As you may or may not guess, one does not get to a collection of over 2000 DVDs and Blu-Rays (which is admittedly a ridiculously sized collection) without being a little bit of a sucker for a bargain bin. And as you may or may not surmise, the quality of movies from said bargain bins may not meet my usually meticulous screening standards (which obviously has worked so well since I have over 2000 movies…) since they fall under the larger category of purchases known as “impulse buys”.
These movies have come to me from bargain bins, from those nefarious “Buy 3 for $20” deals, from box sets where I really only wanted three of those movies but not the other seven. They sit unopened as a result of good intentions gone unfulfilled or, more accurately, pure laziness. But no longer. These movies will be watched. And they will be reviewed. The procrastination ends now:
MEN IN BLACK 2 (2002) dir. Barry Sonnenfield
Men In Black 2 is the perfect relic of a specific moment in cinematic history when computer generated effects finally became cheap enough that most movies eschewed more practical effects almost entirely in order to embrace the green screen (other key examples: the Star Wars prequels).
It is also the classic example of a movie that was obviously conceived in the boardroom of Sony Pictures and not from the mind of a director or writer as the whole movie has the stink of a cheap cash-in. To describe the plot of the movie would be pointless as the clear reasons this movie exists is to (a) undo most of the narrative corners that the original Men in Black wrote itself into and (b) get Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) back together presumably for future instalments of alien crime-solving.
Ironically, like most special-effects laden films from the early 2000s the limitations of early CGI are all too apparent which makes MIB 2 look especially cheap by today’s standards and more dated than the original movie. The plot is so blatantly designed to serve future (presumed) instalments the whole movie has the feel of an expensive TV pilot for an MIB TV series (side note: why a live-action MIB TV series has not happened yet I do not know). Smith and Jones reprise their roles almost as if they were making a special appearance for the pilot of the regular series, their appearances meant to drum up the ratings while they run through the same sort of banter that made the original movie so much (dumb) fun but seems formulaic in this iteration before handing off the lead roles to their TV actor counterparts for this imaginary series.
That MIB 2 sounds so much better as a TV pilot for an ongoing series than a feature film tells you all you need to know about the great many problems this movie has. It is the classic case of a studio trying to reverse engineer the “lightning in the bottle” magic of the first movie, coming up with all the necessary ingredients, and still failing to replicate the original’s success.
MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012) dir. Barry Sonnenfield
After the disaster that was Men in Black 2 you will forgive me if my expectations of this third adventure with Agents J and K were at rock bottom. But miraculously while it will never be considered anything but disposable, Men in Black 3 is an extremely entertaining sci-fi romp in its own right.
This is probably singlehandedly due to the film’s time-travel premise in which Agent J (Will Smith) is sent back to the past to not only save the world (predictably) but to prevent an alien from killing Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) in the past which has made him disappear in the future. And while there is much humour to be found in Agent J once again being a fish-out-of-water as he tries to navigate not only 1960s America but also a more antiquated MIB division, the true joy is in him teaming up with a much younger version of Agent K as brilliantly portrayed by Josh Brolin in their world-saving quest.
The movie is very rarely anything but fluffy entertainment but that is perfectly in keeping with the pulpy nature of the material. Time-travel purists will have plenty to gripe about as the movie breaks all sorts of logical rules in favour of emotional payoffs. But take it on its own terms, and the movie can still be a lot of fun.
TALLADEGA NIGHTS (2006) dir. Adam McKay
The hardest trick in comedy is replicating your success and this is precisely what Will Ferrel and Adam McKay try to do in their follow-up to their phenomenally funny Anchorman. This time round Ferrel and McKay train their satirical eye on the world of Nascar to more or less successful results.
The plot is simple and bears more than a resemblance to the aforementioned Anchorman as this time round Will Ferrell plays a cocky and successful Nascar driver who initially finds himself on top of the world until he is (predictably) brought down to earth again only to eventually rise again. That this is also basically the plot of the Pixar’s Nascar movie Cars does not speak too highly of either movie’s originality.
