Category Archives: Terrence Malick

Summer 2011: In Which Woody Allen Saves Hollywood

Summer is the season that studios are supposed to provide audiences with movies that provide unforgettable entertainment. In the past, this season has given us “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Gone are those great days. In the outside world, it was one of the hottest summers on records. In cinemas across the country, it was one of the most miserable.

The summer of 2011 was the summer in which 3D killed itself along with good storytelling, with few notable exceptions. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” without even meaning to be, became everything that the summer movie should be: wise and whimsical escapism. It is the most memorable movie he has made in years, and one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
Summer movies are all about creating a spectacle and the site of 1920s Paris is a spectacle, albeit one that didn’t cost $300 million to shoot.”Midnight in Paris” is Allen’s return to his anti-intellectualism roots. Some scenes are about as good as the Marshall McLuhan scene from “Annie Hall.” Plus, Owen Wilson is the most convincing Woody Allen stand-in to grace the screen thus far.
Before getting to the mediocre, it is necessary to acknowledge the good. Most of the best summer movies were definitely not saved for last. “Bridesmaids” was not the groundbreaking triumph in the women’s rights movement as some suggested, but simply a near-perfect comedy. “Bridesmaids” works because of its playful anti-romantic comedy feel that’s sometimes nasty but never really mean. In other words, it loves every single one of its characters. All of the dialogue and situations flow with the awkward and unforced feel of reality. One of the most underrated masters of awkward comedy (Paul Feig) got his moment in the sun. And the star and co-writer, Kristen Wiig, has gone from “Saturday Night Live” skit saver to bankable Hollywood actress. Sometimes, success in Hollywood can be well deserved.
Also at summer’s beginning was the superb “The Tree of Life.” It was a head scratcher, but more in the “2001: A Space Odyssey” sense. At this point in his career, Terrence Malick has earned the right to tell a story that jumps back and forth between the creation of the universe, 1950s Texas, and dinosaurs. Even in their shortest moments, those family scenes felt so real. It was never meant to create a complete portrait of their lives, but it is rather the story of how our memories, and our very existences, fit in to the universe as a whole. In the whole scheme of things, does it really matter how we live our lives? That is a question, along with many others that Malick raises, that countless people will explore for years to come.
The great thing about a film about “The Tree of Life” is that it didn’t pander to its audience in order to make something that they want. Sometimes, the best directors make different and difficult movies because sometimes, those are the movies we ought to be seeing more of. Unfortunately, some filmmakers don’t seem to realize that, and that plays a part in this mediocre summer. I didn’t see “Transformers 3″ or “Green Lantern” or “Thor,” so I can’t speak for any of those movies. However, I did see “Super 8.” While it was a highly entertaining and superbly made piece of 70s nostalgia throughout, its ending reversed all its progress. It is great that J.J. Abrams took his time on his film and didn’t reveal the monster instantaneously. However, its ending resolved every plot line too quickly and too easily and what should have been thrilling came out as dull.
“Horrible Bosses” also missed the mark just slightly. While its three leads (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudekis, Charlie Day) pulled off three of the best comedic performances I’ve seen in years, a certain part of the story involving a navigation system turned the film into a sellout. The characters get themselves into some pretty terrible situations thanks to their stupidity, but letting them off the hook that easily doesn’t seem fair to anyone. Despite that, Bateman can still deliver a punchline with flawless deadpan, and Day can seem innocently insane even when he’s not parading cats with mittens around.
In the end though, 2011 can be defined as “The Summer of Meh.” This is not the state of an angry reaction, but rather an uncaring one. I could talk about how terrible “Cowboys & Aliens” is but nothing about that movie really motivates me to. “Midnight in Paris” was the rare film that deserved to be seen by a wide audience and with a little patience, it was. “Terri” is probably going to go on my year end list, but it won’t be in a theater near you anytime ever.
This summer, movies lost their mojo. Hopefully, Hollywood will take this as a learn from their mistakes rather than ignore them, as they always do. Perhaps superhero movies and shoddy 3D are on the way out. While it is understandable that story doesn’t always get people in the theater, it should go without saying that the audience enjoy the product they are paying to see. Luckily, the fall and winter seasons look promising (“Moneyball” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” particularly). For now, just enjoy some of the fine programming cable television has had to offer this summer. For instance, have you watched “Breaking Bad” yet?
This is one of the funniest still images from a movie ever. Why isn’t this a meme yet?

