Mike Saulters's blog
This month, our community collectively said goodbye for a while to the flagship Alamo Drafthouse location and home of press screenings, special events, festivals like SXSW and aGLIFF Polari, and the two most dear in my heart: Butt-Numb-a-Thon and Fantastic Fest.
I have countless memories of this place, beginning with my first screening there eight years ago: Robin Williams in The Big White, the first screening of the first Fantastic Fest in 2005. I've likely seen more movies in this cinemaplex than in all the other theaters I've visited in my life combined. Certainly more than I dare attempt to count, though an average of 30 films each year for Fantastic Fest plus the five 24-hour Butt-Numb-a-Thons would equal roughly 600 hours, or 25 solid days of films watched there before we even started on SXSW, aGLIFF or any of the other shows.
No single word or phrase is sufficient to capture the significance of this place. It's not a mere theater, just a home away from home, or a paltry legend. It's all of the above, and a bag of chips. Tim League turned this former grocery-store location into a dream world, a pocket universe that brought a piece of Hollywood to us in the heart of Texas, sometimes with glitz and glamour and sometimes the Hollywood that sits behind the camera.
This is the place where I've been inches from (and in some cases chatted with, in no particular order) Rick Baker, Phil Tippett, Peter Jackson, Darren Aronofsky, Tim Burton, Roger Corman, Frank Darabont, The Wachowski Starship, McG, Uwe Boll, Don Coscarelli, Scott Derrickson, Adam Green, Joe Lynch, Lucky McKee, Ethan Hawke, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Mel Gibson, Doug Benson, Susan Tyrell, Bill Murray, Paul Rudd, Winona Ryder, Martin Landau, Zack Ward, Richard Kelly, Dominic Monaghan, Kevin McKidd, Josh Hartnett, Jason Momoa, John Gulager, Clu Gulager, Barbara Crampton, Danny McBride, Justin Theroux, Noah Segan, Rian Johnson, Jess Franco, Angela Bettis, Anton Yelchin, Dave Franco, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jeff Fahey, Jeffrey Combs, Dolph Lundgren, Karl Urban, Darren Bousman, Bill Pullman and Craig Brewer ... among many many others.
It is the place where we've partied until dawn and then come back for another day of movies and partied til dawn again... for a week... every year... for almost a decade. It is the place where, at one of those parties, the legend of Nacho Vigalondo was born with the introduction of the "swastika dance." It is the place where, at the same party the following year, sometime around 4 am, I saw 15 men pile atop each other beneath a shower of beer foam to the song "It's Raining Men." It is the place where I saw Elijah Wood, aka Frodo Baggins, on hands and knees in the middle of an impromptu live-action Human Centipede re-enactment, making him truly "one who has seen the eye."
Director Ruben Fleischer is already well known for his hits Zombieland and Thirty Minutes or Less, but his latest movie, Gangster Squad is absolutely nothing like those features. That is to say, the gritty true-crime tale based on Paul Lieberman's seven-part LA Times-published "Tales from the Gangster Squad" series is a full 180 degrees from Fleischer's comedic work. Somewhere in the middle between The Untouchables and Dick Tracy, Gangster Squad is an exceedingly bloody, bloodthirsty historical account of extensively-researched events from the early 20th century.
The film opens with an account of Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), a mad-dog ex-boxer mob boss who violently disposes of any competitors. Penn plays Cohen so over-the-top it's impossible not to compare him to a Dick Tracy villain brought to life, a role he appears to relish. At times, his performance almost reaches Nicolas Cage levels of crazy.
Counter to this is Josh Brolin in the role he was born to play. The physical resemblance to Dick Tracy is unmistakeable, and Brolin plays Sgt. John O'Mara cool as a cucumber while, with violence equal to Cohen's, he takes down a room full of pimps assaulting a young girl. My favorite lines from the film: "'What happened to you?' 'They resisted arrest.' 'What happened to them?' 'They resisted,'" sums up the character, a war hero who's one of the only cops so honest he refuses all attempts to bribe him.
When word of O'Mara's exploits reaches the chief (Nick Nolte), he tasks the sergeant with forming an unofficial hit squad to clean up the city -- not by directly taking Cohen down, since somebody else would just take his place, but instead by making his criminal efforts unprofitable.
With his wife's guidance, O'Mara recruits a team including among others Gunslinger Max Kennard (Robert Patrick), radio man Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), and his close friend Sgt. Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling). What follows is an account of their exploits as they stumble through one bloody encounter after another. The story is straight-forward with little imagination in the plot, but the presentation is effective. Fleischer deserves credit for a beautiful recreation of 1940s LA which compares favorably to that of LA Confidential and hits practically every well-known location.
