THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)
As much as I appreciate any filmmaker who attempts to raise the level of intellectual discourse beyond the freshman psychology typical of most American movies, Terrence Malick’s unsatisfying mixture of impressionistic, art film sensibilities with a picturesque remembrance of boyhood feels as cold and shallow as the worst of those portentous European imports from the 1960s.
What sinks “Tree of Life” is the reclusive writer-director’s reliance on a dreamy, rootless narration that attempts to give meaning to repetitive, wordless images of a domestic drama, offering only vague understanding of the characters or their place in the world. Malick attempts to wrestle to the ground nothing short of the meaning of life, all but assuring that his ambitions will fall short.
And what, in god’s name, is the point of the 20-minutes segment in the middle of the film depicting the creation of the Earth, from its simmering beginnings to the appearance of dinosaurs? The images are wondrous—a first-rate power point presentation that would impress anyone who received it in an e-mail—but the history lesson immediately grinds to a halt the little energy the story had generated to that point and makes it hard to take the rest of the picture seriously. It comes off as an idea you’d expect to find in a student film.
The story this pre-man pictorial interrupts is narrowly focused on the Waco, Texas upbringing of three boys by their very different parents (well played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), recalled by the eldest son Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn).
Early on in the film, characters react to the news that the middle son has died at age 19. The circumstances are never revealed. What he was or what become of his other brother is never mentioned. In fact, other than the contemporary scenes of Jack (many years after the death of his brother), none of the boys are depicted beyond their early teen years. Maybe I missed some clue early on, but it took me until mid-way through the picture before I realized that the couple had three children (and I never heard the names of the other two). Clearly, people without names represent something bigger and more thought-provoking than us common folks with names.
What the film does best is offer a very authentic, richly detailed recreation of what it was like growing up as a boy in the 1950s and moving portrayals of very concerned parents. Pitt, as the obsessively strict and domineering father who bullies young Jack into becoming an equally intimating person, has rarely been as convincingly rooted in real emotions. Chastain, in her first major film and looking like Cate Blanchett’s younger sister, provides a balm for the father’s constant verbal abuse, as the luminous, life-affirming mother who never stops offering unqualified love.
So how do Jack and his brothers turn out? How were their lives affected, for better or worse, by their childhood? Malick leaves that out. He gives clues that the adult Jack is troubled, maybe suicidal and there’s a glimpse of a woman who may be his wife. That’s really the extent of the character development provided this character whose childhood is the focus of most of the film. Instead, Malick offers metaphysical meanderings about the creator’s intent. At least, I think so.
Frustrated and disappointed would best describe my feelings after watching this movie with no tension, no arc, no drama. Malick’s last two pictures, “The Thin Red Line” (1998), also short on traditional structure but grounded on the battlefield during World War II, and “The New World” (2005), reconstructing the story of Pocahontas and John Smith, are among the handful of great films made in the past 20 years. In those films, he found a balance between the interior intellectualizing of big ideas and traditional dialogue, action and character development.
Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki’s (“The New World, “Children of Men”) impeccably composed, soft-focused scenes—nearly every shot in this 2-hour and 18-minute movie could stand alone as an evocative still photo—never amount to anything substantial; they’re just a seemingly endless collection of pretty pictures.
Of course, greater minds than mine have anointed “Tree of Life” as a work of genius: it won the Palme d’Or (the top prize) at Cannes and Roger Ebert, in his laudatory review, wrote that “the only other film I’ve seen with this boldness of vision is Kubrick’s ‘2001: Space Odyssey’ and it lacked Malick’s fierce evocation of human feeling.”
To me, Malick’s bold vision plays like an unresolved poem asking the same unanswerable questions man has been ruminating about since the dawn of time. But, like so many artists before him, Malick has confused ethereal dialogue for insight; substituting pristine images for substance.
