Movie Perfection: A Shagadelic Therapy Session

“In the spring, we’d make meat helmets.” – Dr. Evil

In this week’s example of “Where has the time gone?”, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery celebrated its 20 year anniversary. In May of 1997, this creation of Mike Myers wasn’t expected to be the cultural milestone it turned out to be and spawn endless catchphrases. The SNL alum had not capitalized on the wild success five years earlier of Wayne’s World. Myers experienced two box office disappointments in his follow-ups – So I Married An Axe Murderer (which would achieve minor cult status later) and the Wayne’s World sequel.

Not much was expected from Powers, but the James Bond spoof immediately achieved its cult status and over performed expectations by grossing $53 million domestically. That was a pleasing number, but not a total runaway hit. It took home video to expand its audience and expand its audience it did. By the time Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was released two summers later, it made $54 million… in its first weekend. Goldmember, the third installment, would make $73 million out of the gate in 2002.

Yet it’s the original from two decades past that remains the best. And in this edition of Movie Perfection, I focus on what was my favorite scene 20 years ago and remains so today. That would be the therapy session between Myers’ Dr. Evil and his son Scott (Seth Green).

This sequence finds the late Carrie Fisher as a shrink offering advice to fathers and their teenage boys. The group quickly finds the bald mastermind and nemesis of the title character has the strangest relationship with his estranged offspring. Dr. Evil is, in fact, actually trying to kill him. And Scott’s aspirations of working with animals doesn’t gel with Dad’s idea of it.

The entire scene is hilarious but it builds to an epic climax with Dr. Evil’s description of his own bizarre childhood. Burlap bags, luge lessons, webbed feet, and the laziness of chestnuts are all incorporated into an uproarious monologue that solidifies why Dr. Evil was always the greatest character in the franchise.

Carrie Fisher is pitch perfect in her cameo. It’s crazy to think her work here arrived almost exactly 20 years after her first appearance as Princess Leia and now it’s been 20 years since her participation in this fantastic sequence.

So, as we celebrate two decades since this memorable series, today’s Movie Perfection honors its best scene.

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Movie Perfection: A Coffee Break in Heat

The coffee shop scene in Michael Mann’s brilliant 1995 crime thriller Heat will forever be remembered in film history as the first time Robert De Niro and Al Pacino shared screen time together. However, the more times you watch the picture and watch that scene, you realize it’s important for other reasons.

I described Heat as a crime thriller. More than that, it’s a movie about work and family. Specifically, it’s about people who are excellent at their chosen fields of profession and how it hinders their ability at a stable family life. You see it in Pacino’s character, Vincent Hanna, who is terrific at catching criminals and bad at holding a marriage together. You see it in De Niro’s character, Neil McCauley, who is a master thief who must sacrifice any meaningful relationships to do his job. You see it with McCauley’s crew, most notably Val Kilmer’s Chris Shiherlis who gets away at the end, but must leave his wife and young child forever in order to escape.

This all comes to a head in that coffee shop scene where Vincent and Neil casually discuss the situation they find themselves in. Vincent knows that Neil is looking to pull off one last huge score and he’s determined to not let it happen. Neil feels the same way – nothing will get in the way of him doing his job. The pair make it clear that they enjoy their careers – one tasked to stop criminals and the other being the criminal – and that they, frankly, really aren’t good at anything else. Neil and Vincent know their strengths. They’re going to keep doing what they do and lets the chips fall where they may. They both know and have known for some time that everything else besides their work must fall to the wayside, including their families and significant others.

Heat is a film about cops and robbers, but one like no other that delves deep into their psyches. We see example after example after how their thought process hurts their personal lives. At the end of the day, though, it’s something they’ve learned to accept. And the coffee shop scene illustrates that point with great dialogue that develops the richly written characters of Pacino and De Niro further.

Putting these two actors together, two of the best in American history, is reason enough for it to make movie history. It’s the amazing screenplay and willingness of director Mann to take Heat to a higher level of art than practically any “crime thriller”, though, that makes the scene Movie Perfection. And, of course, Pacino and De Niro are absolutely incredible in it.

Movie Perfection: Behind Raquel Welch

Hope.

That’s what The Shawshank Redemption is all about. There is a reason this movie resonates with audiences in the way that it does. It puts its central character in one of the worst possible scenarios imaginable. Wrongfully convicted of a murder he did not commit. Sentenced to life in prison. For many, all hope would be lost.

The circumstances at Shawshank prison often don’t give much reason to be hopeful. A corrupt and horrible warden who uses Andy Dufresne to assist with his money laundering schemes. The brutal rape and beatings from other inmates. The weeks spent in “the hole”. The warden’s destruction of evidence exonerating Andy… the evidence is another inmate.

Whenever possible, however, Andy orchestrates ways to make an intolerable situation tolerable. His friendship with Red and others. His deal making that results in the boys getting to drink some beers on the top of that roof. The library that he builds through endless and patient persistence.

There is a point reached in The Shawshank Redemption, after the warden orders Hadley to take out Tommy, where all hope seems lost. We believe Andy is likely to commit suicide, especially based on a conversation he has with Red. As an audience, we’re diffused.

