Monday, January 13, 2014

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Days to Die' (1965)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Another discovery from the depths of Amazon's instant video offerings, 13 Days to Die is an Italian-German co-production whose original title translates as The Curse of the Black Ruby. The version I saw was awkwardly dubbed into English, but I doubt that hearing the original dialogue with subtitles would have made this spy thriller any less tedious and soporific. The best thing about the movie is that it was shot in Thailand and features plenty of local color, although deployed in the clumsiest, most obtrusive way possible. Hero Ralph Tracy (Thomas Alder) travels to Thailand at the request of its prince, who hires Tracy to track down a sacred necklace that was stolen from a museum. The thieves have been sending the prince one jewel from the necklace a day, with the warning that after the 13th jewel is sent, the prince will die (hence the movie's English-language title).

It's not clear exactly what Tracy's profession is -- he appears to be some sort of secret agent, but his services are also obviously for hire. Whatever he is, he's presented as pretty much the world's greatest human being. He handily dispatches all of the bad guy's henchmen in the poorly choreographed fight scenes (in which punches always land somewhere in midair), solves the convoluted mystery with ease, wrestles both a tiger and a crocodile, outwits diabolical geniuses and heads of state, and resists the charms of the beautiful Thai museum director/secret princess (er, spoiler alert). He has two sidekicks who provide extra brawn but seem mostly superfluous; mainly their function is to serve as a sounding board for Tracy's awesomeness. The movie's theme song consists entirely of jaunty instrumental music with the words "Ralph Tracy" whispered at regular intervals.

Of course, Ralph Tracy is really Rolf Torring in the movie's original German, which does sound sexier. And despite the copious fight scenes, the Thai scenery and the presence of various exotic animals, 13 Days to Die is terminally boring. The plot is needlessly complicated, the dialogue is bland and delivered poorly by the voiceover actors, and the shooting style is haphazard and sloppy (also, Amazon's version is in black and white for some reason, even though the movie is in color). It actually took me two days to finish watching the 99-minute movie because I kept falling asleep. It would be nice to say that this was a hidden gem worth wading through many pages of Amazon search results to find, but the truth is that it probably deserves to stay hidden.

Monday, January 06, 2014

My top 10 non-2013 films of 2013

I'm a little behind on getting to this, but I didn't want to miss one of my favorite posts of the year, looking back at the best movies I saw for the first time in a given year that were originally released in previous years. Last year I didn't see as many older films as I would have liked, and I was unable to even put together a top 10 list. This year, however, I managed to get my movie-watching rate back up, and I saw quite a few older movies that I really liked. So here's a look at my favorite non-2013 movies of 2013 (some comments reproduced from Letterboxd).

1. Night of the Comet (Thom Eberhardt, 1984) I actually watched this movie twice in 2013, which is pretty uncommon for me (I rarely watch movies more than once, and this is the only movie I watched multiple times in 2013). I first came across it sort of randomly on Netflix, and then a couple of months later I volunteered to write about it for the apocalypse feature at Not Coming to a Theater Near You, so I needed to watch it again. And if I was going to watch any movie twice in 2013, this was a good choice -- it's just the kind of fun, energetic feel-good movie that warrants repeat viewing. It's a giddy combination of '80s teen comedy and post-apocalyptic thriller, with two wonderful lead performances from Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney, a surprisingly sophisticated feminist viewpoint, a great shopping montage, one scene of haunting pathos from cult legend Mary Woronov, and a wicked sense of humor. Read more in my Not Coming piece.

2. Cluny Brown (Ernst Lubitsch, 1946) I saw this at the Turner Classic Movies Festival in April, always a great place for discovering hidden gems from cinema history. Lubitsch of course is one of the most acclaimed directors of clever comedies, and I saw his more famous Ninotchka at the same festival. I enjoyed Ninotchka, but not nearly as much as I loved this sharp, unpredictable story of a beautiful young woman who loves plumbing. It's a very funny and charming romantic comedy with lots of pointed satire on uptight British societal conventions. Jennifer Jones is splendid as the naive, Candide-like title character, and the depiction of clueless country landowners is like a trenchant mirror image of Downton Abbey.

3. The Innkeepers (Ti West, 2012) I watched this one on January 1, 2013, meaning that I was still able to include it in my voting for the online Muriel Awards. I would have put it on my other official year-end ballots as well, since it's an impeccably crafted, slow-building horror movie that's also a fascinating character study of a pair of front-desk workers at a failing (and haunted, of course) New England hotel. Like West's equally excellent The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers builds tension meticulously, bit by bit, but it's also infused with a sly sense of humor and a dizzying visual style.

4. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (Joann Sfar, 2010) Joshua Abbey of the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival asked me to moderate a discussion on this movie at the 2013 fest, and I was a little apprehensive that I wouldn't end up liking it, since reviews had been mixed. But it's quite an effective biopic, hitting the highlights of Serge Gainsbourg's life while also maintaining a whimsical magical-realist tone. Sfar uses his background as a comic-book artist to add fantasy elements to Gainsbourg's story, illustrating his inner emotional struggles far better than most soup-to-nuts biopics can ever manage.

