BIGGER PICTURE: 2013 IN FILM

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BEST NEW(ISH) FILM 2013
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We watched a lot of new films this year, but most of them remain in the one-and-done category. Entertaining for the duration, but nothing you’d need to see again. Yet for new films (made in the last few years), there were two that stood out as a pair which my thoughts have consistently returned to. One of them is a great film, the other a great experience. 

Le Quattro Volte is a great film. The idea of it sounds ponderous and pretentious, but the film is anything but. It has no stars, almost no dialogue, it plays almost like a documentary except that it’s carefully planned. At under 90 minutes it beautifully covers life as we know it on Earth, and specifically near a small village in Southern Italy. From an old goat herder, to a baby goat lost in the woods, to a big old pine tree, to the process of making coal, the film covers the four ‘turns’ of life: human, animal, plant and mineral. The film is moving, funny, and it showcases in a small way how wonderful cinema can be if you just apply thought and care to it.  

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Gravity is not great cinema, the characters are rather contrived, the situations obvious, and there’s at least one peril too many… but all that is obliterated by the experience of seeing the film. I responded to the film on an emotional level, ignoring all that was wrong with it, and allowed its handicaps become virtues. It has the virtues of a great martial arts film, in that the propulsive movement and choreography became the focal point, anchored by its extravagant locale. Gravity is edge of your seat excitement utilizing the latest technology, with a fine message at its core. It was nothing like 2001, beyond being set in space, but as far as entertainment goes it was light years above all the superhero and cgi-saturated turds floating in the entertainment pool this year.  

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Runners Up:

Amour is a much better film than Gravity, but it’s not a film I’ll be revisiting any time soon. I’m happy to have seen it, it features beautiful performances, it’s intelligently and defiantly made, and you should see it, if only once.

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Bubbling Under: 

Life of Pi was another cgi spectacle that had a great story, well told, and utilizing modern technology to a spectacular effect. 

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BEST DOCUMENTARY 2013
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Pina

Like Werner Herzog, it looks like Wim Wenders needs to redirect his efforts into documentaries. He hasn’t made a great feature film in the last 25 years or so (I’ve not seen all, so can’t say for sure, but I’m still probably right in my assumption), but this is a wonderful documentary, and it follows on the footsteps of Wenders’ excellent episode in the Martin Scorsese presents the Blues series of documentaries. Pina is all about dance and movement, and it uses narrative film techniques to enhance the story which could have been a parade of talking heads. Poetic, energetic and moving.

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Runner Up:

Black Power Mixtape

New documentary culled from old film shot between 1967 and 1975 by a group of Swedish journalists, featuring interviews with the likes of Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Emile De Antonio. It’s overlaid with modern interviews with many other luminaries involved with the Civil Rights movement. A consistently fascinating overview of the era.

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BEST OLD FILM 2013
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Letter Never Sent is a little known Russian film from 1959, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov. It’s a fairly simple story of a small group of geologists looking for mineral deposits in the Russian wilderness, who make a significant find only to be trapped by a massive forest fire, which they then spend the rest of the film trying to escape. Intelligent, moving and entertaining, this is a gorgeously photographed and wonderfully acted little film. 

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Purple Noon by Rene Clement is the first filming of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Unlike the cluttered modern version, this 1960 film is moody and poetic, and unfolds much more naturally in its spectacular mediterranean setting. The sailing sequences are magnificent, the acting hits all the right notes, and despite having been forced to water down the book’s ending, it suffers not a bit for the way it’s handled. 

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Runners Up:

We finally caught up with wonderful classics, like Antonioni’s first color film, Red Desert. Moody and gorgeously drab. Late Spring was the first Ozu film we’d seen, and surely not the last. Slow and moody like Antonioni, but far less formalized and more human. Mario Monicelli’s Organizer was about the struggle of Italian textile workers to organize and improve their terrible situation. Sounds fairly miserable, but not in the least as it’s all handled with a wonderful sense of character and humor. Finally, of the few Bergman movies we watched, Summer Interlude was probably the best. Much as his films are about human interaction, this one — shot at the Stockholm Archipelago — would be wonderful to view just for the scenery. Sweet, beautiful and moving. 

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BEST B-MOVIE 2013
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While I’d seen Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train before, and loved it, it’s a rare piece of action cinema from the 80s that truly still delivers. Set in the Siberian wilderness for most of its duration, it follows Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as they break out from a gulag, only to be followed by their tyrannical warden as played by John P. Ryan. Using an old Kurosawa script he never filmed, this is a spectacular howl of a movie, with a final image that still gives me chills thinking about it, months after seeing the film. 

