Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Twee of Life

I finally got around to watching THE TREE OF LIFE.

For the most part, I’ve stopped going to serious movies, mostly because of an indie film burnout that occurred in late 2002/ early 2003 after seeing Tom Tykwer’s HEAVEN, Todd Haynes’ FAR FROM HEAVEN and Stephan Daltry’s THE HOURS all in the space of a month. Exhausted by those films’ precious obfuscations and didacticisms, I realized that my lifelong preference for lowbrow entertainment had blossomed into a full-grown prejudice. In the decade since, my big-screen viewing has revolved primarily around genre films that offer a bang for the exorbitant buck. I’m not apologetic about this, nor am I putting on airs of reactionary anti-intellectualism. It’s just my subjective preference.

I do try to judge every film on its own merits, regardless of where it fits on the Cannes scale of seriousness. I’m not completely averse to challenging motion pictures and had certainly heard and read enough about writer/director Terrence Malick’s much-lauded film that I wanted to see it for myself. So I DVR’d THE TREE OF LIFE with an open, even hopeful mind.

And I pretty much hated it.

Granted, watching it on my wee 32” television wasn’t an immersive experience the way that seeing the scenes of the formation of the universe and evolution and eventual destruction of life on Earth would’ve been on the big screen, but I still got the point… the long, drawn out, laboriously rendered point. Why are we here? What does it all mean? What is the meaning of life?

Oh, and then there was some stuff in the middle about Sean Penn as a little kid in Texas in the late 50s dealing with a vaguely abusive father played by Brad Pitt and a gauzy cipher of a mother played by an actress who refuses to admit her year of birth, adding to the mystery of it all! There’s real drama here, but it gets lost in a torrent of gossamer shots of nature and laundry flapping in the breeze and hardwood floors and dirty feet being rinsed in sprinklers. I understand that the limited use of dialogue was for effect and that the blanks in the narrative are meant to be filled in by the viewer, but for me, anyway, it just fell flat (watch THIS BOY’S LIFE if you want to see a similar story told in three complete acts).

The movie has earned much praise for its cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, and it was certainly lovely, but it quickly becomes tiresome; it feels like a two and a half hour perfume commercial.

But where the movie really lost me was during the scenes with Sean Penn as the adult Jack, mourning his long-dead brother on the anniversary of his death, stumbling through his towering Texas office building, eventually finding his spirit wandering onto a sandy beach with his family (departed and not), a vision of contentment and release that, to me, felt like proselytizing (even Penn himself has stated that he didn’t think the movie worked due to its lack of narrative structure).

Here’s the thing: THE TREE OF LIFE is vague enough to invite interpretation, and whoopee for that—I guess. I know people who think that it’s just about the beauty of life (I think the sadness of the Brad Pitt character belies that… he lived a life of frustration and longing and loss, peppered with moments of happiness, all of which seriously confused his kids). I know people who think it’s about evolution (certainly, the film doesn’t show God creating the Earth in a week, but barely anyone truly believes that, right?). My interpretation was that Malick thinks the key to happiness is to let go and accept a higher power. But ultimately, whether my understanding is correct or not doesn’t change my negative reaction to the film.

I guess I just don’t think that pondering our existence is worthy of two and a half hours of winsome navel-gazing. To me, trying to parse the meaning of life is an utter waste of time. One of the nice things about not believing in any higher power is a calm acceptance that our existence is nothing but happenstance, a random probability given the vastness of the universe; it has no meaning other than that which we give it ourselves. It’s a liberating feeling (and one that can actually enhance an appreciation of what we are able to experience on this lovely, doomed planet). We also don’t waste time fretting over where the universe came from… it’s here, we lucked into a biosphere, get used to it.

But then again, as I said at the outset, this movie just isn’t my cup o’ tea. I prefer my serious topics handled through pop metaphor. To me, THE DARK KNIGHT is a much more successful examination of the human spirit being tested than John Hillcoat’s dour and ponderous adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. I’d much rather read SUPERMAN than MAN AND SUPERMAN. So, I guess I’ll just stick with my cinematic meaning of life being defined by Stanley Kubrick, Monty Python and Frank Capra (even if that last one features a rather heavy-handed God).

Oh, as a postscript, I was amused to see that THE TREE OF LIFE is categorized on Rotten Tomatoes as “drama, action & adventure, science fiction & fantasy.” Okay, I’ll buy the first part, and maybe the last part (if it is indeed religious allegory)… but action and adventure?! Did I miss the part where Nick Fury invites Brad Pitt to join the Avengers?

Ah, THE AVENGERS… now there's a life-affirming movie!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

With Great Power... (the 10 Best Superhero Movies of All Time)

As the Avengers finally assemble, bringing the biggest superhero movie yet to the big screen, we have to ask: Of all these darn superhero movies, which ones are the best? Luckily, we can also answer that question we just asked ourselves. Let the debate commence!

10) THE SHADOW (1994)
A lot of movies could’ve taken this spot on the list, but for the sake of mixing things up, I’m going with this oft-dismissed adaptation of the classic radio / pulp / comics hero (many will argue he’s not a superhero, but he fits the criteria). Director Russell Mulcahy crafted a moody, stylish art-deco period piece and the story (in which the Shadow battles the would-be world conqueror Shiwan Khan, nicely played by John Lone with a fantastically over-the-top Tim Curry as one of his minions) displays a deft balance of old-school melodrama and humor. The film’s considered a campy trifle by many fans of the character, but its real problem—and it’s a big one—is a horribly miscast lead; the smart alecky Alec Baldwin is incapable of conveying the kind of chilling dominion personified by Orson Welles in the 1930s radio show. If "The Shadow" featured a more fitting star (imagine Daniel Day-Lewis or Rutger Hauer), it would probably be held in higher regard.

9) WATCHMEN (2009)
Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ celebrated superhero deconstruction gets a bad rap. Hardcore comics purists felt that putting the exhaustive graphic novel to film was a Quixotic endeavor to begin with and complained about the alterations to the climax. Neophytes couldn’t get a lock on the hyper-specific frame of reference required to fully appreciate the film’s style and substance. But open-minded fanboys (who understand the definition of the word, adaptation) appreciated “Watchmen” for honoring the meat and the minutiae of one of the greatest super-stories ever told.

It’s a wee stretch to place this Republic Serial—the first live action adaptation of superhero—on this list, but of all the caped do-gooders to hit the big screen in the Golden Age, Captain Marvel (recently renamed “Shazam” by DC Comics after decades of being mistaken by most people for his magic word) came the closest to reproducing the unlimited effects of the period’s comic books. While the 12-part story (pitting Cap against a villain named the Scorpion) differs in substance and tone from the source comics, it’s an exciting, exotic tale buoyed by simple, but awesomely effective stunts and effects. Too bad the other super serials of the 40s weren’t this good.

7) X2: X-MEN UNITED (2003)
Conventional wisdom was that an X-Men movie could never be made to the satisfaction of both the demanding fanboy and a non-geeky mainstream audience, but Bryan Singer proved that premise wrong with 2000’s thoughtfully streamlined “X-Men.” The sequel picked up where the first film left off, amping up the metaphorical resonance of the social outsider longing for acceptance while sacrificing none of the epic action. The addition of Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler, unleashing of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and promise of the resurrection of Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey as the Phoenix only whetted the appetites for the third entrant (which, under Brett Ratner’s hand, unfortunately fell like the Angel… er, Icarus).

In 1989, comic book fans soiled their underoos over Tim Burton’s “Batman,” a movie that placed the Caped Crusader in a dark context for the first time in any adaptation. But in fact, despite being a cultural phenomenon, “Batman” was a pretty lousy movie (as were its sequels to one degree or another). The Chiropteral palate was cleansed in 2005 by Christopher Nolan’s reboot, which placed the Darknight Detective in a realistic (as possible) context. Taking inspiration from various iconic comics, Nolan and his screenwriting partners envisioned a corrupt urban landscape beyond normal means of salvation; Christian Bale’s Batman—for the first time onscreen—truly strikes fear into the hearts of criminals. A stellar supporting cast adds to the heft, and could only hint at the greatness to come...

