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Men in Black International (2019)

Men in Black International is a perfectly fine movie but it’s hard not to feel the franchise going through the motions in an attempt to recapture the elusive magic that made the original 1997 movie the standout it was. This time we’re introduced to new agents and new agencies, with Thor Ragnarok stars Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth decked out in black and on the hunt for rogue alien life forms in Europe and the Middle East. The two actors are charming and Thompson’s character is a great re-introduction to this hidden world, a woman who has devoted her life to finding and becoming a Man in Black. As we went from scene to scene, it felt like an MIB spy thriller evoking the undercover missions, arms dealers, shady informants, potential agency mole to expose, exotic locales, and crackling banter of that genre, and that’s something none of the sequels have done before. However, I also noted just how forced everything felt. What should be jaunty and droll came across as flat or overly exaggerated, trying to recreate the energy and style of the original but falling short. It feels like when someone is trying to retell a joke but has lost the rhythms that made it so amusing in the first place. The pieces are there but they don’t feel right. I also kept noting how it should be funnier. Many of the jokes are barely touched upon or developed for more potential. The set pieces are pretty humdrum and even the integration of the strange, otherworldly elements and aliens feels lacking. With that said, Hemsworth and Thompson remind you how winning an onscreen pair they are, and even with their charm kept at a lower, simmering level they are still enjoyable to watch. There’s a predictable storyline about an alien invasion and a predictable turncoat reveal, but it’s all played rather innocuously that it’s hard to get upset. Men in Black International is an intermittently amusing movie that’s hard to hate and hard to love. If you’re a fan of the series, or got a couple hours to obliterate, it should provide enough entertainment, but much like one of those handy-dandy nueralizers, you won’t remember much after.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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The Fate of the Furious (2017)

I’ve written before that all I demand from the ever-ascendant and popular Fast and Furious franchise are its eye-popping action set pieces that teeter into madcap lunacy and impressive stunt work. A fiery meteor could crush all the characters, short of The Rock, and I wouldn’t shed a tear. Despite the super serious plaudits about the importance of family and loyalty and blah blah blah, I’m only here for the action spectacle that obliterates the laws of physics. I’ve said before there’s a fine line between stupid action and stupidly awesome action, and the Fast and Furious franchise has planted its flag like few others. Nobody today goes to the level of action spectacle that the Fast and Furious films achieve, bringing to life exciting action set pieces that feel fully plucked from the imagination of an exuberant child, and I don’t mean that at all disparagingly. These movies deliver like few others nowadays. We’re a long way from undercover cops and underground street racing. Vin Diesel and his team are essentially superheroes and their power involves doing amazing things with cars. I’m not a gearhead, I don’t care a lick about automobiles, but I’ve come to eagerly anticipate this franchise. It delivers ridiculous action on a ridiculous scale like few others. It’s earned my confidence. The Fate of the Furious, the eighth film, still delivers the high-octane goods even if it can’t quite keep up with the best of the franchise’s entries.

Dom (Diesel) has been preaching the virtues of family for years but now he’s turning his back on them. The notorious cyber terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron) extorts Dom into helping her get her hands on nuclear codes. Dom’s crew (The Rock, Michelle Rodriguez, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Nathalie Emmanuel) is wondering whether the man they know is still there. Government agent M. Nobody (Kurt Russell) reassembles the team to track down Dom, and they’re working with some unexpected help. Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) has been released from maximum-security prison to thwart Cipher.

