Sunday, February 26, 2012

Brian's Best and Worst of 2011

It is, once again, almost time for the Oscars!  While I am not the biggest fan of the Academy Awards, I do like having some sort of quality barometer in Hollywood, even one that is skewed, political, and often rewards career achievements instead of current ones.  Since so many high-profile films come out at the end of the year, looking to cash in on Christmas vacationers and still make year-end best-of lists, I never get a chance to watch the most critically acclaimed films before the year's end.  But...if Hollywood can wait until the end of February to rate the last year of cinema, so can I, right?  I know, I know...what a jerk I am, stealing Hollywood's thunder!

I don't like doing Top Ten lists, though.  That's too cut-and-dry, and it completely ignores all the truly awful stuff I run across every year.  I like to break the year down into several best and worst categories, and "best" and "worst" are probably more accurately defined as "most favorite" and "most hated" by me.

So exactly what films did I watch in time to consider for this list?
AbductionThe ArtistBattle: Los AngelesBlack DeathBlitzCaptain America: The First AvengerThe CodeConan the BarbarianContagionCowboys & AliensThe DescendantsDrive.  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.  Faces in the CrowdFast FiveFright FlickFright NightGreen LanternHannaHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.  The Help.  Hobo With a Shotgun.  Horrible Bosses.  Hugo.  I Saw the Devil.  The Ides of March.  InsidiousIronclad.  Kill the Irishman.  Killer EliteLimitlessThe Mechanic.  Mega Python vs. Gatoroid.  Midnight in Paris.  Mission: Impossible - Ghost ProtocolMoneyballOng Bak 3Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger TidesRed State.  The Resident.  Rise of the Planet of the ApesSeason of the WitchShark Night 3DSource CodeSucker PunchSuper 8Take Me Home Tonight13 AssassinsThorTransformers: Dark of the MoonThe Tree of Life.  Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.  War HorseThe WardWarriorX-Men: First Class.

I wasn't able to review all of these in time for the Oscars, but I did watch them.  There are some noteworthy absences from that list, though.  Here are some of the movies I wanted to see, but failed to in time:
The Adjustment Bureau, A Dangerous Method, 50/50, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Guard, Hesher, Shame, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,  and most of the stupid comedies of the year.

Let's start of with some of the more overlooked moments in film this year, shall we?

Best Bit Character
You know those roles that are very amusing, but aren't substantial enough to actually be called "supporting"?  I love those!  They are sadly undervalued in modern cinema, but not by me.  While I was amused by the Blue F'n Lights in Super 8, I have to give credit to Adrien Brody for his Salvador Dali impression in Midnight in Paris.
And for flicking off Owen Wilson
I normally dislike Brody, but his oddly-enunciated, rhinoceros-obsessed few minutes onscreen amused the hell out of me.  As an added bonus, from what little I know about Dali at the time, the impression seemed pretty accurate.

Best Supporting Actress
This is typically a tough category for me.  I don't watch many "chick flicks," and the films I choose to watch usually don't have well-developed female characters.  This year, though, I found a handful of actresses impressive.  Elle Fanning (Super 8) and Saiorse Ronan (Hanna) were both surprisingly mature, and Octavia Spencer was the prototypical sassy black woman in The Help, which is naturally pretty awesome to watch.  However, my favorite supporting performance this year was definitely Shailene Woodley in The Descendants.
Note: embed flattering photo here
I think she did the best job with the most complex character, at least from the movies I caught.  Granted, that character was a bitchy, rebellious teenager (not exactly avant garde), but I thought she handled the role perfectly.

Worst Supporting Actress
I'm going to go with Marianne Faithfull in Faces in the Crowd.  What makes her any worse than, say, anyone in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, or Melissa Leo's horribly over-the-top performance in Red State?  Well, like the prison food mentioned in The Blues Brothers, they're all pretty bad.  Faithfull just had the least believable character --- a deaf therapist that gives no indication that she is deaf whatsoever --- out of the group.  Plus, she provides some of the worst exposition I saw on film this year.

