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Column Fri Apr 10 2009

Observe and Report, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Gigantic and Hannah Montana: The Movie

Observe and Report

The absolute best way to see this movie is to stop reading this or any other review of it. I'm not so much concerned about critics giving away too much of the plot or the best lines. No, it's more about letting slip just how messed up this depraved piece of perfection truly is. I saw this film for the first time at SXSW, and I struggled trying to remember the last time a film, especially one with this many laughs, really shook me up like this. This is a film with no moral compass, no mercy, and with a soul as dark and poisoned as the most hardened criminal. This is a movie borne of a crack whore mother and absent father (who probably could have been any one of a dozen men), given to be raised by a 300-pound uncle who spent his days beating this movie and his nights committing unspeakable acts. This film ran away from home at 15, and turned tricks with businessmen in alleys stinking of long-dead fish and rat shit, while catching every festering disease in the book. Now imagine, if you can, what a movie like this would look like, smell like; then imagine this movie is a comedy.

All comparisons between Observe and Report and Taxi Driver are way off. If you feel compelled to stand this film up against a Scorsese/De Niro collaboration, make it The King of Comedy, for the plain and simple reason that Seth Rogen's mall security officer Ronnie Barnhardt wants to be accepted and loved by the masses as a hero, as a symbol of respect. He's not like Travis Bickle's loner at all, other than the occasional voiceover. No, Ronnie is an all-too-perfect personification of a person we see every day doing a job that most dog wouldn't crap on, and he has convinced himself that he is doing something important.

As obvious as it might seem to cast Rogen in the part of a mall copy, there is nothing predictable about his performance. Gone is the loose and chuckling dude from Knocked Up and Pineapple Express. Ronnie is tightly wound, unfriendly, socially clunky, even a tad on the racist side. Above all else, he's angry. You can't blame him entirely, especially when you meet his perpetually drunk mother (the sex kitten in a house coat Celia Weston) who has no qualms about blaming Ronnie's special needs growing up for his father leaving the family. As the head of mall security, Ronnie has gathered a group of underlings that are mind bogglingly wrong for their line of work, including the Yuen twins (played by the real-life Yuan twins), suffering from a bad case of gun envy, and Michael Peña's mad creation Dennis. Peña gets so lost in this character that I didn't recognize him at first behind his sunglasses and under his tight curly hair. His gangsta lisp sent me right over the edge. There's one early scene in which Peña emits some sort of sound from his nose, combined with a generic gang sign that had me screaming.

Aside from his mother, the women in Ronnie's life play a huge part in the character's development. On the one hand we have the object of his obsession, Brandi (Anna Faris, playing as horrible a character as I have ever seen her play), a certified self-centered twat, who is repulsed by Ronnie until a parking lot flasher terrifies her to such a degree that she looks to him for protection and comfort. Ronnie takes advantage by asking her out on a date — a date that is permanently burned in my brain as ending in one of the most horrific moments of any movie ever. Yet somehow, some very clever writing saves the scene, the entire production for that matter, from going straight to hell. And it all works because Faris has no fear. Brandi's counterpoint is Nell (Collette Wolfe), who works at a coffee and danish hellhole in the mall. Nell is sweet, sensitive and easily demoralized by her evil boss (played by the demon known as Patton Oswalt). She's such a good person that, of course, Ronnie barely notices her.

Ronnie's nemesis is Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta), who is constantly challenged by Ronnie for his thoroughness on capturing the flasher and on a string of overnight robberies at the mall. Ronnie has his suspicions about who committed these crimes, but strangely enough his list of suspects happens to coincide with those mall employees that Ronnie doesn't like, including the great Aziz Ansari, who in one scene engages in an exchange of about 97 "fuck you's" with Ronnie that goes far beyond funny into another realm of consciousness.

I'll admit with my head held high that I wasn't a big fan of writer-director Jody Hill's first film, the underground discovery The Foot Fist Way. But I think that reaction was as much a product of inflated expectations after literally years of hearing how funny the damn thing was. And while I recognized the brilliance of star Danny McBride (who has a shocking cameo on Observe and Report) immediately, it was tough for me to really love the film. In fact, when I met Hill for the first time at SXSW last month, the first thing he said to me was, "You hated Foot Fist Way." To which I responded, "That's not true; I had a healthy disrespect for it." That said, I worship the HBO series Hill and McBride did, "Eastbound and Down," and hope they get to do a second season.

But Hill's thought process is pulling together the plot and characters of Observe and Report is a little terrifying to me. He seemed like a nice enough man, but somewhere in the darkest corners of his fractured soul lies an angry and hateful person who spews his foul seed on the page and somehow convinced a big-time studio to give him money to make this demonic spoo. Or at least that's one explanation. The other is that Hill wanted to make a film that had never been made before about characters that few directors want to know, let alone examine at this level. Hill is sick of the safe style of R-rated comedies. Let's face it, even the most depraved of the Apatow-style films appeal to mass audiences because they have such big hearts. (Where would Rogen be were it not for his lovable Knocked Up/Zack and Miri cuddle-bear charm?) Observe and Report couldn't give a fuck about heart. It's the polar opposite of a film that you all know I adore, I Love You, Man, a movie built around the idea that everyone in it is a likable man or woman. Hill's movie couldn't give two shits whether you like his characters. In fact, it works out better for everyone if you don't like them.

Hill and his team have thrown down the glove as a challenge to other filmmakers to not simply try harder or be more vulgar. He wants them to make something different. Observe and Report still has lots of big laughs; there at least three or four moments where it's very likely the audience you see it with will cheer; and in the end, you will actually feel pretty great. But it will be because you have witnessed something you've never seen before, or at least something you haven't seen in a long time. This is a film that will stick to your lungs like a glorious cancer, forcing you to think about it every time you breathe. That's the best kind of filmmaking. Don't be scared; go see this twisted masterpiece.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Observe and Report star Anna Faris.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

It's nearly impossible to wrap my brain around the fact that the writer-director of Dodgeball is the same man responsible for this wandering but occasionally interesting tale of a young man trying to figure out which road to take after college. Sound a little like The Graduate? I guess you could look at it that way, only without the style, humor or timelessness of that film. Imagine the graduate if Mr. Robinson was bisexual and also attempted to have sex with Benjamin. Then you're starting to get the drift of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh...sort of.

The writer-director in question is Rawson Marshall Thurber, and he relays to us the story of Art Bechstein (Jon Foster from The Door in the Floor), whose father (Nick Nolte) is a well-known gangster type in Pittsburgh. Art is supposed to be studying to become a stock broker in New York, but he seems more interested in exploring the people who drift into his life, both at his summer job at a book store and a beautiful woman named Jane (Sienna Miller), who he meets at a swanky party. Art is having casual, meaningless sex with a coworker (Mena Suvari), while slowly falling in love with Jane. Jane has a complicated relationship with Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard, who can play the sweetest characters imaginable, but also pulls of scary a little too easily; here he does both), who seems to take Art under his wing to a degree. You can't help but wonder if Cleveland is keeping his potential rival close or whether he's attracted to Art or, perhaps, both. But Sarsgaard might be the most inspired reason to see this film if any of this sounds mildly interesting to you.

Turns out Cleveland works for a rival gangster in the city, so his motives for getting close to Art are all the more complicated and suspect. Meanwhile Art and Jane are growing close as well, until soon a love triangle in the truest sense of the expression forms rather nicely with these three at the points. Foster is good here, but we've seen this king of distant observer character before. He watches these far more interesting people do sometimes-extraordinary things, but when he steps into their world, everything gets ridiculous and complicated. The Bertolucci film The Dreamers covered some of the same ground as Pittsburgh, but in far more captivating and exotic ways. Pittsburgh is hardly the setting for anything alluring, but the film almost pulls it off thanks to some strong performances.

Sienna Miller is an actress I'm still on the fence about. There's no denying she's sensationally lovely, but I don't know if I've seen her in the right role to determine whether she's a talented actress. I did like her in Layer Cake, Cassanova, Factory Girl and Interview (probably her best work to date), but what she did in Alfie, Stardust or The Edge of Love did not impress me terribly. In Pittsburgh, she delivers a layered, complicated performance as an alcoholic party girl who almost seems to seek out troubled men. If the film was written a bit better, I think Miller would have had more to work with, but she's not quite strong enough to save weak material.

Still, I was always curious where these spinning lives were going to land, and Sarsgaard is just the right amount of bizarre to keep things interesting. I'm not sure I'd call this a recommendation of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but if you're a fan or curious about some of these actors, you'll probably enjoy a lot of this movie. There are some extraneous subplots (especially Suvari's insane behavior after Art breaks up with her) that just plain old annoying the hell out of me. But for every unnecessary element, you get perfectly measured work from Nolte, who has some of the film's best lines. Director Thurber isn't trying to capture the blue-collar feel or people of Pittsburgh; that has nothing to do with this. If anything, he's trying to illustrate that there is more to these industrial cities than industry. There are people attempting to at least pretend their lives are exciting and amped up. But in the end, they all come to the same realization: if my life were really that exciting, I wouldn't be living in Pittsburgh. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


The offbeat humor and dry performances are what keeps the film moving forward, but it's the absolute perfection of this strange love story that captured me. There are a lot of men out there (and I'm sure more than a handful of women as well) who are well aware of the hypnotic powers of Zooey Deschanel. She is quirk personified, but she's also strangely beautiful and seems like just about the coolest gal on God's earth. Although I'd seen her in films like Almost Famous, Manic and The Good Girl, it was her stark and hypnotic performance in David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls where I knew I needed her to be my special friend. There's simply no way you could watch her in that film and not fall in love with her with everything your sad soul has to offer. Since then, she became the Quirk Girl in such films as Elf, Winter Passing, Live Free or Die Hard and most recently in Yes Man. She's even made crap — how she landed up in The Happening will remain an eternal mystery to me. And based on what I've heard about her summer release (500) Days of Summer, she's going to invent new ways to capture my heart.

Until then, we have Gigantic, a tiny and perfect love story from first-time writer-director Matt Aselton, in which Deschanel plays a young woman named Happy, a spoiled rich girl who possesses none of the cliché trappings of said rich girls but does have some of the cluelessness about what to do with her life. Her father (John Goodman) will never let his little girl suffer, so about once a year when she changes her mind about what career she's like to pursue, he indulges her. I haven't felt this way about Goodman outside of a Coen Brothers movie, but he is the absolute greatest thing about this movie, delivering off-handed, stone-cold killer remarks that capture the very essence of every insufferable person he comes into contact with, including his own beloved daughters.

Gigantic actually focuses on Brian (Paul Dano from Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood), a mattress salesman, who also comes from wealthy stock (his elderly parents are played by Ed Asner and Jane Alexander). He has two much older brothers, both of whom are extremely successful, but Brian is a little less secure because instead of finding ways to improve his lot in life, he spends all his free time focusing on his life's passion — to adopt a baby from China, which somehow manages not to be as creepy as it sounds. When Brian and Happy meet, it's clear that these two not only have very little in common, but their approach to living is the exact opposite. Happy seems willing to try or see anything; Brian seems less capable of simply going with the flow or being spontaneous. Yet they work well together, filling in each other social blanks. His long-term commitment to the adoption process is something that she admires and is terrified by because she has never held onto a dream (or a job, for that matter) for nearly that long.

As much as the film is filled with varying degrees of eccentric characters, it doesn't feel like an attempt to pummel you with wackiness. The strange qualities of these people have been carefully woven into their fabric rather than worn on their sleeves or on their heads, like a funny winter hat with floppy earflaps. What I found most impressive about Gigantic was the subtle degree of sophistication that director Aselton shows. What starts out as a movie about Brian's largely uneventful live (punctuated by seemingly unprovoked attacks by a homeless guy) turns into an examination of Happy's far-too-fluid lifestyle. And the closer Brian's baby reality becomes, the more Happy withdraws. It's a fascinating dynamic to watch, and these two great young actors really pull it off. Dano continues to be a fun and unpredictable actor to follow since his early work in L.I.E., The Girl Next Door, and The King. I'm never sure what approach he's going to take or how truly trippy he's willing to get. Here, there's a power to his commitment to both his adoption and the relationship. It's a workman's effort to keep up with both near-impossible situations, but he handles it with style and without feeling overly noble about either pursuit.

Gigantic is a very different kind of young love story, compared to something a little more traditional, but no less fun, like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, but it's impossible to take your eyes off of these people and their adventures together. The film opens for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Hannah Montana: The Movie

There are so many possible ways to begin this review. I'm tempted more than you could possibly imagine to simply begin it by saying the feature film version of the Disney Channel's wildly popular "Hannah Montana" show is complete and utter garbage, filled with shallow characters, poor acting, paint-by-numbers songs and about as many laughs as a documentary about the Hitler invading Poland. But simply summarizing Hannah Montana: The Movie in such a crude (albeit 100 percent accurate) manner would require me to skim right over just what makes this abysmal work not just a prime example of bad filmmaking but also a comment on what society values, youth culture, and how mediocrity and level of success can sometimes have an inverse relationship. All of that said, if you are in possession of a tweenage girl, they are going to go insane for this movie. At least the ones in my audience did, and that just made the whole experience of watching this so much more... memorable.

The film's first major mistake is that it never really explains why Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus' enormous top teeth) has to keep her identity as pop star Hannah a secret. There are some allusions to her wanted to have the option of leading a "normal life" outside of being a singing sensation in her pink and purple world, but nothing in this movie shows any evidence of her life being any easier as Miley. She spends about 75 percent of her time trying to find a private place to change from one persona into the other. Her father Robby (played by Miley's "Achy Breaky" dad Billy Ray Cyrus and his sidekick soul patch) thinks that being Hannah has made Miley forget where she came from and how to appreciate the simple things in life, so he kidnaps her and takes her back to her hometown of Crowley Corners, Tennessee, complete with home-spun characters from Central Casting. We do get to see a little bit of the great Margo Martindale as Miley's grandmother, but we also have to endure the dreamy smile of Lucas Till as Travis, a cowpoke who is working the Stewart farm for the summer. The town center is in jeopardy of being torn up and developed by a greedy land tycoon (Barry Bostwick), and Miley/Hannah must save the day... with a benefit concert.

I'm sure many of my questions concerning Miley's overall behavior would be cleared up if I just watched the TV show, but that ain't happening, not if I have to endure the severe overacting from the supporting players including Emily Osment (Haley Joel's little sister) as Miley's best friend, or Jason Earles as Miley's goofy brother, or a host of other "actors" who would be just as at home working as a costumed animal at an amusement park. These are the kind of performers for whom dinner theater or cruise ship performing are the desirable goals. Of the bunch, the younger Cyrus certainly has the most charisma, but her acting seems limited to waving her arms around and yelling, or being moody and self-reflective in the rain. And let's not even get into her singing. OK, let's. Her voice, at best, is average. But when combined with these sticky-sweet vanilla tunes, you get nothing of value or substance. Songs about having fun, dancing and getting "crazy" are a joke, and when her new hit "Hoedown Throwdown" (a genre-busting combo of country-western and hip-hop music) is featured as the film's central dance number, well, you'll probably throw up in your mouth a tiny bit. The movie's big bonus is that we get to hear the song once again during the end credits.

I should probably count myself lucky. I never even knew what a Hannah Montana was until her 3-D concert film hit theater last year. But watching her tote around a makeup case that could fit a jumbo jet inside and seeing her get in a fight over a pair of overpriced shoes, I begin to wonder exactly what this movie was telling young girls were the important things in life. This is a story about a girl pretending to be something she is not and being rewarded for it. Much like in the movie Glitter, the lead character is constantly being told what a huge star she is and how great her voice is. Hannah Montana: The Movie is a deplorable bit of self-congratulatory fluff that bears no resemblance to the real world and offers no meaningful guidance to girls who look up to Syrus' accomplishments. I'm not saying every film has to have a clear and wonderful message, and I'm all about escapist entertainment, but there's something sort of gross about the way people dote on Miley and forgive some of her most selfish and indulgent behavior. Director Peter Chelsom has done some truly forgettable films in the past, including Shall We Dance? and Serendipity, but this one takes the cake. And I hope he got paid well for selling his soul to the devil. And in fact watching this movie was like vacationing in one of the levels of Hell. Have fun with the kids!

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Frank Anthony Polito / April 10, 2009 12:30 PM

If you're a fan of MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH the novel, perhaps you noticed one important key element missing from the above review: Arthur Lecomte.

It seems that writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber has taken it upon himself to improve Michael Chabon's debut novel by CHANGING 85% of the story!

What is MOP without scenes of Art, Arthur and Phlox meeting in the Hillman Library? Do we really want to see Art Bechstein getting it on with Jane Bellwether AND her b/f Cleveland? The Cloud Factory in the film isn't even the REAL Cloud Factory!

What was RMT thinking when he took this one on?

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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