Do not observe (unless you really want to)

“Observe and Report” tells the story of Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen), head of security at the Forest Ridge Mall who takes his job way too seriously. When an anonymous flasher repeatedly exposes himself to patrons in the parking lot, Ronnie is disappointed in his security team’s lack of responsive action. But when the pervert flashes make-up counter employee and Ronnie’s dream girl, Brandi (Anna Faris), Ronnie makes it his own personal mission to take him down at any cost.

Thwarting Ronnie’s dream of saving the day is Detective Harrison (an underused Ray Liotta), a real police officer who is called into the mall to investigate its increasing criminal activity. Now in order to prove himself, Ronnie must catch the pervert and save Brandi before Detective Harrison and his officers manage to steal his thunder.

“Observe and Report” is a tough movie to pin down. On one hand, it’s a surprisingly satisfying black comedy that goes a little further than most in its quest to make an audience laugh at something that, out of context, would be way more than just distasteful. For example, if you see this film, you very well may find yourself laughing out loud at what basically amounts to onscreen date rape. Whether or not you’re in for that sort of comedy is up to you, but I found myself reconsidering more than a few morbid chuckles. If that’s not good black comedy, I don’t know what is.

Unfortunately, “Observe and Report” fails in almost every other way. The film’s more conventional attempts at comedy are extremely hit-or-miss (mostly miss), and way too much of its humor relies on repeated vulgarity. There were more awkward silences in the theater than laughs when I saw the film, and that isn’t a good sign for a movie billed as a comedy.

The movie’s main flaw is that it tries too hard to have it both ways. Writer/director Jody Hill (‘The Foot Fist Way”) can’t seem to decide between a dark, comedic character study (think funny “Taxi Driver”) and a contemporary comedy. The film could easily have done without Ronnie’s cartoonish mall security posse and blatantly quotable one-liners. A movie about an overly serious security guard would have been a lot funnier if everyone around him wasn’t just as weird.

Hill’s stylistic combination ultimately leads to a fragmented, unfunny movie that tries too hard when it shouldn’t and not hard enough when it should. Too often, the film will cut from an uncomfortable Ronnie-driven scene to a jokey mall cop crew scene. It doesn’t just screw with the pacing, it throws off the audience, and it doesn’t work the way it hopes to.

It doesn’t help at all that Ronnie Barnhardt is so impossible to identify with. His coworkers, family, love interest, and enemies are no different (except Nell- a food court employee played by Collette Wolfe- who is almost upbeat and adorable enough to redeem the entire film). It’s very difficult to enjoy a movie if you don’t like any of its characters, and “Observe and Report” doesn’t offer much else.

The Verdict: “Observe and Report” is a frustrating movie to watch. You can see how much potential is right under the surface, but it’s covered with vulgar one-liners and goofy secondary characters. Seth Rogen does a commendable job playing a complex character with some serious issues. He even manages to earn the chronically unlikable Ronnie a little bit of pity at a certain point in the film.

The movie’s extraordinarily satisfying final few minutes only prove to the audience how much better “Observe and Report” could have been with just a little more focus. As it stands, however, I can’t recommend this film as anything other than an okay rental choice on an otherwise boring summer weekend.

2 stars (out of 4)


'Crank: High Voltage' a shocking good time

“Crank: High Voltage” is one of those sequels you can enjoy whether or not you’ve seen the first film. If you saw “Crank”, you already know exactly what to expect from this movie. If not, read on for a full review.

“Crank: High Voltage” takes place immediately after the events of the first movie. Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) has just fallen out of a helicopter to what should have been his death. Seconds after he hits the pavement, he is scooped into a van by a gang of Asian organ harvesters. Before he has a chance to escape, they’ve already taken out his heart and replaced it with an electric one.

Chelios’s friend, Doc Miles (Dwight Yoakam) tells him he only has one hour before the batteries in his new heart run out. If he starts to feel weak, he can jumpstart his electric organ by applying a charge directly to his skin. With little more than an hour left to find his stolen “strawberry tart,” Chelios turns to what he knows best, violence.

“Crank: High Voltage” doesn’t even try to give the audience a plot worth caring about, and that works to its advantage. Without the arbitrary, tacked on type of story most action movies use, all that’s left is an hour and a half of the nonstop action those very same movies try so hard to provide, and that’s a good thing. This is a movie that simply will not give you time to breathe. Chelios is running, fighting, having sex, or zapping himself throughout the entire film.

The only breaks come in the form of heavily stylized news briefs and flashbacks following the otherwise nonstop action. These sequences are unexpectedly funny and never feel gratuitous. If anything, the brief segments add a bit of comic relief to the film’s impeccable pacing.

“Crank: High Voltage” is constantly exciting and entirely involving, too. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself cheering during fight scenes after an iron pole to the face or groaning after a bike to the crotch.

In fact, the vast majority of what happens in the movie is unbelievably ridiculous. With Chelios’s friend with Full Body Tourettes (Efren Ramirez), a head in an aquarium, and a foul-mouthed old lady, you can imagine how very weird this film can get. There’s even a giant, Japanese-style monster battle that’s great for more than just the exaggerated Jason Statham head.

“Crank: High Voltage” is absolutely gorgeous, as well. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who both wrote and directed “Crank” and its sequel, are two of the most talented action movie directors alive. No matter what’s happening on screen, the camera always seems to be exactly where you want it to be, right in the middle of the action.

This definitely isn’t a movie for everyone, though. It is unapologetically testosterone-driven. There’s plenty of female nudity and half-naked women with big guns (sometimes the kind with bullets), as well as numerous thinly veiled images of male genitalia. Chelios’s girlfriend, Eve (Amy Smart) spends part of the film wearing electrical tape and the rest of it wearing only a t-shirt and underwear. I’m not saying girls will hate the movie; just don’t consider them its target audience.

The Verdict: If you’re looking for anything other than a wild, 96-minute beat-em-up piece of eye candy, feel free to skip this one, because that’s all it is. “Crank: High Voltage” is a great genre film destined to find its audience, but if you aren’t a part of that very specific audience, you’ll absolutely hate it.

Having said that, “Crank: High Voltage” is by no means a perfect film, but it is a perfect action movie. From the moment Chelios is shoveled into the van to the very end, there’s no slowing him down. If you’ve seen “Crank”, you know exactly what to expect here. In fact, this is basically the same movie except with a different heart-related plot device. You definitely don’t need to see the original to enjoy the sequel, though.

And in the end, who cares if the only thing less developed than the characters is the plot? This is genre film in its purest form, so embrace it. Don’t skimp on the popcorn, either.

2.5 stars (out of 4)


"Adventureland" a collegiate must-see

“Adventureland” takes place in the summer of 1987, and James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college. James is ready to go on a tour of Europe with a friend when his parents break the news that his father has been demoted and they won’t be able to pay for the trip. Just when he thinks it can’t get any worse, they tell him he’ll have to get a summer job to pay for grad school at Columbia in the fall.

When James’ job search yields disappointing results, he is left with no choice but to work at Adventureland, a local amusement park. There, with a cast of quirky coworkers, James waits for summer to end. Everything changes, though, when he starts hanging out with another games employee named Emily (“Twilight”’s Kristen Stewart), who turns his worst summer ever into a life-changing experience.

“Adventureland” is chock-full of hilarious running gags and quirky characters galore. It’s hard not to laugh at James’ punchy friend, Frido (Matt Bush), ‘80s stereotype, Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), and dorky games employee, Joel (Martin Starr).

The funniest characters by far are Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig’s Bobby and Paulette, Adventureland’s eccentric owners. The “Saturday Night Live” cast members get all the biggest laughs simply by being so very strange. Everything they do, from the googly-eyed bananas to Hader’s ridiculous moustache, stands out like comedy gold.

The acting in “Adventureland” is what really makes the movie work, though. Eisenberg brings an awkward, realistic sort of lovability to his role as James that is rarely found in college-age film characters. Starr, by being funny, sad, and honest all at once, makes Joel more than just the standard loser character in a movie. Even Ryan Reynolds gets a turn at some drama as the park’s adulterous janitor, Mike.

But the real star of “Adventureland” is Kristen Stewart. It’s exciting to see her do so well with an edgier role than in the tween-friendly “Twilight”. She plays the captivatingly complex Emily so convincingly, it’ll be hard to leave the theater without falling in love.

“Adventureland”’s soundtrack is too good to be ignored, as well. Featuring songs by Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Husker Du, the film uses music to capture the summer of 1987 in much the same way “Dazed and Confused” used music to capture the summer of 1976. It’s rare to see licensed music used so effectively these days. Just try not to laugh too hard next time you hear ‘Rock Me, Amadeus’ on the radio.

The Verdict
: “Adventureland” is more than a run-of-the-mill comedy. Sure, the film can be downright hilarious at times. In fact, the comedy, when present, goes off without a hitch. It’s refreshing to see a movie where not a single joke falls flat.

But between jokes, “Adventureland” tells a surprisingly fleshed-out story about love, work, and life after college. Its story may not be very original, but using realistic characters and actors who can play them, “Adventureland” makes itself instantly relatable to college audiences, and is an absolute must-see for the college crowd.

3.5 stars (out of 4)

(originally written for RocLoop)


'Fast & Furious' obeys the speed limit

Just when you thought The Fast and the Furious series would end as a trilogy, “Fast & Furious” races onto screens, bringing back many of the characters from the original film. But is it a worthwhile return to form?

Vin Diesel returns to the franchise in “Fast & Furious” as Dom, the elite street racer by night, semi-truck hijacker by later night from the original “The Fast and the Furious”. An international criminal hiding from police in the Dominican Republic, Dom leaves his girlfriend, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez, also from the original film), behind when he thinks she’s in danger of being caught with him. Years later, Letty is found dead at the site of a car accident with a bullet in her head. Dom vows vengeance, and the race is on.

Meanwhile, Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker)- promoted to FBI agent since the first movie- is assigned to hunt down a notorious drug lord known as Braga who, by sheer force of Hollywood coincidence, is also the man responsible for Letty’s death. Not surprisingly, the only way to catch Braga is by competing in street races. With Dom and Brian both racing to catch the same man, there’s only one question; who will finish first?

If “Fast & Furious” sounds a little light on plot, that’s because it is. Its ‘good guys chase bad guy’ story is as low fat as it gets. Don’t plunk down $9 to see this movie if you want a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what happens next, because you won’t find anything like that here.

What you will find, though, are plenty of eye-poppingly shiny cars moving at breakneck speeds through some of the most outrageous chase sequences in theatres so far this year. “Fast & Furious” doesn’t stop at the street races seen in the first film, either. There are oil truck hijackings, claustrophobic tunnel runs, wide-open drag races, and even some helicopter hijinks at the Mexican border. Unfortunately, there’s also a free runner foot chase thrown into the mix- an all too standard action movie cliché these days.

And speaking of action, the acting in “Fast & Furious” definitely leaves room for improvement. The many two dimensional secondary characters are one thing, but when every lead role is played by a cardboard cutout, the movie isn’t looking to win any awards.

Vin Diesel glares his way through the role of Dom without once changing his tone or expression. Paul Walker does the same, only instead of cool and intimidating, he’s edgy and intense. Everyone else is just there to look pretty, and they do.

The Verdict: “Fast & Furious” is dimwitted fun, but fun nonetheless. It may lack good acting and an interesting plot, but it’s got just enough pedal to the medal action to keep you in your seat. The dialogue is groan inducing, though, and the acting is every bit as bad as you’d expect from a film in the series.

In the grand scheme of things, “Fast & Furious” is just a tiny bit worse than “The Fast and the Furious”. It has all the requisite action of the original without any of its minimally engrossing story. The bottom line is, it’s entertaining but unremarkable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re a fan of the original or just looking for something to look at while scooping popcorn into your mouth, “Fast & Furious” is the movie for you. Otherwise, don’t feel bad skipping it.

2 stars
(out of 4)

(review originally written for RocLoop)