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Set in the heart of Austin, Texas, the South By Southwest music, film and interactive festival has slowly grown into one of the biggest pop culture events in the country. Though the film festival isn’t quite on the same level as Sundance or Cannes, what it lacks in prestige it more than makes up for with a truly unique moviegoing experience. From world premieres of “Kick-Ass” and “MacGruber,” to an exclusive first look at Robert Rodriguez’s “Predators,” this year’s SXSW looks to be one of the most exciting festivals to date. We’ll be there to report on all the must-see films, as well as try to snag a few interviews and maybe sneak into a party or two. After all, if you can’t make it down there yourself, at least you can live vicariously through our coverage!



SXSW 2010: SATURDAY NIGHT

“Saturday Night Live” has been harshly criticized over the years for failing to deliver quality episodes each and every week, but have you ever stopped to think just how difficult that really is? In James Franco’s all-access documentary, “SATURDAY NIGHT,” audiences finally get a behind-the-scenes look at the arduous task of putting together a 90-minute live show. Capturing every step of the creative process – from the actors and writers pitching their ideas to the week’s host (in this case, John Malkovich) to putting on the final show – the film delivers an honest look at the high-stress, dog-eat-dog world of sketch comedy. With only 24 hours to conceive and write their sketches (and guys like Will Forte seemingly sleepwalking through most of it), it’s amazing that any of them can be funny at all. Perhaps more shocking, however, is that only nine of the 50 proposed ideas actually make it into the final show.

“SATURDAY NIGHT” focuses on just a handful of them, and it’s here that we see the evolution that each one goes through along the way, including rewrites and last-minute edits that come out of rehearsals. We also learn that while some sketches (like one lampooning the Empire Carpet commercials) bring down the house during the initial round of table reads, by the time it comes to performing it at dress rehearsal only hours before the live show, it falls flat with the audience, forcing the producers to pull it from the line-up. Franco gets some good interviews with the cast and crew, even putting himself on camera to discuss his own hosting experience, but he doesn’t really document anything that someone with the exact same access couldn’t do. “SATURDAY NIGHT” is still a fascinating study of a particular facet of the entertainment industry, and if there’s anything to take away from the documentary, it’s that these guys are only human. As one producer aptly declares when discussing future cast members: “If you’re a perfectionist, don’t come here, because nothing is ever perfect.”

SXSW 2010: Four Lions

SXSW 2010: Harry Brown

Most people will take one look at the premise of Daniel Barber’s “Harry Brown” and immediately liken it to a British version of “Gran Torino.” The two films certainly share a lot of similarities – both are about older men battling a gang of young punks, and both star one of the greatest actors of their generation – but where “Harry Brown” differs is in the violent behavior of its title character and his victims. The end result is a little more like “Death Wish,” and although it may be difficult to imagine someone as mild-mannered as Michael Caine in a vigilante role, it’s exactly what makes “Harry Brown” so damn entertaining.

You wouldn’t think he was even capable of such violence when you first meet Harry Brown (Caine), an army veteran whose days consist of meticulous visits his sick wife in the hospital and playing chess with his only friend, Leonard (David Bradley), at their favorite pub. But when his wife passes away and Leonard is killed by some local street thugs who had been harassing him for months, Harry finds himself all alone in a town dominated by crime. After the police detectives (Emily Mortimer and Charlie Creed-Miles) assigned to Leonard’s murder case fail to catch the kids involved, Harry takes it upon himself to track down those responsible and teach them a lesson in how to treat your elders.

It’s been a while since Michael Caine played the part of the action star, and while he’s not doing anything too physically demanding as Harry Brown, it’s a nice throwback to his earlier films. He’s like Jack Carter with an AARP card, and though he may seem harmless at first, once Brown picks up a gun, he immediately becomes the most dangerous man on the block. Only an actor like Caine could provide the gravitas needed to sell such a potentially outlandish role, but once you accept him as someone capable of committing such acts of violence, it allows for some of the more darkly comical moments to exist without coming off as parody. Unfortunately, Caine is the only bright spot in the cast. Emily Mortimer doesn’t have very much to do as the detective suspicious of Brown, while Liam Cunningham is underused as the owner of the pub.

