Every Thursday, TMINE reviews two movies, carefully avoiding infringing a former mobile phone company’s trademarked marketing gimmick
It’s Thursday, so that must mean it’s movie time. Despite the BFI channel on Amazon not offering downloads as previously advertised, I’ve still managed to watch Tokyo Story, which The Guardian describes as the fourth-best arthouse movies ever made.
And coincidentally, I’ve made it out the house to the cinema again to watch the fourth movie in the Men In Black franchise – Men In Black: International. Is it the fourth-best Men In Black movie ever made?
We’ll see, after the jump.
Men in Black: International (2019)
In cinemas now
Molly (Tessa Thompson) encountered an alien as a child and has spent her entire life trying to join the ‘men in black’ she saw wiping the memories of her parents. Finally, she gets the chance and is soon posted to the London office of MIB as Agent M, where new boss T (Liam Neeson) partners with the once heroic, now louche Agent H (Chris Hemsworth).
Soon, H and M are trying to guard an alien king, but there are assassins who want to kill him. What are they after and is there something amiss in London?
The Men in Black franchise has had a bumpy path. It started off great, with Men in Black, thanks to some cracking jokes and some great, now iconic performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, among others.
The less said about Men in Black 2, the better, since it’s basically Men in Black again, just not actually funny. Men in Black 3 wasn’t that bad and was often surprising, particularly since it tried to be a bit original, yet I’ve honestly struggled for about five days now to remember anything about it other than the fact Josh Brolin (aka Thanos aka Cable) played the young Tommy Lee Jones.
It’s to Men In Black: International‘s credit that it too tries to be a bit different and changes the franchise’s format into something a bit more James Bond – albeit the Roger Moore years. Effectively, Hemsworth is the undercover division of MIB, doing what needs to be done to save the world from aliens by whatever means necessary – usually clubbing, drinking, gambling and sleeping with alien women.
All the globe-trotting, location-shooting is there, with trips to Marrakesh as well as London and Paris, as well as chases and gadgets.
The producers are also wise enough to reunite Thompson and Hemsworth after Thor: Ragnarok, and to give Hemsworth the opportunity to do his comedy Thor routine – he even gets a hammer at one point.
They’re all fine. Neeson’s there for the pay cheque (as is New York boss Emma Thompson), but does what needs to be done. Ralph Spall (The Shadow Line) is hilarious as Hemsworth’s adversarial co-worker. There are good effects, the alien assassins are pretty chilling and Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) is cute and hilarious as a living chess piece. Even London is well handled – no Hunt For Red October horrors here – although Paris feels like a bit of an insult to the whole of France.
The trouble is the script. It’s at best okay. Plotting is slow, there’s not much action and what action there is doesn’t exactly provide much spectacle. The fight scenes are ordinary, chase scenes have little sense of peril and people can be marooned in the desert without any chance of help, but will spend all their time wisecracking instead of emphasising the extreme risk of death. There are no real twists, no surprises.
It’s also not especially weird, which is surely one of the hallmarks of the series. There are some decent ideas, there’s the occasional throwaway “this celebrity is an alien” cameo, but nothing very odd, nothing existential, not even an end joke scene as per the first two movies.
Similarly, Thompson and Hemsworth have about 75% of what they need to do a good job and they strain for all their worth to produce the extra 25% but never quite get there.
Men in grey
Men in Black: International is an under-performer in every way, currently struggling with X-Men: Dark Phoenix to see who can take the least box office and make the biggest loss. Kudos to it for trying to do something different and to try a different genre, at least, but don’t bother watching it unless you happen to like a movie that feels like all the out-takes of a bad Roger Moore movie.
Tokyo Story (1953)
Available on the BFI Channel and in the iTunes Store
A retired couple live in the town Onomichi in southwest Japan with their daughter, who is a primary-school teacher. The couple travel to Tokyo to visit their son, daughter and daughter-in-law.
However, both the son and the daughter are both busy, and do not have much time for their parents. However, only their widowed daughter-in-law goes out of her way to entertain them.
Japanese King Lear
Akira Kurosawa’s Ran is the most famous and most explicit Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. However, Tokyo Story is arguably the best, despite the fact director Yasujirō Ozu adapted in from an American film, Make Way for Tomorrow.
Of course, Tokyo Story is both much, much nicer and much, much sadder than King Lear, because it’s ultimately about how parents and children drift apart and have long histories that can prevent them from doing what strangers might. That’s a timeless, universal concept.
Tokyo Story is a very simple, very economical movie with a basic plot. Parents come to visit their children, children don’t make time for them, no one says anything to anyone to rock the boat, but everyone’s dissatisfied, yet also still glad to have seen their loved ones. Meanwhile, the one person with no real skin in the game and who has nothing much of her own any more – the Cordelia of the piece – is the one person who treats the elderly couple well.
But within that simple structure and usually with much by way of explicit dialogue, often just with a simple facial expression or a nuanced ‘iie’ (no), so much is said and so much back story conveyed.
What makes Tokyo Story so remarkable is that characters are fully developed across decades. The eldest daughter treats everyone badly, both her parents and her sister-in-law.
Yet it’s clear that while her elderly father is now a genial and kind man, he wasn’t anything like that when he was younger sake drinker. Yet rather than this be a story about fractious rows over past abuse, the daughter maintains her relationship with her father and is even willing to pay for him and her mother to go to an expensive spa – if it means that she doesn’t have to spend time with them.
Even the seemingly random inclusion of another sibling who lives in Kyoto but who contributes very little to the plot is a genius move, as it adds more layers of remoteness and responsibility at the same time.
A post-war picture
Both warm yet heartbreaking, comedic yet dramatic, Tokyo Story is similar to Godzilla of all things in presenting a time capsule of post-War Japan. Made just eight years after the war, there are frequent references to the sons killed in the fighting and towns destroyed by the bombings.
At the same time, there are the signs of post-War rapid urbanisation and American influence, with grandchildren wearing baseball caps and taking English classes. The rapid growth in Tokyo is one of the main causes of the turmoil in the story, with city life making time a precious commodity and splitting up families. Indeed, without the stress, maybe (spoiler alert) the mother might not have died towards the end of the movie .
Yet, there are no simple answers. Everything is seen as natural and unavoidable, the result of the passing of time and the changing of relationships as one gets older.
A true classic
Tokyo Story has a fearsome reputation as Ozu’s masterwork and it’s a deserved one. But it’s still marvellously accessible and readily understandable, despite the distances in time and culture, as it’s genuinely universal.
Have some hankies set aside when you watch it and be prepared to feel guilty when it’s over, particularly once the final scene has played out. But do watch it.