Mike Saulters's blog

Review: ParaNorman


ParaNormanParaNorman begins with one of the coolest and most unusual scenes ever to appear in what to all outward appearances is a kid's movie, a stop-motion zombie film-within-a-film that itself demonstrates the potential for the animation technique that has yet to be unlocked.

This is just one of many ways in which Laika’s latest production charms and deceives. Beginning with Henry Selick’s award-winning Moongirl, (which played at Fantastic Fest in 2005) and continuing with Coraline in 2009, Laika is building a body of work that marks them as potentially doing for stop-motion what Pixar did for CGI while incidentally making them a much smaller, quirkier competitor.

Yes, ParaNorman is a family-friendly film, but with a sensibility and story that will appeal to adults as much as to their children. Dark humor and creepy moments abound, but the script is full of good chuckles delivered by a talented cast of newcomers supported by extremely notable side characters. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as the title character Norman, steps in from the supremely dark Let Me In to a more kid-friendly role. His pal in the film, Neil is voiced by Tucker Albrizzi, who has a sizable body of TV work but appears for the first time in a feature film here. Rounding out the main cast are Anna Kendrick and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. That supporting cast includes veterans John Goodman, Casey Affleck, Alex Borstein, Bernard Hill and Elaine Stritch.

Written by Chris Butler, who co-directed with Sam Fell, there is more than just a creepy, funny film about witches and zombies here.  ParaNorman contains a strong message about bullying among children and why many do it.  As a kid obsessed with the macabre who can talk to ghosts, Norman is victimized daily by schoolmate Alvin (Mintz-Plasse). His friend Neil with good-natured innocence explains matter-of-factly how he lets taunts and insults roll off his back. He unknowingly gives Norman the perspective he needs to save the day and become a hero.

'Searching for Sonny' Tour Hits Austin Next Week

Andrew Disney 

The Texas-produced feature film Searching For Sonny is on tour around Texas this month as part of the Texas Independent Film Network's Fall 2012 program. It returns to Austin after having its world premiere at Austin Film Festival 2011. After winning 13 major awards on the festival circuit -- including the Best of Fest at the Hill Country Film Festival -- writer/director Andrew Disney (pictured above) will be at the screening when the roadshow lands in Austin next week.

You can buy tickets now to see the Fort Worth-shot movie at the Violet Crown Cinema on Tuesday, August 21 at 7:30 pm. I saw it at AFF and my review describes it as "kinky and subversive, dark and outrageous." Here's my synopsis from that review:

"Jason Dohring stars as Elliot Knight, an unsuccessful 28-year-old pizza delivery driver. Jason receives a surprise invitation to his 10-year class reunion from his estranged best friend, Sonny (Masi Oka). As soon as he arrives at the reunion, he meets up with twin brother Calvin (Nick Kocher) and classmate Gary (Brian McElhaney). Together, the three of them set out to find Sonny, following clues left on their postcard invitations, and uncover a larger scheme involving their former high-school principal."

Review: The Campaign


The Campaign"War has rules, mud wrestling has rules -- politics has no rules."
--Ross Perot

This quote opens the new movie The Campaign, directed by Jay Roach of the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents series. Scripted by Chris Henchy (Land of the Lost) and Shawn Harwell (Eastbound & Down), this raunchy political comedy takes Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis through an escalating battle of wills guided by the Perot quote.

Though the humor is tongue-in-cheek, there is no pretense at subtlety in this film. Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow play the Motch brothers, parodies of real-life industrialists the Koch brothers. Hoping to profit from the passage of unprecedented labor and environmental laws in Congress, the pair decide to back Zach Galifianakis' Marty Huggins in a race against previously unopposed candidate Cam Brady (Will Ferrell). Thus begins a rivalry that takes the pair through such incidents as baby punching and snake dancing.

While aiming a very sardonic mirror at the American electorate and electoral process, The Campaign concerns itself with a focus on the undue influence of money in the politics of both parties and switches around the stereotypical roles of each party. As Cam Brady, Ferrell looks and spouts rhetoric vaguely like a caricature of Republican George W Bush, though the character is a Democrat. His opponent Marty Huggins, though Republican, dresses and acts like the misfit lovechild of Stuart Smalley and Leslie Jordan and speaks up for the little guys.

Driven by their campaign managers (Jason Sudeikis and an aggressively sleazy Dylan McDermott), the candidates find their poll numbers go up each time they commit increasingly objectionable acts and alienate their families.

Between Talladega Nights and The Campaign, Will Ferrell has shown he gives some of his best performances playing rednecks and Southerners. He's hilarious in this movie, as is Galifianakis. Some of the funniest moments, however, are in scenes with the supporting cast. Karen Maruyama and Jack McBrayer in particular steal the show. Well timed for release in the middle of a national election season, The Campaign is a refreshing and hilarious look at politics that doesn't devolve into political rhetoric.

Review: Total Recall


Total RecallAn important rule in film criticism is to review the movie you saw, not the one you wanted to see.  That's ironic, since the hero of Total Recall is a guy who gets into trouble for trying to have his fantasies implanted in his brain as memories and thus experience what he wanted to see. It's also a relatively impossible rule to follow for a film that is itself a reimagining of something as iconic as Paul Verhoeven's 1990 adaptation of the 1976 Philip K. Dick story 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.'  The number one question in every fan's mind is "Will it be as good?"

So, a little background refresher about one of my all-time favorite films, which I will assume you have seen at least once. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Douglas Quaid, a miner on Earth who nightly dreams that he is on Mars with an exotic beautiful woman who is definitely not his wife. Frustrated by his boring life, Quaid visits a business called Rekall that performs mind-altering procedures to create the memories of a vacation at a fraction of the cost of a real trip to Mars. However, it is discovered before the secret-agent portion of his memory implant is completed that Quaid actually IS a secret agent from Mars whose mind has been altered to keep him safely out of commission. Immediately attacked by his handlers, including his "wife," he escapes and travels to Mars, where he meets the beautiful girl from his dreams, Mileena. Together, they uncover the plot of evil Martian dictator Vilos Cohaagen who controls the air supply. After uncovering the remainder of Quaid's memories with the help of the telepathic leader of the Martian resistance, they activate an alien terraforming machine that frees the people from reliance on Cohaagen's air.

Verhoeven's tale expanded Dick's short story, which was more cerebral with little action, into a blockbuster adventure that originally was to receive a rating of X for extreme violence until shots were re-edited. For the 2012 re-adaptation, Kurt Wimmer (Ultraviolet, The Thomas Crown Affair, Sphere) and Mark Bomback (Unstoppable, Live Free or Die Hard) have penned a screenplay directed by Len Wiseman (Underworld, Live Free or Die Hard) that removes many of the most fantastic elements replacing them with a solidly earthbound plot. Total Recall is an action-packed homage to Verhoeven's 1990 film, painted with a visual palette mixture of Ridley Scott, Luc Besson and Spielberg's Minority Report. The stunning visuals and superb score by Harry Gregson-Williams, however, can't fill the empty pit resulting from the removal of the Martian plotline.

Local Success Mondo Tees Hits New Sales Milestone


The Dark Knight Rises by Olly MossAlamo Drafthouse spinoff Mondo Tees has reached a new milestone.  The boutique store opened in the original downtown Drafthouse location on Colorado, selling t-shirts and custom posters for Drafthouse events.

Over time, Mondo has built a powerhouse brand name working with in-demand poster artists and building a license portfolio for major film franchises. Sales of the extremely limited-run print editions have become notorious for selling out mere seconds after being announced.

Since the debut of the new Mondo gallery during SXSW this March, three month-long shows have featured a theme or artist resulting in dozens more sold-out pieces, which inevitably can be found on eBay listed for prices several times the original cost of purchase (at least). Mondo has also worked with studios to produce several posters given only to attendees of midnight film openings at IMAX locations.

This week, fresh from a San Diego Comic Con trip selling a number of show-exclusive prints, Mondo announced a first-of-a-kind sale for the store. (The trip itself followed the announcement Mondo had acquired the license for a run of posters featuring the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films.)  

For 24 hours on July 18, Mondo would accept orders for a poster by fan-favorite artist Olly Moss commemorating the opening of the final entry in Christopher Nolan's Batman series, The Dark Knight Rises. Rather than specifying the usual limited run of 200 to 400 prints, the edition size would be determined solely by the number of orders placed that day. No problems with overloaded servers, no problems with selling out, no dreaded eBay "flippers," just a really cool poster that any fan could have for $40.

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man


The Amazing Spider-Man2012 is perhaps not the best year to launch a reboot of the wildly successful Spider-Man franchise, halfway between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Both films have or will have their respective groups of fans making cases they're the best superhero movies ever made. This year sees the release of numerous other comic or comic-related films, Chronicle, Ghost Rider, John Carter, Dark Shadows, Prometheus, the aforementioned Avengers and Dark Knight, and today, The Amazing Spider-Man.

We may one day look on this as the golden year of comic movies, though one must admit it has been hit (Avengers) or miss (Ghost Rider). Director Marc Webb's (500 Days of Summer) The Amazing Spider-Man falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

While in my mind the movie is a marked improvement from the near franchise-killer of an entry (Spider-Man 3) Sam Raimi wrote and directed in 2007, the competition this year is stiff. And so, I join the chorus of critics who have problems with this film.

Let's start with the length. The Amazing Spider-Man is 136 minutes co-scripted by the screenwriter of Zodiac, James Vanderbilt (along with Steve Kloves and previous Spider-Man scripter Alvin Sargent). It is full of lengthy, repeat LENGTHY conversations, which include more technobabble than the average season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are a couple of stretches later in the film where one begins to lose interest because of this frequency and type of dialogue.

There are elements of the story which frankly make no sense. For instance, Peter is able to track the villian, The Lizard, by following thousands of smaller lizards which appear throughout the city for no particular reason. Their presence is never noted by any other characters, nor explained by any hint of dialogue.

Moving on, my strongest complaint is the derivative feel of many elements in the film. The basic facts of Spider-Man's origin are so well known, almost anyone can recite the story like a modern nursery rhyme. And they were covered 10 years ago in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movie. So when writing a reboot, do you stick with the facts or concoct a new story, keeping most of the important elements but including details that make it feel like a cross between the Superman and Batman origins? This is owing in no small part to the influence of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy on comic adaptations, but there are other examples to point out.

Review: Your Sister's Sister


Your Sister's Sister

Already in limited release, Your Sister's Sister opens wide this week. This charming comedy written and directed by Lynn Shelton, like her previous film Humpday, tackles an unconventional sexual situation.

Jack (Mark Duplass) is unemployed and lacks direction in life. Frustration at the untimely death of his brother Tom and life in general prompts an angry outburst at the group of friends gathered for a wake. Consoling him, best friend and brother's partner Iris (Emily Blunt) tells him to spend some time at her father's island cabin. There, with no TV, no phone and no distractions, he'll be able to clear his head and find a renewed sense of purpose.

Jack bikes out to the island (taking a ferry) and arrives to find the cabin is already occupied by Iris's sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), a lesbian who has just ended her seven-year relationship and plans to drink her cares away. Together, they empty a bottle of tequila, and after Jack confesses his attraction Hannah agrees to sleep with him.  When Iris arrives the next morning, the stage is set for the eventual revelations that all three have been keeping secrets from each other.

With only a 70-page script, the dialogue in Your Sister's Sister was largely improvised, giving it a natural and believable feel. The movie was shot in 12 days in Seattle, and the camera frequently cuts to stunning swaths of Washington landscape. With its extremely small cast of characters and limited number of locations, and clocking only about 90 minutes, this would have worked quite well as a stage play.  

With that abbreviated script, Shelton foregoes many details, resulting in characters with amorphous backgrounds. By the end of the film we still know almost nothing about Jack except that he's unemployed, lacks direction in life, and likes to cook. Hannah's occupation and Iris's exact relation to Jack's brother Tom are likewise unclear. As with a watercolor painting, the details are less important than the general impressions, and though we know little of the characters' backstories, they are no less believable. They are caught up in a mutual turning point in their lives, and we are in it with them.

Review: Rock of Ages


Rock of Ages

Tom Cruise proves you can't teach an old dog new tricks -- in this case, singing. Rock of Ages, a $70 million adaptation of the Broadway musical, brings rock to the Glee set. Unfortunately, it includes really bad vocal performances from Cruise, who has turned up the crazy past 11 to Rutger Hauer for his performance as a washed-up glam rocker. As burned-out hair band leader Stacee Jaxx, he twists and gyrates across the screen, thrusting a demon-head codpiece and spouting nonsensical philosophy. It is a character and a performance devoid of any subtlety.

Cruise takes backstage to the real star of the movie, Julianne Hough, last seen starring in Craig Brewer's 2011 remake of Footloose (my review). Here she proves she can not only dance but is also a talented singer, as is costar Diego Boneta. Duets with the two of them work well and showcase their natural chemistry. Their rendition of "More Than Words" was more enjoyable than the original.

Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand are practically in their own movie-within-a-movie, and a film about just their characters would be more interesting than Rock of Ages was.

Mary J. Blige also appears in the film, and her mashup with Hough of "Harden My Heart" and "Shadows of the Night" was one of the most enjoyable numbers, as well as best suited to the action. Another mashup of "We Built This City" and "We're Not Gonna Take It" featuring Brand and Catherine Zeta-Jones doesn't work quite as well. Jones is the antagonist, as the wife of newly-elected mayor Bryan Cranston. Sadly, Cranston is barely used as more than set decoration.

The real problem with Rock of Ages (besides Cruise's singing) is that the movie feels too much like a Broadway musical. The first three scenes follow Hough as random strangers sing at her about personal details of her life, starting with "Sister Christian" sung by fellow bus passengers. Not unusual for stage musicals, but it prompted sniggers from the audience to help clear the cheese fog it left hanging in the room. It is difficult to compare to films like Chicago or Moulin Rouge; they're in a different class. The story is simpler, and the music doesn't gel as well in general.

#SeeSinister: Local Writer's Horror Film Gets a Trailer



Summit Entertainment began the marketing push last night for Austin screenwriter C. Robert Cargill's film Sinister, which will be released this October. Fangoria had the scoop on the trailer, which went live at midnight EST, and is now available at the movie's official site.

Sinister stars Ethan Hawke as a true crime novelist who decides to move to a house with a grisly past as an inspiration to help recapture his writing success. The movie previewed in Austin as a secret screening during SXSW earlier this year.

Along with the release of the trailer, Summit moderated a live Q&A via Twitter, passing on questions from fans to Cargill (@Massawyrm), co-writer and director Scott Derrickson (@scottderrickson), star Ethan Hawke (@EHawkeOfficial), and producer Jason Blum (@blumhouse). You can reread the chat using the #SeeSinister hashtag on Twitter.

Though I recommend going into the movie cold, as I was able to do at SXSW, the trailer (should you want to see it) is embedded after the jump. Prepare yourself for the most disturbing trailer for the scariest movie all year.

Slackerwood's previous coverage of Sinister:

Review: Madagascar 3


Madagascar 3My expectations were low for Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted. By the time most children's series have become trilogies, they've devolved into tired rehashes of past plotlines barely fit for plasma, much less silver screens ... not unlike Shrek 3. The strongest counterexample to this rule is Disney's Toy Story 3, an achievement the likes of which few animated movies will ever hope to approach.

Like its furry protagonists, Madagascar 3 breaks the rules, making for an enjoyable and fun-filled trip to the cinema.

Returning stars Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, and Jada Pinkett Smith are joined by Sacha Baron Cohen, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Tom McGrath, Jessica Chastain, Bryan Cranston, Martin Short and Frances McDormand, who voices a character modeled heavily based on Lucile Ball.

If that stellar cast wasn't enough, the music and visual gags -- including several homages to Inception -- make the movie fun for adults as well as kids.

Directed by co-writer Eric Darnell (Antz, Madagascar, Madagascar 2), Tom McGrath (Madagascar, Megamind, Madagascar 2), and Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2, Monsters vs Aliens), it is Noah Baumbach's (The Life Aquatic, Fantastic Mr. Fox) co-writing that helps lift the Madagascar circus to the highest platform.

Madagascar 3 stands alone well, even if you haven't seen the first two movies in the series. Dreamworks Animation's artists have outdone themselves with the two circus performances that provide the 3D payoff. The rest of the film would have been best left in 2D, but these spectacular scenes are worth the price of admission. All rainbows and sparkles, some might call them the fruition of the gay master plan, but they're a hell of a good show.

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages will all find something to love in this explosive conclusion to the Madagascar trilogy.

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