Monday, May 21, 2012
The idea for "Men in Black," the latest alien opus about cracking down on extraterrestrials hiding out on earth, conjures up a galaxy of surreal comic potential. If you're looking for a moderately entertaining, mega-budgeted, "Far Side" farce that vapor locks just shy of "Ghostbusters," "Men in Black" is your ticket. Even if this uneven outer limits comedy doesn't beam you up, its alleged million-dollar-per-minute special effects that infest the plot with a spawn of dorky aliens should impress you. Mind you, nothing in this delightful movie should give you nightmares. Despite its abundant sight-gags and eye-popping aliens, "Men in Black" frizzles because it relies on the familiar 'oxidize the earth' plot. "Men-In-Black" is a great looking movie hampered by a lame plot. Based on Lowell Cunningham's obscure but sensational Marvel comic from the early 1990s, the story sounds like "Dragnet" meets "Ghostbusters." The subversive but inventive Ed Solomon script struggles to keep a deadpan lid on its diabolical lunacy so its gags will appear twice as funny. Basically, it's the old idea of getting more mileage out of a joke by telling it as if you weren't aware of the humor.
The irreverent "Men in Black" (**1/2 out of ****) humor is so dry and sporadic that it sometimes fails to enthrall. Remember "Dragnet" with its "just the facts, m'am" deadpan humor? You know you're watching a comedy, and you even laugh at what you see. After all, you know these guys are straining to be hilarious. But they're not funny enough all the time to make you forget they're struggling so hard to make you laugh. Solomon wastes too much time integrating Will Smith's character into the action and not enough time incorporating Linda Fiorentino's character. The story never generates any genuine suspense, just a lot of pastel slime. The ending is outrageously implausible even by the wacky elastic standards of this fantasy. Nevertheless, "Men in Black" doesn't wear out its welcome.
Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith impersonate a couple of laced-strait Federal agents who work for a ultra-hush, hush agency known only as INS Division 6. Headquartered out of sight in Manhattan, INS 6 licenses, monitors, and polices all alien activity on Earth. According to the movie, about fifteen-hundred aliens reside on the planet in a state of apolitical harmony. Any alien critter that goes AWOL gets busted by these INS 6 dudes.
When we first meet J (Will Smith of "Hancock"), he is fleet-footed NYPD detective James Darrel Edwards, III, who has experienced a close encounter with a nimble dude in a green jacket. INS 6 recruits him because he nearly caught the alien. (If Will Smith doesn't watch out, he is going to be type-cast as the John Wayne of alien butt kickers.) INS 6 chief Zed (Rip Torn) teams J with veteran alien buster K (Tommy Lee Jones of "Rolling Thunder"). Even if you can tolerate the long expository build up, the story suffers again because these characters never develop the camaraderie of the "Ghostbusters." After a UFO crashes into his Chevrolet pick-up truck, a creepy redneck farmer, Edgar (Vincent D'Onofrio), goes gunning for the aliens. They're a bunch of murderously mutant cockroaches. They zap Edgar instead and take control of his body. (This scene recalls the Stephen King episode in the 1982 movie "Creepshow.") Edgar stumbles through the rest of the movie like a zombie. He's on a weird quest to kill two Arkillian aliens disguised as human and pinch a trinket hanging around a cat's neck that contains the galaxy. When he gets it, the Arkillian threat to atomize the planet unless our heroes can recover the bauble.
