Men in Black 3 (2012)

2017 #167
Barry Sonnenfeld | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

Men in Black 3

Maybe it’s something to do with my age, but when Men in Black II came out it felt like a bit of a belated sequel to the mega-hit Men in Black — it had been five years, after all, which is quite a long time for a comedy sequel. Well, Men in Black 3 was another ten years after that… As it turns out, MIB2 is a kind of typical first sequel: memorable-but-small characters get massively increased roles; things are referenced just for the sake of referencing them; jokes are repeated or amped up. MIB3 is more like the typical belated sequel: it stands somewhat divorced from the first two, with the minor stuff all gone, and some more significant changes necessitated by the passing of time.

What hasn’t changed are the leads, Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) — although the latter’s about to, because when an alien criminal he locked up in the ’60s escapes from prison and travels back in time, K is wiped from existence. As the only one who can remember K, it’s up to J to also travel back to the ’60s, rescue the younger K (Josh Brolin), and also save the Earth.

MIB3’s biggest problem is that it’s not funny enough. The first two were sci-fi comedies with the emphasis on the comedy, whereas this is more of a light sci-fi adventure. In some respects it tries to substitute emotional weight for the lack of laughs, aiming for a pay-off that’s designed to put a cap on the whole trilogy. It kind of works, I suppose, but it also feels like a bit of an ill fit. It’s nice that the film’s trying something different, I suppose, but I’d rather the tone was closer to the other movies — more humour, tighter pacing. Director Barry Sonnenfeld used to have an obsession with making his movies shorter (I remember he once said he’d be the only director where a “director’s cut” would actually mean a truncated version of the movie). I don’t know if he’d given up on that notion by 2012, but trimming ten minutes out of this likely wouldn’t hurt.

Someone forgot the dress code...

The best bit is definitely Brolin as Young K, doing a bang-on impression of Tommy Lee Jones while also adding enough to make the part his own. As for the rest of the new cast members, Emma Thompson’s role is fine if you consider her appearance no more than a cameo, but Alice Eve is underused as her younger self. Jemaine Clement chews the scenery double-time as the villain, while the always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg has a fun supporting role as a character who can see all possible futures.

MIB3 is not as weak as the much-maligned first sequel (which I don’t hate as much as some, but it isn’t great), but it can’t equal the freshness of the original, either. Little surprise it didn’t lead to a full-blown revival of the franchise… though, as it still did well at the box office and the series’ popularity endures, it’s also no surprise we’ll be getting a spin-off-ish fourth movie next summer.

3 out of 5

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Deadpool 2 (2018)

2018 #120
David Leitch | 119 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Deadpool 2

The quickest way to review Deadpool 2 is simply to say it’s like the first one, but more — in a good way.

A slightly longer (and possibly confusing unless you read it slowly) way to review it would be to say that I enjoyed it less than I enjoyed the first one the first time I saw it, but I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the first one the second time I saw it. To clarify: when I first watched Deadpool, I loved it, and gave it five stars (just about). When I rewatched it two years later in preparation for the sequel, I was less bowled over. I think a lot of its initial effectiveness was due to the freshness of its whole schtick, which has naturally gone away on a rewatch (not helped by the saturation of it in DP2’s marketing campaign). In particular, I was surprised how sparse I found the humour to be on that rewatch. Maybe that prepared me for this one: the gags aren’t literally non-stop — it sometimes pauses to attempt emotion or to convey plot — but when they do come they’re thick and fast, so much that I’m sure some will get missed (there are too many to remember specific examples, but there was stuff I thought was very funny that didn’t get much of a reaction in my screening. Or it could just be only me that liked those gags, of course.)

