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Meet the Spartans

A spoof this bad is enough to make Young Frankenstein put a Naked Gun to his head.

reviewed by Mark Burns

How do you know a movie is irredeemably awful? When preteens sit silent and leave grumbling about a wasted five-dollar matinee.

300 serves as the base for this spoof of all things Hollywood spanning the past two years. In this one, Leonidas literally skips forth with 13 “latently gay” Spartans to the Hot Gates, where they’ll battle Xerxes’ hordes in dance-off, trash talk and occasional violence while consistently being pestered with digs at how gay they are. The traitor hunchback is a Paris Hilton look-alike, Kevin Sorbo plays the Spartans’ captain and … well, it doesn’t merit detailed summary.

This is the latest film belched out by the machine that is writer/director duo Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the guys who brought you the Scary/Epic/Date Movie series. As their No. 1 showing at the box office on opening weekend can attest, they’ve come to dominate the spoof scene. Their brand of comedy dredges celebrity gossip and blockbusters for material, blending Hollywood’s illusory and real worlds together in disjointed lampoon. Targeted this time around are Ugly Betty, Paris Hilton, Transformers, Britney Spears, Shrek 3, Stomp the Yard and Happy Feet among others.

The result has all the focus of a troubled child who’s traded his Ritalin for Pop Rocks and gone on a sugar-rush bender. It’s a shame. Giants-of-spoof Zucker and Brooks knew how to craft original storylines that tackled a theme or particular target, whether Airplane’s lampoon of disaster movies or Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ lampoon of the folk hero’s broad filmic history. These filmmakers relied on their audiences’ awareness and left viewers to decipher the spoof, thus letting them in on the joke. Direct outside references were kept spare, often relegated to Easter-egg gags in the background (i.e.: the Rocky poster in Airplane II).

Friedberg and Seltzer, however, ignore craft and context, simply stitching together a patchwork of direct rip-offs from disparate films and dimming them down. They’re like annoying children who think repeating someone else’s phrase in an annoying voice equates to witty retort. Even the most obvious spoofery is hammered home with repetitive jibes and dunce-worthy exposition. When a film is being targeted, its title is dumbly inserted into the dialogue so the fans, presumed stupid by the filmmakers, get it. Celebrity impersonations crop up almost as randomly as the product placements and are unfailingly idiotic, executed with less nuance than even Mad TV could muster.

If any skill manifests through the course of this movie, it’s in the occasionally accurate mimicry of 300’s camera work. Also, some gags start out amusing before being hammered to death. At the outset of such moments the bare glint of a smile may appear at the corner of the mouth. But this is a rare anomaly and might just be gas.

In short, Meet the Spartans fires a scattershot of stupidity with hopes of striking funny. The attempt misses wide. It’s enough to make Young Frankenstein put a Naked Gun to his head.

Horrible spoof • PG-13 • 84 mins.

The Men Who Stare at Goats

© Overture Films

George Clooney plays one of The Men Who Stare at Goats

Missed opportunities with a few bright moments
you’ve seen in the previews

reviewed by Mark Burns ~ November 19, 2009

A desperate reporter chases strangeness to Iraq in this misfired farce.

Reporter Bob (Ewan McGregor: Amelia) signs up to cover the war in Iraq after his wife dumps him for his editor. He’s just biding his time in Kuwait when he encounters Lyn (George Clooney: Burn After Reading), a squirrelly greyhair who claims to be an Army-honed telepath. Eager for something to do, Bob joins Lyn on a secretive mission into Iraq, where misguided misadventure unfolds alongside a bizarre history of the army’s exploration into the paranormal.

Some of the weirder aspects are, in fact, true. A general did run full tilt into a wall in an attempt to phase through it. “Remote viewing” is a real quest that may sound familiar to Bay Weekly readers. (Local author and psi researcher Dale Graf was featured in these pages for his involvement in the Cold War-era Stargate program for developing psychic spies.) Men also stared down goats in an attempt to affect them telepathically.

