Sunday, May 27, 2012


It has been fifteen years since Agents "J" (Will Smith) and "K" (Tommy Lee Jones) suited up in black and carried their neuralizers and rounded up a giant roach in the original Men In Black and ten years since the inevitable but half-hearted and sorely deficient sequel Men In Black II. The duo and director Barry Sonnenfeld return for Men In Black III, which finds Agent J going back in time to 1969 to prevent both the onset of an alien invasion and the murder of his still taciturn partner (played in 1969 by Josh Brolin).

What differentiates this film from the previous two entries is the lack of a "gee whiz" factor. Where are "blink and you'll miss it" shout outs to the first two films, this time around the aliens and technology take a back seat to the relationships in the film. The plot borrows heavily not only from other similar time travel stories but also from another Steven Spielberg produced franchise, Back To The Future. Like that film series, the first two films center on Will Smith's fast talking Agent J. However, like BTTF III (and despite Will Smith's top billing and the fact that he's almost in every scene of the film), MIB III shifts the focus to Agent K, who is the target of Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, looking like a cross between the late Randy Savage and the "Lobo" character in DC Comics). In the present day scenes, Jones is even more gruffly crotchety than ever before. However, his character has even more nuance than in previous portrayals (especially in the second film, wherein he seemed to be phoning his performance in from Bermuda). This performance makes for an uncomfortable first act (complete with an extended sequence in a Chinese restaurant that gives one pause to enter one again).  However, once Agent J literally time jumps to 1969 does the movie kick into high gear.

This film would fall apart if not for the uncanny performance of Josh Brolin as the younger Agent K. Reportedly, during their filming of No Country For Old Men, Brolin would study then mimic the mannerisms of fellow Texan Jones to the amusement of cast and crew, including Jones himself. This mimicry serves in good stead as Brolin becomes Jones in every gesture and nuance, verbal and non-verbal. He walks a tightrope that could easily fall into caricature and succeeds in maintaining a perfect balance.* His performance alone is worth the price of admission.  His K is much lighter, witty and romantic which leaves the audience asking why K turns out to be such a sour puss in the film. The film poignantly provides the answer. "Poignant" is not a word one would ascribe to this film series, but then this is not a run of the mills, paint by numbers sequel. Though there is some serious retconning going on, the film brings the series full circle in a satisfying manner.

The performances are entertaining. Outside of the aforementioned trifecta of Smith, Jones and Brolin, Clement as "Boris" is perhaps the most ridiculous yet menacing MIB villain to date. He is sadistic vengeance and the character's interpretation is appropriate to the stakes at risk in the film. Emma Thompson as new MIB director "O" shows an adroitness with deadpan comedy, though her character's inclusion is more than just a replacement for an unavailable Rip Torn. This is "K"'s film, and she adds to it. Also of note is Michael Stuhlbarg as "Griffin", a soothsaying human unicorn (don't ask), who is the key to keeping both the Earth safe and K alive. His character is a catalyst for the action as well as both prophet and doomsayer. His innocent and cryptic declarations ratcheting up the suspense to the point that one wonders whether either one of the MIBs will survive. The climax, which takes place at Cape Canaveral during the launch to the moon, is suspenseful but, as filmed by Sonnenfeld, also captures the hope and wonderment of the day, even if it is marred by tragedy; one that explains why Agents J and K are partners in the future.

Men In Black III is a return to the quality of the first film. While the concepts is no longer a novelty, the time travelling element gives it a fresh twist that allows for more depth than ever and, ultimately, a worthy conclusion to the series. If this is the last MIB film, it is wrapped up in a neat little bow and, unlike the second film, you won't want to subject yourself to a neuralizer to forget it.

*A non-sequiter aside: In graduate school I once wrote a paper arguing that "No Country for Old Men" (both in prose and film) was a modernized revisitation of the themes of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet", with the cinematic representations of Jones and Brolins' respective characters as "King/Father" and "Hamlet/son" archtypes; especially due to their passing resemblance to each other. Nice to see that MIB III gives unintentional credence to the theory.