Movie Review: Days of Heaven

Watching a Terrence Malick film is like taking a stroll through nature. Or in the case of “Days of Heaven,” harvesting it, burning it, and possibly getting killed by it.

“Days of Heaven,” Malick’s second feature, is yet another example of how he brings the natural world to life through film. “Days of Heaven” achieves this on an even grander scale than his previous feature, “Badlands.”
Like his other films, “Days of Heaven” moves at a slow and steady pace, with many often baffling moments. “Days of Heaven” begins in a place that can be described as the opposite of heaven, a steel-mill in early 20th century Chicago. The factory looks more like a third world country than the American Dream. After Bill (Richard Gere), a hard-working but hot-tempered worker at the mill accidentally kills his cruel boss, he flees the city with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his sister for the promise of a better life in the wheat fields of Texas.
No matter how beautiful the sky looks in Texas at sunset, life in the country proves to be difficult, as the wealthy, unnamed farm owner (Sam Shepard) treats his workers like slaves. Bill convinces Abby to marry their boss in order to get a claim to his fortune. Like any get-rich-quick scheme, it ends with more blood and tears than dollars and cents.
“Days of Heaven” is one cinematic story where the story barely matters as you watch it. On a first viewing, the story moves quickly and is hard to follow. That’s partly Malick’s way of telling a story and also because the story is told through the voiceover of a young girl, therefore giving the perspective of a confused child during some very dark events.
While watching “Days of Heaven,” I was convinced that I wasn’t watching a linear story, but instead a detailed tour of the Texas Panhandle. Nestor Almendros received what was probably the most deserving Best Cinematography Oscar ever for his work on this film. The film is shot mostly during the time of day that he describes as the “magic hour,” which is the period of time between sunset and nightfall. During this time, the sky is an almost magical shade of light red. Maybe it shows the false, magical hopefulness of the prosperity of living off of the land. It is also a heavenly presence in the film, something Malick brings into everything he makes.
Under Almendros’s photographic skills, the monotonous colors of the prairie look so vividly alive. As the stalks of wheat sway in the wind, almost in unison, it looks almost as if the fields are instead an ocean. In this film, the landscape is not the background, but rather the life that breaths through it. Some shots seem almost too good to be true. For example, how was a flower growing able to be shot in time lapse, without today’s digital technology? That question will just have to remain a part of the magical mysteries of cinema.
It is intentional, unsurprising, and ironic that the most humane living creatures in “Days of Heaven” are the natural elements of earth and the non-human creatures that inhabit it. The ducks, horses, bison, and many other animals that wander the ranch seem more in touch with the world than the humans there.
As for the people, they are all animalistic and motivated by greed. Bill, who is supposed to be the film’s hero, has none of the qualities of the typical hero. A hero is motivated by a desire to do good and protect those other than themselves. Bill, on the other hand, is just looking out for his own well being. Even the woman he loves is just a tool to make him more powerful.
Like most of the other men Malick portrays in his films, Bill has an underlying aggressive nature, one that usually leads to violence. Unlike Kit Kruthers from “Badlands,” this violent instinct is not a sadistic one but rather one of self-defense. Bill has more in common with the ill-tempered father from “The Tree of Life.”
Malick is purposely a very secretive director. He doesn’t want his personality getting in the way of the messages of his films. If a film is an auteur’s way of expressing himself, Malick does that through “Days of Heaven.” Malick studied philosophy at Harvard, and the actions of the characters in “Days of Heaven” probably don’t represent his moral compass but more a Hobbes like view on man: humans are violent by nature and only act in their best interest.

