It’s ironic that there are cineplexes currently playing both Aladdin and Men In Black: International. After all, Aladdin finds Will Smith filling the shoes of another actor’s iconic performance in the original Aladdin; Men In Black finds an actor trying to fill the shoes of Smith’s iconic performance in the original MIB.
First, let’s get something straight — though entertaining, the stories were never the main attraction behind the original MIB films. It was the “opposites attract” chemistry between Smith and Tommy Lee Jones that drove the movies, bolstered by a bevy of amusing animated aliens.
Fortunately, chemistry is one thing International’s leads, Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, do have. Honed over the course of their work together in the Marvel universe, the two share an easy rapport when they’re on the screen together. In this case, though, it’s both a blessing and a curse.
Whereas the work relationship between Smith and Jones developed through the brash newcomer and the grizzled veteran butting heads while they learned to function as a team, the relationship between Hemsworth’s Agent H and Thompson’s Agent M develops because, well, M thinks the H stands for hot. While that brings a playful sexual tension to the proceedings that obviously wasn’t in the original partnership, it ultimately makes the partnership less interesting.
There’s also a role reversal that feels a bit jarring — in MIB: International, it’s the newcomer who’s all business, much more competent in her new role than the experienced agent who supposedly saved the world.
Granted, it’s a job M’s been training for ever since she was a little girl, when she witnessed the MIB in action after a cute, furry, Gremlins-like alien turned up in her family’s New York apartment and she avoided the agents’ infamous Neuralizer. Yes, she’s been obsessed with the MIB organization and extraterrestrial existence for years, going so far as hacking into NASA’s computers to do her own real-time research on alien activity. But when her trial-by-fire first field assignment lands her in the midst of an alien dignitary’s murder and in possession of the most destructive weapon in the universe, you might expect a few more newbie nerves. Instead, Thompson plays M as someone who was born for the gig — a cool, collected bundle of kick-ass energy, always ready to go where the action is.
By contrast, Hemsworth’s Agent H is portrayed as a bit of a hard-drinking, womanizing buffoon who’s able to coast along on his reputation as one of the agents who once helped defeat a nefarious alien species called The Hive. He’s also an inferior fighter compared to M — one clumsy effort to attack an oversized alien brings about the movie’s biggest laugh, a cheeky reference to the actor’s time spent playing Thor. (In all fairness, the film’s resolution does partially explain the character’s behavior, but it doesn’t explain all of his deficiencies.)
In the grand scheme of all things MIB, however, these things are forgivable, because Hemsworth and Thompson are fun to watch, there’s plenty of action, and yes, you’ll find aliens galore. One new character, Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), looks a bit like an animated acorn with a skin disorder, and he walks a line somewhere between Groot and Jar Jar Binks — he would be grating if used too much or in the wrong way, but stays just on the right side of sanity in this film. Rebecca Ferguson also gets to camp (and vamp) things up as a sexy, four-armed alien who once had a fling with H, but must now be defeated in the MIBs’ quest to save the world.
You’ll also find a couple of formidable actors, Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson, co-starring as the New York and London MIB bureau chiefs, and they bring a bit of gravitas to the proceedings, though the roles themselves are hardly Oscar-caliber.
Again, the plot — Alien threat! New weapon! Mole in the MIB! — is secondary here, and it’s just serviceable enough that the movie doesn’t fall apart. But it’s not quite good enough to make the film stand out as anything special. Given a better script — and with their characters’ introductions out of the way — Hemsworth and Thompson could be a formidable duo if they continue to extend the franchise. And with the film largely succeeding as an effects-laden popcorn movie, chances are we will see them again. Because as long as CGI designers keep coming up with new aliens, there will always be new jobs for the MIB.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is really two different films: One is a deeply personal story about a young woman confronted with serious identity issues; the other is a big-budget, effects-laden superhero movie. While both are done well by first-time director Simon Kinberg (who also wrote the script), the former is the more interesting movie. The movie revolves around the Jean Grey character, played again by Game of Thrones alum Sophie Turner, who took on the role in the previous X-Men movie, Apocalypse. We first see her as an 8-year-old, when she wants her parents to change the station on the car radio. (It’s certainly no coincidence that the song playing is Glen Campbell’s classic “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.”) The disagreement sparks her telekinetic powers and causes the accident that orphaned her into the care of Professor Charles Xavier and his school for mutants.
Flashing forward 17 years to 1992, Jean is all grown up and a full-fledged member of the X-Men team, though she still lacks confidence in her superpowers. Sure enough, those powers are put to the test when the X-Men — now so revered that they have a Batphone-style hotline to the Oval Office — are called upon to rescue a crew of astronauts when the space shuttle is badly damaged by what appears to be a solar flare. Jean helps rescue the final astronaut from the shuttle’s cargo bay, but doesn’t make it out in time as the flare engulfs the shuttle. However, instead of being engulfed and destroyed by the flare, she seems to absorb its energy.