This is a franchise that soared to new heights of commercial success after it left behind its inhibitions of the imagination. It’s a franchise that lives or dies depending upon its giddy action set pieces. As I wrote about Furious 7: “The set pieces of the last few films have been stunners, and at its height, the franchise can make you feel giddy like a child watching the unreal unfold with such delight. There’s a tremendous and infectious high watching a well-executed action scene on such a large scale. With every movie our expectations are hungrier, and the franchise has found a way to satiate our action movie demands.” Fortunately for the eighth film, there are two standout action set pieces that are some of the stronger ones in the history of the franchise. The first is a car chase through New York (though filmed primarily in Cleveland) that builds and changes as it continues, an essential element for any great action sequence to stretch forward. At one point Cipher takes control of an armada of hackable, self-driving cars and pilots them as a collective weapon of mass destruction. They resemble a herd of runaway bulls. The destructive fleet leads to some impressive sights such as a bevy of cars plummeting from a parking garage. It’s a strong sequence that also finds room for the other characters to try and take down Dom, and it allows Dom the ability to outsmart them, adding the personal element. The other standout is the entire third act set around the Arctic Circle in Russia that climaxes with the dizzying heights of a nuclear sub chase and The Rock manually redirecting a speeding torpedo. There are multiple points of action and mini-goals that lead logically to the next, allowing escalation to mount. It’s dangerously over-the-top even for this franchise and it’s generally awesome and I loved it.

Eight movies in and Fast and Furious is really becoming an expansive ensemble series. The core team has been picking up players here and there with each additional movie, building its diverse definition of a diverse family. This is getting to be a crowded film and there’s just not enough room to go around for everyone to contribute meaningfully, which means it’s more likely from here on out, unless there is some judicial pruning, that characters stay religiously archetypal. Ludacris is the tech guru, but isn’t Emmanuel now also the tech guru, or does she only specialize in the tech subgroup of hacking? Why do I need Scott Eastwood (The Longest Ride) to join the gang as the awkward rookie trying to look cool? Isn’t that a milder version of what Tyrese Gibson offers as the comic relief bravado? Admittedly, I only started really paying attention to this franchise once it added The Rock, but I’m still unsure what Rodriguez brings to the dynamic beside history and romance. This general sense of the characters settling into their expected roles is exemplified in the in-car banter and one-liners. It appears often that they’re just talking to themselves for these lines. I could do with far less Tyrese reaction shots and Rodriguez one-liners. Theron is also generally wasted as the new villain du jour. She’s got the icy glare down and looks to be having fun, but she’s not given anything interesting to do. Without going into greater spoilers, I will say that Dom’s heel turn is wrapped up by the end of its 135-minute running time. No need to turn it into a multi-film arc.

Paul Walker’s character is understandably absent and I’d hate for them to bring him back after the very sweet and surprisingly poignant sendoff at the end of Furious 7, but he does still exist in this universe. I can agree with characters not wanting to get him involved in their dangerous missions across the globe, but at the end when they’re all dining as one big family, wouldn’t they also invite Dom’s sister, brother-in-law, and their children too? It gets into the Avengers territory where you start wondering why the Avengers haven’t assembled for the world-destroying threats from their respective solo film adventures.

The best post-Rock addition to the franchise has easily been Statham (Spy) and he proves it with his limited but highly entertaining time on screen. His appearances were a fun disruption in the previous film and he served as the most formidable villain. Reintegrating him onto the team was a smart move because he adds charisma, unpredictability, and a new dynamic that also seeds conflict. It was also smart because more Statham means including hand-to-hand combat action sequences that can involve a higher degree of stunt choreography, even if the former Transporter is starting to show his age. His scenes with The Rock were a natural highlight. However, adding Deckard onto the team to tackle a bigger baddie presents some weird questions. By the film’s end, everyone seems rather chummy with the man who straight up murdered their friend Han (Sung Kang). Sorry dude but it seems like everyone is rather relaxed with your murderer and big government having unlimited and regulation-free surveillance powers. My advice to future Fast and Furious installments, and there will be various, is to try and include as much Statham as possible (it’s essentially a repeat of The Rock Rule).

