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Update June, 2019

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Arts - Entertainment - Film Review World

Film Review: 'Men in Black' returns, a little worse for wear

This image shows Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in a scene from Columbia Pictures' "Men in Black: International." (Giles Keyte/Sony/Columbia Pictures via AP)

Jake Coyle

Los Angles (AP) - Would any fictional gadget be more coveted by Hollywood executives than the memory-erasing "Men in Black" neuralyzer? Imagine the lucrative benefits of being able to, with a single flash, make moviegoers forget the film they just saw. Franchises would be endlessly renewable. IP could last forever.

Instead, we get film series perpetuated beyond their natural end with the hope that you remember them enough to get you in the door but not enough that you're much bothered by regurgitated storylines. To be honest, I don't recall much from the first three "Men in Black" films, all by Barry Sonnenfeld, except the original's light wit, the fine chemistry between the leads, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and the likable premise that aliens walk among us.

The new "Men in Black: International" is the fourth film in the franchise and one of those reboot-sequel-spinoff hybrids. Exactly how it connects to the previous three movies is only so relevant, I suspect, in the hearts of its makers. It's just another one.

This time, F. Gary Gray, coming off another never-ending franchise ("The Fate of the Furious"), takes over as director. Subbing for Smith and Jones are Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, who already tried out their rapport together in "Thor: Ragnarok."

The movie is, unsurprisingly, a pale reflection of the first "Men in Black." It's bland and nearly neuralyzer-level forgettable. Its target market (international) is right there in the title.

But it has a few things going for it. In the 22 years since the original, the fate of the world has, at the multiplex, hung in the balance roughly a billion times. But I still prefer the "Men in Black" mode of impending Armageddon to the more self-serious superhero rescues. Here, it's routine, happens all the time, nothing much to worry about. The end of the world is a breeze.

And I also can't get my ire up too much at a film that gives ample room for Thompson and Hemsworth to be what they are: top-notch movie stars. "Men in Black: International" doesn't rekindle the original's fun, but it makes for a minimally sufficient summer diversion since it at least uses its flood of special-effects not to drown out its leads but to elevate them.

Thompson plays Molly, a young paranoid who has been on the lookout for alien life forms since she was visited by a cuddly extraterrestrial as a child and managed to elude the neuralyzer. Through cunning and pluck, she tracks down a Men in Black headquarters and talks her way into a job after convincing Emma Thompson's Agent O, a holdover from 2012's "MIB3."

An eager new recruit, dubbed Agent M, Molly quickly partners with one of the agency's top men, Agent H (Hemsworth), an arrogant but decorated agent whose swoon-worthiness extends to, it would seem, all the species of the universe. He's the most trusted agent of the organization overseen by High T (Liam Neeson).

But the Men in Black have a mole, they soon learn, and a strange new shape-shifting foe presently in the form of Laurent and Larry Bourgeois. For anyone who's seen Beyoncé's "Homecoming," the dancing identical twins are suitably out-of-this-world. They are lethal emissaries for an intergalactic force known as the Hive, even if the twins' Queen B is sadly nowhere to be seen.

The action skips around between Paris and London and Marrakech, but the film gets a comic lift when Kumail Nanjiani enters as the voice of a strange little chess board creature named Pawny who pledges his devotion to Agent M.

The plotting is clunky and haphazard. But when together, Thompson, Hemsworth and Nanjiani turn "Men In Black: International" into something funny and silly: a pleasant enough lark in formal wear.

"Men in Black: International," a Sony Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sci-fi action, some language and suggestive material. Running time: 120 minutes. Two stars out of four.

Agency recommends current 80K attendance cap at Burning Man

"The Man," a stick figured symbol of the Burning Man art festival, is silhouetted against a morning sunrise in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. (AP Photo/Ron Lewis)

Reno, Nevada. (AP) — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is recommending attendance be capped at existing levels for the next 10 years at the annual Burning Man counter-culture festival in the desert 100 miles north of Reno.

Burning Man organizers had proposed raising the current 80,000 limit as high as 100,000 in coming years.

But the BLM said in releasing the final environmental impact statement that its preferred alternative for the proposed 10-year renewal of Burning Man's special recreation permit would stick with the cap that's been in place since 2017.

