(In theaters, July 1997) In retrospect, disappointment was almost inevitable. Men In Black (the movie) is 1997’s Independence Day: Massively promoted escapist flick, with big special effects, creepy aliens, one-liners and Will Smith. Anticipation for it ranked somewhere between another Beatles concert and the Second Coming. The problem was that the premise was almost too good: Assume an organization checking up on all the (assumed) aliens on Earth. Then treat the subject with a hip, sarcastic attitude and dry cool wit. Then cast Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in the title roles. And bring in ILM for the Special Effects. As I said, expectations can be too high. So, it’s somewhat of a surprise if Men In Black manages to be the movie that Independence Day and Mars Attacks! combined couldn’t be. Part of its success lies in the deadpan satiric take-off of America’s current psychosis (that’s one up on Independence Day) and another part of it lies in a more balanced script (take that, Mars Attacks!). Of course, one can’t deny the incredible charm and charisma of the Jones/Smith duo and the top-notch effects by Rick Baker and ILM. It’s a solid hour and a half of summer entertainment, without the plot holes and stupid character mistakes that have been the latest norm in Hollywood. In short, it’ll make millions. [January 1998: It did.] Peering closer, though, (or seeing it a second time) flaws appear: The script loses energy toward the end. Linda Fiorentino is grossly under-used. The basic story is a clear case of déjà-vu. Like fast food, Men in Black fills but never nourishes. Still, it remains the essence of coolness, summer’97-style. While unsatisfying, and far from completely exploiting all the facets of the exceptional premise, the story at least offers competence, something that has been missing from recent summer offerings. Go see it.
(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2002) Even as Barry Sonnenfeld’s more recent efforts have faltered in lazy, laugh-free big-budget embarrassments, the original Men In Black remains almost as fresh today than when it first came out. A savvy blend of comedy and conspiracy, this original installment zips along quickly, uses the charm of its two lead actors to their fullest potential and is rather nicely shot too. The DVD is a joy to explore as it covers most facets of the production. Alas, the director’s commentary quickly reveals that Sonnenfeld is a moron, which explains his later duds such as Wild Wild West. But if you tune him out and concentrate on the other participants, it’s not as bad. Men In Black is worth another look on DVD, especially if you haven’t seen the film in a while.
(On TV, July 1997) This made-for-TV movie tells the tale of the events following Johnny Carson’s retirement as the anchor of “The Tonight Show.” In NBC’s wings: Jay Leno and David Letterman, both determined to get Carson’s job. We already know how it turned out, but this movie makes a fascinating 90 minutes of TV business drama. Both Leno and Letterman are likable, and the result is an even-handed show. Fans of either (or both) talk-show hosts will like this one.
(In theaters, July 1997) The first Jackie Chan movie I’ve seen… and I’m impressed. It’s not as polished as Hollywood productions, but it’s got tons more of energy: I saw it in a near-deserted theatre (about 40 patrons) and yet, there was a lot more crowd reactions than when I saw The Fifth Element in a packed theatre. Jackie Chan is Erroll Flynn, Charlie Chaplin and Steven Seagal all rolled in one: His goofy good-boy manners make him one of the most charismatic screen personas in recent memory. Forget the sometime incoherent plot: Operation Condor is frequently funny when it counts, and the action is so impressive that it shines and amazes. Not great stuff, but definitely worth the video rental.
(In theaters, July 1997) A better movie than the book. A smart summer flick. A motion picture where the science at least tries to be exact. A smart, beautiful, atheist heroine. The good news are that Contact is the purest, hardest science-fiction movie… ever. The bad news is that it’s very good, but not great. As much as I wanted to love the movie, at best I could only really like it. As expected, there was too much of a senseless debate on science versus religion. (With no clear winner according to the movie… but it had to cheat badly to do so: The senate hearing scene at the end is completely boffo. I was busy coming up with hard arguments against the “theory” while Ellie’s character simply followed the screenwriter’s direction to play dumb as not to ruin the movie’s point.) It’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey, but 2001 is the only motion picture it can be compared to. But never mind what the movie does wrong. What’s more important is what the movie does right. An exceptional female protagonist. A blind astronomer. Savvy movie-making. Stunning “invisible” digital effects. A solid grasp of science. Effortless scientific vulgarization. In short, smart (if misguided) SF. Zemeckis has managed the proverbial good science-fiction movie. For this only, I am in awe. Contact is a solid contender for the Oscars. While I would have rather have had seen The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, it is comforting to think that at least, Contact has been made.
(In theaters, July 1997) Harrison Ford is perfect as a butt-kicking president in this good -but not great- thriller. When terrorists take over Air Force One, it’s to the president himself to kill the bad guys and free his family. Will he survive automatic weapons, the White House switchboard, shoddy dialogue and three climaxes? (Cinematic climaxes, not the other kind.) Average performances from the rest of the actors, the directing is fine, the special effects are okay but the editing could have been better, and the film shorter. The script, however, needs an overhaul: One villain’s motivation (or absence thereof) is especially irritating and the president overtly betrays his own ideals in a scene quickly glossed over. Jingoistic flag-waving makes parts of this movie ridiculous to non-US audiences. A worthy video rental, but you might want to rent Executive Decision again for a (slightly) better big-plane thriller.
(In theaters, June 1997) The original Speed wasn’t expected to be very good but ended up making millions, so it’s no surprise that the sequel is so inferior. Bullock is as lovely as ever, and Patric is marginally likable, but even them can’t save Speed 2 from the mostly unexciting script. A cruise boat is hijacked, but the villain (William Defoe) is more pathetic than menacing. A squad of Islamic terrorists would have worked better. The traditional Stupid Action Movie Mistakes abound, but the greatest flaw of the movie is that it tries to be a tense thriller before switching in action-movie “boom-boom” format. The money shots are saved for the end, but they’re unfortunately spoiled by the promos. Still, director De Bont’s style is enjoyable (despite more than a few misfires) and the movie will make a splendid video rental. More bland than bad, but still not very good.
(In theaters, June 1997) The best action movies always have an extra layer of… depth to them. Die Hard, Aliens, Terminator 2, even The Rock all had a strong cast of character to give meaning to the action so the bullets weren’t flying around for nothing. Face/Off succeeds so well in this regard that it would have been interesting even without the superior actions sequences that pepper the script. The story begins where most other action movies end: Bad Psycho Terrorist (Nicolas Cage) is arrested by Good Straight Policeman (John Travolta) But soon, cop has terrorist’s face and vice-versa and we’re set for a fascinating exploration of the mind/body duality (and a few explosions on the side.) Both leads are just great, as is director Woo. Despite many impossibilities, the script works very well and even offers a few moments of genuine emotion. Even better, the female characters are strong, and not limited to the helpless hostage role. Face/Off holds together better than most of the recent action movies in memory: satisfying, solid entertainment.
(Second viewing, On VHS, May 2000) This holds up well three years later, mostly because director John Woo knew where to build on a better-than-average action script to produce a film closer to his own themes. Nicolas Cage and John Travolta bring considerable credence to a tale that might otherwise have seemed utterly preposterous. The directing is clean, stylish and exciting and the action set-pieces don’t disappoint. Definitely worth a second viewing.
(In theaters, June 1997) Now that’s an action movie. Brought to screens by the same team that produced last year’s exceptional The Rock, Con Air uses the same rapid-fire editing/directing, omnipresent explosions and crowd-pleasing techniques that made last year’s Connery/Cage vehicle so successful. While less likable than The Rock, Con Air is still two hours of pulse-pounding fun. It’s surprisingly satisfying and entertaining from the first to the last minute. Made specifically for the action crowd, Con Air succeeds admirably well at its self-imposed goals. Other audiences need not apply.
(In theaters, May 1997) The good news are; it’s only vaguely based on the book, it’s somewhat better than the written work and it’s got some terrific sequences in it. The bad news was expected by every single moviegoer in North America: It’s not nearly as good as the original. Some stupendous special effects (notice the “shaking camera” shots: Flawless composting!), a few exceptional action/suspense sequences (the cracking glass sequence will remain in most viewers’ memory for a long time) and a likable hero are highlights. In Spielberg’s capable hands, everyone can expect to be entertained. Unfortunately, The Lost World suffers from the same disease that will (should) make the “thrill ride”-type of movie extinct: The story thread binding the great sequences is frayed, sometimes hastily knotted together. Characters act like (literally!) idiot savant; making the same stupid mistakes, going against ten+ years of their own experience, not reacting like normal human beings would, etc… The mind wobbles at the number of incredibly easily-fixed errors in the script. (and in the direction too: Don’t gag at the brain-damaged gymnastic sequence and don’t yawn at the fifth consecutive “Dah, amazing!” close-up.) Don’t count the incoherencies; they come with such a boring regularity that you’ll soon fall asleep. Still, it’s moderately fun. The story is (in broad strokes, if not in the details) better than the original. The last act is a blast, and the preachy anti-science tone of the original is mostly gone. Not a great movie by any means, but a moderately satisfying matinee.
(In theaters, May 1997) Big, colourful, loud European science-fantasy comic book brought to live-action. It’s probably the best movie ever in its particular sub-genre. Whether you’ll like it or not is an entirely different matter. It’s not good, it’s only occasionally smart, it’s even insulting given the amount of highly-talented artists assembled by this movie. But it’s a blast. A wacky sense of humour helps, as well as a fondness for unsubtle not-quite-mature shtick. Tremendous debate has occurred on the newsgroups and elsewhere concerning T5E, but this reviewer had more fun there than at his last previous movies. The polarization of opinion over the DJ Ruby Rhod character is especially intriguing. There are a lot of things going on screen, so don’t doze. (As if you could!) Great music, good performances by Willis and Jovonovitch (the last being too thin to be “perfect”, though), some stupendous editing and a definitely French attitude. Just don’t gag over the plot, costumes and finale. It’s worth seeing on the big screen.
(Second viewing, On TV, January 2000) While watching this film again doesn’t pack the same wild rush of first approach, it still highlights the good editing, nice direction and wacky humor that are the strengths of this French SF comic book made live-action. Sure, the humor is a bit juvenile, and the imagined future too weird to fully believe. But who cares? Fast pacing, unique gadgets and an overall sense of fun missing from most current SF films make this one a treat.
(In theaters, April 1997) A volcano pops up in Los Angeles, a disaster movie ensues. Decent entertainment, but a better title for it should have been Lava, given that the actual volcano is never really “fought”. I thought the final “big” sequence seriously lacked any kind of clear suspense, but the remainder of the movie is okay. Points given for a self-aware treatment of the “saved pet animal” problem, points removed for trying to put messages in the script. Tommy Lee Jones is a credible lead, and Anne Heche… sigh… [Insert weak joke here about her relationship to Ellen Degeneres] Notice the structural similarity between Volcano and classical hard-SF “problem” stories: A problem, a competent hero (engineer!), high stakes, ingenious solution by hero, etc… As a book, more would have been expected (such a dealing with the other lava flows), but as a movie… I remain pleased.
(On VHS, April 1997) One of the most satisfying movies in ages: The script is great, the dialogue crackles, the visual style is dark and distinctive and the ending… perfect, just perfect. Plus, the premise: A serial killer is killing according to the seven deadly sins. Is the police going to be able to stop him before his seventh victim? I can’t believe I waited as long as I did to see this movie. I rally to all the positive opinions surrounding this film. See it.
(On TV, April 1997) Bad and stupid SF thriller, starring then-unknown Bill Paxton and Lindsay Cromwell (“Who?” “The blonde psychologist in Op-Center!” “Ah!”). The setup is intriguing (a female Russian scientist shoots a young boy) but the script quickly dissolves in a series of routine “alien cover-up” scenes. So routine that the plot seems to have been forgotten in the writer’s head. Remarkable mostly for the total absence of monoliths in the movie, despite the title. The conclusion is brain-damagingly stupid. Avoid.
(In theaters, April 1997) Jim Carrey is great as a lawyer unable to lie during a full day. Never mind the ambiguous script, the disappointing finale and the sugar-coated messages, this is one of the best comedies of the year. I don’t think that Carrey is the ultimate comedian, but he has charm, and the movie would be much poorer without him. There are more than a few good jokes other than Carrey’s antics, which probably accounts for the movie’s long-running success.
(On VHS, April 1997) Great anime movie, based on an equally superb manga. It’s far from being perfect (variable quality of animation, a lot of overlong scenes, classic “anime” annoyances) but it’s the best -and the smartest!- SF movie I’ve seen in a while. The plot is something between Nikita and Blade Runner: Female killer android searches for her identity. This movie passes my criteria for good media SF: I could imagine reading this as a short story.