The Tree of Life (2011)

2018 #192
Terrence Malick | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Tree of Life

Writer-director Terrence Malick made just five films in the first 38 years of his directorial career, this being the fifth. In the seven years since it came out, he’s made five more. Why the long gaps before, or the sudden increase now? Who knows — Malick is notoriously interview-shy. But the answer may indeed lie with this film, sitting as it does at the fulcrum of his career. It was a project Malick had on his mind for decades (he shot material for it as far back as the ’70s), which for various reasons — primarily funding and technology, I think — it took him until this decade to achieve. Many think it was worth the wait: lots of people love it, including the Cannes jury, who awarded it the Palme d’Or. Many others… don’t: plenty of people regard it as pretentious, or at least too abstruse to care about. It’s a film that, I think, can only elicit an entirely personal reaction. So here’s mine.

The Tree of Life is about… um… oh dear, we’ve hit a snag already. Well, once it settles down (which takes the best part of an hour), what it’s literally about is a family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s — dad (Brad Pitt), mom (Jessica Chastain), and their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The kids play around doing the kind of thing young lads did in the ’50s — running around in the woods, swimming in rivers, throwing stones through windows, murdering frogs — while being torn between the influences of their parents: their kind, gentle, caring mother, and their strict, authoritative, borderline abusive (or just straight abusive?) father.

But the film also occasionally shows us Sean Penn as grown-up Jack, working some high-level job in a present-day city. And it also shows us an extended sequence about the birth of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. And that’s to say nothing of the epilogue… Or, indeed, the prologue, which introduces a massive event in the family’s life that is then, arguably, unreferenced by the rest of the movie.

So… yeah.

Pondering or ponderous?

Much of The Tree of Life is more like visual poetry than a traditional narrative film. Beautiful images glide before our eyes, some with obvious meaning, others less so. Some of the images resonate or rhyme with each other, urging us to infer our own interpretation of what we’re seeing, and why, and what it signifies. This is mostly true of the opening chunk — which lasts a good 45 to 60 minutes — and the ending. In between, more of a narrative is discernible — the stuff about the young family — although it’s constructed in a poetic fashion, with minimal dialogue, lots of vignettes, fragments of day-to-day life that don’t necessarily have an immediate significance.

To me, it felt like we were watching someone’s dreams or memories, presented as we really remember things: random fragments from our lives. If you think about your memories of childhood, they don’t take the form of a neat narrative in concise scenes with all the important landmarks accounted for. We do remember big events, of course, but also many small things; and some things we remember extensively, but others only fragmentarily. If you could view a person’s memories, they’d create, not a biopic, but an impressionistic collage or our lives — and this film is that, I think.

But that can still leave the viewer to question what it’s all about, especially given the extended sequence of space gases, forming planets, burgeoning microscopic lifeforms, and dinosaurs. Yes, in arguably the film’s most baffling sequence (there are many contenders), we see an event in the life of some dinosaurs. Actually, I say it’s the most baffling, but only if you stick to the film itself: of all the confusing things herein, that’s the one with the most concrete explanation, thanks to visual effects supervisor Michael L. Fink having a little chat with critic Jim Emerson about Malick’s intentions for the scene. Not everyone likes firm answers to this kind of stuff, so I’ll just link to where you can read it if you want to.

Motherly love

That said, some of the stuff I’ve already mentioned in passing I only know definitively thanks to extra-textual sources. Well, if you count the film’s end credits as extra-textual, which I suppose they’re not. But it’s only thanks to those that I know for certain which of the boys Penn was supposed to be, or that the creation-of-the-universe stuff is indeed meant to be that (based on genuine science, donchaknow), and that these scenes show us the “astrophysical realm”, because there are effects credits for that. And more still can be learnt from, of all places, the Blu-ray’s chapter menu: the long creation sequence is indeed called “creation”, in case you weren’t sure. The ending is “eternity”, followed by “was it a dream?” Others include “grief”, “innocence”, “mother”, “father”, “I do what I hate” — all showing us the way towards important themes… maybe. Or perhaps they’re just convenient chapter points…

Praise for the film’s imagery is due not only to Malick, but also cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. And it’s not even the guy’s best work — I’d argue for consistent beauty he’s surpassed it with some of the stunning, Oscar-winning stuff he’s done since — but you can see how he got from here to there: the very best shots in The Tree of Life are kind of what he does all the time in films like The Revenant. As for constructing those images into a meaningful flow, I’m never sure how much is down to an editor’s own creativity and how much is them operating machinery under the director’s instruction — I guess, like most things in the movies, it’s a collaborative mix of both. Anyway, the film has five credited editors — Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, and Mark Yoshikawa — who I’m sure must’ve been vital to the process. (Relatedly, here’s a fun anecdote from IMDb: “an Italian cinema showed the film for a week with the first two reels switched. Even though the film starts with production logos, no one in the theater noticed and thought it was all part of Terrence Malick’s ‘crazy editing style’.”)

