Men in Black 3 (B)
U.S.: Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012, Sony
Movie sequels don't always work, and the bad ones tend to diminish our fonder memories of the originals. But a good sequel can increase our pleasure. Men in Black 3 is the third in the series that started back in 1997.
The first film, plain old Men in Black, was a flashy, tongue-in-several-cheeks science fiction comedy with great wacky visual effects, and it introduced Will Smith's buoyant Agent J to Tommy Lee Jones' gloomy Agent K. J. and K. were two pros in the most hush-hush of top-secret government agencies: the one that monitors or tracks down bizarre space aliens and extraterrestrial monsters secretly among us -- and it was first sequelized in 2002. I liked the first movie, disliked the second, and wasn't especially looking forward to the third. But Men in Black 3 works pretty well.
One of the big pluses in the original MIB was the casting. As a pair of impeccable feds in matching black suits and Ray-bans, sporting unusual weaponry and a Dragnet disregard for the niceties, Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones made up one of the most unusual and effective comedy-action teams of the '90s. They played off each other beautifully, with a playful seriousness that heightened the whiz-bang nuttiness of the story around them.
They also played well off the Mad Magazine gallery of comical space freaks concocted by effects/makeup genius Rick Baker and others -- weirdo beings who talked like hip outlaws, looked like second-generation vets of the cantina scene in Star Wars.
This time Smith plays Agent J again, but there are two Agent Ks: Jones, of course, as the contemporary K, and Josh Brolin as the young (29-year-old) K -- whom we meet when Agent J travels back in time to 1969 to keep K from being killed by an extraterrestrial Boglodite monster named Boris the Animal (Jemain Clement), a nasty bully who has designs on conquering Earth as well. Boris' first foray into world-beating ended when Young K caught him after B. went on a space alien-murdering spree back in 1969, K thus warding off a cataclysmic Boglodite invasion, and imprisoning Boris the Animal for 40 years of snarling isolation in a maximum-security facility on the moon.
Now Boris the Animal has escaped, thanks to his slinky girlfriend (Nicole Scherzinger) and a pretty lively cake -- in a scene that vaguely recalls Hannibal Lecter's bustout in The Silence of the Lambs, if Hannibal were an iguana-looking dude with bad hair (I mean really bad hair) and murderous insects popping out of his hands like evil cucarachas. And so the mad villain (who sounds like Darth Vader with mouth gravel) cobs a compact time machine from geek N.Y. cut-rate electronics shop owner Jeffrey (Michael Chemus), so he can whiz back and eliminate K and incidentally conquer the earth -- something Boris now has planned carefully to coincide with the last part of this movie.
Along the way, Smith proves again that he can make almost anything seem real by the engaged, if occasionally mystified, way he reacts to it. And Brolin turns out to be the perfect actor to play a younger edition of Tommy Lee Jones. He has the San Saba voice, the cold dark eye, the racing gab, the "don't-mess-with-me" manner, the bunched-up football player's stance, even some of the quiet, fierce look. But Brolin is not playing simply a copy of Jones' K. He's playing K as he might have been, or was, as a young man, before something happened that soured and chilled him a little. He's a K with less world-weariness and more joie de vivre than his older self, and a genuine smile that keeps lighting up his mug at moments. Jones and Brolin acted together (though in different parts of the movie) in No Country for Old Men, and they seemed kindred spirits there and here -- so much so that their joint portrayal of Agent K actually begins to seem like one continuous performance. A great one. Or at least great for a movie like Men in Black 3.
The structure of MIB3 is pretty much the same ironclad format as most big-bucks action movies. But these action scenes never outstay their welcome; they aren't allowed to consume the movie. (Extras: featurettes; Pitbull music video; 3D models; progressive reels; scene investigation.)
U.S.: John Hillcoat, 2012, Starz/Anchor Bay
The sometimes exciting, sometimes pretentious crime movie Lawless takes place in Franklin County, Virginia -- "The Wettest County in the World," according to the book on which the picture is based. And it deals with a legendary family of moonshine-makers and bootleggers, the Bondurants, as they wage war against both their gangster rivals and the sadistic dude of a Chicago law man, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who's come down south to shut them down.
Rakes is played as a pure, rotten villain, and the Bondurants are shown as at least semi-heroes, so the movie, somewhat like the crime thrillers and neo-noirs of the '70s, scrambles our responses -- and it would probably have been better if it scrambled them even more. Directed and written by the team of John Hillcoat and rocker-scenarist Nick Cave (who also joined forces on the nerve-jangling 2006 Aussie western The Proposition), Lawless is a very arty film about a rustic underworld -- and it's arty in both good and grating ways.
