Thursday, December 26, 2013

Cedar Rapids

Comedy 'Cedar Rapids' enjoyable surprise

Fox Searchlight
Anne Heche and Ed Helms in a scene from "Cedar Rapids."

Tim Lippe is a nerdy, sheltered individual whose life changes when he goes to an insurance convention in the big city of Cedar Rapids in the unexpectedly good comedy “Cedar Rapids.”
The insurance chain emphasizes God, family and doing right by the customer. Yes, the agents could sell more insurance than to unsuspecting customers, but they strive to be honest.
Ed Helmes plays Lippe, who goes to the conference in order to retain the top insurance award for their little agency in Brown Valley, Wis. A fellow agent usually attended the conference, but he died accidentally while trying to choke himself during a sexual act.
Tim is naive. He sleeps regularly with his old seventh-grade teacher, played by Sigourney Weaver.
As a youngster, he was the guy expected to go places in the world, but instead he works to help others achieve their dreams.
His life changes in a big way when he lands in Cedar Rapids.
A prostitute asks for a cigarette as a come-on to determine if he might be a customer. But Tim is oblivious to her occupation, tells her smoking is bad and offers her some butterscotch candy.
He shares a suite at the convention with conventional agent Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and party-hardy Dean Ziegler, played by John C. Reilly.
Add into the mix Anne Heche, who plays Joan Ostrowski-Fox, who is married with children but uses the convention to find a sex partner for the weekend.
Kurtwood Smith plays the paternal president of the company. Before they eat, he leads them in prayer. He gives fatherly advice.
Tim must do a one-on-one presentation to Smith’s character in order to retain the big award and thus insure the viability of the franchise.
The film has some of the raunchiness of “The Hangover” and its ilk, but is slightly more conventional.
That doesn’t mean the film isn’t worth the effort. I found it on HBO’s on demand channel and was surprised how much I liked the film.
Everybody is out to achieve their own goals, but they appear to be there to help their fellow agents as well.
Of course, not everything is as it seems.
There is a humanity to the Ziegler character you didn’t expect and the plot has enough unexpected twists and turns to keep you entertained.
The characters also are multi-dimensional. You can see their different sides and they offer some surprises, even the prostitute.
I was not expecting a whole lot from the film but was pleasantly surprised.
The nerdy Helms’ character really helped to give the film an extra depth of humanity that made it unique and enjoyable.
But keep in mind this isn’t the Waltons of insurance agents. There’s plenty in the film to give it the R rating.


  • Directed by Miquel Arteta
  • Written by Phil Johnston
  • Rated R for crude and sexual content, language and drug use
  • Runtime: 87 minutes
  • 3 stars out of 4


Character 'Arthur' annoying no matter who plays part

Barry Wetcher / Warner Bros.

Russell Brand is the latest "Arthur."

Arthur” has never been my idea of a great movie concept.
You’ve got a multi-millionaire man-child whom we are supposed to find lovable.
Dudley Moore originally played the habitually drunkened Arthur back in 1981. The movie was OK, but grew annoying as the film progressed.
The same with the 2011 remake starring Russell Brand, up to a point. Sorry Moore fans, but Brand was slightly more fun.
It starts with Brand going out on the town with his chauffeur, Bitterman, played by Luis Guzman. Except they portray Batman and Robin. OK, cheap humor, but Guzman is pretty hilarious as an overweight, Hispanic Robin.
Soon they crash their Batmobile and are arrested by the police. But it’s no big deal. The cops know Arthur and arresting him is a regular event. The press also loves to report on Arthur’s exploits, he being the heir to a big corporation.
After being released from prison, he starts tossing money around at a bar, his way of improving the economy.
Yes, he’s lovable and incompetent. Don’t you just love his free spirit?
His mother, played by Geraldine James, doesn’t. So she gives him one of those situation-comedy ultimatums, marry the daughter of another wealthy family or be cut off from his income source.
His fiancee, Susan Johnson, is played by Jennifer Garner, and future dad-in-law is none other than raspy Nick Nolte, playing a self-made millionaire who garnered his millions in construction.
The Nolte scenes are pretty disposable. It seems like they could have been reworked to spotlight his talent. And for the most point, you see him a bit and he’s gone. Not an intricate part of the film, except, maybe, when he’s holding Arthur’s head to a buzzsaw.
This being the film with the predictable plot, enter now a young woman with some of Arthur’s zany practices, but make her poor. Then let them fall in love. Ahhhhh.
So Arthur must marry the snooty rich girl or lose his fortune. The girl he loves is played by Greta Gerwig as a young woman who earns her living giving unauthorized tours of New York. Apparently, this is an illegal action, as she is stopped by police. So heck, she’s a bit of a rebel, too. Offering unsanctioned tours of the Big Apple.
So not a real original plot. You got the rich guy who will lose his fortune if he doesn’t marry the stuck up rich girl. But he’s in love with the off-the-wall poor girl. There’s even a scene almost out of “I Love Lucy” in which both women are in his cavernous apartment and he must keep them from running into each other.
Helen Mirren plays his faithful, sarcastic servant, Hobson. Sir John Gielgud played the role in the original picture.
This pedestrian film is really saved by Brand’s over-the--top acting. He’s a hilarious guy, the same as when he plays the has-been rock star on Showtime’s “Californication.”
There’s some pretty funny scenes with his Arthur character in an AA meeting.
In less capable hands, “Arthur” would be a real mess. But Brand makes the movie rather palatable. He at least provides enough laughs to make the film worth your time.

  • Directed by Jason Winer
  • Written by Peter Baynham and Steve Gordon
  • Runtime: 110 minutes
  • Rated PG-13 for alcohol use throughout, sexual content, language, some drug references

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Titanic 1943

The Nazis got into Titanic act

Video Viper Bob Lebzelter gives a video review of a rare Nazi propaganda film about the sinking of the Titanic.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Day For Night

Movie tells you much about movies

JEAN-PIERRE LEAUD and Jacqueline Bisset in "Day For Night."
If you like movies, you will LOVE “Day For Night.”
I did the first time I saw it years ago and now, thanks to a Turner Classic Movies' recent tribute to director Francois Truffaut, I got to see it all over again.
The title describes a technique of shooting a scene during the daytime and through darkroom manipulations make the film look like it happened at night.
You see, “Day For Night” is a movie about the making of a fictitious movie and the pitfalls and joys. It is not all glamour and stardom.
The film is interesting because it not only shows filming techniques, but shows how the movie cast and crew quickly become family for the short time they are together, then go their separate ways.
In one scene, a woman is supposed to be living in an apartment across from her in-laws, except there is no building. So the crew built a tree-fort like structure with a bay window. Shooting at the correct angle looks it appears to be an apartment.
Often when two people in a moving car are filmed, it's with a blue screen. The background, like city streets or back roads, is added later. But it looks fake. In “Day For Night,” the car is towed by a truck with the film crew in front and one actor fakes driving. More realistic and pretty sweet.
Of course, “Day For Night” was filmed in 1973 and technology has changed filmmaking a great deal.
The movie within “Day For Night” is called “Meet Pamela,” the story of a woman and her new husband who meet her new in laws and she falls in love with her father-in-law. The movie ends tragically in more than one way.
The delicious Jacqueline Bisset plays the actress who is Pamela, while her husband is played by Jean-Pierre Leaud. The father-in-law is played by Jean-Pierre Aumont.
While the plot of the in-movie is rather pedestrian, the story of the those involved in making the movie is much more interesting.
The Bisset character is married to a doctor who helped her out of her depression. Her movie husband is a needy, whiney sort who is in love with the girl who uses the clapboard to announce the next scene. He always wants her within his sight, so naturally when an Englishman flies in to do a particularly dangerous car-crash stunt, the girl runs off with him.
So the movie husband can't go on. He's going to walk out of the picture. The Bisset character shows a little too much sympathy for him and ends up spending the night. He then repays her kindness by calling the doctor husband and tells him he just slept with hubby's wife.
Truffaut plays the director and the production goes on while coming apart at the seams.
There are many fine backstories that make this comedy-drama a lot of fun.
It's probably Traffaut's best work. See it in the day or night. It's worth it.

