December 21, 2015 -- After feeding us comic book heroes, sequels and remakes for most of the year, not to mention some bad low-budget comedies and horror films, awards season arrives and we get Oscar bait movies like this with big stars, original stories and dazzling performances.
The drama, set in a swank Swiss resort isn't about one thing, it is about everything, and that is its problem. Drama should be delivered like a bullet from a sniper's rifle, right to your heart. This is more like a shotgun blast. It is all over the place. It is messy, but there are some great performances, and it looks good, too.
The main character, Fred Ballinger (played by Michael Caine of the “Batman” movies) is a retired classical music composer and conductor who is visiting his old friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel of “National Treasure: Book of Secrets”) a movie writer and director. Most of the characters in this movie are show business people. It is a movie about movie people.
Fred and his daughter, Lena Ballinger (Rachel Weisz of “Oz the Great and Powerful”) quarrel a lot about their family problems in this movie. Lena doesn't seem to think her father loved his wife enough to suit her. Her marriage also breaks up at the same time this argument starts.
Mick is working on a movie, a deep, meaningful art film about the meaning of life, that he calls his “Testament.” He and his co-writers are at the resort working on the script. Mick and Fred have a number of nice scenes together talking about their enlarged prostate glands and the meaning of life.
Fred is visited several times by an emissary of the Queen of England. The Queen wants him to conduct an orchestra playing one of his famous compositions for a celebration in London. Fred refuses, and his daughter Lena is very pleased to find out why he refused. It was something she needed to hear.
Another character who has some very nice scenes with Fred is an actor, Jimmy Tree (played by Paul Dano of “Prisoner”) who dresses up as Adolph Hitler at one point in the movie. As, Hitler, he speaks to Mick about his personal revelation as an actor, “I have to choose what is really worth telling, horror or desire. And I choose desire ... You made me see that I should not be wasting my time on the senselessness of horror ... I wanna tell about your desire, my desire. So pure, so impossible, so immoral, but it doesn't matter because that's what makes us alive.”
That speech by Jimmy sums up the whole movie about as well as anything does. This resort might be the Grand Hotel, or the Ship of Fools, depending on your point of view. You've got old people, and young people trying to make sense of their lives and loves. They are trying to find a way to move forward.
In another telling scene, a young person is asked to look through a pair of those big tourist-type mounted binoculars at a distant mountain, which makes it look close. Then she is told to look through the binoculars the wrong way, which makes nearby people look far away. That is the way it seems in life, Mick says. When you are young, everything looks close, that's the the future, but when you get old, everything looks distant, that's the past.
Near the end of the film, a famous actress, Brenda Morel (Jane Fonda of “The Butler”) comes tearing into the movie like a hurricane, leaving death, destruction and chaos in her wake. It is a remarkable performance by Fonda, who plays a character unlike her usual movie characters. She is coarse, edgy, steely, loud and profane.
In addition to everything else, there is a considerable amount of nudity in this film, a suicide, a concert with a performance by a real opera singer, fantasy sequences, several other musical performances, a parachute landing, a hysterical scene on an airliner, a sex scene and a mountain climbing scene, among many other scenes.
Do all of these pieces really fit together to make a complete story? Surprisingly, it sort of does work after a fashion. This certainly is a movie with a lot of meaty roles in it and it has some excellent performances by some very gifted actors. It also looks great with some wonderful cinematography by Luca Bigazzi of “The Great Beauty”). This film rates a B.
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