BRANDON NOWALK: Hello, and welcome to Contributor Crosstalk 2: Back in the Habit, the quarterly look back at the good, the bad, and the weird cinema offered us below-the-liners. This episode: April-June, or Planet Hollywood’s journey from SOURCE CODE to CARS 2. Oof. Personally, I feel like I’ve been pretty sour on films this year—not without reason, but still—but when I skimmed my reviews, I found way more good than bad, and even my pans are sprinkled with things to like. But we’ll get there.
First the good: I have successfully tracked down all three of my most anticipated features from last time, but the only one I saw during this quarter is THE TREE OF LIFE, Terrence Malick’s dichotomous mastersomething. I’m as dazzled by the film as I am confounded by it: the two hours or so from birth to, spoilerlessly, a momentous marker at the end of our heroes’ shared childhood, overwhelmed me, and not just because I’m a good Texan boy. Malick’s maximalism, constantly cutting to another fascinating shot, nails the curiosity of childhood (tabula rasa to self-branded personality in 13 years!), and that cosmic interlude is vital—it’s our creation myth, the source of our boyhood adventure fantasies, and it gets at the essential unknowability of the universe better than the interstitial nebula-like visions that remind me of nothing so much as an mp3 player’s visualizations. But what to make of the frame? I certainly don’t take it—or any of that grace/nature nonsense—as literal truth, the gospel according to Terrence. But I also can’t argue it’s unnecessary without understanding what it’s doing, and I certainly haven’t gotten there yet. What do you think?
My other favorites, none* of which even approach the auteurist vision of TREE but all worthwhile treats in themselves, are Paul Feig’s BRIDESMAIDS, Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, and—brace yourselves—Wes Craven’s SCREAM 4. It has its problems—in fact I spent more time analyzing them than the successes—but I doubt there’ll be a final shot all year more pointed and unifying than Craven’s. But I’ve said enough already. Eric, what did you like most about the past season of cinema?
ERIC WHEELER: For the sake of our agreed upon format I’m going to assume ‘past season’ means ‘April to June, 2011.’ In which case . . . hmm. At the ripe old age of 24 all of cinema seems to be congealing inside my head, so let me take a moment to mentally separate new releases I saw at the ole cinema from the retrospectives, Netflix streams and Blu-ray marathons of the past several months. Meaning, let me briefly consult Wikipedia . . .
. . . having now done so I can attest to the charms and various pleasures of Joe Wright’s HANNA, Kenneth Branagh’s misunderstood THOR, Paul Feig’s perfectly understood BRIDESMAIDS, Woody’s surprisingly nimble MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, Kim Je-woon’s I SAW THE DEVIL, Michael Bay’s tribute to 1990s Michael Bay films TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON and Justin Lin’s mighty FAST FIVE. Among these films, I have the most to say about THOR. But that should (and soon will be) its own article. I had far more mixed feelings about TREE OF LIFE, GREEN LANTERN (which you can read about here) and X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. I also realized that I’ve seen fewer new releases in theaters this year than anytime since high school (meaning around 2005 in my case), so I don’t have many rotten apples to choose from, as I basically only saw what I was predisposed to liking. Of course, every man has his limits and a couple of films from the last three months tested mine. What cinematic junk food did you process most recently, B-walk?
BRANDON: Let me interrupt you because I have to ask: THOR? Not to spoil your upcoming article, but what do you see in THOR? I found some elements lightly likable, like the hammer-cam, the Lovecraft space-bridge, and Tom Hiddleston, but as a unified piece of filmmaking, I could not get out of there fast enough.
ERIC: I’m not sure whether to put this split decision down to expectations, genre preference or something more deeply rooted, but I found THOR to be (SPOILER ALERT) a premiere example of what Jett would call ‘the commercial style’ of filmmaking. It was an industrial contraption of the most pleasing order, with all of its precisely calibrated gears whirring in perfect, albeit not transcendent, harmony. From Bo Welch’s extraordinarily ornate production design (putting the CG worlds of the STAR WARS prequels to shame) to Anthony Hopkins’ calculated gravitas to Vic Armstrong’s James Cameron-esque action sequences to Natalie Portman’s girlish infatuation, everything came together under the dexterous direction of that Irish guy (K. Branagh). Chris Hemsworth’s star-making performance and long-time SIMPSONS writer Don Payne’s consistently funny script went a long way in helping said Irish guy navigate one of the trickier tonal balancing acts of his career. Was I not entertained? I was. I get the feeling you REALLY WERE NOT, though. Am I wrong? Might this film even be – gulp – on your three month shit list?
BRANDON: I’ll see your Jett quote and raise you another: “Did we even see the same movie?” I’m sure we did, actually, because I completely agree on (much of) Bo Welch’s production design and (much of) Chris Hemsworth’s performance, though I think “extraordinary” and “star-making” are a little strong. But I was profoundly unmoved by Branagh no matter how insistent, and I chalk much of that up to first impressions—a dim, blurry CGI setting as empty as the film around it—not to mention Branagh’s hyperactive camera. He’s no JJ Abrams—responsible for my second worst film of the quarter SUPER 8—but the effect is similar. Speaking of Abrams’ homage to Amblin pictures that weren’t any good either, who’s the bigger fool, the fool or the fool that follows him?
And X-MEN: FIRST CLASS I only liked out of fandom. But it’s that same love for the universe and philosophy of X-Men that condemns Matthew Vaughn’s fratty B-student to my list. It’s a much more fun picture than the other two, which forgives a lot (though nothing can overcome the film’s cross purposes), but all three of my worst pictures struggle to achieve resonant drama that they don’t even care about. Branagh made a movie about a beefcake with a hammer, ferchrissakes! Abrams made a monster movie, and Vaughn an action blockbuster. They all feel compelled to include heavy serious bits, turning me into an even more discerning Goldilocks: this one’s too heavy, this one’s too thin, this one’s not fooling me with its ironic distance. I mean, Michael Fassbender can only do so much, right?
ERIC: I . . . don’t know. I mean: FASSBENDER POWER and all that. He does manage to prove that you can provide one of the year’s indisputably best performances without raising the overall level of the film surrounding you. Which is kind of a neat trick. And we’ve had multiple ‘off-air’ conversations about how his life partner in crime James McAvoy is both a) ‘the ultimate weenie’ and b) ‘the British Zach Braff,’ but we can dive further into his weedy depths if you so desire.
BRANDON: I don’t.
ERIC: In that case, OK. I want to touch upon TREE OF LIFE again, and why I think it’s Terrence Malick’s worst movie (a relative insult, I assure you), but first I need to lay down the law on what films of late wasted my time and money and shrunk my soul just that little bit more. The first offender would be Duncan Jones’ bafflingly well-reviewed SOURCE CODE. To be fair, there is nothing about this film as intellectually or morally heinous as the crimes of SUPER or SUCKER PUNCH, but some of it comes dangerously close. The fact that it stars 21st-century brown-face enthusiast Jake Gyllenhaal does it no favors. Nor does the ‘subversive’ reveal of its milquetoast villain (banality of evil, y’all!) Nor does its unintentionally repugnant coda, in which our ‘hero’ essentially murders and replaces a random, seemingly innocent train passenger. When the movie ended I had a lot of questions, but the not the kind thoughtful sci-fi is supposed to invoke. I thought, “What the hell happens when he doesn’t know where he lives, what his ATM pin-code is, who his family members are, where he works, if he has any sort of deadly allergies, etc. etc.” Easily the most tone-deaf ending I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. Of course, it’s not all bad. SOURCE CODE stands, perhaps unwittingly, with the CRANK films as the premiere example of video-game storytelling in a filmic narrative. The plot is essentially an open-world videogame in which the lead character dies again and again with no real repercussions, all the while retaining valuable information gleaned from each ‘turn.’ Fascinating stuff, though I wonder how consciously it was employed.
I have less to say about my other early summer bummer, Jodie Foster’s THE BEAVER. Foster is an incredibly appealing and talented actor, but she seems to have the same ‘Actors Directing Syndrome’ (ADS, for short) that afflicts so many of her colleagues. By which I mean that she takes a knotty, tonally ambitious screenplay and irons out all the kinks so that there’s a nice, smooth ‘mood’ to the whole piece in which the actors can find a ‘groove’ for their ‘unforced’ performances. All of which is unfortunately ironic as, the reliable Foster aside, the performances are NOT particularly good. Anton Yelchin and the increasingly dispiriting Jennifer Lawrence seem to wilt under the unrelenting even keel of Foster’s direction. Mel Gibson and his hypnotically furrowed forehead manage to bring a level of pathos to the proceedings, but seem as ultimately reined in as everyone else. Another sad little irony is that Gibson is one of the few leading men (or women) not afflicted by ADS. Whatever his version of THE BEAVER would have been, it certainly wouldn’t have been boring.
