The People Garden


Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

Pamela Anderson perfects the pensive look.

(2016) Drama (FilmBuff) Dree Hemingway, Pamela Anderson, Franҫois Arnaud, James Le Gros, Jai Tatsuto West, Liane Balaban, Denis Akiyama, Geneviéve Brouillette, Donno Mitoma, Elina Miyake, Jaymee Weir. Directed by Nadia Litz

 

The forest is, in our psyche, a primal and frightening place. In the forests of our imagination, ghosts lurk and monsters dwell waiting to shred our flesh. While there are some who think they have the woods tamed, there are places that we cannot go without emerging from it completely changed for the rest of our lives.

Such is the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan. The Japanese consider it an unfriendly place; people have been going there to commit suicide for a very long time but only now has it become better known to Westerners largely due to the fact that three separate movies have been released this year with it as the setting; this is the third of them.

The somewhat bizarrely named Sweetpea (Hemingway) is traveling to Japan. When she arrives in customs, she’s asked the reason for her visit and she bluntly responds “To break up with my boyfriend.” Her boyfriend is Jamie (Arnaud), a rock star who has inexplicably chosen the Aokigahara as the setting for his latest music video.

Sweetpea is picked up by Mak (West), a young Japanese forestry worker who is told to “keep an eye on her” and then inexplicably leaves her at the edge of the forest with a crudely drawn map and police tape to help her find her way if she gets lost. Only with the help of a young schoolgirl who doesn’t speak a word of English – isn’t it convenient when a young schoolgirl wanders through when you’re lost in a forest – does she make it to the set.

When she arrives there, the director (Le Gros) and the producer (Brouillette) inform her that Jamie has disappeared, but nobody seems overly concerned. Sweetpea, who doesn’t yet know the nature of the forest (which everyone has apparently agreed not to inform her about) does some searching boyfriend but doesn’t find him.

Eventually it becomes clear that he has a relationship with Signe (Anderson), the aging 90s sex symbol who is co-starring in the video with him. It also becomes clear that something far more sinister is afoot than a rock star taking some personal time in the woods. Will Sweetpea find Jamie in time to break up with him?

I was of two minds of this movie. The story structure is a little bit vague; Sweetpea is an enigma, none of her backstory revealed. We have no idea why she wants to break up with Jamie, only that she does. Her past is shown in two segments in which she white-person dances with Jamie while they exchange soulful looks and private smiles. Hemingway, daughter of Mariel and great-granddaughter of Papa, doesn’t have the screen presence yet to give the audience a reason to care with so little information offered.

Litz makes good use of the bucolic setting and thus we have a very pretty film to watch. She also keeps the atmosphere reasonably tense without letting the tension become the entire focus. There is an air of surreality here that adds to the overall feel that something isn’t quite right. Unlike the most well-known Aokigahara-set film, there is nothing supernatural here, at least not overtly so.

While the movie is only 80 minutes long, the pacing is slow enough that it feels almost stifling. The fact that Sweetpea is so dissolute and whose main expression is the 1,000 yard stare adds to the feeling of lethargy that sometimes takes over the film. It is only in the last 20 minutes of the movie that it feels like there’s any energy whatsoever and the movie could have sorely used more.

REASONS TO GO: The forest itself is intensely beautiful even in the creepiest moments. The subject is quite fascinating.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit dissolute in places and slow-paced throughout.
FAMILY VALUES:  Profanity abounds here and there’s a bit of smoking as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  None of the forest scenes were filmed in Japan; instead, the forests of British Columbia subbed for this Canadian production.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forest
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Hell or High Water

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The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème)


Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

Ethan Hawke admirably keeps his eyes up.

(2011) Drama (ATO) Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas, Joanna Kulig, Samir Guesmi, Delphine Chuillot, Julie Papillon, Geoffrey Carey, Mamadou Minte, Mohamed Aroussi, Jean-Louis Cassarino, Judith Bennett, Marcela Iacub, Wilfred Benaiche, Pierre Marcoux, Rosine Favey, Anne Benoit, Gregory Gadebois, Donel Jacksman, Laurent Levy, Doug Rand, Tercelin Kirtley. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

Offshoring

The things that inspire us sometimes conflict with our baser natures. Sometimes they come from that aspect of our personalities. Regardless of our best intentions, that conflict can save us – or destroy us.

Tom Ricks (Hawke) was a young Turk in literature once upon a time. Having written a very well received book, he seemed poised to become a big success – but that was long ago and far away. So too was his wife Nathalie (Chuillot) and daughter Chloe (Papillon) who in the case of the former had divorced her husband and in the case of the latter moved with her mommy back to mom’s native Paris. Tom has followed them to the City of Lights after a brief incarceration and hopes to reconcile.

However Tom imagined that first meeting would go, it went badly with the police being called and Tom having to flee. Exhausted and with nowhere to stay, he boards a bus and falls asleep whereupon things go from bad to worse – all of Tom’s belongings and documents are stolen. Now he’s really in a pickle.

Near the bus terminus he finds a bar where he purchases a cup of coffee for the last remaining coins he has in his pocket. The barmaid, Ania (Kulig) takes pity on his plight and points him to the bar owner (Guesmi) who has a crummy apartment Tom can use and a job that Tom can do – a kind of a night watchman who sits in a cubicle with closed circuit television monitors and when people come to a door and give the right password, he buzzes them in. Tom has no idea what goes on behind the door and doesn’t much care; he’s busy writing his next novel but before that, writing long letters to Chloe.

He’s also carrying on with the barmaid who it turns out is the girlfriend of a local mobster which is liable to make things go from worse to desperate. Still, things are actually  looking up; Tom is recognized while browsing through a bookstore and invited to an event for authors. While there he meets Margit (Scott Thomas), a beautiful and elegant woman with an interest in the arts. She and he end up getting intimate and begin an affair but with strict (and strange) guidelines;  he must meet her only at her apartment in the 5th arrondissement at 5pm sharp on two specific days of the week. He is not to ask her any questions about what she does for a living or her past. All she’ll tell him is that she’s a widow but Tom seems fine with the rules; after all, she’s beautiful and willing.

Tom’s unsavory neighbor finds out about Tom and the barmaid and threatens to tell her boyfriend. Tom is devastated but as luck would have it, the neighbor ends up murdered. As Tom’s luck would have it, he comes under suspicion of committing the crime. Tom though has an alibi – he was with Margit at the time. However, when it turns out that Margit isn’t what she appears to be and his trysts with her aren’t what they seemed either, Tom’s problems have gone from desperate to impossible.

Pawlikowski’s next film (Ida) would go on to win an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and you can see a few of the markers that connect that film with this one. For one thing, you don’t always know what the characters are thinking and they sometimes do things that are out of character for them but perfectly logical to us as the audience. Like that film, The Woman in the Fifth is filmed with an eye towards the austere; the side of Paris the tourists don’t see. The hallway lit by the pallid fluorescent lamp that makes skin tones look green, the squalor of Tom’s apartment have a severe tone. Even Margit’s lovely apartment in the Fifth has a sterile quality to it.

Hawke, who also was involved in the Oscar festivities this year for Boyhood, has been on a roll for awhile. He seems incapable of choosing an uninteresting project or delivering a subpar performace at this stage of his career. He carries the movie as a man who has been kicked around by life, many of the kicks delivered by his own foot to his own behind. Tom is unpredictable, capable of violence and yet he is almost obsessively devoted to his daughter. At first his situation seems to be that he is being punished by a vindictive bitch of a wife; as the film goes on, we are less sure that she isn’t absolutely right in trying to keep Chloe’s father away from her.

Scott Thomas is a marvelous actress who has found a lucrative career in France, rarely doing films outside her borders. The French have known, unlike Hollywood, the allure of the “older women” and write parts for actresses in their forties and beyond that are both sexy and intelligent. Hollywood tends to want to put the spotlight on actresses who are younger and with few exceptions, rarely creates roles for women of that age group that have any sort of sexuality, preferring to restrict them to mommy roles or at a certain point, grandmommy roles. It’s as if that women once they turn 40 are expected by Americans to set aside everything but their nurturing side. I suppose that is part of our Puritan heritage, but fortunately the French see things differently and actresses like Scott Thomas are regularly employed there.

As the movie goes on, there are twists to the plot that come from nowhere and are unexpected to say the least. Not wanting to give anything away, I won’t say more than that but those twists are a bit complicated and those who aren’t patient with such things may find this film to be rather more frustrating than they might find comfortable. From my point of view, these types of things are challenging; you can believe what you choose to believe in terms of what you think is going on but I guarantee you, you won’t be right – nor will you be wrong. It really is up to your interpretation.

This is truly an international film, with a Polish director who is based in England but makes a film set in France (backed by French, English and Polish producers) and based on a novel by an Irish-American author. In that sense, there is an Eastern European austerity and a French sensuality, along with an American type of thriller merged with an English style suspense. Something for everyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Hawke is always interesting. Scott Thomas is right in her wheelhouse here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May get too convoluted for some. Can be frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality (and plenty of it), some violence and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Pawlikowski is a noted Polish director, this was filmed in France and mostly financed by French sources (along with British and Polish as well).
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $113,800 on an unknown  production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD rental), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ghost Writer
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Offshoring continues!

Anna Karenina (2012)


Alone in a crowd,

Alone in a crowd,

(2012) Drama (Focus) Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, David Wilmot, Shirley Henderson, Holiday Grainger, Pip Torrens, Susanne Lothar, Alexandra Roach, Luke Newberry, Aruthan Galieva, Tannishtha Chatterjee. Directed by Joe Wright

Our Film Library

Everyone knows the old saw that love is blind. We mostly come to think that it means that looks and faults don’t matter when you’re in love, but I don’t think that’s really the case. What I think that the statement means is that we are blind to the consequences of falling in love, so emotionally inundated we are by love.

The Leo Tolstoy classic has been made into big screen extravaganzas several times, most notably with the legendary Greta Garbo in the title role (twice). Here we get Keira Knightley who has shown that she has plenty of talent although perhaps not quite a match to her luminous beauty which is considerable; the girl might just be the prettiest face in all the world.

A brief plot synopsis for those not familiar with the Tolstoy work; Anna is the wife of Karenin (Law), a well-respected Russian government official in Tsarist Russia but one can scarcely characterize the marriage as a happy one. Karenin is emotionally distant, occasionally affectionate but generally not present. Many women over the years have identified with Anna, alone in a marriage to a man who barely realizes she’s there at all.

When she takes the train to Moscow on behalf of her brother, Count Oblonsky (Macfadyen) who has cheated on his wife and who has sent him to plead with said wife Dolly (Macdonald) to take him back, she meets Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson), a dashing young soldier who is the object of unrequited love for Kitty (Vikander) who is anxious to marry the young man. Kitty, in the meantime, is the object of affection for Levin (Gleeson) who is thinking of freeing his serfs and is being urged by Oblonsky to take one of them for his wife. However, everything is thrown in disarray by Anna who falls in love with Vronsky. Hard.

The two begin seeing each other and are none too discreet about their feelings. This is a big no-no in St. Petersburg society at the time which tolerated affairs but only as long as they were kept in the shadows where they belong. It was a kind of hypocrisy that in a large way still informs our somewhat hypocritical  views towards the sexes. Even if you’re not a Russian literature enthusiast or familiar with the novel, it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure out that this all leads to tragedy – and it does.

Wright has taken the conceit of staging the movie as if it were a play in a dilapidated theater (and in fact, they filmed in one just outside of London which was essentially the main filming location). There are backdrops that are very theatrical and occasionally we see audience members in box seats observing the drama. Players in the play sometimes step onto the front of the stage and address the audience directly. It’s certainly a bold move, the kind of thing someone like Baz Luhrmann might do.

But I have to admit it all feels kind of gimmicky and there’s no doubt that the stage-centric production design sometimes gets distracting. The costumes are lush enough (costume designer Jacqueline Durran won an Oscar for it) and the movie looks amazing, thanks in large part to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

The acting though is kind of spotty, surprisingly. Law fares the best, making Karenin who often comes off as uncaring and downright mean in other filmed versions of the novel almost sympathetic here. Macfadyen, as the lusty Oblonsky, also performs well as a character that is a bit of a cad. Knightley, however, is oddly subdued here. There are almost no sparks between her and Taylor-Johnson which is critical – you have to be able to see why Anna would risk so much and get the depth of the emotion she feels for Vronsky. It is not helped by Taylor-Johnson who makes Vronsky something of a caricature. The miscasting for the role is obvious – and crucial.

The British film industry has always been reliable about producing costume epics as well as anyone, particularly those based on classics and Wright, with Sense and Sensibility and Atonement both to his credit, is as adept as anyone working now at the genre. However, the overwrought concept soon overwhelms the story and becomes more the focus than Tolstoy’s classic tale does. My recommendation is either read the novel or if you prefer seeing it onscreen is to find the 1935 version with Garbo which really is a classic. This is more of a noble failure.

