Whither the successful action movie?

Just taking a look at the top movies for 2014 so far, there’s a bunch from well known action directors and/or high profile actors, which have either under-performed at the worldwide box-office or will at best break even. Films typically need to make twice as much as their production budget at the box office to recoup the studio investment, not accounting for marketing costs which can sometimes come close to the production cost. The first two months of the year have ended up being a graveyard of high profile action films and studios are starting to worry that young men are just not interested in going to theaters to watch action films any more, unless they are based on comic books.

Renny Harlin who was big for a few years in the early ’90s with hits like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, but never recovered from the box office failure of Cutthroat Island in 1995, released The Legend of Hercules starring Twilight alum Kellan Lutz. The movie has made a pathetic USD 18 mn in the US so far and another USD 25 mn elsewhere in the world; nowhere near recouping its production cost of USD 70 mn, let alone marketing costs. Dwayne Johnson may have more luck playing this character in Hercules, to be released later this year. The only problem is that the 2nd Hercules movie is directed by another ‘once hotshot, not anymore’ action movie director, Brett Ratner, who after his first two Rush Hour movies, managed to ruin an X-Men film and hasn’t been trusted by studios since.

Getting back to the present, British B-movie maestro Paul W.S. Anderson, famous for turning games like Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil into escapist action-horror fare, was entrusted with big budget tentpole Pompeii. The USD 100 mn production is another failure arriving DOA at the US box office and not faring much better in other global markets.

Australian Stuart Beattie who helped write the screen story for the first Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003 and also directed the well regarded adaptation of the young adult novel Tomorrow, When the War Began has had a disastrous release with I, Frankenstein. This action vehicle for Aaron Eckhart, hoping to create an Underworld-type franchise is also far from recouping its USD 65 mn production budget.

American director McG made the commercially successful but critically panned Charlie’s Angels films in the early 2000’s and then ruined attempts to bring the Terminator franchise back to life with the forgettable Terminator Salvation in 2009. He has now been reduced to directing the low-budget action drama 3 Days to Kill featuring one-time silver screen heartthrob Kevin Costner. In this case, the film only cost USD 28 mn to produce (credit to producer Luc Besson) and has made that money back in the US already, so hopefully will break even once it releases in other international markets.

The usually reliable ‘thinking man’s action hero’ Liam Neeson has hit a speed bump (or should that be an air pocket) with his latest action flick Non-Stop. Produced for just USD 50 mn, this should have been an easy win, but so far the film has made just USD 78 mn, although with China yet to come there may be hope yet. Having said that, with the recent Malaysia Airlines incident featuring many Chinese passengers, studios may want to delay the release of the film in that market.

There are a couple of success stories, however.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is an attempt to reboot the Jack Ryan franchise targeting a younger audience with Chris Pine and directed by the thinking man’s director, Kenneth Brannagh. This film cost a sensible USD 65 mn and seems to be on its way to profitability with a worldwide take of USD 133 mn so far.

Similarly, the RoboCop remake from Brazilian director Jose Padilha while under-performing in the US (only USD 55 mn) had international markets save the day with USD 165 mn for a global take of USD 220 mn and a jump into profitability.

Lastly, 300: Rise of An Empire has already made USD 147 mn globally in its first one week so it should be on its way to recovering its USD 110 mn production budget and substantial marketing costs. This movie is made by newbie director Noam Murro (but produced by Zack Snyder who shot to fame with the original 300 back in 2006.

I enjoyed both Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 300: Rise of An Empire; the first for its intelligent script and under-played but tense and realistic action sequences, the 2nd for exactly the opposite – its outlandish digital sets and over-the-top histrionics. I haven’t seen RoboCop yet, so cannot comment on the reasons for its success (I was not impressed with the trailer which indicated that all the black humor which made the first film an instant cult classic was missing).

But certainly, based on the scorecard so far, the ‘established’ action-movie veterans (both directors and actors) are finding it difficult to repeat their success formula from the past.





Holiday movie watching (10 films during 40 hours of flight time): Part 2

My return trip to KL had me watching a drama/ thriller involving a hedge fund and an extra-marital affair, a sequel to an action thriller which was a surprise hit in 2008, a gritty cop drama, a coming-of-age film, a feel-good college movie and finally a hard-hitting Swiss drama.

