SXSW Film Fest 2012: Day One

This is my third year down in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and I think that I’ve finally figured out the science to covering the event all on my lonesome. Instead of past years, where I’ve done a mix of both full-length and shorter movie reviews, this time around, I’m going to be doing daily blogs with even shorter, capsule-style reviews of the films that I saw the previous day. I’m hoping this will make me more productive than usual, but as my schedule is constantly in flux, please bear with me. And if you can’t wait for my daily posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonZingale for more.

“The Cabin in the Woods”

Leave it to Joss Whedon to take the horror genre and turn it on its head. Though it appears to be nothing more than a typical slasher flick at first sight, “The Cabin in the Woods” (which was directed by Drew Goddard and co-written with Whedon) is an entertaining and completely original genre hybrid film that has more than a few tricks up its sleeve. The setup is simple: five friends head to a cabin located in the middle of nowhere for a weekend of fun, only to find themselves fighting for their lives when they accidentally resurrect a family of killer rednecks from the dead. Of course, there’s much more to the story than that, as the audience learns very early on that there’s a third party behind all the death and destruction. It’s an excellent twist on a tired genre, with Whedon and Goddard’s script not only defying convention on several occasions, but also lightening the mood with deft strokes of humor. Though the film features Chris Hemsworth in a role that precedes his “Thor” days, the real stars are Fran Kranz (from Whedon’s short-lived “Dollhouse”) as the pot-smoking comic relief, and Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as the men orchestrating all the mayhem. It goes a bit off the rails in the final act, but for a movie this ambitious, sometimes it takes that kind of risk to yield such a refreshing reward.

“The Babymakers”

It may not be an official Broken Lizard movie in theory, but that’s not going to stop some people from comparing “The Babymakers” to the group’s other films, mainly because it was directed by Jay Chandrasekhar and features him and fellow member Kevin Heffernan in supporting roles. But while it definitely shares the group’s brand of goofball humor, “The Babymakers” feels like a cheap imitation without the other Lizards. Fortunately, it still has its share of funny moments thanks to Paul Schneider, who delivers a wonderfully dry performance as a man so desperate to impregnate his wife (Olivia Munn) that he plots to steal the last vial of sperm he donated years before after learning that his current count is too low for conception. Much like fellow “Parks and Rec” alumnus Adam Scott, Schneider has been on the verge of a big breakout for years, and “The Babymakers” proves that he’s a more than capable comedic lead. Munn is better than usual, but she’s definitely not leading lady material, while the rest of the cast fails to do much with a script that goes for the easy joke far too often. And that’s a shame, because with a sharper script and better execution, “The Babymakers” could have been the perfect Broken Lizard vehicle.

  

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Learn to rip throats and pound Cunth just like MacGruber

Only one American hero has earned the rank of Green Beret, Navy SEAL and Army Ranger. Just one operative has been awarded 16 Purple Hearts, 3 Congressional Medals of Honor, and 7 Presidential Medals of Bravery. And only one guy is man enough to still sport a mullet. On May 21, Will Forte brings his clueless soldier of fortune to the big screen in the action comedy, “MacGruber.” I had a chance to see an early screening of the movie at this year’s SXSW film festival, and although I wasn’t as crazy about it as many of the other critics and bloggers in attendance, it’s one of the funniest “Saturday Night Live” films to date.

It’s certainly going to be an uphill battle for “MacGruber” this summer as it competes against surefire blockbusters like “Iron Man 2” and “Robin Hood,” so Universal hasn’t wasted any time in getting the word out with everything from a Mullet Generator app to guest appearances by the cast on “WWE Raw.” And now you can prepare for the film’s release with the all-new MacGruber Training Academy, a collection of games that teaches you everything you need to know about pounding Cunth, ripping throats, and defusing bombs. Complete a challenge and you’ll earn yourself an exclusive desktop wallpaper, although at the time of writing this, the actual downloading process wasn’t working correctly. What can you say? It’s classic MacGruber.

  

A chat with the cast and crew of “MacGruber”

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When Universal’s big-screen adaptation of “MacGruber” rolls into theaters on May 21st, it’s going to face some pretty heavy competition. In fact, it’s a bit of an underdog when compared to some of the surefire blockbusters opening around the same time, but you wouldn’t know it from the reception it received at this year’s South by Southwest film festival. Although director Jorma Taccone announced that the movie was still in the later stages of post-production and not quite 100% finished, it brought down the house at the sold-out Paramount theater. The following morning, I was invited along with a few of my fellow movie bloggers to chat with Taccone, co-writer John Solomon, co-writer/star Will Forte, and star Kristen Wiig about making the film. (Warning: minor spoilers ahead.)

As the first “Saturday Night Live” movie since 2000’s “The Ladies Man,” everyone was curious how “MacGruber” was chosen as the next sketch to receive the big screen treatment. Taccone admitted that he didn’t know “how Lorne’s wonderful mind works,” but that “he’s always been a champion of the sketch and thought of it more highly than we did at times.” That doesn’t change the fact that the big joke of the skits is that MacGruber dies at the end of every one, and although Forte agrees that “a lot of people will probably think that’s what the movie will be – just a series of explosions,” Taccone was a little more defensive of the early criticisms:

“That was the comment: ‘What’s it going to be?’ We’re going to make a plot of it. What did you expect? But we did put that one little nod to the original sketch at the end, which is really nice that people seem to get that moment.”

Though Taccone wouldn’t get into any details regarding the recent lawsuit surrounding the film (Forte did say they would have loved Richard Dean Anderson to be a part of it), he was quick to state that the MacGyver character didn’t have any direct influence on the movie. Instead, they looked more to 80s and early 90s action movies for inspiration, and when asked if there was anything specific, Taccone offered up an example:

“I will say that me and John [Solomon] were watching a [Steven] Seagal movie and over an explosion you heard a cougar growl. We were like, ‘What was that? Oh my god, we have to put that in!’ It’s a technique, obviously, but you’re supposed to put it low enough so that it’s just a hint of something. So our sound dude was like, ‘People are going to think I’m bad at my job.’”

In addition to Forte, the film also features Kristen Wiig (reprising her role from the sketches), as well as Ryan Phillippe and Val Kilmer. Taccone confesses to being really lucky to get both actors, especially for how hard they worked and how little they were paid. Phillippe, in particular, plays an important role in the film according to his co-stars, not only because there are always three characters in the sketches, but because they needed someone who could “ground the craziness with something that we thought would be useful.” As for Kilmer, while he didn’t have a hand in shaping the villainous role of Dietrich von Cunth, Taccone joked that he “certainly made it more Cunthy.”

Everyone on set clearly got along really well, and it shows in the final product. While Forte and Wiig swear that a majority of their soon-to-be-infamous sex scene was scripted, they were more than game to talk about the difficulties of shooting it. When asked how she could possibly keep a straight face as Forte humped and grunted all over her, Wiig was quick to point out that it if you watch carefully, you’ll notice that she’s laughing so much that she had to turn her head ahead away from the camera. Forte, meanwhile, just felt bad for his co-star, who was being “pelted with major drops of sweat” the minute he started moving on top of her.

It’s not the most risqué moment in the film, though. That honor goes to a scene where MacGruber sticks a stalk of celery up his ass as a diversionary tactic. Forte spoke at length about where the idea came from, including a particularly funny anecdote about the day they filmed it:

“I think that was John and Jorma’s, and they pitched it to me, and it was just one of those things where I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll stick some celery in my butt.’ The best part was that my mom was visiting that day, and she was saying, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to go into Santa Fe with my friends,” and I said, ‘Okay, there’s a pretty crazy scene we’re doing, so you could stay for that or got to Santa Fe.’ And I forgot exactly what we were doing, and I’m sitting there naked, cupping my balls, trying to place this celery, and I look over and there’s my mom and there was no judgment on her face. It was just like, ‘This is what my son is doing today…’ The weird thing is, she was with two friends, and they were not having it.”

And just like that, the interview was over, although I couldn’t think of a better place to end it. After all, they had just demonstrated how far they were willing to go in order to get a laugh, and that’s “MacGruber” in a nutshell.

  

Bullz-Eye does South by Southwest

It’s been a busy last few weeks at the Bullz-Eye offices. As David Medsker mentioned in his recap of the “Hot Tub Time Machine” junket, the BE crew has gone global this month, popping up in Capetown, Belfast, Tahoe, and finally, Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest film festival. This is our first visit to the Lone Star State’s annual event, but already we understand why it’s so popular among fans of music, movies and technology. It’s one giant party, and you don’t even need one of the event’s various badges to participate.

The festival has recently switched over to music mode – with many of the film and tech geeks being replaced by musicians, groupies and indie hipsters – but I’ve been covering the film portion since opening night on our SXSW 2010 Blog. Anyone hoping to catch every movie on their list might be disappointed to discover the way South By schedules their screenings, but while the world premieres of “Kick-Ass” and “MacGruber” have drawn giant crowds, the programmers have done a great job of offering plenty of lower profile movies that are just as good as the star-studded headliners. Take for instance my favorite film of the festival, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s French crime caper, “Micmacs,” a movie that doesn’t have any big names (at least, not in the domestic market), but still earned thunderous laughter and applause when it played at Austin’s historic Paramount theater last Saturday.

It’s exactly this eclecticism in the line-up that makes SXSW one of the more unique film fests in the country. Throw in some great people and even better eats and you’ll wish you were here too. There’s still time to join in the festivities (it runs through March 21st), but if you can’t make it down this year, there’s always next year. It’s something that everyone should experience at least once in their life.

  

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