Wednesday, January 17, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2009. 

The 2008 Irish film Kisses is a pleasant little surprise of a movie. Unassuming in its charm, it heightens the lyricism of youthful desire into a story of one night away from a painful reality, creating an urban fairy tale, complete with the bubbly highs and the prickly darkness that threatens to bring everything back down.

Kisses follows two kids on the brink of adolescence. Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) and Dylan (Shane Curry) live next door to one another in the housing projects on the outskirts of Dublin. It's Christmas, and both are stuck at home. Dylan's dad (Paul Roe) is a violent drinker, and Kylie fights with her sister (Stephanie Kelly) and avoids a creepy uncle (Sean McDonagh) whose monetary gifts come at too high a trade. When things get out of hand at Dylan's house, Kylie helps him escape a beating, and the two decide to run away. They head into the city with Kylie's secret money stash, blow the wad on silly clothes and candy, and go searching for Dylan's missing brother.

It's here that things get sticky again. The neighborhood gossip was that Dylan's dad killed his older brother and dumped him in the canal. The truth is, the boy just ran away, and it's been two years since they heard from him. He is no longer in the squat that he gave as his address, and the last person to see him thought he was living in a cardboard box at the riverfront. There is no one else to help the kids, and as the sun sets, the predators emerge. It's going to be a long night, and the pair only have the good luck kiss of a kindly prostitute to protect them.

Kisses is the third film from writer/director/cinematographer Lance Daly (The Good Doctor [review]), though his most recognizable credit on IMDB is probably "Kid with Harmonica" in The Commitments. For this tale of young love on the run, Daly conjures magic out of the everyday, using a child's point of view and color tricks gleaned from The Wizard of Oz to create an overnight journey that looks large in comparison to its small stars. Ice rinks become idyllic playgrounds, strip joints turn into underworld passages, and the threats mothers tell their children to scare them into being good--in this case, the Sackman, who comes and steals unruly brats from their beds at night--have real-life analogues. Even Bob Dylan might show up to spread a little good cheer around.

Staged on location on the streets of Dublin, Kisses has the appearance of a film shot on the fly, a verité exploration captured at the moment of its happening. The script is a little too structured for that illusion to hold if you look close, but the natural manner of the two first-time leads are so good, you won't spend much time worrying about it. O'Neill and Curry give completely unaffected performances, and yet never have lapses of character. They are always Kylie and Dylan, and they handle laughter, fear, and even a small trace of romance as if this whole acting thing were nothing to get too concerned about. Some of the best sequences are dialogue-free montages of them messing around, and though Daly maybe pushes the music a little hard in these scenes, he can never overpower the born charisma of his stars.

Sure, Kisses heads to some expected places, but Daly avoids putting a cherry on top. There are no guarantees made that any of what was learned overnight will hold true the following day. Still, there is hope. Maybe the magic will stay alive, maybe it will become a memory. The importance is that it happened, and their lives have already changed.

Note: If you notice that the movie goes to final credits well ahead of its indicated running time, that's because there is one last small bit hiding at the end. It comes after the credits, and even then after several frames of black screen. So, let the movie run.

Sunday, January 14, 2018


Steven Soderbergh is 55 today. That puts a solid decade between us. Not that it matters. With ten years less on his life he’d still have done ten times more than me. The man is prolific to say the least. Since “retiring” from theatrical film, he’s made two television series (Mosaic debuts on HBO this month) and...well, one feature film, the 1970s-style character piece Logan Lucky, a singular and pleasing gem of 2017. He’s one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, reminding me of classic studio men who could adapt to any style, tackle any genre, and still maintain his unique vision.

To celebrate this day, I decided to review the last Soderbergh movie in the Criterion Collection needing coverage on this blog, the Spalding Gray documentary Gray’s Anatomy, released in 1996 and seen by Soderbergh, alongside Schizopolis [review], as part of a creative reset. Years later, the auteur would also make And Everything is Going Fine [review], a more traditional documentary about Gray, but Gray’s Anatomy is a performance piece, not a reporting. It’s Steven Soderbergh capturing one of the monologists most famous shows, a lengthy one-man narrative describing an extended medical condition and his coming to grips with treatment.

Spalding Gray was diagnosed with a “macular pucker” in his left eye. As he describes it in the monologue, it’s essentially when the cornea develops a crinkle, not unlike a loose spot in a piece of cellophane stretched over a bowl. The pucker caused visual anomalies, and there were a few potential courses of treatment, with the most recommended being actual surgery. Scared of the potential side effects of a botched procedure--including blindness and even losing the eye itself--but also knowing it was not an operation that had to happen right away, Gray opted to seek out alternative methods. Gray’s Anatomy details his explorations of mysticism, nutrition, and even psychic healers (think Andy Kaufman going to see the Filipino charlatan in Man on the Moon), before finally settling on the original course of action. (Footage of the actual surgery is included as an extra on the disc, if you’ve got the stomach for such things; I do not.)

Soderbergh doesn’t dress up the performance too much. Breaking the mo nologue down to anecdotes, a sort of equivalent of scenes, he shot Gray acting out the material for the camera, no audience, using different backdrops and occasional camera tricks to add a little visual flair to the staging. To round out the piece, he also interviewed regular people about their eye injuries and quizzed them on whether or not they would try the same things as Gray. These interviews break up the monologue here and there, but are never intrusive. In fact, none of Soderbergh’s set-ups are too showy or complicated; he knows better than to draw attention from the man himself. Gray’s Anatomy succeeds or fails on Spalding Gray’s charisma and rapport with the viewer.

The version Gray presents of himself is interesting. While the central theme of Gray’s Anatomy is fear--fear of not just the potential disaster of medical error, but fear of making a decision. Yet, for all his trepidations, the Gray at the center of these stories is also a man open to experience, who is willing to try things less for the hope of their curing his vision, but because he’s never done them before. Hence the seemingly unconnected anecdote of the time he cleaned the yard behind a synagogue. He’s telling us that he is a man that will do things despite not knowing the outcome. For all his anxiety, he is actually quite daring. I mean, consider that public speaking is one of the most common fears of average people, and yet this guy gets up before an audience and shares his life as a career. You can’t dispute his courage.

One thing that surprised me about Gray’s Anatomy is that it doesn’t finish with any great revelation or profound statement about life. Gray doesn’t appear to think he has any big answers to share; rather, it’s the simplicity of his efforts that make them relatable, and the journey he describes is no less fascinating for not concluding with an epiphany. Quite the opposite, Gray’s Anatomy would have probably fallen flat had Spalding Gray (along with co-writer Renée Shafransky) decided he was illuminating us to some new wisdom. It’s too intimate for that, the confidence he is placing in us is not just trusting us to know his secrets, but to know what to do with them, as well.

And Soderbergh, whose eye for detail is equal to Gray’s, knows yet again not to get in the way, and instead just plays it as it lays.

More reviews of Steven Soderbergh movies, of the non-Criterion variety:

Saturday, January 13, 2018


Back in my earlier days as a reviewer, when I was more ambitious, if I had reviewed a movie in its theatrical release, I would re-watch it and write a new piece if I later was assigned the DVD. At times, it was interesting, because I might find different things on each viewing. For instance, Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding: my first take was in some ways contradicted by my second take.

Below are my two reviews of Joel and Ethan Coen's 2007 Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men--recently added to the Criterion Channel--written for DVDTalk about four months apart. 


There is a dread that lingers long after No Country for Old Men has gone through its closing credits. Long after Tommy Lee Jones speaks his final lines, long after you've realized that this movie is not about what you thought it was, but about something else entirely. That dread is what another character, the El Paso sheriff that shares a meal and some wisdom with Jones, calls "the tide." It's not one thing that changes the world for the bad, he says, but the whole tide of things that will overwhelm you.

No Country for Old Men is adapted from the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy. It has been brought to the screen by the Coen Brothers, and despite the fact that they worked with their long-time cinematographer Roger Deakins, it doesn't really look like a Coen Bros. movie. It doesn't feel like one either, it doesn't move like one. In fact, had you played me this movie cold and told me nothing about who was involved, I wouldn't have guessed in a million years. I'm a big fan, too. I even liked The Ladykillers, which most people rip on pretty freely. It's been three years since that movie was released, and No Country for Old Men suggests that the famous filmmaking duo thought long and hard about how they would return to the Cineplex after that failure. For two guys whose early reputation grew fat on stylistic innovation, this quiet reinvention of what they are about is no less than astounding. Gone are the visual tricks and the hyperactive cameras, and in their place is something mannered, complex, and foreboding.

The plot of No Country for Old Men revolves around a satchel of money. While out in the Texas desert hunting, straight-laced welder Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens upon the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. He finds the $2 million in cash that was intended to be the buy money and makes a rash decision to take it home, leaving the lone survivor of the bloodbath to die on his own. Feeling guilty, he returns to the scene in the middle of the night, only to be spotted by bad guys who want their money back. Barely escaping alive, Llewellyn sends his wife (Kelly Macdonald) off to her mother's and goes on the run.

Too bad for him his pursuer is a one-stop death machine. Anton Chigurh, played with a seething menace by Javier Bardem, started his killing spree before he even got to the mess in the desert, so Llewellyn is just going to be another notch in his belt. The simple act of filling up his stolen car with gas is like an existential exercise in flexing his muscles. There is nothing Anton does that won't end in someone bleeding out on the floor.

