Archive For March 30, 2013
Written & Directed by Terrence Malick
Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
Film Editing by Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber & Mark Yoshikawa
Jeez, where to begin? There are so many incredible things to be said about The Tree of Life – it’s truly a beautiful and triumphant achievement in cinematic poetry. So, undoubtedly, many moviegoers will walk away from this film scratching their heads. If you’re unfamiliar with director Terrence Malick’s style then don’t bother.
It’s not for you.
If you like movies where characters say things like, “Semper Fi, motherfucker!” or “My stepfather tried to rape me, and he’s a werewolf,” then don’t even see The Tree of Life.
Not to repeat myself, but… it’s just not for you. It’s the kind of movie that close-minded moviegoers might consider a “risk” since, like, there are hardly any explosions and you don’t need 3D glasses to indulge in the magic.
Maybe you’ll like it, maybe I’m wrong.
We’ll never know unless you’re willing to give it a chance.
Basically, The Tree of Life is a nostalgic portrait of a small-town American upbringing in Waco, Texas during the 1950s. The story flows and unfolds in sequences, non-linear vignettes, intertwining stories from the past and future that mesh seamlessly. The film also depicts a much larger picture, a story told on a broader scale – the creation of life – displayed brilliantly in a way reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
In fact, famed special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull – who worked on Kubrick’s 1967 deep-space classic – was in charge of the visual effects for The Tree of Life. So, instead of relying on computer-generated imagery, Trumbull and visual effects supervisor Dan Glass opted to go the old-fashioned route to recreate the segments that depict the earth’s formation. In an industry overran by green-screens and CGI, it’s refreshing to see somebody willing to get their hands dirty.
“We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be,” Trumbull told Cinematography.com. “We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.”
To me, the cinematography is the most rewarding aspect of The Tree of Life. I like to regard Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki as one of the top cinematographers in the game today, capturing breath-taking images that evoke emotions you haven’t felt since you last felt them. If they say a picture is worth a thousand words, well, what happens when you’re shooting at 24 frames per second?
“Photography is not used to illustrate dialogue or a performance,” Lubezki told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re using it to capture emotion so that the movie is very experiential. It’s meant to trigger tons of memories, like a scent or a perfume.”
(For more on Chivo, check out this great LA Times profile on his work and his collaboration with Malick.)
One of Malick’s greatest contributions to the film is the performances he seems to solicit from the young actors, who reportedly weren’t even given a script before takes; they were simply told what to do before the camera started rolling. Malick understands how to communicate his vision, his story, through the work of the cast and their conflicting interactions, which is a tribute to his prowess as a director. The actors’ body language does most of the work, while Malick commands from behind the camera like an orchestra’s conductor, creating an atmosphere that feels both familiar and intrusive.
The cast is superb. Jessica Chastain gives a remarkable performance as Mrs. O’Brien, the graceful, soft-spoken matriarch of the movie. Sean Penn is both enigmatic and vulnerable as the lead character, an architect, reflecting on his childhood after the death of his younger brother. Brad Pitt gives one of the most button-down performances of his career as the sternly pragmatic Mr. O’Brien. Hunter McCracken is the real star of the film, our reluctant hero, the child version of Penn’s character. A majority of McCracken’s lines are delivered in the form of a gentle voice-over or pre-lapped dialogue. He spends much of his screen time flashing facial expressions that can’t easily be translated. On a side note, Laramie Eppler, who plays the O’Brien’s middle son, really looks like he could be related to Brad Pitt. That’s insanely accurate casting.
The soundtrack is haunting but peaceful, an equal blend of youthful optimism and straight-up fear. Each segment of the film has its own unique brand of music that compliment the images. The original score, composed by Alexandre Desplat, is spliced with renowned classical piano pieces that are guaranteed to give you goosebumps. Here’s a great blog post from IndieWire detailing all 37 songs that appear in the film.
Mostly meditative choral pieces, requiems, slowly growing classical or opera pieces and occasionally something more trance-inducing and ambient, the music isn’t something you’re likely going to rock on your iPod (ok, maybe some tracks before bed), but if you want a quick peek window into the mood, tone and timbre of Malick’s latest picture, the music… will definitely guide you there.
One, two… Five editors? Ya goddamn right. I mean, given the nature of the film (and the nearly three hour running time), each editor brings a unique perspective to the final cut, making each sequence seem fresh and interesting. Among the editors, Daniel Rezende and Billy Weber are names that stand out to me. Rezende is known for his work on the films of Fernando Meirelles like City of God and Blindness. Weber collaborated with Malick on his previous film The Thin Red Line.
One Last Thing…
If you were expecting a traditional movie review that sums up the film in a few paragraphs, well… tough shit, because it’s hard to review an experience without being sentimental. And that’s exactly what The Tree of Life is.
It’s an experience.
Or maybe you will.
You won’t know unless you give it a chance.
I first saw Boogie Nights in 2000, when I was a 13-year-old punk, three years after it had originally been released in theaters. At the time, the film was appealing to me for very obvious reasons (the titties, cocaine, just to name a few), but as I got older, and I continued to watch Boogie Nights, studying it, I began to develop an appreciation for not only the boldness of the film, but the mastery of director Paul Thomas Anderson.
This article from A.V. Club, written by Mike D’Angelo in July 2009, is one of the best articles I’ve ever read about Boogie Nights and PT Anderson’s risk-taking style of directing. The article discusses one of my favorite sequences in the film – Long Way Down (One Last Thing) – the chaotic conclusion of the film where Dirk Diggler officially hits rock-bottom.
Anderson cuts to a close-up of Dirk sitting quietly on the couch just as “Jessie’s Girl” begins its second verse, and proceeds to hold that close-up for 50 agonizing seconds—an eternity of screen time, given that nothing is happening.
It’s a moment of pure mystery, an inexplicable oasis amid off-the-wall chaos, and while I still find most of Boogie Nights too baldly derivative to be truly great, it was in those 50 seconds, and in this scene generally, that I first recognized the presence of a potential master.
In my opinion, that “moment of pure mystery” is cinematic gold, a telling shot, holding on Mark Wahlberg as he stares menacingly at nothing, a crooked smile etched across his drug-addled face. The soundtrack complements the shot choice, peppered with the occasional explosion from Cosmo, Rahad Jackson’s (Alfred Molina) Chinese counterpart.
The entire sequence capped off a remarkable debut film by one of the most talented filmmakers in Hollywood. And as long as PT Anderson continues making movies, we’ll all be watching them, taking notes, learning something new each time.
Written by Bima Stagg
Directed by Bronwen Hughes
Cinematography by Jess Hall
Starring Thomas Jane, Dexter Fletcher, Deborah Kara Unger
Stander is not only a visual masterpiece, but an emotional journey to the heart of a good cop, who turns into a great thief.
Thomas Jane gives an intriguing and heartbreaking performance as Andre Stander, a straight-laced cop who has a terrific way of expressing himself through shark grins and seductive smiles. Although I thought Jane was impressive as “Todd… Parker!” in Boogie Nights, he brings a uniquely mesmerizing confidence to his role as Stander.
Inspired by a true story and set in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the late 70s and early 80s, Stander is a film about finding yourself, despite the barriers of age, social class and the law. It’s a film about trust, loyalty and the irony in doing what’s right by doing what’s wrong.
But, most importantly, it’s a film about having fun.
At any costs.
Andre Stander is a young white police captain in South Africa, actually the youngest captain in the Johannesburg Police Force. He is happily married to his lovely wife Bekkie and the two seem to fit right into the middle-class society they have grown accustomed to.
While on Riot Patrol, Stander’s life changes drastically with the pull of a shotgun trigger. Due to the growing racial problem sparked by apartheid, Stander becomes so greatly affected by the killings of blacks during a rally (in which he both watched and participated in), he finds himself on the polar opposite of the law, robbing his first bank while wearing large Aviators and hiding his small pistol behind his fashionable (but somewhat tacky) plaid suit coat.
Although he gives the stack of stolen cash to a young black child selling newspapers on the street, Stander has become completely transformed, robbing a flurry of banks in the morning then heading the team of investigators sent to crack the case in the afternoon. Not only does this represent the continuous irony apparent throughout the whole movie, it’s hilarious to see one of the bank clerks claim that Stander, the police officer, looks like Stander, the bank robber.
After an innocent grin, Stander turns to the police chief and offers to be taken in. And everyone starts laughing.
Stander eventually does get caught, arrested by his colleagues and is sentenced to 32 years in prison. His wife wants a divorce. His father won’t talk to him.
When Andre Stander’s story looks completed, his life is merely beginning.
While in prison, Stander befriends two convicts Allan Heyl (David O’Hara) and Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher). Stander and McCall make a daring escape, involving a fake injury after a prison rugby game, then come back to the prison and bail Heyl out. Together the three form “The Stander Gang” (a name that brought light criticism from both McCall and Heyl) and proceed to rob dozens of banks across South Africa.
One of my favorite scenes is after The Stander Gang has robbed a bank, they hear on the radio that the bank’s manager is boasting that the gang didn’t hit a safe loaded with cash. So, Stander and his crew make a quick U-turn, return to the bank and calmly rob the safe.
Never have I been so sentimental for criminals but, as the movie progresses, this gang acts less and less like “real” criminals. While reassuring his gang to keep their robbery streak intact, Stander reminds his partners that “this is supposed to be fun.” And it sure looks like fun as the boys are the lead story every night on the evening news and the headlines in every paper. The Stander Gang becomes so notorious that an Andre Stander look alike, named Mark Jennings, repeatedly gets arrested merely for resembling the famous bank robber.
At a majority of the banks they rob, The Stander Gang admires their wanted posters, three ratty mug shots taped to every bank door in South Africa. In addition to their swift skills used to rob the banks, the gang wears different costumes, most of which are too good to be true. Stander wears a dark afro wig with large sunglasses for one heist. He dresses up like a Muslim for another. Stander and his crew makes bank robberies look easy and effortless, the same way great athletes make slam dunks and home runs seem almost second nature.
To me, Stander was the best film of the Second Annual Bahamas International Film Festival. Although the theatre I saw it in way barely a quarter full, Stander went on to win the Audience Award at the festival. The film offers plenty of plot twists and an unbelievable supporting cast that backs up Thomas Jane beautifully. David O’Hara and Dexter Fletcher are the perfect partners for a fun-loving thief like Stander. Deborah Kara Unger gives a heartbreaking performance as Stander’s beautiful wife Bekkie, who seems as confused with her life as Stander is with his.
Overall, this film has hints of Fernando Meirelle’s City of God with characters reminiscent of the thieves in Reservoir Dogs. Although this film bombed at the box office, I feel with the right exposure, Stander has the potential to build up an underground fan base of loyal viewers like myself. Stander is a must-see film that shows a soon-to-be great Thomas Jane at his criminally-minded best.