WHY RENT THIS: Sumptuous production design and costumes. Decent performances by Law and Macfadyen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwrought. Conceit of giving the film the look of a theatrical performance becomes distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot had to leave the film during pre-production due to painful sciatica which eventually required back surgery. He was replaced by Wright’s regular collaborator Seamus McGarvey.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a nifty time lapse photograph of the main set’s construction as well as interviews with the cast members.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.9M on a $51.6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: In Secret

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Peabody and Sherman

The Sixth Sense


This is what people look like when they see dead people.

This is what people look like when they see dead people.

(1999) Supernatural Drama (Hollywood) Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment, Olivia Williams, Trevor Morgan, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Tambakis, Jeffrey Zubernis, Bruce Norris, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mischa Barton, Angelica Torn, Lisa Summerour, Firdous Bamji, Samia Shoaib, Hayden Saunier, Janis Dardaris, Sarah Ripard. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

People who see a lot of movies, like I do, are like chocoholics in a candy store – after a while, it all tastes the same. Then again, once in a while something comes along that surprises you, makes you remember what it is you love about chocolate – or movies – in the first place.

The Sixth Sense is such a movie. The marketing campaign was ingenious. It was really meant to set your expectations to a certain level and it did so very effectively. Ho hum, another fright flick in a summer that saw Deep Blue Sea and The Haunting ad inconsistium. Stars Bruce Willis, you say? The Man With the Iron Smirk never seemed to get tired of playing the Bruno character he invented in Moonlighting and hadn’t varied the character much up to the time this came out.

He plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a psychiatrist (haven’t we seen this one before?) for children who as the movie starts is celebrating a mayoral award for his sterling service to the community. Unfortunately, his celebration is ruined by a former patient (Wahlberg) with a chip on his shoulder and, more importantly, a gun in his hand. Faster than you can say “plot complication” Willis is lying on his back, wondering what hit him. It turns out it was a bullet, which can really ruin a nice evening.

Time passes as it often does in grade-B thrillers and eventually Dr. Crowe is back at work, trying to reach a child who is taunted by his classmates, who suffers from extreme panic attacks and Hides A Deep Dark Secret and yes, there always is one in grade-B thrillers.

At first reluctant to share it with the kindly doctor after a particularly hideous episode at a party (and a few very spooky encounters beforehand), he finally confesses what’s on his mind: little Cole Sear (Osment) can see dead people, and not just ANY dead people – he sees really grisly ghosts who’d met gruesome fates. As the encounters become more and more chilling, the at-first skeptical psychiatrist comes to believe that there may be more than just your garden variety psychosis at work here.

The plot description hardly does the flick justice. It reads like a Direct-to-Home Video turkey just waiting to be plucked. But an astonishingly good performance by Willis (who carries his wounds not so much in the body but in his eyes) and the once-in-a-decade plot twist that will leave you literally gasping in your seat, wondering why the heck you didn’t spot it coming. You will want to see the movie AGAIN so that you can see it from a fresh perspective. Well, that makes it first-rate in my book. And lest we forget, Osment turned in one of the best performances ever by a juvenile actor. Although his juvenile career was brief, Osment is still one of the standards we judge preteen actors by.

Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan proved himself an exciting new talent, able to tell a story simply without resorting to cheap clichés or lavish effects, creating a wonderfully tense environment that sucks the viewer in without asking him to leave their brain in the popcorn bucket. Although there are some genuinely gruesome moments, and more than a few leap-out-of-your-seat-and-scream-out-loud shocks, The Sixth Sense never sinks to excess, becoming in effect a poster child for less-is-more. Unfortunately, he didn’t take the lessons to heart; his movies since then have become exercises in excess. His star has fallen so completely that his most recent movie, After Earthhis name wasn’t use in the promotion of the film at all for fear it would keep audiences away.

In an era of much-ballyhooed, effects-laden disappointments, it’s comforting to know that the two best movies of that summer, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense met with a great deal of commercial success as well. They remain even now, nearly 15 years after their theatrical release beacons of hope that a new breed of horror movies that are intellectual instead of (or at least as well as) visceral may be on the way to multiplexes that are still cluttered with too many movies about teens making bad choices.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing twist that sets the standard for plot twists. Terrific performances from Willis and Osment. Subtly creepy without resorting to over-the-top effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The twist is so good that most people will assume you’ve seen it and tell you what it is.

