The Tree of Life


The Tree of Life

Brat Pitt's so hungry he could eat a baby.

(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Joanna Going, Will Wallace, Cole Cockburn, Brayden Whisenhunt, Irene Bedard, Dustin Allen. Directed by Terrence Malick

We have a connection to life that goes back to the first single celled organisms and indeed to the Big Bang itself. Some see the universe as a series of coincidences both fortunate and otherwise; others see the hand of a higher power involved.

For the O’Brien family of Waco, Texas in the 1950s, the choice was simple – the path of nature and the path of grace. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, perhaps literally. We flash forward to the parents being informed of the death of their son at age 19. We are then shown the beginning of time (if you’re going to make a movie, you might as well begin at the beginning but Malick took that a bit literally), the beginnings of life as the first single celled organisms begin to split and divide into more complex creatures such as, say, dinosaurs.

Be that is as may, Mr. O’Brien (Pitt) is far more concerned with preparing his sons for adulthood with fierce determination and will. Some would say he’s borderline abusive – he is certainly strict – and he is also loving. Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) is more of a path of grace sort, playful and nurturing, shielding her boys from the worst of Mr. O’Brien’s ill humors.

There are three O’Brien boys but the oldest is Jack (McCracken) and it is through his eyes that we see these events, both as a child and as an adult (Penn). The adult Jack is pensive, rarely speaking and apparently a successful architect. He is distant from his wife (Going) and not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his dead brother R.L. (Eppler) whom he was closest to as a boy.

The boyhood in Waco is seen through the blinders of nostalgia; idyllic summer days, family picnics at the local swimming pool (where the fleeting nature of life is first encountered by a young Jack) and a DDT truck that dispenses clouds of toxic pesticide that was to his way of thinking the opportunity to dance in the clouds.

But there are snakes in Eden too. The arguments of his parents briefly glimpsed through open windows and overheard through closed doors. His own inner rage at never being good enough in his dad’s eyes, his love/hate rivalry with his brother, and the seductive call of doing something wrong and getting away with it. Young master Jack has the ability to be a royal douchebag upon occasion.

Our mortality is inevitable; what happens to those who pass? And why would a good and loving deity allow a mother to suffer the loss of a child before his time? Answers to questions like this are never forthcoming. It is the path of grace that tells us that we must have faith that the universe will unfold as it should. That doesn’t make it any easier to cope.

Describing this movie is very much like juggling Jell-O. It’s amorphous and not always well-defined. Just when you think you have something, it slips through your fingers. The first part of the movie is presented in a series of images that aren’t really fully developed scenes as such, but more like fragmented memories. There is little dialogue early on other than portentous voice-over narration.

Malick is one of the most imaginative directors working. He has never been prolific (this is only his seventh movie since 1973) but he has dedicated himself to quality, crafting his films with meticulous detail and this is no exception. He recreates the Waco of his childhood and it feels organic, with unlocked front doors, mothers keeping an eye on their children and the other children in the neighborhood, and strolls down the street.

A quote from the Book of Job opens the movie and it has been suggested that this is a thinly-veiled translation of the Biblical story. While I agree there are references to the notorious account and the story does show some parallels, I don’t think the director’s intention was to update Job in a more modern setting, albeit one nearly 60 years prior to now.

The movie becomes a bit more traditional in its storytelling about a third of the way through, with the focus on the dynamic between young Jack and his parents. Young McCracken does a decent enough job, speaking with that petulant Texas twang that only the young men of Texas know how to properly effect with the proper mix of sullen and respectful. Texas boys are adept at making “yes sir” sound like “screw you.”

It’s Pitt who takes over the movie. His presence is so powerful that even when he’s off-screen his presence is palpable. He is hard on his children but he is equally as fierce in his love for them. He is strong in his hugs, and also strong in his smacking around his sons – which was perfectly acceptable in the culture of the time, although some will look upon this treatment with aghast expressions.

Chastain is also a presence but in a different way. She is a nurturing, enfolding presence. She is only seen as sexual when she is in the process of procreating, as if the only use for her sexuality is to provide her husband with sons. Mrs. O’Brien is strong in her own way and while post-feminist sorts may find the portrayal a bit misogynistic, it isn’t in the least. Chastain’s task is to embody the ideal mom – not in an Ozzie and Harriet way, but as a nurturing spirit. Mrs. O’Brien is almost ethereal here, at home with angels both literally and figuratively.

This is not a movie to go into with faint heart. It requires the viewer to wrestle with some pretty basic questions and establish a perspective for our place in the universe and within the flow of time. There are times when I thought that there was a certain amount of sacrificing storytelling for artistry, but there’s no doubt that some of the cinematic images are as compelling as any you’re likely to see period.

