Trailers to 2015 films: Star Wars, Danny Collins, Seventh Son and Jurassic World

Since the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiered last night, I thought I might as well talk about it (like a million other bloggers around the world are doing/ have done already) and throw in a few other trailers for upcoming 2015 films.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Releases in December 2015: Do note that under Disney ownership and suitably distanced from the micro-management of ‘über-papa’ George Lucas, the new film has dropped the roman numeral episode numbers and adopted the current convention of series name followed by title of the current film. What other (and more meaningful) changes does the first teaser trailer reveal? Since J.J. Abrams is directing this movie, I expected lens flare. But no, at least not in the trailer! I thought it was a smart decision to use the trailer to show all the new faces rather than the beloved old ones (i.e. Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford). Instead, the first face we see is of British actor John Boyega in a stormtrooper outfit on a desert planet, looking a bit out of sorts. We then see young British TV actress Daisy Ridley zooming off on some sort of landspeeder. There’s a close-up shot of an X-Wing fighter pilot (this seems to be Oscar Isaac): this cuts to a thrilling shot of a trio of X-Wings flying low over water. Of course, they have to introduce the bad guy: someone in a cloak walks through a snow-covered forest and then activates a lightsaber. The saber is a new design, with what looks like ‘exhaust flames’ coming out on either side of the hilt, giving the activated saber a ‘cross-like’ look. Much online speculation about this one. And finally, the Millennium Falcon swoops over the desert planet and engages with a couple of TIE fighters, as the Star Wars theme starts up; at this moment, I started giggling helplessly and got goose bumps. No matter how disappointing that 2nd trilogy was, there’s millions of fans around the world who want to go back to that galaxy far, far away. There are two bits, each lasting about 2 seconds, which give clues that this film will carry a different pace and tone to anything that’s come before. One is a scene with a bunch of stormtroopers in close confines aboard some sort of transport; the flickering lighting, the jerky camera and the sense of danger as the ramp door opens is definitely more Abrams than Lucas. Similarly, that moment when John Boyega pops up on the screen had an urgency – it was practically a horror film beat – that would never have been seen in the oh-so-laid-back 2nd trilogy. There’s a brief look at a new ‘droid, which seems set to provide some comic relief à la R2D2. No doubt, there will be more teasers and trailers to follow in the next 12 months before the film releases; I will have to take a conscious decision not to watch any more!

Danny Collins. Releases in March 2015: Dan Fogelman who wrote the screenplay for Disney animated films like Bolt, Tangled and Cars, then moved to lightweight dramedies like The Guilt Trip and Crazy, Stupid, Love., now tries his hand at directing. This indie film has an intriguing premise. A washed up rock star (are there any other sort in movies?) is given a handwritten note which John Lennon had written to him in the 70’s, but never delivered until now. He is inspired to restart his career and reconnect with his estranged son and his family. The rock star is played by Al Pacino and already, without even watching the trailer, you just know that Pacino is going to play this in ‘larger than life’ mode. It is true that he carries off this sort of thing well, but I do wish he would go back once in a while to the understated performance that made him famous as Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Even though this seems to be a formulaic redemption story, the actors are all top class (Annette Bening as the potential love interest, Christopher Plummer as the old friend/ manager, Bobby Cannavale as the son and Jennifer Garner as the daughter-in-law) and therefore likely to be worth the time.

Seventh Son. Releases Feb 2015: Typically, a movie which has its release postponed multiple times is considered to be doomed to box office failure. Particularly, when it is a fantasy film with magicians and demons, then prospects are not particularly good as these films appeal to a very narrow demographic (unless it’s part of the Lord of the Rings franchise). Having said that, this film from award-winning Russian director Sergey Bodrov (2007’s Mongol) does have a powerhouse cast including Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Djimon Hounsou, Kit Harington (Jon Snow from Game of Thrones) and Ben Barnes as the titular seventh male offspring. The special effects all look top class, as one would expect from a Legendary Pictures (Pacific Rim, Godzilla, Interstellar, etc.) production. One of the potential problems is Jeff Bridges himself; much like Al Pacino, Mr. Bridges these days seems to think that all his roles require him to be a larger-than-life character with lots of attitude. This can grate on the nerves, particularly when he uses the same vocal style across every film from R.I.P.D. to True Grit. The film is based on Joseph Delaney’s children’s fantasy novel, The Spook’s Apprentice and the producers must have been hoping that success would lead to a franchise, as there are 4 more books in the series. If they can keep the production cost at USD 100 mn and earn at least USD 300 mn across the world, then a new fantasy franchise could become a reality.

