Mike Saulters's blog

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.

Texas at SXSW 2014: Alan Tudyk, 'Premature'

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Alan Tudyk - Premature

I interviewed a trio of native-Texas actors at SXSW for the comedy Premature, which premiered at the fest (my review). Alan Tudyk was born in El Paso and grew up in Plano. The veteran of Juilliard has a hefty list of credits in both television and film including roles in Serenity, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Suburgatory, Arrested Development, Firefly, Dollhouse and V as well as voice performances in the animated films Ice Age (and its sequels), Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen. Due to time constraints, Laurie Coker of True View Reviews and I interviewed Tudyk together.

True View Reviews: First time at SXSW?

Alan Tudyk: No, I've been here before. I worked in the music festival a few years ago. I have a good friend who lives in town. I used to come to Austin all the time. I used to spend every New Years here. This is where you could find me on New Year's, hanging out, watching music. Not so much these days. My girlfriend had a film here one year.

Slackerwood: Everybody wants to know know if there will be another Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.

Tudyk: There was almost one, but I think it's currently dead. Unfortunately. You know, it could be alive -- hell, what do I know? But it came close and then something happened with the producer-y guys, I don't know what it was, and then director Eli Craig got an offer to do some really big badass movie. [Co-star] Tyler Labine and I really want to do one, and he's starting to make movies now. He's producing movies, and he wants to do a movie with the two of us. We would love to do one.

Texas at SXSW 2014: Carlson Young, 'Premature'

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Carlson YoungI interviewed a trio of Texans at SXSW for the comedy Premature, which premiered at the fest (my review). One was Carlson Young, who's a native of Fort Worth. Her first role was on the Austin-shot TV series As the Bell Rings, and her career has included among others, roles in Heroes, Pretty Little Liars, True Blood, The League and Key and Peele.

[Note: Due to technical issues, we were not able to see Premature before interviews.]

Slackerwood: Why don't you tell me a little about your part in the film?

Carlson Young: Initially reading the script, I thought I could do something really different with the character, like I feel like she could come off as the stereotypical popular chick, you know? But I saw her as a lot more than that because I think she's the kind of girl who's like "I'm a badass" to be honest, and sees something she wants and she takes it. It's not about being popular or having friends, she's just a go-getter, literally. I really wanted to bring that driven, female-empowerment deal to the character.

Is that why you use the word "slutes" instead of "sluts"?

Young: Slutes, I love slutes. How did you know that?

It's in the press kit.

Young: OK, yeah then I'm a slute. She's a total slute.

How did you come up with that name?

Young: I got it from a friend of mine. She went to school in New Orleans at Tulane. She and her girlfriends had this crazy lingo. They had a different word for everything, and they were some of my best friends. I totally adopted the word from them, and I think it's pretty applicable to this situation.

Texas at SXSW 2014: John Karna, 'Premature'

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John KarnaAt SXSW this year, I was able to interview three native-Texas actors from the movie Premature, which premiered at the fest (my review). Let's start with Houston native John Karna, who also starred in the 2012 Slamdance audience-award-winning comedy Bindlestiffs (Jette's Dallas IFF review).

Slackerwood: So this is your first big picture?

John Karna: This is, yeah. This is my first paid movie gig, which is awesome they trusted me to do it.

So Bindlestiffs was unpaid?

Karna: Unpaid, it was a passion project with my friends. We just decided when I was in high school, my friends and I -- Andrew Edison who directed and Luke Loftin who wrote it -- we decided to do this improv movie just for fun. And we finished it and submitted it, and it got into Slamdance and won the audience award and Kevin Smith was a huge fan of it, and that was pretty badass.

Did it get distribution?

Karna: You know, it's on Netflix, I think? [It is.] And it's on iTunes, which is pretty hilarious, because we were just a bunch of kids fucking around with a camera. It was a great time, and that kind of made me realize I'd love to do film. I was still going to college. I was studying musical theater, and I love singing and all that, but going to festivals... These people are so excited. I've never seen people more passionate about movies, and it makes you so excited about film and cinema. I love it.

You're from Texas?

Karna: Yeah, I am from Houston, Texas.

SXSW 2014: Mondo Gallery Ansin/Tong Show

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The Wizard of Oz 

A mere week after their tremendously successful Disney-themed gallery show, the folks at Mondo reset the gallery for a second SXSW exhibit -- this time, featuring works from two of their most popular artists, Martin Ansin and Kevin Tong. As usual, people were lined up around the block waiting their chance to purchase these beautiful limited-edition art prints.

SXSW Review: Born to Fly

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Born to FlyIf you have not heard of Streb Extreme Action Company and have not heard the name Elizabeth Streb, you'll wonder why after seeing the documentary Born to Fly by director Catherine Gund, which made its world premiere at SXSW 2014.

Streb was the recipient of the 1997 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award and is a member of the NYC Mayor's Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission. In 1985, she founded a unique dance company performing her own very physical style of choreography called Pop Action. Testing the limits of human motion, Streb dancers forcefully slam into walls, dive and crash into the padded floor, and dodge flying steel girders or launch themselves high into the air, taking flight as they play with industrial-looking sets populated with heavy machinery.

Not much of Streb's personal life is explored in Born to Fly, but that may likely be because her life is so interwound with her work. Streb has lived most of her life in the same space in which she works. Gund reviews Streb's career with a focus on recent achievements. Her piece "Little Ease," now performed by dancer Jackie Carlson, bridges the span between the years when Streb performed herself and her current work choreographing for the company. 

There is an element of danger in all Streb's performances, which as she states "do not try to hide the existence of gravity." The dancers are heavier and more solid than the traditional image, able to absorb the extreme stresses placed on their bodies by repeated heavy impacts.

At 62, however, Streb herself performed in her exhibition for the London Olympics titled "One Extraordinary Day," which included dancers bungee jumping from the Millenium Bridge, high-wire performances on the spokes of the London Eye, and an abseil down the side of City Hall.

Born to Fly does more than document Streb's work and life. The film elicits excitement about her work. It is at once exhilerating and transcendent. It will leave you wanting to see more, and indeed you can. The home of Streb Lab for Action Mechanics (SLAM) provides videos and information on live rehearsals and performances.

SXSW 2014: 'Wilderness of James' and 'Other Months'

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The Wilderness of JamesTired of the downtown scene after a weekend of expensive parking, crowds, and shuttle buses, I spent a day at the Alamo Drafthouse Village SXSatellite location. The satellite theaters have been a godsend for their convenience as well as the larger number of films the SXSW programmers can select because of them.

We at Slackerwood only wish the Village and Slaughter satellite locations screened films for the entire festival, instead of just through Thursday. (The Marchesa screened through Saturday, thankfully.)

The Wilderness of James

My first selection was a beautiful exploration of the teen psyche by first-time director Michael Johnson. The Wilderness of James stars Kodi Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) as James Charm, a young man obsessed with death. Living alone with his mother (Virginia Madsen) and bullied by the neighbor kids, he spends his time sketching dead animals and visiting his therapist (Danny DeVito, in one of the warmest roles he's ever taken). When he encounters and befriends Harmon (Evan Ross) on a late-night train ride, he is introduced to a new social world and begins to come out of his shell and conquer his emotional demons as he falls in love with Val (Isabelle Fuhrman).

Johnson's script is meditative, populated with likable and interesting characters, and intelligently written. His film is beautiful, and he treats his characters respectfully, writing believable dialogue in a story with a somewhat timeless quality. From the audience I felt a connection with the James character as the film brought back memories of adolescent fears and longings. As a thoughtful character study, The Wilderness of James is a pleasant experience.

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