Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 23, 2015 7:08 am 
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Magnificent, yet a chore to watch

A cloying cinephile's delight, Youth is glorious and static, ambitious and despairing, celebratory and ironic. It lacks the ebullient flow of Sorrentino's previous richly Italian film (starring his muse-collaborator Toni Servillo) The Great Beauty/La grande bellezza. But as it's less specific, it's arguably also more thoughtful, an occasionally arresting, if dry, meditation on life, death, and old age, And it's in English, which works very well, given the general artificiality of the film anyway. The cast featuring Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Paul Dano is impeccable, and Sorrentino has become a director whose films must be seen even when they aren't successes. The ideas here may wind up seeming trite. But as Mike D'Angelo said in his Cannes dispatch for The Dissolve, Sorrentino's powerfully cinematic style is "rooted entirely in editing, in the musical flow of images as they cascade across the screen," and if you love film, you'll want to savor the grandeur of that flow, even when the content doesn't satisfy.

The setting is a spa hotel at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Fred (Michael Caine) and Mick (Harvey Keitel), are old friends, two kinds of director, orchestral and film, respectively. (Fellini's 8 1/2 may flicker unflatteringly across one's mind.) Fred has quit the game, "apathetic," he's told, due to the loss of his wife, Melanie, who used to sing his "Simple Songs," for which, like it or not, he is most known. Though Fred's to be knighted and a nervous emissary of the Queen (Alex Macqueen) comes to beg him, he refuses to conduct the "Simple Songs" for this occasion with another singer than Melanie. Fred is working on a movie that will be a summing up, but its lead and an old collaborator, the aging diva Brenda Morel (a bravely wrinkly Jane Fonda), is about to drop out, killing the project. Besides, Mick's quartet of young writers seem directionless. Meanwhile Fred's daughter Lena (Weisz) is dumped by her husband Julian (Ed Stoppard), who is Mick's son, for a pop singer (Paloma Faith, a real pop singer who according to Variety critic Jay Weissberg plays a caricature of herself) on the eve of a vacation trip and Lena resultantly stays on and (rather implausibly) sleeps in the same bed with Fred at the hotel, where they both have bad dreams. Some grande bellezza appropriate to aging oglers comes in the form of a Miss Universe who descends voluptuously endowed and totally nude into a pool where Fred and Mick are soaking.

Like The Great Beauty in this respect but with less unity and energy in the flow, Youth is a series of tableaux. Sorrentino makes the most of the beautiful setting and posh hotel where the guests enjoy baths, swims, massages and daily medical tests. At the end Fred is told he has absolutely nothing wrong with him, even his prostate, though he and Mick exchange notes on how few drops they have peed that day. There is a jaded young actor (an unusually dashing Dano) with the picturesque name of Jimmy Tree, who's remembered only for playing a robot, just as Fred is known solely for his "Simple Songs." Occasionally there are songs by a pop singer. Occasionally we see an immensely obese former footballer with a giant Karl Marx tattoo on his back hobble around and do this and that. Once Fred conducts a herd of cows tinkling their cowbells. Several times the Queen's emissary comes to beg for Fred to conduct and he refuses. Several times the screenwriters think of lines for Mick's new film. Several times a young masseuse (Luna Mijovic) massages Fred, or, by herself, adopts dance poses. There is a Tibetan monk meditating in the greenery who's said to levitate, which Fred debunks (but finally he does levitate, higher up than Michael Keaton at the outset of Birdman). Fred and Mick bet on whether an elegant couple who dine every night at the hotel will speak to each other or not. Fred and Mick, who've known each other for 60 years, have lacunae in their knowledge of each other due to talking only of the good things.

All this seems arbitrary and desultory enough, and that quality is not helped by Fred's apathy, which threatens to invade the viewer. Weissberg ingeniously links this film's spotty mix of scenes to the German romantic thinker Novalis, to whom Mick refers, and his "philosophy of fragments" and the idea that "fragments can often convey ideas more powerfully and subtly than grand statements." Indeed, but too many of them can lead to general blur, as here. Still it is wondrous to observe Sorrentino's increasingly baroque style and his control of detail. It was amusing to see how much, under Sorrentino's baton, Michael Caine begins to look like Toni Servillo, which makes one realize the extent to which Servillo at some of his greatest moments may have been largely Sorrentino's creation. (See how strangely he transformed Sean Penn in his oddball and largely inexplicable 2011 film This Must Be the Place.) Or course Michael Caine has no need of remaking, but as a cool, crabwise kind of final statement, this role is a noble one, for him, even if this movie, for all its style, feels grandly irrelevant.

Youth/La Giovinezza, 118 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2015, and has been in other festivals big and small, including Karlovy, Toronto, Vancouver, London, Chicago, and Denver. It opened in France 9 Sept. 2015, and opens in the US (Fox Searchlight) 4 Dec., UK 29 Jan. 2016. AlloCiné press rating an excellent 4.9, but my touchstone French sources, Les Inrockuptibles and Cahiers du Cinéma, were extremely unimpressed. Screened for this review at Paris' historic La Pagode 23 Oct. 2015.

4 Dec. 2015 Youth opened in NYC at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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