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Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekAQzff95E8

I’d imagine that mall security guards are the scourge of those punks who wear Vans and hang out in the parking lot. Surely some (if not most) security guards abuse their authority, yet none likely approach the depths of Ronnie Barnhardt, the hero of Jody Hill‘s Observe and Report. Here is an uncompromising character study of a deranged man, and how his sad life coupled with mental illness lead to violent behavior. It’s a comedy that pulls no punches, one that could inspire belly laughs as well as confused outrage.

On the surface, Ronnie Barnhardt is the kind of man with whom many are familiar. He understand he’s not well liked, and compensates by abusing his power. Things aren’t any better at home – Ronnie’s Mom (Celia Weston) is a drunk who has a limited understanding of how to nurture her child. Ronnie cannot escape mediocrity, so it follows that he watches over the mall with an odd combination of disdain and pride. When a flasher in a trench coat sexually assaults patrons, the sanctity of Ronnie’s workplace comes into question. Even worse, the object of Ronnie’s affection, Brandi the make-up girl (Anna Faris), happens upon the flasher’s middle-aged genitalia. With the help of his lispy deputy Dennis (Michael Peña) and two hapless Asian twins, Ronnie begins his hapless investigation. Soon Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta) is on the scene, and his real authority undermines Ronnie’s. The case goes nowhere, and Harrison takes it out on Ronnie by pretending the guard has a shot at becoming a police officer. Needless to say, Ronnie’s bipolar disorder is hindrance, so when rejection finally comes, Ronnie’s behavior becomes more unhinged than ever before.

With this movie, Hill demonstrates a mastery of tone. He frequently juxtaposes comedy and horror, pity and scorn, thrills and disgust. No character is particularly likeable, yet they are all watchable since they all seem plausibly human. Many of the actors, Farris in particular, play familiar characters, yet the shrewdness of Hill’s script makes the performances fresh. Rogen wisely downplays the omnipresent goofy laugh of his Apatow movies, and instead focuses  on the rage and sadness of his character. The timber and language of Ronnie’s voiceover sounds uncannily like Christian Bale’s Batman, and Rogen strikes the balance between mockery and sympathy. Farris, on the other hand, turns her character into a clueless bitch, the kind of woman who thinks good looks are an adequate substitute for kindness. Her scenes with Ronnie are among the best in the movie, and they culminate in something so brazen and disturbing that I couldn’t help but laugh. Michael Peña proves a pleasant surprise – he turns peculiar mannerisms and deviant behavior into a truly unique creature. He’s a catalyst for Ronnie’s descent into insanity, and the violence of the later scenes are over-the-top yet understood. Hill earns his the disturbing shocks of his final slow-motion chase.

I am always refreshed by a movie that  surprises me, and Observe and Report is shining example. It has the kind of fare typically found in raunchy R-rated comedy, yet handles the material in an interesting way. Sure, there are some bits that are familiar (the hilariously protracted “Fuck you” sequence comes to mind), yet Hill is interested in character before humor. There are some moments, as when Celia Weston brilliantly discusses her inebriated filth, where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’m not sure who is the audience for this movie – its appeal certainly isn’t mainstream, and it’ll definitely make audiences uncomfortable. Maybe there are those who think Taxi Driver needed more laughs? Certainly for those who yearn for original voices and risky content, it’s a movie that shouldn’t be missed.

Here are other movies in which an otherwise ordinary man enters a world of uncompromising violence:

Straw Dogs. Sam Peckinpah directed this bizarre movie in which an emasculated intellectual is driven to bloodlust. Dustin Hoffman stars as David, an American academic who visits his wife’s childhood home in England. He works on his thesis while the wife Amy mingles with the locals from her past. Tensions arise when David boorishly interacts with the townsfolk and his wife proves irresistible. The marriage shows strain, and while David is out hunting, Amy gets sexually assaulted. The pot finally boils when drunken Englishmen begin a rampage on David’s home, causing him to solemnly state, “I will not allow violence against this house.” He uses all manner of weapons at his disposal – everything from boiling whiskey to a large bear trap. Peckinpah directs his scenes with increasing anxiety. He does not make David into an everyman, and instead… well, I’m not sure what point Peckinpah wants to make. Is David inherently violent? Are his actions, however cruel they may be, justified? In the midst of this chaos, David treatment of his wife becomes increasingly misogynistic. Is Peckinpah saying such an approach is the only way? This is weird, uncomfortable movie that seems confused about its message. It’s worth seeing as a curiosity and for its conclusion, which sometimes plays like a very adult version of Home Alone. Does anyone who has seen it have any thoughts?

The Virgin Spring. Ingmar Bergman directed this fable, set in 14th century Sweden, that directly inspired Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Whereas Craven focuses on savage violence, Bergman concerns himself with forgiveness and the meaning of revenge. Max von Sydow stars as a stern but loving father who takes in three drifters for the night. After dinner, the father learns that the two of the three raped and murdered his daughter. Distraught with grief, the father locks the drifters in his house, and kills them all (even the innocent younger one). Those who expect disturbing violence will be disappointed – the bloodletting happens offscreen, and we instead see soul-searching soliloquies and an existential crisis that follow. As with many Bergman movies, The Virgin Spring is not entertaining in a traditional way. It offers its rewards to those who are willing to think deeply about its subject. You should see this movie because it establishes a context – both for Craven’s masterpiece and other Bergman features. It may not be entertaining, yet the movie has a solid narrative that chugs along, which will prove invaluable if you want to tackle the Swedish director’s more challenging features. I, for one, am still waiting for an appropriate time to discuss Cries and Whispers.

The Foot Fist Way. We here at BYT love Kenny Powers to an obscene degree. His unjustifiable narcissism and casual misanthropy is refreshing. But before Powers fucked us up with some truth, Danny McBride starred in The Foot Fist Way as Fred Simmons, a hateful Tae Kwon Do instructor. Fans of Eastbound & Down will find similar things to love here – Simmons demands worship, and is not afraid of abusing his students verbally as well as physically. Co-writer Ben Best (who plays Clegg on Eastbound) turns up as Chuck “The Truck” Wallace, Simmons’ martial arts hero. The studio is fledging, so perhaps an appearance from a C-list celebrity will help things along. Needless to say, Chuck the Truck proves a disappointment – he humiliates Fred, and leaves brutal combat as the only appropriate recourse. As with Observe and Report, co-writer/director Jody Hill is not afraid of making his character monstrous and pathetic. And the violence here is surprisingly brutal. This kind of character study was perfected in Eastbound. It follows that the earlier Foot Fist Way is comparatively weaker, and feels like Napoleon Dynamite with an extra dose of cruelty. Still, you should watch for McBride’s fantastic performance as well as his breathtaking break-up scene.

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I go to a bachelor party.

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