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Pass on ‘Eternals’ and (E)Turn All Your Attention to ‘Passing’

New heroes serve up the same old emote-quip-slug in 'Eternals,' but Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga get the actors' showcase they deserve in 'Passing.'

Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, and Gemma Chan in 'Eternals'; Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in 'Passing"
Courtesy of Disney; courtesy of Netflix

There’s nothing quite as boring as the second time a guy shoots energy beams out of his eyes. The first time? Whoa, didn’t see that coming. But the second, you’re like… well, I guess this is his thing, huh? He’s just gonna keep doing this for the rest of the movie. He’s the Eye-Beam Guy.

That’s Eternals in a (two-and-a-half-hour) nutshell. They’ve all got a thing. You got the guy who punches really hard, the guy who shoots fireballs from his hands, the woman who runs really fast, the woman who can turn stuff into other stuff, the woman who’s Angelina Jolie. The lot of them (and I do mean lot—we’re talking a full NBA team of Eternals) are dispatched to Earth in 5000 B.C. to protect humanity from predators called Deviants (hey, that’s not nice), which are endlessly mutating beasties who look like they’re constructed from multicolored coils of tangled garden hoses.

Once the Eternals’ mission is accomplished, and the Deviants are vanquished (or are they?!?), the crew’s spiritual den mother (Salma Hayek) sends them off to experience what it means to live as humans. And so they do, with varying degrees of comfort, until the present day, when they learn the Deviants are less extinct than previously believed. And evolving.

That means it’s time to get the team back together, and since there are so damn many Eternals the reunions keep coming for most of the movie. (Kurosawa was wise to cap it at seven samurai.) At the fore of this pack is Sersi (a personable Gemma Chan), who’s reunited with her former lover, Eye-Beam Guy (a.k.a. Ikaris, played by a shockingly charisma-deficient Richard Madden). I don’t have time to go through the whole roster (admirably diverse, as you’ve certainly heard, and sure, that’s not insignificant), but let me mention that Kumail Nanjiani is on hand for quips like “Hey, that one was mine!” when someone swoops in to kill a Deviant he’s battling and “Oh no you didn’t!” when another Eternal acts up.

Uncomfortable truths are learned, alliances are strained, trust is betrayed, exposition is exposited, and the end of the world must be prevented. Or must it? Eternals is one of those deep-thought “Does humanity even deserve to be saved?” superhero flicks, and poor Salma has to give the old “Yes, war and greed, but also art and love” speech that’s the closest wealthy technocrats can get to imagining humanism. (Anyway, yes, of course humans deserve to live, you sociopaths.) Then a bunch of different configurations of Eternals and Deviants toss one another around for a half hour. Credit where it’s due: As averted apocalypses go, this one is fairly spectacular.

But the Marvel Cinematic Universe demands love, not just credit. Each character has his or her arc, and we’re obligated to feel the appropriate emotions when each arc reaches completion. In some ways, eternal space gods pretending to live like humans is the perfect encapsulation of the Marvel mode of characterization, where emotional depth is simulated via brief depictions of “caring” that wouldn’t be out of place in a sentimental car commercial or, even more bluntly, people just announce the feeling they’re having at the moment. Really, we get it by now—supernatural beings have existential crises too. Still, there is a special irony to a Marvel character protesting that he has free will. Your destiny’s been plotted out past 2040, pal.

Oh, and unfortunately, Eternals looks just enough like a Chloé Zhao film (it’s always golden hour somewhere) that the next Chloé Zhao film will probably remind you a little of a Marvel movie now.

Rebecca Hall’s Passing has a much more nuanced take on what it’s like adopt a new identity and live a secret life among strangers. (OK, that’s a hell of a forced transition, but I should be allowed to write about a movie I actually enjoyed for once.) Adapted by first-time director Hall from the 1929 Nella Larsen novel, the film, like its source material, uses the story of a Black woman crossing the color line as a springboard for examining the more common masks we hide behind, without ever discounting the real-life consequences of racial identification in America.

