Mike Saulters's blog

Review: 300: Rise of an Empire


300: Rise of an Empire

Eight years after Zack Snyder revived the sword-and-sandal subgenre and inspired millions of men to revisit the gym with his adaptation of Frank Miller's 300, he has scripted a return to ancient Greece. Directed by Noam Murro (Smart People), the movie 300: Rise of an Empire is a self-indulgent video game fantasy at best.

The film opens with a recap of the events of 300 and an introduction to Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the new lead, who's head of the Greek army. The action proceeds to explain how Themistokles is not just the hero who led the Greeks to victory over Xerxes, but was himself responsible for the enmity held by Xerxes toward the Greeks.

Artemisia (Eva Green) is introduced as the leader of Xerxes' forces, and the two commence with a series of battles consisting of ships crashing into each other as warriors fight to the death on top of the sinking wrecks.

Here are the rules of Greek vs. Persian combat, as gleaned from 300: Rise of an Empire:

  • Rule 1: Like a friendly game of football, bad guys wear shirts, good guys are skins.
  • Rule 2: Every blow of every sword in every battle must be repeated in videogame style slo-mo.
  • Rule 3: Every scene with any of the Greek army present must have floating sparks constantly distracting from the action on the camera, as if from 10,000 campfires, even when the entire army is climbing wet out of the Mediterranean.
  • Rule 4: If it digitally bleeds, it digitally leads.
  • Rule 5: Nobody important dies without an extended death scene in which they deliver a monologue. Everyone else dies immediately upon the slightest injury.

Check Out the AFS ShortCase Lineup for SXSW 2014



The Austin Film Society jury has chosen eight selections for the AFS ShortCase program, which annually presents to SXSW attendees a diverse mix of shorts created by AFS members. The 2014 jury included Austin filmmaker Clay Liford (Wuss), AFS programmer Lars Nilsen and Slackerwood contributor Debbie Cerda.

The ShortCase screening will take place during the first weekend of the fest, Saturday March 8 at 2 pm at the Marchesa. (Add the screening to your schedule here.) It's free and open to the public even if you don't have a SXSW badge or wristband -- but get there early, because last year this event filled up fast and a number of people were turned away.

The short features and documentaries include:

Digging for the Water (Joshua Riehl) -- In the hilltop village of Creve, Haiti residents have no electricity or running water. Their only supply, which they must carry by hand from a neighboring village, is contaminated with bacteria. Volunteers from the organization Mountain of Hope and The University of Texas at Austin arrange to help drill a well for the village.

Review: Non-Stop



Director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan, House of Wax) has worked with Liam Neeson previously on the movie Unknown, but there is another clear reason Neeson was cast for the role of alcoholic air marshal Bill Marks. The actor has the talent and star power to elevate an otherwise unremarkable, movie-of-the-week script like Non-Stop into a moneymaker with wings. 

The story, penned by a team whose credits include TV's Big Brother and WWE/WrestleMania, lands Neeson in the role of Bill Marks, an air marshal on a transatlantic flight. He's confronted with text messages from an anonymous villain who promises to kill someone on the flight unless the exorbitant sum of $150 million is wired into an account within an unlikely time limit of 20 minutes. With the clock ticking and no clues to help him, he must reveal the hijacker even as the villain's complex plan unfolds to frame him for the deed.

The ensuing tense whodunit occupies the audience with guessing games, attempting to lead them astray with characters that play on ethnic stereotypes and dirty looks as Marks and his allies Jen Summers (Julianne Moore) and Nancy (Michelle Dockery) attempt to expose the culprit.

As the flight's body count increases, so does Marks' level of stress, until Neeson is enraged, throwing passengers around like rag dolls and progressing only in cementing his image as a hijacker, already being painted in the media on the ground.

Non-Stop is best enjoyed by those who don't pick apart a script and can allow themselves to be caught up in the tense situation. Collet-Serra has a few tricks to keep the pace moving, including some impressive hand-to-hand choreography within the confines of the plane's lavatory. These tricks make for an enjoyable film, in spite of the descent into monologues as the clock is ticking and swift loss of direction when the hijacker is finally revealed.

Review: RoboCop



It has been 27 years since one of the seminal 80s sci-fi films, RoboCop, blasted onto cineplex screens. By today's Hollywood formulas, it's the perfect age for a remake that can bring the franchise name to new viewers and cash in on an audience eager to see an updated favorite.  Too often, this results in a disappointing flop like 2012's Total Recall, a development that wouldn't have surprised with Jose Padilha's modern take on the Verhoeven blockbuster.

