Men in Black: International

First Hit: Certainly not as good as the original, but at least we’ve got “women” involved.

I never thought of the “Men in Black” as a domestic only group, but I guess I was wrong. I mean, how could aliens be on earth and only lived in the United States? So for me, the premise in the title was weak.

We begin with young Molly (Mandeiya Flory) looking out her window witnessing her parents being neuralysed by Men in Black (MiB) agents because of a commotion in the house. The uproar came from a young alien the agents were tracking, and Molly thinks it’s cute, so she helps the alien escape, but not before learning a word from the alien. You know that this will mean something later in the film.

We jump some twenty years into the future and Molly (Tessa Thompson) is still focused on becoming a MiB agent to work with aliens because she likes the alien she met and saw what happened to her parents after they were neuralysed. We are meant to believe that the single early childhood event has become her singular whole life focus.

Attempting to find where MiB headquarters is located in NYC, Molly sets up computers to track incoming aliens. Finding a MiB encounter, she follows the agents back to their offices. Slipping into the building, she gets caught and quickly tells them, she wants to become an agent carrying a neuralyser. After extensive interviews, she’s given a chance to prove herself as a probationary Agent M.

Her assignment takes her to London (hence the International in the title), where she meets High T (Liam Neeson) who assigns her to work with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth).

Agent H is shown in several scenes to be a play-boyish rogue of sorts, loving to gamble, and drink taboo elixirs. Agents H and M are assigned to meet Vungus, the Ugly of royal alien family heritage. But during this meeting, Vungus is killed by evil twins who can manifest themselves as pure energy.

Because Vungus gives M a secret weapon before he dies, she and H are being tracked by the twins who want this weapon to destroy Earth. Will M and H save the world?

This is the short version of the plot. There are other aliens in the mix as well as a storyline that High T has been protecting H since their encounter with the Hive who tried to destroy Earth many years earlier.

What didn’t work for me was that the plot felt too manufactured to be engaging. It lacked a flow to it, and therefore, it pulled me out of engaging with the story. I’m not sure why the writers needed the character of Riza as the recipient of the weapon. Yes, she was an arms agent, but it seemed like it was created as yet another plot device and character. Additionally, some of the acting (Neeson in particular) felt stiff and done for the money and not for the story. Many of the visuals were fun, like when M and H test the weapon Vungus gave M. The twins when they changed to pure energy was fun to watch.

Tessa Thompson was engaging and fun to watch. Her character made the story work. Hemsworth was a bit too silly and laissez-faire for the critical role as protector of the Earth from aliens. The part was built this way, and I thought he could have toned down some of the silliness. Neeson appeared too disengaged from the story and role. The heavy makeup and powder, as seen in the closeups, didn’t help. Rafe Spall as Agent C was very good as the one who wanted to be seen as having more power and engagement in the London MiB office. Emma Thompson as Agent O was good as the authoritarian in-charge person. Rebecca Ferguson (as Riza) was attractive in a role I didn’t think was needed. Matt Holloway and Art Marcum wrote the screenplay that seemed too manufactured as a way to use the MiB name. F. Gary Gray directed this film.

Overall: Not sure this film added any greatness or enhancement to the MiB franchise.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

First Hit: I was both enthralled and, at times, perplexed by this quirky powerfully acted story.

The opening set of scenes; a neighborhood preacher/orator is standing on a box talking about cleaning up the neighborhood near the Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard. There’s a local group of young men hanging out talking smack to each other south of Hunter’s Point. Also, there are men in hazmat suits cleaning up the hillside near the shipyard. A fantastic looking house in the Fillmore district on “Golden Gate near Fillmore” (House is really on S. Van Ness), and other great shots in the city, were all mesmerizing. These opening scenes and more were amazingly shot, giving a languid sense of life in a subsection of San Francisco.

But all is not so languid on the inside and neighborhood as Jimmie Fails (plays himself) rides a skateboard everywhere around the area, stopping, looking at “his grandfather’s house.” We find him sitting in front of the house on S. Van Ness Avenue. His close friend Montgomery Allen (“Mont” Jonathan Majors) is often with him. In fact, Jimmie sleeps at Mont’s home where Mont takes care of his Grandpa Allen (Danny Glover). And there is a tension that rises from all the players, except Mont.

In an early scene, Jimmie is climbing up on the house on S. Van Ness and is painting the windowsill. The owners of the home come back and start throwing fruit at him, telling him he must leave, and he must quit coming by the house and painting it.

He claims that his grandfather built the house in the early 1940s, although the style and construction type is clearly from a time 100 years earlier. In one scene, he shares this information to a crowd led by a tour guide (Jello Biafra) on Segways in front of the house – it is both funny and telling of Jimmie’s deeper self.

As he keeps telling the story about how his grandfather built the home, and as an audience member, I am becoming convinced that he is right.

There are scenes of the Greek chorus (the gang) in which they challenge each other on some set of facts or of their manliness, and most of the time, through the biting comments, all is made well enough.

