Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Far From Home


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Peter Parker and his friends go on summer vacation to Europe and there Peter finds himself trying to save his friends against a villain known as Mysterio.

Stars: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Marisa Tomei, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, J.B. Smoove,

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  In some ways, Spider-Man: Far From Home was always bound to be disappointing.  Being the follow-up to the biggest movie on the planet and arriving barely two months after it’s release is an unenviable position.  Here’s the kicker, though.  If you believe the trade papers then it seems Sony, which still owns the rights to Spider-Man and has loaned him out to Marvel Studios for his work in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame, actually pushed to have this particular release date so close to the final Avengers film.  It’s a strange strategy because everyone is bound to compare this to the juggernaut last chapter of Iron Man and his team which is still playing in many theaters and is even being re-released with new footage around the same time Spider-Man is swinging into cinemas.

Yet here we are, with another comic book superhero movie and, if you count the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, our fourth big-screen appearance of Spider-Man in a year.  Sony is playing chicken with audiences and betting they aren’t suffering from Spidey fatigue yet and based on the genial but oddly underwhelming Spider-Man: Far From Home I’m guessing they made the right call at express shipping this next chapter into theaters right in time for the July 4th holiday.  Though flawed in the action department and failing to provide a showcase for an A-list actor trying his hand at playing an evil genius villain, the film succeeds best when it focuses on the people and not the effects.

As this site is spoiler-free as much as possible, a caveat that while the plot secrets of Spider-Man: Far From Home will remain hidden there are elements from Avengers: Endgame I’ll have to discuss.

So, if you don’t want the end of Avengers: Endgame spoiled for you then it’s best to turn back now.

You ready?

You sure?

OK.

Seriously.  This is your last chance.

I’m going to spoil something, don’t be mad.

OK…here we go.

Picking up where Avengers: Endgame left off, Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Impossible) is still mourning the deaths of Captain America, Black Widow, Vision, and his mentor Tony Stark/Iron Man.  With the rest of the Avengers dispersed on their own missions around the world and in other galaxies, Peter is getting back to a routine in school and making the occasional appearance as Spider-Man to help raise funds with his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, The Paper) to support the population vaporized in The Snap that were returned in what came to be known as The Blip.  As the school year winds to a close, Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) prepare for their science trip abroad which will take them across Europe.  Ned is looking forward to spending time with his friend as bachelors overseas while Peter is more interested in getting closer to MJ (Zendaya, The Greatest Showman).

The group has barely arrived in Venice when the floating city is attacked by one of four elementals, a creature made of water that goes about destroying everything in its path.  Before Peter can jump into action and save the day, Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners) appears and helps vanquish the threat with some marginal assistance from your friendly traveling neighborhood Spider-Man.  Recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Shaft), Beck teams up with Peter to take on the final elemental who is due to show up in Prague, where Fury reroutes Peter’s class trip (though what his school is doing in Europe is a mystery, it’s never clear why they’ve traveled overseas) so he can believably stay part of the action.  Dubbed Mysterio by the press, Beck quickly (too quickly) becomes a new Stark-ish figure to Peter, establishing a trust that hides a darker agenda.  When Beck’s true nature is revealed it’s up to Peter and his friends (including Jon Favreau, The Wolf of Wall Street, as Tony Stark’s former bodyguard) to eventually save London and its key landmarks from danger.

What may surprise viewers is how long director Jon Watts takes to get to the first round of action in the film.  Aside from a very brief prologue there’s not another major action scene for nearly a half hour and, truthfully, I didn’t mind at all.  The characters established so well in Spider-Man: Homecoming have been brought back fully realized and we’re dropped right back into their mix without much adjustment needed.  When the action does start, in that first battle in Venice, the film gets less interesting almost immediately and it’s because we’re focused less on the people and more on the sturm und drang of it all.  It doesn’t help the action sequences are curiously flat and rarely edge-of-your-seat exciting like previous Marvel (and Sony Spider-Man) films have been.  Even the effects seem off and uneven, like the film wasn’t quite ready by time it had to go to theaters.

Another stumbling block is, surprisingly, Gyllenhaal as Beck/Mysterio.  I had high hopes for the actor entering this universe and lending some of his trademark intensity to a character.  Usually, Gyllenhaal has an interesting way into inhabiting whatever role he’s taking on but he was either stymied by the studio heads or just opted for the wrong approach because he’s dramatically inert here.  Watch the movie and see if you can spot how many times Gyllenhaal moves throughout – you rarely seem him walking or making any kind of actionable movement, the majority of his performance he’s sitting or standing still.  It’s like he was performing injured or filming his scenes in one soundstage over the course of two days.  What should have been a nice match of actor and fan favorite villain was a whiff and a miss for me, extra disappointing because I am a big fan of the actor.

The movie is saved in no small part due to the performances given by Holland and Zendaya, both of whom were appealing in their first film paired together but now have honest to goodness chemistry that is entirely palpable.  In Holland, we finally have a Spider-Man/Peter Parker that feels like he’s the right age and the actor plays him as more than an angsty teen longing to be more than the sum of his Spidey parts.  He knows the great responsibility he has and understands why Tony chose him, but doesn’t want to continue to miss out on the life that doesn’t include inter-galactic wars and infinity stones.  Zendaya isn’t your cookie-cutter MJ and mores the better.  I like her awkwardness and affinity for the darker side of history.  Like she did with Zac Efron in The Greatest Showman, she plays well off her costar and helps them to shine.

Based on the reactions of the audience at my screening, maybe I’m the one that’s fatigued at the present moment with these films.  Perhaps my attraction to the pieces of Spider-Man: Far From Home that had nothing to do with action or effects say something about were my attention is at this point and time.  I still don’t think Gyllenhaal is doing anywhere near his best work and the previous Spider-Man film was, in my opinion, more focused, unexpected, and heads and tails more entertaining from start to finish.  We’re all trained by this point to stay through the credits but the mid-credit stinger and post-credit scene are absolutely essential.  The final scene actually changes something about the movie entirely – don’t miss it or you’ve missed a huge piece of the story.

Movie Review ~ Midsommar


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple travels to Sweden to visit a rural hometown’s fabled mid-summer festival. What begins as an idyllic retreat quickly devolves into an increasingly violent and bizarre competition at the hands of a pagan cult.

