Alistair Harkness: The pick of autumn’s films

Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Spectre. Picture: Contributed
Daniel Craig stars as James Bond in Spectre. Picture: Contributed
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From arthouse offerings to thrillers and mega franchises, promising films abound this autumn. Alistair Harkness offers some highlights

Summer used to be the prime time for Hollywood to unleash its most eagerly anticipated blockbusters, but not any more. After a slew of mostly terrible tent-pole releases this past few months – Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out being the exceptions – the run-up to Christmas offers what seems like an embarrassment of riches. Things get underway with pair of survival movies in extremis. In Everest (18 September) Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the leader of one of two teams of mountaineers caught up in a disastrous 1996 attempt to scale the world’s highest peak while in The Martian (30 September) Matt Damon is the lone survivor of a doomed mission to Mars. Ridley Scott directs the latter and though the Blade Runner auteur has been inconsistent of late, this return to sci-fi is a tantalising prospect.

The blockbuster big guns really come out with the release of Spectre (26 October). Skyfall director Sam Mendes is certainly well placed to make the 24th official Bond film even bigger than its record-breaking, history-riffing predecessor. With Moneypenny and Q back in the fold, Spectre sees the return of the titular global terrorist network that first appeared in Ian Fleming’s Thunderball novel back in 1961. This time out, Bond (Daniel Craig) is forced to go rogue to hunt down Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) – the nemesis he never knew he had. Waltz has denied Oberhauser is really a cover for Blofeld, but his deliciously malevolent pronouncement that he’s “the author” of all Bond’s pain at least confirms one thing: Waltz was born to play a Bond villain.

Those seeking gentler blockbuster fare will likely find it in The Good Dinosaur (26 November), the second Disney/Pixar release of the year. Set in a world in which the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs has missed Earth, it revolves around an orphaned Apatosaurus called Arlo who befriends a feral cave boy called Spot. And the Pixar twist? The dinosaurs can talk, the less evolved humans can’t.

Though often associated with Disney, Peter Pan gets a non-animated update courtesy of Atonement director Joe Wright. Pan (16 October) stars Hugh Jackman as the villainous Blackbeard and offers a revisionist, origins story take on JM Barrie’s play that seems closer in tone to the Harry Potter films. The real successor to the Harry Potter phenomenon, though, comes to an end with The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay – Part 2 (20 November). The series itself has been unusually good, thanks largely to Jennifer Lawrence’s star-making turn as the no-nonsense Katniss Everdeen. Let’s hope this finale doesn’t fluff it.

And as one saga ends, another is rebooted in the form of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (18 December). Even with still-fresh memories of the terrible prequels, anticipation for the first live-action Star Wars movie in a decade is already at fever pitch. Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher reprising their roles as Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia is a big part of that and while their return was part of the deal George Lucas made when he sold the rights to Disney, new director JJ Abrams has reportedly moved the story away from the more juvenile take on the saga the now-retired Lucas originally envisioned. Plot details are easily found online for those who care little about spoilers, but an amusing (and hopefully symbolic) revelation emerged recently when Abrams let slip that he’s considering showing the final resting place of the saga’s most irritating and hated character, Jar Jar Binks.

Autumn isn’t all about blockbusters, though; it’s also when awards contenders and quality grown-up dramas start hitting screens. Two of the most anticipated happen to be Scottish. In Macbeth (3 October) Snowtown director Justin Kurzel’s muddy, bloody take on Shakespeare’s “Scottish play” sees Michael Fassbender wrapping his tonsils around the accent as the murderous king-in-waiting while Marion Cotillard puts herself through the emotional wringer as the guilt-plagued Lady Macbeth. Kurzel shot much of it on Skye, letting the harshness of the landscape infuse the poetic language with added realism.

Poetic realism will likely be the order of the day too as Terence Davies finally delivers his long-gestating adaptation of the classic Lewis Grassic Gibbon novel Sunset Song (release tbc). In development for the best part of 15 years, the film stars model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn as its resourceful heroine, struggling to eke out a living on her Aberdeenshire farm as the First World War rages across Europe.

On the real-life drama front, Legend (9 September) sees Tom Hardy pulling double duty as Reggie and Ronnie Kray in LA Confidential screenwriter-turned-director Brian Helgeland’s take on the notorious London gangsters. Black Mass (November 27) features an unrecognizable Johnny Depp as Whitey Bulger, the real-life Boston gangster turned FBI informant. A Walk in the Woods (18 September), meanwhile, casts Robert Redford as Bill Bryson in an adaptation of the famed travel writer’s account of walking the Appalachian Trail. This shouldn’t be confused with The Walk (9 October), in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays French high-wire artist Philippe Petit, whose 1974 attempt to cross between the towers of the World Trade Centre was brilliantly documented in the Oscar-winning Man on Wire. As so little video footage of the real event exists, expect Robert Zemeckis’s vertigo-inducing 3D camera work to add a new dimension missing from the documentary.

Proto-feminism and revolutionary politics combine in Suffragette (12 October), which casts Meryl Streep as Emeline Pankhurst, Helena Bonham Carter as Edith New, and Carey Mulligan as a fictional member of the Suffragette movement in this drama depicting the increasingly radical steps taken to secure voting rights for British women at the turn of the 20th Century. With Streep on board expect some awards buzz come the end of the year – although if the rapturous Cannes reception for Carol (27 November) is anything to go by, Cate Blanchett already has every acting award sewn up for her portrayal of a 1950s lesbian housewife in Todd Haynes’s sumptuous-looking Patricia Highsmith adaptation. Also creating a lot of buzz – as much for its heart-jacking tension as its dark horse awards prospects – is Emily Blunt’s performance as an FBI agent roped into the drug wars in Sicario (9 October), a hyper-tense crime thriller from Prisoners director Denis Villeneuve.

The rest of the year’s heavy hitters are all unusually told true stories. In Steve Jobs (13 November), director Danny Boyle and The Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin dramatise the life of the Apple founder via three key product launches that helped set his company on the way to becoming the biggest tech firm in the world. Bridge of Spies (27 November) offers the mouthwatering prospect of Steven Spielberg re-teaming with Tom Hanks for a Cold War-era courtroom drama about the real-life efforts of attorney James Donovan (Hanks) to secure the release of a US bomber pilot shot down over Russia. Finally, In the Heart of the Sea (26 December) sees Ron Howard explore the inspiration for Moby Dick by dramatising the real-life story of whaling ship The Essex, the crew of which was stranded at sea after being attacked by a giant sperm whale. Originally scheduled for release in March, its move to Christmas suggests Howard is hoping to harpoon a few Oscars come February.