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On Sunday I decided to head downtown early and catch some comedy podcast recordings at Esther's Follies. I nearly went crazy trying to find a parking spot then barely made it into a recording of WTF with Marc Maron where he interviewed actor Jeffrey Tambor (best known for The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development). The interview covered mostly personal stories, but he commented briefly on the return of Arrested Development saying he has "no idea when shooting begins". Afterwards I stuck around for a live recording of the Comedy Bang Bang podcast, which is soon to be a television series on IFC. Tim Heidecker of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and the more recent Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie was there as a guest, as well as comedians Seth Morris, Reggie Watts and James Adomian ( Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay). Following the show I met up with a friend at the beautiful Paramount theater where a decent crowd of people were gathering to see the much-hyped The Raid: Redemption...

 The Raid: Redemption - SXSW 2012
Oh man, where do I start? I'm a big fan of martial arts films. In high school I was the co-president of a Kung Fu movie club. I watch lots of the stuff, regardless of quality and critical reception. It's a genre I'm in love with, and every now and then a movie comes along that completely shatters my expectations and sets a new standard for every action film that will come after it. Welcome to the new standard. The Indonesian film is directed by Gareth Evans and stars Iko Uwais, both of whom worked together on an earlier film called Merantau. That film had some very impressive martial arts showcasing, but when there wasn't action occurring on screen it failed to engage. Their new movie, The Raid: Redemption (previously just The Raid), wastes no time at all. There is just enough character development right at the start to let you know what is at risk for the protagonist, and the movie rushes from there straight into the gritty setting where we spend the remainder of the runtime. Watching it, I felt much of the same excitement I had watching Ong-Bak for the first time, though The Raid: Redemption is a far more competently made film. It is what every action fan wants: non-stop mayhem where every scene is somehow cooler than the last.

(Caution: This red band trailer contains strong violence)

Stylistically I had one complaint with the film, which I'll get out of the way. The fights are filmed with excellent framing and precision, but there is some use of shaky handheld camera movements during the dialogue scenes that annoyed me slightly. The pace and tone of the movie already ramped up the intensity enough, and the unnecessary camera movement became distracting when it was just people talking in a room. I was admittedly skeptical of the original music from Mike Shinoda (of Linkin Park) and Joseph Trapanese. I'm pretty far from a Linkin Park fan, but the duo did an excellent job of complementing the action on screen without drawing too much attention to their sounds. Some scenes are filled with almost unbearable tension, like when protagonists are hiding in a wall space while a madman with a machete rapidly stabs along the outside hoping to hit them. The score went a long ways to help build up the suspense. Director Gareth Evans, who also edited the film, admitted during the Q&A afterwards that he likes to shoot everything to a rhythm. The number of hits, stabs or gunshots is all completely deliberate and set to a pattern that gives the action a contagious pulse. It's insanely cool. As the movie goes along, the action progressively becomes more raw and basic. It starts off with nothing but guns, but as bullets run out they move onto knives and clubs until finally in the end it is just raw hand-to-hand combat. And all of it works marvelously. Enormous credit to the sound department as well, who can make or break a movie like this. Every stab and punch hurt to watch, and their foley work really drove the impact home.

Mike Shinoda, Joseph Trapanese and Gareth Evans - The Raid: Redemption - SXSW 2012
The audience at SXSW ate it up. There were rounds of applause throughout and an almost constant stream of "oooh!"s during the combat scenes. Composers Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese came out afterwards with Writer/Director/Editor Gareth Evans and they blessed the audience with an awesome Q&A. Evans talked about the brutal shooting schedule. The movie took over 70 days to film, and about two weeks of that were spent on the final fight scene. There was also some discussion about accidents on set. Wooden knives can hurt really bad too. He revealed, much to the amusement of the audience, that one of the bug-eyed, machete wielding madmen in the movie is an architect in real life. Shinoda shared some words about the differences between writing music for an album and scoring a film; the key point being that when you score a film you are playing a supporting role in a collaboration.

The Raid: Redemption opens with a limited release on March 23, 2012, and will expand in the following weeks.

21 Jump Street - SXSW 2012
Here's a movie I was initially very skeptical of. Who wanted a 21 Jump Street reboot? And the previews didn't do very much to boost my interest. Then early reviews came in and were extremely positive, and I noticed the film had received an R-rating from the MPAA which seemed very fitting for the people involved. I felt my expectations mounting as the event was winding up. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum showed up, apparently seeing the final cut of this movie for the first time there at SXSW, and they were wearing their police uniforms. The directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, came out to give us a brief introduction.

