Lost World: Jurassic Park II (1997)

What’s scarier than a hungry Tyrannosaurus rex? An angry mother. Make that mom a T. rex with big yellow teeth and a supernaturally accurate nose, and you’ve got real trouble. So it is in *Lost World: Jurassic Park 2*, where loving, nurturing, caring dinosaurs wreak havoc on any human who so much as *looks* at their kid funny. A wailing baby T. Rex is not the runt you want to shove in the sandbox.

In this epic showdown between family values and corporate greed, mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) returns, this time with his own kid, daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), in tow. They’re in the misty jungles of Isla Sorna where nutty professor John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) once kept a dinosaur breeding facility. Now those dinos are running free in an idyllic jungle paradise: stegasauri, T. rexes, pterodactyls, brontosauri, velociraptors (villains par excellence of *Jurassic Park*) and many, many others, all born free. Malcolm is there to rescue his girlfriend, paleontologist Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore). She, of course, doesn’t want to be rescued until she can prove that dinosaurs are really great parents (and, incidentally, help Kelly and Malcolm resolve their familial differences). When evil hunters show up to capture dinos and take them to a zoo, our intrepid heroes must save the lizard kings and queens from corporate greed (now, that’s scary).

The villains this time around are led by Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), a corporate shark in an expensive suit who calls dinosaurs \\software\\; his latest corporate venture is a dinosaur theme park on the mainland (villains never learn). His dino-hunting expedition is led by big-game hunter Roland Tembo (Pete Postlethwaite), who wants one thing: to kill a T. rex, preferably a big buck. These folks are not above tormenting baby dinosaurs. Neither are their nasty peons, especially Dieter (Peter Stormare), who delights in shocking compies with an electric prod. Compies are cute, tiny little dinos that will nibble a man to death given the chance, and they eventually exact a satisfying revenge on their human tormentor.

The plot is simplicity itself: people bad, dinos good. *Lost World* is a much darker, scarier, and funnier movie than *Jurassic Park*, full of viciously violent, gory moments and nasty, black humor. Spielberg has rediscovered the joys of a good, kid-unfriendly scare a la *Jaws*; In the first moments of *Lost World*, a cute, unsuspecting little girl is set upon by compies -- its obvious from then on that all bets are off and none will be spared, regardless of age, species or cuteness factor. That small element of unpredictability makes for scream-inducing frights and rousing, edge-of-your-seat suspense.

There’s a genuine tension between good and evil in *Lost World*, with morals that are much more clearly defined than in the less satisfying, more vaguely Frankensteinien science-out-of-control *Jurassic Park*. That movie featured beastly dinosaurs with little personality and a mindless, instinctual tendency to kill. In *Lost World*, by contrast, people are the real monsters, and dinos have every reason to kill them, even if they occasionally tear asunder the wrong folks. This is especially true of the T. Rexes, who vigorously defend Rex junior and come to see all humans as a threat, and rightly so. Even the velociraptors of *Lost World* are more fully developed, although they’re still brought in as scary dino ringers -- quick-tempered, jumpy, mean and relentless serial killer dinosaurs. There are enough villains in *Lost World* to sate a herd of velociraptors, although that doesn’t spare our heroes from their share of terror.

The dinosaurs, both the computer-animated and mechanical varieties, are terrifically realistic in *Lost World*. There’s not only a greater variety of dinosaurs, but far greater numbers of them, vast thundering herds of giant lizards, as well as small, nasty packs of little ones. This story is greatly enhanced by Spielberg’s mastery of visuals and sounds -- a night scene in which raptors pick off a veritable buffet of victims uses little more than eerie rustling sounds and dark trails in waves of tall grass to achieve a sense of genuine dread. *Lost World*’s creepy noir jungle, reminiscent of *King Kong*, is alive with sound and movement; a low rumble in the jungle signals the approach of a T. rex long before the massive beast appears, nostrils flaring and thighs thundering. When the dinosaurs chomp a human or two it is done with much screaming and tearing of limbs. (Parents be warned -- *Lost World* earns its PG-13 rating: this is real nightmare fodder for the little ones.)

