Logan: Jackman signs off Wolverine on a high note

Hosted by imgur.com

Hugh Jackman debuted the Wolverine character in 2000’s X-Men, which also kicked off the sustained and successful run of Marvel characters on film. Seventeen years later, he is retiring the character in Logan, the third standalone Wolverine film and the 7th time he has played the clawed mutant (besides 2 cameos).

What’s different this time and why is everyone praising the film? Director and screenwriter James Mangold was given a lot more freedom by the studio, which included allowing it go violent/ R-rated, in keeping with the nature of the character (we can thank 2016’s Deadpool as well, which gave Fox the confidence to approve an R-rated comic book film, realizing it wouldn’t affect box office income).

The result is a very satisfying film, filled with plenty of blood-soaked violence and more importantly, with vulnerable characters who we care about. The first hour and a half is so engaging that one doesn’t realize the time going by. We are introduced to aged and decrepit versions of the invincible characters we have known since 2000. Professor X (played by 76-year-old thesp Patrick Stewart) now in his 90’s and is losing his mental faculties, spends most of the day in a drug-induced stupor. Wolverine’s healing ability is fading (he’s over 140 years old, in case anyone’s still counting) and he has been reduced to earning his living as a limo driver  (driving an uber cool Chrysler stretch)! With no new mutants born in the past quarter century, the X-Men have died out and have become a sort of urban myth, good enough only to feature in comic books. We also meet an intense, mute child Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen, daughter of British actor Will Kean and Spanish actress Maria Fernandez Ache), who is on the run from a bunch of heavily armed bad guys, led by the cybernetically enhanced Pierce (played with great flair by a charismatic Boyd Holbrook). What we get when they all come together is a road trip/ chase movie, featuring a good mix of action, poignancy and some dry humor.

Wearing its R-rating on its sleeve, Logan allows Wolverine fans to see him in his famous ‘berserker rage’ mode more than once. But he’s not the only one. The scene in the first act in which Laura explodes into action and reveals her capabilities is shocking in its violence and intensity. Even Wolverine is stunned. There is another great ‘armrest gripping moment’ at a casino when we get a glimpse of why Charles Xavier’s mind is classified as a weapon of mass destruction.

At the other end of the spectrum, I really liked how the second act brings our heroes in touch with regular people, in this case a family who invites them to dinner. This reminded me of a similar scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron in which we find that Hawkeye has an entire family hidden away on a ranch. I feel that this sort of interlude helps to humanize the superheroes and brings the audience closer to them.

The third act was the weakest part of the movie for me, simply because it featured the obligatory action showdown between the good guys and the bad guys, with not much else. Perhaps the only unpredictable part of this formulaic sequence was what would happen to Wolverine at the end.

Before watching the movie, I had read all about how it plays out like a Western. Mangold has previously directed an excellent Western called 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 classic. Even his 1997 breakout film Cop Land can be seen as a sort of modern-day Western with Stallone’s quiet, unassuming sheriff unexpectedly coming up trumps in a final showdown against the corrupt cops living in his town. True enough, all the visual cues in Logan are straight from a Western – the characters look weather-beaten and a lot of the action takes place in sunburnt, dusty locations. And of course, there is the overt reference to the famous 1953 Western Shane, the purpose being to establish the parallels in the relationship between the gunfighter and the boy in Shane and Wolverine and Laura in Logan. Frankly, I thought that this part of the script was a bit heavy-handed, especially when the girl spouts the entire dialogue from the closing moments of Shane, having watched it just once in a hotel room previously.

I also had my usual issues with that ‘home video’ look of night time scenes because of the use of digital cameras, which tend to capture a lot of information (very useful in low light conditions), but can create a ‘flat’ look devoid of texture. DP John Mathieson has used the Arri Alexa camera which is very popular and usually produce a very film-like effect, especially when combined with Panavision lenses (like you see in Mad Max: Fury Road or Rogue One), but am not sure what low-light combo was used here and why some of the night scenes look so terrible. Given that the film takes so much inspiration from Westerns and from Shane in particular, how cool would it have been to have shot it in real film to mimic the glorious Technicolor of Shane.

Considering that the movie is set in 2029, there isn’t much that appears futuristic about it. The only indications are the driverless trailer trucks on the highway and the reference to tigers being extinct.

Overall, it’s a very powerful movie and a wonderful way to end a trilogy, especially one that started so unpromisingly with the universally panned X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. The X-Men films spin off into new directions now, with new teams coming up in Josh Boone’s X-Men: The New Mutants and Joe Carnahan’s X-Force. There will also be another entry called X-Men: Supernova in Bryan Singer’s continuing series featuring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence as the younger versions of Prof X, Magneto and Mystique. But it looks like this is the end of the road for Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s characters…and they should both feel proud of signing off with a bang.


2016 movie scores: Deadpool on top, BvS at the bottom

We’re a 100 days into 2016 and I’ve watched half a dozen releases from this year so far. I’ve missed the two big animated films Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootopia. The latter I’m told is definitely worth a watch. I’m also half way through the real-life sea rescue drama, The Finest Hours, which is shaping up quite well. Of the six films that I’ve watched, here’s how I’ve ranked them.

Deadpool (8/10) – A fun movie that benefits from a hero who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Made for just USD 58 million and has so far grossed nearly USD 800 million around the world. A new superhero franchise is born for Fox and Marvel Comics and Ryan Reynolds has a meal ticket that should keep him going for a few years. The trick will be to get the sequel out quickly and to get it right.

The Jungle Book (8/10) – An equally fun movie that is a close remake of the beloved Disney animation feature from 1967. A childhood favourite for many (I remember popping the tape into the VCR and watching it every few months as a kid), it’s impossible not to sing along when “Bare Necessities” comes on. There’s one entirely new scene with honey bees that isn’t in the 1967 film that’s really fun. Newcomer Neel Sethi is perfectly cast as Mowgli and a stellar voice cast which includes Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson and Idris Elba brings all our favourite characters alive. The CGI animation is absolutely top-notch and it’s hard to believe that the entire movie was shot on a Hollywood soundstage. Director Jon Favreau brings the same light touch that he did to Iron Man and perfectly balances action, humour and a couple of emotional moments. Rival studio Warner Bros. also has a Jungle Book film in the works, but has now pushed it back a full two years to finish it properly and also get some distance from this one. Get set for Disney to give other animated classics the CGI/ live action treatment; in exactly a year’s time we will have Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson.

Hosted by imgur.com

The Wave (8/10) – This Norwegian disaster film was the highest grossing film in its home country in 2015 and is now making the rounds of international markets. Directed by the amusingly named Roar Uthaug, the film tells the story of a village that is struck by a freak tsunami, resulting from a rockslide falling into an adjacent fjord. Very similar in tone to the Pierce Brosnan starrer Dante’s Peak from 1997, the film features competent performances from the actors and top notch visual effects, all done at a frugal budget of under USD 6 million. Good fun, if you want to experience a non-American disaster film – fewer histrionics, more realism and genuine build-up of anticipation and tension.

The Witch (7/10) – This atmospheric horror film made waves at Sundance and various other film festivals last year, then was picked up fast-rising specialist distributor A24, who really seem to have an eye for quality independent films. Set in the 1630s, an isolated farming family in New England have to deal with the disappearance of their infant child, followed by some very disturbing occurrences at their homestead. Is there some evil thing living in the adjacent woods? Could one of their children be possessed? Strong performances from the actors, especially those playing the 4 children, result in a compelling though slow-paced, old-fashioned horror film. This is production designer Robert Eggers’ first directorial effort. Be prepared to see a lot more of 19-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays the teenage daughter at the centre of the strange happenings.

Hail, Caesar! (6.5/10) – The Coen brothers have been churning out a movie every 2-3 years since Blood Simple in 1984. They alternate between deadly serious dramas like Miller’s Crossing (1990), No Country for Old Men (2007) and Being Llewyn Davis (2013) and over-the-top comedies. I feel their comedies are polarizing, liked or disliked depending on individual tastes. I really like their near-slapstick style and have been a big fan of nearly all their comedies; Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading are among my favourites. Like Woody Allen’s films, their productions also attract a who’s who of acting royalty. Their latest comedy is no different and stars George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum as well as other household names. There isn’t much of a plot in this one and the attraction is mainly the production design, a pretty accurate inside view into the 1950’s Hollywood studio system and some fun set-pieces of film scenes being shot. Although I enjoyed the first half, it waned towards the end and I consider it to be one of their weaker efforts. For fans (and there are many of them out there) only.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (5/10) – Enough has been said about this film in recent weeks and I myself expressed my disappointment soon after I watched it. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to the standalone Wonder Woman film in June next year and I hope that Justice League: Part One coming out in November 2017 will be more fun with the inclusion of Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg.

Deadpool hits the sweet spot between comic and graphic

Hosted by imgur.com

In the 15 or so years since Fox’s X-Men made superheroes into big box office business, we have had more than 30 Marvel films and about 10 from rival DC. Most of us refer to them as ‘comic book movies’, but the discerning fan (ahem!) would say that they are ‘graphic novel adaptations’. While comic books refer to slim periodicals with serialized storylines, graphic novels are generally thicker publications with epic, self-contained stories. It can also be implied that graphic novels are targeted at older audiences and therefore contain more sex and violence compared to the weekly comic periodicals, although those lines are quite blurred these days.

If one were to draw the same parallels on the big screen, then indeed most of the Marvel films so far have been ‘comic book movies’, designed for family viewing with appropriate doses of humor, as in the case of The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. Others like the X-Men films and the DC Comics Batman films directed by Chris Nolan have been fairly grim and intense, but without any blood or gore. The only R-rated superhero films so far have been the two Punisher movies in 2004 and 2008, both of which sank without a trace…the relentless darkness and violence severely limiting their box office potential.

So, it’s really quite remarkable that we have today an R-rated superhero film Deadpool, which has hit the sweet spot between comedy (mostly in the form of profanity) and graphic violence. I just finished watching it and while it’s mostly entertaining, I think the real credit for its record opening weekend should go to the marketing department at Fox. For several months now, some smart people at Fox have been churning out everything from posters to public service messages to introduce this cult character to a wider audience. This ‘Touch Yourself Tonight‘ PSA video on testicular cancer is particularly funny.

As a result, awareness of the movie was sky-high and has led to this monster box office success. Reynolds is perfectly cast as Deadpool and he must be feeling very vindicated as this is a film that he has personally campaigned over several years to get made. His first outing as Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine wasn’t particularly successful and then he starred in the disastrous Green Lantern DC Comics film two years later. At that point, his superhero career must have appeared done and dusted. But a leaked test reel for Deadpool scored such high acclaim for its perfect combination of action and humor that the studio decided to take the plunge.

The end product is pretty entertaining, but is very dependent on humor and action to keep the momentum going. The extended opening action act which runs for quite a bit of time (as it is interspersed with flashbacks) is genuinely brilliant and you’re pretty much hooked from that point on. Serious scenes, whether they are of Reynolds with his love interest (played by Morena Baccarin) or of Reynolds’ torture by nemesis Ajax (played by English actor Ed Skrein), seem to run out of steam very quickly. The script writers cleverly use humor as a tool to patch up holes in the plot or get through a corny scene; just get Deadpool to break the fourth wall and admit to the audience how lame it is!

Overall, definitely worth watching if you don’t mind profanity and violence, mixed in with superb action choreography. Maximum effort!

Of course, you should stay back for the post-credits stinger. Hint – it’s an homage to a post-credits scene from a beloved 1980’s movie!

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.

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.