The Notable Films of 2011: Part Twelve

By Garth Franklin Tuesday March 8th 2011 08:44AM


Scream 4
Opens: April 15th 2011
Cast: Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Mary McDonnell, Emma Roberts Director: Wes Craven

Summary: Sidney Prescott, now the author of a self-help book, returns home to Woodsboro on the last stop of her book tour. There she reconnects with family and friends, but it also brings about the return of Ghostface which puts the whole town in danger.

Analysis: Back in late 1996 when I first began covering film news, "Scream" was released and became more than just a sleeper hit. After years of genre movies being relegated to direct-to-video status, this comedic slasher spawned the biggest surge in the horror film genre since "Halloween" almost two decades before. Its post-modern stylings and witty self-aware dialogue went on to be a big influence on films and television in general.

Yet the "Scream" series itself never could quite capture that glory again. By the time the solid first sequel in 1997 and quite disappointing third entry in 1999 had been released, the franchise's time seem to have come and gone. Yet for a decade there's always been hints of a fourth film, one that director Wes Craven and most of the surviving main cast had no interest in for years but all have ultimately came back around to. It was in mid-2008 when the official announcement came that a film was happening and the $40 million production finally got underway last year.

Horror of course has since moved on from these films, albeit backwards in some ways. After the self-aware comedy horror trend "Scream" launched seemingly died off we had the Japanese supernatural remakes spearhead by "The Ring" and "The Grudge"; torture porn with "Saw" and its countless imitators; a resurgence of the zombie film genre with "28 Days Later" and "Dawn of the Dead"; horror classic remakes galore with the 'Texas Chainsaw', 'Friday the 13th' and 'Elm Street' amongst others; and the ultra low-budget stylings of "Blair Witch Project" a decade ago and "Paranormal Activity" more recently.

There's plenty of material there for mining comedic gold, however the approach of the original trilogy does seem old hat these days. Could Craven and writer Kevin Williamson strike gold again? As filming began, stories of a troubled production quickly emerged. The original "Scream" films had their own teething problems, though it was Craven and Williamson's extremely problematic werewolf collaboration "Cursed" that many were worried this would collapse into.

Various actors who were cast in supporting roles dropped out at the last minute. During filming some actors voiced difficulties with the way the production was done - namely the constant script re-writing, something that happened on all the previous films in the series. David Arquette & Courteney Cox's reported marital troubles also led to a rather tense set. Yet ultimately, despite the shooting going slightly over and some additional last minute photography last month, everything was done and the film is still on track for a release mid-next month.

The promise here is a film that ups both the horror and the comedy. Test screenings in January hint that despite all the swipes at filmmakers and the genre, this is still a very dark and bloody film. Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell cameo in the beginning of the film, delivering a sequence along the lines of Drew Barrymore and Jada Pinkett Smith's in the first two films. The rest of the cast is the typical kind for this film from the returning main trio of Sidney, Dewey and Gale to several new faces including comic relief along with assertive and sassy friends. One doubts there'll be much in the way of originality, but we should hopefully get a few thrills and laughs.


A Serbian Film
Opens: 2011
Cast: Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic, Katarina Zutic, Slobodan Bestic
Director: Srđan Spasojević

Summary: An aging porn star agrees to participate in an "art film" in order to make a clean break from the business, only to discover that he has been drafted into making a pedophilia and necrophilia themed snuff film.

Analysis: Whether this film will even get a release is hard to say considering all the ongoing controversy surrounding it. Srđan Spasojević's debut feature is horror tale shot and set in the former Yugoslav republic which had its debut last March as part of the SXSW Film Festival. It then played the festival circuit throughout much of last year both ahead of, and after its uncensored release in its home country in mid-September.

The problems really began though in August. A screening in the UK at the Film Four FrightFest was pulled after the film classification board requested 49 cuts and nearly five minutes of footage excised from the film if it were to achieve certification. The organisers opted not to show a heavily edited version but did find a way around the ruling to screen it as a "private event". Eventually the heavily edited form hit UK theaters in December, the most censored cinema release in Britain since 1994. That's still a better result than here in Australia where the ratings board refused to give the film a classification and so banned sales and public screenings of the feature.

With its graphic depictions of rape, necrophilia and incest, Serbian state prosecution have begun an investigation to learn if the film violates the law, most notably in regards to crime related to the protection of minors. While some U.S. reviewers praised the film highly, all agreed it was one of the singular most difficult viewing experiences of their lives with many claiming the director's intentions of using allegory about Serbian political history is lost amidst the exploitation and carnage.