Where the movie has rougher terrain is in the area of drama and comedy. Look, nobody is going to confuse the Fast and the Furious films as great works of human drama. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job, Straight Outta Compton) takes over for James Wan (The Conjuring) who took over for Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond), and the discrepancy is noticeable. While having two excellent set pieces that place highly along the big board of the franchise, they’re not as well shot. Gray’s command of visuals is more than adequate but lacks the sizzle and vision of his predecessors. Wan was able to adopt the house style of the franchise and deliver a satisfying though lesser experience (Lin is king). Gray has a harder time with the material. The CGI approaches cartoon levels at points and Gray doesn’t better maintain tone. He doesn’t know when to pull back, which is unusually exemplified in the comedy asides. Everything that gets a laugh will be repeated until it becomes somewhat annoying, in particular a scene with Statham and a baby. It begins fun and cheeky, and Statham even uses the baby carriage as part of the fight choreography, but then it overstays its welcome like the other comedy bits. The dramatic moments are also far too overwrought, even for this franchise. It can be a bit much.

This is a franchise that revels in the ridiculous, that embraces being a big dumb action movie in the best way, delivering imaginative and often eye-popping action that deserves the full big screen treatment. Fate of the Furious falls somewhere in the middle of the franchise from a quality standpoint. It’s not as good as seven, which wasn’t as good as six, which wasn’t as good as five, but it’s still good enough. It’s definitely lesser and the new director doesn’t have the same natural feel for the preposterous as previous directors, and even after eight films I’m still mostly indifferent about the far majority of the characters on screen. As I’ve written before, though, thankfully the movie has the good sense to know what the audience is paying to see. It’s here for the fast cars, eye-popping stunts, and gratuitously framed camera angles highlighting women’s derrieres (I think there’s a contractual law that a close-up of booty shorts must make a grand entrance in the opening minutes of every film). Fate of the Furious is just enough of what I want from the franchise, though it’s getting harder to keep up with every new movie. Furious 9 and 10 are already in the works, and it’s only a matter of time before we get Fast and Furious in Space. It’s getting further and further removed from a sense of reality but as long as it keeps up with incrementally raised expectations and employs enough charming actors to compensate for Diesel’s enormous lack of charisma, then they’ll keep fans like me happy in the short run.

Nate’s Grade: B

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterIn 1987 in Compton, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was selling drugs, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) was spinning records in a club, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is writing lyrics in the back of a school bus (the movie significantly downplays DJ Yella and MC Ren). The guys have grown up in an environment of suspicions and harassment by the Los Angeles police. Their response was to compose angry and defiant songs illuminating their world. After a few early performances, the group is approached by record producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who wants to get them signed and touring. Their music and their perspective catches on and soon NWA is awash in big shows and groupies. Heller puts more of his efforts onto Eazy-E, and Dre and Cube feel marginalized and doubtful that Heller has their best interest at heart.

It’s hard to reconcile the brash and challenging men responsible for NWA and this sanitized and rather rote rags-to-riches biopic that asks curiously little of its subjects when it comes to depth or reflection. Not every biopic needs to be as faithful as the most excoriating documentary on its subject, but we have become accustomed over the last decade to the warts-and-all approach, where the central biographical figures are celebrated for their achievements but care is taken to tell their lives with measured accuracy, not to hide anything that challenges our concept of who these people were. Imagine if Walk the Line had sanitized its portrayal of Johnny Cash, or worse, devoted most of its running time to his stint as a revivalist Christian musician? What if Ray had eliminated his womanzing? What if The Aviator said that Howard Hughes was the model of human sanity? A biopic doesn’t need to tell us every facet of its subject’s life because that is an impossible demand that only the densest of books can truly achieve, however, a biopic must instill the spirit of its subject in an honest representation, because that’s at best what you’re going to get when you apply a human life to the realm of narrative. Straight Outta Compton comes across as far too gentle with its core subjects, portraying them as underdog anti-heroes who were pushed around by those trying to exploit them and their message. Of course this would be the approach when Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the widow of Eazy-E produce the film. At this point it’s about protecting the legacy, protecting the brand, and so the members of NWA become far less interesting.

Straight-Outta-ComptonNobody probably gets the biggest revision than Dr. Dre, especially his violent history with women. As depicted in the film, Dre is a talented and frustrated music producer who is trying to do his best to live up to his dreams but falling short and feeling the pressure of not being the support system for his brother, his girlfriend, his daughter. When the money starts rolling in, Dre embarks on a successful solo career and reconciles with Eazy-E. That’s about all there is to his character arc, a series of creative struggles and trusting the wrong people. There is one very brief moment that hints at Dre’s history with women, when his girlfriend expresses caution about getting too involved with Dre because she doesn’t want anything negative to happen to her young son. This woman doesn’t appear to be Michel’le Toussaint, a best-selling Ruthless Records artist who was with Dre for seven years and gave birth to their son in 1991. Toussaint has spoken about consistent physical abuse, including an incident where Dre shot at her through a bathroom door. Then there’s the glaring omission of Dee Barnes, a journalist who Dre brutally beat inside a nightclub in 1990 (Dre has finally come forward and apologized for this incident but only after the Apple overlords or Universal execs probably applied some pressure to make the bad PR from the press tamp down). Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, Law Abiding Citizen) has gone on record saying they had to focus on the “story that was pertinent to our main characters.” About that…

Straight Outta Compton has a renewed relevancy due to the increased attention in the news concerning police brutality, profiling, and harassment. It was from this combination of oppression and negativity that NWA honed their provocative message. The lyrics of gangster rap reflected the reality of their living conditions, and so they were bleak, angry, violent, and they spurred a sense of relatability across the country from others. It was a reaction against a system that had cataloged them as suspects from birth. The story structure of Straight Outta Compton shows the birth of gangster rap through a select sample of personal experiences. From there we see the rise, the backlash, and I suppose a “we told you so” moment with the aggravation over the Rodney King case turning into the volcanic anger and destruction of the L.A. riots. The aside highlighting the L.A. riots only really serves to underline the idea that NWA’s message of the beaten-down growing increasingly weary of their denigrated treatment. After that, the greater message of what NWA meant to the world of music and culture is lost midst the squabbles of the former friends. This is a missed opportunity at creating a stronger message and adding needed complexity to the main characters. What if Straight Outta Compton had explored the violent life of its stars after they had achieved their dreams? It creates a more damning theme about the consequences of a life under oppression; Dre grew up being harassed and antagonized, which is reflected in their music, but even when they escape that environment the consequences can still follow and entrap them. As it plays, the guys strike it rich, get waylaid by outsiders, and eventually find their footing again. It’s a narrative structure that places all the problems as external threats, be it Heller or Knight or HIV itself, and strips the main characters of their own agency. The movie doesn’t let them account for their own action and finds excuses when able. An incident where they brandish high-powered guns to chase off an angry boyfriend is treated as an unearned and questionable moment of levity. Gray said they could only focus on the “pertinent” stories, but I don’t see anything more pertinent than exploring the psychological trauma of brutality and oppression and how, even as an adult with seemingly the world at your fingertips, it still manifests in your life and personal relationships.

As a standard rags-to-riches biopic, Straight Outta Compton is consistently entertaining and well acted, though it can’t help but feel like we’re rushing through the events. A significant disappointment is the underdeveloped nature of the friendship of Dre, Eazy-E and Cube. There’s an early scene where they’re teasing one another and working out the beginnings of “Boys in the Hood” and this is the lone moment where we feel the dynamic of the trio. The early glimpse at the creative process is a high-point. After that, sadly, the only examination the movie affords on the relationships of the three is the jealousies and divisions. Strangely, the most interesting character relationship is between Eazy-E and Heller, which despite the predictable dissolution is the most heartfelt relationship on screen. Think about that: the most involving relationship depicted in the movie is between a former drug dealer-turned-musician and a Jewish music producer. It’s their opposites-attract dynamic that helps to make them so much more intriguing to watch.

