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.

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“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.”

  

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SXSW 2010: Four Lions

Interested in testing the limits of the moviegoing public? Make a comedy about terrorism. At least, that’s what Christopher Morris has done with his feature film debut, “Four Lions,” a movie that will no doubt stir up controversy if it ever finds a distributor brave enough to release it in theaters. A pitch-black satire in the same vein as “Dr. Strangelove,” Morris has created a film so relevant to our current political climate that many will feel guilty just for watching it, let alone laughing at all the gut-wrenching humor along the way. For as risqué as the material may be, however, it’s impossible to deny that “Four Lions” is one of the funniest, most provocative comedies of the last decade – and one that has more to say than any of the numerous self-important war movies that Hollywood has been cranking out for years.

The film follows a group of wannabe suicide bombers from Britain who are so inept at being terrorists that they’re more dangerous to themselves than any potential target. Omar (Riz Ahmed) is the most level-headed of the bunch, but when he’s kicked out of an Al-Qaeda training camp in Pakistan because of his dim-witted friend, Waj (Kayvan Novak), they return home to find that their partners in crime, Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) and white Islamic convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay), have recruited a fifth member (Arsher Ali) to the cause. Desperate to save face, Omar informs the others that they’ve been ordered to blow themselves up at the London marathon.

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But for this team of bumbling idiots, that’s a lot harder than it sounds. When they’re not busy attaching bombs to crows, embarrassing themselves in jihad videos, or coming up with new methods of anti-surveillance, they’re bickering among themselves like old ladies. The power struggle between Omar and Barry provides the catalyst for most of these arguments, because while Barry might seem like the ideal person to be in charge, he has such radical ideas (like blowing up a mosque so that the peaceful Muslims rise up and join their fight) that it’s easy to see why he would fail as a leader.

The intensity of a character like Barry, however, is what ultimately makes “Four Lions” so successful, because Morris treats the material with such veracity that the jokes hit harder as a result. These guys might be complete imbeciles, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve managed to stockpile a dangerous amount of explosives capable of doing some serious damage. In fact, for all the comedy bred out of the film’s set-up, there are still quite a few unsettling moments scattered throughout, including a thrilling finale in the streets of London. Even more disturbing is the relationship between Omar and his family. His wife doesn’t only support what he’s doing, but seems to encourage it, while his son has become so familiar with the idea of jihad that his bedtime stories feature Simba and his fellow animal friends from “The Lion King” as suicide bombers.

It’s this kind of dark humor that makes “Four Lions” more of a tragicomedy than a satire, because even though the would-be terrorists can hardly be considered the heroes of the story, Morris makes them so likeable that you don’t want anything bad to happen to them. We know their intentions aren’t good, but because we’ve become so used to laughing at their blunders throughout the course of the film, we never really identify them as much of a threat. That’s mostly thanks to a brilliant script (co-written by Morris and two of the writers responsible for last year’s scathing political satire, “In the Loop”), which takes the buddy comedy formula and applies it to a hot-button topic with great aplomb. “Four Lions” may not be the first of its kind – Paul Weitz’s “American Dreamz” also flirted with the concept of mixing terrorism and comedy – but where that movie proved that no subject was taboo, Christopher Morris’ film demonstrates that sometimes it’s easier to get people to pay attention when you’re making them laugh.

  

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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.

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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.

  

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SXSW 2010: Skeletons

Set in the picturesque East Midlands, Nick Whitfield’s “Skeletons” stars Ed Gaughan and Andrew Buckley as Davis and Bennett, a pair of traveling salesmen who literally clean skeletons out of closets. The Procedure, as it’s known, magically transports them into their clients’ deepest, darkest secrets, where they can then assume control of the people within the memory and free them of their guilty conscience. When their boss, The Colonel (Jason Isaacs), assigns them to an especially tricky case with the promise of a promotion to higher-profile clients like politicians, Davis and Bennett jump at the chance. But after a rare mistake leaves Davis in an indefinite trance, The Colonel arrives in town to clean up the mess.

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Based on Whitfield’s 2006 short film of the same name, “Skeletons” is very much a tale of two movies. While the first half is a decidedly more comedic take on the skeleton cleaning business – with several laughs coming from Davis and Bennett’s humorous relationship – the second half gets a whole lot darker. The stakes are raised and the mysticism behind The Procedure plays a bigger role in the story. Whitfield never quite explains how everything works, but he shows the audience enough that you sort of just take his word for it. It’s a one-of-a-kind idea that’s ultimately undone by a confusing final act, and although it probably worked better in its shorter format, “Skeletons” is still something you have to see at least once. And even then, regardless of whether you liked it or not, you might want to watch it again just in case you missed something the first time around.

  

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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.

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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.

  

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