The 2015 summer movie score-card: And the winner is…

Well, the summer officially finished a few weeks ago and the big winner has been Universal Studios, with Jurassic World, Furious 7, Minions, Pitch Perfect 2 and Straight Outta Compton. Disney as always was a strong performer with animation and Marvel properties Inside Out, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. And ranked 3rd was Warner Bros. with San Andreas and Mad Max: Fury Road.

After kicking off my summer viewing with the Avengers sequel, I had listed 10 other films that I wanted to watch over the remaining 4 months. Technically, I didn’t complete my mission, because found Tomorrowland to be unwatchable after about 20 minutes. I mentally swapped that movie for Inside Out in my list, but will only be watching that this weekend.

Nevertheless, here are those 11 films ranked on my intuitive sense of which movie I would be willing to go back to theatre to watch, or would stay tuned to watch if it was running on TV. I’ve put the Metacritic scores next to each film, as a point of comparison and linked to my individual posts on each movie.

#1 Mad Max: Fury Road (89) – My #1 movie of the summer, this was always guaranteed to be a dazzling visual treat, but what surprised critics and viewers like me was the depth of the characterization. I really hope there will be another film in the series, and that Charlize Theron is in it. Tom Hardy was almost incidental as Max!

#2 Jurassic World (59) – Yes, the third act became too generic, but the first two-thirds of the film including the set-up, the new characters and the new dinos all made it worthwhile. Newbie director Colin Trevorrow was rewarded with a Star Wars directing gig for 2019, but before that it’s very likely he will be involved in the next Jurassic movie, scheduled for June 2018.

#3 Ant-Man (64) – This was the doubtful Marvel entry that ended up being unexpectedly enjoyable. Everything just clicked somehow. Worth watching again just for Michael Pena and his ‘tip montages’.

#4 Avengers: Age of Ultron (66) – This is one of those movies that is really enjoyable when you watch it, but sort of fades from memory towards the end of the season as it gets crowded out by more innovative or enjoyable fare. Once again, the first two-thirds had some real emotional heft, but it descended into action CGI overload in the last half hour.

#5 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (75) – Not quite as enjoyable as the previous entry Ghost Protocol, but still strong enough to set up a possible 6th film in a couple of years.

#6 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (55) – This smart and extremely stylish thriller sadly never found its market, although it’s possible that it may thrive on TV and Home Video. Even so, hopes of starting a franchise are surely dead. Elizabeth Debicki plays one of the most deliciously evil on-screen villains I’ve seen in years.

#7 Furious 7 (67) – Having kicked off the early summer and riding on the Paul Walker sympathy wave to a record high box office for the franchise, it now seems rather generic with the benefit of a few months of hindsight. The producers have still not locked down a director for Furious 8 although they have announced a release date in April 2017.

#8 Entourage (38) – I thought the Metacritic score was a bit harsh. What were critics expecting from the big-screen version of a ‘guilty pleasure’ show like this? Impossible to watch on big screen with all the nudity and language, but I thoroughly enjoyed spending a 100 minutes with Vince and the boys.

#9 Fantastic Four (27) – Another film at the receiving end of an unfair Metacritic score, this is the movie that critics loved to hate; after all its own director hated it as well!

#10 Terminator: Genisys (38) – This film was a big disappointment vis-à-vis the promise of the first trailers and the strong cast of Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke and the returning Arnold. But eventually it just turned out to be a product of lazy scriptwriting that just took events from the first 2 films and shuffled the characters and the situations around in the name of time travel paradox. What a wasted opportunity.

#11 Tomorrowland (60) – Perhaps the biggest disappointment of all, because this was from one of my favorite directors who has not put a foot wrong in his career; Brad Bird, the man who made The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. I started watching this on a flight and had to switch off after 20 minutes because every character on screen was so irritating and the story seemed muddled and pointless. Is this what happens when a filmmaker becomes so successful that a studio will allow him to make whatever he wants? Feels like the misstep that M. Night Shyamalan made with The Village and Lady in the Water passion projects. I sure hope Brad Bird comes out of this one.

I imagine Inside Out will rank in the Top 5 after I see it on Sunday. Other fun movies during the April-August period included San Andreas, Ex Machina, Minions, The Age of Adaline and Woman in Gold.

Now, on to more serious fare in the next few weeks; Everest was absolutely worth the IMAX ticket prices. Next in line will be Sicario, Black Mass and The Martian.


Fantastic Four – good potential ruined by in-fighting and bad press

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Fox’s much maligned Fantastic Four reboot turned out to be better than expected when I watched it earlier this week. It had received horrible reviews (Metacritic score of only 27) and has made less at the US box office in 42 days of release than the first Fantastic Four made in its opening weekend in 2005! Even worse, its release was preceded by rumors of in-fighting between young director Josh Trank and Fox studio execs, culminating in Trank dissing his own movie on social media just before the release.

It is believed that Trank turned in a dark, character-driven film, while the studio was looking for a special effects summer blockbuster, which would kick-start a new franchise. Why this was not sorted out at the script and design stage is anyone’s guess. The studio then stepped in and reshot the 3rd act to introduce some action spectacle into the film. The last time a studio reshot a 3rd act, it was for World War Z; Paramount replaced a conventional action climax with a tense, creepy, claustrophobic ‘heist-type’ sequence – it transformed the film and they had a blockbuster on their hands. Pity Fox went the other way.

I had already decided to hate the film because of the casting. I couldn’t accept that the forty-something scientist Dr. Reed Richards was being played by 28-year-old baby-faced Miles Teller who had been playing teenagers and young adults for the past two years. I couldn’t understand why the brother-sister duo of Johnny and Sue Storm were now not biologically related, with Johnny Storm being played by African-American actor Michael B. Jordan. Both Teller and Jordan are immensely talented actors, but why bring a beloved decades-old established property to the big screen and then change everything that is familiar and beloved about it?

When I started watching the film, the opening act only served to confirm my misgivings. It is very difficult to believe that a kid (young Reed Richards), no matter how brilliant, can build a prototype teleporter in his garage, with materials scrounged from a junk yard. This opening act was cute in a Steven Spielberg coming-of-age movie type of way, but just didn’t feel technologically plausible. And real-world plausibility has always been the bedrock of the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In any case, at the end of the first act, a teenage Richards is ‘discovered’ at a high school science fair by Professor Franklin Storm and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and invited to join the secretive government-funded Baxter Foundation for young scientific prodigies. Professor Storm is supervising is a teleportation project and he realizes that Richards has figured out the missing link in the technology to make it work. Prof. Storm convinces the brilliant but brooding originator of the project, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel), to rejoin the team now that they are on the path to success.

We now enter the 2nd act of the film and this is where I feel everything clicks into place, playing out like a realistic science fiction thriller. The first unmanned test of the teleporter is successful as it beams back images from a world in another dimension, named ‘Planet Zero’. The young team’s celebrations turn to disappointment when they hear that the government will run the manned mission with trained NASA astronauts (and rightly so!).

In short order, the youngsters have defied orders and have launched themselves on an unauthorized teleportation trip to Planet Zero, which needless to say ends with unexpected consequences. In the entire 106 minute runtime of the movie, these are the moments that filled me with real dread and terror. For these people to return to consciousness and find themselves strapped down in a dark room, to discover what has happened to their bodies, the sense of confusion, fear and helplessness – all of it comes through the sounds and images on the screen. None more so than poor Ben Grimm; dragged along at the last minute by his childhood friend Reed Richards on this wild ride, he wakes up unable to understand what has happened to him. His pitiful and unending cries for help wake up Richards in the next room and he sees his own elongated limbs strapped down under restraints; he realizes he can stretch his way out his bonds and then drags himself through the air-conditioner grating to the source of Ben’s cries; all of this experienced by the viewer in real-time. The dark corridors and containment facilities really add to the sense of Poe-esque horror.

