Army of Shadows (1969)

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ARMY_OF_SHADOWS_1SHIt’s hard to know how to start on this, so there’s no better place than where the movie begins: the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, as a parade of Nazis file first past it, then down the Champs Elysee, right into the camera. A long, unbroken scene, devoid of reaction shots, or any context save an historical one; and this is how Army of Shadows will present its tale of the French Resistance under Nazi occupation. Unromanticized, matter-of-fact, almost documentarian.

By and large, we’re going to follow Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura), an electric engineer who begins the movie on his way to a Vichy concentration camp for political prisoners. Gerbier will eventually escape when he is taken to the city for interrogation by the Gestapo, in a burst of violence surprising for the quiet intellectual we’ve spent the last fifteen minutes or so with. And so it is, layers of quiet deception always a heartbeat away from disaster or violence.

army-of-shadowsIn the first segment after Gerbier’s escape, he and two of his comrades capture a young man who had sold out his cell to the Nazis, and take him to a safe house for execution. To their dismay, they find a family has moved in next door the night before and they cannot safely shoot the traitor, and so spend several minutes dispassionately discussing various forms of murder in front of their terrified victim.

Army of Shadows did not do well on its opening in France in 1969. One of the reasons is scenes like this, wherein critics felt that the heroes of the Resistance were being cast in the same light as the gangsters in other movies by director Jean-Pierre Melville, like Le Samouraï and the forthcoming Le Cercle Rouge. (There is a political angle, too, as De Gaulle was extremely unpopular at the time of the movie’s premiere, and there is a moment when the head of the Resistance is decorated by the General-in-exile, and he receives the award with a beatific smile, as if he had just been visited by God.)

Melville himself and the author of the novel on which this is based, Joseph Kessel, were both in the Resistance, and both escaped to England to join the Free France organization there, so as depressing and bleak as the events before us are, they still carry a ring of truth.

There is heroism on display in Army of Shadows, but it’s never rewarded. A chancy attempt to rescue a comrade fails, and one daring member, who arranges to get himself captured and tortured just to find the man they are trying to rescue, dies alone and in obscurity, his legendary luck failing him when he needs it most. All our characters are doomed and they know it – and death will not always come at the hand of the Nazis, but sometimes at the hands of their comrades – and they are still determined to play their hand out until the last.

Army of Shadows 8It’s not an edifying movie, but it is a very, very good one. Thanks to a critical lambasting by Cahiers du Cinema in the 60s, it never even played in America until 2006, when it started getting its due acclaim as possibly Melville’s defining movie, if not an actual masterpiece.  Definitely recommended, though not if you’re in need of cheering up.

Army of Shadows on Amazon

Punching: The Forty Year Difference

Coming off two weeks where real life and two of my three jobs were determined to kill me (had number three pitched in, I’d be writing this from a hospital bed at least), I suddenly realized I had turned a corner and had the next 48 hours free. What to do? I should probably watch a movie. I haven’t watched a movie in two weeks. I have that stupid thing where I am going to, for sure, watch a certain 100 movies I’ve been putting off within the next year.

force_four_poster_012So what do I watch? Force Four. Or as the IMDb knows it, Black Force.

It is damned hard to find information about Force Four. It’s a scrappy little mongrel of a movie, and I wager the script was written on a cocktail napkin. The Black Force of the title is four martial artists (Owen Wat-son, Warhawk Tanzania, Malichi Lee, and Judie Soriano), who are all real-life black belts, They apparently have some sort of mercenary/troubleshooter thing going on, because they receive a phone call on the special phone in their panelled Black Force pad, hiring them to find and recover a African artifact that was stolen before the opening credits.

By way of introduction, each of the members of Force Four do their individual katas, which eats up some time. Then they Hit The Streets to dig up some information on the theft. This takes the form of an endless montage with the same ten shots of New York City repeated over and over played under improvised dialogue from our four stars, leavened with the occasional quick fight scene or the sight of Warhawk playing basketball in platform heels. The dialogue occasionally tries to sync up with what’s going on onscreen, and the one sudden instance of sync sound is jarring. But man, does it eat up time.

Meanwhile, in the Black Force Cave...

Meanwhile, in the Black Force Cave…

That one prostitute who rates sync sound, it turns out, works for Z (Sam Schwartz) the doughy mobster who runs things, see? Z sends out his thugs to get Force Four while they’re separated and Hitting The Streets. There are four quick fight scenes. Our plucky Black Force re-convenes at The Pad, and Owen has gotten one thug to talk (off-camera), so they go to the thug’s place and beat them up. No artifact or Z, though, so they drive upstate to Z’s house. This drive is pretty much accomplished in real-time.

DuskZ is having a house party, so the movie will also stop dead for an entire song by an outfit I dubbed Tony Borlando and Dusk, but was likely Live USA, who provided the soundtrack. And you know what? That soundtrack is pretty good. I’m gonna let Dusk/Live USA skate, even if Tony is wearing a tuxedo that left me blind for a few minutes.

Force Four beat up some more thugs on the grounds, then confront Z (who is soaking his buyer for another 100 grand, the rat). Z barely gets away, and many are the screaming extras and kung fu fights around the pool.  Owen plants a tracer on Z’s car (but drops it and then has to hide behind a tree for fifteen minutes while Z’s head thug tries very hard not to see him). This enables Force Four to follow Z the next day – and his buyer lives out even further than him – beat up everybody, and find out that the case has a false bottom with tons of uncut heroin.

Malachi Lee gone SMACK YOU!

Malachi Lee gone SMACK YOU!

The movie is still not much over an hour long. So we have the extended dance re-mix of all the fight scenes in the movie, followed by a five minute end credit sequence, with individual shots of each and every black belt in the movie (the poster promises 28, and I believe the poster). We finally hit 82 minutes, and it’s over.

Force Four starts with some title cards stating that the martial arts contained therein are presented as realistically as possible, with no camera tricks or gimmicks. This is pretty much true, and the fights are as realistic as you can get in a world where opponents attack you one at a time and there are no guns. Each fight is over with very quickly, and our heroes don’t have a lick of trouble until the very last battle, and even then, they are never outmatched. Kind of boring. Which is a fair assessment of Force Four. Frustrating amount of padding, no real tension.

It’s also odd to consider that the breakout star from this was Warhawk Tanzania, who would make The Devil’s Express (aka Gang Wars) the next year. (Owen Wat-son had made Velvet Smooth the year before, so I guess he was the opposite of a breakout. He actually has the best acting chops of any of the Force, though Malachi Lee has a nice, quiet charisma.)

FIN02_JWick_BusShltr_SWPNow let’s compare this with the movie I saw the next day, John Wick.

In case you didn’t watch any movie trailers last year, Keanu Reeves is the title character, a very recent widow, whose wife’s parting gesture is the gift of a beagle puppy, delivered on the evening of her funeral, to ensure that John continues to have “something to love”. John also has a beautiful 1969 Mustang that catches the eye of Iosef (Alfie Allen), the lowlife son of a Russian mobster. When John refuses to sell, Iosef and his buddies stage a nighttime home invasion, beat up John, steal his car, and kill the puppy.

Puppykillers. We all hate them.

Iosef then proceeds to have a very bad couple of days as he finds out he tugged on Superman’s cape, he spat into the wind, he pulled the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger and he just reactivated one of the most feared assassins in the history of the world. Wick met his wife, retired from The World, and the only thing that was keeping him a nice, quiet, normal nobody was the dog. And it is quite probable that not even Iosef’s daddy, kingpin Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), and his army of hoodlums, will be able to save him.

john-wick-is-keanu-reeves-best-movie-since-the-matrixJohn Wick is, needless to say, a very violent movie; when all is said and done, Keanu has killed 76 people, but hey – dog owners understand. What keeps this from becoming Commando is the odd alternate world we find ourselves in this time: The world of the assassins, where everything – everything – is paid for in gold coins, there is a five-star safe house hotel in the Flatiron Building, and a phone call for “dinner reservations” gets you quick, discreet and complete body disposal and cleanup – one gold coin per corpse.

The movie really owes a lot to Donald Westlake’s Parker novels and Point Blank in particular, with its driven protagonist and fascinating glimpses into a hidden world with its own rules and codes. It’s also a hell of a rumination on revenge and the fact that dominos keep on falling once they’re nudged.

downloadJohn Wick was hyped to me as being the equal of The Raid 2, and for once I bought into the hype, and as usual, regretted it. I liked the movie, and unlike a lot of people, I really like Keanu, who shows some impressive acting chops in the beginning, and whatever else you may say about the man, he is not afraid to train and train hard. But living up to Raid 2 is a tough road to follow. Now, like Raid 2, we are presented with a series of fight scenes in which I can follow every motion and action. Movies that do this automatically get another star, letter grade, or whatever bogus scoring system you’re using.

I really liked it. But I wasn’t blown away.

But it’s this methodology that shows how far the action film has come in 40 years:  The black belts of Force Four did their own choreography, and Michael Fink filmed that choreography. Wick’s directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, were stunt coordinators, choreographers and then second unit directors before lobbying hard for their post here: pre-viz and plotting out how fights look to the camera are second nature to them. It has become an industry, and the sooner this aesthetic takes hold of action filmmaking, that it becomes the standard again, the better. I’m thinking that it’s this clarity of motion and intent in the action scenes that had people putting it on even footing with Raid 2, it’s really that much of a breath of fresh air in an American-made film.

And then I watch the Making-of supplements and see all these scenes before the teal and orange color ramping and I start being tempted to take away that extra star. That, at least is definitely one thing The Raid 2 has over John Wick.

I watched John Wick with Rick and Dave, and Dave made the comment – likely true – “This script was only 15 pages long. I guarantee it.” I held that he was likely right, but at least it wasn’t half a page, spread out to 82 minutes. I don’t think the point was quite made because I haven’t made them watch Force Four.

Yet.

John Wick on Amazon

 

Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook_of_the_northSometimes you just have to pay homage to the classics, even if they may not deserve it. We’re likely going to be arguing about Birth of a Nation for quite some time, for instance, and here’s another one that I’ve been curious about for some time – Nanook of the North, the first docudrama.

Robert J. Flaherty didn’t start out as a filmmaker; he was a paid explorer, who when working for the Canadian Railroads, spent several years among the indigenous people of the Hudson Bay area, in northern Quebec. This was about 1910; in 1913 he bought a motion picture camera and started filming these people in their everyday lives. In 1916, though, he dropped a lit cigarette on this film, and being nitrate stock, it went up in a fireball (it’s estimated that there was about 30,000 feet involved). He went back with more equipment, and using what he had learned in that previous venture, narrowed the focus to one family, and their struggles to survive a typical year in the hostile climate of Northern Quebec, and the result was a worldwide sensation.

But this is one of those movies where the behind-the-scenes is arguably more intriguing than what we see on the screen, and what we see on the screen is actually pretty damned good. There are many controversies surrounding Nanook, and all of them, unfortunately, bring the final product into question.

Robert_Flaherty_Nyla_1920We’ll start with the obvious: the title character, the Great Hunter Nanook (which we are told means “Bear”), is actually named (I hope I get this right) Allakariallak. We are introduced to his two wives, Nyla (“The Smiling One”) and Cunayou. They were apparently not actually Allakariallak’s wives, but – and this is only an allegation, mind – that they were actually Flaherty’s lovers. The parentage of the baby constantly riding in Nyla’s furs, like a papoose, is unknown.

The movie begins with some striking imagery, as Spring begins and Nanook paddles his kayak to the white man’s trading post to barter the furs of his winter’s kills. One of his children is riding ont he top of the kayak. Nanook gets out, helps the boy to land, and then the kayak starts disgorging the rest of the family, like a clown car. This such a surprise, but so logical, I was placing it in my “Things Learned” column, until finding out about the rest of the picture’s veracity. Now I’m not so sure.

"Eh, this blows. You got any Beck?"

“Eh, this blows. You got any Beck?”

There’s a scene at the trading post where the proprietor shows a Gramophone to the baffled Nanook. Allakariallak, it turns out, was no bumpkin, and knew perfectly well what a gramophone was; but he also apparently knew the value of comic relief. There’s also the fact that Nanook is portrayed in his constant hunting for food armed only with his trusty harpoon and a knife carved from a walrus tusk (which truly turns out to have a thousand and one uses), when the Inuit had been using guns for years.

So Flaherty convinced his plucky villagers to emulate their ancestors in their walrus hunt, and they seem to do a pretty good, if arduous job of it. The hunt itself may not be truly documentary, it may be scripted, but as Roger Ebert pointed out, nobody showed the walrus the script.

nanook windowIf you’re willing to grant that Allakariallak may be using old-timey methods to trap his other prey, a snow fox and a huge seal, it becomes a fairly nice re-telling and record of those ways. Then, with the onset of winter, the family builds an igloo (the film claims “within an hour”, but I ain’t so sure about that). This is one of the most famous segments of Nanook, and it is a wonder to behold: Nanook carving the blocks of snow with his trusty walrus-tusk knife, the women and children spackling the gaps with more snow. And most amazing to my eye, Nanook carving a block of ice from the frozen bay to serve as a window, and then placing a block of snow to reflect sunlight into the igloo. That is neatly done.

Then the family settles down for the night under their skins and furs. And something is chewing at the back of my brain: I’ve seen the movie cameras of that era, and they are big. Too big to easily fit through the tiny open Nanook and his clan crawled through. And they required more light than could be brought in through that ice window.