HORSE FEATHERS (1932)
This Marx Brothers classic essentially amounts to three brilliant set pieces along with musical interludes (all four brothers offer a version of Harry Ruby-Burt Kalmar’s “Everyone Says I Love You”) and a tedious football scene that fills out the film’s 68 minutes.
But these three comic gems never grow old. The film opens with Groucho, as Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff taking over Huxley University, addressing the student body and then offering his education philosophy by singing “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It” (another gem from Ruby and Kalmar).
He berates everyone in his sight, including a pushy professor who he orders to “go home to your wife…I’ll tell you what, I’ll go home to your wife, and outside of the improvement, she’ll never know the difference.”
The film’s highlight is the scene in which Groucho interrupts an anatomy class, duck walking in front of the large, bearded professor and then, after the teacher offers a flurry of 10-cent words, peering up at the man and asking: “Is this stuff on the level or are you just making it up as you go along?” He eventually takes over the class, with Chico and Harpo as his most interested students. (Zeppo, 11 years younger, plays Groucho’s son!)
And then there’s the speakeasy scene with Chico and Groucho trading absurd repartee as Groucho seeks the password for entrance (don’t tell anyone, but it’s “swordfish.”)
“Duke Soup,” “Night at the Opera” and “A Day at the Races” are more fully formed pictures, but “Horse Feathers” is always worth a look just for these classic moments and the presence of Thelma Todd, as the “college widow,” who also starred with the brothers in “Monkey Business” (1931).
A star of silent films, Todd made a smooth transition to sound and was on her way to a successful career when she died of carbon monoxide poisoning, at age 29, in 1935. Though a reportedly corrupt Los Angeles DA’s office ruled it a suicide, many believe (and still do) that her and her husband’s refusal to sell their Hollywood restaurant to mobsters led to her suspicious death.
SUPER 8 (2011)
Though he wasn’t behind the camera, the touch of vintage Steven Spielberg is all over this wonderfully rendered boyhood adventure in 1970s Middle America.
Somewhere between “E.T” and “War of the Worlds,” this Spielberg-produced and J.J. Abrams-directed made-for-summer entertainment never descends into out-of-control special effects extravaganza, remaining rooted by its heroes (a small band of budding high school filmmakers) and its genre lineage back to small-town monster invasion flicks of the 1950s.
Set in an Ohio valley town during the summer of 1979, “Super 8” captures the enthusiasm and know-how of a group of friends making a vampire film when a train wreck upends their community. Yet even as the crisis escalates and grows more mysterious, the boys (and their newly recruited leading lady) continue to plug away at their Super-8 movie.
The film has many (maybe too many) moving parts, but it’s all held together by Joe (played by 15-year-old Joel Courtney), the immature, soft-spoken make-up expert of the crew. As the film opens, Joe, who has just lost his mother in an industrial accident, struggles to adjust to life with his sheriff’s deputy father (Kyle Chandler) while attempting to play it cool around Alice (an impressive Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister, but already a veteran of two dozen movies and TV shows). Not only does Alice (and Elle) turn out to be quite an actress, but she possesses the same adventurous spirit as Joe and his buddies.
The rest of the troupe is Charles (Riley Griffiths), a chubby, bossy auteur who runs the show; Cary (Ryan Lee), the pint-sized explosive expert; and Martin (Gabriel Basso) the nerdy leading man. A rare combination of excellent casting and Abrams’ understated writing creates high schoolers who are both true to their time and clearly defined individuals. Not since “The Wonder Years” was cancelled have I seen a group of teens that rings as true as this collection.
Abrams, creator of TV’s “Lost” and director of the excellent “Star Trek” reboot, doesn’t try to do more than tell the story and that’s a good thing. His smartest decision is to keep the “plot” in the background as long as possible and the kid’s vampire movie and their relationships in the foreground.
And please, don’t leave your seat before the credits have run—it may turn out to be the most entertaining five minutes you spend in the theater this year.
