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by Bill Gibron

24 Sep 2009

Is there a director providing a better balance between cartoon light and dark than Nick Park? Oh, you can have your Tex Averys and Tim Burtons, but the genial little Brit behind the stop motion behemoth Aardman continues to find clever ways of mixing the merry with the macabre, taking his Oscar winning creations Wallace (the bumbling inventor) and Gromit (his faithful, far more sensible watchdog) with him. Over the course of four sensational shorts, several specialty clips, and one amazing full length motion picture, our daring duo, these beloved believers in the power of positive tinkering have endeared themselves to a fanbase fed up with cookie cutter clichés and standard cartoon claptrap. And it’s all because of Park’s perfect combination of wit and worry, anarchy and anxiety. 

This is especially true of the latest installment in the Wallace and Gromit juggernaut, the drop dead brilliant A Matter of Loaf and Death - new to DVD and Blu-ray from Lionsgate. Featuring yet another wacky business venture by our persistent pair (as the title suggests, they’re bakers) and a love interest for our nerdy hero who may not be what she seems, we get the standard “veddy English”-ness of Aardman’s approach meshed with all manner of horror movie Hitchcock moves. As they have done throughout the previous three installments in the series - A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers, and A Close Shave - the claymation masterminds turn a seemingly sweet scenario into something quite sinister - and sensational.

As the proprietors of Top Bun Bakery, Wallace and Gromit find business is booming. Unfortunately, that’s because all the other pastry chefs in town are dying under mysterious circumstances. With orders up and output increasing, the duo needs to focus if they are to have any hope of making their daily quota. Out of the blue, Wallace runs into Piella Bakewell, the former face of Bake-a-Lite breads and cakes. The two begin a whirlwind romance, much to Gromit’s chagrin. Soon, the candle in his owner’s wind starts imposing her oppressive will on their perfect partnership. Our canine companion starts to suspect something odd about Wallace’s newfound love, and with a little investigation, uncovers something that make cost all of them dearly - professionally, and perhaps, even their lives.

Either separately, or as part of the new Wallace and Gromit: The Complete Collection, A Matter of Loaf and Death is a treasure, a treat for the eye and ambrosia for the imagination. Just watching the opening sequence, seeing our familiar faces with their big teeth and expressive eyes interact with a Chaplin-like building-sized bread baking machine is a marvel of technology and talent. One of the best things about the four short compendiums offered here is that you can watch the growth of Aardman’s aesthetic. From the very beginning, when you can make out the actual fingerprints on Wallace’s shirt sleeves to the latter day polish and high production values, the company has always strived to take their titles to the next level, to never rest on their laurels and constantly endeavor to be bigger, better, and braver.

This is certainly true of Loaf and Death. The set-up is stellar, leading to a wonderful cockeyed chase sequence where deliveries are balanced out with a mad dash to catch up with Piella and her prissy poodle, Fluffles. Our amiable antagonist’s house is also a Victorian nightmare suitable for several Hammer films. The scope here is very broad, picking up where the clever feature film Curse of the Were-Rabbit left off and Park pays particularly close attention to our mongrel emotions as well. Gromit gets his far share of heroics, but he is also hurt by Wallace’s abrupt change of heart and friendship about face. When Piella wants to put him out, to take his place so to speak as man’s best friend, the dog’s hurt reaction is devastating.

But Loaf and Death is also a wonderful bit of slapstick, Park proving he learned a great deal from the masters of the silent screen. This has always been true of Aardman’s efforts - from the voiceless Moon robot of Grand Day and the mute penguin boarder of Trousers to the Modern Times contraptions of Shave. The Wallace and Gromit films definitely take the whole mad scientist/absent-minded professor/wacky inventor concept to new, heretofore unexplored heights, never looking down when our duo fails to achieve perfection. Instead, the unkempt nature of their engineering, the very upbeat innocence in what they hope to achieve counterbalanced by the frequent disappointments makes these characters easy to root for.

As part of either the new Loaf DVD or the even better Complete Collection Blu-ray, Lionsgate (who has taken over distribution of these titles) gives us the opportunity to sneak a peek behind the scenes, and it’s a jolly, often sentimental journey. Park discusses with growing embarrassment how it took almost seven years to bring Grand Day to life. He goes on to use his compelling commentary tracks to highlight frustrations, discuss the unreal expectations of his next effort post-Oscars, and why he believes Wallace and Gromit have endured. In conjunction with Making-of featurettes for each film, a compendium of “Cracking Contraptions” (clever blackout skits involving Wallace’s bumbling machinery, and Gromit’s reaction to same) and a gorgeous image remaster (the Blu-ray is stellar in its detail and dimension), we really feel like we’ve come to a greater appreciation of Park’s humble craft.

When one imagines the amount of work it takes to realize one scene in a standard stop-motion animated film (we hear stories of one sequence taking several MONTHS to finish), the wonderful world of Wallace and Gromit becomes even more compelling. Aardman has avoided CG for the most part - the forgettable Flushed Away being the sole exception - and is meticulous in how it controls and cares for its legacy. As a result, quality is part of the principle involved, a desire to never let the audience or the artists down.

Such collaboration confirms Aardman’s status as one of the premiere animation houses in the world, sitting right alongside Warner Brothers and Disney for artform bragging rights. And since they balance their always intriguing efforts with a clever combination of light and dark, twee and slightly terrifying, they’ve also secured their own specialized space. As their latest (and previous greatest) illustrate, no one does this kind of crazed cartooning better than Park and his patented production mavericks. A Matter of Loaf and Death definitely earns its place alongside the other gemstones in Aardman’s cinematic crown. 

by Bill Gibron

23 Sep 2009

The most important battle in any science fiction effort rarely takes place between two feuding lifeforms, on the surface of a hostile extraterrestrial planet or in the dark vacuum of space. Instead, creators routinely wage war with producers and studios over tone, direction, ambitions, and audience demographics. Naturally, they fear such specialized material won’t result in a mainstream moneymaker. In most cases, the situation is resolved through a kind of cinematic diplomacy, a backwards variation of the classic “too many cooks” conceit. Yet there are times when you can almost see said conflict bleeding through the chosen media.

A clear example of this aesthetic clash and compromise comes with the speculative CGI epic Battle for Terra. On the inside, there is an inspired story about friendship, courage, and the age old maxim about putting the needs of many before the needs of self. On the outside, however, is a hodgepodge of ideas - some successful, some specious - that sacrifice seriousness and invention for the same old George Lucas-lite look at man vs. alien interaction. It’s a dichotomy that even director Aristomenis Tsirbas acknowledges in the new Blu-ray release of the film.

In his story, Mala and Senn are two best friends living on a remote planet where aggression doesn’t exist and life is a celebration of tranquility and symbiosis with nature. While primitive in its religious and civic make-up, the land is serene and at peace - that is, until a wayward starship enters its atmosphere and dispatches several survey vessels. When Mala’s father is captured by one of these fast-flying craft, our intelligent young heroine gives chase, forcing one of them to crash.

She soon finds herself befriending a belligerent space pilot named Jim Stanton. He is one of several hundred remaining humans, the last vestiges of life on Earth. A massive war destroyed the planet, and the survivors have been traveling in an ‘ark’ ever since. Mala’s homeland seems like the perfect place for resettlement. Now, with the despotic Gen. Hemmer defying orders, an army of invaders is preparing to take over the newly named Terra, and turn it into a place fit for mankind - and unfit for any other ‘inhabitants’.

Based on Tsirbas’ celebrated short film and in development for over six years, Battle for Terra does have its high points. It looks gorgeous - especially when given the high tech polish of a complete HD makeover. It offers some impressive voice acting and musical accompaniment (the score is by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski). The character design, while rather basic and blocky, puts us in the necessary otherworldly mood, and Tsirbas keeps things moving both sentiment and storywise. But overall, the film suffers from a struggling schizophrenia, unsure of whether to tie its filmmaking fortunes to old fashioned sci-fi like Fantastic Planet and Silent Running or the suped up space operatics of Star Wars and most kid-friendly animated attempts.

To hear Tsirbas tell it (on the accompanying commentary track), Terra was supposed to be a much darker and far more serious film. It was definitely designed around the current political clime, providing an allegorical insight into the sordid situation we find ourselves in. We are supposed to see the ark as America, brazenly confronting other countries with a ‘like it or lump it’ sort of attitude. It’s the War on Terror taken extraterrestrial. There was also to be insinuations of genocide and unsettling experimentation. Sacrifice and death were big items on his agenda and in the end, he hoped to show that via conciliation and mutual understanding (not threats of war and destruction) there is hope for something resembling harmony.

Desperate for a PG-13 rating and a shot at an underage fanbase, the studio said no. Thus began a back and forth that found many scenes toned down, original concepts (live action with computer generated inserts) scrapped, and some of the meatier material deemphasized for more cute robots,  space stunts and explosions. Battle for Terra really suffers when we enter these long, drawn out dogfights, Tsirbas and his screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos unable to bring anything new or different to such standard action elements. It also distracts from the far more interesting ideas here - the Terrin society, their ocean-like existence high in the clouds, their own internal intolerances, Mala’s coming of age, etc. Thankfully, the voice talent (including a wonderful Evan Rachel Wood and a heroic Luke Wilson) helps overcome such struggles.

Thanks to the Blu-ray as well, we get some of this missing material back. The deleted scenes, while clearly unnecessary in this version of the film, hint at the bigger picture Tsirbas was pitching, and the intriguing Making-of featurettes show that, even in a less than Pixar capacity, it takes an awful lot to realize (and render) one of these titles. It’s also fun to hear the director dish on his favorite genre efforts, to highlight the homages and differentiate between his concepts and similar sounding stories that came before. Indeed, what we learn about Battle for Terra is that it doesn’t mind looking back. It wears its influences patiently and proudly. Without the direct interference from those convinced they know better, this might have been a work of unqualified wonder.

As it stands, Battle for Terra is a cinematic seesaw - up one moment, dragged down by derivative facets the next. There are parts here that will leave you gobsmacked. There are other sequences that never really gel. Since there are more winners than losers the overall movie really does work. You become invested in these characters and are eager to see the bad guys - on all sides - get their necessary comeuppance. It’s just a shame that Aristomenis Tsirbas and Evan Spiliotopoulos didn’t get to make the movie they really wanted to. They should be happy with the results here, but on some level, Battle for Terra does feel like a watered down version of something far more substantial and original. Even in this less than perfect form, however, their imagination and ambition shine through.

by Bill Gibron

22 Sep 2009

The events of 11 September, 2001 continue to resonate for most of us. It’s not a matter of never forgetting as much as always remembering. It also lingers for reasons that have very little to do with the horrific events of that day and, instead, deal directly with their shocking, sensationalized aftermath. Remember, we’ve gone to war because of it, turned our Constitution into a shell of its former self because of it, and played nation maker as an indirect byproduct of our desire to sweat out the enemy.

Now, nearly a decade later, memories haunt us like the twisted remnants of the Twin Towers, their significance continuously countermanded by declarations of support and pro-American prostylitizing. But for some, 9/11 is significant for other, more underhanded reasons. In the always compelling - if not usually logical - realm of conspiracy theory, the tragedy was nothing more than a staged coup, an outright power grab by a President and his insane inner circle to redefine the United States foreign policy for the next several years.

Pointing to previous despotic interventions on the part of position-mad politicians, the documentary Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup sets up a scenario by which George Bush, along with several highly placed members of his Cabinet, construct an elaborate cabal for a controlled implosion of the World Trade Center and a surrounding skyscraper. Evidence both anecdotal and visual is compiled, contradicting the “official version” of the day’s events. Coincidences turn into prearranged plotting (the sudden start of important war games on the same date as the attacks, the Federal agencies housed in the last structure) and illustrations from the past (Hitler and the Reichstag fire, Johnson and the JFK assassination) become validation for such a surreal, self-imposed catastrophe.

Like Oliver Stone’s evisceration of the Warren Commission, Loose Change hopes to dismantle the findings of the government’s own 9/11 tribunal, taking down the sequence of events, the men responsible, the motives for such a “stunt”, and the lack of any other explanation. They then pull out the most important and damning piece of proof they possess - a scientist who assures us that “explosive residue” and “nanothermite fragments” were found in the post-incident debris. Their argument sounds rational - reopen the investigation, follow the paper and rubble trail, and determine if four airplanes, several tons of jet fuel, and the structural integrity of the towers themselves could cause this kind of massive destruction - or in two cases, a lack thereof.

Indeed, where Loose Change wins a lot of points is in the presentation of the Pentagon/Pennsylvania cornfield discussions, two ancillary crash sites which yield little or no wreckage. While it doesn’t prove that two massive jumbo jets didn’t not smash into the side of a building or isolated farmland, the lack of anything remotely resembling a plane puts an uneasy spin on the surrounding conjecture. As Rescue Me‘s Daniel Sunjata narrates from a carefully crafted script director Dylan Avery, little lights start going off in our heads. It may be nothing more than a kneejerk reaction, a case of instant fault without benefit of all the facts, but it’s all Loose Change needs. From there, it can gather steam and discuss suppressed testimony, harmful hearsay, and any other kind of specious conclusion and, at the very least, gain our attention.

Yet what’s hardest about buying into Loose Change‘s conclusions, even if the intention is nothing more than to reexamine the case, is that there have been a great many post-tragedy attempts to illustrate what happened, outside a carefully orchestrated inside job. The Discovery Channel has delivered near definitive reports on the building collapses, arguing without much contradiction that a series of structural design flaws, including the rapid and sudden removal of the metal’s mandatory fireproofing, allowed the smoldering diesel to do its irreversible damage. Architects, other than the ones Avery speaks to, have also illustrated some construction missteps that may have helped in the buildings’ eventual “implosion” like freefall.

Of course, anything written above can and sometimes is used by Loose Change to support its theory, spun into a web so slick and a factual fallacy so compelling that you can’t help but get caught up in the hysterics. As with any situation that seems both unfathomable and unexplainable, Avery plays on our fears, both internal and external. He dismisses Al Qaeda and the whole Saudi/Bin Laden angle while drawing direct links to many in the Bush White House. Religious fervor and the increasing anger toward the United States in matters of Middle East policy are placated by interviews with individuals who heard “explosions” inside the various buildings on that fateful day. In fact, the overall insularity of Loose Change may be its greatest strength - and its most pejorative weakness. To forget the foreign landscape to forward an awkward and sometimes circular hypothesis misses the main purposes of the documentary format - instruction and insight.

Yet Loose Change cannot be shouted down, Bill Maher style, in simple hopes that its supporters go away. Indeed, we live in times when everything is suspect, from the simplest proposition to the most complicated multilayered circumstance. The internet fuels feelings of distrust and personal empowerment, making investigative journalism null and void in favor or blogsphere deduction and messageboard conclusions. Does Avery and his DVD narrative expose questions that should be looked into and addressed once and for all? Absolutely. For instance - Why did we ship all the WTC metal out of the country without inspection? Why was there no wreckage near the Pentagon or out in Pennsylvania? Were the foreign pilots really experts, or patsies as part of a bigger scheme? In our initial rush to judgment, certain conclusions became givens. Loose Change suggests there is still more to learn and it might just be right.

But again, being on the moral side of a subject doesn’t prove your position. It will take more than a few blow-up frames of the towers’ collapse and some casual conversations with witnesses to convince the family of a fallen soldier that he died because George Bush wanted to maintain his passive Presidency by any means necessary. It’s going to take a lot more than handy happenstance and easy alignments to turn a nationally televised incident into a wholly realized secret strategy. No one said for Avery and his ilk to be silenced. Their voice is one of concern, not crackpot history. But one must always be careful when treading on memory.

For many, that’s all that remains of 9/11. Take that away, and you upset the long settled balance. Loose Change clearly delights in such shakeups. Here’s hoping it can accept whatever happens - pro, con, or most likely, nothing. This is a very clever bit of cinema. But good does not automatically equal correct. Currently, all Avery has is motion picture proof, and that’s just not enough.

by Bill Gibron

20 Sep 2009

What, exactly, were people expecting from X-Men Origins: Wolverine? After the incessant bellyaching that followed the announcement of Brett Ratner as director of X-Men: The Last Stand, (and the resulting, subpar film) Fox went out and hired Oscar winning director Gavin Hood (responsible for Best Foreign Language Film Tsotsi) and offered up a cast of considerable talent including returning action man Hugh Jackman, as well as Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, and Ryan Reynolds. They mined the comic for favorite characters (Gambit, Deadpool) and reset the franchise to follow the adventures of James Howlett/Logan during his years in pre-Dr. Xavier exile.

And still the fanboys kvetched. They complained and argued over faithfulness to the source material, use of computer generated F/X, and a scattershot focus that weighed heavily on the psychological and not on the spectacle. And this is a year which saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra get by on substantially…SUBSTANTIALLY…less. So it’s interesting to hear Hood’s commentary track as part of the newly released, Blu-ray edition of the film. For him, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a story of siblings. It was a look at how being different, exiled, and unwanted creates unusual bonds of brotherhood, and the mounting mental quandaries of having to live outside the norm. As a South African native, he could relate to the basic mutants vs. humans segregation and wanted to concentrate on the personal as well as the pyrotechnics. He did indeed deliver the big stuff. But for him, it was the small details that mattered.

Sequences like the opening, when a young Logan learns of his parentage, his biological link to the sinister Victor Creed (soon to be Sabertooth), and his own deadly physical mutation. Gifted with seeming immortality, the two half-brothers participate in major world events, like the Civil War and Vietnam. It is there that Victor’s anger gets the best of him, and when he attacks a superior officer, the two men are condemned to death. When the firing squad can’t kill them, a shady military man named Major William Stryker recruits them as part of a secret mercenary group. Their goal? Seek out and secure as much of the interstellar metal Adamantium as possible. When Logan balks at their brutal ways, he quits. This sets up the first of many conflicts between our hero and his sibling as well as with the Major and his prized recruit.

To delve into the narrative more would give away several of X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘s best moments. Suffice it to say, our lead learns of his physiological abilities, gets an impenetrable metal skeleton, and comes face to face with a horrific scientific creation bent on destroying the mutants one by one. For Hood, all of this is required of the wannabe blockbuster, built into a script by David Benioff and Skip Woods. But he is far more interested in the personality beats between Logan and Victor, about how the notion of being different translates into a psyche that stands alone against the world - for good and for bad. He also tracks the growing abandonment issues within the dynamic, illustrating how almost everyone Logan loves either dies or is indirectly destroyed, while Victor’s horrific temper seems propelled by his need for another like him.

Sure, this is heady stuff, but that’s part of X-Men Origins’ charms. It’s the reason comic book fans favor a set-up storyline when beginning a series. The previous films had Wolverine suffering from intermittent flashbacks, mere glimpses into what happened to him in Stryker’s lab. Now, we get the whole picture, painting in strokes that don’t smash you over the head with their obviousness. It’s interesting how fan embraced The Dark Knight for its various complexities, its more “realistic” take on the superhero standard, and yet X-Men Origins gets condemned for basically attempting the same thing. Yes, Hood is no Christopher Nolan, and he doesn’t have iconic elements like Two-Face and The Joker to work with, and we are dealing with ideas far outside Knight‘s vigilante against crime syndicate scenario, but with properly pegged expectations, this is a very good film. It’s entertaining, exciting, and an excellent example of what can be done when visionary individuals - not journeymen - sit behind the camera.

This is clear from the content packed product Fox provides. The Blu-ray format really celebrates Hood’s compositions and framing, the 1080p/AVC encoded transfer doing a terrific job with the 2.35:1 image. The colors pop, the various locations look epic, and aside from the occasionally forced F/X shot (some greenscreen sequences are rather obvious), the movie looks amazing. It really does recreate the theatrical experience in scope and visual wonder. As for the sound situation - get ready to have your subwoofer suffer from a massive bombast overdose. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 turns every explosion into a nuclear blast, every car chase or fight sequence into an Olympian battle between formidable aural gods. Even the smaller sonic situations, like the clank of Wolverine’s metallic claws, come across in crystal clarity.

Along with the aforementioned commentary track, the Blu-ray is packed with plenty of additional production insights. There’s another alternate narrative track with the producers (good), deleted scenes with option Hood discussion (interesting), a play along trivia track with lots of X-Men goodies (fun), and a discussion of each character and the difficulty of bringing them - and their abilities - to life (insightful). We also get an extended look at Hugh Jackman’s dedication to the role as part of a “Complete Origins” featurette, an overview of the character with Stan Lee and Len Wein, and a glimpse of the world premiere. One of the best bonus features however is the Ultimate X-Mode BONUSVIEW option, which provides three separate picture-within-a-picture choices (along with the trivia track) that allow you to immerse yourself in all facets of bringing X-Men Origins: Wolverine to the big screen, including connections to the rest of the franchise, casting choices, and a look at the film’s pre-visualization.

And yet one fears that no amount of bells and whistles will convince the already angry fanboy to change his mind and embrace this movie. Hood may have been a radical choice, but he brings a level of compassion and innate understanding to the mutant situation that few other filmmakers could - and he can definitely handle the bigger, popcorn movie mandated material. Sometimes, there’s no accounting for what the devoted demand of their beloved fantasy figures. Maybe the leaked bootleg version almost a month before did do some damage. Maybe there was nothing Gavin Hood could do to satisfy some. Whatever the case, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is truly a cut above the standard Summer blockbuster - it’s just a shame too few thought so. Maybe home video will resurrect its flailing fortunes. Unlike many of the season’s shoddy adventures, this one deserves a second chance.

by Bill Gibron

18 Sep 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 (or revisit it again on home video), 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. Perhaps Warner’s new DVD and Blu-ray can solve that problem.

Clearly this film is not for everyone. It doesn’t reach across commercial boundaries to try and embrace the demographic or be everything to every viewer…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.

What makes this all the more unusual is that Hill genuinely believes in his movies’ motives. The new Blu-ray disc has a picture in picture commentary track find the director sitting with his two main leads (Rogen and Farris) and together, they find subtext and psychological complexities that the actual film fails to address. Some of the additional scenes included do flesh out the characters, and all the Making-of material really supports the conclusions being proffered. As for the presentation itself, the 2.41:1 1080p image is excellent, giving a clear consumerism crassness to the New Mexican location. In addition, Hill’s ear for aural complements really works within the loseless Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 mix. Songs like “It’s Late” by Queen and “When I Paint My Masterpiece” by The Band really come alive with speaker sparking goodness.

And even a good digital reproduction might not help. 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’.

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