Monthly Archives: January 2017

For Your Consideration

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: The cast of little-heralded film Home For Purim are rocked by the news that at least one of their number has been mentioned in connection with Oscar nominations. Despite downplaying the buzz, the rumours have an ever-increasing effect on the actors’ behaviour and mental state as the time comes for names to be named.

If you have read the WFTB reviews of This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show (A Mighty Wind has gone AWOL for the time being), you won’t be surprised when I say I’m a big fan of Christopher Guest and am well aware of the familiar rhythms of his and Eugene Levy’s work, and the quirks of his trusted and much-used cast. For For Your Consideration the team have taken a different tack, forsaking documentary-style cinema verité and interviews with the protagonists for a more conventional exploration of the making of Home for Purim, the film-within-the-film.

The structure of For Your Consideration threatens to be complicated to explain, but Guest – as director of Purim, Jay Berman, and as director of the film proper – does a good job of delineating his characters. Star of the film is Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), an actress whose peak has come and gone without ever attracting the big time; in Home for Purim, she is the dying mother in the Pischer family, gathering together for a Jewish festival; her husband is played by Victor Allan Miller (Harry Shearer), a frustrated veteran not getting the attention he feels he deserves from agent Morty (Eugene Levy).

Their children are both doing their bit in the war effort, but whereas Sam, played by actor Brian Chubb (Christopher Moynihan) is a model son, daughter Rachel (Callie Webb (Parker Posey)) is a disruptive influence, bringing home a girlfriend to the feast. Despite this scandal, the family’s love is heart-warming enough for a Hollywood insider to see Oscar potential in the performances, initially for Marilyn but later for Victor and even Callie.

Naturally, the actors do their level best to conceal their delight; around them, however, the whirlwind threatens to spiral out of control, interest in Purim whipped up by – amongst others – eccentric publicist Corey Taft (John Michael Higgins), diaper heiress and dippy producer Whitney Taylor Brown (Jennifer Coolidge), Hollywood TV reporters Chuck and Cindy (Fred Willard and Jane Lynch) and a moneyman from the studios played by Ricky Gervais, who sensitively requests/demands the film be re-imagined as Home For Thanksgiving.

If this seems like a lot of people, it is, without even mentioning Bob Balaban and Michael McKean, the writers of Home for Purim who become ever more disgruntled with the way things are going. A total of thirteen people are featured on the DVD cover and this gives an effective picture of the film’s problems: with so many characters, very few actually get a chance to shine, with Guest, McKean and Lynch in particular reduced to very minor parts.

Of those who do grab the spotlight, Higgins’ publicist feels more like a caricature than a fully-rounded character, whilst Willard’s customary ignorance makes you wonder how Chuck ever got a job in television. Shearer and Posey are both very good, but the film really belongs to O’Hara: a gracefully fading diva at the film’s beginning, she gets caught up with the ‘buzz’ and involves herself in a desperate attempt to roll back the years as she courts publicity for the film and herself. Marilyn is a fascinating, funny and ultimately tragic exercise in the willingness of actors to have their vanity stroked, and even though she should know better she deserves her fleeting moment in the sun.

Guest’s films have traditionally been structured in terms of rehearsal and performance. In For Your Consideration, the first act deals with the production of Purim/Thanksgiving, the second the days leading up to the climactic moment of the film, the Oscar nominations. But the first act is so long, and the second so short and anti-climactic (I won’t give away why), that the film struggles to achieve any sense of cohesion and balance. This wouldn’t be a problem if the jokes were up to the usual Guest ensemble standard, but something about the ‘traditional’ shooting of the film appears to restrict them (the cast talking to reporters isn’t a particularly elegant device). There are decent jokes, of course, such as McKean’s thoughts on why you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water (“You’d have a wet, critically injured, baby”); for one reason or another, however, the illusion of spontaneity is nowhere near as strong as in other films. Also, I don’t know if it’s merely the presence of Gervais in the film, but the relationship between Victor and Morty is very reminiscent of the actor/agent partnership in Extras.

As a final thought, perhaps it’s not the style of For Your Consideration that rankles as much as the subject matter. In Waiting For Guffman and his other films, Guest presents us with a host of small-town eccentrics, just a little larger than life, who he ribs very gently; here, the mocking is less than affectionate and the audience struggles to find someone to empathise with, since Marilyn, Victor and the crazies around them do not seem to be drawn from real life at all.