That’s hardly the fault of the actors, however, as the film is primarily designed as a vehicle for its lead star. Some might even consider first-time director David Barber lucky for landing such a great actor to play the title role, but Barber brings his own strengths to the project as well. The decision to open the film with gritty handheld footage of an innocent woman being gunned down in the park is both unsettling and necessary to setting the stage for the story that follows, while Brown’s back-alley meeting with a couple of drug-addicted gun dealers makes for one of the most suspenseful cinematic moments in recent memory. This is the kind of movie that not only gets your heart beating, but spurs applause from the audience with each vengeful kill. It’s definitely not one of Caine’s better films, but "Harry Brown" is a real crowd-pleaser nonetheless.

SXSW 2010: Skeletons

SXSW 2010: The People vs. George Lucas

It’s a feeling that nearly every “Star Wars” fan has had at least once in their life: betrayal. But how far does that betrayal go, and is it even fair to call it that? Those are the main questions surrounding Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary, “The People vs. George Lucas,” and they’re ones that aren’t necessarily answered by the time it’s over. That’s not to say that the fan doc doesn’t accomplish anything, but rather that, despite being fairly biased in its criticisms of Lucas, it isn't nearly convincing enough to change your feelings on the subject.

Compiling interviews from fans, writers, filmmakers and just about anyone willing to speak their mind, “The People vs. George Lucas” investigates the infamous love-hate relationship between the “Star Wars” creator and his massive fanbase. Glossing over his early years as a filmmaker and his time making the original “Star Wars” trilogy, Philippe jumps right into the fan controversy at the heart of the film, tracking all the way back to 1997 when the movies were re-released in theaters. Though many thought the decision to upgrade the trilogy was a great idea at the time (including those who actually worked on it), the reissues have since been a major sticking point in the argument against Lucas – and not just because of the changes made. Granted, the whole Han Shot First debacle is pretty maddening stuff, but there are far more intellectual discussions as well, ranging from the validity of an Oscar for Best Visual Effects after the crew’s miniature work was replaced with CG, to the ridiculous claim that the original negative was destroyed after the reissues were completed.

For as angry as the 1997 editions made fans, however, nothing comes even remotely as close to the outrage following the release of the new trilogy. Though “The Phantom Menace,” in particular, isn’t quite as bad as some made it out to be, expectations were set so high that it’s understandable why a lot of fans took it personally. The pro-Lucas side argues that the films were made for children (just like the first movies were), and though that sounds like a pretty bad excuse for a character as heinous as Jar Jar Binks, it actually has some value to it. After all, if the “Star Wars” movies weren’t made for kids, then why invest so much of the marketing into cartoons and toys? That doesn't really explain why he would tamper with the mythology of the series (i.e. midi-chlorians), and while some have been able to look past those minor annoyances, others have made it their mission to complain about everything Lucas has done to ruin their childhood.

Philippe’s documentary also includes brief segments about the “Star Wars Christmas Special,” the endurance of the "Star Wars" brand, as well as the negative response to “Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” One interviewee even makes a curious observation regarding the attack on the film, noting that fans lashed out mostly at Lucas, despite Steven Spielberg’s heavy involvement in the project. So is Lucas just the guy we love to hate, or is there something more to it? Philippe doesn’t seem to know the answer, but that’s mostly because there isn’t one. While the argument over whether or not George Lucas owns the creative right to alter his movies (or if he surrenders that right the minute it’s released to the masses) will probably go on long after he’s dead, it’s silly to think that he’s somehow ruined our childhoods. After all, none of us would even have those memories if it weren’t for Lucas, and though he can be a real son of a bitch at times, it’s probably just easier to let him have his way.

