The Movies of Summer 2015

City walk theater

Amazing how the summer movie season announces itself very strongly around these last few weeks of Spring.  Maybe it’s just the relatively quiet spring season, when Hollywood usually unloads all of their less interesting fare, but at the same time we’re now talking even more about the coming attractions of next season than what is currently playing.  Recent weeks have brought a lot of hype around movie trailers for next year’s Batman v. Superman, or this winter’s Star Wars Episode VII, and yet no attention is drawn in social media or the press towards movies now in theaters.  There’s no complaint from me on this, however, especially when what’s playing in theaters now is Paul Blart 2.  But, that long dry spell of Spring is almost over and the Summer season once again brings us the movies we’ve eagerly waited all year for; and in some cases decades.   Based off of the recent trend we’ve seen in Hollywood these last couple years, it’s another super hero heavy line-up once again.  Marvel dominates this summer with three separate entries, including one from their marquee Avengers franchise.  But unlike previous years, we’re going to see fewer remakes and more reboots of franchises, with some long dormant names making their returns for a whole new generation of audiences; even with some of their key players also returning.  And naturally with another big movie season about to start, it is also time for me to give all of you my thoughts and predictions on some of the big movies coming out in the months ahead.

One thing that does stick out to me already, after looking over the calander for this summer season, is just how front loaded it is.  The Summer of 2015 is going to start off strong with probably the biggest draws all coming out within the first weeks of May.  There’s no indication this year that we’ll see a situation like we had in 2014, where the summer’s biggest money-maker opened in August (Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy).  Some late summer films could surprise, but my guess is that the bigger ones will be the earliest releases this year.  Like my previous previews, I will be looking at some of the most anticipated movies this season and tell you which ones I believe will be the absolute must sees, the ones that have me worried and the ones that are worth skipping altogether.  Keep in mind, these are solely examined by how I’ve judged them based on their potential and the effectiveness of their marketing.  I’m never 100% accurate; I predicted last year that Edge of Tomorrow was going to be worth skipping, and then it ended up on my Top 10 list by year’s end.  Any of these movies could surprise.  It’s solely my own opinion, so take these perspectives as you will.  My hope is that you the reader will get a good sense about what to look forward to in the weeks ahead.  And so now, let’s start this off with the good stuff.



For many people, I’m sure the Marvel films will be the ones that draws the most attention, as well as the highest grosses.  But for me, this is the movie that I’m the most excited about this summer.  Super hero movies are worth getting excited about; don’t get me wrong. But this movie just looks like something new entirely, and that I find exciting.  Deriving itself from elements of The Walt Disney Company’s long history of collaborating with some of the best and brightest in 20th century scientific research and engineering, Tomorrowland seems to be an interesting and fresh concept that we have not yet seen brought to life on the big screen. The movie obviously looks to be inspired by the section of the same name found in Disneyland parks around the world, but at the same time, it doesn’t appear to be a commercial for the theme park either.  What director Brad Bird appears to be doing with this story is use the place “Tomorrowland” as an embodiment of the power of human ingenuity and scientific wonder, basically showcasing a magical place based around the promise and potential of the future, while also using this as a setting for a captivating sci-fi adventure.  It’s very much like Alice in Wonderland (1951) meets 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and in a good way. Brad Bird also has a strong track record going, with films like The Incredibles (2004) and Mission:Impossible 4 (2011) under his belt, so my hopes are very high for this one.  Other films will be crowd-pleasers, but this could be the one that really transports the audience to another world this summer.


Of course you can’t talk about this summer season without talking about The Avengers.  The first film was a phenomenon when it premiered in 2012, quickly becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time.  This movie looks to do just about the same, but time will tell if it can reach the high bar set by it’s predecessor. Regardless of whether or not it reaches this goal, there’s no doubt that this will be one of the summer’s biggest movies.  What I hope more than anything is that it retains much of the entertainment value that the first movie had. This movie marks the end of Phase Two of Marvel’s master plan for its cinematic universe and the beginning of Phase Three.   So far, the big gamble has paid off incredibly well for Marvel and parent company Disney, with only one stumbling block (2013’s Iron Man 3) and a ton of increasingly great standalone features; especially last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy.  The Avengers series makes a great benchmark for each of the different phases, and my hope is that Age of Ultron continues the trend.  I have a lot of confidence in this film, because the thing that Marvel does best is to build these movies around the characters, and it makes the films all the more interesting when there’s more of them involved.  The returning team still looks solid in this trailer, but it’s the new characters that intrigue me most, including the villain Ultron; with a menacing voice supplied by James Spader.  Director Joss Whedon proved a lot of naysayers wrong with the success of the first movie, and it looks like he’s amping things up in a good way with this follow up; expanding the universe without loosing the characteristics that make it work, which is what all the best sequels should do.


Back in 2011, the Mission: Impossible franchise breathed new life into a waning franchise with it’s fourth film Ghost Protocol, which is arguably the best movie in the series to date.  With that film, Mission: Impossible finally found its character, and can now distinguish itself as a franchise from all the other spy thrillers out there.  Not only that, but Ghost Protocol also brought an impressive sense of scale that had been missing in the series before, such as in the remarkable scene where franchise star Tom Cruise scales the exterior of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building. So, how does a sequel top an amazing scene like that; by having Cruise actually hanging onto the exterior of a plane while it takes off, of course.  That’s what excites me about this new Mission: Impossible movie; it’s using what worked in the last film and takes it to the next level.  I also love that they are retaining the same team from Ghost Protocol, while also giving more screen time to series regular Ving Rhames, who was absent for the most part the last time out.  Cruise once again looks like he’s in top form here, and the fact that he still does most of his own stunt work is mind-boggling, especially  when you see what’s coming up in this new film. Ghost Protocol’s director Brad Bird was obviously busy working on Tomorrowland while this was being made, but his replacement here is writer and director Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) who’s more than capable of handling the job. This movie also provides a great fix for audiences in the spy genre this year in between Kingsmen and the next James Bond flick.


