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by Bill Gibron

26 Apr 2008


It was the final nail in his financial coffin, the epic that would eventually close his by now infamous Spanish studios. After the troubled production surrounding his last epic, 55 Days at Peking, many believed producer Samuel Bronston would exercise some manner of restraint. But in true visionary form, he actually tore down his original Rome sets when actor Charleton Heston (who had appeared in El Cid) expressed interest in the Chinese spectacle. When the famous star eventually rejected a role in Fall, Bronston hired Stephen Boyd, and then rebuilt the entire Forum and most of the ancient city across 55 sprawling acres. Budgeted at $20 million (in 1964 dollars), Fall flopped, and even with its high profile cast, it couldn’t save the producer’s professional reputation.

That’s the great thing about DVD. It can help reestablish an unfairly maligned career. It can also argue for filmmaking facets that contributed to an already predetermined downfall. Both elements are present in the The Weinstein Company’s gorgeous restoration of The Fall of the Roman Empire. Presented over three discs and supplemented with a wealth of explanatory material, we get a chance to see Bronston’s vision the way he intended it (sans the 70mm Ultra Panavision Cinerama, that is). We also get an opportunity to witness the hubris that believed audiences would enjoy a scattered, three hour dramatization of the decline of the famed civilization. With the usual international casting conceit, and lots of expansive sets, director Anthony Mann was given a simple mandate - make it big. He frequently went further, making it boring as well.

While fighting Germanic forces north of his empire, Marcus Aurelius is poisoned by conspirators. Unable to name his beloved friend General Gaius Livius as his intended successor, the role of emperor falls on the ruler’s ineffectual son, Commodus. After marrying off his sister - and Livius’ lover - Lucilla to an Armenia king, he begins his reign. Believing that the road to peace is best paved with war and taxes, he causes rebellion amongst many of the outlying regions. In the meantime, Livius brokers a truce with the North, and uses his connection to Aurelius’ adviser Timonides to get the Roman Senate to endorse it. Of course, Commodus disapproves. As the leader’s hubris grows, his control on the empire wanes. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt, Lucilla is sentenced to death. She is joined by Livius, who has been set up by his own men. A final gladiatorial battle for the fate of Rome awaits our two competing conquerors.

Over the years, some have argued that Gladiator glommed on and stole most of the meaning from this overstuffed production, yet what’s most clear about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that it is a movie at odds with itself. On the one hand, director Anthony Mann and his fine group of actors - Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Sophia Loren - do a wonderful job of bringing out the personal interplay and individual strife that would lead to the collapse of the mighty civilization from the inside out. We believe in the dynamic between the cast, and see how the fate of men (and one woman) could lead to the undermining and the misery of half the world. It’s not a new story - absolute power corrupts absolutely, in a nutshell - but Mann does indeed make it come alive.

On the opposite end is Bronston’s desire for more: more sets; more battle sequences; more extras. What we witness onscreen does indeed look impressive. While many marveled at Ridley Scott’s CGI version of the famed Italian city, Rome and its fantastic Forum look so much more real here. Of course, the tactile effect of a real practical backdrop does help. But there are other elements that are just as successful - the Temple of Jupiter (with the head of Commodus), the winter camp of Marcus Aurelius, the sweeping battlefields. Yet they seem to exist outside of the more intimate material at hand. The Fall of the Roman Empire can frequently feel like a character study played out amongst the very planets themselves. Scope and scale frequently countermand narrative and nuance.

Of course, that was the point. Bronston never thought that a non-spectacle would fill seats. The cinema was still battling TV for the all-important entertainment soul of the American public, and without something sensational to sell, the small screen’s convenience and novelty continued to win out. In many ways, such massive bombast was indeed revolutionary. It was mimicked as recently as the late ‘80s/early’90s, when the VCR and home video threatened to make movie-going obsolete. The studios responded with special effects laden efforts. To paraphrase the position - the viewer never starves when there’s eye candy around.

