2022 | Weeks 4–6

It’s been a busy start to the year… at my day job, which has had the knock-on effect of lower film viewing than has been the case in recent years. (I say that, but as February passes its midpoint, I’ve actually watched slightly more films than I had at the same point in 2020; but the last time I was lower than that was right back in 2014, so…)

As well as work, there’s the psychology of my new reviewing practices. These regular up-to-date roundups have taken me right back to the days when I used to review everything in order, and how not being caught-up on my reviews made me not want to watch anything more. I’m getting those same kinds of twinges now. I need to try to use them to my advantage — take the time to read more books or something.

Anyway, enough about me — let’s have some film reviews…

  • Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary (2016)
  • L’avventura (1960)
  • She’s Gotta Have It (1986)
  • Don’t Look Up (2021)
  • Jackass: The Movie (2002)
  • Jackass Number Two (2006)


    Voyage of Time

    (2016)

    aka Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary / Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience

    Terrence Malick | 46 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.90:1 | USA / English | NR / G

    Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary

    Calling a film “a visual poem” sounds either clichéd or pretentious, or both, but how else to accurately describe this work by Terrence Malick? It’s labelled “a documentary”, because only because it’s not strictly fiction — if you come looking for the kind of education you’d get from something narrated by David Attenborough or Brian Cox, say, then I think you’d leave disappointed.

    No, film-as-poetry is the most appropriate way to attempt to engage with Voyage of Time; and, as with so much written poetry, your personal tolerance for and interest in it will vary. That’s how I found it, anyway: like most poetry, I felt I should appreciate it, but really was glad it was quite short. (The non-IMAX version of the film, subtitled Life’s Journey, runs about twice as long.) There’s some stunning photography, of everything from the birth of the universe to prehistoric vistas (presumably shot in remote modern-day locales rather than computer-generated), and Brad Pitt occasionally whispers some abstrusely meaningful ponderings over the top. As much as the pretty pictures are a draw, you can also find gorgeous nature photography in a BBC Attenborough documentary, and you’ll learn something at the same time.

    The IMAX version of the film has been streaming on MUBI since the end of last year, and they definitely sold it on the visual experience, boasting about offering it in 4K. I found the quality to be variable, with the stream unable to keep its end up for the whole running time, sometimes sinking to sub-1080p levels, becoming blocky and compressed. This is why physical media remains the best, when possible.

    3 out of 5

    Voyage of Time: An IMAX Documentary is the 11th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    L’avventura

    (1960)

    aka The Adventure

    Michelangelo Antonioni | 143 mins | digital (HD) | 1.85:1 | Italy & France / Italian, English & Greek | PG

    L'avventura

    I don’t have a great track record for enjoying acclaimed classic Italian cinema (neither Bicycle Thieves nor were to my taste, for example), so I’ve put off watching L’avventura for years, expecting I wouldn’t get on with it. But, inevitably, I had to face it someday… and, as it turned out, I really liked it… for a while…

    The film begins with Claudia (Monica Vitti) and her wealthy friend Anna (Lea Massari) meeting up with the latter’s wealthy boyfriend, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), to go for a cruise on the yacht of some other wealthy friends. When they dock on a small island, Anna goes missing. The party scour the island, but there’s no sign of her. Police and divers arrive, but no luck. Reports suggest maybe she boarded another boat; possibly she was kidnapped. The wealthy friends quickly drift back to their lives, but Claudia and Sandro keep searching, following scant clues. Soon they too begin to get distracted — by each other.

    I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that L’avventura starts out looking like a missing-person mystery only to get sidetracked into being a kind of romantic drama. I certainly knew that going in; and it’s probably beneficial to know it, spoiler or not, so as to manage your expectations of the film appropriately. Anyone expecting a Christie-style hunt through clues and suspects until the truth is unearthed will come away severely disappointed. No, this is the Mystery genre reimagined through an arthouse lens: it’s inconclusive, more interested in the characters than the hunt they’re on, and notoriously slow paced.

    With that in mind, I was surprised by how effective I found the mystery part of the movie. It’s not a whistle-stop action-adventure, but it’s not significantly slower than your average murder mystery, and accusations of it being uneventful seem misplaced — if I were expecting it to unfold like a regular mystery, there’d be plenty of places to look out for clues. It’s as the film shifts more towards Claudia and Sandro’s burgeoning romance that it begins to drag. The pair start just hanging around places as tourists, at which it does begin to seem like nothing’s happening and so what’s the point? The conceit of them falling for each other when they’re meant to be searching for someone they mutually care about is a good storyline, but I wasn’t convinced by how it played out. There doesn’t seem to be any time when they’re actually falling in love, they just suddenly are. Maybe I’m missing some point there. Or maybe it’s beside the point. Until I can work that one out, I’m going to have to chalk this up as half great, half A Shame.

