Sunday, May 29, 2011

'The Tree of Life' is Mind Expanding, But 'The Hangover Part II' is Headache Inducing

Terrence Malick’s new film, “The Tree of Life,” is a visionary work that the reclusive filmmaker has been kicking around in his head for more than 30 years.

The picture, which recently won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, is a breathtaking, symphonic film that tackles questions of the universe’s origin, mankind’s existence, religion, grace, nature, loss, life and death in ways rarely seen since the heyday of Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman.

This divisive film’s melding of philosophical, theological and scientific beliefs has already been the source of much discussion.

“Tree” opens with a quote from the Book of Job during which God answers Job’s query of why the righteous suffer with His own question, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? Tell me if you have understanding.”

It is this need to understand that drives both Malick and his film’s characters, especially Jack (Sean Penn), an architect around whose flashbacks the basic structure of “Tree” is set.

At the beginning of the film, we see a middle aged couple (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) receive notice that one of their sons has been killed. We meet Jack as a despondent middle-aged architect who works in a gigantic steel behemoth and, at this point, we understand that the couple from the opening scenes is his mother and father, and that the boy who has died was his younger brother.

Malick then unleashes the film’s most talked about sequence – a 20-minute montage that depicts the creation of the universe as a visual feast of light and sound. It’s as if the director is reminding us that the human struggles depicted throughout the course of the movie are so miniscule in comparison.

The sequence culminates in several scenes involving dinosaurs that exist beyond the purpose of instilling awe and wonder in the film’s viewers. In an earlier scene, Chastain’s mother figure discusses the difference between “grace” and “nature” – so, it is surprising to find that a brief exchange between two of the film’s prehistoric creatures manages to touch upon these themes.

The film’s next 90 minutes are set in 1950s era Texas where Malick spent his childhood. This half of the movie is structured as a series of vignettes during which Jack experiences a fall from innocence as Pitt’s stern father, Chastain’s doting mother and his two brothers look on.

There is little contextual cohesion between the scenes, which play more as unconnected memories, and yet they still manage to tell a story – just not in the traditional sense.

Nearly every shot in the film is stunning. The combination of Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s score - as well as classical pieces by Gustav Mahler and Sebastian Bach – make for a nearly exhausting movie-going experience.

Jack never overtly mentions the word “God” but, much like Job, he poses questions: Who are we and why are we here? What is the meaning for all the great cruelties – such as the death of a brother - that life has in store for us? And how can these horrors co-exist in a world so populated with breathtaking beauty?

 “The Tree of Life” is a singular experience. If you are familiar with Malick’s work – “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line” – and you’ve seen “2001: A Space Odyssey,” you’ll know what wavelength to expect. But I’d still bet it’s still like nothing you’ve ever seen.

“The Hangover Part II,” on the other hand, is exactly like something you’ve seen – namely, “The Hangover.”

The sequel duplicates a number of scenes from the popular 2009 comedy but relocates to Bangkok, a move that appears to serve no purpose for the film’s story other than to provide for several ethnic jokes.

Once again, Zach Galifianakis steals virtually every scene he is in as weirdo Alan, while Bradley Cooper and Ed Helms reprise their respective roles as lothario Phil and well-meaning dentist Stu. Newcomers include Paul Giamatti and a chain smoking, drug dealing capuchin monkey.

The only element missing in this sequel is the jokes – that is, unless you find these sights funny: an pig exploding as it hits a speeding car, a severed finger, a recreation of Eddie Adams’ famous photo of an execution during the Vietnam War and a cocaine overdose.

The film is less a satire of the perception of ugly Americanism abroad than it is a celebration of it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

It's Paris Je T'aime for Woody, But 'Pirates' Just Avoids Shipwreck

"Midnight in Paris" ranks with "Match Point" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" as one of Woody Allen's best films of the past decade.

It's a charming tale of artistic inspiration that also recalls the more fantastical elements of the director's 1985 picture, "The Purple Rose of Cairo."

One of the film's greatest surprises is just how well Owen Wilson manages to channel the 'Woody' character while, at the same time, giving the character his own distinct personality. 

Of course, I also caught "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" this past weekend. While I can only imagine that the film will be more likable than some of the other blockbusters on this summer's slate, I felt pretty much the same about this fourth entry into the popular franchise as I did about "Thor" - meh.

Check out my reviews here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

'City' Is Year's Best So Far and 'Bridesmaids' Its Funniest

Finally, something to be excited about. Don't get me wrong, I dug "Uncle Boonmee" and "Win Win," but this year's has been lacking a certain cinematic oomph.

But the Cannes Film Festival kicked off this week and I, for one, can't wait for Terrence Malick's divisive "The Tree of Life" as well as Gus Van Sant's "Restless," Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin," Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia," Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In" and The Dardenne Brothers's "The Kid with the Bike."

Last weekend's theater offerings were also solid. Lu Chuan's "City of Life and Death" is the best film I've seen so far this year. It's tough viewing, at times, but never anything less than spellbinding.

I also really enjoyed "Bridesmaids," which I found to be this year's funniest film so far as well as a great showcase for the talents of Kristen Wiig.

Of course, there were a few misfires. I was disappointed by "Skateland." I was hoping for an "Adventureland," but got more of a "Can't Hardly Wait."

Scott Stewart's "Priest" was also a bust. This season's blockbusters - "Thor" and "Priest" - have, so far, not left much of an impression.

Check out my reviews here and stop in next week for my thoughts on "Midnight in Paris" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." And I've been waffling on whether or not I'll subject myself to "A Serbian Film." We'll see.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

'Thor': Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em. Also, Mel Gibson Leaves It To 'Beaver' and Rutger Hauer Paints the Town Red.

The summer movie season kicked off with a... snore - wait, where was I?

This week's trio of films - Kenneth Branagh's "Thor," Jodie Foster's "The Beaver" and Jesse Eisener's "Hobo with a Shotgun" - all have laudable elements. But, not so many that I'd actually recommend any of them.

Check out my reviews here.

This weekend, I'll be doing my best to catch "City of Life and Death," "Skateland," "Bridesmaids" and "Priest." Also being released is "Everything Must Go," "Hesher" and "A Serbian Film," which I'm not sure I'll ever actually see, based on what I've been told from friends who've seen it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

This Week at the Movies: 'Fast Five' and 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'

It's been a busy one. At least, that's the excuse for my posting links to my Douglaston Patch column, This Week at the Movies, and not writing new content for Critical Conditions during the past few weeks.


The summer movie season kicks off this week, so I'm vowing to post a new review and my link to Patch this coming weekend.

In the meantime, check out my reviews for "Fast Five" and "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" - two films that would typically not get mentioned in the same sentence.

To be honest, "Fast" was not as onerous as I thought it might be. I wasn't exactly a fan of the other films in the series, but this one was slightly better than its predecessors.

"Cave" was another solid documentary by the one and only Werner Herzog. For my money, "Grizzly Man" is still his non-fiction masterpiece, but this is a solid one.

Coming up this week, a strange trio - "Thor," "The Beaver" and "Hobo with a Shotgun." If that's not a triple feature to die for, then I don't know what qualifies as one.