Looking ahead to big screen excitement

Looking at the release schedules for this year, it seems that not a lot is going to change. The big blockbusters are still there. The franchises are all alive and kicking as are the horror films and the gross out teen comedies but it’s what’s happening away from the glare of the publicity that frequently shifts Hollywood’s focus. It’s hard to remember now, but in 2003 nothing much was expected of Pirates of the Caribbean. It wasn’t set up to launch a franchise, it was a fairly low key summer release based on a theme park ride.

Johnny Depp wasn’t a big star, Pirates was designed as an ensemble movie. If anything Keira Knightley, hot off Bend It Like Beckham and Orlando Bloom, one of the heroes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, were the big names. Depp was known for starring in dark, uncommercial Tim Burton films like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood and in strange, independent films like Benny and Joon, Dead Man and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His films were well reviewed but they never had, up until then, set the box office alight.

But, cinema magic enveloped that first Pirates film and a modest one-off summer film was suddenly transformed into an on-going series. The fourth episode in that series will undoubtedly be one of the cornerstones of the summer, if not the year.

Penelope Cruz is replacing Keira Knightley as the sword-wielding love interest and maybe just the spark needed to give the series some added Zorro-esque zing.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides doesn’t set sail until May 18. Before then we have the Oscar season contenders, a host of superhero movies and a legion of rom-coms to wade through.

January always throws up some arresting movies. The first of these is out this week; Love and Other Drugs which combines the increasingly interesting Anne Hathaway with Brokeback Mountain co-star Jake Gyllenhaal. This time she’s a sassy waitress who falls head over heels in lust with Gyllenhaal’s seemingly shallow viagra salesman. It’s a boisterous and lustful affair that quietly (or not so quietly) transforms itself into something more meaningful. It seems that he may be not the cad he appears to be and she has more to contend with than you were first aware of.

Early word has it that their onscreen chemistry is sizzling enough to melt any New Year snow.

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The big movie for January has to be The King’s Speech, the hot contender for Oscar and BAFTA glory this year. It stars Colin Firth as a nervous and frustrated George VI, Helena Bonham Carter as a supportive and powerful Queen Elizabeth (later to be our Queen Mother) and Geoffrey Rush as the Australian speech therapist who cures the Royal stammer. It’s an astonishing true story and one which gathered standing ovations at film festivals around the world last year. A great cast, a great story and a great film, England expects great things of this and hopefully it will herald a good year for British cinema at the Oscars.

Also hotly anticipated is Danny Boyle’s terrifying mountain climbing movie 127 Hours which has been tagged with the warning: ‘Not for the faint-hearted’. It tells the story of a climber Aaron Ralston, played brilliantly by James Franco, that gets into life-threatening trouble while climbing in the remote mountains of Utah through his own vanity. It’s a tough film to watch at times and Ralston is not a warm and sympathetic hero but you have to admire his resourcefulness and his ability to do the unthinkable in order to survive.

Another British movie which is bound to get people talking is Simon Pegg’s long-awaited new comedy Paul, about a pair of science fiction fans (Pegg and Nick Frost) who find themselves lumbered with real grey, big-eyed alien and they have to reunite it with its mothership before the authorities apprehend them.

Pegg who made such an impact with his two self-penned debut movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, has been somewhat sidetracked of late by appearances in run-of-the-mill Hollywood movies. Paul promises to be a return to form and hopefully will help Pegg realise that the truth is at home rather than ‘out there’.

January 21 sees the release of Darren Aronofsky’s widely anticipated dance-themed, psycho-erotic-thriller Black Swan. This is the film that many believe could give The King’s Speech a run for its money. It stars Natalie Portman as a leading ballerina who crosses swords with rival Mila Kunis for the leading role in a new production of Swan Lake.

It may sound a bit too much like The Red Shoes for modern audiences but expect a lot of the Aronofsky grittiness which propelled The Wrestler to glory two years ago. Natalie Portman is also a strong contender for the Best Actress Oscar.

The awards season continues apace with the arrival of February. The Oscar nominations are announced on February 22 and awarded on March 7. February’s schedule is dominated by some very tough-looking films. David O’Russell who gave us the uncompromising Desert Storm drama Three Kings is back in awards contention with The Fighter, a tough boxing drama, which tells the story of “Irish” Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his brother (Christian Bale) who helped him train. Although Bale and the film are well regarded, Wahlberg has divided critics with some describing his performance as being similar to that of a cardboard cutout.

Then comes Rowan Joffe’s gritty remake of the Richard Attenborough classic Brighton Rock with Sam Riley as the dangerous gangster Pinkey with rising star Andrea Riseborough as girlfriend Rose and supporting performances from Helen Mirren, John Hurt and Andy Serkis. Then comes Nicole Kidman’s return to the big screen in the powerful but draining Rabbit Hole.

Kidman co-stars with Aaron Eckhart as parents who are coming to terms with the fact that their young son was killed by a teenage driver. As they try and find their way through their grief, their marriage starts to unravel and the mutual recriminations threaten to tear them apart. This has awards written all over it but it is doubtful it will be on many people’s date movie list.

Then comes perhaps the most disturbing movie release of the year, the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit with the ever-adaptable Jeff Bridges filling the boots of that Oscar-winning “one-eyed, fat man” Rooster Cogburn aka John Wayne.

Normally anything produced by the Coen Brothers is automatically enveloped in enthusiastic praise. They are some of modern cinema’s most imaginative and resourceful film-makers. For a while everything they touched turned to gold – Raising Arizona, Fargo, O’ Brother Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski – they seemed infallible. Then in 2004 came The Ladykillers. It was a near fatal misstep - an American remake of a British classic. How wrong could you be? From going from a busy, Woody Allen-esque film a year, the spectacular failure of this film, caused them to shut-up shop and reconsider their future. Happily, they re-emerged three years later, in 2007, and produced what could be their greatest film, No Country For Old Men, which they quickly followed up with the glorious black comedy Burn After Reading, but it could have finished them.

Hopefully True Grit won’t be another flawed misstep. For a team so adept at making truly original films you have to wonder at what draws them to re-make classic movies? The usual film-making lore dictates that you don’t re-make classics, you are asking for trouble. You re-make films that have a good idea behind them but didn’t quite cut the mustard, first time around. True Grit had an iconic actor delivering an Oscar worthy performance, I just hope that Joel and Ethan Coen know what they are doing.

Sequels will obviously figure hugely this year, we’ve already discussed Pirates of the Caribbean but others in search of a second helping include Robert Downey Junior’s Sherlock Holmes, Pixar’s road-racer comedy Cars and the final denouement of the Harry Potter saga The Deathly Hallows Part Two. This is where Harry finally comes face to face with Lord Voldemort, played with chilling menace by Ralph Fiennes.

The Transformers will be trying to put the disaster of their previous movie behind them and are having another outing in Dark Of The Moon, in June, but Shia La Beouf’s sexy sidekick Megan Fox has been replaced by Devon-born model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, who will undoubtedly appeal to male fans. Other sequels appearing during the year will include Scream 4, Mission: Impossible 4, The Hangover 2 and the impossible-to-believe Fast and Furious 5 with Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Paul Walker.

But, the most bizarre sequel has to be Rowan Atkinson’s new Johnny English movie. The original movie, developed from a series of credit card ads, hit our screens eight years ago and could only be described as a modest hit. A sequel nearly a decade later just seems a little strange. Maybe with James Bond temporarily out of action, Britain does need a trouble-shooter to protect our interests.

Sadly, 2011 sees no let-up in the rather overwhelming number of superheroes swooping over our screens. You can’t help but wonder if there is enough spandex to go round but coming our way over the next 12 months is a bewildering array identity-shy superbeings ready to right wrongs and struggle with a few personality defects.

Back in the old days you used to know your superheroes. You had Batman, Superman and Spiderman and you were happy. Today it’s difficult to escape thinking that, perhaps, there are now too many cape-clad heroes for our own good.

Anyway battling their way into the blockbuster season are: The Green Hornet, starring: Seth Rogen, Cameron Diaz, Thor with Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins, directed by Kenneth Branagh no less, X-Men: First Class with James McAvoy and January Jones, directed by Matthew Vaughn, The Green Lantern, starring: Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Mark Strong helmed by Bond director Martin Campbell, Captain America: The First Avenger, with Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, directed by Joe Johnston with The Avengers, a new Batman as well as Spiderman and Superman reboots planned for 2012.

Hopefully in amongst all these superhero flicks and special effect driven sequels there will be a few quiet, thoughtful and hopefully funny films which will capture the imaginations of cinemagoers looking for something original and something a little bit different.

I suspect the real gems of 2011 are the films we don’t know about yet.