‘Men in Black: International’ review: Enjoy the fun while it lasts

Like its title suggests, Men In Black: International offers plenty of globe-trotting and standard action set pieces to distract you from its bland and confusing plot.

Thanks to Thor: Ragnarok, MIB: International already has one asset under its belt: the charming chemistry of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. In here, Hemsworth continues to win you over with his dashing looks and silly antics, while Thompson balances their dynamic with her poised and confident composure. While the new leads don’t necessarily match the perfect combination of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, they’re sufficient to carry the weight of this film, even if the material lets them down. The script bears some moments of breezy humor and satire (which Taika Waititi so generously offers in Ragnarok), but more often than not, the dialogue comes out generic and forced that it would only elicit pity laughs from the kindest viewers.

The one move that MIB: International does to revamp the franchise for this feminist era is introducing its first female lead. As a young girl, Molly (Thompson) wasn’t “neuralyzed” (i.e. have someone’s short-term memory be erased) by the MIB after witnessing a supernatural sighting. Since then, she makes it her life mission to be a part of the clandestine organization, and twenty years later, she finally tracks down their headquarters and gets recruited in the process. What becomes the running joke here is rookie agent M (Molly) continually upstaging his senior, Agent H (Hemsworth). There’s much discussion of how Agent H is no longer the skilled agent he once was, but not much history is shown on screen to actually see the difference. As far as we’re concerned, H mostly uses his charm to wriggle his way out of a sticky situation, while M is the more level headed one with reliable methods. Each has their own way of getting the job done.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) and Agent H (Chris Hemsworth) test drive an overpowered blaster.

The two take on a high stakes mission to prevent alien malevolent forces from getting their hands on an intergalactic weapon. By doing so, the film detours from the crowded markets and remote desert of Morocco, to the exotic castles in Italy. With all the globe-trotting involved, the plot starts to feel like it’s a rip-off from the James Bond franchise, except the film fails to mine the maximum tension needed. For one, this spin-off features a personality-free villain called The Twins (played by dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois) – a shape-shifting celestial duo that pretty much resembles the invasive space dust in Dark Phoenix. In one scene, M and H bring out various big guns to shoot these creatures to no avail. For a blockbuster director, F. Gary Gray has shown more creative sequences in his previous work in The Fate of the Furious or The Italian Job. MIB: International, on the other hand, is filled with loud laser shootouts and mandatory car chases, all of which go against the idea of the MIB remaining anonymous to the public.

It goes without saying that the true appeal of this secret organization works best when the story is focused within a single environment, to show how extraterrestrial activities (and the covering of such) hide in plain sight. This world-building is demonstrated when H and M make their way down to an alien night club via a hidden tunnel located inside a taxi. Or that part where the film introduces its funnier creation – an anthropomorphic chess piece named Pawny (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani) who happens to be a pocketful of sunshine and sarcasm. These small moments, not the uninspired action sequences, is what brings the magic of the original. Only if the film sustains them throughout.

Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani) pledges allegiance to Agent M.

MIB: International really should have worked as a simple plot but its strange narrative decisions make it look unnecessarily confusing. The ending feels rushed as not much time is given to build the emotional core found in the supposed father-son relationship of Agent H and his mentor, High T (Liam Neeson). The thing is, this film is under the false pretense that ‘bigger equals better’ hence its priority to showcase bland spectacles and its apparent lack of a much more ambitious goal, say injecting an insight or two about the current political or environmental landscape.

The basic ingredients for your summer blockbuster are found here but what really leaves the impression is Hemsworth and Thompson’s charismatic buddy comedy act that reminds us of the franchise’s infinite (yet squandered) potential. You can enjoy the fun while it lasts for I can guarantee you that it’s quite forgettable. No neuralyzers needed.

3 out of 5 stars
Directed by F. Gary Gray, written by Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, ‘Men in Black: International‘ stars Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Liam Neeson, Rafe Spall, Rebecca Ferguson, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois, Emma Thompson and Tim Blaney. 115 minutes. PG-13.

‘Shazam!’ review: Another home run for DCEU

David F. Sandberg’s ‘Shazam!’ is an ode to all those kids (and kids at heart) who have wild dreams of becoming a superhero.

