at least partly through their personal identities. Kingo is from India and has become a Bollywood star; the Korean Gilgamesh is eternally devoted to Thena; Phastos is a Black gay grandfather; Makkari (played by the deaf actor Lauren Ridloff) is hearing impaired; and of course, Ajak (Hayek) is Latina. 

With her large cast of characters, each of whom has to be represented as superheroes and regular people, Zhao has a lot to do. Her best story is that of Kingo, the Bollywood star, who brings along Karun to document the story and be his manager/servant. The two are wonderfully funny and the notion of making a doc on this superhero tale is a brilliant one. The loyalty and quiet love of Gilgamesh to Thena is also nicely played out. Other romantic dramas between Druig and Makari, Phastos and his human partner and even Ikaris and Sersi don’t tug at heartstrings as they should. 

Eternals has the requisite big battle scenes, and the CGI is fantastic. The plot gets more complicated at the end, with Eternals having to save the world from a surprising source, but we’ve become used to such apocalyptic visions by now. The major question is: will Eternals make enough money to impress the Celestials at MCU’s head office so we can see them again? My guess? The film will make tons of money as the first really well-made comix epic in almost two years. And Eternals will last a decade if not an eternity. 

 

Spencer

Pablo Larrain, dir.

Steven Knight, script

Starring: Kristen Stewart (Diana), Timothy Spall (Equerry Major Alistair Gray), Sally Hawkins (Maggie), Jack Farthing (Prince Charles), Sean Harris (Darren, the Royal Head Chef), Jack Nielsen (Prince William), Freddie Spry (Prince Harry), Stella Gonet (Queen Elizabeth the second)

 

Spencer, Pablo Larrain’s compelling but quirky film about Princess Diana, offers a warning in its introductory moments: it is “a fable from a true tragedy.” While the lauded Chilean director Larrain (No, Jackie) and his veteran British scriptwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, Peaky Blinders) want to tell the truth about the “people’s princess,” they never intended to offer a factual account of what transpired when she came to Sandringham Estate, the traditional Christmas home for the Royal family, in 1991, the year when her marriage with Prince Charles came apart. The story we see on screen encapsulates Diana’s despair over the wreckage of the storybook marriage, her doubts and self-harming, bulimia, and absolute need to establish her own independence. Not all of it—or perhaps any of it—took place during the four days depicted in the film.

What we see, instead, is a compelling and occasionally truly upsetting tale of Diana’s worst moments as the UK’s beloved princess, telescoped into a weekend. The film is paced like a psychological thriller, with fantastical scenes of Diana using wire cutters to break through the gated barrier between the Royal mansion and her birthplace (literally next door) at Park House, imagining breaking off a pearl necklace and eating it in her pea soup, and racing wildly through the corridors of Sandringham to spew her dinner. 

There are, happily, many tender and funny moments, mainly with Diana and her sons, Princes William and Harry, playing games and exchanging gifts. The image of Diana as a truly open individual is dramatized (apparently relatively faithfully) with her casual and friendly conversations with the staff, particularly the Royal Chef. What emerges is a film that plays with genres, veering from melodrama to horror to comic, all in a winning effort to convey a sense of the life of Princess Di.  

Larrain’s choice of Kristen Stewart to play Diana, disparaged by many before the film began shooting, has come up trumps. While she’ll always be associated with the Twilight saga, Stewart has emerged as a serious actor in the past few years, with brilliant performances in Clouds in Sils Maria, Certain Women, Personal Shopper and Seberg, among others. What makes her portrayal of Diana particularly remarkable is her complete adoption of the Princess’ slightly old-fashioned style, posture and accent. She comes across as someone far different than her cool, slouchy American persona.

Larrain and Knight have made a film that is their version of Diana’s point-of-view. People expecting to see lots of interplay between the princess and her antagonists, the Royals, will be disappointed. The drama plays out rather slyly between Diana and the Equerry Major Alistair Gray, a fictional character, who is charged by the family to keep her under a short leash. Rather than having scenes with Charles or the Queen nagging her, we see Gray, wonderfully played by Timothy Spall, reminding her constantly of her duties as a Princess. Similarly, the character most sympathetic to Diana, her dresser Maggie, performed warmly and effectively by Sally Hawkins (like Spall, another Mike Leigh alumni) is fictional. What we have is a portrait of Diana Spencer, warts and all—and still looking beautiful when all is said and done. 

Will Kristen Stewart get a nomination for best actress at the Oscars? My track record in picking Academy Award winners isn’t great but I’m pretty good at choosing nominees. I am sure that we’ll see Stewart on the red carpet on Oscar night representing this arty and fascinating look at Princess Diana.

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