REVIEW: Youth

4 12 2015

From its opening shot, a twirl around a retro band covering Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got The Love,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” announces itself as an odd bird. To quote a project from star Harvey Keitel’s youth (which itself quotes Kris Kristofferson), the film is a walking contradiction. Many films set up dualities, even taking on a paradoxical quality, but this is really something else.

Despite its title, “Youth” is a film starring mostly senior citizens looking back on that stage of life through a foggy retrospective lens. Michael Caine’s Fred Ballinger, a retired composer, twiddles his thumbs in a Swiss mountain resort with Harvey Keitel’s Mick Boyle, a screenwriter still trying to plan his magnum opus with a team of industry neophytes at his beck and call. They pine for their younger years and opine on the frustrations of their more advanced ones, mostly just spinning their wheels.

Sorrentino matches their conversations with the style of his screenplay, a lax, discursive saunter that unfolds almost in vignettes. Separating these dialogue-heavy sequences are highly stylized montages of various guests and workers around the resort, each presented in a grotesque kind of tableau. (Except the lounge singer, for whom Sorrentino jarringly cuts from a performance to her chowing down on a chicken wing.) Be they the whorish fame-obsessed fans lusting after celebrities, a morbidly obese soccer player or a Miss Universe, all bystanders gets warped by his bizarre camera.

The people who get the most thorough cinematic treatment, oddly enough, are not the film’s two grey gentlemen. While they mosey around, much younger people in their field of vision find it quite easy to articulate themselves. Rachel Weisz, as Fred’s daughter and assistant Lena, hesitates little in expressing her disappointment with him. Paul Dano’s Jimmy Tree, a zen Method-style actor, loves walking others through his views in neat dichotomies. And, of course, Jane Fonda shows up for a cameo-length appearance as Mick’s starlet and muse Brenda Morel, an actress who certainly does not mince words in her big tirade.

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REVIEW: This Is Where I Leave You

20 09 2014

This Is Where I Leave YouIt took me until a college intro-level theater class to realize it, but the term melodrama actually means “music drama.”  In Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” he really deploys that definitional dimension to convey all the film’s emotion.

As if we couldn’t already tell that two family members alone together was going to result in clichéd conversation, Levy cues each scene up with Michael Giacchino’s gentle piano score to softly amplify the forced profundity.  Or maybe if we’re lucky, Levy will treat us to a mellow Alexei Murdoch ditty.  (The singer is employed far less effectively than he was by Sam Mendes in “Away We Go,” for the few out there who care.)

The film seems to move forward solely on the logic that everyone needs to almost cry alone with each other.  It doesn’t matter to what extent the actors can manage authenticity – usually they don’t manage at all – because it’s impossible to escape the hoary hokeyness of the directorial heavy-handedness.

“This Is Where I Leave You,” which follows a family of four estranged siblings coming back to sit shiva for their deceased father, brings a lot more under its roof than it can handle.  Levy recruited a heck of a cast but seems unsure of how to deploy them in roles that require more than easy comedy.  The film’s dialogue makes more than a few attempts at humor, yet its talented players seem to timid to explore that element.

The reserve of the cast only serves to exacerbate the awkward blending of three distinct comic stylings: the reactionary stoicism of Jason Bateman, the strung-out loquaciousness of Tina Fey, and the live wire erraticism of Adam Driver.  (As for Corey Stoll, their eldest sibling … well, every family needs one serious member).  They don’t feel like family members so much as they come across as uncommonly adept scene partners who can feign a passable relationship until someone yells cut.

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REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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