Mike Saulters's blog
Humor in the vein of The Hangover or There's Something About Mary has become predictable in its attempts to shock and disgust. We're the Millers is more of the same. The story is so painfully simple, the biggest surprise is that it took four writers (Bob Fisher and Steve Faber of Wedding Crashers and Sean Anders and John Morris of Sex Drive and Hot Tub Time Machine) to bring it to life.
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball), Jason Sudeikis stars as David Clark, a thirtysomething pot dealer who gets in a bind the one time he tries to do the right thing. With his supplier's stash along with his own life savings stolen, David finds himself choosing between death and a simple drug-muling mission across the border in Mexico.
In need of a cover, he recruits neighbors Rose (Jennifer Aniston), Kenny (Will Poulter), and Casey (Emma Roberts) to pose as his white-bread American family. The makeshift family then bonds over the course of a road trip filled with the usual hijinks involving such topics as forced gay sex, incest, wife swapping, attempted rape and the obligatory shots of genital exposure.
Sudeikis is treading water here, playing the straight man through most of the antics against such talented foils as Ed Helms, Luis Guzmán, Kathryn Hahn and Nick Offerman, who gets some of the best material in the script. Though not rich with complex plot, the script is good for a few laughs with a number of clever one-liners.
This is the Wolverine movie we've been waiting for, and waiting for, and waiting for... mostly. Not long after the poorly-received (yet still wildly profitable) X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009 it became clear that a sequel was likely to be made. Unfortunately, with a completed script by Christopher McQuarrie and Darren Aronofsky announced to direct, the project was subjected to delays after the departure of Aronofsky, a script rewrite by Mark Bomback, and the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
Directed by James Mangold, Hugh Jackman returns as The Wolverine in a film that explores the character's personal history and most difficult struggle after a mysterious enemy blocks his healing ability and renders him powerless. The Wolverine takes place after events in X-Men: The Last Stand forced Wolverine to kill his love, Jean Grey. Now dreaming of her every night and vowing to give up his Wolverine persona to never again hurt anyone, Logan has exiled himself to the Yukon to live in isolation. We find him here at the conclusion of an introductory scene, where he dreams of surviving the bombing of Hiroshima and saving the life of a Japanese soldier there.
This was one of my favorite scenes, not only for the vivid and horrifying depiction of nuclear devastation but also because it presents a selfless heroic moment from Logan. It was a powerful way to reacquaint the audience with the character and set the stage for the rest of the film. The strength of that scene gives way, however, to the first of several weak points in the movie.
After coming upon the remains of a hunting party and finding the grizzly who attacked them suffering from poison, Logan is forced to put the bear out of its misery and then immediately abandons his vow to never again hurt anyone. He travels to the nearby town and confronts the lone surviving hunter in a bar. He is soon on the verge of killing everyone in it before being stopped by a mysterious Japanese girl who takes him away, explaining that she was sent by her employer Yashida, the soldier he had saved in Hiroshima.
From this point on, the story is a difficult to follow jumble of characters given too little screen time and who fade out and reappear with shifting motivations and loyalties. Logan is offered the chance to give up his immortality in order to save his dying friend, but he declines the offer. Almost immediately, he finds himself without his healing ability, fighting to save Yashida's granddaughter from Yakuza, who disrupts his funeral to kidnap her.
This is a more personal story that draws heavily (but not without alteration) from the Wolverine comics. Even without his healing ability, Wolverine is still incredibly tough, strong, and wearing an adamantium skeleton. He's almost the only mutant in the movie, but the smaller-scale action and fight choreography are superb. In spite of the few weaknesses in the story and somewhat overdone summer-blockbuster nature of the final-act battle, this is one of the better entries in the X-Men franchise. Be sure to hang around during the credits for a tease a la the lead-ins to The Avengers.
