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MEN IN BLACK

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith (PG)

There isn't much substance to this science-fiction comedy - it truly deserves its tag as a Ghostbusters for the 1990s relying on off-the- cuff humour and bizarre effects for its appeal, rather than any degree of originality or daring. But it's a faintly enjoyable picture just the same, mostly due to the pleasurable frisson between morose Tommy Lee Jones and sassy Will Smith, and the jauntiness of director Barry Sonnenfeld, who made Get Shorty and the Addams Family movies seem funny even in the parts where their energy ran dry.

His trademark, perhaps appropriated from the Coen brothers (for whom he used to be director of photography), is the protracted tracking, or point-of-view, shot. He begins Men in Black with a neat example of this, as his camera rides behind a mosquito as it cuts through the night air, dodging trees and traffic until it finally ends up splashed across the front of a speeding truck. It's a nice joke, that the creature which we spend the entire opening credits sequence following should end up as goo, but you can't help feeling that it's symptomatic of the movie in general - a lot of effort expended for a brief giggle and precious little else.

The scene which follows puts a nifty if rather obvious spin on our preconceptions, as Jones, playing a top-secret government agent named simply K, peruses a truck full of illegal immigrants - or aliens. Of course, the one he's after hasn't violated earthly immigration laws, but intergalactic ones. Jones is a Man in Black: an agent committed to rooting out the undesirables who give the alien community on earth a bad name. There are thousands of extra-terrestrials living on our planet, he explains to the New York cop (Smith) whom he's priming to become his new partner. Most of them are getting along just fine, living their lives, but occasionally there's insurrection and the MiB are on hand should such a situation occur.

The premise is not unlike John Carpenter's underrated They Live, wherein a particular pair of sunglasses revealed to the wearer that most of his co-earthlings were in fact not of this world. Like Carpenter, Sonnenfeld relies on this idea of a sinister truth disguised by normality for much of the picture's tension and comedy. But neither he nor Solomon seem eager to push their ideas to the limits. The meagre-plot has K and J (as Smith is christened after he becomes a Man in Black and relinquishes all identity and emotional ties) tracking a farmer (Vincent D'Onofrio) whose body has been inhabited by a giant extra-terrestrial insect which also happens to have alarming megalomaniac tendencies worthy of a Bond villain. There are plenty of comic possibilities waiting to be exploited in this scenario, but all the movie requires D'Onofrio to do is chase all over town, gurning and smashing things up.

However, Men in Black has brevity on its side, and a likeable team in the shape of Smith and Jones. Though Solomon isn't up to constructing a plot, he has a knack for snappy dialogue, and Jones in particular is allowed to complement his usual curmudgeonly mood with flashes of charisma. The startling effects are by Rick Baker, the man who will go down in history even if he never matches his work on An American Werewolf in London and The Thing, and there is refreshingly little reliance on morphing.

It may be a mere snack of a film - light, inconsequential, but it has the advantage of not pretending to be anything else.

BAPS

Director: Robert Townsend Starring: Halle Berry, Martin Landau, Ian Richardson (15)

Not a day in the life of a top sandwich bar, but a laugh-free comedy about two Black African Princesses (Halle Berry and Natalie Desselle) who find themselves out of their depth in wealthy Beverly Hills. Martin Landau grins and bears it as the rich old man who plays host to the ladies at his mansion, while Ian Richardson just about succeeds in clinging to his dignity as the butler they befriend. But the fact that this painfully puerile fish-out-of-water nonsense comes from the formerly razor-sharp Robert Townsend (who directed the inventive and original Hollywood Shuffle and The Five Heartbeats), just adds insult to injury.

ADDICTED TO LOVE

Director: Griffin Dunne Starring: Matthew Broderick, Meg Ryan, Kelly Preston (15)

Addicted to Love is a hate story, an anti-date movie. If you go along to see it with that special someone in your life, you may emerge alone. It holds a magnifying glass up to all that is ridiculous, embarrassing and cruel about love, though it does so in a way which should be described as unflinching rather than sadistic. It's uncommon to find a movie which examines relationships with this amount of honesty, and it may take you a while to adjust to its harshness. In the film's opening minutes, Sam (Matthew Broderick) says goodbye to his girlfriend Linda (Kelly Preston) as she leaves for two months' work in New York (there's a stinging blast of "Walk Away Renee" as her plane leaves the ground). The next scene has Sam receiving a "Dear John" letter. Flabbergasted, he flies to New York, finds her apartment - and discovers that she's living with another man.

That other man happens to have jilted Maggie (Meg Ryan), as Sam finds out when he moves into the derelict building across the street to spy on his ex and gets an uninvited guest. Sam wants his old lover back. Maggie just wants hers dead. This odd couple spend their days and nights watching every movement of their blissful exes, and plotting ways to split them up, but is Sam hardening under Maggie's spiteful influence, or is Maggie's cold heart defrosting? Director Griffin Dunne (best known as the hero of After Hours) manages to keep this sparky and often disturbing comedy just the right side of misanthropy.

Ryan Gilbey

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