Sunday, July 27, 2014


Just how much money would you throw away for Jeanne Moreau? Personally, they couldn’t print the stuff up fast enough to keep pace with my wanton spending. Because, come on, she’s Jeanne Moreau.

There are several points throughout Jacques Demy’s 1963 post-noir gambling picture Bay of Angels when Jean (Claude Mann, Army of Shadows [review]) has to ask himself how much he’s really prepared to lose for Moreau’s Jackie. She’s the former wife of a rich industrialist, cast aside on account of her addiction, leaving husband and child behind for the roulette tables on the French Riviera. Jean is rather new to gambling, but he’s already turned his back on his father to take this trip to Nice. A co-worker took him to the casino and he won big, and he thinks he kind of has it figured out, that he can guess what numbers will come up next by keeping track of the odds.

Jean first spies Jackie on that initial daytime gambling outing, when he and his buddy (Paul Guers) ditch work and the other fellow shows him the ropes. Jackie is being thrown out of the casino for cheating. When they run into each other again, she denies this at first, but the more she comes to cling to Jean, whom she sees as a good luck charm, Jackie gets more and more honest.

Bay of Angels tracks the highs and lows of their few days together. When things are going well, they chase the win, and Jackie indulges in every luxury she can imagine the moment cash comes her way. More often than not, though, they are riding the loss, drowning their sorrows, scheming for new ways to find money to keep playing. Jean tries to be practical, he plays little tricks to hide funds away, but Jackie figures him out. It’s like how alcoholics stash booze around the house. Jackie knows where to look.

Demy wrote the script in addition to directing, and he gets the manic mood swings of compulsive gambling, Michel Legrand’s hurried theme coming back on time and again to remind us that the fever has taken over. There’s much lying and equivocating going on. Both Jackie and Jean acknowledge having problems several times before immediately flipping and denying there is such a thing. Jackie manipulates Jean, and he sometimes gets mean and even violent when he catches on, but that’s also part of their ride. She plays him in a chancy game of seduction, and sometimes she guesses wrong when it comes to how much he can actually take. Moreau is brilliant here, decked out in tight dresses and bleached hair, which she regularly plays with, a weird quirk of habitual vanity that makes her look a little Mae West and a little Marilyn Monroe. She is a natural mess, not too over-the-top or caricatured, often drunk and regularly in the middle of a con. There’s a bit of survivor to her, which inspires how she uses others. The performance makes me think of Faye Dunaway in Barfly : ladies who will do what they have to in order to get what they need. Demy tries to warn his protagonist away--the film literally opens with the camera fleeing away from Jackie--but Jean’s done in by her all the same. Jackie is a classic femme fatale.

And Bay of Angels is essentially a crime film without any actual crime. Back when Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips were doing their masterful pulp comic book Criminal,, they had essays in the back of the issues from guest writers talking about some of their favorite film noir and crime movies. I always hoped I’d get asked to contribute, I wanted to write about Bay of Angels. There is no heist nor even petty theft, and only a little bit of cheating, but it’s a crime movie all the same. In part, it’s the seedier side of the criminal lifestyle. The fleabag hotels, the big scores turning into big losses, the plans that go nowhere--it’s the harsh truth that comes after the bad deeds are done.

But it’s also the damage that this pair does to each other. That is the real criminal behavior. Jean may be manipulated by Jackie, but he eggs her on to do it. He puts her on a pedestal and encourages her every whim. The more foolish she acts, the more smitten he is. He is a chump.

And yet they also have some actual affection for one another. The last shot of Bay of Angels is a reverse on the first, this time Jackie running toward the lens to catch her man before he gets away. The movie was photographed by Jean Rabier, who also worked with Demy’s wife Agnes Varda [here, and here] and would go on to shoot The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. His work here more recalls the realism that he brought to The 400 Blows [review], however; Rabier and Demy work with real locations, shooting in actual hotel rooms and in back alleys and boardwalks, to give Bay of Angels its grimy atmosphere. There is nothing glamorous about how these gamblers live, save for the rare occasions they are flush and upgrade to new clothes, a new car, and a suite in a fancier hotel. They exist in pockets of the world nestled within the same spaces where the rest of us live. Rabier’s framing emphasizes this by isolating them. The lovers often appear to be moving about separate from the rest, as if everyone else in the room is locked into a different speed and oblivious to their presence.

