Quick Thoughts on The Tree of Life

Finally got to see this this afternoon, at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma.  My audience was fairly annoying, but not as bad as what I’ve been hearing.  Only a couple people walked out.  We were the youngest people in attendance (2:30 on a Sunday, that’s not that surprising).  There wasn’t any inappropriate noise for the most part, though I swear I heard someone listening to a radio while Jack was stealing the neglige.  Everyone got up immediately, chuckling and baffled, at the end of the film, breaking the spell of the soundtrack (nature noises, followed by piano and then some other bit of music).  I couldn’t move until the film shut off.

There are spoilers here, though I can’t imagine this is a film that can be spoiled.

As the film begins, a series of dualisms are set up (Grace/Nature, Mother/Father, natural world/modern architecture) but I think the film concludes by eliminating those oppositions and embracing a whole.  This plays out in Jack’s reconciliation with his father and in his seeing the cloudscape reflected in the skyscraper.  It’s the final image of the film: a bridge spanning water.

Water is a vitally important image in Malick’s last three films.  It is time and interconnectedness.  It is Pocahontas’s mother/god, its the eternity that life struggles to conquer in the ghostly final image of The Thin Red Line.  The eponymous tree here I thought was really beautiful, haunting the film like a cousin of the monoliths of 2001.  The imagery isn’t particularly obscure, but as always with Malick, it is utterly sincere.  

The editing is like nothing we see, or have seen, possibly going back to Soviet montage.  The film is rightfully praised for the beauty of its individual images, but the way Malick builds meaning and such profound emotion out of such brief images, as often as not of inhuman elements is remarkable.  It’s the editing that makes the film Transcendentalist more than anything else: trees and clouds and rivers are imbued with soul through montage.

I don’t know if Penn is dead or not at the end, I suspect not.  I see the “afterlife” as his vision of what the afterlife will be like, when he’ll be reuniting with his loved ones.  Fundamentally, the film isn’t all that different from Lost, is it?

For some reason I thought the brother that died had killed himself.  Did anyone else get that impression, or did it spring entirely out of my own mind?  

I can’t think of a better film to pair this with than Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

There’s a repeated shot up through a canyon that looks like the canyon in 127 Hours.  That, in turn, reminds one of the caves in Uncle Boonmee and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  Something in the zeitgeist?  The weird thing is that the womb image here is not a cave, but a house floating in water, with the child passing through the door and swimming up to the air at birth (and rebirth).

There’s a long section, after we see the creation of the universe (all of which is prelude to the birth of Sean Penn) where we see Penn as an infant.  His earliest memories, flashes of images and sensations and emotions that has instantly become one of my all-time favorite movie sequences.  I’ve never seen a film that so captured memory, in all its incompleteness and fragmentation and sentiment and beauty.

Really all of the musical sequences with Pitt are fantastic: stopping in the midst of yelling at your kids to freak out about Brahms?  Jack watching as his Father loses himself in Bach, finally sitting next to him in one of their rare moments of closeness.  Most importantly, when his middle son is playing guitar and he begins to accompany him on piano.  He’s so proud of the one son, while the other is heartbroken that he’ll never share that connection with his father.

I think Pitt played him great, but his character is so well-conceived.  He’s certainly got his faults, but you feel the struggle of a whole generation of men who came of age in depression and war trying to not only survive the peacetime but raise children who’ve never known struggle and don’t understand why their thoroughly traumatized parents are so emotionally distant.  It’s sympathetic to him in a way we very rarely are.

One of my favorite single images, representative of the film in both its beauty and its at times almost comical on-the-noseness: a newly formed galaxy, framed by more distant galaxies, forming a God’s Eye.  Malick can get away with that kind of thing because of his sincerity.  There aren’t enough honest artists out there these days.

