Thursday, 3 December 2015

Double bill: Youth & 5 to 7

Took in a couple of new indie releases yesterday. Here's the reviews!


This one was... interesting. For the second time this year I am reviewing a film featuring Rachel Weisz in a hotel where weird stuff happens.

The plot is fairly simple: two old friends, a retired composer (Michael Caine) and a film director (Harvey Keitel), take a vacation at a resort near the Swiss Alps. While the composer tries to ignore an invitation to stage a concert of his most famous work, the director is hard at work on what he plans to be his last film.

This is a very interesting film. While the story is linear, it is broken up by a series of vignettes and surreal dreams that offer glimpses into the fading psyches of our protagonists. Caine and Keitel are good, although I feel like these are roles I've seen them play before.

Rachel Weisz turns up as Caine's daughter, and Paul Dano plays an actor using his vacation to research his next role. All these people are searching for purpose, and the hotel serves as the catalyst for change.

Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), Youth is all about ageing, memory, nostalgia and regret. If the symbolism occasionally feels obvious and the dialogue clunks with metaphor, it does not really matter when so much of it works. My main issue is with the dialogue, which betrays its writer's origins all too often.

Actually, since the film does so much of its work visually it is surprising that there is so much emphasis on words to explain what we are seeing. The movie would have been more interesting without the dialogue, or in the filmmaker's natural tongue -- what sounds obvious in English may be more palatable in Italian.

Occasionally however, the film manages to leaven the characters' conversations with a much needed sense of humour -- as in the excruciating scene in which Dano's self-pitying thespian is cut down to size by Miss Universe (Madalina Ghenea). That's not her name, she just won Miss Universe and no one bothers to give her real name.

Occasionally inspired but somewhat hackneyed, Youth is a solid showcase for its stars. Check it out.

5 to 7

Struggling writer Brian Bloom (Anton Yelchin) meets an older French woman, Arielle (Berenice Marlohe). Smitten, they begin a relationship. She informs him that she is married, but that they can continue their relationship from 5 to 7pm each day.  

Though he is uncomfortable with the arrangement, Brian agrees and is drawn into Arielle's family. Through this new, unorthodox relationship, Brian grows as a person and his stagnant writing career begins to take off. And then he falls in love... 

This is a movie that lives and dies on the chemistry between its leads -- on that count, it does not quite work. While Berenice Marlohe and Anton Yelchin do have a rapport, it feels more like a casual fling than a genuine romantic frission. The story is pretty formulaic, and so are the characters -- everyone is playing an idea, not a fully realised person. The only one who rises above her archetype is Olivia Thirlby as Marlohe's husband's mistress, who becomes Brian's inner voice of reason.

Writer-director Victor Levin is clearly trying to evoke the romance narratives of another era -- the glistening, subtle innuendo of Lubitsch and the more prosiac but iconic Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961). However, this kind of material, in which characters navigate a specific code of sexual etiquette, requires a deft touch to avoid it feeling contrived. Sadly, Levin does not have it.

Technically, there are a few issues. Levin often frames his characters in long shots, and at the other end of rooms and through doorways and windows. This gives scenes a cold, clinical feel that works against the modern fairy tale Levin is trying to create -- it also highlights the tepid chemistry between his leads. He also uses a lot of deep and shallow focus in a haphazard and seemingly unnecessary way. It just gives off the air of someone who is trying to dress up scenes with unnecessary touches which detract from the simple story.

The reliance on the references to old Hollywood romance also means that the film winds up too conventional to really take advantage of its premise. While the film never outright condemns the characters for their unconventional approach to romance and relationships, the neat ending in which heteronormativity is restored, reduces the film to be yet another tired story of a young man gaining 'experience' from sexy older woman. 

Ultimately, 5 to 7 is a souffle that fails to rise. 

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