A giant beautiful flawed mess is the best description I can give for the Tom Hooper-directed big-screen adaptation of Les Misérables, itself a musical theater adaptation of the 1862 Victor Hugo novel. The story is a sweeping epic, and people unfamiliar with the material may find they are swept off their feet by the spectacle. But for longtime fans of the musical, the movie is a bumpy ride more full of downs than ups.
Hugh Jackman takes on the lead role of Jean Valjean, a convict released after 19 years imprisonment for the loaf of bread he stole to feed his sister's starving child. The film opens with a stunning shot of hundreds of prisoners, Valjean among them, struggling with lines to pull a ship into dock. This is one of the strongest images Hooper presents us and a dazzling introduction to Valjean's world. As he is released, Valjean is confronted by Russell Crowe's Javert, who presents him with his release papers, and we begin to see the largest of my problems with Hooper's take.
The characters throughout Les Misérables break out of song into speaking their lines, unlike in the stage musical. Verses that were written to carry enormous emotional weight through their melodic lines are instead spoken, as the actors attempt to express those emotions as if they were acting in a non-musical work. Some characters with only a line or two never actually sing. Jackman and Crowe are accomplished singers, but they don't have the appropriate range for these roles, and are forced to sing many lines an octave lower, virtually killing their impact.
Anne Hathaway's role as the tragic Fantine is perhaps the most dramatic performance, as we see her fall into disgrace and eventually death trying to care for her daughter Cosette. As with Jackman and Crowe, Hathaway's vocal performance takes a backseat to her acting, but that acting is so outstanding that she has become a strong contender for an Oscar.
Nine years have now passed since the last entry in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, was released. The series was so wildly successful it seemed obvious that J.R.R. Tolkien's prequel to the series, The Hobbit, would receive the Jackson treatment, but scheduling and rights issues among many other problems almost put an end to the production repeatedly.
Now here we are with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey -- the first in a trilogy that brings to life the original tale, Tolkien's first book of Middle-earth, not only in 3D but in the new high frame-rate (HFR) 48 frames-per-second presentation.
Though only 5% of movie theaters will be outfitted and presenting in HFR, no review can fail to mention this gimmick. Some people view it as perfectly lifelike. Another camp sees it as the end of cinema. Based on my own experience watching the film, the technology has potential, but it practically will require more practice to perfect the art. Like an artist used to working in oils who suddenly finds himself using Photoshop, new skills are needed, and this feels like an experiment not quite perfected.
I won't go into specifics on the problems I saw with HFR. You can watch in either or both formats and decide for yourself. Unfortunately, there are other problems with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that can't be solved as simply as choosing which theater to watch it in.
Foremost, the majority of the film suffers from an excess of campiness or silliness. The source novel is more light-hearted in tone than the trilogy, but time and again the line is crossed beyond light-hearted to feeling as if Jackson took a cue from George Lucas' handling of Episode I: The Phantom Menace and made a film for much younger audiences. There are some pacing issues, especially at the beginning, but the tone is the most negative factor.
After a couple of days sleeping off my turkey coma, I found my way out to Spiderwood Studios for the third installment of the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow series: Road Rage Drive-In which in previous weeks showed The Legend of Billie Jean and Wild at Heart. The November 24 selection was one of my favorite disaster movies, Twister, starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as well as future stars Zach Grenier, Jeremy Davies and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
This year Twister turned sweet 16, and I was eager to relive one of its most intense scenes, set in a drive-in theater, while watching it in an actual drive-in. Unfortunately, the weather did not want to cooperate, and there were to be no thunderstorms this weekend. I found the setting wasn't quite as I'd hoped as well, though it was still an entertaining evening.
It is an old idea that gods lose their power when people stop believing in them, but one generally reserved for adult fiction. Opening this week, Dreamworks Animation's Rise of the Guardians makes that its central plot device as the evil boogeyman, Pitch Black (Jude Law), tries to cover the world in darkness by making children stop believing in their heroes, Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter bunny (Hugh Jackman), the tooth fairy (Isla Fisher), and the sandman. The screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire was based on novels by William Joyce, who has been prolific lately, with three novels and two picture books published in 2011 and 2012 as well as an Academy Award-winning short film that he wrote and directed.
The story takes place in a world where the titular Guardians are real people chosen by the Man in the Moon to act as protectors for children around the world -- though, it would appear from the script the only thing they are protecting is the children's belief in them. Newly recruited to the group, Jack Frost (Chris Pine) has abilities that will make him instrumental in the struggle with darkness. Beautiful art design and an extremely talented voice cast bring this story to life making for an unconventional holiday adventure.
Director Peter Ramsey has crafted a fun movie that children will adore, though Rise of the Guardians likely won't be remembered by parents as a timeless classic like A Nightmare Before Christmas (the first film that comes to mind involving holidays personified). The animation is stunning, and the 3D is seamless, but scenes regularly involved rollercoaster camera work that serve more to appeal to children with short attention spans than to help the story along.
Also, a rare complaint in children's films, but the end title song "Still Dream" performed by Grammy-winning vocalist Renée Fleming (and the first listing on the soundtrack album) made it difficult to patiently wait for the post-credits scene. Though of course flawlessly performed, the song felt so abruptly out of place and different in tone from the rest of Alexandre Desplat's score, it was as though someone had changed the channel and we were watching the credits for a completely different film.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2, in spite of its ungainly title, is actually a surprising crowd-pleaser. Fans of Stephenie Meyer's novels will find this an improvement over the story they were expecting. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg won't likely win an Oscar for her adaptation, but it's a satisfying conclusion to the series. As with Part 1, director Bill Condon has de-emphasized the sparkle as well as the Taylor Lautner Torso, with the exception of one comical scene. There is no shortage, however, of the sappy Edward-Bella romantic schlock that is so endearing to tweenage audiences.
One of the largest complaints coming out of preview screenings was the disturbing CGI look of baby Renesmee, who sits squarely in the uncanny valley. The complaints are correct; the look goes beyond "otherworldly" to just plain disturbing. A look at the credits, however, can give a clue to what's going on. Besides Mackenzie Foy, ten other girls are credited a Renesmee at different ages. Presumably their faces were all replaced with Foy's with some alterations for aging. In fact, most versions of her look like a perfectly normal sweet little girl. Only the infant version left a truly disturbing impression.
In addition to Mackenzie Foy a number of other new faces appear in Breaking Dawn - Part 2, including Rami Malek as Benjamin and Lee Pace as Garrett. As the Cullen clan travels the world recruiting vampire allies for a huge final battle, they join a group of characters that look as though they stepped right out of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles series. Most notably, a pair of wandering Amazons bring to mind Maharet and Mekare in The Queen of the Damned.
Of course, the Volturi, led by the mind-reading Aro (Michael Sheen) fit Lestat's mold, refined and well-dressed but creepy and bloodthirsty. Sheen is a bit less threatening than when he was first introduced in Part 1, but Dakota Fanning is still a childlike terror. The most intriguing of the Italians is Christopher Heyerdahl as Marcus. Heyerdahl is one of the strongest genre actors around, and with a single word he indicates volumes of information about his character.
In the tradition of Pixar films, before Wreck-It Ralph plays a wonderful short that was included in the Fantastic Fest animated shorts program, Paperman. Directed by John Kahrs and produced by John Lasseter, Paperman draws inspiration from the classic film The Red Balloon, and in fact includes a red balloon to drive the point home. However, this is a more adult tale than the 1956 children's fantasy. A chance encounter on a train station platform leads a young man to the girl of his dreams in a whimsical and touching film that encompasses a similar range of emotion to the opening few minutes of Up.
Lasseter is also executive producer on Wreck-It Ralph, opening this weekend. An adventure worthy of the man who brought us Toy Story and a logical successor to that trilogy, Ralph was directed by Rich Moore, who made some of the most-loved episodes of Futurama, The Simpsons, and The Critic. Written by Jennifer Lee and Phil Johnston, Ralph is the story of a videogame villain who after 30 years realizes he needs a change of pace and instead of being a bad guy, he wants to be just one of the guys. Setting out to prove his worth, Ralph sets in motion a chain of events that could wreck the entire videogame world.
This is a banner year for animated features. Brave, Pirates!, Madagascar 3, Frankenweenie, Paranorman and Hotel Transylvania top the list that is still growing and now includes Wreck-It Ralph which, if not the best of them, is certainly the most fun. The comparison to Toy Story is clear: Videogame characters living inside their cabinets move around freely after hours when the arcade is closed. And just as Toy Story featured familiar classics like Slinky and Etch-a-Sketch, Wreck-It Ralph includes characters from Pac-Man, Sonic, Street Fighter, Super Mario, Mortal Kombat, Q*Bert, Frogger, Dig Dug and a slew of others old and new.
In addition to a script that's as smart as it is fun, casting for the vocal talents is flawless. John C. Reilly brings the nine-foot-tall Ralph to life as a likeable and misunderstood character who is also easy for children to connect with. In her 40s, Sarah Silverman simply should not be able to voice a little girl as convincingly and adorably as she does. Rounding out the main cast, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer and Alan Tudyk each inhabit their vocal roles as masterfully as they do their onscreen characters. The actors performed much of their voice work as a group, allowing for improvisation, and the result is very natural, organic-feeling dialogue uncommon in animated features.
Visually, Wreck-It Ralph explodes on the screen with a myriad of imagery and distinct styles from each game, as well as the "real-world" environment of the arcade. An interesting feature is that while the characters can move between each others' games, they remain trapped inside the world of their cabinets, able to view and interact with the outside world only through the screen. This is just one of countless examples of the level of detail and thought put into this production, which shares DNA as heavily with Tron as it does with Toy Story. I kept looking for the Pizza Planet truck, but it is not to be found. Though this feels in every way like classic Pixar, including the presence of the short before it, Wreck-It Ralph is actually a Disney Animation film. But with Lasseter's involvement, Disney animation has delivered possibly the best animated film this year.
Last year critics hailed Hugo as a "love letter to film." This year, you could say Cloud Atlas is a love letter to love and human relationships. Filmmakers Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer have adapted a book it was thought would be impossible to bring to the screen, and in so doing crafted a masterpiece many are calling the year's finest film.
Spanning centuries, six stories are woven together as souls reborn into new lives play out adventures, love stories and tales of treachery. Each tale is linked to the next by a message in the form of a diary, love letters ... even a screenplay. Together, thanks to a monumental work of editing, the synchrony between each story becomes apparent, and the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.
A mentor tells me that a film critic should only write about what's on the screen, but that pre-supposes a film can be left behind when you leave the theater. It makes no allowance for the effect a movie has on the audience and thus eliminates half of the equation. Film is an art form and thus a communication between the filmmakers and the audience. Therefore, knowing the background of the filmmakers, the context of this communication, can help the audience better understand this message.
There is no shortage of Lana Wachowski's personal struggle visible in Cloud Atlas, where the actors are chameleons playing characters of different ages, races and sexes from one scene to the next. This is done with such effectiveness that not only is it difficult for the audience to recognize actors, they reportedly did not always recognize each other on set. Tom Hanks is always recognizable, as is Hugo Weaving, but Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, James D'Arcy, Keith David, Hugh Grant and even Susan Sarandon turn up in surprisingly unexpected places.
Chasing Mavericks chronicles the heroic efforts of a teenage surfer to prepare himself for challenging the "mythic" wave known as Mavericks, and the father-son bond with his mentor that develops. Poignant and inspirational, it is a solid family film that tugs the heartstrings. Written by Kario Salem and directed by Curtis Hanson (8 Mile, LA Confidential), the movie is is based on the true-life story of Jay Moriarty, who became world famous when his attempt to surf Mavericks landed him on the cover of Surfer magazine.
Jonny Weston (John Dies at the End) closely resembles his character Jay, a blonde-haired blue-eyed proverbial golden boy obsessed with surfing. Abandoned by his father and raised by an alcoholic mother, Jay is forced to grow up early, even working to help pay the bills. His love of surfing leads him to the company of his neighbor Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), a roofer who spends every free moment surfing 30-foot waves in a hidden location. In Frosty, Jay finds a father figure, and through this relationship Frosty finds a resolution for his own issues dealing with the death of his father at a young age.
This bond between them is the center of Chasing Mavericks, which only briefly involves other characters. Elisabeth Shue plays Jay's mother Kristy, whom we hardly see but as his only family is the most important person in Jay's life. Abigail Spencer (Mad Men, Cowboys and Aliens) appears as Frosty's wife Brenda, who encourages their relationship and also encourages Frosty to stop surfing such dangerous waves before he leaves their child without a father. Finally, Leven Rambin (The Hunger Games) is Jay's childhood sweetheart Kim, the only thing he's more in love with than surfing.
Beautifully shot, Chasing Mavericks could inspire many children to become surfers. It's pleasant and relaxing (except when you find yourself counting to see how long you can hold your breath along with Jay). Fully family friendly, there isn't even strong language or strong conflict.