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Movies on My Mind
Week Ending 30 July 2016

The Last Days of Night

I’m marginally intrigued by this one, because it will be interesting to see how it treats that most marginalised of pioneers of scientific advance (except by conspiracists), Nikola Tesla. He features in Graham Moore’s novel, on which this is based (which I haven’t read), which charts the rivalry between George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison over the future of electricity. Morten Tyldum directs, whose Headhunters was an effective and gripping little thriller and Hollywood calling card. However, his aim for respectability with The Imitation Game suggested a rather shallow approach to subject matter demanding greater insight. He has science fiction original (from Jon Spaihts) Passengers incoming at the end of the year (with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt), which needs to do very well to justify its cost, so he at least seems to be attracting interesting material, whether or not he makes the most of it.

As for the legacy of Tesla in the movies, if you IMDB the guy, 45 of his 49 references come post-2000, which says something for his unstoppable rise as a Fortean hero of mysterious and untold attributes (which also take in alleged involvement with the Philadelphia Experiment). His closest to a mainstream movie presence was in The Prestige, where David Bowie portrayed him as a literal magician. The likelihood, though, is that Tesla will feature in The Last Days of Night only as far as his association with Westinghouse goes (he sold him his Alternating Current patents).

The bigger concern is how well the story in focus will be told. Moore penned the screenplay for The Imitation Game, so I’m not overly optimistic on Last Days’ chances for depth and range. The danger here too, is that material ripe with potential is anaesthetised by a filmmaker with no passion for its intricacies. Particularly since Eddie Redmayne is a good swap-out for Cumberbatch. Here he’s the lawyer embroiled in the case, defending Westinghouse.

Talking of Cumberbatch, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a rival Westinghouse-Edison project, The Current War (a clever title, but not a catchy one), lined up by the Weinsteins, with Jake Gyllenhaal as Westinghouse and Cumberbatch trying on another dubious US accent (see below) as Edison. One or other would be sensible to pull out, or better still, switch instead into telling the story of Tesla and his quest for wireless transmission of electricity, funded by JP Morgan (up to a certain point).

Blair Witch

Not really being much of a horror buff, I should probably have loved The Blair Witch Project, seeing as it was not only one of the least terrifying movies ever made (aside from that snot stream), but also one of the dullest. This second sequel (no one really wants to remember the unfortunate part two), according to the garlanded praise, is one of the scariest horror movies of the decade, and since I have at last seen Adam Wingard’s The Guest (but not yet You’re Next) I can testify that he’s a proficient filmmaker, so he has that over the originators for a start.

The trailer is typical jump-scare stuff, but this is the kind of masterpiece of suddenly-unveiled advertising that would make JJ Abrams proud (after all, he just pulled off the same thing with 10 Cloverfield Road). Will it be any good? I suspect it might even retroactively justify the first movie (just follow the bleeding river, for goodness sake), which would take some doing. Otherwise, there’s me in the corner, losing my will to live.


Doctor Strange

Every glimpse of this appears to be greeted rapturously, but all I can see is iffy-ness oozing from every pore, from Cumberbatch’s fake bushy beard and ripe accent (“Study and practice, yearz of it”) and mirthfully insubstantial buffed-ness, to Scott Derrickson’s supremely derivative CGI fractals. Couldn’t they actually try and differentiate it from every other virtual landscape (notably Inception), and make it maybe just slightly analogue psychedelic? And give it a bit of colour, perhaps? This probably the most interesting potential Marvel fare in a while (certainly outside of talking raccoons), but with what looks to be the least imaginative rendering if the trailer is indicative. The most occult thing about Doctor Strange is the Marvel Studios logo.


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I’m not that enthused by the prospect of seeing a whole lot of baby Groot; it seemed to me the most appealing part of the first movie was thumb-nosing such easily-fostered sentimentality. I’m still looking forward to this sequel, though, since James Gunn will clearly have the benefit of the doubt to do more of what he likes, which includes giving Kurt Russell (as talking planet Ego) a penis, as if there was ever any doubt Jack Burton had one.

