Review: Eye In The Sky (2015)

Director: Gavin Hood

****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Drone warfare sounds like a simple practice. Isolate your target, focus on it, and then attack. The benefit is one of distance; we can witness collateral damage without getting our hands dirty. Gavin Hood’s Eye In The Sky takes a similar approach in its examination of drone attacks; it’s effectively simple, but its focus on its target is unwavering. Last year, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill tried (and failed) to grapple with the moral dilemmas facing those engaged in drone warfare. This time around, Gavin Hood’s film cuts out most superfluousness, and is more keen to raise questions than force trite answers on an audience it’s keen to make complicit.

The opening title card is followed by a quote from Aeschylus, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” Besides being a common misattribution, it’s disingenuous towards the characters in the film; despite the ripe geopolitical setting and narrative, this isn’t mired in lies and corruption. Quite the opposite; it’s about people doing their best to swallow horrible truths. One has to wonder how often it happens (if at all) that a drone team comes face-to-face with decisions like the ones encountered in Eye In The Sky. When drone pilots Watts (Aaron Paul) and Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are confronted with all too human a face in their line of fire, politics, public protection and basic human decency clash in an admirably-calibrated race against time.

The drone pilots are based in the Nevada desert, about to execute a joint U.S.-U.K. operation in far-flung Nairobi under the London-based command of Colonel Powell. Powell is played by Helen Mirren, easily justifying stepping into a role originally written for a man, and not for the first time either. She lends an authoritarian grace to any role, and Colonel Powell demands it. As soon as you see her onscreen in her uniform, you buy the Colonel’s no-nonsense tack completely. The mere presence of a given actor does so much for a character, and Eye In The Sky is full of actors who sell their roles with little more than a look or a syllable. A notable example here is Alan Rickman, to whose memory the film is dedicated. As government liaison Lt. Gen. Benson, Rickman bears his uniform with the sighful disdain that became one of his trademarks. The sighs come readily, as Benson joins the defence secretary (Jeremy Northam), the Attorney General (Richard McCabe) and a legal counsel (Monica Dolan) to oversee the Nairobi raid. A meeting of high level al-Shabab leaders offers a prime opportunity to capture a British-born terrorist alive. As Western Europe recovers from another extremist attack, Eye In The Sky is well aware of its prescience, and it certainly can’t be accused of being flippant.

The film starts slowly, almost unremarkably. Character introductions paint a banal routine. Powell gets out of bed for work, as does Watts. Benson shops awkwardly for a gift for his daughter (Rickman’s trademark droll pronunciations offer much-needed levity throughout). Before all of those, however, we are introduced to little Alia (Aisha Takow). This photogenically adorable young girl puts a too-human face on the mission. The Al-Shabab meeting relocates to a house beside hers in a fundamentalist-controlled suburb, and when it becomes clear that the attendees are ready-to-go suicide bombers, an arrest is no longer an option. With the exception of Barkhad Abdi’s ground agent tailing the would-be bombers, everyone is watching with the perceived shield of distance. That shield can no longer save them from an unforeseen moral dilemma. Thus, the audience is cleverly placed into the character’s shoes; observation does not exclude you from participation.

Over the course of the film, Hood’s direction veers between unremarkable (The first act) and manipulative (The last five minutes, featuring overuse of dramatic slo-mo), but the tight, tense midsection brings out his best. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert can craft political drama (His credits include the Northern Ireland-set Five Minutes of Heaven and Omagh), but it’s not at the expense of classic Hitchcockian suspense. As direction is sought from the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, time ticks on, the bombers continue their preparations, and we’re never allowed to forget the little girl sat outside her house trying to sell bread. Eye In The Sky is a good old-fashioned race against time, and a fascinating military critique to boot. Ultimately, this sees the U.S. and British armies held up by one little girl. At one point, Benson says “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” The line is delivered with Rickman’s unmistakable gravity; besides showing how much we will miss him, it’s also Eye In The Sky in a nutshell. There’s a cost to these exploits, and most of us will be lucky enough not to have to pay for it ourselves.

Review: Midnight Special (2016)

Director: Jeff Nichols

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Look at a trailer or poster for Midnight Special, and the name of one director will spring to mind. It’s unlikely to be that of its own director (and writer) Jeff Nichols, and that’s the way he wants it. When a new generation of directors raised on the movie brats get their hands on sufficient talent and budget, their original influences can dominate the landscape. In the case of Midnight Special, Nichols not only demonstrates a love and knowledge of the work of Steven Spielberg, but reminds us that his work is more than the PG-13-baiting list of favourites that immediately springs to mind. Spielberg’s legacy is determined largely by his capacity to entertain the masses, but this inclination tends to overlook his capacity for dark, adult thrillers. You don’t even have to look to Munich or Bridge of Spies for proof; the Indiana Jones series and Jurassic Park owe some of their reputations to the subversive dark streak that runs through the Bearded One’s CV. Midnight Special borrows its plot from some Spielbergs, and its tone from others, blending them into an effective reclamation of his oeuvre for all audiences.

We open in Sugarland Express territory, with Roy (Michael Shannon) and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) hiding out in a motel, away from the law. With them is Alton (Jaeden Liberher), who Lucas and Roy have just kidnapped from the religious sect led by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepherd). Like his namesake, Calvin is convinced the future is predetermined, specifically in the multilingual ramblings that periodically emerge from Alton, who has become an oracle to the cult. Alton may or may not be Roy’s son, but that’s as much certainty as we get in the early scenes. The boy is privy to some variety of paranormal abilities, but at first the film is less concerned with his powers than with Roy and Lucas’ efforts to keep him from the cult. As Roy, Lucas and Alton race to get further away, glimpses come and go of Alton’s abilities but, until the climax, Midnight Special plays out for the most part like a chase thriller in the early Spielberg mould (Think Duel or the aforementioned Sugarland Express). Roy and Lucas know of Alton’s abilities, as does Roy’s wife Sarah (Kirsten Dunst). On their trail is FBI investigator Paul Sevier (Adam Driver); much like Sevier, the audience learns of Alton’s abilities and influence second-hand (Ideas of secondhand witness run throughout; even nominal kidnappers Roy and Lucas watch reports of Alton’s abduction on the news). Nichols is too talented a writer and director to show his hand too early, and so builds anticipation by revealing the truth bit by bit. The interviews Sevier conducts with members of the cult hint at a possible armageddon, but even they can only speculate. The thrill comes from the unknown; the growing desire to find out Alton’s identity, be it alien, fallen angel or something else entirely, is Midnight Special’s lifeblood.

Roy helps Alton elude the authorities like Elliot helped E.T., but the narrative isn’t the only thing Midnight Special has in common with Spielberg’s film. The most identifiable trait it shares with his work is the care the characters have for one another. With the sect, the FBI and the military all bearing down on them, the familial bonds at the heart of the film are its most endearing and memorable aspect. Roy, Sarah and Lucas’ concern for Alton is uncynical, unquestioning, and certainly not naive. All are risking their lives for this little boy who may not even be a boy, but their connection to him is all that counts. There are hints that Roy and Sarah’s relationship is recovering from a Spielbergian absent-parent trauma, but it’s never over-elaborate or overplayed. It helps to have fine actors like Dunst and Shannon (The latter impressing in a relatively straight-and-narrow role) playing against Liberher, delivering a likeable turn shorn of any precociousness. Interestingly, Edgerton may be the best of the lot. Between his performance in his directorial debut The Gift and his unpolished everyman turn here, Edgerton is proving to be a subtle chameleon. This cast carry the film along, the gradual build echoing a similar approach to the final reveal in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Midnight Special is pacy, though the final edit is a bit of a mixed bag. Individual moments of tension see Nichols wrangle tension out of proceedings by extending them by a precious few frames before a sudden cut. Yet, individual precision can’t overcome the fact that some supporting characters and plot details are left wanting. Audiences might be left wanting by the eventual reveal; even coming from the director of Take Shelter and Mud, two films that revelled in their final ambiguities, this one will prove divisive.

