News

The Notable Films of 2011: Part Three

By Garth Franklin Wednesday December 22nd 2010 11:59PM

image

Catch .44
Opens: 2011
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Bruce Willis, Malin Akerman, Nikki Reed, Deborah Ann Woll
Director: Aaron Harvey

Summary: The story focuses on three women being thrust into an extraordinary situation involving a psychopathic hitman, a grizzled trucker and a delusional line cook.

Analysis: Oddly little is known about this indie crime comedy aside from the three lead female roles have gone through more than a couple of rounds of casting musical chairs. The likes of Maggie Grace, Kate Mara, Laura Ramsey, Sarah Roemer, Lizzy Caplan and Lauren German were all attached at one point or another before the final trio of Malin Akerman ("Watchmen"), Nikki Reed ("Twilight") and Deborah Ann Woll ("True Blood") were settled on.

Bruce Willis, Forest Whitaker, Michael Rosenbaum and Brad Dourif also star with Willis as a crime boss behind everything that happens and Whitaker as a dangerously unstable assassin. Aaron Harvey, who last directed the little seen "The Evil Woods", helms the project which was shot in Louisiana this past summer.

More than seventeen producers are credited on this which seems a little drastic for such a relatively modest revenge meets exploitation flick. With fewer action films offering leading roles to women these days though (let alone having multiple lead female roles), best to enjoy them where you can.

image

Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Opens: 2011
Cast: Werner Herzog, Charles Fathy
Director: Werner Herzog

Summary: Acclaimed German filmmaker Werner Herzog gains exclusive access to film inside the Chauvet caves of Southern France, capturing the oldest known pictorial creations of humankind in their astonishing natural setting.

Analysis: That crazy German is back and continuing his recent trend of mixing and mashing his resume with both distinct features and fascinating nature-inspired documentaries. Herzog followed up his enjoyable Antarctica-set "Encounters at the End of the World" doco in 2007 with the demented "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans". Despite mixed reviews and poor box-office, 'Lieutenant' has oddly enough begun to develop a loyal cult following. Herzog's last film however, "My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done", remains a barely seen true crime tale.

Then in Toronto last year Herzog premiered this 3D doco exploring the oldest known example of human artistic expression - 35,000 year old rock paintings tucked away in caves in southern France. Using special lights that emit no heat, Herzog was granted access to the caves which few have been allowed to see due to fears of the damage that overexposure could cause. The resulting footage is the kind that actually seems a great fit for 3D technology and, combined with Herzog's unique and often imitated narrative style, it's no wonder the project has scored stellar reviews so far.

The few criticisms were pointed at Herzog going off on his usual over the top tangents at certain points, but most reviews agreed it's a slightly tighter and more controlled effort than 'Encounters', while the 3D is said to be tasteful and restrained. Distribution rights were quickly snapped up by IFC Films who'll no doubt give it a healthy but rather limited release. It may be a film you'll have to track down to see, but I get the feeling it's one of the few docos that'll be worth a watch on the big screen. Almost certainly it'll make great Blu-ray demo material.

image

Cedar Rapids
Opens: February 11th 2011
Cast: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Sigourney Weaver, Alia Shawkat, Anne Heche
Director: Miguel Arteta

Summary: The story centers on a wholesome and naive small-town Wisconsin man (Helms), who, when his role model dies, must represent his company at a regional insurance conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his mind is blown by the big-town experience.

Analysis: After modest success with "The Good Girl" back in 2002 and an outright critical and commercial flop with last year's Michael Cera-led comedy "Youth in Revolt", director Miguel Arteta tries out this broad comedy with former "The Daily Show" correspondent and "The Hangover" star Ed Helms. The Sundance Film Festival people certainly saw something they liked as 'Cedar' is set to get its world premiere in Utah next month where its reception will likely play a big part in how its release a few weeks later will be handled.

Certainly with cast members like Reilly, Heche and Weaver on hand, there's a lot of hope that this could be a fun time so long as the humour avoids playing it either too safe or silly. Unlike 'Youth', which fell victim to the internal problems of distributor The Weinstein Company, 'Cedar' is in safe hands with Fox Searchlight though the relatively limited theatrical run means word of mouth will be crucial here.

image

Ceremony
Opens: April 8th 2011
Cast: Michael Angarano, Uma Thurman, Lee Pace, Jake M. Johnson, Rebecca Mader
Director: Max Winkler

Summary: A young man falls hard for an older woman about to be married. The infatuation prompts him to take along his unwitting friend to a beach town in an effort to break up the wedding. Upon arriving, the young men quickly realize just how out of place they are among the stately British groom-to-be and his guests.

Analysis: Another film which premiered in Toronto this year, this indie coming-of-age laugher from first-time filmmaker Max Winkler had solid reviews and was quickly picked up by Magnolia Pictures for distribution. Angarano's performance as the fast-talking guy infatuated with an older woman is praised, as is Winkler's assured direction and early pacing. The lack of a cohesive story, underdeveloped supporting characters and little chemistry between the leads however were singled out - three things crucial to any rom-com.

