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Schultz reviews: ‘All Is True,’ ‘Men in Black: International,’ ‘Shaft’ and ‘The Tomorrow Man’

Schultz reviews: ‘All Is True,’ ‘Men in Black: International,’ ‘Shaft’ and ‘The Tomorrow Man’

Carl Schultz

 

“All Is True” Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, 101 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Dec. 21:

 

The noted British actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh and his ego are front-and-center in the new “All Is True,” a speculative dramatic account of the final years of William Shakespeare, western literature’s greatest dramatist and poet. Branagh’s picture is now being expanded into theaters after a limited release in major cities.

 

Since first bursting onto the cinematic scene in 1989 with his innovative version of “Henry V,” Branagh has enjoyed a reputation as one of Shakespeare’s most perceptive modern interpreters. But while it’s been established again and again in the centuries since his death that Shakespeare was the ultimate people’s poet, with works that can be appreciated by virtually anyone, Branagh is decidedly an acquired taste.

 

In “All Is True,” after London’s famed Globe Theatre burns to the ground in 1613 during a performance of the playwright’s “Henry VIII,” a troubled and self-absorbed Shakespeare returns to his home in distant Stratford-on-Avon to reunite with the wife he left behind — Anne Hathaway, an older, illiterate housewife nurturing resentment for her own unfulfilled life.

 

The Bard must also confront his conflicted feelings about his two grown daughters, one a bitter cynic on the verge of spinsterhood and the other a humorless victim of maternity, enduring a sort of living death as the wife of a repressed and repressive country vicar.

 

Tormented by notions of insecurity and failure despite his literary successes, the aging Shakespeare desires little more than to conclude his final years in peace, tending his garden and cultivating memories of his late son and presumed literary heir, who was swept away at age 11 during the Black Plague epidemic of 1597 ... or was he?

 

A modern biographical picture turns on an actor’s resemblance to his subject. Branagh has the audacity to open his film with the iconic image of the Chandos portrait, a challenge to the audience that we’re going to see this legendary man come to life. Sadly, when Branagh-as-Shakespeare is dramatically revealed, it’s something of a letdown, a masterpiece of prosthetics as persuasive as someone wearing a mask and a placard reading “Shakespeare.”

 

It’s not that the makeup’s not realistic — it’s more that Branagh from some angles more resembles Ben Kingsley as Silas Marner and from others suggests Jose Ferrer as Cyrano de Bergerac. Moreover, Branagh never lets us inside the Bard’s heart and soul. Although author and playwright Ben Elton invests his screenplay with beautiful language and clever dialogue, Branagh gives the words life but never spirit.

 

In Elton’s telling, Shakespeare is haunted by feelings of inadequacy. The scion of scoundrels, the playwright has been feted by nobles and royals but never accepted among them. And although he’s achieved unprecedented success as England’s greatest poet and dramatist, he’s earned only the scorn and ridicule of his contemporaries Marlowe and Jonson. In Branagh’s reading, we can hear Shakespeare’s voice ... but never feel his pain.

 

Despite all the flowery words and witty dialogue, “All Is True” ultimately becomes Shakespeare Lite, a Cliff Notes version of the Bard’s Life, a sort of “The Lion in Winter of Our Discontent.” The movie catches fire only once, as Branagh’s Shakespeare quotes the text of his famous Sonnet 29 to the once and future object of his affection, the Earl of Southampton, played in a delicious one-scene cameo appearance by the superb Sir Ian McKellan.

 

Branagh’s Bard recites the sonnet’s lines with all the rat-a-tat affectation of a sophomore drama student showing off for the headmaster. When Branagh finishes, McKellan’s Southampton, with a wistful half-smile and a twinkle of amusement in his creased and aged eyes, parrots the lines back with all the beauty, kindness, and warmth of the words’ true meaning. It’s like watching an advanced graduate course in Shakespeare Interpretation, and McKellan unsurprisingly earns an A-plus. Branagh, and “All Is True,” unfortunately finish the class with a B-minus.

 

“All Is True” was released in Santa Monica, California on Dec. 21 of last year in order to qualify for Academy Award consideration, but earned no nominations. Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Zac Nicholson in England’s Dorney Court, Buckinghamshire, the picture was completed as an independent picture and acquired for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics after production finished.

 

“All Is True” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, suggestive material, and language concerns.

 

“Men in Black: International” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, 115 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released June 14:

 

There are a few things to like in the new “Men in Black: International,” the fourth chapter in the saga which began in 1997. The movie contains comedy and nifty special effects, and works well as a travelogue, zipping from Paris to New York to London, Marrakesh and Naples. But if you’re expecting something like a “Men in Black” picture, or anything other than a glossy colorful, and very expensive farce, forget about it.

 

In “Men in Black: International,” rookie MIB agent M (Tessa Thompson) is assigned to a probationary partnership with veteran agent H of the agency’s British branch (Chris Hemsworth). When MIB is infiltrated by a hostile alien force, the new agent is quickly tasked with working undercover within the organization to identify the invader. The primary suspect — her new partner.

 

The first “Men in Black” picture in 1997 was fun mostly because of the dynamic between Tommy Lee Jones’ unflappable straight-arrow, by-the-books veteran agent and Will Smith’s fast-and-loose recruit. Their interaction contained the same elbow-in-the-ribs hilarity as a precocious child trying to coax a human reaction from one of the Queen’s Grenadiers, mixed with a gleefully mordant plot spoofing science fiction pictures in general.

