Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Tree of Life

It's hard to argue with an artist. Terrence Malick is an artist. He can be maddening and intimidating. You take his guff because he gives the goods.

I will thank Mister Malick for saying what he had to say and not talking down to his audience. I will ask him why he felt the need to bring me up to speed on the formation of the universe. It looked beautiful, undeniably so. I understood what I was watching. I even felt awe briefly. I think I saw God without a face. Then it kept going and going. I will admit that I needed the voice over to break up the beauty. I was waiting through the beats of evolution and time for a human voice to break through. I was waiting for Miss Jessica Chastain and Mister Brad Pitt (their performances a wonderful dichotomy of restraint and intensity respectively) to return to view.

The goods was the human story. I didn't grow up like the eldest boy in the film. My mother and my father didn't raise me in the same manner, but I will tell you quite honestly that I was struck by how true this loose narrative was. Terrence Malick knows what its like to be a son, to be a brother, and to be a boy. I recognized myself in Young Jack. If I'm to believe Adult Jack is recounted through a loose, disjointed trip down his childhood memory lane (and I believe I am), then this is the way to do it. At once immediate and distant like a memory, the journey is wonderfully executed.

Malick can be a poet. In fact, I would say he's more a poet than a filmmaker. It's not a slight. I just can't understand how someone can write The Tree of Life. Honestly, it had to appear on the page more as poetry than the format of a script. A moment is a moment and changes to the next. The cuts are quick and artfully seamless. I was prepared to hail the herculean triumph of a single editor, but the film's IMDB page credits five editors. It remains a supremely edited movie. It's the sum of whispers of moments, at once memorable and fleeting.

I was hearing Christopher Plummer's voice in my head throughout the movie. Plummer has said that he'll never work with Malick again, and Malick overwrites everything to the point of pretentiousness. I saw his point, but respectfully counter with "if that's overwriting, what's underwriting?" Malick is full of big ideas and a grand vision, but I can say with certainty that each word audible in The Tree of Life (though numbering a relative few compared to, say, Aaron Sorkin's works) matters immensely and is always meaning more than what we hear. There's a strange economy to his dialogue. It is art. It screams skill. How else could he write a film both bombastic showy and utterly basic?


Thursday, October 27, 2011


Found footage movies are nothing new. The buzz behind The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield has given way to two or three such movies every year, mostly of the horror genre. Its conventions best utilize the first person camera narratives. With more of these movies, the quality has begun to even out. For every success, there's a dip. Most recently, Apollo 18 came and went. Quarantine ended up right about the middle of the newly found spectrum. For a real time movie, it spends an unusual amount of time developing its characters. That doesn't keep the filmmakers from throwing the same characters to the lions without blinking. Yes, this is a horror film through and through. It's a bloody, scary movie with the obvious trajectory towards a bloody, scary end. It's a B-movie made with the A-list in mind. The ensemble play their parts well. No one phones it in. There's not much to what they have to do, but I thought they did it exceptionally well. The whole movie is a bit ridiculous, but the filmmakers and performers play it straight. The audience benefits. A major scare, but a minor movie. I wonder how a staged performance would play out...



Sofia Coppola has my loyalty. I find her to be an interesting filmmaker. She has a proven track record. I loved Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, and really enjoyed The Virgin Suicides. From here on out, when she makes a movie, I want to see it. Somewhere isn't what I expected. It's a VERY atmospheric character-driven movie, which is to apologetically say very little happens. I can be on board for that, but I needed more than what was given. Stephen Dorff is not my favorite actor. Truth be told, I can't find a single redeeming performance in his filmography. He should be perfect in the part of a B-list actor who falls asleep to pole dancing ever other night or so. He kind of is. I can't think of an actor who'd play the part better. The problem is, he doesn't have much to play. He has a few choice scenes where he gets to ACT, and he plays them fine. I wanted more. I wanted Coppola to give him more to do, more to say, and more to be. If the story of an long-absent parent whose new quality time with their child leads them to reexamine their life sounds familiar, you'd be right. Elle Fanning, so full of life and vigor in Super 8, is quiet, sweet and dull as the returning child. Coppola doesn't play it conventional. She's more interested in how the quiet in a noisy scene can convey a character's loneliness or emptiness without hitting you over the head. I want to be rewarded for noticing. I want my attention to be worth something in Somewhere. Instead, Coppola is inching closer to the sparse atmospheric movies of another indie-auteur, Gus Van Sant (Elephant, Last Days, Gerry). I don't like it.


