Just When You Thought We Stopped Exploring the Universe

The Tree of Life (May 27, 2011)     5/5

Written & Directed by Terrence Malick (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Few directors attempt the vast ambition of crafting a masterpiece.  Even fewer succeed.  Terrence Malick has made five.  And including his latest, the infinitesimal The Tree of Life, that is the same number of films he has visualized throughout his career, beginning with the violence-pondering poetry of Badlands in 1973.  The Tree of Life is not for all tastes, as exemplified by the contrast of boos and reception of the top-prize Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.  However, there is no denying that it is a pinnacle in cinema, a modern-day 2001: A Space Odyssey combined with true understanding of human emotion that is not forced upon the audience, but instead left upon the screen for them to ruminate.

It is not often that a film penetrates the soul, as well as does its best to sum up the entirety of human existence.  The Tree of Life does both, and accomplishes such through its experimental, kaleidoscopic story of humanity’s origins, combined with its portrayal of that result through a family in 1950s Texas.  It is innovative, fascinating, touching, and beautiful.  Cinephile nirvana.   As the film begins, a Biblical quote appears in silence.  God gives a response to Job, a good-hearted man who feels betrayed by the Lord, who has asked where God was when misfortune befell him.  God replies, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

We soon cut to the home of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, respectively), who have just learned that their middle son has died at 19.  Mrs. O’Brien asks God why.  And asking a similar question is their oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), who as we cut to modern day, is now an architect.  As he looks outside and sees a tree being planted in front of his office building, he begins to remember of a segment of his childhood, as well as the young death of his younger brother, which he thinks about every day.  And as he continues to ask the heavens those ever-present questions, “why?” and “where were you?,” God responds the same way he did to Job.  And that of course is “why?” and “where were YOU?”  To exemplify this point, we are shown the origins of humanity, complete with the Big Bang and a supercool dinosaur sequence (this is where confused moviegoers begin to walk out).  The special effects are spectacular, and are reminiscent of the “Stargate sequence” in 2001 for a reason.  Douglas Trumbell, who was the special effects supervisor on that film in 1968, basically came out of retirement to work on The Tree of Life, using little CGI to great effect.

After the “creation sequence,” we are taken to that segment in Jack’s childhood, from birth to pre-teenage years.  We learn through Malick-iconic voiceover that Jack’s mother lives by the way of grace, meaning she loves everything around her and does not question the mysteries of life (that is, until her middle son dies), and his father lives by the way of nature, meaning he struggles against life to be successful and maintain stance as the governing force in his family.  Jack’s brother is soon born, and it is in their relationship that the film makes its biggest statement (the youngest son is hardly a focus, considering the brothers basically exclude him from their inner circle).  Jack, who is soon invited into a band of little rascals, finds himself becoming more like the father, while his brother, a young painter and musician, begins to form into the likeness of his mother, therefore foreshadowing a death that seems as unfair as they come (and judging by the time period, a conflict hardly anyone wanted).

Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances here, as a character that is both subtle and explicit.  The father loves his children, but knows how to express it only through hurtful, authoritative parenting.  He once wanted to be a pianist, but has since struggled against his life’s flow by a drive for wealth, therefore placing him as an inventor.  And when his circus tent comes crashing down, there is no feeling but depressive failure, that which both ends this period in the family’s life and proves his method of living as a senseless exercise.  Meanwhile, the best scene in The Tree of Life arrives at the family dinner table.  Mr. O’Brien, who feels as though he must justify his decision to abandon musicianship through loving his sons as much as he can, does so by attempting to brutally drive them toward understanding the sorry facts of life, rather than teaching them to simply accept it, as the mother does.  Anyway, as Mr. O’Brien unfairly badgers Jack about how he spent his day, Jack’s younger brother responds quietly, hesitantly, with a “be quiet.”  Soon, Mr. O’Brien has reached over the table to grab his son, molding a conflict that is emotionally devastating, yet anything but forced.

