Thursday, June 23, 2011


POISON                     B                     
USA  (85 mi)  1991  d:  Todd Haynes

Homosexual:  is that written as two words?              —admitting prison official

Easily one of the most uncomfortable film experiences ever, as the film dwells on themes of fear, panic, and personal horror, intertwining three stories which are each inspired from Jean Genet novels, specifically Miracle of the Rose, Our Lady of the Flowers and Thief’s Journal.  Haynes uses entirely different film styles for each section, where the stories aren’t really similar, and they don’t blend together particularly well, though they share common themes which just happen to be expressed differently.  Perhaps the one element that cohesively pulls this all together is the dissonant chamber music playing throughout which couldn’t be uglier, as there is no attempt whatsoever to pull the audience into the story with something warm or nice and attractive.  Instead the images are violently disturbing and express the feeling of blunt trauma.  There’s nothing uniquely memorable about any of the acting performances, each feeling just a bit detached from reality, almost as if filmed during the era of silent films.  The dialogue is equally as indistinguishable, making sure none of the characters stand out, so all are blended into the same mix where the lead characters are forced to face some horrible trauma, which are identified over the end credits as Hero, Horror, and Homo.  In Hero, using a newsreel style documentary format, a young 7-year old boy has been identified as killing his father in suburbia, where the mother undergoes an extensive interview staring directly into the camera as she describes what happened in great detail.  Horror is a black and white, panic stricken tribute to the 50’s sci-fi B-movies usually associated with a dreaded catastrophic event that causes public hysteria, while Homo is a depiction of the brutality displayed inside all-male prisons, set in an era when homosexuality was considered a crime, where undesirables were kept locked up, and where the idea of love is a foreign concept to be kept concealed, like valued contraband.

Probably the climax of the AIDS scare in this country was around 1985, smack dab in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, just after his rousing re-election winning 49 of 50 states, showing little compassion for gay or minority rights, a time when AIDS was initially seen as an exclusively gay disease because it was first diagnosed among gay men, so little attention was paid by government, where a lack of funding as well as foresight remained a constant.  While never identifying this illness in the film, which didn’t exist at the time Genet’s novels were written, Haynes incorporates common reactions both to the discovery of having AIDS, a panic stricken sure sign of a contagion of death as there was as yet no treatment or cure, and the experience of being gay, seen through differing stages of one's life, a uniquely unalluring prospect as one could foresee a lifetime of being despised and hated by the unsympathetic majority public, where the film includes many of the common boyhood experiences where a child is singled out and shunned by the others, including multiple trips to the nurses office for incessant injuries and bodily harm.  One of the bullies admits on camera that the singled out kid wanted him to do it, that he made him do it, so he publicly spanked him, admitting he felt compelled to hurt him because he and all the others believed the kid was evil.  This kind of humiliation continues well into the boys homes of adolescence and the dreary prison existence of adulthood, where bullies rape and humiliate homosexuals for sport.  Horror has an otherworldly, almost Guy Maddin feel, though this film precedes any of his work, but it has the same somnambulistic feel where characters appear to sleepwalk through their roles, where a scientist discovers the origin of the human sex drive, reduced in his lab to a liquid formula, which he unfortunately drinks, turning into the Leper Sex Murderer where he spreads the horrible skin contaminated disease to others through simple human contact, creating a large scale epidemic. 

Much of the backlash following the success of this film was the discovery by those on the religious right that this film received money from the National Endowment for the Arts, which they found scandalous, holding Congressional hearings where they actually screened portions of the film denunciating the idea of a film made with public funds that flouts explicit scenes of homosexuality.  To be fair, sixty years earlier in the 1930’s, this same moral outrage was expressed at the release of James Joyce novel Ulysses, calling it obscene, the same with Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl in the 1950’s, where the courts had to intervene in order to allow these works to be distributed in the United States.  Jean Genet was himself a French petty thief and gay hustler, spending much of his life as a career criminal behind bars, where the graphic description in his novels of sexually explicit homosexual acts got his work banned in the United States during the 1950’s as well, along with William S. Burroughs and Naked Lunch, giving their works greater notoriety due to the attempts to censor the content.  In the case of Todd Haynes, with this film he was quickly anointed to the leading vanguard of the New Queer Cinema movement due to his identification with gay oriented themes, though over time his interest is more associated with artistic freedoms and society’s perception of social outsiders.  Still, there’s something exceedingly creepy about his initial work, which remains a dense and difficult film, completely humorless, swirling in a state of delirium, as it reflects the point of view of a panic stricken victim who is immediately shunned and ostracized from society, forced to hide, oftentimes in their own self-imposed, prison-like exile where a strange and mysterious fascination with death may be seen as an inevitable and even acceptable option.

Note:  James Lyons, who was Haynes's lover for years, plays the object of desire in the Homo section, and also edited the film, breaking up nearly a decade later where he eventually succumbed to AIDS.  Haynes' later film I’M NOT THERE (2007) is dedicated to his memory. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Trip

THE TRIP made for TV                   A-                   
Great Britain  (107 mi)  2010  d:  Michael Winterbottom

Quite simply the funniest film seen all year, a masterwork of spontaneous impressions, all of which call into question the legitimacy of one’s identity, beautifully unraveling in a free form exhibition of improvised conversations that seamlessly moves from one fictitious movie character to another, from Michael Caine to Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellen, Alec Guinness, Woody Allen and more, supplanting the real lives of two friends, Steve Coogan (as himself) and Rob Bryden, who is his fifth or sixth, but most likely his last desperate choice as a traveling companion, as they go on a weeklong road trip together across Northern England, all expenses paid by a British newspaper The Observer, to review some of the nation’s most prestigious, upscale restaurants in gorgeously posh historic accommodations set throughout the painterly English landscapes.  Can anyone think SIDEWAYS (2004)?  Coogan initially wanted to go with his girl friend (Margo Stilley) as an attempt to rekindle their lost romance, but she’s too busy trying to establish her own career, so he’s left frantically searching at the last moment for an acceptable fill-in.  Bryden, like Thomas Hayden Church, is utterly brilliant as the mad side kick, giving an incomparable performance that is among the best of the year, where every improvised utterance is a masterwork of comic art that seemingly rolls off his tongue with the ease of talking.  But it’s not just comic timing and flair, as he also reads poems or breaks into song at a moment’s notice, even memorizing bits of literary phrase that are appropriate for the historic realm they are exploring.  Coogan, ever the miserablist, tries not to laugh or show appreciation, as if he’s paid to keep a straight face, refusing to allow anyone to upstage him, but instead heaps as much scorn and abuse his friend’s way as he can, acting as though he is terrible company, but at times they each try to outdo the other’s impressions in a comic laugh off, where the audience is simply delighted at how good these guys really are.  Some of the best moments are when the guys do laugh, where they can’t help themselves, but this doesn’t happen very often, where Coogan is bound and determined to see his friend as a source of endless aggravation and misery.    

