POPCORN CINEMA 44: Men in Black and Other Crap

When I watch a movie, it’s like there are two of me in the same seat. There’s that regular movie-going guy who likes blood and boobs and things that explode, the kind of movies we call POPCORN MOVIES. But there’s another fellow who accompanies him. This guy likes some of the same things as his friend, but he is a seeker and connoisseur of SERIOUS CINEMA. This guy doesn’t just want to see a movie, he wants it to change his life. It goes without saying that these guys don’t always see eye to eye.

POPCORN: Dude, so it’s official then? We’re back?

CINEMA: Yes, I guess we are, though I wish it were in service of a better film.

POPCORN: Service? Film? I just saw a movie, man, and it was fine. Some popcorn, a huge Coke, air-conditioner pumping, it’s all good. Kickin’ back and being entertained, hangin’ out with my old friend Cinema.

CINEMA: Well, then here we go.

POPCORN: Let it rip, dude.    

CINEMA: Men In Black International is the latest in Hollywood’s unneeded, unnecessary, and, frankly, unwanted recycling of all things that have made money in the past, just another exercise in the kind of corporate greed and artistic bankruptcy that’s making everyone stay home and watch original programming on Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix instead.


CINEMA: It’s the fourth installment in the lucrative series, starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, which began with the first film in 1997. The original conceit was loosely based on the semi-Marvel comic book series The Men in Black by Lowell Cunningham, which followed the exploits of Agents J and K in their work for a top-secret organization that tries to police alien activity on earth. After Agent K recruits officer James Edwards from the NYPD, the two Men in Black find themselves in the middle of a deadly plot by an intergalactic terrorist –

POPCORN: Imagine a giant cockroach with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex, and a real short temper is tear-assing around Manhattan in a brand-new Edgar suit.

CINEMA: Uh, yeah. Anyway, the first three films were directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who’d had great success with the Addams Family movies and the cinematic adaption of Elmore Leonard’s novel Get Shorty –   

POPCORN: Hey, dude. You know the difference between you and me?

CINEMA: Well, I –

POPCORN [putting on a dark pair of shades]: I make this look good.

CINEMA: The original film was released on July 2nd, grossing nearly $600 million worldwide by the time it was done, becoming the year’s third-grossing film . . . and this was the year that Titanic crashed into American theaters . . . receiving a great deal of acclaim –    

POPCORN: Remember when Tommy Lee tells that lady that there was no alien. He says, that flash of light was just swamp gas from a weather balloon or something. But Will Smith is like, and that weak-ass story’s the best you can come up with? So Tommy adds that her husband ran off with an old girlfriend and she should go stay with her mom for a while. Will is, then when you get home you should hire a decorator to come in here fast, because damn. You remember that?

CINEMA: – with critics apparently praising its humor, plot, and the performances of its two leads. No, I don’t remember that.

POPCORN: Or the part where Will Smith is like, why the big secret? People are smart, they can handle it. But Tommy is like, a person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.

CINEMA: He’s right, of course, but I don’t remember that.

POPCORN: Dude, I would totally be Will Smith if we were the Men in Black.

CINEMA: The second film – released in 2002 – garnered more mixed reviews than the first.  Yet, it still earned over $440 million, guaranteeing that we’d eventually see another one . . . which we did, ten years later, grossing another $624 million and better reviews than the first sequel –

POPCORN: Josh Brolin was in that one, remember? He was the younger version of Tommy Lee . . .

CINEMA: Sure.     

POPCORN: . . . and younger Tommy was like, a while back I was assigned to keep tabs on a musician, Mick Jagger, we believed he was on the planet to breed with Earth women, so I was in a pub with O – warm beer and the worst food you ever ate – we played darts ’til the sun came up and neither of us wanted to leave

CINEMA: [sighs] 

POPCORN: – and Tommy’s like, what the fuck happened to you, man? You remember? That’s you.

