Youth

This latest English-language effort for Italian director Paolo Sorrentino is a philosophical, funny and ultimately moving film that muses on all manner of things; aging, loneliness, family, friendship, life and death. Featuring fabulous performances from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and an array of supporting players that include Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda, Youth is an altogether sumptuous experience that will resonate long after the closing credits. After the turgid tripe that is The Last Witchhunter, it is great to see Caine in something much more substantial and he is terrific as revered composer and conductor Fred Ballinger, who is on holiday in a Swiss health retreat when he is invited by the Queen to present one of his masterpieces at a Royal Command Performance. Joining Fred on his holiday are his daughter Lena (Weisz) and lifelong best friend Mick Boyle (Keitel), an acclaimed film director who, with a writing team in tow, is scripting a new film as a starring vehicle for his old friend Brenda Morel (Fonda). There are a vast array of eclectic characters staying at the retreat, including a Hollywood actor (Dano), Miss Universe, a once great footballer now excessively overweight and beset by health problems (Diego Maradona anybody?), a levitating monk and a wealthy couple who never speak a word to each other but then sneak off to have sex in the forest.

Youth poster

The relationship between Fred and Mick is one that has flourished over more than 60 years and their lives are so entwined that Lena is married to Mick’s son. Much of the film is spent following the two old men as they stroll the grounds and surrounding countryside (which is beautiful), doing as best they can to cling to memories of their shared past. Whilst Fred has happily said goodbye to his music career, Mick can’t come to terms with the prospect that his career may also be over and is desperately trying to repair his reputation after a series of poorly received films. This is a rendering of male friendship with an insight and emotion rarely seen on the big screen and both actors bring vulnerability and wit to their characters. The relationship between Fred and Lena seems great on the surface – she works as his assistant and shares a hotel room with him – but when Lena launches into a tirade about the way in which Fred treated her and her mother, citing extra-marital affairs and an all-consuming devotion to his art, it is a powerful moment that provides considerable insight into the type of person that Fred once was. However, when Fred’s reasons for declining the Queen’s invitation are revealed, it suggests a sense of regret for his failings as a husband and a love for his wife that he had perhaps failed to articulate previously.

Youth 1

Dano imbues his character with a cockiness and cynicism that makes it all the more delicious when he gets him comeuppance at the hand of a precocious young girl (Emilia Jones), one of many great peripheral characters who inhabit the narrative. Fonda is absolutely fabulous in a brief but indelible turn as a bitchy Hollywood diva who issues Mick with a scathing critique of his arty pretensions, while one of the least successful elements of the film is pop star Paloma Faith playing herself as the mistress of Lena’s husband. Whilst her utterances are kept to a minimum, Croation actress Luna Mijovic is mesmerising as a lonely masseuse who spends her nights dancing to her Wii.

Youth 2

There is so much to like about Youth. The banter between the two old men always seems insignificant at first but always morphs into much broader discussions about lost opportunities, yearning, memory and regret. Caine and Keitel are a joy to watch as they grapple with their conflicting attitudes towards aging. The cinematography from Luca Bigazzi is gorgeous and the use of music throughout – from a cover of Florence and the Machine’s You’ve Got the Love to Fred conducting a symphony from the sounds of nature – is both overt and affective. With Youth, Sorrentino has struck the right balance between mirth and melancholy to deliver a film that ultimately suggests that the emotional trumps the intellectual in the pursuit of a meaningful existence.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Objectivity in any review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a hard thing to achieve when you have spent your life as an avowed admirer of George Lucas’s cinematic universe. This seventh instalment comes amid much anticipation and I, as a fan, certainly had some reservations about Disney taking control of the franchise. Thankfully, director J.J. Abrams has been able to produce something that is very much in keeping with the style and tone of the first three releases. As such, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a funny, action-adventure tale that effectively embraces the old whilst introducing a series of new characters more than capable of carrying the weight of future chapters. In fact, given the scale of the galactic world in which this story is set, the potential for future films is considerable. Thankfully for me, the fact that the film is such a terrific addition to the franchise certainly alleviates any concerns I may have had about my personal predilections unduly influencing any attempt to evaluate the film dispassionately.

Star Wars poster

Some 30 years after the defeat of Darth Vader and his evil Empire, a new malevolent legion has arisen in the form of First Order, led by the Vader wannabe (mask and all) Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). With First Order gaining power and threatening to unleash a weapon capable of destroying entire civilisations, along comes Rey (Daisy Ridley) a scavenger from the planet Jakku who finds a droid that seemingly knows the whereabouts long lost Jedi knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Joined in her quest by runaway Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and a couple of familiar faces in wisecracking smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his loyal sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Rey sets forth to locate Skywalker and lure him back into the fold in an effort to bring down First Order. Also reprising her role is Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and it wouldn’t be Star Wars without the obnoxious C-3PO and fellow droid R2-D2, perhaps the two most recognisable characters in the entire Star Wars pantheon.

Star Wars 2

So much of Star Wars: The Force Awakens harks back to the first three movies (which, of course, are actually episodes four to six). There is plenty of humour and witty repartee amidst the action, something that was absent from the most recent trio of films, with Chewbacca obviously having many of the best lines, even though we have no idea what he is saying. The Stormtroopers still possess the  worst aim of any military force ever known to man, there is a bar scene reminiscent of the Cantina in A New Hope and, of course, the trusty Millenium Falcon is resurrected as Rey’s vehicle of choice (albeit in somewhat desperate circumstances). It is hard to fathom that there have been criticisms about the fact that Rey is so good at everything she does because, after all, isn’t this what we expect from our heroes. In Rey we have a new central character around whose escapades future stories can revolve, but I guess the thought of a young woman possessing both competence and confidence is just too much for some to bear. Driver is the standout performer, although Ridley and Boyega do bring a nice chemistry to their on-screen relationship.

Star Wars 1

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Abrams has produced an action-packed space opera that is as much, perhaps more, than anybody could have hoped. It is difficult to recount  a lot of what happens without giving too much away, but those who have invested in the series over the last 30+ years might be shocked with some of the narrative developments. However, Abrams and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt deserve credit for being prepared to cut some ties with the old guard to move the overall Star Wars narrative forward. Of course, the ending is about as blatant as can be in setting up for the sequel we already know is coming, but that is hardly a bad thing because, if this film is any indication at least, there are still plenty of potential characters and story ideas to come and I can’t wait to return once again to this fantastical far flung world.

The Bélier Family

This delightful French musical drama-comedy has certainly created plenty of headlines – which have no doubt helped the bottom line considerably – and has apparently caused considerable consternation amongst France’s hearing-impaired community. Whilst it is hard to ignore the criticisms directed at the film, it seems as though much of the outrage is misdirected or driven by a superficial familiarity with the characters. You see, The Bélier Family follows the trials and tribulations of a quirky dairy farming family, all of whom are deaf with the exception of 15-year-old Paula (Louane Emera). In addition to helping around the farm and attending school, Paula also serves as the interpreter at their cheese stall on market day as well as dealing with clients, suppliers and the like over the phone. Her life is already hectic enough when a decision to join the school choir – ostensibly to be near a boy she fancies – results in her being offered an opportunity to study singing in Paris. Needless to say, the possibility of Paula leaving the farm results in much consternation and familial tension.

Belier Family poster

Some have argued that the depiction of Paula’s family – father Rodolphe (Francois Damiens), mother Gigi (Karin Viard) and younger brother Quentin (Luca Gelberg) – is a ‘crass’ and ‘embarrassing’ interpretation of deaf culture, particularly given the fact that director Eric Lartigau opted not to use deaf actors in the roles. However, the humour that emanates from Rodolphe and Gigi is not because of their deafness, or because of the actors playing the deafness for laughs, it comes from the circumstances in which they find themselves and the way in which they react to them. The humour is not derived from their deafness, but rather from the fact that they are typically embarrassing parents. We do not laugh at them because they use sign language, we laugh at them because of what they say. Of course, the fact that they are deaf does make it hard for them to understand Paula’s passion for music and therefore makes her impending departure a little harder to accept than a teenager chasing such an opportunity might ordinarily be. Even with her role in the family business, there is never a suggestion that they are incapable of functioning effectively without her.

Belier Family 2

Having been discovered on the French version of reality singing show The Voice, Emera handles the singing with aplomb and is remarkably assured in her first acting role. She handles both the drama and comedy with equal conviction and it is no surprise that she has been awarded Most Promising Actress at both the César and Lumiere Awards. It is her likeability that makes the film – which is clichéd and edging towards melodrama at times – so utterly enjoyable. There are myriad moments of humour that are refreshing in their candour, such as Gigi’s delight at Paula experiencing her first period or Quentin’s allergic reaction at the most inopportune time. There are a range of eclectic supporting characters, from Paula’s sexually fervent best friend Mathilde (Roxane Duran) to music teacher Fabian (Eric Elmosnino), who is both perverse and passionate. Of all the narrative threads, the romance between Paula and Gabriel (Ilian Bergala) is perhaps the least engaging although, thankfully, it is never cloying, mainly because Paula is just too goddamn busy (she is always running or riding somewhere) to invest too much time in matters of the heart.

Belier Family 1

Sure, it would be nice to see hearing-impaired performers secure roles such as these, but the likes of Damiens and Viard taking on these characters is no different to Francois Cluzet playing a paraplegic in The Intouchables, Jamie Foxx as blind bluesman Ray Charles in Ray or Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot as Christy Brown, an artist stricken with cerebral palsy. As much as I am loathe to use the term ‘feel good movie’ to describe The Bélier Family, there is no doubt that this is an uplifting affair in which the characters are largely likeable and genuinely amusing. The music embedded in the narrative – via Paula’s performances and the music she listens to – is simply another element to enjoy and it would be hard to remain unmoved during her rendition of Michel Sardou’s Je Vole that essentially seals her fate. This is a French funny that is definitely worth catching.

Spectre

The latest instalment of this seemingly endless movie franchise, in which Daniel Craig makes his fourth appearance as super spy James Bond, is one that seems to very much reflect the sensibilities of director Sam Mendes. Far less action oriented than previous films – although there are still some ludicrously over-the-top sequences – Spectre is the talkiest Bond film I can recall. Whether it is the fact that the previous 26 movies in the Bond franchise have drained the well of ideas, or simply because Mendes wanted to make something a little more esoteric, it’s hard to know. However, the finished product is something that can be a slog at times with long periods in which nothing much happens. Extended sequences of dialogue-driven scenes are fine as long as the script provides the various characters with material that is engaging and insightful. I mean, Mendes’ best films (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) have been rich in fantastic dialogue and verbal stoushes between characters for which they have been rightly recognised and remain highly regarded. Despite the best of intentions – seemingly to elevate the Bond movie from campy to credible – the film fails to fire.

Spectre poster

Whilst, traditionally, Bond films have really been a series of loosely connected set-pieces in which the  debonair hero jumps, fights, flies, drives, shoots or roots his way out of trouble, plonking the action clichés of the day into beautiful locations filled with beautiful people, interspersed with corny jokes, double entendres and a bombastic musical score, the Craig-era films have seen the emergence of a mythology surrounding the super spy that seems to be in keeping with a formula used with great success by Marvel in their myriad comic book adaptations. There is a certain logic to such an approach given that James Bond is, ostensibly, a superhero whose costume just happens to be a designer-label suit rather than a garish spandex ensemble. It also works to an extent because Craig is by far the most serious of the Bond incarnations, a far cry from the likes of Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan in his earnest pursuit of evildoers. However, when the action lulls, the film becomes somewhat stagnant as it delves into Bond’s past, revisiting characters and events from previous films and his life pre-007. To make matters worse, this is the longest Bond film ever and that becomes patently obvious as it becomes bogged down in back story that, to be honest, isn’t that interesting. Perhaps, more to the point, it just isn’t delivered in an interesting way.

Spectre 1

Opening amid the Day of the Dead ceremony in Mexico, the traditional pre-credits sequence is every bit as spectacular as we have come to expect. On this occasion, Bond manages to destroy an entire building before punching-on inside a helicopter that is spiralling out of control above a square crowded with revellers; all before Sam Smith’s theme sing kicks into gear. When Bond infiltrates a secret meeting and uncovers the existence of an organisation known as Spectre, he seeks the help of a not-long-for-this-world old nemesis in Mr White (Jesper Christensen) and ultimately his daughter Madeline Swann (Leah Seydoux) in a bid to crush Spectre. Of course, through it all, Bond defies any orders issued by M (Ralph Fiennes) and relies upon the good graces of Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) to provide him the administrative and technical support that he needs. There are a couple of other moments of mayhem, including a fight sequence on a train in which Bond takes on the physically imposing Mr Hinx (Dave Bautista), but this is an otherwise subdued entry into the Bond catalogue. Even the sex (which has never really been that salacious to begin with) has been toned down here; neither his brief dalliance with the widow of his Mexico City adversary (Monica Bellucci) nor his inevitable bedding of Madeline are remotely titillating, which is fine except for the fact that the Bond persona is built, in large part, around his lusty liaisons.

Spectre 2

Bellucci is grossly under-used as Lucia, while Seydoux does the best she can with the material at her disposal. Christoph Waltz is suitably sinister as the nefarious Blofeld (the eighth screen incarnation of the character), whose beef with Bond is drawn from a family circumstance as much as the latter’s efforts to thwart Blofeld’s attempt to seize control the world’s surveillance technologies. There are many recognisable elements here that mark this very much as a James Bond adventure, but the attempts to humanise our hero only serve to strangle the life out the film. Not the worst Bond by any stretch, but it is certainly a few rungs below the benchmark of recent times that was 2006’s Casino Royale.