So, although DP2 couldn’t equal the sheer newness of watching DP1 for the first time, it’s refined the formula in such a way that I do think it’s a more enjoyable film. Maybe “refined” isn’t always the right word — in some cases it’s just chucked in even more stuff — but I think other elements have been honed. For example, the first film’s plot was a no-great-shakes origin story on which to hang gags and action. The sequel’s plot is still only scrappily adhered to, with the point once again being to deliver humour, but it does have a stronger throughline overall. Partly that comes from the villain, Josh Brolin’s Cable, who has a clear goal that conflicts with what Deadpool’s up to. Partly it comes from some thematic stuff about fatherhood and family. I’m not saying DP2’s overburdened in this department — it’s still an action-comedy — but I couldn’t tell you what the first film was about, thematically, and this one it’s made very evident.

That Deadpool, he'll say anything

That said, sometimes it’s bit heavy-handed. I can see what they were going for by giving the film a heart and some emotion — it builds off the first film, for one thing, where Vanessa was such a motivator for Wade; and they’re trying to add depth and texture to the film — but… it doesn’t work when it’s given too much focus. Everything else in the film is a pisstake turned up to eleven, and the fourth-wall breaking means Deadpool can make a gag about cliches or crappy writing even as the film ploughs ahead and does it anyway. So why isn’t he making gags whenever the film pauses for an emotional heart-to-heart type scene? Why does that sappiness flow on (and on) untouched? Okay, maybe the character cares too much to be wisecracking at those moments… but do we? Does the soppiness fit with the foul-mouthed, gore-splattered irreverence that characterises the rest of the movie? I’m not sure it does.

Other things they’ve oomphed up, but to appropriate effect, included references to the X-Men and the actions scenes. In the case of the former, I was surprised how many X-references there were in the first film, but DP2 has even more, including a superb one-shot cameo and a surprise appearance by a character who’s been in a ‘real’ X-Men film but here is done more faithfully. As to the latter, the first film had some fun action beats, but here you can feel the benefit of hiring John Wick/Atomic Blonde director (and former stunt coordinator) David Leitch — everything is slicker, quicker, and bigger. Again, it’s more, but in a good way. Humour aside, if you just wanted a straightforward action flick, I think it would satisfy on that level too.

Cable, ready for action

As for its level as a satire of superhero movies, some people have criticised the way it calls out genre tropes but then does them anyway, like Deadpool exclaiming “CGI fight!” right before there’s a CGI fight. But I think that’s almost the point. It’s not trying to deconstruct the genre, just poke fun at it with self-awareness while still being very much a part of it. Would it be cleverer if it went a step further and actually subverted stuff more often? Maybe. Probably. But there is humour in the self-awareness, even if it’s an easier kind for the filmmakers to fall back on — they don’t have to avoid cliches, so long as they humorously point out they’re indulging in them.

Ironically, there are two or three occasions where Deadpool specifically makes a joke along the lines of “well that’s just lazy writing”, which were particularly amusing to me because (as I recall) they were at moments where the writing didn’t need to do more than it did. By which I mean, the writers could’ve been “not lazy” and dressed those moments up, but, functionally, they didn’t need to; so it’s not really lazy writing, just not needlessly tarted up writing… if that makes sense. It’s like movies with MacGuffins: usually they invest time explaining what the MacGuffin is and why it matters, but functionally it could be anything, all that matters is everyone wants it. Deadpool 2 doesn’t have a MacGuffin, but if it did it would be called “MacGuffin” and it would be explained simply as “a thing everyone wants” and Deadpool would say “well that’s just lazy writing”. (Flip side to all this: I can’t recall the exact circumstances of all the “lazy writing” jokes, so I’m prepared to accept they might not actually fit this theory.)

X gon' give it to ya

All of that said, Deadpool 2’s primary goal is plain, clear, and simple: it wants to entertain you by almost any means necessary, be that elaborate action sequences, almost non-stop gags, cultural references, deep-cut comic book Easter eggs, or even changing history (er, kinda). Mostly, it works — it wants to be fun and, if you’re on its wavelength, it is. Sometimes, more is more.

4 out of 5

Deadpool 2 is in cinemas everywhere, still.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

2017 #23
Joel & Ethan Coen | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | UK, USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

Hail, Caesar!

The Coen brothers’ ode to the golden age of Hollywood provoked mixed reactions from their faithful fans (i.e. all film critics and most moviegoers) — some say it’s just a lightweight romp, others that there’s more meat on its bones.

Well, maybe there are indeed hidden depths here, but I think I’d prefer it as just a zany caper centred on Josh Brolin’s character, surrounded by the game all-star supporting cast, rather than having lengthy asides where a room of kinda-recognisable supporting actors discuss economics and communist philosophies and that kind of thing. Is that shallow of me? Maybe. But the movie is so entertaining when it’s riffing off classic Hollywood staples and making light work of many an amusing scenario, it’s tough not to want it to be no more than that.

Fundamentally I enjoyed it (those handful of political longueurs aside), but I’m not entirely sure what to make of it as a whole. I can believe there’s a deeper reading there if one looks to interpret it, but I’m not sure I’m bothered — I’m satisfied with it being merely a comical tribute-to-old-Hollywood caper, thanks.

4 out of 5

Hail, Caesar! was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

Inherent Vice (2014)

2015 #113
Paul Thomas Anderson | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Paul Thomas Anderson — the fêted writer-director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master, et al — here turns his hand to adapting reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 opus. It met with notably less success than most of his previous works. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists were one of few organisations to recognise it come awards season, with a gong for “Movie You Wanted to Love, But Just Couldn’t”. Apt.

The story — not that the story is the point, as aficionados of Anderson and/or Pynchon will happily tell you — sees stoner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receive a visit from an ex girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), who’s been having an affair with a real estate developer whose wife now intends to have him committed so she can inherit his estate. It only spirals from there, and I’m not even going to begin to get into all the different directions it shoots off into.

Really, the plot is a deliberate mess — it’s not the point, remember — but even allowing for that, it’s messy. How things are connected to one another is regularly unclear, subplots seem to take over for no apparent reason, and if there was a point to it all, it completely passed me by. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I get the impression it also sailed past those who would claim there was some point, as they scrabble around to justify one. Moments of amusement or filmic craftsmanship do shine out, but only occasionally. Chief among these is Robert Elswit’s cinematography. It’s understatedly wonderful, reminding you how great proper film stock can look, especially in HD. Digital photography has its benefits, but golly there’s something to be said for film.

Anderson chooses to realise the movie mostly in long, unbroken takes, which not only lets the photography shine, but also allows his cast free reign to construct their own performances. I’m not sure how much that pays off, but it’s certainly not a hindrance. Turns from the likes of Josh Brolin and Martin Short border on the memorable, though your mileage will vary on if anyone truly achieves it, with the possible exception of Katherine Waterston, who surely deserves more — and more prominent — roles. Other recognisable faces (Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon) are wasted in one- or two-scene appearances, which I suppose we could kindly call cameos.

For a certain kind of viewer, Inherent Vice will be nirvana. Or possibly for two kinds of viewers. One: stoners, who can identify with the main character, and find the majority of life just as bewildering as this film’s plot. You don’t have to go far on the internet before you find, “dude, it’s a totally great movie to watch stoned, dude”-type comments. Two: some Anderson and Pynchon fans (though by no means all), as well as similar cinéastes, who I’m sure can find something in there because it’s by an acclaimed auteur so it must be worth re-watching multiple times, and if you re-watch anything enough you can find some deeper meaning to it.

I am in neither of those groups, however. The aforementioned fleeting aspects of quality weren’t enough to swing it for me either. Sadly, I’ll be chalking this up alongside Killing Them Softly and Seven Psychopaths as “neo-noirs from previously-excellent directors that seriously disappointed me this year”.

3 out of 5

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

2014 #127
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Cyprus / English | 18 / R

Sin City: A Dame to Kill ForBelated sequels can be a Terminator 2, but more often they’re a Terminator 3 — that is to say, they can be brilliant, but often it seems they’re a poor idea, a too-late money-grabbing re-hash. Mooted since before the first Sin City was even released back in 2005, this long-anticipated sequel finally appeared at the tail end of the summer, a nine-year wait, and met with poor critical reception and even poorer box office. Considering the first film isn’t just a fanboy favourite but also fairly well regarded (it still sits on the IMDb Top 250, which I know some disregard out of hand but does mean something), that’s quite a painful fall from grace. Having watched the original the night before, I rather fail to see why.