5. Safe in Hell (William Wellman, 1931) Another discovery from TCM Fest, this is a rather nasty pre-Code thriller with a wonderfully dry, sarcastic lead performance from Dorothy Mackaill as a fugitive prostitute who takes refuge on a lawless island full of desperate men. It gets a little melodramatic toward the end, but the racy double entendres and seedy atmosphere are great.

6. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord & Chris Miller, 2009) I only watched this in preparation for reviewing the sequel, but it turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise, with a manic sense of humor, creative character design and an endless array of goofy food-related puns. I wasn't crazy about Lord and Miller's take on 21 Jump Street, but I now find myself improbably looking forward to their toy-based The Lego Movie later this year.

7. The Best Man (Malcolm D. Lee, 1999) Another catch-up viewing for writing about a sequel. I actually ended up seeing the sequel first, which I didn't like at all, so this was sort of a revelation after that melodramatic, overwrought mess. It features some great natural chemistry among the main characters, even if the plot drags a bit and the climax is a little heavy-handed. Nia Long's performance as the main character's smart, assertive ex-fling should have made her a huge star.

8. The Moth Diaries (Mary Harron, 2012) I almost didn't bother seeing this movie, since it got such terrible reviews, but I'm glad my weakness for horror movies about teenage girls got the better of me. Harron really evokes the gothic horror novels that the main character is studying, and the vagueness of the supernatural threat actually plays into that style. Star Lily Cole is unsettling and creepy, and while the metaphors are sometimes muddled, much of the movie is a powerful allegory for the way that intensely close friendships among teenage girls can suddenly and inexplicably be destroyed.

9. Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, 2012) This is another movie I managed to see early enough for voting in the Muriels, but not during the actual 2012 calendar year. The whole thing really rides on Marion Cotillard's fantastic performance as a whale trainer who has to rebuild her entire life after a tragic accident. The scene in which she sits in her wheelchair and imagines conducting her show, set to Katy Perry's "Firework" (of all things), is one of the most emotionally powerful moments I saw in a movie all year.

10. The Hustler (Robert Rossen, 1961) Okay, this is a genuine classic that should probably outrank all the other random stuff on this list. And I did like it a lot, especially Paul Newman's volatile performance as troubled pool shark Eddie Felson, whose unpredictability gives the movie its momentum. I have no interest in pool, but there's a lot of suspense in the scenes between Eddie and his nemesis Minnesota Fats (a great Jackie Gleason). I thought the movie wore itself out a little earlier than it ended, but it was pretty riveting along the way.

Previous lists:

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

My top 10 comic books of 2013

The last time I wrote about comics on here was a year ago, with my list of favorites from 2012, but even though I haven't been posting about comics on a regular basis, I've still been reading (and keeping more current than I did last year). So once again, here's my list of my top 10 comics of the year, compiled for Comic Book Resources' massive top 100 feature, which used a few of my comments.

1. The Wake (Scott Snyder/Sean Murphy; DC/Vertigo) It's not easy to do effective horror in comics, but Snyder and Murphy make this story of ancient underwater creatures attacking a science outpost into something genuinely unsettling and creepy. And the first volume concludes with a mind-blowing cliffhanger setting up the next chapter.

2. Trillium (Jeff Lemire; DC/Vertigo) Lemire's sci-fi romance is a great example of both genres, with a time- and universe-spanning story that makes sure not to spare the small, personal details.
3. Saga (Brian K. Vaughan/Fiona Staples; Image) Continuing to build an intricate sci-fi world surrounding a fully realized domestic drama, Saga is great space opera, but even greater character study.

4. Astro City (Kurt Busiek/Brent Anderson; DC/Vertigo) I didn't realize how much I missed Astro City until it came back. Busiek is still the master at telling relatable human stories in a superhero world, and he's pretty great at telling straight-up superhero stories, too.

5. Fatale (Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips; Image) As Brubaker and Phillips have revealed more about the history of femme fatale Josephine, she's evolved into one of the most tragic characters in comics, and the series' stories this year were equal parts disturbing and heartbreaking.

6. The Superior Foes of Spider-Man (Nick Spencer/Steve Lieber; Marvel) Who knew that Spidey's foes would be ideally suited to a comedy caper book? Proof that there is always room for unique, creative standalone storytelling within a company-owned superhero universe.

7. Next Testament (Clive Barker & Mark Miller/Haemi Jang; Boom!) Leave it to Clive Barker to make God into a homicidal tyrant who also happens to be this year's most compelling new comic-book villain.

8. Lazarus (Greg Rucka/Michael Lark; Image) The corporate-controlled future of this sci-fi series is impeccably researched and detailed, and the lead character is a hyper-competent badass who's poised to challenge everything about that world.

9. Young Avengers (Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie; Marvel) Gillen knows how to write awkward and exuberant young people, and McKelvie's art is a master class in storytelling and creative panel design.

10. Chew (John Layman/Rob Guillory; Image) Is it still exciting and fun to read about people with weird food-based powers in a world dominated by the iron fist of the FDA? Of course it is.