Arbitrage: This Richard Gere thriller debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2012 and then reappeared in limited release around the world in September, to much critical acclaim. Richard Gere is utterly believable as the successful hedge fund manager multi-tasking crisis management both in his personal and professional life. Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth co-star, but the real star for me was 30-year old actress Brit Marling who first came to attention playing the troubled Rhoda Williams in the 2011 scifi-romance-drama Another Earth. While that was a somewhat ‘grungy’ role, she is resplendent here as the confident and conscientious daughter of an arrogant multi-millionaire. She has oodles of screen presence, holding her own opposite veteran performers like Gere and Sarandon. Marling has quite a few other films in the pipeline including a role as Abe Lincoln’s mother in a film about his formative years (The Green Blade Rises) and a role in Robert Redford’s upcoming thriller. Definitely, she’s one to watch out for.

Taken2: This film certainly isn’t as good as the original, but at 92 minutes it’s short enough that one doesn’t mind sitting through it. I was thinking to myself that this is the sort of role that Arnold Schwarzenegger became famous for in the 1980’s, blasting his way past overwhelming opposition and coming out unscathed at the end. Neeson has now created a niche for himself in the past 3-4 years in movies such as Taken, The A-Team, Unknown and The Grey. Hopefully he will continue to pick his projects carefully and his action career will not go the same way as that of Nic Cage. Neeson will next be seen in a similar role in the in-flight thriller Non-Stop.

End of Watch: In 2001, the LA cop film Training Day garnered an Oscar win for Denzel Washington and an Oscar nomination for his co-star Ethan Hawke. But the real star of the film was scriptwriter David Ayer, for his gritty, realistic portrayal of life on the LA streets. Ayer moved from script writing to directing in 2005 and all 3 of his films including End of Watch are set in the cops-and-crime world of LA…I guess he is Hollywood’s version of Joseph Wambaugh. Jake Gyllenhaal is at his usual best as the ambitious young ex-marine turned cop , but the surprise package is Michael Pena as his Hispanic partner. On one hand, this film is like of bromance/ buddy-cop of the past that looks at the lives and loves of the men on the streets, but as a director, Ayer has updated the delivery of the story for the found-footage generation by telling many parts of the story through camera footage from the cop car (complete with time/date stamps and other information) or from handheld cameras carried by both police and criminals.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower: This is not the sort of movie I would normally watch, coming-of-age films not falling within my range of interest. However, I have felt for the past couple of years that Emma Watson would likely emerge as the most accomplished of the 3 Harry Potter leads (closely followed by Daniel Radcliffe, although I do feel that his facial features will limit the roles that he will get). This was confirmed by her supporting performance in 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, her first big-screen acting role outside the Harry Potter franchise. So, I was eager to see her in action once again, besides which the film had scored some decent reviews. It turned out to be rather a good film, in some segments reminiscent of the little seen Flashbacks of a Fool, which is to say poignant, filled with nostalgia, teenage love and good music. The real standout for me was Ezra Miller as one of the ‘wallflowers’.

Pitch Perfect: This too is not a film that I would have normally watched, as it’s a sort of Dirty Dancing for the  a capella set; having said that, Dirty Dancing was one of my most beloved movies when I was in college, but it’s just that I have grown out of that sort of story now. In any case, my daughter was watching it on the flight and she loved it so much, she watched it all over again right away. So I figured I would give it a shot and was pleasantly surprised to see that it featured Anna Kendrick, who first came to notice as Kristen Stewart’s friend in Twilight and then made quite a name for herself in the George Clooney drama Up in the Air. Kendrick plays a misfit freshman who reluctantly joins college to keep her dad happy, although she would much rather be pursuing a music producing career on the West Coast. She eventually joins an all-girls singing group and helps them to win the National Collegiate A Capella  Championships, while falling in love, discovering herself, reconciling with her father and realizing her musical dreams all at one go. For those of us who enjoying watching hit songs performed by college kids on stage (as in Glee), this film has quite a few enjoyable musical performances on offer.

Sister: The last movie I watched was the most hard-hitting. The Swiss film L’enfant den haut, referred to by its English title Sister, has been getting quite a lot of buzz on the festival circuit. It tells the story of a pre-teen boy who lives with his good-for-nothing older sister near a ski resort; desperate for money to buy food and household items, he becomes an expert thief, walking off with skiing equipment and selling it on the street. I find it difficult to describe this movie…it does not try to teach us any morals or send a message or make any sort of social commentary or judgment. The situation the boy and his sister find themselves in are no different from that of thousands of homeless or destitute people around the world. I guess, the movie just points to the nature of human beings, how some can have an eternal fighting spirit, while others are happy to live off the hard work of their friends or family members. None of the characters in the film are particularly likeable, so do be prepared for a rough ride once you start watching. The film won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and was also nominated at the Independent Spirit Awards.

