Friday, May 27, 2011
Terrence Malick is one of the most celebrated and talked about directors among the film community. Love them or hate them, his movies are always visually spectacular. Since 1973, he's made only 5 films (including this one). I have seen all but one, DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978). His first film, BADLANDS, I haven't seen since film school, but I remember really liking it. THE THIN RED LINE meandered too much for me, and had way too many superstar cameos to the point where it became distracting. I did like the middle 80 minutes of that movie though, cause Nick Nolte rocks! His last film, THE NEW WORLD, I felt was a very poetic and beautiful film.
Now, 6 years later, his fifth creation has been released. THE TREE OF LIFE is easily the most ambitious thing he has ever done (or almost anyone for that matter). It has already divided critics and audience members, and is sure to be the most talked about film of the year. The reason for that is because this isn't a traditional film. Traditional, meaning it has a beginning, middle and end... or any sort of narrative structure at all. Malick is not concerned with conventions, or making sense in a linear fashion. He made a film that will make audiences work for that cinematic experience. He made a film that, depending on what mood you're in, is open to all sorts of interpretations.
I'm reluctant to describe the plot of the film, since there really is no plot. Not really. I'll do my best to explain it, though the story is only secondary. It involves a family growing up in a nice suburban neighborhood in the 1950's. Brad Pitt plays the father, Jessica Chastain is the mother. They have 3 boys, and the film has various scenes of them learning and experiencing things (loss, love, pain, fear, death), and how they communicate (or don't communicate) with their each other. There are also a few scenes sprinkled throughout that shows the oldest boy grown up (Sean Penn), dealing with the loss of one of his brothers. These moments are bookended with images of the beginning of the universe and life on earth (including a section featuring dinosaurs). All of this combined, creates one of the most unusual and unforgettable movie going experiences I've ever had.
Like I said, there's not a real structure here. The movie opens with a series of random images including the cosmos, waterfalls, Brad Pitt getting a sad phone call, and Sean Penn looking lost. Afterwards, we get a beautiful recreation of the beginning of time. It's about 15-20 minutes long, and is just a spectacular piece of cinema in it's own right. The dinosaur effects are pretty amazing, even when compared to JURASSIC PARK. But it's even more effective here since there's such a dramatic weight to the scenes. This is all set to a most excellent score by Alexandre Desplat.
After that breathtaking sequence, the bulk of the film focuses on Pitt's family in the 50's. Showing them get their first kid, and watching them grow up. It shows through various moments how the family survives. Cause essentially, this is what the film is about (at least to me). Survival. Survival on the most primal level. That's why I think they included that dinosaur scene, to show the comparisons between creature and humans. There really isn't a difference. We are here to survive, no matter what. I have never seen a film about growing up that shows what seems to be a normal family, surviving the way animals do. Cause we are all animals. It doesn't humanize anything. The film goes through all of the emotions in the most simple and animalistic natural way. The ending is about a journey's end and can be interpreted in a many number of ways.
It's hard to explain just what the movie is. The 2 films I can compare it to are 2001:A SPACE ODDESSEY, and (especially) KOYAANISQATSI. There is very little dialogue, and when there is it's usually in voice over. What the movie does instead of spelling everything out for, is show you a series of images set to music. It's like a visual symphony. And just like a piece of classical music, there's not really a story. But it exists to evoke emotions from you.
The performance that stands out the most is Brad Pitt as the father. He's a tough man, but it would be unfair to call him a bad husband or even abusive. He has faults just like everyone and his character is very exposed here. Pitt embraces the honesty of the character and commits to it 100%. I would like to see him nominated for Best Supporting actor this year. Jessica Chastain is quite memorable as the mother. She doesn't do much besides play with her children and cry alot, but she's very essential to the film. I felt like she represents pureness and innocence, while Pitt represents the hard truth of life. Another standout is Hunter McCracken as Jack, the oldest son. He actually looks like he was born in the 50's, and gives a raw and natural performance that strikes all the right notes. Sean Penn as the older version of Jack, doesn't have much to do besides wandering around, looking befuddled. But I don't see that as a problem. The actors don't really play characters. There really is no characterization. Instead, the actors are used as instruments to evoke feelings from the audience through a series of beautiful images.
The cinematography is absolutely stunning and is easily the frontrunner to win that Oscar this year. Lots of handheld and stedicam work, but none of it is shaky. It's very fluid and smooth, but also close up and intimate, making you feel like you're right there. Some images are so beautiful, at times I wasn't sure what I was looking at. Lots of abstract photography. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki films things so uniquely, that even the most common object can seem strange and foreign. The movie is just breathtaking to gaze at.