As Robert Altman has already shown in The Player, it is much easier to satirise Hollywood by presenting its absurdities with a straight face, or even a scowling one: it helps vastly, too, if the Hollywood you present is one with plenty of genuine star quality (lovely though she may be, Claire Forlani doesn’t quite cut it). For Your Consideration is perfectly good fun, and all praise to Guest for shaking up his formula; but if he wanted to do things differently, his focus probably should have been trained in another direction than on his own profession.

Advertisements

Waiting for Guffman

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Blaine, Missouri, the town plan a concert featuring the talents of its townsfolk, to be staged by Off-off-off-off Broadway refugee Corky St. Clair. News that a theatre critic will be attending sends shivers down the spines of the eclectic cast, but whether the show will happen, especially given its no-budget nature, is still very much open to question.

In marked contrast to the splendid, ridiculous bombast of This is Spinal Tap, such is the delicacy of Waiting for Guffman that you worry that it might crumble to nothing at being looked at too closely. However, whilst Christopher Guest’s film never quite hits the heights of Reiner’s mockumentary, in its subtle, sly humour Guffman has a few moments that come very close.

The story could hardly be simpler: fey actor Corky St. Clair (Guest, director and co-writer with Levy) is staging the show ‘Red, White and Blaine’ in celebration of Maine’s sesquicentennial by pulling together the town’s talent to mark the key moments in the life of the town. These moments include the settlement of the town when Blaine Fabin lied to his followers that they were in California; the visit of President McKinley when he was presented with a plush stool, leading to the town’s ‘stool boom;’ and a pre-Roswell visit by aliens which left a corn circle with eerie climatic conditions.

The cast include husband-and-wife travel agents and amateur thesps Ron and Sheila Albertson (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), bored Dairy Queen waitress Libby Mae Brown (Parker Posey) and frustrated dentist Allan Pearl (Eugene Levy), in addition to more reluctant figures such as narrator Clifford (Lewis Arquette) and beefy mechanic Johnny (Matt Keeslar). When the council refuse to give Corky any of the $100,000 he demands to stage the show to meet the anticipated standards of eponymous New York Critic Mort Guffman, music teacher Lloyd Miller (Bob Balaban) fills in, much to the chagrin of the cast. With much flattery Corky is eventually persuaded back on board, but will Guffman enjoy the show?

It’s not in the story, but in the lives of the characters that this film really lives; and in capturing the nuances of small-town, second-rate ambitions and limitations, Guest and his cast pull off something marvellous. Quoting them here doesn’t do them any favours, but the wannabe actors pitch everything just right: Levy’s dentist wasn’t the class clown but sat next to him and picked up a lot of tips; Sheila is given performance notes by Ron, yet she has to mouth everything to him just in case; and Balaban, in a wonderfully compact performance, is pitched constantly on the edge of frustration that his legitimate concerns are not given an ear, whilst Corky is loved despite his lack of thoroughness in rehearsals.

It is the solidity of these performances that allow Guest’s Corky to be outlandishly flamboyant, with his extravagant dancing and colourful language during his frequent flounces. Of course, the exaggerated nature of his effeminacy is made doubly effective when he has to take Johnny’s place at the last moment, his love duet with Posey one of many highlights.

Guest has made a few films where the basic structure is the same: Gathering performers together, rehearsal, performance and aftermath. In each, the aftermath is always the weakest segment, and this is particularly true of Waiting for Guffman. The film falls away badly at its conclusion, with nobody aside from Corky having anything of interest to add; if I had another complaint, it would be that the music doesn’t always sound as it should (some of the instruments sound synthesised, and a good joke where a trumpet player doubles up as a timpanist is ruined by him only hitting one drum whilst two play on the soundtrack).

By and large, however, the performances make up for this, and not only those of the theatrical players: Linda Kash is nicely square as Allan’s easily-shocked wife, and Michael Hitchcock beautifully camp as the councilman who can’t get enough of Corky, to name but two. People looking for action or in-your-face comedy will probably find Guffman rather quiet, but for anyone who has lived in smaller towns and/or has ever trod the boards at any level, there are plenty of laughs here, and robust ones at that.

Big Top Pee-wee

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Pee-Wee Herman’s world is turned upside-down when a circus troupe lands on his farm during a storm. Not only do the animals cause havoc with the livestock – a hippo taking a particular interest in Herman’s buddy Vance – but trapeze artist Gina plays havoc with Pee-Wee’s heart, much to the dismay of his intended, Winnie.