Initially shot as a 3-hour British TV series, where each of six visits is a half-hour episode, this is a streamlined version which undoubtedly leaves out choice material, and without it, one can only wonder what’s missing?  So one would guess the original source material would be the way to go, but that’s not how it’s being released in America where only the truncated version is offered.  Even as is, this is unforgettable stuff, endlessly hilarious and filled with intelligent wisecracking wit.  This is also the most gorgeously filmed Winterbottom film since his first real movie success, JUDE (1996), which accentuated with dizzying camera movement the sweeping enormity of the land, and these remain, while at opposite ends of the spectrum, one a wrenching uncompromising tragedy and the other funny as hell, displaying an underlying dry wit, his two best films, largely due to the intensely personal nature of the material.  Here as well, shot by Ben Smithard, the unending beauty of the landscape is a remarkable attraction, seen as their Range Rover SUV whizzes through the curvature of the narrow roadways, often with stone walls on each side of the road, with rolling hills heading off into the horizon, occasionally seen through the mist of an everpresent fog.  Part of the story is watching these guys try to connect back home after dinner each night through the use of a phone, where Bryden induces various sex fantasies with his wife while lying in bed, not at all bashful about embellishing the voices of various celebrity characters, while Coogan is continually seen wandering aimlessly out in the high grass somewhere trying to obtain phone reception, where his conversations are wrought with great difficulty, usually ending badly, where he appears to be the most friendless guy in the universe.  The irony, of course, is that right in front of where he’s standing are some of the most unbelievably gorgeous landscape images, usually in front of a placid lake with the mist rolling by that continually changes the face of the horizon, with amazingly perfect painterly compositions that reflect the still life quality of the moment.    

Some of the food offerings are an amazingly pretentious display of overkill, where it appears grass is included with every serving of a 10-course meal, always accompanied by bottles of wine, where in every instance they are given the best window seat.  Not once do we ever see Coogan do any writing on this assignment, where he instead continually moans and bitches about the apparently stalled state of his career or how his girl friend is not there, while the ever upbeat Bryden appears to be having the time of his life.  Both these guys are evenly matched, intelligent, witty, spontaneous, imperfect, openly flawed, yet they seem to use humor to rise above the moment, finding their humanity in their various impressions.  Rarely does Coogan ever have dinner with Rob Bryden, as instead he’s met with a host of interchangeable characters that eventually drive him batty.  Initially he tries to keep up, matching impression for impression, insisting his are superior, but when we see him alone in his room at night attempting to master various Bryden voice inflections, the audience knows he’s been outdone.  Coogan can be vicious when given the chance, never having a kind word to say about anyone else, while continually seeing himself with delusions of grandeur, actually seeing himself as the Don Quixote of Britain.  Not a chance, as that role would have to go to Terry Gilliam whose lifetime projects have continually been sabotaged and destroyed, seemingly by acts of God.  Coogan shows a great deal of disenchantment with himself when he’s alone, where these solitary moments reflect an off camera persona that is quite revealing, the picture of middle aged frustration, quite a contrast to having to live up to his wish fulfillment dream sequence with Ben Stiller telling him all the American directors are lined up and can’t wait to work with him, which sadly, he has to wake up to feeling more isolated and never more alone.  Once back home in the empty, stainless steel surroundings of his overpriced luxury apartment with sliding glass doors and a balcony overlooking the highway construction project, it appears his life will have to remain a similar project in the making.  

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Phenix City Story

THE PHENIX CITY STORY                          B         
USA  (100 mi)  1955  d:  Phil Karlson 

I've always cited this movie as the best ever made in (Alabama), as well as the most authentic. Maybe that's in part because watching it is experiencing the apotheosis of Southern sleaze-a bit like festering for hours in the seediest possible Alabama Greyhound depot in August without air conditioning… Though the movie's politics are liberal, its moral outrage is so intense you may come out of it wanting to join a lynch mob.

—Film critic and Alabama expatriate Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing in his book Essential Cinema.

All that's necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.      
 —Edmund Burke

An industry that flourished for half a century because the good men looked the other way, an industry run by men I went to school with.  Their father’s ran it, and their father’s fathers before them.  An industry that made Phenix City the most vicious town in the United States.  That industry was vice.

film narrator John Patterson, (Richard Kiley)

“Fancy women, slot machines, and booze…”
Phenix City Blues, song sung by Meg Myles

I like old friends. It gives you sort of a warm feeling just to know they’re around. 
—Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews)

An incendiary, highly provocative, and near documentary portrait of life in Alabama during the 1950’s, zeroing in on the vice racket controlling the border town of Phenix City, just across the river from a more upscale Columbus, Georgia and nearby Fort Benning, where for over 100 years the crime syndicate was openly running the gambling, liquor, and prostitution business, manufacturing their own marked decks of cards, diluting their liquor, rigging their own slot machines and roulette wheels, where generous bribes made the police and prosecuting attorneys look the other way as beaten bodies or corpses would regularly be dumped in ditches along the side of the road.  Opening with a 15-minute Jack Webb-like man-on-the-scene newsreel sequence where reporter Clete Roberts interviews actual residents of the town of Phenix City, Alabama, the tone is so amateurishly dry and dead serious that one gets the feel this is all a fabricated work of fiction, something of a mock put-on, perhaps by Sam Fuller, but it’s based on a true story which only came to light after the election night murder of the newly elected State’s Attorney General from Phenix City, who vowed to crack down on his city’s crime.  All this is explained ahead of time before the newsreel ends and the actual film begins, immediately immersing the audience into the lurid subject matter with a brilliant jump cut from a behind-the-scenes look at putting on the fix in vice racket operations to the sensual lounge act of the scantily dressed night club singer Meg Myles singing “Phenix City Blues” to a room filled mostly with leering men.  This is the hook that lures them in and promises them a good time, where they can then be swindled by the business. 

When anyone complains of marked cards or getting cheated, they are immediately beaten silly by the house goons, dumped in the gutter outside and hauled off by the police—no questions asked.   The guy running the operations is Rhett Tanner, Edward Andrews in his first feature film appearance before becoming a regular fixture on American television for the next several decades, a town elder who rarely misses a Sunday appearance at church, so ingrained in the town’s social establishment that people greet him fondly on the street.  His muscle on the premises is John Larch as Clem Wilson, almost always seen with a toothpick in his mouth, whose job is to get rid of unruly customers and handle all the sordid details of the dirty operations.  It’s Tanner that pays a friendly visit to Albert Patterson, John McIntire, a paternal institution in town as the highly respected defense attorney, who despite all the attempts to bring down the syndicate through vigilantism or organized citizen meetings, has taken the stubborn position not to make waves, as he’s seen it all before and nothing’s changed in 100 years.  Both Tanner and the citizen’s groups lobby to gain his support, as he represents the moral center.  When Patterson’s son, John Patterson, Richard Kiley the film’s narrator, returns from serving in the Army overseas where he was prosecuting war criminals, his father wants him to join the firm and make a home in Phenix City, which immediately draws the suspicion of John’s young wife (Lenka Peterson), who hears nothing good comes from 14th Street, otherwise known as Sin City—not exactly the place to raise their two kids.  Matters escalate when John attempts to intervene in a fight between Wilson and his thugs against a citizen group, but only ends up getting beat up himself, which places him right in the center of things, now more than ever motivated to join in the efforts to rid the town of its organized crime.       

