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Column Fri May 25 2012

Men In Black III, Hysteria & Polisse

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Men In Black III

I hate sequels that require you to have seen the previous chapters in a franchise to understand the third (or even second) installment. Each film, sequel or not, should stand on its own as a piece of film. Now I'm not talking about a series like the Harry Potter films where the movies are an ongoing story that was established before the films were put into production. But in the case of Men In Black III, this is a story that is basically made up as it goes along, so the potential for creating new and interesting plots using a couple of the same characters from movie to move is there.

But the committee that came up with the script (or sections of the script) for MIB3 leans so heavily on previously established relationships and circumstances that it doesn't leave room for much in the way of creativity. This film is so spent for new ideas that it actually relies on the age-old going back in time scenario to move itself forward. What the hell am I talking about?

It's clear from the get-go that Tommy Lee Jones wants as little to do with director Barry Sonnenfeld's second sequel featuring Agents J (Will Smith) and K (Jones). The contrived story has J going back in time to make sure certain events happen that do two things — make sure the '60s-era K (played by Josh Brolin, doing a dead-on Jones impression) isn't kept from completing a very important mission, and do so without allowing himself to change the past too significantly. To make things just a little more awkward, these events have to happen when Agent O (Emma Thompson in the present; Alice Eve in the past) is present and having a little fling with K.

That particular story might not have felt so pointless if I had any indication that Jones wanted to be near this movie. What makes it worse is that the few scenes between Smith and Jones show absolutely no proof that these two men have been partners for 15 years. J is still complaining about K's lack of opening up his world so they can become better friends; the pair treat this story like they just met a week ago.

And what about Rick Baker's magical parade of alien life forms? One of the sole highlights of this placeholder movie are the countless opportunities to see the results of make-up genius Baker and his team cobbling together about a hundred alien creatures of various origins. Unfortunately, Sonnenfeld and his army of writers have placed these magnificent creatures in a story that is painful to experience.

A notorious alien villains named Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement of "Flight of the Conchords") has escaped his maximum security prison and is hellbent on going back to the future to stop an event from transpiring in which he was stopped from committing a horrible crime against humanity by a young Agent K. The event in question happens on the same day at the same location as Apollo 11 launches, which leads to all sorts of shenanigans literally in the face of history, where Boris from the present helps Boris from the past, while J from the present assists K from the past in stopping the Borii. Someone unbury me from all of this excessive plot!

The worst element of Men In Black III (which apparently some people find to be the heart and soul/saving grace of the movie) is Michael Stuhlbarg as Griffin, a sort of seer who can visualize the many variations that could occur if certain events take place. Stuhlbarg is a tremendous actor in such movies as A Serious Man, Hugo and HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," and the issues I have with Griffin certainly are not a reflection of his performance. The characters is so horribly written as a person who conveniently can predict the future and can tell our heroes exactly what they must do, when they must do it, and what the outcome will be.

Smart writing disappears the minute Griffin enters the picture, and the minute any shift in the plot needs to happen, Griffin tells the characters to do something whether it makes sense of not. He's also a wise sage of a creature that dishes out wisdom and instruction like a smart-ass fortune cookie. I think it goes without saying that I loathed this character despite the greatness of the man playing him.

You know what? I'm done talking about this miserable movie. I'm truly baffled by any positive reaction to Men In Black III because the whole exercise seems like it was completed against the will of the primary participants. It might be slightly better than the miserable second chapter in this franchise, but only because of Rick Baker's work. Beyond that, I loathed just about every minute I spent watching it. Have fun mustering any enthusiasm for this lazy, boring exercise.

Hysteria

Although not exactly the most emotionally deep treatment of this subject, I was certainly charmed by the Tanya Wexler-directed look at the state of the psychological world that led to the invention of the hand-held vibrator (early versions were electric powered, so they had to be plugged in). Hysteria is the story of forward-thinking, youthful doctor Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), whose ideas on germ theory make him virtually unemployable in Victorian England. But one day he stumbles into the offices of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), one of the city's leading experts on ailments of the female nervous system, collectively known as "hysteria."

Dr. Dalrymple's catch-all diagnosis is almost always cured (at least temporarily) by manual manipulation of his patients' nether regions, and the mostly well-to-do women leave his office wholly satisfied for at least a few days. The esteemed healer decides to take on Granville as his assistant and teach him the elaborate rituals that go into a therapy session, which include an ornate privacy screen, a precise combination of oils, and absolutely no sexual tension despite what's going on south of the border.

Granville's station in life improves and Dr. Dalrympe even considers him a suitable candidate to court his daughter Emily (Felicity Jones, last seen in Like Crazy). But Granville seems more fascinated by the doctor's other daughter Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is an early template for an outspoken, sexy, feminist social worker; it works.

But when Granville is unable to complete his duties due to severe hand cramps, he turns to his filthy rich inventor friend Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), who loves to play with electricity and invent gadgets, for help coming up with something that could spare his hand while still providing the relief his female patients pay for. A few tweaks to an electric feather duster, and the vibrator is born — in a very funny scene, I should add.

I have no idea how historically accurate Hysteria is, and I really don't care. These characters are bright and enjoyable to spend time with, especially Everett's openly gay, money-is-no-object character who is either given all the best lines, or he just took them. I'm fast becoming a fan of Hugh Dancy, and with this film, he gets to let loose a subtle comedy streak that I wasn't familiar with. The film has a few strangely dark moments, mostly revolving around the women and the connecting of heartbreak and psychological diagnosis. I loved those scenes, although a courtroom sequence feels completely artificial.

The key to Hysteria's success is its acting and its pacing, which is accelerated and enjoyable. Gyllenhaal might be a little too modern for her character, but I was so sucked in by her seemingly abrasive qualities (I love abuse) that I can't imagine this story without her. Wexler (niece to the legendary cinematographer Haskel Wexler) and company give the subject just enough weight to deliver the necessary kick. It's tough not to at least smile during this somewhat lightweight story that is elevated when it remembers to be informative and thoughtful occasionally. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Hysteria director Tanya Wexler.

Polisse

This thoroughly engaging and unnerving hit film from France offers an honest and realistic portrayal of the men and women who make up the Paris police department's Child Protection Unit (something like a Special Victims Unit in the states), which handles cases when children are hurt physically or sexually. It may sound seedy or exploitative, but Polisse doesn't come across that way. The film splits its time between the unit's cases (many of which are based on actual investigations) and the member's personal lives, which are made stressful and taxing by the nature of their work. Both sides of the equation are equally interesting, and the personal drama ends up bleeding over into the job.

And the cast of actors are mostly people I wasn't familiar with as performers, including French rap star Joeystarr and the director/co-writer herself, Maïwenn, who appears as a shy photographer embedded with the team for an extended period. Polisse covers a variety of cases, including one where the child is lying, to another where the perpetrator doesn't even bother denying his crime because he has influence and connections and know he will get away with his deeds without punishment. The most fascinating moments in the movie are the interrogation sequences, where two or three investigators go after these alleged criminals with precision verbal tactics that are wonderfully complex. The officers' reaction to cases run from full-blown rage to inappropriate laughter, which ends up being contagious. It was also interesting to find out how the CPU members are regarded by their fellow officers (not highly, as it turns out).

Without turning into a soap opera, Polisse also digs deep into the personal lives of the team members, going through broken marriages, affairs, psychological breaks, and new romances. In the end, Maïwenn (and co-writer/co-star Emmanuelle Bercot) gives the audience something that is rarely found in even the finest dramas — a complete profile of these characters that shows us both their home face and their game face at work. And not surprisingly, we are able to care deeply about these stressed-out human beings who have to hear stories about some of the worst behavior that humans have to offer. But what arrises from this situation is a tightly knit family of co-workers who hold each other up so they can do a job that few are capable of stomaching. It's a fascinating piece of filmmaking that deservedly won the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. You absolutely must see it. Polisse opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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