Sad Dinosaurs: Calling Bullshit on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life movie poster

 

As a public service, The Dork Report will now summarize all 2 hours and 19 minutes of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life for you:

My mommy was pretty, my daddy was mean, sometimes kids die, I inhaled too much DDT, and it makes me so sad. Sad like the lonely birth of the lifeless universe. Sad like an anachronistic demonstration of animal altruism in the cruel dinosaur-eat-dinosaur prehistoric biosphere. Sad like the decay of all matter and energy as the universe inevitably collapses.

I call bullshit.

The degree of enjoyment I took from The Tree of Life was in inverse proportion to the sense of obligation I felt to see it, which is to say: very little vs. a whole lot. The very private auteur Malick had fallen silent for a number of years after he burst out of the gate in the 70s with Badlands and Days of Heaven, but has been on something of an uncharacteristic tear lately, producing three films in 10 years, with more in the pipeline. Since he chooses to not participate in publicity for his films, we may have to wait years until we find out what motivated him to return from this mysterious interregnum.

The Tree of LifeNo one was there to watch as the planets form from stardust… except Terrence Malick’s computers

Anticipation high, The Tree of Life was hotly discussed as his most beautiful, philosophical, and autobiographical film yet (the last point being especially tantalizing to film buffs looking for entry points into analyzing the man and his ouvre from a distance). The hook was further baited by the all-star cast (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and it-girl-who’s-in-everything-these-days Jessica Chastain) and an awards campaign branding it as one of the key prestige pictures of 2011. The willingness of top-drawer talent to work with Malick, even if they may very well wind up on the cutting room floor (as happened to George Clooney in The Thin Red Line), suggests he is revered as a director of actors. The perennially prickly Sean Penn, however, had none of this. He publicly derided the completed film:

While [Penn] considered the script “the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read,” he believes that “a clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.” Noting that Malick himself was little help when it came to explaining what he was going for, Penn adds, “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context.”
The A.V. Club

All of Malick’s films are inarguably staggeringly beautiful, but their flimsy substance would get laughed out of a high school creative writing class. The Thin Red Line provided a much-needed meditative counterpoint at the time to the comparatively sentimental Saving Private Ryan, but too much of the film was taken up with the private thoughts of inarticulate grunts struggling to understand why they were killing each other when they’d all be much happier as cinematographers filming wildlife and sunlight filtering prettily through treetops. The New World approached outright silliness in its portrayal of Pocahontas as a pimply teenager in leather lingerie, caught in a love triangle over two of her European oppressors, and became truly absurd as the film contorted itself to avoid speaking her name.

Jessica Chastain and an unnamed dinosaur extra in Terrance Malick's The Tree of LifeI want to equate these two shots to the famous jump cut from prehistoric man to a spaceship in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I just don’t respect The Tree of Life enough.

There’s something to be said about Malick deconstructing two of the most overused subjects in Hollywood history (the World War II picture and the Pocahontas myth) for his own personal statements, but critics must really strain for these to hold up to discussion in serious philosophical terms. The Niles Files makes a valiant attempt to tackle The Tree of Life, looping in Blake, Proust, Joyce, and many other big guns to extract some meaning from Malick’s pretty pictures.

The Tree of Life was part of a miniature trendlet in movies this past year, in which the painfully intimate was equated with the distantly cosmic. Sadly, two better films with similar concerns were unjustly crowded out of the award season — curiously, both featuring young women. In Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, a girl whose carelessness ruined several lives finds hope for redemption when an exact duplicate of the entire planet inexplicably appears in the sky. Like everyone that has ever lived, she wonders if maybe there’s a better world where things turned out differently. For Cahill, it would have superfluous to concoct a pseudoscientific explanation for the phenomena, but another filmmaker that same year turned to physicists to properly substantiate his cosmic visions. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is exactly that — a painful but stunningly beautiful examination of crippling depression. One young woman’s mental illness all but splinters her extended family, a destruction so cataclysmic it is reflected in the eradication of the world. Von Trier harnesses computer animation for images of profoundly moving beauty, rendering Malick’s mopey CGI dinos silly in comparison.


Official movie site: www.twowaysthroughlife.com

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button movie poster

 

This Dork Reporter is slowly cooling on former favorite David Fincher. His underrated first feature Alien3 is highly compromised, but easily the next most thematically interesting entry in the Alien franchise (after, of course, Ridley Scott’s rich original). Se7en is one of the most gut-wrenchingly disturbing movies ever made, notable for having virtually no violence appear onscreen, despite its reputation. Fight Club is perhaps the movie of the nineties, an eccentric blast of countercultural fury. But almost everything that followed seemed a disappointment. The Game was wildly implausible without the pop and sizzle that carried the similarly over-the-top Fight Club. Panic Room was an empty exercise in style, seemingly conceived solely for Fincher to experiment with new digital techniques that would allow him to create impossibly continuous camera moves through the walls and floors of a city brownstone (and possibly also as another vehicle for star Jodie Foster’s persona as a single parent to be reckoned with). Zodiac was highly praised both as a tight procedural thriller and as a tour-de-force of still more bleeding-edge digital special effects (so good that most viewers wouldn’t suspect that many sequences were not traditionally shot in camera), but it did absolutely nothing for me. I’m wondering if I missed some key aspect of it that would open it up to me – and that perhaps I should reappraise it now that a director’s cut is available on DVD.

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonYou’re only as old as you feel

The advance marketing for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button excited me at first, but I was apprehensive when I learned the screenplay (loosely based on a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) was by Eric Roth, the writer of Forrest Gump. Indeed, it did turn out to be constructed in a similar vein and tone, even mimicking some of the corniest devices of Gump: the famous digital feather twirling in the wind has been replaced by an unlikely reappearing hummingbird; Forrest’s mother’s aphorism “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get” has its analog in the less memorable “you never know what’s coming for you”; even Forrest Gump’s parade of cameos by famous or infamous Americans is here continued with an appearance by Teddy Roosevelt. Against my will, this cutesiness did succeed in drawing me in for most of its running time. I was engrossed for much of it, but its leisurely three-hour running time honestly strained my patience by about the two-hour mark.

Fincher and Roth relate the decades-long story via the framing device of Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt) one true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) on her deathbed, introducing her adult daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to her biological father through a dramatic reading of his diary, with gaps filled in from her own memory. A soon-to-be infamous hurricane brews outside the Louisiana hospital room, shortly to erase much of Benjamin and Daisy’s milieu. The multiple layers of storytelling result is no less than three speaking voices to narrate the tale in voiceover. One framing device too far?

Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonCate Blanchett is a beautiful woman, but it’s eerie to see her appear to be in her 20s

The central conceit of the story is a fantastically unfortunate disease that afflicts one Benjamin Button. His body is born aged and decrepit, and ages backwards while his mind matures normally. As he aptly puts it when still a boy, he was “born old.” Taking this story as anything other than a parable or fairy tale would be to miss the point, but the photorealistic special effects place the movie firmly in believable reality. So this viewer’s mind (when not distracted by the high-tech visuals) wandered into logistics. Some of the rules don’t seem to hold up: as a chronological adolescent, he manifests the typical sexual desires and self-centeredness. But his aged body strangely has the physical fitness and stamina/potency to act them out (we see him preening in front of a mirror, seemingly only aged from the neck up). Also, presumably, Benjamin can be assured to die when his body regresses to infancy. So, given his physical state at birth, is his death date pre-ordained? If he had been born with an infantilized body of a 20-year old, could he have been assured of only having two decades to live? Is he impervious to harm? Indeed, he somehow manages to survive being stepped on as a newborn, and later, is one of the few survivors of a German submarine attack on an outclassed tugboat during World War II.

