Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cedar Rapids

Spoiler alert-o-meter: A couple spoilers ahead, but nothing to worry your pretty little head about.

In Cedar Rapids, Ed Helms plays small-town insurance salesman Tim Lippe who, due to the death of a co-worker, is chosen by his boss (Stephen Root) to represent his company, Brown Star Insurance, at the annual ASMI awards in Cedar Rapids Iowa. Lippe’s company has won the coveted Two Diamond award for the past few years, and it’s his job to see his company continues the tradition.

Lippe lives in the house he grew up in, even though his parents are both passed and he’s well into his thirties. He’s set in his ways and easily impressed, but he’s not stupid or a rube, just stuck in his adolescent world. He even sleeps with his 7th grade teacher, Macy Vanderhei. In bed, post you-know-what, he smiles in genuine disbelief in his luck at dating the hot teacher of his dreams. Sigourney Weaver plays Macy beautifully straight – no winking allowed.

Lippe is both excited about flying to the big city and nervous about his one-on-one presentation with the president of ASMI, Orin Helgesson (played by wonderful character actor and That 70s Show dad, Kurtwood Smith). When Lippe gets to Cedar Rapids even his rental car makes him excited. It’s a sign that he’s moving up in the world, that he’s being trusted to represent Brown Star at the conference. When he calls Macy to tell her he misses her we cringe knowing she doesn’t miss him in the same way, but smile because it’s refreshing to see his guileless love.

The motel where the conference is being held is full of insurance salespeople from the region. Lippe falls in with an odd but likable group. There’s genial, nerdy Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who talks like a cross between your elementary school principal and a synthesized computer voice. Anne Heche plays Joan Ostrowski-Fox, married with children, who uses the annual convention as a brief getaway from her family obligations. (What happens in Cedar Rapids is nobody’s damn business). Then there’s John C. Reilly as the wildly inappropriate Dean Ziegler (Deanzie) whom Lippe has been warned away from because of a rumor he poached clients from Brown Star.

During the conference we discover that Ronald, Joan, and Deanzie are exactly the way they seem but also not what you expect. Maybe because most movie's stories are written starting with the plot, characters seemingly retrofitted along the way to suit each plot beat. Cedar Rapids has been written like a short story, starting from the ground up with the characters first.

The movie is a collection of wonderful moments. Each scene is a delight, each plot point a perfect compliment to the last, until, by the time the credits rolled I only wanted to stay to find out what happened next (and I did—stay for the credits for some bonus scenes). The ending, while perhaps a little forced, a little too perfect, actually makes real sense considering what we learn about each character and their lives along the way.

The movie doesn’t judge the events contained in its moments, it presents details in such a way that we aren’t watching things happen, we are riding shotgun as a surrogate lens that observes without malice or bias. I knew Lippe would do the right thing, the right thing for him whatever that would be. So I didn’t watch the movie with an eye to interact by rooting for him. I wasn’t emotionally tied to what he did, because as he moves through the weekend, I trusted him to realize who his real friends were, and how the ones in power turned out to be the real backstabbing assholes.

Lippe’s reach is short but attainable: he doesn’t shoot for the moon, because he can only see the top of the roof. And that’s enough. And maybe, if there’s a judgment to be found in the movie, it’s that we should all shoot a little lower for the small successes that mean more, instead of hoping we’ll win the lottery or pray our way into heaven’s boxseat. The chances of either happening are slim; shooting for what you can see can ultimately brings more happiness and fulfillment.

Fearing he’ll lose his job, which up until now how been his life, Lippe does what he predecessor did in order to ensure the Two Diamond award for Brown Star. But of course it’s the wrong thing to do. And when Tim finally does the right thing, both you and his new friends are rooting for him.

Cedar Rapids was released six weeks ago and has only played in a few hundred theaters nationwide. Part of the reason I wanted to see the movie was to find out why a movie that looked mainstream hadn’t been treated like it with a wider release. Director Miguel Arteta whose previous movies include The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt, and Chuck and Buck, here showcases wonderful comic timing and a thoughtful honesty in presenting his characters as real people, who swear and fight and do drugs and embrace or deny religion and cheat on their spouses.

The men and women of Cedar Rapids are flawed, but not depressed about it or alienated because of it. In one weekend Tim Lippe discovers that his fears about people who act and do things differently are not to be shunned. Maybe America likes its funny in easily digestible slices of pap, the same way it likes its drama with feel-good trimmings and well-demarcated narrative beats of tragedy and redemption.

Cedar Rapids deserves to be a mainstream hit, but that would mean that America would have to discover this lovely, carefully hand-crafted, beautifully written piece of filmmaking. And that would make me jealous, like a music snob who has to share his favorite underground band with the rest of the world after they get a hit record. But I can tell you, dear audience, about Cedar Rapids because you are few and you are discerning and I want the movie to find people and people to find it. Be the first to see Cedar Rapids in your neighborhood. If it’s not playing at a theater near you then pre-order the DVD release. And tell them the Unreliable Narrator sent you.


Theater location: Landmark Theater, Waltham, Sunday, March 20, 1:50 matinee. Price $7.75. Viewed with Liz. Snacks-Twizzlers (fresh), Diet Coke.

Coming Attractions:

Water for Elephants: A Big McHuge Hollywood adaptation of the bestselling novel about a traveling circus, starring that guy from Twilight, Reese Witherspoon, and that guy who won best actor last year. Magical whooey. Made the cover of this week's EW.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Morgan Spurlock makes a movie about making a movie about how to make a movie paid for entirely with product endorsements. Not sure I would watch this movie, based on the principle that if I did I would just be paying to see an advertisement for...oh hell, that's what we do every time we watch a video online, a TV show, read any article or listen to any podcast, and of course watch any movie.

Super. Rainn Wilson plays some shlubby guy who gets dumped by his hot wife, Liv Tyler, who is seeing the much more interesting Kevin Bacon. Rainn decides to become a superhero and his buddy Ellen Page gets in the act as his sidekick. Looks like Juno, but with a different story, and entirely different cast and director. Except for Ellen Page. Also starring Nathan Fillion, Linda Cardellini, Michael Rooker, and Gregg Henry.

Win Win. Getting glowing reviews. Looks cute, in a Sundance kind of way. With Amy Ryan and Paul Giamatti. Synopsis from "Tom McCarthy, acclaimed writer/ director of THE VISITOR and THE STATION AGENT, explores the allegiances and bonds between unlikely characters with a lighter touch in his new film. Struggling attorney Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, becomes legal guardian of an elderly client in an attempt to help keep his practice afloat. When the client’s teenage grandson runs away from home and shows up on his grandfather’s doorstep, Mike’s family life and his wrestling team are turned upside down. Mike’s win-win proposition turns into something much more complicated than he ever bargained for. McCarthy’s deft touch balancing drama and comedy, broken hearts and poignant humanity is at play in WIN WIN."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Everything spoiled ahead!

Battle: Los Angeles makes a great trailer, complete with mysterious music, shots of aliens blasting at buildings and helicopters, and screaming humans running for their lives. That must account for it’s boffo opening weekend numbers, as they say in the biz (38 million in three days). It’s one of those movies not screened for reviewers beforehand. Which usually means it’s trying to avoid inevitable bad reviews for its opening day.

So is Battle: L.A. bad? It’s not as good as the trailer suggests, but it’s not bad quite enough to hold back preview screenings either. The premise is kindergarten simple: what at first appears to be a meteor shower turns out to be aliens invading earth.

All narrative drive is shown from the view of a platoon of Marines stationed in Los Angeles. We are introduced to each character as if this were a documentary (or a disaster movie from the 70s) with superfluous name titles and ranks. But all of this means nothing when the movie deals only in cardboard characters and boilerplate plot-points.

We follow the wet behind the ears 2nd Lieutenant and his platoon, bolstered by Aaron Eckhart’s aging staff sergeant on his retirement day who, rumor has it, got most of his last squad killed in Afghanistan. The platoon gets its first mission: to evacuate all citizens from the Santa Monica coast. This while the aliens quickly show their fangs and start to, in the words of one faux scientist on the tube, colonize earth. Meaning, destroy all human beings so the bad aliens can harvest our water supply.

Sunny Santa Monica streets are turned into a war torn tableau thanks to the aliens on a rampage. These are nasty aliens. After we get a good look at them, we see that they act and move like fleet footed chrome soldiers from a Transformers’ sequel. There are various types: the grunts, the captains, and god-like ones that seem to almost float on tendrils like squids. All metal and gun power, they take orders from a centralized communications orb, the size of ten city blocks.

The first half of Battle: L.A. is bad. I groaned, I moaned, I wanted my money back. It was all superfluous setup details that were dated and hackneyed by the time they were used in movies like Earthquake and Airport ’75. But then something happened. I started rooting for Aaron Eckhart as the forty-something sergeant, helping the younger Marines navigate their way through their first war. Dead bodies litter the streets, shots of high rises getting leveled create a frightening backdrop.

The camera work is shaky, and not in a good way. During scenes where we are introduced to the characters, the composition jerks for no reason, reminiscent of this shaky-cam style introduced in TV commercials in the 80s, then co-opted by shows like NYPD Blue. It worked for Blue for a couple years, but quickly became a parody of itself. Here it’s incredibly distracting, even during scenes of chaos as the aliens blast away at anything that moves (how is it their weapons are nearly identical to ours?). I figure the quick cuts and camera shake mask a budget that doesn't have the scope to fully render the aliens throughout the whole movie.

Regardless of budget, there are some impressive effects. At one point the platoon, having picked up some civilians along the way, end up commandeering a city bus and get onto one of the many elevated highways in L.A. Of course they get stuck without a clear exit, surrounded by the deadly killing machines. It’s here the move takes on the not too subtle tones of a war movie and from here on Battle acts as much a movie about Marines on a mission then humans battling aliens.

In quick succession these Marines figure out not only the best way to kill an alien (“Shoot to the left of where their heart would be.”) to how to take out their communication centers. The aliens are not just attacking L.A., but are hitting all the major cities of the world. Each attack coordinated by those floating communications centers. The rest of the movie follows the remaining troops as they fight to take down the L.A. communications center.

The final battle is as exciting as it is preposterous. Perhaps just slightly less crazy than the ending of any number of humans vs. aliens flicks, topped by the daddy of them all, Independence Day. Where Independence Day was mostly about the fun, Battle is a grim, realistic take on what actual ground warfare would be like with an invasive species.

With images of destruction, and, in the beginning, a big wave overtaking part of a beach, it wasn’t the most calming movie I could have chosen for the weekend of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The movie’s images hit a little too close to home, are a little too disturbing, and a little too realistic at times.

Admittedly, since I was a kid I enjoyed watching destruction on screen: Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, Poseidon Adventure, Godzilla, Them. I like things when they blow up, I suppose like any strapping twelve year old. But those movies from my youth were G or PG rated outings. The PG-13 and R ratings of today's end-of-days disaster movies allow for breathtaking scenes of utter death and destruction, dead bodies rendered much too clearly.

The Towering Inferno
It’s no longer a fun time at the movies, but an overwhelming digital effects experience. Instead of recommending Battle: Los Angeles, even for you twelve-year-olds raised on video games and zombies, I suggest you buy the Towering Inferno instead. At least that movie offered some high rise thrills, star power, and a body count kept below two hundred.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, March 13, 1:00 matinee. Price $8.25. Viewed solo. Snacks-Lucky Country Aussie Style Soft Gourmet Strawberry Licorice (stale).

Coming Attractions:

Apollo 18. What really happened on this moon landing (scary stuff) and why we never went back (boo!).

Bad Teacher. Cameron Diaz is a sexpot teacher, a role she was born to play if this trailer is any indication. With Justin Timberlake as a hot, nice-guy sub.

Untitled Cate Blanchett Film. I didn't catch the name, just that Cate's in it. Lot's of special effects, but I didn't catch the plot either. I suppose you can google it (type in: upcoming Cate Blanchett movie).

Priest.I have no recollection of this trailer. Sorry.

Super 8. The kind of movie Speilberg (who produced) would have made when he was ten. It's about a bunch of kids making a little home movie, on Super 8 film, about an alien invasion. And then, guess what happens? Do I really have to spell it out for you? Let's just say, they inadvertently capture some cool stuff on film.

X-Men, First Class. An origins story, telling you how Professor X and Magneto met. If those names mean nothing to you, then maybe you should watch The King's Speech again. Takes place during the Cuban missile crisis.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Take Me Home Tonight

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Mild to medium spoilers ahead.

In Take Me Home Tonight, the new post teen comedy that takes place in 1988, Topher Grace proves he has not aged since his days as Eric on That 70s Show. He plays a variation of Eric, the smart, sarcastic, wimpy kid from Illinois with the bodacious, sweet girlfriend. Here, his character, Matt Franklin, is hyper smart. He’s a whip with numbers and has recently graduated from MIT.

But it’s Labor Day Weekend. He spent the past summer back at home in Los Angeles working at Suncoast Video (RIP), and has no idea what he wants to do with his life. His dad, played by tough guy actor Michael Biehn (The Terminator, Aliens, T2), is an L.A. cop and wants Matt to take some initiative and get an engineering job.

While at work, Matt catches sight of his high school crush, Tori Frederking. Feigning to be a Suncoast Video customer and not an employee, he devises a fib to get her attention: knowing she works for a high powered financial company, he pretends to be an up-and-comer at Goldman Sachs. It works, just enough for him to find out she’s attending the big Labor Day Party being thrown by his sister’s boyfriend.

So, sit-com setup. A storyline that wouldn’t seem out of place on That 70s Show. Call it That 80s Show (not to be confused with the actual 70s Show spinoff with that very name). Tonight resembles a mix of contemporary teen comedies (Superbad, Nick and Norah’s Playlist, Easy A) and teen comedies made in the 80s (The Sure Thing, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Better off Dead) while also coming across as being not of either era. It looks bright and shiny, with a certain Benetton palate, but doesn’t quite have the zippy, hip quality of John Hughes movie (Ferris Bueller comes to mind as a teen template, as it similarly did when I recently watched Easy A) or the kitchen-sink insanity of a  Savage Steve Holland movie (One Crazy Summer, Better off Dead).

As a character, Topher’s Matt doesn’t quite lend himself to the hip but awkward teen and post teen characters Michael Cera has made a bright career playing, starting in Arrested Development and continuing with Superbad, Juno, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Nor is Matt as snarky and knowing as any character John Cusack played with a simpatico ease back in the 80s. Matt doesn’t necessarily think beyond just getting an in to talk to Tori. He’s almost a throwback to a 50s or 60s teen hero, one who just wants a pretty girl to like him, not even considering that she might actually sleep with him.

Matt is too sweet a guy to be considered contemporarily raunchy but the movie is too R-rated to be John Hughes sweet. The raunch, and much of the r-rating, is supplied by Matt’s sidekick, Barry, who, recently fired from his longtime car salesman job, takes revenge by stealing the best car on the lot for the night. The justification being that Matt can’t roll up to the big Labor Day party in just any crappy car. He’s gotta look like a player in the finance world.

Anna Ferris, a comedic actress who has headlined movies like The House Bunny, Scary Movies 1 through 4, and The Hot Chick, here plays the straight second banana of Matt’s twin sister, Wendy. Wendy is dating the guy who’s throwing the big Labor Day party. That seemed to me a little too convenient for the story, but whatever. The plot propels the story, and the story is a very familiar one.

The enjoyment of Take Me Home Tonight stems from the sweet characters. Even when Barry runs around snorting cocaine (hey, it was the 80s) and finds himself in a fancy Beverly Hills’ bathroom with a kinky couple, he still projects an enviable wide-eyed innocence that makes you want to just give him a hug. After he takes a shower, of course.

Australian actress Teresa Palmer plays Tori Frederking with the requisite hotness, but also the underlying sweetnissity that the movie aims for. Palmer looks so much like Kristen Stewart, at least in this movie, that we had to check the actresses’ name in the credits to verify it wasn’t her. She also carries some of Naomi Watts’ Australian cool charm. 

Over the course of this Tonight, Matt gets his ‘in’ with Tori, and then some. After he comes clean about working at Suncoast Video, he has to prove to Tori that he’s a decent guy after all. The climax seems cobbled together from the endings of Ferris Bueller and Better Off Dead (the big downhill ski competition especially), but Take Me Home Tonight won us over with its knowing charm for all things 80s and its even more retro wink to an earlier time when boys just wanted to talk to the girl of their dreams.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday, March 8, 6:55 bargain Tuesday show. Price $6.00. Viewed with Liz. Snacks--one apple, sliced.

Coming Attractions:

Arthur. Remake of the Dudley Moore/Liza Minnelli flick, this time around it's Russell Brand as the spoiled rich guy and Helen Mirren as the butler. Looks like a good vehicle for Brand.

Limitless.A decent idea that goes way too far. A schlubby, slacker of a writer (Bradley Cooper) is prescribed a variation of a smart drug, and he begins using 100% of his brain power, able to complete difficult math expressions, writing a great novel in a few days (ha, this really is a Hollywood movie). Of course, he's being used as a pawn for some corporation, and falls under the thumb of at first daddy-seeming, then evil-seeming Robert DeNiro. Looks like it could be entertaining.

Your Highness. "When Prince Fabious's bride is kidnapped, he goes on a quest to rescue her... accompanied by his lazy useless brother Thadeous." Natalie Portman plays straight lady to a goofy James Franco and Danny McBride.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Drive Angry 3D

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Mild to medium spoilers ahead.

When I was a kid, I went to my local small-town movie theater every weekend. Back when a little-known movie could blow into town without having already been reviewed by Siskel and Ebert on Sneak Previews. Before the Internet made marketing and promotion more egalitarian. Before you could watch trailers for upcoming movies online months in advance. Before every movie had its own official website and buzz from Harry Knowles at Ain’t it Cool News. I saw some clunkers this way, sci-fi knockoffs of Star Wars and Buck Rogers. Crappy retreads of Halloween and Friday the 13th.

So it was in this spirit of unknown promise that I recently drove to the Lowell Showcase on a rainy afternoon—the day of the 2011 Oscar telecast—to watch Drive Angry 3D. I admit I had seen a trailer on YouTube a couple months ago, and was intrigued by the cheese factor of Nicholas Cage dragging the ‘70s grindhouse/exploitation genre into the neo 3D era.

The elements are in place for some primo exploitation flick action. Nicholas Cage plays Milton, an intense bad ass who has escaped from hell (as if it were so easy, like escaping from a minimum security prison) to hunt down a Satan-worshipping cult (hey, shouldn’t these guys already be friends?) who killed his daughter and kidnapped his granddaughter, threatening to sacrifice her on the next full moon. Okay, well…wait, what?

You heard right, that’s the plot. All achieved with hard-R rated aplomb. Add the 3D element and you’ve got severed limbs, knives, boobies, cars, bullets, RVs, and hot rods all threatening to pop off the screen and doink you in the eyeball. Mix in the classic exploitation elements of sex, violence, religion (cults), cannibalism (human sacrifice, blood drinking). Add a pinch of other ‘70’s movie boilerplate like car chases (Gumball Rally, Vanishing Point, Death Race 2000) and the use of RVs as a means of transportation (Race with the Devil, The Hills Have Eyes, Damnation Alley). Then drizzle across the whole mess that most classic cinematic money-making, attention grabbing trope in the book, 3D (the fact that you still have to don glasses to experience 3D still makes me smile). Voilà! You’ve got all the makings of a classic grindhouse movie. Or a dozen.

