Mike Saulters's blog
In 2009, J.J. Abrams accomplished the impossible and successfully negotiated an unwinnable scenario by rebooting the Star Trek franchise with a new cast in a story that maintained continuity -- yet also broke somewhat -- with the establish Trek universe. This reset gave him license to play with the characters in entirely new ways; for instance, the relationship between Uhura and Spock. With the newly released Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams plays with the entire character of the Federation itself, playing out logically the results of events that created his alternate universe and arriving at a colder, harder conclusion that doesn't sit well with many hardcore fans.
Based on his Daily Show appearance this week, in which Abrams explained his goal was to make a movie for moviegoers and not just Star Trek fans, some have said he is only concerned with his film making as much money as possible. My own feeling was that Abrams again succeeded in bringing to life a story that is true to the characters on the Enterprise, but a disturbing departure from Gene Roddenberry's vision of The United Federation of Planets.
This is not the first time Trek fans have seen a darker vision of the future: The clandestine agency known as Section 31 mentioned in Star Trek Into Darkness has appeared a number of times in the various TV shows, which have also hinted at a much darker future for the Federation in centuries to come.
But the events on screen now, in this movie, are the darkest we've seen for the classic Trek characters, aren't they? As much as we might want to blame the effects of Christopher Nolan's Batman films for the darkening of comic-book and sci-fi films, there is precedent for a darker side of the Federation scattered through classic episodes. A 13-year-old Jim Kirk witnessed the massacre of 4,000 colonists by Governor Kodos during a food shortage on Tarsus IV (episode "The Conscience of the King"). The Federation also was known to have violent criminals and treated the criminal behavior as a sickness to be cured via therapy in one of several installations known as asylums ("Whom Gods Destroy").
It is also very well established that pre-Federation history included a series of wars that nearly destroyed civilization on Earth, and that but for the civilizing influence of the Vulcans, the UFP would have been a much more warlike body. In fact, classic Trek includes a mirror universe in which events did play out differently, resulting in a fleet where starship captains murder their way into command.
The most highly-anticipated Austin film news question has finally been answered. No, not the name of the villain Benedict Cumberbatch plays in Star Trek Into Darkness. On Friday morning with this blog post, Fantastic Fest announced that its 2013 location will be the as-yet-unfinished Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline, which opens in July. Construction at South Lamar won't be complete in time to host the fest that's called that Alamo Drafthouse home for its eight-year history.
Reactions have been mixed but generally positive. Local festgoers most affected by the venue change will be those who live and work in south Austin, some of whom have already begun to plan sharing hotels and rides. Other Austinites, confusing Lakeline for the existing Alamo Lake Creek (which Lakeline will replace) have mistakenly complained about the inappropriateness of that spot.
In fact, Alamo Lakeline will have 10 screens, making it the largest Drafthouse to date -- and will have 35mm projection, which is necessary for many titles that screen at Fantastic Fest. As with The Highball and 400 Rabbits, Lakeline will have an adjoining bar, though a location for Fantastic Arcade and other festival events is still in the works. Hopefully there will be an adequate substitute for the much-beloved porch at South Lamar (pictured at top).
Shane Black is one of the pioneering Hollywood screenwriters of the contemporary action genre. The screenwriter for Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, Last Action Hero and his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang now takes the reins of one of the biggest and most-beloved moneymaking franchises in the golden age of comic-book Hollywood. A $200 million budget is proof Marvel and Disney think Iron Man 3 is in good hands, but canon-obsessed fanboys may not agree.
Co-scripted with TV writer Drew Pearce (who's also credited in the upcoming Pacific Rim and Sherlock Holmes 3), this entry in the series incorporates many fan-favorite storylines and characters from the Iron Man comics. Though they're brought together in a mega-blockbuster of an action film, one or two departures from established canon will be the subject of controversy among hardcore fans for the foreseeable future. Naturally, I won't go into specifics here (no spoilers!) but moviegoers who are more interested in what's onscreen and less concerned with the printed page will have a great time. I guarantee it.
If that phrase is familiar to you, you'll understand when I say this movie is all about suits. It's clear from a shot in the trailer that in Iron Man 3, Tony Stark has more suits than a Men's Wearhouse. At least a double-digit percentage of the effects budget must have been spent on animating Stark putting on, taking off, getting into or being knocked out of one of his battle-armored suits. In fact, Robert Downey Jr. probably spends more screen time putting on his superheroic suits than actually fighting in them.
That's probably a deliberate choice, as the story heavily involves Stark's internal conflict between spending time with the people he loves and spending every moment working to protect them. This is a struggle we've seen before in films like Superman II, when Clark gives up his powers to be with Lois, or to an extent in the 2007 Spider-Man 3, when Peter Parker's emotional turmoil affects his superhero abilities.
