I watched a lot less Jean-Pierre Melville films this week than I did last week. In fact, I only watched one, but it was a really good one. I'll probably try to catch another couple this coming week to finish out my month of Melville and then I'll have to decide what February's theme will be.
But what I missed in Melville this week I made up for in lots of other random things. I tell ya, I must have been eating my Wheaties or something this month. I regularly struggle finding five cool things to talk about each week. I have a limited number of hours in which to consume movies/books/music, etc and not all of what I do consume is great so finding five things that I really enjoyed in a given week is sometimes difficult. But for the last several weeks I've consumed cool thing after cool thing. So much that my list of potential cool things to write about is overflowing. I'm now finding it difficult to pick just five things to write about.
But I did and here's this week's batch.
Army of Shadows
There is a scene early in Army of Shadows in which three French Resistance fighters capture a traitor. They take him to an abandoned house to execute him. When they arrive, they find a family has moved in next door. The gun they hoped to use is of no use. It is too loud. The family would hear. They search the house for a knife. No luck. The basement connects to the neighbors. No good. They stand together with these three men, alongside the man they plan to kill, discussing what to do. They could take him somewhere else. No time. They could call a friend and have him do it. No, it is their job. They could strangle him with a towel tied around a stick that would slowly tighten it around his neck. Yes, that would work.
Trouble is none of these men are trained killers or soldiers. They were regular people before the war, but now they've joined a make-shift army. They've found a cause. They cannot let this man live or jeopardize everything. They were prepared to shoot the traitor which is impersonal and quick. They are not trained to watch the life drain out of him as they slowly tighten the towel. They do the deed and leave not as great heroes, but men who've lost some part of themselves, deflated, almost defeated.
Jean-Pierre Melville was a member of the French Resistance and Army of Shadows is his film about the deep wounds, physical, psychological, and spiritual such a thing leaves inside a person. It isn't a film with a lot of thrilling action sequences or where great heroes emerge. Like the scene I've just described, it is a movie about men and women who fight for a cause they believe in, who are willing to do things that destroy them inside for the greater good. It is intense, and beautiful, and sad.
They say there aren't any true anti-war films because cinema naturally makes all action scenes, no matter how horrific, thrilling. Heroes always emerge and we humans want to emulate heroes. Army of Shadows may disprove that theory. I can't see how anyone could watch this film and come out believing war does anything but hollow a person out.
This was my sixth Melville film in the last couple of weeks. I've loved nearly all of them, but this is his masterpiece.
What a strange, delightful, grotesque, and rather sad little film.
This horror-musical hybrid about killer mermaid sisters who leave the sea to sing and dance for a bar in a 1980s Poland is full on style and light on plot. One of them falls in love with a cute boy and wants to trade her tail for some real legs. The other keeps getting hungry and makes a few meals out of the club's customers.
It is a straight musical with characters singing while on stage but also breaking into song while at the supermarket or walking down the street or while getting operated on. The songs are mostly covers of old Polish pop songs with a few new ones made just for the film. The styles range from techno to punk, to torch songs and classic musical numbers.
The girls are thinly drawn as are the other characters they meet. While watching the film, I was both mesmerized but also confused. I was never quite sure what they were doing or why. It doesn't help matters that there are long dream sequences, or at least I think they were dream sequences. Again, loads of style built into them. What this film was trying to say escapes me, but it sure is fun while you are watching.
The Ultimate Warrior
The 1970s were such an interesting time for film. With the studio system dead or dying, independent film thrived. This was the decade of Scorsese, De Palma, Spielberg, Lucas, Allen, and so many others. It was also, apparently, the time for The Ultimate Warrior. The '70s was filled with visions of the future and none of them were bright. It seems like everyone thought mankind was doomed for one dystopia or another, and that was coming soon.
The Ultimate Warrior takes place in New York City sometime in 2012. Some unexplained disaster has happened and now Max Von Sydow leads a commune of people living in a fortified group of buildings. They've got a super botanist with them who has managed to grow some vegetables on the rooftop but there isn't enough good soil to really feed the people.
One day they spy Yul Brynner, shirtless and strong, standing atop of something, not moving. Sydow figures he's presenting himself as a warrior and convinces him to joining his team (Brynner is won over by the fact that Sydow has cigars). There's a rival gang across the street led by a guy named Carrot. There is a pregnant lady about to burst. There are tensions running high. Sydow wants to take the pregnant girl and Brynner to an island off the coast of North Carolina.
For some reason, Sydow never bothers to tell his clan about this plan, which causes difficulties in the end when he just tries to leave. Which is part of the film's problem. He's supposed to be this great leader, but we never see him do much real leading. There is a fight that takes place over the food supply at one point and Brynner acts as ultimate judge over a trial that's more like "ask a couple of questions and then send the accused over the railing to die."
We never get a real feeling for the world in which they are living either. Obviously, something bad went down. Food seems scarce, but we see trees growing so it is uncertain what's going on with the crop situation. We don't know why the bad guys are after the heroes. Etc.
Brynner does some gnarly fighting, and the sets look great. I'm a big sucker for this type of story which is why it gets a passing grade, but it could have been so much better.
Even knowing the big reveal of this movie, I still found it an exciting, sometimes riveting piece of filmmaking. I love me some 1970s science fiction and the Criterion Channel is running a bunch of them this month.
I've never thought Charlton Heston was a great actor but he knew his range and often picked films that suited it. He's perfect here as the cop trying to solve a murder in an overcrowded, terribly run-down New York City of the future. I love that Heston's character is both a decent cop and totally dirty. He steals from the murder victim's apartment without batting an eye. He uses his power as a cop to score sexual favors from the dead guys' prostitute. Edward G. Robinson, in his last film role, completely transforms himself into his character who helps Heston out. Seriously, it took me a couple of scenes to realize it was Robinson.
This is a world in which rich people's pads have prostitutes that comes with the furniture (in fact, they are called furniture so little is their status). It is a dirty, nasty, lived-in world where the masses are struggling to survive while the rich live in opulence. They crowd around the city square just to get a ration of water and some nasty-looking soylent edibles. The mystery itself is pretty good, nothing really special, and with the ending totally spoiled by movie culture over the last few decades it doesn't quite pack the punch it might have in 1973, but it's still a pretty darn fine allegory for the times.
Hang 'Em High
Every time I see the title of this film, I think it is gonna be a silly '80s high school comedy. But no, it is a sort-of classic Clint Eastwood western. My Apple TV made me think it was directed by Sergio Leone, which is why I put it on. It was in fact directed by Ted Post who was clearly inspired by Leone.
It isn't quite up to Leone's standards, but it is quite good. Eastwood is definitely playing the Man With No Name type of character though here he is called Jed. He's mistaken for a killer at the beginning of the film and is hanged by a lynch mob. They do a bad job of it as he's rescued by a Marshall, taken in by an Oklahoma judge, and turned into a Marshall himself.
There's a lot of plotting about turning Oklahoma into a state and the sacrifices you have to make to get it there. Also, marshalling is hard. But mostly, it is Eastwood looking for the guys who hanged him and finding his revenge. This is classic Eastwood acting. He's tough and quiet but had a soft hard underneath it all. The bad guys are pretty standard western bad guys. The directing is decent and the scenery beautiful. This is nowhere near as good as his best westerns but if you are an Eastwood fan and haven't seen it, I highly recommend.
The Year of the Rat
Today is the official start to the Chinese New Year. 2020 is officially the Year of the Rat, which is part of the Chinese zodiac and they are supposed to be clever and quick thinkers, but content to live a peaceful life. My wife and I lived in Shanghai back in 2008 (which was also the Year of the Rat) and ever since, we've always celebrated along with the Chinese. Tonightm we're having a little dinner party with lots of yummy food. May your year be blessed with dumplings, sweet and sour sauce, and lots of rice.