Culture

SXSW Film: Day Two

super

Welcome back! Without further ado, HEAVEmedia’s coverage of the second day of the 2011 South By Southwest film festival.

DM – Dominick Mayer
CO – Chris Osterndorf

Turkey Bowl

There’s a lingering urge to lump Turkey Bowl into the “mumblecore” subgenre (quoted out of respect to the filmmakers who accidentally created that corner of cinema and virtually uniformly hate the name), in that it features a seemingly innocuous event and uses that as the catalyst to examine all the little emotions boiling over just underneath the surface. The film follows a group of college friends who come together for a 5 on 5 game of two hand touch football, only to find that there might be a reason they only do it once a year. Director Kyle Smith has a definite knack for elevating the material above the done-to-death trappings of the “twentysomethings talking about life” subgenre, and this is accomplished by a cast that is as deft at mining emotion out of subtle moments like an inappropriately hostile tackle or an unexpected touchdown reception as it is at hilarious improvised one-liners. The unfortunate thing is that Smith creates a host of sublimely watchable characters, and then ends things after only 64 minutes. By the end of Turkey Bowl, you want to spend so much more time with these people than you’re given. DM

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

The feel good documentary of all time, Being Elmo tells the story of Kevin Clash, a boy from Baltimore who grew up loving Sesame Street and would eventually become an integral part of the show. The film is touching for myriad reasons, including its exploration of how Clash decided he wanted to become a puppeteer, the support he got from his parents even when others didn’t believe in him, and the relationship he eventually got to have with his idol, Jim Henson. But more than anything else, Being Elmo is beautiful in its revelation of why people gravitate towards Clash’s character so strongly; at the heart of Elmo’s character is love.

This little red goofball has an endless supply of compassion, and ultimately, this might be what makes him perhaps the most beloved of all the Sesame Street’s inhabitants. The film lags a bit in the middle, but the end is extremely compelling in its look at Clash’s relationship with his daughter, and all the children who have gravitated toward Elmo over time. Seriously, if you don’t tear up when Clash talks about how many sick children ask to see Elmo in their requests to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, or when Elmo shows up at various schools and gives the kids hugs as if no one had ever cared for them more, you should just go ahead and give up on life because you’re clearly devoid of any kind of human feeling.

In short, Being Elmo is a delight, and shows that while documentaries which explore the deepest of human suffering can be great, it’s okay to make a film that’s unabashedly about love too. CO

Wuss

Mitch (Nate Rubin) is 25, stranded living in his mom’s house and teaching English to hostile high schoolers. He never got out of his hometown, and spends his time between the school in which he was tortured as a teenager (and still is) and getting stoned during D&D campaigns. When he puts one of his students in detention, he’s violently assaulted by the young man’s gang as a result, and the rest of the film depicts Mitch’s struggle to no longer be a pushover and help Maddie (Alicia Anthony, something of a dead ringer for Greta Gerwig), his one intelligent student, get out of the suburbs before it’s too late.

Wuss is one of those tales of suburban ennui being torn open by a series of decisions of debatable legality, in the vein of American Beauty. Also like that film, it occasionally tends to gloss over how truly unethical some of Mitch’s life choices are. This said, writer-director Clay Liford keeps things tolerable by placing Mitch into scenarios that, while they escalate in comic insanity, are also just tangible enough to never ring false. Rubin’s performance is the key to why Wuss mostly works, because he’s vulnerable while carrying that buried rage of the bullied high schooler who can’t let go. Particularly in its second half, Wuss plays like Falling Down in a high school; we see enough of Mitch from every angle to wonder if he’s actually a worthwhile person, or if he deserves the rut he’s trapped in. There’s a breathless thrill to the third act, when it starts to become unclear just how far Mitch will go to prove his mettle and right the wrongs of high school past. DM