When daddy T. rex is transported to San Diego, *Lost World* gets a bit lost itself, trading terror for giddy, homage-happy parody, with Rexie smashing cars and pounding the pavement while the citizenry runs in terror. By this point, *Lost World* has already climaxed and petered out -- most of the villains have been dispatched and digested, half the heroes have gone home -- the rest is just pulpy, campy fun, and in a far lighter vein than the nasty, violent and more effective humor of the first two acts of the movie.

Scripted by David Koepp, who penned the original *Jurassic Park*, *Lost World* has some of the same flaws as the original. The human characters are pretty thin, and they conveniently disappear when their storylines peter out. Hunky Vince Vaughn (Nick Van Owen), an environmentalist and dinosaur rights activist, has a prominent role in the film as nemesis to Roland, but both men are jettisoned from the film without any resolution when the movie shifts to San Diego. Ludlow is little more than a prissy Brit stereotype, glasses and all, which is a shorthand way to avoid creating a character with depth. Goldblum is the real human star of this adventure, and he’s got the right touch of Pandora doomsaying mixed with I-told-you-so venom and heroism. Moore and Chester ably perform their share of heroics, although their characters are also a tad threadbare.

Despite its flaws, *Lost World* offers enough fun, fright and effects to fully entertain, and it’s obviously the work of a seasoned filmmaker and cinephile. It is also that rare, rare movie, a sequel that improves on the original with a meaner, leaner story, and more mature jolts and jollies. And for once, I wasn’t the only one cheering for the giant reptiles.


Waiting for Guffman (1997)

Unlike Godot, Guffman has not two, but five inepts eagerly awaiting his arrival. These folks know exactly what they want from their unseen benefactor, and they’re naively confident that they’ll get it: Guffman can make them stars.

Is Christopher Guest, writer and director of *Waiting For Guffman*, a modern-day Beckett? An argument can be made for that thesis, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the wonders that await in *Waiting For Guffman*. What *Godot* and *Guffman* have in common are comedy, absurdity, loss and delusion. One is typically staged in a theatre, the other set in an ersatz theatre (actually, a high school gym) -- but *Waiting For Guffman* is garishly tacky instead of austere, a celebration of the shameless quest for fame that feeds on dreams that cannot be quashed by something as insignificant as a phenomenal lack of talent. *Waiting For Guffman* is a wacky, hilariously deadpan mockumentary about a small-town America community theatre production. Like the equally brilliant pseudo-rockumentary *This Is Spinal Tap* [MIK UMLAT OVER THE N] (1984), which starred Guest as idiot guitarist Nigel Tufnel, *Waiting For Guffman* mines comic riches from tackiness, self-delusion, egotism and denial.

Blaine, Missouri, known as the “Stool Capital of the World” because of their footstool industry, is celebrating their sesquicentennial. Corky St. Clair (Guest), closet queen, is tapped to direct the town’s annual musical because he was once a professional actor in New York City. Blinded by the stars in their eyes and Corky’s big-city pedigree, the residents of Blaine don’t seem to notice that their artistic leader is at best a fifth-rate actor, and an even worse director. His original musical, *Red, White and Blaine* stars the town’s travel agents (Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara), a nerdy Jewish dentist (Eugene Levy), and a dim Dairy Queen dipper (Parker Posey), who dreams of stardom and/or inventing new ice cream sundaes. They’ve all got performing in their blood -- they just don’t have any talent. Bob Balaban is brilliant as the high school music teacher who, it turns out, really does have talent, although he also defers to Corky.

Dreaming of a triumphant return to Broadway, Corky invites New York theatrical producer Mort Guffman to the show -- like every other loser in *Red, White and Blaine*, Corky is convinced that Guffman will wave his wand and make them all stars. These characters are ridiculous in their egotism and self-delusion, but at the same time, there’s something terribly poignant and brave about all of them, about the faith in themselves that makes them both utterly blind to reality and immune to paralysing self-doubt and fear.

In a series of interviews with the townsfolk of Blaine, it becomes apparent the performers are not alone in their delusions of grandeur. Following the cast of *Red, White and Blaine* through rehearsals, emotional upheavals, hissy fits and creative differences, this faux-cinema verite film is caustically funny, and fabulously subtle and revealing. Everything is subtext with these characters, but subtext they can only hide from themselves because nobody in Blaine ever bothers to put two and two together -- Blaine is the denial capital of the world. Blainians never seem to notice that their theatre director, for instance, wears flashy clothes, speaks with a lisp *and* has a wife who has never been seen by anyone.

The marvelous conceit of *Waiting For Guffman*, that this is a real town and real people in a documentary film, works perfectly thanks to inspired performances. It is no small trick for a good actor to convincingly play a real person acting very badly, but Guest and company pull it off without a glitch. *Red, White and Blaine* (with music by Guest and fellow Tappers Harry Shearer and Michael McKean) is spectacularly tacky and inept, an appropriately oddball passion play for a town of superficially bland, but passionately hopeful loonies. The mixture of hilarious incompetence and self-importance, tempered by a touchingly groundless faith in themselves, makes these characters really memorable and vivid.

*Waiting For Guffman* pokes relentless fun at the foibles of Blaine’s all-Americans, but also exposes the emptiness behind the greasepaint fantasies. *Waiting For Guffman* is an inspired gem, a perfect, seamless parody of documentaries and a no-holds, hilariously sharp satire of shabby dreams of glory and shameless American dreamers.


The Fifth Element (1997)

When Leeloo falls from the sky and lands in Korben Dallas’ taxi, the only word she and the cabbie both know is Bada-boom. Bada-boom also describes what *The Fifth Element* aspires to, but there is surprisingly little of the bada-boom element in this sci-fi heavy, action-lite French film by writer-director Luc Besson (*La Femme Nikita*). What there is in abundance in *The Fifth Element* is comic book style over substance, broad humor stretched thin, and a trifling plot that amounts to a bunch of claptrap about divine beings saving the world with a little help from their friends.

The story begins, as such stories always do, in Egypt in 1914. An archeologist discovers heiroglyphs that prophecy the coming of a great and terrible something or other that destroys the earth every 5,000 years. Suddenly, a spaceship appears, and a bunch of big metal turtle guys with little insect heads debark, open a secret chamber and make off with four stones and a statue, promising to return with them in 300 years, when they will be needed to defend the world from the terrible something. The four stones represent the four elements we know and love: earth, wind, water and fire; the statue is the fifth element, the divine element.

Fast forward 300 years. Right on schedule, the terrible something, looking for all the world like a giant charcoal briquet, zooms through space on a collision course with Earth. The turtle guys, true to their word, are on their way back with the stones when they are inconveniently shot down by warriors in the employ of Jean-Baptiste Zorg (Gary Oldman, with big teeth, the better for chomping on scenery), an evil gazillionaire businessman who intends to acquire the stones for the space briquet (to build a barbecue?). It looks like Earth is doomed, but wait! Using a salvaged disembodied hand from the statue, scientists genetically engineer a perfect being (Milla Jovovich, a fashion model of course), who just happens to be The Supreme Being, divinity incarnate, albeit divinity scantily clad in a costume that consists of a few skimpy white bandage-like straps (straps are apparently all the rage in 2214). She calls herself Leeloo, and she somehow hid the coveted stones while she was a disembodied hand (it doesn’t pay to ask too many questions about this plot). The upshot of all this is that Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), soon-to-be-unemployed cabbie and ex-Special Forces guy extraordinaire, will have to retrieve the stones and save the world before the briquet arrives. Since the briquet doesn’t actually do anything but beetle through space, it is left to Zorg and his evil minions, a bunch of rock-stupid alien guys with big lumpy heads and droopy donkey ears, to stop Korben and Leeloo.