As with its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For is a collection of hyper-noir short stories, connected by location and overlapping characters, that flits between time periods with abandon — this is both a prequel and sequel to the first film, revealing both the story of how Dwight (Josh Brolin) came to change his face (to become Clive Owen in the original film), and what Nancy (Jessica Alba) did after the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis, returning in a more spiritual form). There’s also the story of a cocky gambler, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), taking on the city’s power-players, and a short pre-titles tale starring breakout character Marv (Mickey Rourke).

If the first film was noir with a comic book mentality, then the second is a comic book with a noir mentality. The plots are still hard-boiled, the extensive voiceovers overwritten to the point they wash over you meaninglessly, the characters a mix of downtrodden toughs (for the men) and whores (for the women), and there’s still no hope for anyone in a city which drags everyone down. Naturally the visual style is the same: high-contrast monochrome with dramatic splashes of colour, and the occasional artistic lapse into literal black-and-white.

Violent MarvBut the comic-book-ness of the first film — moments of almost metaphorical visual representation rather than literal reality, including physically-impossible action beats — has been ramped up. The value of the first film was never in its action, so the sequel’s lengthy punch-ups, crossbow-based guard-slaying, and all the rest, get boring fast. When it slips into this needless excess, A Dame to Kill For loses its way. When it sticks to what it does best — hard-boiled fatalistic crime tales with striking comic book-inspired cinematography — it does as well as the concept ever did.

The best story is probably the titular one, which makes up the bulk of the middle of the film. It’s the most traditionally noir-ish, with a killer performance from a perfectly-cast Eva Green as the eponymous dame. She also spends most of her screentime starkers, which — coupled with the ludicrous dialogue and increased action — does lend credence to accusations that this is a film made by 13-year-old boys. Enjoy the results or not, it’s a hard point to argue against.

As Nancy, Jessica Alba was somewhere on the spectrum from mediocre to awful in the first film, but she’s another of the best things in this sequel. It’s not just that she’s given a meatier role, but that she seems to know how to act better fullstop. For all the criticisms that the film is misogynistic, with its women all strippers or whores or manipulative bitches, it’s the actresses who get the best parts and deliver the best performances. Brolin is unremarkable, for instance, while Marv, undoubtedly the original film’s breakout character, is now shoehorned into every story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels forced.

Johnny come latelyThe intervening decade has lessened the impact of the first film’s sick ultra-violence, but there’s nothing even that extreme here, aside perhaps from one eyeball-related moment. On the other hand, nearly a decade of tech development means it looks better than the last one, both in terms of the CGI’s quality and the camerawork more generally — it’s less flatly shot; more filmic than the first one’s sometimes-webseries-y composition.

Rodriguez once said he hoped to film all of Miller’s Sin City stories, and across the two films they’ve got through six (plus two new ones), which leaves two more full-length tales and nine shorts. Based on the poor performance and reception of this instalment, a third go-round looks unlikely. But then, if there’s one filmmaker who seems to keep on producing even when no one expects more it’s… Uwe Boll. But if there’s another, it’s Robert Rodriguez. That said, the box office really was shockingly awful (just shy of $40 million worldwide; I read the budget was $60 million), so maybe even Rodriguez can’t save this project.

