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.

watch the trailer:


MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT

July 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome back Ethan Hunt, and the other members of IMF. This is the 6th film in the franchise born (not Bourne) from the classic TV series (1966-73) created by Bruce Geller (credited in each film). Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie returns for this companion piece to his 2015 MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATION, as of course does mega-star Tom Cruise as the aforementioned Ethan Hunt.

Hunt’s team of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) returns, as does really really bad guy Solomon Lane (a glowering Sean Hayes), and MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). New to the scene is Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill, MAN OF STEEL), a hulking hunk of a man who doesn’t share Ethan’s belief in brainy strategy. Speaking of strategy, I was a bit tricky in inviting a friend to the screening who is in the midst of a years long boycott of Alec Baldwin movies. Although I felt a fleeting twinge of guilt, I believe the payoff was such that it lessened the impact of deception. Also appearing are Angela Bassett as a CIA toughie, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, and Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”) as White Widow.

Most fans of this franchise have likely accepted that the stories are overly intricate – this one is unnecessarily jumbled – and they just enjoy the clamorous ride to an ending that typically has something to do with a bomb and saving the world. It’s the action and stunts that drive ticket sales, and this one has the most extreme and over-the-top action sequences we’ve seen yet. Even though there is a familiarity to some, the stunts are still quite impressive; and yes, Mr. Cruise, now in his mid-50’s, still performs his own stunts. This includes the leap between buildings where he actually suffered a broken ankle, shutting down production for a few months. The jump where he was injured is included in the film. And fear not, the Cruise Sprint is in full force on numerous occasions. Sadly, there is also a quick shot of a Ving Rhames jog – nothing but painful to watch.

The film opens with a wedding day nightmare, but quickly moves to what the fans want – globetrotting, chase scenes, slick advanced technology and wacky stunts. The streets, bridges and landmarks of Paris are on full and spectacular display, while the chase scenes occur on foot, on motorcycle, in cars, and in helicopters. Crazy stunts include HALO jumping, rock climbing and dangling from an elevator shaft. There is a relentless brawl scene in a men’s room where Hunt gets face planted into a porcelain sink and thrown through a wall … and thanks to the magic of Hollywood, five minutes later, he has nary a scratch and looks as debonair as James Bond ever has. However, it’s the final helicopter sequence through the mountains and cliffs of Kashmir that provide the signature moments of the film. Even with the nod to JURASSIC PARK, it’s a breathtaking scene.

Running nearly 2 ½ hours, this is the longest of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films, and Ethan Hunt remains, along with Maverick in TOP GUN (sequel filming now), the best fit for Tom Cruise the actor and celebrity. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Henry Cavill. He’s blessed with extraordinary genes – just not the thespian types. Filled with double and triple and quad crossings, whether you can follow the story or not, only the most stoic would claim you will find this anything less than an adrenaline rush … should you decide to accept. Plus, it still features one of the best theme songs ever – especially powerful with today’s phenomenal theatre sound systems. Thanks Lalo Schifrin.

watch the trailer:


FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS (2016)

August 12, 2016

Florence FJ Greetings again from the darkness. Stranger than fiction. No more fitting description can be provided for the true-to-life story of 1940’s New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. How else to describe this “opera singer” who performed at Carnegie Hall? Not so unusual you say? Well how about if I add the not-so-minor detail(s) that the lady, simply put, was an atrocious singer … couldn’t carry a note … was apparently tone deaf?

Meryl Streep gamely takes on the titular role, and despite her own finely honed singing voice, manages to spot-on mimic the off-key, yet enthusiastic wailing of FFJ. Beyond that, Ms. Streep captures the spirit and passion and ego that inspired her real life counterpart to pursue her lofty dreams. At her core, FFJ was a tortured soul who overcame syphilis (from her first husband) and the central nervous system challenges brought on by the mercury and arsenic treatments of the era. On the outside, she was a bubbly, eccentric personality who supported the arts and lived life to the fullest.

