Saturday, November 27, 2021

New-ish releases: Eternals and Ghostbusters: Afterlife

WIth a bunch of festival reviews backed up and piles of discs in my living room, I was kind of tempted to just let the people whose sites are built around reviewing this sort of movie have them (or even just mainstream films in general), but for Eternals particularly, there seemed to be a lot of talk not of the film's relative merits but about what it means for Marvel, or whether it was good or bad by the standards of a Marvel movie (or good or bad at being a Marvel movie), etc. That's kind of horse-race stuff, though, as bad in movies as it's been in sports and politics.

That's especially true because I think Eternals is at its most interesting when you can most completely divorce it from the rest of Marvel and see it as its own epic fantasy. As much as Chloe Zhao does an impressive job of quietly embedding "why didn't these guys help fight Thanos" into the film and using it as a catalyst, it's housekeeping rather than something which bolsters its own story. To talk about Marvel in general when Eternals is rich on its own is a bit of a waste.

And Eternals is rich!


There's been a fair amount of talk about how Eternals probably won't play the lucrative Chinese market in large part because it's got a pair of gay characters that can't easily be cut around or dubbed into "roommates", or because Zhao is on the government's shit list because of some relatively innocuous comments she made in an interview years ago. True as that is, it kind of glosses over the basic fact that this Chinese woman used a bunch of a multinational corporation's money to make a movie which at its core is about people coming to grips with the idea that not only are their leaders lying to them, but that they've been formed and conditioned to be what those leaders find useful to the extent of not even exposing themselves to fight Thanos.

And as I get into in the review, it's not just about China. The last act is built around something that I feel like everybody struggles with, the idea of not knowing what to do when your religion or state and its leaders, the people and institutions one uses to define and guide morality, are in conflict with what one's own ethics say. In the movie, Sersi casts her lot in with doing right by humanity, Ikaris maintains faith in his gods, Sprite follows Ikaris more out of personal affinity than faith, and Kingo bugs out, refusing to involve himself in the fight. I've seen people complain that Kumail Nanjiani disappears from the movie at this point, but I feel like it's one of the most true if frustrating moments of the film - it's not long after Kingo has made a joke about the Eternals being capable of cowardice after Phastos is startled by a loud noise, but it's a cowardly act that is pervasive in human society, trying to think of oneself as above the fray or not taking sides. It's the cause of great turmoil in the world, and when Eternals gets down to wrestling with it, it achieves more of the mythic nature that superhero stories often try to claim despite mainly copying symbols. It's the really good Jack Kirby stuff.

(And while we're in spoiler space, let me just say that I hope that our heroes are able to use the equipment at the Forge of Worlds to print off another Gilgamesh loaded with the original's memories before it's destroyed and taken off the table as a plot device. Maybe another Ajak, too, but let's find a way to bring Don Lee back!)


Ghostbusters: Afterlife, meanwhile, isn't nearly as deep in its themes, but I kind of feel like it's being dismissed as nostalgia and an overcorrection for how Paul Feig's Ghostbusters reboot activated some of the worst portions of modern fandom. It is that, but it's easy to leave it at that, and that doesn't tell the whole story. After all, it's bad nostalgia, deploying its familiar material as punchline rather than setup, seldom finding a way to twist it into something new that speaks to its Gen-Z heroes (and the audience of the same age). It undercuts the process of telling an exciting or funny story.

The thing is, there's something fascinating about how it engages with its audience(s). On the one hand, Jason Reitman and company often don't seem to realize that there's no need to bring back the mythology of the first movie, because as near as I can tell, nobody really gave a damn about Gozer and Zuul and Gatekeepers and Keymasters. That was weird Dan Aykroyd stuff before most people realized how weird Dan Aykroyd could be, goofy enough to keep the movie going and just a solid-enough pastiche of Weird Tales material to give the climax some stakes while still focusing on the comedy, not anything that really meant much to the audience.

