stagnation: (l-r) Smith and Jones in Men in Black II.
By Ann Morrow
in Black II
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.
Conversations About One Thing
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
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.
Powerpuff Girls Movie
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.