Men in Black II


Johnny Knoxville's best day ever.

Johnny Knoxville’s best day ever.

(2002) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Lara Flynn Boyle, Rip Torn, Johnny Knoxville, Rosario Dawson, Tony Shalhoub, Patrick Warburton, David Cross, Jack Kehler, Colombe Jacobsen, Peter Spellos, Michael Rivkin, Tim Blaney (voice), Lenny Venito, Michael Jackson, Martha Stewart, Nick Cannon, Peter Graves, Doug Jones, Mary Stein  Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

Sequels are by and large, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, either a continuation of the original story or a repetition of it and on that score as he was on so many others, Ebert was dead on. Sequels are at once the bane of Hollywood’s existence and the revenue machine that makes other, less sure-thing hit movies possible.

In this follow-up to a 1997 hit, things have changed a lot for the MiB since the first movie. Agent K (Jones), the agency’s best, has been neuralized – you know, had his memory erased by a device that looks something like a laser pointer – and Agent J (Smith), his former partner, is the new Top Dawg. Like K, J has been going through partners like the Kardashian girls go through husbands.

When Serleena (Boyle), the baddest bad girl in the universe comes to Earth in search of something called the Lights of Zathar and the MiB have only 24 hours to stop her from finding it or once again the Earth will be blown up, the only one who knows what or where the Lights of Zathar are is K. J is going to have to go to Massachusetts and find K, who now works in a post office (where half the workforce are aliens in one of the movie’s best jokes) and bring him back to New York to deneuralize him, which becomes problematic when Serleena takes over MiB headquarters along with her two-headed friend Scrad (Knoxville) whose smaller head may well have more control on his actions than his bigger one.

The key to everything may be the lovely Laura (Dawson), a pizza waitress who witnessed some of Serleena’s homicidal chicanery, but J is developing feelings for her – and she for him. The kind of feelings that make doing the job of protecting planet Earth from destruction a mite harder.

As important as bringing Smith, Jones and Torn (who reprises his role as the curmudgeonly Zed here) back on board, perhaps the most important return is make-up legend Rick Baker who created most of the grotesque alien looks. That retro-futuristic vibe of the first movie remains, albeit a little less obvious.

The good news is that even though five years had passed since the first film, the chemistry between Smith and Jones hasn’t decreased one iota in the intervening years. The two work together as well as any duo in the movies, now and ever. Once K’s memories are retrieved, the two resume their relationship from the first film and thankfully, Sonnenfeld doesn’t waste any time getting that relationship back on track.

He doesn’t have any time to waste quite frankly since the movie is only 88 minutes long,  almost a short by Hollywood franchise standards. Sonnenfeld does make every moment count quite frankly; a lot of modern filmmakers should take a few cues from him. Therefore the movie never feels like it’s dragging, even during lulls in the action. While the energy is different than that of the first movie, it is at least a kinetic energy here. Those that really loved the first film though may find this one somewhat flatter than the original.

The problem here is that the movie doesn’t really add anything new to the franchise. Other than a brief reversal of roles with J the mentor to the neuralized K for a brief time, it’s the same basic story as the first. Boyle is less a memorable baddie than Vincent D’Onofrio was in the first film; while she has plenty of tentacles, her performance is a bit strained, as if she isn’t sure what kind of role she’s playing. I don’t know if her late casting had anything to do with it because I’ve always found Boyle to be a capable actress but here she is strangely flat.

Also back from the first movie are Frank the Pug (voiced by Blaney) in a greatly expanded role and the Worms, all of whom provide much comic relief even though when you have Will Smith around you really don’t need much more. Still, this is a pretty decent sequel as sequels go, and while critics tended to grouse about the story overly much, the movie still stands out as top notch entertainment. Anytime you get a duo like Smith and Jones together it’s a good day.

WHY RENT THIS: Smith and Jones are a formidable team. Sonnenfeld’s trademark offbeat humor still in full force. Frank the Pug and the Worms deliver plenty of comic relief.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Story seems way too similar to the first film. Boyle is a bit stiff and wooden.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild violence and provocative humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Initially, Famke Jansen was cast as Serleena and several scenes were shot with her, but due to a death in her family she had to drop out of the production and Boyle was added at the last minute.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The animated short The Chubb Chubbs which preceded MiB2 in some theaters, is included here. Also, there’s a blooper reel, an alternate ending, a music video starring Smith, and a plethora of featurettes. The DVD-ROM also includes an interactive game and screensaver. The DVD-ROM features, it should be noted, aren’t available on the Blu-Ray edition.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $441.8M on a $140M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental and streaming), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stargate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Paper Towns

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House on Haunted Hill (1999)


House on Haunted Hill

All sorts of photo ops in the House on Haunted Hill.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Warner Brothers) Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Max Perlich, Jeffrey Combes, Dick Beebe, Lisa Loeb, James Marsters, Peter Graves. Directed by William Malone

 

When done correctly, the haunted-house movie can be nearly ideal entertainment; claustrophobic, scary and sometimes spectacular, depending on the visual bent of the director.

Unfortunately, it’s very rarely done well, despite many attempts; my favorite remains The Legend of Hell House, which scores regular appearances on late-night television and is readily available on home video.. The House on Haunted Hill is a remake of a William Castle B-movie classic, updated for the ’90s with a stellar cast and crackerjack effects.

It begins at an insane asylum as the demented inmates riot against a sadistic staff, leading to a tragedy that kills all but five. Flash forward to the present, when theme park maven Stephen Price (Rush) – a sly tribute to the original movie’s star Vincent Price – has just finished debuting his newest roller coaster (actually the Incredible Hulk coaster at Orlando’s very own Islands of Adventure theme park, an experience I highly recommend if you haven’t already been) and is preparing to throw a birthday party for his less-than-loving wife (Janssen). He plans an unforgettable shindig.

However, the guest list is mysteriously altered, leaving only five complete strangers to try Price’s challenge; he’s put up a million dollars per guest (that’s five million dollars total) to be awarded to anyone who spends an entire night without leaving the notorious property known as the most haunted place in Los Angeles. This is, if you haven’t already guessed, the former asylum. Of course, you have to survive in order to collect. Who will it be – the mild mannered physician (Gallagher), the heroic leading man (Diggs), the plucky comic relief (Kattan) or the beautiful, sexy and intrepid woman (Larter)?

As is the case with many haunted house flicks, the house itself proves to have its own lethal intelligence. What was a mean-spirited prank turns into a fight for survival among stereotypes…err, I mean, characters. The writers throw in a misleading and totally unnecessary subplot involving Price’s marital woes and attempts by both parties to frame the other for murder, but it doesn’t wash for a moment.

The cast is led by Rush as Price, a showman along the lines of P.T. Barnum — or even, gulp, William Castle, the B-movie impresario who once wired theaters playing one of his movies to deliver mild electric shocks to patrons during key moments of the film. Rush is always outstanding and he manages to rise above the material here.

Taye Diggs makes for an excellent hero; he has a future as a widescreen leading man. Kattan provides comic relief as a caretaker who knows all too well what the house is capable of and proves to be one of the bright spots of the movie, something I never thought I’d say about the guy.

The effects are dazzling at times; the appearances of various ghosts and ghouls are genuinely creepy. The specter of Dr. Vannecutt (Jeffrey Combs) is particularly disturbing; it still weirds me out whenever I’m reminded of his appearance on a surveillance camera. The climactic portion of the movie revealing the monster at the heart of the haunting is a computer-generated Lovecraftian nightmare, but takes up far too much screen time; it would have made for better scares to show us less of the thing and more of the actors reactions to it.

In fact, as good as the effects are, they occasionally overpower what could have been a better movie if the filmmakers had focused more on genuine suspense and atmosphere instead of overpowering the senses. This got some notoriety as being the first film to be released from Dark Castle, the production company headed by Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Gil Adler and Terry Castle, the daughter of the legendary producer. While they have since branched out from remakes of classic Castle films, they remain one of the finest regular producers of horror films in Hollywood.

“Less is More” is a truism that Hollywood moviemakers espouse onscreen but rarely follow behind the camera. House on Haunted Hill could have benefited from a budget slashed even more effectively than the designated female victim (see if you can guess who she’ll be at the beginning of the movie) who goes brainlessly and inevitably to her fate, wandering around in a dangerous house with a video camera – by herself. Kinda sums up the whole movie if you ask me.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice eye candy. Rush and Kattan give nice performances. Larter and Janssen are easy on the eyes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overreliance on special effects. Would have done better creating more atmosphere and showing the monster less.

FAMILY MATTERS: Graphic horror violence, gore, some sexual images and lots of bad language; not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first person to get killed in the movie, a male nurse, is played by the writer of the screenplay Dick Beebe.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are trailers for both the 1999 and 1959 versions of the film, as well as a 20-minute feature comparing the two.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.9M (North American box office figures only) on a $37M production budget; factor in worldwide box office and chances are this made money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Tempest