Then again, that love affair is its own addiction. They can’t give up on each other any more than they can give up on gambling. That’s the true tragedy of it all. They need and deserve each other just as much as they are one another’s particular poison. Nourishing and fatal all at the same time.

This disc was provided by Criterion for purpose of review.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


In a cinematic universe where so much of what makes it into theaters is commodified and homogenized to fit into recognizable norms, one must celebrate genuine, individual voices like Jacques Demy’s. His signature films are truly unmistakable and like no other, something it won’t take new viewers long to ascertain once they start working their way through Criterion’s The Essential Jacques Demy boxed set.

Even in his first film, Lola, released in 1961, when the auteur most resembles his Nouvelle Vague contemporaries, there is still something uniquely Demy: doomed romanticism born of a bittersweet love affair, characters too wrapped in themselves to fully surrender to another, but told with such virtuoso technique, there’s a bit of everyday magic akin to a fairy tale.

Lola, which Demy wrote as well as directed, takes place in a small French town over approximately 36 hours. It has several criss-crossing stories, though the connector between them all is Roland (Marc Michel, playing the same role he will pick up again in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [review]). Not coincidentally, one assumes, the hero here shares his name with that of the knight in the great French poem. In The Song of Roland, Roland dies from blowing too hard on his trumpet; in Lola, the lover’s folly is in the shape of a child’s horn, bought for the son of his lady even after a rival has beat him to it.

Roland is a gadabout who can’t hold a job and broods over the way his life became derailed after serving in the War. (They don’t specify which, though he seems too young for WWII.) A chance meeting with a young girl and her mother (Annie Dupéroux and Elina Labourdette) reminds Roland of his childhood love, who shares similar looks and the same name as the teenager Cécile. Roland’s lost paramour now calls herself Lola, and she works at a nearby dancehall, strutting with sailors, to support her and her son. Like Roland, she has lost a love, but in this case her child’s father, Michel (Jacques Harden), who disappeared prior to their son’s birth. Connecting everyone further, Michel is the son of one of Roland’s neighbors.

Coincidence fuels the narrative here. After Cécile, Roland then bumps into Lola, and they rekindle their relationship despite the years apart--at least as much as she will allow. Cécile likewise runs across Frankie (Alan Scott), an American sailor in love with Lola, who looks similar to how she describes Michel (tall, blonde, etc.). Meanwhile, Cécile’s mother wishes Roland would take notice of her--though even she harbors a broken heart and an exiled romance. There are layers upon layers to the potential relationships here. Young Cécile is maybe the most heartbroken of all, as both Roland and Frankie are grown up and forbidden fruit. Like Venn diagrams of the heart, these would-be mates cross over with each other only to cross back out into solitude again.

As the main object of affection, Lola is played by Anouk Aimée, who went on to work for Fellini in 8 1/2 [review] and La Dolce Vita. Aimée’s foxlike features and flighty performance both attracts and repels, at least when watching from the outside. Her chosen career makes her motivations often hard to discern. When are her emotions honest? When does she cover the truth with inconsequential chatter? Is she playing with the affections of others just to buy time? Her most unguarded moment comes midway through the film, after Roland has confessed his affection, and then reacted poorly to her rejection. Demy sees his heroine as more than just a pretty object for men to desire, but an example of what that desire forces women to do in order to survive. Lola pushes and pulls as necessary to maintain control, accepting the male gaze and bending it as it suits her. As she confesses when frustrated with Roland, she has never had a male friend, only would-be pursuers. It’s them who lie to her, pretending to care until the get what they want.

