Archive for February, 2016

The American Dreamershowing on MUBI at the time of writing – is an intriguing, reflexive 1971 documentary about Dennis Hopper, shot during the production and editing of his directorial magnum opus The Last Movie. The film, by L.M. Kit Carson & Lawrence Schiller, captures relentless-zeitgeist-barometer Hopper in a revealing moment of self-discovery, transgression and vanity.

We find Hopper holed up in Taos, New Mexico and spend only a fraction of screen time on the production of The Last Movie. Instead, the film conveys Hopper’s rapport with Carson and Schiller and his idea of what this documentary portrait should be: this involves Hopper surrounding himself with hip young women (“play bunnies”), in a scenario that resembles a harem as much as it does a love-in. He also spends time in the surrounding countryside pondering life and firing automatic rifles.

Hopper – an actor capable of murky depth and raw humanity (see The American Friend & Apocalypse Now) – actually comes across less intriguing as himself, in the guise of bohemian commune leader, than he does usually as an actor. In his acting work we often see his powerful empathetic qualities at work, in even the most troubled characters. Here Hopper appears self-absorbed and chauvinistic, posturing even, in his efforts to be the radical figure that he was known to be.

But as the artifice slides away, so does his attempt at masking it. Speaking directly to the filmmakers and to the camera, he reveals his willingness to participate in the film, in spite of the potentially negative outcome. As in many of his best performances Hopper allows us to see the truth of the character and here he rather knowingly reveals himself; flaws, superficiality and all.

Fortunately Carson and Schiller engage with their subject with the degree of humour he demands. The film opens with a scene in which Hopper greets them naked at the door of his house, before getting into the bath in front of their eyes (and the camera lens.) In another scene he strips off and walks down a suburban street in Los Alamos (the home of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the hydrogen bomb), as an act of liberation against the hidden violent history of the place.

As Werner Herzog has said: “filmmaking can easily turn you into a clown” and in its way The American Dreamer does so to Hopper. Yet, this film doesn’t diminish his place as an artist, for Dennis Hopper was forever a risk taker and cinema is so much richer for his life and legacy.

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Following hot on the heels of the hugely successful revenge thriller Blue Ruin comes Jeremy Saulnier’s third feature, the similarly downcast Green Room.

After a wave of hype from Cannes and Toronto screenings, Green Room lands here as one of the hot picks for the festival and it is not difficult to see why. The presence of the legendary Patrick Stewart, who plays Darcy, the proprietor of the nazi-skinhead punk club where the film’s gig-turned-siege takes place, is, of course, the most prominent reason for said hype. Despite the unlikely description, Stewart’s character is a sinisterly collected and pragmatic character, which Stewart does well not to over-sell; this gives the rest of the film room to breathe, despite his potentially overawing presence.

Green Room follows young D.I.Y punk band “Ain’t Rights” as they try and survive on the road, with little money and resources, performing the art they love.  The first act sets a warm tone through the luscious landscape and band’s camaraderie. Saulnier, however, soon creates the same tense mood and atmosphere as his previous work, shooting entirely in the exceedingly scenic Portland, Oregon countryside.

Saulnier has said in interviews promoting Green Room that he comes from a punk music background, hailing from the legendary Washington D.C scene (as does the band of the film) and it is highly refreshing to see punk music presented in a genuinely positive light – where so often it can become a negative stereotype. As someone who has performed and toured in punk bands myself, it was particularly heartening to see a film realistically made within this world.

The film, of course, shows the other side of the coin too, in the violent racist skinhead types who act like gangsters; but thankfully they aren’t as much of a problem in reality anymore. However, even they are shown as a brotherhood who look out for each other – despite their hateful views – making them more than mere one-dimensional bad guys.

After the band see a horrific crime in the titular green room, things “turn south”, as Darcy proclaims and the band are held hostage within the scene of the crime. The two groups have their relationships tested, as the tension and stakes ratchet increasingly upwards. Darcy and his group have the upper hand, a fact that becomes brutally clear once things begin to boil over, while the central band try to work a way out of the place together.