As for the other Marvel movie reveals in and around ComicCon, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel represents a no-brainer, scooping an Oscar winner for a prestige lead female superhero role (not that I know much about the character, other than the name lacks something), although by the time it comes out DC/WB will have tested those waters thoroughly. On TV, the Luke Cage trailer is set off effectively to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, but if it’s another 13-episode Netflix run that could as easily have been told in 8, it won’t be such a must-see. And Iron Fist looks entirely unconvincing; this guy has beardage that makes Cumberbatch’s seem authentic and, well, I know it’s only a snippet, but first appearances…



Legion

Legion is also Marvel, but Marvel going to work for Fox, such is their new-found capacity for doing for others what they best do themselves. If they aren’t going to get their properties back for the foreseeable, they may as well make them as good as they can possibly be.

This had me far more struck trailer-wise than anything I’ve seen in the Netflix range. There’s Dan Stevens bringing it some with a successful transatlantic accent. Mainly, it appears to have a gleeful capacity for indulging its antic side. This could have been po-faced (Legion is Charles Xavier’s son, which is about as po-faced as you get), following as it does “the most powerful mutant we have ever encountered”, but then it slips into a whacky Hindi-pop dance number with Audrey Plaza. If Legion maintains the kind of twitchy vibrancy the trailer suggests, it might be the most powerful Marvel TV series we have ever encountered.


The LEGO Batman Movie

A whole movie devoted to the most entertaining part of The Lego Movie? As the natural inheritor to the 1966 TV movie (rather than Batman and Robin), this looks like it will be at least 10 times better than this year’s Batfleck outing. Will Arnett’s voice work is to treasure, and the gags look and sound top flight, from the origins of Robin’s costume to the location of the Bat Cave, the wearing of seat belts, and drop-kicking Alfred into a grand piano (it’s about time). And I’ll wager Zach Galifianakis’ Joker is far more entertaining than Jared Leto’s, and that Galfiankis didn’t litter the recording booth with dead rats and used condoms.


Wonder Woman

Such is their ubiquity, one can be easily fatigued by marketing glut for superhero movies. The undifferentiated stylistic approach of Marvel fare, for example, will, I suspect, be their eventual undoing. And the dour aspect of DC certainly hasn’t been doing them any favours. But Wonder Woman? A superhero movie with an at leasty partially interesting colour palette? Something must be wrong here (I’m not going to get carried away, though, as there’s a fair amount of colour wash by the looks of things).

Wonder Woman, on the basis of the trailer, smacks of unexpected potential; good quips (coming from Pine in the male totty role, but Gal Gadot offers amusement in both this and the Justice League trailer), an interestingly-used period setting (Wonder Woman in WWI trenches; bizarre but arresting), really good action choreography (I had little expectation for Patty Jenkins facility here, as she has no real track record). Of which, it even has good speed ramping. And then there’s that Wonder Woman theme, the best part of Batman v Superman. My only reservation is that the final snatch of dialogue (probably due to editing) is clumsy and doesn’t breathe in terms of the intended humour, but as a whole this is a way better trailer than any other in recent superhero memory.


Justice League

I’m wholly not convinced by Aquaman thus far, excepting in the glowering stakes, but Ezra Miller’s Flash is a huge winner, partly because he’s being written quirkily, but mainly because Miler is an incredible actor. In the space of this and the Wonder Woman trailer, WB has been able to go some way towards expunging that humourless badge they’ve been wearing; Miller (“Stop right there. I’m in”) looks to be just as witty as Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, or Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man. That said, his costume does look a bit toss. But not as toss as Cyborg’s. I though Snyder, if nothing else, could be relied upon for a basically robust design aesthetic, but he’s got at least two of his new superheroes looking a tad uncool, and one whose entire demeanour seems to be a reaction to the silliness of his skillset (“I hear you can talk to fish”).

Post-Justice League, it has been suggested Batman will be trapped in Arkham Asylum in the Affleck solo movie. Which sounds like an interesting move, since the pressurised environment worked for The Raid and Dredd. It might also not cost as much as the Snyder and Nolan outings, and play to Batfleck’s strengths as a director (which may not necessarily be for huge special effects set pieces).


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

This movie… I’m not a fan of the modernistic dialogue, of the ridiculous costume design, or of the completely unappealing cinematography (John Mathieson seems to be going for the look of his work on Ridley Scott’s – similarly misconceived – Robin Hood rather than following up on the pop-sensibilities of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), but still I can’t help but be drawn in by this trailer.

