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2010 Winter Movie Preview

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Set in the heart of Austin, Texas, the South by Southwest music, film and interactive festival has slowly grown into one of the biggest pop culture events in the country. Though the film festival isn't quite on the same level as Sundance or Cannes, what it lacks in prestige it makes up for with a well-rounded moviegoing experience that includes both heavy-hitting indies and more mainstream fare. This year, SXSW will be the host of several premieres, including the sci-fi thriller "Source Code" and the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy "Paul," as well as festival favorites like "Being Elmo," "Super" and "Win Win." We're heading back down to Austin once again to report on all the must-see films, so be sure to check back daily for all the latest from SXSW, including reviews, interviews and more.

SXSW 2011: A Bag of Hammers

Not every film that played at SXSW this year was fortunate enough to walk away with a distribution deal (in fact, very few did), but if there’s one movie that deserved to, it’s “A Bag of Hammers.” A relatively clichéd dramedy with all the markings of an indie film, Brian Crano’s directorial debut nonetheless manages to carve out an identity of its own thanks to a great script and an even better ensemble cast. Jason Ritter and Jake Sandvig make an excellent team as childhood best friends Ben and Alan, a pair of misfit conmen who run a bogus valet service at funerals in order to steal cars and sell them for cash. It’s not the most lucrative career, but in addition to the money they earn from renting out the house in front of their laidback bachelor pad, they get by. But when their new tenants – the recently divorced Lynette (Carrie Preston of "True Blood") and her neglected son Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury) – begin to attract unwanted attention, Ben and Alan decide to step in and create the family they’ve always needed.

Consider Crano incredibly lucky for getting the actors that he did, because it’s hard to imagine “A Bag of Hammers” working quite as well without them. Sandvig and Ritter are especially good in the film's more comedic moments, while even Rebecca Hall manages to make the most of a role that requires she wear a silly waffle hat and perform an ever sillier dance. The real standout, however, is Preston, who delivers what is easily the most heartbreaking performance that I’ve seen this year as the hopelessly desperate single mother. Additionally, while the constantly shifting tone between quirky comedy and grim family drama may annoy some people, Crano actually handles it remarkably well, particularly when the movie enters some pretty dark territory midway through the story and never looks back. It’s a shame that he didn’t see that version of the film through to the end, because while there’s nothing wrong with the happy ending he opts for, “A Bag of Hammers” would have been so much more memorable with the disheartening, more realistic finale that he teases just before it.

SXSW 2011: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

SXSW 2011: Being Elmo

Most documentaries these days tend to be about one of three things – the economy, the environment, or the war – so it’s nice to see a movie come along that’s not only about something entirely different, but isn’t afraid to make you laugh or cry along the way. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, “Being Elmo” is the light-hearted story of Kevin Clash, the man behind the overly affectionate Muppet known as Elmo, who eventually skyrocketed into pop culture stardom as the new face of “Sesame Street.” From his early years watching “Captain Kangaroo” and performing his own puppet shows for the neighborhood kids, to his inevitable rise to the top with the help of Jim Henson, Kermit Love, and even a little luck, “Being Elmo” is an inspiring story that only reaffirms why kids should follow their dreams.

Using interviews with friends and family mixed with archival footage of Clash’s pre-“Sesame Street” career, director Constance Marks assembles a fairly straightforward narrative that unfortunately never amounts to more than just a bullet point presentation of all the Big Moments. That doesn’t make the material any less fascinating – like in a sequence where Clash trains the French cast of “Sesame Street” by showing them how to give the puppets different expressions and a lifelike rhythm to their movement – but it does feel flat at times. For instance, though Marks briefly touches upon how Clash’s dedication to his craft may have affected his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, she never digs any deeper, possibly to avoid portraying him in any sort of negative light. The film does lean suspiciously in his favor, but while “Being Elmo” isn’t without its flaws, Clash is so immensely likeable, talented and charitable, that it’s hard not to just sit back and enjoy this celebration of the human spirit. Elmo would approve.

SXSW 2011: 13 Assassins

SXSW 2011: Win Win

its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, Thomas McCarthy’s “Win Win” has drawn comparisons to “The Blind Side,” and for good reason. But while the films are thematically similar in a lot of ways, "Win Win" is a much stronger piece of filmmaking than the Oscar-nominated drama – one that doesn’t pander to the audience or depend on hot-button topics to drive the story. Instead, it’s just a really well made dramedy that benefits from a funny and touching script by McCarthy and one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Call it feel-good entertainment if you must, because "Win Win" is a genuinely heartwarming film.

Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey-based attorney who midnights as a high school wrestling coach. With his law practice in the dumps and his family's livelihood in danger, Mike agrees to assume guardianship of an Alzheimer’s client named Leo Poplar (Burt Young), not out of the goodness of his heart, but because he can move him into an assisted living facility and collect the monthly stipend without doing any work. A wrench is thrown into Mike’s plans, however, when Leo's grandson, Kyle (Alex Shaffer), makes an impromptu trip from Ohio to pay a visit. With his mother (Melanie Lynskey) in a drug clinic and no one else to take care of him, Paul and his wife (Amy Ryan) agree to take the troubled teen into their home. But when Mike learns that Kyle has a natural talent for wrestling, he enrolls him at the local school so he can join the team, only for his mother to arrive in town threatening to reveal Mike’s scheme and ruin Kyle’s promising future.

