MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the era of sequels and spin-offs, and every studio dreams of franchises they can squeeze for profit again and again. The 4th entry in the MIB franchise {MEN IN BLACK (1997), MEN IN BLACK II (2002), MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012)}, is certainly more spinoff than sequel, although there is a nugget that ties it to the earlier versions. While we get a new cast and a new director, there are plenty of familiar elements to satisfy loyal fans, although winning new ones may be less likely.

Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson are reunited from THOR: RAGNAROK and AVENGERS: ENDGAME to take the leads as Agent H and Agent M, respectively. Replacing the chemistry of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones is a pretty tough challenge, even for two likeable and talented actors. Because of that, it probably makes sense that director F. Gary Gray (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, 2015) and co-writers Matt Holloway and Art Marcum (also co-writers on the original IRON MAN, 2008) take the film in a slightly different direction. There are two key story lines: discovering the “mole” within MIB, and protecting the world’s most dangerous weapon from falling into the wrong hands.

Hemsworth overplays his dashing, somewhat inept super agent (a cross between Bond and Clouseau) who charms his way out of every situation, and even though he doesn’t fit the MIB we are accustomed to, he’s fun to watch and good for some laughs. Ms. Thompson (so good in CREED) is the brainy rookie who spends two decades trying to maneuver herself into a position at MIB, and once she does, it’s clear she belongs. Back from the third film is Emma Thompson as Agent O, a senior MIB manager who interviews and hires Molly. Rafe Spall is Agent C, Agent H’s internal adversary, and Liam Neeson is High T, the bureau chief. Rebecca Ferguson appears as Riza, Agent H’s handsy former squeeze turned villain in a cool fortress. Dancing twins Laurent and Larry Bourgeois play two shape-shifters (a description that doesn’t do justice to their skills).

The story bounces from Paris to Brooklyn to London to Marrakesh to Paris to Naples. It’s a pretty wild adventure with the snazzy guns and futuristic vehicles we’ve come to expect. In fact, the Lexus reps the brand quite nicely. Molly’s backstory is provided early on as the kind of kid who reads Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in bed, and the film offers some clever touches with office artwork and the early years of MIB (Gustave Eiffel), but overall it just seems to be missing something. Fortunately, while H and M are saving the world, Kumail Nanjani as Pawny (voice) is saving the film. His little character provides the most laughs and the most creative punchlines. The franchise has enough of a loyal following that the film should do fine, however it will be surprising if this one can replicate the success of the first 3 films … although, you guessed it, the sequel to the spin-off is teed up.

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LATE NIGHT (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. ”A woman who hates women”. That is how talk show host Katherine Newbury is described. Oh, and her show’s ratings have been declining for 10 years, she doesn’t even know most of her writers by sight (or name), and we are led to believe that her age has something to do with the new network executive wanting to replace her. Five minutes in, my opinion was that Katherine Newbury doesn’t like people (not just women), is basically a narcissistic jerk, and her age has nothing to do with her being replaced … it’s the fact that her show is lame, she’s not appealing to viewers, and advertising revenues drop with poor ratings. It’s called business – not sexism or gender discrimination. Never once did this seem like someone getting a raw deal. However, it’s only a movie, so I tried to play along.

Very talented actors fill the screen. Two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, the stuck-in-her-ways, Emmy winning talk show host hanging on based on reputation and longevity in the business. Her character reminds me of David Letterman towards the end of his long run … scandal and all. Mindy Kaling co-stars as Molly Patel, a factory, err, chemical plant worker, who dreams of being a comedy writer, but puts no effort into actually learning the craft. Instead, luck puts her in the right place at the time the show needs a token hire. Enter Molly, a woman of color in a writers’ room full of white men. The interesting dynamic here is that most of the men in the room probably got their seat thanks to connections, while Molly got hers based on gender. Talent and skill seem to play no part for any of them.

The story is basically Molly trying to find her true self by helping Katherine modernize her evil ways and save her job. There are quite a few little sub-stories – can’t really call them subplots – that mostly distract from the overall direction, but serve the purpose of allowing punchlines or supposedly insightful social commentary. John Lithgow plays Katherine’s wise, Parkinson’s stricken husband, and the writers’ boys club includes Hugh Dancy (“Hannibal”), Reid Scott (“Veep”), Max Casella (“Ray Donovan”), Paul Walter Hauser (I, TONYA), and Denis O’Hare (“True Blood”). Ike Barinholtz plays the hot young comedian being groomed as Katherine’s replacement, and it’s Amy Ryan (“The Office”) who really registers as the network President. More of Ms. Ryan’s character and more attention to the network perspective would have improved the film.

Director Nisha Ganatra (“Transparent”) is working from the script by Ms. Kaling, whose real life experiences as a token hire in the industry could have been better presented. A lame stab at a romance distracts from the reactions of the threatened writers materializing in a lack of respect towards Molly, and most of the comedy felt forced and obvious, rather than real and painful (the sources of the best comedy). It’s a shame that most any episode of “30 Rock” or “The Office” provides more insightful commentary and comedy than this film. It’s such a missed opportunity.

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THE CHILDREN ACT (2018)

September 13, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are some actors who are so talented that they elevate most any material to a watchable status. Emma Thompson is one of the few. She is an Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay (SENSE AND SENSIBILITY) and for Best Actress (HOWARD’S END), and her career is comprised of interesting characters … many made so because of her performance. The film is directed by Richard Eyre, who has two terrific films in NOTES ON A SCANDAL (2006) and IRIS (2001), and adapted from his own novel by Ian McEwan (ATONEMENT, ON CHESIL BEACH).

We are introduced to British High Court Judge Fiona Maye (Thompson) as she announces her opinion on a case involving conjoined twins. As an expert in family law cases, Judge Maye is respected for fairness and decisiveness. Just as the reality of her crumbling marriage to Jack (Stanley Tucci) hits, she is drawn into yet another case where emotions (and media) are running high. Adam (Fionn Whitehead, DUNKIRK) is in dire need of a blood transfusion, which his Jehovah’s Witness religion and parents will not allow.

It’s at this point that we believe we are in for a stressful courtroom drama facing religious intricacies. However, there is very little to the court case – only the highly unusual step of the judge visiting the sick minor in the hospital. The highly anticipated moral dilemma never unfolds, and instead we get an oddball friendship, ever-creepier stalking sequence, and emotional unmasking. It’s a bit of a letdown. Are we to believe that Judge Fiona Maye is conflicted about anything?  She doesn’t appear to be. She made up her mind to focus on work, and only seemed to have forgotten to mention this to her husband, whose wants push him towards infidelity.

Jason Watkins has a terrific turn as Nigel, the judge’s meticulous assistant who is there in good times and bad. The story could be viewed from a woman’s perspective on how the dedication to career comes with a cost, but that same cost would likely be paid by a man in this situation as well. The title of the film is specific to a British law in dealing with aspects of minors, making the court case even less suspenseful than we might think. It’s not a courtroom drama per se, and it doesn’t dive deep enough to be a look at a dysfunctional marriage, and it’s simply too bland to be the study of a workaholic carrying guilt over never having kids – shouldn’t this issue have been resolved by now, given the age of this couple? It’s a crazy “R” rating over one line of dialogue, and it’s really Ms. Thompson’s performance that provides the only reason to see the film.

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BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

March 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. An entire generation still enjoys their childhood animated movie memories thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). We are now a quarter-century later and Disney is looking to re-create the magic (and hopefully cash in) with Live Action versions of all three …as it did with Cinderella (2015) and last year’s The Jungle Book (sensing a trend?). Up now is director Bill Condon’s mixture of live action, CGI and music for Beauty and the Beast.

The 18th century story (1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was re-written and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont after Barbot’s death. Director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French film version looks to have been a key influence for this updated ‘Beast’, while the 2014 version with Vincent Cassel will probably now be rendered forgotten. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) team with Oscar winner Condon, whose musical movie resume includes Chicago and Dreamgirls, to inject some contemporary aspects to Belle’s personality, as well as a bit more backstory for quite a few characters … all while staying true to the 1991 version.

Emma Watson proves a nice choice for Belle as she has what it takes to be nice yet tough, while still being an oddball within her own community. Belle is a bookworm who dares to help other girls to read, while also being the brains behind her father’s (Kevin Kline) work. She realizes her neighbors view her as a curiosity – and there is even a song to prove it! Ms. Watson brings strength, independence, and courage to the role. These traits and others are on full display even before her first encounter with the beast.

Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is the beneficiary of an extended backstory for the Prince, which includes a large dance and musical production at the castle, leading to his being cursed for having no love in his heart. Most of the scenes with Beast utilize CGI for the face and head. This effect worked for me as I found the look fascinating and able to fulfill the necessary emotions, though the non-beast Prince would be considered the weakest link in this fairy tale chain.

Since the comparisons to the 1991 version are inevitable, and certainly a matter of personal opinion, Luke Evans made a wonderfully pompous Gaston, while Josh Gad was quite humorous as LeFou, Gaston’s loyal sidekick who is also the center of the misplaced controversy (not worthy of discussion here). The staff – both live versions and special effects – includes Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette. Each bring their own touch to the roles, with Ms. McDonald being a particular standout, and Ms. Thompson having the most thankless job as replacement for Angela Lansbury.

While I found this version quite enjoyable and well done, it’s a bit confusing why the decision was made to go so dark and foreboding. It’s not young kid friendly at all, and seems as if the target audience is millennials who were raised on the 1991 version. This was done at the expense of inviting a new generation to explore the story and characters. Parents should probably avoid taking any kids under age 10 or 11, and the film easily could have received a PG-13 rating.

8-time Oscar winner Alan Menken returns to score the film (he did the 1991 version as well), plus he wrote new songs with Tim Rice and there are some original lyrics by Howard Ashman. With only one viewing, it’s doubtful any of the new songs will be instant classics, but “Be Our Guest” is a definite crowd-pleaser (again).

Of course, it’s an impossible task to please everyone when you mess with the classics, but overall, it’s a nice twist for fans of the 1991 animated version. Likely a missed opportunity to bring new youngsters into the fantastical BATB world, it does show that the animated to live action transformation can be well done … and that’s a relief with The Lion King and The Little Mermaid on the way. Dear Disney – don’t mess ‘em up!

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ALONE IN BERLIN (2016)

January 22, 2017

alone-in-berlin Greetings again from the darkness. When war hits close to home, the grieving of surviving family members never ends. At the end of World War II, author Hans Fallada was given access to the Gestapo file of Otto and Elise Hampel. Fallada wrote a 1947 novel based on their story, and in 2009 it was translated to English for his bestseller “Every Man Dies Alone”. Director Vincent Perez collaborated with Achim von Borries and Bettine von Borries to adapt the novel for the big screen.

Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Elise (Emma Thompson) play a mostly quiet, working class couple who pay the ultimate price for a cause in which they don’t believe. Their protest takes the form of a clandestine 2 person operation. They systematically distribute postcards with anti-Hitler messages … nearly 300 of the cards between 1940 and 1942. It’s a drip campaign that takes the form of non-violent political resistance, and certainly rankles those of the Third Reich.

Daniel Bruhl plays Escherich, the Nazi officer put in charge of the investigation (labeled Operation: Hobgoblin). He is charged with finding the source of the cards and punishing those responsible. As the hunt drags on, Escherich is presented as a Nazi with a conscience, and bears the brunt of his superior’s frustration, while living in as much fear as those he is chasing.

The film has a somber tone, and somehow never generates the tension or dread that this couple must have been dealing with on a daily basis for so long. In fact, Alexandre Desplat’s score seems to fit a movie much more intense than what we are watching on screen. Mr. Gleeson delivers his usual grounded and believable performance despite a script that could have used a bit more potency. The film does deliver the always powerful message of having no regrets when you are standing up for what’s right.

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BURNT (2015)

October 30, 2015

burnt Greetings again from the darkness. This one is not just for all you foodies out there – though there is plenty to digest for those who fancy themselves as some hoity-toity chef to the rich and famous. Don’t go in expecting a “How to Cook” seminar. Instead, simmer down and prep yourself for a serving of massive ego topped with arrogance and a side of narcissism. Blend those ingredients into one character, and this chef somehow remains likable … when played by Bradley Cooper.

Enough with the cooking terms, but let’s heap more praise on Mr. Cooper. When first we meet his character Adam Jones, he is readying himself to bounce back after self-destructing his career as a two-star Michelin chef in Paris. He simply walks out the door of the Louisiana diner where he has been serving his self-imposed penance … shelling 1 million raw oysters, each one recorded in his pocket notebook. This provides our first glimpse into the obsessive-compulsive personality of Adam, and helps explain how he has managed to kick his drug, alcohol, and women addictions. Feeling refreshed and on a mission to garner that rarified third Michelin star, Adam begins assembling his team in London and encouraging his old co-worker Tony (Daniel Bruhl, Rush) to entrust him with his restaurant.