And then the morning roll call happens. Andy is nowhere to be found. The warden is incredulous. And we, the audience, are dumbfounded. Completely dumbfounded. What the hell is going on??

At this point: answers. The warden throws one of Andy’s custom made rocks through his poster of starlet Raquel Welch. This reveals a tunnel behind the cell wall that Andy has been digging away at for a long time. And then comes Morgan Freeman’s narration… the best kind of narration in the history of narration. He describes the unbelievable circumstances Andy had to go through to make his escape. It culminates in that stunning shot of the rain beating down on Andy, cleansing his body and washing away 40 years of captivity.

I’ve often said The Shawshank Redemption may have the happiest ending of any movie ever. Every time I watch it, I beam from ear to ear. We smile at the deserved ending that befalls the warden. We smile when Hadley gets carted off to jail. We smile when Red’s ambivalent parole hearing speech actually gets him released. And we smile when Red takes the long walk down the beach where Andy is working on his boat. And happy tears come along when they share an embrace as the credits roll. I’ll be damned if Shawshank isn’t just about the greatest film ever about friendship.

That amazing series of events that keeps us smiling begins with an unexpected question – what’s behind Raquel Welch? The answer, it turns out, is hope. And it’s Movie Perfection.

 

 

Movie Perfection: Moneyball and The Crack of the Bat

The 2011 Bennett Miller directed hit Moneyball is one of the better sports flicks of the 21st century and it contains one particular scene that qualifies as Movie Perfection.

Based on a true story, the picture focuses on Billy Beane (Brad Pitt in an Oscar nominated performance), owner of the Oakland A’s baseball franchise. When the team loses its big free agents to richer teams like the Red Sox, Billy buys into the team building ideas of Peter Brand (Jonah Hill, also Oscar nominated). The theory relies not on marquee names, but solely on which players stats lead to wins. This is met with skepticism from manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and many others.

After some initial difficulty with the new format, an interesting thing begins to occur: The A’s start winning. And winning. And winning. So much so that they win 19 in a row and are going for a record-breaking 20. Billy is a rather superstitious fellow who doesn’t attend the games. The significance of a potential record-breaking moment draws him to the event after the A’s go up 11-0 and appear assured for history. What happens? The Kansas City Royals make a furious comeback and tie the game 11 all. Billy retreats back to the locker room.

And then – history is made! Scott Hatteberg, a player that no one but Billy wanted, steps up to the plate. We see the pitcher release the ball and then…

Crack!

What follows is a scene that is amazingly directed and edited. What I love most it is that, even to the most casual moviegoer, it brilliantly demonstrates the importance of not just editing, but also sound effects editing.

We hear the sound of the crack followed by the reactions of Billy, Peter, and Art. The music swells. The team celebrates. And Billy has his own moment of unbridled joy – something he doesn’t allow himself to do often. I’m not an Oakland A’s fan. Truthfully, I’m not even much of a baseball fan. However, during this scene, I am an Oakland fan and a baseball fan. I’m a fan because this scene is so well put together and features such well-written characters that you can’t help but be a fan.

I’m a fan of the movie Moneyball. And this scene is total Movie Perfection. I get goosebumps every time I see it.

Movie Perfection: “I Wrote That A Week Ago.”

SPOILER ALERT: If you have yet to see Silver Linings Playbook, two pieces of advice: go watch it right now. After you do, read this post. If you have seen it, read on…

David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is the kind of movie that restores your faith in movies. It is in many ways wholly original while also using time tested film conventions in fantastic ways.

It is filled with great performances. This is not only a showcase for Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in her Oscar-winning role, but also for Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker, who for far too long only played alongside Jackie Chan in Rush Hour flicks. We need to see more of him.

The film is a triumph of direction by Russell, one of the most exciting filmmakers of his generation. He knows how to bring an electric sense of movie making to a scene. The climactic dance scene between Cooper and Lawrence is one example of many. Russell’s style brings a feeling of true nail-biting suspense… to a mid-level regional dance competition in Philadelphia. Not an easy thing to do.

The picture takes us on a journey bringing together two lost souls, Pat (Cooper) and Tiffany (Lawrence). They both have a vast array of issues, to say the least. Pat is suffering from mental health problems, some of which is due to his broken marriage. Tiffany is still trying to recover from the death of her husband and is failing most of the time.

All the characters in Silver Linings Playbook are flawed. You know, like real people. De Niro plays Pat’s dad. He’s a deeply superstitious football fanatic whose character defects may have contributed to his son’s own issues. Jacki Weaver plays Pat’s mom and she struggles with finding the right balance for how to help her son (and her husband). Chris Tucker was at Pat’s mental health facility that he was committed to. He’s chock full of issues, too. And even the secondary characters like Tiffany’s sister and her husband are stuck in a marriage that seems to be going downhill.

Pat and Tiffany find one another and become connected through agreeing to enter a dance competition together. Their motives are at first self-serving. Tiffany basically blackmails Pat into doing it by promising to give a letter to his estranged wife. You see, there’s a restraining order between them. Tiffany seems to just want the company of Pat and this is her way of achieving it.

