MacGruber (Jorma Taccone). You might think a full-length feature about MacGruber, Will Forte's bumbling '80s action hero, would feel at least an hour too long. Even Steven Carrell couldn't lift his lumbering feature about Maxwell Smart, the '60s version of MacGruber, off the ground—but maybe he needed Jorma Taccone at the controls.
Saturday Night Life actor/writer/director Taccone, one of the three guys who does those funny videos with Andy Samberg (he also shot a lot of the MacGruber shorts for SNL and is the man behind a Pepsi ad for the Super Bowl), has great sense of comic timing and a deep and gleeful knowledge of comedy conventions and pop-culture icons. In the Q&A after the film, he revealed that he loves late-'80s/early-'90s action movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon and Rambo 3 ("not one or two or four—though four is pretty great too"), and that he and his cast intended their movie to be more of a comic tribute than a spoof.
You probably have to love those movies to embrace this one fully, but for those of us who do, it makes for a wildly entertaining night at the movies. Action movie clichés, like the way people keep telling MacGruber, "I thought you were dead!," are given just the right emphasis. You laugh at the dick jokes and gay jokes too, partly because they're cathartic, surfacing and then blowing up all the unacknowledged homoerotic machismo that fuels those movies, but also because Forte does blustery incompetence so well and the editors always know just where to cut. And Michael Bay has taken things so far that you pretty much have to chase your bad guy off a cliff, fire two big guns at him as he goes down, and reduce him to a blackened hole in the ground at the bottom of a canyon if you're going for laughs. This movie also has the funniest sex scene since the South Park movie with the puppets.
The filmmakers play well with regular MacGruber features too, like his mullet and cherry-red muscle car and the feathered Farrah hairdo and atrocious singing of his girlfriend Vicki (Kristen Wiig), constantly finding new ways to make them funny, the way Mike Myers did with Austen Powers. Wiig gives, as always, a great supporting performance (her take on trying to respond to dictation from an earbud, a classic addition to that particular shtick, is even funnier for taking place in a hushed, Starbucks-like coffee shop). The non-SNL straight men in the cast obviously relish their shot at being funny, mostly by doing just what they do in their serious parts: Ryan Philippe as the guy's guy who's a natural leader, Powers Boothe as the basso profundo alpha male, and Val Kilmer as the dangerously crazy bad guy.
Add in some slapstick and the infinite depths of MacGruber's incompetence and you have a smartly funny movie that uses all of Hollywood's lavish resources and conventions to get you to laugh at Hollywood's excesses and conventions. Though the filmmakers were still putting the finishing touches on MacGruber when they showed it here, Taccone said they wouldn't change much. The crowd at the Paramount cheered that news.
Winter's Bone (Debra Granik). "I had trouble thinking people could come in from New York and make an authentic movie about the Ozarks, but I have to say they did it," said Marideth Sisco in the Q&A after Winter's Bone. Sisco, who lives near the hardscrabble Missouri country where the movie was filmed ("just east of Forsyth, in country that hasn't changed in 150 years. And neither have the people," she mentioned), was discovered by the filmmakers at a singing practice and appears in the film, singing haunting old songs at a family celebration. She's not the only local person in the movie; just about all the extras were from the area, she admitted, and so were some of the actors with speaking roles, including the girl and boy who play Ree's siblings.
Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a stoic 17-year-old who takes care of those kids and her mentally ill mother, her grit and quiet competence just barely keeping the ramshackle roof over their heads. Then her father skips out on a bond, leaving the house as collateral. Ree heads out to find him, confronting her frightening family and even more frightening neighbors until she gets to the truth. Her grim odyssey turns up some horrible secrets, but the real subject of this beautifully shot, painfully real-feeling movie is the strictly observed code of behavior, feral ferocity, and grinding poverty of life in the Ozarks, and the ways the people there have been helping and hurting each other for generations. It's also about the meth that makes men like Ree's daddy even more dangerous than they already were.
Director and co-scripter Debra Granik based her film on a book by Daniel Woodrell. Sisco says they both got it just right, and I have no reason to doubt her.
Medium Cool: 3 (not so) Shorts (Spike Jonze, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, and Holden Abigail Osborne). Not surprisingly, Spike Jonze's I'm Here, a gravely sweet robot love story, was the highlight of this program, but all three of these longish short films are heartfelt, multilayered, and memorable. Nothing much moves in the boxy metal heads worn by the actors in Jonze's film except the eyes and mouths, but that turns out to be all he needs to flesh out a delicately minimalistic, emotionally resonant ode to life and the transcendent beauty of gaining and losing yourself through love. Jonze even works in a kind of truncated music video, giving us a glimpse of songwriter Aska Matsumiya as she sings the movie's lovely theme song.
Successful Alcoholics, which was written by T.J. Miller and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, seesaws between comedy and tragedy without losing its balance. Its stars are two successful professionals who are in love—with each other and with blackout drinking. The most interesting parts of the movie are the scenes that give the boozing its due, as the two talk about how drinking makes boring people bearable or slip out of sticky situations by saying things you might wish you were uninhibited enough to say to a cop or a boss or coworker.
Holden Abigail Osborne's Solitary/Release is an intriguing and original mix of fiction and nonfiction that contains some of the best documentary footage I've seen here this year. Osborne went home to Kansas City to support her family after her troubled brother, Zach, got jailed for shoplifting. A grad student at NYU's film school, she took her camera with her, since "I always wanted to make a documentary about him."
The documentary part of the movie, which makes up the first half, does a masterful job of introducing us to Zach and his dilemma with minimal supertitles and no voiceover narration. Osborne's observant camera catches Zach and his supportive family at telling moments, and economically edited snippets of conversation reveal that he's trying to manage a mental disorder of some kind that has gone undiagnosed so far, causing this seemingly thoughtful man and his loving family a lot of pain.
Then the film switches to a whole different look and feel as Zach, now played by James Franco, tries to detox in the woods with his dad (played by Zach's actual father, who's an actor). Angelic lighting and slightly blurred backgrounds make it feel as if the real story shown in the first part is being replayed as a Hollywood movie. So do melodramatic elements, like the shouting matches between Zach and his father and the heavy chain he chops off his leg with an axe.
Osborne says she based the fiction segment on an idea of hers that she wrote to her father and brother in a letter about a year before she shot the movie, when Zach was struggling with his addiction and she thought the only solution would be for the two of them to go out in the woods together. She never sent the letter, since her brother was arrested before she got a chance, but she wanted to capture that earlier, wilder stage in her movie.
Inventive choices like that are one of the things I love about film festivals like this one. You never know when you'll catch a filmmaker trying something new, and that kind of creative thinking can make a movie more interesting even if it doesn't quite work.
South by Southwest (SXSW) runs from March 12 to March 20.