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Josh Reviews Men in Black: International

I really enjoyed the first Men in Black film, made back in 1997.  It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a lot of fun to watch.  But none of the sequels have ever lived up to the potential of this series’ wonderful premise (of a secret group of men and women whose job it is to protect the Earth from extra-terrestrials who mean us harm).  Over the last twenty-plus years, there have been various wild attempts to re-start this franchise, but none of them have ever quite worked the way they should have.  This fourth film, Men in Black: International, is no exception.

I was excited to see a new Men in Black film, and I loved the idea of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson stepping in as the series’ new leads.  The two of them had terrific comedic chemistry in Thor: Ragnarok, and I was eager to see them re-teamed.

But, unfortunately, I found little of interest in Men in Black: International.

The film is amiable enough, but for an action comedy it is really not very funny (there were like five jokes in the whole film that made me laugh), and for a sci-fi adventure it’s very small-scale and small-looking.  (Godzilla: King of the Monsters demonstrated the same near-incompetent story-telling, but at least that film was gorgeous to look at, a humongous big-budget spectacle.  I feel bad to be disrespecting the many people who I’m sure worked very hard on this movie, but Men in Black: International looks to me like it was made on the cheap.)

The story-telling in this film is stunningly amateurish, which continually cuts the movie off at the knees.

What do I mean by that?  Well, let’s start with how, in my opinion, the film totally fails to properly set up the story or the two leads.

We learn in the early-going that Tessa Thompson’s character Molly discovered the truth about the Men in Black as a kid, and that she has been trying to become a part of their organization ever since.  Then we see that she has a terrible job at a call center, and yet that she has somehow been able to track spacecraft in Earth’s vicinity on her work computer.  What?  How??  The film can’t be bothered to do the work to actually show us how Molly could achieve that — thus laying important pipe regarding her skills and her smarts.  Instead, she just somehow magically has this information on her computer at work.  Then, once she locates and sneaks into MIB headquarters, she’s quickly accepted as a probationary agent by Agent O (Emma Thompson), and sent on a mission to London because there is a “problem” … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The newest film from the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is available for viewing on Netflix.  The film consists of six short-stories, all set in the Old West.  I thought the film was marvelous — it’s weird and funny and heartbreaking… and did I say weird?  The film’s heart beats with the Coen Brothers’ uniquely off-kilter sensibility.  I can see how it might strain the patience of someone looking for a more standard, traditionally structured narrative film.  But I loved pretty much every minute of it.

The first short is the The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (from which the movie draws its name), and I think it’s my favorite of the six.  Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Syriana, The Incredible Hulk) is perfect as the titular singing gunslinger, delivering possibly the best performance of his career.  He’s funny and vicious and sad.  It’s a great role and he kills it.  This short perfectly sets the tone for the entire film.  It looks like a Western, but this isn’t your average Western.  I love how Buster talks right too the audience; I love his singing; and I love the quickly-escalating looniness of the ending.  Also: David Krumholtz (Serenity, The Deuce) and Clancy Brown (Highlander, The Shawshank Redemption, and the best voice of Lex Luthor ever, appearing in many of Bruce Timm’s DC animated series) pop up in small roles!

In the second short, Near Algodones, James Franco plays a cowboy who finds himself facing the hangman’s noose, twice, after a bank robbery attempt goes awry.  This is probably the slightest of the six shorts, but it’s still a solid enough little yarn.  James Franco is great in the mostly-silent role of a cowboy with pretty lousy luck, and the great Stephen Root (Newsradio, Office Space) is a hoot as the nutty pots-and-pans-wearing bank teller who is just too smart to be bested.  (I love the “first time?” punchline at the end, expertly delivered by Mr. Franco.)

