The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick (2011)

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Of all of the filmmakers in the world, Terrence Malick makes it the hardest to form an opinion on his films after one sitting. He doesn’t really make films as much as he makes complex, dense, highly populated visual poems with cameras and actors. While the films always maintain an airy, easygoing charm, each second that the film is unreeling a new idea presented somehow. This isn’t because his films are unfocused; rather the opposite, his films are so highly focused and expect, demand so much of the viewer that to watch it once is almost a crime.

Despite resting on the bed of a relatively simple plot about a Texas family in the 1950s and 60s, The Tree of Life simply defies description or label in the traditional sense.  It is about life, but in the most indescribable way possible, which is something that Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) himself struggles with (and eventually mucks up) greatly throughout the film. The idea of this film is what he is trying to convey to his three sons, and to his wife (the wonderful newcomer, Jessica Chastain), and he cannot do it properly. Yes, he can teach them manners, and even how to fight — but this, this is something else. Jack (Hunter McCracken) eventually takes the wrong lessons out of the fragments that his father can give to him. It’s not his fault, no one can put these concepts into words, not even Terrence Malick. Hell, not even the Bible is of any use.

To that end, it is not actually a film about a Texas family in the 1950s and 60s, that’s just where most of the concepts unfold. The film spans in time from the Big Bang through to the modern day, where the eldest son of the family, a now middle-aged Jack (Sean Penn), has become lost in some sort of emotional netherworld due to a mixture of the delayed turmoil of his brother’s death (at war, one would assume, though it is never confirmed) and the subsequent distance from his family as well as the decaying blight of modern’s man effect on the planet.

Malick finds an overriding beauty in the smallest elements of life (the most beautiful shots in the film are of a simple sunflower patch), but man has scarred this beauty with skyscrapers and greed. This natural beauty is science formed, though, not God formed. Malick goes out of his way to deliver this message with a lengthy and stunning creation sequence, where trial and error, natural experiment on a planetary level and natural selection rule. Life is eventually formed and fostered formed out of the nascent planetary gases, and man comes of this. But man ruins it: he is different. He thinks. He blushes. He destroys. He creates God for order, for peace, and the Devil to blame when, inevitably, neither of these happen.

It could be viewed as possibly the greatest argument for a Godless universe, where man is the annoyance, the “thin film of life” so invisible, yet so ignorantly wrapped up in its own existence, as Carl Sagan put it. One almost gets the sense that nature is waiting us out, and it may be.

But The Tree of Life stands upright as a visual document (the creation sequence itself will be re-released later this year in IMAX), and Malick and his team have created something more stunning than The Thin Red Line. What it stands for poetically will take a little longer to put it into proper perspective, but this is doubtlessly a major work of art, and it must be seen.

Quick Hits on X-Men: First Class – Mathew Vaughan (2011)

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-As CGI makes more astounding advances, movies end up getting more dull and lazy, and that’s never been more true with any movie genre as it is right now with comic book movies. The computer was a helping hand to the story in the first X-Men, but by the third X-Men, it was all computer based story. There is very little innovation left to be found in CGI movies, just more levels of technical achievements, which is fine and all, and someone, someday will put these to amazing use (no, probably not you, James Cameron), but for now I’ve seen enough shit flying to not need a “OH MY GOD I’M FLYING” slack-jawed grin of amazement every time it happens.

-Jennifer Lawrence deserves and will get the benefit of the doubt because of what the movie is and how bad her lines were, but it’s really hard to reconcile the fact that this was the same actress from Winter’s Bone. This was a rough one for her, but no one does their best work under these circumstances.

-Are we still really doing the whole kill the only black guy thing?

-The only thing about X-Men: First Class that works is the fledgling chemistry between Michael Fassbender and James Mcavoy. It’s an uneasy chemistry at best, never developing beyond the hope of a real chemistry before the finale tears down that hope.

-Overall, I was left with the impression of watching something that was made for TV, but with better explosions. Every above the line technical aspect fell short, and as an added bonus it really cannibalized the ideas and history of the first two X-Men. They just don’t fit together, puzzle-wise. It hardly seems to matter anymore. I’m sure the franchise will be rebooted again and again, something at which comic book movies are uniquely suited for. I choose to blame it all on Bill Jemas and the Ultimate Marvel line (even though that’s not the first reboot in comics history). Mostly Bill Jemas. Okay, all on Bill Jemas. Just because.