Movie Roundup: Chinese Lightning Edition

The Mission – Maybe Johnnie To’s best movie, the first part of a thematic trilogy with the equally great Exiled and the pretty good Vengeance.  All three are about a group of hired killers who, for the sake of honor, find themselves at war with their boss.  There’s a shoot out in an empty mall (which looks like the same mall as the one in the climax of Jackie Chan’s Police Story) that’s a perfect distillation of To’s style: complex but comprehensible geography, Leone-like stillness, Woo-like cool.  The #3 film of 1999.
Election – Simon Yam and the other Tony Leung compete to be the leader of the local gang.  This first of two films relates the present day organized crime gangs (triads) to their history as anti-Manchu insurrectionist groups.  The sequel demonstrates the ways in which Hong Kong’s gangs are regulated and manipulated by both the local police and the mainland Chinese government.  Johnnie To strips all the pomp out of The Godfather and mixes it into an action movie.  The #5 film of 2005.
A Hero Never Dies – Tweaking a favorite John Woo trope, Johnnie To pits two superhuman hitmen against each other and they find they have more in common than their bosses’ rivalries should allow.  Woo plays it straight, with Catholic notions about the duality of man.  To nods to Weekend at Bernie’s.  The #25 film of 1998.
The 14 Amazons – After all the men of the Yang family are wiped out by insurrectionists, the women take up arms against the villainous army.  Along the way, a bridge is shattered (inspiring Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and they rebuild it out of people.  It was a big hit on its release: people always like to see women fighting.  Action director Ching Siu Tung went on to direct as well, he did Swordsman II and the action choreography in Zhang Yimou’s 2000s epics.  The #17 film of 1972.
My Young Auntie – Kara Hui stars in a comic Lau Kar Leung film.  She’s the titular auntie  who inherits an estate and tries to keep it from being stolen by her dead husbands evil brother.  She’s intrigued and terrified by the modern world, mocked by her nephew (Hsiao Ho) and his friends but everyone joins together to beat up the bad guys in the end.  It’s the best of Lau’s comedies, but I like him better when he’s serious.  The #5 film of 1981.
The Lady Hermit – Cheng Pei-pei is the kung fu master hiding out while she recovers from her last battle with her archenemy.  A young man and woman discover her identity and the three of them work on some new kung fu moves and a love triangle.  Eventually, everyone fights the bad guy.  Cheng is as great as ever, and Shih Szu as the young woman who idolizes her is pretty adorable, but Lo Lieh is relatively bland as the male lead.  Better than the other two films by Meng Hua Ho I’ve seen (Vengeance is a Golden Blade and Shaolin Handlock) but none of them really stand out as great.  The #15 film of 1971.

God of Gamblers – Chow Yun-fat is the coolest guy in the world, the best gambler ever who looks fantastic in a tuxedo.  In the midst of preparing to defeat a bad guy in a gambling showdown, he falls down a hill and hits his head on a rock.  When small-time hustler Andy Lau (so young as to be nearly unrecognizable) finds him, he’s got amnesia and has mentally regressed to a child.  Lau discovers his gambling talents and begins to exploit him, but when Chow’s old acquaintances discover him, he and Lau have to find a way to get his brain back in working order (apparently never having seen the episode of Charles in Charge where a blow to the head changes Charles into his evil alternate personality “Chaz”.)  In the end, Chow is back to his awesome self.  The first film in a long running series of sequels and parodies, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular: Chow’s awesomeness mixed with director Wong Jing’s lowest common denominator humor is nearly irresistible.  The #13 film of 1989.

