Men In Black International

I did not have high hopes for this film, the trailers did not seem very interesting and the concept feels a little old. I happened to be in Austin this weekend and I wanted to see a movie in one of the Alamo Drafthouse Theaters and this was the one that was starting at the right time so it ended up being selected simply because of lucky timing. As it turned out it was very entertaining and there is nothing the makers of the film should hang their heads about. I think the lack of success is mostly franchise fatigue and an abundance of similar products in the marketplace.

Chris Hemsworth is still trying to break out as a star outside of the MCU, and you can see why he might choose a part like this. Although I liked him very much in some of the other films he has made, his charisma is still stuck in the God of Thunder role he has owned for a decade now. Tessa Thompson is re-matched with him and they have pretty good chemistry but neither character brings the persona the two original stars did to their parts. It seems you need more than a black suit and a lot of CGI to make this concept work.

Fortunately, there are some funny bits of dialogue and some visual gags that will keep things interesting, but it can never match the charm that the first movie had. If I were ranking however, it would certainly beat MIB 2 which had very little going for it. The concept here suggests there is a traitor in MIB. The trailer makes it seem as if the “Hive”, the supposed antagonist in the story is replicating MIB agents and replacing them. That is misleading, although there is a pretty obvious character to suspect, not because of the script but because casting demands that you make use of someone of that stature in an appropriate manner. 

The shift of the story to Europe is fine and it allows for a few ethnocentric jokes at the expense of Americans, the French, and the British. There is also a sequence set in North Africa and the Mediterranean, so we get a pretty good travelogue as we go through the acts in the film. There may be a little too much of the cutie pie alien in the story, but I did not find him annoying, just a little obvious as to his role function as comic relief. Rebecca Ferguson, Liam Neesen and Emma Thompson are also in the film, and they have slightly better roles. Everybody seems to have a letter code name, which would leave you to believe that there can’t be more than 26 MIB agents at any given time, but that is clearly not the case. There must be some other explanation.men_in_black_international_ver8

So MIB International is not an important movie or essential to any comic book narrative, but it is an entertaining couple of hours that is not too taxing on the brain. If you still like all the CGI transformations, gadgets and aliens, then you should have a pretty good time.

Bad Times at the El Royale

A few weeks ago on the Lambcast, I mentioned this film as one of my most anticipated of the Fall season. That it opened on the same weekend as “First Man” and I still have not seen that film, is a testament as to how great my interest was. It has a compelling cast, an interesting setting and the trailer hints at violence, double crosses and surprises that will delight us. For once the ads don’t lie. This movie has a whole set of twists and turns that are character based rather than plot conveniences. The narrative is non-sequential and as a result build tension but releases that tension in very unexpected ways. There was only one moment that did not seem true to the story, and it gets explained in a less than satisfactory manner, but this was a minor quibble in a film filled with unexpected treats.

The set up is slow but it reveals character secrets in a sly manner that keeps us guessing and anticipating. Some characters seem likable to begin with but turn into something else, others are obnoxious but have something valuable to them anyway, and all of them are only connected by the fact that they are at this one particular location. The “El Royale”  may be modeled after the Cal-Neva club in Lake Tahoe. Stradling the border of California and Nevada, the club was a resort for the celebrity class but also an investment by shady characters in the underworld. Frank Sinatra was an owner of the club and some of his friends in the organized crime world had dealings with the gambling and celebrities. None of that comes up directly in the story, but it is strongly hinted that the resort in the film is owned by the underworld, and even though they have lost their gambling license they still have ways to make the investment pay off.

After the arrival of the guests at the hotel, the story slips from a chronological structure to a series of flashbacks centered around each of the occupied rooms at the mostly empty resort. The characters are revealed by room number and the back stories are filled in. There is a criminal seeking a hidden cache of cash that we learned about in the opening of the movie which was set ten years earlier. A vacuum cleaner salesman appears to have a bug problem and there may or may not be a kidnapping taking place. The script, written by Director Drew Goddard, is not unlike his previous film “The Cabin in the Woods”. It turns a series of seemingly unrelated character pieces into a whole by the end of the movie. In my opinion this was much more successful at making the twists work because the film is less gimmicky and relies on the characters so much more. Jeff Bridges is the biggest name and his role gives him a chance to stretch a few muscles that he has not relied on in a number of years. While he is playing a grizzled character, it is one imbued with a odd sense of defiant melancholia. Cynthia Erivo plays a down trodden singer who is a lot sharper and world wise than she at first appears. She is also a remarkably good singer who manages to make a couple of scenes work really well as a result. Jon Hamm’s character is confusing at first and aside from some potentially insensitive racial comments might be viewed as a good guy in all of this. The film is set approximately 1970 but as I said, it trails back at times to story threads from a decade earlier.

Dakota Johnson keeps her clothes on in this film and is reasonably well cast. This movie mixes the gangster story with a horrifying twist on a late sixties nightmare of a Manson style cult. Such a cult requires a charismatic center who seems to make sense but is even crazier than the world he thinks himself to be, enter Chris Helmsworth. It’s not hard to believe that lost souls could fall under his spell and when we get to the question of real evil in the story, he leaves no doubt where it resides. The director wisely lets us imagine some things about the back stories which may actually be grimmer than what we see on the screen. If there is a revelation of an actor in the film, it is young Lewis Pullman,  who as a bell/captain manager of the hotel, has secrets he is actually desperate to reveal. If any of the stories are under developed, it might be his, but I only think that in hindsight because I suddenly want to know more, not because I need to know more.

Comparisons to Tarantino films are inevitable because of the crime milieu, the non-linear story telling and the sometimes humorous dialogue that the characters exchange. There are sudden moments of violence and characters that we have come to connect with may turnout to be mistakes or to be short for this world. I think it was all well balanced as a story but it kept me off balance as a viewer. The casino setting and the time period are great ways to make the story feel more real since characters like this have to exist in another dimension anyway, but it still has to be one that is familiar. It also then justifies the use of a whole lot of great music as backgammon as well. This is a show piece for all concerned. The actors get to sink their teeth into characters that will be completely memorable, and the director gets to show off his style while entertaining us and keeping us in suspense. As far as I’m concerned, it was a “Good Time” at the El Royale.

12 Strong

For a number of years, films about the War on Terror seemed to be cursed under a shroud of bad box office.  “The Hurt Locker” award for Best Picture not withstanding, these films were relegated to a pile of failure and artistic disappointment. Matt Damon could not bring people into “Green Zone” The combined talents of Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford actually kept audiences at bay in “Lions for Lambs”. The less said about “Stop Loss”, Rendition” and “In the Valley of Elah” the better. It seemed for some reason, Americans in particular were not interested in the subject. It turns out that what they were not interested in was being told what a failure military action is, and that the War on Terror is not worth fighting.

Two films, “American Sniper” and “Lone Survivor”  dispelled the notion that Americans were indifferent to the subject or worn out by the themes. It was the viewpoint that seemed to alter the trajectory of films set in the War on Terror. We were not disinterested in seeing films about this war, we were turned off by the negative tenor these movies took toward the political decisions being made. When the movies focus on the hard work and sacrifice made by Americans in fighting the war, rather that fighting the politics, the movies seemed to succeed. “13 Hours” set up a military disaster but showed it from a perspective of respect for the men involved. Today’s film also features a number, it is also based on declassified information and it shows the heroism of our soldiers rather than their faults. Look, no one wants to live in a world where we can’t see flawed people and decisions. But we certainly should not be limited to them and a movie like “12 Strong” tells us why.

The threats from Al Qaeda and the Taliban were real. 3000 people died on September 11, 2001 but the people of Afghanistan had been suffering for years under torturous conditions imposed by fervent believers in the interpretation of Islam that had taken control of their country.  The Taliban shelter Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda forces, and they carried out their own form of totalitarian domestic terrorism under the guise of a Nation. This film focuses on the initial military incursion by the U.S. into that territory after the 9/11 attacks. It is a complex world where alliances come together and fall apart on a weekly basis. There is tribalism that makes diplomatic matters difficult to manage. Into that situation, America sent a dozen soldiers to begin the fight and attempt to create a unified opposition to the ruling Taliban.

This movie has a few of the touchstones of a sentimental war story. There is a family at home, there is a band of brothers, and there are heroic acts by most of the men involved. There is a difference however. This story is really focused on the details of the confrontation and the difficulties of finding and keeping allies. There are only a couple of scenes where home comes up as a subject. The characters are not defined by quirks or ethnic identity or by particular personality types. This is a procedural film where the process is the real star and the men involved, while critical, are not the hook that the story hangs by. Chris Hemsworth is fine in the role as Captain Nelson, but the character is muted for much of the film. With the exception of the opening, and a moment of frustration with inconsistent allies, he is never a commanding central figure. He is the leader of the team, but it is not his personality, history or family that causes us to follow him, it is his professionalism in trying to carry out a complex assignment. His character had not been combat tested before this mission, and even though there is a small reference to his baptism under fire, the story is not about him personally. Michael Shannon plays his second in command and he always comes across as a serious and thoughtful soldier, a man who knows what his job is. There are a dozen Special Forces troops on this team, and we do meet them but rarely get to know them. We know what they job is, we know what their capabilities are but as I said, this is not really a character piece.

The director of this movie is Nicolai Fuglsig. I have not heard of him before and there is not much on his IMDB page. He does a very credible job keeping the battle sequences riveting and coherent. This is a war where they really are not uniforms and the battle lines are not drawn as clearly as we might like. He made a helicopter ride into the territories pretty exciting, even though there is no gunfire or enemy action involved. The horseback combat is also done well and is shot form plenty of angles, including from above, which helps keep the events straight in our heads.

As with most of these stories where ther is an actual historical record, the truth turns out to be as involving as the movie. The twelve men on the mission are accounted for with the real life counter parts. Several text cars at the end tell us the information we need about the after the story story. There continue to be political elements with some of the characters. Navid Negahban has had a prolific career in the last two decades playing variations of Middle Eastern characters. He is General Dostrum in this film, a man who remained part of the Afghanistan rebuilding as the war continues to this day. Negahban is impressive in the scenes he has with Hemsworth, where he conveys a cagey warrior who is suspicious and potentially duplicitous for his own purposes.

