Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick, is a serious film in a cynical time. It is a film that you have to either fully or partly embrace if you are to appreciate or even like it. Similar to the the films of Theo Angelopoulos or Alexander Sokurov this is a film that deals with big themes in an honest [even earnest] way and if you don't ride with them you may feel like turning away.

The film is not a typical narrative film. It is instead a cinematic poem that is comprised of a series of visual and aural moments and vignettes that flash by onscreen in the way that a memory might in the mind of someone who remembers their childhood with an acute clarity. [Critic Todd McCarthy likens it to a symphony].

Most all movies have poetic moments in which the filmmaker presents us with a montage that breaks away from the narrative to express a particular tone or to show time passing. It is a narrative technique that can infuse a movie with energy and distinction as well as give us a rest from the plot. The Tree of Life is a movie almost completely made up of such moments. That is both a good thing and somewhat of a challenge.

Good because [if anything] it lives up to the promise of the trailer. What I mean by that is there are many times we see a trailer that captures the best poetic and visually interesting moments of a film. But when we see those moments in the context of the film they seem almost banal. Not in the case of The Tree of Life. This is a movie that maintains the intoxicatingly splendid visuals and editing thrills from start to finish.

Somewhat of a challenge because the movie is like a high wire act in which the audience is the one on the high wire. And this begs the question, how long can most of us remain engaged when the visual and aural moments are of such splendor? Or, more to the point, how long can we stay focused when the narrative never really establishes itself from the overpowering form? How long can we hold-out without a story to grab our attention?

If you cry watching The Tree of Life it won't be because of the death of a young boy [a plot point we know in the first reel] but because of the way Malick edits music and visuals together in such a magnificent way. I happen to think that is a perfectly legitimate reason to shed a tear or two. But others may disagree. Others may want us to feel the emotion by intimately getting to know the characters. Others too may want a traditional narrative with character development and a plot to follow. Malick is not interested in that. And, frankly, I don't think we should be either - because, after all, this is his vision and his way of telling a story. And so it should be judged on the merits of the expression of his vision.

The acting, such as it is, is good. The children are best because they seem to fit into Malick's grand innocent and mysterious world view. They don't seem to be acting but rather existing and reacting to the world around them. Brad Pitt juts out his jaw a lot as the authoritative father but he maintains a believable attitude throughout. Jessica Chastain has a purity to her that is angelically bland and Sean Penn seems lost in thought when he is on screen - which he is, actually.

The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and the editing by numerous editors over a three year period are the real winners here. As is the utilization of the musical score, which comprises works from such masters as Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, Smetana and contemporary film score maestros Alexandre Desplat and Zbigniew Preisner - the former who is credited with the score.

Malick has given us a vision of life - all of life; from beginning to end. From the big bang to the creation of earth to evolution to the death of dinosaurs to the innocence of growing up in 1950's Texas [where DDT is merely a cool thick fog] all the way to present day and beyond. It is film that is at once Biblical and personal, terrifying and reassuring, dreamlike and surreal but also grounded in the cycles of nature. It deals with grace and hope in ways that might make you cringe or cry but which you cannot deny is presented with power and originality.

I think it is a great film with some flaws. Some would say that about life.

I can't wait to see it again.

More Reading:
An article on the cinematography.

Some good observations and background on the film.

Popmatters considers the themes of Malick's films.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

George at Cannes

My friend George the Cyclist was at Cannes again this year and he managed to see 70 movies. I am not really sure how he did that, but he loves movies enough to make it happen. Here are blurbs on some of the notable movies he saw.

Documentary by Kim Ki-Duk. He has been a recluse all this time living in a tent...overcome by the near death of an actress on his last film and also by the betrayal of two of his assistant directors. He concludes that life is sadism, self-torture and masochism.... A remarkably original film.

The Artist
A superbly crafted re-creation of a silent film [set in the time] when the silent era was drawing to a close. [It] will be a hit at film fests and on the art house circuit.

A made-to-order film for Cannes. [Filmmaker] had the formula down--a polished, arty film, with convincing performances about some young struggling writers. The film looked nice, and was a palatable film-going experience, but didn't amount to much.

An immensely pleasing, highly stylized film of honor and quiet strength. Ryan Gosling, oozing boatloads of charisma, brilliantly protrays a Hollywood stunt driver who also works in a garage and moonlights as the getaway driver for criminals.

This was a highly intelligent film with an orginal premise and an unflinching, butally honest study of academic rivalries. The moral dilemmas raised provide some of the festival's best fodder for post-film discussion.

Le Havre
Kaurasmaki the majordomo of droll...[this] will rank among the best of his films.

Hors Satan
It is another of [Dumont's] rural Flanders films with a grizzled male who is either saintly or sinister, coming to the aid of the wayward.... I have friends who think Dumont is repugnant and others who think he can do no wrong. This film will not change the regard of any of them.

Von Trier does not disappoint and Dunst goes though a range of enough torments to be a worthy award winner.

A generally understated Austrian feature that managed to be quite engrossing and compelling. [Main characters] takes his [ten year old] hostage on outings and lets him come out of the basement for meals. The tension doesn't necessarily build, just the curiosity of how this will end.

Miss Bala
A film about a young beauty pageant contestant who inadvertently falls into the clutches of a high-powered drug gang and is forced to do their bidding. The film does not sensationalize or go overboard on the violence. [An] honest and original film.

