Austin Powers is one pop culture phenomenon that has flown clear over my head. The shagadelic spy's first screen outing, 1997's International Man of Mystery--whose box office grosses topped out at just north of $50 million, yet became a sensation on video--was definitely a likable, high-energy affair, but for me, that wasn't enough to redeem a script whose hit-and-miss stabs at humor were more amusingly silly than genuinely hilarious. The bigger, though not necessarily better, sequel, The Spy Who Shagged Me, doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is--more of the same. Whether or not that's a good thing, however, depends on who you are: fans of the original are indeed likely to find this installment to be groovy (as did the rowdy fans at my screening), but for me, it was another scattershot adventure with a few good chuckles but not quite as funny as it believes it is--or should be.
One of the key problems I had with the original film was that about three-quarters of the way through, the schtick of Austin Powers (Mike Myers) was exhausted. He's a defrosted British secret agent still stuck in the swinging '60s who is perpetually up for a shag and believes himself to be irresistibly sexy. That's it. By the time he performed his climactic striptease to "I Touch Myself," I wasn't laughing but silently grinning, if even that.
After The Spy Who Shagged Me gets past a brief prologue that writes off the love interest of the previous film, Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley), the film dives headlong into an elaborate credit sequence: Austin prances through a hotel in the buff (with strategically placed props, natch), culminating in an Esther Williams-style aquatic production number. Once this is all over, Austin is, to borrow one of his catch phrases, "spent"--creatively speaking. It's not so much that Myers, co-writer Michael McCullers, and returning director Jay Roach do nothing new with Austin in terms of story (again, he must thwart the magalomaniacal Dr. Evil, who has travelled back in time to 1969 to steal Austin's "mojo") than in terms of his thin character. Austin's "Yeah, baby!" one-liners, retro wardrobe, bad teeth, and swinging attitude--all mined for their entire worth and then some in International Man of Mystery--haven't gotten better, just older. Even the diehards in the audience got bored; after Austin's umpteenth scene transition dance number, one once-howling fan was overheard saying, "That was stupid."
For me, Austin's archnemesis, the idiotic, hopelessly square, but no less dastardly Dr. Evil (also played by Myers) was always more interesting. Surprisingly, The Spy Who Shagged Me focuses more on him than it does Austin, and the film benefits from that fact. Unlike their laissez-faire treatment of Austin, Myers and company have actually taken Dr. Evil in a fresh direction. In the first film, Dr. Evil's antiquated '60s sensibilities clashed with those of the '90s; in this one, the opposite is the case, with his new pseudo-hip, ultra '90s mentality a jarring anachronism in 1969. It sounds less than inspired in concept, but in execuation it fuels the film's best moments, most of which involve his new midget clone Mini-Me (Verne J. Troyer), whom a doting Dr. Evil prefers to his black sheep biological son Scott (Seth Green, also returning).
The rest of the film is a study in give and take. Heather Graham cuts a shagadelic figure as Austin's new sidekick/love interest, CIA agent Felicity Shagwell, but Hurley's icy hauteur in the first film made for a more effective foil. As enjoyable as the bulk of Mini-Me's antics are, his knock-down, drag-out fight with Austin is a less effective retread of the MTV Movie Award-winning Ben Stiller-Puffy the Dog confrontation in There's Something About Mary. Rob Lowe does an even better Robert Wagner than Wagner himself as the '60s incarnation of Dr. Evil's yes-man Number Two (Wagner also briefly reprises his role as the '90s Number Two), but he is underutilized.
As with the original film, my just-OK assessment of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is sure to be in the minority, and the film's certain success will cement Austin Powers as a New Line franchise. And as lukewarm as my take on these first two films are, I'd welcome a third--that is, if there can somehow be an Austin Powers film without Austin himself.