Memorial Day

Given the weekend, I'd like to call your attention to this post included last year to mark the occasion:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


It used to be that one could think of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton as human representations of a candy bar slogan: "Two great tastes that taste great together." Cinematically, their collaborative efforts have produced varying degrees of great taste:  Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, and the like. However, in their latest cinematic foray together, Dark Shadows, the taste has gone a tad stale like an Oreo cookie left out too long.

Based on the soap opera created by the late Dan Curtis, the story follows Barnabas Collins (Depp), the son of a fishing magnate who has a torrid affair with one of the family servants, Angelique Bouchard (a very vampy Eva Green, Casino Royale) though he focuses his true romantic affections for Josette Du Pres (Bella Heathcote, who also plays the governess Victoria Winters later in the film). Unbeknownst to Barnabas, Angelique is a witch who does not take being scorned lightly. Thus she both kills Josette and transforms Barnabas into a vampire, the latter of whom is taken by the townspeople of Collinswood and entombed for almost two hundred years. Barnabas is inadvertently released in the year 1972, where he discovers that the grand estate of Collinwood has fallen to disrepair and his descendants have fared no better. Among the Collinwood clan are family matriarch Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer, looking almost as pale as Barnabas); her rebelliously problematic daughter, Carolyn (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz, who brings her "Hit Girl" attitude to the fore); and Elizabeth's conniving brother Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller) who neglects his son, David (Gulliver McGrath), a boy who claims to see his dead mother. To his dismay, Barnabas finds that his once proud fishing empire has been destroyed and supplanted by a company owned by the seemingly immortal Angelique.  With the aid of his family (and groundskeeper Willie, played by a slightly amusing Jack Earle Haley, Watchmen), Barnabas attempts to return the fishing empire to its former glory.  Yes, you read right. The milieu is a Gothic horror setting replete with vampires, witches, and sundry creatures of the night, and the crux of the story is the resuscitating of a business? But then, this is a tongue-in-cheek reinvention that is emblematic of Tim Burton's quirkiness; a quirkiness that once made Batman Returns practically unmarketable to the action figure buying set.

The film’s visuals are starkly stunning; bright, often garish colors contrasting the Gothic bleakness of the setting. Yet for all that, the film seems strangely self-indulgent. Scenes that show Barnabas' loquacious eloquence juxtaposed against modern (by 1970s standards, anyways) dialect seems to go much too long; as if Barnabas, and Depp by extension, wax poetic simply to hear the sounds of their collective voice. The “stranger in a strange time/land” shtick is marginally amusing but, in all honesty, has worked better in other films.

The series upon which this film was based was filmed with the intention of being serious but was unintentionally campy. This film works in reverse; unfortunately, the reversal doesn't quite work. The actors, particularly Pfeiffer, deliver their lines in over the top fashion, even at the more subdued, seemingly poignant scenes which only works to dilute the impact of those scenes. Each character is instead a caricature, including Depp. As far as delivering the comedic bits, they are executed well; which may work for a series of vignettes but not as a movie on the whole. The only ones who seem to embrace the campiness of the proceedings are Burton’s nepotistic mainstay Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Julia Hoffman, and Green as Angelique, who, with the aid of the cinematographer, has the remarkable ability to turn her beauty into something grotesque. Her villainy would be more effective in a truly horrifying film but, in truth, it’s wasted here. The film is too genteel in story and presentation to be anything worth of note. While some would argue that the series had the same deficiency, at least the show’s actors and narrative compelled one to watch the next installment (perhaps in the hopes of something better the next episode). Here, Burton's direction fails to do even that.

This is not to state that if the film had been treated straight it would have been better. Ben Cross starred in a 1990s reboot of the show, which was basically a cliff notes version of what had already gone before. Unlike the original, it was treated completely straight and died a quick death. Here, Burton has gone the other way and it unfortunately does not satisfy either. As a whole, Dark Shadows is a whole lot of dull. The few moments of humor does not offset the overwhelming sense of ennui over the proceedings. This version of Dark Shadows is sure to alienate the die-hard fans of the show. However, it is so pedantically plodding that it is sure to do the same to the non-fans as well. This film is like a Reese's peanut butter cup way past its expiration date. It just goes to show that not all steady collaborations have a perfect track record.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


There may be small warned.