Much of the film uses previously recorded classical music (along with a new score by Alexandre Desplat) to emphasize its poetry, but this scene is executed in complete silence.  The result is as awe-inspiring as the cosmos.  Meanwhile, the child actors (the two brothers are played by Hunter McCracken and Tye Sheridan), are terrifically convincing.  The character of Jack is witnessed with perfect execution, as a young child who learns to question faith, hate his father, and eventually become like him – all while feeling regret for the lack of trust he instilled in his brother and betrayal for his untimely death.  Thus said, a coming-of-age tale is rarely told with such depth.  This all results in a climax as moving and exhilarating as anything I’ve seen in recent years.  It is at this point that we realize faith has literally been restored before our eyes.  Any film that could convey such a large idea is worth a look.  Any film that explores it with such detail is worth an Oscar.

These details are examined through breathtaking shots of nature, outer space, and human life, all of which maintaining a sense of beauty and artistic essence which is prevalent in any great painting.  Also in the mix is a vast array of symbolism, piecing together a puzzle of almost unprecedented mystery.  Speaking of symbols, this is obviously a very religious film, one of the most blatant in several years.  But it expresses faith in not necessarily a Christian sense, but as an omnipotent force that drives humanity, and connects us with a spiritual presence that may or may not be God.  This theme is complimented by the fact that Terrence Malick, after nearly 40 years of making movies (statistically speaking, about 7.6 years a film), has been searching for nothing other than the meaning of life.  Cinema is the only realm in which he can convey what he knows, continue to learn, and share it others. 

The Tree of Life may be his finest film, and one can’t help but think its personal touch is one key reason.  Malick also grew up in 1950s Texas, and it is easy to believe some aspects are autobiographical.  But most importantly, it is the “big idea” of the film that makes it so significant. The meaning of life, according to Terrence Malick, is to not question it, but instead revel in its beauty and wonder with the greatest gift given to humanity – love.  All of Malick’s films are reflections of both nature and humanity, and this is no doubt the message he has been attempting to share throughout all his years as a filmmaker.  He doesn’t make films for any specific audience; he makes them for himself.  That much has been clear through his others, including love-triangle Days of Heaven, war/nature reflection The Thin Red Line, and John Smith history fable The New World.  These are all great films, and they have been made by one of the greatest working artists today.  The Tree of Life is no exception, and like the burden Jack carries, the one that we all carry, it will remain until the end of time.

Would Offend Corleone, Himself

The Hangover Part II (May 26, 2011)     2.5/5     

Directed by Todd Phillips (Warner Bros. Pictures)

What is The Hangover Part II besides the biggest cash cow of the new century?   The original, released in 2009, was the most successful R-rated comedy ever, making a worldwide gross of over $467 million.  No doubt this warranted a sequel, and for better or worse, the filmmakers responsible decided to stick to the exact same format of storytelling.  Was this a good decision?  Well, yes and no.  It gives the actors a chance to hilariously linger upon the fact that this situation could happen twice, a typical element in sequels.  This may provide for a few laughs, but it also makes Part II predictable, devoid of consistent humor, and surprisingly dry once the boys wake up from their memory eliminating nap after the previous night’s events.  Surely these are all elements of the cow.

But the great thing about The Hangover Part II is that it knows it’s only in the game to make bank; that nothing is possibly left in this formula to fill a whole film of genuine laughs.  Therefore, to assure that its audience isn’t too disappointed, it turns up the raunch factor.  A LOT.  In fact, most of the laughs in Part II come from sheer disbelief; shock value rather than genuine humor.  However, it is interesting how often this works.  Some of the best moments of the original film came from such surprises, although that movie was far more clever and consistent in the way its “incidents” were used sparingly, complete with jokes spread like jelly in between. 

