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Archive for May, 2012

How should I approach Men in Black 3…a film in which it’s last film came out nearly a decade ago?  We could discuss some of the supposed motivations according to it’s film creators/creative team about how the time travel idea was discussed since the end of the last film or the focus could be on the fact that the film had to be rewritten midway through the shoot and halting production for nearly six weeks.  But in my opinion, the big issue that ran through my mind while watching the film was – did it prove itself to be necessary in the franchise?  The end answer is that it unfortunately doesn’t completely make its case well with a fairly lackluster build-up that hinges too much on the familiar and doesn’t have a great selling point, but the second half and some nice touches make it at least worthwhile watch for fans of the series or anyone in the mood for a random sci-fi comedy.

Men in Black 3 comes back to Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) and J (Will Smith) who are still working for the Men in Black and keeping Earth safe from evil alien forces.  However, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) recently escaped from his prison on the moon and is out to kill Agent K for blowing off his arm decades earlier.  To do this, Boris travels back in time.  When J wakes up one day and finds that K has disappeared and is stated as deceased, he must go back in time, meet a much younger K (Josh Brolin) and try to set time right.

Men in Black 3 starts off as a film that plays it a bit too safe by feeling reeled back both in terms of it’s visuals, it’s plot structure and even it’s humor.  Director Sonnenfeld and his crew do their best to really create this feeling of continuity between the first two films and this one in terms of the atmosphere and setting, which at first, may seem like a pretty simple and expected task.  However, along with these set pieces that were supposed to be nostalgic, little has changed other than a new villain, a small shake-up in the concept and a few new characters and scenarios.  The formula of the film feels predictable with the plot beats being too familiar and easy-to-follow.  Even the newer elements that are constantly touted in the film as being shocking end up feeling more innocuous than it really does and bleeds into the best part of the film, it’s ending, which after much musing, feels forced and robotic (both the emotional and action endings).  This lack of effort comes over into the visuals and humor as well – the CG feels like a weak point, with the exception of a scene in Cape Canaveral, and the humor, especially in it’s first half, feels rough and stuck back in time (no pun intended).

So even after all these complaints, is there much left about the film?  Luckily enough, there are some redeeming moments that play enough and especially for the fans.  One strong element is that the actors are still endearing enough from both the older to the newer entry of characters.  (Mostly) Gone are the gimmicky, slapstick or one-note characters and instead, effort is put int building up some of the central characters.  Smith’s endearing and gung-ho attitude is still fun to watch and plays well off of the pretty pitch-perfect Brolin who doesn’t bat much of an eye as he plays a great interpretation of Agent K/Lee Jones’ character.  It’s a gag that may not stay funny throughout the film but emotionally, the connection is there.  Personally, I found a character introduced midway through (with has some obvious deux ex machina mechanics at his disposal) to be one of the most endearing characters of all.  For fans, there are tons of nods and winks to the older entries that should keep them pleased throughout the film along with some fun cameos along the way to try to keep audiences guessing at who else is included.  And even the weaker humor in the first half is supplanted with some better gags and past observations that are played fairly well.   Finally, perhaps most importantly, there is at least an attempt at creating some emotional context with the audience and the characters.  Even though the end implementation may feel artificial, the attempt and the proceeding will at least, superficially, feel wholesome and is at least appreciated in a summer film that could have simply tried to be completely cool.

Men in Black 3 is a strange sight to see – being taken out of retirement (and by the looks of things, most likely being put right back) for an entry that doesn’t completely sell itself as being necessary but still should be enough for fans to enjoy.  The film does have it’s moments such as a great performance from Brolin, some good nods back to the other films, and a relatively strong ending.  However, time has not been so kind to the series and much of it’s humor is relatively ho-hum and a standard narrative that feels too familiar than nostalgic along with relative problems with it’s CG and editing.  Even the ending feels a bit shoehorned.  All-in-all, series fans should enjoy it and as an enjoyable rental, Men in Black 3 is innocuous, but was it all that necessary to bring back and explore? At least in this film’s case, even jumping back in time proved for naught.  

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 103 Minutes

The Wie muses: ** ½ out of *****

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How much does reputation matter?  Sure, in a day-to-day context, it could have little to no effect depending on the situation but what about during a trial case?  Take some of the more recent high-profile cases such as Casey Anthony, which had the media and the public fairly certain of her guilt much before the trial was close to finishing.  Reputation and perception are key integral factors into how we as a society respond to key issues.  Bernie has a similar purpose in mind – taking a microcosm of the situation with a small Texan city and trying to understand not only the motivation of the criminal but also the unique perception and aura created around him.  It may not be exactly revelatory or transcendent material, but a very strong performance from Jack Black and the subtle and dark humor nature of the film fit perfectly into a fascinating end product.

Bernie (Jack Black) is an enthusiastic and kind assistant funeral director in the small city of Carthage, Texas.  Although his job seems morbid, his personality is bright and enthusiastic, taking a deep interest in singing at church while making sure all of his job is perfect and smooth.  He goes above and beyond and the city around him has taken an adoration of him because of it with older ladies taking a fancy towards him while others feel that there isn’t a nicer person in town.  One day, he takes on the funeral of Marjorie Nuget’s (Shirley MacLaine) husband.  Marjorie was known in the town as a cranky and condescending woman, disliked by both her family and the townsfolk.  However, after the funeral, Bernie suddenly becomes closer and closer to Marjorie until they become sort of a couple themselves until one fateful day when Marjorie goes ‘missing’.  District Attorney Buck (Matthew McConaughey) becomes suspicious and thus begins the back-and-forth pull between the city and the DA.

Some of the obstacles the film faces are mostly due to the type of narrative it weaves and some of the stylistic choices it makes.  To tell such a plot, Bernie really focuses on it’s titular character quite extensively compared to any other character.  However, that does skew and perhaps even oversimplify the final situation more than it should, as it gives very few other characters room to both breathe and become more than just caricatures.  In the end, this falling out means that the DA, for instance, becomes a much more villainous character than possibly intended while Marjorie is also vilified quite a bit as well.  The other oddity comes in it’s stylistic choice to divide the film with silent film-like dialogue cards that try to give the film a more book-like feel with chapters and topic changes.  However, these cards, even when they try to present some humor, aren’t very engaging and feel out-of-place and lackluster.  The film could have carried itself much more without them and does slow the pacing down when they appear more frequently in the first half.

However, the whole of Bernie is quite an engaging watch due to the commitment to it’s dark humor, Black’s great performance and the fascinating story itself.  The approach to the dark undertones of the film at first seem off-putting and possibly offensive, but the end product isn’t disrespectful – it seems properly categorized for such a bizarre line of events and people involved.  The humor present is more observational and candid than slapstick or nefarious and works well since the small town mentality and the characters more than create a fairly colorful group of characters.  The subtle filmmaking style fits well without forcing flashbacks or unnecessary exposition onto the audience as well, creating a quieter but smooth narrative ride through the plot.  This subdued style also highly came through in Black’s performance and creates one of his best characters yet.  Black plays a character that is outwardly quite opposite from his usual bombastic and quip-heavy self but intrinsically, plays to Black’s strength as both a great singer and confused inner self.  This pulled back stylistic choice brings out the best in his character and his acting as Bernie’s moral quandary and whether his goodness is inherently pure or not is highly questioned from midway on through the film.  Finally, the plotline itself carries enough weight to really continue to capture a-hold of the audience from the observations of the community to the actual crime and the aftermath.  The plot, other than some of the more questionable inclusions, grows organically and stays interesting throughout as moral dilemmas and the notion of character becomes more and more integral to the central plot.

Bernie is a fascinating character study and one of Jack Black’s best roles.  It’s not entirely sound as the film includes some unnecessary stylistic flourishes and a plot that is more biased towards Bernie’s side from the get-go.  However, that being said, the film’s quiet, subdued approach to the subject matter is captivating as the film’s pseudo-mockumentary approach pays off in really trying to understand the psyche and approach of both the town of Carthage and Bernie himself.  Best of all is Bernie himself, Mr. Black, who never plays the role straight for laughs or overly flamboyant but much like the film’s approach, acts with subtle grace and ends up as one of his most memorable roles to date.  The end product is a dark comedy that tries to observe not only one character’s personality and limit but also looks into reputation and judgement – a film that is both memorable and dastardly.

