Sunday, 26 December 2010

2010: Taking Stock part 1 - At the Movies

So I thought I'd write a couple of blogs looking back at the year that was 2010, how it went, what was good, what was less good, and all that fun stuff. In this first part, I'm gonna talk about my own humble opinions on the films I saw in 2010. The next blogs will get a little more personal, as I talk about my writing and the events of the past year, but for now, let me indulge the film critic within.

If I had to use one word to sum up my general feelings on the films I saw this year, I would have to go with fun. For a number of reasons, 2010 was a year in which, more than any other I can remember, I came out of the cinema feeling like I'd had an absolute blast. A large part of this was down to cinema looking back to the heyday of balls to the wall, supremely fun action movies, the nineteen-eighties. Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Commando, Rambo, Predator... The list goes on. These were the films which shaped a generation (and possibly inspired Michael Bay's entire canon, but we'll forgive them that) and provided endless fun for... well, not the whole family, but for quite a few of us.

While there have always been action movies, they seemed to have lost their way in the nineties and the noughties (a term I hate, but I have no better word for the decade). Yes, we had sequels to most of those films, and while I enjoyed Die Hard 4 to a degree, it wasn't the same kind of fun.

While we had one direct sequel to the films of our youth in Predators (not bad, but didn't blow me away), it was largely left to the new boys to take up the slack. First up, was The Losers. Based on the comic by Andy Diggle and Jock, The Losers took the basic concept of its source material (a group of special forces soldiers are framed for a crime they didn't commit by their own government and have to attempt to prove their innocence), but changed the tone completely. The comic is best described as a thriller, with elements of an espionage story and a shadowy villain who remains unrevealed for a good portion of time.

The film though... Well, it was all about explosions, car chases, ridiculous missions, one-liners and an over the top, slightly camp, unhinged bad guy with a ridiculous plot for world domination. And, in its own way, it was quite, quite brilliant. It wasn't a thinking mans film, by any stretch of the imagination, but when your cast includes people like Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba and Chris Evans, men who can't help but be charismatic every moment they're on screen, you can't help but be swept up in the fun.

After the Losers came a film which was very much rooted in the eighties, being a remake of a classic TV series we all know and love. The A-Team may have shared a name and characters with it's forefather, but it was a very different beast. After all, when in the TV series did you have a tank, in free fall, taking on a fighter jet? Tank Vs Plane is really all you need to know about the A-Team. Plot? Who cares. It's not important. There's a fucking tank in the sky fighting a plane! It was ridiculous, and it was brilliant.

After the new boys, the old guard tried to come back at them in The Expendables, and they largely succeeded. Like The Losers and The A-Team, it was filled with explosions, car chases and fist fights. But it also took the violence that one step further. From the moment in the opening when Dolph Lundgren makes a bad guys head go pop with a shotgun, you knew exactly what you were getting from this film. Bone crunching fights, body parts being removed and blood everywhere. More than the previous two movies, The Expendables was a true eighties action film. But then when the cast includes Sylvester Stallone, the aforementioned Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and the Governator himself, as well as Jet Li, Jason Statham and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin... Well, we all knew what we were getting into as soon as we entered the cinema. Rumours of a sequel, which will feature all those guys, plus, hopefully, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Segal and Dwayne Johnson are... Well, I sincerely hope they're true.

There was one more action movie, also based on a comic, which was a return to the eighties style of film making and boasted Bruce Willis kicking bad guy ass better than anyone, but which also featured an actual plot. Based on the comic by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, RED (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) told the story of a group of retired secret agents who are targeted by, who else, a rogue faction within the government. But where RED wins out for me is that, as well as the excellent action scenes (Bruce Willis calmly stepping out of a moving police car and firing his gun is one of the coolest things I have seen this year), but the fact that it was also damn funny, and not just in the comic violence sense of the others. John Malkovich as a twitchy, paranoid sidekick was hilarious, as was the sight of Dame Helen Mirren packing a sniper rifle. Of the four, RED was my favourite, but all of them are perfect for a beer and pizza night in front of the TV. Get some friends in, and just enjoy.

Of course, there were other films which were a lot of fun without being eighties throwbacks. Three of them were based on comics, and two of these managed to surpass their source material.

