Cedar Rapids (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Comedian Ed Helms is such a talented guy, it’s hard not to just love him. The guy can sing, dance, play instruments, and do comedy with the best comedians out there. Take 2011’s Cedar Rapids, an uproariously funny comedy decked out in earth tones and Dockers. Cedar Rapids is Helms’s first starring comedy that truly does his talent justice and doesn’t demand he resort to a string of dick jokes like The Hangover asks of him. This project also proves that Helms can do the heavy lifting and lead a film from beginning to end. A much smaller film than his Hangover franchise, Cedar Rapids is a smaller and downright friendlier project that, yes, still has the same old bawdy jokes, but it is much more earnest and cordial, with direction that is much more mature and almost old fashioned. With Cedar Rapids, Helms comes out with his pride still in one piece and in the process, we learn that he has serious chemistry with man-baby John C. Reilly, leaving us begging for another project where the lax Reilly can torment the uptight Helms.
Cedar Rapids picks up the small, sleepy town of Brown Valley, Wisconsin, where we meet mild mannered Tim Lippe (Played by Helms), a sheltered and uptight insurance salesman. We learn that Tim has never really left his hometown and ventured out into the real world. He is pre-engaged to his 7th grade teacher Macy Vanderhei (Played by Sigourney Weaver) and he dedicates himself fully to the small insurance company he is employed at. When Lippe is given the opportunity to travel to Cedar Rapids to represent his company, Brownstar Insurance, at a regional conference and bring how the coveted Two Diamonds award, he graciously accepts and prepares for his trip to the big city. When he arrives in Cedar Rapids, he meets party animal Dean Ziegler (Played by Reilly), sexy red head Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Played by Anne Heche), and monotone Ronald Wilkes (Played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.). As Tim begins to lighten up and have fun, pressure from his boss Bill (Played by Stephen Root) begins getting the best of Tim, Bill demanding that Tim bring home the Two Diamond award any way he can. But Dean soon brings new information to Tim, sparking the group to suspect how honestly the Two Diamond awards are won.
The running joke of Cedar Rapids is the idea that Tim is an insurance salesman who refuses to take any major risks. He stays on a straight, safe path and if anything disrupts that order, Tim becomes a heaving, stammering mess who refuses to curse. He is always at odds with the nothing-is-off-limits Dean, who urges Tim to lighten up every chance he gets. When Tim does cut loose, he over compensates for living such a sheltered existence. He parties with a free-spirited prostitute Bree (Played by Alia Shawkat), doing hard drugs and heavy drinking. He also sparks up a romantic relationship with Joan, who has a secret of her own. Most importantly, Tim learns he has options, something that never revealed itself until he steps out of his safe zone, Brown Valley. It is also when Tim is shaken out of his naivety that the true colors of those around him sweep through their out shells.
Is it too much to ask that we get a sequel to Cedar Rapids? Every single member of the cast seems to be at home in their roles. You’ll die laughing when Dean makes Tim squirm out of discomfort. You’ll howl when Ronald babbles on about The Wire and does his impersonations. And how about Arrested Development’s Alia Shawkat playing a bad girl prostitute with a wild streak? I wanted more of the romance between Tim and Joan, an onscreen couple who go together like peanut butter and jelly. It is always a treat when the director knows that their cast has great chemistry and he lets them go. Director Miguel Arteta allows his cats to guide the film, making his job almost effortless. Arteta does make Cedar Rapids into a bit of a celebration of the little guy. He mirrors this in his choice of the little guy Helms, who always seems pushed to the supporting role. Yet his film is a round of applause for the small, family owned business, the small, sheltered hero, and the rag tag group who has to pull together to prevail.
Even though Cedar Rapids is a smaller film, it never falls victim to the “Garden State syndrome”, ya know, the one where the film features crude illustrations for the opening credit sequence, there is Napoleon Dynamite style humor sprinkled throughout, and there are countless indie rock bands (The Shins, Belle & Sebastian, etc.) strumming their acoustic guitars on the soundtrack. While Cedar Rapids maintains its indie cred with the small scope and a slew of offbeat actors, you never feel like you need to be wearing horn rimmed glasses and skinny jeans to really appreciate it. You never get the sense that the film gives off the vibe that it is too cool to be viewed by you. In fact, Cedar Rapids in almost dorky! This makes falling for this film even easier, because it lacks all the glitz and glamour of a mainstream comedy. It really is the comedy next door.
Cedar Rapids is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Red State (2011)
by Steve Habrat
After last year’s buddy cop debacle Cop Out, pudgy funny-man director Kevin Smith needed a hit. Cop Out boasted Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, both who are able to draw a fairly large crowd to fill seats in the local theater, and ended up tanking and being largely forgotten soon after it’s release. Rather than enlisting more big actors and trying to make another blockbuster comedy, Smith scales back with Red State, a new horror/thriller that you, the viewer, will feel in the morning, long after you have seen it. Yes, this is the same guy who made Clerks, Dogma, Jersey Girl, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Red State is a hell of a departure from Smith’s other projects, but it also turns out to be one of his best movies, certainly scaring the hell out of you. With Dogma, Smith made clear he has an interest in the subject of religion, and with Red State, he launches a full on assault on radically religious figures, ultra-conservatism, and strangely, masculinity. This film is also evocative of the stock footage of such events as Waco, Texas, where a sinister ultra-religious cult lead by David Koresh engaged in a deadly firefight with FBI officials in 1993. The film brushes against the topic of terrorism as well, pitting Red State in the real realm of horror. The monsters here could be living down the street from you.
Red State focuses on Middle America high school students Travis (Played by Michael Angarano), Jared (Played by Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Played by Nicholas Braun), who plot to answer a sex invitation that Jared received in an online sex chat room. They pile into Travis’ car that very evening and set out to find the 39-year-old Sarah (Played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo), who promises the boys that they will get physical after they have a couple of beers. Turns out, the beers she provides the eager lads are spiked, drugging the teens. Jared soon awakens to find himself at the Five Points Church, which is lead by a radical preacher Abin Cooper (Played by Michael Parks), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who spews his message of hate against homosexuals. The church is also holding a homosexual man they lured in a through a gay chat room. They soon execute the poor man who has been saran wrapped to a cross. After he dies, the man is cut down and several of Cooper’s men dump his body into a cellar where we discover Travis and Billy Ray are bound together. The boys come to the realization that Cooper aims to execute them for their devilish lust. After a string of mishaps and the discovery of military grade weaponry, the local Sheriff Wynan (Played by Stephen Root) enlists the help of ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (Played by John Goodman) to set up a raid on Cooper’s church compound. As the standoff between the agents and Cooper’s congregation escalates and Keenan’s peaceful negotiations fail, the boys are caught with Sarah’s virgin daughter Cheyenne (Played by Kerry Bisché) in the middle of the conflict. Cheyenne begs the boys to help them hide the younger children, who are also hidden in the compound.
Red State does not mince words and it certainly is not cunning about its attacks. It goes right for the throat and I say good for Smith for following through. He makes us absolutely loath the members of the Five Points Church, making me cheer every time an ATF agent picked off one of the gun-toting psychos. This leads to my recognition of the way Smith mounts tension within the film and his expertise in shooting action sequences. He turns a chase scene through the compound into a ferocious and erratic kick to the head. You will be swallowed up by desperation. He can also stage a gunfight, avoiding confusion that some filmmakers fall victim to when they stage a gunfight. Praise should also go to the excellent editing, which is frantic but clear. This is where the film benefits from its smaller budget, as I can’t imagine this film was made for a huge sum of cash.
Smith enlists a handful of smaller actors along with some veterans, all who shine through the buckets of blood, gore, and gun smoke. Melissa Leo plays a horrifically loyal daughter to the heinous Cooper. While sniping ATF agents, he glances over at his machine gun wielding daughter and asks her if she will get him a glass of sweet tea. She proudly dashes off to quench his thirst. Leo excels at playing wicked and domineering, as she yanks and scolds her daughter Cheyenne for defying God. She does the phony hypnotic prayer, which all fanatical Christians in the south are so found of and she does it exceptionally well. Leo is all flaying arms to Christ, shouting “Praise Jesus” as Cooper fear mongers and promotes his message of destruction. Michael Parks is the embodiment of the devil as Cooper, who encourages his family members to march out and take the lives of innocent human beings. Goodman plays a good guy facing some serious moral dilemmas. Goodman conveys genuine horror over the events that play out right before his eyes and he is helpless to stop them. The three boys, Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray are all out to prove their masculinity and enter manhood. They take a backseat to Leo, Goodman, and Parks, but they still hold their own in the film.
Red State has many points to make on its agenda. It argues that under all of the fear mongering preaching made by radicals in Middle America (or anywhere in America, for that matter) has the underlying message of violence. Near the beginning of the film, Cooper’s congregation protests the funeral of a homosexual boy who was found dead in a dumpster behind a gay club. It asks if there is any decency in this world anymore. Would God approve of all this violence? He is supposed to be a peaceful God after all. Red State asks questions about masculinity, particularly the drive in young men to prove themselves sexually. It makes points about ultra-conservatism, sometimes with the role of women within a family. The scene where Cooper asks his daughter to get him some sweet tea would spark some thoughtful conversation in a Women’s Study course. There were moments in the film that were evocative of the documentary Jesus Camp, where radical preacher Becky Fisher discusses the “army of God”. The members of Cooper’s congregation certainly see themselves that way, even if they are fictional creations. And what about the issues of freedom of sexuality? And what gives us the right as human beings to judge other human beings? Red State points out that violence is not the way to solve any of these issues, as the violence will consume the innocent caught in the middle.
The portrait that Smith paints with Red State is scary because it has happened before and we can be certain it will happen again. These are monsters that exist and walk among us brainwashing our children and spewing vitriol to anyone who will stop and listen. Red State is not for all, mostly because of its relentless violence. Yet Red State is articulate and should be seen by those who are open minded. I’d be curious to hear the opinions of those who devout themselves to any certain religion or situate themselves in conservative beliefs. Sitting on the sidelines here, I found the film to be a gut punch that is softened only by it’s silly turn at the end. Smith turns the last fifteen minutes of the film into a comedy routine where the characters spout off with dialogue that would be at home in any of his comedies I have listed above. It saves itself again in the final thirty seconds. For all the intellectuals out there, Red State scares with reality. For movie lovers, Red State is a must-see for a left of center project from Kevin Smith. For me, Red State has left me reeling, swirling with emotions. I’ve felt angry, dismayed, and broken by it. I also don’t view any of these emotions as negative towards the film itself. Praise Red State!
Red State is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and in the Instant Queue on Netflix.