Monday, March 31, 2008

Fool’s Gold / **½ (PG-13)

Benjamin Finnegan: Matthew McConaughey
Tess Finnegan: Kate Hudson
Nigel Honeycutt: Donald Sutherland
Gemma Honeycutt: Alexis Dziena
Alfonz: Ewen Bremner
Moe Fitch: Ray Winstone
Bigg Bunny: Kevin Hart
Curtis: Brian Hooks
Cordell: Malcolm-Jamal Warner

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Andy Tennant. Written by John Clafin & Daniel Zelman and Andy Tennant. Running time: 113 min. Rated PG-13 (for action violence, some sexual material, brief nudity and language).

Watching “Fool’s Gold”, I was reminded of my younger days. My wife Angie and I had first met and were spending most of our time in the Caribbean, hunting treasure from lost Spanish galleons. Yes, we were adventurers, just like Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson in this film. I was cut, muscular and scraggly looking. Ang looked smoking in a two-piece. Still does. Sure, we often got involved with some unsavory characters, and I got roughed up a couple of times. I’ve been hit in the head with a shovel more once—sometimes by Ang.

Back then, we threw caution to the wind. Well, I did anyway. I think Angie mainly kept me from killing myself. She certainly got sick of doing that, I can tell you. That time I got into debt with a rap mogul, just like the ridiculously named creep Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart, “Scary Movie 4”) in this film who gets McCaughney’s character into hawk, and forces him to find a famous lost treasure known as The Queen’s Dowry… Well, anyway, when that happened to me, I would have been dead without Angie’s brains and research skills to help me find our treasure. Don’t let her try to tell you that history degree of hers never did her any good.

And to think we almost split up just days before that, again just like McCaunghey and Hudson (last paired up in “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”). They play Finn and Tess, and while they do seem to be a pretty good match for each other, they don’t take the opportunity to express their passion for each other in the same way Ang and I do. We revel in our time together; they spend most of their time avoiding each other. Yes, we’ve been through our rough patches, but I certainly never tried to impress a rich brainless brat named Gemma (Alexis Dziena, “Broken Flowers”) just so I could get a chance to convince her millionaire father (Donald Sutherland, “Reign Over Me”) to finance my search. That’s what a movie slacker who’s really a good guy might do. But I’m always straightforward in my business dealings—and marriage.

I have been known to hang around with skinny Ukrainians for a good dose of comic relief, just like Finn and his partner Alfonz (Ewen Bremner, “Death at a Funeral”). But I’ve never had the millionaire’s bimbo daughter upstage the whole adventure with her charming lack of wit. And anytime I’ve found myself searching for the same treasure as a former mentor with whom I’ve had a falling out, the grudge usually sticks. I’ve had much more stress on a job when the former mentor involved is less forgiving than Finn’s nemesis, Moe Fitch (Ray Winstone, “Beowulf”). I’m sure if I had ever sabotaged one of my foe’s sites by de-rigging all his explosives, he would’ve killed me. And I’m certain that, despite the similarity in muscle structure and tone between me and McConaughey, a dynamite blast big enough to launch me out of the water from the ocean floor would’ve killed me as well.

In fact, I would say none of the criminals in this movie are quite as vicious or cruel as the ones I’ve crossed paths during my adventures. The guys in this movie are just a little too incompetent to have achieved the reputations and success they have. But I suppose the danger of these types of adventures isn’t supposed to overshadow the fun to be had for someone like me. And boy, oh boy, were those days a lot of fun—as is much of “Fool’s Gold”. I don’t remember our crazy sea travels ever slowing down to allow for quite so much self analysis and realization. Things are never slow for a real life treasure hunter. Trust me.

You know what’s really odd though? When we were watching the final struggle between Finn, Tess and Bunny, where Finn jumps onto a moving sea plane from a jet ski to save Tess, Angie turns to me and says, “You would do that for me, right?” What?! I did do that! How could she forget that? It was almost exactly the same as that time when she was taken hostage and I subdued her captor. I took the controls of the plane and brought it down much better than Finn does here. But then, of course she doesn’t remember it; she was unconscious because he had pistol whipped her. Ah, good times.

Note: Some of the events described in this article may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

“I am serious… And don’t call me Shirley.”

A list of 10 Favorite Spoofs.

Friday saw the release of yet another spoof flick. “Superhero Movie” promises to skewer the recent barrage of comic book superhero-inspired blockbusters with all the irreverence of a yak at the Grand Canyon. If you don’t understand what I mean by that, it makes two of us. But with most spoof flicks that is the type on non sequitur that passes for comedy, and if you aren’t able to make the mental leap—read “lapse”—required for the unabashed guffawing most spoofs so desperately yearn for, then the spoof is a genre that might never work for you.