Stars: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, Vilhem Blomgren, William Jackson Harper, Ellora Torchia, Archie Madekwe

Director: Ari Aster

Rated: R

Running Length: 140 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: For all the unfettered glee I feel every time a new horror movie comes out, such as the recently released Annabelle Comes Home, and as much as I love a gooey creature feature like the upcoming Crawl, I must admit to experiencing an overwhelming bout of anxiety when staring down a screening like Midsommar. It’s not just because I knew it clocked in at nearly two and a half hours, either, but it’s something about films of this particular genre of horror that I find deeply unsettling. Watching what should be idyllic slowly turn into a nightmare with no escape is what I imagine it must feel like to be in a pot of water slowly brought to a roiling boil.

Though it feels like it’s been out longer, it’s only been a year since writer/director Ari Aster dealt his first major blow to my nerves with Hereditary. The 2018 jaw-dropper came out of the festival circuit with a great deal of buzz and mostly delivered on its promise of classy scares wrapped up in a family drama. Lead by an astoundingly terrific performance by Toni Collette, the movie only stumbled in its final moments. The first time I saw the film that final misstep was enough for me to dismiss it almost completely but revisiting it later and watching it with a more holistic view of the characters I found more to appreciate in Aster’s vision. I still really hated that ending, though.

My hope is that you haven’t been inundated with trailers for Midsommar yet and my advice is to avoid any additional previews or clips for the film before seeing it. That way, you can let the tension build at Aster’s pace and not be waiting for particular images or sequences you already know are coming. This is a deliberate movie that takes it’s time toying with the audience and I’m guessing that’s going to alienate the shifty moviegoer that expects a scare every ten minutes. Like Hereditary, Midsommar isn’t in any rush to reveal its secrets or play by a standard set of rules.   Also similar to Aster’s previous work, his sophomore film makes some strangely calculated missteps that have the completely wrong effect on the audience at the worst possible time.

Before the title card pops up, Aster has already given the audience a taste of the kind of emotional toll the movie will take. Still reeling from a recent trauma, Dani (Florence Pugh, The Commuter) is invited by her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor, On the Basis of Sex) to tag along on a summer trip to Sweden with his three friends. All are attending a midsummer festival in the remote village where Pelle (Vilhem Blomgren) grew up. Anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper, All Good Things) feels this is the perfect subject for his ongoing thesis while Mark (Will Poulter, We’re the Millers) is there for the girls and life experience. Already on the fringe for being seen as Christian’s emotionally troubled girlfriend, Dani’s presence adds a layer of fraught tension into what was to be a freewheeling trip of a lifetime.

Arriving in the commune as the nine day celebration is about to begin, the group is welcomed with open arms by the friendly folk and are eventually introduced to the culture and rules of the land. Right off the bat, the weirdness of the place is palpable but Aster wisely tempers that by having Dani and her friends not turn into crass, ugly Americans. Instead, they are presented as identifying the customs as strange but recognizing a cultural specificity they just might not understand immediately. This helps the audience, too, in accepting why the visitors don’t pack it up and hit the road the moment the first ominous event occurs.

I’ll stop with giving away more of the plot at this point because once the festival truly begins all bets are off and nothing can really prepare you for what happens. Yes, some of the events are probably what you think they are but there are more turns that you won’t be able to see coming. I wasn’t able to watch several parts of the film, the visuals were just too upsetting and not simply because of any violence or gore but because of some emotional sadness that is attached to what occurs. Like Hereditary, there’s little pleasure to be derived at what befalls the characters (good or bad) and by the time the film ended I was appropriately rattled.  Make no doubt about it, as extreme as Hereditary was in parts, Midsommar aims for a higher squirm factor and achieves it with fairly little effort.

Without a strong lead, the film wouldn’t have been as effective as it was and Aster lucked out again with a perfect star. Pugh is still gaining momentum in Hollywood and no matter how well this does at the box office I expect the movie to help increase her cache for future projects. While it doesn’t afford her quite the satisfactory journey as Collette was given in Hereditary, there’s plenty of meat on the bone for Pugh to chew on. Reynor’s character is trickier and without giving too much away you have to get to a certain place with him for the climax to work and I didn’t quite make it. Still…major kudos to him for participating in a scene that will likely be the most talked about and shared on the internet. The rest of the cast is strong as well, with particularly good attention paid to the casting of the villagers. Down to the smallest walk-on role Aster has chosen people that I completely believed were a part of this tribe.  Extra special notice to Gunnel Fred as Siv, the materfamilias of the commune that welcomes the outsiders in and then expects their full participation as the festival reaches its most pivotal ceremony.

Do I feel the movie could have been shorter? Sure, I mean two hours and twenty minutes is a long time to spend with these themes and this type of extreme experience. It’s an unsettling film and while it takes an unfortunate turn near the end that elicited mood-shattering laughs from the audience, it manages to get back into its lane by the time the credits roll. With Hereditary, I was willing to give it another go because the family dynamics were something I was interested in exploring a bit more. While I enjoyed Midsommar and understood its themes, I’m not certain it’s one I could see again…there’s just too much sadness involved.  Still, if you can stomach it and have a hunger for elevated horror this is one to seek out and sink down into.

Movie Review ~ Yesterday

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A struggling musician realizes he’s the only person on Earth who can remember The Beatles after waking up in an alternate timeline where they never existed.

Stars: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Joel Fry

Director: Danny Boyle

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It’s not like we haven’t had a movie featuring the music of The Beatles before. Starting with A Hard Day’s Night in 1964 starring the quartet from Liverpool themselves followed by 1965’s Help! and 1968’s Yellow Submarine, the songs lived on in more films. There was the infamous Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band released in 1978, the same year future Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis made the underrated comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Along with the various biopics and documentaries, I can’t forget 2007’s powerhouse but eternally divisive Across the Universe which found director Julie Taymor incorporating the music of The Beatles into an original story within a full blown movie musical.

What would happen, though, if The Beatles never became famous and their music never heard? What if only one person remembered their songs and claimed them as his own, riding their timeless sincerity and undeniable musicality to potential fame and fortune? That’s the set-up promised by the supposed romantic comedy Yesterday and judging from the trailers and promos I was expecting a light musical fantasy positing an intriguing question to a summer audience. Halfway through the summer, a movie free of exploding planets and avenging superheroes was a tune I was interested in hearing.

