PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Tree of Life (A)
U.S.: Terrence Malick, 2011, 20th Century Fox
In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick, an artist/perfectionist who never rushes a movie, dares the cinematic heavens again and, as far as I'm concerned, he wins the bet.
The movie marks another grand, offbeat, wildly ambitious work realized with striking artistry and beauty by its unfailingly brilliant and usually controversial 69-year-old writer-director.
Malick, a Texan and a veteran of the rebellious '60s and '70s, has written and directed four other uniquely personal films, three of them, I think, inarguable masterpieces: 1973's bloody, childlike killer saga Badlands, 1976's lyrical epic Days of Heaven and 1999's masterful World War II movie The Thin Red Line (that last adapted from from James Jones' novel) plus one other picture (2005's revisionist colonial romance The New World) that's more of a flawed work, though done with a daring, grace and poetry that beggar most movie "successes."
In The Tree of Life, he transports us cinematically to his own past (fictionalized), and to the foundations of the universe, toward the Eye of God, and into the depths of his own identity. He re-creates the war he remembers fought over his soul between his father and his mother against the backyard swing world and under the leafy streets of his Waco, Texas, home town and boyhood.
All of The Tree of Life has the preciousness and power of some long-lost memento, found again at last and stuck in your front jeans pocket, where its pressure and rub is a constant solace. All of it -- no matter where we came from ourselves, I think -- should remind us, at least a little, of our own childhood, our own parents, our own ruminations on the past and on the infinite and on who and what and where we are.
As he embarks on his film's extraordinary journey, Malick unleashes all his powers and gifts. He makes something profound and beautiful and very moving out of what amounts to a triangle psychological romance among a mother (Jessica Chastain), father (Brad Pitt) and son (Hunter McCracken), a combat between that father and son, a love story among that family set against the vast backdrop of the universe and the tiny town of Waco, deep, deep, within old love and old memory.
Malick's Tree of Life steeps us in seemingly commonplace but magical sight and sounds -- musical, painterly, poetic, novelistic -- while telling us what does seem at times a simple story of a boy, Jack O'Brien (McCracken), growing up in Texas in the 1950s (like Malick), an adventurous, sensitive youngster who is eventually stunned by tragedy, while being pulled in opposing directions -- the masculine way of nature and strength, the feminine way of grace and love -- by his very different father and mother.
Jack is played as boy by McCracken (an excellent performance, imbued with all the boldness and clumsy self-absorption of a kid in the '50s) and as a man by Sean Penn. Jack the boy wanders down strangely empty streets shaded by large trees, from one broad-porched house to another, followed by a camera that keeps tilting exaltedly toward the sky and the treetops. Jack the man walks through towering, sterile skyscrapers in a big city, staring out at rows of windows at a sky that seems fallen partly below him. The boy is so pensive and venturesome and the man so quiet and sad, that we know instantly how badly older Jack would like to escape back to the past, where he could still say the things to his tough father and gentle mother that now he obviously wishes them to hear.
But, after introducing us to the O'Brien family, and showing how the three boy babies were born and grew, Malick does something extraordinary. Aided by Douglas Trumbull of 2001, he takes us on a quick compressed journey through the creation of the universe, with lights blazing in darkness, big bangs of a sort somewhere up there, and on Earth, the long, slow evolution from amoeba to fish to mammal to man, now made very fast, as in Fantasia's "Rite of Spring" sequence. Malick balances this evolution tango with Christian imagery, quotations from the Book of Job. And the Mother (neither she nor the father are given first names), often echoes Job's lamentations, his seeming conversations with God.
Is Malick showing us creation, or evolution, or both mixed together, or is he implying that God has a hand in it all, whatever it was? Most movies wouldn't bother with speculations like these. But Malick also draws on family and sexuality and good and evil as well as religion for his back-story.
Malick's movie has a kind of hard, gem-like grandeur. The production design (Jack Fisk), and the cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) are often ravishing, and the performances move easily from the simple and rustic to the mysterious and rapturous. All the acting has a mixture of realism and poetry, but that's especially true of the performances of Chastain, McCracken and Pitt. Pitt's performance and the movie, took Malick a while to edit, so it's just coincidental that paternal small town Pitt in The Tree of Life and wily baseball executive Pitt in Moneyball come out in the same year. But it's a formidable acting double feat, maybe the peak of his career so far.