The Ides of March

The Ides of March won't change your mind about politics or offer new insights into the morality of politics. I don't think it tries. Writer-director George Clooney is too concerned with delivering complex characters to care how you feel about them. Ryan Gosling is the lead and is in just about every scene, owning each one along the way. Rather than go with his recently maligned method acting or the minimalist performance he delivered in Drive, he plays his Stephen Myers as a charismatic lightning rod. Even when the plot knocks Myers down a peg, Gosling plays him upright, always pushing his feet forward. My only criticism, one that lowered the movie's impact, was the ending. I can't claim to be an glass-half-full type of person, but after the journey the characters soldiered through, I wanted more leeway. I wish Clooney had let us make up our minds rather than paint Myers into a corner. It might be nitpicking, but the question I've been asking since walking out of the theater is what is more interesting, The Godfather route or something more ambiguous? Is there a right answer? Maybe I'm just mad Clooney and Gosling got me to like their leading man before his ambitions got the best of him.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Killer Elite

Lo and behold, Killer Elite starring Jason Statham, Robert De Niro, and Clive Owen was underwhelming. I was hoping for another surprise a kin to the Statham-led The Bank Job from a few years back. This is not that.

Statham does his thing. He doesn't stretch. No on ever asks him to. I finally convinced myself to check out Killer Elite because Clive Owen was in it and I am definitely a fan. No one really phones it in, but it is also clear no one is able to rise above the material. Start the cliches. Jason Statham plays a hit man who leaves the profession after a child witnesses one of his hits. Check. It humanizes our criminal protagonist. He's pulled back into one last job. Check. He reluctant to leave his new life for the one he left for good reasons. He's in love with someone who doesn't understand what he does or did for a living. Check. Our protagonist needs to be conflicted, doesn't he? The antagonist with the upper hand circles protagonist and delivers needless exposition instead of winning? Oh, oh, oh! Check. I've seen it before and better, even from De Niro in The Score.

To make matters worse, the trio of stars are forced to deliver mediocre dialogue throughout and the story hinges on moments of illogic or convenience to move the plot forward. The film claims to be based on true story, but I'd rather see something I can believe.

I like Jason Statham. He's likable and baddass enough to root for, but after seeing the movie and taking into consideration it's historical roots, I can't be the only one who would rather see a movie starring Clive Owen's former SAS officer protecting former SAS officers and the interests of the secretive "Feather Men" society. Ditch the cliched hitman plot that we've seen enough times to recite ourselves and show us the part of your project that holds real fascination and intrigue. Don't make De Niro run around and take down henchmen. It worked in Ronin, but that was a long time ago.

Somethings work. I can admit to the thrill of seeing a knock-down-drag-out brawl between Statham and Owen. I also enjoyed...well, that's really the highlight. Meh. Oh, and Owen rocks that mustache.

"The script is a mess. It's an object lesson in taking a nonfiction book ("The Feather Men," about a cadre of ex-British Special Air Service operatives) and making a hash of it." - Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

In the Valley of Elah

Paul Haggis is probably most famous for writing and directing the Oscar-winning film Crash. I was a huge proponent of the film for a long time. Upon repeat viewing and further thought, it doesn't age well. Initially, the emotional impact is huge. Looking back on the technical aspects, one can see how blatant Haggis pushed those responses with musical swells and compression. There's more than one story in the film that doesn't need sandwiched in. It's a good film. I won't argue against that.

