Mike Saulters's blog

Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2

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How To Train Your Dragon 2It has been five years since Hiccup befriended Toothless and brought peace between the Vikings of Berk and the dragons in How to Train Your Dragon. Now they're back for an adventure with new villains, increased stakes, and of course, bigger dragons in How to Train Your Dragon 2.

All of the original voice cast returns in this sequel by writer/director Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stitch), and they are joined by Cate Blanchett, Djimon Hounsou (Amistad) and Kit Harington (Game of Thrones). The characters are already well established by the 2010 film as well as two seasons of the Dreamworks Dragons TV series that continued their story, but this film is almost entirely about Hiccup and Toothless, leaving the rest of their friends largely in the background.

A young man now, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) no longer has to struggle for the approval of his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) and is full of confidence as the leader of Berk's dragonriders, but he grows restless, longing to explore and learn about the world as Stoick demands more time of him at home to prepare for his role as the future chief of the island.

On another of his frequent explorations, Hiccup discovers a dragon trapper (Harington) and learns of a terrifying new menace. This sets off a chain of events that takes the characters through a much darker, more grown-up story arc much like the progression of the Harry Potter series, which aged with its viewers. Stronger emotions, good and bad, are brought to the surface and explored through serious themes including duty, war, loss and budding sexual attraction. Strong topics for a kids' film, but weaved skillfully through a powerful action-adventure tale.

Visually, Dreamworks Animation has always held a reputation for producing the top films, but they've set a new bar with How to Train Your Dragon 2. New animation software and touch-screen technology allowed animators to directly manipulate characters by hand, and if you look closely, fans of other dragon-related series may notice some easter eggs including a nod to Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern.

Photos: Ken Taylor Mondo Gallery Show

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Once again, avid collectors lined up last week to be among the first to see and purchase art from the latest Mondo gallery show. This show, running from May 30 to June 21, presents exclusively prints and original works from perennial favorite artist Ken Taylor.

Review: Edge of Tomorrow

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Edge of TomorrowHow do you fight an enemy that already knows exactly what you’re going to do? You throw a Tom Cruise missile at them, someone who doesn’t know himself what he’s going to do. That’s what Brendan Gleeson's General Brigham does in Edge of Tomorrow, the first and possibly best blockbuster action film this summer.

Directed by Doug Liman (Jumper, Mr and Mrs Smith, The Bourne Identity) and scripted by Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) based on the Japanese comic All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow begins at the end of a war to save the planet from a mysterious alien invader. General Brigham is ready to lead a concerted push from every nation to encircle and destroy the enemy, and he calls Lt. Col. Bill Cage (Cruise), a US Army talking head public-relations officer who’s never seen a day of combat in to cover the D-Day style invasion.

A pathetic attempt to blackmail his way out of putting boots on the ground lands Cage busted to a rank of private and branded an attempted deserter, where he is put under command of Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton), outfitted with a mechanized combat suit, and dumped on the deadliest beach ever to see an invasion. In less than five minutes, Cage is dead, and that ends the first of countless times he must repeat the day, Groundhog Day-style, due to a one-in-a-million accident.

He meets up with Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) aka "Full Metal Bitch," the war hero responsible for Earth’s lone victorious battle at Verdun, and learns from her that he must improve his skills through innumerable deaths as he is the only hope for humanity’s survival.

McQuarrie’s script is intelligent and tight, providing just enough information and leaving just enough unsaid to encourage the audience to read between the lines. Great cinematography and crisp editing keep the action going at a brisk pace, so none of the repeated scenes grows stale.

Review: Filth

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FilthMy first thought on how to describe Filth, which opens Friday for a nightly late-night run at Violet Crown, was that it felt something like Trainspotting meets Fight Club. Then I saw the credits and learned indeed it was based on the novel by Irvine Welsh, who also wrote Trainspotting. (I watched the movie before seeing any publicity materials that clearly indicate this fact.) That it stars James McAvoy (who bears some resemblance to Ewan McGregor) following a self-destructive path of crime and debauchery plays into this comparison.

Filth begins with a murder, which Bruce (McAvoy) is assigned to investigate. Success will lead to a promotion, which Bruce is hell-bent on achieving in hope of winning back the love of his estranged wife and eliciting the return of her and their child. Possessed of a mean streak, however, he spends more time pranking his fellow police in hope of ruining their chances of competing for the promotion.

Jon S. Baird, who wrote and directed Filth, is clearly influenced by Stanley Kubrick. The true plot reveals itself as the mystery unfolds over the course of the film, and Bruce frequently has hallucinations where he is transported to the hotel room from the final scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There his psychiatrist, Dr. Rossi (Jim Broadbent), berates him for being a pig and hints that his problems are at least in part due to not taking his medicine.

As he continues his downward spiral, scheming and causing trouble for his friends and coworkers, Bruce also attempts to fill the ever-growing hole in his heart with sex everywhere he can find it. He takes his best friend Bladesey (Eddie Marsan) on a brothel tour while also wooing his wife (Shirley Henderson, aka Moaning Myrtle from the Harry Potter series) as a prank phone caller.

Rarely would I so describe a movie, but Filth is very Scottish. Some of the dialogue was difficult to follow for one not familiar with the vernacular, though the loss of finer nuances did not make the plot unclear.

Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West

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A Million Ways to Die in the West

Crassness, unbridled racism, toilet humor, these are all things one familiar with his work expects from Seth MacFarlane, creator of three quarters of Fox’s “animation domination” series with Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show as well as 2012’s runaway hit movie Ted. One also expects to laugh one’s ass off.

To my enormous disappointment, the laughs never came in A Million Ways to Die in the West, as I suffered through two hours that made MacFarlane’s disastrous night of hosting the Oscars seem wildly successful in comparison. This movie wasn’t him "not at his best." This was the depths of the dreck that didn’t make it out of the writers' room on his TV shows, the proverbial poo flung at a wall that failed to stick.

Perhaps MacFarlane was too busy writing, directing, acting in and producing his take on Blazing Saddles meets There’s Something About Mary to realize it was going to be this bad. Perhaps no one was around who could tell him. The real surprise is how many really big names attached themselves to this. Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman and Liam Neeson may have all been excited to work on this after the success of Ted. Several of these actors are friends of his who have worked with him before. Their enormous talents can’t save this flop.

Tthis thing plays like one of the cutaway Family Guy gags, something that’s normally less than 30 seconds, stretched out to two hours. None of the timing works. The characters are less than one-dimensional and uninteresting. Every gag with a remote chance of being funny is already spoiled in the trailer, and MacFarlane stops to explain the rest of them right into the dirt with none of his usual panache.

With A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane may have managed to achieve what the most contrarian Fox executives could not: There may be a million ways to die in the West, but the biggest corpse here is his career.

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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X-Men: Days of Future PastThe movie X-Men: Days of Future Past is the best of the X-Franchise and possibly the strongest Marvel Comics screen adaptation to date. This is the summer movie to beat. The story unites two sets of cast members in a time-travel epic in which teams past and future battle to save the world.

The film opens in 2023, when the few remaining mutants are on the run, pursued constantly by sentinels, advanced robots with the ability to absorb and use mutant powers, adapting to everything thrown at them. One of the most appealing features of the X-Men comics has always been the unique interactions between characters who combine powers in new and interesting ways, something that featured strongly in X-Men: First Class. The epic opening battle we see in this movie with a different team of trained, experienced mutants is stunningly choreographed, with lavish visual effects.

The surviving mutants meet up with the principal members of the X-Men: Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and Storm (Halle Berry) and explain they’ve been using a time-travel technique to warn themselves of impending attacks, giving them time to evacuate each location.

Armed with that knowledge, Xavier hatches a plan to travel 50 years back in time and prevent Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), weapons designer and inventor of the sentinels from being assassinated by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the trigger that convinced Congress to fund the sentinel program. The ensuing story takes Wolverine -- the only mutant with the healing ability to survive such a trip -- back to the Nixon era on a quest to reunite Xavier and Magneto as they simultaneously battle evil forces 50 years apart.

Review: Godzilla

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GodzillaOn its 60th birthday and 10 years after the last movie to bear its name, Godzilla returns, bigger than ever, in an incarnation directed by Gareth Edwards (Monsters). Penned by Max Borenstein from a story by Dave Callaham (The Expendables, Doom), this Godzilla offers just what you’ve come to expect from the film franchise: random destruction, mayhem and giant monsters fighting.

The story meshes nicely with the 1954 original, with a pseudo-scientific background that presents the monster as a government secret and the actual target of all those south Pacific 1950s nuclear tests. It pays homage to the gigantic creatures as prehistoric gods.

After an emotional and heart-rending first act that introduces the Brody family -- Joe (Bryan Cranston), Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) -- the monster attacks begin in earnest, and the action follows adult Ford, as do the monsters, which seem to be following him around the planet, hell-bent on destroying his family.

Johnson’s character, some kind of military nuclear weapons expert who also just happens to have specialized high-altitude low-opening (HALO) parachute training and a 1950s-era mechanical nuclear detonator in his back pocket, manages to always be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time to be the only person who can save the world in spite of his entire existence being exactly as irrelevant to the ultimate goings-on as Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones.

In spite of Johnson's existence as less than an insect in comparison to the impossible monsters onscreen, director Edwards has them repeatedly appear to notice the character's presence, as an enormous pair of eyes focuses on him momentarily. There is no interaction, besides the inevitable running away, but this repeated tease, as if to intimate Ford Brody is somehow teaming up with the god-lizard, is in direct conflict to the true theme of not just this movie but the entire Godzilla series: man's utter impotency before the full force of nature.

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2Swinging into theaters this weekend is the sequel to 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man. Scripted by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and directed by Marc Webb, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 picks up shortly after the reboot with returning stars Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Sally Field as well as Dane DeHaan and Jamie Foxx, both new to the series. The sequel exceeded my expectations as Garfield fell comfortably back into the title role.

