Film Review: Robocop (dir by Paul Verhoeven)


Last week, I watched the original Robocop (along with Robocop 2 and Robocop 3) and I have to say that the first film holds up far better than I was expecting. Made and released way back in 1987, Robocop may be one of the most prophetic films ever made.

Consider the plot:

America is torn apart by crime and a growing gap between the rich and the poor. That was probably true in 1987 and it’s certainly true in 2021.

Throughout the film, we see news reports about what’s happening in the world. The news is always grim but the reporters are always cheerful and the main message is that, no matter what’s happening, the government is not to blame and anyone who questions the wisdom of the establishment is a fool. If that’s not a perfect description of cable news and our current state-run media, I don’t know what is.

The populace is often too busy watching stupid game shows to really pay attention to what’s happening all around them. I’m writing these words on a Wednesday, which means that Game of Talents will be on Fox tonight, immediately after The Masked Singer.

Detroit, a once proud center of industry, has now turned into a dystopian Hellhole where no one feels that they’re safe. Now, I don’t live in Detroit so I don’t know how true that is but I do know that most of the recent news that I’ve heard about the city has not exactly been positive. Also, this seems like a good time to point out that, even though the film is set in Detroit, it was shot in Dallas. Though the Dallas skyline has undoubtedly changed a bit since 1987, I still recognized several buildings while watching Robocop. Seeing Reunion Tower in the background of a movie that’s supposed to be set in Detroit was interesting, though perhaps not as interesting as seeing our City Hall transformed into the headquarters of Detroit’s beleaguered police force.

OCP, a multi-national conglomerate that’s run by the amoral but occasionally charming Old Man (played by the brilliant Dan O’Herlihy), has a contract with city of Detroit to run their police department. This certainly doesn’t seem far-fetched in 2021. Considering that we now have prisons that are run by private companies and that the government has shown a willingness to work with private mercenaries overseas, it’s not a stretch to imagine a city — especially one on the verge of bankruptcy — handing over the police department to a private company.

Two OCP executives — Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) and Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer) — are competing to see who can be the first to create and develop a peace-keeping robot, a machine that will replace the need to employ (and pay) human police officers. Dick Jones goes with an actual robot, which malfunctions during a boardroom demonstration and guns down another executive. (The scene where the poor exec is targeted is both terrifying and darkly humorous at the same time. Particularly disturbing is how everyone in the boardroom keeps shoving him back towards the robot in order to ensure that they won’t accidentally be in the line of fire.) Bob Morton, however, takes a mortally wounded cop named Murphy (Peter Weller) and turns him into Robocop!

Robocop turns out to be a huge success and is very popular with the media. (Anyone who doubts this would really happen has obviously never watched news coverage of a drone attack.) As you can guess, Dick is not particularly happy about getting shown up by Morton and his robocop. Dick also happens to be secretly in league with Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), the crimelord who blew Murphy apart in the first place.

(A gangster and a businessman working together!? I doubt that was shocking even in 1987.)

Robocop claims that he’s just a machine, without a past or emotions, but he’s still haunted by random flashes of his life as Murphy. Working with Lewis (Nancy Allen), Murphy’s former partner, Robocop tracks down Boddicker and his gang. A lot of people die in outrageously violent ways. (The scene where Boddicker and his gang use a shotgun to torture Murphy is still shocking, even after all these years.) The violence is so over-the-top that it soon becomes obvious that director Paul Verhoeven is deliberately trying to get those of us watching to ask ourselves why we find films like this to be so entertaining. On the one hand, Robocop is an exciting action film with a sense of humor. On the other hand, it’s the type of subversive satire of pop and trash culture to which Verhoeven would return with Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, and Showgirls. This is the type of film that asks the audience, “What are you doing here?”

34 years after it was first made, Robocop remains a triumph. Peter Weller’s performance holds up well, as he does a great job of capturing Robocop’s anguish while, at the same time, never forgetting that the character is ultimately a machine, one that’s trapped in a sort of permanent limbo. I also really liked the performance of Miguel Ferrer, who takes a character who should be unlikable and instead makes him into a surprisingly sympathetic figure.

Of course, a film like this lives and dies on the strength of its villains and both Ronny Cox and Kurtwood Smith are ideally cast as Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker. Kurtwood Smith especially took me by surprise by how believably evil and frightening he was. As a I watched the film, I realized that it was his glasses that made him so intimidating. Wearing his glasses, he looked like some sort of rogue poet, a sociopathic intellectual who had chosen to use his talents to specifically make the world into a terrible place. Boddicker’s crew was full of familiar actors like Paul McCrane, Ray Wise, and, as the always laughing Joe Cox, Jesse Goins. Interestingly enough, all of the bad guys seemed to genuinely be friends. Even though they were all willing to betray each other (“Can you fly Bobby?”), they also seemed to really enjoy each other’s company. That somehow made them even more disturbing than a group of bad guys who were only in it for the money. The villains in Robocop really do seem to savor the chance to show off just how evil they can be.

(Incidentally, for all of the Twin Peaks fans out there, this film features three members of the show’s ensemble: Miguel Ferrer, Ray Wise, and Dan O’Herlihy.)

Robocop holds up well as entertainment, prophecy, and satire. Though not much was expected from it when it was first released, it became a surprise hit at the box office. Needless to say, this led to a sequel. I’ll deal with that film in about an hour.

Scenes That I Love: The Opening of Staying Alive


We’re still in the process of recovering from last week’s winter storm down here and I have to admit that, for me personally, it’s been a bit of a struggle to actually maintain my focus.  Last week’s combination of power outages and freezing weather threw me off of my usual rhythm and I’m still getting it back.

Fortunately, I have a little help from my friends.  Earlier tonight, a group of us watched the 1983 film, Staying Alive.  Staying Alive is the somewhat notorious sequel to Saturday Night Fever.  If Saturday Night Fever was actually a dark and gritty coming-of-age story disguised as a crowd-pleasing musical, Staying Alive is …. well, it’s something much different.  It’s a film about dancing and Broadway, directed and at least partially written by Sylvester Stallone.  Why exactly would anyone think that Sylvester Stallone was the right director to make a movie about dancing and Broadway?  Your guess is as good as mine but, in the end, the important thing is that Stallone wrote a key supporting role for his brother, Frank Stallone.  Frank not only performs several songs but he proves that he can glare with the best of them.

As for the film itself, it opens with Tony Manero (John Travolta) having left behind Brooklyn and the world of disco.  Now, he lives in Manhattan, he teaches a dance class, he humiliates himself looking for an agent, and he’s struggling to make it on Broadway.  (Basically, he’s turned into Joey from Friends.)  When Tony’s lucky enough to get cast in a lavish musical called Satan’s Alley, Tony has a chance to become a star but only if he can …. well, I was going to say control his ego but actually, his ego isn’t that much of a problem in Staying Alive.  Actually, there’s really nothing standing in Tony’s way, other than the fact that — in Staying Alive as opposed to Saturday Night Fever — he’s portrayed as kind of being an irredeemable idiot.  If Saturday Night Fever was all about revealing that Tony was actually smarter and more sensitive than he seemed, Staying Alive seems to be all about saying, “Whoops!  Sorry!  He’s just as obnoxious as you thought he was.”

Staying Alive is a notoriously ill-conceived film, though it’s also one of those films that’s just bad enough to be entertaining when viewed with a group of snarky friends.  That said, the opening credits montage — which features Tony dancing while Kurtwood Smith glares at him — is actually pretty good.  Travolta smolders with the best of them and the sequence does a good job of capturing Tony’s mix of desperation and determination.  It’s unfortunate that Kurtwood Smith pretty much disappeared from the film following the opening credits.  Judging from what little we see of him, Smith would have been pretty entertaining as a permanently annoyed choreographer.  Finally, how can you not love the neon credits?  This a scene that screams 80s in the best possible way.

So, while I continue to work on getting back to my usual prolific ways, why not enjoy this scene that I love from Staying Alive?

Film Review: To Die For (dir by Gus Van Sant)


The 1995 satire, To Die For, is a very clever film about some seriously stupid people.

Of course, you could debate whether or not Suzanne Stone-Maretto (Nicole Kidman) is actually dumb or not.  Suzanne may not know much about anything that isn’t on TV but she does have a natural understanding for what makes a good story.  She knows exactly the type of story that the public wants to hear and she does a good job of faking all of the right emotions.  As she proves throughout the course of the film, she’s also very good at convincing people to do stuff.  Whether it’s convincing the local television station to put her on the air as a weather person or convincing two teenagers to murder her husband, Suzanne always seems to get what she wants.

Of course, what Suzanne really wants is to be a celebrity.  She wants to be a star.  As she explains it, that’s the greatest thing about America.  Anyone can become a star if they just try hard enough and find the right angle.  If the film were made today, Suzanne would be a social media junkie.  Since the movie was made in 1995, she has to settle for talk shows and murder.

So maybe Suzanne isn’t that dumb but her husband, Larry (Matt Dillon) …. well, if we’re going to be honest, Larry’s more naive than dumb.  He’s the favored son of a big Italian family and it’s obviously never occurred to him that a woman would possibly want something more than just a husband and a lot of children.  He thinks it’s cute that Suzanne’s on TV but he’s also fully convinced that she’s going to eventually settle down and focus on starting a family.  It never occurs to him that his wife would be willing to sacrifice him on her way to stardom.

Of course, if you really want to talk about dumb, just check out the teenagers who Suzanne recruits to kill her husband.  They’ve been appearing in a documentary that Suzanne’s been shooting.  The documentary’s title is “Teens Speak Out,” which is something of an ironic title since none of the teens that Suzanne interviews really has anything to say.  Lydia (Allison Folland) is just happy that the “glamorous” Suzanne is pretending to care about her.  Russell (Casey Affleck) is the type of grinning perv who drops a pen just so he can try to get a peek up Suzanne’s skirt while he’s on the floor retrieving it.  And then there’s Jimmy (Joaquin Phoenix), with his flat voice and his blank stare.  Jimmy is briefly Suzanne’s lover before he ends up in prison for murdering her husband.  It doesn’t take much to convince Jimmy to commit murder, either.  Apparently, all you have to do is dance to Lynard Skynard while it’s raining outside.  Media interviews with Lydia, Jimmy, Suzanne, and Larry’s sister (Ileana Douglas) are sprinkled throughout the film and Jimmy continues to insist that he will always love Suzanne.

As for Suzanne, she’s got stardom to worry about….

Though the subject matter is a bit familiar and the film, made before the age of Twitter and Instagram, is a bit dated, To Die For‘s satire still carries a powerful bite.  One need only watch A&E or the Crime and Investigation network to see that Suzanne was absolutely correct when she decided that killing her husband would make her a star.  If To Die For were made today, you could easily imagine Suzanne leveraging her infamy into an appearance on Dancing With The Stars and maybe Celebrity Big Brother.  At the very least. she could get her own house hunting show on HGTV.  Delivering her often sociopathic dialogue with a perky smile and a positive attitude, Nicole Kidman is absolutely chilling as Suzanne.  Meanwhile, Joaquin Phoenix’s blank stare will continue to haunt you long after the film ends.

And speaking of endings, To Die For has a great one.  You’ll never hear Season of the Witch the same way again!

A Movie A Day #317: Flashpoint (1984, directed by William Tannen)


November 22, 1963.  While the rest of the world deals with the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, a man named Michael Curtis drives a jeep across the South Texas desert, heading for the border.  In the jeep, he has a $800,000 and a high-powered rifle.  When the jeep crashes, the man, the rifle, and the money are left undiscovered in the desert for 21 years.

1984.  Two border patrol agents, Logan (Kris Kristofferson) and Wyatt (Treat Williams), are complaining about their job and hoping for a better life.  It looks like they might get that opportunity when they come across both the jeep and the money.  A bitter Vietnam vet, Logan wants to take the money and run but Wyatt is more cautious.  Shortly after Wyatt runs a check on the jeep’s license plate, a FBI agent (Kurtwood Smith) shows up at the station and both Logan and Wyatt discover their lives are in danger.

Though it was made seven years before Oliver Stone’s JFK, Flashpoint makes the same argument, that Kennedy was killed as the result of a massive government conspiracy and that the conspirators are still in power and doing whatever they have to do keep the truth from being discovered.  The difference is that Flashpoint doesn’t try to convince anyone.  If you’re watching because you’re hoping to see a serious examination of the Kennedy conspiracy theories, Flashpoint is not for you.  Instead, Flashpoint is a simple but effective action film, a modern western that uses the assassination as a MacGuffin.  Though Kris Kristofferson has never been the most expressive of actors, he was well-cast as the archetypical gunslinger with a past.  Rip Torn also gives a good performance as a morally ambiguous sheriff and fans of great character acting will want to keep an eye out for both Kevin Conway and Miguel Ferrer in small roles.

Horror on the Lens: Deadly Messages (dir by Jack Bender)


Today’s horror on the lens is a made-for-TV movie from 1985!

In Deadly Messages, Kathleen Beller plays a woman named Laura who witnesses a murder and then becomes convinced that the murderer is after her.  She also finds a Ouija board that continually sends her the same message: “I am going to kill you.”  The police are skeptical of Laura.  Even worse, her boyfriend (Michael Brandon) is skeptical!  And, needless to say, Laura may have some secrets of her own…

Deadly Messages is a lot of fun.  Thank you to frequent TSL commenter Trevor Wells for suggesting this movie!

Enjoy!

Sci-Fi Review: Regular Show: The Movie (2015, directed by J.G. Quintel)


Regular_Show_the_MovieAfter airing for seven seasons and counting on the Cartoon Network, Regular Show has finally gotten its own feature-length movie!  In Regular Show: The Movie, the Earth is in danger of being destroyed by a time jumping volleyball coach and it is up to our two favorite slacker groundskeepers — Mordecai the Blue Jay and Rigby the Racoon — to save the world.  But to do so, they are going to have to confront their past and Rigby is going to have to reveal something that not even his oldest friend, Mordecai, knows about.

Regular Show: The Movie opens in the future, with a massive battle in space.  Rigby is leading a squadron composed of his former co-workers at the state park against the forces of the evil Mr. Ross, a former high school volleyball coach-turned-cyborg who is using a “timenado” to destroy time itself.  (Ross is in a hurry to destroy Earth because, after devoting 25 years to his evil plan, he has a lot of television to catch up on.)  During the battle, Rigby is shocked to discover that his former friend Mordecai is one of Ross’s soldiers.  Mordecai tells Rigby that he wants revenge for something that Rigby did in the past.  Rigby manages to escape in a time ship but not before getting shot by Mordecai.

Regular Show

Future Rigby lands in a Georgia state park where, as usual, present day Rigby and Modecai are trying to get through the day by doing as little work as possible and without getting fired by their boss, an uptight gumball machine named Benson.  Before Future Rigby dies, he reminds Present Rigby and Mordecai of the time that they built a time machine in high school.  The time machine malfunctioned and caused the science lab to explode, which led to Rigby and Mordecai being expelled from high school.  It also caused Mr. Ross to lose a volleyball game, which set Mr. Ross on his path to madness (or, as Mr. Ross, puts it, drove him “craze-o” because that is how they say crazy in the future).

Regular Show

Using the time ship, Present Rigby and Mordecai try to stop Past Rigby and Mordecai.  But before they can save the world, Rigby has to find the courage to reveal his secret to Mordecai, a secret that causes them to question and reconsider their friendship.

Regular Show: The Movie is a fun and trippy movie that is full of nods to 80s and 90s pop culture.  (The Ferris Bueller homage was my favorite.)  The voice work is also excellent, with Mark Hamill a stand-out in the role of Skips, a very intelligent and reasonable Yeti.  Devotees of the series will not be disappointed by this frequently hilarious expansion.

regular-show-3

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #70: Staying Alive (dir by Sylvester Stallone)


StayingaliveOh my God, this is so bad.

The 1983 film Staying Alive is a sequel to Saturday Night Fever.  That’s right, Tony Manero’s back!  And, if possible, he’s even dumber than before.

Actually, that’s not fair.  The whole point of Saturday Night Fever was that Tony really was not that dumb.  He was poorly educated.  He was a prisoner of his culture and his economic situation.  If he acted stupid, it was because he lived in a world that distrusted intelligence.  If he was selfish, it was because that was his way of dealing with his own insecurities.  If we got frustrated with him, it’s because we knew he was capable of more than he realized he was.  In Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta gave such good performance and Tony was such a carefully drawn character that we forgave him for the many times that he let us down.

But, in Staying Alive, Tony is just an idiot.  Somehow, he’s managed to escape Brooklyn.  He now works as a waiter and a dance instructor and goes on auditions for Broadway shows.  He has no contact with his old friends.  (He never even mentions the night that one of them jumped off a bridge.)  He lives in one of those scary New York flophouses — apparently the same one that Travis Bickle called home in Taxi Driver — but otherwise, Tony’s doing pretty well for himself.  The only problem is that Tony is now a complete and total moron.

That really is the only conclusion that one can draw from John Travolta’s performance here.  It’s not just that Travolta gives a bad performance in a role for which he was once nominated for an Oscar.  It’s that Travolta gives such a bad performance that he actually transcends the accepted definition of bad.  He resurrects all the tics from his Saturday Night Fever performance but he goes so overboard with them that you feel like you’re watching someone do an imitation of John Travolta playing Tony Manero than actually watching John Travolta.

Speaking of self-parody, Staying Alive was directed by Sylvester Stallone.  Now, I know that when you think of the ideal director for a dance movie, Sylvester Stallone is probably the first name that comes to mind.

As for the film itself, Tony gets a job working in the chorus of a Broadway show called Satan’s Alley and, wouldn’t you know it, he eventually replaces the male lead.  Tony finds himself torn between the bitchy (and, somewhat inevitably, British) star of the show (Finola Hughes) and his long-suffering, on-and-off again girlfriend Jackie (Cynthia Rhodes).

Jackie, incidentally, is also the lead singer in a band.  The band’s guitarist, Carl, is in love with her.  Guess who plays Carl?  Frank Stallone!  That’s right, the director’s brother.  There is a hilarious scene where Carl plays guitar while shooting a death glare at Tony.  Frank really nails that death glare.

But, ultimately, the main appeal of Staying Alive is that we get to see Satan’s Alley, which is probably the most unintentionally hilarious fake Broadway show to ever be immortalized on film.  Satan’s Alley is about one man’s journey into Hell and… well, that really sums it up, doesn’t it?  If you asked someone who has never danced, never listened to music, and perhaps never actually stepped outside of their bedroom to write a Broadway musical, chances are that they would come up with something like Satan’s Alley.

And they’d probably cast Tony Manero as the lead!

Horror On TV: That 70s Show 2.5 “Halloween”


Okay, so technically, this really isn’t horror.  But who cares?  It deals with Halloween traditions and, even more importantly,  I loved That 70s Show.

This episode was originally broadcast on October 26th, 1999.

In Memory of Robin Williams #1: Dead Poets Society (Dir by Peter Weir)


Robin Williams

Last Monday, after I first heard that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I struggled to find the right words to express what I was feeling.  Finally, I ended up posting this on Facebook:

I keep trying to write something about Robin Williams but the words aren’t coming to me. It’s all too big and strange and sudden and I can’t find the words to sum up my feelings. I feel like a part of my childhood died today. So, instead of trying to be more eloquent or wise than I actually am, I’m just going to say R.I.P., Robin WIlliams.

Finally, a little over a week later, I still don’t know what to say.  How do you sum up a life in just a few words?  I don’t think that they can be done for anyone.  It certainly can’t be done for as iconic a figure as Robin Williams.  So, instead of trying to do the impossible, I’ve spent the last few days watching and reviewing a few of Robin Williams’ films.

And, of course, one of those films had to be the 1989 best picture nominee Dead Poets Society.

DEAD-POETS-SOCIETY

Now, a quick warning.  The review below is going to contain spoilers.  I’m going to talk about some very important plot points.  But surely you’ve seen Dead Poets Society already.  And even if you haven’t seen it, surely you’ve heard what the film is about and surely, you know what happens.  After all, who doesn’t?  But if you are one of those people who does not know or who has not seen the film — well, why haven’t you?

The first time I ever saw Dead Poets Society was in a high school creative writing class.  Our teacher — who, it quickly became apparently, considered herself to be the real-life version of the teacher played by Robin Williams — showed it to us, over the course of three class periods, as an introduction to writing poetry.  I enjoyed the film but the rest of the class absolutely loved it.  Especially the guys.  For the rest of the class year, I would listen to those guy as they bragged about how they were seizing the day.  I remember one day, the classroom was empty except for me and one of the boys.  I can’t remember what led to him doing it (and it could very well have been my suggestion that he try) but he eventually ended up standing on top of a desk just like the students at the end of the film.  Unfortunately, public high school desks aren’t quite as sturdy as private school desks and my friend soon ended up crashing to the floor as the desk slipped out from underneath him.

Ah, memories.

dead-poets-society (1)

Yes, Dead Poets Society is one of those films.  It’s a film that everyone seems to have seen, loved, and found to be inspirational.  And I have to admit that I’ve grown to appreciate it more over the years since I first saw it back in creative writing class.  With each subsequent viewing, I find myself less critical of the film’s melodramatic and predictable moments and more willing to accept the film for what it is — a celebration of life, poetry, and teaching.  Dead Poets Society, from the very moment that Robin Williams makes his first appearance sitting at the end of a line of stodgy old men and flashing an unapologetically impish smile, is a film that defies easy cynicism.  It’s a film that embraces you and you have to be very hard-hearted not to embrace it back.

Dead Poets Society, of course, tells the story of a private school in the 1950s and what happens when a new teacher (Robin Williams, naturally) encourages his students to celebrate creativity, to “seize the day” as the saying goes.  Not surprisingly, just about every other adult thinks that the students would be better off not seizing the day but instead preparing for a life of WASPy conformity.  This leads to a few of Mr. Keating’s students forming a secret society where they can read poetry, talk about their feelings, and basically do their best to honor the memory of Walt Whitman.

poetrybeauty gif

There are seven members of the Dead Poets Society:

There’s Gerard Pitts, who doesn’t really make much of an impression.  The main thing that I always notice about Gerard Pitts is that he looks like a young version of Sam Waterston.  This made sense when I checked the end credits and I discovered that he was played by James Waterston, son of Sam.

Stephen Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero) is another one who doesn’t actually get to do much (beyond boast about the fact that he has a genius I.Q. and create a makeshift radio) but, with his cute glasses, unruly hair, and friendly manner, it’s impossible not to like him.

Of the three main villains in Dead Poets Society, none of them are quite as loathsome as Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman).  The stern headmaster (played by Norman Lloyd) and the judgmental father (played by Kurtwood Smith) at least have the excuse of being old and set-in-their-boring-ways.  Cameron, however, starts out as a member of the Dead Poets Society but still has absolutely no problem betraying them.  As opposed to the adults in the movie, Cameron is someone who still had a chance to be something more than a worm. That being said, Dylan Kussman makes Cameron into a memorable worm.

Then there’s Knox Overstreet (played by Josh Charles, who appears to have only aged a year or two in between this movie and the first season of The Good Wife).  We know that Knox is rich because his name is Knox Overstreet.  Knox has a crush on a girl who goes to the local high school.  Knox’s subplot doesn’t really amount to much but it’s impossible not to like him because Josh Charles was (and is) simply adorable.

Charlie Dalton (played, quite well, by Gale Hansen) is the one who most enthusiastically embraces the idea of seizing the day.  He’s the one who pretends to get a tattoo, who demands to be known by a new name, who attempts to protest the school’s out-dated traditions, and who ultimately is punished with expulsion after he physically attacks Cameron.  (And, as sorry as I was to see Charlie leave the movie, Cameron totally deserved it.)  For a few months in 2008, Gale Hansen was a very active participant on the IMDB message boards, answering questions, giving advice, and generally just being a very gracious guy.  However, he suddenly stopped posting and, just as mysteriously, all of his previous posts were subsequently deleted.  Hansen, himself, hasn’t acted since 1998 and that’s a shame because he really did do a good job as the enthusiastic, idealistic, and not-quite-as-worldly-as-he-thinks Charlie Dalton.

Neil Perry (played by Robert Sean Leonard) is the one who, inspired to seize the day, appears in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, as a result, earns the wrath of his overbearing father.  Seen now, in the shadow of Robin Williams’ tragic death, the scene where Neil commits suicide takes on a terrible poignance and it no longer feels as melodramatic as it did the first time that I saw it.  Whereas, originally, it seemed hard to believe that a character played by the energetic and charismatic Leonard would end up committing suicide over a play, we now know that energy and charisma do not necessarily equal happiness.

And finally, there’s Todd Anderson (played by a very young Ethan Hawke), who is pathologically shy and who, at the end of the film, finally finds the strength to climb up on his desk.  After years of seeing in him in various Richard Linklater films, it’s strange to see the usually verbose Hawke playing such an introverted character.  But he does a good job, turning Todd into the film’s moral center.

Robin Williams In DPS

And then there’s their teacher, John Keating who, quite frankly, might as well be named Robin Williams.  That’s not to say that Williams doesn’t give a good performance as Keating.  Indeed, Williams is the glue that holds the film’s ensemble together and his performance so dominates the entire film that, every time that I’ve seen it, I’ve always been surprised to discover just how little screen time he actually has in Dead Poets Society.  As embodied by Robin Williams, John Keating becomes the type of teacher that everyone wishes they could have had just once.  The power of his performance comes from the fact that he not only inspires the viewers to “seize the day” but he actually makes you believe that the day is worth holding on to.  Without Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society would be easy to dismiss as just being a film about a bunch of privileged teenagers reading poetry and pretending to be rebels.  With Williams, however, the film becomes a celebration of life.

Robin Williams, R.I.P.

RW in DPS

 

Lisa Marie Finally Gets Around To Reviewing Cedar Rapids (dir. by Miguel Arteta)


So, in my review of The Beaver, I talked about the annual Hollywood Black List and how the movies that are always listed at the top of the black list usually turn out to be vaguely disappointing.  Well, in that review, I failed to mention that The Beaver was not the only Black List film that I’ve seen (so far) in 2011.  A few months ago, I saw the film that topped last year’s list, Cedar Rapids(The Cedar Rapids screenplay, by the way, was written by Phil Johnston.)

Now, Cedar Rapids (which is scheduled to be released on DVD in June) actually had a pretty good run down in here in Dallas.  Unlike Austin, Dallas is not a film-crazed city and — with only four theaters currently specializing in indie and art films — it’s usually a case of “you snooze, you lose” when it comes to seeing anything out of the mainstream.  We’ll have a few hundred theaters all showing something like Avatar for half a year but a film like James Gunn’s Super will usually sneak in, play in one theater for two weeks, and then just as quickly vanish.

Cedar Rapids, however, stuck around for about a month and a half, playing exclusively at the Dallas Angelika.  It took me a while to actually find the time to go see it (and, perhaps because of the whole Black List thing, I just didn’t feel much enthusiasm for seeing it) and, in fact, I ended up seeing it the last day it played at the Angelika. 

As for why I wanted to see it — well, it had gotten some very positive reviews from critics who traditionally don’t give comedies good reviews so that piqued my interest.  I knew that the film featured three of my favorite character actors — John C. Reilly, Stephen Root, and Thomas Lennon.  The film was also being touted as a comeback for Anne Heche whose autobiography Call Me Crazy was a favorite book of a former roommate of mine.  Finally, I wanted to see the film because it starred Ed Helms, who, at the time, I thought seriously might end up as the new boss on The Office.

Helms, in case you don’t know for some reason, plays Cornell graduate Andy Bernard on The Office.  When he first appeared during the show’s third season, he was portrayed as an incredibly obnoxious preppy with an anger management problem and I loved how Helms so thoroughly threw himself into making Andy just the most annoying human being ever.  Andy was eventually sent to anger management classes and, upon returning, the character has become less obnoxious and just more buffoonish and, in my opinion, a lot less entertaining.  As well, with Jim and Pam now safely married, Andy ended up as the focus of some of the Office’s weakest episodes.  In fact, Andy was the center of so many episodes earlier this season that I found myself wondering if the show’s producers weren’t perhaps trying to see how the audience would react to Ed Helms becoming the new star of the show.  Since I had mixed feelings about that prospect, I felt that maybe Cedar Rapids would provide me with an answer.