Neither Paul Reubens nor his extraordinary creation Pee-Wee Herman have ever made much of a splash in Britain, barring a couple of unfortunate newspaper headlines a while back, so it would be easy to write Big Top Pee-Wee off as a forgettable kids’ movie, mainly notable for being directed by the man who gave us Grease. On this basis you might decide to give it a miss altogether but – depending on your sense of humour – that would be a pity.

The caveat in the last sentence is important because many people will dislike this film immensely for one simple reason: Pee-Wee Herman. He’s a curious character, on the one hand geeky, effete and camp, on the other waspish and – in this film, anyway – given to testosterone-fuelled lunges at his prim and proper fiancée, teacher Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller). Though they meet for lunch every day, Winnie doesn’t even know what Pee-Wee likes in his sandwiches, forcing him to face the hostile glares of the old townsfolk when he goes into the store for something to eat.

An approaching storm sends Pee-Wee and his best friend, talking pig Vance, back to their farm to get all the animals into the cellar; luckily, they are unscathed, but they emerge to the discovery that an entire circus run by Mace Montana and his diminutive wife Midge (Kris Kristofferson and Susan Tyrrell) has landed on the farm. Though the townspeople are as unwelcoming to the circus as they have always been to Pee-Wee, he persuades Mace to stay and give the circus a holiday, a gesture that allows him to get to know the lovely Gina (Valeria Golino) rather better.

Mace, after taking a tour of Pee-Wee’s research facilities (his creations including a hot-dog tree), decides that his circus needs fresh ideas; meanwhile, when Winnie and Gina find out about each other, Pee-Wee suddenly has more than one balancing act to perform, whilst also finding a way of getting his miserable old neighbours to come and see the show

On the surface, it’s preposterous that a strange man-child like Pee-Wee should find himself the object of affection of two women, but the joy of Big Top Pee-Wee is that it willingly embraces the bizarre and surreal, presenting farm animals sleeping in their own beds and thumb-sized women like everyday events (I loved the miniature breakfast Midge serves up). Pee-Wee is certainly an acquired taste, but his character, and the film in general, show a strong streak of invention that you might not expect from a children’s film.

Actually, like the main character, the film has a split personality; so while the farm, the talking animals, and the assorted oddities of the circus (including a mermaid, a troupe of acrobats who take Winnie’s fancy, and Benicio Del Toro playing a dog-faced boy) are likely to keep children amused, there is a more adult vein too, for example one of the longest kisses in film history and a naughty Monty Python-like use of footage suggesting Herman, erm, becomes a man.

Also, though the point is far from hammered home, the parochial hostility of the town to anyone who is different – they turn up at Pee-Wee’s farm with flaming torches – lends the film a poignant note; whilst celebrating his individuality, there is something simultaneously funny and sad about Pee-Wee lining himself up with the array of circus freaks. These little touches, along with the weird and wonderful jokes and Kris Kristofferson providing nice ballast as the circus owner, help the film to bowl along pleasantly, which is just as well since the plot doesn’t really go anywhere and the romance between Pee-Wee and Gina, despite all the kissing, is hardly on a par with Bogart and Bergman.

The film also fails to find a satisfactory climax, since the circus show is simply that, containing a mediocre song and little that is new apart from Herman and friends’ high-wire act; that said, I have never understood the appeal of circuses anyway, so merely not finding these scenes unbearable is a form of praise.

I am given to understand that many people consider this film a poor cousin to Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and until I have seen that film I wouldn’t dare disagree. Nonetheless, I found Big Top Pee-Wee to be lively and light, and even if the movie is inconsequential and quickly forgotten, the quirks of the title character make him a great deal more fun than his tongue-tied English cousin, Mr Bean.

X2: X-Men United

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: An attack on the American President sees tensions raised between normal humans and those who have evolved superhuman powers, to the point where ex-army man William Stryker conceives of a final solution for all the ‘mutants.’ Professor Charles Xavier is concerned for the fate of his students, which his faithful X-Men – plus a new companion – strive to protect; meanwhile, Xavier’s old friend Eric Lensherr is imprisoned in a plastic cell and seemingly unable to intervene. Of course, all is rarely as it seems where Magneto and his shape-shifting friend Mystique are concerned.

When we left our heroes at the end of 2000’s X-Men, we had been introduced to the good and bad guys, been apprised of the state of play between normal folk and the fractured mutant community, and given an idea of where several of the key players were in their lives. The chief issues were these: firstly, could Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) convince the world that mutants and non-mutants could co-exist without conflict; would the proposed registration scheme from the first film find its way into legislation; or would Eric Lensherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) be able to further his fight against humanity from the confines of his metal-free prison? Secondly, would the imperishable Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) discover more about how he came to have a skeleton, and claws, made of indestructible adamantium? Thirdly, would he claim the love of troubled telepath Dr Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) over rival Cyclops (James Marsden)? And finally, would young Rogue (Anna Paquin) be able to continue her courtship with (n)ice young man Bobby, when she literally drains the life out of everyone she touches?

Bryan Singer bravely chooses to tackle all these questions and a few more in X2. The film begins with an attack on the President by Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a blue, tattooed teleporter. Though the President is essentially unharmed, the incident provides the opportunity William Stryker (Brian Cox) needs to take charge and enact his plan to shut down mutants wherever he can find them. As Jean and Storm (Halle Berry) jet off to find Nightcrawler, Stryker extracts information from Magneto and lures Professor X and Cyclops away from his school for the gifted, with the plan of storming it; with Wolverine looking after the building, however, and some exceptionally capable students prepared to stand up and fight, this is easier said than done.

Meanwhile, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) has been following political affairs by taking the form of Senator Kelly, but when called upon imitates a variety of people to set Magneto free and gain access to Stryker’s plans, which involve recreating Xavier’s mutant-locating machine Cerbero in the Alkali Lake facility and getting the professor – whilst under the control of Stryker’s mutant son Jason – to find and kill the mutants in one fell swoop.

The X-Men, accompanied by Magneto (waiting to turn the situation to his advantage), rush to save Xavier and some of his youngest protégés; on the way, Jean Grey, laden with terrible intimations of doom, tears herself away from Wolverine, who has found a link to his past in the sadistic Stryker; and Bobby opens up to his family about his special powers, though their reaction is far from positive. When his friend Pyro meets up with Magneto and finds his brand of militant action appealing, it is left to Bobby and Rogue to rescue the rescuers from the icy waters of the bursting lake.

To start with the positives, X2 never looks less than terrific, the design and effects at all times effective and convincing. Also, as was the case in X-Men, the film brings fine performances from great actors, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen complemented by excellent turns from Jackman, Cumming and especially Brian Cox as the despicable, deceitful Stryker, a character brilliantly motivated by personal disappointment. He plays a large part in the satisfying main plot which allows for a number of large-scale fight/action sequences, and his knowledge of Wolverine’s past also ties him in neatly to one of the sub-plots. At its best, X2 is amazingly good at stating its metaphorical case for the acceptance of difference, whilst providing top-drawer comic book entertainment.

With a running time of over two hours it’s not surprise that the film is not always at its best, and the film does lapse into talky periods; some of these, whether it’s Bobby ‘coming out’ to his parents, Pyro’s struggles with the Dark Side (to borrow a phrase), or Nightcrawler discussing his faith with Storm, stand out for being too obviously symbolic, the sentiments glaring and drifting towards cliché.

Furthermore, for the length of the film some of the characters still get very short shrift, with Storm reduced to a few brief (if important) scenes and Cyclops almost elbowed completely out of the picture. For all his abilities, Xavier is little more than a puppet most of the time, and even Wolverine suffers from a reduced share of the story, although he is the prime mover in the escape from the school and gets a one-on-one with Kelly Hu’s underused Deathstrike.

By contrast, a disproportionate amount of time is given over to Mystique; lovely though Ms Romijn-Stamos may be, she solves altogether too many of the mutants’ problems. If she can copy everyone else, why bother lugging everyone else around? Finally, whilst the story is pretty watertight, I have a few pedantic gripes (the sort you should probably overlook in comic-book adaptations): at the beginning we see Wolverine unsuccessfully looking for clues at Alkali Lake, because he only searches for things at ground level – having taken the trouble to get all the way there, would he not have had a really good look around? And having spent so much time watching one release the other, it would be nice to see where Magneto and Mystique end up once they make their way away from the dam.

In terms of the scale of its story, X2 exceeds the original and delivers the action to the screen with an enormous amount of flair and one or two more story lines than it needs. Some will find new favourites amongst the mutants and wish others had been promoted or relegated to more or less prominent positions, but for my money Singer has got the balance just about right.

Shrek 2

WFTB Score: 7/20

The plot: Shrek and his new bride Fiona are summoned to Far, Far Away to meet the in-laws. Finding his daughter disagreeably green, the king plots to do away with Shrek and, for his own reasons, install Prince Charming as a replacement husband; Shrek will need help from more than his faithful donkey if true love is going to win out this time.

The original Shrek became a massive hit not because it looked fabulous, taking computer animated feature films to a new level, but because it was really, really good; it took the conventions of fairytale storytelling and turned them on their head, with feisty heroes and heroines that lacked the pert noses and chiselled chins of a hundred Disney princes and princesses, and a smart script that satisfied children and adults alike. Best of all, the happy ending was true to the spirit of the film, Shrek and Fiona’s wedding tying up all the loose ends very nicely indeed.

Unfortunately for Dreamworks, the ending had to be unknotted a little when it became clear that a sequel would make the studio pots of money was artistically in the best interests of all concerned. Once again the animation is terrific, and there’s nothing wrong with the set-up, Shrek, Fiona and Donkey (voiced again by Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz and Eddie Murphy respectively) travelling to the Hollywood-like Far, Far Away to meet the King and Queen (John Cleese and Julie Andrews); but once there, the plot becomes complicated very quickly, with the King in hock to Jennifer Saunders’ Fairy Godmother, who demands that her self-narrating son (eh?) Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) should be Fiona’s real husband. Meanwhile, the bad-tempered introduction to the family causes friction between Shrek and Fiona, the ogre reading his wife’s diary and coming to the conclusion that he may not be her ideal husband.

Marital strife doesn’t sound like everyone’s idea of fun, and it is clear that, even allowing for affronted furniture, the dense plotting of Shrek 2 often pushes the jokes to one side. The script lurches from scene to scene rather than flowing naturally like its predecessor, and it has to be said that few of the new characters have either the charm or pantomime villainy you would hope for. This is particularly true of the King, for whom Cleese’s voice is a poor match (why does he have to be English when Fiona is clearly American?); also, British audiences are treated to the vocal ‘talents’ of Jonathan Ross and Kate Thornton, the latter particularly misplaced as her character looks exactly like Joan Rivers!

Thank heavens, then, for Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots. Originally assigned to assassinate Shrek, he accompanies the ogre and Donkey on a Quest to make Shrek beautiful in a fairly predictable reversal of the first film. Puss sounds the part and, with his big eyes, is cute as a button. He carries the middle part of the film, because although Donkey’s transformation into a stallion is entertaining, Shrek as a handsome brute of a human is less fun than when he’s a green beast.

Anyway, the plot shoehorns the favourite fairytale characters (Pinocchio, the gingerbread man, the pigs etc.) into rescuing these adventurers and preventing Charming from kissing Fiona before midnight. There are a few decent jokes during this sequence, not least the appearance of Mungo, the giant gingerbread tribute to Mr Stay-Puft in Ghostbusters, heroically downed by Cappuccino, or Pinocchio’s momentary transformation into a real boy; but there is nothing to match Dragon’s storming of the church, and too many tiresome pop culture references.

Talking of pop, some of the music is pretty poor too – Pete Yorn covers the Buzzcocks’ classic Ever Fallen in Love?, Butterfly Boucher make a horrible mess of Bowie’s Changes and a ghastly version of Holding out for a Hero by Frou Frou runs over the end credits. And before you ask, I’ve never heard of any of these people either.

There’s as much to lament as there is to laud about Shrek 2. On its own terms it’s adequate, obviously successful enough for the producers to have yet another go and in no way disgracing the memory of the original (yes, I am looking at you, Babe: Pig in the City); but neither does it build much on the original. Given the choice, and assuming it isn’t too fresh in your memory, watch the first Shrek every time.

Austin Powers in Goldmember

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Despite his incarceration, Dr Evil brings back a colleague in evil called Goldmember from the 1970s to hold the present to ransom with his fearsome, meteorite-attracting invention – Preparation H. Britain’s grooviest spy, Austin Powers, is on his trail, but his attention is diverted by the charms of Foxy Cleopatra and the disappearance of his even groovier father.