Tree of Life
As the film gradually swept over me and settled into a semblance of a narrative... Malick won me over. This was High Art, a film that lovers of cinema will be happy to see again and again, not only to fully fathom it, but to appreciate it more and more.

We Have a Pope
French stalwart Michel Piccoli plays a just-elected Pope who doesn't care to accept the position. [S]urpsingly thoughtful movie from the often goofy Moretti.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
This is a film that justifies those who like to limit their daily intake of films to three or four at the most per day, to fully absorb and recover from each. This is a film that might take an entire festival to recover from.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Blonde Leather

From Blonde In Black Leather a schlocky Italian comedy with Claudia Cardinale Monica Vitti

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cannes 2011 - blurbs II

The Kid With a Bike - Dardenne Brothers
'The Belgian siblings are again at the peak of their powers in this impeccably observed drama.' - Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

'The Dardennes strike a perfect's dramatised superbly.'
Sandhu, Telegraph

'An unwieldy epilogue, with a series of awkwardly written and executed scenes that seem to be suggest Cyril needed a form of karmic payback for some of his rash, rascal-ish actions.' -Boyd van Hoeij, IndieWire

'I’ve never been sold on the Dardennes — [this film] hasn’t changed my mind.' - Zacharek, Movie Line.

Miss Bala - Gerardo Naranjo
' As a political and social document, Miss Bala is shock, awe, and pure cinema at its finest.' - Heath, Slant

'People will look back at the lineup in years to come and marvel that this powerhouse wasn’t in Competition' - D'Angelo, AVClub

None that I can find....

Outside Satan - Bruno Dumont
'Another "WTF?" film from Gallic writer-director Bruno. Word-of-mouth... should make "Satan" a must-see among artfilm aficionados' - Nelson, Variety

'It will find admirers among Dumont’s hardcore followers - and indeed, anyone with a taste for art cinema at its most uncompromisingly gaunt.' - Romney, ScreenDaily

'“Hors Satan” is a slog. A capital P pretentious film that is made in the tradition and fabric of an arthouse film that seems dated and laughable.' - Jagernauth, IndieWire

'[Dumont] a filmmaker who solemnly believes that every stylistic devise, forced camera angle, monosyllabic utterance or careless shrug from an actor conveys great meaning to his audience.' - Honeycutt, Hollywood Reporter

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cannes 2011 - blurbs

Who knows how we feel about a film until we see it? I have often loved films that other critics hated and hated films that other critics loved.

This is especially true of the reception of the films that play at Cannes. Year in and year out the critics give us the buzz and by the time the films reach us it seems as though the critics were reacting to and writing about other films.

So with that in mind I will simply give a small sample of both positive and negative blurbs for some of the films that are at Cannes this year. In most cases these blurbs will be slightly out of context because a good many films get a mixed reaction from any one critic. But like the marketing companies out there I'll avoid any of that gray area writing. Here are five films that have YAH and NAY reviews.

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lynne Ramsay
'Extraordinary' - Brooks, Guardian
'I want to throw up,' I remarked to a friend upon exiting the theater. 'But in a good way.' - Lodge , In Contention

'Frequently buckles underneath the weight of its labored and schematic story.'- Abrahms, L Magazine
'Most critics raced from this wildly overwrought Alain Resnais remake of The Bad Seed'. - Hoberman, Village Voice

Poliss - Maïwenn Le Besco
'Impressive. Convincingly jumps from laughter to tears and back again' -Mintzer, Hollywood Reporter
'When it’s good it positively crackles.' - Romney, Screendaily

'Could very well be the worst film I see at Cannes this year' - Heath, Slant
'One colleague admitted he endured the two-hours-plus running time just so he could hiss at the end.' - Anderson, Artforum

Restless- Gus Van Sant
'A gently moving hymn to life.' - Goodridge Screendaily
'Somehow, by the end, it all comes together. The very final shot is a peach.' - Bochenski, Little White Lies

'Treacly' - Dargis, NYTimes
'Treacly' - McCarthey, Hollywood Reporter

We Have a Pope - Nanni Moretti
'Superior [to The King's Speech].' - van de Klashorst, ICS
'Gentler and more benign than you'd expect from a left-wing non-believer.' - Romney, London Review

'Humdrum' - Kohn, IndieWire
'We have a papam; we also have pap.' - Anderson, Art Forum

Sleeping Beauty - Julia Leigh
'Near-perfect cinema.' - Rocchi - IndieWire
'An assured debut.' - Bradshaw, Guardian

'A cold film about heated things.' - McWeeney - Hitfix
'Was greeted with unimpressed silence, followed by a desultory smattering of whistles.' - Romney, London Review

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Two trailers

Two films playing at Cannes have cool teaser trailers.
This is why I like teaser trailers so much better than traditional trailers.


The latest film by Sang-soo Hong.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


The Korean fllm Poetry opened in Los Angeles Friday.

It's about a mother [and a grandmother] who must deal with situations in her life not of her choosing. Up against cultural clashes, legal matters and her own mortality she has to make choices. Choices none of us will hopefully ever have to make.

Much like other films by Lee Chang-dong it is heavy. But not heavy handed. And he has learned to pull back a bit and let the character and the story develop without us feeling it is being forced on us.

It's a devastating film and one of the best of the year. No matter how many films I like this year Poetry is assured to make my top-ten. Go see it if you can.

I wrote a review of it in relation to another Korean film, Mother, last year.