Free Enterprise (R)
The shadow of Swingers looms large over this indie comedy, from the advertising (a large cocktail glass appears on the poster) to the casting (lead Rafer Weigel has an air of Jon Favreau about him, and Swingers co-star Patrick Van Horn appears in a supporting role, all done up in Vince Vaughn duds and 'do) to the premise (two friends looking for love and/or happiness in Los Angeles). But whereas that film focused on neo-'50s hipsters, Free Enterprise's main characters--small time film editor Robert (Weigel) and magazine editor Mark (Eric McCormack of TV's Will and Grace)--obsess over the geekier end of the pop culture spectrum: namely, the original Star Trek and the philosophy of Captain James T. Kirk. This unabashed geeks' perspective gives this light first-time effort from director Robert Meyer Burnett and writing collaborator Mark A. Altman its unique flavor and appeal. The pair stumble when attempting to be earnest, such as in an unconvincing dramatic scene whre perpetually broke Robert and his improbably perfect (not only is she gorgeous, she also digs comics, action figures, and sci-fi) girlfriend Claire (Audie England, most notably seen tumbling in bed after bed in Zalman King's Delta of Venus) have a tiff over his plans for the future; but that does little to derail this brightly written film from its affable track. The actors are all engaging, but the highly-charged comic engine for the entire vehicle is none other than William Shatner, playing himself and gamely parodying his own self-important image.
For 99% of its running time, the latest unconventional, uncommercial opus from writer-director John Sayles clearly had me and the entire audience with whom I saw it. Limbo is set in sleepy Port Henry, Alaska, where lounge singer Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, belting her own vocals) and fisherman Joe (David Strathairn), both damaged from their pasts, take their first, tentative steps in a romance. One such step is Donna, reluctantly accompanied by self-destructive daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), agreeing to join Joe on a boat trip that quickly goes awry in a number of ways, leaving the three to fend for themselves against all manner of threats in the Alaskan wilderness.
The audience was completely engrossed by the intelligently crafted story and involved in these believably complex characters, all terrifically played by the lead trio (newcomer Martinez is particularly affecting). When the ending came, however, everyone was noticeably upset, as was I. Without giving too much away, Sayles extends these characters' emotional limbo into something literal, and while I understand what he was going for, it doesn't quite work. Ultimately, he leaves his characters (and the audience that grows to care for them) in, as one of the definitions listed in the film's trailer goes, "a state of oblivion or neglect," all in the name of a gimmick that is less clever than it is fatally distracting.
Twice Upon a Yesterday (R)
This London-set romantic fantasy--in which actor Victor (Douglas Henshall) is given a chance to go back in time and correct the mistakes he made in a long-lost love relationship--bears more than a slight resemblance to another Brit-set, time-warping romantic confection, the charming Gwyneth Paltrow starrer Sliding Doors. Yet writer Rafa Russo and director Maria Ripoll rig their story with a number of fresh and inspired turns, such as the cleverly subtle way the tables turn on Victor's estranged love Sylvia (Lena Headey). However, no amount of inspired plot machinations can hide the film's glaring problem: Victor is a no-good philanderer, and as such, we are never given a convincing reason why he deserves a second chance at happiness. Without a rooting interest in our so-called "hero," one admires the invention of Twice Upon a Yesterday without necessarily enjoying it.
V I D E O
The Patriot (R)
Steven Seagal as a Montana doctor with a strange accent. Yes, it is as laughable as it sounds. Unfortunately, there isn't much more to laugh at in the fallen action star's latest, which made its premiere on HBO; more laughs would have made this boring, deadly serious ripoff of Outbreak more bearable. The villain Seagal faces is not a person, but a deadly virus, and thus we are treated to numerous scenes of the ponytailed one working with microscopes and other lab equipment--an initially funny scenario whose novelty value fades fast. There is some of the fighting that made him a star, but only little glimpses at best, making me wonder if the more-bloated-than-ever Seagal can even do them anymore. (Touchstone Home Video)
Jon Turteltaub has proven to be an effective popcorn director for Disney: among his credits are 1995's irresistible Sandra Bullock-Bill Pullman romantic charmer While You Were Sleeping and the pleasant 1996 John Travolta fantasy-drama Phenomenon. Like many a popcorn filmmaker before him, Turteltaub has apparently felt need to prove his dramatic chops, hence his name at the helm of the psychological drama Instinct. But instead of coming up with something reminiscent of, say, The Silence of the Lambs (whose spirit Turteltaub clearly tries to evoke) the soggy result is more along the manipulative lines of Patch Adams--which, coincidentally enough, was an attempt at a "heavy" effort by "light" director Tom Shadyac.
The Silence similarity shines through most brightly with the presence of Anthony Hopkins, who plays another diagnosed psychotic in Instinct: primatologist Ethan Powell, who returns to the United States from the African wilds a silent, quick-tempered, animalistic murderer sentenced to a prison for the criminally insane. More shades of Silence come in when an ambitious youngster--in this case, psychiatrist Dr. Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding Jr.)--is called on to unlock Powell's brilliant but disturbed mind.
If Turteltaub and scripter Gerald DiPego had left Instinct that basic, the film would not have been great, but it certainly would have been better than it currently is. Living up to their reputations as Oscar-winning actors, neither Hopkins nor Gooding embarrass themselves, delivering respectable performances and displaying a convincing rapport. What is embarrassing, however, is the amount of sappy manipulation Turteltaub and DiPego slap onto this primary plotline. Of course, Instinct is not only about Powell's mysterious African adventure but also how he and Caulder change each other. But it did it have to be quite so maudlin, with Caulder delivering a histrionic "This Is How I've Changed" monologue that also doubles as a teary farewell scene?
Perhaps that should not have been so surprising, since, contrary to outward appearances, the film's main concern is not the divide between man's animalistic and civilized nature but shameless tearwringing. The reality of Powell's time in Africa and the reasons for his change are considerably less interesting than they promise to be; at the heart of it is none other than the L-word, love--for a family of gorillas. Also, the Patch Adams comparison is actually quite apt, for one prominent subplot deals with mistreatment of inmates at Powell's prison, led by a brutal guard (John Ashton), who, in turn, is overseen by a hardass warden (John Aylward) who won't hear of Caulder's ideas of gentler treatment. One pivotal scene where all the inmates finally take a stand for themselves is every bit as gagworthy as Patch's infamous hearing with the red-nosed cancer kids.
After seeing the abomination that is Instinct, it is understandable why Hopkins toyed with retirement from film acting; it is soulless exercises in manipulation such as this that robs any of the enjoyment or genuine excitement out of cinema.
The Loss of Sexual Innocence (R)
Writer-director Mike Figgis has described The Loss of Sexual Innocence as his most personal film, and one would be hard-pressed to argue. So personal as to be self-indulgent, so self-indulgent as to make not a single iota of sense to anyone but him, this admittedly captivating but wholly incoherent and utterly baffling experience will likely leave everyone else dumbfounded. That the film has no plot is of little consequence; I actually applaud Figgis for being so boldly experimental, studying his main character, filmmaker Nic (played as an adult by Julian Sands), through key yet completely unrelated episodes throughout his life.
But when one goes for broke, one can often crap out, and that's what Figgis has done here in every sense that expression can be taken. Despite the stunning cinematography of Benoit Delhomme, his interesting idea becomes increasingly less so as the film progresses, for few of the vignettes make any lasting impression. It is telling that the most effective of the episodes has the least to do with Nic and, hence, the entire film: a haunting sequence (eerily scored by Figgis) detailing the chance meeting of now-adult twins (Saffron Burrows) who were separated at birth.
But the individual vignettes' lack of interest is the least of Figgis's problems--his largest is his self-important pretentiousness. In a truly headscratching move, he has Nic's (for lack of a better term) "story" intercut with wordless scenes of Adam (Femi Ogumbanjo) and Eve (Hanne Klintoe) frolicking in the Garden of Eden. (Included is a laughably earnest scene where Adam and Eve watch each other in wonder as they both urinate.) The Nic episodes by themselves don't make any collective impact nor sense, let alone when grouped with the (as billed by the on-screen intertitle) "Scenes of Nature." Appropriately enough, Figgis's artistic fall is best exemplified by his description-defying depiction of the Fall: Adam and Eve are run out of the Garden of Eden by military police, accompanied by the requisite barking hounds; awaiting the couple just outside the gates are swarming paparazzi, who chase them into the night.