Director: Richard Linklater
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 104 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is initially a strange mishmash of ideas that you rarely hear, especially during the start of the summer movie season.  Take a bunch of elderly people from different vocations and walks of life, send them off to a foreign country and mix in some foreign drama and there – you have the framework pretty much for your film.  Although it may seem directed more at the older crowd with it’s cast and ideas, the film is made for everyone in mind.  In the end, it’s more about what it has to offer as a film that makes or breaks the strange concept together.  Even though in the end, it never escapes it’s conventional plot trappings and some loose narrative points, the characters, cast and cinematography prevail as something worth watching for those willing to give it a try.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel follows a host of characters from around England that travel to India.  This eccentric set of characters include: Evelyn (Judi Dench), Grahm (Tom Wilkinson), Douglas (Bill Nighly), Jean (Penelope Wilton), Muriel (Maggie Smith), Norman (Ronald Pickup), and Madge (Celia Imrie) who end up meeting in a rundown hotel in India run by Sonny (Dev Patel) who is trying to sustain his father’s dream business.  All of the visitors are surprised to learn that the hotel may not be what it initially seems and slowly uncover each others’ true motivation for going away from their home country.

The film’s largest hurdle is in it’s own genre conventions and narrative weaknesses.  Director Madden is known for various works, but Marigold Hotel feels closest to Shakespeare in Love for it’s romantic and dramatic elements.  However, the problem in this film is in how much of these elements it chooses to try and explore, especially with such a large cast.  The eventual conclusion is that while some of the stories do work in the film’s favor, the other half feels inconsequential and unimportant.  Perhaps that fault is to be expected with trying to give each set of characters some equal amount of screentime, but the bigger issue is that even the better storylines are mucked up by an overly melodramatic and corny narrative arc.  In one sense, it feels a bit interesting since one rarely sees such filmmakers try to bring such elements with an older cast but the effects are just the same with the same predictable endings and roll over to even the younger cast with Patel’s side-story taking a similar hit.  Especially in the film’s second half, Madden feels like he becomes too reliant on these features and not only is there a lack of surprise, but seasoned filmgoers will most likely roll their eyes at the plot proceedings.

However, there is something to still be said about the film’s energy and fascinating insights that push it to be a film that is worth at least a watch.  One point worth mentioning is in the cinematography combined with the music and editing.  Madden and his cinematography team bring a hurried proceeding, especially in the first half, to the film with some quick pacing and some slick camerawork.  The busy streets of India are reflected in the imagery as the camera sways back and forth, moves quickly along, and bustles with the crowd of people with appropriate wide shots and the visitors’ perplexed look.  This energy gives some of the even weaker moments of the plot some energy and gusto that would otherwise feel boring and trivial.  A second fascinating point comes from the undeniably talented cast.  Even though half of them are given unnecessary plot points, with the little they are given to work with, there is a certain amount of charm and wit that still carry through.  And finally, there is some interesting insight that comes through with the other half of the characters on both their own inner demons and insights about life.  Dench and Wilkinson each carry plotlines that are the most fascinating to listen to and their dialogue is given the most amount of thought and breadth, which audiences will have to go watch for themselves.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is filled high with melodrama and corny narrative, but some great insights and interesting characters pull the film through to being worth a watch.  Expect to roll your eyes and easily point out how the narrative arc will end up as the film does little to mask, especially by it’s weak latter half, the ultimate conclusion.  However, there is both an energy and charm that makes parts of the film work to eventually sway your opinion to it’s side due to the strong cast, interesting characters and energetic cinematography.  Although older audiences will appreciate the cast more than younger generations, both young and old can enjoy the better parts of the film – come for the cultural perspective and cast – stay for the characters and insights.  