It seems that DC Extended Universe really takes these two constructive criticisms to heart: 1.) Most of their movies are too dark and brooding; and 2.) There are no shortcuts in finding both commercial and critical success for ensemble films (ehem, Justice League), other than banking first on stand-alone origins. Coming after Wonder Woman and Aquaman – two origin films that use a lighter approach compared to Zack Snyder’s style, Shazam! turns out to be the most amusing and most family friendly DCEU offering to date. Oddly enough, it features the best aspects of a Marvel film: the maturity that comes with great responsibility in Spider-Man, the groundedness and familial bond in Ant-Man and the meta-humor of a PG-13 Deadpool. Who would’ve taught that such combination can be a key to combat superhero fatigue?

In it, an orphan teenage boy named Billy Batson (Asher Angel) gains the ability to transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) upon uttering the titular incantation. Technically, the premise sets up to saving the world (again), but when you’re a kid who’s bestowed with a full spectrum of superpowers, do you go on and do it immediately? Of course not. You get to have some fun first. The best thing about Shazam! is that it’s buoyant, innocent and unpretentious in nature. At its centerpiece is a hilarious montage of Billy, along with his geeky friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), testing out his newly acquired powers in a series of YouTube videos – all set to the tune of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” If you’re that kid who has (or once had) a wild dream of becoming a superhero, I can guarantee that you’ll be “having such a good time” here.

Fun fact! SHAZAM is an acronym that stands for the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

Channeling the enthusiasm of a thrilled teenager, Zachary Levi (of Chuck TV series) is a perfect fit in this role. Most viewers are quick to judge on how downright cheesy his costume looks and it’s quite true – his red spandex suit pops like a sore thumb, his cape looks like a tablecloth, his physique seems slightly over-inflated, and his hair is ridiculously dark and lacquered. But the film quickly tells what we are clearly missing in that presumption – Shazam has to look that way for he is the embodiment of a superhero in a kid’s eyes. Levi is an electrifying and magnetic movie star who fully owns the absurdity of his act. By now, I’m expecting that Shazam! will skyrocket his movie career, much like what Guardians of the Galaxy did for former TV star Chris Pratt.

Showing off Superman’s crushed bullet: Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) in ‘Shazam’

Also, thanks to IT’s casting discovery, Jack Dylan Grazer is sensational here. Freddy never gets defined by his disability alone, rather he’s a snarky idealist who has deep scars to hide. The heart here rests in Grazer’s natural and irresistible rapport with both Levi and Asher Angel. Likewise, Angel’s Billy, despite being a slightly morally ambiguous child, is an appealing and root-able protagonist. The rest of his foster siblings are also memorable enough to elevate from mere background characters. As they band together to stop the threats against their family, the mission feels deeply personal. Saving the world refreshingly seems like a side objective now.

Billy’s foster family (L-R): Jovan Armand (Pedro), Ian Chen (Eugene), Zachary Levi (Shazam/Billy), Jack Dylan Grazer (Freddy), Faith Herman (Darla) and Grace Fulton (Mary).

Director David F. Sanderg, whose previous works include Lights Out and Annabelle: Creation, uses his horror sensibilities to bring out the film’s nightmarish themes into fruition. Sometimes his propensity for terror escalates to a fault: for a PG-13 film, there are shockingly violent scenes here and the monsters (a.k.a. The Seven Deadly Sins) can be terrifying for younger audiences. Leading these grotesque looking minions is Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong), a misunderstood kid with daddy issues himself. He’s also into world domination, but the film paints him more than a standard cardboard villain by rooting his motivations to a childhood traumatic experience. Strong brings pathos and a sense of wounded vulnerability to the character.

Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) harnesses the power of the Rock of Eternity.

While Shazam! has plenty of fantastical action and visual gags, it also has a lot of heartfelt stuff to say on the notion of family and friendship – that such bond isn’t predicated by blood alone. In a time where Billy feels lost and alone, he finds solace in the company of a foster family who wholeheartedly accepts his flaws. He thinks that his journey is about finding her biological mom but along the way he is set up to profound realizations of acceptance and forgiveness. It’s heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.

Flight test: Zachary Levi and Jack Dylan Grazer in ‘Shazam’

With its bouncy pacing, goofy yet poignant theme, and a story that plays on an eye level, Shazam! is a solid step towards DCEU’s new direction. It serves as a powerful reminder that superheroes are created first and foremost for kids – that they should reflect their values, aspirations and wonder without the need to dumb down the narrative. It encapsulates the comic spirit – heart, humor and heroism. What a lightning bolt of joy.

