Monday, May 30, 2011

Malick Comes Home

Malick's Tree of Life has come to the US but only to two cities thus far, LA and NYC. When it will arrive for the rest of us is anybody's guess, though it will supposedly open in Chicago this coming weekend.

And the critics have spoken, by and large very, very favorably, if not quite as ecstatically as they might. Some have reservations about the effectiveness of this or that in the film, for it is very much an experimental film, and some even get snide about what they see as pretentiousness, Malick asking all those big metaphysical mystery questions. Some are clearly bothered by the film's straight-on earnestness--call it sincerity, if you wish--and that sort of bugs them, for plain-spoken psycho-intellectual honesty is surely not post-modern hip. There is also, somewhat related to the hipness question, incomprehension of the sorts of questions Malick asks and the modes of perception he evokes in the film, specifically Tree's conspicuous religious content. Yeah, it's spiritual alright, but what exactly is this nebulous ether of "spirit" pervading the thing from start to finish? The notion itself is alien, and from whence Malick draws his "spiritual" fire, so to speak, goes entirely unrecognized. Otherwise very smart, astute, and lively critics, such as Andrew O'Hehir in Salon, get no further than detecting an "indecipherable spiritual allegory," and another finds all of it sort of "goofy." Actually, for those with a modicum of cultural literacy, and surely for any with a half-substantial church background, it's all pretty darn obvious, and a few critics of lesser note recognize that (see Nick Pinkerton in The Village Voice: "its characters address the gauche subject of the eternal, naturally, through the Judeo-Christian lingua franca instead of via a vague, enervated 'spirituality,'" and in this, "it is quite direct and accessible").

The most significant, and instructive, dispute over the film comes in the disagreement between two of the country's best critics, Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times and A. O. Scott of The New York Times, both insightful, learned, and very articulate (Turan was one of the champions of late Polish filmmaker Krysztof Kieslowski). Turan suggests that The Tree of Life will prod audiences to ask what they want out of cinema: " serious philosophizing, fluid filmmaking and stunning images? Or...satisfying drama and deep emotional connection"? In short, Turan thinks that Malick's big questions fast go abstract and dominate at the expense of human interest. He thinks some of it is obscure, such as the long cosmic history section, and, on top of that, he doesn't think much of the audience's capacity to grasp or appreciate that sort of thing: "It is, unfortunately, characteristic of this meditative and elliptical film that it is simply not possible for rank-and-file viewers to know as much about it as Malick does." That misses the point on the sort of "knowledge" Malick is after. Oddly, for Turan is usually more perceptive, the long "family section" seems terribly bland, a rather uncommon view (for this, see Roger Ebert's hymn to that very section). Scott, on the other hand, seemingly anticipating Turan's objection, leaps to Malick's defense, deeming the film cause for "a full measure of my astonishment and admiration." More than that, opting for family drama to the exclusion of metaphysical ponderings would be akin to Melville leaving out the whale in Moby Dick to settle for "a lively tale of a whaling voyage." Scott's best comment, one that pretty well summarizes what Malick is after in The Tree of Life, gets to the soul of the film: "The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality." Amen.

So SEE IT. DO, TWICE. And bring friends, neighbors, relatives, and pets. In Imax if possible, or at least on a big screen, and sit to the front in the middle. After all, first and last, Malick wishes to envelop viewers with a world unlike any they've ever seen (or dreamed), for in the film's central image, one repeated multiple times and in which Malick clearly exults, light shines in the darkness.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Day at Cannes

Cannes sounds pretty exotic, and it is an awfully nice place, for sure, situated on a lovely bay with hills and then mountains beyond those. At this time of year, it is lovely with temperatures in the low 70s and a gentle breeze. Cannes begins the Cote d'Azur, a fabled shoreline that ends, at least in popular lore, with Monaco, the small kingdom of Grace Kelly. It is no wonder, then, that when the notion of the Cannes Film Festival comes up, most folks conjure an image of attendees lolling about in penthouse garden soirees with movie stars or leisurely strolling the Croisette among the beautiful people with an appropriately exotic alcoholic beverage in hand. Truth is that this sort of thing usually happens just in the movies, though in actuality it may work for a very few of the megarich and famous. For the overwhelming hordes here, however, such dreamscapes are just that, dreams, and big ones at that. Not even movie stars can get away with it, for they are, poor souls, celebrities, and they really don't belong to themselves. They can try strolling, but chances are they would fast experience an agonizing demise by a stampede of crazed humans called fans.

At the Film Festival, most people at Cannes are plain-old working stiffs. If you're in the industry, it is trying to hustle product because Cannes is preeminently a marketplace for great numbers of foreign and domestic films seeking a distributor so whoever paid for production can get their money back and maybe even profit. Straight to video is not usually deemed success.

And for the journalists, of which there are many from all around the world, it tends to be work. Me, I typically catch a 7:10 AM train each morning for the short ride to Cannes. Three blocks walk from the station, and I'm in line by 7:40 for the first press showing of the day, which begins at 8:30. And after that, back in line for a late morning viewing. These are films in the main competition, films such as Malick's The Tree of Life and von Trier's Melancholia. In the afternoon, usually without lunch other than an energy bar, it's off to one or two afternoon or early evening showings the Un Certain Regard series of somewhat to very unconventional films. Happily, that is where some of the best film comes round. Still, in betweeen are many waits, chutes, and gates that might well lead to a theater, provided, that is, that you got there early enough. And often, there are three good places to be at once, and to be sure, it is humanly impossible to take in all of the best. Besides catching up on some reading, I've spent considerable time trying to discover the system with which the Cannes folks schedule films. Predictability is not their forte.

Arrival back in Juan les Pins and my Best Western is anywhere from 6:30 to 8, followed by a bit of work and dinner somewhere. A couple of times a day I stop in the Press Room (actually several rooms attached). These include a small lounge, workstations, computers, and lots of receptacles for plug-ins devices. That is a lovely spot in the rear of the Palais that looks to the east upon the Croisette and to the west the bay, and the large sliding windows let in ample breeze. That is the spot where I am happily writing this, sipping the limitless supply of potent French coffee the Festival provides for the decidedly unglamorous working folk. They number many, and they really do slave away. Bon soir.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Coming of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

The big moment at Cannes has come and gone, the showing of Terrence Malick's long-awaited, the Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn. The film was due out a year ago, and the talk then was that it would premiere at Cannes, which the attending producers admitted was their goal as well. For a brief survey of Malick's career and thought, see my overview piece (

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is certainly the most unusual film you are ever going to see or, perhaps, for that matter, that has ever been made. It reaches to do things that no other film as ever tried, save perhaps for someone like Andrei Tarkovsky. And it is also a profound venture of religious/theological vision, with emphasis on the rudiments of vision, meaning very specifically the seeing part, for that is what happens in this film. Malick strives to convey what it is like as experience to see a world that is infused with light everywhere as a staggering kind of beauty--from the start of creation itself to the very present now. And the hearing part, as with the Word, is there as well with a resplendent score largely consisting of rapturous liturgical music of various kinds, though the music also swings to plumb the agony of loss.

Its epigraph is from Job, asking where any one was when the morning stars sang for joy, and that is exactly what much of the film tries to capture, including fifteen gorgeous minutes of cosmic history. And there are, especially in the opening section, a trainload of voiceover biblical reference, though I doubt if the Cannes audience, a pretty thoroughly secular assembly, noted them as such. And again it is, frankly, stunning--all of it--even when it turns dark in exploring what Malick calls "nature," where it explores the religious and psychological legacy of cruelty and asks hard, Job-like questions. Foremost, though, is the delineation of what Malick labels "grace," an exultant take on Pauline contemplations on the Love that cast the world into being and "shines" still in all that is, radiant and enrapturing.

Needless to say, this sort of thing took the Cannes bunch by surprise. At the press conference with cast (Pitt and Chastain) and crew (Malick was typically absent, his last interview in print in the 1970s), one questioner asked, barely concealing her incredulity, if Malick actually believed in God. Pitt fielded the question, rather bravely, suggesting that Malick was certainly "spiritual" and "universal." True enough, though it is akin to adequately defining a lizard by saying it is a reptile. Pitt admitted as well that he had had many theological discussions with Malick, though was not apparently convinced by Malick's religious views (he did not elaborate). In any case, what we end up with a film that is not only one of a kind but one that moves and dazzles in every frame for its full two hours and fifteen minutes.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A weekend of viewing

Sunday, May 15, Day Five

Lots of films the last couple of days. I'll mention but a few of the three I see each day.

