Men in Black: International (2019, Directed by F. Gary Gray) English 6

Starring Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Kumail Nanjiani, Liam Neeson, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson

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(6-Good Film)

Enjoyable. Fast. Worn.

Rewatching the first Men in Black film, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, I was struck by how odd it is. It is surely one of the weirdest mainstream blockbuster films ever. That’s a great deal of what made it so fresh back in 1998. An inspired, inventive blockbuster movie. There were several back in the 1990s, but they are very nearly extinct now. When’s the last time a fresh blockbuster picture came out? I can’t remember one this decade. The closest I can think of is The Hunger Games, which, though based on a book, at least isn’t a remake or a reboot or an MCU film. In any case, after the success of the first Men in Black, two sequels followed, each further prioritizing CGI and their big budget over story, humor, and unique ideas which are what made the original special. Now comes Men in Black International, a film nobody asked for and is probably going to sink at the box office. The good news is, despite or more likely because of my exceedingly low expectations, I enjoyed this movie. Pleasantly surprised, I found it light, fast-moving, and just intriguing enough to get by. The bad news is I doubt anyone cares. Critics seem to be lashing out from remake fatigue because Men in Black International currently sits at a lowly 28% on Rotten Tomatoes. My movie taste is admittedly questionable but this film at 28% is hyperbole. It has worse reviews at the moment than the incomprehensible Suicide Squad. That’s honestly absurd.

Tessa Thompson plays Molly, first introduced as a young girl having an encounter with an extraterrestrial. Men in Black swoop in to control the situation but miss Molly when they do their memory-erasing of the witnesses. From that day on, Molly is obsessed with aliens and the mysterious Men in Black, hoping one day to join them. Eventually, she hits paydirt but on a probationary basis and MIB leader O (Emma Thompson) assigns her to MIB London where she meets their leader, High T (Neeson), and their top agent, H (Hemsworth), who’s lost his way and at this point is coasting on his past success. Molly, now Agent M, pairs up with H to protect an important alien visitor, Vungus, but when Vungus ends up murdered, M works out that there has to be a mole within MIB. I like the cloak and dagger aspect brought to this new Men in Black. The space oddity coolness is long gone and this franchise will never feel fresh again, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining. I always enjoy a good espionage thriller and MIB International imagines its fictional agency as being a lot like MI6 (via James Bond, not John Le Carré). The plot, however, like the franchise is well-worn. One of them is a traitor. That’s interesting enough, but the reveal is fairly obvious if you’ve seen enough movies. It also doesn’t help that there are really only two suspects; one highly suspicious and the other very unlikely. Of course, it’s the latter whodunnit.

Visually, I miss the practical effects of the first Men in Black. It forced the filmmakers to be more creative with their alien designs as well. There was CGI in that film, but not nearly as much as this one. Too many aliens here seem out of place, taken from another movie (John Carter, maybe).

Director, F. Gary Gary (Friday, The Italian Job, The Fate of the Furious), is capable of delivering entertaining fare if not always critically acclaimed works. Men in Black International seems destined for critical rebuke and box office embarrassment. Nobody wanted another Men in Black and this remake would have had to be amazing to overcome all the apathy. It’s not amazing, but I do think it’s good and a worthwhile diversion.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(597)

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019, Directed by Simon Kinberg) English 5

Starring Sophie Turner, Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters

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(5-Okay Film)

Underwhelming. Uninteresting. Mediocre.

      X-Men is one of Marvel’s best creations. The potential is there for some truly great superhero films, but so far, Logan is the only adaptation that I would call great, with X2, Days of Future Past, and The Wolverine being very good. You can go to a lot of different places with these characters. The comics have done noir, mixed in historical fiction, post-apocalyptic, futuristic tales. There’s a wealth of opportunities. To my disappointment, the newest X-Men is a reboot of the Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix storyline previously adapted in the woeful but hilarious X-Men: The Last Stand.  I understand that The Last Stand told Jean Grey’s story poorly, but I still would have preferred an original premise. The worst part, however, is that X-Men: Dark Phoenix isn’t even better than that film. Sure, it’s darker and less silly, but to what purpose? It’s also less entertaining.

