Mike Saulters's blog

Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Robert Downey Jr. returns to the big screen this week in Guy Ritchie's sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Fans of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes should enjoy this action-adventure movie, which doesn't stray from the moneymaking formula of the previous outing.

Hot on the trail of his arch-nemesis Moriarty (Jared Harris), Holmes and Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) reunite for one last adventure on the eve of Watson's wedding. Aiding them in their quest are a gypsy fortuneteller (Noomi Rapace) and Holmes' brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry).

Did I enjoy Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows? Yes, absolutely. THe movie had better pacing, more interesting visuals and more intriguing characters than its predecessor. Would I call it a great film? Unfortunately, no.

For every good new idea, Ritchie has an equally bad or irritating bit of directing going on. The largest of these was a scene involving characters being chased through the woods. The camera jumps back and forth from normal speed to bullet-time slow motion to show, in dramatic detail, the bullets chopping up the trees. My least favorite shot, perhaps in any movie, this served no purpose other than to bore me and make me impatient for something relevant to happen.

Characters disappear with no plot resolution, and the "Holmes-o-vision" feels overused. Perhaps the heart of the problem for me with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is that this reimagining of the Holmes character is an action hero, who uses little to none of the deductive reasoning popularized by Doyle's character. This version of Holmes is not at all cerebral. There are a couple of good gags, but Holmes spends most of his time fighting his way out of bad situations.

Review: New Year's Eve


New Year's Eve

Physics class is all about learning formulas to apply to solve problems, and repeating them. Writer Katherine Fugate teams with formula pro Garry Marshall to do just that with the romantic comedy New Year's Eve, opening this week.

The feel-good comedrama follows the same formula as last year's chick-flick Valentine's Day. Step One: Pick a holiday. Step Two: Gather together as many stars as possible who owe you favors and pair them up in little stories loosely related to each other. Step Three: PROFIT. Expect to see more of these each year around Thanksgiving Day, St. Patrick's Day, Flag Day ... as long as there are holidays left to exploit.

New Year's Eve was a crowd pleaser, which is of course like saying "People like french fries." They're not any good for anybody, but we still eat them up. In spite of myself, I did find I enjoyed the film somewhat. I just won't find it memorable enough to ever want to revisit it. This is why I would consider it on one level a failure. The movie wanted to be for New Year's what A Christmas Story is for December 25. It tried to show every facet of life in the city on New Year's Eve and the preparations involved, but it could never achieve the timeless feeling of that classic. Nor does it ever reach for that kind of laughter.

There's little more to say. New Year's Eve includes a couple of songs from Jon Bon Jovi with Glee's Lea Michele singing backup. Michele also delivers the most beautiful version of "Auld Lang Syne" that I've ever heard.

Quick Snaps: Tarzan and Arab in Austin, Updated with Video


Tarzan and Arab at the Ritz

A couple of weeks ago, we reported on a special night when two filmmakers from the Gaza Strip, Tarzan and Arab, traveled to Austin to see their first movie in a theater, as well as screen their short film Colorful Journey. Thanks to Alamo Drafthouse, you now can watch video from the event, which we've embedded after the jump.

In addition, Alamo founder Tim League and Ain't It Cool founder Harry Knowles have established a Kickstarter campaign where you can donate to help Tarzan and Arab fund their first feature film. With 20 days left, they have raised more than 25 percent of their goal.

Review: Hugo



The last Martin Scorsese film I saw was Shutter Island, a movie that garnered great critical acclaim, but which I felt suffered from an all-too-predictable ending. Thus, I have little interest in revisiting it. I hardly dared hope that Hugo would live up to the promise hinted in the teaser trailers I'd seen. But it did in fact far exceed my expectations.

John Logan (Rango, The Last Samurai) has created a superlative adaptation of Brian Selznick's novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret. This isn't just the story of an orphan boy living in a train station in 1930s Paris. It is, as one friend described it, "Scorsese's love letter to film." The answer to each mystery unlocks another until a dramatic reveal so poignant it left the audience in tears of both sadness and joy.

There aren't enough Oscars to cover Hugo. It is a rare magical film that is almost too good for the Oscars. If they held a once-a-decade competition between all the best picture winners, it might be a worthy contest. Starting with Scorsese's direction, and adding what James Cameron says is the best use of 3D he's ever seen, including his own films. Hugo opens with a bird's-eye fly-through of a train station, a single shot so detailed, so amazing that words fail me. The steampunk aesthetic and rich recreation of Parisian characters made it almost a surprise not to see the name "Jeunet" in the credits.

Asa Butterfield has already made a name for himself in such films as Son of Rambow, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Wolfman and soon Ender's Game. He is a perfect fit for the clockmaker orphan, running through hidden steam tunnels and minding the great clockwork of the station. He finds an ideal match in Chloë Grace Moretz's Isabelle, a shy girl with an adorable quirky twisted grin. The character is so innocent and sweet, it's hard to believe this is the same girl who knocked us out as Hit Girl in last year's Kick-Ass.

Within a cast of today's best character actors including Sacha Baron Cohen, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Jude Law, Helen McCrory and Emily Mortimer, Ben Kingsley is a standout. Kingsley and Butterfield have a chemistry akin to Mr. Wilson and Dennis the Menace. His grouchy exterior gives way to much deeper emotions as the story unfolds. After flops like Prince of Persia and The Love Guru, it's good to see Kingsley in a film worthy of his talents.

Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1


Breaking Dawn Part 1

The Twilight films are a guilty pleasure. As someone who hangs with the film nerd set, it's fun to trash Stephenie Meyer's angstified hyper-romantic sparkly "cold ones" (we're forbidden to call them "vampires"). Yet, the inner 15-year-old girl in all of us can't help getting caught up in the story a little, if only because we want Bella to just get on with it and pick Edward or Jacob for god's sake.

While that choice would seem to have been made by the end of Eclipse, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1 has inadvertenly picked up Bella's indecisiveness and can't decide whether it wants to be a drama or a raucous comedy. In a series where no two movies were directed by the same filmmaker, a steady evolution can be seen from Twilight to New Moon as both the mythology and the films improve. Now Bill Condon, a respectable director with such titles as Gods and Monsters, Kinsey and Dreamgirls under his belt, steps in and forces us to wonder if he's taking his work seriously.

Condon wastes no time giving everyone what they came to see: Taylor Lautner's bare chest and abs. The very first shot of the film is Jacob ripping off his shirt in a lupine tantrum set off by Bella and Edward's wedding invitation. David Slade's Eclipse joked about Jacob's persistent bare torso, but this shot appeared to be an excuse to get one more cheer from the audience that was already screaming when the title card appeared. It also seemed to be Condon's way of saying "OK, that's out of the way, now we're going to do things MY way." Unless I missed something, Lautner doesn't appear shirtless for the rest of Breaking Dawn - Part 1.

Sadly, Condon zigs when he should zag and vice-versa. Doing it his own way means Edward doesn't sparkle when in full sun, a huge break from Twilight canon. It also means we get to see what people are calling the "wolf circle," as Jacob's angry wolf pack circles up in a logging camp for us to hear human voices screaming their telepathic conversation. This was a serious moment presented so ineptly it had even the biggest Twi-hards in the room rolling in their seats. Calling it corny would be an insult to corn, and a gross understatement.

Review: Immortals



Through a summer of great action movies and superhero films, there was one title I eagerly anticipated: Immortals. I couldn't wait for Henry Cavill, Stephen Dorff, Kellan Lutz, Daniel Sharman and Joseph Morgan among others in the best-looking male cast ever assembled. I couldn't wait for Tarsem Singh, creator of the visually stunning The Cell and the legendary The Fall, to right the wrong of last year's Clash of the Titans remake.

Sadly, that was not to be. Immortals is best described as a disastrous mess. Visually amazing, yes, absolutely worth at least a regular ticket price ... though maybe best seen in 2D. The faults with Immortals radiate entirely from a titanically bad script. While last year's Clash of the Titans suffered from script rewrites and bad editing, the Immortals script seems to be the product of inexperience. Screenwriters brothers Vlas and Charley Parlapanides have one unknown feature film writing credit between them, from 2000.

The characters in Immortals seem to jump between older and modern vernaculars. They are missing any sort of backstory. Burgess Meredith -- oops, I mean John Hurt -- gives a pointless and melodramatic narrative that bookends the film. "The Gods Need a Hero" is the tag line on the movie's posters, but the hero never does anything to help the gods. That is, exactly the same narrative could have played out without Henry Cavill's Theseus. In fact, the chosen hero of Zeus could have averted disaster simply by dying at the beginning of the film.

The most egregious problem with the script is Mickey Rourke's character, King Hyperion. Not only is there no backstory, there is never any explanation of his motives, nor even his ultimate goals. He is written almost as a caricature of Heath Ledger's role as The Joker in The Dark Knight: sowing chaos and destruction, at war with the gods, hinting at a reason, but never telling.

Review: Tower Heist


Tower Heist

Eddie Murphy was once the funniest man in America. Then something happened, and he just lost it. I don't know what it was, a bad agent or maybe having kids and wanting to make movies they could watch. But since the 90s, he has had a solid string of releases that made big money largely because of their family-friendly PG-13 ratings. The Nutty Professor, Doctor Dolittle, Holy Man, Bowfinger, Shrek, I Spy, Daddy Day Care, The Haunted Mansion, Norbit are all rated PG-13 or even PG. His last R-rated film was Metro in 1997, 14 years ago.

Therefore, I approached Tower Heist with hope for the potential I saw for Murphy to get back to the edgy, offensive, adult mode that made him famous. The trailer gave me hope that his first R-rated film in more than a decade wouldn't be a total flop. I'm happy to report that while he's not back to 100 percent, at least he's in fighting shape in Tower Heist.

However, Tower Heist isn't just a vehicle for Murphy or for Ben Stiller. This comedy, which owes much to heist films such as Ocean's Eleven, assembles a great ensemble cast. (Co-writer Ted Griffin also scripted Ocean's Eleven, which might explain the resemblance.)

Stiller and Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Judd Hirsch, as well as Tea Leoni, Matthew Broderick and Gabourey Sidibe all have memorable lines. The last three are the real standout characters: Broderick with moments of self-effacing charm he hasn't pulled out since Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Sidibe with lusty no-nonsense pushiness, and Tea Leoni the picture of sexy, forceful authoritah.

There are no surprises in the plot of this Brett Ratner-directed farce. It's all in the Tower Heist trailer: The staff of a NY high-rise is screwed out of their pension investments by a Wall Street scammer. They set out to rob him back, enlisting the help of Murphy's street thug Slider. Hilarity ensues, and everyone gets what they deserve. However, there are some surprises in how it all happens.

Photo Essay: Tarzan and Arab at Alamo Ritz


Tim League Introduces Tarzan and Arab

Last Wednesday, October 26, the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz hosted a very special presentation of an incredible pair of Palestinian artists, along with two related films. Above, Drafthouse founder Tim League introduces the show and explains the enormous task of bringing them to Austin.

Twin brothers and filmmakers Tarzan and Arab (Ahmed and Mohammed Abu Nasser) hail from Gaza, where the last movie theater was destroyed in a bombing two years before they were born. The sons of an art teacher, they conceived an art project where they would create movie posters for imaginary films with titles based on codenames for Israeli military operations.

AFF Review: Below Zero


Below Zero

AFF 2011 selection Below Zero is almost as much a performance art project as it is a film. Unfortunately, it is not a masterpiece. Writer Signe Olynyk had herself locked inside a meat freezer in an abandoned slaughterhouse in order to write a script about a hack writer who is likewise locked up in the same freezer to write a script. But Below Zero is so meta, it's meta-meta. The writer (Edward Furlong) then spends a week going insane writing a script about a guy trapped in a meat locker.

It's almost as if they were trying to make Inception, except every level of dreaming in this movie is the same (bad) dream. Even better, the film is shot in the very same meat locker. I don't want to be too negative, as the concept is interesting, and the first 80 percent of the movie is well-executed.

The story in Below Zero shifts back and forth between Jack the writer (Furlong) and Frank, the character in the script (also Furlong). Things begin happening in the room while Jack is asleep that mimic his script even as the script anticipates some of those events.

AFF Review: Searching for Sonny


Searching for Sonny

I was discussing Austin Film Festival with a friend yesterday and surprised to learn he had never heard of BriTANick, the wildly hilarious duo Brian McElhaney and Nick Kocher. The two have been writing, acting and producing comedic short films online for several years and last year brought Eagles Are Turning People Into Horses (which you can and should watch online) to SXSW. They have begun to appear in TV and feature film roles, including the upcoming Joss Whedon surprise Much Ado About Nothing. They came to AFF this year with the outstanding Searching For Sonny, written and directed by Ft. Worth native Andrew Disney.

Jason Dohring stars as Elliot Knight, an unsuccessful 28-year-old pizza delivery driver. Depressed by his lack of accomplishments, Elliot's neuroses include envy of Jesus Christ for being wildly successful before the age of 30.

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.

In their online videos, Kocher and McElhaney's double act usually requires them to trade the straight man role back and forth. Dohring's deadpan lead allows them both to ham it up here, making Searching for Sonny wildly hilarious.

Narrated by Clarke Peters, Searching for Sonny combines the non sequitur style of a BriTANick comedy with a film noir. The combination results in something akin to Bryan Fuller's work in Pushing Daisies, only less romantic and cute. Kinky and subversive, dark and outrageous, Searching for Sonny is the funniest movie I've seen all year. I'm eager to see more work from Andrew Disney.

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