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by Bill Gibron

9 Apr 2009

It’s safe to say that, somewhere down the line, Jody Hill is going to make a truly f*cked-up masterpiece. He’s going to drop all the idiosyncrasies and preplanned insularity, dig deep into his feverish and often fetid imagination, dump the angst-ridden Apatow shtick and come away with something truly remarkable. You can sense it in the work he’s done so far - the mean-spirited satire of The Foot Fist Way, the equally ugly honesty of Eastbound and Down. Now comes his latest big screen screed, the wickedly weird mall cop craziness known as Observe and Report. Starring funny business flavor of the month Seth Rogen and dealing once again with an isolated individual struggling to make a statement in a world that only wants reassurances, Hill definitely has his hands full. This time around, however, audiences may not be ready for the eerily familiar juggling act.

All his life, Ronnie Barnhardt has wanted to be part of law enforcement. His dream is to become a police officer and carry a gun. Unfortunately, he is stuck as head of security for a local mall, and while he takes his job very seriously, the rest of the employees think he’s a joke. When a flasher starts stalking women at the facility, including Ronnie’s dream babe make—up counter girl Brandi, the mentally unbalanced rent-a-cop vows to solve the case. In doing so, he hopes this prissy party gal will become his regular Saturday night thing. Of course, he will have to get around actual lawman Detective Harrison, a severe lack of clues, and his own inept sense of self to apprehend the pervert. To add to his frustration, Ronnie finally takes the necessary steps to enter the police academy. While physically capable, his current psychological “deficiencies” might make this a one way street as well.

It’s not Hill’s fault that Kevin James stole his thunder. Indeed, the stand-up turned pseudo-star could not have anticipated that Paul Blart: Mall Cop would be one of 2009’s surprise hits (hackneyed and horrible as it is). Indeed, as audiences exit Observe and Report, many will probably wonder why Rogen and company choose to ride the coattails of said slapstick slice of family farce - especially with such an antisocial take on the material. The truth, of course, is that both films found their way to market without direct correlation of competition from the other. In addition, Hill was hacking away at this screenplay long before James was jumping up and down like an overstuffed burrito in a ball pit. Still, the similarity in subject matter (and the eventual acceptance of Blart‘s mindless mediocrity) means that Observe and Report has absolutely no chance at the box office. By the end of April, it will be listed as one of the Spring’s bigger disappointments.

And that’s too bad. Clearly this film is not for everyone. It doesn’t reach across commercial boundaries to try and embrace the demographic or be everything to everyone…and fail. Instead, Hill is like a stubborn old man, sitting on his motion picture front porch and chasing away all but the more adventurous from his aesthetic lawn. Let’s face it - anyone who uses a naked fatso running full frontal throughout the finale (in slow motion, nonetheless) is tweaking the tenets of modern audience attention spans. He’s challenging those who expect warm and fuzzy with material tepid and frazzled. Rogen is not the cuddly teddy geek he’s portrayed in numerous films. Instead, his Ronnie is a bi-polar problem with a penchant for inappropriate comments, obsessive-compulsive fantasizing, and a real love of weaponry. The minute we watch Rogen shooting targets with a massive handgun, we can guess where this contextual characteristic is going to eventually reveal itself.

There are a lot of hidden agendas in Observe and Report, from a fey Hispanic co-worker who might not be completely honest, to a police detective who’d rather screw around with Ronnie than actually solve the case. There is a classic, curse-laden crossfire between Rogen and a kiosk worker that proves that the F-bomb is still the most versatile of all putdown, and we do enjoy the drunken directness of Ronnie’s mother. Her combination of inebriated insights and off the wall warmth are almost magical. Indeed, one of the best things about Hill’s particular brand of humor is that it’s based wholly on people - problem, hate, and pain filled individuals, but human beings nonetheless. He doesn’t go for the gross out, unless it’s part of someone’s personality, nor does he dim the sentimentality to keep the anarchy alive.

This doesn’t mean that everything works in Observer and Report. Two important players - Ray Liotta’s sarcastic investigating officer and Michael Pena’s lisping security guard are significantly underused and ambiguously formulated. When each one reveals their true nature, it’s less of a surprise and more like a sudden, senseless shock. The same can be said for Faris’ fried make-up clerk. Ditz can only take you so far, and this otherwise capable actress is reduced to playing potted and prone to date-rape like sex. Hill also has a hard time keeping things straight. In one scene, Ronnie is so fascinatingly adept at fighting that he beats down a bevy of street toughs. But in a last act confrontation with the cops, he gets a few good licks in before having his clock cleaned.

And yet, when placed alongside the current crop of gutless comedies, films which manufacture funny stuff out of grade school level quips and uncomfortable physical crudeness (isn’t that right, Pink Panther 2?), Observe and Report is like Conan (the Barbarian, not the late night talk show host). It’s not afraid to take chances, to push envelopes, and explore elements that usually don’t make it into a satire or spoof. With a cast that, for the most part, fits perfectly into Hill’s humor ideals and a story that serves the basic needs of the underdog hero formula, a good time should be had by all. But don’t underestimate that dreaded Blart effect. Word of mouth will doom the eventual bottom line, but that doesn’t take away from what Hill has accomplished. One day, he’ll create his classic. Until then, we’ll have to put up with above-average efforts like Observe and Report. It’s very good. We’ll have to wait until Hill achieves ‘great’.

by Jason Gross

9 Apr 2009

Sad to see that Associated Press now wants to blame Google for all the problems in the newspaper industry.  Luckily, a number of articles have pointed out that their anger is either stupidly misplaced or a distraction from their real problems (or why not just blame Craigslist for taking away their ad dollars, aka their life blood?).

Google and YouTube (which it owns) are both doing fine by striking deals and innovating, something that the news industry should be doing itself. 

Of course, some in the music industry also think YouTube is evil for not striking deals with labels and publishers who demand more money- i.e. Billy Bragg in this recent interview.

As this Paid Content article points out, there’s a lot that the news biz can learn from the music biz’s mistakes.  Whether they will or not remains to be seen.  If they don’t, they could turn into prima donna’s faster than the major labels have become, thanks to their own ignorance. Let’s hope that’s not the case with the news biz.  We need ‘em and you’re dreamin’ if you think online-only content is gonna fill all the gaps if they’re gone.

by Rob Horning

9 Apr 2009

This is obvious and probably has been commented on many times, but the Jim Carrey movie The Yes Man is a pretty good encapsulation of the pre-economic-depression mentality in America. In the film—which, admittedly, I saw in a semi-delusional state on a flight yesterday—Carrey plays a low-level loan officer in a California bank. The opening scenes set up the idea that his character is too guarded, too careful, too risk-averse and is therefore missing out on the opportunities life presents us with. One of his friends—played I think by the actor who played the cop at the car pound in The Big Lebowski (“Leads? Yeah I’ll just check with the boys down at the crime lab.”)—takes him to see a motivational speaker who persuades him to say yes to everything. As part of that program, we see Carrey dutifully okaying all sorts of absurd small-business loans without so much as an inspection of the paperwork. Now, obviously, that sounds a bit like what they were doing at Countrywide and Washington Mutual, not to mention the fly-by-night brokers who brought us Ninja and liar loans—extend credit to anybody and everybody and let the chips fall where they may. The difference, though, is that most would-be borrowers are not entrepreneurs; they are somewhat instinctively risk-averse, and it required massive targeted marketing efforts to encourage ordinary people to borrow more, to ignore the common-sense skepticism of free money and say yes to the opportunity that perpetually rising home equity was said to provide.

So the opportunity is there for the film to play as a satire to the easy credit of the bubble years, but viewers must read it against the grain. The film itself isn’t satirical at all and has nothing to say in favor of prudent risk management. Its big message is that when we say yes to everything, it’s hard to know when we really mean it, or rather, it’s hard for others to judge our sincerity and know which of our desires are “real”. It verges initially on the somewhat subversive message that we have no real desires at all, only circumstances and opportunities. During the film’s build-up, when the rate at which Carrey is agreeing to do things is building momentum, his character becomes pointedly schizophrenic, and other characters comment on how unpredictable he is. He starts to have no fixed identity at all and slips toward the post-structural ideal of moving beyond subjectivity to some existence of unbounded free play. But then, of course, the film’s main lesson kicks in: that this identity-free state is utterly unacceptable. His love interest—a sort of phony free spirit played by Zooey Deschanel; she is in a Flight of the Conchords-type band, rides a scooter, and isn’t hung up, as she says at one point, with being “mainstream”—shuns him because she can’t know if his love is real. Love, of course, is always the primary bait for the identity trap, but in films like these, it always seems like a punishment, defined by upholding dreary, rote responsibilities defined by social expectations that often reflect the consumer-society prerogatives of buying the right gifts or experiences to prove love. This is the quintessential set-up for comedies—it’s fun to vacation from responsibility, but ultimately we should crave the return to stability, typically figured and symbolized as heterosexual love, with the strong implication that raising a family will be next. We have to reproduce the status quo, after all.

That traditional theme of reaffirming the reality principle is now overshadowed by the light the financial crisis now sheds on the film’s historicity. The peculiar delusions of the decade—that no one ever really defaults, that all loans can be made good, that a lack of optimism is a kind of character defect—now show up in sharp relief, because paradoxically enough, the films’ producers seem to have taken them so much for granted. In the movie, the idea of “Getting to yes” gets supplanted by a much more convenient negotiation strategy (just say yes) that is blithely presented as sound. No one has to compromise or put forth any effort, and everybody wins! Carrey’s character is even praised by one of his bank’s higher-ups, who interprets the lack of risk management as the introduction of a profitable microlending program. These touches are now local color from a tour through the zeitgeist of 2006.

by Diepiriye Kuku

9 Apr 2009

”Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free…”

…at night I lock the door so no one else can see. I’m tired of dancing here all by myself. In the fourth grade, Madonna and I had danced together, alone in our rooms. I remember hearing 1985’s Get into the Groove and would almost be ashamed to listen to it in front of others, particularly my around other Black folks, many of whom where disappointed that yet another Elvis had emerged. Yet, her looks and her lyrics bent at more of the classic traits of Black music, her beats pushing towards a resolution to any sadness, more than most other white rip-off artist: “At night I lock the doors so no one else can see/I’m tired of dancing here all by myself/Tonight I want to dance with someone else.” Snapping her fingers and ruling the dance floor of a steamy nightclub—a fantasy she’d ultimately repeat in several videos- she pleads: “Live out your fantasies here with me,” where no one else can see.

I too had plenty such fantasies. This “nasty secret,” kept neatly behind locked doors, closed windows and fantasies in my mind, was threatening to emerge. Since this need to explore a side of sexuality not often widely accepted, men and women, in their respective roles, easily exploit it. Madonna’s music told me that we had both acted out, trading sex for affection—for the freedom to give and receive affection. If I ran away, I’d never had the strength to go very far. Madonna, like millions of other young people including me had substituted anonymous sex for daddy’s love.

by Bill Gibron

9 Apr 2009

Times are tough for true independent films. Just ask Troma. The leading purveyor of outside the mainstream art has just had one of its best years. They released the theatrical masterwork Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead back in October to massive critical acclaim, and soon thereafter, restarted their definitive DVD distribution of new and unusual off the radar titles. Still, according to the longstanding icon of all things iconic, all is not well within the world of maverick directors and iconoclastic producers. Just ask Evan Husney, the company’s co-director of video releases. “Studios, mainstream and independent, need to stop worrying about films solely as a ‘product’ and realize that there are still people out there who enjoy seeing a good film,” he said recently in an interview on the subject of independent film. His assessment on the genre in general? “It’s pretty grim.”

After a year which saw the Troma go from almost afterthought to continuing vanguard of a truly dying breed, Husney thinks he knows the cause of the current chaos. “There are and always will be filmmakers producing unique, groundbreaking work,” he says. “However, the distribution vehicle for such work is pathetic.” He elaborates: “Studios are not taking enough risks breaking or developing new artists with new ideas. Film buyers and retailers believe there isn’t any appeal for such alternative product - and that’s B.S.!” Husney experienced this first hand while attending last year’s American Film Market. “I was astonished to find that the current output of most of the indie studios seems as much of a contrived product as that of the mainstream,” he concludes. “If I see another trailer for an indie film with handwritten credits, I’m going to kill myself.”

Hunsey continues: “Most of the independent films featured in the marketplace co-star Michael Madsen as ‘Bob’, ‘Joe’ or ‘Ace’ (take a look at his IMDb for laugh). Other common findings are a tons of Saw imitation posters, children’s films with a CG talking dog, films with phony Cassavetes aesthetics, or somehow a combination of all three co-starring Michael Madsen.” And don’t try to argue for a lack of viable examples. “There were some great indie films last year which were a breath of fresh air,” he adds, “films like Wendy and Lucy, Shotgun Stories, and Let the Right One In. At a grassroots level, these films proved to be successful both critically and financially.”

“Something needs to change, and it’s not the filmmakers, it’s the studios,” and as Husney points out, Troma has persevered to remain at the forefront of truly untarnished individual art. “I really hope as digital distribution grows,” he offers, “it will open more avenues for new talented artists to get their work seen!” One of the ways his company continues this good fight is via the freshly minted Tromasterpiece Collection. As Husney explains, “the ultimate goal for the (label) is to take older Troma catalog titles and give them new life to find a much deserved, broader consumer awareness outside of our customer base.” As a close collaboration between the company, founders Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz and the creative element involved in each, Husney points out that, “fans have been really appreciative of the ‘Tromasterpiece Collection’. We’ve received nothing but praise on the (recent) Redneck Zombies Tromasterpiece DVD, and we owe a lot of it to Pericles Lewnes and Edward Bishop for putting together most of the bonus material.”

Indeed, upcoming titles in the series will follow the same path. According to Husney, the next classic up for reconsideration will be the slasher favorite, The Last Horror Film. It stars Joe Spinell in, what the company refers to as” his most unnerving, perverse performance since his unforgettable starring role in William Lustig’s Maniac.”  The film also reunites Spinell with another Maniac-¬alum; Hammer horror film and Bond-girl babe Caroline Munro. Husney adds that “The Last Horror Film DVD will include the uncut version of the film, which has never been released in America on video and was only available on the pre-certification UK VHS tape released over 25 years ago.”

Fans can also look forward to a wealth of bonus features including a brand new featurette, My Best Maniac which features Spinell’s closest friend, Luke Walter, a brand new audio commentary with Walter, a new interview with Maniac director William Lustig, Buddy G Giovinazzo’s (Combat Shock) short film Mr. Robbie aka Maniac 2 which features Spinell in one of his last performances before his untimely death, original and new trailers, and much more.

After that, Troma will tackle one of its most unusual and satisfying foreign films. “Later in the year we will be releasing the highly anticipated Director’s Cut of Philippe Mora’s Australian bushranger classic Mad Dog Morgan,” says Husney. “The film will be presented with a new beautifully restored, uncut, anamorphic widescreen transfer loaded with new and vintage bonus material.” Mora’s Outlaw masterpiece stars Dennis Hopper in, what the company considers, “his greatest performance of the 1970s next to The American Friend.”

