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 on the 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 was 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.