    4 out of 5

    L’avventura is the 12th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2022.


    She’s Gotta Have It

    (1986)

    Spike Lee | 84 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.66:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

    She's Gotta Have It

    Spike Lee’s post-student debut concerns twentysomething Brooklynite Nora Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), who’s openly dating three men: upright ‘nice guy’ Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks), preening model Greer (John Canada Terrell), and streetwise Mars (Lee himself). And let’s not be coy (because the film certainly isn’t): she’s not just dating them, she’s sleeping with them all. The story of this love ‘square’ is partially narrated to camera by its four participants, as well as some of Nora’s other friends and acquaintances.

    It’s kinda crazy to think that the American indies were making sexually frank films like this and sex, lies and videotape in the late ’80s (a precursor, no doubt, to the wave of ‘real sex’ movies in the early ’00s), while nowadays we regularly get young people on Twitter arguing that no movie ever needs to have a sex scene, ever. So while I’m tempted to describe the film’s views on promiscuity as “then-modern”, perhaps just “modern” will still suffice — it’s certainly taken most (arguably all) of the intervening decades to get rid of the double standard for men and women as regards having multiple partners. That said, what has perhaps changed is our idea of what counts as “sexually explicit”. The film was obviously quite shocking back in its day, with the MPAA insisting on cuts before they’d give it an R (the unrated “director’s cut” had a Criterion LaserDisc release, but hasn’t surfaced anywhere else since), but you’ll see more nudity, more thrusting and moaning, on certain TV shows nowadays.

    Sexual stereotypes are not the only ones Lee sought to subvert here, as he also attempts to combat stereotypical depictions of African-Americans on screen — note the prominent message in the end credits that “this film contains are no jerri curls!!! and no drugs!!!” (punctuation as seen on screen). It extends beyond those basic signifiers; for example, how Nora’s three lovers are such different personalities. Partly that makes sense for the plot — that different sides of Nora’s personality like different types of guy — but also it shows different ideas of male Blackness; that The Black Guy is not just one thing. The jazzy score is another definite contrast to what you’d expect from a Hip Young Black Movie in the ’80s. Maybe that’s just Lee’s personal preference, but maybe it’s another conscious subversion of expectations.

    Lee’s politics are clear and forthright, but his filmmaking still needed some work. A lot of the film looks great, mostly shot in high-contrast black-and-white (plus one striking, ultra-saturated colour sequence), but some of the editing and performances could use refinement. Rough round the edges though it may be, She’s Gotta Have It is so clearly the calling card of a talented and individual voice with something brand-new to say that those rough edges are almost more of a feature than a bug.

    4 out of 5

    She’s Gotta Have It is the 13th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?” 2022.


    Don’t Look Up

    (2021)

    Adam McKay | 138 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Don't Look Up

    Oscar statue2022 Academy Awards
    4 nominations

    Nominated: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Original Score.

    Having targeted those responsible for the 2008 financial crash in The Big Short, and Dick Cheney and his responsibility for everything bad that’s happened in the last few decades in Vice, writer-director Adam McKay now turns his satirical attention to a fictional scenario, basically so he can have a go at anyone and everyone he feels like. The plot concerns a giant asteroid headed for Earth; an extinction-level event just 6½ months away. But, despite a handful of scientists trying to warn everyone, nobody seems in a great rush to do anything about it. It’s all an allegory for America’s carefree attitude to climate change, see.

    Really, this is a film I should be fully onboard with. It’s setting its sights on vacuous mainstream culture and Trumpian politics, after all. The problem is, these targets are low-hanging fruit, and — somewhat ironically, given its title — Don’t Look Up is satisfied with only plucking those lowest branches. Repeatedly. Unhurriedly. When they said the comet was 6½ months away, I didn’t expect the rest of the film to feel like it was covering that in real-time. It needed a better editor, or perhaps a studio who exerted a bit more quality control than Netflix’s famed “do what you want, we’ll just release it” approach. There are funny moments, certainly, but they’re literally few and far between when the pace is languid and the satire so broad, simplistic, and repetitious. Indeed, the most laugh-inducing stuff has nothing to do with the satire at all, just funny bits of business along the way (the best is a running gag about a general and snacks, which keeps cropping up unexpectedly).

