Mike Saulters's blog

Fantastic Fest 2014 Wrap-up: 26 Ways to Party

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Arm Wrestling

Fantastic Fest 2014 came to a close last week, and the tenth iteration of the festival was as packed with great films and events in the second half as in the first.

A highlight of the festival was I Am A Knife With Legs, the micro-budget comedy written, directed, edited by, and starring Los Angeles comedian Bennett Jones who answered audience questions in character as the existential Europop star Bené. The heavily musical film brings to mind creations such as Borat, though considerably cleaner, stranger and more inventive.

Tuesday night's Secret Screening was introduced by Alamo Drafthouse owner and festival co-founder Tim League, who toyed with the audience, providing nebulous background on the film but dimming the house lights without telling attendees what to expect. The German title Ich Seh, Ich Seh was of little help as well, and it was revealed only after playing that the English title of the film is Goodnight Mommy. This is one film best seen knowing as little as possible about it. Audience opinion was divided but generally positive. 

Review: The Boxtrolls

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The BoxtrollsI am always eager to see the latest Laika release. Output is slow from the animation studio due to the time-consuming and meticulous nature of its handmade stop-motion films, but bottling magic is no easy task. There is an ineffable tone in the studio's films -- perhaps because of its complete attention to details, perhaps because of some way natural lighting works compared to digital renderings -- that instills a sense of realism.

With The Boxtrolls, Laika takes on steampunk, creating a Victorian-looking village populated by hundreds of unique, charming (and some not so very) characters. Based on the children's book by Alan Snow, Here Be Monsters, directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi bring to life Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright, aka Bran Stark from Game of Thrones) and Winnie (Elle Fanning) as they fight to save their misunderstood friends from the evil designs of wily exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley).

I found the script somewhat less engaging than Laika's previous two movies, Coraline and ParaNorman, as it felt more appropriate for a younger audience. However, the film was never boring and often uproariously funny. The town of Cheesebridge is full of puns, especially in the character names like Lord Portley-Rind or Snatcher. ("My favorite was The Briehemoth.") There is also an oddball musical number, "The Boxtrolls Song," written by Eric Idle. Kingsley's villainous Mr. Snatcher steals the show (along with the trolls), as he performs with an accent that had me thinking he was Michael Caine.

Fantastic Fest 2014: Fest Half Full

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The tenth Fantastic Fest is halfway done, and that means many of the filmmaker guests and industry folks will be departing, but it also means an influx of new faces as second-half badgeholders join in the fray as most of the films' second screenings come around.  Now begins your chance to see all the first-choices that the system didn't give you or the second-choices that took a backseat to something you couldn't wait to see.

For incoming second-halfers, you have probably been keeping track on Facebook and Twitter, but some of the hottest tickets for repeats will be Babadook, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, I Am a Knife With Legs, Cub, Force Majeure, Electric Boogaloo, John Wick and Tokyo Tribe.

Fantastic Fest 2014: Grounded in 'Realiti'

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Dia de las PaletasI'm a couple days into my tenth Fantastic Fest, and it's easy to see why I keep coming back. Before the fest even officially starts, there are parties at Pinballz and Peter Pan Putt-Putt and barbecue with friends arriving from around the world.

Day One began with Kevin Smith rapping with Tim League backed by dozens of people in eyeball costumes. It ended with a food fight free-for-all of which I saw only the aftermath: League in a cheeky Carmen Miranda outfit and dozens of people soaked and slathered in every sort of slop.

In between, there was a walrus Freaky Friday (Tusk), an Australian Inception Realiti), and Cub Scout Carnage (Cub).

Day Two was a full slate with Jacky in the Kingdom of Women, the Marko Zaror action flick Redeemer, James Gunn-produced horror The Hive, and surreal comic Free Fall. In between these movies, I visited Devin Steuerwald's Dia de las Paletas cart (pictured at right) to keep cool with frozen treats.

So far, the programming at Fantastic Fest 2014 has been heavy on realism, with characters and situations that could actually happen, and short on supernatural or escapist themes. My slate this year has been full of confusing films; Realiti and Free Fall were both difficult to follow in spite of some really amazing scenes and great performances. That said, I did skip the Studio Ghibli premiere of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which has received rave reviews [note from Jette: I really liked it myself], to see Jacky in the Kingdom of Women.

Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

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A Walk Among the TombstonesLiam Neeson taking on kidnappers, that's nothing new, right? This weekend's release, A Walk Among the Tombstones, is true to form. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a detective who retired from the NYPD after being involved in a violent gunfight while under the influence. A plea for assistance from a fellow AA member involves him in a rather grisly kidnapping plot and also offers him a chance at redemption.

Writer/director Scott Frank (The Wolverine, Minority Report, Get Shorty), is responsible for some of Hollywood's biggest hits. This may not be one of them, as it attempts to re-create the formula of Neeson's Taken series. It is, however, a solid thriller that still manages a few surprises.

First is the introduction of a juvenile yet very capable sidekick. Brian "Astro" Bradley (Earth to Echo) plays TJ, a streetwise kid with a love of detective stories and knack for getting himself in trouble while turning up clues essential to Scudder's investigations. TJ never loses his cool whether confronting street thugs or the 6'4" frame of Neeson, and the young man has the beginnings of a great film career with his first three features (A remake of the 1999 Space Jam has already completed shooting.)

Speaking of shooting, another surprise in A Walk Among the Tombstones was the strong anti-gun message in such a dark and violent film. There are subtle references throughout as well as an emphatic lecture from Scudder to TJ on the subject. It seems out of place in a movie like this, though it serves the plot by providing some audience insight into Scudder's backstory.

Fantastic Fest 2014: Mike's Picks and Scheduling Tips

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Fantastic Fest

The Fantastic Fest schedule just went live here, and more than ever, it looks to force audiences into making some tough decisions between the films they most want to see. As always, some films appear on the schedule only once. This may be due to various technical or contractual reasons or (hopefully) because a second screening simply hasn't yet been slotted. While most selections have at least two screenings, you'll find that sometimes those are up against each other and a third one can upset the mix. 

On top of the already full slate of screenings and parties this year, the debut of MondoCon may demand some of your attention at the Marchesa with most if not all of the Mondo artists manning booths, original art, new music releases, panels, screenings and more. Although tickets for the MondoCon screenings were released last week on Eventbrite and very quickly sold out, that was before the Fantastic Fest schedule went live. In addition, many people were able to reserve two tickets for the Mondocon events though they may need only one. In short, if you really want to attend one of the Mondocon events, you'll likely have a chance to enter via standby line.

So how do you even begin to plan for the insanity to come? How do you make sense of it all? My schedule planning usually involves first attempting to lock in those choices that have only one screening, then fitting as many of my choices around that. Sometimes elaborate planning can be undone when the schedule changes, or perhaps you hear good buzz on a film and decide to add it to your schedule.

Interview: Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, 'The Dog'

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The Dog posterBy now you have had the chance to see The Dog, one of Drafthouse Films' most intriguing acquisitions this year. If not, you can watch it online via Amazon or Vimeo. Released in theaters last month, the documentary covers the remarkable character John Wojtowicz, aka "The Dog," inspiration for the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon about a man who robbed a bank pay for his male lover's gender reassignment surgery. I saw the movie during SXSW earlier this year.

Stunned after watching the intimate portrait from Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, I made my way to meet them during SXSW, at the end of a hotel hallway across from another room where (ironically) Snoop Dogg was also meeting the press. Here's the transcript of our two-on-one interview.

Slackerwood: John Wojtowicz died in 2006. What work or shooting on the film have you done since then?

Frank Keraudren: The first four years we shot John exclusively, maybe a little bit of his mother. After that, we had this blueprint of the film, which was a long monologue with a lot of empty spots on the screen. We had already looked up other people that we wanted to find. It took a long time to track down people, but after John passed away we interviewed all the other people who appear in the film. He knew we were going to talk to them. He was perfectly fine with it, but I think while he was alive a lot of them had been antagonized by him to the point that they didn't really want to deal with him. So that dictated the sequence of events, and it allowed us to flesh out the film and explore scenes like the prison sequence we couldn't really build without finding George, who was the third wife that he married in prison, and stuff like that.

