Thursday, June 30, 2011
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCraken
There is more emotional honesty about adolescence in ten minutes of Terrence Malick's new film The Tree of Life than in the entirety of JJ Abrams' most recent supposed nostalgia piece Super 8. While they are two wildly different movies, both explore the mysteries of adolescence and coming of age. Abrams film strives hard to appeal to the inner child in us all, but in the end fails (although just barely) because his young characters are only truly relatable to those of us who are in love with the art and magic of filmmaking. While this is great - and certainly recognizable (cool, the kids like to make movies and there's a Dawn of the Dead poster on the wall!) - to the movie geek in the audience, it's this specificity that keeps the experiences Super 8's cast from truly connecting on a larger and more meaningful level. The few times the film is successful in this regard, it's mainly due to the performances of the two lead actors more than the work of the screenplay or direction.
Malick's film succeeds where Abrams's doesn't because it's simply more earnest in it's endeavor. While Super 8 at times caters to a certain audience, making sure the kids are always doing something some folks in the audience may identify with, The Tree of Life is more concerned with relating universal childhood experiences and responses . While the former film does an admirable job of attempting that, only the latter truly evokes recognizable feelings and emotions.
The Tree of Life doesn't tell a straight narrative story rather than give glimpses of moments in time, usually with very little (or no) dialogue. It's standard Malick - he's been making films that operate this way since Days of Heaven, although never to this extreme. After a quick introduction to the family documented in the film (headed by patriarch Mr. O'Brien - played by Brad Pitt and his wife (Jessica Chastain)), the film suddenly begins to display a series of visually breathtaking images showing the beginning of life in the universe, from the big bang to the extinction of the dinosaurs. After this twenty minute segue, we see the birth of Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien's first son Jack. The film then spends it's main portion following the life of young Jack (a wonderful Hunter McCraken), focusing mainly on his transition into puberty. Jack butts heads with his stern but loving father, and falls in love with his doting mother. He fights with his two younger brothers, he plays with his friends. He learns the finality of life after witnessing his first death, and the cruelty of God after his father loses his job. He becomes rebellious and feels a first twinge of regret. Witnessing these times in Jack's life, we come to realize that the creation of the universe that we saw before is every bit as dramatic and wonderful as the birth and first dozen or so years of one's life. This comes into focus even more as the film jumps ahead to show older Jack (Sean Penn) a man reflecting on those years and coming to terms with how much they shaped who he is.
Throughout the film, Malick shoots with a handheld camera, capturing every confused flick of Jack's eyebrow, every frustrated twitch of the mouth. Many times, the film seems to wander int a scene where something is about to happen, then cuts out. Very rarely does Malick stop to explain something or give a few minutes for the narrative to move forward in any recognizable way. It can be a frustrating experience for some viewers (the film jumps around chronologically as well), but it's Malick's statement (a perhaps obvious one) that adolescence (and life, to be completely honest) is recalled only in fragments. It's the details in the periphery of the experiences one seems to recall more than the experience itself. It's a color, a shape, a movement, a look on someone's face. Malick is is more concerned with creating moods and textures, evoking feelings, and loosely tying together themes than he is of giving a traditional throughline to the film.
If there's one reason to see The Tree of Life it's this: it's arguably the most visually breathtaking film I've ever seen. The effects detailing the big bang and beginnings of life on Earth are spectacular and gorgeous, and while the CG dinosaurs aren't quite rendered to perfection, the micro-photography (showing the division of cells and the fetus of some early Archean-era creature) is stellar, and combined with the grandiose celestial imagery of the legendary Douglas Trumbell (who also worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey - a film that I believe is very much a companion piece to The Tree of Life) makes for a jaw-dropping experience. If anything, The Tree of Life is a showcase for old-school special effects and proof that imagery created by computers is no match for the power of tangible, in camera effects work.
As magnificent as it is, though, The Tree of Life, perhaps because of it's unconventionality and ambitiousness, is not without its faults. The scenes with Penn - cut into the film mostly as book-ends - stick out in particular. I believe I understand their meaning, as previously mentioned, however, old Jack is given nothing to do but stumble around his office building dazed. And when he's not stumbling around his office dazed, he's wandering through the desert just as dazed. Penn is given even less dialogue than the other actors, and I don't think Malick ties these portions of the film in successfully with the hour and a half or so in between.
Minor quibbles aside, I don't think there will be another film this year filled with so many questions about life but ultimately joyous about being able to live it. The Tree of Life is an amazing emotional experience for those willing to endure it's sometimes ponderous pace and meandering narrative. It's demanding, yes, but fulfilling and (although I hate to use the word) profound. One might be sick of Malick and his penchant for whispers and long takes of nature, but never has an existential film like this felt so warm and inviting.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Starring James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver
In both his narrative (Aguirre: The Wrath of God) and documentary (Grizzly Man) features revolving around nature, Werner Herzog presents the axiom that nature is cold, cruel, and incapable of emotion. As animals aren't sentient, they care not about such things as empathy and compassion, they only seek to perpetuate the survival of their species. Broken down even further, every family in each species seeks simply to fight for the survival of the clan. Outsiders are shunned, and if a member of the clan is wronged or a life in the clan ended, the head will do everything in his or her power to protect the rest.