In Cedar Rapids, Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, an almost impossibly innocent insurance agent who is sent by his boss (Stephen Root, who appears to be the go-to guy when you need someone to play a friendly but vaguely threatening manager) to a regional conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Tim is ordered to conduct himself well, to go out of his way to impress the conference president (Kurtwood Smith), and to win the prestigious “Two Diamonds” Award.  (The award has been won for the company in the past by Helms’ rival at the company who, at the beginning of the film, accidentally kills himself while practicing autoerotic asphyxiation.  The rival is played by Thomas Lennon and I’m kinda sorry that Lennon didn’t have more scenes because seriously, he always makes me smile.)

After saying goodbye to his much older girlfriend (Sigourney Weaver, who is wasted in her cameo), Helms heads off for Cedar Rapids.  This is a big deal for him because he’s the type of movie innocent who has never even been on a plane before.  Helms arrives at Cedar Rapids determined to do the right thing but he soon discovers that he is rooming with Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a loud, crude, and cynical agent who indulges in every vice that Helms has been ordered to avoid.  Needless to say, Helms initially tries to resist being drawn into Reilly’s orbit but soon, he finds himself being corrupted and enjoying it.  Through Reilly, he meets yet another insurance agent (played by Anne Heche) that he soon finds himself falling in lust with.  All this happens, of course, under the disapproving eye of Kurtwood Smith and Helms soon learns just how far he is expected to go to win that Two Diamonds Award…

As it might be obvious from the above description, Cedar Rapids is one of those films that attempts to be both a wild comedy and a poignant coming-of-age drama.  And it succeeds very well at being a comedy and it does pretty good job of being a drama but it never manages to do both at the same time.  The end result is an entertaining but wildly uneven film that never feels like it’s quite as good as it should be. 

The film is at it’s best when it’s just Helms, Reilly, Heche, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. (playing another insurance agent) hanging out and BSing.  Those scenes ring well and all four of these actors have a real ensemble chemistry together.  You really do end up believing that Reilly, Heche, and Whitlock truly do care about their new friend and you just as strongly believe that Helms really is falling in love with Heche.  These are the best scenes in the movie. 

The film is less effective when it tries to be something more than just an ensemble comedy.  It’s in these scenes — with Kurtwood Smith quoting bible verses and the Two Diamonds Award becoming a metaphor for all sorts of things — that the film gets heavy-handed and a bit boring.  I also have a feeling that these scenes are probably the reason why so many Hollywood readers went nuts of the Cedar Rapids screenplay because these scenes are the least challenging in the film.  These are the scenes that pat you on the back for watching the movie.  Anyone who has ever seen a movie knows that Kurtwood Smith’s character is going to turn out to be a hypocrite because when was the last time that you see a movie in which the guy who talked about Jesus didn’t turn out to be a hypocrite?  Therefore, it’s kinda hard to buy into Helms’s shock when he discovers that Smith isn’t all that he’s cracked up to be.  I mean, I can force myself to buy that the Helms character has never been on a plane before but my God, has he never seen a movie or an episode of Law and Order before either?  Seriously, the character isn’t a Mennonite.  He’s just from the midwest.

In the lead role, Ed Helms is a lot like the movie.  He’s great when he’s just a member of the ensemble but sometimes seems to struggle a bit in the more dramatic scenes.  To a large extent, the problem is that the film goes so out of it’s way to present Helms as being some sort of man-child that it’s hard to take him seriously once he suddenly starts to think for himself.  As I previously stated, the supporting cast is uniformly strong.  Reilly is a drunken, foul-mouthed force of nature while Heche steals every scene that she’s in and, in the end, proves herself to really be the heart and soul of the film.

So, in the end, I guess I would say that Cedar Rapids, as uneven and as frustrating as it occasionally turned out to be, is worth seeing once it comes out on DVD in June.