Review: ‘Eternals’ (2021), starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie and Lia McHugh

October 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Don Lee (also known as Ma Dong-Seok), Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry and Barry Keoghan in “Eternals” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Eternals” (2021)

Directed by Chloé Zhao

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the universe, the superhero action film “Eternals” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, Asian, Latino and African American) portraying superheroes from outer space and human beings.

Culture Clash: The superheroes, who are known as Celestials, find out that their arch-enemy demon creatures, which are called Deviants, have not all been killed off and are back with a vengeance. 

Culture Audience: “Eternals” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but viewers should know in advance that “Eternals” is much slower-paced and has a less straightforward narrative than a typical MCU movie.

Kumail Nanjiani and a Deviant in “Eternals” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Eternals” has the expected thrilling action scenes, but the non-action scenes might be too quiet and introspective for some fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie suffers from too much timeline jumping. And there are some other problems with the film’s tone and pacing. However, the showdowns in the last third of the movie make up for the meandering story in the rest of “Eternals.” It’s a movie that tries to take a minimalist approach to a story that’s got maximalist content because it’s packed with characters and agendas.

If “Eternals” does not have the same consistently high-adrenaline pace that people have come to expect from MCU movies, that’s because “Eternals” is the first major studio movie (and fourth feature film) from Oscar-winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who made a name for herself as a writer/director of quiet and introspective independent films (such 2020’s “Nomadland” and 2018’s “The Rider”) about wandering and/or restless “ordinary” people. These “slice of life” low-budget movies are quite different from the blockbuster superhero spectacle that has become the defining characteristic of MCU movies. Zhao co-wrote the “Eternals” screenplay with Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo.

Sure, “Eternals” has big-budget visual effects, gorgeous cinematography and impressive production design, but the movie’s heart (under Zhao’s direction) remains in the artsy indie film culture of requiring viewers to think more about the psychology of the characters than about what’s shown on screen. There are many times in “Eternals” when what the characters do not say (and what they keep to themselves) can be as important as what they do say. “Eternals” is not a movie that spells things out easily for the audience.

However, with a large ensemble cast of characters that are based on Marvel Comics characters created by Jack Kirby, “Eternals” is disappointing in how these characters are introduced in such a jumbled way to movie audiences who might not be familiar with these characters. The movie’s title characters are Celestials: universe-wandering beings who look like humans but who actually have superhero powers, including the ability to fly, shoot lasers from their hands or eyes, and quickly heal from wounds.

Celestials, who can also live for centuries, are not immortal, but it’s rare for a Celestial to die. Celestials all share an energy source that can help them strengthen their superpowers. Celestials (just like humans) can feel emotions, have individual personalities, and make their own decisions. As such, Celestials can have varying degrees of personal connections to each other and to human beings.

Before the opening title sequence of “Eternals,” it’s explained that Celestials come from the planet Olympia and were created to combat gigantic demon-like creatures named Deviants on planet Earth. (There are many influences from Greek mythology in the “Eternals” story.) The Deviants can be as small as the size of an elephant or as large as the size of a dinosaur. The Celestials have been instructed by Arishem, their supreme being/prime Celestial, to only find and kill Deviants and not to interfere with any of Earth’s wars and crimes between any humans and other beings.

Over several centuries, the Celestials battled Deviants until it was believed that all of the Deviants were killed. With their goals seemingly accomplished, the Celestials went their separate ways. Most Celestials continued to live on Earth under the guise of being “normal” human beings. However, there would be no “Eternals” movie if things were that simple. To make a long story short: The Celestials find out that there are still more Deviants on Earth, and that Deviants might not be the only threat to the Celestials.

