Archive for June, 2011

The Tree of Life

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick’s nearly four-decades gestating cinematic poem, bears much fruit for admirers of the director’s (by turns) meditative, solemn, inscrutable, and prismatic approach to the craft of moviemaking as religious devotion. A two-hour and twenty minute skyscraper of thoughts, dreams, visions, and questions with no answers, the film is an achievement of mad-scientist ambition that will perplex and confound its most ardent supporters and its most vituperative detractors. Impossible for cinephiles to ignore, the Palme d’Or winner is surely the film of the year (or film for the ages?), despite – or perhaps, in part, because of – the widespread reports of mid-screening walkouts and refund demands.

Comparisons between “The Tree of Life” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” are as inevitable as they are apt, given Malick’s recruitment of long-retired Kubrick collaborator/special effects guru Douglas Trumbull and the shared contemplation of the metaphysical preoccupying both movies. Consider the following quotation: “…a film in which infinite care, intelligence, patience, imagination and Cinerama have been devoted to what looks like the apotheosis of the fantasy of a precocious, early nineteen-fifties city boy.”

Or this one: “The movie is so completely absorbed in its own problems, its use of color and space, its fanatical devotion to science-fiction detail, that it is somewhere between hypnotic and immensely boring.”

And finally: “…unreconciled plot lines… are simply left there like a Rorschach, with murky implications of theology.”

All three of the preceding notes belong to Renata Adler’s April 4, 1968 “New York Times” review of “2001,” but could as readily be applied by several current writers to “The Tree of Life,” especially if one substitutes “IMAX resolution” for “Cinerama” and “Texas boy” for “city boy” in the first sentence. Time will tell if “The Tree of Life” deserves to touch shoulders with Kubrick’s “epic drama of adventure and exploration,” and whether it will be as discussed as passionately forty years from now, but I for one am ready to take that bet.

Like the film’s pretty one-sheet, “The Tree of Life” presents a mosaic of images, many of which pivot around Malick’s structural design suggesting “two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace.” Most reviewers and many viewers will come to terms with “The Tree of Life” by suggesting there are two ways through the movie: the way of patience-testing frustration and the way of awestruck appreciation of one artist’s singular self-expression.

While mainstream critical response leans heavily toward the positive, Robert Koehler’s must-read “Film Journey” essay lays out a strongly argued and well-reasoned dismantling of “The Tree of Life.” Koehler spends considerable energy deconstructing the “cosmic creation” sequence, and also attacks what he sees as weaknesses in Malick’s “naïve romanticism,” “bullet point dialogue” and complete misunderstanding and application of the nature vs. grace dialectic that the filmmaker uses to distinguish Mr. O’Brien’s (Brad Pitt) fierce and willful disciplinarian from Mrs. O’Brien’s (Jessica Chastain) permissive and tenderhearted soul.

Koehler’s claims that Malick doesn’t know his vocabulary are misleading and unfair, particularly because the director is under no obligation to adhere to traditional applications of terms as broad as “nature” and “grace,” which individually claim dozens of definitions and synonyms. Additionally, the brief nature/grace speech, heard in voiceover and understood to be the words of Mrs. O’Brien to her son or sons, is filtered through the perception of the young Jack O’Brien (Hunter McKracken), whose subjective interpretation of his parents’ behavior never contradicts Malick’s symbolic Old Testament/New Testament dichotomy.

Koehler and the others who hated the surprise inclusion of several dinosaurs in the creation sequence mistakenly assume deliberate anthropomorphism in Malick’s Cretaceous Period shots, notably one moment in which a natural predator passes on an easy kill. Koehler sees it as “the birth of love, or, at least, pity,” but my own reading was exactly the opposite. Keith Uhlich, whose “The Space Between Spaces” is one of five essays on “The Tree of Life” in “Reverse Shot,” also disagrees with Koehler, and persuasively claims that any “flicker of humanity” we might see in the dinosaur is “our own projection,” and that to “gaze at instinct is to stare into the void, and not just the one evoked by the film’s opening epigraph from the Book of Job.”

Along the same thread of what Uhlich calls “narrative through reverie,” Mike Flanagan argues that “complaints about [“The Tree of Life”] lacking a standard plot structure are more about the expectations of the viewer, not a fault of the film” and therein lies the heart of the movie’s stubborn resistance to those who see failure or deficiency in Malick’s abandonment of typical cinematic syntax – including the movie’s non-chronological organization, its unorthodox rhythm and pace, and its exclusion of developed and sustained exchanges of dialogue that “drive” toward an objective. “The Tree of Life” is not for everyone, but it should be. Some will snooze, some will leave, and the rest of us will stare up at the screen, electrified and transported.

In the City of Sylvia

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Spanish director Jose Luis Guerin’s “In the City of Sylvia” encourages, even demands, the close attention of its viewers. With its meticulous framing, unhurried long takes, patient rhythm, and absence of dialogue, the movie rewards only those who concentrate on the talented filmmaker’s painstaking attention to detail. Photographed from the point of view of a young, unnamed man (Xavier Lafitte) visiting Strasbourg, France – presumably hoping to find the Sylvia of the title – Guerin’s poetic daydream can shimmer like a mirage one moment and startle with recognizable human experience the next. Undiluted, crystalline, visual storytelling, “In the City of Sylvia” applies real time chronology in most of its acutely realized sequences, and the result is a romantic meditation pregnant with Bressonian contemplativeness.

Built around a three-night structure, even though nearly all the action occurs outdoors in bright daylight, “In the City of Sylvia” stages several forceful scenes, including a voyeur’s banquet of people-watching at a café, a dizzying low speed pursuit, an enigmatic conversation containing the film’s only sustained spoken dialogue, and an Orphic descent into the erotically charged Les Aviateurs nightclub where the story began six years before the events of the film. Each of Guerin’s set pieces unveils another facet of the director’s dazzling technical virtuosity. Cinematographer Natasha Braier’s command of light layers the space in front of and behind windows and reflective surfaces with almost unbelievable expertise and the film’s team of production managers and assistants orchestrates a small army of extras indispensable to the movie’s success.

The café scene takes up roughly one quarter of the total running time and is in many ways the film’s tour de force. As Lafitte’s artist sips his drink and pencils (mostly faceless) miniature portraits of the customers seated around him, Guerin and Braier work wonders with composition, shifting focus through planes of tables while a babbling brook of overlapping conversations blends and buzzes together. One immediately senses the intensity of the main character’s highly individualized perceptions of space and sound, and we shift our eyes along with his, wondering who – if any – of these people will emerge from anonymity. Finally, a woman (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) gets up to leave and our previously passive watcher follows her.

Guerin’s knowledge of movies haunts “In the City of Sylvia” like the ghost of Carlotta Valdes, and the movie’s central, wordless cat-and-mouse through winding streets pays spiritual homage to Scottie Ferguson’s discreet surveillance of Madeleine Elster in “Vertigo.” When the protagonist finally confronts the young woman in the car of a public tram, the movie’s only significant spoken exchange ruptures the hypnotic interiority carefully constructed during the first half of the film. Guerin’s decision to allow his characters speech initially contradicts the discipline of silence, but the filmmaker’s dialogue does not disappoint, alluding to another cinema classic, Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad.”

The number of virtual goddesses inhabiting Strasbourg is as unlikely as the ratio of sylphs shopping in Sean Ellis’s otherwise quotidian “Cashback” supermarket. Guerin’s employ of the male gaze directed toward an endless parade of almost impossibly beautiful women and the story’s stalking/hunting motif invite the scrutiny of those wishing to parse and interpret sexual politics, but the movie’s subjectively filtered view of the feminine becomes deliberately metonymic by film’s end. The title suggests that Strasbourg’s female inhabitants are each and every one a potential “Sylvia” as far as the protagonist is concerned, a suggestion that for any of us, infinite outcomes exist.

Midnight in Paris

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

In one of the best jokes in “Midnight in Paris,” time-traveling romantic Gil (Owen Wilson) suggests a future plot to budding filmmaker Luis Bunuel decades before “The Exterminating Angel.” Confused by the premise, Bunuel repeatedly claims he does not understand why the dinner guests can’t just leave. Speaking slyly to one of the central thematic concerns of “Midnight in Paris,” the exchange is a moment for movie lovers by a movie lover, beautifully gift-wrapped by writer-director Woody Allen. The septuagenarian auteur, whose famous list of things that make life worth living in “Manhattan” name-checks musical, artistic, and cinematic heroes with heartfelt sincerity, conjures another set of cultural heavyweights this time, and the result is a sweet, wistful valentine to the City of Light.

A successful Hollywood screenwriter who dreams of deeper artistic fulfillment, Gil has come to France with fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents Helen (Mimi Kennedy) and John (Kurt Fuller), hopelessly uncultured xenophobes whose intolerance of their hosts reeks of superiority and entitlement. The ugly Americans browbeat affable Gil with mockery and disdain, affording Allen the opportunity to ridicule their materialism and regressive politics. A chance encounter with charismatic academic Paul (Michael Sheen, buttery and smug) sets up a series of social interactions for which Gil has no stomach. Taking leave of the group, Gil wanders the streets, and at the stroke of twelve, accepts a ride in a ghostly, vintage Peugeot that whisks him back in time.

Answering the old parlor game requiring participants to share their dream dinner companions, “Midnight in Paris” sets loose a nostalgist in the eye of the Jazz Age hurricane. Interacting with the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Salvador Dali, Gil wanders through his mind-bending evenings in a slack-jawed state of wonderment. Falling hard for Pablo Picasso’s current muse Adriana (Marion Cotillard), Gil begins to question whether or not he belongs in the 21st century, and Allen uses the complication to consider the flaws and fallacies of longing for a “better” past. The filmmaker has regularly applied a scalpel to the foolishness that results from “grass is greener” temptation, and few directors are as consistently proficient when blending misery and fortuity.

The visual contrast between the blindingly illuminated modern day scenes and the lush, golden-hued past highlights Gil’s increasing vexation with Inez, and if “Midnight in Paris” has a flaw, it is the way that McAdams is confined to a supercilious, easily dismissed character. Focusing instead on Gil’s great fortune, Allen smartly avoids any explanation of the “magic” that allows his protagonist to stroll between the years, a strategy that diverts viewer attention from any genuine issues that are bound to arise from canceling a marital engagement.

While Gil idolizes the Lost Generation, Adriana cites the Belle Epoque as her ideal, and when she and Gil find themselves in the 1890s hobnobbing with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin, Adriana confesses her own desire to remain in the vibrant fin de siècle time frame. Gil’s disappointment as he tries to convince Adriana that the Roaring Twenties can’t be topped initiates a realization – at least for the audience – that no matter the era in which we live, we pine for a past we cannot have.

X-Men: First Class

Monday, June 6th, 2011

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A calculated effort to rejuvenate and rethink a once hot franchise for Marvel, 20th Century Fox, and their partners, “X-Men: First Class” embraces the Silver Age origins of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s misunderstood mutants via its smoothly designed period setting. Rewinding the clock to JFK’s 1962 Camelot nightmare, a revisionist Cuban Missile Crisis places the emergent superheroes at the heart of historical destiny. In addition to the throwback threads and cheeky slang, director Matthew Vaughn efficiently communicates a number of origin yarns with a verve that puts Kenneth Branagh’s leaden, wooden, barren “Thor” to shame.

In a tableau that has gained the status of a collective memory among comic readers, the 1944 concentration camp odyssey of Erik Lehnsherr is shared again, this time embellished with the welcome appearance of perfectly sinister Nazi doctor Kevin Bacon, whose very namesake – along with a resume of wonderfully over the top performances – suggests a level of ham that helps constitute an equilibrium with some of the movie’s straighter, more humorless character renderings. Despite drooling web chatter to the contrary, it is Bacon who makes January Jones look good and not the other way around. Pureeing all kinds of X-Men history, Bacon is a dandy Sebastian Shaw, even if he doesn’t have a ponytail or, as Bacon himself describes it, dress like Benjamin Franklin.

While Lehnsherr suffers unspeakable horrors in Europe, young Charles Xavier is raised in wealth and privilege in the Westchester County, New York mansion that will later house his school for “gifted youngsters.” Like Bryan Singer, who returns to the series with co-story and producing credits, Vaughn grasps the inherently dynamic contrasts between the future Magneto and Professor X and sets to work mortaring the foundation of Xavier’s MLK-like advocacy for non-violence and Magneto’s Malcolm X-esque embrace of mutant self-empowerment and resistance “by any means necessary.” James McAvoy’s pre-paralysis telepath gets stuck with the usual pedantic speeches urging tolerance and responsibility, while Michael Fassbender lights up Magneto’s more fiery and charismatic calls for insurrection.

Caught between the two men is the young Raven/Mystique, the blue-skinned shape-shifter played by Rebecca Romijn in the first set of “X” movies. Embodied here by an appealing Jennifer Lawrence, Mystique dials up another of the comic’s central themes: the pain of the outsider accompanied by an almost desperate desire to fit in and be “normal,” no matter the cost. On the page, the teen angst of the X-Men has occasionally ventured into the psychologically complex territory of sexual desire. In this movie, Mystique’s unrequited feelings for Charles define one of the most striking of the film’s soap opera subplots. Later, a table-turning seduction allows Magneto to encourage Mystique to let her freak flag fly, and the scene features one of two cameo appearances (the other a seconds-long meeting in which a perfectly placed F-bomb detonates to much applause) engineered for fanboys and fangirls.

X-Geeks grumble about re-writes to comic canon, but the cinematic variation on the formation of the original team’s line-up strongly suggests that some of the other founding figures will join the Beast in the second and third installments of a planned trilogy. Movie continuity in the X-Men universe hews to its own logic, however, and given the out-of-chronology introductions of Angel and Iceman in the previous films, the constitution of the team in upcoming episodes is anyone’s guess. Several of the mutants inevitably fade into the background, turning up principally to do battle in action sequences. Old-schoolers might enjoy the realization of Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), an X-Man adversary who joined the team in the successful Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975. The rest can enjoy the finely tuned emotional melodrama that defines the fantastic world of genetically uncanny men and women.