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Men in Black 3

THOUGH this film was released theatrically in 3D, director Barry Sonnenfeld wasn't inclined to alter the look and feel of the Men in Black franchise, even if it's been 15 years since the last movie. It retains its visual, wide-angle eccentricity and a cast of weird supporting characters, many with detachable body parts.

Will Smith returns as Agent J and Tommy Lee Jones semi-returns as Agent K. They are still in the business of keeping the world safe from extraterrestrial menace and keeping existing ET immigrants under wraps.

A particularly hostile menace called Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords) escapes moon prison and is intent on avenging himself on Agent K, who literally disarmed and captured Boris in 1969.

Boris retains a time-travel device and heads back to the past to kill the young Agent K. In the present, this event manifests itself by J waking up to discover all traces of his grousing, curmudgeonly partner gone. So he, too, accesses that time-travel device and makes the time leap to the day before Future Boris's arrival, only to find himself partnered with the younger but somewhat more affable Agent K (Josh Brolin) in the swinging '60s.

Where the second movie was a bit of a throwaway, director Sonnenfeld and the cast find more to do here. But Smith is loathe to give up the smartass, wise-cracking junior-partner attitude, even if J is now supposed to be a veteran agent; you would have thought he would have relinquished some of his cheeky impertinence by now.

However, Josh Brolin brings true freshness to the franchise as the younger Agent K. Brolin does a rather flawless Tommy Lee Jones impression, but it is nicely integrated into an overall performance that's just different enough from Jones's taciturn turn to be interesting.

Another pleasure: the consistently imaginative alien effects conceived by Rick Baker. The sustained '60s flashback allows him to go sci-fi retro with the creatures of that era. 'Ö'Ö'Ö

Lawless

WHERE Tom Hardy sounded a bit like a drive-thru speaker as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, he is just plain marble-mouthed as Forrest Bondurant, an alpha moonshiner in a family-run business operating out of Virginia during Prohibition.

Forrest runs the brewing and transport operations in his home turf, employing his violent drunkard brother Howard (Jason Clarke) as a watchdog. It is the youngest brother, Jack (Shia Labeouf), who aspires to respectability, specifically the respectability of the cunning Chicago gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), an ambition perversely nurtured when Jack witnesses the dapper Banner execute an enemy with a machine gun.

But Jack is something of a coward, a trait that doesn't serve him well when an interloper comes to Franklin County with the intentions of taking a big cut out of the lucrative moonshine market. The enforcer hired for the job is Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce), a loathsome but rakish mobster masquerading as a lawman. With Rakes, director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave revive one of the more grievous villain stereotypes from the '70s, the degenerate homosexual psycho.

Between them, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska offer more conventional supportive feminine presence in the film. Chastain plays a former Chicago fan dancer who comes to work for the Bondurant brothers, ironically, to escape the violence and inhumanity of the big city. Wasikowska plays a Mennonite minister's daughter who becomes the object of affection for Jack.

Based on Matt Bondurant's fact-based novel The Wettest County in the World, the movie combines moonshiner-vs. revenuer mythology with gangster movie convention.

Hillcoat has assembled a quality cast but a fatally mismatched one. Hardy, the current No. 1 guy when it comes to sheer physical menace, is amusing, but as unconvincing as he is incomprehensible. Labeouf holds nothing back emotionally, which means his performance is at cross-purposes with a portrayal of a would-be tough guy. Pearce offers up the weakest portrayal of all, rendering a villain who might as well be a malicious alien from space for all the actor does to make him a recognizable homo sapiens.

Lawless is supposedly a fictionalized history of Matt Bondurant's backwoods ancestry, but this mishmash of performances result in a movie short on real authenticity and long on potboiler fiction. 'Ö'Ö

ParaNorman

IF 2012 was something of a landmark year for juvenile-targeted horror movies, the stop-motion animated ParaNorman emerged as the best of the lot, easily trumping Hotel Transylvania and even Tim Burton's Frankenweenie.

It was no small achievement bettering Burton, the Dark Prince of Kiddie Goth, but this feature from the folks who gave us Coraline delivered the grisly goods -- in PG fashion, of course.

Like the juvenile hero of The Sixth Sense, Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) can see dead people, ghosts that hang around the streets of his New England small town.

It turns out this extra-sensory talent has been passed down through generations; the people so gifted hold a crucial role in protecting the citizens from an apocalyptic menace that involves the community's past history of witch-burning.

Norman, typically shunned by his schoolmates, emerges as the townspeople's best hope when the community seems to be under attack from Puritan zombies.

This is a superbly animated feature that mocks horror movie convention (the opening zombie-movie-within-a-zombie movie is a scream) yet delivers thrills of its own.

It's worth a look at the DVD extras to see how it was done. Stop-motion technology has made amazing leaps since the days of Gumby and Pokey, roughly equivalent to the difference between Steamboat Willie and Toy Story. 'Ö'Ö'Ö'Ö

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 29, 2012 C13

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