It’s tricky to argue that Midnight Special does much new with the Spielberg mythos. There are interesting age-reversals at work in some of the roles (Compare Driver’s fresh-faced authority figure with Shannon’s craggy protagonist), but the basic narrative points are a little too indebted to what came before. Still, there’s a simple unabashed magic at work here, recalling a time when ambition and talent worked over predictability. A familiar taste, perhaps, but it’s made from wholesome ingredients.

Review: Son of Saul (Saul fia) (2015)

Director: László Nemes

*****

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Son of Saul, László Nemes’ brutal and brilliant Cannes-prizewinning masterpiece, is a film that brings us back to the core problem of putting history on film. When presenting certain events as the background to a fictional story, where does the line lie between honesty and manipulation? Nemes’ film is a fiction, but it is based not only in history, but in one of the darkest examples of inhumanity ever perpetrated. The horrors of the Holocaust have greater import by still being relatively recent. It’s provided rich opportunities for storytelling, but respect must come first from whoever’s giving the orders behind the camera. So, when you consider that filmmakers as diverse as Steven Spielberg and Uwe Boll have made Holocaust films, you can probably guess which one will make the better, more respectful film. Son of Saul is Nemes’ feature debut, but his experience as an assistant to, and protégé of, Béla Tarr should at least reassure us that he can strike the correct tone. It eschews the commercial austerity of Spielberg or Polanski’s efforts, and ends up somewhere closer to the mesmeric horror of German’s Hard To Be A God.

The tone that Son of Saul manages to strike is at once striking and honest. In telling the trials and exploits of Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), Nemes offers a human face on an inhuman period of history. More precisely, it clings to that face, and the humanity behind it. Saul is a prisoner in Auschwitz, forced to be a Sonderkommando, a manual assistant in the gas chambers. Though surrounded by nothing less than crimes against humanity, Nemes keeps Saul front and centre throughout the film. Nowhere is this more necessary than in the opening scene, which sees Saul and his fellow Sonderkommandos helping prisoners gather up their clothes and belongings before they enter the chamber. DoP Mátyás Erdély’s camera sticks rigidly with Saul, so we only ever see the fear and nakedness of the other prisoners in the hazy background, captured in the grit of 35mm film. But that is enough. The atmosphere in Son of Saul is ripe with an all-pervading fear. There is little in the way of colour, save for orange glow of the body-burning pyres. There is little respite, save for the ever-present possibility of sudden death. Son of Saul is trenchantly shellshocking, yet through it all is Röhrig’s Saul, a face frozen in the tender sternness of a need to survive. A poet by trade with limited acting experience, Röhrig wonderfully and necessarily underplays the role, letting the slightest shift in his eyes and the corners of his mouth reflect the revulsion Saul could never express aloud.

Having opened with Saul assisting in the dispatching of a group in the gas chambers, where can a film go after that? Just as the camera focuses on Saul as a humane eye in the middle of a murderous hurricane, so Saul in turn finds a glimpse of humanity to which he clings. A young boy is amongst the dead in the chamber, and is brought out gasping his last. He dies, but in the few breaths Saul sees him take, he claims the boy as his son and vows to himself to give him a proper burial. For the rest of the film, Röhrig undertakes a mission to keep this one hopeful act alive amidst the horrors that Nemes and his crew recreate so vividly. They work wonders on a €1.5 million budget, bringing Auschwitz back from the dead in a triumph of production design and detail, courtesy of László Rajk. It has to be no less than rigorous; Saul is flung back and forth across the camp in his duties for the guards and his ‘son’, the latter requiring him to seek out a rabbi to read the Kaddish over the burial. Focusing on Saul’s determination allows Son of Saul to inject a sliver of hope into a hopeless situation. The crematoria are death factories, yet Saul needs to do right by this boy out of a need for hope and to preserve what remains of his soul. His feelings have been necessarily repressed, but even in the depths of Auschwitz, they survive.

