SDCC 2011 Film: The Winners and Losers!

It's over! But was it any good? Find out what the best and worst SDCC 2011 movie panels were, and why.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

San Diego Comic Con 2011 has come and gone, and as usual the preview film panels were a hodgepodge of lofty promises, broken promises and frustration. We covered all the biggest movie presentations this year at our CRAVE Online Comic Con page, but we were in such a hurry to get the information out to all those who weren’t lucky enough to get a ticket that we didn’t have time to do much more than write up exactly what happened. With a day or so of distance from the panels we can now say, with confidence, which of them proved to be a winner and which ones lost us entirely.

Honestly, the good probably outweighed the bad this year, even if some of the disappointments were major (I’m looking at you, Amazing Spider-Man). Here then are our picks for the SDCC 2011 Film Winners and Losers. Don’t just skim the titles here, folks, because not every winner looked all that good and not every loser looked like crap. Sometimes the panels themselves are to be credited, or to blame.



Robert Rodriguez had Hall H all to himself for (unfortunately somewhat sparsely attended) his panel this year, and had promised big news about his new production company Quick Draw Productions. It turns out that it’s not just a production company, it’s a whole damned studio run by the director. Rodriguez now has the power and, equally important, the money to do whatever the hell he wants. And he wants to make a new Heavy Metal anthology (with one slot in the release to be reserved for an amateur filmmaker to be determined via open submission) and to remake Fire and Ice with a hand-painted look. Rodriguez had a lot to say about how Quick Draw Productions would be a shining new beacon of creative integrity, freed from the bounds of an oppressive studio system, he also kind of failed to explain how it’s anything more than another studio in which he happens to call the shots. But whatever, it’s an exciting new venture and coupled with news of a new Sin City sequel called A Dame to Kill For, shooting as early as this year, he’s pretty much the big winner of Comic Con 2011… and possibly the game of life.



With the exception of the 20th Century Fox, Sony and Twilight panels, this is one of the first years in a while when it wasn’t necessary to line up for Hall H the night ahead of time to get a seat. (I wish someone had told me so I could have slept in.) The sparse attendance no doubt had a lot to do with the lack of major players at the Con this year, including The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit and Man of Steel, the presence of which would have likely filled Hall H to capacity early in the day so attendees could guarantee themselves a seat later on. But frankly, overall enthusiasm has obviously waned. Anemic panels, boring audience questions (“What’s it like working with…?” and “How did you prepare…?” are such blasé prompts that reek of people just wanting to exchange words with celebrities) and a frustrating tendency of some frustrating individuals to ask for autographs in front of thousands of people who actually want to hear some @#$%ing information have soured many on the bigger panels. Add in a frustrating request for censorship from either Comic Con or the bigger studios, encouraging filmmakers to watch their language and even – in the case of Fright Night at least – editing their footage for language indicates a troubling shift in focus: from having a genuine dialogue with the filmmakers’ target demographic in person to playing to studio interests with a series of “safe” presentations which insult the audience by saying they can’t handle the movies they’re actively being sold. To quote Guillermo del Toro on the subject, “They should have known what they were @#$%ing getting into.” (And yes, the irony of having to censor that statement is not lost on me.)



Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel had been shrouded in mystery before Comic Con 2011, and frankly it still kind of is. But the early footage shown at Hall H was incredibly encouraging, showing a reasonable but not oppressive fealty to the look and tone of the classic original film and, thanks to the enthusiastic words of Ridley Scott, demonstrating an interest in making a great new science fiction film regardless of its relation to a pre-existing franchise. And Scott’s tease that the film will answer a question that nobody has thought to ask about the Alien franchise before, in the last three minutes no less, was the biggest teaser of the whole weekend.



When Batman Begins rebooted the whole franchise, it was coming off of a film (Batman and Robin, obviously) that had completely broken it. The Amazing Spider-Man, in contrast, is coming off of a merely disappointing sequel, so the fact that it looks – particularly – so completely different from Sam Raimi’s trilogy was a jarring revelation that threw a bit of a pall on any footage shown, good or bad. But frankly, it doesn’t look that great. Scenes like Peter Parker getting in trouble with Uncle Ben for bullying somebody are so distinctly similar to what we’ve seen on film before, in the last decade no less, that they feel redundant, and the Lizard, aside from looking so much like the Batman: The Animated Series rendition of Killer Croc that it’s already a running joke, seems to fall victim to a cackling super-villain monologue that seems distinctly out of place in Webb’s otherwise “real world” take on the Spider-Man series. Awkward attempts to turn the panel into a theatrical experience, with a well-intentioned but dorky turn by Andrew Garfield as a Spider-Man fan speaking up from the crowd, played like a desperate attempt to keep the fans so excited about the presentation that its actual content would feel beside the point.



Steven Spielberg and, surprisingly, Peter Jackson both showed up to promote their new joint venture, the motion-capture animated The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, and the panel was a rousing success. Beyond the presence of two fan-favorite filmmakers, the footage itself was extremely encouraging despite a history of depressingly bad films that had used the process previously, and the news that Spielberg was his own cameraman was an exciting one that seemed to explain a lot about why the scenes previewed had such a dynamic feel to them. Add in a hilarious demo of the CGI process including a surprise cameo by Peter Jackson as Captain Haddock, and you’ve got one of the best panels of the year.



Obviously, they just didn’t show up. Presumably it’s because they don’t have any footage ready to show (and The Dark Knight Rises is still deep into production), but not showing up at all felt more like rejection than anything else. Peter Jackson, Andy Serkis, Joss Whedon and Man of Steel star Henry Cavill were present anyway, so what gives? Although the lack of footage might have been a disappointment, it shouldn’t be seen as a requirement. Panels really should be less about showing off footage (although if you have it, all the better) and more about creating a rapport between filmmakers and the fans of their material. Many of the individuals involved in these productions were asked for updates in other, unrelated panels, but details were not forthcoming. Not the end of the world, this stuff, but just plain disappointing.



Here was a surprise. Whereas the 2007 film version of Ghost Rider was a neutered, even dorky experience the footage shown from Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s upcoming quasi-sequel looked just as insane-crazed as all their other films, with a genuinely disturbing visual take on the title character and exuberant camerawork. While still perhaps destined to be a “minor” film, as opposed to breakout hits like The Dark Knight or Iron Man, the footage and the panel itself, in which the filmmakers demonstrated that they understood the disturbing and contradictory nature of the character, makes me genuinely excited to see it. It still might suck, but at least it’s not a given.



Tarsem Singh’s Immortals actually looks like a pretty neat movie, with a Julie Taymor-ish theatrical visual style, ultra-violence and some nifty ideas about the Greek pantheon (such as, if they’re all-powerful why wouldn’t they make themselves look young forever?), but the panel itself was just kind of awkward. With the Greek angle, extensive slow-motion action sequences and a just plain manly tone the film bears certain obvious similarities to 300, but the moderator at the panel mentioned that “other” film so often that it became obvious that they were trying to recreate the unexpected Comic Con success of Zack Snyder’s popular work, right down to showing the same footage twice. But this time, nobody actually asked for it. It looked good enough, but it didn’t blow anybody’s mind. Singh proved himself to be a witty crowd-pleaser of a director, and yet the fact that many of the questions revolved around the audience’s doubt regarding 3D indicates a certain lack of trust in both the gimmick and the movies that use it… like Immortals. Again, the movie might be great, but this was not a great promotion.



Whereas many of the Comic Con movie panels were all about 3D or motion capture, Apocalypse Now director Francis Ford Coppola showed up with something genuinely innovative: a technology that will allow him to edit a movie live, catering to the audience’s reactions. The movie in question is Twixt, a horror potboiler starring Val Kilmer as a third-rate horror writer who gets wrapped up in a small-town mystery while promoting his latest book. Kilmer appears to give his best performance in a long time, and the spooky atmosphere and off-kilter humor makes it look like Coppola’s most entertaining work in an even longer time. It’s impossible not to admire Coppola’s ambition and enthusiasm for actual artistic innovation in an era when most “innovations” feel like a desperate ploy to raise ticket prices.



Alas, for all the ambition and interesting filmmaking he showed off at the panel, it was nevertheless plagued with technical problems that didn’t successfully sell the project. The panel was listed as “a dress rehearsal” when “a blocking rehearsal” would have probably been a more apt comparison. When the technology worked it was pretty interesting (although the pre-edited footage played better than anything else), but when it flubbed there was a slightly embarrassed air to the proceedings. Comic Con was the perfect place to debut the ambitious Twixt, which still looks like a fascinating experience, but the debut might have been a little bit premature.



The Twilight panel this year catered to existing fans, and while most diehard Comic Con types look down on the “Twi-Hards,” as they have come to be called, it’s important to remember that there’s nothing wrong with loving a story or its characters passionately, whether or not it’s very good. That the footage was as naïve and embarrassingly sincere as the other movies in the franchise had no effect whatsoever on the enthralled audience of dedicated fans… and more power to them. Everyone who attends Comic Con for the right reasons has, at one time or another, championed something (a movie, a comic book, a character, what have you) that the outside observer might condemn as stupid or silly. Twi-Hards don’t seem to care. They had their panel, they had their fun, and whether the movies are good or bad (I say bad) they had every right to have their vampire movies catered to at a sci-fi/fantasy convention. Good for them. Let’s just hope that being in proximity to other films, books and so forth encourages them to seek out other, less conventional material as well.



Though not heavily attended, Aardman Animation pulled out a truly great presentation in Hall H with new and exciting footage from Arthur Christmas and The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Both films, family films though they may be, demonstrated a vitality and cleverness that most movies never even strive for, and after seeing footage from both it’s damned easy to get excited for them. The CGI comedy Arthur Christmas amusingly focuses on the espionage angle of Kris Kringle, and feels like “Santa Claus Meets 24,” but it’s the Hugh Grant-starring The Pirates! that stole their show with a genuinely hilarious trailer, old-school stop-motion animation and what is apparently a truly lovable cast of characters. Pity more people didn’t see it.



A bit of a surprise, Supersize Me director Morgan Spurlock appeared in Hall H between events to premiere his trailer for Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, which didn’t look terribly good. Despite a number of interviews with famous folks like Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon, the trailer played like an advertisement for the convention, which is so popular now that such a thing feels unnecessary. It would have been nice to discover that Spurlock had an actual “take” on the material, something his other documentaries could all boast (whether or not they were all good movies). It didn’t help that Spurlock’s introduction included an anecdote about how great Stan Lee (a co-producer on the film) said the filmmaker was. Hopefully the actual film has something to say about Comic Con besides the fact that it’s nifty and lots of people like to play dress up.


WINNER: DRIVE           

The Film District Studio panel was a rollicking good time, and had the clever idea to bring the cast and crew of both of its movies – Drive and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – out at the same time, forcing fans who might only have been interested in one film to learn about the other. The bulk of the panel was spent talking about how amazing Drive is, and all the footage they showed definitely backed up their claims. The action film starring Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan looks absolutely beautiful, and everything shown seemed to justify the film’s unexpected Best Director win at Cannes Film Festival. I couldn’t be more excited to see this film, and just about everyone in attendance was equally impressed.



Ironically, although most of the fans in attendance were probably more interested in the Guillermo del Tor-produced horror remake Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and even though the movie looks great, so much time was spent at the Film District Studio panel hyping Drive that this movie didn’t make much of an impression. It’s not a “big” loser, since nobody left Hall H thinking ill of it, but the panel was so unbalanced in Drive’s favor that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark simply got the short shrift.



Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie had an uphill battle on his hands when he came out to promote his remake of Tom Holland’s classic horror comedy Fright Night, but damn, did he do a good job. Bringing out the original film’s star Chris Sarandon to moderate the panel effectively passed the torch to the new filmmakers, even if Sarandon did spend a little too much time talking up how good the remake was, making it feel a little forced. The footage shown did all that work for him: Colin Farrell’s got a sexy new take on the old Jerry Dandridge character, and Gillespie appears to have made the film both funny and ambitious, with an impressive one-shot car chase that effectively sold me on the remake (and boy was I a Doubting Thomas). The buzz was already good, and this panel solidified that sentiment. This appears to be a movie worth getting your hopes up for.



[Editor's Note: Wrong 'Total Recall.' Sorry.]

The other remake starring Colin Farrell that appeared at Comic Con didn’t make as good an impression, with Len Wiseman’s Total Recall showing off some bizarre footage that neither lived up to nor effectively distanced itself from Paul Verhoeven’s classic original. I appreciated Wiseman’s enthusiasm for the project, and in particular his enthusiasm in doing many of the effects practically, but what we actually saw was not encouraging. Colin Farrell attends a “Recall” office, which appears for all the world like a posh acupuncture clinic now. As soon as the needle enters his arm to implant some secret agent memories, a bunch of cops in futuristic body armor show up and he kills them all swiftly in an overwrought Zack Snyder-y fashion. I’m not willing to write the film off entirely, and the cast is super, but Verhoeven’s version of the story balanced action and thoughtfulness in equal measure. What Wiseman chose to show off for Comic Con, early though it may have been (and he’s still shooting, so this may have been all he had) just didn’t feel well rounded. Not truly awful – and the panel itself was entertaining, thanks in large part to the charismatic Farrell – but not a winner.



Steven Soderbergh of all people has made an action revenge movie starring – and indeed specifically made for – MMA superstar Gina Carrano. That’s… really @#$%ing weird. But after seeing the preview at Comic Con it also looks really @#$%ing good. Comparisons to The Bourne Identity are probably in the cards, since the film treats its characters and action sequences seriously, but that feels kneejerk to me. A good action movie doesn’t have to spring specifically from another one. From what we’ve seen, Carrano appears to have a strong screen presence and supporting actors like Michael Fassbender (who has a pretty spectacular fight sequence with Carrano), Ewan McGregor and Michael Douglas all lend credibility to a film that, with a lesser director, would have probably been shot on (and gone straight to) video. It doesn’t look groundbreaking, but it looks really good. I wasn’t terribly interested before the panel, but now I really want to see it. That’s a real winner if ever there was one.