Tag Archives: The Tree of Life

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

The WWII/Holocaust movie has been explored ad nauseam but New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) has brought her attempt to standout within the crowded genre. The film covers the true story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain; Zero Dark Thirty) and her husband. They are the owners of the Warsaw Zoo and when Germany invades and their animals are taken away, they use the extra space to smuggle Jews from the ghetto. Daniel Brühl (Rush) plays the German head of zoology that takes command of their zoo and has his eyes on Antonina as well.

With so much centered on the lead, Caro couldn’t have cast a better actress. Chastain’s Polish accent is jarring at first, but it never falters and becomes more natural as the film continues. She is completely at ease with the animals, large and small, and her gentle nature make the role believable beyond the problematic script. This is helped by the decision to only use live animals. It allows a natural chemistry that wouldn’t have been possible with computer generated effects and makes the setting feel like a real zoo.

The film’s major failing is that Antonina is too one dimensional. Despite Chastain’s committed performance, the character is unintentionally simplistic. Instead of being a pure, innocent person in a world where humanity is lacking, much like Chastain’s character in The Tree of Life, she can come off as weak, short-sided, and childish, particularly early on. There are a few moments of strength but she spends most of the time at the mercy of others and when the situation worsens, her actions are unrealistic for any adult in the same circumstances.

Antonina is not the brave or nuanced character the story requires her to be.

Antonina is supposed to be a hero, and her real-life efforts were truly deserving of that descriptor, but the film underplays her involvement. When her husband first suggests bringing Jews from the ghetto to hide in their zoo, she protests on grounds that it would put them at risk. While this is a very reasonable fear given the consequences of the period, it does nothing to cast Antonina in a heroic light. When the German troops first invade Poland, she seems more concerned with keeping her animals than the people that are suffering. Her focus on animals before humans makes her a myopic character and her initial dissent against the rescue efforts portray her as more of a bystander than an active participant in the noble acts.

The director has claimed that this is a different type of Holocaust story. It’s true that few movies set in this period or about war examine female-led stories, and even fewer still show them as brave. The trouble is that the script has held too closely to established tropes of the genre. There is very little that separates this film from the glut of similar stories. The biggest surprise is that it is opening in March instead of the end of year release expected for biopics. Furthermore, the script doesn’t give Antonina the strength she needs. She is often shown as more submissive than courageous and that prevents her from becoming the icon she so clearly deserves to be. Caro’s intent is admirable and Chastain’s performance is excellent, but they are held back by the underwritten lead role and familiar biopic dressings.

3/5 stars.

Song to Song (2017)

Continuing his rapid pace of releasing movies, Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) sets his newest film in the music scene. It features a star-studded cast with Michael Fassbender (Shame) as a music producer, Ryan Gosling (Drive) and Rooney Mara (Lion) as performers, and Cate Blanchett (The Lord of the Rings) and Natalie Portman (Black Swan) as other women who get wrapped up in their series of short-lived affairs.

The film’s “plot” is barely present and the few discernable aspects are disappointing. Supposedly, Song to Song is a romance, but there is nothing remotely romantic shown. Malick is known for not using traditional scripts. He relies on actors to improvise scenes based on only the setup and never have the pitfalls of this approach been more apparent than the scenes of what I can only assume was intended to be romantic chemistry. The actors have big smiles on their faces as they attempt to have authentic, playful interactions. Instead, they come off as annoying or severely cringe-inducing, best exemplified in a scene where Fassbender hops around a beach screeching and scratching like a monkey. As painful as these scenes are to watch, I can only feel sorry for the actors that had to perform them.

There is also a worrying trend regarding the treatment of women. Malick has been known for infantilizing his female characters. They are often young, innocent girls or adult women who display a pure naivete, but this previously appeared to come from a good place. It seemed like a celebration of innocence rather than a restriction on what women could do, but his new films have revealed some disturbing ideas. As in his last film, the women here are treated as sexual objects to be used, cast off, then reused when needed. They may have their own motivations but Malick’s portrayal shows them as little more than ways for his hedonistic male characters to satisfy their own desires.

The upscale parties and general opulence offer little reason to feel for the characters.