The Hangover Part II is a lot messier than that, but surprisingly, it’s a gooey, overstuffed sandwich you can still eat, even if you hate yourself afterword. This time, Stu (Ed Helms) is the lucky man about to state his vows.  He plans on marrying a lovely lady named Laura (Jamie Chung) in Thailand, but with Phil (Bradley Cooper), Doug (Justin Bartha), and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) along for the ride, complications obviously ensue.  To make matters worse, Laura’s father doesn’t particularly like Stu, which surely raises the stakes when Phil, Stu, and Alan wake up in Bangkok with the wedding impending, and naturally, no memory of the night before.  And where’s Teddy!  Laura’s younger brother (Mason Lee) had joined the boys the previous evening, but has now disappeared amongst the brothels, monasteries, and tattoo parlors.  So the boys have to go through the motions once again, just the same way they did in Vegas to find Doug two years ago.  Clues involve a face tattoo, a smoking monkey, a Buddhist monk, and a few high points – Ken Jeong reprising his role as gangster Leslie Chow, and Paul Giamatti as a mob boss.  After all, the comedic actors are arguably the franchise’s main point of success.

Galifianakis, who was the original’s breakout star, obviously gets more showtime here, to hysterical effect.  Helms, who plays Andy on The Office, is just as funny playing his conservative, worrying, ill-tempered, four-eyed Stu.  And Cooper, who has fully established himself as a Hollywood movie star in the last two years, once again makes a marvelous frontman.  Maybe the most impressive thing director Todd Philipps has done with this series is create a set of characters that are loveable and inventive, putting a smile on your face even through the sagginess that some areas of Part II offer.  This mostly takes place during the film’s semi-barren second act, in which the raunchiness is at its peak.  Unlike the first, there are few jokes that take place between each crude moment of discovery.  Most of them take place before our heroes wake up in Bangkok, a very funny 15 minutes.

Fortunately, despite the cringe-worthy moments, and that ounce of predictability, it all builds to a satisfying conclusion.  And like the first film, we arrive at those pictures during the end credits.  Oh R rating, as that night in Bangkok is chronologically reviewed, your limits are surely pushed.  And besides taking in the millions, that is what The Hangover Part II knowingly offers.  An extremely offensive, fairly amusing night of laughs.  You already know whether you’ll be up for the trip.

“They say miracles are past.” – William Shakespeare

Midnight in Paris (May 20, 2011)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by Woody Allen (Sony Pictures Classics)

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is the loveliest of films.  It is sweet, witty, charming, and, well … loveable.  It is for anyone who has ever fallen in love with a particular time or place, as well as the people who inhabit it.  It is for anyone who has dreamt of being there; anyone who has dreamt of escaping.

In Midnight in Paris, that dreamer is played with such energy and likability by Owen Wilson, who portrays a Hollywood screenwriter, Gil, escaping on a trip to Paris with his rich fiancée (Rachel McAdams) and her parents.  Subconsciously, Gil is having some serious doubts about marriage, reflected in the novel he is now attempting to write.  Nobody quite thinks Gil can write a novel.  They wonder why he doesn’t fully live the good life he already has.  Gil wants to prove himself, but more importantly, he wants to escape from having to prove himself.  And now he is in Paris, the dreamiest place in the world.  Gil, being fascinated with the city circa the 1920s, claims that he would like nothing more than to see it then … especially in the rain.  And on a midnight stroll, he gets his chance.  After being beckoned into an old-fashioned automobile, Gil has somehow travelled into the past for the evening.

He soon finds himself face-to-face with the likes of the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Dali, Picasso, and Gertrude Stein (played with fabulous fervor by Kathy Bates), who agrees to help proofread his book.  Each performance is unique and hysterical, bordering on caricature yet maintaining a sense of loving allusion.  And finally, Gil meets the one he hasn’t quite read about, Picasso’s mistress, Adrianna (Marion Cotillard).  And through his giddy excitement, Gil begins to fall for her.  He takes part in the boring present at day, and hops back to the roaring twenties at night, slowly beginning to unravel the fact that maybe his own life isn’t so bad after all.  Maybe Paris should be his rightful home, but does he really need greatness surrounding him to make himself great?