Such delicious factoids arrive courtesy of Jon Ronson, a British journalist and satirist whose same-titled book tempted the movie’s fancies. On film, however, facts take a further turn to the strange as names and events are changed, invented, amped for the sake of fictional neatness.

Sadly, the film never finds focus. Attention flits between Mideast meander and fragmented flashback, neither progressing with much sense. In flashback, a peppering of strange experiments yields promising vignettes cut short and poorly linked, never cohering, despite a weak late twist meant to unify past and present.

Comedy doesn’t click, either. Strange truths are core to the film’s appeal, and the filmmakers delight in peppering the trip with moments of weirder-than-fiction incredulity. Yet that wonderful quirk is stifled by tone as director and cast veer away from satire toward aping, like Clooney’s “sparkly eyes,” a true technique. More often than not, the filmmakers fail to exploit the eccentric gold of those new-agey notions that drive these men. Instead they jab at them with recitations of esoteric happy babble and context-light visuals. Clooney and company are like cartoon characters, lacking for substance as they’re put through a reel of gags.

Then there’s that deeply unfortunate parallel to the Fort Hood tragedy.

Ultimately, the film is a curiosity with bright moments. You may have seen them in the previews. Most else is a missed opportunity. In fact, the most raucous laughter in the theater was heard during the credits, when one man laughed at himself for buying a ticket.

Poor farce • R • 93 mins.

The Messenger

© Oscilloscope Pictures

Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster are the bearers of bad news in the riveting war drama The Messenger.

A great war film deep on emotional substance

reviewed by Mark Burns ~ November 26, 2009

The personal cost of war is explored through one veteran’s somber home-front duty in this character-rich war drama.

Will (Ben Foster: 3:10 to Yuma) is a battle-scarred sergeant home from Iraq. Slow-to-heal wounds and his girlfriend’s desertion undermine his footing. He’s without heading until assigned to casualty notification detail under the hard-boiled, half-baked, wholly intense Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson: Zombieland). The new duty puts Will on a course to confront his own trauma and introduces an ethically curious wrinkle of infatuation with a fallen officer’s wife.

Is it exploitive to follow these “angels of death” on their rounds to speak tragedy? A cultural sampling of America is set before the camera to be deconstructed by grief; half a dozen of these cringing moments of personal devastation are interspersed throughout the movie.

Context and story, however, rise above exploitation. The men are honor bound to deliver the news directly, then duty bound not to veer off script or attempt consolation. In those six dramatic spikes, they are made to bear witness to loss, the camera lingering with them as they stand perplexed, disturbed and judged. These powerful and profound experiences shape the men and drive their story. Most defining is the curveball of one widow’s strange graciousness, veering them off the scripted path.

There is much more than sad news to the story, too. The evolving friendship between boisterous Tony and silently struggling Will provides the real meat. Levity, personality and complexity are at work as their perspectives clash and entangle. The deliberate, gradual revelation of character and back-story snares and carries interest. Filmmaker Oren Moverman, who co-wrote the screenplay and makes his directorial debut here, deftly walks a thin line, giving the story weight — but never so much that the film collapses under it.

Foster and Harrelson power this film. Both are absorbed into their roles, each turning in his best performance to date.

Pacing often slows to an amble; serene scenes of subtle infatuation are particularly placid. The film tends to mull and consider and linger. Action is sparse, brief and anecdotal. But it works for this introspective story — so long as you’re not averse to dramatic substance.

In short, it’s a great war film that’s deep on emotional substance. It’s likely fall’s first Oscar contender.

Great war drama • R • 105 mins.

Michael Clayton

This character-driven conspiracy tale wins us over with strong performances and story nuances.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

George Clooney stars as a law firm problem solver stuck in the middle of professional and personal intrigue in the involving drama Michael Clayton. First-time director Tony Gilroy (screenwriter for the Bourne movies) gives us a character-driven conspiracy tale that wins us over with strong performances and story nuances.