Or did it? A few months ago, there was some back-and-forth about some film site or other claiming Ghostbusters wasn't primarily a comedy but a supernatural adventure with a lot of jokes, folks my age being aghast at that stupid take, and back and forth. My sympathies are solidly with the "of course Ghostbusters is a comedy" crew, but I wondered about the age of those saying otherwise and how they experienced it. You don't have to be much younger than me to mostly know Bill Murray as a sad-sack character actor whose characters are even sadder because he's dryly funny and there's the cultural residue of comedy on him rather than a comic actor who matured. And while the film and director Reitman were notable for the way they combined fantasy action and comedy at the time, the way they did it seeped into Hollywood. There isn't much distance between Ghostbusters and Guardians of the Galaxy, or between that and the rest of Marvel, and someone growing up on those films and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spawn on TV. are naturally going to see it through that lens.

I started thinking of that after encountering a group of Ghostbusters cosplayers at the Fluff Festival one year, because as much as I'd seen Ghostbusters comics and heard the theme played by marching bands on a regular basis when I lived right in Davis Square, that was the first time it really occurred to me that this franchise had that kind of fans, not just folks who laughed at the jokes and moved on. I still don't really get it as a fantasy franchise, but it is out there, and they're having fun, so whatever.

Heck, it feels like the post-credit scene is all about that:


It's kind of a weird scene, featuring Annie Potts and Ernie Hudson, not really related to what happened on screen or setting up the next film much at all, although it does touch on a few references to what the OG Ghostbusters have been up to. It's probably not expensive, but it must have taken some effort to film, because there's not another scene in this spacious Manhattan office. What's intriguing, though, is that as Winston Zeddmore is talking about how he has thrived since his time with the Ghostbusters, you start to wonder to what extent this is Ernie Hudson talking about how that movie was a watershed moment for him, a working actor who didn't have the sort of recognition Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis, Moranis, Weaver, etc. did but was trusted to be part of that ensemble, and how it gave him both the line on his resumé and confidence to become the trusted character actor he became.

And then, once that's done, it also feels like it's a little bit about fandom in general and Ghostbusters fandom in particular, a tight and supportive community where you meet friends and other folks on the same wavelength. Maybe you don't even produce bad fanfic that is nevertheless appreciated, but there's something to not being just a lonely weirdo.


Does it make Afterlife a good movie? No, not really; it basically uses a lot of Sony's money and the fact that the cast and crew are all consummate pros to smooth out the fact that there's just not much to the whole thing. But I at least understand and kind of respect where the impulse to make this movie is coming from a little more.

Anyway - here's to trying to at least talk about what's interesting or what just doesn't work with even big movies versus what it might mean for other movies down the road and the massive companies that own the properties!


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 November 2021 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax Xenon)
Seen 10 November 2021 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Jack Kirby's comic book series The Eternals was published by Marvel Comics but only retrofitted into the shared universe later, and not always well (one gets the idea later writers would have more use for the grand mythology than the individual characters), and one often gets the sense that the movie adaptation would be better off outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well. Though not perfect, Chloe Zhao's film is grand fantasy with its own big ideas, and is at its best when one doesn't have to worry about it fitting into another framework as this month's apocalypse.

Seven thousand years ago, it tells us, the Celestial Arishem deposited ten heroes from the planet Olympia in Sumeria to protect the emerging human civilization from the Deviants, monsters from deep space driven to consume intelligent life. Through their guidance, the city of Babylon would grow into humanity's first great civilization and they would travel the world hunting down the Deviants, their names becoming part of mythology, until the creatures were defeated and leader Ajak (Salma Hayek) told them to explore the world they had saved. Or so they thought - the Deviants have re-emerged, seemingly targeting the Eternals themselves, starting in London where Sersi (Gemma Chan), with the power of transmutation, and eternal child Sprite (Lia McHugh) are only able to fight one off with the return of flying powerhouse Ikaris (Richard Madden). This calls for getting the band back together - warriors Thena (Angelina Jolie), Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-Seok aka Don Lee), and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani); telepath Druig (Barry Keoghan); engineer Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry); and fleet-footed Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) - but the evolved Deviants are not the only surprise awaiting them.

