originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

Well, it’s official. Ed Helms is a movie star. And he can thank his director for that.

The former “Daily Show” correspondent and veteran ensemble player (“The Hangover,” “The Office”) headlines “Cedar Rapids,” the year’s first genuine sleeper comedy hit. As it turns out, “Cedar Rapids” was directed by Miguel Arteta, author of last year’s sleeper comedy hit, the Michael Cera freakout “Youth in Revolt.”

This is particularly relevant, because the success of “Cedar Rapids” comes as much from Arteta’s sure-handed direction as it does with Helms’ leading performance.

It goes like this: Small town insurance agent Tim Lippe (Helms) is recruited to attend the industry’s regional conference in the (relatively) big city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Tim, who has never left his hometown and is dating his grade school teacher (Sigourney Weaver), is overjoyed but ill-prepared. If naivete were potato chips, Tim would be Frito-Lay.

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Pick of the Week

Inside Job

Documentary; rated PG-13 for some drug and sex-related material; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: A brilliantly assembled, high-energy crash course in the causes and effects of the recent global financial crisis.

The Lowdown: Enraging and fascinating, “Inside Job” won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and is the latest in an unprecedented string of must-see docs over the last couple of years.

Directed by renaissance man Charles Ferguson – author, scholar, tech mogul and filmmaker – “Inside Job” is a smartly executed frontal assault on an insanely complex topic. Deploying all the tricks of the documentary film trade, Ferguson drills into the root causes of the Great Recession with admirable clarity.

His conclusion? The global financial crisis is a direct result of 30 years of gradual deregulation of the financial services industry, which spawned aggressive corruption on Wall Street and pretty much every other adjacent institution. Simply put, the crisis was precipitated by institutional and individual acts of criminal fraud. It was entirely avoidable, too, the film insists. Unfortunately, our government watchdogs were at best negligent, and at worst complicit.

Interviews with dozens of industry insiders and public officials are interspersed with textual and graphical elements that effectively parse all the complex jargon. Narrator Matt Damon keeps it all flowing, and reportedly was actively involved in shaping the film’s narrative structure.

Like all docs, of course, “Inside Job” has a deliberate point of view and a definite agenda. The film regularly indulges in righteous indignation, but that’s an indulgence we’re all entitled to, I think. As Ferguson pointed out in his Oscars acceptance speech, “Three years after our horrific financial crisis caused by financial fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail. And that’s wrong,”

The Extras: Commentary track by Ferguson and producer Audrey Marrs; a short making-of doc; some deleted scenes – Blu-ray adds another hour of outtakes

The Bottom Line: “Inside Job” won the documentary Oscar for a reason – this wasn’t the most artful doc of the year, but it was surely the most important.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Get ready for more great docs – Durham’s Full Frame documentary film festival is coming up April 14-17. Scheduling will be announced next week – check fullframefest.org for details.

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Pick of the Week

127 Hours

Thriller-drama; rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Trapped by a falling boulder, rock climber Aron Ralston (James Franco) survives for five days – recording his ordeal on a handheld camera and eventually using a dull knife to amputate his own arm.

The Lowdown: The film for which the term “harrowing” was apparently invented, “127 Hours” is hard on the stomach, for obvious reasons. But director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) works some weird miracles here in terms of filmmaking creativity.

As Aron’s mental and physical condition deteriorates, Boyle departs from the straight narrative with sequences of Aron’s hallucinations and dreams of family and friends. The movie then enters a kind of timeless space, and Franco delivers a performance that seems to tap into some universal life force. “There is no force more powerful than the will to live,” the film’s tagline informs us. Franco – robbed of the Best Actor Oscar last week, IMHO – will make you believe.

The Extras: A must-listen commentary track with director Boyle; deleted scenes; Blu-ray adds two mini-docs on Franco and Boyle’s collaboration and the real-life details of Ralston’s ordeal

The Bottom Line: Most assuredly one of last year’s best films, “127 Hours” is a marvel of storytelling verve.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Careful with that amputation scene – several audience members feinted straight away during the film’s theatrical release.

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Pick of the Week


Animated comedy; rated PG for action and some language; also available on Blu-ray

The Gist: Yet another animated send-up of comic book heroes and villains, “Megamind” brings the funny for both kids and adults.

The Lowdown: For my kids’ entertainment dollar – and I spend quite a lot of them – “Megamind” was the best animated comedy of last year, just ahead of “How To Train Your Dragon.” Similar in premise to the second runner-up, “Despicable Me,” “Megamind” concerns the fate of a cartoon supervillain turned hero.

Evil genius Megamind, voiced by Will Ferrell, is the archnemesis of Metro Man (Brad Pitt) and the designated bad guy of Metro City. But when Megamind finally vanquishes his foe, he discovers that being a supervillain is no fun unless you have a superhero to plot against.

Ferrell and Tina Fey, as TV reporter and perpetual kidnapping victim Roxanne Ritchie, provide a running comedic banter that keeps the movie genuinely funny for adults. As the extras reveal, Fey and Ferrell recorded and improvised their scenes together, which almost never happens in voiceover work. Meanwhile, the ace animation team provides lively action scenes and elaborate head bonks for the shorter set.

Extras: The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack features filmmaker’s commentary track; about a dozen interactive mini-docs, picture-in-picture elements and interviews; a trivia track; deleted scenes and the all-new animated short “The Button of Doom.”

The Bottom Line: To some degree, all animated comedies aim to appeal to kids and parents both; “Megamind” manages to play to each crowd surprisingly well.

Double Secret Bonus Tip: Freeze-framing reveals that Megamind’s Dehydration gun has several other settings, including Demoralize, Deregulate and Decoupage.

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William Gibson is famous for a lot of reasons. His debut novel, “Neuromancer,” was the first book to the “triple crown” of science fiction awards – the Nebula, the Hugo, and Philip K. Dick Award. He arguably launched two entire genres of sci fi – cyberpunk and steampunk. And he coined the term cyberspace – about a decade before it actually existed.

Author William Gibson (photo: Michael O'Shea)

In fact, many now believe that Gibson’s sci-fi work in the 1980s actually determined the eventual trajectory of the World Wide Web. All those engineers and designers in the 1990s, after all, had grown up with Gibson’s books. When it came time to actually invent cyberspace, Gibson had already provided the conceptual blueprints.

But for science fiction fans of a certain intensity, Gibson is probably most famous for his utterly distinctive prose style. Dense, multivalent and hyper-specific, Gibson’s writing requires a lot of attention from the reader. His books have the effect of slowing the reader down, even as they depict a world where everything is moving impossibly fast.

This Tuesday at 7 pm, Gibson will be reading from his latest novel, “Zero History,” at the Reynolds Theater in the Bryan University Center at Duke. Gibson will also be signing books afterward, and the event is free and open to the public.

The third book to take place in Gibson’s contemporary setting, “Zero History” follows the fates of three characters – morally ambiguous marketing mogul Hubertus Bigend, musician and journalist Hollis Henry, and the chameleon-like recovering addict known as Milgrim – as they work to uncover a government conspiracy.

The new book shares many of the same characters and concerns as Gibson’s previous two novels, “Pattern Recognition” and “Spook Country. The setting? “About five minutes into the future.”

Speaking in his friendly, laconic drawl from a hotel room in Denver, the previous stop on his 20-city book store, Gibson spoke about 9/11 attacks, optimism for the future and the power of Googling.

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