Best Supporting Actor
There were, as always, a lot of supporting actor roles that stuck out to me this year.  Colin Farrell (Fright Night) and Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) were pretty bad-ass in some potentially silly roles.  Tom Hardy (Warrior) and Paul Giamatti (The Ides of March) gave surprisingly powerful dramatic performances.  Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) once again gave a spectacular motion-capture performance.  My favorite supporting performance by far, though, definitely belonged to Albert Brooks in Drive.  He was just so deliciously merciless --- he is definitely my favorite villain of the year.
Not the tools of the trade you might expect from Brooks

Worst Supporting Actor
As tempted as I am to crown Tom Felton for being terrible in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this is a prize that was won with teamwork.  My winner for Worst Supporting Actor is the supporting cast of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  I don't care if you want to focus on Ken Jeong's idiotic character or John Turturro's embarrassing cash-in role, John Malkovich's bewildering presence, or if you just hate Kevin Dunn's "why hasn't he been stepped on already?" turn as Mr. Witwicky --- this movie sucked, and there were simply too many awful performances to not win this award.
A well-placed Autobot foot could have made this so much better
On a related note, Patrick Dempsey is a crappy evil villain, especially when you compare him to giant killer robots.

Best Actress
There wasn't much competition for this, given the films I watched.  Even without any other real contenders, Viola Davis was excellent in The Help.
As manipulative as the film is (and I would qualify it as "very"), Davis did a great job balancing contradicting emotional extremes.  The only reason The Help is up for a Best Picture Academy Award this year is thanks to its excellent acting, and Davis was the film's anchor.

Worst Actress
This was a tight race.  As deserving as Tiffany and Debbie Gibson were in Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, Lily Collins was even worse in Abduction.  And as terrible as Collins and her eyebrows were, they cannot compare to the hatred I have in my heart for Emily Browning in Sucker Punch.  The whole movie was handled poorly, but Browning was on screen the most, and alternated between a pouty face and a vacant stare. 
Go to Brian's movie jail.  Do not collect go, do not collect $200
I honestly don't know if anyone could have salvaged the train wreck that was Sucker Punch, but it takes a unique talent to confuse and anger me while playing a rape victim.

Best Actor
I went through most of 2011's films without witnessing an excellent lead acting performance, but that has changed over the last month.  I thought Min-Sik Choi was positively chilling in I Saw the Devil.  I loved Ryan Gosling's extremely peculiar work in Drive.  I loved George Clooney's subtle and complex work in The Descendants.  The performance that I enjoyed the most this year, though, was Brad Pitt in Moneyball.
This is a film that could have easily been deadly dull (to non-statistical nuts like me), but Pitt carried it with consistently good timing and a whole lot of staring and looking worried.  Was it a better performance than Clooney's or Jean Dujardin in The Artist?  Maybe not.  But I responded more to his character than anyone other this year.  Besides, my beloved Cubs will be atrocious in 2012, so I need to enjoy baseball any way I can.

Worst Actor
This race boils down to who I hated more this year: Shia LaBeouf in Trannies 3 or Taylor Lautner in Abduction.  Man, this is a tough one!  Shia was insufferable as an entitled dick in T3, but Lautner was offensively bad.  I think Lautner barely squeaks this one out, but only because he can be out-acted by shadow puppets.
This is his "reading" face

Best Director
I'm going to go with the only director that truly impressed me with his style and competence this year: Nicolas Winding Refn, for Drive.  The only other director that even came close for ballsiness and frame composition was Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), but Refn embraced noir, awkwardness, and extreme violence and made it all work in a taut thriller.

Worst Director
Part of me wants to go with John Singleton for doing absolutely nothing right in Abduction.  Another part of me wants to slap David R. Ellis for not changing his style for Shark Night 3D, despite its PG-13 rating.  But those are just two very small parts of me; 98% of me hates Zack Snyder for Sucker Punch.  My dislike for his recent work is almost Biblical; I wish I could salt the proverbial earth of Snyder's career.  As gorgeous as his films look, Sucker Punch was a confused, soulless rape fantasy, poorly disguised as some sort of extended "girl power" metaphor.  How do you screw up having dragons, steam-powered soldiers, and gundams?  Watch Sucker Punch.  No, wait...don't.

