Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Tree of Life

Despite having a monumental idea that has all the makings for a project that never gets made, “The Tree of Life” satisfies the grand reach that it sets for itself. It may not give a universal look at the growth of the world and of humanity, but that’s because it can’t: Terrence Malick is an American, Christian filmmaker and thus can only be expected to filter his story through that sort of lens. But even if he’s unable to make the film that everyone wants, what he’s done here is simply unbelievable.

Overwhelming is a dramatic understatement when describing “The Tree of Life.” The audience watches the universe meld together, with ripples, explosions, and, to be certain, dinosaurs. All of this would be enough to blow anyone’s mind completely. But it doesn’t end there: we also see childhood, and every influence by which it is affected. If this childhood seems too idealized, then that’s because it is supposed to be: it’s the product of memories.

These memories are subjective and objective, and the whole film, both in its design and in its action, is about the meeting between these two POVs. There are often dolly shots through houses, or into trees. These seem to be depicting the presence of God, as he moves through the world, watching. I originally thought these shots didn’t have a purpose in the film, but they ultimately are very important.

The movie starts with something that seems to throw it off, which I realized in hindsight was the intention of the brilliant structure by Malick. After a biblical quote (from Job) and a motif of light that appears a few times in the film, we are shown some important passages that color our understanding of the rest of the movie. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), the mother in a small-town post-WWII family, narrates the differences between the forceful nature and the passive grace. This is over a flood of images, which at this point are frustratingly incomprehensible. She then finds that her second son, R.L., has died in a war (implied to be Vietnam), depicted with a chillingly executed shock cut between violent sobbing and airplane propellers. We then move to the present where Jack (Sean Penn), her oldest son, is having problems keeping interest in his wife, his job, and his world (“gone to the dogs,” he calls it in a perceptive moment). He has apparently said things he didn’t mean about his brother’s death, which happened very long ago, and is reminiscing about when he was a kid, egged on by his father and increasingly disillusioned as time went on.

After showing the making of the known world and giving cinema some of its most glorious images (drawing from some famous telescopic shots), Jack’s growing up is magnificently realized. We see how he became the man that he is, each pivotal moment. The resentments he (played here by Hunter McCracken) bears towards his domineering father (Brad Pitt) are most prominently noted. Hard on all of his kids, Mr. O’Brien wants them to step boldly ahead in the way of nature, not to roll with the punches as grace would (which he calls “naïve,” along with his wife). Other determining forces are seen: criminals move through the town (whom Mrs. O’Brien gives water, a symbol used to such great effect to make Tarkovsky proud), the drowning of a friend, engaging in transgressive activities. Overall, the film’s meticulous, detailed view of maturation has few, if any, peers in recent memory.

But that’s not the only area in which that happens. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked with Malick on “The New World,” gives one of the most astonishing performances in camerawork in cinema history. It’s the stuff to spawn thousands of visual essays. What he does is innovative and immersive: he imitates the emotion of the scene in the photography. For example, to convey Jack’s going-through-the-motions feelings as a grown man, he has the camera race through public spaces at waist level and uses a disjointed form of Snorricam (where the camera is attached to the actor, charting their movement). Also strong is the use of music (some of which is composed by Alexandre Desplat), which overpowers you. Obviously referential of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in how it pairs space actions with opera, it uses the music to try to reach the sublime (and it often does).

It’s a wonder that Malick can actually make another film (namely “The Burial”) after this one. This movie is a marvel, for not only all of what I’ve said above but also having one of the most believable views of the afterlife (if that’s what it is) that I’ve ever seen. (Also worth mentioning is his giving of voiceovers to many of his characters, both biblical and similar to Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying.") I’ll need to see it more than once, but it feels (though it’s definitely not) almost absolute. If it had never been made, only speculated, people could have united completely around it. Even if it doesn’t appeal to everyone, and even if it admittedly isn’t impeccable start-to-finish (the human section working better than the planetary one), it’s a treasure, worthy of its Palme d'Or and (one can only hope) more awards. A

Monday, May 23, 2011


The camera, starting at mid-range, slowly tracks to the face of a boy with a grimly violated expression on his face, receiving a hair cut for what seems to be a military operation. There is no sound other than the swell of "You and Whose Army?" by Radiohead (used later in the film to a far lesser effect), which is plenty. For my money, this moment, coming at the very beginning of "Incendies" (translated as "Fires," which will make sense to anyone who sees it), is the most arresting bit in the entire film. We have no context in which to process this scene until towards the conclusion, so it becomes all the more powerful when we realize its true significance: In a movie about the loss of innocence, this is the most prominent example, which ultimately frames everything else.

If this movie was just, you know, better, it would be a masterpiece. Denis Villeneuve has many of the elements he needs to make something great. His visual style is top-notch. He knows how to light and shoot a scene, and he's picked actors whose faces he can utilize to the extreme. The premise of the film is tantalizing, and the structure is well-designed. It's really the script that lets this film down. (I'm going to go ahead and make assumptions that the translation from the French and Arabic is good.)

Adapting from Wajdi Moawad's play, he has little scope of what details are interesting, what details are not, and how to write bearable dialogue. He also has an annoying tendency to spell out major plot points to the audience. The film is over two hours long; that could be solved by cutting out some scenes that repeat obvious information and dilute the film's cutting emotional strength.

The film moves between the relative present and 70's Palestine, the site of a vaguely defined conflict between Christians and "refugees" (of what I'm not sure). As we begin, the presumably 20-something twin children, Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette), are parsing out the will of their late mother Narwal (Lubna Azabal). They are given notes which they will relay to their (absent) father and brother, respectively. However, on the way to finding their missing family members, they - and we - will learn more about their recently deceased matriarch.

To say much more about the plot specifics, I would have to dodge more spoilers than I'm comfortable with. So I'll speak in more abstract terms: much of the film from this point onwards is extremely dull. It seems to sincerely believe that thin political soup we've encountered in many other films is going to be interesting. To add to that, we don't get any of the details that are actually helpful/compelling, such as: what was the relationship between the mother and her children before she died? Villeneuve always seems to be worried that he's going to ruin the grand scheme of his film by not controlling the exposition enough. He's so devoted to preservation of the core of the film that he jumps through a hell of a lot of hoops to keep it together; a few too many, it must be said. Finally, the dialogue is clumsy throughout, especially in the abysmal scene that uses math metaphors.

It's sad when you have pretty much everything you need for a success, but botch it with the execution. ("Dogtooth," a fellow also-ran of "Incendies" for Best Foreign Film, showed there are positive results when everything is pushed to, or near, its fullest potential.) In how he tries so hard to lead us down a certain path to not spoil anything, Villeneuve lets many things fall to the wayside. Though many will be horrified/pleased by the twist ending, a good number of folks will also either a) predict it far before intended or b) not appreciate it when it comes to light. The thing about Villeneuve is that he's the right director, but he needed some help with realizing this idea, help he didn't get. C+

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cannes 2011: Competition Awards

For your viewing pleasure:

Palme d'Or:

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick

Gran Prix:

The Kid With a Bike, Dardenne Brothers AND Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Jury Prize:

Polisse, Maiwenn

Best Actor:

Jean Dujardin, The Artist

Best Actress:

Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia

Best Director:

Nicolas Winding Refn, Drive

Best Screenplay:

Joseph Cedar, Footnote

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cannes 2011: Prévisions Finales

I haven't been posting as many film reviews lately as 1) I've haven't had that much time to see recently released films and 2) following the developments of the Cannes Film Festival has been involving and right now the festival feels like the only relevant event in the film world. After Sunday, when the awards for the Main Competition are announced, things will change, and we'll get back to regularly scheduled programming, etc. But for now, this is what's been on my mind, and here are my final predictions, since pretty much all films in the running for the Palme d'Or have finished screening for critics:

Competition Jury: Robert De Niro, Olivier Assayas, Martina Gusman, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, Jude Law, Nansun Shi, Uma Thurman, Johnnie To, Linn Ullman

Palme d’Or: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Reasoning: Reviews haven't been all strong, but at the same time there have been enough that note this as prime Palme material, which may be echoed by the jury (who seem like they could really warm up to its heavy basis on imagery). Plus, Ceylan is due.

