June 21, 2011
Alexandre Desplat, Brad Pitt, Cannes, CGI, Emmanuel Lubezki, Film, film music, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Jurassic Park, Laramie Eppler, Michael Bay, movies, Palm d'Or, Philip Glass, picture, poster, review, score, Sean Penn, soundtrack, Terrence Malick, The New World, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, Tye Sheridan
The films of Terrence Malick are hieroglyphs and dream visions; their meaning or purpose often so cryptic that despite their obvious beauty they alienate many viewers. Great art is of course a matter of taste but the jury at Cannes saw fit to award “The Tree of Life” with the Palme d’Or. However anyone familiar with Malick’s back catalogue (a tiny five films in a career spanning almost forty years) will see their expectations fulfilled: the director’s thoughtful and meandering style permeates this picture as it did “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World.” It’s clear from the outset that the film isn’t for everyone – it’s not exactly Michael Bay after all – but if you have the patience to endure not only its running time but a few bumpier moments also, you will potentially be rewarded with a powerful and highly personal experience.
The film begins in the late 50s as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) are informed of the death of their second son at the age of 19. Their tidy suburban lifestyle is torn apart. Simultaneously in the present day the couple’s eldest son Jack (Sean Penn) reflects on the same event as he goes about his work. As they question the significance of their story within the greater world and the universe, Malick launches into an abstract 20 minute montage, presenting images of space and nature before returning to 50s Texas to recount Jack’s formative years and the strained relationship with his father. It is difficult to coherently sum up the disjointed narrative that follows but perhaps the plot is only the means for posing much greater questions. Chief among these is the child’s innocence, the vision of a perfect or ideal world, a vision that is shattered almost immediately by a far grimmer reality. Mr. O’Brien is a devout Christian, a failed pianist who has become an engineer, trying to educate his sons through strict discipline thus choking off a more free spirited world embodied by Jessica Chastain. Malick calls this a choice between the way of grace or the way of nature – which might be which is an interpretation left to the viewer. The screenplay carefully sidesteps any mention of “God” (a greater being is simply referred to directly as “you”) but a spiritual significance can easily be divulged from the powerful images, if it be “Mother Nature” or otherwise is once again ambiguous.
The chosen setting of the 1950s is ideal for “The Tree of Life,” quite possibly hinting at a personal tale for the director. The look is absolutely authentic and Emmanuel Lubezki’s steadicam-driven images capture lend the picture a feel that is down to earth and natural. The entire cast is well chosen though the performances of the child actors easily eclipse what the adults can muster. Hunter McCracken leads as young Jack, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan filling the other two roles. McCracken in particular has all the makings not of a star but of a serious actor, displaying both restraint and a huge spectrum of emotions – he is without doubt the film’s greatest discovery. As the domestic relationship between the O’Briens deteriorates, the confusion at violence, the inability to understand a world that is so beautiful and yet so cruel are channelled through the boy and his experiences drive the film when Malick threatens to get lost in his own roundabout ways.
Several aspects do encumber the flow of the film some detractions are noteworthy. Several of the images presented in the montages seem out of place. A short episode with dinosaurs clarifies that Malick is expanding the question of significance across all of time but their presence feels jarring, CGI and out of place. Quite frankly if you have awesome images of space (and therefore time) why bother to bring Jurassic Park along? Arguably this montage as well as an extended coda presenting a utopia of sorts go on for a bit too long to maintain interest. It’s possible to simply sit back and enjoy the glorious imagery but the family drama is far more enthralling. Some will find the work in it’s entirety to be far too ambiguous or even too philosophical and spiritual – it certainly won’t speak to everyone. However “The Tree of Life” is in the end an ode to the wonder of our earth and all the life in it. If you consider it a masterpiece or not, Malick remains a mysterious master of his art and continues to dazzle with films that are just, well, refreshingly different from everything else that’s out there.