Creation

There’s a lot of really great music and sound design as well — something Malick clearly considered important to a Lynchian degree, given that before the film plays the Blu-ray flashes up a notice advising you to “play it loud”. Alexandre Desplat is credited for the music, but a very, very long list of sourced tracks too hints at what actually happened: most of his music went unused in the final cut, with only a few minutes making it in. I imagine that feels quite unedifying, to have your work sidelined; but maybe it’s better than being ditched entirely in favour of a new score, as has happened to plenty of other composers in the past.

It’s easy to get hung up on all this filmmaking when thinking about The Tree of Life, because that’s where its own focus seems to be, as opposed to the usual things a reviewer might think to discuss first, like the screenplay or performances. But there are still actors here, and good ones at that. The movie is really centred around Hunter McCracken, and he’s very good. The casting directors saw thousands of Texan school kids while trying to cast the boys, and the effort paid off; though McCracken hasn’t done anything else since, so maybe not for him personally. The other two brothers don’t have so much to do; in fact, I kept almost forgetting one of the trio existed, so little is he on screen or relevant to events. Ironically, he’s the only one of the three who’s gone on to have a career: it’s Tye Sheridan, most recently seen as the lead in Ready Player One.

As for the adults, Sean Penn is one of the many lead actors in a Malick film whose performances have wound up on the cutting room floor. According to Lubezki, there’s enough deleted footage to make a whole movie focused on Penn’s character. Yep, sounds like Malick! Obviously such a movie would be completely different to this one, but I’d be curious to see it. More screen time is devoted to Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, who both achieve a lot with comparatively little. Chastain is the focus early on, but it later becomes apparent that Pitt has a showier role, in a way, because of his character’s arc. There’s a pullquote on the back of the UK Blu-ray that calls it “the strongest performance of his career”, but considering his performances in the likes of Se7en and The Assassination of Jesse James, or that he’s been Oscar-nominated for his turns in Twelve Monkeys, Benjamin Button, and Moneyball, I thought that was a bit of an outlandish claim to make. To each their own, though.

Affection or headlock?

Anyhow, all this is “technical” stuff quite apart from what The Tree of Life is really about. Not that I’m totally clear on what that is, still. I guess maybe it’s there for us to infer what we like from it, be that religious, scientific, humanistic, or, for many a viewer, just boredom. Whether you love it or hate it — and there are certainly plenty of perfectly reasonable people at both extremes — it’s definitely an Experience; one every person who considers themselves serious about film appreciation needs to have.

4 out of 5

A new edition of The Tree of Life, which includes a different cut that’s 50 minutes longer (but, intriguingly, is not an extended cut), is released by Criterion in the US tomorrow and in the UK on November 19th.

The Revenant (2015)

2016 #103
Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 156 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Hong Kong, Taiwan & Canada / English, Pawnee & French | 15 / R

Oscar statue2016 Academy Awards
12 nominations — 3 wins

Winner: Best Actor, Best Director, Best Cinematography.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Production Design.

The Revenant is the Oscar-winning, acclaim-gathering story of Hugh Glass, the expert guide for a pelt-collecting group (is that what they are? Is that a thing?) in the Old West, who’s mauled by a bear to within an inch of his life. Eventually betrayed and left for dead by the members of the group who’d vowed to stay with him to the end, Glass somehow survives, and crawls across the wintery wilderness in search of his revenge! And it’s all the more remarkable for being based on a true story… though this retelling contains approximately as many “historical events that actually occurred” as does Game of Thrones.

The main talking point of The Revenant has been Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, which finally bagged him an Oscar after four unsuccessful nominations (and I’m sure plenty of other roles that he thought might snag him some Academy recognition but didn’t). How much is it acting and how much was it just an endurance test that director Alejandro González Iñárritu subjected him to? Is there a difference? If you have to suffer for great art, Leo certainly did that. In some ways it’s testament to the Academy being able to look past delivery of dialogue as an indication of performance quality, because Glass doesn’t speak much — not when he’s in the company of others, and certainly not when he’s trying to get by on his lonesome, which he is for much of the film. Nonetheless, Leo conveys thoughts and emotions — which do go beyond, “I can’t believe Iñárritu is making me eat this raw liver” — effectively through expression and action.

In some respects it’s a shame the rest of the cast were consequently overshadowed — Leo may spend a huge chunk of the film on his own, but there are frequent cutaways to what everyone else is up to. Tom Hardy is the obvious standout as selfish bastard Fitzgerald, a perfectly detestable but completely believable villain — I’m not saying we’d all sink to his depths, but I’m not convinced most of us are above some of the choices he makes, either. Will Poulter steps outside the comedy roles he’s mostly taken since his Son of Rambow debut to give an effective turn as the group’s youngest, most conflicted member, while Domhnall Gleeson is commanding as the group’s leader. Gleeson was something of a lucky charm last awards season, appearing in no fewer than four Oscar-nominated films, including two that were up for Best Picture. Not only that, but look at his turn here (as an honourable, disaster-struck Captain) alongside his appearances in those other films (a small town nice guy in Brooklyn; an inexperienced evil military commander in Star Wars; a naive, selfish, sort-of-moral, easily-led programmer in Ex Machina) and you can see the kid’s got range.

Far from just an acting showcase, The Revenant is a film of thematic weight. In fact, it’s like an old-fashioned blockbuster — the kind of thing you’d’ve seen in the 1950s (epic revenge Western) or 1970s (bleak revenge Western) as among the year’s biggest movies — crossed with a slow-paced, scenery-loving, meditative arthouse piece. If it’s about anything (beyond, y’know, the plot), it’s surely about nature — both the amazing vastness of natural spaces, but also the brutality of survival. And not just humans, either, which is the go-to simplistic message (“isn’t nature good? aren’t humans bad?”) of such cod-thoughtful fare. Like the rest of nature, humanity is varied: there are some very harsh, cruel acts herein, but also acts of kindness — sometimes perpetrated by the same people.

The avoidance of pat depictions extends to its portrayal of Native Americans, too. They’re neither simplistic Evil Foreigners, nor a “we’re so sorry for how we’ve treated them before, they’re great really” apologia. Instead, they’re just as brutal and as human as the rest of us, and made up of varied groups who behave differently, or even slaughter among themselves. The main band of Indians we see do serve as the film’s villains (as if Fitzgerald wasn’t bad enough), a hunting party acting out an inverted Searchers as they hunt for a kidnapped daughter. In The Searchers the group hunting and killing in search of a girl are the heroes; here, they’re the villains. Makes you think, don’t it? I’m not accusing Iñárritu of casual racism — I imagine that’s exactly their point.

And speaking of Iñárritu, I wonder if this is his first genuine masterpiece. I didn’t care for 21 Grams or Babble, and Birdman was good but overrated. (In fairness, I’ve not seen Biutiful, which people seem to disregard nowadays, or Amores Perros, which is a rare foreign language film in the IMDb Top 250.) It seems like he was a nightmare during production — the budget was set at $60 million, but ultimately more than doubled to $135 million due to delays thanks to his production choices. In hindsight it looks like genius — “I knew it would be amazing so we kept going” — but if it had flopped, I’m sure an awful lot more would’ve been made of Inarritu’s excessively picky directorial style and fractious treatment of the crew, which apparently led Tom Hardy to try to strangle him…

At the Oscars, I was pulling for Roger Deakins to make it 13th time lucky, or for Mad Max to do a technical sweep and take cinematography with it (not undeservedly); but having now actually seen Lubezki’s work on The Revenant, it’s hard to deny it’s an immensely deserving winner. His mastery of all elements of the form is on regular display: the use of light (all natural!), perspective, lenses, focus; the single-shot techniques he and Iñárritu learnt for Birdman are put to superior use here, creating some stunning sequences (rather than taking over the entire movie). It looks incredible on Blu-ray, too — so detailed, crisp, epic. If anything was going to convince me 4K was an idea worth investing in, it’s material like this. (The cost of a new TV, new Blu-ray player, re-buying films, and the real estate needed in the lounge for a screen big enough to appreciate it puts the other half me off again.)

The film’s biggest flaw is that it goes on a bit too long in the middle. I’m not saying it needs to be a fast-paced thrill-ride, I just think it lingers a little longer than it needs to in places. Individual shots are beautiful, but the sheer volume of them stretches the centre part thin. There’s probably one too many action sequences where Indians attack and our hero has to escape, not least the one that ends in a too-obviously-CGI dive off a cliff. Equally, for every one of those there’s an incredible sequence, like the opening Indian attack. For a film that could easily be described as arthouse-y and thematically-driven, there are some truly stunning action scenes. The long middle means you couldn’t really call it “an action movie”, but focus on the first and last acts and it absolutely is.

I slipped in the word “masterpiece” a few paragraphs back, and I’d wager that’s what The Revenant is. It’s not perfect, and I don’t know that I’d say it’s the best film of last year either; but it is magnificently made, telling its story in a way only cinema can truly manage.

5 out of 5

The Revenant is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK as of yesterday.

It placed 4th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Birdman (2014)

aka Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

2015 #164
Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2015 Academy Awards
9 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography.
Nominated: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.



I started the week by reviewing the first Best Picture winner, and now end it with a review of the most recent — which just so happens to be coming to Sky Movies and Now TV from today (couldn’t’ve planned that much better if I’d tried!)

Birdman isn’t a superhero movie, though if the title sounds like one then that’s no accident: Michael Keaton is an actor who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Well, to clarify, Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan Thomson, who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s — the Birdman of the title. Decades later, he’s trying to be taken seriously by starring in a play on Broadway… which he’s also written… and is directing… and has sunk his personal finances into. So it’s probably not a good thing that one of his cast can’t act, his personal life is all over the place, the critics hate him before the play’s even opened, and he’s hallucinating superpowers.

Birdman is a comedy. “How the heck did a comedy win Best Picture at the Oscars?” you might well wonder, because that never happens anymore. Well, it’s a comedy-drama — it’s certainly funny, but drily so, and with lots of Personal Character Drama and a few Issues along the way. As it goes on, and gets a bit weird and kinda arthouse-y (as if it wasn’t to start with), you may forget that’s where it began. Nonetheless, I found it more consistently amusing than other recent acclaimed comedic Best Picture nominees, like the disappointing American Hustle.

In part this is thanks to Keaton, who gives quite an immersive performance as the numbed, self-deluded star. Some people were very much behind him for the Best Actor gong, but I think it found its rightful home: Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking was transformative to the point you forgot you were watching an actor; Keaton is just rather good. Anyway, for me the more enjoyable performance came in a supporting turn from Edward Norton. Norton is a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor… sorry, Norton plays a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor, who joins Riggan’s production and begins to wreak all kinds of havoc.

The rest of the cast are dealt very mixed hands. Emma Stone is good, but was there enough meat on the role’s bones to justify Best Supporting Actress, other than one awards-clip-baiting shouty monologue? I’m not sure. The most memorable thing about her performance is how extraordinarily large her eyes are. Andrea Riseborough is thrown a bone or two; Zach Galifianakis doesn’t showboat like I’d’ve expected a comedian with his background to; Lindsay Duncan appears for one scene, but it’s a pretty good one (sometimes it really benefits American movies that there are swathes of fantastic British actors who are capable of first-rate leading performances, but so low down the food chain that they can be drafted in for single-scene roles); and Naomi Watts is utterly wasted. (At one point Riseborough and Watts kiss, which is apparently a spoiler for Mulholland Drive because she kisses a woman in that too. Oh IMDb trivia section, you will let any old rubbish in.)

Famously, almost the entire film takes place in a single take. A fake one, of course. Well, I say of course — Russian Ark did a feature-length single take for real. I’d assumed this meant the film took place in real time, because that seems the obvious thing to use an unbroken shot for — to show us everything that occurred in the time it occurred. But no. Iñárritu uses that and the fact it’s faked quite cleverly at times, to pull off impossible changes of location. For example, at one point the camera leaves Norton in the theatre’s gods and drifts down towards the stage, where we can see him mid-performance.

The most curious aspect of the single take is: what did it need two editors for?! Everything had to be meticulously planned in advance — apparently, longer was spent on the screenplay than is normal, because once it was shot nothing could be cut — so surely all someone had to do was stick it together at the joins? Some of those joins are actually fairly obvious (your familiarity with filmmaking techniques and where joins might be hidden will dictate exactly how many), but a decent number remain hidden, I think. Well, I presume — I didn’t see them. Anyway, it’s more a feat of logistics and cinematography, the latter of which Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki did win an award for. How deserved that was, I’m not sure. It’s very impressive to work out how to shoot a movie in a single take, even a pretend one, but surely cinematography awards are for the quality of the images, not the logistics of moving your camera around? Birdman is by no means an ugly film, but the best-looking of the year? I’m not so sure.

Birdman is an entertaining film, both funny enough to keep the spirits up and dramatic enough to feel there’s some depth there. It’s also a mightily impressive feat of technical moviemaking, but then I do love a long single take (even a fake one). Is it the Best Picture of 2014? Well, from the nominees, it’s not the funniest (The Grand Budapest Hotel), nor does it have the most impactful performances (The Theory of Everything), nor is it the must gripping or thought-provoking (Whiplash), and it doesn’t feel the most significant (Boyhood). There is an interesting element of having its cake and eating it about Birdman, though, as it berates The Movies for their current superhero obsession while telling the story of a Hollywood actor who sets out to prove those snooty New York theatre critics wrong. Hm, however did this win Best Picture from an organisation whose main voting bloc is Hollywood actors?

4 out of 5

Birdman debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 1:45pm and 10:10pm.