Review: The Tree of Life (2011)

10 07 2011

“Do you trust me,” he whispers. “Will you travel this road with me from the foundations of the earth, to life bursting forth from the womb, to that final doorway? I will tell you the truth, if you enter in with me.” With these questions, Terrence Malick asks us to step into his lavish new film The Tree of Life. He asks such questions up front because he knows some people aren’t committed to the journey that is to follow. Those looking to munch popcorn, turn off their brain, and take a nice little stroll with Brad Pitt may not make it. And many in my theater did not. As volcanoes erupted, dinosaurs roamed, and cells split, the audience thinned. They did not trust. Sadly, by bowing out early, these folks missed a deeply moving story of love and one son’s battle with good and evil.

The Tree of Life showcases the best that cinema has to offer. Some will call Mr. Malick’s story of life “self-indulgent,” and they may have a strong case for such a claim. After all, the film does begin with a thirty minute Nature Channel-like display of the creation of the world. No doubt, these beginning scenes are truly beautiful in scope with a matching soundtrack rich with emotion. Yet, they feel off kilter from that which follows. I would not say “disconnected” per se, only that the middle act displaying the life of a young man battling with the nature of his heart is powerful enough to stand on its own. In fact, I would suggest that the beginning, for all its raw inertia and energy, pales in comparison with the subtle power of the second act. It was there that I found my eyes moist as I journeyed with our young protagonist to discover me in him. It was on that uncertain road where I also felt Mr. Malick’s arm of grace slide gently around my shoulder.

I would challenge any cinephile to name a film that so succeeds, as does The Tree of Life, in displaying mercy and love on the basis of visual images alone. While it may be unsettling for some, Mr. Malick’s lack of dialogue and insistence on conveying much through glance, touch, and angle are key ingredients in his success here. He is a genius at wringing out every last drop of story from his frames. Also, by not harnessing his young actors to verbose language or an overabundance of dialogue, he grants them freedom to be—good, bad, or otherwise. Mr. Malick has learned something many filmmakers have yet to grasp—that words are a poor substitute for pictures.

The film’s production values are strong with brilliant cinematography, a deeply moving score, and first-rate acting. Sean Penn’s talent is wasted in the film and his scenes at the end make a strange bookend to the creation story at the beginning. Nonetheless, the meat in the middle is a premium cut . . . a true gourmet meal for those with a defined palate.

Do you trust me when I tell you that you must see The Tree of Life? You probably won’t like the beginning or ending any more than I did. But, there in the middle, you’ll be grabbed by the chest and led to a place where no other summer blockbuster will take you.


Intermission: 2010 Round-Up

22 01 2011

It’s official, summer blockbusters are dead.  Long live winter cinematic wonder. Appearing like it could be the worst year in cinematic history since the doldrums of the late 1980s, 2010 ended with such a maelstrom of movie magnificence that I’m still trying to find my legs.  I might even go so far as to say that 2010 concluded with what could go down in recent history as some of the most beloved cinematic creations since LOTR at the brink of this century. Here is my list of the five “best” films of 2010:

(1) Black Swan.  The most revolutionary film of the year deserves top spot.   Not a heart-warmer by any stretch of the imagination, but cinematic genius through and through.  Darren Aronofsky so perfectly re-images the story of Swan Lake for modern times that I can even forgive the unnecessary hypersexuality of the film.  Yes, some tighter editing in the middle movement would have made for a less off-kilter viewing experience, but the last 15 minutes are brilliant beyond description.  Natalie Portman commands the stage and the screen to the film’s breathtakingly bleak final note.  A mesmerizing performance unlike anything I’ve seen in recent memory.


(2) The Social NetworkDavid Fincher takes here what should be an ultra boring talk-fest and makes magic.  The dialogue is smart (thank you Aaron Sorkin), the acting first-rate, and the theme timely (i.e., friendship, or the lack thereof, in the digital age).  I don’t need to rehash my earlier review (which you can find here), but suffice it to say, The Social Network may take home the Grand Pupa of all film awards because, let’s face it, it is far less off-putting than Black Swan.




