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Posts Tagged ‘Will Smith’

Off to the coffeeshop once again, and I was moved to irritation and quite possibly actual despair by a sign revealing that the the automatic ticket dispensing machine was ‘TEMPORALLY OUT OF ORDER’. Presumably this means one of two things: a rupture in the time continuum had encased the workings in an impenetrable stasis field, or the band of happy wibblers who serve coffee and cookies and tea (and occasionally, when they can fit it in, show the odd film) don’t know the difference between the words ‘temporally’ and ‘temporarily’. Obviously this is a sign of plummetting standards in something-or-other, but, less obviously, my reaction was a sign that one of my gloomy moods might be inbound, something which warrants monitoring.

In which case, it was just sheer bad luck that the first three trailers playing were for Fast Girls, Rock of Ages, and Top Cat – the Movie. Individually any of these would have been depressing, but together they constituted a veritable double-tap to the soul. So it may have been the case that I was not in the prime mood to be receptive to the jolly SF-inflected japery of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black 3. Still going to write about it though – we haven’t done an Oh God Not Another One for a bit.

Ahem. Agents J (showbiz patriarch Will Smith in his first big movie for quite a bit) and K (Tommy Lee Jones, who at least did Captain America last year) are still doing their Men in Black schtick in New York, under new boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) – possibly Rip Torn didn’t want to come back, I don’t know. However, a nasty alien (Jemaine Clement) busts out of a prison on the moon with the aid of Nicole Scherzinger and heads for the Big Apple intent on taking revenge on old enemy K. (And if you think the film’s going to give you some kind of explanation for Scherzinger’s involvement, you’ve got another think coming!)

The bad guy gets his hand on a time machine and pops back to 1969 to kill K before he can catch him in the first place – don’t let the ins and outs of this concern you overmuch – conveniently leaving the only other time machine in the present day so J can follow him back. In the new timeline where K has been dead for decades, Earth is in terrible peril, and J has to save his partner for the planet to survive – and the best person to help our temporally-displaced (or, if you work for Odeon, temporarily-displaced) hero is a younger version of K (Josh Brolin)…

I get the strong impression that the over-riding motivation in making this film, on the parts of Smith and Sonnenfeld at least, was not ‘Hey, haven’t we come up with a great, strong, fun, original idea that demands that we revive this particular franchise!’ so much as ‘Hey, neither of us have had a proper mainstream hit in a long time -‘ Sonnenfeld’s last movie was Space Chimps in 2008, Smith’s last leading role in the bizarre transplant-a-thon Seven Pounds in 2009 ‘- let’s get together and milk the cash cow one more time.’ Certainly I had no sense of people crying out for another Men in Black movie after Men in Black 2.

But then again I wasn’t exactly crying out for a sequel after the original film. I seem to have some sort of peculiar blind spot or – and I know this sounds like the sort of thing I’d make up just to facilitate cheap gags – selective amnesia where the Men in Black series is concerned. When I’m actually watching these movies, I find them to be more than passably fun, with a lot to enjoy. Will Smith is reliably adept at the kind of wisecracking leading man role he plays here, the central concept is a strong one, the films are always visually interesting and inventive, there are always a few genuinely funny gags, and Danny Elfman’s score adds irresistibly to the impression you’re watching something smart and stylish.

But are you, though? Once I’ve come out of seeing one of these films it nearly always fades from my memory in a remarkably brief period of time. To be blunt, I think the great achievement of these films is in putting a smart and stylish gloss on what’s really quite broad and knockabout entertainment. In this one, the trip back to 1969 permits some quite good jokes about the art scene of the period, but the films really shies away from any satire which is genuinely penetrating. There’s one scene in which Smith gets stopped and searched for driving an expensive car, which at least acknowledges an element of societal tension, but to put this in context there’s also some really dodgy stuff earlier on about Chinese restaurants.