The couple living in the home leaves, so Jimmie and Mont move in. There are exploratory sections where Jimmie tries to get a loan from a bank, and Mont talks with the listing Real Estate Agent named Clayton (Finn Wittrock) who shows the property deed to Mont. The exploration here shows just how difficult it is to find a path to their want - the house and the truth.

Mont writes and draws in a notebook he’s always carrying around, and one evening he writes a play, which they put on at the house. It is a great scene.

The film was touching in many ways because Jimmie is attempting to live in an idealized world and believe the story he tells himself. Mont is wonderfully supportive and faithful and Jimmie’s friend. The intense scenes of the group challenging each other, the play, and when Jimmie is pleading for money from the bank’s loan manager are powerful. The poignant, convincing acting is telling a story of wants, desires, wishes, family, pain, and truth.

Fails is great as himself in a role he envisioned as a very young boy. His remembrances of being in the house as a young boy are particularly vivid. Majors, as Jimmie’s friend Montgomery, is elegant in this role. His ability to live in a present moment and not become too swayed by emotions, especially when the gang attack him verbally was stunning. Glover was fun as the grandfather who couldn’t see and needed television programs explained to him. Willie Hen as the corner preacher who stands on boxes and shares his word was amazingly strong. He captures so much of what is going on in SF and life in his sharing of his truth. Wittrock was excellent as the real estate agent who grew up in the neighborhood. The Greek Chorus (the gang that hangs out) were all great, each exemplifying an attitude and stake in the ground of the city. Joe Talbot and Rob Richert wrote a wonderfully dynamic screenplay that was based on a story by Jimmy Fails. Talbot shows us in the first 5 minutes that he’s an influential director with a clear vision.

Overall: When Jimmie says; “You can’t hate this city unless you love it,” a sentiment that, based on this film, it says it all.

Rolling Thunder: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

First Hit: Little insight into Dylan, a lot of insight to the surrounding people and how they made music together.

Bob Dylan has always been an enigma to most of his audience. His music does his talking for him.

Watching this film about the 1975 tour, I was hoping to learn more about Bob, having grown up with much of his music being available to me. I was never a big Dylan fan, but there were songs I’d listened to that I loved and spoke to me, those were my Dylan songs. For many people, all of Bob’s songs were their songs. For others, when Bob went electric, they shuttered and thought him a traitor to the folk movement of the early 1960s.

What I admired most about Dylan was that he sang his own tunes his way, and for that, he deserves all the respect in the world.

This film talks with James Gianopulos the concert promoter of this concert tour, a number of the musicians including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, and Scarlet Rivera. Additionally, there was a dialogue with others including Allen Ginsberg, filmmaker Martin von Haselberg, reporter Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Patti Smith, and Sam Shepard.

Many of the interviews were with this group of people in current time and back then, while other discussions were just from the 1975 tour.

Haselberg’s footage is used for the historical sequences, including the performances. While Scorsese shot additional interview footage, including with Bob. Haselberg did an excellent job of getting shots of the band before, after, and during the performances.

What this film did point out was that Bob Dylan does what he wants. Watching his critical eye while on stage, looking at his band, guiding them with slight gestures from his eyes or a head nod was mesmerizing. The tangent discussions that resulted in how people were added and removed from performances were interesting. “How do we fit Ginsberg in?” Will Joni get enough stage time? What about Joan?

The performances were held in small venues which allowed the film to reflect the closeness Dylan had with his audience. I was enchanted by the stage presence and violin playing of Scarlet Rivera, a highlight as was watching McGuinn playing the twelve string.

However, what was truly amazing was the during the credits, Scorsese listed all of Dylan’s concerts from 1976 on by year through 2018. This man never stops working.

Scorsese did a fantastic job of creating a drop-in, slice-of-life feeling, of what it was to be on this tour. An amusing touch was seeing Bob behind the steering wheel multiple times, driving the motor home to each of the locations – he was an engaged man.

Overall: Although I didn’t learn much about Dylan, I learned how he liked to make music.

Framing John DeLorean

First Hit: It was wonderful to learn more about John DeLorean, his life, and what happened to this risky innovator.

First off, this film is a combination of straight documentary film and reenactments. There is plenty of original documentary footage, including FBI footage of a sting operation, and interviews of John Z. DeLorean and his family. There are also current interviews with players in John’s life, including his two children. However, the wrinkle is that this movie also consists of reenactments of specific scenes in John’s life. Alec Baldwin plays John in these reenactments.

Being a car enthusiast, starting in the late 1960s, I was very aware of DeLorean’s impact at General Motors. His first impact statement with GM was the Pontiac GTO, the first bonafide muscle car. This was a “gotta have car” in the 60s. In this film, we learn how he figured out how to get the car made and out to the public under the strict design, build, and delivery structure at General Motors.

Because he bucked the traditions to get things done at General Motors, he was observed by senior managers. John’s everything-he-touches-turns-to gold successes at increasing sales at GM led him to become the youngest Division Head at General Motors at age 40. Although he pushed the buttons of the staunch old guard at GM, his bold work had him being touted as the next CEO and President.

