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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SXSW Movie Review: Run, Fat Boy, Run

Run, Fatboy, Run

In just three films, actor/comedian/screenwriter Simon Pegg has gone from playing a lovable, if clueless, slacker fighting off a zombie apocalypse and saving his girlfriend, his best friend, and a pint of beer (not necessarily in that order) in Shaun of the Dead to an anti-slacker/overachiever/cop exiled to a small sleepy town experiencing a rash of mysterious deaths in Hot Fuzz and now, in Run, Fat Boy, Run, another slacker, maybe not quite as lovable this time, trying to win back the woman he left at their wedding ceremony five years ago. Offering a mix of raunch, silliness, slapstick, and sentimentality, Run, Fat Boy, Run is the perfect romantic comedy for moviegoers who don’t care for the genre.

Dennis (Pegg) still regrets leaving his fiancé, Libby (Thandie Newton), at the altar more than five years ago, made all the worse because Libby was pregnant at the time. While Dennis seems to have lived down to his failure to marry Libby, working as a security guard at a women’s clothing store, barely able to make the rent, Libby has moved on, running a successful bakery and dating an American businessman, Whit (Hank Azaria). As Dennis looks on, Libby and Whit get closer, Whit begins to take an active interest in Jake (Matthew Fenton). Feeling, rightly, excluded from Libby and Jake’s life, Dennis agrees to run in a marathon that’s only three weeks ago.

Out of shape and an everyday smoker, Dennis doesn’t stand much of a chance of completing the marathon, but that doesn’t stop him from giving it a shot. With his best friend Gordon (Dylan Moran), a slacker/gambler who bets on Dennis completing the marathon, and his landlord, Mr. Ghoshdashtidar (Harish Patel), acting as his coach and assistant coach respectively, Dennis can’t lose. Actually, he can, very easily, but as the prospect of losing Libby and Jake looks increasingly likely, especially after Whit suggests a move to Chicago that would take Libby and Jake away from him, Dennis learns a few life lessons in (you guessed it) perseverance and self-discipline, both of which will make him a better father, a better husband (if he can convince Libby), and a better person overall.

A sports comedy/rom-com (as the British like to call it) that’s more formulaic than either Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz (where the romantic subplot was eliminated in favor of a platonic relationship), Run, Fat Boy, Run nonetheless proves that formula isn’t the problem (at least not always), it’s what you do with the formula or template that counts. Minus a too-long third act that follows, what else, Dennis’ improbable marathon run (it lasts twenty-odd minutes), Run, Fat Boy, Run perfectly balances verbal and physical humor with advancing the story. Credit to that goes to Simon Pegg, who co-wrote the script with actor/comedian/writer Michael Ian Black (The State).

Director David Schwimmer (yes, that David Schwimmer) basically stays out of the way and lets Pegg and the rest of the cast do their thing and yes, that’s all to the good. With a rom-com or sports comedy, the story and characters are more important than the visuals, something Schwimmer is obviously aware of from his previous experience working in television and film. Unfortunately, the one thing or rather person Run, Fat Boy, Run doesn’t have is Pegg’s onscreen comedy partner, Nick Frost. Frost co-starred in Pegg’s last two films, but here doesn’t even merit a cameo. Maybe next time.

Dylan Morgan, who contributed to a literally gun-wrenching death in Shaun of the Dead with Pegg and Frost, takes on the best friend duties. To be fair, Morgan’s comic timing is almost as good as Pegg’s or Frost’s. It’s just too bad Frost doesn’t appear in Run, Fat Boy, Run. Hopefully, the Pegg-Frost-Wright (as in writer/director Edgar Wright, Pegg’s writing partner on Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) will get together sooner rather than later (probably later as Pegg will next appear as Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot).

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

WonderCon: 10,000 B.C.

10,000 B.C.

Wonder-Con premiered a new, exclusive trailer during the first panel of the day presented by Warner Brothers, 10,000 B.C., Roland Emmerich’s (The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, Stargate) latest magnum opus (okay, slight overstatement). Emmerich’s films tend be big, loud, and, more often than not, ridiculous, contrived and, for those of willing to admit it to ourselves, guilty pleasures of the highest order (or lowest, depending on your perspective). From the trailer we saw, 10,000 B.C. looks like more of the same.

The trailer seemed to have a lot in common with Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, except in reverse. Thanks (or rather no thanks) to an advanced, pyramid-building civilization hunting for slaves, a mammoth hunter, D’Leh (Steven Strait), loses his lover Evolet (Camilla Belle). The rest of the film keeps the characters separated while D’Leh makes his way across treacherous terrain to an ancient city and the already mentioned pyramids.