The strengths of the series are all there, I suppose, and Brolin’s impression of Jones is a lot of fun. More fun, it must be said, than Jones’ impression of himself – he gives off an aura of being in the movie against his will, perhaps with guns trained on him from behind the cameras. His appearance is, frankly, as minimal as they can get away with, and one has to ponder if his claim that doing these movies is ‘a hell of a lot of fun’ is really sincere.

I feel I should also point out that the plot of this film borders on the incoherent, as is nearly always the case when a big movie talks about going back in time and meddling with events which have already happened. Can someone do a movie where this sort of thing is handled intelligently and in a way which doesn’t contradict itself, please? In the end things are resolved with the help of a plot-device character played (rather annoyingly, it must be said) by Michael Stuhlbarg, and a plan which may seem vaguely familiar to anyone who saw the Doctor getting rid of the Silence on TV around the time this film was being made.

But, all this said, the film passed the time pleasantly enough, even if I was never under the impression this was anything other than nicely-packaged, eminently-disposable entertainment with – it would seem – no real ambitions to be anything else. I will be really surprised if this film makes as big an impression as either of its predecessors, given the state of modern cinema. On past form, Men in Black 4 is not due until 2032, so at least they have a while to come up with an idea which does the MIB concept justice.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 12th 2004:

In olden days, it was always said that the partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers was so effective for a simple reason: he gave her class, and she gave him sex appeal. Something similar seems to be going on in the relationship between Hollywood studios and classic SF authors. With the recent fad for Philip K Dick adaptations seemingly on the wane, the next big-name author getting the studio makeover looks like being Isaac Asimov.

Now Asimov’s track-record at the cinema is not that great: Fantastic Voyage is a famous film, but not an especially good one, and the book isn’t exactly premium stuff. On the other hand, one of his best stories was turned into a horrific movie, The Bicentennial Man, largely due to the casting of Robin Williams in the title role. The great man himself had a go at adapting I, Robot, one of his most famous collections of stories, for the screen, but nothing ever came of it.

Until now, of course, as a movie with that title (based on a new script) has hit our screens, directed by Alex Proyas of The Crow and Dark City fame. Wikkidy wikkidy wah wah Will Smith plays Spooner, a tough, wise-cracking cop (yeah, good to see Smith stretching himself, isn’t it?) in 2035 Chicago. Spooner has a thing about robots following a traumatic event in his back-story so it’s just his luck that he’s assigned to investigate the apparent suicide of one of the top boffins at US Robotics, one of the world’s most powerful corporations. Assisted by slightly less senior boffin Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan – not quite the ‘thin, plain’ type Ike had in mind, but whatever) he discovers the only suspect is a Nestor-5 type robot, Sonny (voiced, rather well, by Alan Tudyk). But the Laws of Robotics state that it’s impossible for a robot to harm a human, and with a major roll-out of Nestor-5s imminent, the last thing USR want is a panic about killer robots. Did Sonny kill his creator? If so, how? And what would this mean for the rest of the world?

I must confess to not having been too impressed by the early I, Robot trailers. Generic FX-driven action thrillers I don’t have a problem with, but doing a movie about killer robots on the rampage and tagging Asimov’s name to it is a bit like making an Agatha Christie adaptation where it turns out Miss Marple is the murderer: it’s a total misreading of the author’s intention. Asimov’s original robot stories were a deliberate attempt to look at the topic rationally and thoughtfully. So it’s rather pleasant to discover that Jeff Vintar, scribe on this movie, has clearly done his homework. The film is laced with themes and situations from throughout Asimov’s work, and the plot sticks fairly rigorously to the Laws of Robotics as Asimov conceived them.

But there’s inevitably a bit of dumbing down going on: Susan Calvin turns into a gun-toting floozy, and the film clearly isn’t as interested in the ramifications and interplay of the Three Laws as their creator was. The Laws are of roughly zero use in terms of practical real-world science, but they’re terrific as a plot device. The movie seldom really engages with them except on a rather basic level, but I suppose Asimov’s fans should be grateful they’re adhered to as closely as they are. And at one point the film looks like it’s going to go beyond the source material and interpret the human-robot relationship explicitly in terms of one between master and slave. There’s potential here for some very intelligent and thoughtful storytelling, but also controversy – which is probably why this aspect of the story is more or less soft-pedalled throughout.

