Archive for the ‘Terrence Malick’ Category

LAWLESS is a couple weeks old now, but it’s still way worth talking about.  It’s not to be confused with FLAWLESS, the Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-in-a-dress movie, nor is it to be confused with the upcoming DREDD movie, which as we all know is guaranteed to have a surplus of law.

Here’s what I said about LAWLESS before I saw it

WETTEST COUNTY was on my list of 50 most eagerly-awaited movies of the year.   But it’s not called that anymore, though.  Now it goes by the handle LAWLESS, a much more generic title which sounds a little cooler after knowing it was generously bestowed upon the movie by none other than Terrence Malick.  Whatever it’s called, it’s a John Hillcoat movie, which after THE PROPOSITION and The ROAD, promises good things.  I’m definitely getting a less-artsy, more-mainstream PUBLIC ENEMIES vibe from the new trailer, but that doesn’t strike me personally as a deterrent.

Check out the trailer, it made LAWLESS travel that much higher on my want-to-see-now meter:


Now, to read what I had to say about LAWLESS after seeing it (spoiler warning: it’s a lot of very nice things), you’ll have to click over to Daily Grindhouse:


And make damn sure you check out that soundtrack:

Wettest County was on my list of 50 most eagerly-awaited movies of the year.  It’s not called that anymore, though.  Now it’s going by the handle Lawless, a much more generic title which sounds a little cooler after knowing it was generously bestowed upon the movie by none other than Terrence Malick.  Whatever it’s called, it’s a John Hillcoat movie, which after The Proposition and The Road, promises good things.  I’m definitely getting a less-artsy, more-mainstream Public Enemies vibe from the new trailer, but that doesn’t strike me personally as a deterrent.

Check out the trailer, it made Lawless travel that much higher on my want-to-see-now meter:

Find me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

In my piece on Hugo, I struggled with this word “masterpiece.” How would you know if you saw a masterpiece? How many viewings would it take before you were sure? In my lifetime, I’ve had the suspicion that a movie I just watched could be considered a masterpiece. Sometimes time and the critical consensus bore my hunches out. Other times I’ve been wrong.

Critical consensus is currently riding high on The Tree Of Life, the latest film written and directed by Terrence Malick. I’ve seen the “masterpiece” terminology being thrown around fairly generously. Is there such a thing as an instant masterpiece? Or is time passing a deciding factor on what is or isn’t ultimately a masterpiece?

I’ve never been one for simple labels anyway. Let’s just say The Tree Of Life has a better-than-average shot at going the distance, and move along from there.

Terrence Malick has one of the most confounding film careers of any major director working. He made two movies that we can safely refer to as masterpieces, 1973’s Badlands and 1978’s Days Of Heaven, then didn’t release another movie until 1998, with The Thin Red Line, his largest-scale film to date, starring almost every actor you’ve ever heard of. The reason why no one rushes to saddle this wonderful movie with that “M” word is because Malick’s original cut ran more than five hours and I don’t think anybody feels like they’ve seen the movie entirely the way Malick intended. It sure doesn’t feel like the work of somebody who’d been dozing off for twenty years though.  It’s pretty damn accomplished, regardless of the truncated form it arrived in. I happen to love it. I feel the same way about Malick’s fourth feature, 2005’s The New World, which seems to have been received similarly by the intelligentsia: highly regarded, yet with strangely muted adoration considering how much uncommon beauty is on display. The Tree Of Life, finally, has been greeted with the kind of fanfare that Malick’s work deserves — clearly he doesn’t seem to need the attention (he’s pretty much the reverse of a Kardashian), but his movies most certainly demand to be seen by the widest possible audience. In my opinion, art like this makes the whole world better.

One thing people seem to have trouble doing is describing the plot of The Tree Of Life. That’s because there isn’t really one. The film is told in a non-linear style, which is to say it jumps around in time. In describing the movie, it’s easiest to start with Sean Penn’s character, Jack O’Brien. As a grown, Penn-ishly grizzled man, Jack reflects on his childhood, spent with his father (played by Brad Pitt), his mother (played by Jessica Chastain), and his two brothers, one of whom doesn’t make it to adulthood. Dad is a strict and sometimes intimidating disciplinarian, and Mom is warmer and more sympathetic, even playful when Dad isn’t around. It’s not that Dad’s a bad guy, not at all, but it was a different time. In Roger Ebert’s review, which you really should read (after this one), he talks about how true to detail this story is, set as it is in the American Midwest, mainly during the 1950s. Ebert rightly calls attention to the fact that Pitt and Chastain’s characters are never given first names. They’re just Mr. and Mrs., mother and father. That’s how kids perceive adults. My niece is four, and she’s at a point where she knows her mom and dad and uncle have first names, and she knows what they are, but she treats them like secret identities — it’s “Mommy” and “Daddy” always, she’s not about to run around calling Spider-Man and Batman “Peter Parker” and “Bruce Wayne.” Malick’s movie is full of this kind of emotional truth, a specific universality, which I think helps to make sense of the film’s so-called extravagances.

The Tree Of Life doesn’t just jump between Jack O’Brien’s childhood and adulthood — it goes all the way back to the beginning of time. This movie shows you the birth of the earth, the progression of life on the planet. As you may have heard, there are dinosaurs in it. I don’t want to talk about theme and meaning too in-depth, until I’m sure we’ve all seen the movie, but personally I felt that the dinosaur scenes made perfect sense, tonally speaking. Let’s just say there are slight parallels between how the dinosaurs behave and how some of the human behavior we see later can be interpreted. It’s not a literal comparison, but an emotional one. In my opinion. As the early stages of the film progress, the story centers around the O’Brien household in Texas. There is a direct line between the emphasis on a pure state of nature, from those “Big Bang” scenes, to the way the O’Brien kids explore and enjoy their environment. Malick is able to evoke a tangible sense of place — the grass, the wind, the water. Your own specific childhood may not have resembled this one, but the senses are universal. I’m willing to bet actual money that if you just allow this movie to sweep you up, there are moments in it that will feel as real to you as your own memories do.

This is why I look at Terrence Malick as one of the few filmmakers I can think of off-hand who can also rightfully be called a poet. I’d argue that David Lynch is one also, but his films are nightmarish where Malick’s are dreamier. What Malick is able to do, more than almost any other filmmaker alive or dead, is to use imagery as both mood and theme. He’s also fascinated by the spiritual beauty of the natural world, and manages to work with some of the world’s greatest cinematographers in order to bring the most lucid, evocative, and stirring of images to screen. Here he is reunited with his DP from The New World, Emmanuel Lubezki, and together (with cast and crew) they have brought us some images that grab your soul by the collar and draw your eyes forward, tenderly though, not violently. Most movies are lucky to conjure up one or two indelible images — The Tree Of Life provides you with something like two hundred.

The Tree Of Life is a strange and beautiful symphony that flutters by in a short two-and-a-half-hour running time. Two and a half hours isn’t short, but it felt that way to me. Honestly it reminded me as much of my own memories as it does of any movie I could name. Which I think is the key to understanding it, and that’s a notion borne out by the movie’s unusual title. The “tree of life”, as the Bible tells it, was the tree in the garden of Eden upon which fruit grew that granted everlasting life to those who ate from it. When Adam and Eve were cast out from Eden, they could no longer eat from the tree, and they became mortal. Believe it or not, this brings us back to movies.

One thing that movies and memories have in common is that both create a sense of immortality. Nothing, not even the earth itself, is immortal, but as long as we’re alive, our memories feel immortal. All of us will be gone one day, and our memories with us, but as long as we live, we’re able to revisit any era of our lives, in any order. Movies don’t last forever either — prints can be lost or burned — but more than anything they encourage this feeling of immortality. Just look at the stars of this movie — Sean Penn looks every minute of his age in this movie, yet we can pop out the DVD and put in Fast Times At Ridgemont High and see him at twenty again. That’s a kind of immortality. Brad Pitt looks sort of ageless in this movie, but then again you can see crow’s feet beginning to form, and this is an actor that many of us have grown up with. He’ll always be Floyd from True Romance, and he’ll just as always be Mr. O’Brien from The Tree Of Life. That’s a kind of immortality. Jessica Chastain has a kind of delicate beauty in this movie that no human being can maintain forever, but as long as this movie exists she’ll always look this way. That’s a kind of immortality. I’m not sure if I’m expressing my point clearly enough, but I hope it’s getting through: These people, these characters, they’re immortal in a way, even though that’s technically impossible.

Watching The Tree Of Life reminds me of those brief moments in my memory, the ones where I remember telling myself specifically, “Remember this” — these are moments that I can remember as clearly as a freeze frame on a movie screen. In college, dancing with a pretty girl in a crowded basement to music I didn’t particularly like, having a blast. In Hawaii, sitting alone at the side of a highway overlooking a beach at 7 in the morning, feeling calm as I ever have felt. Sitting on a filthy curb in Silver Lake (pre-gentrification), near a laundromat, having just gotten off the phone with a girl who mattered, knowing that, after all, there’d be no me and her, feeling like there isn’t much hope. In the hospital the day my niece was born, cradling a new life in my arms, realizing I had an official responsibility towards her and welcoming the idea, thinking “Of course there’s always hope, you idiot.”

I guess that’s why I love movies so much. They take specific memories, whether those are real or invented, and make them feel like universal truths. That’s a special thing. It’s a special movie that can make such an important realization feel so clear. The Tree Of Life provides illumination, in an era of great uncertainty. That’s not just good entertainment. That’s almost holy.


More, always, here.

I did not rush out to see this movie on the largest possible screens when it was released nearly six years ago, and more the fool I for that.  It’s kind of incredible.

In their list of the top fifty films of the past decade, the Onion’s A.V. Club, one of my favorite daily web destinations, rated Terrence Malick’s The New World at number nine.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography.  (Malick’s movies are always visual fireworks.)  Roger Ebert gave it four stars and called Malick “a visionary.”  Despite all this, The New World isn’t as well remembered as it could be.

Why is that?  I’m not the guy to ask.  I mean, I have some answers, but they won’t sound good to everybody.  I guess I’d reluctantly agree that Terrence Malick’s movies aren’t for everyone.  I’d argue that you really have to love movies to love his movies.  Most people apparently don’t love movies that much.  Your friend with the Scarface poster probably doesn’t love movies as much as he thinks he does.  Scarface is cool and all, but the well-rounded person doesn’t watch only one movie over and over again.  Really loving movies means being open to movies that aren’t the most obvious or accessible.

To appreciate what Malick does, you also have to be open to qualities which are too rare to modern movies, such as thoughtfulness and meditation, appreciation of the natural world, even spirituality.  (And not the obvious or accessible kind of spirituality, either.)  Though Malick (The Thin Red Line) has already directed a better World War II movie than Michael Bay(Pearl Harbor) has, guess whose movies are more popular?  I don’t like to be elitist, but we really are talking about sophistication here.  You don’t like it?  Cool.  I don’t either.  Prove me wrong.  Pay to watch these wonderful movies.

And The New World, in my opinion, is pretty wonderful.  It’s where cinematic art and American history meet.  It’s the story of Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), the Native American girl whose life was altered by the arrival of the Jamestown expedition, which introduced her to Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), her first love.  That relationship is battered by the collision of the Native people and the English settlers, and it ultimately doesn’t survive the trip, though consolation arrives in the form of John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a good man who became the father of her son.

A lot of us have heard this story before, in one form or another.  Hell, it was a Disney cartoon.   It’s popular history, but not that currently popular.  Malick’s method is to bring the past lumbering back to life, like a dinosaur rediscovering its bite.  The first time you see those colonial ships, matched with the unusually good score by James Horner (normally cornier), there’s a vivid majesty to the movie that makes it more interesting than Social Studies ever was back in grade school.