What follows is a violent yet thrilling revenge plot, as the band attempt to turn the tables on their captors. There are plenty of fun set-pieces, using some inventive props unique to the DIY punk venue setting, which is consistent with the dark humour that rumbles throughout the film; much like the incessant music and feedback that rings around the background throughout.

Green Room sees some great performances from a mostly young cast, including Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) and Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) in the band, with Imogen Poots as the mysterious, betrayed friend of the skinhead gang. On top of this, the sense of dread is impressive, particularly when the majority of the film takes place in the one room. The film is complete with some truly nasty moments, but equally a well-driven narrative, which keeps Green Room a fresh and impressive effort from this young director.

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French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has found a great deal of success in the past two years with his Oscar-nominated pictures Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, so it is a little bit of a surprise to see him so unfocused here. He has a more than capable cast at his disposal with the ever enticing Jake Gyllenhaal leading the charge, as a man who discovers his life has been something of a lie – after his wife dies in a car crash, which he survives.

Initially Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) has what many would consider the perfect life: a beautiful, smart wife, a highly lucrative job in investment banking and a nice house in the New York state suburbs. While penning a therapeutic letter to a snack vending machine company – who are responsible for a machine that doesn’t dispense the requested sweets – Mitchell realises in mourning that his life has no substance. He admits that he barely understood his wife, his job was earned on “pure nepotism” (as the CEO is his father-in-law) and due to its nature there was never “anything physical you could hold in your hands” other than the profits made. Furthermore, Mitchell realises that he has merely coasted through life, not really paying attention to anyone and living purely through material objects.

So his newfound focus on “everything being a metaphor” is a believable, if not entirely original, conceit as this widower begins to see the world differently; he pays more attention to the world around him and finds the titular act of “demolition” particularly cathartic, especially when he destroys his own marital house. Gyllenhaal too does a decent job of showing the once fairly shallow Davis transforming into a more attenuative character.

The problem comes when Davis begins practising this in the real world. His new found freedom makes him a far more sympathetic character, but there’s no real progression of this idea throughout the film beyond: wife dies, realises stuff, makes some concessions at the end. It is claimed in the film that “total honesty is your thing” about the new-born Davis, which even he jokes about, as if this is a reason to explain the film’s spotty narrative.

Elsewhere, the film lacks much focus or direction. After a while, his continued letters to the vending company gets a response from a mysterious blonde. Eventually, they cross paths on Davis’ commuter train, and it turns that she is Karen Moreno (Naomi Watts) who let Davis into her life in a plutonic relationship, mostly out of sympathy for his soul through his letters. The film then becomes a dark, romantic comedy and for Karen’s son Chris (Judah Lewis), a coming of age tale which half-heartedly deals with his potentially burgeoning homosexuality. Troubling is Karen’s addiction to Marijuana and her boyfriend and boss Carl (C.J Wilson) who is a gun-toting “good guy” apparently.

While Davis is a more than polite guest in Karen and Chris’s lives, it is a problematic relationship that tries to make some slightly ill-conceived comment on class differences. The main point seems to be that the rich are a bit selfish, until someone dies and that the working class are not good at looking after themselves, but are more creatively expressive.

It’s a shame because Demolition – despite throwing several half-baked ideas at the screen – does has some genuine warmth to it. Gyllenhaal makes the best of a bad situation, delivering a strong performance that ranges from genuinely humorous, to emphathetic, to sad indifference. Lewis is excellent as the conflicted teenage son, but none of this really means anything without a properly realised narrative to back it up. One feels there is a great film rattling around in Demolition somewhere, it just required more care to truly realise it.

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Here at Lantana Publishing, an independent publishing house dedicated to challenging the lack of diversity in children’s books, we have been watching the Oscars’ ‘Diversity Debate’ unfold with interest.

Hardly a day has gone by in the past few weeks without the news reporting that another industry heavyweight has waded into this dispute. Follow the #OscarsSoWhite and you can see the world’s reaction to the 2016 Oscars shortlist unfold: Hollywood power couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, as well as esteemed director Spike Lee amongst others, have made it clear that they intend to boycott this year’s ceremony, while meanwhile, the debate has reached all the way to the White House. Barack Obama recently made his voice heard, commenting on the importance of everybody working within the film industry getting a “fair shot”.

While semantics might seem unimportant given the gravity of an issue that even the American president has seen fit to comment on, the inflammatory labels that have been applied to this news story – row, scandal, problem, furor to name but a few – threaten to turn what could be a debate into a cartoonish battleground: the gung-ho ‘for diversity’ team facing their bullish ‘against diversity’ opponents. Media coverage seems destined to turn the issue into a simple binary or a story with a clear-cut trajectory, moving from uncomplicated problem to solution.

In this vein, many commentators have lambasted Helen Mirren for her claim that “it’s unfair to attack the Academy”, because she speaks from a position of white privilege. However, it appears Mirren was not intending to dismiss the current criticism of the Academy, but inviting us to dig deeper and find the root of a wide-scale problem that simply reaches its culmination in the Academy’s nomination process. More often than not, it is her initial statement (in defence of the Academy) that is criticised as opposed to her later support of diversity in the film industry more widely. In fact, Mirren was adamant that “the issue we need to be looking at is what happens before the film gets to the Oscars – what kind of films are made, and the way in which they’re cast, and the scripts.”

In order for this to truly be a ‘debate’, defined as a public forum in which people exchange views and thrash out an issue, we need to accept that there are not only two sides to the argument; there are not simply two teams waving ‘yes, diversity’ and ‘no, diversity’ placards at each other but a whole spectrum of angles and views which deserve to be considered if we want to move forward to create a fairer and more tolerant space in which the arts can flourish. Under this aegis, the diversity debate should not simply be about awards ceremonies but about grass roots; not simply about race, but about the fair and equal representation of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, age and disability in all walks of life and in all facets of arts production. To pounce on Mirren’s statement as simply ‘what you would expect’ from a celebrated white woman is to undermine the terms of this broader debate.

As a representative of the publishing industry, we would be the first to point out that this conversation is welcome – we strive to give authors and illustrators of minority backgrounds the opportunities to publish stories that celebrate their diverse and multicultural communities, beliefs and customs, and are aware of how unusual this makes us. What we know from experience is that it is a conversation that is complex, and should be on a large scale, taking into account many different industries and areas of public life – not just Hollywood. In fact, the attention shone on the film industry over the past few weeks – although a welcome call to arms – has created a glare that might prevent many from seeing the lack of diversity inherent in other industries.

There have been several high profile campaigns drawing attention to the lack of diversity in children’s books, not least the interest that transformed the Twitter #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign into a fully-functioning not-for-profit with a mission to promote diversity in publishing. The attention heaped on film, and the Academy’s failure for the second year running to nominate any actors from ethnic minority backgrounds, begs the question of why film generally makes the headlines more often than other media. Does the fact that films feature actors (and often those who have reached celebrity status) make the industry’s lack of diversity any more damaging than the corresponding lack of (fictional) characters from black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds found in children’s books?

Surely, if we are to acknowledge that the Oscars’ ‘debate’ is actually a complex and nuanced discussion about the endemic problems within cultural representation, we also need to be aware of the fact that many of the people who work in high profile industries have their outlooks shaped by the books they read in their early years, before they even enter a career. Perhaps, as well as looking at the film industry and questioning why there are not more roles available to people from minority ethnic backgrounds, we should also consider the inequalities at the heart of book production that see barely 5% of the UK’s and US’s publishing output represent authors of cultural minorities.

Challenge the lack of diversity in children’s books and we may go a long way to educating future generations about the importance of every art form representing humanity in all its myriad forms.

To find out more about Lantana Publishing and their high quality, multicultural picture books for children, visit the website: www.lantanapublishing.com.

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Joachim Trier follows his highly regarded Oslo, August 31st with his English-speaking debut Louder Than Bombs, which received mixed reviews in Cannes and Toronto before arriving here in Glasgow. Featuring an impressive cast including Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects, Millers Crossing), Isabelle Huppert (Amour) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, The End of the Tour) Trier directs with skill, regardless of the new challenge of a second language.

Louder Than Bombs opens with a striking image of life – a newborn holding the hand of its father Jonah (Eisenberg) – shortly followed by a reveal of the death of Eisenberg’s mother Isabelle (Huppert), although this has already happened by the birth of Jonah’s son. This becomes a staple technique of the film, jumping forward and backwards in time, revealing a bit more detail each time, or viewing the same scene from a different character’s perspective. As a result, the dead mother Isabelle remains a living, breathing character in the film’s narrative, either due to flashback or premonition.

As for the rest of the family, the film deals with their varying attempts to cope with the grief of losing their mother including the sensitive windowed Husband Gene (Byrne), the aforementioned Jonah – who is more similar than his secretly suffering mother than he realised – and the younger teenage son Conrad; expertly played by Devin Druid, previously only known for playing teenage Louis C.K in his eponymous show. Conrad’s character is particularly fascinating, as while he appears to be the hardest hit of all, he shows the greatest deal of optimism in the film.

As well as family grief, Louder Than Bombs is very much about the words and feelings that go unexpressed between close family members – and the gap in understanding that this creates. Jonah’s character goes in the opposite direction of his younger brother: at first seeming capable of saving his family’s problems, but soon emerging as repressed and neglectful.

While the premise may sound fairly depressing, there is plenty of emotional depth found in this film. Louder Than Bombs retains a sense of humour and is playful enough with its form to keep it from being a “Capital D Drama” as Trier has put it. While the film examines the universally difficult subject of family grief, it doesn’t fail to show the warmth that these characters exert; even if often misplaced – as shown in several attempts by the father and sons to engage with the opposite sex – with varying degrees of success and conscientiousness.

On top of this, Trier plays with not just narrative structure, but with realism and filmic self-awareness, including lots of fun references to influential films (Vertigo, being one.) He also uses the imagination and dreams to represent the characters’ consciousness on screen. The greatest example of this is Conrad listening to a female classmate he is crushing on. As she reads aloud a classic text, he starts imagining her words visually; his mind takes over and she begins narrating the scene of his mother’s death and what thoughts might have gone through her mind, when she realised she was about to die. It is a truly thrilling scene and a technique that Trier explores throughout this intriguing film.

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A pet project of the now veteran actor Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead is the ten-years-in-the-making “biopic” of the legendary Jazz musician Miles Davis. Much like Davis’s approach to his “Jazz” music (a term he didn’t care for personally), this film is more of an impressionistic series of sketches, to build up a characterised idea of the man himself.

As such, the film largely plays like a suspended, drug-addled daydream, drifting between the cocaine infused “present” of New York, 1979 – four years after Davis’ last public performance and release – and the early 60s where he married his wife Frances Taylor and experienced racial profiling by the police.

The atmosphere Cheadle creates in both his performance and direction suits the narrative well. While there is no real indication how true, or false, anything that is happening here is, the film does provide an excellent insight into being a legendary figure in an art-form which isn’t bound by rules or conventions; this translates into Cheadle’s film-making form.

Miles Ahead turns in some excellent performances from its ensemble cast, including the always excellent Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Steve Jobs, Trumbo), as well as the up-and-coming Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12) and Emayatzy Corinealdi (Middle of Nowhere) as the aforementioned Taylor. Meanwhile, Ewan McGregor brings the film some star-power as Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden.

Reportedly, the project took so long largely due to funding issues, with Cheadle this past week explaining at the Berlinale how he had to write in a white co-lead role, in the form of a dutiful Ewan McGregor, just to get studios to back the film.

While this is a shameful reflection of the state of Hollywood filmmaking (and the perception of the film’s audience), McGregor’s naive, shaggy-haired reporter (who interestingly retains McGregor’s natural Perth accent), is expertly handled by Cheadle’s direction. It would have been all too easy to mishandle this invented character, but McGregor approaches the role with the right balance of subtlety and professionalism – even when his character borders on being the comedy buddy role – to avoid being an unwelcome visitor to the set.