Ten is a large number for either the major figures of a pantheon or a superhero team, especially when you're starting from scratch rather than pulling previously introduced characters together, and it takes Zhao and her co-writers time to introduce everyone and let the audience soak in the scale of their mission, to the point where it's fair to wonder if they've bitten off more than they can chew: The detours into the past are crowded and go on kind of long for what they tell the audience but seldom give those viewers a feel for how they and humanity are interacting and changing each other over that time. Zhao uses action well, in that there's seldom a fight that doesn't change the direction of the story, but it still sometimes feels like those scenes are there to break up a lot of talking.

Even if Chloe Zhao's jump from intimate, near-documentary films to millennia-spanning epic isn't always smooth, one can still spot the woman who made The Rider and Nomadland in this movie, especially when layers get peeled away and the characters start asking themselves who and what they are when they're not protecting humans from Deviants. As the film barrels toward its finale, one can see its demigods having crises of faith and she plays it out honestly and smartly there, with room for many permutations of some hope for the humans they represent as she drives it home. There's plenty going on, but the film's last act resolves into characters asking the question of what to do when one's religion and its leaders seemingly conflict with what one thinks is right, and if that's not exactly what Jack Kirby had in mind when he created these characters, it's the sort of grand idea kept larger than life but made into an easily-swallowed adventure story that made him the king of comics.

It's also gorgeous, even if its location-shot golden-hour vistas and unified costume design aren't exactly classic Kirby. In some ways, the world has caught up with him - the big square spaceship that has no business just hanging in midair has become its own sort of cliché now - but the filmmakers create nifty combinations of earthy or ancient mythology and the science-fictional spin that Kirby put on the ideas. The latter in particular pop in 3D and giant screens, and Ramin Djawadi's score does something similar in how it pulls together a number of influences to at least get close to being epic iiib a global manner.

The large cast is also used quite well, although its definitely a case where the simpler characters around the edges get more chance to make a splash than the folks in the middle. Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, and Lia McHugh are easy to like as the folks whose connections drive the plot, but they seldom make it feel big enough that a breakup 500 years ago is the sort of fantasy melodrama that could change the course of human history. Meanwhile, Salma Hayek's empathetic leader, Bryan Tyree Henry's frustrated builder, and Angelina Jolie's traumatized warrior have clear automatics, and personal favorite Don Lee is given the chance to both demonstrate great punching-monsters and being-generally-charming skills.

Eternals is stylish and self-contained enough that one can't help but wonder what it could have been if Zhao had the chance and inclination to go full-Kirby on it. On the other hand, the stuff in the end-credit buttons sure looks like it could be a whole lot of fun when these characters intersect with the greater Marvel Universe.

Also on eFilmCritic

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 November 2021 in AMC Boston Common #14 (first-run, Dolby Cinema DCP)

There's a line, somewhere around 1978 or so, where folks on one side experienced the original Ghostbusters as a great, kind of crude big-budget comedy with a disappointing sequel in the same vein (maybe the first adult-skewing comedy their parents let them watch); on the other side, people who watched The Real Ghostbusters on Saturday mornings, had toys, games, comics, all sorts of stuff that goes with a light adventure franchise, even though most would circle back around to the original movie. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a movie very much for the latter audience, and that's fine - they buy more movie tickets, after all - but once the filmmakers went that route, they could have made a much better movie.

This movie opens with a man encountering some sort of spirit in the American heartland, chased from a mine to his farmhouse, apparently passing from the encounter. From there the scene moves to New York, where single mother Callie (Carrie Coon) is telling her landlord that she'll be able to pay her back rent when she settles the estate, but it's apparently too late for that. So it's into the car and off to Oklahoma with son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), only to find it's a dirt farm. As they settle in, with Trevor crushing on Lucky (Celeste O'Connor), a waitress at the local diner, and probably-somewhere-on-the-spectrum Phoebe making friends with fellow nerd "Podcast" (Logan Kim) and science teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) at summer school, the town is being shaken by earthquakes and both kids are finding odd junk around the farm. Gary recognizes Ghostbusters tech from when that was a thing back in the 1980s, but who ya gonna call given that the Ghostbusters haven't been a thing since before the kids were born?

