Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
There is a certain level of enjoyment you are guaranteed when signing on for a movie that boasts a cast of George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, and Bill Murray. And that's the precise level of enjoyment you'll get from The Monuments Men — that bare minimum smirk factor inherent the idea that your favorite stars are getting to play together. In FDR-era army helmets, no less. But what we also get from the film is an aura of smug self-confidence from project captain Clooney, who seems all too ready to take for granted that we're perfectly satisfied peering into his backyard clubhouse.
So assured is the director/co-writer that we're happy to be in on the game that there doesn't seem to be any effort taken to refine the product for the benefit of a viewing audience. An introductory speech from art historian Frank Stokes (Clooney) sets up the premise straight away: the Nazis are stealing and destroying all of Europe's paintings and sculptures, and by gum we need to stop them! The concept doesn't complicate from there, save for a batting back and forth of the throughline question about whether the preservation of these pieces is "really worth it." Stokes rallies his own Ocean's Seven on a fine arts rescue mission, instigating an old fashioned go-get-'em-boys montage where we learn everything we need to know about the band mates in question: Damon has a wife, Goodman has gumption, Murray doesn't smile, Bob Balaban is uppity, and Jean Dujardin is French.
The closest thing to a character in The Monuments Men comes in the form of Hugh Bonneville, a recovering alcoholic whose motivation to take on the dangerous mission is planted in a festering desire to absolve himself of a lifetime of f**king up. When we're away from Bonneville, the weight disspears, as does most of the joy. Without identifiable characters, even master funnymen like Goodman, Murray, and Balaban don't have much to offer... especially since the movie's jokes feel like first draft placeholders born on a tired night.
Sony Pictures via Everett Collection
But wait a minute, is this even supposed to be a comedy? After all, it's about World War II. And no matter what Alexandre Desplat's impossibly merry score would have you believe (coupled with The Lego Movie, this opening weekend might be responsible for more musical jubilance than any other since the days of "Make 'Em Laugh!"), warfare, genocide, and desecration of international culture all make for some pretty heavy material. But The Monuments Men's drama is just as fatigued as its humor, clumsily piecing together a collection of mini missions wherein the stakes, somehow, never seem to jump. We're dragged through military bases, battered towns, and salt mines by Clooney and the gang — occasionally jumping over to France to watch Damon work his least effective magic in years on an uptight Cate Blanchett, who holds the key to the scruffy American's mission but doesn't quite trust him... until, for no apparent reason, she suddenly does. We never feel like any of these people matter, not even to each other, so we never really feel like their adventures do.
The Monuments Men doesn't have much of a challenge ahead of it. Its heroes are movie stars, its bad guys are Nazis, and its message is one that nobody's going to refute: art is important — a maxim it pounds home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, through countless scenes of men staring in awe at the works of Michelangelo and Rembrandt. And in this easy endeavor, Clooney decides to coast. How could it possibly go wrong? Just grab hold of the fellas, toss 'em in the trenches, and let the laughs and danger write themselves. "This is what they came to see," Monuments Men insists. "Just us guys havin' a ball." But we never feel in on the game, and it isn't one that looks like that much fun anyhow.
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In just about every one of Kevin Hart's scenes in Ride Along, there's a joke that is just aching to find its way out of the diminutive, rascally comic actor. Hart is a small-scale physical comedian — of the same ilk as Jack Black — who puts nuclear-degree energy into his facial contortions, anatomical outbursts, and the delivery of every gag in general. If only he had material that was crafted with the same energy.
Unfortunately, nothing else about Ride Along seems at all "hard at work." Not the script, which pads a lifeless story with lazy comedy, and certainly not his screen partner Ice Cube, whose only stage direction seems to be "frown, and be taller than Kevin Hart." So lifeless is Ice Cube that even his machismo-obsessed straight man bit doesn't really work. Instead of the virile and intimidating "bad cop," he comes off as a disapproving middle aged dad without much to show for his own life.
But the script pairs the wily, overzealous high school security guard and video game junkie Ben (Hart) with no-nonsense lawman James (Ice Cube) on the titular ride along, with the scrappy cop-wannabe hoping to prove to the force veteran that he's good enough to marry the latter's younger sister. In earnest, he's not. Ben never puts any respectable effort into learning the tools of the trade, insisting on employing his amateur style and controlling the radio despite his proclamations that he wants, and deserves, James' trust. And James is no saint either — he's irresponsible on crime scenes, violent with perps, and disgruntled to the point of being unable to work with anybody else on the force. These are not good police officers... of course, you'll say, this is a comedy. But where are the laughs, then?