Benjamin is adopted by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), an unfortunately stereotypical African American character, and spends his youth and old age (and vice versa!) at the nursing home she manages. There, he meets his one true love Daisy, the niece of one of the tenants. Benjamin’s curious condition prevents him from having any kind of normal friendship or relationship with her, so he leaves home to find his way in the world. He has his first serious relationship with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), an older woman who thinks she’s younger than him (later, we learn that meeting him helped her change her life). Eventually, Benjamin and Daisy do meet at roughly the same physical age and consummate their mutual love. When Daisy quite rightly asks Benjamin if he will still love her when she’s old and wrinkly, he jokingly turns it around and asks if she will still love him when he has acne. But what first amuses eventually comes back around to become one of the most painfully emotional sequences in the whole movie: Benjamin does after all regress into senility (or perhaps even Alzheimer’s, before it was identified), trapped in the body of a pimply teenager. As always, the point is that the bell curve of a human life can be seen as a mirror image of itself: here, the impetuousness, aggression, and mood swings of senility are equated with the tumult of adolescence. Likewise, extreme youth and old age both are characterized as the ultimate states of dependence and vulnerability.

Tilda Swinton in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonTilda Swinton as Benjamin’s first lover, an older woman whom he allows to believe is younger

The special effects that allow an aged version of Pitt’s face to be superimposed over another, diminutive actor are light years in advance of the still-creepy digital rotoscoping animation style used in Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and Beowulf (although the latter is an excellent film in spite of the ineffective effects). But no matter how eerily fluid and seamless the effects, I could not shake the feeling that I was watching something largely actualized by animators equipped with a giant computer server farm. These obviously cutting edge techniques are more comprehensible to me than whatever the makeup and/or CG wizards did to make 44-year-old Pitt and the 39 Blanchett appear to be in their smooth-skinned and limber-limbed 20s. Also, it must be said that an artificially aged Pitt in his hypothetical 50s and 60s is a dead ringer for Robert Redford.

There must be something in the bottled water filmmakers have been drinking recently, for I’ve noticed a decided trend towards movies about aging recently. Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (read The Dork Report review) and Tamara Jenkin’s The Savages (read The Dork Report review) both look at the senility than often comes at the end of life, and how it may affect the lives of those still living, for better or for worse. But another pair of movies dealt with mortality and the fear of unfinished business through the lens of fantasy: Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (read The Dork Report review) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (read The Dork Report review). All of these movies tap into most people’s fear of aging: not only of losing physical health and thus independence, but also of the reliability of one’s own mind.


Official movie site: www.benjaminbutton.com

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Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading

 

Although every Coen Brothers film is unmistakably theirs alone (can the Auteur Theory apply to more than one person at once?), Joel and Ethan have a reputation for rarely making the films audiences want or expect from them at any given time. After Fargo, when everybody wanted another snowy midwestern noir, Joel and Ethan gave the world The Big Lebowski instead (read The Dork Report Review). After a recent string of genre experiments like the Hepburn & Tracy-esque romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty and a remake of Ealing comedy The Ladykillers, the Coens surprised everybody yet again with the dead-serious nailbiter No Country for Old Men. And, perhaps because they just can’t help themselves, they give us whiplash all over again with Burn After Reading.

George Clooney and Francis McDormand in Burn After ReadingClooney and McDormand give this movie two thumbs up

Ostensibly another caper comedy like The Big Lebowsi, Burn After Reading is actually more amusing than hilarious. The characters are a peculiar kind of stupid common in Coen films: unaware of their limitations, yet maniacally driven. But the mischievous Coens undermine the light entertainment value of the film by punctuating the convoluted noirish plot and seemingly light tone with scenes of extreme violence.

Burn After ReadingJohn Malcovich being John Malcovich

At the time, The Big Lebowski featured many of the Coens’ repertory players (John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro). In contrast, Burn After Reading sports the marquee names Clooney and Pitt, perhaps giving it more attention than it can hold. But its biggest hindrance to joining the ranks of the best of the Coen Brothers is that it lacks a highly memorable (and quotable) character like H.I, Marge, or The Dude.

