Review- The Tree of Life

Brad Pitt and Laramie Eppler in The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In a recent review, I forget which, I was tempted to discuss the importance a title can play in a film but I didn’t because I thought in that case it’d be a bit too trite. Specifically mentioning how a title can pull everything together and put it all in focus when things seem a bit disparate. This is quite true of The Tree of Life. Before having seen this film I actually hadn’t heard (or recorded to memory) that this was a notion in many philosophies and religions and about the interconnection of all living things. However, even if you walk in without that knowledge, as I did, the film makes that very clear in its shots and edits.

Which leads to the editing of this film, I believe that aesthetically and technologically we’re approaching an edited film that can more accurately reflect the inner-workings of the mind than ever before. In some cases better than novels if you think about it because novels capture inner-monologue and describe in an abundance of words what a quick series of images can convey. This is brought up because this film is essentially a mindplay and it’s the closest to seeing thoughts projected on a screen as I’ve seen. You really go on a journey through these disjointed images and while it does take a while to get into it there will come a point when it clicks.

You can truly experience this film and more so in the front row. Yes, it’s where I normally sit and many have an aversion to it but this is where the images are bigger and the film really does feel like it’s thoughts happening in front of your eyes at times.

The reason it takes a little time to get into is that in the beginning of the film no scene starts in a conventional way and dialogue is chasing imagery left, right and center. This is the scatter-brained portion of the film once the protagonist starts to ruminate on the film’s central question: “What’s my place in this world?” it gets less scattered.

There are two extended sequences that break out of the box and go through time and space from The Big Bang to evolution to vistas of the world as it is today, along with a frame of the very Beginning I believe. These sequences are what draw this film comparisons to 2001, which aren’t unwarranted but aside from these episodes it’s a much more grounded, soul-searching and personal tale than Kubrick weaved.

After the first such episode the flashbacks get less choppy and more contiguous and aside from the editing style the narrative gets rather straight forward and very interesting. As is true with memory this film calls up things that are highlights but not all of them and leaves room to speculate and reflect on what we didn’t focus on the first time, which makes this film a prime candidate to be re-viewed.

It’s this personal approach throughout that connects you to the film. Even with the unusual structure and editing and amazingly ambitious scope it’s still about one man, and thus all men and we learn about him and his upbringing and see what torments him and what he’s seeking to reconcile.

There has been an awful lot written about the fact that this film uses religion as a story element like that’s akin to having plot holes or no conflict, in other words, it was reported as a negative coming out of Cannes. Don’t worry I’m not about to soapbox my religious views on anyone; people doing that is one of my pet peeves. What I am going to say that it’s a bit ridiculous that it’s practically verboten for a character in a piece of fiction to have religious views according to some. This is a story about a man who is having an existential crisis and is trying to figure out what his role is and his mind wanders from the dawn of creation to everywhere in between. It’s perfectly natural for him or his mother to be asking God “Why this or that?” Furthermore, if you still need a little more justification I’ve got it: not only is our protagonist a child of the 50s but this is a person who has found no answers yet, no peace at some point, no matter how devout he is or isn’t he might’ve turned to faith.

The bottom line is artists do put their views and ideas into their films but they’re not always literal. So just because a film mentions God or invokes religion in anyway does not make it preachy. This is ultimately a film about coming to terms with your past and those you’ve lost. I’d almost go so far as to say this movie is as much about preaching Christianity as The Exorcist is. So enough.

As is to be expected the cinematography in this film is absolutely breathtaking. So many of the shots look like paintings almost and all are beautifully composed. This is a must-see for students of the craft.

The acting in this film is also very strong. As an audience member it takes a while for you to feel it but as more pieces of the narrative fall into place you really start to see how wonderfully everyone did. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt’s characters are as different as night and day but they play them equally well. Hopefully, Fox/Fox Searchlight push for Brad Pitt come awards season. He’s one of Hollywood’s biggest names and he’s proven he’ll take a risk and go out on a limb and this might get him his statue. Equally compelling but more surprising are the performances of the three newcomers as the kids particularly Hunter McCracken who plays our protagonist Jack as a boy. His burn is the slowest and most explosive in the bunch and his performance rivals that of Pitt.

It’s hard to sum up or rate a film like this. One thing I will say for sure is that while I despise the notion of “important” films in theory but I cannot deny them when I see them regardless of proclivities. Having gotten that out of the way I do like this film and I do consider it important. Would the flow of it work better for me if I saw it again? Perhaps. Would the story hit home harder with all the puzzles solved? Maybe. It’s hard to gauge a film when you’re in awe of so many achievements on a technical and structural level but in a narrative are left to ponder where it falls on the scale. So I will caveat this, pending re-view I rate this film:

9/10

However, please note that even without being re-seen time is the ultimate judge and I have had films rated 9 slide up before.

Review- Rio

Rio (20th Century Fox)

For any viewer, regardless of your experience, academic acumen or whatever other qualifications you may have, there will invariably be occasions where a film plays into a sensitive area for you where it’ll either excel with flying colors or fail miserably, perhaps to a greater degree than it would otherwise, due to your personal experience. In the case of Rio it was targeted on my radar early on for two reasons: first, and the lesser of the two reasons, for my love of birds and conversely my loathing of smuggling but it hit home more because it’s set in Brazil, a nation of which I am a dual citizen.

Having been one who grew up cinematically with only Carmen Miranda and the anti-Lambada propaganda film The Forbidden Dance as major reference of American interpretations of Brazil onscreen my apprehension is understandable. Not that there’s anything wrong with Carmen Miranda but any icon can be turned into a stereotype in the wrong hands.

Suffice it to say that most of my concerns are addressed by the fact that one of the film’s writers and its director is a Brazilian, Carlos Saldanha. Yet, you also do not get a Disney-fied Saludos Amigos or Three Cabelleros rendition of Latin America, you have in the narrative of this film a setting which actually plays a role, which is rare but also one that is presented without frills and bereft of commentary. You see the glitz and glamor of Rio, the natural beauty, the beach life, the skyline at night, carnaval but also the favelas and in a minor way, crime. It’s a subtle but accurate portrait that doesn’t impose itself above the story. It shows the good and the bad. So with that personal concern overcome I can begin to address the rest of the film.

When dealing with animation set overseas there are invariably headaches of logic. There’s always the minor bugaboo of when do you float a word in said foreign language that English speakers will readily recognize? How many Brazilians and/or actors of Hispanic descent do you include in the cast? Now, there’s only one Brazilian in the principal cast, however, considering that many Brazilian actors have recently been cast as either Hispanic or “Vaguely Foreign” characters (such as Rodrigo Santoro himself in Love Actually) it all comes out in the wash.

In fact, quite a lot the voice talent does quite well either toeing that line or just being convincing that it makes you forget. Jesse Eiesenberg conveys the stressed, caged bird in the wild well and also has the unexpected task of struggling/learning to embrace his newfound culture. Anne Hathaway, perhaps more than any other name actor in the cast, vanishes behind the veneer of her character. Thankfully she is given license to sing and the few seconds of Portuguese she’s asked to speak sounds good.

The rest of the voice cast does rather well as a whole also. One of the most distinctive and hardest voices to overcome is George Lopez’s but his shtick with his wife is funny enough such that you eventually forget. While Tracy Morgan always sounds like himself it works in tandem with his character so well that it doesn’t matter. Will i. am provides the most consistent comic relief and perhaps the most overlooked voice work belongs to Jake T. Austin, perhaps best known for his work on Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place, he convincingly comes across as not only a Brazilian kid but also one who’s younger than he is.

The story of this film resolves itself quite neatly. It gets just the right amount of complication what with the smuggling plots getting aided with a scene-stealing performance by a Cockatoo (Jemaine Clement, who thankfully is also allowed to sing). Events head for the collision course you hope they’ll have and while there are dueling love plots and a heist everything thing has its proper priority within the infrastructure of the narrative. There’s more going on here than meets the eye with many of the villains not willing to do their own dirty work, such that you can see how it may be described as a mess but it truly does all work towards one end.

And that end is truly one of the more graceful and visual I’ve seen in some time. You realize the film is all but over and there are at least three questions/open ends you’re wondering about that are addressed in a few shots and wordlessly, without any lengthy denouement. It’s a thing of beauty of behold.

Moreover, it’s a musical that’s actually musical, meaning there are a few musical numbers where characters breakout and sing but not once does it seem random and forced. The score is tremendous and very present and when it’s not there it’s replaced by source music, which is usually a new take on a Brazilian standard. It’s another example of the synergy of location. The score is indigenous without feeling forced or trite. Even incorporating Samba beats the score and source music still underscores the action tonally.

I typically leave the 3D commentary for near the end when I do see something in 3D. I did see it as such and my general feeling is that right now animation, specifically animation by the biggest studios (Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks, Fox/Blue Sky) is usually your best bet for getting the most bang for your buck 3D-wise.

The animated feature film has become more of a box office and aesthetic presence than it ever was. It has truly grown in leaps and bounds over the history of cinema as something that was virtually a one-studio specialty to a medium that has become, at long last, a bona fide Oscar category. Having said that the category has been virtually monopolized. It’ll be very hard to justify that this year with Rio entering the fray I think.

As I may have said before, I now treat sitting through the end credits like a standing ovation. Considering the fact that I was so apprehensive about seeing it in the first place, I truly did not expect to watch this film all the way to its literal conclusion. Rio is a tremendously effervescent film that actually manages to capture some of the spirit of the city in a very honest way.

10/10