After “Valerian”, director Luc Besson has been balancing the different essences of life with his company in financial trouble for a short time. Personally he was being attacked because of supposed conduct. And a film that was supposed to be his big return to large film making simply tanked. In personification, “Valerian” wasn’t bad. It was perfectly on par with “The Fifth Element” but made in a different time. “Lucy” right before had shown with the right actress despite a slightly incomplete script that the visceral nature of the director was still there. The biggest issue, not to get too industry about the failure of “Valerian”, is that in the US, STX Films pretty much released it cold with no anticipation. And it failed. With his new film “Anna”, the trailer was phenomenal building up the aspect of a new action girl in Sascha Luss. Besson, despite anything, has the ability to create wonderfully strong female characters while still engaging in the beauty and the world of modeling he seems to love so much. The trailer simply teased one major scene which in retrospect is interestingly enough a lipnus test. “Anna” approaches what “Red Sparrow”tried to do but with a blank canvas and not Jennifer Lawrence. Within this construct, you have no preconceived notions of who Anna is because that is not her name. This is why you can buy more into the idea of it. Now while much of the movie tries to play to certain spy quotients, it is the nature of freedom that rings true even as the film is set right after the fall of the Soviet Union per se. The KGB essence here is interestingly done both in its recruiting but also the showing of Russia right after that fall. It doesn’t go easy on American intelligence either. It almost makes the point that you are under the thumb of power no matter where you are.
Sascha Luss balances this nicely as “Anna” but it helps that she has a couple actors working against her, who despite that their characters are a bit thin and sometimes more of sexual playthings to Anna than actual connections is interesting. It works because it is a reversal of what was the norm 20 years ago. Cillian Murphy plays one of his more mainstream roles and shows a level of charm and cool we haven’t seen on screen from him in awhile. Luke Evans, right off “The Alienist”, creates the right amount of patriotism while understanding this girl he recruited. Anna’s girlfriend in the modeling world creates the right amount of offset in social representation to show that identity is simply a construct depending what you want in life. It is not a criticism on anything at times with either sex except a certain degree of survival and understanding. Helen Mirren has the most interesting role in that of KGB overseer. This is the most hidden she has been with a sense of cunning, humor and drama that sometimes Besson can get out of his actors. “Red” for Mirren was play. Here she is doing some magnified work. Besson still has it. The action sequences are visceral. He can do it with a smaller amount of money but he likes the toys of big film production. The film is fun to watch, plotted decently, stylized cool (watch out for an INXS song montage) and, while not Besson’s best, far from his worse and continually shows his focus for talent. Initially this reviewer thought this might be a retooling or telling of “Matilda”, the child Natalie Portman played in Besson’s “The Professional” as a grown up assassin. A key plot turn in the movie has Sascha wearing a black bob that has harkings back to that character. Alas “Anna” will probably be lost since, for likely reasons, Summit/Lionsgate released it cold. A movie is a movie, even when it is not….that doesn’t make this one any less entertaining.
By Tim Wassberg
The balance of tone is always a necessity in franchises but the passing of the baton is always a tricky proposition or it simply can be the reflection of an idea not being new, but of a different perspective. “Men In Black International” is a perfect acceptable addition to the pantheon of MIB but does not necessarily have a big stakes perspective to overcome. The aspect of a gung-ho new recruit and a seasoned agent fits the bill and in many ways it takes the angle that the end of the first MIB set up well with Linda Fiorentino and Will Smith at the end (though it was never built on). This uses it as the next logical step though Tessa Thompson’s character M is a bit more safe instead of Linda’s wonky morgue attendant. Thompson gives the sense of wonder that propels the idea of her love for the aliens she is seeing.
The tone of the relationship between her and Chris Hemsworth is of course not played up though the basic chemistry is there but not as vicious as it was in “Thor: Ragnarok” but that was a much different world. They play more like brother and sister here which definitely works. But, it comes off less than it should because there is not more electricity between Hemsworth and a select other character who, despite being an actress of note, has an almost two dimensional play on her character. where her previous role in a Paramount franchise was so electric. It is not her fault but something is missing. Again it comes down to stakes. F. Gray Gray as a director is perfectly adept with the material and smart to stay away from big set pieces so the budget seems within check (though that might not turn out to be true).
