Mike Saulters's blog

Extra Slackery News Tidbits (Plus Shameless Plug): July 17, 2013


It's a heavy Austin film news week, so here are some other news tidbits, courtesy of Mike and Jette.

  • Right on the heels of Jette's Cinematic Guide to Texas Politics, news hit yesterday that the producers of the Austin-shot film Machete (Jette's review) have filed suit in Travis County District Court against the Texas Film Commission. After being awarded $8 million in incentives to produce the film in Texas, the budget of Robert Rodriguez's film was increased, but the funds were pulled after the commission determined that "inappropriate" content of the film disqualified it from the grant. A sequel to the film, Machete Kills, also filmed in Texas, is opening Fantastic Fest this year. [MS]
  • Drafthouse Films announced its acquisition of the North American rights to the Danish hit comedy series Klown. The complete 60-episode TV series, which ran from 2005-2009, is now available on Hulu and Hulu Plus, and will be downloadable from www.klown.tv starting Tuesday, July 23. Drafthouse Films also has distribution rights to the film Klown (J.C.'s review), based on the series, which premiered at Fantastic Fest in 2011. Warner Brothers is  planning an English-language remake. [MS]
  • Violet Crown Cinema will host a benefit screening of Prince Avalanche (Elizabeth's SXSW review), David Gordon Green's film shot in Central Texas. The event will take place on Thursday, July 25 and will include a cocktail party and post-film Q&A with Green and local composer David Wingo. Fittingly, the proceeds will go to the Heart of Pines Volunteer Fire Association, which still needs help after the Bastrop wildfires in 2011. Tickets are available through Violet Crown. [JK]
  • On Thursday night, Austin short filmmakers Umar Riaz, Brian Scofield and Tomas Vengris will screen several of their short films at Alamo Drafthouse Village. The lineup includes two Student Academy Award finalist films, Last Remarks and Kalifornija. You can buy tickets through Tugg. [JK]

Finally, a reminder from Jette: The Austin Chronicle 2013 "Best of Austin" poll is open for you to vote through Monday, July 22. Please do vote, and remember Slackerwood when you are considering the categories of Film Critic, Local Non-Chronicle Publication, News Website and Local Blog. (Or any other category where you think we might fit.)

Review: Turbo


TurboThough Pixar has an army of fans ready to support it as the animation studio producing the best movies, Dreamworks now has a string of productions that show the Pixar is no longer in a class by itself.  Though some wildly popular Dreamworks properties (Shrek, Shark Tale) don't draw critical acclaim, the studio continues to release franchises (Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar) and one-offs (Rise of the Guardians, Monsters vs Aliens) enjoyed by critics and audiences alike. This week along with the teaser announcement of the sequel to the studio's greatest hit, How to Train Your Dragon, comes a surprising little gem best described as something like "Cars meets Charlotte's Web."

With an unknown director (David Soren, in his feature debut) and writers responsible for films like Jack the Giant Slayer and Shrek Forever After, I didn't expect much from Turbo. It turned out to be a surprisingly good time. Ryan Reynolds voices the title character -- Theodore, a young snail obsessed with auto racing who prefers the nickname Turbo. When a wish on a star and a DNA-altering freak accident give him the speed he has always desired, Turbo finds a new home among snails more appreciative of his talents.

Reynolds is joined by an enormous lineup of acting talent that includes Paul Giamatti, Michael Pena, Luis Guzman, Bill Hader, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michelle Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph, Ben Schwartz, Kurtwood Smith, Snoop Dogg and Samuel L. Jackson.

Turbo is a contemporary story set in a visibly recognizable Los Angeles, but the script doesn't rely on force-feeding the audience current pop-cultural references for its humor. However, the tagline for the poster, "He's fast. They're furious," however is brought to life in the movie when Turbo finds himself dropped into the middle of a race straight from that franchise.

This scene lands Turbo a spot on my growing list of "3D movies worth watching in 3D," as throughout the film, the technology strongly helps illustrate and enhance the sense of difference in scale between the world of the snails and the humans with whom they come to interact.  It's a gorgeous film. Visually, the world of Turbo is much much richer than the simple mollusk characters would lead you to believe.

Review: The Lone Ranger


The Lone RangerDo you know what "Tonto" means in Spanish?  Apparently in Disney it means "Native American Jack Sparrow," because Johnny Depp's character in The Lone Ranger is a carbon copy of the colorful captain from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Strange, kooky demeanor, operates based on mysterious motives, always has a plan, scorned by his peers, works alone, manipulative, always making trades -- all these traits describe both characters.

There are many other ways director Gore Verbinski appears to have been working from his own notes on the Pirates series: fight choreography like swinging from a rope around a pole, a character playing with a watch much like Sparrow played with a compass, both characters end up in jail cells early in the movie, characters fight atop trains on parallel tracks reminiscent of ships, one of the bad guys likes to dress in women's clothing. If all that weren't enough, Tonto wears a bird on his head, as if to say "Get it? It's a bird, like a sparrow." (Entertainment Weekly has the skinny on the actual inspiration for the character design.)