Yep, Flaherty built a half-igloo, open to the outdoors and its bounteous light.

flaherty_port_harrison_1920This is a question we have to face again and again as fans of cinema: does a good story trump the needs of historic accuracy? The answer from Hollywood is always a resounding, “Yes!” and who is to say they are wrong? Perhaps Nanook serves best not as a strict documentary, but as a record of a way of life that had vanished before the invention of the motion picture. Hence, not “documentary”, but “docudrama”. Robert Flaherty made a career out of movies like these, and they are all well-regarded: Elephant Boy (with Zoltan Korda, introducing Sabu), Louisiana Story, The Land.

critique-nanouk-l-esquimau-flaherty12The final thing to consider is that the movie opens by telling us that Nanook died two years after the film was finished; he journeyed inland to find food and starved to death. It is much more likely that Allakariallak died of tuberculosis, in his home. But whatever the cause, the news of his death triggered mourning worldwide, so successful had Nanook been, so far had it traveled. That is the power of a good story, well told, and perhaps the whole question is best answered by another movie, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Nanook of the North on Amazon

I Have a Doctor’s Excuse

This has been a couple of weeks of medical problems, family and otherwise, and the attendant throttling upwards of demand on my time. Something had to give, and for once, it was my body in second place.  Plans had to be scuttled to accommodate doctor visits, testing, fighting with insurance companies, and filling in for other people on my day job (while still keeping my hours under 19 1/2 a week, because God forbid they should actually have to give me any benefits). (Please note I actually do like my job, and my status is not the fault of anyone I actually work with)

Anyway.

There’s a couple of reviews I have on the spike that I was saving. So I’ll pop one of those up later in the week so we can all pretend that life is normal. I’m only able to dash this off because it’s going to take 20 minutes to transfer this weekend’s footage from the memory cards to my computer for editing.

Last night I received the latest newsletter from one of my favorite writers, Warren Ellis, which was composed pretty much of one graphic:

unnamedThis provoked a rueful, knowing laugh from me (which was quite welcome, as we were in the second hour of trying to have a celebratory birthday dinner for my wife). Hopefully he does not mind my appropriating it, and will not harvest my organs in the night for black rituals or fringe science, or an unholy combination of both. If you have not yet heard the Word of Warren Ellis, click on either of those links. Your brain will thank you.

Perhaps we’ll talk about what’s been going on one day. Probably not – none of it is life-threatening, and is only of interest if you’re in the thick of it, like me.

Anyway, see you later, and be excellent to one another.

A Bit of Tati

imagesOne of the great boons to a movie collector on a budget is the twice-yearly Criterion Sale at Barnes & Noble. We will not speak of the July version last year, because I was broke that month. Last November, however, the combination of the 50% off sale, a coupon, and a membership bought in better days resulted in me walking out of the store with the newly-released Jacques Tati box set for thirty-five bucks.

Tati was a mystery to me; I had no idea he even existed until I moved to the Big City and was exposed to the wondrous world of repertory movie houses. We had two back in those days, and it was the River Oaks Theater – still around, to this day – that had the wonderful sheets detailing the month’s double features, that I found stuck to most friends’ refrigerators. It was on one of these that I read of M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, and the bare paragraph describing Tati and his work. It sounded very intriguing, but I was working in a warehouse during the day and acting at night – time for a movie was rare. But that double feature kept coming back, year after year, so it must have been good.

So, when the Sale started mere days after the box set was released, I regarded it as a Sign.

And then I started rationing them out, because he made only six features in his life.

jourHis first feature,  Jour de Fête (1949), or “Day of the Celebration” (more popularly, The Big Day), was intended as a tribute to a tiny French village where Tati and several of his friends had found refuge during the Nazi occupation. The rustic village has a number of instantly identifiable types, serving as a sort of Commedia del Arte cast as the movie unfolds. A carnival comes to town, as the village celebrates… well, something. A centenary or Bastille Day, perhaps. The nature of the celebration isn’t important, it’s what it brings to town that matters.

Tati is Françoise, the local mailman, the usual butt of jokes amongst the villagers, and a prime target for the two carnies running the merry-go-round, as they find him a willing participant in his own debasement. A large tent is set up, showing movies throughout the day (the soundtrack of a Western provides an ingenious backdrop for a meet cute between a carnie and a local girl, much to the disgust of the carnie’s wife), and it is in that tent that Françoise sees a film of airplane and motorcycle stunts, purporting to be the American Postal Service at work!

jour_de_4_webThis leads to a tremendous burst of energy in the last part of the movie, when Françoise (egged on by the carnies, of course) attempts to perform his postal duties as quickly as possible, in often dangerous ways, such as tethering his bicycle to a moving truck so he can use its tailgate as a desk, all the while shouting “L’Americaine!” (translated as “American-Style!”) This is apparently taken almost wholesale from his earlier short film, School for Postmen, but as an ignorant Yank, I didn’t know and didn’t care. It’s a marvelous sequence that left an enormous, happy grin on my face.

hulotTati didn’t shift into International Recognition gear until his second movie, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), in which the title character (played by Tati himself, of course) wreaks havoc on a quiet seaside resort, usually with the very best of intentions. Like Jour de Fête, the story is episodic, but much more solid, as this time the viewer is certain as to the identity of the main character. Hulot, with his tall, angular frame (far too large for his rattletrap jalopy, whose noisy passage surpasses that of Jack Benny’s Maxwell), odd hat and ever-present pipe instantly inserts himself into the Classic Book of Clowns, probably inconveniencing someone while doing so and creating a catastrophe, all unawares.

I’m aware that Tati made his initial fame as a performing mime, and that most people use “clown” as a pejorative, but the true Clown works on a higher level than mere greasepaint and child-frightening costumes. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Marcel Marceau, Claude Kipnis, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason: all superior clowns, their best work rarely requiring anything so distracting as dialogue (in fact the version of Holiday I watched had been re-edited by Tati in 1978, eliminating virtually all dialogue); their comedy not only entertains but often comments and sometimes even teaches.

hulot et waiterHoliday, in fact, announced the arrival of an artist in no uncertain terms. Beautiful, idyllic scenes of peaceful seashore vistas are matched perfectly with hectic scenes of a train station swarming with harried vacationers trying to find their way to supposed peace and relaxation. It’s brilliant stuff, and Tati will continue to impress, not only with the staging of his setpieces, but the artist’s eye toward composition.

The Tati statue, at the resort where Holiday was filmed.

The Tati statue, at the resort where Holiday was filmed.

These two movies together form a delightful entrée into the man’s work, as it becomes plain how much he had advanced in only a few years. Jour de Fête is a perfectly good movie, but Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday has been rightly praised as a masterpiece. I read several reviews that puzzled me, that criticized the episodic nature of the story, and that they did not find Tati funny. These people went in expecting Chaplin or Keaton and say so, and that way – expecting an entertainer to fall conveniently into a pre-drilled hole – will always result in disappointment. Much of the humor in Holiday is so mild as to be nearly Canadian (the apparent oxymoron “gentle slapstick” is often used) but I laughed out loud many times. Ask any of my embittered friends who are stand-up comedians: it is tough to deliberately make me laugh out loud.

Anyway, these two movies begin and end similarly: a crowd comes to town, it bustles for a while, the crowd leaves town. Françoise’ frantic mail delivery is sidelined so he can help bring in the harvest. The vacationers say their goodbyes and head home, but Hulot is ignored, more readily accepted by the bored children playing in the dirt at beach’s edge. There are a couple of people who specifically seek  him out to say goodbye, having found him a delightful distraction in a pack of stolid, joyless people – but we are only too aware that Hulot was deprived of a last romantic picnic and goodbye from that attractive blonde girl who also found him entertaining, an opportunity sabotaged by his comedy rattletrap car. Such is the fate of the Clown, why we love and pity him so, and why we will always find room for him in our hearts.

Jacques Tati on Amazon

Lisztomania (1975)

Lisztomania_1975_1One of my great regrets is that I don’t know more about classical music. I can pick out and identify the heavy hitters, but that’s most likely due to exposure via movies or Warner Brothers cartoons. Given that, I likely couldn’t, given a choice of five classical pieces, pick out which one was by Franz Liszt.

Still, here I am, watching Ken Russell’s biopic of the composer.

“Lisztomania” was apparently a very real thing, a term coined during Liszt’s glory days as a concert pianist; normally staid concert-goers were shocked by the screams of ecstasy and longing from Liszt’s young female admirers. (It has also been pointed out that a better translation of those contemporary writings is “Liszt Fever”, as “mania” held a much more serious meaning in the 19th century) Therefore, it seems fairly reasonable to cast Roger Daltrey, lead singer for The Who, as a very real classical music rock star.

Lisztomania-26110_2Lisztomania is concerned with the composer’s adult life, starting with his affair with the Countess Marie d’Agoult (Fiona Lewis), then into a concert where the audience is populated by screaming young girls (causing me to flash back to the final concert scenes of A Hard Day’s Night), then onward through his years of fruitful creativity under Princess Carolyn zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (Sara Kestelman), finally ending with his exorcism of the Nazi vampire Richard Wagner, using a flame-throwing piano made of steel and glass. Then Liszt returns from the afterlife in a pipe organ spaceship powered by the women he loved in life, to defeat Wagner, resurrected as a Frankenstein Monster/Adolf Hitler with an electric guitar that doubles as a machine gun.

What I’m saying is, some liberties may have been taken with Liszt’s biography.

liszt5Now, biopics almost always play fast and loose with the truth, because movies, you know? Anybody going into a biopic directed by Ken Russell expecting a documentary is, to put it politely, going to be blown out the back of the theater by the sheer force of the extravagant visuals that flow out of the screen like a water cannon. That is, if they haven’t had a heart attack at the first sight of bare boobies 30 seconds into the film. And remember: we are talking about Ken Russell right after Tommy.

The drying up of Liszt’s creative powers during his years of non-connubial bliss with Marie is presented as a silent Charlie Chaplin movie, accompanied by Liszt’s “Love Dream” (Liebestraum), with lyrics by Daltrey. That’s a conceit that shouldn’t work, but it’s brilliant. And if you hadn’t already figured out that this movie was going to have only the slightest flirtation with reality by that opening concert with its mylar curtain backdrop, this is at least a fairly gentle – for Russell – wake-up call.

lisztomaniae_thumbConsidering we’ll be soon entering into the segment where Liszt is seduced by Princess Carolyn, who will unlock his pent-up creative juices (heh) by forcing him to abandon his libertine ways and concentrate on composing. This is presented in a sequence involving Liszt growing a ten foot erection during a production number with the Princess’ chambermaids, who then feed the preposterous priapism through a guillotine manned by the Princess in her best Rocky Horror corset. This is entirely justified artistically (I am sure).

And did I mention Ringo Starr as the Pope?

And did I mention Ringo Starr as the Pope?

Russell is one of those directors I have come to appreciate late in life. In my early adult years, I knew him mainly for Altered States (for which my acidhead phase thanks him) and Crimes of Passion (for which… not so much). In subsequent years I’ve found Salome’s Last Dance, and thanks to the BFI and a region-free DVD player (and no thanks to Warner Brothers), The Devils. In my younger days, he was known as “Mr. Wretched Excess”, but I have really come to appreciate his audacity as well as his visual sense.

After nearly six decades on the planet (most of it spent watching movies), I’m more than grateful to find a filmmaker who not only makes me say “Oh what the fuck?” on a regular basis, but also makes sure that I have a smile on my face while doing it.

 Lisztomania on Amazon

Yet Another 2014 List

(This is an expanded version of an article I wrote for Daily Grindhouse)

Asking me to do a Top 10 list for the year is a dicey proposition. I’m rarely in a hurry to see movies, and it’s even more rare that anything excites me enough to expose myself to the pit of annoying human behavior which is the modern theatrical experience. But damned if I didn’t wind up seeing twelve movies in the year they were made available (spoiler: it was this year).

I also don’t care for ranking movies. All the movies on this list were of a pretty high quality, rendering placement squirellier than usual; overall, though, this list probably reflects that I am more colossal nerd than actual film buff. I look at other Top 10 lists and think, “Yeah, that does sound good. I should watch that some day.” Then again, the best movie I saw this year was made in 1943 – more on that later – so maybe there’s a bit of hope for me yet.

But let’s talk about 2014.

HONORABLE MENTION

Maleficent_42MALEFICENT – Frankly, this was going to be a hard sell to me; Sleeping Beauty is my favorite Disney animated movie, and that is due in no small part to its villainess. I like my bad guys grandiose and unrepentant, and Maleficent gives my favorite one a redemptive arc. Unsure whether to regard it as representation of how the Patriarchy subverts women of genuine power and motive, even to re-writing history, or simply as a cynical money-grab. Its very existence puzzles me , but it is well worth watching for Angelina Jolie, who is frequently magnificent as the title character. Especially when she’s being evil.

cap2CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER – Was highly regarded as the best Marvel yet, a seamless marriage of 80s action with the money of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is certainly that, a damned near flawless action flick that actually made me like The Falcon (the Widow gets her movie first, dammit. Sorry, Mr. Mackie). But me, I like a little cosmic in my superhero stories, and Winter Soldier felt too stuck in that 80s action mode. (Don’t worry, there’s stuff coming up on this list that will allow you to call me a hypocrite) Chris Evans, though, remains the best damn Superman who never got to play Superman, a perfect portrayal of an inspiring, noble comic character.

And now for the list that is probably going to get shuffled around right up until press time:

713310. GODZILLA – I like big beasts, and I cannot lie. Yes, too much time was spent on Action Man while Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe were wasted, but frankly, spending too much time on boring human characters is a complaint I also lodge against most of the Japanese Godzilla movies. I want my Kaiju Big Battel, dang it. This one felt heavy and apocalyptic, just like the first Gojira, and I was a very happy monster movie fan. Also, people coming out of the woodwork to talk about how much they preferred the 1998 version allowed me to clean up my friends list somewhat.

Thor_The_Dark_World_poster_0069. THOR: THE DARK WORLD – I told you I like my superhero story leavened with the cosmic, and Dark World delivered. The production design of the Thor movies impress me with their visualization of science so far advanced it looks like magic (Thank you, Misters Clarke, Kirby and Lee). Jane Foster went to Asgard and didn’t turn into a sobbing wretch like her comics counterpart, We got much more Thor/Loki love/hate action, and I absolutely loved the final battle scene flipping through dimensions. (Bizarre battle chases like that make me very happy, one of the few reasons I find Shocker tolerable).

8. THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES – I see an astounding amount of hate directed toward these movies; bizarre, because I find them enjoyable and very entertaining. Still, I sadly realized, as I left the theater this time, that I hadn’t enjoyed any of these as much as I had the original Lord of the Rings movies – but it was still nice to have them to look forward to every Christmas season, and there’s a part of me that will miss that. And if you hate on Billy Connolly riding a war pig, you and I are going to have words.dain

lego7. THE LEGO MOVIE – Released in the movie wasteland of February, we all went, “Right. Another toy tie-in. Super.” But this was no Transformers or GI Joe or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. this was a frenetic ode to creativity and fun with an anarchic storyline encompassing (and making light of) The Chosen One, Objects of Great Power, Prophecies, DC superheroes, pirates, and spaceships (“Spaceship!”). I wasn’t a fan of the third act twist, but what are you going to do? Sing “Everything is Awesome”, probably. Like you are right now. You’re welcome. There will be a sequel – of course – but I don’t see how they can possibly keep this up.

tilda6. SNOWPIERCER – Quite a lot of cinematic dystopias around lately, fancy that. This one is literally inescapable, as a world-circling train carries the last of humanity after an attempt to counter global warming turns the Earth into a frozen graveyard. After nearly 20 years, the Have-Nots in the rear car stage an uprising, fighting their way to the Haves in the front cars, with each car containing new hazards and new wonders. Science fiction, doing what it does best: exploring the human condition, and how we have a tendency to screw each other – and just as big a tendency to actually save each other, occasionally.

DUNE F 6_WEB_9115. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE - Yes, this is a 2013 movie, but it was released on DVD in 2014, smartass, allowing those of us who don’t live near an art house to actually see it. I remember reading about Jodorowsky’s ill-fated movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune in the pages of Heavy Metal magazine when both were going concerns. Even if the movie had gotten made, I would likely have hated it, but watching Jodorowsky talk about the project, his passion undimmed by the years, and his belief he could change the world with this movie and his fellow “spiritual warriors”… well, it’s impossible to not fall a little in love with the man.

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-Full-Cast-Photo4. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST – The return of Bryan Singer to the franchise he launched yielded such a remarkable movie, not only linking up the personnel from the original two movies with the younger versions of First Class via a time travel story that manages to wipe out the mistakes of the franchise-killing Last Stand, but also managing to be tremendously entertaining and gripping while doing it. This was the best Marvel movie last year, that Marvel didn’t make.

JOURNEYTOTHEWEST_FINISH3. JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING THE DEMONS – I love Journey to the West, one of those million word Chinese novels that influenced everything that came after it (and many, many film versions), so I was uncertain about a prequel. Silly me, Stephen Chow came up with a beguiling, raucous, funny epic tale with fantastic, thrilling set pieces and genuine emotion. This was the movie I kept grabbing people and forcing them to watch this last year. And Holy Jesus, look at that poster. It’s a throwback to the masters of the 60s and 70s, it’s art, not a Photoshop job. For that alone, the movie deserves all the views.

The-Raid-2-Australian-poster_JPG.jpg2. THE RAID 2 - And after dissing 80s action movies in the first section, what do we find here, near the top? Possibly one of the finest action movies ever made, by one of the best action directors we have seen in an age. Gareth Huw Evans, forsaking the rapid-cut, what-the-hell-just-happened style that murdered action cinema in this country, to present a more calculated, but still frantic, visceral palette. The only thing that kept this movie from the number one slot is an overly familiar storyline (a decent cop going deep undercover to infiltrate a crime family). Otherwise, acting, camerawork, the superlative fight scenes and stunt crew are all top-notch. And any final fight scene that has a grizzled old vet like me curled up in a fetal position in his chair grunting, “Ah! Oh! Gaaaah!” is some intense shit.

Which leads us to –

guardians-of-the-galaxy-movie-image1. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – Am I a huge nerd or what? Who expected a Marvel movie with no hook, no established characters hailing from an earlier movie (except for Thanos, one of the most ineffectual villains ever – so far, anyway), and in fact populated with characters it would take a Marvel geek of long years to recognize – to deliver so satisfyingly? Each of these “Guardians” are dealing with their own form of grief, and they find out in the course of the movie that they do not have to do it alone; or, in the parlance of motivational seminars, “Sometimes misfits are the right fit.” Nobody went into a movie with a tree monster from the 50s and a talking raccoon expecting to cry – but they did. There was some loose talk of Guardians being this generation’s Star Wars, and that may be true; I left the theater with the same buoyancy and sense of pure cinematic joy I felt on a certain summer day back in 1977.

Now, you may ask, what was all that about a movie from 1943? This is where things get a little strange, as I had to finally distill down what were my Top Ten Movies seen in 2014, for my Letterboxd Year in Review. Which is when I realized something: there were repeats between the two lists, of course, but their orders shuffled because of the picture in the #1 slot. This was not something that had occurred to me. So what were the Top Ten I Saw (for the first time) in 2014?

10. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – That’s right, the #1 got shuffled down to the #10 spot, as I reconsidered my rankings in light of the movies in the top two slots. Ranking movies numerically is pretty stupid, anyway.

Yeah, same to you, Sky Prince or whatever your name was.

Yeah, same to you, Sky Prince or whatever your name was.

9. HIGH AND LOWKurosawa’s film version of an Ed McBain police procedural about a kidnapping gone wrong delivers on all fronts, especially when we get to the “Low” part of the equation. As in Ikiru, Kurosawa makes Japanese nightlife look like revelry on another world, so familiar and yet alien; and that sidetrip into Junkie Alley becomes a horrifying glimpse into Hell. All this, and Toshiro Mifune, too!

8. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE – Silent movies are good for you. Director and star Victor Shölström delivers a melodramatic portrait of a hateful, worthless human being and somehow still gets us to root for his redemption. Charlie Chaplin and Ingmar Bergman were both big fans, and now I am, too.

7. JOURNEY TO THE WEST:CONQUERING THE DEMONS – For some reason, ranking this above Guardians on this list made good sense at the time. Maybe it was the multiple viewings. Anyway, here we are.

6. THE GOLD RUSH - Hey, another silent movie! It’s incredible to me that I managed to get this far in life without seeing one of Chaplin’s feature-length movies. I picked a good one to break that particular fast.

5. THE RAID 2 - Yes, even the mighty Raid 2 dropped a few slots, under the onslaught of quality that is to come. I still want to see Gareth Evans’ next movie noooowwwwwwww

Please don’t hurt me, Hammer Girl. I still love you.

4. HELLZAPOPPIN’ - The quality is coming, I assure you. I had wanted to see this for years, and Dave finally managed to dig up a copy of it (there’s some sort of rights issue with the original Broadway show script that kept it from getting a legit home video release). I was so smitten by it, by what Olsen and Johnson managed to pull off, even with a studio-mandated romantic storyline (and spending most of that opening ten minutes lampooning the studio that was screwing with them) – well, I’m sold. I went and sought out my very own bootleg copy. (Wheeler & Woolsey’s Diplomaniacs almost made the list, but Olsen and Johnson accomplished a lot more while under the Hayes Code, no less.)

3. CHILDREN OF MEN - Like I said, it takes me a while to see some movies. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t watch Children of Men because I thought it was going to be another macho shoot-em-up, and boy howdy, I was wronger than a Nazi trying to pick out the Holy Grail. Brilliant movie. I have rarely been gladder to be wrong in my life. Ironically, I watched it the night Cuaron picked up the Oscar for Gravity, but I’m pretty sure that was just making up for not even nominating him in 2006. (The winner was Crash. Oh, yeah. Remember Crash?)

2. WILD STRAWBERRIES - Oh, the fight for first and second place was a wild and bloody one. Like I said, rankings are dumb, and both movies deserve to be #1. Here’s Victor Shölström again, this time coaxed out of retirement by Ingmar Bergman, and such a wonderful movie. Any words I’m going to babble out are not going to do it justice. Just watch it.

1. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP - I was expecting it to be good. I wasn’t expecting it to be superb. Again: Just. Watch it. Instead of merely showing you a clip, here’s a special guest to tell us about the restoration of the movie:

HONORABLE MENTION goes to A Hard Day’s Night, another stunning restoration on Criterion (especially with that 5.1 remix!). But I had seen it before.

And to all those other fine movies I re-watched this year: Targets, The Three Musketeers (1973), Sorcerer, The Quiet Man, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, The Holy Mountain, Samsara, The Untouchables, Vampyr, RoboCop, and Koyaanisqatsi.

Happy New Year. Go watch a movie.

 

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