Familiar but fresh. If you are a Hollywood executive you probably say these words a hundred times a day. In pitch meetings and story conferences those f-words are a mantra in a town that never met an idea it couldn’t recycle.
Convinced that audiences will only respond to variations on brands they are already familiar with, this summer the studios are offering freshened up versions of The Mummy, Amityville Horror and Spider-Man among others. Hollywood, the Nation’s Blue Bin. The biggest and loudest of the bunch will likely be Transformers: The Last Knight, the fifth film based on the toys created by Hasbro and Tomy.
Once again directed by Michael Bay, the movie reportedly cost a budget-busting $260 million. The special effects-laden story of humans vs. Transformers and a mysterious artifact is on track to make multi-millions domestically and worldwide, one of the few aging tentpole films to beat audience blockbuster fatigue.
It’s familiar but fresh.
In the familiar department you have Mark Wahlberg as star, the return of heroic Autobot leader Optimus Prime and director Bay’s trademarked bombast. He makes action orgy movies for audiences who crave a rumbling theatre seat. His Transformers films engage three of the five senses — only smell and taste are exempt — that leave viewers with scorched eyes and ringing ears and his audience eat up his gladiatorial sense of spectacle.
Freshening up the story is the addition of screen legend (and Marvel Cinematic Universe actor) Anthony Hopkins as an astronomer and historian knowledgeable in the history of the Transformers on Earth and a healthy dose of Arthurian myth woven into the story.
It sounds like the perfect mix of familiar and fresh but there are no guarantees in the blockbuster business. Recently, despite the presence of Tom Cruise and two — count ’em, two — classic horror characters, critics, audiences and the box office met The Mummy with a collective yawn. Although it has done better business overseas one pundit suggested the movie’s poor showing “stems from being an antiquated property paired with an antiquated star.”
Now there’s a statement that’ll send the collective shivers that were so sorely missing from The Mummy down the backs of studio executives. Perhaps the revamped story of an ancient malevolent evil wasn’t familiar or fresh enough for audiences. Or perhaps it’s because potential moviegoers sensed the cynicism in The Mummy. Bundling Cruise and legendary monsters in the movie with a few laughs, some typical blockbuster action and a CGI climax that wouldn’t be out of place in an Avengers movie, felt like a carefully constructed exercise in marketing first and a movie second.
The blockbuster business is a big one with high risk and reward. It didn’t work for Cruise and Co.’s The Mummy or Dwayne Johnson’s raunchy Baywatch reboot, but the Autobots have been good producers for Hollywood. Transformers: The Last Knight, wedged into a summer packed to the gills with big-budget blockbusters, likely won’t make the coin of its predecessors but Michael Bay doesn’t seem worried.
Although The Last Knight will be his last Transformers as director, he says the film lays the groundwork and backstory for 14 upcoming movies. At the rate they’re going, that’s almost 30 more years of Bumblebee and Megatron. That’s a lot of bot battles, and a lot of freshening up.
It’s only June but this year Nathan Fillion already knows what his nieces and nephews are getting for Christmas.
“I have enough little kids in my life and they are all getting Sterling Hot Wheels for Christmas,” laughs the Cars 3 star.
In his second gig for Pixar — he also appeared in Monsters University — the Edmonton-born star lends his voice to the character of Sterling, a slick-talking coupe and CEO who becomes the new sponsor of racer Lightning McQueen.
“I had some of the classic toys,” he says. “The G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu Grip. The Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots and Smash Up Derby. Do you remember those? You’d pull the cord and wheel them at each other. Those are the fantastic toys I remember having as a kid. Otherwise it was Lego or a stick and your imagination. But to go from saying, ‘Isn’t this a neat little Hot Wheels,’ to actually being one? I can’t even.”
Fillion came to Cars 3 fresh off of 173 episodes playing mystery novelist Richard Castle on the crime comedy series Castle.
“As far as taking on a new character goes, the only danger is falling into any habits,” he says of leaving Richard Castle behind. “When you do a character for eight years there are things you will start to do habitually. I think a little more focus is appropriate to make sure you are not recycling anything from your last gig.”
The actor honed his skills on the daytime soap opera One Life to Live. For three years he was Joey Buchanan, the son of original protagonists Joe Riley Sr. and Victoria Lord. His work on that show earned him a 1996 Daytime Emmy Award nomination.
“It wasn’t like one show a week,” he says, “it was every day. We didn’t do cue cards. I’ve heard rumours of cue cards. Even the older, older guys did not use cue cards. They were seasoned pros. Anyone who talks down on daytime (television), and I never will, has never done daytime. It is a mountain of work. It is 40 pages a day.
“It’s a muscle. It’s like you start doing pushups. If you do pushups every day for three years by the end of it you can do a lot of pushups. I’m pretty sure by the end of three years that memorizing, that taking of the words and letting them live, was a muscle I flexed pretty well.”
Despite guest spots on popular shows like Modern Family, Big Bang Theory and Desperate Housewives, he will likely always be best loved for playing the hilarious anti-hero Captain Malcolm Reynolds on Joss Whedon’s short lived but influential futuristic space western Firefly.
“It was almost 15 years ago that show came out and people are still loving it,” he says, “and dressing up like the characters. I will be sad on the day they stop doing that. If anyone wants to name their kid after my character on that show the kid will have to say, ‘Yes, I was named after a character on that show.’ Then there is a chance that someone may still watch it and love it and still dress up like that guy and I’ll still be relevant and everybody will be happy. Especially me.”
No longer content to simply offer up an endless string of remakes, reboots and reimaginings Hollywood is now in the business of creating universes. Marvel and DC lead the pack, generating big box office with movies that mix-and-match their flagship characters in ongoing and connected stories. Now others are looking to get a piece of that action.
This weekend’s “The Mummy,” a self-described “action-adventure tentpole with horror elements,” is the foundation of Universal Pictures’ Dark Universe. The studio aims to create a cross-pollinated world were their brand name monsters, like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, are mixed and matched to infinity or at least as long as audiences will pay to see them.
The Mummy reinvents the story of ancient malevolence, presenting a new, female title character and adding Russell Crowe as Henry Jekyll, a doctor with a serum that unleashes his inner demons.
The idea of pairing up monsters is nothing new. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein saw The Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster cross paths with The Invisible Man and Freddy Krueger battled fellow horror icon Jason Voorhees in a Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street combo pack but another monster movie mash up beats everything that came before it.
The Monster Squad, a fun 1987 teenage horror comedy sees Count Dracula recruit a posse of monsters — Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon — to retrieve and destroy an ancient amulet that holds the key to controlling the balance of good and evil in the world. Trouble is, he didn’t count on a band of fifth graders (and one chain-smoking eighth grade greaser) who call themselves the Monster Squad, driving a stake through his plans.
The boys are a geeky group who wear “Stephen King Rules” T-shirts and debating important topics like, ‘Who is the coolest monster?’ and ‘Does The Wolf Man have the biggest nards?’
The Monster Squad, despite the salty language (the boys swear, no doubt courtesy of screenwriter Shane Black who also wrote more adult fare like Lethal Weapon), the refreshing lack of political correctness, the violence and the presence of nightmare-inducing monsters this is, above all, a kid’s film. The youngsters are the heroes and battle the monsters in ways that only kids can. A garlic pizza proves to be Dracula’s undoing, and in one classic scene The Wolf Man is felled by a well-placed kick to “the nards.”
Director Fred Dekker says he set out to make an exciting teen adventure movie, but may have been a bit ahead of his time. In the post–Buffy the Vampire Slayer world we live in the mix of kids, humor and horror seems normal, but in 1987 it didn’t click with audiences.
“I like to think that Monster Squad, in its own small way, says something about what it is to be a kid and to be afraid in the world,” says Dekker, “and discovering the need for heroism.”