After the X-Men return to a heroes’ welcome on Earth, a medical exam reveals that Jean’s powers are now “off the charts.” But that amplification comes with two side effects: 1) Her psychic energy surges into dangerous Hulk-like territory when she experiences emotional trauma, and 2) Professor Xavier’s “mindscaping” (read: brainwashing) of the young Jean is undone, When she discovers that her father is alive and well, she runs off to visit him, hoping for a happy reunion and answers to the emotional problems that have plagued her since childhood. The reunion doesn’t go well, though; Jean flies into a rage that leaves a beloved X-Men team member dead, along with several police officers. The tragic outburst puts the X-Men on the government’s persona non grata list once again, and it’s at this point where the movie starts to mutate into its second skin.
While Jean continues to grapple with her increasingly violent emotional outbursts, we’ve discovered that the force driving them was no solar flare — it was a planet-destroying alien life force, and there’s a cadre of aliens trying to harness Jean’s power for their own means. Meanwhile, the X-Men are also after her; while some want to protect and help her, others seek vengeance for their dead ally. And, of course, now the U.S. military is after them, too, as the government once again wants all mutants seized and quarantined.
As those three storylines converge, the action ramps up, building to a climactic battle that, as is standard in superhero movies these days, is a CGI feast for the eyes.
It’s a testament to Kinberg’s love for this series and his characters that he’s able to wrap up both the emotional and superhero aspects of the film simultaneously. He’s been with the series since 2006’s The Last Stand, and this is the eighth X-Men movie he’s been involved with. As such, he went into his first directing gig knowing exactly what he wanted out of his actors; since many of the actors (including James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, and Jennifer Lawrence) have played these characters before, it was easy for them to deliver. Called upon to bear the lion’s share of the film’s emotional weight as Jean Grey’s tortured soul takes her into Phoenix territory, Turner turns in an admirable performance. Jessica Chastain gives a decent amount of nuance to her alien character as she tries to nurture, then destroy the Phoenix, though we might have expected a little bit more from an actor of her considerable Oscar-nominated talents.
There’s no denying that the film is very well made. The only problem? The X-Men’s Marvel cousins, The Avengers, have set the bar high for superhero teams, and you can sense the stretching as Kinberg tries his best to reach that bar with his team of uniquely powered mutants. Between the quick cuts between fights, the bursts of CGI energy, and the massive destruction, the sound and fury unleashed in the battles become a bit disorienting, taking you out of what is otherwise a pretty intimate film (as far as superhero movies go).
It’s that intimate feel that ultimately makes X-Men: Dark Phoenix a worthwhile movie. As the Avengers series has proven, superhero movies don’t have to skimp on the emotional element to be powerful, and seeing a close-knit X-Men family torn apart from within certainly generates enough pathos to provide that storyline.
On the latest episode of CinemAddicts, we review several movies (Brightburn, John Wick 3, Booksmart) that made a respective splash back in May and we also provide a preview for this month’s biggest releases (Dark Phoenix and Toy Story 4).
Also reviewed on our program is The Biggest Little Farm, a first rate documentary about a couple who purchase a 200 acre farm in Moorpark, California. Emmy winning documentarian John Chester, who directed the film, and his wife Molly left the confines of Los Angeles to create an organic farm filled with animals, vegetables and fruit. Since the land is essentially barren and abandoned, the Chesters’ ambitious goals won’t be achieved overnight.
The Biggest Little Farm chronicles eight years in their journey, and watching their respective victories and heartache makes for immersive and ultimately inspiring viewing. For more information on the film as well as Apricot Lane Farms, check out their official site.
Over and over again, we have to keep relearning the lesson of Back to the Future 2: Beware the bridge movie.
We already know there’s going to be another Godzilla movie next year, and the current film is called Godzilla: King of the Monsters. So, when the film supposedly kills off the title character less than halfway through, there’s little suspense about Godzilla’s fate — just the matter of how the red herring gets resolved. And yes, the movie predictably ends with Godzilla once again standing — again, the title spoils it for you — as king of the monsters.
Similarly, there are few surprises to be found among the characters, most of whom are stock Hollywood action characters. You’ve got the conflicted leads who get into the action for personal reasons. You’ve got the plucky, tortured teen who decides to take matters into her own hands. You’ve got the requisite characters who, when things are looking grim, volunteer to make the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. You’ve got the bad guy with the British accent. You’ve got the government officials who come off sounding like bad guys as well. And yes, you’ve even got the smart aleck who tosses off one-liners.
Of course, when you go to see a movie like Godzilla, you’re not going for the plot or the character development, you’re going for the action. On that front, does Godzilla: King of the Monsters deliver? Mostly.
