Tuesday, June 24, 2008

My Favorite "Austin Powers"

Mike Myers' latest movie, The Love Guru, recently came out to negative reviews and a shrug from the general audience.  It's a shame, because I really like Mike Myers.

As critics and cynics started logging their negative reactions to Love Guru, I began noticing this trend of people carelessly stating that Mike Myers hasn't made a good live-action film since the first Austin Powers movie.  That's a surprise, since my favorite Austin Powers movie is the second one, The Spy Who Shagged Me.

While I've been told that the first Austin Powers (International Man of Mystery) gets better with repeat viewings, it never hooked me enough in my two viewings of it to get me to a third.  I've never been much of an Elizabeth Hurley fan.  Nor much of a Mimi Rogers fan.  And since I'm not much of a James Bond aficionado, a British spy spoof doesn't carry much weight for me.
Which is exactly why I consider the second one more successful.  When they did the second movie, they weren't thinking "we're making a British spy movie spoof," they were thinking "we're making an Austin Powers movie."  And that was much funnier to me.
Timing also probably had something to do with it.  The first movie came out when I was in high school.  The second one came out while I was in college.  Austin Powers is better when you're in college than when you're in high school.
The second movie had Mini-Me, who was hilarious from concept through execution.  It wasn't enough to just have a miniaturized clone of Dr. Evil; they took it the extra step and made him a hormonal, aggressive freak.  Although some people seem to think Mini-Me was inspired by Nick Nack from The Man With the Golden Gun, he was clearly based more on Marlon Brando's sidekick in 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau -- a bold move, considering few people saw that movie and even fewer liked it.  Almost ten years later, people still refer to smaller versions of a thing as its Mini-Me; a trend that shows no signs of going away.
And, of course, there was Fat Bastard.  Out of all of Mike Myers' Scottish characters, this one is easily the best.  I'm not big on gross-out humor, but Fat Bastard hits all the right notes.  This is, after all, the man who intends to eat Mini-Me ("I'm bigger than you; I'm higher on the food chain.  Get.  In.  My.  Belly!")  Excellent idea to put a man who weighs one metric ton in the same movie as the clone that "fits easily into most overhead storage bins."
A big improvement in the second movie was Rob Lowe as Number Two.  No offense to Robert Wagner, who originated the role, but he was pretty much just being Robert Wagner.  Everyone in Dr. Evil's criminal organization is a caricature, an exaggeration.  Even Mr. Bigglesworth couldn't get away with just being a cat; it had to be one of those freaky hairless cats.  In the second movie, Number Two successfully becomes an exaggeration due to the fact that it's Rob Lowe impersonating Robert Wagner playing Number Two.  Perhaps Number Two would have been a better character in International Man of Mystery if Robert Wagner had played him as an impersonation of Rob Lowe.  As it stands, Number Two as played by Robert Wagner doesn't seem to fit into the movie for me.  Sorry, the eye patch is not enough to make him an eccentric.
That being said, Robert Wagner still gets a good laugh out of me in his description of how he made the company rich by investing in Starbucks.  It's not even a particularly funny moment.  There's just something about the way he does it that amuses me.
Heather Graham was great.  "Just the Two of Us" as performed by Dr. Evil was great.  "Mini-Me, stop humping the laser."  The cameos by Will Farrell and Kristin Johnston were great.  "Why won't you die?!"  Elvis Costello and Bert Bacharach were great.  "The moon unit will be divided into to teams: Moon Unit Alpha and Moon Unit Zappa."  Tim Robbins was great.  "Beautiful Stranger" was great.  You get the idea.  They hit this one out of the park.
So why are critics saying that International Man of Mystery was the only good Austin Powers movie?  Residual contempt bleeding over from Goldmember.  Goldmember sucked.
If the first Austin Powers movie was thought of as "let's make a Bond spoof," and the second was "let's make an Austin Powers movie," then the third must have been thought of as "let's make an Austin Powers sequel."  And that's exactly what they did.  They asked themselves what people liked about the previous movies, and they did it all again without adding anything fresh or new, without even seeming to enjoy themselves much.
That was another key to the second movie.  The fun, the energy.  They knew that they were lucky they got to make a second movie.  Although the first movie is now thought of as a modern comedy classic, don't forget that in its original theatrical release, it made just a few dollars more than "bomb."  It found its second life of home video.  They not only dodged the bullet of completely tanking, but now they were thrilled that they actually had the chance to do these characters again.  You can feel that excitement in Spy.  By the time they were making Goldmember, it was pretty much a forgone conclusion that it would rake in a ton of money.  They had the smug confidence of success.  I'm not exactly saying they phoned it in.  I'm just saying it was another day at the office, as opposed to a passion project.
Here are the things I remember finding amusing in Goldmember: Steven Spielberg doing backflips in the opening dance sequence, and Fat Bastard saying his neck looked like a vagina after he lost weight.  Other than that, I remember lesser retreads of jokes from the previous two movies.
Here's where things get a little complicated.  Many devotees of International Man of Mystery have leveled the same accusation against The Spy Who Shagged Me.  It's definitely true that some of the jokes from the first movie were reworked in the second one.  But not to the degree that they were straight up replicated for the third movie.  Identical, and less funny.  (The same thing happened with the two Wayne's World movies.)
You might think that the awfulness of Goldmember would shine a better light on Spy for those people who were on the fence about it.  Instead, it seems to have worked in reverse.  The awfulness of Goldmember has cast a pall on Spy, causing people to group all Austin Powers sequels into the "bad" category and keeping the original exclusively in the "good" category.
This is wrong.  I encourage everybody to go back and take another look.  Not to take anything away from people who loved International Man of Mystery, but The Spy Who Shagged Me is the most effortlessly enjoyable of the Austin Powers movies.  If nothing else, let us all agree that Goldmember was an unfortunate misfire.
As for The Love Guru, I'll be waiting till it comes out on video.  But I will watch it.  And I will be rooting for Mike Myers.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Wearin' My Spoiler Shirt

