Movie Diary 6/20/2011

Cars 2 (John Lasseter, 2011). Was Lasseter exposed to Grand Prix early in his life? Still not sure why cars are so big with the Pixars, but here’s a sequel. (full review 6/24)

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988). Well, good to see something that stands the test of time. It seems like more of a B-movie than ever, and that’s part of the reason it works so well. I reprinted my original review at What a Feeling!, here.

The Ghoul (T. Hayes Hunter, 1933). Not sure where this movie has been all my life: Karloff, Egyptian curse, old dark house, grave robbing, magic ring. It was a British production slotted in amongst the Universal classics, which might explain its absence from late-night TV packages. It looks great, and Boris is quite exercised, and the supporting cast includes Ernest Thesiger (trilling about Karloff’s “queer fancies”), Cedric Hardwicke, and Ralph Richardson.

Vincent Wants to Sea (Ralf Huettner, 2010). German whimsy. I could go on, but you get the idea. (full review 6/24)

Bride Flight (Ben Sombogaart, 2008). Dutch TV-movie-style saga that actually works pretty well for a while. Rutger Hauer briefly turns up at the beginning, looking not entirely sure about being in a Dutch film again. (full review 6/24)

Over at What a Feeling!, a look back at Hellraiser, back when you could basically understand what was going on in that series.

The Tree of Life (The Cornfield #33)

Somewhere in Andrei Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time, the Russian director approvingly quotes an anecdote about Picasso responding to an interviewer’s question by offering a definitive statement of self-possession. The questioner asks about an artist’s “search,” to which Picasso snaps, “I don’t seek. I find.”

Terrence Malick would have to be categorized among the searchers. It’s funny that in talking about Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, writers have frequently mentioned the names of Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick as measuring sticks for this head-trippy movie, because those directors (whether you care for their films or not) are surely finders, while Malick’s work looks like the struggle of a very serious person to figure out how he wants to say what he wants to say. Will he say it in 138 minutes, as the theatrical release of The Tree of Life has it, or will there be a six-hour version, as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has hinted? The New World has already come out in three different versions, and while the extras on the Criterion release of The Thin Red Line contain a mere fifteen minutes of cut material, the testimony of the actors involved suggests many other plot lines considered during the actual filming but left aside during the editing safari.

What’s on screen is what counts. There is no single way to make a movie: you want to shoot things from precise storyboards and “cut in the camera” to a rigorously pre-determined design, great; you want to carry a camera into an partly improvised situation and shoot hundreds of hours of material that can later allow the filmmakers to “find” the movie in the editing room, also great. It is not important to know that Malick’s approach puts him in the latter camp, but the evidence onscreen does, in his case, reflect the sifting-out method.

I found The Thin Red Line a largely hypnotic experience, so Malick’s style – the contemplation of nature and objects, frequently divorced from anything like storytelling; the near-musical use of narration; the curlicues of scenes that suggest some larger sequence tantalizingly shorn away – is not something I abhor. It’s the “what he wants to say” part that is increasingly a problem. The New World certainly summoned up a sense of rapture in its waving leaves of grass, but I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the whole thing boiled down to an alarmingly banal recap of the Paradise Bespoiled scenario, rendered with very few surprises.

You may have heard about The Tree of Life. Corporate man (Sean Penn) recalls past life as child in Texas, punctuated by an extended detour through images that suggest the Big Bang, a brief account of dinosaurs demonstrating how we might all get along (in contrast, perhaps, to Kubrick’s declaration of monkey violence as the Dawn of Man in 2001), and shots of the Earth being born, with possible connection between founding of planet and conjoining of sperm/egg. Most of the film is the Texas material, which is achingly exact in its re-creation of a world: I didn’t live anything like that childhood, save for fleeting visits to midwestern grandmothers’ houses, yet Malick’s view down the rows of long, long front lawns is like an ancestral memory shared by all of us in some mysterious way, even if we mostly recall it from a Ray Bradbury novel. Malick deserves praise for his vision of that (and for the marvelous acting of the three boys who play brothers, and for Brad Pitt’s strong performance).

It’s vivid and fine, yet the longer it goes on, the greater the sense of floundering becomes. Even filmmakers who “seek” can carry a sense of authority into their work. Wong Kar-Wai, another director who makes movies out of last-minute inspiration and the journey of the editing room – carving a movie out of a mound of raw material or switching gears in mid-production – has that quality: I like some of his movies (Chungking Express) and don’t care for others (Happy Together), and I deduce that part of the unevenness of his oeuvre comes from his assemblage methods; yet the authority is always there, in each shot and cut. Malick, more so in this film than before, is searching. There are people who find this search enthralling, and I like the searchiness of The Tree of Life too, sort of. If only the ideas at the end of the search didn’t seem so simple.

But, you’re saying, it’s not about the ideas; it’s about creating an experience, a journey. Or, it’s about sheer filmmaking dazzle: the ideas contained in, say, Metropolis are utterly banal, but the movie itself gives off thrills like an electrical storm. (Of course, you look up “authority” in the film dictionary, and you see Fritz Lang.) Many ecstatic critics/reviewers/dudeswithablog are having those kinds of thrills with The Tree of Life, some of which is fascinating to read, some of which feels like the need to claim a movie as “ours,” in the way that every generation would like to discover its 2001, and not be one of those naysayers proven wrong by film history.

Still, I say nay. And will leave it at that for now: I have a whole thing about the use of Klassical Greatest Hits and Murnau and the “Moldau” I’ll get to at some point. (I reviewed the film for the Herald, and my review is here.) I hope to write about The Tree of Life again when I’ve seen it a second time, preferably before it emerges in its six-hour form. But I have the feeling I’ll still cringe as often as I swoon.

The Tree of Uncle Boonmee (Weekly Links)

The Tree of Life

Links to movies I reviewed for the Herald this week, and etc.

The Tree of Life. “The kind of picture a bright young film enthusiast, full of ideas and flower-power sentiments, might have made as his graduate project in, say, 1970.”

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. “Wander into its dreamscape.”

Green Lantern. “A glimpse of what the movie might have been.”

The Trip. “Lightning in a bottle.”

Mr. Popper’s Penguins. “The aroma of Ace Ventura, or at least some of his pets.”

The Art of Getting By/Beautiful Boy. “One generic, the other tortured.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” a few thoughts on Uncle Boonmee and movies that challenge. It’s archived here; the movie bit launches around the 14:30 mark.

At my other website, What a Feeling!, we reel in the 1980s with reviews of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle and Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping, the latter a film that deserves to be much better known – or at least have a DVD release.

Movie Diary 6/15/2011

Green Lantern (Martin Campbell, 2011). Could there be an issue with a superhero movie spending too much time in outer space? Just wondering. Another note: Peter Sarsgaard should make big dumb movies more often. (full review 6/17)

At What a Feeling!, another Vietnam-movie review, this time The Hanoi Hilton, a film that flat-out implied that Jane Fonda was at least as serious an enemy as Victor Charlie.

Movie Diary 6/14/2011

Cracks (Jordan Scott, 2009). I guess it would come as no surprise that a film by the daughter of Ridley Scott (and niece of Tony) would have a certain visual shine to it, so this is pretty easy on the eyes. It also has Eva Green in an extended role, and plenty of hothouse English-girls-school atmosphere. (full review 6/24)

At my other website, What a Feeling!, the 1980s continue to unfold with Hamburger Hill, a Vietnam movie released in the post-Platoon flurry of war pictures.

Movie Diary 6/13/2011

Yellow Sea (Na Hong-jin, 2011). There’s something to be said for sheer old-fashioned plot, which this movie has in abundance; it’s wild and supercharged in a Paul Greengrassian way for the first half, and then it gets really berserk.

The Time Machine (George Pal, 1960). Hey, it holds up good. Made with real care, plus it really moves at a clip. The early scenes of Rod Taylor and his Victorian homies surrounded by timepieces indicate a special place for this film in Christian Marclay’s 24-hour installation montage, The Clock.

RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987). Not quite the blast it was back then, maybe because lots of people have come along since to rip it off – and the overall jaundiced mood feels very familiar.

Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997). Not great, but a pretty good combination of pretty good things: the impressive early look at Jude Law, Michael Nyman’s music, fitting deployment of the colored filters of DP Slawomir Idziak (who has only made three pictures since 2001’s Black Hawk Down, for some reason). And a great idea.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (Rodman Flender, 2011). This guy is really a maniac – had not quite realized that his showbiz cravings were quite so authentic. (full review 6/24)

At my other website, What a Feeling!, we travel back for The Hit, a film that brought Terence Stamp and Stephen Frears back into high-profile business.

Bridesmaids (The Cornfield #32)

Bridesmaids: Before the deluge.

Or more precisely, some thoughts on a particular scene in Bridesmaids. The reviews of this funny film have generally been positive, once the obligatory profound reflections about what it means to have a female version of a Judd Apatow production are out of the way. Your average reviewer has, however, been careful to maintain a certain level of pursed-lipped disapproval about one extended sequence, disapproval bolstered by the behind-the-scenes knowledge that said sequence was included at the insistence of producer Apatow himself.

Yes, it’s that scene. Maid of Honor Annie (co-writer Kristen Wiig) has persuaded the bridal party to visit a funky little Brazilian food place, because not everything about the ramp-up to her best friend Lillian’s wedding should be expensive and “classy”; something should be funky and little and Brazilian. After dining, the group goes to the expensive and “classy” wedding store, where they slowly realize they have food poisoning, a dire effect that approaches (possibly surpasses) the evacuation sequence in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Most of the projectile horror takes place within the wedding shop itself, but, in a strangely dreamlike image, the bride-to-be (Maya Rudolph), as though driven by some ancient animal instinct, manages to float outside the store – she’s wearing a pristine, billowing sample wedding dress – where she is overcome by gastro-intestinal immediacy and glides to a halt in the street itself, the dome of the gown providing an elegant scrim for the ghastly event.

Audiences scream. Apatow (and others) have been pushing the scatological envelope for a while now, so this kind of thing isn’t completely unexpected, but it is pretty gross. Explicit hurling is literally placed atop more explicit hurling, and other nightmares are only barely left to the imagination. Does this unbalance the otherwise sharply-drawn blend of slapstick and thoughtful dramedy that Wiig and director Paul Feig achieve elsewhere in the movie?

Naah. In fact, the wildness of the scene maybe unlocks that other good stuff. So I would like to say a few words in defense of this disreputable sequence, beginning with the acknowledgment that many great artists have made poop jokes great art, including Shakespeare and Swift and Cervantes (one of the funniest things in Don Quixote is a scene with people vomiting on each other). So let’s not be categorical about condemning that.

The sequence would be extraneous if it didn’t illuminate something about the central situation. But it does. Annie has gone out of her way to wrestle the wedding-planning away from Lillian’s new BFF Helen (Rose Byrne), who represents everything that is upwardly mobile and successful and gaseous (Annie wants the bachelorette party to be at Lillian’s family cabin, a homely place rich in memories; Helen suggests Vegas). So the Brazilian restaurant is Annie’s bid to keep it real in the face of an onslaught of conspicuous consumption.

The rivalry between Annie and Helen is often uproarious: for instance, their dueling toasts at an engagement party go beyond the comedic point being made into a glorious zone of awkwardness. Helen Has It All, while Annie nurses the wound of a failed small business, engages in an unfulfilling (not to say masochistic) relationship, and lives in a shared-apartment situation that is all the weirder for never quite being explained. So yes, the movie sketches that particular kind of one-upwomanship very well.

In its own outrageous way, Bridesmaids is about something bigger, too, because it proposes a rejection of the consumer model so many movies sell. In opposition to the Trump-ization of life, Bridesmaids consistently comes down on the side of simplicity and authenticity. In the case of the Brazilian restaurant, this would seem to be a mixed message, because it was Annie’s idea to go there and the disaster results from it. On the other hand, without the food poisoning, we’d never have the utter fouling of the high-class bridal shop, which works in a similar way to the visit to the fancy restaurant in The Blue Brothers and other such examples of trashing the upper class. The reason this particular trashing is so welcome now is that we’ve grown so accustomed to a deep worship of wealth that the people on the lowest rungs of the economy are passionately defending the right of the richest to not pay taxes. Bridesmaids takes that wealth-worship and pukes all over it. This outrageous scene is not just there to give ’em something to talk about after the movie’s over. It’s there to liberate.