Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Tree of Life: Growing Pains, Both Personal and Eternal

The Tree of Life
Written and Directed By: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Editors: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa, Production Designer: Jack Fisk, Original Music: Alexandre Desplat
Rated: PG-13 for thematic material

The following is the first part in a three part series examining Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Part II will examine some of the critical writings on the film since its première at the Cannes film festival, while Part III will explore the film more in depth after a second viewing, exploring some of the cinematic techniques and narrative strategies Malick employs through the film. This first part should be considered a “first impressions” review, and not the final word.

            The Tree of Life is the fifth film from Terrence Malick, the reclusive and always brilliant filmmaker that has been long sought to be copied in his approach to filmmaking that seems so fluid and natural but impossible to recreate. Malick’s qualities as a director often bring the most pretentious and philosophical theories to writings about cienma, as critics have attempted to unravel his unquestionably difficult dichotomies in his films, whether in the focus of the camera, his use of narration, or simply his almost distanced and impassive tone. But his films are also pure joy as well, as he enraptures us in nature and the greater sense of the universe, creating what many call poetic cinema.

            In many ways, The Tree of Life feels like a culmination of Malick’s concerns as a filmmaker, from the biblical and apocalyptic to the personal and existential. The film, set through three different passages that weave through and around each other, is at times Malick’s most personal film, as well as his most universal. Exploring what may be some autobiographical sketches of his own childhood, Malick attempts to unravel the nature of man and his demons, but in doing so, unlock the mysteries of the universe as well. No film could answer such questions fully, and the film only scratches the surface of our own existence, but Malick seems to be shooting for the stars in order to understand both himself and the world around him.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Midnight in Paris: Love in a Timeless City, Thanks to Time Travel

Midnight in Paris
Written and Directed By: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Carla Bruni, Michael Sheen, Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Alison Pill, Tom Hiddleston, and Kurt Fuller
Directors of Photography: Darisu Khondji and Johanne Debas, Editor: Alisa Lepselter, Production Designer: Anne Seibel
Rated: PG-13 for sexual humor in the city of love.

            Next week, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life will finally premiere after six years of anticipation, making it his fifth film in almost forty years. And then there’s Woody Allen, who has more films than years behind him, all of them seemingly Irish twins. However, since 2005’s Match Point, a new interest has sparked Mr. Allen’s mind, as a lack of funding sent him to Europe, where he has brought his same humor (and at times drama) to a new set of locations besides the Upper East Side.

            For his latest adventure though is his first film set in the city of romance: Paris. In a beautiful pre-credits sequence, Mr. Allen sets his camera to capturing a day through the city, watching it go from a beautiful sunny morning to a rainy afternoon to an illuminating night, lights bouncing off the wet streets and giving it a magical feel. And there’s actual magic in the narrative too, as Owen Wilson plays the surrogate Mr. Allen as he travels through time. Unfortunately, the actual magic can’t make up for the lack of it that Mr. Allen fails to capture for the heart, bouncing to easily around a loose plot without much cohesion and any real stakes.

Bridesmaids: Hell Hath No Like a Woman Being Funny

Directed By: Paul Feig
Written By: Annie Mumolo and Kristin Wiig
Starring: Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Jon Hamm, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, and Chris O’Dowd
Director of Photography: Robert D. Yeoman, Editors: William Kerr and Mike Sale, Production Designer: Jefferson Sage, Original Music: Michael Andrews
Rated: R for the foul mouth and disgusting humor usually prescribed to only men.

            Kristin Wiig has one of the strangest bodies in Hollywood, and I mean that in the most flattering way possible. Watching how she moves in her new film, Bridesmaids, is astonishing. She’s able to flex every muscle or make any new twist in ways no other comic actress in Hollywood really ever attempts, and all while staying in character as well. Match that with her ability to make noises from her mouth that I believe no other human can, and you’ve got a winning combination.

But the real question is can we also fall in love with Ms. Wiig? The actress who plays mostly crazy types on Saturday Night Live has her first debut as a leading star in Bridesmaids, a comedy written by her and Annie Mumolo, a friend from her time at the famous L.A. improv troupe Groundlings. Plus, with Knocked Up director Judd Apatow producing and Freaks & Geeks creator Paul Fieg directing, Bridesmaids is asking a very big question that Hollywood has neglected for quite some time: can women be funny too?

The Beaver: A Falling Star's Attempt to Rediscover Life, Both On and Off the Screen

The Beaver
Directed By: Jodie Foster
Written By: Kyle Killen
Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, and Jennifer Lawrence.
Director of Photography: Hagen Bogdanski, Editor: Lynzee Klingman, Production Designer: Mark Friedberg, Original Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Rated: PG-13 for very serious themes meant to be important.

            In 2008, Kyle Killer’s script, The Beaver, landed in the #1 spot on the Black List, a list of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, as compiled by its top producers. No doubt there is a good story in The Beaver, one that could have made for a very funny movie with Steve Carrell at one time. But actress Jodie Foster, taking large leaps in her third time behind the camera, has cast the film in a very different light. Her tone is more serious; her attention to the troubling problems of mental illness that flourish the script’s narrative more prominent. Most of all though, is her choice of casting in Mel Gibson.

