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Spy Hard

Nobody does it better than Austin Powers -- except perhaps his frisky father, Nigel, played by Michael Caine. K-19: The Widowmaker keeps the submarine-movie genre afloat.

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Keeping it real: Verne Troyer as Mini-Me and Mike Myers as Dr. Evil in Goldmember  

Is it my imagination, or are Austin Powers's teeth straighter? In his new frolic, Austin Powers in Goldmember, the International Man of Mystery has been somewhat crowded out by all the other specialty characters played by Mike Myers, not only Dr. Evil and the skanky Fat Bastard but a new and not terribly amusing one: Goldmember, a Dutch metallurgist who lost his genitalia in a smelting accident and, understandably, wants to take over the world. Just about everybody from the first two Austin Powers movies makes an appearance, along with Beyoncé Knowles from Destiny's Child and a gaggle of surprise celebrity walk-ons. It's a varsity show for people who can't get enough potty jokes. I wish the Austin Powers movies hadn't become such a big industry -- some things are better left small. But then again, it probably took the megasuccess of the series to lure Michael Caine aboard for an extended cameo. I doubt whether the mostly young audience for this film is all that aware of who Caine is. Now they will know him not as one of the finest screen actors but as Austin's randy spymaster dad, Nigel. Of course, we are meant to think of his classic spooks in The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. (Alfie was pretty spooky, too.) He's burlesquing his own iconography and enjoying every minute of it. He hasn't lost his dignity, though; it takes a lot of self-possession to act this blissfully silly. He even looks good with bad teeth.

Submarine movies are a dependable genre. The cramped-quarters dramaturgy is always good for a few rousing shouting matches, and the glug-glug effects are often hair-raising. Kathryn Bigelow's K-19: The Widowmaker is loosely based on an actual 1961 Cold War incident -- suppressed until the mid-nineties -- in which the reactor on Russia's first nuclear-powered sub malfunctioned during a sea trial in the North Atlantic and almost provoked a confrontation with the U.S. Liam Neeson plays Captain Mikhail Polenin of the K-19, who is removed from command and replaced by Harrison Ford's Alexei Vostrikov while remaining onboard as executive officer. Both actors strain their jaw muscles to the snapping point, but they've perfected a once-over-easy Russian accent and manage not to make complete fools of themselves. K-19 portrays the Cold War from the Russian side, but many of the old Hollywood clichés prevail: Isn't it about time to retire the scene with the dying military man clutching a photo of his fiancée? As a technical achievement, K-19 is right up there with Das Boot. Don't expect much dramatic depth, though. The fathoms descended in this movie are strictly nautical.

At its best, Zhang Yimou's Happy Times shares a quality with Chaplin's silent features: The tears it jerks are a prelude to a far richer experience. I single out Chaplin because Happy Times, like City Lights, is about a blind girl and the redemptive powers of love. Zhang is an extraordinarily sophisticated filmmaker whose previous movies, including Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju, have been as stylistically diverse as any modern director's. The paradox of Zhang's more recent work -- not only this film but also the marvelous Not One Less and, to a lesser extent, The Road Home -- is that his expertise serves timeworn story lines. He's a sophisticate who has successfully cultivated the common touch.

The blind girl, Wu Ying, is played by a young dancer, Dong Jie, who is new to movies and looks like a scrawny seraph. Wu's abusive stepmother (Dong Lihua) is being courted by Zhao (Zhao Benshan), a wispy fiftyish bachelor with a penchant for chubby women. To win her favor, Zhao first pretends to be a wealthy hotelier and then takes Wu off her hands by putting the girl up in his apartment and hiring her as a masseuse in an abandoned warehouse, which he tells her is part of his hotel. His friends pretend to be customers, and when they run out of real money, they tip Wu with rice-paper notes that feel and smell authentic. Wu goes from being desperately unhappy to radiant, but the ruse must inevitably end.

