Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review: The Sunset Limited

The setting: A dingy apartment in a not-particularly nice neighborhood in New York City.  The characters: Two men--one black, one white--with diametrically opposed views on life, sitting at a dinner table.  The plot:  They have an argument.
The Sunset Limited is a film made for HBO, directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and starring Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.  They are the only two people we ever see.  The script is written by Cormac McCarthy, arguably our greatest living writer, adapting his own play.  It is about the fundamental questions of life, of religion, of purpose, and despite never leaving the one-room apartment, it is one of the most thrilling films of the year.
Jones plays a professor (referred to in the credits simply as White) who is suicidally depressed, and indeed has just come from attempting to throw himself in front of a train.  Jackson plays the Bible-thumping ex-con (called Black) who prevented Jones from jumping and has brought him back to his apartment in an attempt to convince him not to do it again.  The two men are as opposite as they can possibly be: pessimist and optimist, atheist and born-again Christian.  One wants to die, the other to live.  Jones is not only an atheist, but a man who sees the entire world as evil worthless, perceiving no meaning or hope anywhere, and wallowing in his despair.  Jackson is not only a believer, but a strongly evangelical one who apparently preaches to just about anyone he meets.  Even the small heresies he admits to--a general disbelief in original sin, and a suggestion of the perfectability of man--emphasize his positive philosophy, differentiating him from fundamentalism or dogmatic Calvinism.  Jackson aims to prove to Jones that life is worth living, that he is loved by God, that the world is a place of beauty that ought to be valued.  You may think the deck is stacked pretty steep in his favor, but in truth the outcome is very much in doubt.  This is the battle for two men’s souls, and there’s no telling who will win.
Some argue that a one-location film like this can never be truly cinematic.  If by “cinematic” you mean wide vistas and lots of movement, that’s true.  But if what you mean is an absorbing film shot with intelligent, elegant use of the camera that  maintains interest and avoids visual fatigue, then this film is most certainly cinematic in the best sense.  It is certainly more cinematic than the similar (and also brilliant) My Dinner With Andre, where things are most chopped up into shot-reverse shots between two men talking at a restaurant.  Here there is more space around the two men, allowing both the camera and the characters more room to move.  The shots can shift from intimate back-and-forths to swooping, spinning movements that heighten the drama and excite the eyes.  (If I’m being perfectly honest, I’ll admit there were one or two shots which seemed awkwardly/distractingly pointed and noticeable, but that’s probably just me because I think about these things.)  The use of color and light is also highly creative, using oranges and shadowed greens to suggest a trashy ghetto but still evoke some beauty and vibrancy.  The soundtrack is filled with offscreen voices and sound effects, constantly emphasizing the world outside and serving to both isolate the characters and situate them in an identifiable location from which they will leave at the end of the night.  This is not Jones’ first time around the block directing, and he demonstrates ample skill in the staging of the whole production.
Nevertheless, this is still a film of a stage play, and the ultimate author has to be Cormac McCarthy.  I have read McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, No Country for Old Men, and about two thirds of Cites of the Plain.  I plan to have all of the latter, Outer Dark, The Road, and Blood Meridian read by the end of next year.  The Sunset Limited seems to me to be concerned with the ultimate theme of all his work: the problem of evil.  How do we deal with a world so irreparably violent and corrupt?  Each of his characters attempts to deal with this fact in their own way, crafting their own codes and beliefs to protect themselves, but it’s a dangerous world and their codes might not be enough.  I do not know his personal beliefs (he gives few interviews), but it seems like it would be hard to write Sunset Limited if he were not a Christian at some point in his life.  Based on his other writings, I would be very surprised if he still was.
The film is thrilling because it does two things movies rarely do: It tells without showing, forcing us to imagine instead of receiving pictures straight through our eyes, and it features a sustained argument about actual issues, allowing us to evaluate each character’s position on its own merits.  In most films the rule is show, don’t tell, and that is generally a good idea for movies with plot--but a movie featuring only people talking has its own kind of openness, a scope not limited by a budget but as boundless as thought and conversation can be.  Also in most films, arguments are predetermined and short, featuring one character who is absolutely right and another who is stupid for not listening to him.  Or else, the characters argue only about themselves, and what they say reveals psychology and motivation, serving the story but offering allowing the actual substance of the argument to dissipate in favor of character beats.  Even in something like 12 Angry Men the debate is really all about revealing the various hang-ups of the jury members.  Here, the characters’ personalities and back stories are certainly important, but their positions on the issues are even more so, and it’s intellectually stimulating to watch and listen in a way we almost never see.
Jones and Jackson are both among our finest actors, and here they give two of their very best performances, Jackson especially acting with more soul than he has in years.  These characters might have seemed overly schematic on the page, the stereotypes of “Black” being an ex-con who speaks in strong Afro-American dialect and is the more talkative, funny, and spiritual of the two, crushing down the debate and preventing the reader from relating.  On film, though, the two actors bring their characters to life, and the words pour out of their mouths with an enthusiasm and power not often matched.  While they debate, this little room is the center of the world, the only order amidst the chaos.  An epic battle is playing out, and it will determine whether or not the chaos is kept at bay for another hour.

