Throughout his magnum opus The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick hopscotches between past and present, from the birth of our planet to a slice of 1950s Americana, where a young boy is shaped by his mother’s “grace” and his father’s “nature”—opposing influences that will continue, for time immemorial, to course and pummel their way through his consciousness with the force of an exploding supernova. He is, like all of us, less than a blip in the universe’s timeline, and for the grownup Jack (Sean Penn)—who waltzes with depressing resignation through the chilly manse he shares with a woman he keeps at arm’s length, the steely tower where he does business, and the landscape of the afterlife—this is an admission of human inconsequence.
The Tree of Life‘s fetching images are like glowing shards of glass, and together they form a grandiose mirror that reflects Malick’s impassioned philosophical outlook. It’s unquestionably this great filmmaker’s most personal work, a revelation of how he came to be, why he creates, and where he feels he’s going. And though it’s also a highly self-absorbed vision, emotionally aloof by aesthetic design, in connecting his elliptical depiction of his own spiritual making with a customarily quizzical regard for the shape of all things, from the veins of a plant to the wrinkles of the human face, Malick is sincerely asking us to scrutinize the meaning of our own creation.
Like Enter the Void, the film is structured as an intense, hallucinatory immersion that plugs us into the mind of its characters, and in turn into its maker’s own. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera—the way it glides toward and retreats from the characters, rises above them, sometimes looks away from them—suggests a ghost visiting old haunts, an evocation of the pleasure and pain of remembrance. This avant-garde montage of moments both precious and sinister from Jack’s life, so clearly modeled on Malick’s own, gives us a bewitching sense of how childhood experience crafts adult sensibilities.
But before there was a child, an animal, even a tree, there was only darkness, which gave way to light, explosions that made land and sea, from which life first rose—a story, as one character whispers, “from before we can remember.” Malick’s fixation on the creation of our planet and the animals that first roamed it, among them dinosaurs that regard each other with almost human-like curiosity, is a gloriously and powerfully conceived extravaganza of light and sound, a space odyssey that allows the director to set up a canny parallel to the trajectory of human life. Finally settling in ‘50s suburbia to capture the waves of young Jack’s rearing, Malick’s vision regards family and relationships the way it does the planet: an organism plagued by disruptions both splendiferous and repulsive before submitting sadly to extinction.
The evolution of Jack’s life is a prismatic mosaic of holy events, each of its pieces no less instrumental to the making of the man Jack (or his brothers) will become. Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) teaches him the meaning of grace, pointing to the sky where God resides, and with the serenity and humility of someone who doesn’t presume to know if God is man or woman, even existent. The sky simply represents a path toward personal discovery, an idea that finds rapturously poetic expression in a shot of the boys symbolically looking toward their own future, throwing baseballs into the air that come back to them, yes, probably from the other side of the street, behind their home, from the small hands of their friends, but appearing to us as if they’ve been tossed back by the grandiose hand of God.
And from Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), who arrogantly condescends to his wife’s naïveté, the boys are introduced to old-time religion and subjected to the sort of spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child parenting that might have seemed cliché if the man’s sad terrorism of his boys didn’t feel as if it was being observed from the tender point of view of a growing, impressionable child. (Lubezki’s low angles tell no lies.) The father’s strictness—from the thugishness with which he tries to “man up” his boys to the please’s, thank you’s, and sir’s he instructs them to tag on to nearly all their utterances—startlingly contrasts with the openness with which the mother regards the world. Each parent represents a path, a different branch in the tree of life, and the path they choose, or don’t, may or may not spell their immediate destruction.
The Tree of Life is practically, and unapologetically, unhinged from narrative convention. From one balladic episode to next, viewers are given flashes of an era’s class resentments (a telling glimpse of Mr. O’Brien’s struggle to succeed as an inventor explains the frustration that informs his animosity toward his family) and racial realities: In school, where black boys and girls are conspicuously absent, Jack develops a crush for a vaguely ethnic girl (a descendent of Pocahontas, perhaps?); earlier, Jack and his father make a pitstop in the black part of town for some barbeque and the boy is transfixed by the difference that’s lived happily and unbeknownst to him beyond the purview of his father’s garden. These scenes are so specifically detailed, so vibrantly aestheticized, you don’t doubt that they once happened to Malick.
