Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tree of Life: Overwrought Masterpiece by the Elusive Terrence Malick

Hailed by critics as both a work of genius and pretientious twaddle - and by some as both - Terrence Malick's Tree of Life is certainly a film of amazing ambition, cinematic brilliance, poetic storytelling, and yes, a self-indulgent exhibition, at times, of visual cliche. I can only think of one movie in recent memory that comes close to Malick's intent to use film to create an ecstatic, religious meditation on the meaning of existence - Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful.

But where Biutiful is unswerving, dark, distressing, and mystical, Tree of Life is graceful, poetic, meditative, and expansive. So expansive, in fact, that Malick decides, about twenty minutes into the film, to give us a visual narrative taking us from the big bang to the birth of the main character. He's trying to connect the whole of life, you see, along this unbreaking thread of cosmic existence. Not for naught has the movie been compared to Stanley Kubrick's 2001. It's not just the cosmic slide show: The wide-angle shots of rooms, dinner tables, and attics also convey the same sense of human spareness in the universe as did Kubrick's film. We witness all the characters as if through a dream, or gauze, or the haze of fading memory.

Existence is summed up in this film by Jack - the main character - who is played by Sean Penn as an adult (whose context is unfortunately stripped a bit too bare) and by the marvelous newcomer Hunter McCracken as a young boy. In fact, all the three young boys - a band of brothers being raised by an organ-playing, electrical plant worker in the 1950's south (Brad Pitt) and his waiflike but devoted wife (Jessica Chastain) - are wonderful, and their horseplay and affection is an amazing recreation of the freedom and wonder of childhood. In many ways I could have thoroughly enjoyed this movie for the family dynamic exposed in between the big notable scenes of galaxies forming and ghosts assembling on the beach, and done without all the big, controversial effects.

Except that Malick is after something else, here - not so much story as poetry, and to do so, he needs to pepper this movie with big spiritual themes. The stated themes of nature and grace, of course, but also the conflict between water and glass (water, which moves with the grace of nature, and glass, which both separates us, freezes us in time, and allows us to see through). It seems that has we have grown up from the tree-filled back-yards of our 1950's youth, when we would frolic in the fumes of DDT or on the shores of ancient lakes, we have been encased in more and more glass - not only have the windows in the houses gotten larger and more sleek, we work in an urban world of glass towers where a single tree is a rarity. There is also the implication that our human dynamics were set down long ago as part of the course of nature. The pose of the two dinosaurs who appear on a stream - one holding down the neck of the other, who is lying disabled - mirrors the pose of the father when he grabs the mother, holding her tight until all the fight leaves her body. This is risky but powerful stuff, the kind that can take your breath away.

At the same time, there's that beach scene, with all the dredged up religious symbolism. I appreciate that Malick is working in a religious tradition (he sites the trials of Job throughout the film). But the movie is most ecstatic, in my opinion, when he leaves traditional religious symbolism behind and delves more deeply into his own personal eye: the shots of a streetlight on the family lawn, or the impressions of a baby looking out the window at his mother. The cumulative effect is like that "Star Trek" episode where Picard lives an entire life in a few short minutes: we get to experience, in the memory of Jack, the particular time and place of growing up in a particular house on a certain street in a specific southern town: a town with tensions between races, with wide lakes and open fields for boys to play in, with a certain house that itself is like a character stitched into memory and now passed away like Jack's beloved brother or his other family. It is an almost Faulknerian sense of time and place and Malick captures it with brilliant emotion and love.

We also get to experience those very specific people - the father (Pitt here gives perhaps his best performance) and the mother, their specific conflict and how that turmoil, the yin and yang of life, passes down through the generations. Their complexities - the love and hate tied up together, the resentment and blessedness - are far far from the black and white characters of our summer comic fare and the kind of human portrait that cinema used to be so much better at.

Could Malick have used a less indulgent sensibility, a better understanding of the adult Jack and the feelings that drive him, and a more thought out ending? Certainly. But then, it's hard to end a story about existence - and we might not have gotten a film as brilliant as this one is.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Michael Bay Goes Boom for 4th of July

It's almost become routine: another 4th of July, another Transformers movie. Whether this one is better than the last is hard to say. It's certainly sillier - which may be a refreshment. It's definitely bloodier, which makes it suspect for young kids. And whatever it is, it's definitely filled to the gils with stunts, destructive car-transforming robots, and the ever maturing Shia Lebeouf, who by now has the manic stuttering of his Wikwicky character down pat.

It's a few years later, Shia (I mean Sam) has had his co-star replaced by another hot-blond babe (this one English), and like all good young people he's struggling with his economic prospects and having been excluded from the Transformers team (still be led on rogue stunts by the intrepid Josh Duhamel). This time the plot is set in motion when those ever enterprising Decepticons break into Chernobyl and leave some compelling evidence for the Auto-bot team. Apparently an old, powerful prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy) is stuck in suspended animation, frozen on the dark side of the moon, and the Decepticons just need Optimus to revive him so they can carry out their latest dastardly deed.

