• 'Cheap Thrills' is a total bro movie

    Anyone who enjoyed “The Wolf of Wall Street” will probably get a kick out of “Cheap Thrills,” the new black comedy from director E.L. Katz. Like “Wolf,” “Cheap Thrills” is fixated on the evil men are willing to do for money and, like “Wolf,” the film revels in showing the audience that action. There’s also cocaine. Lots of cocaine. But the biggest likeness between the two films is the absence of any real depth. “Thrills” is a pastiche of meaningless violence and greed masquerading as a message about desperation and human nature.

    “Thrills” follows Craig (Pat Healy), a husband and new father who needs $4,500 to avoid eviction. Though he aspires to be a writer, Craig has instead been working as a mechanic, but gets laid off. He heads to a bar after being fired and runs into Vince, a friend from high school (Ethan Embry). After a few drinks, they’re approached by loud, brash Colin (David Koechner) and his near-silent wife, Violet (Sara Paxton). Colin loves to throw his money around, offering the two friends $200 to get slapped or $500 to start a fight. What follows is a bizarre series of escalating dares through which Craig hopes to earn enough money to resuscitate his life.

    Healy is an unconventional leading man, but he performs admirably, doing his best to sell Craig’s emotional responses to the increasingly ridiculous scenarios. He ably shows the gears turning as his character contemplates just how far he’s willing to go. Embry has a manic quality that serves Vince well, but as the movie goes on, his performance becomes more and more one-note. Koechner is the biggest surprise, mixing his trademark madcap energy with a chillingly effective darkness, and Sara Paxton does January Jones better than Jones herself ever has, consistently exuding icy detachment and control.

    But these capable actors don’t save “Cheap Thrills” from being what it is: a celebration of white straight males and their masculinity. This is a total bro movie from start to finish. I can easily picture groups of guys watching this with the same reactions they would have to any entry in the “Jackass” series. “Thrills” doesn’t seem to know what it is. It’s being marketed as a black comedy, but it’s never funny. Its narrative is framed to make it seem like it’s making a statement, but any possible depth is lost amid a torrent of hypermasculine violence and a screenplay that ranges from adequate to awful. The characters are barely sketched out, and the last twenty minutes are full of ham-fisted attempts to make them seem like real people rather than vehicles for idiotic stunts, which they are.

    Despite what its final scene attempts to suggest, “Cheap Thrills” does no actual exploring of what people will sink to for money. It just shows a series of depraved acts and attempts to tie them together with a failed metaphorical bow. Anyone interested in watching a black comedy about what money does to people would be better served by watching “Fargo,” or even “Trading Places.” “Cheap Thrills” feels exactly like what its title suggests: a collection of motiveless scenes of increasing ridiculousness and a movie that evaporates from the mind as soon as it’s over. People do bad things for money. So what? This territory’s been covered before, and much better.

  • 'Cheap Thrills,' on the other hand

    Just as this year’s SXSW is wrapping up, one of the best films from last year’s festival is finally hitting theaters: “Cheap Thrills,” a film whose relentless, wicked sense of humor won it the Audience Award at last year’s festival. “Cheap Thrills” brings a pitch-black perspective to its story of desperate men coerced to do terrible things for cold, hard cash, and thankfully, time hasn’t made the film any less viscerally horrifying or hilarious.

    The film opens with Craig (Pat Healy) getting a cavalcade of bad news, getting fired just as he learns that he and his family are being evicted from their apartment. Attempting to drown his sorrows in a bar, he runs into old friend Vince (Ethan Embry). As the two catch up, they draw the attention of Violet (Sarah Paxton) and Colin (David Koechner), a couple having a night on the town, which starts to spin out of control Colin starts offering them cash in order to perform depraved acts, ranging from punching the bouncer at a strip club to much, much more nefarious deeds.

    With some creative staging, “Cheap Thrills” could almost be a play, as it has only a handful of speaking roles and takes place mostly in Colin’s extravagant home. Thankfully, the small cast is full of impressive performers bouncing off each other dynamically. Healy has played some despicable characters before (notably in 2011’s “Compliance”), yet he’s effortlessly able to paint Craig as a sympathetic figure. Healy’s got a broken-down charm that makes Craig’s descent feel painful yet earned, but he truly shines in the back half of the film, playing Katz’s demented comedy with perfectly measured desperation and anger. Embry displays a little less range in his role, but he’s very effective as the high school friend that everyone’s glad to outgrow, and brings an acidic hunger to the role.