Taking this general rule of wildlife on planet Earth and applying it to a family of Aussie thieves, first time feature filmmaker David Michod has crafted Animal Kingdom, one of the best crime dramas in recent memory, and a film that's incredibly intense, tight, and emotionally involving. There are parts of Animal Kingdom that will be very recognizable to anyone who has seen any of the many hundreds of crime-family centered films of the past few decades, but the whole of the movie adds up to something not quite seen before.
After his mother overdoses on heroin, stoic teenager Joshua (James Frecheville) contacts the only family he knows of: his grandmother Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver). It's been years since grandson and gram have seen each other, but she welcomes him into a side of the family he barely knows with a aspartame smile and open arms ready to pull him in and suffocate him, should he get out of line. Arriving at her house, Josh is reintroduced to his uncles, all criminals specializing in stealing things with weapons: Barry (Joel Edgerton) is the logical, strong-willed glue that keeps the brothers in line; Darren (Luke Ford) is the sensitive, unsure one; Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is the trigger-happy loose canon; finally, there's Andrew (Ben Mendolsohn), the semi-psychotic - scratch that - fully psychotic older brother, on the run from Melbourne's Armed Robbery police squad.
It's these early scenes in which Animal Kingdom seems poised to be just another by the numbers crime film. With the introduction of Craig - a character who does such cliched things as light up a cigarette in a non-smoking diner just to piss off the wait staff - I assumed I'd be able to predict every single beat the movie was going to hit. I couldn't have been more wrong.
The main action in Animal Kingdom kicks off when the aforementioned Armed Robbery squad, tired of failing to capture the wanted Andrew and suffering from budget cuts to the department, take matters into their own hands and decide to break up the family by taking out one of its members. This has the desired effect, as the remaining members of the Cody family exact revenge on the police force, and end up in the arms of the law with only Joshua standing between them and years behind prison bars.
Michod has chosen to shoot Animal Kingdom with that oft-used gritty, hand-held look. However, Animal Kingdom doesn't have the documentary feel of, say the recent Gomorrah. Instead, Michod and his cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw, have lit the film classically, giving it a very cinematic feel. Michod has made the right choice by not shooting the film as in-your-face and cinema-verite as others may have. Animal Kingdom knows it's a fictional drama, and one that intends to turn screws and tighten your chest with each passing minute.
And that it does, very, very well. Michod executes the film with a precision not usually seen in first time feature-film directors. By tweaking our expectations with every other scene, Michod ensures that we become fully involved in the drama taking place throughout Animal Kingdom. Sure there are recognizable and familiar aspects to almost every minute of the film, but the director has such a sure-handed way of playing with these aspects that we're never quite sure what's going to happen, and by the time we realize Josh's life is really in complete and utter danger, we feel just as scared as he does.
Of course, Michod gets quite a bit of help making sure things stay unpredictable with a stellar cast. Josh is, at his core, an annoyingly non-verbal weakling. He's the kind of kid you wish would become either enraged to the point of ridiculousness about something or completely over-joyed with it, no matter what it was, instead of just standing there, shoulders hunched, mute. As ingratiating as it would be to spend time with this person in real life, though, James Frecheville's performance is interesting to watch as the movie unfolds. Josh internalizes his emotions, and Frecheville is surprisingly good at showing his character's changes in little ways through facial expressions and eye movements.
Joel Edgerton as well gives quite a great performance as Barry. We're told that Barry is a bad-ass but never actually see it - that's okay, though, because Edgerton makes us believe it's so. There's an intensity behind his eyes and a confidence in his strut that exudes authority. But he's also warm and surprisingly kind. A man's man if there ever was one, Barry is the father you don't want to disappoint - not because he would knock you out with one left hook to the face (although he could), but because he would shame you with one look and a few admonishing words. Edgerton will be seen in the upcoming Warrior
Impressing the most, though, are Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendohlson. Weaver was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award at this year's Academy Awards, and by all means she deserved it (the nomination, if not the award). Quite possibly the most dangerous person in the film, Janine comes across as the grandma you wish you had one moment, and the person you least want to be related to the next. And the attitude is changed with only a slight change of voice and a raise of an eyebrow. She's super-sweet and completely and utterly venomous.
Mendohlson almost single-handedly walks away with the film. At first coming across as slightly neurotic and shifty, Andrew evolves into a complete and total psycho by the end of the film. Not the kind of psycho that runs around stabbing nude girls in the shower, but the kind of guy who sends chills up your spine with just a look. It's a performance that makes a viewer antsy whenever the character is onscreen. Creepy and shockingly intense, Mendelsohn presents Andrew as an un-empathetic lunatic. It's great work.
I had a few issues with the way Animal Kingdom handles its third act - for all the complaining I do about films that need to be shorter, this one could benefit by actually being fifteen to twenty minutes longer. Some more time with Guy Pearce as a police detective would have been nice, and the film feels as if it's rushing towards the end just to end at a certain point in the film.
That nitpick aside, Animal Kingdom is a wonderful, engaging movie. Intense to the point of being cathartic (when the film ends it feels as if a load is being lifted off of your chest), it's a great first feature-length film from a very promising director.
NOTE: The trailer below is the only time Air Supply will ever be cool Ever.