TOO BIG TO FAIL (2011, TV)
It’d be easy to dismiss this HBO docudrama about the 2008 financial meltdown as checklist picture making: familiar faces keep popping up portraying the key players and offering talking points as this frightening tale of unchecked avarice and slippery ethics unfolds.
But director Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential,” “The Wonder Boys”) and scripter Peter Gould (from Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book) understand that these names—everyone is identified with subtitles—have to become flesh and blood if viewers are to appreciate the intricacies of the investment bankers’ schemes and the maneuvering by the government to extricate the country from the mess.
First and foremost is Secretary of Treasury Henry Paulson (William Hurt in his best performance in decades), the Bush Administration’s point man forced to cajole, beg and eventually threaten these improvident bankers. Paulson carries the weight of the crisis on his shoulders, but his resolve never flags as he battles private industry greed and legislative dithering. Hurt’s ability to portray both intelligence and world-weariness turns him into a compelling, determined figure.
Also leaving impressions are Billy Crudup as the jittery Timothy Geithner, then head of the New York Fed and now Paulson’s successor; Paul Giamatti as the gloomy Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke; and Topher Grace as a cynical Paulson advisor.
On the other side of the negotiation table are James Wood as the arrogant, self-serving Richard Fuld, head of the doom Lehman Brothers; Bill Pullman as sensible Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan; and Tony Shalhaub as John Mack, Morgan Stanley’s head man. Somewhere in the middle of the infighting are Warren Buffet (Ed Asner), seen having ice cream with his grandkids while giving financial advice, and Christopher Cox (Peter Hermann), SEC chairman who acts like a deer in the headlights when asked to act.
What “Too Big to Fail” dramatizes is how reluctant the men who caused this disaster (by selling bundles of bad mortgages) were to make personal compromises to save the nation. For those who question the need for government regulation, this movie should be required viewing; the greed of these men (a quality clearly necessary to some degree in their business) as their community burns around them is jaw-dropping.
Less reported in the mainstream media were the heroic efforts by a group of Bush appointees whose natural instinct were to kowtow to business interests. Paulson, former head of Goldman Sachs, Geithner and their advisors, hardly a liberal among them, use their financial smarts and the power of the government—in ways we never saw on CNN while the crisis unfolded—to avert what they all agreed would have been a quick plummet to a depression as bad or worse than the 1930s version.
But no matter how powerful the message, it would have been lost amongst the lingo and multiple characters without Hurt’s masterful performance. Not since his 1985 Oscar-winning turn as a political prisoner with wild imagination in “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” has this thoughtful actor had a role equal to his talent. After making his film debut in the high-profile, confusing sci-fi picture “Altered States” (1980), Hurt quickly became a star with memorable performances in “Eyewitness” and “Body Heat” in 1981 and “The Big Chill” (1982) before winning the Oscar. His work took on a studied passivity, even in good films such as “Broadcast News” (1987) and “Accidental Tourist” (1988), which seemed oddly out of date by the 1990s.
He occasionally had roles in major films—“Lost in Space” (1998), “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (2001), “Syriana” (2005)—but most of his work over the past two decades has been in small, little-seen pictures. He did score an Oscar nod for his very uncharacteristic, manic performance in “A History of Violence” (2005) and was quite good as the father in “Into the Wild” (2007), increasing his visibility as a character actor.
He’s 61 and, obviously, a cable TV movie isn’t going to revive his career, but it’s good to see an actor who seemed destined for greatness 30 years ago show he can still deliver a powerful performance.
ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO (1940)
This overstuffed melodrama was Warner Bros.’ answer to “Gone With the Wind” and not a very convincing one.
Based on a popular novel (by Rachel Lyman Field), it follows the bittersweet, unrequited romance between a loyal, loving governess (an unusually mellow Bette Davis) and the children’s doting father (Charles Boyer), set in 19th Century France.
