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The Notable Films of 2011: Part Thirteen

By Garth Franklin Sunday March 20th 2011 11:06AM

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Source Code
Opens: April 1st 2011
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Director: Duncan Jones

Summary: A decorated soldier discovers he's part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train. The experiment is a program that enables him to re-live another man's identity in the last eight minutes of his life which he must do repeatedly to find the truth.

Analysis: Two years ago British filmmaker Duncan Jones delivered his indie debut feature "Moon", a little seen but critically acclaimed sci-fi tale that was essentially Sam Rockwell acting alone or against himself. It was fresh, innovative, somber and overall heralded the arrival of a director to watch out for. After failing to secure funding for his next project, Jones quickly hopped onto the helm of this high-concept action/time travel blockbuster.

Naturally came the calls of Jones being a sell out, after all the film itself seemed more concerned with crowd-pleasing than intellectual pursuits. Certainly the premise wasn't that original as countless genre TV shows and movies from "Groundhog Day" to "Deja Vu" have played with the concept in very similar ways.

Nevertheless as we've seen quite a few times, putting an auteur in charge of a relatively conventional film and forcing them to curb some of their excesses isn't necessarily a bad thing. Films like "Mulholland Drive" and "A History of Violence" have demonstrated how great works can happen when an artistic film director is locked into following a more rigid structure.

Reviews out of the SXSW Film Festival last week delivered on those expectations. The few minor complaints were the more straightforward plotline of the film, and that the breakneck pace meant the quieter moments aren't as emotionally impactful as is probably intended. That said the intensity, action set pieces, and interesting visuals means it delivers on all the fronts that you'd expect.

It also takes some familiar ideas and employs them in unique ways, delivering in a way that George Nolfi's "The Adjustment Bureau" failed to do so earlier this month. This is lean, punchy and often surprising according to a few critics who, like most of us who've seen the trailer, were expecting something more predictable. Should be smart, fun escapism - something there's hardly enough of these days.

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Space Battleship Yamato
Opens: 2011
Cast: Takuya Kimura, Meisa Kuroki, Toshirō Yanagiba, Naoto Ogata, Shinichi Tsutsumi
Director: Takashi Yamazaki

Summary: The year is 2199, and the Earth has been under radioactive siege from aliens for years. The last space battleship of the exhausted Earth Defense Forces sets out on a journey to a distant planet to acquire a device that can heal the ravaged Earth before it is too late.

Analysis: Those of us who grew up with the cartoons of the 70's and 80's generally had a passion for one of the Japanese anime series of the era, or rather the heavily edited and English dubbed versions that we were allowed to see. I never got into "Mobile Suit Gundam", I did really enjoy "Astroboy", and I had a decent familiarity with "Battle of the Planets" (originally called "Gatchaman"). One that passed me by though, but one that many I know have a love for is "Space Battleship Yamato" which most Western audiences better know as "Star Blazers".

The property went through numerous TV seasons and animated films in Japan up until 1983, though a critically reviled and ultimately aborted animated attempt to resurrect the property quickly came and went from local theaters in late 2009. Before that hit though, production had already been well underway on this $22 million live-action reboot of the property which boasts something in the range of 80% of its scenes incorporating CG effects to recreate the space battles from the TV series.

Funnily enough it was legal disputes between the show's creator and series director that lead to this project with the latter being essentially responsible while the former stuck to the show's animated origins. Reviews have generally been good, though not great, for this fusion of Japanese morality and emphasis with conventional Hollywood stylings. The pace is relentless, the appeal very commercial and while the filmmaking elements are said to be sometimes sketchy, the charm and fun seem to make up for it. Should be a welcome nostalgia trip for fans.

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Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World
Opens: August 19th 2011
Cast: Rowan Blanchard, Mason Cook, Jessica Alba, Joel McHale, Jeremy Piven
Director: Robert Rodriguez

Summary: A mother returns to her old profession -- she's a retired spy -- in order to prevent a villain bent on stopping time. Her kids soon come along for the ride.

Analysis: Something of a reboot of the family franchise which started well but became far too gimmicky and silly by the time of 2003's "Spy Kids 3D: Game Over". Seven years on with some better films under his belt, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez has dusted off the green screens and is back to deliver another CG-fuelled ride into the ridiculous.

Armed with an impressive $40 million budget and his Troublemaker Studios technical boffins, we can expect the typical colorful antics of the previous films. The cast however has been retooled with two young new leads, two different parental characters (Alba, McHale) and "Entourage" star Jeremy Piven as the antagonist of the piece.