Now, we have plenty of simple stories, simply told, in our movies. More than enough. And we have some pretensions in even the most popular and most expensive ones, mostly visual pretensions. But we should be glad when, occasionally, something like The Tree of Life -- Palme d'Or winner at the last Cannes Film Festival -- shows up. (Extras: Documentary.)
Scream 4 (B)
U.S.: Wes Craven, 2011, Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay.
What's your favorite scary movie?
Excuse me? Who is this?
I said: What's your favorite scary movie?
Well, Psycho, of course. Though M and Vertigo and The Night of the Hunter and Nosferatu and The Birds are all right at the top of the list too. More modern films: Silence of the Lambs. Blade Runner. Pan's Labyrinth. Carpenter's The Thing. Or, if I'm forced to name one of the post-Halloween, kill-the-kids teen-slasher genre -- you know, to choose among all those post-'70s gore fests where "scary movie" replaced "horror movie" as the genre tag of choice -- I guess I'd pick the first 1984 version of Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Scary idea. A homicidal maniac from hell, with a mean sense of humor, invades your dreams. If he kills you, you stay dead. You can't escape. You keep falling asleep and there he is, again and again. I don't remember my dreams any more, so it scares me especially. Wow, what a nightmare!
Scream? The 1996 one? No. Although I like Scream fine. It's a good comic shocker. Inventive. Funny. Scary too. Good monster, that Ghostface killer, that Halloween maniac in the black shroud with the twisted white face out of Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream." Nice. Nice touch. But Craven is no Hitchcock after all. I mean, in some ways, he's not a John Carpenter or a Dario Argento either. Not that grimly stylish. Or baroque...
Did you say "Baroque?"
Yeah. No, he's not baroque, like Argento. But he's a real filmmaker. A gifted shock-spinner, a funky scaremeister, with great command, great timing. Still, it's not my favorite horror movie: Scream. But Hitchcock...
Not Scream 2??
Huh? No. Not bad, though. Almost as good as the first Scream, in fact. Kevin Williamson is a funny, cool writer and he brought smart dialogue to teen scary movies. That idea of having the characters in a horror movie be aware of the horror movie genre rules and to keep commenting on the rules, while some of them get chased and slaughtered. I liked it. And then, in Scream 2, Williamson and Craven start a chain of references to a horror-movie-within-a-horror-movie, based on what happened in Scream 1, a horror movie called Stab. Good, good idea.
But if you compare these guys to Alfred Hitchcock...
Not Scream 3???
No! Now that one I didn't like as much as the first two. Craven's still there, that's good. (Guess he learned a lesson when he let those Nightmare movies get away from him.) But Williamson takes a holiday -- he's busy with Dawson's Creek, I guess -- and it's more of a standard business-as-usual sequel.
I mean, it's good that they keep bringing back some of the original characters -- you know Neve Campbell as the persistent victim Sidney Prescott, Courteney Cox as the nosey reporter Gale Weathers, David Arquette (Rosanna's brother) as that bozo, always-late-to-the-crime-scene cop Dewey Riley -- but basically Scream 3 is just another standard franchise scary-business-as-usual sequel.
Hitchcock, on the other hand...
Not Scream 4????
I SAID: NOT SCREAM 4, YOU SON OF A BITCH! The movie you're supposed to be talking about! The movie you're supposed to be reviewing! The First Scream Sequel in More than a decade!
Hey, you don't have to scream! I mean, these are only movies, you know. Right? Get a grip.
Well, I thought Scream 4 was okay. Good. Better than Scream 3, anyway. Williamson is back. Craven never left -- though supposedly he threatened to take a hike, if this script wasn't as good as the first Scream. Campbell, Cox and Arquette are all back. Nice to have some adults around, always. In the movie, Sidney's written a self-help book called Out of Darkness. Good touch, but where's her ghost-writer?
And all those new kids that are maybe going to get massacred or maybe survive: Emma Roberts as Sidney's Cousin Jill, and Marielle Jaffe and Hayden Panetierre as Jill's pals, Olivia and Kirby. (Quite a party gal, that Kirby.) And Nico Tortorella as Jill's rat of an ex-boyfriend Trevor. And Rory Culkin and Erik Knudsen as the high school horror movie geek-guys Charlie and his pal, who go around commenting on everything while it's happening (of course) and who put on that big, splashy Stab-a-thon Party. Nice touch: a high school shriek/geek cinema club, with nerds who use words like "deconstruct."
Do you use words like "deconstruct?"
Well, I try not to, unless I'm making a joke.
But hey, you know, I was glad they had some more adults in this one. In fact, that's an idea: Why don't they make the next one, Scream 5, with a lot of horny or fornicating, slaughtered adults instead of, you know, the usual horny or fornicating, slaughtered teenagers? Broaden the audience. Just an idea.
These grownups were okay: Anthony Andrews, and Adam Brody and Gordon Michaels as more cops. And Marley Shelton as blonde Deputy Hicks, who's got a crush on that idiot Dewey. (What's he got, anyway?). And Alison Brie as Sidney's pushy book tour publicist Rebecca, the one with the clockwork tush, who says to Gale "You were my '90s." And Mary McDonnell (real good to see her again, the Dances With Wolves lady, and she was also great in Passion Fish) as Jill's mom, Sidney's Aunt Kate.
Oh, and Roger Jackson...
Who's Roger Jackson?
He was the evil Voice on the phone.
(Extras: commentary by Craven; alternate ending and opening; 15 deleted scenes; "making of" featurette; gag reel.)
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
The Complete Jean Vigo (A)
France: Jean Vigo, 1930-34, Criterion Collection
He died at 29: Jean Vigo, in many ways, the spirit of youth, of art, of cinematic rebellion, of France between the wars. He was the sacred enfant terrible and the laughing rebel and grand martyr of French cinema, a first citizen of the world cinema (he belongs to us all), even though he was a film director who directed only four films: two shorts, a featurette, and one feature, all of them to some degree commercial and critical failures, mutilated by producers, mauled by critics, pulled from the screens by censors, and hacked to bits by distributors.
His work was trashed, then forgotten (but not by everybody), then resurrected again in World War II, a decade after his death, then restored and revived and re-distributed and re-seen all over the world, in all of the decades since. He still lives, his films still live -- and if you see them (as you should) in this essential anthology from Criterion, they will make you feel more alive as you watch them. These films will flood your heart with love and sensuality and your eyes with beauty and mad comedy, and your mind with poetry and dreams, and, if you let them, they will set your soul on fire. They will make you feel young again. I guarantee it.
He made movies about sunny resorts and the bourgeoisie at play (1930's A propos de Nice), about an Olympic champion swimmer in (and under) the water (1931's Taris), about schoolboys in revolt in a school run by monsters (1933's Zero de Conduite) and about two lovers and a wild old man on a barge on the river (1934's L'Atalante). These works are both records of the real -- they're about "real" French culture, cities and countryside, love and sex, wealth and poverty, about French life as it was lived in the 1930s -- and documents of the surreal, of that mysterious land that lies behind the darkness in the back of our dreams.
The producers and distributors who cut his films, the critics who attacked them, the censors who shelved and locked them away -- they are all dead. Good riddance. Their contemporary counterparts probably wouldn't bother themselves with a few French films almost eight decades old. And if they did, no one who matters would listen to them. Only Jean Vigo's admirers are still on the field. Too late for him, of course, but not too late for these films of his, these cinematic poems that are still so burningly, madly, hilariously, lovingly, rebelliously, eternally alive.
There are only four Jean Vigo films, but they open up a world for us. If we let them.
He was the son of a revolutionary who died in a prison (probably murdered), a Catalan named Eugene Bonaventure Vigo, who took the name Miguel Almereyda, and who was usually on the run from fascists. In Jean's boyhood, he discovered movies, and he responded to them all of his short life, with that same transcendent wonder with which children react to the things in the world they love best: to sunlight on the grass, to their mother's eyes, to a blue lake lapping the shore, to the sight of horses and the sound of hooves, to books, to chocolates, to music -- or to Charlie Chaplin kicking someone in the ass in the silent blacks and whites of Easy Street or The Immigrant.
Jean went to boarding school, a bad time he immortalized in Zero de Conduite, whose title refers to the worst score possible for schoolboy deportment, something Jean may have gotten himself. He contacted tuberculosis in his early 20s, first went to Nice because the sun was better for his lungs, and met his wife Elizabeth "Lydou" Lozinska in a sanatorium. He met also, earlier, his great collaborator, the cinematographer Boris Kaufman, a photographic genius and poet of light whose brothers were fellow cineastes Mikhail and Denis (a.k.a. Dziga-Vertov), and who shot Nice, Zero and L'Atalante -- and many films later in Hollywood for Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet, including On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men. Vigo's financier for his masterpieces Zero de Conduite and L'Atalante was the independent producer Jacques-Louis Nounez, who agreed to make Zero de Conduite and then, when it failed and was censored, proposed the project (a novel by Jean Guinee) for L'Atalante.
Zero de Conduite, a 44-minute featurette that still can fill us with shock and wonderment, was based on Vigo's memories of boarding school days, climaxing with reveries of the schoolboy revolution Vigo didn't mount with his friends, but could dream of. The film begins on a dark train carrying returning pupils Caussat (Louis Lefebvre) and Bruel (Coco Goldtsein/Constantin Kelber) and teacher Huguet (Jean Daste) -- and in a dark station that both irresistibly suggest the genre to come: film noir. The school, when they get there, is a nightmare of absurdities, tangled up with lyrical flights of freedom that grow in magnitude, until they finally reach an incredible, fantastic culmination in the scene of the pillow flight, erupting in a mad shimmering drizzle of pillow-feathers and a nighttime arena of leaping boys shot by Kaufman in slow motion. As in the gunfights in a Sam Peckinpah Western, the slow-mo confers eerie balletic grace on a scene of violence.
The cast is an amalgam of poetic or madcap youth and ridiculous age. The evil little headmaster is performed by Delphin; the bad or dumb teachers or supervisors, Perrain (a.k.a. Old Tightass) and Beanpole by Robert Le Flon and Blanchar. Jean Daste plays the good teacher Huguet, who looks (and walks and acts) like Chaplin. It's probable that the rudely sarcastic treatment given these bizarre academics is at least partly responsible for the film's long banning in France (1933-45). Certainly no one in their right mind could have believed Zero de Conduite was intended as an instigation to an actual schoolboy revolt, fought with real books and weaponry. Instead, it helped ignite an artistic and cinematic revolt that continues to this day.
L'Atalante, one of the most hypnotically beautiful and earthily poetic of all French films, and of all black-and-white films, is set mostly on a barge on the River Seine, on the gorgeously scenic route between the village Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and Paris. First, at the beginning, we see a handsome working-class young couple, Jean and Juliette (played by Daste of Zero de Conduite and Dita Parlo, the memorable blonde German actress in Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion), getting married in the village church, the wedding procession, and, scuttling ahead of them all, waving a bouquet, the crew of Jean's barge, L'Atalante: The Kid (Lefebvre) and the magnificent First Mate, mellow Caliban and tattooed shaggy old man Pere Jules (played by the magnificent Michel Simon, only two years away from his other classic '30s "river" role, Boudu in Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning).
As they drift on the river, sexuality bathes and drenches the atmosphere on the boat and in the world around them. (The ultra-romantic music is by the immortal Maurice Jaubert -- who died young, like Vigo, but in World War II.) The couple are in love, but Jean is madly jealous of everyone, including Pere Jules -- and, after a rake tries to pick up Juliette in a bar, Jean leaves her in Paris, and then goes quietly and unquietly mad. The film ends happily, though it could have just as well have turned noir, with a murder and a pursuit and a sad, bitter ending. But, happy or not, Vigo's great ballad remains one of the lyrical films ever made, and twice, in 1962 and 1992 (after the films' restoration to its full 87 minute length), L'Atalante has been voted one of the 10 greatest films of all time, in the Sight and Sound International Film Poll of critics and filmmakers.
It is now a national treasure in France.
So is the memory of the prodigy Jean Vigo, treasured also by all of us who love the poetry of the movies, who love rebellion and vulnerability, who love the music of Maurice Jaubert and the images of Boris Kaufman, who love Michel and Dita and Jean and Louis and the schoolboys and their pillow fight, who love little mementos that break, who love a river and romance, and who love French cinema. Vigo lives.
A propos de Nice (A-)
France: Jean Vigo & Boris Kaufman, 1930
With Vigo. Silent, with English intertitles.
France: Jean Vigo, 1931
With Jean Taris. In French, with English subtitles.
Zero de Conduite (A)
France: Jean Vigo, 1933
With Jean Daste, Louis Lefebvre, Coco Goldstein/Constantin Kelber. In French, with English subtitles.
France: Jean Vigo, 1934
With Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Daste, Lefebvre. In French, with English subtitles.
(Extras: commentaries for all films by Vigo historian/critic Michael Temple; new score by Marc Perrone for A propos de Nice; alternate edits from A propos de Nice; 1964 Cineastes de notre Temps TV show on Vigo; conversation between Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer on L'Atalante; animated tribute to Vigo by director Michel Gondry; documentary Le Voyage de L'Atalante; interview with filmmaker Otar Iosseliani; booklet with four essays by Michael Almereyda, Robert Polito, B. Kite and Luc Sante.)