Yesterday, I wore my spoiler shirt to work. "What is a 'spoiler shirt?'" you ask. It's just a simple black t-shirt that gives away the twists to movies with notorious surprise endings.

I've been told by several people that owning and wearing this shirt makes me a dick. Now, I'm definitely a dick. But it's not because of this t-shirt.

First of all, every spoiler on this t-shirt is well past the statute of limitations on spoiler warnings. (Except possibly the Harry Potter spoiler; but that's only if you're waiting for the movie instead of reading the five-year-old book.)

Second of all, most of these spoilers are well known, to such an extent that people who've never even seen the movies know the endings. If you don't know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's dad, then you are three years old and have never met a male human being in your life. To those of you who meet this criteria, I apologize.

Earlier this month, Entertainment Weekly ran a series of articles addressing the modern problem of rampaging spoilers. (Read their reporting here, here, and here.) My position on spoilers -- and part of the "statement" I'm making by wearing the spoiler shirt -- is that they don't spoil anything.

"A movie is not what it's about, but how it is about it."
No amount of spoilers can ruin the experience of seeing a movie unfold. Or should I say unspool? The pace, the editing, the camera movements (or lack thereof), camera angles, lens selections, lighting, costumes, production design, performances... If knowing that Ian Holm was actually Jack the Ripper all along ruins the entire movie for you, then I've got news for you: you don't actually like movies.

That being said, I completely understand the appeal of being caught off guard by the big third act reveal. Back in '99, I didn't see The Sixth Sense until two weeks after it had opened. A close friend of mine -- one not known for keeping secrets -- had already seen it, but didn't say a word about it. In fact, she didn't even over-hype the movie. Just go see it, she said. The twist ending was left unspoiled for me, and it was a delight when the truth was finally revealed.

But here's the thing: even after you know the twist ending, The Sixth Sense is still a great movie. Some people have seen The Sixth Sense exactly two times -- the first, they were surprised; the second, they wanted to "make sure it worked."

Those people do not like movies. The Sixth Sense is so much more than its twist ending. It's mood and atmosphere. It's characters you care about, and experiencing the growth and changes they go through. It's about coming to terms with the scars of an unhappy past.

My mom was one of those people who (spoiler alert) figured out that Bruce Willis succumbed to the bullet wound (end spoiler) upon first viewing of the scene. She didn't even really know that she wasn't supposed to know. Did that ruin the movie for her? No, she owns it.

By contrast, consider The Others. That movie is not good. Once you figure out the twist -- which you should, long before it's "revealed" -- there's little else to love. You don't care about the characters, you're merely curious about all the weird stuff that's going on. Once the weird stuff is explained, you just kinda shrug and go about your day.

Now for the flip side of the spoiler argument: If you go seeking spoilers... dude, get a life. No, wait. First, take your chill pill. Then get a life.

The demand for instant gratification, which fuels the spoiler market, is childish to say the least. On a personal level, I'm highly anticipating The Dark Knight, seeing as how Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins was the best thing to happen to Batman since the animated series. I get excited when I see the previews, I read every magazine article I find about it, I discuss it with friends. But am I poring through the internet, scouring Ain't It Cool and all the other spoiler sites, trying to squeeze out every last bit of information about the movie before it comes out?

No. Take a pill. Relax. Watch the movie when it comes out.

You know those kids in the grocery store whose parents have to take the long way around the candy aisle in order to avoid causing a scene? "Mom!!! Can we get candy?! Mom, can we get some candy? I WANT SOME CANDY MOM CAN WE GET SOME CANDY I'LL CLEAN MY ROOM I PROMISE TO BE GOOD I WON'T TEASE THE BABY CAN I GET SOME CANDY MOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM?!"

