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Tree of Life Takes Chances, One Day probes beginnings

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The Tree of Life
  • The Tree of Life

REVIEWS:

THE TREE OF LIFE

      As a writer and director, Terrence Malick has always created off-beat films. Perhaps as a result, they have only been recognized in retrospect for their quality. Days of Heaven (1978) may now be recognized as a landmark film of the 1970s, but it received mixed reviews when it opened and did not enjoy great box office success. Perhaps because of the reaction to his films, Malick has only directed five feature films, beginning with Badlands in 1973. The Tree of Life is his first film since his excellent The New World in 2005, and it is the most experimental film you are likely to see in a general release movie.

      I would guess that no two viewers will interpret The Tree of Life the same way. Indeed, the film seems designed to tap into the individual viewer’s psyche in regard to how that person sees the universe and his/her place in it. Nor does Malick shy away from religious themes as most commercial films do for fear of alienating one demographic or another. Perhaps more accurately given what religion has come to signify in our current society, the film deals with spiritual matters.

      The film signals this intent from the opening title, which is a quote from the Book of Job that begins “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…?” Following some abstract imagery, we see Mrs. O’Brien (the wonderfully effective Jessica Chastain, recently seen in The Help) discover that one of her sons has died at age 19, beginning the very episodic base narrative.

      Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is now an architect but confesses to his father (Brad Pitt) that he thinks of his dead brother every day. When Jack sees a tree being planted, the film cuts to a series of images that appear to represent the formation of the earth. While the middle part of the film depicts the three sons growing up in 1950s Texas, the real narrative is how one finds a purpose for life.

      The senior O'Brien, clearly disappointed with how his eldest son turns out, is a loving father but also a stern disciplinarian who is occasionally abusive. He seems obsessed in particular that Jack (Hunter McCracken is the young Jack) grows up to be his own man, but Jack becomes alienated by his father’s approach and disappointed in his mother for letting her husband roll over her.

      This examination of family dynamics and grief is a springboard for the film’s main concern: How do we connect death and life? How do we make sense of the chaos? At the beginning, the film posits a dichotomy between Nature and Grace, one demanding and the other accepting. When Mr. O’Brien’s plant shuts down, the film concludes with a sort of rapture where connections are once again made. It turns out that the dichotomy is not a duality at all; we are all part of the tree of life.

      Malick has produced a beautifully shot, brilliant film, one that probably won’t appeal to everyone. But should you choose to see it, you won’t find a more interesting film this year. Malick always takes chances as a director. I wish more people did as well. PG-13. 139m. At the Minor.

ONE DAY

      A month ago or so, I decided to read the novels that some forthcoming films were adapted from. Going into my ridiculously large stack of books to read, I pulled out One Day, Sarah’s Key and The Help. I never made it to the latter, happily for my taste as it turns out, before the film opened, but I read the other two. After finishing David Nicholls popular novel, I thought there was a good chance the film would become a 10-hankie weepie. Happily, One Day, directed by Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) easily exceeded my expectations.

      As readers of the novel know, One Day is a love story with a narrative concept. Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess), she bookish and from a modest family, he a spoiled son from a well-to-do family, meet on July 15, 1988, on the day of their college graduation. They spend a drunken night together but don’t quite completely consummate a physical relationship. They decide to become friends and from this point, the story follows the pair on each July 15 for the next 20 years (St. Swithens Day, which appears to be like our Groundhog’s Day).

      The book’s narrative ends in July 2007 but the movie updates the final year to 2011. As Nicholls also wrote the screenplay, the film’s structure closely mirrors that of the novel, although some plot lines are, of necessity, missing (Emma’s affair with her headmaster, for example).

      Perhaps the main difference between film and novel is the reduced detail in the film. Although the novel takes place on the designated days, the reader also gets some information about what happened in the interim, which adds complexity to the characters. The film is more a series of snapshots so, in the instance of Dex, he comes across as a much more superficial and frivolous character until the final few scenes.

      An advantage of the episodic nature of the film is that the viewer can enjoy, or not, the individual scenes as mini-films. This is not to say that the film lacks continuity or development, but the scenes seemed more inseparable in the novel.

      I must admit that as much as I admire Hathaway as an actor, I was surprised she was cast in the role of Emma, who is given such a specific accent in the novel, when there are plenty of fine British actresses available (Carey Mulligan for one). As it turns out, according to Wikipedia, Scherfig wasn’t looking for an American; Hathaway got a hold of the script and talked Scherfig into casting her.

      At any rate, once I saw Hathaway’s masterful performance as Emma the issue became moot. Hathaway takes the bits of information about Emma the viewer is privy to and creates so complete a character that the viewer can easily fill in the gaps in the narrative. Sturgess is fine as Dex, but for this viewer he unfortunately tended to disappear in the presence of Hathaway. Of the supporting cast, Patricia Clarkson is solid in the brief role as Dexter’s mother.

      For those who don’t know the story, I suspect the climax will strike those viewers in different ways. But in both novel and film, one of the final scenes is a flashback to 1988, where we see that Emma and Dex decide to finish what they started later in the day only to be foiled by the early arrival of Dexter’s parents. But as they part they share a kiss and they both think (to quote the novel), “This is where it all begins. Everything starts here, today.”

      That thought serves as the guiding narrative principle for the film, and both cast and director effectively bring it to life. PG-13. 107m. At the Broadway.

PREVIEWS

OUR IDIOT BROTHER. We've all got that family member we'd like to forget -- at least that's what the producers of this film are banking on. Paul Rudd plays a carefree, upbeat down-on-his-luck brother whose commitment to honesty makes life difficult for the sisters who take him in during hard times. Things get funny. Rated R for goofy sexiness. 90m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK. Guy Pearce and new girlfriend Katie Holmes have never seen a horror movie and decide to restore a creepy old house. In the process, Pearce's onscreen daughter uncovers something in the mansion's hidden basement that places the family in danger. Rated R for terror and scariness. 103m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

COLUMBIANA. Action film sees one time Na'vi Zoe Saldana become an assassin after witnessing her parents' murder. Revenge is a dish best served cold ... and on a movie screen for our enjoyment. Rated PG-13 for violence. 108m. At the Broadway and Mill Creek.

ANOTHER EARTH. A woman's unlikely love affair is interrupted by her desire to explore the cosmos after hearing that a second Earth -- home to an alternative reality -- has been discovered. Which life will she choose? Rated PG-13 for adult situations. 93m. At the Minor.

CONTINUING

CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Another entry on your "they'll never remake that" list bites the dust. Rated R. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE. Steve Carell portrays a 40-something who tries to cope after his wife cheats on him. Rated PG-13. 118m. At the Broadway.

FINAL DESTINATION 5. People die. Again, how can there be a fourth sequel to a film with "Final" in the title? C'mon! Rated R. 92m. At the Broadway and Fortuna.

FRIGHT NIGHT. Colin Farrell jumps on the sexy vampire train. Rated R. 106m. At the Broadway and Fortuna (in 3D) and Mill Creek in 2D.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2. The boy-wizard becomes a man-wizard in the final installment. PG-13. At the Broadway.

THE HELP. Consensus: This film -- which poorly deals with weighty issues of race -- needs a bit of its title. Rated PG-13. 146m. At the Braodway and Mill Creek.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. Film directed by Woody Allen sees Owen Wilson fall in love with two eras of the City of Lights. Rated PG-13 94m. At the Minor.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. This is when it all went bad for us humans. Thanks alot, James Franco. Rated PG-13. 110m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

THE SMURFS. We couldn't get anyone on staff interested in reviewing this movie. But it's about Smurfs, if you're wondering. PG. 102m. At the Broadway.

SPY KIDS: ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD. Your kids will love watching kids save the world. Rated PG. 89m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

30 MINUTES OR LESS. Getting a bomb strapped to your chest by bank robbers can be hilarious. Rated R. 83m. At the Broadway, Fortuna and Mill Creek.

-- Andrew Goff

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