Among film composers, Malick’s work ethic of endlessly editing and re-editing is notorious. Very often Malick will substitute a written score with classical music at the last minute. Alexandre Desplat’s original score has been released on the soundtrack but unsurprisingly the end credits revealed a multitude of classical pieces, with Desplat’s work limited to less than 15 minutes. With music playing such a significant part in the film it is questionable why Malick hired a composer in the first place. On CD, the music makes for a pleasant if minimalist and relatively undemanding listen. The “great questions” are reduced to a simple piano theme that slowly turns this way and that much like the films itself. It’s reminiscent of some of Philip Glass’ work; nondescript but with an almost otherworldly beauty. In comparison to some of Desplat’s stronger works and to the classical replacements however, the music fails to reach quite the same level. And if you want to hear what was featured in the film, this is the wrong place to search.
“The Tree of Life” is in one word, beautiful. It’s not quite as powerful as “The Thin Red Line” but it’s unlikely you will see a more unusual film in 2011. Unusually for Malick, he has another film in the pipeline as soon as next year and you should definitely be stoked.
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March 14, 2011
Action, Adventure, Epic/Historical, Fantasy, Film
3D, Alexa Davolas, Andromeda, Aphrodite, Armageddon, CGI, Clash of the Titans, Craig Armstrong, Crimson Tide, Elizabeth McGovern, Film, film music, Gemma Arterton, Greece, Hades, Hans Zimmer, Iron Man, Kraken, Liam Cunningham, Liam Neeson, Lord of the Rings, Louis Leterrier, Mads Mikkelsen, Massive Attack, Michael Bay, movies, Neil Davidge, Oscars, Perseus, Pete Postlethwaite, picture, Pirates of the Caribbean, poster, Ralph Fiennes, Ramin Djawadi, Ray Harryhausen, review, Sam Worthington, score, soundtrack, The Rock, The Transporter, Transformers, Warner Bros., Zeus
Just because we haven’t had enough of sequels and reboots already, Warner Brothers felt it necessary to push out a remake of the 1981 film of the same name into a spring season desperately lacking in good action material. Not that the original adaption of the Perseus myth was much good either, but it is fondly remembered by some for Ray Harryhausen’s quite excellent puppeteering effects. For the remake, the monsters of ancient Greece would be created in the computer, and Warners appointed director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter), assembled a cast with considerable talent and invested significant buck that included a late conversion to 3D to cash in on the post-Avatar hype. On arrival however, it quickly became apparent that the film would fail to fulfil even the lowest of expectations and come to represent the very worst that Hollywood has to offer. It is, to apply mythological rationale, a scourge of the underworld.
Perseus (Sam Worthington) is raised by the fishermen (Pete Postlethwaite and Elizabeth McGovern) who found him with his dead mother, unaware that he is in fact a Demigod, the son of Zeus himself (played by Liam Neeson). After they are killed, Perseus finds his way to the city of Argos, the population of which are angry with the endless squabbles of the Gods. Angry at loosing the humans’ love, Zeus sends Hades, God of the underworld (Ralph Fiennes) to threaten the city. If the king’s daughter Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), whose beauty has been compared to that of Aphrodite, is not sacrificed in three days, then Hades will unleash the most terrible beast he has created, the Kraken. After learning of his true lineage, Perseus leads a band of warriors that includes Mads Mikkelsen and Liam Cunningham to exploit a possible loophole in Hades’ plan and thus save the city. There’s a bunch of other stuff, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s all just an excuse to cue one battle and action sequence after the other. Forget such worn out things as plot twists, clever dialogue or, dare we imagine it, character development, “Clash of the Titans” doesn’t need brains, this is about brawn, sculpted abs and overblown action. In many ways it’s masquerading as “Transformers” with mini-skirts, steroids and scorpions but on examination, Michael Bay’s flicks are highly intellectual stuff compared to this.
