Sunday, January 29, 2012

'Tis the year of heroes and hobbits

Last Tuesday's announcement of the 2012 Oscar nominations presented a formidable, if predictable, list of the worthy and the wise, with The Artist and George Clooney's The Descendants front runners, and Steven Spielberg's Warhorse, Woody Allen's return-to-form, Midnight In Paris, and another Parisian tale, Martin Scorcese's Hugo also in the hat for Best Picture. 

Smart money is on The Artist, a silent movie. Smart money is also on Meryl Streep for her performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, which some of us might wish was a silent movie.

Anyway, enough of the anachronistic satire. Amongst the Best Actor nominees is Gary Oldman for his brilliantly understated performance as the brilliantly understated spycatcher George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Unfortunately with a real George - Clooney - hotly tipped for the Oscar, Oldman will probably leave the Kodak Theater on February 26 empty-handed. A shame as Oscar recognition for Oldman is long overdue.

Like his South-East London contemporary Tim Roth, Oldman has built a successful commercial career in Hollywood that has rarely veered from the edge of darkness. And without too much hoopla, either.  His breakthrough as Sid Vicious in Sid And Nancy and Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears established a canon of edgy characters, from the wonderfully deranged DEA agent Stansfield in Luc Besson's Léon and the equally capricious Zorg in Besson's The Fifth Element, to Count Dracula, Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series, Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, and the Russian baddie in Air Force One - a camped-up panto villain performance to rival Alan Rickman's Sherriff of Nottingham.

Sadly, when it comes to gongs like the Oscars, superhero franchises are rarely in the running. It becomes bread for an extinct cause to think that Oldman might be in with an Academy Award shout again next year for his third outing as trusty Gotham City cop Jim Gordon in The Dark Knight Rises, the final part of Christopher Nolan's rebooted Batman trilogy.

The Dark Knight Rises will be one of an army of superhero blockbusters due this year: assuming 2012 isn't cut short by the Four Horsemen wielding Mayan calendars we will be entertained by the return of Batman, Bond (James), Bourne (Jason - sort of) and Baggins (Bilbo). This might sound like four old prog rockers reforming for one last hurrah, but in fact they represent the sort of box office business that will have numerous residents of the 90210 zip code sizing up their next mansion.

Together with the return of Spider-Man, The Avengers, Judge Dredd and several more comic book characters brought to life, plus Ridley Scott's reacquaintance with sci-fi in Prometheus, we will not be short on fun with a capital F in 2012, even if the economic doom and gloom continues as it is.

There is a little doubt that any of these franchise additions will prove to be anything other than lucrative,  but from a creative point of view, the weight of expectation on the shoulders of those making them will be huge. None more so than Nolan.

While sniffier critics - and awards ceremonies - have been indifferent towards such popcorn fodder as comic book characters, Nolan's channelling of Bob Kane's Caped Crusader through Christian Bale in Batman Begins uncompromisingly jettisoned the frivolous levity of previous screen incarnations to create a superhero of searing darkness, lurking in ambiguous shadows between vigilante and vengeful creature of the night. The Dark Knight raised that bar even higher - the late Heath Ledger transforming The Joker from the whoopee cushion-toting popinjays of Caesar Romano and Jack Nicholson's interpretations into the greatest screen psychopath since Hannibal Lecter. It was - and still is - a film which, even after repeated screenings, takes your breath away with its portrayal of anger, madness and murderous intent unleashed.

In stopping at three Batman movies, Nolan has set an enigmatic tone for his final instalment. Little is known of the closely-guarded plot, beyond the fact that we know Batman will meet his "ultimate match" in the shape of the bludgeoning supervillain Bane, and there is a cheeky suggestion in the pre-publicity that Batman might not survive. How refreshing an act of storytelling that would be if it turns out to be the case.

Given the sheer laziness of Hollywood's current propensity to remake anything that isn't screwed down, the 'reboot' has become a clever means to continue a maturing franchise with some degree of creative merit. Christopher Nolan has been rightfully hailed for adding detail to the shadows of Batman, and the likes of Superman Returns and the forthcoming The Amazing Spider-Man do much the same to their respective characters. But for all the added weight reboots have given such franchises, they are at the end of the day no more an exercise in rebranding that Ford relaunching its Mondeo as an upscale midsize car to compete with BMW and Audi. It may be a good car, it may look nice, but it's still a Ford.

Casino Royale - which, ironically enough (and thanks to the questionable wonders of product placement) featured Daniel Craig's new James Bond briefly driving a Ford Mondeo - did something delicate but definite to the 007 franchise. The girls and gadgets were there, along with the exotic locations, but there was something else; more than just the casting a blond Bond, there was the application of an actor capable of portraying Ian Fleming's Bond, a Bond with depth and a vulnerability painfully lacking in Pierce Brosnan's cocky execution and Roger Moore's ageing frivolity.

Sean Connery has cast a long shadow over the character, not helped by Fleming revising Bond's back-story in the later novels that followed Dr. No's cinematic success and describing Bond as a half-Scottish, half-Swiss orphan. Craig hardly fits that description, being a Scouser of average height, but he has evolved Bond into a believably cold, blue-eyed assassin.

After the preposterous CGI effects that blighted the later Brosnan movies, plot returned with Casino Royale and while its sequel Quantum of Solace was not universally popular, it at least continued a story-driven arc about the Quantum organization (itself a post-modern reboot of SPECTRE) and the loss and betrayal of Vesper Lynd. QoS baffled in equal measure as it delighted which, frankly, is the sign of good film-making. If you can continue a franchise by giving the punters what they want while bending things ever so slightly in a different direction, you're doing the right thing.

Filming on Skyfall, the 23rd Bond movie, finally began last November and while its plot has also been kept largely under wraps (the Fleming books now long exhausted of theatrical potential) the fact that 007 is returning at all is an escape from calamity that Bond himself would have been proud of. When the closing credits of Quantum of Solace issued the traditional prediction that "JAMES BOND WILL RETURN", no-one quite knew when, as MGM's finances were not enjoying the rudest of health.

Thus, the project known only as 'Bond 23' (until Internet chatter started turned the title Skyfall into the worst kept secret in the film world) looked like it was never going to get off the ground, potentially ending  Bond's run at 22 'official' films. However, 2012 is a significant year in the Bond timeline, and indeed in the history of cinema. In October, the film world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of a film containing two of the greatest onscreen moments ever. The movie is Dr. No and the first of these moments involves just five words - Connery uttering "My name's Bond, James Bond", and the second is the emergence of Ursula Andress from the Caribbean singing. The song, in case you'd forgotten and was only concentrating on her legendary white bikini, was Underneath The Mango Tree.

With Dr. No's 50th anniversary coming up, it was almost inconceivable there wouldn't be a new Bond movie to acknowledge it. And so, on November 3, the media was assembled at London's lavish Corinthia Hotel to hear step-brother and sister producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, declare Skyfall the 23rd Bond movie - and that money would not be an issue.

"[The budget] in the same range as the last film," explained Wilson. "We really haven’t had to change anything in the script to get what we want. In fact we keep on adding." Broccoli was even more direct on the budget issue: "Does it look like we're cutting back?" she joked, as she pointed to the principles of the movie sat alongside her - Craig returning as Bond, Judi Dench again as M and Javier Bardem as the as-yet undefined villain. Albert Finney will also appear in a role rumoured to that of a Whitehall mandarin. As for the story, that is being kept strictly under wraps, although the blogosphere has been noisy with rumours of M's past catching up with her as the core of Skyfall's plot.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Skyfall so far has been the choice of Sam Mendes as its director. An Oscar-winner, no doubt, his reputation is steeped in being a very theatre-minded, 'actor's director', rather than an automatic choice for the film world's longest-running action franchise.

Certainly we can expect a more 'actorly’ Bond movie in Skyfall, but with forebears like Terence Young, Guy Hamilton, Lewis Gilbert and John Glen, Mendes will be expected to maintain the franchise's sharp style and wry humour without descending into a downbeat melancholy yawn. With Skyfall's so-far unexplained title just a little too close to "awful", Mendes will not want to tempt critics and headline writers taking up such a God-given gift.

That the Daniel Craig-era James Bond has been deeper and a little more pragmatic may owe something to Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne. Craig's Casino Royale was preceded by the first two Jason Bourne movies, in which Matt Damon presented a spy for the post-9/11 world: darker, brooding and well versed in the realities of a troubled world, with his own government the source of much of the trouble.

This summer sees the release of a fourth film adaptation of Ludlum's novels, The Bourne Legacy, but one crucially lacking its title character. Another movie shrouded in plot secrecy, we know that Matt Damon won't be appearing (he allegedly declined to do another Bourne unless director Paul Greengrass was on board). Instead, Tony Gilroy - who wrote the first three Bourne screenplays - is directing Jeremy Renner as key character Aaron Cross. Renner's star has risen considerably following his outstanding performance in The Hurt Locker, and his turn in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol demonstrated how adept at the action genre he is.

What's not known is where Jason Bourne will fit into the story at all (sci-fi fans will recall that the BBC's wobbly-sets-and-orange-squash-bottles-for-guns series Blake's 7 managed to survive quite happily without the titular protagonist, Blake, so I suppose it's not a prerequisite). What is known is that Renner will be joined by the always bankable Edward Norton plus the new Mrs. Daniel Craig - Rachel Weisz, together with Joan Allen as the sympathetic Pam Landy, and Scott Glenn and David Straithairn as the stressed out CIA bosses who will no doubt spend much of the film saying "People - we have a situation...", which they spent most of the previous three Bournes doing a lot.

And finally, prepare your gluteus maximus for a return journey to Peter Jackson's imagination of Middle Earth. For the first three Christmases of the new millennium, the backsides of filmgoers the world over were put to the ultimate test by Jackson's epic eleven-hour, three-part interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings. This Christmas, competing multiplexes will be no doubt playing up the enhanced comfort of their seating for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first half of Jackson's two-part adaptation of Tolkien's prequel to Lord Of The Rings. It finds members of that trilogy's cast (including Sir Ian Mackellen, Andy Serkis and Sir Christopher Lee) joining up again, along with TV's latest Dr. Watson, Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, along with his Sherlock Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, whose sounds like a hobbit to begin with.

With the first part due on December 14, and the second, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, to open on December 13 next year, it's clear that Jackson has no intention of giving us an abbreviated version of Tolkien's entertaining novel, which was written in 1937 as a children's story. In fact I doubt there's a child known to mankind able to sit through six new hours of Tolkien mythology, but for us adults it will make a pleasant revival of a challenging but entertaining Christmas outing.

As with all custodians of major film franchises, Jackson knows the ticket-buying public will have high expectations for The Hobbit. After all, the Lord Of The Rings trilogy turned over almost $3 billion worldwide. Furthermore, the third chapter - Return of the King - demonstrated that populist, fantasy adventure franchises can be critically acclaimed, winning all eleven Academy Award categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture – and that was the first time such a film had ever won the prize.

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