If it is a truth generally acknowledged that sequels are rarely better than their begetters, the same goes double for comedy, making 1999’s The Spy who Shagged me a rare beast indeed, despite some complaints that it gave too much space to gross-out humour at the expense of lampooning Bond and his ilk. Could the third instalment in the burgeoning franchise buck all trends and be the best of the bunch?

Things begin promisingly in dashing Mission:Impossible fashion with a helicopter gunship and motorbike chase, with Tom Cruise as Austin Powers and Kevin Spacey as Dr Evil in a movie directed by Steven Spielberg. However, once this entertainingly star-studded credits sequence has finished, things quickly take a turn for the worse.

The plot, such as it is, sees Dr Evil (Mike Myers, in one of four roles) still with Mini-Me (Verne Troyer), plotting to hold the world to ransom with the assistance of unfortunate Dutchman Goldmember (Myers). Austin Powers (Myers again) captures Evil early on, but relaxes his security in exchange for the information that Goldmember, a flaky roller-skating character with a precious asset, is hiding Austin Powers’ father Nigel (Michael Caine) in a 1975 disco.

Austin has issues with his father, not least that he missed his crowning as International Man of Mystery at school (which we see in flashback), and these issues are not improved when Nigel is rescued and proves to be even more shagadelic than his son. Nonetheless, with the help of undercover Agent Foxy Cleopatra (Beyoncé Knowles), Powers and Mini-Me (persuaded to change sides when Seth Green’s Scott Evil starts living up to his name) battle Fat Bastard (Myers’ final incarnation) and other random henchmen to find Dr Evil in his secret underwater lair.

In Austin’s previous outings, the plot ripped off enough storylines from Bond films to fuel the jokes and keep the action moving at a brisk pace; here, however, it is treated as very much a side issue to the characters. Austin himself is now pretty familiar to us, so Myers is naturally more interested in his villains; unfortunately, whilst he can be funny, he’s no Peter Sellers or Alec Guinness, and the characterisations are all pretty similar beneath the make-up.

There are several overlong and indulgent scenes, including Dr Evil’s first, where Myers (playing against himself) does not have much for the characters to do but engage in childish verbal jousting, most of which would surely have ended up on the cutting room floor had meatier material been available. Elsewhere, the film veers uncertainly between wee and fart jokes, gentle parody and outright spoof, with wirework people standing by for Fat Bastard’s stunts and a subtitles gag that brings back memories of Wayne’s World.

The film’s few good gags (such as Fred Savage’s mole with a mole) are done to death, as are the bad ones – Fat Bastard’s sequence in Tokyo really stinks, in every sense – and there is a self-consciousness about everything having been done before, attested to by a redundant appearance (not that they have any other kind) by the Osbournes. Desperation is marked by a lame Jay-Z parody (that couple did well out of the movie, if nobody else did) and an “I can see your/you’re nuts” joke that was old when it featured in Kentucky Fried Movie. Never mind that the film peters out to a pretty lame and obvious conclusion.

Apart from Myers, the acting is adequate, with Robert Wagner and Mindy Sterling sidelined in favour of Myers’ new creations and Beyoncé having a beautiful face, voice and body but very little chemistry or attitude, the latter especially disappointing given the Blaxploitation possibilities implied in her character’s name. The star of the show is Caine, effortlessly showing up Myers’ faux London accent as he dominates every scene he’s in; he is utterly believable as Austin’s ultra-suave father and very funny with it. Look out too for a brief appearance by future Heroes star Masi Oka in a good joke about copyright laws.

The film fitfully hits the target and it’s clear that Myers likes his characters and their mannerisms; however, he fails to keep his humour fresh or disciplined, and fails to project it out to the audience. For this reason, Goldmember will only really appeal to the most forgiving of Mike’s fans.

Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me

WFTB Score: 13/20

The plot: Dastardly Dr Evil inflicts a fate worse than death on shagadelic British agent Austin Powers by going back to the 1960s and stealing the very thing that defines him – his ‘mojo’. Austin goes back to the 60s himself and teams up with foxy CIA operative Felicity Shagwell to retrieve it and stop Dr Evil’s plan for world domination, but the villain puts obstacles both big and small in their way.

By the 1990s James Bond had been so heavily parodied even some of the Bond films were little more than self-conscious send-ups of themselves (witness Roger Moore rustling up a meal in A View to a Kill). This being the case, the success of Mike Myers’ crooked-toothed secret agent Austin Powers in 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was something of a surprise; but a hit it was, and two years later came a sequel with the Bond-referring title The Spy Who Shagged Me. Not a particularly clever pun, you may think: but sort of funny nonetheless.

