Pras on WorldFilms: YOUTH

youth_ver2 posterPaolo Sorrentino’s new film “YOUTH” interweaves many themes, all framed perfectly by Luca Bigazzi’s lush, sometimes surreal cinematography: Aging & Youth; Ambition & Apathy; Fleeting Memories; Lost Loves.

YOUTH-superJumboThe film revolves around two old friends Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) and Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) in their late 70s who have come on vacation to an Alpine spa resort in Switzerland. Mick Boyle, an over-the-hill movie director, is on a working vacation determined to finish writing a film that will be his last testament. Fred Ballinger, on the other hand,  wants a complete withdrawal from the life he once led as a renowned orchestra conductor and composer. “Tell them to forget me,” he says to an emissary from Queen Elizabeth who has come with an offer of knighthood if Fred would agree to conduct one last performance of his most popular composition, an operatic medley titled “Simple Songs”, for Prince Philip.

91QRVGPtIpL._SL1500_There is a certain romantic, playful melancholy in the film’s vast, idyllic and secluded Swiss spa location. Sorrentino used those locations to allow the key characters the freedom to disappear, wander, or pace about as if the entire vast spa location was a lavishly-realized set, and for the audience an elaborate menagerie to observe.

The music clearly is a recurring character in the film, from Fred’s original compositions to the songs by the eclectic entertainers who appear at the hotel. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang created Fred’s music and the film’s score. His work resulted in a soundtrack involving varied artists.  Paolo Sorrentino also included tunes such as a cover of Florence + the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love,” is ever apt, and they seem to work very well too.

YOUTH climaxes with a scene of a beautiful, heart-breaking orchestral performance of “Simple Songs” by Grammy-winning Korean soprano Sumi Jo.  The piece’s orchestration (even with unremarkable lyrics ”I’ve got a feeling. I live near. I live for you now.“) brings out a wealth of emotions that soprano singer Sumi Jo conveys through a heart-breaking performance.

For YOUTH, David Lang had to finish before the filming began, since the refrains of melody are an important plot point. Much of the inspiration came from Nino Rota’s scores for Fellini’s films, in particular Amarcord. “Like in an opera, you plant motives throughout the movie so that when the song comes, it feels completely new, but something you’ve heard before.”

There is a mesmerizing scene in the film where Fred Ballinger is standing all alone in the countryside surrounded by cows. He hears cowbells and the sound of birds taking flight, and starts to conducts an imaginary orchestra with a whimsical piece “The Wood Symphony,” synchronized with the motion of cows and with the only audible sounds coming from their cowbells. This was an original David Lang composition.

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Fragments of “Simple Songs” are played by different figures: a young boy practicing his violin, and the virtuoso violinist Viktoria Mullova and the soprano Sumi Jo, who perform the work with the BBC Concert Orchestra on screen and on the soundtrack. “Youth” features another piece by Mr. Lang, “Just (After Song of Songs),” a haunting refrain performed by the Trio Mediaeval, a Norwegian choral group.  The soundtrack also includes pop, like songs by Paloma Faith, who appears in the film as herself.

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Paolo Sorrentino directed YOUTH in much of the same familiar style seen in his recent creation THE GREAT BEAUTY – a constant flow of images and ideas, organized loosely around a central theme. The Oscar winner (for The Great Beauty) fills every frame with images that constantly evoke his idol, the great master Federico Fellini. There are common themes that unite the film’s Fellini-esque episodes, like the elderly couple who never talk at dinner, or the Miss Universe pageant winner who turns out to be smarter than she looks. The film creates its charm by simply acknowledging that saying something profound is just another stage in the never-ending process of finding meaning in everyday life. Fellini’s influence is very clearly visible in a scene about reminiscences where Mick imagines all his female characters spread out over an idyllic Swiss pasture, reminding him of the past.

youth 4YOUTH succeeds in delivering its impact because of a certain chemistry between director Paolo Sorrentino and Photographer Luca Bigazzi which certainly delivered the results from a fruitful collaboration between the two. Bigazzi’s evocative photographic composition in each scene brings to mind many references to paintings by Old and Modern Masters references.

The supporting cast includes Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda. The spaActress-Rachel-Weisz-pose-006 is also populated with a fair share of quirky characters, from an obese man sporting a Jesus pendant and a giant Karl Marx tattoo on his back to a masseuse (Luna Mijovic), dancing with her Wii to a hilariously unexpected Adolf Hitler.

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Cast: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Mark Kozelek, Robert Seethaler, Alex MacQueen, Luna Mijovic, Tom Lipinski, Chloe Pirrie, Alex Beckett, Nate Dern, Mark Gessner
Director-screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino

Producers: Nicola Giliano, Francesca Cima, Carlotta Calori
Executive producer: Viola Prestieri
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Ludovica Ferrario
Costume designer: Carlo Poggioli
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Music: David Lang

Pras on WorldFilms: INTERSTELLAR

InterstellarAn online piece written by a friend brought back to life thoughts long filed-away in the recesses of my memory. His mention of a poem written a long time ago by India’s poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore “Ekla Cholo Re” (Walk The Road Alone).

