Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2012

Men in Black III

Back in form

'Men in Black III' is like getting a visit from an old friend ... who knocked you out and stole your wallet last time you two saw each other, only now he's back and he's much nicer this time and trying to make amends

Men in Black III
Columbia Pictures
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Screenplay: Etan Cohen
Starring: Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Jemaine Clement, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Emma Thompson and Bill Hader
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 43 minutes
Opened May 25, 2012
(out of four)

Reports on the troubled production of Men in Black III are like a convenient little handbook on how not to make a movie. Shooting without a completed script, repeated production delays, a mega-star calling the shots. Not exactly optimal circumstances - and ordinarily, the result might be disastrous. (And that's not even taking into account the film's predecessor, 2002's appropriately disparaged Men in Black II.)

Which makes the finished product not only a pleasant surprise, but a minor miracle. Sure, it's unpolished and uneven and its own internal logic doesn't make a whole lot of sense (does it even have to?), but it also displays a level of inventiveness in its story and production values I couldn't help but admire. (It's also buoyed by three standout performances from newcomers to the franchise, but more on that in a sec.)

Production designer Bo Welch and makeup artist Rick Baker are two of the best at their respective professions, and with the Men in Black series they've been able to go wild. Every scene at the organization's headquarters is populated with all kinds of unique and fantastical creations, to the extent that we'd often rather look around the set than pay much attention to what's actually going on. One of the perpetual criticisms of aliens in movies is how often they look like slightly modified versions of humans. That's not always the case with this series. I remember seeing the original Men in Black when I was young and expecting little green men, but what I got instead was so much more memorable. There seemed to be creatures from an endless number of animal - and even plant - civilizations.

In that regard, this threequel matches the original - and in every other department it far surpasses the sequel. This time, its silly story concepts are just crazy enough to work. Director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen don't really care how well it holds up to scrutiny; they only care how many strange and satirical things they can do with it. There's freedom in abandoning logic.

Given that Men in Black III deals with time travel - a narrative device for which that abandonment of logic is usually apropos - the filmmakers have taken the right approach. They have the opportunity to treat the subject as the device that it is, and toy with the kinds of ludicrous possibilities it opens up.

The main thrust of the story involves the odious Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), the last member of the Boglodite race, which as we all know was wiped out back in the late sixties. Boris - a grungy Hell's Angels type with bug eyes that look like biker goggles and skin made up of various lumps, ridges and crevices - has been locked in a maximum-security prison on the moon for more than 40 years now. He has only one arm left (actually, it's his right) thanks to Agent K, who helped obliterate Boris' people in the fateful summer of '69, preserving a protective shield known as the ArcNet in the process.

As the film opens, Boris is emancipating himself from his lunar detention, and has his eyes set directly on Agent K - no, not the Tommy Lee Jones you're used to, but the Agent K of 1969, played by Josh Brolin. Boris plans on killing K before K can kill him, which means of course that Agent J (Will Smith) has to go back in time himself and prevent that from happening.

But all that's just background. What makes the film work is the irony and playfulness with which it deals with its paradoxes. Like the mano-a-mano scene between present-day Boris and 1969 Boris, each declaring his own superiority over the other, each trying to out-snarl, out-bark and generally out-villain the other. This is as self-aware a villain (or villains) as you will see.

But I fear I've gone too long in this review without addressing this Michael Stuhlbarg thing. Were you not aware there was a Michael Stuhlbarg thing? Oh, there is. The Michael Stuhlbarg thing is this: Michael Stuhlbarg is a silent assassin. He is the newest, most prized secret weapon Hollywood has to offer. He pops up out of nowhere, completely commands the screen, steals the spotlight, and by his mere presence makes everything better. He is the side of sour cream to our cinematic quesadilla - the avocado on your sandwich that you didn't even know was possible because you weren't sure it was in season. You could package him up in little packets of Instant Awesome and people would drink it every morning instead of coffee. If you don't know who Michael Stuhlbarg is by now, you're a failure as a moviegoer - and, perhaps, as a person.

He got his big break just three years ago as the lead in the Coen Brothers' masterpiece, A Serious Man, and he crushed it (and got robbed of an Oscar nod). Then he showed up as Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire and kept us wishing he would show up much, much more often. Last year he popped up halfway through Hugo and ended up providing the film with its heart and soul.

And now here he is in Men in Black III playing the pivotal role of the ArcNet's protector, Griffin, who can see all possible futures - a blessing/curse situation that has turned him into something of a cheerful neurotic. As he has each time I've seen him, Stuhlbarg possesses the role totally and completely - easily overshadowing the not-inconsiderable talents of Smith, Brolin, Clement and Bill Hader (who cameos as undercover MiB agent Andy Warhol).

Much has been made of Brolin's dead-on portrayal of a young Tommy Lee Jones, and those high marks are well-deserved. But too little has been made of Stuhlbarg, who has already cemented himself - in my mind, at least - as one of the best character actors around.

One of the interesting things we notice during Men in Black III is how Will Smith - only the biggest movie star in the world - takes a backseat in his own movie. Yes, he's still ostensibly the main character, but he is upstaged by his supporting cast. The hopeful charm and pangs of anxiety of Stuhlbarg's Griffin. The stoicism and dry wit of Brolin's Agent K. And then there's Clement, an inspired choice to play Boris because the character isn't written as particularly funny - leaving it to Clement to inject the character with the absurdity it needs and deserves.

The same could essentially be said of the movie as a whole. From its casting to its visual details, it finds precisely the right tone for its specific brand of lunacy.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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