Thursday, April 23, 2009


State of Play (***1/2), from director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland), is a shadowy conspiracy thriller in the vein of The Parallax View mixed with All The President's Men-esque journalistic intrigue that piles twist upon twist all the way up until the end. Russell Crowe, one of our best and most commanding leading men in movies today, powers an all-star cast (also including Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, and the scene-stealing Jason Bateman) as a reporter trying to solve a sordid, politically motivated murder without compromising his own set of old-school ethics. The statement (and argument) that the film makes in favor of old-media (i.e. newspapers and hard fact-checking) as opposed to new media (i.e. blogging and quick-reporting internet news) is pointed and topical, while the thriller elements move at a fast but coherent pace, thanks to the sharp-as-a-tack script by Tony Gilroy (Bourne, Duplicity), Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom, Lions for Lambs), and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach). Great Washington DC-based production values and moody, noirish cinematography from Rodrigo Prieto (8 Mile, Alexander) really seals the deal. It's just an entertaining, twisty genre exercise, classed up by the actors and crew. Well done.

I love how writer/director Jody Hill (The Foot Fist Way, Eastbound and Down) thinks. He's a devil. He finds stuff funny that most normal people don't find funny. My fiancee is always telling me how I'm weird and just a tad bizarre. I think this is why I found Hill's latest excursion into comedy's heart of darkness, Observe and Report (****), to not only be one of the funniest films of the decade, but some sort of strange, small masterpiece that despite being sloppy around the edges, has something perversely subversive to say about the way that some people go about living their lives in our country. From the trailers, you might have thought that the film was a cruder Paul Blart. And while I haven't seen that runaway box office smash (nor do I ever intend too), I've read about 100 reviews for it, almost all of which said that it was painfully bad. I read the plot synopsis. I get the drift. Well, the fact that there were two studio comedies that centered around mall-cops was just a coincidence, because Observe and Report couldn't be any more different than Paul Blart. Observe and Report is like some sort of wild mixture of Falling Down, The King of Comedy, Taxi Driver, and Hill's own The Foot Fist Way. Apatow golden-boy Seth Rogen does a complete about-face in this film, squashing the lovable stoner character we've all come to love, and ripping into the role of the morally bankrupt, bi-polar Ronnie Barnhardt, a sociopathic head of mall security who fashions himself as judge, jury, and executioner. Literally. The plot involves a serial-pervert who has taken to flashing the female mall shoppers in the parking lot. Ronnie goes head-to-head with a slimy detective played with manic glee by Ray Liotta who is investigating the case. Danny McBride pops up in a priceless cameo. The object of Ronnie's affections, the slutty cosmetic-counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris, brilliant), ends up getting flashed, and Ronnie uses her fears as a potential way into her heart (oops, I mean pants). Faris, in a performance that is nothing less than a small tour de force, gets some of the film's best material; her date-night with Ronnie is one of the more questionable things ever to be featured in a film that is asking its audience to laugh. And that's basically what Hill is all about -- having you look directly into the face of humiliation, the face of dead-beats, the soul of people who are completely delusional and who cannot be helped, and then having you laugh at them (not with them), while the characters slip deeper and deeper into their own self-destruction. The finale of Observe and Report stands as one of the craziest endings I've seen in recent memory; even coming close to spoiling it would be a crime. I almost hesitate to call this film a "comedy;" it's certainly no Apatow production. There's no overt sentimentality, the characters aren't classically "likable," and the way that humor is derived from scenes depicting violence, racism, homophobia, and sexual deviance, will test the limits of some audience members. Me? I found it to be the most daring, the most original, and the ballsiest studio comedy since Team America: World Police. I can't wait to see it again.

On the other end of the comedy spectrum is Greg Mottola's sweet and simple Adventureland (***1/2), a film that doesn't try to reinvent the wheel like Observe and Report, but succeeds in its own modest way as a generally pleasing dramedy that's played for low-key humor as opposed to outrageous bits of lunacy. Starring The Squid and the Whale's Jesse Eisenberg as an aimless college grad named James who gets a summer job at a B-level amusement park in 1980's Pennsylvania, Adventureland follows James' quest to get laid, make some new friends, and figure out where the next chapter of his life is headed. A fantastic supporting cast of clowns, headed up by Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kriten Wiig (a.k.a. the funniest person on the planet), and Ryan Reynolds, really add spice to the proceedings, and Twilight star Kristen Stewart is along for the ride as the girl of James' dreams. The humor in Mottola's gentle script is real and honest, grounded in reality, and never taken over the top. The packed soundtrack brings out some classic 80's tunes, but never trots out the overly familiar and cliched sounds that we've heard in countless other 80's movies. While the plot isn't necessarily deep or extremely layered, the performances really bring you close to the characters; you feel like you've met some of these people before. Lots of pot is smoked, lots of booze is consumed, and there's more than one instance of on-screen vomiting. Mottola apparently based aspects of the script on his own life, and there is definitely a personal touch that one feels while watching the movie. It's a movie that you'll have a hard time disliking.


Wayne said...

Very much enjoyed 'State of Play' and hope we remember Bateman's performance comes Oscar season.

Loved 'Adventureland'. Nice to see another top-shelf coming of age picture that can sit with 'Dazed & Confused' and 'American Graffiti'.

Haven't seen 'Observe & Report'. I didn't enjoy 'Foot Fist Way' all that much, but enjoyed 'Eastbound & Down' immensely. So....we'll see.

Actionman said...

Wow -- you gotta check out Observe and Report before it leaves theaters. Amazing stuff.

Joel said...

Just thought you'd like to know, Nick, that I'm watching Heat right now, finally. This is just freaking amazing so far. Might be Pacino's best (that I've seen him in), and De Niro's amazing (though I don't think there's any denying that his best performance is in GoodFellas). I love the visual style that Mann chooses. Will be seeing Insider, Ali, and Miami Vice soon Just thought you'd like to know that I'm watching one of your favorites.

Actionman said...

you had never seen heat? wow! glad u are loving one of my all-time favorites. i love all of mann's work

Wayne said...

'Heat' is so good. I do not, however, recommend watching it on any other way than DVD or Blu Ray. On TV, they pan and scan the life out of it.

Pacino is so hilarious in this.

"Cause she's got a....GREAT ASSS!! And you got your head...ALLL THE WAY UP IT!!"

Joel said...

"Heat" was a masterpiece. Literally perfect in every department. It's up there with Godfather and GoodFellas as one of the towering crime epics. And it's just a damn-near heavenly action flick when it needs to be. Paves the way for a film like Public Enemies to be even more integral for today's action standards. How this was not nominated for Best Picture in '95 is a mystery. It's easily better than Braveheart, which is already one of the best war films ever. And the shootout in the middle-ish of the movie is the best in the history of cinema--bar none.

Actionman said...

Wayne - that moment with Pacino barging into Azaria's office is criminally funny.

Joel - that shootout is indeed the best ever.