Monday, May 30, 2011

T-shirts, Blue Jeans, Creation, the Universe, and the Answer to All the Questions in the World: Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

The first thing that Terrence Malick’s new film did for me was take me back to my childhood in California during the late 50s and early 60s, when a year was an eternity, summer seemed to last forever, and much of my life was spent outside with my two brothers, dressed in t-shirts and blue jeans, playing baseball or “guns,” riding our bicycles to nowhere in particular, or wandering in the San Mateo hills, finding an old shack, and smashing panes of glass.

In The Tree of Life Malick’s screenplay and direction, as well as Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography, masterfully capture the day-after-day cycle in the life of a family. For the story’s memorable setting, production designer Jack Fisk and art director David Crank take a residential block and a main street in a small Texas town and send them back in time to the 1950s. For a film which does not have the luxury of a novel's many pages, it is always a challenge to capture the passage of time, but in its focus on the O’Brien family, Malick vividly depicts the countless days from the birth of three boys to the endless days of boyhood in a collage of vignettes that left me feeling like I had absorbed a thousand-page novel in two hours and eighteen minutes.

In addition to all that, Malick inserts a dazzling depiction of the birth of our planet from gaseous clouds floating in space to explosive volcanoes to dinosaurs browsing in a redwood grove. Only until Malick has delineated the vast scope of the universe in which humans fall in love and make families, dwarfed by that universe, can he return to the single family that is the focus of this story.

Father (Brad Pitt) is a 50s head of the family, bringing home the bacon and asserting his authoritarian rule but sometimes boiling over into bursts of anger incited by his own frustrations. In brief shots, Pitt reflects Father’s inner turmoil, his desire to be a good father while he yearns to be a highly accomplished engineer and deals with the frustration of being an unfulfilled musician who did not follow his dream. Mother (Jessica Chastain) is the epitome of tranquility and compassion, a Christ-like figure when she gives water to a criminal who looks like he’s just been apprehended after a long chase. In a single shot Chastain exudes the tenderness that is the counter force influencing the upbringing of the three boys: Jack (Hunter McCracken), the oldest; the artistic, sensitive middle child (Laramie Eppier); and the laconic youngest (Tye Sheridan). McCracken, in a touching, naturalistic performance – the most striking performance I’ve seen all year – displays a wonderful talent for conveying worlds of meaning with a single glance or a shift in his body posture, and his mostly silent performance covers the dawning awareness and the emotions of the many years in a boy’s development.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island a masterpiece of literature, but there ends my interest in pirates. I enjoyed the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, but the first two sequels added CGI bloat to the original’s charm. The latest Jack Sparrow adventure, On Stranger Tides, is careful not to overdo the CGI. Instead, it’s bloated with clashing, clattering sword fights that go on and on and on to the point that you forget what the hell they’re fighting about.

Still, I found elements to enjoy. I took my daughter, a Jack Sparrow fan, and I enjoyed her laughter in response to this more lighthearted escapade that starts with Jack impersonating a judge, swinging from a chandelier, leading the Redcoats a merry chase through the streets of London, jumping from coach top to coach top, hijacking a coal wagon that spills burning coals to ward off the cavalry. And although Depp overdoes Jack’s affectations and antics, he still can raise a chuckle with a well-timed one-liner.

As for the story, it’s all about finding the Fountain of Youth on some unidentified island, and by the time said Fountain is found, you forget what everybody’s after, but the journey takes us through some colorful scenery, and in order to make the Fountain’s waters work, you need a mermaid’s tear, and that’s as good an excuse as any to throw in the film’s best sequence in which Jack, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), and dastardly Blackbeard (Ian McShane) attempt to capture a mermaid.

I found the mermaids quite fetching and lots of fun. They start out as Victoria’s Secret models posing in fish tails, but they transform into fierce man-killers, providing a startling contrast as they swarm in a shark-like frenzy around a longboat full of potential prey.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Sense of Longing

After watching Matt Zoller Seitz’s lyrical video essay on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978): All Things Shining: Part 2, I was struck by how this exquisite film about human longing is the type of film that satisfies my movie-going soul and responds to a deep longing for cinematic fulfillment. A finely made film like this - one that fills the viewer with lucid sights, sounds, and emotions - gives me a wonderful sense of satisfaction even though, after the glow has worn off, it gives way to that aching sense of longing once again.

The beauty of Days of Heaven, a film I revisit yearly when I show it to my A.P. English class as the topic for an essay, always leaves me with a feeling of wonderful satisfaction that settles that aching yearning for days after I have watched it. Fittingly, the film is about longing. Bill (Richard Gere), Linda (Linda Manz), and Abby (Brooke Adams) long for their “days of heaven,” better days than the ones that see them shoveling coal in a steel mill, doing piece-work, sorting through garbage, or doing back-breaking work in a wheat field.

After they pass through those very symbolic gates, Bill and Abby hatch a con that ensnares the dying Farmer (Sam Shepard) who longs so desperately for a companion. And the damage they do enrages the Foreman (Robert J. Wilke) who longs for a son.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bad Weather, Netflix Instant Streaming, and The Red Riding Trilogy

On Cape Cod, it's winter again. Things are just as bleak at the Regal Cinemas, Hyannis. Thor was a complete snore. Prom, which I saw with my daughter, was surprisingly enjoyable; it was sincere, tenderhearted, and refreshingly understated for a teenage movie set in your typical Hollywood high school. Meanwhile, there isn't much out there on the cloudy horizon.

My cinematic salvation has been instant streaming at Netflix. First, you have to download the app; then you have to understand that not every movie is marked “Play,” but it’s a great way to catch up on last year’s movies, or old classics, without having to wait for the DVD to arrive in the mail. My first pick was Blade Runner, which I hadn’t seen in many years, and my Mac desktop did justice to its amazing lighting and the intricate detail of its futuristic cityscapes.

A downside of instant streaming is that sometimes it stops and starts, or blinks off and has to reload. I watched Restrepo. What a powerful documentary! What a sad episode in our history! But the instant streaming was having issues. What occasionally happens is that the movie paralyzes into a series of freeze frames though the audio goes on without stuttering, a sort of artsy effect that seemed to suit Restrepo.

When Netflix had me pegged for films that are “dark, gritty, and suspenseful,” and laid out a string of movie suggestions that were eerily spot on, I discovered a viewing gold mine: the Red Riding Trilogy: 1974, 1980, 1983, a very gripping, viscerally haunting, artistically filmed, wonderfully performed British series of three made-for-TV films about police corruption in West Yorkshire, and about a cover-up of circumstances surrounding the disappearances of three girls, as well as the mismanagement of the investigation of a series of murders based on the Yorkshire Ripper murders of the late 70s and early 80s.

I was riveted. I watched all three movies, and then watched the first and last movies a second time each – not just because of the complex plot involving a large cast of characters and the hard-to-follow Yorkshire accents – but because I was fascinated by this tale of greed and cruelty at the disadvantage of poor, uneducated people living in a garbage-strewn housing development in the shadow of a steaming nuclear power plant.