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Posts Tagged ‘Tessa Thompson’

Having an orderly brain, I noted a few years ago that the gap between the first Men in Black film and the second one was five years, and further that the gap between the second and the third was ten years. It seemed a fairly reasonable assumption that there would be a twenty year gap between the third and the fourth, presumably with Will Smith moving into the role of the grizzled old veteran and someone as-yet-unheard-of providing the youthful glamour. Friends, I am shocked to have to relate this, but I was wrong. The new Men in Black film has come out thirteen years early, and I have to say that some might suggest it shows.

The title of the thing is Men In Black International, concerning the global doings of the secret agency which, for the purposes of this franchise, polices alien activity on the planet Earth. (‘But… but…’ anyone who was paying attention back in 1997 might be spluttering, ‘wasn’t it kind of established then that aliens were really just limited to the New York area?’ Good point. But shush.) The story gets going, chronologically speaking, with a young girl named Molly witnessing the Men in Black in action and wiping her parents’ memories afterwards. She grows up to be a massive over-achiever (Tessa Thompson) and through diligence and ingenuity manages to track the agency to its secret base, where she persuades the director (Emma Thompson, mostly phoning it in) to recruit her.

She is then packed off to the London branch, where there are suggestions of something not being quite right in the ranks of the persons with a wardrobe of a limited chromatic range. It seems that a few years ago there was a showdown atop the Eiffel Tower, which contains some sort of hyperspace gateway built by M. Eiffel, who was also a Man in Black. (‘But.. but… wasn’t it kind of established that the Men in Black came into existence as an exclusively American agency, in 1961?’ Another good point. But shush again.) The two agents involved (Liam Neeson and Chris Hemsworth) saved the world from an invasion by shape-shifting alien horrors, but Hemsworth’s character has been acting rather erratically ever since.

And there is some more plot following this, but I will not trouble you with the details as they are unlikely to linger much in your head, even if you see the movie. The general recipe for the film is kind of the same as before: there’s a gentle send-up of some of the tropes of B-movie sci-fi, mixed with some spy and cop movie clichés, and also a few potentially slightly scary bits with an almost Lovecraftian sense of gribbly tentacled unpleasantness pressing in on the margins of the mundane world.

The thing is that this time around… well, here’s what I have been led to understand about this film. Apparently director Gray was keen to make a film with a bit of a satirical edge to it and some social commentary on the topic of immigration (you can imagine how that would work, along with some of the more obvious gags – one wonders what kind of dismal alien hell-world could have spawned the current US administration). Producer Walter Parkes (who I feel obliged to mention has some pretty decent movies on his CV) wanted something a bit more middle-of-the-road and proceeded to start rewriting the script while the film was actually in production. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who reputedly signed on on the strength of the Gray script, were understandably bemused and independently recruited writers of their own to polish their dialogue.

(Yes, I know, it is utterly baffling that films are made this way, and we have to assume that it is not standard practice in the industry. Even so, this is a production with a budget of somewhere in the region of $100 million, yet the creative process involved seems to have primarily been based around squabbling and bemusement.)

When you consider all this, not to mention the producer and the director both assembling their own edits of the finished film (the producer’s version won out), one does have to say that Men in Black International is a staggering achievement in the way it still manages to be a more or less coherent story without a large number of holes in the plot. This is not to say that there aren’t any – there are still a few, and to be honest they are biggies, but it is unlikely to bother most members of the audience as the clash of different visions has resulted in a film with very little sense of what it’s supposed to be beyond a brand extension and franchise instalment. No one is likely to care or be engaged enough to worry too much about whether it makes any sense.

I mean, look, there is virtually wall-to-wall CGI for most of the film, and it is all very professionally done; fights and chases turn up on a regular basis; there are plot reversals and so on too. But none of it feels as if it means anything – it is all very mechanical and uninspired. It feels like a Men in Black film produced by some sort of artificial intelligence, or a joke written by a computer – all the structural elements are present and correct, it’s just completely flat and lifeless.