The rest of the plot hardly matters. What this movie really wants to do is revive old favorite characters (John Tuturo returns, kookier than ever), introduce some new ones (John Malkovich takes a humorous turn as Sam's wacked-out boss, then disappears pointlessly from the plot), tweak the culture - some references to the recession, high-finance, and terrorism, in case we forgot what decade this is - and have at it with those cars and robots.

In a film like this, I'm not sure it would help to try to develop the story any further anyway - Earth is once again in jeopardy and there are bad guys and all, just like the last time, and really, what else do you need to know? But I did find the slog through the last forty-five minutes of the film - where the city of Chicago is pounded mercilessly by an outer space robot attack - particularly insufferable. We all know that Bay is an insatiable borrower and these Transformer films assemble, really, like spare parts from other filmmaker's sci fi, but the Matrix-y air ships, Terminator urban wreckage, and War of the World vapor effects really aren't even trying to feel original. Bay's maxim seems to be quantity trumps quality as he stuffs the last act of the movie full of every stunt he can conceive of.

Individually, each of these is pretty cool: the para-trooping troops with their black wings flying about the Chicago skyline, or the toppling over building with the desperate characters trying to hang on to the sixtieth floor as they dangle over Chicago, each deliver a genuine thrill. But the effect of piling these on endlessly for so long is to numb you not only of the story but of the movie going experience. You're taken right out of the screen and start examining your nails or looking for an escape to the bathroom. It's as if he's imagined the movie right out of the theatrical experience and into the living room of a distracted family, or Best Buy showroom, where you don't really need to sit and follow anything at all, just catch a few minutes of the endlessly looping high def visual popcorn.

What's ultimately so wacky about this movie is that juxtaposition of high-low, high low. An almost surreal comic first two acts - where even Francis McDormand is directed to maniacal silliness - is followed by a third act of supreme bloody seriousness and self absorption. In between there is no modulation, just grunts, hupcaps, and metal. It almost strikes me as psychotic, and in a way, a perfect representation of the American character.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Beginners: Gay Dad Teaches Son About Love

What a great little film this is, and a real respite from summer-movie gore and sci-fi - if you need a break from that sort of thing.

Beginners is one of those films about life and love, but with a unique perspective: Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, the straight son of a gay man (Hal, played by Christopher Plummer) who comes out in his early Seventies after forty years of marriage. Plummer is spot on as the man who sheds his formerly straight skin to explore the gay world for the first time, with all the enthusiasm of a teenager.

Hal only has a few years to savor his new life before he's struck with lung cancer, and Oliver has to care for his father to the end, as well as hold the secret of his terminal illness from Hal's lover and friends. Meanwhile, Oliver himself has no knack for girls, until he find one - Anna, played marvelously by the illuminated Melanie Laurant - whom he hopes will be the one to stay.

A film like this lives or dies by the story telling, and the writing here is fantastic - pointillist and impressionistic, jumping through time, and filled with metaphor and keen observation. Here are just a few of the things I loved in this film:

  • A cute Jack Russell terrier (I'm a sucker for dogs, aren't I?) who speaks to Oliver in long, erudite sentences translated in silence.
  • Again silence as Anna has laryngitis when they first meet, and they have to negotiate their first date with hand signals and a small pad of paper.
  • Oliver's voice-over narration, which peppers the world with things as they are: a kind of scrapbook of life that is a poignant counterpart to his father's inevitable dying.
  • Oliver's mother, a woman who is unhappy but not defeated, and just quirky enough to leave Oliver with a botched up view of himself and the world.
  • The childlike way in which Hal discovers himself in the gay world, and the role reversal that takes place between himself and his son - with Oliver taking care of Hal, yet still, or perhaps more than ever, learning important things from him.

All this is great and I wish the central relationship - between Oliver and Anna - could stand up to everything else going on around them. Both of them are supposed to be a little sad and broken, yes (Oliver sketches these portraits of people he calls "the sads"). But it's all a little bit too precious, especially seeing as how savvy Oliver is about his life, his own predilections and desires.

I supposed that can be forgiven when one is treated to such keen observation everywhere else. If there's one movie that I would gladly say is for everyone this summer - young or old, gay or straight, fearless or feckless - this would be it.

Green Lantern: No Light in the Superhero Fog

This emerald-colored sci-fi comic creation opens promisingly: with an appropriately menacing CGI baddy - a being called Parallax that powers itself with the energy of fear - floating through space, wreaking death and havoc. Then there's the home world of the Lantern Core, a place filled with the green light of pure willpower and 7200 Green Lanterns - drawn from races throughout the universe - sworn to protect the universe against evil, a kind of intergalactic CIA special forces team. They have cool flying spaceship pods and those fashionable green rings (not to mention skin-tight green suits), and they're as Booya as a team of military recruits fresh from the World Wrestling Federation.

Then we cut to that human on planet Earth - Hal Jordan, played with deadly sincere deadpan joylessness by poster boy Ryan Renalds (who, it should be known, can be in other contexts somewhat interesting) - and the entire shebang grinds to a halt.

Jordan is a good-for-nothin' flyboy in the spirit of Top Gun and just about every other airborne cliche (including the Airplane films, which was supposed to end this kind of earnest silliness). Watching him ham it over half-baked dialogue with even more dreadful co-star Blake Lively is about as painful as summer moviegoing can get.

Which is a shame, since the D.C. comic universe is filled with great characters, and the Green Lanterns were always some of my childhood favorites.

Naturally, one of those Lanterns gets killed in the line of duty, and down to Earth floats the ring to chose - none other than our super boring hero, Mr. Jordan.

To give Jordan some antagonist to thrust against we have the always wonderful Peter Sarsgaard, who gets to chew the scenery in the role of creepy nerd-turned-infected-space-baddy Hector Hammond. Unfortunately, Hammond's character is redundant to the all-power-all-fearing Parallax and - at about the point you'd expect - is easily dispensed with.

Even this evil invasion of fear is under-imagined as a yet-again-recreation of September 11th smoke-filled imagery (once chilling when Spielberg did it in War of the Worlds, now merely a b-version of Harry Potter sorcery).

All this would be bearable - for the outer space scenes are well rendered and the comic tension well preserved throughout - were it not that the translation of the Green Lantern's key effect, that of trans-substantiating his will into any object of his choosing using the power of his green ring, comes off much more dorky on film than the idea looks in a printed comic. That and also that any scene where Renalds has to talk for more than five seconds inevitably turns deadly dull.

After seeing this movie, one has to ask whether there are not, indeed, some comic book characters that don't deserve to star in their own film. If there is anything to fear here, it's that the universe of entertaining superheros is quickly running thin.

Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen's Inception

Woody Allen’s latest – Midnight in Paris – holds a special place in my heart, and I suspect in the heart of anybody who’s ever wanted to be a writer. For all of us deluded romantic writers, there was inevitably a time in our lives (typically right after college) when we contemplated moving to Paris and devoting our lives to living in a garret, soaking up the art and atmosphere of Paris, and producing the great American novel, in the tradition of all those great American expatriates of the Twenties: Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, etc.

Allen takes this writer’s conceit and makes it come true – but in a uniquely Woody Allen fashion. As in movies like Purple Rose of Cairo or Alice, Allen taps into his unique brand of Magical Realism, where characters' fantasies come alive only to illustrate the silliness of their neuroses. In this case, the fantasy of the writer (Gil, played by Owen Wilson)- who finds Paris thrillingly romantic while his fiancé and her Republican parents find it simply noisy, irritating, and a mall for expensive souvenirs and show-ground for pompous ex-boyfriends – comes true precisely at midnight each night. It’s at this bewitching hour when a carriage comes past a quaint old street corner, beckons for the writer to get in, and transports him, temporarily, into the past, where he gets to hobnob with the romantic greats: the actual Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, and more (including some humorous appearances by surrealists like Dali and Brunuel).

All this happens at night and the writer increasingly finds validation in the passions, inspirations, and energy of his past companions, while increasing the tensions with his alienated fiancé and her insipid parents. While the characters from the past are perfectly impersonated and the scenes of Paris nightlife in the Twenties are perfectly rendered, the present conflict with Gil’s girlfriend and parents feels particularly flat and uninspired, the usual Woody Allen schtick about unhappy relationships and people who really aren’t meant to be together.

It’s no surprise when one of the characters in Gil’s fantasy of the twenties herself has a fantasy about an older artistic time – the Belle Epoque – and like the movie Inception, convinces Gil to travel another level down into the dream into yet another level of romantic delusions. One can imagine Allen watching the movie Inception and thinking, “I know what to do for my next film.”

The real star of this movie, however, is Paris itself. Woody has become the chronicler of great international cities – giving us the creativity of New York, the class formality of London. And clearly, the romanticism of Paris. Allen opens his films with a series of still shots of Paris scenery, taking us through an entire day – including a rainstorm, sights of deserted street corners and parks, and finally the falling night and bright lights on the Champs Elysee. Each shot is held long enough for us to detect the life slowly moving in the background. They are small works of art, like the moments of time spent in the city itself. When the writer debates life and art with the likes of Fitzgerald and Hemmingway, he comes to understand why this city has so inspired so many artists before him.

Like his other magical realist yarns, this one too gets tied up in a nice little bow, and everything resolves neatly in the end. For those of us who aren’t writers, the Inception twist will seem a little predictable, and the relationship tensions flat. For those of us whose memories are jogged by Allen’s exploration of this perennial romantic writer’s notion, the guest starring artistic celebrities will give us the same thrill as they do for Gil, and Allen’s movie may be the best expression ever rendered of the particular romantic fantasy that is Paris.