The road leading to the Avengers is like making love to a woman. First, there's the initial kiss, the tease...the unexpected thrill. This came in John Favreau's Iron Man (2008), where in Samuel Jackson appeared in the post credits teaser as (Ultimate) Nick Fury of S.H.E.I.L.D., hinting at an "Avengers Initiative."  Then came the caress in Louis Leterrier's The Incredible Hulk starring Ed Norton, wherein Tony Stark (Robert Downy, Jr., Chaplin, Back to School, Air America) brings the initiative to the attention of General "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt, Body Heat). The caresses get bolder in 2010 with the release of Iron Man 2 where the Avengers Initiative becomes a full blown subplot and the greater presence of S.H.E.I.L.D. in the forms of Fury, Natasha Romanov/The Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and fan favorite Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Greg). In Kenneth Branagh's Thor (2011) the embraces begin in the form of the continued participation of Agent Coulson and another post-credits teaser hinting at a MacGuffin. Penultimately comes Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, which, while a powerful stand alone film on its own, is the "point of copulation" as it's final moments directly lead into the events of The Avengers. After almost five years of foreplay, Marvel Studios and director Josh Whedon had a lot at stake; a house of cards that could rise or fall. After such a long build up, does The Avengers lead to a disappointing amount of nothing?


Far from it.

The Avengers is a powerfully orgasmic cinematic feast.

It is also perhaps the best translation of a comic book to silver screen...yes, even better than Superman: The Movie, which will always be my seminal favorite, but honestly not since Christopher Reeve's portrayal of the Man of Steel has any actor, much less actors, so epitomize their comic book counterparts as the cast in this film have done.

Director Josh Whedon obviously knows his comics. Not only has he written "The Astonishing X-Men" for Marvel Comics, he has also been the driving force behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is essentially a superhero concept (simply exchange "Slayer" for "Super hero" and "Vampires" for "Super villain"). His pedigree is such that this film was his to fail. And he does not. He presents the material as it should be...straight. His screenplay, written in conjunct with Zak Penn, presents the story in four acts that follow the tropes of classic "Marvel Bullpen" storytelling:  The establishment of the threat; the meeting of the heroes; the misunderstandings that lead to the heroes throwing down against each other; the classic infighting, the sacrificial lamb, and the overriding of differences to meet the threat (note to Bryan Singer:  This is comics storytelling done RIGHT). Whedon moves the story along briskly with very little by way of slow spots; but when the story slows down in terms of the primary plot, Wheadon uses the time for what he is best known for: character development.

And what characters there are:  At this juncture Robert Downy, Jr. is to "Tony Stark" what Sean Connery is to "James Bond". The role fits him like a familiar tuxedo and should those series of films continue beyond Downy's participation, he will still be the standard to which all future torchbearers will be compared. His Stark is the charming arrogant rogue, presenting himself as the smartest man in the room. Chris Hemsworth is "The Mighty Thor", as forthright and unbeguiled as he was in the eponymous film, but this time tempered with an understanding of consequences. Scarlett Johannson returns as "Black Widow" and given more character development than in Iron Man 2. With her character, Whedon references his Buffy roots by bringing developing a character that can stand toe to toe not only with Ms. Summers but perhaps a certain raven haired Amazon from the "Distinguished Competition".

Just as noteworthy are Chris Evans' "Steve Rogers/Captain America", a Super-Soldier out of time who finds himself woefully out of place compared to the world he's awoken; and, of course, there is Jeremy Renner who as "Clint Barton/Hawkeye" shows a Daniel Craig-like looks and charm as a tortured marksman in his own right (the comparison being more palatably felt with his starring turn in the forthcoming The Bourne Legacy). Being the most human of these characters, they serve as the audience's surrogate. But perhaps the most stand out performance comes in the understated, affable form of Mark Ruafflo as "Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk" (the latter role he shares in this film with the vocal participation the original live action "Hulk", Lou Ferrigno).  Apologies to Eric Bana and Edward Norton, but this is another example of Whedon's understanding of the medium. Under Whedon's direction and Ruafflo's talent, they bring a Bruce Banner that who's template is not only akin, but honors Bill Bixby's portrayal of (then David) Banner. Not since the television series went off the air has a live action Banner been presented as a fully, fleshed out three-dimensional human being. One whose emotions run the spectrum (not just "tortured"). His Banner is a delight to watch...but The Hulk steals the show.  This is the best CGI rendering of The Green Goliath ever. He is not John Woo's "Gumby Hulk." This Hulk has weight and presence. And he has some of the best moments of screen time in both action AND humor. Plus, one of the highlights of the film (especially for any comics fan) is seeing an offshoot of the battle between Hulk v. Thor from "Journey Into Mystery" #112 realized...and leads into one of the better comedic moments. 