As you would expect, effects dominate the film. I lost count during the closing credits, but there had to have been at least a dozen different CGI houses that contributed to the final product. Along with Godzilla (who is credited as “himself” in the closing roll), you’ll see plenty of the mythology’s classic monsters, including Mothra and Rodan, along with the movie’s main threat: an three-headed alien hydra known as Monster Zero. The monsters’ battle scenes are fast and furious, although the quick cutting and darkness sometimes make them difficult to follow.
There are also some truly terrifying scenes of destruction in several of the world’s biggest cities, and baseball fans will cringe when they see what happens to Boston’s Fenway Park, which finds itself contending with a whole new Green Monster.
The performances in the movie are, by and large, serviceable. Millie Bobby Brown (looking much different than she does in Stranger Things) fares the best as the emotionally troubled teen, Madison, who’s torn between two flawed parents. Vera Farmiga has some good scenes as the mother, a scientist who’s found a way of communicating with the monsters. But the always excellent Bradley Whitford seems wasted in the role of the aforementioned smart aleck.
In the end, though, you’re left with the realization that the movie really doesn’t care about its people. You get a little bit of closure with Madison and her family, but not much else. After the monsters’ reign of terror ends, you learn nothing about the aftermath. The movie’s ending focuses solely on the monsters, with the reborn Godzilla (again, the title’s a spoiler) taking his rightful place as king of the monsters. And yes, if you do stick around through the long closing credits, there is one final scene that helps set up next year’s sequel, Godzilla vs. Kong.
If you enter the theater without any great expectations, you’ll probably enjoy the ride. When the ride is over, you’ll discover you haven’t really gone very far. But, again, it’s a bridge movie. Maybe all will be redeemed when we see Godzilla vs. Kong. Only time will tell.
Back in 1992, the only way you could make a movie like Aladdin was as an animated feature. But today’s CGI technology has brought moviemaking — pardon the pun — into a whole new world. So, in 2019, we get a new, live-action Aladdin that takes the same story and adds a few new twists.
As in the original, the movie’s standout role is the frenetically fast-talking blue-hued Genie, this time played by Will Smith. And while nobody could ever match the frantic energy the late Robin Williams brought to the role, Smith certainly gives it his best shot. Does he make the role his own? Not really — the script basically demands that he give a Williams-type performance. And while he never rises to the inspired lunacy of the original, Smith’s personality is ultimately a good fit for the character.
But the movie’s real MVP is Guy Ritchie, who directed the film based on a script he co-wrote, and it’s obvious that he had a clear vision for the film from the very beginning: Do everything the animated film did, but do it bigger. So Aladdin’s attempt to escape the Cave of Wonders turns into an Indiana Jones-inspired thrill ride. And several of the songs that made the jump from 1992 to 2019, including Friend Like Me, Arabian Nights, and Prince Ali, are turned into colorfully choreographed production numbers that feel like Arabian tributes to Moulin Rouge.
While most of the music is (relatively faithfully) transplanted from the original, there is one new song that’s been added: Princess Jasmine’s Speechless, sung twice in the movie by Naomi Scott, takes on the timely theme of female empowerment and sets up a new scene where her character bravely stands up to the film’s villain, Jafar. (While the 1992 Jasmine was seen as rebellious at the time, the new version takes her “girl power” to new places, including an ending that strays significantly from the original.)
There’s a bit of an uneven quality to the acting — a few of the actors (most notably Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar) stay committed to playing their characters as cartoonish while others strive to humanize them — but the three leads (Smith, Scott, and Mena Massoud as Aladdin) all handle their roles and songs skillfully. While Aladdin and Jasmine looked like baby-faced teens in the ’92 film, Massoud and Scott bring a more mature sensuality to the characters and deliver a believable on-screen chemistry.
If the 1992 movie didn’t exist, this Aladdin would be seen as a fun piece of escapist entertainment. But it will be difficult for Disney aficionados to see the movie without triggering fonder memories of Williams and the original film. Ultimately, how much you enjoy Aladdin will depend on how much you can separate the new from the old and judge them on their own virtues.
In the latest episode of CinemAddicts we review Non-Fiction, a witty and well acted tale headlined by Juliette Binoche (Let The Sunshine In) and Guillaume Canet (Tell No One).
Set in the Paris, the narrative centers on Alain (Canet), a publisher who engages in an affair with his co-worker Laure (Christa Théret). His wife Selena suspects the indiscretion, but she may also have her own bond with Léonard (Vincent Macaigne), a writer whose fictional stories are, too many, actually “non-fiction.” Binoche previously worked with Non-Fiction director Olivier Assayas in Clouds of Sils Maria.
Films also covered in the episode include JT Leroy, a feature headlined by Kristen Stewart, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Take a listen to our latest installment of CinemAddicts below!
Non-Fiction opens in New York on May 3 and has a wider release the following week.