Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Tree of Life - Movie Review

The Tree of Life
Rated PG-13 for some thematic material
Moral rating:  

Director Terrence Malick's latest cinematic art piece has finally reached Memphis TN. It recently won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has opened in several other cities across the country. I have been a fan of Malick's movies for years and have been eagerly awaiting "The Tree of Life" as a child anticipates Christmas. Indeed that is the level that his films are set. Following "The Thin Red Line" (1998) and "The New World" (2005), "The Tree of Life" dives into the depths of life. While "The New World" -Malick's narrative of the Pocahontas story- and "The Thin Red Line"- his ponderous Pacific WW2 epic- were more about immersing the audience into the location and the setting of the film's events, "The Tree of Life" is more about immersing the audience into the minds of the characters.

Entering the theater I knew that "The Tree of Life" was going to be heavy, but I didn't realize just how deep a filmmaker Terrence Malick was. The film opens with a death, as The O'Briens (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) receive news of the death of their middle son. This scene is juxtaposed with one several years into the future in which their oldest son Jack (Sean Penn) is struggling with a crisis of faith and life purpose. This sets the stage for 2 hours of some of the most breathtaking cinematography, music and poetic musings that the cinema has ever seen.

While most films follow a narrative, "The Tree of Life" is a collection of scenes and visuals that weave together an emotional progression. Most of the film is from Jack's early life as he is raised by parents that follow two conflicting life-views. His mother follows the 'way of grace' as Malick likes to describe living by faith in God. "Unless you love, your life will flash by." Chastain whispers in one of the films many thought provoking voice-overs. While these principles are presented in a more vague, existentialist manifestation, as a Christian I saw spiritual truth and Biblical references dotted all throughout the script. "Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries." "There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow."

This choice is at the heart of what "The Tree of Life" is all about. If Jack's mother was a follower of God, then his father was a follower of mankind. All throughout his childhood Jack struggled with these conflicting ideals. We experience the internal struggle as he thinks- "Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will." Mr. O'Brien was a rough man who sought respect and fear, mistaking this for love until his sons are older and turning into the man he is. He constantly tells his boys that you can't be too good if you want to be successful in life "It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world." As we experience Jack grow up, we see this ideal start to take hold, in less than preferable ways. As Jack questions the existence and nature of God, he struggles intensely. "What are you?" he asks God. "Where are you? Why do you allow bad things to happen? If you aren't good, then why should I be?" This soon paves way to grief and bitterness as he realizes the emptiness of his life. "How do I get back to where they are?" Jack asks God as he sees his brothers and mother's true joy.

 I struggle with this film because as as Christian I understand that it is Christ that brings true life, and that HE is the way of grace and life. Malick unfortunately never spells this out completely.Several elements in "The Tree of Life" indicate that Malick is Catholic, and we see characters in church and praying at an altar with a cross, yet the name Jesus is suspiciously missing in all this. For 2 hours and 20 minutes our characters struggle with life, asking questions about death, the meaning of life, our place in the universe, and how we are to follow God in the midst of a crooked world. The characters on screen are implied to know the ONE who is the light in the darkness, and while Malick maybe doesn't present as much truth as the could have, he certainly should be commended for pointing at the love of God for true fulfillment in life. 

This view of the majesty and glory of God is beautiful in the film, made even more beautiful by the accompanying film score by Alexandre Desplat. Perhaps one of the most unique and breathtaking sequences was an extended 15 or 20 minute sequence early on in the film in which we see the origins of the universe. From the formation of the galaxies and heavens, the formation of earth, to the creation of life - this is perhaps the most captivating part of the movie. While implied to be an evolutionary view of creation, the sequence is to make the point of the vastness and power of God. As we see dinosaurs roam the earth, the oceans churning and the loss of innocence, we are suddenly aware of how small our lives are and how magnificent God's love and grace are in light of his majesty. As old Jack thinks on this, he realizes this beauty and significance in his life. As he lets go of his hurt, we also see a flashback to his mother letting go of the death of her son years earlier. "I give him to you, my son." "When did I first love you?" Jack ponders as he thinks about the fingerprints of God all over his life. 

