Excessive, Escapist Excellence — Django Unchained

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

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Over the years, acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has exhibited the influence of 60s/70s Italian-made “spaghetti” westerns through the narratives, dialogue, cinematography, and music of his movies, but never before has he directly taken on the genre itself. Until now.

Well, almost, anyway. Given that ‘Django Unchained’ takes place more in the Old South than the Old West and centers on the issue of slavery, Tarantino himself has branded the film a Southern (as opposed to a Western). Still, ‘Django Unchained’ thoroughly captures the spirit of the spaghetti westerns from which it draws inspiration. That wonderful, raw, purposefully violent and over-the-top escapism is present in full force, laid beautifully with the corner stones of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking—deep and witty dialogue, extravagant characters, unorthodox plots, and striking cinematography.

It’s fun, pulp cinema at its finest, which may be why some have failed to understand it. Various critics as well as noted African American director Spike Lee have derided the film. The story—centering on a former slave who becomes a bounty hunter and kills slaveholders—has been criticized as insensitive to the historical reality of slavery, an ignorant insult to those unfortunate victims of inhumanity and racism.

Such criticism would be valid if Tarantino had actually intended for ‘Django Unchained’ to be at all serious or historically accurate. But he didn’t.

‘Django Unchained’ doesn’t try to say anything particularly insightful about racism and slavery, only that they’re bad; and he almost purposefully seems to throw anachronisms into the film, as if to dissuade anyone from thinking that this was real history. The film is purposefully indulgent in a good way—it allows us to suspend the trappings of reality and (to some extent) real morality and then lets us explore our more base feelings. We want to see evil slave holders being blown away by a former slave; we want the satisfaction of seeing blatant evil destroyed, regardless of the actual historical conditions of slavery in America. That the title character, Django, is himself hardly a banner of morality is irrelevant. He takes down the embodiments of true evil, and that is what we love to see. It’s the same thing the old spaghetti westerns depended on, and it’s a small part of why filmmaking in general is so special. More so than books or plays, film gives us a uniquely powerful way to explore ideas and moralities different than our own. It lets us be excessive, to white wash experiences not for the sake of ignorance, but for emotion. Few of us, hopefully, would ever solve the world’s problems by shooting at them, and yet there is something amazingly cathartic about seeing it done on screen, if only so that we can vicariously live out thoughts and feelings we otherwise keep hidden. In that sense ‘Django Unchained’ is strikingly potent, a well executed celebration of the medium of film.

All that being the case, if you aren’t prepared for graphic shootings, beatings, nudity, explosions, and frequent racial slurs, this probably isn’t the film for you.

What else can be said about this film? The characters are all brilliantly cast. Jamie Foxx plays Django with much the same striking presence that Clint Eastwood had as the Man With No Name; Christoph Waltz (thankfully) plays the antithesis of his character in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ as a German bounty hunter with a heart-of-gold. I hope he gets more heroic roles after this. Leonardo di Caprio steals the show as Calvin Candy, a wonderfully over the top slaveholder and a really fun bad guy with a hilarious accent to boot. Finally, Samuel Jackson, as the head slave of Candy’s plantation, gives an odd yet incredibly effective performance as the film’s true villain. They even get the original Django from the 60’s spaghetti western (which I reviewed on this site), Franco Nero, for a small cameo, which is a nice touch.

Tarantino inserts his usual lengthy dialogue into the film, but unlike the somewhat unjustified excesses of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, it’s more restrained here, and that’s a definite plus. Admittedly, at nearly three hours, the film’s length caught me off guard the first time I saw it, and I initially felt that it dragged by about a half hour. After seeing it a second time, though, I’m now convinced that the film, while not as short as it perhaps could have been, is paced the way it needs to be, and its length is not the hindrance I originally thought.

Lastly, the soundtrack to this film is truly exceptional. Tarantino incorporates a diverse pallet of artists, from Johnny Cash to hip-hop, from the 1960’s to present day, into the film in striking sequences that are a lot of fun to watch. Famed spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers of all time, even wrote some original music for the film, which is just awesome. I highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack on its own merits.

It seems obvious at this point and a little redundant to say, but I enjoyed ‘Django Unchained’ a great deal, as much any film I’ve ever seen in theatres. As long as people approach this movie with a proper understanding of spaghetti westerns and the purposefully surreal nature of the plot, I think they too will enjoy it for thrill ride it is.

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Drive (2011)

A Note: I’m no longer going to post review summaries, seeing as they are redundant and often pass over points I stress in the bodies of the reviews themselves.  So there it is.  

You are seated on a ratty bed in a motel room. All is still, and quiet. There is a woman in the bathroom, crying. You hear something outside the door. The knob moves ever so slightly. Outside the bathroom, a man raises a shotgun. You roll over and take hold of the mattress, throw it at the door, and–

Saying any more would spoil one of the fantastic action sequences in Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliant ‘Drive’, an adaptation of James Sallis‘ neo-noir novel. This, like ‘No Country For Old Men‘, is a master class in suspense.  What Refn does in silence and stillness is infinitely more effective than the roar and the shake of the generic modern action picture.  Here is a film where we can look into a performer’s eyes and see the soul behind them, or the lack thereof, and so much more is said in the pauses than the scant lines of dialog.  Here is a film with bright neon and deep shadows, with rumbling engines and the creak of leather gloves.  Here is a film where a moment of love and one of violence can occur in frightful sequence stretched out so long we feel we will snap.  I daresay, quite pompously, here is a film.

Before I go any further, take a look at this two minute clip of the film’s opening sequence on the Cannes Festival site.  Now you know what we’re talking about.

According to Refn, in an interview with Jeff Goldsmith on the Q&A Podcast, the idea was to translate fairy tale archetypes into a neo-noir setting. Gosling’s Man With No Name character, the Driver, is therefore the Knight, prompted to protect the Damsel, who is played by the stunning Carey Mulligan.  But there’s no point in using archetypes, in my view, unless you subvert them, as is par for the course when you’re talking film noir.  Refn goes on to describe the now infamous scene in the elevator (you’ll have to see it; probably between your fingers) as the film in a bottle, the central moral conflict displayed at its clearest.  It is the ultimate neo noir sequence; it demonstrates the director’s ability to slow down time and extend a powerful, beautiful moment, only to shatter it with an act of brutality, severing the link between the Knight and the Damsel beyond repair, on account of their natures which they cannot compromise.

Every supporting performance in the film is wonderfully wrought, but I’d like to further highlight Gosling and Mulligan.  They play the two sides of the coin, and share a quietness and an ability to communicate best with their eyes and the slightest movements of their lips.  As Refn observes in the Q&A interview, filmmakers and audiences are often scared of silence, and I would add that this is because dialog is the clothing which naked emotion demands.  Refuse to cover it, however, and the scene is wrought with suspense; sometimes of the dangerous kind, sometimes of the sexual, sometimes of the moral.  If you want to know if your male and female leads have chemistry, put them in a scene together where they cannot speak, but have so much to say.  Suffice it to say, Gosling and Mulligan have it, and that tension underlines the whole film.

Nicholas Winding Refn clearly understands something so damn crucial to the art that it makes some other filmmakers appear downright pathetic.  If you, the hypothetical filmmaker, have a whole movie full of giant robots blasting through skyscrapers with lasers and missiles, and you still can’t manage the visceral shock generated by a single sound in Refn’s film, you’re doing it wrong.  Stop making movies.  If you’re a filmgoer, however, and you would rather be awash in the mind-numbing, meaningless chaos of a ‘Transformers’ film than seek out the human truth present in films running the gamut between ‘Drive’ and ‘The King’s Speech’, than you should probably stop watching movies.  Yes, I know I’m being harsh and leaning hard on hyperbole; but there is nevertheless such a thing as taste, and an obligation as an informed viewer to cultivate the good and shirk the bad.