The heartbreak evolves gradually. Along the way, the film is often uproariously funny. There are slapstick sequences, like the one in which a massage table is cobbled together, that hold their own with the best of our silent comedies. But even the larkiest moments have a way of turning bittersweet. Zhao and his friends are well-meaning bumpkins whose affection for Wu warms into compassion. They worry about when she will discover the truth; what they don't understand is that she sees more clearly into the heart of things than they do. Zhao realizes, too late, that Wu is his true sustenance. He's a con artist who ends up, in effect, conning himself. For perhaps the first time in his life, he feels what it's like to love someone without bounds, as, ideally, a father would love a daughter. If all this sounds sappy, remember that in the telling, so did much of Chaplin, not to mention Dickens. Zhang is working in a popular sentimental mode here, but his connection to the material -- and to us -- is heartfelt and without a trace of condescension. As a filmmaker, he's the opposite of a con artist, and his new movie is a gentle marvel.

With his sharky wiles and a heart as big as a studio back lot, Robert Evans is perhaps the quintessential movie producer of the post–Darryl Zanuck era. And don't he know it. His rambunctiously juicy 1994 autobiography became one of the most popular books on tape ever at least partly because Evans, with his rolling, gravelly legato, recorded the narration himself. His voice can be heard again as the narrator of The Kid Stays in the Picture, the movie that Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein have made of the book. The previous documentary by these filmmakers, On the Ropes, was searingly graphic; this film, which they co-produced with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, is like a luxe version of an Errol Morris creep show. Evans, in effect, is the real producer here, and the film, which mostly consists of artfully blended archival footage, comes across like a last will and testament: Evans may have been production head at Paramount during the making of such films as Rosemary's Baby, Love Story, The Godfather, and Chinatown, but it's clear from this movie that he believes his ultimate legacy is himself. He has even obliged the filmmakers by living out his life in three acts.

In the first, he's discovered poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel by Norma Shearer and ends up playing her late husband, Irving Thalberg, in the 1957 Jimmy Cagney movie Man of a Thousand Faces. By this time, Evans is already a wealthy partner in his family's women's-clothing business, Evan-Picone, but he pursues what turns out to be a blessedly short-lived acting career -- we see him playing a famous matador in The Sun Also Rises, and it's the sort of casting that must have given Hemingway hives. What Evans really wants to do is produce, and a flattering profile in the New York Times by Peter Bart ends up landing him at Paramount, where he eventually becomes head of production. Then, after a string of blockbusters, he steps down as an executive in order to produce films for the studio (like Marathon Man and Urban Cowboy) before getting embroiled in cocaine addiction and a murder scandal involving the film The Cotton Club that indelibly smears his reputation. (Although he is never charged with anything.) All this is Act Two.

In the third act, he cleans himself up and reactivates his career at Paramount in 1991 with a production deal while crafting his hagiography. The old-school mogul with the egg-shaped pool achieves icon status with the new school. The Kid Stays in the Picture is a wonderfully overripe chronicle of fantasyland decadence, and it makes one nostalgic for the kind of rot that doesn't seem to exist in Hollywood anymore. In his prime, Evans was peerless: He actually lured Henry Kissinger to attend the premiere of The Godfather just as the Paris peace talks were breaking down. Most studio executives today are either colorless or thuggish; their corruption lacks class and their skin tone can't match Evans's lacquered look. (He seems shellacked in sin.) They also can't match his patter: Mickey Spillane might have been his ghostwriter, as when he woos a young Ali MacGraw in the documentary by telling her he's "just seven digits away."

Most of them can't equal the best movies released on his watch, either, which also include The Conversation, The Conformist, Serpico, Harold and Maude, and Don't Look Now. And they certainly can't match his mansion -- a eucalyptus-shaded sprawl once occupied by Garbo -- which this movie offers up as the true love of Evans's life. It's a lair fit for Norma Desmond, or a werewolf. "Was it worth it?" Evans asks himself near journey's end. "Damn right it was," he answers. You were expecting to hear something else?

Austin Powers in Goldmember
Directed by Jay Roach; starring Mike Myers and Beyoncé Knowles.
K-19: The Widowmaker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.


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