FAMILY MATTERS: A fair amount of violence and gore. Some very disturbing images and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie opened on director M. Night Shyamalan’s birthday.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: On the original DVD release, there was a short super-8 horror movie Shyamalan made as a teen (which sadly wasn’t included on the Blu-Ray or Vista edition DVD), plus interviews with audience members who’d just seen the movie, as well as a featurette on the rules and clues that signified the supernatural elements. A Vista edition DVD also added a featurette on paranormal investigations as well as a look at the storyboard process. All of the above (other than the super-8 footage) are also available on the Blu-Ray release.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $672M on a $40M budget; this was a massive blockbuster by any standards.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Poltergeist

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Big Bang

Love Crime (Crime d’amour)


All the showers in the world won't wash out the stains left by a love crime.

All the showers in the world won’t wash out the stains left by a love crime.

(2010) Thriller (Sundance Select) Ludovine Sagnier, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Patrick Mills, Guillaume Marquet, Gerald Laroche, Julien Rochefort, Olivier Rabourdin, Marie Guillard, Stephane Roquet, Frederic Venant, Jean-Marie Juan, Suzanne Renaud. Directed by Alain Corneau

Power is intoxicating. You can’t get enough of it, particularly in the corporate world. Women are often thought to be above those power games that men play, but that’s not always particularly true.

Christine (Scott-Thomas) is a high-ranking executive with a multi-national American company. She sometimes brings her work home with her as well as her hard-working assistant Isabelle Guerin (Sagnier). The two women seem to be on very friendly terms, with Christine giving her protégé a scarf and Isabelle working long into the night for her boss.

But the affection is just a ploy. Christine takes credit for Isabelle’s ideas and in retaliation Isabelle sleeps with Christine’s boyfriend. Things start to escalate and soon it becomes apparent that Isabelle is far from the sweet, shy thing that she makes herself out to be. Something’s got to give and when it does it’s going to be extreme.

I’m keeping the plot points pretty minimal as I want you to be deliciously surprised by them as I was. This is the kind of thriller I dig on; taking unexpected twists but not coming from out of left field – you realize by the time the movie ends that all the clues and signs were there in plain sight . You just weren’t paying attention. At least I wasn’t.

Sagnier is a pixie-like French actress with one of those faces that will look almost childlike when she’s an old woman and certainly now while she’s 30-ish she looks considerably younger and innocent which is part of why she is perfectly cast here. She is sexy and competent, but she seems vulnerable and naive which is quite complimentary. It’s a complete and confident performance; she’s a major star in France and has done a few movies out here but has yet to really make an impact on the radar of American film audiences.

Scott-Thomas has actually become a big star in France although she continues to do English-language films from time to time. She is pushing 50, but that doesn’t prevent Gallic audiences to see her as sexy and seductive. American audiences seem to have a harder time with women of that age coming off as sexual; our age bias is a little disappointing because Scott-Thomas certainly is an attractive and sensual woman at any age.

The French excel at sexy; erotic thrillers have been pumped out by American directors for decades now (mostly on direct to home video) but they tend to push the overt sex scenes over seduction, using well-worn clichés to advance the story line  rather than coming up with clever twists of their own. The cat and mouse game between Christine and Isabelle takes a sudden turn that comes as a surprise unless you are very observant early on (or read a dumbass review spoiling the twist) but that’s not the really great part of the film – what happens afterwards and how one of the characters handles the situation they are left in is simply brilliant.

The title can be taken a couple of different ways which I’m not sure that Corneau intended – I’m not sure that the French title which this is directly taken from translates in the same way but I love that it can be interpreted as a crime of love, or someone who loves crime. That’s the kind of thing you roll over in your head in a movie like this. To put it bluntly, this is a movie that requires a little bit of brainpower to truly enjoy properly and not everyone wants to put in that kind of effort, which I can understand. However those who like their thrillers smart and sexy should seek this one out.

WHY RENT THIS: Sagnier is stellar. Really well-written story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Requires a good deal of attention to pick up on the film’s subtle clues and hints – some viewers may not want to invest the effort.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some sudden and brutal violence, and adult situations not to mention a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Corneau’s last film and was released posthumously after his death from cancer on August 30, 2010; the film also was remade by director Brian dePalma as Passion.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.6M on a $9.1M production budget; the movie was a box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deathtrap

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Rabbit-Proof Fence

Cedar Rapids


Cedar Rapids

John C. Reilly, Ed Helms and Isiah Whitlock Jr. carry a precious cargo - Anne Heche.

