TBT: Men in Black (1997)

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I can’t really expect to cover Will Smith for a month and get away without including the one thing he did with Tommy Lee Jones that had aliens in it. So we turn again away from Smith’s more serious side and return to a role where he gets to be a “little” bit more at ease. The very first time I saw this film was amazing. After that, the movie really retains its wonders and is a real nice flashback to being the age I was when first seeing it. Watching it now I get more of a kick out of the interplay between Smith and Jones; it’s such a well-cast movie that it’s hard to pick another with Smith that is this much fun (because of the cast, let alone great set pieces). 

Today’s food for thought: Men in Black

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Release: July 2, 1997

[VHS]

Here come the men in black, galaxy defenders. I actually don’t know which became a bigger hit — the movie, or the song. Every time I so much as think about this flick the song/melody is right behind that thought and I begin humming (or worse, singing) it and pretty much get to those lyrics used above before I realize what I’m doing and stop. But whatever the cause may be, we know that the chicken (in this case, this sci-fi smash hit) came before the egg (one particularly catchy song on Big Willie Style).

In 1997 Barry Sonnenfeld delivered this intergalactic cinematic wonder to the masses, and to say he received a positive response would be the understatement of the century. Men in Black was a phenomenal success (an estimated budget of $90,000,000 yielded a gross of $250,000,000 by January ’98). At the center of this very popular sci-fi comedy is an effective meshing of concept and costume, which is mainly what I’d like to discuss with this movie.

The Concept: Aliens have inhabited our planet — some are good, some are not (like the roaches) — and it is up to this secretive agency (M.I.B.) to protect the human race from any danger caused by their presence. The agency’s overseen by Rip Torn’s “Zed,” and whose main agent, at least for the purpose of this movie, is Agent “Kay” (Jones) is one with several doubts on his mind, the forefront of which being should he have chosen this life over a life with his wife. With technology that supersedes even today’s weaponry (the Neuralizer is one of my all-time favorite movie weapons, right behind the light saber), agents go out into the field and eliminate pests at the same time as clearing the slates of any person who has had contact with aliens. As Will Smith’s Agent “Jay” comes to understand, protecting the public from alien interference is a lifelong servitude. Quitting this job means getting your memory wiped clean so your knowledge of such classified information is no longer a threat to anyone else. It’s not a high-brow concept by any means, but it’s certainly strong enough to make for a thoroughly entertaining flick.

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The Costumes: First of all, the good guys dress in black — remember that. (Another lyric.) The agents themselves are certainly quite stylish — a simple black suit with white collared shirts here truly make a statement. But beyond that, it’s really the aliens and the designs of the many types/classifications of the alien race. Starting with the main “villain” here, a massive and angry roach that invades the body of a redneck farmer  (Vincent D’Onofrio), given the computer graphics of the late 90s, the creature doesn’t look all that bad. In fact, it’s rather creepy and disturbing — and D’Onofrio gives a spectacular performance considering what he had to do to sell the fact he’s a 9-something-foot alien in a 6-foot human body. This undoubtedly is the centerpiece and best asset of the original Men In Black; as the movie progresses, the hostile extraterrestrial bug becomes more a part of the storyline. Too, it becomes increasingly nasty-looking, as the film finally culminates in a crazy, if not slimy, climax near the New York State Pavilion viewing towers in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Aside from this temperamental guy, a host of other aliens we encounter along the way all possess interesting, fun designs that are likely burned into everyone’s brains for long after (how about “Mikey” in the introductory scene with Kay in the desert?). These designs alone may set apart the movie from all other movies involving aliens, friendly or hostile.

one of the great comedic bits of the film is that, apparently, coffee ain't a foreign concept to aliens.

one of the great comedic bits of the film is that, apparently, coffee ain’t a foreign concept to aliens.

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Mikey. Probably my favorite.

The graphics may lend a certain credence to the idea that the planet has been invaded by aliens and the fact that some of them come in peace while others do not. When we are presented all these different characters, most of them are a likable bunch of cousins of E.T., but the finishing touches come in the form of the human element. The acting in M.I.B. helps propel the film from “great” to “classic.”

At the time of M.I.B.‘s first release, we did not know where the story was going to take us — only where we were currently going. Case in point, I have not cared to see the next installments just because I feel like the first story was where the rapport between Old Veteran (which would be TLJ) and the Young Gun (Smith) is likely to be the strongest. Despite having heard positive reviews of M.I.B. 3, I realize that I need to go through 2 to get there — a movie which did not, apparently, live up to its own hype. I want to keep the movie as a gem of its own, therefore I don’t think I’ll see anything other than the first. The banter between Jones and Smith here is both hilarious and purposeful: how would a former member of the public react to gaining classified, Top Secret information? This movie is a colorful version of what it must be like entering into the CIA or Secret Service or something.

The movie does have its weaknesses, though they are easily overlooked due to the novelty of the concept. Aliens being placed among us, living in human form and subsequently evaluated by a shadowy organization of suited men to determine their purposes on Earth — that’s a pretty radical, cool concept if you ask me. And it seems well-adapted from the novel. It is a blockbuster type of film, however, and it will occasionally sink into cliches and platitudes, but again, these come about relatively infrequently and are more likely to become the observations one makes during a second or third viewing. The first time you get to see this film, I bet it’ll be hard for even the most cynical of moviegoers to say “nay” to this intergalactic keggar.

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“Your breath stinks, pal.”

4-0Recommendation: If you haven’t seen Men In Black, first of all, shame on you. Secondly, go rent it, pronto. If you enjoy having a good time with a movie, I think this one has got you covered.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Seven Pounds (2008)

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Will Smith is making for a great throwback-themed month, I’ve just realized. He’s a superstar, yes, that’s true. But more than that, he’s more diverse of an actor than I may have previously considered him to be. July has turned out to be a fun examination of a few of his biggest hits, each of them quite different and in each of them Smith is varying levels of his goofy, Fresh Prince-self. However, in some cases, he’s completely straight-edge and serious. Flexing his dramatic muscle last month as Attorney Robert Clayton Dean in Enemy of the State, the actor has impressive versatility that may be overlooked in favor of that goofy side — because, let’s face it, who wants a really grumpy lead role? Well . . . . he’s not exactly firing any noisy crickets here or joking it up alongside Martin Lawrence. Smith in a different role, is interesting. Just as good? I’ll leave that for you to decide. 

Today’s food for thought: Seven Pounds.

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Release: December 19, 2008

[DVD]

REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS 

Yeah, so if you’re looking for the movie where Will Smith says a lot of nice things to people, this is not the one to pick up. “Ben” Thomas is haunted by a secret from his past, wherein a car accident, involving seven people including his wife, killed six. Plagued with guilt “Ben” is constantly on edge, and something of an antisocial stubborn man. As an IRS tax collector, he’s not exactly ecstatic about his contributions to society in general. But he is looking for ways to help people out, a kind of compulsive desire to make up for the grief he caused others, as well as clearly himself.

Smith’s character here is really quite rough. Interactions with a few of the main players in Seven Pounds — Woody Harrelson’s Ezra Turner as well as Rosario Dawson’s Emily Posa — make for some tough scenes to watch, quite honestly, and getting used to him in this role may take some time. For others, maybe it won’t happen at all. This movie is the recipient of a pretty cruddy RT score (27%) and while the story here is a lot less pretty than some of Big Willie’s others, it’s no rotten tomato damn it. However, it probably shouldn’t be understated that your fandom might be tested with the lead character.

“Ben” is donating parts of his body to those who he’s deemed are deserving of his help. He’s given up bone marrow, lung tissue (to his brother), part of his liver and a kidney. After said donations, “Ben”‘s still searching for more ways to help. A blind meat salesman, Ezra, receives a call from “Ben” one evening, and the purpose of this call (apparently) was to test this person’s temper. After insulting and downright bullying the man on the other end of the line — he makes fun of the guy not being able to see — “Ben” finds that this Ezra guy is not quick to anger, thus he is a candidate for a donation.

A second candidate, Connie Tepos (Elpidia Carrillo), a woman who lives with an abusive husband, is brought to “Ben”‘s attention. One night after being beaten she calls the number on the business card “Ben” had left her in a previous visit, and she, along with her kids, are immediately out of harm’s way. I won’t say exactly what happens here, since it’s one of the big moments in the movie but suffice it to say I feel as though these moments, scarce as they are in the relatively bleak Gabriele Muccino-directed drama, are overlooked by a lot of detractors of the film. It’s summary is described as “grim and morose, undone by an illogical plot.” I maybe could agree to the second part of that, but to just write the whole thing of as being grim and morose is only telling of part of the film’s arc. It may never be a particularly happy film, but there is a remarkable transformation in Smith’s character (more spoilers on that in a second) that drives the second half of it that redeems all of the, quite frankly, shitty mood of the first.

A third candidate whom “Ben”‘s been informed of is a woman who has heart problems, Emily Posa (Dawson) and who also has a rare type of blood. In order for “Ben”‘s “seven pounds” to be fulfilled successfully, this would mean him donating his heart to Emily, whom he has grown close to over the coming days. (Yes, of course there would be a complication here — a device that I could totally see the argument for it being a little manipulative and hokey, but I go along with it anyway because I just think Will Smith is damn amazing in this film.) When Emily takes a turn for the worse one day, “Ben” knows what he has to and is going to do next.

While I can sort of get behind some viewpoints that claim the ending is completely dumb and makes little sense, I think it’s the only logical way for the film to finish. Despite me still thinking it’s not the best conclusion — nor the happiest — the jarring drama had led us to believe was coming, it’s an interesting perspective on how the impacts of one person’s actions ripple across a community. When a gathering is held at the end of the film where all the recipients of Mr. Thomas’ donations meet one another, Ezra and Emily come across each other. He has “Ben”‘s eyes, and Emily is alive because of the — well, you know — the heart thing. That seems a little cheesy, I know, but in execution, the movie pulls it off to great effect.

The film may not be Will Smith’s most iconic, but it is one of his most unique. He completely steps aside from his typical and charming appeal to take on this pseudo-anti hero in “Ben” Thomas. So those quotation marks around his name are probably driving you nuts by now, huh? Well this is spoiler territory, so I’m going to strike out the spoiler but if you’ve seen it/don’t mind ruining the film for yourself, by all means read on.

Ben’s true identity becomes revealed earlier in the film, as Smith’s character, who’s actually named Tim, stole his brother’s identification to keep his own a secret in fulfilling his donations. His brother confronted Tim about the situation and was concerned about Tim’s well-being. At the end of the film, Emily and Ezra find out who their mutual donor is, and we all skip happily ever after down the road. No, not quite. But you get the idea. 

Will Smith stars in Columbia Pictures' drama SEVEN POUNDS.

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Recommendation: An effective blend of drama and a romantic spark between Dawson and Smith pushes Seven Pounds into the more ‘acquired taste’ portion of the Fresh Prince’s career, but still it’s a thoughtful examination of the sacrifice people are willing to make for others. For a more well-rounded perspective of Smith’s repertoire, it’s a good idea to give this a try.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Enemy of the State (1998)

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With After Earth taking a plunge into less-than-mediocre territory since its opening a couple months back, Will Smith seemed there for awhile to be part of a conversation that I’m not used to him being included in. His judgment has been seriously questioned and criticized ever since getting his son on as the lead role in the most recent M. Night Disappointment. It’s weird to hear the bashing because if you consider his career of role choices, they’ve consistently been big, badass and mostly quite successful. He’s typecast as all hell, but he’s a fun typecast that usually elevates any given movie’s quality that he happens to be a part of. I haven’t seen After Earth myself, so I don’t know how good/bad young Jaden Smith’s limited acting chops were here. I am aware of how limited Big Will’s role was, however. The consensus seems to be that while at times the young actor fits into the moment, he’s simply not developed enough yet to carry a role this significant. Hence, some of the questioning: maybe, just maybe — did the Fresh Prince misjudge the situation? 