Of all of the films ever made about the American struggle for prosperity, this is one of the finest. “Days of Heaven” is about both our dependence on the land, and our subsequent betrayal of it. That’s why when the locusts come and black out the sky, it feels partly like nature’s revenge but more like Manifest Destiny biting back.
The downfall of most films is that their characters talk too much and have nothing good to say. Unless you’re as good of a writer as Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen, embracing silence is a key to success. In “Days of Heaven,” Malick lets the images, along with the sweeping score by Ennio Morricone, do all of the talking. This is what makes “Days of Heaven” more than just a typical Hollywood epic. When you’re trying to tell the story of a country and its inhabitants, sometimes the best way to do so is to just observe. That way you see its beauty, and its horror, exactly as it was intended to be seen.
If You Liked This Movie, You’ll Also Like: Badlands, The Tree of Life, Barry Lyndon, There Will Be Blood, 2001: A Space Odyssey, No Country for Old Men, Once Upon a Time in the West

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

Unless you love, your life will flash by.

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is the most highly ambitious film to come out of this year, many past years, and many years in the future. It comes from what must have been years of obsessive thought about both life and film. Only someone this in love with the craft, and with nature, could make this film, and somehow make it masterful.

“The Tree of Life” begins in a small Texas town in the 1950s, in what must be loosely based off of Malick’s own upbringing. Brad Pitt plays the tough patriarch of a family of three boys. Pitt, who is never given a first name, continually fights his wife (Jessica Chastain) over the best way to raise their family.

Throughout the film, they explore loss of innocence and the possible meaning of life. Usually, trying to find the meaning of life is a cheap storytelling technique. But if you’re as good of a filmmaker as Malick is, the answer doesn’t come in one sentence. The film takes us from Texas to the cosmos to the creation of the life, and back again. Somewhere in between, an older version of one of the sons (Sean Penn), comes back to explore it all. The sum of “The Tree of Life” is nearly impossible to explain. After one viewing, any interpretation could be right.

Malick’s latest is a reminder of his films from the past: it takes its precious time, and it is very quiet. “The Tree of Life” is reminiscent of a brief time when films told entire stories through images. Malick’s story, which covers basically the entirety of existence in just two and a half hours, manages to be the cinematic sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Like “2001,” “The Tree of Life” is nothing short of a cinematic opera.

Malick, while echoing Kubrick, also does something that few filmmakers have done this well: capture the flawed beauty of nature. Light shining on a bed, tall grass being ruffled by human hands, and flies buzzing around a lake at dusk have never looked this stunning. He captures both the sights and sounds of the natural world to a perfectionist degree. This is naturalistic filmmaking at its finest. Through a camera lens, he encapsulates Thoreauvian philosophy.

As a critic, it is important to try and avoid overanalyzing. However, for a film like “The Tree of Life,” overanalyzing is crucial. Through his film, Malick is trying to find more than just the meaning of life, because life doesn’t have just one meaning. “The Tree of Life” is about what is out there, and what brings us all together.

Some might call Malick’s film a religious one. While religion seems to be a big factor, I would say that the film straddles the line between spirituality and atheism. It asks these essential questions: when it comes to dealing with the biggest questions in life, who (or what) do we turn to? Do we look to nature, the possibility of God, or our friends and family? No choice we make is a decent or right one, unless it is done out of some form of love.

“The Tree of Life” is not a film that offers easy answers. Within a half hour, many people in the audience had walked out, something I haven’t witnessed since “A Serious Man.” After “The Tree of Life” ended, one woman remarked that the film was reminiscent of a bunch of Windows screen savers. A friend of mine compared it to the greatest “South Park” episode ever.

While both of these interpretations are funny, they do not do Malick’s film justice. The cinematography is the result of years of careful work, not stealing. Meanwhile, overanalyzing is the act of finding meaning in the meaningless. Malick surely had some deeper purpose in trying to discover how life exists and thrives.

