Mike Saulters's blog

Review: Piranha 3DD

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Piranha 3DDIn 2010, Alexandre Aja created a surprisingly fun spring-break horror remake, Piranha 3D. Written by two writers known for the acclaimed TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, critics raved about it. Horror-movie fans enjoyed it, and the film made back several times its budget in worldwide box office. Two years later, director John Gulager has filmed a sequel written by horror veterans Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton of the Feast and Saw series: Piranha 3DD.

Set this time in a water park, the premise of Piranha 3DD is decidedly weaker than its predecessor. In Aja's film, the spring-break crowd at a popular lake is attacked by prehistoric monsters released from an underground lake by seismic activity. Victims in a lake far from shore are vulnerable, and there is much carnage.

Ignoring for a moment that a water park is a sealed system, in Piranha 3DD no potential victim is more than a few feet from an exit at any given time, and most of the pools are quite shallow. Going back to that sealed system I mentioned, a majority of the film deals with how to get the piranha from natural waterways into the chemically treated pools.

Gulager has chosen to go for a more comedic atmosphere, de-emphasizing the horror aspect. As a result, Piranha 3DD definitely differentiates itself from the previous outing. Sad to say it falls flat, as an over-the-top T&A-sploitation lacking in any suspense or fear for the characters, most of whom are more unlikable than one would expect even from this kind of film. The creature design is more cartoony and looks fake, and the fish never seem to even reach their prey. In a Piranha film, the audience should be afraid to even think about putting a toe in the water, while Gulager has these fish tickling people and swimming into their various orifices to take a nap.

Perhaps the worst failure here is marketing Piranha 3DD as the first Piranha film shot entirely in native 3D (Aja's was shot in 2D and post-converted). In fact, anything shot in or near the water looks awful. There were headache-inducing issues with focus, glare and convergence that made many shots virtually unwatchable. Tickets to this shouldn't have a premium charge for 3D; patrons should be paid for having to watch it in 3D.

Review: Mansome

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MansomeDirector Morgan Spurlock has a talent for making insightful, engaging, and informative documentaries. Unfortunately, that talent is not in view for his latest film, Mansome. This movie is supposed to "explore the question: In the age of manscaping, metrosexuals, and grooming products galore -- what does it mean to be a man?" The answer, it would seem, is to be a vain, pompous, insecure stereotype.

The names Spurlock interviews for Mansome include Judd Apatow, Adam Carolla, Zach Galifianakis, Isaiah Mustafa, Paul Rudd, John Waters ... and as he likes to do, Spurlock himself gets in front of the camera briefly, to shave his mustache. The most interesting subjects are executive producers Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, who almost appear to be channeling their Arrested Development characters as they spend a day at a spa getting massages, facials and taking baths together.

The documentary starts with examining facial hair -- and seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on the subject -- and concludes this section with about 15 minutes focusing on the winner of a beard contest, who has an unkempt mane that descends past his groin. That was the first time this snoozer put me to sleep. After that, we're shown a focus group testing a new product called "Fresh Balls" that is, yes, an anti-perspirant for male organs.

Moving on, Mansome covers body hair and then head hair before concluding with Ricky, a clothing buyer and self-described metrosexual who appears to equate vanity with self-confidence. If they made this movie presenting women in this way, it would be called sexist and anti-feminist.

In exploring what it means to be a man, Spurlock focuses only on the superficial and avoids any internal answers to the question as he presents these vain, arrogant, even asinine subjects as being just as superficial and worried about appearance as women. Oh yes, I suppose Mansome IS sexist and anti-feminist. Only recommended if you're a huge fan of any of the above interview subjects.

Review: The Dictator

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The DictatorSacha Baron Cohen, best known for his MTV comedy series Da Ali G Show, achieved wild success translating his TV characters to the big screen in the 2006 movie Borat. Reception for his 2009 release Bruno, however, was deservedly lukewarm. Both films relied upon anonymity for the enormously talented actor as he put unsuspecting everyday people in the spotlight saying and doing extremely rude and outrageous things. His fame has made it relatively impossible for Cohen to remain incognito, so we are unlikely to see those kinds of performances from him again.

The Dictator, directed by Borat and Bruno filmmaker Larry Charles, plays like an attempt by Cohen to script the kind of insanity he achieved with Borat. His character, General Admiral Haffaz Aladeen, is the born dictator of the fictional African nation of Waadeya (actually depicted in the movie with the current borders of Eritrea), a Red Sea state that appears to be a caricature of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Threatened with U.N. sanctions and a possible invasion by the U.S., Aladeen and his advisors travel to New York to address the U.N. in person.

Once in NYC, Aladeen is abducted as part of a murder plot from which he escapes, and then must find his way back into the U.N., stop the coup to replace him, and win the affections of his heart's desire. Cohen performs each scene as he would with one of his live characters. The other actors, however, generally fail to react as the jokes fly over their heads to the audience. As people meet Aladeen, they overlook or ignore some of the most offensive things he says as if attributing them to language barrier problems.

Indeed, some very offensive things are said in The Dictator, offensive if you ignore the tongue-in-cheek delivery of this caricature-within-a-caricature. Groups were already protesting the movie last week on these grounds. Cohen genuinely made me laugh several times with jokes that are neither insensitive or racially offensive, and it was these moments that made for an enjoyable experience. The people most offended by this movie will probably be Bush-supporting Republicans, as there is a very strong anti-Republican party message here.

Review: The Avengers

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The AvengersMarvel's The Avengers, which opened Friday, is the best superhero/comic-book adaptation ever made. Filmmaker Joss Whedon proves he's the man who can bring together characters with godlike talents (and egos) and effortlessly make them play in his arena. This is the week's hottest release, and you want to be there.

If you've been living on another planet, then you might not know that Marvel has been working up the hype machine for this weekend's big release. Starting with post-credit teases after Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor and Captain America, Marvel has goaded fans into a fever of excitement. After such a build-up, it would be a catastrophe if the movie failed to deliver, but Joss Whedon writing and directing is at a career-high.

Whedon sets up the threat that brings all the now-familiar characters together, then he lets them face off as their super-powered egos bring their tempers to a boil before finally turning their attention back to the enemy that's threatening to destroy Earth.

That kind of juggling act is difficult with a normal ensemble cast, but doing it with names like Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hiddleston and Robert Downey Jr., and making it feel natural, is unfathomable. How do you reconcile the different power levels of these characters, which range from being literally a god to being land-bound and very vulnerable? It's done masterfully, as each hero proves to have unique skills that together produce the best team action ever filmed.

The only variable, the only big hulking question about The Avengers is Mark Ruffalo's performance as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. We've seen all the other characters in films within the last year. Ruffalo is a phenomenal actor, but after two previous actors' interpretations of the role, would his be some mashup of their styles? Would it be something new? Or would it be over-the-top?

Banff Mountain Film Festival in Austin This Weekend

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From the film Sfinga

If you're looking for something to do this weekend, the Paramount Theatre will host the annual two-night event of the travelling Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour. In their own words, the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour brings Banff to audiences around the globe. Each year, a selection of the best films goes on tour across Canada, the US and internationally travelling to 32 countries at over 635 screenings.

Saturday night at 8 pm, National Geographic presents the Radical Reels Tour, a selection of the most high-adrenaline sport films. On Sunday at 6 pm, National Geographic, The North Face and Parks Canada present The Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, which includes inspiring action, environmental and adventure films from the festival. Both presentations are brought to you by Whole Earth Provision Company.

Review: American Reunion

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American ReunionThey're back and at it again. If you haven't had your fill of over-boozed, over-sexed, scatological fraternological make-you-squirm-in-your-seat humor, the American Pie crew will take care of you. The franchise that began with American Pie, continued with American Pie 2, American Wedding, American Pie Presents: The Naked Mile now returns for a 13th-year American Reunion.

Actually, American Reunion is a worthy comedy, from the writer-director team of Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg who wrote all three Harold and Kumar movies. Not that a film like this could be said to have a moral, but you could say there seems to be an underlying message that "The family who plays together stays together." As series protagonist Jim Levenstein (Jason Biggs) and wife Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), though happily married, find their sex life waning, they decide to spice things up in one of the most unlikeliest places imaginable: on a trip to their high-school reunion.

This reunion gathers together all the old crew including Oz (Chris Klein), Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Stifler (Seann William Scott) as well as Vicky (Tara Reid), Heather (Mena Suvari), Stifler's Mom (Jennifer Coolidge), and Jim's Dad (Eugene Levy). Newcomers to the series will enjoy it, but American Reunion is packed with inside jokes that reward fans of the previous films. There are also a few memorable cameos from the likes of Neil Patrick Harris and John Cho. While Stifler gets most of the meaty material, Levy is the most experienced comedic actor, and his scenes are the best in the movie.

In the days leading up to the reunion, Jim and Michelle just want to spend a night together recreating their first time. But Stifler keeps getting the group into wilder, hairier situations. Complicating matters is the girl next door Jim used to babysit, Kara (Ali Cobrin), who is now old enough to act out her childhood fantasies. Jim spends most of the movie trying to get out of sticky situations caused by Kara (or apologizing and trying to explain them). Naturally, by the end everything is wrapped up and ready for a future installment.

Scare for a Cure Haunting a New Location

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Many people in Austin love to keep it weird through their love of the macabre and the strange. For instance, you can catch a tour of haunted locations in town seated in the back of a hearse with Haunted ATX or you can visit the Museum of the Weird. Austin is very fortunate in this regard to lay claim to Scare for a Cure. This volunteer organization not only puts on one of the largest haunted attractions in the country every year, it also raises thousands of dollars for local charities.

For the last several years, Scare for a Cute has operated on property owned by Richard Garriott (Ultima creator, founder of Origin Games). Unfortunately, environmental concerns have forced the organization to seek a new home. That new home has been found, and this weekend preparations began for the haunt that will take place in October. The new location is at the J Lorraine Ghost Town in Manor. This location will be familiar to many local film fans as the site of the Fantastic Fest 2010 closing-night party.

