Youth


Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

Michael Caine conducts himself with dignity.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Alex Macqueen, Madalina Ghenea, Mark Kozelek, Nate Dern, Alex Beckett, Mark Gessner, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Luna Mijovic, Dorji Wangchuk, Ed Stoppard, Robert Seethaler, Paloma Faith, Emilia Jones, Beatrice Walker, Rebecca Calder, Veronika Dash. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

We all age. From the moment we burst out of the womb our bodies are decaying on the way to decrepitude. And for the record, there’s no such thing as aging gracefully; there’s only the appearance of it. When we age, we do so with a distinct absence of grace. We go kicking and screaming, flailing away like an epileptic mule, into that good night.

In a remote spa resort in the Swiss Alps, retired composer/conductor Fred Ballinger is vacationing with his daughter Lena (Weisz) who is also his business assistant, and his best friend Mickey Boyle (Keitel) who is a respected Hollywood screenwriter putting the finishing touches with a team of writers on his latest script, which he considers his “moral testament,” a work that he sees as his enduring legacy.

A representative (Macqueen) of the Queen of England is there to convince Maestro Ballinger to conduct one of his most famous pieces, Simple Songs #3, for Prince Philip’s birthday at which time he would receive his knighthood, but Ballinger adamantly refuses for “personal reasons.” Try as he might to pry it out of him, the rep is stymied. However, the Queen can be mighty persistent.

Boyle is writing a hell of a part for an actress whose career he helped launch, Brenda Morel (Fonda) but her reaction to the role is startling and disappointing. Both men are realizing that their best days are behind them, and that they are slowly leaving the things of their youth behind, even as they see those who worship youth flutter around them like so many broken songbirds.

Sorrentino, who directed the Oscar-winning The Grand Beauty, is clearly influenced by the great Federico Fellini. Like Fellini, he has a fascination for women and like Fellini, he has an appreciation for the surreal dreams. As with most Fellini films, Sorrentino populates Youth with the jaded rich, those who have become so used to being able to afford anything they want that there’s nothing they want that they can afford. The shallow values of these people collide with the gorgeous Alpine scenery.

Ballinger and Boyle (which sounds like either a London barrister or a French champagne) are the exceptions. They are bemused by the couples who sit through dinner silently, the South American superstar so famous nobody need even say his name, the wealthy chasing after lost youth as if they could find it again and even if they could, that they can somehow bathe in it and become young again.

There is a great deal of depth to the movie, and it’s the kind that you have to work for. You have characters passing in and out like the actor (Dano) known for playing a robot studying for a new part – and it’s not one that you’d expect. Then there’s the lonely mountain climbing teacher (Seethaler) who approaches Lena, who herself has been cheated on and tossed aside by her husband – who happens to be Mick’s son – and is rebounding in the arms of a gentler, kinder man.

Still, it is Michael Caine who is magnificent here. An actor as versatile as there has been in the last 50 years, if anyone in Hollywood has aged gracefully, he has. He plays a man who has shut away his emotions to the point that when they do come out, it’s a shock. They are most certainly there, but deep below his calm, upper class demeanor. While he dismisses his work as simplistic, there’s no doubt that they mean something very personal to him and even his daughter, whom he has never been able to express his feelings for, knows it. Caine has some of the best moments in the film, particularly a balcony conversation with Mick near the end of the movie that takes a shocking turn. I will always remember his character conducting the cows in the Tyrolean meadows as well as the birds and the wind, making a beautiful symphony only he – and we – hear.

Fonda also has a bravura moment with Keitel, coming off as perhaps the most Fellini-esque of the characters here, with her shrill demeanor, her dangling cigarette and her laid-on-with-a-trowel makeup that make her look like a party guest in a Fellini film. That leads into another sequence reminiscent of the great Italian director in which Mick’s leading ladies all appear in a meadow, repeating robotically the lines from their films.

When Mick tells Fred in a breaking voice “You say that emotions are overrated, but…emotions are all we’ve got,” he’s speaking for Sorrentino. While there’s a lot here to occupy the mind, this is ultimately a movie of the heart and it speaks directly to that organ more so than the one above the neck.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack, particularly the contributions of Mark Kozelek (vocalist of the Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon). His voice is as calming and soothing as any you’ll ever here; he’s literally human lithium. His version of Yes’ ”Onward” (written by the late great Chris Squire and the best song he ever wrote) is used three times during the film. It’s a beautiful song about love and perfectly underscores the themes of the movie.

Fellini is very much an acquired taste and not everything here is going to appeal to everyone. Sorrentino often flashes images of people or things seemingly at random, or juxtaposes images with dialogue or songs in a way that very much recalls the late director. Not everyone is going to like it but if you like Italian cinema of the 60s, or simply very good movies that appeal to both head and heart, you’re going to find something here to love. Of course if you’re a Fellini fan, so much the better; but those who find his style too pretentious might want to give this one a miss.

REASONS TO GO: There is truly some magic here. Caine’s performance is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally pretentious and confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: Graphic nudity, some sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ghenea was 26 at the time of filming, which would have tied her for the honor of the oldest Miss Universe ever were she actually the part she plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Dolce Vita
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Hateful Eight

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Tamara Drewe


The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Roger Allam, Luke Evans, Bill Camp, Tamsin Greig, Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie, James Naughtie, John Bett, Josie Taylor, Bronagh Gallagher, Pippa Haywood, Susan Wooldridge, Amanda Lawrence, Zahra Ahmadi, Cheryl Campbell. Directed by Stephen Frears

Thomas Hardy famously wrote that “you can’t go home again.”  I have always taken that to mean that when you leave your home, your journey elsewhere changes you or time changes your home. Either way when you return the changes made to you, the place you call home or both leave it an entirely different experience altogether.

Tamara Drewe (Arterton) left the quiet Dorset village of Ewedown to seek her fortune as a journalist in London. She left an ugly duckling with a nose large enough to put off the village boys (except for one) from being friendly with her; she returns a beautiful swan, not only having found success in her career but a skilled plastic surgeon as well.

She’s returned to sell the home she grew up in after her mum passed away. But not only has Tamara changed, Ewedown has as well. It has become home to a writer’s colony, set up by bestselling crime author Nicholas Hardiment (Allam) but mainly administered by his tolerant wife Beth (Greig). Nicholas is a bit too busy philandering to really take an interest in it.

Tamara’s arrival as far as Nicholas is concerned means one more pair of panties to get inside but to others in the village, it means a different thing altogether. For Andy (Evans), the boy we spoke of earlier who was the only one to be romantically drawn to Tamara, it means a second chance to be with the woman he loves (but it also means additional income as Tamara hires him to help get the house in order for the sale). For local teens Jody (Barden) and Casey (Christie) it means someone else to torment and another life to investigate. Jody in particular has it in for Tamara because she has been having an affair (after Nicholas has come and gone) with rock drummer Ben Sargeant (Cooper) whom Jody has a huge crush on. And for aspiring writer Glen McCreavy (Camp) who has come to Dorset from America to immerse himself in Hardy and perhaps find a muse, it is an opportunity to develop a relationship with Beth whom he slowly becomes infatuated with – it must be the scratch-baked pastries.

All in all, there will be meddling, secrets revealed, tragedy, comedy and frankly, a lot of people getting what they deserve. But what would Thomas Hardy think?

Frears is a marvelous director who often looks at the libidinous nature of life and finds humor in it. He directed one of my favorite all-time films in High Fidelity as well as some pretty high quality efforts in My Beautiful Launderette and The Queen. He shows a good sensibility for capturing the rhythms and quirks of English country life here, largely due to an intelligent and well-written script by Moira Buffini.

Arterton has been developing an impressive resume of both big-budget tentpole films and more intimate indies and dramas. Here she’s mostly required to be sexy, which she is amply qualified for. While she receives top billing, the movie really isn’t about Tamara. Tamara is more of a catalyst.

Frears has wisely cast a group of actors who don’t necessarily have a lot of name value (although Cooper and Evans are both building respectable careers) but are entirely capable. Greig in particular does extremely well in the sympathetic role of Beth who manages to be kind and supportive even though she is no fool and is perfectly aware that her husband is a rotten human being.

The film is high on charm albeit low on insight. This isn’t a movie to turn to when you want to learn something new about human nature, although if you lack experience in such you might sing a different tune. To be honest, there are definitely many films out there (including by Frears himself) that capture the foibles and quagmires of love more succinctly.

The one real misstep in the script is a fairly major one – the characters of Jody and Casey. While they do cause some of the major plot points to occur, in all honesty every time they take the screen as a kind of Greek chorus, they tend to summarize what’s going on with each of the characters that they are in the midst of investigating. The movie loses what momentum it has when this occurs and could have done better without them.

For me, this was a movie that while charming is ultimately full of empty calories. The pastries that Beth bake are from scratch, crafted with love and honest ingredients. The film however feels store-bought in a lot of ways. Me, I would rather enjoy something home baked than something out of a box.

WHY RENT THIS: Superb performance by Greig. A great deal of charm. Captures rural English village life in the 21st century perfectly. Intelligently written.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really offer much in the way of insight. Jody and Casey tend to stop the film in its tracks when they are onscreen.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and a fair amount of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original graphic novel by Posy Simmonds was itself a collection of comic strips originally published in the UK newspaper The Guardian and was a modern re-imagining of the Thomas Hardy classic Far From the Madding Crowd.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a discussion with Frears and Arterton on how the graphic novel was transformed into a film and some of the differences therein.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.9M on an unreported production budget; this was very likely a solidly profitable film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Dry Land


The Dry Land

Ryan O’Nan and America Ferrera look towards an uncertain future in the Heartland.

(2010) Drama (Freestyle) Ryan O’Nan, America Ferrera, Melissa Leo, Jason Ritter, Wilmer Valderrama, Ethan Suplee, June Diane Raphael, Diego Klattenhoff, Ana Claudia Talancon, Evan Jones, Zion Sandoval, Benito Martinez, Barry Shabaka Henley. Directed by Ryan Piers Williams

 

Some see war as a grand exercise in duty and honor, a means of achieving personal glory or perhaps advancing a cause through battle. Those of that mindset are not the ones usually on the front lines. Those warriors who actually fight, who risk life and limb are the ones who pay the price – even if they survive.

James (O’Nan) has returned home to Texas from his tour of duty a damaged soul. His body is OK, but the trauma of surviving unscathed sometimes is just as bad as the trauma of suffering grave injury. He can’t stop thinking about an ambush in which his buddy Henry (Klattenhoff) got hurt.

His wife Sarah (Ferrera) is only happy to have her man home at long last but it doesn’t take long for her to notice that he’s not the man who left for war all those months ago. He’s changed; he has become distant and brooding. She tries her hardest to break through; his best friend Michael (Ritter) tries as well but to no avail.

He takes a job in his father-in-law’s (Martinez) slaughterhouse but the scenes of death and butchery only serve to remind him of the carnage he witnessed in Afghanistan. He also begins to get suspicious of Sarah and Michael, wondering if they have a different agenda than his well-being.

James starts turning towards people who might have some frame of reference in understanding him, like his combat buddy Raymond Gonzales (Valderrama) who has returned home to a neighboring Texas town as well. Raymond is a volatile powder keg who is steadfast in his loyalty to his friends but with an unbelievably short fuse when it comes to everyone else. Together they decide on the spur of the moment to go visit Henry in the VA hospital. That meeting has unexpected consequences that lead to both James and Raymond going in unexpected directions – and Sarah may end up being caught in the crossfire.

The return of veterans home from war has been fodder for Hollywood for ages and none did it better than The Best Years of Our Lives which in essence set the template for movies like this one. In all honesty, I’m not sure what sort of experience Williams has with the military – whether he himself served or someone close to him – but he has the feel of it right.

Williams captures the camaraderie between brothers – as those who serve under fire inevitably are – with brevity and depth. There isn’t a lot of posturing here, the kind of lovefest you might find between drunks which is often how Hollywood portrays it. Instead there’s that simple, quiet knowledge that something has been shared that nobody else can understand unless they were there.

It helps that his cast does an excellent job here. There are no histrionics, no grand speechifying – just people trying to live their lives as best they can, keeping their heads down as much as possible and in general just getting on with things. It’s a quintessinally American outlook, the U.S. version of the stiff upper lip and Williams captures the attitude well.

I’ve been a big fan of Ferrera since I saw her in Real Woman Have Curves during Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper’s Floating Film Festival several years back and this might be her best performance to date. Sarah is a complicated character, a good woman who wants to be a good wife but one who has been alone for a long time and who now finds herself alone even though her husband is back home. It’s a heartbreaking performance and the emotional center of the movie.

O’Nan plays James as a cypher who keeps his emotions close to his vest. It’s not always an easy task to figure him out, but I think that it’s an honest portrayal; James should be difficult to peg. It gives the viewer a sense of what his family and friends are going through. It’s not a sympathetic performance maybe but it is a gutsy one.

Leo is one of my favorite actresses today and even though her part is small and very much in the vein of part she has been cast in seemingly every time out, she at least gives it enough subtle shading to make it unique. Ritter is showing signs of breaking out into legitimate stardom; he could be one performance away from achieving it.

The bleak and barren Texas landscapes are fine companions to the brutal images of the slaughterhouse. Some of those images might be disturbing to the sensitive; I understand the need for them though, although I might have used them a bit more sparingly. A little brutality goes a long way in a movie as understated as this one is.

Not everything works. Some of the more talky scenes seem to be at odds with the overall feel of the movie. The Dry Land is at its best when it is quiet. This isn’t a movie about bombast and noise; it is a movie about people quietly and perhaps desperately trying to cling to something while the world strips them of their dignity and even their humanity. There are some powerful messages to be had here when the movie is at its best; I would have wished for some more consistency  but there is enough worthy material to warrant keeping an eye out on Williams as  a potentially great filmmaker in the nascent stages of his career.

WHY RENT THIS: Taut performances from nearly all the cast. Some tremendous images, disturbing and otherwise.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Uneven. The reach exceeds the grasp but just by a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of bad language, some sexuality and violence as well as some disturbing situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A number of the lead actors are TV sitcom veterans (Ferrera in “Ugly Betty,” Valderrama in “That ’70s Show” and Suplee in “My Name is Earl”).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11,777 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brothers

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Wild Target

Cowboys & Aliens


Cowboys & Aliens

If these townsfolk had seen Battlestar: Gallactica they'd be running and screaming by now.

(2011) Sci-Fi Western (DreamWorks/Universal) Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell, Adam Beach, Paul Dano, Noah Ringer, Keith Carradine, Clancy Brown, Ana de la Reguera, Abigail Spencer, Toby Huss, Walton Goggins, Raoul Trujillo. Directed by Jon Favreau

We all know that stagecoaches belong in Westerns and starships in Sci-Fi movies and never the twain shall meet. Why that is, I’m not sure – but at last the twain have actually met.

A stranger (Craig) wakes up in the badlands of the New Mexico territory circa 1873. He has no idea where he is and no memory of who he is. He also has a strange shackle on his wrist and a strange wound in his side that is still bleeding but half-cauterized. He is immediately beset by a trio of bounty hunters but apparently he knows how to fight and he definitely knows how to kill, besting the three of them, stealing their clothes, their gold, one of their horses and their dog.

He rides into the town of Absolution, and enters a house on the outskirts to freshen up. The owner of the house, Preacher Meacham (Brown) takes exception to this but eventually warms up to the lost lamb and helps stitch up his wound.

Later on, Percy Dolarhyde (Dano) goes on a drunken rampage shooting up the town, despite attempts by Nat Colorado (Beach), the right-hand man of Percy’s father to placate him, and the pleas for clemency by saloon owner Doc (Rockwell) and his wife Maria (De la Reguera). That’s Doc’s wife, not Percy’s by the way.

Percy accidentally shoots a sheriff’s deputy and the stranger eventually subdues him. Sheriff Taggart (Carradine) recognizes the stranger from a wanted poster; he’s Jake Lonergan, a notorious stagecoach bandit and murderer. Taggart’s attempts to capture Lonergan appear to be going south when a mysterious beautiful woman, Ella Swenson (Wilde) clocks Lonergan with a 2×4 and knocks him cold.

Meanwhile, Percy’s father, Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) is investigating some of his cattle who have been burned along with his men who have gone missing when word reaches him that his son has been arrested. The wealthy and powerful Colonel Dolarhyde rides into town with Nat and a posse of his men to go take his son out of custody and also to remove Lonergan, who had most recently stolen a shipment of Dolarhyde’s gold.  

Things are just about to get ugly when they are interrupted by the appearance of strange lights in the sky. Those lights turn out to be alien spaceships which launch concussive fireballs into the town, knocking over buildings but harming nobody. That might be because the aliens are abducting the townspeople, including Percy, Maria and Sheriff Taggart. The day is saved somewhat by Lonergan, whose shackle hides a weapon that takes down one of the alien ships. It turns out that is the only effective weapon against them, so when Colonel Dolarhyde wants to go rescue his son and the other townspeople, he insists that Lonergan go with them.

Lonergan has no such plan however and rides off on his own to find out who he is and why he has this metal doo-hickey on his wrist. The secret of his identity may rest with the mysterious Ella and the mystery of who Jake Lonergan is and what happened to him may hold the key to saving the world from these nasty aliens.

Favreau is currently riding high as one of comicdom’s fan favorites on the strength of Iron Man and its sequel. While his latest film is ostensibly based on the Platinum Studios comic of the same name, in reality it shares little in common besides the title.

Favreau had originally wanted to cast Robert Downey Jr. in the lead role but when he had to bow out to work on Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows Daniel Craig was cast instead and a fine bit of luck that was. Craig is far better at the Eastwood-like mysterious stranger than I think Downey would have been and he interacts with Ford in a much more believable manner.

Having Ford and Craig as your leads in a Western is about as fortuitous casting as it gets. Ford in particular is gruff and curmudgeonly, snarling and barking like a dog but having something of a puppy heart deep down. Craig, James Bond aside, is an excellent action hero and while Favreau has characterized Ford as the modern John Wayne, I think a case could be made for Craig as a modern Gary Cooper as well.

Overall, the cast is pretty nifty with Brown taking high marks as the Preacher who may look like a missing cough drop brother but has a surprisingly modern take on faith. Dano gets some of the best comic bits as the sniveling son of the wealthy rancher (a cliché that he helped make palatable here) and Wilde is surprisingly good as the mysterious woman – I hadn’t seen much of her work but now I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing more of her in future roles. Beach is one of my favorite character actors ever since he emerged in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (he also grew up in Winnipeg which adds further points) and he continues to impress here. Sam Rockwell, one of the better actors working today, has a minor role that Rockwell underplays nicely. Having the sheriff’s nephew along for the posse’s ride is unnecessary and ridiculous – his part could have easily have been taken by a teenager or an adult. You don’t need a kid in every single film to save the day y’know.

The western vistas of New Mexico look great on the big screen here and three cheers to Favreau for resisting the studio’s pressure to film this in 3D. I think the movie benefitted by being left in traditional 2D and the bright sunlit canyons and badlands look better without the polarized lens of the modern 3D glasses.

The action sequences are at times amazing, with CGI alien ships going at Apaches and gunslingers going full-tilt on horseback. The aliens themselves are plenty scary, with a sturdy shell-like carapace, recessed hands and a real cruelty and lust for gold. Think of them as intergalactic versions of bankers and mortgage company CEOs. Okay, maybe they’re not that evil.

At the end of the day, a movie like this has to be fun and for the most part it is – the ratio of action to exposition should have leaned a little heavier towards the former but there is still enough of it to make this worth your while. If you don’t go for Westerns, the sci-fi element might be enough to make it palatable while if you don’t like sci-fi, you might take comfort in the western elements instead. If you don’t like either one, well, this is good enough filmmaking for you to check out anyway. I had hoped for a little bit better, but it is entertaining nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Ford and Craig provide plenty of star power and Wilde, Rockwell, Beach, Dano and Brown provide fine support. Interesting mash-up of genres.

REASONS TO STAY: Action sequences are great but too far between. The kid is completely unnecessary here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence and bloodshed, some disturbing creature effects, a little bit of partial nudity and some kids in jeopardy – the very young will probably get nightmares out of this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first comic book from Platinum Studios to be adapted to the big screen; this is the third comic adaptation from DreamWorks (after The Road to Perdition and Over the Hedge).

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely a summer popcorn flick meant to be seen in a multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Crazy, Stupid, Love