    And for a film that’s entire thesis is being critical of American attitudes, it’s (again) ironic that it depicts this global crisis as so America-centric. Sure, there are cutaways to people watching events in other parts of the world, and a couple of belated nods to the idea that other countries might have their own thoughts on this impending disaster, but that’s all they are — sops and nods. “If America’s not going to fix this, no one can,” says the film. Ah, fuck off.

    2 out of 5


    Jackass: The Movie

    (2002)

    Jeff Tremaine | 85 mins | digital (SD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Jackass: The Movie

    Jackass never appealed to me. I was a 14-year-old boy when it started, surely the franchise’s target audience; but I was an intelligent 14-year-old boy, so I was above it. Sorry, not sorry. But with everyone going on about the new movie, and reevaluating the whole franchise as some kind of essential classic of Cinema, I thought it was finally time to see for myself.

    For those not au fait with the series, it’s about a bunch of men who clearly aren’t old enough to know better performing stunts and pranks that no one in their right mind should ever want to do anyway. They’re frequently designed to induce pain. They’re often trying to be as crude or gross as possible. Some may make you feel ill just by watching them. And yet others are almost on the level of wholesome fun… albeit “wholesome fun” where you know participants will come away with bruises, at the very least.

    Almost everything the guys get up to is “dumb” — that’s kinda the point — and yet… It borders on “educational” when, for example, lead troublemaker Johnny Knoxville submits to being shot by “less lethal” riot control ammunition. The plan was for him to be shot in the chest, but the guys who make the stuff say if it hits his heart it could kill him, so they revise it to him being shot in the abdomen. Whereas most of the other stunts are followed by cutaways to the rest of the crew in hysterics, here the shocked silence of their reaction is telling. Or how about the kinda-feminism of a segment called “Ass Kicked by a Girl”, in which one of the gang enters the ring against a world champion female kickboxer. There’s no “haha, I can take her easily ’cause she’s a girl” posturing: the guy knows he’s about to get his ass handed to him. There’s some kind of respect for women in that, anyway, which you might not expect given the rest of the laddish antics.

    Taken as ‘a movie’, it’s rather formless — I suspect the TV show was exactly the same, just shorter — but the rapid-fire, standalone-stunt style does mean that no sketch hangs around too long. Some are literally seconds. But there’s not even a sense of escalation, say — it’s not like they save the largest or most outlandish stunt for the end (although there’s a post-credit scene that seems like it was probably the film’s most expensive single sequence). In some respects it doesn’t matter (who cares about the structure of a Jackass movie?), but in others, it’s what keeps it at the level of “feature-length special” rather than true Movie.

    But, ultimately, the important thing is this: some of it is funny. Reader, I laughed.

    3 out of 5


    Jackass Number Two

    (2006)

    Jeff Tremaine | 88 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

    Jackass Number Two

    Even Jackass isn’t immune from the law of diminishing returns: after three seasons on TV plus a movie, this second big-screen outing feels kinda uninspired, like they’ve used up all their truly great ideas and are mostly running on fumes. That said, there are some good sequences — a variety of rodeo-based stunts with real live bulls are among the highlights — but other pranks feel reheated, or are just underwhelming; things you suspect would have been rejected in favour of better material before.

    In that sense it almost feels like it was rushed out to capitalise on success, but there’s a gap of four years, the TV show had ended, and they hadn’t necessarily intended to do any more — surely the only reason to return, then, was fresh ideas? Or, perhaps, being given the budget to do things they couldn’t before. That might be the case, because some of the material does feel like it’s got too much money and/or time behind it. I say “too much” because I think Jackass works best when it has a rough, cheap, “made at home” vibe. The finale here — a big “old Hollywood”-style musical number, with stunts mixed in — feels particularly out of place. Obviously it’s all a big joke, but the glossy, clearly-expensive visuals don’t feel of the right style.

    Plus, at various points you can feel some of the cast are getting genuinely fed up with this shit. Maybe they’d been doing it for too long by this point (I say there was a years-long gap, but some had been involved in spinoff projects). Whatever the reason, it serves to undermine the fun somewhat. One of the reasons you can enjoy these fools doing life-threatening stunts is because they’re volunteering for it and they seem to be having fun, however much they’re getting hurt or disgusted. But if they’re not enjoying it, aren’t we just watching people be tortured for our entertainment? It almost tips it from being stupid-but-funny into exploitative bullying. And we shouldn’t be having to think about anything that deep during a Jackass movie.

    As I’ve given both films 3 stars, let’s be clear: I’d definitely rate the sequel lower than the first movie, just not a whole star lower — it doesn’t merit being pulled down to a 2, while the first doesn’t merit a retrospective bump up to 4. If this kind of tomfoolery tickles you, there’s still plenty of entertainment to be had in Number Two, it’s just (mostly) not their finest output — which I guess is kinda apt, given the title.