5) IRON MAN (2008)
The question of whether or not a B-list comic book character could fill the cineplex seats was answered with wit and style in Jon Favreau’s whip-smart adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Golden Avenger. As personified by the perfectly-cast Robert Downey, Jr., Tony Stark was maybe the most believable superhero alter-ego of them all, his brilliance and courage mitigated by a self-destructive arrogance and narcissism. Yet Downey made him relatable and likable. Maybe most amazingly, the improbable technology of the comic book armor was rendered believable by an army of effects artists who made us believe that a man could fly in a high-tech suit made of metal, powered by a miniature arc reactor.

4) SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004)
The reason there are three sequels on this list is that superhero movies often benefit from not having to retell an oft-known origin story in a subsequent outing. Sam Raimi’s second Spidey film draws on some classic Marvel Comics storylines as Peter Parker struggles with his desire for a normal life beyond the responsibility his great power demands. Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus is a perfectly layered bad guy, while Tobey Maguire’s ego pushes for more screen time sans the full face mask of the web slinger. The CGi effects are far superior to the first film’s videogame swinging scenes, and the whole thing has a goofy sincerity to it that makes it feel like a timeless chunk of pop culture (sadly, the same cannot be said of the studio-co-opted third film).

The only one of these ten films not based on an established property, “The Incredibles” is just too good to leave off this list. Credit writer / director Brad Bird, who proved he knows from heroes with 1999’s “The Iron Giant.” Sure, the exploits of Mr. Incredible and his family of “supers” are merely dressing on a story that’s more about the importance of family and embracing who you are, but few superhero movies feature the kind of panache, heart and thrills that fill this Pixar flick. Bird (who graduated to live action features with last year’s “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol”) has stated that he’s not really interested in doing another superhero movie, but many fanboys would love to see him take the reins of a live adaptation of some beloved character or team (If “The Justice League” ever gets made, I can think of no one better to tackle it).

Christopher Nolan’s sequel took everything that was great about “Batman Begins” and upped the ante tenfold. “The Dark Knight” works on every level, as an action film, a superhero movie, a crime drama, a character study and an intense psychological thriller. At its heart is the key tenet of Batman’s character (one that was callously ignored in Tim Burton’s plodding exercises in style)—the line he will not cross, his refusal to take a life, no matter how vile. Yes, Christian Bale’s growling can be funny if taken out of context, but every performance in this film—not just Heath Ledger as the Joker—carries the weight of a person pushed to his or her limit. Nolan may be the single best mainstream filmmaker of his time; he’s a modern day Hitchcock, able to communicate his distinct vision to all of his collaborators and create smart, stylish, emotionally moving motion pictures that are also fun. Simply put, “The Dark Knight” is a masterpiece and its snub for Best Picture (and Director) in ’09 is one of many reasons I never take the Oscars® seriously.

1) SUPERMAN (1978)
Richard Donner’s groundbreaking 1978 blockbuster set the standard for the modern superhero movie (so much so that it’s hard to find a filmmaker’s commentary on any entrant in that genre since that doesn’t reference it). While there are certainly some plot holes and jarring tonal shifts in both story and acting, the film as a whole treated its source material with affection and respect (a first for a movie based on a comic book), evoking nothing less than a modern myth. On top of that, Superman’s pre-CG flying effects necessitated creating entirely new filmmaking technology. And, of course, Christopher Reeve’s charming, laid back performance proved that you could still employ genuine acting chops dressed in red, blue and yellow spandex. Is it a perfect film? No, but it’s the only one on this list that’s a certifiable classic, and without it, this countdown might not even exist.

HONORABLE MENTIONS go to “Superman II,” “Spider-Man,” “X-Men,” “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm,” Ang Lee’s misunderstood “Hulk,” “Blade II,” and okay, I guess the first installment of “The Matrix.” But I will not put Burton’s “Batman” on this list, ever, no matter how much you whine.