Sunday, January 19, 2020

THE SWIMMER - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for The Oregonian in 2014.


Burt Lancaster may have been Old Hollywood, but he was right there with the avant-garde in the late 1960s, starring in an adaptation of John Cheever's short story The Swimmer.

Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a well-to-do middle-aged man in the New York suburbs. One summer day, Ned realizes he can get from his friend’s home on the hill back to his own house by going from one backyard swimming pool to the next.

Each new watering hole brings Ned in touch with different people while also revealing more about his unraveling life.

It’s a movie that you’d assume would be impossible to pull off, but The Swimmer is an audacious concept executed with surprising aplomb.


Monday, January 13, 2020

HOLIDAY - #1009

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2006.


Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn made an excellent movie duo. Both had distinct personalities, with their own way of speaking and carrying themselves. It's impossible to mistake them for anyone else, or anyone for them. Their fame and legend is down to how well they managed the Grant and Hepburn brands, playing roles either together or apart that celebrated their independent spirits.

Holiday, the 1938 adaptation of the Philip Barry stage play, is the third movie that the pair made together, and the second with George Cukor. It was nearly Hepburn's last, coming around the time when she was infamously declared "box office poison." Two years later she and Grant and Cukor would team again in the film that would turn it all around, The Philadelphia Story, also based on a play by Barry. (Adding to the lineage, the screenplays for both movies were written by Donald Ogden Stewart.) Holiday doesn't quite hit the heights that film would, but there for the grace of The Philadelphia Story goes Holiday. It's a classic tale of class and romance in its own right.


Cary Grant plays Johnny Case, a self-made man whose career in finance is only the springboard for his true dreams: he wants to earn enough money to live a life of carefree travel. He wants to experience the world while he is young and return to work later, when he has figured out what he is working for. On the first ever vacation of his life, he met Julia (Doris Nolan, One Hour to Live), a heck of girl that has smitten him so, he has asked her to marry him after ten days. Only, he has neglected to ask anything else about her.

Imagine his surprise when he discovers that she is Julia Seton of the New York Setons, one of America's sixty wealthiest families. It's a bittersweet twist for Johnny, because he wants to earn his own money--a quaint little idea in Julia's circle. Dreams aren't every really pursued at that level of society, they are too close to bother reaching for. Hence, Julia's brother Ned (Lew Ayres, best known for the Dr. Kildare series of films), who could have been a fine musician if he wasn't being sensible and managing daddy's money. The price for this sell-out? A bottle of Scotch.


Then there is Linda, as played by Katharine Hepburn. She's the self-described black sheep of the family. Hip to the plight of her kind, she does the only sensible thing and gives up. Rather than try anything that might matter, she spends all of her time in their childhood playroom wondering what it would be like to live the kind of life Johnny imagines for himself. Thus, when he enters their gigantic home (complete with elevator), he's a reinvigorating breath of fresh air for Linda. Johnny is proof that you don't have to be tied down. She instantly sees the value of his plan, but she's not convinced anyone else will.


This all sounds like rather serious stuff, and for the most part, it is. It's not as dowdy with import as, say, Eugene O'Neill, but it's also not the frothy comedy some might imagine. There are serious issues of class and desire and what it means to love another person, and long stretches of the movie are given over to real discussions of the problems between Johnny, the Seton offspring, and their controlling father. Hearts are broken over these things, and by the end, there are some shards on the floor.

And yet, Barry and Cukor also keep in mind that this is a film about people falling in love, and that if Johnny and Linda really want the life of fun and frolic they talk about, there is plenty of room between the heavy discussions to indulge in the considerable charisma of the two lead actors. Naturally, with Grant and Hepburn as the names above the title, they are going to be the ones who really fall in love. Johnny's philosophy of life is summed up through acrobatics. If things get too drastic, do a somersault. Cary Grant was trained in stage gymnastics as a young actor, and those skills come to good use in Holiday. The scene where Linda and Johnny show off the stunt he taught her is a rightful classic. You'll be delighted to see them tumble across the floor, and even moreso when a similar trick punctuates the picture. The scenes the duo has alone or with the Johnny Case Club--Ned and the Potters, a delightful scholarly couple Johnny is friends with (played by character actors Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon)--are grand fun. Additionally, when the romance gets romantic, you will swoon. The smoldering desires that pass between Grant and Hepburn during a New Year's Eve waltz are all you need to see to know who Johnny Case should really marry.


So, don't mistake Holiday for predictable holiday fluff, but don't worry about being bogged down in the social drama, either. Instead, expect a true romance, with moments of intensity and giddiness in equal measure. If you've ever enjoyed Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant together before, Holiday sits comfortably amongst their other triumphs. I swear, it doesn't matter how many times I see them fall in love on my TV screen, they get straight to my sappy old heart every time.



Wednesday, January 1, 2020

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD - #1007


I couldn’t have picked a more fitting movie to watch at the close of 2019, nor could I have timed it better. It was an accident that U2 and the movie’s credits kicked in around 11:57 p.m. Had I not watched “The Song,” Uli M. Schueppel’s documentary on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ contribution to the Until the End of the World soundtrack, before jumping from disc 1 to disc 2 or taken various other pauses, the timing would have been different. The song and the credits would not have concluded just as midnight ticked over to a new decade. Wim Wenders’ characters celebrate the move from 1999 to 2000; I move from 2019 to 2020.

And it’s not a real stretch to suggest we have as much existential angst now as Wenders imagined we would at the turn of the millennium. Released in 1991, Wenders took a gamble basing his artsy sci-fi road picture only eight years in the future. He was potentially building an expiration date into his own move. Yet, looking back, he accurately predicted the way technology would change and what would concern us, even if the look of his future was just a little more clunky than what turned out. Internet privacy, personal communicators, high definition, GPS, VR, digital preservatio, and digital escapism--all these things are at the fingertips and the forefront of the mind in Until the End of the World. To Wenders, technology was getting better, but also taking over in unforeseen ways.


It’s worth watching the director’s introduction to the movie to hear how long it took to get Until the End of the World onto the screen, how much longer it took to get to this version--final cut nearly twice the length as what initial audiences witnessed in theaters and on home video--and how the virtual world he shows then represented the cutting edge of technology. Amusingly, the filmmaker’s final product horrified the people who had loaned him their high-definition capabilities, as he used their inventions not to enhance and increase the clarity of images, but to tear them apart. But what better metaphor for technology’s propensity to overtake our humanity? It breaks everything down into pixels and data, abstracting the original, and the more removed it becomes from that initial experience, the more we seemingly want it.


Until the End of the World is a movie that has always fascinated me. I had listened to its now classic soundtrack album hundreds of times before I ever got to watch the movie itself. Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Julee Cruise, R.E.M., Neneh Cherry, Depeche Mode--Wenders was in my zone. (Recently reissued on double-vinyl, I’m listening to it now, and the compilation still delights.) Eventually I caught the movie on VHS and was enthralled by its unwieldy, ambitious narrative. Even then, there were rumors of longer versions. The United States had a 158-minute version, but Europe got 20 minutes more, and Japan somehow got nearly an extra 100. Wenders’ original cut was anywhere between 12 hours and 20 depending on what you read, but his preferred version, as seen here, is 287 minutes--or nearly five hours. This longer version, or some semblance of it, has been promised on DVD since the early 2000s. Remember when Anchor Bay supposedly was going to release it? (Remember Anchor Bay?!)


That sounds like a lot of math, but it’s a classic cinema tragedy. From von Stroheim to Welles to Tati, there are persistent tales of directors whose mad visions were undercut by business concerns. These “lost” cuts become fabled, and it’s always a gamble of whether or not what was intended ends up being what was best. You could have Ridley Scott finally getting to finish Blade Runner properly or the rediscovery of Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, or you could get Francis Ford Coppola’s endless tinkering of Apocalypse Now and Oliver Stone’s exhaustive mining of Alexander [review].