Peter Parker is just a teenager still trying to find his way less than a year after his powers have been thrust upon him. He has no school for gifted youngsters such as himself to provide peer support. He hasn't had a lifetime to come to terms with his powers under the guidance of a moral compass like Jonathan Kent. Only after the events with The Lizard has he had a chance to ponder the life ahead of him and its effects on those he loves.

Though some would say his on-again/off-again relationship with Gwen Stacy isn't true to the final shot of part 1, in which he throws caution to the wind, I think that reads too much into the scene. Sworn by her father to keep Gwen out of danger by avoiding her altogether, Parker is torn between his love and fear for her. Though like most any teenage boy he often feels invincible, self-doubt and uncertainty frequently win out as he is constantly reminded of the death of her father and his guilt over being unable to prevent it. Being Spider-Man provides his escape from or justification for his feelings over the death of Uncle Ben. Being with Gwen provides his escape from the responsibility of keeping an entire city safe.

Dane DeHaan is perhaps typecast as the rebellious, misunderstood teen vaulted into a position of power while suffering the mental ravages of abuse and neglect. His time on screen as Parker's childhood friend, Harry Osborn, is only background filler as he treads water until assuming his role as one of the seminal Spider-Man villains, Green Goblin. This is not Green Goblin's movie, however, and though the character's actions are pivotal, Green Goblin takes a back seat to the Electro storyline. 

SXSW Review: Road to Austin

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Road to AustinAustin is called the "Live Music Capital of the World," and a very large influence on it was singer/songwriter Stephen Bruton. In 2007, only a week after completing his treatment for throat cancer and in his final appearance on stage, Bruton led his band through a four-hour, 38-song "Road to Austin" performance in front of 20,000 fans. Director Gary Fortin covers the concert and history of the Austin music scene from 1835 to today in Road to Austin, which premiered at SXSW 2014.

Beginning with Kris Kristofferson and John Paul DeJoria relating their experiences, Fortin weaves photos and film footage from the earliest days of Austin into a vivid tapestry. Artists recount tales of legendary venues, some now gone, including Threadgill's, Antone's, the Armadillo World Headquarters, Broken Spoke, Continental Club and Saxon Pub.

Road to Austin explores how the city became, like a microcosm of the United States, a musical melting pot where country, blues, Latino and psychedelic influences combined and grew, creating a unique scene and a strong community.

The interviews and history serve as an introduction to footage from the concert itself, where Bruton takes the stage with his band and a host of 60 star performers. The festival cut of the film includes eight songs emceed by Turk Pipkin. Blues, country, even an operatic performance by Cara Johnston are represented, but the peak of the concert has to be Malford Milligan's performance. When Milligan sings Bruton's "Bigger Wheel," you can't help jumping and dancing along. The energy is infectious and powerful.

The full concert includes artists Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Joe Ely, Eric Johnson, David Grissom, Bob Schneider, Carolyn Wonderland, Raul Salinas, Bobby Whitlock & CoCo Carmel, Lisa Hayes, Joel Guzman & Sarah Fox, Ian Mclagan, James Hand, Ruthie Foster, and the Tosca String Quartet.

Review: Divergent

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DivergentIn a dystopian future ruled by an authoritarian government, a young female protagonist with special skills must make personal sacrifices and overcome incredible odds in order to protect her family. That may sound like a plot synopsis for The Hunger Games, but it is equally applicable to this week's release from director Neil Burger (Limitless, The Illusionist). Based on the young adult novel by Veronica Roth, the movie Divergent was scripted by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones).

Set in post-apocalyptic Chicago, the society of Divergent is organized into five factions who each perform their own important functions, such as labor, government and military, based on personality type. On the eve of adulthood, teens are given an aptitude test to help them determine which faction will be the best fit for them, and they must then choose their permanent assignment.

Shailene Woodley (The Descendants) stars as Beatrice "Tris" Prior, who learns when she takes her test that she is a rare Divergent, someone who is equally suited to more than one faction, with the gift of creative thought -- and therefore a threat to the established regime. Forced to hide this knowledge as exposure would mean certain death, Tris must choose her faction and do her best to avoid making waves, a task that appears impossible when technology is in use that can display one's very thoughts on screen.

Tris receives help from Four (Theo James), assigned to train new members of the faction. Kate Winslet stars as Jeanine Matthews, the mysterious and dangerous figure who more than anything wants to see Divergents captured and killed.

Even with the formulaic setup I found myself somewhat caught up in the story, which consists largely of Tris's struggles to complete training for her chosen faction, Dauntless, the fearless military protectors of the city. These sequences take the audience on a tour of striking visuals through the ruins of Chicago, including training grounds in an abandoned amusement park, a great wall and fence hundreds of feet high that surround the city (though we never see the reason for the fence), and into the stone quarry where the Dauntless make their home.

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