The film begins (after a Star Wars-style scrolling recap) with Austin on his honeymoon and alarmed to discover that his new bride Vanessa (Liz Hurley, thankfully in the briefest of cameos) is in fact just another of Dr Evil’s ‘fembots’, but he escapes to enjoy being newly single and do battle with his old nemesis, last seen in a Big Boy in space. Dr Evil (Myers again, of course) has not been idle (in an odd piece of product placement, his corporation runs Starbucks) and whilst he has not patched up relations with sulky son Scott (Seth Green), he has created both a “time machine” (his quotes, not mine) and a 1/8 scale version of himself called ‘Mini-Me’ (Verne Troyer).

He also has a fiendish plan: he will travel back to 1969 and employ inside man ‘Fat Bastard’ (Myers, in acres of latex) to rob the cryogenically-frozen Austin Powers of his mojo, thereby stopping the swinging spy in his tracks. The ploy is immediately successful, forcing modern-day Austin – with the help of the ever-useful Basil Exposition (Michael York) – to travel back in time himself to find Dr Evil’s volcano lair and stop the next, more predictable phase of his plan, ie. to hold the world to ransom with the aid of a moon-based laser dubbed (to Scott’s derision) “The Alan Parsons Project”.

Austin is not alone in his quest, as he is sought out by shapely CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) and the pair find there’s a mutual attraction. However, since Powers has lost his powers and Basil needs Felicity to get up close and personal with Fat Bastard in order to track down Dr Evil, Austin has more than the mere pursuit of a madman on his mind as he infiltrates Evil’s hideaway.

It’s pretty standard practice for a sequel to re-tread or reverse the plot of its predecessor and in this respect Austin’s journey back to the 60s is a case of more of the same. Austin’s catchphrases are present and correct and the banter between Evil and his various cronies is much as it was in International Man of Mystery (although Rob Lowe amusingly takes Robert Wagner’s place for much of the movie as a young No. 2). There is also a preponderance of toilet humour and much juvenile sniggering about sexual organs, plus a shadow trick which, though spiced up, is as old as the hills; even the Bond spoofing borders on being overly self-conscious (Austin watches In Like Flint, so at least the film acknowledges its debts).

In between, however, are some very good innovations: Mini-Me is hilariously deviant and although he’s appallingly treated in the final reel, Troyer appears to be game so complaints about a lack of political correctness are redundant; there is also fun to be had with the identity of Scott Evil’s mother (step forward an excellent Mindy Sterling as Frau Farbissina). On Austin’s side, the time travel conundrums (with the obvious nods to Back to the Future) are swept lightly away by Basil, and in Felicity Austin has a feistier and more believable ally than Liz Hurley ever was. Heather Graham is by no means the world’s greatest actress, but at least she’s an actress* and looks amazing in 60s gear and her Dr No-style white bikini – Myers looks rather less amazing in his. It was also nice to see Elvis Costello pop up to accompany Burt Bacharach.

One innovation that isn’t so welcome is Fat Bastard, an obscene, greasy character with no redeeming features whatsoever, save for audience members who find the line ‘I ate a baby!’ priceless. He does have that gross-out value, but he doesn’t really fit in with the tenor of the rest of the film and I found myself looking away most of the time he appeared on-screen.

The introduction of a third character for Myers smacks of the actor trying to ensure he bags every laugh in the film, a feeling strengthened by the late appearance of two Austins (one from ‘ten minutes from now’) engaging in mutual admiration. And in Dr Evil’s ever lengthier talks with his cronies there’s a hint of the indulgence that would sink the next sequel, Goldmember: yes, it’s passingly amusing, but Evil’s rendition of Just the Two of Us adds nothing to the film in terms of advancing the plot.

By and large, though, The Spy Who Shagged Me moves plenty quickly enough and has enough jokes that stick to make it a very enjoyable watch. Familiarity with the characters, good casting and an improved production budget (there’s some good stuff in space) ensure that this is the best of the Austin Powers series by some margin, even if it hints within itself that Powers is a two-movie joke at most. You won’t learn much about yourself whilst watching it, except for your personal limits about tastelessness, since (like the title) it’s not a clever movie: but it’s funny nonetheless.

NOTES: Yes, I may be taking my prejudice a bit far. See my review of Bedazzled.