Monday, August 1, 2011

RANDOM MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION #3: "CEDAR RAPIDS," "SHE'S OUT OF MY LEAGUE," "CAIRO TIME," AND MORE

It's the third edition of my weekly movie reviews, and I'm happy to report that the blog has doubled it's followers. It's doubled them 2 to 4, but it's a start. Keep spreading the word, like Gospel, or like vicious rumors. Either way, just make sure everyone knows to come here for some thoughtful essays on the film, tv and entertainment world at large. Also, I've heard some notes from some of my followers that the font of the blog might be too small to read. This concerns me greatly, because I have been wondering what should be the appropriate font size and style for the page. I typical write in Times, although sometimes I write in Calibiri when I cut and paste a blog that I pre-wrote on Microsoft Word. I try to keep the text under what's called the "normal" size setting, but sometimes I may differ. The choices the blog provides me for font are
Arial
Courier
Georgia
Helvetica
Times
Trebuchet
Verdana

Part of me leans towards Courier, Times and occasionally Arial, but I don't have a problem deferring this to the readers. If there's a particular font or if you think the size of the type on my blog is too small or too large, or whatever, please let me know, and I will do my best in the future to oblige my loyal readers. Now that that business is taken care of, onto this week's reviews!


Cedar Rapids (2011) Director: Miguel Arteta
4 1/2 STARS 
In “Cedar Rapids,” Ed Helms from “The Office,” and most notably, “The Hangover,” stars as Tim Lippe, a decent insurance salesman who’s never left his small home town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He’s so naïve and childlike, he’s happy to have grown up and start sleeping with his old grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), but now he must go to the big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a Midwest Insurance convention and get his company to once again win the prestigious Two Diamond Award, an award which is ironically, one-large diamond. Once in the city, he begins to get corrupted. He makes friends with a black guy (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) he gives butterscotch to the local hooker (Alia Shawkat), and starts to hang out with bad influences, which come in the form of party animal Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) and a married and almost-as-wild girl, Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche). Basically, it’s one of those fish-out-of-water comedies, and it’s a very good one. There’s great comic performances all around, especially by Ed Helms, who plays the character’s naiveté as genuine and it makes him all the more loveable when his moral world suddenly gets slowly shattered as he’s on the floor high on pot and coke getting kicked in the gut at a raucous house party the rest of the gang has to save him from. There are also some good minor performances by Stephen Root and Kirkwood Smith and this is a strong early contender for funniest film of the year. I’ve seen twice already, and it gets funnier on each. One of my favorite films so far this year.

She's Out of My League (2011) Director: Jim Field Smith
3 STARS
There’s nothing particularly special about “She’s Out of My League,” but it kinda worked for me anyway.  Kirk (Jay Baruchel) is a dorky PSA agent at the airport, who hangs out with the typical dorky friends, many of whom recommends doing stupid things to help him lighten the mood after his girlfriend refused to get back together with him. They broke up two years ago, although she stills hangs out at his parents’ place, along with her new boyfriend. Then, he meet cute’s Molly, (Alice Eve) a hot law-school graduate who’s working as a high-end party and event planner. According to the laws of a completely made-up ratings system, Molly, a 10, shouldn’t be interested in Kirk, who’s a 5 at best. That’s the made-up basis for the conflict of the movie, which moves along fairly predictable grounds, with a few decent jokes tucked in. I forgot about it, almost right after I saw it, but the ending did win me over enough to recommend it, barely. Mostly because there’s  nothing here that's particular harmful and while it could've been funnier, it also could've tried to hard for funny jokes that would've been disastrous. It’s your average typical romantic-comedy. I wish it was a little more, but it’s good enough. 

Cairo Time (2010) Director: Ruba Nadda
3 1/2 STARS
 I wonder if this story can take place in any city? The whirlwind romance tale from in a foreign faraway land. It seems to almost always work if the place is foreign and faraway. It doesn’t even have to particularly be a romance as “Lost in Translation,” showed us. In “Cairo Time,” Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), the head of a newsstand magazine called “Vous,” arrives in Cairo expected to meet her husband, an important UN worker, only to find he is stuck in Israel having to organize a refugee camp, and he has sent his longtime friend Tariq (Alexander Siddiq) to keep an eye on her, thinking he’ll return quickly.  While Patricia Clarkson is one of my absolute favorite actresses and she’s more than up for this part, this movie relies mostly on the seductiveness of Egypt, and Cairo more specifically. The movie lures us in and sways us slowly into this exotic world, and eventually begins to sway Juliette and Tariq together. This is not what I’d call a romantic relationship, but it certainly has the feel of one. In another movie and another world, this movie could’ve led to melodrama. Instead, it feels like “We’ll always have Cairo,” and I think that’s the right note. Sometimes the bonds between two people, even if they’re only brief bonds for a short period of time don’t need to be shared with the rest of the world. They’re short, in the moment, and will play like a fond, secret, distant memory only you have. Let the husband have his own memory of the Pyramids.



Accidents Happen (2010) Director: Andrew Lancaster
2 STARS
“Accidents Happen,” wishes to be either be a witty dark indy comedy about a screwed-up indy film family, or a serious Indy family melodrama film about how a family deals with a death. It’s neither, and its annoying. The movie stars Geena Davis (When’s the last time we’ve seen her in a film?) as a mother of a family that tends to be accident prone. Bowling balls-flying-down-the-street-causing-car-accidents-type accident prone. After one accident, their 15-year old daughter dies, another kid remains in a catatonic state, and Billy (Harrison Gilbertson) starts wandering around trying to hold the family together, when he’s not getting his back burned by a TV dinner, or streaking with the neighbor kid. I’ve seen great movies about a family trying to regain themselves after the lost of a kid, like last years film “Rabbit’s Hole,”  that earned an Oscar-nomination for Nicole Kidman for instance, or the overlooked "Welcome to the Rileys". I've even seen good films with eccentric families that were comedies. Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides,” comes to mind. This is a movie that tries to do too much, but what's worse, it that it doesn’t do any of it well. In no way did I find this family believable in any way, and there's movie quirks aren't that interesting. I think half-way through, I started cheering for the accidents.


The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) Director: Anthony Asquith
3 STARS
This is the second film adaptation I’ve seen of Oscar Wilde's play “The Importance of Being Earnest,” the other being the recent 2002 edition directed by Olivr Parker, and starred Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon.  Both films I’ve given three stars to, and after viewing both of them I found myself thinking the same thing: This has to be the breeziest tale in English literature. That’s not an insult...- okay, it’s kind of an insult, but it really is light as a feather.  It’s a , and I use this term loosely, story, about an Englishman who lives has a great country manor, but goes off to the city ever now and then, pretending to be his fictitious brother Ernest so he can run a little wild, and eventually falls for a high society girl who wants to love a guy named Ernest.  In fact the women in the movie, (well, young women) hardly have a tiny thought in their head other than the name Ernest is a wonderful name for a husband. I thought Roxanne was shallow for wanting a suitor who can look good and speak sonnets more eloquently than her cousin Cyrano. It’s not really important anyway, ‘cause “The Importance of Being Earnest,” is about really sharp biting wit which is loosely based around a misunderstanding farce that’s about as thought-provoking as your random “Three’s Company,” episode. But that’s why we enjoy it. It funny, sharp-tongued wit, and very little else. If pushed, I’d probably have to say I preferred the newer version to this one, but I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly why; there’s basically no difference. Either way, sit back, and listen to the great verbal dexterities that the mind of Oscar Wilde came up with.


A Little Princess (1995) Director: Alfonso Cuaron
4 STARS
 I somehow missed “A Little Princess,” when I was younger, and apparently it was a critical one ‘cause I’ve received notes from numerous family, friends and acquaintances since I noted on my facebook that I had seen it.  I’ve now added the Shirley Temple original version of the film to my Netflix (Which is actually called “The Little Princess,” as oppose to “A Little Princess”, this version.) Personally, the most interesting appeal of the movie to me was its director, Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican director who’s made some amazing adult films in the last few years, including the sexually-charged, “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, and the sci-fi masterpiece “Children of Men”.  Yet, he also made “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkabhan,” and he seems to have more freedom with special effects in his children or younger-themed films. Here, the images of India, particularly when their exaggerated by Sara (Liesel Matthews) are spectacular. She was raised by her father (Liam Cunningham) in India, but he’s now has gone off to war and has sent Sara to the best girls boarding school in England, which is run by Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron), who suffers from an slightly under-explained case of Evil Stepmother Syndrome.  I can understand why this movie would be beloved by both children and adults. It’s a got a few cliché problems, but it’s really a touching story that’s very well told. I think the secret of Cuaron’s films is that, while he might use special effects and creative camera work to tell his story, he takes all his characters, even children, very seriously, so even in the most outlandish of circumstances, he never hits a wrong note. We have already long believed the character, so we take the journey with them, whether it’s from the jungles of India to the boarding school of England or from the cities to the beaches of Mexico. “A Little Princess,” is one of his most touching films.

