Mike Saulters's blog

Catching 'Twister' at the Rolling Roadshow Drive-In


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.

Review: Rise of the Guardians


Rise of the Guardians

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.

Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2


Breaking Dawn pt 2The 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.

Review: Wreck-It Ralph


Wreck-It RalphIn 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.

Review: Cloud Atlas


Cloud AtlasLast 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.

Review: Chasing Mavericks


Chasing MavericksChasing 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.

Review: Alex Cross


Alex Cross"Tyler Perry should probably stick to comedy," was my initial reaction to his first feature performance in a dramatic role. With Alex Cross, director Rob Cohen (Dragonheart, xXx) delivers a cinematic weak tea. Based on the James Patterson novel Cross, this unremarkable film plays like one of Will Smith's rejected scripts.

Perry's performance is by no means the worst part of the movie. Cohen's use of shaky-cam here rivals J.J. Abrams' obsessive overuse of lens flare. A warning to anyone prone to motion sickness should be presented upon purchase of a ticket. Many scenes -- even non-action scenes -- look like they were shot from a helmet-cam worn on top of Richard Simmons's head. This spoils the view of some really interesting locations.

The showstopper, though, is Matthew Fox, who underwent an intense regimen of mixed martial arts to physically transform himself for a film that barely shows the results. He will be remembered for his role in Alex Cross as one of cinema's most absurd villians, known only as Picasso, a man who literally gets off on watching other people suffer. Fox alternates between a bug-eyed expression akin to someone suffering constipation when he's supposed to be angry (or thoughtful or anything else) and a disturbing beatific closed-eyes smile as if experiencing the big "O" moments after hearing someone scream in pain.

The script sets up the inevitable fight between these two characters: the aforementioned Picasso, a super-assassin who is supposed to be undetectable and untraceable, and Alex Cross, a super-detective who is supposed to be able to "tell you had scrambled eggs for breakfast from 100 yards away." But instead of a cat-and-mouse game, it's more like cat-and-cat food. Cross never has to struggle to track down the world's greatest assassin, who then has no trouble locating the hero and situating himself in a hotel room across the street with a sniper rifle anytime, day or night.

Review: Seven Psychopaths


Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths, opening this weekend, is the second feature from writer/director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges). A hilariously dark comedy, the story revolves around Marty (Colin Farrell), a screenwriter caught up in a chase over a mob boss's stolen shih tzu. An alcoholic drinking himself into forgetfulness every night, Marty reluctantly accepts the screenwriting help of his friend Billy (Sam Rockwell), who happens to be a professional dog thief. Together they chronicle the ensuing shenanigans -- both writing, and narrating, the movie in which they're characters.

To detail the ways in which the rest of the characters are inroduced would be far too revealing of the plot. It should suffice to say that each player in this self-referential and often self-mocking movie connects in unique, interesting, and generally hilarious ways. While it's popular of late to cast well known faces against type, everyone here is decidedly playing himself, or in the case of Christopher Walken, an exagerrated version of himself. Among several subtle nods to their prior roles, I found references to Walken's part in The Prophecy particularly on the nose.

Woody Harrelson pulls off a unique performance as a completely bad-ass and at once equally pathetic mob boss who accounts for 50 percent of the comedic material in Seven Psychopaths. The other 50 percent being, of course, Sam Rockwell, and an entirely sublime additional 100 percent from Tom Waits' brief appearance. The female characters are poorly written, however, with nothing to say except one or two one-liners before they're killed.

The one exception is Linda Bright Clay as Walken's wife. Trapped in a hospital and dying of cancer, she receives daily visits from husband Hans (Walken). Her strong, resigned dramatic performance defines the matte against which McDonagh places the film's more ludicrous scenes, masterfully contrasting real life against the farce with which he has enveloped the audience.

Just as the script of Seven Psychopaths mocks itself, it likewise mocks the genre tropes on which it's built, giving viewers what they have been programmed to want to see and then yanking the rug out from under them and feeding them something completely different. The tone brings Quentin Tarantino to mind, but only in the vaguest sense. This is something wholly its own.

aGLIFF Polari 2012 Dispatch: Balloons, Bears and Bullying Teens


My Saturday at aGLIFF Polari began with the Family Films shorts program. This kid-friendly screening included three fantastical tales -- two of them new and one a timeless classic.

First up was The Maiden and the Princess, one of the most delightful shorts I've seen lately, about a girl in need of a different kind of fairy tale and a rogue storyteller determined to see that she gets it. Familar faces David Anders and Julian Sands topped the cast list of this short directed by Ali Scher who co-wrote with Joe Swanson.

Deflated, the second short in the program, is a local production by writer and director Dustin Shroff. A young boy is forced by convention into choosing the one green ball from a store display when the one he really wants, like all the others, is pink. Deflated was not only short, sweet and to the point, it was also accessible even to the youngest children in the audience. The program concluded with a vintage short, the 1956 winner of Cannes' Palme d'Or, The Red Balloon.

My second selection for Saturday was Heavy Girls, an offbeat German film that explores a love affair between a lonely middle-aged bear and the straight, married caretaker of his elderly mother. When independent film was described as "gay cowboys eating pudding," this is the sort of movie that might come to mind.

What begins as quirky and light-hearted evolves into something completely weird and almost wonderful, but ultimately ends on an abrupt and pointless note. The characters were uninteresting and unlikable. Extended plodding scenes filled with classical music droned the audience to sleep, and the plot was so lazy and meandering it felt completely disjointed from the sudden way the film ended. There was a little to like here, but unfortunately, it was sandwiched between too much dead material.

aGLIFF Polari 2012 Dispatch: 'Cloudburst' and 'Zombadings'



The newly-rebranded aGLIFF Polari film festival kicked off Wednesday evening at the Stateside Theatre with an introduction from Film Programming Director Curran Nault, who explained his philosophy of diversity and inclusiveness in the programming selections this year. He then presented Queer Youth Media Project student Valentina Weatherspoon, who showed two short films she made: Not My Type and Sick Kids, both of which were under 2 minutes and showed great potential for a first-time filmmaker. A third short, an experimental piece called A Place for Us, left the audience bemused before the opening-night feature, Cloudburst (pictured above).

Cloudburst, directed by Thom Fitzgerald, stars Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker as Stella and Dot, a lesbian couple in their seventies who have been together for over 30 years. A health scare prompts Dot's granddaughter to trick the blind old woman into signing a power of attorney, and then forcibly removes her to be placed in a nursing home. Stubborn and rightfully upset, Stella sneaks Dot out, and they decide to go to Canada where they can be legally married. They encounter Prentice (Ryan Doucette), a twentysomething modern dancer hitchhiking north to see his dying mother, and develop an unusual relationship with him.

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