Jurassic World: Releases in June 2015: Steven Spielberg transformed movie making (yet again) with the release of Jurassic Park nearly 22 years ago. The computer-generated super-realistic dinosaurs led to the plethora of fantasy films and comic book adaptations which we now take for granted every summer break. Soon after the 3rd instalment of the series came out in 2001, computer animation was breaking new ground in the Lord of the Rings series, the Harry Potter series and X-Men/ Spider-Man movies. There was nothing special about seeing dinosaurs on screen any more, so the series effectively shut down. But no franchise ever stays dead in Hollywood and a dozen years later, the young writer-director duo of Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow came up with a script that got Spielberg and Universal excited. The dinosaurs are now under control, the park’s been open for some years and it’s a huge success obviously. But since the investors are constantly looking for the next big thing, they go and create a hybrid dinosaur which is a T.Rex++. Obviously mayhem ensues. There’s some nice little touches in the trailer which has been analysed in detail by Vox.


Trailers to upcoming films: Jan-Apr 2015

I usually avoid watching trailers for summer blockbusters as they reveal too much, especially the ‘money shots’ that one would rather see on the big screen for the first time; I still remember the slight letdown seeing the White House blow up in Independence Day because I’d already seen it dozens of times in the trailer. However, I occasionally stumble across a trailer for a movie I hadn’t heard about before or watch the ones for for movies where I know the characters already, but am not too highly invested in the film. I recently came across a bunch of such trailers that did their jobs and got me interested enough to put the movies on my watchlist. Here’s a rundown of 6 trailers to upcoming 2015 films.

Let’s begin with 2 fantasy films.

Cinderella. Releases in March 2015: Disney has started producing big-budget live-action versions of its animated classics and had a pretty good run with Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie earlier this year. Next up is Cinderella, with an A-list cast including Cate Blanchett as the evil step-mother, Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother and 3 actors who are now getting big-screen exposure after appearing on hit TV shows – Lily James plays Cinders, Sophie McShera is the evil step-sister Drizella (Lady Rose and the kitchen maid Daisy respectively from Downton Abbey) and Richard Madden (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) is Prince Charming. The trailer runs through practically the entire story in 2 minutes! Directed by Shakespearean actor-turned-director Kenneth Brannagh (Thor, 1994’s Frankenstein, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, etc.), the set design and production values are top-class as expected and this promises to be a formulaic but enjoyable movie experience for the whole family.

The Age of Adaline. Releases in April 2015: This movie went through a revolving door of directors before settling on young American Lee Toland Krieger. It’s based on an original screenplay and the movie synopsis reads like this:

“A young woman, born at the turn of 20th century, is rendered ageless after an accident. After years of a solitary life, she meets a man who might be worth losing her immortality”.

The title character Adaline is played by Blake Lively who most people know from TV’s Gossip Girl and some know as the love interest in the flop comic-book adaptation Green Lantern. Adaline falls into the ‘epic romance’ category (which I do not have much interest in) with an immortality spin  (which I am certainly interested in); with veteran thesps Harrison Ford and Ellen Burstyn adding some dramatic heft and a rich, textured look from cinematographer David Lanzenberg, this Lionsgate release is a movie I think I’ll make time to watch.

This now brings me to 2 period pieces.

Testament of Youth. Releases in early 2015: This film is based on 1933 book of the same name, published by writer and pacifist Vera Brittain detailing her experiences and personal struggles during the early part of the century, including World War I. The movie version has fast-rising Swedish actress Alicia Vikander playing Vera with Kit Harrington (Jon Snow from Game of Thrones) as her fiancée. The trailer does a pretty good job of showcasing Vera’s personal struggles during a time of great national loss and social upheaval. There is a powerhouse supporting cast including Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Hayley Attwell (Agent Peggy Carter in the Marvel movies and TV show) and Dominic West. Watching the trailer, I was reminded me a bit of Richard Attenborough’s 1996 film In Love and War, the story of Ernest Hemingway’s experiences during World War I.