Top 100 Albums of All-Time

1 The Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs
2 Bob Dylan Bringing it All Back Home
3 The Beatles The Beatles (White Album)
4 Bob Dylan Love and Theft
5 Miles Davis Kind of Blue
6 The Clash London Calling
7 The Pogues If I Should Fall From Grace With God
8 Pavement Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
9 Weezer Pinkerton
10 Beck Odelay
11 The Beatles Abbey Road
12 The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground & Nico
13 Radiohead OK Computer
14 The Beach Boys Pet Sounds
15 Sonic Youth Daydream Nation
16 Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street
17 Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde
18 The Beatles Revolver
19 Neil Young & Crazy Horse Rust Never Sleeps
20 Neutral Milk Hotel In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
21 Fleetwood Mac Rumours
22 Parliament Mothership Connection
23 Bob Dylan Blood on the Tracks
24 The Pogues Rum, Sodomy & the Lash
25 Leonard Cohen The Songs of Leonard Cohen
26 Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers
27 Pavement Slanted & Enchanted
28 Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited
29 Led Zeppelin IV
30 The Jimi Hendrix Experience Are You Experienced?
31 Joni Mitchell Blue
32 David Bowie The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
33 Neil Young Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
34 Tom Waits Rain Dogs
35 Nirvana Nevermind
36 Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
37 Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle
38 Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon
39 Bjork Debut
40 Rolling Stones Let it Bleed
41 Yo La Tengo Electr-o-pura
42 The Pixies Doolittle
43 Paul Simon Graceland
44 Frank Sinatra In the Wee Small Hours
45 Radiohead Kid A
46 Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream
47 Amy Winehouse Back To Black
48 Bob Dylan The Basement Tapes
49 The Pixies Surfer Rosa
50 The Grateful Dead American Beauty
51 Rolling Stones Beggar’s Banquet
52 Neil Young After the Goldrush
53 Miles Davis Birth of the Cool
54 Morphine Cure for Pain
55 White Stripes Get Behind Me Satan
56 Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Abbatoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
57 Lou Reed Berlin
58 Jeff Buckley Grace
59 Radiohead Amnesiac
60 Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy
61 The Pogues Red Roses for Me
62 Nirvana In Utero
63 PJ Harvey Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea
64 Van Morrison Astral Weeks
65 Lou Reed Transformer
66 Tom Waits Mule Variations
67 Michael Jackson Thriller
68 Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
69 They Might Be Giants Flood
70 The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
71 Violent Femmes Violent Femmes
72 Dave Brubeck Time Out
73 Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man
74 David Bowie Hunky Dory
75 Prince Purple Rain
76 Sufjan Stevens Illinois
77 Ornette Coleman Free Jazz
78 Leonard Cohen Various Positions
79 The Beatles Let it Be
80 Cannonball Adderly Somethin’ Else
81 Brian Eno Here Come the Warm Jets
82 Yo La Tengo And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out
83 Neko Case Furnace Room Lullaby
84 Charles Mingus Mingus Plays Piano
85 Rush Moving Pictures
86 Modest Mouse The Moon & Antarctica
87 Stephen Malkmus Stephen Malkmus
88 NWA Straight Outta Compton
89 PJ Harvey To Bring You My Love
90 The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground
91 Frank Sinatra Songs for Swingin’ Lovers
92 The Clash Sandinista!
93 Wilco Being There
94 Elvis Costello My Aim Is True
95 The National High Violet
96 Tom Waits The Heart of Saturday Night
97 LCD Soundsystem This is Happening
98 Devo Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
99 Bjork Homogenic
100 Yo La Tengo I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One

Movie Roundup: Crime Movie Lightning Round Edition

Lightning strikes again.
Phantom Lady – Wrong man noir from Robert Siodmak.  A man is imprisoned for murder and his only alibi is a woman with a crazy hat.  His faithful assistant (Ella Raines) must find her before he gets executed.  Franchot Tone, the best friend, tries to help, or does he??  Elisha Cook almost steals the show as a horny drummer.  Suitably weird.  The #14 film of 1944.
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry – George Sanders playing against type brilliantly as a hen-pecked brother of a couple of crazy sisters in another Siodmak noir.  When he meets Ella Raines he plots his escape from his dreary family and small town, with noirish results.  The ending doesn’t work at all, and is even more obviously tacked on than that of a certain Fritz Lang film, but before that we’re treated to a pretty crazy quilt of murder, new England provincialism and insinuated incest.  The #19 film of 1945.
Shockproof – A film noir written by Samuel Fuller and directed by Douglas Sirk.  You wouldn’t think those two sensibilities would go together, but they share an interest in superheated emotion and wild plotting (I would love to see a Fuller Magnificent Obsession, or a Sirk Naked Kiss).  Anyway, Cornel Wilde plays a parole officer (named Griff, naturally) who falls for his parolee, a gangster’s girl.  He gets her a job taking care of his blind mom, she plots to escape and run off with her boyfriend, while stringing Griff along.  It’s not really shocking, nor does it prove anything, but there’s enough there to chew on, if not to the standard of either man’s greatest films.  The #15 film of 1949.
Gone in 60 Seconds – The car chase movie was perfected in 1974, but for some inexplicable reason, people keep making them.  Entirely independent, written, produced, directed by and starring Toby Halicki and a Mustang Mach 1.  The first half of the film is a vague plot about a gang of car thieves stealing a ridiculous amount of cars in a short period of time.  There’s little in the way of acting and most of the dialogue is in post-recorded voiceover.  The second half is a 45 minute car chase that’s just about the greatest thing in the history of the automobile.  Pure cinema.  The #6 film of 1974.
City of Fear – Big disappointment after how much I loved Murder By Contract, also directed by Irving Lerner, especially given the swell title.  It’s a procedural, Cold War panic kind of thing, with Vince Edwards as an escaped convict packing radioactive cobalt that’s slowly killing him and may kill all of Los Angeles if he isn’t found.  Sometimes people in movies are dumb and it makes me sad and bored.  I suspect Lerner is not a wizard.  The #16 film of 1959.

