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.
(ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC.) 

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.  

Psychics, Sadness and Mystery in Assayas’ Personal Shopper

It’s no surprise that death is devastating for those in mourning. Missing loved ones who have passed on comes in many forms but most of us would confidently say that faith (or lack thereof) aside, we don’t really know what happens to our soul after the physical body ends. In Personal Shopper, we see one woman’s struggle with the death of her twin brother and her belief in the afterlife. It brings to light deeper questions about life and death staged before the backdrop of Paris, the fashion world, and its trappings.

Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works for a self-centered celebrity and socialite Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) as a personal shopper. Her job is to find the latest and greatest in high fashion and bring it back to her famous employer since her high profile makes it impossible to shop anonymously. Maureen has also recently lost her twin brother Lewis to a heart defect she also suffers from. His surviving partner Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz) wants to sell their house, but Maureen who is a medium, insists that Lewis will send her a sign from beyond, so she spends a few nights in his crumbling house waiting for him to appear. He was a medium like her, so her determination is fueled by his once stronger psychic abilities and their vow to make contact from the other side. When she does contact the spirit world, she also receives mysterious text messages topped off with an unexpected murder that stops her in her tracks. Maureen’s quest for answers becomes more confusing, leaving her in a state of shock and floundering for answers.

Kristin Stewart as Maureen waiting for a sign.

Personal Shopper is a horror, a film noir, a psychological thriller, and a ghost story. It is all of the above and none of the above at the same time, embracing and defying genre. Director Olivier Assayas created a film that’s in a class of its own using art, history and old school paranormal beliefs with 21st century technology and lifestyles to illustrate Maureen’s search for her brother’s spirit. It’s this artistic take that kept me riveted despite the slow burn pace.

Assayas captures Maureen’s loss well, and he also conveys the loneliness of this technological age we live in with Skype and smartphones being key methods with which she communicates. Even when she is with someone physically or electronically, she is separate, guarded, or unsure; from her shopping excursions to her Skype dates with her boyfriend. The smart phone as a thing of necessity in this day and age to stay tethered to this world also becomes an agent of isolation and intense paranoia when Maureen pleads with a nameless messenger behind the texts to reveal themselves.  Assayas takes a now commonplace device and gives it a more otherworldly, sinister presence.

Personal Shopper is also a lesson in how Maureen grieves. She throws herself into her work even though she flat out hates her fashionable job, but Paris is her main connection to her dead brother so she stays there as she waits for a ghostly sign, not ready to let go.  The world of fashion is a fleeting one; rarely delving deeply into the reality around it. Her psychic abilities seem to be stunted as she moves between posh shops in London and Paris to serve Kyra in this superficial arena. It shows how she herself seems like a spirit as she is lost between real life, the supernatural, the fashion world, and her uncertainty with what she believes and how she is perceived. Her only moment of self-awareness comes when the mysterious messenger asks her to do something forbidden, and she taps all too briefly into her desires in her confused and somewhat desperate state. It’s a strange moment in the film, but it makes sense as her character searches for a right fit, so to speak, in environments that while not hostile, aren’t hospitable to her either.

The look of the film is really beautiful. Yorick Le Saux, the cinematographer for Only Lovers Left Alive, does a wonderful job capturing the contrast of the dingy streets and stark sophistication of Paris. He is skilled at making the most of each setting, representing streetscapes and boutiques in their truest and most tangible forms. For anyone that has visited the City of Lights, you’ll feel nostalgic for its frenzied energy.

My only issue lies with the text messages and some of the ensuing actions asked of Maureen. While I really enjoyed these suspenseful interludes and there is definitely a point to them, they were problematic with some details that still remain unclear when the storyline makes a sharp turn. Stewart’s stellar performance as a tortured, uncertain and lost character written for her by Assayas, evokes a surprising amount of emotion that overshadows any inconsistencies in the narrative however, as you watch this poor soul wait for her brother to tell her something, anything as proof of an afterlife.

Personal Shopper is an artistic take on a ghost story and focuses on one woman’s uncertainty when mortality comes into question. See this film for it’s beautiful photography, a haunting performance from Stewart and an interesting albeit imperfect story about grief and the afterlife.

(Previously published on Rosemary’s Pixie.)