The design and cinematography here remind you of James Agee and Walker Evans' classic book on the Depression rural poor, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. But the main characters here, the Bondurants, are far from impoverished. They're prosperous criminals who make the best moonshine in Franklin County and also run a restaurant and are handy with guns. Maybe that's what partly wrong with the movie; it tries to pant a realistic picture of 1931 Virginia and to bring us close to the Bondurants, but it also heroizes them in ways that don't quite ring true. The book that Hillcoat and Cave adapted was written by a Bondurant ancestor, Matt (the grandson of Jack Bondurant), and sometimes the two Australian filmmakers tell the story like loving relatives too.
The Bondurant brothers are played by Jason Clarke (as Howard, the eldest and their terrifyingly fearless enforcer), Tom Hardy (as the near superhuman head man Forrest) and Shia LaBeouf (as Jack, the youngest and most ambitious of the,. Their ladies are played by Jessica Chastain (as Forrest's ex-stripper friend), and Mia Wasikowska (as Jack's lively preacher's daughter of a girlfriend). Gary Oldman takes stage as the boss gangster Floyd Banner. There's also a sympathetic sheriff who likes good moonshine whiskey (and good moonshiners), played by Bill Camp, and Jack's fragile sidekick Cricket, played by Dane DeHaan. They're all good, though the most memorable character here is Pearce's Charlie Rakes -- a Fancy Dan with plucked eyebrows and expensive suits, reeking of cologne. Rakes makes a snazzy villain.
The story begins with the Bondurants as kids, and the revelation of Jack's sensitivity: he won't shoot a pig though the pig's time has come. The movie then glides past World War I, which messes up Howard's mind, the Spanish Influenza epidemic (which Forrest miraculously survives) and into 1931, the Prohibition era and the thriving Bondurant hooch business. Forrest and Howard (now played by Hardy and Clarke) run it without Jack,and we see Jack (now played by LaBeouf) champing at the liquor bit, enlisting Cricket to help him set up a rival operation, and then selling his booze to Banner.
But Lawless doesn't really plunge toward fraternal strife. Rakes is the antagonist and a mean one. His sadism keeps escalating. So do the Bondurants' survival skills, none more formidable than Forrest's. At one point, Forrest has his throat slit and walks 12 miles through the snow -- holding his throat together with his fingers.
The movie, photographed by the French camera virtuoso Benoit Delhomme and designed by Chris Kennedy, is a triumph of period visualization. With its smoky vistas and tangled hillside forests, its antique '30s guns and cars, its frayed houses and rustic towns, the film feels right even when the characters don't quite connect.
Cave's script is stark and unsentimental, and it doesn't sell out in the usual ways. But it also lacks the great scenes or the great character moments, of its best predecessors. The movie doesn't make the leap into darkness that The Godfather movies did -- which is part of the reason why The Godfather is a case of the finest, and Lawless is merely a good stiff shot.
The Apparition (D)
U.S.: Todd Lincoln, 2012, Warner Bros.
Dull, dreary, pointless and bad, sporting shock scenes that don't shock, a grisly premise that doesn't make sense, and a meager cast of mostly uninterested-looking Hollywood lookers (headed by Ashley Greene of Twilight) struggling with a meager, dialogue-challenged script, here is another horror movie for masochists. It's a paranormal activity sort of story, done with a brooding visual style the story doesn't deserve, and it's all about ghosts, lookers, moving furniture, dead pets, creepy hands and malignant visitors from the afterlife. The shadowy or arty cinematography (Daniel Pearl) and frenetic editing belie the usual PA found-footage strategy.The script deserves to be exorcized.
Greene (the movie's prime looker) and movie boyfriend Sebastian Stan, a guy who often seems on the verge of a snooze, are the haunted couple who discover ghostly presences and doings in a family home in the desert. Eventually, they're informed by parapsychologist Patrick (Tim Felton) that -- sorry, kids -- he's accidentally set loose a plague of destructive ghosts on the country and the world, something he apparently hasn't bothered to tell anyone else. That's not the only stupid thing the "good guys" do in this movie. People are forever running into the arms of monsters, getting attacked by their own bed sheets or exposing themselves unnecessarily to hideous dangers in the basement.
The best thing about The Apparition is the end-titles, from Prologue, which have a sort of Jordan Belson-Hollis Frampton abstract underground look to them. Advice to Apparition writer-director Todd Lincoln: Get a writer or cowriter or maybe some good found footage next time out.