Men in Black: International

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

Director: F. Gary Gray

Writers: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway


Men in Black is one of those curious franchises that, even decades after its first release, has yet to prove itself a viable franchise. As is the case with Jurassic Park and Ghostbusters, the continuing popularity of the series has endured almost entirely because of a single original film that no subsequent release has managed to match, never mind surpass. The profits are there, to be sure, but that’s more of a marketing achievement than it is a qualitative one. On the two occasions that the original team from the 1997 hit (minus screenwriter Ed Solomon) reunited to revisit what appeared to be a strong enough foundation upon which to build a continuing franchise, the results have been underwhelming. Whatever the secret ‘X’ factor is that allowed the first Men in Black to be this perfect, unique action-comedy-sci-fi blockbuster, neither of its sequels were able to figure it out. Maybe it’s a case of lightning being captured in a bottle where the success of the original was so singular and unlikely that any attempt to recapture the magic will always be doomed to fail. Or perhaps all Sonnenfeld, Smith and Jones ever needed to do was let the original be and allow somebody else take a crack at the series. With Men in Black: International however, as directed by F. Gary Gray and featuring an all-new cast, comes yet another instalment in a franchise that still cannot justify its own continuation.

The same surface elements are there. We have a mismatched duo in the level-headed rookie Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and the devil-may-care pro Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), some big-budget special effects, and a tone that attempts to thread the needle between buddy comedy, action movie thrills and campy sci-fi. What appears to be missing is an adequate understanding of how the first movie employed those components to make it as enjoyable as it was. When Agent M (or Molly) comes to the secret agency’s London branch (after having learned of their existence and successfully applied to be recruited) and meets her new partner, a celebrated agent who saved the world once before, the spark that the two actors shared in Thor: Ragnarok is entirely absent. The movie doesn’t seem to get that in order for a mismatched double act to work, there needs to be enough contrast to fuel both the comedic and dramatic sides of things. Agents J and K worked well together because it was so much fun to watch the cockiness and immaturity of the former clash with the formality and humourlessness of the latter and there was also ample room for both characters to grow. This movie however doesn’t impart enough of a personality to either character for such a rapport to develop; Agent M is overly confident in herself but not to the point of outright arrogance while Agent H is a maverick but not to the point that he needs to be reined in. The most conflict we get between the two comes in snide remarks and knowing looks.

When it is discovered that the Men in Black (a name that inspires a mildly funny exchange between Agent M and her boss Agent O (Emma Thompson)) has been infiltrated by a mole, it is up to the rookie and her hunky partner to track them down. The case takes them all over the world from Marrakesh to Paris to Naples and along the way there are plenty of action scenes to be had, high-tech gadgets to be used, and weird-looking aliens to meet. It’s a convoluted plot that involves an alien race called the Hive of which we learn little, a three-armed femme fatale named Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), and a tiny weapon capable of Death Star levels of destruction. The movie mostly concerns itself with world building on the mistaken belief that complicating the story is the same thing as making it more interesting. Instead we get a film at odds with itself as it tries to make sense of its own mess. One major plot point is how Agent H has never been the same since the celebrated mission when he and his former partner High T (Liam Neeson) saved the world, a point that holds little water when you compare Hemsworth’s performance in the opening flashback to the rest of the film. On both occasions he plays the role of the dashing hero leaping head first into battle and always wearing a cocky smile. If there was any change in his behaviour, it escaped me.

What the film needed to focus on far more pressingly was the comedy, of which there is depressingly little save for the odd comment made by a tiny, Jiminy-Cricket-looking alien named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani). Even if the plot made any kind of sense on its own terms, it wouldn’t matter a bit if the audience didn’t have any fun watching it. The movie gives its two leads little in the way of actual jokes, opting instead for the kind of light, semi-improvisatory banter that tends to prevail in American comedies nowadays, trusting that the stars’ shared charisma and chemistry will be enough to carry the audience through. In a big-budget sci-fi romp that’s constantly rushing from one action set-piece to the next, these scenes grow increasingly meagre and tedious in their aimlessness and failure to add any spark or energy to a movie already lacking in such sensation. Gray, who boasts an adequate enough filmography to feel like a safe bet for this kind of title, directs the movie with the kind of perfunctory competence that is the lifeblood of passable movies. Passable, however, is the wrong approach for a property this weird; the Men in Black universe demands the touch of a director who can transmit a wackier, more cartoonish personality than what Gray has to offer. His style, if it can even be called that, feels far too routine and indifferent.