(3) Toy Story 3.  This film is worthy of the number one spot on my list were it not for the more revolutionary films listed above.  This isn’t to say, however, that Toy Story 3 lacks inventiveness.  It builds on the grand Pixar tradition of blending strong story elements with state-of-the-art animation.  Here is a film that could have been a Thomas the Train-wreck were it not for the filmmakers instance on letting the characters mature, grow, and struggle.  Toy Story 3 does not bank on nostalgia as many lesser animated sequels have done, but insists that even toys must deal with the realities of growing old in a world that only has eyes for the *new*.  Powerful stuff covered with a wonderfully sweet candy shell of comedy, action, drama, and romance.


(4) The King’s Speech.  You have to love those Brits.  This film further solidifies the truth that English-language cinematic art is alive and well; although, you may have to abandon America to find it.  While the state of film funding in Great Britain looks grim, The King’s Speech proves that you can make a first-class movie with less than $15 million dollars (or $8 million pounds, if you prefer).  The key: passion and a good measure of heart.  The King’s Speech has both, but isn’t afraid to laugh at itself.  Where The Social Network shows us the underbelly of friendship, The King’s Speech demonstrates the power a true friend has in helping a person live into his potential.  Even if the film occasionally stumbles with a propensity toward gag-inducing heroic rhetoric, we can forgive such a stutter because we have learned to trust the heart behind the words.

(5) The Fighter.  A gritty feel-good film based on the true story of boxer Micky Ward.  While the ending of the movie is anything but a surprise, we do discover that the opponent in the ring is little to be feared compared to the one inside yourself.  In the film, Micky Ward battles his family, his history, and his heart to find a way to win.  Love them or hate them, the film’s main characters have beautifully touching story arches which help us forgive the rather one-dimensional secondary characters.  And, of course, what is a character without an actor and there are plenty of top-notch performances throughout this picture.  Christian Bale and Melissa Leo are well-worthy of any awards they garner playing Micky’s half-brother and mother respectively.  The Fighter may not explore new cinematic territory, but its powerfully touching story and meaty characters make it a worthy addition to my top five of the year.

Intermission: 2011 Best Picture Prognostication

28 11 2010

I’ll admit that all the hullabaloo surrounding which films will win an Academy Award amounts to little more than glorified silliness.   While recognizing people for a job well-done is a most worthy undertaking, assigning merit to a piece of art remains risky business.  True, suggesting that movies deserve the label of “art” can be, in itself, a treacherous diving off point.  Nonetheless, we belong to a species that deeply enjoys and feels called to order and rank the world around us.

That said, we must recognize that the Academy Awards are just that — honors bestowed upon artists by artists.  These are not the People’s Choice Awards and what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sees in a film should not be confused with what the average movie-goer enjoys.  Even the Academy itself recognized this fact until last year when it made a decision of singular stupidity.  It decided to forget its own place and began appealing to the masses by widening the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten.  Not only did such a decision result in the dilution of the Academy brand (e.g., The Blind Side — enough said), but indicated that advertising dollars and viewership numbers were more important than awarding esteem to worthy pieces of cinematic art.

Now, I haven’t forgotten that this whole matter of ranking art is one of supreme silliness, but at least prior to last year the Academy took its role seriously and did not kowtow to the whims and wishes of the masses.  If you’re going to do something as ridiculous as assigning value to art, you should at least do it with consistency and with respect to oneself and to that which one destines to judge.  When you open the flood gates, one should not be surprised to find all sorts of debris floating to the surface.

Having gotten that off my chest, I now shall get about my business of double silliness by attempting to prognosticate those films that the Academy will nominate for the 2011 Best Picture.  And, yes, I do see the ridiculousness of trying to foretell a list of favorites for a small body of artists who will rank something that is probably best left unranked.  Yet, I do it with the highest degree of integrity and respect and that certainly adds value to this undertaking (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself).