Not only is the action exceptionally brainless, as it’s presented without any cohesive flow, construction or narrative, the film presents a mish-mash of bits taken from different (and often more accomplished) films: The scorpions and their masters bear resemblance to the Oliphaunts in “The Lord of the Rings” while several gags and of course the Kraken are blatantly borrowed from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The Kraken may be a genuine feature of mythology but its implementation in the latter was infinitely more frightening than some of the shoddy CGI and green-screen work on show here. Furthermore, the film becomes an exercise in wasting as much acting talent as possible. Imagine the possibilities with two masters like Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes on screen as arch enemies Zeus and Hades. Similarly Sam Worthington, complete with buzz-cut and Australian accent delivers a performance that is so cold he may as well have been turned to stone by Medusa. Never, not once does he, or the screenplay for that matter, make any attempts at believable exposition. And Gemma Arterton’s Io is about as interesting as the lacklustre conversion into the third dimension. What, beyond the promise of a large cheque would force these actors to take on projects like this, is beyond comprehension. A disaster like “Clash of the Titans” simply isn’t worth wasting your time, because not only does it show disrespect for the original (a poor thing in any remake), it is in effect giving the finger to the viewer who was dumb enough to see it. After all, it made Warners over $150 million at the box office. There are dumb action pictures that are well made and entertaining, this is a dumb action picture that is badly made and the most unbelievable bore.
Originally set to score “Clash of the Titans,” was Scotsman Craig Armstrong who had worked with Leterrier before on “The Incredible Hulk,” and who was in desperate need of such a large-scale film to show off his talents. As is the way in Hollywood however, Armstrong’s music was rejected at the last minute, making way for yet another of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control offspring. Ramin Djawadi and a team of ghostwriters provide a score that is just as cheap as the film, hammering out the same sound prevalent since “Crimson Tide” way back in 1995. Quite apart from the fact that the sound of electric guitars (a “collaboration” with Massive Attack’s Neil Davidge features) and synthesised bass has nothing whatsoever to do with ancient Greece, this music is just a cheap and botched repackaging of a familiar sound, more headache-inducing than everything that went before with the exception of Djawadi’s equally obnoxious “Iron Man.” There’s no point describing anything about it, you can listen to “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” and you won’t notice the difference.
To call “Clash of the Titans” poor fare is very much an understatement. You’ll be glad to know that sequels are already in the works so we’ll only have to suffer through the same again twice more. Somewhere in the film’s flabby middle, and in a small attempt to insert a witty line, Liam Cunningham is asked how old a certain creature might be. His reply: “I don’t care.” And neither will you.
I suggest you never see this film. If however you did happen to like it, please leave a comment and tell me why I’m wrong. Feel free to follow me on Twitter or share this review with your friends. Just hit the buttons below. Thanks and all the best!
September 24, 2010
Action, Epic/Historical, Film, Romance
Armageddon, Ben Affleck, Clint Eastwood, Cuba Gooding Jr., Doris Miller, Empire of the Sun, Faith Hill, Film, film music, Hans Zimmer, James Bond, James Cameron, Jerry Bruckheimer, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Letters from Iwo Jima, Michael Bay, movies, Pearl Harbor, picture, review, score, Titanic, Transformers
One thing that was clear even before “Pearl Harbor” hit cinemas in the summer of 2001 was that super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay were trying to create a “Titanic” clone. In other words they were planting a love-story into a significant historical event and hoping for equally titanic box-office success. And really, that’s pretty much what they managed. With Bay (“Armageddon”, “Transformers”) at the helm nobody could really claim they were expecting plot or characters of Shakespearean quality, nor would the film strive in that direction anyway. Like the ocean-liner epic, this picture follows the lines of a very old-fashioned love story, extending it to a triangle, with an abundance of sappy exposition which is then replaced at some point with all-out action amongst the film’s awesome production values. However, what James Cameron succeeded in doing and where “Pearl Harbor” ultimately falters and even stumbles is in the creation of characters that cling to the teenage hearts for which they are intended.
Plotwise, it’s pretty simple: Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) grow up in Tennessee as best friends and enlist in the U.S. Air Force bound by their eternal love of flying. During this time, Rafe meets and falls in love with beautiful nurse Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale), a relationship troubled from the outset by the looming World War II, and he eventually leaves her behind to fight with the British in Europe, and subsequently shot down in a dogfight with German planes. Stricken with grief while posted in Hawaii, Evelyn and Danny get ever closer, eventually realising they’re in love. Suddenly however Rafe turns up, only presumed dead. And at about the same time the Japanese forces in the Pacific carry out their planned attack on the titular navy base.
While it’s all very ambitious and visually impressive, one must question why the love story was inserted in such length when Bay really only wants to get to the action sequences. This is of course an inherent flaw in all his films but it stands to reason that the man had better become a second unit director where he could have all the fun with the action and leave the drama to someone else, like what has been done in many James Bond films. Bay is simply not capable of transmitting to the audience a story or characters we can care about. Instead of fleshing out the roots of Rafe and Danny’s friendship or the back-story of the political intrigue, he chooses to create horrible schmaltz next to the Queen Mary liner (a scene Bay wrote himself) and have Affleck smacked bang in the face with a champagne cork. In a film with a running-time of just under three hours, this would have been a real opportunity with plenty of time left over for multiple love stories and plenty of smooching. What’s presented instead are many plot threads which aren’t knotted together at any place. Take for example Cuba Gooding Jr.’s excellent portrayal of Doris Miller, the first African-American to be presented with the Navy Cross for his actions at Pearl Harbor. In itself it’s a very touching story but one which bears no relationship to the main plot whatsoever. A film about his life would have been so much more interesting.
Another irritating point is the portrayal of the Japanese. Every scene, they feature in is extremely beautiful from a visual perspective yet their function is little more than to say exactly what they’re planning to do for the history-illiterates in the audience. No thought (be it negative or otherwise) is invested in the Japanese ideals of honour or what exactly dying on the battlefield meant for these soldiers and pilots. “Empire of the Sun” managed far more in much simpler ways. Needless to say the film was not well received in Japan even after some changes had been made to the final cut that was screened in the country. Not until Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” five years later could western audiences really explore these values. Naturally “Pearl Harbor” is being made from an American and Hollywood viewpoint yet some of the scenes in the final third are so patriotic it’s almost embarrassing. Maybe it’s just something I as a European cannot identify with.
There are some good points. As already alluded to, production design and cinematography are top-notch. Additionally Bay manages to build in some powerful moments during the attack, for example the nurses who had never seen a patient up to now are suddenly thrown right into the centre of the carnage or the destruction of the battleships is pretty realistic. Unfortunately scenes like this are few and far between. As for the climax of the story, well this too could have been handled differently. The action clearly climaxes with the “Pearl Harbor” attack. The love-triangle plot could also have been sorted out neatly here. For some reason the screenplay is extremely reluctant to have characters die at this point and so we are launched into a bombing mission that could have filled another film in itself.
Jerry Bruckheimer has always collaborated with Hans Zimmer or his associates and together they have defined a “blockbuster sound” for the nineties and noughties. For “Pearl Harbor” however Zimmer focuses mainly on writing a melodramatic love theme for the story. In the film this only helps to accentuate the schlocky love-story despite not being period-correct but makes for much better listening on the album. Coupled with the Faith Hill end credits song, it’s surprisingly devoid of Zimmerish action material (although there are volumes of it present in the film). A very recommended album for fans of the German composer.
“Pearl Harbour” is ambitious but overlong, a typical brainless blockbuster that tries to be more and with a bit of effort could have been so much better. In rating the film it’s easy to pass over all it’s redeeming features. I have tried to avoid that but know that it wins one full star for the visuals alone. As expected “Pearl Harbor” became the blockbuster it was meant to be, almost quadrupling it’s $140 million budget but quite frankly, if it’s tales of troubled love in war you seek, you can do a lot better.
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