Many critics, even those who rate the first Sin City highly, slaughtered this sequel. I don’t really see why — on balance, I think it’s of a piece with the first one. To love the first and hate the second seems predicated on the notion that the original was innovative and groundbreaking, whereas the follow-up is the same thing again. Well, what did you expect? It promises more stories in the visual and thematic style of Ghost of movies pastits predecessor, and that’s exactly what it delivers. I suspect the first benefits from nostalgia because, watching them virtually back to back, I found I liked Sin City less than I remembered, but enjoyed A Dame to Kill For just as much. It’s flawed in several aspects, but for honest-to-themselves fans of the first movie, I think it’s a “more of what you liked”-style success.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Flirting with Disaster (1996)

2014 #112
David O. Russell | 88 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Flirting with DisasterDavid O. Russell’s second feature sees adoptee Ben Stiller go on a kerazee road trip to find his birth parents, accompanied by dissatisfied wife Patricia Arquette and kooky adoption agency psychologist Téa Leoni, along the way bumping into Arquette’s high school crush (Josh Brolin) and his husband (Richard Jenkins). Cue an almost-PG-13 sex comedy told among sketch-like encounters with quirky people who turn out to not be Stiller’s folks.

Despite a bitty structure, it’s a pretty amusing farce, with a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Now merely a footnote in the filmographies of everyone involved, it deserves a degree of rediscovery.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Jonah Hex (2010)

2011 #59
Jimmy Hayward | 81 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / PG-13

Jonah HexJonah Hex is not a good film. Let’s just establish that, before I start being nice about it.

In fact, you don’t need me to be nasty about it — there are plenty of reviews that do that already. Those I’ve read are largely accurate. Despite that, I kind of liked the film, and not because I wanted to. I’ve read a few of the recent comics and enjoyed them, but this version isn’t really like those — they’re straight Westerns, whereas this iteration returns to a supernaturally-tinged version of the comics from some time in the past.

It’s difficult to know where to begin trying to praise Hex because, as I’ve implied, there isn’t much to praise. Unless you’re a 12-year-old boy, that is. Horses with Gatling guns! Giant cannons firing explosive balls! Corpses coming to life! Megan Fox’s corset-boosted cleavage! The undemanding pre-/early-teen is well catered for here. Possibly the undemanding child-minded adult too. I don’t think that’s why I enjoyed it though.

The movie is unrelentingly comic book, if one can use “comic book” as an adjective. Look at that last paragraph again: horses with Gatling guns? The physics of that boggles. But it has a certain Cool. The same for the ridiculously huge cannon that fires some kind of magic exploding cannonball. It doesn’t make historical sense, or even modern-science sense, but it is… well, it’s a Big Gun that makes things Blow Up. Awesome! A horse. With Gatling guns.Much of the film rattles on in this way. And rattle it does: 73 minutes before credits. As blockbuster running times spiral out of control, such brevity is almost welcome. It doesn’t feel exceptionally short, mind, except for when the plot occasionally jumps forward.

As the lead, Josh Brolin growls along marvellously. He deserves a better film. The character does too, actually. The President wants him to save America; he doesn’t care, except for that the person who needs stopping murdered Hex’s wife and child. Handy coincidence, that. There’s surely some drama to be wrung from that situation — grief, vengeance, all sorts — though no one involved seems to know how to go about it properly. The closest we get is a weird dreamy hallucinogenic fistfight. You’re right, that’s no substitute, but I did say closest.

John Malkovich does what he does as said villain. He’s been worse. Michael Fassbender is completely wasted as a henchman. I hope he was well paid. Megan Fox isn’t in it much. Her prostitute character, Hex’s new lover, is woefully underwritten and underused, turning up now and then to further the plotMegan Fox. Who has breasts. — usually improbably — or generally be a female. By “female” I mean “cleavage delivery device”. Considering her acting ability, her lack of presence is no real shame.

Jonah Hex isn’t good enough to be a guilty pleasure (like, say, The Transporter), nor bad enough to qualify as so-bad-it’s-good (like, say, Flesh for Frankenstein). Yet, while being fully aware it’s rubbish, I enjoyed myself. Not a massive amount, but a bit. Maybe it is one of those after all, then. It has a certain kind of B-movie charm, which is then intriguingly undercut by the A-list budget/promotion and awards-worthy cast. If it had been shot in Italy in the ’60s, a certain kind of person might just love it. Shot in America in the ’00s, however, its appeal probably lies with 12-year-old boys and… well, me, clearly.

2 out of 5