Monday, February 17, 2020

TEOREMA - #1013

Teorema. Theorem. “A general proposition not self-evident but proved by a chain of reasoning; a truth established by means of accepted truths.”


Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema presents a fictionalized social experiment, playfully rooted in a false reality, starting off with what seems to be documentary footage, presenting the thesis that the bourgeoisie can be pushed towards change, but they will never really go all the way.

The Italian auteur’s set- up has a Bunuel quality to it. Essentially, Pasolini takes a standard upper-class family and drops a grenade into the middle of their existence. Terence Stamp plays an unnamed houseguest who arrives without explanation, and immediately seduces all members of the household--father, mother, daughter, son, and even the maid. In many cases, his mere presence is enough, a blank canvas for each person to project their desires upon, from the sex-starved mother to the (supposedly) misunderstood father, whose perceived sorrow alienates him. In some cases, one family member sees what is going on with another, but that doesn’t stop anyone from giving themselves to the young Brit.


Things get even more interesting, however, when the stranger leaves, and suddenly these people are once again faced with the void, only this time far more aware of what it means to have found something to fill it. And so each goes chasing the experience. The maid (Laura Betti, La dolce vita [review]) removes herself from the mansion and pursues an ascetic life, seeking absolution. The mother (Silvana Mangano, Conversation Piece [review]) drives through the city looking for a stand-in for the lover who abandoned her. The son (André José Cruz Soublette, The Specialists) seeks to revive the missing man through art.


In each case, the resolution is up to interpretation, the success subjective, but if we consider these outcomes through the lens of Pasolini’s initial statements, then we can start to question whether his theorem holds water. For instance, the maid rejects all exploitation, but the matriarch seeks it out. The daughter (Anne Wiazemsky, Au hasard du Balthazar [review]) shuts down all expression, while her brother hunts a pure vehicle for emotion.


All eyes are on the father, however. Paolo (Massimo Girotti, Last Tango in Paris [review]), as it turns out, is the bourgeois factor owner referenced at Teorema’s beginning, the progressive boss who turned his business over to his employees. But is this the full expression of his change? Paolo’s discussions with the stranger seemed to suggest that he needed someone else to understand him, or to be more simplistic, to see him. Thus, with the visitor gone, the older man strips himself bare in ways both literal and metaphorical, all to draw others closer to him.


But are any of these people doing the “right” thing? And what are we really saying when we suggest the moneyed class never can? Pasolini offers no ground rules, and arguably, all of his characters consistently act in their own interest. There is nothing selfless or noble about their dalliances, nor in their chasing after the phantoms the encounters conjured. The stranger isn’t looking for any desired effects, he is just identifying their individual levers and pulling them. If even that. He is merely there, and the family takes from him what they want.

Terence Stamp is an interesting choice for this. The star of Far From the Madding Crowd [review], The Limey, and The Hit [review] is known for him slow burn, his quiet smolder. Here he says little. His grandest gesture is to return a glance. The audience is left to project as much onto him as the Italian family. His appearance is Pasolini’s provocation of his viewer, and his removal our challenge to find meaning.


It’s all very intriguing, and surprisingly light on pretention. It features the agitprop of Godard and the surrealism of Marco Ferreri but without the former’s stridency and the latter’s excess. It’s Pasolini at his most artful, relying on subtle stratagems rather than the direct confrontation that colored some of his more infamous work. The result is a theorem that is partially proven but ultimately unsolved; yet, Teorema invites further study and likely welcomes different conclusions each time.


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

Sunday, February 9, 2020

DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.


I thought the name Jim McBride sounded familiar, and then it hit me with a big "Duh! Of course!" when I finally got a chance to look at his IMDB page. He's the guy who directed the 1980s remake of Breathless, replacing Jean-Paul Belmondo with Richard Gere and sucking all the spontaneity and inventiveness right out of Jean-Luc Godard's original concept. All the more ironic, then, that his first feature, the independently produced David Holzman's Diary, so heavily references and owes a debt to Godard and his compadres in the French New Wave. There is quite a gulf between original impulse and eventual execution, something McBride's cinematic protagonist learns all too well.

David Holzman's Diary was released in 1967. It starred L.M. Kit Carson (a writer on Paris, Texas [review] and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) as David, a young man of his era, concerned with the draft and his recent unemployment, just like any other fellow his age would be. Looking to fill his time, and also to maybe wrest a little meaning and control out of his upended existence, David starts to record diary entries with a 16mm camera and a tape recorder. These aimless monologues quickly turn from his own boring existence and begin to look outward: he spies on the woman across the street, another woman tells him about her sex life, his friend (Lorenzo Mans) dismisses his endeavors and his quest for truth. David's girlfriend (Eileen Dietz) sees the now ever-present camera as an intrusion, and she's probably right. David, who can quote Godard and Truffaut liberally, lets it take over his life.


It's pretty amazing to consider how far ahead of the curve McBride was when he wrote and directed David Holzman's Diary. There was no such thing as vlogging or even regular blogging back then, no reality television, no notion that the masses would ever have such accessible outlets to record the minutia of their everyday lives. There also wasn't the same prevalence of fake documentaries, McBride was really blazing a new trail. He smartly doesn't limit David's recordings to his rambling thought processes, instead cutting up the narrative with footage of David's street, a montage of everything David sees on television over the course of one night, playing around with a new lens--the kind of things a guy might get up to when he is bored and has a camera and nothing better to do.


L.M. Kit Carson is utterly convincing as David. His performance feels extremely real, it never comes across as a put-on. His aimlessness does not seem calculated or choreographed; rather, it's the unfocused wanderings of a guy with no plan and no clear ambition. Perhaps it's his own lack of focus that causes the project to fail for him, not some inherent flaw in cinema. He expected that Godard's oft-quoted maxim that film is truth 24 times a second to hold true, and that by recording his life for posterity he would figure out some secret about himself or the meaning of existence. This, of course, does not come, and his expressions of anger towards the unseen, intangible figure of capital-C Cinema is maybe a discovery that an education in film is no education at all. Sitting in front of a camera is no substitute for living, just as sitting and watching what others do on camera isn't, either.


Maybe this betrayal was one Jim McBride felt for real, as well. Ben Stiller would actually parody the notion of video diaries on his early '90s sketch comedy show, and in his skits, his camera would always capture too much and he'd end up humiliated. It seems to be a common aggravation for those who bank too heavily on these clunky old machines. And maybe this ran through Jim McBride's head fifteen years later when he started rolling on his Breathless remake. He was going to get back at Godard for making him a chump. He was proving there was no one truth, the entirety of motion picturedom is malleable.

Then again, maybe not. David Holzman's Diary is its own validation. It did kick off an ongoing career in cinema, so I'd believe that despite whatever lack of success I perceive in his version of Breathless, McBride's intentions were likely honorable. He start out by making David Holzman's Diary, which remains a very good, very successful film regardless of what came after. All that film history clearly came to some profit for the filmmaker, even if didn't for his alter ego.



Tuesday, February 4, 2020

A WARM DECEMBER - CRITERION CHANNEL

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


Sidney Poitier pulls double-duty for the 1973 clunker A Warm December, and I'm sorry to say it does nothing for his reputation as an actor or as a director.

When Dr. Matt Younger (Poitier) takes his daughter to London, he only hopes to get in a little dirt bike racing (yes, he races dirt bikes, and no, he's not twelve), but instead he becomes embroiled in what looks like a plot of international intrigue when the alluring Catherine (Esther Anderson) uses him as cover when men following her get too close. Catherine is an African dignitary, but her predicament is not a political one, it's medical. The espionage stuff is a feint, and after the pair have fallen in love, the script takes a different turn. Writer Lawrence Younger (A Kiss Before Dying) has crafted all of this hullabaloo about a pursuit so that we won't realize Catherine has a terminal illness until Matt has lost his heart to her completely. The back half of the film is a schmaltzy cram-in-as-much-romance-before-time-runs-out snoozer. Adding to the melodramatic wrinkles is Matt's status as a doctor (also a secret during the first act), so that he can agonize even more over the woman he can't cure.

Poitier's direction is completely lacking in style, and for an actor, it's surprising how little eye he seems to have for his cast's performances. Anderson is a nondescript love interest, almost completely lacking in the required mystery or charisma. This looks more like a TV movie than a big-screen effort.


Monday, February 3, 2020

GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review as originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008 in a piece covering the Stanley Kramer Film Collection boxed set.


Guess Who's Coming to Dinner endures because some 50 years on as a smart and daring movie that is about ideas as much as it is about family drama; yet, it avoids being overzealous in its message by weaving the debate through a very real narrative. Director/producer Stanley Kramer and writer William Rose put their words in the mouths of three-dimensional characters and let their communication drive the story.

The premise of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is that a young couple are coming home from the Hawaiian vacation where they met to tell her parents that they are getting married. The catch is that the girl, Joanna (Katharine Houghton), is white and the man, Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), is black. In 1967, this would be quite a shock for any parents, including Joanna's notoriously liberal ones. Played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, much of the pathos of the movie rides on their shoulders. It's their reactions that are going to make the philosophy and ethics of the scenario seem real. It's easy to believe two young people are in love, it's a whole other thing to see the people around them be daring enough to encourage their daring. This is where Kramer and Rose get it right, by not letting these characters be completely correct or make all of the proper decisions. Ideas are ideas, but until they are challenged, we don't know how firmly we believe them. Over the single night that John and Joanna have before he has to fly on to Geneva, everyone the couple encounters--including other African Americans--will have to ask themselves exactly how they feel.

For my money, Spencer Tracy is the man to watch here. I've always liked him, and in his final film role, the 67-year-old actor is just as fierce an orator as he always was (including in the Kramer-directed Inherit the Wind, a personal favorite of mine). The climax of the film hinges on a final, stirring monologue from Tracy, and despite his poor health, the legend still has all of his faculties. It's a moving speech, full of righteous fire. They just don't make them like Spencer Tracy anymore, do they?

Funnily enough, for all of the progressive social issues, the parts of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner that now feel hilariously dated are the representations of the generation gap. Dig that crazy rock 'n' roll, daddy-o!


Sunday, February 2, 2020

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER - #1012


It’s a cliché to call a film a love letter to cinema. Just as much as say, “the city itself is a character,” or “it’s not for everybody, you either love or hate it.” As a reviewer and critic, I’ve definitely fallen into those traps. You can likely find some pieces on this blog that indulge any of those just by searching key phrases. (See for instance Brazil, a “love letter to the creative spirit” and a “celluloid hero” who is “surrounded by images from Classic Hollywood.”)

But how does one get around that with Pedro Almodovar’s marvelous 1999 drama All About My Mother, a film that ends with a dedication to Bette Davis, Romy Schneider, Gena Rowlands, and all actresses who have dreamed of stardom? It’s a movie that relies equally--and openly--on A Streetcar Named Desire and All About Eve, and even features a young stand-in for the director, a teen who one day dreams of making movies and putting his mother in them. Self-reflexive, and reflective. Pair this with the filmmaker’s most recent triumph Pain & Glory, and we practically have bookends to the career of cinema’s most articulate mama’s boy.


Almodovar’s sole goal here is to create a complex melodrama featuring his favorite actresses, celebrating motherhood less as a nurturing compulsion for the children involved, but more as the life role that fosters the creative spirit, either through encouragement or negation. Pretentiously, we could say that the mother here is not Manuela (played by Almodovar-regular Cecilia Roth), who inarguably provides the social center of All About My Mother, but art itself. Theatre. Motion Pictures. Hollywood. Art.

And yet this is not a pretentious film. Not at all. It’s too sincere, too joyful. Almodovar harbors no concern for the audience’s reaction. He is not worried about conventional plot, even as he sews clear threads through each story and gives plenty of closure. All About My Mother is as messy as life, and as organized as our ability to muddle through it. (Another critical cliché?)


For those curious about the plot: Roth’s Manuela loses her son to a car accident during a birthday outing to the theatre, when chasing after his favorite actress puts the young man in the path of an oncoming car. In her grief, Manuela decides to leave for Barcelona, find the father that the boy never knew, and make amends. Only, when she gets there, the father’s roommate informs Manuela that they have recently disappeared, robbing the apartment in the process. The father, Lola, and their roommate, Agrado (Anotnia San Juan), are both transsexual prostitutes. Lola was also a drug addict. This is why Manuela left without telling anyone she was pregnant. Two decades have passed, but not much has changed.


Once in Barcelona, Manuela’s life becomes intertwined with both a naïve nun (Penelope Cruz) and the actress whose autograph her son was pursuing (Marisa Paredes). With the actress, she seeks some closure; with the nun, she finds some correction. Sister Rosa, as it turns out, is pregnant, and Lola is once again the father. Rosa’s own mother (Rosa Maria Sarda) appears to be a no-go in terms of helping the young woman, so Manuela must step in. This could be her second chance.


For as complicated as all that is, it’s pretty easy to follow. All About My Mother is all about connections and repetition and history doubling up on itself. The actress’ lover, for instance, is also a heroin addict. And Rosa’s elderly father has reverted to a child-like state that requires constant care, usurping the motherly role his wife would otherwise visit on Rosa. It’s pretty intense when all laid out on paper, but Almodovar keeps it light and colorful. His extremely likable characters, played with incredible charisma by his ensemble of actresses, never give in to their burdens, nor do they indulge in depression, and so they are never a burden to watch. How they interact creates the drama, but also generates an undeniable electricity. All About My Mother is a movie about a community that turns into family. Perhaps we should revise: there is no one central mother, but these characters in some way are all surrogate mothers to each other.


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

PARIS BLUES - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2014.


Martin Ritt's 1961 jazz-infused drama Paris Blues is one of those films that, once you've seen it, you're kind of shocked that people don't talk about it more. A joint vehicle for Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman, Paris Blues is a Kazan-like social narrative that juxtaposes new Hollywood method with old Hollywood romanticism and somehow let's both win without compromising either.

Newman stars as Ram Bowen, a trumpet player with a moody demeanor worthy of his groaning pun of a name (say it out loud and then say, "Rimbaud"). He is the toast of Paris' side-street jazz scene, blowing nightly with his band, working alongside his cohort and musical arranger, Eddie Cook (Poitier). Eddie is practical and level-headed, a smooth balance to Ram's jagged edges. The ex-pat Americans have a good thing going in France. Ram even has a no-strings love affair with a chanteuse (Barbara Laage) who doesn't mind feeding him after gigs.


Yet, the boys have ambition, too. Ram is working on a magnum opus, his "Paris Blues," and he hopes to get some weight behind it by giving the sheet music to Wild Man Moore, a trumpeting legend who has just landed in the city as part of a European tour. Moore is played by none other than Louis Armstrong, just to give you an idea of Paris Blues' musical bonafides. The original scorce was also composed by Duke Ellington, who was nominated for an Oscar. Ritt isn't fooling around.

Yet, he's also not limiting his story--which was written by four different scribes from a novel by Harold Flender--to just difficult men in smoky bars. When Ram goes to the train station to meet Moore, he also meets a pair of young American women in town to see the sights. One white (Lillian, played by Joanne Woodward) and one black (Connie, as portrayed by Diahann Carroll). To give you an idea of how progressive Paris Blues was for the time, despite the eventual romantic pairing being just as you suspect, Ram at first flirts with Connie without race even being mentioned. (And who wouldn't. Have you ever seen Diahann Carroll?!) Lillian is more his match, however, in that she's been around the block and has an admirable patience. The single mother has dealt with her fair share of troublemakers, Ram's temperament suits her. It's going to take some effort to get him to value anyone over his music, though.


Which he sort of will come to do over the time he and Lillian spend together in Paris. For the next several days, both pairs of lovers will try to fashion their affections into some kind of common ground. Lillian sees the possibility of something more with Ram. Connie would love for Eddie to come back to the States, but he's frank about his reasons for living overseas: America is racist. She argues it's gotten better in the five years since he left; he counters that it's still not good enough.

Paris Blues is very frank about its politics, but not in a way that makes it seem like a polemic just for the sake of it. The topics broached in the narrative emerge naturally. These are things the characters would care about, they deal with life as it would genuinely affect them. For as traditionally structured as much of the writing is, Paris Blues treats all aspects of these folks' existence in the same realistic manner. It's never said, but we know that Ram and Lillian are having sex. Ram's guitar player (French cinema legend Serge Reggiani, Casque d'Or) is also a drug addict, a fact Ram confronts head on (as befitting a ram, natch). Race, sex, drugs, art--this is important stuff. Ritt manages to make all these things come off as both matter of fact and yet also important. Hell, look closely at the opening montage, you'll see a gay couple tucked away in Ram and Eddie's audience.


But forget all that. The sights! Paris Blues was actually shot on the Seine! And the music! Louis Armstrong struts into Ram's club to challenge him to the jazz equivalent of a rap battle. The only comparable jazz-scene movie of the period is Basil Dearden's All Night Long [review], released a year after Paris Blues. This flick is the real deal.

You also get an acting quartet that was at the height of their considerable powers. Apparently at one point this was going to be a movie for Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. As wonderful as that is to imagine, you can't beat the chemistry of longtime paramours Newman and Woodward. They are the exception to the accepted rule that real lovers don't work on screen. Poitier and Carroll are wonderful, too--though much less showy. They are the practical couple, the counterpoint to the crazy Caucasians!

Final word: Paris Blues is a damn entertaining drama. It's romantic and toe-tapping and thought provoking. It deserves to sit next to Ritt and Newman's more famous collaborations, like Hud and The Long, Hot Summer. It's just that good.



EDGE OF THE CITY - CRITERION CHANNEL

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


The cultural impact that Sidney Poitier had on cinema and society at large is indisputable. A dignified actor with a deep sense of social consciousness, he broke through racial barriers by choosing to play roles that shed the spotlight on intelligent black men--not perfect men, but men who lead their lives just like anyone else, with all the flaws that implies. Regardless of the role, Poitier refused to let any performance descend into racial clichés, and the example he created helped reshape the public perception of African Americans. It sounds frightfully simplistic, but such is the power of the moving image to shape the public perception. Roles in films like The Blackboard Jungle and The Defiant Ones forged Poitier's early reputation in the 1950s, and highly regarded turns in films like In the Heat of the Night [review], To Sir, With Love, and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner cemented his position as a cinematic icon in the 1960s. He would eventually direct, as well, and throughout his career, he would also accept the role of social activist. Still active to this day, he has been the Bahamian ambassador to Japan from 1997 to 2007, and he published the book Life Beyond Measure - Letters to my Great-Granddaughter in 2008.

The common theme of many of his films throughout his career remained the same: challenging the odds by trying to live life as it is meant to be. As his character says in 1957's Edge of the City, there are men and there are lower forms, and you can't let the lower forms push you into being anything less than the man that you are. (And given the respect Edge also pays to its female characters, one can assume he means "men" as in "humanity.")


Edge of the City was the directorial debut of Martin Ritt, a politically motivated artist with a passion and fury to match Poitier's. (Ritt is probably best known for Hud, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold [review], and Norma Rae.) It also features John Cassavetes in the co-starring role, adding to the film's legacy as an early spotlight for maverick film artists. (Cassavetes is the prototype for the cantankerous independent American director.) The film opens with Cassavetes' character, Axel North (née Nordmann), rolling in to New York City with only a little money and a dubious recommendation in his pocket. The name he drops at the rail yard is of a man in San Francisco, but it's enough to get him a job under the crooked foreman Charlie Malick (Jack Warden). Knowing that Axel is on the lam, Malick puts the screws to him. He also doesn't like it when Axel befriends Tommy "T.T." Tyler (Poitier), the only black foreman on the yard. As the two become close, Charlie gets more upset and eventually pushes for Axel's secrets to come out.

The core of the movie, which was written by Robert Alan Aurthur (All that Jazz [review]), is less about the past Axel is running from and more about how he learns to cope in the present. Tommy serves as a role model for the younger man. He's married and has a family, and his wife is an educated woman (Ruby Dee) who introduces Axel to an equally educated and socially active love interest (Kathleen Maguire). As Axel begins to trust Charlie, he is also given more strength to stand up for himself, to accept other people as they are, and accept whatever he may have done prior to NYC as something he can change. As far as male bonding goes, it's pretty healthy stuff. Cassavetes' twitchy method acting plays well against Poitier's upright performance, and Jack Warden rounds it out with smarmy menace. The climax where the two men must finally deal with this cranky thorn in their sides is maybe a little too On the Waterfront, but the gritty honesty of the writing up until that point allows Ritt to get away with it. A lot of the movie was shot on location, and so it has an on-the-street authenticity that prefigures French verite while also showing the influence of Jules Dassin's The Naked City [review].



Wednesday, January 22, 2020

THE PIANO - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2012.



The Piano begins like no other film. A tentative voice begins speaking, setting the scene and establishing the unique narrative point of view by introducing itself as the interior expression of the movie's main character, a woman who has not spoken aloud since she was six years old. It's not as she has ever been heard by others, but how she hears herself. Ada has recently been sold into an arranged marriage, and she and her young daughter are being sent far away to New Zealand to live with the new husband. Whatever suffering our heroine must endure, she can face it as long as she can bring her piano, which for her provides a precious means of expression. Though she knows sign language, her separateness has allowed her to ascertain that most people don't use their words for anything of significance. Music need not justify itself, it only need flow from the instrument.

Released in 1993, Jane Campion's romantic story of perseverance and self-actualization was rightfully greeted as cause for celebration. Critics and audiences both embraced The Piano, and it was a mainstay at all the year-end award shows. Holly Hunter won a Best Actress Oscar as the star of the film, playing silent Ada with incredible insight and physical acuity; her young co-star, an 11-year-old Anna Paquin (later on True Blood and recently in Scorsese's The Irishman), also took home a Supporting Actress statue. The pair were perfectly believable as mother and daughter, just one of the many carefully arranged elements that lent Campion's film an emotional honesty that has not dimmed in the decades since.



When Ada and little Flora end up at their remote destination, their new lives look bleak. Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) is a nervous, socially awkward man who is more at ease bargaining for land than he is at exchanging pleasantries with his new wife. To be fair, Ada is not exactly as she was described to him, nor does she make things easy for the inexperienced groom. Her piano is a particularly burdensome piece of luggage, and it has to be left on the beach. Alisdair has not brought enough Maori workmen to carry it back up the mountain.

Eventually, Ada turns to a neighbor to help her with her predicament. George Baines (Harvey Keitel, Thelma and Louise [review]) is friendly with the locals and served as translator and guide on Ada's journey to her new residence. George apparently left a wife in England, but whatever drove him halfway around the world is not revealed. He has taken to his adopted home to such a degree, he has even tattooed his face in the Maori style. He buys the piano from Alisdair under the guise of wanting to learn to play music, but in reality, he wants to use it to bargain with Ada. If she will engage in increasingly intimate acts with him, he will return the musical instrument to her.


Though begun as a simple supply-and-demand transaction, the relationship between Ada and George grows increasingly complex. The Piano is a literary romance filled with potent symbols and expressive metaphors. Of all the players in this love triangle, Ada is the one who communicates most directly, and her methods draw George out of his shell while further alienating Alisdair. In turn, George's care inspires new feelings of trust in Ada, as well as bringing other sensations to her life. The basic plot of the film is a series of seductions, some selfish and some transcendent. George reveals hidden kindnesses, Alisdair unveils unforeseen cruelties, and all are watched by the eyes of a child, who serves as both provocateur and conscience. For Ada, she is the angel on her mother's shoulder insisting she make the moral choice, only then to flit off to her stepfather and whisper devilish gossip in his ears.

Anna Paquin delivers an unpretentious, unmannered performance as the little girl. Campion (whose other credits include Sweetie [review] and Bright Star [review]) has clearly connected with the young performer's sense of play, getting her to engage wholly with the space. She never appears as anything less than totally immersed in the scene, and her naturalism challenges the adults to match her instinctual gifts and also gives them the sense of "other" that they can play off. Flora doesn't understand everything that is going on with the grown-ups, and it lends even more intensity to their deception. As George, Harvey Keitel is both primitive and surprisingly modern, displaying a sensitivity that Ada can't help but respond to. For his part, Sam Neill appears as a man haunted by his desires. His wife's touch, reaching so close to forbidden areas, sets him atremble; yet, she refuses to let him touch her in return. Ada commands both of them, but Holly Hunter is careful not to let the character's stubbornness be so pronounced that we lose sight of her vulnerability. This is a woman whose life has been overtaken by something she can never put a name to, and so she can never be completely in control.


The Piano was shot on location in New Zealand, and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (The Painted Veil [review], Taymor's The Tempest [review]) makes great use of the open, natural landscape to be found there. Shots of the seaside are breathtaking, with Ada and Flora placed between the mountainous terrain and the vast ocean, emphasizing their isolation from their former lives. This also means that "civilization" as they've defined it is a distant thing. They are now surrounded by untamed jungle, creating an environment where they are sufficiently hidden away to indulge in passions they'd not be allowed back home. (For her part, Flora becomes a bit of a wild child, left to her own devices, which ironically also forces her to be more of a grown-up.)

Of course, no review of The Piano would be complete without also making mention of Michael Nyman's score. His music is beautiful without being intrusive, his incidental compositions taking a backseat to Ada's emotional sessions at the keyboard. When she starts playing, the music pours out of her. As another character describes it, it's like when a mood takes you and refuses to let you go. It's another of Campion's perfectly considered metaphors. Only Ada allows herself to feel this way, the others find her music strange--though ultimately, it does soothe the savage beast. The piano's central position in Ada's life is both a great asset for her and a curse, and it's one she will have to contend with before she can ever truly live.



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.