Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"The Tree of Life" Review

Terrence Malick's existentialist experiment The Tree of Life triggered walkouts, exasperated sighs, and confused chatter. I loved every minute of it, but it's easy to sympathize with an unprepared audience. Imagine it: half an hour into an otherwise grounded '50s family drama, the universe is born. Their confusion was understandable, but their rudeness was less forgivable — I had to tell two whispering women behind me to curb their incessant chatting. With the shuffle of shopping bags, they not only obliged, they left.

Though not particularly fair, it's easy to defend Tree of Life and condemn their reaction in the greater context of Malick's body of work. I don't know what contingent of the crowd had had exposure to the filmmaker, or consequently arrived as preconditioned to his introspective narrative stylings as I had. I'd venture a guess that a few of the least satisfied patrons likely hadn't even seen the trailer. But if Tree of Life is only a great film if you've already seen Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, then it isn't a great film.

The Tree of Life is great, but it will bewilder and bore an audience unwilling to entertain Malick's bizarre tangents. I don't pretend to understand exactly what the filmmaker is suggesting with each visual cue, but at their most visceral level, the images are appreciable as pure visual poetry. And written in the firestorm of newborn planets, Malick finds awesome beauty in the smoldering foundations of Earth, and the burgeoning life of our progenitors.

Opinion will doubtless hinge on this outstanding segment, but in truth Malick's trip to the planetarium isn't an especially significant aspect of the story. The birth of our world is an important prologue, but the director is more interested in comparably recent history. Sean Penn plays a modern man. Stuffed into a business suit and entombed in a monolithic glass office, he reflects on his upbringing with his parents and two brothers. With no conventional narrative to speak of, he's left grasping at an odd assortment of memories and feelings.

First steps, family suppers, neglected chores. The genius of Malick's film is playing these little moments on a galactic scale. Consider it this way: we meet a family with all the requisite triumphs and tragedies. Been there, done that. By pausing their story to illuminate the incalculably vast and random series of events that made possible their microscopic lives, the filmmaker gives us a new perspective on the size of even their shortest shortcomings. Juxtaposed with the unending expanse of the universe, the infinitesimal experiences that chip away and eventually shape their characters are monumental.

And then you've got the nuts and bolts of Malick's filmmaking. Gorgeously shot by Emmanuel Lubezki and backed by Alexander Desplat's emotive score, The Tree of Life deftly marries sight and sound with a Kubrickian flair that recalls the director in top form. It remains to be seen whether Malick's oeuvre will have the lasting impact Kubrick's did, but the two are alike foremost in their uncompromising commitment to their craft.

Tree of Life, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a big film. Its ideas are expansive, provocative, and timeless. As was demonstrated at the Cannes premiere and in my theater Saturday, the price of that intellectual ammunition is accessibility. This is not a film for everyone. It's not a film that conventionally entertains. What Malick attempts to elicit from his viewers is infinitely more valuable than endorphins — a reverie for life itself and empathy for mankind. It must have worked, I feel sorry for those walkouts.


Monday, June 13, 2011

"Super 8" Review

It's getting harder and harder to make movies like Super 8. Without the marketing muscle of a comic book superhero or a million dollar mug to slap on the poster, director J.J. Abrams gave the Hollywood bean counters dangerously little to count on. Even after Star Trek proved Abrams could direct the hell out of a summer blockbuster, the budget allocated for his pet follow-up is as diminutive as its young cast.

There is one megaton name Abrams drops on the Super 8 one-sheet: Steven Spielberg. But then, even his involvement means little when stinkers like Transformers and Eagle Eye regularly reappropriate his reputation for their own nefarious purposes. Fortunately, Abrams' connection to Spielberg is more personal.

Super 8 is a tribute to the early accomplishments of the famous filmmaker, and to his ilk who fell under the Amblin Entertainment banner in the 1980s. Abrams draws thirstily from their well, and precedes his film with that iconic E.T. over-the-moon title card. His contribution isn't quite the missing masterpiece many might have hoped, but it is a fun sci-fi throwback with modern flourishes and plenty of heart. Imagine that.

Like Richard Donner's Goonies, the pint-sized protagonists of Super 8 are kids. Not the angsty teenage set that Twilight has cornered, but kids. Cute, flawed, and endearing, the cast and casting director deserves a lot of credit. Two of the youngest stars make their debut here, including Joel Courtney as Joe, a boy dealing with the untimely death of his mother, and Riley Griffiths as Charles —Joe's (token big boned) friend with directorial aspirations.

Hence the title, a love of filmmaking permeates Super 8 — not just in Abrams' confident, informed direction, but among his characters as well. Set in the summer of '79, our heroes sneak out by night to shoot scenes for Charles' schlocky zombie detective short, The Case. Anyone who's messed around with a camcorder as a kid or endured an amateur film festival will immediately recognize the beats. Armed with approximations of professional equipment that would put my friends and I and our Mickey Mouse operation to shame, these characters are seriously creative. But then, being written by J.J. Abrams doesn't hurt.

It's no real spoiler that Super 8 is an alien flick, and Charles' little project takes a dramatic turn when he records something he was never meant to see. A loosed extraterrestrial menace stirs up trouble in the close-knit community, but with the subsequent government invasion, the first act's micro-focus begins to blur. Spielberg's own E.T. benefited from an exclusively adolescent perspective. By comparison, Super 8 wanders.

Though we're never parted from Joe long, the unfolding alien drama rarely meshes with the human story. Creature characterization should be married to his coming-of-age, but instead, exposition usually amounts to an isolated attack on a tertiary character. The scenes play well with suspense and camera trickery, but in hindsight, the plot is pretty much paused for action.

Super 8 is still a summer movie to aspire to. Like Inception, it defiantly forgoes franchising in favor of an as-yet untapped creative reserve. Of course, Abrams draws from the same wellspring that Spielberg, Donner, and Dante drank from, but even when he borrows, he reminds us why so many films made for triple the price aren't half as enjoyable — heart. Call Abrams overambitious, but his is a story of love, reconciliation, and friendship. How exactly do you quantify that?


Saturday, June 4, 2011

FARCE/FILM Episode 93: X-Men First Class

00:00 - Intro
02:10 – Main Review: X-Men First Class (2011), dir: Matthew Vaughn
31:30 – Additional Review: Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), dir: Jennifer Yuh
43:07 – WMD
(Tremors, Snakes on a Train, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, My Best Fiend Klaus Kinski, The Straight Story, Paranoid Park, Indiana Jones Trilogy)
01:25:18 – Outro

X-Men First Class

Kung Fu Panda 2

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" Review

No one shoots 32,000 year-old cave paintings like Werner Herzog. First off, they're not allowed. The storied German filmmaker was recently granted unprecedented access to Chauvet caves in south France, which house the earliest known human paintings. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the latest in his library of offbeat and mostly fascinating documentaries. Of course, Herzog's unique perspective is as much a draw as the subject matter itself — the man could make a movie about dirt and I'd be the first in line.

Fortunately, he's dealing with no such handicap here. The paintings that line Chauvet are beautiful, perfectly preserved, and enigmatic. But it's their technique that's most impressive. The conception that early man doodled only rudimentary stick figures and geometric animals is a fallacy, as the craft on display in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is staggering. So much so that early analysis doubted the authenticity of the drawings. Sealed beneath a thick layer of calcite, however, carbon dating proved them genuine.

In truth, there are no depictions of man on the walls of Chauvet. Instead, most panels appear an altar to the animal kingdom, with awesome recreations of bison, horses, lions, and now extinct wooly rhinos. Painted from memory in a dark recess of the cave, the images could only be seen by firelight. Art historians speculate that in those flickering flames, the drawings might have appeared to take life, which Herzog equates to a sort of "proto-cinema." Also of special interest to the director is a bison with a woman's body painted onto the curvature of a stalactite.

Complete with bizarre metaphors, inner musings, and tangential conversation, there can be no mistaking the author of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At times, the filmmaker even seems aware that he's being Werner Herzog. Not every one of his digressions proves equally illuminating, but you can't really complain about Herzog being Herzog in a Herzog documentary.

Funded in part by the History Channel, his input is infinitely more valuable considering the sterile TV special this might have been. His knack for compelling autobiography proves one of the most intriguing aspects of the film, and rather than work around his crew and equipment, Herzog mines drama from their creative difficulties. The team was permitted inside for just a few brief hours per day, and restricted to two foot wide metal walkways once there. The many precautions and restrictions protect the integrity of the cave floor, and the still fresh footprints and animal remains that have survived there for so long.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams isn't Herzog's best work by any stretch of the imagination, but at almost 70, it's amazing he's still up for the Indiana Jones routine. From the Peruvian rainforest in his youth to Antarctica and now some light spelunking, Herzog is one of the most traveled filmmakers alive. That he can still churn out progressive, stimulating entertainment is a rarity among artists his age.

And as obtuse as it may be, Herzog's ideology is invaluable. Through his eyes, Chauvet cave is a wonder to behold; he captures the transcendent beauty of the paintings and ruminates on the lives of their anonymous creators. Though sometimes he overstates his own eccentricity, the through line of art as an essential human quality circumvents his digressions. Our ability to appreciate the creative output of a society millennia removed from our own is a powerful concept. Here's hoping folks from the year 34,000 appreciate Herzog as much as we do.