Miss Julie. Festival releases only so far: Here’s another literary adaptation, this time based on an acclaimed 1888 play by famed Swedish playwright August Strindberg. The play has been adapted to film a couple of times before, but this latest version is directed by no less a personage than acting legend Liv Ullmann. It stars Jessica Chastain as the strong-willed count’s daughter and Colin Farrell as the count’s manservant with whom she has a flirtatious but potentially destructive relationship. The film looks stark and beautiful, it’s a rare opportunity to see the outcome when one of the great European actresses gets behind the camera, so although the ending is guaranteed to be tragic (isn’t that true of all Scandinavian stories?), I guess I’ll give this film a go if it ever finds its way here (perhaps at a future European film festival).

And lastly, 2 films on the light-hearted side, based on British literary characters.

Paddington. Releases in Jan 2015: The marmalade-loving, unfailingly polite bear from British children’s literature gets the big-screen CGI treatment in this live-action filming starring Hugh Bonneville (the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey) and a virtual who’s who of British acting royalty – Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Michael Gambon, Sally Hawkins and Imelda Staunton – in either character or voice roles. On top of that, you have Nicole Kidman playing the main baddie Millicent. I suspect the film will be Americanized to pull in dollars from across the Atlantic, but hopefully they will retain the charm of the original material.

Mortdecai. Releases in January 2015: In the 1970s, British author Kyril Bonfiglioli wrote a series of 4 crime thrillers about an art dealer named Charlie Mortdecai who gets into all sorts of interesting adventures along with his manservant Jock. The books have been likened to the works of P.G. Wodehouse in terms of tone and style. Now Johnny Depp is set to add Mortdecai to his long list of quirky on-screen personas. The big budget adventure is directed by David Koepp, the man who has written the screenplays for iconic action films like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man; actually he is a strange choice for a film that requires significant skill in comedy. Nevertheless, one can assume that Mr. Depp will produce yet another memorable performance and Lionsgate will be hoping that they can churn out a trilogy of these movies if this one clicks.

Marvel line-up 2015-17: Part 3

So, we now come to 2017, which also has 5 Marvel properties lined up, 2 from Fox and 3 from Disney. Given how far away these dates are, what we know in terms of cast, crew and plot is very limited for some of the titles.

Untitled Wolverine Sequel. Releases in March 2017 – Fox kicks off very early in the year with James Mangold most likely returning to direct Hugh Jackman in this follow up to 2013’s The Wolverine which was set in Japan. It’s very early days, so we don’t even know which comic book storyline will be used as a basis for the plot. Hugh Jackman will be 48 when he films this, so I wonder how many more years he can keep this up. It will be his 8th time on the screen playing this character since 2000 (not counting his cameo in X-Men: First Class) and just as Disney/ Marvel will eventually have to find a new actor to play Robert Downey Jr., Fox executives will be thinking about how to keep Hugh Jackman looking ageless, particularly considering that Wolverine’s role requires a lot more shirtless scenes than any other Marvel superhero!

Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Releases in May 2017 – One of the most memorable movie sequences for me this year was the mid-credits sequence featuring Groot dancing to MJ’s I Want You Back. This once risky venture is now the biggest box office hit of 2014 (at least for a few weeks more until the next Hunger Games sequel comes out) and it’s a bit of a pity that audiences will have to wait 3 years for the sequel. Although Age of Ultron also releases 3 years after The Avengers, they had standalone Captain America, Thor and Iron Man movies to fill the gap in between. No such fillers for GoTG, so no telling if interest in the characters will wane due to the onslaught of Marvel and DC movies in the interim. I would expect Marvel to keep Groot and Rocket top of mind through their TV cartoon properties and older fans will be keen to see the ongoing quest by intergalactic baddie Thanos to find all the Infinity Stones. There may also be an opportunity to set up Marvel’s future intergalactic superheroes such as Captain Marvel (whose solo movie is scheduled for 2018) and perhaps even Nova (since the Nova Corps were featured in the first movie).

The Fantastic Four 2. Releases in July 2017 – This release depends a lot on the performance of the first movie scheduled for Aug 2015. The actors would be locked in for the sequel, but the director Josh Trank is unlikely to be available as he would be prepping a Star Wars spin-off film for Disney (there is even a conspiracy theory that Disney hired Trank so that he wouldn’t be available to Fox for the sequel).

Thor: Ragnarok. Releases in end July 2017 – In Norse mythology, Ragnarok refers to their version of the apocalypse, so that could mean Asgard’s very existence is threatened by Loki’s machinations (after all, he was sitting on the throne at the end of Thor: The Dark World). But in Marvel comics, Ragnarok has another meaning as well; in the Civil War story line, Tony Stark created a cyborg clone of Thor called Ragnarok. It’s difficult to say which of the above cues the script will take or if it will be something completely new made up for the movies. Either way, Kevin Feige has said this movie will be a watershed event for Thor and the Marvel universe. Do keep in mind that Marvel comics has recently launched a new Thor title with a woman wielding Mjolnir, while the old Thor is still around but no longer worthy of picking up the hammer. There’s no telling if this story element will find its way into the movies.

Black Panther. Releases in Nov 2017 – The Black Panther was the first black superhero in Marvel comics and was created in 1966; the character and the name were inspired by the formation of the Black Panther party in the US that year. Of all the releases in faraway 2017, this is the one which appears to have a clear course charted out, starting with the Avengers sequel in 2015. Eagle eyed fans got terribly excited when they saw a familiar face in the trailer of Avengers: Age of Ultron last month. The face was that of famed motion-capture actor Andy Serkis (who has played Gollum, King Kong and Caesar the ape).

It’s a face rarely seen in its human form on screen. It was known that Serkis was advising James Spader on his mo-cap performance as Ultron, but no one expected to see Serkis himself acting in the film. He appears on screen for just one second, but the character has such a distinctive look that fans were immediately able to recognize him as Ulysses Klaw, a recurring super-villain in the Marvel pantheon. Klaw’s destiny is bound to the rare metal vibranium which is found only in the African kingdom of Wakanda, which of course is where Prince T’Challa, aka Black Panther comes from. So Klaw’s appearance in 2015 will bring Wakanda into the Avengers storyline which will then lead to the Black Panther popping up in Captain America: Civil War in 2016 and finally to this solo outing in 2017. He will be played by Chadwick Boseman who after several years in TV shows, produced a breakout performance as baseball player Jackie Robinson in the film 42 last year. This year, he played another American legend (James Brown) in the little seen but highly acclaimed Get on Up. Frankly, I think it’s poor casting for Panther, because Boseman has African-American features whereas T’Challa should have been played an African, one with a bigger build. But Boseman is a good actor, so I hope he will do the role justice. The film’s concept art released by Marvel during the announcement a few weeks ago looks spot-on.

Based on current popularity, I have no doubt that Guardians of the Galaxy 2 will make the most money at the box office in 2017. Black Panther too will get a good run, provided his introduction in the previous year’s Captain America: Civil War is handled well. I think the Thor franchise with Chris Hemsworth could end with Thor: Ragnarok and if it is positioned as the last solo outing for this character, then there could be a big crowd at the theatres. I really don’t know how FF2 will fare, as the outcome of the first FF reboot next year is still a question mark. And the Wolverine sequel will do reasonable but not spectacular numbers.

Marvel line-up 2015-17: Part 2

In the second part of my listing of Marvel properties coming to the screen in the next 3 years, let’s look at what 2016 has in store. Compared to the 3 films in 2015, we have a very crowded slate with of 5 titles in the 9 month period from February to November 2016.