It is with these questions that Midnight in Paris becomes surprisingly thought-provoking amidst the aura of sweetness and hilarity.  Despite being sentimental, it is not shallow.  And despite using formula, it is not predictable.  Owen Wilson may be typecast, playing the smart, loveable guy who has a good heart but is socially dopey.  But maybe that is just how Wilson is.  Through all his babbling, we feel like we know Wilson quite well.  And through each film, we feel as though he transcends the Owen character and becomes an old friend we can’t wait to keep spying on, just to see what sort of ridiculous situation he’ll get into next.  Woody, meanwhile, seems extremely confident behind the camera, as he often is.  The cinematography by Darius Khondji is far from sensationalized, simply showing us what it would be like to be in Paris today, or 90 years ago.  Nothing more, nothing less.

That said, it is nothing less than beautiful.  Maybe because we feel like we are there; that we have also been transported into a wondrous, foreign world.  I can’t help but think that Allen, like Gil, has his own time and place he would like to take refuge in.  Maybe here he could make movies without one being hacked by critics, or having audiences deem it “disappointing.”  But maybe this film is his testimony that despite these occurrences, everything is okay.  He is a world-class director who has made numerous contributions to American cinema, and is loved by quite a few.  He charms a good portion of the time, just as Wilson does.  And in a present so bereft of genuine wit, how could you ask for anything more?

Bill Murray Never Stopped a Train Bombing

Source Code (April 1, 2011)     3.5/5

Directed by Duncan Jones (Summit Entertainment)

A man wakes up on a train.  He is sitting across from a woman.   She calls him by a different name.  Eight minutes later the train explodes.  And at that point, army pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up.  Strapped in an odd sort of dome, a woman (Vera Farmiga) appears onscreen.  She explains that Stevens must locate the bomber on that train.  Earlier, that train exploded as it headed straight toward Chicago.  That has already been done; it cannot be changed.  But what Stevens can accomplish through the “Source Code” program is identify the bomber, prompting the feds to grab him before he does it again.  And that moment is coming soon. So Stevens must be plopped into that train for those eight minutes again and again to accomplish his mission, as well as find out what the hell is exactly going on here.

Unlike Vantage Point, a film that used similar repetition formula, the multiple trials in Source Code are quite intriguing, allowing attention to detail to provoke key plot points that are not completely obvious (or ridiculous).  Overall, the twists are very well conceived, and by the third act, we trust the film enough to buy into its peachiness about the value of human life.  This faith is strengthened by Gyllenhaal, who like the rest of the performers, doesn’t show anything particularly sensational here, but does provide a sort of likability and warmth to his role. This feeling, of course, is typical from protagonists who are as much in the dark as we are.  Because of this aspect, as Stevens begins to question the possibilities of the Source Code, we follow him every step of the way.  This all culminates in a conclusion that is somewhat predictable (and oddly elongated), but satisfying nonetheless.

Duncan Jones, the son of glam hero David Bowie, provided a terrific revival of thinking man’s science-fiction with 2009’s thoughtful, allegorical, and rather awesome Moon.  Needless to say, Jones’ first mainstream film isn’t nearly as good.  But despite Source Code’s conventional use of sentimentality, the humanity still works, although differently from the way it did in Moon.  Here, like the similarly plotted Groundhog Day, it works through romance, trading what it lacks in spark for its effectiveness to the plot.  Stevens’ relationship with that woman on the train, played by Monaghan, is at the core of the film, and ultimately, it provides steadiness through all the plot holes.  But don’t worry about those.  There’s no time to think about them.  Like the best popcorn entertainment, Source Code is a sleek piece of  work – fast, funny, thrilling, smart, and thankfully, not too long.  Although there is little lingering effect, it sure is an enjoyable ride.

Good Thing He Didn’t Buy the Lawnmower

Hobo with a Shotgun (March 25, 2011)     3/5

Directed by Jason Eisener (Alliance Films, Magnet Releasing)

Before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez released their loving, double-feature tribute to exploitation flicks, Grindhouse, they held an international contest for the making of fake teaser trailers to help promote the film.  Hobo with a Shotgun not only won, but also spawned a feature-length movie, money being handed into the palms of the first-time, Canadian filmmakers.  Last year, Rodriguez did the same himself with one of the trailers before the film, Machete, starring Danny Trejo.  Much criticism surrounding the film involved the aspect that it was filmed digitally, unlike Death Proof or Planet Terror, the dynamic duo’s Grindhouse featurettes.  In other words, it did little to resemble the movies it paid homage to, or the trailer that inspired it.

I assure you, for better or worse, Hobo with a Shotgun completely fulfills the promise of replicating those trash pictures it so gleefully glorifies.  Not because the footage is purposefully “damaged,” as it was brilliantly done in Grindhouse, but because it is an exercise in complete, relentless carnage.  Rutger Hauer plays a wearied, frustrated hobo, who wanders into a town of corruption (to put it mildly), only to take the law into his own hands with the use of a good ‘ol barrel and bullets.  Luckily for us, he never seems to run out of the latter.  The kills are brutal, unique, shocking, surprisingly offensive, and gory beyond excess.  In other words, everything fans want and more.  I don’t want ruin any of the horrifically violent sequences, considering their suddenness and surprise is part of the fun.  At times, they’re hilarious.

But if there is one fault Hobo with a Shotgun has, it’s for not being as gaspingly hysterically all the way through as it is in a few of those pervasive moments.  How great would this film be if it had the consistent humor of 2008’s blaxpoitation parody Black Dynamite, combined with Hobo’s bone-snapping, gut-spilling, head-exploding thrills?  As it stands, Hobo with a Shotgun is quite dark in tone.  But maybe we are so spoiled by homages that we forget what it would be like to see the real thing, stuck to the seat of a grungy theater at two o’clock in the morning.  Hobo fulfills the promise of that experience, and on that front, it’s a bloody treat.

The movie, although not using the typical distressed technique that Tarantino and Rodriguez utilized in Grindhouse, is filmed in glorious, grainy Technicolor.  That said, the coloring is bold, beautiful, and quite exquisite.  And thanks to Rutger Hauer, vividly flashing his dirty white hair, yellow teeth, and that trusty companion by his side, director Jason Eisner provides us a hero to cheer for.  Hauer, deadpan line delivery and possibly improvised monologues intact, reminds us that he is a surprisingly good actor.  Blade Runner this is not, but at least the film gives him a chance to have fun with all that blind, acting fury.  But maybe it isn’t quite acting.  Maybe that anger harnessed in the portrayal of that hobo, as Hauer blasts bullets through every section of the human body, is the result of a man begging to have his talents better utilized in his old age.  Maybe he has (or had) the potential to become a Gran Torino-era Clint Eastwood.  Whatever the case, it is quite a fun performance.  And if you are prepared for the brutal gorefest, hopefully having fasted for several days, you may find this to be quite a “fun” movie.  If you’re into that kind of thing…

All Hope is Clearly Lost

Battle: Los Angeles (March 11, 2011)     1.5/5

Directed by Jonathon Liebesman (Columbia Pictures)

If your dog were to indulge upon its own feces, vomit, and then manage to stick an American flag in the residue … you would have basically seen a condensed version of Battle: Los Angeles, and by default, a much better one.  It is a pathetic excuse for a sci-fi war film, and if not for a couple exciting action scenes and visuals, accompanied by sporadic moments of hilariously awful dialogue, Battle: LA would be completely indefensible.

The basic premise is this: meteors fall from the sky, and it is soon realized that they contain hostile extraterrestrials.  So we engage in an epic war with the aliens, this “battle” being centered in Southern California.  SSgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) leads our team of grunts with determination, yet seeks relief from the military life, having sought retirement following a recent folly in Afghanistan.  As can be inferred from those three sentences, everything about Battle: LA is uninspired, shamelessly taking elements from war movies Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, while also stealing from sci-fi flicks such as Independence Day and District 9.  Yet it never questions that it has something new to offer, this seriousness toward the material giving the movie a false impression that it belongs in theaters.  This self-induced lie does little to cover the fact that Battle: LA is not of much higher stature than your average SyFy Channel original movie.  Yet even those “films” have their own campy appeal.  I don’t doubt that the cable knockoff, The Battle of Los Angeles, might actually be more enjoyable.

