Wednesday, March 21, 2012

March Quick Picks and Pans

Cedar Rapids (2011) Ed Helms stars as Tim Lippe, a nebbishy life insurance salesman.  He’s asked to attend a national conference when his office’s star performer dies unexpectedly, although prior to this excursion he’s never left the confines of his small Midwestern town.  Tim seems presumably content to lead a predictable, boring existence, but all of this changes in the space of a few days as he learns about the larger world (or the world according to Cedar Rapids, Iowa).  It’s a slight comedy that’s not nearly as insightful as it pretends to be but it’s still funny in spots.  Cedar Rapids is worth it for John C. Reilly’s performance alone, as Tim’s profoundly obnoxious business rival Dean Ziegler.  You can tell Reilly was having a great time with his character, managing to walk the fine line between repulsive and likable.  Anne Heche surprisingly provides some spark to the film as well as Joan, a lonely married woman who comes to the annual conventions for more than just business.  The end seems slight and not as fleshed out as it could have been, although it’s perhaps fitting for the main character who probably wouldn’t be capable of any significant change.   

Rating: *** ½.  Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Strigoi (2009) This almost unclassifiable comedy/drama/horror film from writer/director Faye Jackson takes place in modern-day Romania, and concerns beings known as strigoi, which are a bit like a cross between zombies and vampires.  Vlad returns home to his village to discover a series of strange deaths.  He suspects the townspeople (including the mayor and his priest brother) are all part of a strange conspiracy, if only he can gather enough proof.  He dismisses the possibility that strigoi, creatures straight out of local folklore with an insatiable appetite and penchant for blood, might actually be to blame.  The film vacillates between comedy and drama, without building up much tension.  Its more horrific elements are presented in a matter-of-fact, rather than terrifying manner, and most of the characters seem fairly nonplused by all of the supernatural goings-on.  I suspect that Jackson was more interested in depicting a specific place where old superstitions die hard and the fantastic co-exists with the ordinary, rather than terrifying audiences.  There’s also some commentary about the old communist regime that might be a little more relevant if you happen to be Romanian.  It’s an uneven, interesting mix of different story elements that might just be worth a look.

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Baba Yaga (1973) (aka: Kiss Me, Kill Me) This curious artifact from the 1970s was based on an Italian comic strip from the 1960s, and is all style with little substance.  Several scenes feature images edited together to simulate comic book panels, contributing to the film’s distinctive look.  Isabelle De Funès stars as Valentina Rosselli, a freewheeling fashion photographer.  While walking home, she encounters a mysterious woman named Baba Yaga (Carroll Baker).  Baba Yaga instantly ingratiates herself to Valentina as a friend and confidant, but it’s clear that she’s setting a trap, like a spider spinning a web.  Baba Yaga is rife with 70s era sexual and social politics, complete with pretentious scenes involving pseudo-intellectuals sitting around discussing fascism and capitalism.  These scenes threaten to derail the story about the malevolent Baba Yaga, who brings death and chaos to everyone who crosses her path.  While the film isn’t entirely successful, it’s not boring, and at least it tried to do something different.  Is it Euro Sleaze with a sociopolitical message, or a metaphorical tour de force?  Who knows? 

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (2011) Director Matthew Bate’s documentary chronicles the genesis of an underground cultural phenomenon and attempts to find perspective in a larger context.  In the 80s, two young men, Eddie Lee Sausage and Mitch Deprey, left Wisconsin for San Francisco to find their respective fortunes.  They settled in a run-down apartment and got more than they bargained for, in the form of two perennially bickering neighbors, Pete and Ray.  They decided to record the heated arguments, and the rest was history. 

Shut Up Little Man is at its best when it discusses tape trading and found recordings in the age before the internet.  In one scene, the recent Christian Bale tirade, which became a viral hit, is juxtaposed with the recordings of Pete and Ray fighting, leaving us to wonder what the difference is between voyeurism and entertainment.   Unfortunately, the material is far too thin for a feature-length film, and about halfway through, the film wears out its welcome.  The sound clips, along with the commentary become repetitive as the film grasps for some deeper, elusive meaning.  In the end, it was hard for me to see why the recordings held so much appeal in the first place.  About the only thing we learn is that schadenfreude apparently sells.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

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