SXSW 2010: Elektra Luxx

SXSW 2010: Mr. Nice

You’d think that a story about one of the most infamous drug smugglers of the 1970s would make for a pretty good film. After all, this is a movie that opens with the lead character comically declaring, “My success went right to my head, and I’ve been living off it ever since.” But Bernard Rose’s “Mr. Nice” is so painfully tedious in the presentation of its subject matter that you eventually lose interest. Based on the life and times of Howard Marks (Rhys Ifans), a promising Oxford scholar who gave up a future in academics to pursue a career dealing drugs, the movie follows his rise to infamy as one of the world’s foremost hashish distributors.

Unfortunately, none of it is particularly engaging, as Rose races through each major event like it’s a bullet point on a crib sheet. Ifans may have campaigned hard for the role (he's good friends with the real-life Marks), but he’s delivered much better work in smaller roles, while Chloë Sevigny (as his wife, Judy) is essentially a glorified extra. Only David Thewlis escapes unscathed as an IRA soldier who joins Marks’ risky business venture, but even his performance doesn’t always click. The bulk of the blame, however, belongs to Rose, as he just doesn’t know how to make the story interesting. He definitely has some great ideas (the decision to hold back any color until Marks smokes his first joint works well in depicting the importance of drugs in his life), but more often than not, he only makes the movie worse. “Mr. Nice” certainly has its moments, but you’d be better off just catching Ted Demme’s “Blow” on cable instead.

SXSW 2010: Lemmy

SXSW 2010: MacGruber

It’s been a long time since a “Saturday Night Live” skit was turned into a full-length feature, and for good reason. With the exception of a rare few (most notably the first “Wayne’s World” and “Night at the Roxbury”), they’ve all been pretty terrible. Director Jorma Taccone hopes to buck that trend with “,” the big screen adaptation of Will Forte’s MacGyver-like soldier of fortune. Though it might seem like the kind of one-joke concept that couldn’t possibly be funny for 84 minutes, “MacGruber” is so unrelenting in its attempt to win over the audience with childish humor that you can't help but laugh along.

MacGruber (Forte) was once regarded as the country’s greatest hero, but in the ten years since the murder of his fiancée, he’s given up his gadget-making days and retreated to South America to live in a monastery. But when his old nemesis, Dietrich Von Cunth (Val Kilmer), steals a nuclear warhead with the intention to blow up the White House, MacGruber is recruited by Col. James Faith (Powers Boothe) to come out of retirement and save the world once again. After he blows up his team of former military buddies, MacGruber enlists the help of longtime friend Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig) and by-the-books soldier Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe) to track down the warhead and pound some Cunth.

If you laughed at that last bit, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy “MacGruber,” because the script is positively overflowing with that kind of juvenile wordplay. Co-written by Forte, Taccone, and fellow “SNL” scribe John Solomon, the trio does a surprisingly good job of taking a series of minute-long skits that all invariably end up with MacGruber blowing up and expanding it into a real story. It’s not a particularly great story, mind you, but it gets the job done for a film more concerned with setting up the next big joke. There are a lot of jokes that don’t really warrant more than a snicker, but some of the film’s running gags – including one involving MacGruber’s Blaupunkt car stereo and another where he obsesses over a rude motorist – will leave you in stitches.

Even the jokes that aren’t necessarily funny still work to some degree thanks to the film’s cast. Forte is excellent as the title character (just wait until you get a load of MacGruber’s trademark combat move), perfectly towing the line between naivety and just plain stupidity, while Kristen Wiig makes the most of her limited screen time. Ryan Phillippe also helps to ground the film as the straight man of the group, and Van Kilmer, although he doesn’t really capitalize on the sheer absurdity of his character, is clearly having a blast playing the villain. Though it gets off to a bit of a rough start comically, “MacGruber” eventually draws you in with its brand of sophomoric humor, pulling out all the stops in the name of comedy (and the ratings board). It’s certainly not the funniest film of the year, but there are enough laughs scattered throughout to suggest that not every film based on an “SNL” skit is complete shit.

SXSW 2010: Cyrus

SXSW 2010: Micmacs

Directors can be a pretty serious bunch, so it’s refreshing to see guys like Jean-Pierre Jeunet having so much fun making their movies that it’s evident just from watching it. The French filmmaker has been surprisingly absent from the world cinema scene since 2004’s “A Very Long Engagement,” but his return was definitely worth the wait. Jeunet’s latest film, “,” may just be his best yet – a whimsical crime caper that boasts his trademark visual style, a classic Max Steiner score, and an ensemble cast filled with familiar faces. Though it likely won’t have the crossover appeal of “Amelie,” “Micmacs” is one of the most enjoyable moviegoing experiences of the year.

Dany Boon stars as Bazil, a Parisian video store employee whose father was killed in a landmine accident when he was kid. After he’s shot in the head during a freak accident of his own, Bazil awakens to learn that he’s not only been replaced at work and had his apartment given away, but that the bullet which nearly killed him is still dangerously lodged in his head. With nowhere to go, Bazil is adopted by a group of eccentric, trash-salvaging inventors who live under the local junkyard. When he realizes that the military contractors who manufactured the bullet and landmine are located within the city, however, Bazil teams up with his new friends to exact revenge on the men responsible for ruining his life.

Though a lot of Juenet’s films have a fairy tale-like quality to them, “Micmacs” takes it one step further by surrounding its main protagonist with quirky companions not unlike the Seven Dwarfs. But instead of Dopey, Grumpy and Sleepy, there’s a contortionist (Julie Ferrier), a human cannonball (Dominique Pinon), a girl who can calculate anything in her head (Marie-Julie Baup), and a guy who only speaks in idioms (Omar Sy). Each character has their moment to shine, but Pinon is the clear standout in a role that falls somewhere between his circus performer from “Delicatessen” and his ill-tempered lover from “Amelie.” Dussollier and Marié also turn in great performances as the film’s villains, but it’s Dany Boon who’s the heart, soul and funny bone of the story.

It’s hard to believe he wasn’t Jeunet’s first choice, because Boon seems tailor-made for the role – a modern day Buster Keaton with the ability to entertain the audience with even the most basic pantomime. Once the film moves into the revenge portion of the story, however, the comedy veers more towards the slapstick, with each zany set piece leading to the next, even zanier set piece like a Rube Goldberg contraption designed by Danny Ocean. It’s all done so effortlessly, and with Boon and his co-stars so charming throughout, that you’d have to be in a pretty sour mood not to walk out of “Micmacs” with a giant grin on your face.

SXSW 2010: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

SXSW 2010: American Grindhouse

With grindhouse cinema making a bit of a comeback in recent years with movies like “Black Dynamite,” “Hell Ride,” and of course, “Grindhouse,” Elijah Drenner’s documentary about the history of exploitation film couldn’t have come at a better time. Narrated by Robert Forster (who’s appeared in his share of B-movies), “American Grindhouse” tracks this shameless and shocking breed of moviemaking from its birth in the early 1900s to its illusory transition into mainstream cinema today. Featuring interviews with directors like John Landis, Joe Dante and Jack Hill, and film historians like Eric Schaeffer and Eddie Muller, “American Grindhouse” may be a little vanilla in its presentation, but it’s a pretty fascinating story nonetheless.

In fact, while exploitation movies have been around almost as long as the movie camera itself, what’s most interesting about the genre is how much it’s evolved throughout the years. Drenner’s film studies this evolution, beginning with the implementation of the Hays Code by the MPAA, which forced filmmakers to brand their movies as “educational” in order to feature nudity or any other type of suggestive nature. This led to the “birth of baby” films of the 1930s, and eventually, branched out into the post-war burlesque movies of the 40s. For my money, though, exploitation cinema didn’t really take off until the arrival of nudie-cuties like Russ Meyer’s “The Immoral Mr. Tease” (which many consider to be the very first porno) and “women in danger” films like Herschell Gordon Lewis’s “Scum of the Earth.”

