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Usually SXSW is the time of year when I have to avoid major highways and make plans close to home. People flock to Austin in the tens of thousands to participate in film, interactive and music events. In the past I would try to make it to one or two screenings a year, but would usually not make it in after badge holders filled up the seats.

SXSW was kind enough to let me experience SXSW Film in all of it's glory this year, so I inched along the highway to the Austin Convention Center and then worked my way through a long line to get my first-ever SXSW Film badge. Despite the cold weather and constant rain Friday, my excitement level couldn't be higher. I met up with a friend and we walked to the gorgeous Paramount Theater to stand in the rain again. This time we spent two hours getting soaked to see the long-awaited and mysterious Drew Goddard film, The Cabin in the Woods. And was it worth it? Oh yeah.

The Cabin in the Woods - SXSW 2012
When Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon came out to introduce The Cabin in the Woods, they requested that the audience members keep fairly quiet about the details of the plot. I intend to fully honor that request, because most of my enjoyment came from having no idea what to expect. So, I'm sorry, but this review is going to be incredibly vague. Those that have been keeping track of the film's production know that it was made in 2009 and has been struggling to find distribution since. Usually when that happens it's because the studios are afraid that they have a stinker on their hands, but this is definitely not the case here. It is, however, an extremely difficult movie to market. You'd be forgiven for watching the trailer and thinking the movie doesn't look like much more than a schlocky horror throwback with some tongue-in-cheek humour, and on some level that is what it is. But there is a whole extra dimension to the film that the previews intelligently avoid, and I have to give Lionsgate credit for keeping something up their sleeve.

The Cabin in the Woods - SXSW 2012
There is one thing that is made abundantly clear from the start of the film, and that's that the universe this story takes place in is completely absurd. You're invited into the absurdity of the movie world very early on, and if you go with it the movie rewards you tenfold. The movie has much more comedy than I expected walking in, and a lot of those huge laughs come in the form of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. But I can't tell you why they're funny, you just have to take my word for it. A good portion of the humour is derived from genre archetypes that Goddard and Whedon cleverly take aim at, while also paying loving tribute to. It would make an excellent double feature with last year's Tucker and Dale vs Evil. There is an abundance of gut busting laughs and loads of sharp observations about the way we watch horror movies. It's a contagious genre love letter that makes you want to go back and revisit every movie it references.

Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Kristen Connolly and Anna Hutchinson - The Cabin in the Woods - SXSW 2012
( Photo courtesy of Gabriel Rodriguez)

After the film we were treated to a Q&A from Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Kristen Connolly, and Anna Hutchinson. Many of the audience member's questions related to secrets of the plot, but one spoiler-free question that stood out and was when someone asked Whedon and Goddard where the idea for this movie began. This lead to the two of them explaining that this is the kind of movie they would make if they could just make whatever they wanted, then worry about finding a studio to back it later. And that is exactly what they did. I wish more filmmakers had the tenacity to do that. The Cabin in the Woods is a gift. It will have no problem finding a cult following, but I sincerely hope the general movie-going public embraces it. Everyone at that screening sure seemed to. I strongly urge reader's to avoid spoilers online and go experience it for themselves in April. I'm sitting here with a stupid grin on my face just thinking about seeing it again.

The Cabin in the Woods is scheduled to open April 13, 2012.

Safety Not Guaranteed - SXSW 2012
Safety Not Guaranteed derives its plot from an old image that circulated around the internet. It was a real personal ad that somebody had published: "WANTED: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before." Writer Derek Connolly saw this ad and thought it would be interesting if this guy was completely sincere. In the film, we follow the exploits of Darius (Aubrey Plaza of Parks and Recreation), a depressed young woman working an internship for a magazine. When one of the magazine's writers, Jeff (Jake Johnson of New Girl), decides to cover the story, he takes her and another intern (Koran Soni) along with him to do all the work. When they get there they meet Kenneth (Mark Duplass of The League and Humpday); the paranoid and socially awkward man who wrote the ad. As Darius and Kenneth spend more time together, we learn that some people's intentions are not exactly what they seem, and the validity of Kenneth's mission comes into question.

Safety Not Guaranteed - SXSW 2012
The main joy of Safety Not Guaranteed for me was getting to see Aubrey Plaza in a leading role. She doesn't stray too far from the dry humour she's known for on Parks and Recreation and some movie roles, but her comedic timing and use of deadpan expressions have never been funnier. She's not alone either. Koran Soni as the concerned prude and Jake Johnson as the mean-spirited boss both get some huge laughs as her coworkers. There's an amazing precision to the delivery of every punchline. Mark Duplass brings a different kind of comedy to the film as Kenneth. It borderlines on the type of comedy that Napoleon Dynamite thrived on, which didn't really work for me, but Duplass still managed to be very charming and sympathetic in the role. Sympathy is important, because this film has some dramatic turns that change the way you look at the characters entirely. Even though the movie didn't seem to be making me laugh as much as other festival goers, I genuinely cared about the characters on screen and was wishing well for them. I don't usually expect that of an indie comedy, and it was a welcome feeling. Director Colin Trevorrow has showed that he has heart and a keen eye for comedy with his first feature film, and I'll be in line to see what he makes next.