 

“Men in Black: International” has none of that. Instead, the new picture offers a silly story, tired puns, double-takes, mugging, and sight gags that would hardly pass muster in a vaudeville sketch. Even the sacred dress code is violated — during the Neopolitan sequences, Hemsworth is stylishly clad in an open-necked white shirt, snug pink slacks, and loafers without socks. Coupled with the actor’s sunny demeanor and Mediterranean tan, he looks more like Neopolitan ice cream than a viable Man in Black.

 

Directed by former music video filmmaker F. Gary Gray from a script from Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, the writing team behind 2008’s original “Iron Man” picture, “Men in Black: International” pays occasional lip service to the earlier pictures: The neuralizer is still occasionally used by the agents, as are the requisite dark glasses.  

 

But as a whole, more than any of its predecessors “Men in Black: International” is reminiscent of Roger Moore’s James Bond pictures from the 1970s and 1980s — an bloated and blowsy farce featuring expensive performers going through their prescribed motions with minimum effort. This is one time when bigger is decidedly not better.

 

Also featuring brief supporting appearances by Emma Thompson, a heavily-disguised Rebecca Ferguson, and an outrageously overacting Liam Neeson, “Men in Black: International” is rated PG-13 for science fiction action and some suggestive material.

 

“Shaft” Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 111 Minutes, Rated R, Released June 14:

 

A real delight from the first frame until the last, the new “Shaft” is more of an homage to the previous “Shaft” movies in 1971 and 2000 and their iconic leading character than a spoof along the lines of Keenan Ivory Wayans’ 1988 parody “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” which the movie’s trailers seem to suggest.

 

John “JJ” Shaft (Jessie Usher), a gentle and non-confrontational young cybersecurity expert employed by the FBI, loses a close friend under suspicious circumstances. When the FBI declines to investigate, the young agent turns for help to his estranged father — the legendary NYC private detective John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson, reprising his role from John Singleton’s 2000 version of “Shaft”).

 

Featuring an actual compelling mystery at its core, overlaid onto the picture’s narrative is the pleasure of watching the tougher-than-tough Shaft trying to reach out and connect emotionally with the grown son he never knew — the genuinely human angle which forms the heart of the picture. And just when you think the movie can’t get any better, Richard Roundtree turns up to reprise the role which turned him into an international superstar — the original 1971 “Shaft.”

 

Punctuated with expertly-crafted action sequences, the language in “Shaft” is often rough and the movie is decidedly not for the kiddies, but you already knew that. Besides, when spoken by actor Samuel L. Jackson, even the earthiest language contains a rhythm which converts the words into a sort of street poetry, alternately dramatically effective and outrageously funny, and often simultaneously both. Jackson puts the “pro” in profanity, and the “in” in invective, and he’s in his element here.

 

Featuring a screenplay by Kenya Barris, the creator of television’s “Black-ish,” and Alex Barnow, who likewise created TV’s “The Goldbergs” and “Mr. Sunshine,” the new picture was directed by Tim Story, the filmmaker behind the “Ride Along” pictures and Marvel’s “Fantastic Four” movies. “Shaft”  also benefits from charismatic supporting performances by the gifted Regina Hall (“Girl’s Trip”) and rising star Alexandria Shipp, also currently appearing on the nation’s screens in the X-Men picture “Dark Phoenix.”

 

“Shaft” is rated R for pervasive language, violence, sexual content, some drug material, and brief nudity.

 

“The Tomorrow Man” Distributed by Bleeker Street Films, 94 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released May 22:

 

You might find yourself growing a little restless and impatient with “The Tomorrow Man,” the new picture placed in limited release by Bleecker Street Films on May 22 but just now opening in a wider release pattern across the U.S.: The movie meanders all over the screen for most of its 94-minute running time. It’s not that the film’s story lacks focus or structure — it more that the movie doesn’t have a plot or structure.

 

In “The Tomorrow Man,” a strong-minded and compulsive retired man “on the wrong side of 60” finds himself drawn to a free-spirited and impulsive woman his age who professes, “I don’t think there’s a wrong side of 60.” Originally attracted to her practical nature, the man is fairly astonished to learn as their relationship deepens that she’s actually less well-ordered than he originally believed. And having originally set out to conquer her, he soon finds he has her right where she wants him.

 

Written and directed in his narrative feature debut by former music video director Noble Lincoln Jones, “The Tomorrow Man” has personality to spare, thanks to virtuoso performances by the customarily watchable John Lithgow as the retired man and the scattered but radiant and lovable Blythe Danner as the woman who wins his perplexed heart.

 

The veteran performers invest their roles with as much charm as they can muster, which is considerable. But unfortunately the script unfairly spends too much to focusing on their quirks and foibles rather than allowing them to build persuasive, three-dimensional characterizations. Likewise writer and director Jones, who concentrates on clever dialogue and witty exchanges rather than a strong dramatic structure. And with cutesie lines like “I don’t know what I want to know ... (but) when I know, I’ll let you know” ... well, Danner and Lithgow deserve better. And so do we.

 

Filmed in Rochester, New York — Lithgow’s home turf — ”The Tomorrow Man” is a noble experiment featuring charismatic performances which would undoubtedly have earned a spirited round of applause in a graduate-level course on improvisational acting, or even on the Off-Off-Broadway theater stage.

 

Unfortunately, the entire project probably should’ve gone no farther than that. And the film’s final shot reduces the entire exercise to the level of a practical joke, an especially tasteless and perplexing shaggy dog story.

 

“The Tomorrow Man” is rated PG-13 for adult situations and language, and for some restrained comic sexuality.

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