Just this week has come word that the Spanish public prosecutor might be roped into looking into charges of exhibiting child pornography in regards to a scene in the film where a child is raped. In terms of filming however, both a doll and animatronics were used in said scene according to Moviefone, thus it crosses only the line of extreme bad taste rather than one of legality.

2009's buzzed about festival circuit horror tale "The Human Centipede" became infamous for its concept rather than its more chaste than expected execution. 'Serbian' on the other hand is already going down as arguably one of the most talked about and infamous films of all time alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini's famed 1975 "Salo". With the film essentially unreleasable in many countries, the ability to release films unrated on disc in the U.S. means the uncut version will likely find its way to some kind of home release in the next year or two. Whether a theatrical run of any kind will take place before then will depend on the bravery of whichever distributor nabs it.


Serge Gainsbourg: A Life Heroic
Opens: 2011
Cast: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones, Anna Mouglalis
Director: Joann Sfar

Summary: A glimpse at the life of French singer Serge Gainsbourg, from growing up in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris through his successful song-writing years in the 1960s to his death in 1991 at the age of 62.

Analysis: Former graphic novelist Joann Sfar tackles this unconventional biopic of the troubled but genius musician with the results akin to a more lively Todd Haynes-style feature. Sfar's lack of familiarity with the cinematic medium results in an ungainly film that actually fits the personality of its subject quite well - a man who cared little for convention.

Also like Gainsbourg's work, there'll be those who adore it and many others who are underwhelmed. International critics certainly haven't draped the film in praise, even its more surreal elements like the Jewish caricature marionette that shadows him throughout or scenes where posters come alive.

The general consensus seems to be that its bright fantasy elements are used as a distraction in a film too afraid to contemplate with any depth the aspects of Gainsbourg's life that made him the way he was including his serial womanising, alcoholism, family breakdowns and misfired stunts. Yet the film is still unlikely to be as enigmatic as the man himself.


Opens: 2011
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Hanna Ware
Director: Steven R. McQueen

Summary: A drama centered on thirty-something Brandon, his myriad sexual escapades, and what happens when his wayward younger sister moves in with him.

Analysis: After making a truly stunning debut with 2008's bleak Irish prison drama "Hunger", British artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen is re-teaming with that film's breakout star Michael Fassbender for this intriguing sounding relationship drama which recently began shooting in New York. Not expected to be as harrowing as "Hunger", "Shame" will still paint a haunting picture of an epidemic in modern society that almost no-one talks about - porn addiction.

Specifically reports indicate Fassbender plays an everyday thirty-something guy whose addiction to porn means he finds it extremely difficult to connect to women on anything but a superficial level. That puts a blossoming relationship he's developed with a confident and attractive woman in jeopardy. In an age where true social interaction is dwindling and extreme pornography is a just mouse click away, kids these days have usually seen more extreme smut by the time they hit their twenties than their parents saw in an entire life time.

What kind of toll psychologically that ultimately takes is hard to say, physically though it can lead to obvious issues from erectile dysfunction to anti-social behaviour. McQueen and "Brick Lane" scribe Abi Morgan penned the script for the film which has already become a hot seller in several international markets. McQueen says the film will "explore the nature of need and how people react to the experiences of their lives". No dates as yet but best guess is McQueen will be hurrying to have this ready for a Venice or Toronto bow.


Opens: 2011
Cast: Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse, Jackie Chan, Fan Bingbing, Wu Jing
Director: Benny Chan

Summary: In 1920s mainland China, a warlord finishes his violent and ruthless conquest of a township, only to succumb to paranoia and to ultimately beg the mercy of the monks of the local Shaolin temple. Together they try and bring about the end of tyranny.

Analysis: A loose remake of Jet Li's 1981 film debut "The Shaolin Temple", this Hong Kong-Chinese co-production marks the first full mainland production of veteran director Benny Chan ("New Police Story," "Moment of Romance"). Chan does the smart move by taking the central concept of the earlier film and updates it significantly by turning it into an all out epic action drama with a visual lushness and scale that's easily the filmmaker's biggest effort to date.

Jackie Chan was originally slated to play the lead in this, but ultimately had to reduce his role to only an extended cameo due to his commitments to "The Karate Kid". The result is Jackie essentially provides what critics have called "unnecessary comic relief" in an otherwise quite serious film which puts its emphasis on explosive confrontations and highly choreographed action with little in the way of CG enhancements.