It was the same four decades ago. Of course, the sweets have soured a little since then. Much of Fall feels forced, pageantry played to the hilt simply because it can be. Plummer is wonderful as the egomaniacal brat, and Mason literally makes the movie. Of course, there are performers like Guinness who appear to be putting in the miles without delivering much of the necessary effort, and Loren was still in iconic beauty mode. She was much better back when she was battling Heston (off screen) during El Cid. Yet the optical wonder provided here, the sheer opulence of Mann’s moviemaking and Bronston’s approach give The Fall of the Roman Empire just enough to keep us going. It may be a tough road to hoe sometime, but the overall effect is impressive.

Equally extraordinary is this new DVD edition. Named after the Weinstein’s mother Miriam, the sheer wealth of added content here should make even the most amateur film historian weep with delight. The movie itself contains a commentary by Bronston’s son Bill and his biographer Mel Martin. While a tad too self-congratulatory (after all, they aren’t really going to criticize the man), it’s still a remarkable discussion. Disc Two trots out the Making-Ofs and the Behind the Scenes featurettes. One of the best highlights the “fact vs. fiction” way in which history is manipulated by Hollywood to fit its dramatic needs. Finally, a third DVD delivers a series of short films, commissioned by the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which offers a classroom like take on Roman History (this material is only available as part of the limited edition package).

Frankly, anyone coming to this film hoping for historical accuracy should really seek some cinematic guidance. The Fall of the Roman Empire is meant to be nothing more than a sumptuous banquet of motion picture excesses served with a side dish of the slightest narrative accuracy. That Samuel Bronston saw this as the ultimate form of entertainment speaks as much for his approach as a producer as his fate as a filmmaker. It’s not surprising that he ended up going bankrupt when Fall tanked. Too much of what he was - and always would be - was wrapped up in this extremist ideal. And just like all outsized imaginations, a crash was inevitable. The Fall of the Roman Empire may not be the most notorious motion picture morass in the history of the medium, but for Samuel Bronston, it was the ultimate expression of what he was - for better and for worse.

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by Bill Gibron

25 Apr 2008


It’s almost impossible to downsize spectacle. Something that plays as awe-inspiring and epic on the big screen loses much of its luster when miniaturized to standard TV specifications. No matter the home theater set-up, the size of the screen or the complexity of the sound system, nothing matches the theatrical experience point by point, 100%. Instead, it can only marginally mimic what the movies do best - stretch the scope of a subject beyond the most tenable elements of the individual imagination. Back in January, the J.J. Abram’s produced Cloverfield used the Japanese giant monster movie formula to tell a personal story on a grand scale. Believe it or not, on DVD, the size of the saga only increases.

Young Rob Hawkins is leaving New York for a new job opportunity in Tokyo. On the night before his departure, younger brother Jason, best friend Hud, and various friends and family have gathered to celebrate. They include Jason’s fiancé Lily and the object of Hud’s obsessive affection, Marlena. The only person missing is Beth, Rob’s long time gal pal and secret love interest. Confused by something that happened between them weeks before, the trip to Japan has both questioning their commitment. During the festivities, an earthquake - or something like it - hits the city. Suddenly, the power goes out. In the panic, the partygoers head for the building’s roof. There, they see something horrifying. A section of Manhattan explodes into a massive fireball. Then there is a scream. It’s something big. It’s something angry. It’s something ready to destroy New York, block by block.

Much of the original theatrical review of this film applies, even shrunk down to the digital domain. Cloverfield is indeed a great film, a genre-defying marvel that meets or exceeds the potential inherent in the premise and the approach. In one of those creative, career defining moments, TV director Matt Reeves finds an inventive conceit that makes outrageous events play out as real, while also exploding beyond our comprehension. Via sequences of silent terror, claustrophobic suspense, and moments of big budget action set piecing, we get the completely believable story of post-modern kids, cameras and cellphones in hand, trying to make sense of some undeniably Earth shattering events. This is so much more than a mere Blair Witch Godzilla. This is a film about perspective, about how we view our world through the media’s mighty lens.

Inspired by Japan’s love of its Kaiju, and the unfathomable horrors of 9/11 - you can’t look at massive debris clouds consuming the streets, or scenes of victims covered in soot roaming aimlessly through the chaos without being reminded of that fateful day - it’s zeitgeist as a Saturday matinee, a romp through the last 40 years of b-grade schlock given a terrific technological make-over. Many have complained about the handheld ideal, arguing that it seems singularly unreasonable for anyone fleeing for their life to make the viewfinder, not their viability, the main motivation and priority. But thanks to the youth coup concept of YouTube and MySpace, such an event would seem funny if it didn’t feature such an approach. After all, when was the last time you saw a major disaster in perfectly framed and artistically composed shots?

Cloverfield clearly wants to use the unreality of the situation with the nu-reality of the portable camera to mirror this new way of seeing the world. Like the frontline battle footage from Vietnam offered nightly on the evening news during the ‘60s, the notion of being part of the action is intuitively unnerving. We know we’re not supposed to follow Rob and Hud, that Marlena, Jason, and Lily should have run for cover instead of wandering aimlessly within the city. Of course, like all good horror films, our heroes pay for their mistakes. As with all classic movie macabre, the notion that anyone can die at anytime continues to fuel our fear. Reeves and company then magnify this philosophy in a legitimately larger manner - as in any CITY can die at anytime.

Among the final thoughts on this film four months ago was the following statement - “it will be interesting to see how this film eventually plays on the small screen”. The recent DVD release answers this concern immediately and honestly. Brought down to an average family room’s size, the movie somehow works even better. Of course, those who’ve already experienced the film know the scary movie beats by heart, so some of the initial shock certainly dissipates. But this allows for a more detailed, intimate overview. We can follow the characters’ arcs more easily, discovering unseen nuances that were lost in the bedlam. There are also little moments that take on more meaning, like the post-subway attack when Marlena tries to laugh off her injuries. The F/X also stand out more, the brilliant work done in turning green-screen sets and LA locations into a replica for Manhattan more amazing than ever.

The extras also expand on this stellar work. Reeves, along with producer Abrams and many behind the scene personnel, show us, step by step how a realistic view of a destroyed NYC was built in the computer. One of the most fascinating shots discussed is also the most iconic - the head of the Statue of Liberty traveling through the skyscraper landscape. The reason for the symbol’s use and design was crucial to the film’s success. So was the attitude of the monster. The chief designer of the beast points out that he wanted the creature to act like a newborn, not angry so much as confused and cranky about the violent world it has just arrived in. Oddly enough, there is very little about the viral marketing campaign, or Ethan Haas, or the soft drink Slusho. Perhaps a future release will address these missing elements. 

As a film, there is much more to this movie than CG creatures and convention tweaking. Like Cannibal Holocaust, which used torture and reprehensible atrocities to take on the glaring, unforgiving eye of the media, Reeves reinvents the giant creature category of horror to question our perverse fixation with images. During the initial chaos, when fireballs and bridges are falling to the ground, one of the characters asks Hud why he’s still filming. His answer is matter of fact - “People are gonna want to see this. They’re gonna want to know how it went down.” That’s 2008 in a nutshell, a social sentiment that doesn’t believe anything as reported unless there’s accompanying footage taken from an up close and personal viewpoint. This is why, long after the gimmick is gone and the sequel has been set-up, Cloverfield will remain a classic - and rightfully so.