Wim Wenders is somewhere in the middle. Until the End of the World is not a masterpiece, but it’s an impressive look at a celluloid Icarus almost making it to the sun. It is at times almost too playful with tonality, while later maybe becoming too ponderous, too in love with its own ideas. Not everything works, and the narrative structure is perhaps more befitting a novel than a film. Criterion smartly splits Until the End of the World across two discs to go with what is a very natural intermission. Part 1 is the international chase and long-term courtship of Sam Farber (William Hurt, Broadcast News [review]) and Claire Tourneur (Solveig Dommartin, Wings of Desire [review]), a con man/scientist and a morally questionable party girl, respectively. It treks across Europe, Asia, and the U.S. before sending the characters toward their final destination, breaking for Part 2 just as they leave San Francisco for Australia.


Part 2 is more serious and heavy, trading the madcap physical chase in for a more intellectual pursuit. Sam has been on the run from the law. He is wanted for industrial espionage and the stolen technology he is carrying. When Claire finds him, he is traveling around the world recording messages from family members using special glasses that will record not just the video and audio, but the experience of seeing the event, the waves that connect the eye and the brain. The intent is to capture something that can be re-created in the brains of blind people, to let them “see” again. Sam’s father, Henry (Max Von Sydow, The Seventh Seal [review]), started the experiment, and had to go into hiding rather than let government or corporate interests take over. He’s built a lab in the Australian outback, and his number-one test subject is to be his wife and Sam’s mother, Edith (Jeanne Moreau, The Lovers [review]).


The Australian half is all about trying to make the tech work and to understand the consequences and implications. It’s a struggle of fathers and sons, but also men and women, and ultimately played out against the backdrop of total annihilation. This whole time, an Indian nuclear satellite has been falling from the sky, and there is a full expectation that it will signal the end of the planet. In this pocket of waiting, a community forms; yet, as they wait, there is a bigger question of what will happen if the prediction is false.

That’s a pretty simplistic breakdown of Until the End of the World. As suggested above, it’s kind of all over the place. Wenders’ approach changes almost with every locale switch, as the cast expands and he touches on different genres. Is this a caper picture? Is it romance? Is it a literary character study? Science fiction? Family drama? Political?


Of course, Until the End of the World is all of the above. Some of it clicks, some is hokey. The acting can be all over the place. Dommartin is an alluring cipher, defined more by the vision of her presented in the authorial narration than anything she does on screen. Sam Neill (My Brilliant Career) plays a writer who, as her former lover, is writing a book about Claire and, ostensibly, this movie, and he spends much of the running time waxing poetic about Claire’s elusive sensuality. Wenders’ supporting cast is like a tour of the Criterion Collection--from Ozu-stalwart Chishu Ryu to David Gulpilil from Walkabout [review]--but dotted along the globe, embracing different legendary personages wherever his crew lands and integrating them into the outline. The effect, though, can often be of miscommunication, as some of the performances feel lost in translation. Rudiger Volger’s private detective or Chick Ortega’s French hoodlum never seem comfortable working in English and often go too broad and cartoony for the rest of the movie. Would that more of the actors just spoke their own language and subtitles did the rest.


Weirdly, this mish-mash serves William Hurt well. His character arc involves a lot of strange turns as he adapts his personality to fit the moment. As an actor, Hurt is perfectly suited for this. His quirky persona is appropriately malleable, but it’s ultimately that quirk that maintains a thread through every scenario. As an actor, William Hurt was already as weird as the movie was intended to be.

That Until the End of the World takes on so much with such audacity leads me to believe that its detractors will forgive it as much as they dismiss it. You have to appreciate that Wim Wenders went for it as boldly as he did, and as an independent production no less. It’s full of hubris, and thus folly. For those like me that take it on and accept it, however, Until the End of the World can be as addictive and dreamy as Max Von Sydow’s futuristic machine, leading us through the dread of a changing world toward the hope of a better tomorrow. It’s colorful and crazy and deeply satisfying, and pretty much unlike anything else out there. And for that, to borrow from its own poetry: I will love it until the end of the world.



Saturday, December 14, 2019

OLD JOY - #1008


There’s an audience review of Old Joy on IMDB with the headline, “Surprisingly not boring!”

While that partially puts my teeth on edge, since I tend to disdain a narrow-minded definition of narrative convention, I can see where such an exclamation can make sense here.

Kelly Riechardt’s 2006 film, co-written with regular writing partner Jonathan Raymond and based on his story, couldn’t be more lacking in plot. Old Joy is a film about two friends reconnecting--or at least trying to--potentially for the very last time. Daniel London plays Mark, a man in his late 20s/early 30s who is about to become a father. When his friend Curt (Will Oldham, a.k.a. musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) calls to invite him on a hike to a remote hot spring, Mark immediately feels a tug between his desires to be carefree with his old buddy and his forthcoming responsibilities. There is an immediate understanding that this will be the last time--even if Mark is desperate to never say so out loud to Curt.


Old Joy chronicles the two-day journey to the springs, including the first night when Curt’s memory seems to fail him and the pair--along with Mark’s dog Lucy (as also seen in Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy [review]--camp out in a random location, unsure of how close or how far their destination may be. They drink and smoke under the stars and talk about string theory. Actually, Curt does most of the talking. He shares memories and dreams and genuinely tries to engage his pal in conversation. Mark, on the other hand, is practically endeavoring to stay disconnected. He says the right things and makes the right capitulations, but Curt knows every time Mark answers his cell phone to talk to his wife, he’s making excuses and apologizing for the time he is taking away from her. How far apart are these two, really? Listen to them order breakfast. Mark goes first, and Curt says he’ll have the same, only with a different meat choice and different toast. The same!

That’s about as contentious as Old Joy gets, though. There is no blow-up where the two men lay it all on the line and have a revelatory argument about freedom vs. responsibility. Rather, the whole of Old Joy hinges on one moment, a small gesture, that elevates the pair to what Curt was talking about at the campfire--their friendship moves to a different level with a wider view, allowing them to see clearly what is and what isn’t. A kind of peace is achieved, but it’s hard to say if it’s a lasting one--the final scenes suggest maybe not, but then again, Curt can be two things at once, connected and lost. Not that the next step matters, because something is released in the here and now. They find a spot to be comfortable in this melancholy. Curt explains this, too: “sorrow is worn-out joy.” What they feel passing may be sad, but it still has that initial seed of happiness inside of it.


And that’s it. There’s nothing more to Old Joy than that. Yet, it’s like the one commentator said, it’s never boring. On the contrary, Reichardt offers us lives so fully lived and so keenly observed, they are engrossing and nigh hypnotic. In a way, it’s the sheer unpredictability of a story with no a-b-c outcome that keeps you watching. There are no apparent curves on the road ahead.

It does help that Old Joy is also gorgeous to look at. It’s shot by Peter Sillen, who is mostly credited with documentaries, and his photography has that of-the-moment feel that a good documentary should have. He also has the backdrop of the forests of the Pacific Northwest to play with, which is a pretty good base canvas. The storytelling pace allows the audience to enjoy the nature as much as it allows us to indulge in the rite of passage the characters have embarked on, giving plenty to look at while we listen to the space between words.


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

Sunday, December 8, 2019

THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE - #1006


A salacious melodrama, The Story of Temple Drake is everything that made censors panic about Pre-Code Hollywood. Drinking, sex, murder, prostitution, rape--not to mention class divisions, challenges to authority, and a very, very minor touch of race relations (the servants are right, there is something wrong with their white bosses)--this William Faulkner adaptation scandalized timid theatre owners and frankly still has enough heat to feel a touch scandalous now.

Miriam Hopkins stars as Temple, the granddaughter of a rich Southern judge (Guy Standing, The Lives of Bengal Lancer), her only living family and a man too old to see just what kind to trouble Temple is getting into. The girl has a reputation, well earned if somewhat exaggerated. While Temple does go around with a lot of men, those in the know really know that she stops short of going all the way. She’s the local tease.


It doesn’t stop her from having her fair share of suitors, however. If one man besmirches her honor, another is there to defend it, and her dance card is always full. Her most serious contender would be Stephen (William Gargan, perhaps best known for playing detective Ellery Queen), a public defender with a penchant for lost causes. He numbers Temple among them. Despite her grandfather giving his blessing, she has refused Stephen’s proposal of marriage. Apparently he’s a bad dancer.


Though as Temple will find, there are worse things Stephen could be. After she ditches him at a party to go off with her besotted college beau (William Collier Jr., Little Caesar), a car crash leaves them stranded and at the mercy of a gangster named Trigger (Jack La Rue, The Sea Hawk). He’s been holing up at a farm waiting to pull a job with the backwoods hoods that own it. Temple’s presence turns up the heat at the farm, and despite the others’ best efforts to protect her, Trigger attacks Temple and leaves the headman (Irving Pichel, one of the director’s of The Most Dangerous Game) framed for murder.


The scenario gets pretty dark here, straying into moody gothic horror. Though Stephen Roberts, The Story of Temple Drake’s director, chooses to leave the sexual violence offscreen, there is no ambiguity to the situation. Trigger breaks Temple’s will and takes her prisoner, shacking up with her in a whorehouse while he waits for who knows what. The script by Oliver H.P. Garrett (A Farewell to Arms [review]) isn’t necessarily delicate or packed with nuance, but it leaves enough space so that Hopkins’ performance can be. She is incredible in the role, largely performing entirely with herself once Temple goes interior. As those around her marginalize her and turn away from her predicament, the rest of us do not, so we can see her process and react before she acts. The conflicted emotions, grappling with her own self-worth, weighing her options and ultimately trying to bury the trauma--Hopkins shows it all, usually through gesture and facial expression rather than verbal explanation.


It’s actually a surprisingly progressive portrayal of a victim’s psychology for 1933. Temple must wrestle with a lot of potential consequences were she to return home. To tell the town the truth after they had already written her off as a slut--would that help or hurt? A ticking clock is also added in that only Temple can corroborate what really happened at the farm, but to get the farmer off the hook, she’ll have to confess to her own shame and her own crimes. Here Stephen is also given a surprising lesson. The crusader would have Temple testify because it’s the right thing to do, but he balks when he realizes there are unintended damages to outing a victim. Gargan has an incredible moment where he must step back and make a decision.

The performances throughout The Story of Temple Drake are quite good. La Rue is menacing and tough, if a little one-note. More complex writing is reserved for the farmer’s wife (Florence Eldridge, Mary of Scotland), who is both frustrated by the sexual tension Temple introduces to her home but also instrumental in helping protect her. She has every reason to resent this woman of privilege invading her home, but she actually resents Trigger more. His bad influence and cruelty can only mean danger.


The segment in the woods is otherworldly. There are shadows around every corner, as fear grips Temple. She is completely isolated here, almost in a supernatural realm, a fairy tale landscape. This is where Faulkner shines through the most. His appreciation for the southern social strata lends a surprisingly non-judgmental air to the swampy scenes. The farmer and his kin are hard-working people, and subject to certain disadvantages. Trigger is the exploitative intruder from the North, and there is some compulsion to protect Temple not just because it’s the decent thing to do, but because she’s one of their own. By contrast, the stuff back in town is decidedly Hollywood, and one could make hay of The Story of Temple Drake being a parable of Tinsel Town’s sometimes uneasy relationship with Middle America.

The Story of Temple Drake is indicative of how censors so often miss the boat. Sure, there are sensational aspects to this story, but Roberts never sensationalizes them. Triggers is not a cool gangster, nor does the camera leer at Temple or even make us privy to the harm done her. Rather, the film relies on Hopkins’ to convey all the horror, her face saying more than seeing the actual violence could. Likewise, by never letting Stephen put a fine moral point on any of it, The Story of Temple Drake allows the audience to invest its own judgment, arguably making the “lesson” of the film all the more effective than the imposed “crime doesn’t pay” finales to come when Hollywood would eventually start policing itself.


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

Friday, December 6, 2019

SCARLET STREET - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2007 as part of a film noir boxed set.


Fritz Lang practically invented showing the perils of a guilty conscience on film when he made M [review] in Germany fourteen years earlier; 1945's Scarlet Street continues this obsession with the evil that men do, casting Edward G. Robinson as the meek bank teller Christopher "Chris" Cross. This man's existence is a full-fledged illustration of the phrase "a life of quiet desperation." Married to a shrew of a wife who keeps a painting of her dead husband hanging up in their living room and doling out cash day in and day out while having none of his own, Chris' only solace is in the humble paintings he does in his spare time.

Then one night he happens upon a pimp (Dan Duryea, Black Angel) beating on his girl, Kitty (Joan Bennett, The Reckless Moment). Cross steps in, ingratiating himself to the girl and unwittingly getting pulled into a long con. She convinces him to set her up in an apartment where he can paint, and not wanting to tell her he's a nobody, he steals money to pay for it. She strings him along, eventually passing off his art as her own and sucking him deep into a tangled web of deceit that he can only see one way out of.



Lang and the main cast had first teamed up the year before in another classic noir, The Woman in the Window, and they clearly had something going together. Robinson is incredible as the shy and broken banker, showing great restraint and pathos. Duryea is a dirty lout that just oozes scum, and Joan Bennett is perhaps best of all, playing a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants but also showing how unsophisticated she really is. On her first night out with Cross, she orders a Rum Collins and drinks it with a straw, letting it dangle from her mouth as she talks. Cross is attracted to her as an old man looking at a woman whose childishness he mistakes for freedom.

The plot of Scarlet Street is full of twists, but it's also brimming with cynicism. In this bent love triangle, no one is innocent, and thus no one escapes punishment. Yet, even beyond the core characters, the people in Cross' life are no more innocent, taking full advantage of the man's nature, sometimes right out in the open, but also with tactics as underhanded as Kitty's. It's just that they have the approval of society to do it, and it's no wonder that a man would break when the world has made it okay to hold him down.



Sunday, December 1, 2019

THREE ON A MATCH - CRITERION COLLECTION


Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 Three on a Match is a pre-Code delight, reveling in the sordid reputation of its recent past while channeling an American spirit perfect for the Depression-era, with its tales of reinvention, redemption, and altered fortunes.

The film follows a trio of women--popular stars Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis--who meet at elementary school in 1919 and whose lives become intertwined from that day on. Blondell plays Mary, the juvenile delinquent turned stage star, while Dvorak is Vivian, the popular girl who marries rich. In the middle is Ruth--Davis, sadly playing a nothing role--a workingwoman who sticks around for balance. Vivian grows bored of her life, while Mary envies the stability. Ultimately, the two swap as the former bad girl learns to make good and the once-promising lass sinks into alcohol and drugs. And Ruth? She becomes their nanny.


Three on a Match is both marvelously salacious and strangely conservative. One can’t help seeing the manhunt for Vivian’s kidnapped child and consider modern implications: he’s a rich kid, and thus worth finding. Though LeRoy builds much of the story on the reality of his times, he had a bit of unfortunate luck when the Lindberg kidnapping made Three on a Match seem far too current. The close proximity of the crime means there is no direct reference made, as otherwise we track the women through the years via newspapers and popular song, the montages catching us up on trends and even the criticism thereof. Three on a Match envelopes both Prohibition and the Great Depression.


Blondell and Dvorak get to have the most fun here, following opposite character arcs, and playing both good and bad. While young Mary is brassy and cool, the party girl that Vivian becomes is the absolute opposite. Dvorak plays her bored and wan, convincingly portraying the decay of an addict. It’s fun seeing a young Humphrey Bogart, playing a slick gangster, ridicule her and mimic her dope fiend twitch, saying everything that could be said without saying anything. On the opposite end, Mary drops all cynicism for good graces and positivity, but Blondell makes it work by keeping the character grounded. Mary never forgets where she came from.


The title Three on a Match comes from a superstitious saying, popularized in WWI, that if you keep a match lit long enough to light three cigarettes, the third person will die. This makes sense for etiquette in foxhole, but amusingly, the concept had already been exposed as matchmaker propaganda by the time of the film. No joke! A Swiss company was worried about losing money if smokers shared matches. LeRoy even references it in one of the history lessons. Yet, Three on a Match plays out the urban legend all the same. No spoiler as to who takes the final cigarette, but expect the unexpected...and the gruesome. So gruesome, it sort of outweighs the “happily ever after” sequence that closes out the film, but so we can expect from such tales. The lows always swing much wider than the highs, and the moral lessons never can quite shake the glitz of the bad deeds they decry.