When we reach the wonderful climactic dance scene, we are left so happy by their ability to pull it off. Plus it’s pretty damn funny. In a lesser movie, that dance would’ve been some masterpiece of movement that left us floored. Not here. It’s, well, realistic. And that makes it even better.

The big question we’re left with is whether Pat and Tiffany end up together. In a lesser movie, there would be no doubt. In a movie this original and at times unexpected, we really don’t know. We get our answer in an absolutely beautiful scene between them. Without going over every aspect, this scene leaves us as an audience totally satisfied. And when Pat reveals his love for Tiffany, he presents her with a letter that she begins to read aloud and then he finishes it. He knows the letter by heart because as he reveals to her, “I wrote that a week ago.” We realize that Pat has wanted to be with Tiffany for longer than we suspected. Longer than she suspected. And that line and those six words left me with a smile on my face that lasted until after the credits rolled.

Silver Linings Playbook presents us with two flawed and imperfect people whose flaws and imperfections compliment one another’s in a perfect way. What’s more romantic than that? The film is one of the best movies in recent years. And those six words uttered by Pat to Tiffany are another example of Movie Perfection.

Movie Perfection: Melissa McCarthy Becomes a Movie Star

It’s not often that you see a performer literally become a movie star before your eyes on the silver screen, but such an occurrence took place two summers ago.

The film was Bridesmaids, the hilarious Kristin Wiig pic that became the comedy event of 2011, to the tune of an incredible $169 million domestic at the box office. We all know by now it vaulted Wiig from SNL standout to movie star.

To many, including me, the revelation was Melissa McCarthy as Megan, Maya Rudolph’s hilarious and straight talking future sister-in-law. Her performance was the highlight of the picture, so much so that it earned McCarthy a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. That’s usually unheard of for a comedic performance.

And while her performance was filled with generous laugh out loud moments (airplane scene, wedding dress shopping scene), it’s a quieter scene between her and Wiig that gave Bridesmaids its heart.

The scene takes place after Wiig’s character Annie has hit rock bottom. She’s moved in with her mother (who likes to paint celebrities), alienated her about to married best friend in grand giant cookie smashing fashion, and given up on a promising relationship with a kind policeman. It is McCarthy’s character who manages to snap Annie out of her funk with a truly inspirational speech that is both humorous and touching. I remember watching this scene in the theater and when Megan finally tells Annie to stop blaming the world for her problems, the theater practically broke out in spontaneous applause.

This speech works because it’s well-written. More than that, it works because McCarthy delivers it so well and so convincingly. It elevates her character from simply comic relief to being the soul of the film. I would put forth that this scene is why McCarthy got that Oscar nomination. She deserved it.

And her movie career has only improved in the past two years. This spring, McCarthy headlined Identity Thief, which was a huge hit. This summer’s The Heat with Sandra Bullock is likely to be another blockbuster.

It all started here, however. McCarthy’s speech gave us the opportunity to watch a new movie star blossom in real time. It’s a brilliant performance in a perfect scene.

Movie Perfection: Whitney Houston, Phil Collins, Huey Lewis, and A Psychopath

Funny thing how perception of what a film is supposed to be alters your view of it. When I saw Mary Harron’s American Psycho in 2000, I thought the picture was supposed to be a serious thriller about a serial killer. It’s not that.

When it didn’t match the genre wheelhouse I expected it to adhere to, I wasn’t sure how to react to what I’d just viewed. Not until I fully realized that American Psycho is meant to be a biting satire about 80s excess and materialism did I appreciate just how terrific the movie is.

I had a similar reaction to 1999’s Fight Club, which I certainly didn’t think was going to be more of a dark comedy than anything else. I’ve grown to love it.

Same with American Psycho. The film is special for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is Christian Bale’s absolutely stunning performance as Patrick Bateman, a NYC investment banker in the late 80s who is absolutely bonkers crazy.

The picture, based on the Bret Easton Ellis bestseller, portrays Bateman as a power hungry man who cannot handle that there’s people who have more power than he does. He has a meltdown when a colleague shows him a new business card that Patrick believes to be superior to his own.

I won’t go over all the plot details of American Psycho. I will say that if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re missing out on the career best performance of Bale. And, yes, I’ve seen The Fighter and The Dark Knight trilogy.

There are three scenes in Psycho that demonstrate the brilliance of Bale’s character to hilarious effect. They involve Bateman offering his critical take on the musical careers of Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News, and Phil Collins/Genesis. All major artists in the late 1980s. All three sequences cut together are in the link below.

Bale’s performance is something to behold in these sequences. His acting coupled with the fabulous writing here make these scenes quite memorable. I have always loved how profound Bateman thinks he’s being when he extols the virtues of Whitney’s “Greatest Love of All” and compares Phil Collins’ solo work to his group work in Genesis. This is a man (a crazy one) who truly feels that all of his words are enlightening.

American Psycho has moments of true hilarity and these scenes are the prime example of them. Christian Bale is perfect in this role and his monologues on three popular 80s performers is Movie Perfection. Enjoy!