TREE OF LIFE is one of those films that you have to be in the mood for. Depending on the day I was having, I can see myself having numerous different reactions to it. But on the day that I saw it, I absolutely loved it! It's an experience. One that has to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. This is NOT a home viewing film. I felt like I was on a journey. It's very spiritual and if you're looking for it, lots of religious references, but I didn't think it was in your face. As the film unspooled, I found myself going through every emotion that one goes through life. And it was because of how the images played out, mixed with the editing, music, acting, photgraphy... everything.
Terrence Malick has created one of the bravest if not THE bravest film of all time. I applaud him and Fox Searchlight for getting this film into theaters. It's a movie that's most likely going to have alot of walkouts. I can just see average filmgoers wanting to see it JUST because Brad Pitt is in it. But once they realize that the film has a freeflowing narrative structure, and doesn't spell everything out for you, they'll be outraged. If you're not used to seeing experimental films, this could be quite jarring for you. But that's what this is: an experimental film. If you're not ready to give one a chance, you might not want to see this. But if you have any kind of love for pure art, and are open to new and unexpected experiences, this film is not to be missed!
In a year that has been mostly disappointing, I'm happy to say that THE TREE OF LIFE is the year's best film so far. It's not an easy film. It's challenging. It has flaws, but I found the flaws to also be part of the film's strengths. I saw a few reviews stating that this film isn't very good at telling a story, but I don't think that was Malick's goal. At least, not a linear story. Like I stated before, it's a series of images made to evoke emotions and thoughts from the viewer. Mission accomplished. Everyone will take something different from it, and depending on when they see it in their life. This film is a cinematic triumph! Terrence Malick's masterpiece!
**** (out of ****)
Thursday, May 26, 2011
I was a big fan of the first one, which really surprised me. I was worried that Jack Black was going to ad-lib too much and feature tons of inappropriate humor, much like the highly overrated SHREK films. But instead, it was an inspiring action packed adventure, with a bit of humor laced throughout. This is one of my most anticipated movies of the summer. I love martial arts, and I was tickled at how the original treated Kung-Fu with respect.
This one picks up where the first one left off. Po (Jack Black) is now the Dragon Warrior who leads the Furious Five. They are successful at cleaning up the streets of Asia, that is until a new threat is introduced. During a clever 2D animated prologue, we learn about the evil Peacock Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), who wants revenge. He also destroyed all of the pandas when a prophecy told him that he would be defeated by a Panda. Lord Shen also has a powerful cannon that threatens to destroy the countryside. Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) tells Po of this and the Five are off on an adventure. But even though Po is the Dragon Warrior, he still has much to learn, like the art of eternal peace. Only then will he be able to defeat Lord Shen.
I loved the prologue, as it really got my blood pumping for the final confrontation. The animation looks fantastic, and the 3D wasn't terrible. The first action scene has some great moments and at times even felt like an old school Jackie Chan movie, as it mixed humor with the martial arts. Maybe I was expecting too much, but I was hoping that the rest of the film was going to be like this. Unfortunately, it's not quite as bad ass as the original.
The strength of the first one was that they treated the action scenes very seriously. In this one, the jokes get first billing. There is at least twice as much humor now, and it kind of gets in the way of the action. Just when I thought there was going to be a real "bad ass" moment, Po does something really silly, like screaming with his hand on fire, which made the kids laugh, but ruined the potentially cool moment. That's not to say I don't enjoy silly humor, but it should fit within the story. RIO had several silly moments, but it fit the story's tone. I didn't think throwing more jokes in this one was the answer to make a successful sequel. My two favorite scenes in the first one was the jailbreak scene, and the confrontation on the bridge between the villain and the Furious Five. I kept waiting for a thrilling scene like one of those again, but I didn't get it.
Jack Black seemed to do alot more ad-libbing this time around. Which worked some of the time, and was annoying the rest of the time. The supporting voice cast got to do a bit more this time too. I was happy that David Cross and Seth Rogen didn't let loose in the original, as they actually seemed to play characters. But here they both have a few chances to make one-liners that seem inappropriate for martial arts masters to make. The one-liners should be only left to Po. That fits his personality. Dustin Hoffman is still my favorite character, though he's in it far less. The biggest surprise was that Gary Oldman was just "okay" as the baddie. He even had a few moments of humor, which didn't quite work. I loved his character animation though.