Tagore wrote the poem back in 1905, and went on to win the country’s first ever Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

It is a curious coincidence that I am thinking about this poem now, more than any other day.

This weekend I watched Christopher Nolan’s magnum opus INTERSTELLAR. Being a huge and longtime Chris Nolan fan since I watched his ground-breaking films (MEMENTO, INSOMNIA, THE DARK KNIGHT, INCEPTION, others), it was merely a matter of time that I would show up to watch his latest. (PS: No Spoilers Here !).

Its been a while since I watched a Sci-fi film that wrapped physics and the sheer power of story-telling around a core built on poetic sentiment. Read on.

Nolan has an unconventional style of creating his narrative & visuals in films he directs, or writes or produces. There are always deeper undercurrents flowing beneath the actual story playing out on the surface. Much like the century-old sewers that crisscross deep underneath the City of London where Nolan resides, moving huge volumes of waste totally oblivious to most Londoners living on its solid-surface. He also loves to challenge the audience with a cerebral, non-linear storytelling style, often provoking them to keep up with him.

Interstellar proved no different. But this time he had the advantage of added access to a formidable array of conceptual tools with which to weave all his complexity in the story. At the heart of, the film is a story of pioneers who chose to venture out into the ultimate unknown mankind has ever known – intergalactic space. But this attempt was prompted not by a sense of adventure (as most films would like to depict), but by an urgent need. Earth is close to its last gasps,food is running out, mankind is on the verge of doom.

But Nolan had the use of Time, Space and multiple other dimensions to transport our protagonists through. His non-linear style was made surprisingly easier this time around by the knowledge that theoretical physicists often use the concept of bending space & time around certain galactic objects. Something scientists have known a long time (thanks, Albert Einstein), observed in surrogate forms, but have never ever experienced directly. A group of brave scientists & engineers were being asked to now take a journey into that unknown aided only by a theoretical notion that still has many “holes” by way of proof.

Galactic Pioneers The protagonists were pioneers in every sense of the word. They were stepping into uncharted territory. They were surely scared. They were also terribly conflicted about leaving their closest human connections (family, friends, the familiarity of things around them), and to have to make an uncertain promise that they would ultimately return back to them.

THE SCIENCE OF INTERSTELLAR

Christopher Nolan clearly had a lot to draw from in the area of theoretical physics and astrophysics concepts. Kip Thorne ( a renowned physicist) who was also an adviser on the Interstellar project. One of the main themes in Interstellar is that characters can age at different speeds depending on where they are in the universe.

Interstellar Dimensions In 1912 Einstein predicted that gravity is a product of huge bodies, like Earth, bending space-time. What is even more extraordinary is that space is bending into a different dimension. On Earth the effect is minimal, adding just a few microseconds a day to the time of space. Consequently GPS satellites orbiting the Earth need to be adjusted to take into account that they are moving through time slightly more quickly – 40 microseconds a day – compared to a person with a SatNav on earth.

Bending Space The crew of Interstellar’s Endurance spaceship faced a headache when trying to get to Miller’s planet because it is trapped within the control of the huge black hole Gargantua. To avoid being sucked into the black hole, the spaceship had to be travelling at high speed to escape the huge gravitational and centrifugal forces.

“Wormholes” In Interstellar, the crew overcame the vast distances between galaxies by jumping through a “wormhole”. If you imagine the universe is a flat sheet of paper you could travel between two points by moving in a straight line. However if you bend the paper so that the points touch through it, and then make a hole, you can reach that point much quicker. Essentially, a wormhole is where space and time are being bent so that points are now closer together.But Prof Thorne hastens to add: “I doubt the laws of physics permit traversable wormholes. If they can exist, I doubt very much they can form naturally in the astrophysical universe.

THE POETRY OF INTERSTELLAR

We have come to expect science fiction films to create representations that challenge assumptions we have grown accustomed to living in. In that broader sense, Interstellar is no different. What brought out the core sentiment of Interstellar was really a few lines from a Dylan Thomas poem (see below), that were repeated several times in the film. In a way its also the core of what we know as the “pioneering spirit”.

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Its what led Steve Fosset to attempt the risky balloon-ride across the globe. It inspired Felix Baumgartner to attempt the highest ever jump from a balloon hovering 39-miles up at the edge-of-space. It inspired James Cameron to take that perilous submersible trip 7-miles deep to observe and film the Marianas Trench (the world deepest point in the ocean). It inspired Amelia Earhart to attempt her transatlantic flight back in 1928. It also inspired an intrepid 14-year old Dutch girl Janice Dekker to sail solo around the world in an old unpowered yatch her sailor-dad restored for her. (Her filmed-footage was turned into an amazing documentary MAIDENTRIP). And it keeps people like Richard Branson ticking restlessly with a vision of commercial space travel. Damn the celebrity, full steam ahead.

The poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was published in 1951-52, but couldn’t be more true for these pioneers. Here’s how it goes.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Dylan Thomas, 19141953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

From The Poems of Dylan Thomas, published by New Directions. Copyright © 1952, 1953 Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1937, 1945, 1955, 1962, 1966, 1967 the Trustees for the Copyrights of Dylan Thomas. Copyright © 1938, 1939, 1943, 1946, 1971 New Directions Publishing