So while Miles Ahead is by no means perfect, it does provide an interesting insight into the great Davis, celebrating his music while simultaneously questioning the integrity of his character; particularly his relationship with wife Frances and drug addiction. It is a quiet reminder than the biopic needn’t be an overblown show-pony, but can be an art-form of its own when properly realised – Cheadle does that here with some real class.

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Following on from the 2014 summer tour of the same name, Where You’re Meant to Be details Scottish indie-rock legend Aidan Moffat – formerly of Arab Strap – as he takes a trip around the various communities of Scotland, re-working traditional Scottish folk songs with a modernist bent.

Moffat’s narration explains early on that he is “ignorant of his roots, but that’s because [he’s] more interested in the present, and the uncertainty of tomorrow”, which is a good example of Moffat’s typically Scottish poeticism which runs throughout the film. Moffat has made a name for his dark wit and apt observations of modern Scottish living, so his appropriation of the traditional folk song, which is based on similar themes, is not at all surprising.

Moffat and the film’s director, Paul Fegen, make strong use of the singer-songwriter’s deep voice, which largely drives the documentary, not just in the performances of these songs but also his narration; this plays a key part in the film’s narrative, as he addresses it to Sheila Stewart, the film’s other main component.

Stewart is a musical legend in her own right. As the last surviving member of her family, she was the living embodiment of a strand of famous traditional folk songs, which had been passed down through her family generation-by-generation. As a result she became a TV and Radio personality, as well as a performer during the 70’s.

This is how Moffat, in researching songs to use for this tour, discovers Stewart, whom he goes to meet due to his desire to use her family’s songs. The pair’s interaction is particularly amusing, as captured in a conversation had while driving around Stewart’s countryside home, as she sees Moffat’s re-workings as an encroachment on her family’s songs and tradition – especially as he takes the lyrics “too literally”.

What is fascinating however is as we follow Moffat & Co’s tour around the beautifully scenic corners of Scotland, the songs become Moffat’s own. Passed down from Stewart – regardless of her protestations – as well as others, she becomes a surrogate mother to Moffat, who represents the next generation to perform these songs.

The film, therefore, opens up an interesting question as to whether it is right to, in the eyes of Stewart, “abuse these ballads and melodies when the traditional versions are still relevant” or whether Moffat’s (and I expect the majority of his audience’s) generation are in fact merely continuing this tradition, in their own terms.

The film, and tour, culminates in Glasgow’s famous Barrowlands Ballroom (where this premiere screening takes place), which Moffat argues is as crucial to this generation of Scotland’s musical identity, as were the various town halls and countryside farms – both of Stewart’s traveller heritage – and the myriad other locations Moffat visits.

In a truly beautiful scene, the various people that Moffat and his band have encountered during the tour are all present at this final performance; this includes Sheila Stewart herself, who eventually becomes so disgraced by Moffat’s “butchering” of her family’s song, that she gets on stage and performs it herself with Moffat’s band and audience participating. It is a very moving moment, as Fegen carefully splices the younger Stewart’s TV performances – along with Moffat’s earlier shows – all building towards this climactic, last performance from the great Stewart, who sadly passed away shortly afterwards.

Where You’re Meant to Be is an awe-inspiring film, tapping into both Scottish and folk music identity, which Stewart argues “is one of the most important aspects of Scottish culture.” A warm, affecting, beautifully constructed piece of documentary filmmaking, which I would encourage anyone (Scottish or otherwise) to discover for themselves.

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“It’s like we all silently decided to cross a line” bemoans High-Rise‘s central, well-to-do temptress, Charlotte (Sienna Miller) half-way through Ben Wheatley’s latest film, and it is no exaggeration.

Adapting J.G Ballard is no mean feat and it has previously required the strength of Spielberg, or Cronenberg to do him justice. Luckily, High-Rise, a project in the works virtually since the novel’s release in 1975 – due to producer Jeremy Thomas’ insistence on creating an adaptation – is in safe hands with the relatively young (in filmmaking terms) Ben Wheatley.

Wheatley has acquired a cult following after his work on small indie films (Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England) and High-Rise is his biggest-budget project to date. His darkly comic (and often violent) tone is a highly suitable approach for a J.G Ballard adaptation, a writer who – particularly throughout the 70s and 80s – was known for a similar style.

In a Q&A after tonight’s screening, Wheatley expressed how his involvement with this project was down to a chance meeting with producer Jeremy Thomas, after assuming the rights would be held by a Hollywood conglomerate. As a result, Wheatley was able to access the resources and star-power not previously available to him, to create a highly stylish, 70’s infused dystopian thriller in the same vein as the source material. Wheatley has expressed a desire to remain faithful to the “highly visual” nature of the novel, ignoring all previous screenplay attempts at this adaptation.

High-Rise begins in relative order. We are introduced to the titular housing project through new tenant Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) who moves into the 25th floor of the 40 story building in which the “cream of the crop” live at the top and the working class tenants live at the bottom. Laing meets his neighbours from all levels of the tower block, establishing varying relationships with all of them.

Then, as Charlotte’s premonition predicts, everything turns into chaos, narratively and structurally, through a nightmarish kaleidoscopic montage sequence, halfway through the film’s running time. It is a disorientating effect, as we go through the looking glass into a newly established disorder, where everyone looks to protect themselves with their varying means of defence.

Wheatley expertly keeps control of an all-star cast including Jeremy Irons, Elizabeth Moss and an excellent turn from Luke Evans as a George Best meets Evil Dead‘s Ash lower-class rebel, who leads the charge against the upper floors. In what becomes an anarchic orgy of sex and violence, Wheatley always maintains the narrative’s satirical and darkly comic tone throughout, never losing focus despite the carnage – especially during the film’s final reveal.

High-Rise is an extremely successful tribute to 70’s sci-fi, brimming with excellent performances and design and references to films such as A Clockwork Orange and Apocalypse, Now. It highlights the burgeoning mania of “modern living” with a post-modern view on Thatcherite politics that continue to prevail today.

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Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 12.50.06Kicking off the 2016 edition of Glasgow Film Festival last night was The Coen Brother’s new romp Hail, Caesar! their ode to the Studio System era of 50s Hollywood. As to be expected with the Coens, they deal with their subject with an equal amount of love and cynicism, looking at the “Golden Era” of their craft with a healthy dose of post-modern irony.

As is now customary with the Coens, the brothers direct a star-studded ensemble cast in their lighthearted love-letter to a bygone era, excellently re-creating the studio lots of Capitol Pictures. Binding the multiple simultaneous projects together is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) the studio’s fixer who solves the various problems of the studio’s cast and crew, as well as batting away questions from scoop-hungry twin sister journalists, both played by Tilda Swinton.

Nearing the climax of the studio’s production of their “premier picture Hail, Caesar!” however, central star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) disappears on an assumed “1 or 2-day bender”; though the party line is that he has a “high-ankle sprain”. In actual fact, Whitlock has been kidnapped, in a scheme actualised by a couple of extras on the set of the film, and taken to a strange place where nothing is quite as it seems.

Although they set the film up a potential road-caper, The Coens don’t, in fact, focus merely on Whitlock’s disappearance, but also the studio’s “the show must go on” attitude, in spite of adversity due to a tight schedule and budget. While Mannix is aware of the problem and its severe nature, it doesn’t suddenly jump to the top of his priorities list in his daily roles, as he must keep various other stars and directors happy with their own problems, while also considering a highly lucrative and much more comfortable job offer of his own.

This is when the film is at its best, showing the rather manic Studio System as it churns out its latest epic, western, drama and musical, all the while needing a cool pair of hands at the centre of it all (Mannix) who – while clearly respected within the studio – has no elevated status, which is reserved for the “key talent”. While Mannix doesn’t seem to mind this, he does battle his own personal demons and Catholic guilt, with a secret smoking habit and a tempting job offer. Despite this he is a seemingly decent man who genuinely loves and respects his family.

Brolin plays the, on the face of it, controlled Mannix with aplomb, and is excellent as lynchpin for the entire picture. While Clooney and other star cameo turns (Johannsson, Tatum, McDormand, Swinton) are all highly enjoyable, the film simply wouldn’t have a leg to stand on without Brolin.

The trouble is that the film as a whole fails to really capitalise on the wealth of talent on offer. While it is highly entertaining, there is nothing here that really sticks with you for much longer than the screen-time. There is plenty of humour and enjoyment to be found in the Coen’s faithful recreating of 1950s Hollywood, including an exaggerated nod to the blacklist and “Communist threat” of the era – playing at times like a twisted version of the recent biopic Trumbo – yet the film doesn’t dig much further than that.

While this isn’t necessarily a problem given the Coens have largely made a career out of films where nothing really happens, or works, it equally is that expectation which befalls Hail, Caesar!. Any fans of the brothers’ work can find various re-treadings of ideas they’ve done before and much more successfully.

For instance, the setting and ideas on display here are also in the masterful Barton Fink, the comedic road movie caper in The Big Lebowski, the kidnapping trope in Fargo, the theological considerations of A Serious Man. These films explored their central ideas very successfully and while Hail, Caesar! is clearly more light-hearted fare, one can’t help but feel that we’ve been here before and in more entertaining circumstances.

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rsz_1rsz_screen-shot-2015-04-13-at-100638-am-e1428934141259Someone should really take away Paulo Sorrentino’s passport. Just quietly remove it from his bedside desk, perhaps hide it under the sofa, anything to stop him from getting on a plane with it. Whenever Sorrentino seems to take flight from his native Italy, things seem to go wrong. His characters become caricatures, his witty dialogue becomes tedious and his profound ruminations merely silly.

Sorrentino wrote the main role especially for Michael Caine, but it’s difficult to see why. Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired composer residing in a luxury resort in rural Switzerland. Stoic and stubborn, Ballinger watches with detached amusement at the circus of well-to-do freaks that drift through the resort. He’s joined by his lifelong friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a fading but zestful movie director and his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who acts as his assistant. Paul Dano plays a jaded Hollywood starlet hiding from himself and the world, and even grumposaurus musician Mark Kozelek makes an appearance.

Youth, like The Great Beauty, has simultaneously little story and too much of it. The essential thread of the film is Ballinger’s conflict over accepting an invitation from the Queen to perform one final concert. The reasons behind this reluctance are unclear, and like Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty, Ballinger is a somewhat passive, ponderous protagonist. Elsewhere, Boyle wants to make one final film, his last shot at a great piece of art, by cajoling some obnoxious young writers to help him conceive it.

The main problem with Youth is that it’s difficult to care about any of the characters or their woes. Sorrentino is a director who takes risks, he throws some left turns, surprises the audience, and in most of his previous films these risks have blossomed and soared. However, when they fall flat, they fall really, really flat. Ballinger and Boyle’s pretensions are neither charming nor interesting, and it is somewhat sickly that a middle aged director has sought to convey the complexities of old age.

There is the occasional brilliant moment, such as a fantastic dream sequence in which Ballinger crosses a flooded piazza to meet the gaze of a beauty queen, but these are few and far between. Caine and Keitel are not bad actors but with the pretentious, muddled dialogue they are given by Sorrentino they are made to look foolish. Paul Dano is one of the only actors to come out with any credit; his turn as Jimmy Tree, the lost starlet, is strange and serene. There is the delicate, mournful tones of Kozelek’s fingerpicking to add a touch of pathos to proceedings.

The swooping, elegant camera of Sorrentino’s previous films has vanished. This is replaced by banal static shots, to emphasise the mundanity of life in the resort and the sedateness of old age. Which is a shame, because Sorrentino is at his best when he glides like a bird. If The Great Beauty was pure, sentimental and expressive then Youth is over-thought out, ponderous and dull. The grass is not always greener on the other side.

 

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