With entries like the recent “Date Movie”, “Epic Movie” or the “Scary Movie” franchise, it might seem as if the spoof genre has all but been beaten to death. Most of these films can’t even stick to the genres they are trying to spoof for a mere 80 minutes of running time. “Epic Movie” didn’t seem to have a clue what an epic movie was. “X-Men”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, and “Nacho Libre” were among the many non-epic movies lampooned—read “harpooned”— in it.

But not all spoofs are stupid, or as The Young Ones might say, “stoopid!” Nor is the genre dead. “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”— releasing on DVD April 8—received mostly favorable reviews, and tackled a decidedly narrow movie genre to spoof—the musical bio-pic. And it only takes a short trip down memory lane to come up with a long list of movie spoofs that hold a special place in your funny bone.

Here are ten of my favorites:

Blazing Saddles. (Dir. Mel Brooks)
Mel Brooks’ 1973 send up of the once most popular western genre has been called by many better than I the best spoof of all time. It contains ageless lines of absurdity and hilarity. It is the pinnacle of irreverent humor from one of cinema’s greatest humorists. Just the characters are a slap in the face of western standards, with a black sheriff (“Can’t you see that man is a ni--?”), a falling down drunk gunslinger (“Look at my hand.” “Steady as a rock.” “Yeah, but I shoot with this one.”), a French/Jewish, pandering Governor (“We’ve got to protect our phoney baloney jobs, gentlemen!”), a mongoloid enforcer (“Candygram for Mongo!”), a greedy land barron with a girl’s name (“I want rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists.”), a narcoleptic, mumbling, singing prostitute (“Ah who am I kidding! Evewything fwom the waist down is kaput!”), and the greatest fart joke in cinematic history.

Young Frankenstein. (Dir. Mel Brooks)
Brooks almost outdid himself the very next year with the release of “Young Frankenstein”. Spoofing the popular Universal monsters horror movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, “Young Frankenstein” retold the story of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with Brooks’ unique brand of irreverence. (“No. It’s pronounced ‘Fronkensteen.’”) Brooks made much of his career as a comedy director making spoofs. He lampooned everything from historical epics (“History of the World, Part 1”) to Alfred Hitchcock (“High Anxiety”) to “Star Wars” (“Spaceballs”) to Robin Hood (“Robin Hood: Men In Tights”) to Hollywood’s Silver Age (“Silent Movie”) and back to Universal monsters again (“Dracula: Dead and Loving It”), but never did he reach the pinnacle of genius again that he did with “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”.

Airplane! (Dir. Jim Abrahams and David Zucker)
Taking the blueprints laid out by Brooks, writers/directors Jim Abrahams and David Zucker cast the mold for the spoof flick as we know it today with this 1980 classic riff on the disaster movies of the ‘70s. Making direct references to films of the spoofed genre and other pieces of pop culture, “Airplane!” makes fun of not only disaster films like “Airport”, but also everything else Abrahams and Zucker could fit in there, such as Hari Krishnas, racial stereotypes, drinking problems, sex aids, terminal illness, flower power music, courtroom dramas, flashback sequences, rear screen projection special effects, and “Saturday Night Fever”. While this is the closest relation to most of the bad spoofs that find their way into multiplexes today, “Airplane!” was an original in its day and was made with more wit and sass in one of its gags, than today’s typical spoof fits into it entire running time.

This Is Spinal Tap. (Dir. Rob Reiner)
“This one goes to 11” and then some. Rob Reiner’s 1984 directorial debut “This Is Spinal Tap” may not have been the first “mockumentary”, but with this spoof of the documentary format and rock culture as a whole, Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer created a phenomenon that would follow each of them through the remainder of their careers. Not only did the originally fictional band on which this movie focuses eventually return to touring in real life as if the events depicted in this fake documentary were true, but Christopher Guest went on to direct several more mockumentaries that celebrated their characters’ quirky lifestyles and personalities who pursued everything from small town theatrical productions to dog show trophies. When Spinal Tap sent the mockumentary genre into cult and eventually popular status, the “reality” of spoof filmmaking changed forever.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Dir. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones)
The Monty Python crew revolutionized sketch comedy with their spoofs of British society in their television show “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. When they made the leap to the big screen the set their sights on broader targets with riffs on British folklore (“Jabberwocky”), Christian teachings (“Life of Brian”) and their most often quoted work revising Arthurian legend, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. From highly intellectual debates on the geo-political workings of the British hierarchy to breast jokes, nothing is beyond the spoof in this witty and gritty goof on precious British and religious tradition. Even the absurd is tackled in pure Pythonian style. It isn’t every retelling of legend that ends with the hero being arrested for the accidental death of an innocent bystander.

