Cedar Rapids (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Tim Lippe (Ed Helms) was an honest insurance salesman. He was comfortable living in a small town and changing people’s lives for the better. He was described as the guy who could have gone places but actually didn’t go anywhere. When one of his colleagues passed away due to autoerotic asphyxiation, he was asked by his boss (Stephen Root) to attend an insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and win an award for their region. Tim was warned not to interact with Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) but, as luck would have it, they ended up sharing a hotel room. Written by Phil Johnston and directed by Miguel Arteta, “Cedar Rapids” was surprisingly human. I expected the film to rely solely on awkward situations and slapstick comedy to generate most of its laughs. Helms had a knack for the former, while Reilly built his career on the latter. The two actors fed off one another. When the camera was transfixed on them, my body automatically prepared itself to laugh because my brain knew that Helms and Reilly understood both the value of a punchline and, more importantly, precision of delivery. But the movie wasn’t just about the laughs. It was also about Tim venturing out into the world and realizing how fun, dangerous, and rewarding it could be to make friends who were entirely different from himself. There was one very amusing scene when Tim was shocked to find an African-American man, Ronald (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), in his room. Furthermore, I was particularly interested in Tim’s relationship with Joan (Anne Heche), a married woman with kids. She saw the convention as a means of escape from the routine and, although much of it was unsaid, I believed she saw something in Tim that she craved, perhaps a quality that her husband lacked, but could never have because she already had a life. The way Heche delivered certain looks inspired me to dig beyond what her character was willing to outwardly share. There was a certain sadness between the two scavenger hunt partners and the film’s final moments worked because I believed their relationship, not necessarily romantic, would continue. Back home, Tim was involved with his former grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver). The writing could easily have been lazy, relying on jokes that involved the word “cougar,” but I loved that the material didn’t look down on Tim and Macy’s relationship. Sure, she was over fifteen years older than him but a handful of scenes suggested that they shared something meaningful. “Cedar Rapids” took ordinary people and allowed them to work, play, and form friendships in an honest, emotionally resonant manner. More mainstream comedies can only aspire to be as such.
Role Models (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I thought I would enjoy this comedy a lot more because my friends highly recommended it. Directed by David Wain, “Role Models” stars Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott as two energy drink salesmen who go to various school to preach that drugs are bad. I liked the humor of the first half more than the second half because the former deals with Rudd’s frustration with his brainless job. His perception of the world contrasts with Scott because Scott actually enjoys his job. When Rudd finally lost it after his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) dumps him after he made a spontaneous (if not ill-timed) wedding proposal, the two are sent to a mentoring center (jail was the alternative) which was led by the fantastically scary, on-the-edge ex-convict played by Jane Lynch. I also liked the dynamics between Rudd and Christopher Mintz-Plasse because the two of them have this inner geekiness that made me smile; while Scott and Bobb’e J. Thompson share a crude sense of humor that made me laugh out loud. What didn’t work for me was the whole thing about the medieval battles that pervaded the second half. I was bored out of my mind because I felt like Rudd and Scott were pushed aside instead of staying on the foreground and do what they do best: providing the audiences jokes that are witty and dirty (sometimes both at the same time). Instead of staying rude and crude, it somewhat took the safer route toward the end. I almost wished that it didn’t have a heart and embraced the dark comedy genre instead. At least that way, the film wouldn’t feel as though it was holding back in order to achieve some commercial success. It’s a shame because it does have funny material and enthusiastic actors but it didn’t quite push through in order to get to the next level. I say only see it if one has nothing better to do.