Movie Roundup: 2010 Lightning Round Edition

Still way behind, so I’m going to try to get through these even more quickly than usual.  I wrote some longer bits for Metro Classics a few weeks ago, about some BIlly Wilder films, a Powell & Pressburger and a scary samurai movie.
Easy A – A perfectly charming teen comedy.  Emma Stone is great, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson plays idealized parents.  The social commentary isn’t particularly incisive, though it does hint at the scary Puritanism of the current generation (The Scarlet Letter doesn’t adapt as well to high school as Emma did, but better than Taming of the Shrew).  This movie makes me feel old: for once, I identified more with the parents than the kids.  The #25 film of 2010.
Restrepo – A fine film as a slice of a year in the life of soldiers defending a remote outpost in Afghanistan, but it lacks the narrative structure or context to make it interesting on anything more than the most mundane, day-to-day level.  These guys deserve a story.  The #43 film of 2010.
The Illusionist – Sylvain Chomet’s animated realization of a Jacques Tati script.  A young girl tags along an aging vaudeville magician, brightening his life and that of his very depressed coworkers.  She grows up and moves on, he stays alone.  Not in the class of Tati’s own films, it’s more sweet and sad than anything else I’ve seen of his.  Brilliant and profound though they are, they never aspire to this kind of sentimentality.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Lovely score, I think Chomet’s animation style is a bit too grotesque.  The #11 film of 2010.
Never Let Me Go – One of those sci-fi films that doesn’t work for me because it’s on the border between believable fiction and wild fantasy.  Like Children of Men, say, I can’t see how the world it creates would ever actually happen, which lessens the drama tremendously.  If the scientific breakthrough that forms the core of the film’s premise were to ever actually happen, I see no way that the world would deal with it in the way the film posits it would (and also forms the foundation for its assertions about society and human nature), certainly not in the timeframe the film allows it.  Absent that firm basis, the film plays more as moody sulkiness and pretty images than anything truly interesting or insightful.  Also not believable: that anyone would pick Keira Knightley over Carey Mulligan.  The #31 film of 2010.
Machete – Robert Rodriguez spinning his wheels.  It’s fun, and kind of funny, but mostly it’s exactly what you expect it to be.  Planet Terror and Once Upon a Time in Mexico did the same thing, but with more style and creativity.  The #39 film of 2010.
Kick Ass – Watchmen without the self-importance, and also without the ambition.  It’s fine.  The #38 film of 2010.
Summer Wars – Nifty anime from the guy who did The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, though this isn’t quite that good.  Weird vision of the internet as a Paprika-style dreamworld almost overwhelms the emotional moments: the family-bonding and coming of age romanticism.  Girl was more heartfelt and grounded, if even more fantastical.  The #25 film of 2009.
Unstoppable – I don’t know if Tony Scott is a genius, but this as as good as the contemporary American action film gets.  Modest and focused where the Bays and Nolans are bloated and chaotic, the film does exactly what it tells you its going to do, with a minimum of fuss.  Not so the visual style, of course, but Scott’s peripatetic camera and editing don’t distract me too much.  I need to watch the rest of his recent films, there’s a big gap between this and Crimson Tide.  The #29 film of 2010.