Title: Men in Black
Release Date: July 2, 1997
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Parkes/MacDonald Productions
Men in Black could’ve easily been “Ghostbusters with aliens” or just a star vehicle for Will Smith, but it turned out to be a whole lot more. The movie draws upon the UFO conspiracy theory of government agents in dark suits who cover up alien encounters and more directly from The Men in Black comic book series based on the lore. I was impressed by the economy of the opening scenes in establishing the role Men in Black in policing refugee extraterrestrials on Earth (with a subtle political message about immigration built into it). The rest of the film builds on the concept as we follow new recruit Agent J (Smith) learns from the grizzled veteran Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).
The stakes are high, the destruction of earth, but the conflict with the villain, a roach-like creature in a human skin named Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) is very down to earth. Linda Fiorentino fills out the cast as Laurel, a doctor in the city morgue who has her memory erased multiple times for discovering aliens on Earth. The film has a lot of great sight gags and humor and Jones and Smith have a great chemistry together. This is also a great New York City film where the Guggenheim Museums becomes the perfect setting for a foot chase and the 1964 World’s Fair New York Pavilion is home to flying saucers in disguise (with a cameo by my late, lamented Shea Stadium).
I never saw the Men in Black sequels, and I don’t know if I want to, but this original film stands the test of time. My kids liked it too. A recent podcast episode from Unspooled discusses Men in Black and the hosts get into the weeds of an interesting conversation of how this movie marked the end of an era for blockbuster films preceding our current comic book/superhero dominated film landscape.
Title: Ace in the Hole
Release Date: June 14, 1951
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), an arrogant and cynical reporter who has lost jobs at various big city newspapers, bullies his way into a job at an Albuquerque newspaper. His plan is to get “one big story” to launch him back into the big time. A year later, while on assignment, he stops for gas at a desert trading post and learns that the owner is trapped in a cave where he was looking for Native American artifacts. Tatum enters the cave to befriend and photograph the trapped Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict). Outside the cave, Tatum takes control of the rescue operation manipulating everyone to maximize his “human interest” story.
Ace in the Hole is a not-at-all subtle satire of sensational news media and the general public who laps it up. It’s acidly funny and horrifying at the same time. Douglas puts in a particularly good performance shifting from self-aggrandizing and commanding to playing kind and sympathetic when talking with Leo. Jan Sterling plays Leo’s wife Loraine who wants nothing more than to leave Leo and New Mexico for good, but uses the literal carnival that grows around the trading post to profit. Ray Teal is the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer who allows Tatum exclusive access to Leo in return for positive news coverage for his re-election campaign. Tatum also acts as kind of a negative mentor for Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), the young and idealistic newspaper photographer who gets sucked into Tatum’s plot.
Like all Billy Wilder films, Ace in the Hole is magnificently scripted with sparkling dialogue. It is also beautifully filmed and tightly edited, so there’s a lot of story in a short movie. Since I started investing a lot of time into watching classic film that past couple of years, I’ve been impressed by Wilder’s films, so I’m glad to add another one, even if Ace in the Hole isn’t quite as magnificent as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, or The Apartment.