4.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by David F. Sandberg and written by Henry Gayden and Darren Lemke, ‘Shazam!’ stars Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans. Characters based from DC Comics. Run time: 132 minutes.

‘The Spy Who Dumped Me’ review: Uneven but wildly fun

While most of the jokes fall on a sitcom level, Susanna Fogel’s ‘The Spy Who Dumped Me’ still makes a serviceable action-buddy cop film, clearly overt with its feminist themes.

Coming out a week after the release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me, though not the first of its own, is a subversive move to empower women in what arguably has been a sexist spy thriller genre. Wild car chases and bloody shootouts with women screaming and trying to survive the rough stuff – it takes in the form of an action-comedy but it also works as a hybrid of many subgenres. It can be a buddy-cop or a fish out of water story. Civilian bestfriends Audrey (Mila Kunis) and Morgan (Kate McKinnon) get themselves into a deadly European excursion when they found out that Audrey’s charming ex-boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) is actually a CIA agent who’s been hunted down by assassins for a vital piece of information – a USB flash drive no less.

It’s a weak MacGuffin but this is the type of story where you won’t care much about the plot (why are they doing that again?) and it just reels you in for the action and gags. For one, the film has decent and serviceable action set pieces to make it at least par with big known franchises – it’s not high art, but it’s fun enough. It even gets into black comedy territory as violence is interspersed with slapstick humor. A rendezvous at a fine dining restaurant turns into a free-for-all, Kingsman-inspired killing spree (even a cheese fondue gets weaponized). Morgan fights off a russian, android-like gymnast (Ivanna Sakhno) during a Cirque du Soleil trapeze performance. An eager uber driver gets shot in the face and such morbidness earns unguarded laughs from the audience. The body count is surprisingly higher than you expect. Director Fogel does not downplay on grisly deaths just because she’s dealing with ladies.

Justin Theroux as CIA agent Drew Thayer, the spy who dumped Audrey.

Chemistry-wise, Kunis and McKinnon make a fine dynamic duo and the film often puts them in sticky situations to generate frantic humor, but not exaggerated enough to make them look dumb. One of the hilarious scenes seen in the trailer is when the two attempt to hijack a fancy car, only to discover a stick shift that neither of them knows how to operate. Kunis is exasperated with this whole espionage crisis yet she has a likable screen presence that can easily be empathized with. While the film seems to be more interested in building up a possible romance between her and another dapper CIA spy Sebastian (Sam Heughan), Kunis’ scenes work better when she plays the straight role to McKinnon’s lunacy.

Speaking of, the film owes a lot of charisma from McKinnon’s shameless antics. The SNL cast member scored her first major role in 2016’s gender bender Ghostbusters reboot and in here she finally gets a lead role. She may play second fiddle to Kunis but for the most part, she steals the show. There is something mischievous and unhinged in her performance that glues your attention to her. “You’re the boss, and yet you have not sacrificed one ounce of femininity? That is the Beyonce of the government,” she says to a female CIA division head (Gillian Anderson), desperately trying to prove a point. Her feminist-themed jokes can be a hit and miss, especially when the script reiterates so much of it towards the end. But what more could she do with an even better material?

Sebastian Henshaw (Sam Heughan), Audrey (Mila Kunis) and Morgan (Kate McKinnon). Photo by Lionsgate.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is ambitious enough to try different ideas to the point that it feels tonally uneven. Its perfunctory spy plot could have benefited from a shorter run time but overall, it’s nice to see an original action-comedy film entertain without the help from any previous franchise. Sitcom punchlines and all, it shines best when it focuses on the two women’s friendship and their shenanigans. If you are sold by McKinnon’s eccentric goofiness alone, then you already have your money’s worth.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Distributed by Lionsgate, ‘The Spy Who Dumped Me‘ is now showing starring Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Sam Heughan, Justin Theroux, Gillian Anderson, Hasan Minhaj and Ivanna Sakhno, Fred Melamed, Jane Curtain and Paul Reiser.. Directed by Susanna Fogel, written by Fogel and David Iserson. Run time: 117 minutes.