Friday, May 25, 2012

Movie Review: Men In Black 3

Let me begin by stating the obvious – Men In Black 3 is one hell of an unnecessary threequel. But there’s Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, and that more than makes up for its stale formula and lukewarm welcome. They make this look good.

The third Men in Black movie is packed with enough jokes and cameos to delight fans of the series. Fortunately, this third film brings the franchise to exactly where it should be - at the heart of goofy, yet classy comedy, one which gives impulsive chuckles. This was a major issue with the overbudgeted and bloated Men In Black 2 where every joke and sight gag felt so forced and obvious that it was never really funny. Men In Black 3 brings back the good natured panache of the original film, and though it isn’t as fun, the result is pleasing enough for those who became fans of the series back in 1997. 

When we last left Agents J (Smith) and K (Jones), they had just fought off the scum of the universe, and unsurprisingly not much has changed. We’re introduced to Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), a villainous alien who breaks out of jail and vows revenge against Agent K who had locked him up forty years ago. As a result K disappears from the face of the earth, and Agent J is left to travel back in time and save his partner and the whole planet. 

If you find this crummy, don't worry, because the Men In Black series has never really been big on storytelling. It has always been about watching rubbery aliens and Smith delivering punch-lines while dealing with the equally rubbery Jones. The aliens are back in droves and they are deliciously bizarre thanks to the imaginative mind of the legendary artist Rick Baker. Smith is the most likable and funniest movie star and his charismatic work here further proves that there is no one who can pull off sheer screen presence so effortlessly. Jones is his usual deadpan self and his blank stares are as effective and amusing as ever. The costars have fun with their roles as well – Josh Brolin is hilarious as the younger K and does a perfect impression of Jones without coming off as a parody. Emma Thompson as Agent O (replacing Rip Torn) and Bill Hader as Andy Warhol are a lot of fun in their cameos. Equally impressive is the CGI that doesn’t seem very new but is incredibly detailed and epic. There is a lot of the series’ trademark cartoonish violence, sadly presented in jarring 3D. But beneath the big effects the film is just a series of skits, and the gags are funny enough to work.

Naturally, Men in Black 3 isn't without its faults. Despite the great performances and production design the film gets hokey at times, especially when it brings in an emotional twist in the second half. The villain is very ugly but isn’t very threatening to look at – a major blunder seeing as Vincent D’Onofrio in the original is one of the greatest screen villains of all time. Also, most of the action scenes don’t really add anything to the plot – they just exist for the popcorn mayhem. The time-travel storyline, despite clocking in at just 100 minutes is way too familiar and predictable. But it’s easy to get past these gaffes and Men in Black 3 works as an effective entertainer. The original is still the most interesting and sophisticated, but compared to the horrible sequel, part three is the next best thing. Watch it, in 2D only.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: The Grey

The Grey is a mediocre thriller that revolves around an outlandish scenario for the same reason that films like Snakes on a Plane  do - it's just entertainment. The plot of the film raises the important theme of the nature of the beast and whether men who lead ordinary lives would submit to ruthless means to survive in the wild, but the film fails to take such sensationalistic digressions to explore such a clichéd issue in a unique way. 

In The Grey Liam Neeson stars as a troubled man working in an Alaskan site, he escapes a suicide attempt when he spots and kills a wolf approaching his camp. The following day, the plane carrying his crew crash lands in a remote ice field packed with wolves, and the men are left panicked, freeing and desperate with little hope to find their way back to civilization. The thrills come as much from how these men face the constant threat of the wolves, a hackneyed plot for sure, and actors Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo and Dallas Roberts are miscast in Neeson’s showcase of baddasssery. At first this is simply distracting but soon it begins to grate.

Director Joe Carnahan who has earlier made The A-Team and Narc does a passable job in the action-suspense department, though he tends to show off most of the sequences. Despite the psychological distrust that Neeson’s character faces that adds a thick layer to the plot, and the occasionally terrifying frozen scenery, The Grey is still not smart enough to prevent people from giggling about what they would do if they were chased through a jungle by CGI dogs. The other problem is that the film isn’t a story about characters’ relationships with one another as they struggle to salvage their lives, but more of grown-ups thrust in a teen slasher film set in the wild where each one is bumped off at regular intervals. 

The film works best during the quiet moments like when the camera lingers in a single shot over one of the men who realizes that he hasn’t got the strength to live any longer. Neeson, although playing a troubled character for the hundredth time adds a big spark in his role perfectly complimenting the excellent hand-held style photography, but they're not enough to keep the movie afloat. And sadly the real stars of the film – the wolves are hardly given any screen time, and seem as though their shots were outtakes from a Discovery Channel special.

It’s easy to detect the theme of death that was done better in the mesmerizing Valhalla Rising but in The Grey the screenwriters treat this idea with their tongue in cheek by showing death as vapour rising from the mouth. An existential thriller with few thrills, The Grey no doubt has an interesting cinematic ruse but not one that would warrant a must watch. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Movie Review: The Raven

In one of the final moments of The Raven, a perplexed character says to another ‘I am sorry sir, that doesn’t make any sense’. That is precisely what you would shout at the end of the film while massaging the throbbing temples of your head.   

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with mixing facts, fiction and stylized gore in pursuit of one’s own squandered thirst for the ludicrous or for the preteen demographic, but there is a problem in presenting such a film in a hall full of people above 12. The Raven is a twisted psychological horror thriller that combines the aesthetic focus of Se7en and the abhorrent mustiness of From Hell. But its only merit is that it is not quite as morally schizophrenic as the latter. 

The plot is as cheesy as it can get – and presents itself right in the opening scene in big yellow text. Back in 1849 Edgar Allen Poe was found dead on a park bench, and the reason for his demise has not yet been uncovered. The Raven attempts to crack this mystery by fictionally following the last days of Poe (here played by John Cusack) as he attempts to track down a serial killer on the loose and save his love interest (Alice Eve). The killer seems to be a nineteenth century version of Kevin Spacey from Se7en, as he indulges in gruesome killings and leaves a clue with each corpse. The killer plays around with Poe, by asking him to publish stories of his glorious murders and Poe’s failures in a newspaper – some of which are unintentionally hilarious enough to make the real Poe turn in his grave. 

Director James McTeigue, who last made the horrendous Ninja Assassin doesn’t much improve here – he just offers his camera a few tired faces to survey. Despite the great cast of Cusack and Brendan Gleeson, and the finely detailed makeup and sets, there is an uncomfortable horror-comedy tone that permeates through the seriousness. Cusack in particular looks completely embarrassed to be present on sets. The thrills inevitably turn into tiresome bloody frames as striking a tone between novelty and gore proves too difficult for McTeigue. Most of the runtime is paralyzed by schlocky silliness, including endless scenes of galloping horses and fog, and a clumsy rendition of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. And by the time you learn the identity of the killer you’re left looking at your watch and giving in to the seductive charms of the nearest exit door.

The Raven is neither superior to other serial killer potboilers, nor completely confounding or crazy enough to keep interest levels above the 15-minute mark. Poe himself would roll his eyes during the end credits and groan ‘Nevermore’.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: The Lorax

The Lorax is a sweet, likable movie that doesn't offer many surprises, but entertains in a placid, old-fashioned way. Beautifully rendered by Illumination Entertainment (the guys who made Despicable Me), the film has a lollypop visual style, vibrant enough to be savoured by those who lament the lack of variation found in today’s animated movies. 

Dr. Seuss’ stories have made hit and miss transitions to the big screen, ranging from the passable Horton Hears a Who, to the unlikable How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the horrible The Cat in the Hat. However The Lorax has been made by director Chris Renaud with the loving care of a dedicated fanboy, not once resorting to the clichéd pop culture references found in most animation films. Renaud has merged cues from the best Disney features and Pixar short films and come up with a wonderful mix of the partly zany, partly serious, partly slapstick sing-song, and fully entertaining film for both kids and the bigger kids. 

We’re introduced to the town of Thneedville where everything is adorned in the artificial plastic, and the people never venture to the strange wasteland beyond the city borders.  The 12-year-old Ted (Zac Efron) has a thing for his neighbor Audrey (Taylor Swift), and when she tells him that she’d fall for the guy who finds her a real tree, he sets off outside town determined to get one. Upon his grandma’s advice, he visits a hermit named Onceler (Ed Helms), who tells him why there aren’t any trees around Thneedsville, and how he was responsible for their disappearance. Ted learns that it would take only the good deeds of a single person to turn things around and summon the guardian of the forest known as the Lorax (Danny DeVito).

Naturally the Lorax is a metaphor for a tree hugger and the film at times drives home the message of conserving trees, but while that may seem a little too preachy it is difficult not to be won over by the cute earnestness of the film. It helps that most characters are lovable, although the conniving corporate giant O’Hare is reminiscent of the Mayor from Cloudy with a chance of meatballs. The voice cast is fun, and there are dozens of laughs. Moreover, director Renaud doesn’t move the camera around too much, and offers you long, uncut shots, letting you look at and admire the gorgeous artwork and absorb it in.

There is little that is revolutionary about The Lorax, but it’s pleasant, and hard to dislike. It will probably be a bit more enjoyable on DVD, but since it is out in theaters you should watch it. In bright colorful 2D.

(First published in MiD Day)

Review: What to Expect when you're Expecting

What to expect when you’re expecting is a passably entertaining rom-com that you might like if you give it a chance. While many will groan at the unoriginal plot, one can’t help but laugh at the movie, if not with it. It has cornball acting, zero characterization and many contrivances, but in the end it's merely a romantic comedy. You see it, you have a chuckle and you move on. And of course you can hardly go wrong with Anna Kendrick and Elizabeth Banks in the same movie.  

The film is very loosely based on the self-help book of the same name, in fact so loosely that the film just takes the subject matter (pregnancy) and whirls it around a colossal gang of actors with intersecting stories for a Valentines Day-esque ensemble comedy. Screenwriters Shauna Cross and Heather Hach and director Kirk Jones introduce us to a fitness freak (Cameron Diaz) who discovers she’s pregnant on live TV, a Baby store owner (Elizabeth Banks) and her husband Gary (Ben Falcone) who get pregnant after years of futile efforts, a photographer (Jennifer Lopez) who manages to convince her husband (Rodrigo Santoro) to adopt, and a chef (Anna Kendrick) who gets knocked up after a one night stand with another chef (Chace Crawford). Whether the filmmakers wanted to portray the vast boundaries of pregnancy scenarios or to get a bunch of attractive known actors together for a box office bonanza remains moot.

What we do get are a series of pregnancy clichés seen in dozens and dozens of films and TV shows, but it all becomes a breeze to watch thanks to the nifty editing and the mildly likable characters, unlike the case in ensembles like New Year’s Eve. This is no Father of the Bride, but there are a couple of funny plot points, one of which involves a Fight Club-like Daddy Support Group featuring Chris Rock who leads a pack of guys with baby carriages who bestow advice on how to cope with being a father for the first time. There are no gross out or laugh out loud gags like in Bridesmaids but seeing as the target audience is expectant couples and new parents, the stories just about work. The most interesting of them all is the one with Anna Kendrick, not just because she stands as the best thing about the film but also because of the matured handling of the bittersweet story. 

What to expect when you’re expecting is an unabashed chick flick that subverts your expectations if you set them really low. It’s good-natured, and enjoyably clichéd.  

(First published in MiD Day)