Too much of Men in Black: International feels calculated in its course rather than inspired. Towards the end as the film starts to realise that it needs to offer some kind of emotional payoff, it suddenly takes a turn and plays around with vague ideas that feel like they were half-heartedly thrown it at the last minute. It’s not even terribly clear what ideas the movie is trying to impart, but as things start to slow down and the music starts playing it’s obvious that we’re supposed to be moved by whatever is happening on screen. I guess there’s something about love or friendship there, although it isn’t really clear which since the film never quite makes its mind up on whether it wants Agents M and H to be understood as love interests or if their relationship is to remain strictly platonic. There’s also some hint of a past trauma that one of them is supposed to overcome, but that whole arc is so confused that it’s difficult to say for sure. The reason these themes are so difficult to define is because they are so largely concerned with indefinitely elaborated relationships and underwritten characters. Whatever ideas this film has on its mind, it doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring them beyond the minimum required for whatever they think constitutes an emotional beat. So long as it feels like something significant has been said or done, it doesn’t really matter what that is; that’s how little this movie cares about anything beyond the bottom line.

★★

Advertisements

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, B.D. Wong, Isabella Sermon, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum

Director: J.A. Bayona

Writers: Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow


I think what surprised me the most about this film was how much the trailers gave away and yet how little they prepared me. After watching the adverts I was able to predict beat for beat how the events were going to unfold and who was going to end up where doing what right up to the third act, but even now I am still astonished by how fundamentally ridiculous and derivative it all was. After the first Jurassic World, which I enjoyed and felt brought something new to the franchise while still remaining true to the original’s spirit but still fell short of the standard, I wasn’t expecting anything amazing. Even then, I still cannot wrap my head around what I saw. Fallen Kingdom is somehow both unremarkable for how dull and banal most of its story and action is and also mindboggling for the utter lunacy behind some of the choices that were made. This is an Attack of the Clones level of ineptitude I’m talking about here where it doesn’t seem possible for a movie to be this insanely stupid and still be so lacklustre.

Picking up after the events of Jurassic World that led to the closure of the park, the lives of the dinosaurs are now threatened by the impending eruption of a formerly inactive volcano on the island. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now running an organisation lobbying for the protection of the dinosaurs, is about to lose hope when she is approached by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the prim, proper, and seemingly earnest businessman who always appears in these kinds of movies. He runs the organisation responsible for resurrecting the dinosaurs, owned by Dr. Hammond’s former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and they are putting together a rescue operation. They need Claire’s help to track the dinosaurs and bring them back safely, especially Blue, the intelligent and last living velociraptor. In an eye-rolling twist, Claire realises that the only person in the world who can rein Blue in is the last person in the world she wants to see, her ex-boyfriend and Blue’s former trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). Owen has no interest in joining their operation but, after speaking to Claire and realising that there’s no movie if he sits it out, he agrees.

Things are a-go and Claire assembles her team, which as well as Owen includes Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), an IT technician who screams whenever anything moves, makes a sound, or exists, and Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), a dino vet who has never actually treated nor even seen a dinosaur in the flesh. They tag along with a mercenary troop led by the gung-ho Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) and head for the island on the day that the volcano is scheduled to erupt. Here they must contend with rampant dinosaurs, scorching lava, and double-crossing mercenaries serving some ulterior motive. After nearly drowning in a pod, shot in a single take from within the spherical trap as it gradually fills up with water (the best action scene in the film), Owen, Claire, and the comic reliefs realise that they’ve been had and must stow away on the departing cargo ship to escape. One tedious, drawn-out scene later, they reach their destination and there learn the insidious reason why these dinosaurs were saved from their doom.

The remainder of the movie takes place in a Gothic mansion like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe novel with thunder and lightning all through the night and secrets around every corner (which might have been fine if I weren’t there to watch a dinosaur movie) and what we get is this tiresome and underwhelming game of cat and mouse (or, rather, dinosaur and human). As Claire and Owen work to liberate the captive creatures they cross paths with a seedy, villainous character played by Toby Jones (because they’re always played by Toby Jones), Lockwood’s young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), the obligatory kid who gets herself into all kinds of trouble but never comes to any harm, and another generically evil, blandly-designed, genetically-engineered dinosaur. It really bothers me how both Jurassic World movies have featured lab-designed dinosaurs as their big bads but have neglected to push the boundaries of what’s really possible, opting instead to make both of them barely distinguishable variations of raptors and T-Rexes. If you’re going to invent your own dinosaur, then get creative! Give them triceratops horns or a stegosaurus spike tail or pterodactyl wings or laser eyes or something! Anything!

Anyway, that’s the least of this movie’s problems. After the conclusion to Jurassic World with the escape of the dinosaurs and the collapse of the park provided the set-up to many interesting possible directions, Fallen Kingdom takes so many steps backwards it winds up retreading the territory they’ve already explored in the other films. The very idea of a nefarious organisation sending their team of idealistic, naïve characters to an island of dinosaurs to serve some secret scheme is straight out of The Lost World, except this time there’s a volcano. The movie is filled to the brim with scenes and images copied and pasted directly from the previous Jurassic Park films including the kid hiding from the dinosaur in an enclosed space, the predatory dinosaur falling through the glass, and the human villain getting chomped by the T-Rex. I know that there are certain things that we except to see in a Jurassic Park film the way we do with Star Wars and the Marvel movies, but there has to be some variation and progression. By revisiting the same plot in the same way and following the same beats, all this movie is demonstrating is that the characters in this universe are incapable of learning from their own mistakes. Fallen Kingdom even rips off its direct predecessor by splitting up Owen and Claire just so we can watch them argue about everything all over again before inevitably getting back together.

There is only one thing I really admire about this film and that is its willingness to confront the moral argument at the heart of the Jurassic Park films. What I love about the original 1993 film is how well it captured the sense of miraculous wonder that came with seeing living, breathing dinosaurs for the first time, allowing you to care for the creatures while still fearing them for all the chaos and destruction they could cause. The film acknowledges how dangerous it is for science to try and tamper with nature and the subsequent films have done nothing but confirm and reinforce the idea that bringing these dinosaurs back to life was a mistake. Time after time after time human attempts to control and interfere with them have failed as the beasts have consistently proven that they cannot be contained and that there is no place for them in a world where they are no longer the dominating species. Thus, faced with the prospect of a second extinction of the dinosaurs, Fallen Kingdom debates the question over whether they should be allowed to live or die. But then it bungles that debate in the most inept, outrageous way imaginable.

Before the plot gets started we sit in on a hearing held by Congress on whether they should act to save the dinosaurs or not. In this scene Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is invited to testify and he argues in favour of extinction. He reasons that the dinosaurs had their time on Earth a long, long time ago and that bringing them back to life was a mistake that has blown up in humanity’s face more than once. This imminent volcanic eruption is an act of God and it strikes Dr. Malcolm as nature’s way of correcting itself. Therefore let nature take its course. Let the dinosaurs die. In a movie that’s supposed to have me root for Claire and Owen’s team and their goal to save the dinosaurs, it doesn’t speak well that in less than five minutes of screen-time Dr. Malcolm won the moral debate hands down. Not a single thing that happens in this movie convinces me that these creatures deserve their chance at life, especially not after Fallen Kingdom makes its case with a plot twist and a resolution that defies any sense of logic, reason or sanity. Never before have I been so horrified by the catastrophic implications of what is supposed to be an uplifting, optimistic ending.

Fallen Kingdom is a formulaic, characterless Hollywood sequel that stomps along with the same sense of purpose as a soulless, genetically-engineered dinosaur. There is nothing at all to emotionally invest the viewer in the events of this film. There is no sensation of majesty or wonder about the dinosaurs because the movie never makes any time for it. There is no suspense in any of the action or story because the movie advertises everything it’s about to do and then explains it all after the fact anyway. It’s not even as good as The Lost World (which is already a low bar to set) because Bayona’s direction, while competent, isn’t a match for 1990’s Steven Spielberg. There is also no affection, humour or wisdom in any of these characters because there is no feeling in anything that they do. The one and only character who exhibits any shred of humanity in this film is the one who has just had enough of it all, the one who feels that everything has run its course and that there’s nothing more to say or do. I don’t want to walk away from a Jurassic Park movie agreeing with the guy who thinks that the dinosaurs should be left to die so that the rest of us can move on with our lives but here we are. That is how badly this movie dropped the ball.

The BFG

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Melissa Mathison


Roald Dahl had a singular gift for capturing children’s imaginations. In novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and the Giant Peach he demonstrated an uncanny ability to see the world through the eyes of a child. While adults tend to have their feet grounded in reality, children are able to accept the impossible in stride, something that Dahl fully embraced. His stories were creative, silly and relatable and they dealt with the fantastic and the bizarre in a very matter-of-fact way. Sometimes they could be dark (I remember this one passage in The BFG that described what all the different children of the world tasted like) but the baddies always got their just deserts in the end and there was always a moral for kids to take away. There are few films that can match the childlike wonder of Dahl’s work, but E.T. is unquestionably one of them. I cannot think of a more suitable team to bring one of Dahl’s stories to life than Spielberg and Mathison.

Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) lives in a London orphanage where she often reads into the late hours of the night when everyone else is asleep. One night at the “witching hour” she spots an elderly giant lurking in the shadows outside of her window. The giant snatches her from her bed and carries her all the way to Giant Country. There the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) explains that she must remain in his home forever so that she may never reveal the existence of giants to the world. The other giants are all enormous, repulsive bullies with names like Fleshlumpeater (Jermaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) who spend their nights stealing children and eating them. The BFG meanwhile spends his days capturing dreams which he then casts into children’s minds as they sleep. As Sophie becomes friends with the BFG, she determines that something needs to be done about the rest of the giants and enlists the BFG to help her.

The plot, much like in E.T., is very simple and minimal, allowing for more time to focus on the interactions between Sophie and the BFG. This movie is perfectly content with putting the story on hold so that a moment may be allowed to play out. Even when the plot does move forward in the third act with Sophie and the BFG appealing to the Queen of England, the film still finds time for an amusing scene the morning after where the disparity between the giant and the humans is played on for comic effect. The film also pauses to focus on moments of enchantment, as when the BFG takes Sophie to the pool where he collects his dreams. It is a tremendous scene that allows the viewer to get lost in the magic for a moment. Other times the film simply lets Sophie and the BFG talk to each other, allowing us to enjoy the evolution of a fascinating and unlikely friendship.

Despite the vast differences between them, Sophie and the BFG are remarkably similar in a number of crucial ways. They are both outsiders, Sophie being an orphan and the BFG being the runt of the giants. Both are childish in certain ways and adult in others, meaning they must both be responsible for each other. Sophie is mature for her age but is still helpless against the giants, therefore it is the BFG’s responsibility to protect her. The BFG however is rather scatter-brained and timid, making it Sophie’s responsibility to mother him. Barnhill makes her splendid debut as the clever and witty Sophie while Rylance is simply magical as the odd and affectionate giant. In a motion-capture performance that rivals even those of Andy Serkis, Rylance’s delivery of the BFG’s garbled lines and realisation of his peculiar movements amount to an utterly charming character. The friendship the two of them form is the heart of this movie and watching their interactions was a delight.

The BFG is a movie about dreams and stories, family and childhood, and having courage in the face of adversity. It is above all a film about friendship. It is a tale of kindness, valour and goodness winning against bullying, malice and cruelty. The movie is patient and clever enough that it doesn’t need to constantly keep the story moving forward for fear of losing the children’s attention. The magical world it depicts and the enjoyable characters it portrays are both fascinating enough to keep the viewer engaged, even in the moments where there doesn’t seem to be much happening. The film doesn’t have the emotional punch of E.T. but it has the creativity, humour and wonder. The BFG is an endearing, kind-hearted movie that I’d like to think Mr. Dahl would’ve been proud of. I think it is a worthy fulfilment of the book I enjoyed so fondly as a child and I hope it is one that will resonate with children today.

★★★★

X+Y

Cast: Asa Butterfield, Sally Hawkins, Rafe Spall, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann

Director: Morgan Matthews

Writer: James Graham


Before embarking on this film Morgan Matthews directed another film called Beautiful Young Minds, a documentary that followed the British team that competed in the 2006 International Mathematical Olympiad. While making this film he saw that many of the young mathematicians he filmed had varying forms of autism. He saw how they would often struggle to understand and make sense of other people and how mathematics was able to provide them with the order and stability that they sought. So moved and inspired was by these boys that he set out to make a film based on their experiences. X+Y is the result of this ambition.

The film is centred on Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) who is diagnosed with autism at the age of 6. Even at such a young age he is shown to possess an advanced mind but displays a clear incomprehension towards people and the world around him. He is able to make some sense of the world with the aid of his father Michael (Martin McCann) until he loses him in a car accident. After that happens nothing makes sense anymore. The only place where he can find any sense of order is in the study of mathematics and so his mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) enlists a special maths teacher called Humphreys (Rafe Spall) to tutor him. Julie is a mother who was never prepared to have a child who requires special care and struggles to form any kind of a reciprocal bond between them. She constantly tries to show her love to Nathan and tries to become more involved in his life but receives only puzzlement and indifference in return. Humphreys is a former mathematical prodigy who also competed in the Olympiad. Today he suffers from Multiple Sclerosis and resents himself for not having lived up to his potential. He sees much of himself in Nathan and does not want him to end up like himself.

When Nathan reaches the age of 16 he decides to try out for the International Mathematical Olympiad. He lacks self-confidence and is at an age where it is difficult to be socially awkward, and so he relies heavily on Humphreys who is effectively his one and only friend. Mathematics is the one thing that Nathan truly enjoys and so he pushes himself to be the best at it. He does well in his test and is chosen to join a training program in Taiwan where he will have the chance to qualify for Great Britain’s team. He is sent there along with eleven other British pupils who, like Nathan, are all smart but, unlike Nathan, most of them are able to get along socially. This leads Nathan to experience a sense of alienation and inadequacy. His father had often reassured him that his condition was a little like having super powers, and so it is discouraging for Nathan to find himself in a place where he is “depressingly average”. Not only does he struggle to distinguish and to express himself, he also finds it difficult to interpret his own feelings when he is partnered up with the pretty Zhang Mei (Jo Yang). The film’s overarching story is about Nathan’s quest to come out of his shell and to learn to understand his own thoughts and feelings.

Asa Butterfield does a convincingly good job of playing Nathan and of portraying the symptoms of autism. Nathan is ultimately a young man who only wants order and balance in his life but loses them when he loses his father. He is unable to understand the true depths of his father’s loss or the profound effect it has had on him. Instead he tries to compensate for his absence with the logical stability found in mathematics, inadvertently neglecting his mother in the process. When he leaves his comfort zone he is forced to confront his feelings. The film draws an interesting parallel to Nathan through the character of Luke Shelton (Jake Davies), another autistic student who estranges the rest of the team through his hostile anti-social behaviour. Luke is able to understand that people tend not to like him but is unable to figure out how to win them over. Like Nathan he has turned to mathematics as a source of comfort and reassurance. When Nathan sees how volatile Luke can become, it adds some perspective to his own life and struggles.

Matthews has stated that it was not his intention to make a film about autism, but about the experiences of one boy on the spectrum. What results is a touching film about the challenges and struggles faced by Nathan in his journey to understand the world and himself. He comes to learn that not everything in the world makes sense nor can they all be broken down to ones and zeros. Instead of his head he must learn to rely on his heart in order to understand the natures of love, grief, and joy.

★★★★