Original cast members, including the now teenage kids themselves, will pop up. One has to ask though if the audience will show up. Most of the original film series' fanbase has grown up and moved on now, while newcomers might be turned off by the big fat '4' in the title. For now it's a wait for the first trailer to see if Rodriguez is going to reinvent the tone and style of the series along with his repopulation of the cast.

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Straw Dogs
Opens: September 16th 2011
Cast: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth, Alexander Skarsgård, James Woods
Director: Rod Lurie

Summary: L.A. screenwriter David Sumner relocates with his wife, Amy, to her hometown in the deep South. There, while tensions build between them, a brewing conflict with locals becomes a threat to them both.

Analysis: Perhaps the most infamous film of maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah, certainly one of his best, the original 1971 "Straw Dogs" attracted much controversy upon its release for its violence and debasement of women - and this was in the same year that the likes of "A Clockwork Orange," "Dirty Harry" and "The French Connection" all came out.

Most of the controversy surrounded a prolonged double rape scene that marks the centerpiece of the film. The scene's ambiguity, in which the female lead character resists and then briefly appears to enjoy the first rape, led to edits being made - most notably the second and far less unambiguous sexual assault. Even with the cuts, the British Board of Film Classification banned the film in 1984 and didn't lift said ban until 2002 citing that the "pre-cut version eroticised the rape" while the uncut version with the second rape included gives better context to the first.

It wasn't just the rape that sparked the ire of many though. Most of the remaining venom targeted the film's bleak ending, which posits extreme vigilante violence as a source of character redemption. Peckinpah labelled Dustin Hoffman's meek lead character as the film's true villain who subconsciously provokes the violence, making his murderous rampage a display of his true nature.

Here, "The Contender" and "Commander in Chief" creator Rod Lurie tackles the tale which he's calling a remake of the Peckinpah film rather than a direct new adaptation of Gordon Williams' novel "The Siege of Trencher's Farm" upon which the earlier film is based. Lurie performed re-writes of Peckinpah and David Zelag Goodman's script for the original, notably shifting the location from south-west England to somewhere in the deep South in the United States. The David Sumner character has also been changed from a meek everyday mathematician to a good looking Los Angeles screenwriter.

Otherwise much of what's coming out sounds very similar to the original. "True Blood" hunk Alexander Skarsgård will be the former lover turned initial rapist with Rhys Coiro as the secondary one, while "Prison Break" star Dominic Purcell is in the David Warner role this time out. Many expect Lurie to tone down the violence but he claims he hasn't - his aim is to be more intense than the original and to certainly deliver a "hard R" rated feature that he hopes will shock.

However there's no guarantee this will work. Recently there's been two other remakes of often banned 70's movies - "The Last House on the Left" and "I Spit on Your Grave". 'Left' did modest business, 'Grave' utterly tanked. Neither is talked about much in horror circles even just a year or two on from release. This film scored a delay of seven months from its original release last month, something which itself has raised questions about the final product. We'll see for ourselves in September.

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Submarine
Opens: June 3rd 2011
Cast: Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Paddy Considine, Noah Taylor
Director: Richard Ayoade

Summary: Follows a fifteen-year old boy with two objectives: to lose his virginity to the girl of his dreams before his next birthday, and to stop his mother from leaving his father and hooking up with a new age mystic.

Analysis: Best known for his nerdish character Maurice Moss on the hilarious "The IT Crowd", Richard Ayoade transitions into the world of filmmaking with this remarkable and confident debut feature. A darkly funny British coming of age tale adapted from Joe Dunthorne’s novel of the same name, "Submarine" has already drawn comparisons to what many still consider Wes Anderson's best feature - "Rushmore".

Armed with an eccentric yet fully realised bunch of characters, this is a heartfelt film without any major moral message to spout - rather it's simply a timeless enjoyable work. Part of the reason it clicks is because it rejects so many of the cliche elements of films about young love - there's no sentimentality or cuteness, no false illusion about the teenage years. It's quirky, but doesn't take those touches too far.

The whole endeavour is also anchored by a strong cast including an unleashed Paddy Considine as a leather trouser-wearing mystic, Sally Roberts and Noah Taylor as parents who couldn't be more different in outlook, and the two young leads - the straight-faced Craig Roberts and the straight-talking Yasmin Paige. A must see.

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Sucker Punch
Opens: March 25th 2011
Cast: Emily Browning, Jena Malone, Carla Gugino, Vanessa Hudgins
Director: Zack Snyder

Summary: A young girl is institutionalized by her wicked stepfather. Retreating to an alternative reality as a coping strategy, she envisions a plan which will help her escape from the facility.

Analysis: Almost a decade ago I read a script for a new take on "Alice in Wonderland" which posited the idea that Wonderland was a world into which Alice escaped from her real life situation - being locked in an insane asylum where she was regularly abused. At the time it was a familiar scenario, I remember a few genre shows using very similar ideas.

Now along comes "Sucker Punch", a film that's essentially a big-budget feature adaptation of a teenage male geek's wet dream, which uses the same scenario to build its flimsy structure upon. Here, young girls have been sent to an institution where they escape the torture and humdrum of their daily lives by playing heroes in various fantasy scenarios.

That appears to be the only plot there is. Snyder's spent an incredible amount of time detailing the look of the various worlds in which these characters drop in and out of, but he doesn't seem to give any of them any particular meaning. Like quite a few modern day action directors, the substance appears decidedly thin while the style is in complete overdrive.

While it all suffers from the over-saturation, over-editing and CG overload effect of most action movies these days, Snyder is still a visually dynamic filmmaker and there's some impressive action and effects work on hand in the trailers. That style might just be enough for the target demographic though, and this has a more modern sensibility that should appeal to them far more than his Cold War-set and somewhat flat adaptation of "Watchmen".

Yet beyond that target demo there is ZERO appeal here. Having all the women dress up in fetish gear isn't "empowering", it's exploitation plain and simple. The mix of dragons, samurai, Nazis, zeppelins, Orcs, etc. looks like a thrown together pastiche with no real through line beyond a one-line premise. Even young boys will likely find this not as satisfying as they might hope. I do hope it surprises us and has some earnestness to it, but the chances are slim.

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Super
Opens: April 1st 2011
Cast: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Liv Tyler, Kevin Bacon, Nathan Fillion
Director: James Gunn

Summary: After his wife Sarah hooks up with a smooth-talking drug dealer named Jacques, Frank transforms himself into superhero "The Crimson Bolt". Then with the help of a trusty wrench, Frank wages a one man war on crime.

Analysis: There are two rules when it comes to comedies about fanboys. One is that, while not bad, they're usually not that good either. The other is that fanboys themselves are rarely mixed on them - they either loathe them or love them. The much hyped "Fanboys" was a painfully lame laugher that didn't work no matter what the storyline. More recently, "Kick Ass" was an average comedy saved by its rebellious tone and two superb supporting performances.

James Gunn's "Slither" was another - a fun but icky horror comedy that was better than average - so naturally it's become a cinematic classic in some eyes. There was hope lightning would strike twice for Gunn with this very low-budget superhero satire, however reviews out of screenings in Toronto and more recently SXSW yielded only tepid reviews. The main criticism is that the laughs, though sharp, often missed as much as they hit. Others cited second act sluggishness.

Some reviews however painted a more hopeful and interesting picture, others were oddly hypocritical. It's a dark and weird film which means it isn't for everyone, but it also swaps between moments of extreme violence with those of comedy or sincere emotion. Some had a problem with that, yet oddly enough didn't issue the same complaint over similar scenes in "Kick Ass". The most common bit of praise has been for Ellen Page's comic turn, though I'm personally hanging to see "Castle" star Nathan Fillion as a Christian-themed TV superhero named "The Holy Avenger".

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Super 8
Opens: June 10th 2011
Cast: Elle Fanning, Amanda Michalka, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Gabriel Basso
Director: J.J. Abrams

Summary: In the summer of 1979, a group of friends in a small Ohio town witness catastrophic train crash while making a super 8 movie and soon suspect that it was not an accident. Shortly after, unusual disappearances and inexplicable events begin to take place in town.

Analysis: When your last film successfully rebooted one of the biggest franchises around and was widely considered one of the best studio films of the year, finding something to top it would be difficult. Instead, J.J. Abrams settled on a post-"Star Trek" effort that took him in an altogether different direction - a film that originally many suspected to be a sequel to the Matt Reeves-directed "Cloverfield" which he produced.

Certainly with all the secrecy surrounding it and a heavy viral marketing campaign, signs indicated another "Cloverfield"-style effort - if not a direct sequel, then a cousin of sorts. The truth however turned out to be something far more interesting. With "Super 8", Abrams set out to deliberately create a film in the mould of those early 80's Amblin Entertainment family features like "Gremlins," "The Goonies," "Back to the Future" and very specifically Spielberg's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial".

Three decades on from that era of filmmaking, the term 'family film' is now usually applied to poorly thought out juvenile comedies or light action vehicles with often extreme use of cartoonish computer effects. What once was a genre with smart fare all could enjoy is now a wasteland of marketing bullsh*t often designed to engage only the thickest of kids that natural selection should've strangled from birth.