Also, it turns out that YOUR HIGNESS was actually released in early April, not late March, so I’ll be taking this opportunity to lump it into the “Bad” bullpen in two consecutive Crosstalks. I’m goin for the record!
BRANDON: Thank Thor that I haven’t seen any of those! Wait, I did see SOURCE CODE, which despite nailing the technocratic inhumanity of accountants running the military is troubled by all you mention AND a shallow terrorism angle all while bluffing a hand of smart sci-fi that turns out to be shockingly incurious. I’ll take dumb-smart LIMITLESS any day.
As for the weird, I could go with HANNA, a film whose entire running time I spent marveling at how weird all this is (the best compliment, as far as I’m concerned) and then it ended, building to nothing. But I have an even weirder, more successful pick, Miguel Gomes’ hybrid documentary OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST, wherein Gomes and his crew spin their wheels onscreen filming the people of central Portugal until they find the inspiration to finish the fictional film they came to shoot. It’s like if THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES (crossed with LAS HURDES-style travelogue and 35 SHOTS OF RUM-style family drama) came fully formed without WHERE IS THE FRIEND’S HOME and LIFE AND NOTHING MORE.
But enough with the festival-chic name-dropping. Let’s talk Malick. [I think] I agree that THE TREE OF LIFE is his worst film, which is something like calling STALKER Tarkovsky’s worst film or THE STRANGER Welles’ (others might pick NOSTALGHIA or IVAN’S CHILDHOOD or THE TRIAL but the point stands, great films all). Why so mixed?
ERIC: One of the great appeals of Malick’s previous films – beyond the requiste, jaw-dropping cinematography – is his sense of storytelling. Whether it’s a pivotal battle in World War II (THE THIN RED LINE), the last gasp of pre-industrial America (DAYS OF HEAVEN), the cross-country killing spree of a young couple in love or something (BADLANDS) or the ‘discovery’ of the New World (uh, THE NEW WORLD), Malick’s films have always had huge canvases. And huge canvases in and of themselves can hold enormous appeal (everything from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD can attest to that). But the really interesting thing that Malick (usually) does is that he filters this huge canvas through multiple oblique viewpoints. We almost never see the traditionally important plot points play out as expected. Instead, they’re fragmented through characters that often have other things on their minds. These thoughts, brilliantly pitched between the poetic and banal (and very often both), are then further recontextualized with the aforementioned cinematography and evocative editing that stops short of visual ‘hand-holding.’ All of which is prelude to my chief gripe with TREE OF LIFE: it’s a small story blown up to cosmic proportions, like taking an 8mm home movie and playing it on an IMAX screen. And while much of it is emotionally affecting, the editing is more didactic than ever. When mourning mother Jessica Chastain asks where the Lord was when her son dies at age 19, Malick answers with a fifteen-minute informational montage straight from the Book of Job.
But this was not the end of my extremely mixed reaction to this quite weird film. Oh, no. In spite of his sterling reputation for iconic imagery, I thought the look of TREE OF LIFE was somehow lacking. It might have been the slightly masked 1.85 ratio mandated by extensive shooting with HD rigs (c’mon, the history of the universe should be seen in full 2.35 Cinemascope glory!) Or it might have been the bizarre choice to shoot everything in an usually wide lens, leaving the film in unintentionally hilarious “Barry Sonnenfeld-Vision.” Or it might have been the incessant swooping and craning of the light-weight digital cameras that precluded too many breathtaking compositions. I don’t know. What I do know is that Brad Pitt, an actor who I had almost completely written off after his mechanical anti-performance in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, was tremendous. His third-act confessional about how he’s tried and failed to be a great man is a cinema memory I’ll carry inside of me for the rest of my days. Possibly even to the moment when I break down and unload my own list of failures to my own alienated son, decades from now! And I’ll crack a wan smile and tell him I saw it in a movie, and he’ll say “Dad, what the fuck is a movie?”