Add to the mix Tommy Lee Jones as the local sheriff and you have the three main ingredients in this Texmex recipe. Though no one would blame you for thinking Jones is once again playing the same role he's been playing for the last ten years, it's been a long time since he's been this good. His take on Sheriff Bell could have been just another run-through of the actor's good humored cynicism and cornfed homilies, but Jones rightly sensed that he was the true emotional center of No Country for Old Men, the spiritual avatar of its deeper themes; as a result, he sheds the skin of easy comfort that he's worn through most of his recent films and lets his soul back out. Just as the Coen Bros. appear to be blazing new trails for themselves, dropping their old tricks for serious storytelling, so Jones seems to have wearied of his homespun image and has decided to put that weariness on film.

Essentially, No Country for Old Men is a four-pronged chase picture. Bardem is on the trail of Brolin, the money men and dealers team up to chase them both, and Jones is chasing all three. When they do catch up with one another at different times in the picture, the results are unexpected and harrowing. Yet, each twist of the plot strides in on a very comfortable gait. The Coens don't rush it when it doesn't need to be rushed, and they never inject a scene with an inflated sense of peril. There is time enough to get where they are all going.

Or so it would seem. The ironic thing about the pacing of No Country for Old Men is that ultimately, despite the lack of panic, time is running out. It's a eulogy for a particular way of life, a lament for dying values. Anton Chigurh, with a name that sounds like the sweetest confection, is a force of nature that has come seemingly out of nowhere, and he represents the future less than he represents the divide. He twice lets his victims gamble on their life, the call of a flipped coin determining if they win or die. The old sheriff is heads, a thinker who follows a code and predetermined ideas, whereas Llewellyn Moss is tails, running on instinct, making choices that his counterpart would never make.

Even with all the dead bodies that litter the road these men travel, the most devastating part of No Country for Old Men has nothing to do with blood, guns, or any of that stuff. Those are not the things that linger. Hell, most of the more surprising bends in that road (and there are several near the end) eschew those elements altogether. The true brutality is the passage of time, in our awareness of it, and in the inevitability of the countdown. Like Chigurh, it can't be stopped. Not by pure stubborn action, not even by the capriciousness of chance. Perhaps it's better to be like Llewellyn and try to remain ignorant of what lies ahead, because when it's all down to the wire, there is no comfort in acceptance.

DVD RELEASE, 3/11/2008

My take on this year's Academy Awards was that it was a tough year to get it wrong. Except for a few glaring exceptions (*cough* Atonement *cough*), the major categories were packed full with amazing talent. This embarrassment of riches meant no film scored a clean sweep, though the Coen Bros. masterful rumination on time and tide, No Country for Old Men, came close.

It's an interesting film to ponder, because it seems to me that its fan club is populated with just as many people who misunderstand the film in the same way its detractors misunderstand it. I realize that interpretation of any art form is subjective, and I definitely subscribe to the theory that any explication is valid as long as it can be backed up, so I am not saying that these people are wrong. Even so, let me tell you why they are.

Most complaints hinge on the now infamous climax interruptus and the following tumbledown denouements. In short, some viewers have been upset by what was not shown, the point in the movie that conventional wisdom and Robert McKee would likely suggest is the proper ending. In truth, if this action had been shown on screen, it would have been the only conventional element in an otherwise unconventional picture. If No Country for Old Men was the kind of western/crime picture it is regularly painted to be, I would think the dissenters were on the side of the angels; however, the contrary is true, and the movie, like the best rock 'n' roll, is running with the devil.

Adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is less a tough-guy genre story and more of a lament for the same. McCarthy and the Coens have come to bury Clint Eastwood, not to praise him (much less save him). (And, for the record, the absent scenes are also absent in the book.) It's not about the crimes or the getaways, it's about what these events represent.

As a good indicator of where some of the well-meaning attention No Country has garnered has taken a wrong turn is the overwhelming amount of ink devoted to Javier Bardem's performance as Anton Chigurh. Don't get me wrong, every ounce of praise heaped in Bardem's direction is deserved. His portrayal of the amoral Chigurh is one of the most carefully wrought and fiercely scary portrayals of a bad guy ever put on celluloid. Yet, there is a reason Bardem won for Best Supporting Actor and not as the lead. To consider Chigurh the lead is like giving the Death Star top billing in Star Wars. Chigurh is a force of the times, a catalyst for change, the unerring and unbending agent of fate who forces the hands of the men who run from him and the ones who pursue him. We've all seen that coin toss scene a million times now, and it's an important moment in the movie. Win or lose, you have to play, and if you don't know that, get out of the way, you're already done.

Though No Country for Old Men is an ensemble piece, if I had to pick a lead, I'd say it's the Tommy Lee Jones character, Sheriff Bell. He's the old man that the country has abandoned. He represents past values, the guy who got things done a certain way and had certain unassailable beliefs that he never thought would be rocked. Chigurh is the powerhouse that is pounding at the Sheriff's foundations, while Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is the modern man caught in between. He doesn't have the history of Bell to rely on, nor has he fully sussed out what the new system of values will be in Chigurh's future. He's running from Chigurh's deathly vengeance while Bell is trying to embrace him, to keep him safe. Neither position is Moss' place, and thus he must keep moving. The alternative is stagnation and death.

