Captain Canada's Movie Rodeo

Image copyright Lionsgate

Image copyright Lionsgate

I've written before about the 2013 summer movie season as being a bit on the unremarkable side for me. As I think about the past twelve months strictly in terms of the movies that were released in that period, a general feeling of disappointment can be pretty easily applied to all 12 months. That’s not to say the 2013 summer movie season was a letdown from bell to bell. Nor would I say that about the overall year. It’s just that as I think about the movies that came out this year, it feels as though coming up with even ten truly great films is a little too much of a stretch.

Maybe, it’s just a general mood seeping into my passions/weird obsessions. Nonetheless, if you’re at all curious to know what my person 10 for 2013 would be, here you go:

1.    Warm Bodies
2.    Stoker
3.    Behind the Candelabra
4.    12 Years A Slave
5.    Star Trek into Darkness
6.    Pacific Rim
7.    Before Midnight
8.    This is the End
9.    Monsters University
10.    The World’s End

Keep in mind that I have not seen every 2013 movie I wanted to see (and I’m fairly certain my top 10 would be a different party if I had), and that the above list is laid out in no particular order. I loved Warm Bodies, but its position at #1 in no way indicates that I think it’s the best movie of the year.  To be honest, I don’t know if I could pick a single film that I would put above the rest. This is one of the reasons why 2013 continues to strike me as a pretty average year at the ol’ movie palace.

2013 wasn’t a bad year. It’s just one I can’t see in awe-inspiring terms.

2014 looks promising, so I’m just going to shrug, and look ahead.

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Speaking of the future, I do not mourn the death of Blockbuster Video. A number of franchise locations are going to continue to exist (presumably on an independent basis), but the vast majority of the in-store locations are going to be gone by 2014. I’m fine with that. I’m not going to miss a store that charged ludicrous prices for rentals, and even more infuriating prices for late returns. I’m not nostalgic for a store that destroyed the smaller businesses that were often enough run by people who actually liked movies. I don’t weep for a company that refused to carry anything above an R rating, and managed to have both tons of movies and a really crappy selection simultaneously. That was my experience more often than not with Blockbuster.

Going to Blockbuster usually meant that I was drunk and bored in the middle of the day. Or it was because I did want to go to a video store, and they were the only party in town. I was fine, if I wanted to choose from one of the seven thousand copies of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, or if I was hankering for something like Spiderman III or Paul Blart: Mall Cop. If I wanted a selection that beautifully emphasized the seemingly endless possibilities film offers, I had to go somewhere else. There were alternatives to Blockbuster, back when I made semi-regular pilgrimages to the video store. A very select handful of those alternatives exist today (Richmond, Virginia’s Fan Video is one). Unfortunately, Blockbuster was usually the only option, so when Netflix came along, I signed up for an account shortly after they went live. I didn’t feel like I was abandoning anything. I felt a certain pang of nostalgia for the video store I frequented in Lake Cowichan, British Columbia as a kid. I still do. The same way I wish I could have gone back to that one video store I went to Illinois, which had so many VHS and DVD titles on its shelves, a lot of things were simply arranged in huge symmetrical stacks.

I get that time marches on. I’m not crying out for a return to the “good ol’ days.” Video stores, good video stores are just one of those things I miss sometimes. I liked going by myself or with friends, and just wandering around the aisles for a few minutes. New releases or even video games were fine, but there was always the possibility of finding something I didn’t expect to. I could also notice a title that I suddenly wanted to see again. It’s the same mindset I had with libraries and bookstores. Visiting monuments, or to be heavy-handed, temples to the things I liked was a nice part of my childhood. Visiting Netflix or Amazon.com is great for a lot of reasons, but it’s not the same thing.

That’s okay. It only saddens me on occasion.

Time moves on. There are fewer bookstores, video stores, and record shops than there were ten years ago. It’s neither here nor there. Eventually, there won’t be any.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013): B-

I haven’t read the novels by Suzanne Collins. I imagine that’s at least one of the reasons why I wasn’t completely blown away by the first Hunger Games film. I came away from it with a feeling that Jennifer Lawrence was pretty freaking amazing, but not much else rose above its big, scary police state plot. It wasn’t bad by any means. I just felt as though I was missing out somehow, by not getting as excited about it as a lot of other people were. Catching Fire gets me a good deal closer to understanding what all the fuss is about. Without the burden of having to establish a universe and primary characters, Catching Fire is free to revel in chaos, darkness, and uncertainty to a much greater degree than its predecessor. New characters join the story of Katniss and Peeta dealing with the consequences of their dual victory in the first film (Jena Malone, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Jeffrey Wright are all excellent), but the focus of the film remains primarily on Katniss. As well it should. She is one of the most complex, intriguing characters in recent mainstream fiction. In the first film, Jennifer Lawrence made the character her own, to the point in which her performance was the defining characteristic of why the movie was worth a look in the first place. In Catching Fire, there is much more going on in Katniss’ head. Yet at the same time, she has to at times become the ass-kicking heroine people expect her to be. Jennifer Lawrence takes on every challenge Catching Fire throws at her. Although there are a lot of very fine performances in this movie, and although the action is smoother and features better editing and energy than the first time around, the best thing in the latest Hunger Games film is once again Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. Even in a film with a lot of appealing elements in place, our attention is intensely fixated upon what she’s going to do next. If it sounds like I’m suddenly jumping on a bandwagon, then so be it.

Bloody Sunday (2002): A+

Through the eyes of activist and Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association member Ivan Cooper (played with intense, unflinching sincerity by James Nesbitt), Paul Greengrass creates a depiction of the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” shootings that is guaranteed to make an impression on you. Greengrass clearly sides with the Irish protestors, fourteen of whom lost their lives in a march against British occupation in Northern Ireland, and that’s fine. Bloody Sunday states its opinions in its narrative and style clearly. What the film is not is preachy or heavy-handed. We watch Cooper tirelessly work with the conviction of a man who dreams of sleep, but knows he can’t until the seemingly endless task at hand is finished. We bear witness to Cooper moving through the town of Derry, speaking to people, encouraging others, and trying to find peace without bloodshed. Those who know their history know that his best efforts for the people of Northern Ireland to assemble peacefully ended in a tragedy that he certainly couldn’t have foreseen. The movie displays an uncanny knack for giving everything that occurs in the film a sense of the immediate. We are set loose in the frightening results of what happens when things escalate, and left to wander through Derry at that particular moment in time. As we see the words and actions of Cooper, other activist leaders, British soldiers, Derry citizens, and fellow protestors (some of whom really did participate in the actual march), we become a face in the crowd. It makes for an experience that doesn’t take us out of the movie until the end credits (which feature an admittedly excellent, painfully appropriate live version of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday”). Bloody Sunday is a truly immersing film. When the gunfire and screaming finally stop, it’s not unreasonable if you find yourself feeling a little disjointed.

Springsteen and I (2013): B-

It helps considerably with this documentary about Bruce Springsteen fans (produced by Ridley Scott) to be a fan of The Boss himself. Anyone who has to put up with my Facebook knows I’m just slightly shy of being a giddy teenager girl about his music. Nonetheless, I believe that I can separate myself from that fact to suggest this documentary can work for people who have no particular feelings about Bruce. The documentary was created through submissions sent in by fans from all over the world. There’s a young girl who drives a truck for a living, and finds a lot of inspiration in the lyric of Springsteen’s lengthy body of work. A professional Elvis impersonator who joined Springsteen and The E Street Band for some Elvis tunes relates his story. Another man talks about an impromptu jamming session with Springsteen on some city streets. A young English girl tells us about going to a show, and getting to be Courtney Cox’s character from the “Dancing in the Dark” video. It goes on like this. You do feel a little sorry for the children of at least a couple of the Springsteen die hards, but the documentary doesn’t seek to make fun. It’s not a freak show, although you’re bound to like certain entries more than others. What Springsteen and I tries to achieve, besides being a story about Springsteen’s 40-year-old, amazingly diverse fan base, is to show the global community a love of music can create. In this case, it’s a very specific portion of music. If you’re not a fan of that specific portion of music, you may still appreciate all the people in this. Each of whom present their own unique, endearing way of thanking Bruce Springsteen for what their music has given them. Chances are, you have at least one band or artist you could make such a video tribute for. If only so you can tell them about the time that one song got you through that lonesome day.

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962): A-

Even as the film that launched tons of sequels, a 2003 Beat Takeshi remake, and god knows what else, The Tale of Zatoichi is fantastic all on its own. Shintaro Katsu made the role of a blind, good-natured, wise, and unfathomably skilled samurai his own from the very beginning. His performance is the core of this film, and certainly of the sequels and TV series he later did. The Tale of Zatoichi also comes with superb direction by Kenji Misumi (the action sequences are still quite exciting after so many years), and a supporting cast that fills the excellent story with depth and skill (Masayo Banri stands out as a woman who falls in love with our hero). That story, in which Ichi (the actual name of the masseuse/samurai) is caught between two rivaling Yakuza gangs, is an outstanding introduction to this character. With such an expansive film series, a newcomer might not know where to start. This beginning is as good a place as any.

Frozen (2013): B+

One would like to think that Disney has the animated fairytale epic idea down by this point. If you’re not a fan of that kind of thing, Frozen, based loosely on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, isn’t going to change your mind. Frozen seeks to be a dazzling blend of music and animation, in the tradition of past Disney classics. It succeeds in this for the most part. The 3D effects actually manage to be noticeable without being intrusive (though I would still argue you can enjoy the movie just as much without them). Meanwhile, the songs express a sweep of emotions that reminds us of what Disney can do on a good day. I’m not even remotely embarrassed that the movie’s most popular track “Let it Go” has been stuck in my head for days. Just as important as the songs, the voice cast joins flawlessly with the animated characters. Every voice fits every facial expression, every movement of the hands, and every step taken towards the next flawlessly-constructed moment. This gives Jennifer Lee’s screenplay (she also co-directed with Chris Buck) of two sisters trying to reconnect, while also finding their own unique identities, the human touch it needs to express its points about family and individuality beautifully. Yeah, there’s some romance, as well as an animal that does a lot of funny human things, and then an enchanted, fantastically naïve snowman. The movie makes room for these things without hurting what the story is actually about. The focus remains on the relationship between a princess and her sister, the queen of the land of Arendelle. It tells their story of separation and reconciliation with a level of maturity that gives the movie the opportunity to be just as engaging for adults as it will almost certainly be for most children. In doing so, we come back to that tradition Disney created, lost sight of, brought back in the 90’s, and then lost sight of again. Everything that represents the best of Disney’s animated musical tradition is here in Frozen. It doesn’t make a desperate grab at these things. It simply joins the finest examples of that institution. Frozen has the capacity to get a smile out of even the most cynical.