Some movies sell you on just their potential alone.  This movie however is one that caught my eye purely by how much I like this trailer. This is how you sell a movie.  The visuals mixed with the sweeping, operatic music perfectly displays the over-the-top nature that I’m sure is going to characterize this movie. The Mad Max franchise is another one of those that has sat long dormant for too long, and this movie trailer really helps to proclaim it’s return in a big way.   While Fury Road may not return the series’ original star, Mel Gibson, nor most of the original cast, it does mark the welcome return of it’s creator, Austrailian filmmaker George Miller.  And given the look of this movie from the ad, Miller intends to take the series to the next level, giving it scale unseen before.  Actor Tom Hardy is more than capable enough to fill Gibson’s shoes in the iconic role, and he seems to have good company from the supporting cast, which includes an almost unrecognizable Charlize Theron.  What I hope is that the movie lives up to this trailer.  Sometimes a film company can run the risk of selling a movie too well, and having it’s trailer be better than the movie itself.  The same risk could potentially happen here too, but my hope is that the movie will still have enough surprises in store for us. Despite what happens, I still look at this particular trailer as one of the best in recent years, and that alone helps to peak my interest in this movie.

INSIDE OUT (June 19)

One of the more reliable names during the summer season has been Pixar Studios.  For much of the last decade, their movies have not only clicked at the box office, but have been critically acclaimed as well.  However, recently the studio has succumbed to some of the pitfalls of such an extended win streak.  This has included underperforming sequels ( 2011’s Cars 2 and 2013’s Monsters University) and lackluster stories (2012’s Brave). Not only that, but tougher competition has emerged recently with animated films from other companies rising up to the high Pixar standard.  Even parent company Disney’s own animation studio has seen a resurgence with megahits like Frozen (2013).   So, at this point in time, Pixar needs something fresh and bold to help gain back some of their edge, and this movie looks like the perfect project to do just that.  Directed by Pete Doctor, who’s last film Up (2009) is considered one of Pixar’s best, delivers a unique concept here and does so with a delightful sense of humor that has become a Pixar trademark.  Embodying emotions as individuals living in our minds is a great concept, and I’m intrigued to see how the story works around this idea.  I already like the looks of the characters, and how their designs match the emotions they represent (plus, there’s no more perfect casting than comedian Lewis Black as Anger).  Pixar rarely lets us down, and hopefully Inside Out is yet another gem in their animation crown.



For a lot of people, this is the most anticipated movie of the year.  Jurassic Park (1993) is an all time classic, and the name carries a lot of weight with it.  And from the look of the trailer, it appears that the filmmakers are definitely playing on that sense of nostalgia that audiences have for the original.  It certainly does a good job of recreating the look of the series, only with a grander scale and better CGI effects.  Also, the idea of having a park open to the public in this movie, something that Dr. John Hammond (the late great Richard Attenbourough) dreamed of in the original but couldn’t make happen, is a cool idea to explore in this sequel. The reason why I’m not as enthusiastic about this movie as other people are is because I’ve been burned by this franchise before.  No series has fallen harder in recent years than Jurassic Park has.  The original by Steven Spielberg is nearly pitch perfect and still holds up today. But, it was followed up by two really awful sequels that tarnished the series; The Lost World in 1997 and Jurassic Park III in 2001.  My hope is that Jurassic World can help restore some of the magic that this franchise once had, but nothing I’ve seen in this trailer has really convinced me of that.  Even still, I’m sure it will still be a big hit. Having Guardians of the Galaxy’s Chris Pratt in the lead certainly is a plus, and the image of him on a motorcycle flanked by raptors is pretty awesome.  But, still, I’m not getting my hopes up too high with this one.

ANT-MAN (July 17)

Marvel Studios’ track record has been incredibly strong, especially with the introduction of new characters into their cinematic universe.  You would think that the first of their Phase Three films would likewise be a welcome addition, but unfortunately Ant-Man comes to theaters this summer with a lot of doubt clouding its arrival. This is primarily due to it’s troubles in development, and not from the strength of the character himself.  During pre-production, Marvel had a falling out with the film’s original writer and director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), who left the project over unresolvable creative differences.  Most of the time, a filmmaker shake-up doesn’t bode well for the finished film, especially when his replacement (director Peyton Reed) seems more like a hired hand rather than someone with a bold vision.  But, even with the troubles behind the camera, the one thing that could still bode well for this movie is the cast.  All of the characters are still played by Wright’s choices in casting, and it appears that they’re trying to make the best out of their roles.  I also like the way they visualize the action scenes in this trailer, making Ant-Man’s size changing powers understandable to the average viewer.   But even if it looks amazing, my worry is that too much was lost in the shuffling of filmmakers and that most people are going to end up wondering what might have been if Edgar Wright was allowed to complete his vision for the character.


Let’s be clear, it’s not too difficult to improve upon the Fantastic Four franchise.  The 2005 original and it’s 2007 sequel Rise of the Silver Surfer are both pretty awful.  Also, rebooting the series with a new cast of actors is absolutely necessary, especially when the original Human Torch (Chris Evans) has long abandoned the series in order to don the Stars and Stripes as Captain America instead.  The one thing that keeps me from being too excited about this version, however, is that it’s a movie based on a Marvel property not made by Marvel itself.  The track record for Marvel films set outside of it’s cinematic universe has been shaky; just look at how Spider-Man imploded over at Sony.  Thankfully Fantastic Four is held by 20th Century Fox, which has treated their Marvel licensed characters with a bit more respect and care; especially with last year’s exceptional X-Men: Days of Future Past.   But, even still, the movie is going to be a tough sell, considering how poorly the franchise has been handled up to now. Also, some of the casting choices here seem a little odd (the guy who played Billy Elliott is now playing The Thing!?). Though, after watching the brilliant Whiplash from last year, I now have a lot of confidence in actor Miles Teller playing the role of Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic.  Considering what’s come before, you can only go up after hitting rock bottom.


If there has ever been a franchise that has been stretched to its limits, constantly being rebooted again and again, it would be the Terminator franchise.  This new entry once again tackles the concept of using time travel to stop a war from happening, but this time around, the movie actually takes the series back to its roots; set during the events of the original 1984 Terminator.  This to me seems like a bad way to go with the franchise.  The best thing that a series can do is to move foward and build upon what’s been there before, which is what the 1992 sequel T2: Judgment Day did so brilliantly.   This film looks to be moving the franchise backwards by trying to reimagine the past, which to me seems to be exploiting the Terminator brand purely for nostalgia rather than building upon it’s grander vision. Also, wiping the events of the original out of the timeline just so this plot can happen seems like a bad idea. The only saving grace this sequel has overall is that it marks the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the series. And let’s face it, without Arnold, there would’ve been no Terminator franchise to begin with.  So, while the premise behind Terminator: Genysis seems a little dubious, it is nice to see the “Governator” live up to his promise of being back.


PIXELS (July 24)

On the surface, this movie looks to have an interesting premise,  where video game characters are used as a weapon by an invading alien race, and the nifty visual effects seem impressive as well.  But let’s keep in mind, this is an Adam Sandler movie we’re talking about, and this ain’t Wreck-it Ralph (2012).  Even when given a bigger budget and broader premise to work with, Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions always seems to disappoint (Bedtime Stories and Click, for example).   And this trailer only tells me that we’re going to get more of the same play-it-safe sophomoric humor from Sandler and Co.  What hurts even more is that it looks like he’s dragged a quality actor like Peter Dinklege into the film as well.  Now, I shouldn’t be the one to tell Mr. Dinklege which movies he can and cannot do, but seriously Peter, you are much better than this.  Spare youself the pain and watch Game of Thrones instead to see Peter Dinklege at his best; or watch Punch Drunk Love (2002) to see Adam Sandler when he actually gives a damn.


The disaster movie genre is one that seems to have exploited all the potential that it has and is no longer able to shock and amaze audiences. This appears to be the case as well with San Andreas.  Based on this trailer, I see this movie as less of a captivating story and more of a showcase for visual effects, which themselves look generic and uninteresting.  Basically San Andreas looks like leftovers from a Roland Emmerich movie, and even a full helping of Roland Emmerich can be an unsatisfying meal.  The only thing that could potentially save this film could be a charismatic performance from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but even he looks like he’s phoning it in based on what’s shown in the trailer.  The disaster genre needs fresh new ideas, and sadly San Andreas just seems to be more of the same.


Remakes have dominated the filmmaking landscape for several years now, and very few of them have actually been any good.  In fact, not a single one has ever managed to top it’s predecessor.  This summer, we get a remake of what is arguably one of the best and most iconic horror movies of the last 40 years.  The original Tobe Hooper directed and Steven Spielberg produced film is a classic and still holds up today, which makes this remake all the more unnecessary.  And by the look of the trailer, this remake is doing exactly what all bad horror remakes have done, which is remove all of the great creepy atmosphere from the original and replace it with cheap jump scares.  My hope is that no one buys into this cash-in of a remake and instead I hope audiences seek out the original classic, which I guarantee you is far scarier than anything that is going to appear in this version.

So, this is my look at the coming attractions for the Summer of 2015. Hopefully there will be a lot of worthwhile entertainment found in the biggest releases of the Summer and hopefully some genuine surprises as well.  But, even though there are the big tent pole releases dominating the cinemas in the weeks ahead, there’s also a good helping of counter-programming out there from independent cinema as well.  Other worthwhile upcoming movies like Cameron Crowe’s Aloha and the Ian McKellan headlined Mr. Holmes also open quietly this Summer amongst the big dogs.  No matter what, there will always be something worth watching during this summer season, because Hollywood puts so much value into these next couple months.  Naturally, the superhero genre will  dominate the box office like it has in years past, but whoever sits on the throne by season’s end is certainly up in the air.  I for one will keep up with all the big releases of the year, with reviews and perspectives coming like they do every week.   Hopefully, this preview has helped you plot out your “to watch” list for the summer and it will be interesting to see how well these movies match our expectations, good or bad.

Off the Page – The Road

Road 1


There are few if any American authors today who are as influential as Cormac McCarthy. And even fewer are as popular with Hollywood filmmakers at this moment.  The now octogenarian writer has been actively writing since the 1960’s and has published a series of highly acclaimed novels over the years. A few of these have especially drawn the attention of some high profile film producers, who are drawn to McCarthy’s very unique sense of storytelling.  Working mostly in the Western and Southern Gothic genres, McCarthy’s novels often deal with the loss of the American frontier and the plights of the isolated rugged individual dealing with the growing modern world. His novels are often bleak and are not usually known for having a happy ending.  In fact, another characteristic of McCarthy’s writing is the lack of traditional beginnings and endings, as if the story just plops the reader into the middle of an already unravelling plot.  But, what really makes McCarthy a favorite amongst readers are his vivid characterizations.  McCarthy says more about his characters in just a few short words than more authors do in an entire chapter, and he has created some of the most interesting character dynamics we’ve seen in modern literature.  While his stories are grim, they are nevertheless captivating, and they have rightly helped underline the definition of the modern Western narrative. And of course, when your novels are popular in print, they are almost certainly destined for a trip to the big screen, whether or not that’s a good thing.

Luckily for Mr. McCarthay, his novels have largely been treated respectfully when adapted for the cinema. Actor and director Billy Bob Thornton was the first to take a chance on a McCarthay novel, with his movie version All the Pretty Horses (2000), which tackled the first in what has been dubbed McCarthay’s “Border Trilogy.”  Unfortunately, despite critical acclaim, the movie didn’t do well enough at the box office to justify completing the rest of the trilogy, and the remaining novels, The Crossing (1994) and Cities of the Plain (1998) have yet to be adapted.   But in a few short years, Cormac McCarthy would explode onto the Hollywood landscape in a big way when the Coen Brothers decided to bring his 2005 five novel No Country for Old Men to the big screen. The end result was a huge success, performing well at the box office and winning all sorts of awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture of 2007.  Suddenly the author was in high demand, and the rights to his next novel was quickly scooped up. Surprisingly, McCarthay’s follow up was a complete departure in terms of genre. Instead of staying true to his Western roots, McCarthay decided to tackle a post-apocalyptic world with his 2006 novel, The Road.  But even despite this change in genre, McCarthay’s writing style remained true to form and The Road became the author’s most successful book to date, winning even the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.  To bring the novel to life, rights holders The Weinstein Company tapped Australian filmmaker John Hillcoat, whose 2005 film The Proposition became an instant modern Western classic for many filmgoers, and a perfect indication to what was needed to bring The Road to life.  While hype was strong for the movie, the end result was sadly mixed, and in this Off the Page article, I will explain how even well intentioned and faithful book adaptations can go astray.