Now, of course, with this kind of film, winning chemistry from charismatic leads can go a long way towards taking up any bagginess in the other departments, but the film is also afflicted with, if this isn’t too harsh a way of putting it, the Chris Hemsworth problem. I have certainly enjoyed many Chris Hemsworth films and Chris Hemsworth performances in the past (mostly the ones where he has been playing Thor, to be honest). I have no beef with him as a person, not least because I have no personal relationship with him. However, he is in the awkward spot of being someone whose films make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but only when he plays that one character he’s famous for. So just how big a star is he really? Opinion seems to be divided on the topic, especially if you consider the stories that one of the reasons the fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie folded was Hemsworth’s involvement being judged not to be worth his very hefty asking price (he was due to reprise his before-he-was-famous role as Captain Kirk’s dad). Hemsworth’s attempts to establish himself as a leading man in his own right are not helped by the fact he is essentially giving a lightweight version of the same performance he delivered in his last couple of MCU movies (here the ratio is about 70% swagger to 30% smug), or the fact he’s paired with Tessa Thompson, one of his regular foils from those same movies, or the fact that the film brazenly includes cheesy in-jokes alluding to Hemsworth having played Thor for the last eight years. As for Thompson herself, I have to say I’m not entirely sure she has the chops to be co-lead in a big aspiring blockbuster like this one. She’s not actually bad. But you’re still perhaps a little surprised to see her there, vaguely feeling that you were expecting someone else.

This is cinematic entertainment as disposable, mechanical product. It is rarely actually dull, for at least it has been edited together to provide a good deal of pace. But it is just a succession of sounds and pictures that makes sense in a transactional sort of way. It has no resonance, no subtlety, no depth, nothing new to say or do. It almost feels like it is aspiring to be mediocre. Anything which made the first couple of films in this series memorable and entertaining has been scraped out of the carcass and what remains lurches across the screen in an almost wholly affectless way. It doesn’t engage the emotions, the brain, or the sense of humour. Nobody was demanding this film, I suspect, but it could still have potentially revitalised and updated the series. Instead, I think that in a sane world it would constitute the final swift blow to its throat. So we can probably expect a reboot at some point in the next ten years.

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Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it.

your correspondent, writing about Creed and displaying the usual level of uncanny precognitive ability

Christmas works party time rolled around again, and we reconvened in a pub a short walk outside the city centre, each having filled the time between ceasing pretending to work and the start of the festivities in our own particular way.

‘Did you go to the cinema?’ one colleague (whose name I shall be withholding) asked me. ‘What did you see?’

‘Creed II,’ I said.

‘I’ve not heard of that. What’s it about?’

The imp of the perverse was whispering in my ear, I’m afraid, and being aware that she was perhaps of a High Church of England-ish disposition… ‘It’s about the Council of Nicaea and the formulation of the Nicene Creed,’ I said. Keeping my face straight was almost too easy, now I think back on it.

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yeah, it’s all about the splits in the early Christian church,’ I went on. ‘At the end of the first Creed they thought they’d figured most of it out, but in this one the Arian heresy rears its ugly head and it causes them all an awful lot of trouble.’

‘Wow! I can’t believe they did a film about that,’ she said, clearly wondering how she could have missed hearing about this.

I did consider going on to describe how the Emperor Constantine was played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ossius of Corduba by George Clooney, but my better nature made an unexpected reappearance and I had to confess it was all a pack of lies: Creed II is actually a boxing movie, the sequel to Creed and the eighth movie in the Rocky series, directed by Steven Caple Jr and (perhaps inevitably) co-written, co-starring and produced by Sylvester Stallone. (My colleague and I are still on good terms, thankfully.)

The movie opens with Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) fulfilling his potential and finally becoming heavyweight champion of the world. Yet nagging doubts remain – can he really live up to the example set by his late father, legendary champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, who doesn’t appear in person, but who one hopes is getting decent remuneration for the use of his image throughout the movie)? Impending marriage and parenthood only add to the pressures on the young athlete.

And then Donnie’s trainer Rocky (Stallone) is startled by the reappearance of a figure from his past: Russian former boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring decades before, and who was then humiliated by Rocky in a rematch on Russian soil. Drago was left in disgrace and has spent the intervening years raising his son Viktor (the splendidly-named Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) as a living instrument of vengeance. The Dragos challenge Donnie to what’s basically a second-generation rematch, and one which Donnie feels obliged to accept, despite Rocky’s deep misgivings (not least because his own fight with Ivan Drago left him with permanent brain damage, not that anyone mentions this much nowadays).

What follows basically confirms that the Rocky series is the great sentimental soap opera of mainstream American cinema, as the various characters struggle with their personal demons, make tough choices, cope with success and failure, and so on, all expressed through a combination of character-based scenes, training montages, people talking to graves, and protracted fight sequences. This film tells a classical narrative of hubris, nemesis, and redemption, and the fact it is so familiar may be why it feels so satisfying to watch. The trick to these films, I have realised, lies not in the fight sequences themselves, for these are almost always completely predictable – given their context in the film, you always know who is going to eventually win in any particular situation. The film’s success lies in the fact that you don’t mind knowing what’s going to happen – what’s going to happen is what you want to happen, because the film has made you root for the hero and want to see the bad guy take the beating they have been earning throughout the film up to this point. Creed II is very successful in this respect, and credit must go to the screenplay (by Stallone and Juel Taylor) and the performances, particularly those of Jordan and Stallone (even if the latter’s transformation into someone resembling Popeye seems to be accelerating). On the other hand, it has to be said that this is very much a guy’s film, its themes of parental expectation and legacy largely expressed through the relationship between fathers and sons, and Tessa Thompson ends up with a slightly underwritten part as a result, mainly just there as girlfriend and mother.

Of course, the film may also be familiar due to the fact that, in that in many respects, it basically repeats the plot of Rocky IV, albeit with one rather big modification. You could argue that in some ways the first Creed basically revisited the plot of the original Rocky, which was a solid drama and won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976 (even if it has been known to pop up on lists of ‘Worst Film ever to win Best Picture’). Perhaps the most remarkable (possibly even miraculous) thing about Creed II is that it revisits the characters and events of Rocky IV, surely the silliest of these films, and still manages to produce a credible and affecting drama. I’m almost tempted to say that this is the kind of film The Expendables should have been: there’s a genuine sense of a significant moment taking place when Stallone and Lundgren finally meet one another, and it must be said that the big Swede gives a highly effective performance as the film’s antagonist (Munteanu is largely just there as a physical presence, though his acting performance is perfectly acceptable). It’s entirely possible that this is the best acting work Dolph Lundgren has ever done (not that this is necessarily saying very much, of course). Perhaps even more startlingly, the film also sees the return of Brigitte Nielsen as Drago’s ex-wife Ludmilla, albeit in a much more limited cameo. I expect that this film’s willingness to embrace the past of the series so whole-heartedly (I would have said that if you went into a major Hollywood studio and proposed doing a movie with Lundgren and Nielsen in key roles you’d just get laughed at) will largely be lost on the young audience it is aiming for, but for those of us who’ve been following along for many years, it’s a very impressive and likeable trait.

I did enjoy the first Creed a lot, as a solid sports drama, but I have to say it’s entirely possible I had an even better time watching Creed II, for its connections to the series’ past as much as its own very real merits as a drama. Eight films in, with critical plaudits still flowing, I expect the temptation will be to keep on going – but the Creed-Drago rematch was the obvious way to go with a sequel (even if it seemed quite unlikely to me it would ever get made, two and a bit years ago). I’m not sure if they could find a worthwhile direction to take this story in – but based on the strength of the first two films, I’d happily give them the benefit of the doubt. This is excellent entertainment.

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Chris Hemsworth is in the odd position of being one of those people who can command a huge salary, get his name in big letters on a movie poster, and sit on top of a massive opening box-office weekend, and yet he’s not really what you’d call a proper movie star: people don’t go and see a Chris Hemsworth movie, they go and see Thor movies, and it’s just Hemsworth’s good fortune that he’s the guy who gets to play Thor at the moment. Once he steps away from the magic circle of the Marvel Studios franchise – well, it’s not as if he doesn’t make any other movies, and it’s not as if they don’t make money (although he has notched up a couple of significant bombs), nor is it the case that he is routinely bad in them, but they tend not to make the same kind of impression, no matter their quality. For the time being I’m sure this isn’t a major issue for the big lad, but he surely can’t carry on playing Thor forever, and what is he going to do then? (To be fair, this isn’t problem isn’t limited to Hemsworth, as a number of Marvel’s other big names also seem to struggle to find success in other roles.)

Anyway, Hemsworth is back giving us his God of Thunder once again, in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, umpteenth entry in the all-conquering Marvel Studios megafranchise. This is their third release of 2017, but – as you might expect by this point – they make it all look very easy indeed.

Things get under way with a rather busy and somewhat convoluted opening section, but this is surely forgivable given that it allows for a brief appearance by Cumbersome Bandersnatch as Dr Strange, and an uncredited cameo from an extremely game Major Movie Star, all played very much for laughs. (To be honest, the vast majority of the movie is essentially played for laughs on some level or other, so we can take that as read from this point on.)