Generating some low-key buzz as it slowly rolls out across the country is first-time writer-director Randolph Kret's low-budget (only $32,000) tale of L.A. skinheads, touted as the darker, gritter, and, perhaps, "truer" American History X. Indeed it is grittier and rougher around the edges, but that doesn't make the film better than X, which had the benefit of Edward Norton's electrifying, Oscar-nominated performance. By contrast, the lead in Pariah is Damon Jones, who is not up to the demanding dramatic task as Steve, who tries to infiltrate the skinhead gang to avenge their brutal gang rape of his African-American girlfriend, who subsequently killed herself. He represents the low end of the uneven work of the mostly unknown cast (the only recognizable face is Pulp Fiction cab driver Angela Jones, here playing a heroin junkie), whose high end is held up by the late Dave Oren Ward as the gang's charismatic leader. (Ward was murdered in a road rage incident this past April.) Kret has some interesting ideas; there are a smattering of effective dramatic scenes; and there are plenty more jolting episodes of rage and violence, but in the end this pulpy potboiler is wrapped up in an unsatisfyingly tidy, coincidence-heavy bow.
The Thirteenth Floor (PG-13)
"You can go there even though it doesn't exist," reads the poster for The Thirteenth Floor. More than likely, those who go to this boring, unimaginative sci-fi thriller will end up wishing the film didn't exist. A wan would-be mystery in which a computer programmer (Craig Bierko, whose most notable credit is playing the villain in The Long Kiss Goodnight) makes trips to a virtual 1937 Los Angeles to solve the mystery of his boss's (Armin Mueller-Stahl) murder. There is nothing here, from the less-than-special effects to the numerous but predictable plot twists, that hasn't been done before--and to much better effect--in films such as Dark City or the recent eXistenZ and The Matrix. And with neither any compelling, clearly drawn characters nor interesting performances (Bierko and his leading lady, inexplicable Hollywood "It" girl Gretchen Mol--who has yet to turn in a performance that I would consider remotely buzzworthy--have as much flavor as oat bran), The Thirteenth Floor is as cold and sterile as a piece of machinery.
V I D E O
Wishful Thinking (R)
Despite the presence of marquee name Drew Barrymore, this offbeat romantic comedy has been sitting on Miramax's shelf since 1997. (A few months ago, even Entertainment Weekly ran a blurb wondering what became of it.) I have certainly seen worse films in theatres than Wishful Thinking, but it comes as no surprise that it would be consigned to straight-to-tape status. Aside from the nonlinear structure used to trace a complex romantic entanglement from the overlapping and conflicting points of view of three different characters--a movie theatre projectionist (James LeGros), his live-in girlfriend (Jennifer Beals), and his secretly admiring co-worker (Barrymore, always a delight)--there's nothing to distinguish writer-director Adam Park's otherwise routine story or execution. Well, maybe one thing: a tendency to indulge in overly cutesy gimmicks, such as in LeGros's section of the film, in which his character hears words emanating from noises made by inanimate objects, e.g. typewriters and squeaky steps. (Miramax Home Entertainment)
Black Mask (R)
After stealing the show from Mel Gibson and company in Lethal Weapon 4, it was only a matter of time before American distributors started invading the vault of Jet Li's Hong Kong work. The first of what is sure to be a long line of wide American releases is Black Mask, a gritty, hyperstylish 1996 adventure that plugs Li's talents into a superhero yarn. However, as fun and exciting as the film often is, it is far from Li's best showcase.
That distinction belongs to Fist of Legend, an electrifying 1994 reworking of the Bruce Lee vehicle The Chinese Connection whose American distribution (through Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures) was scrapped. However, it is easy to see why Black Mask ended up as his first HK effort to widely reach U.S. screens. It isn't so much that the film is a diverting entertainment (which it certainly is), but that it is one of Li's few actioners set in contemporary times. Most of his high-flying films, from Fist of Legend to his starmaking Once Upon a Time in China series, were set in period China--not exactly inaccessible to Yank audiences considering the amount of action in these films, but a difficult sell nonetheless.
Black Mask is much more easily marketable: a dark, extremely violent comic-book-style adventure where Li plays Tsui, a medically-enhanced supersoldier who escapes the shady outfit that created him. He attempts to live a quiet existence as a pacificist librarian, but soon he jolted back to action when his former cohorts have taken to killing off all of Hong Kong's drug lords. His identity kept a secret under a black mask (hence the title), Tsui, with the reluctant help of aptly named policeman Rock (Lau Ching Wan), attempts to set things right.