As a childhood fan of the Lone Ranger, I enjoyed this adaptation scripted by Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (two of whom also happen to be veterans of the Pirates series). The Lone Ranger is receiving no love from critics, but in spite of several weaknesses -- including a runtime of 149 minutes --I found much to enjoy. The film may find appreciation at the box office this holiday weekend -- after all, it's working from a well-established formula.

First, the movie is beautifully shot, from the opening scene in 1933 San Francisco (including an homage to The Red Balloon) all across the Old West. Armie Hammer, who is second-billed though playing the title character, is passable but generally unremarkable in the role opposite William Fichtner, who is doing some of his best work as the fiendish ringleader Butch Cavendish, one of the more compelling villians seen in a Disney film.

Review: World War Z


World War ZThere is a saying I like to cite that holds the more writers attached to a movie, the worse you can expect it to be. Opening this weekend, World War Z is a shining exception. Starring Brad Pitt and directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball), World War Z's writing credits include a Who's Who of talent: J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, Thor, Underworld: Awakening) and Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play, The Kingdom) developed the story based on Max Brooks' novel of the same name. Carnahan, Drew Goddard (Lost, Cabin in the Woods) and Damon Lindelof then completed the script, which is rumored to include a complete rewrite of the ending. The script issues were part of a larger set of problems with the production that delayed its release by six months (just Google "World War Z production issues"), but the end result is a fine (and family-friendly PG-13) zombie movie.

The first thing fans of Brooks' novels should know is that this is not the same story as the source material. Though there are familiar elements, this story follows Gerry Lane (Pitt), an un-retired UN envoy on a mission around the globe to determine the source and find a cure for the zombie outbreak. The story picks up as the epidemic sweeps across America, angry rabid infectees biting helpless victims who in the space of 12 seconds are converted and join the horde. Compelling sound work and disturbingly graphic visual effects terrify and keep the heart pounding. (Truly, the makeup and creature work needs to be recognized next Oscar season.)

By now you have probably heard at least a hint of the argument between fans of "fast zombies" and "slow zombies." I hope this can put a nail in the coffin of slow-zombie movies. They seem to all devolve into the same tropes, people sitting around arguing about what to do as the writers build up their character development until -- oops -- the zombies have snuck up on them! Slow zombie movies tend to explore psychological aspects of small groups of people in survival situations, and there is admittedly a smattering of this element in World War Z. However, in this fastest of fast-zombie films, there is no time for sitting still. Personal dramas take a back seat to exploring the ways governments and entire nations deal with a problem of biblical proportions.

This is where I feel the script excels and Straczynski's influence is most strongly felt. David Morse appears as a CIA agent with his own theories and a little intel on the plague. His opinions on Israel's involvement drop a supernatural cloak over the mood, and the North Korean "solution" is as fascinating as it is horrifying -- but entirely believable as something only North Korea, in all the world, could accomplish.

Review: Man of Steel


Man of SteelAt long last the highly anticipated return of America's favorite (and first) superhero has arrived. Scripted by David S. Goyer from a concept he developed with Christopher Nolan, the movie Man of Steel is a retelling of Superman's origin story that draws familiar elements from a number of the comic's modern print storylines. Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) is no stranger to comic-book adaptations, but this is by far his best work and will prove to be the summer film to beat.

Henry Cavill dons the tights this time around, but not before a couple of steamy scenes showing off a physique that is nothing short of... well, super. Though Snyder's film is in many ways the strongest adaptation of the comic books, Cavill is the most realistic portrayal of Supes as a young man, torn with indecision, largely directionless, and unsure of his potential.  He still has the unerring moral compass, but his invulnerable skin can't protect his psyche from the emotional pain every time he is ridiculed for being different.  

And there is no question he is different. Rather than the perfectly anonymous Clark Kent that might have grown up in 1950s Smallville, the realistic take in Man of Steel shows there are some things just too difficult to hide completely. Everyone knows he's different, but nobody suspects the true story. His early years are played out in nostalgic, contemplative trips he takes down memory lane whenever he is knocked out. Snyder uses this technique to bookend his action sets and provide insight on Clark's mood.

Into this world pops Lois Lane (Amy Adams), likely the strongest example of female empowerment in all comic-book filmdom. Already a Pulitzer Prize winner, the character is an investigative reporter who will put herself in harm's way to get a good story. Finally, we have a Lois who is in character every bit as strong as Superman, a woman who knows the danger she faces and still volunteers for the mission, and who is pivotal in the outcome of the movie's plot. There should be some kind of award for Lois Lane in this movie. Adams is strong but never hard, capable but not forced to fight for recognition. She never has to trade on her looks to get what she wants, and there is never a hint that she would need to.