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William Friedkin still comes out with fantastic little films. Killer Joe being another prime example, after Bug a few years back. It’s a complicated chamber-piece, laced with pitch black sense of humor, hard to watch at times but so full of energy that it seems like the first film of a young filmmaker hellbent on making a name for themselves. Wonderfully acted, carefully directed, and ingeniously written. 

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DISAPPOINTMENTS 2013
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Good Day to Die Hard

It’s not that I expected it to be good, but it’s rare that I can’t even finish a film because it is so terrible. I made it through first 30 minutes of this drivel.

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Runners Up:

I was hoping for a great new Bond film this year, but Skyfall was the least engaging of the Daniel Craig films, all of which are fine entertainments but hardly Bond films in anything but name.

Zero Dark Thirty was fine for what it was, but I wish Bigelow would get back into narrative fiction instead of these quasi-military-documentaries. A good episode of Homeland, but a big whopping disappointment. 

Mud started out as a great film, but was drowned by a poorly telegraphed ending. It’s all the more aggravating when a film has the potential for magnificence, and then surprises you by making pedestrian turns.

Wuthering Heights was another film that starts absolutely wonderfully, suggesting the best adaptation to date of the novel, but then loses control halfway through and never regains the spark that made it shine.

Quick sketch from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part, done in the early 1990s.

Quick sketch from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part, done in the early 1990s.

Sharpie caricature of the great Barbara Stanwyck (doing an Elvis sneer). From Anthony Mann’s “The Furies,” one of her many dynamite roles.

Sharpie caricature of the great Barbara Stanwyck (doing an Elvis sneer). From Anthony Mann’s “The Furies,” one of her many dynamite roles.

One of my favorite actors, Warren Oates. Sharpie caricature.

One of my favorite actors, Warren Oates. Sharpie caricature.

Andalusian God

Another caricature drawing of a favorite film director: Luis Bunuel. 

"Mystery is the essential element in every work of art."

ANDALUSIAN GODAnother caricature drawing of a favorite film director: Luis Bunuel. 
"Mystery is the essential element in every work of art."


 

ANDALUSIAN GOD

Another caricature drawing of a favorite film director: Luis Bunuel. 

"Mystery is the essential element in every work of art."

 

Faint Praise

We just watched the third film in the Swedish phenom started by THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (a glorified TV movie with the aspirations of an art film). It wasn’t as good as the second film (THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE) which, due to lowered expectations, had been fairly entertaining thriller fare. But what was most interesting about THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST was its consistent color scheme. Almost every scene in the film is flooded or accented in a combination of blue with orange or blue with deep golds:

While the mechanics of a courtroom drama lack interest for me, even when made more exotic by setting and language, I was impressed and engaged by the use of these colors. It’s too bad we didn’t have a bottle of tequila to go with the film. If this had been made into a drinking game (another good drinking game would be the spotting of dartboards), we would have finished it in the first half hour and downed a case before the fat bastard was nailed. That might even have improved the film as a result.

So whether it was a subtle nationalistic point on the part of the production (Sweden’s blue and yellow flag), or simply a thoughtful juxtaposition of complementary colors, I don’t care. It made an average film more enjoyable.

Faint PraiseWe just watched the third film in the Swedish phenom started by THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (a glorified TV movie with the aspirations of an art film). It wasn’t as good as the second film (THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE) which, due to lowered expectations, had been fairly entertaining thriller fare. But what was most interesting about THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST was its consistent color scheme. Almost every scene in the film is flooded or accented in a combination of blue with orange or blue with deep golds:

While the mechanics of a courtroom drama lack interest for me, even when made more exotic by setting and language, I was impressed and engaged by the use of these colors. It’s too bad we didn’t have a bottle of tequila to go with the film. If this had been made into a drinking game (another good drinking game would be the spotting of dartboards), we would have finished it in the first half hour and downed a case before the fat bastard was nailed. That might even have improved the film as a result.
So whether it was a subtle nationalistic point on the part of the production (Sweden’s blue and yellow flag), or simply a thoughtful juxtaposition of complementary colors, I don’t care. It made an average film more enjoyable.

Faint Praise

We just watched the third film in the Swedish phenom started by THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (a glorified TV movie with the aspirations of an art film). It wasn’t as good as the second film (THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE) which, due to lowered expectations, had been fairly entertaining thriller fare. But what was most interesting about THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST was its consistent color scheme. Almost every scene in the film is flooded or accented in a combination of blue with orange or blue with deep golds:

While the mechanics of a courtroom drama lack interest for me, even when made more exotic by setting and language, I was impressed and engaged by the use of these colors. It’s too bad we didn’t have a bottle of tequila to go with the film. If this had been made into a drinking game (another good drinking game would be the spotting of dartboards), we would have finished it in the first half hour and downed a case before the fat bastard was nailed. That might even have improved the film as a result.

