Wednesday, April 8, 2020


This review originally written for in 2014.

Samuel Fuller has a history of progressive, charged films about social issues, including multiple films about race. Shock Corridor [review] famously upended the debate by having an African American in a mental institution who believed himself to be a high-ranking member of the KKK, while his controversial later movie White Dog [review] was about a canine trained exclusively to kill black men.

Before both, however, came The Crimson Kimono, a two-fisted crime movie just on the other side of the film noir movement. Written and directed by Fuller, The Crimson Kimono stars Glenn Corbett and James Shigeta as two Los Angeles police detectives working the Little Tokyo beat. Charlie is white, and Joe is American-born Japanese, and their partnership was first forged in combat during World War II. (A veteran himself, Fuller shows his respect for the troops with insert shots of L.A. memorials for the Asian American soldiers that served--a short pause in the action but not out of place amongst other gritty shots of the Southern California streets.) The pair catches a case that will take them deep into the back alleys of their jurisdiction. A Caucasian stripper is chased out of a nightclub and shot on the sidewalk, and the one possible lead to the shooter's identity is a painting of the woman in traditional Japanese garb. It is signed "Chris."

Chris is short for Christine, not Christopher. Victoria Shaw plays the painter, the only one who can identify the mysterious Hansel that art directed the portrait, a promo for an act that the dead woman was putting together. Both Charlie and Joe fall for Chris (and who can blame them?), but things only get dicey when she also falls for Joe. The murder plot takes a backseat to the romantic melodrama. Fuller spends a long time on Joe and Chris talking about art and music and Joe's family. While any interracial relationship on film in 1959 would have been surprising, what makes The Crimson Kimono really interesting is that the one doubting the viability of their getting together is Joe, and it's not even because he's Japanese. At least not at first. Joe's initial misgivings come from not wanting to hurt Charlie. Only as the truth comes out does it become more about prejudice, though it's a prejudice that many argue exists only in Joe's perception. All the white folks are fine with it!

The Los Angeles that Fuller depicts in The Crimson Kimono looks like some kind of fantasyland. One can imagine James Ellroy chortling while watching this idyllic image of harmony in the City of Angels. It's as if Fuller were daring people to make a better world by putting up his own example on the movie screen. He even goes out of his way to include plot elements that require the characters to differentiate between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean players in the drama. There is no sidebar racist to contradict and demand no one cares, they all look alike. Fuller's Asian community is a smaller melting pot inside the greater national melting pot.

Not that The Crimson Kimono is some kind of Stanley Kramer-style message picture. Fuller is far more stealthy than that. All of these added elements are merely part of the usual rough-and-tumble pulp story the director was known for. What makes his films so politically interesting is that whatever was being explored, be it Communist subversives in Pickup on South Street [review] or the "fallen woman" scenario of The Naked Kiss [review], it was always a natural part of the narrative. For as unnatural as his storytelling generally was, the rawness was a reflection of the world around him. To Fuller, these were people with specific problems and concerns, and it just made sense to include everything that made their lives what they were. It wasn't subtext, there is nothing "sub" about The Crimson Kimono, it's all just text.

Friday, April 3, 2020


This review originally written for in 2011.

Last week, after seeing David O. Russell's marvelous new boxing movie The Fighter, I commented to a friend that it doesn't make any sense that I haven't gotten into watching boxing proper, because every time I see a boxing movie, I think I should. It's my favorite sports genre. In fact, I don't really consider boxing movies to be sports movies. They are separate from the rest, their own thing. I would never automatically want to go see a baseball movie, or one about football or basketball or hockey, but if it's about a boxer, okay, sign me up.

Of course, one of the greats of the genre is Raging Bull, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro's 1980 biography of Jake La Motta. You could easily claim that it's the heavyweight champion of all boxing movies, and I don't think I'd argue with you. It's a pugilistic masterpiece, a dangerously choreographed piece of work that explodes in great dervishes of fury and falls back with the heaviest of heartbreaks.

Jake La Motta was a middleweight fighter whose heyday was the 1940s. An Italian boy raised in the Bronx, La Motta was a force of nature. Throughout Raging Bull, he is regularly referred to as an animal, even if he's only called by his nickname once. For Jake, every moment of his life is a fight, whether he's dancing on the canvas or drinking in a nightclub or eating his dinner at home. Every person in his life is an opponent, and he is always working out the angles to make sure that no one gets the better of him. Every conversation is an opportunity for one of his foes to underestimate him, and every riposte a potential knockout punch.

Raging Bull follows Jake over the decade as he swings his way toward an eventual title fight, the distant achievement that eludes him for the bulk of his career--most other boxers are scared to brawl with him--and once he's got it, it's only downhill after. The bouts are shown briefly, lingering longest on the more important matches, including his longtime rivalry with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes). Scorsese famously kept his camera inside the ring, keeping us close in the clinches, letting us feel each pummeling. This gives Raging Bull its lasting immediacy, while the decision to shoot in black-and-white ensures its timelessness. History is alive in the moment, yet there is the usual classic Hollywood vibe that only Scorsese can do without making it look like he's playing dress-up.

