X-Men: Days of Future Past struggles against summer competition


How times have changed. Until a few years ago, the Memorial Day weekend in the US would have signified the true beginning of the summer movie blockbuster season. This was the weekend that the biggest movies of the summer would be released, a trend started off by Star Wars in 1977.

This year, for me it actually feels like half the summer is already over. I’ve watched the 4 movies I was most looking forward to already – Captain America 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past. In the 9 weeks of summer that’s officially still left to go, I only have 3 movies I really want to see – Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow (getting great early reviews), the potentially dark and depressing Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Marvel’s new franchise hopeful Guardians of the Galaxy (featuring Bradley Cooper voicing a talking raccoon, Vin Diesel voicing a talking tree and some awesome music from the 1970’s).

So, this is my mid-summer scorecard, which also doubles up as a review of X-Men: DoFP:-

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier – 8/10: I’ve already gone ga-ga over this film, so there’s not much more to say. The 3 Marvel movies released so far have come from 3 different studios. Captain America is produced by Marvel themselves, while Spider-Man and X-Men are with Sony and Fox respectively. Well, it shows. Marvel Studios, with Kevin Feige in charge, just has an intuitive feel of their own material; they have most of their casting right (except for Sebastian Stan as Bucky/ The Winter Soldier) and the look of their films (colour and texture) is glorious. They have the best balance between humour, gravitas and action (something that has been consistent from their first release in 2008, Iron Man).

 

  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – 7/10: This was the surprise package for me. I didn’t like the idea of this reboot when it happened in 2012. I didn’t like Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man (how would he fit his ‘big hair’ into his mask, I wondered). I didn’t like Emma Stone because I had seen her in Easy A (2010) and found her character irritating. I loved Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) too much to accept these pretenders to the throne. Well, I had to admit, Garfield made a refreshing change from the dour Tobey Maguire. The chemistry between Garfield and Stone was sparkling. And they kept it going in this summer’s sequel. Although Jamie Foxx was a disappointment as Electro, the creepy performance of Dane DeHaan, the action sequences and the heart-breaking ending all contributed to making this a pretty good entry in the series.

 

  • Godzilla – 8/10: I love movies and books that tease the arrival of something unexpected and awe-inspiring (think Jurassic Park in 1993 and Independence Day in 1996 and countless scifi/ first contact books I’ve read). I don’t mind not seeing the creature/ alien invader in its entirety till the end (think Cloverfield in 2008). Godzilla scored on both counts. Just seeing him roar was thrilling. Unlike many action films these days which rely on shaky cams and quick cuts, Godzilla had an editing and framing style which worked for me…lots of wide shots, held for long enough to see the creature and its surroundings. The cinematography is by Seamus McGarvey who has been Oscar nominated twice for Atonement and Anna Karenina – both beautifully lit and colorful, but also able to use shadows to capture the somber moments. This is the man who has now graduated to big spectacles like The Avengers and Godzilla. The quality shows on screen. Having an actor of the quality of Bryan Cranston anchor the first half of the movie also made a big difference.

 

  • X-Men: Days of Future Past – 6.5/10: This was the film which I expected would get my highest score of the summer. I love Bryan Singer’s work from the original two X-Men movies and I absolutely loved X-Men: First Class, which Singer produced. From screenwriter Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Sherlock Holmes), I expected to see lots of snappy dialogue and humour, blended with action (yes, he did co-write the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand, but he had owned up to that and promised to make amends this time around). Perhaps because of these high expectations, I came away a bit disappointed, even though there are some outstanding set-pieces in the film.

 

Let’s start with what worked:-

 

The opening action sequence was fantastic. Many things happen at the same time and the choreography is outstanding. I have long been a fan of Colossus from the comic books and in all these years, we only had a brief glimpse of him saving the students during the Xavier Mansion attack in X-Men 2. So it was great to see him in battle with the Sentinels, assisted by a bunch of new faces. The best of the lot was Blink played by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing; she has the power to open portals over short distances allowing her team mates to attack or escape from the Sentinels. Meanwhile, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) runs off with Bishop (French acting sensation Omar Sy, completely under-utilized) in tow, phasing through various solid objects with Sentinels in pursuit. Super stuff.

The real scene stealer in this film is Evan Peters who plays Peter (in the comics, he is Pietro Maximoff, aka Quicksilver). There is a truly memorable scene in the Pentagon, which brings all the talent of the film makers and cast to the fore; the set design, props, choreography, special effects and acting all ensure that this will be a much viewed clip on YouTube for years to come.

The fight scene in Paris involving Magneto, Mystique and Beast – taking place on the streets in front of a large crowd of newsmen and members of the public, much of it caught through the perspective of their 8mm cameras.

The end-credits teaser which features En Sabah Nur (aka Apocalypse) in Egypt nearly 4500 years ago, with his Four Horsemen in the background. This sets things up for the next sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse due for release in May 2016, also directed by Bryan Singer.

