Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Men in Black III (2012)

I’m going to jump right in and say that Men in Black III is much better than it ought to be, although it’s still a long way from being the best MIB flick in the trilogy (I’d have to go back and reassess the first two, though I’m reasonably certain the first is still king).

In this third MIB film, the “aliens among us” premise is mostly jettisoned in favor of a more character-driven exploration of the relationship between Agent J (Will Smith) and his gruff senior partner Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).  After the nefarious Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) escapes from a lunar prison and time-travels to murder K, J – the only one who remembers his partner – timejumps back to 1969 and pairs with a young K (a pitch-perfect Josh Brolin) to prevent Boris’s plan from succeeding.

When the threequel was announced, I remember rolling my eyes with some skepticism at the apparent lack of originality running through Hollywood that they would dust off a property more than a decade older.  But thanks to my recent addiction to Doctor Who and Grant Morrison comics, the time travel conceit sounded promising.  And after being oh so wrong about a certain casting choice in a certain blockbuster Batman film, I’ve adopted a “cautiously optimistic” stance toward most Hollywood ventures.

“Cautious optimism” pays off here, because Men in Black III is entertaining and a good bit of light-hearted fun.  Forgive the comparison, but it’s no Avengers in terms of summer blockbuster greats, but it’s better than most threequels (see this week’s “Monday at the Movies” feature for more) and takes the franchise in an intriguing new direction.

Although Will Smith’s performance seems a little dated, Josh Brolin ably steps in for Tommy Lee Jones and does a more than convincing job of playing the younger version (with a few “city miles” to account for the apparent lack of sufficient age discrepancy).  Rather than a straight impersonation, Brolin is charged with creating a peppier Agent K, to boot, and it’s something he does successfully, creating a character that is at once familiar and unexpected.  If for no other reason, then, the film is worth seeing for Brolin’s performance.

Also in the “good performances” catalog – Jemaine Clement, late of Flight of the Conchords, as antagonist Boris the Animal.  After musical partner Bret McKenzie won an Oscar for his work on The Muppets, Clement also takes the comedy route but dials up the menace significantly.  Gratefully, Clement doesn’t turn Boris into a caricature of a villain but embraces the character’s nature and revels in it.  Boris isn’t a villain we laugh at but rather can genuinely fear.

While the performances make the film worth the price of admission, I can’t help wishing the script was a little stronger.  The script was apparently cobbled together from several drafts and left a bit unfinished; consequently, there are a few narrative plot threads that never quite come to fruition.  Maybe I’m just reading too deeply into the movie, or maybe I’m falling for the alternate timelines which at least one character posits are in existence..  (And here it’ll be impossible to discuss the film without at least spoiling what doesn’t happen.)

The beginning of the film seems to intimate that K is dying; he’s more depressed than usual, even before he learns that Boris has escaped and is gunning for him.  He’s clearly keeping a secret from J, although the alleged payoff doesn’t quite measure up to the teases we get (nor do we know why now of all times the secret is bothering him).  Narrative problems surround K; we’re promised that we’ll learn why the happy-go-lucky K of the 60s transformed into the crotchety oldster we know and love, yet the continual hints of “It hasn’t happened yet” remain ephemeral evaporations at the end.  It ultimately has nothing to do with Cape Canaveral, nor with his relationship with Agent O (another thread that never pays off) – at worst, the writers are teasing it for Men in Black IV, a sign of poor writing.

Worse, up until the last minute, it seems that the writers are going to kill J.  Repeatedly he’s asked how far he’ll go to save K; we’re told that he’s “been there” before; the rules of time travel apparently stipulate that a death must be replaced by another death; and it’d make perfect sense for K to be bitter that his partner’s death saved his own life.  Ultimately, though, the writers seem unwilling to pull the trigger (no pun intended) on J.  The inclination to sustain the franchise is understandable, but copping out on the ending results in a film which signifies nothing.

But in the words of Captain Jack Sparrow, “It’s not the destination so much as the journey.”  Men in Black III is a fun ride and a satisfactory summer popcorn flick, so long as there’s a bit of disbelief suspended.
Men in Black III is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi action violence, and brief suggestive content.”  Aliens menace our heroes and each other; one shoots spikes out of his hand and impales several characters, while most others are vaporized in colorful bursts of energy.  Boris has a weird henchwoman who’s wearing a slightly revealing outfit when she makes out with his elongated tongue, and police guards comment briefly on her attire.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Monday at the Movies - May 28, 2012

Welcome to Week Twenty of “Monday at the Movies.”  On tap this week:  a few threequels, nostalgia, and Gary Cooper’s Cinema King debut.
The Godfather: Part III (1990)Part III has become a kind of punchline, shorthand for the unnecessary and subpar sequel.  Even Francis Ford Coppola has tried to distance himself by labeling this merely an “epilogue.”  To be sure, Part III has its flaws – first, it is not the brilliance of The Godfather, nor does it enhance the original as Part II did.  Second, Robert Duvall is absent, courtesy of a contract dispute.  Third, Sofia Coppola as Michael’s daughter... well, you’ve heard all the jokes, and they’re all accurate.  But the film has its positives, too, often neglected in the dead faint to insult the film.  Seeing Michael make good on his promises to legitimize is satisfying, and Andy Garcia’s role as Vincent Mancini (the illegitimate son of Sonny Corleone) ought to have been a star-making one, since his work is compelling and entertaining with a respectful dash of James Caan thrown in for appropriate measure.  I had said that Part II was a sequel to a film that didn’t need one, but Part III is a sequel – pardon, epilogue – that doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the franchise.  Al Pacino in particular, genius that he was in the earlier films, seems inconsistent; he’s more bluster a la Devil’s Advocate than the quiet man we last saw on the park bench at the end of Part II.  Where Talia Shire successfully navigates the interim to portray Connie as, at last, her father’s daughter, it’s difficult to see a more happy-go-lucky Michael with only glimpses of how tortured he ought to be.  Part III isn’t enjoyable in the way that the first two are, although it’s fun to see the way that it reflects and refracts its predecessors; we have a mass execution of the dons, a romantic confession in a kitchen, a trip to Italy, a passing of the torch complete with ring kissing, and Diane Keaton still left in the doorframe, but they mean different things here and serve as fun nods to those in the know.  Ultimately, the film concludes as every Godfather film ought to – a bloody settling of accounts – and Pacino all but redeems himself at the tragic opera finale.  Forget Fredo – it was you, Al; you broke my heart.  Required viewing, if only to conclude the saga, but there’s a reason it never stands shoulder to shoulder with its older, more sophisticated brothers.

Midnight in Paris (2011) – It surprises me that this is the first Woody Allen film I’ve reviewed on this blog, since I’ve practically lived the movie Annie Hall (right down to the awkward primary school education of a precocious bespectacled redhead) and love a whole host of his other films (especially Play It Again, Sam; The Purple Rose of Cairo; and Match Point).  And on the advice of so many of my colleagues who know literature like I do, I checked out Midnight in Paris on the strength of the premise:  Owen Wilson plays the stock Woody Allen character who roams the streets of Paris and slips through time into the 1920s to meet literary icons like F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom “Loki” Hiddleston), Ernest Hemingway (a spot-on Corey Stoll), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates).  Unfortunately, Midnight in Paris is a film that never quite lives up to its conceit; it’s a fantastic idea, don’t get me wrong, but it’s mismanaged and underutilized.  I’d much rather see a Hiddleston/Stoll buddy biopic of Fitzgerald and Hemingway than the Owen Wilson movie we get.  Premise aside, there’s not much original here:  Wilson plays the same Woody Allen character we’ve seen a million times, Rachel McAdams is Regina George, all grown up; Michael Sheen plays the cuckolding academic, another Allen-trope; and Wilson’s life-changing revelation is as plain as... well, the nose on his face.  The best parts of the movie are the scenes when the writers take center stage, but these moments are not frequent enough, and indeed not all of them work (although Adrien Brody as Salvador Dalí is quite entertaining); all told, Midnight in Paris is a bit like an episode of Saturday Night Live – a few good sketches worth rewatching but overall less than enjoyable.