For as memorable as these skirmishes are, however, they are only a small part of Raging Bull. The movie is adapted from Jake La Motta's autobiography, with a script by Paul Schrader (Mishima [review]) and Mardik Martin (Mean Streets), and it shows the rise and fall, warts and all. The unsavory elements include a thrown fight and a later vice charge. They also show Jake's violent streak, and his abuse of those around him. The two most important relationships in Jake's life are his brother Joey (Joe Pesci) and his second wife Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). He meets Vickie when she is 15 and while he is still married. It's hard to say what she sees in him, but he clearly sees the beautiful young blonde as some golden prize. He's a jealous creature, though, and one used to getting his way. He browbeats both Vickie and Joey, both of whom only want the best for him, and when words aren't enough, he raises a hand to them, as well.

In 2009, James Toback's documentary Tyson earned a lot of praise for the way it probed the personality of Mike Tyson and the culture of violence that created him. Toback uses the fighter's own words to try to poke at the contradictions in his character. Is he the beast most believe him to be? Scorsese explores similar questions about La Motta, though Raging Bull is more effective because, unlike Toback, Scorsese doesn't seem desperate to exonerate his subject. He's just as fascinated by what the warrior lifestyle is doing to the man who takes the punches, but he also sees the tragedy such a figure inflicts on the world around him. Sure, the business and lifestyle of boxing might force a man into dark corners, but such a man is trained to fight back. La Motta turns the hurt around tenfold.

I could go on and on about the virtues of Raging Bull. Thelma Schoonmaker's invisible mis-en-scene deserves praise, as does Michael Evje and Gary S. Gerlich's tremendous sound design. They use distorted wildlife noises to soundtrack the fight scenes, and they pull the audio in and out, mimicking the elasticity of time Jake experiences in the ring. Michael Chapman's artful photography pulls similar moves. Dialing down the playback speed to a molasses crawl effects the reality of a complex action like a good punch combo. They say an expert in any field experiences the moment when they perform their most complicated tasks differently, something similar to how, when we're in a car crash, the scant few seconds leading to impact seem to go on forever. At the same time, Scorsese and Chapman orchestrate tremendous zooms and pans, capturing the speed and force of a La Motta jab.

Likewise, not enough can be said about the unbelievable cast. Pesci is a fireball, and he and De Niro have an unmatched rapport onscreen. As a duo, they have never been as fresh as they are in Raging Bull. You can believe they are brothers who have lived together all their lives. The rhythm of their back-and-forth lacks any self-consciousness, it just flows naturally. Cathy Moriarty is also remarkable as Vickie. It's easy to miss the range she shows here if you don't keep in mind that the actress, who was approaching her 20s, starts off the movie playing 15, several years younger than she actually was, and ends playing a few years older than her real age. The change isn't sweeping--not as obvious as, say, De Niro's weight gain as Jake--but keep your eye on her, see how her body language and presence changes from her first scenes with Jake, when she's got a slight touch of the awkward teen in the way she quietly slumps, and then compare it to the strong woman who eventually stands up to the bruiser.

The movie still belongs to De Niro, of course. He's in nearly every scene, and though it's one of his more mimicked roles, it's one of his least mannered. The De Niro tics disappear under La Motta's agility and, eventually, his girth. Though the actor is less recognizable under the prosthetic nose and curly hair, it's not really about the props, it's about how he carries himself. We've seen him rage in other movies, we've heard him pull out the New York accent, but Jake is a whole other person. He's not Travis Bickle or Jimmy Conway, he's not even really De Niro. It's easy to take swipes at the actor now for a perceived lessening of quality control in regards to choices he makes, but you know what, screw you. He made Raging Bull; your snark pales by any comparison.

Raging Bull regularly tops lists of the best films of the 1980s and rides high on any more expansive round-ups of cinema's best. As with most of the other usual suspects, be it Citizen Kane or It's a Wonderful Life [review] or Casablanca, the reverence exists for a reason. Raging Bull really is that good. Time passed and repeat viewings only stand to prove the level of craft that Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, et al., were operating at. Good storytelling and solid application of technique is the impenetrable armor of classic cinema: you can never pierce it or tear it down.

Sunday, March 29, 2020


Of all the seven deadly sins, jealousy is the most deadly.”

It’s ironic, I suppose, that I became positively obsessed with Gene Tierney the first time I saw Leave Her To Heaven. I tracked down every film I could at the time, which meant following a lot of the Fox reissue series from the DVD era. It was a good mini label, often using A&E and AMC programming as extras, and they numbered the spines. Someone was paying attention to the Criterion obsessives.

Why I say it’s ironic is because Tierney’s character Ellen is obsession personified. Driven by jealousy, she fixates on her husband, determined to share him with no one else. Not his brother, nor her sister, nor eventually even their own child. Ellen is so alluring and so attentive, he’s blind to it far longer than he should be, ignoring all warnings. And, of course, as a film fan, I was glued to her every move.

