Tag Archives: Chloe Zhao

Pixel Wars


by Brandon Thomas

The Marvel formula continues to chug along 13 years after the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born in 2008’s Iron Man. The popular studio has had some major highs with The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Black Panther, and some major lows with Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, and Black Widow

How does Marvel’s latest, Eternals, stack up with the rest of their catalog? 

Well, it might be time for Kevin Fiege and company to go back to the drawing board when it comes to their origin stories. 

Eternals is a sweeping, millennia crossing story that follows a group of immortal beings sent to Earth to protect it from the Deviants. After spending thousands of years fighting the Deviants – and finally destroying them – the group goes their own way until the time comes for their return home. As present-day arrives, an old enemy begins stalking the group one by one, and they must reunite for a final battle. 

Eternals is Marvel going full cosmic. The story is big – one that stretches over space and time – and seeks to be the most grandiose MCU movie to date. However, the film stumbles over itself time and time again with a story that never really knows where it wants to go. Eternals spends too much time reuniting characters we barely know. It’s difficult to become invested in the overall struggle when our heroes haven’t even made an impression. 

Director Chloe Zhao was an interesting choice for Eternals. Her films have always felt especially grounded and personal. Characters have always been her focus with the story a distant second. And those quieter moments in Eternals are the ones that work best. The large cast is more than game to bounce off one another with the ridiculous dialogue, and those become the moments where Zhao’s work feels most prominent, along with the gorgeous cinematography that has become a staple of her films. 

Speaking of the cast – wow, there’s plenty to speak of, including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry, Kumail Nanjiani and Richard Madden. At 2 hours and 37 minutes, most of them get time to shine even if those moments feel like they came out of half a dozen previous Marvel movies. There’s no real breakout star the way Downey, Pratt, Hemsworth or Bosman were. 

Even the spectacle ends up disappointing. Marvel has a bumpy track record with the action in their film ranging from great (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) to downright boring (Thor: The Dark World). The action sequences here feel emotionless and lack even an ounce of excitement. It’s hard to get invested in what feels like a bunch of pixels bouncing off one another. 

I remember when it was exciting to see lauded filmmakers like Sam Raimi or James Gunn get a shot at one of these giant franchise movies. Now, when a respected filmmaker like Chloe Zhao gets thrown into the comic book movie mix, I can’t help but wince at what the final product might be. 

Bitches of the Badlands


by Hope Madden

Nobody sees American poverty as honestly or as poetically as filmmaker Chloé Zhao.

Those who saw Zhao’s sublime 2018 cowboy story The Rider will recognize her romantic fascination with the American West. That’s not the only thumbprint the filmmaker leaves on her third feature, Nomadland.

She weaves a spontaneous, near-verite style into lonesome, wide vistas of a rugged America we think of as lost to time. In doing so, Zhao creates a lucid dream where struggle as reality is somehow beautiful but never sentimental.

The incandescent Frances McDormand stars as Fern, an itinerant widow since her hometown of Empire, Nevada ceased to exist once the gypsum mine closed. We join Fern on her journey sometime after that collapse. She’s just beginning to customize “Vanguard,” the van that serves as her new home.

In that same loose style that’s marked Zhao’s previous films, Nomadland follows Fern through her days, boxing product for Amazon in the winter, working vacation rest stops and tourist destinations in season, and traveling the country in the meantime following work, looking for a safe place to park, and getting to know this country.

Zhao—who writes, edits, and produces as well as directs—based the screenplay on Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book. Empire was a real place. Fern is a fictional character, but those who mentor her in her new life—including the endlessly endearing Linda May and brilliantly saucy Swankie—are, indeed, real nomads.

McDormand is perhaps the only perennial Oscar contender who could fit so seamlessly in this tapestry. Without an ounce of vanity or artifice, her performance allows this film to be one of resilience and promise. Given that Normadland is, in fact, the story of a penniless Sixtysomething widow who lives in a van, that is in itself a minor miracle.

But that’s the film—a minor miracle. Perhaps only in a year when the billion-dollar franchises were mainly held at bay could we make enough space to appreciate this vital and beautiful reimagining of the rugged American tale of individualism and freedom, which is almost always also a story of poverty.

Cowboy Up

The Rider

by Hope Madden

The classic western, the cowboy story, sings a song of bruised manliness. Chasing destiny, sacrificing family and love for a solitary life, building a relationship with land and beast—there may be no cinematic genre more full of romance.

This is the hardscrabble poetry that fills writer/director Chloe Zhao’s latest, The Rider.

Set on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the film shadows talented rodeo rider and horse trainer Brady (Brady Jandreau), who’s suffered a near-fatal head injury with lingering seizures and must now grapple with his future and his identity.

It’s a classic cowboy tale, really: will he give up cowboying because it will surely kill him, or will he get back up on that horse?

But what Zhao’s film avoids is sentimentality and sheen. With a hyper-realistic style showcasing performances by non-actors who lived a very similar story, she simultaneously celebrates and inverts the romance that traditionally fuels this kind of film.

Elegant and cinematic, but at the same time a spontaneous work of verite, The Rider breaks its own cinematic ground.

Images of real poverty butt up against lonesome vistas, a sole horse breaking up the line of the sunset. There’s no glossing over the realities Brady is facing when picking through what kind of future is left for him if he’s not a cowboy. The story is even clearer about what’s ahead of him if he is.

The Rider’s subject matter authenticity gives it the feel of a documentary. But because of the way Zhao plays with light, uses music, and fills the screen with the desolate beauty of the American plains, the film qualifies as a sleepy epic.

Zhao’s work is unmistakably indie, not a born crowd-pleaser, but beautifully lifelike. She has given new life to a genre, creating a film about the loss of purpose and, in that manly world of the cowboy, masculinity.