            Mr. Gibson has not been seen on screens since Edge of Darkness, a Boston revenge thriller that fits snuggly in the “Make-Mel-Made” genre that populated in career in the 1990s. Here, he’s playing Sad Mel. Very sad. His character, Walter, is a toy company CEO with a dying business and a family that hates him (Ms. Foster plays his wife, Anton Yelchin, his older son). After being kicked out of the house, Walter goes a motel where two unsuccessful suicide attempts plague him so much that a beaver hand puppet he finds takes on a personality of his own. Walter makes no attempts to hide the fact that it’s really his voice talking, but The Beaver charms with his happy-go-lucky mood and cockeyed accent. Could the beaver be the answer to all of Mel’s problems or is it simply hiding the dark surface?

Thor: The God Who Fell to Earth

Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Written By: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, and Idris Elba
Director of Photography: Haris Zambarloukos, Editor: Paul Rubell, Production Designer: Bo Wlech, Original MusicL Patrick Doyle
Rated: PG-13 for what all comic book movies must be rated for (silly violence and some humorous bad language)

            Marvel Entertainment is selling you something in Thor, and it’s not the movie you are watching, but the five other films that are coming out soon. Did you hear that reference to “Stark Industries”? Iron Man 3 in 2013! See Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye? He’s gonna have his own movie. And of course an after-credits sequence is setting up the big-bang-mash-em-up epic of The Avengers next year, which will bring together every super hero in the Marvel universe for one big extravaganza (read: most likely disaster).

            But until then, we have to actually get through Thor, perhaps the most unique character to join the Marvel universe alongside the science-built Iron Man and Incredible Hulk. A Norse God who comes from the magical kingdom in a parallel world (or something) called Asgard, Thor is unstoppable and wields awesome power with his magical hammer, Mjölnir. And thus Thor must be equipped with super human strength, played here by a pair of gigantic biceps, attached to the smirking face of Chris Hemsworth. Directed by Shakespearean thespian Kenneth Branagh, Thor is a mediocrely good time, which shows how much our standards have lowered for this type of entertainment more than the passable merit of the film.

City of Life and Death: Faces of Death All Around

City of Life and Death
Written and Directed By: Lu Chuan
Starring: Liu Ye, Gao Yuanyuan, Hideo Nakaizumi, Fan Wei, and John Paisley
Director of Photography: Cao Yu, Editor: Teng Yun, Production Designers: Hao Yi and Lin Chaoxiang, Music: Liu Tong
Rated: Unrated, but brutal and necessary violence throughout

            Director Lu Chuan fills his historical epic City of Life and Death with faces. Faces stare right at the camera. Confused faces. Horrified faces. Faces that are unforgettable. Some by themselves; others in a sea of hundreds. The effect reminds the viewer in this difficult and powerful film of a simple premise: these are people.

            And such a reminder is necessary in this retelling of the destruction of Nanking during the early stages of the Second World War The subject has become a popular one for numerous Chinese filmmakers (most of which have never made it past its own borders) but Mr. Lu approaches the subject in a controversial way. Instead of making the film a Chinese propaganda tale, the filmmaker shows some humanity in the Japanese soldiers involved in the massacre, adding complexity that has riled many Chinese natives, but also provided a much more unique approach than his counterparts. For some Chinese critics, this is the equivalent of humanizing Nazis in a Holocaust film, something of course that is now an almost routine trope for American and European filmmakers. And the effect, along with Mr. Lu’s brutal visual style and harrowing drama, creates a brutal piece of art that challenges the idea of humanity.

Lookin' To Get Out: Laughing Their Way to the Top

Lookin’ To Get Out (1982)

Directed By: Hal Ashby
Written By: Jon Voight and Al Schwartz
Starring: Jon Voight, Burt Young, Ann-Margret, Bert Remsen, and Richard Bradford
Director of Photography: Haskell Wexler, Editing Team: Walton Dornisch, Eva Gardon, Janice Hampton, Robert C. Jones, and Waynbe Wahrman, Production Designer: Robert Boyle, Original Music: Johnny Mandel and Miles Goodman
Rated: R for language and some nudity

Lookin’ to Get Out has a plot that the film might want to get to at some point, but it keeps getting interrupted by laughter. This 1980s Hal Ashby comedy follows two gamblers who run to Vegas to score some cash to pay off a debt, but the film’s stars, Jon Voight and Burt Young, spend the entire film laughing throughout. In an early scene, the two are confronted by gambling sharks that threaten to kill them. Mr. Young though cannot keep a straight face, and starts laughing his way through the scene, like the whole plot is one big joke. What are these guys laughing about anyways? Who knows, and who cares Mr. Ashby seems to imply. We’re having too much fun to care.

Lookin’ To Get Out is not considered one of Mr. Ashby’s great films, which include Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, and Shampoo, but a new print of a director’s cut that premiered in New York (the cut is also on a barebones DVD) asks us the reassess this forgotten film. And in many ways, Lookin’ to Get Out is a perfect example of the New Hollywood gone amuck, and a metaphor for its downfall. The film is young, hip, and full of people who see the sky as the limits, so much that they never realize they are about to be taken down.

Mr. Voight, who co-wrote the screenplay with Al Schwartz, stars as Alex, an addictive gambler who lives with best friend Jerry (Mr. Young). When the two realize they need $10,000 by the time the sun sets, they rush off to Vegas for crazy night on the town. They lie their way into an elephant-sized suite, hire a once all-star gambler to make their money, and meet up with some old friends, both welcome and unwelcome.