“Eternals” introduces for the first time in a live-action movie these 10 superhero Celestial/Eternal characters:

  • Sersi (played by Gemma Chan), who genuinely loves human beings overall and who works as a scientist at the Natural History Museum in London.
  • Ikaris (played by Richard Madden), who is serious-minded, ambitious and Sersi’s former love interest.
  • Ajak (played by Salma Hayek), who is the wise matriarchal leader of the group.
  • Thena (played by Angelina Jolie), who is a powerful warrior whose main weapons are supernatural swords, shields and tritons.
  • Druig (played by Barry Keoghan), who is an opinionated young rebel with the power to control minds.
  • Kingo (played by Kumail Nanjiani), who is a wisecracking jokester with an attraction to showbiz.
  • Phastos (played by Brian Tyree Henry), who is a master inventor and technopath with a sarcastic sense of humor and cautious nature.
  • Gilgamesh (played by Don Lee, also known as Ma Dong-Seok), who has extraordinary strength and a playful personality.
  • Makkari (played by Lauren Ridloff), who is described as “the fastest woman in the universe,” and she happens to be deaf.
  • Sprite (played by Lia McHugh), who is a shapeshifter but is frustrated that her real physical appearance of being a 12-year-old girl has not changed, even though she is centuries old.

If only these characters were introduced in “Eternals” in a way that would be easier to keep track of them and who they are. Some of the characters’ names aren’t even spoken right away, so viewers will be left wondering, “What is this character’s name? What is this character’s story?” Unless you’re a Marvel aficionado or someone who bothered to look up these characters before watching the movie, there will be some scenes in “Eternals” where you’ll be watching a bunch of people talking with no meaningful context of what their histories are with each other.

Because there are so many Celestial characters crammed into the movie, some of them inevitably get sidelined, or their personalities not given enough time to shine. For example, Thena barely says anything of substance, which seems like a waste of the talent of Oscar-winning Jolie. Thena has some standout fight scenes, but that’s about it. For reasons that are shown in the movie (but won’t be mentioned in this review because it’s spoiler information), Ajak is not in the movie as much as the “Eternals” trailers give the impression that she is. Gilgamesh gets the least amount of screen time out of the 10 Celestial superheroes in “Eternals.”

One of the biggest flaws of “Eternals” is that all the timeline jumping makes the movie look a bit unfocused. The movie goes back and forth from the present day to different past eras and locations. There’s one time jump scene that only lasts for a couple of minutes before it’s on to the next. At the same time, many of the conversations are slow-paced. It’s an odd mix.

The purpose of the zig-zagging between eras is to show what the Celestials looked like when they worked as a team in the past, compared to the present when they’ve become scattered in different places and leading different lives. Scenes take place in present-day London, Chicago or South Dakota, while the flashback scenes are in vastly different eras and places, such as Mesopotamia in 500 B.C.; Tenochtitlan in the year 1521; or Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. (History buffs will immediately know the significance of the years and locations of these flashbacks.) For the present-day scenes, “Eternals” also has a not-so-subtle environmentalist message about climate change that factors into a pivotal part of the story.

And there’s a lot of deconstructing of macho superhero personas in “Eternals.” Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Ikaris has several scenes where he cries. He sheds tears more than any other character in the movie. Madden gives a heartfelt performance in “Eternals,” but it’s easy to predict that all this superhero crying in “Eternals” will get some mixed reactions from audiences.

And speaking of melodrama, “Eternals” has a soap-opera-like subplot of Ikaris and Sersi’s love saga. After centuries of being together (and even having a wedding ceremony in India’s Gupta Empire in 400 B.C., as seen in the movie), Ikaris broke Sersi’s heart when he abruptly left after the Celestials disbanded. In present-day London, Sersi has moved on to a new love: a human named Dane Whitman (played by Kit Harington), who is a teacher/co-worker at the Natural History Museum.

In an early scene in the movie, Dane asks Sersi why she won’t move in with him. She plays coy. Dane also tries to guess what’s so different about Sersi, based on clues and hints that he’s been getting from Sprite, the Celestial who hangs out the most with Sersi. Sersi and Sprite have almost like a older sister/younger sister relationship. Dane incorrectly guesses that Sersi is some kind of wizard. The movie shows whether or not Sersi will tell Dane about her true identity.