Demy masterfully juggles all of these various characters and concerns, letting them ebb together and then fall apart. He is assisted ably by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who would be Godard’s go-to man throughout the 1960s, and composer Michel Legrand, who was essential to many films from the New Wave, but he had no relationship quite as pronounced as the one with Demy (Legrand orchestrated all but the last of the films in this boxed set). Legrand’s classical melodies lend an old-fashioned melodramatic flavor to Lola, whereas the themes of Demy’s script and the real settings, lit without flare by Coutard, keep the story grounded.

Demy is something of a woman’s director in that his actresses all fare better than his men. This could be by design. Frankie is a big lug, and Roland is a stuffed shirt, and perhaps Demy wanted them to be less than ideal. On the other hand, all of the actresses come off as alive and complex. Elina Labourdette is tragic and tired as Cécile’s mom, and Cléo from 5 to 7’s Corrinne Marchand is impossible to miss as Daisy, another dancer. Demy seems more fascinated by the women in most of his creations. Who can blame him? Men are such drips!

It’s fitting that the movie that leads The Essential Jacques Demy is also one I haven’t seen (the other is the last film, Une chambre en ville.) The new restoration is rather lovely, with a consistently pleasing filmic look. As this one was one of the more difficult to restore, it bodes well for the rest--which I’ll be covering in chronological order as swiftly as I can. Regardless, as a debut, Lola sets up the promise that other Demy films deliver on, both aesthetically and narratively, as well as the disappointment and heartbreak that is endemic to his best material.

In addition to Lola, the first disc has four Demy short subjects spanning 1951 to 1962, with the last one being a segment about “Lechery” taken from an anthology film about the seven deadly sins. Of all of them, the earliest, Les horizons morts, best fits with the director’s early features. Demy actually stars in this silent slice of despair as a jilted romantic who considers ending it all. The documentary “Ars,” about the mythology surrounding a long-dead priest whose body never decomposed, also shows the filmmaker’s fanciful approach to mysticism and belief. He re-creates the clergy’s steps, using his camera as a point of view object, to navigate French streets as they were in 1959, but with the intent of discovering where they led this sainted figure.

This disc was provided by Criterion for purpose of review.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


I spent yesterday watching a couple of Woody Allen movies. Though they were from different parts of his career and set in different time periods, both showed the idly rich and overly liberal indulging in all manner of impossible and ridiculous behavior. In a lot of ways, Woody Allen characters are the kind of delusional upper middle-class bozos that most of us should really turn our backs on, their lives so separate from the average filmgoer that we can never hope to identify. Like a Vanity Fair article with punchlines.

And yet this somehow works for Woody. In a way that otherwise escapes someone like Lawrence Kasdan, even though he has the same out-of-touch attraction to the type of people he might rub elbows with but whom the vast majority of us will never meet or, if we do, actually want to spend time with. Is it that a Woody Allen movie like Everyone Says I Love You or even his latest doesn’t attempt to sell us reality, but instead entices us with the notion that we can peek in on a fantasy world where everyone is smart and says pithy things and has jobs that very few might actually have? In his world, a sarcastic writer is on staff at the New Yorker; in Kasdan’s, Jeff Goldblum writes for (the) People. But he feels sick about it. Except he doesn’t.

Perhaps it’s too late for me to finally see The Big Chill. I mentioned this to one of my colleagues, and he said, “But aren’t you a big fan of Grand Canyon?” And, yes, I am, I have a soft spot for Kasdan’s next ensemble drama, but I’d also wager it’s been since 2001 that I last viewed the 1991 film, back when it was released on DVD for the first time, and I recall thinking that it was already showing its age back them. Yeah, yeah, sure, we’re all connected. One life flows into the next. That was Kasdan welcoming us to the 1990s.

Whereas The Big Chill is fully set in the 1980s. Released in ’83, it is an apology for the Baby Boomers, an attempt to find soul in the infamously soulless decade. That’s why the music is all taken from the 1960s. No synthesizers are to be heard on this soundtrack--which famously established the notion of a moneymaking compilation album, impossible to replicate today without spending wads of cash, and yet ironically ignoring that many of its featured players, including the Rolling Stones and Steve Winwood, were not faring so well in terms of integrity on the time of release. Call me crazy, but I’d prefer a John Hughes movie any day. Sixteen Candles [review] was only a year away, was as ’80s as you please, and still looks as young as its characters some three decades later. Plus, screw you, the music is awesome and forward-thinking.