What we don't learn about the aliens, the filmmakers are happy to show us. Aliens galore infest "Men in Black." They resemble mutants sprung from the island of Dr. Seuss. None are particularly threatening, but some are ugly and squid-like. The scene where J assists a mother alien in birth is pretty funny, but it doesn't match the impact of the Billy Crystal calf delivery in "City Slickers." Juveniles will drool over the flashy gadgets. One device called a "neuralizer" resembles a tire gauge crossed with a pin-light. Our heroes use it to erase the short term memory of any spectators that they encounter in the line of duty. Remember, we're not supposed to know that the aliens walk among us. Our heroes don their cool looking Ray Bans to dampen the effect on them. The Ray Bans are already available in stores, but you'll probably have to wait for the chrome plated guns. Judging from its opening weekend haul of $50 million plus dollars, "Men in Black" should at least inspire a sequel as well as merchandising out the universe. There's a cartoon series already in the works.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld pulls out all stops. The hokey dragon-fly in the opening scene sets the smart aleck tone for the movie. One of the best scenes is the jewelry store confrontation which the movie makers have already given up in the previews of "Men in Black." The witty use of tabloid newspapers to tell the real truth is ironic, and the real story behind the New York's World Fair is a hoot! Sonnenfeld keeps the light weight action moving at light speed. Sometimes the movie zips by so quickly they you have trouble keeping up with it. But "Men in Black" lacks the bizarre finesse of Sonnenfeld's two "Adams Family" movies. No complaints about the casting. Tom Lee Jones of "The Fugitive" delivers the kind of stoic performance that would put Jack Webb to shame. Jones's grim-faced, buttoned-down expressions would be the envy of Detective Sergeant Friday. Jones proves himself a master comedian with impeccable timing again and again in "Men in Black." William Smith of "Independence Day" blends his streetwise, Ebonic, home boy charm with the sartorial elegance of his character as an interesting contrast to Jones' tight-lipped stooge. These co-stars work well together, except that their cardboard characters never evolve in the two frantic days covered in the movie.
"Men in Black" misfires more often than hits. You exit the movie theatre dazzled by the seamless special effects, but you may find that the dry, off-beat humor as memorable as a flash of light from a neutralizer.
Writer and director Duccio Tessari, who co-scripted Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars," helmed this entertaining, above-average spaghetti western, "A Pistol for Ringo," starring Roman-born actor Giuliano Gemma--billed here as Montgomery Wood—as the eponymous hero with perennial villain Fernando Sancho as his treacherous adversary. For the record, the profligate Sancho appeared in over 230 movies and basically played the same slimy Mexican outlaw in 35 westerns. Tessari penned a number of other Italian oaters including "Seven Guns for the MacGregors," "Return of Ringo" and "A Train for Durango." Tessari also worked on the Italian peplum—muscle man movies--before he embarked on these trigger happy westerns, most notably co-writing Sergio Leone's "The Colossus of Rhodes." In "A Pistol for Ringo" (***1/2 out of ****), Tessari imitates American westerns more than his native variety. Gemma is a clean-cut, good-looking, well-dressed gunfighter who is too fast on the draw for his own good. At least twice in this lively horse opera, he guns down opponents in self-defense. The way that Ringo handles a six-gun, however, it comes pretty close to murder. Moreover, Ringo is a wise-cracking gringo with a comeback line for everything. Indeed, the dialogue by Tessari and co-scenarist Alfonso Balcázar, who also knew his way around continental westerns with writing credits on "Nevada Clint," "Five Giants from Texas," and "$100-Thousand Dollars for Ringo," crackles with humor and imagination. Simply said, nothing about this hostage crisis western set in the arid Southwest that co-stars George Eastman, another Italian who made his share of spaghettis, is half-baked. Ennio Morricone composed the beautiful orchestral score and Morricone's magical music is far above what this violent western could have hoped for, especially the lyrical title tune about the wily protagonist.
The first time that we lay eyes on our hero, Ringo (Giuliano Gemma of "Day of Anger"), he is playing hop-scotch with a bunch of children in a village. Word has arrived that Ringo has been cleared of murder charges in the shooting death of another gunman, but the Benson brothers decide to make him pay for their brother's death. No sooner have they challenged Ringo—who is also known as 'Angel Face'—than he whips his six-shooter out of his waistband and blows all four of them away without wasting a shot. Indeed, like Clint Eastwood in "A Fistful of Dollars," Ringo doesn't wait for them to draw and only one of the Benson's clears leather with his revolver before he is shot dead. The sheriff (George Eastman of "Ben and Charlie") arrests Ringo and puts him in jail where our hero demands a glass of milk. Later, Ringo pours out liquor on the floor when he doesn't get his trademark glass of milk.