Milton gets a ride from a hot blooded waitress, Piper (Amber Heard), who just quit her job. She’s cute, she dresses in cut offs, and she can kick ass. She also just happens to drive a restored Dodge Charger and ends up as Milton’s sidekick. (Thankfully sidekick is all she remains.)

Meanwhile the devil’s accountant (Death, by any other name) is on Milton’s trail to bring him back to hell. William Fichtner plays Death like a patient, natty warden super-powered by Beelzebub. It’s fun watching Death run up against, for example, stoner kids and telling them the next time they can expect to see him. “See you in three months,” he tells one kid. “You won’t see me ‘till you’re 73,” he tells the other. 

It doesn’t take long for Milton and Piper to catch up with Jonah King, the RV-drivin', baby-sacrificin' leader of the cult. Billy Burke plays Jonah, and looks like a younger Tommy Lee Jones beamed into the movie from the mid-‘70s. All of Drive Angry 3D is one long reference to the ‘70s, but it isn’t a period movie. There are cell phones and 24-hour cable news. Might have made more sense just to put all the set design in the way-back machine and spin the dial to 1973.

Milton confronts Jonah and his clan in their church, where Jonah shoots Milton in the face and leaves him for dead. Milton wakes up, hops back in his vintage Charger, and gives chase to the cult member’s RV in which they’ve kidnapped Piper and Milton’s infant granddaughter. The chase continues down highways and ends up in an abandoned factory.

These are fun, giddy, insane sequences moving quickly to wrap up the movie. While it looked as though the movie’s runtime was going to clock in a little short, I was reminded that the best exploitation flicks of the ‘70s, like all those Roger Corman movies with mobsters and guns and dames, were often sleek cinematic machines with running times under 90 minutes and often under 80.

Unfortunately after that chase scene ended, the movie kept going for another 30 minutes of Death duking it out with Milton. This leads up to the true finale in the courtyard of an old, shuttered prison where it’s good against evil. Or really bad against kind of bad with scruples.

In the end, the 3D effects don't lend much to the proceedings. I did recapture that youthful feeling of the initial unknown and the giddiness that comes with watching an entertainingly bad movie. For a few minutes, anyway. I give Drive Angry 3D an A for being its enjoyable first hour, then a D for ending on the sourest of notes. The filmmakers turned it into another stupid Nicholas Cage movie with an absurd plot and added special effects that sucked all the fun and life out of what could have been a lean, mean exploitation flick.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, February 27th, 11:45 matinee. Price $12.75. Viewed solo. Snacks--Licorice Log, Diet Pepsi.

Coming Attractions:

A Better Life. An man living illegally in the states tries to build a better life for his son and keep him out of a street gang.

Limitless. A decent idea that goes way too far. A schlubby, slacker of a writer (Bradley Cooper) is prescribed a variation of a smart drug, and he begins using 100% of his brain power, able to complete difficult math expressions, writing a great novel in a few days (ha, this really is a Hollywood movie). Of course, he's being used as a pawn for some corporation, and falls under the thumb of at first daddy-seeming, then evil-seeming Robert DeNiro. Looks like it could be entertaining.

Red Riding Hood. Okay, I gotta say, this movie is definitely sexy. I know what you're saying, Huh? Red riding hood. You mean, the little girl with the red cape and the wolf. Well, she ain't no girl anymore. And the wolf, well he could be any of the hot young studs in this woodsy hamlet. It's Twilight all over again, with the same director, Catherine Hardwicke, starring Amanda Seyfried as Miss Hood, all grow'd up.

Thor. Now in 3-D! Marvel Comics' Thor gets the big-budget treatment. With Chris Hemsworth as the titular hero, along with Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, and Anthony Hopkins.

Source Code. Jake Gyllenhaal has to relive the same eight minutes on a train to figure out who blew it up (hey, I didn't write it). Each time he goes back in, he falls a little more for a young woman, played by Michelle Monaghan, until he's determined to save her from dying in the inevitable train explosion.