Video games are the biggest time suck a college student can encounter. Facebook and the demands of maintaining a decent GPA are reason enough to let your consoles collect dust. However, everyone remembers countless afternoons spent button-mashing and guzzling Mountain Dew, and for that crowd, “Wreck-It Ralph” is a healthy dose of nostalgia and a touching, creative work from Disney’s animated branch.
The film’s titular character exists only in a video game called Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), where he’s the Donkey Kong to Felix’s Mario. Ralph (John C. Reilly) decides he’s tired of breaking things and being eternally vanquished, so he decides to head to greener pastures and explore some other video games in the arcade where he lives. However, the consequences prove to be more severe than he anticipated after he brings a monster from a war game into a happy-go-lucky racing game, a move that could get them all removed from the arcade for good.
“Wreck-It Ralph” stands out for its consistent creativity. Every concept is brought to life in an intelligent, funny way, such as a support meeting for video game villains held in the middle of a Pac-Man console, or Game Central Station, a hub of activity where characters can travel between games. The film is packed with small inside jokes for video game fans and creates several distinct worlds, each of them building a different atmosphere and playing with different stakes.
However, the film makes one major blunder. After setting up an entire world of video games for Ralph to visit, the film only gives us a handful of locations. About half the film takes place in Sugar Rush, the racing game Ralph unintentionally infects, and while the game is vibrantly designed and sure to delight anyone with a sweet tooth, it’s a shame to think of all the different locations and gaming genres “Wreck-It Ralph” could have utilized and parodied.
Once Ralph visits Sugar Rush, he develops a relationship with in-game character Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) that’s every bit as sweet as the film’s underwhelming dominant location. Vanellope is trapped in Sugar Rush, unable to race because of a programming error, and she uses an unwitting Ralph to get her back in the action. Silverman does work that’s more sweet and accessible than her usual pixie-voiced obscenity, and she and Reilly manage to build some chemistry and a charming rapport. Although you can see almost every beat in “Wreck-It Ralph” coming from a mile away, the dynamic between Ralph and Vanellope is so well executed that it’s hard not to get involved.
“Wreck-It Ralph” is a surprisingly savvy, entertaining film with an unabashedly sweet, uplifting message and plenty of unexpectedly well-rounded twists on popular video game tropes. The film is nostalgic enough for video game geeks, syrupy enough for those eager for a new Disney princess and colorful and involving enough for kids. It’s a clever film, disappointing in its utilization of its premise, but a crowd-pleaser on every level nonetheless.
Printed on Friday, November 2, 2012 as: Animated Disney film plays up nostalgia, fun
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“We Need to Talk About Kevin”
In theaters Dec. 2011
It’s not often that a real Oscar contender plays at Fantastic Fest, but “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is exactly that, and if isn’t, it sure as hell should be. Director Lynne Ramsey’s challenging gut punch of a film plays almost like a dream for its first half, freely floating through Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) experiences with her son Kevin (Ezra Miller). Something of a free spirit, Eva settles down to start a family with Franklin (John C. Reilly), but hits an unexpected road bump once Kevin is born and she realizes that her son is a malicious, sociopathic little monster.
The film’s opening moments are bathed in red, from the curtains in Eva’s rundown home to the seats at her office to the blood that runs down her face after she’s slapped for reasons the film makes the audience wait to find out. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” takes its time arriving at its disturbing climax, and paints a detailed picture of Kevin’s life, with clever edits bridging various moments, all of them underscoring Kevin’s ruthless manipulation of his parents, even as a prepubescent child.
Tilda Swinton gives perhaps the best performance yet of Fantastic Fest, playing a mother torn between her biological duty to her son and her gut instinct to get far, far away from this abomination she’s created with expert restraint and fear. Swinton deserves endless accolades for her work here, and co-stars John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller both rise admirably to her challenge.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a very hard film to shake, and goes to some very dark places in smart, restrained ways, making its unsettling material feel plausible and terrifying rather than exploitative.
“The Devil’s Business”
Screens Sept. 28 at 3:15 p.m.
Sean Hogan, writer and director of “The Devil’s Business,” came to Austin with horror anthology “Little Deaths” earlier this year during SXSW. His segment of “Little Deaths,” which depicted a young couple kidnapping a homeless girl before she reveals herself to be something much more dangerous than they expected, was the best of the film, a scary, stomach-churning short story that parceled out its revelations in very deliberate and intelligent ways. “The Devil’s Business” is very much in the same vein, a hitman drama starring Jack Gordon as Cully, a first-time assassin uncertain about his career choice and Billy Clarke as Pinner, a veteran sent along to make sure he doesn’t bundle the hit.
Over its brisk 75-minute runtime, “The Devil’s Business” lets us get to know Cully and Pinner, and their interplay in the film’s opening scenes is funny and well-written, especially a lengthy, hypnotizing monologue Pinner delivers early in the film. Cully’s nervousness only increases once they find a Satanic sacrifice in a shed in their target’s backyard, and the job spirals into oblivion from there.
At its heart, “The Devil’s Business” is a long series of conversations, doling out nice doses of philosophy about the morality of killing and the meaning of life amongst its hard-boiled dialogue and clever turns of phrase. Like Hogan’s segment in “Little Deaths,” the film is smart in how it reveals its various twists and turns, and Hogan’s direction is understated and confident, scary when it needs to be and restrained at all the right moments.
“The Devil’s Business” is a fun distraction, a short trifle in a long day of films, but it’s also a well-observed character piece with an entertaining supernatural bent. It’s by no means the best film at Fantastic Fest, but it’s certainly worth a viewing.
Director: Adam Wingard
No additional screenings
Fresh out of its premiere at the Toronto International Film Fest, “You’re Next” played to a rapturous crowd last night at Fantastic Fest. The home invasion genre has always been rather commonplace at the festival, and director Adam Wingard was at the fest last year with “A Horrible Way To Die,” which won well-deserved awards.
“You’re Next” opens with a bitter little tease, killing off a couple living in an remote estate before moving onto the main attraction, a family reunion stocked with a who’s who of modern indie horror. The cast includes the likes of AJ Bowen, Amy Seimetz, Ti West (whose “The Innkeepers” is also playing the festival), Joe Swanberg, and legendary horror icon Barbara Crampton.
Bowen’s Crispian warns his girlfriend Erin (Sharni Vinson) that tensions often flare up when his family gets together, and just as tempers are starting to boil over at the dinner table, an arrow crashes through the window and the family starts shedding members with startling quickness.
“You’re Next” moves very quickly and kills off its characters even quicker (and in fairly unpredictable order). While a few of its characters act too stupidly to be human beings, “You’re Next” is mostly intelligently written, with a real eye for subverting the audience’s expectations. When one of the guests makes it clear they have no intention of rolling over and dying, the film moves onto the next level, doling out satisfying kills and plot twists at perfect intervals.
Director Adam Wingard juggles a lot of balls with obvious ease. Even amidst the brutality and bloodshed, the film manages to work in a few pitch-black punchlines, and Wingard makes the shifts in tone work very well. He also gives almost every member of the ensemble a great moment, but the film’s clear star is Sharni Vinson’s Erin, a smart twist on the traditional horror film’s protagonist and a noteworthy, thoroughly badass character that earned lots of cheers from last’s night audience. Although the film ends on a bitter, unearned note, 30 false seconds in an otherwise near-impeccable film is not nearly enough to derail things.
“You’re Next” probably won’t be in theaters for a year or so, and it’s a real shame. The film is legitimately scary, plays out in unexpected ways, and never cheats the audience, which puts it above most American horror films of the year instantly, and makes it the best film of Fantastic Fest thus far.
Tilda Swinton has a tough day in We Need to Talk About Kevin. (Photo courtesy of BBC Films)
The evil-little-boy genre is a tried and true offshoot of horror cinema, and films like “The Omen” are classics for a reason. However, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a much more plausible and disturbing film. There are no supernatural forces at work here and no demonic emblems, just a malicious little monster of a boy and the mother caught firmly in his crosshairs.
The mother in question is Eva (Tilda Swinton), a free spirit who reluctantly settled down with Franklin (John C. Reilly) to start a family. The film floats freely through Eva’s experiences with her first child, Kevin (Ezra Miller), beginning with her living alone in a dilapidated house and slowly revealing the details of her agonizing descent to rock bottom.