For the sake of order, I have divided my prognostications into three categories: certain nominees, likely nominees, and long-shot nominees.

Certain Nominees (in alphabetical order):

127  Hours

Welcome back, Danny Boyle and Hello, James Franco.  Based on the book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” it tells the riveting true story of Aron Ralston (aka, the adventurer who cut off his arm when it got stuck between a rock and, um, a rock . . . oops, I guess he should have told someone where he was going).




And the make-up nomination of the year goes to The Dark Knight; oh, I mean Inception.  A mind-twist of a movie that lacks heart (see my review here), but which has one very noteworthy element — Christopher Nolan.



The King’s Speech

Here is our standard Academy period piece, but with a dash of humor (Geoffrey Rush), a sprinkle of good-nature (Colin Firth), and a shocking secret ingredient that the MPAA found off-putting.




The Social Network

Dearest David Fincher, we think you’re brilliant but most Americans don’t like downer movies.  Mark Zuckerberg may have billions of dollars, but we need every advertising cent we can get.

– Your Friends at the Academy




Toy Story 3

Pixar.  Enough said.






Likely Nominees (in alphabetical order):

Black Swan

Artistic.  Dark.  Darren Aronofsky.  These traits make Black Swan a difficult film for the Academy to resist.  Mr. Aronofsky, please remember that a nomination is like a win . . . really.




The Kids are All Right

Ah, here is our political film of the year.  Never mind the quality of the film (see my review here), it has amazingly talented straight actors playing gay characters and that has a striking familiarity to a far superior film that the Academy snubbed.  Retribution never tasted sweeter for this little film that could.




True Grit

The Coen Brothers. Jeff BridgesMatt Damon. The wild west.  What more can I say?





Long-Shot Nominees (in alphabetical order):

Another Year

The geriatric choice of the year.  Not enough films for this demographic and Red isn’t good enough to make the cut.  Let’s not forget who makes up the vast majority of the Academy.




Blue Valentine

The NC-17 rating has made this valentine even bluer.  The Weinsteins may fight it, but the content may be too much for the Academy.  Expect to see some love for Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, however.




Winter’s Bone

The “Indie” choice of the year.  May sneak in with the new ten nominee policy, but is too obscure to make it far up the ladder.  Jennifer Lawrence will likely get some respect ala Melissa Leo in Frozen River.

Review: The Social Network (2010)

18 10 2010

Friends have a keen ability to point out the ironies in one’s life.  For example, a few weeks ago a friend noted that my having watched The Social Network alone, while borderline pathetic, is far more ironic.  I was happy for this opportunity to swap the “Loser” label for the more chic and intelligent “Irony” patch.  After all, watching a movie about friends without friends certainly strikes me as more ironic than pitiful (and my friend agrees; she is a very dear friend).  And I’m in good company because The Social Network is a film about the irony of one Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, who does not have three friends to rub together to make a fourth.

Below all its legal wrangling and share-holder percentages, The Social Network tells the simple story of a young man who desperately needs a friend and fails to see the byte on his line while fishing for two on the World Wide Web.  How much of the film’s story is actually that of Mark Zuckerberg’s is hard to say; however, whether fact or fiction, The Social Network makes excellent fodder for thought and discussion.  The filmmakers’ balanced storytelling approach proves to be the key ingredient in creating an empathetic environment less about right and wrong or good and evil, and more about the stuff of true friendship.

During the film’s rapid-fire opening scene, the Mark Zuckerberg character utters a line that quickly gets lost in the dialogue volley for match point but proves to be the single most important line in the entire film.  He says to his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend, “I don’t want a friend” in response to her cliché “Let’s be friends” statement and in so saying sums up the entirety of that which is to follow.  What we think we want often couldn’t be further from the mark of our true need.  The final scene with Mark friend-requesting his ex-girlfriend not only perfectly bookends the film, but leaves us with the ironic twist of a man who finally recognizes his need for a friend yet reaches out through a tool (Facebook) that led to the downfall of true friendship.