Deadpool. Releases in Feb 2016 – The wise-cracking mercenary Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool, has been a cult favourite for years, particularly because of his non-stop talkative nature and his habit of ‘breaking the fourth wall’ with the audience. Equipped with an accelerated healing factor, Deadpool started off as a villain and then over time has been cast as an anti-hero. He has appeared on-screen once already, in X-Men Origins: Wolverine back in 2009. He was played by Ryan Reynolds and somehow this mess of a movie managed to morph his character into a a completely different villain called Weapon XI, who combined the powers of a number of other mutants. In the climactic battle scene, Wolverine decapitates Deadpool. But we know that in the world of comics, no one stays dead for too long. So, after a few years of ‘will they, won’t they’ rumours, it was with great fanboy excitement that a Deadpool ‘test footage’ clip was released on the internet, followed by the announcement of the film release in early 2016. The movie will be directed by first-timer Tim Miller. Marvel movie fans, be warned, this will be an R-rated film with violence and profanity; definitely not suitable for a family outing with the kids (hence the non-summer release date).

Captain America: Civil War. Releases in May 2016 – As a lot of fans suspected after seeing the Crossbones character appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier this year, the next chapter in his standalone saga is going to deal with the Civil War storyline. This is one of the biggest Marvel story arcs in recent years, which is likely to create far-reaching ripples in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). The Civil War ‘crossover storyline’ published during 2006-07 is spread across several titles and deals with a Superhero Registration Act passed by the government, which ends up splitting the various superheroes into two factions, for and against the Act. Iron Man and Captain America end up on opposing sides, leading to widespread conflict, violence and some superhero deaths.

Since the Disney/ Marvel movies do not have rights to all the characters involved in the comic book storyline (such as the X-Men, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four), the movie will feature a simpler storyline which focuses on the ideological conflict between Iron Man and Captain America, something which has been foreshadowed already in The Avengers. Oh and incidentally, at the end of the Civil War comic books, Captain America is apparently assassinated by Crossbones; but of course, we know that nobody stays dead in comic books, so have no fear, Chris Evans will still have one more movie left after this one to complete his 6-film contract! The other big source of excitement in this movie is the introduction of a new Marvel character, T’Challa, the prince of the African state of Wakanda, whose alter ego is Black Panther.

X-Men: Apocalypse. Releases in May 2016 – Three weeks after Disney releases Captain America: Civil War, rival studio Fox brings out the sequel to their most successful superhero movie ever in terms of global box office, this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. After the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine practically killed the X-Men franchise, Fox rebooted the series with the outstanding X-Men: First Class, set during the Bay of Pigs event of the 60’s. This 2011 Cold War thriller is perhaps my all time favourite entry in the X-Men series. Days of Future Past took place in the 70’s and the time-travel story element effectively re-wrote various bits and pieces of X-Men cinematic history. The next entry X-Men: Apocalypse is expected to take place in the 80’s and will have the oldest known mutant as its super-villain: the 5000-year-old En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse. The character was teased during the post-credits scene of Days of Future Past, but the version we see in that scene is of a very young Apocalypse. What we will see in X-Men: Apocalypse will be closer to the image below; not a nice guy.

Bryan Singer will be directing an X-Men movie for the 4th time, but no news yet on which mutants will appear this time around, or whether the older cast from the original series (including Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) will make an appearance. I think we can take for granted that fan-favourite Hugh Jackman will be there as Wolverine. Since he doesn’t age, it’s very convenient for Fox to just pop him into any of these X-Men movies irrespective of which time period the film is set in!

Doctor Strange. Releases in Nov 2016 – After months of speculation, Marvel finally confirmed a date for the Doctor Strange movie, although they have yet to confirm who is playing the character. There has been a virtual revolving door of highly regarded leading men who have been considered for this role, with Benedict Cumberbatch widely tipped to sign on. While the initial set of Marvel films were set in the world of high-tech science (Iron Man’s armour, Captain America’s serum, Hulk’s gamma radiation), the next set of films have explored aliens across the universe (Thor’s world Asgard and the various planets visited by the Guardians of the Galaxy). Now with Doctor Strange, Marvel opens the doors to the supernatural. Dr. Stephen Strange is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands after an accident. Forced to seek help, he eventually is trained by a mysterious benefactor in the Himalayas and takes on the mantle of the Sorcerer Supreme, protector of the Earth against supernatural threats. Horror director Scott Derrickson has been selected to helm the film and an earlier script is being re-written by Jon Spaihts (Prometheus). This is another risky venture by Marvel, partly because the magical subject matter is likely to appeal to a different audience type vs. their previous films and partly because the director and writer have had very limited critical or box office success in the past. Of course, Marvel has scored home runs with newbie James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and hit-and-miss indie directors Jon Favreau and Joss Whedon, so who’s to say this latest throw the dice won’t work. Marvel make their own luck and their brains trust led by Kevin Feige just seems to have a feel for what audiences will like.

