Movie Review: ‘Men in Black International’ is Kind of a Lateral Move as Far as Spinoffs Go

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CREDIT: Giles Keyte/Sony Pictures

Starring: Tessa Thompson, Chris Hemsworth, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Kumail Nanjiani, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson

Director: F. Gray Gray

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Gooey Alien Residue

Release Date: June 14, 2019

It’s often a joy to watch professionals perform their jobs competently, so there’s a bit of a thrill to watching Molly (Tessa Thompson) turn into Agent M in the opening act of Men in Black International. After she has an extraterrestrial encounter as a child, she dedicates her life to the goal of joining the secretive alien-monitoring organization, and she is undoubtedly a promising recruit, perhaps one of their best ever. But when it comes to making a film, what we demand isn’t competency so much as artistry. Director F. Gary Gray and his cast and crew have delivered a competent product, and I imagine they had a lot of fun making it. But it is not an out-of-this-world experience, nothing that rocks your sense of reality to its core.

The presence of “International” in the title and the lack of Agents J and K in the lineup seems to promise that we’ll be getting something a little different from what we’ve seen before. And it’s true, this chapter offers plenty that wasn’t on display in MIB‘s 1-3. But we have seen it in other movies in general. There’s the sort of globetrotting typical of Indiana Jones and James Bond, plus a paranoid infiltration angle that calls to mind Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as a spy-within-our-ranks routine we know and love from John le Carré thrillers. Even the alien creature design, which at first glance features plenty of original imagination, may have had some inadvertent inspiration, as one blue fellow looks like the X-Men’s Beast, but with quills instead of fur. (Perhaps it’s a case of convergent evolution?) If the only movies you’ve ever seen are Men in Black, Men in Black 2, and Men in Black 3, then perhaps Men in Black International will expand your consciousness, but for the rest of us, we will continue the search elsewhere for whatever originality remains in the universe.

Men in Black International is Recommended If You Like: Reassembling spare parents

Grade: 2 out of 5 Neuralyzers

Avengers: Endgame First Thoughts

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel Studios

Maybe some movies should be reviewed in parts over the course of months, or maybe even years. That’s how I’m feeling about Avengers: Endgame. So I’m going to go ahead and talk about what’s striking my fancy about it now and maybe talk about it some more later.

The closest comparison I can think of for the premise of Endgame is The Leftovers. The opening scenes for the two are eerily similar in terms of both tone and function. But of course they then head in very different directions. I didn’t stick with The Leftovers because I just wasn’t hooked by how its particular characters responded in their particular ways to the disappearances. But with Endgame, I already know the context, so I’m already in, baby. And no doubt about it, I am happy that the ultimate focus is on Tony Stark’s beating heart, and everyone keeping things right with their families. That emotional resonance is enough to buoy the whole affair along for three hours. And it’s also enough to prevent me from getting too angry about the characters who don’t have much meaningful to do or the moments that make me go, “But why?”

Also important: how about those end credits? It’s not very often 50-plus above-the-line cast members have to be assembled in some sort of appropriate order, so we must cherish it whenever it happens. And I’ve got to say, it appears that for the most part, there was no rhyme or reason to the assembly. But we shall, and must, investigate whether or not that is true for as long as we can. The cursive credits for the core Avengers are great, though.

I give Avengers: Endgame A Handful of Snaps to the Beat.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Fits As Many Crazy Characters And Genre Twists as Possible Into a Quirky Hotel

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman

Director: Drew Goddard

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for The Violence of Lawmen, Career Criminals, and Desperate People

Release Date: October 12, 2018

Drew Goddard has a thing for surveillance. His directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, was all about the pleasure and ritual of watching young people being ripped apart by monsters. That thematic concern was to be expected with Cabin, which deconstructed in one fell swoop all of horror cinema, a genre that more than any other grapples with voyeurism at its core. Bad Times at the El Royale, Goddard’s second film, is by contrast about a group of various strangers converging at one central location. This setup does not by definition invoke surveillance, but it is just as concerned about the watchers and the watched as Cabin is. Thus a series of question is raised: is Goddard watching all of us? Is he sounding the alarm about the nefarious forces that are watching us? Or does he take that nefariousness as a given, and is he then using cinema to process it?

