Festival Coverage

SXSW Day 3 : Reviews of Bridesmaids, Conan O’ Brien Can’t Stop, 13 Assassins

Festival Coverage

With Tim Grant (Photography)

13 Assassins

A samurai epic based on a true incident, ”13 Assassins” is the latest film by controversial Japanese director Takashi Miike. The film is a remake of Eiichi Kudo’s 1963 black-and-white Japanese movie of the same name, ”Jûsan-nin no shikakua”.

The sadistic Lord Naritsugu’s (Gorô Inagaki) number one priority is to create a perpetual state of war in Japan.

As you might imagine, all the raping and killing and warmongering brought on by Naritsugu’s reign has forced the hand of the some of the more noble Shogun, enter Sir Doi (Mikijiro Hira), an elder advisor to the Shogunate.

The plan is simple, assassinate Lord Naritsugu. Doi promptly reaches out to one of the last true samurai, Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho), to recruit a team for this suicide mission. I know what you’re saying, this all sounds very familiar. That’s probably because Miike’s 13 Assassins (and the original 1963 film) is practically indistinguishable from Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic, ”Seven Samurai”.

”Seven Samurai” was among the first films to utilize the plot element of recruiting heroes to form a team of super bad-asses to complete a specific mission (”The Guns of Navarone”, ”The Dirty Dozen”, ”The Magnificent Seven” and countless others would follow).

The film plays out as you might expect, with 13 samurai facing hordes of Naritsugu’s forces. Facing impossible odds, the Samurai hack and slash their way through mindless minions while trapping them within the walls of an enclosed village.

The final battle is an all-out 40-minute long slaughter fest. Surprisingly, the blood and violence never becomes gratuitous, which I must say is entirely disappointing. This is a point where the film could have separated itself from the samurai epics of old – with over-the-top action and bloodletting on the level of Kill Bill.

Instead, Miike restrains himself and, in a way, neuters the film and makes it another typical samurai film. Paying homage to some of the greatest films ever isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, there wasn’t much to appreciate that hasn’t been done before (and better) in the past.

The film is beautifully shot, well-acted and filled with wonderfully choreographed action sequences – though I’m left wanting more. For all intents and purposes, the film could be a remake of ”Seven Samurai”, albeit more violent and absurd. I would definitely recommend this film as a guilty pleasure, but if you’re looking for a true masterwork, you don’t have to look much further than Kurosawa.

3/5 Stars

Paul

The tag-team of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (”Hot Fuzz”, ”Shaun of the Dead”) join forces with director Greg Mottola (”Superbad”, ”Adventureland”) to bring you ”Paul”, an epic adventure one million light years in the making.

For the past 60 years, an extra-terrestrial named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) has been hanging out at a top-secret military base. When Paul discovers his services are no longer needed by the federal government, the intergalactic smart ass escapes Area 51 and catches a ride out of town with Graeme (Pegg) and Clive (Frost), two sci-fi geeks on a pilgrimage to America’s UFO heartland.

If ”Shaun of the Dead” was a tribute to the Zombie genre, and ”Hot Fuzz” an ode to the balls-out buddy cop action flick, then ”Paul” is most certainly a love letter to Steven Spielberg. The film is filled with references from ”E.T”., ”Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”, and even ”Duel”.

While the script is filled with inside geek-cred references about ”Star Wars”, ”Star Trek”, ”Aliens” and even ”Mac and Me” (yes, that”Mac and Me”), Mottola’s direction is packed with references to Spielberg’s earlier work, including shooting stars and ”Duel”-inspired car chases and camera angles.

Personally, I really enjoyed ”Paul” – but that’s probably because I got every single reference Clive and Graeme made. I can imagine less geeky audiences will be left out on the fun at times, left to rely on Rogen’s titular character, who manages to be a completely cynical smart ass and yet warm and endearing to his friends and the audience.

It’s a cute little film. I won’t say it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, nor would I say it’s the best Mottola or the dynamic duo of Pegg and Frost have produced thus far, but it’s a worthy entry into the annals of geek cinema. It’s popcorn fun – pure entertainment, and while not as sharp-witted and concise as ”Superbad” or ”Shaun of the Dead”, ”Paul” is light years ahead of the competition.

I mean seriously, what are you going to watch – ”Mars Needs Moms”? I don’t think so.

Bottom Line: A great cast and an entertaining story filled with little obscure references for die-hard sci-fi nerds and Roswell aficionados to dissect and enjoy. I can’t help but wonder, however, how much better this film may have been with Edgar Wright at the wheel of an RV, barreling down the highway to Area 51.

3.5 Stars

Bridesmaids

Directed by Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow, ”Bridesmaids” centers around Annie (Kristen Wiig) and her experiences as a Maid of Honor in Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) wedding. Seriously, maybe one of the funniest films I’ve seen in the past 10 years. Judd Apatow’s brand of comedy is so recognizable, that it’s practically its own sub-genre at this point, and Bridesmaids is by far the funniest film cut from the Apatow cloth thus far.

Written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo, the film’s cast is comprised of a who’s who of funny females, including Wiig, Rudolph, Ellie Kemper (”The Office”), Melissa McCarthy (”Mike & Molly”) and Wendi McLendon-Covey (”Reno 911!”). The film is raunchy and over-the-top absurd – at one point the girls go to try on dresses after eating at a Mexican restaurant (where they all got food poisoning) – the result is a vile ballet of projectile vomiting, diarrhea and an unfortunate scene in which Maya Rudolph’s character craps her dress in the middle of the street, evoking the memorable moment in Platoon when Sgt. Elias is gunned down.

Relentlessly entertaining and hilarious, ”Bridesmaids” is destined to be a hit. I’m sure it will be marketed as a combination of ”The Hangover” and ”Sex in the City”, but the truth is, it’s one of the most genuinely funny films to hit theaters in a long time. Wiig takes her first leading role and knocks it out of the park. Melisa McCarthy deserves praise as well, as she steals the show in every single scene she shows up in.

We were told we were watching a “Work in Progress” cut of the film, however, director Paul Feig confirmed that it was basically finished with the exception of some audio mixing and color correction. The film runs long for a comedy (clocking in at a little over two hours) but I never once felt that the film was dragging – though I imagine they may make some cuts for time (or if there’s a rating concern). I can’t wait to see it again.

4.5 Stars

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Filmmaker Rodman Flender followed Conan O’Brien on his “Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour” and returned with an intimate portrait of an artist trained in improvisation, captured at the most improvisational time of his career.

After a much-publicized separation with NBC and ”The Tonight Show”, Conan O’Brien hit the road on a 32-City tour to connect with his fans and simultaneously fill a void within himself. Within 24 hours of the premiere, the film landed a multi-platform distribution deal with Abramorama, Magnolia Home Entertainment and AT&T’s U-verse subscription TV service.

The documentary will first broadcast in an exclusive window on U-verse, then launch into a nationwide “event” screening tour via Abramorama. Magnolia will handle both VOD and DVD distribution. A specific release date has not yet been announced, though one would imagine it’s fast-tracked for release after such an astounding world premiere at SxSW.

While the documentary focuses on Conan, the supporting cast of producers and assistants really steal the show – giving you an intense look at what it’s like to work with the enigmatic television talk show host – and how impossible it is to know if you’re talking to a real person or a character, improvising and zinging everyone in his path.

One particularly hilarious moment involves a surprise appearance by Jack McBrayer (Kenneth from 30 Rock) where Conan calls him a barefoot hick from Georgia for roughly 15 minutes, with a musical accompaniment on piano. Throughout the film you’ll see cameos from Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jim Carrey to Jack White and Eddie Vedder – and the many sides of Conan in the process.

Often times he’s angry and bitter, other times he’s brilliant and genuinely sincere – but he’s always entertaining, and never do you get the sense that this man doesn’t care – if anything, he is passionate about his career. At one point he admits he doesn’t feel alive unless he’s in front of an audience – and with that, ”Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” is a record of Conan as a living, breathing entertainer.

Aside from ”Bridesmaids”, ”Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop” was the most entertaining and well-received film I saw at SxSW. I can’t wait for the rest of the world to see and appreciate Rodman Flender’s film. Seeing this film at the Paramount Theater with 1200 people doubling over in laughter has cemented Flender’s documentary in my mind as a definitive movie-going experience.

4 Stars


Pictures and additional content courtesy of Mike D’Avria and Tim Grant

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