Based on the Dark Horse comic of the same name, R.I.P.D. is a spectacular wild and whimsical buddy-cop action/adventure that critics will excoriate but despite that, will likely find an audience. If the previews and trailers have reminded you of Men in Black, the movie will feel like a trip down memory lane. Directed by Robert Schwentke (Red, The Time Traveler's Wife), R.I.P.D combines elements of MIB with flavors of Beetlejuice, Ghost and hints of many other popular films.
The film plays as if it hopes that by being entirely derivative of hits it will likewise be a hit, and that's what sets off alarm bells in a critic's mind. But try as I might, every time I started to think "Here's where it starts to suck," the movie did something to make me laugh in spite of myself. That's quite an accomplishment for a writing team responsible for flops like Clash of the Titans and Jack the Giant Killer.
Ryan Reynolds stars as Nick Walker, a narcotics detective who during a bust stumbles onto a pile of gold artifacts that he splits with his partner Bobby (Kevin Bacon). The movie begins with Nick burying his half of the loot for safekeeping, but he changes his mind about becoming a dirty cop because of his love for his wife, Julia (Stephanie Szostak). After he tells his partner his plan to drop out and turn in the evidence, both are called to a major drug bust where Nick is murdered.
Transported to the afterlife, Nick lands immediately in front of Mildred Proctor (Mary-Louise Parker), his new commanding officer and orientation advisor in the R.I.P.D. She introduces Roycephus Pulsipher (Jeff Bridges) as his partner, and the two head back to Earth to collect the bad spirits who refuse to stay dead, instead hiding out disguised as humans. Naturally they uncover a larger plan and the fate of the world is in their hands (just like Men in Black).
Bridges affects an exaggerated Texan accent not unlike his role in True Grit, played here for comedic effect. Sample it in this Adult Swim prequel video. He and Reynolds are an unusual team, but they come to work well together. One might also consider them partners with their alter egos (they're not visible to humans as themselves) played by Marisa Miller and James Hong. A number of jokes and visual gags center on this pair, especially the extremely talented Hong.
It's a heavy Austin film news week, so here are some other news tidbits, courtesy of Mike and Jette.
- Right on the heels of Jette's Cinematic Guide to Texas Politics, news hit yesterday that the producers of the Austin-shot film Machete (Jette's review) have filed suit in Travis County District Court against the Texas Film Commission. After being awarded $8 million in incentives to produce the film in Texas, the budget of Robert Rodriguez's film was increased, but the funds were pulled after the commission determined that "inappropriate" content of the film disqualified it from the grant. A sequel to the film, Machete Kills, also filmed in Texas, is opening Fantastic Fest this year. [MS]
- Drafthouse Films announced its acquisition of the North American rights to the Danish hit comedy series Klown. The complete 60-episode TV series, which ran from 2005-2009, is now available on Hulu and Hulu Plus, and will be downloadable from www.klown.tv starting Tuesday, July 23. Drafthouse Films also has distribution rights to the film Klown (J.C.'s review), based on the series, which premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2011. Warner Brothers is planning an English-language remake. [MS]
- Violet Crown Cinema will host a benefit screening of Prince Avalanche (Elizabeth's SXSW review), David Gordon Green's film shot in Central Texas. The event will take place on Thursday, July 25 and will include a cocktail party and post-film Q&A with Green and local composer David Wingo. Fittingly, the proceeds will go to the Heart of Pines Volunteer Fire Association, which still needs help after the Bastrop wildfires in 2011. Tickets are available through Violet Crown. [JK]
- On Thursday night, Austin short filmmakers Umar Riaz, Brian Scofield and Tomas Vengris will screen several of their short films at Alamo Drafthouse Village. The lineup includes two Student Academy Award finalist films, Last Remarks and Kalifornija. You can buy tickets through Tugg. [JK]
Finally, a reminder from Jette: The Austin Chronicle 2013 "Best of Austin" poll is open for you to vote through Monday, July 22. Please do vote, and remember Slackerwood when you are considering the categories of Film Critic, Local Non-Chronicle Publication, News Website and Local Blog. (Or any other category where you think we might fit.)
Though Pixar has an army of fans ready to support it as the animation studio producing the best movies, Dreamworks now has a string of productions that show the Pixar is no longer in a class by itself. Though some wildly popular Dreamworks properties (Shrek, Shark Tale) don't draw critical acclaim, the studio continues to release franchises (Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar) and one-offs (Rise of the Guardians, Monsters vs Aliens) enjoyed by critics and audiences alike. This week along with the teaser announcement of the sequel to the studio's greatest hit, How to Train Your Dragon, comes a surprising little gem best described as something like "Cars meets Charlotte's Web."
With an unknown director (David Soren, in his feature debut) and writers responsible for films like Jack the Giant Slayer and Shrek Forever After, I didn't expect much from Turbo. It turned out to be a surprisingly good time. Ryan Reynolds voices the title character -- Theodore, a young snail obsessed with auto racing who prefers the nickname Turbo. When a wish on a star and a DNA-altering freak accident give him the speed he has always desired, Turbo finds a new home among snails more appreciative of his talents.
Reynolds is joined by an enormous lineup of acting talent that includes Paul Giamatti, Michael Pena, Luis Guzman, Bill Hader, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Kurtwood Smith, Snoop Dogg and Samuel L. Jackson.
Turbo is a contemporary story set in a visibly recognizable Los Angeles, but the script doesn't rely on force-feeding the audience current pop-cultural references for its humor. However, the tagline for the poster, "He's fast. They're furious," however is brought to life in the movie when Turbo finds himself dropped into the middle of a race straight from that franchise.
This scene lands Turbo a spot on my growing list of "3D movies worth watching in 3D," as throughout the film, the technology strongly helps illustrate and enhance the sense of difference in scale between the world of the snails and the humans with whom they come to interact. It's a gorgeous film. Visually, the world of Turbo is much much richer than the simple mollusk characters would lead you to believe.
Do you know what "Tonto" means in Spanish? Apparently in Disney it means "Native American Jack Sparrow," because Johnny Depp's character in The Lone Ranger is a carbon copy of the colorful captain from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Strange, kooky demeanor, operates based on mysterious motives, always has a plan, scorned by his peers, works alone, manipulative, always making trades -- all these traits describe both characters.
There are many other ways director Gore Verbinski appears to have been working from his own notes on the Pirates series: fight choreography like swinging from a rope around a pole, a character playing with a watch much like Sparrow played with a compass, both characters end up in jail cells early in the movie, characters fight atop trains on parallel tracks reminiscent of ships, one of the bad guys likes to dress in women's clothing. If all that weren't enough, Tonto wears a bird on his head, as if to say "Get it? It's a bird, like a sparrow." (Entertainment Weekly has the skinny on the actual inspiration for the character design.)
As a childhood fan of the Lone Ranger, I enjoyed this adaptation scripted by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (two of whom also happen to be veterans of the Pirates series). The Lone Ranger is receiving no love from critics, but in spite of several weaknesses -- including a runtime of 149 minutes --I found much to enjoy. The film may find appreciation at the box office this holiday weekend -- after all, it's working from a well-established formula.
First, the movie is beautifully shot, from the opening scene in 1933 San Francisco (including an homage to The Red Balloon) all across the Old West. Armie Hammer, who is second-billed though playing the title character, is passable but generally unremarkable in the role opposite William Fichtner, who is doing some of his best work as the fiendish ringleader Butch Cavendish, one of the more compelling villians seen in a Disney film.
There is a saying I like to cite that holds the more writers attached to a movie, the worse you can expect it to be. Opening this weekend, World War Z is a shining exception. Starring Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball), World War Z's writing credits include a Who's Who of talent: J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Thor, Underworld: Awakening) and Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play, The Kingdom) developed the story based on Max Brooks' novel of the same name. Carnahan, Drew Goddard (Lost, Cabin in the Woods) and Damon Lindelof then completed the script, which is rumored to include a complete rewrite of the ending. The script issues were part of a larger set of problems with the production that delayed its release by six months (just Google "World War Z production issues"), but the end result is a fine (and family-friendly PG-13) zombie movie.