Derek Connolly, Karan Soni, Jake Johnson, Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza - Safety Not Guaranteed - SXSW 2012
Following the movie there was a Q&A session with director Colin Trevorrow, writer Derek Connolly, Karan Soni, Jake Johnson, Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza. Connolly shared the origin of the story and Trevorrow talked about how the Duplass brothers got involved as producers on the project. At one point they were all asked to share their favorite time travel movie, and Mark Duplass listed the Christopher Reeve classic Somewhere in Time. Back to the Future, or "Back to the Fewtch" as Jake Johnson put it, was another favorite.

Safety Not Guaranteed is scheduled for a limited release on June 8th, 2012.

Killer Joe - SXSW 2012
A new William Friedkin movie? How could I resist? The man behind classics like The Exorcist, The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A. and the more recent Bug might be there! Well, he wasn't. But he sent us an awfully sweet video introduction to Killer Joe from Vienna where he was working on a stage production of 'The Tales of Hoffman'. In the introduction he explained that this movie would likely be dividing the audience, with some loving it and others absolutely hating it, but he strongly believed no one would leave indifferent to it. And I bet he was right.

Killer Joe - SXSW 2012
Killer Joe, which screenwriter Tracy Letts originally wrote as a play, is the story of one seriously dysfunctional family. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in over his head dealing with criminals who are threatening his life if he does not pay them what he owes. After being kicked out by his mother, he visits his father (Thomas Haden Church) to discuss a scheme for getting that money. His father lives with his stepmother (Gina Gershon) and his younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple). The entire family gets involved in a plan to kill Chris's birth mother and collect her large life insurance policy. To do this, the hire the help of Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey); a law enforcer by day, contract killer by night.

This was, without question, the most fun I've had watching Matthew McConaughey perform. This is not your Ghost of Girlfriend's Past McConaughey. Killer Joe Cooper is one sick puppy, and this character is going to follow him in his career from this point on. When the family is unable to pay him in full for the assassination, he decides to accept a retainer in the form of the young and somewhat mentally impaired Dottie. The family is all too willing to let him take advantage of her, as long as he carries out his end of the deal and they get the money. It becomes clear as the film progresses that not only is he taking advantage of Dottie, but he is taking control of this entire family, making them bow to his will as he awaits payment for his services. As you can imagine with plots like this, the situation gets out of control. In that regard, Killer Joe has a very traditional plot formula, and it is a slow burn that I admit to losing patience with around the midsection of the runtime. But the movie's real hook is the final 20 minutes. The story and the characterizations completely derail into insanity, and I didn't know if I should be laughing or feeling complete shock. What I do know is that I could feel a nervous twitching in my face; completely involuntary. I had no idea how the movie had taken me there and where it was going next, and I loved it. It'll change the way you look at the entire film, and uh, the way you look at fried chicken. It will be too much for some, and I bet many will just think it is plain stupid, but those with a taste for dark humour and a craving for mind-melting subversion will leave with a nervous smile on their face.

Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch and Tracy Letts - Killer Joe - SXSW 2012
Harry Knowles came out afterwards and brought Matthew McConaughey, Gina Gershon, Emile Hirsch, writer Tracy Letts and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. The first half of the Q&A was mostly devoted to the fried chicken scene, so I can't elaborate any further on that. McConaughey answered a couple questions about getting into the character Killer Joe, and how he approached it as a very internalized character that is isolated from everyone around him. About midway, it was revealed that William Friedkin was on a phone line listening to the Q&A, and he joined in the discussion taking questions from audience members. He seemed a little baffled by the MPAA's decision to put an NC-17 rating on the film and asked audience members to raise their hands if they felt like it deserved the notorious rating. About 19 out of 1200 voted yes. It was a fun Q&A and I wish I could reveal more of the humourous input without spoiling the film, but everybody was fixated on that fried chicken scene. Can't say I blame them.

Killer Joe currently has no release schedule that I could find.

That's all for this installment. Keep an eye out for the next article where I take a look at the insane action film The Raid: Redemption, comedy 21 Jump Street, and Don Coscarelli's adaptation of John Dies at the End. Thanks for reading!

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