Duh, Winning! – In the Cinematic Doldrums

Despite last year’s anomalous presence of standouts like Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer, late winter and early spring are typically the cinematic doldrums, unless you like animated kid’s stuff.  This year seems even more vacuous than usual, probably due to the high quality of left-over “I’ve seen it already!” Oscar fare and the still fresh memories of last year at this time when things weren’t so bad.  But in a multi-media age, one need not look far and wide to find ways of “Sheening It” and winning, duh!  Here are three very different films (Cedar Rapids, Never Let Me Go and Carlos), available through different venues that, for better or for worse, all have tiger blood running through their veins.

In Theaters:

Anne Heche, your career was in free-fall? Don't worry, we gotcha!

Cedar Rapids – Successfully combining the “Dumb Guys Gone Wild” humor of films like The Hangover with the contemporary societal mirror-holding of films like Up in the Air while channeling it all through the gentle “family is whoever you want it to be” humor of Springtime quirky-indie comedies ala Little Miss Sunshine, Cedar Rapids quietly fires on all cylinders and wins.  Rarely do you have a comedy operating on this many levels, and what makes it even more disarming is the unassuming and faux-pedestrian directorial style of Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl and Youth in Revolt) who is the perfect orchestrator of this brand of humor.

Ed Helms does well in the role of the overly naive, nice guy who gets in over his head but wins out in the end, and the back-story of why he became an insurance salesman is actually rather tragic.  However, the poor guy can’t quite carry a film yet…and that’s why you surround him with a great supporting cast.

John C. Reilly has been the unsung hero of comedy for years.  His mere presence instantly improves any film he is in, and his “Larry from The Three Stooges by way John Belushi-style” antics combined with raw, idiot-savant acting skills make him the most formidable and bankable second-fiddle in films today.  It’s no surprise he provides Cedar Rapids with the biggest laughs.

Meanwhile, Anne Heche is back, baby!  Finally, this is proof-positive that when she has a few good years of not “Sheening It” off-screen, she can still “bring it” on-screen.  As the married lady looking for a little fun at a business conference, she comes across as a poor man’s Vera Farmiga.  And let me tell you, I’ve never been happier to be a poor man.

Criminally underestimated with a limited release while second-rate Farrelly Brothers’ films like Hall Pass and on-the-shelf-for-years rejects like Take Me Home Tonight target the same audience in underwhelming national releases, Cedar Rapids is the place to be…if only enough people knew how to get there.

On DVD and Blu-Ray:

Carey Mulligan tells Andrew Garfield, "Oh, I can barely stand to look at your shaggy hair."

Never Let Me Go – It’s a virtual “who’s who” of young British Hollywood on display in this pensive literary adaptation that takes place in some alternate reality during the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s where “special” children were bread to serve as organ donors so that people could live well into their 100’s.  This is a strange little film that works as both an aching nostalgia piece and a creepy bit of speculative fiction.

Carey Mulligan is fast becoming one of my favorite actresses.  Nobody pulls off cute and fretful, but with a sparkle in her eyes, quite like she can (though Michelle Williams comes close).  She alone made the odiously anti-Feminist An Education and the otherwise forgettable (though oddly enjoyable) Wall Street sequel worth taking seriously.  It’s her character’s inner monologue and her performance, that carry Never Let Me Go and give it weight.

Meanwhile, Keira Knightley shows up and appears to have been genetically designed out of shoulder blades, cheek bones, lips and pouting.  Her male counter-part is the always sad-eyed and emo Andrew Garfield, who in ill-fitting and droopy sweaters appears to have had his neck surgically elongated and shoulders removed.  They both apparently went to the same acting school…which means they can emote, seethe, whimper and cry on queue, and are quite effective in their respective roles, but they lack the depth and quiet gravitas of Carey Mulligan.

The appropriately British shenanigans of the peculiarly attractive leads and the lush, green, dewy environs are all gorgeously directed by Mark Romanek like some Terrence Malick-inspired Madonna music video.  Kashuo Ishiguro’s novel translates into thought-provoking, well-acted, beautifully photographed stuff…but like Andrew Garfield’s inevitable rib-cage, it’s left a bit hollow inside.

Through Netflix Streaming:

"I am Carlos...and you must - how do you say? - love me!"

Carlos –  Olivier Assayas’ Award-winning and sprawling 5-hour miniseries detailing the rise of renowned terrorist Carlos “The Jackal” (played by Edgar Ramirez) was much ballyhooed last year by critics and bloggers.  Netflix Streaming does it justice by offering the full 5 hours (instead of the 2.5 hour theatrical cut) in their original episodic fashion.

