Friday, October 30, 2009

Reel Low: The Blood of War

Imagine my surprise when looking at the local cineplex listings this past weekend for the first time in nearly two months to find that Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds [2009] still had a lone evening showing. This was one that I had really regretted missing in the theaters, and had resigned it's fate to my Netflix queue. Disappoint, it did not.
Whether deserved or not, when a Tarantino film is released, it's an event. Not the dress-up inducing, line-sprawling fandoms that accompany a modern film franchise to reach event status, but rather an event based on the director alone. Who else can say that these days? After the disaster that was The Happening, I think Scorsese may be the only other one left for the masses. Sure, there are some honorable mentions -- Spielberg, Soderbergh, the Cohen Brothers, Peter Jackson, maybe even Kevin Smith, to name a few -- but they all have something (or not enough) in their catalog that, for whatever reason, prevents most people from merely being interested in their new movies to creating immense buzz based on their name alone.
Needless to say, I was extremely pleased to actually see this one on the big screen.
Frankly, you should go and read Mark's extensive review of it here from August. His analysis mirrors much of my own thoughts on it, and does so much more eloquently than I probably would have.
Beyond that stuff, the down and dirty points you should know: it's violent (though not as violent as I was lead to believe), two-thirds of the dialogue is in French or German, Mélanie Laurent is a revelation, and contains some of the most insanely tense scenes I've seen this side of Leone.
There was some criticism of Tarantino's blantent disregard of historical fact. However, as Mark points out, this film is not about reality. I don't think it detracts from the believability of the story nor does it belittle the horrors of World War II. If anything, I believe it enhances the cinematic experience by defiling your expectations.
This was a truly fine film, certainly the best non-scifi release of the year that I've had the pleasure to view, and well-worth the event label it adorned.
In contrast, one of Tarantino's major influences took an entirely different approach with his WWII film. Jean-Pierre Melville, who I last wrote about on the site regarding his masterful crime piece Le Doulos, turned his attention to the French Resistance during the war in Army of Shadows [1969]. Unlike Tarantino's wartime fantasy, Melville examined the war in as realistic a light as I have ever seen. Considering that Army of Shadows is an espionage film completed amidst the early Sean Connery Bond era more than it is a military drama, it's even more impressive.
We follow Lino Ventura's Philippe Gerbier, a chief member in the French Resistance hierarchy, as he is in a constant state of avoiding and escaping confinement. Army of Shadows focuses upon the resistance, meaning there are very few actual action scenes depicted. Most of the violence is implied, which in a lot of ways is more intense than the exploits of the Basterds that we actually see in that movie, and instead relies on the silent menace of your imagination. There is no romantic idealization of what Gerbier is doing. It is simply his life. Melville cast his movie with rather unremarkable actors visually, which lends to it's realistic feel. Ventura, in particular, portrays his character with grand subtlety. The nuanced performances are an extension of Melville's own attention to detail. He rarely spells out the landscape of war-weary France, instead using small moments to relay the experiences of the world at that time. Take Gerbier's confidant who has built a little glass booth in his library -- there is no fuel for heating his home, thus his body heat when in the small quarters will make do.
Oh, and the score by Éric Demarsan is heartbreakingly astounding. Listen to the theme here.
Due to political attitudes in France at the time, the film was considered a failure. Few saw it then and was left unreleased in America until 2006. Because there is not a significant reputation attached with the film, I was genuinely shocked at just how extraordinary it is. It's been a long time since I've had that happen, and have probably ruined the same experience for you by touting it as such (my bad). Do yourself a favor and see it anyway.
Maybe it's because I saw a Tarantino film to start the week, but I couldn't help thinking of exploitation films while watching Kihachi Okamoto's Kill! [1968] a few days later.
Somewhat of a send-up of the genre in general, Kill! examines the nature of the samurai from many angles. Some are good, some are bad. Some try to leave the samurai life behind, while other characters go through every trial and tribulation to attain it. There's many good comedic performances and some great gags if you're a fan of some other Japanese movies of the time. Let's just say there is a very different set of seven samurai shown here. Plus, there are multiple sword-fighting sequences shot with dizzying pace. Great stuff from a supposed comedy.
But I found the real fun in this movie to be the obvious influence of the spaghetti western upon it. The blowing, desert-like dust. The lone man versus the many. Playing both sides of the opposition. But above all else, the music could've easily have been dubbed from a straight-up western from that era. The spanish guitar and horns aren't quite up to Ennio Morricone levels, but are still nicely performed.
All of this is especially fascinating because Sergio Leone was, of course, highly influenced by Akira Kurosawa's films before making the Man With No Name trilogy, particularly Yojimbo. For more trivia, Sanjuro (the sequel to Yojimbo) and Kill! were adaptations of the same book. I would imagine both strayed significantly.
Anyway, Kill! was a joy to watch with it's humor, action and exploration of the samurai. I found it on IFC's Samurai Saturdays, which is a great weekly source if you're a new fan of the genre.

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