Jun 20, 2011

Tree of Life

Where to begin with a film like this? Terrence Malick’s fifth feature requires much more discourse than one viewing and a blog post allows. Malick has caused more conversation than any director with such a sparse career could, mostly because of how unique his visual and storytelling style is, and yet, Tree of Life is in many ways his most Malickian film to date. This leads me to believe I should refrain from writing a “review” on the film until I can afford to give it another look, but then again, this blog is my main gateway for conversation, so I’ll sound off with a little bit of my thoughts until then.

Tree of Life tells the story of Jack, the eldest son of Mr. And Mrs. O’Brien (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) from his birth to his early adolescence and then with a huge leap, his middle aged life (played by Sean Penn). That’s actually quite an understatement. Malick tells Jack’s story not from his own birth, but from the birth of all nature. In an already iconic and widely discussed sequence, and quite an indulgently long one at that, Malick uses the wizardry of the craftsmen at his service to bring his vision to the screen in the most elaborate way possible. Partly to the credit of Emmanuel Lubezki and partly to that of the visual effects supervisors, the sequence plays like a majestic beginning to the film’s main narrative, which is essentially about Jack’s complications with his family.

He is a lost soul, confused about his past, his family, his wife, and the world around him. As he grows up, we see him manifest his anger against his father in different ways. He drifts apart from his family when we see him accompany his friends on their tirade on an abandoned neighbourhood house. We see this in his eyes when he looks at his father fixing the car or when he runs along the river with his mother’s clothes in his hands. And in these eyes and their expressivity lies one of the film’s greatest strengths; that the need for any dialogue or exposition has been almost entirely removed with Malick’s expressionist direction and his actors’ immersive performances.

For me, Tree of Life defines what some critics call visual poetry. Malick doesn’t need to tell us what the plot is or what exactly is happening to inject the sensation he wants into us. Not to say that we aren’t given any explanations. We are told in the beginning that Jack’s brother died when he was nineteen and although this particular twist matters greatly in the story, Malick doesn’t concern himself with it too much as a plot point. Instead, he focuses on the reaction of the family to this tragedy. It’s the collective experience of grief we feel from watching the O’Brien’s in their grief that matter most. We don’t need to be told that Mrs. O’Brien needs to be alone after her son’s death. The agitation she feels with her relatives comes through in the subtlety of the motion of her body. We don’t need to be told that Mr. O’Brien always thought he could be a great musician; Looking at him play the organ with such spirit and passion in his eyes, through the fluid movements of Malick’s camera, we feel his sensation.

Of course, aiding Malick in materializing his ambitious vision are his actors who all deliver praiseworthy work. Brad Pitt, who is slowly working his way up my list of favourite actors, creates the perfect balance between the harsh demeanour of a stern 50s Texan father and his love for his family. Jessica Chastain, whom I admit I had not seen before, completely immerses herself in Mrs. O’Brien and despite having less material to work with than Pitt, avoids the pitfalls of the “supportive mother” role while capturing the angelic beauty of her character. No less impressive is newcomer Hunter McCracken whose career now seems to have the dreamiest start any actor could wish for. Having the task of portraying the internal dilemmas of his awkward age, McCracken lives up to the expectations of the role and becomes a pitch perfect picture of the angst of preadolescent boys and the transition from childhood innocence to a more mature compassion.

Whether Jack or the family as a whole has any connection to Malick’s own history is unknown to me, but if setting the film in his hometown of Waco, Texas is any indication, then the answer might be a yes. Despite Tree of Life’s massive scale and the grandiosity of some of its elements, particularly the aforementioned “creation of the universe sequence”, this is Malick’s most personal film to date. The picture he paints on the screen is the result of his philosophical questions and his long search for the meaning behind the universe and its creator; Concerns that he’s mulled over for so many years and finally brings to the screen now; Questions that he doesn’t answer so much as he proposes. And there lies another one of the film’s strong points. That Malick never force feeds his ideas. He asks us to think differently. He makes us look at simple quotidian things differently, but never makes emphatic assertions. Even the ubiquitous religious motifs don’t seem aggressive at all. The film might be a personal one, but anyone who’s willing to delve into Malick’s dazzling vision can connect with it.

Ultimately, if anything stops me from hailing Tree of Life as a true masterpiece, it’s the scar left on the face of the film by its very long editing process. Not exactly noticeable during the film’s exploration of Jack’s earlier years – mostly due to the free-spirited and arc-free storytelling – these editing inconsistencies and Malick’s obsession with finessing his work to perfection almost fail the film in the surreal beach sequence at the end. I don’t dislike that sequence per se. I think it does work thematically, but it feels more rumpled than nuanced stylistically and unfortunately ends the film on a less than perfect note.

Jun 6, 2011

Monday's Words of Wisdom

"If you're playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You'll think you've experienced it, but you'll be cheated. It's such a sadness that you think you've seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real!"
- David Lynch

Jun 5, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Grade: B-

X-Men: First Class, as the title openly describes, tells the story of the beginnings of X-Men. On the screen, this basically translates to a group of young and attractive people getting together to save the world using their overdeveloped genes. The first “few” minutes of the film are spent jumping from 1944 to 1962 and criss-crossing between different locations several times, to give us the backstory of Charles, Raven and Erik. Charles (James McAvoy) is a genius who has the power to read and control minds. Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is a blue-skinned, yellow-eyed, red-haired mutant who can shape shift and look like anyone (and of course why not choose to look like J.Law?). Erik (Michael Fassbender) is a holocaust survivor (surviving the evil of Sebastien Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon) who has the magnetic power to control metals.

These early introductions are put together so tightly and cover so much ground – and in such indulgent amount of time – that the film starts to feel slightly confusing. Despite that, it’s not difficult to stay focused mostly because of the intermittent appearance of Rose Byrne, January Jones and Jennifer Lawrence on the screen. But for me, the film doesn’t actually get on track until it slows down a bit to explore the dynamics between these characters. The best comes when Charles and Erik finally meet and the two actors get to show their remarkable chemistry. McAvoy proves, yet again, that there’s no logical reason why he isn’t one of cinema’s biggest superstars and Fassbender proves, yet again, that there’s no logical reason why he shouldn’t be Daniel Craig’s successor as the new 007 (and one of cinema’s biggest superstars). Among the younger co-stars, Jennifer Lawrence stands head and shoulders above others, fleshing out her character into something more believable and interesting than written for her on the paper.

X-Men, unlike most of Marvel’s recent outings, isn’t a phoned-in cash grab at all. If you like the logic of X-Men, this film is one hell of a treat. The visual effects are really neat and even though they look a little too CGI at times, they serve the story well. They also win bonus points for not forcing those horrendous 3D glasses upon us! I was most impressed with the sound work on the film though, especially during Professor X’s mind reading scenes and Magneto’s “focusing” moments. I can totally see a couple of sound nominations in their bag come Oscar nomination morning.

All that said, I can’t get past that caveat myself. I don’t like the logic of X-Men. It’s a thrilling action piece, yes, and its’ really entertaining, but as hard as I try, I can’t look beyond the giant hairy blue monster riding a plane. I can’t take it seriously when a well dressed man has tornadoes coming out of his palms and I’m not at all surprised that my friend laughed out loud at Michael Fassbender looking dead serious when stuck his arms out to pull the metal satellite dish toward him. I don’t blame the filmmakers for this. The film is almost as good as it can be. I blame myself for not being the target audience for this genre. At the end of the day, the film lacks the depth required to make it more significant or memorable for me than a good two hours at the movies on a weekend.

Jun 1, 2011

The Blue Eyes of Moulin Rouge!

*This post is dedicated to Nathaniel’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series.

How does one choose a favourite shot from Moulin Rouge!? It’s virtually impossible. Moulin Rouge! is the biggest visual spectacle in recent memory. Every frame is packed with so much detail, be it the colourful extravaganza of the costumes or the self-indulgent delights in the settings, there’s something to marvel at in every shot of this film.

Take a look at the shot above for instance. Making such a finely crafted and vibrant set from the mundane elements of a backstage washroom is no easy feat. The production designers of Moulin Rouge! though gave just as much attention to this room as they did to Satine’s boudoir, the aerial shots of Paris and the elephant, and the stage of the Moulin Rouge theatre in the film's finale. These colourful details are what make Moulin Rouge! the unique visual treat that it is.

But instead of facing the challenge of choosing from this long list of fantastic shots, I opted for what I remembered best from my first experience with the film several years ago. In the abundance of busy, colourful and vivid imagery that shapes Moulin Rouge! from start to finish, Luhrmann insists on close-ups or even extreme close-ups of his actors tens of times. Whether in the film’s noisiest moments of song and dance, or in its intense hide-and-seek conversational games between the Duke and others, or in Christian’s romantic serenades for Satine, or even the few moments of quietude, Luhrmann relies on the power of their gazes for expression. Seduction, love, jealousy, hatred, anger, illness, confusion, joy, surprise, passion, grief, despair... you name it. Everything can be read in their blue eyes.

In the end, I found it too difficult to even narrow these close-ups down to one favourite, so I settled for all the ones I loved.

P.S. On a side note, isn’t McGregor’s performance so underrated? At the time, it got no awards love – typical of awards bodies to ignore male romantic leads – but even now, nobody mentions it as one of the film’s strong suits. I’m happy for his comeback after The Ghost Writer. Hopefully he’ll get more roles of this magnitude.