Clearly, a movie that celebrates an important victory is going to resonate more with American audiences than one that dwells on a failure. This is an efficient summary of the early part of the War in Afghanistan and maybe it can show a bit more clearly what problems the U.S. faced. Inclement weather, mountainous terrain, uncertainty about the forces you are working with and a vicious enemy. We sent good, well trained men into this situation and they came out with what might have been the greatest defeat for Al Qaeda short of killing Bin Laden. I’m willing to let the tense music, visual fireworks and the story details pull me in. If it is less than emotionally manipulative, I don’t see that as a fault, here it is it’s virtue.

 

Thor: Ragnarok

 

If anybody was holding their breath because they were worried about this film, you can let it out now. “Thor: Ragnarok” is as good as promised and entertaining as hell.  I keep hearing how it is the shortest of the Marvel Films, but it did not feel to me like it was shorting us on anything. We got an expansion of the Asgardian Universe, there are significant connections to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and “the Avengers” get to play a little in this sandbox as well. It may not be essential to the progress of the phases of the Marvel plan, but it is a solid stand-alone with enough Easter Eggs to keep the faithful happy.

I want to start with something that is usually a side-note or an endcap to most film reviews, the use of source music. Whatever they paid for the use of the Led Zeppelin “Immigrant Song”, it is worth twice that. You almost certainly heard it in the teaser trailer and you know the hypnotic effect it can have when combined with images from the film. In the movie itself, the tune gets used in two places and each one is just perfect. It works the way the “Mission Impossible” theme does, it underlies the mythos  of Thor, it accentuates the mood and it tells us that a moment of heroic action is on the way. Zeppelin may have been finished since 1980, but the songs have continued to transfix listeners for almost 40 years since they left the stage, with this use of the tune, they will safely be around for forty more years. There is one other tune that gets used in a slightly different spot. It has not been advertised so I won’t spoil it for you, but if you don’t laugh out loud when it comes up, you are either without a sense of humor, or you were never a child of the seventies.

 

Since we are on issues not related so much to the plot, let me explain how valuable a second investment the makers of these movies chose that pays off in spades. The Grandmaster is not an essential character in the Cinematic Universe, but he is essential to the humor in this film. It may be that any movie without Jeff Goldblum in it will never seem funny by comparison. You “Jurassic Park” fans will smile with every line reading. It is as if the funny parts of Ian Malcom were transplanted onto this alien being who has control of a trash planet and uses his power for evil. His line readings are incredibly arch and dry. Goldblum’s facial expressions match the vocal performance with the same kind of wit, it is never over the top but rather pitch perfect for the brief moment we are given it.

Cate Blanchett is Hela, the villainess of the film. Her character has a more reasonable explanation for existence than most of the similar female antagonists in these kinds of films do ( see “The Mummy” or “Suicide Squad for examples). In the big scheme of things, Hela turns out to be a one off for this story, but she was an exceptionally effective one off. Taika Waititi is a director that I am not familiar with although his two prior films have lots of admirers, I’ve yet to see either one of them. He deploys Blanchett in small doses and lets her actually act in some of the scenes rather than simply pose, but she does also get to pose. If the three point stance of a super-hero is now a trope, the slow motion turn of a villain must be as well, and it is used here regularly.

 

The relationship of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor to Tom Hiddlestons Loki, continues to be the thread that holds the line of films together. The characters have grown enough to be interesting, Thor is still arrogant, but he is wiser and his humor is much more self effacing than in previous installments. Loki doesn’t change so much as he does adjust to circumstances. We can almost always count on him to betray his brother, but we can also now see that he understands how important it is to have someone to betray. It is an amusing conundrum. The two actors play off of each other really well. When you throw in Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, it gets even better. At one point Thor gets the treatment that Loki did in “The Avengers” and the smirk of satisfaction on Hiddleston’s face is great.

Earlier this year we got Chris Pine in “Wonder Woman”, this film has a feature role for Karl Urban. Now we somehow have to get Zachery Quinto into one of these super hero stories so that all the main cast of the “Star Trek” films can point to a comic book movie on their resume. I did not recognize Urban at first but I did know that the actor in the part was much better than the part first appeared to require. As the film went on, there was more to it and suddenly we see why you needed an actor like Urban. Anthony Hopkins appears to finish off his role as Odin, the father of the main characters, and a figure of stature that seems to embody the idea of real Gods. He is used sparingly, but just his visage matters in the later parts of the story.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is funny as heck, with a couple of subplots that pay off in the end. I don’t see a huge tie in to the whole Marvel Universe but maybe I was laughing to hard to notice some of the connections. It feels like a seventies psychedelic comic book has come to life. The colors and characters will keep you amused and the story is just about as solid as you can get for a non-Avengers Avengers movie. It’s hard to think of this film as being part of the same world as the Spiderman film we got earlier this year, except someone clearly remembers  that the word “Comic” implies funny.