    3 out of 5

    Jackass Number Two is the 15th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


  • Archive 5, Vol.4

    I have a backlog of 432 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today: singing vicars, grumpy gamers, very nice Kazakhs, and deleted actors.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Going My Way (1944)
  • The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945)
  • Zero Charisma (2013)
  • Borat (2006)
  • The Thin Red Line (1998)


    Going My Way

    (1944)

    Leo McCarey | 126 mins | digital (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    Going My Way

    The Oscars, eh? Every year film fans pay them a load of attention, and every year we seem to be disappointed with the outcome. But this isn’t some new phenomenon: Going My Way hails from the 1940s, but is perhaps the definitive example of a film that managed to sweep the Oscars (it won seven awards from ten nominations) against a bunch of films that have endured to much greater acclaim (films it competed against included Double Indemnity, Laura, Lifeboat, Gaslight, and Meet Me in St. Louis. I think we can agree those are all better-remembered on the whole).

    None of which is to say it’s a bad film. It’s a gently-paced series of vignettes, almost like a collection of short stories, springing from young priest Father O’Malley (Bing Crosby) arriving to take charge of a struggling New York City parish. His modern ways clash with the old-fashioned values of the incumbent Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), but his worldly knowledge allows him to connect with some of the parish’s disaffected inhabitants. Despite the religious setting, it doesn’t lean too heavily on the wonders of Christianity (you know I’d be the first to rip into it if it did). Overall, it’s perfectly pleasant; an easy afternoon’s viewing.

    Incidentally (and here’s a good bit of trivia that might come in handy for a quiz someday), it was the first Oscar Best Picture winner to have a sequel: The Bells of St. Mary’s, released the very next year… and also the very next review in this roundup…

    3 out of 5

    Going My Way was #93 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    The Bells of St. Mary’s

    (1945)

    Leo McCary | 126 mins | TV (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    The Bells of St. Mary's

    This followup to Going My Way was not only the first sequel to an Oscar Best Picture winner, but was also the first sequel to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

    Bing Crosby returns as Father O’Malley, sent to a new locale, ready to solve another series of subplots at a struggling religious institution, this time butting heads (sort of — it’s never as dramatic as that makes it sound) with Ingrid Bergman’s head nun. Like the first one, it’s really a bundle of subplots for Bing to ‘solve’. The low-stakes problems and amiable tone between the two leads, even when they’re disagreeing, makes for a gentle and relaxing kind of film. I’d give it the edge over its Oscar-winning predecessor, thanks primarily to Bergman’s performance, but neither film is likely to set anyone’s world alight.

    As well as their Oscar success, the films were the highest grossing at the US box office for 1945 and ’46, respectively, another first for a film ‘series’. And yet, with six decades distance, they’re little more than also-rans; nicely obscure trivia answers to “films that won/were nominated for Best Picture”. Maybe there’s a lesson in that for anyone obsessed with the current cultural zeitgeist.

    3 out of 5

    The Bells of St. Mary’s was #187 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Zero Charisma

    (2013)

    Katie Graham & Andrew Matthews | 88 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Zero Charisma

    I’d nickname this Portrait of a Manbaby on Fire. The manbaby in question is Scott (Sam Eidson), a stereotypical alpha-nerd: he has a neckbeard; he wears black T-shirts that feature elaborate depictions of grim reapers and the like; he lives with his grandma; he paints miniature fantasy figurines; he’s the Game Master of a role-playing group, which he rules with an iron fist. But when into-geeky-stuff hipster Miles (Garrett Graham) joins the group and everyone really likes him, Scott finds his position threatened, and he’s not happy about it.

    As much as geek/nerd culture has transitioned into the mainstream over the past couple of decades, there’s still stuff that remains the preserve of the hardcore; the truly nerdy. That culture clash is part of what Zero Charisma is about, of course, with Scott’s true old-fashioned kind of nerdishness clashing with Miles’s new-school cool. But it’s also a character study of the former. Scott may seem a stereotype — like The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy rendered in live-action — but I’d wager anyone who’s moved in nerdish circles has known someone at least a bit like him. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. The film exposes and examines those to often amusing effect. Some have said it exaggerates these things, but I don’t think it’s particularly guilty of that. Maybe it generalises them, and lumps all the worst characteristics of the extremely nerdy together into one character, but that doesn’t make it inaccurate, just broad.