The first thing fans of Brooks' novels should know is that this is not the same story as the source material. Though there are familiar elements, this story follows Gerry Lane (Pitt), an un-retired UN envoy on a mission around the globe to determine the source and find a cure for the zombie outbreak. The story picks up as the epidemic sweeps across America, angry rabid infectees biting helpless victims who in the space of 12 seconds are converted and join the horde. Compelling sound work and disturbingly graphic visual effects terrify and keep the heart pounding. (Truly, the makeup and creature work needs to be recognized next Oscar season.)
By now you have probably heard at least a hint of the argument between fans of "fast zombies" and "slow zombies." I hope this can put a nail in the coffin of slow-zombie movies. They seem to all devolve into the same tropes, people sitting around arguing about what to do as the writers build up their character development until -- oops -- the zombies have snuck up on them! Slow zombie movies tend to explore psychological aspects of small groups of people in survival situations, and there is admittedly a smattering of this element in World War Z. However, in this fastest of fast-zombie films, there is no time for sitting still. Personal dramas take a back seat to exploring the ways governments and entire nations deal with a problem of biblical proportions.
This is where I feel the script excels and Straczynski's influence is most strongly felt. David Morse appears as a CIA agent with his own theories and a little intel on the plague. His opinions on Israel's involvement drop a supernatural cloak over the mood, and the North Korean "solution" is as fascinating as it is horrifying -- but entirely believable as something only North Korea, in all the world, could accomplish.
At long last the highly anticipated return of America's favorite (and first) superhero has arrived. Scripted by David S. Goyer from a concept he developed with Christopher Nolan, the movie Man of Steel is a retelling of Superman's origin story that draws familiar elements from a number of the comic's modern print storylines. Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) is no stranger to comic-book adaptations, but this is by far his best work and will prove to be the summer film to beat.
Henry Cavill dons the tights this time around, but not before a couple of steamy scenes showing off a physique that is nothing short of... well, super. Though Snyder's film is in many ways the strongest adaptation of the comic books, Cavill is the most realistic portrayal of Supes as a young man, torn with indecision, largely directionless, and unsure of his potential. He still has the unerring moral compass, but his invulnerable skin can't protect his psyche from the emotional pain every time he is ridiculed for being different.
And there is no question he is different. Rather than the perfectly anonymous Clark Kent that might have grown up in 1950s Smallville, the realistic take in Man of Steel shows there are some things just too difficult to hide completely. Everyone knows he's different, but nobody suspects the true story. His early years are played out in nostalgic, contemplative trips he takes down memory lane whenever he is knocked out. Snyder uses this technique to bookend his action sets and provide insight on Clark's mood.
Into this world pops Lois Lane (Amy Adams), likely the strongest example of female empowerment in all comic-book filmdom. Already a Pulitzer Prize winner, the character is an investigative reporter who will put herself in harm's way to get a good story. Finally, we have a Lois who is in character every bit as strong as Superman, a woman who knows the danger she faces and still volunteers for the mission, and who is pivotal in the outcome of the movie's plot. There should be some kind of award for Lois Lane in this movie. Adams is strong but never hard, capable but not forced to fight for recognition. She never has to trade on her looks to get what she wants, and there is never a hint that she would need to.
Once again I find myself asking the question, "WHY does anyone keep letting M. Night Shyamalan make movies?" In 2010 he single-handedly decimated The Last Airbender, creating the sort of flop that not only ends careers but makes people re-examine a director's previous body of work with a sour eye. After that flop he has returned with After Earth, co-written with Gary Whitta, based on a story idea by Will Smith.
