So that was Comic-Con 2011

Every year, the San Diego Comic-Con – to embrace geek speak – shoots by faster than a speeding bullet. And the 2011 Con was no different, with four whirlwind days of nerdtastic programming screeching by at a breathless pace. Most of my time this year – as with in 2010 – was spent in the dark and hallowed Hall H, where all number of fantastic panels rolled out stars and exclusive footage. Even films that I had no interest in (uh, Underworld 4…) had their plus points (in that case, an on-form Kate Beckinsale).

Highlights? Clear frontrunner The Amazing Spider-Man took the biscuit with its exclusive clips and exhaustively entertaining panel (Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, director Marc Webb). Snippets showing off Garfield both as Peter Parker and Spidey himself had a more-packed-than-ever Hall H heaving with whoops and cheers, as the webhead reboot proved that Webb had a perfect hold on the dark drama as well as the more comic-book-y humour.

Not only that, but we got our first glimpse at Ifans as the villainous Lizard – replete with the CGI antagonist’s stunning reveal. Sam Raimi’s trilogy clearly has its fans, but after seeing this footage, I’m more than confident that Webb can blow Raimi’s increasingly-dated movies out of the water.

The other main standout of Comic-Con 2011 was the eagerly-anticipated panel for Prometheus. Though director Ridley Scott and star Noomi Rapace couldn’t make it, they still showed fans some loving by speaking live via video link from Iceland, where they were completing the final week of shooting on the sort-of Alien prequel.

In Hall H, writer Damon Lindelof and other star Charlize Theron traded banter, before presenting the first ever footage from the flick. And even though the film’s not based on a comic book, the images chucked our way were a marvel. Scott’s crafted a film that – while not a direct prequel to Alien – is visually and stylistically linked to it. From the sliding Alien-like title card to the set design and music, all Scott’s talk of Alien DNA suddenly made sense.

Charlize Theron was also part of another stand-out panel, this one for Snow White And The Huntsman. Joining her castmates Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Sam Claflin on-stage, the quartet had apparently only met on the plane to the Con, but were already trading barbed banter like pros.

The film hasn’t started filming yet (it starts shooting this week here in the UK), but director Rupert Sanders still managed to wow the crowds by debuting images of the cast in their Snow White costumes…

Not bad, nuh? Equally impressive was the mood piece that Sanders had crafted for Universal to show them his vision for Huntsman. Though it was only shot in three days, the short film contained some stunning images, and hints that Sanders’ version of the fairytale will be both visually rich and forboding in tone.

Elsewhere at the Con, Nic Cage showed off some surprisingly gritty and exciting footage from Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, the cast of Knights Of Badassdom chucked us the film’s first trailer (which hinted it’s on a path to definite cultdom), Steven Spielberg revealed we’re getting a Jurassic Park 4 in the next few years, the Twilight stars unveiled some decent footage from Breaking Dawn, and Kevin Smith hosted his annual ‘An Early Evening With…’ one-man show, soaking up the love from thousands of adoring fans.

So that was Comic-Con 2011. Mad. Restless. Crowded. But just as exciting as ever. Bring on Comic-Con 2012…

For more on Comic-Con 2011, read The 12 Best Things About Comic-Con 2011 over at Total Film, which I wrote with Richard Jordan.

Natalie Portman – "Wow, they’re not just trying to hot me up!"

“Real, grounded, a down to earth kind of woman.” Add the words brainy, svelte and enchanting to Natalie Portman’s description of Jane Foster, comic adap Thor’s bright spark, and you’ve got yourself a pretty accurate portrait the 28-year-old performer herself.

Meeting Total Film during the San Diego cyclone that is Comic-Con 2010, where she’s promoting said hammer-hoofer, Portman is ever-so-slightly timid and, yes, breath-catchingly beautiful. Not that you’d know from Thor. “It was a rare opportunity to be the girl in one of these movies who’s a woman and who has a career,” articulates the elfin one. “I remember after the hair and make-up test, before we started shooting, they said, ‘No, no, no it’s too much make-up, tone it down.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, they’re not just trying to hot me up!’”

Though, really, it doesn’t take much. Attired today in a perfect marriage of smart and casual, pairing (very short) flesh-coloured shorts with a breezy pale-pink blouse, she’s effortlessly dazzling. Small wonder that the gossip rags report Portman had both Demi Moore and Angelina Jolie flustered when their respective partners co-starred with her in up-and-comers Friends With Benefits and Artifacts. (Brad Pitt declaring Portman “cute as a button” can’t have helped.)

Perhaps they suspect what we already know: intellect is incredibly sexy. And Portman has grey matter in spades. A Harvard psych grad with her own Erdős–Bacon number (think six degrees of Kevin Bacon for nerds), the Jerusalem-born actress is the spiritual love child of Albert Einstein and Audrey Hepburn. Black Swan co-star Mila Kunis surmises: “Nat is like every guy’s dream. She’s a nerd’s idea of heaven.”

Clearly Portman’s in demand, with countless projects clamouring for her attention. A spot of spring-cleaning, then… The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remake? “Nope. I really like the books, but I’ve not been approached at all. Any of that is pure rumour.” Directing? “I directed two shorts a couple years ago, and I hope to be doing more. It was a really great experience.” How about raunchy clinches in racy ballet flick Black Swan? “It’s not raunchy – it’s extreme!”

Whew, we’ll get back to the latter in a bit. But yes, near everybody loves Natalie Portman, and it’s not hard to see why. Briefly contemplating every question we put to her, she springs back with considered, expressive responses (sample dialogue: “Jane is a well-loved character, but also one who is really open to finding new colours”). And the multi-lingual lovely has established herself as more than just a brain with boobs. She’s one of the few actresses whose appeal is unrestricted by genre, engaging equally with fanboys (V For Vendetta), ladies (Brothers), and bog standard movie-lovers (Garden State).

Which brings us to the genre-baffling Thor, a theatrical mash of comic book flamboyance and Shakespearean melodrama. Her second foray into the Technicolor whirlpool of comic movie adaptations, Portman credits her involvement entirely to one man: Kenneth Branagh.

“It was sort of actually not something I was dying to do,” she explains, “not Thor in particular, but a big movie. When I heard Ken was doing it, I said, ‘Wow that is a daring and interesting idea.’ Then I met Ken and he was someone I was extremely interested to get to spend three months with. It was probably the first, or one of the first times, that my expectations were actually exceeded.”

Anybody with a doctorate in subtext might read the name ‘George Lucas’ into that, though Portman is far too polite to elaborate. But it’s telling that, despite her Star Wars run-ins with the dreaded blue screen, it was Brit director Branagh’s pull that had Portman itching for a second pop.

“Working with blue screen and that whole universe is something that is a skill and something that you really need to learn and practice,” the actress muses. “If acting schools were created today, that would be a technique that you would learn. And getting to experience that with Ken’s guidance – who’s the master of attacking text and character from every angle – was a new way to approach blue screen acting. It was an exciting challenge to go at again.”

That challenge also extended to her character, a scientist exploring the theory of inter-dimensional space. Portman seems genuinely elated that the role, which could easily have suffered the saucy love interest kiss of death, didn’t involve “you know, the sort of sexy cleavage, glasses kind of thing”. In fact, she’d be happy to return should Thor merit sequels – just don’t expect to see her pitch up in hero mash-up The Avengers: “I’m not in The Avengers, but I am in the future Thor films if and when they happen.”

Before Thor, Portman’s pirouetting in Black Swan is guaranteed to spin heads. Opening this month at the Venice Film Festival, it’s directed by Darren Aronofksy and has been steaming away on the backburner since 2000. “The fact that I had spent so much time with the idea allowed it to marinate a little before we shot,” the actress says. “[My character] Nina is someone who’s trying to find her own artistic voice, and she has to lose everything to gain that vision and that sense of self. It’s very hard to describe.”

Not only has the thriller – about two competing ballet dancers performing in Swan Lake – bred buzz thanks to Portman’s lesbian love scene with co-snog Kunis, it’s also the first time she’ll be appearing in the buff. No biggy, though. “Previously I was figuring out my own sexual identity, likes and dislikes and all that stuff,” she says, shrugging off her former reservations, “and it’s weird to be doing stuff on film as you’re figuring it out. Also, being a sexual object when you’re a kid is really uncomfortable.”

Flesh of another sort will be flashed in the actress’ next project, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (“we just got a new script from David O. Russell; we’re hoping to make it this coming year, which is really exciting”), while Portman will also be mixing things up with a little medieval comedy (Your Highness) and a producing credit on Spencer Susser’s indie hit Hesher.

With that irresistible combination of glam and geeky, Portman is out to conquer the globe. But she’ll always have a place in her heart for comics. “I think they have such classic epic themes,” she says. “V For Vendetta was an amazing experience. Like Thor, I think you could make a small independent film with the same themes and it would be really interesting. This is just on a larger scale. It’s a total thrill.”

Via Total Film

Super freaks

Nathan Fillion in a girly wig. Ellen Page being an idiot. Rainn Wilson. Three reasons right there to get your knickers in a twist over James Slither Gunn’s bloody, sly, genre-muddling Super. Scripted long before Kick-Ass but only now making it to screens, it’s of that same ‘bloke becomes superhero’ mould – but is by all accounts filthier. Yes, filthier than a 10-year-old muttering the C word.

Branded an “effed up, low-rent Watchmen” by Wilson, Super follows the comedy crusader’s everyguy Frank. When Frank’s wife (the smokin’ hot Liv Tyler) goes on a drug-slicked bender with Kevin Bacon, Frank transforms himself into superhero Crimson Bolt in an attempt to win her back. If only he was actually any good at rescuing people.

Okay, awesome check list… Page blowing a bloke up with a grenade? Check! Fillion feeling fey as the Holy Avenger? Check! Tyler actually being injected during a druggy re-enactment scene? Uhhh… check! Director-writer Gunn may have branded shooting the thing a “hellish experience” (tight budget purse-strings meant they rushed through a whopping 50 set-ups a day), but Super has ‘runaway cult hit’ status stamped all over it. And not just because it has Nathan Fillion in a girly wig.

Via Total Film

Seeing Red

A retired action man who spent much of his life cutting a bloody swathe through the corrupt heart of North America… Sound familiar? “There are things [in this] that I haven’t done for a long time,” admits Bruce Willis. “I get thrown through the air, smashed through windows, things like that.”

As the weathered lead in comic adap Red, directed by Flightplan’s Robert Schwentke, Sir Willis of the white vest is getting tooth-cracking mean for the first time since 2007’s Planet Terror. And by all accounts he’s loved every second of it. “It was like recess. People talk about it as if it’s just an action film, but I thought of it as a romantic comedy,” he deadpans.

Not that there isn’t the requisite window dressing on display. As Willis goes black ops to take down his former employers in an ‘it’s me or them’ final mission, he crosses paths with Weeds funnygirl Mary-Louise Parker and the ever-delightful Helen Mirren (milf or gilf? We can’t decide), the latter as a fellow assassin.

“The most difficult thing about shooting a gun on film is not to pull a silly face while the gun’s going off,” reveals Mirren. “Because it can be a bit of a shock.” Parker’s advice? “Just look like you constantly have to pee if you’re in danger.” Helpful. Meanwhile, John Malkovich pitches up as a demented Scotsman, and Morgan Freeman Frank’s assassin ally. But it’s Willis the crowds will turn out for. Yes, Brucie’s back – and he’s got two fists to bruise!

Via Total Film

Be very afraid

Guillermo Del Toro returns to his horror roots with a Disney-backed scare flick…

“What the fuck was that?!” hollers Guillermo Del Toro. “I wrecked my pants!” No, he’s not just seen a shot of Li-Lo leaving jail, but the first bone-chilling trailer for horror flick Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, which he produced with newbie director/ex-comic artist Troy Nixey.

Written in the late ‘90s by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, it’s a remake of an obscure made-for-TV ‘70s scarer starring Kim Darby (True Grit). Yes, remake – but don’t let that alarm you, the Pan’s Labyrinth director hasn’t sold the farm.

“We are not fucking chickening out,” he colourfully stresses. “We wrote and originally shot the movie for PG-13, and could do that without compromising the scares… But we were given a badge of honour. The MPAA came back and gave it a non-negotiable R for ‘pervasive scariness’.”

Sounds grim. The eight minutes of the fairytale horrible that TF has seen – the flick’s prologue, in which a maid has a teeth-gnashing encounter in the shadowy basement of a sprawling mansion – certainly had us gripped. Such is Del Toro’s enthusiasm that we can even overlook the fact that his film, which has a young girl facing unimaginable terror when she moves in with her father and his girlfriend, stars Mrs. Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes.

“I wanted to re-invent the story, make it much more contemporary,” Del Toro elaborates. “It’s scary, it’s classical, and the ending hits you like a motherfucker. The movie is serious as a fucking attack of gonorrhoea.” And twice as scary.

Via Total Film