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by Bill Gibron

24 Apr 2008


For the weekend beginning 25 April, here are the films in focus:

In Brief

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay [rating: 5]

Is it possible to make a stoner comedy without actually showing your heroes wake and bake? Can a keen political satire be crafted out of obvious takes on the War on Terror and government incompetency? Both questions come up frequently in this relatively successful sequel to the 2004 pot party. This time around, our title characters are on their way to Amsterdam when their bong is mistaken for a bomb. They end up entering, and then fleeing from the infamous Cuban prison, hoping that a highly placed pal in Texas can bail them out. Kumar also wants to stop his ex-girlfriend from marrying this conservative cad. With the usually dependable Rob Corddry ruining every scene he’s in, and a great deal of inappropriate race baiting, first time directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (who also wrote both films) use the “insult everyone equally” approach to avoid controversy. Still, when a sidesplitting smoke out only offers one real take on the toke (it arrives when our duo meet up with an equally Chronic prone George W. Bush), when it doesn’t have the nerve to argue the very policies it parodies, then we are dealing with some very cowardly comedy. Still, there are enough laughs - and stars John Pho and Kel Penn are more than winning - to sustain us through this uneven second helping. 

Baby Mama [rating: 2]

It’s about time someone stood up and told Hollywood the truth - children are not the creative cure-all a character needs. Giving a demanding, type-A personality a toddler will not instantly turn a control freak shrew into an Earth goddess. This applies to all zygote phase formulas as well. While many may see the names Tina Fey and Amy Poehler on the marquee and think comic gold, Baby Mama is instead a loaded Pampers full of fetus poo. While the talent pool it’s drawing from is marginal at best (who still thinks Steve Martin is cutting edge?), there is no excuse for such unfunny business. Using caricature instead of personality (Fey is the square-glasses wearing dork, Poehler is the Big Gulp slurping stooge) and forcing everything through a sieve of ‘babies are adorable’ drek, we wind up with 90 minutes whinier than the population at a Day Care. Co-stars Greg Kinnear and Dax Shephard are clearly present to give men both sides of the bad name (wuss/asshole) and pop culture references have to pass for satire (yo, hip-hop is def!). While Fey had no control over the content (the crappy writing and directing are courtesy of Michael McCullers), she should have better career management. A film like Baby Mama could land you on the artistic adoption list forever.

by Bill Gibron

23 Apr 2008


There is nothing noble about caring for a demented relative. There is nothing inherently humorous in the decision over whether or not to warehouse said elderly family member. While it may ease your moral compass to find a fancy (and expensive) assisted living facility, the reality is much less mechanical. There’s a crucial line in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages that does indeed resonate within such a situation. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing the sensible brother to Laura Linney’s angst-driven Annie Hall type, argues that high end does not necessarily mean the best care. “This is all for you”, he complains, pointing to a brochure loaded with color photos and various amenities. “None of this is for Dad. It’s all here to assuage your guilt.”

Indeed. While it manages to skirt the logistical issues involved in dealing with the diminished capacity of a loved one, Jenkins seems to think that she has the emotional issues all worked out. Using Hoffman’s quiet resolve as a contrast to Linney’s over the top tendencies, she fully believes The Savages showcases reality in all its whiny warts and all element. She’s wrong. 100% wrong. In fact, the key difference about this 114 minute movie and the real world is that after the running time has elapsed, everything’s resolved. Traumas have been aired out, problems dissected and shuffled successfully back into life’s loaded deck. Of course, in reality, it never ends.

Over the last eight weeks, my family has been going through a Savages like crisis. It began innocently enough with a phone call - an aunt who typically doesn’t stay in touch dialed to say that she couldn’t get my wife’s 96 year old grandmother to answer her numerous rings. The old woman had lived alone for nearly 31 years, and even nearing 100, she showed no signs of age-oriented complaints. The relative wondered if everything was okay. After all, she did hear that the nonagenarian had been in a car accident the Saturday before. Yet after a quick visit to the ER, she was treated and released with a clean bill of health. Everyone had noticed that her hearing had diminished over the years, and Grandmother frequently failed to respond to the phone’s ring. But this latest turn seemed odd - perhaps, even sinister.

My wife, sainted beyond the beatitudes of even the most liberal Pope, decided to find out what was going on. She grabbed her mother, got in the car, and drove to her grandmother’s house. An hour later, she returned with rather dire news. “We knocked and knocked. I called from the cellphone dozens of times. We yelled and yelled.” She didn’t have a key, so she couldn’t actually go in, but from what she could see on the outside, things did not look promising. There were no lights on inside the house, and from what she could decipher, the front room (dining and kitchen area) looked virtually unused.

At this point conjecture took over. Maybe she wasn’t released from the hospital after all. Maybe she was still in a room, being treated. We later learned that another aunt had fractured her pelvis in four places during the same accident. Maybe Grandmother was visiting her. Whatever the scenario, someone with access had to be contacted. We finally found my wife’s uncle, the man married to the injured aunt. He had a key to the house - but after learning what had been discovered, he didn’t want to go in alone. My wife and I jumped back in the car and drove over to the house to meet him.

Lots of things run through your head at this time - scenes from movies where bodies are discovered, corpses rotting with cops clamoring for clues only to realize the suspect has suddenly turned into a victim. You play out all your reactions at one time - the smell, the scene, the realization of death in all its unavoidable physicality right before you. You then prepare. As the trip nears its end, you wonder what you will truly do. The flesh may be willing, but the spirit is, at present, spooked pretty good.

When we arrived, the uncle was standing in the driveway. He bore the look of anyone faced with the potential of finding their mother-in-law deceased and decaying. There was a quiet exchange of words, a tentative placing of metal into a lock, and with the swing of a door, the three of us entered. It was funny - the first thing anyone heard was the collected sniffing of all our noses. Clearly, we were going for the aroma-based means of discovery. Nothing. The house smelled…like a house. Quickly, absolute silence was maintained. My wife called out. No response. She called again.

Faintly, from far away, we could hear a very weak voice. To make a long story short, we discovered Grandmother lying on the floor, the clichéd commercial tagline of “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” playing in the back of our mind. She was alert but highly confused, thinking she was still in bed instead of splayed upon her vanity floor. Paramedics were called, assistance was attempted (she was disoriented but still very stubborn), and neighbors started nosing into everyone’s business. By the time we got her to the hospital, the concept was already out there - what do we do now? Where do we put this 96 year old woman once the doctors determine her condition?

That was indeed eight weeks ago. Since then, there have been conversations, arguments, arrangements, and agreements over Grandmother’s care. One son immediately suggested a nursing home. One daughter demanded she be sent back home. Assisted living became the equalizer, and it was here where art didn’t do what it’s supposed to. Instead of imitating life, it totally disintegrated it. If you believe The Savages, a few confrontations and a couple of clever bon mots later, and all your old people problems are wrapped up in an ironic package of self-examination and satisfaction. While writer/director Jenkins may indeed be right about how such a situation reflects on who you are inside, it doesn’t begin to address the deep-seeded sentiments that drive families to fight over what to do.

Dementia, or as the medicos mandate, “diminished capacity” contains a lot of loopholes that The Savages failed to address. When Phillip Bosco’s father figure smears feces on the wall, it’s nothing more than shorthand for what’s really going on. His moments of lucidity are often played for pathos, yet when a lost relative actually returns to reality, be it ever so briefly, it’s not a sad situation. In fact, many in the family view it as a ray of recognizable hope in an otherwise bleak personal landscape. The Savages does get one thing right - everyone involved has a desperate desire to see things turn back to some sort of normalcy. If Grandmother required a couple of minutes contemplation during the course of your week, her mental reconfiguration should keep to that schedule as well.

But what Jenkins completely forgets is how all encompassing these issues really are. Granted, in her film, the brother and sister had long since ceased contact with their father, a relationship with a woman in Arizona providing the locational limits. But once the mind has been marred, and the need for care is concluded, nothing can reestablish the borders. Over these last few weeks, Grandmother has gotten stronger. She’s fallen and broken her hip, but the surgery turned out to be a godsend. It fixed a badly arthritic bone, allowing a titanium rod to reestablish her physical dexterity. According to her doctor, she’s very strong and heals miraculously well.