Director: John Madden
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 124 Minutes

The Wie muses: *** out of *****

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A superhero film usually limits itself to it’s hero and it’s villain or perhaps two or three heroes or a few more villains.  With the limited time frame of a film, it becomes fairly difficult for a film to maneuver the more characters it adds as evidenced by films like the ‘X-Men’ series which showed off a plethora of films although not always the best showcase for all it’s characters.  And so comes the Avengers, a unique endgame that Marvel Studios has been brewing and setting up since Iron Man, combining some of Marvel’s biggest heroes into one film.  The end result isn’t always perfect with a fairly predictable narrative and a flimsy first half, but many will adore the geeky, fun moments that are big on thrills and entertainment value while still retaining heart and character.

The Avengers follows a group of remarkable characters from previous Marvel films including Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Thor’s exiled brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has returned to Earth to find an energy source that could power a gateway between Earth and another realm in an act of war.  Together, the heroes must do their best to put their egos aside and work amongst one another to try and figure out a way to stop Loki before it is too late.

The Avengers does run into a few problems throughout it’s duration due to it’s scope and positioning and doesn’t necessarily elevate the genre to any new heights.  The first is in it’s actual plot structure, which is fairly predictable.  Both as a positive and a negative, the way the plot progresses is reminiscent of a typical comic book hero story which makes the film feel very much rooted in it’s comic book lore but also doesn’t make very many deviations from the standard formula.  The end result is a lack of surprises in where the story actually goes and by the halfway point of the film, most audience members will be able to accurately predict how the film will end and where the characters will end up.  Also, due to the nature of the film being positioned as a tentpole film after all the other Marvel films to date, the first half of the film is most likely going to confuse newcomers and still be somewhat slow even for veterans as the film tries to introduce, reintroduce, and explain concepts without seeming too mundane yet still falls victim to the complicated puzzle it needs to fit together.

That being said, the core film of Avengers is good and entertaining to combine the best of all it’s characters.  On one level, there are good action set pieces that are not just full of explosions and destruction but includes smart opportunities to show off character and create memorable moments.  During these scenes, fans, especially, will enjoy seeing their favorite characters shown off in different ways and with a fairly good sense of distance and chronology, Avengers uses these action moments to create some exciting moments by combining and distancing the heroes in interesting and fun ways.  This positive point leads into another – the actual attention to character and heart.  Not only are nearly all of the characters given a good amount of screentime but each are given something to work with that allows them to (at least) be a little more than just a one-sided character.  Playing with the egos and big personalities of these distinct characters and mixing in their backgrounds create an interesting rhythm that is fascinating to see play out, helped much by all the actors who not only reprise their roles well but at times, adds much more to them whether it is Hiddleston’s much more bombastic Loki to Downey’s snark and clever quips clashing well with Evans straight shooter personality.  These characteristics and growth help to not only flesh out the characters but gives some more emotional weight and thoughtfulness amongst all the fierce action scenes.  Finally, the script itself is full of fun nods and some good humor to round out the package that are full of geeky, fun moments for fans and not tire out the audience with constant explosions and noise.

The Avengers has all the trappings of a big summer blockbuster movie from the good to the bad while retaining it’s character both in it’s comic book roots to the chemistry and fascination of seeing such larger-than-life characters mashed up here as well. Newcomers to this Marvel universe should be aware (although some enjoyment is still present) that there is a bit of a learning curve in understanding the plot and proceedings of the first half along with other weaker elements from a fairly unsurprising narrative arc to a slow build-up.  However, what Whedon and the rest of the crew accomplished must be commended – they created a summer movie of huge action, superhero set pieces with a good heart and care still taken in actually creating some empathy and growth in it’s characters while giving fans a healthy dose of humor and fun.  It’s a movie really for the fans of the series and although that may mean it might not exactly be cinema perfection, it sure as hell means that viewers will get more than their money’s worth of entertainment and some interesting proceedings.  

Director: Joss Whedon
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Rated: PG-13

The Wie muses: *** ½ out of *****

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