In any case I doubt the mainstream audience this film is aimed at will care either way. This is clearly an attempt at a Minority Report-style thriller with a bit of the FX glamour of The Matrix and the Star Wars prequels added to broaden its appeal. And it’s a very glossy, slick, professional-looking movie. The special effects are impressive, particularly the character animation on Sonny and some of the action sequences. The film’s attempts at futurism are a bit haphazard, though – apart from the ubiquity of robots, this is one of those future worlds defined almost solely in terms of how the cars and advertising have changed. Very Minority Report, and it seems somehow fitting that the product placement the movie goes in for is crashingly unsubtle.

Alex Proyas has made some impressively dark and atmospheric movies in the past, but here he seems a little restrained – whether out of choice or by the studio I don’t know, but the results are rather bland and workmanlike. There seems to have been a conscious choice to play this movie as absolutely safe as it could possibly be – lowest common denominator film-making. This extends, obviously, to the casting of Will Smith. He’s a charismatic performer and never less than agreeable in front of the camera, but for the most part he’s just recycling performances from past blockbuster roles. The film could have used someone capable of a more intense and rounded performance, even if that meant losing a few of the howled one-liners Smith delivers at unlikely moments.

I’m sorry to sound so lukewarm about I, Robot as it’s a polished and slick thriller which treats its source material with more respect than one might have expected. It’s visually impressive, and the plot, while not hugely original, packs in plenty of twists and turns before the ending. But for me it never quite came to life either as true SF or an action movie. (Asimov himself combined SF with the detective thriller much more impressively in a couple of novels we’ll probably see adapted very soon.) It’s a perfectly good, entertaining film, but it shies away from genuinely original ideas in favour of the formulaic. This seems an odd criticism to make, but I, Robot is a bit mechanical.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 8th 2002: 

You know, when I was a lad, the only people who talked about the Men in Black phenomenon were Forteans, ufologists and Mulderalikes, because back then they were an urban legend: supposedly, emissaries of alien forces intent on covering up otherworldly activities on Earth. People investigated the subject in a very serious minded way. Jung was mentioned.

These days, of course, nobody believes a word of it (to coin a phrase). Mention Men in Black and people will start quoting Tommy Lee Jones if you’re lucky, or engage in misguided attempts at rapping if you’re not, such was the penetration into the zeitgeist of the 1997 movie of the same name. In fact, if I was of a conspiratorial bent I might ponder the way the ‘real’ MIB mystery has been so effectively obscured, and those who would investigate it seriously rendered a laughing-stock. But I’m not, so I don’t. Much…

Anyway, considering the megabucks raked in by the first outing there should be no surprise whatsoever in the fact that nearly everyone involved has returned for another outing: Men in Black 2, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Five years have passed and Agent J (Will Smith) is now the one saddled with a succession of useless partners and a vague yearning for a normal life. This changes when the evil (not to mention amply-upholstered) Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) arrives on Earth looking for the mythical ‘Light of Zarthos’, which was involved in an old case back in the 70s. The only man who knows where the Light is, inevitably, J’s old mentor K (Tommy Lee Jones), who’s happily living as a post office worker with no recollection that he’s the most feared human in the cosmos…

Well, if you like sequels, have no fear, because this is one of the sequeliest sequels in living memory. Virtually everybody from number one comes back this time, with the obvious exception of Vincent D’Onofrio and the lamentable exception of Linda Fiorentino. The worm guys come back, Frank the talking dog comes back, the regenerating-head guy (Tony Shalhoub) comes back… Suffice to say that if you liked something in the first film, it’s here for you to enjoy again. The continuity is excellent, too, by the way.

