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2 Stars Movies

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

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 Life
No 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 Life
I 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.

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3 Stars Movies

A Problem With the Whole World: Dennis Hopper’s Colors

Dennis Hopper’s Colors may be a buddy cop flick on the surface, but it’s hardly typical high-concept Hollywood material. It does have a token overarching plot (involving a mismatched pair of cops tracing the perpetrators of a drive-by shooting), but it’s merely a loose thread to hold the movie together. If neither a character study nor a plot-driven thriller, Colors is a portrait of an issue, a setting, a problem.

A prototype for the HBO series The Wire, Colors is actually a portrait of the deteriorated, hopeless situation in a failed American city lost to gangs and the drug trade. But unlike The Wire, which deeply explores the economics of how and why gangs function as organizations, Colors doesn’t offer much detail on how they operate and what they do. However sensitive and balanced Colors may be, it still takes the point of view of predominantly white law enforcement. As such, it’s easy to see why filmmakers shortly turned to films like Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood, which would look at some of the same issues from the other side of the milieu.

Sean Penn in Colors
Sean Penn in Colors: “You don’t wanna get laid, man. It leads to kissing and pretty soon you gotta talk to ’em.”

The interesting title most obviously refers to the term for a nation’s flag (tying in with the themes of war and the institution that wage it) or the signature colors of three major warring L.A. gangs: the Bloods (red), Crips (blue), and a Latino gang (white). The real colors that divide these groups are, of course, race. The one sign of equality in late 80s L.A. is that nearly everyone calls each other Holmes.

The narrative is loosely hung on several cliches, most notably the trope of veteran cop saddled with rookie partner. Officer Hodges (Duvall) is bitter at being drafted into the L.A.P.D. C.R.A.S.H. anti-gang program, after a lifetime of service that ought to have qualified him for sensible hours, a safe desk job, and more time with his family. Officer McGavin (Penn) is an aggressive, preening dandy, eager to attack the gang problem with the blunt tool of incarceration.

Robert Duvall in Colors
Robert Duvall in Colors: “you got a problem with the whole fuckin’ world, and I’m in it.”

But it’s not long after the movie sets up these cliches that it begins to knock them down. The ostensibly wizened Hodges makes a critical mistake, setting free a young gangbanger on the assumption that a brush with the law would scare him straight, while simultaneously intending it to be a lesson to the headstrong book ’em-type McGavin. The punk turns out to have been a major player in the shooting. Another cliche short-circuited: McGavin romances a local girl from the barrio (Maria Conchita Alonso), but she turns out to be far from the madonna he imagined. Not only that, she rejects him anyway.

Colors ends on a very down beat, not just the death of a significant character, but what comes after. McGavin is forced into the position of imparting wisdom before he’s earned much himself. The film ends with a long shot held on his face (echoed much later in the final shot of mind Michael Clayton as he most likely ponders his ineffectiveness.

Of note are early appearances by Don Cheadle and Damon Wayans, the latter featuring in a stand-out surreal sequence in which his character T-Bone is out of his mind on drugs. Herbie Hancock’s score has not dated well, nor has the vintage rap soundtrack, including the angry theme song by Ice-T. The opening credits are set to “One Time One Night” by the local L.A. band Los Lobos.

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3 Stars Movies

Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk

Any friend of this blog will know that I almost universally hate biopics. As I’ve complained in my reviews of Control, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and even Walk Hard, I believe that the feature film is fundamentally ill suited for biography. One seemingly minor lesson from college that wound up sticking with me is Edgar Allen Poe’s definition of the short story as a prose piece that can be experienced in a single sitting (The Philosophy of Composition, 1846). No one expects a serious portrait of a person’s entire life in a few pages, so why should we applaud a movie? The feature film’s two-hour running time is more akin to a short story than to a book-length novel or biography, and yet the biopic is a dominant genre in movies. I would argue the primary reason is that they give ambitious actors the opportunity to exercise their imitation skills. It pleases audiences who perceive “true stories” as being of greater merit than fiction (mere make-believe!), and pandering to the Academy, who love nothing better than a technically impressive mimicry of an addict or handicapped person. I actually welcomed Walk Hard, for although a terrible movie itself, it finally mocked the formulaic drug-addicted musician biopics Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie En Rose, and El Cantante.

Sean Penn in Milk

Director Gus Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black’s Milk, on the other hand, strikes me as less insincere than its peers. For one thing, it examines only a ten-year span of a man’s life, avoiding the genre’s usual Cliff’s Notes-like approach to summarizing a famous figure’s life into a series of highlights. And yes, Sean Penn did win an Oscar for a lively, spirited performance worlds apart from his natural demeanor. But I believe he, like everyone else involved, approached the project with nothing but the highest integrity, and truly hoped the timely project could affect public opinion.

Milk was in theaters during shortly after the national debate over California’s Proposition 8, which denied the right to marry to a significant portion of the population (thanks to commenter Sapphocrat below for the correction). It’s impossible to miss the parallels to Harvey Milk’s struggle in 1978 against Proposition 6, which would have enabled the firing of homosexual teachers and (this is the truly amazing part) anyone that supported them. One of the movie’s biggest achievements is that it emphasized the sheer urgency of the gay rights movement. Equality was not just something that’s time had come. Gays were not only fighting for rights they hoped some day to have; they were fighting to keep the what rights they did have from being taken away.

