Tuesday, April 28, 2020


This review originally written for DVDTalk.com, reviewing the theatrical release, in 2014.

I think we are officially in the second phase of Wes Anderson's career.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is nothing short of a delight. It is a sugary, multilayered confection, as colorful and complex and precariously stacked as the courtesans du chocolate that become an important plot point in the movie's narrative. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the sort of movie that you want to dig into wholeheartedly with the biggest spoon you can find, shoveling as much as you can into your mouth, but the more you dine on Anderson's decadent creation, the more you will want to dissect it and separate the parts and savor every flavor on its own.

The story, which is Anderson's homage to a semi-obscure writer named Stefan Zweig, is a story within a story within a story, narrated by a writer in his old age (Tom Wilkinson) reminiscing on a tale he heard as a younger man (when he was Jude Law), told to him by an aging millionaire (F. Murray Abraham), detailing where his fortunes began (back when he was played by newcomer Tony Revolori). And, of course, the whole thing is the book itself being read by a fan sitting at the writer's grave. Anderson cleverly distinguishes the writer's version from the "original" by switching aspect ratios from the more standard widescreen to the classic Academy size (the square "full frame" as early DVD adopters know it), a nod back to the important films that inspired him once upon a time.

Not that it's hard to tell the two apart on their own. The tale told by Zero (Abraham/Revolori) is a fantastical concoction full of eccentric characters, anachronistic quirks, and a bizarre divide between heavy and light, dark and innocent, the kind of childish scenario told with a grown-up vocabulary that has been Anderson's raisin d'être since he came into his own with his second feature, 1998's Rushmore [review]. How The Grand Budapest Hotel represents the MkII of his incomparable oeuvre is that it solidifies his move from a more reality-based cinema into a strange otherworld that exists within its own story space. Sure, The Royal Tenenbaums [review] and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou [review] had magical inventions and characters who were anything but "real," but much of what made those movies interesting was how those characters existed in a recognizable dimension. Steve Zissou stepped out of his nature documentaries and off his boat and was confronted with a reality he otherwise sailed the seas to escape. Richie Tenenbaum was made of Glass [sic] and shattered when life did not live up to his concept of it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel exists somewhere closer to the imagined landscapes of Roald Dahl (a la The Fantastic Mr. Fox [review]), while also being the daydream idyll of the children of Moonrise Kingdom [review]. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the realization of that movie's more special moments, with rudimentary special effects and a naïve representation of violence and heartbreak that is as bloody and gruesome as a Grimm's fairy tale but approached with the same devilish glee and wonder as we all had the first time we heard those original stories. It's almost as if Anderson, distraught by the labels his harshest critics pasted on him, retreated further into a land of his own design. Where the haters live seems rather lackluster, anyway, so who needs 'em?

For the plot-minded amongst you, The Grand Budapest Hotel's driving fable is the story of Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, in his most whimsical and witty performance to date), the concierge of the titular resort when it was at its height, sometime before an unnamed war, set in a nonexistent European country. Gustave takes the young Zero under his wing right when one of the dandy man's geriatric lovers (Tilda Swinton, who apparently replaced Angela Lansbury) passes away and bequeaths him a priceless painting, titled "Boy with Apple" (a symbol of innocence meeting original sin). The dead woman's children, lead by her murderous son Dmitri (Adrien Brody), is looking to keep hold of all facets of their mother's fortune, and so they frame Gustave for her murder and set off a chain reaction of mishaps, double-crosses, and spilled secrets. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a farcical chase movie smuggling a nostalgic cargo. Darkly comic, subtly surreal, and deceptively shallow, the depths it plumbs are perversely human. Anderson has never met a graveyard he can't pass with a jaunty whistle.

Outside of Fiennes' energetic performance, and maybe Willem Dafoe's turn as the human version of the rat he voiced in Fantastic Mr. Fox, it's hard to single out any other actor for their work here--the standard of quality is excellent, but the ensemble is too interconnected to separate. The full cast is a who's who of past Andrson performers (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Ed Morton, Jeff Goldblum, etc.) and a handful of newcomers to the tribe (Law, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Mathieu Amalric). Some of them come and go in the space of time it takes to type their names, but each is essential, the parts forming a well-planned whole, an animatronic amusement-park attraction where each new piece requires the one preceding it. Fiennes and Revolori (who is, admittedly, out of his depth even in the sidekick role) are the sole constants. Their only other companion for the duration is Alexandre Desplat's score, a combination of European folk traditions, classical flourish, and the cinematic orchestration of Georges Delerue.

I wish I could have seen The Grand Budapest Hotel a few more times before writing this. Once is not enough. Ideas have not entirely coalesced. I know there is much I missed. Every corner of the hotel is packed with as many details as the interiors of the spaceships in 2001: A Space Odyssey; I want to slow the movie down and read every sign, study the stitching on the costumes, and just stare at all the gorgeous colors. I want to savor the pithy dialogue and run my fingers through all the plot elements and feel the way they fit together. What has preceded this closing paragraph represents the first thoughts that came to mind, the initial words to travel to my fingers. This is a line a kajillion of my critical colleagues will likely use, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is someplace I plan to check into again and again. I envy you if you have yet to visit the first time. You're in for something special.

Sunday, April 26, 2020


This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2013.

Critics are fond of declaring things like, "It's the best time I had at the movies all year!" Only, when we do, it's not supposed to be about a movie that is over 70 years old.

Except some times it's true. I've had a rough time with movies in 2013. I've felt like I've disliked more than I've liked, and what I have liked, it's usually come with reservations. Let's hope that 1941's marvelous The Devil and Miss Jones is the true break to that negative streak. An efficient, unadorned comedy, The Devil and Miss Jones is a delight from start to finish, inviting viewers to invest in its characters and cheer for their every success. By the climax, I was howling with laughter and reassessing my cynical opinions about my fellow man.

The "Devil" in question is J.P. Merrick (Charles Coburn), the richest man in the world. The reclusive tycoon is shocked to find himself in a photo on the front page of the newspaper being burned in effigy outside a New York department store he owns. Some of the employees there have been trying to unionize, and Merrick is not happy about the changing tide of worker's rights. He decides to go undercover and get a job working in the children's shoe department so he can witness first hand what all the fuss is about and root out the agitators.

It's there that he meets Mary Jones (Jean Arthur), a sweetheart of a salesgirl who shows the old man the ropes and even loans him half a buck when she thinks he hasn't any money for lunch. Mary is a kind woman who has been around the block a couple of times but hasn't let it tire her out. She invites Merrick into her world, helping to fix him up with one of the older employees at the store (Spring Byington) and also taking him to workers' meetings. Her boyfriend Joe (Robert Cummings) is the organizer of the would-be union, and Mary has inadvertently put him in the boss' cross-hairs. Not even a conspiracy-minded politico like Joe suspects that the enemy is walking in their midst.

Unsurprisingly, Merrick ends up taking a real liking to his new friends and their simple way of living. The Devil and Miss Jones joins the ranks of other socially conscious comedies from the 1930s and 1940s that found humor and honesty in the plight of the working man by putting the privileged few down amongst the masses. It's equal in measure to 1936's My Man Godfrey [review] and Sullivan's Travels [review], also released in 1941. In some ways, sure, it maybe simplifies the issues, particularly in how the villainous money man so easily goes from gruff grizzly to lovable teddy bear, but at the same time, The Devil and Miss Jones can be disarmingly frank, both in how it deals with work relations and also romantic entanglements. In the eyes of writer Norman Krasna (White Christmas) and director Sam Wood (Pride of the Yankees [review]), both aspects of modern living are connected. Everything we do is about how we survive in a world where it's easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle, it all comes down to how we treat one another. It's not like it is in the movies or popular songs, Mary tells us, sometimes you just have to love the one you're with.

This practical approach to life is nowhere more evident than in the sequence where Mary organizes a trip to the beach at Coney Island. There, the quartet are just a four-spot amongst hundreds of others. Merrick, who is unfamiliar with such outings, gets separated from the crew and finds himself without his clothes or identification, seeking a way to make contact. That his friends not only find him but rescue him from incarceration at the risk of their own freedom shows him what it's like for the common man living his day-to-day without the safety nets of money and power. Family and companionship are all they really have.