So that was my movie watching marathon experience on the return leg of my vacation. Now I have to get with the program and catch up with all the holiday blockbusters.


My year-end movie list

It’s that time of the year again when Hollywood rolls out their award contenders as well as some big-budget feel-good blockbusters.

There are 7 movies which are on my must-watch list, another 5 which I will watch, either because they will be Oscar front-runners or because they come from big names, but am not necessarily interested in the subject matter or actors involved. And there are 3 high profile releases which I have no interest whatsoever in (but will probably end up watching anyway at some point). I have also thrown in two films under the heading Guilty Pleasures!

I’m going to start with the 3 big ones which I am not interested in:-

  • Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 – I have watched the entire series so far. I really enjoyed the first film, but I feel the acting and actors have increasingly looked more suited to a daytime soap than a big-screen film…nothing against it, but not really my cup of tea. And I am now thoroughly irritated with the Kristen Stewart approach to acting which mainly consists of furrowing her brow. No doubt, being the last in the series, the film will have a monster opening weekend. Stephanie Meyer fans can next look forward to the film adaptation of her scifi novel, The Host in March 2013.
  • Life of Pi – I am a huge fan of Ang Lee’s work, but have no interest in a story about a boy named Pi stuck on a boat for 227 days with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. I don’t see the point at all and the trailer did nothing to help me change my mind. I can understand that Ang Lee would want to push his own boundaries just as he did when he directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hulk, so I hope for his sake that the film is at least a critical success if not a commercial one.
  • Frankenweenie – I had already covered this in a post soon after the trailer came out. I have watched every single Tim Burton film, except the latest Dark Shadows and his animated 2005 film Corpse Bride, but I haven’t really enjoyed one of his films since Sleepy Hollow back in 1999. And I find his stop-motion animation style too creepy, unless taken in small doses like in Beetlejuice.

Then come the 5 obligatory viewings:-

  • The Master – I have no real interest in this story of a man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who creates a quasi-religious cult and has a troubled relationship with his most fervent disciple (Joaquin Phoenix). Having said that, I had no real interest in the story of a man who discovered an oil field and had troubled relationships with his son and with an over-zealous preacher, but 2007’s There Will be Blood remains one of my all-time favourite films, so I am certainly going to give Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest effort a fair chance, not to mention that it is most likely to win the Best Picture Oscar in February.
  • Cloud Atlas – I was so looking forward to the return of the Wachowski siblings, but was quite underwhelmed by the trailer. This hard-to-describe novel by David Mitchell was always going to be a challenge for any one director, so the producers hired a team of 3 directors, i.e. the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to bring it to life. I hope that audiences are able to decipher the plot consisting of 6 nested stories beginning on a Pacific Island in the 1850’s, progressing to a distant post-apocalyptic future and then concluding back where it began. All of this spread over 3 hours with each actor playing multiple characters across the nested stories. I so want to like this movie, but something tells me The Wachowskis will continue the search for their first hit since the Matrix trilogy.
  • Les Miserables – Musicals have never been my cup of tea, but they are so few and far between these days that there is always a big buzz when a Moulin Rouge or Hairspray or Chicago is released. I’ve watched them all, but wouldn’t care for a repeat viewing of any of them. In this case, I certainly can’t say “No” to a film starring Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter…and directed by Tom Hooper (director of The King’s Speech and the outstanding 2008 HBO mini-series John Adams)!
  • Silver Linings Playbook – I am not a Bradley Cooper fan and his presence in films like the Hangover series have done nothing to improve the situation, but I am intrigued by the buzz from this film which won the People’s Choice Award at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival. I absolutely loved director David O. Russell’s Desert Storm-set action-comedy Three Kings from 1999, but haven’t seen his critically acclaimed boxing drama The Fighter from 2010. This film represents a change of pace, a dramedy, somewhat similar to his I Heart Huckabees from 2004.
  • Killing Them Softly – New Zealander Andrew Dominik has directed just 3 films in his career. The first was Chopper in 2000, which introduced the world to a certain Eric Bana. Then in 2007, he released The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford starring Brad Pitt to great critical acclaim. He now reunites Brad Pitt in this crime-thriller which is already generating awards buzz, having been nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Guilty Pleasures

  • Jack Reacher – After the embarrassment of Rock of Ages this summer, Tom Cruise returns to a more comfortable setting in this screen adaptation of crime novel One Shot, one of a series of novels by Lee Child featuring former Army Major Jack Reacher. Having said that, I cannot imagine what the studio was thinking when they cast the 5’7” Cruise to play a character described as being 6′ 5″ tall with a 50-inch chest and having ice-blue eyes and dirty blond hair. Why even bother to call it an adaptation of a Jack Reacher novel and risk upsetting the hard core Reacher fans? Anyway, I am a big Tom Cruise fan, so I count this film as a guilty pleasure.
  • Taken 2 – In early 2009, Liam Neeson had his biggest career hit as a leading man, playing former CIA operative Bryan Mills who creates mayhem among East European human traffickers after they take his daughter. There is nothing as enjoyable as a good old-fashioned action thriller where the good guy takes apart the bad guys one by one. Fans have been looking forward to seeing more of Neeson’s character, so writer-producer Luc Besson has come up with a new adventure, this time the bad guys specifically target Bryan Mills’ family in revenge for the people he took out in the first movie.

And finally, the 7 movies I am really looking forward to:-

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – A few months ago, Peter Jackson delighted his fans with the announcement that he had shot enough footage of The Hobbit story to produce 3 films, not the 2 as originally planned. The films are adapted not just from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but also depict incidents from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings books and from Tolkien’s companion-piece publication The Silmarillion, hence the over-abundance of available material and the opportunity to feature characters from LOTR like Galadriel and Legolas. The build-up to the release of the first film has been perfect, with the release of a number of photos of the 13 hobbits comprising the Company of Dwarves and recently the release of an iPad App with lots of goodies. I expect/ hope this will be the biggest box office hit of the fall season and also that it will be as critically acclaimed as the original trilogy. The latest trailers with their four different endings are superb.
  • Django Unchained – I raved about the Django Unchained trailer when it first came out. It’s a new Quentin Tarentino film, not much more needs to be said.
  • Skyfall – I am really looking forward to seeing Daniel Craig chug a can of Heineken in the upcoming Bond film…and of course, eager to see if they can get the Bond franchise on track after the mess that was Quantum of Solace. I am looking forward to some of the gritty storytelling that director Sam Mendes put on show with Road to Perdition back in 2002 (interesting bit of trivia here – Road to Perdition featured a then-unknown Craig playing the cowardly son of mob boss Paul Newman).
  • Lincoln – Daniel Day Lewis brings his famous method acting chops to play the great American President. I expect to see the full bells and whistles which we have come to expect from Spielberg, hopefully it doesn’t become another Amistad. I was surprised at Lincoln’s nasal voice after years of hearing him portrayed with a deep sonorous voice. There has been a fair bit of internet chatter about the voice, which is apparently historically accurate. I think a lot of viewers will really have a problem with this, but hopefully the rest of the movie will be engaging enough.
  • Argo – It’s interesting that Ben Affleck, an actor I have taken such a dislike to, has directed two of the most gripping films in the last 5 years – Gone Baby Gone and The Town, both set in his native New England. This time around with Argo, he goes across to Iran for a fact-based drama-thriller in which he also acts (and looks quite good in that beard, by the way).
  • Hyde Park on the Hudson – I am a sucker for period dramas – Downton Abbey being my current favourite – and there has been steady buzz building up about this FDR biopic, featuring funnyman Bill Murray as The President and directed by Roger Michell of Notting Hill fame.
  • Flight – This is Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action film since Cast Away in 2000. It features Denzel Washington as a pilot who becomes a hero after safely landing a flight in distress, but the subsequent investigation reveals that he may not be a hero after all. Denzel does this sort of role very well (remember Courage Under Fire?) and I am hoping Zemeckis has not lost his edge after making only motion-capture pictures for the past decade.
  • On the Road – Jack Kerouac’s beat-era cult classic finally gets the big screen treatment, directed fittingly by Brazilian ‘road movie expert’ Walter Salles, famous for the touching Central Station and the delightful Motorcycle Diaries. On the Road features a great cast of actors including Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams and oh…Kristen Stewart. Well, if I needed a good omen on that last one, it could be the fact that Kristen Stewart played a very short and sweet role in her last road movie Into the Wild. Hopefully the same will be the case here.

Altogether, there is an incredible array of award-winning directors and actors on show in the next few months. Looks like I will have to watch multiple movies on some weekends if I am going to fit in 17 movies from now till end-December!