And fingerprints indeed to we see. The beauty of the little things that Malick captures on film takes my breath away. From the wonder of a baby, to his first steps, to his first words, the birth of this brothers, his love for his mother, his love for his father, his pains, his struggles, ball playing in the yard, riding bikes, laughing, crying, loving hurting- Malick somehow captures it all. I felt as I left the theater that I had just lived an entire life with someone. I struggle with how to review this movie, what to tell you and what to let you find out for yourself. But one things is certain, "The Tree of Life" WILL make you think about life. You get out of it what you let yourself get out of it. There is no official "point" to this film. It is as the friend I went with said - "Beautifully pointless." As a believer in Christ, I saw the beauty and the wonder. I cannot imagine what it would be like to see it without hope, though.

If deep, thought-provoking movies are your thing, please don't miss "The Tree of Life." If maybe you are someone that enjoys a movie that is strictly entertainment, then this may be too existentialist for you. But see it at some point! :-)
Until next time, The Real Bowman.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Thoughts on "The King's Speech" - A review of sorts

I should preface this post by mentioning the fact that I was not one of the many film critics that rushed to theaters to see The King's Speech. Nor was I moved to see it when it won its Golden Globe and Academy Awards. It became an addition to that list of movies that I affectionately call "The Pile" - that dreaded stack of DVDs of films that may be critically lauded, yet I still somehow avoid watching them. So I found myself the night before last watching one such film from this pile. And my, how I wish I had not waited!

Tom Hooper won the Academy Award for Best Director for The King's Speech, yet I would say that direction had not so much to do with it as the incredible acting by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Of course Firth won awards for his performance as King George VI (or "Bertie", as the Duke of York was called by his family), yet Rush's heartfelt and passionate performance as speech therapist Lionel Logue is the one that captured my attention. The devotion he had towards Bertie and his commitment towards helping him develop confidence as a leader solidify Logue as the true hero of the story.

For a title such as "The King's Speech", this movie is really not at all about the King's speech. At it's heart Hooper weaves a tale about fear, friendship and loyalty. The friendship that develops between Logue and the King is definitely strained at first, but as Bertie learns to communicate with Logue, he also comes face to face with his insecurities as a son living up to his father's goals, his fears as a new King, and his pride as someone that can relate to the common man. This was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the story. While it certainly took liberties with historical accuracy for the sake of storytelling, I still loved the exploration of King George as a human with his own faults.

One of the truths that Logue taught Bertie was his value as a human with a voice. He was not to be listened to because he was King, or because he was living in his father's shadow; but rather because Bertie was a fellow person that people wanted to relate to. In a sense Logue was the prototype British citizen for this ideal. By showing the king that he could open up and confidently communicate with Logue, his ability to connect with the nation was revealed. In a time of trial such as World War II, this is exactly what England needed- a King whom they could relate to, whom they could trust, whom they knew was going to be a strong leader even in the midst of darkness. 

The transformation from the stammering, insecure and angry Duke of York into the inwardly confident king is enjoyable and touching to watch, from his rather uncouth speech lessons all the way to his leadership during a war. At the same time serious and endearing, "The King's Speech" is a delightful look inside the human psyche featuring stellar performances all across the board ( and I can't forget to mention Helena Bonham Carter as a fabulous Queen Elizabeth). If you haven't already, check this film out. 

("The King's Speech" is rated R for some language. Be sure to preview before family viewing, as a couple of sequences feature a brief (albeit funny) barrage of profanity to loosen the King's tongue. Easily mutable, this scene should not prevent anyone from seeing it.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Super 8 - Movie Review

Super 8
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and some drug use.
Moral Rating:

I have very interesting thoughts about Super 8. I intended to write this review last week when it first came out, but alas and alack life called and I found myself able to let J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg's homage to old-school sci-fi films marinate a while longer in my mind. And that is not a good thing. :-) The problem with Super 8 is not that it is not a good movie, by all means it IS incredibly well made, but that it draws from a pool of superior films in its inspiration. Instead of exiting the theater and thinking about the wonderful story, cinematography and acting I found myself instantly comparing it to other past Spielberg productions such as E.T., The Goonies and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. 

J.J. Abrams attempts and succeeds in Super 8 to craft a film more about the characters and the relationships between them than the aliens, explosions and climaxes (take note Michael Bay). The story revolves around a young boy named Joe (a stellar debut performance by Joel Courtney) and his father - a small town deputy named Jackson Lamb ( portrayed by the surprisingly refreshing Kyle Chandler). Joe and his father are at odds for the majority of the film because Joe develops an attachment to the lovely young Alice (Elle Fanning) while helping his friends film a zombie movie on a super 8 camera (the title reference). This normally wouldn't be an issue, except Joe's father blames Alice's father for the death of his wife in a tragic machine shop accident (not shown, thank God). Trust me, it is very easy to follow on screen! All this background is just to give you an idea of the kind of drama and angst in Super 8. Instead of squeezing your armrest in suspense at the havoc caused by the escaped creature (yes there is a creature, and yes there is a train wreck) you will most likely be tearing up as you feel Joe's pain. This is what keeps Super 8 afloat. As a monster movie, Super 8 would very much so suck - but as a movie about a young boy trying to repair the relationship with his bitter and grieving father, Super 8 excels.

Now to the monster. The only thing I need to say is that I was a bit let down by this aspect of the story. I felt as if Abrams was borrowing too much from Cloverfield for his monster design and as a result, thought it was a stretch to characterize it. E.T had a somewhat "cute" quality, this monster - not so much. Abrams does know how to build suspense though, and the most enjoyable suspense scenes where ALL those in which you didn't know where the creature was, what it was doing, and what it looked like. As in Indiana Jones 4, Signs and a handful of other sci-fi films this has been the problem. The film builds up to a rather disappointing alien "reveal". If instead modern directors would follow in the footsteps of Alfred Hitchcock, their films would be far more effective. Hitchcock created suspense and tension by NOT revealing because he understood that the imagination could create far more terrifying and horrific scenarios then anything he could portray. This is why Rear Window, Psycho and The Birds have endured the test of time. I'd like to say that Super 8 could as well, but.... if it does it won't be based on any of the suspense or creature sequences. (shakes head). Thank goodness the characters are so good.

One final note.... there is a surprisingly good amount of language in Super 8. Many uses of G**d*** and S*** almost ALL being spoken by child actors. While the amount of offensive language is not very frequent, it does bother me how Hollywood seems to be writing more and more edgy scripts for young actors. I recall the outrage at Kick-A** for allowing one of the young actors to use the C-word in the script. While Super 8 doesn't have that, it still makes me wonder about the future of language in cinema.... as odd as that sounds. Other than that language and a solitary F bomb, the only other problem I could see someone having was the intensity of some of the sequences. The train wreck sequence is loud, scary and intense although impressively created on screen. Teens and adults should have no problem with this or the suspense, but for a movie that is marketed as an old-school family film it is certainly anything but! 

Conclusion: I was happy to see an original story on the screen as good as this Spielberg/Abrams collaboration. Sure, Super 8 has its flaws, its INCREDIBLY big shoes to fill and a creature that detracts from the overall value of the movie; but at its heart Super 8 is a story about living life, about relationships, about coping with grief, about taking chances, about sticking by one's principles, and trust. In the midst of a summer full of magic, explosions, superheroes, and all other manner of distractions it is encouraging to leave a theater feeling like you've grown as a human. It is sad that in the 21st century cinema this is such a rare thing!

Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class - Movie Review

X-Men: First Class
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language
Filmmaking: 5 out of 5 stars
Moral Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Let me start by saying that not only is X-Men: First Class a good comic book movie, it is just a good movie! I had somewhat high expectations walking into this movie, and while the cast and premise seemed promising, it is still hard to put too much stock in a movie that Marvel launches in the same summer as THOR and Captain America: The First Avenger - their other prized material. I walked out of the theater pleasantly surprised and actually excited again about the X-Men franchise. Easily the best of the 5 movies in this series to date, First Class examines the character of the X-Men almost flawlessly and explores their strengths (and weaknesses) in a manner that is not simply an excuse for cruddy CG (cough *X-Men Origins: Wolverine* cough). 

James McAvoy (Wanted, Atonement, The Chronicles of Narnia) breathes life into the character of Charles Xavier, who when we first meet him is attempting to use his mind reading powers to pick up women at the local bar. Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds, Immortals) steals the show by playing a young Erik Lensherr who has vowed to find and kill the man who murdered his mother in the Nazi concentration camps in his childhood. This villain, Sebastian Shaw, is portrayed here in a surprisingly good acting job by the often joked-about Kevin Bacon. The other show-out actor  here would easily be Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique - fleshing out the character that grows up to be the Mystique made famous by Rebecca Romijn.

The friendship and rift between Erik and Charles is the foundation of First Class and well depicted under the direction of director Matthew Vaughn. We actually feel the pain that Erik feels as he struggles to cope with his place in the world. We feel his struggle between rage and serenity, as does Charles. While Patrick Stewart is famous for his stalwart and noble take on the character, it is refreshing to see a heart and soul to the man who would become Professor X. As the standoff between Russia and the United States mounts, Charles steps up to lead a new band of mutants featuring Havok, Beast, Mystique, Banshee and Magneto to stop Sebastian Shaw and his own mutant team - Angel, Azazel, Emma Frost, and Riptide- from starting what would become World War 3. The X-Men are joined in this mission by government agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne, "Bridesmaids"). I honestly hoped for more from Moira, but Rose Byrne did a fine job playing the agent. Nothing more, nothing less.

Where First Class truly excelled was in it's narrative and setting. Not only did Vaughn set his X-Men in the 1960's Cold War, but he revelled in it, setting his characters loose as children in a playground. From the fine set pieces, to the clever use of news footage to the delightfully groovy score by Henry Jackman - this film plays out more like a vintage spy movie or an early Bond film. Indeed Fassbender's Erik Lensherr is already receiving critical acclaim and comparisons to Bond in the first half hour of the movie. As he searches for Sebastian Shaw, one could indeed see him as a future Bond after Daniel Craig's run is through. I credit former  X-Men director and producer on this project Bryan Singer for much of the depth to this film. Never do I feel that a character was wasted. Never do I find myself not caring about their fate. This is a movie with depth. With a generous running time of over 2 hours we have plenty of time to become familiar with the characters and get to know their desires and insecurities.

I would like to make a brief side note about the moral content of First Class. While not as prominent or offensive as the X-Men Trilogy, there is some sexual content in this film. Several women are seen in underwear in one scene, and Emma Frost (January Jones) is more of a playboy bunny than a sidekick to Shaw, frequently flaunting extremely low-cut clothing and undergarments. One scene finds Frost using her mind control powers to trick a Soviet dignitary into believing he is actually with her. The scene ends before anything happens however. Mystique is clothed for the majority of the film, but there are a few moments where we awkwardly see her entire body in blue prosthetic make-up (which I am assuming is the 'partial nudity' the rating mentions). Language is mostly tame, although the F bomb does pop up once (as one of three words from a very special character cameo) and G--d---- is used once or twice. Violence is intense and emotionally exhausting, given the dark nature of the film, but never bloody. 

Conclusion: You will note that this review does not mention special effects or story too much. That is because the special effects are there to enhance the story, which is so well crafted that I don't want to give too much away. I see X-Men: First Class as more than a worthy successor to X-Men 1 and 2, and in fact would set it on a pedestal alongside Christopher Nolan's epics - Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Only time will tell if this film lives up to the acclaim of those, but one thing is certain - Captain America: The First Avenger has some mighty big shoes to fill when it arrives on July 22nd!