Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2009 in Review

Well, another year has come and gone, and with it, a series of reasonably good new action films. There were some surprising highs and some disappointing lows in '09. Below we discuss a few of our favorites and also lament a couple of tragedies*.

1. Star Trek

I should say up front that I am NOT a Trekkie. I had my stint with the Next Generation as a kid, and I watched Deep Space Nine for a time. But I never was a big Kirk and Spock kind of guy. That being said, I'm no fool and I knew going into this what were the major faux pas to be avoided. JJ Abrams managed to give us a new take on an old franchise and simultaneously maintain a sense of continuity. This installment of Star Trek gives us a pseudo origins story of some of our favorite characters. The story centers around a crazy Romulan named Nero (played by Eric Bana), who after having his planet destroyed by a rogue exploding star, travels back in time with the intent of destroying all federation home planets. Unfortunately, despite Nero's best efforts to alter the events of history, Kirk still ends up on the Enterprise with the old crew (Spock, McCoy, Scottie, and so on). With a little help from Future Spock, Kirk and his crew stop Nero and bring balance back to the universe.

I was a big fan of this movie for a number of reasons. First, the casting was superb. I thought McCoy and Spock were particularly well done. Second, Leonard Nemoy's presence was a necessary common thread to create a believable origins movie (unlike Wolverine (see below for discussion) ). And third, being a huge Lost fan, I really enjoyed JJ Abrams time travel/alternate reality plot line. In retrospect, it was the only way that Abrams was going to appease Trek fanatics and create something that wasn't garbage. Next up on Abrams plate is a new Mission Impossible movie... let's see if lighting will strike twice.

2. District 9

District 9 is by far my top pic for 2009. I can't tell you how pleasantly surprised I was with my viewing experience of this movie. Essentially, District 9 tells the tale of a group of refugee aliens who find themselves hovering above Johannesburg emaciated and in need of help. Over the course of a number of decades, the aliens (affectionately referred to as "prawns" due to their distinctly shellfish-like appearance) entrench themselves in a network of shanty-towns in the city. The story centers on Wikus Van de Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley, who is given the responsibility of relocating the prawns to a government camp away from the city, both out of sight and mind. Unfortunately, during the process, Wikus is exposed to an alien substance which slowly but surely has him transforming into one of the prawns. Wikus quickly finds himself between worlds, untrusted by the prawns and wanted by the humans for his valuable alien-human hybrid dna. The parallels between District 9 and South African apartheid are obvious and make this movie all the better.

I think that the reasons I liked this movie are (1) the main actors were not a bunch of superstars, making it that much more believable. (2) Most of the alien effects relied on costumes rather than CGI. Thank christ. And (3) District 9 doesn't reinvent the wheel. The main themes borrow from South African history and the sci-fi components are tried and true (i.e. sweet battle mechs and gigantic alien craft hovering over a major city). Overall, a fantastic movie. Hopefully we'll be seeing more of these off-the-beaten-path type films in the years to come, particularly given this movie and the success of the low-budget Paranormal Activity this year. Fingers crossed.

3. The Watchmen

If you are anything like me, you had high hopes for this movie. I've now seen it twice and still have mixed feelings. For those of you who don't know, The Watchmen is about a group of vigilantes who come out of forced retirement after a series of masked crime fighters are killed. Heavy on Cold War themes and thick with original and titillating imagery, The Watchmen is a classic which is worth the read, even if you are not a comic book kind of a person.

As you may know, we here at Action Direct are big fans of the comic book and posted numerous times in anticipation of this movie. Early buzz had us believing that director Zack Snyder was going to give us something true to the graphic novel. Unfortunately, I think he may have gone a little too far. The Watchmen book is short on good animation, but remains a classic due to its phenomenal storyline. Snyder's take is heavy on the visual and pays less attention to the story, which to me is a problem. Ultimately, I think that this movie falls short, although it is clearly entertaining visually and probably worth watching on Blu-Ray. But for the die-hard fans out there, be ready to be a little disappointed.