But what say you, Nowalk? Am I way off-base here? I cheered when TREE OF LIFE won the Palme D’Or, but I hadn’t seen it yet. It’s certainly my WEIRD pick this season.
BRANDON: What?! THE TREE OF LIFE is a small story the way Sean Penn’s an invisible actor. My concern is the opposite: is it too broad and generalized to express depth? As a film about—in the sense of plot and theme both—how to be, overextension is a bigger concern than in HARRY POTTER. Back to Jessica Chastain’s PBS informational sequence, theodicy has been, in a sense, the essential question for most of human civilization, and Malick frames it, meaningfully, as more about the evil than the god. Why do bad things happen? So we as the surviving pieces of the human organism can learn and adapt. I loved that bit where the kids launch a frog into the sky, the mournful reaction, and the yelling, “It was an experiment!” Any film that connects “boys being boys” to Cain or Oppenheimer or whatever symbol of technology becoming weaponry can hardly be called small. Of course, I’m philosophically in the tank: Chastain has two monologues over loving shots of their environment (“Help each other, love everyone . . . forgive” and “Do good to them, wonder, hope”) that, on top of clarifying the New/Old Testament dichotomy and the obvious superiority of the sequel, are such an evocative expression of humanism I almost warm enough to lift my support for canings on the floor of the Senate.
As for breathtaking compositions—which Ingmar Bergman asked me to remind you are just as achievable in Academy ratio, much less 1.85:1—to each his own, but this is empirically crazy talk, and not just for the foliage/space/microbiology/slot canyon stuff but the baby foot, Halloween, the DDT cloud, the home at magic hour, the architecture, all fueling the scientific quest. But I’ll give you weird. There’s nothing like it.
Final thoughts (on TREE OF LIFE or anything)? What are you looking forward to over the next quarter? Having now seen UNCLE BOONMEE and MEEK’S CUTOFF, I only see one** on the horizon: Nicolas Winding Refn’s DRIVE, based solely on the Cannes buzz. This summer has hardly quenched my genre thirst.
ERIC: Hey now. I don’t appreciate your attempts to paint me as some sort of mouth-breathing philistine who thinks TOP GUN is an ‘old movie’ with ‘weird clothes.’ I have nothing against the Academy ratio, the European ratio of 1.66 (which, it turns out, BARRY LYNDON WAS actually composed in) or the more staid 1.85 ratio (which is better suited, in my opinion, to films like JERRY MAGUIRE). After all, Murnau’s SUNRISE is one of the most beautiful visual works of art ever created, and it’s in that dinky little square.
It looks like we could have had a full Contributor Crosstalk on TREE OF LIFE alone (and maybe we should have?), but I’ll wrap up my feelings by saying that the final ten minutes are a ghastly film-school parody of Terrence Malick films and that I am truly thankful to God (or whomever) that the film was made exactly as the good Terry intended. The world is a better place with TREE OF LIFE and all its shimmering imperfections in it.
As to the cinematic horizon, I’d second your enthusiasm for DRIVE. I’m not entirely sold on either Nicolas Winding Refn or Ryan Gosling, but they’re both bursting with potential. Plus it’s got Albert Brooks as a heavy (!) and looks like one of those old-timey Michael Mann movies that was shot on dusty old celluloid. Beyond that, I’m looking forward to seeing ATTACK THE BLOCK again (and looking forward to everyone else discovering it), as well as Steven Soderbergh’s classy-looking OUTBREAK homage CONTAGION and Bennett Miller’s MONEYBALL. There are a couple of other features that have piqued my interest, but we’ll leave the readers on tenterhooks until the next thrilling chapter.
BRANDON: Whoa, didn’t realize CONTAGION was coming out so soon. Add that to my list.
ERIC: Brandon, always a pleasure. Especially when you are so wrong about everything.
BRANDON: Thanks, Eric. As mouth-breathing philistines who think TOP GUN is an old movie with weird clothes go, you are easily one of the top five or six. See you in October.
*I was mistaken that nothing from this period approaches the auteurist glory of THE TREE OF LIFE. Because of the medium, I had forgotten about Todd Haynes’ MILDRED PIERCE, a masterpiece of interiority. -BN
**The film I’m most looking forward to over the next few months is unquestionably ROAD TO NOWHERE. Unfortunately, despite my haranguing, it’s coming out on DVD, not opening in Houston theaters, so I completely overlooked it. -BN