Men In Black International Keeps Things Safe

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones were the first to make Men in Black a fun, alien-filled comedy with gags galore.  As a franchise, the stories in subsequent films gave us more of the secret agency ready to protect the universe as we know it from invading extraterrestrials vying for galaxies to intergalactic doo-dads filled to the brim with power. The fourth installment, Men in Black International, crosses the pond to London and Paris where new agents fight a new alien threat.

As a child, Molly (Tessa Thompson) witnessed MIB agents neuralyze her parents after a pesky little alien invades her home. With the knowledge that there is life beyond the stars, she grows up to become a brilliant young woman with the goal to become a MIB agent. She soon learns she has to get creative to get into the top-secret headquarters, only to be discovered by Agent O (Emma Thompson). Her one-mindedness gets her a crack at being an agent in London governed by the stoic Agent High T (Liam Neeson), and her quick thinking gets her teamed up with the legendary Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a once revered agent who has become careless.  When the double threat of powerful amorphous alien twins (Les Twins dancing duo Larry and Laurent Bourgeois) try to assassinate alien royalty, Agent H and M must figure out the who, when, and whys before there is irreparable damage done to the universe.

Agent H (Hemsworth) and Agent M (Thompson) on the job.

This colorful world of aliens has endless potential for high stakes and adventure. In this newest chapter, there seems to be a tried and true approach where if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  Director F. Gary Gray who directed 90s classic Set It Off, the acclaimed Straight Outta Compton and the hit Fate of the Furious, kept the same feel to the MIB universe with a touch of slickness, making the film a safe bet for a family night out at the movies.  

Thompson and Hemsworth will fill seats due to their superhero Thor: Ragnarok past together; and there’s quite a bit of fun to be had, including a tiny alien called Pawny voiced by The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani who gets most of the laughs. It was also exciting to see Les Twins, with their hugely successful dancing career leading them to a big budget movie. The film falls short however, with the formulaic and predictable galaxy in danger storyline, especially when there are two great talents as headliners who could give much more.  Thompson, who can play a superhero, artsy girlfriend and sultry executive, is charming if a bit over the top as the determined and ambitious Molly or Agent M, but more importantly, kids see a woman of color excelling at S.T.E.M.  She’s a role-model for little girls who also have their heads in the stars.  It’s also nice to note that the character Molly comes from a two-parent family in a nice home in Brooklyn. Not an unfathomable thing and an important representation of people of color in a big budget film.

Take the kids to see Men In Black International for a bit of fun, but they haven’t reinvented the galactic wheel with this one.  

Godzilla: King of the Monsters Fights For Some Balance

I’m always down for a good monster movie, and Godzilla is one of my favorites.  After seeing the 2014 Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, the anticipation for the next chapter was excruciating. It’s been a long wait, but director Michael Dougherty has brought the radioactive kaiju back to us with some of his closest frenemies in Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

Animal behaviorist Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) has thrown himself back into his work after his family was shattered with the loss of his son during Godzilla’s epic San Francisco battle in 2014.  He is a former employee of The Monarch Agency, a cryptozoology outfit researching Godzilla and other animals they call massive unidentified terrestrial organisms (MUTOs) or titans, hibernating beneath the earth’s surface for millions of years. His estranged wife Emma (Vera Farmiga) still works for them and is devising a machine to communicate with the titans. An eco-terrorist group has different ideas for the device and kidnap Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) to use the device to awaken the beasts so they can take back the world from the most destructive force on the planet: humans. Mark is enlisted to find his estranged wife and daughter and save the world.

Madison (Brown) and Emma (Farmiga) captured by the eco-terrorists.

I can’t say I enjoyed the story of Godzilla: King of the Monsters much.  With such a heavy-handed script, there wasn’t much to like. We have to remember Godzilla’s origins through his many iterations – to simplify, he is a creation of the post-nuclear attack fears of the Japanese. To make him and his nemesis monsters a global concern is of course important as nuclear threats have no borders, but I felt the fabulous Ken Watanabe as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa needed more Japanese backup, so-to-speak.  As far as diversity though, I was happy to see some familiar faces front and center like Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Elizabeth Ludlow, and Ziyi Zhang.

The theme of wanting to help rid the earth of us pesky humans was a concept I could get down with but it was conveyed in such a pedantic way it became tiresome, and the family melodrama seemed like saccharine filler. Director Michael Dougherty, the man behind Trick r’ Treat and Krampus, gave us plenty of eye-popping visuals but none of the substance of his previous films because there was too much talking and not enough monster time. Too much exposition, “‘splaining”, emoting and platitude after platitude; along with some aggressively comedic moments hammed up by Bradley Whitford of Get Out and West Wing fame. In fact, there was so much talking, some weirdo came into our cinema off the street and shouted at the screen.

Godzilla and Ghidorah battling for the earth.