How strange, then, to find Yesterday one of the more heavy-handed films so far this summer. There are many elements of the movie that work fairly well independently of each other but put them all together and there is a perplexing discord no one can overcome. Looking at the pedigree of those involved, including an Oscar winning director, a much-lauded screenwriter known for making his comedic romances float without being fluff, and two appealing leads, this should have been a slam dunk sleeper summer hit. Instead, it just becomes a snooze.

Struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is getting ready to hang up his guitar for good. Living with his parents after quitting job as a teacher, he’s been trying to make it as a singer-songwriter while working a part time job at a local superstore. The gigs organized by his childhood friend and manager Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) aren’t leading to anything of substance and though his friends are loyal supporters, the work he’s putting out into the world isn’t catching fire. The night of his last gig, after telling Ellie he’s quitting, he’s struck by a bus during a worldwide blackout, losing two teeth in the process. It’s not the only thing lost when the lights go out.

Shortly after he recovers, he’s plucking out the notes to ‘Yesterday’ for Ellie and his friends and discovers not only do they not know the song, they’ve never heard of the men that wrote it or the famous band they were a part of. Searching the internet for John Paul George Ringo only brings back the page for Pope John Paul II and looking for The Beatles keeps directing him to the Wikipedia page for insect. Could it be that the entire world had forgotten…or that they never existed at all? At first, Jack is reluctant to use the music to his advantage but the more positive responses he gets the more emboldened he becomes to “write” more and more of the back catalog for The Fab Five. The only trouble he faces is remembering the lyrics to several key songs…after all, if the songs only exist in his head the lyrics aren’t scribbled down anywhere for him to reference.  That’s why he struggles mightily with the complex ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and mixes up the order of ‘For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.’

As Jack starts to skyrocket to fame, his relationship with Ellie changes from chums to maybe something more. All these years they have been best friends…but were both hoping for love to blossom and waiting for the other to make the first move? With Jack’s path taking him away from home and keeping the two apart, the movie unfortunately tries to shoehorn in a romance that doesn’t feel like it wants to be there. Part of that problem is that, for as likable as Patel and Collins are individually, they generate absolutely no romantic chemistry at all. In the friends department, they are believable as pals but every time they are supposed to be pining for each other there are no sparks created.  I get that Yesterday is first and foremost supposed to wear its romance on its sleeve but that the movie keeps returning to this plot that utterly halts any and all forward progress is a major failure.  Without any true pull for the audience to root for Jack and Ellie to be together, I was left wondering if they were meant to be a couple at all.  Why?  Because the movie laws say they should be?  It’s not like either make any huge sacrifice (save for a hammy grand gesture near the climax) for the other…I just couldn’t understand why we should care.

Some of that is the fault of the script from Curtis (About Time) which is uncharacteristically free of heart. What I’ve always appreciated about the way Curtis fashions a screenplay is the way he is able to bring not only the two leads together in a witty way but in the method he involves the supporting players as well. Think about the ensemble casts of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Yes, the stars stick in your mind but so do the nicely drawn people surrounding them. That’s another problem here. Aside from Patel and Collins, the supporting cast in Yesterday are completely forgettable. The ones that stick out do so for the wrong reasons. As Jack’s annoying friend and roadie Rocky, Joel Fry (Paddington 2) is basically the exact same character Rhys Ifans played much better (and to 100% more laughs) in Notting Hill. Treating her performance like an extended SNL sketch, Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters) squares herself as Jack’s Los Angeles manager to be so nasty that what is supposed to be funny just comes off as mean-spirited and, ultimately, exasperating. McKinnon started as such a breath of fresh air but her act is stale.  Playing himself in an extended cameo, Ed Sheeran shouldn’t quit his day job.

The biggest issue with the movie is the director. At the end of the day Danny Boyle (Trance) was just, I think, not the right director for this film. Though he’s shown an agility with movies that have a bit of a fantastical edge to them (go watch Millions if you don’t believe me), he seems totally lost at how to keep Yesterday from dragging almost from the beginning. The movie should have a snap to it, especially considering the numerous up-tempo numbers sung by Patel who has quite a lovely singing voice. Instead, these musical moments feel cold and unwelcoming. For a movie with so many magical points of interest there is little whimsy to be had. Curtis introduces an extra twist to the circumstances where we find out that it’s not just The Beatles that were erased from existence and Jack isn’t the only one that remembers how things once were…but Boyle never takes those ideas further so they become footnotes to the unexplained phenomena instead of additional clues.

In some ways I wonder if this wouldn’t have worked better as part of some sort of Black Mirror-ish type of show. Pushing up against the two-hour mark, the film struggles to justify that length and stretches on longer than it has to. One thing I will say that it has going for it (aside from the soundtrack which I secured fairly quickly) was that I didn’t quite know what to expect from the ending and what I thought would happen didn’t. There was an easy way to end the movie and a more complicated resolution and the film took the road less traveled.  I don’t think it will satisfy the average movie-goer, though the woman next to me was bouncing around in her seat throughout and practically dancing during the hummable closing credits.  Under the watchful eye of a director less interested in reality and the recasting of McKinnon’s character, Yesterday would be an improvement.  Right now, it’s helter skelter.

Movie Review ~ Annabelle Comes Home


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Determined to keep Annabelle from wreaking more havoc, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren bring the possessed doll to the locked artifacts room in their home, placing her “safely” behind sacred glass and enlisting a priest’s holy blessing. But an unholy night of horror awaits as Annabelle awakens the evil spirits in the room, who all set their sights on a new target-the Warrens’ ten-year-old daughter, Judy, and her friends.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Iseman, McKenna Grace, Katie Sarife, Michael Cimino

Director: Gary Dauberman

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When I first heard the filmmakers behind The Conjuring were interested in creating a universe of their own which would do for horror what Marvel did for superhero comic book movies, I was pretty dubious as to how it would all pan out. I mean, The Conjuring was such a perfect scare machine that its unexpected success with audiences, critics, and the box office of course meant a sequel would be produced but were there enough good ideas to truly expand it into something bigger? Moreover, would the real life case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren continue to be used or would new poltergeists haunting houses be unearthed?