It is the need for emotional resuscitation and rescue that sees Saul get roped into a plot by other Sonderkommandos to smuggle pictures of the atrocities of the camp to the outside, which slowly morphs into a plan for all-out rebellion. The handheld camerawork adds to the tension when Saul and others go on missions of extraction and reconnaissance, but this isn’t Greengrass-aping shaky-cam action. Whether dodging his captors, his fellow plotters or gunfire, the focus remains impressively on Saul throughout, which means that relatively quieter scenes become all the more tense. Saul has to work repeatedly to ensure the boy’s body is not autopsied, which at one point leads to him being discovered by a group of white-coated Nazi doctors. The accompanying soldiers force him to parade around in a mocking Jewish dance, and the camera dances behind Saul all the way. Son of Saul constantly throws the audience into the middle of the insanity. Nemes and Clara Royer’s script pits Saul against the worst of injustices, only for the camera and Röhrig to bring out his best. Nemes commits to his storytelling method, but it’s informed by a need for respect and hope; the central story may be a fiction, but it’s in the midst of a history we can ill afford to forget or misrepresent. It’s a sobering watch, but an unforgettable one.

 

Review: Triple 9 (2016)

Director: John Hillcoat

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Triple 9 opens on a meeting in a car in an underground location. The participants are a mix of shady cops and ex-marines, shrouded in darkness, the occasional facial feature barely illuminated by a red light outside. The three men in the car, Terrell (Chiwitel Ejiofor), Gabe (Aaron Paul) and Marcus (Anthony Mackie) are going over their planned bank heist. Their four man crew (the fourth being Norman Reedus’ getaway driver Russel) will enter the bank in central Atlanta, sweep through the place, get what they want and leave before the police can arrive. There’s just one problem: no-one’s told these guys there in a second-rate double-cross thriller with pretensions. Haven’t these guys watched Scorsese or Mann? If they did, they’d know this just can’t end well.

The oeuvres of Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann are just two figures in whose shadow Triple 9 skulks. The heists and police procedural aspects are steeped in a moral turpitude that’s nothing new to director John Hillcoat. Granted, Triple 9 doesn’t share or need the same level of bloody-minded decay and destruction as The Proposition or The Road, but it can walk the walk as well as talk the talk. The opening credits establish the cops and robbers in this narrative web; at one point we see mob boss Irina Vlaslov inspect a couple of bound soon-to-be corpses in a car boot. Irina is played by Kate Winslet, chewing the accent and clearly having a lot of fun. Her performance is one of two sources of relatively levity in Triple 9, the other being Woody Harrelson in a typically focused-yet-relaxed drawl as Detective Allen. He’s investigating how Terrell and his crew committed their broad-daylight heist, and for whom they committed it. Allen can’t see how they’re linked to Irina yet, but the film will go to great lengths to resolve itself, even if it takes all too quick a route to get there.

Triple 9 has ambition, but we’ve visited this territory before; there are Training Day-esque crooked cops (no-one plays these kinds of guys quite like Clifton Collins Jr.), a Russian mob straight out of Eastern Promises, and a surfeit of character arcs and plots to try to juggle. Writer Matt Cook is aiming for the grandeur of Heat, but Triple 9 has been compromised somewhere along the way. It clocks in at just under two hours, but there’s an inescapable feeling of lacking. When Irina sends Terrell and co. on another job, more personal stakes get involved. Irina blackmails Terrell into doing her bidding with their familial bond (Gal Gadot gets little to do as Terrell’s ex/Irina’s sister). Moreover, the team decide that they need to pull a ‘Triple 9’ in another part of town (shooting a cop in the line of duty) to distract from their heist elsewhere, and Marcus nominates his new partner Chris (Casey Affleck) as the target. It’s difficult to place whether the script or an overly-tightened edit is to blame, but as enemies turn on allies and vice versa, it’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm. Too many characters are scrambling for oxygen, and while there are solid performances aplenty, there’s nothing in the screenplay to make most of them stand out. Hillcoat at least delivers crunchy action, with a midsection raid on a drug-dealer’s hideout making for riveting viewing. Still, something with this much talent and determination to punch above its weight should be more memorable. By ticking a few too many procedural boxes, Triple 9 sells itself too short.