    My only real problem was the ending. There’s a scene where everything comes to a head — a climax, if you will — but, in the wake of that, I felt it lacked adequate resolution. Has Scott learnt anything from this experience? Is he a changed man? Maybe a little, but not completely. To be fair, that’s a realistic character arc, because whose personality changes overnight after a single revelation? And yet it also doesn’t feel like the filmmakers quite know how they want to leave things. If they’d been going for a “change takes time and is incremental, but Scott’s started on that road” kinda message, I would have approved. Instead, the film tries to have its cake and eat it by showing Scott as better on the surface, but then secretly GMing a game where he still behaves like an asshole. Maybe it’s trying to say we can never truly change, however much our flaws are highlighted to us, which would be a pretty glum way to end an otherwise likeable comedy.

    3 out of 5

    Zero Charisma was #109 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    Borat

    (2006)

    aka Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

    Larry Charles | 84 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA & UK / English | 15 / R

    Borat

    Ali G’s Sacha Baron Cohen adopts the persona of a Kazakh journalist to ostensibly interview Americans about their culture, but, unbeknownst to them, he’s of course really looking to expose their ludicrous views (you just know that, ten years later, a lot of these people voted for Trump) and take the piss out of them for our entertainment.

    As with most sketch-based comedy, the end result is a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s very funny; other times, it’s just being gross for the sake of it, like in a naked fight between Borat and his portly producer. A few bits don’t quite land — sometimes you can feel Baron Cohen’s not getting the response he wanted out of his target — and, even though he’s taking the piss out of people who deserve it, it sometimes gets a bit uncomfortable (though that might just be my English reserve/politeness kicking in and making me cringe). Most of the sketches are quite short, which is nice — they generally don’t outstay their welcome, and, if one isn’t working, you can be assured another will be along shortly.

    3 out of 5

    Borat was #220 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Thin Red Line

    (1998)

    Terrence Malick | 171 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Thin Red Line

    An extensive cast of famous actors and recognisable faces star as a battalion of soldiers who spend 2 hours and 51 minutes taking one (1) hill in Terrence Malick’s very Terrence-Malick-y World War 2 movie. I mean, this is a movie about a battle in which the first shots aren’t fired until past the 45 minute mark, but there are plenty of shots showing the minutiae of nature. And there’s a lot of discussion about how there isn’t enough water.

    None of which is necessarily a problem — indeed, there are plenty of people who think this is a great movie, and I’m glad for them. But for everyone who loves it, there’s someone who’d call it “pretentious and self-indulgent, despite gun battles and lush cinematography.” I find myself somewhat stuck in the middle. I mean, if you were expecting a normal combat movie from Terrence Malick, more fool you. And it’s unquestionably beautifully shot — so many gorgeous visuals, but also effective camerawork and editing to convey, say, the chaos of battle. But I also found it to be bitty and episodic. Well, calling them “episodes” might be kind — they’re scenes; sometimes less than scenes; just moments, or even shots. It’s like a really long deleted scenes package pretending to be a movie.

    Of course, the behind-the-scenes stories sort of support that reading. The first cut clocked in at five hours. It took two editors and thirteen months of post-production to get it to a manageable size. Hans Zimmer composed over four hours of music, but only for a few bits of his work made it into the final cut. Billy Bob Thornton recorded narration for the entire film; the released cut has eight different narrators, but none of Thornton’s work is in there. Many actors thought they had significant roles, but found their performances reduced to little more than cameos. Most famously, Adrien Brody thought he was playing the lead role, only to discover at the premiere that he’s in just a couple of shots, and doesn’t even speak until over halfway through (and then it’s just a brief voiceover). And then there are the actors whose work was left on the cutting room floor: Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen, Martin Sheen, Jason Patric, Mickey Rourke… This movie has more great actors whose performances were deleted entirely than most movies have in their entire cast!

    All of which suggests a movie that should be universally recognised as a disaster. That it isn’t — quite the opposite — is testament to something. Maybe someday I’ll rewatch it and find out what.

    3 out of 5

    The Thin Red Line was #77 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020. It was viewed as an additional film for Blindspot 2020 after I failed to watch it for WDYMYHS 2019.


  • The Tree of Life (2011)

    2018 #192
    Terrence Malick | 139 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Tree of Life

    Writer-director Terrence Malick made just five films in the first 38 years of his directorial career, this being the fifth. In the seven years since it came out, he’s made five more. Why the long gaps before, or the sudden increase now? Who knows — Malick is notoriously interview-shy. But the answer may indeed lie with this film, sitting as it does at the fulcrum of his career. It was a project Malick had on his mind for decades (he shot material for it as far back as the ’70s), which for various reasons — primarily funding and technology, I think — it took him until this decade to achieve. Many think it was worth the wait: lots of people love it, including the Cannes jury, who awarded it the Palme d’Or. Many others… don’t: plenty of people regard it as pretentious, or at least too abstruse to care about. It’s a film that, I think, can only elicit an entirely personal reaction. So here’s mine.