First up, the long awaited (well, two years) Iron Man 2. Now, when I first saw Iron Man 2, I came out of the film with mixed feelings, and having watched it again since, I still have those. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love it. Robert Downey Jr is still perfect as Tony Stark, Sam Jackson gets more than a cameo as Nick Fury, the debut of the Black Widow in the shapely form of Scarlett Johanssen, Don Cheadle injecting more life into the part of James Rhodes than Terence Howard managed in the first one, plus War Machine, and Sam Rockwell clearly having a blast as Justin Hammer. I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing directo Jon Favreau get more to do this time around in his on screen role as Happy Hogan. Plus, the scene where Tony dons the briefcase armour in the middle of a motor race at Monaco, and takes on Mickey Rourke's Whiplash? A superhero fight AND motor racing? Two of my favourite things come together at last! The problem is, Iron Man 2 isn't (whisper it, wait for the backlash) that great a film. Mickey Rourke is criminally sidelined for most of it, Stark's drinking problem is really mostly glossed over and a lot of it basically feels like a rehash of the first, superior Iron Man. Looked at from a more critical perspective, it doesn't really hold up nearly as well as the first one and seems to have largely been used as a set up for the upcoming Avengers. But ya know what? I don't care. Like I said, I love Iron Man 2, and the reason is simple. I'm a massive geeky fanboy. I was in heaven! Look, it's Captain America's shield again! Oh my God, Howard Stark's in it. Hey, wait, Whiplash is named Vanko... So was the Crimson Dyanmo... Hmmm... OH MY FUCKING GOD IT'S MJOLNIR!!!!!! Yeah. Sometimes, just having a massive geekgasm and going along for the ride is way more fun.

After Iron Man 2, we were given Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass was absolutely sublime, and is a definite contender for film of the year. The comic of the same name was an excellent read, putting forward the story of what would happen if a well meaning individual in the real world actually put on a costume and attempted to fight crime. The comic was funny, poking loving fun at superhero conventions while also embracing them. The film, though, was better. It was hilarious, with some of the best lines of the year (Hit-Girl's opening line will never be topped as a character introduction), and some of the best shot action sequences to boot. Matthew Vaughan had already proven that he, with writing partner Jane Goldman, is adept at taking a popular story and making a good film out of it with Stardust, but with Kick-Ass, they excelled themselves. Throw in that rarest of beasts these days, a good performance from Nicholas Cage, who, as Big Daddy, gives a pitch perfect Adam West impersonation, and you have more fun in the cinema than you knew was possible. It also introduced the world to young Chloe Moretz, who is truly a talent to watch in the future, and for that, we must be thankful.

And so to Scott Pilgrim Vs The World. Like Kick-Ass, it was based on a popular indie comic (Kick-Ass was published my Marvel, but through their Icon imprint, so it's indie), but unlike Kick-Ass, it was a comic I really didn't like. I tried reading Scott Pilgrim, but I just didn't like any of the characters, especially not Scott himself, who I just thought was a massive dick. And if you don't like your lead characters, then you have a problem. Now, let's be honest here, Scott in the film? Still a bit of a dick. And while Ramona Flowers, the object of his affections, is very pretty to look at, she's also not exactly someone you end up liking very much. However, while Scott still very much acts like a dick, there's still something kind of likable about him, largely down to the fact that he's played by Michael Cera, who I don't think knows how to play anything else. Throw in some cracking secondary characters, some hilarious one-liners and some of the best fight scenes of the year, and you have a great film. Special mention must got to both Chris Evans and Brandon Routh, both of whom steal the film at various points, and the wonderful Vegan Police moment, featuring a Tom Jane cameo, is another highlight of the year for me.

Of course, it wasn't all fun at the cinema this year. Early on, Drew, Joe and myself did a triple bill in the cinema, and one with a theme. So was born Apocalypse Tuesday, a day when we saw three films which were all set in a post apocalyptic setting. One of them was shit, one was okay, but largely forgettable, and the other was one of the most stunning pieces of film making I've ever seen. First up, Daybreakers, which gave us a vampire society hunting the last few remaining humans, when a cure for vampirism is discovered. It was awful. It made absolutely no sense, it was shot badly, and... well, to be honest, besides featuring Willem DaFoe, who clearly knew what he was getting into and didn't give a shit, it had nothing to recommend it. The second film of the day was The Road. Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, it's one of the bleakest films I've ever seen. It's hard going, and sitting through it in the cinema was tough. But it's also completely worth it. The performances by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee (another breakout child star you should definitely keep an eye on) are perfect, and the direction from John Hillcoat is absolutely wonderful. The world has become a desolate wasteland in The Road, though we're never told the cause, but there's something beautiful and ethereal about it as seen through Hillcoat's eyes. The Road is another candidate for film of the year, though I'd have a hard problem picking it as my favourite, simply because it's such hard work to sit through. The final film of Apocalypse Tuesday was The Book Of Eli. It was okay while you were watching it, and Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon are always worth watching, but to be honest, it's entirely pointless.

Shit as Daybreakers was though, it wasn't the worst film of the year. One candidate for me, was Solomon Kane. While it started out okay, as something which could've been one of those bad movies which still manages to be fun, it slowly started to take itself more seriously as it went on, which just made me lose any and all good will I'd built up towards it. Still, even that wasn't as bad as the Goddawful Legion. Paul Bettany as an angel, defending small town bumpkins from other angels 'cos God decided to wipe us out again, some crap about a messiah, shit acting, shit direction, shit effects, I don't think there was a script of any kind... Avoid it like the plague. Worst film of 2010. Definitely.

Other disappointments for me were a Single Man (Colin Firth was excellent, and there was a good film in there, but first time director Tom Ford telegraphed any surprises far too early, and shot it in a very pretty but soulless fashion, pun intended) and The American (just... really boring).

So, what was my favourite film of the year? The previously mentioned Kick-Ass and The Road are candidates, though neither quite wins out. I've already gone into why with The Road, and while I loved Kick-Ass, there were a couple of films I loved more.

First, special mention to Ponyo. I went to see this at a point when I was still reeling from some events in my personal life, and I can categorically state without any doubt, that when you're feeling shit about things, there is nothing better to cheer you up than a Hayao Miyazaki film from Studio Ghibli. Ponyo is, as expected from the worlds premier animation studio (sorry Pixar, it's true) stunning to look at, and incredibly heart warming and wonderful to watch. If you don't come away from Ponyo with a massive grin on your face, then I don't think you're someone I want to know.

But there are two films, above all the others I saw this year (and I didn't see all the films, I know) which I find myself coming back to. Toy Story 3 and Inception. Both were incredible pieces of film making, with Toy Story 3 showing that it's possible to make a trilogy which gets better and better as it goes along, and Inception proving that you can make a summer blockbuster which is both original, and makes you think.

Toy Story 3 was one of the biggest emotional investments of the year for me. The moment when our heroes are heading towards a fiery death genuinely had me worry for them, while another scene, where they get one final play time with Andy, their owner who's off to college, almost made me cry manly tears of manliness, and actually managed to make me feel bad for all the childhood toys I'd gotten rid of over the years. Pixar know how to tell a story, they know how to make you laugh (Spanish Buzz Lightyear anyone?), they know how to create memorable characters (the new characters in this film, such as Lottso and Mr Pricklepants, are every bit as wonderful as their predecessors) and they know how to creep you out (seriously, that cymbal banging monkey? Yeesh). The other thing Pixar do better than anyone is the little touches. Look out for Boo from Monsters Inc in the Daycare, or the return of Sid from the first Toy Story. It also, and this has to be mentioned, is the first film I can think of in which the 3D worked as it's supposed to. It made the film look better without you ever noticing it was there.

Inception was just damn clever film making, but then, what else would you expect from Christopher Nolan? The dreams within dreams withing dreams plot, the mechanics of how the dream worlds functioned, excellent performances from a stand out cast, not to mention the number of questions the film raised which people are still debating now, and most likely will continue to do so for a long time. A film like Inception is rare. It's gutsy film making that most people are scared to try these days, but Nolan is riding high from the success of his Bat films, making film studios more willing to take a chance on him. The fact it paid off in spades means we may get lucky and see more original summer blockbusters in the future. Of course, it also means it's going to be imitated a lot in the near future, but that's not really Inception's fault. The industry still hasn't realised it doesn't need the next Inception, it just needs the next good film.

But, which of the two wins out? Honestly, I can't say. They're definitely my films of the year, but you'll probably get a different answer as to which I prefer depending on when you ask me.

So... Um... Call it a tie?


  1. Great post, well said too, a great rundown of '10 lots to look forwad to in 2011 i hope tho!

  2. Thank you! I hope so too. Was gonna do a section looking forward to 2011, and also bits about Harry Potter and Tron Legacy, but... well, it was getting a bit long.

  3. One candidate for me, was Solomon Kane. While it started out okay, as something which could've been one of those bad movies which still manages to be fun, it slowly started to take itself more seriously as it went on, which just made me lose any and all good will I'd built up towards it.

    A shame you didn't enjoy SK, but the seriousness of it is intrinsic to the source material. Unlike so many other Sword-and-Sorcery properties, Kane - and Howard's other characters - aren't tongue-in-cheek, wink-at-the-camera, nudging-the-elbow silly bad stories. They're meant to be treated somewhat more seriously, like Lord of the Rings are. I wouldn't call SK a perfect film, but I definitely think this cultural inclination to treat S&S films as "dumb goofy fun" means that when one goes in with those expectations, they could be disappointed.

    I didn't hate Kane, but then, I had an emotional investment in it given that I love the original stories. A shame it has little to nothing to do with them beside the character's name and the time period, but hey, I thought it did some things very well. Besides, Clash of the Titans completely blows it away in terms of bad movies. Since it isn't on the list, I can only hope it's because you haven't subjected yourself to it. Trust me, though, not only is it worse than Kane, it's worse than Legion. That's right.

  4. Just watched the Expendables... and loved every second of it! Like you, I'm hoping the Expendables 2 rumours are true as well :o)

  5. I agree that Solomon Kane is something that, if you're going to do, you should do properly, but it struck me at the beginning that they weren't bothering. I thought "Okay, it isn't the Solomon Kane I know and love, but let's forget that and have some fun." Then, when they did try and go for the serious tone, I think it was so poorly written, it just fell flat on its face.

    Personally, I'm hoping that someone comes along some day and does Solomon Kane the justice he deserves on screen.

    As for Clash of the Titans, I did see it, but not in the cinema, which this blog was a record of. I probably didn't make that clear enough, but yes, that was shockingly awful. I think, for me though, Legion was a little worse.

    And Simon, yes. Just.... yes.