There are some scenes in the desert though that are balanced oddly between the gamut of “Star Wars” and “Spaceballs”. However in the film there is no real connective moment that transmutes the idea of what MIB is. Even “MIB III” despite how fantastical the set pieces were (especially at the end) they (like Barry Sonnenfeld) knew how to make it connect. The resolution here doesn’t have that since there is never a sense of any real danger. That does not make it any less fun. It just makes it less pertenant at times. Like the previous “Men In Black” trilogy, it is also about the weird aliens, not so much about the design but the comic timing. Whereas the old school chum of gangly aliens that chilled with Smith are still there (albeit very briefly), there is no throwback to the old film. Even an old school wink, like Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in “Maverick”, just would have helped. A photo of Tommy. A dorky snapshot of Will Smith just out of eye sight. Emma Thompson is fine but she is limited in her role.
Liam Neeson’s character will not be discussed too much here but he plays it more straight-laced though some darker comedy would have definitely progressed the story. Again, there is nothing primarily wrong with “MIB International”. Chris Hemsworth is aloof and debonair (though too clean cut). Thompson is wonderfully optimistic yet grounded. But it doesn’t seem enough. What saves the film most times is Kumail Nanjiani as Pawny, a small alien who ends up serving M (Tessa Thompson) because he thinks she is a queen. He has the best lines and elevates the proceedings. “MIB International” is perfectly fun but safe, adventurous but doesn’t paint outside the lines, paced right but without stakes to really up the game.
By Tim Wassberg
The essence of the X-Men mythology has placed it with some ideals of archetypes but, with some of the actors involved, the texture of nuance is always an interesting progression in what is embraced and what is shown below the surface. This reviewer did interviews for “X-Men: The Last Stand” back in the last iteration of the cast before “First Class” but also visited the set of “X-Men: Apocalypse”. With “The Last Stand”, the approach involved the aspect of Jean Grey as well. However unlike Famke Jannsen’s iteration, there seems a times a lack of stakes or perhaps disconnection from Sophie Turner’s inhabiting of the character, much in the way of Captain Marvel in “Endgame”: she is so indestructible that the balance of her take down is somewhat like ants trying to destroy gods . That said, this installment is the most engrossing since “First Class”. The inclusion of Jennifer Lawrence works simply because of the structure of what it is setting up and that allows in true form the most connective tissue that motivates all the characters. Whether it be Tye Sheridan’s Psyclops or in a more pronounced fashion Beast played by Nicolas Hoult, “Dark Phoenix” has some more true acting from these performers because the entire proceeding is not overtaken by visual effects unlike some of the iterations before. It comes off more practical.
Also the characters, even more so, seem to engage in their baser desires at times which makes them more fully realized. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto seems both more conflicted but also at times more brutal than before. When he emerges in terms of his focus, it is interesting because it you can see him fighting against his own instincts (even though his character comes off more as supporting). James McAvoy as Professor X also has a more dynamic approach because his character is not the all wise. He makes mistakes and ego plays a part in this outing. These are superheroes but they are flawed and that is what this picture is allowing (perhaps in a darker way than perhaps Disney would approach it at a different time). Even Nightcrawler becomes brutal in a way not seen since “X2” when he was on the opposite viewpoint. That said, the story timing conversely is, at times, erratic. However this does not take away from the emotional notes. What scattershots the beats is Jessica Chastain and her minions. Chastain is on point in terms of her performance but there is not a reflective basis of her motivation. Her character’s origins are left to the ether which works to a point but not in the final revelation. “Dark Phoenix” in a great way handles many emotional beats in a way far superior to some of its predecessors thanks in part to director Simon Kinsberg who understands this mythology and the characters through and through. But endings, especially of an era, never are clean. They are messy. “Endgame” tried to do everything and reflected emotional but many plot holes still remained. “Dark Phoenix” writes a different story than the one previous to “The Last Stand” but in doing some creates something more contextual even if the final shot reflects a vague contentment.
By Tim Wassberg