The first attempt out of the gate was 2014’s lackluster Annabelle, a direct spin-off from The Conjuring centering on the scary doll. The film had a creepy vibe but failed deliver anything more than surface shockwaves. While The Conjuring 2 in 2016 had its moments of excellence it came down with a case of sequel-it is and overstayed its welcome. Then, a minor miracle occurred in 2017 with the release of Annabelle: Creation, which managed to improve upon its predecessor by some truly terrifying leaps and bounds. Consider how well put together that film was and how nicely it managed to fold in elements from all the films that came before, it felt like the filmmakers took in the criticism received from the previous films and made the changes necessary to keep this universe expanding.

Now, something very strange and special is happening within The Conjuring Universe as it continues to grow as a rapid pace. While 2018’s The Nun and The Curse of La Llorna from this past April stumbled a bit (but still did good numbers at the box office), things are back on the terror track with the release of Annabelle Comes Home, another strong entry that bodes well for the future of this franchise. Employing a healthy dose of atmosphere long before the real scares begin, it rewards longtime fans of the series and invites newcomers in with a wicked grin.  While it largely benefits from the jump scare, there are an equal amount of frights that come when you least expect them and plenty of misdirects to goose your bumps nicely.

So far, each Annabelle tale has found an interesting way into the timeline of the events in the history of the Warrens and this one is no different. The prologue for Annabelle Comes Home begins right after the prologue from The Conjuring when we were first introduced to the doll that had spooked a couple of college co-eds. Ed (Patrick Wilson, Aquaman) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) are taking the troublesome toy back home to their room of once (and still?) possessed artifacts for safekeeping, but Annabelle doesn’t make the journey an easy one.  The trip back presents car trouble for the Warrens and, wouldn’t you know it, they break down right outside a cemetery inhabited with spirits drawn to the doll.

Once locked away safely, things stay relatively quiet where Annabelle is concerned until Ed and Lorraine leave their daughter Judy (McKenna Grace, I, Tonya) under the care of Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween) while they go to an overnight conference. While Mary Ellen is a responsible caregiver, she’s friends with Daniela (Katie Sarife) who is more interested in the Warrens profession and poking around in their artifact room than baking a cake and entertaining Judy for the night. She’s not just looking for a cheap tabloid thrill either, there’s a reason why Daniela wants to know if the supernatural afterlife is real. Left alone in the house while Judy and Mary Ellen try out a new pair of roller skates (this is the ‘70s, remember?), Daniela snoops her way into trouble when she accidentally lets Annabelle out. Once the doll is free, she brings an assortment of crazed curios from the Warrens unholy collection out to play as well.

In the past, the more sequels a movie gets the less time these installments seem to take on set-up and exposition before launching into what audiences are craving for. That’s not true with the films in The Conjuring Universe. At 106 minutes, the movie isn’t in any rush to get to the unleashing we all know is bound to happen and that allows director Gary Dauberman the opportunity to let us get to know these characters a bit more. Peppered with creepy moments for the first hour as we see the Warrens leave the girls for the night and Daniela taking her need for emotional closure in the spirit world one-step too far, when the movie does reach its apex it takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up.

Popping up over these last several years in small roles proving herself as a dependable young actor, Grace is an ideal lead as the Warrens only child. Maybe possessing some of the same gifts as her mother, Grace paints Judy as struggling to fit in but not unware that maybe she’s one keeping people at a distance. Her sisterly friendship with Mary Ellen is believable and Iseman too turns in a winning performance as the smart, responsible babysitter that doesn’t let a pining boy (charming Michael Cimino) in because she’s already committed to spending time with Judy. Though at first glance Sarife’s role looks like the bad girl there to cause all the trouble and pay a huge price, the script by Dauberman (who also did good work with IT) and James Wan (Insidious) has bigger (and surprisingly emotional) plans for her in the long run.

While Annabelle Comes Home doesn’t ultimately land with the same electric punch as Annabelle: Creation, it’s still a resoundingly worthy entry in this growing universe. If the scripts continue to be creative and the casting remains strong, I can see these doing good business if the interest is still there. Looking ahead we have The Conjuring 3 in 2020 and then nothing firm yet for the next slate of films and I think that’s a good thing. Let’s see how these movies land and then figure out where to go from there.  Something tells me Annabelle has more untold stories waiting to get a big screen scream treatment.

Movie Review ~ Toy Story 4


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a new toy called “Forky” joins Woody and the gang, a road trip alongside old and new friends reveals how big the world can be for a toy.

Stars: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves, Joan Cusack, Lori Alan, Blake Clark, Estelle Harris

Director: Josh Cooley

Rated: G

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: I’m pretty sure most audiences, like me, thought this toy box was closed for good. After changing the face of computer animation with the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar followed their original story up with two sequels that managed to improve exponentially on their predecessors. Culminating in 2010 with the beloved, three-hanky Toy Story 3, favorite toys Woody and Buzz Lightyear had a fantastic send-off that was just about the most perfect ending to a story you could ask for. At the time, everyone involved said three films was the limit and they were done with the Toy Story franchise…but a few box office duds and less successful sequels to other popular titles ‘inspired’ the animators at Pixar to come up Toy Story 4.

Usually, in these seemingly desperate situations no good can come of the product that’s created and I braced myself going into Toy Story 4 for a sequel that didn’t measure up. The news at the outset is that no, Toy Story 4 is not as winning as the previous film nor does it have the same complexities that made that last chapter mean so much to adults as well as kids. However, the moment I stopped trying to compare this film to the one that came before I sort of released any tension I had going in and was easily won over. This relatively uncomplicated, but very entertaining, entry gives audiences everything they want. From the characters major and minor we love, to the dizzying hijinks that have become a staple of the prime Pixar pictures, Toy Story 4 works like gangbusters when the gang is all together.