Like Emmerich’s previous big-screen spectacles, 10,000 B.C. relies heavily on state-of-the-art visual effects. Every shot in the trailer was crammed with CGI, most of it solid, but some scenes still looked rough and the CG mammoths and saber-toothed tiger looked good in some shots, worse in others. If the online reports are true, 10,000 B.C. wasn’t ready for a fall release, so Warner Brothers decided to push it back five or six months while Emmerich and his team completed the visual effects. That, of course, says nothing about the story, which looks as cheesy as anything Emmerich’s done so far.

Emmerich, Strait (the forthcoming Stop Loss, Sky High), and Belle (When a Stranger Calls, The Quiet, The Invisible Circus) were all on hand for the panel discussion, which went from a brief introduction by Emmerich where he mentioned the lengthy, difficult shoot (n New Zealand and Africa to the Q&A session that began, naturally enough, with a question about 10,000 B.C.’s historical accuracy.

The short answer: not much. For Emmerich, the setting and time period allowed him to combine his research into mammoth hunters and their society with a fictionalized prehistoric civilization. Emmerich cited Fingerprints of the Gods (a questioner mentioned Chariot of the Gods) that posits an ancient, unknown civilization as a source for 10,000 B.C.. The voiceover narration in the trailer indicates as much (maybe even the “lost” continent of Atlantis). Emmerich wanted the freedom the combine facts, fiction, even Robert E. Howard “Conan the Barbarian” style fantasy (as another questioner mentioned). Emmerich later mentioned Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Quest for Fire as an inspiration for 10,000 B.C..

As for the actors and preparation, both Strait and Belle confirmed the obvious: it was a hard, time-consuming, physical shoot that required intense preparation and training. Strait, however, mentioned that Emmerich shot 10,000 B.C. in sequence (meaning scenes were shot in the order in which they appear in the screenplay and in the film). It’s rare for a film to be shot in sequence, but it seems like it’d help actors, since they wouldn’t have to worry about where a scene fits into the overall film or where in their character’s inner arc the scene appears. Belle did add something interesting; the characters speak in accented English that mixes Standard English with Arabic (since, presumably, 10,000 B.C. takes place in the Middle East.

As for future projects, Emmerich confirmed that he’d be making 2012 as his next film, he refused to say anything else. IMDB still lists the remake of Fantastic Voyage as his next project, but as is often the case, it’s probably out-of-date. Given that Emmerich didn’t mention Fantastic Voyage, it’s been either temporarily shelved or permanently postponed.

WonderCon: X-Files 2

X-Files 2

The X-Files are back, not on your television screen (thankfully), but in an all-new, apparently eagerly anticipated, big(ger) budgeted feature-length film. Creator/producer/writer Chris Carter is back, as are David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprising their roles as FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, respectively. Also on hand was Frank Spotniz, series writer, producer, and co-writer of the new, as yet untitled (or un-subtitled) sequel. The Wonder-Con audience eagerly cheered the four members of the panel. All four were in town after working yesterday on the still-in-production sequel.

Not surprisingly for an audience packed with X-Files fans, the trailer met with enthusiastic approval. Trailer riffed on the The Thing From Another World], something under the ice, a white-haired man in eyeglasses (Billy Connolly) leads an FBI team to an isolated location near a farmhouse. The agents set up a perimeter while the white-haired man digs frantically in the snow. What he’s looking for and what he finds remains a mystery. Even more of a mystery is what’s at stake, how Mulder and Scully are involved, and what, if anything, has changed in their relationship since the X-Files went off the air six years ago.

As frustratingly little as the trailer gave away, the panel gave away even less. Carter and Spotniz seemed to indicate that the script goes away from the alien/government conspiracy storyline that sustained The X-Files for most of its nine-year run. Instead, they opted for what one fan/questioner in the audience dismissively referred to as a “monster of the week” storyline. That might be true, but as any X-Files fan can attest, some of The X-Files better episodes had little or nothing to do with the alien/government conspiracy storyline (referred to as the show’s “mythology” by fans and critics).

The question on almost everyone’s minds is why a sequel and why now? After all, it’s been six years after the end of the series and nine years since The X-Files: Fight the Future made its one and only appearance on theater screens. Fans turned out for Fight the Future, but non-fans didn’t, at least not in enough numbers to make Fight the Future a major box office hit or a sequel a done deal. Carter sidestepped the question, saying only that the story he and Spotniz put together will scare the pants off of audience members and that audiences would see Mulder and Scully in a wholly new way. Later, Carter acknowledged that Duchovny played a major role in kick-starting the sequel, as were executives at Twentieth Century Fox (who told Carter it was “now or never”).

The questions inevitably turned to the acting side. Duchovny and Anderson were asked about re-acclimating to their now iconic roles. Both said it was much harder than anticipated, with Anderson claiming it took her 48 hours before she felt comfortable in Scully’s skin and thus gave bad-to-mediocre performances over those two days. Duchovny asked for specifics (as in, which scenes), but Anderson passed on answering. Interestingly enough, Duchovny said his most difficult scenes weren’t performing in action-oriented set pieces, but in the smaller, make-or-break character moments he shared with Anderson and her character.

