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He’s kind of like Paul Blart, only a sociopath

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Posted: Friday, April 17, 2009 10:00 pm

The imaginatively titled "Hannah Montana: The Movie" was the most popular movie last weekend, but since I'm not eight years old, and since I'd die a terrible death rather than willfully watch Miley Cyrus do or say anything for more than four seconds at a time, "Observe and Report" it is. Then we've got "State of Play" and "The Soloist" in the coming weeks before "X-Men: Wolverine" and "Star Trek" arrive to mark the start of what may be an uneven summer season. Here's hoping for the best.

New In Theaters

"Observe and Report"

*** (out of four)

2009, Jody Hill, U.S., R

First viewing.

Even when comedies purport to "push the envelope" of common decency, they still more or less play by the rules; you may get a startling and uncomfortable penis gag here and there, but the characters are still likable, the story is sweet, and the structure is consistent with genre expectations. "Observe and Report," on the other hand, revels in its willingness to completely shred any and all conventions in the service of a nervous laugh. This movie is, for lack of a better term, mean-spirited. Yes, it's "shocking" in the gross way that so many other adult-oriented comedies are, but it also possesses qualities that eclipse the norm. Besides being flat-out surreal at times, the film consistently displays little respect or genuine affection for many its characters, least of all its "hero," a mall security guard named Ronnie Barnhardt (played by Seth Rogen in one of his most fully developed roles yet). Even though he serves as the protagonist and fancies himself a savior of humanity, there isn't much about Ronnie that is worth liking. He's rude, abrasive, egomaniacal, sexist and racist, and not all of this anti-social behavior can be explained away by the fact that he suffers from bi-polar disorder. Still, the viewer sympathizes with Ronnie's quest to protect makeup counter bimbo Brandi (Anna Farris), who has been "targeted" by a flasher, and Ronnie's struggle to demonstrate his inner badass makes for a nice 85-minute story arc.

We can't help but identify with Ronnie, simply because he's a bit less terrible than some of the other miscreants in the film, but there's no getting around the fact that he's a sociopath - a very amusing one with a genuine desire to protect people, but a sociopath nonetheless. And nowhere is Ronnie's dark side better exhibited than in the "sex" scene between him and Brandi. Women's groups are in an uproar, but you've got to hand it to a film that is willing to go so far to get a laugh, or at least an open-mouthed gape.

DVD Pick

"Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series"

1999, Judd Apatow, U.S., Unrated

Repeat viewing.

Apatow is best known for directing the box office hits "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" and producing about half the other comedies released in the past couple years, but he got his start in TV, and nothing he has done on the big screen has even come close to equaling his small-screen masterpiece "Freaks and Geeks." It ran for one season on NBC before being cancelled (no doubt in favor of some early reality show or cop drama), but it still managed to make a definite mark. My exposure to the medium is admittedly limited, but I still wouldn't hesitate to submit "Freaks and Geeks" as one of the greatest series of all time, and certainly the best low-key character drama that I've ever seen. The show follows a group a high school students through the 1980 school year, and each of these fully realized characters is treated with an amazing amount of affection and understanding. In one group we have the freshman geeks (headed by John Francis Daley, Martin Starr and Samm Levine), awkward and scared of the new world before them; and in the other group are the older "freaks" (including now-famous faces like James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen and Linda Cardellini), jaded and generally disaffected with mainstream culture. Apatow's series probes the dynamic between and within these seemingly very different cliques, and in the process makes some very wise observations about the difficulties of teenage life. But thankfully, the show doesn't wallow in pathos; this is funny, lively stuff, made brilliant by a cast that seems so at ease with each other that you can't help but want to be a part of their lives.

Commentary

A couple weeks ago, the film I was most looking forward to this year was undoubtedly "Shutter Island," Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo as a pair of U.S. Marshals dispatched to a remote insane asylum to investigate the seemingly impossible disappearance of a dangerous murderess. The cast also includes Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson, so I don't think I need to further explain why I was - and still am - very excited about it.

Unfortunately, the arrogance of both Lehane and his publishers spoiled the ending for me. Between the back-cover plot description and Lehane's own "clever" prose in the opening pages of the novel I was perusing out of curiosity, it was quite easy to anticipate the nature of the inevitable - and widely praised - plot twist within, oh, twenty pages or so. (Someone who read the novel later confirmed my suspicions.) The good news is, the story contained in Lehane's "Shutter Island" is indeed fascinating, and will surely make for an incredible movie if Scorsese can manage to avoid tipping his hand way too early, as I trust he can. So, it still goes near the top of the must-see list.

But it's been easily surpassed by Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds," which has apparently had a trailer out for a couple weeks now. I just recently caught wind of it, and if you haven't yet seen it, I urge you, in the strongest terms possible, to drop this newspaper right now and find it online. Back? Good. Congratulations, you have just borne witness to a preview of what is sure to be the most seismically cool cinematic event in decades. Come on - it's World War II, Tarantino style! If Quentin goes for broke, and truly exploits the fact that you can inflict absolutely any kind of sadistic violence on Nazis and still get away with it, then this tale of a renegade group of Jewish-American soldiers who embark on a hunt for Nazi scalps could very well be the year's most entertaining, viscerally engaging film. Yee-haw.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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