Jun 4, 2011

Viewing Log #9

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The Tree of Life is only Terrence Malick's fifth film, and while it's easily his most prone to creative - nay, intergalactic - tangents, it may also be simultaneously his most earthbound. The rumblings of a gestating universe existentially contextualize the central human drama like no other film has managed since Stanley Kubrick's cosmic 2001 (whose special effects mastermind Douglas Trumball was sought out for equally impressive work here), but Malick finds equal levels of beauty and awe in all creation: The birth of the stars, of life, of a child. 1950s Waco, Texas - Malick's hometown - is the deeply personal primary setting, home to the O'Briens (Brad Pitt, never better, and the mesmeric Jessica Chastain) and their three boys. Father and mother's opposing parenting methods emerge as less than mere human traits than conflicting instincts passed on from the primordial era (a brief dinosaur interlude goes beyond mere anthropomorphism to suggest something outside of our human capability of understanding), desires and weaknesses that will dog us until the end of time (yes, the film goes there, too, or at the least, someplace like it). It's as concerned with the eternal and intangible as it is with the sensuous and the small, hopscotching through the years (suggesting equal parts memories and present tense) in a sumptuous fantasia of life, death and the interim, utterly unconcerned with basic narrative formalities as it explodes off the screen with expressionistic euphoria. It reminds one of the vividness life held in youth, and it may very well go down as one of the great works of human art. [2011, A]

I saw Beginners the same day as The Tree of Life, and those nearly back-to-back experiences drew out numerous parallels between the two (the least of which is their likely inadvertent hat-tipping to shared cast members from Inglourious Basterds). Writer/director Mike Mills engages the ambiguous and contradictory building blocks of human existence with wisdom, wit and thoughtful humility. Ewan McGregor is Oliver, a pushing-middle-age artist whose yearn to love is outweighed by his fear of loss, not to mention the near emotional train wrecks he's been subjected to by his distinctly odd but well-meaning parents. After decades of marriage parted in death, his now single, 75-year-old father (Christopher Plummer) comes out; at the start of the film, we've learned he dies from cancer only four years later. The mourning present sees Oliver with the dreamy Anna (Mélanie Laurent), an actress similarly trapped by her own personality conflicts, but Beginners frequently, exquisitely moves back and forth in time, simulating the lasting effects of emotional trauma and the messy experiences that define life, often simulated via jarring, spare visuals, or deceptively cute devices (the talking dog subtitles are brilliant). The worst that can be said of it is that its view of the big picture borders on the overly self-aware; better to call it an audaciously tragicomic high wire act of the human spirit. [2010, A-]

I'm embarrassed to admit I've never read Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and so approached this latest film adaptation ignorant to all but the broadest sense of what material was to be covered. Suffice to say that Mia Wasikowska, who holds the title part, has quickly ascended from promising young actress to the full-fledged career she so rightly deserves; let's pray she keeps it going. Playwright and screenwriter Moira Buffini distills the narrative complexity of the novel into something only relatively formulaic; the drama ultimately pivots on a romantic triangle of sorts, but sophomore filmmaker Cary Fukunaga (after his debut Sin Nombre) directs with such assured, effortless poeticism that the narrative can't help but reflect the rich textures of its characters - ambiguous, wrenching, commanding. Michael Fassbender is unsurprisingly prodigious. Heartaching and heartbreaking, and resolute in its even-keeled feminism. If Oscar has any shame (which remains highly debatable), both leads will be in the running for nominations come next year. Prove me wrong. [2011, B+]

It's easy to see why The Red Shoes is a beloved classic. The Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale - in which a girl dons the titular footwear and proceeds to dance her life away, powerless to resist their magical urge - here inspires a story-within-a-story of delectably paralleling themes. "Why do you want to dance?" asks the talented but conceited instructor Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) of the passionate Vicky Page (Moira Shearer). To which she thoughtfully posits, "Why do you want to live?" The tension between creation and love (and those who feel personal desires must be mutually exclusive) fuels the romance-laden story, but it's Powell and Pressburger's typically ravishing use of technicolor that gives the film its acutely passionate edge, particularly in an extended, dreamlike sequence showcasing the the titular play. Deeper the layers go, forever. Pure cinema. [1948, A-]

I grew up with The Wizard of Oz, back when I consider even average TV to have been somewhat special and something could only play once a year (at least, other than the Superbowl). I liked it plenty then, but a recent 35 mm screening (thanks a lot, dadwhodoesnttellhisdaughtertoputhercellphoneaway) let about ten years added life experience enjoy it again, for the first time in its gloriously intended format, with a receptive audience no less. What boldness this film is - I really should read the book(s) - and what passion has been committed to it on every single creative level (we wouldn't believe in it if they didn't). It's telling how fully it's been absorbed by popular culture, and it's somewhat hard to imagine there ever being a time it didn't exist. It's pure life - nothing less than an life-affirming echo from the hall of mankind's eternal soul. Go, and follow the yellow brick road. [1939, A]

If I was forced to choose a favorite between Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead at gunpoint, I could very well be shot for lack of spontaneity. That's how much I love this somber consideration of the end of days - when the surviving people of earth could well be in only the dozens and surviving day to day is the best that can be hoped for. George Romero's once extensive vision, reduced by budget cuts (and a refusal to cater to the MPAA), remains of the emotionally epic sort - it's one of the greatest episodes never made for The Twilight Zone, in color and feature length. Judgment day has come and passed (the dead walk the earth in the millions, approximately 400,000 to every living human). Thematically, it's probably his most direct film (Dawn of the Dead is brilliant but it retains a metaphoric distance throughout) as it stares deep into the heart of darkness at man's core, but it also remains (not at all paradoxically) a work of incredible hope. The arch performances aren't just learned descendants of 50s B-horror, but serious considerations on how people handle (or don't) the end of the world as we know it. The zombies aren't just metaphors anymore: They are us, (un)living manifestations of our sins come back to haunt us, and Romero's consideration of the human condition transcends the (brilliantly violent) genre thrills to great cinema art. The director's favorite of his zombie trilogy is an unrecognized masterpiece. [1985, Rating: A]

Not only is there too much time dedicated to the relatively boring human protagonists of Invasion of Astro-Monster (something even fans of the Godzilla series are used to), but there's also far too little of the skyscraper-sized monsters to possibly justify the whole of the proceedings. This sixth film to feature the giant lizard (and fifth to be helmed by the original director Ishirō Honda) is one of the least of the early entries, investing entirely too much in a predictable twist (even for kids, for chrissakes) in a story concerning purportedly peaceful aliens wanting to "borrow" Godzilla and Rodan. There's next to none of the cheeky fun that typically sustains these movies when the rubber suit clad actors aren't slugging it out; the actors phone it in. The lip flapping English of the American version is only negligibly more entertaining. [1965, C]

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