I have little doubt that The Social Network will stand as one of the most important films of the first quarter of the 21st Century.  A brilliantly rendered film that asks the right questions of a generation that has the world at its fingertips, but has lost touch with the people living under the same roof.  Special recognition belongs to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who provide a moving and poignant score, to Editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall whose work make compelling what otherwise would have been a talk-fest, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin whose masterful script had my head spinning (in a good way), and to Director David Fincher who worked his vision to perfection.

While the irony of watching The Social Network alone is no longer lost on me, for my second viewing I took a friend.  I recommend you skip the irony, grab your best mate, and see this film today (and then hit refresh).

Review: The Town (2010)

18 09 2010

Like any art form, film has no one purpose or end.  Some viewers approach movies looking for a good time, while others want to escape, and still others simply like film background chatter to underscore cookie-baking or shirt-ironing.  A seemingly small few, however, look for film to hold up a mirror to their lives . . . to challenge them to see the goodness and badness of their own hearts, attitudes, and actions.  For these few, film has the power to change life.

Now, surely, we are multi-faceted beings who laugh, cry, feel adrenaline in our veins, and seek quiet places to dream.  We probably shouldn’t always look for film to change us; sometimes we would do well to have a good hard laugh or be scared out of our seats.  Still, this said, the problem with modern cinema (particular of the American sort) is the creation of too many films that aim no higher than to elicit a set response from their audience instead of telling a story and letting the viewers sort themselves out.  Of course, herein lies that always present clash between business and art, a worthy subject in its own right, but not my purpose here.  No, today, I am challenged with writing a response to the film The Town and somehow conveying why my frustration with this movie echoes a growing exhaustion with this brand of American cinema.

To begin, the title – The Town – references Charlestown, Massachusetts – a neighborhood in north Boston known as a hotbed for armed robbers and bank thieves.  Not surprisingly, the film’s story details the attempt of one hometown boy (played coolly and unsympathetically by Ben Affleck) to find his way out of the thieving lifestyle.  Of course, our “hero” must run a gauntlet out of Town lined by his friends, the neighborhood kingpin, and one very adamant FBI agent.  Oh, and if you hadn’t guessed it, our hero’s love for a woman is a major motivating factor in his seeking a new life elsewhere.

Can you already feel the tension?  The filmmakers are counting on it because it’s all they have to work with here.  The film’s story is so cliché and unoriginal that selling tension is the best the creators can hope for in differentiating The Town from the hundreds of films that have blazed this well-worn “leaving the crime life” trail.  Now, I have considerable respect for Ben Affleck because both starring in and directing a film takes great energy and skill; yet, I wonder if this would have been a better movie if Affleck did not divide his attentions.  He showed his talent as a director in Gone Baby Gone and, unfortunately, The Town seems at best a horizontal movement in his directorial career.

While I agree that decrying a film for being unoriginal has little value since every filmmaker stands on the shoulders of giants, the problem with The Town is not that it doesn’t add anything new, but that it rests on its laurels.  The filmmakers know that the movie’s formula will work on most audience members and they are satisfied to serve it up as is.  Certainly, not every film can be a Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Godfather, or Matrix.  My frustration with the majority of American films is not that they aren’t revolutionary, but that filmmakers are seemingly satisfied with regurgitation.  Perhaps the more painful truth is that we, the audience, are happy to pay billions of dollars for “the same, only different.”  Until we as viewers demand more of our film, we will have to suffer the creation of ever more uninspired movies like The Town.

Review: Zombieland (2009)

12 09 2010

I am not a rebel.  I follow orders.  I play by the rules.  Yet, in the past few weeks I have broken my two most trusted film viewing rules: (1) avoid all Christian movies; and (2) do not see horror films. Generally, these two rules have served to keep my cinematic heart beating in a world increasingly bombarded by subpar film craftsmanship and competitive carnage (my term for that unspoken requirement to raise the carnage bar a notch from one horror film to the next).