It is impossible not to compare the two versions, for better or for worse.  Verhoeven's movie had a signature gritty, steely dystopian feel that contrasts against Padilha's sleek modern curves and smooth black gloss. As the first set photos from the new RoboCop made their way to the internets, angry fans denounced the insectile look of the black armor that replaced the familiar brushed steel. Fortunately, a more familiar steel uniform does appear, and the black suit is explained away, eliminating this minor quibble. Drastic changes in the look of the film are surprising given the casting of relative unknown Joel Kinnaman, whose greatest talent appears to be a strong chin resemblance to Peter Weller.

The differences in this remake go far beyond visuals, however. Joshua Zetumer has adapted the original script into something with a vaguely similar plot but drastically altered themes. A PG-13 rating ensures the remake, while more marketable, has lost much of the hyperbolic action.  Padhila's version is also entirely sanitized of the satirical advertising used so effectively by Verhoeven in scene transitions, confining overt political commentary to Samuel L. Jackson's appearance as host of an O'Reilly-esque conservative news program.

I mentioned altered themes, and the most significant concerns the title character. Verhoeven's RoboCop was a machine that begins to remember it was once human. Padilha's RoboCop is a human struggling with the horror of being placed in a machine body and fighting the programming that seeks to strip him of his humanity. This reflects the fundamentally different approach where Verhoeven's film satirizes the unreliability of technology, Padilha's celebrates its ability to perform better, faster than the human brain. 

2013 in Review: Mike's 'Don't Miss' List


the congress

Editor's note: Welcome to Slackerwood's 2013 in Review series. As in previous years, we aren't just posting standard Top 10 lists but also will highlight other aspects of 2013 that stood out for us. Keep an eye out all month for these features.

Because end-of-year top ten lists are a dime a dozen, I have decided this year to take a different approach. Often it is too easy to overlook the "film" in film criticism, and one refrain I occasionally hear from my fellow critics is that we should work to promote good movies. This year, I would like to take a look back at some of the better films you may have missed and explore upcoming releases worth noting in the next several months.

Released at the end of February in Austin and available from Magnet Releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray John Dies at the End is an insanely paced sci-fi/horror comedy that I gleefully reviewed after repeat viewings. This independent genre darling had a limited theatrical run, but is currently available on Netflix Watch Instant. (my review)

Review: The Legend of Hercules


The Legend of Hercules

The first thing one might expect in a film called The Legend of Hercules would be that it actually recounts some or all of the story of Hercules. Instead, Renny Harlin presents a derivative hodgepodge of several sword-and-sandals film mashed up with select Biblical imagery in a tale bearing little to no resemblance to the Hercules of mythology.

Scott Adkins appears as power-hungry King Amphitryon, who, after conquering his latest kingdom in single combat against its ruler, returns to his bedchamber where he finds his wife Alcmene (Roxanne McKee) bemoaning his cruelty. Alcmene flees his unrepentant presence to the temple of Hera and prays to the goddess for a child that will put an end to Amphitryon's cruelty.

Twenty years later, Kellan Lutz is cliff diving into the arms of Hebe (Gaia Weiss) who has already been unknowingly betrothed to his older brother Iphicles (Liam Garrigan), who spends his time stalking the two lovers and taking credit for his brother's great deeds.

Except for the brief interaction with Hera and an impressive bit of special f/x with a lightning bolt later in the film, The Legend of Hercules dispenses entirely with the "myth" portion of the Herculean mythos. The man with the strength of a god is powerless until he opens himself to his feelings, and this so-called legend features only one feat of strength.

The predictably boring events of the ensuing story share equal blame, however, with astoundingly bad camera work. Poorly-lit scenes fail in their masquerade as the result of a stylistic choice when they cut to other scenes that are perfectly bright. It's as if not just the story but also the visuals were cut and edited from more than one film. The presentation in 3D was equally bad, or perhaps even worse, as the action shots in every fight scene looked like they were ripped from a video game.

All this is compounded by nausea-inducing technical glitches that frequently cloud the vision in one eye or cross both. Perhaps the worst-looking movie ever shot on Red Epic cameras, that company should consider a demand to have its name removed from the credits.

Alamo Drafthouse Shares Their Favorite 100 Films


What are your five favorite movies, the ones you can watch over and over, that you would pick to watch if you were stranded on a desert island with nothing else to do for the rest of your life?  That's what the Alamo Drafthouse asked fans this week in a question that hinted at the subject of a secret event and announcement last night by Tim League and the Austin Alamo programming team.

That announcement was the creation of the Alamo 100, the essential list of films as selected from the top 100 favorites of each of the Drafthouse programmers: Sarah Pitre, Greg Maclennan, Joe Ziemba, Tommy Swenson, RJ Laforce, and Tim League.  Intended as a celebration of the best movies to watch, the list is not bound by genre, nor is it stuffy and limited to "classics."  It begins, alphabetically, with 10 Things I Hate About You and ends with You've Got Mail, but includes many titles one would expect, such as Casablanca, The Godfather (Part I and II) and Pulp Fiction.

As a celebration of the list, Drafthouse theaters nationwide will screen seven of the titles in January -- Brazil, The Goonies, Raging Bull, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sixteen Candles, City Lights and Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- with more to come throughout the year. Those who attend these screenings will receive custom buttons created for each film, which included the secret title from last night's screening, the 1931 Charlie Chaplin film City Lights -- Tim League's #1 pick, which also made the lists of three other programmers.

Review: Frozen


Disney's FrozenThe movie Frozen may be Disney's best animated film in 20 years. The adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is a return to Disney classic form with a few new twists on old tropes.

The pairing of composer Christophe Beck (Pitch Perfect, Burlesque) with lyricist Kristen Anderson-Lopez recaptures some of the magic of Menken/Ashman from 1989-1992 in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. The screenplay by Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph), who also shared directing duties with Chris Buck (Tarzan), carefully balances dark subject matter with good-natured humor as it transports the audience into a magical frozen world.

Idina Menzel won a Tony for her Broadway performance in Wicked as Elphaba, the misunderstood "wicked witch" forced into isolation by her appearance and powers. The role of snow queen Elsa she plays in Frozen is not a very far stretch from that character, though she is not the heroine of this tale.

Princess Anna is voiced by Kristen Bell, who also performs her own songs. Who knew Kristen Bell could sing like this? Performing in four tracks that include duets with Santino Fontana, Josh Gad, and Menzel, her voice is flawless.

The most memorable numbers in Frozen, however, are "In Summer," performed by Josh Gad (Jobs, Ice Age) about a snowman's light-hearted musing on dreams of warm weather, and "Let It Go," which inspired youngsters in the audience to sing along with the credits.

After she accidentally injures younger sister Anna while playing with her budding magical powers, Elsa's parents hide her away, isolated from people in order to avoid hurting them. She grows up striving to repress, rather than control, her feelings and thus her powers. After their parents' deaths, Elsa comes of age and must assume her role as queen at a coronation ceremony, resulting in a disaster from which she flees.

Review: Thor: The Dark World


Thor: The Dark WorldBigger, better and more full of thunder, Thor: The Dark World smashes onto screens this weekend. The sequel to 2011's Thor -- part of the Marvel Avengers movie continuity -- catches up with characters Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) several years after the first installment.

The story by writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, Don Payne and Robert Rodat was directed by Alan Taylor, who has a few feature credits but has directed episodes of numerous TV favorites including among his credits Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, The West Wing, The Sopranos and most recently, Game of Thrones.

Taylor's experience directing Game of Thrones is immediately on display as the film opens with a battle scene in which Asgardians and Dark Elves do battle using a combination of medieval weaponry and laser fire. In a greatly expanded role, Anthony Hopkins' Odin narrates the battle fought by his father (Tony Curran in an uncredited role) against Dark Elves who seek to kill all other life and return the universe to darkness. Now, the nine worlds are coming into a once-every-five-thousand-years alignment, and the time is ripe for the Dark Elves led by Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) to try again.

Comic book fans may be displeased by changes to established details and storylines, but Thor: The Dark World is a crowd-pleaser. More of the action takes place on Asgard where in addition to Hopkins, Rene Russo enjoys a much more involved role as Frigga, Thor's mother. The rest of the gang is back including Jaimie Alexander as Sif, Zachary Levi as Fandral, Ray Stevenson as Volstagg, Tadanobu Asano as Hogun and Idris Elba as Heimdall, all of whom serve more important roles than the set dressing they provided in the previous film.  A newcomer to the Marvel universe, Chris O'Dowd appears as a matter-of-fact blind date for Portman's Foster, and Alice Krige makes a brief surprising appearance.

Mondo Gallery Illustrates 'Tales From The Crypt'


Mondo Gallery's latest show, featuring art inspired by EC Comics and Tales From The Crypt, opened recently and will run through November 23. I was able to attend the opening-night preview and take some photos.

Works included pieces by artists Ken Taylor, Mike Budai, Francesco Francavilla, Ken Garduno, Alex R. Kirzhner, Jeff Lemire, Drew Millward, Gary Pullin, Ash Thorp, Warwick Johnson Cadwell, Jacob Bannon, Kraken, Jim Rugg, Michael Hacker, Luke Drozd, Bruce White, Jason Edmiston, Shawn K. Knight, Jack Davis, Brandon Holt, Florian Bertmer, Scarecrowoven, Eric Skillman, Paolo Rivera, Mark Todd, Chris Mooneyham, Angryblue, Neal Russler, Phantom City Creative, William Stout, James Flames, Shane Hillman, and Graham Erwin.

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