In The New World, Malick is specifically addressing the very moment of conception of the United States, beginning, as he posits, with Pocahontas, portrayed here as the first true American, a knowing and canny survivor.   This movie makes you love America all over again, the way you love Pocahontas as she’s conjured here, luminous, sweet, and full of promise.  (She’s a teenager so it’s a very innocent kind of love.)  Colin Farrell is really good at playing the mutinous rogue, a basically violent man, but he’s very tender in his scenes with her.  It doesn’t feel wrong.  Even more is the case with Christian Bale, dropping his usual intensity and playing a genuinely decent man for once.  Internet creeps who talk trash about these two stars probably haven’t seen how good they are in this movie.  Oh, and Christopher Plummer is in it too, as the leader of the expedition, Captain Newport, typically dignified and magnetic and a little bit sinister.  I don’t think we have to debate his greatness at this point in time.

I’m not sure yet how deep into history The New World actually goes (John Smith and John Rolfe were real people, but was Captain Newport? and does it matter?), but to me it’s thoroughly convincing no matter how much of it is actually true.  Does that make sense?  There’s a truly epic sweep to this movie — normally when I describe a movie as “epic”, I’m talking about scope or distance, but in this case the epicness actually feels like it spans a gap of centuries.  Malick, as ever, is able to evoke all the most ancient platitudes of storytelling and moviemaking, and to make them true through his poetic vision.

Yeah, I’d say it’s worth watching.






Suggested reading:


Days Of Heaven.

In Bruges.



Writing about a Terence Malick movie is like trying to describe a sunset. It’s kinda futile. Many better writers have done it before, and their efforts were probably ultimately futile too. You just have to see it for yourself to get the full effect.

Days Of Heaven stars Richard Gere (so much better here than in his later movies) as a turn-of-the-century vagrant and laborer who travels from state to state with his girlfriend (Brooke Adams) and his young sister (Linda Manz, who narrates).  When Gere accidentally kills a foreman in a fistfight, he takes the other two and they flee Chicago for Texas.  For discretion’s sake, Gere claims that both girls are his sisters. They quickly find work on a farm owned by a wealthy but dying man (the great Sam Shepard, the spitting image of Denis Leary in this movie), and when Shepard falls in love with Adams, trouble follows.

The photography by Nestor Almendros (with additional camerawork by Haskell Wexler) justly received an Academy Award: the sweeping shots of the trainyards and the fields of grain, the striking faces of the leads, the ripple of crops swaying in the breeze, the horrific and somewhat symbolic locust attack that leads to fire and desperation:  All of these are images that will not leave you once you’ve witnessed them. 

As always, Malick is a director who will stop to look at the local flora and fauna as his camera encounters them; however what struck me about Days Of Heaven is how efficient it is — it covers a lengthy span of time story-wise, but its many scenes are surprisingly and perfectly brief.  There’s no extraneous business here; Malick’s writing is economical and it feeds the profound effect of his directorial work.

Typically wonderful score by Ennio Morricone too.  It’s so natural to expect excellence from that most brilliant of composers, and he’s so prolific (particularly during this era, the 1970s) that it’s easy to take his work for granted, but I don’t.  He’s great.

Watch Days Of Heaven sometime. For an hour-and-a-half of your valuable time, you will be rewarded by a true piece of artwork that entertains and enriches in equal doses.


The Social Network needs no introducing at this point. Click on the poster to read my extended thoughts on it.

Badlands is a nearly-thirty-year-old movie directed by the decidedly non-prolific Terence Malick, whose movies are universally amazing.  “Amazing” is an over-used word, but in this case it’s accurate.  Malick’s movies show a humanist worldview.  He has a historian’s ability to bring the past to life, and a naturalist’s fascination in the beauty of the natural world.   Badlands tells a fictionalized version of a true-crime event from the 1950s, a series of murders by a young killer (Martin Sheen) and his teenaged girlfriend (Sissy Spacek). If it weren’t for the famed decades-long career of its two leads, the presence of the much-missed Warren Oates, and the slight agedness of the still-stunning photography, the movie would feel as fresh and as contemporary as it must have when it was first released.

If you haven’t seen Badlands yet, you’ve got to.