Biggest Disappointment
Runner-up goes to John Carpenter's return to directing, The Ward.  Too bad it was terrible.  I was prepared for that, though, because Carpenter has had his share of misses over the last thirty or forty years.  I was most disappointed by Green Lantern.  It had a lot of promise --- and the space scenes were actually pretty cool --- but the story was horribawful.  I didn't need this to be good to have fun with it, but I would have appreciated less boredom and fewer stupid humans.

Biggest Surprise
I had a few mild surprises this year.  Marcus Nispel made a decent flick for a change (Conan the Barbarian).  Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a clearly unnecessary film, wasn't terrible.  I didn't vomit bile when watching Matthew Lillard in The Descendants.  I would be a liar, though, if I said there was any bigger surprise than the extended Discovery Channel acid trip during The Tree of Life.
Love it or hate it, you cannot honestly tell me that you expected that movie to make that choice at that time.  I'm pretty sure I spent most of this sequence with a confused look and my mouth half open.

Bottom 5 Movies
I could pick on the made-to-suck horror movies I watched this year (Fright Flick and Mega Python vs. Gatoroid), but I didn't expect them to be anything close to good.  These five are bad and have earned my ire.
5. The Ward - Have you ever wanted to watch a really bad version of Identity?  Have you ever wanted to watch a movie like that while feeling sorry for the director?  Well, do I have a movie for you!  You want to know how bad this movie is?  Here's the best scene in the entire film:

4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon - Here's what it takes to make an awesome Transformers movie: have giant robots fight each other.  It doesn't have to be smart.  It doesn't have to do anything except look cool and have a simple plot.  Somehow, that message never reached Michael Bay.  There were too many humans, too many "jokes," and too many interchangeable robots in this clusterfuck of a blockbuster.  And the Witwicky family still refused to die!  The only reason I can imagine anyone liking Trannies 3 is for putting Rosie Huntington-Whitely in high definition.  Well guess what, teenagers?  She's an underwear model.  You don't have to watch this movie to ogle her, there's a great big internet just waiting for you!

3. Season of the Witch - I don't know what the worst thing about this movie is.  It could be the fact that Nic Cage actually underacted, given how ridiculous the story is.
Stunning, I know
Maybe it is the hilarious parallels it invites to classic films.  Both are good reasons, but I think the biggest one is the complete lack of witches in this movie.  Not even zombie monks could save this.

2. Abduction - I've already touched upon how inept this movie is, but this is truly one of the worst movies I have seen that was widely released.  The hair clogging your shower has more talent than Taylor Lautner.

1. Sucker Punch - Despite looking like it should be made of the dreams of horny teenage boys, this was drab, dull, and rapey.  Maybe that's your cup of tea.  If it is, I assume you are already in prison for committing violent acts against humanity and good taste in general.
More like a donkey punch

Top 10 Movies
10. Hugo -I have a soft spot in my heart for characters that are struggling to find their place in the world, and I believe in the magic of cinema, so Hugo was right up my alley.  Scorsese's direction, while fun to look at (even in 3D), pandered a bit too much toward young children for my tastes, but it was still touching and adorable.

9. Hobo With a Shotgun - Rarely does a movie meet my every expectation.  Hobo... delivered on the promise of its title and added Robocop-quality acting and Troma levels of violence.  Sadly, it was snubbed by the academy this year.  I wonder why?

8. The Artist - Jean Dujardin is charming and is a gifted physical actor.  Who needs to hear him speak?  Along with that talent, director Michel Hazanavicius made an extremely clever film with superb cinematography and (not terribly subtle) symbolism.  It was cute, it was different, but it didn't strike any particular emotional chords within me.

7. Midnight In Paris - I didn't expect to enjoy this one, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Instead of wallowing in nostalgia, like so many acclaimed films this year (Super 8, The Artist, Hugo), Woody Allen made a film that realized the folly in Golden Age thinking.  I imagine that your appreciation for the film only deepens with your own knowledge of the art and literature scene in 1920s Paris, but even if you are clueless, the supporting cast is extremely enjoyable.  And every word out of Corey Stoll's mouth is pure gold.
Have you ever shot a charging lion?