CINEMA: No, I don’t actually remember. But the character of O, played by Emma Thompson, does make an appearance in this fourth movie. Since the original actors aren’t involved with this one, she’s the wafer-thin connective tissue holding them all together. Men in Black International is a kind of vague reboot, with Tessa Thompson in the Smith role of new recruit and Chris Hemsworth as the seasoned veteran of the secret agency, which was apparently not international in the first three films. They are a sort of globe-trotting James Bond-type agents, appropriately based in London this time.

POPCORN: Yeah, Tessa doesn’t get recruited, though. There’s some Men in Black at her house when she’s a little girl, lookin’ for this little alien dude that’s hiding in her bedroom. They use one-a those things on her parents –

CINEMA: An electro bio-mechanical neural transmitting zero synapse repositioner, commonly referred to as a neuralyzer.

POPCORN: – yeah, that. It, like, wipes out your memory if you see the flash – that’s why the dudes in the suits wear the dark shades – then they give you some kinda story about what you saw. But this little girl doesn’t really see the flash, so she remembers all this stuff. Then, like, years later she’s still trackin’ all this alien biz, trying to prove she wasn’t just droppin’ acid as a kid . . .

CINEMA: She’s essentially got nothing in her life, no love interests or hobbies outside of waiting for that moment when she tracks an alien occurrence, discovering the existence of the fabled Men in Black. She manages to infiltrate their headquarters, though they’re watching her the entire time.

POPCORN: You’ll dress only in attire specially sanctioned by MIB special services. You’ll conform to the identity we give you, eat where we tell you, live where we tell you. From now on, you’ll have no identifying marks of any kind, you’ll not stand out in any way. You don’t exist, you were never born. Anonymity is your name, silence your native tongue. You’re no longer part of the System. You’re above the System. Over it. Beyond it. We’re “them”. We’re “they”. We are . . . the Men In Black.

CINEMA: Molly (played by Tessa Thompson), now rechristened “M”, does ask why they’re still referred to as men in black, a question that agent O dutifully dismisses. It’s all part of the current trend toward inclusiveness in Hollywood, though it feels a bit forced in this case.

POPCORN: Eh. It was all casual, like, hey, chick, why are they still callin’ us dudes?

CINEMA: Well, it felt forced to me, as did most of the film itself.

POPCORN: Really, dude? Cuz I just kinda went with it, and it was totally cool. She gets partnered up with Thor again – but he’s, like, Drunk and Sleepy Thor In A James Bond Suit – and they gotta go entertain this big snub-nosed lookin’ alien dude. Trying to keep the peace and everything, you know.

CINEMA: The MIB organization does seem like it’s become more about this type of thing than about policing the alien life on Earth. Plus, I feel as though there are more aliens than ever, just walking around everywhere. I’m not sure if it’s always been that way with these films, or if it’s all just part of the predictable way that sequels have to attempt to top their predecessors.

POPCORN: Naw, dude. It’s cuz they’re international now.

CINEMA: In any case, for agents who are supposed to be secretive – all of that you’ll-not-stand-out-in-any-way business you just went on about – they certainly seem to make a lot of public appearances with high-tech scooters and vehicles that are out of the ordinary.

POPCORN: They use the breathalyzer thing on ’em, dude.

CINEMA: An entire crowd? I doubt that. We can see how effective that was on M as a child.

POPCORN: I dunno, it’s just the plot, dude.

CINEMA: Well, there’s a great many holes in the plot. Not to mention, the greatest draw for me was to see how these characters interacted. Thompson and Hemsworth have demonstrated that they have good onscreen chemistry together, so I wanted to see more of that.

POPCORN: You did.

CINEMA: I didn’t see enough of it. What I saw seemed like two watered-down characters stuffed into a green-screen dominated money machine, missing what I presume was a spark of wonder – or at least originality – that surely must have been present in the first film.

