Warner Bros Pictures via Everett Collection
Even without having read Mark Helprin's novel Winter's Tale, I have the unshakable feeling that Akiva Goldsman's film adaptation does not do the story justice. Speckled throughout the moreover colorless movie are hints of an intriguing idea — a fantasy epic about an angel-demon bureaucracy coexisting with the human race throughout the span of 20th century New York City, operating within the parameters of a didactic miracle-granting system — an idea that doesn't come close to its full potential. In 118 minutes, we barely scratch the surface of the world in which an apparently immortal Colin Farrell finds himself. We see him cavort with Russell Crowe, a malicious gang-leader with netherworld origins, seek guidance from a mystical Pegasus, and carry out his destiny as the savior to a mysterious red-haired girl. But we never truly understand why any of this is happening. Not that it gets particularly confusing; on a plot level, it's all quite simple. But that's the problem — it shouldn't be.
The central conceit of the film is that everyone is put on this Earth with a divine "mission" to uphold. Farrell's gives us the narrative of Winter's Tale, introducing the various rules and officers of the supernatural regime along the way. Abandoned as a baby and brought up under the criminal regime of a Manhattanite from Hell (Crowe), Farrell ascends from orphan to petty thief to horse whispering renegade to whimsical lover of a dying Jessica Brown Findlay to ageless messiah... all without much clarity on the nature of the story (or stories) he's occupying, save for two ham-fisted scenes of exposition — one with Graham Greene (not the dead author) and one with Jennifer Connelly, who shows up halfway through the movie for some reason.
Warner Bros Pictures via Everett Collection
The world that Farrell is woven into has so many bright spots: we're on board for miracle quests, a magic-laden New York City, flying horses, and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood giving a cameo as the epitome of evil. Everything we see is fun, but it all flutters away as quickly as it arrives. We don't want quick bites of the way angels and demons do business with one another on the streets of Manhattan, we want the whole meal. A more thorough exploration of Helprin's world wouldn't just be doubly as interesting as the thin alternative we're offered in Goldsman's adaptation, it'd also fill in all the comprehensive gaps in Farrell's emotional throughline
We don't really understand so much of what happens to Farrell. Even when we're offered tangible explanations, we have no reason to understand why the Winter's Tale world works in such a way that Farrell might survive a 300-foot fall, develop amnesia, or sustain youth for a full century. What's more, we don't understand why Farrell's tale as a cog in this mystical machine is any more important than anyone else's. Or, if it's not, and we're simply asked to watch him carry out his quest as a glimpse into the vast, enigmatic system that Winter's Tale is ostensibly founded upon, we ... we don't understand enough of that world itself.
Warner Bros Pictures via Everett Collection
We're never invited close enough to any of the movie's attractive features for them to matter. So even when the movie does offer entertaining bits — in its fantastical elements, its detail of New Yorks old and new, or Farrell's admittedly charming romance with Findlay — we're not engaged enough to really connect with any of them.
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Still, the flying horse is pretty cool.
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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.
We first met Abigail Breslin when she charmed us as the growling little girl in Little Miss Sunshine, but after that she continued to play the little girl to the grown-up leads. Occasionally, she takes the lead as a kid adventurer, but for the most part, we've yet to see her truly lead her own film as a young woman. In Janie Jones, we see Breslin take on a more demanding part and well, she rocks it.
Janie Jones, like the Clash-inspired title suggests, is a rock story, but it's a bit more than that. Failing rock star Ethan Brand (Alessandro Nivola) fooled around with a few groupies in the height of his fame, but one (Elisabeth Shue) went away with a lasting parting gift: a daughter (Janie). Like many a grown up groupie, the lifestyle left her with some questionable habits and when she decides she needs to put herself into rehab, she leaves Janie with Ethan and he reluctantly brings her along on his tour. Of course this is no place for a 13 year-old, then again neither is living in a house with a drug addict.
Through a series of forced circumstances including the implosion of a band that's hanging by a thread when we enter the picture, Ethan is forced into fatherhood and Nivola delivers a solid performance as the reluctant father. However, like her character, Breslin is the real star here. In many respects, she's more of an adult than either of her parents and when she's thrown into the chaos of the road, she really shows it. Breslin also does sort of double duty for the role -- she plays guitar and sings original songs meant to be written by her young character. The lyrics ring of hard times that a young kid shouldn't know anything about, and while I doubt Breslin will be selling songs on iTunes any time soon, she pulls off the musically-inclined young lady.
Sure, the film employs an element of childhood fantasy -- I doubt many children of groupiedom find out that their father is only a haughty, delusional prick on the surface, but that he can really come around and be a father -- but Breslin brings it home. (Though, to be fair, the screenplay was inspired by writer and director David M. Rosenthal's own life, which was much less musically-inclined and much less dramatic.) She's infinitely likable and she's got a coy element about her. While Janie is very much a 13 year old girl, she's a wiley one. She knows how to use her age to her advantage and ends up using it a few times to save her dad's ass as he progresses on his downward spiral. The role really echoes Breslin's trajectory as an actress -- I know this is a weird claim, so stick with me for a minute. No, she wasn't raised by a druggie or taken on the road with a touring rock band at a young age, but she was thrown into a very adult world at a young age.
At just 10 years old, she nabbed a starring role in Little Miss Sunshine, which despite the title, was anything but a bunch of sunshine and roses. Sure, she's played the kid alongside the main plots in most flicks, but she almost always tends to be the little girl who's just a little more grown up that we'd expect. She's one of those kids who becomes very adult from a young age because though she's probably having fun acting, she ended up with a full time job before she was even old enough to drive. She's still a kid, but she's got a little savvy from being in that adult world. Janie also gains savvy from the adult nature of her world. She almost parents her mother as we see when the two stop at a gas station before meeting Ethan and Janie reprimands her mom for switching to a sluttier skirt and for still toting drugs around in her purse. We see it the first time she overhears Ethan lamenting that he's got to take her with him; instead of crying or whining, she grabs her guitar and expresses herself in a productive, mature way.
The film is by no means perfect, but it's sweet and despite a few outlandish twists and turns, feels very organic and genuine. It takes the feel of Almost Famous and adds some seriousness; there are no lofty dreams of being Rolling Stone's star journalist or marrying a rock star here. Instead, we've got the simple goal of wanting to just make it (in this case, making it means the pair getting to South by Southwest in Austin, Texas). It's a great vehicle for Breslin to make the switch from simple kid star to a bona fide actress and she uses it well.