It doesn’t matter. July has now turned into Will Smith month. Each throwback post will be about a classic Big Willie-style flick — we began with Independence Day.

Today’s food for thought: Enemy of the State

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Release: November 20, 1998

[VHS]

Will Smith exercises good judgment here by tempering his Bad Boys persona (which I’m imagining is far closer to his actual personality) in order to let his dramatic side come through in the form of Robert Clayton Dean, an attorney whose daily life quickly changes when he finds himself caught in a dangerous game between a ruthless mafia boss and the unexpected proponents of a government conspiracy theory.

Enemy of the State is violent, complex (for a film that is decidedly more action than it is drama) and intelligent blockbusters you’ll see with Will Smith’s name attached. He is but one piece of a large puzzle in this story about a government aiming to cut into the lives of the public with greater ease, an effort to inflate anti-terrorist sentiment. Director Tony Scott may occasionally dive into melodramatic territory here, but for most of the time, the drama and tension really keep the film afloat aside from the occasional lull in action. Even these moments are rich with sharp and poignant commentary. We get healthy doses of edgy jabs aimed at the government, about as much as we do get your typical action schtick. . . not to mention, a robust performance from Scott’s impressive ensemble cast.

Aside from Smith, we have the legendary Gene Hackman — here playing the ex-NSA agent Edward Lyle, a.k.a “Brill;” Jon Voight is once again not one to truffle with as the opprobrious Congressman Thomas Reynolds; his shady NSA correspondents include the likes of Barry Pepper, Jake Busey, Scott Caan, Jack Black and Seth Green; and we have Tom Sizemore playing the mobster boss Pintero who makes for a great adversary against not only Dean but the treacherous politician as well. The trio of Smith, Voight and Sizemore spearhead a cast that is performing at the top of its game — Jack Black and Seth Green also are surprisingly restrained in this film and are great to watch if ever we have forgotten that the two can take on serious roles for a change. (For Jack Black, see Bernie, also.)

When a tape that contains footage of the murder of a high-level government official falls into Dean’s bag one afternoon while he’s out shopping for a gift for his wife, members of the NSA invade Dean’s life with a swath of technological devices to gain intimate information about him. After losing most of his dearest assets, including the trust of his wife Carla and his job with the law firm, Dean recruits the help of Lyle. Initially opposed to the idea of coming out of retirement for Dean’s sake, Lyle decides to cooperate in making Dean a formidable enemy of his state — stripping him of the bugs and other tracking devices, then turning the NSA’s tactics against them and Congressman Reynolds. The pair’s effort to prove Dean’s innocence (and save his life) would also be a last-ditch effort to prove that the tape implicates both the Congressman and Pintero. While the final showdown occurs in a secluded mafia kitchen, the location is right across the street from an FBI secure location. As it turns out, Dean has adopted some of the craft and skill that Lyle used in his days as an NSA employee; he forms a plan that ends up ultimately leveling the playing field for good, allowing him and Lyle to walk away clean.

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid, getting into his car. . .

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid in an elevator. . .

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Here’s Will Smith paranoid in a lingerie store. . .

A lot of what makes this movie so compelling is the fast-paced tempo. And, okay, yes — the large doses of action/chase sequences on display. Largely though, these are second to the fact that Enemy of the State delves into a subject matter that is 1) disconcerting and 2) original. Watching our lead character being stripped of his basic civil liberties makes for an exciting albeit, disturbingly personal, experience. Though the film is an exaggeration, it is interesting to sit and contemplate how many traffic cameras there are on intersections; how many speed cameras; how many crooked businessmen are out there; how politically-motivated crimes can (and do) get covered up (and how many are). There’s relevance to this storyline, and some realities might be just as chilling as the events that unfold in the film.

Scott’s successful late-90s entry into the sizable action thriller genre is also quite the stylish one. Snappy, tight editing and color schemes contribute a genuine conspiratorial vibe to the picture. It features scenes where Fiedler (Black) and his cohorts are establishing ways to identify the missing videotape — there’s some great technological plugs here, insights into how organizations like NSA operate (even if these people are corrupt in the movie). The appeal of the metro D.C. area is rather dirty and grimy. The retreat back into Lyle’s warehouse when the pair are being hunted down by NSA agents is yet another dark, drab accent.

Fortunately for me, my life is nowhere near this active or high-profile, so I won’t have to be worrying about turning a corner and being instantly and brutally interrogated. Nor do I need to be concerned about tracking devices planted in the heels of my shoes, in my shirt pockets or in my fire detectors at home. But while I’m at it, I’m just going to check the T.V. to make sure I don’t see my face on any channel. . .

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4-0Recommendation: This is one of Will Smith’s greatest movies, and perhaps one of his finer performances as well. If you’re an adrenaline junkie like me, Enemy of the State is a classic. Unlike me, you should have it on DVD by now and have watched it quite a few times since. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.deviantart.com; http://www.imdb.com; http://www.dfiles.me 

TBT: Independence Day (1996)

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How’s the weather where you are today? It’s a drab, rainy afternoon here in Knoxville, with no sign of the clouds really making an effort to allow us to see some big bright explosions in the sky later. For some reason, the weather never seems to cooperate around this time, but maybe that’s just my poor memory failing me. I sure hope they don’t end up shooting off fireworks regardless, because standing there in the street staring up at a bunch of colored clouds is not what I would imagine to be the best celebration of America’s birthday. Regardless of the fireworks show, the rain can never stop a good blog post from happening. And in honor of it being July 4 (even though I’m British and really have no room to talk), I’d like to send everyone back to a time and place where Roland Emmerich actually made a really good movie. Well, I guess ‘good’ is a relative term; I really can’t imagine him topping this epic disaster film. 

Today’s food for thought: Independence Day

Independence-Day

Release: July 2, 1996

[VHS]

While Emmerich makes it quite easy to rail against his style of direction —  the use of campy situations, cheesy dialogue and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am action sequences to excess — here’s the one movie that really seemed to make the most of all of his trademarks to deliver a smash hit that we can go back to again and again. Although it’s a little odd to label some global catastrophe as an event that’s typically reserved for the United States following their successful break from British rule, there’s no doubt this movie is one of those that can stand the test of time. It may be cheesy, it may be bombastic, but man is it a fun film.

Perhaps no Emmerich film has been as loaded with iconic imagery as this global-scale disaster film. We have the moment when the ships appear in our atmosphere: the loud groaning of the crafts coming to a halt over major metropolitan areas, the embankment of clouds an inferno of friction with the force of these gigantic slivers of metal making their dramatic entrance. Of course there’re the aliens themselves, which — correct me if I’m wrong — were rather well done considering the date on this film. You have the great cities of New York and Los Angeles getting obliterated in one of the most memorable attack sequences of any movie (certainly upon New York City); Lady Liberty left face-down in shallow waters following the attacks, a sight that is far more perturbing than seeing her engulfed in 100-foot drifts of snow like she was in The Day After Tomorrow.

And then, of course, you have the cast, with Will Smith being the icing on this blockbuster cake. You could argue the storyline borrows very heavily from a lot of other sci-fi/disaster films but without these significant elements and visuals, Independence Day would have very little with which to plant its seed in our memories. Quite simply, it would be as forgettable as Godzilla, or as asinine as 2012. But this film from the late 90s actually does have staying power, and not just based on its overt (if not slightly abused) sense of patriotism.

“Should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night!’ We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!” President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) addresses a fleet of fighter pilots accrued from all over the globe in the early morning light before launching the largest counterattack ever attempted on the technologically-superior extraterrestrials. Yes, because a year from now we are all going to move on from apartheid, starvation and wars over water and other base needs. . .we will be a human race indeed reborn. This digression really doesn’t mean anything, though. It’s just a thought. The point being: there’s a strong high we experience in watching the humans stage a massive attack against the almost inconceivably brilliant aliens. With the release of this movie around July 4, 1996, that particular birthday for America might be more remembered for that than anything else. Emmerich deserves a little pat on the back for that.

Even though the film approaches unremarkable, generic status with its larger-than-life ambition, it still manages to anchor two enjoyable personal journeys — those of David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith). David is a brilliant mind but a terrible underachiever. His father Julius (Judd Hirsch) is a hilarious filter for our curiosity as to what exactly his major malfunction is, and quite honestly he could be one of the more memorable performances in the movie. As for Smith’s role, he’s stuck playing the young gun who’s got plenty to prove for himself. He’s good at these kinds of roles, but it’s certainly not a new discovery. Still, he is a great fit for this film, particularly when push comes to shove and he’s face-to-face with one of the alien invaders. And how’s that for another iconic image — Smith sitting on the fallen craft, smoking a stogie and ripping off a couple of quips about the fallen alien? He almost dies in the pursuit of this thing, but he’s just annoyed that he had to put his barbecue plans on hold. Oh, the cheesiness. But in this case, I am willing to accept it. It really works.

As does the beyond-ludicrous concept that Levinson devises in the film’s clumsy-getting-clumsier third act. How exactly does one expect to give a machine a ‘virus,’ as he purports to be able to do to the mothership, which hovers on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere? Oh wait, it was a computer virus. With any luck, the “technologically superior” race of beings that have provided our armageddon have PC’s and not Macs — Apple has really established itself as one of the leaders in virus-resistant technology. While completely filled with plot holes, the unification of David and Captain Levinson is somewhat rewarding and a whole mess of fun to experience when they are jettisoned into space. They do their job, but of course problems arise. (I did mention this film’s predictability, right?)

At worst, this plot is more riddled with holes than Swiss cheese; at best, it’s an impossible but irresistibly spirited testament to humanity’s unwillingness to throw in the towel, even in the face of certain annihilation. Emmerich’s directorial lunacy reaches a fevered pitch during the Area 51 scene in which our Commander-in-Chief makes contact with the captured alien by speaking in English. The alien communicates via its many tentacle-like appendages, coiled around the vocal chords of a human victim — in this case, an eccentric scientist. (The moment that guy says something to the effect of “As you might imagine, they don’t let us out much….” and then begins laughing uncontrollably, I knew this guy was destined for great things. . .) The alien wishes death upon everyone and everything, before unleashing a terrible sound that somehow gets stuck in only the President’s brain and no one else’s. Again, one must overlook such gaps in logic, because to do otherwise would be…well, you just wouldn’t be a true patriot. Even as dumb as this scene is, when I first experienced it as a kid, I was actually deeply disturbed. It was between this moment and the surgery scene.

Independence Day may take its fair share of bashing, but there’s no denying how much fun it was. Still is. I haven’t revisited it in quite some time, but it might be a real fun journey back in the time machine to the days before CGI really stepped up in quality. That said, there are plenty of moments throughout that succeed without being Transformers-quality. Seeing the city of Los Angeles laid to waste was rather disturbing. Watching the various ships crash landing to Earth at long last was satisfying to no end. The aliens themselves looked menacing.

I only have one question to pose for Emmerich, though: what happened after 1996, man???

I also have one piece of advice that might help counteract your crumbling image: don’t you dare go through with this next idea. For if you truly celebrate humanity, you won’t do this. Of course, I’m no director and I shouldn’t be dishing out advice to those with experience, but I shall again play devil’s advocate……..should Emmerich have created an alternate ending, it should have gone something like this:

3-5Recommendation: ….I’m pretty sure most of us have seen this blockbuster by now. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Celebrate America’s birthday with this loud, raucous and oversized military science fiction thriller. You (probably) won’t be sorry.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 145 mins.

Best Scene: