AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER Where the difference in quality between, say, Jaws and Jaws: The Revenge, or Psycho and Psycho III, can only be measured in light years, the three films in Mike Myers' Austin Powers series have been remarkably consistent, each one alternately soaring and sinking for the same reasons. In relating the groovy adventures of the 60s-era secret agent who finds himself transplanted into today's modern society, star-creator Myers and director Jay Roach will feature a great gag and then repeat it until it's run completely into the ground. This modus operandi alternates with the pair likewise taking a terrible gag (usually scatological in nature) and milking it for what little it's worth and then some. If we must compare, this third entry is better than the first but not as sharp as the second, with the high points consisting of a terrific opening sequence featuring several surprising cameos (including a few Oscar winners), the addition of Michael Caine as Austin's spy daddy, and an expanded role for Verne Troyer, again stealing all the scenes as the diminutive Mini-Me. Myers, as usual, has plenty of opportunities to mug it up, playing not only Austin but also his arch-nemesis Dr. Evil, returning villain Fat Bastard and a new criminal mastermind known as Goldmember (the least funny of the lot). How much you enjoy this will depend on your acceptance of the film's ratio of hit-to-miss nyuks. 1/2
FULL FRONTAL After winning an Oscar for the gritty Traffic and conquering the box office with the glitzy Oceans Eleven, director Steven Soderbergh has elected to do what many filmmakers in his exalted position have the option of doing: Go deep, by making a grainy, low-budget, indie-style flick that purports to tackle heavy issues by following a group of recognizably flawed individuals coping with fairly ordinary issues of everyday life. The navel-gazing result is an exercise in motion picture masturbation as much as anything else, and yet it's also impossible to dismiss out of hand, catching its stride after a shaky beginning and ultimately allowing us to understand what drives these fairly self-absorbed individuals created by screenwriter Coleman Hough. Among the players taking part in the movie's loosely interconnected story strands are Julia Roberts as a journalist profiling a popular black actor (Blair Underwood), Catherine Keener as a public relations executive dissatisfied with her marriage to a mild-mannered writer (David Hyde Pierce), and Mary McCormack as a masseuse whose search for happiness hits a number of hurdles, not the least being an encounter with a lonely producer (David Duchovny). Soderbergh plays with the whole notion of cinema as an exercise in voyeurism (some of the subplots are presented as films-within-films, with one leading to a cameo by Oceans Eleven co-star Brad Pitt), and he and his actors aren't afraid to engage in frank discussions about the illusory nature of love and the allure of various sexual mores. The end result is stimulating if not entirely satisfying. 1/2
CURRENT RELEASESEIGHT LEGGED FREAKS Superb sound effects have enhanced many a sci-fi flick or war epic, but has a motion picture actually ever been ruined due to an ill-advised aural decision? Eight Legged Freaks certainly makes the case for such a claim. There's never been a truly great "spider" movie (1955's Tarantula probably comes closest, though even that pales next to many of the era's more accomplished sci-fi outings), and it's fun to imagine what a filmmaker like Paul Verhoeven could have done with this subject matter and an R rating. But as befits its title, this PG-13-rated piffle is ultimately as threatening as that Snuggle Fabric Softener bear, and except for an isolated scene here and there, even arachnophobes shouldn't have a hard time sleeping after sitting through this thing. In depicting its tale of a small town overrun by overgrown spiders (mutation courtesy of a radioactive spill), the movie features all jokes all the time, a ploy that worked well in Abbott and Costello's monster mashes but one that often falls flat here. As far as the actual spiders go, the special effects are decent enough, and just the sight of these creepy-crawlies bouncing all over the screen might have been enough to elicit a shiver or two were it not for those infernal sound effects. Rather than stalking in silence, these arachnids continuously make non-threatening yelps and chirps that bring to mind the Star Wars saga's Jawas and Ewoks as well as those Gremlins chatterboxes. It may be true that children should be seen and not heard, but it's safe to say that this idiom also applies to cinematic super-spiders.
THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES Why should fictional movie characters be the only ones to have any fun in being placed at the center of madcap "mistaken identity" farces? The Emperor's New Clothes, adapted from Simon Leys' novel The Death of Napoleon, dumps the legendary French leader into an innocuous comedy that largely stays afloat through the considerable efforts of Ian Holm. Holm has essayed the role of Napoleon on two previous occasions (Time Bandits and a television production) and he slips comfortably into the part yet again, investing the diminutive ruler with ample reserves of sweetness and sensitivity. Set after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and his exile to the island of St. Helen, the film posits that a peasant with a remarkable resemblance to the emperor managed to switch places with the conqueror, thus enabling him to escape undetected from his island prison and make it back to the streets of Paris to wait for his chance to regain power. But a series of events end up altering Napoleon's plans, and instead he finds himself spending quality time with a young widow (Iben Hjeile) who knows nothing of his true identity. The historical slant provides this with a small measure of inventiveness; otherwise, it's nothing you haven't seen (and seen done better) on AMC or TCM. 1/2