It’s a movie that stays with you and gets under your skin. I suspect that it’s the kind of movie that will be remembered with more affection the farther away you get from actually seeing it. It has developed a reputation for being polarizing for audiences. At the packed screening I attended, the end credits were greeted with a deafening silence and then a smattering of applause. Critics have been effusive in their praise, and caustic in their criticism.

I characterized this as a movie you’re either going to love or hate, and to be honest I’m not sure which I feel for it at the moment. Since I haven’t decided, I’m going to split the difference and give it a rating in the middle which really isn’t accurate – this movie is anything but mediocre. However, the movie’s yin and yang are so at war within me that I can’t really decide whether to recommend it or not. I suppose it could be said you should probably go and see it and make up your own mind – and perhaps that is a recommendation of a sort. It might also be called high praise as well.

REASONS TO GO: Unusually ambitious and epic in scope. Pitt gives a bravura performance that may well be remembered at Oscar time.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretentious in places, non-linear storytelling appears as snippets of memory rather than cogent scenes which can be annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the material may be too intense for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Burial is released next year, it will mark the first time in Malick’s nearly forty year directing career that he will have released films in consecutive years.

HOME OR THEATER: The scenes depicting the birth and death of the universe as well as the epoch of the dinosaurs should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Eden Lake

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Nowhere Boy


Nowhere Boy

Julia Lennon and her baby boy John.

(2009) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff, Josh Bolt, David Threlfall, Sam Bell, Ophelia Lovibond, Paul Ritter, James Johnson, David Morrissey, Andrew Buchan, James Jack Bentham.  Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood

It is said that great men often come from humble beginnings, and there are few beginnings more humble than the working class Liverpool of the 1950s. From there sprung the Beatles and specifically, John Lennon (Johnson), a man who has reached near saint-like standing today.

Yet this film isn’t about John Lennon the Beatle or John Lennon the activist. It’s about John Lennon, the 15-year-old boy who had a charming grin and a goofy wit, as well as a rebellious streak and a lot of pain hidden in deep reservoirs within him.

The source of this pain was a feeling of abandonment; from the age of five, he had been raised by his Aunt Mimi (Thomas) and Uncle George (Threlfall). While his Uncle was a good-natured man who understood his nephew seemingly better than the uptight Mimi, Lennon wondered about who his daddy was or why his mother Julia (Duff) had allowed someone else to raise him.

He would get his answers although not quickly. He encounters Julia at a funeral, then is stunned when he learns she lives mere blocks away from his house. He decides to visit her with mate Pete (Bolt) – not Best, incidentally – under the guise of getting away to Blackpool for the afternoon, and is welcomed with open arms.

Julia is very different from his Aunt Mimi…night and day, really. Whereas Mimi is guarded, the epitome of a stiff-upper-lip Brit, Julia wears her heart on her sleeve, and expresses her emotions freely. Where Mimi is conservative and pedestrian in her tastes, Julia loves rock and roll and wants to experience everything. They may have been sisters, but they were as bi-polar as could be.

At first there’s a good deal of competition between the two. Mimi resents Julia’s intrusion into her ordered upbringing of John and Julia wants to resume her duties as mother again, duties she felt were taken away from her against her will. While Mimi is too mannerly to allow their rivalry to become ugly, there is certainly tension between the two women.

As John learns the details of Julia’s life and why things happened the way they did, he begins to pull away from both women. About this time he sees a newsreel of Elvis Presley at the movie theater and is taken by it; the screaming of the girls, the adoration, he wants it for himself. “Why couldn’t God have made me Elvis?” he muses out loud in one of the film’s forced ironies. His adoring mother responds “Because he was saving you for John Lennon,” which is as good an answer as any of us ever get. The irony here is that while he sees the adoration, he doesn’t see how that adoration can become a prison and it’s a prison he will wind up inhabiting for much of his adult life; it is a prison that will get him killed far too young.

As rock and roll begins to take him away from his studies, the strain between he and Mimi reaches a breaking point and John will soon have to make a choice between his dreams, the love of the woman who raised him and the need for the love and approval of his birth mother. Could he really have it all?

Matt Greenhalgh wrote this based on the memoirs of Julia Baird, Lennon’s half–sister (shown in the movie as the elder of Julia and her husband Bobby’s (Morrissey) two daughters), and I imagine that her own reminiscence is colored by the loyalty to her own mother, who is shown to be far more sympathetic than the often priggish Mimi.

Johnson, made a splash earlier this year in Kick-Ass (which he actually filmed after this movie which was released in Britain almost a year ago), a role very different than this one. Here he is introspective, moody and so full of teen angst it’s leaking out his ears. This role demands a certain amount of gravitas and Johnson provides it nicely. He only resembles Lennon superficially on a physical level, but he captures the swagger and the silly side of him well.

Thomas has to make what is essentially a closed-off woman sympathetic, a very difficult task in the best of circumstances and few actors have the chops to pull it off well, but Thomas manages most of the time. Duff has a different sort of challenge, making the carefree and somewhat scatterbrained Julia relatable, and she pulls it off as well. There is some evidence that the real Julia had some mental illness in her background and Duff hints at it nicely.

As I said, this isn’t about the Beatles although Paul McCartney (Sangster) and George Harrison (Bell) do show up, but only Paul makes much of an impact here as we see the rivalry between John and Paul begin to develop at its earliest stages.

We do see the emphasis John placed on his music; we just don’t get what really drove him as a person, and as the film sort of sets you up to believe that it will, it came as a letdown to me and cost the movie ratings points which may have been more of the fault of studio marketing executives than the filmmakers.

Most of the music on the soundtrack is of cover tunes – not a single Beatles song shows up here, other than the iconic opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night” which opens the movie with the reverence of church bells but somewhat predictably is part of a dream sequence. However, I will say the musical sequences are done well enough.

It’s a bit of a disappointment but the movie is well-acted enough and does give enough insight into Lennon’s formative years to still get a recommendation from me. Of course, keep in mind that Lennon is a personal hero of mine, so be warned by that caveat that I might be softer on a film about him than I might otherwise be – or quite possibly and in fact more likely, harder.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the ex-Beatle’s formative years, a period not much covered by biographers. Strong performances by Johnson, Duff and Thomas.

REASONS TO STAY: You never really get any insight as to what drove Lennon other than mommy issues.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of rough language, a bit of sexuality and a whole lot of drinking and smoking; I would say it’s probably safe for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aaron Johnson did most of his own singing for the movie, which was released in the U.S. the day before what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday.

HOME OR THEATER: Home viewing for this one, definitely.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: I Sell the Dead

Planet 51


Planet 51

Now there's a sight that would scare anybody.

(Tri-Star) Starring the voices of Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, Justin Long, Gary Oldman, Seann William Scott, John Cleese. Directed by Jorge Blanco

When all is said and done, we’re a pretty scary species. Oh, to ourselves we seem to be okay but if you were to look at our record of genocide, warmongering, cruelty and violence, I’d be mighty scared if I were an intelligent species on another planet that humans came to visit.

Astronaut Chuck Baker (Johnson) has done just that. Planet 51, a planet in the…well, it’s just dang far away, is the destination of his interstellar voyage. However, when he arrives on this Earth-like planet, he discovers that it’s more than just a little Earth-like; it’s just like Earth. America in the 1950’s Earth, that is.

While Chuck is a little freaked by the little green men he’s discovered, the inhabitants of Planet 51 are more than a little freaked out by his presence. In fact, they’re downright terrified, as any self-respecting species would be after decades of alien invasion movies to scare the righteous you-know-what out of them.

Only Lem (Long) has the sense to put aside his irrational fears, even though he’s plenty scared at first. Of course, Lem has a bit of an advantage – he works at the local planetarium, where he tells the schoolchildren who come to watch the light show “the universe is a very, very large place – hundreds of miles wide.”

Once he and Chuck get to know one another, they discover that they aren’t that unalike after all. However, Chuck has a big problem – his lander has been confiscated by the paranoid military-industrial complex exemplified by General Grawl (Oldman) and he has a finite window of time to get back to the service module, otherwise it will leave for the return back home, leaving Chuck stranded there forever. And Lem has problems of his own, trying to impress Neera (Biel), the object of his affections who has a soft spot for the counter-culture (after all, if you’re going to have a ‘50s that means a ‘60s aren’t far behind).

Sony Animation, who gave us Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, actually didn’t have much to do with this; Spanish animation studio Ilion is actually the entity that is responsible. It’s their first effort and as any first effort goes, has its good points and places where they didn’t do quite as well. The entire small town Pleasantville­ vibe with the sci-fi touches (cars that look like something out of the “Jetsons” for example) is done well enough, but could have been more clever and maybe a little more quirky.

There are plenty of cute characters that will keep kids occupied, like the mechanical Rover that oozes oil when it’s frightened, a dog-like creature that pays homage to the Alien movies, and the aliens themselves, a cute cross between sea monkeys and tree frogs with more than a little nod towards the Shrek franchise (green creatures with antennae sticking out of their foreheads, although they aren’t nearly as grumpy or gross as the ogres). There are plenty of bright colors to distract the very young but quite frankly, not enough real humor to keep their parents from getting bored.

Johnson’s Chuck is a bit on the smug and self-congratulatory side, a bit of a refreshing change from the insecure heroes we usually get in animated films – oh, wait, that would be Lem. In fact, most of the rest of the vocal cast is merely adequate but then again there is truly nothing offensive here; but by the same token, there’s nothing really exciting either. It’s a diversion, nothing more.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson’s overbearing hero is a nice change of pace from the usual animated hero, who as a rule tend to be more like Lem. Some cute little pop culture commentaries.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too weird for kids. The animation is just not all that impressive.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little inappropriate humor, but nothing that most tykes haven’t seen already on the Cartoon Network.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the most expensive movie ever produced in Spain, with a budget of roughly $70 million U.S. dollars.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An obstacle course came featuring Rover is the most kid-friendly feature here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $105.4M in total box office on a $70M production budget; the film flopped.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

My One and Only


My One and Only

Renee Zellweger is courted by yet another unsuitable suitor.

(Freestyle Releasing) Renee Zellweger, Logan Lerman, Kevin Bacon, Chris Noth, Troy Garity, David Koechner, Eric McCormack, Steven Weber, Nick Stahl, Mark Rendall, Robin Weigert. Directed by Richard Loncraine

The road to growing up can often be a treacherous and confusing one, even under the best of circumstances. Sometimes that road can take you to some really unexpected places and unexpected conclusions.

Ann Devereaux (Zellweger) is a willful, beautiful blonde Southern belle who is the trophy wife of bandleader Danny Devereaux (Bacon). He is best known for the hit song “My One and Only” (not the Gershwin song, for those who know the standards well). He is also a philanderer, the kind of guy who simply can’t help himself when it comes to women. When Ann comes home to Danny “entertaining” a young lady – in her bed – it’s the last straw. She cleans out the safety deposit box, buys a baby blue Cadillac Coupe de Ville and hits the road, her sons George (Lerman) and Robbie (Rendall) in tow.

Robbie is a closet homosexual who dreams of Hollywood; George is a bit more grounded and yearns to write. Ann’s only aspiration is to find a rich husband to support her and her boys in the manner in which they’ve been accustomed to.

This doesn’t go very well. Each stop brings another loser, from Wallace McAllister (Weber), a businessman who is nearly broke and who rifles through Ann’s wallet and runs off while she’s in the restroom. Then there’s Col. Harlan Williams (Noth), a rabid anti-Communist military sort who has a streak of violence in him that isn’t compatible with Ann’s gentrified soul. Old flame Charlie (McCormack) makes no bones about it – Ann’s shelf life as a bombshell has expired, and she is competing with younger women for the same scraps. This leads to a misunderstanding that gets Ann arrested.

Nonetheless, she perseveres, even though George outwardly doubts her decision making and making it clear he wants to go back to his dad, who is less than enthusiastic about taking him. Ann then determines to work for a living, but after disastrous attempts at waitressing and sales, Ann finally meets a paint retail tycoon named Bill Massey (Koechner) who looks to be the most promising suitor yet, but even that doesn’t work out as planned.

The movie is loosely based on the life of actor George Hamilton, who is as well known for his tan and his tango these days as he is for his acting career (he’s also the executive producer of the movie). While it doesn’t give you insight into his acting, the movie will at least give you some insight into the man.

The movie has a bit of a split personality, in a good way. The first part of the movie really belongs to Zellweger, and she carries it pretty well. Nobody does plucky, ditzy blonde quite as well as Zellweger (see the Bridget Jones movies, although Lisa Kudrow does nearly as well on “Friends”), and she captivates the screen throughout. Her Ann Devereaux is brave and terminally cheerful, but with a hint of diva in the background. It must have been a fun role to play and you can see Zellweger enjoying herself.

The second half is Lerman’s, and while his story is a bit more complex, he doesn’t quite rise to the challenge but neither does he fail utterly. Instead, he delivers a solid but unspectacular job that doesn’t measure up to the luminescent performance of Zellweger. Each of the suitors have their own charms, although Koechner surprisingly does the most memorable work here as the troubled tycoon. Some of his scenes have a poignancy that elevates the movie quite a bit, as well as the comic timing Koechner is better known for.

Loncraine does a really nice job of evoking the 50s; the setting lives and breathes in his capable hands instead of being something of a distraction as period pieces often are. This is an era that feels lived in, from the posh penthouses of Manhattan to the grubby motels on Route 66. While this is ostensibly a comedy (and there are some funny portions to it), the truth is the dramatic portions work better; you get the feeling Loncraine was going for a bit of a screwball feel (one review likened it to the work of Preston Sturges, which is a dead on observation).

This got a very limited release when it came out and largely flew under the radar. It deserves better; there are some very fine performances and some nice moments, enough to make this a solid recommendation. Check it out on cable or at your local home video emporium; you’ll be glad you did.

WHY RENT THIS: Lerman does a credible job, while Koechner is surprisingly effective. The era is nicely evoked. Zellweger is excellent as the fading bombshell past her prime.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Tries too hard to be a screwball comedy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of bad language and some sexuality here and there; nothing you should be ashamed of showing to a 13-year-old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is dedicated to Merv Griffith, who helped Hamilton develop the project and shepherded it through filming, but didn’t live to see it completed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Lorna’s Silence