Youth

A movie called Youth stars two men who are 82 and 76. Funny, huh?

Of course, the story is filled with reminiscences of their younger days, plus encounters with several youthful individuals.

The setting is a resort in the Alps, sort of a Grand Tyrolean Hotel with similarities to The Grand Budapest Hotel from last year’s Wes Anderson film. It is a spot for the rich and famous from all over the world to escape, enjoy quiet days and nightly entertainment and, maybe, become healthier.

Youth is not as madcap as GBH but it has a its own goofy moments and characters.

Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired conductor and composer. Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel, who also appeared in Grand Budapest Hotel) is a film director and screenwriter. They are old friends who are sharing a suite at the hotel.

Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is being dumped by her husband, who is Mick’s son. She stays at the resort and begins a flirtation with a mountain climber.

Among the story lines is an effort by the queen to recruit Fred to conduct a command performance in London of a song he composed. Fred repeatedly refuses for personal reasons.

Late in the film an actress who has had a long personal and professional relationship with Mick shows up at the resort. Brenda (Jane Fonda) has big news to deliver. For her brief appearance Fonda received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress.

Favorite scenes in Youth include Fred sitting on a log while “pretend conducting” cows and their bells, a guest hackysacking a tennis ball and Mick and his co-writers literally putting their heads together as they script his next movie.

Sort of a running joke: Smoking is forbidden throughout the resort but we see guests and staffers frequently lighting up. Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), an actor who is visiting the resort, smokes shamelessly. By the way, Youth contains a significant bit of gratuitous nudity.

Youth is a lark, not a “must see.” But if you like Michael Caine—and most of us do, don’t we?—you will enjoy sharing his holiday in the mountains with him and the other guests.

 

 

 

12 Years A Slave

12 Years a Slave is slow, overly long and filled with disturbing scenes. It is also one of the year’s best movies.

The true story is simple. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, NY. He has a wife and kids. An accomplished musician, he is recruited by two “magicians” to provide music for their act.

After dinner at a restaurant in Washington, Northup wakes up in chains. He is kidnapped and sold at a slave market. Paul Giamatti appears as a slave broker, with the ironic name, Freeman.

Northup’s first owner in Louisiana is Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is, despite his participation in slavery, a decent man. He treats Northup with a bit of respect. He gives Northup a violin. His overseers, however, are brutal idiots. One of the overseers (Paul Dano, who is becoming typecast as a weasel) fights Northup and loses.

Later Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an abusive slave owner. The depictions of inhumanity are overwhelming. Brad Pitt plays Bass, a contractor who works on a building for Epps and utilizes Northup’s skills. The slave tells his story, Bass gets word to the folks back in New York and, in short order, Northup is freed and returned home.

Director Steve McQueen tells Northup’s story in a plodding, deliberate manner. But that’s appropriate. Life in the Antebellum South—even during cotton harvest—moved at a slower pace. It’s obvious that screenwriter John Ridley had to condense a good deal of the real-life Northup’s book to tell his story and to depict the life of a slave.

Movies have been around for over 100 years. Racial attitudes in America have changed greatly during that time. (See D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for a century-ago depiction of black Americans.) It seems odd that Northup’s story would not have been brought to the screen until now.

12 Years a Slave is not light entertainment. It stirs emotions. It might make you cry. Chitwetel Ejiofor could be this year’s answer to Quvenzhané Wallis, the young girl who amazed in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like her, he has a challenging name and owns his movie. (She, by the way, has a tiny roll in 12YAS as one of Northup’s daughters.) Like her, he is likely to be mentioned when awards nominations are announced. Unlike her, a rookie when she made Beasts, he is a film veteran who has now found his breakout role.

12 Years may be challenging for some audience members, but it has the basic elements that  make a great film: strong characters, a compelling story and a nuanced telling of the story. This is not the Gone With The Wind or even the Django Unchained version of slavery. This is brutal and stark. See it and be impressed.

Prisoners

Prisoners is intense. To maintain energy and interest for two and a half hours, a film needs to keep moving. This detective story with a vengeance twist doesn’t stop throwing new plot developments until the screen goes black.

Hugh Jackman, in a non-singing role, is the more bankable star of Prisoners. But Jake Gyllenhaal delivers the stronger performance as a police detective charged with solving the disappearance of two young girls.

The Dovers (Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birchs (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are suburban neighbors who get together for Thanksgiving. After the meal, their two young daughters go outside but soon disappear. Their older siblings recall seeing an old RV. When it is found, suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is brought in and questioned by detective Loki (Gyllenhaal). But Jones has an apparent learning disability and can barely talk. With no solid evidence, he is released.

Dover, however, is convinced that Jones is the perp. Shortly after Jones is turned loose, Dover imprisons Jones inside an abandoned apartment building where he beats and tortures him. He enlists the aid of the Birchs (first Mr., later Mrs.) in the effort to get Alex to tell where the girls are.

Loki meanwhile pursues other leads, which take him to a couple of creeps including a priest on his sex offender list (Len Cariou) and a slimy guy who buys kids clothing but has no kids (David Dastmalchian). Loki finds weird things in each of their homes. He stops by Alex Jones’ home and talks to his mom (Melissa Leo) in his search for solid evidence.

Loki’s frustration increases until the Birch girl is found. In the wake of that occurrence, almost everything gets resolved.

Jackman is not the first male actor to express extreme anger about a daughter being abducted, but he carries it off well. Bello, Howard and Davis, sadly, have little opportunity to show their acting chops. Dano plays the simpleton perfectly. Leo is initially unrecognizable as the dowdy middle-aged mom. And Dastmalchian has a look that should get him as many decent “creep” roles as he can handle.

The reason to see Prisoners (along with trying to figure it all out) is Gyllenhaal. He maintains a level of intensity that hovers just below the boiling point through most of the film. He does blow his top a time or two.

Jake owes a debt to writer Aaron Guzikowski for handing him a great character and to director Denis Villenueve for delivering the story in a straightforward way, without any tricky stuff.

Prisoners has the grim look of rainy winters down south. (It was filmed in Georgia, a state that actually does have sunny days, though not in this movie.) It has no real comic relief. Prisoners is intense.