Godzilla himself was simply glorious. The fights, animation and sound design created an immersive experience on the IMAX screen. The scoring by Bear McCreary payed homage to Godzilla’s epic theme originally written by Akira Ifukube, and Ghidorah, Mothra and Rodan all had their time in the spotlight. Godzilla’s concept design was true to his historically cranky “Hey, you kids just woke me up from my nap and I’m gonna whup your asses” look. With radioactive blue beams and his signature giant stomping foot, it was worth enduring all the human hot air to see him rise and fight his monster enemies.

There’s not much else to say except see Godzilla King of the Monsters for, well, the monsters. Pay the extra to see it in 3D and IMAX so you’ll at least appreciate the top-notch visuals amidst all the jibber-jabber, but don’t expect much more. Here’s hoping the next chapter has a better story and script when Godzilla meets Kong.

No Comfort in Ma

Formulaic teen slasher films have been around for decades. Popular kids who fulfill all the tropes chased by an immortal antagonist, one who is relentless in its pursuit and thorough in its decimation of all things young and fancy free. But this time, the boogeyman is a black woman who harbors a deep-seated anger for those teens, and you’ll find her in Tate Taylor’s Ma.

Maggie (Silver) meets Ma (Spencer)

Maggie (Diana Silver) has moved from San Diego to her mom Erica’s (Juliette Lewis) hometown so they can start over after her mother’s divorce. Willowy and pretty, Maggie soon picks up with a bunch of popular kids who like to hang out and drink. Looking to score some booze from a willing adult, the kids finally convince an unassuming veterinarian technician Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) walking one of her charges to buy their partying supplies. She’s concerned they’ll drink and drive, so she offers her basement for them to party on the conditions that they don’t swear, leave sober and most of all, don’t venture upstairs.
The kids, thinking she’s a little odd but ok for an old broad, decide to take her up on her offer and nickname her “Ma”. Ma’s basement soon becomes a booze can for the local teens, and she’s the life of the party until things get more than a little weird, intense and dangerous.

I’m going to try and stay spoiler-free, but Ma made me sad for many reasons. Through flashbacks, we learn that Sue Ann wasn’t a popular girl in high school and neither was I. She constantly felt like she was the butt of the joke, and I always felt that way too. Her character allowed me to feel empathy for her, but I’m also sad that most of the production team were white. The writer, Scotty Landes, hit a lot of notes well, but Sue Ann’s character ended up looking really pathetic. Could he possibly know what it was like growing up unpopular, black and female? Probably not. Perhaps he too was an outsider for whatever reason, but the Carrie-like narrative that was done well by Stephen King for instance, didn’t translate here. And trying to turn the mammy/black care-giver stereotype on its head didn’t work either. It was messy, aimless and too delicate a subject for this kind of treatment.

I’m also sad that Ma didn’t ramp up the weird. Landes is behind several episodes of Comedy Central’s Workaholics and Adam Devine’s House Party-two extremely bro-ish comedy series, and has had a brief career in stand-up comedy. He and Taylor could have pushed it to a slightly more absurd feel, like the 1973 film, The Baby. That film was disturbing, absurd and everything you need to make you squirm uncomfortably, but this isn’t the 70s, and sadly, we only find those films kitschy in hindsight. While the comedy beats were decent in Ma, I wished Landes and Tate had drawn more from the absurdity of the situation instead of straight horror with a few laughs.

Spencer’s performance was really, really good. I was a fan of hers after I saw her in Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer, and when you look at her IMDb page, there’s so much variety there, especially within genre film, that you know she’s a versatile performer. Spencer and Taylor are reportedly best friends, so there’s a mutual trust for her to give her best performance. Her emotional transitions were seamless; really putting Sue Ann’s unhinged persona center stage. I also loved Allison Janney as Sue Ann’s disgruntled veterinarian boss, in fact I feel there was a spark between Spencer and Janney that was wasted. That venom could have been central to the film, because really, who needs to see more teens in jeopardy, but Janney was only in a couple of scenes and I almost forgot she was in it.

Ma creeping on the teens.

I wonder what a black female director and writer would have done with Sue Ann’s character. It’s a shame Spencer shows her range in a starring role with complex character who doesn’t quite get the attention she deserves. If you’re set on seeing Ma, go for Spencer’s menacing performance and what I hope is her gateway in more starring roles in more genre films, but this time with a black female horror director.

The Perfection: Dedication and Depravity Scores a 10

If you’re thirsting for an Asian horror-inspired, stylized roller coaster ride with buckets of tension, look no further than Richard Shepard’s The Perfection.

Charlotte (Allison Williams, Girls, Get Out) is a musical prodigy.  Enrolled in the elite Bachoff Academy where students are hand-picked for their talent, she is destined to become a legendary cellist. Family obligations put her career on hold and 10 years later, Charlotte is ready to reclaim her life.  She reconnects with the school dean Anton (Steven Weber, Channel Zero), and is invited to Shanghai to judge a competition along with the school’s newest star, Lizzie (Logan Browning, Dear White People). The two women soon learn they are fans of each other’s work and become inseparable.  When Lizzie falls mysteriously ill, both their worlds change forever.

