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Abysmal "Austin" and DVD Round-Up

An Aisle Seat Entry

By Andy Dursin

If you visited the cinema this weekend, chances are likely you ran into a mob of kids buying all the tickets for the latest AUSTIN POWERS adventure. That helped this lackluster sequel to a huge weekend gross, although not to be lost in the shuffle is the fact that the comedy opened on the largest number of screens in the history of film -- and, considering that, had only a good per-screen average, nothing like what STAR WARS raked in last month. Of course, financial tallies only count for so much -- and we'll see next weekend how quickly this movie drops off with audiences.

Not that there's going to be a whole lot of competition. Yes, Disney's TARZAN will fill a niche, as will the John Travolta military thriller THE GENERAL'S DAUGHTER, but for me, the next movie I'm looking forward to is -- yes, you guessed it, AMERICAN PIE. Being a fan of teen comedies like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, this movie looks like it'll be gleefully raunchy but hopefully funny as well (a combination lacking in Mike Myers' latest).

Beyond that, the rest of the summer looks hazy. THE WILD WILD WEST should be entertaining although the film has been going through more reshoots of late, which is never a positive sign; THE RUNAWAY BRIDE will be Julia Roberts's second stab at a romantic comedy this season; and then there are oft-delayed films like THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE (and talk about a jumbled trailer!) and THE 13TH WARRIOR, which boasts a MUMMY-like musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, right down to similar motifs (although it's far superior in terms of energy and execution).

My pick for the summer sleeper is LAKE PLACID, which just looks like it's going to be too much fun. First, you have ALLY McBEAL creator David E.Kelley taking a sabbatical from his dramatic TV chores and tackling -- of all things -- a monster movie. Secondly, you have a good cast (Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Pratt), what looks like a scenic setting, and a movie with a sense of humor to boot. Throw in some Stan Winston special effects and John Ottman musical score, and you have the makings of an unpretentious fright flick. Looks good to me!

In the meantime, here's my take on the Shagged Spy, and a veritable potpourri of DVD releases with something to appeal for everyone in there. Remember to send in your summer movie thoughts to me at dursina@att.net and by next week I'll be down at the beach! 'Nuff said!


In Theaters

AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME (*1/2): Austin Powers hasn't just lost his Mojo, baby. This sorry sequel to the surprise sleeper hit of 1997 is an almost complete misfire from start to finish, something that shouldn't come as much of a shock to anyone who thought the original film -- entertaining as it was -- stretched the one-joke premise of Mike Myers' swinging '60s spy spoof to its possible limit.

Comedies that aren't funny don't require a whole lot of criticism, and indeed THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME is one of those instances. At times it's like watching the worst Blake Edwards film you could possibly imagine, a cross between SON OF THE PINK PANTHER and a lame, post-Zucker Brothers Leslie Nielsen comedy like SPY HARD, and not as amusing as either.

After a tepid opening that disposes of Elizabeth Hurley's original heroine in the most mundane fashion, Myers's film settles into a tiresome rehash of his predecessor's routines, mixed with soon-to-be-dated "hip" references (in Dr. Evil's constant nods to hip-hop and Oprah) and tasteless humor. There's also no hint of even the slightest intention to convey a logical storyline, which here sends Austin, now accompanied by the terribly uncharismatic Heather Graham, back into the '60s (meaning we see one colorfully dressed backlot set) to hunt down Dr. Evil, himself having been cloned in a midget-ized version named Mini-Me.

Like almost everything in the film, Dr. Evil's exploits are less amusing here, although I did enjoy Seth Green's engaging performance as his son, and Rob Lowe's spot-on imitation of Robert Wagner (Lowe plays a young Wagner in the '60s segments). Unfortunately, aside from that, and a funny opening set piece from the Jerry Springer Show, AUSTIN 2 is sheer desperation all the way. Scenes play themselves out without a punchline, and there are no genuine comedic set-pieces to be found. The '60s scenes play like a good idea that didn't work because they couldn't come up with any jokes, and even another Burt Bacharach cameo fails to register (here, you sense Bacharach and Elvis Costello agreed to appear only because they have records to sell -- sort of like how this sequel, in itself, was seemingly produced for the sole purpose to make money off the hype and the original's name during the opening weekend. That's how little creative energy there is on display).

In fact, I'm hard pressed to think of a movie I've seen in the last year that was more of a labor to sit through -- and that includes DEAD MAN ON CAMPUS (actually, I think the last film I disliked this much was LOST IN SPACE, a film that also, coincidentally, starred Heather Graham).

More over, in place of the original's satiric take of James Bond adventures come a barrage of flatulence, bodily-fluid, and sex jokes that will have the teen-and under crowd rolling in the aisles (and indeed they did when I saw the movie, despite the fact that the rest of the sold-out audience sat in silence for most of the picture). If you thought the work of the Farrelly Brothers hit a new low in cinematic comedy, just wait until you witness this.

It's all unfortunate, since the original AUSTIN was a surprise hit that few paid attention to when it was first released. You hate to think that Myers was so taken aback with the original's success on video and later in the media (not to mention the franchise's incessant merchandizing since then) that he didn't know how to approach a sequel, and found himself creatively stuck throughout the writing and filming of this second go- round.

Whatever, both he and returning director Jay Roach strike out time and time again with material that's astoundingly flat and consistently skirts the bottom of the barrel of good taste (when did anyone think that "Fat Bastard" was going to generate laughs?). For Bond fanatics, the humor is limited to two John Barry YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE quotes in George S.Clinton's musical score and Graham wearing Ursula Andress's bikini top from DR.NO. For people looking for a few good laughs, you're going to be out of luck, unless you think that scores of bowel movement jokes are amusing by themselves.

For anyone who thought GODZILLA and THE PHANTOM MENACE were the most overexposed and overhyped films of the decade, THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME does them all one better -- it's a comedy "event" that's so sad and pathetic at times that it's like attending a wake for a character that a lot of people, especially the younger crowd, truly groove to. The opening weekend box-office receipts will keep the series going but it's going to take more than that to creatively resurrect a series that's a flatline D.O.A. from start to end here. (PG-13, 95 mins)

[I liked it -LK.]


DVD Round-Up

So many new DVD titles have flooded our Rhode Island offices that it's finally time to get caught up on the latest releases before they're no longer new!

All of these goodies come courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment, which continues to supply some of the most diverse, archival, and entertaining DVDs out there. We profiled their Hammer discs in the last Aisle Seat column, but those genre favorites were just a tip of the iceberg in relation to the other films they have issued recently.

AB's association with Disney has lead to the release of a number of live-action pictures, all from the '70s and '80s, and each letterboxed in new transfers. The best of the Disney titles is easily the 1974 fantasy THE ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD (***), which stars David "Good Morning America" Hartman and Donald Sinden as explorers searching for Sinden's lost son, who happened to stumble across a lost Viking colony in the Arctic. Sure, it's silly kidstuff, but the film is also unpretentious and moves along at a pretty good clip -- and comes complete with a Maurice Jarre score (hampered by the crude Disney recording methods of the day) and one attractive Viking woman (Agneta Eckemyr) who has the blondest hair and straightest teeth in the village (of course, it almost looks like she's the only woman in the village!). Jarre's score was isolated on Image's earlier laserdisc release but the transfer here is superior; the movie is letterboxed and there's a non-letterboxed transfer on side two as well.

Also from the Disney vaults come the 1981 spy-spoof CONDORMAN (*1/2) and the 1985 teen sci-fi comedy MY SCIENCE PROJECT (**1/2). Both of these pictures were shot in anamorphic widescreen and make their letterboxed debuts on video here. CONDORMAN sports an insanely goofy Henry Mancini score (a precursor to Leonard Rosenman's ROBOCOP 2 opus -- take a listen and you'll hear why), performances by Michael Crawford, Barbara Carrera and Oliver Reed, an erratic pace, and a comic-book plot, laced with sub-Blake Edwards slapstick, that's so out of its mind only older kids could enjoy it. That's also true of MY SCIENCE PROJECT, which was one of a handful of comedies made in 1985 that coupled the teen market with the commercial appeal of sci-fi; while the other films in this brief sub-genre were more interesting and successful (including REAL GENIUS and WEIRD SCIENCE), this is still an entertaining piece of fluff with a nutty turn by Dennis Hopper as a college professor who regresses to his former '60s hippie self.

These releases follow in the path of THE BLACK HOLE, and Anchor Bay's next Disney releases include the entertaining Elliot Gould adventure THE LAST FLIGHT OF NOAH'S ARK, the goofy NORTH AVENUE IRREGULARS, and THE LITTLEST HORSE THEIVES. Hopefully a letterboxed SUPERDAD won't be too far behind!

The other group of titles AB has released originate either from the vaults of ABC/Cinerama Releasing or England's Handmade Films. The latter has afforded the company with premium editions of cult favorites TIME BANDITS (***1/2) and MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN (***), both with trailers and letterboxed transfers. While Criterion issued both of these pictures on laserdisc (and more recently, with TIME BANDITS, in a $40 DVD edition) with commentaries, Anchor Bay's releases lack supplemental material but contain the same, remastered transfers at a more reasonable price ($25 each), and look superior to their laser counterparts on both visual and audio fronts.