"The city of Reno, Nevada Department of Transportation, Nevada Highway Patrol as well as the Bureau of Land Management could not support the event growing, particularly because there are other events going on during Labor Day," BLM spokesman Rudy Evenson told the Reno Gazette.

The BLM said it would work with event organizers to address environmental and security concerns, but it's not advocating at this time any of the changes proposed in the draft environmental impact statement, including a ban on dumpsters or new security barriers.

One third of BLM law enforcement officers nationwide are required to patrol the event at the current size, but one half would be required if it grew to 100,000. Transportation agencies also want to find ways to alleviate the congestion on area roads before the BLM allows any growth of the event, Evenson said.

In an effort to make the event safer and more secure, the BLM plans to hire a private security firm to "screen" attendees for drugs and weapons prior to entering the event, according to the report. In public meetings, festival-goers called the suggested drug searches unconstitutional.

Burning Man representatives said in a statement they intend to fully analyze the environmental impact statement.

"Our priority at the moment is the 2019 event, and we are deeply engaged in planning and production," the organization said.

New German exhibition explores Rembrandt's career

A woman stands in front of the painting 'Rembrandt in a red coat' (c. 1644) by Govaert Flinck during a press preview of the exhibition 'Rembrandt's Mark' in Dresden, eastern Germany, Thursday, June 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Dresden, Germany (AP) — Around 100 works spanning Rembrandt's career are going on show in the German city of Dresden in an exhibition marking the 350th anniversary of the Dutch artist's death.

The exhibition at the Kupferstich-Kabinett museum in Dresden opened to the public this month and runs through Sept. 15. As well as works by Rembrandt van Rijn himself, it features another 50 etchings and drawings by contemporaries and later artists who were inspired by him.

The show, titled "Rembrandt's Mark," draws on the extensive Rembrandt collection of the Kupferstich-Kabinett along with loans from elsewhere.

Film Review: 'The Secret Life of Pets 2' is a well-crafted sequel

This image shows Liam, voiced by Henry Lynch, from left, Max, voiced by Patton Oswalt, Duke, voiced by Eric Stonestreet in a scene from "The Secret Life of Pets 2." (Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures via AP)

Mark Kennedy

Los Angeles (AP) - If the sweet, animated 2016 film "The Secret Life of Pets" was mostly for kids, its new sequel might be for another segment of the audience altogether — whoever is buying the tickets. Amid the cute critter shenanigans, this one has plenty of lessons for the parents.

Most of the same gang is back this time: Kevin Hart as the fluffy white bunny Snowball, Eric Stonestreet as the goofy giant Newfoundland, Lake Bell as the laconic cat Chloe and Jenny Slate as the plucky Pomeranian Gidget. This time, though, our main hero terrier Max is voiced by Patton Oswalt, replacing the disgraced Louis CK.

Both films in the franchise deal with a new addition to the family. In the first, it was a new dog that allowed the filmmakers to explore sibling rivalry. This time, the stranger is a baby, who Max learns to love unconditionally but which also ups his anxiety levels. (Any helicoptering parent out there knows what we mean.)

Returning screenwriter Brian Lynch and returning director Chris Renaud, who also voices the guinea pig Norman, have actually concocted three interlocking plots in "The Secret Life of Pets 2 ." It's a wise decision since none are deep enough to carry the film alone, forcing some convoluted stitching together. But they manage it, creating a solid piece of entertainment for all ages, if not a terribly revelatory one.

In one story, Max finds himself ever fearful for her owner's new toddler, stressing out as the boy's protector. "Was the world always this dangerous?" he asks after a harrowing New York City stroll. He even develops a nervous scratching tick that requires a mortifying dog cone. A trip to a farm in the country seems to offer a respite. Getting his head right is his quest.

Before he leaves, he asks Gidget to take care of his favorite squeaky toy. She promptly loses it in a cat lady's apartment filled with crazed felines. Getting it back is her comedic quest. Meanwhile, Snowball is asked by a brave Shih Tzu (newcomer Tiffany Haddish) to rescue a tiger cub held by a malevolent circus boss. His quest is, like the others ones, to find his inner superhero.

Oswalt is a fine replacement for Max, able to connect with the character's timidity, wonder and blossoming courage. He is helped by a gruff farm dog voiced by Harrison Ford, who unfortunately muddies his first animated voice role with some hyper-masculinity.