Love and Death. (Dir. Woody Allen)
Woody Allen isn’t really known as a spoof artist, but much of his greatest work incorporates spoofing. Perhaps his style of spoof is a bit more on the intellectual side for the tastes of most film goers looking for silly laughs. It is that intellectual bent that spurs what may be his only feature length all out spoof flick. 1975’s “Love and Death” puts the spoof treatment on the romance literature of the Russians. It may not appeal to people looking for fart jokes, but a literature or drama major in college will find it a laugh riot. Allen has no end of fun ridiculing young lovers tearing the hearts and brains out over unrequited and unsolicited love. It’s a he-loves-her-but she-loves-that-guy-who-is-in-turn-in-love-with-this-other-girl-who-is-that-woman’s-cousin-and-had-relations-with-her-without-knowing-it-but-she-loves-him-anyway sort of thing. And if it seems I got the genders confused there, well that’s probably all part of the joke as well.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. (Dir. Jay Roach)
It seems that after the third installment in the Austin Powers spoof trilogy of the spy genre as a whole and James Bond pictures in particular, creator Mike Myers suffered some backlash for retreading the same jokes over and over again. That stigma is not likely to end after this summer’s Myers picture “The Love Guru”, whose trailer promises more of the same Myers jokes. But in a strange way that is more than a fitting tribute to the spy genre, which does tend to mine the same territory repeatedly. But before it all became old hat, the Austin Powers characters and retro vibe was a rather fun and carefree ride of laughs that carried almost three movies. I think most fans would choose the original “International Man of Mystery” as their favorite of the series, before Myers got too stuck on what was working for his multiple personalities. But I prefer the better titled “The Spy Who Shagged Me”. I like the way he pushes things just a little bit further than is comfortable in the series’ sophomore outing. Is drinking another man’s waste funny? Only when Myers tags it with his tentative smirk.

Beerfest. (Dir. Jay Chandrasekhar)
The traditional idea of a spoof is a film that makes direct references to other films and pop culture nuggets and ridicules them in some base manner. But there are some films which simply spoof ideas or mindsets and try to have some semblance of their own reality. It can certainly be said that the films of the comedy troupe Broken Lizard exist solely within their own reality. Their film include the refer toking highway patrol comedy “Super Troopers”, the outright slasher spoof “Club Dread”, and what could be considered either the dumbest or most ingenious underground sports flick ever conceived—“Beerfest”. “The Dukes of Hazard” has been struck from their record in order for me to justify respecting them. “Beerfest” takes a beergoggle-eyed look at the seedy underworld of drinking beer for sport. Conjuring up memories of Bob and Doug Makenzie’s beer adventures in “Strange Brew”, “Beerfest” has its own silly story to tell, but it is not the overall picture that makes this film worth watching. Its genius is in the details. These guys had to watch a good deal of your typical underdog sports flicks when they were writing this story about five Americans who travel to Germany to regain their family glory at the World Beer Drinking Championship. And when you’re finished watching this one, you’ll know how to properly drink beer from a boot.

Scream. (Dir. Wes Craven)
While it was the “Scary Movie” franchise that pulled the outright spoof treatment on this and so many other modern horror flicks, “Scream” was not made by master of horror Wes Craven without his tongue edging into the fleshy parts of his inner cheek. Like “Beerfest”, it is a more gentle ribbing of its respective genre that is just as interested in sustaining its own credibility as it is at destroying similar films’. When you make a slasher flick about teens obsessed with slasher flicks, there has to be some degree of self deprecation involved, and Craven is even better here at poking fun of the formula of slasher flicks than he is at bringing the scares themselves. It is hard to truly be scared during Rose McGowan’s death by automatic garage door, but what a great riff on the notion that every slasher pic has create new and original ways for people to die—although “The X-Files” actually did garage door death one better in one of its episodes when some poor soul was killed by a sprung garage door spring.

The Man with Two Brains. (Dir. Carl Reiner)
When this movie first popped into my head as a contender for this list, I thought it might just be too weak an entry. But then I looked up some clips from it on YouTube and was reminded of the raw comedic genius of Steve Martin’s early career teaming with Carl Reiner. Their 1983 movie “The Man with Two Brains” is a send up of those mad scientist b-movies from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. While most of those original mad scientist flicks contain inadvertent laughs enough to inspire a series like “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, Martin and Reiner were well prepared to funny up the already laughable with a story about a man named Hfuhruhurr, a brain surgeon that falls in love with one of his patients only to learn she is merely interested in his money. So he plots a way to kill her and replace her brain with that of his beloved late wife’s. Like so much of Martin’s comedy, it is his earnestness that makes it possible for him to sell his particular brand of ridiculousness—which includes yelling at children for not being as experienced as an adult, brains jumping around and singing, and a cat on an operating table.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Drillbit Taylor / *½ (PG-13)

Drillbit Taylor: Owen Wilson
Wade: Nate Hartley
Ryan: Troy Gentile
Emmet: David Dorfman
Filkins: Alex Frost
Ronnie: Josh Peck
Don: Danny McBride
Lisa: Leslie Mann

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Steven Brill. Written by Kristofor Brown & Seth Rogen and Edmond Dantes. Running time: 102 min. Rated PG-13 (for crude sexual references throughout, strong bullying, language, drug references and partial nudity).

Each year some 500 to 600 movies are released theatrically in the United States. Out of those, there are maybe 50 or 60 that I have no desire to see. Well, “Drillbit Taylor” falls into that category. Just from the marketing of the film, there is a sense of indifference about it. The poster doesn’t really seem to say anything about it, and the trailer contains no elements that distinguish it from other films of its genre or its star Owen Wilson.

In many ways, “Drillbit” is just a younger, tamer version of last August’s R-rated sleeper “Superbad”. This is no coincidence since it was co-written by that movie’s Seth Rogen. While that movie centered on two nerds’ senior year of high school, “Drillbit Taylor” concentrates half of its energy on two similar characters’ freshman year. Wade (Nate Hartley) is tall and freakishly skinny, while his best pal Ryan (Troy Gentile) has an unhealthy appreciation of food for a boy his age. They desperately want to make a great impression on their first day of high school. It’s no surprise that they don’t, and even worse, they draw the attention of the school bully, Filkins (Alex Frost, “Elephant”), who looks like a young, evil John Cusack.

At the same time, “Drillbit Taylor” also wants to be yet another vehicle for Owen Wilson (“Wedding Crashers”) to play that likeable loser who turns his life around. Wilson is the titular Drillbit, a street bum AWOL from the Army who schemes with his homeless buddy Don (Danny McBride, “Hot Rod”) to steal enough money to travel to Canada and live off state welfare. Like so many of Wilson’s characters, Drillbit isn’t quite all there, but he surrounds himself with people who would lose against him in the cleverness game by half.

These two seemingly unrelated storylines are brought together when the two boys team up with a third outcast, Emmet (David Dorfman, “The Ring”), to hire a bodyguard for protection against the bully. Drillbit shows up claiming to have protected various presidents and movie stars and not seeming to know which were which. One of two good laughs comes when Adam Baldwin appears dressed exactly the same as his character from the 1980 movie “My Bodygaurd” and proclaims what a lame idea it is for some nerds to hire a bodyguard. It is a sad comment on this movie that its best joke is an insider cameo referring to a barely remembered, 28-year-old movie. Even more telling is the fact that he’s right—it is a lame idea.

Director Steven Brill (“Little Nicky”) and producer Judd Apatow—who had such a good year in 2007 bringing audiences “Knocked Up”, “Superbad” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”—call in a lot of favors with similar cameos from David Koechner, Lisa Lampanelli, Stephen Root and others. Apatow’s real-life wife, the undeniably charming and beautiful Leslie Mann (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), is even cast as one of the school’s teachers who falls for Drillbit. Unfortunately, Apatow failed to insist that her character have any development or motivation.

The movie feels oddly muted, as if it wants to go further with its comedy but is held back by its PG-13 rating. The rating may be appropriate for the age set it is aimed at, but it feels like the script has been stripped of its punchlines. Rogen had his chance to farm this material more effectively in his screenplay for “Superbad”, while Kristofor Brown comes from the Apatow-produced television series “Undeclared” and various Beavis and Butthead projects. Neither is allowed to be as crass as they’ve been elsewhere, since they are writing for an age group below their strengths. They can’t mine the sex and gross out jokes they’ve built their careers on because these kids just aren’t old enough yet. Sex does find its way in as a substitute for romance between Wilson and Mann, which comes off more disturbing than funny. It is interesting that a story credit goes to Edmond Dantes, a pseudonym for John Hughes, whose comedic death rattle came somewhere between the first “Home Alone” film and 1994’s “Baby’s Day Out.”

In the end the filmmakers resort to violence as a form of comedy, which seems less appropriate than even sex for the heroes. It’s funny when Wade and Ryan are hitting each other to try and toughen up for the final showdown with their nemesis, but when their rumble with the bully ends with a samurai sword and a lost finger, it becomes more disturbing than two school faculty members having sex in the classrooms at all hours of the day. “Drillbit Taylor” feels like a scraping of the bottom of the barrel for everyone involved except the two young leads. And despite their enthusiasm, everyone else involved seems well aware that this movie only deserves performances as half-hearted as the jokes it contains.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! / *** (G)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Horton: Jim Carrey
The Mayor of Whoville: Steve Carell
Kangaroo: Carol Burnett
Vlad: Will Arnett
Morton: Seth Rogen
Councilman/Yummo Wickersham: Dan Folger
Dr. Mary Lou Larue: Isla Fisher
Tommy: Jonah Hill
Sally O’Malley: Amy Poehler
Narrator: Charles Osgood

20th Century Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios presents a film directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino. Written by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul, based on the book by Dr. Seuss. Running time: 88 min. Rated G.

I suppose a more daring writer would write this review in the style of Dr. Seuss. I’ll admit I tried, but the movie deserves a little better than some bad rhyming schemes from a critic who is a far cry from a poet. “Horton Hears a Who!” is easily the most Seussian of the recent big screen adaptations of the renowned children’s author. Much of it seems cut directly from the imagination of the man also known as Theodore Giesle.

What “Horton” proves above all is that the stories of Dr. Seuss require an animated format. Following on the heels of Seuss adaptations “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “The Cat in the Hat”, “Horton” punctuates the failure of those films by freeing the story from the confines of realism that can’t be avoided with any level of make-up or elaborate set design. Horton exists in a cartoon universe that even has him dreaming in various animated styles.

For those of you either too far removed from your own childhood to remember the story or without children of your own, “Horton Hears a Who!” is about an elephant named Horton (voiced by Jim Carrey, “Fun with Dick and Jane”) who finds a speck of dust on a clover and hears the voice of someone on it. No one believes Horton when he tells them about the people on the speck. Kangaroo (Carol Burnett, “The Carol Burnett Show”) condemns Horton for telling lies and encouraging an unhealthy sense of imagination in the inhabitants of the jungle land of Nool where they live. “If you can’t see it, touch it, or hear it, then it doesn’t exist,” she says.

On the other end of the dust speck, as it were, there is The Mayor of Whoville (Steve Carell, “Over the Hedge”). The Mayor notices some changes in Whoville after the speck upon which the town is located is loosed from its safe haven at the start of the film. There are tremors and weather changes and Horton speaks to him through his drain pipes. The Mayor must find his spine to let his citizens know that their world is in danger. Of course, the other Whos think the Mayor has sprung a leak in his head when he tells them of the giant invisible elephant in the sky who is trying to find a safe place for their speck. Just the idea that they live on a tiny speck is too much for most Whos to swallow.

While “The Grinch” and “The Cat in the Hat” struggled to find ways to expand Seuss’ short stories into feature length stories, screenwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio (“The Santa Clause 2”) do a much better job filling the time with Seussian ideas. For example, the Mayor’s family consists of the Mayor and his wife and 97 children—96 daughters and one son—who the Mayor admirably spends a few seconds with each every day. If he spends a little more time on his one son, it is because the boy seems to be the shiest and the Mayor so wants his boy to carry on the family tradition by becoming one of the great mayors of Whoville one day.

The previous Dr. Seuss adaptations also struggled to create a production design that stayed within the wacky and lighthearted spirit of the Seuss artwork. What resulted were massive hulking sets that were dimly lit and conveyed little of the carefree imagination of the Seussian mindset. As animation, “Horton” is bright and colorful, highlighting the unique vision of Dr. Seuss’ worlds while expanding them into a three-dimensional format. “Horton” marks the first time Seuss’ unique architectural styles have felt natural on the big screen. And the carefree spirits of the characters don’t feel forced into an environment that is created for a staged production.

The animated format may have also freed first-time directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino from worrying about the logistical problems of live action to focus more on the underlying themes of Seuss’ work. As with so many family films, there is the obvious theme of believing in others and yourself, but this story holds many ideas in it that are surprisingly topical to the world we live in, the strongest being the way we deal with fear. The inhabitants of Nool become the victims of the fear-mongering of Kangaroo and her stooges, the bully monkey Yummo Wickersham (Dan Folger, “Balls of Fury”) and the mendacious eagle Vlad (Will Arnett, “Blades of Glory”). In Whoville the citizens fail to heed the Mayor’s warnings at the urging of the Whoville council, who are more interested in keeping everyone happy for their Whocentenial rather than safe. The Whos’ story also offers a strong case for respecting the environment.

But isn’t that just like a critic to dig up a bunch of messages in a film that’s meant to be fun? Well, “Horton Hears a Who!” is a lot of fun, with its bright colors, wacky characters and settings, and innocent approach to life. “Horton’s” primary audience won’t care about what reflections it offers on our world, and it provides plenty of laughs and rollercoaster madness to make for a fun trip to the movie theater.

And so for the Whos, and for Horton too,
There are more cheers than jeers, in this critic’s view.

Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Vantage Point / ** (PG-13)

Thomas Barnes: Dennis Quaid
Kent Taylor: Matthew Fox
Howard Lewis: Forrest Whitaker
Enrique: Eduardo Noriega
Veronica: Ayelet Zurer
Suarez: Saїd Taghmaoui
Javier: Edgar Ramirez
Rex Brooks: Sigourney Weaver
President Ashton: William Hurt

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Pete Travis. Written by Barry Levy. Running time: 90 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense violence and action, some disturbing images, and brief strong language).

There is a global peace conference being held in Spain where the President of the United States is making a public appearance. President Ashton (William Hurt, “Mr. Brooks”) is there to help develop a peaceful solution to growing global terrorism. Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid, “American Dreamz”), a Secret Service Agent on the president’s protection detail, took a bullet for the president only a year prior. Agent Kent Taylor (Matthew Fox, ABC’s “Lost”) has had to pull strings to get Barnes back on protection detail because his stability has been questioned since the assassination attempt. Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver, “The TV Set”) is directing the media coverage for a major news network and dealing with attitude from her on-screen reporter Angie Jones (Zoe Saldana, “The Terminal”). The plaza in which the president’s welcome takes place is crowded with civilians, policemen, secret service agents and—when the president is shot and explosions go off in the plaza and the surrounding area—apparently terrorists.

This is the stage that is set for the multi-perspective thriller “Vantage Point”. According to its tag line the story is “8 Strangers. 8 Points of View. 1 Truth.” It is more like one quarter of a story told from 5 different points of view, and the rest told in a jumble of twists and unmentionable spoilers that leave the audience feeling jerked around by the time they get to the rather uninspired conclusion. The movie is thrilling; I give it that. But its telling is a total mess.

When making this kind of thriller—where the story is told from differing perspectives with new insight gained from each character’s story—it must be calculated down to the minutest of details. Also a thriller that involves unforeseen plot twists and surprises runs the risk of making the audience feel tricked or duped. Even though we go to the movies to be entertained, we don’t like to be jerked around. So such an undertaking requires the utmost care. Everything must be in its proper place, or the audience will either be confused, or worse they won’t care.

In the case of “Vantage Point”, the filmmakers were seemingly so excited with their multi-perspective concept that they just couldn’t wait to get every character’s point of view out for the audience to see. It starts with the media coverage. A good starting point, since the news media today exists to get the news to the people as it happens and sort everything out later. Unfortunately, the media here never get the chance for the latter. That would have been a nice way to sort out the pieces.

The media’s coverage lasts for the film’s first five or six minutes. The next four perspectives each run slightly longer than that, but they are all so brief it seems as if the filmmakers are more concerned about selling this multi-perspective concept than they are about actually telling the story. Each person’s story is told just short of the point where something important to the mystery of the plot is revealed. What did Agent Barnes see in the video tape made by the tourist (Forrest Whitaker, “The Last King of Scotland”) who seemed more interested in his surroundings than by seeing the president? Who did the Spanish police officer witness getting out of a police car at a designated rendezvous point? What happened to the little girl who wandered out in front of an ambulance speeding away? And what is the significance of the ambulance’s occupants? What did Barnes see in the news footage that changed his whole perspective on what had gone on up to that point?

Questions like these keep the plot going.“Vantage Point” brings these questions, but instead of continuing to build upon and answer them, it abandons the concept to try to make sense of everything from everyone’s perspective. Or perhaps it’s no one’s perspective. These stories usually require a neutral perspective to let the audience in on the big picture. That’s why not getting back to the news media is such a mistake.

Even beyond the film’s structural problems are lapses in logistical details, such as how the news coverage continues to switch camera angles when the director and board operator are sitting there in mute awe of the events they’re witnessing. Or is it really very likely the Secret Service would return a man to such a high level detail if they were unsure of his mental status? And even though that question is eventually answered, wouldn’t a man as intelligent as Barnes question such a decision? With such a high-concept piece as “Vantage Point,” everything has to fit or the whole game is given away from the beginning.

For people who are unfamiliar with the story device, “Vantage Point” may play as a viable thriller. There is plenty of action; and if you aren’t well versed in this structure, you may be pulled in just enough to wonder just how it all fits together in the end. But this movie won’t be anything new for people who have seen “Rashômon”, several similar “X-Files” episodes, “Pulp Fiction”, or any one of hundreds of copies of this cinematic style. For them “Vantage Point” will seem like the Sloppy Joe version of the hamburger.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Confessions of a Movie Hound: The Big Ape

By Lucy “In Disguise” Wells

So, last night he was staring at the wall again. The woman—let’s just call her ‘Mom’—and I decided to go to bed early. God, I love that woman sometimes. Someone seems to have given her the impression that the bed is hers, however. I’d put my money on the wall-staring man. She also doesn’t seem to understand the importance of the stuffed cat. I know the thing isn’t real, but I seem to be developing quite a strong affection for it. When Mom goes to bed I like to bring it to her and shove it in her hair. She’ll shove it away but never gives it a good toss. It’s is like she doesn’t understand what I’m telling her. “Throw the cat! Throw the cat! Throw the cat!” It's not that complicated.