After the events at the end of The Avengers, Tony Stark is suffering from insomnia and panic attacks as he works ceaselessly to improve his armor designs. After challenging a mysterious terrorist figure known only as The Mandarin to a one-on-one battle, the resulting surprise (?) attack leaves him stranded, forced to deal with the powerful enemy minus his usual limitless resources and therefore prove Iron Man is Stark himself, and not just the battle suit. This theme is echoed in the heroics of Don Cheadle as Col. James Rhodes, aka War Machine, who likewise finds himself forced to operate outside the suit when they team up.
Too much of anything is not good, except maybe it can be. Starbuck is a lighthearted comedy that explores a fresh take about the serious side of what it means to be a father through the lens of someone totally unprepared not just for one child, but for 143 of them.
David Wozniak (Patrick Huard) is a perpetual screwball who has never managed to make the right choices in life. In his forties, working as a delivery driver for his father's butchery, with thugs shaking him down for $80,000 in unpaid debts, David learns of his girlfriend's pregnancy. At the same time, he is confronted by a lawyer with some surprising news.
The lawyer represents a fertility clinic where, during his twenties, David was the most prolific donor, having made deposits over 600 times. It's explained that he has very high-quality sperm, and the doctor who operated the clinic was a little crazy and thus used David's material in the impregnations of over 500 women. Now 142 of his progeny have gathered to form a class-action suit to force the clinic to reveal David's identity.
Until the case is settled, they've prepared profiles of themselves, because they want "Starbuck" (the alias under which the donor is listed) to know something about his children. Faced with a choice between continuing his irresponsible ways or taking control of his life with his girlfriend and new(est) child, David finds himself unable to resist the urge to involve himself in his other children's lives, and thus learn the extent of his own strength.
Ken Scott and Martin Petit have written an extraordinarily original script that is both charming and hilarious, and Scott's direction displays a flair for comedic timing that brings the story to life. From the opening shot, he sets up a scene just enough for the audience to get comfortable with a situation before pulling the rug out from under them to hilarious effect. It's a surprising and effective tool Scott wields when the mood grows too serious.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt's acting talent is no surprise to people who have followed his career as he made perhaps the smoothest-ever transition from child star to adult actor. His selection of unique and unusual roles has given him a wide body of work to showcase his talents and prevented typecasting. But Levitt is multi-dimensional -- sponsoring a collaborative art project he named HitRecord, he's drawn thousands of print and digital artists, writers and musicians into his cooperative efforts with a goal of eventually producing a crowdsourced feature film.
To that end, he has written, directed, produced and starred in his latest feature, Don Jon. Originally titled Don Jon's Addiction for its Sundance debut, he changed it before the movie's SXSW screening, because he said it gave the audience false expectations that it was entirely about porn addiction.)
Don Jon relates a kind of second coming-of-age story about Levitt's character Jon, who spends his days working out and his nights at the bar with his friends looking for a perfect "10." In spite of his success as the leader of this hunting pack, Jon finds no woman can match the sexual pleasure he receives from himself in front of a computer screen as he surfs internet pornography.
Even when Don meets his perfect girl Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and falls completely in love, she is unable to satisfy him. Even as she is unable to satisfy his expectations based on porn, he is finding it difficult to meet Barbara's expectations as a white knight based on the romance movies she voraciously watches every night. His situation is complicated by Esther (Julianne Moore), his night-school classmate who takes an interest in him and causes him to reconsider what he wants in a relationship.
Though Don Jon is Levitt's directorial debut, it would be a disservice to describe the film using words like "for a first-time director." Don Jon is a masterful work of writing, directing and acting, period. It is a sexy, funny, and wholly insightful expose of exactly what young people are doing wrong as they build relationships. Levitt understands cinematic language so well he can telegraph his intentions visually without the need to spell them out for the audience.
What would you do to save your family from homelessness? How far would you go? Those are the questions Pat Healy must answer in the movie Cheap Thrills, which played at SXSW and has since been acquired for distribution by Drafthouse Films.
Scripted by David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga and directed by E.L. Katz, Healy stars as Craig, a writer struggling to make a living for his family as an oil-change mechanic. After the worst day of his life, Craig stops by a local dive bar for a drink he can't afford and meets former high-school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry), who he has not seen in five years.
After reluctantly staying for just one more drink, Craig finds himself in the middle of an unlikely adventure when the two are invited to celebrate with the bar's only other occupants, birthday-girl Violet (Sara Paxton) and her multi-millionaire husband Colin (David Koechner).
What follows is best left for the screen, but it is a disturbing and exhilarating experience. Healy and Embry are fantastic actors and both completely believable as they portray the awkard semi-tension between friends who have grown somewhat apart. That dynamic is obliterated by Koechner. Cheap Thrills couldn't have worked without any of the three, but Koechner is a regular Mephistopheles offering the friends a deal they can't refuse, and a tour through a hell of their own making. This is the kind of easygoing passive-aggressive sadist character Koechner has spent a career perfecting.