This seems like an opportune time to reflect on how much I miss Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Instead of his charismatic Logan,  Dark Phoenix gives us a brooding Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) as a lead, and it’s just not as much fun. The film opens with a pretty typical at this point origin episode. A grade-school Jean Grey’s telekinesis causes her parents to get in a car accident, killing them and leaving the young girl an orphan. It’s pretty similar to Rogue’s story, isn’t it? Enter Professor Xavier (McAvoy) who takes her to his school and promises to help her, this scene reminding me of Dumbledore and Voldemort in Harry Potter. The rest of the film takes place in 1992. Jean’s a young woman now. Scott Summers, or Cyclops (Sheridan), is her boyfriend. Mystique (Lawrence) has returned to the school, and she and the other X-Men work towards Xavier’s goals of peace between mutants and humans. One of the film’s few compelling storylines is the tension between Xavier and his students who feel like he’s become egocentric. Early on, he seems more ruthless than we’ve seen him before; more interested in politics than his students. A near catastrophe leaves Jean vulnerable to traumatic memories and newly awakened powers causing her to hurt others without meaning to. It’s a storyline familiar to anyone who’s seen a classic monster movie (The Wolfman, anybody?). It’s too familiar. Spurring her on towards the side of evil are a group of mysterious aliens led by Vuk (Chastain), a sort of Svengali always whispering monotonously in Jean’s ear. The filmmakers decided to make these villains like Pod people out of a ’50’s B-Movie, except they took all of the mystery and suspense out of it since they’re revealed for what they are right out of the gate. The result is a dull and lifeless villain largely responsible for making X-Men: Dark Phoenix a dull and lifeless movie.

Directing, in his debut, is Simon Kinberg. He’s written several fantastic films including previous, successful X-Men installments. One of the biggest responsibilities of the director is managing the tone of the film, whether it’s switching between tones frequently like a Pedro Almodóvar film or a Tarantino film or it’s attempting to sustain one tone throughout like a great horror movie (The Thing, for example). Kinberg goes for the latter and it strikes me as one of Dark Phoenix’ biggest mistakes. This is not a horror movie and yet it’s humorless and grim from start to finish.

The actors, we know, are good, because we’ve seen them in other things. Some do good work here, mainly McAvoy and Hoult, with the majority given nothing to do but wear a tight outfit. Sophie Turner doesn’t prove that she can carry a film, but (though her English accent slips in once or twice) it’s not because her performance is bad. She plays a misunderstood monster, only instead of wonderfully grotesque features and practical effects like the classic Universal monsters, we just see a young woman throwing a tantrum and then running away like an overemotional teenager.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(584)

Aladdin (2019, Directed by Guy Ritchie) English 6

Starring Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Nasim Pedrad, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Billy Magnussen

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(6-Good Film)

Enjoyable. Goofy. Secondhand.

A charming street-rat, Aladdin (Massoud), meets the beautiful princess, Jasmine (Scott), and is inspired to improve his station in life. Given an opportunity by the scheming vizier, Jafar (Kenzari), Aladdin ends up with a priceless and magical lamp that contains an all-powerful genie (Smith). Granted three wishes by the genie, Aladdin becomes Prince Ali and a potential suitor for Jasmine. This film’s faults are built into it from conception. It’s a live-action remake of a classic animated Disney film and can never hope to equal, let alone better the original. Fortunately, aside from this limitation, and despite Disney’s apparent lack of originality, this version is engaging, brightly colored, and enjoyable. The two leads along with Will Smith make the familiar spectacle worth revisiting.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(560)

 

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019, Directed by Rob Letterman) English 6

Starring Justice Smith, Ryan Reynolds, Kathryn Newton, Rita Ora, Omar Chaparro, Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe, Suki Waterhouse

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(6-Good Film)

Engaging. Lively. Loud.

Tim Goodman (Smith) lives a quiet, dull existence as an insurance salesman in a world where millions of Pokémon roam. After the death of his police detective father, Tim travels to Ryme City for some closure, but stumbles into a conspiracy and meets his father’s Pokémon partner, Pikachu (voiced by Reynolds). The two find that they can understand each other, and reluctantly team up to get to the bottom of what happened to Tim’s father. The first thing going for this film, surprisingly the first live-action adaptation of the Pokémon franchise, is the first-rate design of its fantastic creatures. Pikachu is wonderfully brought to life. Consider what we’ve seen of Sonic in his upcoming film, and rejoice at the work of these animators. Ryan Reynolds brings a joke-a-second energy to the role and though only a small percentage of them land in my view, it keeps the proceedings fun. The plot isn’t as grand or deep as the best mystery films, and its solutions are easy and obvious, but I love noir and the premise is good enough and executed well enough to make Detective Pikachu worthy entertainment.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(541)

Avengers: End Game (2019, Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo) English 6

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlet Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Paul Rudd, Josh Brolin, Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Brie Larson, Tilda Swinton

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(6-Good Film)

Sprawling. Anticlimactic. Silly.

Some spoilers ahead! I’ve considered several different options of reviewing this juggernaut of a film (what will likely be the biggest movie of a stacked year). I didn’t see any way of completely avoiding spoilers since I am most certainly in the minority with my opinion being that, like all Marvel films before it, Avengers: End Game is a decent, but ultimately disappointing film. In order to defend my position, I’d like to be specific occasionally. The truth is that a great number of people will love End Game. I can already hear the incoming choruses of “Avengers: End Game is the greatest movie of all-time,” made up of guys who think black and white films are boring. I respect the level of skill and talent that goes into a production of this sort while feeling alone in noticing how slick, safe, and unsubstantial all Marvel films are. Is it a bad movie? No. It’s a good movie. In fact, the entire first half of the film is incredible; special. Which is why I was so disappointed by the second half treading unsurprising, familiar turf. The great first half was just a tool to get to a fist fight between Iron Man and Thanos. That’s probably what most people want. I was bored.