Rating: 9/10 stars.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: The Mill and the Cross

Then began I to dream a marvellous dream,
That I was in a wilderness wist I not where.
As I looked to the east right into the sun,
I saw a tower on a toft worthily built;
A deep dale beneath a dungeon therein,
With deep ditches and dark and dreadful of sight
A fair field full of folk found I in between,
Of all manner of men the rich and the poor,
Working and wandering as the world asketh
--Piers Plowman by William Langland
This is a difficult film to review.  It is strange and beautiful and unique, but also a little remote and perhaps too subtle for its own good.  It felt, to me, like it could have been a masterpiece and wasn't, but I am not sure that I wouldn't feel different after a second viewing.  I have often found second viewings of films that I find challenging but remote to be far more emotionally involving and satisfying than the first viewing. 

Written by Michael Francis Gibson and co-written and directed by Lech Majewski, The Mill and the Cross is the story of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his masterpiece, The Way to Calvary.  It is important to get a couple facts straight about this going in, or you will find yourself completely lost.  Bruegel painted in what is now the Netherlands (and was then Flanders) in the 16th century.  At the time of this painting, the Protestant Reformation was still in full swing, and the Low Countries had a reputation for being open. But Philip II, ruler of Spain, the Netherlands, and much more, came to power, and, as defender of the Catholic Church, began harshly cracking down on any reformist preachers and sympathizers.  This inquisition is what the painting is really about, placing the Crucifixion amidst the people and politics of the times, and depicting the soldiers dragging Christ to be crucified as Spanish.  It is unclear whether Bruegel himself was Protestant or Catholic, but he certainly seems to have opposed the Spanish police measures.
The film is not, however, about the making of the painting.  It shows Bruegel (Rutger Hauer) sketching scenes, but it never shows him actually painting.  The process is not what interests the film.  Nor is it a detailed historical portrait of the times and issues involved.  Instead, the film seems to take place inside the painting, telling the stories of ever person pictured over the course of the day the painting depicts.  There are only three speaking parts:  Bruegel, his patron Nicolaes Jonghelnik (Michael York), and Mary the Mother of Christ (Charlotte Rampling).  They first two periodically give speeches about the painting and the political context, while Mary contemplates the approaching death of her son.  While Hauer endows his lines with a certain gravity and wisdom, the other lines mostly come off as stilted and awkward, interesting in the abstract but not dramatically compelling.  Fortunately, the dialogue is very limited.  Outside of the few speaking interludes, it’s practically a silent film.

The film has been rendered in a complex process of live action, green-screening, and CGI backgrounds layered over each other dozens of times to create the texture of the original painting.  Colors pop off the screen, and foreground and background   shift in strange, surreal ways.  It is often astonishingly beautiful, and it looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen.  However, one gets used to the look of thing fairly quickly, and if it had nothing else worth recommending it would be little more than a curiosity.  What matters is how the film juxtaposes art and life, and what this juxtaposition ultimately reveals.  To borrow a term from another internet commenter, there is a diegetic blurriness to the film, meaning it shows both the creation of the painting and the what the canvas depicts at the same time, mirroring and reproducing the way the painting imagines both the death of Christ and the Counter-Reformation crackdown intersecting in the same artistic space.

Over the course of a single day, we see life roll by, as various people arise in the morning, take their wares to market, interact with each other, watch the executions,  and eventually go home.  At the end they join hands in a dance of death that recalls Bergman’s Seventh Seal, though the image is taken from the upper right corner of the painting.  The vertiginous foreshortening of the frame, with an infinite background suddenly made as close as any of the characters, mirrors the radical perspective shifts as the viewer sees first the painting’s creator and then his smallest creations, a shift that also suggests the religious juxtaposition of the mundane and the divine, mortal and immortal.  The wandering lives of the dozens of characters can feel shapeless and test the viewer’s patience, but the philosophical ideas behind it all are highly provocative and affirming.  At one point, Bruegel says that his painting “must be large enough to hold everything,” and that ability to include both the high and the low in his art is dramatized and analyzed here especially.  This quality is a peculiarly medieval trait, despite the fact that Bruegel was a man of the Renaissance/Reformation era.  One can see it in medieval literature like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the mingling of the sacred and profane, or in Piers Plowman, where the narrator can telescope from a view of a tower or a single man, zooming into that object with a word and discovering whole valleys, multitudes, and worlds within.  The film achieves a similar feat by juxtaposing a young peasant couple making love or a peddler dancing and drunkenly leering with a view from above on a mountain that suggests the perspective of God, “the great miller of heaven, grinding out the bread of life.”  This is a rare quality, almost unheard of in today’s art and literature, both hugely ambitious and warmly compassionate to the smallest person and thing.  The only recent film I can think of that attempts something similar is The Tree of Life, but that of course has none of the medieval flavor.

