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It's that time of year again where everyone flocks to downtown Austin to stand in lines and then stand in more lines and then stand in the rain and in line at the same time. But its absolutely worth it. There's never ending parties, panels, and films to see, and if you hang around long enough you can catch some amazing music from new and old artists. SXSW was gracious enough to give me a film pass so I could cover the film side of their festival for DVDActive, so on Friday I took off for downtown Austin and got in line for the opening night film: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.

SXSW Film 2013 - Part 1

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone begins with a precious flashback to a young Burt Wonderstone. Bullies chase him and beat him up. He goes home on his birthday to find that has mom is working late. She left him some cake mix to make his own birthday cake, which generated an understandable "aww" from the audience. But then he opens his present: a Rance Holloway home magic kit. His horizons are immediately opened to new possibilities. While doing a magic trick at school he befriends the young Anton Marvelton, and the two form a strong friendship over their shared enjoyment of magic. Flash forward to decades later and Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) are a successful Vegas-style act, but they don't get along any more. Their act is also threatened by a new street magician, Steve Gray (Jim Carrey), whose gruesome street performances (often involving self-mutilation) are stealing attention away from Burt and Anton's stale act. As they attempt to formulate their own stunts to rival Steve Gray, their friendship is tested.

SXSW Film 2013 - Part 1
The flashback that opens The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is the only time the movie really achieves any warmth and likability for its characters. In the present day, Carell's Burt Wonderstone is completely devoid of the child's charm in the flashback. He's now an egotistical jerk and a total idiot. Think Ron Burgandy but with sparkly clothes, gross long hair and an orange spray on tan. While this archetype is becoming tiresome in modern comedies, it can work if the movie devotes itself to an idiotic tone. It's also too familiar for Steve Carell, who has played airhead characters in much of his work. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone wants Burt to be a real character though, and it never works. Thankfully there are some wonderful supporting roles. Jim Carrey's Steven Gray is a hysterical take on magicians like Criss Angel and David Blaine. For one of his stunts he keeps his eyes open for days. That isn't enough of a challenge, so he has gobs of pepper spray blasted into his eyes while screaming and still ceasing to blink. That is probably his most tame stunt. He's got an ego to match Burt Wonderstone and makes for a hilarious villain. Carrey plays this ludicrous character with his usual high energy and seems to be having a blast doing it. The movie suffers when he isn't in a scene. Alan Arkin is also great as Rance Holloway. Playing a harsh old joker that is ultimately kind is not a stretch for Arkin, but its one of the better incarnations of that role. Other supporting turns Steve Buscemi and Olivia Wilde are fine, but their characters bring nothing memorable to the proceedings.

SXSW Film 2013 - Part 1
(Photo courtesy of Gabriel Rodriguez)

It's surprising that there aren't more comedies about the world of magicians, especially the kind that have their own Vegas act and where sparkly clothes. There are plenty of comedic magic acts around, but this is the only film I can think of in recent memory that tackles the subject. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone is best when it embraces the ridiculous, which is sadly not often enough. It can, at moments, be gut bustingly hilarious. I'll remember the last scene for years, while the rest of the movie is likely to fade from my memory by the end of the week. After the film we had a short Q&A session with the cast, producer, and writers. Steve Carell, Olivia Wilde, and Jim Carrey were in attendance. Carrey treated us to a musical number and proved to be as big of a goofball in person as his screen persona. When asked if any of the cast had to learn how to do slight of hand tricks, Carrey comically tried to conceal his microphone behind his arm. When asked about what it was like to be a woman working in a male-dominated industry, Olivia Wilde gave a nice response about how the industry is changing thanks to some ambitious women and how the male cast of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone always treated her with great respect and made her experience on the film comfortable. Carell interjected, humorously telling her that she better answer the question the way they told her to. Carell came across as a very nice guy who is happy to be in his line of work. The Q&A didn't last long, as the theater emptied out and people hopped back in line for the premier of Fede Alvarez's highly anticipated Evil Dead remake.