Meanwhile, Ikaris comes back into Sersi’s life. Can you say “love triangle”? Except, not really, because Dane is not in most of this movie. Dane’s biggest scenes are at the beginning and at the end of “Eternals.” Instead, the big romance angle in the story is all about making viewers wonder if Sersi and Ikaris will get back together as a couple. Expect to see Ikaris and Sersi give each other predictable longing glances, or their hands deliberately touch in certain scenes. The problem is that Madden and Chan don’t have much believable chemistry as former lovers who are supposed to still be hot for each other.

The only other Celestial who’s shown having a love life in “Eternals” is Phastos, who is openly gay and is married to a loving and supporting human husband named Ben (played by Haaz Sleiman), whose occupation is never mentioned in the film. Phastos (or “Phil” as he calls himself in his domesticated Earthly life) and Ben have a precocious and energetic 10-year-old son named Jack (played by Esai Daniel Cross), who is the reason why protective dad Phastos is very reluctant to go back to any Celestial duties. Ben knows about Phastos’ true identity as a Celestial. As for the much-hyped “first MCU superhero gay kiss,” it’s very tame. It’s in a scene where Ben and Phastos kiss each other goodbye, as Phastos temporarily leaves home to go with the Celestials to save the world again, as you do if you’re a superhero.

Speaking of being a superhero, “Eternals” has some confusing scenes about Celestial superpower strength. For example, in more than one scene, Celestials can be seen healing themselves and each other when they sustain serious bloody injuries in a fight. However, there’s a scene in the movie where one of the Celestials is able to knock out another Celestial unconscious with one blow from a rock to a head. You’d think that the Celestial who was hit could recover and regain consciousness quickly, based on the Celestial superpowers, but that’s not what happens.

“Eternals” has a serious tone overall, but the movie does attempt to have some comic relief, mainly through the characters of Kingo and Phastos. Sprite can be a bit of a moody brat, so her cynical attitude toward life is occasionally mined for laughs. Druig and Makkari are romantically attracted to each other and have some cute flirtatious banter. However, some of the movie’s comedy seems forced and something out of a TV sitcom.

There’s a somewhat annoying subplot about Kingo being a Bollywood star and insisting on making a “documentary” (which is actually just Kingo’s one-camera vanity project) about the Celestials’ exploits when this superhero group gets back together. Tagging along for the ride is Kingo’s valet named Karun (played by Harish Patel), who is nothing more than a buffoon character posing as a Bollywood director. “Eternals” also has lots of references to social media and pop culture that will not age well over the years.

With all that being said, “Eternals” does deliver some exciting action sequences and meaningful character development, especially in the last 50 minutes of this 157-minute movie. There are some visually stunning outdoor scenes, which have become part of Zhao’s signature style in her films. Just expect to sit through a lot of dialogue that can be dull and somewhat trite before getting to the best parts of “Eternals.” The movie’s mid-credits scene (which has the MCU debut of two buddy characters, of which one is portrayed by a former teen idol) and end-credits scene (which has Dane by himself and showing why he told Sersi earlier that his family history is “complicated”) should have viewers anticipating the next movie in the “Eternals” saga.

Marvel Studios will release “Eternals” in U.S. cinemas on November 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Breaking Fast,’ starring Haaz Sleiman and Michael Cassidy

January 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Haaz Sleiman and Michael Cassidy in “Breaking Fast” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Breaking Fast”

Directed by Mike Mosallam

Culture Representation: Taking place in West Hollywood, California, the romantic comedy “Breaking Fast” features a cast of Middle Eastern and white characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A gay Lebanese American man, who is a religious Muslim, is still pining over his ex-boyfriend, when he meets a potential new love (a white American man who isn’t Muslim) during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and abstaining from sexual activity from sunrise to sunset.

Culture Audience: “Breaking Fast” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about Arab Americans, Muslim religious practices and the LGBTQ community.