The Sinister Six. Releases in Nov 2016 – Just one week after Doctor Strange comes out, rival studio Sony is set to release a a film about super-villains. Sony owns the rights to the Spider-Man franchise and all related characters. They had a fantastic run with the original trilogy directed by Sam Raimi (from 2002 to 2007). The reboot directed by Marc Webb and released in 2012 had a so-so reception, but everyone agreed that the two leads Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone had fantastic chemistry. In this summer’s sequel, they killed off Emma Stone, effectively ending any reason that audiences would want to watch a 3rd or 4th movie in this franchise. Although the global box office take was around USD 700 mn, it was still lower than what the original Spider-Man made 12 years earlier, not factoring in ticket price inflation. Sony has effectively put future Spider-Man sequels on hold, but seems to be going ahead with Sinister Six, a film that brings together 6 of Spidey’s biggest enemies. In the comic books, the Sinister Six have gone through a few changes in line-up over the years and the film is expected to feature a new grouping consisting of Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, Kraven the Hunter, Rhino and Vulture. The film will be directed by Drew Goddard, who I have plenty of respect for as the writer of intelligent and entertaining scifi properties like Alias and Lost on TV as well as the movies Cloverfield and World War Z.

So, it’s a mixed bag in 2016. We have two sequels which will be surefire winners – Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse. There are two new properties, largely unknown outside the fan base – Deadpool and Doctor Strange – which can take Marvel into new demographics and genres respectively. And there is one film The Sinister Six which is still very much an unknown entity.

Superb product integration from Hamilton Watches in Chris Nolan’s Interstellar

Watching Chris Nolan’s Interstellar yesterday, I noted the key role played in the story by a pair of watches – one worn by Mathew McConaughey’s character Coop and the other gifted by him to his daughter ‘Murph’, just before he leaves on his journey to the stars.

The camera focuses on the watches several times and one can clearly see that they are two different types of Hamilton watches. Coop wears a Hamilton Khaki Pilot Day Date watch, whereas the one he gives Murph is actually a piece custom built for the movie.

In fact, this is not just a simple one-dimensional product placement exercise, but a full-fledged, multi-media product integration by Hamilton, in much the same vein as Under Armor’s integration with Captain America: The Winter Soldier earlier this year.  Hamilton started off with a slightly customized version of the Interstellar trailer (a bit disappointing, as the only customization is the top-and-tail branding, with no clips of the actual watch scene from the movie.

They simultaneously launched a contest to win one of the watches featured in the movie. The contest website also features the movie trailer and a nice bit of interactivity where you can custom design your own watch; here’s the one I put together.

I have no doubt that Hamilton is going to get a lot of buzz and sales as a result of this superb bit of product integration.

I also recalled the Hamilton watches featured in the Men In Black movies over the years, with the last movie MiB3 featuring a pair of really cool new versions of the Ventura models that have featured in the previous movies.

The Hamilton website has a detailed list of Hollywood films over the years in which Hamilton have got the film’s stars to wear their watches, going all the way back to Robert Wagner wearing one in The Frogmen (1951), Elvis Presley wearing a Ventura model in Blue Hawaii (1961) and the astronaut characters wearing custom designed watches in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which is the movie most closely associated with the meditative tone of Interstellar.

Product integration like this really works; I’ve never given a thought to Hamilton as a ‘watch brand for me’ in the past, but having been exposed to the brand like this through an awesome movie experience, I’m sure I’ll be keeping an eye out for a Hamilton the next time I walk by a watch store!

Marvel line-up 2015-17: Part 1

With the recent announcement of new Marvel films by their head honcho Kevin Feige, I figured it was time to write an updated version of the Marvel line-up post I had published in Dec 2012 for the period 2013-15. I also figured that if Hollywood can break up a movie into 2 parts (Kill Bill Vols I and II, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 and 2), I can go one better and break this up into 3 parts. So here’s the line-up for 2015; although this year was already covered in my original post, there are updates and minor changes, so it’s worth revisiting.