While Karlson is not an especially well recognized director, and this little known film probably exists somewhere on the fringe, it’s an extremely accurate, though fictionalized, portrait of life in the South, where the existence of brutality is a major factor, where historically the Ku Klux Klan was immersed in the social fabric of the communities as well, and ironically supported Patterson in his 1958 run for Governor three years after the filming.  This director does not shy away from showing how difficult it is to stand up to the tyranny of men with guns who scour the neighborhoods with impunity, getting revenge or payback whenever they want, sending a message, leaving behind a trail of tragic consequences filled with bitterness, heartbreak, ugliness and blunt trauma.  This film takes a very direct approach in articulating the harm from a community remaining complacent, depicting how violence and corruption affects everyone, but it’s so hard for people to act in a coordinated effort, as if this is in some ways capitulating to the problem, where they’d rather be left alone, where there are still non believers who refuse to believe it’s happening in their back yard, while others look the other way and continue to facilitate this kind of heinous criminal activity.  Shot on location in Alabama, where it carries the weight of authenticity, much of this is cringe-worthy in its illustration of stark realism without resorting to the typical melodramatic effects, though it is also sensationalized, with the tag line “ripped from the headlines,” trying to create excitement by embellishing a menacing noirish atmosphere with social relevance, a mix where it’s hard to find another film that approaches the subject head-on with this kind of blistering intensity.  The irony is, because it didn’t happen to someone who became famous, and there are no stars in the cast, few have heard of this film or this particular chapter in our nation’s history. 

trivia  from imdb
In the film, John Patterson (Richard Kiley) is depicted as supportive of African-American Zeke Ward (James Edwards) and his family. In real life, following his term as Alabama attorney general (1954-1958), he ran for governor in 1958, ran an openly racist campaign and won. One of his opponents, George Wallace, had run as a racial moderate and told his friends after the election, "John Patterson out-niggered me, and I'm never gonna be out-niggered again." Four years later, in 1962, Wallace won the governorship of Alabama as an avowed segregationist.

Vlast (Power)

VLAST (Power)                      B                     
USA  (88 mi)  2010  d:  Cathryn Collins           Official site

This has always been a fascinating story of a behind-the-scenes secret service power to extinguish or detain individuals considered of interest to the absolute power of the State.  Earlier in this decade, two stories held the world’s attention, the 2003 arrest of billionaire oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who overstayed his welcome in Russia, and the 2006 London poisoning death of a former KGB agent,  Alexander Litvinenko, who was living in political asylum, having written two books accusing the KGB of using acts of terrorism to bring Vladimir Putin to power.  The question is whether this film could actually add anything to these already widely covered news stories.  Choosing to deal exclusively with the rise and fall of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he was the head of the Russian oligarchy, a tiny group of new business entrepreneurs who exploited the disintegration of the Soviet Union to loot and/or earn mass quantities of wealth, hundreds of billions of dollars from the suddenly wide open oil markets in Russia, signing highly lucrative contracts with the government to acquire newly privatized industries, which consolidated power under the corporate name of Yukos.  Khodorkovsky, however, was not only interested in becoming a successful businessman, suddenly finding himself the richest man in Russia, but also a social reformer interested in democracy, transparency, and opening up the Russian markets, where just months before announcing a deal that would have opened Yukos, a formerly State-controlled oil industry, to investments by Western corporations, including U.S. corporations, he and his partners were arrested and jailed for trumped up charges of fraud and tax evasion, where he’s been confined behind bars now for nearly a decade.

What was a brief dream of democracy under the first elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin suddenly disappeared, replaced by former KGB agent Vladimir Putin as President, who returned Russia to the days of ruthless, totalitarian control run by a police state, once more under the command of the FSB, Federal Security Service, replacing in name only what was the KGB secret police.  Before becoming President, Putin was interestingly the Party head responsible for the foreign property of the State and organized the transfer of former assets from the Communist Party and the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation.  Most all Westerners believe Putin’s incarceration of Khodorkovsky is largely a case of political suppression, as he was viewed as a likely candidate to run against Putin, or at least back certain reform movements in the upcoming elections prior to his arrest, now he is not likely to ever see the light of day so long as Putin remains in power.  Before his initial sentence could expire, additional charges were brought against Khodorkovsky, namely embezzlement, suggesting every dime he earned was embezzled, where his initial 9-year sentence was increased to 14 years, and Khodorkovsky was later transferred to another prison in an undisclosed location to serve out the remainder of his sentence. 

While this is an examination of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it’s also a disturbing portrait of what has happened to the fading hopes of a blindsided and obliterated democratic movement inside Russia.  The filmmaker chooses excellent speakers, including Russian expert economists from The Financial Times and The Economist who provide remarkably lucid commentary, also Khodorkovsky’s mother, who has seen and heard all about this side of Russia before, having lived through the Stalinist purges of the 30’s and the era of gulags, along with his U.S. educated son, now exiled from Russia and living in America.  What this film makes clear is the full extent of the current purge, as Russia seized the entire Yukos enterprise and sold it off publicly to the highest bidder, though only one person apparently met the criteria, and that was a former friend of Putin’s from the KGB, who consolidated the business with another Putin ally, so now Putin has control over the entire Russian oil industry, just as if it was nationalized, but under the ownership of his friends and allies who have done exactly as the oligarchs, but remain under government protection.  Meanwhile Putin has arrested over 200 former employees of Yukos, sent them all to jail, along with the lawyers and law firms that in any way represented the company, dissolving those businesses as well.  Along with the arrests, there have been multiple home searches, oftentimes several, where one imprisoned company executive indicated this is how they do it in Russia nowadays, that formerly they used firing squads.

A lawyer indicated there is less justice today in Russia under Putin than there was in the former Soviet Union thirty or forty years ago.  This portrait of a fraud democracy, where all democratic parties disappear and only one party appears on the ballet, where Putin and his minions run unopposed, where the secret police continues to play havoc with its own citizens, ruling with an imperial iron fist, controlling the state authorized news, just like in the days of Stalin.  After the fall of the Berlin wall and the rise of democratic movements, including a series of judicial reforms, no one would believe they could go backwards in time so thoroughly where they are back to an autocratic rule.  One of the most impressive voices in the film is a historic archivist, Arseny Roginsky, who served four years in a gulag during the 1980’s for attempting to write a truthful account of history.  After Khodorkovsky was slammed by the Russian press for being an enemy of the state, pictured as a traitor willing to sell off Russian assets to the United States, their historic arch rival and enemy, Roginsky surmised Khodorkovsky, who could have fled at any moment prior to the arrest, chose to serve his punishment as a way of resurrecting his image, by standing up to the Kremlin, continuing to have faith in the democratic reforms that have all but been abolished in Russia during his incarceration.  While incarcerated, he has remained defiant, denunciating what has happened as a series of outright lies and secret service cover ups, where there is no evidence of any crime committed, yet all the courts now bow down to Putin, creating a Shakespearean Richard III style power grab. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Super 8