Certainly it's difficult to sympathise with an arrogant and delusional young man attempting to win the love of the object of his affection by disrupting her wedding. "Pushing Daisies" actor Lee Pace stars as the groom, a documentary filmmaker said to behave like a blend of Jacques Costeau and Steve Irwin, while Jake M. Johnson plays an overly earnest sibling pulled along for the trip. Both are caricatures through and through, yet certainly sound more interesting than anything else going on in the film. What is nice to see though is Thurman getting to play a more mature and classier romantic female lead than she has had the opportunity to play in recent years.

image

Certified Copy
Opens: 2011
Cast: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell, Adrian Moore, Andrea Laurenzi
Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Summary: In Tuscany a French antiques dealer spends a day with the British writer of a recently-published book discussing on the value of copies in art. As the film progresses it is left unclear as to whether they are a married couple attempting to rekindle their relationship by pretending to be strangers, or strangers playing the part of a couple.

Analysis: Having already opened across most of the world this year, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's talk-driven feature scored Juliette Binoche a Best Actress award in Cannes and has received strong reviews in many publications. Despite what you may think, the dialogue is English and the setting is Tuscany where Binoche and British opera singer William Shimell engage in long and quite personal conversations deconstructing how perspective can affect our emotional reactions to art, life and love.

More interesting is how this strongly humanist director deals with the relationship of the two - are they friends, husband & wife, estranged lovers? Those who like neat and tidy answers will loathe this film which is all about stripping away the built-in prejudices and expectations we place on things and just enjoying them for what they are - a tougher thing to do than you might expect.

It's an adult film, for adults, that indulges itself in emotional and academic shades of grey like a cat stretching out on a fur rug. A puzzling film in no hurry to be solved, and for that it deserves a lot of respect. IFC Films will release it around March in the U.S., more exciting though will be a potential Criterion release later in the year.

image

Chalet Girl
Opens: 2011
Cast: Ed Westwick, Bill Nighy, Felicity Jones, Brooke Shields, Sophia Bush
Director: Phil Traill

Summary: Pretty tomboy Kim Matthews, 19, used to be a champion skateboarder. Now she's scored a catering job in the one of the most exclusive chalets in the Alps. Initially baffled by this bizarre new world of posh people, and falling for her handsome but taken boss, she soon discovers the thrill snowboarding and must overcome her fears.

Analysis: People love an asshole, which partly explains why the "Gossip Girl" resident bad boy character Chuck Bass has become the teen drama's biggest draw. After the prettiness of Chace Crawford became passe and the premise of the show itself wore thin, 'Gossip' has found new strength with British actor Ed Westwick's well-dressed, over-privileged arrogant bastard of a character pulling in a fresh audience and becoming something of a minor icon in the actor's own home country. A kind of modern-day Blackadder character with far less wit but a better cut of suit.

That partly explains why this very tedious sounding little British rom-com got the green light. Director Phil Triall's feature directorial debut was 2009's critical disaster "All About Steve" and the script is by an unknown scribe, yet that hasn't stopped various UK actors like Bill Nighy, Felicity Jones, Tamsin Egerton and comedian Bill Bailey from signing onboard.

Brooke Shields and the best thing ever to come out of "One Tree Hill", Sophia Bush, are also involved in this tale of a boy and girl from different classes falling in love despite all those around them telling them it'll never work. A recent trailer shows it to be exactly what you'd expect, complete with a few catty remarks from spoilt rich girls about the 'ugly duckling'. It's a film made for a very specific demographic who rarely venture outside certain genre archetypes. With them, I'm sure it'll do fine.

image

The Change-Up
Opens: August 5th 2011
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Jason Bateman, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde
Director: David Dobkin

Summary: Two childhood friends have drifted apart - one an overworked lawyer with a family, the other a single and oft unemployed man-child. After a drunken night, they wake up having switched bodies and proceed to learn each other's lives are nowhere near as rosy as they once seemed

Analysis: The old body swap trick has been a comedy staple for decades across films like both incarnations of "Freak Friday," "Big," "13 Going on 30," "The Hot Chick" and "Dating the Enemy". 'Change-Up' doesn't sound like it will add anything new to the formula, but that doesn't mean it won't be an enjoyable spin on it right... right?

Helmed by David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers," "Shanghai Knights") and penned by the duo behind the likes of "The Hangover" and "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past", the idea of a slacker Reynolds and workaholic Bateman switching minds should yield a few laughs. Yet nothing else about the story is particularly exciting be it the baseball-themed minor subplot to "Tron" scene stealer Olivia Wilde as a co-worker love interest.

image

Clean Skin
Opens: 2011
Cast: Sean Bean, Abhin Galeya, Charlotte Rampling, Michelle Ryan, James Fox
Director: Hadi Hajaig

Summary: Ewan (Sean Bean) is an ex-soldier turned MI5 agent faced with the task of pursuing and eliminating a suicide bomber (Abhin Galeya) and his terrorist cell. The catch? The bomber is a 'cleanskin' and thus almost impossible to trace.

Analysis: A relatively low-budget (£2 million) terrorist thriller shot in London earlier this year, the story sounds like your average episode of BBC's "Spooks" with a burned out ex-solider turned MI5 recruit trying to track down a suicide bomber. Bean, replacing Robert Carlyle who was previously cast in the lead role, says there's a lot of double crossing and bluffing going on amongst both the terrorist cell and his own cabal of superiors.

The film's title is a spy term referring to a person without a criminal record and no known affiliations with any terrorist organisation. The antagonist is such a person, making them extremely difficult to find. Charlotte Rampling is one of the key co-stars, I hope we get to see her as this film's equivalent to Judi Dench's M or Peter Firth's Harry Pearce though details on her character are unavailable at this time. Also onboard are the likes of Michelle Ryan and James Fox.

Writer/director Hadi Hajaig, who helmed 2005's "Puritan", says this is very much inspired by low tech, on-the-ground 70's thrillers like "The French Connection". A lofty ideal for a film that seems more like a glorified TV movie than a theatrical release. Considering the dire state the British film industry is in right now though in regard to budgeting cutbacks, even getting something on this scale done is a big undertaking.

image

The Cold Light of Day
Opens: 2011
Cast: Henry Cavill, Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver, Caroline Goodall, Rafi Gavron
Director: Mabrouk El Mechri

Summary: A cocky young Wall Street trader reluctantly vacations with his family in Spain. When his family is kidnapped, he is thrust into a government conspiracy and must unravel the secrets of his father in order to save his loved ones.

Analysis: Surprising the world with the robust genre effort "JCVD" which managed a compelling performance out of Jean Claude Van Damme, filmmaker Mabrouk El Mechri returns with this spy thriller that Summit Entertainment probably hopes will become its version of the Jason Bourne franchise. Even if the film doesn't take off, it should lead to more projects for "The Tudors" actor Henry Cavill who takes on the leading role here.

British star Cavill is a strange one. The model and actor's face is so perfectly chiseled and proportioned that he's what many would consider 'beautiful', and yet thanks to his square chin and masculine build he avoids being compartmentalised as a 'pretty boy'. Added to that an evolving talent and a seeming lack of arrogance that usually comes with said looks, and you've got a handsome leading man type that could successfully draw in both genders at the box-office.

He also became famous for just missing out on parts several years ago. He was cast as Superman until it changed directors from McG to Bryan Singer, he was in the top three contenders (alongside Daniel Craig and Sam Worthington) to play James Bond in "Casino Royale" but was deemed too young at the time, and a fan-based push to cast him as Cedric Diggory in the "Harry Potter" series failed with Robert Pattinson ultimately winning the role. This year with both this and the Greek mythological tale "Immortals" coming out which he toplines, Cavill is finally getting his chance in the spotlight.

Much like "Immortals", Cavill is surrounded by some strong name talent. On the one hand there's veterans like Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver, Jim Piddock and Caroline Goodall. On the other there's two more talented and handsome young British actors, "Clapham Junction" scene stealer Joseph Mawle and "Breaking and Entering" young star Rafi Gavron, who also deserve to get more breakout work from this.

'Cold' is an American and Spanish co-production which recently wrapped after two months of shooting across the central and eastern parts of the Iberian Peninsula including Valencia, Madrid and Alicante. Scott Wiper and John Petro penned the script, with a polish by "Clockers" novelist and former "The Wire" writer Richard Price which holds promise. On the surface it sounds like a fairly generic piece, but I'm hoping that expectation will work in its favour to deliver something either unexpected, or at least with style.

image

Cold Weather
Opens: 2011
Cast: Cris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Raúl Castillo
Director: Aaron Katz

Summary: After abandoning a promising academic career in forensic science, aimless Doug returns to Portland to live with his more responsible big sister. His latent passion for detective work is stoked when his ex-girlfriend goes missing and he and his fellow slacker sleuths are drawn into Portland's not-quite-seedy underground.

Analysis: Aaron Katz, the award-winning indie filmmaker who helped pioneer the mumblecore movement, gets a much bigger budget than usual (several hundred thousand dollars this time) to pull off this slacker mystery/comedy tale which helps evolve his filmmaking style into something more promising. Unlike most indie mysteries which emphasise darkness, edge or grittiness, 'Weather' is an old-fashioned, crowd pleasing detective yarn mixed with comedy stylings and shot (using the RED digital camera) with a crisp and very professional look against the wet and leafy backdrops of Portland.

It's a genre not heavily explored aside from maybe British TV series "Jonathan Creek" which often pulled off that tricky mix of dry comedy, quirky characters, slow build suspense and well-constructed conundrums tidily solved by the end. Here, Katz tries to fuse that with some of his more familiar relationship drama elements in the hopes of giving a genre movie more character depth and complexity, while keeping the story at a more personal and thus realistic level.

Yet while reviews from the festival circuit have been strong, they are venues where mumblecore sensibilities are embraced. Thrown out into a larger world more familiar with the genre elements of thrillers, the slow build and lack of budget will probably frustrate those not used to Katz's style and lack of structure. Personally however this looks very much up my alley, and a trailer from earlier this year shows a visually more interesting film than its limited budget would lead you to believe.

image

Colombiana
Opens: September 2nd 2011
Cast: Zoe Saldana, Michael Vartan, Callum Blue, Lennie James, Graham McTavish
Director: Olivier Megaton

Summary: A young woman who witnesses her parents' murder as a child in Bogota, grows up to be a stone-cold assassin. She works for her uncle as a hitman by day, but her personal time is spent engaging in vigilante murders that she hopes will lead her to her ultimate target: the mobster responsible for her parents' death.

Analysis: Prodigious film producer Luc Besson has been annually churning out a French kids fantasy film, a French action film, and a Hollywood action film for some time now. Following on from the disappointing "Transporter 3", the immensely satisfying "Taken", and the cheesy fun of this year's underrated "From Paris with Love", Besson's 2011 English language yarn is this $40 million revenge thriller with "Star Trek" and "Avatar" babe Zoe Saldana as a woman named Cataleya Restrepo who is on the hunt for her parent's killers.

Like those aforementioned films, the plot sounds very thin and cliche (Cataleya's character sounds like the grown up version of Leon's Mathilda) while one doubts there'll be much in the way of inventive characterisation. What it will deliver though is fast paced, well-filmed high kicking action with the odd decent twist and big old sense of fun. Besson's trick of hiring a strong lead actor and writing to their strengths (Neeson's gravitas, Travolta's cockiness) to anchor the proceedings has paid off well in his last two films so there's no reason not to expect the same here.

Indeed, Saldana has proven herself a quite strong and capable actress in her own right and looks poised to become one of those few who can jump between serious dramatic turns and blockbuster action hero roles with ease. Vartan plays her artist boyfriend unaware of her double life, which means he's likely either in on it with the killers or will no doubt get brutally murdered halfway through in a shock twist. Opening in the generally quiet first weekend of September, I doubt it'll have the legs of "Taken" but should deliver a nice little dividend for Europacorp.

image

Conan the Barbarian
Opens: August 19th 2011
Cast: Jason Momoa, Rachel Nichols, Stephen Lang, Leo Howard, Ron Perlman
Director: Marcus Nispel

Summary: Khalar Singh arrives in Cimmeria seeking the help of young Conan's father Corin. When help is refused, Singh slaughters all the Cimmerians except for Conan who escapes. Becoming a thief, he eventually seeks revenge for his father's death.

Analysis: An odd choice for a reboot, Robert E. Howard's fantasy hero was initially a pulp hero creation of the 30's like the more sci-fi oriented Flash Gordon. Yet it's the 80's film incarnation, personified by a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, which has become so synonymous with the character to the point that any new attempt to revive the property will have a hard time breaking down that public perception.

Warners tried for the best part of a decade to get another "Conan" film going with the likes of the Wachowskis, Robert Rodriguez, Boaz Yakin and original 'Conan' director John Milius all attached at one point or another. All of their attempts failed however, and the project ended up in the hands of Millennium Films in 2007 with the understanding that the film had to be made quickly.

Brett Ratner's name was floated about as director at one point, but the job ultimately went to German filmmaker Marcus Nispel whose previous films have included two reboots ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Friday the 13th") and a sword & sandals epic (2007 Viking war tale flop "Pathfinder"). Shooting on the project kicked off in March in Eastern Europe.

Chosen for the lead was former "Baywatch" actor Jason Momoa, beating out both "Twilight" actor Kellan Lutz and the living embodiment of male sex appeal that is "Supernatural" actor Jared Padalecki. Momoa has played a similar warrior character in "Stargate Atlantis" for much of the past five years but upon landing this job became very committed to it, working out like a madman to add several dozen pounds of muscle to his already large 215 pound (97 kg) frame.

Joining him are some interesting supporting cast members including Rachel Nichols as the love interest, Ron Perlman as Conan's father, "Avatar" baddie Stephen Lang as the villain and Rose McGowan as an evil half-witch. There's still some big questions to be answered here, aside from the obvious ones like do modern audiences have any real interest in the character any more, and is Momoa a good fit for the role?

Milius' original film was a delightful fluke that probably shouldn't have worked - and yet did. Armed with producer Dino De Laurentiis' taste for the lavish, a script co-written by a young Oliver Stone, Basil Poledouris' blaring orchestral soundtrack and Milius' own somewhat twisted sensibility - it was a dark and violent take on the genre filled with blood, tits, black magic and a very basic revenge story.

It wasn't particularly loyal to Howard's "Conan" books either, cribbing elements from his various other creations and actual historical figures. Yet it holds up even today and was a big success both in the U.S. and internationally, turning Schwarzenegger into an overnight star.

The follow-up effort "Conan the Destroyer" was neither as well received or financially successful, a big part of that being the studio's desire to tone down the violence, sex and darkness that would allow more kids to see it - in the process robbing the franchise of many of the elements that made it unique. This take on "Conan" is said to be a return to the serious and R-rated tone of the source material.

Yet coming in at a costly $100 million, no major marquee names attached and a release targeting the generally quiet mid-August period, this seems a somewhat strange gamble on behalf of smaller studios which frankly can't absorb a big-budget loss the way the majors can. Lionsgate faces a decidedly uphill battle marketing this despite the familiarity people may have with the character. Best of luck to them.

image

The Conspirator
Opens: 2011
Cast: James McAvoy, Kevin Kline, Robin Wright Penn, Justin Long, Evan Rachel Wood
Director: Robert Redford

Summary: Mary Surratt is the lone female charged as a co-conspirator in the assassination trial of Abraham Lincoln. As the whole nation turns against her, she is forced to rely on her reluctant lawyer to uncover the truth and save her life.

Analysis: Robert Redford returns to the director's chair with this $20 million old-fashioned courtroom drama centering around the fallout of the Lincoln assassination. Shot very late last year, the movie wasn't anywhere near ready to premiere at Redford's Sundance Film Festival back in January. Instead it went on to become one of the more anticipated entries at Toronto this past September with a gala world premiere.

While reaction afterward was positive, it obviously wasn't as enthusiastic as Redford had hoped. The actor turned filmmaker's slow burn style and deliberate sensibilities will appeal to older audiences but will probably not engage those hoping for something a bit more punchy. Like his last effort, 2007's "Lions for Lambs", Redford reportedly forgoes opportunities to flesh out the characters and the setting in favour of grinding his political axe with plenty of rather blunt swipes at the bungled war on terror.

What he does get right is strong performances out of his two leads - saucy Scot James McAvoy and the always delightful Robin Wright. The miscasting of Alexis Bledel and Justin Long in supporting turns however were frequently singled out as one of the film's most visible flaws. Foreign outlet reviews were more upbeat about the film than domestic critics, indicating a potential divide when it gets released. Considering Redford's last great drama as a director was 1994's superb "Quiz Show", if this even comes close to that in terms of quality it'll definitely be worth checking out.

image

Contagion
Opens: October 21st 2011
Cast: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow
Director: Steven Soderbergh

Summary: The story follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast-moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. At the same time, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart.

Analysis: Having generally stuck to awards or art house fare in recent years, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh is making a comeback in the mainstream cinema arena this year with not one but two films centring around large ensemble casts. The first is a spy thriller, the second is this - a $60 million action thriller following how various characters deal with and react to a global pandemic.

The first feature film to be shot using the RED Epic 5k digital cinema camera, this will probably suffer the same fate of most ensemble dramas with one or two of the subplots working perfectly, one or two proving utter dead weight, and the rest being just adequate. Hard to tell which ones this far out, but in terms of roles Law has the most interesting sounding thus far as a fear-mongering blogger.

The casting is so stellar that quite frankly it is a must see. Alongside the five names above there's also Marion Cotillard, Bryan Cranston, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, Demetri Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Chin Han and Josie Ho. Funnily enough this marks a reunion of sorts for "The Talented Mr. Ripley" co-stars Damon, Law and Paltrow. Paltrow will be playing a woman who gets infected early on (Damon plays her husband) while Winslet, Cotillard and Fishburne will play CDC doctors.

The tone here is a big question. The best films involving outbreaks in recent years have usually been set in the wake of an infection and are given a more sci-fi bent, namely productions like Danny Boyle's "28 Days Later", Terry Gilliam's "12 Monkeys" and Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men". Actual serious contemporary medical thrillers about plagues are few and far between as frankly they're difficult to make into compelling cinema. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the type was the one that never got off the ground - the adaptation of Richard Preston's Ebola-themed "The Hot Zone" back in the early 90's which had the likes of Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford attached at one time.

Nearly two decades on, could Soderbergh be trying to do his own incarnation of that? If so will he look at the larger scale of the disaster or keep the actions contained to simple character studies with the pandemic simply serving as a background catalyst? The filmmakers have made a big deal about this being shot in 3D, but the idea of seeing bubbling skin lesions and blood-tinged projectile vomiting flying at me from the screen doesn't exactly serve as an enticement. If I wanted that kind of treatment, I'd have had a kid.

image

The Convincer
Opens: 2011
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Billy Crudup, Michelle Arthur, Bob Balaban
Director: Jill Sprecher

Summary: The movie centers on a salesman who seeks to acquire a rare musical instrument, leading to a number of dramatic consequences.

Analysis: Former "Big Love" producers Jill and Karen Sprecher return to the world of indie filmmaking, ten years after their second feature "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing", with this Mid-West set drama that'll have its world premiere shortly at Sundance.

Details about the story are being kept under wraps, but the script was good enough to entice indie production company Werc Werk Works to fully finance and produce this - making it their fourth feature following on from "Life During Wartime," "Howl" and the upcoming Hungarian film "The Turin Horse". I expect we'll hear a lot more in a few weeks time when those visiting Park City get a good look at it.

image

Coriolanus
Opens: 2011
Cast: Gerard Butler, Ralph Fiennes, William Hurt, Eddie Marsan, Brian Cox
Director: Ralph Fiennes

Summary: A modern day adaptation of Shakespere's play. Pushed by his controlling mother to enter the Senate, Valiant Roman general Coriolanus is loath to ingratiate himself with the masses whose votes he needs. When the public refuses to support him, Coriolanus's anger prompts a riot, which culminates in his expulsion from Rome. The banished hero then allies with his sworn enemy to take his revenge on the city.

Analysis: Amongst the darkest of the Bard's works, and arguably the most blood-soaked aside from "Titus Andronicus", T. S. Eliot famously called this Shakespearian tragedy superior to the more well-known "Hamlet". Certainly I've a soft spot for it as a Sydney Theatre Company's staging of it in the early 90's was the very first time I saw a Shakespeare production on stage. To this day it remains one of the writer's most divisive works with its political nuances and a prideful lead character that's difficult to pin down.

Set to add more grist to the mill is this contemporary-set adaptation that star Ralph Fiennes himself directed and filmed in Belgrade early this year. Swapping the decadence of Ancient Rome for the battle scared landscape akin to many modern war zones, battle armour has been replaced with combat fatigues and sword battles with gun fights. Yet the original dialogue remains intact, mixed with the urgency of modern filmmaking to make this a "high-octane political drama" according to an interview with Fiennes.

"Gladiator" scribe John Logan adapted the script, stripping it of its more difficult passages to deliver a visceral tale that "doesn't take any prisoners... It has no lyricism. I like that" says Fiennes. He's also deliberately avoiding linking it with modern politics, the armies are still Roman and Volscian by name but the locations are being deliberately shot to have a look that could fill in for any militarised nation.

Fiennes famous portrayed the role on stage a decade ago, while co-star Gerard Butler got his start on the stage in the play back in 1996 in a version starring Steven Berkoff. Even more exciting are the co-stars joining them, including Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus' mother Volumnia and Brian Cox as smooth talking politician Menenius. The film is set to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in March where critical response will be an important factor - it's a tough sell as well considering Julie Taymor's recent adaptation of "The Tempest" lost all its steam after drawing poor reviews at the Venice Film Festival.

image

Courageous
Opens: September 30th 2011
Cast: Alex Kendrick, Kevin Downes, Ben Davies, Matt Hardwick, Ken Bevel
Director: Alex Kendrick

Summary: Four men, one calling: To serve and protect. As law enforcement officers, they face danger every day. Yet when tragedy strikes close to home, these fathers are left wrestling with their hopes, their fears, and their faith. From this struggle will come a decision that changes all of their lives.

Analysis: When it comes to business models, Sherwood Pictures has one many film companies would envy. A production company outlet owned by a Georgia-based Baptist Church, Sherwood produces low budget independent features about various subjects with strong Christian moral messages. It then uses mostly word of mouth marketing amongst churches and faith-based organisations to garner support to help promote and distribute the film.

Scoff all you like, Hollywood certainly did at first. Then in 2006, their football drama feature "Facing the Giants" hauled in a solid $10 million from a budget of only $10,000. Two years later, the fireman & marriage-themed drama "Fireproof" started out with a more serious budget ($500,000) and managed to outpace quite a few studio titles in the quiet early Fall period of that year, hauling in an impressive total of $33.5 million. That got a lot of attention, so much so that reportedly around 170 media outlets visited the set of their new film.

This fourth feature is an exploration of father/son relationships against the backdrop of the police force. With a bigger budget of just over $1 million, a stronger rating (PG-13 rather than the usual PG for these films), and use of the Red One camera to give the film much higher production values than the previous ones, the obvious aim is to deliver a feature that will not just energise the faithful but potentially crossover and reach a mass audience. It's doubtful this will be that film, but as Sherwood have demonstrated before - one shouldn't underestimate them.

image

Cowboys and Aliens
Opens: July 29th 2011
Cast: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano
Director: Jon Favreau

Summary: 1873. Arizona Territory. A stranger with no memory of his past stumbles into the hard desert town of Absolution, a town about to experience fear it can scarcely comprehend as the desolate city is attacked by marauders from the sky. Now, the stranger they rejected is their only hope for salvation against the alien force.

Analysis: It takes a pair of big brass balls to make a film called "Cowboys and Aliens", a movie that could easily go wrong if the approach isn't balanced just right. Much like a good James Bond film, the story and subject matter has to be taken seriously enough on screen to ensure it has impact, but not so serious as to turn it into a dour, self-important endeavour.

Crossing the divide between the playful and the purposeful is director Jon Favreau who walked the tightrope with ease with the first "Iron Man" in 2008, though slipped somewhat with its sequel earlier this year. With this comic adaptation, Favreau seems to have a lot more freedom and is revelling in it. 'Cowboys' has a prime late July release slot, a major studio backed campaign, and some of the best talent around both on screen and behind the scenes.

So what's the problem? Expectation. A high concept genre blending like this, especially one with perhaps the most blatantly descriptive title since "Snakes on a Plane", conjures up the idea of something utterly goofy - a campy action film with a lot of winking at the audience and bad jokes. The kind of idea that geeks would love but mainstream audiences will snicker at and dismiss as silly. On title alone I myself had little anticipation for the film.

Then Favreau showed off a bunch of early footage at Comic Con and with it he stole the show. The western elements were surprisingly faithful to the genre, the look very realistic and the tone entertaining without slipping into parody. The aliens themselves weren't shown but an extended version of the big scene in the trailer showing the initial attack was promising - the extraterrestrial marauders treated as a legitimate threat.

Better yet is that within the context of the narrative, the characters took the events seriously and reacted with a decent amount of realism. This can make all the difference in the world as it adds weight, tension and excitement to a scenario that you'd might otherwise scoff at. Yet Favreau doesn't forget to have fun, demonstrated in the few outright Western scenes we saw which generated character-centric laughs at just the right moments.

The cast itself is a pure dream. The teaming of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford alone would be enough to get genre fans in a tizzy. Yet added to that the likes of great talents like Sam Rockwell, Paul Dano, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, David O'Hara and the promising rising star of Olivia Wilde make for pure heaven. Behind the camera, Faverau's cohorts include Ron Howard and Brian Grazer producing, and a script by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, "Lost" producer Damon Lindelof and "Iron Man" scribes Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby.

The onus now lies on Universal's marketing department to convey the tone of the film to the audience at large. Showing off the first trailer to a few friends, all loved the footage but laughed at the title and dismissed it from there initially. Yet having had time to get used to it, that anticipation has now grown again in them. Will that reaction take place across a larger spectrum? I doubt it. What it does mean is that every trailer release will be crucial in the lead-up to release and will have to be very carefully planned and executed. I hope they succeed as right now it looks like one of the few flat out fun tentpoles hitting next Summer.

image

Crazy Stupid Love
Opens: july 29th 2011
Cast: Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Gosling, Josh Groban, Emma Stone
Director: Glenn Ficarra , John Requa

Summary: A loving father and husband finds his life unravelling when his wife threatens to divorce him. As a result he hires a slick life coach to try and help him save his marriage and family.

Analysis: After their last film, "I Love You Phillip Morris", was ass f-cked behind the scenes because they showed too much ass f-cking on the screen, the directing duo of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ("Bad Santa") are having no such problems with this broader comedy with a stellar cast and a script by in demand writer Dan Fogelman ("Tangled," "Cars," "Fred Claus"). Originally slated for April, Warners delayed the film to a more high profile late July bow citing overwhelmingly strong test screening reaction demanding they give the film a bigger push.

Whatever the real story, the draw of Gosling as a cool cat who knows it all combined with the likes of Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon and even Josh Groban in supporting roles already make this look ten times more appealing than this past Summer's Carell-starrer "Dinner for Schmucks". Hard to say what kind of tone they're going for here, but with that "Bad Santa" duo in place I hope their knack for punchy comedy hasn't been too stymied by what happened with 'Phillip Morris'.

image

The Cup
Opens: 2011
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Curry, Rodger Corser, Daniel MacPherson, Bill Hunter
Director: Simon Wincer

Summary: Based on the true story of young Australian jockey, Damien Oliver, who loses his only brother in a tragic racing accident just days before the 2002 Melbourne Cup. Damien suffers through an almost endless series of discouraging defeats only to triumph on one of sport's greatest stages in a thrilling victory that made history.

Analysis: In recent times it seems as if the troubled Australian film industry has been trying to branch out from the two genres it seems to have become mired in over the past decade: inner city drug and/or crime dramas with only art house intentions, or cringeworthy dated comedies that do moderate business at best. Aside from this year's superb "Animal Kingdom" and Baz Luhrmann's diarrhetic drivel "Australia", it has been a long time since there's been a locally made film appealing enough to drag jaded audiences out en masse to the cinemas as they did in the mid 90's and early 00's for films like "Muriel's Wedding," "Priscilla," "The Dish," "Crackerjack," "Moulin Rouge" and "Lantana".

Village Roadshow is now attempting to tap that market again with this $15 million family friendly take on jockey Damien Oliver's overcoming of adversity to win the 2002 Melbourne Cup, one of the most famous runnings of one of the world's greatest horse races. The danger with something like this is that it will dwell in cheesy sentimentality, a claim Irish actor Brendan Gleeson has refuted in the local press saying he considers overly sentimental films a "disaster in aesthetic terms", but "proper sentiment is at the heart of everything and this is a story about proper sentiment... It's true and enlightened."

Gleeson plays trainer Dermot Weld alongside well liked local actors such as Stephen Curry and Daniel MacPherson. Former "Home and Away" starlet and failed biker babe applicant Jodi Gordon in the lead female role has certainly raised a few eyebrows, as have reports in September about Oliver pulling out of several key races to help police enquiries into a criminal investigation. Nevertheless word on the script is good while director Simon Wincer has had plenty of experience with the subject matter having helmed the likes of "Phar Lap," "The Lighthorsemen," "The Young Black Statllion" and the more blubber-oriented "Free Willy". Marked for an Easter holidays release, Roadshow might just have the pull they need.

The Complete Notable Films of 2011 Guide

Part One: 5 Days of August, 11-11-11, 13 Assassins, 30 Minutes or Less, Abduction, The Adjustment Bureau, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Albert Nobbs, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, Amigo, Anonymous, Apollo 18, The Apparition, Arthur, Arthur Christmas, Atlas Shrugged: Part One, Bad Teacher, Barney's Version, Battle: Los Angeles, Beastly

Part Two: The Beaver, Beginners, Bel Ami, Bernie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Big Mommas: Like Father Like Son, The Big Year, Black Gold, Blackthorn, The Black Tulip, Blitz, Born to Be a Star, The Borrower Arrietty, Bridesmaids, Brighton Rock, Butter, The Cabin in the Woods, Caesar: Rise of the Apes, Captain America: The First Avenger, Cars 2

Part Three: Catch .44, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Cedar Rapids, Ceremony, Certified Copy, Chalet Girl, The Change-Up, Clean Skin, The Cold Light of Day, Cold Weather, Colombiana, Conan the Barbarian, The Conspirator, Contagion, The Convincer, Coriolanus, Courageous, Cowboys and Aliens, Crazy Stupid Love, The Cup

Part Four: Damsels in Distress, A Dangerous Method, The Darkest Hour, The Debt, The Deep Blue Sea, The Descendants, The Details, The Devil's Double, Dibbuk Box, The Dilemma, Dolphin Tale 3D, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Dream House, Drive, Drive Angry 3D, Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, The Eagle, Even the Rain, Every Day, Everything Must Go, The Eye of the Storm

Part Five: The Factory, Fast Five, The Fields, Final Destination 5, Flypaper, Footloose, Friends with Benefits, Friends with Kids, Fright Night, From Prada to Nada, The Future, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gnomeo and Juliet 3D, Goon, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, Griff the Invisible, The Guard, Guns Girls and Gambling, Hall Pass

Part Six: The Hangover: Part Two, Hanna, Happy Feet 2, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, Haywire, A Heartbeat Away, The Help, Henry's Crime, HERE, Higher Ground, Hobo with a Shotgun, Homework, Hop, Horrible Bosses, The Housemaid, House of My Father, How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Hugo Cabret, The Hungry Rabbit Jumps, The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence, The Hunter

Part Seven: I Am Number Four, I Melt With You, The Ides of March, Immortals, The Impossible, In A Better World, Incendies, The Innkeepers, Insidious, Intruders, In Your Hands, Ironclad, Jack and Diane, Jack and Jill, Jane Eyre, Jeff Who Lives At Home, Johnny English Reborn, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Jumping the Broom, Just Go With It, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

Part Eight: Kaboom, The Killer Elite, Killer Joe, Kill The Irishman, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Lady, Larry Crowne, Last Night, The Ledge, Life in a Day, Like Crazy, Limitless, The Lincoln Lawyer, Little Birds, A Little Bit of Heaven, Little White Lies, Live With It, London Boulevard, The Loneliest Planet, Love and Bruises, The Lucky One

Part Nine: Machine Gun Preacher, Mad Bastards, Man on a Ledge, The Man with the Iron Fist, Margin Call, Mars Needs Moms!, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Mechanic, Meek's Cutoff, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, The Mill and the Cross, Miral, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Moneyball, The Monk, Monte Carlo, Mother's Day, Movie 43, Mr. Popper's Penguins, The Muppets

Part Ten: My Idiot Brother, My Week with Marilyn, Neds, New Year's Eve, No Strings Attached, Now, Of Gods and Men, On the Road, One Day, One for the Money, Oranges and Sunshine, The Other Woman, Paranormal Activity 3, Passion Play, Paul, Peace Love and Misunderstanding, Peep World, Perfect Sense, Piranha 3DD, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Priest, Project X

Part Eleven: Prom, Puss in Boots, Rampart, Rango, The Raven, Real Steel, Red Dawn, Red Dog, Red Riding Hood, Red State, Red Tails, Restless, Retreat, Rio, Route Irish, The Rum Diary, Safe, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Salvation Boulevard, Say Nothing

Part Twelve: Scream 4, A Serbian Film, Serge Gainsbourg: A Life Heroic, Shame, Shaolin, Shark Night 3D, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Shelter, The Silent House, The Sitter, The Skin That I Inhabit, Sleeping Beauty, The Smurfs, Snabba Cash, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Snowtown, Soldiers of Fortune, Something Borrowed, Son of No One, Soul Surfer

Part Eleven: Prom, Puss in Boots, Rampart, Rango, The Raven, Real Steel, Red Dawn, Red Dog, Red Riding Hood, Red State, Red Tails, Restless, Retreat, Rio, Route Irish, The Rum Diary, Safe, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Salvation Boulevard, Say Nothing

Part Twelve: Scream 4, A Serbian Film, Serge Gainsbourg: A Life Heroic, Shame, Shaolin, Shark Night 3D, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Shelter, The Silent House, The Sitter, The Skin That I Inhabit, Sleeping Beauty, The Smurfs, Snabba Cash, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Snowtown, Soldiers of Fortune, Something Borrowed, Son of No One, Soul Surfer

Part Thirteen: Source Code, Space Battleship Yamato, Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World, Straw Dogs, Submarine, Sucker Punch, Super, Super 8, Take Shelter, Take This Waltz, Ten Year, There Be Dragons, The Thing, The Three Musketeers, This Means War, This Must Be The Place, Thor, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tower Heist

SHARE: