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

 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom review

For inSing

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

Director : J.A. Bayona
Cast : Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Isabella Sermon, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, B.D. Wong, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum
Genre : Action / Adventure / Sci-fi
Run Time : 128 mins
Opens : 7 June 2018
Rating : PG-13

Just as life finds a way, so has the Jurassic Park franchise. There was a 14-year break between Jurassic Park 3 and Jurassic World, but the response to the latter showed audiences were hungry for more dinosaur mayhem. Jurassic World grossed $1.6 billion worldwide and became the second-highest-grossing film of 2015, making a follow-up inevitable.

Three years have elapsed since the events of the last film. The Jurassic World theme park lies in ruins on Isla Nublar, off the coast of Costa Rica. An impending volcanic eruption threatens the remaining dinosaurs who roam free on the island. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), former Jurassic World operations manager-turned dinosaur activist, has founded the Dinosaur Protection Group to save Isla Nublar’s Saurian inhabitants.

Claire is contacted by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the executor of Sir Benjamin Lockwood’s (James Cromwell) estate. Lockwood was the partner of the late John Hammond, creator of the original Jurassic Park. Mills needs Claire’s help to facilitate the evacuation of the island. Blue, the last Velociraptor, is still alive. Claire ropes in Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the dinosaur handler who raised Blue, to help locate her. Claire’s employees at the Dinosaur Protection Group, paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and systems analyst Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), join the mission too. Owen and Claire soon find themselves entangled in a nefarious conspiracy that could throw the world as we know it into irreversible chaos.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom comes extremely close to blockbuster perfection. Hiring J.A. Bayona proves to be a canny move on the producers’ part. The filmmaker kickstarted his career with the Spanish horror movie The Orphanage and made the disaster drama The Impossible and the dark fantasy fable When a Monster Calls. This is by far the largest project he’s presided over, and he worked closely with the previous film’s director Colin Trevorrow and producer Steven Spielberg, who directed the first two Jurassic films. The result is distinctly atmospheric, with an emphasis placed on scenes of sustained tension, without sacrificing the grand spectacle audiences come to these movies for.

Trevorrow co-wrote the screenplay with Derek Connolly, and they’ve devised a great reason to return to Isla Nublar. At first, the story seems like a re-tread of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, complete with paramilitary personnel rounding up the surviving animals and Ted Levine as a grizzled big-game hunter. Then, the movie swerves in an interesting direction, one which the trailers have misdirected us away from.

The film is paced marvellously, packing in action – and more importantly, action with some variety to it. It’s a given that most of the characters will spend a lot of time running away from dinosaurs. There’s that, to be sure, but there are also creepy, well-staged moments steeped in shadows and incorporating a sense of claustrophobia that are exceedingly effective.

Several of the dinosaurs possess enough personality to be accepted as characters. Blue’s bond with Owen is further developed, and both she and the T. rex get their share of ‘hero’ moments. Animatronic effects are used more than they were in the preceding film. Neal Scanlan, the creature effects supervisor for the recent Star Wars films from The Force Awakens onwards, oversees the practical dinosaur effects. He and his team have done excellent work, and the computer-generated visual effects are a notch above those seen in the previous film too. There’s even physical comedy courtesy of a rambunctious Stygimoloch.

The film is at its best when it echoes and builds upon the themes inherent in the first film and the source novel by Michael Crichton. The manmade dinosaurs could be viewed as an affront towards nature, with nature now reclaiming itself by way of the volcanic eruption. Hammond and Lockwood opened Pandora’s Box, and there’s no coming back from that. Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm pops up in a cameo reiterating his initial fears of the implications resurrecting dinosaurs would have. These creatures were intended as theme park attractions, which seems innocent enough, but the applications for this technology were never going to stop there. The film tackles this in a slightly deeper, headier way than one might expect from summer popcorn entertainment.

Owen and Claire are good people who have unwittingly been used by bad people for their own ends. Both characters seem less like the broad caricatures they were presented as in the previous film, giving Pratt and Howard more to work with. Owen and Claire grapple with their involvement in Jurassic World, and how much of the chaos that unspools in this film is their fault. They also find themselves in the thick of the action and have so many near-misses that they come across as at least a little superhuman.

Some of the new characters are played a little too broadly, especially Justice Smith’s anxious tech expert. The human villains aren’t dimensional enough and have straightforward, avaricious motivations.

The new addition to the cast that stands out is Isabella Sermon, who plays Lockwood’s precocious granddaughter Maisie. Beyond being the requisite imperilled child each of these movies must have at least one of, she becomes integral to the plot and protecting her gives Owen and Claire a secondary objective.