Every now and then however a rare diamond pops through and all signs indicate we might have one here. Abrams has cast a bunch of solid character actors in the cast, has a good but not exorbitant budget ($45 million), and the marketing deliberately avoids spoiling the movie. The premise is familiar but Abrams himself is making his debut feature writing effort here (his regular collaborators Kurtzman and Orci penned 'Trek' and M:I-3), and has proven himself a pretty damn good one on his various shows like "Alias," "Felicity" and "Lost".

The first real look at the film came with the movie's Superbowl commercial and the trailer shortly after - both show an astonishing recreation of the early 80's in not just the setting and production design but in the look and feel of the filmmaking on hand. With the exception of a few computer enhanced effects, it really does look like it could've been shot at the time, and reaction to both have been overwhelmingly positive.

In a summer filled with the usual raft of big budget thrills, it wouldn't come as a big surprise if once again Abrams steals the limelight with another best effort of the season. Wedged between two superhero juggernauts, it'll be interesting to see how it fares critically and economically. More importantly the word of mouth on this thing will be crucial, and one hopes Paramount will be getting the word out there more in coming weeks.

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Take Shelter
Opens: 2011
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Tova Stewart, Kathy Baker
Director: Jeff Nichols

Summary: A husband and father finds his sleep wracked by uneasy dreams that the end is coming and he starts obsessing about his backyard storm shelter. His wife soon grows more and more concerned about his behavior.

Analysis: Scoring stellar reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Jeff Nichols’s follow-up to the well-regarded "Shotgun Stories" explores a feeling very common to many people right now - anxiety. More valuable than happiness in this world is peace of mind, the ability to not worry or even blissfully forget about that dark gaping maw of despair, hopelessness and fear that can swallow a person's mind if one lets it.

That feeling of irrational dread, the kind that can permeate every moment of every day of one's life, can be one of the most isolating and self-destructive emotions there is. Most anxiety ties to back to rational things - income, health, job security, relationships or major changes in one's life. 'Shelter' explores an irrational one, a blue-collar American family man haunted by apocalyptic dreams. Could he be right? or could he be going mad like his mother whose schizophrenia nearly destroyed their family.

Reviews praised the meticulous direction and superb acting, most notably Shannon whose fascinating face can communicate so much without saying a word. The sole complaint tended to be a slightly too long runtime, something that could easily be corrected before a release. Sony Picture Classics quickly snapped up the film before it had a chance to premiere at the festival and it's likely they'll be pegging this for a Fall release and potential awards consideration, especially in the acting categories.

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Take This Waltz
Opens: 2011
Cast: Seth Rogen, Michelle Williams, Sarah Silverman, Luke Kirby, Aaron Abrams
Director: Sarah Polley

Summary: A funny, bittersweet and heart-wrenching story about a woman struggling to choose between two different types of love.

Analysis: Beloved indie actress Sarah Polley stunned everyone in 2006 with her heartfelt Alzheimer's tale "Away from Her". Five years on she's back with this touching comedy she both penned and directed, and yes the title is based on the Leonard Cohen song. Hollywood liked it a lot, the script scoring well on 2009's Black List.

The story is a love triangle following a couple (Rogen, Williams) who've been together for years and slipped into a routine, with the wife having doubts about the marriage. Then she goes on a business trip and instantly sparks with a stranger (Luke Kirby), a brooding and mysterious artist who it turns out lives across the street from her.

Though somewhat heartbreaking at points and brutally honest about love lives, sexuality and relationships of those in their late 20's, the film isn't as wrenching as 'Away' was and contains a knowing and quiet humor according to several script reviews. It'll be interesting to see what audiences take away from this, especially the demographic it's examining here.

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Ten Year
Opens: 2011
Cast: Channing Tatum, Kate Mara, Anthony Mackie, Justin Long, Rosario Dawson
Director: Jamie Linden

Summary: An ensemble project that follows a group of people who re-assemble at their ten-year high school reunion.

Analysis: An indie passion project for Channing Tatum, the 30-year-old actor is producing this feature and assembled it with a deliberate cast in mind to play former students who meet up at a ten year high school reunion. Tatum is best known for teen romance and action dramas, but has been trying to beef up his acting cred lately with a bevy of more dramatic roles. Whether he'll achieve success in this field remains to be seen, though the recent "The Eagle" didn't do him any favours.

This project though, it's hard to say what the outcome will be. Quickly assembled and shot late last year in New Mexico, a 'director's test' clip went around which helped secure financing for the project. Jamie Linden, the scribe behind "We Are Marshall" and the Nick Hornby adaptation "Dear John" in which Tatum starred, has penned the script and is directing. Tatum himself though is expected to have a lot of say in the final product.

Early on Tatum hoped to get Chris Pine, Anna Faris, Chris Pratt, and Scott Porter for roles in the project - only the latter two answered the call. Nevertheless he's assembled a solid raft of talent including Kate Mara, Anthony Mackie, Justin Long, Rosario Dawson, Ron Livingston, Oscar Isaac, Lynn Collins, Nick Zano and Brian Geraghty to name just a few. Shot for relatively cheap, it's an experiment that might work but will depend heavily upon reviews.

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There Be Dragons
Opens: May 6th 2011
Cast: Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, Rodrigo Santoro
Director: Roland Joffe

Summary: Arising out of the horror of the Spanish Civil War, a candidate for canonization is investigated by a journalist who discovers his own estranged father had a deep, dark and devastating connection to the potential saint's life.

Analysis: After acclaimed works "The Mission" and "The Killing Fields" in the mid-80's, British filmmaker Roland Joffe has been on a bit of a slide. His 90's work, "The Scarlet Letter" and "City of Joy", weren't as well received while his sole film last decade was the odious Elisha Cuthbert torture porn "Captivity" more famous for its marketing controversy than its actual product.

Now he returns to the kind of historical epic that he made his name on with this $30-35 million project set mostly during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930's. An earlier version of the project was offered to the likes of Hugh Hudson and Alejandro González Iñárritu who both turned it down. Joffe initially did as well, but reconsidered and signed on with the condition that he'd be penning a completely new script.

The result is a complicated story involving a journalist (Dougray Scott) in the 1970's who learns that his father was a close childhood friend of St. Josemaría Escrivá (Charlie Cox), a Roman Catholic saint and founder of the Opus Dei movement. The film spends most of its time flashing back to the story of a love triangle between the father Manolo (Wes Bentley), a beautiful Hungarian revolutionary (Olga Kurylenko) and Manolo's militia leader Oriol (Rodrigo Santoro). Inevitable betrayals occur, all against the backdrop of the fighting.

This has lead to controversy that some accuse the film of being a propaganda piece for Opus Dei to combat the negative image generated for the organization via its rather damning portrayal in Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code". Both Joffé and the Opus Dei Prelature deny it, the former saying this is too costly an endeavour for such a reason, the latter saying their only involvement was help in obtaining accurate information about Escrivá.

Others haven't been that impressed with the fact that a cast of mostly non-Spaniards will be playing most of the major roles. An official trailer confirms that all the cast talk in English with Spanish accents, though quite a few of them don't seem to have nailed down said accents successfully. Opening in early May against the big crowd pleasing blockbusters, it's likely this will appeal to those who wan't something a bit more stimulating and uplifting. I'd be surprised though if it qualifies for any awards like Joffe's best works did.

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The Thing
Opens: October 14th 2011
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen, Eric Christian Olsen
Director: Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.

Summary: Paleontologist Kate Lloyd and her two aides join a Norwegian scientific team in the Antarctic that has stumbled across a crashed alien spaceship. When an experiment frees one of the beings from its frozen prison, a being with the ability to perfectly mimic any lifeform it touches, they must stop it reaching civilisation.

Analysis: While "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" won the hearts and wallets of audiences back in 1982, pretty much every other sci-fi feature which opened that Summer has since gone on to be considered not just a genre classic but great works of cinema in their own right despite almost all of them flopping at the time. "Blade Runner," "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" and the original "Tron" were all a part of that group, as was a certain little movie called "The Thing".

Coming off the success of "Halloween" and "Escape from New York", filmmaker John Carpenter delivered this Kurt Russell-led remake of an old Howard Hawks 1951 sci-fi B-movie. Carpenter's version featured a bleak tone, an unsettling score by Ennio Morricone, a strong cast of character actors, a story far more faithful to the original novella, and plenty of truly astounding but grotesque make-up effects from Rob Bottin. Opening two weeks after "E.T." melted hearts, this very different take on alien visitation simply didn't click at the time.

These days however, especially in geek circles, it's considered a cornerstone of the sci-fi and horror genres. Arguably Carpenter's best film, it is often cited as that textbook example of the rare instance where a remake is far superior to the original. While other horror classics have been rebooted in recent years, including much of Carpenter's own filmography, no-one dares a direct re-interpretation of "The Thing" as it simply has too much respect surrounding it.

Yet franchises must grow in order to survive which has lead to this, what's being called a "companion piece" to the original. Producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman, who were behind the quite good remake of "Dawn of the Dead", thought the idea of a straight up remake was like "paint(ing) a mustache on the Mona Lisa". Taking this 'sort of prequel' approach however doesn't just fill out the backstory of the original but allows some of the same elements to be seen from an entirely different point of view.

Setting the action at the Norwegian base camp several days before the events at the American base camp in the Carpenter original, the story explores the initial discovery of the craft and the creature with the unfolding events leading to the empty and dilapidated base we've already glimpsed along with the escaping dog and helicopter shootout that kickstarted the original. Director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. and the production crew researched the original film and novella thoroughly to recreate the Norwegian camp accurately down to the smallest detail.

The plan is also to go old school with the horror effects. Almost all of the effects are being done practically with the minimal CG provided by FX house Image Engine who did the aliens in "District 9". Those few CG elements will be confined to matte paintings and set extensions, along with a few instances of "digitally creating extensions on some of the practical animatronic effects". Like the xenomorph in the original "Alien", the creatures and mutation effects will be used sparingly and shot in ways that don't reveal too much.

Shot in Toronto early last Summer, various Norwegian actors were cast to play the supporting roles, though the key roles will be American characters. Though that does seem like a slight cop out, one benefit of it is the exploiting of the language barrier between the Norwegian and English speaking characters to add to the paranoia and tension. The score is also said to harken back to the original Morricone work.

Will the film work as a whole though? It was supposed to open next month but Universal delayed it a full six months to allow some reshoots, usually not the best sign but not an immediate turnoff either. While no trailer has been released, an early promo trailer has screened at conventions with a bootleg copy ending up online and it looks pretty damn good. The use of the original film's title will lead to confusion and contention, for now though I have to admit I'm intrigued.

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The Three Musketeers
Opens: October 14th 2011
Cast: Logan Lerman, Matthew Macfadyen, Luke Evans, Milla Jovovich, Christoph Waltz
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

Summary: The hot-headed young D'Artagnan along with three formerly legendary but now down on their luck Musketeers must unite and prevent a beautiful double agent and her villainous employer from seizing the French throne and engulfing Europe in war.

Analysis: Being first out of the block can often be the deciding factor in the race to get rival projects into production. "Outbreak" got such a jump on "The Hot Zone" that the latter project fell apart, same deal with Oliver Stone's "Alexander" biopic which led to Baz Luhrmann's version collapsing.

A few years ago, several projects based on the Alexandre Dumas classic "The Three Musketeers" were in development - this despite around three dozen film versions of the story having hit the screens in the past century, the largest being 1993's Disney version with Kiefer Sutherland, Tim Curry and Chris O'Donnell.

Of all the projects it was the one by oft-maligned director Paul W.S. Anderson, a 3D take with a contemporary action feel, that was the first to get into production. In fact the film got so much of a head start that all the other versions seem to have disappeared. Considering Anderson's track record, his most recent being the nonsensical "Resident Evil: Afterlife", hope is slim here.

It's a shame as there's a pretty good cast on hand with three impressive Brits - Matthew Macfadyen, Luke Evans and Ray Stevenson - as the titular Musketeers. Christoph Waltz is Cardinal Richelieu, Milla Jovovich is Milady de Winter, "Casino Royale" baddie Mads Mikkelsen is Rochefort, Orlando Bloom as what sounds like a more villainous Duke of Buckingham, "Percy Jackson" star Logan Lerman as D'Artagnan, and Juno Temple as Queen Anne.

Set photos show some rather colorful if somewhat overdone costume designs, yet they don't answer the big question of tone. The last time a studio tried a "contemporary feeling, period set" take on the story we got 2001's "The Musketeer". That film infused parkour and martial arts action sequences into its setting and was rightly booted out of cinemas very quickly. This should fare better but beyond the 3D aspects, it's hard to really see anything new it might offer.

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This Means War
Opens: 2011
Cast: Tom Hardy, Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, Chelsea Handler, Til Schweiger
Director: McG

Summary: Two best friends and veteran spies fall for the same woman who has moved into their spare room. They end up fighting for her affections using their black-ops warfare tactics, a fight which literally demolishes much of New York City along the way.

Analysis: Having spent over a decade in development, this action rom-com is more famous for who has been attached to it rather than the final result. Originally Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock were set to star in the lead roles until that version was canceled. Robert Downey Jr. and Matt Damon were also part of a defunct earlier incarnation.

Several years and many re-writes later, the project finally began moving forward very early last year with "Charlie's Angels" helmer McG onboard. Word on the script has been pretty good with some spectacular action set pieces fused with fun one up-manship between the two male leads. Thus it all comes down to the chemistry between them.

James Franco, Sam Worthington, Seth Rogen and Bradley Cooper were all up for the two roles and a seeming game of musical chairs kept being played until the studio ultimately settled on "Star Trek" hunk Chris Pine and rising British thesp Tom Hardy ("Inception"). Shot mostly in Vancouver last Fall with a script having been tweaked by Tim Dowling ("Role Models"), production seem to have moved smoothly.

How things have gone in post though sounds a bit rockier according to insiders, but this could be one of the few date movies opening this year that will have cross-gender appeal.

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This Must Be The Place
Opens: 2011
Cast: Sean Penn, Frances McDormand, Harry Dean Stanton, Kerry Condon, Judd Hirsch
Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Summary: A wealthy rock star becomes bored in his retirement and takes on the quest of finding his father’s executioner, an ex-Nazi war criminal who is a refugee in the U.S.

Analysis: Late last year set photos popped up online showing Sean Penn in getup that made him resemble Robert Smith of The Cure. It was an odd sight to say the last, made even stranger when it was revealed that this was a part of Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino's new film, the English-language feature debut of the "Il Divo" helmer.

Shot in Ireland and the U.S., the redemption tale follows a retired rock star who tries to reconcile with his father after thirty years apart, only to find he arrived a few hours too late. Learning about his father’s humiliation in Auschwitz, he sets out to avenge him by tracking down a former SS Officer now living States-side. On his journey, he encounters various people and places that help him rediscover himself.

The logline sounds somewhat absurd - a kind of aborted mix of Fredrick Forsythe and Cameron Crowe. Yet Sorrentino has nabbed a strong cast and has demonstrated an innate skill for mixing pitch black comedy with heavy revenge themes in a unique and often unconventional cinematic voice.

Set reports indicate he has a very specific filming technique, one with a very specific vision in mind ahead of time. What that vision is we'll have to wait and see. But with every new bit of information, it was revealed the other month that Talking Heads frontman David Byrne is doing the score, it gets more interesting.

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Thor
Opens: May 4th 2011
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston
Director: Kenneth Branagh

Summary: The Mighty Thor, a powerful but arrogant warrior whose reckless actions reignite an ancient war, is cast down to Earth and forced to live among humans as punishment. Once here, Thor learns what it takes to be a true hero when the most dangerous villain of his world sends the darkest forces of Asgard to invade Earth.

Analysis: Arguably the biggest gamble that Marvel Studios has taken thus far, "Thor" adapts a comic character more famous for his mythical origins than for being a superhero. It's also a premise that seems to fly against the current generation of Marvel's films which try to portray their characters in both a shared universe and as realistic a fashion as possible.

Audiences will buy heightened reality - a man in a rocket powered suit, a scientists turned green monster in an experiment gone awry, even a bio-chemically enhanced soldier from the past frozen for decades and revived. All are Earth-based secular notions cloaked in the common element of science fiction.

"Thor" on the other hand is outright fantasy, the Norse Gods exist and duke it out with powerful alien beings from the depths of the cosmos. To be fair Marvel has tried to ground it as much as possible and shift the tone back towards science fiction - half the action is set on Earth, while Asgard isn't a fantasy realm but another planet which is the location of an ancient civilisation of advanced human-like beings.

A smart move seems to be to bring in Kenneth Branagh as director. Arguably cinema's greatest authority on the works of Shakespeare, he seems the perfect fit for this tale of a disgraced prince, royal family betrayal and larger than life conflict. Branagh brought with him the impressive young Tom Hiddleston with whom he worked on the superb BBC "Wallander" TV movies, great British actor Idris Elba, a scenery-chewing Anthony Hopkins, and the welcome return of Rene Russo to the screen.

Yet something about the film feels a little off. The studio jumped the gun by showing a five minute reel of the film at Comic Con last year - a reel that not only showed much of the movie but which shortly after leaked online (and in good quality). The problem is that after that burst of excitement, all the subsequent trailers haven't yielded much in the way of new footage beyond a few effects shots. While "Captain America" has grown more impressive with each new photo or clip release, "Thor" promotional materials unfortunately have felt like more of the same.

The footage itself is also leading to a quite varied reaction. The Shakespeare-meets-Star Trek/Stargate aesthetic will go down well with hardcore fans of the genre but will have a tougher time with general audiences who prefer their sci-fi to be more of the "ray blasters and handsome rebels duking it out" kind than Masterpiece Theater dramatics with a bigger budget. The focus on the more Earth-bound antics in the most recent trailers helps, but it'll be curious to see how much of it fits into the final product.

The choice of Chris Hemsworth is an interesting one. I've been familiar with the blond Aussie's work since 2004 when he was shooting the soap "Home and Away" outside my front door. On the show he was hired as the new 'hunk' of the Bay - he's always been very tall with a great build and interesting voice. As an actor he started off a little rough but became one of the better talents on the show by the time he left for America.

Most are only familiar with his brief cameo in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek", an emotional scene he played well. Here though is a role that's far trickier, one very different from what he's played before. Initially it's the petulant child of privilege meets fish-out-of-water routine that later softens into a more humanistic approach. The glimpses of those more human elements in the trailers look good, but some of the line deliveries in those early scenes I wonder about.

The film is opening a few weeks earlier in international territories where it's expected to perform better than Marvel's other Summer tentpole this year "Captain America". Comic book films overseas almost always fare far worse than they do domestically. The fanbase of "Thor" though should make it a much more even balance this time around. Yet it seems highly unlikely this will achieve "Iron Man" numbers, more likely it'll be something along "The Incredible Hulk" lines.

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Opens: 2011
Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: Tomas Alfredson

Summary: Set in the mid-70's during the height of the Cold War, the judicious, reserved, middle-aged intelligence expert George Smiley is recalled out of forced retirement. His task? To hunt down a Soviet mole in the "Circus", the highest echelons of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).

Analysis: Like several of his contemporaries, le Carre's take on the spy world is done with a realistic and downbeat tone. Spies are shown as middle management types stuck in offices and playing politics rather than galavanting around the world like their portrayals in the films of the period. This particular book was also a thinly veiled answer to the real life 'Cambridge Five' incident in the 50's and 60's when five KGB moles were found to have been employed by the SIS.

Yet le Carre also allowed himself some leeway when it came to his characters to make them more interesting than their real life contemporaries. His main character of George Smiley is fiercely intelligent and a master of playing the game. Yet he's also very unassuming, middle class and has a wife who routinely cheats on him. This isn't a man of fine suits like James Bond or running action like Jason Bourne, George Smiley is a chess player - a man who strikes with his wits in a world dominated by bureaucracy, betrayal and oneupmanship.

The late Alec Guinness portrayed the role in an acclaimed 1979 mini-series based on the work. Now, Gary Oldman slips on the trademark glasses and there's already talk of a possible Oscar nomination following a screening of footage in Berlin the other month. Oldman himself, famously humble and blunt about the roles he takes, calls this part "proper work, and I haven't done that for a long time. I've played some amazing roles and I've had a good run, but this is something else."

The rest of the cast is equally impressive, including some famous names who were linked but ultimately dropped out like MIchael Fassbender, David Thewlis and Colin Farrell. Those who made it in include "Sherlock" star Benedict Cumberbatch as Smiley's assistant in the hunt; John Hurt as the former head of the agency; Tom Hardy as the agent who first learns of the Soviet mole; Marc Strong as an agent wounded in duty by the traitor, and the likes of Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik as the four key suspects.

Those who've worked on it or seen pieces of the production call it complex, strange and filmed in a unique way unlike many films in this genre that we've seen before. Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan's script is relatively faithful to the book but contains a few surprises, certainly it seems different enough to escape the shadow of the previous TV mini-series adaptation. Arguably my single most anticipated film of the year.

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Tower Heist
Opens: November 4th 2011
Cast: Ben Stiller, Téa Leoni, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck
Director: Brett Ratner

Summary: When a group of hard working guys find out they've fallen victim to a wealthy business man's Ponzi scheme, they conspire to rob his high-rise residence.

Analysis: Starting out life as "Trump Heist", a "black 'Ocean's Eleven'" according to insiders, this caper movie had a cast that included Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and Chris Tucker as a bunch of employees of New York’s Trump Tower who conspire to rip off the building’s residents. Then, like many scripts in Hollywood, it was re-conceived and became something a little different.

Murphy left the project, Ben Stiller signed on to star and Brett Ratner came onboard to direct, neither a winning move or a disaster. One smart idea was to have "The Squid and the Whale" director Noah Baumbach come in and re-write the script. He removed all the Trump references, while injecting new angle tying things into the recent global financial crisis. Now, instead of ripping off rich people, the group would swindle a Bernie Madoff-like figure (Alan Alda) who himself defrauded them - making the stakes more personal.

A decent cast quickly came together including Téa Leoni, Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Michael Peña, Gabourey Sidibe and Judd Hirsch. Eddie Murphy, who had dropped out, came back onboard as well. All can handle the material if done right and a Baumbach script is usually a good sign. Despite the fanboys hatred of him for "X-Men: The Last Stand", this light action comedy formula is something that Ratner can do in his sleep so it should be fine on that front.

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

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