If there’s anything wrong with ‘Drive’, is that it has no business being this good, much less in this market, with ungrateful audiences who will gladly patronize the latest regurgitated fluff and somehow still find room to complain about the lack of original material.  Seriously, people; this movie might not be your cup of tea, but it’s a damn sight better than most fare.  In truth, ‘Drive’ is an anachronism, something you could’ve caught an auteur making in the ’70s and early ’80s.  It makes me rather giddy to declare this thing Kubrickian.

For further exploration of this film, I recommend, of course, the excellent interview referenced earlier, as well as the hilarious (and insightful) thoughts of Film Critic Hulk; Matthew DeKinder’s review; Laremy Legel’s review; Jim Emerson’s thoughts (though I disagree thoroughly on some points); a very good comment on Emerson’s site; and anything else of repute you happen to find on Google.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Matrix Sequels

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Summary: Not awful, but confusing and disappointing.

Review: On the same grounds that James used to write one review for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy — that the individual films were all made together and were intended to complete a story — I am going to review the ‘Matrix’ sequels, ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’, as one movie.  That and I’m just too lazy to write two separate reviews for each film, especially when I have the same to say for both.  ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ and ‘The Matrix Revolutions’ were both released in 2003, about six months apart from each other, and while not particularly awful as far as Hollywood blockbusters go, they are very disappointing follow-ups to the awesomeness that was the original Matrix.

Awesome though it was, ‘The Matrix’ at its core is not a particularly original or complex story. Yeah, the whole mankind-trapped-in-the-computer-thing was an original enough premise for the late 90’s, and the obvious references to genre films (martial arts, western, 80’s action) were cool and all, as was its Eastern philosophical bent.  But the actual narrative itself is just the classic Hero’s Journey/Noble Rogues story-type.  I don’t say that to be negative; it’s the basis for many a good movie, including the original ‘Star Wars’.  Hmmm, come to think of it, ‘Star Wars’ also uses science fiction, genre tributes, and Eastern philosophy to flesh out its simple yet effective tale, making it the most obvious and direct stylistic predecessor to this film.  And while they are not up to par with George Lucas, the Wachowski brothers do a good job with it in their first picture.
Good, yes, but perhaps too thorough and complete. You see, they wrap things up rather nicely at the end of the first movie.  The main character Neo (Keanu Reeves) fulfills the prophecy of being The One, a person who has infinite power within the Matrix; The main villain Agent Smith, a personification of the Evil Machines who control mankind, is destroyed; and while the machines themselves have not yet been defeated, Neo’s closing words and new Godlike powers guarantee that their days are numbered.  The reality is that this is a movie that didn’t need a sequel.  It tells a classic tale to a fulfilling end, we as the audience have a sense of completion and catharsis, and that should be all, folks.  Right?  Well, no, as it turns out.  These two sequels came along, and did much to undo everything that made the first film so cool.

Let’s make one more comparison between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Matrix’. The classic ‘Star Wars’ trilogy is an example of how to do sequels the right way.  The ‘Matrix’ trilogy is not. Quite simply, George Lucas planned for sequels when he made his first entry.  The Wachowski brothers clearly didn’t.  At the end of Star Wars, even as the Rebel Alliance celebrates a great victory and Luke Skywalker has learned something of The Force, Darth Vader still lives (and therefore the Empire is still an urgent threat in our minds) and Luke is not yet a Jedi.  (Much to learn, he still has.)  My point is that there was an obvious-somewhere for Star Wars to go in its sequels.  With the Matrix, it’s a bit harder to find an obvious thread to follow.  When we already know that Neo is digital Jesus and has already defeated the machine’s most powerful program in the form of Smith, there’s simply doesn’t look to be any real conflict anymore.  If they had wanted to make sequels the Wachowski’s should have saved those two plot points for later.  So what is there, exactly, to expect from ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’?  Confusion.

Anyways, so ‘Reloaded’ opens up and the first big shock is that Smith is back… somehow.  What? I’m pretty sure that at the end of ‘The Matrix’, when Neo jumps inside him and literally blows him apart, that Smith has been killed for good.  Wiped out.  Deleted.  Terminated.  Whatever, the point is he should be gone.  But here he’s back. What’s the explanation?  Well there’s some techno-philosophical babble about something called A Source where deleted programs go… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.  The long and short of it is that he didn’t die because he didn’t want to.  That’s not even a mean-spirited generalization.  Smith literally says that he was “compelled to stay” even after he was destroyed.  This is what I mean when I say the Wachowski’s screwed up. Smith was clearly too awesome a bad guy to keep out of any possible sequels, but, oops, they didn’t think that there’d be any and they went ahead and killed him in the first movie.  That was a mistake, plain and simple, and they were going to have to undo it somehow, but did they really have to be so lazy about it?
So, okay, Smith has returned of his own accord and is now determined to destroy Neo, but this time he’s no longer working for the machines.  He’s some kind of rogue program, infecting every human he sees as well as other agents of the system.  Oh, we need to talk about the programs here.  So, even though the entire Matrix is run by machines, actual programs within it appear able to choose sides too.  It’s interesting, sure, but definitely confusing.  Basically it brings a third party into this conflict.  I mean yeah, that makes it arbitrarily more complex, but we lose the nice simplicity of man vs. machine from the original.

So Neo spends his time going around finding different programs in the Matrix while in the real world returning to Zion, the last remaining human city.  And boy, what a strange place that is.  Everyone in Zion dresses and acts like the worst possible mixture of 80’s techno and some insane fashion show.  Their hair styles in particular are atrocious and bizarre.  They hold weird dancing parties where they bang drums and jump around and spray each other with all manner of bodily fluids.  Again I say, what? Between that and the Matrix, I’m a little tempted to just stay in the confines of virtual reality.

But back to the main story, so amidst all the crazy martial arts battles (why would Neo ever fight anybody anymore if he can just jump inside them and blow them up?) and the erotic dances and the random computer programs with weird accents and the Zion inhabitants who arguably seem less human than said programs and Smith occasionally showing up, Neo finds The Architect, the program who supposedly made the Matrix.  He tells Neo that, basically, The One is nothing new.  It’s a systemic anomaly inherent to the programming of the Matrix that the machines have dealt with before in previous incarnations.  Or some crap like that.  I don’t know.  So wait, what?  All that buildup from the first film about Neo being digital Jesus and some weirdo tells him, “Oh yeah, you still can’t stop the machines.”  What a rip-off!  Did the Wachowski’s really sink so low as to go back on their whole “The One” premise.  Really?  This is how they’re making up for not waiting until the sequels to reveal that Neo is The One — by saying that there is no One?

After this point, I basically lost track of the story in my frustration, and that bleeds over into ‘Revolutions’, which gets even more confusing.  So much so that I’m not sure how much of it is even worth explaining.  But hey!  Let’s take a stab at it…
Well, no, actually.  Sorry folks, but if I tried explaining it I’d have to go all the way for it to make any sense, and this is already the longest review I’ve ever written, so let’s just get to the point here.

Of all of what happens in these sequels (and there is a LOT), the only thing of particular interest is Smith’s saga.  Though I don’t like his clumsy return, I am partial to his development in the sequels.  Smith, who has turned viral, keeps expanding within the Matrix, assimilating it bit by bit, eventually growing beyond the control of the machines.  The true significance of this is that it shows that the machines are as fallible as human beings.  Just as man lost control of his artificially intelligent creations, so too do the machines lose control of a creation of their own.  It’s a nice little piece of irony. Unfortunately, Smith never actually takes over any machines or does anything interesting like that.  And so, it just feels unfulfilling.  And besides all that, there’s too much other stuff going on to really appreciate that thread for all of its possible depth.
Simply put, there is an unacceptable degree of incomprehensibility when it comes to the ‘Matrix’ sequels.  They are too convoluted, too strange, and just not fun enough.  In the midst of listening to a bunch of self-important characters spouting phrases like “It is inevitable”, “systemic anomaly”, “he is your negative” and “I didn’t know, but I believed”, you realize how tedious this whole thing feels compared to the original’s simplicity.  ‘The Matrix’ was about one thing: Good vs. Evil.  You can throw in whatever philosophy, spirituality, or religious undertones that you want in there, but that’s the bottom line.  These two sequels don’t want to be that simple about it, which would’ve been fine if it didn’t mean compromising the first film in the process.  I’ll repeat that the Wachowski brothers were obviously uncertain if the first film would be a success, and so, not knowing if they could continue, they decided to try and tie up as much as possible in it.

Had they been willing to gamble, they might have been able to craft a nice enough trilogy, over the course of which Neo could discover that he is the One, much in the way that the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy follows Luke’s becoming a Jedi, and Vader’s redemption.  Instead we have a messy trilogy whose punch-line was delivered in the first film and then spends the length of two films trying to stretch that out.  The result is disappointing.

All that being said, if you happen to like a lot of action and special effects, these aren’t bad movies as far as Hollywood blockbusters go.  I can’t say they’re fun, but for the right people I’d imagine that it’s worth it to see these two.  But again, I just wouldn’t expect anything spectacular.  Personally I just pretend that ‘Reloaded’ and ‘Revolutions’ simply don’t exist.  There is only the one, ‘The Matrix’.  And it ends with Neo flying off to save the day and kick some machine-ass.  I don’t need anymore, nor do I want anymore.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Summary: Deliciously pulpy and rich in character, ‘Captain America‘ makes for a fine adventure, a welcome addition to Marvel’s increasingly impressive roster.

Review: As Marvel’s comic book universe unfolds on the silver screen, unique talents step up to take on the challenges presented by each story.  For an adaptation of Marvel’s most old-fashioned hero, they did well to recruit Joe Johnston, the director of period adventure ‘The Rocketeer’ (which I reviewed).  Under his reign, ‘Captain America’ translates into a shamelessly idealistic and muscular picture, improving in every way upon ‘The Rocketeer’ and boasting action that puts Marvel Studios‘ other entries to shame.

Nothing in this film would work if we could not identify with Cap himself, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, brought to life by Chris Evans refreshingly playing against type.  We thankfully don’t have to endure yet another rendition of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, as Steve Rogers’ heroism isn’t founded on mythic notions of destiny, but pure selflessness.  In a twist on the usual themes, the villain, played with great spirit by Hugo Weaving, views himself as the mythic hero, the Chosen One of the gods who alone has access to their power.  “What makes you so special?” He sneers at Rogers during a confrontation.  “Nothin’,” Steve answers, “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”  So while we see the dark side of Rogers’ gifts in his villainous counterpart, what draws us to him isn’t a played out struggle to resist the heady draught of power, but his steadfast humility, that he retains his social awkwardness and innocent patriotism despite his new powers and authority.  It’s an enthusiastic affirmation of a simple, but oft-ignored, fact of life: There really are good people.  In the interest of drama, many filmmakers cloud this fact, assured that the more demons given to their characters, the better.  It isn’t — what matters is truth, regardless of content.

The action works out against a rich backdrop of pulp iconography — the European theater of World War II, secret factories constructing impossible weapons, Norwegian churches hiding ancient relics, supply trains and eight-story tanks and a humongous Flying Wing.  There are fist fights, gun fights, flamethrowers, lasers, alien energies, deformed villains, mad scientists, masked stormtroopers, motorcycles, and an invincible shield colored like a flag.  The film’s Americana is obvious, and of course the more deeply ingrained the viewer’s appreciation for that particular nation, the more likely they are to appreciate the film from that perspective.  Nevertheless, ‘Captain America’ is somehow less jingoistic than other modern action pictures such as ‘Transformers’, ‘Air Force One’ and ‘Independence Day’, all of which promote the myth of American superiority to an embarrassing extent.