But once she gets into that bed, there’s no talking to her. She lays face down. I lick her ears. She pulls the covers over her head. I dig her out. She puts the pillow over her head. I shove my nose under and start snuffing away, but she won’t budge. That’s ok though; ‘cause there’s nothing I enjoy more than spread eagling out on the bed, even if she insists on claiming half of my bed for herself. What gets me is when the man stumbles in at midnight or later and expects me to render the remainder of my bed over to him. I fight the good fight. Pretend I don’t see him. Hold my eyes shut as if I’m asleep and oblivious to his demands. But that jerk always uses his size as a weapon against me. He just picks me up and moves me to the end of the bed. I used to race him back to the pillow, but he started stiff arming me. I finally gave in. Sleeping on the end of the bed like some sort of pet in my own house, can you imagine? Boy, if I were a Great Dane, I’d show him!

So I racked out with Mom, being sure to loose what slobber I could on my pillow for when he came and took my spot, and I drifted in doggy la-la land for a while. Then at about midnight the squat gods came calling. I usually ask to go out before bed, but Mom and I dozed off so early I forgot all about it. Normally sleep overrides a call from nature—I prefer to deal with the ultimate mother on my own terms—but the man was downstairs in his dungeon being assaulted by thunderous demons from hell or some such thing emanating from the light box that hung on his wall. He was probably just sitting there like always, taking no defensive measures to evade whatever might jump out of the box to attack him. I didn’t really care, but I had to pee.

I sat at the top of the stairs that lead to the basement and pretended I had some sort of itch on my neck. I jangled those tags they put around my neck in case they get separated from me in a flock of Corgi’s, so they can find me again. (Flock?) Anyway, they could just sniff our butts. It’s much less restrictive than those tags. And I wouldn’t let them lose me anyway. I swear sometimes it seems like they think they own me, not the other way around.

So I was jangling my jewelry at the top of the stairs. Huffing and puffing like I’m upset about something. I started snorting, and finally he heard me. The sound of the giants attacking the basement suddenly ceased. I don’t know how it does that. I think it has something to do with that small rectangular box with the blisters on it he’s always holding on to like it’s a junkie’s crack pipe or something. I suppose it is very much like that considering how it relates to his addiction. I just can’t figure out why he doesn’t just use it to stop the box anytime it is attacking him with the noise and explosions and monsters. It boggles the mind, really.

So he got up the stairs and mumbled some of his primitive vocal communication to me. I’ve come to understand which sounds mean “outside,” “eat”, “go,” and various others that are particularly important for them to communicate to me. He let me out, but I could tell he was just jonesin’ to continue feeding his fix. I was only out there for a few minutes, barely enough time for me to take care of my business and give the standard perimeter check of my yard. I was in the middle of letting the neighbor dog know that he needed to “step off” when that light box junkie’s patience ran out and he called me to get in. Since it was cold, I obliged.

I got in, and I could see those dilated eyes of his. I knew he was going back down to risk his life in front of that light box of images and monsters again. I couldn’t let him face his demons (or the light box’s) on his own, so instead of going back to my place in bed next to Mom—which is where I most certainly wanted to go—I decided to follow him back down into the basement.

He lay down on the couch, and I anxiously settled down on his lap as he reached for his button box and pointed it at the dark light box. I was facing him to be sure he wasn’t going to freak out when the monsters and thunder came. The noise started behind me and I looked over my shoulder to find the light box just had a couple of humans hopping around in it acting silly. So I settled down again.

I must have fallen asleep or something because the next thing I know I hear this monstrous beast snorting and grunting in my ear. There are sounds of the city all around us. I don’t get how the people and monsters can be in the light box on the wall while I can hear them all around the room we’re sitting in. Anyway, I knew there was something big and nasty behind me, but I didn’t want to look. The look on the man’s face was maybe slightly excited, but nothing that would indicate he was about to run away or anything, so I slowly turned my head to see what threat the box had produced this time.

Well, my satellite ears began to shake—which created quite a breeze in the basement—and my nub of a tail was certainly not wagging. Hell, I almost tinkled myself sitting right there on top of the man. What I saw in the box was terrifying. It was a giant ape. He was jumping around some city, tossing cars and people everywhere. And the roaring, oh dear God that horrifying roaring! What was stopping that ape from just walking into our little basement and stomping on us? I don’t know.

I don’t know how the man could have been so calm. Normally when something threatens my man pet from the light box I’ll give it a good growl until it goes away. I didn’t dare make a peep this time. Surely that ape would just eat me. I saw him tear one of those poor humans in half. Not that I can’t be ferocious and terrifying when I need to be, but us Corgis aren’t exactly hulking dogs. That ape would have broken me like one of my chew sticks.