As you might expect from a movie that stars the ever-reliable Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, the performances are top-notch. Their onscreen relationship is so natural that it doesn’t even feel like they’re acting, and it’s an especially good role for Giamatti, who always thrives as the unlucky schlub trying to catch a break. Newcomer Alex Shaffer – a real-life state wrestling champion who had to quit the sport due to a recurring back injury – may play his character with the kind of blunt, matter-of-factness that is common in first-time actors, but it’s exactly what the role requires, and he actually handles the bigger, more emotional scenes surprisingly well. The rest of the cast is just as good, with Bobby Cannavale and Jeffrey Tambor providing most of the laughs – particularly the former, whose scenes alongside Giamatti are undoubtedly the highlight of the film.

Though there are certainly elements of an underdog sports drama on display here, “Win Win” is predominantly about the idea of family and how you can find it in the unlikeliest of places. McCarthy has explored a similar theme of people coming from very different worlds to form an unlikely family unit before (not only in directorial efforts like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” but also Pixar’s “Up,” which he co-wrote), but this is probably his most crowd-pleasing movie to date. And thanks to an incredible ensemble cast and a script that smartly balances drama and comedy without getting overly preachy, it’s also his best. McCarthy may not turn up on anyone's radar when it comes to great American directors, but with the leaps and bounds that he's made with each successive film, "Win Win" only serves to remind us that he probably should be.

SXSW 2011: Paul

SXSW 2011: The Innkeepers

For two movies about essentially the same thing (in this case, a haunting), Ti West’s “The Innkeepers” and James Wan’s “Insidious” have received vastly different reactions from SXSW attendees, with many liking one but not the other, and vice versa. Those who read my review of “Insidious” already know where my allegiance lies, because while “The Innkeepers” may fancy itself a horror film, there’s nothing particularly scary about it. Sara Paxton and Pat Healy star as the last remaining workers at the Yankee Pedlar Inn, a fledgling hotel that has relied on stories of being one of New England’s most haunted locations to fill its rooms. But as the Inn’s final days draw near, the pair goes searching for proof that it’s actually haunted in one last effort to save the hotel from closing its doors for good.

Unfortunately, you have to sit through a fairly uneventful 100 minutes to find out the answer, and it’s not really worth the wait. Though West teases the audience with brief moments of suspense that continue to build as the story unfolds, there’s very little payoff, to the point that when the horror elements finally do kick in, they’re not as terrifying as you would hope. Instead, the movie spends a lot of time camped out at the front desk where the two leads shoot the shit and play tricks on one another. It’s witty and amusing at times, but never quite enough to hold your interest, despite the fact that Paxton and Healy actually have pretty good chemistry. If there’s one redeeming quality, it’s the fantastic score by Jeff Grace, which at the very least makes it watchable. That doesn't change the fact that the film is still a mediocre film, and the only one that Ti West has to blame is himself, because while “The Innkeepers” certainly had the potential to reinvigorate the horror genre in the same way as “Insidious,” it falls short.

SXSW 2011: Attack the Block

SXSW 2011: Insidious

James Wan and Leigh Whannell may be responsible for jumpstarting the most successful horror franchise of the last decade, but the duo has failed to recreate that level of success in anything they’ve made since then. But with the release of “Insidious,” it looks like they’ve finally cracked that nut, because the film is a creepy and atmospheric supernatural horror film that plays a lot like a modern day “Poltergeist” with a decidedly retro aesthetic. Though the film relies a little too often on cheap scares and loud musical cues to terrorize the audience, “Insidious” is a legitimately scary movie that will not only reinvigorate Wan and Whannell’s careers, but the kind of traditional horror films that “Saw” made redundant as well.

Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) have just moved their family into a new house when oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) bumps his head while exploring the attic and slips into a coma. The doctors can't explain what’s wrong with him, so they move Dalton back home to be cared for by his mother. When Renai stars hearing strange noises and seeing frightening visions of ghosts lurking around the house, however, she becomes convinced that the place is haunted. But after they move again only for the angry spirits to remerge, she begs Josh to call in a specialist to investigate – a trio of ghost hunters that informs the couple it isn’t their house that’s haunted, but their son.

As someone that tries to avoid horror movies whenever possible, it’s difficult to gauge how “Insidious” will play to diehard fans. Though it doesn’t really revolutionize the genre like “Saw” did, it has so many genuine moments of terror that cowards like myself will be on the verge of a panic attack throughout. It’s been a while since a movie has scared me as much as this, and it will likely cause nightmares for others. The film does lose some of its bite in the final act when one of the characters enters an otherworld called the Further that looks like a twisted version of Disney's Haunted Mansion ride, but by that point, Wan practically has you eating out of his hand; the scares are that effective.

