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Friday, July 19, 2002

Keith Keener's

Positive Movie Reviews

Men in Black 2

I think it's fair to say that the backlash has begun. Now that black actors dominate the Academy Awards (Julia Roberts had to cut her various appearances on this year's telecast to only fifteen minutes to make room for Denzel Washington's acceptance speech), whites have started to fight back to get a tiny toehold in Hollywood. This year, they've done so by using something known as the "divide and conquer" strategy, where they schedule movies starring the world's two best rappers against one another in the same weekend. Between Men in Black 2, starring Will "Fresh King" Smith, and Like Mike, starring Li'l Ding Dong, people won't have the time in a four-day weekend to see both movies. To quote another movie, "There can be only one." It remains to be seen whether this last desperate effort will work, or if white actors will be forced to content themselves with the occasional appearance in art films and on TV series that want to showcase "diversity."

Like other Americans, I had to make my choice, and I went with Men in Black 2. Although I'm sure Like Mike is excellent, to be honest, I've seen too many an-orphan-tries-on-a-pair-of-magical-sneakers-and-becomes-an-NBA-superstar-like-Michael-Jordan movies lately. And besides, I think that R. Kelly is probably the only director who really uses child actors well. As for Men in Black 2:

Take the best two hours of your life. I mean, the best two-hour period you have ever had. For some of you, it might be a really great date followed by some internet porn, or maybe it was when you were baptized and Born Again, or maybe it was when you were circumcised, for those of you of the Jewish persuasion. For me, it was the time between the moment when I was seven, when my parents let me out of the closet to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and them putting me back in, with my father saying, "Santa doesn't bring presents to little fairies." That was a really great night, for those two hours. To be honest, I get kind of an erection when I think about Rudolph. Is that weird?

Anyway, take the best two hours of your life. Now cut them in half, to make them even more jam-packed with fun, and add a lot of close-ups of Will Smith, and you have Men in Black 2, the speediest action comedy movie since the Mentos commercial in which the kid dresses up as a mannequin to escape from his evil mother, because he had a Mentos which gave him the idea. Sorry, Mentos there's a new "Fresh Maker," and his name is "Will Smith, the Fresh King."

In Men in Black 2, Smith plays Agent J, who is friends who Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), who has retired but who knows the secret to why the world is about to be destroyed. All in a day's work for the MIBs, as they are known to fans of They Might Be Giants and Farscape. It turns out that Agent K has been "neuralyzed," meaning that he was shown a very bright light that made him forget most of his life, though he was allowed to remember losing his virginity and the years when Craig Kilborn was on ESPN and people didn't hate him.

Those of you who saw the first Men in Black or the X-Files episode that talked about the Men in Black will remember that they are a secret government organization that covers up the existence of aliens. But they are also a bunch of quick-witted cut-ups who know it is funny to reveal that many strange famous people are not just "out there," but really "out of this world." Like Michael Jackson, Vaclav Havel, and JonBenet Ramsey: all of them aliens. Vaclav and JonBenet were the lazy ones, who couldn't even be bothered to change their stupid alien names.

K's experience being neuralyzed is central to the film in two ways, both of them showing the brilliance of director Barry Sonnenfeld. The first way is that one of the things he forgot is where he put "The Light," which is this thing that is the key to the destruction or salvation of the universe. An evil alien, Domina Trix (Lara Croft Boyle), comes to Earth to steal "The Light," so J has no choice but to "deneuralyze" K to see if any good will come of it. And here is the first important part of the neuralyzer: without it, there is no movie except for a bunch of scenes of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones loading weapons and telling jokes with some special effects. In other words, Sonnenfeld and his screenwriters use the "neuralyzer" as a "device" to make the "plot" work.

But the other way is even more clever. In last year's movie "Memento," the main character had amnesia, which meant that history happens backward, and the director filmed it that way. I had problems with the movie, because frankly, I didn't know why the character seemed so angry all the time. Sonnenfeld takes Men in Black 2 to a whole new level. He makes us feel what being neuralyzed is actually like. By chopping the 80-minute film into 15-second-long scenes, then arranging them in random order, he creates a vastly imaginative and creative kaleidoscope of a film, confusing, angry, energetic, and zany at the same time, filled with misshapen creatures, strange bodily fluids, odd smells, and sudden, jarring closeups of people's faces, sort of like drinking seven Red-Bull-and-Vodkas and then wandering through a Lambeau Field on the day that the Pack is taking on the cursed Minnesota Vikings. This is audacious filmmaking, the kind that realizes that what movie audiences most want is not plot, or characters, or recognizable jokes, or "entertainment" in a conventional sense. What they want is to be challenged. To ask themselves what is happening, why it is happening, and how their attendance at the movie will help to ensure that more things like this happen again and again.

"Men in Black 2" is the most impressive 80 minutes of film since the first quarter of Eyes Wide Shut. My favorite moment, which I had already seen fifty times in commercials but which was even funnier in the movie, was when the Men in Black-mobile pulls up, and there's an "auto-driver" who disappears into the steering wheel. Jones asks Smith, "Does that come standard?" Smith replies, "It came with a black dude, but he kept getting pulled over." Like me the other 200 white people in the audience had a hearty chuckle, but it made them think too, and I noticed that on the way out of the theater, only 90% of people suddenly gripped their purses and wallets more tightly when walking past the black usher, not the usualy 98%. By the way, I think I got the joke, and I agree that maybe if the police were able to pull over more black motorists, the September 11th attacks wouldn't have happened.

It seems, by the way, that the gambit to set Li'l Ding Dong up against Will "Fresh King" Smith is likely to fail. The makers of Like Mike have already committed to a sequel Like Regis which is currently being kept under wraps. In fact, young white actors have had to change their names to emulate some of Li'l Ding-Dong's success, like to Li'l Rabbi and Li'l Amish. And "Men in Black 2" is set for heavy repeat business from audiences that will want to see it again, and again, and again, to see if they can finally understand what's going on.

With the critical and popular success of Wild Jim West, Big Trouble, and now Men in Black 2, director Barry Sonnenfeld is seemingly on an unstoppable roll, and he appears determined to take as many people as he can with him. My only knock on the film is that in the final credits, they play a Will Smith song ("Nod Your Head") that isn't set to a recognizable 1970s hit like "Boogie On, Reggae Woman." I want rap music that I can hum to, although at least this had an easy to remember three-word chorus that I could chant.

Anyway, I predict that next March will be "Men in Black History Month" because "Men in Black 2" will make "history" by winning more Oscars even than "Citizen Kane."

On a scale of four or five stars, I give "Men in Black 2" four-and-a-half stars.  

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Earlier Positive Movie Reviews can be found at home.earthlink.net/~dleheny