But the confrontations are not simply physical. Whedon uses chess master precision to use the characters as foils of the each other, bringing out the central conflicts and doubts between them, some of which are character arc carryovers from the previous stand alone films: Stark's aversion for the military and discipline; Rogers stalwart patriotism being a result of chemical enhancement, Thor's demi-god status and his filial loyalty to the film's main villain, Fury's camaraderie with his nascent team at odds with his patriotic duty; Romanov and Barton's respective needs for redemption; Banner's war with "the other guy"...The beauty of Wheadon's direction is how the elements gel. The humor is organic and interwoven into both the story and the characters. It is one of the few films that the laughs are not forced or contrived; better than some of those in the comedy genre. The character arcs progress and, unlike other superhero productions where the heroes revert to a gestalt state, these characters grow and evolve...discovering aspects of themselves that they would not have without the reflection provided by their foils. In the comics, The Avengers are more than just a team. They are a family; a dysfunctional one, but a family none the less. More than any other director since Richard Donner, Whedon gets it.

The growth is not simply epitomized in the protagonists. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is a much more credible threat than the petulant, neglected second son he was in Thor. While no match for Terrance Stamp in a scene that was clearly evocative of Superman II, this is villainous demi-god to be reckoned with; one made more so by one pivotal, heart-wrenching scene. He is a super-powered "Simon Legree" and when he gets his comeuppance, it is supremely satisfying. The true heart of this film, however, comes in the form of Agent Phil Caulson, who despite being beyond the age of innocence and everything he has seen, still believes in heroes (especially Rogers) and provides the "push" the team requires; in essence, he is an unacknowledged Avenger.

The film comes together in the third act, which makes the climatic Metropolis battle from Superman II (a template for this sequence) look like a child playing with Tinker Toys (though one moment in the climax cribs heavily from that of Independence Day). The CGI is interwoven with old fashion stunts and pyrotechnics and the action, accompanied by Alan Silvestri's powerful (though not as evocative as his previous Captain America effort) score.  Like a marathon lovemaking session, it pounds the senses until the battle's final moments and, when the credits roll (and be sure to stay through all the credits), one really needs to have a post-coital cigarette.

Yet all throughout, the material is treated straight. There is no hint of condescension of the source material. There is one scene involving Captain America that skirts towards that territory, but instead reasserts why Captain America (jingoism aside) as a character is a source of inspiration. Not since 1978 has a symbol for patriotism and morality seemed more, put succinctly, bad ass.

Unabashedly, I have been a comic book fanatic since the age of five. Understandably, my view of this film may be a bit biased. But then, Marvel has admittedly not been my company of choice. I wish I could be as effusive of praise on DC Comics' more recent cinematic offerings. Yet to try to be otherwise would be disingenuous. The fact remains that as a comic book an action a science fiction a movie, period, The Avengers works! It balances action and character exposition, humor and pathos, deftly. Any other critics who see this as a popcorn film are missing the moments of characterization and the evolution they go through. If I am too effusive in my praise, it is only because this film truly merits it; not many films have engendered such a reaction in me. It has been a long time since I have enjoyed a film based on a comic book this much...and that includes The Dark Knight. The film is enjoyable for the average moviegoer but also respectful shout outs to the hardcore fans as well (Captain America's instruction to The Hulk is especially "geektasmic"). The film is, in effect, a masterpiece of genre filmmaking.

Long story short: Go See The Damn Thing! And one last thing...what the hell is Marvel going to do for an encore?!