Gran Prix: The Kid With a Bike, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Reasoning: Probably the most previously successful contenders in the field this year, the Dardennes have NEVER gone home empty handed when they've played in Competition at Cannes. They've won 2 Palmes (for "Rosetta" and "The Child"), directed Olivier Gourmet to a Best Actor (for "The Son"), and snagged Best Screenplay last time they were here with "Lorna's Silence." Even though I don't think another Palme is possible, a Gran Prix (which they've never won before) could be a good way to celebrate their new work. This may be the jury that neglects to give them an award, but with Haroun on the jury (who's said to be influenced by them), I think they'll pull out with something.

Jury Prize: Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn

Reasoning: The populist favorite of the festival, Refn's film (as Guy Lodge has noted) will probably have garnered the support of Law and Thurman, not to mention Assayas and To. Many have said this will win the Palme, but I don't think it'll quite manage that.

Best Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life

Reasoning: "The Tree of Life" will not be denied an award. And this is an avenue that has been essentially approved by all critics. (I know they don't decide the award, but they must have some perception of what's going on).

Best Actress: Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Reasoning: Despite the possibilities of Emily Browning and Kirsten Dunst, I think Swinton had this sealed up on the second day of the festival, when her film premiered. The praise has been overwhelming.

Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist

Reasoning: Hazanavicius will get awarded for branching out from his previous films (James Bond spoofs) and actually making something serious. A Palme is definitely possible, but this route seems a lot more logical for the jury.

Best Screenplay: Le Havre, Aki Kaurismaki

Reasoning: Another movie that needs validation for its success. Kaurismaki has gone as far as the Gran Prix before, and could go the full distance, but the jury seems both for and against that happening. At least it'll win this.

Prominent empty-handers: "The Skin I Live In," "Melancholia," and "This Must Be the Place" (the jury could rally for this one, but the reviews intimated this was not such a good movie).

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cannes 2011 (Day 9 Predictions)

Palme D'Or:

Before the festival, I thought that one film had it all locked up: "The Tree of Life," by Terrence Malick, a director who had only won a Best Director prize at the festival over 30 years ago and who seemed due for more. However, that film's chances have drastically lowered since it actually premiered, and now I'd have to say that the movie retains an outside shot based on what it has left of its initial hype as well as the fact that the jury may be more sympathetic than some critics have been (however Gabe Klinger has heard otherwise).

My money is on the not-yet-shown "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who really seems like he's got a shot at the big time this year, having won Best Director (as well as his actors having won Best Actor) in the past.

As for previously speculated films, I agree with Jason Solomons here, who says "Melancholia" ain't going nowhere (especially since Lars Von Trier, being such an enfant terrible, has lost the privilege of going to Cannes). Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In" got lackluster enough notices to lose its buzz. The Dardennes Brothers will not win a third Palme d'Or for "The Kid With A Bike." Sorry, not gonna happen. And Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin" has much better chances in the fields of Best Actress and Director, especially since Ramsay is not a festival veteran.

The biggest upset material comes in the form of "Le Havre" by Aki Kaurismaki, which many have been touting (to Mike D'Angelo's chagrin) and which could win a place in the hearts of the jury members. However, Kaurismaki I think might win a different award. And don't forget about "The Artist."

Gran Prix:

Now that I think "Once Upon A Time in Anatolia" will cop the top prize, room is left open for Paolo Sorrentino's "This Must Be the Place" to take second place. However, this could turn on a dime: when it screens for critics, there might not be a lot of love for Sean Penn's laconic, mumbly performance (and thus the whole enterprise will go down)-- or perhaps too much (Best Actor?). If that's the case, Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" might be able to get this. That is, unless it wins...

Jury Prize:

... third place. "Drive" seems tailor-made to win the festival's riskiest award (previous editions have given this to "Persepolis," "Thirst," and "Fish Tank").

Best Actor:

Without his film being rewarded, I think Brad Pitt will be given props for what has been called perhaps his strongest acting job in "The Tree of Life." If this happens, I think Pitt's a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination (maybe even a win?). Could the leads from "Footnote" make a resurgence? Possibly, but I think Pitt has it.

Best Actress:

Actresses tend to be easy to predict, and Tilda Swinton has stood as the frontrunner since the beginning of the festival, for her work in "We Need to Talk About Kevin." If she somehow doesn't win, I suspect Emily Browning from "Sleeping Beauty" will take it, although maybe "Melancholia"'s Kirsten Dunst will get the dividends of the Von Trier situation (Roger Ebert seems to think his deal will be an impediment, but I think that it might actually arouse sympathy in that the jury will think that Dunst is being canceled out). Cecile de France might continue the Dardennes winning streak (for "The Kid With A Bike") but I dunno.

Best Director:

A three person race: Kaurismaki vs. Ramsay vs. Michel Hazanavicius, who I think got enough positive reception for "The Artist" to receive recognition from the jury. Who thought he, as a late entrant and as a former spoof filmmaker, would ever get to being speculated for this award?

Best Screenplay:

This could go to "This Must Be the Place," should a fallout happen to its Gran Prix chances, "Le Havre," since it's a comedy, or "We Need to Talk About Kevin," for being an adaptation, but I really think this category is down (for various reasons) to "Footnote," "Hanezu," and "The Source." Any of these three could win it in the end, but right now I'm thinking that "Footnote" (written by its director, Joseph Cedar) has the best shot, despite the claims it's sometimes ridiculous.

To summarize:

Palme d'Or: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Gran Prix: This Must Be the Place
Jury Prize: Drive
Best Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life
Best Actress: Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Best Screenplay: Joseph Cedar, Footnote

And I think "Miss Bala" might get something in Un Certain Regard.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Even though I had no other choice but to see "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" in 2-D, the film's repetitive imagery makes it a bit of a hard sit. It takes place in the French cave (discovered in 1994 and named Chauvet after one of the people who found it) where 32,000 year old paintings (as well as the fossils of now-extinct animals) are still preserved due to limited human interaction and calcification. Since this is an invaluable relic of a time so long ago, only some scientists are allowed to enter every so often. This is the only documentary film about this subject, which makes it singular and on some level a must-see. However, I wonder if one will enjoy it as much as admire what it means.

The 3-D probably is a big factor in that. If you see the 2-D version, as I did, there are several awkward shots that call attention to themselves to really no avail. In all likelihood, these were originally intended to be seen in 3-D. Maybe this restriction cost the film some of the power that it's been known to have. The color of the film also seems really off in 2-D, and we're lucky when some parts of the film skew to look like they came out of a Stella Artois commercial, as other portions (mostly those outside of the caves) look weirdly overexposed.

I had a hard time connecting with this film. Thinking of time periods that far apart is overwhelming, like thinking about singularities and "nothingness." It's practically impossible, at least to me. I was able to imagine it a little, but probably the experience of the film is far more worthwhile if you can somehow really connect to those times.

Werner Herzog, the esteemed director of this film (though maybe not quite as much after some of the stuff he made last decade), apparently includes shots of his crew because there's not enough space to keep them outside of the frame, but at the same time he sets up another sort of documentation. The cave painters painted what they saw, cave-bears sometimes scratched on the paintings, and now we, outside of the caves, are reacting to these works. He's also interested in the layering of the caves and the stories behind the paintings themselves. Though sometimes this seems like over-reading (I'm always one for keeping things little underexposed), I still can really see what he's getting at. The layering translates in the world of today: one of the scientists interviewed in the film was in the circus before he became a scientist. These bits, and the ending that people have thought a bit strange (but which is actually entirely necessary), give the film a strong ideological weight.

The film feels far too long, and includes some unnecessary footage: essentially irrelevant footage of a"master perfumer" (put in the film seemingly as an indulgence of Herzog) and, as noted above, maybe a little too much footage of the same paintings (such as the admittedly amazing "four horses" piece). There's also a sexual bent that the film has in parts that feels a little "politely immature," if you catch me, and thus, as a result of this and a couple other things, it's a little corny. But overall, this film has you in a place you'll never, ever go, and even though this film isn't extremely substantial and isn't entirely successful, this is a more worthwhile venture than those "Italy from your living room" trips. B-