When we first encounter Tessa Thompson’s Irene, she looks like a woman with a secret: So painfully put together, from the white gloves she tugs on to the hat that deliberately shades her eyes, and so uncomfortable, as though worried she’ll somehow be found out. But then she meets a woman with a real secret, who’s as brazen as Irene is timid. Clare (Ruth Negga), an old friend Irene meets by chance, instantly and happily reveals that she has been living as a white woman, with her husband and child none the wiser. When Irene meets Clare’s casually racist husband (Alexander Skarsgård—does the 21st century arthouse have a finer oblivious himbo?), she also passes herself off as white, and she’s startled by how easy the masquerade is.

Irene returns, a little shaken, to her picturesque Black upper-middle-class life: Harlem brownstone, handsome doctor of a husband (André Holland), dutiful young sons, darker-skinned maid, a few white friends. But soon, Clare is regularly venturing uptown, insinuating herself into Irene’s social and domestic life, grasping at the culture she’s left behind, almost as much a race tourist in her way as the chummy whites who hobnob with Irene and Brian, craving a taste of the exotic. And the more recklessly Clare behaves, the more nervous Irene becomes, as though she’s the one whose life is at risk.

“We’re all of us passing for something or other, aren’t we?” Irene says glibly to once such smug white friend of hers at a party, an uncharacteristic elbow to the ribs from a film that’s if anything too subtle occasionally. And Irene certainly is. Thompson illustrates the increasingly untenable balance between Irene’s public composure and her anxiety-wracked home life as petty marital squabbles widen slowly into cracks. Clare is both a source of discomfort and a focal point for Irene’s pre-existing unease, the relationship between the women a recognizable mix of envy and sympathy and desire. Passing has a free-floating tension at odds with its often sedate settings, that sense that something irrevocably awful could happen at any moment, and it’s Thompson’s performance, and Irene’s unease, that creates that mood.

Passing is shot in black and white, a decision that not only has a nice little thematic kick to it, but has the terrific effect of blending skin tones, so the appearances of Irene and Clare vary depending on the lighting. I’m less thrilled with Hall’s other major choice: The square 4:3 aspect ratio, meant to create a claustrophobic mood, just makes it feel like you’re watching TV in the movie theater. Aside from those stylizations, though, Passing is a fairly naturalistic period piece, with an atmospheric piano soundtrack from Dev Hynes (aka Blood Orange), so the more strikingly framed moments, including the stark final scene, stand out all the more.

Passing is an actors’ movie in the best sense of the word—without displaying hammy self-indulgence, Thompson and Negga bring a vibrance to their characterizations, fitting since each is playing a part. They’re basking in the chance to stretch in ways they’re rarely afforded onscreen: Simple representation is the bare minimum actors of color should ask, after all. Notably, both women share production credits, along with Hall and Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions. Maybe Thompson, aka Valkyrie, and Negga, aka Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.‘s Reina, chipped in a little of her Disney superhero cash.

At times Passing is both too expressive and too understated. Characters exchange subtly meaningful but emotionally opaque glances, as though communicating telepathically, and the film can shade from ambiguity into vagueness. But that there’s something ultimately unknowable about Irene’s pain doesn’t feel like a dodge. More like an acceptance that other people are essentially mysteries. After all, we can really only judge others by their words and their actions. And their appearances.

Eternals opens in the theaters everywhere this weekend. Passing is at Landmark’s Lagoon Cinema and begins streaming on Netflix next Wednesday, November 10.

Special Screenings This Week

Thursday, Nov. 4

Citizen Kane (1941)
The Heights
That movie they talked about writing in Mank? Turns out it was real! $12. 7 p.m. More info here.

Clueless (1995)
Parkway Theater
Not many people realize this was actually a sequel to Clue (1985). With Black Widows performing. $9/$12. Music at 7 p.m. Movie at 8 p.m. More info here.

Planet Dune (2021)
Trylon
See the Sharknado brain trust’s take on not-Frank-Herbert’s apparently non-copyrightable sandworms, starring Sean Young, the Zendaya of the ’80s. $8. 5 p.m. More info here.

