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Men In Black

(1997) *** 1/2 Pg-13
98 min. Columbia. Director: Barry Sonnenfeld. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio, Rip Torn, Tony Shalhoub.

/content/films/163/2.jpg Among the best of the summer movie blockbusters, Men in Black comes on like gangbusters and never lets up. With its goofy-smart premise and barrage of jokes, the film moves too quickly to be bothered with its self-consciously silly plot details, most of which were done away with in the editing room. Yet it remains credible with straight-faced performances, crack timing, and artful production values.

Tommy Lee Jones plays ace alien tracker K, whose supersecret government division dispatches him to not only keep the multitudes of resident aliens in line, but also clean up their messes. When he encounters Will Smith's NYPD cop, who has just unwittingly chased down an alien, he sees potential. Soon, the hapless but sharp-tongued Smith becomes J, the freshest agent in the mysterious MiB. The rest is some entertaining nonsense about warring aliens, which provides the excuse for a string of silly set pieces in which the Men in Black race the clock to track down an alien called "the Bug" (an impressively monstrous Vincent D'Onofrio) before his enemies nuke the planet.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Ed Solomon do some of their most assured work here. In scene after memorable scene, they lay out an unusually witty pop satire about abandoning everything we think--in all our arrogance--we know about our universe. As adapted from the Marvel/Malibu comic by Lowell Cunningham, Men in Black also skewers government work (at one point, Jones tells a group of recruits, "Gentlemen, congratulations. You're everything we've come to expect from government training") and the immigrant experience (the film opens with a crackdown on "illegal aliens," while MiB HQ doubles as an alien Ellis Island).

The film is crammed with spot-on performances and visual invention. Jones and Smith make a good peanut-butter-and-jelly team, with the former deadpan and relaxed and the latter wise-cracking and hyperactive. Rip Torn proudly presides over MiB, while Tony Shaloub's shifty, incognito alien makes like a regenerative Peter Lorre (as Jones notes, New York is like "Casablanca without the Nazis"). Mostly impeccable special effects (occasionally succumbing to sleek CGI excess), stunts, and locations make the truth about aliens fun and palatable. So too does Bo Welch's monumental production design, spanning from dingy storefronts to the clean, glossy futurism of the gargantuan MiB headquarters.

Men in Black turns our planet and pop culture into unpretentious tabloid jokes (after unexpectedly cutting loose to the King's "The Promised Land," Jones intones, "Elvis is not dead. He just went home."). It's snappy, cool, guilt-free fun.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1

Street date: 6/16/2008

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony reissues its boffo DVD special edition of Men in Black on Blu-Ray, with a few unnecessary new bonuses as incentive. After all, the prize here is the upgraded picture and sound, which betters even the Superbit DVD edition. All of the extras created for the 2000 edition are ported over to Blu-Ray (understandably in standard definition), making for a more-than-comprehensive package. The proviso is that Sony has devised an ill-considered series of menus that shrink the standard-def bonus footage into tiny windows—it's not exactly a deal-breaker, but some will want to hold on to the DVD version simply to see the extras more clearly.

First the brand-new Blu-Ray features. The nifty "Intergalactic Pursuit: The MiB Multi-Player Trivia Game" is exactly what it sounds like, the twist being that your answers are timed, and your score awarded according to the speed of your responses (you can play by yourself or in competition with a friend). The considerably less nifty "Ask Frank the Pug!" is a Blu-Ray Magic-8 Ball. Frank explains you must ask a question "out loud" in one of five categories (career, health, money, romance, or "everything else"), and the disc poops out a not-funny pre-programmed answer by Frank.

The Visual Commentary allows you to see Barry Sonnenfeld and Tommy Lee Jones in silhouette (Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style) at the bottom of the screen as they chat about the film and occasionally activate a Telestrater (Monday Night Football-style) to point and draw on the film. A second Technical Audio Commentary features Sonnenfeld, Rick Baker, and the creative team from ILM (Eric Brevig, John Andrew Berton and Rob Coleman).

Extended and Alternate Scenes include "Outside Leschko's Diner" (1:01), "Jay's MiB Audition" (:59), "Mrs. Edelson" (:37), "Chinese Restaurant" (:36), and "Bouncing Ball (without SFX)" (1:07). The documentary "Metamorphosis of Men in Black" (23:11) is filled with concept art, special-effects breakdowns, behind-the-scenes footage and stills, and clips from the Editor's Cut, such as one revealing the original English dialogue in the diner scene. Barry Sonnenfeld, Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, comic book writer Lowell Cunningham, production designer Bo Welch, alien makeup effects man Rick Baker, visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig, Mikey performer John Alexander, Viewpaint artist Jean Bolte, and digital effects supervisor John Andrew Barton Jr.

The Original Featurette (6:38) comes from the film's EPK, and includes comments from Smith, Jones, Sonnenfeld, Baker, Brevig, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D'Onofrio, and producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter Parkes. The Visual Effects Scene Deconstructions give the viewer the ability, using a screen with a menu and an inset video window, to toggle between various stages of completion for two scenes: "Tunnel Scene" and "Edgar Bug Fight Scene." With optional technical commentary by ILM, viewers can switch between storyboards, bluescreen shoot, bluescreen composite, lighting & animation, and final cut. Unfortunately, this feature was better designed on DVD, with a full-screen image and use of the "Angle" button.

Also set up with a menu and inset video window are the Character Animation Studies, which allow a look at four layers of animation (preliminary, adding skin & texture, animation with lighting, and final character composited into scene) for Mikey, Jeebs, and Worm Guys. Sonnenfeld again provides an "Introduction" (:51). The same layout is used for Creatures: Concept to Completion. Here, one can click right or left to see each of five creatures (Edgar Bug, Jeebs, Mikey, Mr. Gentle, and Farmer Edgar) morph from its earliest stage of development to its final version.

On to the Galleries, again frustratingly inset into a small window. The Storyboard Gallery includes "Jeebs," "Tunnel," "Mikey Chase," "Edgar Bug Fight," and "Final Sequence." The Conceptual Art Gallery includes "Jeebs," "Farmer Edgar," "Edgar Bug," "Baby Alien," "Mr. Gentle," "Mikey," "Miscellaneous Aliens," Gadgets & Weapons," and "Production Designs." The Production Photo Gallery is split into "Visual Effects Team: ILM," "On the Set with Talent," and "Make-Up & Puppet Team: Cinovation."

Moving on, you'll find needlessly tiny split-screen Storyboard Comparisons for "Edgar Becomes a Bug" (1:27), "Saucer Crashes in Queens" (1:51), and "Birthing the Baby Alien" (2:02). Next up is the Scene Editing Workshop. The feature allows the viewer to select from three takes within each of three scenes ("The Farmhouse," "The Morgue," and "Jay's Tryout for the MiB"), assembling a cut that one can compare to the final cut of the scene.  There's also a "Director's Introduction" (:47). 

Here of course are the "Music Video: 'Men in Black'" (4:19), "Original Trailer" (2:30), and "Teaser" (1:43), as well as previews for 21, The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep, Vantage Point, and First Sunday. Those with a Blu-Ray player hooked up to the internet should also be able to access yet more material using the BD Live feature.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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