Reviews for 2011
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Starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
I had my doubts about Thor, mainly because this particular superhero always seemed kind of silly to me. I thought his creators probably ran out of ideas for human beings with super powers and decided to have the next one be a god -- and what could be more super than that? Not only did it feel a bit like cheating, but the god was to be based on old Norse mythology and his existence had to co-mingle seamlessly in a modern-day universe. This probably worked well enough on the printed page of Marvel Comics, which also featured omnipotent aliens to go along with its alienated super power-endowed teenagers. But could you imagine a movie that would seriously try to depict the Norse God of Thunder appearing in today's world? One's first reflex would be to view this film as a comedy.
But credit must be given to Kenneth Branagh, a man of Shakespearean pedigree, for not only deciding to direct this most unwieldy of Marvel properties, but also for approaching it with exactly the right attitude. Thor comes across as a well-balanced mixture of summer movie pop aesthetics -- not too serious, not too light, with a flare for visual pizazz and big personality. Branagh strikes gold in having relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth cast as the God of Thunder, who not only has the good looks and body to play the part, but also outsizes his performance to go along with them. This is the story about the humbling of a powerful but arrogant being, and Hemsworth not only trumpets the arrogance well but more importantly is able to show that this is a guy who's capable of finding humility. The performance is in just the right spirit for the movie.
Meanwhile, Branagh presents Thor as an action-packed self-contained mythical fable, and not your typical comic book origin story featuring a person dealing with newfound powers and responsibilities. He also understands that he's dealing with beings humans might call deities, and gives us their world -- the realm of Asgard -- as a vision of pomp and splendor. The special effects are used to emphasize the power and brilliance that comes with this world, so when Thor takes action, it carries the weight and aftermath of something otherworldly. Branagh doesn't overdo it either, as he counterbalances this depiction with a lot of humor, especially when Thor ends up on earth. One particularly nice touch involves a character who shows others that these people Thor mentions and associates with were something out of a children's book. It's a good way of reminding us that this is all meant to be in fun.
I still say Thor is a goofy idea for a superhero, but his movie has been handled well, and probably couldn't have been done any better. Now, as almost all comic book geeks know, Thor will return for the upcoming "Avengers" movie, about a bunch of these superheroes teaming up, and I can't help wondering how anyone is supposed to be challenging for the almighty Thor. Well, I did get a hint that the villains from that film might mainly be led by the villain from this film. I suppose if you have a superhero team that includes a god, the only menace that might give you a fight would also have to have connections to the gods. It sounds like this sequel could get out of control, but if it's lent the attitude Branagh has given to Thor, then we might be in good shape. (added 5/9/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)
Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain.
Directed by Terrence Malick.
It may be said that most serious artists ultimately migrate in the same direction, toward creating works that no longer simply evaluate local aspects of their lives, but inevitably address one's self in the context of all life. And it appears that director Terrence Malick has already arrived at this point with The Tree of Life. Practically a magnum opus upon arrival, the movie deals with nothing less than a man coming to terms with the reason for his being, the direction he took in life, and his relationship to God and the universe, via flashbacks to his childhood and to thoughts about the creation of life on earth. The sections about childhood feel so personal and intimate that it would be astonishing if they didn't have direct connections to Malick's own experiences (Malick grew up in the Texas/Oklahoma region, and most of the film takes place in Waco, Texas). So the film naturally leads one to believe the main character of the film, Jack (Sean Penn as adult, Hunter McCracken as teenager) stands as a surrogate, if not literal then at least philosophical, of the writer/director himself.
Though The Tree of Life is presented in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, it lays out simple terms from the beginning. The primary struggle shown is the one between the urge to satisfy base desires vs. the will to forgive, to show kindness and mercy. The film terms this as "nature" vs. "grace" (they are personified by Jack's strict father, played by a terrific Brad Pitt, and innocent mother, played by Jessica Chastain) and the crux of the issue comes from wondering why God allows the capacity for cruelty without direct adverse consequences to the enacter (this extends to cruel acts by God as well). Though it may sound as if the movie is concerned mostly with religion and spirituality, the conveyance of its story opens it up further than that and allows it to be explored by viewers of any belief. I myself am irreligious, but Malick's concerns here are ones I often ponder. We are held back by thin lines we could consciously snap, but we do not -- due to a respect for a greater good. However, that respect must somehow be learned. The Tree of Life is full of moments where these lines are snapped or almost snapped by Jack -- a mean prank on his brother, acts of animal abuse, an evil consideration of "accidental" death. Though the harsh negative reinforcement of his father drives him toward tendencies to rebel, the teachings of his mother are instilled enough within him to fuel his conscience and create genuine guilt.