“The Tromasterpiece Collection will also expand with a new anniversary edition of Troma’s War,” Husney points out, which will feature new cast and crew interviews, including a career-spanning featurette on the life and times of Troma’s most famous action hero Joe Fleishaker. In addition, future titles up for consideration include the hilarious the pre-Toxic Avenger ensemble sex comedy, The First Turn-On, Spanish horror classic The Hanging Woman starring Paul Naschy, and Lech Kowalski’s harrowing Story of a Junkie (a true underground masterwork).

But perhaps the most anticipated title of the year is also one of Troma’s most controversial and complex. “Combat Shock has remained hidden in the underground video universe for more than 25 years,” Husney points out, “and has now fully ripened to disgust, revolt and depress a new generation of indie film viewers.” The 1986 thriller about a returning war vet and the troubles he faces readjusting to civilian life is, according to the company, “more relevant today than it did during its initial theatrical release.” Husney explains.  As usual, fans and first timers can expect a great deal of depth from the upcoming digital package.

Combat Shock: 2-Disc Never-Before-Seen Director’s Cut will include the heavily sought-after pre-Troma cut entitled American Nightmares which is somehow more delightfully repulsive and grim than the Combat Shock cut (which will also be included in the set for comparison).” That’s not all, of course. The most exciting special feature in the set is Post-Traumatic, an American Nightmare, which Husney describes as “a new featurette which contains interviews with filmmaker Buddy Giovinazzo contemporaries lending their praise, critical analyzes, and also examining themes of other nihilistic films of the 1980s.”

And the wealth of added content continues. Present in said featurette are such famous genre names as John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer), William Lustig (Maniac), Jorg Buttgereit (Necromantik), Jim Van Bebber (Deadbeat at Dawn, The Manson Family), Roy Frumkes (Street Trash), Mitch Davis (Fantasia Film Festival), Joe Kane (The Phantom at the Movies), Rick Sullivan (The Gore Gazette – his first interview in 20 years!), David Gregory (Severin Films), and the star of Combat Shock, in his first sitdown ever…Rick Giovinazzo.

According to Husney, the set will also include, “an audio commentary with Buddy and Jorg Buttgereit, an all new interview with Buddy conducted by Lloyd Kaufman, Buddy’s rarely-seen short film starring Joe Spinell titled Mr. Robbie aka Maniac 2, a look at the locations from Combat Shock as they appear today, original press and photo galleries, new liner notes by Steve Puchalski of Shock Cinema, and other highly anticipated material.”

Last but not least, perhaps the most important DVD collection the company will release this year is not an actual film. Coinciding with founder Lloyd Kaufman’s latest must-own tome, Direct Your Own Damn Movie (published by Focal Press), Husney indicates that “Troma Team Video will be releasing a four-disc DVD box set (of the same name), which will include a newly produced, feature-length documentary with interviews from Stan Lee, Trey Parker, Eli Roth, James Gunn, William Lustig, Stuart Gordon, Penelope Spheeris, Mick Garris, Monte Hellman, Ernest Dickerson, and many more.”

The main feature is a documentary, offering “a step-by-step breakdown of operating outside the studio system as well as a guide to script-writing, pre-production, casting, managing sets, post-production, and the secrets of selling your own dam movie,” says Hunsey. The box set also features six hours of bonus material, including documentary featurettes, extended interviews, music videos, and much more!

“We would love to reissue more forgotten Troma gems from the toxic basement,” Husney indicates, considering how successful DVD updates of titles like Getting Lucky have been. They also plan on putting out the long delayed box set of Giuseppe Andrews films. In addition, the company will continue to seek out and resurrect unusual offerings from around the world, as they did with such new post-millennial classics as Bloospit, Cyxork 7, and The Seduction of Dr. Fugazzi. With the limited edition three disc set of Poultrygeist already sold out (Husney adds, “we have hatched the final batch. What ever is on the shelves at your local retailer is all that’s left. Get them while they’re hot!”) it seems like true individual art still has substantial support. Even in these tough economic times, Troma abides. “We have base audience that loves us no matter what,” Husney explains, “and thanks to them, the lights are still on. They are loyal and for good reason.”  Good reason, indeed. 


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