|by Erik Childress
As much as some of us would like to review every film at length from the theaters to the festivals, sometimes it can prove impossible. But this reviewer is going to make an effort of it. As always you can tune into WGN Radio on Friday nights to hear Midnight Movie Reviews with myself, Nick Digilio and Collin Souter, but for here, let's get back to the writing.
CEDAR RAPIDS - Director Miguel Arteta has been quietly making some good comedies over the years. After festival favorites, Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl (which is precisely the kind of film Jennifer Aniston should be doing more of), a six-year absence from the cinema while doing TV turned into a bit longer when his version of C.D. Payne's cult novel, Youth In Revolt, was delayed time and time again. Finally released last January, well after Michael Cera's brief heat as a star had cooled off. Very few people saw what was actually a very funny movie with Cera (like Aniston) putting a twist on his usual film persona. Arteta was invited back to Sundance this year to premiere his latest, Cedar Rapids, and the result again is a quite funny, if unspectacular comedy about an insurance seminar and its gathering. Ed Helms plays the super-nice Tim Lippe. Corralled into the business at a young age, Tim knows little else than how to put on a smile, be good and find a way to please the people that step into his life. When the firm's top salesman drops dead, Tim is asked by his boss and mentor (Stephen Root) to travel to Cedar Rapids in order to win the famed Two-Diamond Award; a symbol that can be used to draw in business. His only condition - stay away from the troublemaking Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly). Hard to do when his roommate (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) invites Dean to stay with them when the hotel gets overbooked. Needless to say, Dean is every bit the bad influence you might expect utilizing every vice from booze to sexually-explicit language to try and loosen Tim up. Throw in the temptation of a flirtatious co-worker (Anne Heche) and a local hooker (Alia Shawkat) and the recipe is stirred for Tim to lose all his inhibitions and become the kind of man he never wanted to be. The majority of the laughs from Cedar Rapids come, not surprisingly, from Reilly who is on full tilt Bill Murray for this performance and earns it simply from being crass and outrageous. At 80-some minutes, the film is about the right length for this kind of get-in-and-get-out with a decent register of laughs. What gets lost in-between some of that outrageousness though is what I suspect is a more rounded comedy about religious hypocrisy and not judging a person's inner goodness by their outer conduct. Not everyone is totally good and not everyone is totally bad. A little more time devoted to this idea in Phil Johnston's script would have helped Helms' performance which more than occasionally skirts with being an annoying fuddy-duddy rather than a lovable one. Heche's character is a cousin to Vera Farmiga's role in Up in the Air only without the shattering depth of her behavior. Here it is more a blueprint than a finished model. But Reilly and his usual commitment to the goof pretty much saves the day and makes it worth a look.
COLD WEATHER - The festival circuit has seen its share of modern-day amateur sleuths. There was Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Brendan in Rian Johnson's fantastic, Brick. The poor man's copy of that film was the D.O.A., Assassination of a High School President, and the somewhere-in-between cult favorite, Mystery Team, featuring a pre-Community Donald Glover. Writer/director Aaron Katz probably would not refer to his latest effort as a detective story, nor should we, even if that is the easiest way to describe it. Cold Weather is actually the story about Cris Lankenau's Doug who is crashing with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) back in Portland and taken up a job at an ice factory. To go along with his one-time studies into forensic science, Doug still reads Sherlock Holmes and even hooks his new co-worker, Carlos (Raul Castillo) into sharing that fascination. Life is of the everyday sort until Doug's ex-girlfriend (Robyn Rikoon) arrives in town and Carlos takes a fancy to her. When she goes missing, the film shifts gears for the second half as Doug, Gail and Carlos search for clues into what she's mixed up in. The "who" and the "what" are of secondary importance to what Cold Weather eventually plays towards and that is the bonding between brother and sister. What begins as potentially just another mumblecore-type film (another labeling Katz might object to) actually begins to take on a resonance of twentysomething realization that they are not kids anymore. Their mystery has all the enigmatic clues of a Holmes story, but the pond they are wading in is the real thing; full of not just potential danger but perhaps the last bit of extraordinary excitement their lives have in store for them. Their adventure is funny without being satiric; nonchalant without being boring. And when it is over, culminating in an equally suspenseful and humorous climax, the consequences ahead - whatever they might be - are left to our own imaginations, turning to a potential blank page on a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. Cold Weather is not near the kind of Marlowe-esque throwback to an era of tough guy speak that Brick was, but it never wanted to be. It is more about wannabes not quite sure what they wannabe.
IN HER SKIN - The makers of In Her Skin must be prepared to cut a check to anyone who ever read, wrote, made, or saw The Lovely Bones. Budget, shmudget, true story or not, the similarities between the two become more glaring once you begin realizing what an exploitive piece of trash this film really is. The film begins with the disappearance of a 15 year-old girl, seen through the eyes of her parents (Guy Pearce & Miranda Otto) who suspect something is wrong just hours past the time she was due home. Dad even has a fever dream where he wakes up shouting "she's dead!" Juxtapose their horror with the bi-polar neighbor girl, Caroline (Ruth Bradley). She is overweight, hates herself, and hates her parents even more for getting a divorce. During one of her tantrum fits she strips out of her clothes for daddy (Sam Neill) to make him feel guilty for the way she looks. Crazy is as crazy does though and we watch as she lures the 15 year-old she used to babysit back to her place and proceeds to brutally strangle and, for good measure of her crazy, stab the corpse in the face a few times. In her mind, this perfectly lithe dancer didn't deserve her fate and had to die. However this transpired in real life - a horrific tragedy for certain - Simone North's treatment of it is ugly and insulting. Intentionally or not, the decision to place most of the point of view with the killer, is a way of empathizing with a cold-blooded killer who couldn't help her fate as a chemically-imbalanced child of divorce. It is a dangerous position to wade around in when you have a screenplay that has no point of view of its own other than to basically reenact this terrible event and reopen old wounds without any insight to the grief of the family or attempting to socialize the problems that led to it. And you cannot, under any circumstances, have the dead girl narrate your film. Like Susie Salmon she provides a running commentary over scenes, hovering through the space like an angel or some observer from Enter The Void. Between her punctuation, the grieving parents looking for answers through cops who want them to back off, and the obviously creepy neighbor responsible, Alice Sebold may have even taken inspiration for her 2002 novel from the real-life case three years earlier. True or not, she and Peter Jackson can at least mask themselves under the guise of fiction with a purpose. Simone North has practically created a snuff movie-of-the-week that gets under the wrong skin.
JUST GO WITH IT - Read my full review HERE.
JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER - When I first caught this latest pop phenom on Jay Leno over a year ago, I was struck at how little humility this kid had for being a superstar at the age of 16. What a little punk, I thought. Especially for someone who had no more talent than any teen sensation that had come down the pike and in many cases - less. His songs were nothing special and had a voice that wouldn't get him to Hollywood on an average day of American Idol. Yet here we are, like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers before him, getting his own 3-D concert film in February for his adoring fans to gush over. Those of the unimpressed variety might hope to discover some insight into his meteoric rise. Maybe there's a better story behind it than just being a viral video that may or may not have started as a joke. Perhaps this very cynical and taste-centric movie and music lover would have to admit I was wrong all along and issue a public apology. Instead, Never Say Never actually confirmed everything I had ever said about or seen in this kid. You don't even have to read between the lines as you can see Bieber as someone who believes his shit doesn't stink. His handlers around him skirt around stories about having to control him. It is more than just immaturity. This kid believes he was born great and it is not sheer luck that he was chosen for worldwide fame. The very opening of the film combines one of Bieber's original YouTube videos with others that people would forward to make people laugh. Listening to his producer explain his intro to him, you can almost see the dollar signs replace his eyeballs. This was not in the interest of fulfilling a dream or believing he had found some great unseen talent cause anyone who watches those videos and says it was all about the voice is a stone-faced liar.
The movie shifts between numbers from his Madison Square Garden concert and the tale of Bieber's rise to stardom and everyday behind-the-scenes footage. The numbers are as teeny-bop generic as any you have ever heard, but have the same inoffensive sense of fan cuddling as the aforementioned G-rated concert films. Though to Bieber's credit, even in his limited range as a vocalist, he still sounds better than the Jonas Brothers and doesn't spray his underage female fans in foam. But it is the material that surrounds the concert that is the most infuriating. The gushing of young girls is one thing. The gushing of music experts who should know better when to smack down a little punk that doesn't even know the meaning of the word "dues" is unforgivable. Even moreso that by including more of that footage than in those previous efforts (this barely qualifies as a concert film), Never Say Never completely embraces the American way where it is truly better to be lucky than good. Bieber may have really liked singing as a kid, but there is not a single reference to any of his influences except as some anonymous song choices.
Presented as is, this is no more the tale of a dream that became a reality than some kid who hit a mailbox with a baseball bat getting a major league contract. There is nothing underdog about Bieber, who dangerously announces in voiceover before his concert that any of his spectators could sell out the Garden if they just believed. Just a little while before a rendition of the actual song, Never Say Never, is then followed with Ludacris being brought out on stage wearing a shirt that proudly boasts the word "dropout." It is enough to send one into a rage seizure, especially when the film stops to allow Bieber two minutes to look into the camera and flip his trademark locks right at us while Etta James' "At Last" plays on the soundtrack. If Never Say Never was merely just a gigantic commercial for the fans, it would be easy to dismiss especially as the cult of Bieber begins to fade with age. But this is an infomercial for the lottery mentality we have in this country for both the semi-talented who only need a touch of manufactured reality to be famous and for the parents in this country from the pageant moms to the stage dads.
We may not to get to know Justin's mom so well during the film, but I think we can all agree that all we need to know is seen in the words she mouths towards her son while he performs to a sold-out crowd - "thank you." If it is a bit unfair to draw conclusions on the mentality of the Bieber clan, fine. Next time make a better documentary so we won't have to draw our own.
LISTEN TO THE MIDNIGHT MOVIE REVIEW PODCAST AT WGN RADIO WITH MYSELF, NICK DIGILIO AND COLLIN SOUTER and you can follow me on Twitter.
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originally posted: 02/13/11 02:37:37
last updated: 02/13/11 02:45:02