At the end of Toy Story 3, Andy left his prized toys with toddler Bonnie when he went off to college and as this film opens the toys are enjoying their rebooted life with a new child. True, not all of them get the same play time as others, namely Woody (Tom Hanks, Sully) who nicely abdicates his sheriff duties to Jessie (Joan Cusack, Working Girl) because Bonnie prefers her. With Bonnie set to begin Kindergarten, Woody steals away in her backpack to keep an eye on her should she need any comfort and bears witness to the creation of a new toy, Forky (Tony Hale, American Ultra). A crude construction from a spork, pipe cleaners, and popsicle sticks, he becomes Bonnie’s new favorite though the recently born toy keeps trying to pitch himself into any available waste paper bin because he only thinks of himself as “trash”.

With Woody busy trying to keep Forky from going out with the garbage, the rest of the toys take a minor backseat to the action until Bonnie and her parents take a small road trip before school officially begins. It’s here the movie really begins after a half hour of funny, if a tad bit staid, sequences with Woody and the group. Though I’m sure Forky will become a popular toy with fans and the deeper meaning to his metaphysical questioning of life will inspire numerous think pieces, I found this first act of the movie a wee bit ungainly.  To me, Forky and his desperate attemps to run away became an annoyance…and I wondered why all the toys just didn’t let him be on his merry way.  Again, while on the early stages of the road trip, Forky makes a run for it and Woody follows, eventually winding up in an second-hand antique store lorded over by a Gabby Gabby doll (Christina Hendricks, The Neon Demon) and her ventriloquist dummy minions (scary!) with designs on Woody’s voicebox.

The antique shop and the traveling carnival that sits right outside the store provides Pixar people ample space to let their imaginations run wild and they have a ball creating a host of new toys and gadgets for our stalwarts to interact with. I had forgotten that Bo Peep (Annie Potts, Ghostbusters) hadn’t been in the last film and it was nice to see her move into a leading role as the female foil to Woody. Having been given away by her previous owner, Bo Peep (and her sheep) have been living as lost toys for seven years and show Woody the ways of the wild and help him break into the antique shop to look for Forky. These movies have always been quite targeted to boys and though the introduction of Jessie in the second film was meant to balance things out it never truly felt like an equal distribution of material. That error seems to have been nicely righted here by fleshing out Bo Peep as an independent toy capable of more than just tending sheep.

In addition to Gabby Gabby who is perhaps more than just merely a villain but a toy aching for feeling the same love and belonging the others have felt, there’s a Canadian stunt toy (Keanu Reeves, Parenthood) with an inferiority complex, and a set of plush animals (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland and Jordan Peele, Us) stitched together at the hand to provide some fine comedic support. The plush toys especially get in some howlingly funny bits, as much as the film made kids in my screening laugh I don’t think I’ve heard adults laugh louder or longer in a movie in quite some time. If there’s one toy that gets short shrift, it’s Buzz (Tim Allen) who has some late-breaking action but is sidelined in the memorable moments field for much of the film.

Watching the movie, I was reminded again at just how incredible the advancements Pixar has made. The animation here is photo-realistic at times and quite stunning to behold. Some animals look real and most vistas appear as if they have been snapped right from a postcard. If you look at the original Toy Story now you can see where the animation has room to grow but comparing that to this is showing how a company has evolved fantastically over the years.  Couple that with action sequences crafted with clockwork precision that best any number of live-action summer blockbusters and you have a movie that has laser eye for detail down to the most minuscule of properties.

I’m hearing again this will be the last Toy Story film and the creators have definitely given us another ending that feels like it…but never count out another adventure if the story is right. It took nine years for this fourth film to be made and the release date comes almost five years after it was originally announced. So, it’s obvious the studio took its time in creating the film and releasing it only when it was perfected. Let’s hope if there is another tale to be told, the same care is taken when Woody, Buzz, and Bo Peep ride again.

Movie Review ~ Child’s Play (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother gives her son a toy doll for his birthday, unaware of its more sinister nature.

Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry, Gabriel Bateman, Mark Hamill, Ty Consiglio, Nicole Anthony, Carlease Burke

Director: Lars Klevberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: I’ve heard a lot of talk lately from podcasters and film pundits about how 2019 has been a disappointing year for theatrically released films and up until I saw the remake of Child’s Play I didn’t agree. Having now seen the low-budget and low-brain cell reimagining of the 1988 surprise shocker that launched an unexpectedly lucrative franchise, I can easily point to it as the type of film that is sinking the box office and eradicating audience expectations of quality. This is a bottom-feeding exercise in how to take a valued property and dumb it down to the lowest common denominator in filmmaking and leave nothing but crude remnants of an idea that have been hastily assembled.

In the original film, the soul of a murderer was transferred into a popular children’s doll that started wreaking small-scale havoc in the life of a boy and his mother. When young Andy told his mother that the strange things that have been happening were because “Chucky did it”, it was spooky and ominous. Spawning six sequels and a television series currently in development, the Child’s Play series morphed from outright horror into a mix of comedic meta commentary in-between some gruesome bits of gore…but they were always interesting thanks to the effects team that brought Chucky to life. Add in Brad Dourif’s instantly recognizable voice of the demonic doll and you have a one-name film villain that stands up next to the likes of Jason, Freddy, and Michael.

On paper, I can see why Child’s Play might seem like a good property to get an upgrade. It’s been over thirty years since the first film was released and technology has changed in the three decades since Chucky was first introduced. Why not re-imagine Chucky as Buddi, an Alexa-ish techdoll that not only would be a best friend to your kid but could also control all of your branded devices designed by the same manufacturer? And how about removing the supernatural element, while you’re at it. No more evil soul inhabiting the doll, just have him programmed without restrictions by a vengeful worker. Now his loyalty would know no bounds…he’d kill to be your friend to the end.

Having just moved to a new apartment, Andy (Gabriel Batman, Annabelle) and his single mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed) are still adjusting to their new environment. Karen works at a knock-off department store that is getting ready for the launch of the Buddi 2, the next generation of best-selling toys that every kid in America wants. When a first generation Buddi is returned, Karen convinces her manager to let her keep it and gives it as a gift to her son as an early birthday present. At first, the doll is fun in a kitschy weird way for Andy and it’s unfiltered vocabulary attracts the attention of several kids in the apartment building. As Andy makes more friends and loses interest in his weird-looking toy, the doll starts to get jealous of anyone that comes between him and his best friend and takes deadly measures to make sure he’s always #1.

