Cedar Rapids Version Number Four (Weekly Links)

Reilly, Helms, Whitlock: Cedar Rapids

Reviews I wrote this week for the Herald:

Cedar Rapids. “A pretty wonderful movie.”

Unknown. (link dead; review below)

By Robert Horton

After years of credibility as an actor, Liam Neeson scored an unexpected box-office hit as an action hero in 2008 with “Taken,” a standard role in an effective chase picture. Neeson’s new one, “Unknown,” can be seen as something of a follow-up, although its plot is quite different and its storytelling less secure. Still, the towering actor gets to throw a few punches and exact a little payback, so all is not lost.

Something very strange happens to Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) while attending a big biotech conference in Berlin with his wife (January Jones). Knocked into a coma for four days after a car accident, he wakes up to find that he’s not welcome at the conference and his wife doesn’t recognize him.

It gets worse. Standing alongside his wife is a man who calls himself Dr. Martin Harris—and he’s played by Aidan Quinn, not Liam Neeson.

Granted, the first Harris is a little dazed from his accident, but what is going on here? And is it possibly he’s not the man he thinks he is?

That’s not a bad set-up, and there are a few scenes that suggest somebody watched a Hitchcock movie or two: Harris getting drugged in a hospital and having to fumble his way out, or his meeting with a puckish private investigator (the great actor Bruno Ganz), who fondly recalls the “good old days” of being a Stasi agent in East Germany.

The movie’s premise becomes increasingly incredible as it goes along. I’m willing to suspend disbelief for some pretty big whoppers, but in this scenario, would it really be likely that Harris couldn’t think of anybody in his life he could contact, outside of a single university colleague (Frank Langella)? The selective-amnesia excuse of his injury only goes so far.

He is aided in his quest by a cab driver (Diane Kruger, late of “Inglourious Basterds”), who is attractive enough to make the viewer wonder which couple is going to walk off into the sunset at the end.

I liked Neeson in the role just fine; he’s got his rugged depth, even if the character doesn’t. January Jones, so eerie in “Mad Men,” has less to do here, but plays blankness very well.

The story needs a Polanski to shape it up; but Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed the notorious Paris Hilton remake of “House of Wax,” does not have those kinds of skills.

The choice of Berlin as a setting is good: alien enough for our hero to feel lost in, and carrying creepy echoes of Cold War spy movies of the past. There’s just enough here to qualify “Unknown” as a passable popcorn movie. But that’s being generous.

I Am Number Four. “His number is, as they say, up.”

The Housemaid. “Classic situation of lust and caution.”

Barney’s Version. “Giamatti stamps and snorts his way across this movie’s otherwise bland surface.”

Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie. “Good vibrations are the main export.”

And an interview with Cedar Rapids director Miguel Arteta.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about recent movie comedies (Cedar Rapids in particular), and how a new generation of comedy stars is always showing up to take over. It’s archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 14-minute point.

More 1980s review up at my other website, What a Feeling!: a double review of B-movies from ’86, Born American and Bullies; plus Satisfaction, a Justine Bateman starring vehicle that worked out well for a couple of supporting players.

At the Frye Art Museum on Sunday, I’ll be introducing a free showing of R.W. Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, at 2 p.m. More info here.

And in Rotten news, you can pre-order the “Lost Diary of John J. Flynn, U.S. Agent,” a volume kept by one of the men whose unfortunate exploits are chronicled in Rotten: here. No one can explain why the diary was suppressed for over one hundred years….

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