The Tree of Life – Review

The Tree of Life (2011) 

Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Brad PittSean PennJessica Chastain.

What really makes me angry about this film is that behind the preposterous, pretentious, tediously slow, shockingly simplistic muddle of philosophical clichés, there was actually a good story waiting to be told by a potentially great director.

Those scenes with the kids for example (whose acting was particularly graceful and natural) were indeed nicely handled and gave you a little hint of how much better the film could have been if only director Terence Malick had been a little bit less full of himself.

Instead he decided to cram it all with heavy, pretentious, superfluous, confusing and rather conventional voice over, plastered all over the soundtrack, preventing his audience from any emotional response to the film.

All that was enhanced even more by the constant choral musical score (including requiem from Bach, Mozart, Gorecki, Respighi, Holst and God knows how many others) which gave the film the same monotone feel throughout.

It’s as if there was only one gear controlling the pace of this film.

The parallel with Kubrick’s 2001: A space Odyssey comes quite natural: in a way this film has the same ideals and touches most of the same grounds as Kubrick’s classic and because of that, dare-I-say, falls into the exact same faults: the sketchy narrative, overblown abstractions and the slow pace.

By while in Kubrick’s’ case, those “faults” were also counterbalanced by the gripping relationship between man and machine and a strong sense of wonder towards heaven and earth, in the case of Malick’s Tree of Life, there’s a certain pompousness which makes it really annoying. Also it is both too inaccessible and too obvious. Finally Malick’s detatched style makes it really hard for anyone to care: in my very humble view the film should have been much more focused on the central story.

There was absolutely no need to show us the beginning of the Universe, nor the end of the dinosaurs age (incidentally, the dinosaurs looked better back in 1993 when Spielberg made Jurassic Park!). In fact, there was probably not even need for Sean Penn to be there at all: everything the film wanted to tell us was right there within the central story of the American family in the 50s.

And there was definitely no need for that terribly smultzy and contrived final sequence which was supposed to show the end of the world and give us a vision of “heaven” but  actually ended up looking more like some outtakes from the actual film’s wrap party, with all the actors re-uniting again and congratulating each other on how good they all were. Or was it just Malick’s own version of the finale of the TV series LOST?

Everything in the film is heavily soaked in symbolism and religion. I read somewhere that Brad Pitt’s character was supposed to symbolise the “Old Testament” and his wife was the “New Testament”. I did noticed that the two of them were never shown talking to each other, and if they were it was always through a glass or from far away or  even off-camera, preventing us from hearing their dialogue or to see them interacting with each other.

But does all this stylish trickery and heavy subtext really make the film any better? Certainly not for me.

In fact it  is all too disappointingly literal and frustratingly patchy that in the end it just comes out  as cold and distant. So much so that I just couldn’t really care about anyone in this film… and for a film that’s about life and love that is a terrible fault.

All these attempts to elevate the small-scale, intimate family drama by intercutting cosmic sequences of the beginning of the universe in order to give a deeper meaning to the soul-searching of the characters are finally not enough to compensate for a lack of dramatic involvement and in the end, they just overwhelm the actual story.

Even the beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (where everything seems to be filmed at magic hour) becomes self-indulgent, repetitive and tedious. There’s only a certain amount of trees, waterfalls and shots of glinting sun flaring at the lens you can take.

It’s hard to believe that this is only Terence Malick’s 5th feature film as a director since 1973. The Tree of Life has all his distinct signature trademarks (the beautifully photographed shots of nature, the use voice over and music and the themes of the film themselves), but are they just trademarks or is he  actually making the same sort of film over and over again?

Whatever the answer is, apparently all this was enough for the judges in Cannes to assign it the Palme d’or, back in May 2011.

Some people in Cannes said that Malick is more of an “artist” then a film-maker. But as somebody once also said “to make art is to fail” and he clearly does fail with this film, mainly because he just tries too hard. If only he hadn’t aimed so high, he would have certainly made a better film, but as it stand “The Tree of Life” is an epic failure…

5.5/10

Fair Game – Review

Fair Game (2010) 

Directed by Doug Liman. Starring Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Anand Tiwari, Michael Kelly, Ty Burrell

Fair Game was the only American film in competition at the Cannes Festival in 2010, and given its political message it comes to no surprise at all that it was selected by the French.

Based on the 2 memoirs by former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn) and Valerie Plame Wilson (Watts), a CIA agent outed by White House officials, the movie tells how the couple were betrayed by the Bush administration and attacked by the media after Mr Wilson decided to publish an article on the New York Times called “What I didn’t find in Africa“.

In the article basically Mr Wilson accuses the White House of misrepresenting him and saying that he had found evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in order to sell the case for the imminent invasion of Iraq.

Fair Game is really split into two parts: the more urgent political thriller, as the pair undertake their respective fact-finding missions (obviously taken from his version of events), and the more emotional domestic suburban drama, charting the couple’s breakdown as their findings are manipulated by the White House (which must come from her memoirs).

Penn and Watts have already worked together twice before (21 Grams and The Assassination of Richard Nixon), and whenever together  in this film, they convincingly managed to convey the intimacy of a real marriage in danger of being destroyed by the constant assaults by reporters and the media in general, the sense of dread given by the death threats and arrogance of the power above them.

Naomi Watts is pretty much perfect as the tightly controlled woman who’s been training for a whole life to  be secretive , and control her own emotions (“I don’t have a breaking point” she says at one point in the film).

Sean Penn, was born to play the role of Joe, the liberally opinionated fighter who’s running against the whole system. He’s basically playing himself and he’s clearly enjoying himself quite a lot (and he’s very good at it too!).

The contrast between the two of them makes a dynamic combination. I just wish there was a little bit more of that in the film.

Unfortunately by trying to stick to the facts (which in a film like this I guess is the safer option), the director Doug Liman (from the first Bourn Identity) give the film a rather slow pace which works against the tension the film is trying to create and eventually its dramatic impact is diminished.

The breaking of marriage happens mostly too  quickly and off-screen and when the final confrontation comes, because we haven’t been so much invested in the relationship we get the feeling that it could have gone either way.

Also, it takes forever to actually get there and the film fells generally a bit too slow for what it’s trying to do. All the President’s Men it ain’t!

On the plus side, the sense of the real story really comes through and by the end of it, somehow you’re just left with a feeling that you’ve been watching a documentary (obviously helped by the very last appearance of some real footage) and you come out of it even more pissed off at the Bush Administration than you’ve ever been.

7/10

%d bloggers like this: