“Men in Black: International” (Rated T)
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson
For last week’s review of “The Secret Life of Pets 2” and “Ma”, we ran the headline: “If ‘Men in Black’ and ‘Shaft’ are sold out, here are two mediocre picks to fill your time” – suggesting, of course, the former could be options if you couldn’t get to see those two new releases, and desperately needed to spend some money in a theater.
Well, with seven days and a week’s worth of new experience comes this sage advice – “if, by some miracle, ‘Men in Black: International’ is sold out, thank your lucky stars, and proudly watch anything, including ‘The Secret Life of Pets 2’ or ‘Ma’, or your actual pets or your ma!”
(I didn’t even waste time with “Shaft” – officially “Shaft (2019)”, so as not to be confused with its prequel “Shaft (2000)”, which was a sequel to “Shaft (1971)” [or is it a sequel to that film’s sequels “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972) and “Shaft in Africa” (1973)? – Ah, the Sweet Mysteries of Life!])
Back to “Men in Black” – which incidentally must be a mantra somewhere within Sony/Columbia Pictures; how else can one explain how we’ve come back here to have a fourth installment in this franchise, 22 years after the original film, and seven after the last?
For fans of the hit original and even its two sequels, this new “Men in Black: International” will likely feel like it’s part of an entirely different series. Yes, it still involves a secret government agency (based on the comic book series “The Men in Black”) that’s tasked with monitoring and policing alien activity on Earth.
But now we’re told while The Men in Black have expanded to cover the globe, so have the villains of the universe. To keep everyone safe, decorated agent H (Chris Hemsworth) and determined rookie M (Tessa Thompson) join forces. When aliens that can take the form of any human arrive on Earth, H and M embark on a globetrotting adventure to save the agency, and ultimately the world, from their mischievous plans.
The only references to the characters Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones portrayed in the original series are the portraits hanging on the walls of the MIB agency. Nevertheless, there is still a familiar feel to it all. That’s not necessarily a good thing. The plot here doesn’t stray far from what has seemed to be the plot for all the “Men in Black” flicks to some extent. But that never really hampered the previous films. The humor and the chemistry between Smith and Jones was always what made “Men in Black” feel special.
And while “International” certainly looks good, with all the advancements in technology in the last few years, something is seriously lacking here. It’s as if the Men in Black team should investigate this very film to determine if perhaps a very uninteresting and mundane alien has abducted it and is pretending to be a member of this franchise.
“International” reunites Hemsworth and Thompson from “Thor: Ragnarok”. They are two attractive people and fantastic actors, and both try their hardest with this material. Hemsworth, especially, is working overtime to get his characteristic charm, wit and humor into every scene. But something’s off!
The biggest problem, I suspect, is the inclusion of the sexual tension between H and M. Thompson and Hemsworth do have chemistry, but this storyline feels out of place here. And so, instead of “Men in Black”, we get something feeling more like a James Bond movie or a Tom Cruise “Mission: Impossible” picture, or any of the countless movies and TV shows with that “will they or won’t they?” sexual sub context.
What made the Smith/Jones (and Josh Brolin in the third film) “Men in Black” franchise work was that they were two very different partners, with contrasting outlooks and approaches to life, trying to work together and learning to respect each other’s differences. It was a true (reluctant) buddy comedy.
“Men in Black: International” is merely a livelier, sexier, less dour Mulder and Scully from “The X Files” – an unnecessary and generic distraction to a none-the-less snooze-worthy blip on an up-to-this-point beloved film franchise.
“Rocketman” (U.S. Rated R)
Cast: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Bryce Dallas Howard, Richard Madden
It usually happens the other way around.
There have been a couple dozen or so exceptions, but most times, musicals move from Broadway to the silver screen.
Well, “Rocketman”, the new biopic about Elton John, seems destined to be on Broadway. In fact, you may feel like you’re watching a recording of a Broadway musical.
That’s right! “Rocketman” is a musical! The commercials don’t even hint at it – probably for good reason. Even Elton John fans might be wary of watching the music of one of the most influential artists of all time set to choreographed dance routines reminiscent of both Bollywood and the kind of Technicolor extravaganzas with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
At first, it can be a jarring experience. But give it some time, and the picture’s many endearing qualities will come to light.
“Rocketman” covers a period from Elton’s awkward childhood as Reginald Dwight to his breakthrough and meteoric rise to unprecedented stardom as a very young artist, and to the point of no return for his well-documented drug and alcohol (and everything on the planet) addictions, to where he finally gets sober – essentially hopping between the late 1950s and ’60s to the 1970s when he ruled to pop charts, and into the late 1980s.
The way his songs are incorporated is certainly one of the more interesting aspects of this biopic, and will set it apart from those examining the lives of other famous drug-addicted musicians (yes, I agree, “drug-addicted” was redundant).
Taron Egerton (“Kingsman: The Secret Service”) as Elton, and most of the cast, certainly look like the folks they are portraying. But in an unusual move, the actors sing in their own voices. So, Egerton doesn’t sound like Elton; he’s not even really trying to. And it works!
It works primarily and especially because Egerton can actually sing. And his performance is amazing on every level. The future has never looked brighter for this Welshman! (You may leave the film talking more about Egerton than Elton!)
Again, the whole picture feels like one of those Broadway tributes to a musical artist or group. And there’ve been many of them, from productions about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, to Carole King, to The Temptations.
And this is where “Rocketman” opens itself up to possible criticism. Unlike some biopics that offer that raw “unauthorized biography” feel – this at nearly all times, feels like an homage to and a celebration of Elton John – who is an executive producer, and had a say in casting choices.
Sure, it does not shy away from the sexuality and drug issues. In fact, it tackles them head on. But it does seem to suggest Elton was a victim – of the times, of the music industry and of just by growing up, as he says, an unloved, chubby, gay kid.
He may not be wrong. Perhaps he was the victim. You decide! Nevertheless, none of this detracts from the creativity of “Rocketman”, an immensely enjoyable film, especially for fans of Elton’s pre-Disney work (fans will know what I mean!).
And see it if you want to witness the birth of a new “rocket man”, as Taron Egerton’s career is bound to take off like a spaceship, with one of the strongest acting performances so far this year.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.