Charles Coburn was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of the gruff businessman. His is an expert performance, never overplayed, not even when the scene calls for him to lose his temper. Sentimentality is kept to a minimum, even when he is going through his transformation. The script smartly communicates the bulk of his metamorphosis through action rather than speech. Merrick's evolution is mostly reaction.

Even so, the Devil is no match for Miss Jones. How have I not been on the Jean Arthur train before now? The actress' performance here is a revelation. She carries the picture, providing both its heart and its funnybone. There are a couple of fantastic slapstick moments in the climax, including an hysterical interior debate perfectly executed through exterior performance and gesture when Mary has to decide whether or not to strike Merrick across the back of the head with a shoe. Determination crumbles into fear and concern and then self-recrimination, all played out silently behind the elder gentleman's back. The comedy works because we already know what kind of a person Mary is, we know it's not really in her to crack her friend's skull. Jean Arthur has sold us on the bigger emotions, delivering a pair of monologues about romance and individual determination that, had they come via a less capable personality, would have just seemed schmaltzy.

That's the true indicator of how well The Devil and Miss Jones holds together. Even when it goes broad with either the comedy or the politics, the film utilizes intelligence and honesty in equal measure to what it otherwise shows in the quieter moments. The audience can get on board with the sweeping changes because Sam Wood and company have already built to them by lining up a series of tiny changes, laying a foundation so The Devil and Miss Jones can deliver on its promise of big entertainment without sacrificing any of its heart. And, boy, does it ever work! This is the kind of movie that you want to start over just as soon as it ends in the hope that you can forever sustain the feeling it's inspired. If the party is still rockin', then what's the point in stoppin'?

Saturday, April 25, 2020


This review originally written as part of an overview of The Premiere Frank Capra Collection for DVDTalk.com in 2006. 

Perhaps the greatest Goliath you could have in a David and Goliath story is the government. For Frank Capra and screenwriter Sidney Buchman (Holiday [review]), if the United States is a democracy built for the people and by the people, then when it goes awry, it's up to the people to fix it. In 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart plays Jefferson Smith, a leader of a Boy Scouts-like organization. When one of his state's senators dies suddenly, Smith is appointed to the vacant seat as a sort of political patsy, a puppet for the remaining senator, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains, Casablanca) and the true backroom mastermind, Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), a kind of Karl Rove of his day.

Being a Capra movie, what no one figures on is Smith's down-home manner being a reservoir of true wisdom. Never before having been to Washington D.C., but being a history buff, he's awed by the city's monuments. His "aw shucks" demeanor is quickly pounced on by cynical reporters and his initial supporters all quickly turn from him, much like the story arc Mr. Deeds went through. Also like Deeds, Smith is a minor victim to the dual devotions of Jean Arthur. As Saunders, the ambitious political aide, she is set up as Smith's assistant in order to further the goals of her political party and secure herself a place in the Administration when Paine moves on to the White House. Naturally, she begins to see that Smith's uncommon patriotism is not a product of stupidity, but a genuine fount of emotion that modern politicians have long since forgotten. Her role will end up being the same as many of Capra's heroines: when Smith is beaten and ready to give up, it's Saunders who will give him the courage and the means to carry on. His faith in something greater gives her a new reason to believe, and she returns the favor.

Smith's near downfall comes when he uncovers the corruption of Paine and Taylor and attempts to expose it. They do a frame job on him to make him look corrupt himself, and Smith striking back is one of the most famous scenes in cinema history. Staging a one-man filibuster, Smith talks for a full day, giving everything he has in him to try to make his fellow senators see that they have lost their way. Stewart is remarkable in this scene, conveying the deterioration of body and voice while maintaining the resolve of Smith's spirit. While his brand of patriotism may seem strange to us in the '00s, when we would hear about the graft scandal the junior senator uncovers as everyday news, for the end of the '30s, at least in Capra's world, it's got a kind of quaint appeal. While earnestness and honest intentions can be a lesser artist's downfall, it's the fuel that runs Frank Capra's motor, making Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as inspirational today as it was nearly seventy years ago.


This review originally written as part of an overview of The Premiere Frank Capra Collection for DVDTalk.com in 2006. 