I inched my way up the man’s body and shoved my snout into his armpit. “Please, make it stop. Please, make it stop. Just pick up that damn button box and click it until it stops, for God’s sake!” But he didn’t move. And then I understood his tactic. He was lying perfectly still, hoping the giant monkey wouldn’t see him. That must have been it.

Somehow we miraculously survived the giant ape. But after that incident, I’m done. I’m not doing it anymore. I’m done protecting his ass. He can summon up whatever dragons, spaceships, dinosaurs, grizzly bears, whatever… I’m not gonna be there to save him next time. Next time, I’m just staying upstairs with Mom. Let them get him.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Multiple Visions of Ridley Scott - Part II

The following essay is a unique collaboration of Daily Film Dose and A Penny in the Well – two bloggers and Ridley Scott fans with strong opinions about the notion of the so-called ‘Director’s Cut’.

Click HERE to read Part I at Alan Bacchus’ Daily Film Dose

Original Cut (2000) 155 mins
Extended Cut (2005) 171 mins

“This is not the director’s cut. The director’s cut is the length that went out into theaters. The one you’ve probably already seen. This one has a lot of scenes in it that were removed that might be worth seeing.” These are the brief and blunt words Scott uses to explain the existence of “Gladiator: Extended Edition” in his video introduction to the film on its 3-disc set. This Best Picture Oscar winner became a rare prize winner from the first half of an awards year. Yet somehow it seems to lack much of the depth of Scott’s best work. It tells the tale of a once valued general of the Roman Empire who finds his favor betrayed when a new Cesar takes power. He winds up a slave and takes his revenge by becoming a favorite gladiator in the Coliseum. The new scenes don’t really add much to the story, nor do they detract from it. Although it claimed Scott’s only Best Picture Oscar so far, its power lay more within its spectacle than anything else.

Original Cut (2001) 144 mins
Extended Edition (2006) 152 mins

The extended edition of Scott’s Oscar winning “Black Hawk Down” is strange in that it was an alternate cut of a film released by the studio without any fanfare what-so-ever. It is like the child no one noticed. It was released in a no frills, single disc edition, without the slightest fingerprint from Scott on it. The studio reinserted about ten minutes of deleted scenes that have little effect on how the film plays. Those scenes can be found in the extras of the Scott-approved 3-disc Deluxe Edition released in 2003. Despite the lackluster handling of the extended edition, “Black Hawk Down” remains one of Scott’s finest accomplishments. It is a very accurate adaptation of Mark Bowden’s book recalling the true events of a failed military mission in the heart of the gang-ruled Somalian city of Mogadishu that left 18 U.S. soldiers dead and many others wounded in 1993. Initially criticized for its lack of character development, this film succeeds in placing the audience into the harrowing combat environment these soldiers found themselves thrown.

Original Cut (2005) 145 mins
Director’s Cut (2006) 194 mins

In the introduction to the four-disc DVD set of “Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut” Scott says, “This is the director’s cut, i.e. the version that I prefer.” It is one of his most underrated films in either version, but the director’s cut is infinitely better than the theatrical cut. He has cast it in the mold of the great David Lean epics “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Dr. Zhivago” with an opening overture, an intermission, and 194 minute running time. It is the story of Balian, who joins the Crusades and travels to Jerusalem in search of redemption. This version includes in-depth character development in its early passages, including important details about Balian’s relationship with his father and the man he kills inspiring his quest. It also reveals an entirely deleted subplot involving Balian’s love interest Sibylla. Her story parallels Balian’s with her own fall from grace.

Original Cut (2007) 157 mins
Extended Cut (2008) 176 mins

Last week Ridley’s latest extended edition arrived on DVD—“American Gangster”—his low key but entertaining 70’s gangster film. Again, Scott makes it clear on the DVD introduction that the theatrical version is the ‘Director’s Cut’. Of the added 18mins, the most significant change is the extended ending. The theatrical cut ended with Frank Lucas being released into the 1990’s after 16 years in prison. For the audience it was unclear how Lucas’ new life would play out—re-educating himself back into a new generation of crime, or continuing on the straight and narrow. The extended cut has Russell Crowe’s character Richie Roberts meeting him on the outside and walking with him through the streets of New York. Its clearer Lucas’ friendship with Roberts will mean a legitimate path in life. Judge for yourself, but the theatrical cut is arguably more powerful with the hint that Lucas’ ambitiousness might once again put him back on top of the New York crime world.

25 years after “Blade Runner” was released in theaters, Scott finally seems to be satisfied with his release of “Blade Runner: The Final Cut.” He also achieved personal satisfaction with the director’s cuts of “Legend” and “Kingdom of Heaven” and the theatrical releases of the other titles mentioned in this article. But for some reason the studios and even fans insist on asking for more from this talented director. That speaks to the strength of his work and ensures that there will be many more versions of the films of Ridley Scott to come.