Review: Men in Black 3


Movies are about expectations. No matter how jaded we may be, we enter the theater with a certain set of those darn expectations. When your expectations are exceeded with a smart, entertaining film there is a feeling of exhilaration. Remember the first time Indiana Jones made his way into our universe or maybe that Imperial battleship coming out of the right hand of the screen, and kept coming, and coming. It’s a delight.

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The opposite is also true. Going to a film with the expectation that it will be everything you want only to find that the trailers and the hype don’t even come close to matching your hopes. It’s a bummer. Usually this comes when the premise of the film has been played out. The film is as arid a field of wheat in the 1930s dustbowl. Swirling wind signifying nothing but a waste of time, and if you bought a popcorn, no fun and added fat. Yuck.

“Men in Black 3” has some expectations. You go in thinking this is going to be the same old, same old. It took them so long to get around to making this that it has to be a simple case of cashing in and running off with our money. It will offer nothing new and those aforementioned calories are going to be added to an already too large midriff.

But surprise, surprise. MIB3 is a fun. It doesn’t have a serious bone in its digital body. It doesn’t take itself seriously and as a result, it is enjoyable fun. It has nice SFX, but more importantly, it has some fine acting. What? Fine acting in a loud, summer sequelized film? Yeah.

I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say, Will Smith has to go back in time to set somethings right and save Tommy Lee Jones’ character. Along the way, the new head of MIB is played by Emma Thompson. This great actress has some of the best comic timing out there. No wonder, back in the day she learned her trade as a comic with Hugh Laurie. So she’s fun to watch. Josh Brolin plays a young Tommy Lee Jones, but with Tommy Lee’s voice coming out of his mouth. What could have been a distraction, isn’t. Then there is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays an alien who lives in various futures all at the same time. Don’t ask, it works. And for eye candy there is Alice Eve who plays Emma Thompson’s character in the past. And as Esquire magazine is so fond of saying, she’s one of those gals we love to watch. Another actor who shows some serious chops is Jemaine Clement. He plays Boris the Animal, and when I say chops, he has a set of teeth that would make an orthodontists drool, but his over the top emoting is perfect for his badd as character.

OK, let’s break it down. MIB3 is a fun, empty headed carnival ride that exceeds expectations. What else could you expect from a film coming out Memorial Day Weekend? Not much, Slick.

BATTLESHIP Sinks


BATTLESHIP will sail into megaplexes this weekend with guns blazing and ocean spray invigorating anyone in its way this weekend before it sinks or consigned to the cinematic equivalent of a mothballed ship. Of course, this entire review could be awash in inane naval jargon.
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Let’s make this simple. The makers of this $215 million special effects laden take on a simple game from Hasbro is not very good. Yeah, it’s loud and yes, the special effects are state of the art. The movie is forced, contrived, full of holes and poorly written. Sadly Peter Berg, the director, compounds this by spending way too much time trying to set things up. And that set up suggests he actually has a plot to work with warranting way too much time with the ‘chicken burrito’ incident, an incident we all know will come back to haunt us, probably with indigestion.

Our hero is named Hooper. He is played by the badly named Taylor Kitsch. He is a rebel, lost in some unnnamed meandering sorrow. His older brother is a naval officer. On a birthday evening, the younger brother tries to pick up a blonde babe.  The babe is played by Brooklyn Decker, the new blonde ‘it’ girl with breasts that normally are not found in nature. In the course of his apparent love/lust antics he steals a chicken burrito from a closed quickie mart. Gallantry, a police arrest yields undying love. Before you can say, “Heading to the concession stand? Get me a popcorn”,  the next you know the rebel is an officer in the US Navy. Hmmm, I didn’t know that officers in the navy could be criminals, but that fact is elided over by a simple quick cut to the future when the two brothers are serving in the same fleet headed by Liam Neeson.  It’s a good thing they aren’t on the same ship otherwise I would have to send Mr. Berg a copy of THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS.

To say that the plot is telegraphed or that it is hackneyed wastes everyone’s time. And in a film like BATTLESHIP, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be a bad movie. Many ‘epics’ of this sort have stupid plots, just don’t make us think that the writers have never seen a film before or they think we have never seen a film before. By the middle of the first act,  I expecting Erica Eleniak and Steven Seagal to appear in cameos. They don’t, but many other tropes from UNDER SIEGE do.

All that aside, the film does have some small charms although some of those charms border on pandering. They are more than a few nods to veterans of World War II and of more recent conflicts.

Looking at the film a couple of days after the fact, the supporting cast is more than adequate. Of particular note, Rhianna,  the pop thrush, has a strong affinity for the camera although the advisability of getting tattoos is always suspect. Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard as the older brother should find plenty of acting gigs. He has a nice presence.

So what’s the takeaway? The film will most likely gross about $150 million in the US. It will be touted in week two as “America’s #1 Film”. It’s all smoke and mirrors. BATTLESHIP has already grossed $250 internationally and with a $400 million total, it will not break even. What does that say about the state of finances in Hollywood?

The film will mildly entertain people until something better comes out and then it will quietly, quickly slip into the ocean, forgotten, thankfully.

Three Best Art Films for the Summer


OK, maybe not the best, but the ones people will be talking about.

The first one is “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. The film is a whose who of English actors – Judi Dench, Tom Wilkerson, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton. It also has Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire” and it is directed by the always reliable John Madden. A bunch of English retirees looking for a cheap place to live in their final days settle on a run down hotel in Jaipur. This will be a big draw for the older art house crowd. Why? Sex, as in seniors having it. Now that the boomers are old, they need to affirm their status as randy seniors versus randy hippies from way back. “Exotic” will be a big crowd pleaser.

The second film is a charming comedy from Wes Anderson. This is the type of film that would get stifled in a megaplex. So naturally it will turn up in your neighborhood art house and run there for weeks on end. Set in 1965, a young couple, and by young we mean 14 or so, fall in love and elope. They can’t go too far because they are on the island of New Penzance, a small pile of rocks off the coast of New England. Of course everyone starts looking for them including Bill Murray, Frances MacDormand, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman and Bob Balaban. The two young leads are self-assured while the comedy is intelligent, whimsical and like I said earlier, charming.

It is tough to call one film better than the other, but if you like your films smartly made and with some serious drama, then the Sundance winning ‘Beaof the Southern Wild’ is your baby. A cast of unknowns drive this tale of a small girl living with her wild, drunken father in the bayous of Louisiana just prior to Katrina. This is a film that could easily have been made by an Italian neo-realist some 60 years ago. It is well done, satisfying and leaves one with hope on lots of levels. There is the hope that this young girl will emerge as a strong leader. There is hope that there are small communities of intensely independent people still extant in the US and there is hope that dramatic film making will once again flourish.

This looks like a very good summer for art house films, but these three stand out. Perhaps another one will pop up and surprise us. Let’s hope so.

Oops, Wrong Again, Maybe


OK I was wrong. It happens, seldom, but it does happen. I make mistakes. Although I am less  willing to admit it. Just ask the ex-wives (yes, plural). Now what was I wrong about this time, Channing Tatum. The good looking star of such classics like “Step Up 2: The Streets” and “GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra” seemed as if he was like his films, a title with a colon – Channing Tatum: Hunk Who Was Doing Everything He Could to be Famous. Oy, another empty mind wrapped in a fine pair of genes.

Then I saw ’21 Jump Street’ and saw a glimmer of self-deprecating humor. Then I started reading about him and something dawned on me. This guy may be something I hadn’t realized- a smart, street savvy kid.

His latest film is ‘Magic Mike’, a comedy/romance about the world of male strippers. It is being directed by Stephen Soderberg, which in itself makes it something to have on your radar. Yet when I took a closer look at the film, I learned it was partially based on Tatum’s years as a male stripper. (huh?) and that he was the producer. Whoa. Either this guy is a media slut, er, savvy, like those Kardashian sisters or he’s really smart. I am hoping that it is the latter. I do like it when I am wrong, and it would be nice to see a new, powerful male actor emerge especially one who knows how smart it is to make fun of oneself.

‘Magic Mike’ could be the proof. If the film is smart, makes enough money and shows Tatum having more range than seen in some of his earlier films, he may be one of the big surprise of the 2012 summer films. Tatum is someone to watch and if he is, I was wrong.

Amazing & Touching Video


Some folks like to complain that technology is dividing us, putting us in fron of tiny machines and not interacting the way we should. But the following video brings is together. Not in some sappy uber-cute fawning way, but in an appreciation of what we are – human beings. The following shows the patience of a father as he records over 600 weeks of his daughter, from tiny baby to a young woman of 12 in a time lapse video.

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His name is Frans Hofmeester. He’s from Holland. The subject is Lotte, his daughter. The film has gone viral and has been seen by over a million  people. He asserts he will continue this video as well as a companion piece that is his 9 year old son, Vince.

I find this all so amazing and touchingly human.

The Movie Inside a Movie


The lights dim. The light on the screen reveals a series of images. It is the opening o f the film. It is the opening credits. Watching the opening credits gives you a glimpse of what is to come. A well done intro says that the rest of the film will offer something. Opening credits welcome you to a movie. It is a movie within a movie.

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The following short clip is by PBS Off Book and features conversations with Peter Frankfurt and Karin Fong from Imaginary Forces, Ben Conrad from Logan and Jim Helton of Blue Valentine. This is less than dipping your toe into the topic, but it is strong enough to make any film lover appreciate the work and creativity being done.

A great resource for fans of opening sequences is Art of the Title.com, which bills itself as “The leading online resource of film, television, conference, and video game title sequence design from around the world.”

Watch the clip, mull it over and then share what opening sequences stick in your cinematic memory banks.

The Plants That Ate Earth (Day)


For this Earth Day, thinking about films with plants seemed a natural. When you think about plants who have starred in films your mind pulls up images of all those Disney, gorgeously photographed fantasies. They are fantasies because the shots they took rarely occur, well, naturally.

But that’s not what pops into our slightly twisted cinematic mind when plant movies are mentioned. Nope,  pods are, and not just any pods, but Kevin McCarthy’s pods. Yes, it is ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ That’s where we begin a discussion on sentient plant movies.
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‘Invasion’ came out in 1956 and was directed by Don Siegel. Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter starred in a tale of pods from outer space taking over humans and rendering them emotionless. Most analysts insist that it was an allegory on Communism or at least McCarthyism. However Siegel has said that you can read anything you want into the film, but the reality is that some people are ‘just pods’. By that he meant some folks succumb to a ‘group think’ and divorce themselves from the emotions that makes one a human. I suspect that if Siegel were making films they would center on a post-apocalyptic zombie invasions.

Going deeper into movies about sentient plants, ‘Day of the Triffids’ also stands out. Based on a 1951 book by John Wyndham, the movie was made in 1962 with musical movie standout Howard Keel as a  sighted man in a world where nearly everyone else has been blinded by strange meteors. The meteors brought spores that turned in large, walking blood sucking plants – Triffids. The film has Keel fighting to stay alive in this post-apocalyptic world, moving from one secure location to another. It is the story of walls protecting what’s left of humanity, not unlike one of the earliest pieces of Western literature, ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’.
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‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ is a very early Mesopotamian story where a fabled, perhaps real king, named Gilgamesh does many wonderful things to advance civilization. One wonder he did was build the walls of Uruk. These walls protected the people. More importantly the walls kept bad things out, not only invading hordes, but nature. The Western concept of civilization versus the forest is first codified. The duality of the two has remained a central tension in Western civilization. Humanity needed to be protected by that which lurked in the forest whether it be the big bad wolf, witches, giants, trolls, monsters and even plants.

The Western world’s underlying philosophy has been that nature is something to be conquered, controlled. As civilization advanced, this polarity has grown wider, and to many, created an imbalance. The imbalance has now created enough tension that Hollywood can use it to make films. Humanity’s hubris and arrogance has resulted in ‘nature’ rebelling to put the balance back in its rightful place.  Films like ‘Ferngully: The Last Rainforest” or Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” are prime examples of how this tension or imbalance can play out on the screen.

The next time plants are ready for their close-up, we’ll look at how the ancient story of the Green Man motif plays out in such films as ‘Swamp Thing’ and even ‘Robin Hood’.