The new dinosaur being highlighted is the Indoraptor, following in the clawed footsteps of the previous film’s Indominus rex. Just as the Velociraptors have generally been scarier than the T. rex in previous Jurassic films, the vicious Indoraptor is considerably more menacing than the Indominus rex, proving a formidable foe for our heroes, human and dinosaur alike.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is the best film in the series since the first. It packs in all the exhilarating theme park ride-thrills we expect from the series, while attempting to bring the moral and ethical quandaries at the heart of the premise back to the surface. The film is a satisfying experience, while naturally leaving the door open for a sequel. Stick around past the credits for a fun little stinger scene.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The BFG

For F*** Magazine

THE BFG

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader, Rafe Spall, Rebecca Hall
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 hr 57 mins
Opens : 18 August 2016
Rating : PG

The BFG posterDuring the 90s, Wall Street securities analyst Joe Tinker stated “there are only two brand names in the business: Disney and Spielberg.” Now, these two juggernaut childhood-shapers have joined forces with The BFG. Sophie (Barnhill) is a young orphan who is spirited away to Giant Country by the Big Friendly Giant, or BFG (Rylance). The BFG catches and distributes dreams to the children of London in the dead of night. Sophie is initially fearful of the BFG, but is soon convinced that he is benign. The other giants who call Giant Country home however, are not. The man-eating giants, led by the towering Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and his sidekick Bloodbottler (Hader), bully the BFG and suspect that he might be harbouring a tasty “human bean”. Sophie decides to set up an audience for the BFG with none other than Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II (Wilton), so the other nasty giants can be dealt with once and for all.

The BFG Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance 1

The BFG is adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book of the same name. Steven Spielberg was once strongly associated with heart-warming escapist tales, but over the last two decades or so has turned most of his attention to prestige pictures like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies – though there’s still the occasional The Adventures of Tintin or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The BFG re-teams Spielberg with the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who penned E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; the film is dedicated to her memory. The BFG has plenty of charm, but lacks a narrative impetus, and is thus difficult to get into. Not every movie has to feature life-and-death stakes, but surely Spielberg of all people knows that a little peril can go a long way. For most of the film, Sophie is pretty much just hanging out with the BFG, and even when she’s threatened by the supposedly fearsome giants, the sense of danger just doesn’t take hold.

The BFG Mark Rylance Buckingham Palace breakfast

 

The BFG is very agreeable family entertainment, and in keeping in the “sweetness tinged with rudeness” spirit of Dahl’s writing, features what is likely the first-ever fart joke in a Spielberg movie. The performance capture work and the visual effects that integrate Sophie with the computer-generated giants are of excellent quality. Visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, whose credits include the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, Avatar, and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is a four-time Oscar winner, after all. There is, however, a noticeable trade-off: the giants, the villainous ones in particular, can sometimes come off as cartoony, because making them too realistic would result in falling headlong into the dreaded uncanny valley. As it stands, some audience members might find the BFG creepy rather than endearing, but this reviewer isn’t among them.

The BFG Ruby Barnhill and Mark Rylance 2

Rylance, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn in Bridge of Spies, seems to have become Spielberg’s new favourite person: he’s already secured roles in the director’s next two films, Ready Player One and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The design of the BFG himself retains the defining features as drawn by Dahl’s regular illustrator Quentin Blake, and the performance capture approach allows for all of Rylance’s subtle expressions to shine through. The malapropisms and neologisms that pepper the BFG’s speech, as delivered by Rylance, give the character a folksy charm. He’s the absent-minded but well-meaning doddering grandfather, having taken on a larger-than-life form. The BFG also has a surprisingly tragic backstory that isn’t in the book, and as a tool for character development, it does work.

The BFG Ruby Barnhill 1

Barnhill makes for a spirited Sophie, with a dash of another Dahl protagonist, Matilda, evident in this incarnation. The interaction between Sophie and the BFG is wonderfully acted by both performers, and Barnhill’s turn is all the more impressive when one remembers there wasn’t actually a giant there for her to act against. In some ways, its reminiscent of Neel Sethi’s Mowgli from The Jungle Book earlier this year. Barnhill certainly deserves a place in the pantheon of memorable child actors from Spielberg films.

The BFG evil giants

 

While a semblance of Rylance’s features is evident in the BFG’s digitally animated face, Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler and the other markedly less friendly giants do not resemble their respective voice/performance capture actors, meaning that less of the performers’ personality comes through. Wilton moves from Downton Abbey to Buckingham Palace, and her portrayal of the Queen is amusing and affectionate without becoming too much of a caricature. As the Queen’s butler Tibbs, Rafe Spall is on fine comic form. Rebecca Hall, Spall’s co-star from the Wide Sargasso Sea TV movie, is the picture of class as the Queen’s maid Mary.

The BFG Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Penelope Wilton and Ruby Barnhill

The scenes in which the BFG carefully crafts the dreams could be seen as a metaphor for filmmaking, and Spielberg is a consummate crafter of dreams. It’s pretty to look at and composer John Williams is in full Harry Potter mode here – unfortunately, the music is pleasant but nowhere as memorable. Alas, The BFG is far from his most magical work, and we’re not sure that the typical kid’s attention span would be able to withstand its unhurried pace.

Summary: The BFG features delightful performances from its two leads, but the lack of narrative drive means it’s only intermittently engaging.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong