SXSW 2011: Super

Making an irreverent superhero movie in a post “Kick-Ass” world is a risky undertaking, although not a completely futile one. While Matthew Vaughn set the bar pretty high, and the comparisons are inevitable for any film that follows in its footsteps, it’s not the definitive superhero comedy by any stretch. Unfortunately, James Gunn’s “Super” squanders the chance to one-up “Kick-Ass” by wasting so much energy overcoming its own self-inflicted problems to ever be better than mediocre. There’s a lot of wasted potential on display, but thanks to a hilariously unhinged performance from Ellen Page, “Super” manages to rise above its drastically uneven tone to deliver an amusing, if admittedly flawed, superhero black comedy.

Rainn Wilson stars as Frank D’Arbo, a pathetic sad-sack who confesses in the opening minutes of the film that he’s only had two good things ever happen in his life: marrying recovering drug addict Sarah (Liv Tyler) and assisting the police in the arrest of a bank robber. So when his wife leaves him for a sleazy drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon), Frank becomes an emotional wreck and turns to God for advice on what to do next. After he has a religious epiphany about devoting his life to fighting evil, Frank starts cleaning up the streets as the vigilante alter ego, Crimson Bolt, armed only with a wrench. But when Jacques uncovers his secret identity and puts a bounty on his head, Frank must team up with a quirky comic book store clerk named Libby (Page) to take the fight to the bad guys and rescue Sarah.

super

Fans of Gunn’s previous work will be ecstatic to see so many familiar faces populating the film, including Michael Rooker as Jacques’ right-hand man, Gregg Henry as a police detective hot on the Crimson Bolt’s trail, and even Gunn himself. But the best cameo has to be Nathan Fillion, who appears as a religious superhero TV character called the Holy Avenger in an obscure but comical reference to “Bible Man.” Fillion doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but his character nonetheless plays a pivotal role in the influence that faith has on Frank’s decision to fight crime. Kevin Bacon also has lots of fun hamming it up as the slimy drug dealer, and Rainn Wilson shows genuine flashes of emotion in the lead role, but “Super” simply wouldn’t be as much fun without Ellen Page’s off-the-wall performance – especially when she’s running around the city as the Crimson Bolt’s sidekick, Boltie, who finds a slightly disturbing joy in all the violence.

But while “Super” makes the most of its edgy premise at times, it suffers from an inconsistent tone that bounces between a serious drama, a dark comedy, and a goofy B-movie in the spirit of Gunn’s Troma films. He doesn’t seem to know what kind of film he wants to make, so he’s just thrown elements of all three into the pot and stirred with reckless abandon. It’s also sluggishly paced and poorly written in some areas, with Gunn’s script reading more like the fantasies of a horny teenage comic book geek than the guy behind “Slither” and “Dawn of the Dead.” Still, even with all of its flaws (of which there are plenty), “Super” has enough going for it that fans of the genre will eat it up.

  

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RIP George Hickenlooper (updated)

I was hoping to be able to post something silly and Halloween-themed this morning, but a very sad reality got in the way with the passing yesterday of a really good filmmaker, much too young. The news, which I learned via The Playlist, was broken by the Denver Post.

Best known for two outstanding, possibly great, documentaries “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” codirected with Fax Bahr, and “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” as well as for directing the original short film with Billy Bob Thornton that formed the basis for “Sling Blade,” the prolific independent director George Hickenlooper apparently died in his sleep in his Denver hotel room. He was there getting ready to promote his latest foray into dramatic feature filmmaking, “Casino Jack” starring Kevin Spacey as jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff, at a film festival in the city where his cousin, John Hickenlooper is the mayor. The two cousins had only met for the first time in 1991 when he came to the city to promote “Hearts of Darkness.” The mayor became the focus of Hickenlooper’s film about the 2008 Democratic convention, “‘Hick’ Town.” He was 47.

I never got to meet Mr. Hickenlooper, who had better luck with documentaries than dramatic films, but I had brushes with friends-of-friends  over the years. He was part of a group of St. Louis-bred creatives that also includes writer-director James Gunn (“Slither“). It’s pretty clear this is a huge shock to everyone and my sincere condolences to everyone.

