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The Tree of Life (2011)

If a Terrence Malick film (The New World, The Thin Red Line) is the closest thing cinema has to creating a religious experience, turning the theater into a church, then I choose to worship elsewhere. After four movies I can decisively say that I am not a Malick fan. The man is more interested in making ponderous nature documentaries attached with pretentious, whispery, obtusely poetic voice over. The man is not interested in narrative filmmaking. The Tree of Life, the inexplicable winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or, is less a movie than an impressionistic experience inside a dying man’s brain. It feels like all the synapses are sizzling, memories and fantasies bouncing around and melding. We see a 1950s childhood and a pushy father (Brad Pitt), but then we also see mom (Jessica Chastain) floating at one point, and Malick also manages to squeeze in a 15-minute sequence charting life from the Big Bang to the end of the dinosaurs. What? The Malick faithful declare their man a singular auteur, a man who uses cinema to explore the unanswerable questions of life, the universe, and everything. Terrific. However, most of these edits are only a couple seconds, and with little narrative momentum the scenes drag and drag, and every Malick minute feels like a thousand hours. Sean Penn, as the adult son, probably filmed his stuff during a pee break from another movie; it’s that short. The film is a technical marvel, the cinematography making tremendous use of different light levels, but that’s all this movie is for me — pretty pictures. It’s yet another frustrating, pompous, punishing “film,” a term I’m being generous with, from Malick. The Tree of Life moves so slowly and intractably that I wondered if literally watching grass grow would be a better use of my time. Sorry Malick disciples, I guess I am a movie secularist.

Nate’s Grade: C

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The New World (2005)

I’m not a Terrence Malick fan. There, I’ve said it. I think he’s got a great eye for visuals, however, I’ve never been impressed by any of his films. I hated 1998’s The Thin Red Line and its exhausting supply of narrators so much that I wanted to walk out of the theater. The only other movie I felt the same impulse, at the time, was Lost in Space. As you can see, not good company. It’s been a long time since that nightmare so I figured it would only be kind to give Malick another chance. His new film, The New World, looks to deconstruct the mythic relationship between settler John Smith and Native American princess, Pocahontas (perhaps best known for painting with the colors of the wind, or so Disney would have me believe). To my non-surprise, The New World is everything I thought it would be, namely ponderous, pretentious, and quite bad.

It’s 1606, and the world is about to change forever. A cadre of ships bound from England ground ashore on the Virginia coast in search of a settlement and, hopefully, a vibrant colony. The Captain (Christopher Plummer) warns that his men must treat the “naturals” with care; after all, this is their homeland. The Native American inhabitants treat the new settlers with curiosity, poking them, smelling them, and then tolerating their existence … for now. John Smith (Colin Farrell) comes to America in chains, the result of an ill-fated mutiny, but the Captain gives him new life. He commissions Smith to send an envoy deep into the Native American village to seek trading partners. Along the way he is captured and about to be executed when he’s saved by a young girl (Q’Orianka Kilcher), a.k.a. Pocahontas though the name is never spoken once. Smith is allowed to stay with the tribe and he deeply grows fond of Pocahontas. The two are blocked by culture and language, but their feelings persist. Smith is ordered to go back to his people. If they do not leave the land there will be war. The two civilizations are set to butt heads, and the love between Smith and Pocahontas is precariously trapped between.

2006newworldOh yeah, and after Smith leaves to go on an exploratory mission for the king, John Rolfe (Christian Bale) comes to the Jamestown settlement to woo Pocahontas himself.

Let’s get this bit of semantics out of the way. Terrence Malick doesn’t make movies, he makes nature documentaries. He doesn’t so much involve a plot as he does a large open space for his characters to pontificate about the world around them, mostly through whispery voice over. Malick fans will take in his artistic capture of sight and sound, but the rest of us out there will be scratching our heads, that is, when we’re not falling asleep. Seriously, how do you edit something like this? How does Malick know that THIS shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to be slotted here, while this OTHER shot of a tree blowing in the wind needs to definitely come later? Malick is a stubborn mystery. He’s less interested in crafting a good movie than he is breaking the rules of what film can be. That’s all well and dandy when you put out an entertaining product. The only way I think The New World could be entertaining is if: 1) you adore long, poetic scenes of nature, or 2) you hate yourself.

It seems needless to talk about the acting. Farrell (Daredevil, Minority Report) seems like a good choice for a hardluck man overwhelmed by his new environment. Kilcher could be a fine actress, she certainly is rather beautiful, but the jury’s still out on her emoting. Plummer  is so good that you’ll miss him dearly when he’s gone. Most of the acting revolves around silence and reactions, which is not the most captivating material.

The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (Sleepy Hollow, Lemony Snicket) is obviously beautiful, taking great pains to showcase Virginia in a near mythic quality. But a film built around pretty pictures and idling characters can only go so far. Your attention span is so strained you may start doing your checkbook in your head. Oh ye God is The New World’s score terrible. It’s like James Horner collapsed on his keyboard, they recorded it, looped it, and just made it get louder and louder.

The-New-World-001It seems like Malick wrote his story on the back of his hand. So very little happens. I’m not as distraught about the immense lack of dialogue, because venturing into a foreign land with foreign people likely doesn’t produce a lot of conversation when no one can understand you. However, the only things we have to push the story forward are some repetitive, junior high-esque poetry disguised as introspective voice over. Pocahontas keeps waving her arms about like she’s directing airplanes, and then she ponders, “Mother, are you there? Are you in the wind?” She even hugs a tree at one point, perhaps thinking it’s her mother. What do you want; she’s the baby of like 100 kids. Malick is so frustrating and pretentious that he will bludgeon to death an audience rather than invite them into his artistic world. He definitely doesn’t make it easy or rewarding.

As far as romance is concerned, the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas is curiously platonic. Both fall hard for the other but nothing ever dares to rock the PG-13 rating. The furthest these crazy kids get in expressing their love is hugging. I realize that Kilcher was only 14 years old when this was shot, but that doesn’t stop Malick from turning her into pseudo-artistic jailbait. When he’s not filming nature he spends an awful long time on Kilcher prancing around; the camera is practically fawning over her. I get it; we’re supposed to feel the spirit of this girl and her connection with the world around her. That’s why John Smith falls for her. But then nothing seems to happen in their puppy love courtship. It’s all too chaste to be epic or even slightly memorable. Then at the start of the third act Farrell leaves and in pops Bale, and the audience is going, “Oh, c’mon, we have to go through all that again?!” Sure enough, The New World starts all over and another man goes through the same courtship steps with Pocahontas. They touch the grass. They share looks. They talk to the wind. They murder my patience. The New World is a love story suffocated by hesitation and Malick’s own disinterest.

The New World
is emblematic of why I’ll never be a Terrence Malick fan: it’s long, drifting, unfocused, ponderous over entertaining, and just plain friggin’ boring! If you’re a scenery buff you’ll garner some enjoyment from Malick’s images, but people looking for story, character, and any sort of movement will be lost with this 135-minute rumination on man, nature, and man touching nature …. very…. slowly. If this is all you are going to do then stop making movies and just make nature specials, Malick. The New World is pretentious, dull, and stubborn down to its very last second. It once took Malick 20 years in between movies. I wouldn’t mind if he took another 20-year hiatus.

Nate’s Grade: C

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