Mike Saulters's blog
One of the many interesting events to spring up around South by Southwest in recent years is the Robert Rodriguez Museum, a pop-up gallery first appearing in 2014 in which Rodriguez exhibits pieces from his collection and the Frazetta family collection, which he now curates. Most people know Rodriguez only as a director, but film is only one of his creative outlets, and the tours he conducted at SXSW this March provided an enlightening peek into his creative process.
On Thursday, I saw the Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember)-directed movie Poltergeist, a remake of Tobe Hooper's 1982 masterpiece. David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz the Great and Powerful, Rise of the Guardians) re-adapted the script from the original film, which had been conceived and co-written by Steven Spielberg. I expected the new movie to completely suck, so I'm surprised to disagree with many of my fellows and say that it's not great, but it's sort of okay.
If you haven't watched the 1982 Poltergeist, which stars Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams and Zelda Rubinstein, do yourself a favor and stop reading now. Find it on disc or online. It's the apex of family horror films and the greatest haunted house movie ever made, so it's little surprise Kenan would be chosen to direct the remake, based on his earlier Monster House. Hooper's original figures heavily in this review, and you should be familiar with the story before you continue.
The differences in this version are immediately obvious. It's 21 minutes shorter, and everything feels rushed. Hooper's version was a slow burn that began with odd, whimsical events and descended into terrifying madness. The script Kenan directed jumps immediately into malicious attacks, before the family even moves into the house.
Before I dig into the weaker points of the new Poltergeist, I want to address the things I liked. I enjoyed Sam Rockwell more in this role than Craig T. Nelson in the original. Rockwell is more likable, more easygoing and more fallible. His chemistry with Rosemarie DeWitt is spot-on, and the kids are phenomenal. They play a larger role in this script, and they are all more believable characters. (Though I wonder why bother renaming them all?) Kenan uses light and shadow to great effect, and he doesn't shy away from the use of modern technology, so it's clear he's not trying to reproduce the original.
There are a few things I feel were missteps. While 3D is de rigueur for most studio releases lately, a number of shots are staged as if to specifically prove that you're seeing the film in 3D. A car placed immediately in the foreground of a wide shot of the house, early in the film, was annoying and distracting. Kenan cut the scene I found scariest in Hooper's version, but he spends a large portion of the film taking the camera into the "other side" breaking the rule of "don't show, tell."
The bar is set this week for top action flick of the summer, and Mad Max: Fury Road is the one to beat. It has been an improbable 30 years since the last entry in the Mad Max series, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but director George Miller returns with a joyride so big, so incredibly over-the-top, it's got the potential to redefine what we expect in an action film.
Miller immerses us in the post-apocalyptic world he established through the previous films, which we can now see has never stopped devolving and increasing in madness, chaos and destruction as the last vestiges of life continue to die off. The title "Mad Max" in fact is something of a misnomer, as Max Rockatansky, now played by Tom Hardy, is clearly the most sane person left in what has become the outer circle of Hell.
The world in Mad Max: Fury Road is the phenomenally stunning product of concept and art direction. The fully realized society is based on a religion devoted to its leader, who presides over warriors who feed on milk harvested from human slaves and who wish only to die in his service. Great machines powered by human feet lift vehicles from the bowels of his stronghold -- vehicles that might drive on stage at the heaviest of heavy-metal concerts, smoking frankencars pieced together, covered in skulls, with men chained to them spitting gasoline into their intakes to increase the RPMs.
Character names are just as ostentatious: Toast the Knowing, Rictus Erectus, The People Eater and The Splendid Angharad ... to name a few. Every detail of this fantasy is magnified, hyperbolized to an explosive extent. Michael Bay is no longer the director I refer to as the "best at blowing shit up."
We don't need another hero, but we get one in the bad-ass form of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). This is her story, and on Fury Road, Max is just along for the ride. There is no attempt to be subtle about the strong feminist message in the film, and that's A-OK. I would have been every bit as happy if this film had left out the Max character, and I'd love to see a set of movies in this world with Theron taking the lead.
The day is finally here, and fans assemble for the follow-up to Marvel's 2012 Joss Whedon-directed hit movie The Avengers. This week's new release, Avengers: Age of Ultron, was also written and directed by Whedon, creator of hit TV franchises Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly.
Marvel continues to tie events in its film franchise to its TV series Agents of SHIELD, which provides a plausible reason for the group of superheroes to reunite in search of Loki's sceptre. The sceptre has fallen into dangerous hands in the wake of SHIELD's collapse, as witnessed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents of SHIELD. The recapture of that artifact leads to the creation of Ultron, a new and deadly cybernetic enemy bent on the team's destruction.
James Spader voices Ultron, and it's hard not to like the villain perhaps more than the heroes with his matter-of-fact quips and insults, always several steps ahead of the team as he descends into creepy madness.