Amin El Gaman in “Breaking Fast” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

In many ways, “Breaking Fast” sticks to a familiar romantic comedy formula of two people meeting, having a courtship where there’s some fear of commitment, and then getting into a big argument that threatens to ruin the relationship of the would-be couple. But in so many other ways, “Breaking Fast” is definitely not a typical romantic comedy. That’s because much of the movie is about what it’s like to be a gay, religious Muslim and how to handle dating someone who’s neither religious nor Muslim. The results are a charming movie that makes up for some exaggerated acting with genuine heartfelt moments that can be relatable to any adult, regardless of religion or sexuality.

Written and directed by Mike Mosallam, “Breaking Fast” (based on his short film of the same name) takes place in West Hollywood, California, which has a large LGBTQ population. However, Lebanon is a big influence on the movie’s main character Mohammed (played by Haaz Sleiman), a hospital doctor in his mid-30s who goes by the nickname Mo. That’s because Mo’s parents and some other relatives are immigrants from Lebanon. Mo was born in the United States, but he often refers to Lebanon as “home,” as do many of his relatives who live in America.

Mo is a well-respected gastroenterologist who happens to be gay. Everyone in his life knows it, and his family members have accepted his sexuality. Mo, who is an only child, is very close to his mother (played by Rula Gardenier), who can be meddling, effusive and domineering. She keeps pestering Mo about wanting to become a grandmother. Mo could be considered a “mama’s boy” because he talks to his mother on the phone every day, sometimes more than once a day.

Mo’s father, nicknamed Baba (played by Serop Ohennisian), has a very different personality from Mo’s mother: Baba is laid-back and quiet. Also living in the Los Angeles area are Mo’s aunt (played by Lameece Assaq); Mo’s uncle (played by Abdul Alnaif); and Mo’s beloved maternal grandmother nicknamed Tata (played by Fatima Quwaider), whom he seems to adore the most because she never pressures him to change anything about his life. They are a very tight-knit family who spend a lot of time together.

But not everyone in Mo’s life has this type of supportive and loving family. At the beginning of the movie, Mo and his family are at Mo’s house to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan, a Muslim tradition where for one month, Muslims who observe this tradition have to fast, avoid thinking impure thoughts, and abstain from sexual activity from sunrise to sunset. Mo’s boyfriend Hassan (played by Patrick Sabongui) is also there, but he’s not in a celebratory mood.

Hassan, whose entire family is in Lebanon, is still “in the closet” about his sexuality to his family. Hassan is extremely worried because a female cousin has found out that Hassan is gay, and she’s threatening to tell Hassan’s homophobic father. The cousin found out about Hassan’s sexuality through Hassan’s secret Facebook account, which he has now deleted. Hassan is terrified of being disowned by his family.

Mo tries to comfort Hassan and advises him to just continue doing what he’s been doing: Telling his family that he’s single and he’s still looking for the right person. But Hassan is so paranoid about his family finding out the truth that he tells Mo that he’s thinking about finding a woman to marry so that his family won’t even suspect that he’s gay. Mo thinks it’s a terrible idea, and the look on his face shows that Mo also thinks it’s insulting to their relationship for Hassan to go to those lengths to live a lie.

Hassan reminds Mo that Mo doesn’t know what it’s like to live in fear of family who will disown other family members who are LGBTQ. Hassan seems pretty sure that he’s going to go through with a fake marriage. As Hassan joins Mo’s family for the Ramadan dinner and acts like nothing is wrong, Mo looks heartbroken and alienated from the boyfriend he thought he knew.

The movie then fast-forwards to a year later. And sure enough, Mo and Hassan have broken up and are no longer in contact with each other. Mo is in an exercise class with his flamboyant gay best friend Sam (played by Amin El Gamal), who is also a Lebanese American, but Sam is not religious in the way that Mo is religious.

During this workout session, Sam chastises Mo for not being able to move on from Hassan. Mo is feeling down because he’s found out through social media that Hassan is now married to a woman and expecting a child with her. Sam thinks that Mo is long overdue to start dating again, so Sam insists that Mo go to Sam’s birthday party that night, even though it’s on the first night of Ramadan.

