In Cedar Rapids, Ed Helms learns that life can be more than cheese and warm socks.
As a prophet, I am a dubious Nostradamus. But I will guess the Oscars. This is an itch that must be scratched.
My regard for “the Academy” is much like that of nominee Melissa Leo (The Fighter) in her recent remark, “This entire awards process, to some degree, is about pimping yourself out.” That sounds sensible, given Oscar’s history, but it may have damaged Leo’s chance for a prize next Sunday.
Perhaps some of her voters have fled (please!) to my favorite, Helena Bonham Carter of The King’s Speech. To quote wise old Blaise Pascal, “The heart has its reasons,” and the fair Helena nailed down my loyalty simply by the regal but motherly way she said, “Very good, archbishop.” For humor and sense, we will not see a better acceptance speech than hers at the BAFTAs (British awards).
For the 83rd Oscars, my choices of likely winners are set in bold. Those marked (X) are the ones I would vote for (in one group I split my vote):
Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech (X), 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone.
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan; Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit; David Fincher, The Social Network; Tom Hooper (X), The King’s Speech; David O. Russell, The Social Network.
Javier Bardem, Biutiful; Jeff Bridges, True Grit; Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network; Colin Firth (X), The King’s Speech; James Franco, 127 Hours.
Annette Bening (X), The Kids Are All Right; Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole; Jennifer Lawrence (X), Winter’s Bone; Natalie Portman, Black Swan; Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine.
Christian Bale, The Fighter; John Hawkes, Winter’s Bone; Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right; Geoffrey Rush (X), The King’s Speech.
Amy Adams, The Fighter; Helena Bonham Carter (X), The King’s Speech; Melissa Leo, The Fighter; Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit; Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom.
I’d be delighted if Exit Through the Gift Shop is crowned best feature documentary, Madagascar: Carnet de Voyage wins as animated short, God of Love rules among live-action shorts, David Seidler is honored for writing The King’s Speech, Roger Deakins takes the cinematography prize for True Grit, and Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini share the adapted story award for Winter’s Bone.
Back in the trenches:
Sometimes crude gags only stain the screen, as with No Strings Attached. In Cedar Rapids, they add up to comedy. How do you make a funny film about a convention of insurance salesmen? If you cannot enlist Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis, Preston Sturges, Terry Southern, Stanley Elkin, Tom Wolfe, or Christopher Buckley, you would do well to settle for Phil Johnston’s script, directed by Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, Chuck & Buck). It is expertly cast and so Midwestern that your popcorn should come on a cob.
Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, the kind of cheerful doof that Eddie Bracken once acted for Sturges. Despite regular sex with the veteran schoolteacher (Sigourney Weaver) he has adored since boyhood, Tim is essentially a virgin. He loves selling insurance in a small town and is sent to the annual convention in “big” Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Ordered by his boss to win a top award, Tim finds that the big wheel (Kurtwood Smith) is a Bible-thumping hypocrite. A black roommate (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is a major growth lesson for the almost insanely Caucasian Tim. The rival (John C. Reilly) whom Tim has been told to avoid is a loud, preening vulgarian but then something more.
Arteta doesn’t overdo the Heartland banalities, and the women (Weaver, Anne Heche as a sharp conventioneer, Alia Shawkat as a wry prostitute) are sexy fun without becoming raunchy doodles. Helms slightly cartoons the Howdy Doody aspects of Tim, who finds that life can be more than cheese, warm socks, and actuarial tables, yet when he turns “O Holy Night” into an insurance anthem, it’s weirdly moving. Reilly has his best party-pig moments since Boogie Nights. Whitlock, a bankroll of nuances, redeems a clunky roadhouse sequence in an unexpected way (and, in character, credits his love of The Wire, on which the actor has appeared).
Cedar Rapids is often like a Christopher Guest comedy, yet less satirically rigged. It is adult in such an amusingly impish way that some crassness is not offensive. Finally, after 67 years, insurance salesmen escape the long, dark shadow of Double Indemnity.
Even the Rain
The chopper hauling a huge cross must be a nod to the helicoptered Christ in La Dolce Vita. More-esoteric cinephiles may notice ghostly traces of Dennis Hopper’s South American fiasco, The Last Movie. Nobody with a brain can miss the human, honorable, but obvious points of Even the Rain. Icíar Bollaín’s movie is about a film being shot among the Quechua peoples of Bolivia, a film about Columbus’s first impact on the Caribbean tribes. But the modern, Andean natives are soon in revolt against their water rights being “privatized” (looted) by multinational firms.
The director who feels driven to use Bolivia is played by Gael García Bernal, who famously played Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries (Guevara, even more famously, died in Bolivia). His producer is a hard realist (big, bald Luis Tosar), and it is Tosar who gets the most crucial actions with an Indian radical (film newcomer Juan Carlos Aduviri), vividly cast as main martyr of the movie-in-the-movie.
Bollaín’s film has its heart, and some art, in the right place. It is also like a term-paper keeping a train schedule. Ideas arrive on parallel rails: global firms are the new conquistadors; coveted gold is now water (no mention, I believe, of Bolivian silver); liberal, artistic conscience now subs for that of fabled Catholic priests; the highlanders represent all the hemisphere’s slaughtered victims (no mention of the chief culprit: disease). And the plot then turns on the fate of one child. This movie’s hooks are humane, but they are still hooks.
Unknown about Unknown: why anyone bothered. Liam Neeson comes to Berlin with his wife (January Jones). An accident slams him into a brief coma, and he awakens with spotty amnesia, his identity (and wife) stolen. He hustles through a trashy plot that is like a John le Carré thriller reduced to pencil smudges for the dullest fans of Steven Seagal: dumb surprises, chases, smash-ups, clues of limited use.
Jaume Collet-Serra, fresh from music videos, directed in the style of no-style (alas, not Zen). The suspense is just a more hyper-active coma, taking down Diane Kruger, Frank Langella, Aidan Quinn, and Sebastian Koch. A former East German police agent (Bruno Ganz) is credibly touching and exits memorably.
There is chat about Sherlock Holmes and also some debt to Alfred Hitchcock. There is the tautness of a wee budget stretched. Dialogue lands midway between David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. An enjoyable cast of unknowns (Cris Lankenau, Raúl Castillo, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Robyn Rikoon) deserves to be known. Their context is Cold Weather, a shaggy-dog mystery with a frisky tail. Aaron Katz seems to direct even the weather: chill, wet, gray, furthering slacker moods that cook some menacing possibilities.
The weather is in Portland, Oregon, and their chamber of commerce may not love the iron skies, cheap motels, dull apartments, and an ice factory in zones where tourism would be futile. The plot is all neo-noir zigs and furtive zags, with nibbles of romance and the slum-along hipsterism of mumblecore cinema. Katz knows how to tone and tease it, and Andrew Reed’s photography relishes the underbelly of Portland.