He also makes some very daring stylistic choices – from the grainy film texture to the intrusive score – that evokes the horror films of the 70s and 80s. But while the movie looks great (especially considering it was made on a shoestring budget), it's lacking in a strong central performance from Byrne or Wilson. In fact, they both seem to sleep walking through their roles compared to the lively performances of the film's supporting cast, including character actor Lin Shaye as the paranormal medium and Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson as her clumsy assistants. Their introduction midway through injects a “Ghostbusters”-like playfulness that allows Wan to include some comic beats without lessening the weight of the situation, and it really adds a layer of enjoyment to the experience. After all, horror films are supposed to be fun to watch, and though "Insidious" trips up a bit in the end with a lame and predictable coda, it's still a highly enjoyable piece of scare-you-shitless cinema that even a non-fan can appreciate.

SXSW 2011: Super

SXSW 2011: Surrogate Valentine

“Surrogate Valentine” isn’t the first movie about the life of a struggling musician, and it probably won’t be the last, but while there’s nothing particularly special about Dave Boyle’s latest film, it has an undeniably sweet quality to it that ultimately wins you over. San Francisco-based musician Goh Nakamura stars as himself, a soft-spoken singer-songwriter who’s barely scraping by when he reluctantly agrees to teach TV actor Danny Turner (Chadd Stoops) how to play guitar for an upcoming movie role. After all, he could use the cash. But when the two embark on a road trip to Seattle for an upcoming gig, Goh discovers that the movie in question is suspiciously similar to his own life – only this time, he might actually end up with the girl (Lynn Chen) he’s been chasing all these years.

Despite having no previous acting experience, Nakamura delivers a surprisingly solid performance that is both natural and charming. Granted, there’s no real acting involved when you’re playing yourself, but he still makes his co-star look like an amateur in comparison. Though Danny is supposed to be a bad actor, Stoops is so dreadful even when he’s not purposefully hamming it up that it stops the film dead in its tracks every time he’s on screen. The chemistry between Nakamura and Chen is much stronger, and it’s hard not to wonder how much better the movie could have been if Boyle had focused more on their relationship than the one between Goh and Danny. “Surrogate Valentine” is still mostly enjoyable thanks to Nakamura’s involvement, but at a lean 75 minutes, there’s no reason that Boyle couldn’t have dug a little deeper into his subject’s life.

SXSW 2011: Turkey Bowl

SXSW 2011: Source Code

Duncan Jones was probably bombarded with a number of offers to direct a big studio movie following the release and cult success of his directorial debut, “Moon,” but there’s something about his decision to choose “Source Code” as his follow-up that tells you a lot about the kind of filmmaker he hopes to become. To some extent a companion piece to “Moon” in that they’re both morality tales about technology, Jones has succeeded in taking yet another high-concept premise and spinning it into a captivating thriller that's both incredibly simple in execution and yet brain-teasingly complex the more you pick it apart. A thinking man's sci-fi film with real mainstream appeal.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Cpt. Colter Stevens, a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan who wakes up suddenly to discover he's riding on a commuter train headed to Chicago. The twist? He’s in the body of a man named Sean Fentress, and before he can figure out what’s going on, the train explodes. But Stevens isn’t actually dead, and when he awakens in a strange capsule seconds later, he’s greeted by a woman named Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), who informs him that he’s part of a military experiment that's trying to stop a terrorist attack in Chicago. Using a computer program called the Source Code, they can send Stevens’ consciousness into the body of Fentress for the last eight minutes of his life, granting him a unique opportunity to examine the scene of the crime before it even happens, in the hope that he can identify the bomber and prevent a second attack on the city. But as Stevens gets closer to tracking down the culprit with each new pass, he sets his mind on saving his fellow commuters (including Michelle Monaghan), despite the fact that the creator of the Source Code (Jeffrey Wright) tells him it isn’t possible.

That might sound like an awful lot of information to process, but “Source Code” isn’t nearly as confusing as it lets on. With the exception of one exposition-heavy scene at the beginning of the film that tells you just about everything you need to know, the rest of the movie is split between Stevens' investigation of the train's passengers via a time loop that always ends with him dying, and communicating with the people running the mission. Of course, there are several twists and turns along the way, but Jones doesn't hide his hand particularly well. Two of the film's biggest revelations are not only predictable, but pretty obvious if you just pay attention, and though it would have ruined a lesser movie, "Source Code" is still engaging even when you know how it will end.

You wouldn’t think that a film about a guy experiencing the same eight minutes over and over again would be very interesting (even "Groundhog Day" took place over the course of a day), but Jones manages to prevent the loop from feeling monotonous by making every trip into the Source Code unique. He also relies greatly on star Jake Gyllenhaal to keep the audience invested, and it’s one of the actor’s best performances to date, providing the character with an Everyman quality that allows him to be serious without being humorless. The rest of the actors are just pawns in the story, but Vera Farmiga does add some depth to the thankless role of Stevens’ sympathetic handler. Not that the movie requires especially strong performances to work, because the real star is Jones himself, who proves here that he’s more than just a one-hit wonder. Your reaction to the movie will ultimately vary based on how you feel about its ending, but for fans of the sci-fi genre and time travel in particular, “Source Code” doesn't disappoint.

SXSW 2011: Girl Walks Into a Bar

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