Meanwhile, Sancho (Fernando Sancho of "Mission Phantom") rides across the border alone only to be confronted by a couple of U.S. Cavalrymen who tell him to turn around and ride back across the Rio Grande. Sancho feigns ignorance and removes his sombrero in humility while the soldiers chew him out. Little to the troopers know that Sancho has taken his large hat off to hid his hand pulling his pistol out. He guns them down and his gang joins him in the border town where they shoot it up and rob the bank. During the hold-up, Sancho catches a bullet in the shoulder. The sheriff forms a posse to follow them and the villains hightail it out of town and ride to a sprawling ranch near the border. They take the owner, Major Clyde (Antonio Casas of "The Texican"), his pretty daughter Ruby (Lorella De Luca of "The Swindle"), and their servants and ranch hands hostage.
After the posse lays siege to them at the ranch, one character points out how impregnable the ranch is. "The walls are high and thick. You'd need a company of cavalry to attack it. Half of the soldiers would be killed in the charge." Nevertheless, the stalwart sheriff informs Sancho that his men and he are cornered in the ranch and there is no escape for them. The murderous Sancho responds, "Meanwhile, in case it takes you a while to make up your mind, we'll send out two dead men a day, one at dawn and one at sunset, first the ranch hands and last of all, the girl and her father." At the same time, the townspeople send for the U.S. Cavalry. They know Sancho by his reputation: "His favorite sport is shooting unarmed men, preferably in the back." Another posse man observes, "The only sure method to handling them is to slaughter them like cattle." The sheriff is bothered by Sancho's ultimatum. Particularly, the sheriff worries because Ruby is the love of his life and he doesn't want anything that might jeopardize her life. "If we could get a man inside the ranch," he opines, "we could help them to escape." Reluctantly, he approaches free-wheeling Ringo with a scheme that would see Ringo turned loose. Initially, Ringo is reluctant to help them. "Don't look for trouble," he points out, "It'll come by itself." Nevertheless, after the sheriff clears Ringo of the shooting death of the Benson brothers and the citizens grudgingly agree to 30 per cent as a reward for our hero, he agrees to help them. However, to establish his credentials as a villain, he has the sheriff and his posse pepper the air with bullets as he rides hell-bent-for-leather to the ranch. Once Ringo shows up, he operates on Sancho and removes the bullet. Ringo tells them about his predicament as well as their predicament and demands 40 per cent of the loot in exchange for getting them out of the ranch.
The romantic fantasy adventure "10,000 BC" (** out of ****) resembles a gentler, kinder, younger version of Mel Gibson's bloodthirsty, R-rated "Apocalypto." Predictable for all of its generic 109 minutes, this derivative PG-13 epic qualifies as little more than slickly-made hokum for teens that haven't seen better movies. The scenic "10,000 B.C." borrows bits and pieces from "The Jungle Book," "Braveheart," "Mysterious Island," the John Wayne western "The Searchers," and "The Chronicles of Narnia." The impressive computer-generated special effects that recreate the era impart more depth than the simple-minded screenplay by "Independence Day" writer & director Roland Emmerich and co-scribe Harald Kloser. The most exciting scenes depict ersatz larger-than-life animals. First, huge woolly mammoths go on the rampage twice with suspenseful results. These brutes boast tusks the size of tree branches and resemble the offspring of a prehistoric Mastodon and the "Sesame Street" critter Mr. Snuffleupagus. Later, a saber-tooth tiger confronts our hero in a pit and they eyeball each other. This shallow, occasionally amusing, formulaic Mesolithic melodrama chronicles a teenaged warrior's efforts to rescue his sweetheart from a marauding band of savage horsemen. These marauders ride for a personage called 'the Almighty,' and this pseudo-deity has one village after another enslaved as labor for his pyramid-building schemes.