The proper perspective of the significance of these inner struggles is even given consideration (and these are, again, thoughts I often consider). What larger perspective could one have than to place the battles of one's individual conscience against the uncaring universe itself? An early part of the movie actually digresses to the universe's creation through the Big Bang (thus creating another way of opening up a locally spiritual concern to spaces beyond religion), through the formation of the Milky Way, our solar system, and finally to Earth. This part of the movie actually reminded me of the "Rite of Spring" section of Fantasia, though The Tree of Life may argue that Fantasia only showed us "nature"; here, there is actually a strange scene of "grace" among, of all things, dinosaurs. In a way, it says that nothing we do really matters in a grand scheme, but matters infinitely in a local scheme, and that is not insignificant.
Most beautifully, The Tree of Life communicates all of its themes and concerns through nothing resembling a traditional movie. It's a collection of shots, thoughts, moments, and memories, sweetly composed visuals with a soul-stirring soundtrack (original score portions composed by Alexandre Desplat), and all masterfully edited together in a flow that comes complete with miniature crashes of imagery balanced by distinct, settled sections. Its assembly alone makes a case for its achieving cinematic heights. It's a work of great confidence, asking its audience to observe, reflect, and feel over making literal sense of events.
For Malick, the film feels like a summation work -- no longer is it a movie about fugitives, farmhands, soldiers, or explorers, it's a work directly about one's thoughts on life, conscience, and meaning themselves. Few films can grasp such heady concerns and keep such a hold on them that they resonate philosophically, emotionally. A few years ago, Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York made me think along similar lines. A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers gave me a more humorous twist on these themes. And now there is The Tree of Life, perhaps the most optimistic of the three. One could even call it "the kindest" of such movies -- the one with the most grace. (added 6/22/2011; this review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews)
Starring Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee.
Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
In Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the titular character (Thanapat Saisaymar) has a fatal kidney disease and he feels he is nearing the end. He's at a point of peace in his life, and, while in the company of his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), he is visited by certain supernatural beings who serve to more fully inform and bring closures to his reflections of his current -- and past -- lives. The movie is a gentle stroll through slow, often mysterious scenes and intimate conversations, not following any kind of plot, and features a rather magical interlude and a strange, jarring ending.
Uncle Boonmee is only the second movie I've watched by Weerasethakul; the other one I've seen was Tropical Malady, and it's my experience from having viewed the first that helped me to make some sense of the second. Weerasethakul emerges as one of the most personal filmmakers working today; his movies feel like a compilation of his thoughts and ideas, meticulously composed for the screen. Uncle Boonmee is beautifully shot and beholden to no particular audience; its story of a dying man can be interrupted by a tale about a princess, or a series of still photos depicting young soldiers and a captured creature. The density of the movie might be its toughest aspect to penetrate, but when I really think about it, the film wasn't meant to be dense -- it consists of simple scenarios, each one not too difficult to understand, that don't necessarily tell a whole story but, instead, together illustrate some themes. Based on two of his movies, I sense the director's deep affinity for local mythology and Eastern spiritual beliefs, which include the understanding that there isn't such a defined line between our world and the next. The jungle, especially at night, resplendent in its symphony of chirping crickets, is a place of great, primeval power, and the further humans stray from its natural landscape and into civilization, the more spiritually malnourished they become.
It's not unfair to say a film like Uncle Boonmee is a very different film from what most people are used to, but it's arguably more expressive and less restrictive than other films. This movie is one to absorb, to wonder at, and, perhaps most significantly, to give exposure to lines of thinking that one might not be familiar with but are as appreciable as anyone's own. (added 7/14/2011)
©Jeffrey Chen, 2011
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