Battle: LA does have moments of humor, but they are often unintentional, resulting from one of several ways, including (but not limited to) a pale attempt to make us laugh, horribly written dialogue, atrocious acting, ridiculous plot-holes, or schlocky sentimentality, accompanied by a small chuckle at ourselves for being dumb enough to throw money at such a piece of garbage.  Aaron Eckhart provides the film’s only decent performance, but it still comes off as though a solid actor is reading lines written by his eighth-grade son in English class.  But for a trashy action movie, these aspects are forgivable.  What are not are the elements of Battle: LA that make it so damn boring.  Although they thrill on occasion, the action sequences are redundant and poorly edited, accompanied by shaky, amateurish camerawork that is so utterly artificial, as opposed to artistic.  Meanwhile, the color scheme is dull and uninteresting, going for a gritty look but instead, providing a low-budget feel when the film should be a glossy and explosive exercise in cool.  Instead, it is just idiocy.

The CG visuals, when they appear, are often interesting to look at, but the film features virtually no special effects that are exciting or awe-inspiring, not even during its yawner of a climax.  There are no shots of skyscrapers exploding or a city collapsing under firepower.  Sometimes you wonder if the film is even set in the city at all.  To make matters worse, even the design of the aliens is cliché and laughably second-rate.  And do I have to mention that the film is basically one long advertisement for the military?  I half-expected shots of subliminal messaging to appear onscreen.  No, Battle: LA does not make one want to join the marines, but instead become one of those unfortunate civilians who perished before the cavalry arrived.  The fact that some people would enjoy a film like Battle: Los Angeles blows my mind.  For the rest of us, it’s basically a sign of the apocalypse.        

Who Said the Romantic Sci-Fi Thriller Was Dead?

The Adjustment Bureau (March 4, 2011)    3.5/5

Written & Directed by George Nolfi (Universal Pictures)

Who would have guessed that one of the year’s better romances is based on a Philip K. Dick story?  George Nolfi, who co-wrote The Bourne Ultimatum, not only stages a thrilling, climatic chase sequence through Manhattan (complete with teleportation), but also fleshes out a believable, moving romance between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt.

Damon plays David Norris, a Congressman who campaigns for the Senate, only to have his sure-fire victory whisked away by some embarrassing muckraking.  Devastated, he goes to the hotel bathroom to rehearse his concession speech.  To his surprise, he finds a woman.  And if that wasn’t enough, he soon finds himself in a kiss.  It is almost as if this was meant to happen.  It was, but not in the way he expected.  David is soon confronted by the “Adjustment Bureau,” a team that makes sure all human beings abide by “the plan,” on order from “the Chairman.”  They tell David that he can never meet with Elise Sellas again.  If he does, there will be consequences.  This sets off a chain of events that lasts several years, involving not only forbidden romance, but also lots of men with hats and suits.

Damon and Blunt give surprisingly fulfilling performances, especially in a film that is quite cartoonish.  That said, Anthony Mackie and John Slattery are fairly two-dimensional as members of the bureau.  But maybe that’s the point.  After all, they aren’t human.  But we are, and it is quite interesting to see how the humanity comes across in The Adjustment Bureau.  It’s all a bit silly, but underneath is a quite meaningful message, religious in nature, but conveyed through science fiction metaphor.  And isn’t that what sci-fi was always meant to be?  An easier way to understand the complex facts of human life?  Not to say the The Adjustment Bureau is complex.  But during a time of year when such a film is a rarity, it doesn’t have to be.  It has a plan in store for the audience.  And once you’re sucked in, it’s easy to ignore the scent of cheese and abide.