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New York Film Festival 2013: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review

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New York Film Festival 2013: <em>The Secret Life of Walter Mitty</em> Review
New York Film Festival 2013: <em>The Secret Life of Walter Mitty</em> Review

There’s a good reason why James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has endured since its publication in The New Yorker in 1939: In its evocation of an utterly ordinary man retreating into his own private fantasies as an escape from numbing reality, Thurber hit upon a concept as simple as it is profoundly universal. It’s also an idea ripe for cinematic expansion, especially if you view cinema the way Ingmar Bergman once characterized the films of Andrei Tarkovsky: “When film is not a document, it is dream.”

For Ben Stiller, apparently, Thurber’s classic story is grist not for a sympathetic exploration of the universal human desires to dream and live, but to craft what eventually amounts to a totem to his own vanity. How else to explain its increasingly exasperating collapse into scene after scene that extols Mitty’s, and by extension Stiller’s own, heroic goodness?

Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Actor

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Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Actor
Oscar 2013 Nomination Predictions: Actor

Whether the reason boils down to Oscar politics or an overall lack of enthusiasm, it certainly looks like Joaquin Phoenix is about to be snubbed for his work in The Master, despite the mind-boggling excellence of his performance as Freddie Quell. From stature to facial contortions, Phoenix startlingly became someone else while tackling the film’s lead role, in a manner beyond the typical transformative acting that annually courts hyperbole. Without looking all that different beyond considerable weight loss, Phoenix adopted a whole new aura as the spiritually starved WWII vet, and spoke his lines with barks and snarls that seemed uncannily natural, as if a pit bull just happened to don Phoenix’s skin. The actor’s now-infamous dis of the Oscar process couldn’t have helped his chances, but it seems Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie has, in general, lost steam, its lack of a PGA nod being the most recent evidence. The man most likely to benefit from Phoenix’s misfortune is Bradley Cooper, whose turn in Silver Linings Playbook is frothy by comparison, but just the sort of crowd-pleasing lead performance Oscar loves. A likable actor, Cooper’s bound to be seen as triumphant for stretching beyond Hangover territory, and with the Academy increasingly honoring flexible comic stars (think Jonah Hill and Melissa McCarthy), his nomination should in fact be an easy get.

Venice Film Festival 2012: To the Wonder

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Venice Film Festival 2012: <em>To the Wonder</em>
Venice Film Festival 2012: <em>To the Wonder</em>

Can Terrence Malick’s dream-like film grammar resonate when set in the modern world? The contemporary scenes from the otherwise mesmerizing Tree of Life, featuring a pensive Sean Penn stumbling listlessly through a soulless corporate expanse, suggested not. It’s as if the enigmatic Texan’s cinema needs a light dusting of nostalgia to make it palatable, like toast needs butter. And sections of his new film, the present day-set To the Wonder, add credence to this theory.

An alternative name for the film could have been Scenes from a Marriage, if Malick’s increasingly radical narrative style traded in scenes. We follow shards of a rocky relationship with visuals taking the form of a lucid collage of askance glances and expressionistic camera twirls. Dialogue is used sparingly, replaced by ethereal voices whispered over a haunting orchestral soundtrack. Raven-haired free-spirit Marina (Olga Kurylenko) frolics on a train and around scenic French landmarks with her new American beau, Neil, who’s lantern jawed, taciturn, and, distractingly, played by Ben Affleck. Initially it’s bracing to see Malick’s images in a new context. Early vignettes on a Normandy beach that turns gelatinous when trod on and a honey lit stroll by the banks of the Seine, where the couple are joined by Marina’s 10-year-old daughter, Tatiana (Tatiana Chiline), feel box fresh. Things get a little familiar, however, when Neil asks Marina and Tatiana to follow him across the Atlantic to his Midwest homestead.

The Cleveland Orchestra: Bruckner: (R)evolution

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The Cleveland Orchestra: Bruckner: (R)evolution
The Cleveland Orchestra: Bruckner: (R)evolution

Among the many snatches of classical music Terrence Malick employs in The Tree of Life is a selection from the evocative opening of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. It’s used, if I remember correctly, twice in the film to underscore scenes of death: the family’s devastated reaction to the demise of one of Jack’s brothers; and later, the death that Jack witnesses of a child in the swimming pool. In Malick’s hands, that Mahler musical quote acquires a foreboding dimension, suggesting Jack’s growing spiritual doubt.

Though Malick’s style in his previous films has often suggested transcendentalist leanings in the way he views the world, the director’s latest vision suggests, perhaps more directly than ever before, an agnostic bent to go along with his obsessions with nature and man’s place in the world. If we’re to take Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a teenager and Sean Penn as an adult) to be Malick’s proxy in this film, then The Tree of Life suggests that Malick truly wants to believe in the God he’s raised to believe in since childhood, but that he’s experienced too much in his life for his belief to be as unconditional as he wishes. What’s the point of being good, young Jack asks out loud at one point, if there’s no god to watch over him?

The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part II: The Tree of Life

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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part II: The Tree of Life
The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part II: The Tree of Life

Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s fifth film hadn’t crawled beyond Cannes, New York or Los Angeles before speculation intensified about the director’s future projects. It’s a natural reaction, I suppose, given that Malick once went 20 years between pictures; as important as it is to have Malick in our present, his fans also want reassurance that he’ll be back again—eventually if not immediately, later if not soon enough. According to reports, Malick’s fans can rest easy: leftover footage from this film is planned for a documentary, and principal photography has wrapped on what is now being referred to as a Ben Affleck-Rachel McAdams project, even though Malick’s tendencies in the editing room could reduce those headliners to bit players by the time the film premieres. Malick will turn 68 this November, but barring any health problems it seems safe to assume we haven’t seen the last of him. And yet The Tree of Life feels like a swansong.

It’s epic, daring and almost painfully heartfelt. It’s ambiguous and overt. It deals in spirituality and science. It either alludes to Malick’s previous films or liberally borrows from them: tokens buried underground as in Badlands; a snake illustration straight out of Days of Heaven; a woman on a swing as in The Thin Red Line; a (street) lamp shining against the midnight blue sky as in The New World; and so on. It’s the summation of all that Malick seemed to be and a doorway to something beyond that. It’s an unmistakably personal film—a conclusion I reached long before I learned that it’s quasi-autobiographical, too. It’s the kind of film you might expect from a director who worries that he might never make another one—a pull-out-all-the-stops, bounce-the-check-to-the-undertaker, this-time-for-sure purging of the soul. It’s as if to die in peace Malick needed to get The Tree of Life off his chest.

It’s his most challenging film, and perhaps his messiest, too. And for those reasons in particular it took a second viewing for me to fully appreciate its scope, its intimacy and its intricacies—which isn’t to say I’ve figured it all out or come to peace with a sequence that might be the most disappointing in Malick’s career. But when I watch The Tree of Life I’m overwhelmed by the sense that I’m witnessing the work of a filmmaker who feels he has run out of time for holding back.

The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

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The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I
The Conversations: Terrence Malick Part I

“Think of a tree, how it grows round its roots. If a branch breaks off, it don’t stop but keeps reaching toward the light.”

Jason Bellamy: Terrence Malick’s next film, due soon in theaters, is called The Tree of Life, and coincidentally or not it is set up by the final shot of Malick’s previous film, The New World. In both the theatrical and extended cuts of that 2005 film, Malick closes with a shot at the base of a tree: gazing up the side of its mighty trunk as it stretches heavenward. It’s a quintessentially Malickian shot, both in terms of the camera’s intimacy to its subject and in the way that it presents nature with a spiritual awe, as if the tree’s branches are the flying buttresses of a grand cathedral. But the reason I mention that shot is so I can begin this discussion by acknowledging its roots. We’ve been regular contributors to The House Next Door for almost two-and-a-half years now, and, as loyal House readers know, Terrence Malick’s The New World is the seed from which this blog sprouted. What began in Janurary 2006 as Matt Zoller Seitz’s attempt to find enough cyber real estate in which to freely explore his passion for The New World—a rather Malickian quest, if you think about it—became something much bigger, until now here we are: writing about the filmmaker without whom this blog and thus this series might not exist.

I make that acknowledgement en route to this one: By the very nature of its origins, The House Next Door has always been something of an unofficial Terrence Malick fan club—nay, house of worship. Many of us first gathered at this site because of this subject matter. (Any immediate kinship many of us felt with Matt was inspired by a shared religious experience with The New World, not to mention the holy awakening of seeing serious criticism posted to the Web by amateur means.) I make this observation in the interest of full disclosure—less an acknowledgement of the House’s origins, which so many of its readers know already, than an indication of my awareness of it—in the hopes that by doing so I can convince the Malick nonbelievers that they are welcome here. Because, see, Malick is one of those filmmakers who seems to inspire two reactions: genuflecting reverence and head-scratching ennui. Is there room between the two? Or are total immersion and deference to Malick’s filmmaking elemental to its effect? In Part I of this discussion, we will look at Malick’s first four films, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (the theatrical cut), and what I hope we begin to uncover is why Malick’s filmmaking inspires such divergent reactions.

I am, admittedly, a singer in Malick’s choir. His films don’t move me equally, but when they do move me I’m profoundly affected. You come into this conversation having just watched most of Malick’s films for the first time. So let me ask a question that will cause the Malick agnostics to roll their eyes and the Malick believers to raise their hands to the sky like Pocahontas in The New World: Did Malick’s filmmaking inspire you with a unique sense of awe, or do you feel like you’re on the outside looking in, or something else?