1938's You Can't Take It With You was adapted from a popular play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who also brought us The Man Who Came to Dinner, A Gentleman's Agreement, and the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born. Their text provides Frank Capra and writer Robert Riskin with what was then their largest central cast to date. Jean Arthur returns to Capra's set as Alice, the most stable member of the eccentric Sycamore family. When she becomes engaged to Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart, another Capra mainstay), the son of a wealthy financier, the fun-loving, free-living Sycamore family comes face to face with the uptight Kirby family. The two clash over issues of class, finance, and social propriety, and the question of whether or not the two can coexist is integral to whether or not Tony and Alice can really get married.

It took me a little while to warm up to You Can't Take It With You. The Sycamore family was a tad too obnoxious to stomach at first, almost like the Addams Family but without any of the cool creepy stuff. I came around largely due to the performance of Lionel Barrymore as the clan patriarch, Grandpa Martin. He sets the tone for their crazy lifestyle. As a former businessman who left the life of high finance for a life of high relaxation, he can school the Kirby patriarch, A.P. (Edward Arnold, Man About Town) in the loneliness that is the product of living your life as a series of acquisitions and mergers. You Can't Take It With You is actually more about those two than it is about the love affair between Tony and Alice. Grandpa Martin is the quintessential Capra man, and he has to teach A.P. to live as the Sycamores do.

Once I got past the initial noisiness of the Sycamores (as well as the hypocrisy of their household: it's all right for them to do as they please as long as they have black servants making it all possible), I started to really enjoy You Can't Take It With You. The role of Tony seems tailor-made for Jimmy Stewart. The boy is caught between two worlds. He has the sort of dreams you can only pursue as a Sycamore, but the sense of responsibility you get saddled with when you try to be a Kirby. The scenes of him wooing Jean Arthur when they are on their own, away from both families, are funny and charming, and next to the clash of the two older men, Tony's wrestling with his own soul is the main attraction of You Can't Take It With You.

Sunday, April 12, 2020


This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.

The 1952 cowboy picture Vera Cruz is one of the first big Hollywood movies to be shot in Mexico, so it's only fitting that it be a story about the Mexican fight for independence from European (and particularly French) occupation. The focus of the script is two American outlaws, both with different approaches to how they do business. One is a dangerous man, a smiling gunslinger named Joe Erin, and played by young star Burt Lancaster; the other is a man of honor, Benjamin Trane, portrayed by an elder statesman of American movies, Gary Cooper. Joe has gone to Mexico to escape a bounty on his head. Benjamin has traveled south of the border in order to leave behind a painful past: he lost his livelihood fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. That conflict was about a house divided, two sides of the same coin struggling for supremacy. So, too, is the Mexican revolution a division amongst the people. And likewise there is the division between the two mercenaries who choose to fight it.

Despite being an unlikely pairing, Joe and Ben team up, heading a posse that is hired by the foreign-occupying Emperor Maximilian (George Macready) to escort a rich aristocrat (Denise Darcel) across the country to the town of Vera Cruz, where a boat will take her and a treasure chest of Mexican gold back to France where she will buy more soldiers to hold back the revolutionary army. Joe and Ben make plans to steal the gold for themselves, but then they turn around and make plans to also steal it from each other. Joe romances the rich woman, while Ben makes eyes at a sexy Mexican bandit (Sarita Montiel). She also just so happens to be working for the Mexican army, who want the gold themselves. And, of course, Maximilian's lancers have a pretty good notion that all of these double- and triple-crosses are underway, and they set up their own ruse to keep their hands on the Emperor's coinage.

Vera Cruz is directed by Robert Aldrich, who also helmed The Dirty Dozen, another famous film about a band of rough customers facing impossible odds. The screenplay by Roland Kibbee (Valdez is Coming) and James R. Webb (Cape Fear) may feature a healthy cast of characters--Joe's original team includes such recognizable character actors as Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Jack Elam; the Emperor's right-hand man is played by Cesar Romero--but the focus here stays tight on the main stars. The odds build against them as the movie progresses, ending in a giant battle between the Mexican and the European forces that claims a lot of lives. It's a gut punch of a finish, especially after the turbine engine plotting that gets us to this particular port of call. Vera Cruz generates speed as it goes, the chase growing more dangerous, the action more exciting. The resolution brings to bear all the compromises and consequences in a way that is both bleak and surprising.

