Big screen treats for the year ahead

As the summer blockbusters jostle for those prime release dates and the awards season is now firmly underway, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke looks at the films that will be demanding our attendance at the cinema this year.

Andrew Clarke

As the summer blockbusters jostle for those prime release dates and the awards season is now firmly underway, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke looks at the films that will be demanding our attendance at the cinema this year.

If 2008 was a year which was dominated by comic book heroes then expect 2009 to provide more of the same. At the moment cinema has an adolescent crush on heroic misfits wearing spandex jumpsuits or sprouting odd-looking lumps and bumps. The metaphorical introspection of Batman or Spiderman, which puts them in a league of their own, is missing from the vast majority of these strange special effects-led blockbusters. As The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Hell Boy 2 proved this year, spectacle is judged to come before anything resembling a plot or characterisation.

So to prove that more-of-the same is better than re-invention, later this year we have Wolverine, Watchmen, Transformers, The Spirit and The Wolf Man. Thankfully, for those of us, who like something a bit different in addition to our candy floss diet of blockbusters, the year starts off with a veritable banquet of Oscar hopefuls.

January sees a double-whammy from true-Brit superstar Kate Winslet who is likely to pick up an Oscar nod for both The Reader (Jan 2) and Revolutionary Road (Jan 30). Kate is expected to gain a nomination in both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for her work in these films.

The Reader, directed by British theatre giant Stephen Daldry, opens in post-war Germany. Told partly in flashback, Kate Winslet is an SS guard who is put on trial for her deeds in a concentration camp during the war. This is juxtaposed against the great kindness she shows as she nurses a young man back to health following a deadly brush with scarlet fever.

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Out of this grows a passionate affair which is a curious mixture of sex and being read to aloud. The film co-stars Ralph Fiennes and David Kross.

At the end of the month Kate is back, this time in a film for her husband Sam Mendes. Revolutionary Road, based on a best-selling book, which sees her re-teamed with Titanic co-star Leonardo di Caprio as a young, thriving couple living with their two children in a Connecticut suburb in the mid-1950s.

They feel their lives are going nowhere. Frank (di Caprio) is stuck in a dead-end office job and April (Winslet) is mourning the loss of her acting career. Together they set off for a new start in France but they find that life in Europe is not as idyllic as they hoped.

British co-productions are much in evidence during this Oscar season. One high profile release is Frost/Nixon (Jan 23) - a collaboration between American director Ron Howard and British production company Working Title.

Michael Sheen, so good as Tony Blair in The Queen, becomes David Frost in this compelling reconstruction of Frost's landmark interview with disgraced US president Richard Nixon, played in the film by wonderful character actor Frank Langella. Frost sunk much of his own money into the interview which Nixon thought would be a walk-over and a way to get back into people's good books. After all David Frost was just some English comedy chat show host - or so Nixon thought.

The other major biographical movie of the awards season is Steven Soderberg's epic Che - a two part extravaganza explaining the life and times of that pin-up of the 60s bedroom Che Guevara. This is Che's second excursion onto the big screen in recent years. Walter Salles tackled Che's early years as a peripatetic medical student in The Motorcycle Diaries but this is Che Guevara, the icon.

Benicio Del Toro plays the revolutionary who finds himself caught up in Castro's Cuban rebellion with top line support from Julia Ormond and Franka Potente of Run Lola, Run fame.

Again word is already predicting an Oscar acting nomination for Del Toro for his performance. Part one of Soderberg's bio-pic is released on January 2 with part two coming along on February 20.

But, giving him a run for his money will be Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (February 6), the latest high profile movie from left-field director David Fincher. Based on a 1920s story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pitt stars as the eponymous hero - a man who is born in his eighties and ages backwards.

It's a movie that has already caught critics' imaginations having been screened at various festivals and with supporting performances from Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond (again) and Jason Flemyng, it is expected to do well when the golden trophies are handed around.

Britain's Danny Boyle, the man who gave us Trainspotting and the supremely creepy 28 Days Later, changes gear again with this contemporary tale of reality telly Slumdog Millionaire (January 9). Talk from the festival circuit and at critic's screenings before Christmas is that if there is a movie which could unseat Benjamin Button in the Best Picture stakes then Boyle's tale of game shows and game show contestants in India could be it.

Written by Full Monty author Simon Beaufoy, this has been hailed as a real crowd-pleaser. There are no western stars but Boyle's razor sharp camera work and Beaufoy's indignant rage against social injustice has brought comparisons with the Brazilian cross-over hit City of God.

If all this sounds rather too worthy then fear not, the big splashy blockbusters are only lurking round the corner - waiting for the award-winner to collect their gongs and go.

As with 2008, the summer season will be ready to go as soon as May and the Cannes Film Festival arrives. While the French are being swept off their feet by the latest Woody Allen, we will be spending our second Night in the Museum with Ben Stiller and Ricky Gervais.

Night At The Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian promises more of what was served up in the first film. More tricks from the crusty old guards, more sarcasm from Gervais, more dinosaurs running around and more hapless bemusement from Ben Stiller. Just don't expect any new story.

Night At The Museum may appeal to the smaller members of the cinema audience but it is likely to have its work cut out battling against JJ Abrams re-launch of the Star Trek franchise which emerges out of space dock on May 8. The cast has Chris Pine as a youthful James T Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Simon Pegg as Scotty and Karl Urban as McCoy. This movie show the crew of the USS Enterprise as young cadets when they first stepped aboard under the command of Captain Christopher Pike. Needless to say, the fans will be in seventh heaven.

Elsewhere in May we will be scratching our heads as Tom Hanks will be deciphering more Catholic codes in Dan Brown's Angels & Demons (May 15). In this follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, Munich's Ayelet Zurer replaces Audrey Tatou as Hanks' side-kick and supporting performances come from such heavyweight names as Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsg�rd.

It's bound to be as controversial as the book, so we must expect some fireworks off screen as well as on.

Undated but due sometime in May is Hugh Jackman's solo outing in his X-Men alter-ego Wolverine. This prequel is set 17 years before the action of the first movie and shows how this former special agent got his formidable claws.

The summer cranks into high gear in July with the release of Public Enemies (July 3) which teams cult-director Michael Mann with cult-stars Johnny Depp and Christian Bale in this 1930s gangster romp. Said to be based on material gleaned from the FBI's own files, this movie follows the law enforcement agencies long campaign to bring John Dillinger, baby Faced Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd to justice. We can only hope for some Heat-style greatness after Mann's disappointing big screen remake of Miami Vice.

But, the big release which every other studio is giving a wide berth to, is Warner Brothers' re-scheduled but highly anticipated Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince. It was moved to provide the Hollywood major with a big summer release after the writers' strike put paid to a couple of other high profile projects. It is expected to carry all before it.

The book is packed with incident, the stars are now so comfortable in their roles that they really live them and the distinguished British supporting cast, all fight for their moment of Potter magic, so everyone is expecting this to set the summer on fire.

With Harry Potter dominating the second half of July, August is also something of a damp squib. Tony Scott's remake of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, the underground heist movie, is hardly likely to get many people frothing at the mouth in anticipation - even with Denzel Washington, John Travolta and James Gandolfini in the cast. The original film is a classic don't mess with it.

Speaking of ill-advised re-makes whoever thought that a modern-day reworking of Fellini's 8� was a good idea needs their head examined. As remakes of Rear Window (Disturbia) and Some Like It Hot (Connie and Carla) proved, you do not re-work classics as they only invite derision.

Still re-making Fellini proves that the producers have a sense of humour as does the title Nine (December 09) which boasts an all-star cast including Nicole Kidman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sophia Loren, Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench.

Penelope Cruz is also appearing in a couple of high profile films this year. She plays a tousle-haired vamp in Woody Allen's award-winning festival favourite Vicky Christina Barcelona (February 6). This enjoyable m�nage a trois co-stars Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall as two young Americans whiling away a long summer in Basque country who fall under the spell of charismatic painter Cruz's real-life other half, the Oscar-winning Javier Bardem.

If you want to see Cruz with platinum blonde hair and re-united with her mentor the wonderfully twisted Pedro Almodovar then there's Broken Embraces (August 21) a tough, film-noir about a plastic surgeon who seeks revenge on the man who murdered his daughter. Expect plenty of blood and thunder from the Spanish master.

Elsewhere, the special effects movies will sell lots of pop-corn for filmgoers who don't care if the story doesn't make sense - providing the bangs are big enough and the eye candy is cool enough. Bring on Shia LeBoef and Megan Fox for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (June 26), Paul Walker and Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious 4 (April 10), Christian Bale in Terminator: Salvation (June 5) and no-one in-particular in Monsters Vs Aliens (April 3).

And just when you thought it was safe to step back into the cinema there's 2012 (July 10), the latest disaster epic from Independence Day director Roland Emerich. After predicting global collapse in The Day After Tomorrow, this time he starts the film by realising a 7th century Mayan prophecy and destroys the world. I suppose the only way from there, is up.

But, the real success for 2009 is that small, unknown movie which will take everyone by surprise. Last year we had Juno and Mamma Mia!, what film is going to catch us unawares this year?