With inheritances from both her mother and father, Florence received full professional support (and emotional protection) from her common-law husband St Clair Bayfield – played superbly by the seldom seen these days Hugh Grant. Accompanying Florence on stage, and even composing music with her, was her piano player Cosme McMoon, in a scene-stealing performance from Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”). Also in the mix is Rebecca Ferguson as Bayfield’s mistress … did I mention how strange this story is? Other support work is provided by David Haig as FFJ’s singing coach, and Nina Arianda as … well … an interesting character.

Other than the cast, those responsible for this delightful cinematic experience are director Stephen Frears (Oscar nominated for The Queen and The Grifters), writer Nicholas Martin, and cinematographer Danny Cohen (Room, The King’s Speech). It’s a confounding movie … on the surface quite jovial and light-hearted, while also reaching emotional depths that touch on loyalty, greed, and self-delusion.

The recordings made by Florence are rare collectibles today, and the film does touch on her time as child prodigy who played piano at The White House during the Rutherford B Hayes administration. There are many life lessons here, including pursuing your dreams with a passion, and having the tenacity to overcome obstacles. There is an undeniable underlying sadness to the story, but rather than feel sorry for her, Florence provided the guiding light quote, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”

watch the trailer:

 


MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015)

August 16, 2015

MI rogue nation Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 20 years since the beginning of the MI movie franchise, and in that time, Tom Cruise has aged at least 3 months. Perhaps the prank is on us and Mr Cruise actually filmed his scenes for all 5 Mission: Impossible movies in 1995. Of course that didn’t happen, yet somehow each entry of the series manages to get bigger and louder and wilder, so that we may continually marvel at the fountain of youth and physical prowess of the actor seemingly born to play Ethan Hunt.

Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) becomes the fifth different director to helm a film in the franchise, and he kicks things off with the stunning pre-credit action sequence you have probably already heard about … Cruise tackles an Airbus A400M (aka a huge cargo plane). It’s a short, but incredibly impressive stunt sequence that sets the stage for a movie filled with action, fighting, stunts, comedy, and intrigue – all with minimal CGI.

Alec Baldwin appears as the head of the CIA and the guy trying to permanently shut down the IMF (Impossible Mission Force), while Jeremy Renner does his best to prevent this from happening – without officially confirming or denying any specific action of Ethan Hunt’s team. When Baldwin wins, Cruise goes rogue in an attempt to track down Soloman Lane (played by Sean Harris), the sinister leader of the terrorist group known as The Syndicate (mentioned briefly at the end of the last MI movie).

As spectacular as Cruise is, the real flavor of the movie comes courtesy of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa – a spy, double spy, or something else. Ilsa is smart and exceedingly well trained, and the perfect partner/adversary for Hunt … depending on the moment. Admittedly, this viewer knew nothing of Ms. Ferguson prior to the film, as her best known work as come on TV’s “The White Queen”. While I couldn’t help but chuckle as Ilsa made her way through Casablanca, it seemed apropos since fellow Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman made cinematic history there some 73 years prior.

Simon Pegg returns and as a bigger role this time alongside Cruise. Pegg plays gadget-dude Benji Dunn, and as you would expect adds a welcome dose of comical dialogue along the way. Joining Cruise as the only actors to appear in all five MI movies is Ving Rhames as Luther. He is given little to do this time, and it’s pretty clear Mr. Rhames has not adhered to the same workout program as Mr Cruise over the years. Alec Baldwin seems to be parodying Alec Baldwin these days, and he has become a real on screen distraction – seriously in need of a change-of-pace role. Sean Harris uses his voice to generate an unusual coldness to his role as villain, and Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander deliver the expected steady turns.

With a nod to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, there is a wonderful sequence at the Venice Austria Opera House … in the background to Puccini’s Turandot. In addition to the Opera and the opening aviation-based fun, we also have an exhilarating motorcycle chase, some new and tricky high-tech gadgetry, an unusual car chase through the hairpin turns of Morocco, the patented MI “mask” trick, and plenty of fight scenes involving Cruise and Ferguson.  Even if none of that existed, fans like me would still buy a ticket just to hear the theatrical version of one of the most iconic theme songs ever written (by Lalo Schifrin).

If you are a fan of the Mission: Impossible franchise, you will undoubtedly find this to be a welcome and fun addition. And since Cruise has already signed on for another, the most impossible mission may be in determining whether he gets any older prior to its release.

watch the trailer: