Wednesday, November 25, 2015


YOUTH                      B                                            
Italy  France  Great Britain  Switzerland  (119 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  
d:  Paolo Sorrentino                    Pathé [France]          

Only Sorrentino’s second film in English, after the oddly compelling use of Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place (2011), where the title suggests one thing, while the subject of the film is diametrically opposite, as this is more of a quirky meditation on aging, featuring Michael Caine as Fred and Harvey Keitel as Mick, two longtime, near eighty-year old friends in the latter stages of their lives that one initially suspects are brothers due to their intimate familiarity, but instead they’ve known each other for 60 years.  Taking place nearly exclusively on the secluded grounds of an upscale spa for the rich and famous at the Waldhaus hotel in the Swiss Alps, the same hotel featured in the recent Olivier Assayas film, 2014 Top Ten List #3 Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), offering dazzling views of the surrounding Sils Maria countryside, this is the first Sorrentino film where the superficiality of the subject matter simply doesn’t live up to the whirlwind cinematography from Luca Bigazzi, who is among the best in the business, normally elevating this director’s films into rarified air.  While it’s something of a delight throughout, often lighthearted and humorous, this film is arguably the lightest and least successful in the director’s career, becoming more of a scattershot virtuoso film where much of its power is diluted from attempting to cover so much territory, where it is entertaining throughout, though it borders on spectacle.  Opening with the très chic sounds of The Retrosettes, a retro band from Manchester, You Got The Love by The Retrosettes - SoundCloud (3:20), where the female singer may as well be spewing her message on a rotating platform coming from the middle of a bonafide “fountain of youth,” the song jumpstarts the film with an adrenal rush that in every respect is equivalent to a thoroughbred breaking out of the gate at a racetrack.  The problem is sustaining the pace all the way through till the end.  While there are heady moments, and more than a few pleasant surprises in store, it’s hard to say this film has any lasting power, as there’s really not much of a developing story, feeling more like a series of vignettes strung together creating an impressionistic mosaic, where there are few entry points into the lives of the characters portrayed.  Certainly part of the problem is the exclusivity of the place itself, catering to power and privilege, where most will never spend a minute of their lives in a swanky place like this. 

Fred is a retired symphonic conductor spending most of his days being oiled and massaged, where he is pampered and catered to by kids that barely look out of their teens.  Having lost his wife some time ago, he’s acutely aware that he’s in the latter stages of his life, with little to actually look forward to, instead harping on certain incidents from his past that crop up from time to time.  Mick, on the other hand, has a core of young writers trying to help him finish off a screenplay entitled Life’s Last Day, the summation of his life’s work as a film director.  They come off a bit like a Laurel & Hardy act, with Keitel in the role of Laurel handing out the straight lines while Michael Caine relishes playing the more pompous Hardy, where both can be seen walking the massive grounds of the place together, where their pace is a near crawl, holding cryptic conversations about their prostrates and other physical ailments, though their womanizing eyes still rove to the ladies just as much as when they were pubescent teenage boys on the prowl.  Joining them is a young American actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who seemingly has no business being there, as the place is crawling with people two and three times his age, but he enjoys the seclusion as he prepares for a new role.  In a celebratory moment, Fred’s grown daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is heading out on a Pacific holiday with her fiancé, Mick’s son Julian (Ed Stoppard), where for a brief moment the past and the present intersect, with both men reliving the exuberance of their lives through the romantic affairs of their children.  Also entering the picture is an emissary from the Queen, a very squirrely Alex Macqueen, who is sent on a mission to invite Fred to come out of retirement for a gala concert performance of his most celebrated composition “Simple Songs” in London before the royal family in exchange for knighthood.  Despite the honor, Fred refuses for personal reasons, and despite repeated pleas, the emissary leaves dejected and thoroughly disappointed, as the Queen does not like to receive bad news.  In short order, Lena is back as well, having been unceremoniously dumped for a pop celebrity, none other than Paloma Faith playing herself, where both men find Julian’s conduct appalling (in his defense, Julian claims Paloma is a wonder in bed), where Mick even sides with Fred on this one, giving his son a thorough tongue lashing for his selfish display of male arrogance and bad taste. 

Rachel Weisz, who also acts as her father’s personal assistant, is easily the best thing in the film, as she’s a smart, vulnerable and relatable character who shows some imagination and verve, who doesn’t pout about her circumstances, but instead rails against her father for his rude and neglectful treatment of his own children, as he was never emotionally accessible, always on the road traveling with the symphony, while at home she was forever being shushed and instructed to “be quiet” while Daddy was busy at work composing music, locked away in a room somewhere that was completely off limits.  The beauty of this scathing monologue is that it is conducted while both are receiving side by side massages, where there is literally nothing he can do about it, where he’s forced to endure the full brunt of every blistering word.  Sorrentino is the closest thing to Fellini working today, where it wouldn’t be one of his signature films without a myriad of oddball side characters that continually keep popping up on the screen, like the gargantuan Diego Maradona soccer player with a full-sized tattoo of Karl Marx on his back who has ballooned up to over 400 pounds, who swims a length of the pool and stops, thoroughly exhausted, or a brief, poignant scene of a young masseuse seen dancing alone in her room showing surprising dexterity and ballet-like grace, or the stunning arrival of Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), the object of Fred’s daydreams even before she confidently takes a dip utterly naked in the wading pool with the eyes of two drooling men staring at her.  It’s, of course, a picture of what they’re missing, a part of their pasts that can never be regained, but can only be summoned in wish fulfillment daydreams (activate the trashy music video).  There’s even an all-too-brief appearance by Jane Fonda as Mick’s gutty actress Brenda Morel, the star of all his successful pictures, who is caked with so much make-up that she looks more like a campy character in drag, but she gives Mick a lacerating, no holds barred wake-up call in uncensored sailor lingo, traveling great distances to remind him face-to-face that his work has turned into “shit,” that “You’re going on 80, and like most of your colleagues, you’re getting worse with age,” declaring “Television is the future” before making a hasty retreat.  (Ironically Sorrentino is working on an 8-episode TV mini-series entitled The Young Pope co-produced by Sky Italy and HBO, expected release sometime in 2016).  While this summarily dismissive rant seems right out of some trashy soap opera, with equally melodramatic results, much of this operatic film is thoroughly intoxicating, where the music, much of it scored by American composer David Lang, couldn’t be more in synch with what’s shown onscreen, but there’s no real sense of urgency and some lingering questions whether any of this will matter or be remembered in the years to come.        

Monday, November 23, 2015

As We Were Dreaming (Als wir träumten)

AS WE WERE DREAMING (Als wir träumten)            C               
Germany  France  (117 mi)  2015  d:  Andreas Dresen            Official site [Germany]

While it’s unusual to find East German stories before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this anything but subtle film is adapted by Wolfgang Kohlhaase from the 2006 Clemens Meyer award-winning novel by the same name that covers the evolving lives of five friends from the East in Leipzig where the reunification has an unwelcome effect on each of them.  From the outset, one might question the director’s use of a heavily commercial stylization, featuring an in-your-face, high octane adrenal rush amped up by a pulsating techno beat, becoming a coming-of-age, punk rock anthem about a group of hell-raising friends that ends in shattered dreams and despair, as one by one each is on a collision course with destiny.  The relentlessly bleak narrative erupts with such an extreme degree of violence that the film is more of an assault to the senses, excessive to the point of gratuitous, causing a major disconnect between the audience and any of the characters, as the slick stylization supersedes any emotional involvement with the story.  Using strobe lights and bold chapter headings like “Gutter Hound,” “Street Dog,” “Murder in Germany,” “Always Ready,” “Rivalry,” or “Thunderstorm in the Brain,” the film literally revels in delinquent behavior followed by brutal fight scenes where the overall viciousness is hard to describe, where it’s difficult not to think much of this is brought on by their own adolescent stupidity, as a good part of the film is devoted to drinking, stealing, heavy drug use, hot-wiring cars, continual joyrides with drunken screaming and bottle-throwing, even wrecking an entire street full of cars, as these seem to be youthful expressions of rage, rebellion, and a perceived liberation.  The author Clemens Meyer has described himself as a “child of the street,” spending time in and out of youth correctional facilities, as does a featured character in the film, but writing offered him a way out, something that is altogether missing in this film, which is more about a stagnated path to alienation and destruction.  

As a 13-year old in the late 80’s, during an era of the young Pioneers all dressed in red scarves, a new generation indoctrinated with the socialist ideals of Soviet-style communism, Dani (Chiron Elias Krase) wins a poetry competition, raising hopes that he may one day be a reporter, while Rico (Tom von Heymann) dreams of being a boxer, and Mark (Nico Ramon Kleemann) a musician.  The rest are ambivalent about their future, where a depressed economy greets them four years later after the Soviets are gone, leaving behind a crumbling infrastructure of a city in decay, while whatever authority was once present has all but disappeared, where gangs and anarchy fill the void.  Not sure how historically accurate this picture is, though the director was born in East Germany not far from Leipzig, as the film has absolutely no political presence whatsoever other than a reference to the fall of the Berlin wall, as if the entire city is seen as a black market underground where everyone is forced to fend for themselves.  In the absence of an existing political and economic structure, what was East Germany became an open market free for all, where this group decides to open an underground music club in an abandoned building, which is merely an excuse to gather in one place for parties and large scale alcoholic binges.  The story concerns Dani, Merlin Rose from Wetlands (Feuchtgebiete)  (2013), the central figure and unofficial leader of the group whose interior voiceover guides us through the action, along with Rico (Julius Nitschkoff), a bruiser on the streets and in the ring who sees it as an opportunity to fight his natural enemies, Porno Paul (Frederic Haselon) who loves stealing cars, drug addict and official group anarchist Mark (Joel Basman), and Pitbull (Marcel Heuperman), the bouncer of the club who also deals drugs on the side.  Their dilapidated hell-hole of a club becomes the target of a neo-Nazi skinhead group headed by gang leader and neighborhood terrorizer Kehlmann (Gerdy Zint), who after a few street skirmishes decides to annihilate this group once and for all, overwhelming them with superior force and beating them up badly in a graphically raw and protracted fight scene while demolishing their club, suggesting an era of complete lawlessness. 

In the grim aftermath, Dani spends time in a youth detention center while Mark becomes strung out on heroin, leaving their splintered group a somewhat tattered remnant of what it once was.  While Mark tries to pick up the pieces after his release, the entire focus of the film changes from a chaotic group effort of misspent youth to solitary moments of otherwise abandoned souls who are struggling to survive.  Accordingly, Dani shifts the focus of his attention to Sternchen (Ruby O. Fee), the sexy girlfriend of the skinhead leader who remembers him from the neighborhood growing up, as he was the one who supposedly had potential.  But even they have little chemistry together, where their relationship is distant at best, reflecting the disjointed overall feel of the film, where there’s little connection between who they were as children and what they’ve become as young adults, where the hyperkinetic style prevents any identification with any of them, as it’s more a collection of isolated incidents than a coherent storyline, all thrown together in a jumbled mess of anarchy and rebellion.  While they all fail miserably in attempting to make a decent life for themselves, adults or authority figures are noticeably absent, where there is no one showing them the way, while connecting family members are equally missing.  All of which suggests the film is really a portrait of a lost generation of children at the end of the Cold War that were abandoned and neglected, literally hung out to dry by a Soviet government that simply packed up and left, leaving them to live or die on their own.  While their explosive teenage energy is misdirected and problematic, there is nothing to suggest anyone ever came to their rescue and offered them half a chance at a better life.  Instead Leipzig is portrayed as a desolate post-war city in ruins, the last vestiges of a crumbling political system that has failed in its entirety, leaving behind a landscape of abandoned warehouses and empty factories, a wasteland of streets that are continuously void of life, as no one shows their faces except to hurriedly get where they need to go, where there isn’t an ounce of joy anywhere to be found, instead only dark, deserted streets that may as well be an expression of their sadly relinquished futures.