The beauty of McCarthy's metaphor is that it comes dressed in familiar armor, and thus the film adaptation shows up in the trappings of genre. One can easily enjoy the movie in that sense, but if you aren't watching for the way the Coens are dismantling genre, removing each piece of armor one by one, then you are likely going to find some disappointment when your expectations are subverted.
Funnily enough, all of the characters in the movie are going to learn essentially the same thing about expectations. Their belief in the order of the universe holds little weight, as the universe is wont to spin at its own accord. Even Chigurh, who attempts to destroy order by imposing his own concoction of chaos, is forced to learn what real randomness is. Moss' wife (Kelly MacDonald) is the only one willing to call him on it. His coin, as she explains, has no say in his actions, it's really just him, he will act as he will. His last scene in the movie is when one of the few truly random acts occurs, the one thing he doesn't make happen.

So, what then does a man do when the universe fails him? Keep soldiering on, it seems. Sheriff Bell finds no satisfaction in surrender, and the dreams he shares with his wife, of the inconsequential material world being lost and the hope for some light in the darkness, are suggestive of the only absolutes he can be sure about.

Saturday, January 6, 2018


I pulled My Beautiful Laundrette off the shelf for two reasons. One, it’s directed by Stephen Frears, and it would make a nice companion to my reposting of my review of his 2009 effort Chéri. Second, I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread last week, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ intense performance was so quietly astonishing, it made me want to look back and see what he was like as a younger man. This is my first time viewing the 1985 film, despite being aware of its reputation and also having been a fan of other work by both the director and his performer.

It was a misguided adventure.

Honestly, I’m not sure why My Beautiful Laundrette was so critically lauded back in the day. My guess is the progressive subject matter being unlike anything else in the cinema at the time, and also because even in this small indie, Daniel Day-Lewis still stands out.

But I’m ahead of myself...

My Beautiful Laundrette is a British drama set in a poor London neighborhood where a family of Pakistani immigrants have set up several small businesses. One of the younger family members, Omar (Gordon Warnecke), is trying to get out of the house so he can escape a father (Roshan Seth, Gandhi) paralyzed by grief. To do this, he enlists the help of an uncle (Saeed Jaffrey, Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures) who is willing to give him a job. After Omar proves his worth, the uncle gives him a rundown laundry to run.

Being back in the ’hood, Omar runs into Johnny (Day-Lewis), a friend from high school who now runs with a tough crowd. Omar enlists Johnny to help him out, hatching a plan to skim drugs from Omar’s gangster uncle (Derrick Branche) and use the profits to fix up the laundromat. In the midst of these shenanigans, Omar and Johnny also give oxygen to a long smoldering physical romance between them--a relationship Johnny has to hide from his thuggish friends and Omar has to conceal from his family, who want to arrange a union with a nice girl.

There is interesting stuff here, but screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (Buddha of Suburbia) mostly dances around it. Part of the narrative is that both boys are in denial about certain things, and so it takes a while to learn that they stopped hanging out in their younger days because Johnny became a skinhead--a great character detail--but rather than that revelation leading to an outpouring of emotion or delving into what that meant then and what it means now, why the boy changed, it’s mostly glossed over. Likewise, the full implications of their relationship is never really explored, Kureishi and Frears resorting to the old cliché of an interruption of violence bringing the two together.

Perhaps more disconcerting than the thin writing, however, is Frears trying to disguise amateurish filmmaking and adolescent impulses as quirky style. From the broad character comedy to the cartoonish music and sound effects, the filmmaker tries to imbue My Beautiful Laundrette with an off-center sensibility, but it never quite works. Stage this same story as a grimy kitchen sink drama, shot on the same locations with the same shoestring budget, and you may have a rather challenging story of sexuality and race. Instead, My Beautiful Laundrette is a goofy culture clash send-up without much genuine wit.

This isn’t helped by the mostly inexperiencde cast. They are all game, but few have the actual chops. Seth and Jaffrey are both confident older performers, but they appear to be in different movies--one is working for Merchant Ivory, the other auditioning for a sitcom. And then there’s Daniel Day-Lewis. His unwavering commitment to character, not to mention his shock of bleach-blonde hair, causes him to stand out in every scene. He’s on a whole other plane than his castmates. It’s as if he is the one adult at a children’s birthday party, and he’s too busy thinking about death to clown around with the kiddies.

Again, I assume My Beautiful Laundrette felt bold and fresh when it was released, a sideways critique of Thatcher’s England that was frank about immigrant issues and homosexuality, but the intervening decades have not been kind. What was once sincere now seems naïve, and what had been deep insight just appears shallow.

Friday, January 5, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2009. 

Chéri opens with a jocular recounting of the history of courtesans, using a slick presentation to detail some of the more famous kept women of history complete with vintage photographs and Toulouse Lautrec artwork. It's a fun sequence, lively and full of cheeky humor. Director Stephen Frears supplies his own voiceover, and he sets the stage for the last lady of the evening on the list, Lea de Lonval, as played by Michelle Pfeiifer. It's an entertaining beginning, and it announces a movie that I would really like to see; unfortunately, the movie it announces is not the one that follows.

The basic story of Chéri is that Lea is a high-priced prostitute who is getting on in years, and having just lost her latest long-term client, is finding her prospects have changed. Having earned many a big ticket over the course of her career and, as we learn, invested wisely, she is nowhere near destitute, but the game is changing. Rather than going out and finding a new sugar daddy, she adopts 19-year-old Chéri (Rupert Friend, The Young Victoria [review]), the son of Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates, Titanic [review]), another old whore. Already bored of debauchery, and bereft of an inner life to the point of being soulless, Chéri slips easily into the role of a boy toy kept by a beautiful older lover who takes care of his every need.

Jump ahead six years, however, and Momma Peloux has decided that she wants the one thing Lea can't give her: grandchildren. She has arranged Chéri's marriage to another of their colleagues' daughters (Felicity Jones, Like Crazy [review]; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). Understanding that this is the way the cookie crumbles, Lea accepts her bitter fate with a stoic resolution, but in private, her heart is breaking. While Chéri and his bride are honeymooning in Italy, she disappears to a private resort to chase muscle-bound youngsters. It's quite possible that her move is intentional, that she knows by taking the treat away from her young pup, he will go looking for it, but if such is her motivation, it's never spoken. Were Lea's plans and schemes made more obvious, or if we even knew more about her anxieties, Chéri would be a much more interesting film; instead, the tug of war with Lea and Chéri's heartstrings ends up just being surface and predictable.

The lack of clear plotting is surprising, given that Chéri reteams writer Christopher Hampton with director Stephen Frears. The pair covered similar romantic ground a couple decades ago with the delicious and wicked Dangerous Liasons. The secret motivation of lovers should be their stock in trade. Likewise, one might expect something sensuous and sexy from them, particularly when adapting a writer like Colette, an author known for the steam heating the spaces between the lines in her stories. For all the swallowed tears and ailing hearts in Chéri, the movie is cold and dispassionate, and for all the talk of sexual affairs, there's not much lovemaking on the screen.

I was actually surprised to see that Chéri was not based on one, but two novels by Colette, because there didn't seem to be all that much story there. I asked a friend who I know has a fairly substantial knowledge of the author, and she said that the books weren't really plot oriented, that mood and internal conflict is more important than story points. This makes it all the more shocking, then, that Hampton and Frears were so reluctant to delve deeper into what was going on under the surface, to get at the heavy feelings behind the steely expressions. Michelle Pfeiffer would surely have been capable of handling more nuanced material. You can see her trying to add to her scenes, to communicate what the dialogue does not through her face and her startling blue eyes. It's a performance absent of vanity, with the actress unleashing outbursts of emotion that are almost embarrassing in how clumsily true they are.

By the time of the big emotional climax of Chéri, I should have been all fired up, but I was just sleepy. For such a short film, it started to feel like it was going on forever, and for as long as it felt, it's all the more annoying that Chéri turns out to be a film that's hardly about anything at all. Is it just that they were scared to sell us all of the fire and passion of a May/December romance? If so, that's just ironic and sad. Squandered potential, really. Like the returning voiceover informs us at the end, the biggest tragedy of Lea and Chéri is that had circumstances been different, they could have had so much more. So, too, could this film.

Monday, January 1, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2012.

"I'm not interested in people who lose control of their own destiny."

Luchino Visconti's second-to-last picture, Conversation Piece (original title: Gruppo di famiglia in un interno) is a contemplative chamber drama. Released in 1974, it is perhaps the great Italian director's most modern effort, reflecting an old man's acceptance of the changes happening in the world around him while also establishing at least some sort of defense of all the things that came before. In his way, this is Visconti meeting the new generation halfway, simultaneously sharing the ways of old with them while taking a glimpse at what they have to offer. In between, he finds some unexpected commonalities.

Burt Lancaster, who played a similar role in the director's masterful The Leopard, returns to Italy to play "Il Professore," an American scholar who has made his home in a large house in Rome. For years, he has lived alone with his books and paintings, enjoying the solitude of memory and the invented lives of the people depicted in the portraits that fill his walls. His preferred medium is the "conversation piece," an 18th-century style of painting that shows families together, most often in natural environments.