DISCLAIMER:  My opionion is thus far based only on episode one.

Maybe it was because I watched the first episode on a Friday night after a long work week, or maybe it was the obnoxiously tiny subtitles that made it hard to read, or maybe it was the switching from English to Arabic to French to Spanish…but I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on.  I didn’t “get it” and I couldn’t keep up.  The thing was clearly well-made, and I fully trust Assayas as a filmmaker (hell, I even liked Demonlover), but I felt underwhelmed by the first episode.

I plan on giving Carlos a full hearing and watching the next two episodes.  This is definitely not the type of thing to watch while tired or if you are just looking to relax for a few hours in front of the TV.  I admit I might have done it a disservice.  I also freely admit I prefer my biopics laced more with the psychological and “childhood flashbacks” so we can learn why a criminal became a criminal.  Here, we have Carlos just “as is” and constantly in action – a man of misguided political ideology that led him to become the most infamous terrorist in the world.  He’s full throttle, raging with tiger blood, and practically unstoppable – but I’m not sure if that’s enough to make him the most interesting man in the world.

I’ll be sure to report back after the next two episodes which promise to detail Carlos’ descent into “Sheening It”…until then…

Written by David H. Schleicher

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6 comments on “Duh, Winning! – In the Cinematic Doldrums

  1. dianneglave says:

    no love for rango, eh?

    Dianne – Rango actually looks kinda funny (for kids and adults). I want to see it, but with no kids to tow, it will have to wait for Netflix. –DHS

  2. Nice round up here David. I completely agree with you about “Cedar Rapids.” It was a fun movie happily devoid of gross-out gags that so many lesser comedies rely on. And I have to admit that I didn’t even realize I was watching Anne Heche until the end credits. Like I said in my own review, she reminds us that she was a pretty good actor before she went crazy.

    I wasn’t a huge fan of “Never Let Me Go,” though I seem to like what you didn’t like and vice versa. I thought Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley were very good (and I say this as someone who has never liked Knightley). However, I didn’t find the movie all that thought-provoking, though in fairness I didn’t care for the book either. I absolutely agree with you about Carey Mulligan — she’s cute as a button and a terrific actor… but why was “An Education” “odiously anti-feminist”? I didn’t read it that way at all.

    And on “Carlos,” stick it out. I saw it on a big screen so I didn’t have the subtitle problem. The first part is, I think, meant to be discombobulating, but it leads to an exciting second part with the OPEC meeting attack. The third part is the slowest for me, but then his life was aimless at that time as well so it made sense. I think the strength of this movie is that it avoids trying to explain why he became a terrorist with pseudo-psychological explanations. I don’t think anyone can satisfactorily explain something like that. Assayas presents us with a portrait of a man who is charming, but reckless and unfocused. His politics are vague, ill-defined — violence is all he knows and his politics, such as they were, was his justification. In all the five and a half hours was an amazing experience. OK, I’ll stop rambling now.

    Jason, hmmm…with regards to An Education…not sure if I can properly convey my feelings towards it. When it comes to supposedly feminist films and whether or not they are feminist or anti-feminist, it’s kinda like the old “is it porn or not porn?” argument – you know it when you see it, and I calls ’em likes I sees ’em.

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Well, I will echo Jason’s sentiments here in a shortened version. I completely agree that CEDAR RAPIDS leaves out the dumb jokes, and it’s an unexpected laugh riot, and for the most part I found NEVER LET ME GO as an affecting futuristic drama. Please do stay the course with CARLOS David, it’s often an electrifying work.

    Sam, I recall you liking all three of these films very much. –DHS

  4. UPDATE: Carlos: Episode Two was more compelling than Episode One. The opening thirty minutes detailing the OPEC hostage-taking worked like gangbusters…and the “leisure-time” afterwards was well played. However, I’m still finding little to invest in character-wise and had a hard time caring why they were doing what they were doing. I am enjoying Assayas’ great period-detail and the boss soundtrack, however. Next up: Episode Three.

  5. Aiden R. says:

    So glad you saw Cedar Rapids, so glad you dug it as much as I did. Wish more folks were on the bandwagon and wish it had gotten the kind of play it deserved. Serenity now…

    You, sir, are truly addicted to winning.

    Aiden – seriously. I don’t understand why the film hasn’t received a wide release. –DHS

  6. UPDATE: So just call me the happles contrarian as I found Episode 3 of Carlos the best as it actually provided some psychological insight into his actions and provided the all too important “where are they now?” epic biopic rundown. Overall I give the miniseries 3 out of 5 stars.

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