Most of the week, I have what passes for a life in San Antonio to attend to, but does that mean I'll leave you, the loyal AV Club reader attentive enough to notice the South By Southwest sidebar, hanging? Hell no, it does not mean that. It does not mean even a little that. I will jet up to Austin when I can, and when I can't, well, that's why God created screeners. My living room may not have the energy or the bill of fare of the Alamo Drafthouse, but it has a better selection of liquor, and the chances of Harry Knowles showing up are practically nil. So let's get on to today's viewing.
Say My Name is first in line, and it's one I've been looking forward to for quite some time. Hip-hop is all growed up now — it's got a good thirty years of action under its belt, and that means the ladies should have their say by now. But the rap world is still widely perceived as a man's man's world, with rampant misogyny in both the lyrics and the life. The bitch-and-ho paradigm still largely holds sway, and pimp and player anthems still dominate the charts. The ladies are largely expected to be in the club to peel for the gents, not to grab the mic and represent. Say My Name is a compelling documentary on women in hip-hop by the Dutch multimedia artist and filmmaker Nirit Peled, in which a diverse array of female rappers, DJs and R&B performers — hailing from the Bronx, Britain, and Europe — frankly discuss the expectations, tribulations and experiences of gender, sexuality, and race in a musical genre where machismo is the cheapest available fuel.
Peled gets props right off the bat for the sheer weight of diversity at play in her film; there are interviews with everyone from big stars (Jean Grae and Erykah Badu) to veteran performers (Estelle and Remy Ma) to brash newcomers (Invincible and Choc Thai). European, British, and American voices are heard; issues like lesbianism, sexism, abuse, and unequal opportinity are all given a chance to be examined, as are rarely-discussed aspects of the scene like the influence of white fans and performers, and the bizarrely taboo subject of class. But while there's no question this film is driven by a cause and a easily detectable sociopolitical stance, it's very rarely didactic and never plodding or obvious.
Part of the reason for this is that, Peled's skill as a director and interviewer aside, she has such a terrific cast of characters to work with. No one who steps in front of her camera is shy about speaking to the realities of being a female rapper, from the threat of violence to the shadow of sexual abuse to the simple economic realities of having to hustle twice as hard to make half as much money. But what really illuminates the film, and makes it a joy to watch in its best moments, is the pure enthusiasm and energy these women have for performing. They know they have a hard road ahead of them, and many of them have precious few illusions about where that road will eventually take them, but everyone in Say My Name straight-up loves what they do, and any time they're shown performing, there are no doubts about why they stay in the game. Thankfully, Peled gives plenty of screen time to performances, and the soundtrack is stone solid.
Jody Hill's Observe and Report is likely the only children-of-Apatow boffo comedy I'll get a chance to see at this year's South By Southwest, but having done so, I think I probably chose the best of them. Seth Rogen — in a much more self-serious, or, to put it another way, utterly delusional, mode than he normally displays — is Ronnie Barnhardt, the director of security at a big suburban mall who's just waiting for something dreadful to happen to justify his own deranged sense of self-importance. When a parking lot flasher shows his goods to a makeup girl he's got a crush on, he sees his opportunity and he takes it, in the most grotesque possible way: he takes a minor criminal act and implies that it's only the beginning of a nightmare descent into sexual assault and murder, and only he can save the day.
While a number of the jokes are predictable or flat, and there's nothing particularly original going on anywhere, the gags that land manage to land hard. Still, it's the performances that save the day here, not Hill's writing or direction, which has been sharper elsewhere. Rogen veers away from his usual self-aware slacker persona and into the head of a guy who utterly, and inexplicably, believes in himself. His sometimes-hilarious internal monologues read like the language of Travis Bickle coming out of the mouth of Peter Boyle's "Wizard". Beyond that, Anna Faris as crass counter-girl Brandi is an utter delight; I've never had occasion before to see why so many people are enamored of her comic gifts, but it's crystal-clear in Observe and Report, where she steals every scene she's in. Ray Liotta is swell as a frustrated cop, and Danny McBride (of Hill's first feature, The Foot Fist Way) has a nice cameo, but the two leads are so perfect in their roles — Rogen by stretching to fit what's a new style of comedy for him, and Faris doing what she does best — that they barely seem to register.
The overall feel of Observe and Report — which becomes even more explicit when Rogen decides to pursue a career as a real police — is the currently voguish tightrope-dance between funny-sad and funny-humiliating. It's been done better elsewhere, and even where it succeeds, it may turn off those who expect more easygoing humor from Seth Rogen. But it's definitely worth a glance to see him taking an unexpected turn, and he holds up his end of the job even when the direction and screenplay don't.
That's it for now, but check back almost immediately as I head back home for a long nap, after which I try to remember which movies you wanted me to watch. Hit 'refresh' and you may be the lucky winner of a movie review by someone you've never heard of!