It’s not worth sitting through unless, like someone writing this review, you’re determined to see ever film nominated for best picture (amazingly, nominated over more deserving 1940 films “The Shop Around the Corner,” “His Girl Friday,” “The Sea Hawk,” “Pinocchio,” “The Westerner” and “The Mortal Storm”) or just can’t miss any movie starring the legendary Bette.
No doubt, the only reason it scored a best picture nod was because Warners sunk so much money into the production. It looks great and is efficiently directed by Anatole Litvak, but the story never catches fire and the characters aren’t very memorable.
It also earned Barbara O’Neill, who overacts in nearly every scene, a surprising supporting actress nomination for her role of the mentally unbalanced wife of Boyer. Not coincidentally, she played Scarlett’s mother (though she was just four years older than Vivien Leigh) in “Gone With the Wind” the year before. In “All This, and Heaven Too,” her obsessive jealousy toward Davis’ younger, prettier governess turns into tragedy for everyone.
Boyer, an underrated actor whose French accent and classic good looks too often stereotyped him, gives the best performances in the picture as a man struggling to hold his family together while caught between these two women. The actor was in the middle of the American portion of his career, having starred in three classic romances: the comedy “History is Made at Night” (1936) with Jean Arthur; as the much-imitated Pepe le Moko in the ultimate Hollywood exotica, “Algiers”; and opposite Irene Dunne in the original “Love Affair” (1939). He followed “All This” with excellent dramatic work in “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941), “Gaslamp” (1944) and “Arch of Triumph” (1948).
A MURDER OF QUALITY (1991)
Before launching his career as the pre-eminent chronicler of the Cold War, British writer (and former spy) John le Carré wrote this Agatha Christie-inspired murder mystery, set in a small university town filled with an assortment of flawed, secretive residents.
George Smiley, who later served as the protagonist in more than one of le Carré’s spy tales, slums in this story as Miss Marple’s stand-in. This BBC television movie stars Denholm Elliott as Smiley, on break from his government work, who is asked by his wartime espionage friend (Glenda Jackson in one of her last acting gigs before turning to politics) to check on a woman who wrote her an ominous letter.
Needless to say, this mysterious woman is murdered and Smiley arrives in town just in time to tag along with the local police as they investigate most of the town’s population as suspects. Everyone has a story—and a reason to dislike the victim—and Smiley’s soft-spoken, insinuating manner turns out to be the key to unlocking their true feelings.
Le Carré, who adapted his novel for the teleplay, brings his acerbic, cynical tone to this highly entertaining whodunit. The acting is all first-rate, led by Elliott, a character actor whose long career in film and TV includes playing the museum curator and mentor to Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and as a love-starved gentleman in Woody Allen’s “September.” Two-time Oscar winner Jackson, arguably the greatest film actress of the 1970s and early 80s, is a lively presence in her few scenes here.
Also memorable are Joss Ackland as the pompous, retiring headmaster of the boys school, whose brother was a colleague of Smiley’s during the war; Billie Whitelaw as a violent, mad homeless woman who seems to be the perfect suspect; Matthew Scurfield, playing the put-upon, sardonic chief inspector and 17-year-old Christian Bale as a student whose cheating on a science exam turns out to be a crucial clue to the crime.
Few writers’ work has been so successfully translated to the screen (small and big) as often as le Carré. First and foremost is the brilliant miniseries made from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1979) and “Smiley’s People (1982) starring Alec Guinness, which capture the moral and political duplicity of both sides of the post-war “war.” Fine films were also made from “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965), featuring one of Richard Burton’s best performances; “The Russia House” (1990), with Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer attempting to trick the Soviets; and the more modern works, “A Tailor of Panama” (2001) with Geoffrey Rush and “The Constant Gardener,” which investigates the underhanded world of the legal drug trade.
“A Murder of Quality” seems minor in comparison, but this fast-paced amusement is well worth seeking out while we le Carré fans await the film version of “Tinker, Tailor” coming to theater’s later this year, with Gary Oldman as Smiley.
