Movies

Comic-Con 2014: Feature Film Highlights

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P1130378The best party of the year arrived and it was one that fans wish would last just a little longer. After so many years of Hall H (which now arguably stands more for ‘hassles’), where major films are featured, I chose a different route last year, alternating between the hall’s mass-hysteria with subdued press conferences (Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”) and relaxed, artsy panels. Some of the stars attending included Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Harrison Ford, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Samuel L. Jackson, and many others.

This year I did a similar approach and it was proven to be leisurely enjoyable. As always, there are too many panels running concurrently, public and press events alike, so I had to make a decision to pick some and declined the rest.

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Here are some of the most memorable highlights:  

“Penguins of Madagascar” (November 26, 2014)

In attendance: co-directors Eric Dornell, Simon J. Smith and Tom McGrath, voice actors John Malkovich and Benedict Cumberbatch

P1130254Dreamworks Animation booked an overlong (for animation) hour and half slot of its animations, “Home, “Boo” and “Penguins of Madagascar,” with the latter being the most notable panel. Benedict Cumberbatch made his very first trek ever to Comic-Con, stomping for, of all things, an animation. While the movie offered plenty of laughter, it’s clear that most of the audience were enthusiastic for Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch was attracted to the project because he wanted to do something different and this made him laugh. He joked about working undercover as a wolf in the Yellowstone National Park to prepare for the role, and then he realized the other two wolves were Christian Bale and Daniel Day-Lewis. Here he plays a smooth-talking wolf who recruits the penguins to get information and are on the run from John Malkovich’s geneticist-octopus. This action-packed animation takes what typically are sidekicks, penguins, makes them cool, and has them involved in spy adventures across the globe.

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The Giver” (August 15, 2014)

In attendance: author Lois Lowry, producer Nikki Silver, actors Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites and Odeya Rush P1130283

Fans of YA dystopian movies,” Divergent” and “The Hunger Games“), may find a welcome addition in “The Giver.” Based on a book written by Lois Lowry, the story tells a future society without free will or emotions. A society built after the ruins that is governed with iron-fisted precision – no inequality, no winner or loser. Every morning people take their morning injections, which suppresses their emotions. When an intelligent and courageous teenage boy receives memories of the past and the real world, he realizes that there’s something more to life, and being human. He stands up for what he believes in and it makes him a target. There’s a struggle between the political leader and spiritual leader about what is right and how to protect children from suffering.

Lowry was asked about a change in the characters’ ages, from 12 in the book to 16 in the movie, but she didn’t see a problem with it. She mentioned the similarity in traits; young, curious and intelligent. Jeff Bridges wanted to bring in the story to the big screen for nearly two decades and direct his own father to play the giver, but he’s always stuck in the financing stage due to the controversies surrounding the story.

The movie promises montages of memories, an emotion-filled experience of what it means to be alive. There’s richness that arises out of pain as humans, such as art, music, literature.

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Paramount Studios sneaked in brief presentations: “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water” and time-travel flicks, “Project Almanac” and “Hot Tub Machine 2. It was a rush hour stretched with larger blocks for “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “Interstellar.”

Aside from the panels, a fanfare of the day was The Rock. Dwayne Johnson walked through the aisles, rock star style, amidst blaring rock music and blazing fire onscreen, promoting “Hercules,” which opened last week. He bought three theaters and was going to tweet at 5 p.m. that day to invite fans to watch the movie, first-come first-served, free of charge. With people cheering and leaping to their feet, whipping out smartphones and cameras, it’s a clever move to generate buzz and boost showing.

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“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (August 8, 2014)

In attendance: creator Kevin Eastman, director Jonathan Liebsman, producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, stars Megan Fox and Will Arnett

No one could have expected the success and staying power of these 30-year “heroes in a half shell.” The audience saw black-and-white sketches, photos and clips from its early years before TMNT became mainstream. An extended reel showed hostage-taking, storming and release taken place in an underground subway station. Megan Fox’ reporter character gets in over her head when she discovers the identity of these heroes and meets their rat leader. The final footage showed nonstop action with a truck careening out of control and sliding down snow mountains. There’s a lot more cheese here than the standard superhero fare.

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Interstellar”(November 7, 2014)

In attendance: director Christopher Nolan, star Matthew McConaughey P1130324

The most anticipated sci-fi film of the year got the biggest applause of the day with surprise appearances from its visionary director, Christopher Nolan (“Batman” trilogy,” “Inception”) and newly crowned Academy Award winner, Matthew McConaughey.

McConaughey took center stage first (and yes, he delightfully quipped, “Alright, alright, alright,” after some cajoling from fans), starting off with the story on how he became involved with the film. He flew in to meet with Christopher Nolan for three hours and talked about everything except the movie. He was eventually offered the role.

McConaughey divulged further details. In the story, he’s a former pilot and engineer, and a widower with two kids, living in a society in a sustainable mode. The society is functioning with food and clean water, but finds no need for bright ideas. There’s no place for a pilot or engineer. Then something happens and he finds himself taking part in the greatest mission mankind has ever taken and has to leave his children behind. He professed that Nolan was an original director and this was one of the most absorbing films and Nolan’s most ambitious project. Yet things moved really fast, takes, for instance, often took 2-3, as opposed to 30-40.

Asked what else he could share about the movie, McConaughey refused, but proceeded to introduce someone else who could do it better, and in walked Nolan himself. He had heard so much about Comic-Con and wanted to see what the fuss was all about. He thanked fans for supporting all his previous movies. He humbly remarked that a movie wasn’t finished until it’s dissected by fans. The crowd lapped it up. Nolan said that

P1130335the highest ambition of children of his generation was to become astronauts and he gained inspiration from it. Even with incredible technological changes, he’s known as a practical filmmaker, eschewing 3-D for his films. In this space movie, he put in innovative techniques, making things as realistic as possible for the actors, while taking the audience for a ride, a journey through the stars. Starred by Oscar winners, the film has been shrouded in mystery from the get-go. Even after an extended trailer was played, which includes a narrative on love through time and space, it remains cryptic. Nolan added that the film touched on what makes us human and why we explore space in the first place. One thing is for sure, whatever’s mystery is left, it would be a stellar surprise.

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From 20th Century Fox press conferences: (each press conference was short, so I also attended Hall H partially afterwards)

“The Maze Runner” (September 19, 2014)

In attendance: author James Dashner, director Wes Ball, actors Dylan O’Brien, Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario P1130428

Another YA adaptation, I first became aware of “The Maze Runner” at WonderCon this spring. A teenage boy wakes up without memories of his past or outside world. Along with other boys, he’s doesn’t know who and where he is, and why they’re trapped in a menacing maze. He must piece together clues in order to discover his true purpose, survive and escape. The trailer showed a glimpse of the terrifying Grievers, whose look was inspired by “Jurassic Park” and “Alien.”

With the popularity of YA movies these days, the filmmakers weren’t afraid that this would get lost in the maze (no pun intended). James Dashner gave thumbs up for the finished product and said that it’s true to the vision of his novel. The concept would stand on its own; kids working together to survive in a new society, brotherhood, along with ballsy, wall-to-wall action. The panel was proud of how unique and original the movie was. Assuming the movie does well, they’re hoping to move forward with the sequel, “The Scorch Trials” (seen with a concept art at the end of the presentation).

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“Hitman: Agent 47” (February 27, 2015)

In attendance: stars Zachary Quinto and Hannah Ware

Rupert Friend, who plays Agent 47, was not present due to a conflicting filming schedule, but Zachary Quinto and Hannah Ware actively P1130466addressed questions. Although since the filmmakers would like to keep things under wrap, they had to stop themselves in occasions from revealing too much. Among things they were able to say, Ware’s character is searching for someone and Quinto’s character presents himself as someone who could help her. There’s certainly more than meets the eye, such as there’s a femme fatale quality and heightened awareness of survival to Ware’s character. This was her first action movie and the physicality was a good challenge, in which Quinto taught her the ropes. Stunts include being tied up and suspended by a rope and close-range gun shootings. Quinto said that there’s a scale, style and scope to the movie, but it also tried to be rooted in characters and the dynamic of those relationships. Both commented that shooting on locations (Berlin, South Africa, Singapore) was a plus and helped bringing a real sense of place to the story, as opposed as pretending to be in other cities.

The exclusive footage showed a cool interrogating scene, where agent 47, stronger and faster than normal human beings, swiftly flips a table, turns around a sniper rifle aimed at him and has the bullet breaking the glass wall, releases himself from the handcuff and disarms the interrogator. Based on a video game, the movie is visually sleek and looks thrilling.

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“Kingsman: The Secret Service” (October 24, 2014)

In attendance: co-creators Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, stars Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson and Sophie Boutella

P1130496Based on a comic-book series by Mark Millar, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a love letter to spy movies, stepping into an era we grew up in, stuff we loved when we were kids, with manifestations of all things spy, including James Bond and the Avengers.It tells a story about a secret super spy agency that recruits street kids into its competitive training program.

Samuel Jackson signed on because he always wanted to be in a Bond movie. Colin Firth was drawn into the film because it’s something he’d like to do for a long time, like stepping into the shoes of the people who were your heroes growing up. He said it’s his chance to be in a movie he spent all day watching as a kid. He further said that he had never done something as physical as this before and that the training was extraordinary. It’s intense and unfamiliar, but incredibly gratifying. Firth was an unexpected choice because he’s the last person people would expect to kick anyone’s ass. There’s an elegance to a British spy gentleman, which Firth would play believably. Firth gave high marks for his young co-star, Taron Egerton. As a mentor in the movie, he actually learned a lot from Egerton.

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” has a unique style, sharp and stylized. The first footage showed a massacre taken place in a snowy mountain cabin, surrounding a man tied up in a chair. A man cleanly cut in half and a killer with blade feet were standout scenes. The second depicted Firth’s character’s expert skill, nonchalantly taking down a group of bullies in a bar, using his umbrella, beer mug and dart, and then sitting back to sip the rest of his drink and converse with the young prospect recruit in front of him.

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P1130516 20thCentury Fox also came out with a Latin-inspired animation, “The Book of Life,”a panel attended by director Jorge Gutierrez, producer Guillermo Del Toro, voice actors Christina Applegate, Ron Perlman, Samuel L. Jackson and Channing Tatum. The relatively calm press conference was in contrast with the lively fan experience in Hall H. In Hall H, rapper Biz Markie showed up, took the mic and sang “Just a Friend.” Each member of the panel rose from the seats and danced along.

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Other buzzes coming out of Comic-Con this year are DC’s “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and Marvel’s “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The former showed a teaser trailer with Batman in a battle armor with eyes glowing white and red-eyed Superman hovering over a lit-up Bat signal. DC also offered a first-look of Wonder Woman in a sleek costume, against a fiery landscape, bronzed and ready for battle.

The latter served up a startling footage, which begins with a lighthearted scene with the Avengers gathering to see who’s able to lift Thor’s hammer and then fights with Ultron minions, which end on an alarming note, a cracked shield of Captain America and Iron Man standing over strewn bodies of his cohorts. There’s also an unveiling of the most talked-about poster, an eight-parter, each is a part of the larger poster of the Avengers’ war against Ultron.

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P1130767In addition to feature films, I caught a couple of TV pilots premiering this fall,“The Flash” and “Gotham,” and attended the biggest panel in history, with Stephen Amell, star of “Arrow” as MC. DC Entertainment pulled all the stop as the last hoorah, as the convention was winding down on Saturday evening. It’s an unprecedented night of entertainment attended by 33 panelists from shows “Arrow,” “The Flash,” “Gotham” and “Constantine.” More on “The Flash” and “Gotham” in a separate TV post later. As I was about to leave the press section, Amell and Emily Bett Rickards (“Arrow”)were also leaving the stage. The journalist standing next to me called out Amell’s name; Amell extended his hand, reached down and gave us a ‘high-five’ as he was exiting.

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The exhibit halls displayed a plethora of exhibits. Visitors saw Batman’s capes and cowls, and costumes from different eras, masks of villains the Joker, Scarecrow and Bane. Marvel showcased agent Phil Coulson’s flying red car from “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” and the space pod from “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Oculus Rift, a virtual reality experience, debuted this year. “X-Men” came in with the premise of Professor X looking for mutants at Comic-Con. “Pacific Rim” offered a simulation of piloting a Jaeger. “Into the Storm” P1130102promised an immersive experience of being closed in by an approaching storm, which includes wind blowing inside the booth. I tried both “X-Men” and “Into the Storm.” WhileP1130093 it isn’t anywhere close to rival any 3-D rides at amusement parks, I’d imagine it offers a different level of experience than playing video games at home.

With family in town from overseas, I ended up spending more P1130107time outside, viewing outer exhibits, P1130358P1130385which was a
whole experience on its own. A variety of activities were available this P1130356year, both interactive and for promotional purposes. “The Assassin’s Creed” laid out a parkour obstacle course. Pizza Hut partnered up with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and brought in 12-foot tall pizza thrower. Fans of “24” were treated to a drones-flying experience. And for the more daring ones, one could zip line across the Godzilla cityscape. “Sin City: A Dame to Kill for” showcased rows of cars used in the movie against the backdrop of the fantasy city skyline. Across town Playboy teamed up with “Bates Motel” and hosted one of the hottest parties in town.

As always, Comic-Con was an unparalled experience. No other city went all out for pop culture like San Diego does. Looking forward to an epic 2015! P1130205 Photos by Nathalia Aryani.

Copyright (c) 2014. Nathalia Aryani.

Nathalia Aryani is a film columnist and has a movie blog, The MovieMaven (http://sdmoviemaven.blogspot.com). Twitter: http://twitter.com/the_moviemaven. She can be reached at indotransserv@gmail.com.

"Nathalia Aryani is a film columnist and has a movie blog, The MovieMaven (sdmoviemaven.blogspot.com). Twitter: @the_moviemaven. She can be reached at indotransserv@gmail.com."

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