Whedon is an expert at balancing an ensemble cast, and this is one of the largest to date with 12 major players who all get ample screentime and character development. That said, Avengers: Age of Ultron is very much made for fans and presented with the expectation that the audience will be versed in the backstories of the characters through Marvel's other movies at a minimum, if not Avengers comic-book storylines as well. Students, er, audience members, who haven't done the required reading may find themselves overwhelmed as new characters are introduced and the action jumps from place to place.
Screenwriter Alex Garland is responsible for a number of highly regarded science-fiction screenplays including 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. With Ex Machina, which opened Friday, Garland for the first time adds directing on top of his writing credits. Ex Machina has taken the film festival circuit by storm and received accolades as a Drafthouse Recommends title. However, the more I think about it, the more I feel this movie is overrated.
Ex Machina is a richly beautiful, smart, thought-provoking work of science fiction that unfortunately suffers from a viciously sexist underlying theme. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan, a charismatic cyber genius who at the age of 13, wrote the software that would eventually become Google. He invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), an employee chosen by lottery, to spend a week at his remote estate for a kind of sick Willy Wonka-esque robot nightmare tour.
Nathan explains to Caleb that he has been brought to spend the week playing the human role in the Turing Test, a standard of artificial intelligence research in which a human and an AI interact. The AI passes the test if the human can't tell he's talking to a computer. Of course, it should be obvious already that by telling Caleb he's going to speak to an AI that Nathan has blown the parameters of the test.
But Nathan's plan is darker and unclear. He spends his mornings working out and his evenings passing out drunk with very little time in between for any real scientific research, and during ominous power outages Ava (Alicia Vikander) tells Caleb that Nathan can't be trusted. Tensions mount as Caleb is so convinced by Ava that he begins to doubt his own humanity.
So why do I call it sexist? Aside from gratuitous nudity and the fratboy lifestyle Nathan leads, the premise of this film is two men sitting in judgement of an innocent woman, deciding her fate. She lives her very brief life on a leash, completely under the control of Nathan, subject to his whims and frustrations. Caleb falls head-over-heels in love with her in the blink of an eye, and then she is presented as a manipulative stereotype, using her sexual appeal to influence him.
I Dream Too Much, which premiered at SXSW last month, brought former Austinite Katie Cokinos back to town on the festival circuit. Written and directed by Cokinos and starring Eden Brolin, Diane Ladd and Danielle Brooks (Orange is the New Black), I Dream Too Much is a coming-of-age film and a second-coming-of-age film all in one.
The story focuses on Dora (Brolin), a perky undergraduate with a poetic bent who dreams of joining her best friend on summer vacation in Brazil. Her overbearing mother has other ideas, as she wants Dora to pursue a career in law. Her assignment, then, is to spend the summer preparing to take the LSAT.
In order to satisfy her urge to travel and with the justification that it's a quiet place where she can study, Dora volunteers to care for her ailing aunt Vera (Ladd), a wealthy socialite best known as the wife of an acclaimed novelist. The trip will prove more interesting than Dora expected, and both she and Vera will find in each other inspiration and direction.
This is Cokinos' first filmmaking credit, and she has put together a charming movie that benefits most from likable, believable characters. Some of the dialogue felt awkward, particularly in early scenes between Dora and her mother (Christina Rouner). That all disappears the moment a venerable talent like Diane Ladd comes onscreen. Suffice to say she steals the show as the childless matriarch recluse who hosts a poetry club in her home (but never attends). Her poise and presence are perfect for the character, and you can see Brolin make use of her example to elevate her own performance.
I'm a lifelong non-smoker, and marijuana holds no interest for me, so Mitch Dickman's documentary Rolling Papers would be one of the least likely SXSW screenings to find me in its audience. However, I make a point every year to join friends for at least one or two screenings that I would never have selected myself. It's a great (non-chemical) way to expand the mind, you know? These excursions outside my comfort zone frequently pay off, and the fact you can walk into almost any film at this festival and enjoy yourself is a testament to the SXSW programming staff.
Rolling Papers can be considered as nothing but a complete success. The film is informative, focused and entertaining, generating interest in me for a topic I find generally unappealing. Dickman chose, wisely, to make his film not about recreational marijuana, its legalization in Colorado, or politics -- all tired subjects which have been covered extensively. Instead, his camera is witness to the birth of a ground shift in news coverage.
As newspapers around the country are in the process of closing their doors, the Denver Post takes a chance and assigns entertainment editor Ricardo Baca to create a new section, from the ground up, covering all things pot-related. In short order The Cannabist, as the online section is so cleverly named, is generating publicity, increasing subscriptions and raising eyebrows.
In addition to Baca, Dickman interviews Post editor Greg Moore and Cannabist staff writers including columnist John Wenzel, Jake Browne (reviews) and Brittany Driver (parenting). He also turns a lens on reviewer and photographer Ry Prichard who has distinguished himself as "the biggest weed nerd in town" according to Rolling Stone magazine, and accompanies Prichard to the "Cannabis Cup."