O Lucky Man! (1973)
★★ / ★★★★
Malcolm McDowell and Lindsay Anderson team up once again in “O Lucky Man!” a sequel to the exemplary “If…” McDowell plays Mike Travis, an ambitious and enthusiastic coffee salesman whose main goal is to attain financial success. I thought it was very interesting how he seems like a force to be reckoned with in the beginning of the film, but as it goes on and meets quirky, greedy and insightful characters, he seems so insignificant in comparison. Although its premise is a commentary on the evils of capitalism, the dry and dark humor are consistent. Although I didn’t understand some of the jokes because I don’t know much about business and economics, the ones I understand are clever and have a staying power that’s still relevant today; especially now that competition is at its peak and the American economy is not doing so well. This film’s strength lies in its surrealism: some of the actors play multiple characters (Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe…) and the events that unfold are extremely out of the ordinary and a bit random (such as the medical facility that use human subjects). I also enjoyed listening to Alan Price’s songs because they reflect what Mike Travis is going through yet at the same time comments on where he should be going. However, I felt like the film digressed too much. Despite Mike Travis’ adventures all over England, I feel as though he didn’t make any genuine human connection that could potentially warrant his change-of-heart during the film’s third act. Yes, he did have inspirations from poets and philosophers but I feel like those aren’t enough to change a person, especially a person who’s obsessed with climbing the economic ladder despite everything that’s put on his way to distract him from that goal. The most interesting character, other than Travis, was Patrcia (played by Helen Mirren) and I wanted to know more about her. In the end, I feel a certain disconnect from this picture–which is strange because, when it comes to films that run for about three hours, I usually feel a certain inclination for the project. “O Lucky Man!” is an unfortunate exception despite its intelligence and brilliant acting from McDowell.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Just when I thought Pixar could not surprise me any longer after such an impressive nine-streak classics and near classics (perhaps with the exception of “Cars”), their tenth film, “Up,” directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, was nothing short of impressive. “Up” tells the story of an aging balloon salesman (Carl voiced by Edward Asner) and his way of honoring his late wife’s dream of visiting South America. After attaching thousands of balloons to his house as it floated to the sky, he discovered an eager wilderness boy scout/explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai). In South America, the two meet a giant bird named Kevin and an extremely adorable talking dog named Dug (also voiced by Peterson). But that was only the beginning of their breathtaking adventure.
I believe this is one of the more mature Pixar films when it comes to dealing with emotion because it tries to tell a story from the perspective of an old man possibly living his last few years. There was a certain sadness that pervaded the film because he constantly tried looking back in his past and feeling an utmost sadness whenever he thinks about his promises to his wife that he never fulfilled when she was alive. I was particularly impressed with the first scene when Young Carl (Jeremy Leary) and Young Ellie (Elie Docter) first met. There was a certain innocence and innate acceptance with it all and it truly reminded me of my parents because they, too, met when they were pretty much kids and eventually got married. I think one of the best scenes of the film was when it showed how their lives progressed from when they were kids, finally moved into a house that was once their playground of imagination, failure to have children, to when Ellie was on her deathbed. I found that scene with no spoken language so powerful because it managed to capture the essence of life–the ups as well as the downs–something that most animated films tend to sugarcoat. I was really touched with Ellie and Carl’s relationship because even though their dreams were not fully realized because life always got in the way (an injury, a natural accident, broken appliances, et cetera), they still stayed strong and together up until the end. I was also impressed that “Up” was brave enough to show blood and bullets and characters really getting hurt so I was that more engaged.
There were a plethora of jokes that made me seriously laugh out loud in the cinema. I had no shame even though I saw this film with a bunch of college students of around my age because it was that funny. The brilliant one liners, such as “I do not like the cone of shame!”, were stuck in my head after I walked out of the theater. They paint a big smile on my face when I think about them now as I write this review. I don’t know what it was–maybe it was the kid in me–but I was just so astonished with (aside from the storytelling) the visual experience (I saw it on 3D–which was worth the extra three bucks!). Pixar has an undeniable talent when it comes to putting certain colors together to make the important images pop up so the audiences will understand without the characters saying a word. The imagers were that effective so I couldn’t help but give it praise. I also liked the colorful characters, especially Dug, the talking dog. Not only was he beyond cute but his character had this vibrant energy that reminded me of, oddly enough, myself. Like Dug, I easily get distracted even when things are at their most critical point and I tend to repeat myself when I’m excited or hyper. Russell, despite his happiness and earnestness, has a certain depth that explores the dynamics in his home. This film was actually able to comment on issues such as the repercussions of poor parenting and the child’s psychology whenever a parent neglects him. I was devastated when Russell finally revealed his motivation for wanting to be a wilderness explorer so badly to Carl. It goes to show that he’s still a child because, to him, accomplishments come hand-in-hand with social or parental approval and not primarily about self-worth (yet). Subtle things like that convinced me that a lot of thought was put into this film. Unlike most animated pictures, this strives to be more than just “cute” and “visually stunning.”
It goes without saying that I’m enthusiastically recommending “Up.” I think it’s one of the more emotionally mature animated films that Pixar has ever come up with because it was able to successfully tackle the depression that comes after a partner’s death and the anxiety that comes when one thinks about his own mortality. While kids may be saddened just a bit during those scenes (as well as adults), the older generations will most likely think about their own lives during or afterwards. I truly hope that this will be considered to be a Best Animated Film, along with “Coraline,” during the Oscars season. And if it happens to win, it will be well-deserved. I cannot help but wonder what Pixar will come up with next.