Posts Tagged ‘The Great Beauty’

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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1) THE GREAT BEAUTY (DIR. PAULO SORRENTINO, ITALY)

rsz_18nejA Federico Fellini film for the Bunga Bunga generation, Sorrentino returns to form with perhaps his greatest film yet. Toni Servillo plays an ageing playboy journalist who begins to tire of the endless parties and excess in his beloved Rome. The film mixes high art and low trash to an exhilarating degree, swooping from sober existentialism to scandalous hedonism at the directors whim. While the parties are filmed with an inventive, restless vigour, it’s Servillo’s hangdog lead that lingers in the memory.

2) NEBRASKA (DIR. ALEXANDER PAYNE, USA)

rsz_nebraska3This austere, melancholic road movie follows Woody, an alcoholic pensioner and his put upon son as they travel across the American highways to cash in a bogus junk mail prize for 1 million dollars. It’s a superbly concise and effective set up to explore the American dream and the way it lures in its everyday victims with visions of wild riches. Shot in beautiful black and white, director Payne makes great use of both the endless plains and the weary faces. It would be a bleak watch if it didn’t contain a redeeming mix of wry and slapstick humour.

3) POST TENEBRAS LUX (DIR. CARLOS REYGADAS, MEXICO)

This is Mexican maverick Carlos Reygadas going for broke here. Wildly adventurous, visually inventive and probably quite infuriating for large swathes of the audience, I loved every beguiling second of it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I could tell you what it’s about. The story, of which there is little, follows a privileged Mexican family living on the outskirts of an impoverished and remote rural town. Oppressed by a tyrannical father, the film is possibly a semi-autobiographical account of Reygadas’ own life. Surreal highlights include a glowing animated devil figure and steamy sauna scenes.

4) FRANCES HA (DIR. NOAH BAUMBACH, USA)

A delightful and charming rites of passage comedy showcasing Greta Garwig’s inimitable charisma. She plays a naive and childlike New Yorker struggling to hold onto her dreams of being a dancer. Ditched by her best friend and unwilling to commit to a romantic relationship, Frances is forced to seek out on her own. As a privileged and somewhat spoilt protagonist, the film would fall apart if it wasn’t for Frances’ infectious goofiness and will to succeed. Baumbach again succeeds at making us care about characters who aren’t always perfect human beings.

5) HORS SATAN (DIR. BRUNO DUMONT, FRANCE)

Imagine a more mystical Michael Haneke and you might be halfway towards the films of Bruno Dumont. This strange, unsettling film follows ‘The Guy’, a mystical, messianic figure, and ‘The Girl’, a local gothic girl who together roam the windswept coastline of Northern France. ‘The Guy’ has the power to kill and the power to heal, with a strange ability to save people by having sex with them. An absurd idea on paper, but Dumont makes it work. A beguiling mix of realism and surrealism, Dumont orchestrates both the visual and aural brutality of the desolate landscape to startling effect.

6) LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (DIR. HIROKAZU KOREEDA, JAPAN)

Carrying on from his previous film I Wish, director Koreeda concocts another incisive and moving portrait of modern Japanese families. Ryota is a workaholic in the city who has little time for his son Keita, and when Ryota learns that Keita might be the result of a mix up at birth, he has to decide whether blood ties or love ties matter the most to him. The story contrasts Ryota’s uptight, glossy family with their biological son Ryusei’s scatty family living in the country to great effect. A moving and humane exploration of what it means to be a parent.

7) THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (DIR. DEREK CIANFRANCE, USA)

A film which divided critics and audiences alike, Cianfrance’s ‘difficult second album’ is an ambitious, sprawling crime drama that motors through three generations. Ryan Gosling’s turn as a speedy heist merchant steals the show in the opening act, yet it’s Bradley Cooper’s angsty performance that lends weight to the whole film. The final section is a little weak but overall the film is a joy to watch. Cianfrance combines stylish retro thrills with an inventive structure and meaty drama.

8) TO THE WONDER (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK, USA)

As a self confessed Malick-nerd this arrives at a surprisingly lowly position, and I would suggest it is his weakest film in his ouevre so far. The film is a frustrating, challenging piece of work with some enigmatic, introspective performances…and yet there is something niggling away, burrowing beneath your skin as you watch it. A muted Ben Affleck plays a desolate man torn between Olga Kurylenko, a vivacious Parisian, and Rachel McAdams, a sweet local. The themes and drama are less pronounced that in his previous films and that is often infuriating, yet if I was to pick one of these films to have staying power then it might just be this one.

9) BULLHEAD (DIR. MICHAEL R. ROSKAM, BELGIUM)

This was a criminally under-seen thriller that came out earlier in the year. Matthias Schoenaerts, a hulking presence, plays a simmering Cattle farmer in rural Belgium who helps illegally inject steroids into the animals. When a new business venture with foreign investors goes suitably awry, Schoenaerts has to fight to save the business and his own life. Coming on the heels of moody, character driven French thrillers like A Prophet and A Beat That My Heart Skipped, newcomer Roskam delivers a punchy crime drama like Scorsese used to make in his heyday.

10) SPRING BREAKERS (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA)

Harmony Korine now seems like the Peter Pan of the US underground cinema, constantly ferreting away trying to find the latest movements in youth culture. With Spring Breakers he has hit upon the Girls Gone Wild franchise and turned it into something surreal and often beautiful. In a master stroke of casting he nabbed a couple of Disney starlets for the leads, giving the film both considerable marketable clout and blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The lean story is essentially a bunch of bollocks; four teenagers go on a Cancun-style orgy of excess and violence. It is Korine’s own warped, poetic take on proceedings that make it something special.

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The Great Beauty might well be the finest film released this year. Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian writer-director, excelled himself with previous efforts such as The Consequences of Love and Il Divo, but this is perhaps his greatest achievement so far. Known for his lavish mise en scene, pumping soundtracks and audacious camera work, The Great Beauty takes all of Sorrentino’s tricks and turns them up to 11.

The story is a modern day throwback to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; Jep Gambardella is a jaded playboy journalist who has just mourned his 65th birthday. Surrounded by politicians, artists, writers and reality TV personalities, Jep begins to question his purpose in life as the champagne begins to go flat and the last guests have stumbled home. His existential malaise is heightened by the news of an old flame’s passing- the only love of his life.

The Great Beauty is not your typical Hollywood film; there is no great journey, no moment of realisation, but a series of small happenings. We observe Jep as he observes his beloved Rome, wandering through stone courtyards, catching glimpses of the precocious local nuns, a flock of birds from his balcony. It is clear he is in love with the sights and the sounds of the city, as well as the parties, but is that enough to live on for Jep?

The film is so rich in its sound and imagery that it is almost overwhelming. We are immediately thrown into a raucous party that would make Berlusconi proud (indeed the film is partially inspired by the excess of his tenure), with throbbing euro trance and glistening, swooping camera movements that captures every shuffle of the party’s lurid clientele. Every frame in the film is a delight; a fruit grove littered with orange baubles in the morning, a prodigious child artist creating a swirling masterpiece.

Although the film could easily drown in its own beauty, it is glued together by Toni Servillo’s marvellous performance as Jep. A Sorrentino mainstay, Servillo has a chameleon quality which allows him to move from grinning charisma to hangdog pathos in a moment. In one sense Jep is cruel, snobbish and spoiled, and yet there is an inherent charm and humanity to him. We believe that this is a man who wants to change and be loved. The tragedy running through the film is the feeling that this will not come to pass.

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