 

Four things that didn’t work for me:-

 

I thought the title sequence was quite generic, featuring graphics of DNA combining and recombining with some artificial looking bits. I thought they could have been a bit imaginative and played with a time travel theme, or with representations of the different mutant powers. Even if they didn’t do this with the opening (for fear it would give away too much), they could certainly have done it with the closing titles (Pacific Rim and The Avengers both did this quite well).

James McAvoy as Charles Xavier – although we’ve been told that Prof X was going through a tough spell in 1973, it is difficult to reconcile James McAvoy’s take on this character vs. his own interpretation in X-Men: First Class and the iron-like resolve of Patrick Stewart character even in those bleak times being hunted by Sentinels in the future. Whatever the justification for his personal crisis, I just found James McAvoy too wimpy and whiny.

Tom Sigel’s cinematography – In recent years there has been a trend of switching from film to digital cameras. The only problem with some of these cameras is that they lack the inherent texture of film, the graininess/ mistiness that gives movies their magical/ fantastical feel as opposed to the realism of a news broadcast on TV. Because of this, I really dislike watching movies on HDTV/ BluRay and I also dislike movies like Michael Mann’s Public Enemies which look so hyper-real, the scenes actually look like someone’s amateur home video. Sometimes its also about how the cinematographer sets up the camera, as the same digital camera can produce a different visual texture in different movies. Well, in X-Men DoFP, it looked like the close-up scenes and the night time scenes were shot with this ‘home video setting’, while the big action sequences look fantastic and ‘film-like’. It felt like I was watching two different movies spliced together and it irritated me no end.

The music by John Ottman. Nothing to write home about. I was missing something iconic like Magneto’s theme from X-Men: First Class. Although to be fair to the man, he did have his hands full editing the film…that’s right, he’s a world class music composer and film editor. I think he’s a better editor than a composer.

That’s it for my mid-summer scorecard. I feel bad about being so harsh on X-Men; perhaps I may revise my score by the end of summer!

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The best and worst Marvel villains


Marvel Studios started leasing its characters out to studios in the late 1990’s starting with New Line’s R-rated Blade series. We then saw Fox releasing X-Men in 2000, a franchise that is going strong to this day with the upcoming release of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Emboldened by this success, Fox also tried its hand with Daredevil and the Fantastic Four. Sony got into the act with the Spider-Man franchise in 2002, now rebooted and with 4 more movies staked out till 2018. Sony also produced two Ghost Rider films with Nicolas Cage. Meanwhile, Universal released a couple of Hulk movies in 2003/ 2008 and Lions Gate jumped in with two R-rated Punisher films in 2004/ 2008.  By 2008, Marvel was producing its own films with the first two Iron Man films plus Thor and Captain America being distributed by Paramount before Marvel was bought by Disney.

In all these years, I’ve never known Marvel to make a movie with a really lame villain, until now.

Of course, this observation excludes duds like Daredevil in which every aspect of the movie is so laughable that it hardly matters whether Colin Farrell’s Bullseye and Michael Clarke Duncan’s Kingpin are more ridiculous than the superhero or not. Ang Lee’s Hulk also came very close. The military led by potential father-in-law General Ross was Bruce Banner’s primary adversary and produced some great action set-pieces, but other than that, the big guy had to fight three mutant dogs (shouldn’t they leave that for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?) and his own dad who becomes a big err…energy thing at the end. While the Weapon XI/ Deadpool hybrid character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine was certainly a powerful foe, I thought ‘pretty boy’ Ryan Reynolds was the wrong choice to play him, not to mention the incredible conceit of bastardising Deadpool into a multi-powered character called Weapon XI just to set up a climactic fight scene with Wolverine. I had also mentioned recently that The Winter Soldier in the recent Captain America sequel looked pretty tame. Luckily, the audience had all the SHIELD/ HYDRA intrigue going on to keep them on the edge of their seats.

But none of these misadventures can compare with the ultimate ‘loser villain’ that I just saw on the big screen last week in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Jamie Foxx was completely miscast as Electro, looking bloated and middle-aged (he is 46 and looks cooler in real life) and nothing like the sleek super-villain from the comics or Disney’s Ultimate Spider-Man animation series. The script writers, the director and casting director must all take the blame for this mess. Having taken so much time to set up Max Dillon’s character as an introverted and socially insecure engineer (complete with comb-over), the film-makers just could not change that personality overnight once he gained his powers. Fortunately, with the film so packed with villains, we had Dane DeHaan to save the day…equally disturbing as both Harry Osborn and the Green Goblin.