21 Jump Street - SXSW 2012
One of 21 Jump Street's most charming aspects is that it is self-aware of what an unnecessary reboot it is. At one point early on when their police captain (Nick Offerman of Parks and Recreation) describes the program to the two leads, he jokes about how the guys upstairs are running out of good ideas. The self-referential humour can be a little smug at times, but it also helps to free the movie of any expectations regarding the original series, and allows the filmmakers to have fun putting their own twist on things. I'll confess to never really caring for Channing Tatum as an actor in the past, but in fairness I haven't seen most of the movies he is in aside from G.I. Joe, Haywire and Stop-Loss. He's hilarious in 21 Jump Street and made me laugh on multiple occasions, which was a pleasant surprise. Him and Jonah Hill have wonderful chemistry that helps to elevate the material above your standard buddy cop comedy. The supporting cast, including Rob Riggle, Ice Cube and Dave Franco all help to bring the clever script to realization. It pokes fun at action movies in the same way that the much-loved Hot Fuzz does, without being as energetic or referential along the way. This brand of comedy is more in line with something like Superbad, and I found some of the scenes that revolved around high school partying and drug induced hallucinations weren't as inventive as other sequences.

Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill - 21 Jump Street - SXSW 2012
( Photo courtesy of Gabriel Rodriguez)

21 Jump Street was a blast in the moment, but I get the feeling it won't hold up nearly as well on repeat viewings with a non-SXSW crowd. It still remains an above-average comedy that exceeded my initial expectations by miles. After the film the directors came back out along with writer Michael Bacall and actors Dave Franco, Rob Riggle, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. While taking questions from the audience they talked about how much fun it was to work together. Jonah Hill admitted that he thought the idea of rebooting 21 Jump Street was really stupid at first. When asked what their favorite movie was they have worked on, Jonah Hill made sure to tease Dave Franco about being in Charlie St. Cloud. Channing Tatum refused to take his shirt off at the request of a female audience member because he has been eating "too much beer and salty food". Tatum was also asked what attracted him to working on this picture when he usually stars in romantic comedies. He defended his choice by saying this was a bromance movie. All in all it was very fun and laid back Q&A and you could tell just from watching the actors on stage together that they had a blast making this film.

21 Jump Street hits theaters March 16th, 2012.

John Dies at the End - SXSW 2012
First and foremost, I have not read the David Wong book of John Dies at the End, but I sure do want to now. From what I understand and what was asked during the Q&A, it seems the film has a lot of significant changes. The trailer looked very interesting and the inclusion of Paul Giamatti (acting and producing) with Don Coscarelli ( Phantasm, Bubba Ho-Tep) at the helm was enough to get me standing in line at the Alamo Drafthouse. Before the film Coscarelli came up front and said hello, and pointed out that Bubba Ho-tep himself (Bob Ivy) was sitting in the theater with us. He informed us that what we were about to see was the true premier of the film, and that it was the first showing with the effects and cuts made the way he wanted.

John Dies at the End - SXSW 2012
The movie gets off to a hilarious and stylish start with an anecdote about an axe and a corpse that won't stay dead. Before long we're introduced to Dave and John; two young men who have been exposed to a new drug called Soy Sauce. It's a living substance that allows it's users to experience time in a non-linear fashion and see bizarre creatures that look like they're from hell. The narrative is driven by a meeting between our protagonist, Dave, and Arnie (Paul Giamatti), a journalist interested in covering the drug. As the story unfolds we learn that there is another world invading Earth, and Dave and John are the unlikely heroes that must help stop it. The first half of the movie is a consistently hilarious dark comedy with just enough weirdness going on to keep you involved and interested in how the story is going to unfold. There are bizarre encounters like frozen meat slithering together to create a monster form, and a particularly violent mustache.

Chase Williamson, who plays Dave, is terrific as the lead. And from the look of it, this is his first feature-length film. I hope to see him in a lot more. John (Rob Mayes) is great too, but serves as more of a comedic sidekick. And maybe he dies at the end. Around the two-thirds mark I could feel myself losing interest in the world of John Dies at the End. The dark sense of humour remains perfectly intact throughout, but the drug-induced mystery story veers into some truly strange territory that didn't transition well with everything that came before it. The special effects become much more ambitious and what was previously charming in its self-aware, campy low budget presentation just felt too cartoonish and distracting. I don't like to criticize a movie for being ambitious with its small budget, but if I'm being completely honest it did remove me from what was happening on screen. Despite not being thrilled with the destination, John Dies at the End has such a fun journey that I still wholeheartedly recommend it to interested fans.

Don Coscarelli, Fabianne Therese - John Dies at the End - SXSW 2012
After the film Don Coscarelli and actress Fabianne Therese went on stage for a Q&A. They talked about working with a small budget and the process of adapting the book. Coscarelli said he would love to do a sequel. He strongly encouraged the audience members to read the book as well, and professed his love for David Wong's writing. Afterwards he stuck around in the theater lobby to say hello to festival goers. I complimented him on the film and asked, out of love and duty, if he knew of any plans for a Phantasm Blu-ray release. He didn't seem to know, but he promptly brought to my attention that Michael Baldwin (Mike from Phantasm) was there, and he introduced me to him. Awesome! I didn't see Angus anywhere though...

John Dies at the End currently has no North American release schedule.

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