Youth And Reaching For The Stars

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I love this still from Youth; it’s a great metaphor – are we all in cages waiting for the inevitability of death? Are we there from choice?  Do we talk ourselves into being ‘old’? What will it feel like to take flight, defy assumptions?

When you see the movie, you’ll understand the significance of this scene.

When I was invited by StudioCanal to the Premiere of Youth at the Classic Cinema, Elsternwick, I didn’t have to think twice about accepting because Sir Michael Caine was one of the main characters. I can’t say I’ve seen every film he’s ever been in, but I’ve seen many, and he rarely disappoints.

Youth is billed as a comedy/drama, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, and it has won several awards already in Europe, including the trifecta of Best Director, Best Actor (Caine) and Best film!

The storyline revolves around two elderly friends(70s/80s) on vacation in an elegant hotel/health resort at the foot of the Swiss Alps. Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) are linked since adolescence, but also as in-laws – Mick’s son married Fred’s daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), but at the beginning of the film we learn that marriage has broken down.

Fractured relationships and how you cope with them, a major theme of the film.

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Fred, a famous composer/conductor, is retired from the music world. Mick, a well-known film director, is working on his last testament, a final masterpiece and is surrounded by a bevy of young screenwriters thrilled to be near and to learn from ‘the master’.

There is laugh aloud moments, and several others when quiet chuckles ripple through the cinema. The movie is shot in the eastern part of the Swiss Alps; the magnificent mountainous scenery used to good effect with excellent camera work.

I loved a delightful scene with Fred in a field observing the rhythm and musicality of nature. He begins to conduct the cud-chewing cows, Swiss cowbells tinkle, there’s a rush of a flock of birds taking flight… the music throughout the film another delight.

David Lang’s score integral to the film, especially the emotional development of Englishman, Fred, who refuses a request from Queen Elizabeth II, to perform his most famous piece, Simple Songs. He’s told; it is the only music Prince Phillip listens to, and the Queen’s emissary is persistent and insistent that Royalty does not take no for an answer.

However, Fred wrote the piece for his wife who we discover has senile dementia and is in care. He hasn’t visited her for ten years but is determined he will not conduct or have anyone else conduct another diva singing the piece.

Fred’s memories haunt him. His past behaviour is a source of conflict with his daughter who accuses him of neglecting his wife and family. Fred finally admits, ‘You were right. Music is all I understand…’

The difficulties yet the importance of communication reinforced nicely in a scene where a young masseuse at the resort massages Fred. Few words are spoken, and she mentions the power of touch and what you can say without words. Fred understands.

Multifaceted human beings are another constant with scenes of the development of various characters (including the young masseuse) needing no words. I enjoyed the visual feast of many of the scenes and how the notable cameos and subtext were interspersed throughout the main story arc. (Watch out for Paul Dano, Maradona and Jane Fonda.)

The expository dialogue in a couple of major scenes, done I assume to reduce the film’s length, but no doubt some pedants in the industry will be quick to criticise. This is where I differ from screen purists. I just love the power of story, regardless of the method of execution and being a writer for text, not screen; I’m more forgiving.

Caine’s facial expressions, his body language and the delivery of some pithy lines like ‘intellectuals have no taste’ are brilliant. We empathise with the inner turmoil of a man coming to terms with ageing, dealing with the present while reflecting on the past, contemplating the meaning of life and wondering how, or if, to make amends. He mentions several times that he’s been judged ‘apathetic’.

Death is inevitable but the quality of life is important, and it is not about trying to reclaim an idealistic ‘youth’. A quote by one of my favourite poets, Rabbie Burns,  springs to mind ‘nae man can tether time or tide…’ 

There are several threads of humour and running gags in the film. One is the daily conversation Fred and Mick have about whether they’ve managed to pee and how much. (It will raise a smile for all of us oldies obsessed with signs of deteriorating health!) The other is a Buddhist monk (Dorji Wangchuk) meditating each day trying to levitate. (For all of us still reaching for the stars and determined never to give up!)

If you’re wanting an escapist entertainment experience like the latest Star Wars release, Youth is not for you. Apart from the fact the films are vastly different genres, Youth has few special effects. You have to pay attention to each character to discover their story arc; there is no assumption of backstory knowledge like the huge Star Wars fan base.

In Youth, there are scenes where nobody speaks nor appear to be doing much yet another layer of intrigue is added to an engrossing story. One poignant mini story that had my writer’s imagination working overtime is the young escort taken to the resort by her mother.

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Harrison Ford in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

For me, there are similarities with Star Wars: The Force Awakens – and not just because that movie has another of my favourite actors, Harrison Ford. In both movies wit, humour and dialogue are delivered with panache, and you’ve been entertained. What going to the movies is all about, first and foremost.

I went to see the latest Star Wars release with my daughters at 12.20am and the sleep deprivation was worth it. I loved the buzz inside the cinema complex and the enthusiasm of the audience that spanned several generations. So many had turned up in costumes.

None of the seductive sedation of Youth at the end of The Force Awakens as the audience chattered with energetic excitement reliving scenes, discussing minute details. Moviegoers were deeply moved by Youth too, but we sat and pondered in silence.

The appreciation of what you have just watched on screen is something Youth and Star Wars: The Force Awakens have in common. They both share themes of fractured relationships, ageing, relationships with children, yearning for lost passion and celebration of talent and achievement.

I took along a younger movie buddy to Youth, and she loved it – the hour long tram and train trip home (Elsternwick’s on a different line to Frankston) certainly gave us plenty of time to mull over the 124 minutes of the film. I put Youth in the same category as Still Life, another movie seen this year that I loved.

We deconstructed the dialogue, the scenes, the characters, the music, the metaphors, the message – there is a lot packed into Youth, and the contemplative silence at the end was not just the reluctance of people to leave the extremely comfortable seats in The Classic.

See it when it is released and let me know what you think. I’m happy to hear about Star Wars too – a step out of my comfort zone (I did see the original movie, but don’t consider myself hooked). However, my daughters are educating me…

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2 thoughts on “Youth And Reaching For The Stars

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