    Perhaps the most surprising performance of the bunch is David Koechner’s turn as Colin. Koecher’s always had a dark streak that informs the sleaziness of his work, but he tears into Colin with an eagerness and depraved joy that makes the viewer’s skin crawl. Koechner presents even the most horrific challenges with an enthusiastic, matter-of-fact delivery that gives the film some of its biggest laughs. As his co-puppet master, Sara Paxton is a demure little viper, projecting a vapid personality that covers up a chilling viciousness, communicated with a few graceful notes in her performance.

    “Cheap Thrills” is impeccably structured, with Colin and Violet’s challenges lending the film a clean, organic escalation. The script from David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga makes each “dare” its own mini-set piece, and one scene in particular, where Craig attempts to work up the nerve to cut off his pinky finger for a few months’ rent, is grotesquely comedic and beautifully orchestrated. While the film’s plot won’t be winning any awards for originality or unpredictability, there are a few brilliantly timed reveals and smart observations sprinkled in.

    For a film from a first-time director, “Cheap Thrills” is aesthetically accomplished, bathing the characters in neon glows that embody the seediness of their activities. The film’s got an admirable tonal control, always searching for the next dark joke until it decides to get deadly bleak and serious, and its final shot is one for the ages, a perfect encapsulation of everything the film’s trying to say in one stark image.

    “Cheap Thrills” is an assured work, a dark comedy with a gleefully acidic heart that never fails to milk every cringe-worthy moment for every laugh and grimace. Boasting impressive performances from its central quartet and a plot that makes some of the most demented imagery in recent memory feel natural to the story, “Cheap Thrills” is easily the best film opening in Austin this weekend.

    Movie: "Cheap Thrills"
    Director: E.L. Katz
    Genre: Comedy
    Runtime: 88 minutes

  • The saga of the Cronut: Why I waited two hours for a pastry

    A group of people wait in line on 7th Street for the Cronuts at Midnight event on Sunday, March 9. The line stretched from the entrance to the Intercontinental Hotel past Trinity Street.
    A group of people wait in line on 7th Street for the Cronuts at Midnight event on Sunday, March 9. The line stretched from the entrance to the Intercontinental Hotel past Trinity Street.

    For those of you who don’t know what the Cronut is, first of all, bless you. If I had never been exposed to the media craze surrounding Chef Dominique Ansel’s combination croissant-donut, I probably (definitely) would not have spent my Sunday night at SXSW waiting in a ridiculous line to get into the exclusive Cronut At Midnight party. Yes, when I could have been seeing a film premiere or attending a fancy Interactive party, I waited in line. For food. As per usual. 

    Before any judgement is passed, here’s some context: In New York City, home of the beloved Cronut, Chef Ansel makes a very limited number of pastries each day, so the lines to receive a Cronut are actually insane. On a daily basis, hundreds are turned away from their Cronut-y dreams after waiting in lines for hours, only to return the next day to wait again like the true warriors that they are.

    Understandably, the day that the Cronuts arrived in Austin along with their glorious French creator, I was ecstatic. Ansel also used SXSW as an opportunity to release a brand new dessert called The Cookie Shot, which is basically a chocolate chip cookie formed into the shape of a shot glass and filled with cold milk.

    The wait began at 10 p.m. Sunday night. It was a brutal two and a half hours — during which I may have questioned my values, ethics, friends and lack of a social life — but never the end goal. To hold a Cronut in my hands. 

    As the line grew longer, we Cronut enthusiasts began to attract some attention.

    This is a list of the six best things people yelled at me while I was waiting in line for Cronuts.

    1. “What is this line for? Justin Bieber?”
    2. “You’re waiting in line for food on a Sunday?”
    3. “The Cronuts? Is that a band?”
    4. “What is wrong with you people.”
    5. “Well that’s America for you.”

