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Quick Pick: “The Soloist”

THE SOLOISTStarring Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx, Catherine Keener

“The Soloist” is a common tale of a decidedly uncommon friendship — that of homeless schizophrenic/brilliant cellist Nathaniel Ayers Jr. (Foxx) and the L.A. Times columnist, Stephen Lopez (Downey Jr.), who plucked him from slumdog obscurity. Ready to run screaming from the theater? Fight the urge, settle in and prepare to be wowed by two of the strongest performances captured on film in 2009 (and it’s only April). Where Susannah Grant’s screenplay and Joe Wright’s direction demand molasses, Downey and Foxx serve up weary self-awareness infused with much-needed bittersweet humor. Downey gets it right with Lopez, playing him as a glib opportunist who uses Ayers as fodder, then decides he’ll save him by moving him to LAMP, a nearby homeless shelter. Watch Downey closely as he drives up to LAMP’s outskirts and you can see those sanctimonious notions get crunched under the wheels of a skid-row crackhead’s shopping cart. That’s fitting, especially considering Downey doesn’t do warm and fuzzy; even when Lopez strikes a real bond with Ayers, there’s no schmaltz. Hooray for small miracles. That goes double for Foxx, who knows better than to re-enact “Rain Main” (perhaps he followed Col. Lincoln Osiris’ advice?). Here, he goes for understatement, which seems like a miracle in a movie helmed by a director hell-bent on drowning us in tragic-sounding symphonies paired with technicolor, self-consciously “artsy” cuts. Boo to that. There’s a meaty story here, and the real miracle is that Downey and Foxx find the rhythm to make that story as tart as it is believable.

Grade: B-

Mike Judge: Making no real money since 1997

Mike Judge has to be the Dwight Schrute of the movie business. He’s crazy (in a good way, not in that Anne Heche way), left of center, full of shrewdness, originality and talent that no one appreciates. And yet he keeps trying. And trying. And trying.

His latest attempt to educate the unwashed masses, “Extract,” looks to be yet another work of semi-genius that no one will see. And that’s sadder than a Lucinda Williams song (just pick one; they all make you want to find the tallest building with a hatch that leads to the roof). Consider the top-notch list of Hollywood comedic talent he’s lined up for the movie, scheduled for release in September 2009: Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, J.K. Simmons, Ben Affleck (think “Chasing Amy,” not “Reindeer Games”), Mila Kunis, David Koechner. The plot, which apparently centers on a plant manager (ahem, that would be Mr. Bateman) with a whole mess-o-problems, including a possibly philandering wife and underhanded employees, sounds like a Minesweeper-esque field of potential jokes.

Perhaps this all-star cast might do what past acting lineups have not. With Jennifer Aniston as its only bankable, high-profile star, “Office Space,” now Comedy Central’s go-to feature to fill airtime, didn’t exactly boast a high AIS (that would be you-know-what in Seats) quotient. What a pity. I can’t think of another movie that does a sharper, funnier job of lampooning the grudges and petty behaviors that characterize the 9-to-5 sector. It’s become a pop-culture phenomenon to the extent that you can buy a Jump to Conclusions mat.

That goes double for “Idiocracy,” a brilliant satire of how America’s lack of ambition/ennui will translate into legions of offspring barely able to spell their own names. “Idiocracy” offered a free pass to visit the crazy-brilliant innerworkings of Judge’s mind … but it opened in approximately three theaters nationwide. (Razor-sharp wit can’t do much unless people, uh, are around to hear and appreciate it.) By the time it made it to DVD, no one knew what it was, and people who bought it did so because they were Judge fans.

What’s the reason for this shutout? Lack of stars might be a problem, but not a huge one. I’d say the real reason has a whole lot to do with the fact that Judge isn’t afraid to — yikes, I can’t belive I’m about to type this — “go there.” Yes, there’s plenty of evidence to support the claim that his barbs are spot-on, from mocking the Costco mentality (“Welcome to Costco, I love you”) and the insanities of product placement (“brought to you by Carl’s Jr.) to the ridiculous complexities of red-tape and office paperwork (i.e., TPS report covers). It’s safe to say Judge is pretty fearless. He lampoons without fear of retribution. He won’t censor his creativity.

Sure, he’s gained a big following for “King of the Hill,” but let’s translate that to the silver screen. If “Extract” approaches a theater anywhere near you, buy a ticket. Trust me, you won’t be sorry.

And if you don’t agree, I think a date with Beef Supreme might change your mind.

The ultimate WTF?: A “Departed” tour of Boston exists!

About two months ago, all juiced up on the adrenaline of my impending trip to Beantown (May 5-13), I mentioned to my friend The Comedian that I’d be more than happy to e-mail him photos of the very place “The Departed” was filmed. (OK, yes, I was rubbing it in. Sue me. I’m a wannabe Roger Ebert, not Mother Teresa.) And yes, I’m fully aware that all sorts of world-changing historical events like the Tea Party and the Massachusetts Bay Colony and many, many Dropkick Murphys concerts I never got to see took place in Boston — I’ll be taking the historical tour, so stop thumbing your noses.

It’s just that, you know, I really, really want to see that elevator where Billy Costigan got capped.

But my friend, who’s nothing if not a prognosticator, remarked, “Well, I’m sure there’s some sort of ‘Departed’ tour you could take.”

Damned if he wasn’t right.

Apparently, the very fine folks at Boston Movie Tours added a “Departed” set to their tours after the movie was released. Though this significantly revises my travel plans, don’t think I won’t be there with bells on and camera battery charged and ready. Be prepared for pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.

And don’t put it above me to find an apartment with a balcony and a stray wharf rat.

Sacha Baron Cohen sells out (sort of)

He did it. I can’t believe he did it. If you’d asked me a month ago if I thought it was possible, I’d have listed things more likely to happen: a) Pat Robertson agrees to a Barbara Walters interview in which he announces he now supports gay marriage and has legally changed his name to “Banana Hammock” to prove it; b) In 2009, Meryl Streep acts in a movie and does not get nominated for an Oscar; or c) South Carolina gets voted the smartest state in America.

I’m talking, of course, about Sacha Baron Cohen’s decision to retool and revise “Brüno,” a much-hyped, highly controversial film based on a character he created for “Da Ali G Show,” in order to squeeze an “R” rating out of the MPAA.

Mr. Cohen, if I may, a question: Is you on crack or somethin’?

Sigh. I suppose in Hollywood, selling out is the norm. But Cohen always operated a little left of center, which is why I — and everyone else who loved “Da Ali G Show” — am more than a little surprised and disappointed. I mean, this is the guy who didn’t flinch during an interview (insert air quotes to undermine the seriousness of that word) with Andy Rooney in which Rooney, angry at being duped, unloaded a sack of insults on Cohen. Cohen never broke character. In the outtakes of “Talladega Nights,” he never smiled, or even looked like he thought about smiling. The man doesn’t flinch. He’s that good.

Though I’m a tad miffed at his self-censorship, I can’t help but pine for July 10, when Cohen unleashes his outrageous Austrian fashionista upon the world at large. Judging by the crazy-sexy-weird promo shots, it’s bound to be the movie release heard ’round the world.

I just pray that it will show everyone the healing powers of house music. I mean, it did wonders for the end of apartheid.

You get what you pay for: “He’s Just Not That Into You”

It’s a time-tested idea, really, and one that never, ever sticks in my feeble little mind: The idea that there is no such thing as a free movie.

But there IS — and always will be — such a thing as a semi-crappy movie playing in a theater where the tickets are cheap you can’t quite resist. No, resistance, in this situation is futile.

And this is the story of how I saw — wait a minute and let me gird my loins for what I’m about to type — “He’s Just Not That Into You.” (Believe me, I’ve been in a shame spiral. Me, the girl who serves up bitter diatribes about how crappy, unimaginative, unrealistic romantic comedies are, went to see a movie based on a book by an author who stole the title from an episode of “Sex and the City.”)

I would take the time to review said movie, but it falls squarely into the “why bother?” category. You’ve seen this generic, charmless airsickness bag of “recycled” cliches many times before at any theater in any city in any state in any part of the U.S. It’s “Love, Actually” without the charm, “When Harry Met Sally” without the wit.

However, a trip to the movie’s Web site, http://www.hesjustnotthatintoyoumovie.com/, provided unexpected spoils: namely, a video detailing the Top 10 Chick Flick Cliches not found in “He’s Just Not That Into You.” I watched it and got the uneasy feeling that director Ken Kwapis missed a golden opportunity: If he’d created something half as entertaining or insightful as this 3-minute video, I wouldn’t be bemoaning the 90 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. (Or trying to forget that discount popcorn, which, oddly enough, tastes a WHOLE LOT like cardboard, or Kashi cereal.)

So visit the Web site and check out the video. It’s clever, self-deprecating, occasionally insightful — you know, everything the movie is not.

“Observe and Report” a bizarre, twisted character study

Seth Rogen and Anna Farris redefine the term "odd couple" in "Observe and Report."

Seth Rogen and Anna Farris redefine the term "odd couple" in "Observe and Report."

Ronnie Barnhart gets no respect, no respect. The head of security at Forest Ridge Mall, he can’t get a date with the lusty dim-bulb make-up counter girl Brandi (Anna Faris); can’t convince his by-the-book boss (Dan Bakkedahl) to let him carry a gun; can’t trust his mother (Celia Weston) to do anything but get drunk, soil her pajamas and pass out in a heap on the carpet. Then a pervert (Randy Gambill) runs amok in the mall, flashing Brandi, and Ronnie sees a chance to change his luck. And he rips into the flasher investigation with the unrepentant zeal of a man who lives so far inside his own delusions it’s a wonder he can interact with other people at all.

Now, I told you all of that to tell you this: No amount of nutshelling or explaining or summarizing can prepare you for the hot, flaming box of crazy that is Jody Hill’s pitch-black, acidly funny and wildly unnerving “Observe and Report.” Hill, the crackpot genius behind “The Foot Fist Way” (didn’t see it? don’t worry; only four people did) and HBO’s “Eastbound & Down,”  creates a similarly twisted world here, where the hero’s clearly psychotic squirrel bait with a God complex but everyone’s too scared (Charles, a mall employee who gets roped into being part of Ronnie’s kill-the-flasher task force) or too high (Michael Pena) or too bored (the Yuen twins, who know their way around automatic weapons) not to play along.

And Rogen’s steely-eyed Ronnie is an intriguing character to be sure; he’s crazy, sure, but the kind of crazy that’s contagious, that spreads and gives worker drones something to do besides yell at kids to stop jumping in the fountain. Rogen does fairly admirable work making Ronnie — this cringe-worthy statement is true — a sympathetic character (if you can feel sympathy for a guy who seems a whole lot like a pre-clock tower Charles Witman). He’s delusional, yes, and violent, but we root for him because we sense he’s grabbing frantically at any power he can get. There’s something endearing but extremely unnerving about that.

And had Hill zeroed in on Ronnie’s laundry list of psychological issues, “Observe and Report” might have been a disturbing but thought-provoking character study, kind of like “Punch Drunk Love” with more gore. But Hill gets cocky and overambitious; he lobs in so many characters and plots that he can’t begin to develop them all … so he doesn’t. Ronnie’s conflict with Detective Harrison (Ray Liotta looking, well, like Ray Liotta always looks: tense, pissed off and a hair trigger from bashing your brains out on the nearest brick wall) feels tacked on. There’s a potential date rape scene that gets left in the dust. One riotously funny character — Saddam (Aziz Ansari of “Parks and Recreation” fame) — delivers gut-busting lines that deserve more time. Ronnie’s relationship with his drunk mother gets, oh, 10 minutes of screen time, yet it deserves much more.

Which leads to an even bigger problem: Methinks Hill has serious issues with women. All the women in “Observe and Report” are used as props; they’re flat as flat gets. They’re all presented powerless and useless. Brandi’s a superficial sexpot, but the alternative — Nell (Collette Wolf), a gold cross-sporting mall employee rendered lame by a leg cast — is no better. Ronnie’s mother is a hopeless drunk who can’t hoist herself off the floor. Perhaps this is meant to make Ronnie seem stronger. If so, too bad, because it’s the chump choice, the easy one that takes no risks, and it doesn’t work in a movie that takes so many. I expect more from Hill, and this fainting women phase needs to come to an end. Give us some depth. In a movie unafraid to feature a five-minute chase scene with a flabby and, uh, flaccid naked man running free in the mall, is that too much to ask?

Grade: C-

“The Last House on the Left”: Never use 400 words when two will do

I never believed it was possible to review a movie in two words. Then I saw the 2009 remake of “The Last House on the Left.”

Oh, I once was blind but now I see.

Thus, I introduce to you my first attempt to condense the 90 minutes’ worth of pain, suffering and utter disappointment that “The Last House on the Left” caused into two words.

And those two words are: Don’t bother.