To the delight of X-Files fans, Carter confirmed that series’ composer Mark Snow will return to score the sequel. While he didn’t have to say it, he seemed to confirm that anyone else would have led to a loss of good will among X-Files fans. Although she doesn’t appear in the trailer or, if she did, fleetingly, Carter confirmed that Amanda Peet appears in the sequel as a FBI Special Agent Dakota Whitney.

As for a sequel to the sequel (Carter didn’t speak of it in terms of a trilogy), that all depends, of course, on how well the still-untitled sequel does at the box office in July, but Carter and Spotniz seemed enthusiastic about venturing back into the X-Files universe and telling more stories, especially now that they don’t have to contend with the grind associated with working on a weekly television series.

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WonderCon: Get Smart

Get Smart

Wonder-Con premiered the newly minted trailer for Get Smart, the big screen adaptation of the 1960s television series created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry that starred Don Adams and Barbara Feldman. It looked good, better than good. Now this is how you make you a trailer: mixing verbal humor, physical comedy, and large-scale action, along with callbacks to the original series, including multiple callbacks (e.g., repeated lines of dialogue).

Director Peter Segal (The Longest Yard, 50 First Dates, Anger Management) was on hand to talk about Get Smart. He started off the panel by saying he wanted to embrace the spirit of the original TV series and bring it up to date for contemporary audiences. Segal then introduced the co-stars, Anne Hathaway and Steve Carell to raucous cheers from the Wonder-Con audience. The Q&A started almost immediately.

One of the first questioners Carell asked whether he was writing anything new (he’s written several episodes of his television series, The Office). Carell said he’s not working on anything right now. As he’s just completed two weeks of jury duty in Los Angeles, he’s going to write or co-write an episode of the Office in which his character gets called on to serve on a jury. Given Carell’s track record, it promises to be hilarious.

Another Wonder-Con attendee asked Carell about whether he’d change or modulate his voice to match Don Adams’ easily recognizable delivery, especially the iconic sentences or phrases that have become synonymous with the character and the series. Hard not to do it like him, stands alone, but hard to get Adams’ voice out of his head. From what we saw and heard in the trailer, Carell’s delivery sounded like a mix between his voice and Adams’ iconic voice.

Another attendee asked about Carell’s start in improv comedy. Carell jokingly said he didn’t want to learn any lines, so improv seemed like the right way to go, but it also just started out as fun, extracurricular activity that eventually segued into comedy and acting.

Another questioner asked Carell thought about doing trying different roles? Answer: Boston Strangler. As long as I get paid, I’m fine, said Carell, but he’ll take whatever might be good or entertaining. Hathaway chimed in with Little Miss Sunshine.

Another attendee asked Hathaway what it was like to work with Carell on Get Smart. She said it was terrible, but quickly corrected herself to say she loved working with him (she was kidding, of course), generously calling Steve one of the comedic masters of our time and it was a pleasure and an honor to work with him. She did say that she was nervous improvising with Carell at first, but eventually got over it.

The next questioner asked about the for the possibility of a sequel, Segal said, “In case you like the movie, I’d like to come back for a sequel.” Segal said was a fun set, great cast., and he’d love to work with them again.

Another questioner asked about the challenges involved in remaking/adapting such a well known, well-liked TV show. Segal reiterated that he wanted to bring the Get Smart characters and their universe to new audiences, but he also wanted to include enough callbacks to the series for fans (so he didn’t really answer the question).

Someone else followed about Barbara Feldman and whether she’d make a cameo in the film, but apparently the answer is no. Other cameos from actors associated with the series have been promised, however. Segal seemed to dance around the question by saying that she never appeared on set, but perhaps she filmed her cameo separately (or not). Hathaway chimed in to say that she considers Feldman an idol and that it was daunting to step into her shoes. She described Feldman’s portrayal of Agent 99 as kind, sophisticated, smart, and elegantly sexy.

Inevitably the question about Segal would do after Get Smart. Shazam, the big screen adaptation of DC’s Captain Marvel (a.k.a., The Big Red Cheese), is still slated at his next project, but the start date has been delayed due to the writer’s strike. Screenwriter John August is back working on the script, however. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is still pegged for the role of Captain Marvel’s nemesis, Black Adam, but Segal didn’t mention any other casting decisions. Given Segal’s track record (comedies), a big-budget, effects-laden film doesn’t seem like his thing, but maybe he’ll surprise us. Hopefully, he won’t make it so kid-friendly that he’ll alienate adults and fans of the character.

Someone asked the panel what movies inspired them to get into filmmaking. Hathaway said Auntie Mame. Segal said Young Frankenstein remake. For Carell, Dr. Strangelove. Seriously. And with that, the Get Smart panel gave way to Disney (e.g., The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Wall-E).