"10,000 B.C." opens with actor Omar Sharif narrating the story. Sharif's narration clarifies nothing that anybody with half of a brain couldn't have figured out alone. Anyway, the story occurs in the prehistoric past in the Valley of Yagahi where native hunters have raised families for generations. This tribe of hunters depends on killing great shaggy mammoths that provide them with meat, fuel, clothing, and building materials in the same way either the buffalo served the Plains Indians or whales served Eskimo tribes. Times, however, are changing, and the biggest change occurs when Yagahi hunters find the lost child, the lone survivor of a slain people, and usher her into their camp. The tribal spirit woman, Old Mother (Mona Hammond of "Dr. Who: The Rise of the Cybermen"), embraces young, blue-eyed Evolet (nubile Camilla Belle of "Practical Magic") and experiences a glimpse of the frightening future. Old Mother prophesizes that Evolet will assume a prominent role in the tribe's destiny. She also proclaims that a champion will arise to wed Evolet and lead their people.
As a child, the hero D'Leh (Steven Strait of "Undiscovered") struggles with prejudice. His father abandoned the tribe without explanation and so D'Leh is an object of scorn by all but the warrior Tic'Tic (Cliff Curtis of "Blow") who promised D'Leh's dad that he'd raise him like his own son. As children, D'Leh and Evolet fall in love, and our hero vows to never leave her. Later, when he learns that Evolet will be forced to marry the best hunter, D'Leh resolves to defeat his competitors. He slays the biggest mammoth more by luck than skill and claims not only the prized tribal white spear but also Evolet. Eventually, D'Leh confesses and gives up both Evolet and the spear. Before they can elope, a horde of treacherous brigands known as 'the four-legged demons' for the horses that they ride when they attack the Yagahi village and take prisoners. Later, D'Leh has a close encounter with a sacred saber-toothed tiger and lives to tell about it. He assembles a multiethnic, army of African warriors to follow him to the villain's riverside setting. The Almighty, an unseen Goliath in a veil, has scores of mastodons employed to pull the gigantic stones up ramps into place. Our heroes infiltrate the slave camp and incite a rebellion.
Some scenes seem inadvertently funny. For example, when the villainous slavers drive the villagers into a sea of high grass, the carnivores that they encounter look hilarious. They look like the offspring of the T-Rex from "Jurassic Park" and the giant goofy chicken in the Jules Verne movie "Mysterious Island." Meanwhile, director Roland Emmerich deliberately chose to have the heroes speak in English while the villains snarl in a guttural dialect that requires subtitles. Happily, Burt Reynolds look-alike Stephen Strait and Elizabeth Taylor look-alike Camilla Belle make a convincing couple, but their romance is strictly your typical boy-gets-gal, boy-loses-gal, and then boy-wins-gal back. Sadly, "10,000 B.C." breaks no new ground with either its storytelling or its stunts. Altogether, the storytelling is bland to the point of being generic and the stunts are as tame as the violence is bloodless.
The energetic Jason Statham action thriller “Safe” (***1/2 OUT OF ****) should assuage the appetite of his hardcore fan base. Indeed, “Remember the Titans” director Boaz Yakin provides action, action, action, with a high body count, and some snappy dialogue. Imagine “The Transporter” trilogy minus the hero’s fast car packed with gadgets and you’ll have a good idea what to expect from this swiftly-paced, no-holds-barred, shoot’em up about a tough-as-nails, ex-NYPD detective who becomes a guardian angel for an adolescent Chinese girl on the lam from both the Triads and the Russian mafia. Mind you, as surefire as “Safe” is, it doesn’t surpass Statham’s previous epic “Killer Elite” with Robert De Niro and Clive Owen. Nevertheless, “Safe” tops last years’ second-rate “The Mechanic.” Statham delivers his usual poetry in motion performance. The violence-prone villains qualify as a tenacious horde that keep our resourceful protagonist dodging fists, feet, and bullets. When he isn’t clashing with either armed and dangerous Asian gunmen or Russian mobsters, he is tangling with corrupt NYPD officers who are every bit as lethal. The chemistry between the older Statham and newcomer Catherine Chan is palatable. She is the equivalent of a walking, talking abacus that the Asian mob relies on because nobody can hack her into her phenomenal memory. Yakin is no stranger to shoot’em up sagas; he penned the Clint Eastwood police procedural “The Rookie” (1990) with Charlie Sheen as well as the first “Punisher” movie with Dolph Lundgren. Audiences should recognize Asian heavy James Hong who has been playing bad guys since he was cast as a Communist soldier in the John Wayne opus “Blood Alley” back in 1955. “RoboCop 3” actor Robert John Burke makes an unforgettable impression as a flinty-eyed NYPD police captain who has little tolerance for incompetence. Hong and Burke make memorable villains.