The problem is in the, ahem, execution of Tyler Burton Smith’s hokey pokey screenplay. It just isn’t sophisticated enough to go beyond a simple logline concept that bears the fruit of a fully realized motion picture. There’s nothing in the movie that is of any value or permanence, be it character, motivation, or logic. We’re supposed to believe Karen and Andy are new to the area yet Karen seems to have a long-term boyfriend and appears quite settled in her dead-end job. Worse, the movie introduces Andy as having a hearing impairment that is barely discussed or factored into the plot unless it is the punchline for an off-color joke. One moment a detective (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk, slumming it here in more ways than one) is troubled by grisly deaths that seem to be linked the apartment complex his mom lives in and the next he’s laughing it up over dinner with a boy (Andy) he just met and invited in. I’m positive the movie was edited down from a longer cut (thank God!) but no one bothered to make sure the continuity was there from one scene to the next. A major character dies and aside from a scene showing Karen swigging a glass of wine they are barely mourned.

Then there’s Chucky himself. I don’t know how it’s possible in 2019 to have such an ugly, fake looking doll but the producers of Child’s Play have managed to make the 1988 doll look positively futuristic in comparison. The mouth crudely moves up and down, making a big O and a squished O, all while Mark Hamill’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) goofy, nasally voice of Chucky is coming forth. It’s like an awful roadside animatronic you’d find in some backwater Kentucky town. You never see the doll move independently and the few times he does move his hands in quick action the animation is decidedly questionable. The only performance worse than the doll is Plaza, who is atrocious and atrociously miscast.

Director Lars Klevberg has had some small success with his Norwegian horror entries but his big shot at a Hollywood film is a major bust. The creativity is nil and even the cinematography is frustratingly pedestrian. There’s also a major question on taste level here. Eviscerating animals, ripping off faces, spraying little girls with blood, and viciously knifing old ladies isn’t exactly the type of horror film we should be clamoring for right now. It’s like the movie got a greenlight and then no one knew what to do…though I’m not convinced any studio head actually read the screenplay for this nonsense. Usually I roll my eyes at devotees of a film that whine about a modern remake but in the case of Child’s Play I can say the fans were right to be worried. This is an abysmal effort, unworthy to carry the Child’s Play moniker.

Movie Review ~ The Dead Don’t Die

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The peaceful town of Centerville finds itself battling a zombie horde as the dead start rising from their graves.

Stars: Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Caleb Landry Jones, Carol Kane, Danny Glover, RZA, Austin Butler, Rosie Perez, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Tom Waits

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: It isn’t often a movie about a zombie apocalypse gets a premiere at the fancy Cannes Film Festival but if you are director Jim Jarmusch you’ve earned a certain amount of street cred.  The famously indie auteur has been operating since 1980 and has delivered numerous cult faves, many of them originally received as complicated misfires.  Given it’s subject matter, starry cast, and B-movie aura, I’d imagine The Dead Don’t Die will join those cult classic ranks but you won’t find me lining up to see a midnight screening of this one anytime soon.  I had trouble enough staying awake during a daytime viewing.

Look, I’m about zombie-d out by this point and I don’t care who knows it.  I don’t watch The Walking Dead, I avoid all of the straight-to-streaming zombie flicks, I’ve long since sold-off any zombie video games I owned, and I keep my distance from television shows with a zombie premise.  I just think we’re moving on to different things by this point and the whole metaphor linking zombies to mass consumerism is entirely passé.  All I need to do is watch George Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead and my craving for brainy material is satiated. (Heck, even Warm Bodies, the zombified Romeo & Juliet will do just fine if you don’t like the hard horror stuff.)  It’s so strange to me that Jarmusch, who has been on a critical uptick the past few years starting with the fascinating vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive in 2013, would find himself wanting to draw inspiration from this well.

Not much happens in the sleepy town of Centerville, OH.  As the film opens, Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray, Aloha) and Officer Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver, Midnight Special) are traveling out to find Hermit Bob (Tom Waits, The Old Man & the Gun), thinking that he stole a chicken from Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi, Hotel Transylvania 2).  That’s the extent of the excitement going on until the Earth starts to experience a strange phenomenon caused by polar fracking and a shifting on its axis.  It’s this event that causes the town to lose almost all connection with the outside world and for the bodies in the cemetery to start inexplicably rising from their graves and feasting on the unsuspecting townspeople.

The next several days are captured in small vignettes of varying degrees of success from the large ensemble Jarmusch has assembled.  What Jarmusch does exceedingly well is attract top talent to his film and this is another example of an over-abundance of familiar faces popping up when you least expect it.  In addition to our two lead cops, there’s Chloë Sevigny (The Snowman) as another weary officer not used to so much action in town, Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) and Danny Glover (Monster Trucks) playing store owners who barricade themselves inside a hardware shop to fend off the walking dead, and Rosie Perez (Won’t Back Down) playing an informative newscaster named, wait for it, Posie Suraez.  Though many of the cast have worked with Jarmusch before, the only one that really feels like they know what movie they are in is Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) as the town’s new mortician who takes a methodical slice and dice approach in handling the undead.  Some cast members come off as lackadaisical in their approach, which is very Jarmusch in style, but Swinton knows how to pitch that aloofness into something that makes you curious to know more.

Though it gives way to full blown horror in its final stretch, much of the film is paced and pitched at a low boil. There’s so much effort put into the set-up and an absurd amount of characters repeating back the same information on what’s going on to newcomers. Always one to look a little askew at midwestern America, it’s no surprise Jarmusch has cast the townspeople as a bunch of oddballs who get even stranger when death comes knockin’. For pure comedic effect, Jarmusch’s zombies rise up not just with a craving for human flesh but harboring the same obsessions they had when they were alive.  One zombie cries out for chardonnay, another asks Siri a question and these moments of levity are fun at first but begin to become as repetitive as some of the dialogue.  In a bit of supposed extra fun, Jarmusch has Driver and Murray break the fourth wall several times, often commenting as themselves…which might be interesting if they didn’t come off as just riffing off each other between takes.  I’m all for going meta if you can see it through but this continually fell flat.