From the vaults of Cinerama Releasing come a pair of 1968 productions -- CUSTER OF THE WEST (**1/2) and FOR LOVE OF IVY (**). The former is a large-scale epic, shot in Spain, starring Robert Shaw as Custer in an interesting curio that needs to be viewed in the full widescreen proportions presented here to be effective at all; despite several historical inaccuracies, this is still an interesting take on the subject matter, with a good performance by Shaw and a fine supporting cast including Mary Ure (Mrs.Shaw), Laurence Tierney, and Jeffrey Hunter. FOR LOVE OF IVY, meanwhile, is something else altogether -- a romantic comedy with Sidney Poitier as a nice guy recruited by a white family to court their black housemaid (Abby Lincoln) who's threatening to leave her job to become a secretary in the big city. Despite good intentions, this is a severely dated film in both social attitude (there are cringe-inducing lines like "this ain't slavery anymore!") and appearance, with its "mod" fashions and references to the "Generation Gap." Quincy Jones's score is pleasant and one of the few elements of the film that isn't a relic of a time fortunately long since past; the 1.85:1 transfer looks colorful and crisp, but only highlights how dated the movie is on virtually every level.

AB has also dusted off a handful of properties from ABC Films, including Woody Allen's enjoyable first original feature, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (***) in a solid, new letterboxed transfer, and one of Sam Peckinpah's most enjoyable films, JUNIOR BONNER (***), with Steve McQueen as an aging rodeo champion who returns home to sort out personal problems with his folks (Robert Preston, Ida Lupino). BONNER is a warm and poignant story, atypical for Peckinpah with its PG rating, sporting excellent performances by all and a good use of Todd-AO 35 cinematography, letterboxed on video here for the very first time. Jerry Fielding contributed the original score and a full-frame transfer is included on side two for those who inexplicably can't stand to see the movie as it originally appeared in theaters.

Due out in the next few weeks from AB are the DVD debuts for SILKWOOD (***) and PRIZZI'S HONOR (**), two acclaimed films from the mid '80s. While SILKWOOD holds up as a potent character- driven picture with a strong social message (and boasts solid performances by Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell), PRIZZI'S HONOR comes across as a rather leaden comedy that teases more than it entertains, and leaves the viewer with a sour taste in the mouth. John Huston's picture moves along at a snail's pace and always seems to think that it's funnier than it actually is; its black comic tone is rather obvious and one-note from start to finish, despite a winning supporting performance by Anjelica Huston that earned the actress a well-deserved Oscar. Georges Delerue provided underscore for SILKWOOD while Alex North's chores on PRIZZI'S HONOR included interspersing generous operatic passages into its none-too-subtle soundtrack, which often functions as a sarcastic contrast to the action on-screen. Both films are letterboxed at 1.85:1 and look superior to their laserdisc counterparts from a few years back.

Finally, if it's summertime Drive-In fare you are hungering for, look no further than Anchor Bay's treasure-trove of B-movie flicks that hit stores this week. THE SWINGING CHEERLEADERS is a 1974 feature with hot (at times topless) girls, comedic shenanigans, and just the right amount of social satire to make for a fun, frothy confection -- Colleen Camp co-stars in director Jack Hill's highly regarded (by cult enthusiasts) production, which comes packaged as a full-fledged Special Edition DVD, complete with director commentary (!) and TV spots. Also co-starring Camp is the hysterical EBONY, IVORY & JADE, a 1976 action epic about three female Olympic athletes who are abducted from the Hong Kong games and sold into slavery -- fortunately, they all know the martial arts, which makes for some splendidly choreographed fights, backed by a silly wocka-wocka '70s soundtrack. Alas, with the movie's PG rating, there is little T&A here, but it's still fun. Finally, we come to TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS, a follow- up to "Kiss Me Monster" (released by AB earlier this year) and is, unsurprisingly, another wacky Spanish import that's badly dubbed but still appealing to those seeking cheap thrills, attractive women, and no-frills action. (Of these three titles, only SWINGING CHEERLEADERS is letterboxed. TWO UNDERCOVER ANGELS includes a theatrical trailer while EBONY, IVORY & JADE lacks any special features. All three discs retail for $30, while the other AB titles are $25).

BACK NEXT TIME... with more reviews of the latest releases and assorted rambling comments. Remember to send your emails to dursina@att.net and we'll see you at the beach! Excelsior!


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