“It took several years before the combination of young people in jeopardy in genre-horror situations like Buffy and Goosebumps and Harry Potter really became acceptable. The audience wasn’t ready for it in the ’80s. Sure there was The Lost Boys and The Goonies, but specifically the kind of monster-slayer approach wouldn’t be popular for another ten or fifteen years. So I like to think that we were a little ahead of the curve.”
David Soren calls Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, his adaptation of Dav Pilkey’s bestselling books for kids, subversive.
The animated film is the story of rambunctious fourth graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins (voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch). Best friends, they write, illustrate and sell homemade comics about their favourite character, Captain Underpants. “Most superheroes look like they’re flying around in their underwear,” they giggle. “This guy actually does.” They are also pranksters so often in trouble there are two chairs outside the principal’s office labelled, “Reserved for George” and “Reserved for Harold.”
Soren says that wild temperament “is one of the things that made the books successful and controversial at the same time. I’ve never personally understood the controversy, specifically in the case of the books. There is a rebellious spirit to those characters. They are not little angels and I think that is part of why kids love reading them.”
George and Harold’s principal, Mr. Krupp (voiced by Ed Helms), is a grumpy old man who hates comics, Christmas and kittens among other things, and has a plan to put an end to the pranks and annihilate their friendship.
David Soren was born in Toronto and raised in Hamilton.
“They’ve got a terrible principal,” Soren continues, “who is doing horrible things to their school, cancelling music and arts and putting an electronic door opening in his office instead. (It’s good to) stand up to that kind of authority, it deserves to be questioned.
“These days it is not a bad thing for kids in general to have their own voice and stand up for themselves and have rights. I always saw that as a really inspiring part of those books and a key to their success.
“I think of my son now. He’s in fourth grade and in the earlier grades there was a lot more creativity, a lot more play in the education and suddenly it gets a lot more regimented. It gets more like school and it is sort of frustrating to watch how that can be beaten out of kids. You want to protect that aspect of creativity.”
The Toronto-born, Hamilton-raised animator has worked in Los Angeles for 20 years, working on films like The Road to El Dorado, Chicken Run and Shrek, and writing and directing Turbo, the story of a snail who dreams of racing in the Indianapolis 500. It’s a resumé that suggests he’s hung onto his childlike creativity.
“I think it is something I never lost. You need a little bit of that nonconformist attitude when you are an artist, and making movies in general. Especially when you’re trying to get a point of view across. Movies are best when they have a point of view and if they get too watered down or become too generic they cease to have an identity anymore.”
There’s no question Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie has an identity. How many other movies feature a talking toilet or a musical Whoopee Cushion symphony?
“Obviously you can’t make a Captain Underpants movie without potty humour,” he says. “But we did hold ourselves to a very high standard. We would not go there unless it was truly very funny.”
When I compliment Soren on giving a character the wonderfully silly name Diarrheastein, he’s chuffed. “I will take that as a great compliment,” he laughs.
Topher Grace doesn’t need me to put words in his mouth, but in this one instance I’m going to.
I recently sat down with the former That ’70s Show star to talk about his new Netflix movie War Machine. Based on the Michael Hastings New York Times bestseller The Operators, it fictionalizes the real life career implosion of General Stanley McChrystal, Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan. An article in Rolling Stone that reported on the McChrystal’s disappointment with Obama and his policies undid the General’s distinguished career. In the film he is renamed Gen. Glen McMahon and played by Brad Pitt, who also produced the film.
“What I love so much about the film [director and writer David Michôd] made,” said Grace, “and it was in the script but I really felt it when I saw the film, is the emotional journey. That is so hard to get into a war movie. Anyone who is willing to watch it understands it on an emotional level, which is a much more effective way to communicate to the audience than just using facts.”
Here’s where I chime in. “I think that when you have a very specific story it can become universal because of the emotions,” I said. “None of us will find ourselves in that particular situation but all of us, at some time in our lives, will end up in a mess of some kind. It’s relatable.”
“That’s what I meant to say,” said Grace with a laugh. “Can you quote yourself and use that?”
Consider it done.
Grace plays Matt Little, McMahon’s civilian press adviser. He’s young, brash, and according to Grace, not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
“What is the definition of an idiot?” he asks. “Is it knowing you don’t know but still going ahead anyway? I don’t think it is, but that’s who he is.