There is new stuff – sort of. Serleena is a slightly better organised and more articulate villain, although her duocephalous sidekick(s) Charlie and Scrad (Johnny Knoxville) are a one-joke character(s). That’s about it, though, but what the film lacks in originality and new ideas it makes up for in the way it successfully puts novel spins on old gags. This is being marketed as a comedy (although it works equally well as a dumb sci-fi romp) and it manages to be genuinely amusing nearly all the way through. Smith and Jones spark effectively off each other, there are some very droll pieces of broad satire, Rip Torn weighs in with the usual priceless comic support, and when all else fails there are off-colour sight gags, people making silly noises, and singing dogs to be wheeled on: yes, there’s no length the script won’t go to in pursuit of a laugh.

Our late founder, [Douglas Adams], once commented of the original Men in Black that he found some of the jokes suspiciously familiar, and I suspect that this feeling would not have been assuaged by the latest instalment: there’s a joke near the start involving an invading alien spacecraft and a small dog that could have been ripped whole from any version of the Guide you care to mention (and, oddly enough, it didn’t get a very big laugh at the screening I attended). But this really isn’t a problem with the film, although it does have a few. Like the first one, it doesn’t quite get the balance right between being smart and being emotionally engaging. It kicks off with a wodge of told-not-shown exposition that probably isn’t strictly necessary. There’s a plot point involving K’s wiped memories that isn’t gone into quite deeply enough. And Knoxville’s character seems to disappear out of the film like a boojum, with no explanation given (perhaps I’ve been neuralised), although I doubt you’ll miss him much, I mean, it’s not like you’re being deprived of one of the great actors of our time…

There’s always a faint whiff of the mechanical about Men in Black 2. It provides everything you’d expect from a blockbuster sequel, which you can take as praise or criticism – but please, not at the same time. It’s slick, it’s polished, it’s frequently very funny indeed. If you thought the first one was a diverting amusement, you’ll find this one a diverting amusement too.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 9th October 2003:

The year’s umpteenth overblown sequel arrives in the form of Bad Boys 2. Now I thought the first film was actually pretty indifferent, but clearly it did enough business to justify a follow-up… but eight years later? Does anyone still care any more?

Well, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay clearly think so and their faith appears to have been justified as this movie has made over $130 million in the States alone. To which I can only respond: dearie, dearie me…

Miami cops Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) are still going around blowing things up. They are currently on the trail of the rather stereotyped Cuban drug baron Johnny Tapia (Jordi Molla). Some would say it was slightly hypocritical of big-shot Hollywood movie producers to go around demonising drug dealers like this, but not I. And, well, basically the cops and the pushers chase each other around for two and a half hours, the exceedingly thin story bulked out by some rather gory violence, mechanical and profane (not to mention faintly homoerotic) by-play between the two leads, and Bay’s ludicrous, intrusively flashy direction.

The characterisation that made the first film mildly distinctive – the contrast between Smith’s superfly playboy and Lawrence’s harassed family man – is nearly all discarded and in its place we get subplots about Smith having a bit of a thing for Lawrence’s little sister (Gabrielle Union, one of Hollywood’s finest purveyors of urban T&A), and Lawrence deciding to dissolve their partnership. The second one is arguably a mistake as it instantly recalls the Lethal Weapon movies, which this superficially resembles anyway.

To be fair to Bad Boys 2, it easily matches the standard of the last couple of Lethal Weapons, both in terms of action (the sheer scale of carnage is inevitably impressive) and humour, even if there’s a bit too much of Lawrence clowning around as Smith’s fall guy. The duo are certainly much more comfortable with comedy than drama, which is a shame as the jokes run out in the last half hour. At this point brain death threatens both movie and audience as proceedings descend to the level of risible cartoon, with the Miami PD invading Cuba single-handed.

Bad Boys 2 is fairly entertaining in a mindlessly slick and predictable way: it has no surprises or intelligence, but looks good and has some funny lines and moments. The teenagers in the row behind me loved it. But, to paraphrase Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon 3, I think I’m getting too old for this sort of thing.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 17th 2008:

Stone me! What a life! Yes, once again it’s a question of ‘Another week, another superhero movie’ – even I’m getting a bit bored with them and I have a comic collection running into four digits. What it must be like for normal people I can only imagine. Anyway, at least the superhero movie on offer this time is a bit of a break from the norm, in the shape of Peter Berg’s distinctly off-beat Hancock.

This movie poses the brave question of what it would have been like had the famously melancholic comedy genius actually had superhuman powers… no, I’m sorry, I can’t sustain a gag that weak for a whole column. Ahem. In this movie Will Smith plays Hancock (the name is derived from one of the American variants of ‘John Smith’, i.e. it’s ostentatiously nondescript), an LA-based superhero. Hancock is fairly nondescript by nature as well as by name, at least as far as superguys go – he can fly, and juggle oil-rigs, and bullets bounce off him, and he’s basically immortal – essentially he’s a cross between Captain Marvel and one of Jack Kirby’s Eternal characters. Of course, the rules of comic books dictate that the less exotic the superpowers, the more bizarre the character’s personality must be, and it holds true here as well.

The big idea of this movie, which is all over the advertising, is that Hancock is a superhero but not actually a very nice person. There is a running gag where nearly everyone he encounters describes him using a word that rhymes with grasspole. He is misanthropic, barely competent, frequently drunk, and generally causes more carnage than whatever group of bad guys he is trying to apprehend. At one point he throws a child into the ionosphere for annoying him. (The producers try to make this sequence more palatable to a family audience by making the child in question French.) You would want to be saved by Godzilla rather than this guy.

But everything changes when he saves the life of nice-guy liberal PR consultant Ray (Jason Bateman). Ray, not without ulterior motives of his own, decides to help Hancock clean up his act and make the city love him as a superhero should be loved. Hancock is, of course, initially dubious, particularly as Ray’s plan involves him doing jail time to atone for all the good deeds he’s responsible for, but upon meeting Ray’s strapping blonde wife Mary (Charlize Theron) finds himself becoming much more sympathetic to Ray’s ideas…

Well, all this stuff is in the trailer and quite amusing it is too. But! Caveat viewer! What they haven’t put in the trailer is anything from the second half of the movie, which goes off at a wild and unpredictable tangent and becomes an entirely different sort of animal. This, actually, is a bit of an understatement, as Hancock‘s main problem is that it’s extremely uncertain and unfocussed in terms of what it’s actually about and what kind of film it really wants to be. Even in the opening section it veers between special-effects blockbuster comedy and rather more subtle (and, to be honest, less funny) material. As it goes on it includes broad farce, straight-faced superhero action (there’s an extended battle sequence that’s as accomplished as anything in a recent Spider-Man or Superman movie), personal drama, romance, satire… it’s not actually unsuccessful at any of these things, but the tone of the film is still very uneven. Is it a parody of other superhero stories, as the trailer suggests? Is it a satire on modern celebrity culture? Is it about the conflict between liberal values and the realities of modern urban living? Is it about what it means to be human and the value of love? It tries to do all these things at different times without really exploring any of them properly.

Sadly, the fact that this isn’t just a blockbuster comedy has apparently led Will Smith to believe he can possibly win an Oscar for it, and so he never really uses his undoubted skills as a comedian: he’s just a bit too deadpan, if not in fact solemn, all the way through, which is a shame, because as a result the film is more about funny ideas than funny performances. On the other hand, Theron and Bateman give nicely-pitched performances, coping well with the changes of tone and mood. The film is genuinely amusing when it wants to be, even if some of the later material isn’t quite as effective as the film-makers probably hoped.

It’s usually a bad idea to try to be all things to all people, and one could argue that this is exactly what the makers of Hancock have done, whether intentionally or not. This is a far from perfect film and one quite likely to disappoint anyone who just goes to see it because they liked the trailer. However, I’m not going to knock a film just because it’s ambitious and has more ideas than it knows what to do with, and that’s exactly the sort of film Hancock is. One to see with an open mind, I think.

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