Black Mask has much more of a technical sheen than any of Jackie Chan's fun yet rather crudely produced HK imports. The English dubbing job is actually competently done (Li doesn't do his own dialogue, but his stand-in does an adequate job). There is some inventive production and costume design, as well as some often stunning cinematography. Director Daniel Lee's strong suit is definitely his visual style, which appears to be influenced by the frenetic camera techniques of Michael Bay.
While the glossy approach keeps the film never less than visually stimulating, it also shortchanges the many fight sequences, which, of course, are what people see Jet Li films for. Granted, no amount of MTV-style editing can rob Li's acrobatic martial arts skills of their electrifying effect, but the quick cuts do dilute it a bit. One is left in greater awe when one is actually able to see what Li can and does do--without any flashy frills.
But until Fist of Legend or any of his better showcases--such as Once Upon a Time in China, Fong Sai-Yuk, or The Tai-Chi Master, the latter which co-stars Tomorrow Never Dies scene stealer Michelle Yeoh--is made available to the masses (those films are all available, though on a fairly limited basis, on video), Black Mask nicely gets the job done as either a showcase for Jet Li's athletic talents or an undemanding blast of action and mayhem.
Notting Hill (PG-13)
While their careers are far from flagging, neither Julia Roberts nor Hugh Grant have quite recaptured the heights of the projects that propelled them to stardom. This has been especially the case with Grant, whose last project, the 1996 medical thriller Extreme Measures, found the actor acquitting himself surprisingly well in a serious role, but it offered little reminder of self-effacing British charms that broke him through in 1994's Four Weddings and a Funeral. Roberts, on the other hand, has had (to put it lightly) her fair share of successes since 1990's Pretty Woman, but few of the hits she has had possessed the simple magic of that modern-day romance classic that made her career--even her role in 1997's entertaining smash My Best Friend's Wedding had her stretch somewhat, playing, to use the words of her character, "the bad guy" (albeit a charming one). Roberts has always been best at being, as in Pretty Woman, a glowing presence--something she has never been content to do since.
Notting Hill, from two of Grant's Four Weddings collaborators, writer Richard Curtis and producer Duncan Kenworthy (director Roger Michell is new to the mix), casts the two likable stars in their well-trodden element. As such, the film does not uncover any new talents that they might have buried within, but it gives audiences exactly what they want from them--and in a smartly written and wholly irresistible package.
Many stars have been accused of essentially playing themselves in film, but never has that been more blatantly the case with Roberts's role in Notting Hill: that of Anna Scott, a world-famous movie star whose private life is often fodder for the tabloids. (Further blurring the Julia/Anna divide is the opening montage of red carpet arrival footage, most of it culled from actual news coverage of Roberts at gala events.) This may reek of shameless self-indulgence, but the movie star conceit allows Roberts to poke fun at her image and, more effectively, enables Curtis to deftly let off some pointed barbs at the Hollywood machine. One hilarious sequence perfectly captures the often ridiculous nature of a press junket (naturally, this section received the best response from the all-media audience); and in one single, simple line, Curtis takes a stinging jab at the writing-by-committee tactic so often used for so-called "blockbusters."
The main intent of Notting Hill, however, is not satire but romance, and Curtis and Michell have crafted a truly enchanting one. The premise is pure fantasy: one day Anna walks into the travel book store of Notting Hill (a neighborhood in London) resident William Thacker (Grant, comfortably back in Four Weddings stammer mode), and in quick time this average joe finds himself striking a friendship with the glam starlet that eventually develops into something deeper--which, of course, leads to some problems with anonymity. As far-fetched as the story is, it is done with such style and grace--the latter especially the case with Roberts and Grant's effortless rapport--that there is no difficulty in suspending disbelief.
While Roberts and Grant make an immensely appealing center, the characters at the periphery provide memorable support. Emma Chambers, Hugh Bonneville, Tim McInnerny, and Gina McKee are all given their individual moments to shine as William's sister and close friends, respectively. Likely to generate the most talk, though (aside from a funny surprise cameo by a name star), is Rhys Ifans, a scene stealer William's disgusting slob of a flatmate, Spike.
If there is a misstep made in Notting Hill, it is the ending. Admittedly a crowdpleaser, it's also so overdone as to be the only moment in the movie that is far less than convincing. But by that point, Roberts, Grant, and everyone and everything else will have so effortlessly endeared the audience that such a complaint is moot. That one moment may ring false, but what remains true throughout is the enrapturing spell this sparkling entertainment casts upon the audience.
Buena Vista Social Club (G)
Artisan Entertainment is selling this documentary by Wim Wenders as being about "the history of the best Cuban music," but the mere presence of old-time Cuban musicians is as deep as the history lesson gets. The film, which follows composer/musician Ry Cooder as he gathers Cuban music veterans for an album and subsequent concerts in Amsterdam and New York, functions better as an affectionate cinematic celebration of that all-but-forgotten music. Along the way, we get to know a few of the musicians, most memorably singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who is genuinely touching as he walks the streets of New York in almost teary awe. At times Buena Vista Social Club plays like a feature-length infomercial for the soundtrack album, but the film is so heartfelt in its simplicity that it's almost rude to quibble about it--even if you are, indeed, compelled to buy the album afterward.
The most indelible image of the news coverage of the hoopla surrounding The Phantom Menace's opening was not the many people in line dressed up as Darth Maul, but people out of line dressed up as characters from that other long-running sci-fi series, in particular one woman: leading a protest of all the media attention lavished upon Star Wars while dressed up as Borg, she held a Yoda doll in a noose, dropped it onto the ground, and then proceeded to stomp on it furiously.
Sadly, such (for lack of a better term) "deviant" behavior is not chronicled in Trekkies, a documentary about Star Trek's fervent fans, but there are plenty of extremes on display. Witness the Whitewater juror who insisted upon wearing her Starfleet uniform to court and only likes being addressed as "Commander." Marvel at the dentist who turned his office into a pretty neat microcosm of the Trek universe. Listen in astonishment as one fan, who already dresses his poodle in Starfleet clothes, contemplates having his ears surgically altered to resemble a Vulcan's. Laugh hysterically at the infamous "Q Virus" story and one fan who drives around in a working replica of an unusual transport vehicle featured in the TV series.
All of this holds a strange fascination, but as one can glean from the above paragraph, it does get somewhat redundant after a while. Not to mention grating at times--the fan who gets the most screen time, 14-year-old Gabriel Koerner, is so smugly pretentious one wishes he would end up on the wrong end of a phaser. Next Generation star Denise Crosby, who also produced, makes an engaging tour guide to all the madness, but the film loses steam halfway into its slim 86-minute running time.
Daydreaming high school senior Greg (Deon Richmond, a long way from playing Kenny, a.k.a. "Bud," on The Cosby Show) is inspired to wake up and think about his future by the sensible girl of his dreams (Maia Campbell). This often racy teen comedy is as formulaic as it sounds, and a subplot in which Greg's best friend (Donald Faison) runs afoul of a local crime boss (Stoney Jackson) is heavyhanded in its preachiness. Nonetheless, due in no small part to the likable leads (in particular Campbell), this good-natured film is as harmless and goes down as easily as your typical WB sitcom.
The Winslow Boy (G)
David Mamet, he of the puzzle box screen thrillers and profanity-laden plays, would seem like an odd match for a stately (and G-rated, no less) costume drama. Yet he tackles the genre beautifully in this superbly acted adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play about the court battle waged by a lawyer (Jeremy Northam) in defense of a wealthy man's (Nigel Hawthorne) youngest son (Guy Edwards), who was expelled from military school for petty theft (a mere five schillings). But this is no conventional courtroom drama, or romance for that matter. At the heart of the film is a beautifully muted pas de deux between Northam's character and Hawthorne's spunky daughter (Rebecca Pidgeon), who are divided by political differences. The suspense of their simmering will-they-or-won't-they relationship is matched by the court case--a fact made all the more remarkable that there are scant few actual courtroom scenes; hearing almost everything unfold through second-hand accounts suddenly makes the stakes even higher. That touch, and the economical device of showing political cartoons to track the public's attitude toward the court case, is indicative of the considerable clarity and precision with which Mamet has crafted this intelligent and very satisfying work of art.