So much for the substance.

*The Fifth Element* isn’t really about saving the world. It’s about style, style, style! This movie is an gigantic catwalk for the fabulous futuristic fashions of costume designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, strapmaster of the universe. I myself was absolutely mesmerized, to the point of distraction, by Korben’s form-fitting orange tank top (with strappy back!). I couldn’t take my eyes off it: what was that marvelous fabric? It looked like plastic, it looked like silk, and the subtle striping! Now, that, is divinity incarnate. Leeloo was clad in a variety of revealing, form-fitting outfits, though none as memorable as the bandage bondage number. Zorg, being evil, was prone to wearing the big Elvis collars that would-be world dominators favor, as well as long jackets made of shimmering mood-ring fabrics. Korben’s ersatz sidekick, DJ Ruby Rhod, a temperamental combination of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, RuPaul and Stepnfetchit, wore suitably flashy, glam numbers with deep decolletage. Even lowly muggers in *The Fifth Element* wear kicky little hats and strappy tops.

As one might expect in such an environment, nothing much gets done, likely for fear of soiling the garments. Korben doesn’t do anything at all, really, until the last half hour of the film, when he is more suitably decked out in a disposable tux that is quickly stripped away to reveal the standard action-hero-suspenders-and-white-tank-top uniform, as seen in *Die Hard* un, deux, trois. You just can’t save the world in a Gaultier, darling -- imagine the cleaning bills!

Cartoony-colorful sets are built around all the sartorial splendor. *The Fifth Element* really piles on the style -- it’s a great looking movie, full of visually interesting architecture (ranging from late 20th century Boeing 747 to futuristic *Blade Runner* cum *Jetsons* sky cities to cold, dark corporate monolith styles), and nifty visual effects (briquets notwithstanding) like flying car chases, mega skyscrapers, and orbiting luxury hotels.

Take away the visual accoutrements, however, and *The Fifth Element* is pretty much naked, without so much as a figleaf to cover its gaping plot holes and caricaturish characters. Willis can rise to the level of good material, but here he plays a pretty standard, world-weary guy on a mission who doesn’t talk much. He’s plenty likable in the role anyway, and as mentioned before, he wears a really nifty shirt. I liked his bleach-blonde hair, too. Jovovich’s Leeloo is just another alien waif who absorbs knowledge like a sponge, but she handles the emotional ups and downs of the role well, and is a convincing action goddess in her own right. The most annoying character is the nattering DJ Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker), a collection of shrill stereotypes that are not particularly funny, although clearly, he is meant to be comical. His is a throwaway bit part that inexplicably turns into a major character in the film. Perhaps the French pedigree of *The Fifth Element* accounts for the many comic misfires -- that Jerry Lewis thing. The film’s minor characters are also played broadly (and none so broadly as Oldman’s Zorg), in keeping with the overall cartoonishness of *The Fifth Element*. For the most part, these folks stare in dumb wonder at various things such as flying space briquets and naked supreme beings.

To say that style triumphs over substance is to damn with faint praise in the case of *The Fifth Element*, because there really is no substance. This movie is nothing, literally, if not visually exciting and compelling. But on that level, and that level alone, it’s actually quite enjoyable.


Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

What’s a mad supervillain to do when flower power, free love and groovy vibes make the world an unbearably nice place? Go into cryogenic hibernation, of course, and return when avarice, self-interest and villainy make a comeback. That’s precisely what Dr. Evil does, little knowing that his arch-nemesis, British superspy Austin Powers, international man of mystery, also goes into the deep freeze. Needless to say, both men are a bit behind the times when they’re defrosted 30 years later, in 1997.

That’s the premise behind *Austin Powers*, a giddy, goofy movie that is both a loving paean and a silly send-up of the sixties and that odd and enduring little genre, the British spy movie. Swinging playboy Austin (Mike Myers), boasting a thatch of chest hair that rivals Sean Connery’s hirsute hair suit, suddenly finds himself in a world where bad British teeth and Carnaby Street fashions are no longer in vogue, women don’t like to be called baby, and casual sex has consequences. His partner in spying, Vanessa Kensington (a more than game Elizabeth Hurley), must constantly fend off his politically incorrect advances (\\Let’s shag, baby!\\) while helping him save the world from Dr. Evil. The effete and self-amused Dr. Evil (also played by Myers), faced with monetary inflation and shifting mores, discovers that what passed for villainy in 1967 looks a bit tame in the 90s -- his evil plots include blackmailing the royal family by accusing Charles of adultery, and holding the entire world hostage for a million dollars -- and he has a troubled relationship with his petulant son Scott Evil (Seth Green). While he was frozen, Dr. Evil’s second-in-command Number Two (Robert Wagner) turned his evil empire into a successful international conglomerate, and he would really prefer that the mad villain not mess things up with his crazy schemes for old-fashioned world domination.

Written by Myers, *Austin Powers* is right on target, a good-natured, infectiously funny and minutely-detailed spoof that mimics both the style and substance of 60s spy movies, from the psychedelic fashions to the deadly but sexy, amply endowed villainesses. The manly Austin faces off against Dr. Evil’s team of fembots, armed with retractable guns concealed in their capacious bras, and shags a vixen named Alotta Fagina (Fabiana Udenio), soul sister to Bond girl Pussy Galore. Like any spy movie worth its salt, *Austin Powers* spends time in a casino, too, although this superspy is less adept at blackjack than at swirlies, dispatching a henchman in the men’s room (there’s a fair amount of toilet humor in *Austin Powers*, all of it handled tastelessly, of course).

The set and costume designs are flawless in *Austin Powers*, lovingly accurate recreations of the most outrageous fashions the 60s had to offer (including the madly mod fashions featured in Antonioni’s *Blow-Up* -- Austin is a fashion photographer in his spare time). Likewise, the direction mimics Beatles-era psychedelia, with kooky camera angles, freeze frames, and mad chases. *Austin Powers* also deliciously exploits that mainstay of British comedy -- nudity -- with an elaborate bit of hide-and-peek physical comedy that just barely maintains the movie’s PG rating.

As Austin, Myers is endearingly ridiculous. Like his spy compatriots then and now, Austin is utterly convinced that he is a suave, debonair hipster, an irresistible ladies’ man, an unbeatable superspy. That he is instead an anachronistic neanderthal is as incomprehensible to him as the discovery that Liberace was gay (\\The ladies all loved him. I didn’t see that one coming\\). Of course, superspies, from Bond to Matt Helm, have all been anachronistic neanderthals, and that’s really the point, but Austin’s obliviousness is his charm, and what makes this movie really click -- he has no idea that his snaggle-toothed grin screams out for a good flossing, or that Versace suits have replaced striped hiphuggers and wide, white belts as the couture de riguer of martini-swilling spies. Of course, only the innocent Austin could fully appreciate the naive menace of the Nehru-jacketed Dr. Evil, who devises overly elaborate and easily escapable mechanisms of death, then doesn’t bother to make sure his victims don’t escape because that’s just the way supervillains operate.

*Austin Powers* is a giddily elaborate, but uncomplicated spoof that finds funny fodder in the paradoxical reversals that time has wrought: what passed for freedom and modernity in the sexually-liberated 60s now seems deadly dangerous in the safe-sex 90s, while 60s-style danger (shark-infested pools! predatory females!) is laughably tame in the bullet-riddled 90s. *Austin Powers* pokes fun at the past, but the present-day gets it in the ribs, too. Either way, it’s ticklish fun.