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Men in Black (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment / 1997 / 95 Minutes / Rated PG-13
Street Date: June 17, 2008
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Reviewed by High-Def Digest Staff
Monday, June 16, 2008
Funny the difference a decade makes. I remember seeing 'Men in Black' back in 1997, and thinking it was a clever and inventive mix of hip humor, intentionally hoary sci-fi cliches, and cutting-edge CGI. Now, it feels twice as old -- a rather self-conscious spoof that takes aim at no particular target while saddled with some pretty dated special effects. I suppose there is still some nostalgic fun to be had watching 'MIB,' but I just found the second time around a snooze.
The plot is a bit beside the point, but I'll give it a try. Based on a once-obscure comic book series, Will Smith stars as J, a new charge at the ultra-secret INS division of the government. J is assigned to track extra-terrestrials currently hiding out on Earth, and is put under the tutelage of veteran agent K (Tommy Lee Jones). Much to K's chagrin, J is cocky (Smith was just coming off of 'Independence Day,' so the casting is apt), but a grudging admiration is formed as the pair attempt to take on a rather oozy underworld assassin (Vincent D'Onofrio). All manner of aliens, CGI, and goofy misadventures follow as the Men in Black do battle to save the world.
Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, 'Men in Black' is nothing if not energetic. The film's 95-minute runtime sprints by, so much so that the rapid-fire pace soon wore me out. The cartoon visuals and rapid-fire one-liners are at first a rush, but soon the momentum begins to feel belabored. Even the unstoppable Smith gets crushed under the weight of the almost constant stream of aliens, CGI, and action, and the effect is ultimately numbing. By the overdone (yet rushed) climax, 'MIB' comes across as a bit too off-the-cuff and postmodern in its irony for its own good.
'MIB' also feels dated now because it was trying so hard to be hip at the time of is release. Much like the 'Scream' series was to slasher movies, back in 1997 it felt fresh to have a sci-fi comedy that skewered all the conventions of the genre, but that's since been done to death. Like a can of soda that's lost its fizz, 'MIB' must now rest solely on its characters and story, and on that level, it's wafer-thin. We really don't care one whit about J and K, and none of the alien creatures are really all that distinctive (unlike, say, Slimer from 'Ghostbusters,' who remains a memorable creation). Oddly enough, it is D'Onofrio who has aged the best, with his over-the-top insect-as-human villain bringing a touch of comedic inspiration to an otherwise slapdash narrative.
'Men in Black' is not a bad movie, per se. It's remains rather amusing to watch, and Smith and Jones do manage a fine chemistry together (Jones in particular manages a subtle charm in the straight-guy role). Yet, I suspect 'MIB' will be puzzling now to those who never saw it the first time around, or will seem like more of a kid's movie. It's cute and harmless, the cinematic equivalent of a tub of buttered popcorn -- utterly devoid of nutritional value. That's probably still enough for the film's dwindling cult audience, but for more discriminating viewers, 'MIB' probably isn't worth revisiting.
'Men in Black' comes to Blu-ray in a new, much-anticipated 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1). It's a fine upgrade over the previous standard DVD (which in the early 00's was widely considered reference-quality). There are still a couple of problem areas, but 'MIB' has certainly never looked better.
The previous DVD had a nice, clean source, but this Blu-ray offers a slight improvement. Grain is lighter (though still present), and blacks in particular have a deeper, inkier appearance. Colors are also more prominent, with much cleaner primaries. Fleshtones, too, look a bit more natural. As I always hope for with a high-def catalog remaster, detail is noticeably superior to the DVD, particularly close-ups which now boast razor-sharp textures, while wider shots also enjoy greater depth.
I didn't find 'MIB' perfect, however. Whites can be too bright, which lends a softness and "digital" appearance to the transfer. I also noticed slight edge enhancement, though its quite minimal. There are also moments of noise mixed in with the film grain, particularly on intense colors. None of these drawbacks are that troublesome, however, and 'MIB' remains a very impressive catalog effort from Sony.
Sony offers a new Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround (48kHz/16-bit) remaster for 'Men in Black,' available in English, French, and Portuguese (standard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround 640kbps mixes are also included in Spanish and Thai). The audio is also a nice bump over the previous DVD, if not a complete home run.
'MIB' may only be a little more than a decade old, but elements of the source sound slightly dated. The TrueHD is certainly a far fuller experience than the film has ever enjoyed, with improved low bass and a nice and spacious higher range. The mix doesn't have the impact of a more modern mix, however, with dynamics between the peaks and valleys of the mix sounding a tad restrained. Surround use is active, however, with nicely deployed discrete effects and a very hefty presence to Danny Elfman's score. I did find sustained ambience lackluster, with the rears sometimes too silent during the movie's quieter moments. Dialogue sounds well-integrated, however, and the source is certainly in great shape. All in all, 'MIB' makes a nice trip to high-res audio.
Back when 'Men in Black' first hit standard DVD, it was cutting-edge stuff. Now, most of this material is pretty dated (archaic, even, in terms of interactivity). Sony has not upgraded the video for the high-def era, as all are 480p/i/MPEG-2 only, so expect a very nostalgic experience watching these extras. (Subtitles on the video-based material are available in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai.)
- Commentaries - The first of two tracks is a "Telestrater Commentary" with director Barry Sonnenfeld and star Tommy Lee Jones. An interesting artifact of early DVD technology, Sonnenfeld narrates while using a sort of light pen to "draw" simple shapes live on the screen. It's kind of a fun little gimmick for a while, as Sonnenfeld points out various actors and objects he's discussing (Jones is largely silent through the track). Unfortunately, the Telestrater aspect ultimately doesn't add much to the overall track, though on its own terms, at least this is still a fine enough audio commentary.
A second "Technical Commentary" is also included, with Sonnenfeld, effects guru Rick Baker, and ILM team members Eric Brevig, John Andrew Berton and Rob Coleman. It's exactly as its name specifies, and oddly, given the effects-heavy nature of the track, here is when the Telestrater might have actually come in more handy. In any case, this is geek-heaven, so if you're at all into effects and CGI, this is an interesting look at the technology just as it was hitting its stride in the late '90s.
- Featurette: "Metamorphosis Of MIB" (SD, 23 minutes) - Created for the previous DVD, this straight forward mini-doc includes interviews with Sonnenfeld, Jones, Will Smith and Baker, amongst a few other crew. It's a fairly decent overview of the basics of the shoot, with a particularly emphasis on the special effects. It's far too slim to really count as a great, thorough making-of.
- Original EPK (SD, 6 minutes) - This short fluff piece is just an extended commercial. Skippable.
- Deleted/Alternate Scenes (SD, 6 minutes) - Five scenes are included, and some are in rough form, particularly one called "Bouncing Ball" that is sans any CGI or effects. As most of the other scenes are just extensions, it's not all that substantial.
- Visual Effects Scene Deconstructions (SD) - Three scenes are included. Each deconstruction gives a look at the blue screen version of the scene (it's particularly funny seeing Smith reacting to nothing), then the final composite.
- Scene Editing Workshop (SD) - Here, you can be your own 'MIB' editor and reconstruct three different scenes from the film. Sonnenfeld is our tour guide, and you can perfect each scene from three shots, which you can arrange in any order you like. Response time during playback of your finished scene is fine, but this is really basic and obviously created for the DVD.
- Still Galleries (SD) - Two are included, for "Art and Animation" and "Production Photo Gallery." The "Art and Animation" section is largely storyboards, while the "Production Photo Gallery" is further broken down into three mini-sections, "Visual Effects Team: ILM," "On The Set With Talent" and "Make-Up & Puppet Team: Cinovation."
- Music Video (SD) - A clip for the Will Smith title tune is included. He's a better actor than a songwriter.
- Trailers (HD) - Wrapping it up are two high-def spots for 'Men in Black,' including the film's original theatrical teaser and full theatrical trailer.
It's not extravagant, but Sony has provided a couple of exclusives for Blu-ray fans.
- Interactive Game - Dubbed "Intergalactic Pursuit: The MIB Multi-Player Trivia Game," up to four people can participate in answering all sorts of MIB factoids. The game is pretty straightforward, though the graphics are spiffy and the disc response time is excellent. Note that "Intergalactic Pursuit" requires a Profile 2.0 player, otherwise the feature is simply unplayable.
- Alien Subtitle Track - This is a total oddity to me. A subtitle track for the entire film is provided in an alien language, and it's amusing for about two minutes. The subtitle gibberish is pretty much unreadable (well, unless you know "alien"), and perhaps this might have worked better had it been done for a single scene and hidden as an easter egg?
- BD-Live - Sony also says it is planning to include exclusive content available to those with a Profile 2.0 player (and active internet connection). At press time, all that is available is a standard Sony interface with some downloadable trailers and other adverts. (Watch this space for updates should any further content come online.)
No easter eggs reported for 'Men in Black' yet. Found an egg? Please use our tips form to let us know, and we'll credit you with the find.
Silly, a bit smug, and rather dated, 'Men in Black' didn't hold up for me. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones do have some chemistry, but it isn't enough to surmount the ultimate flimsiness of the material. This Blu-ray makes a nice step up over the standard DVD, however, with finely remastered video and audio. The supplements are a bit surface by today's standards, though at least Sony has included some new exclusives. 'Men in Black' fans should not hesitate to pick this one up.
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