That's what the spoiler seekers are like. I hate them all.

(Note: You do not fall into the category of sugar-high spoiler seeker if you browse spoiler sites while you're bored at work. In that case, you simply fall into the category of being bored and doing the only non-boring thing you can do that makes it look like you're working. God bless the internet. How did working shmoes ever get by without it?) (Oh yeah, they smoked.)

I guess the message here is that everybody needs to chill out about spoilers. If you're a spoiler-seeking maniac who wants to know everything about every movie now now NOW, you need to chill. Likewise, if you're reading up on a movie you're interested in seeing and you come across a spoiler, don't start panicking about how this just ruins EVERYTHING! If that's all it takes to ruin the movie for you, then you probably wouldn't have liked it to begin with.

I mean, Spider-Man is always going to win, the Titanic is always going to sink, and The Confederacy will always fall. But how it all happens is what we go to the movies to see.

That, and boobs.

Monday, June 2, 2008

A Free Dummy Story

If you watched Saturday Night Live in the early '90s, you probably remember the name Jack Handey - the man responsible for those hilarious "Deep Thoughts" bits. Like these ones:

I was listening to a recent interview with Jack Handey, and it turns out he's a real person, not a persona invented to parody meditation gurus and the like. It also turns out he's responsible for many of the most memorable recurring sketches from the same period of SNL, like "Toonces the Driving Cat" and "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer," the latter of which I quote to this day. (Any time a friend of mine gets tripped up over something that should be obvious, I bust out the, "Your world frightens and confuses me" line.)
As the interview proceeded, the interviewer, Jesse Thorn, quoted one of his favorite Deep Thoughts.
If you ever fall off the Sears Tower, just go real limp, because maybe you'll look like a dummy and people will try to catch you because, hey, free dummy.
Thorn was greatly amused by the notion that people would be so interested in a free dummy. Well, I'm here to tell you that it's not so bizarre. Here's my Free Dummy story.
In February, I started my current job at Reveille Studios. Reveille is a pretty successful company going through a period of growth and expansion. In March, we expanded into a new office in a new building... the Vivid Entertainment building. Yes, that Vivid Entertainment. Don't pretend you don't know all about Vivid.
Here we are making our cutesy little reality show for tweens, while one floor above us is the all-time biggest porn production house in the history of the world.
So one day, my supervisor Frank goes for a stroll around the building. You know, to see what you can see. And in the stairwell of the fourth floor, he finds it - the dummy. "Hey, free dummy," he no doubt thought to himself.
Ok, it wasn't quite a dummy. It was basically just a torso. A female torso, of course, with no back side. So I guess it was more like a mold. Just a naked female torso mold, sitting in a stairwell. But really, why wouldn't Vivid Entertainment have a naked female torso mold laying in the stairwell?
April Fool's Day was a few weeks away, and Frank had a plan. "If that dummy is still there on the last day of March, we're grabbing it and putting it into one of the edit bays." We?
Sure enough, April Fool's Eve rolled around, and the torso was still in stairwell, completely abandoned by its owners. If they weren't using it, we would. Frank waited until the editors went home for the night (editors leave on time), grabbed the torso and put it in the bay of the editor who was most likely to enjoy a prank. A naked female torso prank, no less.
I wasn't in the office when the editor discovered what was waiting for him in his bay. I have no idea what his reaction was; I'm guessing it was mild delight. What I do know is that later that afternoon, the editor grabbed some string and hung the torso in the window of his edit bay.
Apparently, we had no immediate plans to return the torso to Vivid. Days went by. Then weeks. The torso was a permanent fixture in our office.
One day, our (female) co-producer walked past the bay window and exclaimed "What the hell is that?!" The torso had been on display for almost a month. She had been in and out of that bay dozens of times during that month. She was just now noticing. I assumed this was the torso's last day. I assumed wrong.
(Note: The co-producer wasn't offended. If all it takes to offend you is a naked female torso decorating your place of business, then reality TV is the wrong field for you.)
I'm not sure when the torso finally did come down. About a week ago, I was in the supply room preparing a FedEx shipment when I noticed the perfectly bronzed torso hidden under some bubble wrap. Apparently it will not be returned to the Vivid stairwell. It's ours now.
I grabbed the torso and flung it up on the highest shelf in the supply room, where neither eyes nor arms can easily find it. Some day, long after I've moved onto a different company, some innocent fool -- likely a young, underpaid, new-to-the-industry office assistant -- will be instructed to get a ladder and put some stuff up on the top shelf. There, with no explanation or context -- other than the fact that this is the Vivid building -- will be the torso, in all it's glory.
What happens to the torso after that, who can say? But I see more pranks in its future.