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 - Eight movies in ten years, and all of them were good.  I'm going to miss the Harry Potter series, but this last chapter paid off the setups of the past few films nicely.  It could have been more visually imaginative, and there were a literal ton of characters in the film to pay attention to, but this was a quality send-off to an excellent series.  Plus, it didn't have, like, six endings, like Lord of the Rings.

5. X-Men: First Class - Given the debacles that were X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I didn't have high hopes for this one.  Thankfully, Matthew Vaughn saved my favorite comic franchise from movie production hell.  The real credit goes to Michael Fassbender's awesome performance as Magneto.  We need more of that, and soon.
Michael Fassbender face IS...Magneto's Crotch

4. The Descendants - A possibly gut-wrenching concept gets a whole lot easier to handle and more interesting through Alexander Payne's treatment and George Clooney's excellent performance.  It's about as uplifting a film as you're going to see from a movie about death and infidelity.

3. Moneyball - This movie simply should not have been fun or interesting to watch at all.  On paper, it sounds as entertaining as balancing your checkbook, but I was drawn into Moneyball.  I enjoyed Brad Pitt's Robert Redford impression and actually liked Jonah Hill for once (I disagree with his nominations, though).  What I liked most about this movie was its sense of timing, which I suppose means that I liked its editing.  Whatever.  This is a sports movie that can appeal to the non-sports fan because the heroes don't play sports.  That's brilliant!

2. I Saw the Devil - It's hard to find a genuinely disturbing horror movie, so I like the acknowledge them when I find 'em.  Taking the typical premise (bad guy kills my people, I must take the law into my own hands!) to a logical but somewhat surprising end, Jee-Woon Kim crafted a brutal and unnerving film.  I like it when heroes are not heroic, and this movie delivered.
Pretty.  Disturbing.

1. Drive -By far, this was the most peculiar and enjoyable film I saw all year.  It was weird, it was painfully awkward, it was violent, and it was oddly touching.  Better than all that, it was suspenseful.  As awkward and unrecognizable as the Driver was as a human, there is a simple sweetness underneath that amazing scorpion jacket.  Of course, his character is also a psycho waiting to erupt, but that's the price you pay for being so damn cool.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Descendants

Alexander Payne is not the sort of writer/director who makes iconic roles for his lead actors; he's the guy who gave Jack Nicholson a comb-over in About Schmidt.  He doesn't necessarily need star power to make a quality film, either --- he made an Oscar-winning film with the villain from Big Fat Liar and the dumb guy from Wings.  His movies are consistently surprising in subtle ways, usually thanks to good use of humor in otherwise sad stories. The Descendants is designed to follow suit; there are certainly some funny moments, but this is a film that wants the audience to feel (sad) things.

Matt King (George Clooney) is a lucky, lucky man.  He is independently wealthy, runs a successful law practice, was born and raised in Hawaii, and has a fun-loving wife and a pair of daughters.  Unfortunately, keeping himself busy with lawyering has led to a strained marriage and a self-described role of the "back-up parent" in his family, but nobody's perfect.
He owns this land.  Poor Matt!
The Descendants begins with Matt's wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma, as a result of a boating accident.  Now, you may be wondering when the humor is going to kick in, but there are some laughs in this film, I promise.  Matt learns from the doctors that his wife is only getting worse, and she is now a vegetable; in accordance with her living will, Elizabeth is going to be removed from life support and is going to die.  Ha ha!  Get it?  Comedy!  Matt now shoulders the burden of breaking the news to his rebellious teenage daughter, Alex (Shailene Woodley), his socially inept younger daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), as well as their friends and family.  He starts with Alex, because she's older and theoretically more mature, but she has a surprise for Matt: Alex reveals that her mom was having an affair, just before the accident.  Matt's initial reaction is to awkwardly jog and look old.
But he can't run forever (or even briefly, at least not well); he has to be a rock for his kids.  No matter how furious Matt is, he will never hear Elizabeth defending or explaining herself to him; he will forever be left with unanswered questions.  And now he has to be around friends and family that are going to ramble on and on about how great she was, while trying to find the right way to break the bad news to little Scottie.  Oh, and Matt also has the burden of being the key player in a huge real estate deal that will forever change the face of Hawaii, and the rest of the players are his extended family.  Granted, these are definitely all first world problems, but these are trying times for Matt King.

