Men in Black: International review

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Emma Thompson, Rafe Spall, Les Twins
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 55 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : PG13

          They’ve been absent from the big screen for seven years, but the shadowy organisation that polices and conceals alien activity on earth has resurfaced in Men in Black: International, the spin-off of the Men in Black series.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) is a newly instated member of the agency, still on probation. After witnessing Men in Black operatives in action as a child, she has long harboured a fascination with the agency and finally gets her dream job. Agent O (Emma Thompson), head of the New York branch, dispatches Agent M to MIB’s London headquarters, overseen by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a hotshot hailed for defeating an alien species called the Hive in Paris alongside High T.

When a shape-shifting alien duo (Les Twins) corners Agent M and Agent H, they learn that the Hive may have been resurfaced, with the predatory invaders after a powerful alien artefact. Their battle against the Twins sends Agent M and Agent H to Morocco, where they befriend Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a diminutive alien. Agent H must confront Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful, dangerous figure from his past, as he and Agent M discover there just might be a mole within the organisation. The MIB can always be counted on to save the world, but what happens when a threat arises from within?

The Men in Black films are loosely based on the Malibu comics series by Lowell Cunningham. The urban legend of shadowy government agents has existed among UFO-enthusiast circles for decades, but it was the Men in Black movies that cemented the idea in the public consciousness. Being released the year after Independence Day, the first Men in Black movie also further launched Will Smith up the A-list. He and co-star Tommy Lee Jones have become closely linked with the franchise, with the third movie featuring Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character.

After the third Men in Black movie in 2012, the first we heard of a new Men in Black movie was that it would be a crossover with the 21 Jump Street films called MIB 23, which sounds like such a crazy idea that it just might have worked. Instead, we got Men in Black: International, which is pleasant and harmless if often formulaic and bland, because it takes the format of the first movie and slots new stars into it. Director F. Gary Gray of Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious fame knows how to handle a big Hollywood production, but it feels like he is directing to the brief, with no personal touches discernible. The film trundles along efficiently enough, but nothing in the movie will stick in viewers’ minds afterwards. It’s almost as if the movie was constructed to be watched on an airplane.

          Men in Black: International does what the James Bond movies often do, throwing in a bunch of exotic locales to up the production value. There’s a chase through the streets of Marrakech on a hover bike and one character is based out of Aragonese Castle on the Italian island of Ischia. The movie might have the scale expected of a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite have the quirky soul of the first movie, especially because a lot more of the aliens are created with computer-generated effects. Special effects makeup legend Rick Baker, who oversaw the aliens in the first three films, was not involved with this one.

The logic behind the casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles seems to have been to look at whatever actors from the most successful ongoing movie franchise were available. Hemsworth has a knack for comedy and shifts effortlessly between dashing and goofy, playing a sometimes-bumbling, always-charming action hero with ease.

Thompson’s Agent M is capable, headstrong and determined and is in some ways the audience surrogate character, with this movie acting as her origin story. However, some of the beats in her arc echo those of Agent J’s in the first movie a little too strongly. Thompson brings some personality to the part, but Agent M feels like a textbook “strong female character” with not much that is inherently compelling about her on paper.

Liam Neeson is there to lend gravitas to the proceedings and pace purposefully around High T’s office and not do too much else. Emma Thompson is dryly amusing as Agent O, reprising her role from the third film. Respectable British actors appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for a paycheck is a time-honoured tradition and one that Neeson and Thompson continue here.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Pawny, who as the funny alien sidekick, is designed as the successor to Frank the Pug (who makes a cameo). This reviewer was afraid that the character would come off as annoying, but Nanjiani’s delivery keeps Pawny generally more amusing than grating. The computer animation used to create Pawny and integrate him with the live-action footage is excellent.

French dancers Les Twins, who will next be seen in the Cats movie, enliven the proceedings with their new-style hip-hop moves. However, their characters’ schtick seems to be lifted wholesale from the Twins in The Matrix Reloaded.

The previous films have playfully ‘outed’ celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Bill Gates, George Lucas and Lady Gaga as being aliens. In this film, a social media influencer (presumably a different one for the different markets the film will be released in) gets a cameo. This is one of the most worrying elements about Men in Black: International, indicating that future blockbusters will pander to audiences by shoehorning in people who are famous from YouTube or Instagram.

Men in Black: International is not a poorly made film, but in extending the MIB franchise, it fails to add anything substantial to the world-building or the mythos. Big franchise movies can often feel like products and none this year feels more like a product than Men in Black: International, but its dependable cast and high production value keep things from feeling like too much of a drag.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies review

TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES

Director : Peter Rida Michall, Aaron Horvath
Cast : Greg Cipes, Scott Menville, Hynden Walch, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, Will Arnett, Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Jimmy Kimmel, Halsey, Lil Yachty, Wil Wheaton, Patton Oswalt
Genre : Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 88 mins
Opens : 30 August 2018

Superhero movie saturation has become such a commonplace topic that there now exists a superhero movie specifically about that phenomenon. In Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, the titular DC team of junior superheroes is feeling left out – it seems that everyone, even the obscure likes of the Challengers of the Unknown, is getting their own movie.

This hits Robin (Scott Menville) particularly hard, because his guardian Batman (Jimmy Kimmel) seems to get movie after movie, while he is left in the shadows. Robin’s teammates Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Starfire (Hynden Walch), Cyborg (Khary Payton) and Raven (Tara Strong) try to cheer him up, but to no avail. Robin lobbies film director Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell) to make a movie about him.

Deciding that what the team needs is an arch-nemesis to make a compelling movie, the Teen Titans take on Slade (Will Arnett), a dastardly mercenary looking to steal a powerful crystal. In their quest for justice/a movie deal, the Titans run into a variety of other heroes, including Superman (Nicolas Cage), Wonder Woman (Halsey), Green Lantern (Lil Yachty) and The Flash (Wil Wheaton).

There have been many incarnations of the Teen Titans in the comics, arguably the best-known being The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is an extension of the Teen Titans Go! TV series, a comedic spinoff of the 2003 Teen Titans animated series. Teen Titans Go! has long been a bugbear of many fans. Those who grew up on the anime-esque Teen Titans series in the early 2000s consider the parody series to be an affront to their memory of the earlier show. Having grown up on the DC Animated Universe, which began with 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series, this reviewer would argue that while not without many redeeming qualities, the 2003 Teen Titans series was itself a marked step down from the DCAU.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the backlash to Teen Titans Go! mostly stems from a rejection of ‘childishness’ – quite cleverly, this is one of the themes in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. In the film, the Teen Titans are dismissed by the other heroes because they can’t take anything seriously. This is a very silly film about just how silly superhero movies can be. On the surface, it’s all pratfalls, toilet humour and incongruous song and dance numbers. Beneath that, this movie delights in a playful meta deconstruction of superhero movies and their conventions, without losing sight of its primary audience.

The popular public conception of DC media as being darker than that of rival Marvel, sometimes to a self-conscious extent, gets a lot of play. We wish that directors Peter Rida Michall and Aaron Horvath could’ve seen bits of the upcoming live-action TV series Titans, which appears to fundamentally misunderstand the source material, just so the Teen Titans Go! version of Robin could mutter “fudge Batman”. Alas, we must make do with yet another Martha joke.

There’s a Catch-22 here: on the one hand, the detail-light and deliberately cartoony animation style of Teen Titans Go! doesn’t work particularly well on the big screen, especially when compared to the richness and technical wizardry of something like The LEGO Batman Movie. On the other hand, this being a theatrically-released movie is integral to the central premise of the Teen Titans going in search of their own movie.

The central voice cast from Teen Titans Go! and the original Teen Titans series returns, with several celebrities joining them. While notable-ish names from the music world Halsey and Lil Yachty don’t contribute too much, getting Nicolas Cage to voice Superman is a bit of a casting coup. Cage was attached to play Superman in Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, a film which didn’t come to fruition and is now legend among comic book movie fans.

Will Arnett, who voiced Batman in The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, voices Slade, and just like everyone else involved, sounds like he’s having the greatest time. There are several cameos which will elicit a chuckle or two.

Fans of comics and related media are often afraid of being perceived as childish, because of the long-held stigma that people who read comics or collect toys are socially mal-adjusted. While that appears to be changing, there’s still a fear of embracing silliness within the genre, which has led to overcompensating with ‘grimdark’ takes on the source material. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies examines this in a surprisingly nimble way. This reviewer still isn’t sure that it works amazingly on the big screen, especially in a summer which has given us Incredibles 2, but if you’re willing to let loose for a bit and not take yourself too seriously, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is worth a look.

Stick around for a stinger after the main-on-end titles.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Deadpool 2 review

For inSing

DEADPOOL 2

Director : David Leitch
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison, Morena Baccarin, Zazie Beetz, Stefan Kapičić, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni
Genre : Action / Adventure
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 17 May 2018
Rating : M18 (Violence & Coarse Language)

The Merc with the Mouth is back and mouthier than ever, and he’s brought along friends.

Maybe “friends” is too strong a word.

Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), the wise-cracking, nigh-indestructible killer for hire, is settling down with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), in between a busy schedule of hit jobs around the world. Wade has his already topsy-turvy life turned further upside down by the arrival of an unexpected guest. Nathan Summers/Cable (Josh Brolin), a grizzled cyborg from the future has travelled to the present with a mission. His target: Russell “Rusty” Collins/Firefist (Julian Dennison), a young mutant who will grow up into a murderous tyrant if his impulses are left unchecked. Rusty has been raised in an orphanage where he and the other mutant orphans have been abused by the principal and orderlies.

Deadpool realises he’ll need the help of allies old and new, including former roommate Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), bartender and pal Weasel (T.J. Miller), taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni), the metal-skinned Piotr Rasputin/Colossus (Stefan Kapičić), who is still trying to recruit Deadpool to join the X-Men, and Neena Thurman/Domino (Zazie Beetz), a mutant with the power of preternaturally good luck. Wade also tries assembling his own mutant superhero team called the ‘X-Force’, to mixed results.

The first Deadpool film faced an uphill battle in getting made and proved to be wildly successful among critics and audiences. That film faced countless behind-the-scenes bureaucratic issues stemming from the Fox top brass and had to work around the resulting budget cuts, but Reynolds’ pet project finally came to fruition.

Deadpool 2 faces a similar situation as Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 – the underdog has triumphed, resources are being thrown at the sequel, and now’s the time to prove there are more tricks up the filmmakers’ sleeves. There’s also a deeper dive into the source material, with long-anticipated characters making their big screen debuts.

Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick are back for the sequel, with Reynolds credited as the third writer. The first film’s director Tim Miller has been replaced by David Leitch, veteran stunt coordinator and one half of the John Wick directing team.

Deadpool 2 gets a lot right, and is a movie that’s comfortable in its mottled, sore-covered skin. Many of the self-referential jokes are brilliant, the action sequences are more elaborate and involved, the casting for new characters is excellent, and Reynolds settles further into what has become his signature role. However, all this doesn’t quite fit together as well as it should have. There are times when the editing feels choppy, and characters enter the plot inorganically, coming off more as plot devices than actually developed characters.

The irreverent, tongue-in-cheek tone of the movie is a double-edged sword. There are plenty of funny comic book movies, yes, but none that so freely and frequently take shots at other, specific films. It’s intrinsic to the Deadpool character, but the barrage of snarky quips can wear viewers down. It’s also a little tricky to decide when the film is trying to be genuine and when it’s trying to be ironic, the side effect being that any moments that are potentially emotional get robbed of their effect. Deadpool’s motivation in this film is one that’s been seen a lot and nullifies the emotional drive of the first film.

Beneath the violence, swearing and fourth wall-breaking humour, the first Deadpool film had a very traditional origin story structure. Deadpool 2 almost doesn’t have enough of a structure, which some might argue suits the character. However, when the jokes take precedence over the story, the stakes are blunted and everything feels inconsequential. While the humour in the Guardians of the Galaxy films sometimes stepped on the emotional beats, those movies did a slightly better job in juggling the jokes and the heartfelt moments than Deadpool 2 does.

Brolin is an ideal Cable, and yes, we do get a line about how he doesn’t quite match the stature of the character in the comics. Brolin is shredded and plays a great straight man to Reynolds. Beetz has the kick-ass attitude that’s key to Domino, and after seeing her performance, it doesn’t matter the character doesn’t look like she’s usually drawn. The film is dedicated in memory of Sequana Harris, the Domino stunt double who died in an accident on set.

Leitch is no stranger to large-scale action set pieces and the central prison truck chase is staged with energy and finesse. A lot of the close-quarters combat looks great and the canvas has been increased from the first film. However, one character who is completely rendered in CGI looks incredibly awkward and difficult to buy as occupying the same space as the other characters.

Deadpool 2 strains to subvert expectations and deliver more of what everyone came for but suffers from a lack of focus. It’s all one big joke, as it should be, and on that level, Deadpool 2 is entertaining. It’s calibrated to reward fans who’ll catch all the references and whisper in their friends’ ears “Rob Liefeld, the artist who co-created Deadpool, is terrible at drawing feet”. However, as much as the movie wants to be shocking, the films winds up being pretty lightweight, enjoyable without making as much of an impact as it could have.

The mid-credits scene is an absolute hoot, but perhaps jokes about a certain entry in Reynolds’ filmography are wearing a little thin by now.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Tomb Raider (2018) movie review

For inSing

TOMB RAIDER

Director : Roar Uthaug
Cast : Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Daniel Wu, Walton Goggins, Kristin Scott Thomas, Nick Frost, Derek Jacobi
Genre : Action, Adventure
Run Time : 1h 58m
Opens : 8 March 2018
Rating : PG13

One of the gaming world’s most iconic heroines is reborn in this reboot-based-on-a-reboot. Lara Croft is back in this film based on the 2013 Tomb Raider game.

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is a bike courier who races through the streets of London. She could inherit a fortune, but she refuses to accept that her billionaire father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), who vanished seven years ago, is dead. Lara unearths clues that lead her to his destination – the fabled island of Yamatai, the final resting place of the mythical Japanese Queen Himiko.

Lara hires ship captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to take her to the island. Braving a fierce storm and a shipwreck, Lara arrives on Yamatai, where she comes face to face with the treacherous Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins). The mysterious organisation Trinity has ordered Mathias to find Himiko’s tomb, planning to harness whatever lies within as a powerful weapon. Lara must fight for survival as she braves the adventure that will forge her into the Tomb Raider.

Video game movies haven’t quite been able to catch a break – While some had pinned their hopes on 2016’s Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed to turn the tide, those films received mixed to negative notices. Tomb Raider isn’t a game-changer, but it gets the job done.

The 2001 Tomb Raider film starring Angelina Jolie is a guilty pleasure of this reviewer’s. This incarnation eschews the glamour and nigh-superhuman imperviousness displayed by Jolie’s Lara, in favour of a human character who bleeds and gets very grimy – but still possesses impossible levels of upper body strength.

Norwegian director Roar Uthaug has made a largely efficient, straightforward adventure yarn. The movie takes a while to get into gear, and contains a few stretches of unwieldy exposition. The story has been whittled down almost to the point of being overly simplistic, but it counts for something that this is a video game movie with a coherent plot.

Once Lara enters the actual tomb, which happens over an hour into the movie, the film hits its stride. It’s exciting to see Lara navigate traps and solve puzzles as the floor falls out beneath her feet, and it’s when Lara dodges spike-covered cylinders tumbling from the ceiling that this movie becomes Tomb Raider.

This reviewer’s favourite set-piece involves Lara clambering across the wreckage of a plane that hangs over a waterfall, trying to gain purchase as the creaky metal carcass gives way. There are individual moments that made this reviewer cheer, and the best sequences are ones that closely echo those in the game. There’s also a fun if superfluous foot chase set in a bustling Hong Kong harbour.

Vikander lends Lara charm and likeability, and has gotten herself into incredible physical shape. Lara is a little more fearless and less sheltered than the character is in the 2013 game. Vikander acquits herself well during the action sequences, and it doesn’t feel as if the Oscar winner thinks this material is beneath her. Lara is resilient and resourceful, and while her back-story of searching for a long-lost parent and facing her destiny is familiar, Vikander never feels like she’s going through the motions.

In the game, there was a whole expedition who accompanied Lara to the island. The film streamlines this by mashing them into a single character, Wu’s Lu Ren. He brings swagger and action hero cred to the role. While he doesn’t get too much to do in the film’s second half, the character is integral to Lara’s journey.

Walton Goggins is a vastly underrated actor who can be counted on to play a terrific villain. Unfortunately, Mathias is a somewhat bland part – he commands an army of mercenaries and he’s ruthless, but there isn’t very much to him. The film doesn’t do the best job of establishing the looming threat that Trinity, a far-reaching secret society, poses. It seems like this will get further explored in the sequel, if one materialises.

Dominic West is just 19 years older than Vikander, so he seems a touch young to play her father. The father-daughter dynamic wants to be moving, but never quite gets there. Nick Frost shows up to provide comic relief as a pawnshop proprietor. It does feel like this movie’s supporting cast needs to make more of an impact.

Tomb Raider is gritty and grounded but never bleak and is often entertaining, but it feels like that last sprinkle of magic dust is missing. However, it does get enough right, more than most video game movies before it have and we’d be more than game for a sequel.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong