THE TREE OF LIFE: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE TREE OF LIFE (Dir. Terrence Malick, 2011)

This is sure to be the most debated film of the year.

Just a cursory glance at internet message boards shows that while some people are labeling it “pretentious crap,” another thread of folks are calling it “one of the best movies ever.”

Consider me in the latter camp.

For his first film since THE NEW WORLD in 2005, the none-too-prolific Terrace Malick (BADLANDS, THE THIN RED LINE) has made a non-linear epic of incredible photography, lavish reconstructions of astrological history, and classical music.

It’s an overwhelming work that obviously a lot of people simply won’t get. I myself am still trying to piece it together, but I think I get it. I think.

Through beautifully fleeting imagery, we follow Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents of three sons in 1950s Waco, Texas. One of the sons dies, the cause of which is never explained, and the family is in mourning with Chastain asking the Heavens: “Lord, why? Where were you?”

Malick attempts to answer that question by going back to the beginning of time in a mesmerizing series of shots of thick engulfing clouds, glowing globules of every color, shining light, fire, flowing lava, etc.

History comes alive via CGI, and we even get to spend a little time with a few dinosaurs.

The visual thrust of all of this is stupefying; it’s like Malick is actually trying to capture God on film.

I’m really not sure if he succeeded, but that a film maker would try so hard and in some flashing moments appear to get so close is amazing to behold.

The timeline catches up with the ‘50s family again, as we see the boy who died being born. A strict disciplinarian, Pitt practices tough love on his boys (Hunter McCraken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Seridan) while Chastain offers nothing but unconditional motherly love.

The vivid cinematography by four-time Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezki is astounding. Whether it’s exploiting the lush splendor of nature or zeroing in on the characters in emotional despair, the camera is always moving, exploring the space of every frame.

Close-ups are handled in a manner I haven’t seen in a film in ages. Even when the boys join a roving group of trouble making pre-teens, a feeling of isolation around McCracken is felt. His misguided desire to fit in with the window breaking, animal abusing brats is captured in the restless energy of the camerawork.

As the troubled eldest son Jack, McCracken is arguably the protagonist. His angry brow dominates the screen as he grows to resent his father. It’s a spare yet piercing performance – a noteworthy film debut.

An older version of Jack is played by Sean Penn, a businessman in the modern world still suffering over the loss of his brother and estranged relationship with his father. Penn’s part is one of the film’s only weaknesses. Penn, who gets more grizzled looking every movie he makes, mainly broods with his presence threatening to stop the film’s immersive flow.

As the last third becomes engulfed in surrealism, Penn is seen, suited up, wandering around a desert landscape. These images are pretty, but ultimately superfluous.

Many moviegoers (and critics) are going to be baffled by THE TREE OF LIFE. It’s a challenging and dense work that comes off at times like STAND BY ME filtered through the Kubrickian kaleidoscope of the last ten minutes of  2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.

To me it’s not just a massive breath of fresh air during this sequel saturated summer, it’s a near masterpiece about life, death, the universe and everything.

In other words, here’s the year’s first major contender for Best Picture at the next Academy Awards.

More later…

FAIR GAME: The Film Babble Blog Review

FAIR GAME (Dir. Doug Liman, 2010)

The true story of former CIA operative Valerie Plame and her husband retired diplomat Joesph C. Wilson is told in this thriller/melodrama based on Plame’s book “Fair Game: My Life As A Spy, My Betrayal By The White House”.

As portrayed by Naomi Watts and Sean Penn (in their third film together) we follow them through the dense details of how their reputations were besmirched by the Bush administration in the early aughts when Wilson reported that “some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.”

Plame’s CIA identity was exposed in the press and Wilson’s work for the government is threatened, but the film seems to stress that what was more important is that their marriage was being torn apart.

It begins with Plame recruiting her husband to travel to Africa to investigate reports that Niger has sold 50 tons of “yellowcake” uranium ore to Saddam Hussein. Of course, he finds no trace of yellowcake and files a report to that effect as well as writes an op-ed piece for the New York Times entitled “What I Didn’t Find In Africa”.

The controversy surrounding the couple, stupidly dubbed “Plamegate”, becomes extremely messy as does the movie. Many scenes are too strained and too choppy for the appropriate mood and there’s an annoying inconsistent shaki-cam framing which detracts from its possible emotional power.

It’s the stateside companion to Paul Greengrass’s just as forced film GREEN ZONE in which army officer Matt Damon complains to an excruciating degree about not being able to find Weapons of Mass Destruction anywhere.

Penn and Watts make a convincing couple – their arguments over Plame’s reluctance to go public with the facts are initially involving, but their attempts at intensity grow more and more tiresome as the film progresses to its predictable conclusion.

There is a wasted, and fictional, subplot involving an Iraqi doctor (Israeli actress Liraz Charhi) who works with Plame to find out the extent of Iraq’s nuclear program. This also concerns the doctor’s physicist brother in Baghdad, played by Khaled Nabawy, who Plame promises will be safely re-located if he helps out.

We also get Chief of Staff Scooter Libby (David Andrews) and Senior Advisor Karl Rove (Adam LeFevre) basically just being evil as they plot to discredit the heroic couple. Then there’s a cameo by Sam Shepherd as Plame’s wise father that’s so badly shot that we can barely see it’s him until halfway through the scene.

With it’s speechifying and constantly interspersed ominous shots of Washington locations (the White House, the Capital, the Pentagon, etc.) FAIR GAME has noble intentions, but its the cinematic equivalent of listening to hours of the liberal radio network Air America.

Hearing the hosts bitching non-stop about how we were lied to in order to justify the Iraq war – even if you agreed with them – was painful and a large part of why that network failed.

And it’s the main reason this film fails too.

More later…

CHE: PART ONE: The Film Babble Blog Review

CHE: PART ONE (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008)

The prospect of an over 4 hour historical epic spread over 2 separate contained movies will no doubt be daunting to most moviegoers, but the first half of CHE is incredibly involving despite its murkiness and powerful despite its sometimes plodding pace. Originally released last December for it to be eligible for the years Oscars (it didnt get nominated for anything) in a limited release as one combined film, it now hits the rest of the country in a special roadshow edition with PART TWO following close behind PART ONE‘s release.

PART ONE mostly takes place in the late 50s with an asthmatic Ernesto Che Guevara, portrayed with fierce grace by Benicio del Toro (also one of the film’s producers), joining Fidel Castros (a dead on Demian Bichir) movement in Havana, Cuba. It has a flashback framework serving as semi narration from a 60s interview with TV journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond), later cutting between Guevaras United Nations address and intense street warfare. These non-Cuban set-pieces are presented in grainy black and white, while the gritty yet vivid color of the exteriors enforces the implication that all that isnt in the heart of the jungle for Che is simply artifice and not real life.

With the subtitle THE ARGENTINE (and Spanish subtitles to boot), this film works well on its own yet still leaves one wanting for a follow-up. Soderbergh successfully structures a docu drama feel in which real footage and photographs blend beautifully with the immacualte recreations. It is indeed a shame that the Academy snubbed this film, particularly del Toro whose precise performance is definitely in the league of Sean Penns Harvey Milk potrayal that took home the award. Penn himself was shocked and pondered over the lack of award nods for CHE suggesting that: Maybe because its in Spanish, maybe the length, maybe the politics. None of those factors should deter folks from taking the plunge into CHE: PART ONE; it may be tough going at times but its impossible to ignore its soaring sense of purpose. Several satisfying though viciously violent sequences save the film from inaccessibility and in moments like when del Toro answers interviewer Ormonds question about what is the most important quality for a revolutionary to possess by saying love he is utterly convincing. Heres hoping PART TWO: GUERILLA lives up to PART ONEs mighty promise.

More later…

Oscar Postpartum 2009

I did considerably better this time with my Oscar picks than the several years. I got 18 out of 24. Instead of listing all the categories like last year (and of course because they are listed on my last post as well as everywhere else online), I decided to just look at the ones I got wrong:

BEST ACTOR: My pick: Mickey Rourke for THE WRESTLER. Who won: Sean Penn for MILK. I can’t say I was completely taken aback – I knew it was a tight race and I knew Penn had a slight edge. Still, I loved the underdog comeback story of both the movie and Rourke’s real life back story so I can’t say I’m not disappointed either. Penn did however acknowledge Rourke nicely in his acceptance speech: “Mickey Rourke rises again…and he is my brother.

DOCUMENTARY SHORT: My pick: THE CONSCIENCE OF NHEM EN. What won: SMILE PINKE. I really was just shooting in the dark here – I haven’t seen any of the nominees so I was going by internet research. I feel like even if I had seen them I’d still be taking a wild guess.

SOUND MIXING: My pick: THE DARK KNIGHT. What won: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. I should have known not to vote for the same movie in both sound editing and mixing. Sigh.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: My pick: VALS IM BASHIR (English title: WALTZ FOR BASHIR. What won: OKURIBITO (English title: DEPARTURES). This was because I heard more buzz for BASHIR and neglected to really look into the others. Ill rectify that by checking them all out in the very near future.

As for the 81st Academy Awards broadcast itself I enjoyed host Hugh Jackman though I thought his song and dance numbers went on too long as did the show itself but that, of course, is a given. The “In Memorium” segment was poorly done (give everybody the big screen treatment next time!) and the one presenter presents multiple awards deal seemed to even throw Will Smith when he had to step up to the task: “Yes, they still have me up here… I think Hugh is napping.” My favorite bit of the show was presenter Ben Stiller in fake beard and sunglasses in an obvious parody of Joaquin Phoenix’s now infamous Letterman appearance of a few weeks back.

To his awkard antics (or non-antics) and his declaration: “I just want to retire from being the funny guy”, co-presenter Natalie Portman remarked: “You look like you work at a Hasidic meth lab.”

Ah, another Oscars over. Now back to the daily grind.

More later…

MILK – The Film Babble Blog Review

MILK (Dir. Gus Van Sant, 2008)

The purpose and passion contained in this portrait of the first openly gay politician has gathered such critical and box office buzz that the oft repeated thesis that the vote on Proposition 8 may have turned out differently had MILK been released before the election is far from mere hype. In Gus Vant Sant’s best film since MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, Sean Penn completely and compellingly absorbs the plucky persona of an ambitious and enthusiastic San Franciscan business man who after a few failed attempts was voted a city supervisor. With the support of the homosexual community and many sympathetic liberals Harvey Milk fought a fierce battle to defeat Proposition 6 which, if passed, would have discriminated against California public schools hiring gay employees.

The film is framed by a neat natural feeling narration in which Milk records an audiotape relating the story of his political career and a few devastating personal relationships on the side. Much real life footage is used including footage from news reports of the era and photographs that make up an opening montage showing police harassment of gay bar patrons. We are introduced to Milk as he introduces himself to an easy going hippy played by James Franco who quickly becomes his lover. They move from New York to California together and the enterprising Milk opens a camera store in a pre-dominantly gay neighborhood. Gay activism helps Milk’s mojo but turns off his companion at the same time he forms heavy alliances including student and later S.F. AIDS Foundation founder Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsch with a frizzy fro oddly making him look like a skinny Jack Black).

There is not a wasted moment in MILK as the momentum flows evenly through to our protagonist’s later days. Josh Brolin, obviously now approaching the A-list after lauded turns in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and W., has an effective restless role as Dan White – a fellow Supervisor who assassinates Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). This last bit is no Spoiler mind you, the film gives us this info up front and I doubt anybody reading this will be unaware of Milk’s fate. With its use of much archival footage seemlessly blended in and touching display of campaign comaraderie its a nice companion piece to Rob Epsteins 1984 documentary THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK.

I predict that MILK will dominate the upcoming awards season and deservedly so; very few supposed “event” movies, especially of the historic biopic ilk live up to their billing but nothing here falls short – the acting, the screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, the focused film-making, and the choice of era music – even the overused Sly and the Family Stone song Everyday People feels right. The best performance of Sean Penn’s career in the most accomplished and powerful project that Gus Van Sant has ever delivered is so much more than must see cinema. It’s such a supremely entertaining and essential endeavor that it should be classified a mandatory movie.

More later…

Step Aside Juno, Make Room For Marjane

While JUNO is getting all the acclaim – the nominations, the top ten list accolades, and the bank from repeat offender audience members – PERSEPOLIS, despite being nominated for Best Animated Feature and a plethora of good reviews is seemingly lost in the shuffle with few making the effort to go see it. I don’t want that to happen – this film deserves to be seen by as many people as possible in its theatrical run. Let me tell you why in my review:

PERSEPOLIS (Dir. Vincent Paronaud & Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

Retaining the look of the autobio-graphic novels on which it’s based PERSEPOLIS is unique as both an animated film and as a coming of age period piece. The story is told by way of a muted colored (yeah, the whole thing isn’t in gritty black and white) modern day flashback in which we meet Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) – a bright outspoken preteen in Tehran in 1978. She is told by her loving father (Simon Abkarian) the history of her country in a swift but accurate storybook manner and she dreams of being a saving prophet of the Islamic revolution. Marjane’s uncle (François Jerosme), a victim of the new regime, chooses her for his last single jail visit before his execution. This affects her deeply as she grows into a rebellious punk-loving teenager (from then on voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) who buys and lives by pirated tapes of American and British rock ‘n roll. All along the way there is stern advice from her sternly cautious but wisely kind grandmother (Danielle Darreux) and the dangerous daily life of a city constantly in turmoil. Marjane becomes a young woman literally before our eyes in an amusing scene that I won’t give away. We follow her to Vienna where as a student at the French Lycée she makes friends with cynical punky outsiders (complete with mohawks and leather jackets). We also witness a love affair relationship arc that takes a little wind out of our protagonist’s sails (and sadly the movie’s a bit) but Marjane gets her groove back with a little help from Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” from ROCKY III.

This film is only being distributed in America in its French language version with subtitles. While this may be considered the purist way to go – it is unfortunate because there is a English language version featuring the voices of Iggy Pop, Gena Rowlands, and Sean Penn. I would like both versions to get distribution, especially since it may affect attendance. I saw this with only six other people in the audience and that is really depressing when the inferior overrated JUNO packed houses and is still in the top five at the box office. Marjane, even as a simplistic cartoon model, is a much more affecting character than Ellen Page’s unrealistic glib one-liner machine. If only mass America would realize that and go see it. With its pointed humour yet sober sense of history PERSEPOLIS is pretty damn near perfect.

More later…

The Failure Of The ALL THE KING’S MEN Remake

The IMDB reported this the other day –

“Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Steve Zaillian was clearly stunned by the critical and box-office failure of his latest film,
ALL THE KING’S MEN, which opened with only $3.8 million in its debut and fell out of the top-ten in its second weekend. Zaillian told the Los Angeles Times that it was “like getting hit by a truck. … I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe down the road I’ll figure it out”.

Well maybe I can help figure it out – Since it is leaving my home town theater after a barely attended 2 ween run I decided to see the movie last night and it is one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen!! Not since I almost went into a coma watching HOFFA has my time in the theater been so deadly dull. Hard to say exactly where Zaillian and crew went wrong – it is well photographed, the screenplay hits the right points, and the cast is A-list (Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, etc.) – it just doesn’t work. Most critics have blamed Sean Penn’s overwrought performance and yes it is true he does deserve to be one of the patients in Monty Python’s Hospital For The Over-Acting sketch but the blame lies elsewhere I believe.

I got the original 1949 version of ALL THE KING’S MEN (Dir. Robert Rossen) from Netflix and watched it this morning. It had won the best picture Oscar and for good reason – it is a good well crafted interesting exercise in good taste and restraint. Everything the re-make tries in vain for the original accomplishes with much more class. I’ll take Broderick Crawford’s believably flawed Willie Stark over Sean Penn’s wretched over-the-top spastic Willie Stark any day.

So it was just another unnecessary remake. I can’t think of one worthwhile remake that has been produced lately. Can you?

More later…

I was telling my brother how much I enjoyed CAPOTE on the AIM and he said something to the effect of “there will be a oscar for the fat faggy”. Such a crude way to speak of the best actor of the Aughts: Phillip Seymour Hoffman. A little respect here bro. Anyway I’m not going to go into plot details or the real life subject matter because 1.) You can read any review to get that stuff and 2.) this movie is more about emotions or lack of them than details. IN COLD BLOOD (1967) was from the killers point of view and romanticized them in Brando fashion while keeping a disturbing point-by-point attention to accuracy. Catherine Keener does a good job as Harper Lee, Chris Cooper is again solid, and Clifton Collins as Perry Smith picks the right note to play all the way down death row.

Now that it is the season for a higher quality supposedly Oscar-worthy fare like CAPOTE, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED and THE SQUID AND THE WHALE among others one has to mourn the loss of the all the Deuce Bigalows and movies based on 70’s TV shows. Sigh. They’ll be back next summer I bet.

THE INTERPRETER (Dir. Sydney Pollack)

This came out last summer and failed to make a splash. I watched it on DVD this last week and could see why. Not that it is outright horrible just pretty bad. Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn (once again humorless as Hell) look like movie stars and aren’t convincing as their characters, particularly not with Kidman’s accent or always perfect hair. Catherine Keener as Penn’s Secret Service partner has very little to do. There are so many lamely plotted sequences and laughable conveniences that any element of suspense or actual sentiment is in vain. Pity too.

Pollack has made a number of fine films – a much better political thriller of his was THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975). Honestly though Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway looked like movie stars in that too. Maybe the only thing worth seeing on the DVD is a bonus feature about his choice of the widescreen format over full frame: Sydney Pollack: “I’m making a plea for my colleagues and myself who spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to tell you the story in the best possible way visually and then someone else has to come in and cut the edges off of all of that and pan and scan it so you’re not seeing what story we tried to tell you.”

Pollack once brought a lawsuit on a Danish TV station for how that pan and scanned one of his films – “mutilated it” he said. To fight to preserve the full visual imagery of one’s art is a pretty cool stance – too bad THE INTERPRETER is not.

More later…