February 23, 2011

Cedar Rapids

By Robb Witmer Full  |  February 23, 2011

Watching Cedar Rapids, I felt as though I was really inside Duets, like when you're in a dream, and you know that you are in a specific place, regardless of the fact that it bears no real resemblance. It feels so much like that place that there's no way it can't be.

The reason for that is that they occupy the same universe, the one where the American Midwest is an endless swath of highways connecting hotel bars and crack-houses. The characters' lives in both movies are centered around those bars, and making something of themselves inside of them.

The life of a Midwesterner must seem pretty lame to Big City Folk, and that of Midwestern insurance salesmen doubly so. But everybody's got to get their kicks somewhere, and for working types, that's what conventions are for.

In Duets, the prize was the Karaoke Championship... The NATIONAL Karaoke Championship. (One must assume this is a title sanctioned by the U.S. Karaoke Association.) What the characters are really after in that movie is a chance to be a star, even if it's only in front of a couple dozen people.

The coveted Two Diamond Award is at the center of Cedar Rapids, but like the National Karaoke Championship, it is an award that doesn't have a lot of meaning outside of the room it's presented in.

For the insurance sales representatives, the ASMI convention is their yearly chance to party like they did at state universities and branch campuses, and pretend like that's how they always act. Sleeping around, doing shots, acting like we're some sort of big-shot back home.

There's also always a chance you hang out with the wrong prostitute and get caught up in some crack-enhanced Bad Situations, but that's just part of the territory, a hazing for rookies. This kind of stuff is what the convention/hotel business was built on; Vegas exists because of it.

Cedar Rapids doesn't take nearly as many chances as Duets, not that there are many movies that should, but sometimes the safer choices are the right choices.

In Cedar, it wouldn't have felt right for a main character to be gunned down in front of a room full of people; in Duets, it didn't make any goddamn sense and doesn't work at all, but they had at least earned the right to try it thanks to all the other nonsense leading up to it (National Karaoke Championships, anyone?).

Of course, in both movies we have characters fall into heavy-duty drug benders that they have no business dealing with, so anything's possible.

I'm not sure Ed Helms has the chops to take a movie like this into the upper echelon of comedy, but I'm not sure that's what the aim is here. We know John C. Reilly has those chops, and maybe the riskier move is to let him take more of a lead. Then it's possible you're left with just another John C. Reilly-playing-a-dumbass movie.

There's enough of those, or at least there will be eventually. What if the point is to make a grown-up comedy about fucking around? We could probably use a few more of those.

Robb Witmer Full is the National Karaoke Championships correspondent for America-Thrust.

February 22, 2011

Superman: The Movie

By Robb Witmer Full  |  February 22, 2011

Tights and Capes...

Superman comes from a different time in both American Comics and America itself. Comics were pure kids-stuff then, so most of the characters dressed like clowns to catch the eye of any passing children, not at all unlike modern-day cereal boxes, with the use of big, bright, primary-colored mascots to mesmerize the little scamps.

So, I get why the Tights and Capes, I guess, but it's always been a large hurdle to leap, as it were. Why would Superman dress like such a jack-ass?

Or (at least in the movie version), why would his father dress him like such a jack-ass when he made clear to his son that he should try to blend in with humans. And it's not like the film established at any point that Kryptonians ever dressed like that...

Whatever, I'm over it. For now. But, yes, Superman is kind of silly, and he's exactly the sort of character that for so long mis-defined what comic books could be.

There are no shades of gray in this Superman world, very little humor, and absolutely no irony of any kind. People will smile occasionally.

Superman, for all his other-worldly advancement and wisdom, is so oblivious to Earth reality that he thinks there really are only two sides, Good and Evil.

Perhaps he just loves fascism. At the end of the movie, when he's dropping the Bad Guys off at the prison -- without all the mess of a trail -- he waves at the prison guards and tells them that they're all on the same team.

These same prison guards would happily smuggle drugs and weapons into the prison for the Bad Guys, if the price is right. Who's side are they on then, Superman? What if they're using their ill-gotten gains to feed their family?

And for a guy who is so learned, Superman is still kind of an Aw-Shucks idiot, isn't he? I know, I know, he was raised in Kansas, but small-town values are not the same thing as dopeyness.

The tone of Superman is hard to get right. Maybe this is why any updated version seems so out of place. It operates on a cultural logic that doesn't exist any more, except to be made fun of, and to ridicule it would destroy the whole Superman ethos.

A mid-90's Superman movie, to be directed by Tim Burton almost looked like this:

I'm not making that up. That makes the Schumacher-era Batman movies look like... well, the Schumacher-era Batman movies.

We want Superman to be dorky, and simple, and to wear the the blue and red tights even if they are, as Jon Peters once famously said, "too faggy."

Superman: The Movie gets it mostly right. Does it get too close to Cheese? Yes, dangerously so. Obviously, it's pretty hard to believe that Clark Kent's co-workers, especially Lois Lane, don't get that he's Superman, but at this point if you can't accept that then you are some sort of un-American.

And a bomb that can hit the San Andreas fault right in the G-spot, causing California to fall into the ocean? Even if it were possible, come the fuck on.

Let's not discuss whether or not time will go backwards if the Earth spins backwards.

Christopher Reeve is just un-bland enough to keep the audience awake and Lois Lane interested. Actually, it's hard to understand what she sees in Superman, except for the 6'5", studly, and able-to-fly thing.

Reeve is not exactly Mark-Hamill-in-Star-Wars bad, but I don't see what he brings to the character besides looking just like Superman.

Gene Hackman's Lex Luthor is totally underused in this movie. He spends most of it behind a desk, underground, being about half as interesting as Gene Hackman can be.

Brando, on the other hand, if fucking awesome as Jor-El. The opening sequence on Krypton should have been an entire prequel itself. Who wouldn't want to see a whole movie about a planet that runs on Crystal Technology?

That would have been way too cool, though. The movie we did get is exactly what we need a Superman movie to be. Action-packed, kid-friendly, and most of all, BRIGHT.

Robb Witmer Full has never worn tights; capes occasionally.

February 17, 2011


By Robb Witmer Full  |  February 17, 2011

The surprise of Catfish is that there is really nothing surprising about it. There is a twist, I guess, but it's pretty obvious early on that something is not what it seems. What that is can be pieced together, but it really is best to experience it as it happens, to let the onion peel back its layers on its own.

The Social Network is and will forever be "the Facebook movie," but Catfish is the movie that takes place within Facebook. The site is used as a tool to set up an entire fantasy world for the center of the documentary, Nev.

And he falls for it, hook, line and sinker. But who can blame the guy? He is seduced by an impossibly beautiful and talented country girl who is completely taken with his Big City life and perfect teeth.

That she isn't real doesn't make their relationship any less authentic, their connection any less strong. The truth is that Megan, or Angela, rather, doesn't know the real Nev any more than he knows the real her...

Okay, a little bit more. But Facebook is just another in a long line of technologies, dating back to masks and face-paint, that allows us to hide our true selves, if even just a little. The Internet hasn't changed this, it's just given us a new venue for it.

Who we are on Facebook is not who we are at work, or out for drinks on Friday evening, or at Sunday dinner with our parents. It's like a Fight Club that you can talk about.

But we are all these people. Technology has allowed an unbelievable amount of connection, but also allows us to fracture our personalities in ways we chose, and in ways that we can lose control of.

Catfish is about that loss of control, and the depths to which that fracturing can take us. And like drug addiction, when we've lost that control we often hurt someone we care about.

Angela is a sad, creative person, not happy with who she is, but she's able to live vicariously through her own imagination. Nev fell for her deception, but it's hard to view him as a victim. She did it for his benefit as well as hers, to continue the real friendship going between two fake people.

There's nothing malicious about what Angela did, but it is incredibly fucked-up. She certainly needed the fantasy more than Nev did, and she probably ended up hurting herself more than him.

Maybe nobody was truly hurt in this situation. It is hard to find anyone to sympathize with too deeply. What we get as an audience, however, is one of the most literally jaw-dropping documentaries of all time.

Robb Witmer Full is exactly who he is on Facebook, give or take.

The Social Network

By Robb Witmer Full  |  February 17, 2011

Maybe Mark Zuckerberg is an asshole. Maybe he's not. If I had to decide where he fits into the Team America Dick-Asshole-Pussy Paradigm, I'd have to say Dick.

Actually, now that I think of it, it's a no-brainer. The whole movie is kind of based on the DAPP.

Team America tells us "the problem with dicks is: they fuck too much or fuck when it isn't appropriate." That is exactly what Zuckerberg does. He fucks his one and only friend (Pussy), and fairly inappropriately.

He also sticks it on into a triumvirate of rich, raging Assholes on his way there. In Zuckerberg's defense, they did want to shit all over him. And since he's a dick -- a reckless, arrogant and stupid dick -- he can't really help it, can he?

Sometimes in this world, that is what it takes to get something great done. Regardless of what your opinion is of the Facebook interface itself, there's no arguing that it rivals Google as the biggest cultural force in the history of the Internet, right up there with the "I like turtles" kid.

The Social Network could turn out to be a goddamn masterpiece. Only several years and multiple viewings will tell for sure, but for now it seems flawless. The script is tight and fast, every performance is spot-on, the score is not only tension-building but sometimes downright frightening, and every frame is visually stunning.

David Fincher must be an enormous prick.

We're definitely knee-deep in ambiguous morality immediately upon entering the story. After the very first scene of the movie, our main character tells us, "That's not what happened." Nobody can be believed.

The emotional testimony that the entire movie is based on is, we are reminded by one of Zuckerberg's lawyers, is 85% exaggeration and 15% perjury. Perfect.

Whether we can believe these people is not the point. They believe what they are telling themselves, and it doesn't matter if it's true or not. As long as it satisfies their desire for money, jealousy, revenge, or recognition, then it's true enough.

Every seduction in the movie leads to a betrayal. The Winklevii were seduced by Zuckerberg's reputation. Eduardo was seduced by the prospect of founding an Internet behemoth. Zuckerberg thought Sean Parker was his best chance at another only friend.

At the end, our main character is left with nothing. Or with everything he's ever wanted. The tragedy is that no one, not even himself, knows which it is.

Robb Witmer Full would rather not take a position on where he fits into the DAPP.

February 2, 2011

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

By Robb Witmer Full  |  February 2, 2011

I swear that when I first saw a preview for Prince of Persia, I thought the star was Freddie Prinze, Jr. It may have been the Pinze-Prince connection, or that it never dawned on me that Jake Gyllenhaal would be cast in the role of action hero... Not that Prinze would have made any more sense.

But there were a lot of "Wow, where has this guy been?" -type thoughts going through my head. (IYI: Freddie Prinze, Jr.'s resume since the Scooby Doo movies is a bit sparse, but does include a writing credit on an episode of WWE Saturday Night's Main Event, so he hasn't entirely disappeared. I always pictured him and Chris Tucker golfing together on the weekends, trading stories about not doing anything.)

Gyllenhaal, alas, is no Freddie, but that's fine. The actors in Prince of Persia are kind of inconsequential to the movie, and just like the plot and the characters only get in the way of moving on to the next action scene.

Which are actually kind of awesome. Whatever that martial art is that Gyllenhaal is doing to jump onto buildings and around villages is extremely cool, even if it's never explained what it is or where he learned it. Born with it? Sure, why not.

There's nothing to complain about in the swordplay or stabbing-death departments either, though they are decidedly gore-free. And I gotta say, there are a couple of good dick jokes for a Disney movie.

As for the plot, I've never seen a movie that was so unconcerned with how it got from one action sequence to the next. Every plot device seems to happen totally out of context, or accidentally. Mostly accidentally. I vaguely remember one scene where a character says they need some-thing or -one and another character basically says, "Oh, well, that thing or someone is right around this corner," and bam, there it was.

Maybe the scene didn't happen exactly like that. I can't remember, since I wasn't paying close enough attention. But that's only because it doesn't matter. Getting too involved in the plot would only use the parts of your brain that should be turned off when watching movies like Prince of Persia.

At the end, when Gyllenhaal is explaining to his brother what has been going on the whole time, actually saying the plot out loud, the movie seems to take a moment to let it sink in so the audience can accept the preposterousness of it all.

The film itself acknowledges that preposterousness throughout. The moments that Gyllenhaal is made to look cool, or charming, or shirtlessly hunky, are done completely sincerely, but also hilariously off the mark every single time.

At least a few times in these moments, Gylenhaal seems to smirk at the camera as if to say, "Are you still watching? Yeah? Then check this out."

Can Prince of Persia compare to Road House or Only the Strong in the Arena of Cheesiness? Sadly, no. It's just a little too polished and Disney-fied for that. But if you are are drunk, or trying to distract a multi-generational family gathering, it might be the movie for you.

Robb Witmer Full now knows that that martial art is called parkour.