They're not absent entirely, you just have to look for them. In a movie so focused with big, broad humor, it's the smaller comedy that actually lands best. Hart's background mutterings and fumblings, his emoticon-laden texts to girlfriend Angela (Tika Sumpter, whose only stage direction seems to be "smile, and never wear a full outfit of clothing"), and a bizarre repetition of the word "weird" from supporting player John Leguizamo. All good for unexpected chuckles, while jokes like Hart facing off with a pre-teen or being blown backwards into a brick wall after firing a large gun are all lazy, familiar, and flat.
Structurally, the script is a mess. Ride Along spends far too much time on set up — we get it, Hart and his soon-to-be-brother-in-law Ice Cube don't get along — and far too much time on wrap-up — there's a gigantic, dramatic warehouse shootout that, in any other movie, would be the climax, but there's plenty more to go after that — without any cohesive middle to make the movie feel like... a movie.
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Hart, who leaps at every comic opportunity like a kangaroo (wallaby would be more appropriate), is suited just right for a buddy cop comedy, but he needs something fresh with which to work — a real character, an interesting story, actually funny jokes. Even just one of these would be fine!
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To say tonight's episode of The Walking Dead changes EVERYTHING for the Grimes Gang doesn't even begin to cover it. After a chilling but relatively low-key visit to Woodbury last week, TWD was back to its Season 3 breakneck pace tonight, only this time, several lives were devastatingly, irreversibly damaged forever. Please do not read any further if you have not yet seen "Killer Within" as MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUND.
I always felt like the attack on Hershel's farm let the Gang (and fans) off pretty easy, only offing a couple of Hershel's kids and dumping Andrea with Michonne. "Killer Within" — which has two very different but completely applicable meanings — left the gang in far worse shape than last year's finale, and not just because they now have a baby AND an old guy in crutches to take care of. No, T-Dogg and Lori are now gone, along with (one would guess) whatever semblance of hope Rick had left, and, well, any bit of childhood Carl may have had left. Having to shoot your mom will do that to a kid. This will probably be the first recap where I won't make fun of Carl, at all. I just can't tonight. He earned it.
So the first "killer within" ended up being the mysterious figure who had been watching Carol from afar. (I was wrong — it wasn't Merle. But Merle's on his way!) The cold open found this mysterious figure, whose face we never saw, cutting the Grimes Gang chains with an ax, then luring in nearby Walkers with hearts and dead animals and other cute things of that nature. It ended up being Andrew, the "other" bad prisoner who Rick left for dead in a Walker-filled yard. Now, I get why he might be pissed, but letting hundreds of Walkers take over a prison, thinking he could then defeat them after they turned the Grimes Gang into more Walkers, was a very stupid idea. Also, it didn't even work to his advantage.
But more on that later, because his Walker-raid was 80 percent of the episode. The other killer within, and the one that wreaked the most emotional havoc (sorry, T-Dogg) was Lori's baby. Since Carol was off fighting her way through the Walkers, along with everyone else except for Carl and Maggie, Maggie had to brutally slice open Lori's belly — with absolutely no medical experience, not to mention surgical equipment — and yank it out. Think Prometheus, but with higher emotional stakes and more children present. Lori knew that trying a vaginal birth (she wasn't even fully dilated — sorry for this part, dudes) would probably kill her baby, while the C-Section would mean her own life. She chose the latter, going out as a hero of sorts, but also putting Maggie and Carl in the worst position, ever. Maggie had to kill her, and someone would have to put a bullet in her brain when she rose again. (Has she seen the show Dexter? Doesn't she know what seeing their mother in a pool of blood does to a child?)
Lori saying goodbye to one child while sacrificing herself for another was tragically beautiful, and Sarah Wayne Callies, Chandler Riggs, and Lauren Cohan acted the crap out of this scene. Everyone realized what was happening and tried to appear brave to everyone else's benefit, but still — watching a mother say goodbye to her son in this horrible, horrible manner was gut-wrenching. She told him that he was good, and asked him to always be good — to do the right thing, avoid the easy way out, and not let this world spoil him. She hugged him, in tears, as the friend who would soon be her killer sat two feet away, sobbing, with a knife. Her final words were "Goodnight, love." Try to forget this scene, ever. After she passed, Carl told Maggie that he'd be the one to put her down. "She's my mom," he insisted. I'd like to thank Glen Mazzara for not making us see that extremely disturbing event, as hearing the gunshot offscreen was bad enough.
