25 August 2011

The Tree of Life

Written & Directed by: Terrence Malick
Full credits at IMDb

The Tree of Life is not a political film—it transcends such material limitations and reaches for something more numinous: to discover humanity's relationship to the divine; to find the whole of cosmological history in just one man. And then, it stops. The movie begins with The Fall, the descent from grace into the entropy of nature, and loops back to trace the events building up to it. And I mean way back: Malick visits the dawn of time, the creation of the stars and the planets, the first signs of life on earth and the cosmically brief reign of the dinosaurs. This epic drama of celestial and saurian bodies culminates in the birth of a boy into Eisenhower's America, a Cain born unto an Eden called post-war Waco, where he progresses through a childhood that's an ideal of beauty and peace after eons of chaos: it's made of frogs and rabbits, Halloweens and Fourths of July, horseplay and baseball, Mahler and Brahms, and a father who looms like the Old Testament God. (Phew. You get the sense Malick shot 1,440 frames for every 24 he used.) Here is the innocence—the paradise to be lost.

Malick depicts the past in organic shapes: it's all trees, grass and open water, all spirals and tendrils, the texture of the light as central to the film as the faces of his protagonists. In contrast, the present appears as the angular, geometric and boxy impositions of man, cold order placed on sublime freedom, all metal and glass, where water flows in a controlled stream from a faucet rather than splashing freely in a lake. We can trace the origins of this degeneration; serpents arise to defile the childhood idyll: polio, layoffs, death, sexual awakening, masturbation, Oedipal conflict with a stern patriarch. Drawing on his own personal experience, the director finds in his memories a way to make sense of the metaphysical, wrestling with broader philosophical problems. (When a child dies, the film's mother asks God, "what are we to you?" Against images of stars being born in a spatially and temporally infinite universe, Malick suggests the answer is "not much.") But then the film loses its spiritual edge, becoming instead a loose, lyrical portrait of fathers and sons lost in its own bathos, insufficiently ambitious and too narrow in scope. The Tree of Life is not ultimately about God, the fall from grace, or Reaganism—it's just the personal tragedy of one man nostalgic for a youth he can't reclaim. Grade: B+


Watch the trailer:

Magic Trip

Written & Directed by: Ken Kesey & Alison Ellwood
Full credits at IMDb

Early on in Magic Trip, an assembled-footage documentary about the Merry Pranksters' famous ride, ringmaster Ken Kesey acknowledges that his now-legendary trip—whose historical significance has perhaps been overstated—couldn't be a book. It's an experience, he says, not literature. (Perhaps a knock to Tom Wolfe, who goes conspicuously unmentioned?) But Gibney and Ellwood's film isn't an experience—it crams a psychedelic, transcendental happening into the confines of narrative-documentary cliche, translating the lyrical into the prosaic. It's literature. (The musical cues, for example, are painfully literal, including gospel over a digression on the civil rights movement and "Got My Mojo Workin'" over a segment about romantic entanglements.)

An animated sequence, set to a recording of Kesey narrating one of his earliest acid trips as it's happening, captures the dynamism of hallucinogenic drugs. Otherwise, the movie is mostly flat 16mm footage, shot by Kesey and friends and seen publicly here for the first time, supplemented by 35mm stills; together, these two media still add up to a incomplete, limiting, and monotonous visual record. In Gibney and Ellwood's moviola, the footage feels like little more than the home movies they are, despite the hippie freaks who star in them or the interviewed participants who make sense of them—valuable to the historian perhaps, but not the general audience. Grade: C


Watch the trailer:

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Written & Directed by: Werner Herzog
Full credits at IMDb

Notice it's not called "The Cave of Pretty Pictures." Herzog's documentary, about the earth's oldest known paintings in France's Chauvet Cave, is a philosophical, poetic examination—in three dimensions!—of these primitive-yet-sophisticated illustrations; it grapples with the mysteries that linger after science has established bare fact. OK, they're 32,000 years old—but did their creators weep at night? Herzog's focus is scattered, even drifting toward what the cave might have smelled like (anticipating post-3D smell-o-vision?), but that's understandable: he and his filmmaking team were given unprecedented access to the cave—which is hard to reach even with permission, and where even human breath can contaminate the specimens—that won't likely be granted to anyone else any time soon, so you can't really fault his impulse to cover every conceivable angle.

His camera glides over the uneven bumps of the stone walls, the significance of the artworks that decorate them presented in the director's unmistakably Teutonic-inflected English. (The crew prowls along, illuminating its path by flashlight like criminals—almost like they're the explorers who invaded the pharaohs' tombs.) Herzog expounds on how the early examples of figuration unite Paleolithic man with his modern counterpart, establishing a throughline from cave painting to camera; in fact, he sees in the cave paintings suggestions of the illusion of motion, making them a kind of Muybridgean proto-cinema. Herzog connects the paleolithic to the present: shadow dancers to Fred Astaire, the fusion of women and animals to Picasso, depictions of the female body to Baywatch, the attribution of melodramatic beauty to nature to the German Romantics. A crude bone-flute from a nearby region can be used to play the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Herzog is so fascinated by the past because he looks at it and sees himself. Some things change over the course of millenia. But others, like the torch-ash swiped 28,000 years ago that looks freshly fallen, don't. "We are locked in history," Herzog says. "They"—the cave painters—"were not." Grade: B


Watch the trailer:

19 August 2011

A Horrible Way to Die

Directed by: Adam Wingard
Written by: Simon Barrett
Full credits at IMDb

You know who's worse than serial killers? Fanboys! That's the punch line to this one-gag thriller, in which Amy Seimetz meets-cute nice-guy Joe Swanberg at an AA meeting. She'll eventually take her clothes off for him (though not as quickly as Greta Gerwig would have), and then involve him in a deadly situation when her serial-killer ex escapes from custody. The miserablist A Horrible Way to Die crosscuts the awkwardly blossoming romance between these two troubled types with the tastefully edited road-trip rampage of an unleashed sociopath with a large Internet following. (AJ Bowen plays this mustachioed schlub, who, in a different context, could pass for a character in a Joe Swanberg movie.) It's mumblecore with homicidal tendencies.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


Watch the trailer:

Conan the Barbarbian

Directed by: Marcus Nispel
Written by: Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Sean Hood
Full credits at IMDb

Of course Lionsgate would tap Marcus Nispel to direct this, right? The Platinum Dunes hack-for-hire has become the modern master of the schlockhouse reboot. Proving he could capably revive the Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw franchises, why not move him on to some other cheesy 80s property like Conan? This new movie has been in the works for almost a decade, as part of a carefully rolled out rebranding of the Conan character, who dates back to Robert E. Howard's Depression-era fantasy stories but "had grown plain weird," as Brooks Barnes recently reported. The company that owned the rights withdrew all Conan merchandise from the market in 2002, and has been slowly reintroducing new stuff ever since: new comics, a strong-selling computer game, and now the film. This carefully controlled strategy has culminated in a movie tailor-made for boys, who'll be thrilled into buying new things by the copious gore and bare breasts without being bored by things like character development or smart pacing. (Here's the structure: violence-violence-violence-exposition-violence-violence-violence. Repeat for 110 minutes.) But what's inoffensive for one demographic is exhausting, exasperating for another.

Keep reading my conversation with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


Watch the trailer:

12 August 2011

30 Minutes or Less

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Written by: Michael Diliberti
Full credits at IMDb

[In one scene, a] lady, the stripper, reveals and then fondles her breasts when Danny McBride brings up his potential $1 million inheritance—because the very mention of money makes ladies' nipples hard? This movie is so full of unfunny misogyny and racist cliches! But maybe its characters [are] just trying on action-movie cliches. If you think about it, this is like a terrible, tone-deaf Hot Fuzz, with its characters' reverence for action movies (for movie night, Jesse Eisenberg rents Lethal Weapons I & II). They construct their lives around them; the whole ludicrous plot is based around that genre's tropes (hired assassins, car chases, bank robberies, etc.) But 30 Minutes doesn't send them up—it embraces them, then just crowds them with labored one-liners.

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


Watch the trailer:

05 August 2011

Bellflower

Written & Directed by: Evan Glodell
Full credits at IMDb

"Propane is for pussies." So declares a character in the combustible Bellflower, which is fueled by blood, fire, whiskey and diesel. In his feature debut, writer-director Evan Glodell roughens his dippy romantic banalities with a post-apocalyptic aesthetic. (Because break-ups and doomsdays share that "end of the world" feeling.) Bellflower Southbys its Sundanceness, Texifies its Utah-grown clich├ęs— it Mad Maxes them. Woodrow (Glodell) and Milly (Jessie Wiseman) meet cute in a SoCal bar by competing in a grasshopper-eating contest. "I'm building a flamethrower," he tells her, subverting the sweetness with badassery-aside from the homemade flamethrower, there's also a muscle car that shoots fire from its exhaust pipes-and foreshadowing what's to come: fuller versions of the gruesome flashes glimpsed in pre-credits jump shots, the goofy charm lost in sad violence.

Keep reading at The L Magazine


Watch the trailer:

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Written by: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
Full credits at IMDb

I came into this pretty intrigued by what I assumed had to be a necessarily unhappy ending, just like Revenge of the Sith couldn't end well. As a franchise-rebooting prequel to 1968's Planet of the Apes (and not 2005's Franco-directed The Ape), which famously ends with the revelation that the earth's human population has been decimated and its civilization destroyed, this movie had to climax with a great war, or a great plague, or both, or something equally depressing—a human-and-humanity-ending apocalypse. But, rather terrifically, director Rupert Wyatt makes this devastation a bittersweetly happy ending; he aligns our sympathies with the apes, and so as they battle the humans in the awesome climactic action sequence, we're rooting for them—even as they're beating up police officers and civilian bystanders. In other words, we're rooting against ourselves!

Keep reading my conversation with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine


Watch the trailer:

Cowboys & Aliens

Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus and Hank Ostby
Full credits at IMDb

Cowboys & Aliens...lampoons the Western's archetypes, including in this case a man with no name, his unlikely pairing with a headstrong woman, a preacher with a taste for drink, a spoiled scion, local corruption, a coming railroad, and the exoticized Injun, with his painted face and strange magiks. As for symbolism, well, it feels like there's not much here. For me, potentially, the most interesting aspect of the movie was how it would play with genre, mashing up science fiction with the Western. I mean, sure, why do we so rarely see alien invasion narratives outside of the 20th century? (Besides, I suppose, 2001's apes-visitng monolith, or episodes of Doctor Who.) So, I appreciate the conceit, but it's not exactly smart, is it? I mean, is there any reason for overwriting the anxieties of one genre (race/science) onto another (race/settling down)?

Keep reading at The L Magazine


Watch the trailer: