by Tony Dayoub
After the jump, read my quick takes on three wildly different, new home releases.
The Office's Ed Helms finally finds a proper vehicle for his talents in Cedar Rapids. Miguel Arteta's sweetly cynical comedy offers Helms a chance to display his range a lot more than the not-that-zany Hangover movies do. Helms plays Tim Lippe, naive salesman for Brownstar Insurance, who replaces a recently deceased colleague at an Iowa conference to compete for the coveted Two Diamonds award. There, the man-child is forced to mature nearly instantaneously after meeting quiet rebels like Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) and Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche), fellow salespersons who party hard every year at the Christian-based insurance event. Though the straitlaced Lippe resists joining in their antics, he soon realizes his predecessor was no different, bribing his way into getting Brownstar the Two Diamonds award in previous years.
Admittedly, Cedar Rapids has a fairly conventional story. But the natural quirkiness of this particular ensemble and the regional flavor of the film's Bible Belt-setting (where contradictorily, the movie makes the point, same-sex marriage is legal) make Cedar Rapids distinct and enjoyable enough to qualify as a pleasant Saturday night pastime.
A far more harrowing movie, Todd Haynes's Poison celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with a rerelease on DVD. One of New Queer Cinema's early groundbreakers, the film is made up of three interlaced vignettes. The first is a noir-ish story in which a gay prison inmate reflects on the humiliation of a fellow inmate back in the days when both were in reform school. The second tale, inspired by the low-budget monster movies of the fifties, follows the growing deformity and ostracization of a scientist after he inadvertently drinks an experimental liquid distillation of his libido. And the last is a "true crime" mockumentary about a boy who reportedly flew away after shooting his father to death.
In Poison, Haynes already demonstrates how adept he is at applying stylistic genre conventions to allegorical storylines in order to elicit emotional reaction. It's an M.O. he would execute again and again in films as varied as Velvet Goldmine, I'm Not There and the recent Mildred Pierce miniseries in order to hone in on his protagonist's feelings of helplessness when labeled an outcast by society. When watching, keep in mind that the film is deliberately grainy since it was shot in 16mm. Look for a fleeting early appearance by John Leguizamo.
Finally, there's Rubber, sporting an initially clever concept for a horror movie that outstays its welcome by about 80 of its 85-minute running time. The basic premise is about a psychokinetic tire that rolls around a small desert town killing people by making their heads explode. Director Quentin Dupieux inexplicably fuses a subplot involving the town sheriff (Stephen Spinella) and his ability to comprehend that he is in a film. This is cause for the sheriff to make a multitude of references to superior suspense movies that inform this one, thus undercutting this small indie's potency. In the larger scale, it is an attempt by Dupieux to place the audience in the action to heighten the suspense, an attempt which doesn't really succeed. About the only thing worth a serious look in this film is the short nude scene featuring sultry French actress Roxanne Mesquida (who should really stick to working with visionaries like Catherine Breillat). A ridiculous featurette in which a blow-up doll interviews the director demonstrates how sophomoric an "artist" Dupieux really is.