Meal Ticket is the grimmest of the six shorts.  Liam Neeson plays an old man who runs a traveling theatre show, in which an armless and legless man, played by Harry Melling, recites dramatic monologues to mostly-uninterested crowds.  This is a sad story with an unpleasant ending, and it seems curiously perverse to cast Mr. Neeson, an actor with one of the most magnificent voices in Hollywood, in a mostly-silent role.  After the fun of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, these next two shorts had me a little unsettled.  But things take an upswing with short number four.  (And I do think that Meal Ticket is a very well-made short story.  It’s just so … [continued]

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Josh Reviews the Final Episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Shockingly, the animated TV show Star Wars: The Clone Wars has, over the years, grown into a pretty terrific show and a fascinating expansion of the Star Wars saga.  When the animated film was released to theatres back in 2008, I skipped it.  I was totally soured on the prequels, and the animated project didn’t interest me at all.  The CG animation looked stiff and fake, and the project seemed too kid-focused to interest me.  When the series began airing on cartoon network, I avoided it at first, but eventually watched a few episodes.  It wasn’t great, but it was good enough to keep me periodically checking back in with the show.  There were a lot of episodes I missed, but I’d catch one here and there.  By the third or fourth season, I felt the quality had increased dramatically, and I started watching the show more regularly.  When it was announced at the end of the fifth season that the show was being cancelled, I actually found myself rather upset!

I was disappointed at the end of a show I’d been enjoying, and more to the point I was disappointed that the story was being left incomplete.  Half the fun of the show wasn’t just my enjoyment of the episodes themselves, but my growing interest in how all of the character-arcs and story-lines would be wrapped up, as the show inched closer and closer to the events of Episode III — which would, of course, mean the brutal, tragic deaths of all the show’s characters!  Just like the whole point of the prequels was to eventually get to the end of Episode III and the events of Anakin’s fall and the destruction of the Jedi, it feels like half the point of this show was to arrive at that same end, and to see the story cut down in the middle was extremely frustrating.  (I’ve read the show was planned to last eight seasons.)

It’s all the more painful that the show was cut down at its creative height, and for something as stupid as the corporate bottom line.  (From what I understand, once Lucasfilm was sold to Disney, Disney didn’t want to be locked into Cartoon Network’s ownership of the show.)  And the show really was at a creative height.  The animation had improved dramatically, to the point where I found the episodes to be quite gorgeous.  This show gave us some phenomenal fight sequences: massive space battles; complex planet-based fights on land, in the air, and in the sea; and some extraordinary lightsaber fights.  We really got to explore the universe of the Star Wars, and the epic conflict of the Clone Wars, far more than the … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Batman Begins (2005)

With Christopher Nolan’s third and apparently final Batman film only weeks away, I thought it would be fun to go back and re-watch his first two Bat-films.

Having seen so many great super-hero films in the years since 2005, it’s easy to forget just how impressive Mr. Nolan’s achievement was with Batman Begins. Finally, here was a filmmaker ready to bring to movie-screens the character of Batman that I have loved for so long in the comics, and to treat that character seriously.  I love Tim Burton’s Batman, but while that’s a great film, it’s not in my mind a great depiction of the character of Batman.  Then, of course, the later films descended into ridiculousness and camp.  In the minds of many in the public, the Batman they knew was still the Adam West Pow! Book! Zap! version.

But Mr. Nolan took Batman seriously, and he and co-writer David S. Goyer set about to dig into the character of Batman: who he is an how he came to be.  (Comic fans know, of course, that I am paraphrasing a chapter title from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s seminal four-part story Batman: Year One, to this day the definitive origin story of Batman and a text from which Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer borrowed liberally for their screenplay for Batman Begins.)

The genius of Batman Begins is that you don’t spend the whole movie just waiting for Bruce Wayne to put on the cape and cowl.  The details of Mr. Wayne’s adolescence, as depicted in the film, are rich and fascinating, and fully hold the audience’s attention for the first two-thirds of the movie.  Indeed, it’s the final third, in which Wayne finally becomes Batman, that is the weakest part of the film, but I’ll get to that in a few moments.

I love how well-thought-out and focused the film’s script is.  Mr. Nolan and Mr. Goyer seized on the idea of fear as central to Batman and Bruce Wayne.  I love how the film, and the characters, continually return to that idea.  Ducard (Liam Neason) constantly needles young Bruce Wayne on the subject, exhorting him to identify and conquer his fear.  The choice of the Scarecrow as one of the film’s villains further plays into this subject.  That’s smart screenwriting.  They didn’t just choose a random villain, they chose one who really meshed with the story being told.

Speaking of villains, I love Liam Neeson’s role in the film.  Yes, Liam Neeson has played this type of mentor character many, many times before.  Yes, when he and Bruce Wayne are training with swords on a frozen lake I can easily imagine him with a lightsaber in his hand instead … [continued]