Guy Ritchie is being unabashedly laddish in a manner he hasn’t been since RocknRolla (but probably only because he could only go so far with it in Sherlock Holmes and U.N.C.L.E.), and while Charlie Hunnam is as blank a slate as ever, and the desire to Lock, Stock… Arthurian legend seems entirely antithetical to the subject matter (“Raised on the Streets…” is just crying for Monty Python to step in), there’s something undeniably, gleefully, appealingly juvenile in its construction. I don’t think this stands an iota of a chance of getting the run of sequels Ritchie envisages (so it can join the rapidly burgeoning ranks of doomed potential franchises) but it will probably be highly entertaining in a “I still wish they were making something that capitalised on Excalibur’s potential, rather than takes its cues from King Arthur’s misjudged modernism” way.


Kong: Skull Island

It’s probably asking for trouble, attempting to invoke Apocalypse Now in a monster movie (and one set in the ‘70s at that), but Skull Island has piqued my interest, after having next-to-none. The trailers for Godzilla pulled off that trick too, though, so I’m a bit once bitten about what I’m seeing.

The potential of John Goodman and Sam Jackson (the former raising the latter’s game) is far more intriguing than Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson in this context (both cast in material that is highly unlikely to exploit their thesping talents, truth be told). Skull Island may not be able to go the distance – monster movies usually run out of ideas once the beast is revealed, at least when it’s a BIG mofo – but with trailers like this, it’s no wonder they open well.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The main thing about Fantastic Beasts is that, sure, it’s coasting on the Harry Potter brand, and on the allure of nostalgia-hued visions of the ‘30s (ignore it being such a great era for poverty), but it has Eddie Redmayne doing a stone-cold Matt Smith as Doctor Who impression. It’s almost as if that slightly fey posh chap replete with asexual allure is exportable currency now. Either that or it’s a fall-back pose of a certain stratum of Brit luvvies. Generally, I don’t know what to make of Fantastic Beasts. It looks moderately entertaining, but it needs some kind of hook the trailers thus far haven’t given it. Apart from Colin Farrell embracing another dodgy pudding-bowl cut.


Snowden

Oliver Stone has spoken out about Pokemon, so it’s good to know he has his priorities straight. I guess it’s inevitable that you become less alert to the most urgent issues as you edge on in years, particularly when you were once a young firebrand. Stone has been playing catch-up ever since NBK; picking subject matter that has been covered to death and making at best okay (W.) movies from it isn’t really the best foot forward for the director, but I guess he takes what he can get financing for. Essentially though, he’s become an “establishment” conspiracist; he rocks the boat within carefully designated confines, and isn’t going to put anyone’s nose out of joint in between ayahuasca trips. All very palatable, apart from when he throws it up. The only arresting thing about Snowden appears to be Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s uncanny accent. The rest is biopic-lite.


Divergent

The last six months appear to have sounded the death knell of the ever-churning sequel machine of the past half-decade-plus as we knew it, where returns were so guaranteed that instalments could be split into two (at least for YA fare). Such was Lionsgate’s hubris, they did that dirty, then found no one was interested in Allegiant. Now they’re talking about a direct-to-TV finale (Ascendent), obviously with an eye on future ancillary profits that come with a complete story (TV rights, box sets etc.) But, if they don’t manage to get the main cast back, that’s not really going to be a lure; they may as well be making Adams Family Reunion. We’re seeing the fallout from this kind of thinking in other areas, from Star Trek to DC properties (Cyborg’s solo movie is off the schedule). It’s a particularly poor show in this case, though, and fans (if there are any left) should be rightly pissed off.

Shrek 5

Given Pixar’s new-found whorishness, I suppose DreamWorks, never shy about such things, can’t really be blamed for this, particularly when their movies are constantly underperforming anyway. the latest instalment is due in 2019, when it will have been almost a decade since Shrek Forever After now didn’t close the book on the character and thankfully salvaged some of the bad will engendered by the previous sequels (seriously, how much worse could B.O.O. have been than Shrek the Third, such that Jeffrey Katzenberg has banished it to eternal limbo?)

While the likes of Pixar, Disney and Universal, and even Fox (although the latest Ice Age finally appears to have sunk that franchise) are seeing billion grossers or near enough, DW hasn’t got beyond $700m in four years, and while a $500-600m ballpark is nothing to be sneezed at, it’s indicative of a second division family fare provider. Churning out a fifth sequel, that no one is gagging for suggests that before long Katzenberg may have to admit he’s no longer the best judge of what works for the animation outfit. 

XxXx: The Return of Xander Cage

GOD BLESS (or Jai Bless) Vin. DJ Caruso, despite looking like he might have had potential at one point, can turn in material as generic as the next journeyman director, so this trailer has duly stepped straight out of 2002 without a care in the world (Vin rides a wave and under a wave, on a motorbike – of course he does!) Will it be shit? You bet, since it doesn’t appear to offer an ounce of the kind of immediate visceral thrill found in an M:I, with which it is essentially competing. Still, Sam Jackson seems to be having fun.


Hacksaw Ridge

There’s no doubting Mad Mel’s directorial chops, and this promises to be everything you’d expect from a guy who just cannot staunch that uncontrollable bleed-out, brimming as it is with good Christian vibes (however off-key; this is credited to God-fearing, glory-of-war past collaborator Randall Wallace, with additional input from Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan). Andrew Garfield portrays Desmond T Doss, real-life heroic conscience objector, a Seventh-day Adventist castigated as a coward by his fellow soldiers. But, with God on his side, he proves them wrong (is this a metaphor for martyred Mel himself?)

Hacksaw Ridge will be entirely riveting if the trailer, playing every manipulative card in the book, is representative. But then, it’s kind of understandable that it’s too good to be true when you read Doss’ Medal of Honor citation. Even Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington don’t look as if they’re going to louse this up. Its chances of success? If it taps a nerve, and it looks shrewd enough to in its overblown proselytising, it could go big guns. Mostly, though, I’m just interested in seeing a master filmmaker at work, which Apocalypto proved beyond doubt Gibson is.


The Great Wall

Already the spuriously controversy-minded are making capital from Matt Damon in the latest white saviour role (see also Dances with Wolves, Last Samurai, etc.). What were they expecting from a Chinese-financed, directed movie that is clearly custom-fitted to crossover to as large an audience as possible? Sure, since it arrives in an environment where such a movie could make $300-400 million in its home territory, one might argue there’s no need, but China wants to be able to compete with Hollywood (Universal releases it in the US) at its own game.


As to whether The Great Wall will be any good, well, like most people I had no idea this was a monster movie, and from the glimpse of monster, a weirdly retro-looking, almost stop-motion critter that could have stepped off the set of Beetlejuice, I still don’t know what to expect. I haven’t really followed Zhang Yimou’s career since his dip into the waters of impressively mounted and choreographed period martial arts (Hero, House of the Flying Daggers) in the wake of the breakout success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Damon may need a big hit with his name on it soon, certainly if his big franchise restarter underperforms, so it will be interesting to see how this toe in the waters fares for all concerned. Mostly, though, Willem Dafoe is in it.


 
Box Office

I’m used to being grossly wrong in my assumptions regarding movie box office, and I expected there’d be far greater appetite for The Bourne Jasonity than there actually is. I expected it to show the staying power of a franchise where, Connery-like, audiences were itching to see the return of the real deal, who hadn’t failed them. That this is going to open to $20m less Stateside less than its 9-years-past predecessor is quite shocking really, and it can’t simply be symptomatic of a summer of blighted sequel fare (or Finding Dory wouldn’t be rising so high).

Perhaps it’s simply a case of studios milking something where audiences were already sated. Perhaps the entirely unimaginative title put audiences off (that approach did nothing for Jack Reacher and Jack Ryan, after all). Certainly, while I’m looking forward to Jason Bourne, as aside from Green Zone Damon and Paul Greengrass haven’t failed me, I saw no need to carry on a series that had undoubtedly really reached its natural conclusion in Ultimatum. This isn’t a Crystal Skull situation, but it’s still a shame if it ends up even slightly fouling the pavement and we end up with a collection of superfluous, after-the-fact additions.

Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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