Ford's alpha dog is pure action cool, ripping off Max's cone in disgust (not the best message for kids in treatment), rejecting Max's embarrassed neurosis and being the cold, silent type. "The first step in not being afraid, is acting like you're not afraid," he advises.

Ford gets to play with his own he-man screen persona, but we're not sure this John Wayne bit — or the whole dynamic of pampered city folks versus tough country folks — is what we need right now. Another drawback is the scary elements: fearful wolves and an awful villain with a whip and a cattle prod.

Even so, the majority of the film is carefully constructed, switching from plot to plot to plot while also incorporating old characters — Dana Carvey's elderly Basset hound and Hannibal Buress as dachshund Buddy — in an increasingly complex patchwork, fed by a lively soundtrack that includes Stevie Wonder, Jefferson Airplane, Coolio and ZZ Top.

As signs of how well engineered this movie is, a cover of Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" is used at the end, a callback to the original song's appearance in the first film. It also opens with "Empire State of Mind," an echo of how the first one opened with Taylor Swift's "Welcome to New York."

There are some nifty touches, including a dream sequence in which Snowball fantasizes about being a caped crusader, which creates a comic book sequence INSIDE an animated film. Bell pretty much steals the movie when her cat gets high on catnip and later teaches Gidget the "way of the cat" — complete with mandatory walking on a laptop keyboard and batting mugs off tables. All this with extraordinary animated effects. You will marvel at how real the illustrators have made this world, from rocky cliffs to speeding cars and dazzling eyes. In a neat twist, too, the cat lady becomes the butt of jokes but also this — a heroine.

It all builds to a climax where all three plots converge, some stretched uncomfortably. Max is clearly the emotional center of the film but Snowball's journey is just weird, starting as a bunny who plays a dress-up superhero, morphing into a real superhero who is revealed to be anything but, before proving he IS a superhero, kind of. (Stick around at the end credits for a clip of Hart as a gangsta Snowball rapping "Panda" by Desiigner.)

If the knock on "The Secret Life of Pets" was that it was a rip-off of "Toy Story," then the second film better grounds itself in its own universe. Like its main three characters, it has learned to be comfortable in its own animated skin.

"The Secret Life of Pets 2," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG for "some action and rude humor." Running time: 86 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Missing Lewis Chessman found, could fetch 1M at auction


This image shows a newly discovered Lewis Chessman on display at Sotheby's in London. (Tristan Fewings/Sotheby's via AP)

London (AP) — A chess piece purchased for a few pounds by an antiques dealer in Scotland in 1964 has been identified as one of the 900-year-old Lewis Chessmen, among the greatest artifacts of the Viking era.

Sotheby's auction house said that the chess piece is expected to bring between 600,000 and 1 million pounds at an auction next month.

The Lewis Chessmen are intricate, expressive chess pieces in the form of Norse warriors, carved from walrus ivory in the 12th century.

A hoard of 93 pieces was discovered in 1831 on Scotland's Isle of Lewis. It is now held in both the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh — but five of the chess pieces were missing.

The 3 1/2-inch piece to be auctioned July 2, the equivalent of a rook, is the first of the missing chessmen to be identified. It was passed down to the family of the antiques dealer, who did not realize its significance.

Sotheby's European sculpture expert Alexander Kader said the find is "one of the most exciting and personal rediscoveries to have been made during my career."

The X-Men struggle to the end in ‘Dark Phoenix’

This image shows Sophie Turner in a scene from “Dark Phoenix.”
(Twentieth Century Fox via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - The good news is “Dark Phoenix” is neither an apocalypse nor is it “X-Men: Apocalypse,” but this latest installment is not exactly a solid step forward or a satisfying ending for anyone.

It’s supposed to be the culmination of 20 years of X-Men movies, and yet it feels more like a rushed and inconsequential spinoff than something that we’ve been building toward for two decades. Perhaps that’s because we’ve barely gotten to know this version of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), whose transformation into the all-powerful Phoenix is the thing that divides the X-Men into a tiny civil war.