Josh Brolin in Milk

I must admit that all I knew about Harvey Milk was the tangential bit of trivia that his assassin Dan White (Josh Brolin) was the first to employ the infamous “Twinkie Defense” in court, claiming that a diet of junk food altered his body chemistry and created a temporary state of insanity. Harvey was originally a New York insurance man, closeted from coworkers and family, but not so much so that he couldn’t brazenly pick up a stranger on the subway (with gaydar so fine-tuned that he could immediately tell that what I would assume to a normal-looking dude in 70s fashions was a fellow Friend of Dorothy). Scott Smith (James Franco) urges him to move to California where he can live more honestly. Harvey initially is happy to just live his new life, but becomes politicized as he faces prejudicial opposition to his small business.

Although it may seem to contradict part of my tirade against biopics at the beginning on this post, it might have been illuminating to see a little more of Harvey as a younger man, before he blossomed into a politically aware, out man. We only learn through passing dialogue that he hid not only his sexuality but even Scott’s very existence from his family. If the aim was to compress the essence of Harvey Milk into a short-form narrative, it strikes me that the major dramatic arc would be his transformation from a closeted man into someone that would later ask an entire community to come out at once.

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4 Stars Movies

Sean Penn and Emile Hirsch go Into the Wild

Like many young men cursed with a privileged life of education and time to think for themselves, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) wanted only a vaguely defined “truth” and to not have to rely on anyone. Synthesizing his reading of Henry Thoreau and Jack London, he imagined for himself a life of self-sufficiency in the wilderness. So McCandless dropped out of society in the summer of 1990, leaving behind all connections whatsoever, including his legal name and identity. Despite his absolutely clean break, he never seemed to view this transformation as permanent; he mentions more than once that he may write a book when he “comes back.”

Interestingly for a young man, he also seems to make a point of avoiding even temporary female companionship. He rejects the friendship of Jan (Katherine Keener), and abandons his younger sister Carine (Jena Malone), the person with whom he apparently had the closest bond. Carine narrates the film, with total sympathy for his beliefs and actions. But even she points out that he acted with “characteristic immoderation.”

Into the Wild
The Rough Guide to Self-Actualization

McCandless died alone in August 1992. He remains a controversial figure (should his asceticism be admired, or was he a fool?), and his solitary death the subject of an intriguing mystery (was he really trapped with food poisoning, or did he allow himself to die slowly as a form of passive suicide?). This film interpretation of his story does make it clear that he was a privileged kid who hadn’t truly suffered. While drinking with new buddy Wayne (Vince Vaughn), he lets slip his adolescent belief that one of the worst forms of tyranny in the world is “parents.” As we see, his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) are all too human and not half as monstrous as he imagines. So perhaps his adventure was more than an idealistic reaction to mere money, society, and materialism. He was also running away from the “free” things that living in society affords, what everyone craves in life: family, friends, and lovers.

Into the Wild
Hence the title

A note on the music: just as McCandless looks backwards for literary inspiration, he also has antiquated taste in music for a kid living in the early 90s. His new name for himself, “Supertramp” puns on the classic rock band and his new lifestyle. He christens his new and final home, an abandoned bus, after The Who’s “Magic Bus.” For the music of the film itself, director Sean Penn drew upon two musicians that made names for themselves in the early 90s: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (who contributed songs to Dead Man Walking), and guitarist/composer Michael Brook. Vedder’s songs for the film were released as an album, but Brook’s excellent score is also available digitally.

Into the Wild is yet another in a long series of films I’ve seen recently that are based on books I haven’t read (The Kite Runner, No Country for Old Men, The Namesake, The Assassination of Jesse James, etc.). But even so, I believe I can detect a few remnants of the film’s prose origins as John Krakauer’s book:

  • the film is broken into “Chapters” with onscreen titles
  • voiceover narration
  • the visual device of superimposed text from McCandless’ own journals provides a second “voice”
  • episodic feel – but that’s justified by the events/phases of his journey – he keeps making clean breaks every time he comes close to settling in somewhere
Categories
3 Stars Movies

11’09″01 – September 11

A series of short films inspired by or in reaction to 9/11 made by directors from nearly every continent.

At first, I thought for sure I would be giving this one more than three stars, but the quality of the short films takes a steep dive after the first two. The first in particular, by Iranian filmmaker Samira Makhmalbaf, is excellent. It opens on an entire Afghanistan village emptying their well in order to manufacture bricks to build shelters for when the US will bomb them. A female schoolteacher rounds up all the children and attempts to explain to them what happened in New York, and why the Americans are about to kill them. Step one: try to illustrate the concept of a skyscraper.

The short from Egypt is quite bad, and almost laughable (dig the ghost of a buff American Marine killed in Beruit, walking out of the ocean, soaking wet and topless). And unfortunately, Sean Penn’s contribution was over-edited into oblivion. But a late high point is Ken Loach’s documentary about the US-instigated overthrow of Chile’s democratically-elected government on… wait for it… September 11, 1973!

And a bit of trivia: Mira Nair’s short was written by an old roommate I had back in film school.