Now, we enter the 3rd act and this is where it kind of falls apart. The youngsters are at the mercy of the government, who want to use them as military assets, while offering them the carrot of continued funding and research to reverse their ‘maladies’. Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm agree willingly and Sue Storm less so; Reed escapes and is in hiding. But because no superhero film is complete without a showdown of heroes vs. arch villain, the script conspires to create a battle between a transformed and deranged Victor von Doom and the Fantastic Four on Planet Zero. Von Doom has created something similar to the World Engine from Man of Steel, which threatens to destroy Earth. The Four have to stop him. Frankly, I couldn’t be bothered with the generic CGI action in the last 15 minutes and quickly fast-forwarded my VLC player.

At the end, I was left wondering what the movie would have looked like had Josh Trank had been allowed to bring his vision to the screen, unaltered. I have read stories of his strange behavior on-set and no doubt that a more socially skilled director might have convinced the powers-that-be to believe in him. After the campy versions produced by Fox in 2005, I couldn’t have imagined that someone could tell the same story so differently. But at the end of the day, the movie had a split personality and it seemed to come from two different directors. The airbrushed posters were another travesty and completely out of sync with the tone of the movie.

I imagine that the chances of a sequel are virtually nil and I am not sure where the studio will go from here, because in order to retain the rights to the characters, they have to make another movie by 2017, I think. That is unlikely. I don’t think another reboot will work, as paying audiences may not have the patience to watch a third origin story for the quartet. The other option is to go the Sony/ Spider-Man route and collaborate with Marvel to co-produce the next movie and build in a cross-over appearance with other Marvel movies; that would require Fox to swallow some humble pie, which doesn’t go down very well in Hollywood, as we know.

Safe to say that Trank will be persona-non-grata in Hollywood for a while; he has already lost his directing gig on a future Star Wars movie with Disney (the owner of Marvel). All one is left thinking at the end of the movie is of what might have been.

Summer 2015 movies to watch: 1 down, 10 to go!

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We kicked off the summer movie circus yesterday with Avengers: Age of Ultron which was everything the trailers promised it would be – more superheroes and more action, but also more layered, with some characters taking personal journeys down dark pathways. Bond-style, the action kicks off from the get-go with an exhilarating prologue set-piece and there were plenty of memorable moments right through the movie.

It’s a great start to the summer and there are another 10 movies in my must-watch list from now till mid-August:-

Furious 7 – Well the movie’s been out for a few weeks and is already a worldwide hit. What’s more, the reviews are pretty decent too (Metacritic average score of 67). Will have to catch this soon before it exits theatres. Hats off to horror maestro James Wan, who has directed this ‘emotional’ instalment of the long-running franchise. Eleven years ago, the Malaysian-born director created the micro-budget horror phenomenon Saw, then went on to direct one of the best-reviewed horror films in recent years, The Conjuring. Now, he has succeeded with a completely different genre and is currently rumored to be in the running to direct Warner Bros./DC Comics Aquaman!

Mad Max: Fury Road – This intense R-rated restart of the beloved post-apocalyptic franchise is at the top of my list. The first trailer was epic/ operatic and the final trailer which I caught a glimpse of as I entered the theatre today, tops the first one. From what I’ve seen, the star of this movie is director George Miller. Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult are all but unrecognizable. In terms of plot, it will be more of the same – brooding loner roams a blasted landscape and crosses paths with a bunch of loonies (see picture at the top of the article) who pay the price for not getting out of his way. Plenty of violence follows. This will not be for the weak-hearted. This is officially my most anticipated movie of the summer.

Tomorrowland – This PG-rated scifi entertainer from Disney is directed by one of my favorite directors, Brad Bird. The 58-year-old has made just 4 films before this – 3 animation classics (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille) and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the movie that gave the franchise a new lease of life and provided Tom Cruise with a rare hit in the past 10 years. The movie’s plot is a bit of a mystery, but the trailers are intriguing as is the casting combination of George Clooney and Britt Robertson (Angie McAlister from Under the Dome).

Entourage – I was a big fan of the TV series and although I skipped out after the 5th season, I remain invested in the lives and loves of the 4 friends who rose up from humble beginnings in Queens to the razzle and dazzle of Hollywood. The movie is directed by creator Doug Ellin and will see the return of all the familiar faces plus a revolving door of celebrities who will be playing themselves. It promises to be good fun and should make a nice little killing at the box office much like the Sex and the City film; I’m not so sure that this will play as well overseas as SATC though.