Before “Kevin,” Lynne Ramsay hadn’t made a film in nine years. Thankfully, her hiatus did nothing to dilute her talent. “Kevin” is a challenging, disturbing gut-punch of a film, filled with nightmarish sequences and smart, subtle performances. Ramsay moves deliberately through Eva’s life, slowly parceling out information about Kevin’s horrific actions even as she draws parallels between the two. While a few of her villain’s creepier moments are a bit too much (particularly a scene where an adolescent Kevin shouts “Die! Die!” at a TV as he plays videogames), Ramsay mostly operates with admirable restraint, telegraphing where the film is going rather clearly, but holding enough back to make the hard-hitting final moments land with maximum impact.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” would flounder if the actress portraying Eva was unconvincingly brittle, or if the various actors portraying Kevin were cartoonishly evil, but “Kevin” is expertly cast and acted. Swinton gives the best performance of here, delivering a tour de force as a mother with no maternal instincts, torn between her biological obligation to and growing rivalry with her son, and Swinton sells every bit of her conflicted character. Swinton’s performance is filled with subtle moments, such as the pure exasperation on her face as an infant Kevin sobs relentlessly or the disappointment in her eyes as Kevin finds another way to break her down, but each moment adds to a larger picture of a bewildered, incorrigibly stubborn woman locked in battle with her own offspring.
Kevin is played by three different actors at different stages of his adolescence, and Ramsay found three uncannily similar actors to portray her titular monster. Miller takes on the bulk of the role as a teenage Kevin, and his expert manipulation of his parents makes for a chilling, memorable role for the young actor. Meanwhile, younger versions of the character, played by Jasper Newell and Rock Duer, are suitably menacing. The film’s sparse supporting cast is rounded by Reilly, whose fatherly cluelessness is offset by Reilly’s inherent likability, making the film’s finale all the more tragic.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a stylistic marvel thanks to Ramsay’s bold color scheme and dreamy (or is it nightmarish?) direction. But the elegant, harrowing duet between Swinton and Miller is the real triumph here. Even when “Kevin” is terrifying, it’s impossible to look away from these intense performances as Ramsey’s film slowly sinks its hooks into you and then refuses to let go long after the credits have rolled.
Printed on Friday, February 3, 2012 as: 'Kevin' delivers chills, horror
Terri (Jacob Wysocki) and Vice Principal Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) share a bonding moment in indie film Terri. Directed by Azazel Jacobs, the film makes its debut in Austin today.
Director Azazel Jacobs’ “Terri” is a coming-of-age story, but not quite the one you might expect.
There’s not much of a narrative arc as the film simply details the day-to-day existence of the overweight, downright odd Terri (Jacob Wysocki). Terri wears pajamas to school every day and rarely utters a word until Vice Principal Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) takes him under his wing. From here, the film takes off, integrating Terri into a loose social circle of so-called friends and alternating between sequences that are deeply humiliating and emphatically humanizing.
Wysocki carries the film on his shoulders, managing to avoid the uneven acting that can derail coming-of-age stories with his quiet, assured performance. His performance is utterly devoid of fear or self-consciousness, even when Terri is wracked with both. Reilly also impresses as Fitzgerald, whose constantly shifting motivations and attitude keep the audience guessing, even as his charming, genuine performance in making friends with Terri feel organic and sweet.
However, Reilly is off-screen for the film’s most memorable scene — a lengthy evening Terri and two friends spend drinking in the shed behind his house. It’s the film’s centerpiece, and performers Wysocki, Olivia Crocicchia, and Bridger Zadina step up to unravel an ambitious, suspenseful and often hilarious sequence as the evening twists and turns.
While the narrative falls short of satisfying, there’s still too much to like in the film to discount it entirely. From Wysocki and Reilly’s easy, funny interplay to the squirm-worthy shed scene, “Terri” is a major departure from the traditional coming-of-age film even as it manages to work in many of the cornerstones of the genre in subtle, effective ways.
Azazel Jacobs new coming of age film Terri will be released in Austin today.
“Terri” is director Azazel Jacobs’ sixth feature film; a minimalistic coming-of-age story starring Jacob Wysocki as the overweight, pajama-wearing teen. The film premiered at Sundance in January, and was picked up by ATO Pictures, who are releasing the film in Austin today. The Daily Texan interviewed director Azazel Jacobs at this year’s South By Southwest film festival.
Daily Texan: How did you feel about working in the coming-of-age genre?