A tree grows in prehistoric times, in the yard of Jack’s childhood past, in between the towering steel offices of his future (an image that, for me, evoked the progress of the new World Trade Center complex), even in the afterlife where everyone who ever touched his life, however significantly, gathers together for whatever stage comes next in our spiritual evolution. We never know the older Jack in the present in any sort of concrete sense, but as he’s led toward a desert purgatory and toward the sea by his younger self, on a journey his father, his mother, and at least one brother before him once followed, we understand he chose the path of his father, the same one that informed his anger long ago to tie a frog to a rocket and shoot it into the sky, and to the great disappointment of his mother. Throughout these scenes, you gather Malick is confessing to making movies so he won’t become the man who shoots a dog in Badlands, and you hope, pray even, that Jack has finally found the peace his mother’s path might have once afforded.
The Tree of Life is overwhelming, a gorgeous kaleidoscope of light and color that can feel like a prison. Malick’s ravishing but exacting vision is more confident and cohesive than Gaspar Noé‘s in Enter the Void, but it’s prone to frustrating redundancy. The images sometimes feel forced into being, too relentlessly conceived, as if Malick weren’t simply recollecting the beautiful, horrible memories of his past, but passing kidney stones, then collaging them. One shot in particular, of one of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s boys riding a tricycle in an attic adjacent to a grotesque tall man, though an obvious, sinister conflation of two earlier episodes (of a boy’s fear of entering said attic and the strange lucidity of visiting the circus for the first time), is inscrutable, digressive, hermetic in a way that you understand it will never mean to us what it does for its maker. In a film about memory, this flash of almost Lynchian dreamlike abstraction feels atonal, almost kitschy.
But even Malick’s more indulgent impulses make perfect, practically cosmic sense. Isn’t life itself a prison? And what if the whispered voiceover that gives expression to characters’ secret thoughts is excessively precious, too precise in its minimalism, pestering us like a mosquito hunting for blood on a summer afternoon? After all, the tree of life—the film’s ultimate symbol—was planted in the ground of Jack’s garden, which is to say consciousness, by his own father, a broken man who once took the wrong path himself, and whose bad behavior, like Mrs. O’Brien’s goodness, colors everything Jack does. Goodness and badness are forever knotted in The Tree of Life, just as in our ownlives, impossible to separate like a mosquito from summer, and like a spell, the film’s mystified, sometimes glacial grandeur is such that it’s memory becomes difficult to shake off—even, one imagines, in death.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw, Irene Bedard Director: Terrence Malick Screenwriter: Terrence Malick Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 138 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2011 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways.
How has Oscar royally screwed things up this year? Let us count the ways. The hastily introduced and unceremoniously tabled (for now) “best popular film” Oscar. The impending commercial-break ghettoization of such categories as best cinematography and best film editing, but most certainly not best song and best animated feature. The abortive attempts to unveil Kevin Hart as the host not once, but twice, stymied by the online backlash over years-old anti-gay Twitter jokes and leading AMPAS to opt for George Glass as this year’s master of ceremonies. The strong-arming of its own membership to deter rank-and-file superstars from attending competing precursor award shows. If these end up being the last Oscars ever, and it’s starting to feel as though it should be, what a way to go out, right? Like the floating island of plastic in the Pacific, the cultural and political detritus of Oscar season has spread far beyond any previous rational estimates and will almost certainly outlive our functional presence on this planet. And really, when you think about it, what’s worse: The extinction of mankind or Bohemian Rhapsody winning the best picture Oscar? In that spirit, we press on.
There will be plenty of time, too much time, to go deep on the many ways Green Book reveals the flawed soul of your average, aged white liberal in America circa 2019. For now, let’s just admit that it’s as sure a nominee as The Favourite, Roma, and A Star Is Born. (There’s snackable irony in the fact that a movie called The Front Runner became very much not an Oscar front runner in a year that doesn’t appear to have a solid front runner.) And even though few seem to be predicting it for an actual win here, Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman has an almost spotless precursor track record, showing up almost across the board among the guilds. Predicting this category would’ve been easy enough when Oscar limited it to five films, but it’s strangely almost as easy this year to see where the line will cut off between five and 10. Adam McKay’s Vice may be without shame, but you don’t have to strain hard to see how people could mistake it for the film of the moment. Bohemian Rhapsody is certainly lacking in merit, but, much like our comrade in chief, Oscar has never been more desperate for people to like and respect him, and a hit is a hit. Except when it’s a Marvel movie, which is why Black Panther stands precariously on the category’s line of cutoff, despite the rabid enthusiasm from certain corners that will likely be enough to push it through.
