A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
At some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.
A film divided against itself cannot stand. In the historical drama The Conspirator director Robert Redford is torn between telling the story of Mary Surratt a Washington D.C. woman implicated (wrongly it seems) in the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln and delivering a scathing cinematic indictment of the government’s treatment of civilian detainees in the War on Terror. Redford’s efforts at making his political argument however convincing come at a significant cost sapping the film of much of its entertainment value.
The Conspirator begins in a spirited enough fashion vividly chronicling the events surrounding Lincoln's assassination and its tumultuous aftermath. As word of the president's death spreads angry Northerners demand swift and harsh justice for John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts while panicked newspaper headlines warn of future attacks by Confederate malcontents. The suspects are rounded up (save for Booth who is shot before being apprehended) and soon thereafter the story shifts to the trial of Surratt (Robin Wright) mother of one of the conspirators and owner of the boarding house in which the assassination plot was hatched. Her fate the government has decreed is to be decided not by a jury of her peers but by a military tribunal – an unprecedented move that amounts to nothing less than “an atrocity ’” declares her attorney Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in a withering speech that makes the film’s overriding Guantanamo allegory crystal clear.
Southern-bred Johnson thinks Surratt might get a fairer shake from the court with a yankee representing her and so he places her case in the hands of his protégée Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) a 28-year-old Union war hero with no courtroom experience. His task is a daunting one: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) a scheming Cheney/Rumsfeld composite is manipulating matters behind the scenes to subvert the rule of law and ensure a conviction despite indications of Surratt’s innocence. Aiken’s impassioned defense and the great personal and professional risks he takes in mounting it ultimately provide the crux of the film.
Lest we forget The Conspirator’s political raison d’etre Redford takes care to remind us repeatedly with a heavy-handedness that detracts from an otherwise compelling story. Pertinent plot details are skimmed over to leave room for ham-fisted dialogue exchanges. Surratt and Aiken are treated less as characters than as symbols a sainted mother and an idealistic lawyer martyred by a government so bent on retribution that it abandoned its most cherished principles in pursuit of it. In one telling scene Aiken walks alone at night on a cobblestone street bathed in so much radiant light that his body is partially obscured. The only thing missing is a halo.
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.
Ramu Gupta (Jimi Mistry) arrives in New York from India with dreams of becoming an actor and several misguided notions about American life gleaned from watching Grease. Ramu gets his first part belatedly realizes it's in a porn film and is unable to deliver the goods for costar Sharonna (Heather Graham). She gives him a pep talk--his body is a rose waiting to unfold and God wants us to have sex--but to no avail; not even sexy Sharonna can charm the snake. A very dejected Ramu then lands a gig playing a drunken swami hired to entertain a soul-searching socialite Lexi (Marisa Tomei) at her birthday party and he teaches the party guests about sex and God--using Sharonna's words. Lexi convinced that Ramu will be the next Deepak Chopra vows to help him after she experiences his charms firsthand as it were and Ramu seeing a way to fulfill his dreams of fame convinces Sharonna to teach him her philosophy. In exchange he offers to buy her a fancy wedding cake for her forthcoming marriage to Rusty (Dash Mihok) a devout Catholic who thinks she's a substitute teacher named Sheryl--and a virgin. Sharonna agrees to Ramu's deal but given her subterfuge insists that Ramu keep her ideas private. He doesn't nor does he let her in on his new career as a sex guru. They both have their little secrets but as Ramu and Sharonna explore the ways of love the only secret that matters is the way they feel about each other.
We've seen Graham do her porn star-with-a-heart-of-gold act before as Roller Girl in Boogie Nights but no matter how skilled she may be at playing that role there is no way she can say "My pussy is the door to my soul " with either sincerity or conviction nor can she make it the least bit amusing. The film is full of line after line of insane garbage like this and it's made worse by the fact that we have to hear each line once from Graham and then again from Mistry (The Mystic Masseur) as he plays guru to socialites around the city. At least both the leads are easy on the eyes and have the expressive faces necessary to deliver deadpan schmaltz but when it comes to the musical numbers and the slapstick shtick they both seem uncomfortable in their own skin--and that translates into an awkward desperation that permeates the film. Since they share much of the ridiculous and decidedly un-funny dialogue Graham and Mistry don't come off as well as Tomei (In the Bedroom) who at least has a few decent one-liners; unfortunately she delivers them in same whiny voice she's relied on since her Oscar win for My Cousin Vinny.
Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer (Party Girl) the granddaughter of Hollywood screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer calls The Guru "a movie about other movies " saying that "Ramu's ideas about America come from American films he's seen growing up in India." First and foremost among those films is Grease: of the film's four big musical numbers the most recognizable is an Indian take on "You're the One That I Want" that features costumed dancers in vibrant colors and recalls the ways Bollywood films re-invented the classic musicals of the '30s. These scenes are some of the most intriguing in the film; they're well-produced and beautifully shot yet like the performances of the two leads they're awkward somehow as if everyone involved in getting the shots was uncomfortable with the idea and knew it wasn't going to turn out quite the way they planned. But The Guru fails for one reason more than any other: it's said that there are no new stories in Hollywood but the ideas presented in this movie--Indian culture and emigration the myth of the American dream Bollywood resurrecting the '30s musical New Age gurus sex and God porn stars as purveyors of sexual truth--are each so distinctive that the film can't find a coherent focal point even in the tried and true romantic comedy genre and neither can its audience. To its credit though the failure is a case of trying to do too much which is far better then doing too little.