It's not necessarily a bad hook for restarting Ghostbusters as a going concern after the recent remake wound up being a dead end for reasons that had relatively little to do with its actual quality, although in using it, filmmaker Jason Reitman (son of original writer/director Ivan) and co-writer Gil Kenan necessarily play things rather more straight than the original movies did. They're not looking to spoof the convention of how the initial film has been all but forgotten despite it being a juicy target that this film is uniquely positioned to skewer, possibly because doing so would undermine the franchise potential by calling attention to the wrong bits of absurdity in the premise. There are jokes, but it's the comedy of a Marvel movie, where the gags smooth the way to the next bit of plot, rather than vice versa. The bits with Phoebe thrown by the fact that Podcast is the weird one and Trevor being a tongue-tied goober around Lucky are cute, and there's some enjoyable CGI mayhem from a bunch of marshmallow-sized Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men, but the gags are secondary to the coming-of-age and coping-with-loss storylines Reitman and Kenan are going for.

The trouble with that is, real life has kind of boxed the filmmakers in - even if they avoid saying things like "the Spengler farm" for much of the runtime, Harold Ramis is the death they have to write around, and doing so means extrapolating a whole arc for his character that doesn't quite seem to fit the existing timeline (was he a divorced father before the first movie?) and requires a lot of backfill by way of not-entirely-convincing exposition because flashbacks are out of the question. One could hand-wave that away, but the movie leans harder and more precipitously on callbacks to the original movie as it goes on, crowding out the new ensemble - Kenan & Reitman really have no idea what to do with Lucky despite Celeste O'Connor having the charisma that makes it obvious why Trevor falls for her immediately - and completely missing the chance to build something new. The villains in Ghostbusters weren't entirely unimportant, but none of their details were nearly as important as them being the sort of weird fantasy Dan Aykroyd was into. There could have been something here - ancient gods attempting to return contrasted with kids chafing at a dying town frozen in time - but the filmmakers are just doing "let's see them again".

What's kind of surprising - but maybe not - is that despite making something that is more primarily an adventure story, Jason Reitman doesn't use those characters and images nearly as well as his father did. Ivan Reitman had to work around miniatures and stop-motion, but there was grandeur and horror mixed with absurdity in the way he staged his film's climax that having some of the same things in a medium shot just doesn't deliver, even with some new digital enhancements. Maybe it's a natural result of the son shooting with the knowledge that 99% of the audience will be seeing this on a small screen after a three-week theatrical run and building for that while the father was aiming at months in theaters with home viewing a compromised side hustle; maybe it's in how even "run-down" Summerville, OK is presented as an idealized setting compared to scrappy 1980s New York. Either way, Afterlife doesn't have the juice as a supernatural adventure, even if director of photography Eric Steelberg does get to shoot some beautiful Alberta scenery and Reitman's team does stage a few neat action bits, most notably the kids' first joyride in the Ecto-1.

Those kids are a likable enough group that it would be fun to see what they can do with filmmakers more interested in building around them. Mckenna Grace does pretty well with making Phoebe expressive and understood despite her being described as not being obviously so, and she's a fun pair with Logan Kim, though what either of these two is doing in summer school is left as an exercise for the viewer. Finn Wolfhard and Celeste O'Connor make their half-sketched characters more fun to watch than they might; hopefully they'll have more to do in a potential sequel. Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd are cute together and when playing off Grace.

Like I said at the top, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is going to hit differently depending on what someone associates the very idea of "Ghostbusters" with. Fair enough. Still, if you're going to make it more adventure than comedy, and introduce a group of young characters with potential exploits of their own, that would seem to call for a lot more creativity and forward-looking than this movie manages.

Also on eFilmCritic

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