There has been a lot of buzz surrounding George Clooney's performance in The Descendants, and it is well-deserved.  Clooney trades in his omnipresent charm and cool for some very believable awkwardness and grief.
Pictured above: grief
What makes Clooney so impressive in this role is that it is almost entirely made of small choices.  A story with a wife having the plug pulled should, by all rights, be a saccharine-sweet hankie-fest, but Clooney handled his character's grief in a very realistic fashion, and was not afraid to be funny, even amidst all the stress and sadness.  I've seen every movie Clooney has been in over the past decade (except, oddly, Up in the Air), and this is easily the best performance of his I have seen.  To be perfectly honest, I expected him to be good here, but I was pleasantly surprised by his two daughters.  Amara Miller was surprisingly funny and owned the most heartbreaking moment in the film.  Shailene Woodley was even better as the most believable teenager I think I have ever seen on the screen.  I thought the alternately strained and supportive relationship she had with Clooney was believable and sweet.
Yeah, I've been on the receiving end of that glare before
I was also happy with the rest of the supporting cast.  Nick Krause was initially irritating comedic relief, but his role turned out to be complex and Krause handled it well.  Robert Forster was fun as Elizabeth's grieving --- but still an asshole --- father and Beau Bridges was likable as Matt's business-minded --- and kind of an asshole --- cousin.  Established comedic actors Rob Huebel and Mary Birdsong turned in some quality supporting dramatic roles.  Even actors that normally bug the crap out of me, like Judy Greer and Matthew Lillard were surprisingly effective.

Alexander Payne made a lot of interesting choices when making The Descendants.  Despite setting the film in Hawaii, there isn't as much time devoted to showing off the beautiful location as you might expect.  I was also surprised that a two-time Sexiest Man Alive winner, Clooney, is never really shown as a dapper or typically sexy man in this film.
Sexiest Man Wearing a T-Shirt on the Beach Winner
There are a lot of little things like that in The Descendants.  You might expect gorgeous cinematography, and there are some pretty cool shots, but Payne concentrated on capturing layered emotions.  The performances all stand out in this movie, once again proving Payne's talent with ensemble casts.  The Descendants might not be a film that comes right out and grabs you, but its subtle quality definitely grew on me.  This is some of the most satisfying emotional filmmaking in recent years, and it doesn't feel overly manipulative or calculated.

My only problem with this film is the whole real estate subplot.  It does tie into the larger and far more enveloping main story, but it just never seemed very important to me.  As much as the film strives to make George Clooney into an average, over-his-head type of guy, the land deal just served to remind the audience that this is a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars and chose to be a workaholic absentee father to his children, and probably a sub-par husband to his wife.  The ultimate resolution of that subplot does serve as a sort of gauge for determining his character's development and how his values have changed, but I wish that subplot had been scrapped in favor of more quiet moments of family unity.
Simple, but effective.  But who leaves their feet uncovered?

The Descendants is still a very, very good movie that rings true on many levels.  Clooney gives a great performance, the supporting cast was lovely, and Alexander Payne once again made a quiet and touching film that packs a few surprises.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

War Horse

I don't get the appeal of horses.  Maybe I'm just not an animal lover (scratch that --- I'm definitely not an animal lover), but I see horses as walking, pooping, glue factories.  As you might have surmised, I was not looking forward to seeing War Horse.  I assumed that it would be good --- I haven't seen a bad Spielberg movie yet --- but the commercials made it look like a dramatization of Charlotte's Web, from the human point of view: "That sure is some pig horse."

War Horse begins with the birth of Joey, who would one day become England's Secretary of War (Horse) is never actually called "war horse" by anyone important in the movie.  Joey's birth is witnessed by Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a nice local kid with more guts than smarts.  Albert immediately becomes infatuated by Joey, constantly trying to win his affection.  To be honest, young Albert's love of horses borders on the disturbing.
"Let's keep this between you and me"
Albert wins the bestiality lottery when his father gets drunk and bids far too much money for ownership of Joey.  Albert's family lives on a farm and needs a plow horse, not a thoroughbred like Joey, but the horse and Albert surprise everyone except the audience by plowing a difficult field.  This is the first "some horse" moment in the film, but certainly not the last. 
Joey's not running here, but carefully balancing
Eventually, circumstances dictate that Joey must be separated from Albert, thanks to World War I and its insatiable appetite for killing things.  The horse gets drafted, but Albert is too young; the war horse goes to war without his master.  From this point on, we see how Joey impacts the lives of several humans.  He serves with both the English and the German armies, befriends a young girl and her jam-making grandfather, and serves as the stimulus for a Christmas Truce-type scene in the trenches.  All the while, Albert is slowly growing old enough to join the army and, if he's lucky, rejoin his magnificent horse.
It's perfectly fine if you hum the "Theme to Rawhide" while watching this film

That plot breakdown may make it seem like I didn't enjoy War Horse, but I actually did.  The ensemble cast is solid, and the brutality of the war scenes is well-balanced by clever and cute civilian scenes.  This is a movie meant to tug on the heart strings, and tug it does.  So what's my problem, then?  I'll get to it in a bit, but I want to acknowledge what I liked first.

The acting in War Horse doesn't contain any amazing performances, but they were all pretty good.  Jeremy Irvine is likable as the main (human) character, which is essential to the success of the film.  There are far too many moments early in the film where his love of Joey could be construed as romantic, but I thought he was fine otherwise.
This analogue to the Sixteen Candles panty scene was a bit much, though
Ted Narracott was good as Irvine's drunk and gruff father, but Emily Watson was the best supporting actor in the film.  I thought her character grounded the story on the human side of things, adding some much-needed wry humor and solid dramatic chops.
...and glamor.  Don't forget the glamor!
David Thewlis sheds a bit of his fuzzy Harry Potter image by playing the local rich guy and being generally unlikable.  The most promising cast members were definitely the British soliders who don't have much screen time.  Up-and-comers Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston play the thankless role of soldiers who haven't realized that machine gun combat has made cavalry charges useless; neither man is terribly impressive here, but I've liked them quite a bit in other things, so I thought I'd call them out.
L-R: Sherlock Holmes, cannon fodder, and Loki
The rest of the cast was okay, but similarly unremarkable.  Young Celine Buckens gave a cute debut performance, David Kross was good in a surprisingly brief role, and frequent character actors Eddie Marsan and Liam Cunningham make brief appearances before the end.

Steven Spielberg directed War Horse, so you know it's going to look good.  The war scenes looked cool, but were not plentiful enough to change the focus of this movie from a boy and his horse to a war and its horse.  For the record, though, War Horse is probably the most dead horse-filled movie I have ever seen.  Spielberg's always had a good touch with light humor in his action films, and he maintains it here.  The cinematography is pretty, the lighting is noticeably interesting at points (especially the last scene), and the story is suitably emotional. 
And, for little girls, that emotion is "ridiculous horse-caused joy"

The style is awfully retro, though.  War Horse feels more like a John Ford movie than a Spielberg film.  This is the kind of semi-epic, ultra-earnest story that was all the rage in the 50s and 60s, but has fallen out of favor of late because it can seem a bit dated or corny.  And War Horse is kind of dated and corny, so that makes sense.  It's not just that the film is a tad predictable and old-fashioned, it takes itself pretty seriously.  Sure, there are some intentionally funny moments (many involving a goose, a sure sign of broad audience pandering), but there are also some unintentionally funny conceptual moments.  For instance, Joey has a companion horse during the war; that's right, the main character in this war movie inevitably finds a war buddy, and that buddy's character development mirrors that of most "best friend" characters in war movies. 
That horse is one week away from retirement
And then there is John Williams' overeager score; I love me some John Williams, but he lays it on a little thick at the very beginning of the movie, practically screaming at the audience that even the uneventful beginning of this film is epic.  And, of course, there are all the instances where immature jackasses like myself giggled when Albert's affection seemed a little less than chaste.