SUPER 8                     B
USA  (112 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  J.J. Abrams

Much like this director paid tribute to the Star Trek TV era, especially good at catching the various personality traits of the major players, this film pays tribute to the era of Spielberg, including several of his notable movies.  Again, Abrams does some things extremely well, like catch the E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) innocent mood of the kids who continually hang out together with no adult supervision, eventually tracing the presence of an alien presence in the community while also establishing a great build up of suspense for the horrible presence of an unseen monster in JAWS (1975), not to mention the U.S. military creating a diversionary catastrophe from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) which sends the local community into mass hysteria while covering up their real mission, which remains top secret.  While there is also a shared love for big box-office special effects, like Abrams last film, there is an over-reliance on loud explosions, as if this is the only way to cause adrenaline rushes, yet this kind of destructive mayhem exists throughout the film, led by Noah Emmerich, perennial bad guy who heads the secret Air Force unit, a guy who will stop at nothing in supposedly tracking down public enemy number one, their top secret monster they've been keeping under wraps that is suddenly missing and unleashed on the public, refusing to share basic information, even as it destroys communities and ravages the countryside.  Unlike Spielberg, this has a darker menace throughout, as there are constant images of death, demolition, and destruction, where these kids are running through the streets alone trying to avoid getting killed, which is a far cry from being caught by their parents for doing something they’re not allowed.  Like BAMBI (1942), the first Disney film to kill off a helpless fawn’s mother, the audience quickly discovers that Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney with a slight Ralph Macchio resemblance), the lead child’s mother has also been killed, leaving him alone with his distant and self-absorbed father, Kyle Chandler as the Sheriff’s Deputy, a man caught up in the town’s hysteria with no answers to quell the maddening voices. 

Set in 1979, the film starts out innocently enough with a group of middle school kids led by Riley Griffiths as Charles, who are trying to make a special effects Super 8 zombie movie to enter into a local film contest, though they feel compelled to strain for greater effects, since 15 and 16-year olds will also be competing.  Sneaking out at night, they meet at the railroad tracks, including the presence of Elle Fanning as Alice, the cute girl that the boys think would never talk with them, surprising them all with her own rebellious streak.  Much like Drew Barrymore in E.T., Fanning is a joy to watch, showing maturity beyond her years, not to mention a charming talent in front of a camera, where despite playing a ghoulish zombie, her beguiling presence unsettles the boys who have been best friends for years.  As if to accentuate this imbalance, they witness a horrible train accident, where a train carrying Air Force top secret materials gets derailed in spectacular fashion, where they each defy death and somehow survive while unknowingly capturing the event on film, making their escape before anyone is detected, vowing to keep it a secret, as they believe something horrible will track down their families.  First animals go missing, then appliances strangely disappear, entire car engines are pulled out of cars before people start mysteriously disappearing as well, including the sheriff, where only weird noises can be heard in the dark before a violent attack of some kind snatches its prey.  This leaves Joe’s father in charge of these strange inexplicable random events, but the military finds his incessant questioning curiously disturbing, as if this was somehow preventing them from carrying out their mission.  Unfortunately the warped world of the adults is an unpleasant contrast to the more stellar ideas and enthusiasm shown by the playfulness of the kids, who inherently trust one another, as opposed to the world of adults where suspicion and the unending use of violence reigns. 

Despite the plentiful use of special effects sequences, the best thing in the film is the smaller-world interaction of the kids, whose unique personalities add humor and intrigue to the story, where they’re a close-knit group that draws the audience in with their appeal, led by Joe, who can’t stop thinking about Alice, the real heroine of the story.  It’s impossible, by the way, not to think of Mark Borchardt from Chris Smith’s AMERICAN MOVIE (1999), striving for years to finish his low-budget zombie flick Coven, played entirely by friends and family, which is pretty much what these kids are up to as well.  But when the world around them goes crazy, with people going missing, a military presence taking over the city, and several events witnessed which defy gravity or known science, these kids, perhaps without realizing it at first, feel they are on a mission to save the world, turning this into a Mission Impossible (Abrams directed the 3rd) kind of episode where they are driven to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles, but done with a charming enjoyment and intelligent humor.  What doesn’t work, balanced against this obvious fun, is the unpleasant deviousness of the American military, even resorting to secret arrests and images of torture, all of which defy the efforts of this spirited group, where the American military imposes a larger threat of violence than the actual monster.  Granted, this film reflects the mindset of the culture in the late 70’s, where Watergate, lies about secret bombing campaigns in Cambodia, lies about Generals boosting the number of enemy combatants killed in action in order to justify more troops, and the tortuous end of the Vietnam era did contribute to a general distrust of governmental authority, which included the military.  Still the heavy handed tone of militarism gone wrong, or in the wrong hands, sends this barreling down the wrong track, undermining their own monster special effects with a montage of non-stop military explosions of death and destruction, a whirlwind of exaggerated psychotic mayhem that was never part of the original story, that only detracts from the initial innocent hilarity of making that confounding zombie movie with a cast of overeager kids, and also kills the suspense leading up to the appearance of the monster, who has unfortunately been upstaged by the way over the top, uncalculated madness of humankind.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


SUBMARINE                         B                     
Great Britain  USA  (97 mi)  2010  d:  Richard Ayoade

Taking your shirt off can lead to an atavistic response.        —Lloyd Tate (Noah Taylor)

Don’t get cocky.          —Jordana Bevan (Yasmin Paige)

Something of a deeply melancholic, male anguished, brooding teenage view of the Brave New World, as Oliver (Craig Roberts), a glum and morose but independently bright kid shares his daily experiences as he enters into his first relationship with the opposite sex, plunging ahead, as it were, without a clue how to use the rudder.  With parents who have the worst social skills of any couple in recent memory, the ever dour Noah Taylor and the usually perky Sally Hawkins, where they haven’t had sex in seven months, barely speak, and are on the verge of separation, which is happening simultaneously to his discovery of first love.  While the dialogue is above and beyond the teenage years, it hardly matters due to the continual self-deprecating humor where this friendless teen is as detached from the rest of the world of kids his age as he can get, where his lifeline is the equally moody and downbeat Jordana, Yasmin Paige, something of a revelation.  While this is pretty much seen as an all-in, all or nothing gamble, as if his entire future depends on it, this over-the-top drama is essential, as all teenagers feel they are drowning in a world of dysfunction and social misfits, which adds color and bit of flair to his otherwise humorless life.  Set in Wales, of all places, where there’s an introductory word of thanks showing gratitude to America for never having invaded the country, the gray, cloudy atmosphere adds to the glum reality of these kid’s lives.  Always dressed in heavy coats, Oliver tends to wear the same hang dog, sad sack expression on his face even in the best of times, as if he never actually trusts happiness, something that has occurred so infrequently in his life he’s not sure it actually exists. 

Adding to the home drama is the presence of Paddy Considine, a psychically gifted, self-help guru with supposed mystical connections to a non-existent, feel good transcendental world, something of a hoax, a phony and a fraud, like the Patrick Swayze role in DONNIE DARKO (2001), but also an old flame of his mother who moves in next door.  When she starts taking an interest, with his Dad feebly pretending not to notice, Oliver quickly takes up the reigns as the aggressive interloper, a sleuth with intentions to drive them apart.  Simultaneous to his intoxicated love interest, where he’s literally out of his head, he’s also attempting to stay grounded by holding his parent’s together, something he can’t share with Jordana, as her parent’s problems trump his own.  While the film provides plenty of observation of small town life, people who keep to themselves and mind their own business, where over the years the repressed layers of holding it all in only leads to the inevitable medical breakdown, it also reveals an unusual tenderness from his parents, especially when they learn he has a girlfriend, which may be more significant than graduating high school or even going to college, as his self-absorbed life was leading them towards thoughts of a serial killer or a potentially abusing Catholic priest.  His father lovingly makes him a mixed tape of the songs that mattered to him when he fell in love, cleverly adding some breakup songs at the end, just in case.  Well, of course, these songs inevitably comprise the inner themes of the film, composed by Arctic Monkeys singer/songwriter Alex Turner, always seemingly playing in the background while he spends endless hours at the beach, bringing Jordana along to share his favorite spots, but oftentimes alone commiserating on life’s futility. 

The couple share a kind of smart ass relationship, where their shrewd sensibility continues to uplift them from the mediocrity of the tedious world around them, even as it is heavily dosed in miserablism.  Not sure if this coded sarcasm is enough to survive, as when a few real life issues come their way, both are ill-prepared to handle what life offers, as they’ve spent the majority of their lives burrowing their heads in the sand.  Quirkiness is one thing, and this film has plenty of it which it handles with aplomb, but there’s also this thread of reality where unlike the separation issues in many teenage angst pictures, these kids still feel connected to their parents and are afraid to let go.  Oliver feels perfectly happy reading the dictionary, discovering new words, while Jordana seems to delight in lighting things on fire, where she constantly reigns in a noticeable aggressive streak.  Their passive-aggressive relationship does not exactly set the world on fire, as both barely ever reveal any feelings whatsoever, as they have to learn to survive in this closed-in world where no one shows emotions and all the town’s citizens are endlessly suffocating.  In this atmosphere, the arrogant and pompous Considine stands out, offering a delusional elixir of magical potions guaranteed to show you the light.  There’s a comfortable, nostalgia-tinged setting of the 1980’s, where kids pass notes instead of text, take Polaroid snapshots and keep diaries instead of posting messages on Facebook, where there’s an interesting Super 8 dream sequence, the use of cassette tapes, and even a few messages sent by a typewriter.  Despite the timelessness of this self-contained world, filled with irreverence and self-conscious mockery, there’s an unsentimentalized tone throughout, not even a trace of glitz or glamor, where these two kids are fairly grounded in their separate worlds.  The age-old boy/girl question lurking in every era is wondering if they will connect.   And here, the film does not disappoint.  

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Film Socialisme

FILM SOCIALISME                          D                    
France  Switzerland  (101 mi)  2010  d:  Jean-Luc Godard

Certainly from my perspective, Godard’s films have become more and more a modernist experience unto themselves, flooding the screen with somewhat disconnected images, adding essayist observations or commentary, then streaming them all together into a fragmented, full-length feature, while slapping his name on the picture, somewhat like a painter on the corner of the canvas.  Godard was immersed in the video concept long ago, perhaps for the ease and simplicity of obtaining images, matching society’s compulsion for developing their own images now, whether on cell phones or YouTube, often shooting pictures of themselves and then immediately placing them on the Internet.  As he’s gotten older, it’s easier to leave the heavy equipment behind and travel as light as possible, patching together images on film as quickly as he can think of them in his mind.  This rambling, stream-of-consciousness format serves him well, as he forms an impression, spends as much time as he’d like developing the idea, and moves on, continually moving to the next subject with the ease of turning pages.  For the viewer it’s not so easy, as he lost narrative interest some time ago, creating what amounts to an emotionally detached, experimental light show of cinema which the audience can choose to embrace, or not.  In some ways, you can write reviews of his films without even seeing the movie, as so much of it is a concept that plays out in one’s head, though purists would find that sacrilegious.  Godard, I’m fairly certain, wouldn’t mind, as seeing it in your head or onscreen is much the same thing—that‘s cinema.  What matters is getting it on film or being able to describe it. 

Of interest, late in life, Godard’s films have become, at least for me, closer to the film experience of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira—nearly unwatchable.  De Oliveira is more the traditionalist, still instructing actors on a movie set and developing stories, where they can talk endlessly about matters of which I have no interest whatsoever, while Godard works in a more free form exhibitionist style, presenting a steady stream of images, ideas and concepts that I have an equal amount of disinterest in, so it’s much the same experience.  I’ve felt both stopped taking any interest in making movies a long time ago, probably each finding their lives a dreary and monotonous bore, and now both are simply going through the motions, as if it’s something they feel compelled to do as their life’s work.  Why they are still working at ages 102 and 80 is beyond me, well past the age when most people retire, so while it may feel necessary or invigorating for the artist to keep working, for many in the audience it’s closer to an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  What’s equally intriguing is the level of interest their films inspire, as they both have legions of supporters who call each completed movie a cinematic masterwork, defending their heroes with a kind of cultish honor, where they will go to battle and fight a war of words defending these artists, believing they are beyond legendary, artists whose unquestioned status was affirmed decades ago.  It’s a bit like some of those late, great blues artists that seem to reach an entirely new level of greatness as they age, as these guys continue to travel the circuit and perform before live audiences well into their eighties or nineties, endearing them to an entirely new generation of adoring fans until they eventually die, already immortalized through their recordings.

I’m not a compulsive Godard junkie who lives and dies for his next film, missing large pockets of his works, but have viewed at least something every decade where I’ve easily seen over twenty from about 90 feature-length films, where the closest thing to a favorite is likely VIVRE SA VIE (1962), a near documentary exploration of prostitution and existentialism, as seen through several points of view, not the least of which is a real philosopher sitting in a Parisian café expounding on his thoughts (we witness a person develop into a conscious human being) while the director himself is so enamored with his female subject (his wife Anna Karina) before the camera that he’s effectively become an adoring client to her prostitute.  Told in different stages marked by a musical theme, that brief Michel Legrand piano interlude remains one of my favorite passages in my entire life, which has the capacity to cleanse the soul like a perfect Bach theme.  Hearing just a few seconds is enough to send me into a state of ecstatic reverie, much like the gorgeous piano music in Fassbinder (Peer Raben) or Kieslowski (Zbigniew Preisner) films.  Not much else in Godard’s collected works have ever sent such an emotional jolt, certainly not recently, though NOTRE MUSIQUE (2004) was surprisingly inspiring, another film that asks philosophical questions throughout, providing extremely eloquent imagery with perfect accompanying music.  Using fictional, archival, and documentary footage, the pace moves very quickly from some brilliantly abstract opening war-torn imagery to an examination of war-ravaged Sarajevo.

In FILM SOCIALISME, Godard’s first film shot entirely with high-definition digital cameras, but also the occasional cell phone, Godard freely appropriates books, quotes, excerpts, and footage from others, still calling it a Godard film, where his intent may be about “undermining the idea of property.”  Whether using clips from Eisenstein’s POTEMKIN (1925) or borrowing a trapeze act from Agnès Varda’s THE BEACHES OF AGNÈS (2008), or several collaborators who helped provide original footage for this film, FILM SOCIALISME continues the trend in many recent Godard works of simply assembling footage without any apparent purpose, where it could just as easily be a collection of outtakes.  In this film, he doesn’t even bother with a translated subtitling, using a “Navajo English,” where never more than about 3 words on the screen are translated.  One might make the point that this is exactly what news reports do, single out highlighted words as he does here, like Jerusalem, or Jews, or currency, which may as well be headlines, yet they form the basis of the narrative text of most TV news reports.  Godard may be telegraphing his view that more than 98 % of the actual news from news reports is left out, leaving, at least using his film as an example, something that is considered incomprehensible.  While this may be his point, I’m not sure anyone needs to sit through 100 minutes of untranslated conversations, where the audience basically learns to ignore the few words on the screen, ignore all conversations entirely, and focus instead just on the images.  While Godard does oversaturate colors from time to time, or find gorgeous, painterly collages of mixed media, his use is all too rare in this film, where we are instead inundated with incessant conversations going nowhere.  I was stunned to discover an uncredited Olga Kurylenko or Patti Smith randomly walking around a European cruise ship, which otherwise seemed to thrive in overpopulation, collected hoards of disinterested people, and conversations that may include 4 or 5 different languages.  But for the most part, the film experience is endlessly boring.  I see no reason why audiences couldn’t get just as much satisfaction by watching the trailer, or a 5 or 10 minute version of this film.  In fact, if I’ve learned anything from watching Godard’s films of late, it’s that I don’t want to grow old and miserable, and I have no wish to ever travel on a European cruise ship. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

In the Land of the Free...

IN THE LAND OF THE FREE…                   C+                  
USA  Great Britain  (84 mi)  2009  d:  Vadim Jean        Official site      

This kind of film is aggravating for a number of reasons, one of which is the intensity of the subject matter, which is an outrage of justice and deserves greater scrutiny than this film provides, another is the way it presents such a one-sided view of the situation, as there is no legal explanation offered to justify this kind of unusual prison treatment, and also the way the film ends without ever revealing an outcome or an update in the current state of affairs.  As is, the film’s optimistic tone at the end is entirely misleading (only verified by a Google search afterwards), suggestive of an outcome which never came to be, meaning it still remains unresolved, which the audience needs to know.  If you spoke to most people in the United States or around the world, you’d barely be aware of what impact the Black Panther Party has in the world today, as if they exist at all, they remain a fringe organization run on nickels and dimes committed to getting railroaded blacks out of jail.  But in the South, it’s a whole different story, as they are still seen through the racist hysteria of the 60’s, as if they remain committed to overthrowing the government of the United States by armed struggle.  When seen in this light, they are categorized in the Southern prison systems as such a danger to society that they are ordered segregated from the rest of the prison population, requiring them to spend their entire sentence in a 6 X 9 foot cell in solitary confinement, even as this approaches an unfathomable 4th decade, yet this is not seen as a violation of the Constitutional guarantee that prohibits “cruel or unusual punishment.”  Instead, they are treated far worse than the terrorists at Guantanamo, yet they are supposedly protected American citizens currently serving time in an 18,000-acre former slave plantation known as Angola, named for the place of origin of the original slaves who were brought there.  If this wasn’t true, one would have thought this kind of inhumane treatment was more reflective of a brutal military dictatorship known for punishing their enemies, yet it’s been going on in the state of Louisiana for the past 40 years.  

While the film is sketchy at best in describing who these men are, known as the Angola 3, Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King, all from rural Louisiana, and what led them to be incarcerated in the first place, suggesting each had a lengthy rap sheet of burglary or armed robbery, instead glossing over this as if these are relatively minor crimes.  What is known is their late 60’s and early 1970’s Black Panther affiliation, which was designed to aggressively improve the conditions of blacks in America, which in prison terms means organizing the inmates around improving prison conditions, which meant not working plantation system 17-hour days for 2 cents an hour, access to better education, improving their legal access, all of which was seen as a threat by the warden who preferred keeping things under wraps, out of sight and out of mind.  Instead the film suggests the Panthers, at the behest of the warden, were fingered by other inmates for criminal acts taking place inside the prison to justify keeping them on permanent lockdown, so instead of serving sentences for robbery, they were charged with murdering a prison guard, which lengthened their sentences considerably.  While it’s clear the lifetime-sentenced witness was promised a chance at freedom by the warden, who immediately began writing letters to the parole board recommending his release, which eventually happened, as he died a free man, it’s also clear there was no other evidence connecting these three men to the crimes.  What’s most damning, in terms of establishing prosecutory motivation and abuse, they not only charged Wallace and Woodfox with the actual murder, but even charged a fellow Black Panther who was not even in the prison at the time, once again using the old fashioned racist practice of not allowing any blacks to serve on the jury, and in another, not even allowing any women to serve.  It was the discovery of this last piece of evidence that eventually released the 3rd prisoner, Robert King, as he was ordered a new trial where he was released within an hour for lack of evidence, this after serving 31 years in solitary confinement for a crime he never committed.   
It’s King, a soft-spoken but determined man who describes the psychologically humiliating conditions designed to break the spirit of prisoners, many others of whom have attempted suicide under similar circumstances, but none have endured this prison imposed solitary confinement, which was not a part of their sentence, for such a long duration.  Anyone who can survive for 40 years suggests unusual strength and fortitude, motivated by the fact that they’ve maintained their innocence all along.  This kind of treatment is unprecedented in American history, where statistics show there are more blacks locked up in Louisiana than criminals arrested anywhere else in the world, though recent trends show a growing use of perpetual solitary confinement in American prison systems, pointing to this case as an example of its so-called “success.”  How can racism be so entrenched in the penal system in the South that blacks continue to be treated as little more than chattel slaves, as if the Confederacy won the Civil War?  Despite this horrendous practice, there appears to be no redress, as the majority Republican politics in Louisiana proudly wave their incarceration record around like red meat to their voters, as race-based politics have never been more divisive.  In 2010, when a Federal District Court of Appeals ordered Woodfox’s sentence to be vacated, claiming grounds of prejudice, King, the lawyers, the inmate’s families, and others were expecting them both to be released, which is when the film ends, expecting victory, but that day never arrived, as the Louisiana Attorney General “Buddy” Caldwell opposed the release and appealed the decision, where he eventually prevailed in a 2-1 decision, even as the jury foreman serving on the grand jury that indicted him, who eventually wrote a book upholding the original conviction, was also married to the warden at the time.  According to the current warden, Burl Cain, when receiving the news, he still maintains these are extremely dangerous men, likening the Black Panthers to the Klu Klux Klan, suggesting its members will always be a menace to society by virtue of their political beliefs, claiming “there’s been no rehabilitation…(from their) Black Panther revolutionary acts.”