Charlotte (Williams) in Shanghai

There’s a fine line you walk when reviewing The Perfection because it presents a unique timeline that catches you off guard, making it difficult to navigate around many a spoiler. What I can say is that the film is exactly what a fan of Asian extreme cinema would enjoy, and Shepard parlays the themes, style and body horror of Asian extremity in an exciting way for North American audiences. He does so not because the film sets the scene in Shanghai or because there are Asian actors, but by using the tone and beats so often used in Asian extreme cinema. Shepard has mentioned in interviews The Handmaiden and Oldboy by Park Chan-wook as inspirations, and I also get a Sion Sono or Takashi Miike vibe as well. The story starts subtly, lulling the audience with romance and kinship that’s sexy and not gratuitous, then landing an unexpected roundhouse kick to our plot expectations. We’re sent reeling just enough to collect ourselves and follow along for the ride.

Both women were made for the all-American girl role; Williams, who played the awful Rose in Get Out, is perfect as Charlotte with her fresh looks and innocence versus Browning’s appeal as the more worldly and tougher of the two. It works well, especially since they’ll need to draw on their opposite bad girl/vulnerable selves later. They both reportedly learned how to play the cello as well, to make their performances believable, and their chemistry is undeniable.

The haunting music was composed by Paul Haslinger, former member of Tangerine Dream, the band so beloved for their numerous film scores, so there’s some major musical street cred involved. I also love that Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo who both mastered complicated plots for the TV series Supernatural, were on the writing team. Their skill at dealing with intertwining plot threads is well used here.

Lizzie (Browning) and Charlotte (Williams) play together.

Shepard’s The Perfection ultimately captures the intricate web women must navigate for success, the weight of societal expectations, and what women have endured to achieve it minus the male gaze-y tropes. Be prepared for abuse, full-on gore and a whole lot of twists and turns. It’s mandatory to endure all of it for one of the most bizarre, violent and satisfying finales I’ve seen in a long time.

The Perfection is streaming now on Netflix.  Let it be the salve for you jaded horror fans out there.

See You Yesterday Taps Into Sci-Fi and the Black Lives Reality

Netflix does it again by taking a chance on representation. In the tradition of classic TV series like Sliders and Quantum Leap, Stefon Bristol’s first feature film See You Yesterday combines time travel, mistaken identity and black family bonds for a strong sci-fi debut.

CJ (Duncan-Smith) and Sebastian (Crichlow) trying to figure out time jumping.

CJ (Eden Duncan-Smith) is a brilliant Brooklyn high school student and along with her best friend Sebastian (Dante Crichlow), devises a time travelling, or temporal relocation, machine. After a few technical glitches, they successfully jump to the day before. When her brother Calvin (Astro aka Brian Bradley) gets killed by police due to mistaken identity, CJ thinks she can change his destiny by jumping back in time to save his life.  

Expanding on his short film of the same name, Bristol gets major points for giving us a black female protagonist who is determined, ambitious, intelligent and extremely likable, as well as a heartwarming take on the West Indian community in Flatbush, a loving brother and sister relationship, and a single mother family that lost their father while he was in the army, not by any crime. He shows us everyday life in Brooklyn for black folks, from visiting the neighborhood bodega to being harassed by the police.  The characters seem real with Duncan-Smith, Crichlow and Bradley showing an easy chemistry that transitions from light banter to intense discussions well. Bristol was an intern for Spike Lee, who also produced the film, and you can see Lee’s influence in an homage to his “double dolly shot” and the social commentary narrative, but Bristol has created his own vision of young black Brooklynites in jeopardy.

There will be obvious comparisons to Jordan Peele’s recent Twilight Zone episode, “Replay”, starring Sanaa Lathan. Here, she plays a mother who wants to document her son’s arrival at college with her vintage camcorder only to realize she can rewind the device to go back in time and save him when a racist cop guns him down. Both stories deal with the daily fears of black people being pulled over, interrogated and killed because of the color of their skin. Both deal with strong women who refuse to take the fate doled out to so many innocent black men in this time of protest, but where Peele made an effort to show blacks conquering, Bristol aims for a sobering and open-ended resolution.

The look and feel of the film is deceiving. The wardrobe is hip and young, representing a DIY style of kids on a budget.  A squeal-inducing cameo by one of the original time travellers Michael J. Fox as CJ’s science teacher Mr. Lockhart, the bright, summery cinematography, and strong, witty language seems like a formula for fun, but Bristol has made a teen sci-fi film for this new age of awareness.  This lightheartedness changes tone abruptly to mirror life when you first realize your world isn’t impervious to the outside terrors of violence. Even though this film is speculative and fiction, for those of us who have lost someone when we are young or naïve, it’s a reality. This may not please a lot of people because the film also ends abruptly, but it’s all too real because in this current climate, there aren’t a lot of black families who get their happy ending.

CJ racing against time.

See You Yesterday is streaming now, so do yourself a favor and see it for a perfect representation of how black people continue to create their own narrative. It gives us a wonderful black female character, the message of both despair and hope, and a story that could easily be continued as a popular Netflix series.