Super

Frank (Rainn Wilson) has a terrible life. Though James Gunn’s Super blessedly doesn’t wallow in this, it doesn’t gloss over it in the manner of a film like last year’s Kick-Ass. There are comparisons to be drawn between the two (starting with both being very good), but Super is the darkest face of revisionist superheroes, the tale of a man who lacks any real skills except for a bizarre moral code and a yen for plumbers’ wrenches. When his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) leaves him for Jacques (Kevin Bacon), a charismatic drug dealer, Frank comes undone. After an apparent divine intervention, he becomes the Crimson Bolt, a superhero who punishes evil, from drug dealers to people who cut in line at movie theaters. Soon after, he attracts the attentions of Libby (Ellen Page), who begs to become the Bolt’s sidekick, Boltie.

The above makes Super sound like a far funnier movie than it is. That’s not a knock against it, and at times it is hysterical. Generally, though, it’s a deeply warped affair, telling the tale of a man who’s spent his entire life being trod upon and holds some profoundly confused notions about what being religious and heroic means. Gunn, for his part, shoots the film in a gritty verite style, and there’s no cartoonish, stylized violence. The film, particularly in its final act, is shockingly brutal, and this will likely be a big turnoff for a lot of audiences expecting a deconstructionist lark starring the weird guy from The Office.

Wilson gives a career performance as Frank, imbuing him with the quiet manner of a scared, submissive man but the hulking figure of a superhero. The fact that the best catchphrase he can muster is “Shut up, crime!” testifies to the very core of Frank: he’s a little boy with the unbridled rage of a grown man. Page nearly steals the movie for her part; as Libby, she’s gawkishly sexy and unnerving all at once, a giddy fangirl with genuine emotional problems. The two have impeccable chemistry, and as they head for their final showdown with Jacques, two things become clear. Both of them are certifiably crazy, and not necessarily in a precocious way, but neither of them can or will stop until evil is punished and, more importantly, it’s them that saved the day. DM

Super has already been called an (even) darker version of Kick-Ass (another SXSW superhero hit), and it’s not an entirely unfair characterization. It takes the “superheroes in the real world” concept even further, and the movie’s protagonist, Frank D’Arbo, aka The Crimson Bolt (Rainn Wilson), is probably the most bumbling and psychologically disturbed masked avenger ever to appear onscreen.

However, once Frank does get a better handle on what he’s doing, the film becomes a veritable festival of ultra-violence, most of which works, some of which takes things too far. This is the darkest of comedies, and director James Gunn had a bold vision for it, which he followed through on completely.

The movie also has a great supporting cast, with Liv Tyler playing Frank’s junkie wife, who he’s trying to “save” from a drug dealer named Jacques, played by Kevin Bacon. And fanboys the world over will jump for joy when Nathan Fillion shows up as a Christian crusader on a religious TV show. However the movie belongs to Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page, playing a comic book nerd named Libby who eventually assumes the alter ego of Boltie, The Crimson Bolt’s “kid sidekick.” This is a career best for Wilson, and Page gives what is undoubtedly her best and by far her most ballsy performance since Juno.

Unfortunately, the tonal problems in Super nearly ruin the film in its final act, which contains a definitive moment where anyone watching the movie will either accept Gunn’s ambitious mess, or turn on the film entirely. All of a sudden, the movie goes from dark comedy to just plain dark. And we’re talking pitch black, dead of night, darkest of dark (the key word of this review is dark by the way.) In fact, the finale is more akin to The Dark Knight than it is to something like Kick-Ass, except in all honesty, the end is probably even bleaker than anything The Dark Knight did either.

Although there is a trace of brilliance in the film’s final moments, it’s ultimately just too big of a shift in tone work. Once more, it’s important to stress that an integral part of dark comedy is actually being comedic. On top of that, the end is also ridiculously preachy, and again, an awkward tonal shift from the rest of the film. Yet in the movies last few shots, one gets a sense of the giant, screwed up, and ridiculously courageous masterpiece Gunn attempted to make with Super, and for that, he deserves some amount of respect. CO