Review over “The Tree of Life”

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Full Disclosure: 2011 saw the release of what would immediately become two of my all-time favorite movies: Drive and The Tree of Life. Aside from their measured pacing, they couldn’t be more different. For The Tree of Life, my reaction was both visceral and spiritual. As a believer in God, watching this film was like watching an exegesis on my own soul, and by the end of it I couldn’t help but sob at the indescribable beauty that had been captured, and at how it had affected me. I doubt anyone could convince me that this film is bad, or pretentious, or boring, because for all 139 minutes I was riveted and could not be bothered by anyone to do anything. I never thought a film could have so much power.

Terrence Malick is one of the most obscure figures working in film today. Almost nothing is known about him. Yet, when you watch his films, his mind and his spirit come through so totally that you could probably walk up to him in the street and carry on a conversation as if you had known him for years. And The Tree of Life is his most personal film.

It is not a normal film. That is, it doesn’t unravel itself like a traditional narrative. We aren’t introduced to the protagonist until 20 minutes into the movie, and soon after that we are launched backwards in time to the creation of the universe. Because of this it is difficult to summarize what the movie is about. Some have argued that the film is about Jack, the main character’s relationship with his father and his coming to an understanding of faith. I don’t think it’s that simple. While Jack’s relationship with his father is a major part of the film, it isn’t the central conflict. I see the film as an examination of faith in the context of suffering as seen through the eyes of God. We see the life of Jack from beginning to end, bookended by the beginning and ending of the universe and throughout this we hear prayers, from Jack and his mother, as they struggle to understand the existence of death and pain, especially connected with the death of Jack’s brother, which occurs at the beginning of the film.

What’s extraordinary about the way this story is told is that it seems as if God is answering these prayers, albeit in a way that is equally mysterious and unmistakable in its divinity. This is not a religious film, however. Malick makes no attempt to proselytize for any particular religion, although the family in the film is Catholic. Instead, Malick takes a philosophical approach, using natural imagery as a kind of transcendentalist voice for what he sees as the answers that Jack and his mother seek. We as the audience are left to decide if there is truly any meaning behind these images, although I would argue that it is heavily implied that there are.

Aside from the spiritual aspect of the movie, it is also an incredibly detailed and strikingly accurate portrait of a family. All of the actors in the O’Brien family seem like they have truly lived with and grown up together over the course of a lifetime. The child actors that play the three boys are simply extraordinary and there is never a moment that rings false or delivered. There are some moments captured in the film that seem impossible to have been staged, like a scene where the relationship between a toddler and his baby brother is summed up in the look the children give to each other or when a butterfly lands on the mother’s hand, showing her harmonious nature. The dynamics that are established in the family vacillate but only change so much; there are no tearful confessions or outsized emotional breakdowns. This could be our family, and yet it is unique enough that we feel we know them as well as our own neighbors and friends.

Such incredible reality helps ground the film as it reaches towards its more lofty ambitions. As I stated above, there is a sequence in the film that shows the dawn of the universe. From the big bang to the generation of DNA, over about 10 or 15 minutes this part of the film becomes a special effects epic, showcasing some of the most intense and awe inspiring imagery I’ve ever seen. It would take the audience out of the film except for the fact that this overwhelming experience is Malick’s intention. He confronts us with the creation of the universe, and then slowly zooms back in to the family in small town America, demonstrating the incomprehensibly small size of one person against the universe. The interpretations of this sequence are myriad and I think are important to how anyone views and understands this film. As I said before, this is an intensely personal film, but not just for its director.

As should be apparent from this review, visual symbolism is infused throughout this film. Not all of it is subtle, but all of it is beautiful. There is one particular sequence that shows how a child’s soul perceives being born that is so powerful that it couldn’t have been told any other way except through image. Because of this, it is important that to enjoy this movie, a viewer should have an especially strong understanding of the language of film, and an open mind to the possibilities of what kinds of stories can be told. It’s worth the effort.

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Review over “Princess Mononoke”

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Full Disclosure: I didn’t initially count myself as a fan of anime. I still don’t, at least not to the extent of many others who have a much greater degree of knowledge about that field of pop culture. However, I have grown to recognize my thorough enjoyment of many of the films and television shows that come out of Japan’s animation industry. Princess Mononoke in particular is one of my favorites and represents a paradigm shift in what I thought was possible in animation. I mentioned in my review of Lawrence of Arabia that I love epic films and Princess Mononoke is a true epic in every sense of the word. This is most likely the reason that I have come to find it so endearing.

This film is the product of Hayao Miyazaki, the most prominent animator behind Studio Ghibli. He is unanimously regarded as Japan’s Walt Disney and I would argue that even Walt Disney didn’t have the ambition and creative potential to make a film as daring and complex as this. The film follows Ashitaka, the prince of a fallen clan in feudal Japan who has become infected by a demon, and must find the source of the demon’s creation in the hope of finding a cure. Thus begins an epic journey to save a forest from complete destruction at the hands of a driven, but not evil woman whose misguided vision of mechanization threatens humanity’s relationship with nature. This may sound a bit kid friendly. I assure you, it is not. The conflicts that arise in this film are gory and violent. The ideas presented are complex and deep, and the animated medium is used in such a way that the film becomes a richly detailed work of art, surpassing the ideas of fun and games that are commonly associated with the genre.

The titular princess is a feral young adult by the name of San, who was raised by the wolf goddess that acts as the protector of the forest. San is essentially a guerilla warrior who attacks the village that threatens the forest with ferocity and immutable will. When Prince Ashitaka sees San for the first time, her mouth smeared with blood, he is smitten. She is not. However, what develops over the course of the story is one of the more beautiful love stories depicted in film. Ashitaka ends up rescuing San from certain doom, becoming mortally wounded in the process. She in turns saves him, and in one of the most emotionally resonant scenes in the film, chews his food for him when he is too weak to do so himself.

This relationship is not superfluous to the plot, as such romances sometimes are. Instead, the love that develops between Ashitaka and San becomes a complex allegory for the way humans and nature interact, and how a healthy relationship between the two is ideal to the survival of both. This allegory is expanded upon throughout the film, especially by showing the negative effects of the human’s war with the gods of the forest, a war with no winners.

One character in particular that deserves mention is Lady Eboshi, the aforementioned “villain” of the film, who proves to be just as complex and heroic as the main characters, albeit in a very different way. She is shown to be a modern woman, a natural leader who sees the necessity of technology to provide an effective defense against the bands of roving samurai that threaten her town’s existence. She takes in misfits like lepers and prostitutes and gives them the opportunity of a new life free from oppression. Her ambitions make her an enemy of the heroes, but she is no more evil than Brutus was in Julius Caesar. Instead, she is a tragic character who further elevates the story beyond a simple fable.

As I said, this film is an epic. This is not just related to the size of the plot. Miyazaki uses grand sweeping views of the land and incredibly detailed artistry to give his animated film a distinctly real and cinematic look. The themes, as noted above, are also universal and complex. Each character is granted a steady and believable arc that either leaves them fuller and more complete than where they started, or lost without hope of redemption. It is a truly huge film that deserves to be named along Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather as one of the great epics of cinema.

Review over “The Dark Knight”

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Full Disclosure: Comic book movies are as much a part of my generation as comics themselves are of previous generations. They are a modern mythology, open to interpretation, and run the gamut from entertainingly bad trifles to spectacular modern epics at the peak of filmmaking. When I first saw The Dark Knight I was 19 and right in the middle of my development from a simple movie buff to a lover of everything film. This particular movie had already gained a substantial amount of critical praise, and so I was excited to see what kind of comic book movie could make the critics so excited. What I saw that day was a seismic shift in the way I perceived what popular entertainment could do. I was floored by the idea that a movie could be that complex and deep and still be cool and fun. I saw it two more times that summer, though only once in IMAX, which I deeply regret. It is a part of my generation’s cultural DNA, something that I can say I’m pretty proud of.

At this point it is mostly accepted that The Dark Knight is a modern classic. Five years after its release its imagery and dialogue have become embedded in the cultural lexicon and the words “Why so serious?” conjure distinct images of a deranged clown with a Glasgow smile. More importantly, the underlying themes of the film have been debated endlessly, and its exploration of the escalation of violence, the nature of heroism, and the loss of ideals, have all proved to be rich fodder for thought and discussion.

Themes aside, the movie is also just plain fun. From the opening sequence of a bank robbery with a decidedly sinister twist, the film hurtles through its two and a half hour runtime with spectacular displays of action and pyrotechnics. The centerpiece of the film is an explosive car chase sequence where the Joker targets an armored car while Batman targets him, ultimately unveiling the Batpod, an ingenious vehicle that gives director Christopher Nolan the opportunity to use his typical momentum in the camera to the fullest extent.

Of course, all of this action would all be for not without a good story. Eschewing the typical good guy fights bad guy and wins plot of nearly every superhero movie that has come before it, Nolan instead shapes his film into a complex crime epic that focuses more on its ensemble and the implications of Batman’s single minded crusade to rid the city of Gotham of crime. The story picks up with Batman following the end of Batman Begins, having spent the last year or so nearly wiping out the crime syndicates that plagued the city. Desperate to return to the status quo, the syndicate bosses hire the Joker to kill Batman. The Joker, however, has loftier ambitions and leads both Batman, and the audience, on a twisted downward spiral towards moral decay and insanity.

Perhaps the most discussed element of the movie is Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. I won’t belabor the point, but it truly is one of the great villainous performances. This Joker is terrifying in his brilliance and ability to manipulate situations to his advantage. We get the idea that this is a talent he has honed throughout his life to make up for his lack of physical strength. One thing I think hasn’t been previously explored is just how much the Joker lies throughout the movie. One can expect a certain level of dishonesty from a villain; however, here the majority of the Joker’s lines are designed not to reveal more about the character but to distort perceptions about himself and his plans. The now famous monologues where he explains where he got his grisly scars are only the most obvious indication of his intentional obfuscation. The character seems built around sleight-of-hand and trickery, and it’s this lack of outward definition that makes him such an effective villain, because we are constantly guessing at what his goals are, and so we are afraid of where they might lead.

For such a flamboyant villain, it stands to reason that we must have an equally effective hero. Nolan disagrees. Instead, he allows Batman to fail. Not as a character mind you: Christian Bale’s performance is outstanding. Bruce Wayne’s subtle breakdown from an idealistic hero to a broken man is emotionally wracking, especially given the added context of the other two movies which complete his character arc. What’s particularly telling is how Batman loses trust in his own city, even as they show they are willing to stand up to a psychopath, with or without his help. The Joker is able to take Batman’s need to save Gotham, as well as his desire to leave his life as Batman, and twist them to a point where Bruce Wayne does not even realize he has already sacrificed too much of himself to go back. This shows a great of storytelling gall. Consider that in most superhero sequels, the hero remains static, having already achieved the goal of becoming the hero in the first movie. In The Dark Knight, only the Joker is static, the heroes are allowed to fall.

None falls harder than Harvey Dent. His character arc, from ideal to monster, is both an exaggeration of Bruce Wayne’s own arc in this film, as well as the causative action that gives the film its emotional momentum. While Batman is allowed to fall, he only goes so far, and is able to at least remain a hero to the audience because he still defeats the villain, despite the fact that this defeat is itself a failure. Harvey Dent has no such redemption. He gives in fully to his anger, and in turn becomes the object of Batman’s failure.

Such character dynamics show just how adult this movie is. While other superhero franchises allow themselves the excuse of serving an adolescent audience to make up for simplistic stories, Nolan never blinks. Instead he trusts the audience to enjoy the ride and then get back on to find all the curves they missed the first time. 

Review over “Lawrence of Arabia”

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Full Disclosure: Epic is a term that gets thrown around quite a lot these days. I hear that word maybe thirty times a week, almost never in the right context. To me the word “epic” means something huge, vast, and complex. Epic, in my mind, is connected to ideas that are all encompassing and universally relatable. “Epic” is not a synonym of “cool.” When the words “epic film” hit my ears, they better refer to a large scale spectacle that will take my breath away, and then make me think about the story and themes for weeks afterward. It is for this reason that I love epics.

Lawrence of Arabia is, by many accounts, The Epic Film, an assertion that I agree with wholeheartedly. The cinematography alone is enough to make me giddy with excitement and almost childlike wonder at what I am experiencing. It is such a huge movie that even though I have a television that is much too large for the room where it sits, when I play Lawrence of Arabia on blu-ray at home, the picture simply isn’t big enough. I doubt a projected home theater system would solve the problem. If there were ever a movie that was absolutely meant to be seen in the theater on the biggest screen possible, it is this one.

Lawrence of Arabia opened in theaters back in 1962. It was immediately recognized as a masterpiece of cinema, and the acclaim since then has only increased. Directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Jackson have called it one of the greatest and most monumental films ever made. Needless to say, it has gained a reputation for being a “must see” film. The sheer abundance of critical praise can seem daunting, and may elevate this film to a point of deification that no work of art could hope to match. For that reason, I think it’s important to mitigate this review and detail exactly why it has such a reputation, instead of merely gushing over it like a wet sponge full of acclaim, the previous section notwithstanding.

To many audiences of the day, the story of T.E. Lawrence was well known, especially in his native England. The sweep and grandeur of his story seemed ripe for film, but for various reasons it was never adapted to the screen until David Lean directed this film as his follow-up to The Bridge on the River Kwai, a film that was similarly acclaimed and went on to win seven Oscars in 1958. Lean and his producing partner Sam Spiegel wanted to work together again on another large scale picture, so when they were given the opportunity to make a film based on the life of T.E. Lawrence, they eagerly accepted.

To modern day audiences, the story is less familiar, despite the popularity of the film. Much of Lawrence’s fade from at least the American field of view has much to do with the similar fade of World War I from our cultural consciousness. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s story is still extraordinary, and reveals a great deal about the sources of the current state of conflict in the Middle East. This cultural context is especially important when watching the film as a work of political art, as it focuses on one man’s attempt to shape the world to how he sees fit, and the devastating consequences that result.

But the film is not simply an examination of the political past. At its heart, Lawrence of Arabia is a character study, and a deep one. Over nearly 4 hours of film, Lawrence’s soul is laid to bare, exposed for us to judge and contemplate. The story itself follows T.E. Lawrence from his role as a map maker in the British Army to the leader of the Arab revolts against the Turkish Empire during World War I. The film begins with Lawrence’s death, then moves back to when he was first tasked with finding the prince of the Bedouin tribes and “assessing the situation.” We follow Lawrence as he leads, with insubordination and reckless daring, a small regiment of Arabs, grows it into an army though diplomacy and trickery, and uses it to take the coastal city of Aqaba. It is here that most filmmakers would have ended the story, letting Lawrence revel in his triumph for all time. Lean however, is much more interested in seeing the man behind the myth, and discovering the “true” Lawrence. A famous line from the movie is shouted at a stoic and ghostly Lawrence from a distance, “Who are you?” This line was spoken by Lean himself, as if trying to grasp at Lawrence’s spirit and make him talk. No, Lean allows Lawrence to fail, and in spectacular fashion. It is this character arc that makes the film unique; because it gives us enough time to experience his journey as a man, we can believe that Lawrence’s greatness was earned, and then lost, and we can make our own conclusions as to who, in fact, was the real person.

One of the most famous aspects of the film is its sweeping shots of the desert with the sun rising in the distance on an impossibly flat horizon. The kind of scale involved in this movie is almost never seen in film anymore, and when it is it is usually computer generated. The movie was shot using the Super Panavision 70 camera system, which uses 70 mm film. This type of film stock is rarely used today because it is extremely expensive, but the resolution and clarity that it is capable of are unmatched. The movie seems to permeate the screen, and transform it into a window. The color of the settings is especially vibrant. One of my personal favorite shots is of Lawrence and his two servants riding off into a blazing orange sunset. The level of detail is simply staggering. We are able to see each man in an army of thousands as they storm a city. And the best part, what makes the visuals that much more impressive, is that it is all real—that it was actually planned, choreographed, executed, and shot on film.

With such tangible enormity, the film could have lost its characters among the visuals. However, these wide shots are equally important in establishing what Lawrence himself sees in the desert and thus establishing his character, as they are to creating an environment for the viewer. What’s even more interesting is that while these wide open shots are rightfully famous for their grandeur and power, they are mainly in the first half of the film. While it never loses its sense of scale, the film seems to zoom in on Lawrence over the course of the story, trying to close in on him and discover the last vestiges of such a complicated man.

Peter O’Toole is probably the only human being still living who could explain Lawrence. His performance is that good. The way he holds his body throughout the film is particularly important. O’Toole is hunched forward and gangly in the beginning of the film, wearing his army uniform like an uncomfortable sweater. When he changes into his now famous Hareth robes, he seems to evolve, growing into a regal and stately figure, and a force to be reckoned with. His facial expressions are telling but not telegraphed, and always seem filled with more than one emotion at the same time, like different aspects of Lawrence’s personality, his egotism and his morality for example, are battling within him. Through O’Toole’s performance, we forget we are watching a movie, and instead believe that what we are witnessing is indeed Lawrence himself.

The genius of his performance can be summed up in two connected scenes, although it shouldn’t be. After first putting on his Hareth robes, Lawrence takes out his dagger and looks at the reflection of himself, childish and proud. Later, after instigating the slaughter of a battalion of Turks, Lawrence sees himself in this same dagger, now covered in blood, a lost and destroyed soul, caught in a storm of his own making. We believe this transition, because we have seen everything that has come before, and have seen the change in Lawrence, slowly but surely, just like the shifting of a sand dune over the desert.