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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience. MOBILE version |
. "Youth"

A brilliant cast is assembled for a study in magical realism from Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino on the subject of ageing (and more). For this, he places the great composer/conductor Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, "The Dark Knight Rises") at the center of a group of oddballs that have you wondering if this Alpine resort they're vacationing in is being called a resort as a euphemism for a mental institution. But, no, it's to be taken literally.

Starting us off is a scene in which Ballinger is visited by an emissary of Queen Elizabeth II (Alex Macqueen) to sign Mr Ballinger up (ie., "summon" him) to conduct his great "Simple Songs" masterpiece at Prince Phillip's birthday concert. But old Fred is retired, and he doesn't conduct anymore, and his outright rebuff is something the emissary is utterly confounded by once he realizes the maestro isn't making a joke. Ballinger is steadfast in noncompliance with no visible regard for who's asking for his time and delighting his fellow vacationers all ears out in the dining plaza. Well!

The theme of retirement and, therefore, ageing, and the effects of time is everywhere. With his best friend Mick Boyle, a heretofore prolific art-filmmaker with some success in the past, there's much commiseration and discussion of their shared past as they patrol the grounds or enjoy a bath, reflecting on how they got to this stage in their lives.

Fred's daughter/business assistant Lena (dimensional and solid Rachel Weisz, "Oz the Great and Powerful"), suffers when her husband -- Fred's son -- leaves her for another woman; in the wake of which she vents on Ballinger for his emotional absence from her as she grew up.

(This draining moment caps Weisz' best work. Later, her character will see and understand her father differently).

Meanwhile, Mick is brainstorming ideas for his latest script with his writers to star Brenda Morel (fab Jane Fonda), a woman both he and Fred have had prior business with and Mick's traditional leading lady, it's not going to be a snap. There's been some deterioration of talent and demand surrounding the once hot filmmaker. And, again, we get a bridge-destroying speech when Brenda arrives to tell Mick what she has always thought of his work and posturing and to the sad fact that there's been a generational change in the movie business. And, no, she won't play his star! It's a vicious, merciless rejection.

On the sidelines is actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano, "Looper"), a mild, philosophical onlooker working on his next role and a constant observer of the quirky behavior surrounding him on all sides, making his day.

With a rich cast of supporting actors, the comedy drama unfolds in an unending series of episodic takes that load the characters and relationships with a calm hilarity that punches into the somber atmosphere like a balloon of mirth that doesn't quite mask the issue of mortality. Caine, that master of ironic understatement and satiric wit, dominates the atmosphere and sets the mood for what seems like unplotted happenstance in an unrushed vacation itinerary.

(In a post-movie appearance, Sorrentino said that he would only have done this movie with Caine).

Composer David Lang's score, a benevolent presence throughout, lays down a perfect tempo for the beats of the mostly restrained story and characters. Cinematographer Bigazzi captures a grey beauty of the place and its visitors without flourishes, except for a few fiery moments and the dreamscape of the swimming pool, which is incredible.

The Magical Realism aspect, as well as the hotel setting, had me wondering if Wes Anderson was somewhere in the wings. No? Fellini? Guess not, but Sorrentino turned in a poignantly riveting version of the style without any outside help. Adults with a bent for art will find subtlety, depth and surprise here, and should turn out. Who are likely to pass on this one are...well, youth.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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