Mike Saulters's blog

Review: The Hangover Part II

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The Hangover Part III really wanted to love The Hangover Part II. Its predecessor left me laughing for days. The trio of Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis was lightning in a bottle, and the over-the-top script pushed the limits in the name of harmless fun. I'm not a pessimist who expects to hate every sequel, and I was really looking forward to this second outing, also directed by Todd Phillips.

I didn't believe early reports that it was simply a rehash of the original script, though it would seem so at first. Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis again wake up and trace the events of a drug-fueled night of partying, and have to complete a mission in time to return for a wedding. Again, the jokes are outrageous, and The Hangover Part II is good for a few laughs, but that's where the similarity ends.

My first complaint is that it takes 30 minutes to muddle through the setup at the beginning of the movie. There's a scene at Stu's (Helms) office, another at the Garner mansion, a banquet in Thailand, and so on. It really takes a while to get moving as compared to the snappy script of The Hangover.

Second problem regards the fourth companion, Justin Bartha as Doug. Doug spent the entirety of the first movie missing (and it was his wedding they had to get to). I had hoped in The Hangover Part II, we would see more of him and it would bring a new dynamic that would allow Bartha to show off his comedic chops. Instead, though Doug gets more screen time, he is stuck back at the hotel while the rest of the "wolf pack" parties without him. Taking his place as the missing man and object of the search is Mason Lee as Stu's soon-to-be brother-in-law, Teddy.

Third problem I had was that the dynamic here is changed. Cooper is no longer really leading the group and feels like he's just along for the ride. He's underused, and isn't really the focus of any of the gags, which are held almost exclusively for Helms. It felt almost like he has grown to be too big a star and was doing his pals a favor being in their little movie.

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

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Since Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was released in 2003, I have been an enormous fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. No other film series in the last decade has captured my imagination the way Pirates did with its astounding special effects and swashbuckling adventure.

But it never would have been a success without Johnny Depp's inspired performance as Captain Jack Sparrow. Depp practically invented his own pirate language as Sparrow, and indeed, Jack Sparrow costumes dominated Halloween parties that year (and the next). While the first three installments encapsulated the tale of William Turner and Elizabeth Swann, they were also undeniably the adventures of Jack Sparrow on his quest for fortune, reknown and life eternal.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End not only concluded the Elizabeth-William arc, it neatly set up a new adventure with the map to the Fountain of Youth. Returning for a fourth movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Depp reunites with Geoffrey Rush's Barbossa and joins Ian McShane's dread pirate Blackbeard as well as Penélope Cruz.

As the ultimate fan of the Pirates series, I was anxious that Gore Verbinski would not be returning to direct (probably too busy working on that masterpiece Rango, see my review here), but Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha) is no slouch. I needn't have feared as On Stranger Tides captured the magic and even provided a few pleasant surprises. The decision to film in 3D was my main disagreement. 3D would have better served the epic scope of At World's End, but was entirely unnecessary here.

On Stranger Tides is ostensibly designed as the first of a new trilogy, and is scaled back greatly in scope. While the previous Pirates outings were heavy with sea travel and battles, even going all the way to the end of the world and back, the events in On Stranger Tides take place primarily on land, reflecting a smaller budget. In fact, the action moves smoothly between six locations by my count, and I don't recall there being any battles at sea. However, the film tells a good story, and the land-bound action is entertaining.

Review: There Be Dragons

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There Be DragonsIn recent years, the Spanish Civil War has featured in a number of great movies, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone among others. To an American audience with little or no education on the subject, it can be difficult to follow or understand when the armies aren't wearing blue or gray. A few minutes reading the Wikipedia entry can be most helpful in at least providing a frame of reference.

There Be Dragons, written and directed by Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffé (The Killing Fields, The Mission) follows two childhood friends in separate stories through the events of the war. Based on the true story of St. Josemaría Escrivá, There Be Dragons presents the founding and philosophy of Opus Dei, the organization he founded within the Catholic church (and which was depicted negatively in The Da Vinci Code).

Dougray Scott as Robert is researching Father Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox) and learns that his estranged father Manolo (Wes Bentley) was not only from the same town, but had also briefly attended divinity school with the saint. After eight years of silence, Robert returns home to Spain to hear his father's story, including several unpleasant surprises (the figurative dragons from the title).

There Be Dragons begins with the unattributed quote "Every saint has a past, and every sinner a future," which neatly describes the plot and dichotomy between Manolo and Josemariá. In one of the ugliest periods of world history, I found the story of Josemaría more captivating (and the film dedicates more time to this story and the philosophy of Opus Dei) while the military path followed by Manolo was darker, more violent and disturbing. In the end, the stories reunite in a way that is almost touching enough to bring a tear to one's eye.

Review: Thor

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Thor

I remember first hearing Marvel was planning a series of films leading up to The Avengers some time around April 2008, just before the first Iron Man. I thought to myself "Huh, that's interesting," but had little other reaction. Iron Man proved an astounding success, taking what was to my mind one of the less-spectacular of Marvel's titles and giving it the star treatment. Robert Downey Jr. brought Tony Stark to life in a way that made his time outside the suit almost, if not more, interesting than his time in it.

Then later that year I refused to watch Hulk, because I thought it looked like a rehash of the 2003 Ang Lee version. (And finally after watching it this weekend, I'm convinced I was right. Hulk fights another Hulk at the end of both films.) Until Iron Man 2 was released last year, I didn't give much thought to The Avengers. Then, just a glimpse of Captain America's shield, and the teaser with Thor's hammer at the end, my imagination was captured, and I began to believe they would manage to pull it all together and create something great.

Now I have seen Thor, and I am completely enthusiastic about The Avengers and the rest of the films leading up to it. Kenneth Branagh has directed a show worthy of sitting on the shelf next to both of the Iron Man films and the rest of your favorite superhero titles. It may well prove to be his most popular movie.

SXSW Review: Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW

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Outside Industry

Twenty-five years ago, four guys organized what they expected to be a small gathering for local musicians to perform and get some exposure. Running it from the offices of the Austin Chronicle, the four -- Louis Black, Louis Meyers, Roland Swenson and Nick Barbaro -- didn’t expect that 700 people would show up for that first fest. Since then, South By Southwest has grown into the largest annual event in Austin and one of the largest and most recognized of such festivals in the world.

In Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW, producer/director Alan Berg chronicles the rise and history of SXSW through photographs, old footage and interviews not only with the founders, but also writers Michael Corcoran and Joe Nick Patoski, Creative Director Brent Grulke, entertainer Mojo Nixon and many others.

Set to a rocking soundtrack, the movie begins with a nostalgic look back at shows at Liberty Lunch and the birth of the Austin Chronicle and credits Louis Meyers with being the driving force behind the creation of the festival. It covers the explosive debut and growth of SXSW, the launch of wristbands, the theme of industry vs. consumers and how that led to the arson of the festival offices. A sizable portion of time is spent detailing influence of major record labels on SXSW as they sponsor events and push their latest acts as well as how free events and parties outside the official festival have sprung up in protest.

As someone who has only ever experienced SXSW through the film festival, I was disappointed that Film and Interactive, which have grown to equal the music festival in prestige (and in the case of film, exceed it in length by three days), were barely a footnote. Still, this was an interesting and educational documentary and enough fun that I watched it twice. The older footage provides a haunting glimpse of Austin-that-was, which brought a flood of memories of my first years here. This is a must-watch for anyone who has spent two decades or more in this city as well as anyone who enjoys the live music scene.

Visit the Outside Industry website for more information about upcoming screenings, etc.

Review: Your Highness

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<em>Your Highness</em>Growing up in the 80s, I was a fan of many popular films and franchises of the time such as Ghostbusters, Star Trek, The Goonies and of course Star Wars. But the films that most captured my imagination were always swashbuckling "sword and sandal" films that set cold steel against fiery magic. Legend, Beastmaster, Clash of the Titans, Dragonslayer and Krull were some of my favorites, watched on endless repeat ... meaning of course we'd stop the videotape, rewind and play it again.

Writers Danny McBride and Ben Best and director David Gordon Green have brought back a glimpse of that silver age this week with Your Highness, a comedic romp through fantasy that sells itself as a stoner comedy but is surprisingly (and refreshingly) solid.

Prince Thadeous (McBride) is dealing with a serious case of second-child syndrome, yearning for the approval and pride his father heaps on older brother Fabious (James Franco). Seemingly unable to do anything right and unwililng to do anything as expected, Thadeous is ordered to accompany Fabious on a quest to rescue his fiancee Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) from the clutches of evil wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux) and hopefully become a man in the process. They find help along the way from Isabel (Natalie Portman), who is on a quest of her own.

It would be easy to dismiss this movie for the lowbrow toilet and sexual humor, but all of the above-mentioned films include a smattering of comic relief. Even Shakespeare's plays were written with a bawdy humor that appealed to the masses of the time that when read literally may appear subtle but when performed would become painfully obvious. While some of the jokes in Your Highness are of the least-common-denominator variety, they are mostly hilarious, and unlike some of the more family-friendly comedies (Shrek comes to mind) the humor doesn't rely on current events and references that will soon become dated.

Review: Sucker Punch

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Sucker Punch

If you're not familiar with The Lady, or the Tiger? by Frank R. Stockton, take a minute to read that link and come back. Sucker Punch is Zack Snyder's answer to that question after he OD'd on 'shrooms and spent a night watching Moulin Rouge, Charlie's Angels and Inception, then fell asleep to Heavy Metal. The result is a mishmash of great ideas that doesn't know where it's going. With just a little more follow-through, it could have been a hit instead of the critical flop it will ultimately be remembered as.

Emily Browning, best known for her role in Lemony Snicket, plays Baby Doll, a girl attacked by her greedy stepfather after the death of her mother in hopes of securing her fortune. Instead of fleeing, she defends herself and her sister from the evil man, but a stray bullet kills the sister and the stepfather puts Baby Doll away, paying a very nasty orderly at the hospital to make sure she is lobotomized and can never bother him again.

Just as the doctor is about to perform the procedure, she yells "Stop!" and the scene shifts to an alternate-universe version of the hospital where the patients are instead burlesque dancers, and the orderly is the gangster-owner of the club where they are all forced to live and perform.

Now, from this point, we're left wondering, is this the "real" story, and the mental institute just a sick fantasy cooked up for paying clients? Or are we in some kind of schizoid embolism a la Total Recall?  To confuse the issue only further, all the real action in Sucker Punch only happens in Baby Doll's mind when she dances. Her dance is so sensual, so captivating, that it freezes men in their tracks and makes her a hero to the other girls, though we never ever get to see her perform. Instead, we're transported to a third level of the dream where Baby Doll is a superhero fighting undead steampunk soldiers, giant robot samurai and angry mother dragons to the beat of reworked hits such as The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams." These scenes are truly epic, and the movie is worth watching just for (and only for) them, much like Knowing was worth watching if only for the disaster shots. The action and the music are like the fresh tasty hot dog inside a rotten moldy bun.

Review: Elektra Luxx

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Elektra Luxx

Carla Gugino plays the titular Elektra Luxx, a retired porn superstar making a living teaching an adult sex-ed class ("How to act like a porn star in bed"). She's just found out she's pregnant and is having a really bad week. She's suffering an existential crisis, worried about how she can be a good mother and still explain to her child what she used to do for a living. Just as she's dealing with this, people begin appearing in her life, making her question who she is and who she wants to be.

The movie, written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez, looks like it would have been more suited to a playhouse stage than the silver screen. This, despite an impressive number of stars: Gugino, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kathleen Quinlan (Event Horizon, Apollo 13), Marley Shelton, Malin Ackerman, Timothy Olyphant, Justin Kirk and Julianne Moore. The dialogue, full of random non-sequiturs, meanders through each scene. A chance encounter with a former co-star, Holly Rocket (Friday Night Lights' Adrianne Palicki) spawns a tedious and completely disconnected subplot that follows Holly and her best friend on a vacation, culminating in the two falling in love.  

Things become a little more clear upon learning Elektra Luxx is actually a follow-up to Gutierrez's 2009 release Women in Trouble. Elektra Luxx is a sequel to that virtually unseen flick with most of the same actors. Taken alone, it is a mess, with characters that appear out of nowhere even in the last 10 minutes of the film, as clunky dialogue explains their connection to Elektra. A friend is actually the mother of a spoiled trust-fund brat neighbor, for instance. The entire lesbian love-affair vacation should have been dropped, as it completely breaks the narrative of Elektra's story, involves characters who have no introduction (unless you've seen the first film), and frankly put me to sleep both times I watched the movie.

SXSW Review: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

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Greatest Movie Ever Sold

I'm not the greatest fan of Morgan Spurlock. I felt his Super Size Me was over-dramaticized, heavy-handed, and unfair. I only ever saw one episode of his series 30 Days, and I haven't seen any of his other work. Having heard people describe him as "a poor man's Michael Moore," I entered the Paramount with low expectations for the premiere of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

Product placement has become an integral, and inescapable part of TV and film production. Spurlock and co-writer Jeremy Chilnick began with the idea that if co-promotion of products could help make a movie a blockbuster, it could also influence the success of a documentary. So, they set out to make a documentary whose production was financed entirely through product placement and co-promotion. In order to do that, they decided to make the documentary about product placement and co-promotion.

The majority of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold consists of Spurlock meeting with various marketing heads and CEOs to pitch the film and request their participation in it. It is safe to assume they had no idea the meetings would be filmed and themselves be integrated into the final product. Interspersed with these are interviews with consumer advocates, including Ralph Nader; trips to the grocery store presumably to do product research, where Spurlock mostly makes fun of the "Mane 'n Tail" hair conditioner; and a trip to São Paulo, Brazil, where all outdoor advertising (billboards, cabs, buses, everything) has been outlawed.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is humorous and entertaining, but doesn't exactly serve as biting commentary on the state of advertising in the media. I believe that documentaries should be fair to their subjects, but if anything it felt the corporate sponsors were presented in a way that if not more favorable, they at least got more camera time. A notable moment was the attorney who when asked his rates stated the real question is how much his $700/hour would offset the fee for appearance and promotion in the film.

Review: Limitless

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Limitless

Drugs are bad, 'mmkay? In this post-Nancy Reagan War on Drugs age, we drink from the pharmaceutical fountain more than ever. We have pills to perk you up, pills to calm you down, pills for social anxiety, pills for depression and pills for erectile dysfunction. In fact, it seems like the only drugs it's not okay to take are the ones that exist just to have fun.

In Limitless, Bradley Cooper discovers the most exceptional drug ever created. Unfortunately, for a top-secret prototype, a lot of people seem to know about it and want to get their hands on it. On top of avoiding all the people who want to get their hands on his stash and negotiating corporate mergers to build his empire, Eddie (Cooper) begins to learn that the brain power the drug lets him access has to be paid back with devastating consequences.

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