What was so great about Jarmusch’s take on vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive is that he found an interesting angle into the story which allowed him to craft memorable characters within that framework. In The Dead Don’t Die, there’s no real easy way into a genre that’s been explored to the fullest if you don’t have anything new to add to the conversation.  Even when the tone switches to all-out horror there’s little tension created, and the production isn’t helped by hokey special effects and make-up meant to be impressive that’s hard to see in the dark.  What’s left is a pack of good actors stumbling around for 105 minutes with little to show for their effort.  The film may boast the “the greatest zombie cast ever disassembled” but it just doesn’t come together in the end.

Movie Review ~ Shaft (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: John Shaft Jr., a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, enlists his family’s help to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death.

Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Method Man, Richard Roundtree

Director: Tim Story

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I usually keep a good ear to the ground for movies that are in the pipeline but I was surprised to see a preview and poster for another Shaft film pop up earlier this year.  What started in 1971 as a blaxploitation classic gave way to two sequels, a handful of television movies, and a modern-day follow-up twenty seven years later.  Now, 19 years after the last Shaft film played to middling reviews and a decent box-office, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema are trying to reignite the franchise by taking a different approach to the material.  While the first films had a darker edge to them (the 2000 version was an all-out thriller) this one would combine those crime elements with comedy in the hopes of attracting a new audience.

After narrowly avoiding the bullets of a drive-by shooting, Maya (Regina Hall, Vacation) walks out on her private eye husband John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight) and takes their baby boy with him.  Aside from the occasional birthday and Christmas present, J.J. (Jessie T. Usher, Independence Day: Resurgence) grows up not knowing his father and doesn’t care to seek him out.  Graduating from MIT and joining the FBI as a data analyst, J.J. has managed to stay out of the same trouble his dad got into but finds himself plunged into a crime he can’t solve when his war veteran friend turns up dead.  Blocked by his work in investigating the death, he asks his dad for help in finding out what happened to his best friend, finding that the crime may be tied to a figure from his father’s past.

Working through numerous Avengers films over the last decade, I haven’t felt like we’ve gotten a real true “Samuel L. Jackson” performance in quite a while.  I finally saw some of that energy he originally brought to his roles spark back to life with his uncensored performance.  He’s foul-mouthed, un-PC (points off for the script’s strange fixation on gay jokes), quick to action, and stubborn and that all works in the films favor.  Whenever Jackson is left to his own devices, he positively commandeers the movie.  He’s got some competition from Hall as his no-nonsense ex-wife who isn’t afraid to call her husband on his crap and keep her son on the straight and narrow.  Usher is a mixed bag as the third generation Shaft.  Not quite nerdy but not quite leading man, he feels like an authentic MIT grad but isn’t always convincing when he has to slip into action mode.  As J.J.’s love interest, Alexandra Shipp (Dark Phoenix) begins the film as a strong female only to disappointingly turn into the damsel in distress standing in awe of the men in action later on.

Those unfamiliar with the Shaft films don’t have to worry about catching up before seeing this because director Tim Story (Ride Along) works in scenes from the 2000 film into the credits, yet strangely totally ignoring the earliest films that gave this franchise its genesis.  At least we get original John Shaft Richard Roundtree (What Men Want) showing up as J.J.’s grandfather, finally clearing up a strange twist introduced in the previous movie.  If only he had more to do and a more interesting storyline to be involved with.  When the three generations team up and go after a drug king-pin, the movie should be hitting its apex but by that time it has plateaued.

The set-up of the new Shaft is nothing you can’t piece together from any mid-range run-of-the mill crime thriller and most of the time that’s exactly how the film plays.  Writers Kenya Barris (Girls Trip) and Alex Barnow have largely written for television and their hammy dialogue that is pure exposition just barely gets us from one scene to the next.  While the film is arguably entertaining and even fitfully funny at times, it’s a disappointing and flawed finished product.  The 2019 Shaft feels like a good try by all involved, and a sign that the producers might be headed in the right direction.  If there’s another Shaft to be had, a tighter script and stronger performances are a must.  Just let Samuel L. Jackson do his thing, though.

Movie Review ~ Late Night


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A late-night talk-show host suspects that she may soon lose her long-running show.

Stars: Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Amy Ryan, Paul Walter Hauser, Denis O’Hare, John Early, Max Casella

Director: Nisha Ganatra

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you want to start your Oscar season early, it’s always a good idea to keep track of the film festivals that start to roll out in the first half of the year.  Though the more prestige films usually premiere at the international festivals in the fall, a few notable movies often will first see the light of day at South by Southwest in Austin and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.  This year, South by Southwest held the first screenings of Us and Booksmart while Sundance had, among others, The Mustang, Apollo 11, and Late NightLate Night turned out to be the big news coming out of Sundance, namely because it was purchased for distribution by Amazon Studios for an eye-popping $13 million dollars.

Quickly positioning the movie as a breezy summer comedy antidote to the ear-shattering blockbusters playing in the theater next door, Amazon has wisely learned from the mistakes of Booksmart’s too wide/too fast release and is releasing Late Night in waves.  This is helping to generate good buzz for the movie, bolstered further on the positive word of mouth it has received from audiences and critics.  Drawing justified comparisons to Working Girl and The Devil Wears Prada, Late Night is a mostly entertaining film that plays off its formulaic skeleton well but also succumbs to the trappings of the genre more often than it should.

After nearly three decades as the only female host of a late-night television show, Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson, Beauty and the Beast) is seeing a steep drop in her ratings.  The new network head honcho (Amy Ryan, Beautiful Boy) has given her word her contact won’t be renewed and attributed it not just to the ratings but to how out of touch Katherine is with the rest of the world and the changing face of media.  Accused of not being an ally to other women, Katherine makes a last-ditch effort to save her show by hiring Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling, A Wrinkle in Time) to come onboard as the first female writer on the all-male writing team.

Coming from working at a chemical plant as an efficiency expert, Molly has no experience in television, let alone a writers room.  Using her background to assess the shows weakness and strengths, she passes that along to Katherine and her fellow writers who don’t take kindly to the outsider telling them how to run their show.  As with all of these workplace comedies, there’s the typical hazing at the outset followed by gradual appreciation for Molly’s talent, and eventual acceptance as their equal.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen before but it’s in the delivery that sets it apart from the rest.

Much of this credit goes to Kaling’s script which is sharp, insightful, funny, and obviously gleaned from her years as the only female writer on NBC’s The Office.  The relationship she creates between Katherine and Molly is genuinely interesting to watch and goes beyond the expected pathway of the dragon lady boss tormenting her meek staff member (though we do get a little of that in the beginning) and forms something more solid.  The movie really crackles when Thompson and Kaling share the screen, be it in arguing over a joke at the writers table or Katherine entering Molly’s territory to see what the lives are like for her staff when they go home.

It’s when the movie branches out to other characters that it gets a little unwieldy.  Kaling has a good track record with hiring her friends and it seems like she wrote parts for a lot of them in this movie.  This creates an overload of people, many of them serving the same purpose.  Though Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya), John Early (The Disaster Artist), and Max Casella (Jackie) make nice contributions here, I can easily imagine their roles being absorbed into other characters to help the movie not feel so weighed down with white guys angling for one-liners.

Though it’s positioned as a two-hander, the more I think about Late Night the more I feel this is really Thompson’s movie with Kaling as a supporting role.  To that end, Thompson is excellent as a woman of a certain age who was a trailblazer before becoming complacent.  We never do know why Katherine started to turn her back on her show (though, from what I could tell, it wasn’t that funny to begin with) but Thompson gives us an inside perspective into her initial shock at realizing she is being replaced and figuring out a way to move forward and reclaiming what is rightfully hers.  Kaling is a supportive co-star and, as always, abdicates the spotlight whenever possible to allow her fellow actors to shine.  While she has a great many funny lines, she doesn’t keep all the zingers to herself or Thompson but spreads them around the room generously.  More than anything, I was annoyed that Kaling felt the need to insert a love story into the mix of all of this because it’s so shoe-horned in.  I’m glad she was able to get Reid Scott (Venom) and Hugh Dancy (Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return) into the creative mix here but they feel like distractions from the story the movie is really wanting to tell which is the relationship between Katherine and Molly.  That the script continues to weave in other people becomes frustrating as the film progresses.

On a podcast I was listening to after seeing this someone wondered if this wouldn’t have worked a little better as a multi episode series on some streaming service and I couldn’t help but agree.  Too much of the movie felt compacted into the trim running time, leaving out key ingredients such as more of a backstory for Molly (a random cousin pops up for two scenes and is never heard from again) or more time to get to know the home life of Katherine and her husband (John Lithgow, Pitch Perfect 3).  Even with these nitpicks aside, this is a movie worth your time for Thompson’s performance alone.

Movie Review ~ Men in Black: International

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson

Director: F. Gary Gray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: There are some movies you can’t wait to review. Once they are over you run home to your computer or laptop and hit the keys.  If the movie is good, the copy practically writes itself because you’ve been thinking about the specific points to make and how you want to let your readers know this is a film to keep your eye out for.  For bad movies, it’s often easier to pull your thoughts together on what to say but harder to pen a review that’s more than just a tear down of the production.  Then there are movies like Men in Black: International which is so instantly forgettable I had to prioritize its review for fear I would forget the movie entirely.

Arriving seven years after Men in Black III seemingly wrapped up the big screen adventures of the special agents tasked with protecting Earth from alien threats, Men in Black: International was originally intended to be a crossover with the gang from 21 Jump Street.  When that plan failed to materialize, the film went ahead as its own entity, spun-off from the original trilogy and, though retaining a few characters/creatures, largely telling its own story.  The result is a tedious time-waster by even the most generous of summer standards, with no one stepping up to make the case this was a franchise that needed to be rebooted.

Ever since she was a child,  Molly (Tessa Thompson, Avengers: Endgame) has been trying to identify the secret government agency that visited her house as a child and used a neuralyzer on her parents, wiping their memory clean regarding an alien encounter but forgetting to clear her as well.  She knows she saw a small furry blue creature and, though everyone tells her she’s crazy in the years that follow, is intent on finding out where the agency is located and joining their ranks.  By lucky happenstance (this is a 105 minute movie, after all), Molly is in the right place at the right time and finds what she’s looking for, eventually convincing Agent O (Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks) to take her on as a probationary agent.  The film races past any potential interest we have in how the agency trains its field agents, opting instead to just show Molly (now Agent M) suited up and ready to go, her boot camp days long behind her.

For her first mission, she’s dispatched to the London branch of the Men in Black, led by High T (Liam Neeson, The Grey) and her plucky curiosity gets her paired with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth, Vacation) on a routine protection detail that turns into a fight to save the Earth from an evil force known as The Hive.  To make matters worse, aside from a nosey co-worker (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) with a grudge against Agent H, there’s a mole in the London branch so H and M have to stay one step ahead of a traitor on the inside who is following their every move.  The set-up gives way to a plodding second act where the agents sorta make good on the “international” promise of the title but largely go up against CGI villans that are rarely menacing, let along convincingly real.

Though paired together well in Thor: Ragnarok, Hemsworth and Thompson have awkward onscreen chemistry that goes above and beyond the characters initial dislike/distrust of each other.  Hemsworth in particular looks like he’s coasting on fumes for much of the picture and all that positive support he built up in his Avengers run evaporates with his listless performance.  The usually interesting Tessa Thompson also strikes out too, but she’s mostly undone by a script that doesn’t provide any depth to her character.  It’s like she never existed prior to the opening of the film and while that makes for a great MIB agent, it makes for a fairly hollow character we’re supposedly going to be rooting for.  You get the feeling Emma Thompson and Neeson recognized how sloppy this whole thing was and slowly started to back away from the movie because they dissolve into the background whenever possible.  Normally I’m all for a Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) appearance but her cameo as a zebra-wigged arms dealer that’s all arms is absolutely the time those with small bladders can get up and go to the bathroom.

Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) along with Iron Man screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum either never saw the original Men in Black films or did and just didn’t care about maintaining the quirky charm of the preceding films.  Especially in the debut film, there was a B-movie feel to the proceedings that helped make it’s shlockier alien creature elements a little easier to swallow.  The new film is straight-forward filmmaking 101 with little creative pride taken in anything from action sequences to creature design to 11th hour plot twists.  They say some movies are taken for the paycheck and this is one where everyone must have needed a new pool in their backyard.