But as I said at the beginning, Marvel is better known for getting it right than getting it wrong. That brings me then to my top villains in the Marvel cinematic universe thus far, in chronological order of appearance in movies over the years:-

  1. Magneto/ Erik Lensherr – No one can match the evil mutant for his ultimate combination of brains and mutant brawn, not to mention a genuine belief that he is fighting for the future of humankind. His tragic experience in the Warsaw camp (depicted first in X-Men and in greater detail in X-Men: First Class) only add to the pathos of the character. Brilliantly played first by Sir Ian McKellan and then by Michael Fassbender, I can’t wait to see them both in the same film in a couple of weeks’ time.
  2. Green Goblin/ Norman Osborn – Willem Dafoe is one of the busiest actors in the industry, but he rarely signs up for the kind of meaty lead character roles he had in PlatoonThe Last Temptation of Christ and Mississippi Burning in the mid-80s, having switched to interesting supporting roles instead. In his Oscar-nominated turn as Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire (2000), he showed how well he could play ‘scary’. Two years later, he showcased this talent to a much wider audience as Norman Osborn in Spider-Man. My favourite scene – the Thanksgiving lunch at Peter’s place when he gives Aunt May a murderous look after she slaps his hand for reaching out for the food.
  3. Doctor Octopus/ Otto Octavius – As played by the incredibly talented Alfred Molina in Spider-Man 2, Doc Ock is the most tragic of Marvel’s cinematic villains. The loss of his wife during that fateful experiment and his own self-sacrifice and redemption at the end of the film certainly elevate him above the typical evil super-villain.
  4. Loki – Everyone’s favourite bad guy has now graced three Marvel films – Thor, The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World. Loki has the perfect mix of brains and brawn, with charming good looks and a sense of humour thrown in. Played by 33-year-old Londoner Tom Hiddleston, there is little doubt that he will return in future Marvel films. He even gets the best CGI scenes – who can forget the pummeling he receives from the Hulk (“Puny God!”) in The Avengers or his switch to Captain America in The Dark World!
  5. Sebastian Shaw/ Dr. Klaus Schmidt – Kevin Bacon is absolutely hateful as the cruel and slightly mad Dr. Klaus Schmidt in the Warsaw concentration camp scenes of X-Men: First Class. Later in the film, he re-emerges as the suave Sebastian Shaw. Only an actor of Kevin Bacon’s caliber could pull off the transformation believably.
  6. Green Goblin/ Harry Osborn – Like father, like son. In the just released The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Hollywood’s new ‘disturbed young man’ Dane DeHaan is truly creepy as Harry Osborn aka Green Goblin. Who wouldn’t be with a dad like Norman Osborn (played equally creepily by Chris Cooper)? I actually thought he was scarier as Harry than after the transformation to Goblin!

I am hoping that in a couple of weeks I will be adding Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask to this list. Fingers crossed that X-Men: Days of Future Past will not disappoint.

The Martian – Andy Weir’s breathless (literally) Mars survival drama


I’ve just finished reading Andy Weir’s Mars survival drama The Martian. The reviews on Amazon and Goodreads weren’t kidding when they called this a page-turner. For those who enjoyed Ron Howard’s feel-good movie Apollo 13 back in 1995, this is the book for you. In fact, Twentieth Century Fox have optioned the film rights and are working on a screenplay now.

The Martian is the story of Mark Watney, who is part of a 6-member mission to the Mars surface. Six days into their 30-day Mars mission, their site is hit by a super-storm with 175 kph winds which forces a mission abort. As the team are evacuating their habitat module and walking towards their spacecraft in near zero-visibility conditions, Watney is hit by a piece of flying debris which punctures his suit and whisks him away into the storm. With barely seconds to spare before their spacecraft is titled over by the ferocious winds, the crew have no choice but to presume that Watney is dead and they lift off and begin their return journey to Earth. All this happens in the first few pages. Then the adventure begins. Watney has survived and regains consciousness to find himself alone on Mars with communications antenna destroyed and the still-standing habitat module as his only shelter. The reader is then taken through the next ‘x’ days (yeah, read the book to find out how long he survives), as Watney uses all of his scientific knowledge and presence of mind to survive. 

Most of the book is written in the first person, in the form of Mark Watney’s personal logs, which he records faithfully in the event that a future Mars mission will return to this site to recover his body. I was initially put off by Watney’s irreverent, conversational style of log writing. I thought to myself, “This guy is a scientist and fighting for his life; how can he be so casual?”. Then as the book went along, I realized, this was the author’s way of illustrating Watney’s personality; and this was Watney’s way of dealing with his situation. If he had taken it too seriously, he would have just been overwhelmed by his situation, given up, injected himself with a fatal dose of medication and died. 

Anyone with a scientific bent of mind, or who has studied engineering will love this book. Watney’s first person accounts are filled with calculations about various consumables (air, food, energy, fuel) that he has to optimize or produce in order to extend his life. If you dislike numbers, you can skip trying to keep up with the mental math and just read through the sentence. In the initial stages of the book, I actually was working out the numbers as I was reading them. Later on in the book, I was so anxious to know what happens next that I was skimming past the numbers to just see if Watney had enough oxygen/ hydrogen/ food packets/ spare utilities for whatever he was scheming up next.

I won’t spoil any other bits of the book for potential readers, but suffice to say that like Apollo 13 there is indeed a happy ending. But not before we go through a few heart-stopping situations. 

Andy Weir is a computer scientist and actually researched all the scientific facts for the book and worked out all the math. He initially self-published the book on his website for free because he couldn’t find any takers among publishers. He then made it available for Amazon Kindle and once it started rising up the charts, he finally sold the rights for hard copy publishing and for a movie. Just like Hugh Howey’s Wool, this is another example of a self-publishing rags-to-riches success story.