4. Zombieland

Zombieland is, as you might imagine, about zombies. We aren't given a whole lot of information about how it began, but little is needed. By now, we the public are well-versed in the possible subtexts resulting in a zombie-ridden world. In this particular version of zombie induced post-apocalyptica, Tallahassee and Columbus (Woody Harrelson and Jesse Eisenberg) are loners who form an unlikely alliance. The duo soon encounter Wichita and Little Rock (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin), a pair of sisters who have somehow managed to survive. The four set out cross-country on an antic-packed journey to the west coast, discovering along the way that while there may be safety in solitude, companionship is priceless...

I don't know about you, but I had a hell of a good time watching Zombieland. The driving philosophical motif in this film is the following: "you've got to appreciate the little things". Although movies like the Dawn of the Dead remake and 28 Days Later taught us to respect zombies, it is Zombieland that teaches us that sometimes, you just have to laugh about your situation, even if that situation is killing fat zombies. Definitely go see Zombieland if you haven't yet.

5. X-Men Origins: Wolverine

This year's top candidate for biggest disappointment is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which is supposed to retell the story of Wolverine, one of the most beloved of Marvel characters. Instead, we are handed a pale of semi-solid poop. I don't understand why the film industry insists on "improving" comic book story lines. Actually, I do understand why ($$), but that doesn't make it okay. It's as if a couple of dudes bought one or two Wolverine comic books over the weekend, skimmed them, and then got together on Monday to brainstorms plot twists which would make Wolverine's origin better.

The truth is, I should not have been so invested in this movie to begin with, particularly after the shit they pulled in the most recent X-Men movie. Here are some of the worst moments in this movie:
  • When Gambit spins his bo staff over his head to "helicopter" down from a rooftop. Are you kidding me?
  • When Sabertooth asks Wolverine, "Do you even know how to kill me?".... sigh.
  • When Stryker shoots Logan in the head with the gigantic Magnum, thereby erasing his memory and tiding up an otherwise discordant film franchise. I just hate that shit.
Maybe I'm being too hard on this movie, but in today's film climate, when franchises like Batman and Iron Man are making concerted efforts to create super hero movies which don't suck, I just expect more.

* Note that I am not including Avatar here. I know that it technically was released in 2009, but I haven't seen it and, frankly, have been a little bit disgusted by the hype.

6. Terminator Salvation

While Wolverine topped out 09's shitlist, a close second would have to be the much anticipated Terminator Salvation. This has proven to be yet another heartbreaker in a line of disappointments. The Terminator series, which climaxed long ago with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, will have to continue to hold its breath for a worthy follow up to its first two installments. A disjunct, rather unfeasible storyline combined with some over the top special effects (some of which brought Arnold out of retirement) made what was intended to be a gritty, post apocalyptic action film into just another big bang FX movie churned out of the Hollywood shit machine.

One of the biggest surprises that I encountered during the movie was that I found Christian Bale's character line (becoming the grown version of John Connor) to be rather overblown and underwhelming, yet relative newcomer Sam Worthington (Marcus Wright) was able to deliver some excellent scenes throughout the first half of the film as an amnesia ridden wanderer in a world he no longer recognizes. However, his "strong heart" was not enough to pull the rest of the film out of the mud and, in the end, leaves this film as a fun Dbox experience but certainly not the salvation to the franchise that we had all hoped for.

7. Inglourious Basterds

In Quentin Tarantino's latest addition to his bloody repertoire, he takes on one of the most visited backdrops of modern action film: World War 2. While the scenery may be a common thread in the action genre, the style with which it is presented is uniquely Tarantino's. As we have already posted at length on Basterds, I won't spend too much time rehashing our analysis, but as a landmark in 09's cinema, Basterds has brought us some of the most memorable and entertaining theatrical moments of the year. From the intensely anticipatory opening farmhouse scene to the comedic and ultra violent burning of the french Cinema, Tarantino delivers his trademark nods to spaghetti westerns and samurai flicks of the 60s and 70s while continuing to deliver excellent casting and an amazing soundtrack. If you haven't taken the time to watch this one, do yourself a favor and reserve a few hours of time on a Tuesday night, pick up a copy of Inglourious Basterds and prepare to be scalped.

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