CAGNEY AND BOGART
I began watching massive amounts of Bogart films in 2012 and 2013 was the year I finished that obsession - I watched every single Humphrey Bogart film in existence which I hadn't seen before. I wrote up a little on my findings here, but overall it was disappointing - while there were definite oddball delights in Bogart's lesser-known works, there was nothing I'd actually care to see again. On the other hand, I'm now similarly fascinated by the career of James Cagney and in 2013 began looking up more of his filmography. So far it's been fairly rewarding, especially discovering some of his early pictures like Blonde Crazy and Picture Snatcher.
YE OLDE MOTION PICTURE HOUSE
Unlike 2012, I didn't watch anything in the theater more than once; I made 10 trips to the cinema and was more-or-less satisfied. The ten were:
- Skyfall, which I watched twice in 2012 but was happy to see again with my family in Angola, making it the only film I've watched in an African theater.
- Iron Man 3 and
- ...Thor: the Dark World were both on my personal boycott list, but free passes and the opportunity to spend time with my friends ultimately brought me to the theater. They were both fun movies.
- I went to see Life of Pi on the recommendation of a friend and as it was a cheap theater, it was worth the $4 I paid.
- Similarly, Star Trek: Into Darkness held no particular interest to me, but I went so I could hang out with my friends. This was my least-favourite picture of the year, but it wasn't exactly terrible - just a collection of missed opportunities. (more here)
- The opportunity to see The Great Escape on the big screen led to the Cineplex during its tour in the Classic Film Series, also giving me an excuse to drag along a friend and introduce him to the picture - one of my absolute favourite films.
- Pacific Rim was easily the best picture I saw in 2013 but it wasn't exactly flawless. It looked great, it was fun, it had neat ideas and yet it didn't quite click with me. Gee, if this is my favourite, it wasn't much of a year, was it? (more here)
- Starship Troopers was well-worth revisiting on the big screen courtesy of Rifftrax, which proved to be a great night out. Maybe I'll visit some other Rifftrax Live shows in the future. (more here)
- The World's End came very close to being my favourite picture of the year. There's something not quite satisfying about the film - probably the weird tone in the film's climax. Perhaps I'm unfairly comparing it against Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in my mind? I was never bored and it was neat to see Pegg & Frost portraying characters with different edges to their personalities, I just don't know about the ending; watch it for yourself and let me know what you think.
- Finally, there's the Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug. I think I'll be glad when this trilogy is done. Again, I wasn't unhappy with the film, but it doesn't compare in my mind to the director's earlier work; for all the complaints people have of Lord of the Rings being too long, it's at fighting trim weight compared to the bloat of the Hobbit. All too often scenes passed by which held no purpose other than to remind the audience of things we already knew; exactly the sort of thing Jackson had no time for in Lord of the Rings, but now indulged in just to fill up screen time! It's death by padding, I'm afraid.
With all the time I spend digging up old movies, I'm always pleasantly surprised to unearth something truly wonderful. I don't think any of my sources had spoken of the Good Fairy (1935), but it turned out to be the most pleasing film I watched all year - I don't think I even knew it was written by Preston Sturges until after I watched it!
Some of the great films I watched are widely-appreciated, I'm just late to the party. So, kudos to you Toy Story 3 and Dawn of the Dead (1978). I told myself I had no reason to watch Dawn of the Dead, but the many positive reviews from so many trusted corners finally led me to sit down with it and yes, it's one fine horror picture. 2013 is also the year I rewatched Back to the Future for the first time in more than 20 years. You know what? It's a great movie! I'm sorry, that must sound so obvious, and yet while I hadn't forgotten the story at all, I had forgotten how cleverly it was put together, how economical and well thought-out it was.
Other highlights include: Home of the Brave, a very-good and all-too-rare 1940s picture which tackled racism; 49th Parallel, a fantastic early propaganda picture about escaped Nazis crossing Canada; the thriller film Red Eye which disappointed a little when it left its airplane environment for the climax, but was otherwise very well-strung; Val Lewton's Leopard Man and Ghost Ship, the last two Lewton horror pictures I hadn't seen and each haunting in its own way; having seen all of Akira Kurosawa's samurai pictures (and many of his non-samurai films), I was very pleased to find another great film of that ilk, Sword of Vengeance, the first Lone Wolf and Cub picture; the mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness turned out to be very funny as it switched gears from satire to "found footage" in the climax - what a gem!; finally, I located a pre-code movie which really delivered - 1931's Night Nurse which was great fun (more about it here).
I hadn't seen the first Expendables movie, yet went into Expendables 2 anyway, thinking it would be some not-too-challenging fun. It's a mess, barely managing to deliver a story and clearly hamstrung by budgetary restrictions on how many scenes their cast of characters could appear in. The one redeeming factor was Jean-Claude Van Damme, who obviously understood this film would be the most widely-seen picture he'd made in years so he brought his A-game! The other actors just cashed their checks.
Boy, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner has not aged gracefully. I acknowledge its importance in film history, the particularly fine performance of Spencer Tracy and changing attitudes of the times, but dang, the daughter is a frustrating character, seemingly determined to make the acceptance of her fiancee a bigger problem than it is. The film's also not particularly good at making a case for other reasons why Poitier's character should, perhaps, not marry Tracy's daughter - namely, he's known her for about a month! If it's the real thing, surely a year's courtship isn't out of line? The film refuses to be about anything other than racism, to its detriment.
How much do I like Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped? Well, I wrote the back matter of Marvel's comic book version, for starters. Hearing the 1938 Fox film of Kidnapped was part of the late 30s "high adventure" period (such as Gunga Din, Captain Blood and the Adventures of Robin Hood) I was a little excited to see the '38 film, but was ultimately disappointed with it; the shipboard mutiny & siege which was the action highlight of the book is dealt with far too quickly in the film, nor does the picture spend too much effort on the, ah, you know, kidnapping of the protagonist! It's far too-talky to be an action film and the female lead - Arleen Whelan - delivers a cringeworthy tearful breakdown at one point.
Much as I enjoy Larry Blamire's productions, Dark and Stormy Night was a letdown. He and his usual players did a great job of parodying the "old dark house" mystery genre (somewhat undermined by the fact 1932's Old Dark House did a better job of it) and there are great individual performances, but the need to accomodate so many actors and satirize so many storytelling cliches gets in the way of the fun. The pieces of this movie are fine, there's just weren't assembled smoothly (I will note, Blamire's own character is consistently fantastic).
LOUSY, LOUSY PICTURES
Of those 292, which do I regret spending time on? Oh, I suppose Sign of the Cross (1932) is one. For all the great actors, costumes and sets, I can't get over the climax, wherein the Romans start sending Christians into the arena to be killed in various vicious ways until the film runs out of Christians and... the end. In those closing minutes, I saw the birth of the "torture porn" genre and it did not impress me.
Despite the IMDB reviews, I sought out the 1972 animated feature the Man Who Hated Laughter. Having spent so much time learning about comic strip history through my work at the University, I was interested in seeing this animated snapshot of 1972 comic strips. Oh boy, it's lousy, in every conceivable way. Lousy animation, lousy jokes, lousy voice acting. It's not worth viewing, not even to see Steve Canyon, the Phantom and Popeye share scenes (go read Roger Langridge's Popeye#12 instead for a swell Popeye/Barney Google team-up).
Finally, what more can I say about Tarzan the Ape Man than what I said before? Oh, it's a mess.
THE IDIOT BOX
Those who know me well also know I don't watch television - that is, I have no subscription service. The one program I have kept up with is the Amazing Race, but 2013 was a turning point for me and the show. I ultimately didn't really care about either of 2013's races, even bailing out on last fall's race (season 23) without seeing the finale. I'm tired of the meta-game; I'm tired of the manufactured controversies; I'm tired of the pseudo-celebrity contestants; I'm tired of seeing the same countries; I think I'm done with this program.
On the other hand, I didn't intend to watch Amazing Race Canada this summer, but became intrigued after seeing a few minutes of it in a bar; ultimately, it turned out to be a lot of fun, certainly more entertaining than its southern neighbour. I might be back for the Canada variant later this year.
2013 saw the return of Whose Line is it Anyway?, which takes me back to where I was in 1998 when the US version debuted. At first, I thought it was inferior to the British version, largely because of host Drew Carey whose frat boy-style humour was an ill-replacement for Clive Anderson's dry wit from the UK. And yet, around 2002 (when CTV was airing the show for an hour each day), I became very fond of the program, ultimately moreso than the UK (which lacked some of the latter show's polish). Having seen just a few of the new episodes with host Aisha Taylor, again I find myself making comparisons - here thinking "well, at least Drew Carey knew how to be funny..."
The renewal of Whose Line caused me to look back over the various improv shows connected to its cast and that's been immensely rewarding - not just rewatching old Whose Line episodes, but digging up specials like Drew Carey's Improv All-Stars (2001) and Brad and Colin: Two Man Group (2011) was great fun. I also watched the complete run of Drew Carey's Green Screen Show (2004), a short-lived and somewhat ill-conceived program where animation was used to depict the things we're meant to be imagining the improv actors are doing; despite the animated distractions, the performances are quite funny and it's especially of interest to see "fourth chair" Whose Line participants like Jeff Davis, Brad Sherwood and Chip Esten assuming larger roles. The lack of Whose Line's host-participant banter is a letdown, however.
Having watched all of those shows, I finally broke down and watched the entirety of Drew Carey's Improv-A-Ganza (2011). It didn't do much to change my initial impression - while it's great to see virtually everyone from Whose Line together again and working in different match-ups (rather than the constant Ryan-Colin dynamic, both are allowed to play off other performers), as a series of tapings of live shows it's just not as smooth as Whose Line was. The game introductions seem to drag on (in one episode, Greg Proops' explanation of the mousetrap game occupies all of the clip between commercial breaks!), audience participation games tend to misfire and often the performers are visibly struggling to keep their sketches going. I guess I also have to be one of those fans who complains about Kathy Kinney - she's got chutzpah, but not wit. Back when it started, I was also very turned-off by an early episode guest-starring Charlie Sheen, in which Sheen attempted to derail the sketch (it might have been the last episode I watched). On other hand, it's great to see how much Drew Carey's improv abilities have sharpened since Whose Line - not to the point where he's a match for the professionals, but well above where he was. There's also Heather Anne Campbell who is perhaps the best female improv artist I've seen in this chain of programs - like, she holds her own. I appreciate that the show is "truer" to the experience of live improv, but man, those editors on Whose Line must have logged a lot of hours in the booth.