It's hard to see how it could go any other way, though. When there are two central but opposing forces, there will have to be some kind of reckoning between them. Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster are perfectly cast as the hero and the anti-hero, and their disparate acting styles mesh surprisingly well. Cooper is stoic, mannered, and every bit the Hollywood hero; Lancaster is feral, unpredictable, and physical. He's not quite as twitchy and method as some of his contemporaries, but he's definitely more willing to engage in behavior otherwise unbecoming of a leading man than Cooper. As the other complications build up, so too do we see how nasty Joe really is and the full depth of the inherent good that defines Ben. The latter can't pretend to be the villain any more than the former can play at being the hero.

The movie itself embodies all of these things as well. Vera Cruz is full of the humor and the bravado and the clear-cut morality of classic westerns, but it also prefigures the darker themes and violence of the horse operas to come. Heavy is the head that wears the white hat, and what Cooper walks away from at the end of Vera Cruz may be more than a pock-marked battlefield and a chest of gold, it could be seen as a metaphor for the whole Western genre.

Saturday, April 11, 2020


This review originally written as part of an overview of The Premiere Frank Capra Collection for DVDTalk.com in 2006. 

Watch this and then remember that Adam Sandler remade it, and see if you don't suddenly favor capital punishment. The hubris!

In the original Mr. Deeds Goes to Town from 1936, and directed by Frank Capra, Gary Cooper is Mr. Deeds, a regular Joe from small-town America who has suddenly inherited an obscenely large fortune. A poet who writes homilies for postcards, he has never travelled outside the borders of his hometown in Vermont, and so when he's ferried to New York City to take care of business, Deeds is pretty far out of his element. His bodyguard Cobb (Lionel Stander, later famous as Max on "Hart to Hart") tries to steer him straight, and Deeds quickly sees his lawyers aren't as magnanimous as they pretend; yet, it's not going to be long before Deeds finds himself in trouble. He's got more good sense than the whole of the city, but he grows weary of their snarky assessment of this situation. Things also heat up considerably when his nightly exploits start showing up in the paper and he is given the cruel nickname "Cinderella Man." Little does he know that Mary, the woman he is falling in love with, is really Babe Bennett, the reporter who is sticking it to him. Played by Jean Arthur, who would become a Capra regular, Babe/Mary is the counterweight to Deeds' conscience. As his moral fortitude drops, hers goes up, inspired by the example he sets.

Eventually, Deeds can't stand two-faced city life any longer, and he decides to give all of his money away. He establishes a program to buy farms for out-of-work farmers and before he knows it, potential candidates are lined up around the block; at the same time, his lawyers have gotten him arrested as possibly insane. He must be crazy to give up that much money, right? Broken up over Mary's betrayal, Deeds refuses to defend himself, and the bad guys almost win. It's only when Mary and all of the farmers whom he has tried to pull out of the ditch stand up for him does he find a reason to believe again and stand up for himself.

Once again, the handling of the material is amazingly smart, and Capra really makes the movie work by his expert casting. Gary Cooper has a gentle presence that plays well against his considerable size. His Mr. Deeds not only physically towers over his persecutors, but he mentally towers over them, as well. The forces of greed are no match for the basic belief in what is right for everyone.

Friday, April 10, 2020


This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008.

The Pride of the Yankees is the sports biopic by which all others are measured. Made in 1942, it stars Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, the legendary Yankees first baseman who played in over 2,000 consecutive games across a decade and a half before being forced to retire due to ALS, a deadly illness that is now more commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's disease."

The formula should be pretty familiar to all movie buffs by now: a boy grows up in the Bronx dreaming of playing baseball, his dream comes true, he learns the ropes and becomes a star, finds love, and then the final act. It's a set-up that has stood the test of time because its universality ensures that it will always work. In the case of Gehrig, he was enough of a unique character that the now cliché style (which this movie arguably invented) is barely noticeable. A straight shooter who was ready to chuck dreams of sports stardom to pursue a practical career, he only took the Yankees' offer for a contract so he he could pay for his sick mother's hospital bills. He continued to conduct himself in the same moral manner for his entire run as a Yankee, breaking records and inspiring millions. There are some famous anecdotes portrayed, such as hitting two homeruns for a boy in the hospital, and the romance between Lou and his wife Eleanor (Teresa Wright) is given center stage in the second act. The third act is taken up with Gehrig's illness, a climax with enormous pathos. When the disease starts to wreck havoc on Lou's body, you're going to realize how much you've come to care for the big lug.

Some elements of Pride of the Yankees haven't aged as well as others. The concoction of two warring reporters (Walter Brennan and Dan Duryea) who spend the years arguing about Lou's potential is kind of corny, and there are times when I found Cooper's "aw shucks" demeanor a little forced. These are minor bumps in the road, however, and easy to get past.

Pride of the Yankees really starts to get going when Teresa Wright enters the scene. The actress was to have her finest hour a year later in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, but she's an alluring presence in this film, bringing oodles of charm to the screen. The courtship of Lou and Eleanor is sweetened with a smartly pitched comic streak, and the relationship only becomes more delightful as the years progress and they become partners in the truest sense.

Director Sam Wood (Kitty Foyle) also knows when to dole out a good baseball scene or two. The best is the aforementioned World Series game where both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had to come through for the sick child. Also quite good are the games where Lou is starting to realize something is wrong. In fact, it's a little backwards that the director is more adept at the struggle than he is the victory. Authenticity is added by the fact that Babe Ruth and many of Gehrig's other teammates played themselves in the picture.

Of course, Pride of the Yankees would be nothing without the last scene, the recreation of Gehrig's farewell speech to a stadium full of fans. Here is where Cooper's common-man restraint really pays off. He doesn't oversell it, doesn't try to stray outside of the humble parameters Gehrig set for him at the real event. It's a stirring moment, and one of the most memorable in movie history. The final shots of the player walking off the field are poignant and beautiful. There was nowhere to go from there, best to just fade to black.


I just found this older review of The Crimson Kimono posted to my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog in 2005. Follow this link and you'll also find a review of Samuel Fuller's Underworld U.S.A., a quick take on The Naked Kiss, and a bunch of broken images. (You can't have it all!)

The Crimson Kimono (1959), a cop drama set in Los Angeles. Fuller opens on a fictional Main Street, zooming through its seedy blocks to a strip club where Sugar Torch is just getting off the stage. She heads back to her dressing room, but someone is inside with a gun. She tries to run, but Sugar is shot down in the middle of the street. Enter our detectives, Charlie and Joe, played by Glen Corbett and James Shigeta. Charlie is your average white meathead, and Joe is a Japanese American with a touch more sensitivity. They’ve been friends since they were in the same unit in the Korean War. Fuller makes several visual side notes about the war, including showing memorials for other Asians who served in the armed forces and a sly revelation of an Army propaganda sign on the streets of Little Tokyo (which pops up again in the background of Underworld, U.S.A.). In fact, Fuller shows a surprising sensitivity for race in this film, using real locations, Asian actors, and shining a spotlight on the friendship between the detectives and the questions of racism and interracial romance that come between them. In fact, he is so interested in this side trip, he pretty much lets the murder case drop for most of the final reel of the film. You see, the key witness is a young painter named Chris (Victoria Shaw), and Charlie falls for her pretty hard. Joe does, too, and the guy can’t help but lure her away just by being much more well-versed in the sorts of things an artist would be interested in. He doesn’t want to act on it, but the two can’t resist, and when the pair finally reveals their feelings to Charlie, Joe misinterprets the various reactions that follow as racism. Everything becomes wrapped up in Joe figuring out he’s wrong.

The murder does get solved. The plot is tied around the participants in creating a geisha-themed stage act for Sugar Torch, which is where the titular crimson kimono comes from. The hunt for the killer culminates in a chase through a parade in Little Tokyo, and its resolution directly relates to Joe’s getting his head straight. Fuller is always fun. He’s not interested in subtlety. Even when Joe talks about the way his artist father delicately painted cobwebs, Fuller hits you over the head with the poetry. But that’s the point of his movies. The audience straps itself in and rides with him. Unfortunately, the print the NW Film Center acquired was of inconsistent quality, and it was often badly spliced--not a good thing when you consider that Fuller’s editing here was rivaling Seijun Suzuki for jump cutting. Still, nothing bad enough to really mar the experience.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020


This review originally written for DVDTalk.com 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 DVDTalk.com 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.