Joel Murray

(Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Genre: Comedy
Runtime: 105 minutes

Few films can call themselves important, and most films that try to earn that title are insufferable. However, “God Bless America” is an important film. It’s a passionate, energetic, deeply felt critique of American society, and it’s filled with anger and regret. After viewing it at this year’s South By Southwest festival, I proclaimed it the best film of the year. While time will tell if it keeps its title, I’ll be surprised if I see a film this year with such an essential, intelligently stated message.

With 2009’s “World’s Greatest Dad,” director Bobcat Goldthwait used teen suicide to show society’s ugliest tendencies. Here Joel Murray stars as his mouthpiece, the blunt instrument Goldthwait uses to deliver rants about everything he thinks is wrong during “God Bless America’s” most rousing moments. Murray plays Frank, a perfectly pathetic yet sympathetic hero. Frank is divorced, estranged from his daughter, newly unemployed, and when he’s hit with a terminal cancer diagnosis, Frank puts a gun in his mouth. However, a well-timed episode of a show styled after MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16” convinces him that its star deserves to die far more than he. From there, Frank and teenage accomplice Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) embark on a cross-country killing spree of society’s most repellent figures.

Murray’s impassioned rants, full of razor-sharp insights into human behavior, are easily his best moments of the film. But Frank is never just a soapbox for Goldthwait to stand on. Murray’s work here comes from a wounded, soulful place, and he gives Frank a self-righteous anger at how much the world has changed and how little good is left in it. Just as great is Barr in her first major screen role. Barr’s character could have easily fallen into the stereotype of wiser-than-her-years teenager, but her performance is full of confidence, self-awareness and a dangerous edge that makes her Roxy a bit unpredictable. Murray and Barr have wonderful chemistry, and while the film isn’t afraid to comment on the oddness of their pairing, their relationship has a sweetness and delicacy that’s endearing.

Goldthwait does a great job setting the table for Frank’s killing spree, and he makes sure to establish that “God Bless America” takes place in a world just a bit more extreme, a reality slightly more nutty than our own. In Goldthwait’s eyes, our country is a sinking ship, our entertainment full of ugliness and vitriol, and it’s hard not to slowly come around to his point of view as he takes precise, measured aim at some very specific targets to hilarious effect. While the film can occasionally lapse into clumsiness, Goldthwait’s anger at society is infectious, and there are enough memorable moments and wickedly funny jokes to keep things moving quickly.

“God Bless America” holds a mirror up to pop culture, reality television and genuine human ugliness, and there’s a lot of vicarious satisfaction to be gained from Goldthwait’s unflinching condemnation of American society. But the film is also worth watching for Murray’s measured, soulful performance, Barr’s petulant performance or Goldthwait’s script that’s just as interested in making you laugh as it is making you think. The film is one of the highlights of the year so far, a film that should be viewed simply because it gets so much right in its attack on everything that’s wrong.

'The Cabin In The Woods' writer Joss Whedon stands outside the Paramount Theater during the SXSW Film Festival and Conference in Austin, Texas on Saturday, March 10, 2012.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

Cabin in the Woods
Directed by: Drew Goddard

“Cabin in the Woods” was the opening night film at SXSW last night, and there’s only one thing you should know going in. Know nothing. Avoid the trailers, avoid plot details, but go see it when it releases on April 13. We’ll have a longer review then, but for now, suffice to say “Cabin in the Woods” manages to make the most clichéd scenario in the book fresh and engaging, and watching the film chart its course towards its certifiably insane conclusion is an absolute delight.

Fat Kid Rules the World
Directed by: Matthew Lillard

It’s hard to imagine cinematic goofball Matthew Lillard on the other side of the camera, and his choice to adapt K.L. Going’s frank young adult novel for his debut is an interesting concept. “Terri’s” Jacob Wysocki stars as Troy, an overweight kid with no friends, and Wysocki stands out more and more as an actor who’s unafraid to put himself all the way out there, most comfortable onscreen as characters who feel disgusting in their own skin, and he’s likeable and sympathetic throughout.

When Troy strikes up a friendship with Marcus (Matt O’Leary), a grungy mooch, and the two decide to start a band together, Marcus’ drug problem threatens to derail the whole thing. While this element may seem a bit after-school-special, the film never preaches to its audience, and the script is often quite nuanced and restrained.

The best part of “Fat Kid Rules the World” is Billy Campbell as Troy’s father. Mr. Billings is stern, but he truly loves his sons, and the conflict that plays out between his impulse to get Troy away from Marcus and his desire for his son to have friends is fantastically written and acted. Campbell is truly the anchor of the film, a stabilizing presence and a fundamentally good man.

“Fat Kid Rules the World” is a sharp debut from Lillard, well-paced, wonderfully cast, and with a few memorable visuals.

Additional screenings on Mar. 12 at 6:15 p.m. (Alamo Lamar), and Mar. 17 at 2:00 p.m.(Alamo Lamar).

God Bless America
Directed by: Bobcat Goldthwait

As of this writing, “God Bless America” may be the best film I’ve seen this year. No matter how I end up deciding on that front, it’s certainly the most culturally important film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a film with genuine rage at the state of our country, a scathing indictment of what our culture has become, and writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait has written a screenplay that manages to sum up everything that’s wrong in a way that gets everything right.

With “World’s Greatest Dad,” Goldthwait created a perfectly pathetic yet sympathetic hero, and here, his lead has been pushed all the way to the edge. Frank (Joel Murray) has no wife, no job, a daughter who hates him, a tumor in his brain, and a gun in his mouth when he manages to catch a few minutes of a show styled after MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16.” Deciding to instead kill the star of that show, Frank embarks on a blood-streaked journey across America, bringing along teenaged sociopath and accomplice Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr).

Goldthwait’s scripts have never failed to satisfy, full of razor-sharp insights into what’s wrong with humanity, but “God Bless America” takes it to another level. At Friday night's screening, Goldthwait said that he had “Network” in mind when writing the script, and some of Frank’s monologues made me want to burst into applause with their spot-on critiques of what pop culture has become. But the film isn’t all sermonizing; it’s also a consistently funny, violent film, the blackest of comedies in the best way.

“God Bless America” is a film everyone should see, if only to see Joel Murray’s marvelous performance, or Tara Lynne Barr’s petulant, fascinating work. It’s a brilliant piece of work, a film with a truly pivotal message. If another film inspires this kind of passion in me at this festival, it’ll be a wonderful week indeed. Your have two more chances to see “God Bless America” – on Mar. 16 at 6:30 p.m. (Alamo Ritz), and Mar. 17 at 11:45 p.m. (Alamo Ritz). Don’t miss this one.

Directed by: Paco Plaza

The [REC] franchise has thus far been defined by two things: its found-footage formatting and its setting, a three-story Barcelona apartment building overrun with demonic zombies. “[REC] 3: Genesis” abandons both of these conceits, and ends up being the weakest of the franchise by a long shot.

The first two films were co-directed by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, and the two decided to split up to make the last two films in the series, with Plaza directing this one on his own. “[REC] 3” shines a harsh light on the directorial dynamic that defined the first two films. What made them work so well was their clear sense of geography and claustrophobia, and the constrained setting allowed the directors to economically, ruthlessly up the tension throughout, and if there’s one aspect Plaza completely fails it, it’s scaring his audience. “[REC] 3” is wholly devoid of tension of any sort, and makes it pretty clear that Balaguero was the master of suspense and Plaza knew how to deliver the awe-inspiring zombie kills, which “[REC] 3” is packed with.

“[REC] 3” ditches the apartment building for the sprawling location of a wedding reception, where newlyweds Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martin) find their celebration derailed by an outbreak of flesh-eating chaos. Both of them are more concerned with finding each other than surviving, and this is another aspect of the film that falls short. For this love story to work, you have to feel some sort of investment, and there’s nothing here to convince you that these two really love each other enough to forgo escaping certain death. Once the outbreak occurs, the film’s storylines become increasingly disjointed, only adding to the distance between the audience and the characters.

“[REC] 3’s” smartest choice is abandoning its found-footage format. The transition from found footage to a more traditional style is the most genius stroke in the entire film, and Plaza uses the freedom to stage some wonderfully inventive zombie kills. Chainsaws, maces, and swords all play a part, and no one will say that “[REC] 3” doesn’t deliver on that front.

So it’s a shame that this one was such a disappointment. There are a few good ideas floating around in its screenplay, including a potentially compelling expansion in mythology, but the film is derailed by a lack of tension, uninteresting characters, and an obvious, overwrought score. Even if “[REC] 3” is a letdown, this just makes my anticipation for the Balaguero-directed “[REC] 4: Apocalypse” even higher.

You can see “[REC] 3: Genesis” on Mar. 14 at 11:59 p.m. (Alamo Lamar).