Road 2

“God never spoke.”

One of the biggest challenges in adapting a novel is to decide what needs to make it into the film, and what can be left out.   This is not as difficult as you would think. Oftentimes, it’s just about finding the central element and focusing on it to drive the story along, whether it be a character or a McGuffin device.  Other things like subplots and character details can often be minimalized without damaging the effectiveness of the story.  McCarthay’s The Road is especially challenging in this sense, because of the way McCarthay writes. His novel is told entirely from the perspective of two characters, a father referred to only as The Man (played in the movie by Viggo Mortensen) and his son known only as The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee).  And telling the story only from their point of view limits an element that helps to make translations to the big screen easier for the filmmaker which is the perspective.  In The Road, we witness an account of a cataclysmic event on Earth, but without the why and the where.  McCarthay never states what caused the sudden destruction of the planet’s environment (some readers theorize an asteroid strike or a supervolcano eruption), and his narrative is far more focused on the aftermath. But even still, McCarthay is scarce on details, with his writing style instead focused on the thoughts and actions of the present in these character’s lives.  This works amazingly well on the page, giving the reader a very “in the moment” reaction to the horrors that the characters encounter, but it also makes the transition all the more difficult.  A filmmaker needs to have a sense of place from the page in order to make it come alive for audiences.  When you have a writer who is purposefully vague in his descriptions, it tends to leave the filmmaker in an awkward position of trying to figure out what’s being seen and if that lives up to the author’s intent.

Now thankfully for John Hillcoat, the author is still present and has been helpful in the past consulting on adaptations of his work.  No doubt the visualization of The Road meets the author’s standards, but even still, McCarthay is not the only one who holds up high standards over the look of his settings. The enormous popularity of The Road has also made its readers especially judgmental about how the film should appear. The unfortunate by product of McCarthay’s intentionally vague sense of place is that it has opened up infinite possibilities in people’s minds about what the settings should look like.  The only consistencies throughout are images of vast expanses of fire-ravaged woodlands, open fields devoid of vegetation now covered in ash, ghost towns devoid of activity, and the final destination being a rocky, coastal beach against a tumultuous ocean.  McCarthay makes all these places memorably haunting, but they could also be located anywhere in the world.  I think the only certainty is that it’s set in the Western United States, or what’s left of it after the cataclysm.  When I read the novel for myself, I had the image in my mind that the characters were making their  way across my home state of Oregon, because most of what McCarthay describes coincides with a lot of the rural scenery that I’ve benergy familiar with growing up there, at least in a pristine and alive state (especially the coastline).  This was further reinforced by the movie, which indeed shot significant parts of the film on location in Oregon.  But, I’m sure other readers from other parts of the country imagined something entirely different, and probably closer to home, and this is the dilemma that director Hillcoat had to face.

Road 3

“I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive.”

I think the most mixed result of Hillcoat’s adaptation of the novel is with it’s visuals.  For the most part, the movie does a commendable job of bringing the novel to life, particularly in imagining the desolate wastelands that the characters must cross. But, it’s also here that the movie has some of its shortcomings, and that’s a result of its adherence to the source material. Cormac McCarthay only allows for certain details in his account of the settings, which limits what Hillcoat is able to visualize and it opens up the risky challenge of trying to expand upon the text.  Director Hillcoat works at his best with smaller settings that come vividly out of the book, like the macabre horror house of ranging cannibal hunters or the clean and sterile  safe haven of the storm shelter bunker.  But other moments feel out of place, or not quite up to the scale that was presented on the page.  Whether it was due to budget constraints or not, some of the larger set pieces feel surprisingly small in the movie.  A search through a shipwreck from the novel is almost non-existent in the film.  But most of this is the result of the risks you take when adapting a novel to the big screen.  Hillcoat may have had to lose some of the novel’s most memorable set pieces in service of the story, but it was in order to make the ones that matter most stand out all the more prominently.  Hillcoat also ran the risk of going too far with the visuals, making the world he was depicting feel too visually striking, which would have looked artificial as a result.  Thankfully, his gritty style was perfectly suited, as the movie feels very true to the overwhelmingly bleak landscape of the novel, with grey and brown tones dominating every frame.  Some of it is quite oppressive, giving the viewer a very realistic sense of what a dying world would look like.

Road 4

“Do you ever wish you would die?”

“No.  It’s foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.”

I think where John Hillcoat succeeded the most, and may have even bettered the novel, was in his depictions of the main characters. Translating Cormac McCarthay characters can be a daunting task, because they are entirely of their own world, and are so defined by the way McCarthay writes them. For an actor to make these characters work, they must have a good sense of Cormac McCarthay’s intentions for the characterizations are and make it feel natural. These characters often have to live by their own code and exist outside of the what society has set out for them. This is made even trickier by the thinly detailed characters we get in The Road, who exist without names or backstories.  Given these limitations, it’s incredible that the characters work as well as they do in the film.  The pain of everyday life that McCarthay describes in his book is read completely on the faces of the actors, and they manage to believably live in this gritty, dangerous world.  Viggo Mortensen feels especially right at place in this movie, given the method actor’s proclivity for delving completely into character. He pulls off the disheveled look much better than most actor’s would have.  Same with Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose character may have been even harder to believably portray based on how he is in the book. But what the movie does best is to bring the minor characters to life.  John Hilcoat manages to make these briefly seen characters work as highlights in the movie by casting them perfectly. The likes of great character actors such as Guy Pearce, Garret Dillahunt, and Michael K. Williams lend great support, while at the same time disappearing into the fabric of the film. But, even they are overshadowed by an unrecognizable Robert Duvall in a very memorable role as the Old Man. The already blessed cast is made even better by the presence of the legendary actor, who makes this minor character in the novel shine bright, and exceed what was on written on the page.