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) – The combination of Frank Capra and Gary Cooper is enough to get my butt in the seat.  I’ve long been nostalgic for the simpler world Capra’s films present, and I’ve made holiday traditions out of It’s a Wonderful Life and Arsenic and Old Lace.  And after High Noon and especially The Fountainhead, Gary Cooper can do no wrong in my eyes.  Here Cooper plays simple man Longfellow Deeds, an aspirant poet who inherits $20 million (upwards of $311 million today) and finds that all that glitters isn’t quite golden.  Like later Capra/Cooper joint Meet John Doe (1941), Deeds becomes the center of a media frenzy, courtesy of romantic interest and newspaper spy Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur).  In the final analysis, Mr. Deeds isn’t my favorite Capra film (Arsenic and Old Lace takes that cake, meaning I should probably get around to reviewing it on here).  There are parts that take a bit too long for anything to happen, and the slapstick comedy isn’t as prevalent here as I might have liked on a Sunday evening.  Moreover, almost all of the characters in the film are extremely unlikeable, even Bennett, who doesn’t atone for her sins until the very end of the picture.  Fortunately, though, Cooper is one of those actors who’s so charismatic that his hard work redeems many of a film’s flaws; his performance here is consistently and satisfactorily compelling, charmingly entertaining and touchingly empathetic.  To paraphrase former dean of American pop culture Tony Soprano, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?”

Superman III (1983) – First things first, this is not a Superman movie.  Unlike the two films that preceded it, Superman III doesn’t star Christopher Reeve as the Man of Steel, even though he finally gets top billing.  Rather, this is a Richard Pryor movie in which his character, Gus Gorman, attempts to pull one over on Superman by manipulating computers, weather satellites, and giant foam cowboy hats.  The greatest compliment I paid the RichardDonner cut of Superman II was that it excised a lot of Richard Lester’s slapstick inclinations; unfortunately, those inclinations are given full rein here, most egregiously in the moment when Pryor skis down the side of a skyscraper while wearing a pink tablecloth as a cape.  It’s a real shame, because there’s a great Superman movie in here somewhere.  Reeve is doing continually solid work as the Last Son of Krypton, especially when defective Kryptonite transforms him into a dark reflection of himself.  What’s more, his scenes opposite Annette O’Toole as former flame Lana Lang are a fulfilling fill-in for his relationship with the absent Lois Lane (a shame, since Margot Kidder’s portrayal is definitive).  But Lester’s priorities are clear; he’s more interested in Pryor’s twitchy brand of humor than in superheroics, more in the villains than in the film’s ostensible hero.  Worse, the villains on which the film focuses are nowhere near as interesting as the posthuman-converting computer, an apparent riff on the comics’ Brainiac; I’d much rather have seen Superman square off against an army of robot people than the would-be moguls herein.  When the chips are down, color me a Donner fan.  It’ll take a lot of work out of Zack Snyder next year to make me a true believer.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!  And stay tuned, because later this week I’ll be bringing you a full review of yet another threequel – this time, it’s Men In Black III!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Dark Shadows (2012)

Most of us were probably squealing with delight when we heard that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp were channeling the old Dark Shadows soap opera in an attempt to take the vampire crown back from the tweener Twilight crowd.

What we got probably won’t dethrone Edward Cullen as pop culture’s current top vampire, but it’s exactly what diehard Burton/Depp fans will enjoy.

After being cursed, vampirized, and resurrected, Barnabas Collins (Depp) awakens in 1972 to find his family’s name in danger of stasis.  Taken in by the family’s current matriarch Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and assisted by the groundskeeper (Jackie Earle Haley), Barnabas works to rebuild his family’s fishing industry, which places him in direct competition with Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) – the witch who cursed him 200 years ago.

Added to the mix are Elizabeth’s angsty teen daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), scandal-prone uncle Roger (Jonny Lee Miller) and his ghost-plagued son David (Gulliver McGrath), Barnabas’s lover reincarnated as the family nanny (Bella Heathcote), and the alcoholic live-in psychiatrist Julia Hoffman (Burton mainstay Helena Bonham Carter).

