Over the rainbow

With a global recession looming, escapism never felt so good, says Michael Armstrong.

It is a little known fact that in times of economic hardship, cinema owners everywhere rub their hands with glee at the prospect of millions of customers flocking to the multiplexes to escape into fantasy. Indeed, other than the Tony Sopranos of this world, or possibly Barack Obama’s hope-tastic change wagon, filmmakers and distributors may be the only ones immune to the impending economic doom we keep hearing about.

This past summer provides ample evidence of the silver lining to our woes being found on the silver screen. The Dark Knight wrapped all the complex issues of terrorism and chaos into one handy package, delivered with aplomb by a magnetic Heath Ledger. His Joker, and all he was made to represent, was left hanging by the end of the film, overcome in as little time as it took the adorable Wall-E to fix both global pollution and humanity’s slovenly ways. While this eco-fable marked a return to form for Pixar, the rush to sugarcoat complex issues weighed down the otherwise charming boy-meets-iPod romance.

The summer also saw a triumphant return of the blockbuster for women, in the joyful Mamma Mia! and the proto-fascist Sex and the City. Escapism wasn’t just for the boys as we were inspired by Pierce Brosnan’s dogged determination to sing a note and reminded that, at the end of the day, anyone can make it in New York. Provided you don’t happen to be black, Mexican or an adopted (then quickly replaced) Chinese child that is. Here’s hoping that the next female blockbuster on the horizon, The Women, steers more towards the all-inclusive Abba hit than Sarah Jessica Parker’s shameless cash-in.

In a world where John McCain’s all-American heroism may not be enough to get him elected over that guy from 24, disconcerted punters can get their alpha-male kicks from the opaquely titled Quantum of Solace, or the remake of classic kids’ infomercial G.I. Joe. The next Bond film could cement the status of rising French star Mathieu Almaric, who gave a poignant and memorable performance in last year’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. G.I. Joe on the other hand stars Sienna Miller, Dennis Quaid and Marlon Wayans, who have made a fair number of rubbish movies between them over the years. Still, nothing looks quite as bad as the upcoming Mark Wahlberg vehicle Max Payne. If ever there was a review contained within the film’s title, this could be it. Unless Tom Cruise gets his career back for Christmas and we finally get to see his Nazi pilot flick Valkyrie, the holiday cinema rush looks set to be dominated by The Day the Earth Stood Still. This sci-fi epic, which stars Keanu Reeves as an alien from outer space, is another ingenious career move for the most famous failed bassist in the world, as once again he avoids having to portray realistic human emotions through a plot contrivance. As producers strive to bring back franchises from a simpler time, don’t be surprised if Reeves’ next outing is in Bill and Ted 3: What Happened to Bill?

But with the sixth Harry Potter film

Nothing looks quite as bad as Mark Wahlberg vehicle Max Payne. If ever there was a review contained within the film’s title, this could be it.

pushed back to next year, and Guillermo Del Toro’s interpretation of The Hobbit scheduled for around 2011, true fantasy lovers may have to settle for Watchmen, the latest graphic novel adaptation from Zack Snyder, creator of sandals-and-six-packs hit 300. With a plot that combines relevant themes with compelling characters, Watchmen could emulate the success of The Dark Knight. Unfortunately, the initial signs are that Snyder may have gone for style over substance. Had original director Paul Greengrass stayed on the project, this would-be epic would have had a better chance of equalling Christopher Nolan’s success with the Batman franchise.

In such a dynamic Presidential election year, however, many may end up wanting less spandex-clad portrayals of the problems of the world, and their solutions. Frost/Nixon could remind us that once upon a time there was a President worse than Bush, while for a light-hearted take on the C.I.A., the Coen Brothers’ new film Burn After Reading promises more of their unique brand of black humour. Last year the Coen’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men was praised as a faithful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel, but for cinemagoers seeking elation, it may be best to avoid The Road. This post-apocalyptic tale, again based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by McCarthy, stars Viggo Mortensen as a father travelling across a shattered America with his son. Those looking for belly-laughs at the cinema may be better off waiting for Jim Carrey’s Yes Man, or Steve Coogan’s Hamlet 2. Or, of course, Max Payne.