The film isn't terrible by any means. I was just underwhelmed and disappointed. But that's because the first one was so awesome. If I didn't see the first one, I probably would have liked this much more. There are things that really work: like Po's relationship with his father (James Hong), Po learning about his past, and the cliffhanger ending was a nice touch. I guess my expectations may have been too high. I didn't want a silly KUNG FU PANDA 2, loaded with jokes. I was hoping it would be more like the first one.
The laughs definitely dominate the action this time. Some people might actually prefer that, and I'm sure that the kids are going to love it! In fact, I have to bring my kid to it again this weekend. So who knows, maybe I'll enjoy it more, now that my expectations have been lowered considerably.
**1/2 (out of ****)
I know it's one of the most anticipated comedies of the summer, but I just wasn't that big a fan of the first one. I didn't hate it. I even laughed quite a few times. I just thought it was overrated. For me, it took forever to get moving, didn't find much humor in Zach Galifianakis' performance, and I wanted to punch Ken Jeong in the face!
Now, two years later, we're back with this carbon copy sequel. This time Stu (Ed Helms) is getting married to.... ah it really doesn't matter cause the movie doesn't seem to care who she is. The important thing is that he's going to marry someone, cause if he wasn't, there wouldn't be a plot. Anyway, Stu, along with Phil (Bradley Cooper), Alan (Galifianakis), and Doug (Justin Bartha, who is just as unimportant as he was in the first one) travel to Thailand, which is where the wedding is going to be. Stu is pretty vocal about not wanting a bachelor party, so instead the guys (along with Stu's teenage future brother-in-law) end up just having a quiet night on the beach, drinking a few beers by a fire.
All of a sudden... BAM! Phil wakes up hungover and finds everyone in a trashed hotel in Bangkok. Alan's head is now shaved and Stu has a Mike Tyson tattoo on his face. Whoops! Looks like someone drugged them again. And to make matters worse, Stu's future brother-in-law is missing. For the rest of the film, just like the first one, the wolf pack search for him, following every clue and lead they can. This leads the film on it's episodic journey into crude, lewd and rude humor. Also in the mix is Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) returning and causing more trouble for our heroes. We also have a drug dealing monkey, transvestites, and a mob boss played by Paul Giamatti.
I don't have a problem if a movie is going to copy the first film almost exactly, but at least it should still be inspired and funny. This is not! Even more so than recent big budget sequels, THE HANGOVER PART II exists for merely one reason, because the first one made money, not because everyone involved wanted to revisit the characters. There is a lazy, going-through-the-motions feel throughout the whole thing. Sure, there are wild and over the top raunchy jokes, which is fine, but they feel so forced. It's like the filmmakers said, "Okay, we're going to put a big penis in your face. Now laugh!" I need inspiration in a joke as well.
The performances are not very good. Ed Helms probably does the best job, but even he goes overboard at times. Remember when the second Ace Ventura came out and Jim Carrey was trying to recapture his same fresh performance but instead it just showed that he was trying too hard? Same thing here. Everything is just so forced. Not natural at all. Bradley Cooper still reacts to situations humorously, but when he's in a normal conversation, he's just not convincing (it's like MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN all over again). Galifianakis is doing the same thing again, though a little more low key. I just don't find him funny in general. Justin Bartha is completely wasted as the "other friend" again. Since he wasn't missing this time, why couldn't the writers bring him along on the adventure? Ken Jeong is just horrendous as Mr. Chow. He's loud, obnoxious and NOT funny. I think he feels like if an Asian talks really silly and says things black people normally would say, that equals funny. It doesn't. I really hate him! Acclaimed actor Paul Giamatti is really slumming it here as a character who, in the end, really has no significance at all.
The humor is more of the same, just grosser and dirtier, not funnier. The repetition of this movie got old real fast for me. Not since DIE HARD 2:DIE HARDER, did a character say in a movie "I can't believe this is happening again!!!", alot. I did manage to laugh twice. Once during the movie, and twice during the pictures at the end (Yes, they do that again too). The cinematography looks nice, but that's all i can really say about the direction. It's just boring. And what's worse, I didn't really care about anyone this time. In fact, I thought they were all douchebags. At least in the original the three leads had natural chemistry together. Here they don't. It's all forced. Well, at least they all got hefty paydays out of it.
I must mention though, that just because I hated it doesn't mean you won't. I saw this at a pretty packed press screening and everyone seemed to love it. As I was leaving, I heard over a dozen people say that it was better than the first. So, maybe if you were a "die hard" of the original, you might love it. If you didn't really like the first one, like me, it's going to be very painful. I think the first one is like GONE WITH THE WIND compared to this tired old turd.
*1/2 (out of ****)