One of the most intense films I've ever seen, Cheap Thrills well deserves the SXSW audience award it earned in the Midnighters category. Unlike many schlocky midnight features, this is the kind of movie that should only be shown at midnight. It's exceptionally graphic, but Katz has mastered the art of don't-show and tell, with a single sound effect that left half the audience jumping completely out of their seats and the rest curled instantaneously into the fetal position.
My third day of the fest was my busiest for film watching, with three titles. I'm finding this year that transportation considerations are taking more time than ever. Parking downtown is a complaint on everyone's lips as the Convention Center garages fill up in the early morning, and many surface lots that would normally serve overflow have been covered in tents for different events. Since this is my first year taking SXSW Film red carpet photos, I've learned it's a big drain on time as check-in can be 90 minutes to two hours before showtime.
So, my Sunday included a red carpet for the Turk Pipkin Christmas movie When Angels Sing (my review) and ended with the ass-demon horror comedy Milo (my review). Sandwiched in between, I caught Alex Winters' Napster documentary Downloaded.
I have little more to say about Downloaded than I tweeted right after seeing the film. I found the film repetitive, plodding and 90 percent biased toward Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning. When I was a college student working in IT, I followed closely the rise and fall of Napster and read firsthand many of the articles and news pieces Winters included in his doc. A very lively community of readers on Slashdot at the time kept itself educated on all the Napster-related events including the trials, the RIAA posturing, etc.
There was no question at any point that Fanning and Parker knew they were facilitating music piracy. No tears were shed for Napster as newer, in many cases, better services rose up to take its place. It does not matter whose side you took, if you even took a side in the debate. On one hand was a company that by today's accepted standards was making it possible for people to steal from the record industry. On the other side was an industry group that was ruining lives, circumventing the legal system, extorting innocent people.
Downloaded paints a picture of the two Napster founders as revolutionary war heroes that changed society with only the best of intentions. It smoothly glosses over Parker's post-Napster shenanigans at Facebook (go watch The Social Network for an idea about what he was up to) and presents both figures as continuing the fight to bring music sharing legally to the masses.
There are a few classic holiday films we like to pull out each year in addition to the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, such as A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life and the more modern A Christmas Story. A common thread between these films that has helped make them annual favorites is that they don't focus on the religious or ritual aspects of the holiday, but instead on it as a time for homecomings and shared memories with family and loved ones, friends and neighbors. Soon to join those ranks is When Angels Sing, the adaptation of a Turk Pipkin story by director Tim McCanlies and writer Lou Berney.
Easily the best Christmas movie since 1983's A Christmas Story, When Angels Sing was shot in Austin and features a Who's Who of talent with Texas ties. Stars Harry Connick Jr. and Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) are joined by Houston-born Chandler Canterbury, Fionnula Flanagan, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Sara Hickman, Eloise DeJoria, Turk Pipkin and Willie Nelson.
Connick stars as Michael Walker, a college professor and father who refuses to celebrate Christmas due to a tragic accident. When faced with his son giving up on Christmas himself because of another tragedy, Michael is forced to reexamine his own guilty feelings that have made him such a Scrooge.
"Is this the line for that party?"
"No, this is for Milo. It's about an ass-demon."
"The demon's an asshole?"
"No, the demon literally comes out of and goes into a guy's ass!"
-- Actual conversation overheard waiting in line for the premiere of Milo
I didn't have high expectations for a film with this premise by director Jacob Vaughan (The Cassidy Kids), starring Ken Marino, perhaps the only guy in Hollywood who would take a role as the host of a parasitic ass-demon. Nevertheless, after a bit of a rough and shaky start (a little too much setup for my tastes, and a lot too much of Marino on the toilet grunting and moaning in pain), the movie Milo proved to be a funny crowd-pleaser that brings to mind mid-80s video-store schlock like Ghoulies.
Harris Glenn Milstead, professionally known to the world as Divine, was perhaps middle America's first mainstream exposure to a drag queen. I Am Divine is a definitive documentary of Divine's life from his youth growing up in Baltimore to his death in 1988. With this movie, director Jeffrey Schwarz continues his sterling track record of in-depth, fascinating profile films such as Vito and Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story.
Interviews with John Waters, Jayne Mansfield, Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, Bruce Vilanch, Holly Woodlawn, Rikki Lake and finally, Divine himself, paint a fabulous picture of the man inside the dress shedding light on what was, to me, up until now a mysterious personality.
Before watching Schwarz's documentary, I could tell you little more about Divine other than that he was a 300-lb drag queen who once ate a dog turd on camera in John Waters' Pink Flamingos. Now, Divine is a personal hero as inspiring for his personality and drive as his untimely death at the height of his stardom was tragic.
I can think of little better praise for I Am Divine than the fact it elevates Divine to the status of a true hero, who endured pain and mistreatment but found success through talent, hard work and perseverance. Schwarz's documentary takes on a life of its own, and the viewer is drawn into the life and experiences recalled by his subjects as they share intimate details of Divine's life.
I Am Divine screens once more at SXSW on Thursday, March 14 at 11:15 am at Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter.