Wednesday, January 22, 2020


This review originally written for 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


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 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


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.