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Haywire, The Raven, Underworld Awakening, Attack the Block

Relativity and Screen Gems Panels at the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con

A scene from Haywire

The San Diego Comic-Con was in full swing Friday afternoon with hoards of ravenous super-fans filling the epic entertainment sanctuary known as Hall H for sneak previews of some of Hollywood’s most highly anticipated new films. But the logjam was tame by Con standards, perhaps because all the manically screaming Twilightfans had finally gotten their fix the day before. Even if rambunctious celebrations of fandom didn’t erupt very often, it was still standing room only for the myriad of studio presentation which turned out to be a nice mix of high profile superhero sagas and smaller budgeted genre films.

My first panel was a showcase of the latest releases from Relativity Media. When the moderator appeared and gave a muddled introduction in advance of prolific director Steven Soderbergh and his new actioner Haywire, it didn’t do much to rile up the audience. Thankfully, people quickly realized they were in for a treat when an exclusive trailer followed by an extended fight scene from the film graced the screen. Soderbergh’s pure-blood spy film stars MMA tough-girl Gina Carano, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, and Antonio Banderas, and if the shown footage is any indicator, Haywire looks positively bone-crushing, sporting some insanely choreographed fight sequences and shoot-outs. The film gets a theatrical release on January 20, 2012.

Less gripping was a panel on The Raven, director James McTeigue’s new psychological thriller about a serial killer taunting Edgar Allen Poe (John Cusack) by replicating the murders fictionalized in his stories of the macabre. The Raven looks interesting as a slice of historical revisionism, with the filmmakers creating a fictionalized account of Poe’s last five days, leaning heavily on the cat and mouse narrative and gothic melodrama for effect. McTeigue discussed why he chose to shoot the film in Serbia to create the look and feel of 1840’s Baltimore, citing the Eastern European influx of immigrants as the main cultural influence on American architecture of the time. During the question and answer session Cusack described the film as “a dream I might have had about Poe” as opposed to a biopic, speaking to the film’s hallucinogenic. The Raven gets a wide theatrical release on March 9, 2012.

The Screen Gems panel followed, presenting extended footage of Underworld: Awakening, the fourth film in the vampires vs. werewolf’s series. Aside from producer Len Wiseman, co-directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein, actors Kate Beckinsale and Michael Ealy made up the panel, and they were all adamant that this entry would lead the franchise in a new direction. “It was a challenge to do something new,”Wiseman said, stressing he wanted to “take Underworldand flip it upside down.” In terms of fresh scenarios and characterizations in a series that has grown stale with recent entries, Wiseman responded in kind by saying, “we wanted to take the characters we love and throw them into a new environment.”

There was also an extended discussion on the use of 3-D in the film and how the technology gave the filmmakers new tools to make the aesthetics even more distinctive. Ealy, known for his previous roles in Showtime’s underrated series Sleeper Celland Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, provided the day’s funniest confession. “The most challenging thing for me was getting my butt kicked.”

Kate Beckinsale seemed very comfortable talking about exacting punishing violence on her male co-stars, and one questioner even asked her about the comfort level of her skin-tight latex suit. “It’s surprisingly comfortable,” she said, sending many of the male audience members into a clapping frenzy. But Beckinsale also had the best advice for budding young filmmakers and actors out there. “Read as much as you can and see as many movies and plays as possible.” These are words to live by. Underworld: Awakeningsgets a wide release on January 20, 2012.

After the Underworldcrew left the Hall H stage, British director Joe Cornish, producer Edgar Wright, and star John Boyega introduced their new science fiction/horror/comedy hybrid Attack the Block, which has been garnering advanced raves all year. From the audience’s reaction to the electrifyingly brutal footage this will most definitely be a cult-film in the making. “I wanted to get back to practical creature effects,” Cornish said, referencing John Landis’ landmark horror film An American Werewolf in London as his main influence. Even more interesting and revealing, Cornish discussed a special variation of rotoscoping he used to create the aliens in the film, an aesthetic inspired by legendary American animator Ralph Bakshi, who made the animated version of Lord of the Rings in 1978.

First time actor Boyega was a breath of fresh air, describing with humility and grace his shock and awe at being cast in the part. The young man’s incredible dedication to his role as a conflicted young gangster was evident from his eloquent discussion of Season 4 of HBO’s The Wire, a stirring influence on his thespian mind. “Those great actors create stories through their eyes,” Boyega said, evoking a sense of professionalism well beyond his years.

Not to be undone, Wright, the director behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, provided plenty of hilarious anecdotes about filmmaking and pop culture that kept the audience entertained by clever random asides. When an excited fan who had previously seen Attack the Block at a Los Angeles sneak preview said it was his favorite film of the year, Wright joked, “If it’s the best film you’ve seen all year, then don’t seen any more films!” Expect great things from Attack the Block, coming out in San Diego in the next month.

My first day at Comic-Con 2011 turned out to be a highly successful affair, despite lackluster panels on the Fright Night and Total Recallremakes. Between the propulsive kinetics of Haywireand the brilliant genre deconstruction of Attack the Block, the future looks bright for genre films coming soon to a theater near you.