Burn After ReadingBrad Pitt is in possession of, as they say in movies like this, certain documents

Official movie site: www.burnafterreading.com

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

Had I seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford earlier, I might have included it among my Most Disappointing Films of 2007. Certainly not because it’s “bad,” for could I make a better movie myself? Could I make a movie at all? And who appointed me a critic, anyway? But this blog is about my personal reactions to movies, so here goes. Assassination was praised to the high heavens by publications including Dork Report favorite Sight & Sound, so I had expected it to be one of the year’s gems. And indeed, the acting is excellent and the cinematography breathtaking. But I would describe the movie as “novelistic,” not necessarily a good thing with cinema, as opposed to, you know, novels.

Assassination no doubt inherited its notably slow pace (not a problem for me) from its source material, the novel by Ron Hansen. I haven’t read it, but I suspect my own chief complaint likewise derives from the book: the omniscient narration. I’m not one that thinks voiceover narration is a screenwriter’s crutch to be avoided at all costs, but there are two extremes in which it can be misused: to redundantly explicate the action seen on screen or to impart information better shown that told. The Assassination of Jesse James does both. I wish I had made a note of an example or two, but there are numerous instances of narration that could simply have been cut for not adding anything to what we’re watching onscreen at the moment. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the most significant events of the story, Ford’s ultimate disillusionment with James and decision to betray him to the law, happens offscreen and is offhandedly recounted by the narrator. Ford approaching the authorities to become a criminal informant would have made for a dramatic scene.

Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordThrough amber fields of grain

Although the pairing is not quite fair, I am I huge fan of the HBO series Deadwood and couldn’t help but compare the two in my head. Please set aside for a moment the only roughly related settings (Deadwood is set in 1870s South Dakota, and Assassination in 1882 Missouri) and bear with me for a moment. Most obviously, actor Garret Dillahunt appears in both. Dillahunt may have been typecast as a 19th Century sort, but his characters could not be more different. The Francis Wolcott of Deadwood is an educated, urbane, and yet dangerously perverted early Master of the Universe, a far cry from the suicidally ignorant Ed Miller in Assassination. But where the two diverge, and Deadwood certainly prevails, is the dialogue. David Milch’s scripting is the kind of astonishingly profane poetry that might result when characters with Victorian educations find themselves living in the ass-end of the world. I found myself spoiled by my memories of the prematurely-cancelled Deadwood, and wished Assassination had a little more of its poetry.

But enough griping – time for the praise! Roger Deakin’s cinematography is delicious, full of warm oranges and deep unbroken fields of black. A notable visual effect used to open new chapters in the story is a narrow field of focus with a blurry halo, suggesting old daguerrotypes (similar to what I’ve seen recently in The Illusionist). Dork Report guest critic Snarkbait christened the effect “Ye Old Timey Filter No. 4,” but according to an interview with Deakins in American Cinematographer, the filter is his own invention and appropriately called the Deakinizer.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordThe James Gang in happier days

There is fine acting all around, and two fun cameos from James Carville and Nick Cave (who cowrote the film’s music). Casey Affleck rounds out an excellent year in his career after Gone Baby Gone with a great performance as Robert Ford, obviously not billed above Brad Pitt but arguably the main character. Sam Rockwell (as Charley Ford) is especially great near the end of the film, as his simple-minded character tragically breaks down. Pitt makes a charming and earthy, yet plainly sociopathic Jesse James. James’ curse is that he’s always the smartest man in the room, but one need only witness the particularly unhinged laugh Pitt gives him to see how lunatic and criminal the man actually is.

I lied, one more complaint: Mary-Louise Parker & Zooey Deschanel, both fine, name actors, appear in miniature roles with minimal dialogue. Perhaps their characters were similarly minor in the original novel, but they seem underserved in the film. Perhaps the female presence in the actual lives of these historical figures was not significant, but to return to Deadwood for a moment, Deadwood repeatedly proved it is not historical revisionism to include women in a modern-day portrait of a bygone era.


Official movie site: jessejamesmovie.warnerbros.com

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