“The Tree of Life” is hard to be in love with the first time around, but I feel a need to recommend it. I can’t get over the brilliant way in which Malick speeds up, and then slows down, the story at just the right moments. Many films made nowadays try to think up and balance big ideas, but few are ever this meditative.

Movie Review: Badlands

“Badlands” just proved the impossible to me: an epic story can be told in under two hours. In fact, all you really need is 90 minutes. It may just be that Terrence Malick is one of the best, and definitely the briefest, epic storyteller.

“Badlands” is a story that’s been done time and time again. Yet, Malick takes it and tells it in the most gripping, original way possible. “Badlands” begins in a quaint South Dakota suburb. It’s told from the point of view of Holly (Sissy Spacek), a bored fifteen-year-old with an overbearing and abusive father. She forms a relationship with Kit (Martin Sheen), a rebellious garbageman with the look and attitude of James Dean. Kit “saves” Holly from her sheltered life and they live a slightly nomadic life on the road. They leave a bloody trail up to the Badlands of South Dakota.
“Badlands” came out just six years after the revolutionary “Bonnie & Clyde.” I bring this up simply because the story of Kit and Holly nearly matches the story of Bonnie and Clyde. Though in a way, “Badlands” might just be a better movie because their escape feels so much more painstakingly built up to. Not to mention, their crimes are even more inexplicable and therefore even more horrifying.
The greatness of “Badlands” can be attributed to the culmination of so many different things. It is not merely an achievement in one field. First off, there’s the fine performance by the then unknown, but now legendary stars. Sheen so perfectly emulates James Dean, the one man his character constantly seems to try to emulate. Spacek meanwhile, is so convincing in her innocence that even after all Holly has been through, we realize she is nothing more than a confused and misguided teenager.
Despite the fact that nearly everything in the movie achieves for the satisfying whole, “Badlands” is overall a triumph in cinematography and directing. The images at times feel less like film and more like still photos. They are jaw dropping in their scope. It’s amazing how the film is able to turn nature into a living, changing character. We get to see the sky turn from day to dusk to light.
Of course, not of that would be possible without Malick. Malick is a known recluse who only directs a film every 20 years or so. That’s a shame. He has created possibly one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen. It’s not just what’s in the images, but how much detail is put in every shot that astonishes me so much. Sometimes, it seems like nature is more important to Malick than the actual story. Look closely at how Malick makes the tall, brown grass looks golden. And watch how the gold contrasts to the lush green right behind it.
Look at other times how the characters are framed against the ever expanding desert, or the gorgeous sun at dusk. These are our characters: as wild and curious as the world that surrounds them. Nature is our characters. Our characters are nature. It’s not just the fact that the images are beautifully shot, but that they feel so real. Everything about “Badlands” just feels absolutely organic.
What I feel is so impressive about Malick’s direction is not just the images he shows, but how he strings all of that together into a story. Some films linger on their beautiful images and forget to tell their stories. Malick doesn’t forget his. He manages to both tell a compelling story and take extended breaks to admire the scenery without running on forever. It’s epic filmmaking without an annoyingly long epic running time. I’d also like to add that the film’s climax includes one of the best chase scenes never talked about in cinema. It’s eerily personal, and so effective in how it manages to create sympathy for a character who really doesn’t deserve it.
“Badlands” has an influence that extends well into today’s world of film. I can see its visual influence in filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, Sam Mendes, and Gus Van Sant. It has imagery that will forever haunt and stun me. The story of Kit and Holly being blinded by false ideas of freedom and rebellion is like the ultimate American ballad. And Mallick is not just its auteur, but its poet.
If You Liked This Movie, You’ll Also Like: Bonnie & Clyde, My Own Private Idaho, Natural Born Killers, Mean Streets, Barry Lyndon, American Beauty, Away We Go, No Country for Old Men