But concern has now stopped centering on her body (though the frequent stays in post-hospital rehab try to dictate otherwise). Instead, everyone is nervous over her growing disconnect with the truth. The more wistful want to believe that she will find a way back to our world. She recognizes faces quickly, and can carry on a conversation with ease. But then the disquieting comments start. She believes she is on vacation. She thinks nurses are out to kill her. She wants her husband, dead for over three decades, to return from a business trip and pick her up. She argues over the location of her wallet and purse, and is concerned about where she parked her car - though she hasn’t driven in over 10 years. It seems funny at first, the brain burbling in ways that suggest senility crossed with sitcom crankiness.

Of course, it soon turns trying. One of the things The Savages fails to fully explore (among many, mind you) is the cloud that crazy actually forms. For those emotionally involved, the lack of a clear connection to what’s going on is devastating. It’s like being told your parent or loved one is dead without getting a chance to grieve over the body. Instead, you must visit the wake every single day, screwing up the courage to see the once familiar family member stripped of what made them a viable member of the clan in the first place. Imagine how horrific it must be for a mother not to recognize their own daughter. Now reserve the perspective and see how well you sleep at night.

Oddly enough, none of this is remotely funny - at least not in the traditional sense. There can be some moments of groan-inducing gallows humor, and a bit of black comedy. But nothing about this circumstance screams laughter. Nothing about it is intentionally humorous. Instead, you chuckle to yourself over your reactions, for your approach and how life rebuffs you. You snicker under your breath as relatives wax poetic, though the last time they saw the subject of their verse was so long ago the blips seem buried in nostalgia. Jokes usually get the cold shoulder, or the critical eye. Everything is just too intense, too raw.

I had seen The Savages, several months before the Grandmother issue occurred. Back then, I found it self indulgent, petulant, and relatively unrealistic. When my own father faded and died, none of the clearly written quips found in Jenkins’ dialogue made it into my family’s conversation. There was no Rodney Dangerfield like one-liner about putting Pop in the garage since company was coming over. This latest bout with aging and mental atrophy didn’t rewrite my opinion of the film. Instead, what the real world makes abundantly clear is that fiction fails to fully capture much of its numbness, or nuances.

Drama is never as ‘melo’ as in your own life, and sadness sinks lower than any character’s confrontation with themselves. Some may celebrate what The Savages managed to make out of a ‘relatively’ shitty situation, but there is a truth that remains legitimately lacking. Movies based in actual events are supposed to provide insight. They’re supposed to provide guidance where personal bias blinds us. In this case, the movie pre-grandparental issues seemed specious at best. Now, they’re just downright ridiculous.

by Bill Gibron

22 Apr 2008


Poor Patrick Smash was born with a problem: a gas problem. You see, he has two stomachs, and his overactive digestion produces an excess amount of colon blow. From the time he was an infant to his current pre-teen years, Patrick has been one incredibly farty fiend. He farts day and night. He farts in school. He farts in private. And it’s caused him nothing but trouble. His father leaves the family because of it. The bullies pick on him over his continuous crack coughs. Even the teachers dismiss the needy child on account of his active ass. But when our sad little lad meets up with science geek Alan A. Allen, the two become best friends for life.

Unfortunately, their camaraderie is challenged when the U.S. government whisks Alan off to help with a space station malfunction. Hoping to locate his pal, Patrick joins up with an opera singer who wants to use the boy’s butthole as a means of obtaining vocal heights (don’t ask). When that ends badly, our poot prodigy winds up in the hands of Uncle Sam as well. Turns out, his tushy produces the perfect rocket fuel to send Alan’s specially designed rocket into the stratosphere. Even better, Patrick will be able to live out his lifelong dream - he has always wanted to be an astronaut. Too bad his Thunderpants kept getting in the way. Now, for once, they won’t.