Written by Jean-Lois Richard and Suzanne Schiffman
Directed by Francois Truffaut
5 stars out of 5
Rated PG for mild sexual themes
Runtime: 120 minutes

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Midnight in Paris

A magical film about Paris

Sony Pictures Classics

OWEN WILSON and Carla Bruni in "Midnight in Paris."

Maybe because I recently visited Paris, I was quickly drawn to Woody Allen’s romantic comedy “Midnight in Paris.
First off, Owen Wilson can be an annoying actor. Heck, he gets annoying in this film.

But  with the backdrop of Paris, and the plot and the dialogue, I soon forgot any annoyances.
 Even though many characters in the “modern Paris” part are annoying. They are snooty, one upping each other.

Wilson and his girlfriend, played by Rachel McAdams, are staying in Paris. He operates a nostalgia shop back in the states, selling old radios and the like. (Only in movies can you operate a little shop and make enough money for an extended trip to Paris.)

McAdams plays Inez, a rich girl whose parents show up in Paris. Mimi Kennedy plays her snooty mom who likes only expensive jewelry and Kurt Fuller is the dad. He doesn’t like his future son-in-law and hires a detective to follow him during his long nightly walks.

The couple also run into her old friend, played by Nina Arlanda, and her boyfriend, played by Michael Sheen.

Sheen’s character is especially annoying, because he knows everything about everything, from history to art to wine. He argues with French tour guides.

So it is a welcome respite when Wilson’s character decides to ditch the gang and walk back to the hotel. Where he ends up getting lost.
But a 1920s-era taxi pulls up and offers Wilson’s character a ride. And that’s when the magic begins.

He ends up at a hotel where he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, played by Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston, as well as Ernest Hemmingway, Gertrude Steid, Salvador Dali, T.S. Elliot and a host of intellectuals and artists. Yep, his taxi takes him back in time to the era and the place he most covets, Paris in the 1920s.

And there the usually goofy Wilson gets to hobnob with the elites, the people who are his heroes, living in their era, young and witty and drunk.

Pill as Zelda is especially fun and entertaining.

Every day, Wilson returns to his life of modern antagonists, knowing at night he will catch that taxi and go back to a more magical time and place, with people he has become friends with, who know and respect him and don’t downgrade him for his opinions.

Time travel movies are difficult to do and often come out worse for the wear. But Allen’s talents shine through. And even though he doesn’t appear in the film, it has his trademark characters and dialog.

I was especially impressed with Carey Stoll as Hemingway, who stresses novels about strength and honor and being valiant and not fearing death.

There are some scenes that could have been omitted. The Wilson character tries to steal his girlfriend’s pearl earrings to give to his 20s friend, Adriena, and that ends disastrously. That should have been cut. It is totally out of character and doesn’t progress the plot.

But overall, it’s a good story, it’s Woody Allen, it’s lots of loving shots of Paris, there’s conflict, there’s romance. It’s a pretty nice package, all tied with a pretty bow.

Annoying, yes, but pretty special as well.


Directed and written by Woody Allen

Rated PG-13

Runtime: 100 minutes

9 stars out of 10

Friday, June 28, 2013

J. Edgar

Even Clint couldn't save this one

Warner Bros.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Naomi Watts in "J. Edgar."

It had all of the elements of being a winner.
It had a good cast with people like Leonardo DiCaprio and Judi Dench.
It was a biographical film about one of the most fascinating men of the 20th century. Plus, it was directed by Clint Eastwood.
Why “J. Edgar” proved so disappointing, I’m not certain. Perhaps Eastwood was nearing that chair-talking stage of his life.
Leonardo DiCaprio played FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the only man to hold the position from the bureau’s inception until Hoover’s death in 1972.
The film flashed back and forth from Hoover’s later days and various high points in his life.
He started in the Department of Justice in 1919, concerned about the infiltration of communists and Bolsheviks. Hoover took on more responsibilities than his title and training gave him.
He had a core of agents and was bent on creating a database of bad guys’ fingerprints. Hoover wanted everyone fingerprinted, to better find the perpetrator should a major crime take place.
Other agents were concerned they were investigating people who weren’t really suspected of a crime. Hoover was undeterred. He wanted to catch the bad guys before they committed a crime and personal rights weren’t a big deal to him.
He eventually squeezed his way into becoming the FBI director, working hard to gain power. Originally, agents had no arrest powers.
Throughout the years, we witness Hoover waiting in the outer office to meet the new president. Hoover always stopped to look at a painting of George Washington.
In each instance, the president had plans to bring Hoover down a peg or two, until Hoover quietly disclosed some information he had about the new chief executive or other family members. For instance, Hoover had info about Eleanor Roosevelt’s affair with another woman.
Hoover saw himself as a bigger man than others did. He encouraged comic books and graphic novels in which he arrested the bad guy with a machine gun. In reality, Hoover had nothing to do with arrests until it was publicly brought to his attention. Then he joined in on arrests only when it was safe.
Naomi Watts played his faithful secretary who immediately began shredding documents at his death.
She first met him when she started working for the Department of Justice back in 1919. After one date, Hoover was ready to propose, but she ended up as his secretary for decades instead.
Armie Hammer played the agent who ended up living with Hoover and certainly became his lover.
But the film has no life to it. The Hoover story just plods along through the Lindbergh baby kidnapping to John Dillinger’s killing. The story, the acting, needed to be turned up a notch or two.
We feel sorry for the little man who had a mother fixation his whole life. (She was played by Judi Dench.)
I would have liked to see more about what happened when John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King were assassinated.
We see this historic figure brought down to something resembling a vanilla milkshake.
The movie needed more cream.

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Rated R
137 minutes
2 stars out of 5

  1. Read more viper columns at

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In A Better World

 MIKAEL PERBRANT (left) and Trina Dyrholm in "A Better World."

Subject lives in two worlds in ‘A Better World’

Mikael Persbrandt plays Anton, a man who lives in two different worlds with two very different sets of challenges in the film “In A Better World.”
Anton is drifting apart from his wife while straining to work as a doctor in a dangerous and crude African refugee camp while trying to keep his life going in a Denmark town.
He and wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) are looking at a separation. Meanwhile, his son, Elias, 10, is being bullied in school. Every day, his bicycle tires are flattened and the stems are taken out so he can’t simply inflate them.
Then there’s the new boy in town, Christian, played by William Nielsen, who moved from London with his recently widowed father, Claus, played by Ulrich Thomsen.
Christian has his share of problems, most manifested by the death of his mother and his hatred for his father, whom Christian perceives as to be relieved by her death.
When a bully turns his anger from Elias to Christian, Christian retaliates by clubbing the bully and threatening him with a knife.
In this movie at least, bullying seems to be tolerated in Denmark. When Elias’ parents are initially called in to discuss the bullying, a school administrator seems to indicate his parents’ marital problems are a part of the problem.
Even after Christian violently beats the bully, the ramifications don’t appear serious.
Anton, meanwhile, is juggling a lot of issues. One day he must stand up to a tribal leader who demands treatment and laughs when a woman dies.
He must operate under crude conditions, under dusty tents with marauding gangs in Jeeps shooting off guns.
He comes home to a cold wife and a confused son.
At one point, Anton separates his son and another boy who are fighting. He finds himself the target of a bully himself. We know Anton isn’t a coward. He stood up to a fierce tribal leader.
But in the case of the local bully, he takes his lumps and leaves. But Elias is horrified.
Christian, with so many anger issues, decides he’s going to get revenge by building a pipebomb and placing it under the bully’s vehicle. If it’s exploded early in the morning, it won’t hurt anyone, Christian decides.
But the horrific blast does have its consequences.
This film seemingly dumps us into a group of interesting people and their compelling lives. We hang for awhile and the movie ends. There are no certain conclusions. There’s no happy endings.
Their lives go on and so do ours.
The characters are interesting and compelling. There are many side stories to keep us interested.
The actors, even the younger ones, know their stuff.
“In A Better World” is indeed a better movie.
Read more viper reviews at

• Directed by Susanne Bier
• Written by Anders Thomas Jensen and Bier
• Rated R for violence and disturbing content, some involving preteens
• In Danish, Swedish and some English
• Runtime: 119 minutes
• 4 stars out of 5