Leave Her To Heaven is considered a hybrid of film noir and the “women’s picture,” as perhaps best personified by Douglas Sirk. Like many classic movies, I sought out Leave Her To Heaven  based on a Martin Scorsese recommendation. My purism rejected the notion of a Technicolor noir, but resistance was futile. I ultimately had to see it and sample this cinematic Reese’s peanut butter cup. You got my noir in your melodrama!

When it comes down to it, though, Leave Her To Heaven has few noir trappings. It’s set in a rural domain, it’s mostly in sunlight, and it’s far more romantic than fatalist. It’s actually more of an upending of the “bad husband gaslighting his wife” movies, like Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door [review], Max Ophuls’ Caught [review], or Sirk’s own Sleep, My Love [review]. Director John M. Stahl--working from a screenplay by Jo Swerling, adapting a novel by Ben Ames--instead has the wife slowly undermining her husband’s faith in himself, ironically chipping away at his love rather than securing her position as the only thing in his life. (Fun aside: Stahl directed versions of both Imitation of Life and Magnificent Obsession before Sirk’s more famous remakes [review of both versions of Magnificent Obsession].)

Cornel Wilde plays the husband, novelist Richard Harland. Criterion viewers will know him for The Naked Prey [review], his triumphant directorial/starring vehicle, but he doesn’t fare as well here. He’s a bit of a weak link, failing to be charming or seductive. Honesty, his rap is so bad, down to quoting his own book, I have cause to wonder if Ellen picks Richard because he’s a bit dim and thus easily manipulated. Likewise, most of the supporting cast is fairly mediocre, giving more room for Tierney to control the frame. Her only competition is from her Dragonwyck co-star Vincent Price, who here plays her jilted lover, but who really gets to shine as the district attorney in the courtroom scenes that occupy Leave Her to Heaven’s final act. Price manages to distinguish himself because his character is the only one as driven as Ellen. His passion in front of a jury is blazing.

But then, he also doesn’t have to compete directly with Tierney. It also helps that he’s hot in ways that she’s cool, creating a balance between them. Tierney’s take on Ellen is sculpted out of ice and steel. The key to her villainy--and, arguably, to her sexiness--is how together she is. It’s not just that Ellen would never have a hair out of place, but that she rarely has an emotion out of place. She might seethe when she sees some competition for Richard’s affection, but the wheels immediately start turning on how to get the advantage back. Her best moment is that iconic scene on the lake, the one that is highlighted on the Criterion Leave Her to Heaven cover. In that segment, we see her coldly seize an opportunity and then course correct in order to cover her tracks when it appears she might get caught.

Leave Her to Heaven was shot by Leon Shamroy, the cinematographer of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, but it’s worth noting that there is also a Technicolor director, Natalie Kalmus. The colors here are phenomenal. Tierney in particular stands out for her gorgeous clothes, like the baby blue swimsuit and nightgown that she wears for a couple of her worst deeds--a color that the internet tells me should resemble “trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, intelligence, faith, truth, and heaven.” I doubt this is a choice that was made without consideration. All of Leave Her to Heaven has an almost unreal pastel look to it, arguably Stahl’s replacement for the shadowy confines of noir. In his world, evil is bright and pink and has shiny red lips.

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

Sunday, March 8, 2020


This piece was originally written as part of a review of the boxed set The Sidney Poitier Collection back in 2009.

Sidney Poitier stars in A Patch of Blue, a different kind of love story, playing career man Gordon Ralfe. One day meets, Gordon a blind girl, Selina (Elizabeth Hartman, Walking Tall), in the park. After sharing a conversation with her, he realizes that she has not been educated to get along on her own. In fact, as he will ultimately discover, she lives with her alcoholic grandfather (Wallace Ford, in his last role) and her equally drunk mother, Roseanne (Shelley Winters, who won her second Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work). Despite the fact that Roseanne was the one who blinded her daughter, she holds the girl's condition against her and makes Selina work like a slave around the house. Until recently, when Selina started convincing her kindly boss (John Qualen) and her grandfather to take her to the park, the blind girl had barely been beyond her apartment. She has no idea how the world works for seeing people, much less for the sightless.

Selina also has no idea that Gordon is African American. Her only encounter with anyone of a different race was a young girl who lived in her building whom Roseanne forbad her to play with, though it was never explained to her why. Thus, amongst the many things that are beyond her, Selina has no concept of race or racism. Gordon, on the other hand, is far too aware of the judgmental glances he and the white girl receive when they are together. Even his brother (Ivan Dixon) raises concern at seeing the two hanging out, seeing only trouble for Gordon. Gordon does his best to keep his feelings in check, extending an honest helping hand to his new friend, but Selina falls for him immediately. She has never been shown kindness, it's only natural.

A Patch of Blue was written and directed by Guy Green, adapting a novel by Elizabeth Kata, and though the movie has strains of melodrama, Green also balances that with a tough realism. Selina's squalid existence is full of cruelty and hatred, and the director does his level best to show what production standards at the time would allow. He even pushed the boundaries of those standards by filming an interracial kiss shared by Poitier and Hartman. Though these scenes were excised from a lot of prints at the time, particularly in more racially divided areas of the U.S., A Patch of Blue is intact on modern home video releases.

The film manages to avoid getting too sappy, as Gordon keeps his head and makes the right choices for Selina, no matter how hard or bittersweet they may be. First-time actress Elizabeth Hartman rightly earned accolades for her portrayal of the blind girl. She is so convincing that I actually had to double-check that she wasn't blind in real life. Selina is an innocent in a harsh world, never entirely aware of the horrible things that have happened to her. Beyond the issues of race, Green seems to be indicting society more for its lack of compassion. How could Selina get through so much of her life without anyone ever extending a hand to aid her? The contrast between the world outside the apartment and inside is practically Dickensian, creating a sharp divide between the exploitative family relationship and the gentility of Gordon's care. The world outside the four walls of the apartment may still have its problems, but at least there is a possibility to advance.

Saturday, March 7, 2020


This review originally written for in 2003.

...after all these years, Young Sherlock Holmes is still a good bit of entertainment. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Barry Levinson (Bugsy [review], Wag the Dog) from a screenplay by Chris Columbus (who went on to direct the worst of the Harry Potter franchise [review]), this is the kind of adventure romp for all ages that Spielberg was regularly producing throughout the 1980s. Young Sherlock Holmes came out in 1985, a year after his own Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and in a way, this is like the more cerebral version of that film: less gore, more mystery, and a loving wink to the literature of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle rather than pulp serials.

In this gentle reimagining of the story of Holmes and Watson's first meeting, the future detective is played by Nicholas Rowe (at the time of this writing seen as Rivesh Mantilax on Dr. Who). He meets the nervous and portly Watson (Alan Cox) when the boy comes to his boarding school. They quickly bond, and the relationship dynamic of forward-thinking adventurer and his bumbling pal is established immediately. Holmes is a bit of a misfit at the school, beloved by some teachers, annoying others, and finding jealous rivals amongst the students. An eccentric old professor (Nigel Stock) who keeps trying to build a flying machine is his mentor, and that professor's niece, Elizabeth (Sophie Ward), is the sleuth's sweetheart.

When the kooky professor ends up dead, Holmes realizes that this is one of a string of murders. The local police chief, a fellow named Lestrade (Roger Ashton-Griffiths), doesn't buy the boy's crackpot theories, and a school prank has gotten Holmes expelled. So, he must work in secret with Watson and Sophie, looking for the connection between the deceased and searching for the source of the poisoned thorns that have caused them all to hallucinate their way into a nasty demise.

The hallucination sequences are some of the more famous from Young Sherlock Holmes, alongside Levinson's homage to his producer, when Holmes and Watson pilot the rickety flying machine past the moon. Most of the delirium is shown as stop-motion animation, and though less smooth than we might be used to today, the old-school quality makes it kind of neat. One could even argue that since they are the delusions of dying men, they need not look real, the way dreams often don't look real. One absolutely stunning effect, though, is a knight who steps out of a stained-glass window. This is credited as the first-ever completely CGI effect in a motion picture, and it was overseen by no less than Pixar-hero John Lasseter while he was still with Industrial, Light and Magic. It's a cool looking creation, and the quality of the achievement extends beyond the historical.

Levinson's direction and Columbus's script are both expertly handled, though at times maybe with too much expertise. Seasoned viewers will be able to spot the technique in both men's work. Levinson's mis en scene for the suspense sequences is lifted straight out of old Val Lewton creepfests, and the twists and turns of the plot offer very little that is surprising. Still, it's the kind of stuff that has worked for decades for a reason, and it's no less effective here. Younger viewers who aren't as familiar with storytelling devices will be totally enraptured. Rowe provides them with a stalwart, intellectual hero they can wish they could be, Cox gives them a sidekick they can identify with, and well, it's hard to imagine a teenage boy not getting a crush on a cutie like Sophie Ward. I know when I was 13 I wanted to hop in the flying peddle-bike and carry her off to our own adventures. Kudos, as well, for the filmmakers not pulling any punches with the ending. There are some dark things here, but ones that make sense in the context of making Sherlock Holmes the man he will become.

Sunday, March 1, 2020


It doesn’t take long into Journey to the Beginning of Time, the first movie in Criterion’s excellent Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman collection, to have cause to wonder why the pioneering director isn’t more famous. Released in 1955, the same year It Came from Beneath the Sea showcased the artistry of Ray Harryhausen, Journey to the Beginning of Time’s special effects are just as impressive, just as innovative, with Zeman proving himself a worthy successor to George Melies. Is it because his movies were aimed at children? That doesn’t stop us from liking Wes Anderson’s animated movies or Zazi dans le Metro [review]. It’s puzzling.

Karel Zeman is a Czech filmmaker who began his career in the 1940s, working on short films for the leading animation company in Czechoslovakia. Four of those early efforts are included here as bonus features, and the chosen entries already showcase a level of experimentation that is impressive, including 1949’s Inspiration--a fanciful cartoon featuring glass objects come to life. A glass blower imagines a whole world contained within a raindrop, and it invigorates his art. 1945’s A Christmas Dream similarly shows a young girl dreaming of a discarded toy dancing for her favor in a bid not to be discarded for her newer presents. Those films have live action elements, but 1946’s A Horseshoe for Luck is entirely stop motion. It was the debut of Zeman’s popular creation Mr. Prokouk (Mr. Puppet), a little man with a penchant for slapstick, and this particular short was made to encourage people to recycle their scrap for the greater good. A post-war PSA!

These extras are rounded out by the longest piece, the half-hour King Lavra from 1950. This full-color stop-motion fairy tale is based on a satirical poem--but is constructed as a silent film? Something is being lost in translation somewhere. Exquisite vintage animation, stylish puppets, but the story of a king, his unruly beard, and his rabbit ears (?!?) falls flat.

The main body of the boxed set kicks off with the aforementioned Journey to the Beginning of Time, Zeman’s second feature-length film, and it’s comparable to a Disney adventure picture or even a drive-in B-movie. Journey stars a quartet of young boys who, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, decide to find their own pathway to the past. This is something they do easily, the way adventures begin in a lot of children’s literature, from A.A. Milne on up. Once you start out, you are there. In this case, after finding a trilobite fossil near a cave on the river, they follow the clue and sail the water into the cavernous depths, coming out the other side in the Ice Age, and traveling further back in time the closer this river takes them to the ocean. Along the way, they spot a number of prehistoric creatures fighting and eating and generally just living their lives along the banks of the water.

Zeman’s main composite trick here is to show the children in the river, with the dinosaurs in either the foreground or the background, letting distance aid in the illusion of present and past combining. In other shots, he builds larger models and puppets so the children can get closer. There is not much story here, nor much that surprises, but that simplicity aids in the suspension of disbelief. Zeman’s greatest tool is a childlike imagination, and the young actors in Journey to the Beginning of Time go a long way to selling the reality via their acceptance of their surroundings. This story is real because they believe it to be so.

In essence, Journey to the Beginning of Time is both a travelogue and a museum exhibit come to life. Each turn of the river takes us to a new diorama of the past. It’s a perfect showcase for Zeman to show off his skills, but also an educational adventure that I am sure inspired awe back in its original time, as it still remains impressive today. Younger children will still likely get wrapped up in its sense of exploration, while older viewers like me can appreciate the technique on display.

There is a definite maturation from Journey to the Beginning of Time to 1958’s Invention for Destruction. The plotting may still be simple, but the presentation is anything but, as Zeman takes his style to the next level and then to the next level after that.

Based once again on the writings of Jules Verne, Invention for Destruction tells the story of a young scientist caught up in a plot to steal benign energy technology and turn it into a terrible weapon. The narrative Zeman concocts is nothing progressive--a mentor figure is clueless to his failings, a naïve girl falls for the villain yet ends up with the hero--but the film is nevertheless something astounding to behold. I imagine this is the kind of thing that Kerry Conran intended with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a dazzling visual pulp; luckily, Zeman doesn’t get so lost in his own construction that he abandons story and character completely a la Conran. There’s just enough here to ensure Invention for Destruction is more than simply pretty pictures.

Oh, but what pictures they are! Invention for Destruction is not just a combination of live actors and cool stop-motion effects. There are submarines and dirigibles and the giant lair of an evil mad scientist. Zeman’s sets are all made to look like storybook illustrations, as if the entire world has been drawn around his actors. It’s a surprisingly seamless illusion that lends to the authenticity of the impossibilities the movie portrays. Zeman’s vision is clear, and yet, he’s only just getting warmed up.

Four more years passed between Invention for Destruction and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, time well-spent not just building the movie, but advancing Zeman’s considerable craft. The picture starts on the moon, combining practical effects with animation to create a world of pure cinematic myth, a manifestation of the titular Baron’s tall tales. Then the adventure takes us to Earth, through the palace of a sultan and onto the high seas and even into the belly of a giant fish. All the while, Zelman’s composite animation grows more seamless. There is also an added experimentation with color and sound, scenes tinted with one hue and dialogue turned to garbled brass (think the adults in Peanuts cartoons) with both restored to full clarity as story demands, that makes The Fabulous Baron Munchausen all the more dazzling.

The story is also more fun and a bit more high energy than Invention, though not nearly as high-octane as Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Even if Gilliam and Zeman were not fiddling with the same source material, it would be impossible not to compare them, as Zeman is a clear influence. It’s not just the cut-out animation style that Zeman sometimes uses, or the irreverent sense of humor, but storytelling devices. His Munchausen has a tagalong witness that gets involved in the narrative expedition, just as most of Gilliam’s heroes do, right up through his most recent The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. I’d say the later filmmaker could use some of his predecessor’s restraint, but honestly, I can’t say I wish Zeman had Gilliam’s resources, because it would kill some of his resourcefulness.

It feels so rare to be charmed by movies the way I was by the ones contained in Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman. With other “fantastic journeys” seemingly just a mouse click away these days, it’s easy to forget just how imaginative and special cinema can be. Using only the physical objects at his disposal, be they paper, paint, or even flesh, Karel Zeman managed to turn the simple into the remarkable, and translate his own sense of wonder to the screen without losing an ounce of its energy. His aim was to entertain children, but he ended up striking a much broader audience...

...especially now that this collection is readily available. Getting in the spirit of their subject, Criterion have really outdone themselves with the creative packaging for Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman. Do yourself a favor and get your copy now, because the first printing comes in a fold-out cardboard case, with special die-cut pop-up designs for each movie. You’ll be sorry if you don’t.

These discs provided by the Criterion Collection for the purposes of review.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020


This review was originally written for to cover the film's theatrical release in 3D in 2014.

I'm always in for a new Jean-Luc Godard movie, especially since, anymore, there are several years between his feature-length efforts. It's been four years since he released the acclaimed Film socialisme [review], and it was six years between that one and Notre musique [review]. That both of those films showed the eighty-three-year-old auteur was as engaged and vital as ever makes it all the more disappointing that his latest, Goodbye to Language (Adieu au language in his native French), is the end result of an artist spinning his wheels.

Anyone familiar with Godard's 21st Century work will recognize the technique. Goodbye to Language is another collage of documentary, random clips, and fictionalized scenarios artfully arranged to provide a platform for the innovative filmmaker to advance his philosophical ponderings. Where Goodbye to Language differs from Film socialisime, at least aesthetically, is that this time around Godard is working in 3D. Throughout much of the film, the old prankster proves to have a knack for the technology. Many of his frames are arranged with a surprising eye for how they will appear with added dimensions. These moments can be as lovely as others are jarring. At various intervals during Goodbye to Language, Godard overlaps images and text in a way that assaults the eye, almost as if he wants to prevent the audience from ever getting too comfortable.

While his clever use of separate shots in the right and left quadrants is somewhat astonishing, other bits will leave you wondering just what the hell the point is supposed to be. Is it to assert the supremacy of image over sound? Over narrative? Both break down during Goodbye to Language, including a couple of awful noises that may have you worried the theater's speakers have malfunctioned, but I have to say, neither dismantling has much effect. Godard's mis-en-scene here has three different categories: an ongoing discussion about equality between a couple (more Le gai savoir [review] than Contempt [review], alas), footage of what is presumably Jean-Luc Godard's dog, and the random gatherings of images that the aging filmmaker finds interesting. The accumulated pieces arguably add up to some kind of whole, but then again, maybe they don't. That might be the point. It's hard to say after one viewing, as the 3D makes an already difficult film even harder to keep up with. Finding the subtitles within the frame meant constantly having to refocus one's gaze.

The thing is, and what troubles me the most about Goodbye to Language, is that it never engaged me enough to make me want to try again. Unlike the aforementioned Notre musique and Film socialisme, I am not sufficiently intrigued by what was up on the screen to want to put the puzzle together. I didn't feel challenged so much as I felt bored. Part of it might be that Godard's political reference points have changed hardly at all in the past several decades. Hitler, Mao, the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans--it's all been covered by the director before. His championing of women's rights seems hollow given how his lead feminine mouthpiece is naked for most of Goodbye to Language. Ironic that a film partially about the act of looking would not question its own gaze.

Animal rights get just as much time as women's rights, which I guess is kind of new. There are long passages of Godard following the dog around, catching him in the right pose, pondering his devotion. After a while, it started to feel like I was watching the world's most expensive and technologically advanced YouTube channel of one old man's videos of his canine companion.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh, perhaps not. Godard himself was never known to go easy on other filmmakers, so why should we go easy on him? Goodbye to Language is a movie, after all, that has two scenes of a man loudly defecating, as well as another of the dog having a movement of his own. Attached to these images are the most definitive statement Goodbye to Language ever makes: everything, every thought and idea, eventually turns to poop. So here we are, witnessing Jean-Luc Godard learning to flush.

That said, he's still Jean-Luc Godard and serious cinema fans should see anything he does at least once. Twice if you can manage. And in the theater one of those times so you can see the 3D work in its natural habitat. To pretend I won't be going to see Goodbye to Language again will be like a Star Wars fan bitching about J.J. Abrams claiming he won't go see the new installment when it comes out. You know that dude is lying. And who knows? Maybe I'll be surprised and it will strike me in a whole different way. Regardless, Goodbye to Language is not enough of an incoherent stinker to make me bid adieu to Jean-Luc Godard, even if it does give me serious pause.

Monday, February 24, 2020


This review originally written for in 2006.

At that time...

Jean-Luc Godard's Hail Mary (Je vous salue, Marie) apparently sparked off a hailstorm of controversy on its release in 1985, something that the folks at New Yorker Video hammer home on the DVD sleeve at every opportunity. Maybe I'm just jaded or too hard to shock, but it's hard to see now what all the fuss was over. I don't see much to be scandalized about in Hail Mary.

Really, Godard has composed one of the most human and touching portrayals of the Virgin Mary ever put to film. In his recasting of the Biblical story, Mary (Myriem Roussel, First Name: Carmen) is a teenager who has hung on to her virginity, even in the face to her engagement to the petulant taxi cab driver Joseph (Thierry Rode). Thus, it causes a lot of confusion when an older man named Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) and his daughter (Manon Andersen) get in Joseph's cab and direct him to the gas station owned by Mary's father. There, the angelic duo informs the poor girl that she will soon have a child. This enrages Joseph, who knows he has never touched Mary and so can't claim the child as his own. Initially, Mary's protests that she is still innocent fall on deaf ears.

Eventually, Joseph comes to trust what Mary is telling him, but not before he whines a lot about not getting any loving. He's not the most compassionate person that could have been charged with the paternity of the Christ child. At the start of the movie, he is taking out his frustrations over Mary's refusals by toying with another woman (a young Juliette Binoche in only her fourth movie), and he shows as little concern for this second girlfriend's feelings as he does for the emotional turmoil his fiancée has been thrown into. Joseph won't be satisfied until he sees Mary naked, plain and simple. Gabriel eventually knocks him into line, however, forcing him to dress like a grown-up (Joseph had been wearing dark shades and kept his collar popped up until that point) and physically forcing him to vow to leave Mary's virtue where it is. If he doesn't, Joseph will mess up the divine plan. In a self-reflexive move, Godard illustrates the notion of God's Will being disrupted by having Gabriel forget his proper lines whenever he's faced with Joseph's impudence, something the little girl consistently points out to the older angel.

This question of a greater plan for humanity is one of the bigger things Godard is wrestling with. Outside of the Mary narrative (though the two cross over in Joseph's taxi), a haughty professor (Johan Leysen) lectures his students about man's placement in the universe, theorizing that we are not the product of a series of random accidents, but rather extra-terrestrials from a distant star who migrated to Earth centuries ago. Godard seems more eager to send-up this pseudo science than he is religion. The professor gets involved with one of his students (Anne Gautier), a woman named Eva who he insists on calling Eve. She apparently is his temptation, and after draining her of her money, he leaves her to go back to his wife and kids. This great brain with grand ideas of otherworldly beings is really just a pig of a man after all.

Yet, the professor's lectures tie in with Mary's quandary, a variation on the chicken or egg conundrum: does the soul exist to animate the body, or does the body exist to house the soul? Her body is what she feels is under assault. It's what Joseph wants to get his hands on, it's what God has used to plant his seed. Her soul is ultimately her own, and it's tied directly to her virtue. The greatest pain the Supreme Being has caused her is making people doubt that she has maintained self-control, that she hasn't given her soul over to lust. Despite the anger this causes her, Mary perseveres.

In the end, though, it's hard for Mary to tell if the price she has paid was worth it. Her son Jésus (Malachi Jara Kohan) has turned out to be a brat, and her husband has gone from adolescent sex fiend to resentful father. (Godard had specific ideas about the impact of Freudian theory on religion, and Joseph's resentment of Jésus is classically Oedipal.) When it's all said and done and she is met with a cry of "Hail Mary!" on the street, it's not clear whether it's sarcastic, disdainful, or honest. All the virgin mother has left to hold on to as she quietly applies lipstick is the womanhood she refused to let anyone take. Perhaps that's what religious groups objected to, that after all the struggle and doubt, this gospel of modernity was a muddle of anxiety and angst.

For Godard fans, the cantankerous prankster from the '60s is definitely up to his old tricks in Hail Mary, though this film is closer to the provocateur of Weekend [review] than it is the playful imp at work in A Woman is a Woman or Masculin féminin. At times his odd choice of framing and quick cuts between oblique statements of dialogue are almost too close to being the cliché parody of European art house cinema, but the more personal this film gets, the deeper the director goes into Mary's dilemma, the more assured his hand. His trademark love for monkeying with sound is in full form in Hail Mary, as well. He uses pieces of music by Bach and Dvorák throughout the picture, dropping the orchestra out the second someone speaks and then kicking it back in again as soon as they finish their line. It works both as an illustration of the sensory pressure Mary is under while also undermining the grandiosity of the situation. The coming of the messiah in the mid-'80s isn't nearly the event it was two millennia prior.

Sunday, February 23, 2020


This review originally written for in 2008, and it sometimes refers to features on the DVD release.

In the late '60s, Jean Luc-Godard was at his most politically strident. Discontent with representational cinema, he was moving away from his pop-culture retreads into something more confrontational and less reliant on narrative. From his feature film Weekend [review] to his short segments in anthology films like Far From Vietnam [review] and Love and Anger, and even in his Rolling Stones documentary, Sympathy for the Devil (a.k.a. One Plus One), with its perplexingly didactic skits, he was breaking down the notion of cinema frame by frame. By 1969, he was ready to issue a new manifesto, and he did so in the film Le Gai Savoir.

Explaining Le Gai Savoir is a daunting task, almost as daunting as watching it. With the 16th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau credited as co-writer, Godard had come a long way from Bogart-obsessed gangsters. Though his movies always toyed with sound and image, and he laced even the most familiar genre subjects with political undertones, don't expect the same kind of experience here. Le Gai Savoir is practically his line in the sand, setting the stage for his collaborations with Jean-Pierre Gorin and even his more recent films, including 2004's Notre musique [review]

Forget plot summary. The closest we have to a plot here is that two activists, the student-representative Emile Rousseau and the voice of the working class Patricia Lumumba--who also go by their real names, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Juliet Berto, in the movie, and who both were in Godard's La Chinoise [review] and Weekend--are meeting in a Beckett-esque void to discuss a maelstrom of ideas including the current world climate, the purpose of cinema, and even personal philosophies. Their dialectic is illustrated by a collage of words and images, including news photographs, cartoons, advertising, and propaganda posters, an ever-flowing montage bringing to life Godard's theories about the marriage of image and sound.

That's as near as I can confidently get to the main goal of Le Gai Savoir: finding where image and sound intersect and asking how that informs how we know what we think we know. For Godard, it is a central question that pertains to what we, as people, do in order to advance this world. We can't, for instance, engage with corrupt leaders or change the way the system is run if we don't understand how they use these things to transmit their agenda. How else can we break the inundation of false information and bend it toward the truth?

Eventually, the argument even turns back on itself and Godard is forced to question the role cinema plays in this dialogue. This is where the manifesto element of the movie comes into play, the director issuing a demand to the world directors, from Italy to Cuba, to create material that challenges and provokes. Always one to wear his influences on his sleeve, Godard throws the names of Bertold Brecht and Antonin Artaud in with Mao, Guevara, and Castro. Certainly the long, loud electronic pulses that periodically blared from my speakers fly the flag of Artaud's theatre of pain. Godard himself speaks as a professorial narrator, instructing his actors through the robotic voice box that he used in other films like Alphaville [review] and Oh, Woe Is Me! [review]. He also cuts up documentary audio of real speeches and protests to show us how information can be manipulated. The auteur even self-effacingly accepts that compromise can touch his own work, fabricating censorship with missing audio and excised scenes that never really existed.

Le Gai Savoir challenges its viewer to stay alert. I can't say I digested the entire thing, as it moves with a furious pace, in some instances the rapidly changing images and the words both written and spoken acting more as a subconscious provocation than easily grasped nuggets of wisdom. I would guess this is part of Godard's intent, to shock us from what is comfortable, to force us to engage with what is happening on the screen. I am not sure I enjoyed it so much as I appreciated it, and I know many people will find it to be pretentious drivel. Still, I'm fascinated by it, and though I don't particularly want to sit down and watch Le Gai Savoir again right now, I do want to revisit it eventually and try to chip away at its dense layers.

Unfortunately, I don't believe Koch Lorber, who are releasing Le Gai Savoir on DVD in Region 1, has done its U.S. audience any favors toward making it easier for us to consume the movie. Le Gai Savoir has the original French soundtrack with removable English subtitles, and though the audio is consistently translated, the words that appear on the screen are not.* Almost every still image Godard chooses to show in his long montages either come with words already built-in or he has written his message on top of the picture. The DVD producers have only translated the phrases that appear when they conveniently fall between spoken lines--and even then, not necessarily. The title Le Gai Savoir appears on the screen multiple times, and I don't recall it being translated even once. The phrase "The Joy of Learning" has some bearing on the meaning of the movie, and it should be drummed into our brains. Plus, given that one of the movie's slogans is that spoken language is our enemy, it seems counterintuitive to give it heavier weight than the other uses of language in the picture.

Not that I could likely have kept up with all of that additional stimuli, but that's not really the point, is it? A layer cake without a layer is less of a cake, and by Godard's way of thinking, our comfort with the way things have been is what allows us to end up with where things currently are. With the crises of Vietnam and the clashes of communism and capitalism that so occupied many intellectuals in the 1960s, Godard was trying to make something immediate that spoke of the dangers of complacency and the need for revolutionary fervor. You almost need a scorecard to keep up with the political players he references (and, hey, that would have made a nice DVD extra), but he never expected to solve the problems, just incite his viewers to want to know more.

* Given that this technique was also applied to many of Godard's more recent efforts, like Film Socialisme [review] and The Image Book, I now would believe it to be intentional on the part of the director.