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.

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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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TV in the 2000s: The Decade in Whedonism – 10 Small Screen Masterpieces from Joss Whedon

Like an awful lot of film and TV geeks, and just plain geeks, I’m a pretty big Joss Whedon fan. In fact, my devotion to his unique blend of fantasy and science fiction melodrama, sometimes arch old-school movie-style witty dialogue blended with Marvel comics repartee, strong characterization, and often somewhat silly plots has at times gotten almost embarrassing. A few years back some of my very adult friends were suggesting in concerned tones that I should really marry the man if I love him so much.

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More recently, I thought my fandom was under relative control. But now, I’ve been asked my opinion on the ten best examples of small-screen work in this decade from the creator and guiding force of “Angel,” “Firefly,” the already canceled “Dollhouse,” and, of course, “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” I only have to be thankful for the fact that first four seasons of “Buffy,” which contain most of that show’s greatest episodes, are disqualified because they appeared on TV sets before 2000. We take our mercies where we find them. (And, yes, if you’re about to catch up with these on DVD, there are a fair number of spoilers below for the various series, though I’ve tried to keep a few secrets.) One word of warning: my relative ranking of these shows is a matter of mood and borders on the random. In other words — don’t hold me to these choices!

Out of competition:

BTVS, “The Body” (“Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) – This episode usually ranks extremely high when people make these kind of lists. Entertainment Weekly named it as pretty much the best thing Joss Whedon has ever done and maybe the best TV thing ever. The truth of the matter is that, yes, the episode where Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Geller) discovers the already cold body of her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland, a wonderful asset to the show for the five previous years), dead from an entirely natural brain tumor, was probably one of the most remarkable episodes of television ever shown, and probably the only thing I’ve seen that comes close to capturing the essence of what it feels like when someone dies unexpectedly. The problem was, I didn’t find it depressing; I found it real. I didn’t feel any more like repeating the experience than I would the death of an actual loved one.

Whedon – who wrote and directed the episode himself – deserves all the credit in the world for the brave choices he made, including shooting the episode in close to “real time” and not using any music. If I have one complaint with Whedon, it’s his tendency to close emotional episodes with, dare I say it, somewhat drippy montages. His choice to eliminate music from the kind of “very special” show where other creators would lay in with three or four montages of Joyce frolicking in the woods or what have you, shows Whedon is, at heart, an outstanding filmmaker. I’ve never had a problem with his much-noted tendency to kill off sympathetic and/or popular characters. It might anger some fans, but especially if you’re dealing with inherently violent material, there’s something morally wrong about not dealing with the fact that good people are just as mortal as bad people. Still, I don’t enjoy watching this episode. If this were a movie, maybe I’d be more in awe or eager for profundity. However, if I’m going to be honest, I can’t call “The Body” a favorite and I can’t be sure it’s one of the “best.”

#10, Shiny Happy People (“Angel”) – Fans of the spin-off about Buffy’s ex, the vampire-with-a-soul detective (David Boreanaz), and various assembled demon-hunters and occasionally friendly demons, will be scratching their heads at this choice. It’s an unpopular episode from a widely and justly derided storyline involving a very weird affair between Angel’s unbalanced super-powered teenage son from another dimension, Connor (Vincent Kartheiser, now of “Mad Men“), and a suddenly evil Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), a former high school mean girl turned lovably complex grown-up foil for her vampire boss. And, yeah, it was a little freaky for Cordy to give birth to a fully grown creature called Jasmine.

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However, as played by the wondrous Gina Torres of the then recently-canceled “Firefly,” Jasmine was freaky in a good way. A being whose god-like ability to create an instant sense of peace, happiness, and complete obedience, is somewhat set off by the fact that she’s actually a deformed and decaying, if not entirely evil, monster who must consume people to live, she was every charismatic leader and every great screen beauty rolled into one monstrous ball. More than anything else, “Shiny Happy People” reminded me of Don Siegel’s 1956 film verson of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” It was another believable demonstration of how we humans are only too willing to surrender our our humanity to the first apparently completely beauteous and 100% wise being who comes along. You know, like Oprah, only less powerful.

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Greetings to the New Show: “Castle”

Nathan Fillion is one of those actors who just about everyone loves. There are exceptions to this, I’m sure, since nobody is universally adored, but based on my experience, girls tend to think he’s hot, most guys think he’s pretty cool, both genders think he’s funny, and just about everyone can imagine having a drink with the guy. That’s why we hate it when he ends up on a show that deserves to succeed but doesn’t (“Firefly,” “Drive”) or, worse, find himself within a series that isn’t nearly as good as he deserves…like, say, “Castle.”

Given that the guy’s coming off a relatively successful stint on “Desperate Housewives” as well as a phenomenal re-teaming with Joss Whedon (“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”), you’d think that Fillion would be looking for the best of all possible projects, in order to build on his career momentum. Unfortunately, there’s just no way “Castle” is going to be that project.

Brought to you by Andrew W. Marlowe, a man responsible for writing flicks like “Air Force One,” “End of Days,” and “Hollow Man,” the premise of “Castle” sounds like something that would’ve emerged during the 1980s. Famous mystery novelist Richard Castle (Fillion) is called in to help the NYPD solve a copycat murder based on his novels, and after teaming up with attractive young detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), he decides to write a new series of novels using her as the basis of the lead character…and given that he’s friends with the mayor, it’s easy for him to pull a few strings and be allowed to work alongside Beckett when she’s on a case.

The semi-good news? The premise allows for gimmicky cameos by famous authors such as James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell, both of whom turn up as Castle’s poker-playing cronies in the first episode, and provided you remember that most authors aren’t going to be great actors, it’s a fun idea.

The bad news? Nothing else in “Castle” is nearly as much fun.

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