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Tree of Life

THE TREE OF LIFE                     A                    
USA  (138 mi)  2011  d:  Terrence Malick

That's where God lives!

—Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), pointing upwards towards the sky

Larry, the youngest, went to Spain to study with the guitar virtuoso Segovia. Terry discovered in the summer of 1968 that Larry had broken his own hands, seemingly despondent over his lack of progress. Emil [Malick’s father], concerned, went to Spain and returned with Larry’s body; it appeared the young man had committed suicide. Like most relatives of those who take their own lives, Terry must have borne a heavy burden of irrational guilt. According to Michèle, the subject of Larry was never mentioned.

—from Page 2 of Peter Biskind’s August, 1999 article for Vanity Fair, “The Runaway Genius,” seen here:  The Runaway Genius | Classic | Vanity Fair 

Unlike Malick’s other films, this one is much more autobiographical in nature, showing a portrait of the artist himself and a deeply personal understanding of the world around him and even his own place in the universe.  Grasping at the eternal, this feels like a dialogue the director may be having with God, where answers are few, but the probing intensity to unfathom the meaning and puzzling nature of our existence seems to be at the heart of this film.  Why are we here?  Where did we come from?  What does it all mean, and what, in the end, really matters?  Much like the imagined inner thoughts of the soldiers in THE THIN RED LINE (1998), who collectively form the consciousness of mankind through an endless stream of voices paying tribute to both the living and the dead, the director strives to find some meaning in witnessing wave after wave of human slaughter at Guadalcanal in 1942, and also asking how God can allow it?  Much like Jewish Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel asking where was the presence of God at Auschwitz, Malick is in the same turmoil when he inexplicably loses his younger brother at the age of 19.  In the larger scheme of things, what purpose can this possibly serve?  His immediate inclination is to join him, to offer his brotherly love, to be wherever he is so that he’s not alone.  These are the internal struggles that constitute man’s existence, reflected in an unending stream of philosophical voiceovers, offset by astonishing images not only of a pristine natural world, an Edenlike perfection that is portrayed in all his films, but of life evolving from the universe, where Malick, in a mammoth extended sequence, literally shows us the birth of the world, accompanied by soaring, majestic music that is nothing short of sublime.   

Due to the Biblical references throughout the film, many will confuse this as a devout religious work, where something of an afterlife or a vision of collected memories seem to materialize where the living and the dead, at different stages in their lives, may actually co-exist, at least temporarily, where they commune and share feelings.  But rather than a declaration of devotion to God, there is no evidence from the point of view of a religious believer, instead the view is continually that of one questioning man’s fate on earth.  And from this perspective, after the world is created, knowing we are all fated to die, the question is how does one live in this world?  Despite his best efforts, extreme forms of discipline, never missing a day of work, and attending church every week, Malick’s father, portrayed by Brad Pitt, has no answers.  Life is still hard and at times unendurable, where faith does not seem to be a determining factor in one’s wealth or happiness.  People are still weak, human and vulnerable, subject to making mistakes, where they may suffer painful consequences from their own actions, and more importantly, inadvertently transfer them onto their own children, which has a punishing effect upon the innocent.  Pitt has high standards that the world, and his family, rarely meet, admonishing them, blaming them for resisting his will, undermining his authority, eventually turning on them with a detestable abuse that poisons his relationship with each and every one.  At one point, the oldest of three boys, young Jack (Hugh McCracken in the likely role of the director), actually expresses his wishes that God would kill his father, to literally get rid of him.  In contrast to the sublime, humans have thoughts of vengeance. 

Without ever resorting to a narrative, per se, the film instead is a fragment of reflections, beautifully shown in a montage of Jack from birth to a young moody teenager, where his mother, Jessica Chastain, couldn’t be a more devoted mother, always taking the children’s side from the ferocious mood swings of her husband, a man who had high hopes for himself but believes he ultimately let his family down by failing to live up to any of his dreams, becoming more and more disgusted with himself, which is mirrored in Jack’s view of the world around him, detesting his father, growing more troubled, even becoming something of a loose cannon with his own brothers, where he abuses their brotherly trust, eventually shooting one of them with a BB gun.  In one of the more miraculous scenes in the film, quite a contrast from the ominous creation of the world, Jack apologizes to his younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler), who immediately forgives him.  This simple act of brotherly love is an ecstatic moment in the film, perhaps the turning point, and perhaps the reason for making the film because it has such emotional resonance, especially knowing, as the audience does from the beginning, that he’ll later lose a brother.  His father, on the other hand, feels tortured by all the terrible things he never got to amend, having to live with his own human fallibility.  Learning how to be a part rather than apart seems to be the secret.  Much like the exquisite feel of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), one of the best films ever made in portraying the mindset of gracious but mischievous children, the time spent outdoors seems endless, where at that age, every day seems to last forever. 

What’s truly remarkable about this film is that the immensity of the big bang, the ponderous inquiry into how it all began, is replaced by tiny moments in people’s lives, by their collective memories which bond them together as families, as this is something they uniquely share with one another.  What Malick does is fill the screen with ordinary moments, each one a gesture of love, such as a mother lovingly teaching her children how to speak or read, or share playful moments together, perhaps playing outside, getting wet in the sprinkler, shooting off fireworks, or playing catch.  Even the mistakes they make, which they may regret later in life, are something they can somehow atone for and become a better person.  This entire film seems to be directed towards the human being’s capacity for love, which is shown so effortlessly and generously by their mother, luminously portrayed by Chastain, but also in the way the children, even in their innocence, have a “feel” for one another, where at times the audience zeroes in on exactly what they’re feeling, such as moments of unadulterated exaltation and joy, complemented by exquisite choices of music that suggest how they can transcend the moment, literally getting outside their troubled existence.  One of the best sequences in the film is observing Pitt playing Bach at home on the piano, where R.L. outside on the porch is following along on his guitar, where at least for one mesmerizing moment, they play a flawless duet that is simply magical, one of those rare moments shared together.  So despite all the ambition and all the attention paid to the big moments in the film, it’s really about the smaller almost forgotten moments in our lives, suggesting pure love can literally transcend the seeming futility of man’s existence, elevating the stakes, placing the needs of others ahead of your own, where perhaps the highest realization is that man is not the center of the universe—not sure anyone has ever seen it expressed quite like this before, but by all artistic measurements, simply breathtaking.  

Post Addendum:
Despite the fact I saw this with a group of about 8 people & I was the only one who found it truly amazing, and I had to listen to gripes and groans from disappointed viewers afterwards, this remains my #1 film of the year.  Malick simply brings something to the table that no one else does, and what people forget is what a gripping film this really is, despite the meandering philosophical questioning, which, by the way, is something we ALL do in our lifetimes, continually question what the fuck we're doing - - though for many, they soon grew tired of listening to the near whispered, pondering questions that have frequented Malick's films of late, especially prevalent in Thin Red Line.  Since this film opens with the death of a child, who we haven't even gotten to know yet, the rest of the film frames his life and puts his life in perspective, offering meaning in its own unique way, and is a kind of personal recollection from Malick, which is unique to all his films.  For me, the entire film was focused and centered upon that death, where this portrait of his life becomes so excruciatingly personal, especially the way it never singles out which kid died, so we see them as a family growing up when you could barely differentiate between them, as they're all just kids, though with telling differences that would seem to matter more to the storyteller than the audience, as the older kid (who obviously did NOT die, as he went on to later make this film) plays the lead.  What few mention is just how tearful this film is, as so much of this experience is filled with the most extreme forms of personal anguish, truly accentuated by the choices of music, where Malick outdoes himself here.  

Filmmaking as personal heartache is something new, as his (Malick's) heart aches not just for his brother, but for all mankind, as this is just one of millions and millions of deaths that take place over time, each of which has a similar framing story, where this is where we came from, this is what we're a part of, these are the fragmented pieces in our minds that hold us together, these isolated memories that have little meaning to anyone else which can bring me to my knees when I think of them, tormented forever, like an affliction, which is the pain of death and loss.  Nothing is so powerfully overwhelming than having to accept the finality of death.  

It's still early for me to think this rises above Days of Heaven or Badlands, which are like miniature works in comparison, but little tiny pieces of perfection, like a perfect moment.  Tree of Life contains not only perfect moments, but private indiscretions (stealing the negligee), horribly flawed humans on display (the father's temper), one of the most gracious and tender depictions of unconditional love ever seen (the mother), to a perfect depiction of original sin (shooting the brother), such an understated and subtle act that amounts to human transcendence (a brother's forgiveness), for this is the brother that eventually dies in the end.  His forgiveness carries all the internal personal anguish of Christ on the cross, as this is the dramatic power that gives our life meaning, being loved, accepted, and ultimately forgiven by those that love us, the ones that put up with all our shit during our lifetimes, all the power trips of being the older or the younger, witnesses to the experiments gone wrong, being on the receiving end of physical punishment and verbal harassments, the ones that put up with how horribly ugly and flawed we can get  in our own lifetimes.  Yet they still forgive us for all that crap?  And in the film, it's so subtle, it happens in the flicker of an eye, like it took this kid less than a nanosecond to make this decision, the ramifications of which resound throughout the universe of memory and recollections afterwards when he's dead and gone and can no longer speak for himself.  This is all we have.  This is what's left in our own lives, which replays and replays in so many different variations, but having been forgiven makes the world of difference.  Imagine replaying this same scenario and being filled with hate or rage or personal disgust, like being the victim of pedophilia or something.  Imagine what a difference that makes, living in a world with no forgiveness.  That would be von Trier's Melancholia, an empty shell by comparison, a world without love where humans ramble like blithering idiots, having no relevance, one to the other, as nothing matters.  

What a difference philosophical perspective makes - - all the difference in the world.

Another Post Addendum:
Just a point in general, but for a Malick movie, or von Trier's Melancholia, what you're watching on TV is simply not the same experience as sitting in a theater and getting the big picture, so to speak.  I know people have heard this discussion ad nauseum, but it's worth repeating for very specific films, ones that tend to be mentally and visually expansive.  They were created for a theater experience. 

I don't know if anyone ever went to a Pink Floyd concert, but it would not translate well if shown on TV.  I'm not saying it wouldn't be enjoyable, but it's not the same experience.  Opera doesn't translate well into TV or even the movie theaters.  It's designed to be heard live onstage.  

My point is if you are limiting the potential breadth of the experience by watching a movie on Netflix, then you can't expect to get the same out of it as those who had a completely different experience in a theater.   

Yeah, yeah, I know.  Theaters are obsolete, everyone watches at home nowadays.  But understand that all of those rave reviews coming out of Cannes or Venice or Berlin are written by viewers who witnessed the film in a theater.  How can you expect to have the same experience translated to a television set?   

The people who don't get Malick's films, or understand why there is such lavish praise, are the ones who expect the film to deliver in ways where they don't have to do all the work, expecting the director to do that for them, as this is what they're more accustomed to at the movies, where their reaction is like:  OK, show me the magic, where they're expecting the film to *do* something to them, where the audience basically sits there passively and waits for the movie to blow their mind.  And if their minds are not significantly blown away, the movie is a dud, like going on a ride at Disneyland, where movie watching is a form of thrill seeking to make up for the emptiness in people's lives.  

Putting it another way, I'd say Malick makes the kind of films that offer something for the viewer to figure out for themselves, where everyone walks out with a different impression, which is the beauty of it, literally hundreds of different reactions.  It's a different kind of movie experience than, say, Harry Potter, where everything is explained to you, and often over explained.  Malick makes puzzle films without ever revealing whodunnit.  All you get is a series of clues which you have to put together yourself.  I'd say Kubrick did much the same thing, and that single quality is what makes their films brilliant, not to mention timeless.

While Malick's films are visually extravagant, that's only a small part of how they can affect an audience, where different people bring different experiences into the movie theater with them.  War films, for instance, affect people who have experienced war differently than those who haven't.  Not saying the experience couldn't be profound in each case, but the perspective is different, as it becomes more personal.  Malick films are the same way.  Those that feel a personal connection are not looking for each and every shot or sequence to have meaning, they're looking at the overall experience, where part of the pleasure is viewing a subject through the eyes and experiences of someone else, putting yourself in someone else's shoes, where yes the author/director or the screenplay matter.  Yes, we have similarities, common memories, but how each of us perceives the significance of those memories is ultimately what matters and turns an otherwise common or ordinary experience into a great work of art.  Crime and Punishment is not remembered for the actual crime committed, the kind of thing we see on the TV news reports each and every day, but is significant due to the singularly personal and unique way that he experienced the haunting aftereffects of his act.  

Malick's film reverberates with the death of a child, where he attempts to give meaning to that life by having the memory echo endlessly through the vast universe, where in memory he never dies, but I imagine the film works best by those who are actually haunted by the personal effects of death, where those reverberations in their own lives have been given a different form and meaning by the very nature of the stream of conscious film expression. 
Why does a final image have to mean so much more than all the preceding images?  I don't think that's how Malick sees it, and I doubt our last breath in life will be any more profound or meaningful than all the preceding moments we had in our lives.  Malick is looking at it all - - not a single moment.  Reducing one's life to a final single moment and placing so much meaning to that moment is missing everything that came before.  It's all inclusive.  I think Malick's very ordinariness in his finale adds a touch of final realism to the film, as people don't go eloquently and gracefully with big finishes.  Most leave this earth with a whimper, dying from untreated medical maladies, long protracted illnesses or from senseless acts. Why should the final moment carry all the meaning?  It's everything that comes before that matters.