Azazel Jacobs: A lot of those movies had a big influence on me, and I wanted to try to be a part of that. There’s no way of not touching on things that have already been done. If anything, with the idea of using [those films] as references, I try my best to keep on thinking, ‘Okay, if I’m gonna talk about this, let’s really talk about it.’
DT: How did you decide on Jacob Wysocki for the role of Terri?
AJ: I wound up seeing a few different people that all could have been different Terris. But I felt what Jacob had was this humor and this confidence that is really difficult to get. To have things stacked against you in that way, and still be confident — that’s what I wanted Terri to be.
DT: How did you direct some of the more raw, potentially embarrassing (for the actors) scenes in the film?
AJ: Most of my job directing is to create a very comfortable situation, so as uncomfortable as it is on camera, I balance it out. At this point, I’m shooting with a lot of the same crew that I’ve been working with forever. It’s a good group of people, and they aren’t there to judge. They’re there to make something they care about. And I think that has a big effect on the actors, and they start feeling as if we’re going to do something here.
DT: Can you talk about the development of John C. Reilly’s character?
AJ: What I love about what John does as the principal is this front he has, and we start revealing that there’s something inside of that. I love that he’s able to do bad acting when [Fitzgerald] is lying about things and skewing the truth, on top of good acting. I think that it turns out that he ends up needing Terri as much as Terri needs him.
DT: What was it like directing the lengthy, awkward, yet fascinating climactic scene where Terri and a few other characters are in an uncomfortable situation in a shed behind his house?
AJ: I knew it was going to be the whole heart of this piece. We were able to get to the end, where we had pretty much shot everything else except that. [The shed] was too small, so we had the kids in there, and everyone else was outside. It really felt as if we were kind of insulated in the world at that moment. I wanted to be sensitive to the fact that there are kids that do this that don’t wake up the next day. I felt the weight of what we’re talking about. I wanted it to have a weight that I felt was necessary to respect it. So that it wasn’t just like, okay now, party time explosion!
In the 2009 box office giant “The Hangover,” Ed Helms (along with every other principal cast member) suddenly became a household name, and, like his “Hangover” co-stars, his next few projects have essentially been twists on the persona established in that movie. However, “Cedar Rapids” is smart in its use of Helms, taking what made him funny in “The Hangover” while making sure to invent a new character to go along with it.
Helms plays Tim Lippe, an insurance salesman who has never left his Wisconsin hometown until his firm’s star agent dies in a hilariously raunchy fashion, leaving Tim as the only candidate to attend a major insurance convention in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s shouldered with the responsibility of continuing the firm’s tradition of winning the convention’s prestigious Two Diamonds award. Tim seems to be doing fine, until he befriends Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), a recently divorced party animal who wastes no time in getting Tim into all kinds of alcohol-fueled trouble.
“Cedar Rapids” seems slightly dead in the water for most of its opening sequences, as it sets up the plot and introduces its cast, which includes Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s laid-back Ronald and Anne Heche’s Joan. In these opening scenes, Helms’ pervasive awkwardness is played as too over-the-top to be truly funny. Once his character begins to loosen up and have some fun, the film does the same. Many of its best moments feature the four main characters bonding or engaging in drunken antics, such as a late-night dip in the hotel’s pool that gives Reilly his funniest scene.
As far as the cast goes, there’s not a weak link. Helms’ boundless enthusiasm never gets old, but the film’s final act lets him show off some impressive dramatic chops as well. Reilly plays his typical boisterous man-child here but continues to make his characters hilariously watchable..
Rounding out the supporting cast is Whitlock, who brings a low-key wittiness to his scenes and makes a few hilarious references that should have fans of his character in “The Wire” rolling with laughter. Anne Heche is uncharacteristically likable as Tim’s love interest, playing a character that feels like a grown-up version of the hipster dream girl that’s populated many a coming-of-age story.
Despite a weak start, “Cedar Rapids” steadily becomes funnier and more interesting. The story is pleasantly unpredictable, with things getting a bit darker than one would expect, but the film stays warm and endearing at its center.
“Cedar Rapids” isn’t the kind of movie that’s remembered during awards season. In fact, it will probably be forgotten by summer. Nonetheless, it’s a sweet, funny film with a few great performances, characters and a pleasant, under-the-radar surprise that’s absolutely worth checking out.