Watching In the Valley of Elah, Haggis's followup to Crash, I kept these trends in mind. For much of the film, Haggis shows refreshing restraint. This is a quiet and deeply felt film. For the first two acts, Tommy Lee Jones (as the film's lead, Hank Deefield), anchors a well-told tragedy. It's really only in the film's last ten minutes or so that Haggis can't resist turning the screws on the impact. He was so close to a great movie. He really was. Hank's final moment is almost earned, but is ruined by unnecessary soaring music. It's as though Haggis doesn't trust his audience to feel according to his expectations. There is also a mishandling of the film's metaphorical title. It's from the biblical story of David and Goliath. It gets referenced not once but twice. The second time is too obvious to show the trust from Haggis that he and I had earned up to that point. There's really only one conclusion to come to from its inclusion. Let me come to it on my own.

Tommy Lee Jones earned his Oscar nomination as Hank. It seems like the typical Jones role because it is. His gruff red state man's man who won't back down or take guff from no one is his bread and butter. I think we just take the actor for granted. Casting him is a no-brainer, but that may be only because no one in their right mind would want anyone else playing this role. It needs Tommy Lee Jones.

The cast utilizes several former servicemen in supporting roles. They are not actors by trade, and it shows at times. Yet, there are startling key moments of real force during these performances. I can't dismiss them as non-actors (indeed, all of them have gone on to take more roles in Hollywood), when they can go to those places for the film.

Haggis's stock in Hollywood has slid since his surprise Oscar wins six years ago. He has talent. He just needs to trust his audience. We're smarter than he thinks.


Sunday, September 25, 2011


It's hard to think of a more tired cliche than a rag-tag group of under-performing sports players rising together to win the big game/championship/title. If it's done right, that type of sports film can be great. I have seen it before. Moneyball has elements familiar to the genre. The new aspects are more interesting. Moneyball is a political movie without parties. Co-writer Aaron Sorkin created similar character dramas with the White House staff, a sketch comedy staff, and a sports highlight show staff. Moneyball is in that territory, but lacks the usual intelligent zippy dialogue that we know from every other Sorkin script. Credit Steve Zaillian, an Oscar winning screenwriter in his own right, for tempering Sorkin's flair with a believable tone. These people talk like baseball people. It'd be impossible for Billy Beane (the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics at the center of the story) to look like Brad Pitt, but they can sound alike. I can believe that. There isn't a single showboating performance among the cast. I can't call Philip Seymour Hoffman, Brad Pitt, and Jonah Hill a rag-tag group of under-performing actors. I won't. I will say that they blend together like a real team or ensemble. Hoffman in particular is notable for his ace albeit small role as the Athletics stubborn manager Art Howe. Hoffman's previous work with director Bennett Miller won him an Oscar for his title role in Capote. Art Howe is not Truman Capote. They don't require the same level of bravado or acute mannerisms. Both performances have to work. It's absolutely Pitt's movie, but the "role players" fill the gaps effectively. Pitt is given a character with fun dichotomies. He is both immensely confidant and determined, while quietly vulnerable behind those dreamy eyes. He puts his eggs in the science and statistical baskets, but wavers when his presence at a big game might jinx the outcome. Pitt's very good, but doesn't have to showboat the way he did in his last awards-worthy performance as Benjamin Button. This isn't that kind of movie. It's a sports movie not only about its team, but rather about the entirety of sports. It's not a political revolution Billy Beane and his forward-thinking protege Peter Brand (Jonah Hill in a solid supporting turn) are starting, but, onscreen, it's just as engrossing.

"A smart, intense and moving film that isn't so much about sports as about the war between intuition and statistics. I walked in knowing what the movie was about, but unprepared for its intelligence and depth." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times


Friday, September 23, 2011

Jack Goes Boating

Jack Goes Boating is a somber buzzkill. It does not create the buzz it kills, but is more than willing to quell whatever spark of expectation you bring in. It is a romantic film only in that it deals with romance. I can appreciate the dichotomy of presenting two couples at either end of their romantic entanglements. Yet the struggling couple is too busy and frantic to be entertaining. I don't really like any of the characters. Even the film's protagonist, Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman pulling double-duty as director and lead actor), becomes difficult to root for as he lets himself become mired in his friends' infidelities. His new romance deserves more of an featured oomph, but is overshadowed by what the filmmakers hope to get across about the entirety of fidelity, love, and their respective behaviors. The humor that was promised was almost nonexistent. There are attempts that don't fail miserably, but I couldn't find a chuckle in my body. Some of the quirks found within the characters are amusing, but I couldn't bring myself to smile the whole time. I found the tone to be quite somber. Even as the quartet of performers reach a rolling boil during a climatic dinner, there's a rain cloud hanging over the entire affair. The film is based on a stage play, but I wonder if seeing the production on stage would change my perception. In truth, some of the cinematic interludes are the most involving. Jack learns through visualizing swimming and cooking. While those moments are a tad out of place, they certainly add some artistry to the film. Also glaring out of place is the film's indie hipster soundtrack. All the songs chosen (save Jack's motivational reggae) are beautiful, but don't fit the film. Some equally subdued Simon and Garfunkel or even Elliott Smith would have been perhaps contrived or overly familiar but more appropriate. There is nothing hip or cool happening on screen. In fact, there isn't really much worth mentioning happening on screen. There are some truths to what the film has to say. Some of the resulting conclusions this new couple comes to are to be admired and embraced, but I was hoping for more of the nuance I have come to expect from Mister Hoffman and his leading lady.

"Ultimately, though, Jack Goes Boating is too much of a banal thing. Jack's a good guy, and you root for him all the way to the end, but, wistfully, that doesn't make him an any more interesting everyday Joe than he is." - Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle



Awesome. Can you recall the last time that you participated in a movie? I got up to use the restroom about 40 minutes into Contagion and covered my mouth with my fist to cough. I felt guilty. I washed my hands thoroughly and took extra care not to touch the door handle to the restroom. It was amazing to be that involved with what I was watching. It's an engrossing ensemble drama that consistently asks a interesting question: When the health of our populace is threatened, how scared is too scared? Terrible things continually escalate in proportionate and disproportionate reactions from the all-star cast. None of the stars play it too strong. I was immediately aware of the skill in direction, acting, and writing. It's a quiet film. It's not a flashy film. It's absolutely stylized. There are a few times when the score clashes its mighty flares a kin to a Hitchcockian melodrama. It looks cold and certainly not unintentionally sick with all it's hospital whites, damp yellows, and winter blues. However, it's restraint and assured pacing shows its pedigree. Contagion seems to frequently be compared to Outbreak, a film to which Contagion only really relates in its most basic conceits. Outbreaks was a medical and military thriller, whereas Contagion is quite content to be a medical and political drama grounded in its diverse characters. Maybe it could have used more infected monkeys, but I don't think so.

"The circumstances depicted in Contagion are terrifying, but the power with which the film is made blends the horror, as only the best art can, with beauty." - Shawn Levy, Portland Oregonian


44 Inch Chest

44 Inch Chest is a mess of movie. It's starts off interestingly enough. It contains richly detailed and wholly specific characters who never quietly say everything on their minds. The script contains some absolutely wonderful monologues, but it also derails in its final act. I wanted to be rewarded for sticking with the film, but the last act grows too convoluted and/or uninvolving to earn that attention. I've heard that it was originally intended to be a staged play. I can see it in the setting and story. It's mostly confined to one room and remains very dialogue heavy. I have my doubts that the psychological aspects could be made any clearer in a playhouse. There's meat to the project, I just wanted to get to it sooner and with less vitriol and posturing.

"It feels very much more like a direct adaptation of a stage play (which apparently it's not). The filmmakers do goose things up by playing with reality in the second half, but it all leads to a payoff that, while perfectly legitimate, feels limp." - Andy Klein, Los Angeles Times