Mike Saulters's blog

Review: The Devil's Double


The Devil's DoubleIn the late 1980s, Iraq was plagued by an insane tyrant, a monster at the highest level of government. But the evil creature of whom we speak was not the President. Rather, his older son was, Uday Saddam Hussein. Like his father, Uday wanted a body double both for protection and to portray him in unpleasant public appearances. Thus an old schoolmate with an uncanny resemblance was brought to the palace, and that is where the life of Latif Yahia was to effectively come to an end. The Devil's Double, opening in Austin theaters today, is an account of Latif's experiences as he was forced into service of one of the most evil men on Earth.

Alternately charming, sexy and then terrifying, Dominic Cooper delivers the performance of a lifetime as both Uday Hussein and stand-in Latif. His performance of each character is so strong I thought at first I was seeing two different lookalike actors.

Seen from the point of view of Latif, The Devil's Double is more the story of Uday as he sinks deeper into insanity, driven by a schizophrenic worship/hatred for a cold, distant father: a father whom Uday can't himself tell apart from his double. Uday believes in his father as a national hero who has made Iraq into a world power and himself as a prince of a new dynasty with god-like powers over his people. Even as he lives in a palace surrounded by all the luxuries provided by his father, Uday rebels in every way, sinking ever deeper into sexual depravity and drug abuse while the disapproving Latif looks on.

Latif, meanwhile, is forced to participate by threats against his life and that of his family. Surgically altered, with dental overlays and shoe inserts to make him taller, Latif is indistinguishable from the monster Uday. He grows more unhappy and restless as Uday's madness increases. His only companionship lies in secret trysts with Uday's own favorite concubine, Sarrab (Ludivine Sagnier). As Uday begins to demand Latif hurt or kill the objects of his anger, Latif begins to rebel.

Review: The Change-Up


The Change-Up"An overworked lawyer and his best friend have grown apart. When they switch bodies, each is forced to adapt to the others life for one freaky Friday."

Actually, the characters played by Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds in The Change-Up spend weeks trying to undo the personality swap wrought by the mysterious (and vengeful) fountain in which they drunkenly pee together after a night of boozing and sports. Each is dissatisfied and envies the other's life, so they both make an ironic wish that the lady of the fountain is too happy to grant.

There's little to say about this comedy from The Hangover writers Scott Moore and Jon Lucas and Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin. The script lives up to neither of those hits and feels like it was peppered with jokes rejected from both, perhaps written in the spare time the pair had between weekends photocopying the script from The Hangover to make The Hangover Part II. Fortunately, the majority of the excessive poo-humor is confined to the first few minutes, and then The Change-Up settles into generic movie territory.

Reynolds' Mitch Planko settles into life as Bateman's Dave Lockwood, and vice-versa. While fumbling his way through pretending to be a high-stakes corporate lawyer, Mitch manages to jeopardize the deal of Dave's career. Dave, meanwhile suffers through an "acting" gig that goes where no man should ever go. Most of the screen time is spent on Bateman, as Mitch inside Dave's body (confusing, right?) though Reynolds as Dave-inside-Mitch gets to live out his fantasies concerning his assistant Sabrina (Olivia Wilde). There is also a small subplot involving Mitch's estranged father (Alan Arkin). Naturally, they can't switch back until each learns the grass isn't greener on the other side, track down the missing fountain, and mictorate in public. But all's well that end's well, et cetera.

Review: Friends with Benefits


Friends With Benefits

On Wednesday night, I missed a Captain America screening to instead enjoy this year's best date movie, at least since No Strings Attached (my review). Actually, Friends with Benefits is much better than the Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman rom-com, with a funnier script and more believable chemistry between stars Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. Riding a similar plot vehicle, Timberlake and Kunis catapult lines of dialogue each other in the comfortable banter of best friends, a stride into which Kutcher/Portman could never quite settle.

Jamie (Kunis) is a recruiter/headhunter who attempts to woo hotshot graphic artist Dylan (Timberlake) from his LA blog to a position at GQ. After a whirlwind tour of non-touristy NYC culminating in a Times Square flash mob, he agrees to take the job. With Jamie as Dylan's only New York friend, and an immediate chemistry, they begin to spend all their free time together. While drunkenly relating accounts of their most recent exes, they decide to experiment with having sex while keeping it in a box, free of emotional demands and attachments. The result is some of the most hilarious-yet-steamy sex scenes ever caught on film.

Patricia Clarkson and Richard Jenkins as Jamie and Dylan's parents provide guidance and advice, as naturally the arrangement does result in emotional entanglements. Clarkson is always a delight, and her character Lorna is a bohemian free spirit few other actresses could play well. She delivers my favorite line of the movie, "Baby, you need to adjust your fairy tale." Jenkins' Mr Harper struggles with declining mental health and pines for a lost love. Both of these characters feel as though there is an unfinished story arc that would have connected them, perhaps left on the cutting room floor.

Review: Horrible Bosses


Horrible BossesHorrible Bosses, which opened in theaters on Friday, is the best workplace comedy since Office Space. Co-stars Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis capture a dynamic not seen since Tomlin, Fonda and Parton in Nine to Five. This movie is solid comedy that never misses a beat, destined to be the cult classic of the 20-teens.

Bateman, Day and Sudeikis, all regular guys caught in bad situations, play off one another like Larry, Moe and Curly as they land each other into ever more outrageously sticky situations. In fact, one of my favorite scenes involves simply an overhead shot of them trying to back their cars out of a parking lot -- a genius bit of vehicular choreography. The film plays out like watching the events that led up to The Hangover in real time. This is the Hangover sequel I wanted to see.

Horrible Bosses is of course about the bosses, and they are absolutely horrible. Colin Farrell is a cokehead spoiled rich bastard who wants only to squeeze every penny from the company he's inherited from his deceased father (Donald Sutherland). Jennifer Aniston takes sexual harrassment to new levels when she spices it up with a little blackmail. And finally, Kevin Spacey plays the meanest, toughest, slickest SOB to ever wield a pink slip. He makes Dabney Coleman look like Bob Newhart. These are bosses you really do kind of want to die.

To help that happen for the three leads, special recognition has to go to Jamie Foxx, playing a character whose name I can't spoil. Foxx has some of the best scenes in the movie as he instructs the trio on the finer points of murdering without getting caught. Other exceptional cameos include Ron "Tater Salad" White as a hard-hitting detective, Isaiah "Old-Spice" Mustafa, John Francis Daley and one very special cameo that steals the show.

Review: Zookeeper


ZookeeperWhy don't animals talk? Well, if Zookeeper is any indication, it's because they have absolutely nothing worth saying. At the end of the year, this movie will be tops on many worst-of lists.

Two former Spin City writers who brought us Norbit a few years ago teamed up with with a few of their buddies to write one of the most worthless, predictable, groan-inducing and even objectionable talent black hole of a script Hollywood's seen this decade. That's right, it's a script so bad it sucks the talent out of more stars than were at this year's Oscars.

Cher, Stallone, Nolte, Favreau, Breuer, Apatow, Rickles -- these folks are all so big they only need one name, but as the voices of a zoo full of obsessive-compulsive furry/feathered friends, they are telling more poo and pee jokes than you could dig up from a full season of South Park. Even Ken Jeong, one of the craziest funny guys in movies lately, is reduced here in Zookeeper to a tepid, boring, creepy approximation of his screen self.

The sad thing is that beneath all the jokes of extraordinarily bad taste is a family-friendly movie about being yourself and recognizing love when you find it. Kevin James as titular zookeeper Griffin Keyes has spent five years heartbroken over the girl who turned down his marriage proposal, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb). When she suddenly appears at a reception for his brother's wedding rehearsal, his animal friends decide to help him win her back. How very Disney a premise. Indeed, many kids today can identify with the story as they've wanted to help keep their parents together or reunite them after a divorce. But Griffin is an adult so insane over his ex-girlfriend and somehow so intensely stupid, he is willing to listen to these animals as they instruct him in the finer arts of walking with his crotch thrust out and peeing to mark his territory.

Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon


Transformers 3I had strong reservations about Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Its predecessor, Revenge of the Fallen, is easily one of the worst films I've ever seen, and I'm definitely no fan of director Michael Bay. Of the 14 previous films he's directed, Armageddon is the only one I find worth watching a second time, and The Island is on my list of films with the greatest potential that turned out to be the biggest disappointments.

So, I went into Transformers 3 with lowered expectations in spite of the general good buzz I'd been hearing. True to form, Bay has created another example of terribad filmmaking. He's nothing if not consistent, with his films chock full of slow-motion action shots, cameras making love to the super-hot babe-of-the-month and yes, people looking up. Bay got his start making music videos and Playboy centerfolds, and his movies still play like extended music videos. The difference is that this one, this time, somehow just works, at least for about 50 percent of the people who have seen it.

The thing is, Transformers: Dark of the Moon has the attention span of a ten-year-old kid after a six pack of Yoohoo. The action moves from a battle on the Transformers' home planet Cybertron to the moon to Shia LaBeouf and girlfriend Rosie Huntington-Whitely to an insanely hilarious scene with Ken Jeong that doesn't fit in with the rest of the movie.

Each scene plays like a ten-minute music video, the medium where Bay works best, making the first two-thirds of the movie like a night of watching MTV. If you like the majority of these vignettes, and the Shia LaBeouf detective story that ties them together, you'll be in a great mood for the EPIC unbelievable 3D actionfest of the last 40 minutes.

If those don't work for you -- and they may not, even though Transformers: Dark of the Moon has the most cohesive storyline of the trilogy -- you may be in a bad mood when the real action starts. And this is one point where I'm most mixed on the movie. The action is amazing, but at times Bay focuses too long on any two robots fighting at the expense of missing the action that's going on in the rest of the battle. This is an all-out three way fight between Autobots, Decepticons and the U.S. military. After two hours of story buildup, the 40 minutes of fighting dispenses with any story and then comes to a sudden end with little to no wrap-up. The result is that you'll walk out a little exhausted and overwhelmed or else entirely wound up like a spring.

Review: Cars 2


Cars 2In 2006, Pixar released a film that uniquely celebrated America's automotive culture and the small communities that were displaced by the interstate freeway system. Not only did Cars shine a light on a dying piece of Americana, it also had a dramatically unique visual presentation where everything in the world, including insects, was an automobile.

Five years later, after giving us Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3, Pixar returns with Cars 2, only their second film to get a sequel. It's not a surprise given the popularity of Cars, especially the rustbucket tow-truck character Tow Mater (voiced by comedian Larry the Cable Guy), that it would be chosen for the sequel treatment with "Mater" at the center of the story. I would be willing to bet the merchandise sales for Cars double that of any other Pixar movie. If that means this is a Pixar cash grab, I'm willing to accept it given the money will go into creating more original works like Up.

The entire cast of Cars returns with the exception of two greats. It's sad that in the last five years we've lost not only George Carlin, who was replaced in the role of Fillmore by Lloyd Sherr, but also Paul Newman, whose Doc Hudson receives a poignant memorial in the beginning of Cars 2 (indeed, Cars was Newman's last feature film appearance). New to the cast are the fantastic talents of Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro and Bruce Campbell, as well as a great number of celebrity cameos.

While Cars was a classic story full of nostalgia that resonated with an older audience even as it entertained the kids, Cars 2 is an enjoyable spy spoof that may appeal more to a younger crowd. The story follows Mater as he stumbles into the clandestine world of espionage due to a case of mistaken identity, leaving very little time spent with his fellow residents of Radiator Springs. Worse, depending on your viewpoint, the world is not populated just with cars, but also now with boats and planes, a change in style that is necessary for the places the film goes in a bigger world, but counter to the autos-only spirit of Cars.

Review: Green Lantern


Green Lantern In a summer of blockbuster comic-book movies, maybe we've grown spoiled. The overwhelming audience reaction to Green Lantern when I saw the film was, well, patently underwhelmed.

Directed by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, The Legend of Zorro), Green Lantern was perhaps the most anticipated film of the summer for legions of fans of the comic book. When I saw it was scripted by Greg Berlanti (Broken Hearts Club), I should have heard warning bells ringing in my head.

Berlanti, writer and producer for screens big and small, is responsible for some of the most original (and most short-lived) series on television: Dawson's Creek, Brothers & Sisters, Eli Stone -- all highly acclaimed but brief. Does he have experience with comic book-style superheroes? You need look no further than his latest failure on ABC. No Ordinary Family failed for exactly the reasons Green Lantern is so weak. Endless excessive mopey dialogue before we get to see any action and characters that act against not only their type, but against rational judgement. This works in a Sunday night drama soap opera like Brothers & Sisters, but it murders a $150,000,000 action film.

If you're a serious Ryan Reynolds fan who can't wait to see him in his titey whities, go see Green Lantern. Plenty of abs are on display, and it's obvious he's been working out harder than ever. And if you're a big Green Lantern comic-book fan, you should enjoy a very faithful adaptation of the comic to the big screen, once 45 minutes of exposition and poorly-executed love story get out of the animators' way. Campbell is no stranger to action directing, and those are the parts that work. Everything that takes place away from Earth is visually exciting, even stunning.

Back on our home planet, however, Reynolds' character dwindles into a cutout cardboard puppet flipping between the actor's limited repertoire of two expressions: mischieviously giddy and sad puppy dog. Reynolds was never my preference to portray Hal Jordan (they should've gone with Nathan Fillion), but at least whenever he dons the mask, the animators expand the character's range by two or three more expressions. Co-star Blake Lively likewise is either frustrated and upset or exuding doe-eyed passion. Peter Sarsgaard, as tortured villain Hector Hammond, is the only actor on Earth who does anything remotely interesting. Even Tim Robbins phones in his role as Hammond's scheming Senator father.

Ugly Dogs Everywhere in 'Worst in Show' Doc


Sam the dog

The first thing the title Worst in Show brings to mind is the 2000 Christopher Guest mockumentary Best in Show. Like that award-winning entry from the Waiting for Guffman crew, Worst in Show by filmmakers John Beck and Don Lewis is less interesting for the contestants than for the people who actually own the dogs. The documentary, which will have a special benefit screening in Austin this weekend, focuses largely on the officially trademarked World's Ugliest Dog contest hosted by the Sonoma-Marin Fair each year in Petaluma, California. There, the internet sensation Sam (pictured at right), owned by Susie Tautrim, won from 2003-2005.

Mai Tai, Chi Chi, Miss Ellie, Elwood -- all huge names in the ugly dog world (and now all deceased). They are all Chinese Crested, the dog breed you would least want to be reincarnated as. We're talking the Steve Buscemi of dogs, so ugly even John Waters won't make a movie about them. Competing against these, you have various mutts, boxers, bulldogs, chihuahuas, often rescue dogs, sometimes sick or suffering birth defects. At the Petaluma contest, Chinese Cresteds have enjoyed a winning streak from 2002 to 2008. The streak was finally broken in 2009 by Pabst, a boxer mix owned by Miles Egstad.

Review: X-Men: First Class


X-Men First ClassIf you’re reading this, you should have seen X-Men: First Class by now. If not, stop immediately, get to a theater ASAP, and watch it!

That's my way of saying everything you're about to read is overwhelmingly positive. Director Matthew Vaughn has a proven track record with the incredible genre films Layer Cake, Stardust and Kick-Ass. X-Men: First Class is in a class of its own above all those. With only 11 months to work, Vaughn has managed to perform the unthinkable: Reboot the franchise within a prequel that faithfully and seamlessly builds the universe seen in the previous X-Men movies.

These days with Mad Men dominating cable and network TV prepping copycat retro shows like Pan Am, this X-Men movie, set in the 1960s and dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis, is coming to screens at the perfect time. Comic fans will be thrilled with the presentation of the characters in the Hellfire Club, a glaring omission from the third film, X-Men: The Last Stand. Yet, newcomers to the series will have no problem following the story as all the characters are introduced and their powers explained.

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