Things change dramatically for the Professor when the Marchesa Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano, Ludwig [review], Dune) forces her way into his life. She has learned that he has a disused upstairs apartment, and she wants to rent it for her lover, a young German hothead named Konrad (Helmut Berger, The Romantic Englishwoman [review]). In addition to inheriting this hustler, the Professor's life is also disrupted by the Marchcesa's daughter, Lietta (Claudia Marsani), and her boyfriend, Stefano (Stefano Patrizi). The new arrangement goes wrong rather quickly when Konrad decides to remodel the place with a sledge hammer, but before long, the Professor begins to accept the young people--and all their disruptions--into his life. The change is largely caused by his discovery that Konrad is not entirely as he seems to be. Though a gigolo now, he was once a political activist and knows a thing or two about painting and music. The Professor, in a way, comes to view him as a son. The old man also comes out of the shell he crawled into after suffering personal loss. We get brief glimpses of his sad past in flashback, though we never learn what really happened. (In these scenes, his wife is played by Claudia Cardinale and his mother by Dominique Sanda.)

Luchino Visconti was part of the post-War Neorealist movement, but is unique amongst his peers for being from an aristocratic family and thus being more concerned with the upper classes. In films like Senso [review] and his segment of Boccaccio '70 [review], he explored the clash of old-fashioned social mores and modernity, as well as exposing the truth behind his subjects' public façade. In short, the rich have the same pettiness and heartbreak as anyone else, regardless of how ornate their outward disguise.

These same concerns inform the script for Conversation Piece, and the more secrets that are exposed, the more the social niceties break down in the Professor's house. The Marchesa has her own reasons for paying for love, and Konrad has his for taking the payment--just as the Professor has his reasons for hiding from the rest of the world. He has accepted his lot in life, as well as the fact that his time is soon going to pass. The Professor is much like the character Lancaster played in The Leopard: his usefulness in a changing culture is also indicative of his own mortality. It's ironic that he would be reawakened at so late an hour. He grows closest to the three young people, even if it's too little too late. Unsurprisingly, Lancaster is quite good as the elder statesman, maintaining a kind of stoic grandeur that is slowly chipped away, leaving him vulnerable. Helmut Berger is also excellent as the would-be con man. His foul-mouthed demeanor gives way to a startling sensitivity. Both actors begin on opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, but both are guarded. The more they drop their defenses, the more human their portrayals become.

All of the scenes in Conversation Piece occur inside the Professor's spacious home. The film, however, is neither static nor confined. Long hallways and high ceilings give the characters plenty of room to roam, and the copious decorations fill the frame so there is always plenty to look at. The still images on the paintings are meant to represent an arrested existence, though Konrad's approval of the Professor's aesthetic choices give him some validation. (Indeed, Lietta and Stefano sway the old man by meeting him on his own terms, buying him a new family painting for his wall, a symbolic giving of "themselves.") Visconti and his regular cinematographer, Pasqualino De Santis, relish in the details. The full spaciousness of the interiors are given emphasis when it is suitable to show how lost the players are within this invented scene. Likewise, they play with a sort of upstairs/downstairs metaphor (young above, old buried below), as the top apartment is demolished and rebuilt as a modern-art experiment. The primary colors give it an expansive feel that shows just how cramped and overstuffed the Professor's life has become.

Of course, as more truths are revealed, things grow more and more complicated for this makeshift clan. Despite first and even second impressions, there is more to each story than is immediately evident. Much comes to light at a dinner that was originally meant to reestablish peace amongst everyone after Konrad's latest attempt to escape the Marchesa nearly landed him in jail. Words are exchanged, both good and bad, and for some they are words that can't be taken back. The Professor also tells an old story about how death can arrive unannounced and in disguise, a truth he has always feared but one that his new friends have convinced him to no longer concern himself with. Thus, in its final scenes, Conversation Piece becomes a cautionary tale, warning against waiting too long to engage in life and embrace the people around you. Unfortunately for some, it is a message that comes too late, and its revelation is bittersweet.


This review was originally written for in 2008.

Luchino Visconti's 1972 film Ludwig is an example of a biopic done as an epic, a grand and opulent study of the life of the 19th-century "mad kind of Bavaria," Ludwig II. A member of the Italian aristocracy himself, Visconti stood apart from his filmmaking contemporaries and their embracing of Neorealism, instead crafting meticulous studies of the various classes that were almost more realistic in their painstaking attention to detail but at the same time created a feeling of another world. This feeling of disconnection went hand in hand with the themes of many of the director's pictures, where his characters were often at odds with the world around them and seemed to walk rarefied streets that had little in common with the spaces they connected. Thus, we get Marcello Mastroianni's lonely romantic traversing bridges and canals in Le notti bianche or Burt Lancaster's patriarch in The Leopard, a symbol of a passing age.