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone opens in both UK and US theaters this Friday, March 15th.

SXSW Film 2013 - Part 1

Last year SXSW opened with The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that reinvigorated the horror genre while also lovingly dissecting its plentiful trappings. A year later, it only feels appropriate that we should return to watch a take on the original cabin in the woods story. Shedding the "the" from the title of the 1981 cult classic, this new Evil Dead takes on the challenge of being a serious horror movie. The story opens with a gruesome cold open that sets the tone of the film up nicely. After that we see some friends making their way to a cabin in the woods. Mia (Jane Levy) has enlisted the help of her friends and her brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) to watch over her in a remote location as she quits drugs cold turkey. We learn through exposition that they've tried this once before, but Mia ended up leaving the cabin and overdosing. This time, they promise not to let her leave. Of course they find a basement in the cabin filled with creepy dead animals and a book made of skin. It wouldn't be Evil Dead without the book of the dead. After one of the friends reads a passage from the book, Mia's soul becomes possessed. As Mia transforms into her demonic counterpart, her friends initially believe it is just the result of extreme withdrawals. After she gives herself serious burns, David tries to take her away for medical help, only to find that the road out of the woods is flooded. Now trapped, Mia's possession worsens with violent results and consequences for everyone around her.

SXSW Film 2013 - Part 1
This movie is exceptionally gory. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say it is one of the most violent studio release of all time. I had heard about the film initially receiving an NC-17 rating, then being cut down to an R-rating, but nothing about the film feels neutered. Nothing is missing from that intense red band trailer, and there is plenty more where that footage came from. But for all its bountiful bloodshed, this take on Evil Dead is not scary. I'm ready to admit that I may just be jaded with the horror genre, but this movie did not get under my skin. People around me at the screening were bobbing back and forth and covering their mouths, but they were reacting to the wince-inducing gore and not out of genuine fear. If you find gore scary, then this movie will deliver, but I do not equate the two. There's not a lot of time and attention devoted to building atmosphere. Once chaos breaks loose, the film tumbles from one jump scene to the next. Even the jump scenes themselves are not very inspired, usually involving the camera panning to something that was not previously there, or a possessed character making a sudden lurch. The movie also shoots itself in the foot from time to time when it tries to pay tribute to the campy original. At first, it seems nice to honor the cult classic, but the elements don't blend well. Tonally, everything aims for a dark, gritty horror experience, but the occasionally nutty camera work (there's even a brief gearing up montage) and a handful of silly one-liners take you right out of the grim setting. It also doesn't help that the characters and script are completely disposable, but you can only do so much with this intentionally old school horror blueprint.

SXSW Film 2013 - Part 1
(Photo courtesy of Gabriel Rodriguez)

It is very easy to see that Alvarez is a talented director. The film looks very good. After the intro, the film opens with a breathtaking, disorienting upside down aerial view of the forest. The marshy forest with beams of light shining around dead trees looks surreal and beautiful. Even during the carnage taking place in dark rooms, he finds space to keep all of the action on screen. The climactic scene, which I'll try not to spoil the fun of, is a visual feast for horror fans. I have to give credit to the filmmakers for using mostly practical effects as well. Lots of the injuries look horrifyingly real. I cringed, and that doesn't happen easily. Meet this film on its terms, as a single-minded gore fest, and you're bound to come out impressed. Gorehounds will be delighted, but anyone hoping for genuine chills or worthwhile characters should adjust their expectations. After the film, Fede Alvarez came out along with the cast and producers, one of which is Bruce Campbell, the king himself. Campbell dominated the Q&A, and he is not afraid to let an audience member know if their question is stupid. The cast members shared some of their experiences from on set, specifically the ones that involved gory special effects. Alvarez said he is game for a sequel.

Evil Dead is scheduled for an April 5th release date in the US, with an April 19th date set for the UK.