When we meet Luke Wright (Jason Statham of “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels”) for the first time, he is down on his luck. Initially, Luke was a resourceful NYPD cop that Mayor Tremello (Chris Sarandon of “Dog Day Afternoon”) hired after 9/11 to eliminate suspected fanatics plotting subsequent acts of terrorism. After he broke a corruption scandal that incriminated many of his colleagues, Luke quit the force and took up mixed-martial arts cage-fighting in New Jersey. When Luke refuses to take a fall in a rigged match (think Bruce Willis in “Pulp Fiction”), Russian mobster Emile Docheski (Sandor Tecsy) sends his obnoxious son Vassily (Joseph Sikora) to kill Luke’s wife. Worse, not only does Vassily tell Luke the Russians will always have their eye on him, but he also vows to kill anybody with whom Luke forms a relationship. Luke vanishes into the Big Apple and spends the night at a homeless shelter. He encounters a stranger who wants his shoes. The next morning when Luke awakens, he notices that the man that he gave his shoes is dead.
In most crime thrillers of this variety, the brawny hero exacts immediate revenge, but Luke is so stunned he does nothing. Later, Luke heads to a Brooklyn subway station where he contemplates suicide. A small, 11-year old Asian girl, Mei (adorable newcomer Catherine Chan), distracts him momentarily as he is about to jump as do the same Russian Mafia gangsters who murdered his wife. Luke watches as Mei and the ruffians board the train. He changes his mind and leaps aboard the subway as it departs. Meanwhile, the thugs find Mei, but Luke arrives not long afterward. Extreme close-quarters combat ensues with our agile hero displaying his considerable prowess. Naturally, Luke leaves the armed Russians sprawled on the floor with little wear and tear to himself.
Writer and director Boaz Yakin does a good job of establishing the predicament early before he flashes back to how Luke and Mei wound up in their respective corners. In faraway China, the naive Mei disputed the solution to a mathematics equation scrawled on the chalk board. Basically, Mei makes her teacher appear idiotic in front of the entire class, and this audacious behavior lands her in the principal’s office. As we learn, Mei is an extraordinarily gifted urchin with a photographic memory. She can memorize numbers with a mere glance. Furthermore, she becomes an incredible repository of statistics for the murderous Triads and their profitable criminal endeavors in New York City. Mei’s father abandoned her in China, and she hasn’t seen her mother. After the classroom incident, Mei finds herself employed by notorious Han Jiao (James Hong of “Chinatown”) who exploits her as a human calculator. Han neither trusts computers nor the trail that they leave behind. Instead, he wants his cute little female prodigy to remember everything and maintain a database for his operations. Of course, Uncle Han—as he likes to call himself in her presence—uses Mei’s mother in China as a bargaining chip. Earlier, we’re told that Mei’s father abandoned her, while she hasn’t seen her mother in ages. If Mei steps out of line, Uncle Han threatens to kill her mother. After watching how the Triads use coercion to keep their people in line, One day Mei gives Uncle Han’s American right-hand man Quan Chang (Reggie Lee of “Crazy, Stupid, Love”) the slip, but the Russians nab her. Emile Docheski insists Mei cough up a huge random number that Han has made her memorize, but the wily little gal gives the Russians the slip, too. Meanwhile, NYPD Captain Wolf and his squad of corrupt, trigger-happy cops want a piece of the action as the villains scour Manhattan in search of Mei and her new guardian angel.
The virile, sympathetic, English-born Statham is as close as 21st century action-craving audiences can get to 20th century icons like either Burt Reynolds or Jean Claude Van Damme. Although his physical appearance rarely changes in his action movies, Statham tries to vary the characters that he portrays. Luke is probably Statham’s most vulnerable character. When Yakin isn’t staging some terrific shoot-outs and plunging our hero and heroine into one tense scene after another, he provides a surprise or two that you don’t often see in the typical Statham saga.
and Sergio Bardotti and Luis Enriquez Bacalov's memorable orchestral score that enhances this western.
As "Grand Duel" opens, lawmen fire warning shots at the stagecoach that Sheriff Clayton (Lee Van Cleef) is riding in and refuse to let Big Horse (Jess Han of "Escape From Death Row") enter Gila Bend. They explain that escaped killer Philipp Wermeer (Peter O'Brien, aka Alberto Dentice) has holed up with a girl in town after breaking out of jail in Jefferson. The authorities have posted a $3-thousand bounty onVermeer's head. Nevertheless, Clayton disembarks and strolls without apparent concern past two lawmen and several bounty hunters to quench his thirst in Gila Bend. This introductory scene unfolds at a leisurely pace as it covers points, such as where the bounty hunters are hidden and Clayton's imperturbability in the face of death. Clayton indicates the positions of all the bounty hunters to Vermeer. Later, after our wrongly convicted hero eludes the bounty hunters during a furious horse chase. The villains kill his horse, but he flags down a stagecoach. The entire scene resembles the scene from John Ford's "Stagecoach" when Ringo (John Wayne) who was afoot climbed aboard the vehicle.
The omniscient Lee Van Cleef hero dominates the action. The hooked-nosed, veteran Hollywood heavy delivers a stern but seasoned performance as the worldly-wise elder. Van Cleef smokes his signature curved pipe. Actually, when we meet Clayton, he is no longer the sheriff of Jefferson. He protested Philip Vermeer's conviction and the authorities stripped him of his badge. Earlier, he had taken the Patriarch to court three times. Eventually, as the best man with a gun in the entire state, Clayton ushers in justice above the law. Anyway, one of the Patriarch's sons Eli Saxon (bald-headed Marc Mazza of "Moonraker") accused Philipp Vermeer of killing the Patriarch, (Horst Frank in a dual role wearing whiskers), a wealthy, unscrupulous power-broker hated by half of the state. Vermeer suspects that the Patriarch had his father shot in the back because he learned about the
silver on Vermeer's land. Meanwhile, Eli demands to know the identity of the man who killed his father. Clayton reminds Eli that the Patriarch was gunned down from behind and that Vermeer stood in front of them at the railway depot. Clearly, Vermeer couldn't have killed the Patriarch.
The villains in "Grand Duel" qualify as challenging villains; they are vicious, cold-blooded, and degenerate to the core. David (Horst Frank of "Johnny Hamlet") rules the Saxon clan, while Eli serves as SaxonvCity's marshal, and Adam Saxon (Klaus Grunberg of "Fire, Ice, and Dynamite") runs the saloon. Grunberg plays Adam as a depraved homosexual who wears an ice-cream white suit, fedora, and constantly caresses a long scarf that he looped around his neck. The first time that we see Adam, he guns down an old man that his henchmen have thrown out of the saloon. Later, Adam massacres a wagon train with a machine gun and leaves no eyewitnesses on the orders of Brother David. David's words: "In a violent country, he who seizes today, controls tomorrow," epitomizes his treachery.
"Grand Duel" plays out in four settings: the first scene in Gila Bend; the second at an isolated stagecoach station named Silver Bells where he bounty vermin not only blow-up the stagecoach but also shoot each other after Vermeer surrenders to increase their shares, an anonymous mountain pass where Adam massacres Vermeer's followers, and the town of Saxon City where a showdown occurs in the stock pens in traditional western style.
Director Giancarlo Santi never lets the action malinger. The black and white sequence at night that he stages of the Patriarch's killing has surrealistic quality. Meantime, hardcore Lee Van Cleef fans won't want to miss "Grand Duel" for its numerous shoot-outs as well as its twists and turns. Get the fully letterboxed Wild East DVD; it surpasses the full-frame, public domain DVD or the foreign, semi-letterboxed version.