Lancaster's aging nobleman actually has a lot in common with Ludwig II. As played by Helmut Berger (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis), this monarch has little connection to the kingdom he rules. Through most of Visconti's four-hour portrait, King Ludwig is indoors, locked away in his opulent estates. He is not part of the lives that he governs, but instead is informed of what is going on by various aides and courtly officials. A dreamy young man crowned in his teens, it is assumed that Ludwig is unschooled in all things, and much of the first half of the picture is about the King's education in matters of love, war, and sex. By the end, Ludwig begins to tire of these conspiracies, even tossing out the prostitute his counsel hires to teach him how to be a lover before she can earn her money.

Ludwig's one respite is sneaking out at night and riding his horse under the stars. This is where onlookers begin to suspect him of madness, as apparently this quest for solitude was considered strange behavior back then. He finds some comfort in the fact that his cousin Elisabeth, the Empress of Austria (Romy Schneider, who also played the Empress at a younger age in the Sissi trilogy fifteen years earlier), engages in similar activity, and she joins him for a few moonlight rides. Of course, he has also fallen in love with this independent woman, who seems to enjoy the freedom he does not, and his pining for her postpones any serious hunt for a wife and causes further rumblings of his state of mind. So, too, does his harboring of Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter [review]), the composer, whose music Ludwig adores but whose personal life and money grubbing ends up being an embarrassment to his sponsor.

Like most of Visconti's dramas, Ludwig has a leisurely storytelling style that adds to the feeling of serious contemplation the film requires and is also successful in creating that sense of another world that is essential to understanding his outsider characters. The director is not hurried in his portrayals, but rather able to document the ennui with a pacing that is akin to real time, the languorous dialogue scenes showing a lack of urgency in Ludwig's life. Even discussions of war seem protracted and separate, with Ludwig having no idea what the frontlines are like and not understanding why his younger brother, Prince Otto (John Moulder-Brown), can't merely abandon his duty.

In the case of Ludwig, the longer running time also allows Visconti to avoid the compression that hobbles so many biography movies. There is no rush to cram everything in, Visconti can take his time. The first half of the picture begins with Ludwig's coronation and ends in the midst of his engagement to Tsarina Sophie (Sonia Petrovna), whom Elisabeth has chosen for the King. The second half looks at Ludwig's later years and his being deposed. Visconti also cuts interviews with members of Ludwig's cabinet into the action, with the noblemen talking directly to the camera to explain some of the interpretations of the King's behavior and the scandals that dogged him. It's not a device that Visconti labors over, but it certainly prefigures the fake documentary style that would become popular decades later.

Of course, that longer running time can be a fault as much as it is a virtue, and the second half of the film does drag, particularly in its first hour when Ludwig disappears into his obsessions and instead of trying to break free into the outer world, locks himself away from it. The King continues to pursue a love of the performing arts, including inviting an actor he admires (Folker Bohnet) back to his home and trying to make him his personal performer the way he wanted Wagner to be his personal composer. Ludwig also builds a continuous string of ever-opulent palaces, one after the other, most of them left to sit idle as soon as he moves on to the next. (Visconti shows these in exacting detail when Elisabeth takes a tour of them. These scenes were shot on location, but special praise should also be reserved for production designers Mario Chiari and Mario Scisci.) In his exile, he cavorts with young boys and lets his health deteriorate. By the end, he is a pale shell of himself, his teeth rotting along with his brain. Helmut Berger, who bares both a passing physical resemblance to Alain Delon as well as the actor's icy demeanor, really distinguishes himself in these scenes, imbuing his performance with a brittle incredulity that is both childish and sad. Throughout Ludwig, he comes off as a monarch that is more tolerated than followed, which contrasts well with Schneider's portrayal of Empress Elisabeth as a woman always in charge. Her manipulation and domination of her troubled cousin is quite impressive.

In this period, Ludwig is not at all concerned with governance, which eventually attracts the notice of the ruling officials. At this juncture, the "documentary" interviews meld with the narrative as we realize that they are part of an inquiry into Ludwig's mental health. The investigation leads to a political coup, and here the film begins to pick up again as the various conspiracies to remove the King from his throne and to protect him intersect. Multiple doctors diagnose Ludwig as paranoid, so imagine what it must be like when, shortly after being imprisoned/hospitalized, he discovers the peepholes in the wall where his enemies spy on him--he may be paranoid, but they have really come after him! In this last act, the early hints of Ludwig's eccentricities being calculated and voluntary start to have some bearing. (One aide, Count Duerckheim, played by Helmut Griem, even says as much.) Ludwig may also be truly mad, it's an unanswerable question, and one that Visconti isn't too rigorous about pursuing; rather, as King Ludwig II accepts his fate, he joins other Visconti protagonists in acknowledging the passing of his time on top. The King seems to realize that it's over for him, that the world can no longer tolerate his passions, and that it will continue to turn without him. (He would be pleased to know that Wagner's music still endures, I am sure.)