Starring Smith and his son Jaden, After Earth is a family-friendly adventure movie that couches itself in the elements of good sci-fi but fails to realize even a hint of the greatness of the films from which it derives. The reason can be boiled down to one simple statement: Good sci-fi doesn't insult the audience's intelligence. After Earth does so in dozens of simple ways.
The basic setup is that 1,000 years in the future, mankind has exploited Earth to the point of uninhabitability and therefore has left to colonize other systems. Somewhere along the way, we met a hostile alien race who rather than attack us with superior technology, sends giant angry sightless monsters that can smell (and track us by) the pheremones released by fear. Smith is the first warrior who can completely suppress his fear, thus making himself invisible to the enemy. Due to a freak accident, he and his son crash-land on Earth and must survive until help arrives.
Before going into any details, even the basic idea has flaws. Aliens that can only track us by scent, and we can't simply wear sealed suits? A thousand years in the future, and we have to fight with bladed weapons instead of guns and lasers?
Getting into the execution of these ideas in the script, even worse problems jump out. A routine flight is forced off course by an "asteroid storm"? In order to effect their rescue, they must recover a distress beacon that for some reason wasn't activated BEFORE the ship crash-landed. These are supposed to be people a thousand years more advanced, but they have been scripted as stupid in unnecessary ways to set up a very contrived plot.
Other blunders in After Earth include an Earth that is a virtual paradise despite nightly flash-freezes worthy of the worst Roland Emmerich threw at his characters in The Day AFter Tomorrow, which is also listed as "Class A deadly" with every life form evolved to kill man ... but the deadliest thing they face is the alien they brought with them; zero remnants of the civilization that supposedly made the planet uninhabitable; unintelligible accents because hey, it's the future and people will talk different; an amputee with no prosthetic in an awkward scene that exists only to set up Smith repeating the line "Stand me up" at the end of the film; and finally, a plot ripped straight from The Matrix, which requires Jaden Smith to effectively become Neo by conquering his mental block and realizing there is no spoon, or in this case, fear.
In 2009, J.J. Abrams accomplished the impossible and successfully negotiated an unwinnable scenario by rebooting the Star Trek franchise with a new cast in a story that maintained continuity -- yet also broke somewhat -- with the establish Trek universe. This reset gave him license to play with the characters in entirely new ways; for instance, the relationship between Uhura and Spock. With the newly released Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams plays with the entire character of the Federation itself, playing out logically the results of events that created his alternate universe and arriving at a colder, harder conclusion that doesn't sit well with many hardcore fans.
Based on his Daily Show appearance this week, in which Abrams explained his goal was to make a movie for moviegoers and not just Star Trek fans, some have said he is only concerned with his film making as much money as possible. My own feeling was that Abrams again succeeded in bringing to life a story that is true to the characters on the Enterprise, but a disturbing departure from Gene Roddenberry's vision of The United Federation of Planets.
This is not the first time Trek fans have seen a darker vision of the future: The clandestine agency known as Section 31 mentioned in Star Trek Into Darkness has appeared a number of times in the various TV shows, which have also hinted at a much darker future for the Federation in centuries to come.
But the events on screen now, in this movie, are the darkest we've seen for the classic Trek characters, aren't they? As much as we might want to blame the effects of Christopher Nolan's Batman films for the darkening of comic-book and sci-fi films, there is precedent for a darker side of the Federation scattered through classic episodes. A 13-year-old Jim Kirk witnessed the massacre of 4,000 colonists by Governor Kodos during a food shortage on Tarsus IV (episode "The Conscience of the King"). The Federation also was known to have violent criminals and treated the criminal behavior as a sickness to be cured via therapy in one of several installations known as asylums ("Whom Gods Destroy").
It is also very well established that pre-Federation history included a series of wars that nearly destroyed civilization on Earth, and that but for the civilizing influence of the Vulcans, the UFP would have been a much more warlike body. In fact, classic Trek includes a mirror universe in which events did play out differently, resulting in a fleet where starship captains murder their way into command.