Along the way, Drenner also covers the gore films of the 60s and 70s (including a lengthy discussion about Wes Craven’s controversial “The Last House on the Left”), as well Blaxploitation cinema, “women in prison” films, Nazi exploitation movies, and the mainstream success of “Deep Throat.” The film’s most interesting segment, however, isn’t really about grindhouse cinema at all, but rather studio-funded movies like “Jaws” that offered the thrills of a B-movie with the production values of a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s exactly this change in the Hollywood system that essentially put an end to grindhouse, but as director John Landis is keen to point out, the very term “exploitation” is subjective, because as long as there’s an element you can exploit, it falls under the category of an exploitation film.

Landis may be the most recognizable name in “American Grindhouse,” but without his insightful and often humorous commentary, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining. He brings some really great ideas to the table that the other interview subjects fail to even consider – namely the concept that mainstream hits like “Passion of the Christ” and “American Gangster” are actually exploitation films in disguise. It certainly makes sense, and if there’s one thing you should take away from “American Grindhouse,” it’s that exploitation cinema isn’t dead. In fact, if Landis is to be believed, it never will be. That may not be what Drenner was trying to accomplish with this film, but it’s a message I’m sure he could get behind.

SXSW 2010: Kick-Ass

SXSW 2010: BARRY MUNDAY

Patrick Wilson hasn’t had the greatest of luck when it comes to movies and his manhood. He was castrated by a diabolical Ellen Page in “Hard Candy” and had trouble getting it up in Zack Snyder’s big screen adaptation of “Watchmen.” His third go-around with this particularly emasculating complication is Chris D’Arienzo’s “,” a movie that manages to be both funny and touching when it doesn’t seem capable of either. Though the film is obviously targeted towards a certain audience (namely, the kind of adult males who frequent this site), the fact that it plays like “Knocked Up” for grown-ups pretty much guarantees it will cast a larger net upon release.

Wilson plays the title character, a thirtysomething slacker with one thing on his mind: women. But when an embarrassing incident involving an underage girl, her father, and a trumpet results in him losing both of his testicles, Barry’s confidence plummets. To make matters worse, he returns from the hospital to discover that Ginger Farley (Judy Greer), a woman he doesn’t even remember having sex with, is carrying his illegitimate child. Faced with the prospect of his family name dying with him, Barry decides to embrace the pregnancy and his duties as the father – a decision that leads to the realization that it may have taken losing his manhood for him to finally become a man.

Based on the Frank Turner Hollon novel, “Life is a Strange Place,” D’Arienzo’s film is an indie-sized production with a Hollywood-sized cast. Though the first-time director doesn’t bring much visually to the project, the screenplay (which he also wrote) is loaded with big laughs and even bigger heart. It may come off as a little weird that Barry Munday is able to transform from a wannabe ladies man into a responsible father so quickly, but when you take into account the fact that he’ll never be able to reproduce again, it actually makes a lot of sense. Most men think about the future of their legacy at some point in their lives, and though Barry can come across like an immature jerk at times, his journey to parenthood is engaging enough that you still root for him.

Still, it would be a pretty hard sell without someone like Patrick Wilson in the lead role, as the success of the film hinges on his performance. Wilson has been delivering solid work for years, but he’s still a relative unknown to most moviegoers. “BARRY MUNDAY” isn’t going to change that, but it’s a great venue for his talent, especially considering the role is so different from previous work. Judy Greer is also great as the homely mother-to-be, and Chloe Sevigny and Malcolm McDowell (as Ginger’s younger sister and father, respectively) bring life to otherwise paper-thin characters, but this is Wilson’s show. And when you’re playing the title character of a movie that proudly presents his name in all caps, that’s the way it should be.

SXSW 2010: A Quick Preview

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