Straight Outta ComptonStraight Outta Compton treats Heller as a greedy predator who was cheating NWA out of their rightful earnings, though I’m still a bit skeptical as to these accusations. The movie even gives me a reason to support my skepticism. Once Cube goes solo, a record producer (Tate Ellington) promises to support him on his next record if the first is successful. Obviously Cube is a hit and he comes back to this producer, who explains that he can’t simply just write a check then and there and that it’s more complicated. Cube responds by trashing the guy’s office and the moment is treated as a strangely triumphant moment that the exec even awkwardly jokes about later when Cube returns. This moment made me think maybe, just maybe, the people in the industry weren’t explicitly cheating out NWA but the margins of the recording industry are a bit harder to explain.

While the characters themselves can be a tad boring, the actors do everything in their power to make them feel fully felt. The three lead actors impressed me. Mitchell especially wows in his greater emotional moments, like the discovery of being HIV-positive and only having a few reaming months to live. Jackson Jr. gives an eerily accurate portrayal of his father, and Hawkins (Non-Stop) hits his stride when Dre is most ambitious. The three of them have an easy-going camaraderie that adds to the authenticity. The actors are so good that the deficiencies in characterization are all the more frustrating. The talent was there but the characterization was not. I also want to single out R. Marcos Taylor for his strikingly imposing portrayal of Suge Knight. As soon as Taylor starts eating up more screen time, I couldn’t help but wish the movie’s focus jumped ship to the ruthless Death Row Records impresario.

Straight Outta Compton is already the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time, so surely the wider moviegoing public greeted its safe approach to its subjects with some level of approval. Enough time has passed to add a layer of nostalgia to the early days of gangster rap, as well as political relevancy with the increased media spotlight on overzealous police provocations and the growing Black Lives Matter movement. The time was ripe for this movie and it’s an undeniable hit. I was entertained throughout and found the performances to be involving, but I can’t shake off the feeling about what is being left out. It’s by no means a biopic’s requirement to include everything about its subject, but with the living members of NWA aboard and approving their movie versions, the sanitization of a complicated and contradictory reality is the best we’re going to get. The film doesn’t hold the band up for their behavior, whether it’s promiscuous sex that leads Eazy-E to getting infected (a plot point with no setup beyond some movie-friendly knowing coughs) or Dre’s violent history with women. The move doesn’t have to portray the members of NWA as villains but by treating them as misunderstood underdogs who were exploited by outside forces feels like a (forgive the term) cop-out. These guys didn’t ask to become spokemen for a generation of antagonized and discredited black men, but surely there’s something more interesting and deeper to explore than band in-fighting. Straight Outta Compton is a slick and entertaining film but ultimately just another product.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Taking a few lessons from the grisly Saw franchise, this revenge thriller follows Clyde (Gerard Butler) track and kill the men responsible for murdering his wife and child. Except that pretty gets resolved in 15 minutes. The rest of the movie is Clyde’s misguided, morally queasy assault on the justice system; the judges, lawyers, police officers that keep a dying system going, letting guilty murderers walk. Clyde is specifically targeting the prosecutor (Jaime Foxx) that made a plea bargain instead of risking his conviction percentage at a trial. This is a violent vision that wants to rewrite our very Constitution, questioning giving accused murders the same considerations as soccer moms. The movie can come across as a conservative, Death Wish-style fantasy against the judicial system and those pesky civil liberties afforded to everyone. While shrouded in the guise of being a bloody thriller, the movie’s idea of moral ambiguity is pretty thin. Its ethical arguments don’t stand a second line of questioning. Sure, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) can put together an exciting and tense sequence, and the film is filled with surprise, and Butler arguably gives his best performance since 300, but while I was entertained I was also offended at being expected to cheer every time Clyde knocked off another innocent citizen.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Italian Job (2003)

The Italian Job’ is equal parts dumb and equal parts entertaining, which makes for fine breezy summertainment. The cast is agreeable, the heist is interesting, the action is full of sexy cars and explosions; I call into question how in the world Jerry Bruckheimer’’s name is absent from this. Maybe he’’s too busy with his TV work.

