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Alien stagnation: (l-r) Smith and Jones in Men in Black II.

Men in Drab
By Ann Morrow

Men in Black II

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

1997’s wittily offbeat Men in Black became a smash on sheer novelty, placing two deadly earnest alien-busters in the midst of an abashedly spoofy creature feature. Much of its appeal—aside from the ingeniously gross aliens—was generated by the black-suited stars: Will Smith’s cocky rookie and Tommy Lee Jones’ poker-faced old pro actually managed to put a hip spin on the buddy-cop routine. The film also ratcheted up the creep factor by casting Vincent D’Onofrio as an alien-possessed farmer.

Well, New York City is still crawling with secret aliens, many of them working and living among us is in latex human disguises; but since we already know this, the repetitious sequel Men in Black II lacks the original’s blasé spontaneity. Famed special-effects whiz Rick Baker is back, and so is stylish production designer Bo Welch and composer Danny Elfman, but all three seem to be relying more on perspiration than inspiration: The film is a parade of weirdo aliens and bizarre private universes that are revealed by rote. The aliens aren’t particularly funny or creepy: MiB screenwriter Ed Solomon is MIA, and director Barry Sonnenfeld appears stuck in the same proficient torpor that weighed down Wild Wild West. Even so, the sequel isn’t a total bust; parts of it are kinda fun, and that Michael Jackson cameo is even weirder than you might’ve heard.

According to the cheesy Outer Limits-style show (hosted by Mission Impossible’s Peter Graves) that supplies the plot, an alien named Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle) was rousted by a man in black, who blasted her secret weapon into outer space. Twenty-five years later, she wants it back. Serleena disguises herself as a lingerie model, observing that all it takes to take over Earth is “the right set of mammary glands.” Serleena’s alien form resembles a wriggling mass of creeper vines on Ortho-Gro, but Boyle doesn’t need the shooting tentacles: She could cut people down with her hipbones. Since the credo of the Men in Black is that all it takes to save the world is the right attitude, then the reverse must also be true, and Boyle supplies enough deadpan bitchery to conduct a one-woman alien invasion. She does have an ally (Johnny Knoxville) who grows an extra head, but that only makes him twice as boring.

The lost weapon is called “the light,” and if Agent K (Jones) knows where it is, he doesn’t remember. After “deneuralizing” himself in the original, he was put out to pasture in a post office, which he runs like a military operation. It’s one of only two riffs (the other occurs in a colonized bus locker) that recall Sonnenfeld’s sophisticated kookiness with The Addams Family. As for Agent J (Smith), he has a new partner, Frank, with whom he has an exchange about “chasing tail.” Frank is a dog, so he should know. With Frank, a pug with a digitally enhanced mug, the film sinks to a level of obvious humor beneath the original.

In a deliberate move to advance the characters, a romance ensues, with a witness (wonderful Rosario Dawson) who believes everything the agents say without a flicker of incredulity. Surprisingly enough, the romance is the best part of the movie; the rubber-baked aliens are just filler.

Talk Soup

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing
Directed by Jill Sprecher

Serendipity rears its ugly head in Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, an exercise in philosophical drama. A dozen or so characters experience the full range of joy and tragedy on the streets of New York City, crossing each other’s paths in mysterious and fateful ways.

Troy (Matthew McConaughey) is a hotshot assistant district attorney, smugly satisfied with putting people in jail. Beatrice (Clea DuVall) is a strangely spiritual cleaning lady, sincerely happy in her work. Walker (John Turturro) is a science professor whose certain grip on reality is shattered by a street crime. Patricia (Amy Irving) is the professor’s wife, baffled and hurt by circumstances and her husband. Gene (Alan Arkin) is an intense, sour insurance-claims auditor, bedeviled by the one man in his office who is perpetually happy. These motley characters are barely aware of each other, but are made to interact on deeper levels that have the filmmakers’ full attention.

This should seem arbitrary. Curiously, the carefully constructed, complex plot proves sturdy and useful. Director (and cowriter) Jill Sprecher adds essential texture and color in a creative manner, utilizing both the camera and her actors. Fleeting images and bits of scenes echo subtly through the film, from episode to episode. Gestures, repeated by different characters, take on revealing altered meanings. The film is most alive at these moments.