Two good ones yesterday, The Footnote (in competition) from Israeli writer-director Joseph Cedar, a tragicomedy, or maybe comic tragedy, about two Talmud scholars, father and son, both amply competitive, caught within the academic politics of Israeli Talmud scholarship. And appropriately, The Footnote comes in Hebrew. It is told in high spirits, initially at least (think Marx Brothers), and really slick camera work and editing, and it slowly gathers weight as the full brunt of those politics, and father and son contention, gather steam. Along the way come much suspicion and self-appraisal, both scholarly and familial. And the ending is, well, as unusual as any, Cedar perhaps having written himself into a box, and a wrenching one it is. More from me would spoil that close, which does not so much resolve the puzzle as pose a new one--or several. It is a honest, memorable story that casts a hard light on academic politics, which are pretty much the same everywhere, namely often sordid admixtures of ego, power, hard labor, and idealism.

One film suggests Americans have not reckoned with the rolling terror of the Mexican drug wars. Miss Bala by Gerardo Naranjo might just help in making that a sobering reality. And it is not only the violence, but it is corruption induced by vast sums of money. A relative innocent enters the Miss Baja beauty contest, only to be engulfed, quite by accident in Baja's intense violence, all of which is captured with terrifying authenticity (Die Hard or Fast and Furious XXVII it is not). Watch and weep, for much of this is fueled by loosely-controlled American weapons and ammunition.

And today Sunday came one of the major treats of the Festival, the showing of A Kid With A Bike, a new film by two Belgium brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, twice winners of the big prize at Cannes. The new entry puts them in good stead for a three-peat, to grab some sports terminology. Their plots are remarkable and their style consistent throughout, leaning heavily on the stylistic habits of one of France's great filmmakers, Robert Bresson (Diary of a Country Priest, The Pickpocket, to mention but two) and perfecting him. And like Bresson, a conservative Roman Catholic, they carry some theological freight. All of their stories deal with Belgium's outcasts, as does this one which tells of a ten-year old boy abandoned by his father (there is no mother in sight). The child, understandably, is full of rage, at first not believing his father would do such a thing (and even sell his son's bike), and the boy rides and fights for the bike every chance he gets, on the hunt to get somewhere and find something, anything. Only the intervention of a local hairdresser (well-know French actress Cecile de France) offers the kid any hope. If one thinks, this promises to be a tear-jerker, put away the tissues. The brothers Dardenne are after far bigger game than a bit of gush and roses, and a gorgeous thing it is.

Tomorrow comes the new film by American writer-director Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. It is, as one New York reviewer has put it, the "feverishly anticipated" event of the Festival. Check the trailer on the net, in itself a thing of beauty. And that title, most of you know where that comes from. As the trailer itself puts it, the film sketches the perennial conflict between "nature and grace" (see Malick's The Thin Red Line). More to come on that one.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Nonetheless, A Happy Note

Friday, May 13, Day Three/ Afternoon

Again two films this morning, and one this late afternoon, though more on those later. Instead, a moment on the new film, Restless, by celebrated American Director Gus Van Zant (Good Will Hunting, Milk) on a screenplay by young Jason Lew, a film school friend of one of the producers. It stars the eminently successful Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre) as a teen-aged cancer patient who's about to die. She pals up with a troubled young man, Enoch (Henry Hopper, son of the late Dennis), who hangs out at funerals and whose only friend is a ghost, a Japanese kamikaze pilot name Yoshi (Ryo Kase). Obviously, this is not realism, to say the least, and that has really bothered early reviewers, especially hard-bitten lovers of despair. Nor are these young friends particularly believable, proving all too witty, hip, and occasionally gooey. In other words, the tale clearly displays amplified lives and thus moves toward fable.

And this would be a bad jaunt if not for the infectiousness of the characters, all wonderful creations and finely acted. And all focuses on a jaunty thematic, the pleasure, even thrill of simply being alive, something the film contends is a pretty good gig even when death speeds and parents die in accidents. The young patient (Wasikowsk) relishes being alive, especially the marvel of birds and their endless adaptiveness. A big fan of Darwin, she skips the nastiness of "nature red in tooth and claw" for its endless inventiveness and elegance as function and stunning beauty. That sort of plain giddiness about the splendors of simple being, like breathing and seeing, well, perhaps that is passe.

Still, writer Lew doesn't quite know what to do with that and with death other than to quip that we're just a blip in random time, whether long or short. And he seems not to wonder about his elation or from whence it comes. Well, all that is, I guess, just a peculiar twitch in time. even though, as he contends, the birds sing every morning in exultant response to the recognition that they are still alive. Still, great credit is due Lew and Van Zant for picturing, albeit with some gush, one sizeable metaphysical clue to what humankind is for, both before and after Darwin.
Thursday, May 12, 2011/Day Two/Afternoon

Two films today so far, one more this evening, and then a short train ride to lodgings in the lovely, and blessedly quiet, seaside Ville of Juan les Pins. Thus far last evening's forecast of grimness has proven rather too true. Australian Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty is clumsy, cloyingly enigmatic, and simply bad. Why this film made it into the big arena at Cannes, so to speak, escapes me, though some point to the influence of Jane Campion, another Aussie who loves psycho-sexual undergrowth. A comely but poor college girl slides into an exotic kind of highly lucrative prostitution, and it is downhill from there. The problem is not with the premise or nudity or eroticism (of which there is not really any), all of which can benefit stories (for grown-ups), but in characterization, bad script, portentous cutting, and farcical contrivance all in behalf of who knows what psychological profundity. How a film about al of this could prove so very boring, even painful, well, that is a wonder. Aronofsky's Black Swan, another fairy-tale contrivance, was also a bad film, but it at least was mostly lovely to hear and look at, despite its churning stew of Freudian twaddle.

A much better, though equally uncheery film, is British writer-director Lynn Ramsay's We Have to Talk About Kevin, a tale of dysfunction that makes Rosemary's Baby feel like warm family melodrama. Young married Eva (Tilda Swinton in a great performance) gives up her career to mother, about which she feels ambivalence, to say the least. Sure enough, her own little Cain loathes mom from conception onward and is determined to make her suffer (potty training is a real hoot). Two things save the film: a puzzling but enticing scramble of the narrative and, in addition, a multitude of arresting visual strategies, though these sometimes come with the subtlety of sledgehammer. Nor does the heavy-duty symbolism help insofar as it disperses more red than a blood bank.

From the first frames we know little Kevin is up to no-good, and the only question that sustains the film is what horror he'll finally do to spite mommy. The finale provides a surprise that wishes to pivot the story (and maybe Kevin), but given what we've seen, it's hard to swallow, especially after all that red stuff.

At last, a post, no thanks to Blogspot


May 11, 2011/Day One

The sun is bright (very), the breeze stiff on the palms and monster yucca, and everything is just plain crowded. And lots of press conferences: the jury, Woody Allen, and others. Unfortunately, the reason most folks come here starts slowly--the films themselves

The grand opening of the 64th Cannes, replete with red carpet hoopla and gawkers aplenty, happens this evening with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, though the film is not in the competition (his last Cannes film was Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, 2008), And it is a good film start with, for it is a very good comedy on romance, at once very funny and biting, but also, in a new chord in Allen, both fresh and gentle, less satirical and almost tender. Think of Midnight in Paris as a kind of dessert, amply sweet but light and resonant to the end.

Successful young Hollywood screenwriter Gil Bender (Owen Wilson) is off to Paris with his bride-to-be (Rachel McAdams) to try "real" writing, meaning a novel. Eva would rather be back home, larking in the garden of Malibu, but Gil adores Paris, both its look and lore. The friction worsens when her parents show up, a grating pair of come-lately rich whose sole index of "culture" is cost. Another visitor is worse still--a know-it-all academic boor whose greatest accomplishment is his omnivorous ego. Poor Gil, uncertain and fumbling, is up against.

His rescue proves whimsical and wonderfully beguiling. The past comes to him, or he to it, and he soon chums with Scott and Zelda and Ernie, himself grandly boorish in his constant blather on the glories of macho. Paris' expatriate 20s blooms (and parties) again, and Allen has great fun casting and scripting the whole gang, everyone from Dali to Picasso and Gertrude Stein.
In the end, happily, the magic of Paris still does its sweet thing, and Midnight casts its own hopeful spell for the goodness of the ordinary, even though that might have to be a Parisian ordinary. For grim and grumpy old Woody, that's a good and happy feat--and a summer movie worth going to.

It is good, too, that Cannes saw fit to open with a comedy, for usually what follows tends toward grimness, namely uncomfortably dire portraits of the human condition, something that has never made cheery fare. With any luck, or whatever, a few of the movies to follow will break that mold, and giving who's bringing films to Cannes, there's great reason to think that will indeed be the case.