I catalogued meticulously the ensemble cast behind Depp because this movie has no shortage of plotlines.  It seems that Burton and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith (late of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies fame) are trying to replicate the structure of a soap opera, in that characters and plots alternate center stage.  But it doesn’t quite work on film – as a result, great actors like Carter are underused, while clear talents like Moretz are forced to wait their turn, while others still, like Miller, never really see their moment arrive.

As a consequence of all this waiting, many of the actors seem irritated.  While all this scowling and frowning and grimacing does set a certain mood within the film, it’s a distancing mood for the audience.  When all the other characters seem impatient, I get restless too, waiting for the next scene with the actors who seem to be indulging in the spirit of what the movie ought to be.

The two talents who do shine, perhaps predictably, are Depp and Green.  Depp manages to distinguish this British character from Sweeney Todd and Captain Jack Sparrow, immersing himself in the role just as we’d expect of him; Depp is the master of the reaction shot, toeing the line between “creature of the night” and “fish out of water.”  As for Green, she makes her character’s evil infectious, giving us the sense that she’s having a tremendous amount of fun being nasty; in the hands of a less capable actress this would have been a one-note “pretty face” role, but Green creates with aplomb a memorable villain and a worthy adversary for Barnabas.

When I said that Sweeney Todd was “the movie Tim Burton’s been trying to make all his life,” I didn’t realize how sadly prophetic that statement would be.  While I contend that Sweeney Todd is Top Ten Tim, his subsequent work has been somewhat less than.  2009’s Alice in Wonderland was lackluster, and Dark Shadows isn’t quite the revelation I had hoped.  Again, it’s exactly what I expected.  What it doesn’t do is transcend those expectations.

Indeed, the film’s basic attitude can be summed up with the line, “I’m a werewolf.  Deal with it.”  Certainly we can deal with it, but I wanted a little more.  The film is exactly a werewolf, but it’s a bit declawed.  It has its strengths, and it’s another Tim Burton movie, but it didn’t blow me away.

See it, sure, but it’s no Avengers.
Dark Shadows is rated PG-13 for “comic horror violence, sexual content, some drug use, language and smoking.”  Vampires feast, but for comic effect; blood is omnipresent. Much of the film revolves around a seduction plot, again played for comic effect.  Since it’s the Seventies, there’s drinking, smoking, and pot throughout.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Monday at the Movies - May 14, 2012

After a brief hiatus, welcome to Week Nineteen of “Monday at the Movies.”  Between reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest and attending a second screening of The Avengers (still highly recommended), we’ve only got one movie on the docket today.

RED (2010) – Can it be?  A comic book movie whose source material I’ve never read?  But the premise of the film – Hollywood’s finest senior citizens (a cast of all-stars, including Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, and Brian Cox) portraying “retired” intelligence agents – was too good to resist.  And on this, my second viewing, I realized that the plot is really ancillary.  What gets these agents out of retirement is a series of assassinations which eventually finds them in the crosshairs, but very few moviegoers are going to latch onto that in the way that they’ll latch onto the character types.  Ringo Starr thought he might win an Oscar if he acted naturally, but while you won’t see any Oscar-winning performances here you will see actors playing to their strengths:  in essence, the aged Avengers.  Willis is the strong, silent type; Freeman is the jovial elder with a voice of gold; Malkovich is the nutty and unstable one; and Mirren and Cox are the romancing agents from opposite ends of the Cold War.  The chemistry – and extreme sense of fun – flies off the screen and will leave you with a big smile on your face.  It’s not the deepest spy film you’ll see all year, but it’s probably the most fun. 

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Avengers (2012)

If you had any question about when the summer movie season begins, seeing most of your favorite summer movie icons assembled in one film should assuage your confusion.

We’ve been waiting since 2008 for The Avengers to assemble, and under the direction (and script) of fan favorite Joss Whedon, they’ve done just that.  Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – the gang’s all here.  (Even Clark Gregg, who manages to make Agent Coulson even more likeable, as he has with each successive appearance of this great character.)

And when The Avengers assemble... it’s amazing.

Taking little threads from each of the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe films, The Avengers finds the team gathering for the first time after Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) steals a weapon of unimaginable power from S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.