Avengers: Age of Ultron. Releases in May 2015 – Joss Whedon’s follow up to the most successful Marvel movie of all time is eagerly anticipated, to say the least. The trailer which was leaked and then formally released a couple of weeks ago and the mega-poster which was launched at Comic-Con a few months back have all stoked the flames of anticipation.

We can expect this film to have the biggest opening weekend of 2015. All the familiar characters return – Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hulk, Hawkeye and Thor. We have two new characters – the brother-sister duo of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch (of whom we saw a brief glimpse in the post-credits scene of Captain America: The Winter Soldier earlier this year), we have a crazed super-robot Ultron as the villain (voiced by James Spader) and most exciting of all for me, the introduction of Vision. Vision is an android whose origin is closely linked to that of Ultron in the comic books; I am looking forward to seeing how he fits into the story in the movie version. You can see him floating in the air in the far left upper corner of the mega-poster. Comic book fans know about his future connection to Scarlet Witch.

Ant-Man. Releases in July/ August 2015 – This film was originally slated for November but has now been moved up to the latter part of the summer. The director has also changed, with maverick Brit Edgar Wright departing due to creative differences and being replaced by 50-year-old journeyman rom-com director Peyton Reed. This is an unusual choice and I would say that Ant-Man is Disney/ Marvel’s riskiest venture, a tag that was formerly attached to Guardians of the Galaxy. In the case of Guardians, all doubts vanished when that first trailer was released and likewise we will be waiting to see Paul Rudd in action (and in costume) when the first trailer comes out. The movie will definitely have comedic elements, but with the change of directors, we can expect it to have become much lighter; Edgar Wright after all is the guy who gave black humour a new genre setting with the zombie-comedy Shaun of the Dead, whereas Peyton Reed is the guy who directed Jim Carrey in Yes Man…you get the picture. As it is, I was a bit apprehensive when Paul Rudd was announced to play the superhero; I’m not a big fan of his movies. But the concept art poster released during Comic-Con looks quite heroic and I’ve been reassured by the rest of the casting featuring Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly and Corey Stoll (as the villain Yellowjacket).

The Fantastic Four. Releases in August 2015 – 30-year-old rising filmmaker Josh Trank’s reboot of this iconic Marvel property was originally slated to kick off the 2015 summer but has now been slotted in just one week after Ant-Man. Why would Marvel give its two titles so little breathing space? Because The Fantastic Four is being produced and distributed by rival studio Fox who doesn’t care one bit about what impact its release would have on Disney/Marvel’s Ant-Man. The casting also created some controversy for its divergence from existing Marvel canon; the Johnny Storm/ Human Torch character is being played by an African-American actor, Michael B. Jordan, whereas his sister Sue Storm/ Invisible Girl is played by white actress, Kate Mara. No one is really very sure why Fox would want to make such a fundamental change and what Marvel feels about that. The release date plus the poor reviews of the original Fantastic Four movies (from 2005 and 2007) mean that Josh Trank has to create an awesome product to relaunch the franchise. Fox needs to keep releasing new FF movies (they have already scheduled a sequel for July 2017) otherwise the rights will revert to Marvel. Trank is a highly regarded young filmmaker. Fox ‘discovered’ him when they released his low budget found-footage superpower-themed debut film Chronicle to healthy box office and critical acclaim in 2012. He has also recently been picked by Disney to direct a Star Wars spin-off movie due for release in 2018. So we may be pleasantly surprised by an innovative new take on Marvel’s ‘first family’. There has not been a single piece of marketing released so far, so Fox is clearly biding their time until they have something exciting to reveal, either in the form of concept art, character posters or a teaser trailer.

