Mike Saulters's blog

Review: John Carter


John Carter

Everyone is familiar, whether they know it or not, with the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, thanks to the popularity throughout the 20th century of Tarzan in film and TV. Burroughs was a highly prolific pulp author until his death in 1950, with many other series and stand-alone works.  You may also be familiar with another popular film adaptation of his work, The Land That Time Forgot.

Now, 100 years after the publication of Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, and after more failed attempts at flight than the Wright Brothers, the novel has finally been successfully adapted for the silver screen.

Of all the great works of science fiction and fantasy, none has cried out for a film adaptation more than Burroughs' Tales of Barsoom series.  Even Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings had an animated adaptation by Ralph Bakshi in the 1970s. The John Carter novels were arguably as powerful an influence on 20th and 21st century fiction as Tolkien. If you are unfamiliar with the source, you can find A Princess of Mars freely available on the Project Gutenberg website.

The series tells a story about a man who falls asleep in a cave and wakes up on a planet he assumes to be Mars, where due to lower gravity, he has comparatively greater strength than the inhabitants and is able to jump vast distances, not entirely unlike the earliest incarnation of Superman. He’s a superhero on Barsoom (the local name for the planet) but from time to time has to return to his body on Earth. Each return visit to Barsoom is chronicled in a different book of the series.

This Disney-produced feature was not only wildly enjoyable, it was also a much more faithful adaptation than anyone had generally expected. While there are of course a few changes to specifics, broadly everything in the movie John Carter is clearly recognizable as very close to the events of the book. It is a striking, even perfect match visually for everything described in the book, including even the description of Woola, John Carter's pet Martian dog (best described as a "puppy-lizard").

Taylor Kitsch, in the title role, fits the part well, as does Lynn Collins as Carter’s love interest Dejah Thoris. For his first time directing a live action film, Andrew Stanton shows he's just as capable working with people as with Pixar creations.

SXSW 2012: Shorts Preview, Part Two



This second part of my SXSW shorts coverage takes a marked musical turn, including a number of music videos, a short with no dialogue, and an adaptation starring Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew. In case you missed it, you can go back and read Part One.

Christeene: African Mayonnaise (Music Videos)
If you're not familiar with Christeene Vale, this latest music video from the outrageous Texan drag queen is a great introduction.  Performing first in the mall, she is chased out by a mall cop on a Segway and then moves on to other recognizable Austin locations. This is the most in-your-face drag queen you're likely to find, and I only hope I'm fortunate enough to witness a live performance at some point. Directed by Austin filmmaker and cinematographer PJ Raval.

Knife (Texas Shorts)
Rich, immersive sound mixing is integral to this short, which tells a story without the use of dialogue. An unsettling tone is enhanced with a beautiful original score. Written and directed by Fort Worth filmmaker James M. Johnston. Edited by DFW-area filmmaker David Lowery, whose SXSW 2011 short Pioneer was produced by Johnston.

SXSW 2012: Shorts Preview, Part One


Tumbleweed!SXSW starts tomorrow, and one of the best parts of the festival is the shorts program, a perennial favorite. I've pre-screened a number of this year's excellent entries, and here is part one of my pre-fest short film coverage.

Tumbleweed! (Texas Shorts)
Wow! Offbeat, whimsical, and completely delightful. Tumbleweed! is an inspirational story of a tumbleweed that refuses to tumble. This seven-minute short is the kind of little nugget that makes the shorts program a must-see. Very loosely set in Texas.

Heimkommen (Narrative Shorts)
A poignant and touching look at sibling tensions in the wake of a tragic accident, Heimkommen (Come Home) tells a story that is simple yet deep. Director Micah Magee is a San Antonio native and UT Austin grad, and she's also a former Cinematexas co-director.

In the Pines (Narrative Shorts)
In nine minutes, In the Pines managed to re-create the mood I felt after two hours watching Tree of Life. Meditative, hopeful, and brilliant, it features stunning macrophotography shots interspersed between grand natural vistas. I could watch hours of this.

Liar (Narrative Shorts)
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, except maybe for her girlfriends. Liar relates a tense confrontation after a breakup gone bad. Left me wanting to see more.