It also celebrates the pacifistic Shaolin philosophy and its effects on even the most broken of men. Combining a redemption tale with some of the best martial arts action on screen in years, and you have a convincing depiction of that harrowing time in Chinese history with only a few dud performances (namely the antagonists) letting down an otherwise highly recommended feature which has already scored rave reviews throughout much of the world where it has already opened.


Shark Night 3D
Opens: September 2nd 2011
Cast: Sara Paxton, Alyssa Diaz, Dustin Milligan, Chris Carmack, Katharine McPhee
Director: David R. Ellis

Summary: The story revolves around seven male and female college friends who spend a weekend at a lake house in Louisiana's Gulf area. When their vacation quickly becomes a nightmare of hellish shark attacks, unheard of in freshwater lakes, they soon discover that the sharks are part of a sick, greedy plan on the part of several locals.

Analysis: What could be this year's "Piranha 3D" (though that film is getting a sequel as well), this $28 million horror thriller is a straight up genre piece that appears to be exactly what you expect - a bunch of hot young co-eds stuck in a remote locale where the waters are full of sharks and the hick locals are greedy sadists who'll no doubt get what's coming to them. Along the way expect plenty of the three all important B's of any B-movie - boobs, bums and blood.

The film comes from David R. Ellis, the man behind both "Snakes on a Plane" and the more fun-skewing second and fourth entries in the "Final Destination" franchise. He knows how to pull off this kind of fare with his eyes closed, though the script comes from a pair of previously unknown writers so that puts a big question mark over things. Shot around Louisiana late last year, the cast is a mix of young soap and drama actors including those most famous for roles on "The O.C.," "90210," "As the World Turns," "Summerland," "Bones" and "Friday Night Lights".

The title itself is still very much in flux and probably won't be settled on for another month or two. Ellis himself is having big troubles deciding on one after the 'Snakes' debacle - a title that scored a lot of buzz and press which unfortunately didn't translate into box-office. Nevertheless this'll be the first real 3D live-action shark feature since "Jaws 3D" underwhelmed us all those years ago. If Dennis Quaid couldn't save the genre back then, one wonders if this will have a better chance.


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Opens: December 16th 2011
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry
Director: Guy Ritchie

Summary: Sherlock Holmes and his longtime trusted associate, Doctor Watson take on their arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty with the help of Holmes' older brother Mycroft.

Analysis: Though not as unanimously adored as the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" for example, reviews were still generally quite strong for Guy Ritichie's blockbuster-toned reinvention of literature's greatest detective. Some cried foul at the action hijinks, usually those unaware that Doyle's original books were themselves more pulp-ish and adventure driven than most of the 'classical literature' genre it gets saddled alongside.

With so many Holmes adaptations over the years and something like a hundred actors having played him on film and television, you'd think people would've been more forgiving for some variation of the formula. I thoroughly enjoy numerous interpretations of the character from Ian Richardson's sagely take in two TV movies, Jeremy Brett's classical style in the Granada TV series, Ritchie's more crowd-pleasing antics with Downey, and Steven Moffat's recent and quite brilliant contemporary day reinvention for the BBC with Benedict Cumberbatch.

Ritchie certainly got some of the more important things right. Though Downey did mumble a bit too much, he and Law shared a truly stellar on-screen chemistry. The production values were top of their game with a truly spectacular score, superb costume design, and very strong art direction.

The central mystery, which wasn't based on a Doyle story, didn't work as well as it should have, yet the script otherwise got many of the character details just right. Rachel McAdams' role was ultimately useless, but the rest of the supporting cast was excellent and certainly this was a film that begged a sequel.

Shot for a cost-effective $90 million, the first 'Holmes' raked in over half a billion dollars at the worldwide box-office which understandably lead to the quick green lighting of a sequel. As production got underway, the reasons to get excited about this have only grown in number.

The casting additions are very welcome including Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, who herself has become one of the most in demand European actresses of the moment thanks to her great performances in the Swedish language "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" trilogy. While McAdams will make a cameo, Rapace serves as this outing's female lead and seems more suited to the material.

British national treasure Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes simply couldn't be more perfect casting. Mycroft, the more arrogant and politically self-serving but just as astute and clever (if not more so) brother of Sherlock, is a very welcome addition to this universe and will likely be a highlight.

The big talk however revolves around Holmes' arch nemesis Moriarty. Though only actually appearing in one of the original stories and mentioned a few times in others, most still perceive the character as one of the great super villains. So when Jared Harris was hired over more famous names linked to the part like Brad Pitt and Daniel Day-Lewis, the shockwaves of surprise certainly shook the blogosphere. Harris himself is an excellent character actor and should be great in the part, though one wonders what kind of direction Ritchie will take with the character.

Having only recently completed shooting in the UK and France, the film is on target to hit cinemas exactly two years after the first film. The story details are being kept under wraps but will shy away from the false supernatural shenanigans of the previous film in favor of a cross-Europe action/chase movie. Personally, I can't wait.


Opens: 2011
Cast: Julianne Moore, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Conroy
Director: Mans Marlind

Summary: A female forensic psychiatrist discovers that all of one of her patient's multiple personalities are murder victims. She will have to find out what's happening before her time is finished.

Analysis: Swedish helmer Mans Marlind ("Storm") directs this supernatural thriller with a concept that sounded interesting until I came to a quick realisation. The script comes from Michael Cooney, the scribe who penned the decent if predictable "Identity" but more memorably the Z-grade mutant killer snowman "Jack Frost" series including the infamous scene where Shannon Elizabeth gets raped by said snowman's carrot nose.

One cute story about this is that the original casting director was apparently fired for putting out a casting call asking for "inbred"-looking extras. Thus it came as no surprise that though completed almost two years ago, "Shelter" is still sitting with an uncertain U.S. release date and may end up going direct to DVD.

The film already opened in the UK back in April and has gone direct-to-disc in several European countries last month. Reviews were not kind, comparing it only slightly more favourably to the decrepit "Case 39", calling this highly manipulative tosh that wastes the talent it has employed. A shame.


The Silent House
Opens: 2011
Cast: Florencia Colucci, Abel Tripaldi, Gustavo Alonso, María Salazar
Director: Gustavo Hernández

Summary: Laura and her father visit a friend in the middle of nowhere. He leaves them with one instruction: upstairs is a mess and not safe – don't go there. But Laura's father does and soon a night of pure terror begins.

Analysis: OK, this one is going to take a little explaining. The Cannes Film Festival last year saw the premiere of "The Silent House" (La Casa Muda), a 79-minute Uruguayan haunted house thriller filmed entirely in one uninterrupted shot from a Canon DSLR camera. In many ways that's a major technical achievement for a film to be made on a single take (even Hitchcock's "Rope" is made up of several 10-minute takes cleverly cut together) and done so with surprisingly stylish cinematography for such a low-budget feature.

Reviews from the fest paint the film as beautifully atmospheric but narratively suffering some major flaws - especially in terms of the credibility of some of the character behaviours. The most obvious is that the main character, knowing there's dangerous people in the house, doesn't try and get away right from the get go. It's a flawed film but interesting experiment nonetheless.

In fact it generated enough interest that American filmmakers Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, who helmed the well received "Open Water", decided to do a remake. So quick was the turnaround that said remake premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was acquired for distribution by Liddell Entertainment. The remake sports a cast that includes Elizabeth Olsen, Adam Trese and Will Hart. The plot is essentially the same and the budget isn't that much bigger - the only difference really being it sports an English-speaking cast and slightly better production values that comes standard with most foreign film remakes.

Yet while the authenticity of the first film's "single take" technique hasn't been questioned, there's definite suggestion with the remake that there were at least three takes (possibly more) here that have been cleverly edited together. The filmmakers themselves haven't commented on the issue even when asked the question point blank. The bigger question now though is will either version make it to screens?


The Sitter
Opens: July 15th 2011
Cast: Jonah Hill, Sam Rockwell, Ari Graynor, Miriam McDonald, Max Records
Director: David Gordon Green

Summary: A comedy about a college student on suspension who is coaxed into babysitting the kids next door, though he is fully unprepared for the wild night ahead of him.

Analysis: On the surface this sounds like a pointless unofficial remake of 80's classic "Adventures in Babysitting". Beneath that surface though we get...exactly that it seems. Despite success with "Pineapple Express" and the upcoming and far more fun looking "Your Highness", David Gordon Green's second directorial effort for the year generally has little buzz surrounding it. Reviews of the script are fairly mixed with one of the kid characters said to generate most of the film's laughs. Then again one would expect a lot of improvisation on a film like this, so that could change. For now it awaits a killer trailer to really get it out there in people's mindsets.


The Skin That I Inhabit
Opens: 2011
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Elena Anaya, Marisa Paredes, Eduard Fernández, Fernando Cayo
Director: Pedro Almodovar

Summary: The story follows a plastic surgeon's revenge on the man who raped his daughter. Yet while seeking justice, he himself keeps his wife imprisoned and subjects her to humiliating sexual acts with strangers.

Analysis: A distinct change of pace for the wacky Spanish filmmaking genius mostly known for his genre-bending upbeat stories fusing elements of family, desire, sexuality, wacky comedy, ghosts and metaphors galore. Here though, we have a revenge film that Almodovar himself describes as a "horror story without screams or shocks". He admits this is the "harshest" film he's ever done and one that comes close to the "terror genre".

Yet Almodovar is famed for defying convention with his films, so hopefully he can bring fresh air to a genre that's so often stuck in predictable formula. Loosely based on crime novelist Theirry Jonque‘s 2005 book "Tarantula”, the story's details sound surprisingly extreme while early photos and promo artwork show a distinctly creepy vibe.

More exciting is the re-teaming of Banderas and Almodovar, the actor being the filmmaker's staple lead throughout much of his 80's work. The last time they collaborated on screen was 1990's memorable "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down", so many hope this will potentially be up there with some of their best work. The film is slated to have its world premiere at Cannes in May which is when we'll get a good idea of what to expect.


Sleeping Beauty
Opens: 2011
Cast: Emily Browning, Michael Dorman, Mirrah Foulkes, Rachael Blake, Tammy McIntosh
Director: Julia Leigh

Summary: Lucy is a broke university student who drifts into prostitution and finds her niche as a woman who sleeps, drugged, in a ‘Sleeping Beauty chamber' while men do things to her that she can‘t remember the next morning.

Analysis: This ain't no Disney fairy tale, this 'Beauty' has been described as a "haunting erotic fairy tale" and subversive exploration of the sex trade industry which rather blatantly hammers home the metaphor of men's objectification of women. A recent synopsis adds that "The first man to visit Lucy venerates her youth and beauty. The second is sadistic. Nonetheless she returns…"

Australian novelist Julia Leigh makes her directorial debut on the project and wrote the rather short 66-page script which made the 2008 Black List and has already garnered a cult following amidst script readers. Shot locally last year on a $10 million budget, Mia Wasikowska was originally announced as the lead but was replaced by Emily Browning ("Sucker Punch," "Lemony Snicket"). The rest of the cast is mostly a good mix of Aussie actors, most notably the hunky and talented Michael Dorman.

There's a curious setup - the men aren't allowed to leave any marks or penetrate her, and like her we also don't get to see what these men do which makes us wonder what in the hell these guys are up to during her 'sleeps'. The character of Lucy will also divide people as from the start she's something of a lost soul whose "moral compass is a little out of whack" according to one review which also claims the character's backstory is frustratingly limited.

Leigh addressed that complaint in an interview where she says "I‘m not a fan of backstory in general and I‘m an enemy of the ‘psychological explanation‘ tied to some event in the past. Instead I like that feeling of the submerged, the ‘tip of the iceberg‘ feeling we get about a character on screen, something latent. Something fascinating.”

Leigh's having a big year with her debut novel "The Hunter" getting a film adaptation with Willem Dafoe due out this year. With this film already completed, it's expected we'll see it make a debut at a film festival sometime later this year as release dates have yet to be set. Let's hope Leigh's direction is as promising as her writing.


The Smurfs
Opens: August 3rd 2011
Cast: Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays, Hank Azaria, Jonathan Winters, Katy Perry
Director: Raja Gosnell

Summary: When the evil wizard Gargamel chases the tiny blue Smurfs out of their village, they tumble from their magical world and into ours -- in fact, smack dab in the middle of Central Park. The Smurfs must find a way to get back to their village before Gargamel tracks them down.

Analysis: The idea of a CG animated feature based on the classic 80's cartoon has been around for a while, and it's something that those with fond memories of the show probably wouldn't object to if it were placed in the right hands. When this incarnation was announced however, initial jubilation turned to outright dread as the result is akin to "Alvin and the Chipmunks" where the creatures themselves are CG and everything else is real world.

Even the Smurfs themselves spend most of the film in Manhattan, to give it that post-modern spin which ultimately makes this some kind of bastard hybrid of "Enchated" and 'Alvin'. Family friendly "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and "Scooby-Doo" director Raja Gosnell is behind the camera, while the script comes from David N. Weiss and J. David Stern who penned films like "Daddy Day Camp," "Are We There Yet?" and "Clockstoppers". So, don't expect anything in the way of even remotely subversive humor.

Can anything save it? The cast isn't that bad, mostly a mix of good comic talent including Neil Patrick Harris, Hank Azaria, Jonathan Winters, Alan Cumming, Paul Reubens, John Oliver and "Glee" star Jayma Mays. Even singer Katy Perry makes her acting debut as the voice of Smurfette. The first trailer is atrocious, mostly hyping up the 3D aspect of the film. One for the kids only.


Snabba Cash
Opens: 2011
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Matias Padin Varela, Dragomir Mrsic, Lisa Henni
Director: Daniel Espinosa

Summary: Johan "JW" Westlund is a poor man living a double life in the upper class areas of Stockholm. After meeting a wealthy girl he is enticed into the world of organized crime and begins to sell cocaine to afford his expensive lifestyle.

Analysis: This Swedish thriller, released very early last year in its homeland, is one of more buzzed about foreign-language films of late. Its clever mainstream action ambitions make it one of those 'beyond the arthouse appeal' films that could potentially crossover the way films like French thriller "Tell No One" or the Swedish-language "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" have in many western countries.

Translated as "Easy Money" in English, "Snabba Cash" was enough of a critical and commercial success that it has spawned plans for two sequels to be shot this year, as well as a Hollywood remake from Warner Bros. Pictures that Zac Efron is slated to star in. Filmmaker Daniel Espinosa has become a man in high demand, while there was a feeding frenzy among international buyers at Berlinale for the distribution rights to the film which will ultimately score a limited theatrical release sometime this year.

Based upon Jens Lapidus' acclaimed 2006 novel and shot around Stockholm, Gothenburg and Germany in 2009, trailers don't show anything particularly interesting. Certainly the concept is almost rote at this point and has been worn down over the years after being well-trodden by the likes of "Scarface," "Blow" and "Layer Cake". The cutting between three character storylines is also a familiar staple (ie. "Babel," "Amores Perros").

Yet reviews cite that along with being a well-acted, thrilling and believable tale, it has a pacing and intensity more akin to Hollywood or Guy Ritchie than the usually more sedate and somewhat coldly distant approach that most Nordic thrillers have. That lack of coherence may annoy those hoping for something with more substance, but in this genre it's style that generally seems to rule the day among members of the male demographic who idolise these kinds of stories. Should definitely be worth checking out.


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
Opens: July 15th 2011
Cast: Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Vivian Wu, Archie Kao, Hugh Jackman
Director: Wayne Wang

Summary: The story revolves around the lifelong friendship of Lily and Snow Flower and their imprisonment by rigid cultural codes of conduct for women in 19th century China. At the same time, their ancestors in modern day Shanghai face their own issues.

Analysis: It's good to have friends in high places, and even better to be married to them. Wendi Deng Murdoch (Rupert's wife) and Florence Sloan (wife of MGM chairman Harry Sloan) produce this film adaptation of Lisa See's acclaimed 2005 novel which explains why it became one of the few films that Fox Searchlight acquires each year. Yet Searchlight isn't one for picking up trash either, no matter who is producing, and the good news is this adaptation seems to be in good hands.

After impressing with "The Joy Luck Club" in the 90's, Hong Kong-born filmmaker Wayne Wang made a series of forgettable Hollywood studio features ("Anywhere But Here," "Maid in Manhattan," "Last Holiday"). His last notable work was the well-received but barely seen companion arthouse features "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" and "The Princess of Nebraska" in 2007 & 2008.

Here though, Wang is poised to make something of a minor comeback with the help of a solid distribution network and a strong script adaptation by Ron Bass, Angela Workman and Michael Ray. The book itself is a tough read as it deals with protagonists whose lives are defined by their suffering and misery, though it also shows the familiar tale of two friends who start out at different stations in life and end up at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

This film also takes an approach akin to Madonna's upcoming "W.E." with two separate but parallel storylines - the main period piece, and a contemporary-set framing subplot which follows the two women's descendants who struggle to maintain their friendship as their demanding careers and complicated love lives get in the way. Zhang Ziyi was originally slated to star in and produce the film but had to drop out. Now the cast sports the likes of Bingbing Li, Gianna Jun, Vivian Wu, Archie Kao and even Hugh Jackman who will appear in the modern day Shanghai-set scenes.

The opening on July 15th, one of the few films set to take on the juggernaut of "Harry Potter", means it's probably not going to go for awards glory. It is however a clever marketing move to pull in a demographic, namely older women, who have little interest in the story of the boy wizard.


Opens: 2011
Cast: Daniel Henshall, Lucas Pittaway
Director: Justin Kurzel

Summary: When sixteen-year-old Jamie is introduced to a charismatic man, a friendship begins. As the relationship grows so do Jamie's suspicions, until he finds his world threatened by both his loyalty for, and fear of, his new-found father figure, John Bunting: Australia's most notorious serial killer.

Analysis: This Australian psychological thriller about real life serial killings in South Australia a decade ago had its world premiere last week at the BigPond Adelaide Film Festival. Reviews delivered great praise upon it, but admitted the content was brutal, confronting and highly disturbing - even for jaded audiences in this post-torture porn world.

A big part of that is the film's authenticity about the infamous Bodies in Barrels murders committed throughout the 90's in South Australia. Twelve victims in all, eight of which were found in barrels of acid located in a rented former bank building in Snowtown. Making it even more insidious is that it wasn't just one standalone nutter, but a half dozen people who had fallen under the whim of the psychopathic John Justin Bunting.

Bunting and his group tended to select relatives, friends or acquaintances who had committed some sort of imagined infraction and generallly satisfied Bunting's hatred of gay men, drug users and pedophiles. Prolonged torture took place from electric shocks to the genitals, lit sparklers being inserted into urethras, even one piece of cannibalism. At least three of the victims chosen were mentally handicapped.

The film itself only depicts one of the murders, likely the final one which was the only one that took place in Snowtown itself. Most of the film is told from the perspective of Jamie Vlassakis, at the time a late teenager who saw in Bunting a kind of father figure whose manipulations lead Jamie to becoming involved in four of the murders.

Several key people involved in the case have talked to the press after seeing the film and said it was accurate, produced with a degree of sensitivity, and both menacing and eerie. The cast of first-time actors and locals help add to the feel of the film which avoids the grotesque and exploitative nature of the crime in favor of the psychological study of those who took part in it - not just the criminals but the toll it took on the investigators as well. How this harrowing dramatic approach will work with the rest of the country will be determined upon the film's Aussie domestic release in May.


Soldiers of Fortune
Opens: 2011
Cast: Sean Bean, Christian Slater, Ving Rhames, Dominic Monaghan, James Cromwell
Director: Maksim Korostyshevsky

Summary: Wealthy thrill-seekers pay huge premiums to have themselves inserted into military adventures, only this time things don't go exactly to plan.

Analysis: An action film shot around the Ukraine for a very modest $8 million, the production boasts a pretty decent cast along with a plausible premise. Early, unpolished footage has leaked online here and here showing a film that looks bigger than its budget, but offers little beyond what appears to be the actors essentially playing war games in some remote and rather arid coastal rocky desert.

Russian news websites are a little more revealing with Slater playing an instructor who has to lead a team of five millionaire adrenalin junkies - a Wall Street banker, a video game genius, a Russian metal magnate, an international arms dealer and a mobile communications scion. Their planned war game goes awry when their boat sinks and the other soldiers who were supposed to help them are killed by a military commander (likely Cromwell's role) and his team who're no longer treating this as a game.

The Russian Navy, including the Black Sea Fleet warships and 300 servicemen, were reportedly used in the finale sequence of the production. The battle sequences and explosions were also shot live. This is expected to play well in the Baltic countries and former Soviet republics, though despite the western stars one doubts it will even get a theatrical release outside of the Eurasian region.


Something Borrowed
Opens: May 6th 2011
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Kate Hudson, Colin Eggersfield, John Krasinski, Steve Howey
Director: Luke Greenfield

Summary: A single Manhattan attorney and consummate good-girl gets drunk on her 30th birthday and ends up sleeping with the fiancé of her selfish best friend. As the mistake blossoms into a full-blown affair, she must decide between her life-long friend and the man of her dreams.

Analysis: A minor franchise in waiting should it succeed, this rom-com based on Emily Giffin's 2005 debut novel of the same name required all the various actors to sign up for the sequel "Something Blue" should this one be a success. The setup here has the more well-known Kate Hudson and John Krasinski playing supporting characters to Ginnifer Goodwin and Colin Eggersfield's leading pair. The sequel, should it be green lit, puts the focus squarely on Hudson and Krasinski.

Luke Greenfield ("The Girl Next Door," "The Animal") directs this feature which is being produced by Hilary Swank and Molly Smith's production company. The trailer looks decidedly generic in nature and not particularly entertaining, though the film does serve as good counter-programming to the otherwise very male-centric action of Kenneth Branagh's "Thor" adaptation opening the same week.


Son of No One
Opens: 2011
Cast: Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Juliette Binoche, Tracy Morgan, Katie Holmes
Director: Dito Montiel

Summary: A young cop is assigned to a precinct in the Queens neighborhood where he grew up. To provide for his wife and ailing daughter, he works hard to keep his life on track. However an anonymous source reveals new information about the unsolved murder of two boys and a possible police cover-up.

Analysis: Musician, author and now filmmaker, Dito Montiel's cinematic career has had a rather strange trajectory. His first effort was the little seen adaptation of his own memoir "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" which scored strong reviews and a few award nominations. His second film "Fighting" was more of a studio feature which didn't fare so well critically but managed a modest box-office haul.

With 'Son' many hoped for something in between - a $15 million budget and an impressive cast to make it a box-office draw, combined with another adaptation of Montiel's own work that would potentially lead to the same respect that 'Saints' garnered. If it worked, this could've been a smart, dramatic, adult crime thriller along the lines of Ben Affleck's "The Town" (albeit set in Queens rather than Charlestown).

Fate intervened however at the Sundance Film Festival this year where it was selected as the Closing Night feature. Several days before that, an early screening was held for buyers and select press who were generally in a buoyant mood after a string of strong movies had screened in Park City. By the time it had come to an end, that screening made trade and online headlines as word emerged that the film prompted a stream of walkouts.

This lead to much back-and-forth between columnists and critics about what went down at the screening and how much of an actual 'exodus' really took place. It was a PR disaster, to put it mildly, that seemed to sink the film's chances then and there. In following days, the reactionary stances began to subside and proper reviews emerged pointing to a generally mixed/negative reaction - some calling it an outright dud, others enjoying it but all seemingly having big issues with both the editing of the film and the ending which ruin a major confrontational scene with the inexplicable overuse of whiteouts and freeze-frames.

In spite of all the ruckus, Anchor Bay Entertainment picked up the film which means only a very limited theatrical release is expected at best. What this will mean for Montiel's film career from this point on - that's a lot harder to predict.


Soul Surfer
Opens: April 8th 2011
Cast: Anna Sophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood, Jeremy Sumpter
Director: Sean McNamara

Summary: Bethany Hamilton, a champion surfer, has a tragic shark attack which leads to her having her left arm amputated. She fights through this tragedy and eventually gets back to surfing.

Analysis: Aiming to embrace the heartland the way inspiring sports dramas like "The Rookie" and "The Blind Side" did, this tale of a young girl's triumph over adversity has a strong enough concept that it'll potentially cross over in a way few faith-based films truly achieve. Plans for this film existed since shortly after the shark attack in 2003 and Hamilton's subsequent recovery. The original plan was to begin production in 2005 but there were numerous delays over the years with at least six writers having a go at the script, while the film's director McNamara wasn't attached until 2007.

Though primarily based on Hamilton's 2004 biographical book, McNamara and producer David Brookwell interviewed the family to learn about unpublished conflicts to include in the film. These included family members questioning their faith, Bethany struggling with her physical appearance, and the stress the media attention brought on the family. Hamilton turned pro in 2007, after which McNamara and producer David Brookwell sought more material for the film.

Shooting took place in Hawaii in early 2010 with some additional shooting in Tahiti in August 2010. Robb wore a green sleeve on her arm so 450 visual effects shots could be added in post-production to create the appearance of a stump. This understandably pushed the budget above the original $15 million estimate. Yet when the final product was delivered, FilmDistrict was impressed enough to scrap its original plans for a release in 300 theaters in favor of a much wider 2,000 theater opening with the help of TriStar Pictures.

The book and film are targeted at Christian readers with the film having already screened for religious leaders. Those religious elements however proved a point of contention throughout the film's production with executives at Mandalay Pictures lobbying to reduce the film's Christian elements so the film could appeal more to secular audiences, specifically two scenes quoting scripture. The Hamilton family objected to the changes so both scenes remain intact. Whether that will turn away secular audiences it's hard to say.

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 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