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A pair of merry pranksters

September 24, 2004|Kevin Crust;Kevin Thomas

"Changing the world one prank at a time" is the tagline for the documentary "The Yes Men," but the word "prank" doesn't really do justice to their efforts. Smart and amusing, the film is a record of activists Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno as they appeared at conferences around the world impersonating members of the World Trade Organization.

Co-directors Chris Smith ("American Job," "American Movie" and "Home Movie"), Dan Ollman and Sarah Price followed the Yes Men to Finland, Australia and Plattsburgh, N.Y., dressed in thrift-store suits and armed with PowerPoint presentations, aiming to subvert corporate globalization while having a good time. The impersonations began after Bichlbaum and Bonanno created a website mimicking and satirizing the one belonging to the real WTO. The fake site (www.gatt.org) was initially so convincing that the Yes Men started getting e-mailed questions on international trade (which they answered) and invitations to speak on behalf of the WTO at conferences (which they accepted).

Smith, Ollman and Price have hit on an intriguing twosome whose clever, grass-roots brand of activism promotes satire as a legitimate form of revolt.

Kevin Crust

*

Where fiction is stranger than truth

If truth is stranger than fiction, where does that leave a fake documentary? Christian Johnston's "September Tapes" squanders incredible verisimilitude by undercutting it with credibility-defying storytelling. Shot on location in Afghanistan in July 2002, the film passes itself off as eight "found" videotapes that detail the efforts of a young American documentary filmmaker named Don "Lars" Larson (George Calil), who travels to Kabul.The likelihood of an inexperienced documentarian tracking down Osama bin Laden in the wilds of Afghanistan -- even with the help of bounty hunters and arms dealers -- defies an intelligent audience's ability to suspend its disbelief. Bin Laden may as well be a Yeti wandering down from Tibet.

It's too bad, because the filmmakers obviously took great risks and achieved a stunning, intense realism in making "September Tapes."

The visceral thrills, however, do not make up for the ultimate banality of the movie. Why go to the trouble of traveling halfway around the world to a war zone to create such a realistic fiction? Why not make an actual documentary with something to say?

Kevin Crust

*

Directed by his sense of self

"Hollywood Buddha" takes the vanity production to new extremes. Written, produced and directed by Frenchman Philippe Caland and said to be largely autobiographical, it is a tedious tale about a would-be filmmaker trying to sell a long-on-the-shelf movie to finance an extravagant renovation of his home.

Advised by his guru to rent "the most powerful Buddha in Los Angeles" for $2,000 a month to aid him, Philippe (Caland) alternates between temper tantrums and gestures of kindness steeped in self-congratulation. A year behind on his mortgage payments, Philippe renews efforts to sell distribution rights to "Dead Girl," about a guy who hauls around the corpse of a young woman, occasionally engaging in necrophilia. (Caland actually made a film of that name in 1994; a year earlier he co-produced "Boxing Helena.")

Caland describes his film as a satire, a term often used to cover a multitude of sins. "Hollywood Buddha" isn't remotely funny or pointed enough to qualify as satire. Intentionally or not, it comes across instead as a portrait of a man whose self-regard knows no limits.

Kevin Thomas

*

'Hollywood Buddha'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Language, adult themes

Philippe Caland...Philippe

Betsy Clark...Betsy

Jim Stewart...Jim, the guru

Theo Cardan...Para Kapur

Victor Castorena...Victor

Gloria Payne...Ana

At selected theaters.

*

'September Tapes'

MPAA rating: R for language and violent images

Times guidelines: Realistic war action and an animal disembowelment

Don Larson...George Calil

Wali Zarif...Wali Razaqi

Sunil (Sonny)...Sunil Sadarangani

Exclusively at Loews Cineplex at the Beverly Center, L.A., (310) 652-7760.

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