“On the first day I popped my collar up and the military advisor said, ‘They don’t do that in the military.’ The director said, ‘No, no, no! He’s playing an idiot. He would totally have his collar popped up.’ He’s a civilian and he doesn’t even really care about the war going on.”
The thirty-eight-year-old actor says despite the story’s timely nature and the inclusion of a character based on recently disgraced National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, the film isn’t political.
“I want people to check their politics at the door and take the emotional ride of what it would feel like to be in that position.
“The really cool thing is that it is not an American telling the story. David is a great talent out of Australia and no matter what he brings a non-American POV. The fact that it can be that heightened in terms of humour at some points and so real when they are out on the battlefield is really great. He told me he wanted to make a war film before Brad’s company sent him the book but he couldn’t think of a way to do a war film that didn’t glorify war. This does not glorify war.”
It may not be political but Grace says it is timely.
“We made it in Obama’s America,” says the thirty-eight-year-old actor. “It’s crazy releasing it now. It is timelier than when we shot it. I haven’t been on a lot of projects that were like that.”
Alien: Covenant is the second instalment in the Alien prequel series and the sixth film in the franchise overall.
That’s a lot of facehugging and chestbursting.
Since the 1979 release of Alien, a film Roger Ebert called “an intergalactic haunted house thriller set inside a spaceship,” audiences have been fascinated with the sci fi / horror series.
The latest movie sees a new crew—including Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup and Danny McBride—on a mission to colonize planet Origae-6. Along the way they abandon their original course, choosing a closer, apparently inhabitable planet only to be met with terror and acid-spewing creatures.
Covenant is the third Alien movie directed by Ridley Scott. I once asked him what it was that kept him casting his eyes to the skies movie wise.
“The fantasy of space,” he said, “which is now also a reality, is a marvellous platform and a form of theatre. Honestly, almost anything goes.”
The freedom of the sci fi genre is a common theme among creators. Denis Villeneuve, whose sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, now titled Blade Runner 2049, comes out later this year, remembers how his mind was opened by his first exposure to the genre.
“At a very young age one of my aunts came home one night and she had brought two or three big cardboard boxes filled with magazines,” says Villeneuve. “Those magazines were all about sci fi. Those boxes changed my life because the amount of poetry and creativity among the guys that were drawing those comic strips. They were very strong storytellers. They were all like mad scientists playing with our brains.”
Alien: Covenant has only been in theatres for a few hours and Scott has already announced another sequel he plans on filming in the next fourteen months.
Until that one hits theatres what other sci fi films should we have a look at?
Vincenzo Natali, the director of episodes of television’s Westworld and Orphan Black and adventurous films like Cube and Splice has some suggestions. “I could mention 2001, Star Wars and The Matrix, but we’ve all been there. I think there are some very worthy science fiction films that aren’t so well known.”
First on his list is Stalker, from master director Andrei Tarkovsky.
“It’s about a zone in Russia that may have had some kind of alien visitation and is highly classified. There are very special people called stalkers who illegally enter the zone and can take you to a place where your wishes can come true. No other movie ever made is quite like it. It is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.”
Next up is The 10th Victim, a futuristic Marcello Mastroianni movie about a deadly televised game called The Big Hunt which becomes a replacement for all conflict on Earth, but at what cost? “An Italian film made in the ’60s but way ahead of its time,” he says. “It’s a satirical comedy, absolutely brilliantly made, filled with cool futuristic Italian design and it’s really funny. I cannot recommend it enough.”
Third is the animated La Planète Sauvage. “It takes place on a planet where humans are pets for a race of large aliens. It’s a kind of a Spartacus story against the aliens. Totally outrageous and very, very ’70s.”
Guy Ritchie’s films have entertained me for years but I’m afraid he didn’t find me very interesting.
The incident happened during my press day with Ritchie and Charlie Hunnam, the director and star of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. I first spoke with them for television. Hunnam answered my opening question about the film Excalibur, a precursor to their movie, enthusiastically. But I could feel Ritchie disengage. He sat back and went into autopilot, answering my questions by rote. The rest of the interview flew by in a flurry of quips and tossed off answers.
Half-an-hour later I sat with them again to do a longer interview for print.
“I’m glad we can make amends,” said Hunnam as I came in the room. “It seemed like you wanted to have a proper conversation and we were having a bit of a jolly up.”
The whole experience was an example of the yin and yang of movie promotion. The yin was Ritchie, an intense man who refers to the walking a red carpet as “a dog and pony show” before adding that’s not what he’s here for.
The yang is Hunnam, an engaging actor who said, “We don’t make these things to live on in obscurity, we make them with the hope that people will see them and this is one of the ways we can help manifest that.”
The duo have been all over the world talking to media people with perfectly coiffed hair and big smiles, answering the same questions on repeat. By the time I get them there’s nothing new to ask about their update of the Arthurian legend. But there is an unspoken contract between my interview subjects and me.
Whether it’s for television or for the paper you hold in your hands, the deal is the same. They say something interesting and I report it. They get publicity and I get a story that my audience will hopefully enjoy.
As Ritchie sat with his arms folded across his chest, I thought about our “contract” and the difference between the two men.
Despite his tabloid appeal — for a time the British press made a sport of reporting on him — Ritchie strikes me as a private person. He’s more interested in what he’ll be working on next than the film he spent years making and has now signed off on. Or perhaps it’s that, as a director, he’s used to being in control and in these situations he has to cede power to the interviewer.
“We both know why we’re doing it,” Ritchie says, “but the red carpet last night, I’ll tell you, I felt soulless after that. After ten minutes get me off there because it takes me hours to recover.”
Hunnam, the performer, is immediately warm and open. When Ritchie talks about losing patience on press days Hunnam jokes, “Guy Ritchie leaves the room and Johnny Nasty shows up.”
Luckily, Johnny Nasty never showed. By the end of our time together the ice broke, Ritchie’s arms unfolded and he smiled. I’m not sure what happened other than he seemed to warm up to me when we talked generally about film and not specifically about King Arthur.
We traded stories, discussed King Arthur, an actor’s connection to their director and not being imprisoned by fear. Maybe it was just me but for a moment it felt like we were talking over a beer in a bar and not fulfilling our respective contractual duties. It was, in his words, a little less of a dog and pony show.
“I feel more satisfied now,’ said Hunnam as I left and another press person walked into the room to repeat the process. “I really felt bad after the [television] interview [with you]. I thought, ‘Man, that’s a serious cat and we really just f–ed around for four minutes.’ I’m glad we got into some of the nitty-gritty.”
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens with a battle scene that would not be out of place in almost any other superhero movie.
The set-up has the Guardians — Peter Quill /Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) — working for the Sovereigns, a thin-skinned race of aliens who have hired the heroes to protect valuable batteries from an inter-dimensional monster.
The action is as wild and woolly as we’ve come to expect from these big CGI extravaganzas, but the thing that sets the scene apart from all other superhero movies is the sheer, unbridled joy brought to the screen by Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), a tree-like being too small to take part in the fight. Instead he blissfully dances throughout to Mr. Blue Sky, the lush, Beatles-esque ELO song that underscores the sequence.
The scene and the movie brim with the missing element of so many other big superhero movies — fun.
“That’s what we hoped to do,” says star Michael Rooker, “bring back the fun. It was fun as hell doing it.”
Rooker reprises his role as blue-skinned, red-finned mercenary Yondu. The former Walking Dead actor — he played Daryl’s older brother Merle Dixon — jokes that his normal look, his handsomely craggy face, is actually make-up, and the Blue Man Group style we see in the movie is the face he was born with. “It takes four or five hours to get this on,” he says, pulling at his cheek. “The real problem is getting the fin off.”
Yondu’s weapon of choice is a flying arrow made of special sound-sensitive metal he controls through whistling.
“Dude,” he says, “everyone is digging that weapon.” It’s the character’s trademark and Rooker laughs when remembering talking to director James Gunn about the role. “Man, I was glad I was able to whistle.”
“The first time I got to whistle I did the melodic whistle… I hypnotized one of the aliens and then I shot out a piercing whistle. Yondu has different whistles.”
One wild action sequence with Yondu’s deadly arrow and set to ’70s pop ditty Come a Little Bit Closer is a showstopper, an imaginatively staged set piece with a huge body count and just as many laughs.
“That whole sequence is very much like a western gun fight if you think about it,” Rooker says. “You go out, and jacket pulled back, methodical, not fast. It is a total tribute.”
In the scene he is accompanied by two computer-generated characters, Baby Groot and Rocket, a genetically engineered raccoon-based bounty hunter. Neither actually appeared on set while shooting, but Rooker says they were there in spirit.
“Because these movies use a lot of CGI they require your imagination to be fertile and open and ripe for seeding,” he says. “I’m like, ‘There is Baby Groot. He’s over there and he’s sopping wet…What have they done to him?’ I talk to them like they were any other two characters.”
Yondu may be a vicious, arrow-wielding mercenary but he’s also the film’s emotional core and James Gunn says people will be “surprised by Michael Rooker’s performance. He deserves an Academy Award nomination. No joke.”
What does Rooker think? “We’ll see about that bro. I’m up for anything.”
One day someone may write about Emma Watson without mentioning the Harry Potter franchise, but today is not that day. Few child stars have faced the glare of the spotlight as acutely as the core Potter cast and the fame that came along with playing Harry, Ron and Hermione will likely follow them around for as long as Potterheads roam the earth.
It’s not like they are crying over spilt potion, however. On screen Daniel Radcliffe takes on demanding roles that give him the chance to distance himself from Harry and, apparently, show his bum at every opportunity. Rupert Grint has kept a lower profile, starring in a few independent films and playing an upper-crust criminal on the television adaptation of Snatch.
Of the three Emma Watson has maintained the highest professional profile. Whether addressing the United Nations or starring opposite a heartbroken furry beast or accepting British GQ’s Woman of the Year Award she has rarely been far from view.
This weekend she follows up her biggest post-Potter hit, starring as Belle in the live action remake of Beauty and the Beast, with the high-tech thriller The Circle. Appearing opposite Tom Hanks she plays a young woman hired at The Circle, America’s most influential and possibly dangerous tech company.
She says, “I pick movies, not roles,” and has amassed a carefully curated IMDB page—including everything from This is the End’s axe wielding version of herself to Noah’s adopted daughter—designed to challenge an audience used to seeing her as Hermione and showcase strong and independent characters.
A year after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 she surprised fans by playing a wise-beyond-her years free spirit in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. “If you had told me that the first movie I was going to do coming out of Harry Potter was an American high school movie,” she told the Hollywood Reporter, “I would have laughed at you.”
Based on a popular junior adult novel, it uses one of the building blocks of teen drama—the friendless teen trying to navigate high school in his freshman year—but layers in equal amounts of teen angst and exuberance before the final class bell rings. Watson is terrific, avoiding the square-peg-in-a-round-hole clichés that could have dogged her character.
Her next starring role silenced Hermione comparisons forever. The Bling Ring plays like a Law & Order episode of The Hills. Based on actual events, it centers on a group of narcissistic Los Angeles teenagers who track the comings and goings of their favourite celebs on the internet. While one-named millennial stars like Paris, and Lindsay are out on the town the Ring “go shopping,” breaking into their homes, helping themselves to jewels, designer clothes and loose cash.
Watson’s performance nails the vapidity that made the robberies possible. Dead eyed, with a bored infliction on every word she mispronounces, her take on Nicki shows there’s more to her than being a wizard’s sidekick.
“I am aware I have a long way to go,” she told Elle UK. “I am not sure I deserve all the respect I get yet, but I’m working on it.”
The twenty-seven-year-old may have a long way to go, but one thing is for sure, if she continues to choose daring and exciting roles, she’s not going anywhere.