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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with THE AMBASSADOR, the horror anthology V/H/S, and THE ORANGES!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Combining some of the year's biggest laughs and most shocking and tension-filled footage is the great documentary/performance journalism called THE AMBASSADOR from Danish director and star Mads Brügger, who posed as a foreign ambassador from Liberia to prove that with the right connections and a bunch of cash anyone can pose as a diplomat and remove blood diamonds out of the Central African Republic. I call it performance journalism because Brügger's "character" is an almost cartoonish version of a sleazy, corrupt briber of government officials, with his mirrored sunglasses, white suits, adventure hats, riding boots, and ridiculous array of outfits.

But the details and information the filmmaker extracts from the region are almost too good to be true, as he pretends to set up a factory to make matches as a way to get a license to do business in the CAC. Everyone involved has to have seen hundreds of white men come through there nation to do exactly the same thing, but they go through the motions, shake hands, pop their champagne, and exchange millions. There are moments when it appears not only will Brügger's plan fail, but also that he will get caught and be killed for his fraud. But never dropping character and demanding that he gets what he paid for (basically, diplomatic immunity from having to go through airport customs), he pulls off what appears to be a remarkable con.

THE AMBASSADOR plays like satire at times. When Brügger is assigned two Pygmy guides, I almost gave up thinking this was real, but it truly is, and that quiet and suspicious Pygmies play a big part in this story. By simply walking into every situation like he is the one in control and that he's invincible, Brügger somehow gets some of the most damning footage of both European and African government officials flagrantly disobeyed law after law side by side with out hero. This is truly a film like no other — one that feels like it's scripted, but trust me, no screenwriter could have come up with this incredible story.

In an interesting take on the found footage sub-genre in horror, the new anthology V/H/S has a wrap-around storyline involving a handful of goofballs breaking into a house to find a legendary piece of found footage, and finding a dead old man in a recliner in front of a TV and stacks of VHS tapes that the hooligans keep putting into the machine and watching. The wrap-around (directed by Adam Wingard) is extremely dumb, but it serves at getting us to some mostly scary — or at least interesting — short film from some directors whose work is still evolving and getting better with time, including Ti West, Joe Swanberg, David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid and the Radio Silence collective.

The anthology shorts range from good to bad, but I firmly believe that Joe Swanberg's piece about a couple communicating on Skype is both exceedingly funny and scary as all hell. Ironically, the segment starring Swanberg (which West directed), about a couple on a road trip giving assistance to a stranger they meet at their rundown motel, has some of the more fleshed-out characters of all of the shorts, but it isn't that scary. I was genuinely freaked out by the final segment from Radio Silence, which puts a great spin on the haunted house motif and features the most scream-out-loud moments, bar none.

The opening short from David Bruckner suffers from featuring the most unpleasant characters and predictable plot, with a group of drunk-asshole guys ready to shoot an amateur porn with a barely consensual woman is just gross, and even when the excessive and well-deserved blood and guts starts spraying, there's no satisfaction. My least favorite is a spin on the monster-in-the-woods segment from Glenn McQuaid, which simply didn't scare me at all. Whether you enjoy V/H/S or not is largely going to depend on where your horror sensibility lies. I'm one of those crazy people that actually wants horror films to contain some sort of scares, and I'd say there are just enough of them in the segments that work to recommend the film, but just barely.

V/H/S has been on the festival circuit for the better part of the year, and I believe it's been available OnDemand for a while as well. So I'm guessing if you were desperate to see it, you already have. But if curiosity hasn't gotten the bet of you yet, the film is slowly opening up across the country for a little while before coming out on DVD. I actually think this anthology might work better at home, since many of the segments take place in home or hotels. There's something for everyone in this film, but that also means there are some things that are for no one.

Similar in theme but lesser in execution to the recently released HELLO I MUST BE GOING, the strangely emotionally uninvolving THE ORANGES is about two families who live across the street from each other and have been best friends since they met. Featuring a fantastic cast that includes Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener as the Wallings and Oliver Platt and Allison Janney as the Ostroffs, the couples living on Orange Drive in New Jersey barbeque, drink, exercise, celebrate holidays and talk together almost non-stop, and it's a bit sickening.

When the Ostroff's daugher Nina (Leighton Meester) cames home after living in California for five years, the couples nudge her in the direction of the Walling's son Toby (Adam Brody) for a possible love connection, but these two grew up together, so the idea is a bit strange for both. Even stranger is that for some reason Nina is hopelessly attracted to Laurie's character, David, and a secret relationship slowly develops and doesn't stay secret for long. Not surprisingly, when the affair is exposed, everyone involved (directly and indirectly) goes into a tailspin, and nothing can ever be the same again. Probably most disturbed by the relationship is the Walling's daughter, Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), who rarely got along with Nina.

The scenario I just described to you, on paper, sounds like a heavy family drama. But the way it's played in THE ORANGES, it feels more like a comedy. People are cracking jokes, rolling their eyes, and overplaying their parts and reactions to such a degree that I feel the only thing the film is missing is a laugh track. And once the affair is exposed, the film just flaps in the wind, not knowing what direction or tone is the right one. These are all very capable actors (OK, maybe not Meester), so they could have performed this however director Julian Farino (who has directed mostly TV, including a couple dozen episodes of "Entourage," as well as "The Office," "Big Love" and "Sex and the City") wanted things to go down. But this is a film in desperate need of a strong hand to guide to to its dramatic conclusion, and it's just not there.

I love the idea of these great actors being put through the paces as their buddy-buddy friendships are destroyed in a heartbeat. But as soon as that happens, everyone scatters to live their own lives, and we never get those pivotal scenes that show us the consequences of such selfish (if loving) behavior. A closing scene on Christmas Eve does nothing to salvage for emphasize the inherent emotional upheaval of the moment. THE ORANGES is a sometimes embarrassing collection of moments that don't add up to anything worth checking out for yourself.

-- Steve Prokopy
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Readers Talkback
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  • Oct. 5, 2012, 10:23 p.m. CST

    vhs is way too shaky cam/jumpy for me to enjoy

    by eoneon

  • Oct. 6, 2012, 3:09 a.m. CST

    same here

    by fred

  • Oct. 6, 2012, 12:32 p.m. CST

    Was mostly disappointed by VHS

    by Collin Armstrong

    Agreed on Swanberg and Radio Silence's segments being the strongest. The others were so bad I kind of couldn't believe it, because I generally like those filmmakers. And the wrap-around stuff was just atrocious, which is especially surprising given that Adam Wingard is IMO the most talented of the bunch. Cool to have an anthology out for Halloween - just wish it was better.

  • Oct. 6, 2012, 5:11 p.m. CST


    by dr sauch

    First and last shorts are the best. The rest of them are eh, and the framing story is ridiculous. Overhyped, but alright.

  • Oct. 7, 2012, 1:53 p.m. CST

    VHS veers from neat to horribly bad

    by m_prevette

    The framing segments are awful... the characters are douchebags who deserve what is coming, so who really cares about their story... the story in the set up bits is ridiculous. This was the best they could do? The individual stories, and MOST of the movie, have WAY too much shaky cam, to the point where someone must have been just jumping up and down, cutting flips on a trampoline... it was ludicrous. The first story had some asswipe characters but the girl was extremely creepy... that was one scary bitch. The middle stories range from interesting ( the Skype story ) to ridiculous ( the glitch monster in the woods ). The wrap up haunted house story was indeed the best of the bunch.

  • Oct. 7, 2012, 3:26 p.m. CST

    Bruckner's contribution

    by Greg

    I thought David Bruckner's contribution was the best part of the movie... While I can respect Capone feeling that it was predictable, the execution of the story was both jaw droppingly brutal and scary as all hell.