But as with Anchorman, the point of the plot is simple to provide a basic framework for the comedy stars of this group to go to work. And while the movie does not boast the comedic talents of Anchorman, there are still some impressive names here joining Ferrell including Sacha Baron Cohen, John C. Reilly, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jane Lynch, Gary Cole, Amy Adams, Greg Germann, and Molly Shannon among others. And McKay’s instinct is to simply let these comedic actors do their thing is a double-edged sword in that this approach produces some gut-bustingly hilarious sequences but it also has its fair share of scenes that just go on for too long and drive to movie to a halt.
Still the moments when the movie is firing on all cylinders far outnumber its less than successful moments. While it cannot obviously compare to the sheer brilliance that was Anchorman it is nonetheless a worthy companion piece.
JOHN CARTER (2012) dir. Andrew Stanton
The desire by Disney and by director Andrew Stanton to want to create a new sci-fi adventure based on a previously unadapted and generally unknown series of novels is commendable in a time when most studios seemed to use their big budgets to make safe bets on already established intellectual properties. However commendable that instinct however, this project had several things going against it right off the bat. First, while it is certainly not an unknown series amongst science fiction fans, it is also a fairly deep cut that never had a big buy-in audience. Second, the book series which was written in the early 20th century is a progenitor of modern science fiction, meaning that while every major science fiction franchise can trace at least some of its influences to the series, a movie adaptation is bound to look derivative of other things we’ve seen before. Finally, the highly serialized nature of the books would mean that the movie might start to look episodic.
In order for the movie to succeed, they would have to thread the needle to create a compelling enough story featuring compelling enough leads while staying within a reasonable budget (which would be hard given the material). Stray on either side of that and the movie would be a commercial failure. Unfortunately this is exactly what happened to this movie that was too expensive, too much of an unknown property, and featuring a bunch of relatively no-name actors. For what it is, it is a fairly entertaining but muddled movie that spends way too much time trying to establish its mythology (short version: civil war era human gets sent to Mars where there are warring tribes and the lower gravity makes him have superhuman strength) and has way too many plots and sub-plots for a single movie to handle.
Had Disney been thinking truly revolutionarily, they would have leant into the highly serialized nature of the story, broken the movie into 10-15 minute chunks and placed them at the start of their feature films as a throwback to the serials of the 1920s and 30s. John Carter is the perfect vehicle for such a revival of the serial. But as a feature-length movie, it pales in comparison and fails to distinguish itself from the plethora of modern science fiction movies and TV shows readily available today.
TURNER & HOOCH (1989) dir. Roger Spottiswoode
Turner & Hooch is the perfect encapsulation former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s tenure at the company. The Touchstone Pictures’ movie takes a very-safe premise of the dog buddy-cop movie (surprisingly a genre that includes more than one movie in it), uses a likeable but young (read: cheaper) star in Tom Hanks, shoots it for the cheap by setting it in a sleepy Californian town, and hope that it becomes a minor success to turn a profit.
The premise of the movie is typical of any buddy cop movie: Hanks plays Turner, a neat-freak by-the-books investigator who at the start of the movie is about to transfer out of his sleepy town to Sacramento because there isn’t enough crime for his skills and talents. However just before he heads out of town, his long-time friend is murdered and his friend’s slobbery and obstinate dog Hooch might just be the only witness to the murder. Naturally this leads to comedic opportunities as the stickler non-dog loving human has to deal with the less-than clean and generally uncontrollable canine and the movie’s heart comes from (predictably) both of them learning to love each other (aided of course by a veterinarian/love-interest for Turner). There is also the matter of some crime-solving to be done, and this too is filled with all the regular tropes of the genre: a killer, an ever tightening investigation of the killer, the breaking of several procedural rules, the hard-ass captain who comes down hard on them, and the climactic final third of the movie when Turner and Hooch try to take down the criminals.
There is hardly anything that is necessarily “wrong” with this movie. But it reeks of mediocrity. There is nothing about this movie that will be memorable or challenging, and its “surprises” will be spotted a mile-away by anyone who has spent any amount of their life watching movies. At least the dog is pretty awesome (although I think all dogs are awesome so your mileage will vary) and Tom Hanks is as charming and likeable as he almost always is. But if ever there was a movie that defines both the appeal of basic cable and the bargain bin, this movie is it.