Review: After Earth


After EarthOnce again I find myself asking the question, "WHY does anyone keep letting M. Night Shyamalan make movies?" In 2010 he single-handedly decimated The Last Airbender, creating the sort of flop that not only ends careers but makes people re-examine a director's previous body of work with a sour eye. After that flop he has returned with After Earth, co-written with Gary Whitta, based on a story idea by Will Smith.

Starring Smith and his son Jaden, After Earth is a family-friendly adventure movie that couches itself in the elements of good sci-fi but fails to realize even a hint of the greatness of the films from which it derives. The reason can be boiled down to one simple statement: Good sci-fi doesn't insult the audience's intelligence.  After Earth does so in dozens of simple ways.

The basic setup is that 1,000 years in the future, mankind has exploited Earth to the point of uninhabitability and therefore has left to colonize other systems. Somewhere along the way, we met a hostile alien race who rather than attack us with superior technology, sends giant angry sightless monsters that can smell (and track us by) the pheremones released by fear. Smith is the first warrior who can completely suppress his fear, thus making himself invisible to the enemy. Due to a freak accident, he and his son crash-land on Earth and must survive until help arrives.

Before going into any details, even the basic idea has flaws. Aliens that can only track us by scent, and we can't simply wear sealed suits?  A thousand years in the future, and we have to fight with bladed weapons instead of guns and lasers?

Getting into the execution of these ideas in the script, even worse problems jump out. A routine flight is forced off course by an "asteroid storm"?  In order to effect their rescue, they must recover a distress beacon that for some reason wasn't activated BEFORE the ship crash-landed. These are supposed to be people a thousand years more advanced, but they have been scripted as stupid in unnecessary ways to set up a very contrived plot.

Other blunders in After Earth include an Earth that is a virtual paradise despite nightly flash-freezes worthy of the worst Roland Emmerich threw at his characters in The Day AFter Tomorrow, which is also listed as "Class A deadly" with every life form evolved to kill man ... but the deadliest thing they face is the alien they brought with them; zero remnants of the civilization that supposedly made the planet uninhabitable; unintelligible accents because hey, it's the future and people will talk different; an amputee with no prosthetic in an awkward scene that exists only to set up Smith repeating the line "Stand me up" at the end of the film; and finally, a plot ripped straight from The Matrix, which requires Jaden Smith to effectively become Neo by conquering his mental block and realizing there is no spoon, or in this case, fear.

Review: Star Trek Into Darkness


IStar Trek Into Darknessn 2009, J.J. Abrams accomplished the impossible and successfully negotiated an unwinnable scenario by rebooting the Star Trek franchise with a new cast in a story that maintained continuity -- yet also broke somewhat -- with the establish Trek universe.  This reset gave him license to play with the characters in entirely new ways; for instance, the relationship between Uhura and Spock. With the newly released Star Trek Into Darkness, Abrams plays with the entire character of the Federation itself, playing out logically the results of events that created his alternate universe and arriving at a colder, harder conclusion that doesn't sit well with many hardcore fans.

Based on his Daily Show appearance this week, in which Abrams explained his goal was to make a movie for moviegoers and not just Star Trek fans, some have said he is only concerned with his film making as much money as possible. My own feeling was that Abrams again succeeded in bringing to life a story that is true to the characters on the Enterprise, but a disturbing departure from Gene Roddenberry's vision of The United Federation of Planets.

This is not the first time Trek fans have seen a darker vision of the future: The clandestine agency known as Section 31 mentioned in Star Trek Into Darkness has appeared a number of times in the various TV shows, which have also hinted at a much darker future for the Federation in centuries to come.

But the events on screen now, in this movie, are the darkest we've seen for the classic Trek characters, aren't they? As much as we might want to blame the effects of Christopher Nolan's Batman films for the darkening of comic-book and sci-fi films, there is precedent for a darker side of the Federation scattered through classic episodes. A 13-year-old Jim Kirk witnessed the massacre of 4,000 colonists by Governor Kodos during a food shortage on Tarsus IV (episode "The Conscience of the King"). The Federation also was known to have violent criminals and treated the criminal behavior as a sickness to be cured via therapy in one of several installations known as asylums ("Whom Gods Destroy").

It is also very well established that pre-Federation history included a series of wars that nearly destroyed civilization on Earth, and that but for the civilizing influence of the Vulcans, the UFP would have been a much more warlike body. In fact, classic Trek includes a mirror universe in which events did play out differently, resulting in a fleet where starship captains murder their way into command.

Fantastic Fest Travels to Lakeline for 2013


Twilight of the Alamo on South Lamar

The most highly-anticipated Austin film news question has finally been answered. No, not the name of the villain Benedict Cumberbatch plays in Star Trek Into Darkness. On Friday morning with this blog post, Fantastic Fest announced that its 2013 location will be the as-yet-unfinished Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline, which opens in July. Construction at South Lamar won't be complete in time to host the fest that's called that Alamo Drafthouse home for its eight-year history.

Reactions have been mixed but generally positive. Local festgoers most affected by the venue change will be those who live and work in south Austin, some of whom have already begun to plan sharing hotels and rides. Other Austinites, confusing Lakeline for the existing Alamo Lake Creek (which Lakeline will replace) have mistakenly complained about the inappropriateness of that spot.

In fact, Alamo Lakeline will have 10 screens, making it the largest Drafthouse to date -- and will have 35mm projection, which is necessary for many titles that screen at Fantastic Fest.  As with The Highball and 400 Rabbits, Lakeline will have an adjoining bar, though a location for Fantastic Arcade and other festival events is still in the works. Hopefully there will be an adequate substitute for the much-beloved porch at South Lamar (pictured at top).

Review: Iron Man 3


Iron Man 3Shane Black is one of the pioneering Hollywood screenwriters of the contemporary action genre. The screenwriter for Lethal Weapon 1 & 2, Last Action Hero and his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang now takes the reins of one of the biggest and most-beloved moneymaking franchises in the golden age of comic-book Hollywood. A $200 million budget is proof Marvel and Disney think Iron Man 3 is in good hands, but canon-obsessed fanboys may not agree.

Co-scripted with TV writer Drew Pearce (who's also credited in the upcoming Pacific Rim and Sherlock Holmes 3), this entry in the series incorporates many fan-favorite storylines and characters from the Iron Man comics. Though they're brought together in a mega-blockbuster of an action film, one or two departures from established canon will be the subject of controversy among hardcore fans for the foreseeable future. Naturally, I won't go into specifics here (no spoilers!) but moviegoers who are more interested in what's onscreen and less concerned with the printed page will have a great time. I guarantee it.

If that phrase is familiar to you, you'll understand when I say this movie is all about suits. It's clear from a shot in the trailer that in Iron Man 3, Tony Stark has more suits than a Men's Wearhouse. At least a double-digit percentage of the effects budget must have been spent on animating Stark putting on, taking off, getting into or being knocked out of one of his battle-armored suits. In fact, Robert Downey Jr. probably spends more screen time putting on his superheroic suits than actually fighting in them.

That's probably a deliberate choice, as the story heavily involves Stark's internal conflict between spending time with the people he loves and spending every moment working to protect them. This is a struggle we've seen before in films like Superman II, when Clark gives up his powers to be with Lois, or to an extent in the 2007 Spider-Man 3, when Peter Parker's emotional turmoil affects his superhero abilities.

After the events at the end of The Avengers, Tony Stark is suffering from insomnia and panic attacks as he works ceaselessly to improve his armor designs. After challenging a mysterious terrorist figure known only as The Mandarin to a one-on-one battle, the resulting surprise (?) attack leaves him stranded, forced to deal with the powerful enemy minus his usual limitless resources and therefore prove Iron Man is Stark himself, and not just the battle suit. This theme is echoed in the heroics of Don Cheadle as Col. James Rhodes, aka War Machine, who likewise finds himself forced to operate outside the suit when they team up.

Review: Starbuck



Too much of anything is not good, except maybe it can be. Starbuck is a lighthearted comedy that explores a fresh take about the serious side of what it means to be a father through the lens of someone totally unprepared not just for one child, but for 143 of them.

David Wozniak (Patrick Huard) is a perpetual screwball who has never managed to make the right choices in life. In his forties, working as a delivery driver for his father's butchery, with thugs shaking him down for $80,000 in unpaid debts, David learns of his girlfriend's pregnancy. At the same time, he is confronted by a lawyer with some surprising news.

The lawyer represents a fertility clinic where, during his twenties, David was the most prolific donor, having made deposits over 600 times. It's explained that he has very high-quality sperm, and the doctor who operated the clinic was a little crazy and thus used David's material in the impregnations of over 500 women. Now 142 of his progeny have gathered to form a class-action suit to force the clinic to reveal David's identity.

Until the case is settled, they've prepared profiles of themselves, because they want "Starbuck" (the alias under which the donor is listed) to know something about his children. Faced with a choice between continuing his irresponsible ways or taking control of his life with his girlfriend and new(est) child, David finds himself unable to resist the urge to involve himself in his other children's lives, and thus learn the extent of his own strength.

Ken Scott and Martin Petit have written an extraordinarily original script that is both charming and hilarious, and Scott's direction displays a flair for comedic timing that brings the story to life. From the opening shot, he sets up a scene just enough for the audience to get comfortable with a situation before pulling the rug out from under them to hilarious effect. It's a surprising and effective tool Scott wields when the mood grows too serious.

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