The film opens up on a nifty heist in, of all places, Venice. Grizzled old-timer John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) leads his crew for, say it with me now everyone, one last heist. Charlie (Mark Wahlberg) is his second in command and the heir to the thievery throne. The crew steals a safe full of gold bars by applying explosive paint to specific levels of ceilings, causing the safe to drop two floors into the awaiting arms of our scoundrels. The Venice police believe the safe to be riding off in a boat, driven by the crew’’s getaway man Handsome Rob (the always good to have Jason Statham). But no the real safe has fallen into the canal and Charlie and John are scuba-safe-crackin’’. The crew gets away with their misdeed and toast about their thievery atop a mountainside.

Everything is good. But wait, Steve (Edward Norton) double-crosses his peers and hijacks the gold and kills John. Here’s what I don’t get. Everyone in the crew is shocked, especially an overactive and whiny Wahlberg (and there’’s no worse kind than a whiny Wahlberg). ““How could you do this?”” whines Whiney Wahlberg. Let me think here. Maybe it’s because … YOU’’RE ALL THIEVES, JACKASS! What was that old saying, no honor among thieves or something. To paraphrase ‘Go’, you guys aren’’t exactly in a highly ethical industry. There aren’’t good thieves and bad thieves; this ain’’t no Errol Flynn pic. I would also like to note that everyone in the crew should have known of Steve’s predestined treachery just by the fact that Norton has a mustache. C’’mon, do you need any bigger a sign? Anyway, the van the crew is in drives off a bridge into subzero water. Steve fires some round into the water and believes he’s killed his former crew. They of course are not dead and instead are using the scuba gear to breathe. Of course, it’’s still subzero temperatures but what does that matter?

We then flash to one year later. Dead John’’s not-so-dead daughter, Stella (Theron), conveniently works as a professional safe-cracker to tests security systems. Hmm, I wonder if that will come in handy later. Charlie approaches her with a plan to re-re-re-steal the gold from Steve, the man who, dramatic pause, killed her father. She agrees to help because she wants to see the look on Steve’’s face when he finds his money gone. It’s probably something very similar to many people over 40 I see now that the stock market is full of price-inflated charlatans.

What follows is Charlie reassembling his crew; Seth Green as the geeky tech dude, Handsome Rob, and Mos Def as the demolitions expert. Together they work out a plan that is part elaborate and part ludicrous, but still entertaining. This is where ‘The Italian Job’ gets the rules of heist cinema right: 1) Efficient amount of time must be made to plan the heist so the audience knows the steps and every role of importance. 2) The heist must go off for an extended period of time for the audience to enjoy the payoff of watching all the rehearsal proceedings. 3) The heist has got to be done in an interesting way. 4) Not everything has to go according to plan. The only real action sequences in ‘The Italian Job’ bookend the film, with the opening Venice heists and the later and extended Steve steal. With this said, the end still carries a good sense of payoff for the audience, and watching all of the different elements of the team work together with their own responsibilities builds a sense of attachment to these otherwise undeveloped characters.

I am convinced Mark Wahlberg is a black hole of acting. Sure, he can do Affable Lug fine and dandy as evidenced by ‘Boogie Nights’, but when Wahlberg attempts (and that is the operative word) to emote he looks like his leg is caught in a bear trap. His whole bland handsome understatedness isn’’t fooling me. Theron is a pretty face but I still haven’t seen anything she’s done to convince me she’s anything more. Green is very funny in his geeky role, complaining that he had the original idea for Napster and it was stolen from him by his roommate. Statham and Mos Def round out a likable if slightly one-note crew.

Director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator) has graduated from the world of music videos but still knows how to stage some exciting scenes. The slick ending heist, with the L.A. gridlock, three trucks to chase after, and fleet of patriotic Minis is a great popcorn action set piece all the more appreciated because of the patient setup the movie has given.

In the days of summer, where some people wrongly consider a bloated and pretentious action film to be entertaining, even if they don’t get a lick of it, it’’s especially nice to have something like ‘The Italian Job’ remind us the escapist fun summer flicks can offer. Just don’’t worry if Wahlberg looks to be in pain.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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