Jurassic World – The Mad Max franchise gets resurrected after a gap of 30 years and the same summer, the Jurassic Park franchise gets restarted after 14 years, this time helmed 29-year-old whiz kid director Colin Trevorrow. Back in 2001, Jurassic Park III suffered due to weak characters (William H. Macy, Tea Leoni and Alessandro Nivola…really?), but this time around we have Chris Pratt coming in hot off the success of Guardians of the Galaxy and Bryce Dallas Howard playing the greedy corporate maven. But the stars of the movie as usual, will be the dinosaurs – since T.Rex is now passé, we have the new genetically created Indominus Rex and a pack of Velociraptors that appear to be loyal to Chris Pratt! I am also expecting this movie to deliver the goods because the story comes from Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver who scripted the two highly acclaimed Planet of the Apes reboot movies and are currently working on James Cameron’s Avatar sequels.

Terminator: Genisys – This is clearly the summer for reviving dormant franchises. The last film in the series, Terminator Salvation was a critical and commercial disappointment (in my view, not much more could have been expected from a director like McG), in spite of having Christian Bale and then red-hot hunk Sam Worthington playing the leads. This time around, there’s a completely new team and the trailers indicate that the story is going to feature a time-travel story retcon, much in the way Star Trek Into Darkness rewrote the story of Khan. This is a risky approach, dangerously close to being a gimmick. Having said that, the trailers and the Entertainment Weekly cover story from January look very cool. I have a lot of respect for the actors – Jason Clark, Emilia Clarke (the dragon queen from Game of Thrones), Jai Courtney and of course, ‘Ahnuld’ is back! This version is directed by TV director Alan Taylor, who has previously done episodes of Game of Thrones.

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Ant-Man – Ah, what might have been if Edgar Wright had stayed on to direct this movie. No less than ‘His Marvelness’ Joss Whedon has said in a recent interview that “Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man was the best script that Marvel ever had’. But it was not meant to be. And now we have this version being released, directed by comedy helmer Peyton Reed, with a script co-written by lead actor and perpetual ‘on-screen loser’ Paul Rudd. I can only hope that Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige is the real man in the driver’s seat of this movie, as we all know how well he has shepherded the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) for the past few years. We’ve all been wondering when the big Marvel machine will fail. Let’s hope this isn’t the one. I actually like the trailer.

Fantastic Four – Here’s another iffy Marvel product, although this one comes from rival studio Fox, which continues to hold on to the rights to this Marvel property. I was excited that this reboot is being directed by 30-year-old Josh Trank who made the found-footage superhero film Chronicle a few years ago.  But then the cast was announced and I was felt they were either unappealing or miscast, particularly Miles Teller (one of my favourite young actors) in the role of Reed Richards. Then the trailer came out and my hopes fell further, because it doesn’t really show anything new that we have not seen in the 2005 origin story. Is Josh Trank the real thing or a flash-in-the-pan? Rival studio Disney (which owns Marvel) wants to know because Trank has been signed on to direct their 2nd Star Wars Anthology film due out in 2018.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – With writer-director Christopher McQuarrie in the hot seat this time, the M:I franchise keeps rolling on, nearly 20 years after it hit the big screen. The real driver is producer Tom Cruise, I think. McQuarrie directed Cruise in Jack Reacher which I very much enjoyed, but he is better known as the man who won an Oscar for the screenplay of The Usual Suspects. I also liked his writing on two other Tom Cruise films – Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow, although he has also written his share of flops, i.e. The Tourist and Jack the Giant Slayer. The trailer has Cruise doing his usual death-defying stunts – we’ve seen him hanging from trains and skyscrapers, now he’s holding on to a military transport plane for dear life. It certainly looks like this latest outing will continue to deliver a good mix of intrigue and thrills.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – British director Guy Ritchie went from being the darling of indie crime cinema with his debut film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at the age of 30, to nearly becoming an also-ran who also happened to be the latest husband of Madonna, before redeeming himself with two sparkling large-screen interpretations of Sherlock Holmes, featuring that other comeback artist, Robert Downey Jr. He now turns his attention to a spy series from the ‘60s and hopes to do for it what Brian De Palma did for Mission: Impossible in 1996. On paper, the combination of Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer in suave 60’s duds sounds appealing; unfortunately, the trailer looks rather boring and the banter seems very forced. It will have been a long hot summer by the time this one rolls in and the buzz will have to be very strong to get paying audiences into the theatres.

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 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.

Coming-of-age films launch the stars of tomorrow

The coming-of-age genre is one that I was never particularly interested in, until recently. Even the ones that I have watched and enjoyed like Big or 400 Blows have been on my list either because of their box office success or their critical acclaim, not because of the genre they belong to. I think it all changed when I watched Juno in 2007. This charming film with its quirky and endearing characters won me over instantly. It’s one of those films that I would watch a few times more if I came across it while surfing TV channels (much like Four Weddings and a Funeral or My Cousin Vinny). The star of the film of course, was Ellen Page, who had a leading role in the little seen Hard Candy in 2005 and a brief role in the widely seen X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006. But this film gave her the opportunity to showcase her acting chops and she was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. She’s certainly a star of tomorrow and has already started building up a diverse body of work including Chris Nolan’s Inception, more X-Men movies and Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love.

Then in 2008, I came across an eerie film with a coming of age theme – Let the Right One In. This Swedish film is usually marketed as a vampire/ horror-drama, but it is essentially the story of a lonely bullied boy who finds friendship in a young girl next door who turns out to be a vampire. The two develop a strong bond and she teaches him to stand up for himself. Of course, with a vampire in the film, there’s blood and killing and thrills. But ultimately, it’s a film about the friendship between a boy and a girl, one of whom is just a little bit strange (much like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo from 2011). The final scene of the film is so very memorable – the boy is traveling on a train with a big box next to him. The box has the vampire girl inside (to protect her from the sunlight); she taps the word “kiss” in morse code to the boy and he in turn taps the word “puss” (small kiss in Swedish) back to her. I haven’t watched the highly acclaimed American remake Let Me In (2010); it features Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Grace Moretz who have become major young adult stars in the 4 years since then. Smit-McPhee had a memorable role as the teenage son in this summer’s sci-fi hit Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Ms. Moretz has had even bigger success; she was in the violent comic book adaptation Kick-Ass and its sequel, acted in the afore-mentioned Hugo in 2011, stars opposite Denzel Washington in this fall’s The Equalizer and will play the lead in the 2016 film adaptation of the YA alien-invasion novel The Fifth Wave.

Perhaps encouraged by the box office success of these character-driven films, a number of other similarly-themed movies have achieved wider distribution in recent years. Like Juno and Let Me In, the young actors in these films all seem destined for future stardom and success.

The Kids are All Right (2010) – The 2 young actors in this drama, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, already had big screen experience by the time this critically acclaimed film was released, but both have gone on to even greater success since then. Hutcherson has hit pay-dirt with The Hunger Games movies and Wasikowska, who is widely acknowledged as one of the most talented young actresses around, has played the title role in a number of literary adaptations – Alice in Wonderland (2010), Jane Eyre (2011) and the upcoming Madame Bovary (2014).

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) – This movie was produced by the same team that made Juno. It features stirring performances from the 3 young leads. I already knew Logan Lerman from the Percy Jackson film and of course Emma Watson as Hermione from the Harry Potter films. But the real eye opener for me was Ezra Miller who played Watson’s step-brother in this movie. I was surprised, but thrilled to hear a few days ago that he’s been chosen to play the title role in the Warner Bros./ DC Comics film The Flash, due out in 2018. Someone with Ezra Miller’s sensitive and rather exotic features strikes me as an unusual choice to play a typical square jawed superhero, but it certainly makes for an interesting one.

Mud (2012) – This film, set on the Arkansas river, was inspired by Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. It’s one of the films that set the stage for Matthew McConnaughey’s come back which culminated in his Oscar win earlier this year. MM plays the titular ‘Mud’, a man on the run who befriends 2 boys – Ellis and ‘Neckbone’ – who are exploring the river island on which he is hiding out. While securing their help to outwit his pursuers, Mud ends up building a strong bond with Ellis, played by newcomer Tye Sheridan. I was really impressed with his heartfelt performance and I intend to watch the little seen, but well-received Joe in which he plays a similar role opposite Nicolas Cage. I will certainly be keeping an eye on his future projects.

The Spectacular Now (2013) – This film featured up-and-coming Shailene Woodley, (who played George Clooney’s daughter in The Descendants) playing the nice but friendless girl-next-door, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with hard-partying Miles Teller, whose philosophy is to ‘live in the now’. As the couple navigate the final year of high school and plan their future, their conflicting approaches to life help them discover their true selves. This is one of the best of the new crop of contemporary coming-of-age films and set the stage for Woodley’s mainstream success in Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars, both released this summer. Having seen her break through in The Descendants, it didn’t surprise me to see her captivating performance in this film. On the other hand, I had never seen or heard of Miles Teller before, and he really stamped his presence on the screen as the outwardly confident teen, whose bluster and fast-paced lifestyle covers up his deep loneliness. Teller is back on screen with Woodley in Divergent and its upcoming sequel, but his big pay-day is already set with his lead role as Reed Richards/ Mr. Fantastic in the much-anticipated reboot of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four in 2015. He is also starring in the highly acclaimed music-themed drama Whiplash, releasing in theatres now.

The Way Way Back (2013) – Young actor Liam James has appeared in a number of child roles, including Roland Emmerich’s disaster film 2012 and a recurring role in TV’s The Killing, but The Way Way Back was his first ‘lead’ role, playing the kid stuck in the ‘summer vacation from hell’, as he accompanies his divorced mother and her bullying overbearing boyfriend (played brilliantly by Steve Carrell) to a beachside town. Here, he finds escape by helping out at a nearby theme park and comes under the wing of devil-may-care theme park manager Owen (another one of Sam Rockwell’s many memorable screen personas) and other equally strange and wonderful theme park employees. This is a truly likeable movie with a very satisfying ending. Liam James’ Duncan character starts off as being irritatingly slow and withdrawn, but over the course of the film, builds up self-confidence and courage. Perhaps due to his contract with The Killing, I don’t see any future movie projects listed for him.

Labor Day (2013) – I started the article talking about Jason Reitman’s Juno, so it seems appropriate to end with his latest effort Labor Day. This film was released to mixed reviews last December, although I liked it well enough. It plays out like a modern day fable, telling the story of an escaped (but innocent) convict Frank (Josh Brolin), who spends a long Labor Day weekend hiding out in the home of withdrawn single mom Adele (Kate Winslet) and her introverted but thoughtful son Henry (played by Gattlin Griffith). What starts out as a kidnap situation quickly changes into an improbable, but still believable dream-like love story, as Henry becomes the man of the house, chopping wood, clearing out the trash, helping mother and son bake a pie, teaching the boy to hit a baseball and of course, falling in love with Adele, all over the course of 3 days. Henry’s well-meaning but naïve actions put paid to the family’s attempts to get away to Canada for a new life, but the film still ends on a positive note. Gattlin Griffith has acted in a number of films already since 2006, but this is his most high profile role and could lead to something bigger.

So, in conclusion, there’s quite a pipeline of talent that’s come to public attention through these coming-of-age movies in the past 4-5 years. Some like Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ellen Page, Josh Hutcherson, Mia Wasikowska and Shailene Woodley have already made the jump from indie films to blockbusters. Others like Miles Teller and Ezra Miller are seemingly on the road to stardom with their upcoming superhero roles. The younger ones like Tye Sheridan, Liam James and Gattlin Griffith have opportunities to build on their breakthrough performances. Only time will tell if they will can continue to get good roles or if they will fade away like Macaulay Culkin and Haley Joel Osment.

I’m also very keen to watch Richard Linklater’s much talked-about 10 year project Boyhood, which was released to so much buzz earlier this year. Considering that I had just watched his breakout hit Dazed and Confused earlier this year (which can also be considered a coming-of-age story), Boyhood would be just the right choice to bookend the year.

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.