The glorious thing about ‘Captain America’ is that it somehow tells a good standalone story, ties directly into Marvel’s grand plan for ‘The Avengers’, is stunningly retro and yet quite modern in its presentation.  Its weakness is that it moves so fast that it requires repeat viewings to catch all the character and background detail so easily missed on a first pass.  A more suspenseful build-up to the climax would have been beneficial, underscoring the impressive action sequences like a rest between the notes.  A longer stay with Cap and the Howling Commandos would have been most welcome.  Nevertheless, these are good problems to have, symptoms of a well crafted film.

‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ stands alongside ‘Iron Man’ as the best of Marvel Studios’ pictures to date.  Though DC Comics and Warner Bros. have the benefit of Christopher Nolan‘s ‘Batman’ films, Marvel has proven to me that they are unashamed of their material and are more than capable of delivering quality adaptations to the screen.  These are films which today’s kids and geeky adults like myself will hail as classics in twenty years’ time.  Thanks to Joe Johnston and company for yet another.

Classic Review: Twelve Angry Men

Summary: An absolutely boiling drama that has stood the test of time, and goes to show that great cinema thrives under limitations.

Review: Great films don’t stand only as examples of what films can or should be; they stand also to condemn every film produced with venal intentions for apathetic audiences.  This is not because a great film would attract audiences if it were released instead, but because far too often lesser material is rewarded while exceptional work is ignored.  What matters, however, is the pictures’ enduring memory.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’, the first film directed by Sidney Lumet, was released in April 1957 to critical acclaim but box office disappointment.  I ask you, what else came out on the thirteenth of that month in that year that is as enduring as this film?  Why would a screenplay this electric with a cast this matchless go without popular response?  I have no clue.  The good news is that popular and critical reaction would soon match up.  The bad news, at least for whatever stood in competition for its box office dollars, is that apparently only ‘Twelve Angry Men’ survived.

Some films demand spectacle, action, sexual chemistry and endless stanzas of visual poetry.  They need these things to exist.  What ‘Twelve Angry Men’ proves is that the most essential dramatic element, stakes that create suspense, can thrive in a visual environment as small as a single room.  The story doesn’t demand more, but it puts other stories that have more but lack legitimate tension to shame.  ‘Twelve Angry Men’ is nothing but dialog, but it has more impact than a dozen car crashes in a brainless, gutless action movie.  With actions as simple as frowns and glances, a war wages in this single room that captivates the viewer, with compelling moral, logical arguments and severe emotional consequences.  Every character is challenged, so that everyone in the audience is challenged.  You will question yourself, your prejudices, and your approach to justice.  The screenplay almost guarantees that.

And perhaps this is why it was not a box office success.  We like to pretend that audiences have grown more or less sophisticated over the years, depending on the arguments we are making at the moment, but in fact people have not changed.  By and large, sophisticated stories are ignored, only for word-of-mouth to redeem them at a later time when it is too late to reward the producers for their financial risk.  While it is true that filmmakers are getting their money back from home video sales, producers still view the box office as the measure of a film’s worth.  This is changing, but the push for 3D and IMAX technologies shows that filmmakers want theatrical vindication of their investment.  So many, arguably most, future classics are small features, like ants carrying many times their own weight.  Truly exceptional movies that also make hundreds of millions in box office are rare.  Most hits are, ironically, forgettable.

But I digress.  The reason for my tangents is that it is difficult to say more about ‘Twelve Angry Men’ than has already been said by much sharper analysts.  What I can say is this: the cast and crew worked with a smaller toolbox than are afforded most projects, and they delivered something truly special.  Its intimacy and emphasis on character gives an immersion that 3D technology can never match.  It is so true to life and so damn engaging that there is nothing left to improve, except perhaps removing the superfluous musical score, which intrudes a couple of times and doesn’t add anything of substance.  This makes for an ironic flaw in contrast to other films and their poor use of musical resources; ‘Twelve Angry Men’ had a limited toolbox, and ended up with just one tool too many!  The harmony between Sidney Lumet’s direction and Reginald Rose’s screenplay makes the real music here.

This movie should be required viewing for up-and-coming filmmakers.  If you’re interested in writing screenplays, I urge you to watch this film and study the most insignificant details.  This is a taut, perfectly calibrated symphony of cinema.  If you can do as well, do so, and don’t compromise.  History will vindicate you.

The Tree of Life

Summary: A highly emotional, philosophically rich story, beautifully told with all the subjectivity and hypnotic effects of a dream.  It is not for amateurs.

Review: Films run along a spectrum of complexity.  On the one end, there stands the average romantic comedy or action film, with a plot recycled with new faces, locations and set pieces; the outcome is predictable, the box office dollars practically guaranteed, and its only goal is to entertain for a couple of hours.  On the other end, there is pure creativity, meat so rare it is nigh-impossible for average moviegoers to digest; this is film as dream and art, a trip of the mind and soul, and its goal is to baptize the viewer.  Here stands ‘The Tree of Life’.

Now to clarify, a film closer to the entertainment side is not necessarily any less a valuable work of art.  A light adventure like the original ‘Star Wars’ is impossible to compare with a philosophical journey like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.  They are both perfect, though one is comparable to a circle and the other to a sphere.  This is why I abandoned quantitative rating systems, as they end up cutting apples and oranges with the same slicer, so to speak.  There are now two films that stand as my favorites of the summer, and they cover the spectrum — one is ‘Super 8’, previously reviewed, and the other is ‘The Tree of Life’.  Both are emotionally powerful, but they access different parts of my spirit.

The film’s writer and director, Terrence Malick, has a simple method of breaking a potentially rudimentary plot down into a meditation — instead of following a three-act structure, he explores every moment as a memory, fragmented and disorganized, overlapping and meandering, not even coming together in the end to form a cohesive whole.  The structure, in short, belongs to the viewer.  We have to assemble the film into a story, much as we do our own memories.  The beauty of this is that there is never a single beat of Hollywood artificiality to shield us from the action.  It is there, as frustrating as life, engaging us.   The picture is hypnotic, even when you feel its length.  Malick’s fluid narrative allows him to duck in and out of perspectives and realities, sometimes jumping into dreams and fantasies without warning, presenting everything as an immediate, pressing question.  These questions pack the film, without answers, from start to finish.  To say ‘The Tree of Life’ is challenging is to say that fish swim in the sea.  Not everyone is a fisherman, and not everyone will be up for ‘The Tree of Life’.

If acting were my profession, there are several auteurs I’d love to work with — Scorsese, Nolan, Spielberg, Tarantino, and now I can add Malick to that list.  Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, not to mention the remarkable child actors who anchor the picture, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan, never once blandly read their lines or strike an artificial pose for a composition.  They simply live in the frame, buoyed by the organic nature of Malick’s direction and Emmanuel Lubezki‘s cinematography.  This is a surely a dream for any performer, the chance to disappear completely into a person who, interpreted by the randomness of Malick’s narrative, is at once naked and mysterious.

Usually I try to explore the philosophical themes of films I review, but in this instance I think it’s better for the film itself to pose its questions.  That is, after all, the entire point behind it.  I can’t sufficiently answer them, either, and even if I could, I doubt that articulating it here would affect anything of your potential experience.  The movie is a paradox, a story without a moral conclusion that forces you to make one, but lacks the hopelessness of ambiguity.  This is why it is an artistic experience and not entertainment; it does not check boxes.  It forces you to change to better appreciate it, or simply discard it in disgust.  Fools will complain about the money they wasted on admission; they are free to spend it on ‘Transformers’, next time, and be all the poorer for it.

As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible not to have a visceral response to a film like this.  To carry my meat analogy further, if a person with an immature taste in movies tries to chew ‘The Tree of Life’, they are likely to spit it out and complain.  Steak is not for babies.  You need teeth and knives to take in an experience like this, and it helps if it’s not your first meal.  It is, even for an experienced cinephile, positively dizzying.  There are many “gateway drugs” I’d recommend before taking the plunge, among them the works of Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman, Frederico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick and the Brothers Coen, though the latter four all have advanced entries in their filmographies that stand right alongside ‘The Tree of Life’.

In short, this is a film I recommend for people who unabashedly love movies as an art form, not a diversion.  It is almost guaranteed to surprise you.  It will, one way or another, move you.

Super 8

Summary: A perfect remix of classic Spielberg, rising auteur J.J. Abrams crafts a truly effective film for the next generation.

The Return of the Great Adventure

Review: There’s no time more important to a filmmaker than childhood. Most great filmmakers discover their passion early in life, and they often spend that time trying to emulate their favorite works, looking for that elusive magic, that feeling, that means “cinema” in their hearts. Some give up, and go on to craft stories wholly different from their initial inspiration, but some stick to it, and succeed in making a spiritual autobiography, sometimes over the course of several films.

For Steven Spielberg, many of his greatest films pay direct homage to inspirations from his youth: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ for the matinée serials, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ for both the French New Wave and Cecil B. Demille, ‘Jurassic Park’ for the creature features blessed by Ray Harryhausen.  It is only natural that an auteur like Spielberg should provoke a kindred spirit of the next generation to emulate his films, and here the homage has the rare benefit of the inspiration’s creative involvement.  With ‘Super 8’, J.J. Abrams does far better than imitate his idol; he makes an entry worthy of the Spielberg canon.

Some have reacted negatively to the iconographic and stylistic tributes J.J. makes to Spielberg, as if it is cheap or creatively bankrupt to so effectively capture this magical tone.  The trouble is, as usual, a lack of perspective.  At the time of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’s release, it suffered some undue resentment from critics who felt that it was too much like the serials of yore, that it was a hollow, soulless exercise in something like “nostalgia porn”.  As the serials have dimmed in popular memory, ‘Raiders’ has only grown as a premier action-adventure, revealing the trouble with the criticism.  Such critics, then and now, are resisting the artist’s right to remix.  Nothing is truly original, after all — it is important that artists, critics, and audiences understand that what matters is an effective remix, a work that is simultaneously familiar and fresh.  Other auteurs, such as Quentin Tarantino or the brothers Coen, do works suspiciously similar to their inspirations with remarkable frequency, but they do not incur the critical penalties Spielberg and Abrams have had to endure, simply because the homage is more often obscure to the public.  Both Spielberg and Abrams remix the greater weight of popular imagination, but in truth all these artists are doing the same kind of work.

When a viewer rejects the homage, he or she will find it difficult, or perhaps impossible, to appreciate the uniqueness of films like ‘Super 8’, the qualities that ultimately set them apart as worthy, standalone stories.  ‘Super 8’, much like ‘Raiders’, is the return of the great adventure.  It isn’t meant for the pessimistic adult mind.  It’s meant, in the best possible way, for kids, or rather for the child in all of us.  I was privileged to meet a grandmother and her two preteen grandchildren at the theater of my employ as they were about to see ‘Super 8’.  When I praised the film and referenced Spielberg, the kids admitted they had no idea who he was, or if they had seen his movies.  The grandmother was rather taken aback, but I was strangely pleased.  It occurred to me, then, why Abrams made ‘Super 8’ at all — because Spielberg’s magic touch hadn’t transformed the minds of these kids, Abrams extended it to them.  He’s taken what was old and made it new again.  So in this way, it is simultaneously familiar and fresh, and some folks who grew up with Spielberg may never understand why.  More power to those who do.

I love this film. It’s addictive. It thrills me, makes me laugh, makes me cry, makes me contemplate the past and future with great clarity. Just as ‘Raiders’ and ‘Close Encounters’ changed my life, from now on I’ll be seeing the world through the lens of ‘Super 8’.