SXSW Film 2013 - Part 1
David Gordon Green is someone whose career I have followed very closely. His first film, George Washington, struck a lyrical chord with me that very few films can match. He's always experimenting. Sometimes very literally, like with the playful editing choices of Undertow. In 2008 he made the biggest departure from his previous work when he directed Pineapple Express, and he has since only been making studio comedies. Following the less than great Your Highness and The Sitter, Prince Avalanche is Green's return to small scale filmmaking, and it is wonderful to see him working in this rhythm again. The movie was filmed in Bastrop, Texas following the massive wildfire in 2011 that burned over 30,000 acres and destroyed the homes of many. The movie is set in 1988 though, following a similar wildfire that occurred in 1987. The story follows Alvin (Paul Rudd), a road worker who paints stripes on a long windy road through the scorched earth of Bastrop. As a favor to his girlfriend, he has recently taken on her young brother Lance (Emile Hirsch) as an employee. The two spend all week together working on the roads, mostly in solitude. At night they camp out in a single tent. Alvin sees himself as somewhat of a romantic, always writing long sincere letters to his girlfriend. He also sends her money to help support her child. Him and Lance do not get along. Lance is more of a rowdy spirit, sometimes turning off Alvin's language tapes to play rock music. His thoughts and ambitions don't seem to stretch far beyond what women he is going to try to hook up with on his weekend.

SXSW Film 2013 - Part 1
This is very much a quaint character piece. Hirsch and Rudd are completely up to the task, bringing plenty of life to distinction to their characters. They bicker and argue about different things. While none of their early arguments are particularly compelling in their own right, they work to build a strong believable characters. Tim Orr, who has been a long time collaborator with David Gordon Green, gets some absolutely breathtaking footage of the Bastrop woods. Giant burnt trees lie in a bed of fresh green growth. There is a lot of life and death sharing the same space in this natural setting, and no shortage of surreal beauty. Things get more interesting when Lance takes the work truck back into town for the weekend and Alvin stays out in the woods. Alvin takes his undisclosed prescription medication and wanders around nature ruminating and sifting through the ashes of burnt down homes, sometimes playing house. Its funny at first, but becomes sad as it progresses and you realize he is imagining what it would be like to live with his girlfriend instead of working far away. In the ashes of one home he finds a distressed lady trying to recover a lost pilot license. Its the kind of oddly lyrical scene that is common in David Gordon Green earlier work. There's a lively sense of humor coursing through the film. When Alvin and Lance get petty with one another, their insults are often childish and hilarious. Lances shallow aspirations and the mopey attitude he adopts when he cannot reach them makes for a good laugh. There are also some wonderful scenes where the two men encounter an old truck driver (the late Lance LeGault) who is as funny as he is strange.

SXSW Film 2013 - Part 1
Alvin and Lance, both feeling outcast by the women they love, eventually find a way to bond and discover a new outlook on their lives. The forest on the mend makes a perfect backdrop for their destructive behavior and eventual rebirth. Their revelations feel completely believable thanks to Rudd and Hirsch's chemistry. On paper, the film's script probably doesn't amount to a compelling read. I would not be surprised if some of the dialogue was improvised as well, but Prince Avalanche still works. It runs on feelings, and the score from the band Explosions in the Sky contributes heavily to the vibe of the movie with a gorgeous, hypnotic music. So far this is one of my favorite films of the year. It'll be too leisurely paced and thinly scripted for some, but I was completely wrapped up in it. I can't wait to see it again. There was a brief Q&A after the film with the cast and filmmakers. David Gordon Green talked about how the film came to be. Prince Avalanche is based on an Icelandic film called Either Way that was recommended to David Gordon Green while he was searching for a story to tell in Bastrop State Park. He says he dreamt that made a film called Prince Avalanche, and simply thought it sounded cool so he decided to go with it. Hirsch and Rudd talked about how they got involved with the project and how much they enjoyed working with another.

Prince Avalanche currently has no release scheduled, but it has been picked up by Magnolia Pictures for distribution.

That's all for this segment on SXSW Film 2013. Look for another article coming soon with coverage on Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, Richard Linklaters Before Midnight, and Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers.


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