Well, basically, the machinations of Thor’s devious adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) bring about the return of the banished Asgardian Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), who is intent on seizing the throne for herself and reinventing Asgard as an aggressively imperial force in the universe. Thor and Loki take exception to this plan, but in the course of their tussle with Hela and her eye-catching headwear, find themselves dumped far from home on the junkheap planet Sakaar.

While Hela tightens her grip on Asgard with the help of Skurge (Karl Urban), an unscrupulous warrior, the brothers have to survive on this new alien world, which is ruled by the alien Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), who is part despotic emperor, part superstar DJ. Thor is nabbed by the slightly boozy Asgardian renegade Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and consigned to the gladiatorial pits where he must battle to survive. Bereft of his magic hammer and his flowing locks, can Thor still summon up enough of his mojo to escape and save the universe…?

I think it is fair to say that not many people would rate the first two Thor movies amongst the top flight of the Marvel series – it’s not that they’re actually bad, but they are slightly ponderous in a way that most of the studio’s other films are not. Clearly the people at the top of Marvel feel the same way, for there has obviously been a rethink and a bit of a retooling of Thor and his particular corner of the universe, perhaps somewhat influenced by Chris Hemsworth’s very effective comic turn in the All-Female Ghostbusters Reboot. Everything is much more laid back and comedic than it was in the first two films; Thor is positively chatty much of the time, and there are sight gags and pratfalls aplenty.

Marvel savants will already be aware that, in an attempt to add something new to the formula this time round, the writers of Ragnarok have borrowed a few elements from the Planet Hulk storyline (which ran in the comics over ten years ago). Presumably this is one reason why the Hulk himself has a major role in the story (he is played by Mark Ruffalo, as usual) – although in terms of the actual plot, Thor is in the Hulk role, while the Hulk is in the position originally occupied by the Silver Surfer (who, needless to say, isn’t in the film). As I say, it’s only a superficial take on Planet Hulk, but putting Thor and the Hulk in outer space together does open up some new possibilities.

If nothing else, it does allow the movie to move away from some of the more limiting elements of the previous movies – Anthony Hopkins has a much-reduced role, as do several other established characters. Natalie Portman isn’t in it at all, and for a while it also looks like Idris Elba’s voluble complaints about working for Marvel (‘This is torture, I don’t want to do this’) have earned him the sack – but he’s dragged back in front of the green screen before too much time has elapsed. In their place, Cate Blanchett is clearly having a whale of a time as an extremely camp villainess, closely followed by Goldblum. One of the film’s most quietly impressive features is Karl Urban’s performance as Skurge the Executioner – Urban takes a third-string Marvel villain and manages to turn him into someone who actually has a bit of a character arc in the course of the story.

It’s one of the few elements of the film which takes itself (mostly) seriously, for the sense I get from Ragnarok is that Marvel’s main directive to Waititi was ‘Make it more Guardians of the Galaxy-y’. The playlist this time is more prog rock and disco, but the quotient of spaceships, ray guns, monsters, and cosmic nonsense is certainly much closer to a James Gunn movie than one by Kenneth Branagh. And, you know, it’s all good fun, crowd-pleasing stuff, unless you happen to think that films about wisecracking alien gods and big green gamma monsters are actually the stuff of heavy drama and should be taken terribly, terribly seriously.

On the other hand, I have generally been impressed by the way Marvel have negotiated the ‘too silly-too serious’ tightrope in the past, but all three of the films they’ve released this year have arguably been primarily comedic in tone. It’s certainly worked for them, but I’m not sure it’s sustainable – on the other hand, the next film off the conveyor belt, Black Panther, looks like it will be more down to earth in most respects. Normally at this point one would say ‘this could be a challenging change of tone, it’ll be interesting to see if Marvel manage it’, but seventeen films into the series it certainly seems like Marvel’s main challenge will be to keep finding new challenges for themselves. Thor: Ragnarok is not the greatest Marvel movie ever, but certainly not the worst: it moves the story along in interesting and unexpected ways, and you’re never more than a few minutes away from a genuinely good gag or some well-executed crash-bang-wallop, or both. A very safe bet for a good time.