    The Tree of Life is about… um… oh dear, we’ve hit a snag already. Well, once it settles down (which takes the best part of an hour), what it’s literally about is a family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s — dad (Brad Pitt), mom (Jessica Chastain), and their three sons, Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler), and Steve (Tye Sheridan). The kids play around doing the kind of thing young lads did in the ’50s — running around in the woods, swimming in rivers, throwing stones through windows, murdering frogs — while being torn between the influences of their parents: their kind, gentle, caring mother, and their strict, authoritative, borderline abusive (or just straight abusive?) father.

    But the film also occasionally shows us Sean Penn as grown-up Jack, working some high-level job in a present-day city. And it also shows us an extended sequence about the birth of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. And that’s to say nothing of the epilogue… Or, indeed, the prologue, which introduces a massive event in the family’s life that is then, arguably, unreferenced by the rest of the movie.

    So… yeah.

    Pondering or ponderous?

    Much of The Tree of Life is more like visual poetry than a traditional narrative film. Beautiful images glide before our eyes, some with obvious meaning, others less so. Some of the images resonate or rhyme with each other, urging us to infer our own interpretation of what we’re seeing, and why, and what it signifies. This is mostly true of the opening chunk — which lasts a good 45 to 60 minutes — and the ending. In between, more of a narrative is discernible — the stuff about the young family — although it’s constructed in a poetic fashion, with minimal dialogue, lots of vignettes, fragments of day-to-day life that don’t necessarily have an immediate significance.

    To me, it felt like we were watching someone’s dreams or memories, presented as we really remember things: random fragments from our lives. If you think about your memories of childhood, they don’t take the form of a neat narrative in concise scenes with all the important landmarks accounted for. We do remember big events, of course, but also many small things; and some things we remember extensively, but others only fragmentarily. If you could view a person’s memories, they’d create, not a biopic, but an impressionistic collage or our lives — and this film is that, I think.

    But that can still leave the viewer to question what it’s all about, especially given the extended sequence of space gases, forming planets, burgeoning microscopic lifeforms, and dinosaurs. Yes, in arguably the film’s most baffling sequence (there are many contenders), we see an event in the life of some dinosaurs. Actually, I say it’s the most baffling, but only if you stick to the film itself: of all the confusing things herein, that’s the one with the most concrete explanation, thanks to visual effects supervisor Michael L. Fink having a little chat with critic Jim Emerson about Malick’s intentions for the scene. Not everyone likes firm answers to this kind of stuff, so I’ll just link to where you can read it if you want to.

    Motherly love

    That said, some of the stuff I’ve already mentioned in passing I only know definitively thanks to extra-textual sources. Well, if you count the film’s end credits as extra-textual, which I suppose they’re not. But it’s only thanks to those that I know for certain which of the boys Penn was supposed to be, or that the creation-of-the-universe stuff is indeed meant to be that (based on genuine science, donchaknow), and that these scenes show us the “astrophysical realm”, because there are effects credits for that. And more still can be learnt from, of all places, the Blu-ray’s chapter menu: the long creation sequence is indeed called “creation”, in case you weren’t sure. The ending is “eternity”, followed by “was it a dream?” Others include “grief”, “innocence”, “mother”, “father”, “I do what I hate” — all showing us the way towards important themes… maybe. Or perhaps they’re just convenient chapter points…

    Praise for the film’s imagery is due not only to Malick, but also cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. And it’s not even the guy’s best work — I’d argue for consistent beauty he’s surpassed it with some of the stunning, Oscar-winning stuff he’s done since — but you can see how he got from here to there: the very best shots in The Tree of Life are kind of what he does all the time in films like The Revenant. As for constructing those images into a meaningful flow, I’m never sure how much is down to an editor’s own creativity and how much is them operating machinery under the director’s instruction — I guess, like most things in the movies, it’s a collaborative mix of both. Anyway, the film has five credited editors — Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, and Mark Yoshikawa — who I’m sure must’ve been vital to the process. (Relatedly, here’s a fun anecdote from IMDb: “an Italian cinema showed the film for a week with the first two reels switched. Even though the film starts with production logos, no one in the theater noticed and thought it was all part of Terrence Malick’s ‘crazy editing style’.”)