A film with the scope and patience of Ludwig certainly requires as much patience from its audience, but there are few directors that can guide his viewers through the grandeur of this kind of lifestyle the way Luchino Visconti can. While other filmmakers would be drawn to monarchs who distinguished themselves in battle or effected greater social change, Visconti is more fascinated with a ruler who felt trapped by his position and yearned to be a part of the larger tableau of music and art. For him, Ludwig was more important for how his heart was broken by beauty than for how he lost his country. With sumptuous set designs and well-tailored performances from the distinguished cast, Ludwig takes us behind palace walls to view the fragility that is often secured inside them.


This review was originally written for in 2012.

"'Give me time and I will dig a hole for you,' said the worm to the stone."

Director Luchino Visconti's second full-length feature, La terra trema (The Earth Will Tremble), is a triumph of the Italian Neorealist movement. Made in 1948, it solidifies the aesthetic, marrying real life to fictional storytelling in an imperceptible, irresistible union.

Though based on a 19th-century novel, Visconti updates La terra trema to modern times and all the concerns that come with it. The film's narrative is set in a Sicilian fishing village. It follows the community as it struggles to get by. This is a place where life is hard and so is the work to sustain it. Like anyone else, the fishermen dream of a better existence. In some cases, this might be gotten through love, but for some of the young idealists, things could be better for everyone if working conditions were improved. The bosses take an unfair cut off the top, and the law cracks down on anyone who might say otherwise.

At the center of the film is the Valastro family. Their eldest daughter, Mara, is contrasted with another young woman, Nedda. Both work at home and perform the duties required there, which we clearly see are no less taxing than going out on the waves. Nedda is being courted by Ntoni Valastro, Mara's brother, the hothead who is encouraging the other workers to take their fates into their own hands. Mara has flirtations with the more down-to-earth laborer Nicola, who is forced to seek employment anywhere he can find it, including out of town. Their younger sister, Lucia, has also caught the eye of the town marshal, who is a genial personality but, ultimately, he represents the privilege and recklessness of authority, particularly in how he so cavalierly treats those in his charge.

These subplots add some conventional drama to La terra trema, but the essential backbone of the film is the day-to-day. Visconti and cinematographer G.R. Aldo (Umberto D. [review], Welles' Othello) shoot the men at work, and indeed, it's the real work they all do to get by when they aren't performing in front of a movie camera. La terra trema is infamous for having no professional actors. Everyone on screen is a citizen of the town where the movie was shot. They are, ostensibly, re-creating their own lives according to the director's script; he in turn is using these invented scenarios to show the actuality of a tough way of living to the rest of the world. Visconti himself narrates, creating a sort of political travelogue of the region.

There is actually little time for romance when your day-to-day is consumed with just keeping up and staying fed, but all the relationships I've mentioned will prove important as the Valastroes' story and situation changes. Ntoni mortgages the family home for money to buy a boat and set his people up to work on their own. Initially, he and his brother and grandfather do well, bringing in a large anchovy haul. Unfortunately, bad weather, bad business practices, and the general bad attitudes of the working class collaborate to destroy Ntoni's dreams and his family's stability. In Visconti's scenario, the biggest enemy of the people is the people themselves. As the song goes, we hate it when our friends become successful, and rather than encourage Ntoni to blaze a trail they could later follow themselves, others tear him down for being too big for his britches. Social mores being what they are, Nicola ends his courtship of Mara, citing that now she is above him in class, and he is shown to be the one decent guy in the village when the tables turn again. Most of the other townspeople revel in the family's suffering. The old bosses will only give Ntoni more work if he submits to their ridicule, and indeed, Ntoni has to hit rock bottom before seizing on his own destiny again, holding his head high in the face of humiliation.

The Neorealist aesthetic is beautifully crystallized in La terra trema. Using non-actors works particularly well for Visconti. While in similar hands such experiments can seem stiff and awkward, the director finds a comfortable space for his performers to work--both literally and figuratively. Using the real locations where these people live probably helped a lot. They get to be themselves in their own regular environment. The backdrop is appropriately ragged, yet it is photographed lovingly. Visconti chooses to shoot the locale wide, letting all the detail come through. Such is his dedication to capturing reality.

Despite its length of over two-and-a-half hours, La terra trema rarely drags, even at its most bleak. Structurally, Visconti works each element like it was a vignette. So, for instance, we see Ntoni's brother become dissatisfied and what drastic measures his restlessness causes him to take before moving on to the next stage of Ntoni's descent. The bad stuff compounds on the Valastro family, yet Visconti provides a hopeful out, using simple literary devices to put Ntoni back on his feet and back in a boat. This allows for an end that suggests that despite the drudgery of their everyday lives, if nothing else, the Valastroes and all good people like them will persevere.