That’s it.  That’s the premise.  But without spoiling any of the film’s delightful surprises, it’s a deceptively simple plot which allows plenty of room for character interactions.  So while the story won’t surprise anyone, the relationships will; we’ve been fantasizing about a time when Iron Man and Thor would meet Captain America, and here we get to put them all in the same room and see what’s shaking.

Joss Whedon’s greatest strength here is in balancing an enormous cast of characters, something he does far better here than he ever did on the abbreviated Firefly.  Pulling double duty on scripting and directing, Whedon never loses focus on any of the heroes – even the unpowered Black Widow and Hawkeye, who highlight how out of their league they are in a key emotional scene.  Rather, each gets a moment to shine, a line or action that’ll elicit applause or hooted cheers from an audience which is already glad to be there.

Even better, these are the same characters we’ve already met in other films – excepting, of course, Ruffalo’s Hulk, a vast improvement over lackluster predecessors.  By “same,” I mean that Whedon has kept their voices intact; Iron Man still possesses the same narcissistic wit, Thor seems to have walked straight off a Shakespearean stage, and Captain America hasn’t lost any of his 1940s flair despite being more than 70 years out of his time (better yet, we’re not asked to laugh at him for it).

What makes The Avengers a hit is that it’s a successful whole built on successful parts.  Marvel has made a string of delightful films in the lead-up to The Avengers, and if even one of those had fallen flat, this whole enterprise would have been fruitless.  If Thor had floundered or if Iron Man had missed the mark, we’d be stuck with a dud in a team of winners.  Instead, what we have is grade-A comic book movie.

And I say “comic book movie” with no derision in my voice.  Where The Dark Knight took comics and applied filmic realism to spectacular effect, The Avengers translates perfectly to film the experience of reading a comic book.  Flashy colors, exorbitant explosions, clever angles, and costumes that ought to look out of place but don’t (I’m looking at you, Loki) – these are what we’d expect on the newsstands, not in a post-Nolan world.  But it works here.

It works because the movie is so infectiously fun that it quickly sweeps the audience into its world and recruits us into the superteam.  The Avengers isn’t a team of demigods like the Justice League (an updated Greek pantheon in Grant Morrison’s 1997-2000 comics run), it’s a cluster of (mostly) human characters with human foibles.  Tony Stark’s attempts to provoke Bruce Banner into changing into the Hulk isn’t something you’d ever see Batman doing to Superman, but here it’s perfectly in line with what a group of misfits do when they’re assembled in a tight space.

It’s also extremely entertaining to watch.  Whedon singles out each character’s defining traits and pits them against each other; take Downey’s playful lack of sincerity and Ruffalo’s tortured repression, and you’ve got sparks.  Blast Nick Fury’s dedication to the task against Thor’s sense of cosmic perspective, and you’ll be chuckling right alongside Thor. 

Honestly, I can’t sell short just how fun this movie is.  See it with a full house, if you can.  But see it.  It’s the kind of film that makes my cheeks numb from smiling all the time.  Well, not all the time.  There’s a moment – true believers will know it – when the film hits a surprisingly heartfelt beat, but it sweetens, not sours, the film.  I’m already eagerly awaiting the DVD – and a second showing before that.
The Avengers is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference.”  It’s more of the same comic book violence we’ve come to expect from Marvel’s stable, often not bloody (with one notable exception) but dominated by explosions.  I think the aforementioned drug reference is Tony Stark’s continued abuse of alcohol, which would have been a disappointing omission.
Welcome back to the summer of full reviews, true believers – we’ll see you next week!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Incoming! - Full Reviews!

Greetings, loyal readers!  As you've come to expect, tomorrow should see the nineteenth installment of "Monday at the Movies."  But, with the advent of the summer blockbuster season, we'll be changing things up.  Some Mondays, you'll see a full review of a recent theatrical release; other Mondays, you'll get a full dose of "Monday at the Movies."  Either way, you'll still get a full dose of movie review goodness every Monday!

This all starts tomorrow.  Hopefully this makes Mondays more exciting - you never know what you're going to get (although most of the time you can probably guess).   I will drop a hint for tomorrow, though... you won't see any reviews assembled here.

Got it?  Oh, heck, I'll just let this gorgeous Alex Ross image fill you in:
See you tomorrow, loyal readers!