None of that makes War Horse a bad movie.  While I thought the film was sentimental and nostalgic, I certainly teared up on a few occasions.  This is a well-made movie that hits all the right notes, but just isn't very interesting to me.  On the other hand, I think it is a little funny that, in the same year J.J. Abrams made a movie that waxed nostalgic for Close Encounters, Spielberg wound up making an homage to the emotional epics of yesteryear.  This is a quality picture, just not necessarily as great as it wants to be.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Tree of Life

"Nants ingonyama bagithi baba.  Sithi uhhmm ingonyama:"  this is what was running through my mind five minutes after finishing The Tree of Life --- the opening lines to The Lion King's "Circle of Life" (yes, I had to look up the spelling).  Is that subliminal connection a good thing, or was my mind just trying in vain to make sense out of a notoriously difficult film?  Honestly, I don't know the significance of the song to this movie; I just found it amusing that that is where my mind wandered to as I pondered The Tree of Life.

This is not one of those movies that is going to reel you in by its narrative.  Essentially, the adult Jack (Sean Penn) is, in modern times, pondering his place in the world and the nature of man.  His mind flashes back to his childhood, raised by a strict and often angry father (Brad Pitt) and a saintly mother (Jessica Chastain), along with his two younger brothers.  The young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is very much like his father, while his brothers are very much like their mother.  And then this happens:
That, naturally, is followed by this:
...which, of course, leads to dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs and pretension, together at last

And then we resume Jack's stroll down memory lane.  No, you didn't miss anything.  Jack then winds up in a ridiculously remote location with doubtlessly metaphorical significance, we see some dead people, and now the movie is over.
Jack, busy ignoring that 127 Hours guy

If absolutely nothing else, The Tree of Life is designed to elicit a response from its viewers.  Confusion, hatred, love, whatever --- you're not left indifferent.  I saw it in the theater this weekend, and I was the only one of my group that did not absolutely loathe the film.  I could be wrong, but I believe my wife would have peed on Terrence Malick that night, given the chance.  The audience groaned whenever a fade to black became a fade-in, and this is one of the few movies I have seen in a long while where the audience --- filled with people paying to see a Best Picture nominee marathon, mind you --- wound up talking amongst themselves and giggling inappropriately.  I'm sure some people in that theater were absolutely blown away by Terrence Malick's most recent effort, but it was certainly not designed for the masses. 

The acting in The Tree of Life is universally solid, even when you're not sure what the hell is going on.  Brad Pitt handled a complex role as a do-it-yourself man that never did "it" good enough to be successful and happy; he is seen as an angry force of nature by Jack, but Pitt still makes this character sympathetic.  
Example: he doesn't eat this baby
Of course, to do this, Pitt sports the annoying under-bite he sometimes likes to use when playing Southern characters.  Jessica Chastain was also good as Jack's mother, but I didn't feel that her role was as compelling as Pitt's.  The only flaw she seemed to have was an inability to handle her husband's impotent rage, or at least protect her children from it; since the husband wasn't actually evil or physically abusive, though, that flaw isn't the defining point of her character.  Instead, she is the example of Heavenly Grace in this film.  There's nothing wrong with that, it just isn't too interesting from a character development standpoint.  Hunter McCracken did an impressive job as the troubled Young Jack.  He internalized a lot of struggles, and the way he lashed out at his parents felt true.  He's not a pretty kid, though.  Sean Penn just walked around looking mopey.  His character didn't have much time onscreen, but Penn still delivered a surprisingly bland performance.  I also liked Tye Sheridan as the sensitive, artsy brother, more because he was expressive than for any other real reason.

The acting was never going to be what made or broke The Tree of Life, though.  That depended entirely on writer/director Terrence Malick.  This is only the fifth film directed by Malick, although he has been directing since 1973, and it is based on a screenplay he began writing in the late 1970s.  Needless to say, Malick has put a lot of thought into this film.  Unfortunately for many viewers, none of those thoughts involved making this film easily comprehensible.  There is no denying that the cinematography in this film is absolutely stunning.  Even when you aren't sure what you are looking at, the images are impressive.
Above: nucleotides, maybe?
I also appreciated the complex acting Malick got from his cast in a film without a lot of revealing dialogue.  This is definitely a film that relies on the actions of the characters over their lines, and the performances were all good (with the exception of Penn), subtle and complex.