(2011) Comedy (Fox Searchlight) Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Sigourney Weaver, Anne Heche, Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley, Seth Morris, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Thomas Lennon, Mike Birbiglia. Directed by Miguel Arteta

There is something disarming about the Midwestern version of naiveté. Hollywood, ever the sophisticate, tends to ridicule these sorts of people. I’ve found some of these people to be the salt of the earth and well worth more respect than Hollywood seems to give them.

Tim Lippe (Helms) is an insurance agent in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He is in his mid-30s but he hasn’t had a lot of life experience. He is having an affair with his first grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (Weaver). He thinks he is living the dream; being an insurance agent is an opportunity to help people when they need it the most. Remember what I said about naiveté?

When Roger Lemke (Lennon), the agency’s most successful agent dies abruptly, Bill Krogstad (Root), the boss of BrownStar Insurance, is forced to send Tim to the regional insurance conference in Cedar Rapids where Roger had won three straight Two Diamonds Awards, the most prestigious award in the industry and as Bill darkly tells Tim, he needs to win again to keep the company afloat.

In Cedar Rapids (which Tim arrives at taking his first plane ride ever), Tim is set to room with Ronald Wilkes (Whitlock), the first African-American man he’s probably ever seen but perhaps the whitest black man ever. Also in the hotel room is Dean Ziegler (Reilly), an insurance agent who really knows how to live it up; drunken debauchery is Dean’s middle name and he is the one person at the conference that Tim was warned to stay away from.

Also part of the group is Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Heche), a married mother of two who uses the convention as an opportunity to cut loose and looks at Tim as her ticket to ecstasy. There is also Bree (Shawkat), a hooker working the convention whom Tim assumes is just a very friendly person.

Tim is set to make a presentation to the regional chairman Orin Helgesson (Smith), whose Christian values are the centerpiece of the Two Diamonds award. However, Tim has fallen in with Dean who has introduced Tim to the wonders of cocktails and crashing Lesbian weddings (which are legal in Iowa by the way). Tim is not equipped to handle the debaucheries of the big city that is Cedar Rapids; corruption, Iowa-style.

Of course, there is a bit of irony here. Okay, a lot of irony. Most people would never think of Cedar Rapids as a den of iniquity but I suppose it’s a matter of perspective; someone who’s never ventured from a small Midwestern town might see it that way. Wait’ll they get a load of Vegas.

Ed Helms has proven himself a great second banana not only in “The Office” but also in the Hangover movies. He hasn’t been given the opportunity to shoulder the load in a movie until this one, but he does so admirably. He plays the character irony-free, giving him genuine joy at the simple things like an atrium pool, the smell of chlorine, key cards and an extra bag of honey-roasted peanuts on the plane. Super awesome!

Reilly might just be the best second banana in the business. The reason for that is that he has the good sense to allow the leads to do what they’re best at and play the foil to them. He’s done that with Will Ferrell and he does it here with Helms. Still, Reilly manages to craft a memorable character of his own, one who might seem to be the absolute devil to a man like Tim but turns out to be as loyal a friend as you can ask for. Both Whitlock and Heche give solid performances, with Heche’s being particularly poignant and Whitlock’s more comedic.

I enjoyed the atmosphere Arteta weaves here, the world he creates. It’s a simpler place in a lot of ways  and to be honest, I kind of like that. Towards the end it gets kind of dark as Tim discovers harder drugs and so forth and that isn’t as funny in my view as the first part of the movie as we meet Tim – he seems to go outside the parameters he sets for himself and while I know that does happen in real life, it feels a little false here.

The humor works most of the time however – in fact, far more often than most comedies. This is one of those movies that got a little bit overlooked during its release – it went out in limited release and only had a few screens in some places and none at all in others. It is however worth seeking out, particularly if you’re into “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” or “Modern Family” – which isn’t entirely a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Hysterically funny in places. Helms proves himself to be an able comic lead.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie plumbs darker waters towards the end. Sometimes a little too over-the-top for what is billed as a light comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be pretty foul and there’s a good deal of sexual content, along with some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whitlock references the HBO series “The Wire,” which he was a cast member in – although not as Omar.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a gag reel and a bit on Mike O’Malley’s “urban clogging” bit, as well as a fake commercial for the insurance agency that Tim Lippe works at.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.9 on an unreported production budget; the movie broke even at best.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Saint John of Las Vegas

The Ghost Writer


The Ghost Writer

A day at the office is no day at the beach for Ewan McGregor.

(2010) Thriller (Summit) Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Hutton, Eli Wallach, Robert Pugh, Desiree Erasmus, Daniel Sutton, Marianne Graffam, James Belushi, Kate Copeland. Directed by Roman Polanski

Politics make strange bedfellows with just about everything but particularly with art. Although we have an affinity for topical movies, political thrillers are often about as empty and soulless as…as…a politician.

The Ghost (McGregor) – who is never identified by name in the movie nor in the book that it is based on – is a talented and ambitious sort who has been waiting, none too patiently, for a plum job, the one that will get his career in gear. He finally gets it – former British Prime Minister Robert Lang (Brosnan) wants his memoirs ghosted. It seems that the old friend of Lang’s who had previously been working on the assignment had washed up on the beach, a victim of suicide or accidental drowning.

The Ghost ventures out to Martha’s Vineyard to Lang’s bunker-like complex which is in siege mode. Lang has been accused by one of his former ministers of being complicit of allowing prisoners to be tortured during an armed conflict begun during his regime. Obviously this makes the new book even more potentially lucrative and the Ghost is under pressure to finish the manuscript quickly.

Things are a bit strange though in the compound. Lang’s high-strung wife Ruth (Williams) is coming on to the Ghost, fully aware of the long-time affair her husband has been having with his assistant Amelia Bly (Cattrall). The original manuscript the Ghost has been hired to clean up and re-edit is under lock and key and may not be taken out of the office where the Ghost has been assigned to work.

And work he does, diligently. He soon discovers some contradictions and outright falsehoods in the manuscript. As he digs deeper to discover the truth, he finds out the shady dealings between Lang and a company called Hatherton. He also discovers some secrets that some would kill to make sure they remained secret. Now it’s not just a battle to meet a deadline; the Ghost must figure out a way to stay alive altogether.

Polanski is one of the best of his generation and creating an effective thriller. Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby are just two examples of classic Polanski thrillers. This one, completed when Polanski was 76 years old, shows he hasn’t lost his touch. While it isn’t to the level of those just mentioned, it’s as good as any released by more contemporary directors.

Polanski manages to gather a strong cast around him. McGregor is a fine everyman hero, and while he seems far more passive-aggressive than the standard movie hero, he nonetheless is charming enough to carry his end of the water pole. The end carried by Brosnan, however, is much stronger. Brosnan who has mostly done affable and elegant action hero types (a la “Remington Steel”, James Bond and Thomas Crown) delivers one of his better performances ever here. He is both sinister and snake-like, clapping you on the back one moment and stabbing you in it the next. That dichotomy of charm and ruthlessness makes the character as fascinating a political figure as has ever been on the silver screen.

They are surrounded by a strong cast, including Hutton as the Ghost’s hyperactive agent and Wilkinson, an old classmate of Lang’s who knows far more about his chicanery than he lets on. Wilkinson in fact has few scenes but is in definite control of your attention whenever he’s on.

There are some twists and turns here. That is par for the course for a thriller, but few are telegraphed and none stretch the believability quotient. What Polanski does better than most directors is establish a mood, and he does so brilliantly here, making even characters seen in passing seem menacing and up to no good.

The movie didn’t do very well at the box office (see below), mostly due to Polanski’s arrest on a 34-year-old statutory rape charge and his subsequent fight to prevent extradition. I would imagine a number of movie-goers who might have ordinarily flocked to see this stayed away because of an unwillingness to support a rapist. I can understand the sentiment certainly but this isn’t a review of Mr. Polanski’s life but of a single film he created.

Political thrillers are hard to accomplish, particularly when they are as topical as this one is (the characters are extremely similar to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, with other characters and entities – such as Hatherton substituting for Halliburton  – also carrying some similarities to people and things in the news). There is always the chance that in a very few years this will seem dated. However the movie is so well-crafted that long after the people and events that inspired it are forgotten, The Ghost Writer will hold up as a well-crafted, well-acted and well-written thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressively tense. Fine performances from most of the cast but particularly from McGregor and Wilkinson.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The payoff is a bit anti-climactic.

FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language, a bit of violence, a bit of sexuality and a smidgeon of nudity and a drug reference.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although primarily set in the United States, Polanski was unable to film here due to his legal issues. Most of the movie was filmed in Europe except for a few second unit shots.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.2M on a $45M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Buck