Even more impressive is the seamless manipulation of time. In fact, there is no “now” in the film. That’s not to say there is a conventional flashback structure, either. The episodes flow from one to another according to theme or tempo. At the end of the film it’s possible to reconstruct a logical chronology, but unlike, say, Memento or Pulp Fiction, there’s no revelation in the exercise.

Credit must also go to the fine acting. There really isn’t a bad performance in the film, with DuVall and Arkin the real standouts. Two characters couldn’t be more different: DuVall’s convincing portrayal of spiritual peace stands in stark contrast to Arkin’s angry, edgy, unfulfilled father and businessman, and the two serve as dramatic counterweights in the story’s unusual universe.

The film has a troubling flaw, though, and it’s the dialogue. The filmmakers can’t resist hammering their points home by having the characters speak, too often, in a kind of pseudo-philosophical banter. The film fails to convince that this is how lawyers, math professors or cleaning ladies talk—especially in moments of extreme stress. (If you want to present people who talk like this, ape Ingmar Bergman and make the characters real intellectuals; it works for Woody Allen.) This obviousness in intent is wearying. When McConaughey’s lawyer intones “crime must not pay” platitudes, or Turturro’s physics professor begins lecturing on entropy, audience members would be forgiven for responding with audible groans.

That said, the film has enough ambition and inspiration to transcend even the most egregious philosophical overkill.

—Shawn Stone

Riot Girls

The Powerpuff Girls Movie
Directed by Craig McCracken

For the uninitiated, the Powerpuff Girls are Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup. These three elementary-school tykes have amazing superpowers, from having been created by Professor Utonium with sugar, spice, everything nice and a smidgen of Chemical X. When not in school or playing at home (in the city of Townsville), the trio help out the mayor by fighting crime, with which Townsville seems to be particularly plagued. Among their more potent adversaries is Mojo Jojo, who started life as the professor’s frisky lab assistant, until he, too, got a hit of that Chemical X and became a super-brained simian with attitude.

Nickelodeon’s latest foray onto the big screen tells the story of how the Powerpuff Girls came into being, and how they learned to harness their powers for good. That said, it’s a perfect entry for newcomers while giving diehard fans more of what they love, which is the sight of Blossom (Catherine Cavadini), Bubbles (Tara Strong) and Buttercup (E.G. Daily) kicking butt and wreaking havoc in pursuit of truth, justice and the American way. Much has been written about the show’s subtext, that of female empowerment, particularly for little girls who, studies have shown, don’t feel all that strong and able once they hit puberty. For those who need such psychology, director Craig McCracken provides hints of Mojo’s feelings of inferiority and unloveability, in comparison to the perfection and cuddliness of his test-tube stepsisters. Animal lovers will high-five each other when Mojo corrals a zooful of primates as part of his scheme to take back their rightful place in the food chain. Math geeks will cream at art director Mike Moon’s designs, all plane geometry in ’60s candy colors, and children and parents alike will thrill at their girls doing their schtick on a big screen.

This is a very successful venture for McCracken and company, much more so than last week’s Nick transplant Hey Arthur! The Movie. And yet, The Powerpuff Girls Movie lacks the subtle ironies of the TV cartoon. This movie is all about piling up crashes and explosions, and while this is done in a way that cleverly underlines the girls’ latent destructive impulses, it also reduces it to just another summer offering of rack-’em-up mayhem. In particular, the last third of the movie, in which the girls come back from banishment to outer space (for having destroyed Townsville in a game of tag), determined to curry favor by destroying Mojo Jojo (Roger L. Jackson), plays like one long video game of smash, pow and kerplunk, culminating in monkey parts falling from the sky. Well, as the narrator of both the show and movie says at the introduction of each segment, “but enough about that. . . . ” The Powerpuff Girls Movie is mostly about proving just why Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup are so popular: The idea that sweet little girls can, on a phone call from the mayor, turn into mean, lean fighting machines appeals to the Walter Mitty in all of us.

—Laura Leon

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