But, if there was a place where the translation suffered the most between the novel and the movie, it would be in the story itself.  And it’s primarily in how John Hillcoat tries to force the elegance and simplicity of McCarthay’s writing into the film’s screenplay.   The movie does fine with the script for the most part, but because McCarthay’s novel is defined by long dialogues between the Man and the Boy, it unfortunately leads to long talky exhanges in the movie, which kind of gets distracting after a while.  Thankfully, most of the things said are interesting, but you also get the sense that the less said between the two might carry more impact.  Silence is the best asset of the story, given the empiness of the setting, so trying to include a lot of dialogue works against the movie ultimately.  What also becomes problematic is Hillcoat’s attempts to depict the internal struggles going on in the character’s psyche, which is presented in the film through voice-over narration.  This is always one of the big cliches in movie adaptations of famous books, as the filmmakers try to spell out everything from the text that can’t be explained in the dialogue.  The unfortunate side effect is that it exposes the film’s literary roots and takes the viewer out of the immediacy of the setting.  I for one think the movie would have been better off trying to leave the McCarthay prose out, and instead let the story drive itself along.  There’s still enough said by the characters and events that take place that still bears the mark of the author’s style.  Sometimes it just becomes a product of a director trying to be faithful to a fault with the source material.  The movie isn’t spoiled by such decisions, but it does encumber what could have been a real game-changing film, and instead just makes it about average as film adaptations go.

Road 5


“You have to keep carrying the fire.”

While far from perfect, John Hillcoat’s film adaptation of The Road is still a commendable effort.  It’s perhaps that the reputation of the novel may have overwhelmed any possibility of this movie ever becoming just as popular.  Hillcoat is risk taker as a filmmaker, but perhaps he played things too safely with Cormac McCarthay’s masterpiece and made a movie that was passable but unremarkable.  Maybe separated from its place in time, the movie will eventually find an audience.  Hell, if something cataclysmic like this does happen, Hillcoat’s bleak vision of the apocalypse could even become more prophetic then the book. But even still, I’d say that if you want to see a perfect cinematic translation of McCarthay’s writing, you’re better off with No Country for Old Men. The Road, in the end, is a perfect example of taking a well intentioned approach to cinematic adaptation and coming up with something just ordinary.  It’s not a bad film, but it won’t replace the novel in anyone’s eyes either.  Most literary adaptations usually fall under this category, especially the ones that try to take on an acclaimed source.   Its the result of just giving enough thought into the adaptation of the material, while at the same time avoiding any risks.  Hillcoat took enough risks to avoid failure, but the movie just feels too encumbered by avenues not taken.  At least it did show the value of Cormac McCarthay’s status as a writer.  His library of work is still untapped for the most part, and is just waiting for capable filmmakers to bring them to life. The best thing that can be said about the movie The Road is that it took probably the riskiest of McCarthay novels and did something respectful with it, which hopefully sets a good standard for any other adaptations in the future.

The Hills Are Alive – The Sound of Music at 50 and Movie Musicals Today

Sound of Music

Tastes in movies and music can often interconnect, but at other times they very much diverge.  For many people, like myself, a love of music can even stem from a love of movies. And though there are many films that put the music front and center in a musical format, most of my favorite pieces of music actually originate from non-musical films, as evidenced in my recent top ten list.  But, there are some commendable movie musicals out there as well, and one that particularly stands out in my mind is the 1965 Best Picture winner, The Sound of Music.  Though it originated on the stage, I’m sure that for most people the first thing they think about when hear that title wI’ll be this film, and the image above is probably what pops into their minds immediately.  When it first released into theaters, it became an instant phenomenon at the box office, and is still one of the highest grossing movies of all time when adjusted for inflation. It helped to save the troubled 20th Century Fox studio after the financial ruin brought on by the Cleopatra (1963) production, and it has gone to perform well for many decades thereafter. Now in 2015, it has hit a major milestone by celebrating its 50th anniversary and once again the movie has been given a new focus, highlighting it for a new generation of film goers. And all this lavish attention is justly deserved. Though there could be an argument made for the brilliance of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain or 1961’s West Side Story (both great on their own), in my opinion The Sound of Music is the greatest movie musical of all time. For one thing, there is no other musical that uses the film medium to its highest advantage and what it also does is highlight what’s wrong with most movie musicals made today.

What makes The Sound of Music stand out so much from other musicals is in it’s grandiosity. When director Robert Wise set out to adapt this story from the stage to the screen, he made sure to remove all connections to the theater and bring the production outdoors. This was an unusual move at the time, because most productions of musicals stayed indoors within the studio soundstages, where all the elements such as lighting could be tightly controlled. In fact, some of the most famous musicals at the time like 1964’s My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins were both filmed entirely indoors on soundstages in Hollywood, despite their turn of the century English setting.  Wise, however, chose instead to film The Sound of Music on location in Salzburg, Austria; the authentic setting of the real life story of the Von Trapp family.  By doing so, he made this movie look and feel bigger than any other musical adaptation up to that point. The movie has a free and open feel to it, and any notion that this story originated on the stage is quickly forgotten.  Indeed this was a story that needed the epic treatment.  It just makes sense for actress Julie Andrews to be out in the backdrop of the majestic Alps when she sings the song “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music.”  Robert Wise probably saw the value in shooting on location when he shot the opening number for West Side Story on the streets of New York City.  Though it was just for that opening sequence, I’m sure that Wise realized then that to make a movie musical stand out, you need to shoot it like an epic and less like a stage production, which is a lesson put into brilliant practice in Sound of Music.  Because of this, Music is both groundbreaking as well as entertaining, and is a benchmark in the whole history of movie musicals.

Musicals have been a part of cinema ever since the introduction of sound to the medium. In fact, it could be said that the very first “talkie,” 1927’s The Jazz Singer, is a musical, considering all the sound parts are the musical numbers sung by star Al Jolson.  When talking pictures became the norm, musicals were often the most popular genre for audiences.  No other genre showed off the new technology better, so it was just natural for the studios to exploit it as much as possible. The musical was such a popular medium at the time that even the Oscars took notice, naming 1929’s The Broadway Melody as their second ever choice for Best Picture.   During the Depression years, the musicals became an escape for a disenfranciesed populace, with stars like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple as the highlights of the period.  The war years saw a downturn of the movie musical, as the medium became more a propaganda tool, with movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).  The Golden Age of the epics in 50’s and 60’s helped to lay the groundwork for the grand reemergence of the movie musical in this era and it reached its zenith with The Sound of Music, though many other widescreen productions like Oklahoma (1957), The King and I (1956) and of course My Fair Lady were also standouts.  That era, however, came to an end after high profile flops like Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Hello Dolly (1969) crashed hard due to changing tastes in the market. The 70’s brought us more revisionist takes on the musical format with movies like Cabaret (1972) and Grease (1978).  And then came a twenty year period in the 80’s and 90’s when the movie musical all but disappeared, being relegated mostly to animated films.

It wasn’t until 2001’s Moulin Rouge, directed by Baz Luhrrman, that the movie musical came back in a big way.  Now, it’s not only common to see musicals on the big screen today, but most of them actually are profitable.  The downside of this however is that even though the genre has seen a resurgence, most of the newer adaptations are not quite up to the standards of their predecessors. There have been a couple standouts, but their success usually is bookended by a lot of copycats and wannabes. Case in point, the success of 2002’s Chicago.  The movie adaptation of the long running Broadway musical cemented the return of the musical genre to the big screen and became the first musical since 1968’s Oliver to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  But, the success of that movie led to the start of many other likeminded productions that aspire to be like Chicago, but fall well short.  This is most evident in splashy productions of Broadway musicals that try to recapture Chicago’s disjointed and gritty atmosphere in contrast to what the musical actually requires in order to shine on the screen and fails; seen clearly in awful adaptations like 2005’s Rent or 2009’s Nine. Although it is nice to see the technique of location shooting take hold in the musical genre since The Sound of Music, it has not matched the grandiosity and visual flair that that classic managed to capture.  Stylistically, something has been lost over the years, and the foundation we have right now is built less around the wow factor that the big screen can give and more around how well the movie plays on the TV screen in the confines of home entertainment, of which Chicago managed to fulfill well enough.

Though some musicals do alright with a smaller scale, I do think that there is something lost in this new trend when translating a musical to the cinema.  In particular, I think that some of the epic grandeur has been lost over the years, and that’s particularly evident in musical adaptations that call for epic visuals.  For example, the big screen adaptation of the hit Broadway show Les Miserables (2012).  Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel, Les Miz (as it is most often called) is widely considered to be the grandest, and most epic musical ever put on the stage, becoming one of the most popular stage musicals since its 1987 premiere.  Given that reputation, you would expect this musical to be given the lavish Sound of Music treatment, shot on location in France with grand, sweeping widescreen visuals.  But, when Universal Stuidos put the movie into production, they chose to give it to director Tom Hooper, a man who is capable at directing period films ( like his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech) but on a much smaller scale. This unfortunately led to the exact opposite approach to visualizing the musical than what it should have been.  Instead of using epic scale shots in eye-catching locations, Hooper instead shot the film mostly in tight and constrained close-ups of the actors without drawing attention to the period details which are important to the story.  It in turn minimaizes a story that should have otherwise have been grand in scale. While not entirely a disaster, I do see Les Miz as a missed opportunity, where the visual presentation is a letdown and one where it was the director who was ultimately miscast.  It makes me wonder what would have happened if the production was given over to a more visual director on the level of say Ridley Scott. At least he would’ve gotten a more interesting performance out of Russell Crowe in the film.

But aside from diminishing returns in the visual department, there is also the change in how movie musicals are staged that unfortunately has distanced itself from some of the cinematic magic from the Sound of Music days.  In particular, the influence of MTV and its music videos has produced a negative impact on the genre. While most musical numbers flowed naturally as part of the storyline in the past, today those same numbers contrast sharply with the rest of the film because they are staged and edited in the music video fashion.  It might be as a result of how the filmmakers have been influenced by this era of music videos we’ve seen in recent years, and indeed many filmmakers today got their start directing music videos.  But, most of them should understand that what works in a 7 minute video format won’t translate as well into a two hour long narrative. This is most jarring in what has become known as the “jukebox” musical, where pop songs are forced into a narrative in place of original content.  With pop songs combined with music video filmmaking, you get movie musicals that don’t stand well enough on their own as a narrative, and more or less just become prententious exercises in editing to music; like with 2007’s Across the Universe or 2008’s Mamma Mia.  But what can be even worse is when a production takes an already established musical and completely changes the purpose and meaning while only cherry-picking the songs they want to appeal to what they think modern audiences like. This happened last year with the disastrous remake of Annie, where most of the songs and original book were jettisoned in favor of a “modern” rewrite that just reuses only the popular songs without the context. Essentially, they turned what was an already well-established musical, and turned it into a “jukebox” musical for their own underwhelming narrative.  This is a particularly negative aspect of this new, music video infused era of movie musicals.

That’s not to say that the genre is devoid of any good examples from recent years. Sometimes it just all comes down to having the right team and vision in place. I for one saw the 2007 adaptation of Sweeny Todd to be a great success. For a film adaptation of a musical based around the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, you needed a filmmaker who could capture the Gothic nature of that story perfectly while still maintaining the musical’s macabre sense of humor; and no one was better suited for the job than Tim Burton. Burton not only gave the film the Gothic look that it needed, but he also did a good job of restraining himself in the production as well. It doesn’t go too over the top, but still feels cinematic enough to help lift the material to work on the big screen. Another great film adaptation of a Broadway musical in recent years was 2006’s Dreamgirls.  While the musical is very pop music infused, it’s meant to be that way by design, chronicling the rise of Motown style music in American culture during the 60’s and 70’s. In adapting the musical for the big screen, director Bill Condon took the exact right approach, shooting the musical in the same way you would make a biopic; an approach that compliments the story and the music perfectly and doesn’t feel unnatural.  In addition, both of these musicals also benefited from casting actors who could actually hold a tune, with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter doing justice to Sondheim’s complicated melodies, and Beyoncé and Jamie Foxx bringing a lot of Motown soul into their selective songs.  A well matched vision and a capable cast makes all the difference in the end.  Other times you’ll just end up with movies like The Phantom of the Opera (2004) which has the right director, but the wrong cast, or Into the Woods (2014) with the right cast but wrong director. Or Les Miserables, where everything is wrong.

Despite all the problems that have plagued movie musicals in recent years, it has thankfully not diminished the power that The Sound of Music still holds.  And amazingly, 50 years later the movie still remains timeless.  Julie Andrews singing voice is still out-of-this-world and her performance is perfectly balanced with Christopher Plummer’s exceptionally grounded work as Captain Von Trapp. But the real star is Robert Wise’s direction, which takes most of the production out into the real world and shows off the stunning Salzburg locations in all its widescreen glory. I may not be a musical fan, but I am a fan of epic movies, and The Sound of Music fits the definition of the word “epic” in every single frame.  My hope is that this movie continues to remain influential in the musical genre.  For one thing, I’d like to see a return to this kind of epic filmmaking in musicals and a departure away from the MTV influence that we see mostly used today.  The phrase “they don’t make them like they used to,” could easily apply to the musicals of The Sound of Music’s era, and I think it’s about time that the movie musical could use a refresher.  A lot can be improved upon, but when the musical genre works on the big screen, it can become the highest form of cinematic art, and The Sound of Music will always continue to stand as one of its absolute masterpieces.

Furious 7 – Review

Furious 7

There has been a long history of movies centered around fast and powerful cars. Going back to the Rebel Without a Cause (1955) days, and following through to the heyday of the 1970’s with great vehicle chases in The French Connection (1971) and Bullitt (1968), audiences have always loved seeing big stars having fun in big cars. Specifically, cars have had a long association with depictions of masculinity on film, having the vehicles themselves work as an extension of the male characters strength and confidence, or perhaps an indicator of their insecurity depending on how much you read into it.  This has been especially true with many action film s in recent years, which has usually come to feature a car chase or two at some point in their running times. The resulting trend has been commonly referred to as the “dick flick,” which is a twist on the phrase associated with films that cater to the female demographic.  While “chick flicks” are mostly sweet natured and romantic, “dick flicks” tend to be aggressive and unsubtle, and like most other film types that cater to a specific audience, you get a few good entries as well as a whole lot of trash.  Just as “chick flicks” has its Bride Wars (2009), the “dick flick” has its Transformers (2007).  But, even with all the garbage out there, some audience pandering films do hit their mark and can even lift the genre as a whole for the better.  That has been true, for the most part, for the Fast and the Furious franchise, which has performed consistently well since its debut fourteen years ago in 2001. Though by no means one of the greatest franchises in history, the series has built momentum in recent installments which is unheard of for a long running franchise. And this year, it again reasserts its dominance as a franchise with its seventh entry, Furious 7.

The Fast and the Furious is not the kind of movie that you could see turning into a long lasting franchise.  It was entertaining alright, but not particularly groundbreaking. Still, it spawned a sequel, which underperformed and should of killed the franchise off but didn’t. A spinoff/sequel followed and then a reboot with the original cast came shortly after. It wasn’t until the fifth entry, Fast Five (2011) that the franchise started to find it’s mojo and become a megahit. That has continued through Fast & Furious 6 (2013) and now again with Furious 7, which I’m certain wil go on to huge box office numbers. It’s stamina for a franchise that is unheard of. Usually by the time a franchise is seven films in, it’s run out of fuel (pun intended). But, Fast and the Furious is thriving right now and that’s largely due to a reimagining of its basic premise and embracing the absurdity of the genre. The first couple films stuck mostly to genre norms and were about as basic as you could expect.  The last three films have dropped all logical expectations and have become increasingly over the top. Probably taking a cue from the James Bond franchise, which ironically itself is becoming more grounded, Fast and the Furious is embracing the absurdity of its premise and exploiting it for all its worth. And as a result, it’s made the franchise a lot more fun and less generic. The car chases are no longer the run of the mill kind of stuff; now they included machine guns, explosions and martial art smack downs.  But, even with all the extra bits added to the mix these last few entries, does this particular movie still work on it’s own.

The story pretty much picks up where the last one left off. Hot rod driving mercenaries Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Connor (the late Paul Walker) are settling back into a normal existence after their ordeal in London from the sixth movie. O’Connor is trying to live a normal family life with his wife (Jordana Brewster) and son, while Dominic is helping his girlfriend Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) readjust to normal life after loosing her memory. Unfortunately, the problems of London have come home as they brother of Fast & Furious 6 villain Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), seeks revenge against Dominic and his crew. Government contact and Dominic’s ally Agent Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) becomes the first victim, showing that Deckard is a menace that they need to take seriously. Meanwhile, Dominic and his team are recruited by high level CIA commander Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) to help rescue an expert hacker held hostage by Aftican warlord Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) who seeks to retrieve a highly prized hacking software called God’s Eye. What follows is a globe-trotting mission that of course involves the use of some amazing cars.  Along for the ride are the rest of Dominic’s team which includes tech expert Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), wisecracking Roman (Tyrese Gibson) as well as Letty, who slowly remembers her life with the team the further into the mission they go.

Truth be told, I have not seen every film in the franchise, so I don’t know exactly how to place this new film within the context of the series as a whole. I can only judge it based on it’s strengths as a standalone movie. I will say this, it was a vast improvement over the last Fast and the Furious movie I saw, which was the 2009 reboot Fast & Furious.  Sadly, I have not seen the last two movies, which I’ve heard are the best, though I’ve seen bits of those two which indicate to me the over-the-top direction that the franchise has taken. This film, however, was mostly a mixed bag. Was it bad?  Absolutely not.  But, it didn’t grab a hold of me either. For me, it was a lot of stop and go while watching the flick. Whenever it was in an action sequence, which are pretty spectacular, the movie was very enjoyable.  But all the plot and dialogue scenes in between dragged for me. It’s something that I still don’t think the franchise has managed to figure out, but then again, I’m only working with an incomplete knowledge of the franchise as a whole.  For this movie at least, the slow parts still felt really slow, and I was just left waiting for the action to start up again. Now, I know that this isn’t Shakespeare and that more of the focus is meant to be on the benchmark action sequences.  But at the same time, I want to be invested in the characters story, and here it’s just filler until the next action scene starts. There are way too many scenes of the characters all sitting around discussing what they are going to do and not enough character development that matters. Seriously, half of the movie is made up of the cast just sitting around in meetings. Character moments are brief and well appreciated, but when the movie allows for too much of its runtime dedicated to planning out each action scene, then it seriously drags down what could have otherwise have been a wall to wall great thriller.

But, I credit that more to a problem with the script than with the direction itself. The Fast and the Furious franchise has long been shepparded by film director Justin Lin, who is credited for having reimagined the series as the over-the-top, spy caper behemoth that it is now. But, Lin sits this one out possibly due to conflicting projects (he’s been tapped as J.J. Abrams replacement for the Star Trek franchise), and directorial duties have been given to horror filmmaker James Wan.   Wan is best known as the creator of the Saw franchise and has recently garnered critical praise for his horror hit The Conjuring (2013). Furious 7 marks his first foray into action movies and for the most part, he makes the transition well. There’s a lot of flashy direction in the action sequences, as well as in the few party sequences throughout the film, which feels right at place in this franchise. I’m especially impressed with his sense of scale, because many of the sequences show a great sense of awe-inspiring visuals that you don’t normally get from a first time action director. One particular sequence involves Diesel and Walker’s characters escaping a high rise building by speeding their car out the window and jumping it into the next building. It’s a spectacular sequence that really displays Wan’s abilities to keep the grandioseness and absurdity of the franchise in tact. I also like the fact that Wan holds the camera still when he needs to, and doesn’t try to show off his direction in some of the quieter scenes; something that a lot of young shaky camera-loving filmmakers unfortunately don’t often do. Even though the story falters, the direction still stays strong and I give parent studio Universal for handing the reins over to a director who could still deliver a solid film without shattering the foundations that the franchise was built on.

Another bright spot of the film is the cast. While most of their acting abilities are a mixed bag (because some are better actors than others), they all still remain likable and are worth following along. Vin Diesel once again proves to be a valuable presence, and it’s understandable because this franchise is his bread and butter.  Other returning cast members also offer some solid support, even if the script leaves them with some rather clunky dialogue. Dwayne Johnson is especially entertaining as Agent Hobbs, and he manages to go from being chill inducing intimidating one moment to enormously charming in the next with great ease. Also, wait until you see how he takes out a predator drone in this movie single handedly. Newcomers are also welcome as well, especially action movie icons Jason Statham and Kurt Russell. While Russell doesn’t have much to do in the movie, it still is a treat to see the one-time Snake Plissken pull out his gun and start taking shots at bad guys again. Even better is Statham, who makes a very effective villain here, even if he pops out of nowhere sometimes. His showdown with Diesel at the very end is especially worth the wait and is probably a fight that action movie fans have long waited for.  I also give the movie credit for making the cars characters themselves.  There’s a special bit of nostalgia in the movie when you see Diesel take his original “muscle car” out of the garage for “one last drive” in the film’s climatic scene.  Even more spectacular is what he ends up doing with the car in final showdown. While there’s lots to like about the action sequences on their own, the cast involved does their best to make the human element work as well as it can and indeed a veteran crew like this does deliver in the end.

But, what ultimately is going to set this movie apart from the rest of the franchise, and what is ultimately the movie’s greatest triumph was the way that it dealt with the passing of one of its key cast members. The tragic death of actor Paul Walker in a car accident happened in the middle of this movie’s production, leaving what would end up being his final film performance incomplete. But instead of cutting him out of the movie altogether, the filmmakers worked around the issue and actually gave Walker a respectful send off that’s worthy of his memory. Amazingly, they managed to include Walker in every sequence of the film with the help of body doubles (Walker’s own real-life brothers) as well as some pretty seamless CGI facial replacement. Honestly, I couldn’t tell which scenes included the real Paul Walker or his stand-ins; its that good.   And while this helps to complete the work that Walker started, the movie also does it in a respectful way, letting the character be an active contributor to the plot rather than be sidelined in a rewrite.  The finale, however, is where the filmmakers should be absolutely praised.  They send off the character as well as honor the actor in a beautifully done memorial scene. I won’t spoil it for you, but the last five minutes of this movie didn’t leave a dry eye in the theater. Something you never thought you’d see a Fast and the Furious ever do, but it absolutely happened. Sometimes it’s tricky to work around an actor’s performance after they’ve died during production, but this is one example of how to do it respectfully and with a lot of grace. And as a result, it is by far the best thing about this movie.

So, is Furious 7 something I’d recommend.  Only if you’re a fan of the franchise itself, of which there seems to be increasingly more of. I for one thought it was just okay. Though I do admire the work put into the spectacular action sequences, the overall plot was just too inconsistent for me to really love this film. That being said, as a representation of the “dick flick” genre, it certainly could have been a whole lot worse. I do like the goofiness that the franchise has seemed to embrace and the fact that the filmmakers actually made an effort to make the action scenes comprehendable.  Yes, there’s some sequences that have a very music video flashiness to them, but it’s supported by well executed and visually stable action and dialogue sequences as well. The movie also does a commendable job of honoring a fallen comrade with a touching tribute, which could have been clumsily handled in the wrong hands. Overall, this won’t be a stumbling block for the increasingly popular Fast and the Furious franchise.  In fact, it could even be their biggest hit yet. But, I’ll have to watch all the movies together in order to see where it places in the franchise as a whole. As a standalone flick, it was amusing but unspectacular. If you love these movies, then I’m sure you’ll love this one too. In the end, it’s harmless entertainment that leaves audiences happy instead of assaulted with crude imagery and gratuitous action. And that’s a good a good mark to leave behind in this genre.

Rating: 6.5/10