Roger Ebert once wrote “That the firemen are going to come looking for all of us one of these days, sooner or later.” in reference to mortality in the film Amour. Within 3 months he was dead after fighting on without his voice and limited mobility for years. He did not go quietly into the night but the firemen had come. The giants of my adolescence as eclectic as Ebert and Tom Clancy are disappearing from my life. Youth shows me that Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel remain as strong as ever but here are playing characters well aware that there are a handful of years left in their lives. You can’t help but marvel at the passage of time.

Keitel and Caine share a lot of similarities in their personas and histories. Both served in the military as young men overseas, Caine as a Royal Fusilier in Korea and Keitel as a U.S. Marine in Lebanon, both rode film renaissances of their eras on either side of the Atlantic, both are identified with rough neighbourhoods of their youth Caine a Cockney from London and Keitel a Jew from Brooklyn, both got some big breaks in films playing criminals and both have been re-discovered by hip young filmmakers who revitalised their careers. Michael Caine is 82 and Harvey Keitel is 76, these are not ages where you believe you have all the time in the world left but they thankfully still enjoy working and we are the more fortunate for it.

Michael Caine stars as retired composer Fred Ballinger who is vacationing in the Swiss Alps at a health resort. His oldest friend, director Mick Boyle is also staying there brainstorming his new film with some young screenwriters. Also present is Rachel Weisz playing Lena Ballinger, Fred’s daughter and assistant who is married to Mick’s son. There is an overweight retired soccer star, the latest Miss Universe shows up and Paul Dano as a young film star who wants to do a good picture rather than be remembered playing a robot in a broad comedy. Jane Fonda essentially has one scene where she shows up as Boyle’s former star and muse Brenda Morel to be asked to headline his new ‘legacy’ film.

The film has its own leisurely pace observing each day one by one as Boyle fusses over his film, Ballinger is hounded to return to perform for the Queen and Lena deals with the aftermath of her marriage imploding. A key scene for revealing Fred’s current state is the only weak moment in the film because the Queen’s emissary appears remarkably ignorant and insistent. A great fallacy that comes naturally to us is that the old must somehow be wise but Youth shows clearly that both Fred and Mick still have questions they can’t answer even if they understand how fleeting and poignant it all is. It is a pleasure to watch these two performers bounce off each other. Caine as far back as The Ipcress File knew the power of a silent gaze and Keitel who has remained physically in shape all his life appears with still the exuberant energy of a boy ready to take on life. Your oldest friends bring out the child in you; there is something special when you see peers interact with each other. Many years ago in a hospital ward I finally saw my grandfather wasn’t just a grandfather but a brother and a young man somewhere inside bubbling to the surface. Notice how Caine plays a scene with Keitel compared to Dano or a young boy.

The film (relatively low budget) looks fantastic, the retreat itself surrounded by beautiful pine forest mountainsides has a courtyard where hip young bands play on a lit stage at night. In the morning rows upon rows of guests of various ages move through pools, saunas and massage tables in various states of undress. There is a celebration of flesh in all its forms in this film which reflects the earthy quality of Europeans when it comes to sex. Americans get excited by the garter underneath a skirt. Europeans count all the freckles and wrinkles on a bare thigh before devouring it lustfully no matter what the number. After all the firemen are coming. Even Madalina Diana Ghenea as Miss Universe displayed on the film’s marketing for a famous titillating descent naked into a pool is introduced as a human being before being celebrated as a goddess.

Director Paolo Sorrentino is a compelling visual artist engaging in both full blown dream sequences and one compelling close up shot of Weisz as she speaks about much that has been left unsaid for far too long. After that confrontation not much else is said between father and daughter for a bit and then it is. It can go like that sometimes with family. Lena worries about Fred and Fred worries about Lena but in the end they will find their solutions to their life crises themselves. It is nice to be loved though. The whole cast is uniformly exemplary but Sir Michael Caine is here once again taking on the lead role and giving one of his best performances ever-worthy of an Oscar as anything else I’ve seen this year. Even at this stage of life Fred Ballinger has a character arc and grows. He learns there are things to be done, there is still strength in these arms and there is not a moment to lose. The firemen are coming. This is one of the year’s best.

-Lloyd Marken


You’re going to hear a lot of talk about Paul Dano’s performance as a young Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy and it is all well deserved. He is the anchor of the scenes set in The Beach Boys early days as Brian retreats from performing and sinks into making the masterpiece that is Pet Sounds. We see a shy young man wrestle with his demons in a different time and place. There must have been a great burden placed on his family at the time and don’t kid yourself Brian got heavy into drugs and partying. The film focuses more on his obsession with making an album that would be like nothing anybody had ever experienced and fending off pressure from his bitter father and exasperated brother. These are choices made to make him more sympathetic perhaps but also to show cause and effect. John Cusack’s older Brian Wilson later says “I wasn’t a good father.” We don’t go further but there is child-like honesty and simplicity to that. He was sick and he lost his family and now here he is. John Cusack is one of the most likeable actors in the world and when he speaks with a child’s straight forwardness about these things we feel sorry for Brian’s loss and maybe don’t think too much on how hard it must have been for his family too. You couldn’t necessarily earn that sympathy with another actor.

Cusack’s Brian has regrets and there is an authenticity in having the older Brian played by an older actor. None of the people present in the Dano’s sections are seen in the Cusack years and vice versa. They’re separate stories, one about creating an album and the onset of an illness. The other a love story about the triumphant re-emergence of Wilson from that illness albeit not without some of the years having ravaged him. Period settings, film stock and different actors definitely set these two stories apart and yet as we build to both conclusions we can clearly see the connections being made. “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” – Jesuit Motto

I’ve been a big fan of Elizabeth Banks for a long time and this may be her best performance yet going toe to toe with great actors like Paul Giamatti as Dr Eugene Landry and Cusack. The latter has a puppy dog charisma that draws Bank’s car saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter to him but it is an odd world the older Beach Boy lives in. Banks is able to communicate how tempting it would be to walk away and why as a strong woman she found herself patiently navigating Brian’s world. The extent of Dr Landry’s control gradually reveals itself setting up an inevitable showdown. When it comes on two sides of a closed door Elizabeth Banks steals the fucking movie from everyone. Please somebody give this woman a blockbuster with her in the lead! Cusack finds small notes here, in a lot of ways he lacks agency in his own story and puts aside vanity to be insulted or drugged in certain scenes. A key scene is when he becomes manic with worry that Eugene will punish him and you can see how confusing this would be for Melissa and how urgent this threat is to Brian.

Love and Mercy is well written and well directed by Bill Pohlad but it is the performances that make or break such a film. This movie soars thanks to them.

-Lloyd Marken