So whether it was a subtle nationalistic point on the part of the production (Sweden’s blue and yellow flag), or simply a thoughtful juxtaposition of complementary colors, I don’t care. It made an average film more enjoyable.

Great Movie Books, Part 1: Steven H. Scheuer
Movies on TV and Videocassette by Steven H. Scheuer  We were the first family on the block and at my school to get a VCR when they came out en masse in Finland in the early ’80s. My dad bought a silver top-loading Panasonic with a corded remote control. This was back when consumer electronics were still built to last, and we certainly put this remarkably constructed machine through some hoops. We would drive to neighboring cities if we heard there was a store that carried tapes, and we would be regulars at all the rental shops within a 20-mile radius around our home.   We mostly watched action films. We saw, yes, all the Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson films, but we were not very discriminating. All a movie needed to be was “entertaining.” This meant watching dubbed Italian spy films starring Henry Silva, Fred Williamson or Stacy Keach, oddball British comedies, Yugoslavian war films, and martial arts movies from somewhere in the Orient, featuring leads with names like Bruce Li. As long as there was movement on the screen — running, chasing, shooting, jumping, tackling — we watched it. Given that most tapes were either originally in English or dubbed into English, this is also where I learned my second language.  It wasn’t very long before the volume of available movies became impossible to master. Fortunately for us, a film and TV magazine, Katso (“Look”), started publishing an annual guide to films on video. It categorized the films in genres (Drama, War, Horror, Comedy, Thriller, etc.) and had a star rating system that was accompanied by pithy one sentence reviews. Never a religious person, I made this guide my personal bible. I would pore over the pages, read the reviews, compile lists of films I’d seen and rate them myself in a filing system of small index cards. I’d compile charts of films I wanted to see and then divide these obsessively into lists to carry around with me to the stores.  By the mid-’80s I would ride my bike for miles, or take the train to Helsinki (a 20-minute ride), and spend hours scouring any shop that looked like it might have some obscure gems from tiny VHS labels in a back room. I came across quite a few, including a tiny sewing shop that memorably carried a copy of a Lupin III animated movie. The cover proclaimed “better than James Bond,” which it was indeed if only by virtue of its novelty. I had never seen a Japanese animation, and at the time it was shockingly entertaining. [And no, it wasn’t the Miyazaki directed sequel. It was the original 1978 film that opened with our intrepid titular thief and rascal escaping from an ancient pyramid by riding a motorcycle down a tight walker’s rope.]  All of which brings me now to Scheuer’s book. Along with a Leonard Maltin Video Guide of the time, it was my first film book purchase back in 1986 or so. There was no question or competition regarding which of the two was the better compendium. Although Scheuer’s book contained some sloppy information (as later noted by Bill Warren, for whom I have great respect), it was infinitely more in tune with my movie tastes than the Maltin book. Maltin’s reviews were boring at best, never daring and often ignorant of films outside the mainstream. Scheuer’s reviews, on the other hand, were funny and spot-on. His opinions — even when I disagreed with them — were knowledgeable and opinionated.   When the final volume of this series came out — Movies on TV and Videotape 1993-1994 (in the Fall of 1993, I think) — I should have grabbed five copies. I had bought the new edition every year and would wear out each beyond repair by the time the next volume popped off the publishing chute. When only the Maltin book was published in the fall of 1994, I was beyond disappointed. I didn’t realize the series had been canceled, so I kept visiting the bookstores, requesting they order it and asking around. The Internet was up and running, if just barely, but my meager telnet, ftp and fidonet connections didn’t secure an answer for me.   So all I had left were the remains of the previous year’s Scheuer book. The cover had been taped several times over until it fell off. The rest of the book (around 1,300 pages) was divided into three or four chunks with loose pages tucked in between the remaining pages. All marked up in pencil, highlighter and sticky notes, I continued to patch up this last edition with glue, tape and rubber bands over the next several years. It held its place on my shelf until finally reduced to a stack of loose paper too difficult to maneuver.  Eventually, I got confirmation there would be no more in the series and so moved disappointedly onward. I would buy copies of the Maltin book because it was useful for the data if not the reviews, but never without thinking of the infinitely superior Scheuer book. I’ve tried the VideoHound guides and Halliwell’s books, as well as any other that came along, but not one ever came close to the brilliance of Scheuer’s. 

Rest In Peace.