Thunderpants is a one-joke movie that decides to abandon said gag about 20 minutes in for some routine Roald Dahl-like misadventures. When focused on the farting - yes, this film is really just an extended barking spider spoof with half-baked kid-lit fantasies thrown in for unequal measure—the movie mostly works. But once it decides to warm to the whimsy, everything falls apart. Granted, the humor is coarse, and forced through a decidedly British concept of comedy, meaning there’s lots of personal embarrassment and exaggerated freakishness to be found. This is the kind of film that wants audiences to laugh at oversized bullies cold-cocking the decidedly dorky heroes, to celebrate the inhuman stench coming out of a little boy’s bottom, and cheer as he uses his multifaceted flatulence to show up his enemies and win the day.

Such a concept is not without its charms. When handled correctly, the air biscuit can be a beautiful thing. Its combination of sound and sour substance has been known to leave many a listener doubled over in uncontrollable snickering. It’s the pre-schoolers’ first foray into funny business, an art form to adolescents, an adult’s primary form of non-erotic bonding, and the elderly’s personal entertainment element for the grandkids. But here, writer/director Peter Hewitt (working with co-writer Phil Hughes) decides to do away with the butt trumpet early on, focusing instead on a bizarre opera singer subplot, and then the movie’s main mission, using poor Patrick Smash’s overactive alimentary canal as a means of saving some space shuttle astronauts. With Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint along as uber-nerd Alan A. Allen, we’re stuck with not one but three storylines that basically don’t work.

Let’s take them one at a time, shall we. First, there is Patrick Smash’s personal predicament. Granted, it’s pretty hysterical when an infant version of our hero basically blasts away for 10 minutes straight. From the moment he’s born to the second his father leaves, tired of putting up with the nonstop sphincter popping, Hewitt has us in toilet-humor titters. But like many English fantasies, things turn dark rather quickly. Mom starts pounding the sauce, and the school tormenters go to outrageous extremes to undermine Patrick. After a while - the aforementioned 20 minutes - Thunderpants is no longer funny. It’s sad, dour, and kind of cruel.

Even when Patrick discovers Alan (a boy who can tolerate his toots because of a defective nose), their friendship is fragile and very desperate. It makes us wonder what will happen next - and then the singer storyline kicks in. Embodied by U.K. luminary Simon Callow, this oversized vocal egotist employs Patrick to hit the high notes in an impossible aria, the goal being international acclaim and the title of world’s number-one tenor. Naturally, it makes no sense, as does our lead’s ability to fart like a singing voice (where’s La Petomane when you need him?). But things really go out of whack when Patrick is charged with murder - huh? - and ends up on trial. The courtroom material is not clever, and wastes the sizable talents of Brit wit Stephen Fry. Before we know it, however, the U.S. government is stepping in, and Patrick is off to lend his anal gas to the Red, White, and Blue.

It’s the transition over to action man mode than really fails Thunderpants. We discover that Alan has been working on an engine which mimics Patrick’s two-stomach situation, but thanks to some bumbling adults (the research staff of this NASA-like agency is all brainiac kids), the system has failed. So Mr. Russet Gusset must sit in a toilet-like booster seat on the space shuttle and literally “blast” the rocket into orbit. This is all taken with tongue-in-cheek seriousness, mind you. Ned Beatty plays the God-fearing director of the agency, his occasionally inappropriate remarks (“this boy’s a fruit,” “this boy’s a tool”) explained away as misconstrued religious musings. He’s matched in shame by Paul Giamatti, skinnier than we’ve seen him in a while (the film is five years old, after all) and doing the straight-laced secret agent bit to the 40th degree.

Of course, everything is warm and fuzzy - and apparently quite odiferous - in the end, with our hated human oddities the celebrated saviors of the day, and everyone who ever wronged them gathered up for a pre-credit grab at a piece of the pair’s fame. The unsuccessful melding of the sentimental with the slapstick, the sincere with the scatological makes Thunderpants nearly impossible to enjoy. In fact, it’s so mannered in its presentation (Patrick overuses certain supposedly clever catchphrases over and over and over again) that it’s hard to imagine kids being the least bit interested - at least, after the ass-gas blasting takes a bum burp backseat.

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