Mo is very reluctant, but he ends up going to the party. Sam has a crush on a guy named John (played by Christopher J. Hanke), who shows up at the party with a friend named Kal (played by Michael Cassidy), whom Mo initially thinks is out of his league because Kal is so good-looking. When John and Kal go over to Mo and Sam and introductions are made, Mo is friendly, but Mo gives the impression that he’s not looking to date anyone. However, it’s clear that there are undercurrents of attraction between Mo and Kal from the way that Kal jokes with Mo and how Mo seems to like it.

Despite this immediate attraction, the first meeting between Mo and Kal does have some awkward moments. Kal is an actor, and Mo blurts out that he doesn’t understand actors. Kal has the type of dry humor where he can say something that seems serious, but he has to tell people that he’s really joking if they take it the wrong way. It happens several times between Kal and Mo that night.

Soon after Mo and Kal meet, Sam is ready to play matchmaker with Mo and Kal and speaks some words of encouragement in Arabic to Mo about it while Kal is standing there. To Sam and Mo’s surprise, Kal speaks Arabic too and lets it be known that he could understand everything that Sam was saying to Mo.

Why does Kal know how to speak Arabic? Kal spent part of his childhood in Jordan, where his military father was stationed. Therefore, Kal is also very familiar with Islam and Muslim traditions. Kal is not religious or Muslim, but he has no problem respecting other people’s religious beliefs. During Mo and Kal’s conversation, Kal finds out that Mo strictly observes Ramadan.

After an embarrassing situation where Sam practically harasses Mo to follow Kal into the bathroom (nothing sexual happens), Mo is ready to call it a night. As Mo is leaving, he notices Kal standing outside. Kal invites Mo to walk with him to a nearby grocery store. Mo tries to make an excuse not to go, but Kal persuades him.

It’s during their walk together that romantic sparks start to fly between Mo and Kal. The icebreaker happens when Kal mentions that his full name is Kal-El, because he was named after the birth name of Superman. That’s when Mo and Kal find out that they’re both big fans of Superman and that their favorite “Superman” movie actor is Christopher Reeve. And they both say that their favorite “Superman” movie is the first one from 1978.

During this conversation, Kal and Mo find out that they both do not drink alcohol. They also talk about how Mo’s Muslim faith affects his life. Kal says to Mo: “It must be hard to find a good Muslim guy in this town … I bet most Muslims [reject] you for being gay, and most gays don’t get down with God.” Mo replies, “I was born gay, and I love God. The two can and should be able to co-exist.”

During this leisurely stroll, Kal mentions that he’s going to head to Fubar, a local gay nightclub, to meet up with some people he knows. He asks if Mo wants to join him, but Mo politely declines and says that nightclubbing isn’t his thing. When Mo and Kal arrive at Fubar, they go their separate ways.

The next day, gossipy Sam finds out that Mo and Kal spent some time together after the party. Naturally, Sam wants to hear all the details. Sam is shocked and disappointed to find out that Mo and Kal didn’t kiss, didn’t exchange phone numbers, and didn’t even tell each other that they wanted to see each other again.

But there would be no “Breaking Fast” movie if Mo and Kal didn’t see each other again. That moment comes when Mo is in an elevator at his hospital job, and Kal just happens to step into the elevator. They are pleasantly surprised to see each other. Mo asks what Kal is doing at the hospital, and Kal says he was there to visit a patient and that everything is fine, but he doesn’t go into further details.

Kal teases Mo by asking him why Mo “ditched” him outside Fubar. Kal says that he thought he made it clear to Mo that night that he was only going to be in the bar for a few minutes. He thought Mo would be waiting for him outside, so Kal was disappointed to see Mo was gone. Meanwhile, Mo expresses genuine surprise and says he wasn’t aware of this misunderstanding.

Kal is more assertive and open about his attraction to Mo, so he suggests coming over to Mo’s place to cook an Iftar dinner for them. Iftar is the after-sunset meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan, to break the fasting for the evening. Mo and Kal have a cute meet-up at a grocery store to buy ingredients for the dinner. It’s where Kal shows his knowledge of Arabic food, and he flirtatiously informs Mo that he doesn’t like stems in tabouli, while Mo playfully disagrees.