POPCORN: Dude, this wasn’t one-a them indie movies with, like, character development and shit. It’s Men in Black. It’s, like, chases and explosions. It’s dudes and chicks saying funny shit that makes you laugh. It’s cute little aliens, or maybe big scary aliens that wanna take over the world. It’s all good, dude.

CINEMA: I know. This is what most of the movie-going population wants, and that’s fine for me too. But is it too much to expect just a bit more . . . nuance, maybe, with my blockbusters? Is it too much to ask for a moment or two – even in a thirty-million-dollar movie – where they just slow down and let the characters breathe? Where we can get a sense of who they are, what’s at stake for them when all the explosions start going off?

POPCORN: Dude . . . Men in Black. What, ain’t you ever seen a Men in Black movie?

CINEMA: Not exactly.

POPCORN: Wait, what? You haven’t??

CINEMA: Well, no.

POPCORN: Not even one?? Dude, what the hell is wrong with you?

CINEMA: Nothing at all. But when it was originally released, the first one, there were a lot of good films that year. Somewhere it got lost in the shuffle. I’ve never felt compelled to go back and see it and seeing any of the sequels obviously wouldn’t have made any sense. I wouldn’t even have seen this one, had you not gone on and on, whining about friendship and being “buddies” and all of that –

POPCORN: Well, 1997 – that was the year Men in Black came out – yeah, there was a lotta stuff in theaters. Face/Off was out, and so was Con Air. Oh, and Booty Call.

CINEMA: Booty Call???? I was thinking more along the lines of LA Confidential, Donnie Brasco, As Good as It Gets, Good Will Hunting.

POPCORN: Of course you were.

CINEMA: Titanic was huge, of course. But there were so many stellar offerings among the indies as well. The Sweet Herafter. A double helping of Christina Ricci with The Opposite of Sex and The Ice Storm. Noah Wylie and Roy Scheider were spectacular in The Myth of Fingerprints, I must have watched that twenty times on video.

POPCORN: How’d you ever sit down so long with that huge stick up your ass?

CINEMA: Well, how did you ever sit still long enough to make it through Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery?

POPCORN: Dude, I got patience like you wouldn’t believe. I sat through some videos myself that year.

CINEMA: Like what, Romancing the Bone?

POPCORN: Yo, man, that was ’84. In 1997, there was other titles.

CINEMA [laughing]: Like what??

POPCORN: Like . . . A Clockwork Orgy, and . . . Drive Shaft.

CINEMA: I presume that had an automotive theme.

POPCORN: It might’ve. [picks up phone, does some typing, then starts scrolling] There was American Tushy, Ben Dover’s Banned in Britain, Bootyfull Day In the Neighborhood . . .

CINEMA: Oh lord.

POPCORN: Buffy the Vampire Layer . . . Chocolate Covered Cherry Poppers . . . Invaders from Uranus . . . The Man Behind the Man . . . Pochahotass 3 . . . Politically Erect . . .

CINEMA: Alright, alright.

POPCORN [scrolling, scrolling]: Schlong Blade . . . Swinging in the Rain . . .

CINEMA: Alright, stop. 

POPCORN: You Bet Your Ass.

CINEMA: So I missed this entire series . . . I’m referring to the Men in Black, not your other titles. Even then, I can clearly see that this latest entry –

POPCORN: Heh-heh, you said entry.

CINEMA: – is probably inferior to the first film, at the very least.

POPCORN: Whatever, dude. I dug it. Just get some popcorn and take a friend.

CINEMA: Yeah, I guess that’s the answer. Eventually there will be another one of those rare blockbusters that actually has substance while still appealing to more than just twelve people.

POPCORN: Marvel, dude.

CINEMA: At least this wasn’t another dreadful Terminator movie.

POPCORN: Uh, I got some bad news for ya, pal . . .              

It’s going to be a long summer and an even longer fall. Popcorn Cinema will be back to keep you informed and entertained about all of it. Make sure to come back for more, and check out their previous forays while you’re waiting

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