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald – Japanese screwball comedy at its best

Japanese films are not well known around the world for screwball comedy. Global audiences have typically been exposed to their award winning samurai films, anime, yakuza films and contemporary dramas. There are of course, dramas with elements of comedy, such as Juzo Itami’s The Funeral (1984), Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dansu? (1996), Takashi Yamazaki’s Always Sunset on 3rd Street (2005) and Sang-il Lee’s Hula Girls (2006) – all these having won the Best Film Award of the Japanese Academy. I myself had come across just a couple of examples of outright Japanese comedies – Juzo Itami’s Tampopo (1985) and Masayuki Suo’s brilliant Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (1992) – the latter winning Best Film. Both of these are hilarious and are the sort of movies I watch again and again, along with other guilty pleasures like Four Weddings and a Funeral or My Cousin Vinny.

So, I was thrilled to stumble across the 1997 comedy Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald (Rajio No Jikan), which won awards for Best Screenplay for writer-director Koki Mitani, besides being nominated for all the other big categories, such as Best Film, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Actor, Actress, etc.

Koki Mitani was the resident playwright for the Japanese theatrical group Tokyo Sunshine Boys (named after the Neil Simon play). This group specialized in sitcom-style plays; they adapted the play Twelve Angry Men into a comedy 12 Gentle Japanese, to achieve one of their early successes. This play demonstrated Mitani’s skill in finding the funny side of a group of people working to a deadline while stuck together in an enclosed space. The same formula creates the farcical and highly entertaining situations seen in Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald.

The film begins with a superb 5 minute long continuous shot, which simultaneously introduces most of the characters as well as the setting for the majority of the film – the sound studio of a radio station. As a publicity stunt, the station is going to broadcast a late night radio play live from the studio (as opposed to the usual practice of recording and editing them in advance). The play is an old-fashioned romance written by a first-time writer, a housewife whose script was selected from a competition (it soon transpires that hers was the only entry!).

The characters in the movie represent the full deck of personality types one would expect to see in such a setting – the oily producer Ushijimi who needs to get the play out at all costs, the diva actress Nokko whose star is on the wane and wants to stamp her authority over her fellow actors, her overbearing manager, the hapless housewife who gets her first exposure to the cut-throat world of entertainment, her overly protective and insecure husband, the handsome and principled program director Kudo, the staff writer Bucky who is brought in to polish the script, the upright and idealistic announcer, the actors playing the heroine’s husband and lover respectively and a couple of other studio sound technicians.

The situation starts to spiral out of control when the actress insists that her character is changed from a simple Japanese housewife to a New York-based high-powered lawyer. The lead male actor, not to be outdone, decides that his character should be a pilot rather than a fisherman! The poor housewife accepts the initial changes gracefully (though reluctantly), but is soon appalled as the initial modifications set off a chain reaction of other changes to the setting, plot points and potentially, even the ending.

Further complications arise when the producer discovers that the sound effects library has been locked up for the night and they have no sound effects to support a story which by now features machine guns, a bursting dam and even a rocketship. He enlists the help of an aged security guard who once used to provide man-made sound effects before the days of pre-recorded digitally produced sounds.

I was reminded of Robert Altman’s last film The Prairie Home Companion which takes place almost in real time during the live broadcast of a variety show. In both cases producers, directors, actors and sound effects men have to improvise while on-air; whereas the characters in Prairie do so with a high degree of sangfroid, the situations in Mr. McDonald are set up on purpose to create over-the-top chaos.

The film is also a mild satire of Japanese post-war society’s obsession with the trappings of the West and its rigid social and corporate hierarchy. There is a scene in which the writer locks herself in the sound studio (during an extended commercial break) to protest against the wholesale slaughter of her screenplay, with the rest of the cast standing clustered together outside the plate glass window while the producer tries to reason with her; I am sure this scene must have struck a chord with scriptwriters around the world who have seen their beloved creations reconstructed beyond recognition by studio executives and powerful movie stars.

Ultimately, after several twists and turns, the play (and its distraught writer) gets its happy ending. This is yet another film that is likely to end up in my rapidly expanding list of my favorite all-time films (which I first published as a Top 35 listing and then expanded to 40; currently, my offline update has 50 and counting!)

A bit of trivia: Japanese box office superstar Ken Watanabe appears in a small role as a truck driver who happens to tune into the station and is completely swept up by the story, presumably mirroring the reactions of other listeners nationwide. This is an in-film joke as Watanabe had played an almost identical character (down to the cigarette pack rolled into his T-shirt sleeve) in Tampopo 12 years earlier.