Whereas The Big Chill has the same desperation of its thirtysomethings on their way to a mid-life crisis. Which I’m in the middle of, so maybe that’s why I can’t understand what they are whining about. Like I said, it’s too late for me to have empathy with these well-off nostalgia whores. I just can’t.

Which doesn’t meant I can’t appreciate or even enjoy The Big Chill. As a time capsule, it’s fairly illuminating. As cinema, it’s a precious snapshot of many fine actors at an early stage of their careers. Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, William Hurt, and whatever happened to JoBeth Williams? Tom Berenger serves as a good parody of Tom Selleck, and Jeff Goldblum is laying the groundwork to be a parody of himself--and frankly, is the worst thing in this movie, the conduit for his auteur’s most sardonic and ultimately flaccid bons mot. Yet, as period-specific ensemble pieces go, I actually enjoyed The Big Chill a hell of a lot more than Nashville, the appeal of which largely escapes me. I also prefer Tim Burton’s second Batman to his first. It’s all about expectations.

For those who somehow missed this cultural touchstone--or maybe blocked it out of their mind, realizing it was for the old folk, because like me you were 11 when The Big Chill was first released--Kasdan’s movie takes a look at a group of college friends who have reunited after many years because one of their own (Kevin Costner, whose face is never seen) has killed himself. This starts them on an existential path where they play at a lot of denial before eventually digging into some of their own emotions. Amidst it all, they casually take some drugs, listen to old records, and talk about how good they have it. (Kevin Kline’s insider trading was treated as a running gag; Gordon Gecko was still four years away.) Except if you really look, they don’t dig deep at all. Their self-reflection is pretty shallow. Don’t hold your breath waiting for William Hurt’s character to ever tell you what he saw in Vietnam. It’s enough to know that he went, we can’t ever really hear the gory details. Psychology means evoking Freud, then downing the rest of your merlot.

And yet, again, I must stress, The Big Chill is an enjoyable movie. I don’t think it’s a very good one, but it’s pretty easy to watch. Nobody really says anything offensive, they’re too busy living lives that are offensive. Because these folks are meant to be real, they are representative of their time, and not some recollection of a literary dream that their write/director once had. Lawrence Kasdan, unlike Woody Allen, has no idea how tiny his sphere is. These are his people, and he is them. And I’m guessing it makes for a relatively accurate representation of how people lived--or at least, wanted to--while Reagan was President. As a museum piece, The Big Chill is fascinating; as vital drama, it’s as cold as the title implies. Just know that going in, it might just keep you from leaving the party early.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk

Saturday, July 5, 2014


Here is a mini review of Richard Lester's Beatles film written for the Oregonian to promote the film showing in Portland this holiday weekend. See the original posting here

It’s hard to imagine now what an impact the Beatles had when they first twisted and shouted, but my guess is “A Hard Day’s Night” is a pretty good indicator.

Richard Lester’s 1964 rock-and-roll vehicle showcases John, Paul, George, and Ringo as performers and personalities. It’s buoyant and fun, and packed frame to frame with joy.

Plus, those songs! They still have no peer, even fifty years on.

This new digital restoration means “A Hard Day’s Night” will look and sound brand new for the 21st Century.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

JUDEX - #710

You’re just going to have to indulge outright that there is going to be some self-promotion in this one. It’s bound to happen from time to time. Happened before, will happen again. Sometimes the right paths just cross.

In this case, it’s some fortuitous coincidence that I just now watched the new Blu-ray of Georges Franju’s 1963 pulp homage Judex. This spiritual remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 silent cliffhanger features a mysterious, justice-minded magician (Channing Pollock) intent on making an ethically challenged rich man pay for his crimes. Its roots predate comic books, but Feuillade’s film, as well as his serials Fantomas and Les vampires [review], drew from and inspired the pulps, and then also inspired the comics industry as it blossomed to life. This Criterion edition even features a cover by artist Ronald Wimberly, himself channeling a little Eduardo Risso, bringing lurid life to Judex’s stonefaced crimefighter and his masked archnemesis.

This viewing also happens on the eve of Oni Press releasing a comic book of mine called Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks. It stars a hypnotist in a classic domino mask looking to stop a murder plot involving a wealthy banker and his emotionally distant wife. Created with artist Dan Christensen, Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks draws on a long tradition of stoic heroes working their tricks in the dark, from the Shadow to the Spirit to Mandrake the Magician. And yes, even to silent French cinema--or, in this case, 1960s French cinema. Even if it is just a startling coincidence. Though I had seen bits of Feuillade’s Judex while working in a video store, I wasn’t even aware of Franju’s until Criterion announced it was on its way. In my lead-up to Archer Coe, I was watching American noir like Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley and Otto Preminger’s Laura; judging by the evidence, it’s almost like I tapped into some Jungian story space to draw directly from the Judex redo, as well.

The plot I’ve hinted at in the above is not much more complicated that what I’ve suggested. An oily banker (Michel Vitold) has started receiving threatening notes demanding he give up his fortune to the people he’s wronged or suffer the consequences. The threats are signed “Judex,” or “judge.” Believing himself untouchable, the banker refuses, only to fall down dead at the time his accuser appointed for him. The victim’s daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob, also in Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and Assayas’ Summer Hours [review]) inherits his fortune, but when she discovers the less-than-savory ways in which daddy earned it, she rejects the money, giving Judex what he sought all along. Meanwhile, the banker’s would-be mistress Diana (Francine Bergé, Mr. Klein) wants the cash for herself and starts a plot to kill the girl and steal the riches.

Mimicking the serialized nature of the silent original, Franju maintains an episodic narrative, allowing for an ineffectual private detective (Jacques Jouanneau) to wander in and out of the story, and for Diana to try multiple plots that all go wrong As these occur, Judex lingers around, keeping watch over Jacqueline and manipulating other lives in hopes of bringing about justice. In terms of action, he’s far from Batman. Rather, he tends to be too late and not much of a fighter when he arrives on the scene. His only truly effective moment is early on when he first shows up wearing an elaborate bird’s mask at the banker’s party and performs magic tricks with doves. He appears there as a creepy specter bringing death to the condemned. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to having fun with this guy at a party.

Which turns out to be a major drawback for Franju’s film. For a movie that features both a wicked villainess in a black catsuit and a pretty circus acrobat (Sylva Koscina, Juliet of the Spirits) who randomly shows up to help out, Judex is decidedly unsexy. None of the relationships have much sizzle, nor does the action really ever take off. Instead, this is like a drawing room approximation of a lurid murder mystery: perfectly poised, artfully styled, but maybe too self-aware and too smart for its own good.

Luckily all of that stylization means Franju has a lot of good will to burn. He also makes a smart choice in his main villain. Francine Bergé is seductively evil, equally at home in a hipster’s dancehall outfit and a nun’s habit. If only the director had effectively let his femme fatale loose on his stuffed-shirt of a hero, Judex could have been a real hoot! (Imagine it in the hands of Henri-Georges Clouzot....)

Maybe I’ll have to resurrect Diana for one of the future adventures of Archer Coe.

In addition to the sparkling restoration of Judex, Criterion has included a bunch of bonus features on their dual-format release. Amongst those are a recent interview with Bergé, a biographical profile of Franju, and two of the director’s early shorts. One of those, the half-hour Le grand Méliès, pays tribute to the legendary cinematic innovator. Like Feuillade, Méliès was one of Franju’s heroes, and this mini-biopic both tells Méliès’ story and adopts some of his techniques. Featuring the filmmaker’s widow as herself, and their son Andre as his father, Le grand Méliès recreates the post-war years when the artist ran a toy shop in a train station (as seen in Scorsese’s Hugo), one of his magical stage shows, and his journey as an early cinema pioneer, culminating in making A Trip to the Moon. It’s a loving little doff of the cap from one director back through time to another.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.