The action becomes quickly pear-shaped at the titular hotel, which straddles the state line between California and Nevada, with their differing liquor and tax laws separated by the two halves of the establishment. It’s a novel premise that keeps you on your toes and alert for other oddities. The El Royale might be off the beaten path and have fallen on hard times, but it seems to serve as a beacon to folks with similarly dual natures. All who are getting ready to spend the night there – a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a rude, mostly silent young woman (Dakota Johnson), and even the concierge (Lewis Pullman) – are much more than they initially appear to be. That is hardly surprising, given how over-the-top or opaque they are when we first meet them. Bad Times does not reinvent the wheel, but it never lets its hands off it.

That maximal level of control is essential to what Goddard is pulling off. Once again, he is in deconstructionist mode. This time he is taking on the subgenre of post-Tarantino, nonlinear crime flicks. Obviously this is much more specific than what Cabin was targeting, but there are still plenty of threads to pull at, and Goddard pulls at all of him. (In a way, this is not so much a deconstruction of Tarantino’s imitators as much as it is a reconstructed better version.) He sets out to examine how each character could have possibly gotten to this point, diving into as much backstory as possible. That formula makes for A WHOLE LOT of movie. What could have been an hour-and-a-half shootout is instead a nearly two-and-a-half-hour dissertation. It is worth consuming it all, but prepared to be exhausted immediately afterwards and to continue to digest it for days, or even weeks, later.

Bad Times at the El Royale is Recommended If You Like: The Hateful Eight, Agatha Christie Mysteries, The Cabin in the Woods, Classic Rock and R&B

Grade: 4 out of 5 Room Keys

This Is a Movie Review: ’12 Strong’ Declassifies Post-9/11 Afghanistan But Doesn’t Have the Wherewithal to Ask the Tough Questions

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CREDIT: David James/HS Film, LLC/Warner Bros.

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Navid Negahban, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Elsa Pataky

Director: Nicolai Fuglsig

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R for Typical War Violence and Expletives, Though Far From the Genre’s Most Explicit

Release Date: January 19, 2018

12 Strong dramatizes a U.S. military operation immediately following the September 11 attacks, in which Task Force Dagger struck back against the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan. A mission that could have lasted years is instead completed in a matter of weeks. Thus, the film ends on a moment of triumph. But that is a note that rings hollow, as nearly two decades in, the war on terror is still going on, with no clear end in sight.

To be fair, the dispersed, insidious, leaderless nature of terrorism makes it profoundly difficult to stamp out entirely, and it is accordingly just as difficult to convey the entire meaning of this conflict in a single work of art. 12 Strong does not purport to capture that entirety, nor should we fault it for failing to do so. But it does deserve to be taken to task for bringing up some existential conundrums and declining to thoroughly investigate them. An Afghani ally tells the men of Task Force Dagger, “You will be cowards if you leave, and you will be our enemies if you stay.” And that is really the crux of this issue. But instead of grabbling with that dilemma, 12 Strong leaves it hanging.

At its heart, though, 12 Strong just wants to be a celebration of heroism. And on that score, it is more committed, but not especially capable. It was filmed in New Mexico, and you can feel just how much it is not actually on a real Afghani battlefield. A cheap, careless aesthetic is not exactly the best way to honor these guys. I am sure budgetary constraints made things difficult, but that could have been counteracted with the same ingenuity that Task Force Dagger displayed, but alas, the final product is a bunch of grey dullness with occasional flashes of personality (that personality coming from the fact that these soldiers were forced to ride horses, which most of them are not trained to do, thus resulting in a few solid laughs).

12 Strong is Recommended If You Like: Saving Private Ryan but with straight-to-video production values

Grade: 2 out of 5 Horse Soldiers

 

This Is a Movie Review: The God of Thunder Gets Stranded in the Louche ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

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CREDIT: Disney/Marvel

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Taika Waititi

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Colorfully Stylized Action Violence and a Glimpse of Hulk Butt

Release Date: November 3, 2017

Even in its stronger outings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has consistently exemplified the distressing 21st century trend of “franchise film as trailer for its upcoming sequels.” But putting at the helm Taika Waititi, the New Zealand director behind vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and coming-of-age charmer Hunt for the Wilderpeople, would perhaps signal a willingness to kick back with an idiosyncratic one-off effort. And indeed, Thor: Ragnarok is not particularly burdened by setting up the next “phase” for all the other Marvel heroes, save for the mandatory post-credits scene as well as an early rendezvous with Doctor Strange that at least has the courtesy to be completely ridiculous. But as Waititi is not creating something out of whole cloth, it is still a bear of a job to wrap his sensibility around Thor’s personal history and Asgard’s extensive mythology.