It would be easy to dismiss a marijuana-focused publication as frivolous or fringe, but Rolling Papers documents how Baca has built a serious, high-quality e-zine that even caught the attention of Whoopi Goldberg, who has contributed articles to the site. With contributors covering news, product reviews, recipes, culture and opinion, I find The Cannabist is a respectable publication that serves exactly the mission a news organization is meant to do, namely informing and enlightening its audience. I owe that finding to Mitch Dickman's excellent and entertaining movie.
This is turning out to be a very different year for SXSW, as though last year's tragedy marked a turning point where the city and the SXSW staff realized that things had gotten out of hand with too much going on at once with too little control. The result has been in my own observation that downtown seemed practically dead when I arrived Friday to pick up my badge. Strictly limited permitting for outside events and venues in addition to much of the interactive events being relocated away from the convention center have thinned the crowd to manageable levels, though we will see if that persists as the music portion of the fest kicks into gear.
Movies I've seen:
This documentary by brothers Bill and Turner Ross (who premiered Tchoupitoulas at SXSW 2012) covers 13 months in the border city of Eagle Pass during Chad Foster's last term as mayor. Foster gained recognition as an outspoken opponent of the border fence idea.
Much of the film focuses on the lives of ranchers and cattle traders who purchase cattle on the Mexican side of the border and transport them for sale in the US. Eagle Pass is presented as an idyllic locale where the Mexican and American cultures are so intermingled as to be indistinct. Foster, for instance, in his speeches switches between perfectly-accented Spanish and a completely authentic Texan drawl English mid-sentence. As outside political forces close the border and begin to erect walls that threaten their livelihood, the citizens of Eagle Pass struggle to understand the paranoia over drug cartel violence until it reaches their doorstep.
SXSW Film makes international news with A-list stars and big premieres, but some of the best films come in small packages. Eighty-seven short film titles have been announced -- not counting the music videos -- for this year's fest. Here is just a taste of some of the spectacular shorts from the program.
Animated Shorts (screening info)
All Your Favorite Shows!
This is a stunning and seamless blend of animation, live action and millisecond clips and audio from scores of recognizable hit films that looks like it must have taken decades of work to put together. Not just an amazing visual piece, it includes sound design and storytelling of equal quality. This packs more action into 5 minutes than most features manage in 2 hours.
With a tasty treat that reminds us film folk the root of SXSW has always been music, Julian Petschek takes "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" to the heights of its full hip-hop potential. Flashy and funny, this music video sets a catchy beat against vocals and lyrics by Katrina Recto AKA Kat Knoc, Jacob Gibson AKA C.U.B. and DJ Petroleum Jelly.
Documentary Shorts 1 (screening info)
ESPN isn't only just football, basketball, and baseball. This documentary directed by Gabe Spitzer tells the amazing story -- in her own words -- of Joy Johnson, who began running marathons after retirement and ran the New York marathon 25 times. An inspirational, beautiful and lasting legacy.
The phrase "Hot Tub Time Machine" was such an insane concept I couldn't wait to see the 2010 release. (Debbie's review) Sure, it was a fratboy movie, but it was fresh and edgy at a time when the nation was just learning to laugh again a decade after 9/11, and I loved it. Five years was a long time to wait with such anticipation for this sequel.
Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is a wet hot mess, with bad jokes as frequent as jacuzzi bubbles, and good jokes popping like farts in a tub. It has the same writer (Josh Heald), the same director (Steve Pink) and largely the same cast (John Cusack is replaced by Adam Scott), but it failed to capture the same magic for me. I can't say I hated it, but somehow it felt ... different, like I was watching an elaborately extended Super Bowl commercial.
The original movie was tight, with a relatively narrow scope, but this one felt like Seth MacFarlane had an advising role on set. The characters are not just juvenile and drug-addled. They are absolutely moronic. In particular, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 suffers from too much Rob Corddry, way too much, physically speaking. I don't know if the man deserves recognition for being willing to go so far for a laugh or instead pity for being the guy who will go that far.
The story concerns the fate of the original characters, now returned to a weirdly altered timeline in which they have lived out their lives with future knowledge becoming rich and famous by pre-plagiarizing hit songs and founding their own version of Google. When Lou (Corddry) is shot by an unknown assailant, the group of friends must use the hot tub to again travel back to the past to fix the future. Hmmm.
There really are a number of good gags, and Adam Scott has great chemistry with Craig Robinson, Clark Duke and Corddry, better chemistry in fact than Cusack. Chevy Chase is a bright spot for the moment he's there. His appearance feels as if much more of it was left on the cutting-room floor. (Between Chase, Scott, Corddry and Gillian Jacobs, this was practically a Community/Parks & Recreation crossover.) The real heroes of this film are the digital artists, costumers and set designers who designed and executed a really insane version of the present and a far-out version of the near future.