Brute Force (Documentary Shorts)
Brute Force is the stage name of musician Stephen Friedland, who performed with The Tokens and wrote for Peggy March, Del Shannon, and The Chiffons among others. This is important to know, as he's such a character the 15-minute documentary about him would almost seem a mockumentary. By the time it reached his song "The King of Fuh," I was convinced it couldn't be real. But this is a man who indeed is real and was admired by (and performed with) The Beatles. Directed by Austin filmmaker Ben Steinbauer, who brought us another fascinating real-life character in Winnebago Man. Read Jenn's interview with Steinbauer.

Review: Coriolanus



In 1996, Baz Luhrmann updated Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with modern imagery and a menagerie of hot young talent. In doing so, he produced a magnificent movie that, love it or hate it, everyone must admit was a grand spectacle. It made Shakespeare's most famous and beloved work accessible to Generation Y with rich visuals, Luhrmann's unique direction, and a cast with many soon-to-be household names. Now, in his first feature-film directing effort, Ralph Fiennes stars as the titular character in a similar though less successful effort to update Coriolanus, Shakespeare's least-produced and probably worst-known play.

While this movie is by no means unworthy, Coriolanus is not a work that really captures the imagination or emotion. Several factors contribute to this, both in the source material and in Fiennes' production. There are barely two scenes in the entire film that don't include Coriolanus, one of the most unrelatable and unsympathetic heroes in English literature. The production design is best described as 1960s Soviet Afghanistan, more bleak and less colorful than most concentration camp scenes ever set to film.

If ever a modern take cried out for a classical reimagining, it is this one. Rome, at the height of its power, is depicted with all the pomp and flair of North Korea five minutes after the death of Kim Jong-Il. The melange of accents is distracting and includes Scottish, English, vaguely Italian, and American, and I even noted one character credited as "Jamaican Woman."

The largest mistake Fiennes made with Coriolanus was in casting himself in the title role. Not only did I feel an immediate antipathy watching him, as he appeared completely uncomfortable and out of place in his uniform, but as a first-time director, the demands of the job are in conflict with portraying a role that is in front of the camera for 99 percent of the movie. At times, Fiennes seemed to be acting more the part of Voldemort than a Roman general, and I quickly found I did not care what the character did nor what would happen to him. The saving graces of Coriolanus were the score and the performances of Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Cox.

Review: Rampart



Writer James Ellroy, asked about the film adaptation of his novel White Jazz in a 2009 interview, replied, "No I didn't like that movie. White Jazz is dead. All movie adaptations of my books are dead." The author of The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential seems to have an antagonistic relationship with film adaptations of his novels, or rather with their producers, directors and cast. This is probably because they are so much better known than the books, but of such lesser quality.

This rule holds true for the latest adaptation, Rampart, based loosely on the Rampart Scandal of the CRASH anti-gang unit of the LAPD in the late 1990s. The movie stars Woody Harrelson and a bevy of other names in mostly small, even unrecognizable parts: Ice Cube, Tim Russ, Ned Beatty, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ben Foster, and Jon Bernthal, most of them appearing for just one scene. Adapted and directed by Oren Moverman (The Messenger), the film looks as though it were shot like a mid-90s VHS porn flick. It is gritty and ugly as its subject matter.

Woody Harrelson is "Date Rape" Dave Brown, one of the last old-school LAPD officers, a holdout from before the Rodney King era. His fellow officers look up to him and affectionately gave him the nickname "Date Rape" for the 1985 killing of a serial date rapist, an act for which he should have been prosecuted or at least relieved from duty. However, Brown has a guardian angel, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), an old friend of his father's with powerful connections who covers for him and advises him.

Plagued with anger management issues, new troubles for Brown start when he is caught on tape beating nearly to death a driver who accidentally rammed into his car. The department is already under siege from Rampart lawsuits, and the lawyers he needs to defend himself are cleaning out his savings. To help with his money problem, Hartshorn advises him the time and place of a high-stakes poker game, which he can break up, pocketing the money he seizes. The situation only gets worse when two gang members also show up to rob the players, and he shoots and kills one. Now faced with prosecution not just for the beating but also for murder, he begins to believe he was set up by forces working to find a scapegoat and clean up the department's reputation.

Review: This Means War


This Means WarWhether you're looking for an action movie, a raucous comedy, or a chick flick for date night, This Means War satisfies as all three. Directed by McG, my favorite of his films to date follows on the heels of his worst, 2009's Terminator Salvation.

Chris Pine and Tom Hardy star as best friends and CIA partners who inadvertently find themselves dating the same woman, Reese Witherspoon.  While she remains unable to decide between them, they go to ever more extreme lengths using their CIA skills and resources to learn about her and outdo each other in their efforts to win her affection.  

Writers Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg have a mixed record. Dowling is credited on Role Models, and Kinberg, who penned screenplays for Sherlock Holmes and Mr & Mrs Smith, was also responsible for Jumper and X-Men: The Last Stand. With This Means War, they have penned an enjoyable romp that could be a cousin to True Lies, with a similar tongue-in-cheek take on the spy world, albeit considerably smaller in scope.

Though Chris Pine and Tom Hardy seem an unlikely pair, the choice of casting works.  It is becoming difficult to see Pine as anything but Captain Kirk, and this role as hotshot ladykiller spy FDR Foster is a planetbound Kirk. Hardy (who himself once played a clone of Jean-Luc Picard), is thoughtful and sensitive as Foster’s partner Tuck. The characteres each represent polar opposites but equal in attraction for Reese Witherspoon’s Lauren. Even with the help of her best girlfriend Trish (Chelsea Handler), she is unable to decide between the two men who inevitably tie in every game she devises for them.

This Means War was a fun escape from reality for a couple of hours: not too serious, not too silly. Some of the dialogue is quite witty, though Pine seems a bit tongue-tied at times. Angela Bassett makes an all-too-brief appearance as Tuck and Foster’s handler, and I felt the biggest thing missing from the film was a final scene with her, something which may be on the editing room floor. 

Review: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island


Journey 2: The Mysterious IslandIn 2008, Josh Hutcherson starred in a rape of the classic Jules Verne novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. This week he returns for sloppy seconds in an almost completely unrelated vehicle, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, aka The Death of Michael Caine's Career. Hutcherson's character Sean Anderson is the only common thread connecting the two films as he again goes in search of a missing family member trapped in a 3D theme-park caricature of a Jules Verne environment.

This time it is Sean's grandfather, perhaps the worst role ever written for Michael Caine, who has sent a secret radio message from Verne's Mysterious Island. Joined unwillingly by his stepfather Hank (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), Sean sets out for a weekend round-the-world trip of adventure and male bonding. Along the way they pick up down-on-his-luck pilot and single parent Gabato (Luis Guzman) and his daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), who becomes Sean's love interest because apparently she's the first girl he's ever seen.

Calling Journey 2: The Mysterious Island a rape of Verne's work is not entirely accurate, since the movie really makes no effort to actually include any of his storylines instead of simply mining them for tiny elephants and giant insects seen in the trailer. These are used to populate a story so inept it appears to have been written by members of its target 13-year-old audience. It was actually penned by brothers Brian and Mark Gunn, whose prior feature film credits include only the screenplay for direct-to-video Bring It On Again. It was directed by Brad Peyton, who brought us Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.

Forget about the blatant misuse of the word "science," the characters themselves are weak and inconsistent. Hutcherson's Sean Anderson, an insufferable juvenile delinquent, is so intent on finding his grandfather that he's willing to run away from home ... but as soon as he meets Kailani, his motivation becomes entirely the need to impress her.

Review: Joyful Noise


Joyful NoiseThis week marks the return of Dolly Parton to the big screen for the first time since Straight Talk, 20 years ago (though she voiced a character in 2011's Gnomeo & Juliet). Joyful Noise pits her against Queen Latifah in a battle of the busts I like to think of as "Gospel Glee."

All joking aside, Joyful Noise is a family-friendly comedy in the same vein as Footloose with a wholesome message that doesn't get in the way of the fun. Writer/director Todd Graff (Bandslam, The Beautician and the Beast) has a definite hit in this movie.

The Pacashau Sacred Divinity Choir is in the middle of a performance when long-time director Bernard Sparrow (Kris Kristofferson) suffers a fatal heart attack. In order to continue to the annual Joyful Noise gospel competition, the church leaders must choose between his wife, G.G. (Parton) and Vi Rose Hill (Latifah), who has been his second for many years.

The return of G.G's grandson Randy (Jeremy Jordan) increases the tension between the two women as Randy, a misfit with a bad reputation, immediately begins to charm Vi's daughter, Olivia (Keke Palmer). Much like Kenny Wormald's Ren in Craig Brewer's 2011 remake of Footloose (my review), Randy is a perfect gentleman who never does anything to earn his poor reputation, and the characters, particularly Vi, must overcome their predispositions as with his great musical talents he remolds and modernizes the choir. (Another Footloose connection, actress Ziah Colon, has a small part in one scene.)

A number of subplots in Joyful Noise bring to light each supporting character, such as Vi Rose's son Walter (Dexter Darden) dealing with social awkwardness due to Asperger's syndrome, or Caleb (Andy Karl), who fears losing his job at the hardware store owned by his own father. The most engaging of these characters is Earla (Angela Grovey).  Earla has a particular problem that is best left a surprise, but the character is charming and truly funny.

2011 in Review: Mike's Best and Worst


LoveI sat down to create a top ten list last year, and found it stretched to 15. This year, my first pass found almost 35 worthy titles. When I removed from that list any films that won’t actually be released until 2012 or that never received a U.S. release, I still had 26 titles, and found it impossible to put them all in exact order, but I did whittle it down to a top ten.

But before I share that list, I also want to mention notable movies in the following categories:

Best Action and Stunt Photography: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
The movie is great, revitalizing the Mission: Impossible brand.  If you’re going to spend $150 million, your product better look this good. The scene shot in Dubai (you know the one) alone is an achievement worthy of an award. (J.C.'s review)

Best Comedy: Horrible Bosses
This did everything right where The Hangover Part II went wrong. (my review)
Special Mention: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (Jette's review)

Best Animated: Rango
Before Scorsese released Hugo, his love letter to film, ILM released Rango, its love letter to film lovers. I would put this against any Pixar film. (my review)

Best Remake: Footloose
Craig Brewer accomplished the unthinkable with a superb retelling of the 1984 hit. (my review)
Special Mention: Fright Night (my review)

Review: The Devil Inside


The Devil Inside

If you watched Paranormal Activity and its sequels, and thought to yourself you could get rich by copying that formula (and doing it badly), you might be William Brent Bell, writer and director of The Devil Inside. This movie tries to do for possession what Paranormal Activity did with poltergeists.

Made for a miniscule sum (although it probably looks cheaper than its actual budget), The Devil Inside is at best described as inept and at worst blatantly disdainful of the audience. It is the only film I have seen where the audience as one booed and hissed as the final credits began to roll.

The Devil Inside presents, documentary-style, the story of Isabella Rossi (Fernanda Andrade) as she attempts to uncover the truth about her mother, who is confined to a psychiatric hospital in Rome. Maria Rossi (Suzan Crowley), has been confined since the death of three people during an attempted exorcism. After a brief and disturbing meeting with her mother, Isabella turns to a pair of priests who are performing unsanctioned exorcisms of victims who have been denied by the Catholic Church.

After Isabella convinces the priests that her mother is indeed possessed, the group sets out to perform an exorcism in the hospital, and hijinks ensue. Many of the biggest of them are given away in the trailer itself. It all leads up to an ending that is a shocker only for its blatant stupidity and the fact it directs the audience to a website with an address nobody will care about or even remember five minutes after leaving the theater.

The only remotely good thing in this stinker is Suzan Crowley’s acting, as she clearly revels in a role she was born to play. The scenes with her have a palpable tension, but The Devil Inside is not a film I could recommend even to the lustiest of schlock movie fans. If you have enough morbid curiosity to see this in a theater, buy a ticket for The Artist or Young Adult, and sneak into it (assuming you've already seen both of those). At least the movie is blissfully short, so if they kick you out, you won’t miss much.

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