    Eventually, after enduring hours of torment from clearly ignorant passersby, the doors were opened and we were ushered inside, where we waited (you guessed it) in about three more lines. I could not be more serious about how exclusive this event was. For each line I waited in, my hand was stamped, which I assume was to deter any Cronut line two-timers from sneaking back in line. 

    At the front of the final line stood THE Dominique Ansel himself, welcoming me into his open arms. It all seems like a blur now, but I may have embraced him and whispered, "bless you, you glorious chef." After a brief altercation between Ansel's team of Cronut wranglers and the overenthusiastic man in front of me, I was finally presented with the Cronut flavor of the month: milk and honey with a hint of lavender. 

    Maybe it sounds strange, but it was incredibly worth it. The important thing is that food will always prevail, above all else. Thank you, pastry gods. 



  • A choppy SXSW interview didn't stop St. Vincent from being awesome

    Hot off of her newly released, self-titled album St. Vincent, Annie Clark sat down at the Austin Convention Center Wednesday and spoke about the creative process she goes through when songwriting. 

    Her latest release has been called her most accessible work, focusing more on aesthetic and groove than she did in previous works. Clark said the key to writing an album this way was finding the perfect balance between accessibility and complexity. 

    "In terms of being a songwriter, that's the ultimate goal," Clark said. "To create a world that's singular but leave enough room for a listener to put themselves in it."

    Clark spoke about growing up around music and taking lessons from metal heads at GuitarCenter-type stores. She confessed to being a metal-lover herself. 

    "I was in a metal cover band as the bass player," Clark said. "I have a soft spot for metal."

    Through her career, St. Vincent has evolved from raw, organic instrumentations to a more digital, electronic focus. She said there's no specific formula for figuring out which instruments to use when songwriting, though — that it more depends on what she's going through, physically and emotionally. 

    "I look at it all as tools, and everything as a means to an end so I can make anything in my head feel tangible," Clark said. 

    The interview itself, though, was far from seamless. The interviewer's questions were self-indulgent. She frequently didn't even ask a question, instead using the interview time to air conclusions she sometimes phrased as quasi-questions.

    The interviewer's questions got so dense at a certain point that Clark tried to change the subject. 

    "Let's skip this interview and talk about the last episode of True Detective, actually," Clark semi-joked.

    The interviewer continued talking in circles, flaunting her knowledge of music and often taking longer to phrase her question than it took for Clark to respond. 

    The interviewer also haphazardly attempted to delve into Clark's sexuality with a few questions about her sexual candor in her lyrics. The questions fell flat on their faces and made for some thoroughly awkward moments. 

    Odd interviewer aside, the crowd seemed excited to simply be in the room with Clark and listen to her navigate the questions. Clark was good-humored, eloquent and when the question was phrased well enough, she answered thoroughly and skillfully. 

  • Four things I’m building with all the free stuff I got at SXSW

    Even if you don’t have a badge or wristband, you can still benefit from SXSW. Need some new T-shirts? Maybe some branded sunglasses or a new flash drive? Just wander around aimlessly downtown for long enough and all these things will magically appear in your #Wordpress tote bag. 

    This is a list of the four things I am building with all the free stuff they handed to me at SXSW.

    1. A sail

    I got probably 75 free T-shirts at this year’s festival. None of these are necessarily my size and almost all of them have a hashtag or techy slogan on them. Instead of wearing these to class next week, I plan on tying them all together and fashioning a sail out of them. Maybe that way I’ll have an escape plan just in case this rain never stops. 

    2.  A new hard drive

    I’ve been looking to upgrade to a terabyte of memory, and I’m pretty sure I can combine all of the 2 GB USB drives I received walking around the SXSW Tradeshow to make my own terabyte hard drive. I may have had to give thirty different startup companies my email address, but that is what spam folders are for.

    3. Tinted car windows    

    I plan on removing the lenses from all of the sunglasses I was handed while walking around the Convention Center and melting them together to create new windows for my car. Having your windows tinted is expensive. Nikon and Wordpress sponsored sunglasses are free.

    4. A parachute

    Once I remove all the other free stuff from the tote bags, I will sew them all together to make a DIY parachute. I’m not sure how safe and effective this parachute will be, but it should be good enough for a short fall.