Everyone can agree that Bohemian Rhapsody will be one of the best picture contenders that doesn’t get a corresponding best director nomination, but virtually all the other nominees we’re predicting have a shot. Including Peter-flashing Farrelly, whose predictably unsubtle work on Green Book (or, Don and Dumber) netted him a widely derided DGA nomination. The outrage over Farrelly’s presence there took some of the heat off Vice’s Adam McKay, but if any DGA contender is going to swap out in favor of Yorgos Lanthimos (for BAFTA favorite The Favourite), it seems likely to be McKay. As Mark Harris has pointed out, Green Book is cruising through this awards season in a lane of its own, a persistently well-liked, well-meaning, unchallenging throwback whose defiant fans are clearly in a fighting mood.
Had Fox Searchlight reversed their category-fraud strategizing and flipped The Favourite’s Olivia Coleman into supporting and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone into lead, the five best actress slots would arguably have been locked down weeks, if not months, ago, unless Fox’s bet-hedging intuits some form of industry resistance to double female-led propositions. As it stands, there are four locks that hardly need mention and a slew of candidates on basically equal footing. Hereditary’s Toni Collette has become shrieking awards show junkies’ cause célèbre this year, though she actually has the critic awards haul to back them up, having won more of the regional prizes than anyone else. The same demographic backing Collette gave up hope long ago on Viola Davis being able to survive the Widows collapse, and yet there by the grace of BAFTA does she live on to fight another round. Elsie Fisher’s palpable awkwardness in Eighth Grade and winning awkwardness navigating the Hollywood circuit have earned her an almost protective backing. But we’re going out on a limb and calling it for the rapturously received Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio. Voters could, like us, find it not a particularly great performance and still parlay their good will for her into a nomination that’s there for the taking.
Should Be Nominated: Juliette Binoche (Let the Sunshine In), Toni Collette (Hereditary), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?)
Take Toni Collette’s trophies thus far in the competition and double them. And then add a few more. That’s the magnitude of endorsements backing First Reformed’s Ethan Hawke. And his trajectory has the clear markings of an almost overqualified performance that, like Naomi Watts’s in Mulholland Drive, cinephiles decades from now will wonder how Oscar snubbed. If Pastor Ernst Toller and Sasha Stone are right and God is indeed watching us all and cares what the Academy Awards do, Hawke’s nomination will come at the expense of John David Washington, whose strength in the precursors thus far (SAG and Globe-nominated) is maybe the most notable bellwether of BlacKkKlansman’s overall strength. Because, as with the best actress category, the other four slots are basically preordained. Unlike with best actress, the bench of also-rans appears to be one solitary soul. A fitting place for Paul Schrader’s man against the world.
Closest Runners-Up: Ethan Hawke (First Reformed)
Every Oscar prognosticator worth their bragging rights has spent the last couple weeks conspicuously rubbing their hands together about Regina King’s chances. The all-or-nothing volley that’s seen her sweep the critics’ awards and win the Golden Globe, and at the same time not even get nominations from within the industry—she was left off the ballot by both SAG and the BAFTAs—are narrative disruptions among a class that lives for narratives and dies of incorrect predictions. But despite the kvetching, King is as safe as anyone for a nomination in this category. It doesn’t hurt that, outside the pair of lead actresses from The Favourite, almost everyone else in the running this year feels like a 7th- or 8th-place also-ran. Except maybe Widows’s Elizabeth Debicki, whose fervent fans probably number just enough to land her…in 7th or 8th place. Vice’s Amy Adams is set to reach the Glenn Close club with her sixth Oscar nomination, and if she’d only managed to sustain the same loopy energy she brings to Lynne Cheney’s campaign-trail promise to keep her bra on, she’d deserve it. Which leaves a slot for supportive housewives Claire Foy, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Blunt. Even before the collapse of Mary Poppins Returns, we preferred Blunt’s chances in A Quiet Place.
Should Be Nominated: Sakura Ando (Shoplifters), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Rachel McAdams (Disobedience), and Haley Lu Richardson (Support the Girls)
The same people who’re curiously doubting Regina King’s nomination chances seem awfully assured that Sam Elliott’s moist-eyed, clearly canonical backing-the-truck-up scene in A Star Is Born assures him not only a nomination but probably the win. Elliott missed nominations with both the Golden Globes and BAFTA, and it was hard not to notice just how enthusiasm for A Star Is Born seemed to be cooling during the same period Oscar ballots were in circulation. Right around the same time, it started becoming apparent that BlacKkKlansman is a stronger draw than anyone thought, which means Adam Driver (who everyone was already predicting for a nod) won’t have to suffer the representationally awkward fate of being the film’s only nominee. Otherwise, the category appears to favor previously awarded actors (Mahershala Ali and Sam Rockwell) or should have been previously awarded actors (Chalamet). Leaving Michael B. Jordan to remain a should have been previously nominated actor.
Get beyond the best picture hopefuls BlacKkKlansman and If Beale Street Could Talk, which seem deservedly locked, and A Star Is Born, which is even more deservedly iffy, and you’ll see the screenwriters’ branch deciding just how seriously to take themselves this year, and whether they’re feeling like spiritually reliving the moments that found them nominating Bridesmaids and Logan. If so, then expect Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther to factor in here. If they most definitely don’t feel frisky, then maybe the foursquare First Man has a shot at reversing its overall downward trajectory. If they’re seeking that “just right” middle ground, then Can You Ever Forgive Me? and The Death of Stalin are in.
It’s not unusual for some of the year’s most acclaimed movies whose strength isn’t necessarily in their scripts to get nominated only in the screenwriting categories. First Reformed, which even some of its fiercest defenders admit can sometimes feel a bit like Paul Schrader’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” greatest-hits package, stands to be another of them. But it’ll be a close call, given the number of other equally vanguard options they’ll be weighing it against, like Sorry to Bother You, which arguably feels more urgently in the moment in form, Eighth Grade, which is more empathetically post-#MeToo, and even Cold War, which had a surprisingly strong showing with BAFTA. Given the quartet of assured best picture contenders in the mix, First Reformed is going to have to hold off all of them.
Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass Is Less Than Half Empty
M. Night Shyamalan’s film is aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.2
What a difference nearly two decades makes. When writer-director M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable way back in 2000, the superhero genre was hardly the mass-cultural malady that it is today. An oddball take on caped crusaders and the like had a better chance of standing out in theaters, and Unbreakable was certainly one of the more eccentric uses of $75 million Hollywood studio dollars.
Shyamalan’s tale of a Philadelphia security guard, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who, after surviving a devastating train crash, discovers he has inhuman strength and a psychic ability to predict danger, was photographed in languorous long takes, with most dialogue spoken barely above a whisper. Unbreakable was really more of a slow-burning family relationship drama—especially between Dunn and his hero-worshipping son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark)—than it was a men-in-tights, or, in this case, man-in-rain-slicker action flick. But a cartoonishly clothed Samuel L. Jackson did often pop up as a brittle-boned character named Elijah Price, who pontificated about comic books as if they were a socio-cultural Rosetta Stone.
In one of his patented, P.T. Barnum-esque twist endings, Shyamalan revealed that Price fancied himself Dunn’s brainiac archnemesis. “They called me Mr. Glass,” he says of his childhood torturers. And so the stage was set for a future showdown, though lower box-office receipts than expected appeared to put the kibosh on that. But now here we are with the frivolous and protracted Glass, which finally pits Dunn and Glass against each other. Though there’s one other person involved…or perhaps we should say multiple people in one.
That would be Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the dissociative identity-afflicted villain known as The Horde, who was first introduced in Shyamalan’s 2016 hit, and stealth Unbreakable sequel, Split. McAvoy is once again the whole show here, with the actor receiving top billing over his co-stars. He shares several scenes with Split’s damaged final girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and he leans full-tilt into The Horde’s various personalities. Among these interior others are prim British matriarch Patricia; nine-year-old dance freak/Drake fanboy Hedwig; macho sexual deviant Dennis; and a cannibalistic savage known only as The Beast, who’s as close to a Big Bad as the film gets. McAvoy’s energy and go-for-brokeness is infectious, and it’s something Glass could use a whole lot more of.
The film’s first 20 minutes or so put Dunn, now nicknamed The Overseer, and Crumb on a collision course that eventually lands them in the same mental hospital where Glass is incarcerated. The trio’s physician is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, seemingly rehearsing for her eventual role as Nurse Ratched in Ryan Murphy’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel), an icy unbeliever, so she says, in anything superheroic. It’s Staple’s goal to talk her three charges into renouncing their phenomenal powers. And talk. And talk. And talk.
Much of Glass’s running time is given over to therapy sessions in which Crumb cycles through his personas, Dunn looks alternately befuddled and constipated, and Glass lolls his Frederick Douglass-coiffed head to the side in drooling catatonia. (Is he faking his unresponsiveness? What do you think?) He’s barely the star of his own film, though Shyamalan has said in interviews that Glass is meant to reflect the title character’s fragile, erudite nature, as Unbreakable did Dunn’s reluctant heroism and Split did Crumb’s anything-goes psychosis.
There’s a certain clinical elegance to the crisp digital cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, much in keeping with Glass’s eye-catching, purple-accented wardrobe (love that monogrammed cravat!). It’s telling, however, that the most striking scenes here are flashbacks to the Eduardo Serra-shot Unbreakable. This includes a terrifying deleted scene from that film in which a young Elijah Price (Johnny Hiram Jamison) rides an amusement park Tilt-A-Whirl, with bone-shattering results and to the palpable distress of his mother, played by Charlayne Woodard. She reprises her role, as Clark does Dunn’s now-grown son, in Glass’s present-day scenes.
A bigger issue is that the film’s earnest deconstruction of comic-book mythology seems antiquated given our present glut of superhero media. It’s no longer a genre to be elevated since it has become the norm. Plus, the unintentionally hilarious way that Paulson says, “Have you ever been to a comic book convention?” is one of several signposts suggesting that Shyamalan’s geek cred is about, say, 20 years behind the times.
It certainly might have helped if Shyamalan were able to more humorously poke at his own pretenses. The wet-noodle climax in which all of Glass’s characters have a staggeringly non-epochal confrontation in a friggin’ parking lot could only have benefitted from a sense that the stars and the multi-hyphenate auteur were enjoying themselves. It’s only too appropriate that Jackson’s Glass sternly narrates this skeletally smack-a-doo finale as if he was a distressed academic lecturing attention-starved stoners.
Perhaps genuine fun is too much to ask from an artist who once wrote a po-faced tome about closing America’s education gap (put “I Got Schooled” into Google and delight, such as it is). There’s also another twist or two on the horizon, though it gives nothing away to say that the reveals amount to little more than “the real superhero…was mankind.” In the end, Glass proves to be another of Shyamalan’s pompous sermons about faith in oneself, aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.
Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard Director: M. Night Shyamalan Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 129 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: An Acceptable Loss Is a Morally Urgent B Movie
The film is a cynical critique of American foreign policy wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills.2.5
Writer-director Joe Chappelle’s An Acceptable Loss is a B movie with a morally urgent message, a cynical critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills. By positioning the U.S. government as the film’s primary antagonist, Chappelle takes to task the repeated killing of innocent lives as collateral damage in the hunt for terrorists and other ostensible enemies.
The ethical quandary that arises from such an operation is embodied by Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a former national security adviser to Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s taken a teaching gig at a Chicago university. As Libby secretly transcribes her experiences, and faces civilians who are angry over her role in a controversial military operation in Syria, Chappelle shows a surprising empathy for the character. The filmmaker outlines that Libby’s memorializing of her experiences and her honest attempt at assimilating within a society that more or less shuns her is borne out of feelings of regret.
But An Acceptable Loss’s compelling take on moral reckoning is compromised by the distracting presence of Martin (Ben Tavassoli), a grad student who consistently exposes lapses in the storyline’s logic. Martin mysteriously stalks Libby and sets up an elaborate surveillance system in her house, but it’s never explained how Martin can operate with the skill, knowledge, and proficiency of some kind of intelligence officer. Dubiously, when Libby and Martin need each other’s help in a moment of crisis, the film oddly passes on holding the latter’s disturbingly voyeuristic behavior accountable; Libby shakes her head, and then the film drops the matter completely. For a film eager to ponder the ethics of people’s actions, it comes off as strange that Chappelle doesn’t scrutinize Martin’s own.
Still, it’s difficult not to get swept up in An Acceptable Loss’s technical virtuosity. The film’s propulsive narrative is nothing if not efficient, aided in no small part by crisp editing that relishes the fine art of cross-cutting. The dark interiors that Chappelle favors create a Tourneur-like atmosphere of dread that subsumes Libby, underlining the covert nature of her documenting her secrets; even scenes in daylight have a strangely nocturnal feel to them. This visual style complements An Acceptable Loss’s pessimistic view of America’s foreign policy, which is sustained right up to the film’s hopeful coda. The film shows that if policy is to change, it greatly helps to be supported by people like Libby, someone who had been complicit in committing atrocities but ultimately embraced her humanity.
Cast: Tika Sumpter, Ben Tavassoli, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jeff Hephner, Alex Weisman, Clarke Peters Director: Joe Chappelle Screenwriter: Joe Chappelle Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2018