We can’t actually taste the magnificent food that’s served on screen, but the colors and textures are a kaleidoscope to our eyes. The movie is beautiful to look at. The restaurant dining rooms are showplaces, the kitchens are pristine, and the customers are mostly dressed like runway models. On top of that, Bradley Cooper and Alicia Vikander (in a small role) are two of the grand champions in the gene pool sweepstakes. All of that beauty is balanced out by the quest for perfection and lack of interpersonal skills displayed by Chef Adam. It’s not until his star pupil Helene (Sienna Miller) shows him another way, does Adam even start to resemble a human being.

Drug dealers, old flames, a therapist (Emma Thompson), an arch rival (Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”), an unrequited one-way love, a deceased mentor, a ridiculously cute kid (Lexi Benbow-Hart, sporting hair that would make Julia Roberts envious), and a wronged co-worker (Omar Sy) combine to add plenty of action. Even the quick cut shots in the kitchen manage to make grilling onions and carving a fish interesting.

Never digging too deep, director John Wells (August: Osage County) delivers an entertaining movie with wide appeal, and a message of teamwork and family. The story is from Michael Kalesniko and the script from Steven Knight (who also wrote last year’s Michelin star-centered The Hundred-Foot Journey). The dialogue is sharp enough to deliver some laughs, though the element of danger doesn’t really work, and a couple of times it teeters on gooey melodrama. It doesn’t reach the level of Mostly Martha (2002), and is a tick behind last year’s Chef (Jon Favreau), but it may offer the most creative lesson yet in how best to serve a dish of revenge. It’s a tasty enough treat for those in the mood for an entertaining movie and an endless stream of pretty things to look at.

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A WALK IN THE WOODS (2015)

September 2, 2015

a walk in the woods Greetings again from the darkness. Bill Bryson is a terrific and prolific writer known over the last thirty years for his books on travel, science and language. His comedic and witty approach makes his work accessible to even casual readers, yet somehow this is the first of his books to receive the Hollywood movie treatment. Envisioned in 1998 as the third collaboration between Robert Redford and Paul Newman (who died in 2008), there is even a scene reminiscent of Butch and Sundance pondering a cliff side jump/fall. This final version instead teams Mr. Redford with a grizzled Nick Nolte.

Redford stars as Bryson (aged about 30 years over the novel) who has had a successful writing career and has a quite comfortable life with his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and their family. His problem is that he hasn’t written anything new in years, save the Forewords for the books of other writers. He is feeling unsettled and almost spontaneously decides to hike the Appalachian Trail (more than 2000 miles). His wife is as supportive as you might guess … she laughs at him, begs him not to go, provides documentation of the dangers (bears, bacteria, bludgeoning), and finally agrees only if he can persuade someone to go with him.

Enter Mr. Nolte as Katz, an estranged friend from years ago, who may or may not be on the run from law enforcement. We do know he is overweight, a recovering alcoholic, quite horny (for a man in his 70’s), and in a point that matters little … was not actually invited by Bryson to go on the trip.

What follows is senior citizen slapstick (a new sub-genre for my gray cinema category). The tone is extremely light-hearted … in the mode of The Bucket List, Grumpy Old Men, and “The Odd Couple”. Some of the scenery is breathtaking, but mostly we get face-offs between the intellectual and thoughtful Bryson, and the slovenly horndog Katz. Director Ken Kwapis is best known for his TV comedy work on “The Office”, “Malcolm in the Middle”, and “The Larry Sanders Show”. Redford and Nolte are (very) old pros who handle the material and surface humor with ease. Nolte brings such a physicality to his performance that it left this viewer wondering if he was really that talented or (hopefully not) that frighteningly out of shape. Either way, it works.

Additional support work comes in quick spurts in the form of Nick Offerman as an REI salesman, Mary Steenburgen as a motel owner, Susan McPhail as a memorable Beulah, and motor-mouthed (and funny) fellow hiker Kristen Schaal whose character would have most hikers hoping for a bear attack.

The film is clearly aimed at a very narrow group of movie goers, and it’s likely that group will be pleased with what they see on screen. The philosophical aspects of the book are mostly glossed over here, and for hiking in the mountains, there is an obvious lack of edginess. The objective is laughs, not deep thought. Objective achieved.

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