My latest incident of rule breaking found me watching Zombieland, the most recent of a growing line of cult favorite zombie-themed movies.  I admit my curiosity got the better of me; well that and my soft spot for Jesse Eisenberg (what is it about this kid that just makes you want to offer him a hug?).  So, imagine my surprise upon watching this comedic, zombie-massacre movie to find that the story’s moral (if you want to call it such) is that going against one’s own manufactured set of rules (about 33 in the instance of the film’s protagonist) may make life in Zombieland a bit more dangerous, but is also the road to a life worth living.

While I appreciate the irony of breaking my own self-imposed film rules through watching a movie about breaking rules, I must disappoint those in the cult by admitting I didn’t think this a very good film.  Certainly, like any respectable post-modern American, I valued the irreverent zombie-killing humor (think Juno meets Shaun of the Dead).  As much as I tried, however, I could not overcome the thin plot.  Yes, you can fault me for even looking for a film of this sort to have a plot, but the disappointing thing is that there is a decent story here about overcoming fears and taking relational risks which is continually sacrificed to the “higher end” of killing zombies.

Of course, I recognize that I’m taking the film too seriously and I should just roll with the double taps, but I’ll probably always be that guy who looks for the significant in the ordinary (even if the ordinary means mowing down zombies).  Perhaps it’s time I take a step back to examine some of my more unstated film rules (just don’t ask me to give up my need for a happy ending . . . or at least not yet!).  Zombieland does have a happy end (whew) and I appreciate that the audience is asked to dive in and go along for the ride (even if the end is obvious).  I guess at the end of the day, Zombieland has taught me something.  It’s time for me to break a few more of my rules . . . a Christian horror movie, anyone?

Review: Summer Hours (2008)

5 09 2010

Recently, while out walking on a sunny summer Sunday, I found myself strolling through a cemetery.  I can’t necessarily explain how I landed there, but as I surveyed my surroundings I noted the graveyard’s amazing lack of color.  Brown grass and grey gravestones consumed my field of vision and not a single flower or flag offered relief.  Clearly this was a very old cemetery and the souls resting here had long since been forgotten.  As I made my rounds up and down the aisles, what began as a sadness at the edge of my heart bubbled up into deep grief as I considered the hundreds of lost stories lying six feet below my feet.  A dead child; a death on the battlefield; a young bride’s life cut short . . . stories so close yet out of my reach, gone.

Bearing a heavy ache, I struggled homeward and found my thoughts turning to the French film Summer Hours by the popular writer/director Olivier Assayas.  The film tells the story of three siblings who must decide what to do with the country estate and other objects left to them upon the death of their mother.  While outwardly a narrative about sibling relationships and life in the globalized 21st Century, at its heart the film poses important questions about what it means to remember one’s past and respect one’s own history.

The brilliance of the film lies in Mr. Assayas’ ability to tell a seemingly benign story all the while indicting us for our disregard of our own personal histories.  Perhaps “indict” is too strong a word here, since we feel a measure of grace from the filmmaker who clearly appreciates that we live in complicated times.  It seems his attack isn’t so much on his viewer then, but on a hurried, throwaway culture that celebrates youth, motion, and looking forward and makes little space for the elderly, rest, or a historical mindset.

The final scene of the film captures perfectly the tension between past and future when we find the granddaughter of the woman who has died holding a wild party at the quiet country estate.  As she runs down near the pond, she has a brief reflective moment remembering her grandmother’s words promising that she too will one day bring her grandchild down to that pond; a reality that will never come to pass due to the sale of the estate.  While her eyes moisten at the memory, she quickly recovers and history passes away as she runs back to the party with boyfriend in hand.

Summer Hours does not demand that you stop and pay attention to life’s grave markers.  You can certainly hurry through the film on your way to your next activity; yet, for those who pause to see, to listen, and to reflect, they alone have the unique opportunity to usher in a resurrection – the continuance of life after death.