Friday, Nov. 5

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Trylon
Klaus Kinski is at his Kinskiest as a mad conquistador slashing his way through the Amazonian jungle in hubristic European director Werner Herzog’s epic tale of European hubris. $8. 7 & 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 & 5 p.m. Sunday. More info here.

Saturday, Nov. 6

Princess Mononoke (1997)
Parkway Theater
Hayao Miyazaki’s animated story of environmental devastation and of human incursion against the supernatural defenses of the natural world offers a slew of visual delights but is also brutal as hell. $5-$10. 1 p.m. More info here.

Sunday, Nov. 7

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
Alamo Drafthouse
You might know Hedorah better as “The Smog Monster,” an alien visitor who gobbles up industrial waste and, as the title suggests, battles Godzilla. $10. 6 p.m. More info here.

Bolshoi Ballet: Spartacus
AMC Eden Prairie 18 /AMC Rosedale 14
Live ballet at the cineplex of your choice. 11:55 a.m. More info here.

One Piece Film: Strong World (2009)
AMC Eden Prairie 18 /AMC Rosedale 14/AMC Southdale 16
The tenth film in the animated Straw Hat Pirate series. 7 p.m. Also Tuesday. More info here.

Safety Last! (1923)
The Heights
The Annual Groveland Food Shelf Benefit treats you to a Harold Lloyd silent classic, with Wurlitzer accompaniment. I know what you’re gonna ask, and, yes, it is the one where he hangs from the clock. $15. 1 p.m. More info here.

My Best Fiend (1999)
Trylon
A documentary about how Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski somehow managed (spoiler) not to kill each other while filming five movies together. $8. 7 p.m. Sunday; 7 & 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. More info here.

Monday, Nov. 8

Shin Godzilla (2016)
Alamo Drafthouse
Oh no, there goes Tokyo. (Again.) $10. 6:30 p.m. More info here.

Beauty and the Beast (1946)
The Heights
Sorry, fans of singing crockery—this is Jean Cocteau’s surrealist take on the tale as old as time. (Psst, it’s better than Disney’s.) $12. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

Tuesday, Nov. 9

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Alamo Drafthouse
Clint Eastwood left his image as a lone gunfighter behind in this revisionist Western about the creation of a new community. $10. 6 p.m. More info here.

The World Has No Eyedea (2016)
Parkway Theater
A screening in honor of what would have been the 40th birthday of Micheal Larsen, better known as the great local rapper Eyedea. $10. 8 p.m  More info here.

Wednesday, Nov. 10

High Society (1956)
AMC Eden Prairie 18/AMC Rosedale 14/AMC Southdale 16
“I wish The Philadelphia Story had Cole Porter songs and starred Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra” someone must’ve told a genie sometime during the Eisenhower Administration. 7 p.m. More info here.

Sound Unseen: Jagged (2021)
Parkway Theater
The Sound Unseen festival, as fine a collection of movies about music as you’ll find anywhere, kicks off its 22nd year with this already much-discussed Alanis Morissette documentary, featuring new interviews with the pop star and archival footage. There will be a Q&A with the director afterward. $12. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

Sound Unseen: A-ha: The Movie (2021)
Trylon
Yes. you know “Take on Me,” but do you have any idea how big these guys were—and still are—back home in Norway? And there’s even more to the story. $12. 7 p.m. More info here.

Sound Unseen: Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr. (2021)
Trylon
Formed back when it was still a brazen move for an indie rock band to learn from Neil Young’s snarly guitar work, the trio is still making noise today. $12. 9:15 p.m. More info here.

Opening This Week

Spencer
Kristen Stewart is Princess Diana. Well, not really. But she pretends to be her in this movie.

Ongoing in Local Theaters

The Addams Family 2
Antlers
Dune (read our review here)
The French Dispatch (read our review here)
Halloween Kills 
Last Night in Soho
My Hero Academia: World Heroes’ Mission
No Time to Die (read our review here)
Ron’s Gone Wrong
Venom: Let There Be Carnage