However, tired of run-ins with the old guard, and having a lack of design flexibility, DeLorean left GM in 1973 to start his own motor car company, the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC). To find financing he touted his prowess at GM. He got private funding of about $17M and also got a lot more money from the British Government because he was going to build his manufacturing plant in Ireland. This was a real win for the Irish people.

The interviews of the factory workers were wonderfully touching. They loved working there because they were building something together, and the riff between the Protestant and Catholics fell away on the factory floor. This was great for both the people and the governments of Ireland and England.

However, technical issues and quality control issues caused problems with the automobiles, and they didn’t sell. Additionally, the economy took a downturn just as John introduced these cars but what really sank this ship was Margaret Thatcher deciding she didn’t want to continue under the support agreement DeLorean and England had created.

Needing money to keep his dream alive, fix the manufacturing problems, and sell the cars, he got caught up in a drug deal that was going to get him some $24M. However, it was a sting operation by the FBI.

The film goes into more detail about the trial and how it affected his family that what was reported in the papers. Current interviews with his son Zach and daughter Kathryn share how hard it was on the family.

Then it was discovered by a forensic accountant that the original $17M that DeLorean collected had been laundered with the help of an Italian group who took half the $17M, while John took the other half. I didn’t know beforehand about this issue, and it really added to the sneaky way John worked.

Some of the scenes during which Baldwin plays DeLorean, are modeled after the tapes and film of John, like being busted for the cocaine deal, and it’s effective.

DeLorean did not really spend much time behind bars, but he ended up broke and still trying to finish the dream with the DMC2 model. He died in his apartment, alone.

However, it was the film “Back to the Future” that may cement the DeLorean Motor Car as iconic.

Baldwin was very good as John, and I sensed he came close to sharing what DeLorean was like. Dan Greeney and Alexandra Orton did a great job of scripting this hybrid film. Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce did a fantastic job of directing this complex story of a complicated driven dreamer.

Overall: I really enjoyed learning more about this visionary.

Shaft

First Hit: Simply, this is Samuel L. Jackson’s film through and through.

It’s hard to take this film seriously, and it is seriously fun to watch. Jackson, as John Shaft, is still the king of the neighborhood, has a stern attitude, and rollicks through this story taking full ownership.

This story begins when he and his wife Maya Babanikos (Regina Hall) are arguing in their car. JJ Shaft (Jessie T. Usher), their baby, is in the back seat. As usual, where Shaft is, there is trouble, and a shootout will more than likely commence.

Maya has had enough and, with JJ in tow, leaves Shaft and tells him to stay away forever. The film rolls through the years quickly, with funny vignettes showing the birthday presents Shaft sends JJ (box of rubbers on JJ’s 10th).

In current time JJ is now an FBI data analyst, and he stumbles on to a possible crime because his best friend, Karim Hassan (Avan Jogia) dies of what the police say is an overdose.

At work, he doesn’t get assigned to the FBI probe into the local mosque, although he’s an outstanding analyst, and he thinks Karin was involved in the mosque’s activities.

He locates and waltzes into his dad’s office, looking for some help in finding what really went on in Hassan’s death. Meeting for the first time in twenty plus years, the reunion is filled with John Shaft ego and bragging moments and advice that is contrary to JJ’s beliefs. This is the moment when the audience knows we’re going on a Samuel L. Jackson E-Ticket (for those who remember Disneyland long ago) wild ride.

Going to visit Manny (Ian Casselberry) the local Bronx heroin dealer, they run roughshod, over his group of thugs. And here is where JJ starts to re-think that his passiveness and begins to see some value in his dad’s way of resolving problems.

Some of the amusing parts of the film include JJ’s attempts to share his romantic interest for his longtime friend Sasha Arias (Alexandra Shipp). When John Shaft first meets Sasha, when she pulls a gun out of her purse at a restaurant, and how she dreamily looks at JJ when he jumps into action during a dinner they have.

The story goes on, and eventually, we get introduced to John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), and this completes the cycle. The original Shaft, the current Shaft, and the upcoming Shaft.

Don’t go to this film if you are looking to watch a serious movie. This film is tongue-in-cheek, and it’s fun.

Jackson is this film. He’s the reason you laugh and are engaged in the story because you wonder what he’ll do next. Hall is excellent as Shaft’s estranged wife. Her quips about Shaft’s focus are hilarious. Usher is wonderful as the passive smart FBI agent who finds his roots through meeting his father. Shipp is excellent as JJ’s friend and later girlfriend. Her shift in attitude towards Shaft’s lifestyle was subtle and fun. Roundtree was great to see, and as a reminder of the original song and film, I smiled. Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow wrote an entertaining active script. Tim Story knew that he needed to let Jackson run roughshod over this film because Samuel will make it work, he always does.

Overall: If you’re looking for action entertainment and don’t mind a lot of swearing, this is a film for you.