Grade: B- | 1st Viewing
I hesitate to praise Barry Sonnenfeld’s unnecessary and ill-demanded sequel as a success of lowered expectations, if only because I cringe at the notion that simply being better than the dreadful Men in Black 2 is a feat in any way worth celebrating. Nonetheless, this latest in the dormant alien-action-comedy franchise left me surprised. Granted, the movie is painfully tedious toward the beginning, as Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones lumber through the script with seemingly minimal interest in unearthing the chemistry that made their pairing fifteen years ago so indelible. But once Smith’s Agent J is sent back in time to save his longtime partner from a killer bug-summoning alien version of Billy from Easy Rider (Jemaine Clement), a much-younger Agent K (Josh Brolin) brings in a bit of much-needed energy.
While that energy isn’t quite enough to forgive the movie for its unevenness – or Smith and Jones for their blandness – the movie does provide some redeeming moments. The final showdown – atop the soon-to-launch Apollo 11 – is surprisingly taut. It also ends with a time-traveling twist that probably does not make much sense logically, but is sweet nonetheless. But MIB-3’s strongest asset has to be in the character Griffin, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. An intergalactic being omniscient of every direction the universe could possibly take, Griffin projects a kind of mature thoughtfulness I never thought this series was capable of. Should there be a MIB-4, I hope they bring him back.
Grade: B | 1st Viewing
A more apt title might have been Martha Marcy Mayo Marlene, as Zal Batmanglij’s story of two pseudo-documentarians and their interactions with a charismatic ruler named Maggie (Another Earth’s Brit Marling) aspires similarly to what that smarter, ultimately meatier Sean Durkin film did. In complete fairness, they each go about their exploration of cults from fairly different angles; while Martha Marcy shows the way a cult can tamper the individual’s sense of reality upon their desertion, the clandestine filmmakers at Voice’s center infiltrate their cult with righteous cynicism, only to have the infiltrator (Peter Aitken) fall prey gradually to the leader’s charms.
But where Martha Marcy succeeds is in its ability to identify with the protagonist’s sense of disorientation, Voice fails to give a sufficient sense of just how much Maggie has manipulated the protagonist’s perception of reality. It all feels much more inconsequential than it really should, but these were admittedly realizations I only had while thinking afterward about what the movie was trying to say. During the actual viewing experience of Sound of My Voice, though, I was admittedly gripped, thanks in large part to Marling’s truly effective performance.
Grade: B- | 1st Viewing
John Madden’s sleeper hit about a half-dozen aging Brits vacationing in India feels like just that: a lavish, anglophilic vacation filled with lovely scenery, witty banter and pat life lessons. Teeming with more aging British screen icons than a Hogwarts faculty meeting, Best Exotic follows over a half dozen lost, aging souls hoping to rediscover themselves in the midst of numerous tribulations, be they personal loss (Judi Dench), marital strife (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton), disappointing love life (Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup), unrequited love (Tom Wilkinson) or personal health (Maggie Smith).
The lessons learned are a little too glib for my taste. Many of the individual plotlines – especially Wilkinson’s and Nighy’s – are wrapped up far too easily. The jokes are inoffensive in a way that ultimately robs Maggie Smith, aka the Dowager Countess, any kind of real bite. And a key scene involving Dame Judi lecturing a group of Indian phone representatives on the best way to charm their occidental customers is slightly cringe-inducing. But as a generic piece of facile life affirmation, you really could do worse. This is the kind of movie to which you might take your parents or your grandparents, with minimal risk of offending anybody’s sensibilities.
Grade: C | 1st Viewing
Writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait is clearly angry about a lot of things, and I might be inclined to argue it is for good reason. His latest film, God Bless America, is a duly profane and gory projection of that anger. Using his story of a fed-up-with-life man (Joel Murray) and a bloodthirsty young girl (Tara Lynne Barr) wreaking murderous havoc on what they perceive as society’s ills, the film serves as an energetic rant against the likes of the cable news punditocracy, reality television stars, jingoism and Diablo Cody (okay, I fervently disagree with him on that last point). But “rant” is the key word here; Goldthwait awkwardly alternates between moments of extreme violence to terribly lengthy scenes of characters sitting around and simply reciting their laundry lists of all the things in the world that bug them.
To their credit, Murray and Lynne Barr play their parts quite well. But Goldthwait, a director who traditionally relishes in the challenging comedic possibilities of discomfort, ugliness and dissonance, almost seems to be playing it safe here. At no point are we meant to feel disturbed by the horrible violence depicted onscreen, because there seems to be no real understanding of the relationship between that violence and the righteous liberal indignation being spewed out via soliloquy (see Inglourious Basterds for a example of that relationship explored well). This is not the same Bobcat Goldthwait who made Shakes the Clown or World’s Greatest Dad; this time it seems the point here is to agree with everything the man is saying. And while I don’t necessarily have a problem with preaching to the choir, that doesn’t mean you can’t challenge them from time to time.