    Creation

    There’s a lot of really great music and sound design as well — something Malick clearly considered important to a Lynchian degree, given that before the film plays the Blu-ray flashes up a notice advising you to “play it loud”. Alexandre Desplat is credited for the music, but a very, very long list of sourced tracks too hints at what actually happened: most of his music went unused in the final cut, with only a few minutes making it in. I imagine that feels quite unedifying, to have your work sidelined; but maybe it’s better than being ditched entirely in favour of a new score, as has happened to plenty of other composers in the past.

    It’s easy to get hung up on all this filmmaking when thinking about The Tree of Life, because that’s where its own focus seems to be, as opposed to the usual things a reviewer might think to discuss first, like the screenplay or performances. But there are still actors here, and good ones at that. The movie is really centred around Hunter McCracken, and he’s very good. The casting directors saw thousands of Texan school kids while trying to cast the boys, and the effort paid off; though McCracken hasn’t done anything else since, so maybe not for him personally. The other two brothers don’t have so much to do; in fact, I kept almost forgetting one of the trio existed, so little is he on screen or relevant to events. Ironically, he’s the only one of the three who’s gone on to have a career: it’s Tye Sheridan, most recently seen as the lead in Ready Player One.

    As for the adults, Sean Penn is one of the many lead actors in a Malick film whose performances have wound up on the cutting room floor. According to Lubezki, there’s enough deleted footage to make a whole movie focused on Penn’s character. Yep, sounds like Malick! Obviously such a movie would be completely different to this one, but I’d be curious to see it. More screen time is devoted to Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, who both achieve a lot with comparatively little. Chastain is the focus early on, but it later becomes apparent that Pitt has a showier role, in a way, because of his character’s arc. There’s a pullquote on the back of the UK Blu-ray that calls it “the strongest performance of his career”, but considering his performances in the likes of Se7en and The Assassination of Jesse James, or that he’s been Oscar-nominated for his turns in Twelve Monkeys, Benjamin Button, and Moneyball, I thought that was a bit of an outlandish claim to make. To each their own, though.

    Affection or headlock?

    Anyhow, all this is “technical” stuff quite apart from what The Tree of Life is really about. Not that I’m totally clear on what that is, still. I guess maybe it’s there for us to infer what we like from it, be that religious, scientific, humanistic, or, for many a viewer, just boredom. Whether you love it or hate it — and there are certainly plenty of perfectly reasonable people at both extremes — it’s definitely an Experience; one every person who considers themselves serious about film appreciation needs to have.

    4 out of 5

    A new edition of The Tree of Life, which includes a different cut that’s 50 minutes longer (but, intriguingly, is not an extended cut), is released by Criterion in the US tomorrow and in the UK on November 19th.

    The Good Dinosaur (2015)

    2016 #130
    Peter Sohn | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Good DinosaurOnce upon a time, Pixar could do no wrong. Then Cars happened; and worse, its sequel. Now, their movies remain an event, and some people still swear by everything they do, but I think there’s a greater awareness that they’re fallible. When it came out at the tail end of 2015, The Good Dinosaur was received as further evidence of that. Especially coming in the same year that gave us the universally praised (*coughoverratedcough*) Inside Out, it was instantaneously dubbed a “lesser Pixar”. But here is where completism has its merits, because I really enjoyed it.

    Set in an alternate world where the dinosaurs were never wiped out and so have evolved to the point where they talk, farm, etc, the film tells the story of little Arlo, an Apatosaurus who’s regularly overshadowed by his siblings. When an accident leaves him stranded many miles from his family he must make the long trek home, finding his inner courage on the way ‘n’ that kind of thing.

    There’s no denying that The Good Dinosaur contains an abundance of re-heated elements: there are multiple plot beats shared with The Land Before Time, not to mention the general “talking child dinosaurs” thing; a major inciting incident is taken from The Lion King; the episodic structure is reminiscent of The Jungle Book; animated dinosaurs on photo-real backgrounds recalls Dinosaur; and the moral message and main character arc are lifted from any number of children’s animations. While I did find this bothersome at first — especially as the worst offenders are concentrated in the saccharine first act — by the time the film had settled into its meandering middle I came to quite like it.

    MalickianPixar have on several occasions produced films with an innovative opening act that descends into derivative kids’ animation runaround territory. WALL-E and Up are the worst offenders for this; Inside Out does it too, though there’s more of a mix of the two throughout the film. For many critics and viewers, the quality of those openings seem to be enough to earn the films heaps of praise. The Good Dinosaur inverts the formula: the easy, overfamiliar material is at the start, while the more meditative, mature content comes later. Clearly this didn’t work for many viewers, so I guess the lesson for Pixar is to put the clever stuff up front if they want universal praise.

    Instead, The Good Dinosaur was often dismissed as only being for very young children. Some bits do come over that way, but it has quite a harsh edge at times, and the scene where the heroes get high on rotten fermented fruit is freaky even for adults (or this adult, at any rate). It’s a bit of a tonal oddity in this respect, especially when you also factor in some of the leisurely, silent moments spent admiring nature that evoke a filmmaker like Terrence Malick. No, seriously. That’s helped by the animation being mind-blowingly good. Not so much the character animation (which is still strong — the character models are more detailed than you first suspect), but the scenery those characters are placed in… wow. If you didn’t know better I’m sure much of it could pass for photography. And the way they’ve achieved water, a notoriously hard thing to capture in CGI, is absolutely incredible.

    You've got a friend in mePerhaps most powerful of all is the relationship it creates between Arlo and a young human child he befriends, Spot. With humanity in a much earlier state of evolution, Spot is basically characterised as a dog — the way he moves, comes to his name, follows scents, shakes, scratches and enjoys being scratched, and so on — so of course I warmed to him. Nonetheless, though the building blocks used to create their friendship are very familiar, the way the film sells its emotional arc is ultimately immensely effective. Its resolution may even bring a tear to the eye.

    While it may take a while to warm up, The Good Dinosaur is ultimately a very affecting entry in Pixar’s canon. It’s by no means a perfect movie, but I do think it’s an underrated one. And, in all honesty, I enjoyed it more than Inside Out.

    4 out of 5

    The Survivalist (2015)

    2016 #150
    Stephen Fingleton | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18

    The Survivalist’70s self-sufficiency sitcom The Good Life meets bleak post-apocalypse drama The Road* in this technically-science-fiction dramatic thriller, the BAFTA-nominated debut of writer-director Stephen Fingleton.

    A man (Martin McCann) lives in a woodland cabin, farming just enough for himself and fending off raiders. When a woman (Olwen Fouéré) and her daughter (Mia Goth) turn up, they build an uneasy alliance in spite of mutual suspicion.

    With a Malickian eye for both nature and pace, it has a grim plausibility about the end of the world and, more than that, the fundamentals of human nature. Depressing but truthful — and, post-Trump, possibly prescient!

    4 out of 5

    * I’ve still not actually seen The Road so this comparison may be faulty, but it was the first super-grim (so I’ve heard) post-apocalyptic drama that came to mind. ^

    Badlands (1973)

    2016 #87
    Terrence Malick | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18* / PG

    BadlandsThe debut feature of Terrence “four films in 30 years” Malick comes with a tagline-cum-plot-description so good I’m just going to quote it wholesale:

    He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. He was very fastidious. People who littered bothered him.
    She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. She wasn’t very popular at school.
    For awhile they lived together in a tree house.
    In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people.

    As 60-word summaries go, that pretty fairly covers the characters, plot, and, to some degree, the film’s tone. It’s loosely based on a real-life killing spree (which also inspired several other movies, including Natural Born Killers), though it’s told with Malick’s style of cinematic poetry, rather than documentary realism or sensationalised violence. Malick has spoken of trying to give the story a fairy tale tone, to “take a little of the sharpness out of the violence but still keep its dreamy quality.” The latter is definitely true: the extended sequence where the young lovers live in a treehouse in the woods has an ethereal feel, like a daydream fantasy. For me it was probably the film’s most memorable section, though it’s the least related to the central criminal thrust.

    As for removing the sharpness of the violence, I’d argue that, if anything, Malick has heightened it. When it comes it is short and shocking, kind of grubby and nasty. While the film may contain dreaminess and poetry, it’s not a pleasant experience. The shabby lives Crazy kidsthe leads start out from bleeds outwards into their time on the run, which Holly romanticises but feels constantly grotty. I suppose a film about killers shouldn’t be nice, but maybe this is why the time in the treehouse stood out for me — a little oasis of pleasantness; a break from the insalubriousness of the rest of the picture.

    It’s fair to say I didn’t like the film very much, which is not the same as saying it’s not good. The adjective I keep coming back to is “grubby” — in spite of its occasional beauty, it has a grubbiness in its production, which tells a story of grubby people leading grubby lives in grubby circumstances as they perform grubby acts. I suppose that unpleasantness is a necessary counterpoint to the innumerable movies we have that glamorise violent lifestyles.

    4 out of 5

    * Badlands was reclassified 15 in 2008, but that was only for cinema releases. I watched it at home, where technically it’s still an 18. Ah, the BBFC. ^