Below are some brief moments from Hickenlooper’s signature films.

UPDATE: As usual in these situations, David Hudson at MUBI has more.

  

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A Chat with Michael Rooker

To my knowledge, the adjective “Rooker-esque” has yet to take off in any significant fashion, but when Michael Rooker calls you and says that he’s in the midst of driving across the country to get to his next job…I don’t know, it just sounds like exactly the sort of thing you’d expect him to be doing. Although he’s played many a crazy mofo in his career as an actor, Rooker still manages to possess the sort of everyman quality that makes it very easy to accept that he’d take a pass on a plane ride in favor of spending a couple of days taking in the scenery on a cross-country drive. Premium Hollywood had the chance to chat with Rooker in conjunction with the release of his latest film, “Atlantis Down,” directed by Max Bartoli, but we also got a bit of insight into his character on AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” learned about his experiences working on “Mallrats,” “Sea of Love,” and “Slither,” and heard him sing the praises of “JFK.”

Bullz-Eye: So how’s the drive going?

Michael Rooker: Actually, quite good. I’m in a little thunderstorm right now, but I’m just fine. I’m about to get back on the road and have a little chat with you.

BE: Where are you right now?

MR: I’m in Texas, near Odessa. I’m on the 20. I was on the 10, but then 10 and 20 split, and I’m heading basically up toward Dallas. Through Odessa and Midland, and then I’ll get into Fort Worth and Dallas.

BE: I told my wife there was something very Rooker-esque about that fact that you were on the road, driving to your next assignment.

MR: (Bursts out laughing) I do this all the time, and it’s kind of crazy, but I just do. My better half is sort of always wondering, “Why don’t you just fly?” But, you know, it’s nice and relaxing. It helps me get ready and prepare for the job, and then afterwards it helps me defrag on the way home.

BE: Sounds like the perfect combo.

MR: So far, so good. It’s worked thus far…and I’ve got about 280 thousand miles on my vehicle to prove it! (Laughs) I think by the end of this trip I’ll have another 10 thousand on it, so it ought to hit 290 thousand.

BE: I’ve got over 150 thousand on my Hyundai Elantra, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen half the things you have.

MR: (Laughs) Still, you guys must do some traveling, huh?

BE: Well, we did a lot more of it before our daughter got here.

MR: For sure, man!

BE: So how did you first get hooked up with “Atlantis Down”? Because I know it’s certainly a labor of love for these guys.

MR: Dude, this was, like, a last-minute phone call…for me, anyway. It was really quick. I was working on a movie, I think it was down in the Wilmington area, and I got the phone call. Then I got the script, and it was kind of cool. But it was really fast. But I just said, “Yeah, you know what, I’m here, I’m on the east coast, and I think I can do it.” I snagged a couple of friends, who read lines with me, and I drove up, did my role all in one day, and came back.

BE: Wow.

MR: (Laughs) It was really quick…and painless, really. It was just a very quick little job that was kind of crazy. I’ve never accomplished my entire role in one day before. It was nuts! I don’t want to do that too often, but it was a crazy experience, and I’m still friends with everyone involved, like Max. Like you said, the whole thing was a labor of love, and I was honored to be a part of it.

BE: Can you speak a little bit about your character in the film without giving too much away?

MR: Well, you know, my guy is… (Hesitates) I’m an alien. I’m an alien being that is having a joyous time playing around with these human creatures, basically. (Laughs) I don’t want to say too much more, so that’s kind of about it, really. I just give ‘em hell. I goof around with their brains and mess around with their thought patterns, what they think they see and what they don’t see. So it’s kind of freaky and weird for them. And, of course, for my character, I obviously didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, so I just went and did it. I learned all the lines real quickly, and then I got there, and Max said, “Ah, forget about the lines. Just say what you would normally say.” And I’m, like, “What?” (Laughs) “Uh, okay, Max, okay…” So, basically, the entire role is improv. We improvised the whole piece. Having the lines as my base, I riffed on them and changed them, thought of new ways to say stuff, used new patterns of putting things together, and…we did it all in one night. It was crazy, dude. Crazy! I still don’t know how the hell we got it…

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