Movie Review: Body of War

Body of War

Some documentaries enlighten. The best documentaries do both. Case Directed by Ellen Spiro, a professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, and Phil Donahue, the former television host whose last television program was cancelled by MSNBC (ostensibly for low ratings, but probably for his liberal-progressive views), Body of War, a deeply moving, ultimately heart-wrenching documentary, follows Tomas Young, an Iraq War veteran injured in 2005 during an assault on convoy, his arduous rehab, physical setbacks, his marriage, and his political activism as a member of the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Bright, articulate, and passionate, Young found purpose and meaning by becoming a vocal advocate against the war. He also became an advocate for quality healthcare for Iraq War veterans.

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SXSW Movie Review: Rainbow Around the Sun

Rainbow Around the Sund

A rock opera/musical that’s part Tommy and part Cabaret, Rainbow Around the Sun is a perfect example of what a talented group of artists and musicians can do when they have a modest budget and modern technology (e.g., HD cameras, Final Cut Pro) to work from. Filmed in and around Oklahoma City, Oklahoma by directors Kevin Ely and Beau Leland (who also edited) and based on a concept album (remember those?) by singer/songwriter Matthew Alvin Brown, Rainbow Around the Sun is, at times, startlingly original in its ability to take the best of two mediums, music and film, and combine them into a powerful, moving, moviegoing experience, one that deserves the wide play and not just in film festivals.

It helps, of course, to have a talented singer/songwriter/actor in Matthew Alvin Brown. Brown plays a character loosely based on his own experiences as a struggling musician. Brown’s character, Zachary Blasto, buses tables by day and practices or performs at night with his band. When he isn’t drinking himself into a stupor over his ill-advised breakup with his girlfriend, Debbie (Jamie Buxton), he’s passing out and finding solace in dreamscapes that inevitably tie back to his ambitions to become a successful musician. In one recurring dream, he’s a self-absorbed, but still hard drinking, rock star.

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SXSW Movie Review: Bananaz

Bananaz

Bananaz, Ceri Levy’s behind-the-scenes/tour documentary centered on Gorillaz, the virtual band created by Damon Albarn, lead singer and songwriter for the Brit-pop band, Blur, and Jamie Hewlett, the co-creator of Tank Girl, is, alas, the kind of insular, for-fans-only documentary that means a limited theatrical run, if any, and a somewhat appreciative audience on DVD for completists of Gorillaz-centered merchandise or material. Even Gorillaz fans, though, might find themselves bored or otherwise disengaged from Levy’s loose, unstructured, and ultimately self-indulgent approach to the Gorillaz phenomenon.

Bananaz follows Albarn and Hewlett as they formulate the concept behind the Gorillaz and the four amine-influenced band members, 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel, that exist only in paper and ink drawings or as ones and zeroes in a computer program. Critical of what they saw as manufactured pop bands (e.g., boy bands), Albarn and Hewlett decided to go them one better and take the concept to the extreme, a virtual band co-created by Albarn, who’d provide the music (along with numerous collaborators), and Hewlett, who’d design the characters and direct or supervise the music videos. The band’s first, self-titled album, released in 2001, sold more than seven million copies worldwide. The second album, Demon Days, was released in 2005 to critical acclaim and received five Grammy Award nominations and won for “Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals” category.

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SXSW Movie Review: Nerdcore Rising

Nerdcore Rising

If, like the vast majority of music listeners, you’re unfamiliar with the term “nerdcore,” then you’re in luck. Nerdcore Rising, an engrossing documentary directed by Negin Farsad, will answer any and all questions you may have about nerdcore, a relatively new hip-hop genre made by and for nerds (e.g., computer nerds, gaming nerds, and pop culture nerds). Farsad tackles nerdcore from various vantage points, interviewing hip-hop names like Prince Paul and J. Live, outside-the-hip-hop-box names like comedian Brian Posehn, singer/comedian ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and Jello Biafra, the former lead singer of the Dead Kennedys, a post-punk rock band that had its heyday in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, and closer to the hearts of nerdcore fans everywhere, MC Chris, MC Lars, MC Router, and Optimus Rhyme. Who? Exactly.

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SXSW Movie Review: Frontrunners

Frontrunners

Every year, 25,000 students apply to New York City’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. Out of those 25,000 students, only 750 get in. A meritocracy in the best sense of the word, Stuyvesant pulls in the best and the brightest, regardless of wealth, class, race, or gender. Most of the students are the children of first- or second-generation immigrants, with close to fifty percent identified as Asian. The top percentile of each graduating class goes on to Ivy League or other well-respected universities and colleges. Not surprisingly, the yearly elections for president of the student body are famed for their hyper-competitiveness. If that sounds like a subject that’d make a fascinating, compelling documentary, then filmmaker Caroline Suh would agree with you. Suh’s documentary, Frontrunners, is every bit as fascinating and compelling as she intended (and hoped).

Frontrunners follows four candidates running for president, Hannah Freiman, a cheerleader and actress running for the top spot for the first time, George Zisiadis, a hyperactive, geeky type who’s worked in some capacity for the student union for three years, including a stint as president of the freshman class and chief of staff, Mike Zaytsev, a former sophomore president and CFO (Chief Financial Officer) for the school’s student budget, and Alex Leonard, a basketball player and “dark horse” candidate (only at Stuyvesant is a popular student-athlete considered a dark horse). Each candidate gets to pick his or her running mate usually to balance one of his or her perceived weaknesses or to cover more demographic ground. The VP candidates make little impact otherwise, though (they’re more seen than heard in Frontrunners). Before the election proper, the four candidate teams have to go through a vigorous primary: only the top two vote getters move on to the general election.

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SXSW Movie Review: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Forgetting Sarah MarshallPossibly the unfunniest comedy ever made, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is…. Wait, let’s back up. That’s completely backward. Written by actor Jason Segal (Knocked Up Undeclared, Freaks and Geeks), Forgetting Sarah Marshall is the kind of romantic comedy straight men can get behind and not just because Segel unveils his manliness more times than you can count (actually four full-on frontal nudity shots, but who’s keeping count?). Forgetting Sarah Marshall belongs to the sub-genre of romantic comedies that turn on losing then finding love with the “right” person (as opposed to the “right-now” person). It also fits into what one critic or reviewer has called, semi-pretentiously, the “cinema of discomfort” (actually, it was this critic who said that), comedies that center on putting characters in socially awkward situation after socially awkward situation (e.g., Meet the Fockers, Meet the Parents).

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SXSW Movie Review: Dance of the Dead

Dance of the Dead

If you’re in the mood for survival horror (and really, who isn’t?), then Dance of the Dead, directed by Gregg Bishop (The Other Side) and written by Joe Ballarini, will satiate your appetite and then some. Made on a modest budget (not a micro-budget, thankfully) and featuring a cast of unknowns (as is usually the case with independent horror flicks) and dozens of zombies, Dance of the Dead plays out like a contemporary remix of Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, with fast-moving, brain-munching, intestine-gnawing zombies on the prowl for, among others, teenagers trying to enjoy the senior prom) Gory, ridiculous fun from start to finish, Dance of the Dead will leave zombie fans smiling with ghoulish glee.

Here’s a set-up. After an opening scene nod to George A. Romeo’s Night of the Living Dead (yes, it’s set in a cemetery), Dance of the Dead leaves the undead still in their graves while it follows a cross-section of teenage high schoolers, including Jimmy (Jared Kusnitz), a disaffected, disinterested goof-off, his unlikely girlfriend, Lindsey (Greyson Chadwick), the vice-president of the student body, Jules (Randy McDowell) and George (Michael V. Mammoliti), charter members of the science fiction club, Steven (Charlton Derby), a nerdy type with an unrequited crush on Gwen (Carissa Capobianco), a stereotypically blonde, perky cheerleader, Kyle Grubbin (Justin Welborn), the class bully who sports a Mohawk and knows his way around guns (good to have on your side when the zombie apocalypse hits), and Nash Rambler (Blair Redford), singer, guitarist, and front man of a rock band. Coach Keel (Mark Oliver), a man who’s obviously watched First Blood and its sequels 100 times too many, rounds out the cast of potential zombie chow.

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SXSW Movie Review: The Promotion

The Promotion

A comedy-drama written and directed by Steve Conrad (The Pursuit of Happyness, The Weather Man, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway), The Promotion gently satirizes the insular world of grocery chains, consumerism, and, of course, the American Dream of success through hard work, hard effort, and fair play. Depending less on the broad, low-brow comedy generally associated with actor Seann William Scott (Mr. Woodcock, Road Trip, American Pie I and II), here co-starring with John C. Reilly (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Talladega Nights), The Promotion mixes smart, literate, character-based humor with raunchy, ribald comedy into a highly watchable, surprisingly entertaining film.

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