Rick's reaction to Lori's death was possibly even more gut-wrenching that the scene that preceded it. The Grimes Gang fighters (and Beth and Hershel) had just re-convened in the yard, after finding T-Dogg's mangled corpse and Carol's scarf, leading to the popular belief that she had died (more on that later). Carl came out, along with Maggie and the bloody (but alive!) baby, and they didn't even have to say anything. Everyone knew. Rick was in disbelief, asking, "Where is she?" — but when he saw Carl, dead-eyed and staring at the ground, he knew exactly how things went down. I never thought I'd throw in Walking Dead for any acting nominations, but I'd put this in Andrew Lincoln's Emmy reel. Jesus. The outpouring of grief was — I know I keep using this word, but gut-wrenching. He fell to the ground in an ugly cry that would even impress Aaron Paul, while Glenn comforted the traumatized Maggie, and Carl stood motion and emotion-less.
NEXT: The other, terrible stuff that happened.
So, back to killer number one, Andrew: Before the prisonpocalypse began, the Grimes Gang ran into the nice prisoners, Alex and Oscar, in the yard. They were fed up with living with their dead friends' corpses, and things like that. They swore again that they were petty criminals — not murderers — and would do anything to help the Grimes Gang. But Rick 2.0 doesn't have time for new friends, and probably still has a cop's natural distrust of felons. So despite T-Dogg's pleas for empathy (T-Dogg said more than one line, and expressed an opinion — should have known he was a goner), Rick kept them locked up, and he and the Gang's fighters left the yard to run a soil-related errand.
Inside, Hershel decided to take his first post-amputation walk in the yard, and brought Beth, Lori, and Carl with him. AKA, all of the essentially helpless ones. The rest of the gang, who were now in various parts of the yard gathering wood to burn Walkers, watched from a distance. Hershel was happy, they were happy — it was a heartwarming moment. Until seconds later, when hoards of Walkers were spotted outside the gates. "Can't we have one good day?" Glenn asked. No, Glenn. You can not.
Then, things got really quiet. The mood during the final, pre-prisonpocalypse moments was eerily spectacular, as we knew that one group was about to get brutally attacked. But, which one? Before we found out, we saw Lori and Rick exchange loving, heartwarming looks from across the yard. She even smiled! From Lori's perspective, Hershel was okay, the Walkers would be burned in favor of healthy soil, her kid was safe, and Rick was truly looking at her for the first time in months. Things were okay, considering. How sweet. So, of course, Walkers attacked. Like, dozens upon dozens of them. Beth got Hershel to safety through one door, while Maggie ran up and saved Lori and Carl, locking the three of them in the free cell that would eventually become Lori's birthing room. T-Dogg and Carol fought to close off one area of the yard, and T-Dogg was promptly bitten. Dammit. On the other end, Rick, Daryl, and Glenn teamed up with Alex and Oscar to fight for a different part of the prison. So everyone was separated (I'd take my chances with Group D), and one prominent member of the Gang was already mortally f***ed. This was like, 18 minutes in.
But things quickly got much, much worse, as someone inside (Andrew) turned on the prison alarm system, attracting even more Walkers. Rick was quick to blame Alex and Oscar, but they were his only hope for turning it off, so. He ran around the prison shouting for Lori and Carl (heart, breaking) until they finally found the generator, as well an ax-toting Andrew. Rick and Andrew fought while Daryl held the door, and eventually inmate Oscar ended up with a gun in his hands, aimed at both of them. Despite Andrew's pleas, Oscar made the wise decision to keep Rick around.
Meanwhile, over in Carol and T-Dogg's hellhole, the duo continued to push through groups of Walkers, even though Carol was quick to remind T-Dogg of "the pact" that would basically mean her shooting him so he wouldn't turn. But he wanted to push through as long as he could and keep fighting, which he did until he heroically gave his entire body to a group of Walkers to let Carol escape. Her fate is still unknown ($50 on her still being alive), but T-Dogg definitely experienced the most gruesome death of any lead character on this show. We hardly knew ye.
Meanwhile, in Woodbury... It's hard to focus too much on Michonne's growing distrust of the Governor (stemming from the fact that she knows he killed those innocent men) and Andrea's disturbing flirtations with him when Lori and T-Dogg just bit the dust, but we must. Watching the ice cold Michonne passive-agressively grilling the Governor, basically telling him that she knows he's a big fat lying liar was a treat, even if it means she's now on his radar. That's not a place I'd want to be. But he got Andrea to trust him even more, luring her with booze, sad personal stories, and that sweet southern accent. He even told her his name! (Philip.) Prediction: This will not lead to good things.