Photo Essay: Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, Post-Renovations

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 Alamo S Lamar & Highball

With little fanfare and zero warning, the eagerly-awaited news went out this week that 1120 South Lamar, the crown jewel and flagship Alamo Drafthouse location, home of Fantastic Fest, gathering place for filmmakers and celebrities, clubhouse for movie geeks, hangout for hipsters, and destination for Austinites of every variety, was to finally emerge, like a phoenix from the ashes (or perhaps like sweet zombie Jesus, if that’s more your thing). Point is: Something this great couldn’t stay dead, and it’s back!

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

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Guardians of the GalaxyWith its post-credits teasers for The Avengers after each superhero movie, Marvel generated excitement and buzz. After seeing Guardians of the Galaxy, I'm convinced that this movie, and not The Avengers, is the ultimate end product that all those scenes were teasing. Written by James Gunn (Super, Slither) and Nicole Perlman, and directed by Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy is a space opera like nothing that's hit screens since Flash Gordon in 1980.

Based on a relatively new addition to the Marvel Comics universe, Guardians of the Galaxy fully realizes the possibilities of a comic book brought to life with phenomenal visuals and a script full of unexpected surprises and laughs. Readers of the series will notice some departures from a strict retelling, including a couple of absent members of the group (who will likely turn up in a sequel), but this is far and away the most colorful, flashy and entertaining release the studio has brought us yet.

Guardians of the Galaxy stars newly-buffed Parks & Rec star Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, aka "Star-Lord," the wisecracking leader of the group -- an unlikely misfit of a superhero with more charisma than Tony Stark. His work as a sort of outer-space Indiana Jones soon lands him in trouble with very dangerous people, and the only way through his predicament is to save the galaxy. He is joined on his quest by the lovely green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and muscle-bound alien Drax (Dave Bautista).  

It is the last two members of the group, however -- Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his bodyguard/companion Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) -- who will provide the best merchandising fodder. While Quill is something of a Luke Skywalker type, young and full of unrealized potential, Rocket and Groot are clear analogues for Han Solo and Chewbacca with a little of R2-D2 and C3PO thrown in the mix. They provide most of the comedic relief to the epic dark galactic struggle in which the story is immersed.

A strong contender for my favorite movie this summer, Guardians of the Galaxy features a feel-good soundtrack of 1970s hits and art direction that seems inspired by visions of Alejandro Jodorowsky. I can't say enough great things about this movie, and I can't wait to get to a theater to see it again.

Review: Earth to Echo

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Earth to EchoWhen watching a release from a first-time director, it's always difficult to know exactly what to expect. Judging by the previews, you might have expected Earth to Echo to be a sophisticated, effects-driven grand adventure on the scale of The Goonies or ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. What you'll get is a charming mashup that pulls its strongest influences from classics like ET, The Goonies and The Iron Giant but never finds enough of its own identity to become more than an "echo" of those sources.

Director Dave Green and writer Henry Gayden, who both worked on the small screen on the series Zombie Roadkill, have assembled a talented cast of relative unknown child actors including Teo Halm (Alex), Brian Bradley (Tuck), Reese Hartwig (Munch), and Ella Wahlestedt (Emma). The most recognizable face is the adult villain Dr. Madsen played by the unlikely Jason Gray-Stanford, best known as police Lt. Randy Disher in Monk. He turns in a very paint-by-numbers performance, but sees little screen time in a story shot entirely from the kids' point of view.

While people are calling Earth to Echo a found footage film, it is set as an autobiographical documentary shot and assembled by the character Tuck. When his friend Alex discovers that any cell phone brought into the vicinity of his house starts to exhibit unusual behavior, the two join their friend Munch, an electronics expert, to investigate. This begins a nighttime adventure as the trio follows clues to discover the tiny robot alien they name "Echo" and help it repair itself.  They are joined later by their classmate and school crush, Emma as they are chased by alien hunter Dr. Madsen.

Green makes the most of a relatively low budget, with f/x used sparingly. In a refreshing departure from the found-footage mode, every shot is from a recognizable source: one of Tuck's cameras, one of the kids' mobile phones or Echo. All are edited by Tuck to tell his story. 

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