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Friday Film Review: Men in Black

Friday Film Review: Men in Black

Men in Black (1997)
Genre: SF comedy
Grade: B+

We’re “them.” We’re “they.” We are the Men in Black.

I thought I’d throw another bromance onto the review heap. Not that Agent J and Dr. Laurel Weaver’s flirting isn’t enjoyable but the real strength of this film is how well Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith play off each other as their characters attempt to save the Earth.

Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) has been helping to save the planet and monitor the aliens who live here for close to 35 years. When his partner reluctantly decides it’s time to retire, Kay and his boss Zed (Rip Torn) begin to test and audition replacements. James Edwards (Will Smith), an NYPD officer, caught Kay’s eye when he unknowingly ran down a cephalapoid while trying to make an arrest. Impressed with Edwards’ stamina and smarts, Kay lures him to the (hilarious) testing where Edwards proves he has what it takes as he thinks outside the box and make correct split second decisions. When he accepts, Edwards becomes J, the newest agent of the MIB.

And just in time as something has the alien population running scared and fleeing the planet. Turning to a major source of their intel, the tabloids, Kay and J interview a woman (Siobhan Fallon) who claims an alien stoled her husband Edgar’s (Vincent D’Onofrio) skin. Kay quickly realizes that a Bug has landed and is running loose in NYC. Heading to the morgue, they discover the M.E. Dr. Laurel Weaver (Linda Fiorentino) has two alien bodies there but the mystery of what the Bug in the Edgar suit wants only deepens. It takes a trip to interrogate Frank the pug to reveal what Kay and J have to find before the Bug does because if they can’t stop him, the Arquillians are going to kill us all.

I love MIB. MIB II not so much and I’m bracing myself for the third installment due out this Spring in the hope that it will rise to the level of this one. But the original movie is hard to top. From the opening credits of a dragonfly flitting through the Universe before ending up as splat on a windshield it’s a pretty much a wild, nonstop ride. There is a bit of boring exposition as Kay fills J in on the history of the MIB and knowledge of aliens on this planet but most of the rest of the running time isn’t wasted. Considering how much the plot was changed as it went along, the final result ends up fairly cohesive. It’s also a beautiful film to look at – the outside NYC scenes show off the beauty of the city while the inside sets are all 1960s space age curves.

The relationship of Kay and J carries the film. Smith and Jones have fabulous chemistry. They totally play off each other with Jones’ straight faced delivery complimenting Smith’s wisecracking facade. But J and Kay aren’t just Super Men with major firepower shown saving the world in a rain of special effects. They’re human. They get busted up, J cares about the effect of Kay’s memory messer-upper on the people who get flashed and he wants the cover stories which replace those peoples’ memories to be nice and – in the case of Edgar’s wife – empowering. Kay regrets the loss of his most recent partner and still loves the woman he had to leave behind all those years ago when he became an agent. You can see the weight of all his memories on his face. Yet, despite the need for them to toil in obscurity, there are the occasional nice moments such as when J helps deliver a bouncing, newborn baby….squid.

Rip Torn as Zed conveys gravitas in the face of the imminent destruction of the planet yet can still slide in a few zingers about the years of government training of the other candidates and how the MIB aren’t hosting an intergalactic kegger. Linda Fiorentino is lovely to look at and her character catches onto the situation quickly. I was delighted when she manages to not only save herself but also provides the final blast needed to rid the world of the Bug. One of my favorite tertiary characters is Beatrice the beaten down wife of Edgar. Fallon manages to make me laugh out loud without saying a word just from the expressions on her face.

But it’s Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as the Bug which rulz. I can’t imagine how much work he had to put into pulling off the look and mannerisms of having a giant cockroach stuffed into his skin. The loping gait, the awkward way he poses his arms as he sits in the Zap-Em truck, the smash and grab techniques at the jewelry store and sidewalk post-card seller’s stand – even the way he talks…he makes me believe he’s something otherworldly. It’s also hilarious to watch how frustrated and pissed the Bug gets the longer he’s stuck in New York. Even Edgar’s cows don’t give him any respect.

The special effects still hold up fairly well with lots of exploding blue goo and Bug slime everywhere. I still think “the little guy in the big guy’s head” looks a little cheesy but the final sequences with the Bug are good. The “ingrate” worms who loaf around all day at the MIB headquarters are funny and the pug in a “I ♥ NY” T-shirt is cute. One of my favorite funny scenes is the way J discovers exactly what happens when he pushes the red button in the Ford P.O.S. as he and Kay are headed to Queens through the tunnel to the music of Elvis Presley.

The movie is supposed to be fun and breezy light entertainment and succeeds as such. Director Sonnenfeld keeps the story focused and the pace fast as it zips to a conclusion. The commentary tract is also interesting to listen to as he and Jones discuss what went into making the movie and seemingly have a good time remembering the whole process. Are we just an intergalactic Aggie in an alien game of marbles? Who knows? But no one better give me a flashie thing as I’d probably forget to put on my Ray Bans and would end up zapping myself to mental oblivion.


Friday Film Review: Galaxy Quest

Friday Film Review: Galaxy Quest

Galaxy Quest (1999)
Genre: SF/Homage
Grade: B+

“Never give up, never surrender!”

There’s been a lot of talking about fanfic lately and Sunita had the brainstorm for me to review “Galaxy Quest.” I hadn’t watched it in a couple of months so it was youtube to the rescue again. It all came back to me courtesy of 11 episodes and I recalled just how much fun it is. Gotta get my own copy now.

Seventeen years after it ended, the actors who portrayed the crew of the NSEA Protector in the TV show “Galaxy Quest” eke out a living by appearing at Cons and big box store promotions where they sign autographs, complain about their lack of acting careers and bitch about the egomaniac Jason (Tim Allen) who portrayed the captain and grabbed the best lines, the best babes and always managed to lose his shirt during the episode. At the latest gig, Jason mugs as usual until he overhears some people mocking him and followers of the show. Disheartened, he initially blows off some geek fans who want to talk technical details, as well as a group of weirdly smiling people who he thinks are dressed as aliens.

Only they aren’t just dressed as aliens….they are aliens. Thermians from another galaxy who are seeking the help of Commander Peter Quincy Taggert and his crew, they’ve learned all about them from transmissions of “historical documents.” Now they need “Taggert” as well as Gwen DeMarco/Tawny Madison (Sigourney Weaver), Alexander Dane/Dr. Lazarus (Alan Rickman), Fred Kwan/Tech St. Chen (Tony Shalhoub), Tommy Webber/Laredo (Daryl Mitchell) and Guy Fleegman/Crew member number six (Sam Rockwell) to help save them from the evil General Sarris (Robin Sachs) who threatens to destroy them. Can Jason convince the others that this isn’t a gag? Will they be able to replicate on board the real ship what they used to fake each week on the show? Is there a way for the dedicated fans to help Jason and Gwen through the chompers alive? And what is the mysterious Omega 13 device?

Guy Fleegman: “Did you guys ever watch the show?”

I don’t seek out fanfic – no slurs being cast, I just don’t have time with all the books on hand I need to read – so I’m probably not the best judge of whether this is fanfic, homage, spoof, or a mix…you tell me. I do know that it’s funny as hell, inventive and manages to nail not only the actors in various SF shows but also the characters they play. Using Sunita’s words, personally I think that there are changes “sufficient to make the jump from derivative to transformative.” It might use SF shows as a starting place but it quickly goes beyond that and leaps into new territory. Yes, it pokes fun at the characters, the settings and the scripts of various shows and films but it doesn’t just rely on a series of tired gags to make the movie. It’s a damned good action picture in its own right.

Alexander Dane: “There were five curtain calls. I was an actor once, damn it. Now look at me. Look at me! I won’t go out there and say that stupid line one more time.”

Casting for the movie is spot on. This is an ensemble piece, a buddy picture that requires a certain “type” in order to portray all the various stock characters – the bombastic captain, the female relegated to a meaningless job whose main purpose is to show some cleavage, the Shakespearean actor reduced to wearing foam rubber “alien” makeup, the “was then” child actor who is typecast in his role and the unnamed actor who’s cast in the “red shirt” role that ensures he’s always killed off in that episode. I especially like Tony Shalhoub as Kwan, the laid back “engineer” who’s the first to embrace where he is and what his show character is supposed to be doing. And the Thermians! Oh, I love them. They’re so cute I want to hug them hard enough that their eyes pop. Okay maybe not when they’re au natural but when they’re transformed, they’re darling. Enrico Colantoni deserves special props as Mathasar.

Jason Nesmith: “This is great. Usually it’s just cardboard walls in a garage.”

The special effects are actually fairly good. The aliens on the ships look convincing, the gizmos with lights don’t look like a Light Bright display, plus the Rock Monster and Pig-Lizard are fabulous. And even if the effects are not quite to the blockbuster level, well, the whole set up is that the Thermian ship is based on what they saw of the old TV show.

Brandon Wheeger: I just wanted to tell you that I thought a lot about what you said.
Jason Nesmith: It’s okay, now listen…
Brandon Wheeger: But I want you to know that I’m not a complete brain case, okay? I understand completely that it’s just a TV show. I know there’s no beryllium sphere…
Jason Nesmith: Hold it.
Brandon Wheeger: no digital conveyor, no ship…
Jason Nesmith: Stop for a second, stop. It’s all real.
Brandon Wheeger: Oh my God, I knew it. I knew it! I knew it!

And you gotta love how carefully the movie treats the hard core SF fans – the ones who dress up, quote entire passages of dialog, have mapped out all the duct work of the inner bowels of the ship and love to get together and dissect the minutia of the show. While real show/movie fans will get more of the references and inside jokes, “Galaxy Quest” is also enjoyable for the Average Joe. The pace is fast, the dialog is thoughtful and clever and the actors’ comedic timing is almost always perfect and there’s even a romance! But it’s also got heart and is emotionally moving – something which Mel Brooks once said is needed to lift a movie above and beyond being merely a spoof.

This is a great fun, feel good, all together now experience. It’s also a love letter to the genre that’s well aware of the cliches and in fact embraces them. It may start out with the conventions of the past 45 years but quickly moves past them and becomes its own story, as I rediscovered when I watched it again.

Fred Kwan: “Come on. Group hug.”