Michonne wanted to make for the coast, find a boat, and live forever on some theoretical magical island with her pal Andrea. I know just the place! But that wasn't going to happen, because Andrea spent the rest of the episode bonding with someone even more confusing: Merle. Merle and Andrea had a ditching by the Grimes Gang in common, and both were tempted by the idea of finding out what the Hell had happened to them. Merle clearly loves Daryl just as much as everyone else does (back off), so he eventually got through to the Governor when he begged him for a rescue mission. "You get more concrete information, and I'll go with you myself," Gov said. To be continued.
Well, that was a lot. Rick and Carl will certainly never be the same, and there's a good chance that Rick's abilities as a leader have been compromised. Also, how are they going to find baby formula? To bring us back to happier days, let's all laugh about the time Rick, Daryl, Carol, and T-Dogg caught Glen and Maggie having sex in the guard tower. Haha, that was hilarious!
Shout out your thoughts in the comments, when you're done crying. (You better be crying. Have you no soul?)
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[PHOTO CREDIT: AMC]
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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.
Theatrics slapstick and cheer are cinematic qualities you rarely find outside the realm of animation. Disney perfected it with their pantheon of cartoon classics mixing music humor spectacle and light-hearted drama that swept up children while still capturing the imaginations and hearts of their parents. But these days even reinterpretations of fairy tales get the gritty make-over leaving little room for silliness and unfiltered glee. Emerging through that dark cloud is Mirror Mirror a film that achieves every bit of imagination crafted by its two-dimensional predecessors and then some. Under the eye of master visualist Tarsem Singh (The Fall Immortals) Mirror Mirror's heightened realism imbues it with the power to pull off anything — and the movie never skimps on the anything.
Like its animated counterparts Mirror Mirror stays faithful to its source material but twists it just enough to feel unique. When Snow White (Lily Collins) was a little girl her father the King ventured into a nearby dark forest to do battle with an evil creature and was never seen or heard from again. The kingdom was inherited by The Queen (Julia Roberts) Snow's evil stepmother and the fair-skinned beauty lived locked up in the castle until her 18th birthday. Grown up and tired of her wicked parental substitute White sneaks out of the castle to the village for the first time. There she witnesses the economic horrors The Queen has imposed upon the people of her land all to fuel her expensive beautification. Along the way Snow also meets Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) who is suffering from his own money troubles — mainly being robbed by a band of stilt-wearing dwarves. When the Queen catches wind of the secret excursion she casts Snow out of the castle to be murdered by her assistant Brighton (Nathan Lane).
Fairy tales take flack for rejecting the idea of women being capable but even with its flighty presentation and dedication to the old school Disney method Mirror Mirror empowers its Snow White in a genuine way thanks to Collins' snappy charming performance. After being set free by Brighton Snow crosses paths with the thieving dwarves and quickly takes a role on their pilfering team (which she helps turn in to a Robin Hooding business). Tarsem wisely mines a spectrum of personalities out of the seven dwarves instead of simply playing them for one note comedy. Sure there's plenty of slapstick and pun humor (purposefully and wonderfully corny) but each member of the septet stands out as a warm compassionate companion to Snow even in the fantasy world.
Mirror Mirror is richly designed and executed in true Tarsem-fashion with breathtaking costumes (everything from ball gowns to the dwarf expando-stilts to ridiculous pirate ship hats with working canons) whimsical sets and a pitch-perfect score by Disney-mainstay Alan Menken. The world is a storybook and even its monsters look like illustrations rather than photo-real creations. But what makes it all click is the actors. Collins holds her own against the legendary Julia Roberts who relishes in the fun she's having playing someone despicable. She delivers every word with playful bite and her rapport with Lane is off-the-wall fun. Armie Hammer riffs on his own Prince Charming physique as Alcott. The only real misgiving of the film is the undercooked relationship between him and Snow. We know they'll get together but the journey's half the fun and Mirror Mirror serves that portion undercooked.
Children will swoon for Mirror Mirror but there's plenty here for adults — dialogue peppered with sharp wisecracks and a visual style ripped from an elegant tapestry. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve and rarely do we get a picture where both the heart and the sleeve feel truly magical.