GET LOW (2010)
Few modern actors have defined a character type to the extent that Robert Duvall owns the cinematic version of the Southern eccentric. Starting with his Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), this San Diego-born actor has been drawn to unbalanced sons of the Confederacy, including in the Faulkner tale “Tomorrow” (1972), as an obsessively strict father in “The Great Santini” (1979), a senile landowner in “Convicts” (1991) and the raving revival preacher in “The Apostle” (1997).
These roles offer an unending array of opportunities for fussy acting and pretentious personality traits and the 80-year-old Duvall has fallen prey to letting his “acting” dominate a performance. Yet when he finds the more subtle balance of comic quirkiness and stubborn righteousness, these portrayals can be memorable.
His Felix Bush in “Get Low” is one of his more entertaining and believable oddballs, a short-tempered, unhappy hermit who decides to hold a wake while he’s still alive and well. Speaking only when absolutely necessary, Felix negotiates with the local funeral director (a seriously exasperated Bill Murray) over the details of the get-together. He originally wants anyone who has something to say about him to attend and then decides to raffle off his substantial property, which ups the expected crowd considerably.
Behind his plans is his desire to finally confess to the circumstances, from many years ago, that spurred his anti-social lifestyle. Complicating matters, an old sweetheart (Sissy Spacek) has returned to town---the film is set in 1930s Tennessee---after the recent passing of her husband.
While the film occasionally grows frustrating as characters continued to put up with this old coot’s nonsense, it is hard not to be won over by these characters’ lived-in emotions and the unsentimental portrayal of Depression Era life crafted by director Aaron Schneider (a cinematographer making his feature debut).
Spacek, who quietly continues to have an exceptional post-50 career, plays a tough-minded but forgiving woman who finds out she understand less about Felix than she thought.
Another always welcomed supporting player, Bill Cobbs, memorable as the barkeep in the little-seen, superb 1987 TV series “Slap Maxwell” and the narrator in “The Hudsucker Proxy,” plays a minister who knows the best and worst of his old friend Felix.
If “Get Low” (Felix’s phrase for being six-feet under) had done better at the box office when it was released late last year, it probably would have earned Duvall his seventh Oscar nomination. It’s this great and busy (he’s been in 13 films since turning 70) actor’s best performance since his memorable turn as a cattleman in “Open Range” (2003).
Writer-director Mike Mills wastes the touching story of his father’s coming out of the closet at age 75, by focusing his movie on his own relationship problems instead of those of his gay father.
It’s always dangerous to build expectations based on reviews and trailers, but I came to this film expecting to see a funny, insightful and probably teary tale of a long-married senior exploring gay life and how it changes the man’s relationship with his son. That 81-year-old Christopher Plummer, who seems to be at the peak of his career with recent memorable performances in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” “The Last Station,” “Syriana” and “The New World,” portrays the gay father signaled that “Beginners” had the chance to be something special.
Instead, the film offers bits and pieces of the final years of Hal’s life as occasional flashbacks while the bulk of the story follows the dull, repetitive romance between son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and a charming French actress (Mélanie Laurent; she played the Jewish theater owner in “Inglourious Basterds”) and Oliver’s too-cute-it-hurts relationship with his father’s dog.
Not only does the structure make for a sluggish movie but it leaves one wishing for more than just the few superficial scenes that address how Hal denied his sexuality for nearly his entire life. Plummer gives another smart, nuanced performances but he’s a supporting player as we endure Oliver and Anna slowly coming together and then apart. The character of Hal’s partner, played by Goran Visnjic, is less developed than the dog’s.
In many ways, “Beginners” plays like a picture made in the 1970s or ‘80s, when the subject was still being treated by Hollywood with kid gloves. The picture even makes a point of offering mini-lessons in gay pride and Harvey Milk. (Did the filmmakers forget that Sean Penn won an Oscar for portraying Milk just three years ago?) As hard as it tries, this film never figures out whether it’s a romantic comedy or a social-issue drama.