However, as I mentioned the film often feels shapeless and meandering.  It does not demand your emotional involvement, it observes and offers commentary, inviting analysis only if one is willing to put in the effort.  There is complex symbolism bound up in Bruegel’s painting, and if nothing else the film ought to make you appreciate the genius of the artist and his work.  The Way to Calvary encompasses a whole world, suggesting all of life and the Biblical drama of salvation inside its 4 foot by 5 foot frame.  There is the Tree of Life on the left and the Tree of Death on the right, and in between are the humble multitudes going about their business, living and dying in ignorance of the great drama playing out among them.  For in the center of the frame is Christ, one Man among many, but upon whom all else rests.  It is the achievement of the painting--and of all the greatest art, the film suggests--to capture the ultimate truths of life in a single image of such surpassing beauty that the audience is transfixed, made to know something which had heretofore been obscured.  
In the end, perhaps the film can be taken as an illustration W.H. Auden’s famous poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” itself concerned with another Bruegel painting:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!!

Yeah, it hasn't been very exciting around here, and I'm not actually even posting this on Christmas, but here's wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday season!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Recent Movies: 50/50, Moneyball, The Ides of March

An excellent young cast mines comedy and tragedy beautifully in this film about a 27-year-old who gets cancer.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues to be one of my favorite current actors, and Seth Rogen is actually quite warm and believable as his best friend trying to help him through his illness (a role he apparently played in real life with the film's screenwriter, Will Reiser).  And I think I'm mildly in love with Anna Kendrick, despite the fact her therapist character does things here that would probably get her fired in the real world.  The movie is obviously funny, but it's also very moving--there are so many little things it gets right, from the shock of learning of illness to the resistance to pity from certain sources to the way nobody ever seems to know how to talk about it to the trepidation before surgery.  The pain and fear is genuine and deep; there is real humanity here.  Basically I just loved this movie.

I will say that looking back on it, it does seem rather limited--apparently such a confrontation with his mortality did not cause the main character to question the purpose of his life that much or wonder about the existence of an afterlife.  He hardly has anyone to reach out to either--just 3 or 4 friends and relatives.  That makes it very small and intimate, but also strangely closed off.  The character's response is depression and apathy, not powerful soul-searching or determined resistance.  I guess I understand that, though.  The prospect of death does not always lead to exciting, movie-movie action and melodrama, nor does illness often open one up to the wider world.  It may accentuate how brief and meaningless your life has really been.  It is only after such an experience, perhaps, that the search for meaning can truly begin, and the movie's last line suggests that:  "What now?"

Rating: 8/10 stars

"Like The Social Network for baseball."  The comparison is trite but apt.  Co-written by Aaron Sorkin, the film has a similar sense of insider's knowledge of back room deals, high-speed business decisions, and brilliant insight being put to forceful use to change the way the world works.  Both are based on true stories, but drop characters and fictionalize things quite a bit in order to explore themes more closely.  The cinematography and color scheme are also similar, with lots of dark greens and deep browns in shadowed rooms (though Wally Pfister's work here lacks the precision and rigor Fincher brought to Network).  The most thrilling scene in the film is distinctly Sorkin-esque (whether he wrote it or not): When Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) is attempting to acquire a new player who can sew up his new system and ensure his team's success, but must work three deals at once with other team managers, calling back and forth between them at high speed while he debates his assistant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) on which players to offer in order to make the trade.  There is a palpable excitement here, and a fascinating expose on how these kinds of deals work, despite the fact it's all set in a tiny office with two guys talking on the phone and looking at charts; we never see the other managers, only here their voices.

Moneyball is not the masterpiece Social Network was, but it's still pretty darn good.  I never follow baseball (I'm more of a football/basketball kind of guy), but I was fascinated here by all the ins and outs of the strategy, and thought about it for days afterward, trying to figure out its implications for professional sports in general.  This is a film fascinated by ideas, the way new ones come in, the way they're resisted, the way they eventually cause change.  But it's also grounded in some strong emotional territory, with a wonderful movie star performance by Brad Pitt, who creates in Beane a character we feel for and want to root for, despite the fact he's a baseball manager who's making millions of dollars a year and looks like Brad Pitt.  The movie knows how to play with the sports movie genre, depicting an underdog team that manages to surprise opponents and bring its fanbase to life, but it is not tied to formula and repeatedly upends expectations. Both this and 50/50 are the kind of films Hollywood should be making: smart, moving, movies for adults.

Rating: 8/10 stars

The Ides of March
I had hoped this would be a third straight film I could add to that list of Hollywood-should-be-making, but unfortunately it was not to be.  Ides of March is a well-made film--well-directed by George Clooney, well-acted by a top-notch cast--and it's fairly compelling to watch.  But it has several plot holes, or at least plot weaknesses, and it's insights into politics are the same tired things we've heard so many times before.  It would have been great if this film could have offered the same behind-the-scenes excitement and insider's knowledge that Moneyball offered for baseball, but alas it cannot.  The way political campaigns are run now is a cutthroat, high-stakes game, and while the film knows this, it is disappointingly uninteresting in showing us the ins and outs of how the game is played, instead attempting to teach us the tired lesson that the game is dark and crooked.  I had hoped from the way Clooney's presidential candidate is set up as an Obama figure, the film would have something to say about the dangers of putting too much faith in a politician-as-savior.  (Clooney spends much of his screen time delivering speeches to the audience, espousing ultra-liberal positions on a diverse range of issues--including declaring that within ten years of taking office, no new cars with internal combustion engines would be made in the US, which made me and a couple other people giggle.) The film does touch on this, but really all it has to say is: don't do it, they're all corrupt.

Evan Rachel Wood's character is the weak link, I think, going from seductress to scared little girl in seconds, and acting illogically the whole time.  But the whole film is compromised by its utter cynicism.  Not a single person in this film, for all their political ideals, ever acts ethically.  There is a complete lack of moral compass among these politicos, and that is all the film has to offer.  Fear for your republic, for those who run it are not of the human race.  They have left it long behind them, in the pursuit of power.

Rating: 6/10 stars

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: J. Edgar

Biopics are strange things.  When done correctly, they can illuminate a historical figure's life and character with real insight, increasing the figure's impact and influence in the process.  This is rare, though.  Most often, biopics end up being long, dry, bloodless affairs, desperately attempting to be sympathetic to their subject while not denying his/her character flaws.  They are often handicapped by their wide scope--how many other films ever attempt to cover a character's entire lifespan?  The most effective biopics are nearly always those which approach their subject in the most creative manner--whether pinpointing one particular point in the character's life to focus on (Lawrence of Arabia, Patton), tossing factual accuracy out the window (Young Mr. Lincoln, Amadeus), or attempting to capture character or impact through alternative, impressionistic means (I’m Not There).
Unfortunately, J. Edgar attempts none of these things.  Instead, it attempts to show every major event in FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover's entire 46 year career, heavily narrating it throughout as an elderly Hoover in the Sixties dictates his self-serving memoirs.  As a result, the film is virtually devoid of a dramatic arc, and forced to rely on Hoover's (playedby Leonardo DiCaprio) relationship with right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).  The film portrays them as devoted romantic partners who nevertheless remain chaste out of Hoover's fear and hatred of homosexuality.  This is a potentially controversial move as neither of them ever admitted to such a love, but it is based on fairly strong conjecture by many not all) historians and does not seem unjustified.  What's wrong with placing this at the center of the plot is that it attempts to demand our attention based on a lot of sublimated signals within a large historical narrative, then awkwardly shoehorns in emotional confrontations between the two men, including a sort of fistfight-cum-lover's quarrel which becomes downright ridiculous and laugh-inducing.  Their relationship is never believable and hardly ever sympathetic--only in old age does their come any real tenderness (though Armie Hammer's make-up is so ridiculous it's hard to take anything he says seriously).  Strangely, Clyde becomes something like the voice of reason in the film, telling Hoover when he's wrong and detailing his character flaws.  I guess this is somehow supposed to relate to the tension in the film between criticizing Hoover and admiring him, but it comes off as ham-handed talking-to-the-audience moralizing instead of any sort of honest moral inquiry.
This is a shame, because a life of J. Edgar Hoover, one of the two or three most hated and controversial Americans of the 20th century (right after Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, two men the movie quotes Hoover as despising despite certain ideological similarities), and his story is an ideal place to question issues like the extent of federal authority, rights of privacy, police authority and brutality, and the conflict between freedom and security.  The movie is at its best when detailing the exploits of Hoover's early career.  Hoover forcefully makes his case for the necessity of a highly-trained, well-funded federal police force in the face of threats like anarchist and Bolshevik bombings in the wake of WWI, prohibition-era gangsters, and bank robbers/spree-killers like John Dilinger, Baby Face Nelson and Bonnie and Clyde.  If the film had confined itself to this era, simply chronicling the formation and rise of the FBI Hoover's role in that, it might have been much better.  The 1919 Red Scare era is an especially poorly remembered historical period, and the film could have done much to illuminate it.  I suppose that with Michael Mann's Public Enemies and HBO's Boardwalk Empire so current, though, the filmmakers decided to avoid too much rehashing of Prohibition-era gangsters.  

The most interesting episode involves the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and the role of the FBI in catching the kidnapper (though doubt remains about whether he acted alone and/or was the one really responsible for the death of the child).  This is the one place we are given detail about how the FBI worked and Hoover's embrace of new scientific methods of forensics to improve police work.  But even here much of the story is glossed over through voiceovers, with only a few of the high points actually filmed.  I am fascinated by historical events, processes, and turning points like this, and if the film had become more of a historical essay, attempting to elucidate certain trends and define the historical moment (a la a more factual Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), then the narration would have been justified, even welcome, and the movie as a whole might have become far more thought-provoking.  Instead, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black really wants this to be an in-depth character study of an enigmatic and tortured figure, and the narration of past events seems mostly to be meant to let us inside Hoover's worldview.   But we never grow close to him, and the reluctance of the film to make too many strict judgments, attempting to leave Hoover somewhat unexplained and enigmatic, instead ends up coming off muddled and uninteresting.  Even the sensationalized aspects of the story are unexciting:  The very dubious (even scurrilous) accusations that Hoover enjoyed dressing up like a woman are here dramatized as a weird expression of grief at his mother's death, where he pulls on her necklace and dress in an effort to remember her.  The moment is weirdly reminiscent of Norman Bates, but it's played low-key and semi-sympathetically, and it's not clear how this is supposed to fit in with the accusations--did this apparent one-time-thing end up becoming a habit?  Did someone see him like this--alone in his room--and spread the word?  As far as I can tell the scene is pure fantasy, but it's drawn out an agonizingly long time as if it reveals some dark secret or key to Hoover's identity.  (And I'm not even mentioning the egregious use of an Eleanor Roosevelt letter as some sort of exemplar of the beauties of Hoover and Tolson's love at the end.)
All this said, Black's script could (with a few tweaks) have been made into a moderately solid movie if it had been directed well.  But Clint Eastwood films the thing in his habitual color palette of shadowy blues and grays, a style that worked in Mystic River and Letters From Iwo Jima but has grown remarkably stale and trying over the course of the last 8 movies.  Eastwood has never been anyone's idea of a visual stylist, but he has managed to muster a certain warm, pictorial beauty a couple times in the past (Unforgiven, Bridges of Madison County). This washed-out, blue-gray scale thing has become just lazy though, not to mention rather ugly and boring.  The plot may have been sluggish but it could still have been interesting if Eastwood had brought a fraction of the flair that, say, Scorsese brought to The Aviator (another, far better, DiCaprio biopic about a major 1920s-1940s figure).  Instead, everything looks the same and everything feels the same, and it just drags you down.
With a cast and director and subject like this, this movie should have been a home run.  Indeed, the idea seemed to connect strongly with audiences--I saw it on Saturday night with a sold-out crowd. Unfortunately, though, it's an intermittently interesting muddle that's likely to disappoint just about everybody.

Rating: 4/10 Stars

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

First Thoughts on The Tree of Life

What follows are my initial notes on The Tree of Life, written down after each of my four theater viewings of the film (a record for me).  I’ve edited them a bit to be more coherent to outside readers, since they were initially intended only for myself.  They mostly deal with all the little details that I noticed anew each time I saw it, and helped me remember the sequencing for when I finally get around to writing about it.  These notes would most likely have been more useful if I had put them while the film was still in theaters--with it out on DVD, it’s much easier for people to check things and get all the details of the film straight--but I’m posting them here anyway.  Why?  Well, it’s my blog and I want to, so there.
*  *  *  *
First Viewing:
Wow.  Well, . . . Huh.  Okay.  So . . .
I Need To See That Again!
The closest thing I can describe it as is 2001: A Space Odyssey crossed with Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.  But that doesn’t really cover it.
And I’m not sure about that ending--not as good as The New World’s, that’s for sure.
But still.  Whoah.
*  *  *  *
Second Viewing:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Articles on The Tree of Life

In the last few years, certain films have captured the attention of writers across the blogosphere and inspired massive amounts of in-depth criticism and analysis.  Last year, that film was David Fincher's The Social Network; the year before it was Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.   I think the record for number of words spilled on the internet about a film, though, has already been seized by Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, even before the end-of-year lists and awards season, where it will undoubtedly be feted even more.  I think this is partly because the film has inspired discussion by many bloggers, journalists, and commentators beyond the usual movie bloggers and critics who can be counted on to review most of the major movies each year.  There's so much, in fact that it's rather an embarrassment of riches, making it easy to find reviews, but perhaps more difficult to find really valuable writing that offers new perspectives.  I decided to round up the best criticism and analysis I've found about the film and post it all here.

*  *  *  *

Initial reviews from Cannes were divided.  Some critics I respect, like J. Hoberman, Drew McWeeney, Richard Schickel, and Stephanie Zacharek all called it a failure, though for slightly different reasons.  Fortunately, though, others disagreed, notably Roger Ebert and Xan Brooks.  Ebert's blog post is especially worth reading, as one of the most eloquent meditations on the film yet written.  Most reviews were more mixed, like Mike D'Angelo, Manohla Dargis, and Todd McCarthy, who all acknowledge it as spectacular but voice certain misgivings about its overall success. The Notebook at MUBI did a stellar round-up of critical reactions, and I'm going to overlap with it a bit, so go there if you haven't to find the first reviews.  It seems also worthwhile to mention here Robert Koehler's review, since it lays out a from-the-bottom-up critique of the film and its entire worldview that inspired quite a few rebuttals.  I think Koehler starts from false premises about the nature of the film's objective, but it was quite influential in the first few weeks after Cannes.

The most interesting reviews were nearly all those that admitted doubt about the ultimate meaning of the film and offered personal ruminations on it.  Glenn Heath, Jr. at The House Next Door is a good example of this.  The House Next Door, practically founded to promote Malick's The New World, had several good posts on the film.  Nick Schager discusses Malick's fascination with the beginnings of things here.  And Dan Callahan offers his first impressions of the film as constant movement here.

But one thing I noticed about the reviews out of Cannes was how rushed and confused they often were.  The chaos of the biggest film festival in the world is no place to attempt to analyze and understand a picture of such immensity and ambition, and the difficulty of doing so after only one viewing would arise again and again.  Even when the film opened Stateside, regular reviewers often found themselves confused about aspects of plot and detail, suggesting that the only thing really worth trusting from any review based on a single viewing is the general like/dislike impression.  Further analysis of the meaning of the film is/was usually hampered by the overwhelming abundance of detail in the film and the challenge of getting it all straight in one's mind before making firm arguments.  I can't tell how you many reviews I read where the writers were completely unsure of which of the brothers died, whether the death was in Vietnam, elsewhere, or even World War II, if a brother dies in the pool drowning scene, whether it was Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien that Jack sees arguing through a window, whose slip Jack steals, and most importantly, what in the world the ending means.  The later reviews and articles that come after repeat viewings are the most edifying.

*  *  *  *
In the traditional news media:
A.O. Scott sees the film as rooted in the Romantic literary tradition.

Michael Atkinson at Sight & Sound is unimpressed, but assumes--rightly, if condescendingly--that Malick fans will love it.

Andrew O'Hehir says, "If the cosmic astronaut God-baby from the end of “2001″ came back to earth and made a movie, this would be it. (And we wouldn’t understand what it was trying to tell us, either.)"

Matt Zoller Seitz, one of the premier Malick devotees on the web, presents a guide for watching the film here.

Nick Pinkerton at The Village Voice says, "Better than a masterpiece—whatever that is—The Tree of Life is an eruption of a movie."

"Malick daringly tries to capture not just memories but the feelings aroused by the act of memory—indeed, to represent subjectivity itself, by way of the cinema," says Richard Brody at The New Yorker.

David Denby, also writing in The New Yorker, says exactly what I feel, that the film is "a considerable enlargement of the rhetoric of cinema. Years from now, the movie will be remembered as a freshening, even a reinvention, of film language."

Geoffrey O'Brien has a fairly magnificent essay on the film in The New York Review of Books--which, in itself, must be rare:  I don't think the Review of Books publishes many movie reviews.  The essay covers Malick's whole career, brings in philosophy, and manages to evocatively describe Malick's technique into the bargain.

Michael Tully of Filmmaker Magazine writes that "I assumed that my other concerns would be exacerbated on a subsequent viewing—namely the lack of “three-dimensional characters” and the absence of any “true drama”—yet this time around, those concerns were rendered irrelevant. One can’t understand a language if they aren’t listening to it properly."

Patricia Doucey at LFM writes, "As always, Malick captures his audience with a whisper."

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In the major film criticism sites:
At MUBI, Daniel Kasman's initial review describes the film as a "sublime rush of consciousness."  Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's article here is beautifully written and complex, though not wholly positive, and definitely deserves a read.  Joe McCulloch also has an article on MUBI, but his is a bit too mocking, and I'm not as much of a fan.

Reverse Shot, another publication which practically made its name with its astute celebration of The New World, devoted a whole week to publishing articles on The Tree of Life, every one of them excellent.  First up was Chris Wisniewski on the Known Unknowns presented in the film.  Then Genevieve Yue on how the film contains its own universe, a Garden of the World.  Michael Koresky is fascinated by all the small moments of life and growing up in Design for Living.  Keith Uhlich loves the dinosaur scene and believes it holds the key to the movie in The Space Between Spaces.  And Jeff Reichart relates the film to Darwin and the evolution of the cinema in Children of the Evolution.

In an excellent essay called "Terrence Malick: Moving Beyond the Threshold," Joe McElhaney investigates the way Malick depicts walking, running, and feet in his films.

This roundtable at CinemaScope is probably a must-read for all the different people and perspectives it includes, but it disappointed me that so much of it was negative.  Far too many of the "sophisticated" critics seem to dismiss this film as embarrassing and silly.  Tom Charity's last remark ("What is it Jan Sterling says in Ace in the Hole (1951)? 'I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.'") struck me as one of the most snide and depressing things I've read in a long time.  How tragic to have such a visceral reaction against any hint of the sacred.

Adrian Martin has a terrific essay at Fipresci on the occasion of giving The Tree of Life the organization's Grand Prix 2011.

At Hammer to Nail, Michael Nordine writes of fathers and sons and their place in the grand scheme of the cosmos of Malick.  And Noah Buschel thinks the film is unlike any other ever made.  Michael Ryan also discusses watching the film in both film and digital prints, and what the differences are.

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In the traditional movie blogosphere:
"I’ve been spending the past month—literally, the entire month—trying to figure out how to construct a definitive review of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, said Adam Zanzie at Icebox Movies in July, and I know he feels.  It's taken me this long to even get lists of other reviews up, much less my own!

Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy writes a couple of wonderful reviews here and here.

David H. Schleicher offers a reverent meditation on the film at The Schleicher Spin.

The ever-enthusiastic Sam Juliano compares the film to The Fountain (which I disagree with) and declares the film a masterpiece (which I agree with) at his wonderful site Wonders in the Dark.

Leo Goldsmith very eloquently explores Malick's flashback structure and the way the film represents memory at Not Coming to a Theater Near You.

Hugo Stiglitz at the Movies has a very personal review of the film here.

Roderick Heath, one of the best writers in the blogosphere, has an excellent review up at Ferdy on Films which is well worth reading (despite the fact he gets Jack's brothers mixed up).

The End of Cinema blog presents a rare, long-form review for this film that is notably personal.

The Cahiers d'Illusion gives a good discussion of Heidegger in relation to the film here.

Jake Cole at Not Just Movies offers a powerfully hyperbolic acclamation of the film here, where he also argues that the film has a completely pantheist view of the world.  I disagree, but I am still envious of his ability to craft a review and deep knowledge of cinema and art history to rely on.  We're the same age, but his skills in these areas are leagues beyond mine.

Another blogger I'm envious of is Carson Lund at Are the Hills Going to March Off?, also roughly my age, and also a far better writer and more sophisticated thinker than I.  His review of the film is typically excellent, though I find his suggestion that the film means whatever you want it to mean rather off-putting.

Kartina Richardson has a beautifully written and evocative post on the film's dealing with memory and personal experience at her blog, Mirror.

Bilge Ebiri has a beautiful, moving account of his first viewing of the film here, at his blog They Live By Night.  He also has follow-up posts here, here, here, here, and here.  That last is actually a fascinating and informative article on the editing of the film, derived from interviews with several of the editors, and replete with surprising nuggets.

Billy Stevenson at A Film Canon has a typically brief and incredibly dense review of the film here, every sentence, of which there are too few, packed with thought and meaning.

Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard have another one of their epic "Conversations" about the film here.  They also discuss the rest of Malick's oeuvre here.  Their discussions are always excellent and well worth reading.

And here, Mat Viola at Notes of a Film Fanatic, attempts to completely destroy the entire worldview behind the film (and, in my opinion, fails completely).

This review (at a blog simply entitled "Reviewing Tree of Life") is very long and strange.  It seems to be a work in progress, as it has been changed a couple times since I first found it.  I don't think the author is a native English speaker, and the article has numerous misspellings and grammatical mistakes.  The conclusions he draws about the film's message and Malick's intentions are, I think, pretty loopy, discounting any religious/metaphysical/philosophical interpretation and making it into some sort of solipsistic exercise about itself and other movies.  And yet, and yet, it's still worth reading because he finds all sorts of fascinating connections between various shots and scenes within the film itself, with Malick's other films, and with the films of other great directors like Hitchock, Welles, and Bresson.  So take everything with a grain of salt, but read for a provocative essay that is capable of letting you see the film from new angles.

Niles Schwartz at The Niles Files here offers up what I think may be the single most ambitious and rewarding analysis of the film in the blogosphere.  He also investigates Malick's other films, starting with Badlands, and proceeding through Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World.  Actually, these essays are in a series, and you should really start with the first one, but they're all so long and thoughtful that you can be forgiven for skipping to the one most interesting for you.  Niles approaches the films from a philosophical perspective but not does not attempt to force them into a particular (i.e., Heideggerian) philosophical framework, instead examining how each of the films asks questions and endeavors to leave its audience with questions about what being-in-the-world really means.  He brings in Heidegger, Emerson, Whitman, Proust, and William Blake, and manages to cover just about everything so throughly that on the whole, I almost wonder what I'm doing writing my own thoughts down when they're so inferior.

One thing I noticed about the best reviews here:  They nearly all involve a personal account, whether of childhood memory or recent experience, that lets us understand why the film means so much to them.  The film almost requires this in order to present an honest review, and incredibly, it appears capable of eliciting strong frissons of memory and recognition in countless people, something of which I don't think any other movie is capable.

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In the religious press:

The reaction to the film in devout Christian circles has been interestingly diverse.  Brett McCracken's review at Christianity Today declares the film a masterpiece.  (Though reading the comments can be pretty depressing, with people declaring the evils of Hollywood left and right.)  At the magazine's sister publication, Books and Culture, Kristen Scharold rather hyperbolically declared that "America has found its prophet, or at least a director of astonishing rank."  On the other hand, Kevin Collins at First Things claimed the film, while beautiful, was lacking in any real Christianity and was therefore rather useless.  (Though the brilliant David Bentley Hart pushed back against that judgment in his blog at the same publication.)

Nick Olson at Christ and Pop Culture meditates on the themes of "grace" and "home" in the film here.

The folks at The Other Journal (An Intersection of Theology and Culture) have a series of three reviews on the film up.  One on "Nature, Grace, and the Siren Song of Nostalgia," another on "A Son of Tears," and the last on "The Tree of Life and the Lamb of God."  The first is critical, but the latter two are excellent thematic explorations ("A Son of Tears" especially), both involving terrific quotes from G.K. Chesterton.  Recommended.

The group blog Filmwell has a few different posts about the film, including one comparing it with Biblical theology, one about experiencing the film as a father, and one about what Malick teaches us about cinema.

Jay Michaelson at Religion Dispatches explores the film's theological context here.  Also at RD, S. Brent Plate argues that the film is really offering a third, compromise way through life exemplified by Jack's borther R.L.

Jeffrey Overstreet, an influential Christian film critic and a major fan of The New World, offers up his personal and mixed assessment at Image magazine.  And the good folks at the Arts & Faith discussion boards have a thread on the film.  The real meat of the discussion starts on about Page 9, but it goes on for pages after that; so if that's your thing, there's quite a lot interesting takes on the film there, along with provocative interpretations of some of the symbolism.

Alissa Wilkinson at Q Ideas sees the film as a reenactment of the Fall of Man.

Christopher Page, and Anglican priest from Canada, has an excellent account of his first viewing at his blog In a Spacious Place, here.  (Read to the bottom, one of the comments there is very beautiful and moving.)  He then followed up that post with no less than twenty (20) posts on The Tree of Life, and several others on Malick's other films.  I'm not going to link to each of them, but they should all be indexed at this link.

The Journal of Religion & Film has a typically thorough review of the film here.

Liel Liebovitz at Tablet thinks, quite fascinatingly, that the film is "an important and masterful work of art.  It's also the least Jewish film ever made."

And just for good measure, here's The American Muslim with a review that's mostly negative about the over-ambition of the project, but still recommends it as a worthwhile moral experience.

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This article, by Jon Baskin at The Point Magazine, is one of the very best articles on Malick that I have read, though it is confined to his first four films.  It says almost exactly what I think about Malick's perspective and central theme through his films: The ultimate thing he is trying to exemplify is a new way of looking at the world, one that sees "the glory," "all things shining," and the heroes of most of his films are the ones that display this ability most strongly.  I quibble with a few of his details, especially about Badlands, but still: a must-read essay.

Richard Neer has written an in-depth, scholarly, and complex analysis of the opening of The New World at

James A. Williams at PopMatters analyzes Malick's first four films in the context of "a career-long fascination with the archetypal narrative of a transformation from a state of innocence to one of experience." 

Matt Zoller Seitz has a series of video essays at Moving Image Source on Malick's first four films here, here, here, and here.  EDIT: And now, he has a terrific final essay on Tree of Life here.