Michael Clayton (Clooney) works for a large corporate law firm; however no one in the firm but a select handful of people is exactly sure what he does. He is a guy who gets a call on his cell phone in the middle of the night from a colleague and moves instantly into action. His action: to fix problems. He is part lawyer and part cop, but really neither. He is a fixer. 

Fortunately for us, Clayton is not a smug, know it all. Nor is he the superman of fixers. Far from it. Indeed, we connect with Clayton because he is human. He seems in over his head. Yet he soldiers on to do what he does best: Smooth things over and make sure things go the way his law firm wants. Plus, he has faults: a failed marriage, an unsuccessful business venture, a gambling problem. Clayton doesn’t allow these things to overwhelm him, however. Nope, he soldiers on, as humans do.

Meanwhile, Clayton’s law firm’s biggest client, a global agri-business company, has been doing something bad. The firm’s top lawyer and Clayton confidante (Tom Wilkinson) has snapped because of the enormity of it. The question: Can Clayton fix these problems? Answering that question brings up a couple of new ones: How long can he soldier on? Where will all this soldiering take him?

This film’s strength comes from its utter resistance to turn itself into either a stylish action film or a plot-twisting whodunit. Reminiscent of many of the 1970s films by New York directors (think Sidney Lumet more than Martin Scorsese), Michael Clayton is character driven, not plot driven. Thus, the film is motored by the actors’ impressive performances, most notably Clooney and Wilkinson, but really on down the line. The plot payoff at the end is both disappointing and trite, perhaps a victim of the film’s focus on character over storyline. Regardless, involving adult films like this are rare in Hollywood these days. Michael Clayton is a winner.

Good drama • R • 120 mins.

Monsters vs. Aliens

© DreamWorks

Reese Witherspoon lends her voice to the leading role of Susan/Gigantica in Dreamworks’ Monsters vs. Aliens.

Failing to do for sci-fi what Shrek did for storybooks

reviewed by Mark Burns

Strangeness wrestles strangeness in this half-baked, animated sci-fi farce.

Susan (voice of Reese Witherspoon) is all smiles on her wedding day — until a meteorite smashes her flat. In a few blinks she mushrooms to massive heights and is whisked to a military facility where she’s hidden away with a tiny menagerie of monsters: mad scientist Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie); blob B.O.B. (Seth Rogen); fish man The Missing Link (Will Arnett); and ginormous fuzzybug Insectosaurus. Renamed Ginormica. Susan seems sadly trapped until a gigantic alien robot crashes in California. Now she and her new friends are summoned to daylight to save the world.

The filmmakers are apparently trying to do for sci-fi what Shrek did for storybooks — without the ogre tale’s imaginative focus. Monsters vs. Aliens builds itself on comedic interpretations of characters from classic 1950s’ pulp flicks: here, for instance, the Creature from the Black Lagoon is a pudgy, middle-aged jock of a fish man. From these spoofs extends a more general lampoon of the sci-fi genre, with riffs on movies from Independence Day to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

This combo becomes a whirl of easy material good for stealing a few laughs as one-liners, wordplay and slapstick are launched in rapid barrage amid endless sight gags Maybe you have to be in the mood for it, but the constant effort to coax a laugh is exhausting. And not in a sidesplitting way.

The flick amuses, but by and large there’s too little setup or context as leverage for landing more solid punch lines. Whoopee cushion novelty lurks as a deflating force near every novel twist, and some of the sharper moments have been dulled by previews. Much of the telling is so gag-heavy that, by the last third, you may be feeling wary of all the winky elbow nudging.

Pacing slows down enough for Susan/Gigantica to sort herself out along the way, but the other monsters are cheated of their own character development; Dr. Cockroach and The Missing Link are especially flat.

At least it looks pretty. Animation is aces, offering deep dimension, creative designs and realistic renderings. And the voice cast does all right for a bunch of comic all stars; Stephen Colbert as the president is fun.

Monsters vs. Aliens is okay, but just okay. Even the kids in the theater seemed dubious. As for adults, the trip is probably funnier at rental prices.

Fair animated comedy • PG • 94 mins.

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