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‘You’re the first person who’s called it Rocky VII,’ said the guy at the sweetshop, looking amused. (The larger city centre Odeon has undergone yet another refurb to abolish its actual ticket desk entirely, which only confirms the subliminal message the place gives off: namely, that it’s a place which is mainly in the business of selling drinks and snacks of various kinds, with the showing of the odd film an occasional sideline.) Well, look, it’s about characters from the Rocky series, it has ‘The Rocky Legacy‘ prominently on the poster, and – fercryinoutloud – it even features a very prominent appearance from Sylvester Stallone himself as Rocky Balboa. Calling the damn thing Rocky VII strikes me as entirely reasonable.

creed

However, the name on the title card is Creed. The film is directed by Ryan Coogler, and you might initially be a bit wary of the whole enterprise, given the current tendency for every once-profitable franchise to be disinterred and returned to theatres via some kind of cinematic necromancy. Frankly, I thought they were pushing it with the release of Rocky Balboa (aka, you guessed it, Rocky VI), nearly ten years ago. At the time a friend asked me what I thought that movie was going to be like, quality-wise. ‘Depends on whether or not he gets beaten to death,’ I said, because you can only suspend disbelief so far, and a movie about a pushing-60 restauranteur taking on the world heavyweight boxing champion and lasting more than 30 seconds is already making unreasonable demands of the audience, I would say.

But back to Creed, which concerns the illegitimate posthumous progeny of Rocky’s opponent/rival/friend Apollo Creed from the first four movies, played by Carl Weathers (not appearing here, for obvious reasons). Said child’s name is Adonis, or Donnie, and the lad has something of a rough childhood – having your father beaten to death by Dolph Lundgren in a crude piece of Reaganite propaganda can have that effect on you, I suppose.

Anyway, having been adopted by Mrs Huxtable from The Cosby Show, Donnie grows up to be Michael B Jordan, who must be terribly relieved he already had this movie in the pipeline following his participation in the catastrophic Fantastic Four adaptation last year. Donnie decides to pack in his job and have a go at being a boxer like his dad was, but no-one in his native Los Angeles will train him. What else has an aspiring pugilist to do but head off to Philadelphia and persuade his father’s great rival to be his trainer…?

Twist my arm and I will admit that I have perhaps been a bit glib and flippant about this movie so far, perhaps even more than usual, and that this is largely because of its connection with the six (extremely variable) previous Rocky films. But to suggest that Creed should be treated as a standalone film, solely on its own merits, strikes me as being a mite disingenuous: the film trades heavily on the audience’s familiarity with the original characters and their stories, and it’s the contrast between the day-to-day naturalism of Donnie’s life and the almost mythic backstory of the film that gives it much of its traction.

On a more technical level, you could certainly argue that the early section of the film is very contrived – just why does Donnie decide to pack in a very good job in favour of getting beaten half to death on a regular basis? Just why is it that no-one will train someone with his obvious talent? The film doesn’t quite work hard enough to explain these things, preferring to just get on with it. You could, I suppose, also have a go at some parts of the film for their excessive sentimentality, but then if you’re going to criticise a Rocky film for being sentimental you clearly haven’t quite worked out the rules of engagement here.

The fact is that, once you accept it’s going to be sentimental in places and the story is going to be an archetypal journey featuring no real surprises, Creed is actually an extremely effective film. The sillier excesses of past films in the series are discreetly passed over (the exact circumstances of Apollo Creed’s death are passed over, we just hear that he died in the ring), and this is a sensible, serious drama about a young man following his dream, pursuing a largely convincing romance (Tessa Thompson plays his love interest), and forging a quasi-paternal relationship. That this prompts Rocky himself to reconnect with the world is handled pleasingly, and Stallone’s performance is extremely creditable, although the script does seem tailored to his strengths.

Of course, every Rocky film has to conclude with a bruising encounter in the ring, and Creed is no exception, as Donnie, Rocky, and their team jet off to Liverpool to take on the world champion. (I suppose you could write a thesis on how the different Rocky movies reflect changes in real-world boxing – Apollo Creed in the first film was a charismatic showman, clearly based on Ali, while the main opponent here is an unpleasant, heavily-tattooed thug.) The film does just enough to make it plausible that a tyro fighter like Donnie would be taking on such a prominent figure.

And the actual fight sequences in this film are excellent – Coogler opts to depict an early fight via what appears to be a single unbroken take, but the climactic battle is a bit more traditional in every sense, and would be very much at home in any of the other films (for a long time I was convinced we weren’t going to get to hear the famous Rocky fanfare at all, but it shows up at a key moment here, with the kind of impact you’d expect). I must confess by this point the film had completely won me over and I was really caught up in the story, which, if nothing else, shows that this is a very good film that does everything it sets out to.

Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it. This film has less of a valedictory feel to it than Rocky Balboa, but even so I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be the final round for this particular franchise (an extraordinarily unwise prediction, given the state of modern cinema, I know). If so, it is finishing on a definite high.

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