Having said all that, what the hell happened in this movie?  It jumps from a disjointed, nonlinear narrative about some kids growing up in the 1950s to an extended break (anywhere from 15-3000 minutes --- I didn't think to time it) with no acting, voice-over, or anything --- just shot after shot of outtakes from a planetarium laser show.  The images were gorgeous, but they didn't have any direct connection to the story.  And then dinosaurs happen, and I could hear audience members mentally checking out.
...aaaaand I'm done
I have no doubt that this sequence will become as famous/infamous as 2001's space baby.  So, if Kubrick pissed you off with that ending, you probably don't want to see a movie where that sort of sequence shows up in the middle without any explicit explanation.  

But let's ignore the cinematographic masturbation for a moment and focus on the rest of the film.  It's still incredibly obtuse.  There are many back-lit shots that the camera lingers on, but do not hold any explicit connection to the story at large.  And I hope you like trees, because The Tree of Life makes sure you notice them by holding still life shots for a loooong time, like Malick was waiting for the Ents to awaken or something.
Voice-over: "TREES, BITCHES!"
And I hope you like philosophical questions being whispered as voice-over, because that is something else this movie has in spades.  If I watch this again, I will have a hard time not calling out "Ricola" whenever Chastain or McCracken whispers sweet existential nothings in my ears.  There is also the confusing focus of the flashback scenes, where important things seem to happen (a neighbor's house burns down, somebody has a seizure, a brother dies at age 19, etc.), but are never really addressed again.  

If you hate The Tree of Life, I completely understand.  Personally, I can only take so much existential crap before my body starts rejecting it, and I can believe that this film has more than most people would like to handle.  However, I didn't quite hit my limit.  I thought this was a fantastically shot movie with interesting performances and a refreshing amount of directorial intent.  I didn't like it much, but I appreciate it for what it is.  It's hard to find a movie that so so obviously odd, that is striving so hard to tell a particular point of view instead of just going after emotions with broad strokes; The Tree of Life will probably end up like The Velvet Underground and Nico --- not many people will like it, but those that do will make their own films, or at least look for more challenging cinema than what Hollywood has to offer.  And that's a good thing for film as an art form and as a continuously evolving commercial product.  What kept me from liking the movie (believe it or not) was not the "history of life" interlude, but the core story.  I never connected to Jack; I found him repulsive as a child and completely uninteresting as an adult.  The issues he's dealing with are fairly universal, but I never felt emotionally invested in this philosophical lecture or in the characters involved.
Is Jack being shown affection or love?  I don't really care
Maybe I'm a little strange.  Well, I'm definitely strange, but it strikes me as odd that this, an obviously personal film that Malick put an impressive amount of time and thought into, would leave me almost indifferent.  Oh well.  Since it failed to entice me emotionally or philosophically and because the whole thing was pretty damn pretentious, I'm giving The Tree of Life

I will recommend this movie to anyone who is a big fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Fountain.  Just don't make me watch it with you.

Now, if you have already seen the movie and are trying to figure out what it was about, here's my take:

Brian's story analysis of The Tree of Life
The movie boils down to the premise introduced by Jessica Chastain's character at the very beginning, the struggle between Grace and Nature; Grace (embodied by mommy) is kind and loving and wants everything and everybody to be nice and recognize the glory all around us, while Nature is competitive and very much based in the daily struggle of man.  Or you can think of it as Big Picture vs. Little Picture, whatever works for you.
You can also dumb the message down to "don't sweat the small stuff"
Adult Jack, for whatever reason, starts to reflect on his life.  He has always been more like his father (Nature) than his mother (Grace), and he's contemplating the value of what he has achieved as a successful businessman.  He wants to go back to that innocent time as a child when he felt in touch with Grace.  The flashbacks are shown in seemingly random snippets because that's how the mind reflects; when you remember something, it's usually a jumble of images, not a coherent and chronological retelling.  That also explains why seemingly important moments are glossed over; they did not directly impact Jack's memory at that time, so he just remembers being told to go inside when the neighbor had a seizure.  The yearning to go back to innocence also makes Jack question the place of man in the world, which leads to the whole Discovery channel acid trip.  Ultimately, Jack arrives at the moment when his father, Nature personified, went through the same life crisis and reevaluated his life.  The ending with all the friends and family, past and present, is Jack accepting his place in the world, with Grace.  It's the circle of life.
Nants ingonyama bagithi baba!  Sithi uhhmm ingonyama!