Review: Deadpool (2016)

Director: Tim Miller

*

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

 If one were to read this critic’s review of Guardians of the Galaxy, you’d find a lament for an edginess that the film thinks it has, but which it ultimately forgoes for superhero formula. To sum up the experience of Deadpool, try reading that GOTG review at the top of your voice. Compared to GOTG, Deadpool has a pottier potty mouth, a sassier swagger and even less originality. But who cares? The young people like seeing sarcastic lunkheads getting seven kinds of crap kicked out them to the strains of DMX, or so it seems. For all that, even the sight of Ryan Reynolds’ titular hero (emphasis on the ‘tit’) getting pummelled couldn’t make Deadpool worth the effort for anyone outside its target market.

(Before we go any further, DMX’s ‘Party Up’ is almost twenty years old. Can we park the whole ‘retro music choices’ lark already? You may think you’re appealing to the hipster audience, filmmakers, but you’re just being naff. Enough already)

(And if you think the interjection of knowing asides like this is annoying, just wait till you see the number of times that fourth wall is bulldozed in Deadpool. ‘Cause, y’know, sarcasm is a higher form of wit, ‘n shit.)

Since fanboys balked at his mistreatment in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a Deadpool solo project had been mooted and booted a number of times. What has arrived, then, is the Deadpool the fans must have wanted, right? Possibly, if that means a horrible walking id with zero self-consciousness and even less likeability. Likeability is not a prerequisite, but being an anti-hero implies we’re on his side through all his douchebaggery. The woes of Wade Wilson, later to become Deadpool (Reynolds) are hard to care about when even the worst of situations seem to work out for this jerk. Through the oh-so-subtle medium of flashbacks, we watch this renegade tough guy use his sarcasm and muscle mass to intimidate people, and to seduce tart-with-a-heart Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Their initial flirtations comprise mostly of jokes about their abused childhoods. The only place these two should be heading is to a psychiatrist.

Instead, they’re off to bed, with a montage showing them bumping uglies on various occasions. If your height of wit or commentary sees your central pair swapping roles on International Women’s Day (Get a good mental image there. Yeah, that’s it, there you go.), it’s safe to say you’re not out to please all and any potential audiences. Deadpool wears its R-rating with pride, blending severed body parts, jokes about paedophilia and several doses of smugness into a sickly sludge. All of the ‘naughty’ stuff (That is to say, the silly sex-related stuff that might get undemanding 15-year-olds snickering) might have boasted a little more bite if the film’s anarchic sensibilities had managed to hide its generic structure a little better. Though boasting a smaller budget than other Marvel superhero outings (A flaw the film points out, but that doesn’t excuse the cheapness of its sets or gags), it still cleaves to the origin story template, complete with a weak explanation of the hero’s name, references a-go-go to other heroes in its shared universe (Surely we all inhabit the same universe? Can’t we all just get along?!) and a CG-heavy climax. Throw in a couple of lesser X-Men for support  and a gratuitous Stan Lee cameo, and you’ve got yourself a Marvel movie, but now with 100% extra sass mouth. That sass completely fails to cover up the familiar flavour.

As both lead and producer, Reynolds is clearly invested in this character, and he certainly sells the portrait of Deadpool as ego personified. The problem is the rest of the film loves Deadpool as much as he loves himself. When Wade receives a cancer diagnosis, Vanessa strives much harder to find a conventional cure than he does. He’s then offered a miraculous, but naturally-shady cure by Ed Skrein’s villain, Ajax. The plan goes awry (natch), and Wade ends up with the accelerated healing powers that make him Deadpool, but his initial concern is his scarred and burnt appearance. No-one told this guy that not every superhero can look like Hugh Jackman, who is constantly name-checked in a blurring of realities and timelines that confuses more than it amuses. Feature debut director Tim Miller brings little visual pizazz to proceedings (The bullet time-aping opening credits, in which Miller’s listed as an ‘overpaid tool’, may be the high point), so it’s up to the infantile script and Reynolds’ laidback charm to pick up the slack. It’s the classic Superman problem: how can one feel invested in something that cannot be killed? Superman had some weaknesses, but Deadpool’s only kryptonite is his own inflated sense of self. Not knowing how to do anything else besides placate its protagonist, Deadpool buries itself in blood and one-liners.

 

Review: Spotlight (2015)

Director: Tom McCarthy

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

 In the good old days of print journalism (and assuming this writer would ever get a job for a magazine or newspaper), a review of an awards hoover like Spotlight would be anticipated, without previews, hints on Twitter or hot takes. Tom McCarthy’s film is a throwback to such a time, but it’s not as far away as we might like to think. Spotlight digs into the archaic facades of two slowly-crumbling monuments, the Catholic Church and investigative print journalism, and discovers greater truths underneath. It goes about its task in a matter-of-fact way, but its story is too fascinating to be impeded by filmmaking flourishes. Or is it?

The Boston Globe’s monumental story on the extent of sexual abuse committed by clergy in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston broke in January 2002. Spotlight opens on a scene long before that, as a bishop and lawyer visit a police precinct in suburban Boston in 1976 to deal with an accusation against a priest. This prologue sets in place what future generations will be up against: a shadowy organisation trying to keep a dirty secret, aided and abetted by having friends in high places. The Church’s effective omerta on child abuse is now common knowledge, and the phenomenon has been covered on film already (The most notable examples are documentaries such as Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa and Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil). Telling this story through the prism of feature filmmaking requires a deft hand. McCarthy’s approach is to shift the focus from the abuse story to the investigation and those undertaking it, and to let that story speak for itself. The direction towards the abuse cases is given by new Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who reads a competitor’s article on an out-of-court settlement and asks about a follow-up. The unsung hero of Spotlight is Schreiber’s calm dignity as Baron, a Jewish blow-in in a Catholic town; the outsider looking in seeks the truth.

We’re quickly introduced to the Globe’s Spotlight investigation team. Led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) are given a task that sees them digging into an organization that defines their city. An early meeting between Baron and Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) sees the latter lay down his namesake by presenting Baron with a Catholic catechism, declaring that all one needs to know about Boston is contained therein. Moments like this only increase the resolve of both Spotlight and the audience to get to the truth. Law is the closest we get to a central bad guy, as the Church’s power allows the blame to get spread around with a horrifying efficiency. The law firms that mediated for the victims come under scrutiny (enter Billy Crudup with a neat, not-quite-boo-hiss role as leading lawyer Eric MacLeish), and the paper finds a reluctant ally in a lawyer for the victims, Mitch Garabedian. In this role, Stanley Tucci continues his wonderful habit of beefing up side roles with his trademark mix of determination and gravitas.

All of the Spotlight team are self-described lapsed Catholics, so to watch them investigate this institution should prove fascinating on a personal level. However, McCarthy and Josh Singer’s script is more interested in how the story was broken than the ones breaking it. Spouses and personal lives are mentioned but hardly glimpsed, which means the actors have to fill in the blanks. Ruffalo’s energetic boy scout is counterbalanced by McAdams’ compassionate focus, but the supports are the standouts. Keaton and d’Arcy James invest their professional old schoolers with an everyday identifiability, and John Slattery snaffles scenes from everybody as the Globe’s deputy editor Ben Bradlee Jr. His role is the active link to Spotlight’s greatest influence. All The President’s Men may have had Bradlee Sr.as editor and the benefit of Deep Throat’s intelligence, but it also had a greater sense of the historical import of its story (not to mention Gordon Willis’ peerless mood lighting). Spotlight tells its story efficiently, and celebrates the good work behind it. It doesn’t dress up the facts; McCarthy’s direction is largely observant, occasionally finding a frame to use or a moment for a West Wing-style walk-and-talk. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is defined largely by varying shades of grey, and the piano strikes on Howard Shore’s score hit somewhere between a clock tick and a church bell. It’s all perfectly valid, but a lack of imagination might be to its detriment in the memorability stakes. Spotlight might be too late to its own story to carry influence, but it’s a story worth telling and the film does it justice with respect and a sharp focus, no less and not much more.

Review: Youth (2015)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

***

This review was orignally published on Scannain.com

Youth? As a title, it reveals little; as a subject, it’s unwieldy. But that’s never been a deterrent to Paolo Sorrentino. The Italian writer/director has prided himself on taking journeys to find no guaranteed answers. A lack of answers doesn’t matter so much when the search for them yields sights and sounds of undeniable delight. Then again, the closer Sorrentino comes to answers, the better the films tend to be. For example, his looks at the workings of Italian politics and society, Il Divo and The Great Beauty, proved that the dangers of politics are no match for the beauty of Italy herself. Once out of Italy (and more crucially, not working in Italian), Sorrentino appears to be on shakier ground. His Irish-American sojourn This Must Be The Place amounted to relatively little beyond whimsy, though even then there were pleasurable nuggets to be found therein. Bolstered by The Great Beauty’s international acclaim, Sorrentino ventures beyond Italy again to a near neighbour. In the Swiss Alps lies inspiration, music and Michael Caine.

More specifically, Michael Caine is lying in a mineral bath in an Alpine resort. Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a once-acclaimed composer and conductor. His glasses and combed-back look hint that Sorrentino might be missing his regular muse Toni Servillo, whilst his sad frown and pallor suggest the luxurious surroundings he’s checked into might not be having the desired effect. Following on from The Great Beauty, Youth sees Sorrentino changing tack. The former film was about Servillo’s semi-retired writer Jep undertaking a search for beauty. Youth is also about older characters, but they’ve given up searching. Ballinger is but one of a number of residents at this resort, and is accompanied by his best pal, film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Mick’s ironing out a screenplay he’s hoping to direct, though both men would be happy just to be able to pass a few drops of water in the morning without hassle. Caine and Keitel are two actors we’ve watched age onscreen for the best part of five decades, and Youth is well aware of the burden of such histories. Both the title and the film is playfully ironic. Both men, as both characters and actors, have been through their trials and tribulations, we now find them at their most relaxed and chipper, accompanied by Sorrentino’s tasteful exuberance. It might see them in the occasional pratfall here, but it’s a damn sight more dignified an exploration of onscreen aging than Robert De Niro hitting on women young enough to be his granddaughter in Dirty Grandpa. As Ballinger wryly observes at one point “Levity is an irresistible temptation, because levity is also a perversion.”

Youth appears to gives in to this temptation, with a rambling pace and pleasantly breezy tone. The two men spend their days contemplating their projects, both finished and otherwise. While Mick brainstorms on his script, Ballinger is tempted with an offer to conduct a concert for the Queen. While Sorrentino is constantly fascinated by the perils of the artist, these particularly monied examples don’t immediately elicit empathy. The Great Beauty overcame this potential peril with an assured style and pace that never let up. Here, we shuffle along in a riskily episodic way until truths start rising up to the surface. The strifes of fellow resort guests, like Paul Dano’s Johnny Depp-alike actor Jimmy Tree, court whimsy too readily to engage, but then the personal strifes of Mick and Fred arrive to inject some pathos to keep Youth from floating away. Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) joins her father on his break, and takes the opportunity to bring up some home truths. In a stunning monologue told entirely from a massage bed, Weisz steals the entire film away from everyone with a moment of surprising heartbreak. A similar showstopping scene comes from Jane Fonda, cropping up for a late extended cameo as Mick’s muse/straight-talking friend. In between, Sorrentino and his DoP Luca Bigazzi pepper the film with whispers of underplayed emotionality. It’s this ability to tap into emotions so readily that has earned Sorrentino accusations of being a sentimentalist or, even worse, an arch manipulator. Yet, he elicits emotions primarily through stylistic choices, through lighting and music, so it’s hard not to be impressed by this ability. This, plus the game performances, give Youth its heft.

Being a film about a composer, music plays a big part in Youth. Besides an eclectic soundtrack, from Mark Kozelek to David Byrne to Claude Debussy, music is given an inescapable presence here. Kozelek makes an appearance, and Paloma Faith crops up as a love rival to Lena. Youth is not a musical, but it has a surfeit of musicians and artists that give it the sure and fleet-footed feel more akin to a musical. It means that Youth appears more lightweight than some of Sorrentino’s work but, like its Alpine setting, it boasts a pleasant and largely-undemanding ambience, full of good company.