One of the biggest disappointments of most MCU films, and what made Doctor Strange so satisfying when it bucked this trend, is their lack of imagination in design and music. Their craft is far from ugly, but it is no more than workmanlike. Ragnarok has plenty of personality, but it kind of gets in the way of itself. Mark Mothersbaugh’s prog-rock synth score is entirely fitting, but it never really fully rocks out until the end credits. All the new supporting characters make a convincing case to be the breakout star, but there is only room for so much of that in a busy 2 hours. I would never willingly sacrifice Cate Blanchett’s evil diva goddess Hela, or Jeff Goldblum’s eccentric sensualist Grand Master, or Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking and unapologetic Valkyrie, or the most hedonistic version of the Hulk we have yet seen on screen. But this is a series of solo acts, not a supergroup. They play nice together, but they only intermittently gel as a unit greater than the sum of its parts.

The plot of Ragnarok is fairly straightforward, but a little overwhelming in its climax, due to the surfeit of moving parts. The titular end of Asgardian days is threatening to come to pass with the return of Hela, the long-imprisoned goddess of death and sister of Thor. Thor and Loki broker one of their many peaces to team up and save their home realm, but they are first waylaid onto the Grand Master’s home planet, where they get caught up in some gladiatorial combat.

By the end of it all, I found myself confused about who was defeated and who was victorious, and how much so on either count. Frankly, I am perfectly willing to forgo any prosaic interpretation for the sake of embracing a more expressionistic experience. This is not hard to do, as there are plenty of blasts of pure imagination (punneriffic reference perfectly intended). Trouble is, the story does matter to the people who made this movie, and even if it did not, it is too imposing to disregard. By the end of all these affairs, Ragnarok is the type of feast that overloads you with deliciousness but leaves you crashing instead of the kind that fills you up and floods you up with endorphins. It is adequately cromulent, but not very transcendent.

Thor: Ragnarok is Recommended If You Like: Doctor Strange, ’70s Glam Rock Stars, Kiwi accents

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Nonsense Circles

SNL Recap December 12, 2015: Chris Hemsworth/Chance the Rapper

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SNL: Chance the Rapper, Chris Hemsworth, Bobby Moynihan

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in December 2015.

When Chris Hemsworth first hosted “SNL,” almost every sketch featured the theme “Let’s Ogle Chris Hemsworth’s Body.” Perhaps because of that prurience, the show could not wait even a year to have him back, and his physique is once again a major part of the material. He does not even bother to plug his current movie, except to obliquely reference it in a way that underscores how huge he looks even when having lost weight for a role. Elsewhere, this episode finds plenty of room to address Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims, driving the political material to tip-top shape.

Announcement from George W. Bush – Some time last decade, there was a Doonesbury cartoon recounting how terrible the George H.W. Bush presidency seemed at the time, but now, compared to his son, he looked prudent and reasonable. Somehow, everyone in the current Republican field is either ridiculous or feckless enough to grant W. a similarly favorable reevaluation. Will Ferrell is welcomed back with cheers partly because it is one of the best impressions in “SNL” history, but also because the guy he is playing really would be preferable to this notorious lineup. He certainly provides some perspective. As fodder for comedy, the 2016 candidates may be buffoons, but they are also depressing. None of them are so playfully silly that they could conceivably wonder what happened to all the leprechauns. B+

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SNL Recap March 7, 2015: Chris Hemsworth/Zac Brown Band

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SNL: Chris Hemsworth March 2015 Monologue (CREDIT: YouTube Screenshot)

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in March 2015.

It might just be pointlessly quixotic to ascribe a thesis statement to an episode of “SNL.”  Any detectable patterns may have just been accidental.  When the host and musical guest do not bring in a whole lot of baggage, that truth becomes emphasized.  Chris Hemsworth was host two months before the release of the next “Avengers” movie.  Zac Brown Band have new music, but they are not dominating the mainstream conversation.  This was certainly an episode that happened.  There were highlights, there were lowlights, and it will lead to a multiplicity of opinions.  Here’s one: it was cray-cray.

A Message From Hillary Clinton – Kate McKinnon made it clear that should Hillary Clinton run for president, she will not back down from the challenge of taking on this legendary impression.  This sketch was essentially a character piece, when it could have focused on sharper satire about whether or not Clinton’s e-mail correspondence is a legitimate controversy.  But as a character piece, it was encouraging, managing to imbue the tired “old person e-mail gag” with specific personality. B

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