End Game begins like a dystopian epic, with a fantastic opening involving Clint Barton/ Hawkeye (Renner) and his family, then moves to Downey Jr. as Tony Stark wandering into space, alone, searching for answers. The other remaining Avengers are all coping in their own way. Steve Rogers/ Captain America (Evans) seems to be the only one that maintains any degree of optimism. Though reeling, they band together to find and take down Thanos, this time aided by the supremely confident Captain Marvel (Larson), but not before they take back the Infinity stones and reverse Thanos’ massacre of 50% of Earth’s population. The Avengers confront Thanos very early in End Game, and, to be honest, at that point, I’m a bit thrown, unsure of what the movie’s up to. That surprise doesn’t compare to what happens when the scene ends, and, for the first time watching a Marvel film, I don’t know where it’s going and I’m excited. Cut to five years later, and I’m thinking this could be Marvel’s first exceptional picture. But…

At some point, Scott Lang (Rudd) shows up and he’s the one with the brilliant idea about time travel? How? He’s a thief. The writers do a decent job of deflecting from this absurdity by giving him some humorous lines and references to Back to the Future and Timecop. In any case, after this point, the film stops surprising. Everything I thought would happen before entering the theater, I was now sure would happen, and later proven correct. The third act, where every Marvel film loses steam, is where Avengers: End Game becomes predictable, loud, and uninteresting. Compare it to the quiet, dramatic, anything-can-happen atmosphere of the first hour or so, and tell me it’s not disappointing.

I give the filmmakers credit for weaving together an intricate plot and a large number of character arcs perfectly. I get it. That’s hard to do. End Game does so tremendously. But at the end of the day, it’s a bunch of people who can’t really die hitting CGI monsters for an extended period of time. The payoff is the least exciting moment in the movie.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(513)

 

 

Us (2019, Directed by Jordan Peele) English 7

Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Tim Heidecker, Elizabeth Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Evan Alex

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(7-Very Good Film)

Illusive. Adept. Messy.

A group of doppelgangers terrorizes an affluent African-American family. Expecting a horror film that reflected ideas of the duality of man, Us is instead about privilege and classism. There’s the Wilson family-mom (Nyong’o), dad (Duke), daughter (Joseph), son (Alex)-vacationing in beautiful Santa Cruz, the perfect nuclear family, and there’s “the tethered,” doppelgangers dwelling in tunnels below society, voiceless and inconsequential. This is, at least, how I came to understand red-hot filmmaker, Jordan Peele’s, latest, a film abundant in metaphors, foreshadowing, and red herrings. It’s difficult to put your finger on what exactly it all means. Especially with the amount of questions I still have. What’s clear for me is that I will be revisiting this film at some point. Us failed to satisfy me viscerally or cathartically. It becomes obvious all too soon, who would live and who would die, diluting some of the suspense. Us appeals more to the intellect, and as a result, time and repeated viewings will tell how good it actually is.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(457)

Captain Marvel (2019, Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) English 6

Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Gemma Chan, Lashana Lynch, Clark Gregg, Lee Pace, Djimon Hounsou

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(6-Good Film)

Uneven. Satisfying. Solid.

We are about a million miles away from what Roger Corman had in mind for his unrealized production of Fantastic Four back in ’94. It’s amazing how far the superhero genre has come in those 25 years. Captain Marvel arrives in theaters with a cast full of A-listers and Oscar nominees, led by star Brie Larson. She plays Vers, an inhabitant of a distant planet called Hala, where the race of Kree lives, at war with the shapeshifting Skrull. Captured by the Skrull and prodded by their leader, Talos (Mendelsohn), Vers has visions or memories of people that she doesn’t recognize. Escaping to Earth, with the Skrulls right behind, she teams up with a younger, visually non-impaired Nick Fury (Jackson) to fight back the enemy invasion and unravel the mystery of who she is really is. Brie Larson is not a naturally charismatic star. That’s okay. A lot of great actors aren’t. They need compelling characters and things to do on screen to be interesting. For that matter, Steve McQueen, a limited actor, is extremely charismatic, without doing very much at all. The point here is that for much of Captain Marvel’s first act, where the storytelling is basically setting up a dynamic second act, Larson is asked to carry the show. For this reason, Captain Marvel is rather dull in the beginning. Eventually, several characters join her in her adventure, and, with help from a minor but welcome twist, Captain Marvel becomes a much more entertaining film as it gets going. Much has been made about a cat named Goose. Much ado about nothing as far as I’m concerned. I am apparently not amused by the same things as everyone else. I was, however, impressed with Mendelsohn, who I believe gives the film its heart, and the friendships Vers acquires on her way to becoming the great and powerful Captain Marvel.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(399)