For those unfamiliar with the spot, I've posted a few photos after the jump. Scare for a Cure requires thousands of man-hours, and utilizes cinematic effects created by volunteers from local movie production companies. New volunteers are always welcome.

New Thomas Smith Collection Brings 'Raiders' and 'Empire' to Austin

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ILM Book CoverHave you visited the Harry Ransom Center? This world-class museum on the grounds of The University of Texas at Austin is perhaps best known for housing one of only five complete copies in the U.S. of the Gutenberg Bible. Or you may have heard the collection includes the world's first photograph taken in 1826. The Ransom Center's collection doesn't just include old books, photos and paintings. It is also home to cultural materials including film, digital, and other media.

Film collections at the Ransom Center include those of producer David O. Selznick; actor, producer and director Robert De Niro; screenwriters Paul Schrader, Ernest Lehman and Jay Presson Allen; actress Gloria Swanson; and early special-effects creator Norman Dawn. The museum also has some of the original costumes from Gone with the Wind, which will be featured in an exhibit this fall.

Slackerwood received word this week that Thomas Smith, visual effects producer for such films as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark -- and the first head of Industrial Light and Magic -- has donated his collection to the Ransom Center. 

Smith's extensive collection documents his professional work through the 1980s and 1990s. The 22 boxes contain special-effects storyboards, screenplay drafts, scripts, pre-production research, production materials, newspaper clippings, photographs and published materials such as fan magazines and cinematography periodicals. The papers also contain material relating to Smith's time at ILM and Lucasfilm.

The HRC plans to make the collection accessible, and hopefully will include some of it in an upcoming exhibition, once the cataloging is done. In the meantime, you can see Smith himself -- he'll be at UT on April 19 to talk about his career, as part of the Harry Ransom Lecture series.

The full press release from HRC is reprinted below.

Have You Been to Austin Jewish Film Festival Yet?

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Ongoing this week is the Austin Jewish Film Festival, which is taking place at the Regal Arbor Cinema (9828 Great Hills Trail).

The mission of AJFF is to "provide Central Texans with a collection of the best current Jewish films from around the world." Operating since 2001, the film festival offers Austin audiences a view into the vitality and variety of the Jewish experience.

Tonight -- Wednesday, March 28 -- is Polish Heritage Night, featuring the short HAMSA: The Pointed Question and the feature Joanna at 7 pm. Joanna (2010) details the story of a waitress in Krakow who brings home a seven-year-old girl to hide her from the Germans until her secret is discovered by an officer inspecting her apartment.

At 9 pm, AJFF presents Little Rose, a story of intrigue and a love triangle between a Polish policeman, his girlfriend, and the professor he has been assigned to investigate for collusion with western anti-communist groups.

The festival runs through Friday, March 30. Tickets are available at the theater. For more details about this year's AJFF selections, read Chale's preview.

Review: The Hunger Games

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The Hunger GamesViewers who haven't read the novel on which the movie The Hunger Games is based will not find themselves in unfamiliar territory. The concepts in the film are as old as science fiction.

Fans of the series by Suzanne Collins will already know the setup for the story. In a post-world-war setting, one boy and one girl from each of 12 districts are chosen to compete in a live televised fight to the death. In poverty-stricken District 12, which includes the coal mines of the former Virginia, the candidates are chosen by random drawing. Starving children can purchase food at the cost of additional entries in the drawing.

Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), having just come of age, has only a single entry in the drawing but is unlucky enough to be chosen. Her 16-year-old sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) steps up as the district's first-ever volunteer so Primrose will not have to compete and inevitably die.

If the ensuing story seems familiar, it may be because you are familiar with another work, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, wherein Dorothy (Katniss) accompanied by her dog Toto (Peeta Mellark, the most convincing role Josh Hutcherson has yet to play) is whisked along the yellow-brick road (high-speed maglev train) where she encounters the Cowardly Lion (Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket), the Tin Woodsman, and The Scarecrow (combined here in Woody Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy).

At the end of the road, they reach the Emerald City (the capital) where the Wizard (Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman) gives the brave heroine the task of killing the witch (the other contestants) ... and after that, the good witch (Donald Sutherland as President Snow) can send her home. Elements of the story are laced with political satire, and her actions start the ball rolling for a regime change. Nothing exactly new, but lack of originality doesn't hurt a movie as much as making it generically bland, so it can gain an all-important PG-13 rating to capture the target audience like flying monkeys captured Dorothy and her companions.

Realize that The Hunger Games is about a world where people watch children murder each other on live TV, but is made for children. Director Gary Ross and writer Billy Ray had a challenging task to adapt this property. Any science-fiction novel adapted for the big or small screen must have elements cut or altered often if only for time. Unfortunately in a 142-minute film about a competition that takes about 75 minutes to get to that competition, they dropped elements like character development and emotional build-up.

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