A brief flashback to 1975 shows a young Jean’s defining trauma, when the telekinesis she can’t yet control results in a horrific car crash and her becoming an orphan. She’s taken in by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who offers her help and guidance and tells her that she can decide to use her powers for good, which is not exactly top of mind for her when, 17 years later, she absorbs a deadly cosmic energy field.

The main action is set in 1992, a decade after the events in “Apocalypse” and 30 years after the events in “X-Men: First Class,” and Charles is riding high on a tide of public goodwill. The X-Men are finally being regarded as heroes and he’s become the public face of the operation, with a direct line to the President of the United States and everything.

Yet he’s getting a little cavalier with his people, sending them off on an impossible rescue mission to space which will render Jean into the Dark Phoenix. Even his longtime allies like Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) are starting to question his motives. This, frankly, is the more interesting thread but the film, written and directed by Simon Kinberg, instead uses Jean/Phoenix — who, again, we don’t know very well — as the embodiment of all of his ambition and failings.

Essentially, Jean discovers that Charles has been hiding some information from her about her childhood and she gets angry (dangerously so) and starts racking up a body count. Even Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who is living in what looks like a dystopian sleepaway camp, doesn’t want any part of it and she becomes an outcast. So when an intense alien with nefarious plans and sky high stilettos, Vuk (Jessica Chastain) tells her that she’s just misunderstood and to follow her, Jean is all ears.

It’s a lot of fussy plot with not much heart behind it, and while Turner is excellent at looking like a woman in distress, she needs a character to back up all that conflict and make us care. Even a pretty shocking death barely registers emotionally. It probably also doesn’t help that this is coming on the heels of “Avengers: Endgame.”

“Dark Phoenix,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language.” Running time: 113 minutes. Two stars out of four.

‘Godzilla’ is back and doing just fine


This image shows a scene from “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”
(Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

London (AP) - It’s been a bit since moviegoers had the chance to catch up with Godzilla, five years in fact, which in cinematic franchise time feels like at least a few decades. In other words, it’s understandable if you go into “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” a little rusty on just what went down in Tokyo and San Francisco back in 2014.

To help us along, the filmmakers have shifted the focus to another family entirely for this installment, from the inert Brodys (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) to the Russells, a now-broken family of scientists who lived in San Francisco during the 2014 attack. There are a few holdovers though, mostly employees of Monarch, the secret multinational organization that studies the titans, like Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), who are being accused of hiding Godzilla from world governments who’d rather just destroy them all.

As far as the newcomers go, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) also works for Monarch and has developed a machine called the Orca, which simulates the sounds of the various titans. She believes this can be used to help manage them. Emma lives with her 14-year-old daughter, Madison (“Stranger Things’” Millie Bobby Brown in her first major film role), who is precociously enchanted by her mother’s work and admires the primordial creatures.

Madison’s father Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler, whose intensity is at level 10 for most of the movie) is not really in the picture, having left after the San Francisco incident, but is drawn back in when Emma and Madison (and the Orca) are kidnapped by some militant eco-terrorists led by Jonah Alan (Charles Dance).

This group wants to use the titans, of which there are now “17 and counting” including a pretty dazzling Mothra and a less-enchanting three-headed “Monster Zero,” to help reset the planet and reverse climate change and overpopulation. There’s some convenient explanation of why the radiation from the titans actually helps revitalize vegetation, which, like many of the silly plot devices in this movie, you kind of just let slide. That said, anyone currently watching “Chernobyl” on HBO will likely be very stressed out about the amount of radiation all the humans are likely absorbing just by being in proximity to all these creatures.

Michael Dougherty has taken the directing reins this time, from Gareth Edwards, and has done a fine job capturing the grandness of the titans, keeping the action coherent and balancing the human element thanks to a terrific cast that also includes O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Thomas Middleditch. His script is also pleasingly light and often funny, although Bradley Whitford’s Dr. Stanton goes a little overboard trying to be the comic relief.

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sequences of monster action violence and destruction, and for some language.” Running time: 131 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Film Review: 'Men in Black' returns, a little worse for wear

Agency recommends current 80K attendance cap at Burning Man

New German exhibition explores Rembrandt's career

Film Review: 'The Secret Life of Pets 2' is a well-crafted sequel

Missing Lewis Chessman found, could fetch 1M at auction

The X-Men struggle to the end in ‘Dark Phoenix’

‘Godzilla’ is back and doing just fine