Although Kal seems like a great guy, Mo is approaching this possible relationship with caution, not just because it’s starting during Ramadan but also because Mo doesn’t want to get his heart broken again. Mo takes a “let’s be friends first” approach to hanging out with Kal, who respects Mo’s wishes to keep their budding romance chaste, for now. Mo is so strict about following Ramadan that he won’t even allow Kal to talk about kissing during the hours that Ramadan must be observed.

One of the funnier scenes in the movie is when Kal shows up early to Mo’s place for their first dinner date. Mo has just gotten out of shower, wearing nothing but a towel. He answers the door, not expecting Kal to be there. They hug, but Mo’s towel accidentally drops. A mortified Mo then asks Kal not to look as the towel is retrieved. Kal thinks the whole situation is hilarious.

Eventually, Mo and Kal have more home dinner dates, where Kal does the cooking. Mo and Kal open up some more about their backgrounds. Kal reveals that he had a troubled, dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic father whom Kal hints was verbally abusive. Kal’s parents knew that Kal was gay from an early age, and Kal’s beloved mother (who died when Kal was 16) tried to protect Kal in the homophobic military environment where he grew up. Kal is comfortable being openly gay, but he’s not very comfortable talking about painful experiences from his past.

Kal and Mo also tell each other why they chose their respective careers. Kal says that he was inspired to be an actor because when he was a kid, he did skits for his mother, who told Kal that he was the only person who could make her laugh. Despite being in a profession where he gets a lot of rejections, Kal says he doesn’t want to do anything else as a career except being an actor. Mo says that he knew he wanted to be a doctor after a terrifying experience as a child, when he was at the movies with his grandmother Tata, who choked on some popcorn and was saved by a doctor who happened to be there.

“Breaking Fast” has some sweet moments during Kal and Mo’s dates. But over time, some of Kal’s and Mo’s differences come to light and could mean trouble for their relationship. Kal is very distant from his family. Mo sees this family estrangement firsthand when he and Kal are on a date, and they happen to run into Kal’s stepmother Judy (played by Veronica Cartwright), who seems to want to have a pleasant conversation with Kal. However, Kal has a hostile reaction to her.

It’s the first time that Kal shows that he’s not the easygoing, happy-go-lucky person that he first appeared to be. Some of Kal’s family secrets are eventually revealed. Meanwhile, Mo’s tendency to be rigid and judgmental also causes problems in his relationship with Kal. Mo believes that Hassan’s family problems had a lot to do with why he and Hassan broke up, so Mo is wary of getting romantically involved with another man who has “family baggage.”

Sleiman and Cassidy mostly succeed in their nuanced and layered portrayals of Kal and Mo. who find out whether or not their differences are too big to overcome, or if they can find enough common ground to start a serious romance. Their portrayals are rooted in a lot of realistic emotions, which are complemented by their appealing dialogue.

El Gamal’s Sam character often serves as the film’s often loud and vulgar comic relief, which might get on some viewers’ nerves. Some people might also be turned off by Sam being a very stereotypical effeminate gay character. However, El Gamal brings the type of charisma to the Sam character where—love him or hate him—Sam lights up the screen and it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. Sam isn’t just a clownish character, since he has a big dramatic moment in the film where he expresses why he doesn’t agree with Mo’s devotion to Islam.

“Breaking Fast” falters when some of the actors look like they’re trying too hard to be funny. However, the heart of the story remains Mo and Kal’s relationship, which has a lot of emotional authenticity. The movie, under the earnest directing and writing from Mosallam, doesn’t fall into a trap of absurdist melodrama. Instead, the movie has plenty of moments that are true-to-life but told from a complex cultural perspective that isn’t represented too often in American movies.

Vertical Entertainment released “Breaking Fast” on digital and VOD on January 22, 2021.

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