Great Movie Books, Part 1: Steven H. Scheuer

Movies on TV and Videocassette by Steven H. Scheuer We were the first family on the block and at my school to get a VCR when they came out en masse in Finland in the early ’80s. My dad bought a silver top-loading Panasonic with a corded remote control. This was back when consumer electronics were still built to last, and we certainly put this remarkably constructed machine through some hoops. We would drive to neighboring cities if we heard there was a store that carried tapes, and we would be regulars at all the rental shops within a 20-mile radius around our home.

We mostly watched action films. We saw, yes, all the Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson films, but we were not very discriminating. All a movie needed to be was “entertaining.” This meant watching dubbed Italian spy films starring Henry Silva, Fred Williamson or Stacy Keach, oddball British comedies, Yugoslavian war films, and martial arts movies from somewhere in the Orient, featuring leads with names like Bruce Li. As long as there was movement on the screen — running, chasing, shooting, jumping, tackling — we watched it. Given that most tapes were either originally in English or dubbed into English, this is also where I learned my second language. It wasn’t very long before the volume of available movies became impossible to master. Fortunately for us, a film and TV magazine, Katso (“Look”), started publishing an annual guide to films on video. It categorized the films in genres (Drama, War, Horror, Comedy, Thriller, etc.) and had a star rating system that was accompanied by pithy one sentence reviews. Never a religious person, I made this guide my personal bible. I would pore over the pages, read the reviews, compile lists of films I’d seen and rate them myself in a filing system of small index cards. I’d compile charts of films I wanted to see and then divide these obsessively into lists to carry around with me to the stores.

By the mid-’80s I would ride my bike for miles, or take the train to Helsinki (a 20-minute ride), and spend hours scouring any shop that looked like it might have some obscure gems from tiny VHS labels in a back room. I came across quite a few, including a tiny sewing shop that memorably carried a copy of a Lupin III animated movie. The cover proclaimed “better than James Bond,” which it was indeed if only by virtue of its novelty. I had never seen a Japanese animation, and at the time it was shockingly entertaining. [And no, it wasn’t the Miyazaki directed sequel. It was the original 1978 film that opened with our intrepid titular thief and rascal escaping from an ancient pyramid by riding a motorcycle down a tight walker’s rope.] All of which brings me now to Scheuer’s book. Along with a Leonard Maltin Video Guide of the time, it was my first film book purchase back in 1986 or so. There was no question or competition regarding which of the two was the better compendium. Although Scheuer’s book contained some sloppy information (as later noted by Bill Warren, for whom I have great respect), it was infinitely more in tune with my movie tastes than the Maltin book. Maltin’s reviews were boring at best, never daring and often ignorant of films outside the mainstream. Scheuer’s reviews, on the other hand, were funny and spot-on. His opinions — even when I disagreed with them — were knowledgeable and opinionated.

When the final volume of this series came out — Movies on TV and Videotape 1993-1994 (in the Fall of 1993, I think) — I should have grabbed five copies. I had bought the new edition every year and would wear out each beyond repair by the time the next volume popped off the publishing chute. When only the Maltin book was published in the fall of 1994, I was beyond disappointed. I didn’t realize the series had been canceled, so I kept visiting the bookstores, requesting they order it and asking around. The Internet was up and running, if just barely, but my meager telnet, ftp and fidonet connections didn’t secure an answer for me. So all I had left were the remains of the previous year’s Scheuer book. The cover had been taped several times over until it fell off. The rest of the book (around 1,300 pages) was divided into three or four chunks with loose pages tucked in between the remaining pages. All marked up in pencil, highlighter and sticky notes, I continued to patch up this last edition with glue, tape and rubber bands over the next several years. It held its place on my shelf until finally reduced to a stack of loose paper too difficult to maneuver.

Eventually, I got confirmation there would be no more in the series and so moved disappointedly onward. I would buy copies of the Maltin book because it was useful for the data if not the reviews, but never without thinking of the infinitely superior Scheuer book. I’ve tried the VideoHound guides and Halliwell’s books, as well as any other that came along, but not one ever came close to the brilliance of Scheuer’s. 

Rest In Peace.

Book Review: Hammer Films
Here’s a link to a new book review.
As usual, edited for grammar, syntax, structure, legibility and general coherence from my hastily scribbled notes by my lovely Kathleen.
HAMMER FILMS: The Unsung Heroes

Book Review: Hammer Films

Here’s a link to a new book review.

As usual, edited for grammar, syntax, structure, legibility and general coherence from my hastily scribbled notes by my lovely Kathleen.

HAMMER FILMS: The Unsung Heroes