Night of the Living Dead (1968) Director: George A. Romero
4 STARS
George Romero and zombies movies, a director and a genre that are as intricately linked as John Ford and westerns. Personally, I haven’t gotten around to Romero until now (And I probably should get around to watching more John Ford, now that I think about it), but I was never the biggest horror film fan and zombies, yeah, I know it’s a common complaint, but they’re kind of boring as a villain. The walking dead, ooh. They move slowly, they have a tendency to be easy to kill, and if they aren’t well, they’re already dead, and frankly, what’s the problem with them, exactly. I mean, say there’s a zombie, walking down the street, like any other normal guy, let’s say we don’t bother them, what are they gonna do? Probably go on walking about their day. They are zombies. Okay, so in this movie, they eat people for nutrients. Okay, that’s different. That’s a reason to be afraid and that’s what Romero is great at, creating tension. This movie takes place mostly in an abandoned house, with a bunch of little known actors. For much of the movie, there’s barely any background music. The biggest piece of tension relies on radio and TV news reports that the characters are listening to while they board up the house and stand guard. It’s amazingly affective. It reminded me of the notorious Orson Welles Mercury Theatre radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” which caused temporary widespread panic across the country. Yeah, there’s some zombie killing and then some overzealous humans who are only too happy to kill zombies, but they come at the end, and almost obligatorily. That’s correct. A horror or thriller always looses it when we see the boogie man or whatever. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as everybody is afraid of it, to alter slightly the famous Hitchcock MaGuffin definition. All Romero really has is an abandoned house, and a few bad actors, and I couldn’t turn away from the movie. The true sign of a great classic thriller, and a great director.

The Hammer (2007) Director: Charles Herman-Wurmfeld
4 STARS
I’m not exactly sure why I’m surprised Adam Carolla would be able to come up with and star in a very funny movie, but it does seem a little surprising. Actually, what’s most surprising is that it’s actually a fairly good character study. Corolla plays Jerry Farro, a former amateur boxer who had a shot at going to the Olympics when he was young, but gave up out of youth and stupidity, and has become an occasional carpenter, and a boxing class coach at a local gym. Because he never turned pro, he’s technically still an amateur, and still has a strong left hand that can knock out a good contender, and eventually accepts a sudden opportunity to train for the Olympics once again at age 40. It’s a little ridiculous as a story, but as an acting job, Carolla is surprisingly convincing in both the comedic scenes, and the boxing scenes. He came up with the idea for the film, so it’s tailored especially for him, so it’s a little tricky to judge his acting here, but I found him very effective. He ends up mentoring a fellow young boxer in his weight class (Harold House Moore) and gets a girlfriend as well (Heather Juergensen) both of which have the ability to be cliché, but here, they’re  effective, and the ending doesn’t play out as predictably as it could’ve either. I’m a little surprised this film got overlooked by the general public when it came out a couple years ago. It’s funny and dramatic, and holds up incredibly well. I think to a certain extent, Adam Carolla’s never gotten over those initial images the world saw of him front being a co-host of “Loveline,” with Dr. Drew, and then “The Man Show,” with Jimmy Kimmel, and because of that, he isn’t viewed as a comic capable of more than his own shtick. I think the more that see him here, the more we can start thinking of him as a strong comic who can be a strong actor, if given the right material.  

To Sir, with Love (1967) Director: James Clavell
3 1/2 STARS
If there’s a storytelling device that’s overdone to death, it’s the story of the teacher who radically alters the career paths of his students, who are usually the dismissed group of unteachable students. I think we all know the movies, so there’s no need to name of, but the fact there are so many is that usually, it works. The first thing you need is a great actor to play the teacher, and, well actually, that generally will do it. As long as the script and director are competent, a good actor should be able to hold the film throughout. Well, you can’t get much better than Sidney Poitier, so “To Sir, with Love,” is certainly a good movie. How special is it compared to others in the genre? Eh, I think it’s more in the middle, average. The title song is good, and I can’t get that out of my head. The movie’s biggest problem is that it’s most dramatic moments occur a little too early in the film, when Poitier explodes at the students after one too many insubordinations towards him. This is where he regroups and begins to teach life to the students, instead of whatever subject he was supposed to. Surprisingly, a lot of his story is unclear. There’s a lot of attempts to explain Poitier’s character, from Guinea, taught in America, originally English, they almost seem contradictory, but worse, it’s really kind of unnecessary. Poitier's natural charisma and presence (Has there ever been an actor with as much natural presence on camera as Poitier?) save it, but this only underlines that the students aren’t always the most interesting counterparts. One student holds out on Sir’s techniques, but it’s obvious he’ll eventually come around. Most of the drama involving the end of the film, is a little too manufactured, up to and including an impromptu boxing match, but overall it’s hard not to like this film. Good actors, I swear, they can save the worst of material. Here, we have decent material, that’s elevated to good by a great actor.

XX/XY (2010) Director: Austin Chick
2 1/2 STARS
Not sure what the point of the genetically-influence title is, but “XX/XY,” is a strange tale of a love triangle told in two parts, that both seem to have little to inherently do with the other, other than the fact that the same people are involved. The first part starts at Sarah Lawrence College where Coles (Mark Ruffalo) meets Sam (Maya Strange) and tries to sleep with her. She insists on Thea, (Kathleen Robertson) joining them. This is the beginning of their sexual odyssey, which sounds more interesting in this sentence than it actually was. There’s reckless behavior, sexual and otherwise between the three of them, but it ends after college. It suddenly reemerges ten years later after Coles’s become an animator for an ad agency after a failed film directing career (And it’s strange how everybody in the film suddenly recognizes Coles for that one failed film) and is now engaged to Claire (Petra Wright). Life seems normal at this point, but alas, the sexual tension between the characters soon awakens their apparently sleeping sexual and commitment desires. I saw this film on Netflix Watch Instantly after they apparently stopped carrying the DVD, so I decided to get to this one quicker than I had planned to, but I’m not sure how this movie could’ve, or would’ve been saved by anything. The duality structure, similar to the two-part “Full Metal Jacket,” structure doesn’t completely work here. It comes off as two halves of two different movies. While, there is a lot to like, particularly the daring acting, this movie felt inconsistent, and the more I think about, the less I like it. I won’t stop anybody from watching it, as there’s enough here that’s worth seeing, but after much thought, I can’t quite recommend it. It’s too inconsistent.

Blue Crush (2002) Director: John Stockwell
2 STARS
“Blue Crush,” had a real opportunity to give us amazing images of surfing, something that has been deservedly mocked and ridiculed in film since the “Beach Blanket Bingo,” days, while also giving us a look into the personal and private lives of surfers. It succeeds at this for a little while, but then it diverges one too many times into typical cliché side-characters and becomes a rather unconvincing and open-ended romance story. The movie follows three Hawaiian surfers, the main one played by Kate Bosworth, who’s Anne Marie has the ability to be a professional surfer, although a painful injury has stunted her self-esteem. She also works as a hotel maid along with her fellow surfer girls (Michelle Rodriguez  and Sanoe Lake) and after getting fired, the girls get part-time work teaching visiting NFL Pro Bowlers to surf. One of them, a QB (Matthew Davis) is a nice and seemingly good-looking guy and Anne-Marie eventually falls for him. Unfortunately, that’s also about as much as we learn about him. Anne-Marie also watches her younger sister, although not very well as she’s never around to help her with her homework, and is barely able to get her to school in time. It’s bad enough that the interesting plot points are only half-told, the movie seems to run out of ideas so it recycles old ones. The movie lost it for me when Anne-Marie takes her new boyfriend to a local’s only spot to teach to surf, and when other islanders find them, they get into a confrontation, annoyed that a Big Star Mainlander is surfing on their land. This is a scenario that I think can only take place in a bad movie, and the movie has a few other scenes like that. Shame, the movie had the elements there, but it couldn’t figure out how to use them. 
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