Visuals have always been Malick’s strong suit, but even that seems to be deteriorating. Using his regular cinematographer, the incredibly talented Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), he is again able to create some stunning natural-light footage. Yet, there are a few confusing choices that mar his normally perfect images. Several scenes were shot on location at the music festival Austin City Limits and some use GoPro-like cameras. This was likely done to get closer to the action of the mosh pits, but the lower-resolution fish-eye shots do not mesh with the rest of the film. Their low-quality is a glaring fault. There is also a strange overuse of oblique angles. Many scenes are off-kilter close-ups of an actor’s face. Perhaps this was done to convey the subjectivity of the character’s thoughts, but instead it is only distracting. These unfortunate choices detract what would otherwise be the film’s greatest strength.

One of the few changes to Malick’s style is his use of music. His usual ethereal, orchestral score is still present, but, due to the setting, more modern music is also included. These songs offer some desperately needed energy to the film. Their use helps add variety to the soundtrack and breaks up the overused strings. It was perhaps the only modernizing of Malick’s approach throughout the film.

Song to Song is almost a repeat of Knight of Cups but set in the music world instead of the film industry. Like that movie, there are people living in exorbitant wealth while pursuing their dreams that are inexplicably mopey. Characters go after their desires in selfish ways and, when the obvious consequences occur, Malick expects the audience to sympathize with them. But, why would we? He, like his characters, appears to be living in a bubble. There are no sympathetic or relatable characters here, only sketches of vague emotions. The frequent voiceovers are filled with pretentious, pseudo-philosophical thoughts that are often unrelated to anything onscreen and read like midnight scrawlings from the director’s bedside notebook. His narrative films after the flawed, but magnificent The Tree of Life, if you can call them narrative films, have been a continual letdown. Malick’s work has sunk further into incessant navel-gazing and his visual style is no longer enough to make up for it. Song to Song is another exercise in Malick’s recent string of insufferable self-indulgence.

1/5 stars.

Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience (2016)

[BS Note: There are two versions of Voyage of Time: a 40 minute documentary and a 90 minute feature length version. This review covers the former.]

Almost 40 years ago Terrence Malick had a dream. He wanted to make a movie that explored the origins of life. The movie, then tentatively titled Q, was going to be backed by Paramount until Malick left and went on his famous 20 year separation from Hollywood. Apparently, he never stopped working on the idea. Parts of the project were used in the origins sequence of The Tree of Life and since then an effects team has been at work on what is now Voyage of Time. Clearly intended for IMAX screens, Malick has created a documentary unlike any other.

His goals are less didactic than philosophical. Malick, who graduated with a degree in philosophy from Harvard, has never been interested in literal facts. Instead, he uses voiceovers by Brad Pitt to ponder the meaning of life. While existential quandaries are par for the course in anything Malick has done recently, the thoughts here are much more broad than usual. These are questions that apply to life in general rather than the particular experience of a character. Many will view this narration as pretentious and navel-gazing and they would be mostly correct. The opening epigraph addresses the audience with “Dear Child”, making the spiritual tone apparent from the beginning. There are moments of profundity scattered within the voiceovers, but they lack the impact they had in The Tree of Life. If anything, this film proves that Malick’s brand of exposition requires a human story. It grounds his thoughts and provides a context for the audience to connect with.

The special effects create the feeling of traveling through space.
The special effects create a palpable feeling of traveling through space.

Regardless of their varying quality, the voiceovers are largely forgotten. The visuals overwhelm and envelop all expository aspects of the film. The footage was shot with the format in mind and watching it on a 90 foot screen is nothing short of awe inspiring. The visuals swallow the audience whole. Combined with the sound effects, namely the rushing of water and classical music, they form a gestalt that renders any attempts at exposition inconsequential.

It’s unclear how much time and money was spent creating the special effects, but whatever the cost was the final product is worth it. The scenes depicting the formation of the universe and showing celestial bodies are particularly enthralling. They use chemicals, coloring agents, and models to create practical effects that are timeless. Seven years ago audiences were amazed by the visuals in Avatar, but computer generated models always show their age. Soon, the effects in Avatar will look dated but in another 50 years, the cosmic scenes here will still be stunning. The only complaint is that there are not enough of these universe creation scenes.

The film’s narrative is mostly empty. Pitt’s voiceovers aside, the only real story available is knowing that each scene moves forward in time. Some may not find this enough to carry a film, but at 40 minutes the lack of story is not an issue. After the creation sequence, Malick interweaves scenes of nature with footage of a young child playing in the grass asking the question (literally) “How did we get to who we are?” The question is never answered, but rather discussed. While coming to a Terrence Malick movie expecting anything to be explicit is a mistake, many will still find the lack of resolution, and therefore the film itself, pointless.  For those wiling to embrace Malick’s elliptical style, Voyage of Time presents the divine beauty of life with standard-setting visual effects.

4/5 stars.

Mo’ Malick Mo’ Problems

The recent release of another movie by Terrence Malick has had me thinking about his career progression. Let me preface all of this by saying that I am a huge fan and have tremendous respect for both his technical and emotional film-making talents. Soon after Malick graduated film school he made Badlands and followed it up five years later with Days of Heaven. Both of these films showcased his signature style, but were relatively disciplined compared to his later work. They featured the trademark narration and natural light cinematography, but had actual plotlines. After this period, he went off to Paris and escaped the public eye. It was 20 years later in 1998 that his next movie, The Thin Red Line, was released.

The 20 year gap had a profound impact on the films he would later produce. Because of the incredible critical success and originality of his first two films, he developed a cult-like following and because of his absence he became not only an auteur, but also a recluse. This only compounded his respect in the film world, so when he did finally return it was like a second coming. The great elusive filmmaker Terrence Malick came back to Hollywood to save cinema. Malick had access to a significantly larger budget and any actor he could ask for. He probably cut out more A-list actors than most films are able to cast.

While this would be a great boon to any director, it also came with an increased level of freedom. It’s easy to think that more freedom to a creative like Malick would lead to a better film, but it is my belief that great works are the result of creative tension. I don’t believe in the unfettered auteur, that if only people (studios, producers, actors, etc.) would just listen and do exactly what a director says, the film would turn out great. No, instead, it is the dissenting opinions that prevent originality from becoming excess and stylistic flair from becoming indulgence.

Fortunately, the real world events that inspired his first three films after the gap kept Malick on solid ground. The Thin Red LineThe New World, and The Tree of Life were all his interpretations of historical events namely the Battle of Mount Austen during WWII, the story of John Smith and Pocahantas, and Malick’s own childhood, respectively. There were stil some excesses as runtimes increased and actors became less and less important compared the natural imagery. Yet, the plotlines from these historical events focused the existentialism imparted by the characters. This is particularly true of The Tree of Life where the deeply personal story made the abstract structure more approachable.

“Can we get these people out of here so we can shoot those trees?”

However, starting with To the Wonder, Malick broke away from any sort of reality. Working again with same team as his previous film, he was given even more autonomy over the production and it shows. Neither To the Wonder nor Knight of Cups has a clear plot or theme. In The Tree of Life, the plot jumped from present day to the beginning of time to 1950’s Texas to the end of the world, but it was able to do so because these leaps had a purpose. They were all a part of the core emotion of the film: coping with the loss of a loved one – a very relatable and immediately sympathetic situation. What emotion was either of his past two films supposed to explore? Therein lies the problem. There was no main theme or contained set of emotions that they discussed. Instead they were collections of disparate, often fleeting feelings strung together.

Without something connecting these thoughts, his films have become meandering and ultimately meaningless. This is clearly evidenced by the staff needed to complete post-production. Both Badlands and Days of Heaven were edited by a single person, but his later films needed several editors (3, 4, 5, 5, and 3, respectively) to produce something releasable. He is allowed to continue shooting ungodly amounts of video and likely has to because he doesn’t have a plan for where his film is headed and doesn’t know what shots he actually needs. Then, he and his team of editors attempt to construct something out of the countless hours of footage, sometimes spending years doing so.

What this means is Malick needs to be reined in. He needs to take more time and find collaborators, not just co-workers. Being true collaborators means working both with and, equally importantly, against each other – regardless of any previous critical acclaim. A producer, writer, actor, or at least one out of his army of editors needs to set boundaries for Malick to force him to create some sort of structure or cohesive vision for his films. With the upcoming Weightless and Voyage of Time, Malick will likely release more films in this decade than the previous four. In the meantime, I hope that he and his team can be honest and critical of their recent releases to improve the quality of their next films. Terrence Malick will always be an amazing director, let’s just hope he can return to making amazing movies.