Monday, January 10, 2011

2011 at the Movies

This article was first published on 01/01/11 in VIDA magazine. Malta release dates are subject to change.

Another year of ceaseless movie bombardment has ended, and a new one's just begun. Everywhere we look, the world of cinema saturates us with images, trailers, clips and music. Films gallop into our theatre complexes on a wave of expectation and fanfare that tries to turn them into an event, as opposed to merely a two-hour piece of art. And even if they succeed, as many do, they swiftly make way for whichever flawless masterpiece is guaranteed to make us laugh, cry and change our life the following week. But hey, I think it's great.

If Hollywood and everyone else has enough time, money and manpower to make hundreds of new films every year, I say bring them on. Whether they have enough original ideas is another matter entirely, and I for one would greatly prefer if they made more of this and this type of film and less of that and that. But with a worldwide eager audience of billions, it takes all sorts of films to meet all sorts of tastes. Ultimately, we're the kings. We leaf through the papers and scroll through the blogs, picking and choosing. With a careless click of the mouse we discard a film that someone has poured their life into, because we're not in that kind of mood this evening. With such a vast menu, why settle for less?

As is the recent trend, we can expect even more films during the coming year, although admittedly a very large chunk of them will be sequels, prequels or remakes. At first glance, 2011 is looking very look indeed, and might make up for a lacklustre past twelve months. Superheroes abound, old friends resurface, and we even have a few melding of genres and mystery films which nobody knows too much about. Plus Mr. Spielberg is back in the director's chair, with not one but two films to hopefully end the year on a high.

Christmas Hangover

With no gargantuan release to prolong the festive season like Avatar did last year, a few promising films look set to hit our tiny island with a bang this January. Disney is back, with their 50th animated classic, based on the story of Rapunzel. Sadly, they seem to be veering away from traditional fairytales as source material, and this film was renamed Tangled, but it still looks like great family fun and gave Harry Potter some stiff competition across the pond. In a more adult vein, Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal star in the romantic comedy Love and other Drugs, set in the world of medicine marketing. You can imagine what little blue pill the main character is a rep for. Russell Crowe doesn't have time for such frivolities as he desperately tries to save his family and prove his wife's innocence in The Next Three Days, from director Paul Haggis.

Seth Rogen lost weight to star as masked and rather reluctant superhero The Green Hornet, which promises to be at least slightly different thanks to visionary director Michel Gondry, of Eternal Sunshine fame. Another much-loved director, Danny Boyle, follows up his hugely successful Slumdog Millionaire with a spectacular story of survival – 127 Hours. James Franco stars in the true story of an experienced trekker who got trapped in a ravine in the middle of nowhere for, you guessed it, 127 hours. Whether he makes it out in one piece remains to be seen, and the film is receiving near unanimous praise everywhere it's being shown.

Oscar Fever

Besides Danny Boyle's latest, and last year's The Social Network, some of the other frontrunners for Oscar glory will also trickle into worldwide cinemas during the early months of 2011, after having been released in limited areas before the new year. At the time of going to press, the surest bet seems to be The King's Speech, a good old fashioned British period piece about how King George VI's speech impediment risked tarnishing his inspirational role during the second World War, and how an unconventional speech therapist was roped in to save the day. The three main stars – Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter – are all getting recognition for their performances, and the film has pomp and style written all over it. In a completely different setting, the Coen brothers' remake of the John Wayne classic True Grit also has all the ingredients of an epic piece of cinema, and starts Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon.

If you like your cinema outings to be dark and disturbing, then you might want to rush to see Black Swan, which is also getting loads of attention – mostly for the central performance by Natalie Portman. She stars as an aspiring prima ballerina who starts to stress about her dance director replacing her in a main role, and the film looks like a marriage of gorgeous ballet and twisted psychology. Which should be extremely interesting in the hands of visionary director Darren Aronofsky. This looks like probably the most interesting and original film since Inception last summer. Moving from the stage to the ring, another award contender looks to be The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg as a rising boxer and a transformed (again) Christian Bale as his troubled but skilled brother and trainer.

Spring rolls in

Once the Oscars are done and dusted, tinsel town will slowly but surely start rolling out the new gems for this year, in a gradual build up to the big blockbusters of summer. This year, though, some of the earlier releases look even more enticing than the summer mammoths. Source Code is a mix of brains and action from the director of the excellent 2009 film Moon, starring Jake Gyllenhaal in a slightly Matrix-like situation on a doomed train. Battle: Los Angeles doesn't try to hide its alien disaster movie ambitions, and promises to be big and loud, and hopefully not too silly. And competing in the big and loud departments is Sucker Punch from Zack Synder (300, Watchmen). A young girl is trying to escape from an asylum, but the escape takes on all manner of fantasy and science-fiction turns as Synder runs amok with the style and machine-guns. If nothing else, this should look great.

Back on much more familiar territory, this spring will also bring an old friend back to life, and just as you may remember him. Disney have made a new Winnie the Pooh film, and they thankfully decided to stick to traditional animation and number of dimensions, rather than try to reinvent his motley crew in some shiny 3D world. Narrated by John Cleese, this should go down well with young kids, of all ages. The man behind Pineapple Express is going back in time to direct the medieval comedy Your Highness, starring James Franco, Danny McBride, Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel in a mix of jousting and jesting. And J. J. Abrams, the creator of Lost and Cloverfield, is being very secretive about the exact plot details of his sci-fi outing Super 8, which he conceived with the help of Steven Spielberg and which appears to be some sort of retro alien-invasion film.

Summer Sequels & Superheroes

In cinema terms, the beginning of 'summer' keeps creeping onto earlier pages of the calendar every year, as studios try to repay their investments handsomely by being the 'first big blockbuster of this summer!'. Marvel will be taking their team of heroes to newer heights this year, and they start early in April with the hammer-wielding Thor, a blonde outcast from the heavens who takes refuge on earth and puts his powers to good use. Kenneth Branagh is the odd but very interesting choice for director, and the film promises to tie into the overall Avengers storyline established with the Iron Man films. Elsewhere, Ryan Reynolds goes green for his take on the supernatural powers of the Green Lantern.

Then, in what is unfortunately a recently increasing trend, sequel hell breaks loose. The Hangover 2 (hopefully even half as funny as the original), Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (wasn't the last one rather conclusive? Anyway, Depp is back as Jack Sparrow, and Penelope Cruz is the new female interest), Kung Fu Panda 2 (I'm now struggling to think of successful animated films without sequels), Transformers: Dark of the Moon (they've promised it won't be as hopeless as the second one), Cars 2: World Grand Prix (even the least brilliant film at Pixar deserves a second chance), Fast Five (No 'Furious' in the title this time, so maybe it's a lighthearted drama) and last but not last Johnny English Reborn, which sees the return of Rowan Atkinson as the bungling secret agent who was a big hit in Malta back in 2003.

X-Men: First Class further extends another great franchise which seemed to have concluded, but this time it's a prequel looking at all the main characters, including an able-bodied Professor Xavier portrayed by James McAvoy. Then, for the highlight of the cinema year, nearly every major actor in Britain will turn up for the curtain call for the Harry Potter franchise, a film that will hopefully deliver the epic and satisfying climax that was so clearly (but deliberately) missing from the past three films. Finally, merely weeks after his team-mate Thor makes his entrance, another recognizable hero bursts onto the scene – The First Avenger: Captain America.

Back to School

For those die-hards not bursting with popcorn, the last few weeks of summer and the start of early darkness will bring a few more treats, including an old cartoon favourite. The Smurfs, or as we know them from Italian TV 'I Puffi', are the latest characters to make the jump from the small screen to the big one, and they will do so in a mix of computer animated Smurfs and live action environments, including Hank Azaria looking exactly like Gargamel. I predict many young parents will drag their children to see this.

Spielberg's War Horse is next, based on the book which has already been made into a critic and audience favourite on stage in the West End. It follows the journey of a horse during the first World War, and his owner's attempt to track him down and bring him home safely. So at very least the plot should be better than the last Indiana Jones outing, which was the last thing Spielberg directed. And speaking of Jones, Harrison Ford is also back, alongside Daniel Craig in Cowboys and Aliens. The title says it all really, and the trailer looks very promising.

Winter Wonderland

So, actually, the 'low' seasons in 2011 look just as full of promising films as the rest of the year. But, as expected, many big names have been left for the festive season, when friends and families tend to head to the darkened theatres more often. For the shrieking teenage girl in all of us, there's the fourth, and thankfully final, Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. I hope for a pleasant surprise, but I expect a lot of morose wandering in the woods. If you're not a teenager yet, Alvin and the Chipmunks 3 might be more your style.

Then, Spielberg returns with another film, although apparently his directing input was completed before his War Horse work. In a mouth-watering collaboration with Peter Jackson, they have made the first of two films based on the Tintin comic – The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn. It's made with motion capture, and features a 3D cartoon version of Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as Tintin and Andy Serkis ('my precioussss') as Captain Haddock. Mission: Impossible IV and Sherlock Holmes 2 are also scheduled for the holiday season, the former allegedly attempting to pass the main role from Tom Cruise to Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner, and the latter adding the great Stephen Fry to the already impressive cast. And to round off the year, after enjoying the entire Millennium trilogy in Swedish, we get the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It would be easy to dismiss it as a blatant cash-in attempt. But with David Fincher directing, Daniel Craig as Blomkvist, Christopher Plummer as Henrik Vanger and Stellan Skarsgård as Martin Vanger, I think it might surprise us. Fincher cast relative newcomer Rooney Mara, who he directed in The Social Network as the pivotal Lisbeth Salander, so we just might witness the birth of a new star.

In the end

Recession, what recession? The movie business has never been better – and I'm not talking about the filmmakers, I'm talking about us. Hate heroes? Just watch something else? Dislike action? Go for the romance. There's more than enough for everyone. As we stand around in groups or couples arguing over which film to watch this evening, we can at least acknowledge that we're spoilt for choice. So dress-up, take your pick and let the main titles roll.

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